Dec 30, 2011

BEST FILM of 2011: Moneyball


1. Moneyball A-
2. Beginners B+
3. A Separation B+
4. Win Win B+
5. Rise of the Planet of the Apes B+
6. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo B+
7. The Artist B+
8. Martha Macy May Marlene B+
9. The Descendants B+
10. Living In The Material World B+

Dec 26, 2011

The unbearable lightness of Spielberg

"... For Spielberg, violence is no Hemingway-esque test, it’s just an awful thing to be avoided at all costs and to be faced only if it’s absolutely unavoidable. He’s in the line of Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, Woody Allen—a self-preserving adventurer, a timid homebody cast into troubled waters, an unambiguous opponent of death and anything that may cause it... The lust for violence is as alien to Spielberg as is lust itself; there’s no place in his work for any perverse ecstasy of suffering or of its infliction. (And far be it from this timid desk-jockey to suggest otherwise. But I’d hardly call my own modest comfort the engine of art—rather, it’s what I look to art to challenge.) Spielberg is an Id-free filmmaker, one with seemingly no wildness and no sympathy, overt or latent, for the devil. And it seems somehow churlish to feel cheated by its absence, as if one were ragging on niceness itself. Given Spielberg’s incontrovertible commercial success, calling out the hollow core of his work feels like laying oneself open to the charge of √©litism, of “hating Hollywood” (a glance at my best-of lists should make it plain that I don’t)—as if it were the job of anyone but a studio publicist to endorse the industry as a whole rather than its best works." — Richard Brody, The Front Row
Firstly, I agree that Tin Tin ring a little hollow next to Spielberg's best work, but I do not agree that all of his work is hollow, and suspect the age-old prejudice against optimists is at work here.
“It’s a strange critical phenomenon that only works of art that are ‘edgy’ or ‘scary’ or ‘dangerous’ are regarded as in anyway noteworthy,” wrote Nick Hornby recently. ““Can’t we let them console, uplift, inspire, move, cheer? Please?” One should tread carefully: Brody has the critical consensus of a century to back him up. “Like the orange, Matisse’s work is a fruit bursting with light,” wrote Apollinaire in 1918. Picasso’s work, on the other hand “offers a thousand opportunities for meditation, all illuminated by an internal light. Beyond that light, however, lies an abyss of mysterious darkness... is this not the greatest aesthetic effort we have ever witnessed?” Got that? Light = lightweight. Dark = the greatest aesthetic effort in the history of mankind. (Matisse was aghast at his friend’s bias. “If people knew," he said, "what Matisse, the painter of happiness, had gone through, the anguish and tragedy he had to overcome . . . they would also realise that this happiness, this light, this dispassionate wisdom which seems to be mine, are sometimes well-deserved, given the severity of my trials.”) For Matisse vs Picasso read Lennon vs McCartney, Spielberg vs Scorsese, Morrissey vs the Pet Shop Boys, or any other of the cultural multiple choices by which it is determined whether you are un homme serieux, with the soul of a Russian, or a irretrievable lightweight with the depth of a puddle. When Carol Ann Duffy recently wrote in the pages of the New York Review of Books about a Ted Hughes poem that “seems to touch a deeper, darker place than any poem he’s ever written,” (it was about who Hughes was shagging the weekend Slyvia Plath committed suicide) we assume she meant it as praise. "Dark means serious,” commented Peter Steinfeld wrote on the Commonweal blog. “Dark means shadows. Dark means not evading the sad and inexplicable complexities of life.”

