Apr 29, 2011

Wedding highlight: the household cavalry

What was the thinking behind these guys? That your average Visigoth would be too dazzled to do anything but ask for a photograph? The highlight for me, together with the hymns.

Apr 28, 2011

The summer blockbuster goes retro

Last year the blockbuster moved inward, to ponder such questions as whether we are all figments of Leonardo Di Caprio's imagination. This year, the movement is backward, with the arrival of the retro superhero flick. First, in June, we have X-Men First Class:—
The film is a prequel to the first three movies,[2] set during the early 1960s, with John F. Kennedy as president of the United States. X-Men: First Class parallels the history of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights Movement. The villains of the film will be the Hellfire Club.[3]
That is followed in July by Joe Johnstone's Captain America: The First Avenger.
In 1942, Steve Rogers is deemed physically unfit to enlist in the U.S. Army and fight the Nazis in World War II. Volunteering instead for Project: Rebirth, a secret military operation, he is physically transformed into a super-soldier dubbed Captain America. With sidekick Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), he fights the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), Hitler's treacherous head of advanced weaponry, whose own plan for world domination involves a seemingly magical object known as the Tesseract.[9]
This seems important for several reasons. First: improved production design. The blockbuster has been succumbing to terminal rust for years now; rare indeed is the summer movie which doesn't mudde through a monotone palette of mud browns and apocalyptic grays, as if the producers had accidentally left a Terminator in the wash. Either than or things are too anonymously hi-tech, the heroes encased in wall-to-wall tungsteen, like Iron Man, living out his antiseptic playboy fantasies in an minimalist Malibu apartment. The gleaming new or the irretrievably skuzzed-up: these are the two looks. When Downey jr took in some flickering old super-8s, featuring a dapper John Slattery as his father, it pointed a way out of the impasse, one going through the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper & Pryce, as Matthew Vaughn has realised, too, in the casting of January Jones in X-Men First Class. With her Hitchcock blonde looks and ice-popsicle manner Jones is practically a period detail unto herself, at least as much as the Dr Strangelove-style Pentagon, or Kennedy-era lapels. Secondly: a brief halt to the cinematic arms race. The use of the cuban missile crisis as a backdrop in X-Men is telling. We passed Mutually Assured Destruction at the movies many moons ago. Halfway through the Matrix trilogy, I worked out that given the infinitely downloadable resources of both Neo and Agent Smith there was no reason, theoretically, why those movies need never end. Both they, and we, were trapped in an eternal loop of oneupmanship, a closed circuit of endless escalation, from which we would never be able to escape. And so it proved. Taking us back to the second world war (Captain America), or the cold war (X Men), constitutes a rejuvenatory return to a period when plots came in smaller, more maneagable sizes and a nuclear bomb going off actually mattered, if only for reasons of historical continuity. Each film must leave the world exactly as the history books found it — a worthwhile discipline and a useful way of stemming megalomaniacal plot swell. Last but not least, you will not wish to slit your wrists after watching them. Recent years have found cinemagoers clamoring for an end to war-on-terror subtexts (The Dark Knight), debates on the efficacy of torture (Star Trek), and jingoistic celebrations of war in the middle East (Transformers) alike. The retro blockbuster instead signals a return to the innocent boosterism of the forties and fifties — the golden age of comics — when superheroes wore the American flag unironically, busted Nazi /Communist balls without having to worry about blowback, and stood astride the globe like the gentle giants of the American psyche they were. America gets its own origins story — a psychic reboot.
The New Yorker's Photo Booth blog is one of my favorite sources of great new photography. Above, one of Jeff Brouws Hopperesque images of roadside motels.

Apr 27, 2011

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Jennifer Grant

"Dad somewhat enjoyed being called gay. He said it made women want to prove the assertion wrong." — Jennifer Grant in her memoir Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of My Father, Cary Grant

I do wish he hadn't done that

"I think this should have been done long ago. Because a president has to put his public responsibilities before his pride and his privacy. That's the price of the job - to defuse or debunk conspiracy theorists or just skeptics with all the relevant information you have." — Andrew Sullivan*

I disagree. Firstly, it's been enormous fun to see the GOP self-destruct over the last few weeks. Trump is an enduring comic creation, worthy of Swift. Secondly: the same degree of proof that suffices for caucasians should suffice for African-Americans. Essentially, Obama has been forced to show his papers. Thirdly, I've just seen Trump on TV, crowing over the power he's just been handed ("I'm proud of myself"). For a brief second, he seemed less a figure of fun and more an actual living, breathing candidate. I'm sure it will pass but still. Lastly, nothing will see the end to this issue.

