Sep 29, 2014

PROFILE: REESE WITHERSPOON

From my Vogue cover story:—
'Certainly “Wild” and “Reese Witherspoon” have not, until a year ago, been items that would turn up much in a Google search. It’s not too hard to see what star seeking to shed her studio gleam might find in Strayed’s memoir, a raw, soulful portrait of a woman cut off from the human pack, a “stray”, stripped to the core after the death of her mother and the collapse of her marriage. As she sets about hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, she finds herself dismantling and rebuilding her very identity as a woman, “the one I’d fostered all through my young adult years while trying on different costumes — earth girl, punk girl, cow girl, riot girl, ballsy girl. The one for whom behind every pair of boots or sexy little skirt or flourish of the hair there was a trap door that led to the least true version of me.” The takeaways from Wild are obvious enough —Reese shoots heroin! Has sex with strange men! Swears like a sailor! — but more revealing  are the earlier scenes, showing us Strayed alone on the trail. Shot with a  minimal crew, with hand-held cameras, no rehersal, with Vallee and his cameraman swapping when the other got tired it felt, says Witherspoon, “more like a  documentary than a feature film” and the result has a remarkable candor: Witherspoon’s face plain and unadorned by make-up, slack yet determined, unillumined by the effort of charming people, or pleasing them. One of cinema’s great crowd-pleasers, alone.' 
Published today, my book on the films of Martin Scorsese.

Sep 28, 2014

"What did I tell you? Don't buy anything!"

From my piece about Scorsese's influence on the fashion world for The Daily Telegraph:—
'On February 8th, 1976 screenwriter Paul Schrader arrived at the Cinema 1 movie theater in New York to find queues around the block for his latest film, Taxi Driver. At first he thought: something’s wrong, they haven’t let them in yet. Then he realized it was the line for the next show, comprised mostly of pale, young men, all dressed with buzz cuts in army surplus jackets, in honor of the film’s brooding, psychopathically inclined protagonist. “Assemble a killer outfit” trilled a Details article from 2012, advising readers on how they could best recreate Travis’ Bickle’s “awkwardly intense” existential-loner look:    vintage Western buckle, hand-distressed Jeans, Salt Valley Western Shirt, all topped off with an M-65 Field Jacket and Flight Bomber Jackets, for that PSTD touch.   Travis may be an odd-ball fashion icon— Scorsese himself counted himself “shocked” at the way audiences took up the character as a hero — but he knew better than anyone how the screen glamorizes everything it touches: as a boy he had stood in front of the mirror, as Travis stands in front of his, practicing his cowboy moves, copied from Alan Ladd and Gary Cooper. Travis’s look — with its suggestion of rural transplant (“God, you’re square”) — drew in part from Scorsese’s own neo-hippie phase, when, in the aftermath of shooting the documentary Woodstock, he took to jeans for the first time, and shirts bought from LA’s thrift shops with girlfriend Sandy Weintraub. “At that point there was a part of me that wanted to erase everything of where I came from,” he said. “I had a feeling that I had escaped. I was wearing those cowboy shirts, our hair grew a little longer, and it was 1973 or so. It was really good.” Scorsese’s mother and father, remember, were both in the rag trade: his mother, Catherine, a seamstress and his father Charles, a clothes presser in the garment district.    ''Charlie could tell you if a wiseguy's collar spread was off a quarter-inch,'' said Gangs of New York writer Jay Cocks, and indeed his father served as wardrobe consultant on many of Marty’s gangland films, alongside costume designer Richard Bruno whose wardrobes for Goodfellas — broad, double breasted suits over steep-pointed shirts with deep collars that hide the top part of tie and a tab added to the double-lock collar to line up the collar points — started a trend in U.S. cities in the early 1990s. Scorsese’s films track masculinity in the rough, with all its attendant flora and fauna, so it’s no surprise that he uses clothes as indices of power, hubris, and excess, from Henry Hill’s first suit in Goodfellas (“You look like a gangster!” exclaims his mother), to his powder-blue-bathrobed decline (“I get to live the rest of my life as a schnook”), from the 70 costume changes Robert De Niro enjoyed in Casino (best look: the coral jacket with matching apricot shirt, tie and socks he wears to be blown up in his car), to the shoulder-to-shoulder Armani in Wolf of Wall Street. “Is he wearing a bow tie?” asks Jordan Belfort of one mild-mannered young  broker, before firing him on the spot.' 

