Jul 31, 2011

REVIEW: Another Earth

"Marling plays Rhoda, a brilliant young woman, recently accepted to MIT’s astrophysics program, who kills someone’s family in a drunk-driving accident. Crippled by guilt, she dreams of escape to the second planet earth that has been discovered, on which has been discovered exact replicas of every single person here on earth. An unabashedly cerebral film which takes on some chewy subjects — guilt, atonement, absolution — it nevertheless casts an undeniable spell, not least in the consonance it establishes between that second earth hanging there in the sky like a vast pale moon, and the yearning in Marling’s beautiful, upturned face." — from my interview with Brit Marling for The Independent
I admired but didn't much enjoy Another Earth, a short film given feature-length treatment in which Marling's character enjoys a weird, masochistic relationship with the father of the kid she killed. She turns up on his doorstep, offers her services as a house cleaner, keeping her identity secret, and then proceeds to clean the dishes for a few months, in lieu of her conscience, in the manner of a Paul Auster character, exchanging no more than snatches of dialogue with her guilt-object, before disrobing somewhere in the 70th minute to have sex with him. Basically, she takes the only course of action gauranteed to make her feel worse by the movie's end than she felt at the beginning. It's a curious study in moral wretchedness — one bad act breeding another. Why is guilt always given such top-drawer treatment by high brow art? Is it the opportunity it presents for high-toned suffering? Spongy self-analysis? The wracking and clutching of brows? A chance to summon the shadow of Dostoevsky? In real life it doesn't seem much of anything except self-absorbed — it's neuroses posing as morality — and like most solipsistic emotions, it's tedious to watch in others, or on the screen, unless the person suffering it is innocent, a la Hitchcock, or a murderer who has escaped punishment. But I can't think of many examples where watching an actual guilty person act guilty about a guilt-inducing act has packed much dramatic surprise. Marling is beautiful, though — a cross between Manhattan-era Meryl Streep, as has been pointed out, and a blonde, Wikileak-era Jennifer Connelly. C+

Music on my ipod: summer update

I've just had one of those moments where you suddenly realise that one producer is responsible for half my record collection. In this case the producer is Stuart Price aka the Thin White Duke. I knew that he was responsible a Coldplay remix I love (Talk, 2006), plus a Muse track (Undisclosed Desires, 2009), but somehow I missed his involvement in the Kylie Minogue record that killed me last year — Get Outta My Way, a song all about, as far as I can make out, barging through the boring people on the dancefloor — and now a Snow Patrol remix from 2009 (Just Say Yes) that is receiving so many plays on my ipod it's embarrassing. Meanwhile, my addiction to great songs with humiliatingly bad lyrics continues apace with Owl City's Deer In The Headlights. It's about a guy who loves a girl so much she maces him in the face and gives him a bloody nose. Words cannot begin to describe the strange, depthless irony of this song, which is otherwise a classic boy-meets-girl pop song about playing the game and love shining bright and other assorted cliches. But here's the thing: the searing synth riff at the beginning goes through my head like floss through ice-cream. There's nothing I can do about it. Aural crack. Not since last year's Rihanna song about how much she enjoys beign roughed up during sex (oh Rihanna — help a white liberal male out) have I been more mortified by a song I play pretty much every day. What else. I seem to be on a bit of a synth kick at the moment, maybe in reaction to my Fleet-Foxes-Bon-Iver immersion earlier in the year. Breakbot's Fantasy is repeatedly challenging my ardent desire not to break out into a dance routine on the subway (always a vivid threat). And College's A Real Hero, which is actually from 2009 but appears in the forthcoming movie Drive, which features Ryan Gosling driving around LA and stamping on peoples heads to an accompaniment of eighties synth pop, is also doing it for me. That's it for now, kids.

Shone's Summer Synth Mixtape:—
1. Just Say Yes (Thin White Duke remix) - Snow Patrol

