Nov 30, 2012

Jean Seberg shooting A bout de souffle on the Boulevard Saint Germain (1959), from Photos de Cinema by Raymond Cauchetier, September 22-December 6th, 2012

OSCAR FUTURES: Lincoln

My column in The Guardian:—
An interesting thing happened at the box office this Thanksgiving. The top two spots were taken, predictably enough, by the new Bond movie, Skyfall, and the final part of the Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn Part 2. But right behind Bond and Bella at number 3 was Abe Lincoln, as given flesh by Daniel Day-Lewis in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. To date it has taken $62 million, almost its entire production budget, in just two weeks. It may be the year’s most unlikely blockbuster. Of the three passes Spielberg has made at the subject of slavery — The Color Purple in 1982, Amistad in 1997 — Lincoln is by far the least Spielbergian. There is no action to speak of, only the skimpiest of battles scenes, little grand oratory, a bare minimum of John Williams music, and no glimpse of the assassination. The film instead gives its audience 149 minutes of dense political maneuvering  in dark smoke-filled rooms, as Lincoln hunts down the votes necessary to pass the 13th amendment. It’s a film about process, a political procedural.  What’s particularly impressive is that Lincoln is playing as well in red states as well as blue, as if buoyed by the small swell of bipartisanship in Washington in the wake of Obama’s re-election. This is more a film for Robert Caro than for the masters of combat video games,” wrote DavidThomson, a decided Spielberg agnostic, in the pages of The New Republic:— 
…to see it in the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama’s second election is the way to go. You can tell yourself that the resulting surge of emotion is a matter of chance, or God-given, but then you realize that Steven must have organized it this way. He foresaw our moment, he designed his opening, and Lincoln is especially momentous as the second Obama administration realizes there is no peace for the elected. It would have had a different resonance if the November 6 result had gone the other way. But Steven—not for the first time—planned an opening that would work either way. 
In other words, Spielberg’s knack for national pulse-taking  — which turned Jaws and E.T. into national events, and Saving Private Ryan into a generational salute — hasn’t deserted him. Might Spielberg be on the verge of joining Frank Capra and William Wyler in the paddock of three-time Best Director Oscar Winners?

The Academy have been remarkably slow to honor Spielberg, and certainly not for his early quartet of films — Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. — which rank among the greater glories of American popular cinema. His emergence as a box-office pied piper in late seventies and early eighties — with — coincided with the academy’s Knights In White Flannel phase, when they turned to the British period dramas like Chariots of Fire and Ghandhi to reassure themselves that the rivers of cash they were busy making from big summer hits like Spielberg’s didn’t suggest anything too unseemly about the business. As Spielberg noted, painfully, on the day of the nominations in 1976, when Jaws received only four nominations and Fellini nabbed his spot for Best Director. “This is called commercial backlash. When a film makes a lot of money people resent it. Everybody loves a winner but nobody loves a winner.” Not until Forrest Gump in 1993, could the academy bring themselves to reward a film that made over $100 million, thus opening up the way for Titanic and Lord of the Rings. 

The Academy’s attitude to the big money-makers is still ambivalent, witness the annual game everyone goes through trying to predict a nomination for something like Harry Potter  — or is it the new Christopher Nolan? Or maybe the new Bond? —in order to fill out the new expanded nomination berth, only to see it filled instead with something small, worthy and unwinning from the indie sphere. “The voters often like low budget/high return best and they hate high budget/low return most” writes SashaStone at Awards Dailywhich is why Life of Pi, which cost $120 million, and was released this weekend to take in a respectable $30 will have to keep that up to become the  Avatar-like must-see phenomenon it needs to be to win Best Picture in February. It’s still the best-looking dark horse out there.

What the Academy really likes to see, above all else, is this:— 
 
That’s the box office takings of Slumdog Millionaire, the 2009 winner, from Box Office Mojo. See that first big spike at around 80 days? That’s the film getting nominated. And the second big spike at about 110 days? That’s it’s win on February 22nd — the so-called ‘Oscar Bounce’, a much under-appreciated factor in the Oscar Race, not for the money, but for what that money means: the world is listening. The Academy, like all of us, likes to be listened to. It wants its recommendation to carry weight. Which isn’t to say that it can boss people around. They certainly don’t want a repeat of this: — 
 

That’s the box office graph for Crash, that most wretched of winners from 2006, which tanked at the box office, despite being pumped full of Oscar steroids. The Academy want to play king-maker, not Svengali. The film must be already on its way up before they give it a lift. It’s box office doesn’t even have to be all that big. As I said, this is not about the money. Here, for instance, is the graph for The HurtLocker, the lowest-grossing film ever to win the Academy Award for best picture:— 
 
 It’s exactly the same as the Slumdog Millionaire curve, except in miniature. So what is this about, if it’s not about the money? 
There’s one other thing the two graphs have in common. Thy bear a startling resemblance to the kind of box-office takings films used to make, in the land Time Forgot, before $100 million marketing campaigns and day-and-date saturation releases in 3,000 cinemas all but guaranteed a first-weekend audience of semi-satiated teenagers for your 13-writer franchise hopeful, KerPlunk: The Movie, thus allowing it to join Battleship and Total Recall and all those Not Quite Hits and Unexploded Bombs, neither wildly popular nor devastatingly unpopular, just there, circling the earth like blimps, slowly raking in DVD rentals from Abu Dhabi and pay-per-view from Peking.

