Nov 30, 2010

The first American review of 'In The Rooms'

"Shone's comic tone keeps a happier than expected ending free of mawkishness and offers some guarded optimism and self-acceptance, notions that work their way into Patrick's character with a hard-earned grace." — Publisher's Weekly
I can live with that — my ending mawk-free, my optimism on a tight leash, and my grace heard-earnt. Would that the same could be said for my first attempt at Christmas shopping this afternoon, a teary-eyed exercise in frustration.

Nov 29, 2010

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Carl Wilson on Celine Dion

"For a century or more, sentimentality has been the cardinal aesthetic sin. To say that a work is sentimental is perforce to damn it. To be sentimental is to be phony, manipulative... Double standards arise everywhere for sentimental music: excessive, formulaic, two-dimensional can all be positives for music that is not gentle and conciliatory, but infuriated and rebellious. You could say punk rock is anger’s schmaltz. Punk, metal, even social-justice rock like U2 or Rage Against the Machine, with their emphatic slogans or individuality and independence, are as much “inspirational” as Céline’s music is, but for different subcultural groups. “Subversion,” today, is sentimentality’s inverse: It is nearly always a term of critical approval." — Carl Wilson, Let's Talk About Love
Even thought it was was published in 2007, Wilson's book is my favorite music book of the year, edging out even the Keith Richards — the best since Nick Hornby's Songbook, and definitely the best I could have imagined being written about Celine Dion.

BEST FILMS OF THE 1960s

1. A bout de souffle
2. The Apartment
3. Jules et Jim
4. The Graduate
5. Belle de jour
6. The Misfits
7.
The Wild Bunch
8. Midnight Cowboy
9. The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg
10. Goldfinger

Nov 25, 2010

INTERVIEW: Kirsten Dunst

"She has worked flat-out for the best part of two decades, ever since she stole 1994’s Interview with a Vampire from Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt with her performance as an 11-year-old vampire, lapping up blood like a cat at a saucer of milk. With her two slightly pointed incisors, a smile that seems to begin and end at the corners of her mouth, and her drowsy, low-lidded gaze, Dunst has a perfect movie face, sphinxlike and luminous, somehow suggestive of great distances even in the tightest close-up. She was peppermint-fresh as one of the suburban Lolitas in The Virgin Suicides, after which a career of mall-rat Bacalls beckoned, brittle with their own ennui, but Dunst tacked in the opposite direction, clocking up a series of teen movies — Dick, Bring it On, Crazy Beautiful — notable for the uncondescending sincerity of her performance, and culminating in her M.J. in Spiderman, that most plastic of blockbuster franchises, but lit up with silent-movie yearning whenever Dunst was onscreen. Her string of award nominations and wins — best screen kiss, best onscreen match-up — are not the stuff of Oscar campaigns but they testify to formidable powers of chemistry with her co-stars."

— from my interview with Kirsten Dunst in New York magazine

Nov 20, 2010

Oh what a wonderful world (in which we live in)

"A new poll suggests that most white conservatives believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks. Where’s the proof?" — New York Times
This poll made my head hurt. The world envisaged by this data is impossible to imagine — a unicorn moon. A world in which discrimination against whites as as big of a problem as discrimination against blacks is a world in which everyone is discriminated against equally, i.e. a world in which no discrimination exists at all. That is the world conservatives believe we are living in? But how perfectly lovely! It truly is a wonderful world.