2. Boy (RAC mix) - Ra Ra Riot

3. A Real Hero (featuring Electric Youth) - Youth

4. Fantasy (featuring Ruckazoid) - Breakbot

5. Stay Close (RAC mix)- Delorean

6. Deer In The Headlights - Owl City

7. Wait and See - Holy Ghost

8. Amor Fati - Washed Out

9. Civilization - Justice

10. Pumped Up Kicks - Foster the People

Jul 27, 2011

REVIEW: Captain America

The director of Captain America, Joe Johnstone, who also directed the delightful The Rocketeer and Jumanji, has exactly the right instincts for comic-book material — all the pep of the young Spielberg without any of Christopher Nolan's ponderousness, or dreary insistence on taking a tape measure to his dark side. Johnstone is a terrific pop craftsman with great gifts of economy who has boiled away all the bulk and bombast of franchise moviemaking to produce a smart, funny, tender-hearted piece of weakling wish-fulfillment: exactly right. He's wrested comic book heroism from the hands of bullies and handed it back to the little guy — what heresy in the era of Michael Bay! The script often reads like a smuggled critique of its competition. "Only a weak man knows the true value of strength," purrs Stanley Tucci, in a delicious German accent that is one of the film's pointillist array of pleasures, from Chris Evans' Captain — as blue-eyed and bashful as Christopher Reeve — to Tommy Lee Jones's Colonel, chewing off his dialogue like cigar ends, to Hayley Atwell's pneumatically-chested side-dish. It would be easy to overpraise this film, but really, there's little wrong with it. The villain could have done with a clearer master-plan — what's the Red Skull trying to do exactly? — the weather could have been a little brighter (a hangover from Jumanji) and there's a superfluity of futuristic gizmos shattering the otherwise lovingly rendered retro detail, but still: my movie of the summer. B+

Jul 26, 2011

INTERVIEW: Francisco Goldman

'Ever since his wife died, the novelist Francisco Goldman hasn’t been had the heart to tell their local fishmonger in Brooklyn. He dreads the inevitable questions: where’s Aura? How’s Aura? He has been unable to return to the restaurant they used to frequent, where she was adored by all the Mexican waiters, who used to crowd around her table. “I know they’ve seen me walk by,” he says. “They must think: Oh she left him.” At their local Laundromat, where the absence of female clothes in the wash has been noted, he outright lies. “I would say she’s in Mexico or whatever,” he says. “You don’t want to say she’s dead. You don’t want to have that conversation in a Laundromat.”

It is a warm summer’s day – not too humid for New York— and we are sitting outside CafĂ© Tabac, just around the corner from where Goldman lives in Brooklyn. Of Guatemalan-American descent, he goes by the name of “Frank” or “Paco” to his friends. A boyish 57-year-old with a soft, slightly worried manner, Goldman, orders a salmon burger “because it’s salmon, and not really a burger,” and then laughs at his own attempts to out-maneuvre the Calorie God.Recently, he read Lydia Davis translation of Swann’s Way and found a sentence that stopped him short: “One thing love and death have in common, more than those vague resemblances people are always talking about, is that they make us question more deeply, for fear that its reality will slip away from us, the mystery of personality.”

He quotes it perfectly from memory.
“That’s beautiful. Because the fundamental question in death is: who was that person? Where did that person go? Who was that? And in love it is the same: why does this one person out of all the millions on the planet suddenly to merge with me so I effectively want to be her all the time? Why does this one person so enthrall me? What is it? What was that? Who was that? That’s sort of a twin dance between death and life, the way you pursue it that way.”

“I made something. Out of this disaster, I made something. It might be a very puny thing. It’s just a book. But at least its a book that carries the spark of life. It carries the spark of Aura. She’s there. It’s her.”'
from my interview with Francisco Goldman in The Sunday Times

Jul 22, 2011

A lifelong dream fulfilled...

.... when I watched North by Northwest on an outdoor screen at Port Eliot, the viaduct in the distance, as part of the Martin Scorsese curated film festival playing there. Finally! Cary Grant as big as Mount Rushmore! Tomorrow, my riveting talk about movie title sequences. Saturday, a discussion with Sandy Powell about Scorsese's work.

Jul 21, 2011

REVIEW: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows — Part 2

Okay, I crumbled. A wet, windy Cornish afternoon hounded me into the movie theatre. I found plenty of majestic sights there — albino dragons flying above roofs, Voldemort laying siege to Hogwarts, and above all Ralph Fiennes himself, delivering a performance that for sheer haggard fixity ranks up there with Boris Karloff 's in Frankenstein and Max Shrek's in Nosferatu — but then we cut back to a whey-faced teen who says "wicked!" and the whole thing comes tumbling down. It's definitely the best of the Harry Potters, but it's also overlong, confusing, and every wannabe one-liner fizzles. The filmmakers still haven't found a style that allows these kids to act and sound like teenagers — there's none of the operatic inner life you find in the first Twilight. They're simperers and people-pleasers — the kind that used to be called "bricks" in books by Enid Blyton — thrust to the front of the queue by the way their faces caught the light over a decade ago when they first auditioned for Chris Columbus. The one playing Ron Weasely has aged particularly badly: he looks like the kind of pallid youth you see slumped in a bus shelter in Cheltenham with a bottle of Scrumpy under his arm and a whippet on a piece of string. Hermione screws up her face and emotes in one scene here, but none of them have grown into actors of stature, unsurprisingly. They all still look lucky to be onscreen, and when they're not on screen you don't miss them, the way you miss Indiana Jones or Buzz Lightyear. Harry dies in this one, or seems to, and one girl mourns him, but nobody else bats an eyelid; when he springs back to life, it's the least cheer-worthy hero resurrection I've seen in a movie. Off his runs, doing his thing, but what is that exactly? What does Harry Potter do for his reputation as greatest Wiz of the Western world, of which we hear no end? He doesn't cast any spells, or devise any magic, or display any great tactical nous. For the most past he is required to stand there and direct his wand stream at Lord Voldermort's, like two neighbours duking it out with their garden hoses. Ah but there is always Lord Voldermort himself. However you carve it up —as a piece of movie acting, horror movie acting, acting in the age of digital effects — Fiennes delivers a masterclass. He's utterly transfixing: serpentine, veined, gnarly, nose flattened against his skull, blue eyes blazing with hatred, he uses every bit of his body to bring Voldemort to life, even his thin wrists, delicately cocked as he looses hellfire upon the denizens of Hogwarts. He reminds you of Nureyev — his movements are that beautiful. You think Alan Rickman is good — the master at wringing his dud dialogue for every every drop of malevolence — but then the two share a scene, and Rickman suddenly seems as harmless as a basset hound. Fiennes's performance is the stuff of nightmares, and Oscars, if only anyone could see it. Dark magic indeed. C+

