Oct 17, 2013

REVIEW: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

From my Guardian review:—
'Working with Jane Campion’s cinematographer, Stuart Dryburgh, Stiller films himself small in the frame, frequently viewed from above, more mouse than man, scurrying through the vast modernist spaces of the Time-Life building like the long lost cousin of Jacques Tati in Playtime, whose sleek, slate-grey production design this movie meticulously evokes — a haunting talisman. Playtime was Tati’s last film, a ruinously expensive bid for respectability that gave off the empty rattle of perfectionism — pratfalls echoing tinnily through lavish, empty sets. Stiller’s film is certainly a looker — there are dissolves that would make Orson Welles blush — but how good-looking does comedy need to be exactly?  As with his last film, Tropic Thunder, the production values sometimes appear to be the joke. There’s a battle on the streets of Manhattan involving man-hole covers and Stretch Armstrong — don't ask — whose special effects would be the envy of Michael Bay, but does the money make the sequence funnier? It doesn’t make it unfunnier, I suppose.  It’s just expensive. After Mitty loses one of O Connell’s negatives on the eve of a corporate takeover, and jets off to Iceland for a high seas adventure battling sharks and  volcanoes — so sudden is the pivot, in fact, that you were to take a toilet break at this point you would spend the rest of the film in a state of unending, head-scratching perplexity. There are two problems with this besides precipitousness. 1) With Mitty’s real life now as zoomily adventurous as his fantasy life, the laughs begin to dry up. In their place we get the usual rom-comish exhortations to break out of your shell, reach  out, connect and whatnot, all of which would be more convincing were it not that 2) what we get in the second hour is basically a series of solo adventures, with Mitty skateboarding through Greenland’s mountain ranges to the sound of Jose Gonzales, alone, like someone rocking out to their Walkman, or hiking up he Himalayas, and confiding in his diary, “I’m alone.” It’s very odd. This has to be one of the loneliest odes to togetherness ever made.' 

Oct 15, 2013

"The film was a bit of a risk for myself and more importantly for Redford, to put himself out there in the way that he did, because if it was ten degrees off in its execution, in any of its parts, the whole thing could almost have been a little boring, self important, and laughable. We both kind of knew that and almost said it to each other. Once I realized, whatever your thoughts of the film, at Cannes we got to learn that it worked. People watched it all the way through and had some sort of an emotional response. Its been a pretty fun ride since that reaction, obviously it was a little bit of a risk. Now I hope people go see it.”— J C Chandor, to this blogger, on his film All is Lost, which gets my first 'A' grade in many a year (Current top five:  All is Lost, Gravity, 12 Years A Slave, Captain Phillips, Before Midnight. Still to see: Inside Llewyn Davis, American Hustle, Wolf of Wall Street).

Oct 14, 2013

REVIEW: Her (dir. Spike Jonze)

From my Guardian review;—
'... It’s a pixel-era Pygmalion set in a not-too-distant Los Angeles, where everyone stalks the walkways murmuring into their earpieces, a vast solipsistic tide of humanity.   At night the city lights sparkle and blur, like distant diodes on a giant computer chip. Needless to say, the film is half in love with the loneliness it diagnoses. The whole thing looks like the most expensive ad for urban anomie ever made — Antonioni for the artisanal cheese set — and for the first hour the conceit is unveiled beautifully, via a brisk series of gags, most of them in the periphery of the main plot... The closer we draw to the central romance, the straighter grows the film’s face.  ”Sometimes I think I’ve felt everything I’m gonna feel,” confides Theo to Samantha, finding in her precisely the sympathetic ear he failed to find in his wife. She is played by Rooney Mara thus confirming Mara’s position as the Ex most men would regret breaking up with, ideally through a Happier Times Montage involving cascades manes of hair and white sheets seen in chalky sunlight. She gets in the zingiest line in the film, delivered over an exchange of divorce papers  — “He couldn't deal with me, tried to put me on Prozac and now he’s in love with his lap-top” — but it doesn't quite land. It’s like a zinger from one of Woody Allen’s comedies that has somehow drifted into one of his alienation-and-anomie numbers. The script wants things both way  — an obvious outrage to Mara, Phoenix’s love for his computer   is seen as entirely normal by others— a penchant for blur that starts with the film’s wispy compositions and seems to spread from there. 
Phoenix is as sweet and soulful as we always suspected he might be. Ditching the trail of dysfunction and hiding his scarred lip behind a neat little moustache, spectacles and high-hitched pants, Theo is a portrait of the sad sack as saintly urban eunuch — a great listener and perfect empath whose less attractive attributes are discretely masked from view.  An early mention of Theo’s anger issues is never followed up on. A session of phone sex leaves him the bemused victim. Even his consummation with Samantha is discretely blacked out, to spare us the lonely, masturbatory truth. That’s quite a burden of simplicity to put on a figure who must  carry a two-hour film; you can detect the strain during some of the date scenes, where Phoenix is required to gurgle with happiness one too many times — he wears the fixed grin of a man on a visit to the dentist. Johansson has an easier time of it, having long taken over Demi Moore’s mantle as the owner of Hollywood’s Huskiest Tonsils. If anything she may pack too much punch for Theo, who remains a strangely chaste figure, too hung up on his ex-wife for sex, let alone a relationship. What he really seems to need is a therapist, and so it proves, as the script succumbs to the kind of well-intentioned maundering that ensnares the better kind of rom com: “Its in this endless space between the words that I’m trying to find myself right now,” says Samantha.   How did such a sharply conceived movie end on such a woozy note? It’s almost as if the haze above Los Angeles descends to envelop the rest of the film.'   

