Dec 30, 2011

BEST FILM of 2011: Moneyball

1. Moneyball A-
2. Beginners B+
3. A Separation B+
4. Win Win B+
5. Rise of the Planet of the Apes B+
6. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo B+
7. The Artist B+
8. Martha Macy May Marlene B+
9. The Descendants B+
10. Living In The Material World B+

Dec 26, 2011

The unbearable lightness of Spielberg

"... For Spielberg, violence is no Hemingway-esque test, it’s just an awful thing to be avoided at all costs and to be faced only if it’s absolutely unavoidable. He’s in the line of Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, Woody Allen—a self-preserving adventurer, a timid homebody cast into troubled waters, an unambiguous opponent of death and anything that may cause it... The lust for violence is as alien to Spielberg as is lust itself; there’s no place in his work for any perverse ecstasy of suffering or of its infliction. (And far be it from this timid desk-jockey to suggest otherwise. But I’d hardly call my own modest comfort the engine of art—rather, it’s what I look to art to challenge.) Spielberg is an Id-free filmmaker, one with seemingly no wildness and no sympathy, overt or latent, for the devil. And it seems somehow churlish to feel cheated by its absence, as if one were ragging on niceness itself. Given Spielberg’s incontrovertible commercial success, calling out the hollow core of his work feels like laying oneself open to the charge of élitism, of “hating Hollywood” (a glance at my best-of lists should make it plain that I don’t)—as if it were the job of anyone but a studio publicist to endorse the industry as a whole rather than its best works." — Richard Brody, The Front Row
Firstly, I agree that Tin Tin ring a little hollow next to Spielberg's best work, but I do not agree that all of his work is hollow, and suspect the age-old prejudice against optimists is at work here.
“It’s a strange critical phenomenon that only works of art that are ‘edgy’ or ‘scary’ or ‘dangerous’ are regarded as in anyway noteworthy,” wrote Nick Hornby recently. ““Can’t we let them console, uplift, inspire, move, cheer? Please?” One should tread carefully: Brody has the critical consensus of a century to back him up. “Like the orange, Matisse’s work is a fruit bursting with light,” wrote Apollinaire in 1918. Picasso’s work, on the other hand “offers a thousand opportunities for meditation, all illuminated by an internal light. Beyond that light, however, lies an abyss of mysterious darkness... is this not the greatest aesthetic effort we have ever witnessed?” Got that? Light = lightweight. Dark = the greatest aesthetic effort in the history of mankind. (Matisse was aghast at his friend’s bias. “If people knew," he said, "what Matisse, the painter of happiness, had gone through, the anguish and tragedy he had to overcome . . . they would also realise that this happiness, this light, this dispassionate wisdom which seems to be mine, are sometimes well-deserved, given the severity of my trials.”) For Matisse vs Picasso read Lennon vs McCartney, Spielberg vs Scorsese, Morrissey vs the Pet Shop Boys, or any other of the cultural multiple choices by which it is determined whether you are un homme serieux, with the soul of a Russian, or a irretrievable lightweight with the depth of a puddle. When Carol Ann Duffy recently wrote in the pages of the New York Review of Books about a Ted Hughes poem that “seems to touch a deeper, darker place than any poem he’s ever written,” (it was about who Hughes was shagging the weekend Slyvia Plath committed suicide) we assume she meant it as praise. "Dark means serious,” commented Peter Steinfeld wrote on the Commonweal blog. “Dark means shadows. Dark means not evading the sad and inexplicable complexities of life.”

