'"He has an infectious hell-for-leather laugh that scrunches up his entire face. He is 39 but looks ten years young with round, boyish features and the kind of baby blues to melt even the most suspicious mother’s heart. He’s trouble, alright. Maybe not trouble of the magnitude of his movies — not disarm-an-OED-with- a-flashlight-between-his-teeth trouble or rob-a-bank-disguised-as-a-nun trouble — but trouble of the kind that keeps women on their toes, and awakens in men an urge to get sloppy drunk on Tequila, and declare their undying fealty in the nearest bar. If he were English, he’d be putting away cheeky little goals in the premiership, haring up the pitch with his tongue between his teeth. “He doesn’t hold himself like an actor,” says Sam Rockwell, who co-starred with Renner, along with Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. “His demeanour is more like a stunt guy, or a wrangler. He seems like the grip.” The first time he met him was in a bar in Calgary. “He had a whiskey in his hand and a glint in his eye, you know, he just had this aura about him — this kind of right-stuff test-pilot, cowboy aura. He’s just a fun guy to be around, you want to be around him, you want him at your party. And we had some crazy boys up there. A lot of time on our hands. But Renner was the guy on Jesse James. Everyone used to imitate him, even Brad. ‘Where’s Renner, somebody get Renner....’ Calgary were ready to give him the key to the city. The reason I think his performance in The Hurt Locker resonated so much, was because it was the first time that I’ve seen what I see when I go drinking with him, on film. It was the first time audiences got to see that swagger in full form. His rebel spirit really came across. That’s in him — he’s really got that.” ' — from my interview with Jeremy Renner in The Daily Telegraph
Sep 30, 2010
INTERVIEW: Jeremy Renner
Sep 29, 2010
You say you want a revolution
"Arthur Penn, the stage, television and motion picture director whose revolutionary treatment of sex and violence in the 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde” transformed the American film industry, died Tuesday night at his home in Manhattan, the day after he turned 88" — Dave Kehr, New York TimesI suppose "revolutionary" and "transformed" are nice things to put in an obituary, but how exactly? It isn't just wariness of the cult of Bonnie and Clyde that prompts this thought, although it is one of those films whose reputation has always seemed to me a tad out-sized. I'm sure at the time, the violence rocked 'em back in their seats but anyone coming to the film straight from it's reputation as a classic jaw-dropper — those berets! All that agonised rolling around in slo mo at the end! — are bound to some disappointment. I was, anyway. The Wild Bunch is a different matter: Peckinpah is a master framer and cutter. His bloodbaths are ecstatically rendered. The set-ups in Bonnie and Clyde seem awfully stolid and four-square by comparison. The thing I liked the most about it are the periods of downtime between the heists: the bored listlessness to the scenes with Michael J Pollard and Gene Hackman, in which the possibility of violence buzzes around like a fly. You could even argue that it was this downtime — the non-violence — that was the more "revolutionary" and "transformative".
Sep 28, 2010
Fall 2010 Movie Preview: Screen Grab
Sep 25, 2010
A slim volume loosing catastrophe
"Philip Roth stands over my shoulder as I sit at his desk, typing into his computer. Now 77, he is a little jowly of jaw, and stands a little stooped in a baggy brown cable-knit sweater, but still he towers over me — fabulously, pointlessly tall. If you were constructing him entirely from zoo animals you would choose a tortoise and a giraffe. I call up Google on his apple, and type in the words ‘The Daily Show.’ “They were doing a bit about that Florida pastor who wanted to burn the Qu’ran,” I explain as I type. “They read out the most obectionable parts of each other’s holy books. The stuff in the Bible about dashing children to pieces. Then they read the passage in Portnoy’s Complaint where Portnoy violates a piece of liver on the way to a bar mitzvah. They demanded Jon Stewart condemn the Jewish practise of ejaculating into dinner meat.”
Roth hoots with laughter at the thought of his most famous scene still causing a ruckus all these years later. “Is that right?” he asks, “Are they still going on about that?” There are several things to note about this scene. First: the Apple computer! An Apple Emac, circa 2002, but still. An Apple! The internet! TV! Jon Stewart! The outside world! I thought Roth was supposed to live a life of monkish asceticism, void of human contact and stimuli, counting down the days to oblivion with the haggard, laser-like fixity of someone beating Franz Kafka in a staring competition. “Philip Roth lives in a town that, strictly speaking, lacks a town,” wrote David Remnick in a recent New Yorker profile. “It is not easy to find... very few visitors… nothing gets in.. no telephone, no fax….. ‘Philip lives likes he’s at Fort Dix’…,” and so on and so forth. It is certainly true that the two-hour drive from New York to his house in Connecticut constitutes the exact geometric distance necessary to convince New Yorkers they have fallen off the face of the earth, but other than that, there is little about Roth’s existence in the country that isn’t covered by the term “country house”: a grey two-storey clapboard house, built in 1790, set back from the road on 200 acres of land, with a garage, a swimming pool in which Roth does laps every afternoon. After quintuple bypass surgery in 1989, he does everything he can to stay fit. He doesn’t drink much, watches maybe an hour of television a night. “I’ll watch Rachael Maddow” he says. “I get a kick out of her. Or I’ll watch baseball. Or whatever disaster is going on.” He’s even in a good mood, although it could just be all the talk of disaster. His latest novel, Nemesis
, his 31st, like all his recent novels, is a slim volume loosing catastrophe. In Indignation, the catastrophe was the Korean war. In The Humbling the catastrophe was a woman. In Everyman the catastrophe was death itself. And in Nemesis it is polio, sweeping through the children of wartime Newark, during a baking hot summer from Roth’s youth. Holding the line is their physical education teacher, Bucky Cantor, pugnacious, decent, determined to save every last one of his boys and thus destined to join that small but select band of Roth characters whose decency amounts to an invitation to be used as a touch football by that “sick fuck” and “evil genius” God. Roth, whose atheism has always seem to stem as much from professional rivalry as anything else, looks on like Prospero himself, the ageing magician summoning one last tempest from thin air. Late Roth, like late Shakespeare, late Turner and late Beethoven, is turning out to involve some particularly choppy weather. "I think it's true," he says in his soft, low voice, a mixture of sand and claret. "These last four books are all cataclysmic books. And so was Exit Ghost, which came before. And so was The Plot Against America, which came before that. Maybe I only write cataclysmic books, early, late or middle." He laughs. "But I think it's true to call these cataclysmic books. Why? The darkness is unavoidable. You don't die, but everyone else does. So you make your way though a cemetery of your friends and loved ones. That focuses you."