Why though? Why is darkness more profound? Press most people on the issue and you don't get much more than tautology in response: "it just is." I strongly suspect the reasons may be more temperamental than philosophical. For my part, I simply prefer McCartney to Lennon, Spielberg to Scorsese, and Matisse to Picasso and I do so because I have the same recoil from morbidity that Brody has from untormented artistic souls. I do have any argument to hand to prove that optimists have it "right," that they are "better" than pessimists. I do take mild issue with the assertion that Spielberg "is an Id-free filmmaker, one with seemingly no wildness and no sympathy, overt or latent, for the devil" but I would not contest it's underlying truth. What bugs me is that Spielberg is seen as a lesser artist on account of it. Where is it written that "perverse ecstasy of suffering", "sympathy for the devil" and a "lust for violence" are prerequisites for genuine artistic achievement? I get that these things look sexier on one's CV, but why not delight, consolation, light-heartedness, transcendence, good cheer and sympathy for the better angels of our natures that sit in the cockpits of brightly-colored UFOs? What about — to use a slightly embarrassing term — spiritual values? The equation of darkness with profundity is a largely 20th century development, traceable in part and in broad outline to the decline of organised religion. Roll back the centuries and things start to lighten up, quite literally. The Renaissence is shot through with shafts of Godly radiance; in Paradise Lost, He is variously described as "the Eternal coeternal beam," "bright essence increate," and "pure ethereal stream,” obscured by his own brilliant light, an image unmatched in Western culture until the release of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977. Try as I might I cannot find that film "hollow" or certainly any more so than the morbidity of Aronofsky or the misanthropy of Fincher. Maybe there's no argument to be won here. Half the problem, it seems to me, is that cultural Eeyores are the only ones interested in arguing such things; which is why they always win the arguments. Arguing the toss against optimism is what they spend their time training to do. (I picture an Al Qeada-style training camp, in which Beckett wonks compete with Schopenhauer nerds on the monkey bars to see who get to the perverse ecstasy of suffering first. But that's enough about the offices of The New Yorker.) Which is why I was so heartened to read this, in A O Scott's review of War Horse:—
"Mr. Spielberg’s answers to this question tend to be hopeful, and his taste for happy, or at least redemptive endings is frequently criticized. But his ruthless optimism, while it has helped to make him an enormously successful showman, is also crucial to his identity as an artist, and is more complicated than many of his detractors realize. “War Horse” registers the loss and horror of a gruesomely irrational episode in history, a convulsion that can still seem like an invitation to despair. To refuse that, to choose compassion and consolation, requires a measure of obstinacy, a muscular and brutish willfulness that is also an authentic kind of grace."
There. A generous, lovely thought.

Dec 25, 2011

BEST FILMS of 2011 (updated)

Not much time to post but my original top ten thoughts here. I found Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a lot warmer than people have been saying, certainly when set next to Se7en and Zodiac. Fincher gets their odd-angled relationship with unexpected tenderness — there's something of a Klute vibe to the pairing of Mara and Craig, one damaged but tough, the other shambolic but gentle. I was impressed with Daniel Craig's gentleness, wardrobe and writing cabin, the most inviting interior in a Fincher film since Benjamin Button holed up in a Moscow hotel with Tilda Swinton and a bottle of vodka. Fincher's lighting and color palette are consistently exquisite and exquisitely morbid, his shadows infused with burnt ochres, blues and Rothko magentas. He makes light appear bruised. There's nothing he can do about the plotting - the book's highhandedness with regard to clues and characters remains intact - but it wraps up satisfyingly, with a great 'Hello Darkness My Old Friend' moment and Salander loosed upon an unsuspecting world, Lecterishly. B+
1. Moneyball A
2. Win Win A-
3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes B+
4. The Descendants B+
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene B+
6. Beginners B+
7. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo B+
8. Drive B+
9. The Artist B+
10. Living In The Material World B+
11. Bridesmaids B
12. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy B
13. Bill Cunningham New York B
14. The Adventures of Tin Tin: Secret of the Unicorn B
15. Friends with Benefits B
16. A Separation B
17. Shame B
18. The Tree Of Life B
19. A Dangerous Method B
20. Take Shelter B
21. Cedar Rapids B
22. Hanna B
23. The Lincoln Lawyer B
24. Submarine B-
25. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol B-