Why though? Why is darkness more profound? Press most people on the issue and you don't get much more than tautology in response: "it just is." I strongly suspect the reasons may be more temperamental than philosophical. For my part, I simply prefer McCartney to Lennon, Spielberg to Scorsese, and Matisse to Picasso and I do so because I have the same recoil from morbidity that Brody has from untormented artistic souls. I do have any argument to hand to prove that optimists have it "right," that they are "better" than pessimists. I do take mild issue with the assertion that Spielberg "is an Id-free filmmaker, one with seemingly no wildness and no sympathy, overt or latent, for the devil" but I would not contest it's underlying truth. What bugs me is that Spielberg is seen as a lesser artist on account of it. Where is it written that "perverse ecstasy of suffering", "sympathy for the devil" and a "lust for violence" are prerequisites for genuine artistic achievement? I get that these things look sexier on one's CV, but why not delight, consolation, light-heartedness, transcendence, good cheer and sympathy for the better angels of our natures that sit in the cockpits of brightly-colored UFOs? What about — to use a slightly embarrassing term — spiritual values? The equation of darkness with profundity is a largely 20th century development, traceable in part and in broad outline to the decline of organised religion. Roll back the centuries and things start to lighten up, quite literally. The Renaissence is shot through with shafts of Godly radiance; in Paradise Lost, He is variously described as "the Eternal coeternal beam," "bright essence increate," and "pure ethereal stream,” obscured by his own brilliant light, an image unmatched in Western culture until the release of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977. Try as I might I cannot find that film "hollow" or certainly any more so than the morbidity of Aronofsky or the misanthropy of Fincher. Maybe there's no argument to be won here. Half the problem, it seems to me, is that cultural Eeyores are the only ones interested in arguing such things; which is why they always win the arguments. Arguing the toss against optimism is what they spend their time training to do. (I picture an Al Qeada-style training camp, in which Beckett wonks compete with Schopenhauer nerds on the monkey bars to see who get to the perverse ecstasy of suffering first. But that's enough about the offices of The New Yorker.) Which is why I was so heartened to read this, in A O Scott's review of War Horse:—
"Mr. Spielberg’s answers to this question tend to be hopeful, and his taste for happy, or at least redemptive endings is frequently criticized. But his ruthless optimism, while it has helped to make him an enormously successful showman, is also crucial to his identity as an artist, and is more complicated than many of his detractors realize. “War Horse” registers the loss and horror of a gruesomely irrational episode in history, a convulsion that can still seem like an invitation to despair. To refuse that, to choose compassion and consolation, requires a measure of obstinacy, a muscular and brutish willfulness that is also an authentic kind of grace."
There. A generous, lovely thought.

Dec 25, 2011

BEST FILMS of 2011 (updated)

Not much time to post but my original top ten thoughts here. I found Girl with the Dragon Tattoo a lot warmer than people have been saying, certainly when set next to Se7en and Zodiac. Fincher gets their odd-angled relationship with unexpected tenderness — there's something of a Klute vibe to the pairing of Mara and Craig, one damaged but tough, the other shambolic but gentle. I was impressed with Daniel Craig's gentleness, wardrobe and writing cabin, the most inviting interior in a Fincher film since Benjamin Button holed up in a Moscow hotel with Tilda Swinton and a bottle of vodka. Fincher's lighting and color palette are consistently exquisite and exquisitely morbid, his shadows infused with burnt ochres, blues and Rothko magentas. He makes light appear bruised. There's nothing he can do about the plotting - the book's highhandedness with regard to clues and characters remains intact - but it wraps up satisfyingly, with a great 'Hello Darkness My Old Friend' moment and Salander loosed upon an unsuspecting world, Lecterishly. B+
1. Moneyball A
2. Win Win A-
3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes B+
4. The Descendants B+
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene B+
6. Beginners B+
7. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo B+
8. Drive B+
9. The Artist B+
10. Living In The Material World B+
11. Bridesmaids B
12. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy B
13. Bill Cunningham New York B
14. The Adventures of Tin Tin: Secret of the Unicorn B
15. Friends with Benefits B
16. A Separation B
17. Shame B
18. The Tree Of Life B
19. A Dangerous Method B
20. Take Shelter B
21. Cedar Rapids B
22. Hanna B
23. The Lincoln Lawyer B
24. Submarine B-
25. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol B-

Dec 24, 2011

QUOTE of the DAY: Wolcott on Metropolitan

"The poignance of the film--akin to the poignance of Barry Levinson’s Diner--is our understanding that this is the last time the gang will be together before the diaspora of adulthood, and that they are already nostalgic for what they haven’t quite left behind. A cloud of reminiscence hangs over the characters as they’re starting to miss something that hasn’t yet gone. Fewer movies better evoke the vague melancholy and tonic anticipation of that interregnum of being home between semesters, suspended between graduation and grownup-hood, that unhurried pause at the station-stop before the next stage of your life begins; a melancholy that suits the Christmas season, where the holiday lights and decorations accent the darkness of winter deep backgrounding everything. Christmas always seems slightly elegiac. The streets are cold, it’s hard to get a cab, and your jacket isn’t warm enough--Metropolitan captures that chill discomfort and how the conversations that string between two people walking from one bleak stretch of the block to the corner are part of the invisible wiring of the city, the connective tissue through which memories, memoirs, novels, and, yes, movies are eventually made." — James Wolcott, VF