Jul 19, 2011

ANNIVERSARY: Aliens, 25 years on

"During post-production on The Terminator, James Cameron and Gale Ann Hurd started dating. According to Cameron: “We’d gone from spending 24 hours a day together making a movie to spending 24 hours a day together because we wanted to.” During week-days they would leave home and race to the office down the freeway — he in his Corvette, she in her Porsche, both bought with Terminator money — the perfect eighties uber-couple, caught in the slipstream of their own success. The weekends were more romantic. “We went off-road on a four wheel drive, took the hot-air balloon out, and a huge wind came up, and we ended up crash landing” said Hurd. “We went horseback- riding, ice-skating, we shot AK 47s out in the desert, and that was just one weekend.”

“The women that he’s been associated with in his personal life have been very strong characters,” says Scott Ross, a friend of the director and co-founder of their effects house, Digital Domain. “He’s like a moth to a light. He’s attracted to these strong burning women but when he gets there he can’t deal with it. And he will always win. Its almost like he needs this ongoing angst in his life between himself and a woman. I think its an issue between him and his mother. His mother is very intimidating and incredibly intelligent and his father is quiet and stands in the background but his mother clearly seems to wear the pants in the family, and I think that’s made a big impact on his work.” In fact, not since the hey-day of Hawks, would a body of films so ostensibly bent on singing the praises of arms and the man, prove so hospitable to the sight of women packing heat. Cameron’s machismo, like Hawks’, is unisex.

All of his friends tried to talk him out of doing Aliens. They thought it a losing proposition; if it was good it would be because Ridley Scott had made such a good film; if it was bad it would be his fault. “Yeah, but I really like it,” he would reply. “I think it’ll be cool. Can’t I just do it?” His script unfurled from a single, simple question that had nagged at Cameron throughout Scott’s original film: where had the alien eggs come from? “They’ve seen the eggs, they’ve seen the parasite that emerges from the eggs, they’ve seen the embryo laid by the parasite emerge from a host person, and they’ve seen the embryo grow up into a supposedly adult form. But the adult form — one of them anyway — couldn’t possibly have laid the thousand or so eggs that filled the inside of the derelict ship.” In the first film there had been a scene which showed the alien cocooning the captain, Dallas, and Harry Dean Stanton, in order to turn them into eggs, but it had ended up on the cutting room floor. “In my story,” said Cameron, “the eggs come from somewhere else. At least that was my theory. So working from that theory — acres and acres of these quite large eggs, two-and-a-half to three-feet tall — I began to focus on the idea of a hierarchical hive structure where the central figure is a giant queen whose role it is to further the species...”

Cameron wrote through the Christmas of 1984, before finally delivering his first draft in January of 85. “If you think of the first Alien movie as a fun house, Aliens is a roller coaster ride” he told producers Walter Hill and David Giler. 20th-century Fox, however, refused to believe that the film could be done for $15.5 million, as Gale Ann Hurd said it could; a budget estimator at Fox put it at nearer $35 million, and refused to finance the film. Cameron and Hurd both quit.

“We walked out and said ‘thanks we’ll do something else,” said Cameron. Fox’s bluff was called and by March, the project was back on track again, only to hit another problem in the form of the film’s star, Sigourney Weaver. Cameron had written the whole thing around Weaver’s character without contacting the actress, so phoned her up to talk her into it. She was in France at the time, shooting Une femme ou deux, and at first she was a little nonplussed, thinking: I can’t believe why no one even mentioned it to me. “I didn’t really want to do a sequel, I was pretty sceptical of what I thought was an attempt to cash in on the success of the original.... I thought why do something that has already been done?” She and producer David Giler had joked about it, on and off, for years. “Well if we ever do the sequel and you co-operate, you can be in the picture,” Giler told her on one occasion. “If you don’t then your hyper-sleep capsule lid and you will dissolve into dust.”