Sep 12, 2014

REVIEW: MUSIC FOR 18 MUSICIANS

From my review for Intelligent Life:—
'Finally, came the evening’s climax and highlight: a performance of Reich’s “Music For 18 Musicians”, one of the most sustained and beautiful feats of contrapuntal music—the Matterhorn for mallet instrumentalists. At its core lie two syncopated xylophones keeping up a steady melodic pulse, while around it amass marimbas, a vibraphone, a violin, a cello, bass clarinets, soprano voices and two pianos, all fading in and out but keeping the same quick, shimmering tempo, passing in, through and around one another, like intersecting shoals of fish, or as if the orchestra had formed a single organism and we were hearing its breath. Like surgeons attending the same patient, the musicians stand mostly—I haven’t see so many quietly pistoning elbows since Kraftwerk played at MoMA. Occasionally one will leave, or move to another instrument: at one point, the vibraphone player got up and joined Reich at his piano to provide some top notes, like someone espying a spare body part at an orgy. You think that too sexual a simile for music so mathematical? Reich’s time in Africa in the early seventies paid off; his absorption of black rhythms have placed him accidentally but fascinatingly close to the mainstream of modern pop and dance music. His music moves from the hips — it’s funky. When London DJs spotted the crossover between classical minimalism and Deep House—the trance-like rhythms, the cyclical repetition—it was Reich’s work they sampled and pillaged. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood performed a portion of Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint” at Glastonbury this year, and has an album of the full work coming out this month. Glass builds impossible castles in the sky, great teetering structures that seem to just hang there, unattached to anything except one man’s will that they exist. But Reich is connected to the ground. He burrows and builds. It’s only afterwards that the size and beauty of what he has built hits you, and when it does it hits you in the solar plexus.'

Sep 8, 2014

INTERVIEW: AL PACINO


'I’m a little worried ahead of meeting Al Pacino how crazy he’s going to be.  On the evidence of his latest film: very crazy. The film is actually two films. One is a production of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome.  The other is a documentary about the making of the first in the style of his previous Looking for Richard, a marvelous mosie around the highways and byway of  Shakespeare’s Richard III that set up a marvellous consonance with Pacino’s early roles, with Shakespeare’s anti-hero emerging as a kind of prototype gangster: Corleone with a crown.As Herod in  Salome, he holds court in  the declamatory, reach-for the-rafters  style of his work after Scent of a Woman. Jessica Chastain plays the Biblical temptress who has John the Baptist beheaded — her first film role. Or so Pacino could claim in 2006 when he started filming. By the time he was done, in 2011, another five filmmakers had beaten him to the punch and cast Chastain in their films. One of his collaborators even had time to write and publish a book about Pacino’s travails with the project, which finally, after losing American distribution, premieres at the South Bank Centre on the 7th, where Pacino will also appear in person, alongside Chastain, to talk about the project. You half expect to look up and seem him personally threading the film through the projector.   
“It has plagued me,” Pacino tells me when I meet him at his house in Beverly Hills, a large mansion house hidden from the street by carefully groomed shrubbery and trees. In the sitting room, CNN plays on a large plasma TV. Above the fireplace, a poem written by Pacino to his 14-year-old daughter Olivia. Next door, a room with some gym equipment and a painted portrait of Pacino, of whom there is no sign until, from upstairs sounds a loud yelp, followed by a faintly recognizable “Oooooh…” Pacino has just stepped on his daughter’s pet dog. “My children are all over the place,” he explains, leading me to the large, white verandah deck out front, where a chess set sits by one of the windows. The house is a rental. He’s been here about ten years now. “I've always expected to go home to New York, and I’m still expecting to go,” he says. He is wearing a black v-neck t-shirt and gym pants, a leather necklace and bracelet, his goatee trim and dark; his hair tousled and bed-headish.  Talking, he runs his hand through it, as if to check it’s still there, or untangle it. He doesn’t seem crazy — or anything like the kohl-eyed wild man who drags his production of Salome through hell, high water, and bad reviews in his behind-the-scenes doc, a fascinating collision of Wilde’s Salome and Pacino’s celebrity in which nobody quite emerges the winner. Pacino is seen arguing with his producers over whether it should be two films or one (“fuck em”). He frays the nerves of his editor with hundreds of miles of footage.  “Al doesn't know what he’d doing,” confides one of his collaborators who retitled the project Salomaybe. It’s by far the more compelling performance  — not Pacino as Herod, but Pacino as Pacino, brooding and wild-eyed, the emperor calling his own bluff, wondering aloud if he can make the centre hold, or if he isjust high on his own powers of bamboozlement. 
You know what it is, is you get a little moody, and you just take the mood and enlarge it because you know the cameras are rolling,” he says. “You know it may be good for the film, but I’m glad you felt it because there was some stuff going on. To be honest, I didn’t know where I was going. I thought, why am I doing this? Many times.  I still do.   I could feel the ‘why’ as I watched it. I could feel, what's Al on about? What is he doing? I know what I was trying to do. I think I was trying to bring an obsession to light. There's something about it that it just takes you over, because it’s about that thing, that passion, that unrequited passion that drives us sometimes and destroys us. I love that. It just ruins your life.” 
— from my Sunday Times interview 

Aug 9, 2014

My Woody Allen top ten

As always when I start a new book on a filmmaker, I'm going to do a Top Ten 'before' and a Top Ten 'after', to see what changes. Right now My Woody Allen top ten is as follows:—
1. Annie Hall
2. Purple Rose of Cairo
3. Sleeper
4. Manhattan
5. Zelig
5. Stardust Memories
6. Manhattan Murder Mystery
7. Bullets Over Broadway
9. Bananas
10. Radio Days 