The obsession with box office numbers is a modern phenomenon, dating to the mid-eighties, but so too is cynicism about the numbers. The academy are not just nostalgics in their taste in films: they’re nostalgic about the numbers too.  Those Oscar winning bellwethers recall an older, simpler time when word-of-mouth still existed, when films built their audience, and a purchased ticket didn't just meant money for the film’s producer. It also meant, as likely as not — certainly if it occurred two or three weeks into a film’s run — that the person who purchased it had enjoyed themselves. Or if they didn’t enjoy themselves at least been directed there by someone who had. It meant a hit.

If such talk is too populist for you, then think of it this way: that purchased ticket was the equivalent of one good review, and a million of those tickets meant a million good reviews. The public voted and the way they voted produced a remarkable accurate relief map of their affections. The more curvaceous the curve, the deeper the love.  You want to know what audience love for a movie looks like? It looks like this. 
  
That’s the curve for Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of The Southern Wild. It doesn’t stand a chance of winning the Best Picture Oscar, but if it gets a nomination — and it should — it will have something to do with the shape of that graph. Which is why Spielberg’s team at Dreamworks can afford to be a little excited by this early flutter in the public breast:— 
 
Wouldn't it be interesting if the people who put Lincoln over the finishing line were — well, the people?

Nov 29, 2012

Five alpha males and a marmoset


Experts in the body language, grooming habits, territorial behaviors and bonding rituals of adult male film directors will find the above fascinating. Tom Hooper's nervousness at the start is palpable. Tarantino talks as if the world would end were he to stop.  Russell watches him like someone taking notes for the character assassination he will later deliver to his therapist. Ang Lee seems oddly agitated an un-Zen (that $120 million weighs hard). Gus Van Sant plays the wise marmoset, sitting out the fight. Affleck is genial and self-deprecating — his actor's skills of self-presentation coming through — although he catches Tarantino's speaking patterns at one point, as if acting being a director.

Nov 23, 2012

BEST MOVIE SCENES of 2012

For these things I am grateful:—  
—Jennifer's Lawrence's show-down with de Niro in Silver Linings Playbook
— The Euclidean geometry in Lincoln
— The first death scene in The Grey, where Liam Neeson tells the guy "you're dying"
— Stepping onto the boat /  the boat's departure in The Master
— The crash in Flight, in particular the last, soundless 10 seconds
— Chasing the pigeon in Amour
— Rachel Weisz in the London underground in The Deep Blue Sea
— FDR's post-prandial chat with the King in Hyde Park on Hudson
— The introduction of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises
— The whorehouse in Beasts of the Southern Wild
— The first flight in Chronicle
— Michael Stuhlbarg's Mets soliloquy in Men in Black 3
— Feeding / taming the tiger in Life of Pi
— The lab shootout in The Bourne Legacy