She was suspicious that Cameron was doing it just to cash in, but the director pointed the seven year gap since the first film: didn’t that indicate the film was being done for love not money? He told her that the story was focused dead-centre on Ripley, and that he couldn't do the film without her participation. Weaver thought it showed “a loyalty that is quite unusual in this business” and agreed, but having got only $35,000 for first movie, upped her pay check to a million. Fox put their foot down and told Cameron and Hurd: do it without her. “It was the amount Sigourney was asking,” says Hurd. “They were considering writing a sequel that didn't include her, and Jim and I couldn’t imagine what that movie would be. It all happened over a rather short period of time. We couldn’t simply rewrite the script for someone else. It’s not that easy, when the entire theme of the movie is all about facing your deepest fears, how do you do that when no-one else survives?”

When things reached deadlock, Hurd and Cameron quit for a second time — “We thought it was a dead issue at that point,” said Hurd, “We thought the movie was off” — and flew to Hawaii in April, for their honeymoon, which turned out to be as romantic as their dates. “We spent half of our honeymoon making calls to England and LA to set up the Aliens deal,” said Cameron. “Jim had to do this logical, cost-benefit analysis of why getting married would be a good idea,” reported back Hurd. “We came out in the black.”

When they returned in May, Aliens was on again, with Weaver onboard, a budget of $18 million, and a start date of September at Shepperton studios in London, and a decommissioned electrical engineering station in Acton. Alien had been a hot, groggy shoot, taking is cue from the suppressed tension that hovered around Ridley Scott, but Aliens was shot during a dark, freezing British winter, warmed only by the blaze of Cameron’s temper. It was the by-now characteristic firework display, with the director firing first actor James Remar, who played Hicks, and then cinematographer, Dick Bush. An old Shepperton stalwart, Bush was old school: the director would shoot things the way he decided to light them, and he lit up the dark cavernous aliens’ lair just a few amps short of a car-sales room. Cameron was not happy.

“This is Jim's movie, Jim’s vision,” protested Hurd, thinking: oh no, this is not going to work.

”Well if that's the case,” replied Bush, “and I can’t do my job which is to light it the way I want it, you'd better find someone else”

Giler told Hurd, “You've got to fire him” and so they brought in a replacement, Adrian Biddle. It was beginning of long and gruelling war of attrition between the American producers and the largely British crew, who were all fond of Ridley Scott, and suspicious of this young American hotshot couple flying in to make a sequel to their beloved movie. They nick-named Cameron “grizzly Adams” and were openly contemptuous of Hurd, this dainty woman stepping across the power cables in her immaculate shoes. “It was very upfront, their discomfort with women,” says Hurd. “People would come in and sit down and would say ‘who is really producing this film?’ and I would say ‘I am really producing this film,’ and they would laugh and say ‘no, no, no, you’re the director’s wife, lovely to meet you but who will I really be reporting to?’ and I would say ‘actually me’.

“Well if that’s the truth, I want to be completely upfront with you, I won’t take orders from a woman” said one, according to Hurd. “’Well you clearly won’t be working on this film.’ I thought it might be an isolated occurrence, but it happened quite a few times.”

Things finally reached a head over the endless breaks that the crew insisted on taking — for tea, to go to the pub for lunch, for lottery raffles. “It was Union regulated, whether you wanted it or not,” said Giler. “If you murdered the tea lady, there’d be someone there the next day at the same time.” When one crew-member took the opportunity to go around giving out tickets for a raffle, Cameron finally exploded. “No man, we’re working here. Fuck the draw! There's a last shot we've got to get” He destroyed the tea-trolley — mashed it into a cube — and called in the entire crew and told them, “If you guys don't shape up, we’re going to go someplace else, we’ll fire the whole crew.”

“They were having a party,” said Hendrikson, “and Jim was at war to finish this movie.” It was a gruelling shoot for Weaver — freezing cold in a t-shirt for most of it, weighed down with her co-star, Carrie Anne Moss, whom she had to carry in many scenes, and further loaded down with guns and ammo when she was a staunch opponent of firearms. She would stand there in daily handgun practise, loaded up to here eyeballs with ammunition, thinking, ‘here I am a member of the gun control lobby in a picture where I do nothing but shoot guns....’ When she first read the script, she’d done the usual thing and sniffed out her dialogue, skipping the stage directions — never a wise move with a Cameron script, which bristles with all the usual chunky toys, like a one-movie answer to the arms-race: “She checks her weapon. Attaches a BANDOLIER OF GRENADES to her harness. Primes the flame-thrower. Checks the rifle’s magazine. Racks the bolt, chambering the first round. She checks the marking flares in the high pocket of her jump pants. She drops an unprimed grenade...”

