Oct 31, 2009

Portrait of a marriage

"AS A FIRST-TIME candidate, Barack could be stiff; friends remember him talking to voters with his arms folded, looking defensive. Michelle warmed everyone up, including her husband. 'She is really Bill, and he is really Hillary' one friend recently put it” — New York Times magazine

Happy Halloween

David Brooks: peace is boring, war is exciting!

I AM A big admirer of David Brooks, whose columns on Obama are generally perspicacious. His latest column on the war on Afghanistan is, though, foolish. "For the past few days I have tried to do what journalists are supposed to do," he starts. Intriguing. What is this much-vaunted task? It turns out to mean calling a bunch of his neocon chums from the American Enterprise Institute and The Brookings Institution and then quoting their views at length, without attribution.

"Their first concerns are about Obama the man. They know he is intellectually sophisticated. They know he is capable of processing complicated arguments and weighing nuanced evidence. But they do not know if he possesses the trait that is more important than intellectual sophistication and, in fact, stands in tension with it. They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. They do not know if he possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree."

At least he's honest. In the battle between tenacity and sophistication, obstinacy and complexity, fixation and nuance, we now know that where Brooks stands. He's on the side of fixation and obstinacy — sophistication, complexity and nuance be damned! Obama must "fixate" on the "simple conviction 'that the war is winnable' and grip it viscerally and unflinchingly" I was particularly struck by his use of the word "viscerally". It is true, war is more visceral than peace. If its viscera you're after, peace definitely disappoints. War delivers on viscera. Brooks is something of a dab hand at dispensing this kind of advice. From his column in The Weekly Standard, March 10, 2003:

"In certain circles, it is not only important what opinion you hold, but how you hold it. It is important to be seen dancing with complexity, sliding among shades of gray. Any poor rube can come to a simple conclusion -- that President Saddam Hussein is a menace who must be disarmed--but the refined ratiocinators want to be seen luxuriating amid the difficulties, donning the jewels of nuance, even to the point of self-paralysis.

"The president has remained resolute. Momentum to liberate Iraq continues to build. The situation has clarified, and history will allow clear judgments about which leaders and which institutions were up to the challenge posed by Saddam and which were not. What matters, and what ultimately sprang the U.N. trap, is American resolve. The administration simply wouldn't let up... It was and is sheer relentlessness that has driven us to where we are today

How well that turned out. And yet Brooks displays not the slightest self consciousness about recommending the exact same course of action today: unthinking, nuance-free "visceral" military escalation. In other words: Don't think! Wage war!

"The experts I spoke with describe a vacuum at the heart of the war effort — a determination vacuum. And if these experts do not know the state of President Obama’s resolve, neither do the Afghan villagers."

The vacuum he speaks of is real enough but it's got nothing to do with determination. It's to do with our purpose there. Brooks should pay attention to that lack rather than rushing to fill it with weepy machismo about Churchill, school yard taunts about "tenacity"* and appeals for the more "visceral" course. War is undeniably exciting. That's not reason enough to wage it. Thinking is definitely boring. That's not reason enough not to do it.

Oct 30, 2009

Scorsese's top horror movies

MARTIN SCORSESE HAS chosen his favorite horror movies for the Daily Beast. The list has a distinct case of the cobwebs and lace curtains. There's a couple of haunted house pics, The Changeling and Robert Wise's The Haunting (“You may not believe in ghosts but you cannot deny terror!”), a couple of hoary English classics, Dead of the Night and The Uninvited ("the tone is very delicate, and the sense of fear is woven into the setting, the gentility of the characters"), Val Newton's fusty Isle Of The Dead, Jack Clayton's adaptation of Henry James Turn of the Screw, The Innocents, Jacques Tourneur's Night Of The Demon, the Barbara Hershey sex-possession pic The Entity, plus Kubrick's The Shining, Friedkin's The Exorcist and Hitchcock's Psycho. The British pics and haunted house stuff don't do it for me; readers of this blog will know I can be a little heartless when it comes to old horror movies. I would have included Halloween, the purest fright-machine I know, The Sixth Sense or Jacob's Ladder for their emotional punch, The Brood, which is my favorite Cronenberg, Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Omen and Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. No horror movie from before 1967, anyway. I can't be scared by stuff made before I was born. I can try but it just doesn't work. Same with comedy.

Oct 29, 2009

How to win a war: stop paying the Taliban

The CIA has been funnelling money into the pockets of President Karzai's brother, Ahmed. Ahmed is involved in the heroin trade. The heroin trade funds the Taliban. How much American money has found it's way to the Taliban? What. A. F. Mess.

Anyone want an Oscar for Sam Rockwell?

There's a grass roots petition you can sign to get Sam Rockwell Oscar nominated for his performance in Duncan Campbell's Moon. There's even a t-shirt. Count me in: Rockwell is this blog's favorite actor at the moment.

Oct 28, 2009

"We are spending ourselves into oblivion"

"I find specious the reasons we ask for bloodshed and sacrifice from our young men and women in Afghanistan. If honest, our stated strategy of securing Afghanistan and al-Qaeda resurgence or regrouping would require us to additionally invade and occupy western Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, etc. Our presence in Afghanistan has only increased destabilization and insurgency in Pakistan where we rightly fear a toppled or weakened government may lose control of its nuclear weapons. However, again, to follow the logic of our stated goals, we should garrison Pakistan not Afghanistan. More so, the September 11th attacks, as well as the London and Madrid bombings, were primarily planned and organised in Western Europe, a point that highlights the threat is not one tied to traditional geographic of political boundaries... We are spending ourselves into oblivion." — from the resignation letter of Senior Civilian Representative, Marine Captain Mathew P. Hoh
This is the way Empires always end, with horrified onlookers unable to do anything to stop it. Each event seems inevitable at the time, each choice a 'slam dunk,' to use George Tenet's phrase, and yet in totality progressing inevitably to ruin. The political interests in continuing the war are simply too great to resist, even though it has weak public support, costs $65 billion to maintain a force of 68,000 troops, with each additional 1,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan costing about $1 billion a year. The machine cannot be stopped.
"The decline of Rome was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the cause of the destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident and removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. The story of the ruin is simple and obvious: and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed we should rather be surprised that it has subsisted for so long." — Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 2nd ed., vol. 4

A man of no opinions

Since I started blogging I've found I have opinions on many more things than I would have thought possible. Who would be the best presenter for the Oscars. Why we cant get out of Afghanistan fast enough. Whether Obama is over-exposed. Which Shirley MacLaine movie I like the best. It's always nice to know what you think, of course, but I wonder if it is healthy in the long run. You have an opinion and suddenly you have one more thing to be wrong about. You have more territory to defend and fret over. It's actually quite worrisome having opinions. I wonder what would happen if set myself the task of reducing the number of my opinions to zero. Not in one go of course. Like all de-escalations, it would have to be undertaken with great care. Let's say I have somewhere in the region of half a million opinions, ranging from the big (we can't get out of Afghanistan fast enough) to the infinitesimal (I like the smell of suntan lotion). Say I get that down to a few hundred thousand, and from there get it down to maybe a few thousand. I bet you I wouldn't be any dumber. I'd just be a man if fewer words, who people called up about only the most important things, like a mixture of Hegel and Clint Eastwood. Then say I got it down to a few hundred, or even a few dozen. A few dozen opinions. It gives me the chills just thinking about it. I wonder what the opinions would be about? They'd probably be quite basic things, verging on the instinctive and old-timerish, like "thank God for reduced fat milk," or "that's not going to end well." And there I'd get it down to just the one. One opinion. What would that be? The quintessence of a lifetime of opinionating. My most stubborn thought. The last to go. I wonder. "Celebrities who adopt African children mistake the passing thrill of charity for a lifetime commitment to raising a child," maybe. Or, "I hope nobody asks me about Sarah Palin."

