Jan 31, 2010

What happened to the original Sam Bell?

My wife and I were watching the DVD of Moon the other night. It got to the scene where (spoilers ahead) Sam phones his old home on earth. His daughter picks up — except that now she's a grown woman. Her mom, she informs him, is dead. "Who's that honey?" comes a voice from the kitchen. "Hey Dad, it's someone asking about mom..." Sam hangs up: he can't take any more. "Hey that was Sam Rockwell's voice," says my wife. "That's the original Sam Bell!" Surely not, I tell her. "It was definitely him!" she goes. Luckily, Sam Rockwell and I are best buddies these days — inseparable — and today I had to clarify a couple of things from our interview. So I asked him.
TOM: "Is that your voice coming from the kitchen when Sam Bell phones home?"

SAM: "Yes. That's the original Sam Bell. I don't know who old he is now. He's probably in his fifties. That stuff is all very — its not like the audience has to know that. But I was a pain in the ass about back story. What happened? How many clones are there? Where is the original Sam? How old is he and why did he do this? Duncan would go through it with me very patiently. We went over it a million times.”

TOM: "It makes the clones even more outcast."

SAM: "It makes the original Sam a bit of a dick. He sold his DNA to some company never thinking of the repercussions.”

TOM: "It couldn't be that he'd done his original three-year stint and they took some skin off him without him noticing?"

PAUSE.

SAM: "Yeah, that would work too."

Jan 30, 2010

Quote of the day: Barack Obama

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

"I mean, we've got to be careful about what we say about each other sometimes, because it boxes us in in ways that makes it difficult for us to work together, because our constituents start believing us. They don't know sometimes this is just politics what you guys -- or folks on my side -- do sometimes.'' — President Obama
Obama's colloquy with the GOP showcased his greatest strength: his ability, by dint of sheer good humor, to make everyone else in the room look like seething red-faced dolts. You have to feel sorry for them. It's got to hurt, hating Obama. He's so goddam reasonable. The effort required to hate him is so great that twists his opponents into caricatures of themselves. They're in agonies of contortion, trying not to acknowledge the eminently sane good-humored man in front of them. That's why following them into their lair was such a stroke of genius. Can you imagine Bush ever doing that? It's unthinkable. He couldn't even take questions from the press, let alone Democrats. But Obama shows up with a smile on his face, a self depracating joke at the ready and the facts at his fingertips and floors them. Why did they allow it to be televised? I guess they thought, reasonably enough, that 150 men could out argue one man.

Biggest catfish caught by British man in Greenland

I periodically check on the searches that bring people to my blog, and think I've found the best yet:
Tifton, GA, US Tifton, GA, US: Search for biggest catfish caught by british man in greenland via Google, 3 hours ago
What I love about this is that I instantly saw the three constituent elements that brought this reader in. 1) My story about the movie Catfish, which recently debuted at Sundance. 2) My identification of myself as British, in my bio. And 3) my comparison of Avatar's revenues to the GDP of Greenland. The person searching for "biggest catfish caught by British man in Greenland" must have been awfully disappointed to have been so reeled in. To them I apologise. But I'm also obscurely proud that the biggest catfish has been caught by a British man, and will henceforth link to more catfish-related news.

The Best of Leo Di Caprio: Catch Me If You Can

1. Catch Me If You Can
2. Blood Diamond
3. Titanic
4. Romeo + Juliet
5. What's Eating Gilbert Grape
We can all agree: Titanic was not the snuggest fit for Di Caprio. I still like him in it, I think he brings much needed bouyancy to a thundersome movie, but fair enough: he wants edgier stuff than "I'm jus a tumble weed, blowin' in the wind." But almost every movie he's made with Scorsese, on the other hand, has been a dud: Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed. It's an uneasy marriage — Scorsese gets his projects bankrolled, Di Caprio gets artistic cred — but there's too much reverence in the partnership, not enough friction. The only thing letting Di Caprio down as an actor is his voice: no matter how much he beefs up it remains boyish. He should never shout. The one film that gets him exactly right in my opinion — which is to say which draws on the exact mixture of star power and acting chops he brings to the table — is Catch Me If You Can, Spielberg's most purely enjoyable movie since Raiders of the Lost Ark. Much of its vigor, its bouyancy, is down to di Caprio. Blood Diamond is the same: a stirring old-fashioned film of the kind Bogart used to make, which brought out both the matinee idol and the actor.

Jan 29, 2010

Meeting Sam Rockwell: he likes his chewing gum

I just got back from an interview with the great Sam Rockwell which I'm going to be writing up in the next week. He's a lot sweeter than I imagined — a soft fugitive sweetness, like that of a boy. He makes only intermittent eye contact and stuffs his mouth compulsively with too many piece of chewing gum. His features are a lot finer than you'd think, and he's skinny in the way that probably makes all Jewish mothers within a ten mile radius line up to feed him soup. The sense you get from his film roles — of a kid who has spent a lot of time alone finally getting to play with others — is basically right. He's a gregarious daydreamer, with that fuzzy free-spirit boundarylessness which makes for wonderfully liquid performances on screen and — I would guess — slightly shambolic relationships in real life, although he says he's been dating the same girl for two years now. They get on with one another, his ex-girlfriends, I'd imagine. He's not a compartmentaliser: everything flows into everything else. His apartment must be a mess. I liked him a lot.

