Jan 14, 2018

Review: DARKEST HOUR (dir. Wright)


'Here he comes, padding around in his dressing gown,  cheeks plump, jowls low, cigar stub jutting like an anti-aircraft gun, barking rewrites to his secretary  in between mouthfuls of scotch. Gary Oldman’s Churchill looks heavy — wadded in his fat suit and prosthetics — but he feels light, a sprightly soul, quick on his feet, quoting Macbeth and Hamlet —  “an actor, in love with the sound of his own voice”  in the words of one parliamentary foe. Nobody enjoyed playing Churchill like Churchill, it is implied.  So we get a performance within a performance, two for the price of one, Oldman playing Churchill playing himself — and such fun is had by all that you could almost forget there’s a war on. One of the revelations, in fact, of both Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour and the book on which it was based, by Anthony McCarten, is how close Britain came, in spring of 1940, to negotiating for peace,  even after Hitler had swept through mainland Europe. Newly installed as prime minister, Churchill is distrusted by most of his war cabinet, including Chamberlain and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who pressure him constantly to petition for peace. King George VI  (Ben Mendelsohn) finds Churchill’s belligerence “scary.” The French finds his talk of victory at any cost “delusional.” Churchill himself wears these arrows almost as badges of honor, happily copping to “wildness in the blood”. If ever a historical moment called for a little wildness, argues the film, it was the spring of 1940, when delusion and courage looked a lot alike. Maybe the country needed a little crazy. Centered on the five weeks between Churchill taking office as prime minister on May 9th until the evacuation of Dunkirk in June 4th, the film covers Churchill’s seemingly solo effort to shore up support in his government and rally the British people for the coming conflict.  How did he do it?  “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” in the film’s climactic line. Anthony McCarten’s script is essentially a run-through of the big speeches, starting with his battle anthem offering “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”  Wright intercuts Oldman’s delivery with a conveyor-belt breakdown of the speech’s genesis, as it is typed up by secretary (Lily James), revised in the bath, with last-minute amendments scribbled  en route to the commons, where Wright slings his camera underneath the type-writer to see the keys as they hit, then hoists it up high in the rafters, looping and swooping, as if trying to match  Oldman for rhetorical bluster. Blood, toil, sweat, tears and a lot of fancy camera angles.  Oldman wins, with a bespoke version of his distinctive voodoo. The sight of Churchill scarfing down eggs, bacon and whiskey for breakfast is, in its own way, as rock n roll as the sight of Johnny Rotten windmilling his bass in Sid And Nancy, or count Dracula licking bloody razors in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Oldman likes his appetites, the stranger the better. Coming to the film from more expansive literary adaptations like Atonement, Pride and Prejudice, and Anna Karenina, Wright directs as as if hellbent on refuting the“nice performance, shame about the film” criticism usually thrown at biopics. We get slow motion, swish pans, extreme close-ups, elaborate tracking shots, spiraling booms, and endless aerial shots, the camera yo-yoing up and down through the clouds following the course of the bombs as they fall. His performance is almost as busy as Oldman’s — the directorial equivalent of selfie — and it robs the film of gravity, quite literally, or any sense of impending threat.' — from my Sunday Times review https://www.thetimes.co.uk/?sunday

Review: THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (dir. McDonagh)


'In  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who has rented three billboards attacking the local police chief  Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for what she sees as his inaction in her daughter’s case. “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests?”; “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Such is the starting point for Martin McDonagh’s pitch-black revenger’s comedy — imagine Dirty Harry as written by Samuel Beckett and you’re close. The playwright-turned-director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths McDonagh a gift for gallows humor that catches in your throat. The police chief turns out to be a  sturdy, decent man played by Woody Harrelson who also happens to be dying of cancer. Might she rethink the billboards?  “They wouldn’t be so effective after you croak, right?” she replies. McDormand says she based the performance on John Wayne and it shows. Dressed in overalls and bandana, her face stony with grief, her eyes narrow with accusation, Mildred marches into scenes with such freedom from giving a rat’s ass — she kicks one of her son’s female classmates in the groin and even firebombs the police station — the effect is thrilling. Not just any avenging mother, she turns Mildred into the avenging mother, a figure risen from the  angry, disenfranchised,  Trump-voting, rural unconscious (though the film’s politics skew left). “How’s it all going in the nigger-torturing business, Dixon?” Mildred asks the police’s departments in-house racist,  Dixon (Sam Rockwell),  a  dim-witted screw-up who lives with his mother and jives listening to Abba’s “Chiquitita” on his walkman — a blissful turn from Rockwell, who duly corrects her  “That’s the person-of-color-torturing business these days.” McDonaugh can seemingly write this stuff by the yard: zesty, profane dialogue between prickly, quarrelsome characters bound in mutual exasperation, nipping and biting like ferrets in a bag. Scene by scene, the movie snarls with viperish life, although there are one too many clever-clever jokes about the characters’ sub-literacy — Wilde is quoted,“hard of hearing” mistaken for “hard of reading” and so on. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri may be McDonagh’s most satisfying film to date, but the London-born playwright’s bard-of-the-Ozarks ventriloquism isn’t exact, and his construction hasn’t shed all traces of the stage. The violence escalates and explodes, leaving the town in flames, but he chooses to end with a shaggy-dog shrug rather than a note of catharsis or release. A better sense of landscape might have helped: here, you barely notice it. But McDormand’s Mildred is one for the ages. She doesn’t want catharsis or release.  She’s still out there still, putting up billboards, putting fear into the wicked.' — from my Sunday Times review