“Part of the attraction of doing the film was that it was a design fest, an opportunity to do all sorts of wonderful hardware,” said Cameron, “I like hardware a lot.” He and production designer Peter Lamont lined his sets with the dismantled parts of old 747s, Canberra and Vulcan bombers, just being phased out of the Royal Airforce. “I invented a Pulse gun by combining a Thompson submachine gun with a Franchi SPAS 12 pump action shot gun, and there’s a smart gun, based on the Spandau MG42 with thermal imagery sights. And our artillery and aircraft are so advanced that we had to have help from the Aerospace industries, they were just terrific.” He liked hardware a lot.

“I knew we were playing into something trendy with Aliens,” said Weaver, “the Rambo commando complex where the hero single-handedly mows down his opponents. If I see my role as a Chinese warrior, or as Henry V, then I’m interested in it. It’s a chance to do a classic part. If I see it as gunplay, I’m not interested. The use of weapons is always the least important aspect to me, even if its the most effective with the audience. I tried to see Rambo but I couldn’t sit through it. I think I underestimated the degree to which Cameron would pay so much attention to guns.” Still, he was suitably deferential to his star, who had as great a claim on being the auteur of the Alien movies as anyone. “I was the throttle, she was the brakes” said Cameron, who duly made note of every one of her detailed queries about the character of Ripley.

“Her script must have had 5,000 notations in it,” says Hurd. “It was all about ‘Ripley would not do this, she is working on a loading dock, she would be making every decision from a functional point of view, working on a loading dock you are not going to have long hair that gets caught...’ every intonation, every line, every motion came from a deep character place.” In particular, Weaver found the idea of a character waking from a 57-year sleep fascinating. She believed that Ripley’s mind didn’t stop working in that period — that she hadn’t skipped those years, but had racked them up internally, in hyper-sleep. “Ripley isn’t the eager young ensign anymore. Her own daughter has grown old and died before the film even begins,” she said. “In Aliens she got to go back and fight the monsters because she has no choice. Nothing is left for her here.”'

— excerpted from my book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Summer

The second coming of Kevin Costner

"Kevin Costner is in negotiations to join a cast that is headed by Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio. Costner is in talks to play Ace Woody, and it's a real surprise turn for an actor most associated with good guy roles. He's the sadistic trainer of the male fighting slaves who entertain the white patrons of Candyland as well as the female slaves who are forced to be prostitutes." — Deadline Hollywood
Nonsense. Costner was superb as the recovering serial killer in Mr Brooks, played an excellent drunk in The Upside of Anger and tipped the good guy thing on its head as early as 1987's No Way Out, where he played a communist spy, if memory serves. This blog is delighted by the news of his return. Costner's filmography — Silverado, The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham, The Bodyguard, Tin Cup, The Upside of Anger, Mr Brooks seems hewn from blondest birch-wood and sanded to a soft-rugged finish, his performances managing a fine, Cooperesque balance of leniency and resolve. He may also — if I might venture a judgement in an area not traditionally hazarded by male film critics — be one of the hottest males to have graced the screen in the last 30 years. My favorite performances of his:—
1. Bull Durham
2. No Way Out
3. Mr Brooks
4. Silverado
5. The Untouchables

Jul 18, 2011

Some thoughts on l'affaire de wapping

"Despite the wealth, power, and magnitude of his media empire, Murdoch has no Lear depths and mind-tattered poetry; he's a colorless king, mean and un-self-reflecting, his own chasms hidden from him." — James Wolcott, Vanity Fair
I don't have as many opinions about the whole affaire d'Wapping as I feel I should — at least if the amount of opinion being manifest here in the UK is anything to go by — but I do have a couple of thoughts. One, Rebecca Brooks hair is an utterly and intriguing piece of counter-casting. It is the kind of fiery mane on expects on the head of the woman who, in between saving the whale and protesting MI6's collusion in American torture practices, campaigns tirelessly to bring Murdoch down. Not his henchman — but his staunchest nemesis. Maybe a redhead could have played the Lady MacBeth role, but a curly-haired red-head, forget it. That signifies one thing and one thing only: that in any future movie depicting events, you will be be played by Susan Sarandon.

Secondly, a lot of people — the celebrities mostly, if understandably — are mistaking this moment as an anti-tabloid moment, when in fact what makes it significant is not that Gaurdian readers disapprove of tabloid tactics, but that tabloid readers do. The News of the World has fallen victim to the very form of virulent mob indignation to which the British public rouses itself every now and again, mostly when prodded by papers like The News Of The World. If they weren't on the receiving end of it, in fact, this would be exactly the kind of story — murder victim, pretty, her parents preyed upon by ruthless predator — that they would wring for every drop of moral outrage.