Di Caprio! Bah! Hambug!

"This man has lived. Whereas, Leonardo DiCaprio is a boy still... Our actors these days don't age much – and they certainly don't mature. So how is Leonardo (so used to being lovable) going to find the nerve to be Lime without immense stupidity on his side? But then I looked it up. In 1948, when Orson made The Third Man, he was thirty-three – DiCaprio is already thirty-five! What better proof could there be of my just-mentioned principle that we are in an age of pod actors, not subject to ordinary human processes like ageing, thinking and worrying? " — David Thomson in high dudgeon about the news that Leonardo di Caprio may be starring in a remake of The Third Man
Nobody sings the blues like Thomson but this is mere humbuggery. Leonardo di Caprio "so used to being lovable"? Is he kidding? Di Caprio's career has been largely sidetracked by his peevish flight from matinee idol status, covering himself in accents and beards and dung beatles and God knows what for the likes of Martin Scorsese. Why? Because of snobbery like Thomson's! "Pod actors, not subject to the ordinary human processes like ageing, thinking and worrying." Why in other words, will 35-year-old actors not act more like 65-year-old film critics? Critics are particularly fond of this reverse telescope trick, because it always works. 'Why do they not make 'em like they used to? Where is today's Katherine Hepburn?' The argument works even with bad people. 'Why have we no Lawrence Olivier? What is our Robert Redford?' An argument that cannot lose is an argument that is saying nothing.

Why Dick Cheney can't seem to shut up

"Our research suggests that torture may not uncover guilt so much as lead to its perception. It is as though people who know of the victim's pain must somehow convince themselves that it was a good idea -- and so come to believe that the person who was tortured deserved it. On the other hand, those distant from torture have no need to justify it and so can sympathize with the suffering of the victim, linking pain to innocence." — Kurt Gray, Science Daily

Beautiful fiddly synth music

A new Imogen Heap album, thus confirming that girls can do beautiful, fiddly synth music that's too clever for its own good just as well as boys, if not better. My wife calls it here-I-am-with-all-my-German-friends music. I haven't had so much fun since I rediscovered the 12" of Visage's Fade to Grey. On the one hand I am pleased: company, after all these years! On the other hand, there's something a little bit disheartening about it. After all, I was kind of relying on the girls to put a stop to this kind of thing and make me listen to proper music with guitars and real people singing about real things like breaking up. Now they're just as wired as we are. How will I ever get out of the house?

Oct 27, 2009

David Lynch's son has been up to something

"Jason and I were sitting together one day at the kitchen table when the idea for Interview Project struck us. We were very excited by the idea of travelling throughout the United States and simply talking to people about their lives. Shortly thereafter, we approached my dad with the idea." — Austin Lynch, The Guardian
David Lynch's son, Austin, together with a friend of his named Jason S, recently traveled across the U.S. for 70 days, interviewing random people they picked off the street. Now entitled Interview Project, it is being released, piece by piece, over at davidlynch.com.

Heavy metal — 25 years of The Terminator

"Action movies are bad for you. You must know that. Everyone knows it to be true. “It's as bright, shiny and noisy as a video game, and so fast-paced that even bogus thrills count,” New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote of Die Hard, when it was released in 1988 “It leaves no trace whatsoever. It's an utterly silly movie that ... renders even basic reasoning skills superfluous... [it] has the form of a movie, one made with a great many sophisticated skills, but it works on the audience less as a coherent movie than as an amusement park ride.” The only problem with this view — leaving aside for a second the fact that DieHard turned out to be one of the best films of the eighties, let alone action movies, a national treasure of coherence, sophistication, reasoning, etc — is that DieHard happens to agree with you, too. DieHard knows its bad for you. It says so. “Just another American who saw too many movies as a child. Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne... Rambo...” taunts Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). “Actually I was always partial to Roy Rogers myself” responds John McClane (Bruce Willis), like the good film historian we all are these days.

When did this happen? When did the action movie reach this startling degree of debonaire belligerence, such no-flies-on-me swank? When did everyone get so wise? In the seventies, the job of action director was essentially a speciality act, a renegade career-path, the province of lone wolfs like Walter Hill and Don Siegel — tough, leathery types who peeled off from the Hollywood pack to pay their silent debt to Sam Peckinpah and Howard Hawks with movies that were set in the city — The Taking of Pelham 123, The Driver, The French Connection — but which felt like Westerns, lean and loping, with hides like an old boot. In the eighties, everyone joined in. Action movie-making became a loud, raucous party, much closer to the suburbs of Hollywood, if not bang-smack in the middle of it, with a lunch-time booking at Spago’s, thronged with young pups fresh from the world of advertising or pop videos, where they had honed their editing skills to within passing semblance of the skills necessary to shoot action. In the process, the action movie would undergo a complete makeover, losing its air of civic sweat and moral unease, to make way for a brasher, bright air of hard-edged modernity. Heroes who probed the thin fault line between cop and vigilante (The French Connection, Dirty Harry), became cops who enthusiastically trounced you for a parking ticket (48 Hours, Lethal Weapon); action heroes with a lurking resemblance to inhuman automatons, became inhuman automatons (Robocop). Villains who were terrorists (The Enforcer) gave way to villains who only pretended to be terrorists, in order to pull of a high-end bank heist (Die Hard), and from being people the audience called “the bad guys” to people the film’s heroes referred to as “the bad guys”.

Above all, the dress code for American movies were about to undergo its biggest overhaul since tuxes and tails went out in the forties. It was to be out with Spielberg’s bathers in their skimpy beachwear, or Sylvester Stallone, baring his flesh like a saint approaching annunciation, and in with Robocop in his full metal jacket. The daringly low neck-line of Superman was about to give way to the full body armour of Batman; Indy’s rumpled civvies to Tom Cruise’s crisp white Navy uniforms; the sight of Ripley in her panties — from which we all, quite frankly, needed to move on — to that of Ripley strapped into her power-loader. Even Bruce Willis — doing his bit for bare-chested machismo — would seek modest cover in the form of his ever-darkening vest. In short, the age of flesh-tones — and all the pink vulnerability they signified — was over. Hollywood’s Heavy Metal age was about to begin.