INTERVIEW: Ed Zwick

"Loosely adapted from Jamie Reidy’s bestselling memoir about the Viagra gold rush in the late nineties, Love and Other Drugs stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a womanizing pharmaceutical rep who falls in lust, and then in love, with a beautiful young woman with stage-one Parkinson’s played by Anne Hathaway. And if that suggests a plunge deep into disease-of-the-week territory, then you are reckoning without the four-star raunch with which the whole tale comes salted — sex scenes, sex tapes, onscreen nudity, an orgy and which may leave some in the audience wondering whether they are watching a film about Viagra, or on Viagra. The film marks a change of direction for the director, who is best known for films such as Glory, The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall, and Blood Diamond —handsomely-mounted epics which make big claims on both the moral high ground and the audience’s emotions, and which tend to attract the words “solid”, “stirring” and “old fashioned” from critics. If Love and Other Drugs has any precedent in Zwick’s work, it is the hit with which he kick-started his career, About Last Night, the 1986 romantic comedy starring Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, plus an assortment of sweaters to give even the most doctrinaire eighties revivalist pause. He has had his misfires, most notablyLegends of the Fall, a woozy piece of calendar-art classicism in which Brad Pitt attempted to outdo the Montana plains for mythological resonance; and while none of his movies have lost money, his last, Defiance, about Jewish resistance fighters in the Belorussian forest, struggled to cross the finishing line. The kind of epics Zwick used to specialise in are an endangered species in today’s recession-strapped Hollywood. “As in real life, the middle class is being squeezed,” he says. “If I madeGlory today, I would have to do with a platoon not a regiment.” — from my interview with director Ed Zwick for The New York Times

Films featuring runners and synthesisers: Gallipolli vs Chariots of Fire

A conversation between me and the wife after seeing Gallipolli last night on TCM. I had forgotten how beautifully photographed the movie was — all those horizontals, from the landscapes to the trajectories of the runners, all preparing you for the final, cruel horizontal of that bullet — but still found myself recoiling from the final dramatic cruelty: Mel Gibson does not run fast enough to deliver the news that will save his friend from going over the top.
"It's too cruel. It's like a bullet to the head of the audience."
"I liked it."
"But it is violates the dramatic shape of the film. Mel Gibson has been billed as the fastest thing on two legs and yet he doesn't get there in time."
"Isn't that the point? Even he couldn't get there in time. It's the futility of war."
"If Tom Hanks got shot in the first five minutes of Saving Private Ryan would you say that's the futility of war, too? No. The film has to obey basic dramatic rules. It's like the ending of The English Patient. I never got that. The reason Kristin Scott Thomas dies is because Ralph Fiennes is held up at by that border guard. That's not a tragedy. That's just a hitch in customs."
"But he's held up in customs because he is a man with no nationality."
"So he's punished for being a man without a country. I see. Okay. But the same thing doesn't apply in Gallipolli. Not only is the ending not intrinsic to the hero — it doesn't spring from a flaw we know him to have — its completely extrinsic — it springs from a flaw we know he doesn't have. We know he's not slow."
"That's why it's so sad."
"I thought it was masochism. Not the futility of war but the masochism of filmmakers making a film about war."
PAUSE.
"I think Saving Private Ryan would have been better if Ted Danson had been shot."
Here's another poser: which was the first film, set during the first few decades of the 20th century, to feature two runners running to the accompaniment of an all-synthesiser score — Gallipolli (Jean Michel Jarre) or Chariots of Fire (Vangelis)? They were released within two months of one another in 1981. But someone must have been first. Men running, in period, to an a-historical synthesiser score is simply too distinctive for two sets of filmmakers to have stumbled across it in the same year. Who was first?

Tidings of great joy: Day-Lewis to play Lincoln

"Daniel Day-Lewis will star as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” for DreamWorks. Friday’s announcement was made by Spielberg and Dreamworks co-chairman and CEO Stacey Snider. Project’s based on the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin with the adaptation by Tony Kushner. Spielberg will produce with Kathleen Kennedy. Story’s focused on the political collision of Lincoln and the powerful men of his cabinet on the road to abolition and the end of the Civil War." — Variety

REVIEW: The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell)