I went to visit the Sunday Times — my former employers — the other week and found the place ringed by TV cameras. "Like fiddling while Rome burns," is how one journalist described the atmosphere inside. From where I was sitting, the whole affair has the galvanism of a death rattle. But not Murdoch's. The long-term effect of Brooks's (alleged) criminality is most likely going to be that News International is going to be sold off; and that once divested of Murdoch's deep pockets, the papers will stand revealed as the much scrawnier creatures they, in fact, are. They will then be subject to the same drastic austerity measures that have befallen the Telegraph and Independent. The era of the cash-injected, steroid-enhanced British Sunday paper will be over.

Jul 16, 2011

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Mike Nichols

"The funniest thing about movies is that they don't like good taste. They don't like austerity. All the things — you'll see — the things that you're a little embarrassed about, the show-off things, those are things that are most alive 20 years later. It's one of the most interesting things about movies. It's that they like showing off. It's life, it's vitality. Austerity and classicism just lie there." — Mike Nichols to Steven Soderbergh

Jul 10, 2011

SO GLAD I DON'T HAVE TO SEE: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

"Deathly Hallows: Part 2, can instantly be counted as one of the finest closing chapters to a franchise in movie history. "— Matt Mueller

"The Potter saga could hardly have ended on a better note. With one miraculous flourish of its wand, the franchise has restored the essential magic to the Potter legend. There are some superb set-piece scenes - and now the plot has so much more zing ... this is such an entertaining, beguiling, charming and exciting picture. It reminded me of the thrill I felt on seeing the very first one, 10 years ago." – Peter Bradshaw

"[It's] awash with gorgeous tones, and carrying an ultimate message that will resonate with every viewer, young or old: there is darkness in all of us, but we can overcome it." —Philip Womack

Why am I not convinced by these glowing reviews? Could it be, possibly, because not one of them makes so much as featherlight allusion to the fact that every single Harry Potter movie up to this point has been a $200-million turd? Yes, that's it. I'm sure there must have been an exception somewhere along the line — the one with the dragon fight? Where Robert Pattinson copped it? — but on the whole: turds. How liberating it is to say that. I remember only too well the compulsory kindness meted out to British movies — or any British movie that looked within spitting distance of turning a profit — among those unlucky enough to review movies for a London broadsheet. It was practically stamped into your passport. How luck I am to live in the land of the free.

Jul 9, 2011

Betty Ford died today. Above, entertaining in the White House sun room in 1974.

Best albums of 2011 at half-time

1. The Belle Brigade -— The Belle Brigade
2. Helplessness Blues — Fleet Foxes
3. Follow Me Down — Sarah Jarosz
4. So Beautiful Or What — Paul Simon
5. The Errant Charm — Vetiver
6. 21 — Adele
7. Bon Iver — Bon Iver
8. Gilgamesh — Gypsy & The Cat
9. Lights — Ellie Goulding
10. Early In The Morning — James Vincent Morrow

The Royals go Hollywood

The Royal couple's decision to visit LA — their first such visit — is a good one, I think. For one thing they looked natty in those stetsons, but it also reaffirmed the one thing they have going for them: their status as celebrity. It's often said that American celebrity is royalty without the constitutional power, without mentioning that that definition has pretty much covered the actual royal family for several decades now. So for the Prince and his bride to visit LA felt like a fascinatingly equal cachet-match. I wish, however, that CNN would stop referring to the people lining the streets as "well-wishers." I don't honestly think a single person is standing there going "ooh, I do wish them well in their endeavours...." They're gawking, the same way they would gawk at John Travolta. Nobody would say of a Travolta mob, "there's John Travolta with his well-wishers." It's the lace doily of fan nomenclature — the cocked little finger.

Jul 8, 2011

Maiman’s Pharmacy on Franklin Avenue, Crown Heights by Kirsten Hively. Courtesy of Photobooth

Oscar favorites at half-time

— Christopher Plummer, Beginners, for Best Supporting Actor
— Paul Giametti, Win Win, for Best Actor
— Tom McCarthy, Win Win, for Best Original screenplay
— Woody Allen for Best Original Screenplay, Midnight in Paris
Bill Cunningham New York For Best Documentary
— Terrence Malick's Tree of Life for Best Film, Best Director
— Jane Eyre for Best Costumes, Art Direction
Rango for Best Animated Feature
Super 8 for Best Editing, Sound
Transformers: Dark of the Moon for Visual Effects, Sound

Jul 7, 2011

Note to Hollywood: must do better

"The film clearly wasn't connecting. That's because of one thing and only thing only. It's not good enough." — Jeff Wells
I must admit that the more films I see, the more a line like that makes me laugh: not good enough. That covers the bases. I will concede that Wells truly understands movies, though, only when he is able to say of a film: better than it needed to be.

