Jul 27, 2012

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Martin Amis

"As the credits rolled on Child's Play 3, I felt no urge or prompting to go out and kill somebody. And I also knew why. It's nothing to boast about, but there is too much going on in my head for Chucky to gain sway in there. Probably the worst that Chucky could do to one is to create an appetite to see more Chucky, or more things like Chucky. What we have to imagine is a mind that, on exposure to Chucky, is already brimful of Chucky and things like Chucky. Then, even if you mix in psychopathology, stupidity, more deformation, dreams of omnipotence nd sadism, and whatever else, Chucky is unlikely to affect anything but the style of your subsequent atrocities. Murderers have to have something to haunt them: they need their internal pandemonium." 
— Martin Amis, 'Blown Away', The New Yorker, 1994 

Jul 23, 2012

PROFILE: Marion Cotillard


"The more time that you spend with Cotillard, the more you realize that the two Marions are in fact two sides of the same coin. The same energy that propels her to spend four months perfecting an accent is the same thing that drives her to produce three Christmas dinners for her family. Whatever is in front of her commands her undivided attention, those big eyes filling with wonder. She speaks in a quiet, certain voice that seems unbothered by the task of persuasion or argument—it’s just for her. And it is this exact quality, a mixture of fine-antennae receptivity to her immediate environment and straight, plumb-line anchorage to some- thing deep inside of her, that makes her so riveting to watch on-screen. There’s a scene in the 2009 musical Nine in which Daniel Day-Lewis tends to Cotillard’s hair for a screen test and then disappears out of frame, leaving Cotillard alone in front of the movie camera, and the flicker of emotion on her face—like sunlight disappearing behind clouds—tells you two things: (1) that she loves him, and (2) that she will have her heart broken by him. Two entirely contrary emotions, at the same time, all without saying a word." 
— from my Vogue profile of Marion Cotillard 

Jul 22, 2012

REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises (d. Nolan)

 Things we liked about The Dark Knight Rises:—
1. The plane.
2. Anne Hathaway's Catwoman, particularly her stylish exits (out of window twice, over the ledge, on the bike etc)
3. The first half an hour: the confidence with which the balls are tossed into the air.
4. The shots of New York under siege in long-shot.
5. Bane's mad-dog-Mike-Tyson routine on Batman against the pillar. (Should have been earlier in the film)
6. The scarcity of cgi.
7. The scarcity of Batman.
8. The multi-tier climax.
9. The Ken Adam-style set design.
10. The large cast (always so crucial in establishing Batman's singularity) but Gary Oldman especially. The only one who actually looks like he solves crimes for a living. 
Things we didn't like so much:—
1. How much punching there was. Preferred the Scarlet Pimpernellish now-you-see-him-now-you-don't routines of the first film.
2. The bat costume. Too armor-plated, in the fashion preferred by teenagers, but bespeaking fear that Batman doesn't look tough enough. Would have preferred pure, light-devouring black (cf when it got wet).
3. The two Bane speeches, back-to-back, one on the football field, the other in front of the prison, both unintelligible.
4. The line "That whole 'no guns' thing. I don't think I take it as seriously as you." Should have been "It's not really working for me."
5. In addition to his usual bass-unintelligibility, Bale sounded like he had a cold (was the mask squeezing his nasal passages?)
B+ 

Jul 21, 2012

The killings in Colorado


"And it has been a fever, of alarming—and, we can now admit—foolish proportions. The fuss surrounding this movie did, and does, have something fevered and intemperate about it, something out of proportion to its nature; it is, after all, just a motion picture... A modest proposal: could midnight screenings be suspended? First, for reasons of security; there are always troubled or idiotic souls who dream of fomenting repeats of a public disaster, though they seldom succeed. Second, because those screenings, starting when most people are in bed, often have a crazed and hallucinated air, which is all part of the game to those who enjoy them—anyone who has driven to a theatre to fetch teen-aged Harry Potter devotees, as they wander out in costume at three o’clock in the morning, can attest to that weary delirium—but which, right now, seems volatile, ominous, and redundant."  — Anthony Lane, The New Yorker 
"This willing dissociation of response from violent spectacle has a downside, as many people have said: we become inured to actual violence when it excites us on; we forget that that there’s pain and death, we become connoisseurs of spectacle. This kind of connoisseurship showed up in the response to 9/11, which many people, with obvious relish as well as awe, said resembled a movie, a remark that left anyone with half a brain feeling queasy, if not furious." — David Denby, The New Yorker 
"The artistic merits of this particular film are beside the point in the light of the agonies endured for a viewing of it." — Richard Brody, The New Yorker
In an ideal world film critics would shave been given no more room to ruminate about the Colorado killings than teachers were given to editorialize about Columbine, or government workers to weigh in on Timothy McVeigh's psychopathology. The New Yorker's three-critic fusillade made for queasy reading, partly because film critics are the only people on earth who do actually have to remind themselves of Brody's final point: the aesthetic merits of the movie are beside the point. But of course. Why even bother to point that out? In fact, the trio's estimation of the aesthetic merits of Nolan's film (low) figured rather too heavily in their accounts. Lane's desire to reprimand the queues of fans for their taste in movies ("the fuss surrounding the movie did, and does, have something fevered and intemperate about it... crazed and hallucinatory") lead him to the entirely tone-deaf suggestion that we should all forego the fun of midnight screenings. Why? Because Lane disapproves of them?  If there is another reason, he does no more than hint at it. Denby's point is disprovable with just a second's thought: think of the appalled wobble in thate girl's voice — "there's blood" — as she pointed to the t-shirt of one of the escapees. Did she sound inured? After three decades of watching movies, the connoisseurship of spectacle has done nothing, I can happily report, to erode my ability to respond to the real thing: I will happily chortle through Tarantino's latest opus and grow queasy at the thought of a splinter. To think otherwise is really a fond fantasy about art's efficacy dressed up as a warning. It also plays right into the hands of the NRA. Forget midnight screenings and Peckinpah: go for the guns.