*For what it's worth I think the only reason Sullivan is taking this position is to reverse-engineer the legitimacy of his position re Trig Palin

REVIEW: The Killing (AMC, Sunday 10pm)

Kate and I have been settling into the terminal gloom and splatter patterns of The Killing, which rounds out a day of good deeds and churchgoing quite nicely, we've found. I wouldn't say we love it but we're going to see this thing through. TV thrillers are more of an a priori commitment than cinematic thrillers, it being marginally more trouble to decide you don't like something and stop watching (What if it gets good in the final furlong?) than it is to say you do like it and carry on. I feel much the same way about the British Royal Family, who persist in much the same apathy zone, somewhere between 'I don't dislike them' and 'can't be arsed to figure out how to get rid of them'. Anyway: The Killing. Rainy, windswept, lots of imported Nordic gloom, as if Seattle were playing Denmark, or as if to say: To hell with Nora Ephron and her waterfront christmas lights. We like the leads, particularly Mireille Enos, the sullen, bruised-looking redhead leading the murder investigation and her unintelligible partner Joel Kinnaman, whose every second word gets tangled in his wispy scrubland of beard, never to escape. The plotting is a little high-handed, each episode boiling down to an hour of tense conversations in the rain, with occasional breaks for a spot of grief in a supermarket or Texaco station, generally followed, at the 60th minute, by an Important Plot Point, at which point the program exits with one swoop of its cape, thus lending credence to the idea that TV plotting consists not of spooning out dramatic events, but putting off dramatic events for as long as you reasonably can without full-scale viewer mutiny. It's bigger on mood — a seance session invoking the shades of David Lynch, Thomas Harris and Steig Larsson, whose presence is particularly strong in the exploitation of Goths as 1) creepy vampiric figures likely to lure your daughter into sex, drugs and assorted necromantic acts; also b) pale-faced seers who cut through the hypocrisy of adult society with the uncorrupted clarity of the outsider. The lesson: Goths may force your daughter into unnatural sexual acts but they are also represent a highly elusive and lucrative demographic that pop-dramatists would do well to cosy up to.

Apr 26, 2011

REVIEW: The Belle Brigade

I cannot imagine I will hear a better debut album this year. The Belle Brigade are Ethan and Barbara Gruska, a brother and sister duo from the West Coast who seem to have spent the majority of their time on earth basking in the sunshine of Simon & Garfunkel and early Fleetwood Mac, and the remainder of their time crafting a series of exquisite So Cal pop belters which instill in the listener an irresistable urge to a) wiggle their feet 2) punch the air 3) check that no-one saw them do it and 4) grin. I don't love music much more than this. The whole album is first-rate, combining enormous craft, gusty raucousness, and gyroscopic harmonies that bloom and snap like sails on a windy day. These beauties sail. The track above — their first single — is one of the slower, more anthemic ones, with a beautiful lyric about..... well, if I say it's about the urge to quit the rat race, stop comparing and despairing, etc, that will sound trite, but just listen to the way the harmonies build and the thrashing of those guitars in the chorus: its got the urgency of someone trying to beat sense into their head. Oh and their grandfather is John Williams. I'm maxed out. A-

Apr 25, 2011

Reading the pocket literature

"The documents meticulously record the detainees 'pocket literature' when they were captured: a bus ticket to Kabul, a fake passport and forged student ID a restaurant receipt, even a poem... If a prisoner had a Casio F91W watch, it might be an indication that he had attended a Qaeda bomb-making course where such watches were handed out — though that model is sold around the world to this day. Likewise the assessment of a Yemeni prisoner suggests a dire use for his pocket calculator: 'Calculators may be used for indirect fire calculation such as those required for artillary fire'." — The New York Times

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Donald Trump

“The world laughs at us. They won’t be laughing if I’m elected President.” — Donald Trump

Apr 24, 2011

Sudden death flame-outs: Amis on Hitchens

"He thinks like a child (that is to say, his judgments are far more instinctive and moral-visceral than they seem, and are animated by a child's eager apprehension of what feels just and true); he writes like a distinguished author; and he speaks like a genius.... As a result, Christopher is one of the most terrifying rhetoricians that the world has yet seen....The prototype of Deep Blue was known as Deep Thought. And there's a case for calling Christopher Deep Speech. With his vast array of geohistorical references and precedents, he is almost Google-like; but Google (with, say, its 10 million "results" in 0.7 seconds) is something of an idiot savant, and Christopher's search engine is much more finely tuned. In debate, no matter what the motion, I would back him against Cicero, against Demosthenes." — Martin Amis on the wit of Christopher Hitchens
Why then, in all of the examples that Amis quotes, is Hitchens merely rude? Don't get me wrong. I like rudeness. I'm British. Being rude is practically my patriotic duty so the following exchanges naturally bring a lump to the throat.
1. TV host: "I can't understand a word you're saying."
Hitchens: "I'm not in the least surprised"
2. Two young men in a restaurant:"You're going to hate us for this..."
Hitchens: "We hate you already."
3. Friend: "You know, there are so few areas of transcendence left to us. Sports. Sex. Art … "
Hitchens: "Don't forget the miseries of others. Don't forget the languid contemplation of the miseries of others."
4. American: "Do you love us? Or do you hate us?"
Hitchens: "It depends on how you behave."
In all fairness, however, only the third has the quality of genuine wit. It is unexpected, funny, includes Hitchen's interlocutor in the joke and can be forgiven the hiccup of that in situ redraft ("the languid contemplation...."). The fourth response would occur to most people — the American set himself up. The other two are straightforward ambushes, in which Hitchens uses the civility of his interlocutors against them: they do not yet know that he hates them and — surprise! — in a cunning coup de grace, he reveals that he does. Conversation over.
How admirable are these sudden-death flame-outs exactly, let alone "deep","Ciceronian" or "Demosthenian"? I have the greatest respect for Hitchens as a writer, but Amis seems a little over impressed with the hostility levels of his friend. Maybe he is fond of these comebacks precisely because they don't translate so well — they are funny from only one point in the room, Amis's, which is to say the point occupied by a forgiving friend.