Dec 23, 2011

Dec 22, 2011

REVIEW: Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol

Looking a little thick around the midriff these days, his locked shoulders in urgent need of a massage, Tom Cruise radiates a dry-ice shimmer of thinly-controlled rage in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Entering rooms, he is tense, bunched, jumpy, like an Olympic athlete awaiting the starter's gun; barking orders at his fellow spies, his tendons seem to shiver and twang like ship's cable. Watching a Cruise performance these days is much like watching him execute a daily work out. He huffs, puffs, blows, clenches, tenses, springs, swings, pivots his way through Ghost Protocol with such grim-faced determination that you half expect a contingent of Chinese judges at the end holding up score cards that read, "9.8." "9.9." "10". He seems at his most happiest — certainly at his most relaxed— when swinging from the rigging of 130-floor middle-eastern skyscrapers. Held by a thin guy rope, he runs up, down and around the building as if jogging around the block, seemingly oblivious to the vertiginous drop below. Cruise takes great pride in his stunt-work and rightly so. From the beginning, what has nudged the Mission Impossible series ahead of the rest of the pack is its star's willingness to dedicate his physical form in the cause of seamless trompe l'oeil derring-do — to use his own body as a special effect. Ghost Protocol is neither the best nor the worst of the bunch, its plot the usual dose of symbolist vers libre involving nuclear codes, a Russian terrorist, a smashing looking French assassin (Lea Seydoux), some BMWs, a sand storm and Simon Pegg tapping urgently at his lap-top, in no particular order. Director Brad Bird models his set-pieces on a triple-decker club sandwich. So: Jeremy Renner must crack a vault using an anti-grav suit, Paula Patton must seduce a Mumbai billionaire (the guy from Slumdog Millionaire, in fact, and Cruise must chase down a suitcase in a giant BMW factory all at the same time. That these actions have nothing to do with one another is not the point; the points is for Bird and his editor to cut back and forth between them in such a fashion that you are seized by the immediate temptation to lower yourself into the nearest lift shaft in pursuit of Russian nuclear codes. I'm a huge Jeremy Renner fan but he's a little underwhelming here — these franchise parts don't conduct his particular brand of lightning. Patton is overly encouraged to emote about some dead hubby we've never heard of — huh? — and Pegg is intermittently amusing as the lily-livered Brit. But it's Cruise I was transfixed by. His early performances ran on glide rails; these days he looks ready to blow. When is someone going to let him? B-

Dec 20, 2011

The limits of manipulation

"If there is one recurring image that defines the cinema of Steven Spielberg, it is The Spielberg Face. Eyes open, staring in wordless wonder in a moment where time stands still. But above all, a child-like surrender in the act of watching, both theirs and ours. It’s as if their total submission to what they are seeing mirrors our own. The face tells us that a monumental event is happening; in doing so, it also tells us how we should feel. If Spielberg deserves to be called a master of audience manipulation, then this is his signature stroke. You can’t think of the most iconic moments in Spielberg’s cinema without The Spielberg Face." — The Spielberg Face, Fandor
Let's be clear about what we mean here. It doesn't mean that Spielberg has carte blanche to "tell the audience how we should feel", as Fandor puts it. It's easy enough to disprove this: if Spielberg cut from a shot aliens landing to the face of an aroused woman, or from a shot of Americans being shot to a close-up of President Roosevelt smiling, the audience would not follow suit. We would likely recoil. In other words, Spielberg cannot dictate which emotion the audience is to feel. He can only guess what emotion we are likely to be feeling anyway and then augment it. He can guess right or he can guess wrong. His reputation rests on the fact that 99% of the time he guesses right, but that does not alter the mutuality of the arrangement. He follows us as surely as we follow him. 'Manipulation' is a misnomer. His primary activity is play. And like all games, his films require mutual assent. His films are not soliloques but conversations.

Dec 19, 2011

New favorite album alert!