We are sitting in the small, two-room studio at the edge of his garden, which doubles as an office. There is a wall of books, a fireplace, a desk, a computer and a lectern, where he writes standing up, to ease his back. On the mantelpiece above the fireplace are pictures of his father and mother, both long gone, and his older brother, Sandy, who died last year. "Styron, Updike..." he says, continuing his roll call of the fallen. "That they are all gone and silenced, it's hard to take. It's hard to take."
All of which leaves Roth looking suspiciously like the Last Great American Writer. Not to say that great novels will not continue to be written by Americans, but that the days when they girded the globe like gladiators, going chest to chest with one another on chat shows while limbering up for their Nobel, rolling champagne bottles down Fifth Avenue by the light of a wanton moon, waking up with one another's wives, shrugging off their mastodon hangovers and pounding away at their typewriters to produce the Great American Novel, would seem to be drawing to a close. The Nobel committee has fallen out of love with America. The novel is in eclipse, crowded out by a thousand screens. "Every year, 70 readers die and two are replaced," Rothsays. "The novel has no audience. But aside from that, everything is fine."
He says this with the same half-smile he uses for all such gloomy oracular pronouncements. He's okay. Roth has been on a terrific tear since the mid-1990s, racking up awards for an exhilarating series of novels, each carving up an aspect of what Roth has called "the indigenous American berserk". He patrolled the home front of the Vietnam war in American Pastoral, tackled the McCarthy era in I Married a Communist and reimagined an America in which Hitlerian fascism has run rampant in The Plot Against America. After that fusillade, it was inevitable that there would follow a quieter period of attenuation — his recent novels are more like embers from a once raging fire — but they glow with same vivid sense of threat and the sense of history as a series of traps a man must negotiate or, having fallen into, escape. I ask Roth if that is how he sees his own life.
"I've stepped into a few traps, yes," he says after a long pause. "I've also been dragged into a few traps. And I seem to have made it out. I don't know that we know the traps in the immediate moment. You don't just get caught by the big, gaping trap; you get blindsided by something you weren't prepared for." He mentions the spinal injury he sustained in the army in the mid-1950s, which continues to plague him. "Then there's the trap of the unworthy person. I have fallen into the trap of the unworthy person a couple of times."
I assume he means his two marriages, the first to Margaret Martinson, a woman he so came to loathe that, when she died in a car crash in 1968, he whistled en route to her funeral, and the second to the English actress Claire Bloom, whom he divorced in 1995. Asked to elaborate, he demurs. "The other trap is writing," he says briskly. "I find it requires all my strength and more. It really is an exercise in frustration. It's my trap. I chose this trap. Nor did I know in the beginning that it was a trap. I thought it was a terrific thing to do. As the decades go on, it's become more demanding. More arduous. Harder. It's a trap because you can't get out... So there it is."
Interviewing Roth is a peculiar experience in force-field immersion, furnishing only the skimpiest of illusions that you are in any way directing the conversation. Some questions are met with a long pause, some are ignored in favour of the question just one inch to the left of them, others meet with a swift rebuttal. When I quote something he wrote about his fiction being in transit "between the good boy and the bad boy", to be found in his one autobiographical book, no less, he snaps, "That's complete horseshit", the twinkle in his eyes suddenly gone, replaced with a harder graphite glare. An audience with Roth is never entirely free of the sensation that you are being watched intently, and graded, by a formidable and exacting intelligence that is much more practised at repelling intruders than at yielding up the bosomy, Oprah-like confidences with which celebrities are required to endear themselves to their public. It's not his game.
"Someone who knew me at the time said that Portnoy's Complaint was driven by anger," he says. "And I said, no, it wasn't, it was driven by joy at discovering Portnoy's anger. You're not angry when he is being angry. You love it. When I was writing Sabbath's Theater, I didn't feel lust. I was enjoying Mickey Sabbath's lust. I didn't feel it. When I wrote The Plot Against America, I didn't feel fear. I discovered their fear. That's the difference."