The Fighter is David O Russell's film about boxer Mickey Ward, an Irish bantamweight from Lowell Massachussetts famous for devastating his opponents, in late rounds, with a single blow to the kidneys, but who struggled to escape the needy suction-grasp of his scrappy, fractious family. Not least among these is his brother Dicky, here played by Christian Bale, an ex-boxer himself whose duties as Mickey's trainer are consistently squashed by his overriding need to smoke crack with his coco-pops. I've an allergy to over-hyped performances, which have an uncanny knack of turning out to be over-acted, but here the over-acting is built in from the start: an antic, emaciated jack-o-lantern, Dicky hoovers up attention from the documentary cameras following him around, supposedly to record his "comeback" for HBO but in fact to make a film about addiction. With his thinning hair and sunken eyes, which threaten at times to simply roll out of his skull and across the floor, Bale recalls something of the lean, crackerjack energy of De Niro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, powering this film along to such a ferocious degree that, for its first hour at least, The Fighter seems unbeatable. Scene by scene it has more of an unpredictable crackle, more coarse vitality, than any film released this year. Russell has a terrific feel for the black electricity running through this family. In addition to Bale's crack addict brother, we get a mother played by Melissa Leo, a chain-smoking dragon with ruby-red talons who cannot see why Mickey's career can't be managed entirely infra-dig, plus a small army of sisters, of varying shades of peroxide-blond, who show up for the most seemingly intimate of scenes — tete-a-tetes, arguments, even, at one point, a quiet Sunday morning scene with Mickey in bed with his girlfriend (Amy Adama) — in order to offer their opinions like some spiteful, caterwauling Greek chorus. You feel like Mickey is never going to escape this serpentine brood, which brings us to the only problem with The Fighter, namely the fighter at its centre. To put it bluntly: he ain't got no fight. He's a slugger and a champ, and his blow to the kidneys looks unsurviveable, but out of the ring, he's a pussycat, a distant relative of Wahlberg's befuddled stud in Boogie Nights, more fought over than fighting, his voice rising to soft imploring pitch as he tries to keep the peace between his warring factions. It took a crazy courage for Russell to make this film: the first motion picture about a codependent boxer. If Oprah walked on and handed him Melody Beattie's Co-Dependent No More the whole film would be over. All this has a basis in fact; even the small snippet of documentary footage showing the real-life Ward and his brother reveals a lop-sided double act in which Ward struggles to get a word in edge-wise. It was certainly decent of Wahlberg, who struggled for years to haul this film to the screen, to reproduce that dynamic so faithfully and allow himself to be so systematically overshadowed, but The Fighter visibly dims when Bale is off-screen, particularly during the long middle stretch of the movie in which Dicky serves time for assaulting a police officer. Simply put, Wahlberg can't hold the screen on his own, while his love scenes with Amy Adams serve only to remind us that there are few things less appetising than the sight of Mark Wahlberg plunging his tongue into some young actresses's mouth. Nobody's asking him to be Cary Grant but you can't help but wonder what a film The Fighter would have been if Russell had yoked to his film to a real powerhouse performer, or at least shown us why Mickey fought — who's face he imagined on the end of his glove. De Niro's Jake La Motta boxed his own shadow, fighting "as if he deserved to die" in Scorsese's words. Stallone's Rocky soaked up punches masochistically, on behalf of a country daring itself to win again. Wahlberg simply punches away, as if at a side of meat. You have no idea where those punches are coming from, or what they're connecting with. B

Nov 19, 2010

Most depressing headline ever

Afghan Hero Dog Is Euthanized by Mistake

Target the dog, right, survived a suicide bombing, but after she escaped from her adoptive family in Arizona, a shelter mistakenly administered a lethal injection.


A dead dog is bad enough. But a dead hero dog. And a dead hero dog euthanised by mistake? I mean, come on. What is the point of that story?

You know, the problem with you is....*

The problem with Fair Game is simple and it is this: the Wilson-Plame marriage starts to wobble. That's it. That's the single flaw that turns the film into drag. The film is a lopsided narrative to begin with, not a David-versus-Golitah victory story but a David-barely-survives-Goliath story. The deck is so unrelentingly stacked against them couple, that the idea they might begin to peel apart as a couple is simply too much. I know it 'happened' but it denies the audience the one thing they want, which is the sense of these two being brought together in the heat of battle. Plus it involves Penn and Watts in a marital meltdown acting workshop, never a pleasant experience at the best of times, but at a time when the audience has its eye on a much larger battle — that with the White House. It's a bit like All The President's Men, if Woodward and Bernstein had started to get on each other's nerves. Who cares?