Jan 8, 2018

Review: ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (dir. Ridley Scott)


'The black joke that unfurls at the centre of this film — part thriller, part morality tale — is that the boy would probably better off with his kidnappers. The boy’s father is long out of the picture,  lost in an opium cloud in Marrakesh.  Only the mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), seems to care, and it is her resolve that powers the story. Long bruised by any entanglements with her estranged husband’s family, she alone seems to know what to expect. The greed of the kidnappers seems almost quaint when set besides that of her father-in-law. The toughest negotiations of the film will be not with them, but with him. “I like things,” says Getty, surrounded by old-world treasures and gilt-framed masterworks in the crepuscular gloom  of his estate. “They never let me down.  There is a purity to beautiful things that I’ve never been able to find in another human being.” Critics have been saying the same thing about Ridley Scott movies for decades. A chilly Midas, shoring up Vermeers and Ming vases against his ruin, Getty is the perfect embodiment of a figure Scott has long been fascinated with, from Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner, sat atop his ziggurat collecting owls and chess pieces to Hannibal Lecter poring over his Dante manuscripts at the Palazzo Capponi in Hannibal Scott, too, likes his objets, sometime more so than his people — not for nothing are the most memorable characters in his work androids and replicants —  which is why this film is such a sleek fit for him. In Getty he’s found his Corleone — his shadow self. Who knows what Spacey did with the role — probably telegraph his villainy to the audience with a wink, like he always does — but Plummer  brings an avuncular twinkle and sly wit to this reptile: eyes narrowed to crafty slits, crafty and cold-blooded, his Getty is almost provocatively unsentimental, like a rascally relative prodding the world for its reaction. You half expect Harrison Ford to arrive in his hover car and subject him to a Voight-Kampff empathy test to see if he’s fully human. Instead we have Michelle Williams — acting’s answer to the Voight Kampff. Williams is extraordinary in this picture,  alternately fierce and fragile as she pushes her way through the paparazzi, focussed like a  laser on getting her son back, suppressing all her rage and panic beneath brittle Kennnedyesque diction, but unable to stifle gallows humor at the absurdity of the situation: begging the richest man in the world to spare a penny for his own grandson, she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Neither do you. Williams’ mordant, heartsore performances roots the entire film. ' — from my Sunday Times review

Jan 2, 2018

Review: THE LAST JEDI (dir. Johnson)


'At the close of Star Wars The Force Awakens, J J Abrams giddy, good-humored reboot of Lucas’s original saga, one could be forgiven some trepidation as the narrative reins were handed over from Harrison’s Ford’s Han Solo — always the saga’s most charismatic character with with his lop-sided grin and grumbling asides  — to Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, it’s most chipper and anodyne, the closest the galaxy had to a Walton. The first bit of good news relayed by Star Wars: The Last Jedi is that Luke has had the stuffing knocked out of him. Grizzled and grey-bearded, he has turned his back on the Jedi and is now holed up on his island hideaway like Ben Kenobi in the first film,  at first refusing to train Rey (Daisy Ridley) in her fight against the evil First Order. “It’s time for the Jedi to end,” he says, one of many calls to forget the past in a film in which everyone seems hell-bent on disinterring their legacy and cutting loose from their legend. There are more flashbacks in this movie than all the others combined. Rey still doesn’t know who her parents are, while Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Sith warrior with the inferiority complex, is grappling with his own recent ventures into parricide. “Let the past die,” he implores her. “The Sith, the rebels, let it all die.”  Fat chance. Soon Luke is training Rey in the way of The Force, which are much as they always were — granting powers of telekinesis, mind control and a sudden, intense interest in natural fabrics — but now with one important new feature, allowing Rey to establish direct long-distance mind-to-mind communication with Kylo Ren. Think of it as the Force’s answer to texting. Soon they are at it like teenagers. “I feel the conflict in you,” insists Rey, like Jane Eyre before her, thinking she can turn the bad boy good. “You’ll turn. I’ll help you.”  The light sabres are not the only thing giving off extra heat these days. With his long gaunt features and Byronic mien, Adam Driver has now grown into the closest the series has to a Mr Rochester: mad, bad and dangerous to know. The subtitle of this movie ought to have been Inter-Galactic Bad Boys and the Women Who Love Them. I only wish Johnson had pushed if further. There’s one great scene where they briefly join forces and slay a roomful of Snoke’s lieutenants that is just crying out for a climactic, blood-drenched kiss. How Johnson fluffed that opportunity I will never know.' — from my Sunday Times review

Review: MOLLY'S GAME (dir. Sorkin)