Oct 13, 2013


From my interview with Donna Tartt in The Sunday Times:
'There’s a great description of a gun by someone who has never held one before in Donna Tartt’s new novel, The Goldfinch. They find it eerily defamiliarised, with “a smooth density that blackly distorted the space around it like a drop of motor oil in a glass of water.” I like it so much, I bring it up over   lunch with the author at Manhattan’s Union Square CafĂ©, a swanky downtown restaurant much frequent by the city’s publishers and literary types. Around us, waiters in crisp white shirts ferry plates to waiting diners, illuminated in tastefully-muted light.

“If someone put a gun on the table between us it would be very defamiliarised,” says Tartt, with undisguised glee at the thought. “Its one thing to see it on the screen but if someone really had one here” — her voice rises high with childish excitement — “ if our waiter pulled a gun on us it we would see it in an entirely different way. It’s about that tear in the fabric of reality.” For a second, the though occurs that maybe our waiter will pull a Beretta from the champagne box and, with two sharp retorts, leave small red round holes in our foreheads that leave us slumped on the table. But he doesn’t. Instead he lays our pasta dishes ceremoniously on the table, and departs without a word.

Such is lunch with Donna Tartt that one’s primary disappointment is not being shot. It has been 20 years since The Secret History, Tartt’s global  mega-bestseller about a group of classics students committing murder in the name of art in upstate Vermont. Now 49, Tartt still wears her hair in a shiny Louise Brooks bob, and buttons her shirts to the top crocheted button. Her skin is white and clear, an emerald ring picking out the green of her eyes, with which alight on you with a beady, birdlike fixity that would be unsettling were it not for the perky Mississippi twang with which she engages you in conversation. Mordant, amused, chirpy, the overall effect is part Edith Sitwell, part Wednesday Addams, or Mrs Danvers’ prettier, perkier sister.' 

Oct 6, 2013


 "He offers point-of-view images that are imbued with no actual point of view. The movie, with its near-absolute absence of inner life, presents a material fantasy that flatters the studious humanism of critics who honor the attention to so-called reality—which they define in terms of physical phenomena and everyday people—as an aesthetic endowed with a quasi-political virtue." — Richard Brody, The New Yorker. 
“Imitation is praise," said John Updike, "Description expresses love." So what film is being so lovingly evoked here? You get three guesses.  

Let's see. Point-of-view images. But no inner life. Hmm. Kind of 'I-am-a-camera' deadpan? It's not that Bret Easton Ellis film about pornos is it? A material fantasy. What does that mean? Not Girl in the Red Dress, not Pillow Talk not that kind of material, dummy. He means "material" as in "material world" and "material girl." Doesn't that rather contradict "fantasy" ?  A fantasy about the material world.  Hmm. 

Ooh, Ooh, Mr Peabody, I got it Mr Peabody! It's One of those afterlife comedies with Ed Burns! Sorry, I mean George Burns. That's it. George Burns in Oh God! 

Or do I mean Warren Beatty in Heaven Can Wait?  

No?  Dagnabit. Okay two more guesses. Flatters the studious humanism of critics who honor the attention to so-called reality. Wow. We're picking a fight with "reality"? Not only that but "so-called reality"? That doesn't exactly narrow things down, fella. Can you help a brother out? studious humanism, studious humanism... Ghandi?  Richard Attenborough? Schindler's List? No? 

Fuck. This is hard. 

I'm going to get it though. One more guess. 

Let's go back to the "reality" thing. He does give us a definition: physical phenomena and everyday people. Oh for crying out loud. You cannot be serious. Really? Physical phenomena and everyday people. What does that mean when it's not frying kippers in the morning. I mean if you set aside the obvious: people and things. He can't mean that. I mean you can't hold that against a movie, can you? People and things? 'I liked your script enormously, thought your cinematography spectacular but ultimately I'm afraid to say it boiled down to just another flick about people and things.' Those old bores. I wouldn't know what to guess in that case. Lawrence of Arabia? The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer? Desperately Seeking Susan? 