Happy Easter, everybody

From the final scene of Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha (1972) in which Barbara Hershey, eerily prefiguring her role as Mary Magdalene in The Last Temptation of Christ, runs alongside the body of David Carradine who has been crucified against the side of a train. Which is better (or worse), the actual depiction of Christ's crucifixion or the subtextual version of the same? I'm inclined to go with subtextual, except that of course, that the subtext never stays sub- in such instances (Dead Man Walking, Whistle Down the Wind), but leaps out at the viewer as boldly as a 3-D rake or broomstick. How about neither? How about: No crucifixions?

Apr 22, 2011

Summer movie screengrab (1)

Melancholia, Another World, Larry Crowne, Crazy Stupid Love, Super 8, Terri, Submarine

An actor's life for thee and me, Brad

"In this age of diminution and vulgarity at the movies, Malick conducts himself with the austerity of Chaplin and Kubrick – doing it his way, disdaining the press, but getting people to pay for it all. Never forget that a movie director is not just a master of imagery and drama, a conductor of actors, music and design. He is a guy who can persuade someone to put up millions on an airy conversation about life, plants, astronomy and philosophy." — David Thomson, The Gaurdian
Yes it must be a terrific thrill to boss people around like that, and be rude to the press, and stick conversations about life, plants, astronomy into a movie on someone else's dime just because one can, because one is a master filmmaker and all that, although I've never gotten the vicarious thrill from watching those things that some people do — films bent to the will of a master. If Kubrick and Malick ares masters, as no-one seems to tire of saying, what does that make us? Slaves? As I get older, the more easily bored I am of 'mastery', the more it seems a young man's dream — young men, film directors and film critics. The rest of us, as we plod through life, realise just how little we are actually master of, how little we resemble master film directors and more those poor, distracted cattle, the actors. That's my experience anyway. I don't get out of bed in the morning, bark "action" and see my day whip itself into shape. I stumble out of bed, trying to remember my lines, hit my marks as best I can, only to find, six months down the line, that half my performance was not used, or that I'm actually appearing in a comedy not a tragedy as I thought, or that the whole film is crap, through no fault of my own, or maybe it's just my fault, since everyone else knew they were in a comedy apparently, but me. I'm less like the master Malick, in other words, and more like that poor boob Brad Pitt.

Apr 21, 2011

REVIEW: Water For Elephants

Robert Pattinson can be a passive presence on screen, given to brooding, mooching, and sudden, slightly surprising bursts of pent-up emotion that come out of nowhere and leave you wondering why he didn't speak up sooner if he felt that strongly. The first Twilight movie exploited that passivity brilliantly, turning him into a icon of pale self-abnegation, smothering his instincts for fear of what they might do to his beloved Bella, although the sequels left him with perilously little to do, turning him into a Robert-Frost reading Romeo and roping him off from the action, leaving coffee-colored hunk Taylor Lautner to do the honors. He is not alone in this, for there is a streak of passivity running through many of the great screen lovers, from Valentino through to Warren Beatty, who communicates a fluting helplessness in the face of his own impulses — a man blown every which way by lust, like Wittgenstein's leaf. (Guy Pearce also got this in his recent portrayal of Monty Beragon in Todd Haynes's Mildred Pierce). Away from the embrace of Kristin Stewart in the Twilight movies, however, Pattinson has sorely wanted for a costar who gets his hesitant rhythms, so good news! In Francis Lawrence's Water for Elephants, Pattinson has found her — a costar who lights him up like a lightbulb. Admittedly, she weighs a tonne, has an elongated schnoz and tusks that could break a man in two, but they said the same thing about Streisand in the remake of A Star Is Born. There are some, too, who will insist that the real object of Pattinson's affections in Water For Elephants is in fact Reese Witherspoon but anyone who has seen this movie will recognise this for the poppycock it is. Pattinson plays a vetinary student named Jacob Jankowski — can't you already catch that whiff of vodka and borscht? — who in the first five minutes of the film loses both his parents in a car crash, hitches a ride on a passing freight train and falls in with a travelling circus, whose sadistic ringmaster (Christoph Waltz) is married to a Harlowish bareback rider named Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) of the kind that men are always falling in love with in circus movies, and with whom Jacob is soon dancing cheek to cheek while Waltz snores, drunkenly in the corner. Given the sculptedness of both their cheekbones, this represents a considerable feat of engineering. Whether it amounts to good chemistry is another matter. Pattinson seems genuinely mystified by Witherspoon whose Tracey-Flicklike air of brisk, no-nonsense competence — she seems to be composing thank-you letters with every spare thought — is a million miles from the febrile melancholy that glued him and Kristen Stewart together. They seem almost a different species. Sia the elephant, on the other hand, actually is a different species but it doesn't seem to matter, as it didn't matter in the Twilight films. She plays an abused Pachyderm in urgent need of Pattinson's ministrations, and elicits some of his best acting to date: loose, spontaneous, tender, even — at one point — smiling. Big news, I guess: Garbo Laughs. It really is something to see that impassive masklike face cracked open by such a spontaneous show of feeling, as Sia gropes Pattinson's crotch with her trunk. "Is this how elephants flirt?" he asks. "Should I leave you two alone?" asks Witherspoon, a little nervously. Good question. Anyone who sees this film will, I think, be drawn to the conclusion, however reluctantly, that the cause of Love's Young Dream would be better served all round if Marlena made her excuses and left Jacob and his two-tonnes-of-fun to elope on the next train out of town, stethescope and trunk entwined. Sad to say, this does not come to pass, and it's back to slow-dancing with Witherspoon while his hand creeps up her back, and hers up his neck, at precisely directed increments: you can practically hear the director, Francis Lawrence barking orders through his megaphone. During the scene where they first kiss, in an alleyway, they manage to get there without once looking one other in the eye, like first cousins, or 12-year-olds in the school play wishing all this smoochy stuff were over. They're lucky they landed on the right lips. It's a handsome movie, though, beautifully shot with some great scenes of the train hurtling through the countryside at night — you can almost feel the temperature of the air — and Waltz is terrific as the circus master, switching between charm and sadism in that uniquely self-pleasuring way of his — when's he's charming, he's thinking of nothing else — so you're caught out every time. He makes acting seem an obscene act. C+