Jul 20, 2012

Is the 'Dark Knight' trilogy our 'Godfather'?

My piece on The Dark Knight Rises for The Guardian (written before the events in Aurora, Colorado):—
A billion dollars creates a lot of electromagnetic hum. Bring the world’s billion-dollar election into close proximity with the latest billion-dollar blockbuster, and sparks are going to fly between them. "Do you think it is accidental that the name of the really vicious fire-breathing, four-eyed whatever-it-is villain in this movie is named Bane?" seethed Rush Limbaugh this week about the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, the name of who’s villain shares near perfect consonance with Mitt Romney’s venture capital form. Never mind that Bane first appeared in a comic book in 1993, as Rachel Maddow was quick to point out on her MSNBC show. The issue was quickly taken up by the ditto heads.  "How long will it take for the Obama campaign to link the two, making Romney the man who will break the back of the economy?," asked  Conservative commentator Jed Babbin.  "Hollywood does it again," sighed GOP advisor Frank Luntz.    
Not since the right-wing blogosphere erupted in blue blemishes over the disrespect shown the marines by the Na’vi in Avatar has a blockbuster so neatly bisected the national mood. There is much for Limbaugh to get worked up about should he actually get to see the movie: a one-man muscle mountain in a thick metallic mask, Bane is a Chomskyean anarchist issuing pseudo-situationist folderol about the “decadence of Gotham” in a surrounsound bass voice as she shoots up the stock exchange and straps bankers to his bike as a human shield. As John Hayward pointed out in Human Events. “Bane is more like a brutal expression of the Obama-endorsed ‘Occupy’ movement.”  The Guardian’s own Catherine Shoard suggested “Mitt Romney will be thrilled.”  So which is it: critique of late capitalism or take-down of mob rule?  Is Bane an ‘Occupy’ populist or an anarchist demagogue? And if billionaire Bruce Wayne is a 1%er how can Batman be a defender of the people of Gotham? 
 That we are even asking these questions is a sign of the sinewy ambition of Nolan’s series, which has consistently taken a thermometer to the fevered brow of post-9/11 America. There we were wondering why Reese Witherspoon’s movie about rendition didn’t take off, or why Oliver Stone’s Bush satire fizzled like a wet firework, and all this time Nolan and his co-writer brother Jonathan were stealthily stitching together a shadow portrait of civil-liberty-infringing, due-process-squashing, waterboard-and-read-em-their-rights-later America, under cover of a movie about a man in a cape. The enemy of all these films, remember, is terrorism. In the first film, Batman Begins, Batman went up against the League of Shadows, a centuries-old secret organization who mission is to “restore balance” to the world by destroying corrupt empires — Rome, London and now Gotham — by unleashing a poison gas that amplified their fear. The war-on-terror subtext grew even stronger in The Dark Knight, where the Joker’s sprightly anarchy is designed to provoke over-reaction from the city’s law enforcement— driving upstanding DEA Harvey Dent to torturing suspects and Batman to Patriot-act-style espionage — until they are left staring at their own reflection in the Joker’s grinning visage:   “You either die a hero or live long enough to become a villain.” The film was called by Slate "a bleak post-9/11 allegory about how terror breaks down those reassuring moral categories." Its take-home message, according to Annalee Newitz at io9 was, “there is no goodness without corruption, no order without chaos, and no justice without crime. We can only hope for fictional stories of pure, untainted goodness to sustain us through the dark, ambiguous times.”   Happy July 4th. 
 To some, this will be taken as a sure sign that somebody needs to lighten up — as Heath Ledger’s Joker says in The Dark Knight “Why so serious?” But pulp has an uncanny habit of drilling into the national mood with a stealth denied more blockishly well-intentioned dramas. Francis Ford Coppola almost turned down the opportunity to direct The Godfather he disliked Mario Puzo’s book so much, calling it “sleazy”, representative of everything he “was trying to avoid my whole life.” And yet with the help of  cinematographer Gordon Willis he retooled Puzo’s pulp novel into an investigation of capitalism’s underside, served up with a lustrous, Shakespearean claret. There are few great films about the Great Depression — people were too busy trying to get out of it — but take the velocity of their desperation, and run it through a series of crime dramas, as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger did in the 1940s and you end up with the tenebrous thrills of film noir. 
 Like Coppola, Nolan has taken a story with its roots in pulp and fashioned from it a dense cinematic mythology. Batman was created in 1939, after his creators had greedily sucked the juice from pulp magazines, comic strips, newspaper headlines and movies like The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Bat Whispers (1930). As the Movieblog noted recently, The Joker was inspired by Conrad Veidt’s character in the expressionist crime drama and noir-antecedent The Man Who Laughs (1928):— “Dating back as early as his first appearances,  straight through to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader has always inhabited a world which seems as fragile and broken as any noir protagonist. Just because he trades a trench coat for a cape   and a fedora for a cowl, don’t underestimate Bruce Wayne’s flirtation with the darker side of cinema… Batman didn’t always win and – even when did – there was usually a significant body count behind him.” The original practitioners of film noir — Lang, Wilder, Preminger — had their own reasons for seeking out darkness: the spectre of Nazism at their backs, they shot their newfound homeland in looming expressionist shadow, as if testing the fragility of their new haven. Nolan has nothing to match that horror in his backstory — just a string of mega-hits — and yet you wonder if an American director would have staged the decimation of America’s infrastructure with as much keen-eyed audacity as Nolan does in The Dark Knight Rises. 
 After all, it took a German to blow up the White House in Independence Day. Maybe it took a Brit to detonate Gotham’s bridges in cool long-shot, to view its toppling towers as distant puffs of smoke, or — the coup de grâce —  to crater an entire football field, the turf giving way beneath the players’ feet, just after we hear a sweet little boy delivering the national anthem, thus giving new meaning to “the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air”, “the terror of flight”, and “the gloom of the grave”. Sure, Nolan’s trilogy is dark but did you  check out the national anthem recently?