REVIEW: The Hundred Foot Journey

From my Guardian review:—
'A snobby French restuarateur. An Indian chef who cooks with splices from his dead mother.  A cute French waif who rides a bicycle through idyllic rural France. Young love! Old recipes! With cardamons on top!  Sounds like a Lasse Hallström movie.  This one comes to us from Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, who turned Richard C Morais’s book into bestseller. The title refers to the distance between two restaurants, but it turns out to mean so much more than that. It’s symbolic of the gulf that separated cultures, peoples, individual human hearts, and, in most probably, the contractually agreed distance that had to be maintained around the parking spaces of its superstar-producers during filming.  Helen Mirren plays the  forbiddingly proper Madame Mallory, owner of the  hugely successful  Le Saule Pleureur restaurant, in the absurdly picaresque town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, where she serves immaculate portions of classical French cooking, to a clientele that includes the President of France.  Her noise hoists even higher in the air, when, into the abandoned restaurant on the opposite side of her quiet, rural road, moves  a boisterous family of Indian emigrees, headed by  Papa Kadam (Om Puri), to set up an Indian restaurant. How they can afford it, when they have just moved out from under the flight-path at Heathrow is something of a mystery, but up it goes, a big garish thing, with a cut-out of the Taj Mahal in front, and the name “Maison Mumbai” spelled out in huge fairy-lights, so we find it magical, but with the ‘U’ on the blink, to make sure we find it quirky. Poor India. The country was just inches from a clean getaway — Ghandi was a distant memory, Monsoon Wedding had just about blown over — and along comes Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to revive the whole sorry trope of the sitar-strumming, mystically inclined subcontinent. Naturally, Papa Kadam spends much time communing with his dead wife, whose spices are sprinkled into the dishes of his eldest son Hassan (Manish Dayal), a gifted chef and Papa’s secret weapon in the restaurant war to come.   “Curry is curry is it not?” sniffs Mirren in one of several lines which cunningly alert us as to the correct direction of our sympathies.  “Its called subtlety of taste,” says Mirren after Hassan sprinkles spices onto pigeon fermier rôti aux épices douces. Boo Hiss! Down with French gastro-snobs! “Its called meanness of spirit,” replies Papa Kadam. Yay for Indian spices and color and fairy-lights with a single letter on the fritz!   All the food looks amazing — shot in swishy slo-mo by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, it is swept onto tables to full with orchestral accompaniment — but the movie so stacks the deck against snobs, vaguely and variously defined as “anyone wishing to use a cook-book”,“French people who insist on speaking French”, and “people who don't like loud music or curry”, that it’s hard not to feel a little sympathy for the poor, black-hearted creatures. Why shouldn’t madame Mallory object to the blasting of bombastic Indian house music, modeled on ‘Jai Ho’, day and night? And why should she be forced to watch Hassan sprinkle cardomons into bœuf bourguignon and applaud him for the heresy?' 

Aug 6, 2014

And for my next trick.....

Book news. My Scorsese retrospective is at the printers, and should be in book stores by late September. Not wishing to loiter, and a firm believer that the devil finds work for idle hands, etc, I am about to embark on a sequel, for the same publishers, this one a retrospective of the films of Woody Allen, which aims to break away the encrustations and embellishments of "reputation", blow away the cobwebs, and flush out the living, breathing filmmaker underneath — in particular the antic seventies auteur who broke the fourth wall like it was wet tissue paper, threw his camera around with Godardian abandon and raised all sorts of merry hell in the editing suite, but who somehow gets omitted from the mucho-macho Dirty-Dozen-style group portraits that traditionally make up film histories of that decade. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls & Tiger Lillies, as it were.

Jul 23, 2014

Screengrab: Anticipated movies of the Fall


From Top: Gone Girl, Big Hero 6, Birdman, Miss Julie, Foxcatcher, The Skeleton Twins, St Vincent

Jul 3, 2014

Best American movies of the last 25 years







A recent Twitter exchange left me all abuzz about my favorite American movies of the last 25 years. After some thought, I have refined the list, which now reads as follows:—
Avatar
Before Sunrise
Boogie Nights
Brokeback Mountain
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Fargo
Goodfellas
Groundhog Day
Heat
Hoop Dreams
The Hurt Locker
Memento
Miller's Crossing
Mystic River
Pulp Fiction
Rushmore
Schindler's List
The Social Network
Toy Story 3 
Avatar for its timely understanding of asymmetric warfare; Before Sunrise because from small acorns etc; Boogie Nights rather than There Will Be Blood for the pleasures of polyphony; Brokeback Mountain for the bottomlessness of Ennis' pain; Eternal Sunshine for its seamless mixture of melancholy, cinematography and ingenuity; Fargo for its formal perfection and use of snow; Goodfellas because it was the closest Scorsese ever came to an account of his Hollywood years; Groundhog Day because because because; Heat rather than Last of the Mohicans for being  ultimately the more expressive of Michael Mann's gestalt; Hoop Dreams because it made reality feel as shapely as fiction; The Hurt Locker for it's apolitical excitements; Memento for the revelation that all noir goes backwards; Miller's Crossing for its brains; Mystic River rather than Unforgiven for it's final scene; Pulp Fiction for being better a Godard film than Godard ever made; Rushmore rather than the others for the intimacy of its cast; Schindler's List for the mystery it made of goodness; The Social Network for it's sublime union of Fincher and Sorkin; and Toy Story 3 for its sweet, pleasurable ache, like tiredness felt in the back of a car headed home.

