Aug 1, 2018

May favorite movies of 2018 so far


The Death of Stalin A2. You Were Never Really Here 3. Incredibles 2 A-4. McQueen5. A Quiet Place B+6. Loveless B+7. Whitney B+
8. Ready Player One B+
9. Mission Impossible: Fallout B+
10. Hereditary B+ 

Apr 14, 2018

You Must Remember This


“Despite the artificial nature of the film   it still speaks with uncommon poignancy to the exile condition” writes Noah Isenberg in ‘We’ll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legends and Afterlife of Hollywood Most Beloved Movie, (Faber, $25), a devoted history of the film and its after-life in countries like Hungary and West Germany, where uncut version of it circulated like samizdat. Nearly all of the 75 actors and actresses in the film were immigrants hailing from more than 34 different nations. Bogart was the lone American; you also had Bergman (Sweden), Claude Rains and Sydney Greenstreet (England), Paul Heinreid (Austria), Conrad Veidt (Germany) and Peter Lorre, originally from Slovakia by way of London who said they changed countries “oftener than our shoes”. Hungarian S Z Sakall who played the head-waiter lost three three sisters to the concentration camps.  Director Michael Curtiz, himself a Hungarian jew, personally cast them all, incorporating some of their stories into the movie: the trading of jewellery for exit visas, the presence of pickpockets. There were so many German jews playing the very Nazis they had fled that German was frequently spoken on set, which was known as the International House. When the time came for the scene in which defiantly sings La Marseillaise, one character actor noticed everyone was crying. “I suddenly realized they were all real refugees.”  
It’s customary to regard the release of the film  on November 26, 1942, less than three weeks after Patton’s forces  landed in French North Africa, prompting Churchill, Roosevelt, and de Gaulle to issue the Casablanca Declaration, as the one of the greatest publicity coups ever to befall a film — ”General Eisenhower has merely serve then well as an advance agent” remarked The New Yorker. The the original play on which it was based, Everyone Goes to Sam’s, by  jewish teacher and playwright Murray Burnett, was a piece of opportune reportage. In the summer of 1938, Burnett and his wife took a tour of Europe as it geared up for war. They found Vienna rife with anti-Semitism and, on the road to Monte Carlo, a smoky nightclub with a black pianist working old standards to audience of refugees and military officials of every nationality —  “a great contrast to the tragedy and tears,” wrote Murray. The film’s timely dramatization of Bogart’s change of heart, “at first wary and independent, then changing incrementally until it headed in the opposite direction” in the words of Bogie’s most recent biographer Stefan Kanfer, would prove definitional for America: a big block of national myth as hefty as its founding. Another cafe serves as creative nexus-point in Alan K. Rode’s doorstepping new biography of director Michael Curtiz: Cafe New York in Bupabest, a rowdy 24-hour bohemian hang-out not far from the Danube where the young film director Mihály Kertész mixed with artists and card players, film writers, fakers and physicists — “everyone knew everyone” in the words of film historian Lazslo Kriston, “they all screwed the same chorus girls and got drunk together and worked and argued”. As a child Kertész slept four in a room with his brothers and as a teenage acrobat, developed great physical agility. When snapped up by Warner Brothers for one of his silents in the summer of 1926, he spent ten days living at a  Los Angeles county jail to learn about the criminal justice system in time for his first assignment, a thriller called The Third Degree. “When I finish I know more about jail system and American Criminals than the technicolor director they pay big dough to tell me about such things,” he said in his pigeon English, “a source of joy for all of us” said David Niven during the shooting of The Charge of the Light Brigade. A sign hung on the door of Curtiz’s soundstages read: “Curtiz spoken here.”  
About the only upside of being bawled out by Curtis on set was that you frequently never understood him. “It would inaccurate to say that everyone on Curtiz’s set loathed him” writes Rode at one point, with damning fair-mindedness,  the portrait of the director that emerges of a cruel and mercurial autocrat, a kind of Hungarian Otto Preminger, who drove his cast and crew to breaking point — The Charge of the Light Brigade killed at least three horses, the flood sequence in Noah’s Ark drew 38 ambulances.  “He can be a real son of a bitch to the bit players” noted Bogart who threatened to walk from the set of Casablanca at one point unless the director  “shut up.” Curtiz was no Schindler. Casablanca was the result of alchemy by acrimony, with the Epstein Brothers supplying its snappier dialogue (“I am shocked, shocked, to learn that gambling is going on in here”), its politics coming courtesy of Howard Koch, its love story and ending fleshed out by Casey Robinson, with ad libs from the actors (“Here’s looking at you kid”) while they stood waiting for the day’s pages to be handed over.“Casablanca is best described as cinematic magic that occurred accidentally on purpose,” writes Kode in pointed rebuke of film critic Andrew Sarris, for whom the film was merely the “happiest of happy accidents” and Curtiz “the most divisive exception to auteur theory”. Auteur Theory’s point-man in America, Sarris could no more countenance the idea that it might be the theory rather than Curtiz who is at fault,  placing him in the “Lightly Likeable” category, than the old communist apparatchiks could conclude that it was communism that was at fault rather than the people. Curtis was a “cinematic genius” said screenwriter Robert Buckner who could “make a picture when he didn’t know what it was about.” How can you proclaim your boy an artist, his every work bearing his imprint as breath animates the body, when he is responsible for films as wildly different as the tough-knuckled Angels with Dirty Faces, the sweeping  Charge of the Light Brigade, the effervescent The Adventures of Robin Hood, the svelte Mildred Pierce, and the most dearly beloved film of all time, Casablanca. Oh and White Christmas.'" — from my review for the New Statesman 