Jul 14, 2012

Dick Zanuck: Keeping the Shark Alive

In 2001, I interviewed Richard Zanuck, who passed away this morning, for my book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer. Below are excerpts from our interview*. 

On the first test screening of Jaws, in Dallas:—
“There was a driving rain and we were concerned that nobody would show up. In those days we didn't use recruited audiences. We used regular audiences. Somebody from publicity would tell a local disc jockey to drop a rumour once or twice during the day. When we drove up there that evening about half-an-hour before, we saw this enormous gathering of people with their umbrellas — just huge, massive.  We thought it was for some other event in this great shopping centre. As we got a little close, we realised it was for us. It was very exciting." 
“The audience was very excited. You could feel the buzz and excitement in the air even before the lights went down. Once it started we had them in the palm of our hands. They were getting all the thrills, all of the humour.  When the shark first jumped out of the water, when Roy Scheider is chumming at the back of the boat there was a huge scream. I thought the whole place would explode and David [Brown] and I grabbed each other's arms and just clutched each other. It was at that moment that we knew we had a giant hit. They bought it. They bought that dummy shark.”
On the second screening, in Long Beach (and the myth of Jaws' 'wide' release):—
“Everything played even bigger than it had in Dallas. People were ripping out the seats. [Lew] Wasserman says 'Everyone come back to the men's room.' He said 'How many theatres do we have?' I said, 'I'm very proud, Lew, I've got 900 on July 20th.' He goes, 'I want you to drop 300 of them. I want this picture to play all summer long. I don't want people in Palm Springs to see the picture in palm springs. I want them to have to get in their cars and drive to see it in Hollywood.' People were flying from New York, from Europe, to see it, because it was the thing to see."   
“Steven and I have talked a couple of times recently about had we had the ability to do CGI  we probably wouldn't have made as good a picture. It would have been too perfect and we would have used it too much. The fact is we intended to show the shark in the first scene with the girl. We didn't have it, so in a weird way because we didn't have the tools we had a better picture. We had to invent things to keep the shark alive."  
* with thanks to Laura de Lisle, for her keen-eyed copy-editing 

Jul 13, 2012

Forthcoming Films — Spring 2013


THE BITTER PILL (Open Road) Soderbergh, Mara Feb 8  
A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD Willis Feb 14 
ELYSIUM (Sony) Blomkamp, Damon March 1 
OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (Disney) Franco, Raimi, Weisz, Williams, Kunis March 8th 
CARRIE (Screen Gems) Moretz, Pierce March 15th 
CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (Sony) Hanks, Greengrass March 22nd 
42 (Warner) Helgeland, Ford April 23rd
OBLIVION (Universal) Cruise, Riseborough April 26th 
IRON MAN 3rd May 3rd 
STAR TREK 2 May 18th

Jul 12, 2012

Cary Grant on Hitchcock: "He detests me"