Nov 22, 2012

OSCAR FUTURES: Silver Linings Playbook

 This week's Guardian column:—
“Imagine there’s no heaven,” sang John Lennon. “It’s easy if you try.”  Okay, let’s. Imagine a world with no Marx Brothers films, no Ginger Rogers or Fred Astaire. A world in which Cary Grant was never born and Preston Sturges is just a rumor. Dutifully, the populace trudge beneath skies the color of porridge towards box-like movie theatres where they consume their weekly dollop of gloom, as served up in with movies like A Life of Emile Zola, Marty and Crash. In this alternative universe, movie-going is a bit like going to the dentist, only without the laughing gas. Films that stand any chance of raising a smile have been expunged from the records although you will occasionally hear talk amongst those old enough to remember of something called Some Like It Hot, and — even more mythic — Bringing up Baby. But it is quickly shushed by those with wiser heads. It only leads to trouble. Best forget. Come, eat your gruel, chilluns. Before the rats come. 
 Actually you don’t have to try too hard. This vale of sorrow is the version of movie history as reconstructed entirely from past Oscar winners. The academy’s prejudice against comedy is well-known and long-standing, the exceptions coming about once a generation: It Happened One Night in 1934, The Apartment in 1961, Annie Hall in 1978. “It's been like five times in a zillion years that [a comedy]'s won Best Picture,” complained Judd Apatow last year after Bridesmaids failed to garner even a nomination, squeezed out by the likes of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a film inferior to it by just every sane or reasonable criteria for sorting good movies from bad. So David O Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, which goes into wide release this week, has an uphill climb at the Oscars this year, despite constituting the one of the most exuberant, sustained and humane feats of direction by an American in 2012.  
 It’s not a director’s film in the common sense of that term — there are no battles, or thousands of extras, or virtuouso editing sequences — but equally, it could have come from no other man but Russell, who has had a hard slog back to favor after a string of films — Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees — left him with reputation for volatility bordering on the radioactive.  Six years and one abortive film project later, Russell showed up with The Fighter, his abrasive manner now tempered by some compassion, both onscreen and off, the film won an Oscar for Melissa Leo. Russell’s method in Silver Linings Playbook is much the same as it was in The Fighter. Take a bunch of characters — a bipolar divorcee played by Bradley Cooper, a cop’s widow played by Jennifer Lawrence — then pile on some more — a father and fanatical Eagles fan played by De Niro — and then, just when you think the scene can take no more, throw in a shrink or a cop for good measure, watch the whole thing teeter in the breeze — everyone shouting and fighting and weeping — then shake it to see what truths fall out. As De Niro told the New York Times:— 
 "David has a very unusual style of directing. You’ve got the camera moving around, he’ll push the camera over to this character, to that character, he’ll throw lines at you and you repeat them… It’s a particular way of working and gets right to it and it’s spontaneous. You just have to go with it. He understands that whole chaotic thing. It’s part of his — I don’t want to say meshugas, but maybe it is. It’s his craziness. But a lovable craziness." 
The result is a kind of screwball humanism, rowdy and rich with risk, “Like a singer who quavers tauntingly, thrillingly close to going off-key,” said Manohla Dargis, “ the movie has the sting of life.” Unfortunately, it also happens to be wildly entertaining. The premise of the Oscars being to keep in place the fig-leaf of denial that Hollywood is even in the entertainment business, the film faces something of an uphill climb at least least as far as wins for Best Picture of Best Director are concerned. Yes it’s Harvey at the helm and Harvey won before with Shakespeare in Love won but that was the Academy’s one and only shot at giving an award to anything brushed with the creative molecules of William Shakespeare. Yes, there’s some stuff about being bipolar and meds and sex addiction in here, but the script would have to pull a much longer face about these things to start to see the benefits accrue. The Academy’s fear of comedy comes from the source of all philistinism: a deep fear of being thought philistine. As comedian Jim Piazza has written:— 
  “Hollywood was the invention of fist-in-your-face immigrant tycoons who, for all their sudden wealth, couldn’t get past the gates of Newport and Palm Beach. The Academy Awards became their pitch-imperfect bid for respectability. Pratfalls, cream pies and wisecracking dames may have paid for the Beverly Hills knockoff Versailles with the polo ponies in the backyard, but they weren’t quite up to snuff for front-room company. That was reserved for important pictures with high ideals that made you drowsy enough to think you were sitting with all the swells in Carnegie Hall.” 
Despite their bad rap, the Golden Globes are not so afflicted. The true scandal about the Golden Globes is not that they are handed out by a bunch of star-struck, scandal-ridden foreign hacks with lucrative sidelines in the world of hairdressing and personal fitness; the great scandal is that a bunch of star-struck, scandal-ridden foreign hacks with lucrative sidelines in the world of hairdressing and personal fitness have consistently shown far finer taste when it comes to good acting than the 6,000 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They consistently reward performers while the sap is still rising in their veins, before they have had all the fun stewed out of them in the bid for respectability. They gave an award to Nicole Kidman for her frisky, star-making turn in To Die For, rather than wait for her to don a false nose in the droopy The Hours; they gave it to Tom Hanks for his virtuoso turn in Big, years before Forrest Gump came on the scene; to Julia Roberts for Pretty Woman, not Erin Brockovich; to George Clooney in Oh Brother Where Art Thou, not the interminable Syriana. Oh and they gave a globe to Bill Murray for Lost in Translation. Murray has yet to receive a single Oscar. I rest my case. 
 Given all this, why — you might ask — is Jennifer Lawrence the front-runner in the race for the Best Actress Oscar, a position she has held since July,   handily seeing off threats from Quvenzhan√© Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, Kiera Knightley in Anna Karenina, Helen Mirren in Hitchcock, and Emmanuelle Riva in Amour? Of the Great Unseen she has only Jessica Chastain, in Zero Dark Thirty, left to fear, if Lawrence even knows that emotion. It seems unlikely, given her performances in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games. Russell recently called her “one of the least neurotic people I know.” The scene in Silver Linings Playbook in which Lawrence walks into a room containing a fire-breathing and, within two minutes, has the master of Method eating out of her hand, could well seal the deal all on its own.  
 Nor will it hurt that she plays a cop’s widow, clad alternately in Goth gear and figure-hugging lycra, who recently lost her job for sleeping with everyone — everyone — at her office. “Yes, I’m Tommy’s crazy whore widow minus the whore thing sometimes.” The Academy are old goats for young actresses playing tarty, admittedly more in the supporting actress category — see Marisa Tomei’s win for My Cousin Vinny in 1992, and Mira Sorvino’s for Mighty Aphrodite in 1995. Lawrence is also only 22, but Best Actress is skewing younger these days, she’s riding the tail of a huge blockbuster (The Hunger Games), and most importantly of all, her performance covers new ground: “It’s Lawrence who knocked me sideways,” said David Edelstein.  “ I loved her in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games but she’s very young — I didn’t think she had this kind of deep-toned, layered weirdness in her.”  
 The other race Russell’s film could show a burst of speed is Best Supporting actor: De Niro’s Eagles-Fan father, so obsessive-compulsive about possible jinxes he has a meltdown when anyone touches his TV's remote control, is easily the best work the actor has done in over a decade, a thrilling fusion of the broad-brush cantakerousness he took for a walk in Meet The Parents with the filigree neuroses that veined Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy back in 1983. Of the others in the Best Supporting Actor field — the as yet unseen Leonardo Di Caprio in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Alan Arkin coasting on auto-grump in Argo, Phillip Seymour Hoffman cutting a Wellsean dash in The Master, Tommy Lee Jones bawling out racists, baroquely, in Lincoln — I would guess that Jones is De Niro’s stiffest competition. But the Academy make a point of checking in with the greats (Streep, Nicholso) at various stages of their careers. De Niro may be old enough, and grey enough to merit such institutionalization. Call it the ‘When Did You Last Call Your Grandfather?’ vote.

Nov 21, 2012

So who are we ignoring now?

