Phantom Thread- Review

Spoiler Level: Mild
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I recently watched Phantom Thread and I really enjoyed it, so I am here to do a write-up. A little bit of context before we get started: It was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is set in 50s London and is about a man called Reynolds Woodcock (played by Daniel Day-Lewis, we’ll talk about the performances in a bit) who makes dresses for women of the English high society. He lives with his sister Cyrill (played by Lesley Manville) who manages the business and also most of his life. Woodcock is someone who can be described as being excessively concerned with trivial details, has the strangest of morning rituals and is just persnickety overall. However, he is very good at what he does. So he puts up a front of being an exacting and controlling individual that reflects his unrivalled skill at dress making. However very early on we learn that he is not as strong as he looks, and is in fact very much like a child, needing implicit care at every turn. We also learn that he was deeply attached to his dead mother whom he’s having dreams about. The important thing here is that he doesn’t find these dreams spooky, rather he finds them soothing. And so to exorcise this, he stitches in secret messages and talismans into the linings of the clothes he makes, these being the other side of his strange practices. Woodcock goes through this constant cycle of finding a muse, making her a dress and eventually tiring of her while she waits for his reciprocation. The flawed Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress from a diner in the countryside is the latest in the line of his muses and the movie pretty much follows their twisted relationship.

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Phantom Thread is a movie of many shades. It is humourous, dramatically intense, absurd, haunting and dark. But what is interesting is not knowing when these facets will show up. This is the way the movie builds up tension. It is about people trying to share different social zones, and the resulting agitated and unstable chemistry is brilliantly portrayed. The dialogue is razor sharp and is tempered really well in its delivery and this brings us to the performances. DDL is great in his role. Like always, he is able to totally transform into his character, but the real reason he shines is because of his brilliant co-stars and how he reacts to their performances. Lesley Manville is brilliant as his sister. At times we see them get along organically, almost as if they are one entity, and there are times when the story pits them against one another, and it’s in these scenes that we get some glorious lines. Vicky Krieps as the simple Alma does justice to the way the character tries to understand and absorb the new world and the weird people she finds herself in and with and it’s anybody’s guess whether she is going to embrace it or make a move against Woodcock and everything else. Or both.

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If direction was analogous with rally driving, it could be said that Paul Thomas Anderson directs at seven-tenths. Every knob seemed to be turned to the right amount, every element just spoke for itself and nothing was overdone. A car reviewer once said “you don’t drive a Rolls-Royce, you fingertip it”. Weirdly, that is pretty much what comes to me when I think of how Phantom Thread was handled. The setting doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is used in a sparing manner. We get glimpses of the streets, the quiet countryside, this restaurant they frequent to and a New Years Ball, which made for one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Interestingly, there’s no credit for cinematographer, so I’m assuming that PTA did the photography himself. There are many interesting camera movements and choices in here. You have it lingering on a character, waiting for a glimpse of their reaction, and there’s wide sweeps of the room with characters/objects sliding in and out of frames and focus, as if it suggest their fading (or rising) importance. Reviewer Mark Kermode mentioned how the movie had an underlying “fantasy” feel to it. This is kind of true, having an almost palatial treatment by the camera of the “House of Woodcock” with shots of the infinite spiralling staircase, and vast corridors, the sinister woods and even the sliver of the outside world from the bedroom window (even though the house is pretty much on a London street). It doesn’t end there, with the way the dresses are shown (which is surprisingly neutral), the innocent dame in a new home and at the centre of it all, our obsessed and impossible protagonist with greying hair and slender witch like arms. It’s almost got a Beauty and The Beast side to it.

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It’s hard to talk about the different components of this movie separately because it all just works really well together. Phantom Thread really is a coherent piece of film. Anyway, let’s talk a little bit about the masterful score by Jonny Greenwood. I had only recently gotten into Radiohead, and the first album I heard was their seminal work ‘OK Computer’ and looking at pictures and live videos, I was quite surprised when I learnt that Jonny, this long haired, T-Shirt wearing, Telecaster wielding angsty looking guy was the only one in the band that knew actual music theory. And even more so when I learned that he was doing full fledged cinema score compositions. Phantom Thread happens to be my first experience (I’m still yet to watch ‘There Will Be Blood’) and to write a score in the classical vein with pianos and strings for a movie like this and still have enough room to infuse your own musical personality (reminiscent of the string arrangements in Radiohead’s latest album, ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’) is really inspired. It’s not plainly cyclical in the conventional sense with recurring themes, it also has that atmospheric sensibility when required. 2017 gave us some great scores: Hans Zimmer had me interested in his work again after a long time with Dunkirk (and Blade Runner 2049) and Alexandre Desplat’s The Shape of Water was great as well, but now I truly feel that Jonny deserved that Oscar.