Apr 9, 2018

REVIEW: A Quiet Place (dir. Krasinski)


'Legendary sound-man Walter Murch, who gave us those glorious quadrophonic helicopters in Apocalypse Now, likes to say that it wasn’t until the coming of sound that the movies discovered silence. What he meant was that you only really miss something when its gone — and it’s solid gone, as Balloo the bear used to say, in John Kasinski’s new thriller A Quiet Place. Kasinski also acts in the movie, playing a bearded father, opposite wife Emily Blunt, whom we first see treading barefoot around a disused supermarket, scavenging for prescription drugs for their older boy (Noah Jupe). They move with extreme care, on tip toes, using sign language to communicate. Why the caution? We find out when their youngest  (Cade Woodward) makes the mistake of playing with a battery-powered toy space shuttle. Giant skittering mantis-like bugs who detect their prey by sound scythe into view and tear the boy to shreds. Make a squeak and you’re toast. When I first caught wind of this idea in trailers, I let out a small squeal of excitement and then, in spirit of the movie, quickly bit my fist. It comes so deliriously close to the hush with which  thrillers are themselves received by an audience — all of us perched on our seats, ears and eyes peeled, not daring to make a sound. Movies make too much ruckus these days. The best thrills are always silent. Think of the silent heist in Rififi, or the silencer shoot-out in John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, or the way the Coens tipped us off to the presence of Javier Bardem’s murderer in the corridor with the sound of a lightbulb being gently unscrewed in No Country For Old Men. If I had to guess I would say Scott Beck and Bryan Woods’ idea owes something to that scene in  Jurassic Park, where the short-sighted T Rexes come so close to the children their snorts ruffle their hair — a lovely idea, never fully explored but here given its full due.' — from my Sunday Times review

Apr 1, 2018

REVIEW: UNSANE (dir. Soderbergh)


'The film’s premise is slipped on as gently as a straitjacket.   Sawyer’s struggles to free herself ("This is all a terrible mistake!") only serve to tighten it even more. One night turns into one week. Allowed one phone call, she calls the cops, but her muttering about they’ll arrive any minute to free her render her indistinguishable from all the other nuts on her ward: a  trashy, tampon-throwing Southerner (June Temple) who wears her hair in corn rows and promises to cut Sawyer up at night, or a opioid-addicted fellow patient Nate (Jay Pharoah) who whispers about the institute’s shady business model, designed to milk patients' insurance until it runs dry. “They got beds, you got insurance,” he says. We’ve been down this road before, in Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor and One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, and Soderbergh’s own Side Effects, his Rooney Mara thriller of 2013 which had similarly pointed things to say about the Kafkaesque world of the short-term incarceration industry.  This is the slighter film, no question — a quick-and-dirty psychothriller shot entirely on the iPhone 7 Plus,  which foreshortens perspective, amplifies empty space and drills into Sawyer’s skewed, strung-out head-space — but it is as sharp as a splinter. It gets under your skin, thanks to its spidery cinematography and Foy’s performance, with its alternating gusts of fury and fragility. Foy doesn’t shy from making Sawyer abrasive, even a little bit of a bitch.  And yet she remains eminently sane. Hence the title. How would an entirely rational actor act if everyone around them conspired to treat them as if they were a lunatic?  Wouldn’t it drive them — you know, a little nuts?' — from my Sunday Times review

REVIEW: Ready Player One (dir. Spielberg)


'The movie, like the book, is a curious mixture of sugar rush and pop-culture study session: you’re  not sure whether you should be enjoying it or supplying footnotes.  Take the opening race through a virtual New York, with Wade s in   wing-doored DeLorean from Back to the Future —customized with KITT from Knight Rider— going up against, among others, Stephen King’s killer car Christine, the Batmobile and the A-Team van  while a T Rex and King Kong take lunges at them down the cross streets. Your basic rush hour traffic. Wade wins by taking the entire track backwards, which not only summaries the  the  movie’s whole retro ethos  but wins him the  admiration of Artemis. (Olivia Cooke), a svelte anime  hottie with punk-red hair,  although as his buddy Aech (Lena Waithe), says “She could be a 300 guy living his his moms basement in Detroit. Think about it.”  Sure, but don’t think about it too much. As someone says “reality is a bummer” and when Wade’s aunt goes up in smoke nobody bats an eye. This is Spielberg in audience gigolo mode, pleasuring his fanboy base with one climax after another to  a jukebox of hits from Van Halen, New Order and Tears for Fears. That fluttering you can hear is the sound is a million nerd hearts making their way up to heaven. The book’s  page-long encomium to masturbation is gone,  although the suspicion remains that if the global population of OASIS users would have their collective goggles blown off it anyone asked someone on a date. At a nightclub, Parzival and Artemis boogie on down to ‘Staying Alive’ by the Bee Gees on a zero-gravity dance floor,  only for Wade to have his heartfelt declaration of love gatecrashed by an invading fleet of thugs sent by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), head of Innovative Online Industries, a company that wants to turn Oasis into a advertiser’s paddock. Everyone wants to rule the world. But a kiss? That knocks the world off its axis.' — from my Sunday Times review