J D Salinger: alone at last, the grumpy old goat

“CORNISH, NH—In this big dramatic production that didn't do anyone any good (and was pretty embarrassing, really, if you think about it), thousands upon thousands of phonies across the country mourned the death of author J.D. Salinger, who was 91 years old for crying out loud. "He had a real impact on the literary world and on millions of readers," said hot-shot English professor David Clarke, who is just like the rest of them, and even works at one of those crumby schools that rich people send their kids to so they don't have to look at them for four years. "There will never be another voice like his." Which is exactly the lousy kind of goddamn thing that people say, because really it could mean lots of things, or nothing at all even, and it's just a perfect example of why you should never tell anybody anything.' — The Onion
I'll be honest with you: I thought he was already dead. It's one consequence of being a recluse, I guess. You're not really showing up for your readers. I find it hard to thrill to the more "mythic" consequences of his withdrawal from the world. It was a pathological act, not a mythic one. He couldn't stand being in the spotlight, the way some people cant stand being complimented. It's just self absorbtion, for the most part. You back away from a compliment enough times, all you do is compel your poor interlocutor to repeat it. A few years back, I found myself asking, "Is J D Salinger alive or dead?" I honestly didn't know. Upon further investigation I found out that he was still alive but somehow the information never stuck. You know the way certain facts just don't want to be learned? I used to have a kitchen cupboard which opened the opposite of the way you thought it was going to. No matter how many times I committed the right way to memory, no matter how many times I reverse-engineered little mnemonics to help me (its not the first way you think, reverse your first impulse, etc) I would always foul it up. Same with Salinger. I feel like I've had to remind myself he's alive so many times I've already mourned him. I'll probably start forgetting he's dead now. I'll wake up and go: I wonder if Salinger is ever going to change his mind about all those manuscripts he keeps in his shed....

Excuse my French

'Americans do not trust the major tv news operations in the country- except for Fox News. Our newest survey looking at perceptions of ABC News, CBS News, CNN, Fox News, and NBC News finds Fox as the only one that more people say they trust than distrust. 49% say they trust it to 37% who do not' — Public Policy Polling
Good Christ.

Jan 27, 2010

JANUARY JUKEBOX: Laura Veirs, Spoon, Beach House, The Magnetic Fields, Vampire Weekend, Marit Larsen, Owen Pallett, Patty Griffin, Lissie

My favorite 2010 album so far is undoubtedly Laura Veirs July Flame — good songs, brilliantly arranged, sweetly sung — closely followed by Patty Griffin's wonderful gospel album Downtown Church: Griffin's voice is at a great age right now, with a nice rasp to offset its innate prettiness. The most original song I heard this month was Owen Pallett's 'Lewis Takes Off His Shirt', with its mixture of whirring synths, falsetto vocals and symphonic orchestral backing. Amazing. I find Beach House a little too washed out most of the time — music to play while sitting on the sofa, thinking the same thought over and over — but 'Zebra' has some nice forward propulsion from this neat little alternating-current guitar riff. The lyrics of Magnetic Fields 'You Must Be Out of Your Mind' make me laugh: they remind of a friend who can be persuaded of nothing. 'The Mystery Zone' is the best of the Spoon album i.m.h.o. Same with the OK Go song 'This Too Shall Pass' (hey, stop getting your song titles from meetings!). Marit Larson and Corinne Bailey Rae gave me my monthly spoonful of sugar. And Lissie sounds great; she just needs to loose all the barefoot grass-chewing authentic-sound-of-the-Mississippi-delta crap in her publicity material.

Jan 26, 2010

Everything you always thought was right is wrong

'LOS ANGELES — James Cameron’s science-fiction epic “Avatar” has passed his “Titanic” to become history’s highest-grossing film' — New York Times
Okay, this is exciting. I feel like Heisenberg on the day he discovered that matter can be both a wave and particle. Or Doc Brown the night he discovered the flux capacitor. Okay. So here goes. I've made a major discovery that could completely alter the way we look at which movies are top of the all-time box office. Traditionally, of course, you go to any one of the box office websites and read something like this:
1. Avatar — $1,878m
2. Titanic — $1,842m
3.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King — $1,119m
4.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest — $1,066m
5.
The Dark Knight — $1,001m
6.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone — $974m
7.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End — $961m
8.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix$938.2m
9.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince $934.0m
10.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers$925.3m
I've long known about the flaws of this list: it takes no account of inflation and therefore comes crammed to the gills with Potter and Pirates. It's a list compiled by an excitable amnesiac 9-year-old — not the kind of thing you'd want to defend if an alien landed on planet earth and wanted to know about these things called movies. Box Office Mojo have long published an antidote list that takes account of inflation and looks something like this:—
1. Gone With The Wind — $1,485m
2. Star Wars — $1,309m
3.
The Sound of Music$1,046m
4.
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial — $1,042m
5. The Ten Commandments$962m
6. Titanic
$943m
7. Jaws $941m
8. Doctor Zhivago$912m
9. The Exorcist $812m
10. Snow White And the Seven Dwarves$801m
It's revenge of the Fogies. I've known fanboys flee from the severity of this list. It is undeniably grown-up, sober, a necessary corrective to the nearsightedness of the present and so on, but did it have to be so scrotum-tighteningly wholesome? Gone with the Wind at number one, fair enough, but The Sound of Music at number 3, and Ten Commandments at 5 — beating Jaws for heaven's sake. Really? In the annuls of popular filmmaking, De Mille beats Spielberg? The Star Wars sequels get a brief look in, but basically you'd better be on very good terms with the Disney movies because its a long time before the eighties and nineties get any serious placement. I'm as pleased as the next man to see the top twenty emptied of litter like Michael Bay and Harry Potter but is Mary Poppins really that much more loved than Forrest Gump or Pixar? That's what it comes down to, I guess — love — and I wasn't feeling it from the adjusted list. It didn't seem an accurate map of the audience's affections. But last night, while tooling around with the Avatar figures, I found out a mind-blowing flaw in the Box-office Mojo list: it takes no account of overseas revenues. That's a catastrophic oversight. Jurassic Park made 60% of its income abroad, Avatar a staggering 70%. The single biggest change in the last 20 years has been the eclipse of the North American market by overseas revenues — not including them is as biased against the present as the original list was biased against the past. Overseas revenues for movies like The Ten Commandments and The Sound of Music are lost in the mists of time, but if we highball the figure at 36% — that's the overseas percentage of Raiders — and we get the following.
1. Gone With The Wind — $2,984m
2. Titanic — 2,896m
3. Star Wars — $2,199m
4. Avatar — 2,039m
5. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial — 1,897m
6. Jaws — 1,703m
7. The Sound of Music — $1,651m
8. Jurassic Park — 1,622m
9. Ten Commandments — $1,544m
10: Doctor Zhivago — 1,463m
Doesn't that feel a little better? More balanced? Past and present in something like equipoise? Even a little taste in evidence? For anyone who is serious about popular movies, who wants no truck with griping about the mass audience, anyone who has taken a lifelong vow never to use the phrase "lowest common denominator", but who — let's face it — has had their faith sorely tested of late, this list comes as very good news indeed.

