Oct 27, 2015

Attachment theory and the movie audience

'Great artists are not supposed to think of their audiences, of course — that is supposed to be one of the signs of their artistry. But film is a mass medium, which puts all filmmakers in a relationship of some sort with the audience, be it grudging, respectful, delighted, neglectful. In 1970, the American psychologist Mary Ainsworth, working off research by British  psychologist John Bowlby, devised something called the ‘Strange Situation’ test, designed to gauge the varieties of attachment between infant and their mothers. Infants between 12 and 18 months were placed with their mother in a small room, and observed through one-way glass.  Then, 
(1) A stranger joins mother and infant. (2) Mother leaves baby and stranger alone. (3) Mother returns and stranger leaves. (4) Mother leaves; infant left completely alone. (5) Stranger returns. (6) Mother returns and stranger leaves.
Ainsworth found infants falling into three categories. The first, which she characterized as having a ‘”secure” attachment style, were distressed when the mother left, avoided the stranger when alone, but were friendly when the mother was present, using her as a ‘base’ to explore their environment. This almost perfectly describes a hit-maker like Spielberg, whose films are an almost exact simulacrum of that mixture of safety and fear a child feels when it is scared, playfully, by a parent.  When he makes a film that doesn’t go over well with the public, like 1941, he tends to   internalise the public’s reaction (“I’ll spend the rest of my life disowning the movie,” he told The New York Times upon its release), but he also recovers quickly: 1941 was followed by Raiders of the Lost Ark. His confidence returned by that movie’s success, he was emboldened to tackle the “whisper from my childhood” E.T. In other words, Spielberg uses his public the way the secure infant uses his mother, as a safe base to launch further explorations. Bowlby and Ainsworth’s second category was “Ambivalent” Attachment. When the mother departs, this type of child is extremely distressed, avoids the stranger, showing fear, and then ambivalence when the mother returns, remaining close but resentful, maybe even pushing her away. This is Woody Allen, whose antennae to the conflicts between his own needs and those of his audience is acute.  “There’s no correlation between my taste and public taste,” he has said.  Indeed, in a variant on the old Groucho Marx gag, quoted in Annie Hall, about not wanting to join any club that would have him as a member, Allen often distrusts, or downgrades, any film of his that has gone over too well with the public —whether Annie Hall (“nothing special" ), Hannah and Her Sisters (“a film I feel I screwed up very badly”) or Manhattan (“they’re wrong”).  He is the infant who makes a show of turning its back on its mother as a show of independence.  The  third and final category was “Avoidant attachment”. The infants in this category showed no sign of distress when the mother left, was okay with the stranger, playing normally, but show little interest when the mother returns — maybe just a look or a smile — showing no preference between their mother, a stranger, or an empty room.  One thinks of a filmmaker like Kubrick, or the more austere end of the European arthouse — Lars Von Trier, Gaspar Noel, or Michael Haneke whose films, Funny Games, The Piano Player, Amour, intentionally put the audience through the grinder in their unflinching depiction of onscreen cruelty. There are no cutaways, no reaction shots, no judicious framing devices that give the audience an out, just the uneasy prospect of our own spectatorship, reflected back to us. “By its own nature, film is rape,” says Haneke. “You can't avoid it. Film is always about manipulation. The question is to what end for what purpose, especially when you come from a German language background. What is the purpose of my raping them? In my case, to make them aware of how they are being manipulated, to make that manipulation visible so that they can reflect on it and they can become independent and form their own perspective or opinion.  The film doesn't take place on the screen, the film takes place in the audience's mind. There's not a single film that I make, but there are as many films as there are viewers who watch them.”'  
From my piece about movie audiences for Intelligent Life

Oct 25, 2015


'“I suppose I had better get some clothes on,” says Erica Jong, flitting barefoot across the floors of her   Upper East Side apartment, whose living room has been temporarily taken over by the Times photographer and his assistant. Jong has spent the last 40 minutes having her hair and make-up done and is wearing in what appears to be a black negligee. “I could do the interview naked but one reaches a certain age,” she says. “I come from a very bohemian family. It bothers me not to all to walk around here naked... I honestly thing getting older is such a trip. I think we all go through a period of, ‘Oh my god, I have to pee all the time,’ or ‘Oh my god, my beloved is going phew, because he's taking medication,’ and the pharmaceutical companies are not our friend. If you get past that, and we all do get past it, we discover that beyond that rage, there is the best time of life.” This is slightly surprising, certainly delivered with more enthusiasm than her book, I tell her. It seems so full of rage against the dying of the light — ‘age rage,’ to use her own term.  “Look, I sit in California with my adorable nephew Zane who's a young actor. I look at him and I think, if I were 40 years younger I would jump on his bones. Wouldn't it be awful? It would be incest. He's my brother's son's kid. I'm not going to at on it. I'm not a lunatic, but I feel the pleasure of looking at a beautiful young man who is 15 years old. Why not? You feel. All your life you feel. I'm not interested in incest, by the way. It's not my thing. I'm not interested in B&B. Not my thing. I thought 50 Shades of Grey was appalling. An appalling piece of shit. Appalling. It wasn't even copy edited. Anastasia, she has an orgasm, she goes, ‘Holy cow!". I have never met a woman anywhere in the world who said, ‘Holy Cow’ when she had an orgasm. Or said, ‘Holy shit.’ Have you ever met a woman who said, ‘Holy shit? when she comes? I'd kick her out of bed.” And there, in that long, winding digression — candid, verging on scandalous, but packing a terrific comic sting — you pretty much have Erica Jong, feminism’s embarrassing aunt: the one who shows up to your 15th birthday and over shares about her sex-life. At 73, she is a formidable presence, a legendary voluptuary as adept at conquering with words as she is with her flesh, her  ballsy-broad manners brooking little interruption as she scoots from one train of thought to another,  her blue eyes blazing as she lest off one f-bomb after another. She’s like a cross between Gloria Swanson and Eddie Murphy. ' — from my interview for The Times Magazine

Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer

'So now we know. The Force has awoken. And it’s female. The third and possibly final trailer for the new Star Wars film, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, dropped at 7:08 pm Pacific Standard Time on Monday night and planet earth went nuts. The trailer took just 23 minutes to hit 1 million views on Facebook, and within a couple of hours had generated 390,000 tweets, — that’s 17,000 tweets per minute, or “283 freak outs per second,” as the beancounters at Wired magazine calculated. The film hits theatres on December 18th, but fans for whom the rescuscitation of the Lucas space fantasy franchise amounts to nothing short of a reboot of their childhoods,  immediately fell to digesting every large morsel contained in the two-and-a-half-minute trailer, with its remix of familiar elements: stormtroopers on ice, Sith lords in rain,  TIE fighters in close combat, and  x-wings turn up spray over a lake. But the headline news for a saga that has always been seen as skewing overwhelmingly towards young boys: Star Wars has gone fem. “Who are you?” an off screen female voice  asks of British newcomer Daisy Ridley. “I’m no-one,” replies Ridley, which is Jedi screenwriting code for  “a no-one who is going to turn out to be a very big someone at some point in the story.” Ridley plays a character called Rey, a ship scavenger on the planet Jakku — a kind of intergalactic second-hand  car-dealer — who stumbles across the Millennium Falcon and its crew. “It’s true, all of it,” says the unmistakable gravelly tones of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo. “The dark side, the Jedi, they’re real.” Even more telling, though, is the gender, and identity, of the woman instructing Ridley in the ways of the Force. “The Force, it’s calling to you,” says someone who sounds suspiciously like the twinkly-toned Carrie Fisher, “Just let it in” — a sentiment more commonly associated with conferences celebrating the earth-mother deity Gaia, or Wings-era Paul McCartney, than the clash of light-sabres or march of empires...' – from my piece for The Sunday Times

Oct 17, 2015

Woody Allen: A Retrospective reviews contd

“No American dramatist has done more to document the pleasures, pitfalls, and withdrawal pains of imagining the world other than it is,” Tom Shone writes in the text accompanying Woody Allen: A Retrospective, a luxuriant photo history of Allen’s work. “Dramatist,” as Shone knows—and amply demonstrates—could be replaced by “fabulist,” “comedian” or “auteur.” The singularity of Allen’s persona—the mussy hair and owlish spectacles, the mournful oblong face, the weirdly energised droopiness—obscures his protean nature, and the many stages he has restlessly passed through. The thread that connects Allen’s work is the vision of American city life as secret paradise, the site of conquest and ego-enriching romance rather of corrupting sin. It is a familiar theme for the American Jewish artist. Saul Bellow was a prince of the city. So was Norman Mailer. Woody Allen is a third... Shone rightly praises Zelig (1983), also done in the style of a documentary. Its hero is a chameleon-cipher who randomly moves through history, slipped into actual newsreel footage of the great (Babe Ruth, F Scott Fitzgerald) and the malignant (a Nazi rally)... Shone observes shrewdly that Zelig is heir to the great comedians of the silent era, “as voiceless as he is faceless… a silent ghost, unable to voice complaint or ‘kvetch’, only to mimic and please.” Ten years ago, I was in the audience when Allen was interviewed on stage by Janet Maslin, formerly the chief film reviewer for The New York Times, who at one point asked him to comment on comedies from Hollywood’s golden age. He was dismissive of many classics: Bringing up Baby and the collected gems of Preston Sturges were all stale rube jokes; Some Like It Hot was laboured female-drag. Whom did he like? Chaplin, Groucho Marx, Judy Holliday. The only humour that mattered, he said, was city humour. All his favourites come in city flavours: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando." — Sam Tenenhaus, Prospect

On my iPod, Oct 17th: Outfit

1.  On The Water, In The Way — Outfit
2. Homecoming — Josh Ritter
3. 3AM — RAC
4. Bad Blood — Ryan Adams
5. What Do You Mean? — Justin Bieber
6. Automatic Part 1 — Jean-Michel Jarre and Vince Clarke
7. Souvenir – Orchestral Maneuvres in the Dark
8. E*MO*TION — Carly Rae Jespen
9. Majorette — Beach House
10. Feel You — Have You In My Wilderness 

QUOTE of the DAY: Del Toro on Spielberg

'It’s preternaturally nimble with such grace in the way it’s staged. It’s so brisk. It’s so breathless. It’s so apparently effortless and so damn fluid. The hardest thing to accomplish on film is to make time stand still, or make a story completely fluid. Those are two truly, truly difficult things to do, and they mostly come most naturally through the narrator’s voice. Spielberg seems to me supernaturally suited for the story of Catch Me If You Can. It’s in my opinion one of the nimblest movies with fantastic performances... he does what Stanley Donen did so well. He’s brisk. He is muscular. The way his narrative flows is just almost miraculous and so beautifully staged. As a filmmaker, you want to see it dissected and savored the way you would if you had a sumptuous meal in a restaurant. Little by little, you taste the coriander, then you think, how did you get this far in a life without these cloves? The more you chew on a movie like that, the more you discover the subtle flavors and the materials it’s made of.' — Guillermo del Toro, Deadline Hollywood

