Feb 28, 2010

Reputations through the looking glass

"Quite like what one would expect from such a match of filmmaker and material and also something less, this Alice in Wonderland has its moments of delight, humor and bedazzlement. But it also becomes more ordinary as it goes along, building to a generic battle climax similar to any number of others in CGI-heavy movies of the past few years... It all seemed like such a natural fit -- Burton and Lewis Carroll, Depp as the key component in fiction's most eccentric tea party..." — Todd McCarthy, Variety
When are people going to stop being disappointed by Tim Burton? Every time he comes out with a movie, people line up to say "wow, I expected better. It seemed like such a good fit: 'Burton plus X'. The visual possibilities seem endless, but that's all this movie is: a triumph of art direction over direction." They've said it about every movie of his since Batman. It's not like there's this vast back-catalogue of excellence from which the new film is a shrugging departure. The way I remember it, he peaked with Edward Scissorhands, burned out with Batman and has turned out movies of a consistently average texture (great visuals, skimpy characters, plot) ever since. Either Burton has cornered the market in audience memory wipes, or else people need to readjust their expectations of how good he is exactly. His problem is the exact opposite of Woody Allen's: every film of Allen's since Bullets Over Broadway has been judged a "return to form", even though he was supposed to have returned to the form the last film he made. Or if not that one then the one before that. He just can't stop returning to form. His form is forever being lost so that it can be returned to again. With Burton it's "a disappointment from a master" even though the master has been disappointing us for the best part of two decades. Maybe this is as good as he gets. I'm reminded of a comment Martin Scorsese made about critics who find his recent films unworthy of his reputation as the World's Greatest Filmmaker. "I'm doing the best I can," he said plaintively, meaning: get your expectations off my back.

How not to spoil a film's ending (or beginning)

"I'll be reviewing the film when it opens in the spring, but let me say in advance that the ending is an absolute humdinger. (No need to avert your eyes: when it comes to surrendering secrets, I'm like Jack Straw at the Chilcot Inquiry.)" — Ryan Gilbey, New Statesman
That's not good enough, I'm afraid. The only way to not give an ending away is not to say "this movie has a really great ending and I'm not going to give it away."The only way to do it is to say nothing at all. How many times have you worked out a film's trick ending solely on the basis that someone had told you it had one? Thanks to Gilbey's article, hundreds of people who didn't know that The Ghost Writer had a twist ending, now do; the twist stands a 50%/50% chance of not being guessed, whereas before it was 100%. No. The only way to preserve the mystery is to not alert people to its presence in the first place. An even bigger problem for critics, though given less attention, is how not to give away the beginnings of movies. I love the beginnings of movies more than any other part, and that not just a catty way of saying Hollywood can't do endings anymore (although it can't.) There is nothing quite as lovely, to my mind, as the gradual unfurling of a film in the mind of the viewer, as happily blank as the screen itself. Then come our first impressions of the characters, the first stirrings of a plot, the inking in of details, textures, complications. Spielberg's are the best: think of Oscar Schindler inserting a Nazi party pin inserted into his lapel; the single drawn nail prized from a ship's bow in Amistad. He's got a natural empathy for the ignorance in which a moviegoer takes their seat, allied to showman's flair for scene-setting. De Palma always gets off to great starts: remember the girl and the suitcase and the bomb at the beginning of The Untouchables. Bombs can be an excellent idea (see also Casino, English Patient, The Hurt Locker, Touch of Evil); so can putting the audience on guard and just letting them sweat. Silence can be golden (see WALL-E, Days of Heaven). A solitary figure jogging through trees can work wonders (see Silence of the Lambs, Birth, Last of the Mohicans). All-important is that the images lead you on, invite you in: they are the fiercest test of a director's visual storytelling skills. Endings bring out the alpha males in the directorial pack; beginnings draw forth the mystery merchants, the seducers and backhand-slicers. Here are some of my recent favorites. Please feel free to suggest more.