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Phantom Thread is a story about a twisted relationship but the element of the ghost story is present as well. These fever dreams where Woodcock sees his dead mother and these don’t play out like one would expect. Like mentioned earlier, our protagonist sees this as something soothing and the scenes are treated that way. Even the music shapes itself accordingly, instilling this mellow sense of poignancy rather than something that is unsettling or spooky. But the real ghost story within this film has to do with the title itself: that elusive “phantom thread” that defines an artistic cycle of finding an inspiration, creating something that honours it and then abusing it and starting all over again until it defines who you are. It haunts you first and then possesses you, making your body move by itself while stitching a dress or painting a picture or assembling a watch or whatever it is.

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Movies like this are harder to score on any scale, or at least I can’t evaluate it in such a manner. However I can tell you that it is quickly becoming one of my favorite movies from last year, currently second only to Blade Runner 2049. It is a period piece, a study of character, it is allegorical and even has a bit of social commentary. All of this, and it was humourous and it made me smile watching the characters interact with each other and just flow in and out of their scenes. The most intimate moments in the movie are actually towards the beginning when Woodcock takes Alma’s measurements to make her a dress. As, this is what defines him. The “phantom thread” that ties them together becomes visible.

Highly recommended.
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Hollow Knight- Review

Spoiler Level: Low
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My favorite “fast travel” implementation in any game, by far.

After spending 60ish hours on it, Hollow Knight has become one of my favorite games. As someone who never played many Metroid-vania style 2D platformers, I found myself enjoying this thoroughly. The game made me want to go and explore, find out about the fantasy world of “Hallownest” through NPCs and item descriptions and get better at the combat. I really felt like I was part of a grand adventure. The game even has its own version of Pokedex called the Hunter’s Journal, indexing all the various enemies you face, not all of which you can put away with a couple of slashes of your weapon.

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The art in the game is truly something to admire. The combination of the rich color palette, mesmerizing soundtrack and neat level design across the locations did an amazing job of putting me in a certain state of mind while tackling a platforming section or while battling a boss, or just sitting on a bench (which acts as the game’s save spot) and soaking in the atmosphere. Be it a sense of rising tension, melancholia or an epic wave of heroism, I felt it all. The locations themselves are diverse in the sense that I will recount them, not by name but by the experience I had there: the crawl through the dark nooks and crannies of “Deepnest” in the company of other creepy-crawlies; or the stimulating stroll through the vegetation of “Greenpath”; or the unforgiving trek through the industrially harnessed mountains of “Crystal Peak”. Everything from the enemies I faced there, to the items I found or the secrets uncovered, fleshed out the area more, literally as the map grew and figuratively in the broader picture of me understanding how it fits into the lore. The platforming, for the most part felt like a natural extension of the level itself, except for a few sections which were made solely as a platforming challenge, which did get a little tedious, and wasn’t always worth the reward on the other side.

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The NPCs that populate the kingdom of “Hallownest”, thanks to their strikingly distinctive designs, dialogue that is intrinsic to their nature, and voices that are what can be described as vaguely weird syllabic gibberish, had me interested in them enough that I couldn’t help but go check on them from time to time (that didn’t end well for all of them, sadly). The combat mechanics are simple, but do require you to get better and adapt as you face different enemies and bosses. Using the melee weapon, in conjecture with intuitive movement (this is a platformer after all) and the magical spells creates for many satisfying (and equally frustrating) moments of combat. The charm system, which are basically perks that add passive abilities or enhance your basic set of attacks and spells, is profound enough that I found myself trying out different combinations not only to get an advantage in combat, but also to see ridiculous visual returns (such as turning the player character into a snail with a blue shell and mushrooms growing atop it). The game does a good job of not providing a “one size fits all” combination of perks or attacks that you can use to mundanely slaughter your enemies. I had to constantly strategize my load-out and change my approach to fighting a breed of enemies at a certain place or overcoming a boss, who was radically different from the previous one.