Dec 24, 2011

QUOTE of the DAY: Wolcott on Metropolitan

"The poignance of the film--akin to the poignance of Barry Levinson’s Diner--is our understanding that this is the last time the gang will be together before the diaspora of adulthood, and that they are already nostalgic for what they haven’t quite left behind. A cloud of reminiscence hangs over the characters as they’re starting to miss something that hasn’t yet gone. Fewer movies better evoke the vague melancholy and tonic anticipation of that interregnum of being home between semesters, suspended between graduation and grownup-hood, that unhurried pause at the station-stop before the next stage of your life begins; a melancholy that suits the Christmas season, where the holiday lights and decorations accent the darkness of winter deep backgrounding everything. Christmas always seems slightly elegiac. The streets are cold, it’s hard to get a cab, and your jacket isn’t warm enough--Metropolitan captures that chill discomfort and how the conversations that string between two people walking from one bleak stretch of the block to the corner are part of the invisible wiring of the city, the connective tissue through which memories, memoirs, novels, and, yes, movies are eventually made." — James Wolcott, VF

Dec 23, 2011

Dec 22, 2011

REVIEW: Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol

Looking a little thick around the midriff these days, his locked shoulders in urgent need of a massage, Tom Cruise radiates a dry-ice shimmer of thinly-controlled rage in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Entering rooms, he is tense, bunched, jumpy, like an Olympic athlete awaiting the starter's gun; barking orders at his fellow spies, his tendons seem to shiver and twang like ship's cable. Watching a Cruise performance these days is much like watching him execute a daily work out. He huffs, puffs, blows, clenches, tenses, springs, swings, pivots his way through Ghost Protocol with such grim-faced determination that you half expect a contingent of Chinese judges at the end holding up score cards that read, "9.8." "9.9." "10". He seems at his most happiest — certainly at his most relaxed— when swinging from the rigging of 130-floor middle-eastern skyscrapers. Held by a thin guy rope, he runs up, down and around the building as if jogging around the block, seemingly oblivious to the vertiginous drop below. Cruise takes great pride in his stunt-work and rightly so. From the beginning, what has nudged the Mission Impossible series ahead of the rest of the pack is its star's willingness to dedicate his physical form in the cause of seamless trompe l'oeil derring-do — to use his own body as a special effect. Ghost Protocol is neither the best nor the worst of the bunch, its plot the usual dose of symbolist vers libre involving nuclear codes, a Russian terrorist, a smashing looking French assassin (Lea Seydoux), some BMWs, a sand storm and Simon Pegg tapping urgently at his lap-top, in no particular order. Director Brad Bird models his set-pieces on a triple-decker club sandwich. So: Jeremy Renner must crack a vault using an anti-grav suit, Paula Patton must seduce a Mumbai billionaire (the guy from Slumdog Millionaire, in fact, and Cruise must chase down a suitcase in a giant BMW factory all at the same time. That these actions have nothing to do with one another is not the point; the points is for Bird and his editor to cut back and forth between them in such a fashion that you are seized by the immediate temptation to lower yourself into the nearest lift shaft in pursuit of Russian nuclear codes. I'm a huge Jeremy Renner fan but he's a little underwhelming here — these franchise parts don't conduct his particular brand of lightning. Patton is overly encouraged to emote about some dead hubby we've never heard of — huh? — and Pegg is intermittently amusing as the lily-livered Brit. But it's Cruise I was transfixed by. His early performances ran on glide rails; these days he looks ready to blow. When is someone going to let him? B-