*An occasional series devoted to a movie's problems when those problems can be distilled down to a single, correctable flaw from which everything flows — kind of the opposite of 'high concept.'

Nov 16, 2010

FLASH FORWARD: movies forthcoming in 2011

January 21
The Way Back (Weir, Harris, Farrell)
Newmarket

January 28
Restless (Van Sant)
Columbia

January
Haywire (Soderbergh)
Lionsgate

March 1
Certified Copy (Binoche, Kiarostami)
IFC Films

March 4
Rango (Verbinski, Depp)
Paramount

March 11
Red Riding Hood (Hardwicke, Seyfried)
Warner Bros

March 18
Paul (Mottola, Rogen)
Universal

April 8
Your Highness (Green, Portman)
Universal

April 15
Source Code (Jones, Gyllenhaal)
Summit

May 27
The Tree of Life (Mallick, Pitt)
Fox Searchlight

June 10
Super 8 (Abrams)
Paramount

June 24
Rise of the Apes (Franco)
20th Century Fox

July 1
Larry Crowne (Hanks, Roberts)
Universal

July 29
Cowboys and Aliens (Favreau, Ford)
Dreamworks

Sept 16
Straw Dogs (Lurie, Bosworth)
Screen Gems

Oct 21
Contagion (Soderbergh, Damon, Winslet)
Warner Bros

Dec 9
Hugo Cabret (Scorsese, Kingsley)
Sony

Dec 21
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Fincher, Mara)
Sony

Dec 23
The Adventures of Tin Tin: Secret of the Unicorn (Spielberg, Jackson)
Paramount

We Bought a Zoo (Crowe, Damon)
20th Century Fox

Dec 28
Warhorse (Spielberg)
Dreamworks

Nov 13, 2010

Quote of the day: Kevin Drum

"Any serious long-term deficit plan will spend about 1% of its time on the discretionary budget, 1% on Social Security, and 98% on healthcare. Any proposal that doesn't maintain approximately that ratio shouldn't be considered serious. The Simpson-Bowles plan, conversely, goes into loving detail about cuts to the discretionary budget and Social Security but turns suddenly vague and cramped when it gets to Medicare. That's not serious." – Kevin Drum, Mother Jones

Nov 12, 2010

REVIEW: Morning Glory (dir. Roger Michell)

For all the time we spend feeling guilty about being mindlessly entertained, or lamenting the endless distractions of the 24-hour industrial-entertainment complex, its amazing to me how little time we spend actually being entertained. Most of the comedies that are distributed by Hollywood are so gruellingly unfunny, most of its romances so bra-snappingly unromantic, that you could almost be forgiven for just giving up and watching back-to-back mumblecore movies, and come out calling them "unrelenting", "unflinching" or whatever it is we're supposed to say. Almost, but then a movie like Morning Glory comes along and you remember: oh that's what Hollywood does. It entertains. That's what entertainment feels like. It's entertaining — in the case of Morning Glory, so wantonly entertaining that you come out purring with pleasure, at a distance of roughly six inches above the sidewalk. I even softened up on the woman at the back of the cinema who insisted on greeting each joke with a blood-curdling shriek closely modelled on one of those sacrificial virgins in an old Hammer horror film. By the end I was sloppy with the milk of human kindness: ah, there she blows. It's a very good film.