Jul 2, 2014

The fine art of being swept up, up and away

From my column about film scores for Intelligent Life:—
'If there’s any big news from the world of film scores over the last few years, it is the replacement of the old symphonic model represented by Williams — the last of an old guard that includes Bernard Hermann, Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein — with a generation fully cognizant of the musical challenge presented by the minimalism of Michael Nyman, Glass and Steve Reich, as well as the ambient experimentalism of someone like Brian Eno. As cinema screens have grown ever busier, film scores seem to have emptied out. There’s much less ’Peter-and-The-Wolfing’, which is to say big themes, spelled out in strings, pegged to specific characters — Lara’s Theme, from Doctor Zhivago, for example. Instead you’ll find more layering, more washes of sound, less melodies, more rhythms. The work of Thomas Newman is less hummable than it is hypnotic, often marking out empty space with spare, reverb-heavy two-part piano melodies, which step up or down an interval, then hold, as if poised on the edge of something vast. It’s horizontal music —the natural accompaniment of landscapes, making him perfect for the empty earthscapes of WALL-E, and the oceanic ambience of Finding Nemo. Mychael Danna did something similar with his Moneyball score: a work of pure, glittering expectation, like a wet lawn at dawn. That’s his Gorecki-like ascent of chords you can hear building in the trailer for the new Christopher Nolan epic Interstellar. Stylistically, Williams most immediate heir is Michael Giacchino, who has something of Williams ear for high-vaulting melodic intervals, and is thus a perfect fit for any film that puts a low premium on the forces of gravity. That makes him a busy man, right now — he wrote the beautiful cloud-bound waltz for Up and will be working on the next Star Wars —but not as busy as the French composer Alexander Desplat, whose name so superbly evokes the image of a tomato hitting a wall, and who this year scored the unlikely trio of Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, Godzilla, and Angelina Jolie’s forthcoming world-war II drama about Olympic track star Louis Zamperini, Unbroken. Desplat likes to combine the lush romanticism of Georges Delarue with a rhythmic, backbone of mallet instruments, harps and timpani that somehow recall the inner workings of a grandfather clock: not for nothing did he score David Fincher’s backward-ticking biopic, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.'
From James Wolcott's excellent appreciation:-
'Paul Mazursky loved and appreciated actors because he began as one, studying with famed acting teacher Lee Strasberg and appearing on screen in Stanley Kubrick’s debut film Fear and Desire and Richard Brooks’ The Blackboard Jungle, which daggered the fear of juvenile delinquency into America’s breast. Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976), Mazursky’s nostalgic valentine to theater aspiration and bohemian freedom, brims with affection for acting and actors, the intertwining of vanity and insecurity that twists nerves into knots, when every audition might be the Big Break or another stop on the road to rejection. Such a cast: the improbably young Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum, Ellen Greene, Antonio Fargas, Lois Smith, Lenny Baker as Mazursky’s autobiographical hero, and Shelley Winters as the Jewish mother of all Jewish mothers, not a suffocater and castrater like Alex Portnoy’s gorgon mom looming loudly outside the bathroom door, but a giant matzoh ball barreling down the track. Mazursky’s comedies were at their characteristic best when they remained rooted to the stage floor, allowing themselves lots of breathing space for improv, giving the actors elbow room to splay. In 1975, “psychobabble” entered the popular parlance, and Mazursky’s urbanites spoke psychobabble fluently, a therapy-speak that derived from the fifty-minute hour on the analyst’s couch or chair--a ritual for which Mazursky himself was thoroughly immersed, casting his own therapist to portray one in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Blume in Love, and Willie & Phil, and playing a shrink himself in the ill-fated Faithful (out of kindness we will pass over the fount of wisdom that was real-life psychologist Penelope Russianoff in An Unmarried Woman, whose soothing banalities had reviewers blowing kazoos)--and glossy-magazine trend pieces that furnished the soundbite morsels of cocktail chatter. Jill Clayburgh dancing-prancing around her spacious, sun-filled Upper East Side apartment in t-shirt and panties in An Unmarried Woman was an emancipation proclamation that might have sprung from the pages of New York magazine, where sexual liberation and attractive real estate appeared inseparable for the gal and guy on the go.'