 'Chastain is in her element. Dressed in low-cut designer dresses, cleavage on full display, but refusing all the propositions that come her way, she  saunters around her high-end gambling den, elusive and unattainable, hand-picking the guests, recruiting fresh meat to throw to sharks like   “Player X”, a movie star who lives for the kill:  “I don’t like playing poker , I like destroying lives.” That he is played by Michael Cera allows for some some sly subversion of Cera’s pencil-necked beta-male  image. In real life it was Tobey Maguire — further accompanied by Leonardo Di Caprio, Ben Affleck and, on occasion, Matt Damon — but Sorkin, like Bloom herself, has mastered the art of cloaking names with a seductive flutter. We hear talk of Saudi Princes and hedge-fund billionaires, find out good players can lose to bad ones if they don’t yet know how bad they are, one pro (Bill Camp) losing everything in the course of a game lasting three days. “Go home,” Molly tells him.  I’m not sure we ever figure her out. In his debut as director, Sorkin shows a slight inability to let his performances breathe or deepen. Betrayed a second time, Molly  says in voiceover, “depression and anger gave way to blinding rage at my  powerlessness over the unfair whims of men” the narration stealing what it should be an actress’s job to show. As with many of her roles, Chastain burns with a cool blue flame, a player who refuses to be played or drawn into the compromise of intimacy, the closest we get to an intimate relationship her strained relationship with her psychotherapist father (Kevin Costner) who turns up in a climactic scene full of gimcrack Freudianism  — “I’m going to give you some answers” he says — that nevertheless pulls off a little magic. Sorkin can pull rabbits out of hats, but it’s interesting to compare Chastain’s diamond-cut integrity with the more pliable populism of someone like, say, Julia Roberts. Chastain may not want to be that kind of star, although if you’re looking for the reason audiences may not have yet fully embraced her, here it is. Like Dietrich before her, she seduces the camera, but refuses to be seduced by it, breaking the age-old compact that connects a performer’s sexuality and the screen. It’s fascinating stand-off. I can’t wait to find out how it turns out.' — from my Sunday Times review

Dec 29, 2017

My Favorite Films of 2017


1. Lady Bird
2. Call Me By Your Name
3. The Post
4. The Shape Of Water
5. Dunkirk
6. A Ghost Story
7. The Meyerowitz Stories
8. Get Out
9. Blade Runner 2049
10. Logan Lucky

My Favorite Performances of 2017


1. Timothee Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name
2. Michelle Williams, All The Money In The World
3. Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
4. James Franco, The Disaster Artist
5. Laurie Metcalf, LadyBird
6. Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
7. Barry Keoghan, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer
8. Alison Janney, I Tonya
9. Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
10. Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread

Dec 28, 2017

Most promising movies of 2018


Martin Scorsese‘s The Irishman (Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, Bobby Cannavale, Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano)AdamMcKay‘s Backseat (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell)Damien Chazelle‘s First Man (Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke)Clint Eastwood‘s The 15:17 to Paris (Jenna Fischer, Judy Greer, Bryce Gheisar, Alek Skarlatos, Thomas Lennon, Jaleel White, Tony Hale, P.J. Byrne). Steve McQueen‘s Widows (Viola Davis, Cynthia Erivo, Andre Holland, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell) Nov 18 Terrence Malick‘s Radegund (August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jürgen Prochnow, Bruno Ganz) Alfonso Cuaron‘s Roma (Marina de Tavira, Marco Graf, Yalitza Aparicio, Daniela Demesa, Enoc Leaño, Daniel Valtierra) Jacques Audiard‘s The Sisters Brothers (Jake Gyllenhaal, Joaquin Phoenix, Rutger Hauer, Riz Ahmed, John C. Reilly)Barry Jenkins‘ If Beale Street Could Talk (Kiki Layne, Stephan James, Teyonah Parris, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry, Diego Luna, Dave Franco).Bryan Singer‘s Bohemian Rhapsody (Rami Malek, Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, Joseph Mazzello, Allen Leech, Lucy Boynton. 20th Century Fox)Gus Van Sant‘s Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (costarring Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Jonah Hill, Jack Black, Mark Webber)Spike Lee‘s Black Klansman (John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins — Focus Features)Woody Allen‘s A Rainy Day in New York (Timothee Chalamet, Elle Fanning, Selena Gomez, Jude Law, Diego Luna, Liev SchreiberLuca Guadagnino‘s Suspiria (Dakota Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth)Ron Howard‘s Solo — A Star Wars Story (Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton)Steven Spielberg‘s Ready Player One (Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T. J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance) Benh Zeitlin‘s Wendy The Incredibles 2Yorgos Lanthimos‘ The Favourite (Emma Stone, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn, John Tormey).Richard Linklater‘s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer)Robert Zemeckis‘s The Women of MarwenWes Anderson‘s Isle of Dogs (March 23)Anthony Maras The PalaceAsghar Farhadi‘s Everybody KnowsBjorn Runge‘s The WifeFelix von Groeningen‘s Beautiful BoyJennifer Kent‘s The Nightingale, Paolo Sorrentino‘s Loro  Laszlo Nemes' Sunset

Dec 15, 2017

Favorite Soundtracks Of 2017


1. The Shape Of Water — Alexandre Desplat
2. Call Me By Your Name — Sufjan Stevens, Ryuichi Sakamoto
3. Phantom Thread — Johnny Greenwood
4. Wonderstruck — Carter Burwell
5. Blade Runner 2049 — Hans Zimmer
6. Coco – Michael Giachino
7. A Ghost Story — David Lowery
8. Alien Covenant — Jed Kurzel
9. Darkest Hour – Dario Marinelli
10. The Vietnam War — Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