Yet the great mystery of Roth's career — that late, great renaissance of the mid-1990s — did not just drop out of nowhere. By the end of the 1980s, Roth'sfiction had become a gamey hall of mirrors, in which alter egos and alter alter egos spooked each other with their own reflections, like Siamese fighting fish. "Where an Updike novel, for example, seems to drop out of its own special cloud, the latest Roth novel seems like a response to the reaction to the previous Roth," wrote the critic James Wolcott. Then, in 1987, a minor knee operation led to a prescription for the painkiller Halcion, addiction to which brought on "an extreme depression that carried me right to the edge of emotional and mental dissolution", Roth later wrote in The Facts, a slim volume of autobiography that confessed to an "exhaustion with masks, disguises, distortions... fictional selflegends".
He appeared to have punched a hole through the thin membranous wall of his own fiction. He gave an account of it in 1993's Operation Shylock, another run around the rabbit warren featuring multipleRoths, but after that book met with a lukewarm critical reception — "There is too much of Philip Roth in this book," John Updike commented in The New Yorker — Roth fell into a second depression, this one exacerbated by a recurrence of his spinal injury and the break-up of his second marriage. It landed him briefly in hospital, and, when he left, his marriage was over. He hunkered down in his house in Connecticut, eating out of cans while he wrote Sabbath's Theater, an almost satanically vital book loosing all that was most lusty and disreputable in his fiction — a burp from the reptile brain of Mickey Sabbath, a 64-year-old puppeteer caught between multiple mistresses and the grave.
Roth describes the writing of that book as the happiest he has ever been. "It was another performance," he says, "my delight in Mickey Sabbath. I can be as enraged as any anybody else, but not very often. It was about my joy with Sabbath's rage. That's what produces that effervescence. That's what produces that joy."
"It seems more than a performance," I say. "It reads like the work of a man who has been freed."
"That's very true — I got rid of my wife," he answers, a smile on his lips. "Everything that happened was from being freed from my wife. I wrote Sabbath's Theater, I wrote American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, I wrote about four or five books... Free at last. Free at last."
There is something aweinspiring, but also a little frightening, about the story of Roth's life and the victory it represents of personal integrity over all the blandishments and contentments that seem to make life liveable for the rest of us. "I never wanted a family," he insists. "I haven't made any sacrifices. A long career asks a lot of you, but I haven't sacrificed anything." He has won just about every literary award under the sun, some of them twice: the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner and the National Medal of Arts, wife, Claire divorced in 1995 pinned to his chest by President Clinton, no less. When I ask him if he feels satisfaction over his career, he thinks long and hard before answering. "I've followed things through to the end," he says finally. "I've followed a lot of books that were difficult to write through to the end. That's where the pride is."
He finished Nemesis 13 months ago. Ordinarily, the period between books is a fraught one for him, spent racked with anxiety that he's not going to be able to step back into the ring, but he has been able to step away with ease this time. He has spent the past summer going back through the many boxes of correspondence, photographs and effects that have accumulated in the 31 years he's been in the house. Originally, he was looking for ideas, but when none came, it turned into "an exercise in recollection", as he puts it, sounding like a character in a Beckett play.
"It's like a Beckett play in that it often feels pointless," he says, laughing. "I don't think any writing is going to come of it. Ordinarily, I would be very unhappy about that, but for some reason I am not this time. I've written about almost everything I know. It may be that there's something I've not considered that will occur to me, but for the moment... I don't feel pursued."
"Pursued by what?" "The writing furies," he says with a smile.
Before I go, he offers to walk me around his garden, a large, rolling lawn ringed by trees, their leaves rustling in the wind. "That maple is over 200 years old," he says, pointing proudly to one of them. I ask him if he is worried about dying halfway through a book.
"A lot of writers feel that. I've always thought that you couldn't die midway through a book. It supplies you with life energy."
"And what if Nemesis turns out to be your last book?" "I suppose there is always that possibility," he says calmly. "I've lived with that possibility with every book I've written in the past 30 years."
"And if it were?" "I might want to put a gun to my head. I would hope not. If this were really the end, which will have to come eventually, I would hope that I could learn to take it easy. The furies pursued me, and I pursued them. It would be nice to get the hell out of the way!"
REVIEW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Sep 22, 2010
THE BEST OF: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Scent of a Woman (1992) — George Willis Jr
Hoffman had to audition five times for the role of the preppy who rats out Chris O Donnell in Scent of a Woman — an act of betrayal for which a generation of cinemagoers remains eternally grateful. Leonine, entitled, freckled, boorish, Hoffman’s bully seemed to own the air breathed by others. It was this performance that caught the attention of director Paul Thomas Anderson who was to cast him in Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love, playing exactly the kind of pudgy self-haters George Willis jr would have rounded on mercilessly. It is almost as if Hoffman were playing his own tormentor.
Boogie Nights (1997) — Scotty
As the chubby boom operator in Anderson’s porno epic, Hoffman bulged from his t-shirts, a fatso in a sea of perfect bodies, ruinously in love with Mark Wahlberg’s blithely indifferent stud. Together with his role as sex pest in Todd Solendz’s Happiness (1998), his gut overhanging his underpants, it established Hoffman as Hollywood’s leading masturbator-in-chief. Almost unwatchably private, his flesh luminous with self loathing, these performances nonetheless amounted to the boldest of self-proclamations — a talent daring itself into the open, like a bashful streaker.