Oct 14, 2015

Woody: A Retrospective Reviews Cont.d

"The British critic and journalist Tom Shone wrote the above-average text for an Abrams book on Martin Scorsese last year – it was a tribute that managed to recognize the wildly varying quality of a great filmmaker’s body of work. Shone and Abrams have collaborated again on a new over-sized volume “Woody Allen: A Retrospective” and it is another sharp examination of a long and bumpy moviemaking career... “A Retrospective” takes us through each of the films, with lots of new anecdotes about their creation, and fresh insights into their positions in Allen’s body of work. Shone is quite harsh when it comes to that terrible turn of the century lull that produced such indifferent films as “Hollywood Ending” and “Anything Else” but he also charts Allen’s return to peak form in several pictures made within the past decade. The book is a must for Woody Allen fans." — Joe Meyers, Connecticut News  
"Sharp, smart... Shone doesn't just follow critical orthodoxies. He makes his argument beautifully. It's the brain food Allen's rich career deserves." — Ian Freer, Empire

Oct 12, 2015


'We know from the way she grips her clipboard and pulls her skirt down a half inch when Brian wants to sit in the Cadillac with her with closed doors that she understands how easily a blonde Cadillac saleswoman with a buttered look that might be a Beach Boys girl twenty years later can be stereotyped. Her every gesture is decent, anxious but friendly, and every one of them is as telling as the astonishingly right clothes she wears. (Costumes by Danny Glicker.) Melinda is not rich.  She could not afford her own Cadillac, even if she drives one for work. She has clothes that are pretty, neat, stylish but budgeted and they speak to a woman of forty-one who has not had the kindness and hope drained out of her yet, and who is determined not to look fast or easy.  "Love & Mercy" is an old-fashioned film, I know, about a woman saving a troubled man, not simply because she loves him, or likes his music, but because she possesses a nuanced detailed power of sympathy that waits for someone who needs rescue and who has taken up the odd challenge of selling Cadillacs as a way of finding him.  There is something of Doris Day with Sinatra in "Young at Heart" here, or of Elisabeth Shue with Nicolas Cage in "Leaving Las Vegas."  We are not accustomed to such generosity, or to stories that place so much value in love or such belief in rescue. Melinda could have been a sentimental stooge. She could have been a mere sexpot or a bimbo. But she has the moral force of Cary Grant saving Ingrid Bergman in "Notorious," and it comes from the assurance with which Pohlad knows he only needs to photograph Melinda’s face thinking about Brian and the fairytale ordeal in which she must overcome the dread spirit of Eugene Landy. Her scenes are with Cusack (who is brilliant) and the chemistry in which their two ardent but wounded and uncertain faces dip closer together is deeply touching.' — David Thomson on Elizabeth Banks in Love & Mercy

Sep 28, 2015


'Drawing on several years’ history of first-hand interviews, Shone’s book betrays an equal degree of personal investment in Allen’s work – though it trades in tougher love. There’s an inquisitive rigour to his praise and criticism alike: a substantial appraisal of Allen’s 1977 smash Annie Hall builds tension between the evergreen marvels of the finished film (“its theme of fading love nestled within an intricate remembrance of things past”) and a hypothetical anatomy of the solipsistic calamity it nearly was, before its love story was foregrounded in the editing suite. The vagaries of Allen’s creative process are never glazed over here. Even when the outcome is glorious – and when it isn’t – Shone’s analysis is most piercing. He certainly doesn’t share Solomons’s (nor my) revisionist appreciation of Allen’s “pure”, Ingmar Bergman-fixated dramas: 1978’s critically mauled Interiors, he writes deliciously, boasts “a palate of slate greys, stonewashed blues, and muted beiges, with emotions to match”. This level of discernment and tart dissent is an unexpected treat in what appears a chunky coffee-table adornment, presented in slightly more lacquered fashion than Solomons’s more practically pictorial volume. It’d be easy to lose sight of the text amid the photos, many of which serve to remind casual admirers of Allen’s work of his undervalued gifts as a visual stylist. But Shone’s prose has a beauty of its own, abounding in nonchalantly exquisite turns of phrase: I especially love his description of actress Dianne Wiest’s face as “[seeming] always to photograph in soft focus”. Allen may not read criticism, but the writer in him would surely approve.' — Guy Lodge, The Observer
"Thames &  Hudson are bringing out a beautiful illustrated hardback book that follows the format of previous volumes about Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. In this timely retrospective, Tom Shone reviews Woody Allen's entire career, providing incisive commentary on his films and shedding light on this uniquely self-deprecating filmmaker, with the help of comments contributed by Allen himself. Superbly illustrated with more than 250 key images (including movie stills, archive publicity material and on-set photography), this is a fitting tribute to one of the masters of modern cinema." — the Curzon Cinema 
'Solomons and Tom Shone are in harmonious, erudite agreement on the superior technical and imaginative qualities of many of Allen’s best-loved films — Annie Hall, Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Mighty Aphrodite, Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine — and both experts are equally severe in their appraisals of experimental failures apparently influenced by Allen’s admiration of Bergman and German expressionists. Solomons seems particularly appreciative of Allen’s Jewishness, while Shone, after a long, comparably authoritative career as a London film critic, achieved an extra American critical point of view at New York University, where he teaches film history and criticism. The two authors’ best birthday present to Woody Allen is their joint assessment that he is a genius.' — The Spectator

Sep 4, 2015

'... In many ways, Allen has been working and reworking this reversal since Annie Hall and Sleeper, the romantic plot of both films essentially retellings of Shaw’s Pygmalion.  “Do you think I’m stupid?” asks Luna (Diane Keaton) in Sleeper, before transforming herself with books of Marxist theory into a khaki-clad revolutionary —“she’s read a few books and suddenly she’s an intellectual,” complains Allen’s Miles. In Annie Hall, Alvie Singer introduces to adult education classes, The Sorrow and the Pity and therapy. “You’re the reason I got out of my room, and was able to sing and get in touch with my feelings and all that crap,” says Annie at the end, by which time she has fallen in love with the teacher of her class on existential Motifs in Russian Literature. Like Miles, Alvie is hoist by his own petard.  In Hannah and Her Sisters, Michael Caine woos Hannah away from her artist-lover Max Von Sydow with a book of poems by e e Cummings, only to see her leave him, in turn, for her literature professor.  In each case, the man, assuming a position of intellectual superiority, establishes himself as the woman’s tutor-lover, only to lose her once she grows confident enough to leave him. The problem with entwining romance is that education has an end in sight: graduation.' — from my piece about Woody's Women for The Guardian

Sep 2, 2015

Are we underestimating Woody Allen?