Favorite Songs of 2017


1. Oh Baby — LCD Soundsystem
2. Motion Sickness — Phoebe Bridgers
3. Mystery of Love — Sufjan Stevenes
4. You Never Knew — HAIM
5. Shine On Me — Dan Auerbach
6. Up All Night — the War on Drugs
7. Malibu — Miley Cyrus
8. New York – St Vicnent
9. Appetite— The Staves
10. This Song — Rostam / RACf

Favorite Albums of 2017


1. Stranger in the Alps — Phoebe Bridgers
2. Something To Tell You — Haim
3. async — Ruichi Sakamoto
4. A Deeper Understanding – The War On Drugs
5. American Dream — LCD Soundsystem
6. MASSEDUCTION — St Vincent
7. Waiting On A Song — Dan Auerbach
8. Not Even Happiness — Julie Byrne
9. Loney Dear — Loney Dear
10. Planeterium — Sufjan Stevens

Dec 10, 2017

'Tarantino: A Retrospective' reviewed


'The auteur theory is also front and centre in Tom Shone’s monograph on Tarantino (Thames & Hudson, £24.95). For some Tarantino is an example of the auteur as problematic text; a man with an immense facility for image-making and blessed of an unarguable cinephilia set against his hipster misogyny. This book, though, is very much the case for the defence. Shone is simply one of the most eloquent and acute film writers we have, but the retrospective shadow of the Harvey Weinstein allegations now inevitably seep into the margins of his text here given that Tarantino and Weinstein were joined at the hip in their salad days.  Then there’s the fact that the more films Tarantino has made the more enamoured the director has become with the sound of his own voice. To his detriment. All that said, this remains a real engagement on Shone’s part with a director who clearly loves cinema. And for those who love him it’s a must. But be warned. It contains a lot of pictures of Quentin. I mean, a lot.' — Teddy Jamieson, The Sunday Herald

Nov 28, 2017

On my iPod: Nov 2017


1. Appetite — The Staves
2. Mystery of Love - Sufjan Stevens
3. Say You love Me (Early Version) — Fleetwood Mac
4. You Never Know — Haim
5. Shine On Me — Dan Auerbach
6. Oh Baby — LCD Soundsystem
7. This Song — Rastami / RAC
8. Malibu — Miley Cyrus
9. New York —St Vincent
10. Wild Fire — Semper Femina

REVIEW: JANE

From my Sunday Times review:—
'Based on recently discovered footage, thought to be lost, of Goodall as she observed, studied, and befriended the chimps in the wild,  the film film is filled with romance: for Goodall’s work, for the chimps, and for Goodall herself, as she watches them, perched in trees in cargo shorts, barefoot, her long ponytail bunched at the back of a swanlike neck. If you ever find someone who looks at you the way Goodall looks at those chimps, marry them. She puts you in mind of one of those home-counties beauties John Benjamin used to fall for, the daughters of doctors from Aldershot, burnished by the sun, swiping at the rhododendruns with their tennis rackets (“lucky the rhododendruns”). Just 26 when anthropologist Richard Leakey picked her for the job, she had been working as  his secretary,  and had no scientific degree. Her fresh impressions  unclouded by received wisdom, driven instead by endless patience and curiosity, she seems  to have found some part of herself in the jungle, this “strange white ape” as she puts it, communing with “the great mystery” she finds out there, like all those woman-in-Africa roles that Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Kim Basinger have queued up to play.  
Miffed to have her solitude disrupted when National Geographic send along a photographer, Hugo van Lawick to capture footage, she notes “it seemed I was as much a subject as the chimpanzees,” a line that drily foreshadows not just her eventual romance with Van Lawick, but the enraptured press coverage that greeted her discoveries (“Comely Miss Spends Her Time Eyeing Apes”) as well as the split focus of this documentary. Uses footage mostly shot by her husband —  you can almost feel the point at which he falls in love with her — director Brett Morgen toggles back and forth between Goodall and her animals.  When the chimps mate, Van Lawick proposes by telegram (“Will you marry me Stop”). When momma chimp gets pregnant, so does Goodall. Eventually, the chimps turn out to be “unconscionable thieves” capable of violence, war, and heartbreak and that, too, has ripple effects in Goodall’s life. Morgen’s editing can sometimes be a little tricksy, and his use of surround sound effects, simulating every snapped twig, will offend purists, but there’s no denying the sweep of his storytelling, or the beauty of the images which seem to have inspired Phillip Glass to deliver one of his more emotional scores: if Glass’s glittering arpeggios are good for anything it is accompanying a massive herd of wildebeast as they flock across the Serengeti.' 