My column on Hitchcock for Intelligent Life:—
'What are movie stars for? These days, we expect them to display acting prowess, a very different thing from acting, involving the donning of false noses and prosthetic chins, or a five-month spell in the wilderness without hair conditioner, just so that critics can fall over themselves to pronounce the star “a chameleon” who has “transformed”, or “immersed” themselves, rendering themselves “unrecognizable” to all but the millions of cinemagoers sat in theatres thinking mutinously to themselves: “Nicole Kidman’s false nose looks droopy.”   Such self-uglification would have been anathema to the stars of the golden age. “To watch her is to achieve direct, cleansed perception of something which, like a flower or a fold of silk, is raptly, unassertively, and beautifully itself” wrote Kenneth Tynan of Garbo, who regarded the impersonation of other people — call them “non Garbos” — of secondary importance when set beside the more pressing task of being herself. 
 Then there is the Alfred Hitchcock approach, which goes something like this. Take a decorated war hero. Nothing too fancy: the Distinguished Flying Cross for 20 successful bombing missions deep into Nazi Germany, say. Upon his return to US soil, give him leave to visit his parents before making his comeback on screen in something toasty and warm like It’s A Wonderful Life; then, the glow of the public affection for this All-American hero at its warmest, cast him as a Nietzsche-quoting misanthrope, a peeping tom and a necrophiliac. That, at least, is what Hitchcock did with James Stewart, in Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), opening up a vein of agony in the folksy Stewart that no-one had seen before. This Jimmy Stewart talked murder, spied on neighbours and sought obsessively to fashion new lovers in the image of old, dead ones. Yeah, such a wonderful life.

Nobody worked with stars better than Hitchcock. No director had a better feel for electromagnetic hum they give off, how harness it to juice up a plot, or flip the current into reverse. The BFI is screening an entire season of Hitchcock’s films, from the early silents to his great Hollywood masterpieces of the forties and fifties — Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest — made as the studio system was beginning to disintegrate. Loosed from their status as contract players, the stars began choosing their own roles, giving their image the slip, dabbling in self-deconstruction. Which is where Hitchcock came in, with his supple casting instincts, or more particularly his Dorian-Grey-like knack for counter-casting — divining within a performer a mirror-image of the face they present to the world and then asking them to play that.
 
 He identified the note of post-war disillusion in Stewart. He allowed Ingrid Bergman to slip her halo as a drunk in Notorious. He salted the ethereal Grace Kelly with lubricousness in To Catch a Thief. He found an edge of coolness, even cruelty, to Cary Grant, best known for his gifts of comedy and bejeweled playboy image. In his films with Hitchcock — Suspicion, Notorious, North By Northwest, To Catch a Thief — Grant gives off the hard, multi-faceted glitter of a diamond.  “I’ve always been afraid of women,” he confesses in Notorious, which is a bit like Einstein saying that he’s always felt ambivalent about slide rules. Other directors may have shot them more beautifully, as Josef Sternberg did Marlene Dietrich, although Hitch was hardly a slouch in that department either: Grace Kelly’s entrance in Rear Window, wearing a black-and-white beaded chiffon gown practically counts as a special effect in its own right. 
 But in his case the urge towards worship was marked by an equally strong urge towards desecration: you don’t get to run down a bespoke Cary Grant with a crop-duster plane in the middle of nowhere, for no discernible reason, without raising a few suspicions.  Hitch “likes me a lot,” Grant confided to one of his costars on To Catch a Thief, “but at the same time he detests me.” What still gives these films their punch, today, is that the close resemblance between the ambivalence Hitchcock displayed towards his stars, and the mixture of longing and resentment stirred in the hearts of the audience towards these fabulous unicorns. We envy them and want to be them. But we also hate the hurt this causes and resent the hold they have on us. When Hitchcock killed off Janet Leigh in Psycho after 20 minutes of screen time, it was an assault on her fame, as much as her character. The effect was as astonishing as all such liberations: a world without stars? Whoever heard of such a thing? 
 We seem embarrassed by stardom now. Or at least: the stars’ publicists are, pouncing every time a journalist brings up a question that isn’t related to acting technique, or “process.” Whenever someone pointed out to Alexander Payne, during the Oscar run for The Descendants last year, that his star, George Clooney, was indeed a movie star — as opposed to a grizzled veteran of Strasberg and Stanislavski — Payne looked as if someone had punched him in the kidneys. Tarantino used to know how to cast his films, but nothing in his recent work matches the moment in Pulp Fiction when Bruce Willis and John Travolta stare each other down in the boxing club, like dogs bristling on the street, for no other reason but that Bruce Wills and John Travolta appearing in the same shot mucks up all known laws of cinematic space-time. 
 The Coens are witty casters, loosing Jeff Bridges’ inner stoner in The Big Lebowski, and uncovering a pudding-bowled psychopath in Javier Bardem for No Country For Old Men — a remarkably intuitive piece of casting, right out of Hitchcock’s playbook. The lady-killers are always the ones you have to watch. Darren Aronofsky, too, has turned into a Prospero-like manipulator of star power. He saw the bruised pathos in Mickey Rourke, in The Wrestler; and he facilitated to Natalie’s Portman’s fleshy self-mortifications in Black Swan, both trompe l’oiel performances shadowed with the back-story of the actors themselves, Rourke’s long spell in the Hollywood wilderness, and Portman’s struggle to ditch her princess image. Both turned their bodies into battlegrounds. 
 That is how we like our actors these days: fleshy and scarred, like pieces of meat. Norman Bates, you can’t help but feel, would have approved. But then these days Norman Bates would be on up on Oscar stage, thanking his mother.'