Flawless (1999) — Rusty Zimmerman
Joel Schumacher’s buddy movie about a cop recovering from a stroke (De Niro) who takes singing lessons from a local drag queen (Hoffman) is formulaic filmmaking without formula’s fun. De Niro is so dour he barely registers, maybe sensing that this was Hoffman’s show, his first leading role, and the first to uncover his feminine, feline grace. He moves as if on ball-bearings. Drag queen roles are a gift to an actor — it’s a performance-within-a-performance — and they were everywhere in the 1990s, but for Hoffman it’s the off-moments that are most revealing, as when Rusty returns fire to bellow expletives at a retreating De Niro. Beneath the sequins and pearls, he locates a survivor’s weary toughness.
The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) — Freddie Miles
Hoffman’s first outright theft of a movie. Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith thriller featured a toasty enough cast — Jude Law, Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow — but Hoffman is as sly and insinuating as smoke as the rich wastrel Freddie Miles who rolls up in Rome and instantly smells a rat about Ripley. “How's the peeping, Tommy?” he badgers, “how's the peeping?”, as maddeningly cheerful a tormentor as Peter Sellars’s Quilty in Lolita. It was this role that first drew Meryl Streep’s attention. “This actor is fearless,” she noted. “He’s given this awful character the respect he deserves, and he’s made him fascinating.”
Almost Famous (2000) — Lester Bangs
Cameron Crow’s soft-hued rock-n-roll memorabilia album feels a little over-praised these days — a throwback to the time when Kate Hudson was Hollywood’s latest crush and Crowe was supposed to be the new Billy Wilder; but Hoffman still pops as the ornery, caffeinated rock critic Lester Bangs. “You got here just in time for rock n roll’s death rattle,” he informs his young protogee. “There’s nothing about you that's controversial." Much could be said of the movie, but Hoffman’s ease switching between the most rambunctious extroverts and featherlite introverts was now apparent.
Capote (2005) — Truman Capote
Tobey Jones portrayal of Truman Capote in Infamous (2006) was the finer act of mimicry, but Hoffman’s was the greater performance, which tells you something about movie acting. Hoffman shed many pounds, reigned in his movements, and raised his usual baritone an octave to get Capote’s babyish goosequill voice, but having taken his fill of Truman, he then empties himself again — he makes his Capote a listener, a highly manipulative empath, drawing others out of themselves with a crocodile’s patience and cunning. He won an Oscar for Best Actor; surprisingly perhaps, for the academy like their geniuses hot. Bennett Miller’s film is grave, bone-dry, funereal; at the end, Capote sips Martinis as if readying himself to slip beneath their surface in for good.
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) — Gust Avrakotos
Hoffman is almost illicitly enjoyable in Mike Nichol’s comedy about covert war in Afghanistan. Playing a CIA bureaucrat with a sagging gut, smoked spectacles, and the kind of thick, handlebar mustache found only on true commie-haters, he fires off Aaron’s Sorkin’s dialogue as if belching smoke. He’s so beautifully fulminous he almost unbalances the movie, were it not for the comic rhythm he and Tom Hanks finds together. “You're no James Bond,” says Hanks. “You're no Thomas Jefferson, either,” snaps Hoffman. “So let's call it even.” The scene in which they first meet in the congressman’s office, Hanks dodging the calls of a circling press, is a door-slamming farce unto itself.
Doubt (2008) — Farther Brendan Flynn
Few actors could have balanced the demands made by John Patrick Shanley’s drama about a Catholic priest accused of molesting one of his pupils, which requires that we must believe equally in his innocence and, at different times, the possibility of his guilt. The film, which Shanley adapted from his own play, is a little too pleased with this central ambiguity than it ought to be but the film lives through its performances. Maybe a few years earlier, we might have tipped too readily towards believing Hoffman capable of perversity — he had, after all played a disgraced preached in 2003’s Cold Mountain — but its funny what Oscars can do for an actor: freshly garlanded, Hoffman brought newfound probity to the part.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: Gandolfini to Buscemi
"Is that how you got through The Sopranos?"
— James Gandolfini's advice to Steve Buscemi, now that he is carrying an HBO show
Sep 21, 2010
Sep 19, 2010
There'll always be an England
"They came in red cardboard papal hats scrawled with the words "bigot" and "homophobe" and carrying placards, rainbow flags, pledges of atheism and balloons made of condoms. One giant banner showing the Pope carrying a swastika was later taken down after offending many of the protesters, who went as far as complaining to the police officers lining the route of the march to Downing Street." — The ObserverIt's not often I feel pride for my country, but it's hard not to read reports of the protests marking the Pope's visit to Britain, and not feel a small swell in the heart's cockles or, if not in the cockles themselves, somewhere in the near vicinity. The fact that the protestors objected to the Nazi comparisons of their fellows, and that those protestors listened, puts me over the edge entirely. A bigot, arguable. A homophobe, that's only fair. But a Nazi? Let's file that under youthful indiscretion, shall we... Oh my super-rational, cheerfully Godless countrymen! How I love you so!
Sep 18, 2010
Indifference is the cruellest review of all
It’s a perfect example of something I rail about from time to time: how a metascore scale that runs from 1-100 is inherently flawed because it’s an open invitation to review abuse, permitting a critic to single-handedly wreck a movie’s critical perception.The technical term for this, I believe, is "an average". It's none too radical an idea. What is a radical idea is that any critic who harbors bad thoughts about a movie constitutes "review abuse." I would respectfully suggest that if having bad thoughts about movies is intolerable to you, then you either a) stop going to movies, b) start reviewing movies for television or c) become an agent. I mean c'mon. Personally I think most critics are too kind. For one thing, I don't know if you've been to the movies recently but its not exactly wall-to-wall masterpieces out there. Certainly within the subset of people who've seen any given movie, the critics tend to be down the grumpier end of things. It comes from not having to pay for your ticket. Here's what I say to that. There's a far crueller verdict dished out with even greater regularity by a much greater number of people: those who didn't even go see the movie, a.k.a. the vast majority of the world's population. How's that for a bad review? Factor that into your averages and see what kind of review you come up with.