Apr 20, 2011

REVIEW: Rio (dir. Saldanha)

If you wanted to make a cartoon about a Brazilian blue parrot learning to fly — a great idea — but in addition to that needed to make the hero American, and thus had to find a plot that shoehorned those two separate journeys — first to Rio, and then into the air — then Rio is probably the best cartoon about (half) Brazilian blue parrots you could make. The film makes way more demographic than organic sense. The plot is all right angles, reroutes and restarts, so the characterisation has no firm perch. Jesse Eisenberg and Ann Hathaway spend most of the movie handcuffed together like Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps, but they're neither of them flamboyant vocal performers so it was hard to lose the mental image of Mark Zuckerberg nuzzling contemporary cinema's most doe-eyed Princess. (Hathaway doesn't need animating: she's pre-Disneyfied already). Leslie Mann does much better as the parrot's bookish owner: I never tired of catching the animated echoes of Mann's pert but expressive body language, a little reminiscent of Hepburn's in Funny Face as she lets her librarian's hair down and learns to samba (but keeps her spectacles). The film's most reliable source of genuine pathos, as she was in Knocked Up, Mann is not onscreen nearly enough. Rio has some swoop to it, thanks to a punchy color scheme and some snappy set-pieces, the best through the shantytowns of Rio, suspiciously cleaned up, but with those corrugated tin roofs doubling up as handy sleds, as we long suspected they might. The rest of Rio looks horrible, though, as soulless and bland as the cgi city in The Incredibles: the filmmakers needed to stick to the jungle and stay well away from the row of hotels by Copacabana beach but for some reason that I could not fathom out felt irresistably drawn back to it, like a tourist on a leash; and the eerily floodlit climax, set during Carnival, looks like a fascist beach rally: Albert Speer does the cha-cha-cha. If it had been me, I would have forgotten about including North America, started the film in the shanty towns and then dived into the jungle, where the hero could fall in love, learn to fly and do all the things Brazilian blue parrots need to do before their 90+ minutes are up. C+

Apr 19, 2011

On my ipod: April 19th 2011

1. Dazzling Blue, Paul Simon
2. Civilization, Justice
3. Take Me Back Again, Teddy Thompson
4. Time to Wander, Gypsy and the Cat
5. Cardiac Arrest, The Teddybears
6. Fall, Lanu
7. Dust Bowl Children, Alison Krauss and Union Station
8. Lippy Kids, Elbow
9. Container Park, The Chemical Brothers
10. Amarillo, Gorillaz

Apr 17, 2011

REVIEW: Bill Cunningham New York

The 82-year-old photographer Bill Cunningham, who photographs street fashion for the New York Times, now the subject of a new documentary by Richard Press, ekes out the kind of spartan existence which is normally the preserve of Samuel Beckett protagonist. Dressing in factory-worker blue tunics, and dining on $3 sandwiches he lives in a tiny rent-stabilised apartment in Carnegie Hall that is crammed with filing cabinets containing 4 decades worth of old negatives. Every day, he fetches his bike from a storage closet and sets out to photograph the women and men he sees on New York streets, tuning out the noise and traffic to capture a flash of ankle, a stylish cuff, a shock of pink hair — anything which picks out an individual from the rush-hour pixillation. In the evening he cycles to more prestigious, red-carpet events where he refuses to touch the food and drink, flitting from bracelet to bustier like a pollinating bee, before returning home at 2am and going to sleep atop a hardboard bed propped up by old magazines. His life is an experiment in elemental reduction, like that of a miser, except that unlike a miser, the emotion Cunningham has reduced his life to is not resentment, but pure, unadulterated joy. His face a picture of almost permanent surprise, his voice pitched as gee-whiz high as Jimmy Stewart's, he exudes a contagious exuberance which everyone around him catches instantaneously. He's like a cross between Stewart and David Helfgott — savantishly attuned to his own hummingbird frequency. He shows sadness only once, briefly, when Press asks him whether he's ever enjoyed a romantic relationship: the answer is no — he lives off the nectar of his work alone — but the sadness doesn't linger. There's not one iota of waste to him. Cunningham's gifts are too generous, his delights, like Anthony's, dolphin-backed: they rise from this film with the unmistakeable contours of a life well-lived. B+