The exact point at which everything changed is hard to determine, but if you had to pick the point where the era of Dirty Harry made way for the era of DieHard, you would, I think, want to pick Jim Cameron’s Tarzana apartment in the spring of 1983; and in particular the point exactly midway between the Rambo desk and The Terminator desk. Cameron would later disown Rambo, saying, “the action was mine, the politics is Stallone’s” and indeed, his draft has a breezier snap to it, with John Rambo bundling out of a Blackbird spy plane and and freefalling 70,000 feet. He also rectified a glaring oversight of the first movie, First Blood, in which Vietnam vet John Rambo is hunted by his own military commanders to within an inch of his life, but signally fails to take anyone else’s. Must have been a typing error. In Rambo, he makes up for lost time, enthusiastically ploughing through villages, mowing down armies, and swatting helicopters from the skies like flies. A one-man biochemical army, a porcupine of bristling muzzles and barrels, this John Rambo is “A pure fighting machine with only one desire... No fear. No regrets...” Would that this were true. In Sylvester Stallone’s hands, John Rambo turns into one big bag of regrets, sauced with self-pity and mixed up into one big trembling martyr, peeking out from behind his wall of weaponry with a stare closely modelled on a recently-orphaned Basset hound. It was basically Rocky-in-a-bandana — a noble punch bag, masochistically soaking up punishment on behalf of a demoralised nation, a noble brute with his mind on higher matters. ”The mind is the greatest weapon” says Rambo, before strapping some beefy rocket launchers to his torso, in case his mind wanders.

The mistake, as hindsight now makes clear, was to give him a mind at all, and to root that ruthlessness is anything resembling human psychology. Who needed it? How much more effectively that power chord (“no fear no regrets”) plays when it glances off the sleek chrome surfaces of The Terminator, where it appears again, but this time stripped of its bandana and its sweaty geopolitics: “It doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop, ever.” Where Rambo started out a fighting machine and ended up fleshy punch-bag, the Terminator takes the opposite course, starting out as a semblance of a human being, whose flesh peels away to reveal a chassis of gleaming exo-skeleton — or as the script puts it, “Death rendered in steel.” The evolution of the anti- hero in American film is a little like the search for the basic building blocks of matter conducted by physicists at the start of the last century — first molecules, then atoms, then neutrons, then neutrinos, quarks and so on, as each seemingly irreducible element is split into something even more compact and durable, each baseline assumption collapsing into yet another fresh start. Audiences thought Robert Mitchum a little thuggish and taciturn, but he was a model of garrulity when set next to Lee Marvin; and those who thought Marvin a little hard to read would find him an open book compared to Clint Eastwood came along... and so on down the chain, endlessly ramifying, endlessly subdividing.

Until you hit the Terminator: speaking only 74 words and killing 24 people, Cameron’s creation remains the closest anyone has come to locating cinema’s answer to the unsplittable atom, cinematic base-matter. I could be wrong. In fact precedent suggests that one day a director will in fact introduce a character who simply walks on screen, says nothing and blows up; but until that day, the Terminator remains an unsurpassed model of ruthless implacability. Other directors would attempt to spark up a little chemistry between the Austrian and his-co stars — striking matches off the monolith — but the key to Schwarzenegger is not chemistry, but physics. Cameron would stand over him issuing instructions — “I want you to lay there, Arnold, then when I tell you I want you to start lifting up with your head, then your shoulders, then I want you to sit up, then I want you to look straight ahead’ — and if anything went wrong, he would explode. “He was like an encyclopaedia of technology, and if a shot was a half inch off the way he visualised it, he would go crazy,” said Schwarzenegger. “I would do a scene and would ask him how it was. He’d say something like, ‘It was disastrous, but probably a human being could do no worse.’ He was talking to me like I was the Terminator. It got pretty freaky at times.”

The best advice on dealing with the director came from actor Michael Beihn. “You don’t fuck with his movies,” he said. “When he throws a tantrum, it’s almost like the movie is throwing a tantrum.” A sobering thought, for The Terminator is not a movie you would wish to pick a fight with. If Rambo was a movie in a sulk, then The Terminator is a movie in a rage, a drama of almost messianic self-announcement — Mein Kampf as rewritten by J G Ballard — in which disbelievers are punished with a swift death, while the future takes shape around them; it is a heavy metal hymn to the textures of chrome and concrete, all specified with glinting exactitude in Cameron’s script, from the Hunter-Killer, mobile ground units (“a blast-scarred Chrome leviathan with hydraulic arms folded mantis like against its torso”), to the “phased plasma pulse-rifles in the 40-watt range”. It’s all there on the page, like manifest destiny awaiting hook-up: “Sarah dodges to one side and LOCKS THE BRAKES. The bike slides, fish-tailing. The truck roars past, hitting the air brakes.” If you didn’t know that before he made films, Cameron drove trucks for a living, and that before he drove trucks, he studied physics, you would be able to guess, I think, from that. What the what the speeding fighter was to George Lucas, and the airborne bicycle was to Spielberg, the skidding 18-wheel kenworth tanker is to Jim Cameron. In Terminator 2, Arnie would even surf one down the highway — a vision of juggernaut cool, and as close to a heraldic image as the Cameron oeuvre possesses."

— reprinted from my book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (2004)

Hedging their Bets (warning, spoilers)

Season 3 of Mad Men seems to have finally found its feet. So far this season, the writing's been okayish, with a lot of that non-comittal noodling in the manner of TV dramas, the worst offender being the episode where the new British overlord arrived — remember him? — only to be sent packing by a rogue mower. But with the end of the season fast approaching, the writers have finally started to dole out a few Big Dramatic Events, the biggest and most dramatic being Betsy's discovery of Don's secret. Betsy never looked better, in her polite but firm roll-neck sweater (no oggling me, buster) while Don shakily lit his cigarette. But the writers hedged their bets long ago: the whole secret identity thing is so weirdly callibrated, with no real victim, and a perfectly understandable motive. It's a shadowless crime. Hard to know what to make of it, and certainly not worth leaving your husband for. Whether Don sticks around is another reason. In my limited experience of this things, people keep secrets out of all-devouring, ground-splitting shame. If that secret is prematurely disinterred by A N Other, that other had better watch her neck. Betsy stands a very good chance of becoming someone whose eyes Don cannot bear to meet. I wish they'd shown him eyeing the exit — more cornered animal. Teach was waiting in the car after all. I loved her heartbreak. And how delighted I am to hear Joanie's hubbie is Vietnam-bound. Roll on, Tet offensive! For now, the flower pot to the back of the head will have to do.

Oct 26, 2009

The essence of Wes

"Anderson's renown as a director when, in 200. at the age of 30. on the basis of his first two films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, he was named 'the next Scorsese' by Martin Scorsese himself, writing in Esquire. Scorsese was right in one respect: Anderson's first films like Scorsese's, introduced to cinema a new tone, a new mood. But it was hardly the tone or mood of early Scorsese. Anderson's characters are rarely violent or even particularly demonstrative; their dialogue is understatedly droll, and their behaviour is at once quietly idiosycrantic and startlingly sincere. The performances are controlled, tamped down. The action takes place amid eye-catching decors and anachronistic furnishings. The scripts offer a winking catalogue of inside movie references, and the soundtracks are replete with a carefully curated collections of recordings, heavy on British Invasion Classics. Anderson frame his images simply; their straightforward precision betrays a skeptical, comic edge and a zone of reserve. His emotional investment in his characters is offset by engaging antics that deflect bathos and refine dark and painful doings to a sharp, single point" — Richard Brody, The New Yorker
A brave and largely successful attempt to distill the essence of Wes. There's only two things I'd take issue with; first, the idea that the films are a "winking catalogue" of movie references. If so, they've flown over my head. I suppose Bill Murray stepping into the pool in Rushmore is reminscent of Dustin Hoffman lurking at the bottom of the pool in The Graduate. On the whole, though, I'd say that Anderson's movies are mercifully free of this kind of stuff, and that cineastes tend to be a little trigger-happy when spotting it.