So where did this come from?
It’s a bummer that any given episode in a network show like “Lost,” even at its most muddled, was tighter and conveyed greater respect for the audience’s intelligence (even as, yes, it tested your everlasting patience) than the entirety of “Morning Glory.” Ms. McKenna, who adapted “The Devil Wears Prada” for the screen, arms this script with laugh-out-loud lines, only to undercut them with soggy filler involving Becky’s romance with another producer, Adam (Patrick Wilson), and her equally suspense-free relationship with her reluctant new anchor, the gruff and boozy Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford). The bland wall-to-wall pop songs — see Becky dress, cue “New Shoes” — drum the obvious home.
It's Manila Blah-Blahnik, writing in the New York Times, and evidently not having as much fun as she had watching Philip Seymour Hoffman going slowly bald in Synecdoche New York. Or an episode of Lost. Quite why the comparison with a TV conspiracy thriller about a bunch of plane crash victims stranded on a desert island suggested itself to Blahnik, other than as a kooky join-the dots exercise involving the production company of producer JJ Abrams, is a mystery that passeth human understanding. If Lost is your benchmark for chick flicks, then Morning Glory is almost certainly going to come up empty, I'm afraid. So, for that matter, is Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment, or All About Eve, all of which, the last time I looked, resolutely failed to feature any desert islands, crashed aeroplanes or smoke monsters, in this temporal plane or the next. That is their loss. Maybe they could do with more bite.
A few of Mr. Michell’s previous films, notably “The Mother”and “Enduring Love,” have had bite, unlike “Morning Glory,” which is so insistently, at times desperately, upbeat that it feels strung out on a cocktail of antidepressants and bad test-audience results.
A classic maneuvre: tar a commercial hit with inference of cunning or calculation, dial it up to 'desperation', then sit back and pull its wings off ("Yes it works, in its irksome 'laugh-out-loud' way, but only because it intends to be funny".) Even David Edelstein, a critic with an alarminglyhigh tolerance for having a good time, manages to pull a scowl, calling the film "the latest cookie-cutter chick comedy by The Devil Wears Prada screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna". If that was meant as a sneer, it makes no headway in our house, where The Devil Wears Prada is revered on an almost daily basis as a model of tart, lemony screenwriting and spiritual largesse, marred only by a flimsy final act, a flaw Morning Glory irons out beautifully, much in the spirit of an Olympic mountaineer this time remembering to top the snow-capped peaks of excellence with a biodegradable flag. But I digress. Edelstein has faint praise to dish out.
Morning Glory isn’t terrible. It has a lot of craft, a lot of star power, and a fair number of laughs. What irks me is that the filmmakers settle for so little. They poke fun at Daybreak, at the whole artificial, shallow, self-satisfied genre of TV morning shows, yet they approach their own genre — the comic chick flick — with no more inspiration than the people who make those shows. They follow the formula, no matter how insipid and predictable, because they know their core audience won’t have anything else to do and it’s better if they’re only half awake.
Wake up, people! Comedy is a subjective business, one's man's goose is another man's gander and all that, but come on. Insipid. Predictable. Formulaic. Cookie-cutter. Not terrible. I hope Edelstein is not holding his breath for something better because Morning Glory is about as good as Hollywood gets right now — or maybe he fancies his chances with Due Date? Over at Hollywood Elsewhere, Jeff Wells has a theory.

Critics have obviously been jettisoned from newspapers over the last few years in much the same way that crusty older news guys like Harrison Ford's Mike Pomery, an old-school Dan Rather type, have been put out to pasture by TV networks. And so they're hardly snickering at Pomery's predicament. They're saying, "Hey, that's us!" They resent that Morning Glory presents Ford mainly as a grumpy, semi-alcoholic bear who doesn't get it, and not as a semi-good guy who represents an in-depth news tradition that's being slowly weakened or diminished... They feel that Morning Glory is basically embracing the modern media's general tendency to embrace fluff over substance, tweets over news articles and Ben Lyons-type movie enthusiasts over critics with experience and taste with a background of serious study and decades of film-watching.

A review by the Christian Science Monitor's Peter Rainier confirms the thesis.

Morning Glory is about how Rachel pulls Daybreak out of the basement by, you guessed it, dumbing it down ever further into imbecility," he writes. "This might be an acceptable premise for a comedy except for one thing: The filmmakers endorse the imbecility. Morning Glory is a tribute to low standards and high ratings - just the sort of thing Hollywood can get firmly behind.