Mar 11, 2018

REVIEW: You Were Never Really Here


'What follows is not really a thriller, any more than a Francis Bacon painted   society portraits. Adapted from Jonathan Ames book, it does to Liam Neeson revenge-flicks roughly what Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver did to the Death Wish movies: it breaks the genre up and boils it down to a lean 85 minutes, driven by a central performance by Phoenix as bruised and bloody and tender as sirloin. If the test of great acting is to make it physically impossible to imagine the actor in any other role than the one you were watching, then Phoenix here nuzzles up to the greats. He acts with his entire body, the way the silent movie actors used to, starting with his shoulders, hunched like a grave-digger’s, and moving down a white, pudgy paunch, lacerated with scars and slack with self-neglect, as if the harm he doles out to others is just overflow from the harm he dishes out to himself. Some actors make you worry for what they will do to others. Dangling himself idly from a train platform, Phoenix makes you worried for what he will do to himself.  Sometimes suicidal is more dangerous that homicidal. The performance is, in other words, everything Ryan Gosling thought his was in Drive and wasn’t. The violence, when it comes, is almost a relief from from the twitchy flashbacks— images of asphyxiation from to Joe’s childhood, and his experience in the Gulf war — that assail him like panic attacks. Ramsay’s powers of obliquity come into their during Joe’s one-man invasion of a brothel, shot and edited using only grey security cam footage showing Joe’s path: a door opens on one floor, a hammer  blurs in the corridor of another, a body crumples in a third and so on, all to the sound of Rosie & the Originals ‘Angel Baby’ on the soundtrack, interrupted with every cut. What Ramsay seems to understand as perhaps no filmmaker has since John Boorman in Point Break,   is that what makes violence violent is not physics it’s internal thermodynamics: the damage done to souls not bodies. It’s a film about damage.'— from my Sunday Times review

Mar 5, 2018

REVIEW: A Fantastic Woman (dir. Lelio)

'In another filmmaker’s hands —Almodovar, say — Marina might have been a tower of righteous, high-heeled indignation, delivering one stinging retort after another. Lelio’s has loosed such a force of nature before, in his  2013 breakthrough film, Gloria, about a divorced 28-year-old on the single circuit, determined not to go gently into the good night. Here, he takes the opposite tack, with mixed results. We don’t see Marina’s grief for a long while. Instead, she takes out her anger on a small punching bag that hangs by the door of her apartment and numbly walks the streets of Santiago, seeing Orlando everywhere. It is a fiercely internalized performance — the anti Almodovar — Vega’s expression hovering between quiet dignity, sublimated anger and a look of steely defiance that is, in turn, further provocation to the outside world. There is a thread of masochism here — Marina’s refusal to explain or defend herself edging into something more belligerent and self-martyring. When bruises on Orlando’s body draw the attention of a detective (Amparo Noguera)  who specializes in sex offenses, Marina skips appointments and obfuscates, and thus has to endure a humiliating physical examination. “How should I treat him?” whispers the medical orderly as if she were not standing right there. This is awful but it was avoidable: the detective was initially sympathetic.  You may lose count of the number of scenes in which Marina is taunted, insulted, threatened, roughed up, or labelled a monster, with Vega rising above it all, a wronged saint, impassive and long-suffering. The conception of her character is at times only a trifle more nuanced than that punching ball.' — from my Sunday Times review

REVIEW: I, Tonya (dir. Gillespie)