Also there are more similarities with early Scorsese than he finds. "It was hardly the tone or mood of early Scorsese. Anderson's characters are rarely violent or even particularly demonstrative." It depends what you mean by "early Scorsese" I guess. If you include Taxi driver in the mix the analogy completely collapses, but I would say Anderson's tone is very close to the skittering Oedipal screwball at of Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and the boisterous verbal scat of Mean Streets. I would say tone and mood are what unites the two directors. I was delighted by Scorsese's fan latter to Anderson, as much for what it said about him as it said about his protogee.

But on the whole: good job. I've had the misfortune to review only one of Anderson's films, The Royal Tenenbaums, and found it nearly impossible. Trying to nail down all that quicksilver drollery, I managed only a clobbered thumb.

Oct 25, 2009

America and Iran: drop the rock

"We insist on stopping something that we do not have the means to stop, and we are defining our relationship with Iran according to whether or not Iran ceases doing something it is never going to cease doing." — Daniel Larison, The American Conservative
I agree, but then what do I know: I don't even see why Iran isn't allowed to have nuclear weapons. I get why this would disadvantageous to U.S. interests, but don't see why Iran should act in the best interests of another country. What's the argument we're using? "We'd really really like it if you stopped what you're doing and did something else instead"?

Why The Wild Things Weren't

I've been thinking so more about why Where The Wild Things Are didn't really satisfy me. It has to do with the fact that monsters are so depressed, I think. Normally when people are depressed it's because they're angry but can't express it. The wild things, thought, have no problems expressing their anger. They're wild things. They punch holes trees and smash up each other's houses. It didn't make any sense that underneath it all they're really depressed. Its backwards. The other way around would have made more sense: Max goes to the island and finds the monsters mooching and morose, and then teaches them how to be angry again. Or better still: underneath it all, they're actually frightened. That's what everyone always tells me anyway, that beneath all anger is fear. I can see why Dave Eggars went for sadness: it's a more picturesque, literary emotion. Fear is a lot more primal; admitting to it is a lot harder. But it's where that movie should have ended up, with Max and the monsters working out what was really scaring the bejesus out of them.

Oct 23, 2009

Quote of the day

'Women: intrinsically evil or tragically misunderstood? If this strikes you as a fruitful topic of discussion, then you may wish to see — or perhaps I should say endure — Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist,”' — A O Scott, NYT

Precious: not a great film, just a good one

Precious is as good as a movie can get with a mediocre director. Much of it is powerful and compassionate. Gabby Sidibe's presence in the movie — and it is a presence, more than a performance — is formidable, her face impassive, her eyes almost closed. It's an unforgettable portrait of a girl locked into both her body and the direness of her circumstances. When Precious moves around the class-room, everyone watches the edges of their desks; when her mother rains down blows upon her, her sullen features become a kind of stoic mask. The scenes in her home in the projects — where Mom sits smoking, watching TV, while pig's feet boil on the stove — offer a vision of dereliction as indelible as anything in The Wire. Its gritty, raw, unflinching etc etc. Where the film starts to go wrong are the fantasy sequences that the director Lee Daniels has adorned his film, showing Precious in excelsis, revelling in boyfriends, flashbulbs and all sorts of fabulosity. I can see why he was tempted to include these sequences, as a reprieve from an otherwise unrelenting diet of of rape and molestation — it gives the film that Slumdog mix of glitter and grunge — but it was a mistake, both aesthetically and psychologically. For one thing these sequences expose Sidibe's limitations as an actress: at the point when the film should be most lyrical, all we see is a pudding in a sparkly dress. They also cut in in the clunkiest fashion, at the very moment when Precious is being most abused, as if to reinforce the point that it is only through fantasy that she can escape. Uh-uh. Maybe in the privacy of her bedroom, late at night, as she fends off tears, she might comfort herself with fantasy, but not in the moment, as she is being shoved down onto the sidewalk, as she is being raped, as Daniels has it here. On the evidence of this film (I haven't seen the others), he is a daring, provocative and tremendously unsubtle director. During another sequence, in which Precious stumblingly reads from a picture book, Daniels cuts back to her rape again, in order to make the point that it is problems at home that are causing her educational retardation. Does he honestly think we might have forgotten? As for the performances, Monique is genuinely and unsettlingly vile; the woman who plays the teacher is too dewy-eyed (she acts every scene as if she's internalised the mantra: beauty is within) but it is Maria Carey (above) who was the revelation for me. She doesn't get any big speeches, or even that many scenes, but the social worker she plays brings a wonderful, low-key curiousity to the film. I believed every second of her.

Oscar chances: nominations for best film, best adapted screenplay, best actress and best supporting actress, with a win in the latter for Monique. I have to say, though: this film scares me. It has all the right ingredients to be the Susan Boyle of the Oscars. The academy voters like nothing better than to catch themselves in a self-conscious act of charity.

Oct 22, 2009

Where has the audience for the Oscars gone?

From Defamer's guide to improving the Oscar telecast:
The reason why the Golden Globes have held their own against the declining Oscars is liquor. The dinner setting of the Globes show has traditionally meant well-lubricated winners making some of the more free-wheeling, demented speeches of awards season. Well, two can play at that game. Mandatory tequila shots and forced picks from the mystery wheel of amphetamines for all attendees.
Host: Jack Nicholson
Producer: Ben Silverman
Ideal Best Picture Winner: Couples Retreat
Opening Number: Stars careen to their seats on a giant Slip ‘n Slide placed down the aisle.
To anyone who lives outside of Los Angeles, annual hand-wringing that goes on over the audiences numbers of the Oscars is bizarre and even a little comic. It's not like it's a sitcom, or an HBO series or anything that requires people to tune in regularly. They are agonising over the demographics of a once-a-year TV program but manage to make it sound as if the fate of Hollywood itself hangs in the balance. More importantly: there's very little they can do about it. The reason everyone watched in 1999 was because Titanic won. The reason kids haven't tuned in since then is that no film like Titanic has come along. It's got nothing to do with the format of the Oscar telecast. Changing the format in the hopes of getting a younger audience is a bit like thinking that a new stamp design will reverse the decline in letter-writing. They are superficially, not causally, related.

Oct 20, 2009

Quote of the day

"When I told them I was an innocent civilian who should be released, they responded that the United States had held and tortured Muslims in secret detention centers for years. Commanders said they themselves had been imprisoned, their families ignorant of their fate. Why, they asked, should they treat me differently?" – from reporter David Rodhe's account of his 7-month imprisonment by the Taliban, in the New York Times

Who will win Best Director?

Awards Daily polls film bloggers on the most likely Best Director nominees:—
Ed Douglas: "Jason Reitman, Joel and Ethan Coen, Lee Daniels, Quentin Tarantino, Lone Scherfig."

Scott Feinberg: "The clear favorite is Clint Eastwood. It seems likely that the rest of the field will be filled out by Jason Reitman, Rob Marshall, Lee Daniels, and Kathryn Bigelow."

Pete Hammond: "Kathryn Bigelow, Clint Eastwood, Rob Marshall, Jason Reitman, Quentin Tarantino or Lee Daniels."

Peter Howell: "Jason Reitman, Kathryn Bigelow, Lone Scherfig, Jane Campion and Tom Ford."

Craig Kennedy: "Bigelow, Reitman, Coens, Scherfig, Jonze."