"Sure, a mid-career work won Best Picture, and he received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy in 1968, but Best Director eluded him throughout. As did the DGA prize, in fact (though the guild saw fit to bestow lifetime achievement recognition the very same year he received the Thalberg)... He never won a prize from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. The New York Film Critics Circle awarded him only once, for 1938's "The Lady Vanishes" rather than anything from his generally agreed-upon top-tier canon. At the Golden Globes, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association crowned his show, "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," on the TV side of things, but only nominated him once for directing features (in 1972 for "Frenzy," of all things). And that group, too, dealt him a career recognition prize, via a Cecil B. DeMille Award the year prior.... On the Oscar side of things, 16 of Hitchcock's films were nominated for this or that, tallying 52 nominations over the years. But they only won six trophies total." — Kris Tapley, In Contention
The Academy's slighting of Alfred Hitchcock is one of those truly miserable self-inflicted fouls you sometimes see in sports — an own goal, a fumble in the end-zone, a choke at match-point. Other omissions — like Kubrick, or for a long time, Scorsese — you can not only get but even take some pleasure from. Scorsese's exclusion, for example, not only told Scorsese fans all they needed to know about the Oscars it also confirmed something about their man they wanted confirmed — that he had too much integrity to be liked by everybody, he wasn't a Spielberg, he was an outcast, a saint, suffering for our sins. If anything it was slightly deflating when he did win, and looked totally thrilled by it. Suddenly he seemed like every other director; he needed to be loved like everybody else. But it just fries your brain figuring out how the academy missed Hitch. Not only is he among he greatest directors of all time, responsible for the greatest movie of all time, we now find out, and not just considered an auteur, but the auteur, the one the French used to prove the whole theory; but his films were and still are almost obscenely entertaining. I mean, how could they fuck this one up? It's the 'entertaining' bit that's the clue, of course. The Academy Awards are not really there for Hollywood to confirm the fact that it's in the entertainment industry. They are there to fuel the idea that their mind is on higher things. That's still the case of course. It makes you think who they're ignoring at the moment that is going to have everybody wincing in 50 years time. Chris Nolan? Tarantino? Fincher?

In the academy's favor, it wasn't just middle-brow snobbery that stopped them from seeing Hitchcock's virtues. They also got whacked by history: they weren't to know that the entire film industry was going to reorganise itself in Hitchcock's image. Nobody in 1959 would have guessed that North By Northwest would provide the template for every summer blockbuster to come, from Bond to Bourne to Indy. Nobody knew that Psycho's blend of laughs and scares would, via Jaws, open season on the summer blockbuster. Nobody saw Lucas and Zemeckis and Spielberg, "the first one of us who doesn't see the proscenium arch,” said Hitchcock. So the question now becomes, not "who is most underrated?" but "Who do we think is going to have turned out to point the way of the future?"  Much harder. 

BEST SCORES OF 2012 (updated)

1. A Royal Affair, Gabriel Yared
2. John Carter, Michael Giacchino
3. Lincoln, John Williams
4. Amour, Alexandre Theraud
5. Beasts of the Southern Wild, Dan Romer & Behn Zeitlin
6. Moonrise Kingdom, Alexandre Desplat
7. Hitchcock, Danny Elfmann
8. The Dark Knight Rises, Hans Zimmer
9. Brave, Patrick Doyle
10. Life of Pi, Mychael Danna
Johnny Greenwood's bingo-bongo-Stravinsky score for The Master was at least 50% responsible for me disliking that movie as much as I did: it played pizzicato on my nerves. Desplat's score for Argo was strangely underpowered — evocative when it should have been thrilling — and James Horner's score for The Amazing Spiderman was just ugly. Zimmer's score for The Dark Knight was thunder with conviction, if a retread of his much better Inception score — a classic. Danny Elfmann's score for Hitchcock is single-handedly responsible for that movie's briskness. John Williams score for Lincoln sounded a little like the last melody he has in the bag, but summoned his old magic. Michael Giacchino's Jon Carter score is like underwater Bond, but the best score for me this year was Gabriel Yared's for A Royal Affair: plush, four-ply romanticism that unbuttons one's corset very nicely.

Nov 20, 2012

Spielpix

Courtesy of billblogblogspot

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Steven Hyden


 "If there are still people left on planet Earth who believe in the sanctity of a thriving underground subculture populated by young, principled artistic types living bohemian lives free of the conventions propagated by lamestream plebs, here is a not-quite comprehensive rundown of pop culture items from 2012 that (intentionally or not) seemed directed at disabusing this idea: Lana Del Rey's Born to Die, the HBO show Girls, the LCD Soundsystem concert film Shut Up and Play the Hits, Bon Iver singer-songwriter Justin Vernon's Grammys acceptance speech, Justin Timberlake's Justin Vernon impersonation on Saturday Night Live, fun.'s Some Nights, New York Magazine cover story on Grizzly Bear and the untenable economic realities faced by high-level indie-rock bands, Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," the white-people-giggling-over-R&B-covers-on-YouTube novelty act Karmin appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, that good but sort of unlovable Animal Collective album, Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You in the End" appearing in an Axe body spray commercial, this weekend's New York Times piece on "hipster irony." I could go on but, in the interest of space, I won't. Whether those critiques are explicit or implicit, textual or subtextual, sympathetic or sneering, the notion of indie exceptionalism (and its white, urban, and upper-class trappings) was repeatedly questioned this year, almost always by the very people who benefit from it. Indie-ness in 2012's pop culture has been depicted as an outmoded clich√©, an indulgence for the rich and deluded, a jokey lyrical reference, a house of cards, and/or a pile of cool clothes for pop stars and corporations to try on and discard." 
 Steven Hyden, Grantland A fascinating thesis, long overdue.

Nov 18, 2012

Performances of the year — suggestions?