Sep 17, 2010
Mark Ruffalo on David Fincher
“You hear these stories about him being this perfectionist, this task master. Honestly I was terrified. The first day at work we had like six page walk-and-talk. And I was shitting bricks, man. It was David Fincher, this crane shot, on a dolly, about a hundred extras. It was crazy. Jake and I were winding through these extras its an emotional scene and we’re up to take sixty. He's been giving us notes and going again and going again and going again and I'm starting to get really insecure. I'm like “I'm sucking — what are we doing?” And I see Fincher walking over and I don't know what the hell is going on. And he's walking right towards me and I think he's coming to fire me. This is it. I was like 'you know what? Its okay. If I'm sucking this bad I deserve to go.' He gets to me and then he walks right by me. He takes an extra and he literally moves him like six inches. And he’s like ‘okay lets go again.....’ And after that I was freed. You can play. It was the best time.... You only have to kick people's asses a couple of times. You meet these people who are supposed to be tyrants and they're always so sweet. The one thing about him is that if you are not doing your job or if he's doing your job better than you are, he will eat you alive. If you think you're going to show up and stake through and shoot from the hip, you're done. Because he's so fucking smart and he's spent so much time studying it. He's voracious — every bit of information he gobbles up. He knows exactly what year this pen came out and whether its right for his movie. He'll sit there and go 'what the fuck is this? This pen didn't come out until three years after this scene...' Then he'll eat you alive. If you're not performing at the same level he is, he'll eat you alive.” — from my forthcoming interview with Ruffalo for The Gaurdian
Sep 14, 2010
Jon Stewart on Fox News: "great broadcasters"
“It’s one reason I admire Fox. They’re great broadcasters. Everything is pointed, purposeful. You follow story lines, you fall in love with characters: ‘Oh, that’s the woman who’s very afraid of Black Panthers! I can’t wait to see what happens next. Oh, look, it’s the ex-alcoholic man who believes that Woodrow Wilson continues to wreak havoc on this country! This is exciting!’ Even the Fox morning show, the way they’re able to present propaganda as though it’s merely innocent thoughts occurring to them: ‘What is this “czar”? I’m Googling, and you know what’s interesting about a czar? It’s a Russian oligarch! Don’t you think it’s weird that Obama has Russian oligarchs, and he’s a socialist?’ Whereas MSNBC will trace the word and say, ‘If you don’t understand that, you’re an idiot!’ The mistake they make is that somehow facts are more important than feelings.” — Jon Stewart, New York
Sep 12, 2010
Almost close enough to see her dimples
Sep 11, 2010
QUOTE OF THE DAY: Robert Fisk
"Indeed, on this grim ninth anniversary - and heaven spare us next year from the 10th - 9/11 appears to have produced not peace or justice or democracy or human rights, but monsters. They have prowled Iraq - both the Western and the local variety - and slaughtered 100,000 souls, or 500,000, or a million; and who cares? They have killed tens of thousands in Afghanistan; and who cares? And as the sickness has spread across the Middle East and then the globe, they - the air force pilots and the insurgents, the Marines and the suicide bombers, the al-Qa'idas of the Maghreb and of the Khalij and of the Caliphate of Iraq and the special forces and the close air support boys and the throat-cutters - have torn the heads off women and children and the old and the sick and the young and healthy, from the Indus to the Mediterranean, from Bali to the London Tube; quite a memorial to the 2,966 innocents who were killed nine years ago." — Robert Fisk, The Independent
Sep 8, 2010
REVIEW: The Town (dir. Affleck)
One of the pleasures of Affleck's new movie, The Town, is seeing all these bumps ironed out. It's a muscular triumph, from top to bottom, a keening, steely crime drama which sets down in Charlestown, the area of Boston which produces more bank robbers than any other square patch of America. After the heady thrills of Shutter Island and Inception you may find yourself limp with gratitude for a film which feels so rooted in a recognisable quadrant of the map, rather than the frontal lobes of Leonardo Di Caprio. Affleck plays Doug MacRay, the leader of a gang of thieves, who is beginning to drift from the fold and longs to quit the streets altogether. One day, mid-hiest, he falls for the pretty bank manager who they briefly take hostage (Rebecca Hall). I am a big subscriber to the Modigliani-in-jeans charm of Rebecca Hall, but feared for her going into this — would this Shakespearean sylph wilt on the streets of South Boston? — but her fragility actually helps her here. She's one of those actresses who gives her full attention to whoever she's acting with; she drinks Affleck in with an edge of incredulity, as if unable to quite believe she's going to fall for this guy. You get it, though. She's hung up on this bruiser in order to feel protected; that he is, unbeknownst to her, the guy she needs protecting from is not just the plot-twist that provides the trailer with its hook, it's what gives depth to Hall's performance — a study in post-traumatic crushing.