Tom O'Neil: "James Cameron, Lee Daniels, Clint Eastwood, Peter Jackson and Rob Marshall."

Anne Thompson: "Kathryn Bigelow, Joel and Ethan Coen, Peter Jackson, Clint Eastwood, Jason Reitman."
Craig Kennedy comes closest. I think it's going to be Jonze, Bigelow, Eastwood, Reitman, Jackson — and that Bigelow will win. There's no Titanic this year, which means Director and Best Film can be split apart and if they're split apart, there's no resisting the argument for the first female director to win. Plus the film rocks.

Where balloon boy may end up

"Cameron was born in Canada, and grew up in a small town not far from Niagara Falls. His father was an engineer for a paper company; his mother brought up five children, and told stories of racing stock cars and joining the women’s auxiliary of the Canadian Army. Jim was the oldest, the ringleader of his siblings and the other kids in the neighborhood. “There was always some new thing that absolutely needed to get done, whether it was building a fort or an airplane or launching rockets,” he told me. “We made it in the papers once, for a U.F.O. sighting over a hot-air balloon that we built and launched at night that was powered by candles.” — The New Yorker
Steven Spielberg, too, specialised in high-production disturbances of the peace when he was a young boy, once locking himself into the bathroom, solely so that he could see what the flashing lights of the firetrucks looked like when they rolled up in his street. By this measure, 6-year-old Falcon Heene, aka Balloon Boy, may have a fine future ahead of him making sci-fi blockbusters. The whole thing — a soaring silver disk, a back drop of corn fields, a child's fate in the balance — had all the wonder of a Spielberg movie.

It's a good piece on Cameron, by the New Yorker's Dana Goodyear.
James Cameron doesn’t go to the bathroom; he goes to the head. In his universe, there is no front and back, right and left, just fore and aft, starboard and port. He is still an avid scuba diver; when there are sharks in the water, he says, he’s the first one in. Free-diving, he has held his breath for more than three minutes and reached a depth of a hundred and ten feet. (“You feel like a denizen of the deep, if only for a second,” he says. “Plus, diving below the scuba divers, I like just to see the look on their faces.”) He used to have a JetRanger helicopter, and owns a slew of dirt bikes, three Harleys, a Ducati, and a Ford GT—“basically a race car with a license plate”—in classic blue-and-white livery. In Corvettes, he has favored triple black—black body, black interior, black top. For pleasure, he designs submersibles; the one he’s working on now can go to thirty-six thousand feet, and he hopes to use it to explore the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot on earth. He signs his missives “Jim out,” and, when he’s working, a deep mechanical roar, like a Navy klaxon, summons him to the stage. “Dive! dive! dive!” he said, an intent look in his eyes, when I asked him what the signal meant.
I'd heard most of the 'Bad Jim' stories before, and wasn't persuaded that Avatar is going to be all that good, but was particularly struck my Cameron's obsession with the textures of his ersatz world:—
“This looks like petrified wood,” he said, circling the offending part with a red laser pointer. “It has a longitudinal grain structure. It looks very fragile to me. This hard, crystally structure looks like barn wood. We want to say that this arch formed as igneous rock, that it’s a lava formation that got eroded, but it’s fracturing out along the crystal planes of minerals.”

Yes he's showing off, but still.
The meeting ended on a boisterous note. “That fuckin’ rocks!” Cameron called out in response to an image of a snarling maw of thin blue-veined tissue, the mouth of the pterodactyl-like banshee that Jake’s avatar domesticates for his ride. “Look at the gill-like membrane on the side of the mouth, its transmission of light, all the secondary color saturation on the tongue, and that maxilla bone. I love what you did with the translucence on the teeth, and the way the quadrate bone racks the teeth forward. It’s a sharky thing. As wacky as this creature is, it looks completely real. Maybe I’m getting high on my own supply.” He was practically out of breath. “The banshee lives! He’s a fierce-looking sonuvabitch.”
In the end, they counted fifteen shots in Avatar that were not special effects shots. “Then we see Sam has a pimple and—whoops—that’s an effects shot, too.”

Oct 19, 2009

The best of Gene Hackman: The French Connection

1. The French Connection
2. Unforgiven
3. The Royal Tenenbaums
4. The Conversation
5. No Way Out
6. Night Moves

Oct 18, 2009

Wild thing, you make my heart sing

On the way into Where the Wild Things Are, I got into an argument with the guy who rips your ticket in two. He told me that I had to leave my coffee outside or drink up before I went in. I have an ongoing battle with the Powers That Be about my ability to drink the coffee I like when I like at the speed I like. "It's never been a problem before," I said. "We weren't selling our own coffee before," said the ticket guy. "But I don't want to drink your coffee, I want to drink mine." He wasn't having any of it and told me I had to put the cup down. Guess what? I walked right past him. "I'm going to call security" yelled the ticket guy, but I kept walking. Very defiant behaviour, I know, but the we were going to see a film about wild things. Finding the film in the cinema was easy: you just looked for the hip people. I've never seen so many hipsters in one spot, not at the cinema anyway. Maybe at a gig. They were all lined up against the wall, waiting to be let in. There was another ticket guy, with a walkie-talkie, directing the people who had come to see another movie, Law Abiding Citizen, into a separate queue. It felt like a very telling divide: "Wild Things or Law Abiding Citizen?" he would ask. "Law abiding citizen," would come the reply. Or: "Wild thing" "That way." I felt bad for the guys coming up and having to announce "law abiding citizen" right in front of all the hipsters in the Wild Things queue. It made me think again about my petulance over the coffee, anyway. I had mixed feelings about the movie, which was beautiful and enchanting, but a little dispiriting in the end. Basically, they creatures and the boy work out that they are no good for one another, and go their separate ways. That's no way for a kid's movie to end — isenchantment. But the creatures are wonderful, with matted fur, like wet dogs, and heavy paws that smash right through the trunks of tress. That would stay with me if I were a kid, I think.

My interview with Carey Mulligan: brainy elf

'Carey Mulligan has had quite a week. First, she flew from New York to LA for the premiere of her movie An Education, making her way down the red carpet in rented dress and high heels. On Sunday, she flew back to New York for the East Coast premiere — more heels, more dresses, this time fending off tabloid flashbulbs — before returning to the set of Wall Street 2, in which she plays Gordon Gekko’s daughter. On Wednesday, she took the evening off to appear on Late Show with David Letterman, followed by another screening of An Education, waking up on Thursday with a terrific hangover to endure five hours in hair and make-up while they dyed her hair red again for Wall Street 2.

“The continuity should be interesting,” she says, ruffling her reddish locks when we sit down for a late lunch on Friday in the TriBeCa district of Manhattan. She orders salmon and tucks in, hungrily. “For two months I had healthy hair, then they whacked a ton of peroxide on it. And I get so excited, I go, ‘Yeah, yeah, red hair.’ Then I realise it’s going to be red.” She laughs. “I have to learn how to say no.”

She is a little taller than I expect: a slim 5ft 8in, in a floral skirt, tights, ballet slippers and a beaten-up leather jacket. She has a pretty, round face, with a seriously dimpled smile, but the real show stopper is her voice: rich, low, musical, with just the right amount of posh. If her face plays a lot younger than her 24 years, her voice plays older — a paradox that lies at the heart of her performance in An Education, adapted by Nick Hornby from the journalist Lynn Barber’s memoir about her love affair with an older, worldlier man while still a schoolgirl in the early 1960s. Since the film’s debut at the Sundance Festival earlier this year, Mulligan’s performance has been attracting glowing reviews, comparisons to Audrey Hepburn and intense Oscar buzz.