Jan 25, 2010

The Best of Gary Oldman: The Contender

1. The Contender
2. Sid And Nancy
3. JFK
4. Meantime
5. Bram Stoker's Dracula
Oldman's agent once told me that Gary was very unhappy about the way The Contender turned out. The way he saw it, his character Sheldon Runyon, the Republican congressman trying to destroy Joan Allen, was the hero of the movie — he was annoyed it had been slanted, and received, the other way. That told me more about screening acting than I have managed to learn from a thousand other sources. For of course Runyon is the hero of the piece, according to the funhouse mirror inside his head, and of course no man could do the vile things he does without believing himself waging a virtuous war. (The Contender was the high-water mark of almost all the actors involved, from Bridges to Allen to Oldman and Slater). Apart from that it's surprisingly thin pickings in terms of decent movies. Gary Oldman isn't just the best actor never to have received an Oscar, he's also content to have appeared in some truly crappy movies, like a crocodile hidden in mud. He's got a touch of Brando's contempt for the medium. Of his early punk trio — Sid and Nancy, Prick Up Your Ears, Meantime — only Meantime stands up as anything other than a record of a meteoric performance. But he was perfect as the shadowless Lee Harvey Oswald in Oliver's Stone's JFK, and his conception of the role of Dracula was frighteningly weird (hair curlers?), more frightening than anything in the movie.

Song of the day: Little Lovin' by Lissie

Lissie is from Rock Island, Illinois. Performances at coffee shops in her hometown and Chicago eventually led her to California, where she now lives with her dog. Her debut EP Why You Runnin is out now on Oxford, Mississippi’s Fat Possum Records. You can also download her Daytrotter Session.

SUNDANCE 2010: Catfish, Blue Valentine, Winter's Bone, Buried, Boy, Cyrus, Howl, Get Low, I'm Here, The Company Men


'[Winter's Bone] Debra Granik’s blend of low-budget regional realism and crime thriller is an absolute knockout, for me the narrative film of the festival so far. Young Jennifer Lawrence is sensational as Ree, fierce teenage scion of an Ozark family of bootleggers, outlaws and meth-cookers' — Salon

'The advance word from Sundance on “Blue Valentine”—a romantic drama by Derek Cianfrance in which a couple on the rocks (played by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams) revisit their relationship in flashbacks—has been very favorable.' — The New Yorker

'Overwhelmingly sad, honest, creepy and ultimately hopeful, Catfish is easily the most buzzed-about documentary of the Sundance Film Festival so far... Catfish is a must-see for the Friend-Me-Now generation, as well as a striking portrait of a modern-day online relationship' — Cinematical

'Earlier tonight I caught the midnight world premiere of Rodrigo Cort├ęs' Buried, the stuck-in-a-coffin film starring Ryan Reynolds. In short, it was phenomenal... I already knew it was set entirely inside a coffin where Reynolds is stuck and buried, but the big question is if they could actually pull off a 90 minute film set entirely in a coffin. They did. They not only pulled it off, but it's an amazing film.' — First Showing

'Spike Jonze’s new half-hour short film titled I’m Here is a robot love story celebrating a life enriched by creativity...The film is sweet, charming and surprisingly naturalistic, a mix of a romantic fairytale and the sad reality of blind love.' — Slash Film

'Intelligent and highly respectful of its central character and his titular landmark poem, "HOWL" is an admirable if fundamentally academic exploration of the origins, impact, meaning and legacy of Allen Ginsberg's signal work. It is also an intriguing hybrid of documentary, narrative and animated filmmaking' — Variety

'Aaron Schneider's Get Low [is] a first-rate backwoods American drama with a touch of whimsy. Superbly acted by Robert Duvall , Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Sissy Spacek and Bill Cobbs. An eloquent, plain-spoken, true-heart thing about values, friendships, backstories and buried business' — Jeffrey Wells
Vanity Fair's Julian Sancton, meanwhile, has assembled a list of indie-film tropes and the Sundance movies that employ them:— Car accidents (Hesher, Welcome to the Rileys, Nowhere Boy, Enter the Void, Blue Valentine, Animal Kingdom, Boy); Dead parents, usually by car accident (Hesher, Enter the Void, Welcome to the Rileys, Night Catches Us, Boy, Nowhere Boy, Animal Kingdom, Winter's Bone); Dead children, usually by car accident (Welcome to the Rileys, I Am Love, Enter the Void, Night Catches Us, Dead pets, all by car accident (Boy, Blue Valentine); Deadbeats (Hesher, Blue Valentine, Boy, Sympathy for Delicious); Slovenly beards indicating despair (Hesher, Blue Valentine, Sympathy for Delicious, Enter the Void, Douchebag); Prominent cigarette-smoking (Welcome to the Rileys, Blue Valentine, Enter the Void, Nowhere Boy, Hesher); Sexless marriages (Welcome to the Rileys, Blue Valentine); Use of the song "You and Me" by Penny & The Quarters (Blue Valentine, Night Catches Us) and Kristen Stewart as a runaway (Welcome to the Rileys, The Runaways). The Carpetbagger adds: a New York setting (Holy Rollers, Please Give, The Extra Man, Howl, HappyThankYouMorePlease); Dept of Eagles and/or Grizzly Bear on the soundtrack (Blue Valentine, Jack Goes Boating), and Kristen Stewart in smudged eyeliner (Welcome to the Rileys, The Runaways).