F A V O R I T E - O P E N I N G - S C E N E S

— Birth (man, jogging in snowy central park, drops dead)

— Fearless (man walking through a cornfield, running into other people as he goes)

— The Untouchables (a bar, a man, a girl, a briefcase, a bomb)

— Mystic River (a fist of gathering dread as a father finds out the unthinkable)

— The English Patient (Juliette Binoche's heart broken just as the Germans attack)

— Close Encounters of the Third Kind (sand, sun, maps, aeroplanes...)

— WALL-E (solitary robot trundles through an empty city: who built him?)

Fly Away Home (a mother, her daughter, a car, a crash)

— The Apostle (Duvall goes from aggressor to saviour in the space of a few scenes)

— Amistad (a nail, slowly prized free, by a slave: the movie's themes in a nutshell)

The Silence of the Lambs (woman jogging through the woods, or is she fleeing?)

Anne Hathaway: Love And Other Drugs

'To hear it from a trusted research-screening informant, Anne Hathaway's performance as Jake Gyllenhaal's Parkinson's-afflicted love interest in Ed Zwick's Love and Other Drugs is "wonderful, really wonderful...she knocks it out of the park." Hathaway's Love and Other Drugs performance, in short, sounds like the first strong contender for a 2010 Best Actress Oscar.' — Hollywood Elsewhere
I've got a lot of time for Zwick. Glory, Legends of the Fall, and The Siege all exhibited solid, artisinal virtues; Blood Diamond and Defiance marked a distinct step-up. He would appear to be on a roll right now. And the last few years at the Oscars have felt terribly boysy. We haven't had a doomed romance since Titanic and we haven't had a good one since The Bridges of Madison County.

Raging Bull: why Scorsese had to hit bottom first

"The air is thin in Telluride; it is not an ideal locale for a lifelong asthmatic—especially a physically and mentally exhausted one. Scorsese more or less collapsed there, and immediately on his return to New York he collapsed again and was taken to a hospital, bleeding from every orifice. His condition was life-threatening; his girlfriend at the time (eventually his wife), Isabella Rossellini, had to leave the country for work and later told Peter Biskind, author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls—a history of Hollywood in the 70s—that she did not expect ever to see Scorsese alive again. The doctors told him that he had no platelets in his blood, the result of an interaction between his asthma medicines, other prescription drugs, and the cocaine that he then regularly abused. They told him that he was in imminent danger of a brain hemorrhage. They pumped him full of cortisone and ordered total bed rest. In time, he began to recover, at which point De Niro visited him in the hospital. Like La Motta, Scorsese had touched bottom, and the actor judged his friend was ready to hear yet another pitch for Raging Bull. He was right. “I couldn’t understand Bob’s obsession with it, until, finally, I went through that rough period of my own,” Scorsese recalls. “I came out the other side and woke up one day alive… still breathing.” — Richard Schickel, Vanity Fair
Raging Bull is the best film about hitting bottom I've ever seen. There are no drugs in it, but it is physiologically rooted in psychic burnout, spiritual exhaustion, the pure, pummeling will power of the blind-charging addict, ramming his head into every available wall. The film purports to show the rise and fall of Jake La Motta, and while we see his rise, we do not feel it: the film is all descent, from its very first scene in which he implores his brother (Joe Pesci) to punch him in the face. If you want highs then Goodfellas is your movie: that's the film where Scorsese successfully transposes, on an almost cellular level, the feeling of what it is to get high on cocaine. It's easily his most triggering film. But Raging Bull is pure punishment, abrupt descent, black ice.

T O P - T E N - V I E W S - F R O M - T H E - B O T T O M *
1) The Shining by Stephen King

2) Raging Bull by Martin Scorsese

3) NyQuil by Raymond Carver

4) Mark Rothko's Black on Grey paintings

5) Gary Oldman's bad guys in The Professional, True Romance

6) Poses by Rufus Wainwright

7) The Angel on the Bridge by John Cheever

8) Jackson Pollock's Autumn Rhythm

9) The Crack-up by F. Scott Fitzgerald

10) Martin Sheen's performance in Apocalypse Now

*A very different thing from works that are explicitly about hitting bottom.