Even before Sundance, Warren Beatty called her for a meeting, and when he found out she had been using the bus to get around Hollywood, he drove her around himself. “Everyone was, like, ‘What? You don’t drive? That’s crazy. I’ve never been on the bus my whole life.’ I told them there was a subway. It goes from Hollywood and Vine to Universal, so you don’t have to go over the hill. They were, like, ‘There’s a subway?’”

She and Beatty have become firm friends. “He just liked the cut of my jib,” she says. “He’s like a godfather. I hear stories about a completely different generation. It’s just wild. He has the best stories of anybody I’ve ever met.” In another era, the news that a young actress had been befriended by Beatty would have been a clear signal to her family and friends to lash her to the nearest heavy object and barricade the windows. It says something for Mulligan’s charm that the story instead comes off like the oldest fairy tale in the book: the fresh face who comes to town and turns the place upside down' — The Sunday Times

Oct 16, 2009

Quote of the month: "Grab a mop!"

"What I reject is when some folks say we should go back to the past policies when it was those very same policies that got us into this mess in the first place. Another way of putting it is when, you know, I'm busy and Nancy is busy with our mop cleaning up somebody else's mess — we don't want somebody sitting back saying, 'you're not holding the mop the right way'. Why don't you grab a mop, why don't you help clean up. (Applause.) 'You're not mopping fast enough'. (Laughter.) ' That's a socialist mop.' (Laughter and applause.) Grab a mop — let's get to work" — Barack Obama.

Oct 15, 2009

All the news that's unfit to print

"After one such call, the Daily Express ran a diary story about the comedian Russell Brand at the G20 protests in London. Quoting fabricated remarks from the Starsuckers caller on 3 April, the paper said Brand had "sheepishly confessed that when he was a little boy he once wanted to be a banker when he grew up and even had a toy Fisher-Price cash register". The following day, a fabricated story appeared in the Mirror's gossip column about Pixie Geldof, the socialite daughter of Bob Geldof. Paraphrasing the hoax Starsuckers caller, the newspaper stated: "We're told: 'Pixie joked she didn't know why her boobs had got bigger, then she pulled out a pick 'n' mix pack from her bra.' Sweet."

A story about singer Amy Winehouse's hair catching fire from a faulty fuse spread across the world after it was printed in the Mirror on 21 March under the headline "Amy Winehouse in hair fire drama". The Starsuckers researcher gave the newspaper fictional details of the story, which she said she had "heard" from an unnamed friend who was at the singer's house. "Fuses blew as Wino jammed with mates at the house in north London – and sparks lit up her beehive," the Mirror reported. "We always knew you were a hothead, Amy." Two days later, the same story appeared in the Daily Star, which had also received a Starsuckers call, with an embellishment about how a friend of the singer "ended up punching flamey Amy's head to put out the blaze". It reappeared on several celebrity gossip websites, a New York Post blog and, eventually, the pages of the Times of India – the widest-circulation English-language newspaper in the world." — From a story about tabloid hoaxers in The Gaurdian

Why I love Joe Biden

"Can I just clarify a factual point? How much will we spend this year on Afghanistan?" Someone provided the figure: $65 billion. "And how much will we spend on Pakistan?" Another figure was supplied: $2.25 billion. "Well, by my calculations that's a 30-to-1 ratio in favor of Afghanistan. So I have a question. Al Qaeda is almost all in Pakistan, and Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And yet for every dollar we're spending in Pakistan, we're spending $30 in Afghanistan. Does that make strategic sense?" The White House Situation Room fell silent'—Newsweek

Where The Wild Things Are: best stills of 2009

So far I haven't come across a still from Where the Wild Things Are, the new Spike Jonze movie, that hasn't been mesmerising. Each one has stopped me in my tracks. The film has been hauntingly shot, clearly, in unusually beautiful part of Australia; but it's also the sure pleasure of seeing real, non-CGI creatures that are actually standing there, in the same frame as the kid, catching the light this way or that. You don't realise how much you miss it until you see it.

The best of Mike Nichols: The Graduate

1. The Graduate
2. Working Girl
3. Carnal Knowledge
4. Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf
5. Silkwood
6. Wolf
I haven't seen The Graduate for some time but in my memory it's one of those pictures where everything works — the performances, the script, the direction, all locking together in that way that the best films do to achieve perfect take-off velocity, both weighty and light at the same time. It's the tone I remember best of all — sexy, mordant, intimate, cruel, as pungent as any encounter with actual, living, breathing human beings. That's Nichols' great gift, I think: his understanding of his fellow humans. A lot of directors think they have it, but Nichols really does. He's one of the director I'd like to take personal advice from. Working Girl is the only other film of his where everything comes into such perfect alignment, although Carnal Knowledge is a kick in the teeth and the first half of Wolf is as good as anything he's done. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is probably too stagey for me these days but I remember being terrorised by it as a kid. It had a permanent impact on my idea of what sort of thing awaited me in adulthood: getting drunk and throwing plates and screaming unretractable insults. That's what you did when you grew up, I thought. Throw plates and scream unretractable insults at one another. Thank God he was a little off on that one.

Oct 14, 2009

Idiocy of the week

"In any case, too much is made of Hitchcock’s suspense. Impressive though it is, that’s what’s imitable; it’s what he makes of every moment that is uniquely his, and that we love." — Richard Brody, praising Vertigo in The New Yorker
Why do critics have to ignore the obvious? I mean I understand the problem with the obvious: everyone know it already, which defeats the point of critics. But it's equally tedious for everyone to go around playing Opposite Day all the time. Got a filmmaker renowned for his suspense? Paise his imagery! Got an actor famous for his light comedy? Praise his serious roles! I guess it's a handy way or proving that you've noticed something. But that's all it is.

David Hockney's iphone dawn

"I've always wanted to be able to paint the dawn. After all, what clearer, more luminous light are we ever afforded? Especially here where the light comes rising over the sea, just the opposite of my old California haunts. But in the old days one never could, because, of course, ordinarily it would be too dark to see the paints; or else, if you turned on a light so as to be able to see them, you'd lose the subtle gathering tones of the coming sun. But with an iPhone, I don't even have to get out of bed, I just reach for the device, turn it on, start mixing and matching the colors, laying in the evolving scene." — David Hockney, NYRB

Oct 13, 2009

The best of Harry Dean Stanton: Paris, Texas

1. Paris, Texas
2. Alien
3. Big Love
4. Cool Hand Luke
5. Wild at Heart
6. Pretty in Pink
7. The Missouri Breaks
8. Cockfighter
Paris Texas recently came up between Nick and I. We were talking about our art house phases. Nick aid that he'd once sat through all four hours of Celine and Julie Go Boating. "My finest schivement as a film-goer, or indeed, as a human being. So much of it depends on you not having the confidence to admit that you’re bored out of your mind," said Nick. "There was a point near the end of Paris Texas where Nastasja Kinksi said, now you get to hear my side of the story’ and I thought: oh god, really, do we?” All of which is true. I haven't seen Paris Texas in several decades but I used to watch it fairly religiously, mostly because I liked the idea of someone as odd looking as Stanton being in a relationship with Nastassja Kinski. That was my idea of an art movie: it gave you access to this lovely, alternative universe where someone as odd as Harry Dean Stanton could be in a relationship with Nastassja Kinski. I still think that definition covers a lot. The men are always ugly in art movies (except for Marcello Mastroianni) and the women always look like models. Okay there was that one where Gerard Depardieu left his model wife for a very plain woman and everyone thought it was revolutionary. Anyway, the point being that my love of art movies took some knocks once I realised that women like Kinski didn't necessarily date men like Stanton. The art movies were telling me beautiful fibs, just like Hollywood, so I didn't trust them anymore. My love of Harry dean Stanton has endured, however. The ranking above doesn't mean much. I love him in pretty much anything I see him in.