'Introverts often grow up thinking themselves invisible — a fear perhaps but a strangely comforting one, and something of a sustaining fantasy should you become famous.  These days, Allen has the invisibility of his own ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year, for critics to take a whack it: is it good Woody or bad Woody?  He is a figure occluded by the scandal and speculation given off by his private life, which still manages to send tabloid geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. It could almost be the subject of a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it: Zelig, whose chameleonic hero is, you will remember,  “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages, and performing unnecessary dental extractions,” before finding redemption with some Lindberghian derring-do — an uncannily accurate forecast of Allen’s own return to crowd-pleasers in the mid nineties.  Except that Zelig was released in 1983.  On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.' — from my article on WA for The New Statesman

Aug 30, 2015


“Mother always had to say the truth, sometimes to the point of embarrassment. The phone would ring, and she would pick up. We all trembled — because maybe it was somebody we didn't want to talk to —whisper, whisper — so you would say 'can you call later, leave a message she is not here.' Mother couldn’t even lie to do this — not the tinest white lie. It was always 'don't make her answer the phone, don’t make her do anything because she always told the truth'. ‘My daughter does not want to talk to you..’ And yet she would do this with a naivety, an innocence, that she had. I always felt like my mother was partly my daughter too; I'm much stronger than her; so I was very protective of her. She was so shy, so painfully shy, more a New Yorker than American.” 
Isabella Rossellini on her mother, who would have turned 100 today, from an interview I conducted in 2010

Aug 20, 2015


'Freeman is that undefeatable quarry: the merry philistine. Cultural tastes being the last refuge for the snobberies and attendant anxieties that used to attached themselves to class in Britain, there is great value in a genuine passion that horrifies the room for a writer as punchy and vivacious as Freeman. And decades don’t come much more horrifying than the eighties. The sixties always knew they were cool.  The seventies have received their revisionist due. But the go-getting, greed-is-good, need-for-speed eighties, when producer John Peters, “the man who once permed Yentl’s hair commanded the kind of respect once accorded to Robert Altman”? There’s one lovely moment near the start of her book when Freeman phones up Peter Biskind, the king of seventies revisionism and all things Altmanesque, for advice. “You should really writer about Salvador,” he tells her. “That’s a fascinating film.” She doesn’t have the heart to tell him that by “eighties cinema” she doesn’t mean Oliver Stone’s piercing disquisition on American foreign policy in Latin America, but Three Men and Baby.   “I love the silliness of eighties movies, their sweetness, the stirring music, “ she writes, “I adore montages and anyone who doesn't thrill to a power ballad is lying to themselves” — from my review of Hadley Freeman's Life Moves Pretty Fast for the New Statesman

Aug 16, 2015


'The rules of the apartment were simple: never go out, except when supervised by Oscar. Never talk to strangers. And never go into the rooms which shared adjacent walls with neighbors — the living room and the one the boys called the ‘attic’—  without permission.  “Movies were our window to the outside,” says Narayana, the second eldest. Like all his brothers he is exceedingly polite,  with a placid, thoughtful demeanor that bespeaks a childhood spent largely in his own head, but with a wilder performative side that first manifested itself in lavish at-home re-enactments of all their favorite movies —  Reservoir Dogs, Lord of the Rings, the Dark Knight — complete with astonishingly detailed home-made costumes and props fashioned from cereal boxes and yoga mats. “Sometimes I think of a lot of  our childhood as the Shawshank Redemption, where he says that there is that one place where they can't build walls around, one place that has no cages or cells, one part in you they could never touch. That's hope. And that's one place they can never get to. In our head, we could go wherever we wanted.” This is how they all speak, I realize when I meet the brothers  for breakfast one morning  for breakfast outside a cafe in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, not far from the family apartment: Describing their inner lives they can often sound like they are pitching a movie.  They are lovely lot on all number of counts, not least the seemingly decisive answer they seem to give to the oft-asked question “what happens to the human psyche on an uninterrupted diet of Quentin Tarantino movies, heavy metal and pizza?” The answer is rather more hopeful than you might think. By turns fascinating and fascinated, shy, smart, garrulous, charming, and thoughtful, the Angulo brothers give feral a good name.' — from my interview with the Wolfpack in The Daily Telegraph