Jul 8, 2012

Oscars nods for these people, please

Since we're at the half-way mark it seems appropriate to panhandle the year's films so far for glimmers of gold. The film I'd most like to see rewarded is Benh Zeitlin's startling Beasts of the Southern Wild, or as I prefer to think of it, Mad Max as retold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It's got a slightly stiffer climb that previous examples of American Exotic — last year's Winter's Bone springs to mind — because it is far more unconventional but it is also much harder to forget. This has to be the film that Spike Jonze had in his head when he made Where The Wild Things Are: a wild, messy, mud-between-your-toes, holler-at-the-heavens ode to the joys of being child king.


Beasts of the Southern Wild, film, director, actress Quvenzhane Wallis  
Moonrise Kingdom for film and director for Wes Anderson
Magic Mike for original screenplay, and Matthew McConaughey for Best Supporting Actor
— Tom Cruise for Best Supporting Actor in Rock of Ages
— Maggie Smith for best Supporting Actress in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
— The Grey for Best Film and director

The films I remain most interested to see are Lincoln and The Life of Pi. 

Jul 6, 2012

How Richard Gere made me gay

From The Guardian, my column about Magic Mike. Here is how the conversation has gone in my house for the last few weeks.

ME
“Look at this honey: Magic Mike is getting great reviews.”

MY WIFE
“I’m not going to see that.”

ME
“Why not?”

MY WIFE
“Okay. One, waxed chests. Two, the state of Florida. Three, Channing Tatum. And four: it’s about male stripping.”
 
ME
[a little startled by her precision]
 “I think that’s a great idea for a movie. Have you ever seen a film about male strippers before?”

MY WIFE
“The Full Monty. That I liked. That was a comedy.”

ME
[picking up the newspaper]
“Don’t you think it should be taken seriously?  Soderbergh’s film is all about ‘deferred dreams’… ‘the hawkers and hustlers on capitalism’s lowest rung’… ‘The pathos behind the glitter and thongs’.”  

Pause.

MY WIFE
“Not my thing.”

ME
[grumpily]
“Okay, okay. I’ll find a friend to go with. Maybe Ian would like it.”

I say this only because the reviews have been almost universal in the gender-coding of their recommendations. Ladies are gonna love Magic Mike,”  enthused Variety's Peter Debruge. “Should rake in girl and gay dollars on the strength of its ample man candy alone,” said David Rooney of The Hollywood Reporter. Sure enough, The New York Times reported that the film has been playing at Clearview Chelsea cinemas to crowds of shirtless gay men showing off their chiseled torsos while patrons shoved dollar bills down their pants. They found one straight man in the audience who had heard it was “a critique of capitalism,” he said. “That caught me more. I’m interested in ladies, not men.”

So how come I was so gaga to see the damn thing? I should explain that I am an Englishman in New York which means that by most of the standards of American masculinity — sports-talk, locker room badinage, high fives, backslaps, ability to gut a fish and navigate by starlight — I do not measure up. On the macho-meter I register just a notch above Carson Cressley. My wife, on the other hand, is from Ohio, famous for the inventive things they do with fabricated steel in their spare time and their unique method of coal mining which involves digging until the tunnel collapses, on purpose. So her testosterone levels are, in all probability, just a notch above mine. A few years back, for instance, we found ourselves engaged in a fierce fight for the remote: I wanted to rewatch Titanic while she wanted to watch the Superbowl.

Nor is the sight of Leonardo di Caprio in a tux the only thing that floats my boat. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been pretty much bisexual at the movies. I swing both ways. I drink from both taps. I hit for both teams. Last year, I was like everyone else gaga for Gosling, after that elevator kiss with Carey Mulligan in Drive. The year before that, The Kids Are Alright brought my ten-year-old Mark Ruffalo crush out of hibernation. A year previous it was James Franco, the generous Adonis of Milk, tenderly smooching with Sean Penn in long-shot from an first-story window. Bliss.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: Dude is just gay. C’mon out of the closet, Tom!  The truth is I first started crushing on men because I was trying to figure out how to get girls — my sisters’ friends, to be precise, all queued up at the local movie theatre to take in the breathtakingly beautiful sight of a young Richard Gere in Yanks. I was eleven-years old: an overpowering sight for an eleven-year-old of any gender. They sat there, mute with longing; I sat sandwiched in the middle, stealing glances to either side, fascinated by his effect on them. The next Richard Gere move that came along — American Gigolo — I trotted along to the cinema to take notes as Gere did a series of abdominal crunches while hung upside down from his bedroom doorway learning Swedish from a tape. Paydirt! — I thought to myself  — this is what is necessary to capture the fragile, mysterious hearts of women.   