The film's second love story, and in many ways the more intimately rendered, is that between Affleck and his best buddy Jem (Jeremy Renner), a hard-charging Hotspur covered in Fightin' Irish tattoes and crucifixes who has just got out of prison and does not relish the possibility of going back. Almost any other actor might have taken that fact and rooted Jem in fear. Renner goes entirely the other route and ups the glee quotient. Fresh from his bullet-headed tour-de-force as a bomb disposal expert in last years The Hurt Locker — you didn't know which he ought to defuse first: himself or the bombs — Renner rips through The Town with exactly the same mixture of threat and devil-may-care pugnacity. It's crazy, infectious stuff: if you are a man and you watch this movie you will leave the cinema imitating the scene in which Renner, disguised in police uniform, is hailed by an FBI agent behind him, realises the game is up, and turns, opening fire with his machine gune as he goes. The technical term for this is, I believe: unbelievably cool.
A triangle, then, between the sensitive knucklehead who longs to leave the streets of Boston, the girl who will help him and the best friend who takes it as a personal betrayal — The Town is Good Will Hunting with semi-automatics. What gives the film resonance is the amount of smuggled autobiography Affleck has got onto the screen. The increasingly tense dialogues between he and Renner feel like the conclusion to a conversation he has been having with himself since the very beginning of his career, the one about longing and belonging, integrity vs ambition, leaving home without losing sight of yourself, and so on, except instead of working out these issues with Robin Williams in the therapist's office, Doug lets off steam by firing off round after round in some of the most thrilling bank heists since Michael Mann's Heat. A vast improvement, I think you will agree. What most impresses about The Town, in fact, is the way it confound and collapses the central division in contemporary cinema between indie movies and genre pics. It's as if Affleck had spent all his time in the salt-mines of the summer action movie taking notes on what makes the best ones tick, and then infusing that kineticism with the flinty lyricism of the independent films in which he first came to prominence. The result is genre filmmaking of the highest order — with an indelible sense of self-summation, a finetuning and retooling of all things Affleck. As he told the New York Times, “This is an emblem of the person I want to be going forward.” It's more than that. It's a model of personal filmmaking in the age of Transformers. B+
Sep 7, 2010
Civilian actions in the theatre of war
I sort of hate slippery slope arguments, but it seems to me that this is the very definition of a dangerous slippery slope. For example, would people be comfortable if Petraeus characterized an anti-war march as a threat to the US mission in Afghanistan? Or what if Petraeus condemned a Congressional vote to cut funding for a weapons program as a threat to US soldiers in the field? Such behavior would almost certainly overstep not just the letter of civil-military relations, but certainly the spirit. It's very hard to see how Petraeus's actions here are much different: well except for the fact that most people would generally agree that these folks in Florida are acting like complete jackasses - but acting like a jackass is a constitutionally protected right in this country.Grudgingly, I am in agreement with this, although if one actually accepts the argument used by both the Bush and Obama administrations — that the war on terror has turned the entire world into a battlefield — then what that Floridian pastor is doing constitutes not just a constitutionally-protected civilian action, but a civilian intrusion into the theatre of war — a very different matter, surely.
But we would not accept such an argument because it is, of course, self-evidently ludicrous.
Crowd-pleasers in history
"I know I'm late in chiming in, but Tom Hooper's The King's Speech is an easy lock for Best Picture, Best Actor (Colin Firth) and Best Supporting Actor (Geoffrey Rush). Very much a crowd-pleaser at Telluride in the same way Slumdog Millionaire, Walk The Line, The Reader, Babel, Brokeback Mountain and Juno have been."— Glenn Zoller, Hollywood ElsewhereAh, The Reader, what a fun-lovin' good-time mama that movie was.
Pas de deux with public expectations
"VENICE (Reuters) – Whether a hoax or not, a new documentary about Joaquin Phoenix and his transition from acclaimed, brooding actor to bearded, shambolic hip-hop wannabe has captivated viewers at the Venice film festival. "I'm Still Here" was directed by Casey Affleck, a successful actor and Phoenix's brother-in-law. The guessing game over whether the picture was genuine documentary or ironic "mockumentary" poking fun at an intolerant and narrow-minded public and press began long before the release of the movie." — ReutersWhy is it that the media always respond to these documentaries that play games with fame — Exit through the Gift Shop being the other example — by asking if they are a "hoax?" Is it their only way of dealing with a story whose good faith towards its audience is in doubt? Have they never heard of irony? Of course its not a hoax. It's just a disingenuously motivated pas de deux played with public expectations. Whether that is a worthwhile artistic aim or not is a genuine matter for debate. Not whether they faked footage. Saying so only encourages them. C'mon people. Think.
Sep 6, 2010
QUOTE OF THE DAY: Jean Luc Godard
"He just told me, 'It's not the Oscars.' At first he thought it was going to be part of the same ceremony, then he realised it was a separate thing in November. Jean-Luc won't go to America, he's getting old for that kind of thing. Would you go all that way just for a bit of metal?" — Jean Luc Godard's partner Anne Marie-Mieville, The Australian
Upper-class twit of the year: John McCain
"Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the proposed package of tax cuts for small businesses that Democrats are pushing is years too late and accused them of playing "class warfare" by moving to let the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire." — Washington PostIt always used to be so baffling to Americans — the cap-doffing deference shown the upper classes by the working class in Great Britain. Why would people on the lowest rung of society have any interest in propping up a system that kept them licking boots? And yet exactly the same fear of upsetting the super-rich grips Republicans, for whom anything less than the cosiest of tax privelages amounts to "class warfare" on millionaires. America's obsequiousness towards its own ruling class is just as baffflingly entrenched as Britain's ever was. In fact, I would say that right now, Britain is probably the more genuinely meritocratic of the two countries — certainly the one whose tax code encourages the greater social fluidity. Words I never thought I'd utter.