'The casting of Robbie is not the only debt the film owes Scorsese. Directed with winking brio by Gillespie, who made Lars and the Real Girl, and told in mockumentary form, featuring multiple unreliable narrators, a cast of gotta-love-em white trash sociopaths, and a script that would bring a blush to the cheek of a sailor, the film is essentially Goodfellas on ice. And if that sounds like fun, it is, for most of the time. The script, by Steve Rogers, performs a balletic reversal of audience sympathies around the issue of class. In a sport dominated by lissom, long-limbed pixie-figures whose smiles seemed stuck in a fifties time-warp, Harding was the ugly duckling, picked on by the press as “white trash” and “old Thunder Thighs”: a hardscrabble, rough-edged scrapper with garish blue eye-shadow and home made costumes who stubbed out cigarettes on the blade of her skates, strutted out onto the ice and nailed perfect arabesques to an accompaniment of ZZ Top, hurling expletives at any judges who docked her marks for deportment. What’s not to love: a  world-class female sociopath to root for the same way we did De Niro’s wise-guys in all those Scorsese films. Robbie is slimmer and prettier than the stocky Harding  — she’s a swan playing a duckling — but she digs in and gets something of her fierce survival instincts. A street fighter raised in  trailer home in Portland, Oregon, by her viper of a mother LaVona (Allison Janney), Harding is pushed onto the ice aged three, while mom sits on the sidelines, sucking down whiskey and swearing like a tevedore. “You skate like a graceless bull dyke!” LaVona screams, and later, at competitive events, slips twenties to spectators to do the screaming for her, to sharpen her daughter’s  edge. It’s a phenomenal turn by Janney, an exultant, extended riff  on her chain-smoking pageant mom in Drop Dead Gorgeous, without vanity, redeeming virtue or apology, and horribly funny. The bluntness of La Vona’s cruelty jolts you into shocked laughter, despite yourself. Refusing to give her daughter a bathroom break, forcing her to pee herself, LaVona barks,  “skate wet!” — from my Sunday Times review

Feb 11, 2018

REVIEW: Loveless (dir. Zvyagintsev)


'It’s a forbidding but commanding film,  ostensibly  a missing-child procedural that plumes like ink in water into a corrosive critique on the beautiful monster that is Putin’s Russia, strange land of religious orthodoxy, tech companies, jaded bureaucracies, selfies and bikini waxes.  “The stats are on your side”  one lugubrious detective says to Boris, ceding responsibility for the search to a resourceful volunteer group, led by a coordinator (Alexey Fateev) who is the closest the movie has to a moral centre. Traditionally in a film like this, the search would bring the parents closer together, but as the orange-vested team combs the neighbourhood putting up flyers, the title instead expands panoramically to include a whole society in which cruelties are passed around, from mother to child, from husband to wife, alike. From Russia Without Love. Shoot the same thing east of the Volga — in Luxembourg, say, or Croydon — and all you have is a movie about a bad marriage with selfies. Zvyagintsev has pulled off something similar before. In 2014, he electrified Cannes with his 2014 film, Leviathan, a family drama that grew into a Hobbesian portrait of the boozy, corrupt provincial life.  The new movie is even more pitiless, if that were possible, but also more beautiful, shot with pristine dismay by  director of photography Mikhail Krichman, who photographs the characters through car windshields and tower block windows in which the Russian winter is always reflected, and creeps like a prowler through tower blocks, frozen forests, and, best of all, a ruined complex with crumbling conference rooms, movie theater, and basketball court that looks as if it has been rotting there since the days of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. If, as the camera pushes through those decrepit corridors, you find yourself pulling back in your seat, Zvyagintsev has you exactly where he wants you: your fears for the worst just out-paced by your desire for the truth... He isn’t the only thing that’s missing, we surmise by the end of the movie —  an extended shot of Zhenya running on a treadmill, the word “Russia” printed on her sweatshirt. Is she trying to avoid the TV reports of the war in the Ukraine? Outrun some inner restlessness? Or follow in the footsteps of her son? Maybe he had the best idea, all along.' —from my Sunday Times review

Feb 6, 2018

REVIEW: Phantom Thread (dir. Anderson)


'The film a distant cousin of this fervid Gothic romances — including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, Suspicion, Sleeping with the Enemy, and, yes, Fifty Shades of Grey — in which women first submit to and then break free of the clutches of an over-controlling svengali figure. Like Scorsese, Anderson loves those old melodramas to the point of limbic entrancement without wishing to abide by their rules or deliver on their narrative satisfactions. We get a ghost of that dead mother, a lush Franz Waxman inspired piano score, while Lesley Manville’s Cyril evokes the forbidding shade of Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, hovering in the wings of her brother’s meticulous routine. “Are you sent here to ruin my evening? And possibly my entire life?” explodes Reynolds at one point, after Alma has prepared his asparagus with butter rather than oil and salt the way he likes it. She further tells him she loves him. He acts as if ambushed. It’s a film, in short, about emotional fascism — someone whose very identity is threatened by the presence of another and whose idea of a relationship requires the complete subjugation of that person’s will. Phantom Thread is about right: In what Day Lewis has said will be his last performance, he summons the ghosts of performances past, marrying the epicene manners of his aesthete Cecil in Room with a View, the adamantine psychic furnace of a Bill the Butcher, while Anderson skips merrily at his side, in secret, mischievous league with his leading man, just as he was with with Day Lewis’s oilman in There Will Be Blood. Paul Dano’s preacher barely registered. The same with Joaquin Phoenix’s sottish sailor  in  The Master, drawn into queasy Stockholm-Syndromish thrall to Hoffman’s cult leader, like a mongoose hypnotized by a cobra. Anderson seems to love these great, terrible, iron-willed men — they are the stuff of masterpiece cinema  — but is so far incapable of creating an antagonist of sufficient stature to challenge or oppose them. His films are versions of Citizen Kane in which Kane wins.  Krieps probably comes closest of anyone to redressing this imbalance. She’s a terrific find: calm and imperturbable, with a both pretty and plain depending on the light. “If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose,” she tells Reynolds, with an eagle eye for his weakness: when sick, he is as open and tender as she could wish. From this springs the film’s major third-act twist, both perverse and more than a little preposterous — it wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a 30-minute episode of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected and joins Anderson’s growing collection of bizarro endings, like the raining frogs at the end of Magnolia or the rant about milkshakes that capped There Will Be Blood. His films don’t develop so much as circle, intensify and then suddenly derail, like someone crashing a bike into a ditch. I’m not sure Anderson believes in plot or character development per se.  “There is an air of quiet death in this house,” Reynolds says, and the film is as expert, airless and monomaniacal as he is: the Max De Winter story as told by Max De Winter. Free spirits need not apply.' — from my Sunday Times review