Apr 14, 2011

In The Rooms: party pix from The Spotted Pig

From top:— Kate Shone, David Edelstein, Tom Shone; Joshua Briggs; Kate Shone, Farran Smith Nehme; Laura Jacobs, Tom Shone, James Wolcott; the guest of honor; Said Sayrafiezadeh; Michael Babb, Ruthie Vexler; James Wolcott, Tom Shone; Abdallah Ko, Emma Parry; chef Ralph.

From The Economist:—
"What happens when a non-alcoholic starts going to AA meetings? A splash of cynicism, a dash of self-doubt and a good measure of humour, according to Tom Shone’s new novel, In the Rooms .... Mr Shone has a sharp eye for contemporary Manhattan, perhaps because he emigrated there from Britain himself. His skilful turn of phrase instantly draws the scene. You feel safe in his literary hands as Patrick wanders blindly down paths unknown, colliding with troubled people on the mend—gruff Douglas, friendly but crazy Felix and the intoxicating but damaged Lola... Mr Shone injects plenty of satirical laughs. Alcoholism is a sensitive subject, and he treads carefully the ironic line between tragedy and comedy... But behind the comedy he also muses on larger themes without being preachy: the American Dream, and how foreigners get sucked in by New York’s neon lights and either enjoy the ride or get spat out; self-discovery, a key aim for recovering alcoholics but also a universal goal; and man’s relationship with booze.... Mr Shone maintains a pace that whips the story back to reality. In the Rooms is an entertaining page-turner about humanity, with plenty of hilarity."
More reviews here.

Apr 13, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, be ready for take off

Oh the mixed feeling of tingly excitement and imminent catastrophe that is publication day! I say "tingly excitement" under advisement. Earlier in the week I was feeling nothing but lurking dread, a feeling which my wife patiently explained to me was, in fact, a feeling of pleasurable anticipation rather akin to Kundera's unbreakable lightness of being. The wiring in my head was wrong. Or I was misrouting something. Or misidentifying something else. I was very suspicious at first, as I usually am of any theory of my wife's that turns out to be unarguably true, peering at her with the skepticism of a skinflint who has had his clock cleaned by a Vegas Casino. But she was right. The day is finally upon me and the clouds of dread have briefly parted to reveal a small patch of blue; and in the middle of that patch of blue, a skylark, effortlessly looping the loop:—
If you're a fan of Shone's movie blog (and if you aren't, what's wrong with you?), you'll discover a whole 'nuther side to him in his just-published novel In the Rooms, one of the few novels set in Manhattan that gives you a true feel for the city, the meteorological shifts of mood and status from one block to another, the subtle codes of manner and micro-inflections of irony that baffle his protagonist (a London literary agent named Patrick who decamps to New York after fizzling out in his native backyard), the sonic semiology of car honks, the secularly churchiness of AA meetings and brittle crunch of book parties.
Later tonight I hope to thank the estimable Wolcott, whose gimlet-eyed observations I used to devour when I was but a junior punk on Fleet Street trying to perfect a Johnny Rottenesque critical sneer, not daring to dream of one day coming to New York myself, but I would also like to do so publically on this blog. Wolcott's limber, double-jointed prose continues to inspire in me a mixture of gobsmacked awe that such things are possible, and meek resentment that only one man seems capable of bringing it off. The same feeling I get watching chinese gymnasts. This Homer appears to be nod-free.

Apr 12, 2011

What happens when artists sober up

"Martin Scorsese put down drugs and made two comedies and a film about Jesus. Raymond Carver quit the booze and produced Cathedral, an unexpectedly redemptive volume of stories, complete with allegorical blind men, praised by critics for the luminosity of its prose. Damien Hirst got sober and produced a version of the Last Supper featuring ping pong balls and a series of dazzlingly colorful butterfly paintings. Even Charles Bukowski, briefly sober to battle tuberculosis, found himself composing a series of poems about his cats and one about the “little bluebird in my heart.”
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in
The headaches are biggest for the bad boys, whether bad boy poets (Bukowksi), bad boy painters (Hirst), or bad boy actors (Sheen). Theirs is the most humbling of climb-downs. Dark sides tend to shrivel beneath the pitiless fluorescent glare of the rehab; nothing shrinks the gonads more than the prospect of drawing up an amends list to the bats whose heads you’ve bitten off. Stephen King used to drink a case of sixteen-ounce tallboys a night—he can barely remember writing Cujo, he was so loaded—but after a family intervention in 1987, he finally sobered up, although arguably his work knew before he did. One of the things that makes The Shining one of the best books ever written about alcoholism is that it doesn’t know what it is about. It was an act of urgent self-diagnosis, conducted in the pitch dark. Once King shone a light into the closet and found out what the real monster was, his work took on a much baggier, more therapeutic feel, with less overly supernatural elements and more in the way psychological demons, metaphorical ghosts. His novels self-exorcised."