Aug 14, 2015


'The actress Greta Gerwig has had same liberating effect for Noah Baumbach what Diane Keaton had for Woody Allen: she has opened him up, lending his films a giddy sense of release. Like Allen, Bambauch’s tendencies are eeyoreish: his characters, in films such as Greenberg and Margot at the Wedding, hyper-articulate   injustice collectors who play their nerves like violins.   But Frances Ha, Baumbach’s first film with Gerwig in 2012, about a young woman trying to find her footing in Manhattan, inhaled deeply of the French nouvelle vague — with it’s black and white cinematography, Georges Delerue on the soundtrack — and outlined in sketch form, a new type of screen heroine, a sort of Annie Hall for millenials: absent-minded, free-spirited and a little dizzy, half in love with her own failures, lolloping from one humiliation to the next as if they confirmed her refusal to join the adult world. The new film fills out the sketch, and adds a spirit of screwball farce — Howard Hawks for the sexting set.  There’s a still a hint of menace at the edges, but Gerwig’s loopy spirit has been allowed to fashion a whole world for her heroine, and the result is more of a piece — it hums and fizzes with the fitful energies of twentysomethings pushing excitedly forward into the world and holding back lest it take a bite out of them. Gerwig gives us a ditz in the manner of Carole Lombard and Judy Holliday but viewed with a touch more sad-sack pitilessness. Dressed in clothes that resemble a child’s raid on her aunts closet, Brooke seems permanently stuck at 21, too busy taking mental selfies of herself having eureka! moments to follow-through on any one of them. An interior designer who also dabbles in Soul-Cycle classes, she nurses plans for a Williamsburg restaurant called Moms, where she would also cut hair and teach cookery. Oh and it would also function as a community centre for like-minded lost souls. All this is delivered in a breathless tumble, with lots of waving as if she forgotten she had hands or where she last put them. "I'm gonna shorten that, punch it up, and turn it into a tweet",’ she says, crossing the street, but even  a tweet sounds beyond her — requiring too much follow-through.' — from my review for Intelligent Life

Aug 8, 2015

Best movies of 2015 so far

1. The Wolfpack
2. Mistress America
3. Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
4. Listen To Me Marlon
5. Inside Out
6. The Look of Silence
7. Mad Max: Fury Road
8. While We're Young
9. Ex Machina
10. It Follows

Aug 7, 2015


'The suspicion that the rest of mankind is lying to you is a keen insight in an actor and, at the same time, a recipe for great personal unhappiness. “The most mistrustful man I’ve ever met and the most watchful,” said the screenwriter Stewart Stern of Marlon Brando, a man who raised screen acting to new levels of truthfulness but recoiled from offers of love or friendship as if they were a lie. It’s not that he was gifted but troubled. The gifts were the trouble. Brando saw through everything. “The face can hide many things,” he says in a new documentary, “Listen to Me Marlon”, directed by Stevan Riley and drawing on 300 hours of personal tapes found in the actor’s Beverly Hills home, in which Brando ruminates on his fame, his talent, his failings as a father, voicing regret for a life he feels to have been largely wasted. “I searched but never found what I was looking for,” he confides in that familiar, plummy rasp, like King Lear with a head cold. “Mine was a glamorous life but completely unfulfilling.” The tapes are a performance, too, of course, maybe one of Brando’s best—by turns bawdy, wounded, sentimental, self-pitying, bewildered—much of it teetering on the edge of pseudo-philosophical profundity, like Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”. “All of you are actors, and good actors, because you’re all liars,” he says at one point. “You lie for peace, you lie for tranquility, you lie for love.” Newly arrived in New York with holes in his socks, Brando would position himself on Manhattan street corners, collecting faces as they passed, trying to divine their hidden thoughts and feelings. Faces were masks for Brando, and the film turns his into one too, using a series of Cyberware scans he had made of his face before his death to re-animate him into a floating head. We first see it, rotating and fritzing like a radio signal from beyond the grave, reciting the “sound and fury signifying nothing” soliloquy from “Macbeth”. The effect is spooky, shamanistic—powerful enough to give you goose bumps.' — From my review for Intelligent Life

Aug 6, 2015

So Farewell, Then: Jon Stewart

'There’s been a demob-happy, end-of-school looseness to Jon Stewart as he counts down the days to his final show on Thursday night. For one thing he has been counting, with undisguised glee, blowing kisses to Donald Trump not just for being a gift from the gods — “comedy entrapment” as he put it — but for helping push him across the finishing line. The restlessness he gave as a reason for leaving the show has started to show itself, and the raggedness has only further fuelled his candor. Doing a bit on Mike Huckabee’s characterization of Obama’s Iran deal as marching Israel “to the door of the ovens,” Stewart bypassed words altogether, miming slack-jawed amazement, eye-popping incredulity and Scooby-doo befuddlement (“Urrgh?”) in what amounted to a small masterclass of silent clowning. The idea for the bit seemed to come from Stewart’s dismay at having to write another eye-rolling commentary for another burst of Republican crazy-talk, depletion forcing further invention from him. Exhausted, he still riffs, in part because exhaustion is the correct response to a country in which a deal aimed at limiting the spread of nuclear weapons is compared the holocaust. American pop-culture success is dependent on doing two things extremely well: a very complicated thing and a very simple thing. The complicated thing that Stewart did well has been the subject of the many tributes comparing him to Edward R Murrow and A J Libeling. Stewart combed the broadcast pronouncements of America’s public figures, painstakingly researching their inconsistencies and teasing out their humbug in video montages that made their hypocrisy seem almost self-evident, then sat in frank, eye-rolling amazement at the low-hanging fruit with which he seemed to have been presented. By the end, so primed were the audience for his mugging that he shaved it down to the most minimal of expressions: a cocked eyebrow, a look of deadpan despair, a jowly double take.  Like Sloppy in Dickens Our Mutual Friend, he could “do the police in different voices” tending to   a small barnyard of favorite impressions, reducing Dick Cheney to a single quack, Bush to a Mutley-esque laugh (“heh-heh-heh”), and Trump to de Niro-esque New Joisey thug.' — from my farewell to Jon Stewart for The Economist

Jul 1, 2015

Face-to-face with cinema's Mona Lisa

'Collecting movie posters has always been among the more socially acceptable of cinema-related perversions. Above my desk hangs a 5-ft poster for Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film Something Wild, featuring a geometric rendering of two parted female legs by acclaimed Polish designer Andrzej Nowaczyk, not because I speak a word of Polish but because I have always wished for my writing career to proceed from a point equidistant between the knees of Melanie Griffiths’. “It was part of this urge or impulse to posses the cinema experience,” director Martin Scorsese once said of his own collection, begun in the 1970s and now numbering some 3,000 posters, 34 of which are currently on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as part of a show which runs until October entitled “Scorsese Collects”. The posters range from Raoul Walsh’s silent classic Regeneration (1915) to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) but the great majority hail from the 1940s and 1950s, when Scorsese was a teenage movie fanatic, marinading in flicks like Howard Hawk’s Gun Crazy (1950) or King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946) which he remembers for its “bright blasts of deliriously vibrant color, the gunshots, the savage intensity, the burning sun, the overt sexuality.” He was, at the time, just four years old, an age when most of us are taking in Bambi. And you wondered why Raging Bull is a little intense.' — from my piece for Intelligent Life