The best of Steve Buscemi: Reservoir Dogs

1. Reservoir Dogs
2. Miller's Crossing
3. Fargo
4. Airheads
5. Ghost World
6. Living in Oblivion
Steve Buscemi is a rodent, one of cinema's sharpest. Of all he current supporting men, he's the one I can most easily imagine slipping into some film noir from the 40s, scurrying around in the shadow of Sydney Greenstreet, for instance, or Orson Welles. Or slipping into a screwball comedy, for that matter — as the Coens realised, nobody can fire of dialogue faster than Buscemi. His role in miller's Crossing was written expressly to see just how fast he could go. As my wife just pointed out, all his roles are basically the same, but he's like a shot of areneline for any movie he appears in, which is why Reservoir Dogs gets the top spot, for me. He's the first to realise just how treacherous Tarantino's movie is going to be.

The best of Anne Hathaway: Rachel Getting Married

1. Rachel Getting Married
2. The Devil Wears Prada
3. Brokeback Mountain
4. The Princess Diaries
5. Havoc
6. Get Smart
The sight of Anna Hathway in red rodeo gear pulling up her horse and giving a wink to Jake Gyllenhal in Brokeback Mountain is burned onto my retina for life. So yes, I am an Anne Hathaway fan, although I'm the first to admit there's no Pretty Woman in there yet, and I think that is where her gifts lie — I almost put Prada first. There's a diffidence to Hathaway that make you wonder if she wants it enough. I'll be interested to see what she does with the role of Judy Garland in Get Happy; for all her bite in Rachel Getting Married, I didn't really believe that she had been visited by great suffering, but then neither do I hold up that to be the greatest test of an actress. I like the fact that she finds it hard to mask her essential cheeriness. It really is going to be so remarkable to future historians when they look back on this period, as see all these spirited leading ladies — Roberts, Hathaway, Tomei — rewarded only when they ladder their stockings and holler about their pain. Hathaway is a delight and that should be enough.

Oct 12, 2009

An upside-down Education

An hilarious review of An Education from David Denby in The New Yorker.
"Its been apparent for some time that Peter Sarsgaard is an actor of major talent waiting for that major role, and he almost gets one in An Education. He plays David Goldman, a London hustler of enormous charm who zips around town in a maroon Bristol sports car, and seduces, slowly and patiently a very bright 16-year-old named Jenny."
There follows a brief sentence about Jenny, a character with whom he is none too impressed. Then back to the main event.
"David ducks in and out of at auctions and houses for sale, talking people into selling things for less than they're worth, and then reselling them at a profit. He's furtive and improvisatory, a genteel swindler. He never quite tells the truth but Sarsgaard plays him as a sensitive man with genuine warmth and a gift that even an honest man may lack: hes always plausible. Not matter how far-fetched his inventions, you want to believe in him; his attentions are so personal and so shrewd..."
It goes on like this, in similar vein, for four hundred words. At some point Denby has, grudgingly, to admit that "the movie is told from [Jenny's] point of view" but Denby leaves us in no doubt as to his opinion of her: "Smart as she is, she doesn't ask herself why such an attractive and seemingly accomplished man would bother with a sixteen year old." Is Denby joking? The whole thing is so hilariously upside-down you wonder if he isn't filing his entry for some New-Yorker in-house joke, in which you upend the dramatis personae of a well-known book or play a la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The idea that the movie is not just told from Jenny's point of view, but belongs to her, wholly; that she is in every scene; and that the film has been widely seen as a star-making role for the actress playing her, seems to have passed Denby wholly by. It's like a review of Roman Holiday with high praise for Gregory Peck but barely disguised contempt for that little pest, Audrey Thingummy. Or a review of Darling, which begins "Dirk Bogarde finally gets the breakout role he's been waiting for in John Schlesinger's new film...." And I'd love to have seen his review of Horse Feathers. "Margaret Dumont steals the film again from those lousy Marx Brothers..." Right to the end, he's still at it.
"David may be a pathological liar, but he's not quite contemptible. This seducer is just the opposite of jaded. Sarsgaard makes it seem as if David, out of need, desire, and strength — and weakness too — were experiencing everything for the first time."
That's how it ends! I guess Sarsgaard and Nick can take it as a compliment that the film can be so angled, but still. Denby is the man who made me go and see The Good Shephard back in 2006 — a grudge that shows no signs of abating.

Oct 11, 2009

Quote of the day: Frank Rich

"Just as these hawks insisted that Iraq was “the central front in the war on terror” when the central front was Afghanistan, so they insist that Afghanistan is the central front now that it has migrated to Pakistan. When the day comes for them to anoint Pakistan as the central front, it will be proof positive that Al Qaeda has consolidated its hold on Somalia and Yemen." — Frank Rich, The New York Times

Oct 10, 2009

Part 1 of running series about Colin Firth

Looking at the "Top Searches that Brought Readers to Your Blog" I find the following.
  1. tom shone 58 times
  2. colin firth 34 times
  3. meryl streep 9 times
  4. carey mulligan 7 times
  5. tom shone blog 5 times
  6. taking barack 5 times
  7. death star flaw 3 times
From this I can see that I ought to be blogging more about Colin Firth. Or at least start. Which is a little difficult since I haven't seen the new movie he's in, A Single Man, which is supposed to be great. I was thinking of retitling this blog "Taking Colin Firth to the Movies" but of course he's already a movie star so that doesn't work. Um. I once met him, if that's any good? He was in a play in the West End and my friend Julie Kavenagh took us both to dinner. He was smart and charming. I told him I loved him in Shakespeare in Love and The English Patient. I don't think Bridget Jones had come out them or I would have told him I liked him in that too. But it hadn't so I didn't.

That's it for now. I'm beat. I will, however, be posting on the subject Colin Firth at regular intervals from hereon in, as and when the need arises.

Obama's nobel peace prize: he's not Bush

If I was Barack Obama, I'd be pissed. Seriously. There's the domestic political backlash, of course, but it's also little condescending to get the Nobel Peace prize for largely symbolic reasons, especially if you harbor genuine ambitions for your presidency, as he does. He probably wanted to win the prize, one day. He does not want to go down as The President Who Couldn't Meet Expectations, or The Man Who Wasn't Bush, although it's worth remembering that, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, Not Being Bush isn't to be sneezed at. Invading countries by mistake is serious hiccup in any presidency. By the same token, not invading any countries by mistake can seem quite a virtue, in and of itself.