— from my article about sobriety and the arts for Slate

Apr 10, 2011

INTERVIEW: Evan Rachel Wood

"Most actresses, given an anger scene, deliver a single parp on the self-pity blowhorn, but Wood--loosing arias of rage upon the head of her mother (Holly Hunter)--uncovered all manner of fear and heartbreak and doubt, all the stuff that anger is designed to cloak. “She has this music inside of her that allows her to hit different variants on a note,” says Redford. “Its almost like she’s daring herself to go further, but at the same time be on guard. It creates a great tension, and gives everything she does bite.” Wood is indeed unsettling. Ensconced in a penthouse suite at the London Hotel, a hair and make-up team flit around her in preparation for the red-carpet premiere of the HBO series Mildred Pierce, in which she also stars. She exudes an enamelled poise, dressed in a mauve Gucci dress and boots, her skin a flawless porcelain, her azure eyes staring you down with coltish defiance. As a kid, she used to delight in freaking out her parents theatre friends in Raleigh, North Carolina with her unblinking impersonations of Liz Taylor and Katherine Hepburn (“I just loved watching the look on people’s faces. They would be like: what just happened?”) and now, at 23, has already gone head-to-head with Kate Winslet (Pierce), Holly Hunter (Thirteen), and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler). Her first rule of acting: show no fear."
— from my profile of Evan Rachel Wood for New York magazine. My review of Mildred Pierce here.

Kurt Vonnegut with Pumpkin, New York 1982, from an album of photographs showing writers and their dogs

Favorite sentence of the week

"Her storytelling ability and word usage (coming from me, who has written many bestsellers), is not at a very high level." — Donald Trump, in a letter to the New York Times complaining about a column by Gail Collins
Al Pacino as Frank Serpico in the 1973 film by Sidney Lumet, who died earlier today.

Apr 9, 2011

REVIEW: Hanna (dir. Wright)

Who knew? Who would have guessed that all the ingredients that make up the Bourne thrillers— rogue American assassins, European locations, existential crises, kick-boxing — could be so seamlessly melded with a coming-of-age fable about a 14-year-old-girl? I guess such adaptability was always implicit; Bourne was one of the least macho action-movie franchise to come out of Hollywood in recent memory, prizing speed, agility and stealth over those walking armories — Schwarzenegger, Willis, Stallone — who staggered through the eighties and nineties with rocket launchers strapped to their biceps. CGI changed all that — changed the physics of movies. Suddenly, mass was out; the ability to dodge bullets was in; muscle-bound hunks gave way to slim, svelte ephebes like Keanu Reeves and Matt Damon, who could leap Tunisian rooftops in one bound and cling by their fingertips to two-inch wide ledges on the side of Swiss banks. The handover to 14-year-old girls was but a step away. Even so, director Joe Wright makes a long, glorious leap of imagination in Hanna, his intoxicatingly-directed thriller about a young girl (Saoirse Ronan), brought up in the forest by her dad (Eric Bana) to disembowel deer, snap the neck of humans, and order a capuccino in eleven different European languages. As much as Hanna enjoys memorising information about the imaginary German friends she is supposed to name upon being arrested by the authorities, however, she yearns for something more, like most girls her age, and is granted it when a little red light goes off on the desk of Cate Blanchet back at CIA Langley headquarters alerting the two women to each other's presence. Dressed in a sharp grey suit, with an equally sharp red bob, and a wandering Southern accent, Blanchet is basically reprising her role in the last Indiana Jones film and the repetition trips her up into self-satisfaction: she's too languid and purring, like a cross between a Bond villain and his cat, when what we needed to feel, I think, is the cold steel of someone going to work. For the first hour, though, it little matters. Hanna has a beautiful lift to it, shuffling its locations as if slaking Hanna's sheer thirst for the world. Wright wheels on Moroccan washer-women and Spanish flamenco dancers, Droog-like German sadists with scary blonde hair, and Ronan drinks them all in, her powder-blue eyes seeming to contain whole skies. I wasn't the biggest fan of Wright's Atonement, but the bits I liked the best involved Ronan, and the rapport Wright seemed to have struck up with this eerily self-possessed performer; here he bores in even closer on those azure irises, until at times the entire movie seems to take place behind them, in some enchanted place where the Brothers Grimm mixes it up with Robert Ludlum, and international intrigue takes on the flavor of a schoolgirl's jaunt. Best of all is a British girl, on holiday with her parents, played by Jessica Barden who delivers the funniest performance I've seen in a motion picture this year: haughty and heedless, her head teaming with boy bands and gossip mags and boob jobs and so exactly the kind of human being you don't expect to come across in Ludlumland — she seems to have wandered in from one of Mike Leigh's cheerier productions, rattling off her lines as if all these spies were intruding on her time, thank you very much — that my mind couldn't get ahead of the implications of her performance fast enough. I wanted her in every scene. I wanted her in every film I watch for the remainder of this year. In all honesty, I cannot imagine a single movie that wouldn't be improved by the presence of this imperious, round-faced princess although the new Terence Malick might have some maneuvring to do to make room. Lucky Malick. On the other hand, I could have done without the climactic set piece set in the Brothers Grimm theme park. I prefer my subtext a little more sub-. Wright had already flagged his film as a modern fairytale by the expeditious method of having Hanna read a Grimm fairytale in the first five minutes; I didn't need a character actually called Grimm, holed up in a gingerbread cottage, to drive the point home. His eye can be a little overcandied and in the final furlong, his art direction gets the better of his direction, with the characters almost seeming to pause mid-punch, check their watches, confer, then agree to meet up in another, even more splendid location to finish the job of kicking the shit out of one another. But the fighting is nicely done: Wright finds at least two wholly new ways of showing someone getting shot in this film. Two. How much more can you ask for in a film? B+