It was detective work, a spying mission behind enemy lines — except somewhere along the line, I forgot my original mission (it turns out there’s more to women than abdominal crunches and Swedish pick-up lines)  and went native. I became a double agent: I went queer for the movies. “I just went gay all of a sudden!,” as Grant announces in Bringing up Baby. I found a great cover — I became a film critic for a London newspaper — and then proceeded to spend the bulk of my adult life looking at men and women under cover of darkness, feeling the hots for all: Costner in No Way Out (those Navy whites), Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans (the rowing! The waterfall! ), Di Caprio in Titanic (that tux!), Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting (those highlights!).

Nor do I think I am alone in this. The screen is an equal-opportunities seducer — polymorphically perverse. If you are a man (or a woman) and you watch the famous scene in Notorious where Cary Grant nibbles Ingrid Bergman’s ear while she is answering the phone, you don’t feel two different things depending on which half of the screen you look at. I don’t look at Bergman and go “yummy” and then look at Grant and go “shame about him.”  Such is the heat of the movie screen that every grain and pixel is suffused with longing. The fact is: I have spent as much time in the dark of the movie theatre, watching men kiss and be kissed, and getting a kick out of it, as I have women.   

In 1973, the film theorist Laura Mulvey, in her seminal essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” for British film theory journal Screen, came up with the notion of “The Male Gaze”, the idea that the prevalence of semi-erotized images of women in Western culture — from adverts to movies to newsreaders — presupposes a male point of view. "In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness,” she wrote, thus launching a thousand doctoral theses on the Male Gaze in everything from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho to Lynx Deodorant.

There was a paradox at the heart of the theory, however. So prevalent were these images that women, it turned out, had internalized them, which meant the male gaze wasn’t just for men. The famous opening shot of Lost in Translation — Scarlett Johansson’s peach of a bum, in pink knickers, viewed from behind — wasn’t any less an example of the male gaze just because the director, Sofia Coppola, was a woman. Either Coppola had internalized the Male Gaze, Uncle Tom-ishly, or the Male Gaze consisted of a much more rainbow-like spectrum, encompassing many gradations and variations. I also think there is something called The Female Gaze — a way of looking at men on screen that presupposes a female viewer — and that this, too, can be shared by men as well as women. It can be found in the work of directors as various as James Cameron, Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant, Francis Ford Coppola, and Terence Malick, and in films as various as Days of Heaven, The Outsiders, Point Break, Goodwill Hunting, Ocean’s Eleven and — yes —  Magic Mike.

I got my wife to see it in the end, after much persuasion. I’ll admit that that most of our fellow theatregoers were women, all having  a howling good time by the sound of it, but she came out of it shaking her head. 

ME
But you were laughing throughout!

MY WIFE
I was laughing at your reaction.

ME
I think you’re just using me an excuse while secretly liking it!

MY WIFE
If it makes you feel any better.

ME
I know laughter when I hear it. When Matthew McConnaughey did that thing with his hips in front of the mirror you were laughing. Not because I was laughing. But because you found it funny.

MY WIFE
It was pretty funny.

ME
You don’t think it says anything interesting about capitalism?

MY WIFE
A devastating critique.
ME
Are you being serious?

A beat.
MY WIFE
I liked the scene where the kid tried to lap-dance but messed it up. That was a little bit of a turn on.

My head spins around so fast I almost get whiplash.

ME
You found it a turn-on?
MY WIFE
A little.
ME
[speechless]

And thus began another conversation that lasted all the way home.

Rushfield Babylon podcast

The other day I recorded this with film journalist Richard Rushfield:—
The new podcast is up!  Prometheus and PrometheansUnfortunate prequels and grotesque unsolved crimes are the topics on this week’s podcast.
First we chat with the great film writer Tom Shone about Ridley Scott, the missteps of Promtheus, the pitfalls of prequels and the question of whether perfect films are even possible in today’s world.
Download it direct here.
Or shortly on iTunes here.
Or listen on Stitcher!