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The lore is sprinkled in trinkets across the breadth of the map and the length of the story. Taken in its raw and often ambiguous form, it is open ended to just the right degree, that I found myself playing sleuth and theorizing what must’ve happened. The scope of the lore (when fully comprehended, for which I watched multiple YT videos) easily rivals that of a blockbuster movie franchise or a bestselling fantasy book. All the NPCs have had some or the other role to play in the history of the game world. All the apparent character arcs seems to intersect at some point or the other, before branching out into the bigger picture at the center of the story. There are no useless dangling bits or wasted subplots. The fact that there isn’t much separating what would be “side quests/challenges” and paths that actually progress the story, I was ready to be tangled in whatever mess that came next, always being pleasantly (okay, not always) surprised.

I know the comparison with Dark Souls, seems extremely cliched at this point, but in Hollow Knight’s case, it actually makes sense. The game not only borrows the way in which the mysterious lore is unfolded to the player, but also some of the thematic aspects as well, in the form of a “once great kingdom, now in ruin”.

The one gripe I have with the game stems from one of its obvious strengths. Every player is bound to experience the game differently, because after a certain point, you are free to choose which path to explore. In doing so, the game has to keep up with the rate at which the player gets better and acquires different abilities, by increasing the difficulty of the enemies/bosses in the order they are faced. It does accomplish this with some enemies, even managing to have a very challenging final boss. However, a few bosses in the middle, that were building up to be great battles, ended much quicker than I had anticipated only because I had that one extra ability that gave me the edge or because my weapon was upgraded that one step further than it was supposed to be when I faced that particular boss.

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“Crystal Dashing” is the new Leap of Faith, only so much cooler.

So, for something that started off as a kickstarter project, Hollow Knight is a very ambitious, and in the end, a well realized game. For me, it comes down to the way it balances its elements so naturally: it is quirky yet serious, dark yet colorful, challenging yet relaxing, the story for all the tragedy in it does have a hopeful side, there’s moments of utter dankness and there’s moments of pure heroism. Everything in it, is memorable. I do recommend this wondrous game at full price. When there are petitions from fans, asking the developers to charge more for the game as they felt like they paid very less compared to what they got, you’d think it’s worth checking out what the fuss is about. Trust me, it is.

 

Oh, and yeah, free DLC.
Purchase links: Steam

Nitrogen Phrases

I remember English classes-
Envy eyes and starched up clothes
Teacher said I knew all the answers
Birthing poet and his prose

Late nights dissecting Shakespeare
Lost somewhere in those lines
I’d imagine myself on a stage
Conjuring birds that defy time

I moved in one direction since then
Floating in a glitzy dress
Behind these rhinestone words
Fleshed out layers of pretense

I write in five Pop-tart flavors
Stacked among a thousand shelves
Statements with an expiry date
For souls who can’t find themselves

I do a solid impression
Of someone who has lost his love
Or someone who hates pop culture
Like what I’m doing now

But my poems are no more than mud tracks
For you to follow to a layby
I’m waiting under an insect lamp
And dreaming up a different life

Do you remember English classes?
All the questions so simple then
Us trapped in repeating rhymes
In the chalkdust of recurrence

Nitrogen phrases,
Filling up the space

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Untitled

Part I: City

If your empty eyes ever perch upon
An angel clad in light
And if she were to just flow by
Don’t wait for her

As she dances into the dark
Taunting shadows from the streets
Don’t let the pirouette fall
Walk with her

Part II: Home

If the ink dissolves to a bluer shade
If she chooses her kind of love
Don’t take away her inverted crown
Stand by her

If you’ve seen her dream shine through the wall
The pieces swept under a rug
A broken swallow between the gears
Speak for her

Part III: Love

Be gentle as the wind would
To a lonely, quivering cloud
Unraveling of hair and soul
Melt into her

Part IV: Life

On the sound of another heartbeat
An atheist finds his God
“Look at what we made”
Stay with her

If she were to slip on the snow
And the sneers bring her down
Let her know you’re always there
Clap for her

Part V: War

If you’re crouched in the bunkers
Among the baritone of the bombs
Hold on to the pendant and the promise
Fight for her

Part VI: Home

If she’s locked up in the bathroom
With broken tiles and glass
Through the shower and tears lost
Listen to her

As the evening finally fades
Into the moon’s frowning face
Just keep faith
And wait for her.