Apr 3, 2011

REVIEW: Source Code (dir. Jones)

Source Code is energetic nonsense, and for about 90 minutes it's energetic nonsense of the kind that I was more than happy to go along with: the kind set on a train, with a good-looking girl in the seat opposite, a bomb several carriages down, and a score that plunders Bernard Hermann at every available opportunity. "Don't think.... do," Vera Farmiga instructs Jake Gyllenhaal when he starts to ask too many questions as to why he is reliving the same eight minutes, over and over again, wearing another man's face, before that bomb destroys him and the pretty girl opposite, played by Michelle Monaghan, who looks very similar to the way Michael Jackson used to look in his dreams. "The more seconds we waste talking, the more innocent lives are put at risk," chides Farmiga. That's how I like my exposition. Brutish, passive-aggressive and guilt-inducing — positively Cheneyesque. Duncan Jones has chosen to follow up his haunting Moon with a pacey bit of neo-noir, of the kind that so seizes the nation's youth these days and which consists primarily of flattering them that their frontal lobes contain a mazy warren of plot options, alternative futures and other assorted extras, of the kind that used to be located down the dark alleyways and mean streets of Chandler and Hammett. Call it MRI noir. Down these neural passages a man must go who is not himself neural, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. And that man shall be Jake Gyllenhaal, whose gifts of bug-eyed perplexity never quite eclipse the doe-eyed callisthenics of his smooth-operator routine; waiting to be obliterated by a fireball, he bats his lashes at Monaghan like a man chalking his pool cue. If great-looking eyeballs are your thing, then this is your movie, in fact. Source Code appears to have been cast on the principle that the bigger the plot-holes the more saucer-eyed the actors required to negotiate them. There's another great set of eyeballs on Farmiga, her liquid-azure irises seeming to contain and reflect back whole skies and universes, some of them alternate no doubt, giving her the slightly distracted air of someone who once looked in a mirror, self-hypnotised and never quite snapped out of it. Best of all, though, is Jeffrey Wright who delivers the kind of slithering bureaucrat that Alec Guinness used to be so good at: all slothlike movement, unctuous manner and gelid morals. You half expect to see a glistening trail out back. I'm not going to try to summarise the plot, except to say that comprehension beckoned, danced a little minuet, curtsied, made her excuses and finally departed at around the 92-minute mark, at which point the filmmakers made the unwise decision to try and make sense of the preceding movie, the net effect of which was to make the heads of all 200 people in the audience explode simultaneously. I cannot readily recall another scene from a movie that snatches defeat so deftly from the jaws of victory. Never mind. Source Code has a nice clip to it, a toothsome score, a couple of emotional bits, Wright and peachy Monaghan. B-

Calling Upper-West Siders

Apologies for using this blog to such whorishly self-promoting ends but any readers in the vicinity of the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble (Broadway @ 82nd Street) on the 13th April are forthwith invited to a 7pm reading I'll be giving of my novel In The Rooms — not the whole thing, just a small portion of it. I am a strong believer in the division of labor when it comes to books.

Apr 2, 2011

Donald Sutherland —  An Appreciation

The director's cut of my run-down of Donald Sutherland's career for Intelligent life:—
M.A.S.H. (1970) – ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce. No war-zone had seen anything like him: lanky, lugubrious, his pursuit of the nearest piece of ass matched only by his quest for the perfect Martini. Sutherland had made two war pictures before M.A.S.H, Kelly’s Heroes and The Dirty Dozen, but it was Robert Altman’s raucous, Rabelaisian barnyard comedy that plucked him from the ranks of character actors and made him a star. The director never found a more Puckish front man for his own deep instincts for mischief. All the picture’s looseness seems to flow through Sutherland’s 6’4” frame, all the mordancy pooling in those powder blue eyes, all its lasciviousness lodged in that cock-eyed grin. Despite his height, there’s nothing upright about his Hawkeye, a man made for the great horizontals: sex, death, booze.