Jul 5, 2012

REVIEW: Spiderman (dir. Webb)

Things we liked about The Amazing Spider-man:—
1. Andrew Garfield. This Spiderman is, above all, smart, with something of Robert Downey's jr's ability to talk rings around his own emotions. He's mile-a-minute anticipator/empath, everything tumbling out of his mouth as if he's already run the conversation through to the end, several times, and still hasn't found an ending he's quite comfortable with.  
2. The biting. During what looks like a Sting video.  
3. The swinging. In the Sam Raimi version it was bendy, bone-breaking, in defiance of most known physical laws; here it actually resembles the trajectory of a real body in motion, with particular attention paid to the brief moment of weightlessness at the apex of each swing, Spidey's web-line slackening like a sail. Beautiful. 
4. Emma Stone. Not as much of her as I would have liked, but still. The look of astonished arousal on her face after being lassoed was worth the price of admission. 
5. The slam-dunk.   
6. The line "do I look like the mayor of Tokyo"?   
7. Again, Garfield: his beanpole physique, height, physicality. The rhyme with the buildings. The way it was always clearly him inside the costume. Unlike trhe Maguire versions: it could have been anyone up there.  
8. The new web-shooters. Also the underground web and its use as an early-detection system.  
Things we didn't like to so much:—
1. The score. One of the worst I have heard in years. Give me three minutes and a Speak-and-Spell and I could compose something better.  
2. The Lizard. The snout of the lizard. The green gas cannisters of the lizard (because that's what color a Lizard's cannisters are, naturally). They way everyone kept calling him "the lizard." Doesn't he have a name? Lizardo? Dr Gekko? Very disappointing. An unusual flaw: the hero is more interesting than the villain.  
3. Webb cannot introduce characters for toffee. Our first shot of Spidey in costume? What should have been the punctuation to a sequence of action (gun whipped from hand, owner slung around, who's doing this? cut to: Spiderman in full regalia) is instead thrown away: a dramatically contextless shot atop a building. Same with the Lizard: first scene in aerial long-shot, when what you wanted was through a car window or in a rear-view mirror.  
4. Sally Field. Her apparent conviction that Aunt Mae's emotions are the true focus of the piece.  
5. The two-and-a-half hour running time. Many candidates for scenes that could go, but the fight-less dialogue sequence between Pete Parker and Rhys Ifans (prior to the mouse-for-breakfast discovery) a strong contender. 
6. He never runs out of web — why not? 

The alter ego inflation principle

From my July 4th column in The Guardian:—

Here are some of the things that Pete Parker, aka Spiderman, gets up to in the course of his new movie, The Amazing Spider-manhe shuffles along the hallway of his school, mumbles, gets bullied,  rides his skateboard, skips class,  fails to finish his sentences,  broods like James Dean over his parents, catches a cab, catches a subway, smashes an alarm clock, and has Branzino for dinner with his high-school crush Gwen Stacy. “This Spidey reboot refreshes an old story through the on-trend notion of making a Marvel superhero less super-heroic” noted Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly 

Not that he doesn't get up to his usual tricks — swinging through the canyons of New York, saving kids from burning cars, and fighting off giant green lizards — but it's a full hour before he is seen in full costume. “Nobody knows anything,” as William Goldman famously said about the movie business, but in a summer movie season crowded with multi-million dollar movie franchises, all bearing down on one another like Porsches in a demolition derby, here is one law of summer movies which stands firm:  the less time the superhero spends in costume the better the movie.

Cast your mind back to The Avengers, that gentle chamberpiece of May, featuring a running flush of superheroes. The ones everyone came out talking about, however, were the only two with lives outside the unitard: Robert Downy Jr’s cocky playboy-industrialist Tony Stark and  Mark Ruffalo’s gently beleaguered Bruce Banner, who spends the entire movie refusing to turn into the Hulk. “Ruffalo's unchanged mug gets 20:29 minutes of screen time,” noted    New York’s Vulture approvingly. Ruffalo’s reviews were so good there was immediately talk of him getting his own movie.

Then there is the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, the final part of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, which follows Spiderman into theatres on June 20th.  Universally praised for restored lustre to a franchise left for dead in the mid-nineties when Joel Schumacher reintroduced Robin, dressed Arnold Schwarznegger in silver lame, and gave the bat-suit bat nipples, Nolan uses Batman much more sparingly. A batfan at SuperheroHype recently number-crunched the amount of screentime enjoyed by Batman and came up with the following figures:—

Batman – 21%
Batman Returns – 17-18%
Batman Forever – 19%
Batman and Robin – 15%
Batman Begins – 16%
The Dark Knight – 16%

Batman and Robin is the outlier here but otherwise the message is clear: less is more. Batman’s shortest scene comes in Batman Begins —  a mere 15 seconds   “(perched on a skyscraper)” —  by far the most beautiful and memorable shot of the entire series.

By contrast he is all over the Schumacher and Tim Burton films like a rash, whether “(Saving 1st born sons)” (0.08) “Staring the Joker in a helicopter” (0.89) or “Infiltrating Penguin’s layer” (3.33). He reaches a pitch of ubiquity in the overhyped 1989 film, parading himself for a full 29 minutes of screen-time, thanks to the writers’ decision to fast-forward through the Bruce Wayne back-story. “You had to wade through 20 years just to get to the first shot of the guy in the costume that we’ve all come to see,” they said, getting things almost exactly wrong.