Jun 28, 2014

REVIEW: TRANSFORMERS: AGE of EXTINCTION (dir. Bay)

From my Guardian review:—
'Extinction really does seem to take an age in this film,  its running time distended to a lumbering 144 minutes by Bay’s love of check-out-my-shot slow-motion, so we catch the exact angle with which the Transformers pirouette through the air, and the exact number of inches by which they fail to miss an overhead bridge, and the precise scatter-pattern of cratering masonry that results.  Extinction really does take an age in this film — the Debbie Does Dallas of destruction porn.  The real progenitor of these films is not Steven Spielberg, or even Irwin Allen,  but Smokey and the Bandit, Honkytonk Freeway, and all those other Kentucky-fried, demolition derbies  that littered up the back end of the seventies with their multiple shunts, pile-ups and smasheroos.  “That was insane!” says one young scientist after the Autobots have torn up  much of Chicago’s Michigan avenue, “It was awesome but it was insane!” It is also curiously boring. One of the stranger aspects of the Transformer oeuvre is that you can watch all four movies back to back, find your eyes comprehensively boggled, your ears played like timpani, and yet discover that your pulse has not deviated once above a steady 60 bpm. Bay has all the attributes of a great action director except the ability to instill fear in an audience. He wants us thrust back in our seats, not on the edge of them, overwhelmed with awesomeness not fretting over what is going to happen next.  The summer blockbuster may originally have pitched battle against outsized antagonists — gigantic Death Stars, giant sharks — but their protagonists were pint-sized, Davids plucking up the  courage to face  Goliath. “Aren’t you a little short to be a stormtrooper?” asked a skeptical Princess Leia. ““I don't want to ever feel you could kill that shark,” Spielberg told Roy Sheider while shooting Jaws, filling out his cast with uber-nerds, beta-males and lily livers. Bay’s snickering giganticism, together with his withering disdain for anything that smacks of weakness, make him very much the man of America’s imperial hour.  The Transformer movies delivers a Hobbesian vision of man and machine, in which Goliaths are thumped by even bigger Goliaths, only to be creamed by even more vast uber-Goliaths, in infinite regress. Does the inside of Dick Cheney’s head look like this?' 

Jun 26, 2014

The Actor Who Broke The Movies

From my essay for  The Atlantic:—
'... Budd Schulberg’s original speech — “I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve had class and been somebody. Real class. Instead of a bum, lets face, it, which is what I am” — is streamlined by Brando into the more idiomatic, “I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody — instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it” with the emphasis now falling on Molloy’s appalled self-recognition. For The Godfather, he reduced the Don’s scripted exchanges by half. “You come into my house on the wedding day of my daughter and you ask me to do murder and you say ‘how much shall I pay you?’” becomes  ”you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to do murder for money”, the alliterative disgust of “murder for money” now irresistible, although the real kicker to the scene is, of course, the cat: a stray Brando had spotted on the set, scooped up, and cradled in his lap throughout, the very control required to be so gentle, while so angry, frightening in itself. 
 Brando touched everything. In that scene in The Godfather alone he touches the cat, his hair, his chin, his cheeks, the chair. He peels hard-boiled eggs in Streetcar, fondles a quarter in The Wild One, picks up Eve Marie Saint’s gloves in Waterfront, plays with puppies in Zapata, and lampshades in Last Tango in Paris. “He touched whatever he touched as if it were part of him,” wrote David Foster Wallace in a wonderful passage in Infinite Jest, one of the most perceptive things ever written about the actor. “The world he only seemed to manhandle for was him sentient, feeling.” Brando’s fondlings were a both a means of centring himself in the here-and-now, an instance of rampant scene stealing, and a means of rendering fond communion with the universe, his playful epicureanism often serving as an uncanny premonition of death. Those puppies in Zapata are almost the last thing he touches before he is mown down by federal agents, just as Don Corleone’s last act, before the attempt on his life, is to pick out fruit from a vendor’s stall (“he points so as not to disturb the vendor display” notes Mizrahi, with pleasing delicacy). Its telling that when asked to name their favorite movies in the 2008 presidential election, John McCain picked Zapata, while Obama went for The Godfather, the rebel and the patriarch, both picks telling you much about the extent to which that presidential contest was fought out between conflicting notions of paternal authority: McCain’s maverick instincts honed in the shadow of his famous admiral father, Obama’s more patient paternalism a simulacra reconstructed in the absence of his.'

Jun 24, 2014

25th ANNIVERSARY: BATMAN (d. Burton)