Klute (1971) — John Klute. Sutherland has to be the least pushy private eye in the history of movies in Alan J Pakula’s mesmeric masterpiece. He’s all ears and eyes, boyishly impassive, a soft empath who lets Jane Fonda do the talking. It’s Fonda’s picture, no question; she won an Academy Award for her portrayal of the high-end call girl, Bree Daniel, brittle with boredom at the maulings and pawings of men, glancing at her watch mid-fake-orgasm. “Did we get you a little? Huh?” she taunts Klute. “Just a little bit? Us city folk? The sin, the glitter, the wickedness?” Sutherland just listens, and watches and pushes her hair back from her face. He makes love to her like a man defusing a bomb. Soon, she tags along behind him, tugging at the hem of his coat like a daughter. A lovely performance drawing on seemingly bottomless reserves of gentleness.

Don’t Look Now (1973) — John Baxter. After training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Sutherland started his career in British horror films such as Castle of the Living Dead (1964) and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), which shouldn’t surprise: that elongated face, with its outsized features, is never far from dawning horror, or outright terror. The key is not to push him. Both Fellini and Bertolucci squeezed Sutherland into bug-eyed caricature; Nic Roeg uncovered a much subtler disquiet in his Borgesian thriller about a bereaved couple haunted by glimpses of their dead daughter around Venice. Not that Sutherland doesn’t show range, from inchoate grief to mortal transfixation, but best of all is the portrait of a marriage he and Julie Christie rustle up: soft, warm, weary, fond. Roeg cuts back and forth between their sex scene and its post-coital aftermath: the ravishing of bodies and the dressing of those bodies for dinner. It’s tender and spooky in equal measure. They could almost be ghosts themselves.

Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978) — Matthew Bennell. Given the premise –—alien pollen seeking to replicate and replace human beings with pod-grown versions of themselves — the appearance of Sutherland as a sardonic public health inspector seems less a matter of casting and more an urgent moral imperative: of all the human beings the aliens could have run into they get the elegant Canadian with the indolent smile, long lashes and excellent stir-fry technique. Try replicating that. The first time we see Sutherland he’s removing a rat turd from a soup tureen. “Peppercorn,” insists the restaurateur. “No, rat turd,” replies Sutherland, taking great pleasure in separating his ‘t’s. Pauline Kael found the film perfect proof of Simone Weil’s thesis that it wasn’t the upright citizens that resisted the Nazis — it was the dreamers, the cranks and the kooks. In one scene, Sutherland finds a whole vegetable patch of pods growing in his back garden, but can’t quite bring himself to destroy the ones that look like his friends, only the one that looks like him — an inspired, unexpectedly touching detail.

Ordinary People (1980) — Calvin Jarrett. Sutherland is easily the best thing in Robert Redford’s dreary Oscar-winner about a family attempting to recover from the death of their eldest son. It’s one of those films where everybody takes turns to feel terrible about themselves: a self-boxing bout. The winner by a mile is Mary Tyler Moore, almost unwatchable as the emotionally repressed mother who cares most about who wears what to the funeral; Timothy Hutton is the pale, sleepless younger son, fighting his way through a fog of guilt; Sutherland is the jovial peace-maker, trying to draw everybody back together and finally — thankfully — giving up. His startling night-time admission to Moore, followed by his scene with Hutton on the porch, are the one-two punch that took the audience down and earned everybody but Sutherland their Oscars.

Backdraft (1991) – Ronald Bartel. The eighties were not kind to Sutherland, as they were not to many actors. In Hugh Hudson’s misbegotten Revolution, he seemed upstaged by the huge hairy mole plastered to the side of his face; opposite Brando in A Dry White Season, his performance was, said Kael, “one long whimper”. No wonder his hair turned white, but what a beautiful snowy white it turned, one of the best things to happen to him as an actor. His arsonist in Backdraft seemed to have petrified himself with his own thoughts. “What did you do to that little girl, Ronnie?” de Niro’s cop asks him. “I burned her,” says Sutherland, with a bashful bat of those lashes. “What do you do to old ladies Ronnie?” asks De Niro again. Sutherland grins. “Burn them.” “What would you like to do to the whole world?” Pause. “Burn it,” he says, giggling like a schoolboy boasting about his stamp collection. Svelte malevolence, expertly done.

Pride And Prejudice (2005) — Mr Bennet. Mr Bennet is one of those Austen characters who changes with the season. We’ve had bullying, authoritarian Mr Bennets; we’ve had warm, rosy-cheeked Mr Bennet’s closer in spirit to Dickens than to Austen — a frequent misattribution on Hollywood’s part. Opposite Brenda Blethyn’s chatterbox in Joe Wright’s 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, Sutherland gets the balance of warmth and world-weariness — the “mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice,” as Austen put it — exactly right. His hair long and snowy white, his jaw unshaven, his soft voice so soft he seems to be speaking from somewhere deep inside his chest, Sutherland’s Bennet is a picture of mordant long-sufferance, a man who married foolishly and has since resigned himself to sitting out the household skirmishes that erupt around his heels, nevertheless rousing himself to save his daughter when threatened with a similar fate.