Jan 27, 2018

On my iPod: January 2018


1. Motion in Field – Tom Rogerson & Brian Eno
2. Release Me — Inara George
3. Kaleidoscope — Nils Frahm
4. Heartworms — The Shins
5. Fireworks — First Aid Kit
 6. House of Woodock — Jonny Greenwood
7. 875 Dollars — De Lux
8. Say You love Me (remastered) —  Fleetwood Mac
9. Afterglow — Jose Gonzalez (with the Bride Lites)
10. The Presses Roll — John Williams

Jan 26, 2018

Review: NOTHING by Hanif Kureishi


'The idea of a celibate Hanif Kureishi hero tormented by the very urges he once indulged is an excellent one — think Phillip Roth in a chastity belt. Given the current cultural and political climate, in fact, that idea may have even more than usual appeal. The more or less unfettered license that male writers have enjoyed when it comes to holding up every stain in the bed-sheet as a palimpsest of their smarting, solipsistic souls may be time for an overhaul. Sexual jealousy has produced many a major and minor classic, from Saul Bellow’s Herzog to Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square and Julian Barnes’s Before She Met Me, but the trick of these books lies in the skill with which the writer evokes, through the heat haze of their protagonist’s obsession, the bobbing horizon line of reality, however fleetingly glimpsed. There must be more to Lolita than just Humbert Humbert’s lust.  Here, Kureishi runs into trouble. There’s really nobody in the book besides Waldo, the other characters existing mostly to ferry congratulatory bouqets to his much-garlanded imagination.  “Waldo you’ve got the filthiest imagination of anyone I’ve met,” says Zee, who nevertheless supplies him with sordid stories of Eddie’s past involving sodomy and rape.   “Your mind is like a roaring wind tunnel,” admonishes his movie actress friend Anita (“not a woman a man can look at for long without wanting to put his penis in her mouth”) but she too brings him further reports of Eddies affairs, pecadilloes, and “orgies with in his school uniform with important people.” But what a stroke of luck!   The world is exactly as florid as the fantasist first imagined it to be. The book is a little like one of those fake knots that, once pulled, turn out to be just a piece of string. Even paranoiacs can be plotted against, of course, but there’s a word for the kind of writing in which too neat a sense of reality is made to line up with loamy sexual fantasy:   pornography. I suspect Kureishi knows this. That pre-emptive shrug of a title almost defies us to take his book seriously.  “As a reader I’m done with literature,” declares Waldo as he asks Anita to read him one of his favorite detective stories again, “I only want fun.” But fun for a writer and fun for a reader are different things and while it may have been fun for Kureishi to write of Zee, “when I could still rim her little hole, or halo, as I call it, and push inside, she’d almost slice the tip of my tongue off” it is rather more arduous work for the reader to square that with the devoted nurse they had been picturing a few pages previously: one minute a Florence Nightingale, the next a lithe vixen who slaps Waldo and attempts to smother him with a pillow.  The behavior that might have driven her to such an act is carefully elided, if not hard to imagine. For all his self-obsession, Waldo shows little instinct towards the kind of degree-zero self-appraisal to which Bellow subjected Moses Herzog: “To his country, an indifferent citizen. To his brothers and sisters, affectionate but remote. With his friends, an egotist. With love, lazy. With brightness dull. With power passive. With his own soul evasive. Satisfied with his own severity, positively enjoying the hardness and factual rigor of his judgment, he lay on his sofa....” That final sentence is a killer, with Bellow dinging him for the complacency and self-congratulation of even accurate self-knowledge can breed. Ouch. Compared to that, Kureishi is still on the beginner’s slopes, practicing his snow-plough. Whether you enjoy it is very much down to how much of a jolt you can get from his epigrams, most of them loitering in the 25-watt range:  “the libido, like Elvis and jealousy, never dies”; “a saint is only someone who has been under-researched”; “boring people are always popular. They never do anything unexpected.” All of which have the requisite cynical snarl but collapse at the gentlest inquiry. “The imagination is the most dangerous place on earth,” asserts Waldo, but Kureishi has supplied him with the safest possible paddock in which to roam: a world carefully Waldoized, confirming his every suspicion and offering his steamy imaginings the least possible pushback. Where’s the danger in that?' - from my New York Times review  