“They’re saying to me, these record guys, it needs this and that, and they give you this whole thing about it’s an expensive movie so you need it. And what happens is, you get engaged in this world, and then there’s no way out. There’s too much money. My major concern is that there is so much awareness and hype. I keep thinking, ‘I hope there’s a movie attached to all of this’.” — Tim Burton   
 What is hype, exactly? Where does it come from? Newspapers use the word to refer to the the publicity blitzes concocted by the studios —”studio hype.” The studios, on the other hand, use it to describe the self-induced feeding frenzy of the press — ”media hype.” The film director, meanwhile, sits in the middle, observing that it has a “life of its own.” Hype, it seems, is something a catch-all, a nonce-word, covering a multitude of sins, none of them ever your own. I anticipate, you expect, others hype. It’s a bit like trying to work out where air comes from. Even its commonly presumed etymology is fake: “We live in a world of hyperbole,” said a Doubleday editor in 1980. '”Hyperbole has become so common that we now refer to it by a cozy contraction. We call it 'hype.' We decide to apply it, as if it were a wax compound for shining up a car.” But hype is not a shortening of “hyperbole” but of ''hypodermic needle'', and refers to the hopped-up state of drug users; when newspaper columnist Billy Rose praised a 1950 movie for having “No fireworks, no fake suspense, no hyped-up glamour,” his assumption was not that hype was something applied to a movie’s surface, buffing it up to a nice shine; but something internal, intravenous — which is much the way it works in Hollywood: As Will Rogers once remarked, “The movies are the only business where you can go out front and applaud yourself”, in which case the blockbuster is the only species of movie in which the hype is at its loudest within that movie itself. One of the more curious aspects about the hype for Batman, for instance, is that it never quite cleared. After all the hype, that’s what Batman turned out to be about: it was about hype. 
“Tell your friends, tell all your friends,” whispers Batman to his first criminal catch, before letting them go, having realised that the benefits of good word-of-mouth far outweigh the benefit of having two more petty criminals behind bars. He then gets involved with newspaper photographer Vicki Vale ( Kim Basinger), who ensures that Batman’s name is spread city-wide, and it is the quality of Batman’s media coverage, far more than his actual deeds, that most enrages the Joker, flushing him out of hiding. “Can someone please tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed as a bat gets my airtime!” he complains, before shooting up his TV set. “Wait’ll they get a load of me!” he says and hits back with a PR campaign of his own, hijacking the airwaves to run a series of advertisements for himself — parodies of the hard-sell adverts of the fifties, with Batman in the opposite corner, representing the matte-black, soft-sell eighties. This is how the central battles in Batman are played out, not on the streets, but at press conferences, across the airwaves and in the newspapers. It is a PR war for the soul of Gotham city, and it resembles less the battle between two superhero colossi, than it does a presidential race, with two candidates endlessly finessing their public personae. What kind of a movie it is where all the villain wants to do is be more popular than its hero? It goes some way to explaining why Jon Peters had so much trouble trying to inject some genuine antagonism into the actual meetings between the Batman and The Joker: they’re like two presidential candidates who have somehow slipped their entourages, and accidentally met, away from the spit and fury of the hustings, only to find themselves getting along fine. There’s nothing between them personally. It’s all for the folks back home. 
The one thing you don’t see much of in Batman, though, is folk. For all the energy that Batman and the Joker expend to win the hearts and minds of Gotham, it’s a strangely underpopulated place: at a press conference in front of the town hall, a gaggle of extras do their best to suggest a pullulating crowd, but Burton’s heart is not really in it — he doesn’t really have the bullying instinct for crowd scenes. He can’t summon the demagogic charge that you catch off all the great popular film directors — Capra, a great rouser of rabbles, or Hitchcock, never happier than when losing his heroes in a sea of faces. Nothing signalled Steven Spielberg’s entry into their hallowed company better than the crowd scenes in Jaws, with their ebb and flow of push and panic; there’s even a nun in there, just to remind us that this is the seventies. The thrill of the crowd pushes straight past Burton, who much prefers the sequestered darkness of the bat cave or the lonely eyrie of Batman’s perch atop a skyscraper — he is one of cinema’s natural loners, like Nicholas Ray. But he is no action director, and everything in Batman — its stop-start pace, its sputters of visual wit, its hero’s entrapment within a costume that gives him all the mobility of a neckbrace — suggests sulky self-sabotage on it’s directors part: revenge on a hero he just didn’t get. There’s not much to get, but you do need an honest instinct for hero-worship to shoot a comic-book, and Burton’s temperament is naturally mock-heroic; he can’t fake the tones — the athletic heft, the blockbuster high style — needed to sweep a movie like this along. Despite what he thought, “Death Wish in a batsuit” is almost exactly what it should have been. Reading the re-writes ordered up by Peters, its not to hard to figure out what was going on: the producers were using the Joker to smuggle back into the movie all the showmanship they felt their recalcitrant director was refusing to provide, and the movie belongs, in the end, to them. “Have fun, cause the party’s on me!” shouts Nicholson at the end, a version of Peters’ own high-rolling largesse, distributing cash to the greedy Gothamites, in what amounts to the movie’s last word on the delicate art of winning public favour: we can be bought.  
And they were right — up to a point. The summer Batman opened was a one of the blockbuster’s landmark summers, just as 1984 had been before it, and whose records its casually smashed. “There’s a point beyond which no one can project,” said one Box-office analyst, “Anticipation is so high, the question this summer seems to be, how high is high?” The anticipation was guaranteed, however, if for no other reason than that 1989 saw the tidal wave of sequels set loose on the mid-eighties finally engulf cinemas — Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters II, Karate Kid III, A Nightmare on Elm Street V, Star Trek V: The Final frontier, Friday the 13th part VIII, The Return of the Musketeers, Eddie and the Cruisers: Eddie Lives, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Police Academy V, The Fly II and Back to the Future II. “We’re thinking of calling it The Abyss II,” said Fox’s Tom Sherak, entrusted with the task of promoting one of the seasons few non-sequels, James Cameron’s The Abyss. If for nothing else, 1989 deserves a place in the history books as the year in which fewest people had an original idea for a movies than at any other time in Hollywood’s history. What this meant for cinema-goers was an equally dense barrage of promotional campaigns, all vying for their attention. That year, the discerning movie-goer could choose between entering the James Bond License to Thrill sweepstakes to win a weekend getaway to Key West, the Indiana Jones Pepsi-Cola sweepstakes, and a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids McDonald’s promotion. You could win a trip to Tasmania courtesy of Young Einstein, you could follow the Great Balls of Fire publicity junket to Memphis. You could trot along to the Hollywood palladium to listen to Bobby brown and Run DMC sing the Ghostbusters theme, and try and win yourself the Ectomobile, all the while chewing on your Slimer Bubble Gum. Or you could go for a replica of The Batmobile, courtesy of a promotion on MTV, and jig around to ‘Batdance’ by Prince — ”an ode of the movie,” as he called it, which is rock-star speak for “they didn't use any of my tracks in their lousy movie but you might as well have them anyway.” Alternatively, you could always go see a movie. Or the movie, for Batman soon became the blockbuster to see, unless you wished to announce your recent decision to join an order of Trappist monks.  
 It opened in 2,194 cinemas  and took $42.7 million in its first weekend, ”the biggest opening weekend in history” proclaimed Warner Brothers, and proceeded to take $100 million in under ten days — another record, breaking Hollywood’s four-minute mile. But it also slid from pole position faster than any movie that has ever made that much money, too, taking just $30 million in its second weekend, a drop of about 25%, and the weekend after that, $19 million, a drop of 36%.. Blockbusters never used to fade like this — E.T.  had stayed at the top for 10 weeks (see graph), and increased its grosses as it went along, while Back to the Future had stayed up there for 13. But Batman came and went in the blink of an eye — that year, even Look Who’s Talking had greater staying power at the number-one spot. The most popular movie of all time was also just flavour of the month. Far more so than Jaws, it marked the beginning of the long, slow erosion of audience word-of-mouth — asked how much influence he thought the negative reviews in Variety and Time would have, Peters responded, “none” —  and with it, a crucial shortening of the audience’s reaction times, which is to say our ability to respond to a movie, and then signal our collective approval or dislike by either staying away, or flocking to it in greater numbers. Who could tell, looking at Batman’s grosses, and their tail-off, to what degree people had enjoyed the film or not? More importantly, who was even interested in concluding anything from grosses of $251 million? “The audience can smell it faster than we can sell it,” Spielberg had said of E.T.’s release. As of 1989, we had just a little less time in which to do so. The art of selling bats had caught up with the art of smelling rats.
From my book Blockbuster

