May 29, 2014

Screengrab: Performances Summer / Fall 2014

AN APPRECIATION: ANGELINA JOLIE

One of the great things about kid’s movies is that these days, they are one of the few places where movie stars are willing to play to type. The rest of the time, they’re too busy proving themselves actors, don’t you know, getting all Method with fake noses and funny accents that allow them to ‘disappear’ into roles.  Whoever decreed that it is the job of the star to disappear? But if fame turns humans into cartoons; cartoons allow the famous to be themselves. Eddie Murphy may wish to put his days playing the ass behind him, but literally playing an ass in the Shrek movies loosed some of his most inspired shtick since Axel Foley hung up his badge. Tom Hanks may spend a good proportion of his time putting dents in his nice guy image in movies like Captain Phillips but seeing him snap back into his Dudley-do-right persona in the Toy Story movies had the snug satisfaction of an old well-loved pair of slippers. These days, Angelina Jolie is busy filling out her boots as movie director and philanthropist; but channeling her inner momma grizzly onscreen in A Mighty Heart and Changeling, she unveiled a talent for over-acting that was barely hinted at in her previous incarnation as action-movie dominatrix in films like Wanted, Salt, Mr and Mrs Smith, whose minimalist acting style seemed to suit her down to the ground. Rumor has it that she wants to play Cleopatra, but really she’s the Sphinx. A fame-enamelled Goddess who wears her beauty like a mask, she’s a geek Dietrich, her contempt for the male invertebrates who prostrate themselves at her feet, angling their cameras up her torso, matched only by the self-control with which she hides it. Not completely: a single raised eyebrow, a scintilla of a smirk, and the game is up. (You thought she was a puppet of the male-gaze in the Lara Croft movies? She was taking notes.)  If contempt is her key-note, then in Malificent she plays it like a flugelhorn: face as white as parchment,  cheekbones remolded into Max Headroomish fenders, a pair of huge horns leaping from her head, like a cross between a stag and a supermodel,  she leaves Elle Fanning likea gnat-smudge on the windshield. It's Hannibal Lecter vs Tinkerbell. “There is evil in this world,” sighs Jolie, in a dulcet English accent that plumes like a single drop of blood in water, “hatred and revenge”, before giving a bashful giggle, as if the very idea of decency were fit for no more than a smile. In an age when acting newbies apply darkness like eye-shadow or an adhesive tattoo — yes, I'm talking you, Natalie Portman — Jolie’s velveteen perfidy is the real thing: Wicked Stepmother Interrupted.  

My favorite Jolie roles:—
1. Girl, Interrupted  
2. Gia  
3. Malificent  
4. Salt  
5. Mr and Mrs Smith  
6. Kung Fu Panda  
7. Playing by Heart  
8. Wanted  
9. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow  
10. A Shark's Tale

REVIEW: We're the Best! (dir. Moodysson)

From my Guardian review:—
'... The film repeatedly pulls of something of the same trick:  channelling punk’s sneer in the direction of more charitable embrace, Moodysson has fashioned a sweet, spirited misfit anthem — a spirited ode to anarchy, teen spirit and home-made haircuts. He may be the only film director in whom the legacies of Ingmar Bergman and ABBA might be said to be, if not reconciled, then put on the same page, hawk-eyed observation of his fellow humans duking it out with the equally acute desire to join them when they bum-rush the dance-floor. Just recently, it’s looked like Bergman had the upper hand, with Moodysson going on a prolonged dark tear, making films on sex trafficking (Lilja 4-Ever),  pornography (A Hole in My Heart) and globalisation (Mammoth).  We’re The Best! sees him returning to the warm-hearted vitality, and suburban mileu, of his 2000 film, Together, about life on a hippie commune in the seventies as viewed through the eyes of it’s latchkey kids. You’d call it a coming-of-age film except the ages were reversed: the adults squabbling like kids, the kids sombre and purposeful, like miniature adults. That reversal is present in softer, refracted form, too, in We’re The Best, which boasts its share of unsorted out parents, negotiating their forties by arguing about politics, getting drunk and playing spin-the-bottle.  Bobo’s mother, in particular, seems to be emerging from her divorce a newly-born 13-year-old, sobbing on the bed when her latest boyfriend breaks up with her. Bobo administers a hug, then makes dinner for herself by popping fish-sticks in the toaster. Bobo’s grown in the opposite direction, you realise: desexualized to the point of boyishness, she stares at her squashed-potato face in the mirror in a manner both deeply unimpressed and mutely accepting of what she sees —— “nyeah,” the look seems to say, “What are you going to do.”  