Sep 4, 2010
Hollywood's most valuable actor: Blanchett
- Shia LaBoeuf – $81 earned for every $1 paid
- Anna Hathaway – $64
- Daniel Radcliffe – $61
- Robert Downey Jr. – $33
- Cate Blanchett – $27
- Meryl Streep – $21
- Jennifer Aniston – $21
- Johnny Depp – $18
- Nicholas Cage – $17
- Jessica Parker – $17
They used a film's box office to determine the star's drawing power, ignoring the efforts of the studios, over the last 30 years, to perfect a formula for movie-making that frees itself from the need for stars entirely. They are called summer blockbusters. You may have heard of them. The movies are the star. It all started with Jaws and Star Wars and continues to this day with Transformers, Harry Potter and just about every Marvel adaptation you care to mention. Audiences are not going to see Transformers to see Shia La Beouf. They go to see shiny cars turn into robots and cream one another. Still less are they going to see Harry Potter because it stars Daniel Radcliffe. They are going to see Maggie Smith turn into an owl. To get a real sense of what actors are box office draws you'd have to disqualify all comic-book adaptations, sequels, and superhero franchises. A case could be made for Johnny Depp, because he fought so hard for Jack Sparrow, who genuinely did turn out to be the draw of the Pirates movies, and Robert Downey Jr, Iron Man is being the actor-friendly franchise it is, but much as I'd like to see Hathaway top that list, I suspect it's Alice that's bouying her so high. Which means our real winner is Ms Blanchett.
In order to create our list we looked at the top 36 earners in Hollywood. To qualify, each actor had to have starred in at least three movies in the past five years that opened in more than 500 theaters. Movies that opened after June 1 of this year are not counted. We did not include animated films because the actors aren’t really the draw and they tend to take pay cuts for voice work.
We then used data gathered for our annual Celebrity 100 list to calculate each star’s estimated earnings on each film (including upfront pay and any earnings from the movie’s box-office receipts, DVD and TV sales). We then looked at each movie’s estimated budget (not including marketing costs, which are susceptible to accounting chicanery) and box-office, DVD and television earnings to figure out an operating income for each film.
We added up each star’s compensation on his or her last three films and the operating income on those films and divided total operating income by the star’s total compensation to come up with each return on investment number. The final number represents an average of how much a studio earns for every dollar paid to the actor.
Sep 3, 2010
Do not feed the Oscar prognosticators!
Let's back up a little here, shall we? First off, Zacharek sounds terrific. "A high-toned version of Showgirls" is a salty slap-down to the mounting hosannas being piled on Black Swan, which sounds, quite frankly, about as enjoyable as a rash. The fact that she dissed Streep in favor of Beyonce just makes me like her all the more; Streep long ago turned into the female Jack Nicholson, her performances far too busy telegraphing their own prowess with a single eyebrow flex. Zacharek seems to be providing sinewy, surprising opinions of precisely the sort we ask critics to express, and Awards Daily is condescending to her for not guessing the Oscars right? I would not venture within a 25 mile radius of any critic who agreed with those fearful old goats at the Academy on anything like a regular basis, and here is Zacharek, condescended not because she dared disagree with their vote, but because she disagree with what some Oscar blogger, looking at the tea leaves and sticking a damp finger in the air, thinks might turn out to be the vote of these tanned, arthritic fools in four month's time? Because she dared upset the cosy consensus that seems to be forming around Black Swan, sight unseen, in the dark, mole-like burrows through which the Oscar prognosticators scurry and sniff? Chastised for her independence from blind guesswork? It's almost enough to make you weep hot tears of shame at the bullying, herdlike instincts of one's fellow man, as dramatised in that episode of The Simpsons where everyone taunts Milhouse for going on a date with Lisa Simpson. "That is so... gay," splutters Nelson Munst.
Stephanie Zacharek continues to carve out her oddball niche as the critic whose opinion has Zero Oscar relevance. Zacherek, we must recall, is the critic who would’ve been happier seeing Beyoncé Knowles nominated for Best Actress over Meryl Streep two years ago. It’s a good thing she never tries to align with the Academy’s taste because she absolutely sucks at understanding what scores on awards night. In fact, it’s becoming a very reliable gauge: if Zacharek hates your movie then you’re probably winning an Oscar. So her trashing of Black Swan can only be seen as more good news:There’s an opinion you won’t see coming from anyone else: “Showgirls is better than Black Swan.” That’s worth posting for its sheer ludicrous perversity.
Black Swan is really just a high-toned version of Showgirls, a movie that’s frequently derided as just being “bad,” although I think Paul Verhoeven knew exactly what he was doing, and he was honest about his goals: He wanted to give us a glitzy, over-the-top show-biz fable, and he did.