Avatar has made more than the GDP of Greenland

Star Wars is down. The Dark Knight is toast. All that now stands between Avatar and the crown of all-time box office champ is Cameron's own Titanic. It will probably pass her sometime this week. As of this weekend, Avatar's domestic gross totaled $552,797,418 —catching up fast on Titanic's 600.8 million domestic record — while its global haul stands at $1.841 billion world-wide, just inches behind Titanic’s $1.842 billion.
1. Titanic — $1,842m
2.
Avatar — $1,836m
3.
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King — $1,119m
4.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest — $1,066m
5.
The Dark Knight — $1,001m
That's unadjusted for inflation, of course. That's a big asterisk. It's a different picture if you level the playing field by adjusting for inflation. Then the list looks more like this:—
1. Gone With The Wind — $1,485m
2.
Star Wars — $1,309m
3.
The Sound of Music$1,046m
4.
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial — $1,042m
5.
The Ten Commandments$962m
With Avatar at number #26 with $559m. That's how it looks if we give the past a fair shake. But these figures (from Box Office Mojo) need their own asterisk: they are a record only of North American revenues. The rest of the world isn't getting its vote counted. Nobody seems to have devised a list that is both adjusted for inflation and which includes global revenues. But approximately, GWTW's box office doubles if you include overseas revenues. Star Wars multiplies by 1.68. There are no records of The Sound of Music's overseas earnings. E.T. multiples by 1.8. No records for The Ten Commandments. Titanic nearly triples its grosses. Avatar's multiply by 3.32. That tells you a lot about the way Hollywood has changed in the last two decades: it's now the world's TV station. The real all-time box office list, adjusted for inflation and including overseas revenues, would probably look more like this:—
1. Gone with the Wind — $2,984m.
2 Titanic — $2,896m
3. Star Wars — $2,199m
4. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial — $1,897m
5. Avatar — $1,857m

Either way, Cameron's film has, as of this weekend, made more than the gross domestic product of Greenland.

Jan 24, 2010

The Best of Sam Rockwell: Snow Angels

1. Snow Angels
2. Moon
3. Matchstick Men
4. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind
5.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
I think Sam Rockwell is the most exciting actor working in American movies right now. Di Caprio needs to disentangle from Scorsese (fast). Robert Downey is just enjoying himself (fair enough). James Franco and Ryan Gosling can slum it pretty good but that's all they're doing. Talking of which, where did Edward Norton get to? But Rockwell it still on the prowl, with all the ferocity of the young Gary Oldman allied to a particularly Californian playfulness. There's something crackling behind his eyes at all times — brain static, black lightning. He was born to play the sarcastic super louse in David Gate's novel Jernigan. Clooney's Confession of a Dangerous Mind was the movie title to launch a thousand profiles, but the film was a fussy disappointment. (I felt like I had to go watch another movie about Chuck Barris in order to find out who the guy was). The best movie to hitch its wagon so far has been Rockwell was Duncan Jones's haunting Moon in which he played two versions of himself: one newly hatched from his sleep pod, the other with five years of solitude etched into his face. It was like a face off between the two parts of his personality: character actor and lead. But his best performance was in Snow Angels, where he played an on-the-wagon drunk, estranged from his ex-wife, praying to Jesus to keep his job and see his daughter. I don't want to ruin any of of your fun but his prayers are not answered; I was this movie on a flight from London to New York and got off the plane feelingn like I still hadn't landed. Rockwell's performance is phenomenal, like feeling a car aquaplaning at just the point where the tyres begin to loose their grip on the road. I haven't seen such a suptle unravelling since the glory days of De Niro. As with Taxi Driver, you are completely blindsided by what's coming, but the moment it's done, you realise there was nowhere else this could have gone. It's a phenomenal achievement.

Kate and I put on an unbecoming show of snark yesterday for all the celebrities trooping through George Clooney's Hope for Haiti Now telethon. I know. It's terrible. I'm not proud. What could be worse than mocking a celebrity just because they are attempting to do something good for earthquake victims? But Madonna has just had so much work down. And Clint Eastwood looked so downright scary (was someone electrifying his hair with a Van De Graf generator?). Then Justin Timberlake came on with singer Matt Morris to perform a version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. We had just about time to squeeze off one joke before being utterly silenced.

Jan 23, 2010

Reversible Opinion #01

"The conventional wisdom is that Iraq War films have foundered at the box office because we have no appetite for them, but it might be that our appetite for them has been slight because they offer precious little nutrition. Nearly all of them are telling us pretty familiar war-is-hell narratives, even if those narratives are skillfully rendered in a technical sense. The Hurt Locker gives us not only no context but no hint that the context is missing, since it mines the adrenaline of combat without mussing itself in the viscera of anything as dangerous as ideology. It's a rip-roaring piece of suspense cinema, but decidedly no more than that." — Seth Colter Walls, Newsweek
This is an occasional post devoted to statements that are not just wrong but exact inversions of the truth, such that were you to reverse the statement you would end up with something reasonable. Thus: The Hurt Locker is a great film precisely because it jettisons ideology in favor of adrenaline; it is nothing less than a rip-roaring piece of suspense drama. This one gets extra points for first identifying the true statement and then inverting it ("The conventional wisdom is that..."). A self-aware idiot!

Trailing Frank Serpico, three decades on


There's an absolutely fascinating interview with Frank Serpico in the New York Times today. Now 73, he lives in Columbia county in upstate New York, about two hours north of New York City, where he lives a monastic life in a one-room cabin which he built himself in the woods near the Hudson River. Still bearded, handsome and flamboyantly dressed, like "some sort of fur trapper", he is is known to the locals as Paco, his off-duty nickname in the Village in the late 1960s. He eats mostly vegetarian and organic food, cooking on the wood-burning stove that heats the cabin, where there is neither television nor the Internet. He relies on Chinese medicine, herbs and shiatsu. He practices meditation, the Japanese Zen flute and African drumming, and dance: ballroom, tango, swing. He takes long walks at sunrise and rescues wounded animals.

True to his cinematic self, he always showed up in a different outfit and hat: one day as the sheepherder, the next day the prospector, then the monk. He wears an earring in each ear and a magnifying glass around his neck for fine print. He would spout esoterica and draw from his knowledge of Italian, Spanish, German, Dutch, Arabic and Russian. In a coffee shop, he might quote from Dante’s “Inferno,” or pull out his harmonica and play “Danny Boy.” Mr. Serpico said he had played, in local productions, the Arab in Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life,” Gonzalo in “The Tempest,” a detective in “Ten Little Indians” and Johann Most in Howard Zinn’s “Emma.”