May 25, 2014

Quote of the Day: James Lever on Birth


'... that kind of oblique, and always beautiful, psychological thriller which on release is described as 'elegant claptrap' or something similar (the elegance allegedly a misdirection while the claptrap tries to burgle your unconscious) and which then ages disturbingly well, as if there is after all something occult about the way you've been beguiled. Which there is. Vertigo was an elegant claptrap movie in its day — so was The Tenant, even Don't Look Now — films which like Birth concern muffled or inarticulate attempts at communication by the past. It suits these movies to call to us across time — they become, over the years, even more like themselves.' – James Lever, Arete

May 19, 2014

INTERVIEW: JOHN TURTURRO

From my john Turturro interview for The Guardian:
'John Turturro is much less tortured than I was expecting. One doesn't like to get performers too mixed up with their roles, but I can’t get the image of him as Barton Fink, the tortured playwright caught in a long dark night of the soul in the Coen’s Palme’ D’Or winning comedy of 1991, out of my head. Of all the Coens patises, Turturro played put-upon best: He seemed somehow twisted around himself, like a corkscrew, his smile forever on the point of sliding slowly off his face, and in roles for Spike Lee and Robert Redford he seemed to specialize in the kind of guys — embattled, tightly wound, thin-skinned —who draw injury from the universe like lightning. That high-rise ‘Fro seemed frazzled with bad karma. His curls are speckled with a little salt and pepper, these days. A wiry 57, he arrives for lunch at Bar Pitti on Sixth Avenue looking debonair in a cashmere Canali sports jacket. Posing for a selfie with a fan on the way in, he is guided to a corner table of the restaurant by its owners, who greet him on first name terms. Turturro likes his neighborhood joints. He gets his coffee from the same Puerto Rico coffee house in Park Slope every morning, and gives money to his favorite down-town cinema, Film Forum. “If I come here I know what I can get with the kind of cooking it is,” he says as a waiter arrives bearing a portable blackboard of specials that he perches on his knee. He’s a little nervous: this weekend his latest movie, Fading Gigolo, which he both wrote directed and stars in, adds 100 cinemas to its release in the US. “I was on the phone all day yesterday saying, "That's too much,” he says. “But all the theaters want it. People are enjoying the movie so much. That’s why you do it for, but I'm like, ‘Wow, really that’s a little much...’ I’ll have the plate of asparagus please.”'



R.I.P.  

SO GLAD I DON'T HAVE TO SEE*: WINTER SLEEP


'"Winter Sleep" is unabashed essay cinema that makes difficulty its prime artistic objective. Not difficulty of interpretation, you understand: Ceylan has perhaps never presented his ideas quite so forthcomingly, as his actors converse in self-sealed analytical paragraphs that allow little room for idiosyncratic reading or reflection... Ceylan has never been a merchant of merriment, and nor should he be: his best films have achieved a kind of humane grace through their severity that rewards the work they require. Recently, his foray into genre-infused territory -- the dense procedural web of "Once Upon a Time in Anatolia," the florid noir of "Three Monkeys" -- gave punch and urgency to his more remote thematic preoccupations. " Winter Sleep" steps back from that development, returning to the less disciplined, ruminative structures of "Distant" or "Climates," though with the grandiose formal heft he has since cultivated.... The perils of verbosity is indeed one of the talking points in a film that isn't devoid of self-awareness: "Sometimes the disguise of lyricism makes it stink of sentimentality," says Necla (Demet Akbag) witheringly to her brother Aydin (Haluk Biginer) a pompous, embittered actor-turned-hotelier-turned-essayist who has seemingly devoted himself to none of these professions with the commitment of his full-time gasbaggery. She's having a dig at the rhetoric-heavy advice columns he writes for the local paper in their sleepy Anatolian village.'" — Guy Lodge, HiFix
* An occasional column devoted to those books, movies and art works which would, on balance, better serve us by remaining unread, unwatched and unseen, based on the principle that our reactions to art in absentia can be every bit as rich and meaningful as to works demanding our urgent personal attention. Previous entries here, here, here, and here.

