CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the films of the moment
IT’S THE END OF AN ERA as the Fifty Shades franchise draws to a close and so too does the acting career of Daniel Day-Lewis, while Netflix continues to mix things up with some exciting release models.
Fifty Shades Freed – ★★☆☆☆
Unlike the cinematic climaxes of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series, the Fifty Shades franchise has fizzled along its way. Audiences quickly realised that, for all of the source material’s kink and ability to make the nation finally talk about sex, the film series was anything but revolutionary.
Much has been made of what happened on the set of Fifty Shades of Grey – director Sam Taylor-Johnson and author EL James struggled to get on the same page – and since then it’s all been downhill. James brought in her husband to write the scripts for parts two and three, and instead of leaving cinema in the capable hands of those who know a thing or two about it (Fifty Shades of Grey is not the disaster everyone wanted it to be), the author’s powerful contract gave her control over a medium she’s not experienced in.
Which is to say Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed feel like abridged visual representations of books, to a fault. There is little of the cinematic left when the point has become to toss key scenes on the big screen for nothing more than fanservice.
Not even in a series about female desire can women escape the male gaze.
This means we brush past Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey’s wedding, we jump to them looking at a house, then cut to an attempted kidnapping, and every now and then we leer at Dakota Johnson’s naked body. It’s a greatest hits of melodrama, porn for those who desire the one per cent lifestyle, and porn for those without internet access.
Except its USP has completely disappeared in the three years since the first instalment. There are more explicit scenes in HBO programming, and more erotic films with lower age ratings (see Dakota Johnson in the genuinely sexy and brilliant A Bigger Splash). The most alluring scene consists of Ana getting behind the wheel of an Audi, the film finally making good on the promise of a female fantasy on the big screen, and for a moment it’s like watching a woman get to be as reckless and cool as James Bond.
But this female fantasy spends most of its sex scenes looking at Ana, not Christian. For a series that ought to avoid the male gaze, here the camera still frames her as an object of sex, nude and on display, while Christian’s penis is never seen in any of the trilogy’s entries. We have become so used to male fantasies in cinema that we actually think of them as sex fantasies; that the nakedness of the woman is essential, always framing her as a prop, subservient to the man. Not even in a series about female desire can women escape the male gaze.
It’s one thing to wave goodbye to a series that somehow, with BDSM as its focal point, managed to be drab and boring, but it’s another to watch a wasted opportunity come and go. It could have helped society’s prudishness by treating sex and kink as a part of life, and it could have flipped the script by empowering female sexuality. Instead, it was more of the same, tamer than even the most conservative estimates, and simply adds to the canon of films that love to see a woman naked.
Phantom Thread – ★★★★★
Daniel Day-Lewis has only starred in six films since 1998, and he won best actor at the Baftas, Oscars, and Golden Globes for two of them (There Will Be Blood and Lincoln). It’s something of an event when he commits himself to a project, but Phantom Thread brings with it the bittersweet knowledge of this being Day-Lewis’s last film before retirement.
If this is true, it’s a swansong to be proud of. Set in 1950s London, Phantom Thread follows Reynolds Woodcock, a dressmaker, who lives with his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). Taking inspiration from the women he surrounds himself with, he brings home muses only to discard them – or have Cyril do it for him – once he has exhausted all inspiration from them. Happening upon young Alma (Vicky Krieps) at breakfast one morning, she becomes his next source of creativity, quickly whisking her from a life of waitressing to living with him in the House of Woodcock.
What follows is an otherworldly struggle for power. Reynolds is the face of the brand, but Cyril is the quiet commander keeping everything in line. His childish moodswings and pernickety routines are just about tolerated with only Cyril around, but the addition of Alma throws everything off script. She is noisy at breakfast, questions his fabrics, and sees his need to control everything around him as his problem and not the world’s. As a muse she inspires, but as a partner of some sort, she’s keeping pace.
A touch of the fantastical is threaded throughout, with ghosts haunting Reynolds, poisonous foods playing pivotal roles, and there being something vampiric to Day-Lewis’s performance.
How true that is of each of the leads’ performances too. Day-Lewis is a well-established virtuoso, so for Krieps to shine alongside him so confidently is a sight to behold. Manville’s presence is enough to make you sit up straight, and her calculating eyes show a hundred thoughts at any given moment. These are fully-rounded characters with histories and futures, motivations and causes, each of them using everything at their disposal to keep their head above water, and just a little above everyone else’s.
It’s no mere fashion drama. A touch of the fantastical is threaded throughout, with ghosts haunting Reynolds, poisonous foods playing pivotal roles, and there being something vampiric to Day-Lewis’s performance. It’s another time, but it could also be another place, and that deliberate tension makes fun of Reynolds as he refuses to accept the changing times, referring to chic as a ‘filthy little word.’
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the best directors working today, and Phantom Thread would be the highlight of anyone’s career. Here, it’s just one in a long line of timeless classics PTA has put to screen, and a film deserving of Daniel Day-Lewis’s last performance.
The Cloverfield Paradox – ★★★☆☆
The most exciting thing about the Cloverfield series is its continued reliance on unconventional release methods. 2008’s original was teased with next to no information about the film itself, while 2016’s 10 Cloverfield Lane was abruptly announced only a few months before its cinematic distribution. The Cloverfield Paradox took that one further, announcing itself during The Super Bowl and being released on Netflix at the end of the game.
In this instance, the excitement from its unconventional announcement is greater than the film itself. Originally known as God Particle, this is a story that has been around for a while, later edited to tie into the Cloverfield mythology. As the original title suggests, we are dealing with the Higgs boson, and the kind of sci-fi such a particle inspires.
Earth is suffering from an energy crisis, and so a particle accelerator aboard the Cloverfield Station, a space station orbiting the planet, is a final attempt to provide unlimited energy for civilization. Multiple attempts have failed to produce any results, but with time running out both on the satellite and on Earth, refocused efforts finally lead to a successful firing. The Earth disappears, and the crew are left wondering what happened.
The most exciting thing about the Cloverfield series is its continued reliance on unconventional release methods.
Successful Cloverfield entries did a lot with very little. No one knows where the monster came from in the franchise’s debut, and it was only the final act of 10 Cloverfield Lane that divided audiences when it decided to commit to whether or not there were any monsters at all. The Cloverfield Paradox’s lofty goals are its own downfall: with a cast this good (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Bruhl, Chris O’Dowd and more), it should be a matter of getting out the way and letting the talent do the heavy lifting. Instead, plot, plot and more plot serve up some ridiculous distractions that undermine the film’s original purpose.
By losing that feeling of minimalism, Cloverfield loses its audience. It could have been you holding the camcorder as the monster attacked Manhattan. It could have been you kidnapped by John Goodman, who promised he was doing you a favour. There’s never that same feeling of intimacy between film and viewer in The Cloverfield Paradox as it attempts something grand and loses its heart along the way.
It’s clear God Particle wasn’t working, and by distributing the film this way, no one loses any money. By shoehorning in the Cloverfield mythology, there are nods to past events, but never in a way that feels tactful. 10 Cloverfield Lane was linked to the original in a spiritual way that somehow made more sense than this literal interpretation. It’s by no means a bad film – at times it’s even quite fun – it’s just a bad Cloverfield film. But it will be remembered – quite rightly – for how its release was a game-changer for cinema and the increasing profile of video on demand.
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