There's nothing quite like the phrase "dumbing down" to mark a writer's brave stand against the rising tide of cliche. There's no way to settle this, outside of a duel, or meeting back here in thirty years and see which one we're still watching:
Morning Glory or Synecdoche New York. For now, I will simply have to make do with raising the mighty sword of justice, the one forged in the smithy of my soul from the uncreated conscience of my race, and by the power invested in me by this blog, declare that the critics are flat-out wrong on this one and that Morning Glory will go forth from this day, live long and prosper in the hearts of men, women and children throughout this benighted republic. B+

Nov 11, 2010

INTERVIEW: Jake Gyllenhaal

"Jake Gyllenhaal has always given the impression of a man buoyed by an immense, benign secret. In Donny Darko that secret was a six-foot rabbit who foretold the end of the world. In The Day After Tomorrow, it was the actual end of the world as imagined by German effects wiz Roland Emmerich. In Brokeback Mountain, it was the love that dare not speak its name between two Wyoming cowboys. In Zodiac, it was the identity of the serial killer who terrorised San Francisco during the summers of 1968 and 1969. In Gyllenhaal’s new movie the secret he sits atop is even more closely guarded and fiercely sought-after: how to get Anne Hathaway into bed on a first date. “When I first read the script, I just knew, I gotta get this, I gotta get this one, I gotta get on it, I just loved it,” says Gyllenhaal when I meet him for a beer in the garden of The Greenwich Hotel in Tribeca. Wearing jeans, a check shirt and a month’s growth of beard, he is sat aslouch his chair, his shirt open to reveal a delicate gold chain across his chest, giving off an almost childlike level of self-contentment." — from my interview with Jake Gyllenhaal in Esquire

REVIEW: Ava Gardner by Lee Server

"So here is how an evening out with Ava Gardner used to go. You would arrive at her place in the Hollywood hills and she would be in the pool, naked, or slouching around the apartment, half dressed. Which guy were you? Her 6 O’ Clock or her 8 O’ Clock? Did you pass another guy on the way out by the potted palm? Then you were her 8 O Clock. Fix yourself a drink would you? She had to take a bath. She would finally emerge, looking devastating, muttering something about having lost her diaphragm, and you would go to dinner; everyone would be looking and you would feel the luckiest guy on the planet. Then you would go on to a club, do the rhumba, and get properly drunk; if you were unlucky Sinatra would track you down, and would appear out of nowhere and start screaming Then the evening would really get started. What you did with yourself after that point was entirely up to you.

Sadly, the real miss Gardner is no longer round to hit the town, but Lee Server’s biography Ava Gardner is as close as we will ever get to an evening with the woman herself. Which is fine. Really it is. A book is just…. great. Honestly. Just… dandy. It’s pretty big at 500 plus pages, but there’s a large crowd gathered around this beauty and Server wants to capture them all, from the wounded T Rex that is Sinatra right down to the guy who shot her first screen text for MGM: it consisted simply of Gardner carrying a vase of flowers across a room and placing them on a table. She did it badly too: wooden and awkward and unsure of her vase placement. But, said the test director, “When Ava’s face came on that screen every guy in the room fell in love with her.”

Still, something was missing. It was a good six years before her film career took off and in that time, MGM did what they could to packaged her as standard cheesecake, fresh from the farm — filling in the dimple on her chin, shaking some of the South out of that husky voice of hers, posing her with a tennis racket in her hands, milking cows, feeding chickens; she would sneak back into the publicity office, and timidly peek at the pictures and murmur to herself, “Jeez, from the way people went on so, I thought I was better looking than that”. Your first thought is: this is the Love Goddess who brought Sinatra to his knees? She says “jeez” ? As Ava gives the runaround to the wolves of the MGM executive suit, blushing and giggling demurely as she goes, Server’s book turns into a form of whodunit, as the reader starts to wonder, what on earth happened to this sweet little thing? Where did she go?