Dec 20, 2011

The limits of manipulation

"If there is one recurring image that defines the cinema of Steven Spielberg, it is The Spielberg Face. Eyes open, staring in wordless wonder in a moment where time stands still. But above all, a child-like surrender in the act of watching, both theirs and ours. It’s as if their total submission to what they are seeing mirrors our own. The face tells us that a monumental event is happening; in doing so, it also tells us how we should feel. If Spielberg deserves to be called a master of audience manipulation, then this is his signature stroke. You can’t think of the most iconic moments in Spielberg’s cinema without The Spielberg Face." — The Spielberg Face, Fandor
Let's be clear about what we mean here. It doesn't mean that Spielberg has carte blanche to "tell the audience how we should feel", as Fandor puts it. It's easy enough to disprove this: if Spielberg cut from a shot aliens landing to the face of an aroused woman, or from a shot of Americans being shot to a close-up of President Roosevelt smiling, the audience would not follow suit. We would likely recoil. In other words, Spielberg cannot dictate which emotion the audience is to feel. He can only guess what emotion we are likely to be feeling anyway and then augment it. He can guess right or he can guess wrong. His reputation rests on the fact that 99% of the time he guesses right, but that does not alter the mutuality of the arrangement. He follows us as surely as we follow him. 'Manipulation' is a misnomer. His primary activity is play. And like all games, his films require mutual assent. His films are not soliloques but conversations.

Dec 19, 2011

New favorite album alert!

A late addition to my albums of the year: Gotye's Making Mirrors. If you put Steve Winwood, Beck and early Phil Collins into a blender you might come up with something similar to this second album from Australian singer/instrumentalist Wouter De Backer. I'd never heard of him before, but this album is easily and immediately one of my top three favorite records of 2011, mixing 60s soul, ska and eighties pop for a series of full-tilt, aerodynamic pop belters — notably I Feel Better, In Your Light and Somebody That I Used to Know — which achieve near vertical lift-off. B+

Dec 16, 2011

BEST POP SONGS of 2011

1. Lucky Guy — The Belle Brigade
2. Bedouin Dress — Fleet Foxes
3. Immigrant Song — Karen O, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
4. Change the Sheets— Kathleen Edwards
5. Take Care — Drake & Rihanna
6. Hello — Martin Solveig & Dragonette
7. County Line — Cass McCombs
8. We Found Love — Rihanna
9. In Your Light — Gotye
10. Take Me Back Again — Teddy Thompson
11. Holocene — Bon Iver
12. Dust On The Dancefloor — The Leisure Society
13. Video Games — Lana del Ray
14. Hurts Like Heaven — Coldplay
15. 17 Hills — Thomas Dolby
16. You Always Come To Mind — Samantha Savage Smith
17. Lippy Kids — Elbow
18. Turning Tables — Adele
19. Domino — Jessie J
20. Fall Creek Boy's Choir — James Blake & Bon Iver

Dec 15, 2011

Why the Globes are better than the Oscars

"The Golden Globes are not taken seriously as artistic milestones and have a history of voting idiosyncrasies; “True Grit” received no Globe nominationslast year, for instance, but went on to garner 10 nominations at the Academy Awards (albeit winning nothing). Studios have long complained that the group tends to nominate based on star wattage instead of performance in an effort to orchestrate a red-carpet spectacle." — NYT
"The Hollywood Foreign Press Association loves their stars. And that’s why there were really no surprises in their nominations for the Golden Globes this morning." — Deadline Hollywood
That's precisely why I've always preferred them to the Oscars. Unburdened by notions of phony prestige and false merit, honestly dazzled by stars and red-carpet spectacle, the Globes actually come closer to most moviegoers experience of the movies than the Oscars do. So the HFPA love their stars! What sinful wretches! Frankly I'm grateful at least one awards organization does something to stem the tide of 'respectability' sought by the modern film community. It kills what spark Hollywood has. To survey the history of the Golden Globes is to enter a fragrant Arcadia where all the great Oscar howlers of the last 30 years simply didn't happen. Where E.T. smushes Ghandi, Brokeback Mountain kicks Crash to the curb, and The Social Network roundly thrashes The King's Speech. Where both Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love win together. Where Tarantino is rewarded for Pulp Fiction, Annette Bening, Martin Scorsese and Eddie Murphy are not shut-outs, Roberto Benigni gets no look-in, Kate Winslet wins for Revolutionary Road rather than The Reader and Tom Hanks for Big way before Philadelphia. Where comedies are put on equal footing with dramas and films like Funny Girl, The Graduate, M.A.S.H, Breaking Away, Tootsie, Prizzi's Honor, Hannah And Her Sisters, Working Girl, The Player, Toy Story 2, Lost in Translation, Sideways, and The Hangover are all counted winners. The Globes lack of high-brow aspiration — the absence of artistic cred — is precisely why they get things right, more often than not. If this year they want to go a little gaga over Gosling, and give a fighting chance to David Fincher, Rooney Mara and Kristen Wiig, who is complaining?