I'm so pleased to hear all this. It was so clear from the movie Serpico that there were two interesting stories going on: one about police corruption and the other to do with the singular individual who exposed it, not because he wanted to grand-stand, or out of any unyielding sense of morality but simply because he didn't want to accept a bribe himself. Think about that. He didn't mind other people taking bribes, he didn't care what you or I did, he simply didn't want to take one himself. I find that fascinating, that that desire — to keep clean only the three foot patch of ground on which he stood — should have snowballed, solely by dint of other peoples reactions to him, into the biggest police corruption case in New York's history. It's the reason Pacino's performance remains, to this day, one of the only entirely sanctimony-free portraits of goodness in modern cinema. Serpico didn't want to bring down the system. He wanted to be left alone. They wouldn't leave him alone. Ergo, he brought down the system.

Not all is peace and serenity in the woods, however. He still carries bullet fragments lodged just below his brain; he is deaf in his left ear, and has nerve damage in his left leg. Moreover,

Mr. Serpico still brims with bitterness that he was made third-grade detective, rather than the top tier of first-grade... Michael Bosak, a 27-year veteran of the Police Department who has served as its informal historian since retiring in 1995, said that for a time he kept in touch with Mr. Serpico by e-mail, and that his messages tended to be long diatribes on various topics, seemingly unaffected by the passage of decades. “The N.Y.P.D. is a thousand times more honest than it was 40 years ago,” Mr. Bosak said. “I think he’s still in a lot of pain. Going through what he went through, it can drive you off your rocker.”

Somehow, this makes me like him even more.

Jan 22, 2010

Quote of the day: Mathew Yglesias

[T]he Republican strategy of holding out for total surrender is working just fine. They had an interesting theory that if you refuse to cooperate with efforts to make the country better, things won’t get better and the out-of-power party will benefit. The theory appears to be true"— Think Progress

Jan 21, 2010

The news from Hatiti: premotion

Am I the only one who finds the on-tap emoting by the nation's news anchors on behalf of the people of Haiti a little bit yeeuch? I understand that sometimes, once in a blue moon, when a news event catches an anchor off gaurd, those moments can make genuinely captivating television, as happened with Anderson Cooper on the ground with Hurricane Katrina. Listening to the 24-hour emotothons that are his dispatches from Haiti, however, is a bit like the difference between Meryl Streep in The DeerHunter and Streep in that movie where everyone sat around in that trailer home taking anti-depressants that never seemed to kick in. It's not just Cooper: when Haiti comes up in the teleprompter, every anchor within a 100-metre range dips their voice, lowers their lashes, and adopts this hushed, mopy tone, as if volume would allow their tempestuous emotions to get the better of them and whisk them towards the edge of geo-hysterical breakdown. That's the idea, anyway. What it actually calls to mind is that awkward, all-purpose sad face you pull when somebody tells you their cat died and you're not yet sure how seriously they intend to be about it. The networks appear to have lost the ability to deliver bad news; everything must come coddled in its own little jacket of pre-wrapped emotion — premotion — to spare you the discomfort of having your own reaction. Please. Get a grip. It's your job to report the news and our job to find that news upsetting, or joyous, as we see fit.

Is Obama keeping too many of his promises?

As someone who campaigned for Obama last year in the swing state of Ohio, source of all that is bright and beauteous, (for example: my wife), I sometimes get asked what I think of the job he's doing. It's a difficult question to answer of course. How he is really doing will obviously take a little longer to determine. Certain things, however, are evident. America has returned to the rule of law — an immensely reassuring development. It sets a good example to young children if the people in high office are not internationally-wanted criminals. Ex-Presidents and vice-presidents of the United States should be able to travel without fear of being arrested! Similarly, Obama has not invaded any country under a mistaken or illusory set of beliefs. This is also important: If millions are to die a bloody, agonising death it shouldn't be solely on account of the other guy looking at you funny. US military personnel have also stopped torturing their prisoners — good. Holding power drills to the heads of foreigners is very hard to explain as a policy, particularly to their respective embassies at Christmas time. Ditto, threatening to crush the testicles of their children — a definite no no! Foreigners can be so funny about things like that, bless them! The economy was also stopped from imploding and a second great depression narrowly avoided. Good. I like the movies made during the Great Depression — Sullivan's Travels is excellent — but the diet wasn't everything it could have been, from what I can gather. Last but not least, something is finally being to the healthcare system so you don't risk bankruptcy by catching a cold. Very welcome. Buying a plane ticket to England every time I got sick wasn't going to be workable in the long term. The flak Obama has caught for doing all this is a little puzzling. He may be the first president in US history to get into trouble for keep too many of his campaign promises. According to politifact.com he's "kept" 92 of the little bastards, "compromised" on 33, with 275 still "in the works." Okay so he's also "stalled" on 87 but in real terms he has only "broken" a measly 9. It simply not good enough. The American people expect far more inaction from their presidents. Maybe Bush spoiled them in that regard, but the current will of the people, as expressed in the recent Massachussetts senate race and interpreted by those experts at Fox news, couldn't be clearer: "Stop doing all the things you said you were going to do!" Just reading The New Yorker's account of Obama's first year is enough to make you feel pooped:
President Obama forestalled a second Great Depression, turned the attention of the executive branch toward real problems, restored lawfulness and decency to foreign and domestic policy, damped down the flames of global anti-Americanism, and staffed the agencies and departments with competent, public-spirited officials who believe in the duty of government to advance the general welfare... Under his leadership, climate change, health care, and financial regulatory reform were given the central role in American policy that they deserve.

Jan 20, 2010

Song of the day: Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa

This made me smile: a cover of Vampire Weekend's 'Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa' by Peter Gabriel and Hot Chip. "This fees so natural, Peter Gabriel too," sings Gabriel, adding, "It feels so unnatural, to sing your own name." The effect is oddly endearing : more Being John Malkovich than pomo-pompous.