I'm pulling together a list of contenders for performances of the year. Any suggestions? Here's what I have so far:—
Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln
Robert De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook
Rachel Weisz, The Deep Blue Sea
Denzel Washington, Flight
Emmanuelle Riva, Amour
Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises
Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook
Bill Murray, Hyde Park on Hudson
Eva Green, Dark Shadows
Matthew McConnaughey, Magic Mike
Quvenzhane Wallis, Beasts of the Southern Wild
Jean Louis Trintignant, Amour

Nov 17, 2012

REVIEW: The Big Screen by D. Thomson


'... He follows Pauline Kael’s lead in finding Kane “a masterpiece but a shallow masterpiece” which may “confirm something dazzling but shallow about the whole medium.” That switchback is classic Thomson.  The entire medium damned in one reverse-zoom. He might well have subtitled his book “David Thomson and his Fabulous, Floating Ambivalence”. Mixed feelings vein it like Roquefort. Every critic reserves the right to be in two minds, of course. When Thomson describes Dietrich’s “sweet lisp that swayed from seduction to contempt in a single line” or finds Erich von Stroheim both “the best (and the  worst) thing” in Renoir’s La grande illusion, he is practicing every critic’s right to be of two minds — why not three, or even four? But some may find it bothersome , a tic. What are we to make, for instance, of his darting assertion that that Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is ”totalitarian in its blood and bones” and his subsequent (semi) retraction:  “Am I suggesting that Fritz Land was intrinsically Fascist, or was it the medium? I’m not quite sure.” That might be something you’d want to be a little more sure about. People are a little touchy about that kind of thing — fascism. Maybe not the dead but what about poor Steven Spielberg, “as close to genius as to be infuriating”, here held responsible for  auctioning off the greatest art form of the 20th century to the Mammon of the Multiplex:   “Surely the maker of Schindler’s List… must know that some decisions lead to catastrophe.” Really?  You really want to do this? The decision to go down to the road to Indy 4 is comparable to Hitler’s gassing of the jews?' 
— from my review of The Big Picture for The Wall Street Journal   

Nov 11, 2012

REVIEW: Skyfall (dir. Mendes)

Sam Mendes does for the Bond movie what he did for dissections of American suburbia in American Beauty and Revolutionary Road, for prohibition thrillers in Road to Perdition and war movies in Jarhead: he arrives late to the party, rifles through a database of iconographic imagery, and then sieves the results through a filter of "good taste". The result is good-looking, dramatically inert, high-end filmmaking that invites its audience to feel superior to cheap thrills it doesn't have the faintest idea how to produce. How's this for classy: Tennyson read over a chase in which Bond races to save M from an assassination attempt. Better than your average Bourne chase flick, huh? Except its not. The Tennyson actually precedes the running, which is simply dropped in to fill out the idea. That's Skyfall all over: the action serving as filler for the bright ideas of staging Mendes can't stop himself having. I'm not even sure he is even an action director in the proper sense of the word. Walter Hill wouldn't learn much. Mendes has little instinct for suspense — for building a sequence, and then sending it rattling into the back of the next. He's too busy making pretty pictures. The pre-credit sequence — a train and motorbike race —  has some whizz to it, but there's a shootout wrapped in the advertising images of high-rise Hong Kong, reflected in glass, that is so sumptuous I half expected Adele to start busting her lungs, but my pulse barely flickered throughout. At the end, a man falls to his death, in vertiginous tribute to Saul Bass. Should Bond be this beautiful? The series always dreamed of sophistication, of course, with its  martinis and jet travel and beautiful exotica — those complaining about product placement in the new film ought to remember that Fleming was dropping labels decades before Bret Easton Ellis was spitting out his pacifier — but it was the pseudo-sophistication of the business traveller, doomed to curdle into kitsch. That is what made Casino Royale such a blessed relief, for here was Bond played straight, with a new Bond who was blonde and tough and cool again. Given this, Mendes decision to revisit the theme of the Timothy Dalton Bonds — Bond as dinosaur, ribbed by his younger colleagues for being out-of-date — is all the more baffling, a self-inflicted defeat just inches from the end zone. What sense does it make to have M hauled in front of a government oversight committee and told that era of human intelligence is past, when what revivified the whole Bond franchise in the first place was the renewed threat of terrorism? The contemporary resonance is there on a plate. But Mendes' mind is elsewhere: on Aston Martins and whiskey and British bulldogs and the Scottish highlands and grouse-shooting and Albert Finney and the Westminster skyline. "I didn't know you could get up here," says Moneypenny. "Why waste a view?" responds Bond. The result is one of the oddest plots imaginable: Javier Bardem steals a list of spies names so that he can be captured and brought to London where he takes over the Undergound system and dress up as an English bobby in order to assassinate M, while she is reciting Tennyson, and then when that fails, pursue Bond up to his highland castle where he can lay waste to his Aston Martin and Whiskey reserves. Whatever happened to global domination? C+

Nov 10, 2012

The last book by Philip Roth


"Roth, who is seventy-eight, recently told the French magazine Les inRocks, “To tell you the truth, I’m done.” Nemesis,  which was published in 2010, will be his last book. Roth told Les inRocks that when he turned seventy-four he reread his favorite authors—Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Turgenev, Hemingway. Then, he said, “When I finished, I decided to reread all of my books beginning with the last, Nemesis. “I wanted to see if I had wasted my time writing. And I thought it was more or less a success. At the end of his life, the boxer Joe Louis said, ‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ It’s exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had.” “After that, I decided that I was finished with fiction,” Roth went on. “I don’t want to read it, I don’t want to write it, and I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. I dedicated my life to the novel. I studied them, I taught them, I wrote them, and I read them. At the exclusion of nearly everything else. It’s enough!” — The New Yorker
When I interview Roth in 2010, I had a suspicion Nemesis might be his last book.  It brought to a close a quartet of what felt like late works, in which Roth loosed catastrophes, like Prospero. In Indignation, the catastrophe was the Korean war. In The Humbling the catastrophe was a woman. In Everyman the catastrophe was death itself. And in Nemesis it was polio, sweeping through the children of wartime Newark, during a baking hot summer from Roth’s youth.  Late Roth, like late Shakespeare, late Turner and late Beethoven, was turning out to involve choppy weather. 