Coming soon to bookstores

Yes, it's time. My book on Woody Allen, whose 45-film ouevre tested but did not defeat my hardy completist impulses — bring it on! — is nearing bookshelves, arriving on September 28th in the UK and on October 20th in the US. I will also be appearing at the Port Eliot Literary Festival on August 1st talking on the subject 'Ten Things Woody Allen Has Done For You'  in the course of which I intend to touch on such personal favors to moviegoers as:— introducing Sylvester Stallone, employing Gordon Willis, and directing 6 actresses to 6 Oscars.

Jun 30, 2015

INTERVIEW: Laura Linney

'Linney has the droll, sympathetic manner of a veteran novelist: the kind of woman you might talk to all evening at a dinner party before realizing in the car on the way home you were the one who did all the yakking. That, you suspect, is how she likes it.  A theatre actress by training, she affects surprise and humility at her movie career, which has often found her playing the kind of women it might be easy to take for granted  — her struggling single mom in 2001’s You Can Count On Me, her devoted first lady in the HBO series John Adams — who nonetheless find themselves acting in a way which surprises them as much as everybody else. She makes mysteries of ordinary people.' — from my interview for Net-a-porter magazine

On my iPod June 29th 2015

1. Life's Work — The Weather Station
2. Vapour —Vancouver Sleep Clinic
3. The Only Thing Worth Fighting For — Lera Lynn
4. I Know I'm Not Wrong — Fleetwood Mac
5. A Field Of Birds — The Tallest Man on Earth
6. Diana Krall — Don't Dream It's Over
7. Depreston — Courney Barnett
8. Somebody Was Watching — Pops Staples
9. Primrose Green— Ryley Walker
10. Gracious — Bobby McFerrin

Jun 27, 2015

The origins of the summer blockbuster

'Not for nothing does the trailer for Jurassic World feature a 15-ton Monosaurus, rearing up from a Seaworld-style lagoon to devour a dangling Great White Shark, acting as bait. These days, Jaws counts as a pre-lunch snack. Jaws has become synonymous with wide openings but the chairman of Universal, Lew Wasserman, actually dropped the number of theatres the film played in from a proposed 900 to 409. Lew said  ‘I want you to drop three hundred of them. I want this picture to play all summer long. I don’t want people in Palm Springs to see the picture in Palm Springs. I want them to have to get in their cars and drive to see it in Hollywood,’” the film’s late producer Richard Zanuck told me before his death in 2012. “He was so fucking clever, because that’s exactly what happened.” In other words, the theatrical release of the original summer blockbuster benefited from the oldest trick in the book — artificially reducing supply to increase demand.  The film’s eventual 409 cinemas wasn't even closest to the widest opening —the year before, Warner Brothers had opened The Trial of Billy Jack on 1,000 screens and watched it take $89 million. And while Universal devoted $700,000 to promoting Jaws, the largest such expenditure in the studio’s history, Zanuck and partner David Brown’s insistence on using the same image of a shark’s head that adorned author Peter Benchley’s paperback, to cross-promote film and the book (“from the acclaimed bestseller by Peter Benchley…”) was a tactic borrowed from the playbook of producer Robert Evans, who had done the same with The Godfather and Love Story. “The making of a blockbuster  is the newest art-form of the 20th- century” Evans told Time magazine. The modern summer blockbuster owes as much to Ali McGraw saying “Love Means never having to say you're sorry” as it does Roy Scheider going “we’re going to need a bigger boat.”  
— from my piece on Blockbuster Strategies for the FT

Jun 22, 2015

REVIEW: INSIDE OUT (dir. Docter)

'Like all Pixar films, the new one seems both impossible when you first hear of it and inevitable once you’ve seen it. The neurological basis of emotions turns out to be a surprisingly good subject for an animated cartoon, the brightly personified emotions almost like mini-animators themselves, pulling levers and pushing buttons to retain control of Riley’s reactions as she negotiates the moody, unruly emotions of pre-adolescence, as joy and Sadness attempt to overcome their differences and return to base. It’s as if Docter were asking: what animates us? Some of his inventions are happier than others.  The Islands of Personality that mark the outer perimeter of Riley’s internal landscape  — Friendship Island, Family Island, Hockey Island, Goofball Island  — had a slightly anodyne, theme-park feel to them, and I was relieved to see them crumbling and slipping into the abyss, as Riley grows more sullen and withdrawn, like those cliffs tumbling into the sea at the end of Inception:  M C Escher meets The Beano... There is a transluscency to the film's ingenuity:  you can see the idea glowing beneath the skin of the movie, which at times resembles a live brainstorming session of the Pixar braintrust. What keeps it from the ever-present threat of abstraction and allows it to find deeper anchor is the increasing size of the role Docter gives sadness. I mean that literally: the actual size of the actual role given actual Sadness. Initially bossed around by the others — “I’m not actually sure what she does,” says Joy “I’ve checked” — Sadness comes into her own as they meet up with some of the discarded relics of Riley’s childhood, including  her old imaginary friend, Bing Bong, a pink elephant-like creature with cat-like whiskers who is destined for the memory dump and who taps into exactly the same melancholy thoughts of their inevitable obsolescence that drove the toys in Toy Story.' 
from my review of Inside Out for Intelligent Life