Sep 2, 2010
QUOTE OF THE DAY: Tony Blair
"I can't regret the decision to go to war. I can say that never did I guess the nightmare that unfolded, and that too is part of the responsibility. The truth is we did not anticipate the role of al-Qaida* or Iran. Whether we should have is another matter; and if we had anticipated, what we would have done about it is another matter again." — Tony Blair, A JourneyThat's the problem with wars, I guess. So gosh darned unpredictable! They never go the way you expect. Not like birthdays in that regard. Or TV shows. Or tea time. No. Always haring off in some infernal direction that nobody would ever guess in a million years! All you can really do is get them off to a good start, really. A nice kick-off to festivities and crossed fingers and that's it really. Just like kids. You can pack their lunch, ruffle their hair and wave them off at the station, but after that — forget it! Who knows what they get up to! Little bleeders. Bless.
* Note how casually he unravels the lie of American involvement. Al Qaeda were so not on the British radar as a reason for going into Iraq that Blair comfortably classes it as one of the things he might reasonably not be asked to even anticipate. America's foremost casus belli was, for the Brits, not even the remotest of wild cards. One senses two propaganda machines in hopeless disunity.
An Oscar for Natalie Portman! (I think)
The role cleverly forces the actress into her most pinched, peaky mannerisms — even her little-girl voice is pitched an octave higher than usual — only to undercut them as the character gradually loses her self-awareness.
Variety's Peter DeBruge:
Centerstage stands Natalie Portman, whose courageous turn lays bare the myriad insecurities genuinely dedicated performers face when testing their limits, revealing shades of the actress never before seen on film.
Screen International's Mike Goodridge:
Indiewire's Todd McCarthy
Natalie Portman... gives one of “those” performances, transforming herself after ten months of training into an accomplished ballerina, almost uncomfortable to watch as she consumes her difficult role.
Nina may be the most tightly wound character I’ve seen in a movie since Peter O’Toole’s homicidal Nazi in “The Night of the Generals” 43 years ago. Often sweaty, given to unnaturally tense little intakes of breath (the soundtrack emphasizes this), plagued by rashes on her shoulderblades (where swans’ wings would sprout) and prone to poking, cutting and splitting her skin and nails, she is often told she should relax, that she’s way too uptight.
To summarise, then. Forced into pinched, peaky mannerisms. Voice an octave higher than usual. Tightly wound and often sweaty. Uncomfortable to watch and plagued by rashes. Beset by myriad insecurities, peeling skin and obsessive toenail cutting. But how too, too delightful! A true Oscar winner for the ages! How often, while catching Casablanca in reruns, have I found myself thinking that Bergman's Ilsa needed a few more scenes hunkered over the bath-tub, tearing up her cuticles. And which Faye Dunaway performance wouldn't benefit from an unexplained rash or two? I have no doubt that these slips in personal hygiene will work wonders for Portman's Oscar come Oscar time — she sounds like she's channeling Mia Farrow at her most neurasthenically excrutiating — but do they add up to a performance one might stand a reasonable chance of enjoying? Or is that too dumb a question?
Sep 1, 2010
The success of the surge
FLASHBACK: Sen. Obama 'Surge Will Fail'...Well, so what? It may well fail. The success of the surge was to be measured by one metric: not our ability to secure stability by pouring all our might and money into Iraq — that was never in doubt — but what happened once we left. We have now left. Let us now see.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Dear Miss Kael..."
"I know that you were at Berkeley in the late thirties, possibly as an English major. So was I. Forgive me, but your reviews do read like the earnest efforts of a bright girl still bucking (endlessly) for A's.... I have a nagging thought: Was there something between us that I don't remember? I sense it, but I have no recollection of having known you.... I suppose one day we shall meet. We may have a civil exchange of a sort. Or not. I will make that determination." — Gregory Peck to Pauline Kael, after she wrote, of The Keys of the Kingdom, "(t)his is perhaps the most dignified and sexless performance ever given by a rising young male star"I can boast of no complainant quite so glamorous, although, as if to reinforce the suspicion that the present is but the past, replayed as shoddy farce, I once received a summons to meet Dickie Attenborough after I disdained his and Eric Cantona's performances in the 1998 film Elizabeth. Attenborough played William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, and Eric Cantona, fresh from the midfield of Manchester United played Monsieur de Foix; they both pop up together about halfway through the movie, in doublet and hose, prompting a low gurgle of mirth in this reviewer, and a comment in my Sunday Times column that week to the effect that the producers of period dramas should never cast such well-known faces, so low down the cast list, so late in a movie. The letter inviting me to lunch at Pinewood studios, where Attenborough was then mixing his new movie, arrived a few weeks later. I was perplexed, but too intrigued to turn it down, so a week later caught the tube all the way out to the Uxbridge road, was buzzed in and made my way up to Attenborough's office. Sir Dickie sat behind his desk, smoking a cigar. He made small-talk for ten minutes or so before bringing up my review. Ah, I thought. But of course.
"I mention it not for my sake but Eric's, you understand," he said. "I'm used to this sort of thing, but he is just starting his career as an actor and was so dreadfully discouraged by what you wrote."I sat there, not knowing quite what to say, except to reassure him that my opinion was sincere, that no-one had held a gun to my head, etc etc. And with that the conversation seemed to have exhausted it's natural course. I could no more recant my view than he could ask me to. Lunch never arrived. Instead, he inflicted on me ten minutes of his atrocious new film, Grey Owl, which featured Piers Brosnan posing against a variety of Canadian backdrops, playing an Indian chief, with feathers in his hair. After it had finished, I could think of nothing to say except that the Canadian foliage looked lovely at that time of year. I said that I'd better be getting back and pushed off home.