A late addition to my albums of the year: Gotye's Making Mirrors. If you put Steve Winwood, Beck and early Phil Collins into a blender you might come up with something similar to this second album from Australian singer/instrumentalist Wouter De Backer. I'd never heard of him before, but this album is easily and immediately one of my top three favorite records of 2011, mixing 60s soul, ska and eighties pop for a series of full-tilt, aerodynamic pop belters — notably I Feel Better, In Your Light and Somebody That I Used to Know — which achieve near vertical lift-off. B+

Dec 16, 2011


1. Lucky Guy — The Belle Brigade
2. Bedouin Dress — Fleet Foxes
3. Immigrant Song — Karen O, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
4. Change the Sheets— Kathleen Edwards
5. Take Care — Drake & Rihanna
6. Hello — Martin Solveig & Dragonette
7. County Line — Cass McCombs
8. We Found Love — Rihanna
9. In Your Light — Gotye
10. Take Me Back Again — Teddy Thompson
11. Holocene — Bon Iver
12. Dust On The Dancefloor — The Leisure Society
13. Video Games — Lana del Ray
14. Hurts Like Heaven — Coldplay
15. 17 Hills — Thomas Dolby
16. You Always Come To Mind — Samantha Savage Smith
17. Lippy Kids — Elbow
18. Turning Tables — Adele
19. Domino — Jessie J
20. Fall Creek Boy's Choir — James Blake & Bon Iver

Dec 15, 2011

Why the Globes are better than the Oscars

"The Golden Globes are not taken seriously as artistic milestones and have a history of voting idiosyncrasies; “True Grit” received no Globe nominationslast year, for instance, but went on to garner 10 nominations at the Academy Awards (albeit winning nothing). Studios have long complained that the group tends to nominate based on star wattage instead of performance in an effort to orchestrate a red-carpet spectacle." — NYT
"The Hollywood Foreign Press Association loves their stars. And that’s why there were really no surprises in their nominations for the Golden Globes this morning." — Deadline Hollywood
That's precisely why I've always preferred them to the Oscars. Unburdened by notions of phony prestige and false merit, honestly dazzled by stars and red-carpet spectacle, the Globes actually come closer to most moviegoers experience of the movies than the Oscars do. So the HFPA love their stars! What sinful wretches! Frankly I'm grateful at least one awards organization does something to stem the tide of 'respectability' sought by the modern film community. It kills what spark Hollywood has. To survey the history of the Golden Globes is to enter a fragrant Arcadia where all the great Oscar howlers of the last 30 years simply didn't happen. Where E.T. smushes Ghandi, Brokeback Mountain kicks Crash to the curb, and The Social Network roundly thrashes The King's Speech. Where both Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love win together. Where Tarantino is rewarded for Pulp Fiction, Annette Bening, Martin Scorsese and Eddie Murphy are not shut-outs, Roberto Benigni gets no look-in, Kate Winslet wins for Revolutionary Road rather than The Reader and Tom Hanks for Big way before Philadelphia. Where comedies are put on equal footing with dramas and films like Funny Girl, The Graduate, M.A.S.H, Breaking Away, Tootsie, Prizzi's Honor, Hannah And Her Sisters, Working Girl, The Player, Toy Story 2, Lost in Translation, Sideways, and The Hangover are all counted winners. The Globes lack of high-brow aspiration — the absence of artistic cred — is precisely why they get things right, more often than not. If this year they want to go a little gaga over Gosling, and give a fighting chance to David Fincher, Rooney Mara and Kristen Wiig, who is complaining?

Best Motion Picture, Drama
The Descendants
The Help
The Ides of March
War Horse

Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
The Artist
Midnight in Paris
My Week With Marilyn

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Drama
George Clooney, The Descendants
Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar
Michael Fassbender, Shame
Ryan Gosling, The Ides of March
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
Jean DuJardin, The Artist
Brendon Gleeson, The Guard
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, 50/50
Ryan Gosling, Crazy Stupid Love
Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Viola Davis, The Help
Rooney Mara, The Girl
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin

Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy
Jodie Foster, Carnage
Charlize Theron, Young Adult
Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn
Kate Winslet, Carnage

Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Albert Brooks, Drive
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method
Christopher Plummer, Beginners

Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
Berenice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help
Shailene Woodley, The Descendants

Best Director
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
George Clooney, The Ides of March
Michael Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo