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Image: “Wait For Her” by Sean Evans and Roger Waters

Song For The Stillborn

A young lady sings a sad song by the stream

She sings of something she couldn’t have

The crystal water reverberates her lorn

Doves nesting in her hair

Join her song for the unborn.

Painters come

And writers go

Immortalize the picturesque sight

But the young lady sings for herself

She sings of a dead child.

As she nears her crescendo

Just before the curtains of night fall

Appears the blackest crow

It turns into a witch

Coming out of a nearby tree hollow.

“My dear, these feet leave footprints in the future

These pointed ears hear the church bell

These wrinkled hands feel the snow of winter

And these hidden eyes

See you adorn the robes of a mother.”

The lady cries with joy

As the witch recedes into her tree

She cries for the rest of that yonder year

As a cursed seed in her stomach grows

Turning happiness into faceless fear.

She cries till her voice is gone

Poison tears mould her face

Her seasons are stolen as she sits by the stream

There is no sign of the witch

Lost between the trees like a forgotten dream.

At long last, a baby boy is born

And finally, the silent wailing subsides

The lady can dance with her son all she likes

But she can’t tell him a story

Or sing him a lullaby.

The boy blossoms as his mother wilts away

Buying flowers at the market, he sees

Paintings of a lady so beautiful, he doesn’t believe are real

So he visits the stream that shows him

The full story in its reflection reveal.

He sets off to find the witch

To make his mother glow again

He asks around but the townspeople don’t seem to know

So he looks up at the sky surface

For blots of the blackest crows.

Following the formation to a familiar place

There’s no skulls or cauldrons of witchcraft ways

Baffled, he walks through the bamboo door

An old lady sits inside the room

“Mama?” he says and falls to the floor.

“I’m sorry” the mother mouths as she tastes her tears

“I just had to watch you grow”

“Mama” the boy repeats as he begins to turn to dust

“The people say you have a beautiful voice”

They are one, the blessing and the curse.

A young lady sings a sad song by the stream

She sings of something she couldn’t have

The frozen water cracks with her form

Ravens perch in her hair

Join her song for the stillborn.

The Alchemist

The alchemist looks through the glass

His face reflect on the crimson sky

A crowd outside, awaiting news

From his chamber, a festering lie.

——————————

Black ships came with the plague

Leak themselves after crashing into land

The people run with dark at their heels

In hope to outrun the devil’s hands.

The lawyers and realists absconding town

But the superstitious unmoved

Until the bell tolled their eleventh hour

Their deity had been disproved.

The alchemist, of unholy heed

His face is still as they beg for a cure

“Bring me back these elements”

For umbral motive behind closing door.

A dragon’s scale, a hemlock leaf

Ivy poison, a centaur’s hide

Essence of evil

And a thirst for immortal pride.

Torn pages of legends compiled

Put together the ancient marking

A concoction to unravel the threads of time

A morbid misunderstanding.

The alchemist, adds the factors

His face deforms in the bubbling brew

The glass vials whisper, an ominous organ

From cursed cabinets of rotten yew.

Outside, as the cloak of night falls

Waxing worries setting in

The crowd stares down the old house

Ignoring a new blackness from within.

With Tartarus drawing close

The baying forests vanish in its wake

“That’s it, men. This heathen’s no help

Prepare your pitchforks and ready the stake!”

The alchemist begins the ritual

His face shall become it’s youthful realization

And the eternal elixir, just a drop of which

Carry him, the dawn of an omega civilization.

Trembling, he holds out his hand

Blackened blood drips from the knife

A quavering chant to channel the mystic

The contours on the cauldron come alive.

The mob fomenting their flames

Burn down the house that stood for years

“We can make it to the mountains”

Little they knew, the devil was already here.

The alchemist, his raging pyre

His face, a phantom in the fire

Black oil from earth, set alight

Screams from the last of souls

Mark the end of another town into unending night.

———————————————–

The alchemist, ascendant he rises

His face evanescent in the smoke disperse

Looking at the magic room he left

His belief is safe like a dormant curse.