Then Mickey Rooney shows up — a squat, priapic, yowling boy king reaching for women like they were icecream sundaes. According to Rooney, Gardner’s body had something “extra” “down there”, although he had to ask her to marry him 25 times to get to first base. Soon, it was Ava who was wandering over to him on the golf course and growling “lets fuck” — she developed “such a technique that no man would ever dominate her in bed again” — and within a year the bashful farm girl was taking a carving knife to Rooney’s sofa suite. Even by Hollywood’s standards, Gardner’s despoilation was so sudden and vertiginous as to take your the breath away, although by the time she hooks up with Howard Hughes this spitfire is giving as good as she gets; when she found out that Hughes was spying on her she took his two front teeth out with a bronze ornament. Sinatra, on the other hand, she would find most responsive to ashtrays.

Needless to say, her film career had found the jolt it was looking for and by the age of 23, with marriage number two under her belt, she was ready to lure Burt Lancaster to his doom in the Killers, where she played a woman in black satin called Kitty, which given what Kitty gets up to, is a bit like calling a ravening wolf Fido. Guided by director Robert Siodmak – “he focussed the camera on her boredom and restlessness” writes Server, Gardner “floats though the film as a kind of dream image, fever-inducing, as much talked about — thought about — as seen”. She was poised for her third marriage (to Sinatra) and for a string of movies in which she “exuded a happy-go-lucky eroticism, like a Vargas girl come to glorious life.”

This is great stuff — as inflamed as any writing about Ava Gardner out to be but also subtly attuned to the mixture of acting technique, direction and miscellaneous voodoo that make up great screen performances. Server gets movie stars, and he gets movies, which is saying something: most film biographies paw so loosely at their subjects as to leave you wondering if their writers have even visited a cinema. But Server is acute when he needs to be and dumbstruck when he needs to be; he reserves his judgments for the films and absolutely refuses to judge the people who make them —an almost perfect blend of qualities in a Hollywood biographer. This is every bit as thrilling as Server’s previous biography of Robert Mitchum, and it says something that when Mitchum and Gardner meet, on the set of My Forbidden Past, the moment has a real charge — these two hard-drinking hellions with their bruised disdain for the acting profession and moments of blind grace. That’s quite a trick for a biographer to pull off — to both immerse himself in his subjects, and yet make them utterly his own at the same time. I can’t wait to find out who he’s doing next."

— my review of Lee Server's Ava Gardner for the Sunday Times, 2006

Nov 10, 2010

REVIEW: Sunset Park by Paul Auster

"Getting it is pretty much all there is to an Auster novel — it’s all there is to get. Starting with 1985’s New York Trilogy, he has written 14 novels whose aims and preoccupations are now worked out with the absent-minded perfection of a man whipping through a cross-word puzzle he has himself devised. Their plots are simple. A male writer or intellectual lives out a life of monkish ritual, cauterized by grief for a missing family member, until one day, he is asked to solve a mystery, or complete some quixotic task that drops in out of the blue. In The Music of Chance, the hero is asked to build a brick wall whose sole purpose, as I recall, is to symbolize the meaninglessness of human endeavour, a theme which appears on page 23, 34 37, 42, and thereafter at regular intervals, like a dripping tap, until some reader thinks to join the dots and publish their doctoral thesis entitled “Risky Business: Chance and Late Capitalism in the Fiction of Paul Auster”. Auster’s work would be inconceivable without the existence of post-graduate education in America. Half a century ago, Samuel Beckett chiseled out works with the last-gasp austerity of a man carving his name the wall of his prison cell. Now we have Auster, essaying the themes of High Modernism for a readership of people paid, or paying, to study Beckett for a living — coffee-table modernism for the guest-lecturer circuit. There’s no crime in that, just a terrific comedown from the aesthetic high-mindedness in which the tales come wrapped. When he first appeared on the scene, Auster’s tales were hazily abstract parables that turned up their nose at milieu or period. These days, he tickles the concerns of Democrat-voting, PEN-supporting, semi-tenured Brooklyn bohemians with the same mixture of guile and flattery with which John Grisham secures his readers in middle-management." — from my review of Paul Auster's Sunset Park for The Sunday Times