Okay I give up. What is it. It's what? Gravity? Wow. Well, at least I wouldn't have got that. Not in a million years. And to think that everyone else thought "George Clooney's dialogue sucked" and left it at that.  The next time a friend says they want to see a quasi-political material fantasy which flatters the studious humanism of critics hot for pictures about people and things, though, I will know exactly where to turn. 

Oct 3, 2013


No second doubts, no hesitation — my favorite interviewee in 20 years of interviewing people (I enjoyed meeting Philip Roth, too, but Miss Lawrence is, on balance, a greater force for the common good): -
"At 22, Jennifer Lawrence is a testament to the globe-conquering power that flows from her mixture of a) fame, b) raw talent and c) not giving too much of a hoot about either a) or b).  She got $10 million to reprise the role of Katniss Everdeen in the second Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire, enough money that her lawyers got her to write out a will — it all goes to her family and favorite charities.  She hasn't had a chance to spend any of it. She used to have an apartment on Santa Monica but that got infested with paparazzi, so now it’s hotels and couch-surfing with friends. She spent last night managing to convince her  best friend, Justine, that the elevator of the Casa del Mar was haunted. That’s her biggest fear: ghosts. Not acting opposite Robert De Niro. Or tripping over her dress in front of 40 million people. The undead. “I’ll lay in bed and hear a noise and imagine the scariest possible scenario, and then my adrenaline starts going and then I tell myself that because my adrenaline is going, the spirit is feeding off my adrenaline! Or if there’s a spider. I try to kill it and I miss it. Great. Now it knows what I look like. It can’t just be ‘ Oh no the spider’s still on the loose.’ No, it’s ‘that spider knows what you look like and knows you tried to kill it.”  Psychopaths, on the other hand, not so much. “At least that makes sense. It’s here. I sleep with a bow and arrow under my bed. I have pink mace in my bag. I’m like: you just wait, you’re walking into a world of pain.”  
Actually today her handbag has no mace — she has a bodyguard these days — but it does contain a bottle of perfume, an iPhone, some multi-vitamins (unopened), a silicon falsie from a recent photo-shoot, and her diary, the first entry of which reads: “Keeping journals always makes me nervous people are going to find it so if you’re reading this just stop. Don't be a journal reader. Those people suck.”  The picture on her iPhone is of her nephew.  “Are you in for a world of cute?” she asks, “Isn't he precious. Do you want to see him count really fast?” and shows me a video of a curly-haired toddler counting from one to ten. 
 Ten seconds also happens to be the rough amount of time it takes for an average human being to fall in with Jennifer Lawrence like she’s you’re sister.  She’s very funny, with  something of the compulsive honesty and room-temperature affect of the great comedians — Louis C K only prettier. When I ask her what she most likes about her new life, she doesn't miss a beat. 
 “The money,” she says in her husky, Bacall-esque voice. 
 “I’m joking. The work, the work…” 
 She puts so little store by the usual pieties that prop up the celebrity interview — the love of the work, the importance of craft, the dedication to one’s art, the method behind one’s madness — that at times the whole structure threatens to come crashing down with one push. She could be the most radical talent currently working in Hollywood — a pure natural, a slob genius in the tradition of great slob geniuses that included the young Liz Taylor and Elvis, with the same plush appeal on the audience’s emotions, the same ruby-like glint of trashiness in her soul. She never even intended to be an actress but got talent spotted on the streets of New York and figured an actress was a better thing to be than a model. She’s never had an acting lesson. She doesn’t rehearse or research her roles and only commits her lines to memory the night before. Before each take, she is normally to be found, eating potato chips, joking around with the crew. 
 “It’s normally chips. My bodyguard Gilbert, right before they call action, I’m like ‘If there aren’t Cheezits here by the time they call cut, just go home.’ And he’ll start running. It cracks me up how seriously he takes it. I’m just lazy. Whenever DPs are like “I’m so sorry to do this but ‘would you mind not saying that one line’, I’m like ‘Dude, I don't want to say any of it. Whatever is easiest. Believe me. It's not my performance that is motivating me. I want to get the on set catering.” And then, just when her director is starting to sweat a little, she knocks it out of the park. “She’s one of the least neurotic people I’ve ever met,” says David O Russell, who directed her to her Oscar in Silver Linings. “She came onto the set like some gee whiz kid, ‘what’s it like to have people ask for your autograph Mr De Niro?’ And then she jumped in and took over the whole scene from every actor in the room. De Niro turned to me and nodded, like ‘wow this kid is really bringing it.’ He loved it. She’s like Michael Jordan.  Her jaw doesn't get set. That's how they can go in, under pressure and hit a 100mph fastball because they’re so loose.” 
From Harper's