Jun 18, 2015


'Distinguishing the living from the dead has never been easy in this show. The dead refuse to depart and the living can’t wait to join them. The new season begins with a corpse leaving town, rather stylishly, in the backseat of a limo wearing shades, like a celebrity avoiding the paps.  That corpse leaves a trail that encircles Vaughn’s property deal, beckons us into the sound-proofed rooms and pleasure palaces of the porn industry, before spiraling, as is Pizzolatto’s wont, into the realm of higher metaphysics, the degradations of the human body leading naturally to the flights of its spirit: the third episode even features a Lynchian vision of the afterlife, complete with Paunchy Elvis impersonator.  “Am I supposed to solve this?”  asks Farrell at one point and you can only sympathize. The delicate balance struck by plot and atmospherics —between mysteries and mere mysteriousness — has tipped decisively towards the latter, with director Justin Lin patrolling the toxic wastelands and snaking freeways of outer Los Angeles from on high like a vengeful God on the hunt for sinners, the knot of concrete concourses below a perfect metaphor for the show’s Altmanesque character collisions and plot convolutions.  By the end of the third episode I had happily given up on forming even a basic set of working assumptions about what was going on, instead cleaving to the theory that the moral redemption sought out by each character is in directly proportional to the magnitude of career redemption desired by the actor playing him, minus the square root of the amount that otherwise would have been spent on hair and make-up. If movie stars looking as if they have just eaten something that disagreed with them is your thing, this is your series. Farrell is the clear winner here, with his stringy hair, droopy seventies-era moustache, and complexion a delicate shade of nicotine-gray. Unwilling to take the paternity test that will reveal if his raped ex-wife bore his son, beating up on the kid’s class-mates, Farrell’s Ray is a superb portrait of a man undergoing a comprehensive  spiritual rout. What’s missing so far is what drove the first show: a sense of evil so palpable you felt like you needed a bath after watching it. What we have so far is a snake trail of civic corruption like The Wire, but the political ire that drove that show is not Pizzolatto’s strong suit. His beef with the human race is more personal, intimate: he’s a moralist with an insatiable sweet tooth for moral rot. He wishes to bring no injustice to light; he wishes to join his sinners down in the dark His landscape is that of the fin-de-siecle decadents, those etiolated high priests of the high morbid manner Wilde, Baudelaire and Beardsley, with one foot in Poe’s house of horrors.' 
— from my review for Vogue.com

Jun 14, 2015

REVIEW: MR HOLMES (dir. Condon)

'In form, Mr Holmes approximates the cosy contours of the biopic — there are choo-choo trains, Bentleys, starched collars and walled gardens  — except of course that Holmes is fictional and this lends the film some acuity as an act of literary deconstruction. In place of deerstalker and pipe, we get a top hat and cigar; the books, penned here by Dr Watson, are disdained as “penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style” by Holmes, who, for an afternoon’s amusement, sits in the cinema, scoffing at the films made of his adventures. Even better is the small, furtive glance McKellen gives around the cinema, post-scoff, to check he hasn't drawn attention to himself — a lovely touch of scampishness in which his isolation can nevertheless be felt. This Holmes is selfish, boyish, privately panicked, sometimes cruel, each note played by McKellen with invisible fingers — the maestro barely touching the keys. Like many of our greatest Shakespeareans, his screen-career has been intermittent and late-breaking.  Olivier and Burton made it as young men, but on the whole Hollywood prefers to let English thespians simmer in their own juices until such time as they can be ‘discovered’ in middle age — ready-made institutions. Just add the right role and stir.  McKellan was a striking beauty as a young man, his face somewhere between the pouty impudence of Keith Richards and the low-lidded sultriness of Charlotte Rampling, but it wasn’t until 1993, when McKellan was 54, that Hollywood perked up. He appeared in four films that year, including a small part in Last Action Hero as Death, come to shuffle Arnold Schwarzenegger from this mortal coil. The link between Shakespeare and Schwarzenegger may not be immediately apparent, McKellan’s subsequent career illuminated a new path for RSC-trained actors in the brave, new wonderland of digital special effects, in which the very laws of physics seen to shimmer on command: providing the voices with the authority of issuing those commands.' — from my review in Intelligent Life

Jun 3, 2015


'You remember the scene. Taking a break from dropping chum into the ocean to lure their rogue shark into the open, Quint, the barrel-chested blowhard, sinks a can of beer and then, fixing Hooper—Dreyfus’s rich-kid oceanographer—with a stare worthy of the Ancient Mariner, crushes it. Hooper, fixing his nemesis with an equally piercing stare, lifts the Styrofoam cup he has in his hand and crushes that. Barrel-chested displays of machismo: 0. Self-deprecating beta-male irony: 1.  That single moment tells you why the “Jaws” anniversary is worth celebrating. The film’s big scare moments may have lost a little of their bite, certainly on the small screen. But still going strong, after all these years, are the film’s fillets of character, often expressed with sight gags: the Styrofoam-cup versus beer-can crushing scene, or the one where the police chief, Brody (Roy Scheider), slowly realises his son is copying his every gesture at the dinner table—his chin rested on his fist, then steepling his fingers, then cradling his face. Both moments came out of the enforced improv sessions Spielberg held with his actors while his mechanical shark wasn’t working. Both moments play out wordlessly, as all the best moments in Spielberg do: the UFO-in-the-rearview mirror gag in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, or E.T.s touching of fingers with Eliot in “E.T. The Extraterrestial”. They reinforce our sense that the director’s real progenitors in “Jaws” was not so much Hitchcock, and still less Herman Melville, as Charlie Chaplin.' — from my piece for Intelligent Life