Nov 5, 2017

REVIEW: THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER

From my review for the Sunday Times:—
'I suppose that if you’re in the mood for a ruthless allegory about a man forced to choose between slaughtering one member of his family or seeing them all paralyzed and die, then Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing of a Sacred Deer  hits the spot. Like the films of Michael Haneke, Lanthomis delivers cauterising shocks with impeccable numbness designed to wake up all up from our Lethean sleep. On the other hand, life is short, babysitters are expensive and there may be more tempting invitations than “Hey honey, fancy a movie in which paralyzed children crawl across the floor to wake us up from our civilized numbness?”  Lanthimos’s film passes every test of cinema, perhaps, except: shall we get a sitter? 
Boasting a bushy salt-and-pepper beard, Colin Farrell plays a heart surgeon named Steven who lives in the suburbs of an unnamed Midwestern American city with his beautiful wife Anna (Kidman) and their two children, 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Suljic). Their life is orderly and pristine, and yet from the blast of Schubert’s Stabat Mater that we hear while Steven performs open heart surgery, we surmise that he is guilty of playing God. He’s not the only one. Drone-mounted cameras peer down at the actors as they break acres of silence with absurdist non-sequiteurs in which we are invited to hear the death-rattle of civilized norm and ritual. “Have you seen how hairy my dad is?” “You’re not leaving until you tasted my pie.”  Only in Lanthomisland would “Our daughter started menstruating last week” pass for polite cocktail-party chatter.  The only one with a pulse is Steven’s peculiar friend, Martin (Barry Keoghan), a youth with an insinuating manner who shows up unannounced at the hospital where Steven works to exchange gifts, or go on long walks in which some submerged power dynamic seems at play. Is he a son from another mother? A lover? Last seen on Mark Rylance’s boat in Dunkirk, Keoghan is easily the best reason to see this film. With his puffy,  insolent face, both innocent and cunning, he insinuates himself into Steven’s life like a shadow: the film’s God has met his devil.  The film is basically an arthouse version of one off those thrillers like Cape Fear or Fatal Attraction, in which a nuclear family is terrorized by a malign invader — guilty secrets are unearthed, the sins of the father visited on his family, bunnies boiled, and everyone goes home to write their thesis on ‘The Return of the Repressed in the Urban Haute-Bourgeoisie.’  
Martin, it turns out, is the son of a former patient. In the cafeteria of the hospital he spells out his vengeful prophecy:  Steven must sacrifice one member of his family, or watch as they are first paralysed, then start bleeding from their eyes and die. It says something for Lanthomis’s skills for pushing unthinkable premises to dizzying Bunuelian extremes that you are even less inclined to ask “why doesn’t he just go to the police?” than you would in a traditional thriller. In his 2010 film, Dogtooth, a middle-class couple keep their kids captive with a bizarro-world set of rules and rituals. In 2015’s Oscar-nominated The Lobster, guests at a Fawlty-Towers-like bed-and-breakfast are given 45 days to find love or face being turned into animals — a savage burlesque of societally-endorsed coupledom and hot-or-not dating apps: Brave New World for the age of Tinder. And yet that film, with its tender, original love story, passed the baby-sitter test whereas this one comes up short. I’m not saying I won’t watch a film in which hunting rifles are pointed at paralyzed children; I’m just saying that when we get home our babysitter always asks us whether we’ve enjoyed the film we just seen and I’m not sure “no but it subjected beorgoise norms to convulsive shock treatment” will make her feel like she does a useful job. She may even ask for a bigger tip. Maybe that should be the subject of Lanthimos’s next film. A father is forced to choose between a film praised as “relentless” “ruthless” and “unyielding” by the critics, or the new Pixar movie. The baby-sitter is a fierce film snob with some peculiar power over the man. If he makes the wrong choice, he and his family will be forced to watch the falcon’s death scene in Ken Loach’s Kes on an eternal loop. What should he do? Tick tock. Tick tock.' 

Oct 30, 2017

REVIEW: Call Me By Your Name

From my Sunday Times review:—
'The film takes place “somewhere in northern Italy,” and one of its more  immediate effects is to make you want to track down Guadagnino at a film festival and interrogate him for more exact whereabouts so you can start booking flights. In a beautifully dilapidated stone villa, an American professor of antiquities (Michael Stuhlbarg) lives with his French wife (Amira Casar), and precious 17-year-old son Elio (Timothée Chalamet),, a musical prodigy who spends his time transcribes piano etudes from his walkman, whose peace is disturbed in the summer of 1983 by a visit from Oliver (Armie Hammer), an intern of his father’s who has come to intern at the house. A bluff, chiseled showboat in an open neck shirt and pastel colored shorts, Oliver’s first act, upon arriving, is to collapse onto his bed like a felled tree. “Later,” he says, as if he’s off somewhere. Elio is both irritated and fascinated by this brisk-mannered interloper.  “What does one do around here?” asks Oliver, upon awakening.  “Wait for summer” replies Elio, but Oliver is not really the waiting type. You’d be hard pressed to say what type he is, exactly. We’re used to a strict division between our aesthetes and our outdoor types — you’re either translating Homer or you’re playing rugby, but never the twain shall meet — but Hammer smelts them into a single bronzed form:  a Hail-fellow Epicurian,  equally at home on the volleyball field as in the library,  playing cards or  dancing to the  Psychedelic Furs at a disco — not quite as magnificent as sight as Ralph Fiennes Fiennes gyrating in unbuttoned shirt to the Rolling Stones in Guadagnino’s  last film A Bigger Splash (2016), but then few things are. Everybody looks short when stood next to the Matterhorn.   
Before that sultry island thriller, Guadagnino made the exquisite I Am Love (2009),  in which Tilda Swinton fell in love with a dish of ratatouille and a chef, in that order.  Guadagnino is, in other words, cinema’s reigning sensualist, the best since Bertolucci, with particular attention paid to food and sex, and the overlap between the one and the other. Adapted from André Aciman by James Ivory, Call Me By Your Name at first glance seems like the sort of thing Ivory might have taken a crack at himself in the days of his partnership with Ishmael Merchant: ex pat academics, plates of food, French girls on bicycles, an atmosphere of precious intellectual development and simmering erotic fixation of the kind of thing that gets called “languorous” by critics and moves like melted brie on a hot day. There’s some business with a peach that should do for peaches what Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris did for unsalted butter. Here’s the remarkable thing, though: There’s not a trace of torpor to the film. Like the great poets, Guadagnino understands that nothing sharpens our appetite for pleasure more than it’s cessation. He cuts some scenes a lot shorter than you’d expect, often ending them on some off-kilter note —  a power cut, a nose bleed, a sudden plop into a pool — and the effect is playful, frisky, with a touch of Elio’s impatient hauteur. Other scenes he lets play long, like the extraordinary one-take scene in a dusty plaza where Elio and Oliver circle one another like buzzards, while the Sufjians Steven’s piano arabesques come and go, like passing clouds, or  Elio’s faltering courage. Guadagnino hasn’t adapted Aciman’s novel so much as interrogated its moods, going at it with attack, con brio. 
Did I mention that the love affair at its centre is gay? I shouldn’t have to for the greatest love stories at the movies generally are, these days. The tradition of heterosexual romance which peaked with Brief Encounter and received a last hurrah with The English Patient is looking pretty pooped of late, the baton instead passed to films like Brokeback Mountain, Carol and Moonlight, which rend their audiences’s hearts as effectively as the melodramas of old. Hetero romance is too easy — there’s no impediment. But Stuhlbarg has you hanging on every word of his infinitely gentle paternal monologue here about the importance of heartbreak, and how we must resist the attendant temptation to retreat.  “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the time we’re thirty,” he says. “But to feel nothing it not to feel anything — what a waste.” The hush with which these words were received by the audience I saw the film with suggested either copious tears or furious notes. Whatdidhejustsay?'