Jan 21, 2018

Review: THE POST (dir. Spielberg)


'The story opens in 1966 in the jungles of Vietnam, where government analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) hears the secretary of defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), complaining that the war is being lost, only to watch him turn around and say the exact opposite at an airport press conference upon their return to Washington. Sickened by the disparity, Ellsberg takes it upon himself to secretly copy the top-secret 47-volume, 7,000-page Department of Defense study of the war which U.S. leaders admitted was lost from the get-go.  After the spookiest of photocopying scenes, with shadows cast by the moving bar walking up the ceiling and walls, the papers arrive on the desk of the Post’s rakish editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) in nothing more ceremonious than a shoe-box — a detail of surpassing Spielbergian ordinariness. When it comes to presenting us with the extraordinary, historical or otherwise, Spielberg likes his paperwork. It brings out the Rockwell in him. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. both took their names from snippets of officialese.  Schindler’s List took its theme not from the the horrors of the Holocaust but its bureaucracy. Private Ryan is plucked from the battlefield by a bit of sharp-eyed admin. Liz Hannah’s script has it’s share of bromides defending truth, justice and the American way, but by framing the story as a business story, Spielberg keeps any high-mindedness at heel. With its busy rhythms and urgent camerawork, The Post moves like a thriller, or a domino cascade, each image impelling on the next in irresistible sequence until the larger pattern is revealed — from  pay-phones with dangling receivers  to pounding type writers and the sight of journalists shouting excitedly with one another in Bradlee’s living room, while his daughter makes a killing on lemonade.  “My God, the fun,” Hanks remarks at one point and it is fun: Spielberg has finally found a way to make his civics-class movies as enjoyable as his adventures used to be. His shot-making is as industrious as a humming-bird these days, but one shot, in particular, is inspired. Nixon has issued a court order blocking publication. The Supreme Court, and possibly prison, awaits. Half a dozen advisors are on conference call awaiting Graham’s decision, and as she gathers herself,  the camera prowls the ceiling like a circling hawk, or a cloud of thoughts demanding release. Finally, a decision comes. “Let’s publish,” she says out of nowhere, almost as surprised by herself as everyone else is — as if such a momentous decision could only sneak up on her, a last-minute jumping of the tracks designed to outwit Kay’s ingrained habit of second-guessing herself. That this champion of the free press should be wearing a milky-white evening wear caftan only reinforces your sense that, with impeccable timing, Spielberg has made his first explicitly feminist film. It’s also the closest Streep will probably ever come to making a superhero movie. She modulates her performance beautifully. First seen walking into roomfuls of men where she is surrounded by dark suits, Kay hmms and haws, is spoken over, or for. But gradually, Streep lends her strength, locating the steel behind her feathery voice, as Kay realises that she’s not just the caretaker of her late husband’s company. It’s her company now.  The suits scatter. The caftan wins.' — from my Sunday Times review

Jan 14, 2018

Review: DARKEST HOUR (dir. Wright)


'Here he comes, padding around in his dressing gown,  cheeks plump, jowls low, cigar stub jutting like an anti-aircraft gun, barking rewrites to his secretary  in between mouthfuls of scotch. Gary Oldman’s Churchill looks heavy — wadded in his fat suit and prosthetics — but he feels light, a sprightly soul, quick on his feet, quoting Macbeth and Hamlet —  “an actor, in love with the sound of his own voice”  in the words of one parliamentary foe. Nobody enjoyed playing Churchill like Churchill, it is implied.  So we get a performance within a performance, two for the price of one, Oldman playing Churchill playing himself — and such fun is had by all that you could almost forget there’s a war on. One of the revelations, in fact, of both Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour and the book on which it was based, by Anthony McCarten, is how close Britain came, in spring of 1940, to negotiating for peace,  even after Hitler had swept through mainland Europe. Newly installed as prime minister, Churchill is distrusted by most of his war cabinet, including Chamberlain and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who pressure him constantly to petition for peace. King George VI  (Ben Mendelsohn) finds Churchill’s belligerence “scary.” The French finds his talk of victory at any cost “delusional.” Churchill himself wears these arrows almost as badges of honor, happily copping to “wildness in the blood”. If ever a historical moment called for a little wildness, argues the film, it was the spring of 1940, when delusion and courage looked a lot alike. Maybe the country needed a little crazy. Centered on the five weeks between Churchill taking office as prime minister on May 9th until the evacuation of Dunkirk in June 4th, the film covers Churchill’s seemingly solo effort to shore up support in his government and rally the British people for the coming conflict.  How did he do it?  “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” in the film’s climactic line. Anthony McCarten’s script is essentially a run-through of the big speeches, starting with his battle anthem offering “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”  Wright intercuts Oldman’s delivery with a conveyor-belt breakdown of the speech’s genesis, as it is typed up by secretary (Lily James), revised in the bath, with last-minute amendments scribbled  en route to the commons, where Wright slings his camera underneath the type-writer to see the keys as they hit, then hoists it up high in the rafters, looping and swooping, as if trying to match  Oldman for rhetorical bluster. Blood, toil, sweat, tears and a lot of fancy camera angles.  Oldman wins, with a bespoke version of his distinctive voodoo. The sight of Churchill scarfing down eggs, bacon and whiskey for breakfast is, in its own way, as rock n roll as the sight of Johnny Rotten windmilling his bass in Sid And Nancy, or count Dracula licking bloody razors in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Oldman likes his appetites, the stranger the better. Coming to the film from more expansive literary adaptations like Atonement, Pride and Prejudice, and Anna Karenina, Wright directs as as if hellbent on refuting the“nice performance, shame about the film” criticism usually thrown at biopics. We get slow motion, swish pans, extreme close-ups, elaborate tracking shots, spiraling booms, and endless aerial shots, the camera yo-yoing up and down through the clouds following the course of the bombs as they fall. His performance is almost as busy as Oldman’s — the directorial equivalent of selfie — and it robs the film of gravity, quite literally, or any sense of impending threat.' — from my Sunday Times review https://www.thetimes.co.uk/?sunday