Best Screenplay, Motion Picture
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, The Ides of March
Michael Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, Nat Faxwon and Jim Rash, The Descendants
Steve Derian and Aaron Sorkin, Moneyball

Hugo: the kids are not alright

Hugo dribbles on at the box office: $34 million at the last count. On its current course it should take about $50 million — a terrible figure for a kid's film costing $170 million, not an out-and-out bomb but perilously close. To give you some idea of figures for comparable films, the first Narnia film took $290, Bridge to Terebithia took $82 million, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory $206 million, Lemony Snicket $118 million, Jumanji $100 million, Toy Story $191 million. The critics love Scorsese's film. Scorsese fans are in seventh heaven. But the kids aren't buying. And yet Scorsese's sluggish marvel trundles through awards season, nobody says a word, and the critics continue to blame audiences for being too "mainstream" ("may be too esoteric for mainstream audiences", "may be an obstacle for mainstream acceptance" and so on). What on earth are they talking about? It's not Taxi Driver! It's a $170 million Christmas kid's movie in 3-D. I guess that's the problem with small children — too mainstream in their tastes. Bourgeois! Phillistines!

BEST ALBUMS / EPs of 2011

1) The Belle Brigade — The Belle Brigade
2) Helplessness Blues — Fleet Foxes
3) Making Mirrors — Gotye
4) Ashes & Fire — Ryan Adams
5) 21 — Adele
6) So Beautiful Or So What — Paul Simon
7) Tough Cookie — Samantha Savage Smith
8) Bon Iver — Bon Iver
9) Experiments — Florrie
10) A Map of the Floating City — Thomas Dolby


1) Moneyball — Mychael Danna
2) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
3) War Horse — John Williams
4) Shame — Harry Escott
5) Drive — Cliff Martinez
6) Rise of the Planet of the Apes — Patrick Doyle
7) We Bought a Zoo — Jonsi
8) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — Alberto Iglesias
9) Straw Dogs — Larry Groupe
10) Rango — Hans Zimmer
It's not been a great year for film scores (But what does that even mean, as if each individual piece of music were augmented, or diminished, by the company it keeps). What Howard Shore did on Hugo — a thin, constant dribble of mellodiousness, never quite rousing itself to a melody — was as close to muzak as a score gets. Despite Alexandre Desplat's work on no less than six films none of them came close to approaching the startling beauty of his score for Birth — he may be doing too much. And I don't think anyone could figure out what Thomas Newman was doing scoring The Help — least of all Newman. What have pan pipes to do with the American South? John Williams's Tin Tin score was surprisingly riff-free (very un-Indy-like), his score for War Horse much better (the good news: the first world war apparently doesn't merit angelic choirs, maybe because less Americans died?). Cliff Martinez's provided Drive with its electronic heart beat — and Refn's track selection (Kavinsky's Night Call, College's Real Hero) was the year's best bit of pop curatorship, alongside Cameron Crowe's pillaging of Jonsi for We Bought a Zoo. Harry Escott's score for Shame was suitably dire — the best use of Glenn Gould since The Silence of the Lambs (poor Gould: serial killers and sex addicts his cinematic lot). Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross gave us the world's first concept album soundtrack for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, much of it not stuff you would ever listen to again, with the exception of an astonishing cover of Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song — all surging grandeur and whistle-clean production. But my winner has to be Mychael Danna's shimmering, minimalist accompaniment to Moneyball. Most film scores are present tense — 'this is happening now', they thump. Danna's is all tingly expectancy — future tense through and through. As Jonah Hill put it in a recent interview, Danna's score "watches the movie with you." Wonderfully put.


The St. Louis Gateway Film Critics Association have an interesting category for "best scene." Their 2011 nominees are as follows:—
"The Artist" (dance scene finale)
"Drive" (the elevator beating scene)
"Drive" (opening get-away scene)
"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" (opening credits)
"Hanna" (Hanna’s escape from captivity sequence)
"Melancholia" (the last scene)
I think they reason they're attracted to the elevator scene in Drive is because it is the worst scene in the movie — not the best — but I love the idea. My top ten would run as follows:—
1) The subway undressing in Shame
2) The daughter's song in Moneyball
3) Elle Faning's close-up in Super 8
4) The silent date in Beginners
5) The drowning of Ron Perlman in Drive
6) The final scene of The Artist (not the dance but what follows)
7) The murder attempt in Living in the Material World
8) Caeser's first word in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
9) Haddock's desert DTs in The Adventures of Tin Tin
10) The sex scene(s) in Friends with Benefits