Oct 8, 2017

The glorious bullshit of Reservoir Dogs


The Glorious Bullshit of “Reservoir Dogs,” Twenty-Five Years Later:—
Nothing around the film has aged quite as badly though as the original reviews for “Reservoir Dogs.” “The only thing Mr. Tarantino spells out is the violence,” wrote Julia Salmon in the Wall Street Journal. “This movie isn’t really about anything,” said the New York Daily News. “It’s just a flashy, stylistically daring exercise in cinematic mayhem.” These are the two canards that everyone seemed to agree upon, and they were the stances on which the Tarantino-bashing industry would be based. One, that his work was ultraviolent, and, two, that it was about nothing more than its own movieshness, with no connection to the real world. This was a myth partly abetted by the director himself, who often told the story of going to Harvey Keitel’s house to discuss the “Resevoir Dogs” script. “How’d you come to write this script? Did you live in a tough-guy neighborhood growing up? Was anybody in your family connected with tough guys?” Keitel asked. Tarantino said no. “Well, how the hell did you come to write this?” Keitel said. And Tarantino said, “‘I watch movies.’”

Both of these metrics—how violent and how realistic a film is judged to be—are volatile commodities on the film-historical stock exchange. Nothing dates faster than “realism,” and today’s “excessive violence” is tomorrow’s cinematic aperitif. The first thing to strike a contemporary viewer of “Reservoir Dogs,” of course, is how comparatively un-violent it is—we see a couple of shootouts, a carjacking, and a cop being beaten up, but nothing that you wouldn’t see today on an episode of “24.” To those coming to the film from the freewheeling mayhem of the director’s later work, it’s a remarkably disciplined feat of storytelling, featuring just as many departures from chronology as, say, “Pulp Fiction”—it’s structure is a nautilus-like series of boxed flashbacks, telling each character’s story in turn—but the flashbacks never feel like flashbacks. You’re never antsy to get back to the warehouse. Without an ounce of fat, at a trim ninety-nine minutes, the movie pierces like a bullet, leaving a clean hole. The infamous ear-severing, which caused so many walkouts, is discretely elided by a pan to a wall, and throughout there is eerie, feline use made of fade-outs,  with an implied tick-tock of an impervious fate. The most powerful is the first: from the sight of the Dogs walking in slow-mo down the car lot, their banter about Madonna and tipping etiquette still ringing in our ears, the curtain comes down. We can hear the whimpering of Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) before we see him, squirming in bloody agony in the backseat of Mr. White (Harvey Keitel)’s car. The perennial theme of the heist movie—“the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley” in the words of Robert Burns—is laid bare in a single cut. 
So many great filmmakers have made their débuts with heist films—from Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” to Michael Mann’s “Thief” to Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket” to Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects”—that it’s tempting to see the genre almost as an allegory for the filmmaking process. The model it offers first-time filmmakers is thus as much economic as aesthetic—a reaffirmation of the tenant that Jean-Luc Godard attributed to D. W. Griffith: “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” A man assembles a gang for the implementation of a plan that is months in the rehearsal and whose execution rests on a cunning facsimile of mid-morning reality going undetected. But the plan meets bumpy reality, requiring feats of improvisation and quick thinking if the gang is to make off with its loot—and the filmmaker is to avoid going to movie jail. “An undercover cop has got to be like Marlon Brando,” the detective, Holdoway, tells Mr. Orange:

The things you gotta remember are the details. The details sell your story. This particular story takes place in a men’s room.... You gotta know every detail there is to know about this commode. What you gotta do is take all them details and make ‘em your own. While you’re doing that, remember that this story is about you ... and how you perceived the events that went down. The only way to do that is keep sayin’ it and sayin’ it and sayin’ it.