Review: THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (dir. McDonagh)


'In  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who has rented three billboards attacking the local police chief  Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for what she sees as his inaction in her daughter’s case. “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests?”; “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Such is the starting point for Martin McDonagh’s pitch-black revenger’s comedy — imagine Dirty Harry as written by Samuel Beckett and you’re close. The playwright-turned-director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths McDonagh a gift for gallows humor that catches in your throat. The police chief turns out to be a  sturdy, decent man played by Woody Harrelson who also happens to be dying of cancer. Might she rethink the billboards?  “They wouldn’t be so effective after you croak, right?” she replies. McDormand says she based the performance on John Wayne and it shows. Dressed in overalls and bandana, her face stony with grief, her eyes narrow with accusation, Mildred marches into scenes with such freedom from giving a rat’s ass — she kicks one of her son’s female classmates in the groin and even firebombs the police station — the effect is thrilling. Not just any avenging mother, she turns Mildred into the avenging mother, a figure risen from the  angry, disenfranchised,  Trump-voting, rural unconscious (though the film’s politics skew left). “How’s it all going in the nigger-torturing business, Dixon?” Mildred asks the police’s departments in-house racist,  Dixon (Sam Rockwell),  a  dim-witted screw-up who lives with his mother and jives listening to Abba’s “Chiquitita” on his walkman — a blissful turn from Rockwell, who duly corrects her  “That’s the person-of-color-torturing business these days.” McDonaugh can seemingly write this stuff by the yard: zesty, profane dialogue between prickly, quarrelsome characters bound in mutual exasperation, nipping and biting like ferrets in a bag. Scene by scene, the movie snarls with viperish life, although there are one too many clever-clever jokes about the characters’ sub-literacy — Wilde is quoted,“hard of hearing” mistaken for “hard of reading” and so on. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri may be McDonagh’s most satisfying film to date, but the London-born playwright’s bard-of-the-Ozarks ventriloquism isn’t exact, and his construction hasn’t shed all traces of the stage. The violence escalates and explodes, leaving the town in flames, but he chooses to end with a shaggy-dog shrug rather than a note of catharsis or release. A better sense of landscape might have helped: here, you barely notice it. But McDormand’s Mildred is one for the ages. She doesn’t want catharsis or release.  She’s still out there still, putting up billboards, putting fear into the wicked.' — from my Sunday Times review

Jan 8, 2018

Review: ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (dir. Ridley Scott)


'The black joke that unfurls at the centre of this film — part thriller, part morality tale — is that the boy would probably better off with his kidnappers. The boy’s father is long out of the picture,  lost in an opium cloud in Marrakesh.  Only the mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), seems to care, and it is her resolve that powers the story. Long bruised by any entanglements with her estranged husband’s family, she alone seems to know what to expect. The greed of the kidnappers seems almost quaint when set besides that of her father-in-law. The toughest negotiations of the film will be not with them, but with him. “I like things,” says Getty, surrounded by old-world treasures and gilt-framed masterworks in the crepuscular gloom  of his estate. “They never let me down.  There is a purity to beautiful things that I’ve never been able to find in another human being.” Critics have been saying the same thing about Ridley Scott movies for decades. A chilly Midas, shoring up Vermeers and Ming vases against his ruin, Getty is the perfect embodiment of a figure Scott has long been fascinated with, from Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner, sat atop his ziggurat collecting owls and chess pieces to Hannibal Lecter poring over his Dante manuscripts at the Palazzo Capponi in Hannibal Scott, too, likes his objets, sometime more so than his people — not for nothing are the most memorable characters in his work androids and replicants —  which is why this film is such a sleek fit for him. In Getty he’s found his Corleone — his shadow self. Who knows what Spacey did with the role — probably telegraph his villainy to the audience with a wink, like he always does — but Plummer  brings an avuncular twinkle and sly wit to this reptile: eyes narrowed to crafty slits, crafty and cold-blooded, his Getty is almost provocatively unsentimental, like a rascally relative prodding the world for its reaction. You half expect Harrison Ford to arrive in his hover car and subject him to a Voight-Kampff empathy test to see if he’s fully human. Instead we have Michelle Williams — acting’s answer to the Voight Kampff. Williams is extraordinary in this picture,  alternately fierce and fragile as she pushes her way through the paparazzi, focussed like a  laser on getting her son back, suppressing all her rage and panic beneath brittle Kennnedyesque diction, but unable to stifle gallows humor at the absurdity of the situation: begging the richest man in the world to spare a penny for his own grandson, she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Neither do you. Williams’ mordant, heartsore performances roots the entire film. ' — from my Sunday Times review