Jul 6, 2011

Cy Twombly: Hallowed be thy name

Cy Twombly has died, aged 83. Obituarists and art critics have dug deep into all areas of the great man's life and work — his Barthesian bridging of the visual arts and and written word, his Poussin-like portrayal of a modern Arcadia, the childlike jouissance gleaned from the simple act of the scribble — but unless I have missed something no commentator has paid tribute to one of the painter's more striking and immediate contributions to the jollity of 2oth- and 21st-century discourse: that fabulous name. I'm not much of an expert when it comes to modern art, distrusting the tired logic of avante-gardism, resenting the termitic prevalence of French theoreticians and frankly bored of any discipline that would have me pay such endless attention to the tedious question of self-definition, but I know what I like, and I really like the name Cy Twombly. It is the kind of name that make you want to roll down a grassy slope, or eat jam with your fingers, or produce the kind of free-associative garden-fresh canvases for which Twombly was famous. Who knows? Maybe it was the daily shock of waking up and finding himself still named Cy Twombly that produced his best work, and his inevitable familiarity with it that resulted in that inevitable mid-period levelling-off.

I'm pleased she got off

"Appearing to resent" and "peevish" are too mild, actually--many of the instant commentators on cable were visibly, audibly angry at the AUDACITY these acquittals. (Once exception: Judge Andrew Napolitano on Fox News, who was calm and sensible.)... What little I saw of the coverage was disgusting and sob-sister, this endless fetishizing of "little Caylee," as if these well-dressed, high-paid lawyers and media mouths had adopted her as their own little angel, and minutes after the verdict came down there was Judge Jeanine Pirro wailing, Where is the justice for this little girl? ("Justice for Caylee" was the sidebar subhead on Grace's Headline News coverage, as if it were a personal crusade.)" — James Wolcott
Strange to say I was genuinely moved by Anthony's tears of relief and I am not at all convinced she is innocent. That's the problem with the death penalty. It will always encourage those like myself towards acquittal because they believe the punishment so barbaric. I also love the way the media kept referring to "that beautiful little girl" as if it were a worse sin to kill a beautiful child and perfectly okay to off the ugly ones.

Jul 5, 2011

REVIEW: Transformers: Dark Of The Moon

Dwarfed by the metallic Goliaths that duke it out above their heads, the humans in Transformers: Dark of the Moon duck and run and tumble and fall from building to car chassis to street; they are plucked from tilting skyscrapers, swung, tossed and finally gently lowered to the ground by steely robot fingers. Each character requires about ten deus-ex-machina saves from their robot overlords, just in order to keep them alive through a single scene. Forget about them fighting back. Forget making even the politest of forays into the action. Even the hundreds of rescues that allow them their tiny inch of space on the dramatic plane of the movie throw them around with a force that would concuss or kill them instantly. This is not the same thing as suspense: the feeling of pleasurable anticipation that one feels when someone on screen is in jeopardy, or narrowly avoids death. The director Michael Bay has cemented a new threat differential that is inhuman, anti-human — post-human. The characters are like fruit flies in a movie about the pyramids, lemurs in a dinosaur movie, wives in a biopic. They are not so much lucky to be alive as they are grateful to be allowed to share the stage, kept in place only by the constant renewals of goodwill from everyone concerned — the Autobots, the Decepticons, Michael Bay, Steven Spielberg, Paramount studios. Maybe that's why they are all so thin-skinned. They may not be able to make the slightest dent in the metal gigantosaurs that dominate the screen, or defend planet earth from so much as a rain shower, but boy do they throw the mother of all hissy fits if you point this out. They're as defenceless against an unkind word as the robots are inviolate. "You're just a messenger," Frances McDormand tells Shia la Boeuf in one scene. Two hours of robot carnage later and it's still burning him up. "How's that for a messenger!" he shouts at the top of his lungs as he avenges himself, not even against McDormand, but someone else entirely — Patrick Dempsey I think it was — in the film's climax. That's the way of this movie: the robots unleash robot armageddon while the humans merely bitch or stir up trouble — "Dick", "He called you a dick" and so on. The audience I was with whooped up every diss, except the one where McDormand says, “We cannot entrust national security matters to teenagers," at which point the theatre was enveloped in a deathly hush, as if a small hole had opened up in the space-time fabric of the Michael Bay movieverse, and all we could do was stare at it and hope someone would be along to fix it soon. I'd heard if not great things about the film going into it, then things to the effect of: Michael Bay finally out-Gonzoed himself with a megadeath super-spectacle that tilts the entire multiplex into gobsmacked awe. And it's true: he has. And it's still just "not boring." All those billions of dollars and millions of man hours and squadrons of effects technicians the result is still a film that is neither boring, nor quite exciting, but leaves the audience's pulse exactly as it finds it. The kid I was sat next to kept up a steady chatter throughout the entire film and during the action sequences merely raised his voice to be heard. Now there's an audience member after Bay's heart. C

Jul 4, 2011

Hemingway shot himself 50 years ago yesterday — July 2nd, 1961. My first literary crush.

