Jul 25, 2013

Fall Screengrab 2013: Actresses

From Top:—Sandra Bullock in Gravity; Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Game: Catching Fire; Amy Adams in American Hustle; Julia Roberts in August: Osage County; Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn DavisAdèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in Blue is the Warmest Color.

Jul 24, 2013

When too much is never enough

In Songbook, Nick Hornby recounts hearing the J J Geils band for the first time — “loud, baffling, exotic, cool, wild” — and realizing that the band came from the same place in the American psyche "as Kramer in Seinfeld, and ‘Surfin Bird’, and ‘Papa-OOm-Mow-Mow’, and James Brown being wrapped in a cape and led off stage before bounding back to the microphone and Mohamed Ali’s Boasts, and the insane celebrations when a contestant won a lawnmower on the Price is Right.” I just finished watching Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear for my book on the director and wondering if the same is true of him too. The film, as everyone knows, is excessive — excessively stylish, excessively violent, excessively referential of other movies, with a bonkers finale in which De Niro, speaking in tongues, goes down with the Bowden's boat, while Scorsese swings his camera around like a Thurible during Mass. If only he hadn't done that, was the gist of many of the reviews. I love Scorsese but. Too much is too much. And so on. And then it struck me that this problem wasn't confined to Scorsese. They said the same thing about Spielberg's colorised girl in Schindler's List, and the repeated Zapruder shots of Kennedy's brains in  JFK, and Spike Lee's speechifying in Do The Right Thing, and all the quotes from The Wasteland in Apocalypse Now, and countless other examples in which a film director, rather than doing the thing critics were okay with them doing, went too far, showed too much, couldn't shut up and generally splurged in ways that left the tidy bounds of good taste and discernment looking, well, tasteful and tidy.  I'm not sure it always used to be the case. Ford and Hitchcock and Hawks rarely got cinematically drunk in public. But starting in the 1970s, something got into the water supply, a tiny sliver of madness, an urge towards excess that is not just very American but something I have grown increasingly fond of, as the years tick by, and sanity seems an ever more elusive commodity. It's something that's come out of writing this Scorsese book, anyway, a grudging respect for the more bonkers films, or sequences, like the firework-lit impalement in Bringing Out The Dead, and the speaking in tongues in Cape Fear, and the freight-train crucifixion in Boxcar Bertha, and all the other miscellaneous jibber-jabber that seems to have burped up from Scorsese's subconscious. 

Jul 20, 2013

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Diane Keaton

'As Ms. Keaton recalled it, their relationship was not unlike Annie Hall,  with Mr. Allen becoming both her partner and mentor, offering her an attentive ear and introducing her to Freudian analysis. “I was constantly complaining about things and constantly had this low self-esteem,” Ms. Keaton said, “and had a tendency toward crying and worrying about why I wasn’t good enough, and he took it.” Not only did Mr. Allen pay attention, Ms. Keaton said, “he took an interest in my family and in my mother, who was a fantastic woman and a complex character, and in my sisters.” The surest sign that Mr. Allen was listening to her was when she read his script for Annie Hall (written with Marshall Brickman) and her character’s voice sounded just like her. “We can all feel it and understand it,” said Ms. Keaton, who won an Academy Award for her performance, “but we cannot write other people’s sounds.” Mr. Allen, she said, “can hear it — Annie Hall, flumping around, trying to find a sentence, that’s just remarkable what he did for me.”' — New York Times
I love that in the course of describing unique voices she gets the word "flumping" past the Times's style prefects. 