Jan 2, 2018

Review: THE LAST JEDI (dir. Johnson)


'At the close of Star Wars The Force Awakens, J J Abrams giddy, good-humored reboot of Lucas’s original saga, one could be forgiven some trepidation as the narrative reins were handed over from Harrison’s Ford’s Han Solo — always the saga’s most charismatic character with with his lop-sided grin and grumbling asides  — to Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, it’s most chipper and anodyne, the closest the galaxy had to a Walton. The first bit of good news relayed by Star Wars: The Last Jedi is that Luke has had the stuffing knocked out of him. Grizzled and grey-bearded, he has turned his back on the Jedi and is now holed up on his island hideaway like Ben Kenobi in the first film,  at first refusing to train Rey (Daisy Ridley) in her fight against the evil First Order. “It’s time for the Jedi to end,” he says, one of many calls to forget the past in a film in which everyone seems hell-bent on disinterring their legacy and cutting loose from their legend. There are more flashbacks in this movie than all the others combined. Rey still doesn’t know who her parents are, while Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Sith warrior with the inferiority complex, is grappling with his own recent ventures into parricide. “Let the past die,” he implores her. “The Sith, the rebels, let it all die.”  Fat chance. Soon Luke is training Rey in the way of The Force, which are much as they always were — granting powers of telekinesis, mind control and a sudden, intense interest in natural fabrics — but now with one important new feature, allowing Rey to establish direct long-distance mind-to-mind communication with Kylo Ren. Think of it as the Force’s answer to texting. Soon they are at it like teenagers. “I feel the conflict in you,” insists Rey, like Jane Eyre before her, thinking she can turn the bad boy good. “You’ll turn. I’ll help you.”  The light sabres are not the only thing giving off extra heat these days. With his long gaunt features and Byronic mien, Adam Driver has now grown into the closest the series has to a Mr Rochester: mad, bad and dangerous to know. The subtitle of this movie ought to have been Inter-Galactic Bad Boys and the Women Who Love Them. I only wish Johnson had pushed if further. There’s one great scene where they briefly join forces and slay a roomful of Snoke’s lieutenants that is just crying out for a climactic, blood-drenched kiss. How Johnson fluffed that opportunity I will never know.' — from my Sunday Times review

Review: MOLLY'S GAME (dir. Sorkin)


 'Chastain is in her element. Dressed in low-cut designer dresses, cleavage on full display, but refusing all the propositions that come her way, she  saunters around her high-end gambling den, elusive and unattainable, hand-picking the guests, recruiting fresh meat to throw to sharks like   “Player X”, a movie star who lives for the kill:  “I don’t like playing poker , I like destroying lives.” That he is played by Michael Cera allows for some some sly subversion of Cera’s pencil-necked beta-male  image. In real life it was Tobey Maguire — further accompanied by Leonardo Di Caprio, Ben Affleck and, on occasion, Matt Damon — but Sorkin, like Bloom herself, has mastered the art of cloaking names with a seductive flutter. We hear talk of Saudi Princes and hedge-fund billionaires, find out good players can lose to bad ones if they don’t yet know how bad they are, one pro (Bill Camp) losing everything in the course of a game lasting three days. “Go home,” Molly tells him.  I’m not sure we ever figure her out. In his debut as director, Sorkin shows a slight inability to let his performances breathe or deepen. Betrayed a second time, Molly  says in voiceover, “depression and anger gave way to blinding rage at my  powerlessness over the unfair whims of men” the narration stealing what it should be an actress’s job to show. As with many of her roles, Chastain burns with a cool blue flame, a player who refuses to be played or drawn into the compromise of intimacy, the closest we get to an intimate relationship her strained relationship with her psychotherapist father (Kevin Costner) who turns up in a climactic scene full of gimcrack Freudianism  — “I’m going to give you some answers” he says — that nevertheless pulls off a little magic. Sorkin can pull rabbits out of hats, but it’s interesting to compare Chastain’s diamond-cut integrity with the more pliable populism of someone like, say, Julia Roberts. Chastain may not want to be that kind of star, although if you’re looking for the reason audiences may not have yet fully embraced her, here it is. Like Dietrich before her, she seduces the camera, but refuses to be seduced by it, breaking the age-old compact that connects a performer’s sexuality and the screen. It’s fascinating stand-off. I can’t wait to find out how it turns out.' — from my Sunday Times review