My afternoon with Mr Brainwash

'It’s not hard to see what Banksy saw in this chatty bamboozler, with his shambolic energy, paint-spattered jeans, showstopping displays of humility and racoonish pallor. He is a dead ringer for the young Stanley Kubrick — or maybe a Gallic John Belushi, porkpie hat pushed back jauntily on his head, his heavy-lidded eyes containing just a hint of panic, as if expecting police to arrive any moment and take him away. “A truck could hit me tomorrow,” he says. “But I am unstoppable. I ’ave such strength in me. Banksy knew this. That is why he chose me. Not Damien ’irst. He chose me.” We draw up in front of his portrait of Banksy depicting the artist as a hooded monkey.

“He is a guy with a thousand faces,” Guetta says. “Even to me. I don’t know ’is real face.”

“You don’t even know what he looks like?”

“Even if I do know it, I wouldn’t put it.”

“But surely if you’ve met him you must have . . .”

“Whatever. I don’t put it. I would describe ’im as a guy who is taking off a mask and there is another mask. He takes off the second one and there is a third one . . .”

The person he most reminds you of is Dennis Hopper’s nutty photographer in Apocalypse Now, losing himself in rhapsodic paens to the genius of Colonel Kurtz'

— from my interview with Mr Brainwash in The Times

Feb 24, 2010

REVIEW: The Ghost Writer (dir. Polanski)

For about an hour The Ghost Writer is as good as people say. The atmosphere is crisp and spooky. The feel the weather in your bones. Ewan McGregor pads aorund the hi-tech beachhouse of ex prime minister Piers Brosnan, ostensibly to help him with his memoirs, but really to trip over clues leading him to the truth of a series of war crime allegations. The atmosphere of the house is blunt, weirdly jovial, but charmless — the slight deadness in the air you get around power. Ive never liked Brosnan as much as I did in this role: sweaty in tennis gear, he plays the humorlessness of powerful men to perfection. McGregor seems snub-nosed, cheeky, a little stupid. The role is a bit of a potato: he pads around picking up clues left by his predecessor, who met with an untimely end on the beach but not before completing the bulk of the plot's investigative footwork. All McGregor has to do join the dots, something he does at such a snail's pace the movie sometimes slows to a complete standstill. There's a sort-of car chase that just turns into a nice drive through the countryside; and any film whose plot is solved by someone typing a person's name into Google — bingo! he's a member of the CIA! — is a little in the undernourished side. Robert Harris's thriller was one of those books, like the Da Vinci Code, that drops odd clues and happenings in the reader's lap every other chapter, but never quote rouses itself to a fully-charged up plot. It's much better at atmosphere, and Polanski is hardly the man to rectify that imbalance: give the man a pea-souper and you won't see the man for days on end. Still, for an hour or so I was pleasantly tickled and even relieved to enter a world where torture is treated as a serious crime, and even association with CIA's rendition program is enough to get a British Prime Minister indicted at the Hague. Ah, the comforts of fiction! I left the theatre to find it still raining.

Feb 22, 2010

Watching the BAFTA Awards 2010

If there's was a theme running through the whole evening — or indeed British filmmaking in the last few years — it was that "gritty" "street" and "contemporary" win the day against all comers. Almost every other clip featured peeing, barfing, or verbal cheekiness of some form or another. The prevailing humor was I'm-crap British self-deprecation. The streetwise A Prophet beat out the historical drama The White Ribbon for foreign film. An Education's story about a May-December romance between a married older man and a teenage girl, lost out to Fish Tank's story about a May-December romance between an older married man and a teenage girl set on a housing estate. And the Hurt Locker beat Avatar — exactly the kind of Big American Movie the Brits like to look down on. Christoph Waltz gave another charming, literary speech. Duncan Jones got beautifully choked up. Vanessa Redgrave performed an elegant and moving curtsy for Prince William. (Who'd have thought I'd ever get teary over a curtsy?). Rupert Everett looked like he'd got stuck in traffic and sent a dermatologist along in his place. Nobody appeared able to read from an autocue. Colin Firth spoke movingly about the guy who came repair his fridge. Mulligan looked mildly sick. And Bigelow was pure class — right now, the streets of London are lining up with British men eager for instruction on how they might impress such a creature.