Best Motion Picture, Drama
The Descendants
The Help
Hugo
The Ides of March
Moneyball
War Horse

Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
50/50
The Artist
Bridesmaids
Midnight in Paris
My Week With Marilyn

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama
George Clooney, The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar
Michael Fassbender, Shame
Ryan Gosling, The Ides of March
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
Jean DuJardin, The Artist
Brendon Gleeson, The Guard
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50
Ryan Gosling, Crazy Stupid Love
Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
Jodie Foster, Carnage
Charlize Theron, Young Adult
Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn
Kate Winslet, Carnage

Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Albert Brooks, Drive
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method
Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

Best Director
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
George Clooney, The Ides of March
Michael Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo

Best Screenplay, Motion Picture
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, The Ides of March
Michael Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxwon and Jim Rash, The Descendants
Steve Derian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball

Hugo: the kids are not alright

Hugo dribbles on at the box office: $34 million at the last count. On its current course it should take about $50 million — a terrible figure for a kid's film costing $170 million, not an out-and-out bomb but perilously close. To give you some idea of figures for comparable films, the first Narnia film took $290, Bridge to Terebithia took $82 million, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory $206 million, Lemony Snicket $118 million, Jumanji $100 million, Toy Story $191 million. The critics love Scorsese's film. Scorsese fans are in seventh heaven. But the kids aren't buying. And yet Scorsese's sluggish marvel trundles through awards season, nobody says a word, and the critics continue to blame audiences for being too "mainstream" ("may be too esoteric for mainstream audiences", "may be an obstacle for mainstream acceptance" and so on). What on earth are they talking about? It's not Taxi Driver! It's a $170 million Christmas kid's movie in 3-D. I guess that's the problem with small children — too mainstream in their tastes. Bourgeois! Phillistines!

BEST ALBUMS / EPs of 2011

1) The Belle Brigade — The Belle Brigade
2) Helplessness Blues — Fleet Foxes
3) Making Mirrors — Gotye
4) Ashes & Fire — Ryan Adams
5) 21 — Adele
6) So Beautiful Or So What — Paul Simon
7) Tough Cookie — Samantha Savage Smith
8) Bon Iver — Bon Iver
9) Experiments — Florrie
10) A Map of the Floating City — Thomas Dolby