Jun 22, 2014

T H E B E S T O F 2 0 1 4 S O F A R

F I L M S:—
1. Under The Skin
2. Grand Budapest Hotel
3. Boyhood
4. We're The Best!
5. Edge of Tomorrow
B O O K S:—
1. Updike, Adam Begley
2. Five Came Back, Mark Harris
3. The Wes Anderson Collection, Matt Zoller Seitz
4. The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan
5. Bark, Lorrie Moore
M U S I C:—
1. Morning Phase, Beck
2. G I R L, Pharrell
3. Are We There, Sharon Van Etten
4. The Voyager, Jenny Lewis
5. Stay Gold, First Aid Kit
T E L E V I S I O N:—
1. True Detective
2. Silicon Valley
3. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
4. The Americans
5. Mad Men
P E R F O R M A N C E S:—
1. Ralph Fiennes, Grand Budapest Hotel
2. Angelina Jolie, Malificent
3. Matthew McConaughey, True Detective
4. Tom Hardy, Locke
5. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep

Jun 11, 2014

REVIEW: THE ROVER (dir. Michod)


From my Guardian review:—
'It’s time to put away those Edward Pattinson jokes — the kid can act. He showed more attachment to the elephant in Water for Elephants than costar Reese Witherspoon, but then he probably knew better how it felt: Twilight turned him into the most gawped at mammal on the planet. He cut like a blade through the first film, cheekbones set to stun, as pale as a rock-star-in-recovery, summoning a palpable sense of threat.  The series emasculated Edward as it wore on, shoving him to the side of the action, while Bella grew increasingly impatient— it was the only vampire series in which the vampires were afraid of the virgins, and exploited Pattinson’s greatest flaw as an actor: his passivity. He was coolly dissipated in In David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis as a megastar essaying the end of the world in blacked-out limo shades, but the film, and the role, both stayed well within the confines of the comfortably numb.  In his new film, The Rover, Pattinson tries a different tack in his pursuit of a world seen without yellow contact lenses: he acts his socks off. 