Is this the greatest screen actor of all time?

Kate just asked me who I thought the best screen actor of all time was. I thought about it for a bit then said "Cary Grant or Daniel Day Lewis. I would have said Brando but only when he was young. I can't sign off on all that self-destruction. All that is most pretentious about Apocalypse Now is his doing. What about you?" She said, "Paul Newman." I like her answer better, I think.

Better than Streep? How about these

'Has she received too much recognition or too little? Trying to quantify an answer is really just trivial showbiz math, pseudoscientific data marshaled in support of a conclusion that is already axiomatic: Meryl Streep is the best screen actress in the world. I’m not inclined to disagree. A case could conceivably be made for Isabelle Huppert or Juliette Binoche or some other French actress, but everybody knows France is different.' — A O Scott, NYT
No. Streep is too smart —too intellectually self-aware. Too much craft, not enough abandon. There's a light dusting of self-consciousness to everything she touches right now. Nothing she can do can hide her basic superiority — to other actresses, to the movies, the audience. And she is: she is superior. Why hide it? Scott quotes the killer line from Pauline Kael: “It could be that in her zeal to be an honest actress she allows nothing to escape her conception of a performance.” Nobody has rebutted that yet, Even her hardiest fans would be the first to admit that she is above being a mere movie star. The best screen actors combine both craftsmanship and voltage. Newman. Bergman. Brando. Day-Lewis. Off hand, I can think of at least five actresses who are turning in better performances at the moment, one of them American: Tomei, Blanchett, Binoche, Winslett, Swinton. That's not to say that Streep isn't enjoying herself, settling into her status as "the greatest screen actress in the world". It may be the greatest role she's ever taken on, like Katherine Hepburn before her — the demure royal, gracefully batting back the compliments.

Feb 21, 2010

The Best of Maggie Gyllenhaal: Sherrybaby

1. Sherrybaby
2. Secretary
3. Crazy Heart
4. World Trade Centre
5. Happy Endings
We've seen a lot of female alcoholic/addicts over the last ten years. Of all of them — Tilda Swinton in Julia, Anna Hathaway in Rachael Getting Married, Jennifer Connelly in House of Sand and Fog — Gyllenhaal gets the top prize: drunkus emeritus. She gets the ambivalence, the indignity of Sherry Swanson, returning home to New Jersey after three years in prison, pissed at the things she is desperate to have back, ready to throw it all away in single flash of anger. Gyllenhaal understands hunger, which makes her perfect at the slutty end of the spectrum. In Secretary, and Happy Endings, she plays women with so few boundaries they're almost skinless — they're turned on by air. She's a cat in sunlight. No actress her age could have fallen in love with Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart and put the two of them on such an equal footing. And she is simply formidable in World Trade Centre. One day, she'll get her Sally Field moment: enjoy her now while she's at her best. She's one of my favorite American actresses at the moment.

BEST FILM of 2000: You Can Count On Me

1. You Can Count On Me A-
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon A-
The Contender B+
Traffic B+
Castaway B+
Erin Brockovich B+
7. Sexy Beast B
O Brother, Where Art Thou? B
9. Wonder Boys B
In The Mood For Love B-

BEST FILM of 2001: The Piano Teacher

1. The Piano Teacher A
2. The Royal Tenenbaums A-
3. Memento B+
4. Mulholland Drive B+
5. Lovely And Amazing B+
6. Together B+
7. Waking Life B+
8. The Deep End B+
9. Monsters Inc B+
10. Ocean's Eleven B

BEST FILM of 2002: Catch Me if You Can

1. Catch Me If You Can A
2. The Bourne Identity B+

Minority Report B+
Panic Room B+
Narc B+
6. Adaptation B+

About Schmidt B
Hero B
Lilo & Stitch B
24 Hour Party People B

BEST FILM of 2003: Mystic River

1. Mystic River A
2. Finding Nemo A-
3. Lost in Translation B+
4. Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World B+
5. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King B+
6. Thirteen B+
7. Pirates Of The Caribbean B+
8. House Of Sand And Fog B
9. American Splendor B
10. Capturing The Friedmans B