BEST FILM SCORES of 2011

1) Moneyball — Mychael Danna
2) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
3) War Horse — John Williams
4) Shame — Harry Escott
5) Drive — Cliff Martinez
6) Rise of the Planet of the Apes — Patrick Doyle
7) We Bought a Zoo — Jonsi
8) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — Alberto Iglesias
9) Straw Dogs — Larry Groupe
10) Rango — Hans Zimmer
It's not been a great year for film scores (But what does that even mean, as if each individual piece of music were augmented, or diminished, by the company it keeps). What Howard Shore did on Hugo — a thin, constant dribble of mellodiousness, never quite rousing itself to a melody — was as close to muzak as a score gets. Despite Alexandre Desplat's work on no less than six films none of them came close to approaching the startling beauty of his score for Birth — he may be doing too much. And I don't think anyone could figure out what Thomas Newman was doing scoring The Help — least of all Newman. What have pan pipes to do with the American South? John Williams's Tin Tin score was surprisingly riff-free (very un-Indy-like), his score for War Horse much better (the good news: the first world war apparently doesn't merit angelic choirs, maybe because less Americans died?). Cliff Martinez's provided Drive with its electronic heart beat — and Refn's track selection (Kavinsky's Night Call, College's Real Hero) was the year's best bit of pop curatorship, alongside Cameron Crowe's pillaging of Jonsi for We Bought a Zoo. Harry Escott's score for Shame was suitably dire — the best use of Glenn Gould since The Silence of the Lambs (poor Gould: serial killers and sex addicts his cinematic lot). Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross gave us the world's first concept album soundtrack for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, much of it not stuff you would ever listen to again, with the exception of an astonishing cover of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song — all surging grandeur and whistle-clean production. But my winner has to be Mychael Danna's shimmering, minimalist accompaniment to Moneyball. Most film scores are present tense — 'this is happening now', they thump. Danna's is all tingly expectancy — future tense through and through. As Jonah Hill put it in a recent interview, Danna's score "watches the movie with you." Wonderfully put.

BEST FILM SCENES of 2011


The St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association have an interesting category for "best scene." Their 2011 nominees are as follows:—
"The Artist" (dance scene finale)
"Drive" (the elevator beating scene)
"Drive" (opening get-away scene)
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (opening credits)
"Hanna" (Hanna’s escape from captivity sequence)
"Melancholia" (the last scene)
I think they reason they're attracted to the elevator scene in Drive is because it is the worst scene in the movie — not the best — but I love the idea. My top ten would run as follows:—
1) The subway undressing in Shame
2) The daughter's song in Moneyball
3) Elle Faning's close-up in Super 8
4) The silent date in Beginners
5) The drowning of Ron Perlman in Drive
6) The final scene of The Artist (not the dance but what follows)
7) The murder attempt in Living in the Material World
8) Caeser's first word in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
9) Haddock's desert DTs in The Adventures of Tin Tin
10) The sex scene(s) in Friends with Benefits

Dec 13, 2011

BEST FILM of 2011: Moneyball (dir. Miller)

1. Moneyball A
2. Win Win A-
3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes B+
4. The Descendants B+
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene B+
6. Beginners B+
7. War Horse B+
8. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo B+
9. Drive B+
10
. The Artist B+

*A big asterisk: I have not yet seen War Horse.
I certainly didn't think it was going to be Moneyball. So let's work out why it wasn't the others. The Descendants has faded slightly, as many George Clooney films seem to: there's something about the Clooney penchant for endless nuance that blurs the bolder strokes that ensure memorability ("show me the money!"). Every time one of his pictures comes out, everyone runs around raving "I know you think you know George Clooney but you've never seen him like this before" and I go along, and see him wince with the left side of his face, as opposed to the right, and think: is that it? They get me every time, like Lucy suckering Charlie Brown with the football. Which is not to say that Payne's film isn't subtle, well-written, and packs a wallop at the end, but it also knows precisely how good it is, and the writing sometimes gets in the way (that first voiceover! that final speech! Oy). I think I preferred Sideways, which came animated by Paul Giametti's more cartoonish turn, and suggests Payne is better away from big stars (indeed, in interviews, he seems a little in denial about the fact that The Descendants has a star in it at all.) The Artist seemed slight to me. And Hugo was anything but — a vast, mechanical marvel, but lifeless until the final reel. Which leaves me with Win Win's rock-steady humanism, and the slow, righteous build of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Both those films feel like solid achievements to me. But Moneyball just sneaks it, that glorious hymn to the unsung, with its mixture of smarts and heart, it's lightly exultant climax and lovely, care-worn central performance Brad Pitt — one of the few truly surprising star turns I can remember, and my favorite of the year. (Unless Rooney Mara gets me at the final post. Or that horse godammit).