May 17, 2014

REVIEW: THE IMMIGRANT (dir. Gray)

From my Guardian review:—
It’s something of a mystery why James Gray’s The Immigrant isn’t a great movie. It looks like one and sounds like one, summoning   a vision of New York in the 1920s to rivals Coppola’s in The Godfather, the sooty tenements of the Lower East side seeming to glow under the touch of cinematographer Darius Khondji. The whole film has a spectral beauty — like a sun-faded photograph, or some long-forgotten classic from the 1970s, back when moviemakers like Coppola and Sergio Leone took on the immigrant experience as the American subject in films.  That’s how The Immigrant feels: a slightly faded classic that you can’t remember whether you've seen or not.    
Marion Cotillard plays Ewa, a polish immigrant coming through Ellis Island when her sickly sister is quarantined by the authorities. Spring from deportation by a well-dressed gentleman in a bowler hat (Joaquin Phoenix), who gives her board and lodging, alongside some other women whom he boards. It’s all vaguely creepy in a way you can't put your finger on. Cotillard is wide-eyed with mistrust, Phoenix fastidious and kindly, but overly so by just a few degrees so when his fury arrives it comes almost as confirmation of your worst fears. The women, it transpires, perform nightly for him in a burlesque house that also serves as a speakeasy and brothel. Ewa, bit by bit, is pushed into prostitution in order to secure her sister’s release.The role was written by Gray specifically for Cotillard, and it’s an actress’s dream, which isn't to say all dreams should be granted. A vessel of pure, noble suffering in the mould of Hardy’s Tess, or Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, Ewa is one of those fallen women whose internal purity is only accentuated by being dragged through the mud — an inverted saint. Cotillard goes digging for the same place she found her Edith Piaf and comes up with another tremulous waif, her big eyes wide with hunger for a new life, delivering her lines in a breathy, Silesian whisper as if barely aware she is even speaking.  Indeed, slap a little panstick on her and she could pass muster as a silent-era heroine, in one of D W Griffith’s melodramas.  Gray is one of the unsung directorial talents, unequestionably, unafraid of melodrama, or big emotions. This film could almost be a prequel to his previous films, sombre, morally knotted tragedies — We Own the Night, Little Odessa, Two Lovers, The Yards — in which protagonists return to, and are ensnared in, their own backyards.
But The Immigrant is missing his usual urgency — that doomy, thrilling undertow that sucks people to their fate. The whole thing feels under-powered, as if by the same gas-lamps that light the streets with soft dim pools of light.
 
It’s at its strongest the closer it draws to music: a performance at Ellis island by the opera singer Caruso, for example, where Ewa first meets Bruno’s cousin, Orlando (Jeremy Renner) a handsome magician who talks of whisking her away to California, telling her “You have a right to be happy.” You can see Renner panicking a little over how to play this dreamboat, and deciding in the end to let the Errol Flynn Moustache decide the matter. But Renner’s a firestarter by nature, with a wonderful crackle of unpredictability. I wonder what would have happened if Gray had swapped his two male leads?  Phoenix might have brought a few dents to this knight in shining armor, while Renner would have brought a much-needed sense of danger to Bruno. It’s been conceived in part as a beauty-and-the-beast romance, but Phoenix’s love for Ewa, slow to register, ends up doubling him over like an impacted molar. He’s a self-harmer, not a brute, and his mournful, misshapen presence seems to subdue the movie further. Gray has made four movies with the actor now and I wonder if the two men haven't grown a little invisible to one another — the same thing happened with Scorsese and De Niro.

May 16, 2014

REVIEW: GODZILLA (dir. Edwards)

From my Guardian review:—
 'We are a long way from the  man-in-a-rubber-suit who wobbled through a model Tokyo in the 1954 original, its scratch-penny budget itself evidence of a pleasing and feisty cinematic asymmetry. Newly scaled up to keep pace with the latest skyscrapers, Godzilla is glimpsed teasingly, through Cloverfield POV shots for the first hour, before finally taking centre stage to defend mankind from MUTOs, giant nuclear mutants that look like the queen alien in Aliens and snack on nuclear missiles like Twinkie bars. The scenes of cataclysm, most of them at night, have a sulphurous power, as if Edwards had prepared by boning up on Dore's engravings for Paradise Lost. At one point we see a mountain — or a silhouette our eye had taken to be a mountain — move, one of the best such sleights of hand since Spielberg’s headlights-in-the-rearview-mirror gag in Close Encounters. If only Edwards had held it longer.