What asymmetric warfare entails, apparently

"On June 9th, 2006, [Aamer] was beaten for two and a half hours straight. Seven naval military police participated in his beating. Mr. Aamer stated he had refused to provide a retina scan and fingerprints. He reported to me that he was strapped to a chair, fully restrained at the head, arms and legs. The MPs inflicted so much pain, Mr. Aamer said he thought he was going to die. The MPs pressed on pressure points all over his body: his temples, just under his jawline, in the hollow beneath his ears. They choked him. They bent his nose repeatedly so hard to the side he thought it would break. They pinched his thighs and feet constantly. They gouged his eyes. They held his eyes open and shined a mag-lite in them for minutes on end, generating intense heat. They bent his fingers until he screamed. When he screamed, they cut off his airway, then put a mask on him so he could not cry out."
— Zachary Katznelson, lawyer of one of the three men tortured to death at Gitmo in 2006. Their deaths were presented as suicides, and thus deemed acts "assymetrical warfare" by the US military. The three men, one of whom was just 17 when captured, were never charged with any crime and had in fact been cleared for release. The story has gone unreported in the American media, distracted by the fact that a Republican has finally managed to win elective office, but the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent and the Irish Times have not been so obliging.

Jan 19, 2010

Best film poster of the decade? You decide






I think Funny Games is the most original, Before Night Falls is the most memorable, The Life Aquatic the most stylish, and Catch Me If You Can the best from a big studio. Judged as aa species of advertising, American Beauty is the most effective: it gets your attention, feeds your curiosity and tells you sex is in the offing, but subtly. The Almodovar brightens up my day, The Departed is pure class and Fanboys is genius. But which is the best? Glaring omissions also welcome.

Quote of the day

“No fucking discipline” — Barack Obama's verdict on the McCain campaign, as reported in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's book Game Change

Jan 18, 2010

That Scorsese montage in full (at 1.43 mins)

There's a scene in John Carpenter's generally excellent 1982 remake of The Thing in which the survivors at the arctic base determine on a plan to work out who amongst them, if anyone, has been taken over by the aforementioned Thing. After pooling samples of their blood in a series of petri dishes Kurt Russell goes around the room, person by person, testing their blood with a small section of electrified wire: if the blood reacts in any way, it's the Thing. He lines up the petri dishes, pauses to cast a look around the room, then jabs the wire into the first dish: it makes a small, wet smoldering sound, like a cigarette being stubbed out in wine. Everyone sighs in relief. The next person: another damp fizzle. The third person: same again. About the fourth or fifth person, you're beginning to relax a little, which is of course when Russell lowers the wire into the blood and — all hell breaks loose. The blood leaps from the petri dish.... An almighty screech fills the room.... The Thing reveals itself. I thought of Carpenter's sequence last night, while watching the Golden Globes montage of Martin's Scorsese's work, wondering if Scorsese's blood would do something similar under test conditions. Call it cinema, call it rock n roll, call it some mixture of the two, but something is pumping through that guy's veins that isn't pumping through the next guy's. As Nick Hornby wrote, in another context, of a live performance by the J Geils band he once heard as a teenager:—
To me back then, this, not Tamla Motown, was the Sound of Young America — loud, baffling, exotic, cool, wild. It comes from the same place as Kramer in Seinfeld, and Surfin' Bird, and Papa-Oom-Mow-Wow, and James Brown being wrapped in a cape and being led off stage before bounding back to the microphone, and Muhammad Ali's boasts, and the insane celebrations when a contestant won a lawn mower on The Price is Right.
To which I would add the sight of Rupert Pupkin applauding himself in The King of Comedy, and the guys arguing over a what "mook" means in Mean Streets, and the kid's slapstick routines with his mother in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and Jodie Foster's pink-and-green sunglasses in Taxi Driver and Joe Pesci asking if he is funny twenty times over in Goodfellas*. Scorsese is a great reminder that no matter how sophisticated or literary a director can be, they are also, at root, sensational creatures — in his case quite literally so. After watching his movies you want to do anything — get drunk, dance, fire a gun, something, anything other than merely sit there, watching the TV, as I was last night. Maybe if I put my foot up against the screen and rocked it, like Travis Bickle, before pushing the whole thing over, I might get something like the right affect. I did no such thing, of course. That TV wasn't cheap. Instead I got up and paced around, explaining to my wife in a highly agitated manner why I was ready to concede that Scorsese might be — just might be — a genius, if that word is to be worth something after all. And then I sat down again and watched the rest of the telecast.

* Last year Intelligent Life asked me to provide an overview of Scorsese's films; this is what I said, more or less.

1. Mean Streets

Scorsese made several pictures about the mob, each more technically assured than the least, each with slightly less reason for existing. Shot for $300,000 in the summer of 1972, Mean Streets knows why it exists. It’s one of the great debuts in American cinema: boisterous, high-spirited, with a bouyancy that whisks it close to comedy, it's a cock-of-the-walk movie halfway between early Truffaut and a Ronettes song. Its got a spring in its step. Harvey Keitel’s fondness for his wastrel cousin, played by De Niro, is evident in every frame and De Niro has never been better: a long streak of nothing telling tall tales in a porkpie hat, he acts as if movemaking were a species of practical joke. He punks the movie. The scene in which they argue over the term ‘mook’ (“He called me a mook. What’s a mook?” “I dunno.” “You can’t call me a mook” etc) contains the seeds not just of Scorsese’s later career, but Tarantino’s, too.

2. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

In an alternative universe, this film would have been the harbinger of the great and varied career to come. Ellen Burstyn got Scorsese the gig; she felt that the script — about a mother and son traveling from Phoenix to Monteray in search of a better life —needed some salt and pepper. Again, it’s the rhythm of the movie that transfixes, with the backchat between Burstyn and her boy flying back and forth like Marx Brothers routines: nobody has caught the fond, fractious, flirtatious relationship between mothers and sons better. And this is Scorsese, remember. The men, meanwhile, prowl the periphery, huffing and puffing, occasionally blowing the door down, but it is Burstyn who holds firm for her Oscar. Here is one of the great facts about Scorsese, unnoticed even by him: he’s a terrific director of women.