Dec 11, 2011

REVIEW: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy is a difficult film to assess because there are fantastic things in it — a plane descending into view behind a scene of dialogue until it's propellors appear to clip the actors; a small, sooty mark that appears on someone's cheek that turns out to be a bullet entry point; some extraordinary soundtrack choices probing the chintzier end of early seventies brass-band pop — but I was blessed with only the faintest inkling of what was going on at any given point. That I was never quite bored tells you just how close to greatness Tomas Alfredson's film cis: the twitchy, rats-in-a-sack treacherousness of the upper eschelons of British intelligence is marvellously conveyed; John Hurt goads everyone on with bitchy disgust, as if willing everyone to sink to a depth at which he can properly hate them; Colin Firth is so bouyed by hail-fellow good cheer that you have no option but to think him capable of perfect perfidy; and Gary Oldman's Smiley wields predatory silences that work on his interlocutors like a cold window pane sucking warmth from a room. But. If everyone had swapped dialogue with the person standing to their right, I would barely have noticed, not for several scenes at least, so benignly and trustingly was I assenting to every plot twist. The film is like a modernist deconstruction of a much more plodding, longer version of the same film, which exists somewhere — in Alfredson's head, or buried somewhere behind Oldman's bifocals — and which you can only discern glimpses of, through the nooks, crannies and ellipses of the film in front of you. Like reading an annotated Ulysses that is all annotations and no Ulysses. Who knows. I was on a night-time transatlantic flight when I saw it. If it watch it again on the return leg — defecting, so to speak — I may unearth more treasure. B

Dec 9, 2011

REVIEW: Shame (dir. McQueen)

Steve McQueen's Shame may be the best date movie for married couples I've ever seen. Kate and I arrived to find a theatre sparsely populated with couples and retirees — the two groups who most need to be reminded that quick, hard hook-ups against the side of dumpsters are not all they're cracked up to be. "That looks so uncomfortable," whispered Kate at one point, but then her favorite movie is The Sound of Music. I see it as one of my ongoing life projects to ply her away from films about the pleasures of close-harmony singing and redirect her gently towards austere films featuring the music of Glenn Gould about the pleasureless slog of three-in-a-bed romps and 24-hour wanking. That's what Shame is about: the daily grind of being a sex addict. It kicks off with a spellbinding sequence in which Fassbender undresses a woman on the subway with his eyes — an entire sexual act unto itself, from first blush to to shaky aftermath. You half expect them to light up. There's even a stab at comedy: a scene in which Brandon goes on an actual date. As the poor girl starts to ply him with personal questions you can practically see the curtain come down in Fassbender's eyes: he's long gone. Fassbender has a great smile for the purposes of this film: tight and clenched, barely a smile at all — even having fun he looks like he's undergoing root canal. During the day he works at a high-paying but unspecified corporate job — there's talk of "pitches" and "viral campaigns" — but the unspecificity is purposeful, the vagueness enshrouding everything like low-lying cloud, or amnesia: his sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up unnaounced, in need of a place to crash while she performs at the Boom Boom room. Isn't that a rather chi-chi gig for someone as strung out as Cissy? Never mind. What matters are the cool, austere compositions and the abstract curlicues of dialogue left hanging in the air: "Your hard drive is filthy, "you want to play" and so on. This minimalism only becomes a problem las McQueen ratchets up the emotional temperature of the Fassbender-Mulligan confrontations and the two actors find themselves grabbing for lines of dialogue like "I'm trying to help you" and "What are you trying to do to me?" It's all a little actors work-shoppy — urgent but context-free. And the final descent is a little slow to get going – I wanted more dire intimations, maybe some consequences at work, to kick in at about the hour mark — but the ending has a pleasing grimness to it. Kate and I exited the cinema clinging to one another, grateful. B

Dec 1, 2011

Daniel Day-Lewis photographed eating dinner at a restaurant in Virginia while shooting Lincoln