Needless to say, all human scale is obliterated. Cranston, as the nuclear engineer reduced to conspiratorial babbling, may be the smartest casting choice of the summer: when even Walter White throws a hissy fit, you know things are bad. He and Binoche hold the screen for as long as they are allowed, but soon have to make way for the demographically-approved Chosen Ones, Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron-Taylor-Wood, a physical actor who likes to storm into a room and pace it’s four corners like a lion, but when faced with the sight of two giant nuclear mutants treating masonry like meringue wears an expression of mild consternation, as if just remembering he’d left the oven on.  He spends most of the movie trying to catch a train to get back to Olsen, but we couldn’t care less. Unlike King Kong, this was  never  a story scaled with a human adversary in mind. “What are we supposed to do?” asks Navy Commander David Straithairn. “Sit back and watch?” 
Well, actually, yes.  What makes Godzilla such a curious summer-blockbuster property is it rootedness in failure...  If the cycle of disaster movies that gripped audiences in the 1990s were notable for their busy screens and jocular Oops-Apocalypse tone — “Ha Ha! It's the wonder of nature, baby!” boomed Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as tornadoes ripped up the South in Jan De Bont’s Twister — our contemporary variants are joke-free zones in which mankind isn’t just threatened with extinction. We deserve it. Not only do we bring our own nuclear doom upon our heads in Godzilla, but in a few weeks time we stand in the dock  once again, indicted for crimes against the primate in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And this just a few Sundays after God annihilated the Earth on account of our wickedness in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. “The wickedness is not just in them, it’s in all of us,” insisted Russell Crowe’s prophet“It had to be what He wanted—a world without men.  You see that, don’t you?”  The right went into its usual tizzy over Aronofsky’s film, Glenn Beck saying “it’s just so pro-animal and anti-human, and I mean strongly anti-human,” but for once, the nut fringe was basically right. The blockbuster has finally gone post-human. Forget national loyalty: we’ve shrugged off species loyalty. The Godzilla movies always tilted audience sympathy towards the monster of course, but as Edward’s lizard takes a bow and slips into the ocean once more at the end of the film, I felt something else: a nip of the old Avatar blues. The first true hero of summer and he doesn’t even say goodbye.'

May 14, 2014

Giger on the set of Alien: "I want bones"


From my book Blockbuster:—
“I’m a neatnik, a pathological neatnik,  and so I notice these things,” says Scott. “When I’m in and out of London I notice whether its looking tidy or untidy and it drives me crazy. So I just applied that rule [to Alien]. I’d been flying to and from the United States a lot at that time, and I’d noticed how 747s were gradually getting beaten up. I was in a lavatory on a 747, and I noticed that even there someone had done some graffiti. And then alongside that there were instructions on the use of the lavatory  in four different languages. So I applied all this thinking, except having jumped ahead, say, a hundred years. And I still believe I probably didn’t go far enough.”  Scott called together a large  crew of production designers,  including Ron Cobb, who had helped supply Star Wars with its chunkier hardware, and Hans Rudi Giger, a Swiss artist whose paintings lay somewhere between art nouveau and the  slaughterhouse: writhing Bacchanalian landscapes of morphing flesh, bone and pewter-grey metal.  Spotting a copy of Giger’s book  Necronomicon on the table at Fox, Scott says he “had never been so sure of anything in my whole life.” Fox weren’t so enamoured, thought it too dark and dingy, but Scott stuck to his guns and flew to Switzerland — Giger was terrified of flying — to persuade him to work on the film.      
 One of the things that Star Wars had done was spearhead a return to the old sound-stages, left vacant by the fashion for location shooting during the seventies. Now, they were in business again, and Giger arrived at Shepperton studios in London in the middle of a steaming hot summer, dressed head-to-toe in black leather. The crew teased him,  trying to persuade him to take off his jacket, but he wouldn’t  do it.  “I don’t think he dares take off those clothes, because if he did you’d see that underneath he’s not human. He’s a character from an H P Lovecraft story” noted one crew-member, “When Giger first started working, he went to the production secretary and said: ‘I want bones.’ And I remember seeing all these trucks pull up one day loaded with boxes. They had been to medical supply houses, slaughterhouses, and God knows where else, and the next day the studio was full of bones and skeletons of every possible description. There was a row of human skulls in flawless condition. Three snake skeletons in a perfect state of preservation. A rhinoceros skull. He had everything.” The sets that Giger fashioned were astonishing: vast ribbed caverns, like  monstrous chest cavities, that swallowed up  anyone who visited it. Sigourney Weaver took her parents on a tour of the set, just before shooting started: “It was like wandering through some Playboy orgy room,” she said. “There was a huge spaceship with vaginal doors, and their beautiful female bones. They were gulping ‘very interesting, very interesting’.” 