"I hadn’t thought it but I think its true," he told me in his soft, low voice, a mixture of sand and claret, in which his career as a lover of women seems all too apparent. "These last four books are all cataclysmic books. And so was Exit Ghost, which came before. And so was The Plot Against America, which came before that. Maybe I only write cataclysmic books, early, late or middle." He laughs. "But I think it's true to call these cataclysmic books. Why? The darkness is unavoidable. You don't die, but everyone else does. So you make your way though a cemetery of your friends and loved ones. That focuses you. Going through all these papers and things, I see half the people are dead. I look at photographs: everybody's dead. Styron, Updike...That they are all gone and silenced, it's hard to take. It's hard to take. And so you imagine cataclysms." 


The "papers" he referred to were the personal effects he was sorting through. Ordinarily, the period between novels would be a fraught one for him, racked with anxiety about stepping back into the ring, but he told me he had been able to step free with ease this time. He had spent the past summer going back through the many boxes of correspondence, photographs and effects that have accumulated in the 31 years he's been in the house. Originally, he was looking for ideas, but when none came, it turned into "an exercise in recollection", as he put it, sounding like a character in a Beckett play.


 "It's like a Beckett play in that it often feels pointless," he said, laughing. "I don't think any writing is going to come of it. Ordinarily, I would be very unhappy about that, but for some reason I am not this time. I've written about almost everything I know. It may be that there's something I've not considered that will occur to me, but for the moment... I don't feel pursued."

"Pursued by what?" 


"The writing furies."


Before I left him, he offered to walk me around his garden, a large, rolling lawn ringed by trees, their leaves rustling. "That maple is over 200 years old," he said, pointing proudly to one of them. I asked him if he was worried about dying halfway through a book.


"A lot of writers feel that. I've always thought that you couldn't die midway through a book. It supplies you with life energy."


"And what if Nemesis turns out to be your last book?"


"I suppose there is always that possibility," he said calmly. "I've lived with that possibility with every book I've written in the past 30 years."


"And if it were?" 


"I might want to put a gun to my head. I would hope not. If this were really the end, which will have to come eventually, I would hope that I could learn to take it easy. The furies pursued me, and I pursued them. It would be nice to get the hell out of the way!"

Nov 7, 2012

"Tuesday night was a beautiful night for those who admire President Obama for his temperament, his intelligence, his calm, his decency, and his refusal, in the face of obviously intense daughterly pressure, to buy a second dog. (Let the word go forth from this day on: one dog is delightful —but one is enough.) It also sealed in place, by real but still smallish margins—and therefore as though it were a fated necessity rather than a contingent achievement— the Obama phenomenon. It is still one of the most singular stories in American history: how a slight black guy from Chicago with an odd African name and no resume except a single shining speech and a fine, introspective literary memoir became the dominant political figure of an American empire still at the height of its power. Nothing so improbable has happened in a big democracy, or semi-democracy, since Disraeli’s day. And, once again, one marvelled at the ability of Obama’s opponents to hate with such a passion a man so seemingly impossible even for his teen-age daughter to dislike—a man who never takes the bait of rage, who sometimes seeks conciliation to crazy fault, and has said scarcely an angry, mean-spirited, or intemperate thing in his public life." — Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

Nov 5, 2012

OSCAR FUTURES: Best Actor


The first of my Oscar columns for The Guardian:—
'The race is on. The polls are in. We have a frontrunner in trouble. A muscular challenger making hay. Gaffes. Melt-downs. Campaign coffers swollen with cash. The only question is: can the voters learn to love a sandcastle humper? I refer, of course, to the race for the Academy Award for Best Actor. You didn’t know it was already underway? Where have you been? You’ve got better elections to be obsessing over?  
While everyone’s attention was diverted by the small matter of who gets to lead the free world, Hollywood has begun the 5-month-long jamboree that now constitutes the run-up to the Academy Awards. Here’s what you need to know.  Everyone has decided Jennifer Lawrence is going to win Best Actress. Joaquin Phoenix was the front-runner for Best Actor until a few weeks ago, when he called the Oscars “bullshit.”  Then everyone went into a Twitter-induced freak-out over Daniel Day Lewis’ accent, as revealed in the Lincoln trailer. Everyone loves Alan Arkin. Oh, and Argo is going to win Best Picture. Roger Ebert says so.  
Such anyway is the received wisdom of the Oscarologists, that strange mole-like race of people who live underground for most of the year, emerge blinking out of the ground in early September to  attend film festivals, pore over trailers and teasers, sift the soil through their fingers, sniff the air and type things like “I smell trouble” on their blogs. Here is how the race for Best Picture looks  to them, as of last week. 

 
The keen-eyed amongst you will notice two things: 1) Silver Linings Playbook’s spell as frontrunner bore a suspicious resemblance to “the length of time it was playing at film festivals.” And 2) Argo’s turn in the spotlight bears a suspicious resemblance to “the number of weeks it has been in general release.”  Those of you who object to this graph on the grounds that Silver Linings Playbook hasn't been released yet, and furthermore you have zero idea what it even is, need to toughen up. Awards season is not for pussies. By the end of it, well have you calling next year’s race, blind, on the basis of which agent got the biggest shout-out at this year’s ceremony. 
The tracks of the Best Actor race are roughly set. This year it looks like a three way race between Joaquin Phoenix, Denzel Washington and Daniel Day Lewis. Thus far, Phoenix has been dominating the conversation with his electrifying jumble of method voodoo and chemically-induced jibber-jabber in The Master, although he damaged his chances considerably by giving an interview in which he called the Oscars “bullshit. I think it’s total, utter bullshit, and I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t believe in it.”  Actors have gotten away with this sort of thing in the past — Dustin Hoffman called the Academy Awards “a beauty contest", while George C. Scott, nominated in 1970 for "Patton," called the ceremonies “a two-hour meat parade” but that was then. Such comments don’t go sit well in the world of $15 million Oscar campaigns. 
And the performance? Phoenix’s portrait of a man in a state of acute spiritual undress is right up the Academy’s street. They certainly like their meat gamey: see Halle Berry’s win in 2000 for Monster’s Ball, or Natalie Portman’s 2010 win for Black Swan. Although it’s also a curiously opaque, depthless performance, raising more questions about the intentions of the director Paul Thomas Anderson than it does Phoenix’s character. As Richard Brody put it, “It’s not a work of psychological realism,”  one reason, perhaps, why the film has failed to catch on the box office. Is it too nuts even for the Academy?  As one of the commentators at Hollywood Elsewhere put it, referring to a scene in which Phoenix makes out with a beach, Oscar doesn't generally go for sandcastle humping.”This could well turn out to be the question of the season. 