This is as close to an aesthetic credo as Tarantino ever got, from the intense focus on subjectivity that would turn the structure of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” into Swiss cheese; his fascination with commodes as the ultimate arbiter of gritty reality; but, above all, his deep, disciplined devotion to spoken English—his dialogue “part Robert Towne, part Chester Himes and part Patricia Highsmith,” as the critic Elvis Mitchell put it. Critics who complain about the lack of reality in Tarantino’s films aren’t listening: reality in his films is received, represented, and reproduced through the ear and the mouth, and, in particular, the filthy, propulsive rhythms of black street vernacular soaked up by the filmmaker when he was a teen-ager in Los Angeles’s South Bay area, and to which he would return when he shot “Jackie Brown,” some twenty years later:

BEAUMONT: I’m still scared as a motherfucker, O.D. They talking like they serious as hell giving me time for that machine gun shit.

ORDELL: Aw, come on, man, they just trying to put a fright in your ass.

BEAUMONT: Well, if that’s what they doin’, they done did it.

ORDELL: How old is that machine gun shit?

BEAUMONT: About three years ...

ORDELL: Three years? That’s a old crime, man! They ain’t got enough room for all the niggas running around killing people today, now how are they gonna find room for you?

People tend to think of “Pulp Fiction” as Tarantino’s essential L.A. movie—only at the intersections of Glendale would it be apropos for Butch (Bruce Willis) to run into Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) while stopped at a red light—but his first three movies are all equally rooted in the nondescript environs of downtown Los Angeles: “Jackie Brown” in the depressing sprawl of ticky-tacky tract houses, strip joints, and malls near L.A.X., “Reservoir Dogs” in the coffee shops and diners of Highland Park, and the funeral home in Burbank which doubled as the gang’s rendezvous point. “Reservoir Dogs,” shot in just under five weeks —thirty days—in the summer of 1991, beneath lights so bright that the fake blood dried to the floor, is much more of a ’hood movie than you probably remember. For all its confinement to that warehouse, you never forget the city outside its door. When Mr. Blonde interrupts his torture of the cop to fetch some gasoline from the trunk of his car, he is followed by a Steadicam, and, as the sound of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” retreats on the soundtrack, it is replaced by the soporific sounds of suburban L.A. going about its mid-morning business: birds, children playing. Tarantino said that the sequence was his favorite thing in the entire film.

Carefully rooted in place, the film is a little blurrier when it comes to time—not so much ageless as occupying its own peculiar pocket of cultural space-time. With their natty black suits and skinny ties, Tarantino’s gang members look like gangsters from Jean-Pierre Melville’s thrillers of the late fifties and early sixties, but they argue like coffee-shop philosophes from the nineteen-nineties, while their pop culture intake—Pam Grier movies, the TV shows “Get Christie Love” and “Honey West”—stretches back to Tarantino’s childhood in the nineteen-seventies.

NICE GUY EDDIE: Remember that TV show, “Get Christie Love” ... about the black female cop? She always used to say, “You’re under arrest, sugar!”

MR. PINK: What was the name of the chick who played Christie Love?

MR. WHITE: Pam Grier.

MR. ORANGE: No, it wasn’t Pam Grier. Pam Grier was the other one. Pam Grier did the film. “Christie Love” was like a Pam Grier TV show without Pam Grier.

MR. PINK: So, who was Christie Love?

MR. ORANGE: How the fuck should I know?

MR PINK: Great. Now I’m totally fuckin’ tortured.

The idea of pop-culture-literate characters is now so ubiquitous that when the prison inmates of this summer’s “Logan Lucky” pause in the middle of a riot to discuss “Games of Thrones,” we barely blink. By the late eighties, thanks to the ubiquity of the home-entertainment revolution that had first given employment to Tarantino and his buddies at Video Archives, pop culture had attained such critical mass that it was beginning to show up on its own radar. On “Seinfeld,” by 1990, Jerry and George could be heard debating whether Superman had a sense of humor or not (“I never heard him say anything really funny”). Just a year earlier, in “Die Hard,” Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber taunts John McClane (Bruce Willis), “Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo?” To which McClane replies, “I was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually… yippee ki-yay motherfucker!”—the best line of Tarantino dialogue not actually written by Tarantino.

Tarantino’s influence became so wide that it influences the very notion of influence: what had hitherto been an unconscious borrowing or homage was now flushed out into the open and worn as a badge of one’s pop-cultural savvy—intertextuality hits the multiplex. Never mind that Tarantino’s original intent was straightforward realism. Most movie characters, he thought, talked about the plot too much. “Most of us don’t talk about the plot in our lives,” he noted. “We talk all around things. We talk about bullshit.” The gang members in “Reservoir Dogs” talk about Pam Grier and Silver Surfer comics and Madonna lyrics not because Tarantino wanted movie characters who sounded like him and his friends. His first three films are black comedies that drop movie-ish happenings—a heist, a kidnap, an overdose—into the laps of characters who freak out, panic, squabble, lose their car in the parking lot, or miss out on the action entirely because they are on the john. They ask: What if a thriller or a heist movie or a cop movie happened, but it’s participants were too dozy to notice?  
From my piece for The New Yorker