May 10, 2014

On My iPod: May 9th 2014


1. Hero — Family of the Year
2. Morning — Beck
3. Hey Now — London Grammar
4. Before — Wye Oak
5. Live For Me – Lily Allen
6. Love Never Felt So Good — Michael Jackson & Justin Timberlake
7. Every Time The Sun Comes Up— Sharon Van Etten
8. Completely Not Me — Jenny Lewis
9. Airwaves — Ray LaMontagne
10. Happy — Pharrell Williams

May 9, 2014

REVIEW: PALO ALTO (dir. Coppola)

From my Guardian review:—
'The general rule with movies about wasted youth seems to be that what you gain in authenticity of voice you lose in thrust of narrative: you can be unpatronisingly embedded in the plotlessness of teenage life, like Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, or you can jack the whole thing into something vaguely apocalyptic designed to catch the attention of parents, like Larry Clarke’s Kids or Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park and Elephant.  Coppola splits the difference, shooting with a style of candyheart impressionism borrowed from her aunt Sofia — a layering of sweet synth pop on the soundtrack with lots of slo-mo, and close-ups with narrow depth of field — that offsets any intimations of doom with a smattering of sherbet epiphanies. She’s too cool for wake up calls or alarm bells. The drunken disports at a party are treated to a burst of slow-motion — thrashing heads, fountains of rum punch —the images riding a knife-edge between the glorious and the grotesque, but the kicker is the aftermath: a pair of rabbit-embroidered socks sticking from the end of bed, as if in admonitory reminder: these kids were just kids a few years ago. The flora and fauna of their rooms include teddy bears and lipstick. Coppola has inherited something of her aunt’s eye for cool composition. She loves to pose Roberts against repetitive, bland, pastel-colored surfaces: a locker-room, a row of toilet cubicles, the prefab blockish architecture of her school, the aquamarine of a swimming pool (still the backdrop du jour for disaffected youth, along with fish tanks, 40 years after The Graduate) until Roberts’ pale, luminous beauty pops. She could easily be one of the suburban sphinxes from The Virgin Suicides, but for the vividness of her reactions. Hurt when Teddy absconds for a blow-job with someone else, April retreats to her room to practice imaginary brush-offs  — “I don’t care…. Whatever….” She’s more easily bruised than she lets on.'  

May 2, 2014

PROFILE: CHARLIE CHAPLIN


From my review for The New Statesman:—
Liking Chaplin will probably never be cool. For the Sight-and Sound-reading, suck-on-a-lemon-and-think-of-Bresson cineaste, Buster Keaton will always be their man, with his whitened deadpan and letterbox smile, his meta-movie conceits and collaboration with Samuel Beckett— those two stoics together, craggy and forlorn, staring down the headwinds of the 20th century like Easter Island statues. Then there is Chaplin with his touchiness about class and his walk and his mesmeric effect on kids, and dear oh dear, his sentimentality.  “For over a century, sentimentality has been the cardinal aesthetic sin,” writes Carl Wilson in his ground-breaking, recently republished book about taste and learning to love Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love. “To be sentimental is to be kitsch, phony, exaggerated, manipulative, self-indulgent, hypocritical, cheap and clich├ęd.” The critical aversion to sentimentality— so often a disguise for squeamishness around emotion of any kind—innoculates us from the power of cinema’s early pioneers, who would no sooner have turned down the opportunity to wring an audience for tears as declined an opportunity to make them rocket out of their seats with fright, or asked them not to laugh. Why ever not? It would be like designing and building a brand new automobile and then keeping it under wraps in the garage.  “Keep it wistful” advised Fred Karno, the head of the comedy troupe that first brought Chaplin to America:  when you hit a man, it’s funnier if you then kiss him on the head; if you knock him over, look sorry for a few seconds. The early Keystone shorts had been crammed with people, props, gags; the actors were simply wind-up toys, uninflected by emotions like fear or greed or passion, who simply ran and ran until they met immovable objects or dropped from exhaustion—a roundelay of constant motion, or “arse-kicking” as Chaplin put it.   He did things differently. Emptying out the frame, Chaplin anchored the camera in the middle distance, the better to take in a full human figure, feet included, drawing audiences in with a single gesture – a smile, a half tear, a look. ”He had those eyes that absolutely forced you to look at them,” said Stan Laurel, another Karno regular who travelled on the same ship in 1910. Within four months he was famous, the first truly global icon, a hero of the Dadaists, an inspiration to Ferdinand Leger, and Marcel Proust who for a while trimmed his moustache in the Chaplin style. “He has escaped from the realism of the cinema and invented a rhythm,” said T S Eliot, one of many high-brows swanning around the pages of Peter Ackroyd’s new biography. That Chaplin has attracted the attention of Dickens’s great biographer is in and of itself telling. In later life, according to his son, Chaplin read and reread Oliver Twist, over and over, “as if in that novel he had found the key to his own past,” writes Ackroyd. Both Dickens and Chaplin came from poverty and childhood neglect, to achieve fame in their mid-twenties with urban fables mixed farce and sentiment, melodrama and pantomime, comedy, pathos and poetry. ”Chaplin was Dickens true successor,” he writes, “Just as Modern Times is a successor to Hard Times.”