Jul 19, 2013

REVIEW: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

“The novel takes it’s title from the imposing rehab facility, located deep in a forest, that waits for Anais at the end of that car ride: four floors high, in shape of a C, and in the centre a hidden core that looks out, through one-way glass, onto every cell, every landing, every bathroom. Students of 18th century English penology will instantly recognize reformer Jeremy Bentham’s infamous plans for an omniscient prison, never built but later turned by French philosopher Michel Foucault into a metaphor for the oppressive gaze of late capitalism. Students of 21st century reality television will, on the other hand, instantly recognize the layout from TV program Big Brother, in which a bunch of undesirables argue, in closes quarters, over who redecorated the living room lamp-shade   with their underpants. Where does Fagan’s structure come to rest on that scale? Somewhere in the middle. The inmates are locked up at night, but during the day are free to roam a lounge area, dining space, and games room, all painted magnolia by well-meaning staff who say things like “we practice a holistic approach to client care at the Panopticon.” Winston Smith never had it so good. Anais is there for allegedly putting a policewoman in a coma, a crime for which she is hauled into the interrogation room at regular intervals, but she cannot remember anything, having been on the tail-end of a four-day Ketamine bender at the time. “I didnae tell the polis that. I didnae tell them I was so fucked up I couldnae even mind my own name.” She is soon bonding with her fellow inmates — swapping stories and swinging joints attached to shoelaces between the cells after lights out.  There’s the girl who burnt down the disabled school where her foster mother taught, the sicko who raped a dog, the guy who battered his own grannie. “We end email, start legends —— create myths. It's the same in the nick or the nuthouse: notoriety is respect.” What we have here is a fine example of Caledonian grunge, wherein writers North of the river Tweed grab the English language by the lapels, dunk it in the gutter and kick it into filthy, idiomatic life, thus leaving terrified book reviewers with no option but to find them “gritty” or “authentic.”     
I have no way of knowing if the acid trip described here — starting on the walk to school, then lurching sideways to a tower block, another run for drugs, and finally a police bust — is authentic or not having spent most of my school years protecting my privates from oncoming soccer balls, but there is no resisting the tidal rollout of Fagan’s imagery. Her prose beats keeps beat behind your eyelids, the flow of images widening to a glittering delta whenever Anais approaches the vexed issue of her origins:  “Born in the bushes by a motorway. Born in a VW with its doors open by the sea. Born in Harvey Nichols between the fur coats and the perfume…. Born in an igloo. Born in a castle. Born in a teepee while the moon rises and a midsummer powwow pounds the ground outside.” Solving this mystery — cracking Anais open — soon supplants the cop-in-a-coma as the book’s main narrative focus, as is only right: The Panopticon is primarily, and triumphantly, a voice novel. The rhythm and use of demotic may owe something to Irvine Welsh, but there is a poet’s precision to some of Anais’s more plumed excursions. I, for one, was as grateful for the fur coats and perfume as I was for the acid trips and dog rapes, the school of Welsh having long ago seized up, sclerotically, with its own druggy braggadocio. “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face,” said Updike. Reading Welsh’s most recent work, you sense a writer trying, but unable, to break out of the rough bark in which early success has encased him."  
—from my review for the NYTBR


From my post on Die Hard's 25th for The Guardian:—
'... Loner heroes and explosions are non-negotiable. In fact Die Hard owes it’s iconic status largely to the superimposition of the two. The sight of John McClane backlit by a massive fireball as he hurtles over the edge of Nakatomi plaza is as pure motion poetry. The Towering Inferno featured an all-star cast including Steve McQueen, Stephen Holden, Faye Dunaway and Fred Astaire all trapped inside a burning skyscraper. Die Hard wanted the spectacle without the job sharing. Hence the central running joke: one New York cop was all you needed to defeat a building full of blonde teutonic head-cases. John McClane thus marks the last development of the eighties action hero before he turned into the 1990s superhero. He is as superheroic as you can get without a cape. Instead, he has a white vest — that lasting testament to the continuity girl’s art. When we first see it is as pristine as a trans-Atlantic flight will allow, but over the course of the film, it grows ever more torn and besmirched, a visual record of all that he has braved, as McClane is shot at, punched and blown up. It thus marks an exact mid-point between the bare-chested heroism of Sylvester Stallone and the armor-plated, spandex-clad heroes that were to come.  In the Rambo and Rocky films, Stallone’s exposed flesh defines his masochism, his role as America’s punching bag, soaking up punishment on behalf of a nation traumatised by its loss in Vietnam. Loser could also be winners: that was the message of both Rocky and First Blood, less so of the sequels. 
As the eighties wore on, the sons and daughters of baby boomers soon tired of their parent’s geopolitical hang-ups.  Hans Gruber looks like a terrorist, but he and his blondilocks gang are really after money — a narrative sleight of hand and a nice joke at the expense of long-winded political thrillers like Day of the JackalIn place of Geopolitics? Pop culture.  “Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he's John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?” taunts Gruber. “Was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually,” replies McClane before letting rip with his borrowed catch phrase.  This would increasingly become the norm as characters in movies established their regular-guy bona fides with audiences by means of their pop-culture savvy. Now it’s so widespread as to be commonplace: People in movies also go to the movies, and quote the movies, so much so that they sometimes threaten to go up a blaze of self-reference. McTiernan’s movie established a hero, and a tone, that proved wildly influential; Tarantino owes it a debt, as does Shane Black and the Iron Man franchise, although I would rule against allowing superheroes into the action movie paddock. The same for purebred sci-fi fantasy like Star Wars and Avatar. Genre is fungible, of course, but my top ten of the best action movies since Die Hard would look something like this:— 
1.   Terminator 2:  Judgment Day 
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 
3. The Matrix 
4. Casino Royale 
5. Speed 
6. The Fugitive 
7. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade 
8. The Bourne Ultimatum 
9. Minority Report 
10. Run, Lola, Run 