When we first see him, he is face down in the Australian outback, bleeding out into the dirt. He’s been abandoned by his brother (Scoot McNairy), who heads up a gang of thugs making their getaways in a truck, with another member bleeding in the back. What they have done, or even who they are, is never made clear. The film, directed by David Michod, is set “ten years after the collapse”, in a future where resources like petrol and water have gone much the same place as the world’s reserves of narrative exposition.  You could waterboard this movie and still not get much more out of it. The whole thing is told in the mythic-elliptic style first pioneered in the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and later retrofitted as pulp by George Miller in the Mad Max films — where the post-apocalypse means never having to explain yourself.  So we never find out the exact circumstances that led to Pattinson being left for dead, or why he is speaking in a Southern White Trash accent, while everyone else speaks Australian, or why he is being hunted by squadron of American soldiers. Did he desert? What is important is that he crosses paths with Guy Pearce, about whom we know even less, except that a) He never cracks a smile. B) He looks pissed even before the gang make off with his car. And c) He wants it back. That’s how mythic he is, his character carved out in the dust cloud left by his actions. He’s the Man With No Ride Home. For the first 20 minutes or so, all this enigma flashes brilliantly in the mid-day sun. The director David Michod draws his two plot-lines together as if gathering a noose, the sense of suspense   brought to a head by a wonderful of shot of Pearce sitting in a dimly-lit bar, his eardrums pounded by karaoke, as a car tumbles past the window behind him, unheard, in the blinding sunlight — it’s the kind of shot that makes you yelp with joy, it’s so damn good. There follows a chase, with Pearce in hot pursuit, the camera slung down at fender level, as it was for Spielberg’s Duel, which ends with a tense stand-off between the two vehicles, now stationary at 30 yards distance, the camera lodged just behind the front tyre of one, watching to see who makes the first move.   
What Michod has made, you realise, is a kind of Western — one of those zero-sum Peckinpahs in which men, like scorpions, sting each other to death beneath a baking sun — and would that it were anywhere near as good as those electrifying first twenty minutes. The rest of it is a road movie that runs out of road, as Pearce, now with a captive Pattinson in tow, attempts to turn him against his brother and get that car back. That’s it. I would happily deliver more spoilers but the whole thing is so studiously minimal, that you are now in possession of as many facts about this movie as I am. “You must really love that car,” says the madam of a local brothel which, like everyone, claws out an existence servicing mankind’s baser needs from a ramshackle out-house tucked to the side of the highway. The soundtrack, meanwhile features an assortment of ambient twangs and shivers that can best be described as the world’s first didgeridoo gang-rape. It’s all enough to make you wonder if post-apocalyptic road movies aren’t for Australian directors merely a way of toning up, like Shakespeare for Brits, of movies about losing your virginity for the French.' 

Jun 5, 2014

REVIEW: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

From my Guardian review:—
'Oh to be a teenager in love, suffering from stage four cancer! Adapted from John Green’s bestselling YA novel about love-struck cancer teens — a piece of doomed-love romanticism served up with bright-eyed, almost evangelical zeal — the film is dubious in the extreme, morally and ethically objectionable from just about every angle. It elevates cancer sufferers to the same exalted state of higher being to which tuberculosis-sufferers were once hoisted by Keats and Byron, or vampires by Kristen Stewart fans. It’s Twilight on chemo. It’s a few inches shy of launching a fully-fledged romantic death cult. It’s the swoony, drop-dead hit of the summer. You’ll love it.'

Jun 2, 2014

AN APPRECIATION: CAREY MULLIGAN

For Intelligent Life:
'It’s the contrast between face and voice that does it. The face is round, pure, with two dimples holding her smile in placeit is the face of childhood yearning, Juliette Gréco EPS and moon-gazing through suburban windows. But the voice is something else: about half an octave lower than you expect, luxuriantly so, with unexpected notes of sanguinity and self-amusementit is unambiguously the voice of a woman, if not fully grown, then bearing a secret apprehension of the oncoming battle between dreams and their disappointment. Yes, the world will let me down, it seems to say, but must we talk about this now? Such was the paradox powering Carey Mulligan’s performance in “An Education” in 2009: that a young actress whose gamine charms sent critics into gauzy reveries of Audrey Hepburn nonetheless packed the pipes of Rita Hayworth, orbetter yetJenny Agutter. Since that first spring of Hollywood’s infatuation with her, Mulligan has carefully plucked the petals from any career playing English roses, avoiding costume dramas like the plague, instead playing a broken torch-singer in Steve McQueen’s “Shame”, and making pit-stops in Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent “Drive” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”, where she rained down cold fury on the Coens’ luckless hero. If a great leading film role has eluded hershe seemed more like Daisy Buchanan’s better-read elder sister in Baz Luhrmann’s gaudy, tricked-out Gatsbyonstage Mulligan has broken into long, galloping runs. She was a terrific Nina in a 2007 production of “The Seagull”, and as Karin in Bergman’s “Through a Glass Darkly” in 2011, caught perfectly the pain of someone suicidal denied suicide...'