Jun 2, 2015


'Stars Wars was a battle which landed Lucas in hospital and it shows: there’s fight in the picture. Everywhere you looked you saw marvels  —hammer-headed aliens, high-speed dogfights, light sabres and landspeeders twin suns and detonating moons — all filmed by a director who couldn’t wait to get from one end of his freshly-summoned universe to the other, featuring characters who reserved for these marvels the disdain you or I might reserve for our crappy old cars of a Monday morning.   “What a piece of junk!” exclaims Luke. “She may not look like much,” replies Han Solo, “but she’s got it where it counts, kid, I made a few modification to her myself” — an exchange of dialogue that provides such a neat summary of critical opinion on the film that you wonder why critics in 1977 didn’t simply put their feet up and leave the film to review itself. Junk is everything to Star Wars. The Jawas deal in junk. The droids are sold as junk.  Our heroes are delivered as junk into the death star’s trash compactor, the death star being the only new piece of technology on display and therefore sign enough of its nefariousness: the Empire are the only people in the galaxy not to have heard of recycling. Everyone else tinkers and modifies, retrofits, recycles and retools. If the vast, multi-billion dollar franchise that Star Wars spawned can be boiled down to a single insight on Lucas’s part, it is this one: that the exact same feeling of slightly crabby, proprietorial fondness Han Solo nurses for the Millenium Falcon was going to be one people would be feeling a lot more in the years to come. They would feel it for their computers, their Ataris, their Apples, their x-boxes, their iPhones and iPads.  That we even have a relationship with technology was, in 1977, news. Lucas took that feeling and on it he built an empire.' — from my review for the New Statesman 

May 17, 2015


'Who knew the Elephant Man was so good for a laugh? As is traditional for stage actors playing Joseph Merrick, the circus freak briefly feted by Victorian high society before his death, at age 27, in 1890, the movie actor Bradley Cooper uses no prostheses to play the part, instead using his body’s putty-like powers — gait, posture, diction — to suggest Merrick’s monstrous deformity. Stood on stage of the Booth theatre on Manhattan’s 45th street in no more than a loin cloth, the star most famous for his roles in Silver Linings Playbook and American Sniper twists his body like a gnarled old branch, one arm going entirely dead, one hip dropping and leaving most of his weight on a cane, his mouth crunched up on one side of his face, so that his words slurp out of one corner, like water around a plughole. And what emerges? Unlikely as it may sound, but: Jokes. Not funny har-har jokes. Not thigh-slappers. Not rib ticklers. But oblique, waspish observations on the hypocrisies of the Victorian society that has so embraced him.     “If your mercy is so cruel,” wonders Merrick of an orderly’s firing, “what do you have for justice?”   There are many actors in attendance on the night I see the show — including Michael Sheen, Sara Paulson and Billy Crudup, who last played the role on Broadway, here presumably to see how the new boy fares. Crudup, Mark Hamill and David Bowie and have all taken on the role. In the 1980 David Lynch movie John Hurt played Merrick as a naïf, almost childlike in his eagerness to be patronized, grateful for the human contact it brought him, but Cooper locates an element of irony in his rasping diction, and offers mild, glancing rebuke to the bishops, aristocrats and assorted dignitaries gathered around him. He makes Merrick a wit.' — from my interview with Bradley Cooper for the Sunday Times

May 16, 2015

When playing yourself is playing a part

'It is perhaps telling that in both instances — The Act of Killing and The Man Who Saved the World — a departure from strict fly-on-the-wall methods was necessitated, or went hand on hand, with the task of overcoming the resistance of subjects hardened by repressive regimes: Russian and communist Indonesia. Verite turns out to be a poor tool for penetrating ideology.  “Its like an onion,” says Peter Anthony of trying to unravel the grumpy and frequently drunk Colonel Petrov. “You want to peel off all these layers and get to the middle.” And what did he find? At times reluctant to act out conversations for the cameras, he gradually warmed the process. Indeed, after spending some time with a German experimental theatre troop, who heard of Petrov’s story and took him on tour with them as part of an anti-war theatre piece,  “He came back very different,” says The Man Who Saved The World’s producer Jakob Staberg. “Before he would shoot a scene and complain  ‘I’m not an actor’ when he thought Peter was being too demanding. After he came back from playing theater he would say ‘okay Peter now my character, I would say this…’ and had long discussions about how she should pronounce different words. His late wife used to be a projectionist screening 35 mm films in military base. He loved going to the movies. Maybe that’s one of the reasons he became a part of out film. He got to be the star of his own movie.  The Russian actor playing him as a young man said, ‘his acting is better than mine.’ He had tears in his eyes. ‘He’s amazing.’”' — from my piece about documentary truth for the Financial Times

My movie of the summer....


"It’s been a while since we checked in with Connelly, last seen laboring through a series of rom-comish dramas  He’s Just Not that Into You, Stuck on You, The Dilemma — wearing the expression of Antigone making conversation at a tupperware party. She took a couple of years off from acting to have her daughter, Agnes, but returned to screens last year in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, playing Noah’s wife Nameeh, fighting for her children’s life as the heavens opened... This month sees the release of Aloft, Connelly’s film with Llosa, a mix of mystical allegory, handheld cinematography and subzero temperatures, in which Connelly plays a mother of two sons on the periphery of the Arctic circle who is drawn into the company of faith healers after tragedy strikes at the heart of her family. Put it together with Noah and Shelter, her forthcoming drama about homelessness in which she was directed by husband Paul Bettany, and you have a trio of films pitting Connelly against the elements, scratching out an existence beneath glowering skies. No question: she is in survival mode.   At 44, her beauty has shed whatever air of sultriness it had in her twnties and bedded down into something altogether more purified, striated, fierce. In Aloft those green eyes seem to contain their own arctic storms." — from my profile for Town and Country magazine