Well, do they or don’t they? Phoenix’s main competition couldn’t be more dignified or draped in gravitas  — and twice decorated already. Given his track record at bringing American period to life, I wasn’t sure Daniel Day Lewis was going to find much fresh turf in Spielberg’s Lincoln — between his Hawkeye, Bill the Butcher and Daniel Plainview, haven’t we already seen his Abraham Lincoln? — but  Day Lewis tacks in the complete opposite direction to come up with a soft miracle: stoop-shouldered, spindly of frame, his Abe Lincoln is slightly weary, sagacious soul, but ramrod straight, driving the entire 2-hour-and-twnety-minutes of Spielberg’s epic as surely as an ox.  Ordinarily I would say: no contest. One of our greatest screen actors, playing one of America’s greatest presidents. No humped sandcastles, just nations rebuilt with blood, sweat and oratory. Call it a night and go home early. The only question hanging over the performance is whether the Academy are quite ready to usher Day-Lewis into the hallowed company of three-time winners that also includes the likes of Hepburn, Streep and Nicholson. Put it like that, and the prospect seems irresistible. The academy are whores for “greatness” and love to make their own history. Or would they prefer to bestow that honor on Denzel Washington?

He’s landed one of the meatiest roles of his career in Robert Zemeckis’s Flight (released last week), playing Whip Whitacker, the substance abusing pilot who lands a malfunctioning plane while high as a kite. (My review here).  It’s by far the best star performance of the year, which is not to downplay it. As David Edelstein said of Washington:—
"He’s not an actor who opens himself up—you never quite feel you know him, underneath. But that’s why his onscreen explorations of control and its opposite feel so right, so true to who he is as a performer and a man. When you watch Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, you see the Method at its most perilous and wobbly: You see an actor who has lost control as an actor and with it the ability to shape his performance. Phoenix is vivid but he’s all over the place: If he played Whip, he’d be dissolving in the first shot, randomly zigging and zagging in the ether. But Washington takes Whip to another level. Despite the script’s overfamiliar beats (yes, there are twelve-step meetings), he anatomizes Whip’s existential seesaw. He breaks Whip’s—and his own—cool into pieces, the good and the bad, the supremely potent and pathetically impotent. This is a titanic performance."
My own feeling is that it’s too good for the Oscars. Like Brad Pitt’s performance in Moneyball last year, Washington’s work in Flight has the kind of sanded ergonomic beauty that sails right past the grimacing and gurning required by the Academy to reassure them they are in the presence of “great acting.” Washington’s major impact on this year’s race could be to draw enough votes away from Day-Lewis to allow Phoenix to slip through — but right now, it feels like Day-Lewis’s to lose.'

Nov 4, 2012

Obama 2: The Sequel

From my Guardian column this week:—
'...The first act of what followed was terrific, even if the genre was slightly unexpected, given the historical circumstances: comedy. Whether riffing on the White House as the perfect “home office”, or goofily wide-eyed with his first flight on Air Force One, or sparring with McCain over the budget for a new fleet of presidential helicopters (“The helicopter I have now seems perfectly adequate to me”), Obama seemed to be channeling every ordinary Joe thrust into a fictional Oval office, from Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington to Kevin Kline in Dave. As Jon Stewart quipped, upon hearing the news that Obama had gotten Earth Wind and Fire to play at a White House party, “Obama is actually doing the thing everyone says they would if they became president. ‘If I become president I’m going have my favorite band play, and they’re gonna play in the living room, like every day?” Then came the mid-terms. Traditionally the Second Act Complication brings the villain into play but in truth the Republican Freshmen who took up their position in congress were not your typical not Vaudevillian villains, twirling their moustaches. Rather, with an obstructionist agenda that came close at times to outright nihilism, they were less, they more closely resembled Brechtian saboteurs, intent on breaking the fourth wall, bringing the entire performance to a shattering silence in which the audience looks at one another, nervily: what now?  
If the Clinton movie was baby-boomer nostalgia trip which descended into gluey sexual farce (The Big Chill meets Nine to Five) and the Bush presidency, like the second installment of all long-running franchises, a terrifying lurch over to the dark side (Superman 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), then Obama’s presidency soon resembled something out of the Theatre of the absurd: an Beckettian anti-drama in which no is yes and up is down, designed to send the audience staggering out into the night, having been forcibly divested of their petit-beorgois assumption that this or any drama should ever make sense. Anyone for a sequel?The biggest obstacle to a second Obama term, as with all sequels, is the removal of the asymmetry which made the hero’s struggle so diverting in the first place. David has become his own Goliath. The kid who took on the Death Star is now a Jedi knight spouting Chinese-cracker bromides, and to be frank Princess Leia always preferred Han Solo anyway. “You know, I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention,”   said Obama when he accepted the Democratic nomination earlier this year. “Times have changed, and so have I. I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the president.” Some commentators took this for an Aaron Sorkin moment, akin to Michael Douglas’s alpha-dog assertion of rank in The American President (“My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President”), but he put the emphasis on a different syllable, sounding a more rueful note. Obama sounded like a man who knows his magic has partly evaporated, not as a consequence of anything he has said or done, but simply because he has ceased to be a projection of our desires. He has ceased to be fictional, and become real in front of our eyes.'