A Serious Man: the Coens worst movie

A Serious Man is clever, precise, beautifully shot and joyless: I don't think I've ever enjoyed a Coen brother movies less. At times its a bit like they've sat down and made a top-ten list of universally acknowledged irritants — bickering couples, people slurping their soup, a stuck record going round and round, whining children, repetitive blows to the head — and put them all in one movie. The only thing they miss is someone eating icecubes and nails down a blackboard. It's one of their playing-God numbers, like Barton Fink, in which they pile a host of misfortunes upon one hapless protagonist. Fink, though, had sizzling performances from John Goodman, Judy Davis and Michael Lerner. The Coens have assembled a similarly impressive gang of characters actors this time around — Richard Kind, Michael Stuhlberg, Fred Melamed — but allowed none of them off the leash, every cough and splutter playing out into oodles of silence. Critics are falling over themeslves to proclaim it the Coens most "autobiographical" film — its set in the suburban-jewish milieu of their youth — but the whole thing felt like it was shot in a vacuum. I came alive very briefly for Fred Melamed's performance as a cuckolder who oozes new-age let's-all-talk-about-our-feelings insincerity, but then went back to sleep — not sleep, actually, because when you sleep you dream: more like a kind of grey, reactionless coma. If you'd been monitoring my brain activity you would have sworn I was licking stamps, or filling out an insurance claim.

It got 79% on Metacritic and 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. Someone's not doing their job.

Give this man an Oscar: my interview with Nick

"Hornby’s literary and musical tastes are well known—less so his taste in movies. When his first book, Fever Pitch, came out, the screenings rooms in Soho where they showed the movies were not far from his office, so we often used to kill afternoons together, watching stuff like Barton Fink, Short Cuts, Dead Man Walking, Apollo 13. We share a devotion to Tom Hanks, particularly the early stuff. (“How many actors have two great movies like Big and Splash to their name? Plus we both know at least 25 people who would mock us for liking him.”) As far as directors go, he loves Mike Leigh, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Altman, having had his world turned upside down in 1975 by first Jaws and then Nashville. ( “I thought it was the best thing I’d ever seen.”) At university he had his statutory art-house phase, and once sat through Jacque Rivette’s four-hour masterpiece Celine and Julie Go Boating (“My greatest achievement as a filmgoer, or indeed, as a human being.”) Somewhere in there, between Spielberg’s gigoloish devotion towards an audience’s pleasure and Altman’s commitment to disturbing the peace, between Mike Leigh’s peppery truth-telling and Hanks’s sprightly fun, you sense something of Hornby’s own sensibility percolating through — funny, sad, prickly, warm. An Education was adapted from a 20-page memoir that appeared in Granta magazine by the journalist Lynn Barber, about her affair with an older man while still a suburban schoolgirl in the early 1960s. It was, says Hornby, the “first time that I’ve really stuck with a script, coming back to it again and again.” — The Daily Beast

Oct 8, 2009

Quote of the day

"The cumulative picture of the human condition that has emerged since opening night is dominated by sadism, guilt, violence and despair, a panorama of pessimism notable for its exhausting rigor and relentless consistency." — A. O. Scott, reviewing the New York Film Festival

The best of Kevin Bacon: Diner

1. Diner
2. Tremors
3. A Few Good Men
4. JFK
5. Mystic River
6. Footloose
If you haven't seen Tremors, about a bunch of giant worm monsters that burrow under the Arizona sand and leap out at you when you're least expecting it, you should. It's a gem. You know how in movies normally when space creatures arrive and the actors react and you sort of buy it, but if you look too closely at their reaction, you come to the conclusion that actually no, that's probably not how a human being would react if Martians landed. They'd probably go into shock. Or just curl up in a ball in the corner. Well, Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward react to the giant worm monsters almost exactly as you imagine you might: with a burst of shock that tips over into crazy, hysterical humor. It's one of the most inspired piece of horror-movie acting I've ever seen. The movie takes its cue from them: not quite a horror movie, not exactly a comedy, but something delicious inbetween.

Oct 7, 2009

Meryl Streep, nominated for brushing her teeth

According to Wikepedia "Streep has received 15 Academy Award nominations and 23 Golden Globe nominations (winning six), more than any other actor in the history of either award show". Really. The best screen actress of all time. Better than Ingrid Bergman, Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor, Ellen Burstyn, Faye Dunway, Diane Keaton, Holly Hunter and Julia Roberts. Really. You're sure about that.

You don't have to be a Streep agnostic like me to wonder if the Academy hasn't got itself into a bit of a bind here, caused by a combination of two factors: 1) their acknowledgement of the brilliance of Meryl Streep, in perpetuity. And 2) the fact that she won't stop making films. It's irresistable force meets immovable object. The same thing happened to Jack Nicholson. There came a point, around the time of Terms of Endearment, when the academy simply decided that Jack Nicholson, in himself, was a good thing, a national treasure — not the roles he played, not the performances he delivered, but Jack himself. In fact the performances they most liked were the ones where he tipped the wink to the audience, behind his character's back, saying, essentially, "Jack's back." And once he figured out this, he never stopped. He's not dumb. Every performance he gave was a "Jack's back" performance the academy had no choice but to nominate him: Prizzi's Honour Ironweed, The Witches of Eastwick, A Few Good Men, As Good As It Gets, About Schmidt, The Departed. He had them by the short and curlies.

Meryl's worked her way into a similarly powerful position. Around about the time of Adaptation (Meryl does surrealism!) they saw that she was pulling in the kids again and went: national treasure. So she did The Hours (Meryl does modernism!) and got nominated for that; she did Mamma Mia (Meryl sings Abba!) and got nominated for that; she did Doubt (Meryl in a wimple!) and got nominated for that; and now she's done Julie and Julia (Meryl cooks!) and It's Complicated (Meryl does Alec Baldwin!) and the Academy don't know which way to move. My guess is they'll for for Julia and Julia— a performance that reminds me of one of the Monty Python men, like Terry Jones doing Mary Magdalenein The Life of Brian. ("He's not the messiah he's a very naughty boy". Try it.)

This is the problem with rewarding people for being themselves. They never stop being themselves. Which means you have to go on rewarding them. What are you going to say? "I don't know Meryl, I just don't think you're very like yourself this year"? "I think you may have lost some essential Streepiness"? Of course not. You're going to put a tick in that box and give the woman another Oscar. The whole thing is abominable, completely unmeritocratic, tyrannical even. The cycle must be broken. The towers must come down. Vive la revolution!

Oscar predictions: you can ignore Nine

Every year there's an Oscar contender that you can safely ignore. It's easy to spot. It's the one stuffed with the most Oscar winners from previous years. And this year, that film is Nine. The director is Rob Marshall, who won with Chicago in 2002. It stars Penelope Cruz, who won an Oscar last year, Marion Cotillard and Daniel Day Lewis who won the year before that, Nicole Kidman, a few years before that, and Judie Dench who is nominated every year. With a pedigree like that, only one thing can be certain: it will be bloody awful.

Remember Chocolat, from 2000 starring Juliette Binoche, who had just won for The English Patient, and directed by Lasse Halstrom, who could not get out of bed without being Oscar-nominated for most of the nineties? Marshall has turned into the Lasse Halstrom of the 00s. Chicago was an unworthy Best film winner but at least it played to the home audience; Nine is a musical fantasia loosely based on a film of Fellini's. In the best of all possible worlds, if everything comes to fruition — the performances, the direction, the dance numbers — it is only ever going to be a form of karoake world cinema, just as Chocolat was an art movie for those who couldn't be bothered with subtitles.