Jul 18, 2013

From Joe Maloney's photographs of Jersey shore in the late seventies and early eighties, at Rick Wester Fine Art.


From Top: Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis; Tom Hanks in Saving Mr Banks; Michael Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave; Benedict Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate; George Clooney in Gravity; Michael Fassbender in 12 Years A Slave; Robert Redford in All Is Lost.

Jul 15, 2013


"She gives off an air of dreamy abstraction, with just a hint of the melancholy that sometimes attends great beauties, as if she alone had seen through a trick that still entrances the rest of the world. She talks about herself the way men talk about their cars. It’s just mechanics, maintenance. “I do have quiet an old-fashioned body, the shape of it,” she says.  “Corsetted, pulled in, little waist, pointy boobs — that look actually really suits me, because there’s some construction to them. I always go back to the classic images — I can’t help but be influenced by Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn and Paul Newman and Steve McQueen and the Kennedys. I find myself inspired all the time by my mother and my grandmother and their innate natural elegance, more than the fashion or trends that are hot right now. It’s strange. I’m very independent and quite modern as a woman in many ways but I’m also quite old-fashioned.” For all her onscreen ethereality, Tyler, now 35, registers a surprising substantiality, with her broad shoulders (“like a linebacker”) and penetrating gaze, her familiar breathy cadence seasoned, these days, with the unimpeachable wisdom of the newly divorced."
— from my Liv Tyler interview for Net-a-Porter

Jul 12, 2013


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  Giant alien monsters known as Kaiju are making their way through an inter-dimensional portal deep in a Pacific ocean trench, and are coming ashore to reduce cities like San Francisco and Manila  to rubble. The only thing that will stop them are giant robots, or Jaegers, piloted by two humans, one for each hemisphere of the brain, thus ensuring that the robots can tie their own shoelaces and guess how you are feeling. And if that sounds like a salad of just about every blockbuster of the last five years then you’d be right. What can I say, except Arthur Brooke and William Painter both had a crack of the Romeo and Juliet story before this Shakespeare kid showed up. 

 Advance word on Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim was that it was the “thinking man’s Michael Bay movie,” and while thoughtfulness is always nice, that’s not strictly speaking accurate. What distinguishes the two filmmakers is love — a deep and abiding love of the genre, love of monsters down to the phosphorescent tips of their tentacles, love of robots down to their last rivet, love of the laws of mass and momentum, and all the unfakeable geekery that lifts and propels every frame of this film. How long does it take to tell the difference? I would say by the end of the opening credits. That’s how long it takes for Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), to lose his brother to one of the monsters, with one scoop of its paw. When the two of them first showed up, two blonde hunks strolling down the jet-way, grins the size of the Mariana trench, rock-n-roll blasting on the soundtrack, you think: oh no, not another hymn to chiseled American manhood. Actually, no. His brother gone, Beckett must instead find his footing with a new team, opposite a young Japanese woman, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), with a face as pale as lily and a Louise Brooks bob, who wants revenge against the Kaiju for reasons having to do with a small, red child’s shoe. Del Toro’s sense of characterisation is calligraphic, sentimental in the best sense, almost Cruikshankian: everyone is outlined with bold, fluid strokes that that lead them right back into the thick of the action. There is commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who sounds ominously Biblical and delivers lines like “I do not want your admiration and your sympathy, I want your compliance and your fighting skills,” plus two squabbling scientists, one of whom  believes that “numbers are the closest we can get to the handwriting of God,” a line just good enough to give the impression of sincere belief. For once the internationalism of the cast feels rooted in something other than demography, namely genre. A sequence delving into Mako’s backstory showing a little girl running terrified down ashen streets, manages to invoke both Hiroshima and 9/11, drawing juice from Japanese and American movie-making traditions. 