3. Taxi Driver

For a while there, it all seemed to look so good. The beautiful Betsy (Cybill Shephard) is working as volunteer for a presidential nominee, alongside the cherubic Albert Brooks no less, when one day she is noticed by a taxi driver, a stringy looking fellow with a cheeky grin and curiously persistant manner. He is accompanied by a Bernard Hermann score that seems to swell with the size of his feelings for her. She says yes to a date. A saxophone soars. And.... they sit down to watch a porn movie featuring spermatazoa pulsing across the screen. I don't think craziness has ever been better presented on screen. Taxi Driver makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Surveying the carnage of the final scene, you may at first find yourself shocked but repeat viewings reveal a pall of inevitability: but of course this is where this was going. The plot has the lopsidedness of genuine delusion. It feels flush with Travis’s fever. De Niro is perfectly matte, like Oswald. Initially overawed by her co-star, Jodie Foster was taken out to breakfast by him, every day, until he bored her awe away.

4. Raging Bull

You know it’s the masterpiece because its in black-and-white and has Mascagni on the soundtrack, but its okay: you’re allowed not to like it. Raging Bull is not a very likeable film. “Jake fought like he didn't deserve to live” said Scorsese, recovering from hospitalization himself. It’s hard not to take the film as the smuggled psychobiography of an artist-addict hitting rock bottom. From the very first scene, in which De Niro asks Joe Pesci, his brother, to hit him square in the face, this movie is going one way — down. We hear tell of La Motta’s ascent but see never feel it. De Niro comes out of the gate with the relentlessness of a rapist — a “thug Othello” in Pauline Kael’s phrase — while the supporting cast win points for their defensive skills. Joe Pesci lets lose with some brilliant filth, while Cathy Moriarty, then 19, moves with the sublunary grace of a woman who knows how not to get hit.

5. After Hours

In 2000, Scorsese wrote a fan letter to Wes Anderson, praising the then 30-year old director for the delicacy, tenderness, and grace of his first two films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. Some found the act of patronage unlikely —a single snort from Jake La Motta’s nostrils, after all, would destroy Anderson over-fastidious world in an instant — but behind the glower of Scorsese’s reputation, a lighter, more puckish talent has always struggled to emerge; his sense of rhythm has always been an inch away from great comic timing. The King of Comedy was mere deconstruction, but After Hours is the real deal, a screwball misadventure about a yuppie (Griffin Dunne) on a fool’s errand through lower Manhattan after dark. It was Scorsese’s first film without De Niro in over a decade and the giddiness is palpable; Roseanna Arquette delivers a marvously nutty soliloquy about sex and The Wizard of Oz — as good a summary of the film’s concerns as can be imagined. Like Illeana Douglas and Vera Farmiga after her, Arquette has that bloom to her — brainy, vulnerable, a little loose — that always draws Scorsese in.

6. Goodfellas

If Raging Bull was the purest expression of will — that sheer, bloody-minded, tyres-in-mud obstinacy that typifies an addict hitting bottom — the films that immediately followed — After Hours, The Color of Money, The Last Temptation of Christ — feel a little like creative rehab: a guy going easy on himself, trying to relax, recharge his batteries, before stepping back into the ring again with Goodfellas. It may be his best film, certainly the best treatment of his most persistent theme: ubi sunt, passing glory. Tellingly, De Niro was happy to sit on the sidelines, leaving centre stage to Ray Liotta, laughing like a hyena at the thuggery going on around him, this wife, a punchy Lorraine Bracco, and Joe Pesci whose ‘Do I Amuse you?” speech is a masterpiece of spiraling dread. This is full-tilt fimmaking, firing on all cylinders. The movie traces a perfect arc, before burning up with its own heat. Its like watching a metor self-immolate.

7. Kundun

The camera cranes its neck to catch a single rocket hurtling through the air before ploughing into the wall of a small town in the Himalayan mountains, sending smoke and debris in every direction. It may be the most startling single act of violence in a Scorsese picture if only because of the picture in question: Scorsese’s film about the Dalai Lama. Many joked about his involvement, which came his way thanks to the screenwriter Melissa Mathisson, who also wrote the largely silent E.T. but who better to register peace than the director who has spent most of his career disturbing it? The movie has a hypnotic rhythm. It doesn’t tell a story so much as leaf through a series of episodes, many of the scenes lasting only 30 seconds or so, like someone riffling through the pages of a storybook. It sounds like a recipe for distraction, but it works: the movie casts a beautifully hushed spell. Watch it in the right mood and you will be gently wowed.

8. The Aviator

Think of one of Scorsese’s trademark shots: a fast tracking shot across a room towards an actor as he barks orders, or fires a gun, and you realize just how badly suited the director is to filming epics. Scorsese is an agarophobic, a street fighter. He likes things close and tight. Give him a long shot and he can’t wait to get wriggle out of it, which makes the series of epics that he made for Harvey Weinstein in the nineties all the more misbegotten. The Aviator stood a better chance than Gangs of New York: an epic about an agarophobic. The early scenes in Hollywood are dazzling, but as Di Caprio’s Howard Hughes descends into bug-eyed paranoia, he resolutely fails to take the audience with him. The fault was not just di Caprio’s — Scorsese himself seemed unable to summon the old Djins. The spirit is willing but the flesh tones are from memory.

9. The Departed

There is a pleasing irony to be had from the fact that Scorsese's Oscar finally came ot him, not courtesy of any of the tony epics with which he spent much of the 90s trying to wow the academdy, but for a real jackal of a picture about the mob, as low and snarling as anything he has made. That it is also not even his best mob picture is a second, unwanted irony that everybody did their best to ignore. It was the Irish mob this time, given gleeful voice by screenwriter William Monahan, with Leonardo di Caprio, Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon caught up in a game of cat-and-mouse so cross-hatched with betrayal, that only the rat in the closing credits appears to know what’s going on. It’s a strange centreless movie, beset by tonal wobbles, and climaxing in a bout of blood-letting so Jacobean in its intensity as to teeter into black comedy.