The film to launch a 1000 screensavers

From my review of Blade Runner 2049 for the Sunday Times;— 
'Like many sequels, Blade Runner 2049 is a family affair.  A dead tree yields a body, a skull, a woman, a replicant who looks like she might have died in childbirth. Might replicants be capable of reproducing? Might K’s memories be real after all? This plot — basically Pinocchio  with more eco-pollution — is a clever mirror image of the the first film, which left many wondering if Ford himself was a replicant and just as many with the suspicion that for Scott this would have constituted a happy ending. For Blade Runner was above all a hymn to the synthetic —  from its Vangelis score to its fire-belching ziggurats to its rain-slick poetry about “tears in rain” spoken by those beautiful, damned neo-Nietzcheans, the replicants. That tradition is continued here by Jared Leto, wearing a beard, a kimono and scary contact lenses, as the replicants creator, Neander Wallace, delivering megalomaniac-gnomic  pensées about angels and kings —  “We make angels in the service of civilization” — in a deep amber vault traversed by moving shafts of light, like a Bond villain hide-out designed by Frank Gehry. Villeneuve has a cleaner, more organic eye than Scott’s — think of those egg-shaped alien craft in  Arrival, or the gun-metal grey production design of Sicario. He delivers the same hit of urban sublime — his city echoing with the same polyglot babble, and overlooked by massive corporate advertising including touchingly retro nods to the now defunct Atari and PanAm — but he spends more time in the air, not trudging the streets, and roams further outside its limits to find stretches of desiccated desert and third-worldish trash heaps. These are stunningly framed by cinematographer Roger Deakins, but attended by the suspicion that you are watching a series of stunning cinematographic set-pieces strung together on a thin clothes-line of plot. If a grimy pulp blockbuster can be raised to the level of art, have at it. This is the film to launch a thousand screen savers. Weirdly, it plays better in memory that it does in real-time.  
The same might be said of Blade Runner itself, a film at times too becalmed by its own beauty, but you felt a moral grime nipping at its manhunt plot — in the form of all those noir trimmings, Ford’s whisky-spur voiceover-over, and the grimy urgency of M. Emmet Walsh as Deckard’s police captain.  Villeneuve has his mind on higher matters. “This breaks the world,”  barks K’s superior, LAPD Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) of a case that comes bedecked with Biblical trimmings — talk of miracles, God and even an allusion to Pale Fire,  Nabokov’s great false-bottomed masterpiece about obsession, literary theft and megalomania. I’m normal agnostic on this kind of name-drop — when Iron Man 2 referenced James Joyce's Ulysses, you could only laugh at it’s balls — but here it gives you a genuine clue as to what Villeneuve’s up to: he’s made a sequel as much to the memory and myth of Blade Runner — how the film has bloomed in all our heads in the past three decades — as to the actual film itself. Therein lies both his film’s magnificence and occasional longeurs.Ryan’s Goslings hunt for a soul, stretching to some 2 hours and 45 minutes, doesn't quite hold centre stage in the same way that the hunt for a 6’1” Rutger Hauer did, and when Harrison Ford finally shows up, at around the 2 hour mark,  you think, somewhat treacherously: okay, now we’re talking. Bone-weary, haggard, slugging back whiskey  amid  holograms of Elvis and Monroe, Ford seems to register twinkly bemusement at all these thirty-year-old sci-fi franchises that suddenly seem to be knocking on his door.   Who ever imagined that the sci-fi films of yesteryear would turn out to haunt us so?   A gorgeous confession of soullessness whose sweet, synthetic ache may represent the best that Hollywood has to offer right now, Blade Runner 2049 is this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road. A masterpiece? It’s a pretty good replicant of one.  

Oct 3, 2017

First reviews of Tarantino: A Retrospective


"MUST HAVE.... this vibrant compilation ... a visually stunning compendium.... the best book on QT"— Quentin Tarantino FanClub

Oct 2, 2017

From Clive James' website:— 
'Written by Tom Shone, a British critic resident in New York, These Violent Delights is an excellent site about the movies and related matters. Born and raised in Britain, where he emerged as the most disciplined among the writers who contributed to the Modern Review in the early 1990s, Tom Shone now operates out of New York, though naturally his web activities go everywhere. Shone is a clever film columnist who can also write a wise book: two attributes that don't often go together. His book Blockbuster is essential reading about an important epoch in modern Hollywood, when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas changed the scale of ambition, so that such creations as the Indiana Jonesand the Star Wars franchises became standard operational projects. The story of big ideas that worked, Blockbuster can usefully be read beside the late Stephen Bach's Final Cut, the story of one big project that didn't. Shone's big coffee-table book Scorsese is also well done, though it demonstrates the limitation imposed by getting that much cooperation from a biographical subject: it gets harder to hail a specific movie with indifference. With Shone's equally lavish book Woody Allen there is no such problem, because Shone genuinely finds the less successful movies as interesting as the successful ones. Reading his text in amongst the plethora of illustrations, I had to think again about every Allen second-tier movie except Match Point, which in my view becomes more confirmed as a clunker the more closely  it is examined. But with Allen's work the game of preference and disapproval is inevitable. Shone is properly grateful for Allen's abundance, and so should we all be. The movie business, as a field in which to try being prolific, is no more hospitable than nocturnal crocodile wrestling. To be a movie critic, you must first of all be able to admire the bold, and Shone can. To start enjoying the way he thinks, click here.'