It’s an easy enough mistake to make. Pollsters will tell you there is a world of difference between what people say they want and what they actually want. We say we want to see Superman, but what we actually want is to see is that transfigurative moment when Clark Kent runs across the street looking for a phone booth, peeling his shirt back to reveal the ‘S’ on his chest and “smack down the bullies of the world,” as one of his creators, Jerry Siegel put it. A superhero without an alter-ego is just a megalomaniac in a cape.  Only a weak man knows the true value of strength," said Stanley Tucci, in last year’s Captain America, one of the few recent films to understand the form’s genesis not as power-trip but wish-fulfilment. 

Comic books are by, for and about those who are weak, not strong. In his excellent history of the genre, Men Of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangster and the Birth of the Comic-book, Gerard Jones makes clear the parallel between the double lives of the superheroes and their creators, those scrawny, near-sighted, cripplingly timid immigrant Jews from the lowest east side of Manhattan, dreaming of Douglas Fairbanks, He Men, and Charles Atlas during the Great Depression:—

“Clark Kent playing at cartoony mundanity, then bursting free into hallucinatory grandeur before cloaking himself at the end and winking knowingly to the reader. It was an allegory that echoed for immigrants and Jews: the strange visitor who hides his alien identity so as to be accepted by a homogenous culture.”

Sympathy for the underdog had a resonance beyond just the  Lower east side of the 1930s, however. Table-turning, nick-of-time empowerment is built into America’s founding myth: that of the scrappy, oppressed nation that one day decided it had had enough sand kicked in its face and stood up to its imperialist tormentor. In one sense, the Declaration of Independence is nothing but Clark Kent removing his glasses, writ large.

That’s what makes the superhero genre — for all its excesses, and annoying cultural ubiquity — such a fascinating, florid window into the national psyche. If you want to know how America felt about itself after defeating the Nazis, look no further than the rippling musculature and high-impact punches of Jack Kirby’s work for Marvel, during the comic-books so-called silver era’:—

“Kirby celebrated the body, the male body, male sweat and muscles, not with the fetishism of body building but with savage joy… The Underfed ghetto kid transformed into a roof rattling power by seizing American opportunities, the weary old country survivor reborn as the new fighting Jew through the crucible of America freedom and violence. And through that immigrant passion Simon and Kirby captured an entire national awakening America the provincial stirring itself to become a world power.”

That is why today belongs to Marvel, in every sense. There is no better image of America’s isolation as the sole remaining superpower than the endless sequence of superheroes trolling across our screens, no longer bothering to impersonate human beings but blasting away at each other like Greek Gods, for want of anything better to do. As A O Scott commented in The New York Times recently,

Far from being an underdog genre defended by a scrappy band of cultural renegades, the superhero spectacle represents a staggering concentration of commercial, corporate power.”

That’s why its so heartening to see Andrew Garfield fumbling his vowels in front of Emma Stone. Not that it isn’t always a pleasure to see Emma Stone, who joins Jon Stewart, Louis C K  and the films of Pixar as one of the chief reasons to feel cheerful about America right now. Sometimes it pays not to be Super. But then you knew that from The Incredibles.

Everyone's special, Dash” says Elastigirl, aka mom.

Which is another way of saying no one is,” mutters Dash.

Jul 3, 2012

REVIEW: Magic Mike (Soderbergh)

If Channing Tatum were any better — if he had the propulsive magnetism of a young Travolta or the transfixing beauty of a young Richard Gere — Magic Mike would be a straight-A instant classic. He's certainly better than you've ever seen him, scuffing up his delivery to fit into the loose naturalistic texture favored by Soderbergh, who leaves in a lot of his leading man's flubs in, in the interests of 'realism'. Save for one superbly inarticulate  speech at the end, Tatum's mistakes never sound like genuine hiccups: there's a slight puckering of fear around ever one — the giveaway airlessness of split-second panic. Tatum gives the impression of someone who is ever only a beat away from fleeing the set — or self-sabotaging his performance with a giggling fit. He could almost be pranking himself, a la Ashton Kutcher. But you don't really notice or care: most of the time you're too busy laughing with glee at the uproarious dance routines, during which Tatum turns himself into a human moebius strip, or drinking in the charms of Matthew McConaughey, a tan, leathery reptile who inducts newcomers into the "cock-rockin' kings of Tampa" and holds the female audience in shrieking thrall. For it's first 40 minutes, the movie is a filthy delight, reminiscent of both American Gigolo and The Wrestler in it's quasi-Foucaldian take on the trade in human flesh; in a lovely touch, Tatum insists on leaving the plastic wrapping on the interior of his car intact: nothing exists in his world that can't be repawned. The film's view of capitalism's lowest-rung hustlers and hawkers is steely-eyed and a little unremitting: I left the theatre a little more soiled than I expected to be. But McConnaughey has never been better and newcomer Cody Horn radiates a beautifully amused skepticism as the sister of the good-looking 19-year-old recruited by Mike into the strip club; her radar never quite turned off with regard to her brother, she nevertheless allows herself to be charmed by Mike, and a little repulsed: Horn combines all these things effortlessly. As do the audience. I could have done with a little more of her. B+