Song of the day: 'Up' by Michael Giacchino


The 2010 Golden Globe Awards: almost as much fun as an earthquake

The best moment of the evening came early: Monique's powerhouse of an acceptance speech, almost as draining as watching her movie. It was pretty much downhill from there. Winning for Grey Gardens, Drew Barrymore self-deprecated so much she seemed on the point of evaporating altogether and turning into a fine mist. Ricky Gervais veered, queasily, between the mischevious and the mean-spirited. Even Tom Hanks told a dud of a joke about Alec Baldwin that had him clawing back the audience's favour. When Hanks flubs it, you know an evening is in trouble. Baldwin, meanwhile, had the smartest idea and stayed away to help the people of Haiti, the cause du jour. Clooney looked positively envious: even humanitarian catastrophe seemed preferable to an evening spent listening to James Cameron deliver updates on the state of his bladder. Twice he mentioned the illustrious organ: once, upon winning 'Best Director', to tell us it was full, and again, upon winning 'Best Drama' to inform us that he had successfully voided it. Was he expecting applause? On the plus side, Michael Giacchino won best score for his beautiful waltzes in Up — a victory I thought unlikely after the battering everyone's eardrums received from James Horner's caterwauling Avatar score. Giacchino's win provided the evening's biggest aesthetic thrill, easily. Second best was the Scorsese montage. I don't know whether it's his editing rhythms, or hustling camera movements, but man, that guy's films look good spliced together like that. I felt so razzed watching it, I had to get up and pace around my living room quaffing orange juice until I calmed down again. Christoph Waltz gave an elegant, literary speech, nicely spun around the theme of globes and globalism — nice! — with a great description of Inglorious Basterds as Tarantino's "Big Bang" of a movie; I saw Tarantino nod at that, the wordsmith in him approving. Well said, sir, well said! I can't really remember what Meryl Streep said in her speech: she must be stuck for material, having given so many of these things. Jeff Bridges was lovely. He doesn't just reel off names: he singles each person out, makes eye contact, gives props, bigs them up in front of the whole audience. "Get a shot of her," he said, directing the cameraman towards his wife. Every woman watching swooned at that moment. Sandra Bullock — can't remember. Most fascinating were the two Cameron speeches: the moment he opened his mouth, all the breathable atmosphere seemed to be sucked from the room as surely as it was from the fictional moon of Pandora, whose noxious atmosphere will put you down in one minute and stop your heart in four. People really hate the guy, huh? Cameron knew it, too, and seemed intent on correcting any impression we may have that he is a fabulous self-important asshole, primarily by the canny trick of inviting everyone else in the room to be fabulous self-important assholes along with him. “We have the best job in the world, we really do," he said. " I just want you to give it up for yourself. What we do is, we make entertainment for a global audience, and that’s what the Golden Globes mean." Announcing another win for the blue people, Julia Roberts looked like she was having a hard time keeping down her dinner.

Song of the day: 'My Way' by JJ


Jan 17, 2010

Countdown to the Golden Globes

So the Golden Globes are tonight and my wife and I are chomping at the bit to beat one another into a fine pulp. I have a slight advantage over Kate with the Globes, which are awards by the Foreign Press Association, and I am, or used to be, a member of the foreign press. She's better at the Oscars, because she has a native's radar for where the love is — who's been plugging away, who's due, etc etc. But we've both learned a lot from the other so neither win by that much: it's always a vote here, a vote there. And my votes are still entirely not locked down. Waltz and Monique for supporting, obviously. Meryl Streep for best comic actress. Best original song: The Weary Kind. Score: James Horner. Foreign film: The Prophet. Animated Feature: Up. Best screenplay: Up in the Air. Best comedy/musical: 500 Days of Summer. After that things get a bit murkier, starting with best comic actor: Damon, Day Lewis or Downey? Best actor: Bridges or Clooney? Best actress: Mulligan or Bullock? As for best film/director, does it go Avatar/Bigelow or Hurt Locker/Cameron? I've got four hours to figure it out. Kate is beetling about the apartment with great sense of purpose. I don't like it. I don't like it one bit.

"Someone sends me the links every time there's a new one. I think I've seen about 145 of them! Of course, I have to put the sound down when I watch. Many times the lines are so funny, I laugh out loud, and I’m laughing about the scene that I staged myself! You couldn't get a better compliment as a director" — Oliver Hirschbiegel, director of Downfall (2004).

Books I am looking forward to in 2010


The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle (Viking)
Solar by Ian McEwan (Doubleday/Nan A. Talese)
The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris (Reagan Arthur Books/January)
Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America by Peter Biskind
The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis
, Jonathan Cape (May 11)
Innocent by Scott Turow (Grand Central Publishing)
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar)
The Ask by Sam Lipsyte (Farrar/March)
Private Life by Jane Smiley (Knopf /May 4)
The Men Who Would Be King by Nicole LaPorte (Harcourt)
The Waterproof Bible by Andrew Kaufman (Random House/Feb)
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel (Knopf Canada/April)
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Knopf/Jun 5)

"They mostly hunt at night. . . Mostly"

"As a boy in Chippawa, Ontario, James Cameron once sent some mice over the edge of Niagara Falls in a small submersible made from old mayonnaise jars, an Erector Set and a paint bucket. Another time, he made a hot-air balloon out of a dry-cleaning bag and some candles, floating it down the street until someone reported it as a U.F.O. and called the Fire Department. Together with the young Steven Spielberg’s experiments in civic alarum-raising — locking himself in the bathroom until the Phoenix Fire Department was summoned — Cameron’s excursions suggest two interlocking propositions: (1) If you want to know who is going to grow up to be a box-office titan, check out the rec­ords of your local Fire Department. And (2) nobody should be surprised if Balloon Boy grows up to be the proud auteur behind “Terminator Resurrection: This Time With Feeling.” — from my review of The Futurist: The Films of James Cameron by Rebecca Keegan for The New York Times