 Maybe that’s why the tracking is soft. Blockbusters — in their modern iteration at least — started out as an America form, maybe even the American form, like jazz and musicals and ice-cream, and the story they told was America’s backstory: David versus Goliath.  “I don't ever want to think you could kill that shark,” Spielberg told his actors in Jaws, a beta-male siding with the other beta-males against alpha-dog Quint, the shark-hunter. “Aren’t you a little short to be a storm-trooper,” Princess Leia asks Luke when he first bursts into her cell on the Death Star in Star Wars, another film sized to the asymmetrical fight of the little guy against the big guy, because what brings the empire down, remember is it’s size; the Death Star is too large to be adequately defended, leaving it open to a fighter craft the size of an x-wing. Both these fights recalled the fight America had just lost — in Vietnam, where it was the 900-pound gorilla brought down by a lighter, faster force — but reslanted so that Americans could root for the little guy again, a salve for the national dysmorphia which results when the world’s sole superpower still imagines itself a scrappy, underdog. No other form tracks this this more explicitly than the summer blockbuster, for no form more explicitly sets those two forces — size and speed — against one another. Think of Arnie versus the T-1000 in Terminator 2, a “Porsche to his Panzer tank,” as Cameron put it, an uncannily predictive of the equally mercurial threat the country would one day face. Or the asymmetric warfare waged in Avatar, whose largest dragon, the Toruk, is vulnerable to attack from above precisely because of it’s size. How the Mighty Fall: it’s the Cameron theme from Aliens to Titanic, and one he picked up watching the Vietnam war on TV as a teenager in Canada, amazed to see this giant of a next-door neighbour fall. It’s precisely what has given his fantasies such a virulent hold on the American imagination.

And it’s what makes so many modern-day blockbusters so slack: they haven’t the imagination for failure. They are glinting, 24-carot dreams of success — quite literal power trips. The new Man of Steel has very little time for Clark Kent, only for Superman, Kal-el, this time reimagined as a demi-God. The Transformer movies are boring precisely to the extent that watching two equal, opposed forces thrash it out is boring: only narrative sleights of hand and deus ex machinas will tip the fight. And why Pacific Rim is the most consistently thrilling bit of blockbuster sublimity since Avatar. I mean that word literally: "whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger,” said Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful  (1757) “Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror." The romantics found it in the seascapes of Turner, the Alps, the craggy vertiginousness of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the caverns of Piranesi and Opium dreams. It’s not too hard to find traces of all of those in the awe-inspiring battles between robot and monster, most of them at night, some of them at sea, in Del Toro’s film. For once, the fights seem to be observing known physical laws, absent the tell-tale whizz of most CGI, but instead moving with the sluggish grandeur befitting their massive bulk — or as one of the scientists, appropriately named Newton, puts it, “that’s two-thousand five-hundred tons of awesome!” But what really wins the day is the way Del Toro has rescaled the action to allow human agency back into the picture; one delightful touch involves a monster slamming into the building and setting off a little Newton's Cradle on one of the desks.  Best of all is Elba, who finds a declamatory pitch for his performance that could part the oceans themselves. “Today, at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time,” he intones, like Olivier before the battle of Agincourt. “We are cancelling the apocalypse!” It’s just a power-chord, a bit of silly magnificence in a summer blockbuster, but it lifts you out of your seat, and reminds you of just how thrilling these things can be when they have a director of Del Toro’s imagination at the helm. Pacific Rim is rousing, playful and unfashionably fun.  If audiences don't go for it civilization really is doomed.
— my review for The Guardian

Jul 10, 2013

Call off the hounds! The most consistently thrilling, lovingly made bit of blockbuster sublimity since Cameron's Avatar, review to come....

Jul 9, 2013

Best Movies of the Eighties

Movie Mezzannine have posted theirs. Here's mine. 
1. Blue Velvet 
2. E.T. The Extraterrestrial
3. Diner 
4. The Terminator 
5. Raging Bull
6. Raiders of the Lost Ark
7. The Elephant Man
8. The Shining 
9. The Right Stuff 
10. Dangerous Liaisons

Jul 3, 2013

Most anticipated films of the Fall

1. Gravity
2. Inside Llewyn Davis
3. All Is Lost
4. Captain Phillips
5. American Hustle
6. The Wolf of Wall Street
7. 12 Years a Slave
8. Fruitvale Station
9. The Past
10. Blue is the Warmest Color