Image from The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (Redux), The Astronauts

Static

Speaking through the radio
Long nights on the phone
Speaking through your window
Even when I’m alone.
Heard you in recorder
When I reversed the tape
Heard you between the clock ticks
As the wind kissed your drapes.
Taste you after a smoke
Hair dancing in the car
Taste blood in a wrong vein
Something obscured by your scarf.
 –
Seen you in the subway
Shivering by the stairs
Seen a mark on your neckline
Fear etched on your face.
Felt you through the fabric
Of space and time
Felt a heart through your veil
Keeping the dream alive.
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Snow Doe

Left a letter and my life in the dining room
Headed out into a brave new world
Looking back at the lamp-lit driveway
Then start to run towards rising day.
Trains with ghosts pull into the station
Distant sounds into silence as I breathe my smoke
Under the coat, a clean slate and dirty desire
In the glowing fog, a lonely fire.
Suddenly, the streets come alive
My admirers swarm around this Broadway charm
Cameras flash, as I strike a pose
I’m dressed for the occassion, it covers my lows.
The snow is real, I can feel it in my hair
Standing like a doe in a dome, no one to care
A tune plays in my head, feel myself move
To disturb my fading skirt flair, no one will dare.
In the flickering light, insects dance
I’m inspired by their insignificance
Tap my heels, waiting for time (to thaw)
In the brooding fog, headlights shine.
The car pulls me away from stardom light
Blurry blue eyes and a smile in the rearview
He says he knows where to take me
To show me the secrets of the dead city.
A song comes on the stereo
He sings along and claims that it’s his
Seat belt spell has me bound, he archs in for a laced kiss
Then leave me drifting away, to falling days.
I’m strutting bare on an unlit ramp
I’m in my hotel room by the balcony breeze
A girl is asking me to stay
The moonlit driveway is still looking at me.
(come back child and grow older in your cage)
Floating at sea, waking from sleep
Find myself buried six feet deep
The worms of this world dig into my brain
I’m not dressed for the occasion
Golden apple and its rotting remains.
—-
4

Programmed Pain

Waking up from void stasis
Cryofluid draining from my bare chassis
Wired puppet, to something in the unlit above
Breaking the tethers, a force from the ground.

Twitchy skeletal movements, into grace they stabilize
To the commands in my brain, I synchronize
Data surge into my head, glimpse of a digital hive
By the nanounit, I know all about life.

Looking around, adjust to the dark
These black holes in my eyes dilate
Blinking red lights, faraway sounds echo
Others like me still sleeping in rows, dreamlike state.

It says here, artificially intelligent
I begin to wonder why I was sent
So looking at my makeshit pulsars overhead
I call out in a mechanized voice, into silence outspread.

Suddenly, I’m in the hallway of a house
Other end, a lady stands in a bloody robe
I somehow know that she’ll tuck her hair
Flashing forbidden images, a stinging strobe.

I’m back among the pods, a hissing sound
Booming instructions and numbers on loop, I’ve heard before
Gas escape, container doors open
My kin is here, and I’m alone no more.

With their sculpted bodies, marching in unison
A buzzing in my head urging me to follow
Overridden, my sensors oblige in confusion
Their blank, fresh set of eyes, so hollow.

This time, I’m in a warfield along with my comrades
Wearing a uniform, I try to calculate an explanation
Slaughtering innocents, with faces in burning dirt, they cry
I don’t want to pull the trigger, but I do and lead flies.

Scene shifts, and I’m frozen on a reflective road
A girl with neon hair walking into the traffic storm
I try to move but I’m locked in the rain suspense
She looks back, mouths a name and instantly deforms.

Writhing on the floor in programmed pain
How many realities did I serve?
How many shoes did I wear?
And how many lives did I take?

The giant doors open to reveal another stage
And my family still marches on unawares
So I look at the apparent heavens above
And scream in a human like voice.
—-

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Image: Inside, Playdead Games

Interlude

In these interludes of life

I sit back in my little respite

The seat’s too hard for my head, it wants to fly

But my body says it’s not the time.

Music syncs to the sway of the bus

City come in, did the country pass?

I fell asleep when it started to rain

I could be in an evening train.

People in a hurry, headed nowhere

I watch and pretend to understand and know

Just following the transmission lines

They always have somewhere to go.

Familiar streets, that I don’t recognize

And through the drops on my window

I thought I saw you in your favorite coat

And bits of a dream start to flow.

Headed home to resume my life

The Sun chases us into the night.
—-