Long shots I have loved

A handful of directors recently seem to have rediscovered the joys of the long shot, particularly when deployed, coolly, in the heat of the action. Here are a few that have given me a thrill.
—the streaking jet in Robert Zemeckis's Flight
— the shot of the bridges detonating in The Dark Knight Rises
— the exploding building in Skyfall
— the explosion behind Downey's turned back in the first Iron Man
And some golden oldies:—
— the parking lot killing in Jackie Brown
— the night-time shot of the ship, tiny in the frame, in Titanic
— the car, the police shot, the horn, in Chinatown
— Mike Myers sitting up in Halloween
— Dustin Hoffman 'running in place' in The Graduate
— advancing Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia

Nov 1, 2012

Roland Emmerich was only half-right

“Roland Emmerich was right,” said one screenwriter who had rung me up me excitedly to see whether my area in Brooklyn was underwater or not. She had in mind Emmerich’s 2004 disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, which consumed New York with a giant tidal wave, although we soon fell to swapping other cine-antecedents:  1998’s Deep Impact, 1933’s Deluge, and Spielberg’s A.I. with its visions of a sunken Coney Island, underwater skyscrapers, and a statue of liberty submerged but for its torch, now become the perch for seagulls.  
Such is the fate of New York, that when disaster strikes our first thought goes to the movies, so repeated has the city been devastated over the years, whether by tidal wave (Deep Impact), zombie plague (I Am Legend) asteroid  (Armageddon), alien (Independence day), or ape (Planet of the Apes). It is the apocalyptic city par excellence. “What a ruin it will make!” H. G. Wells exclaimed, upon catching sight of the New York skyline, which formed one of many indelible images from Monday night — not entirely blacked out, but partially, from 39th street and below, which meant that unlike the blackouts of 2003 and 1977, we got to see it at night, the buildings of Greenwich Village just visible in silhouette against the lights further uptown. 
The citizen in me was horrified, but I’d be lying if I said that the connoisseur of apocalypse — and since 9/11 all New Yorkers have been experts in that field — wasn’t awed and fascinated at this fresh evidence of what happens to the city in extremis —  what Andrew Sullivan has termed “ruin porn.”  Everyone compared 9/11 to a disaster flick but   Hollywood would have made the fireballs the jets made when they hit the side of the world trade centre much bigger; and scattered the debris much wider. It was, curiously, the modesty of the image that terrified: seeing that a jet makes this sized fireball when it hits a building, and casts no debris at all, instead vaporizing on contact. 

Something similar applied on Monday. What we saw was both less than and more than the hyperbolized destruction of the movies —  not Emmerich’s tidal waves, or Spielberg’s underwater skyscrapers, but the half-submerged streets of Hoboken; cars floating down the street like flotsam against a grate;  the beaches of New Jersey, relocated to the street; shuttered subways, and a rising tide of briny water. Roland Emmerich was only half right. As Vulture noted:— 
"No matter how often the eggheads told us to watch for the storm surge, not falling skies, we still expected Death From Above — because that’s the apocalypse we’re best rehearsed for, from Independence Day to The Avengers. The actual onslaught turned out to be far more insidious, less visible, with few celluloid precedents: a bubbling-up from below, a slow submerging of our vulnerable undercarriage and the corrosion of our centuries-old subterranean infrastructure. Sandy wasn’t the cataclysm we’d been trailered; it was more slow-acting snakebite than one-punch obliteration. It could color our future shared nightmares of Big Apple Armageddon, a sector of splashy pessimism that has, for the last decade, been dominated by The Obvious."
Because Sandy made landfall in the evening, most of us woke up to find out what had happened, the storm having moved on, leaving behind images whose stillness more closely resembled the eerie landcapes of fiction, rather than the movies.  I was reminded in particular of   J G Ballard’s The DrownedWorld, in which the polar icecaps have melted turning Europe is "a system of giant lagoons" and the American Midwest into "an enormous gulf opening into the Hudson Bay.” More recently, we have had Kim Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain (2005) in which rising sea levels have turned America’s cities into versions of Venice:— 
“A city floored with water. Here it was quite shallow, of course. But the front steps of all the buildings came down into an expanse of brown water, and the water was all at one level, as with any other lake or sea. Brown-blue, blue-brown, brown-gray, brown, gray, dirty white – drab urban tints all. The rain pocked it into an infinity of rings and bounding droplets, and gusts of wind tore cats’ paws.” 
The comparison with old Europe is telling. For New York has taken up the position in the popular imagination that used to be occupied by London, which, in the years leading up to 1916, was subjected to repeated fictional apocalypse, in pulp novels gripped by pre-war jitters. Great wars that devastated civilizations were fought in the skies and on imaginary battlefields dwarfing those of Verdun and Stalingrad,” writes literary historian W Warren Wagar. “ Fascist dictatorships led to a new Dark Age, class and race struggles plunged civilization into Neolithic savagery, terrorists armed with super-weapons menaced Global peace. Floods, volcanic eruptions, plagues, epochs of ice, colliding comets, exploding or cooling suns, and alien invaders laid waste to the world.” Sounds like a movie pitch.