Gone With The Wind at 75: yep, still there

"To the post-war generation, things were much simpler. If someone asked them what a blockbuster was they simply pointed to Gone with The Wind — the very definition of a blockbuster, if only because for several decades it was the only one they had. Occupying an unparalleled hold on the number one spot from 1939 to 1972 — almost forty years — Gone With the Wind was the Hoover of blockbuster movies, both brand leader and one-movie monopoly, sucking up the competition on all sides. “The business of Gone with the Wind was not just steady, it was an economy unto itself”, writes David Thomson in his biography of producer David Selznick. Selznick had ambitions for Gone With The Wind from the word go: he used the casting call to find his Scarlett O’ Hara as a nationwide publicity gimmick; and once he had secured his participants, everyone in the production — Selznick, director Victor Fleming, Vivienne Leigh, Clark Gable — took up their positions for what amounted to a four-way group snarling session that lasted almost a year. “It was a case of utter chaos. They burned themselves, and out of the ashes rose this Phoenix of a picture” said Marcella Rabwin, Selznick’s assistant at RKO. “I have never know so much hatred. The whole atmosphere was so acrid. Leigh hated Fleming, with a passion. Fleming hated her. He called her the vilest names. Clark Gable hated David.” As the picture neared completion, Selznick knew what he had on his hands and wrote to Metro’s head of marketing, invoking D W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, and saying, “the picture is turning out so brilliantly that its handling will have to be on scale and of a type never before tried in the picture business.”

By far the most interesting thing about Gone With The Wind, though, at least to today’s eyes, is what happened after its release, which is to say: precisely nothing. Nobody started manufacturing Rhett Butler dolls. Nobody tried to copy it, or make it happen again; it didn’t spawn a sequel, let alone an entire industry. Selznick tried to follow it up with Duel In The Sun, a film for which he pioneered an interesting new trick of opening the film wide — as wide as he could, in 38 cinemas. “If the public’s ‘want to see’ for a forthcoming picture samples higher than the reaction of test audience’s,” noted one critic, “you sell your picture in a hurry before the curious have a chance to get wise.” But the tactic — which would turn out to be one of the mainstay’s of today’s blockbuster industry — failed, along with the picture. It was back to Gone With the Wind whose reign at the top was further boosted by reissues in 1949, 1954 and 1961. The American people had spoken: they had their blockbuster, and occasionally they would take it out of its display case to have another look at it, but then they would pop it back again, with a satisfied sigh. The first serious competition it faced came from Cecil B De Mille’s remake of his own film, The Ten Commandments, in 1956, which took up a close second position; while the arrival of Ben Hur in 1959 made it a three-chariot race, and from 1960 to 1965 those three films took up a neat triangular stranglehold at the top of the box-office charts, until Julie Andrews vaulted up the mountainside and joined them in 1966 with The Sound of Music. Box-office statisticians, you can’t help but feel, had an easy life back then. Sat atop the pyramid, their feet up, occasionally glancing down to see what dim jockeying they could see down below, but basically filing the same report, every year, like the BBC’s royal reporters: yep, still there."

— excerpted from my book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Summer

The definition of film-making genius

"In the same way that William James applies the tensile force of his logical prose toward the evocation of an imperceptible bridge beyond logic that must, somehow, be there, Malick has continued to muster the resources of film toward embodying what cannot actually be embodied. He wants to make film do what it is least able to do. Not content with showing how the world looks, he wants to show how it is experienced from the inside, even if that inside story can only be suggested through the cunning deployment of "this very thing”: this door closing, this muttered banality, this drowned body floating in a swimming pool, this wounded dinosaur, this erupting volcano, this suburban backyard, this face averted to avoid looking at another face." — Geoffrey O'Brien, NYRB
This is as good a definition as I have found of the difference between the kind of director who gets called a "genius" and the kind who don't. He wants to make film do what it is least able to do. In almost any other field this might be considered a form of perversity — a profound mismatch between one's aims and the medium chosen to pursue those aims — and yet it is a sign of Malick's genius, just as it was of Welles, and Kubrick, and every other director who has attracted the "master" label, except Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock hails from the opposite end of the spectrum, like Spielberg: the director who has cinema in his veins, whose artistic aims are entirely flush with the medium in which he happens to work, who loses interest in something the moment he realises it cannot be represented cinematically, and who have made that discrimination so many times in the course of his life that it is well-grooved second-instinct by now, complete in the blink of an eye: not interested. They are true creatures of cinema. Men like Malick and Kubrick, I would venture, make cinema their creature. They take possession of the medium and bend it to their will, which may fit some people's definition of what "masters" do — they master something. If on the other hand, a bunch of aliens landed and asked to be shown what it is this thing called cinema does exactly — what it is best at, the stuff it does in the privacy of its own home, so to speak — then Hitchcock and Spielberg are your guys.