Dec 13, 2011

BEST FILM of 2011: Moneyball (dir. Miller)

1. Moneyball A
2. Win Win A-
3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes B+
4. The Descendants B+
5. Martha Marcy May Marlene B+
6. Beginners B+
7. War Horse B+
8. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo B+
9. Drive B+
. The Artist B+

*A big asterisk: I have not yet seen War Horse.
I certainly didn't think it was going to be Moneyball. So let's work out why it wasn't the others. The Descendants has faded slightly, as many George Clooney films seem to: there's something about the Clooney penchant for endless nuance that blurs the bolder strokes that ensure memorability ("show me the money!"). Every time one of his pictures comes out, everyone runs around raving "I know you think you know George Clooney but you've never seen him like this before" and I go along, and see him wince with the left side of his face, as opposed to the right, and think: is that it? They get me every time, like Lucy suckering Charlie Brown with the football. Which is not to say that Payne's film isn't subtle, well-written, and packs a wallop at the end, but it also knows precisely how good it is, and the writing sometimes gets in the way (that first voiceover! that final speech! Oy). I think I preferred Sideways, which came animated by Paul Giametti's more cartoonish turn, and suggests Payne is better away from big stars (indeed, in interviews, he seems a little in denial about the fact that The Descendants has a star in it at all.) The Artist seemed slight to me. And Hugo was anything but — a vast, mechanical marvel, but lifeless until the final reel. Which leaves me with Win Win's rock-steady humanism, and the slow, righteous build of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Both those films feel like solid achievements to me. But Moneyball just sneaks it, that glorious hymn to the unsung, with its mixture of smarts and heart, it's lightly exultant climax and lovely, care-worn central performance Brad Pitt — one of the few truly surprising star turns I can remember, and my favorite of the year. (Unless Rooney Mara gets me at the final post. Or that horse godammit).

Dec 11, 2011

REVIEW: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy is a difficult film to assess because there are fantastic things in it — a plane descending into view behind a scene of dialogue until it's propellors appear to clip the actors; a small, sooty mark that appears on someone's cheek that turns out to be a bullet entry point; some extraordinary soundtrack choices probing the chintzier end of early seventies brass-band pop — but I was blessed with only the faintest inkling of what was going on at any given point. That I was never quite bored tells you just how close to greatness Tomas Alfredson's film cis: the twitchy, rats-in-a-sack treacherousness of the upper eschelons of British intelligence is marvellously conveyed; John Hurt goads everyone on with bitchy disgust, as if willing everyone to sink to a depth at which he can properly hate them; Colin Firth is so bouyed by hail-fellow good cheer that you have no option but to think him capable of perfect perfidy; and Gary Oldman's Smiley wields predatory silences that work on his interlocutors like a cold window pane sucking warmth from a room. But. If everyone had swapped dialogue with the person standing to their right, I would barely have noticed, not for several scenes at least, so benignly and trustingly was I assenting to every plot twist. The film is like a modernist deconstruction of a much more plodding, longer version of the same film, which exists somewhere — in Alfredson's head, or buried somewhere behind Oldman's bifocals — and which you can only discern glimpses of, through the nooks, crannies and ellipses of the film in front of you. Like reading an annotated Ulysses that is all annotations and no Ulysses. Who knows. I was on a night-time transatlantic flight when I saw it. If it watch it again on the return leg — defecting, so to speak — I may unearth more treasure. B

Dec 9, 2011

REVIEW: Shame (dir. McQueen)

Steve McQueen's Shame may be the best date movie for married couples I've ever seen. Kate and I arrived to find a theatre sparsely populated with couples and retirees — the two groups who most need to be reminded that quick, hard hook-ups against the side of dumpsters are not all they're cracked up to be. "That looks so uncomfortable," whispered Kate at one point, but then her favorite movie is The Sound of Music. I see it as one of my ongoing life projects to ply her away from films about the pleasures of close-harmony singing and redirect her gently towards austere films featuring the music of Glenn Gould about the pleasureless slog of three-in-a-bed romps and 24-hour wanking. That's what Shame is about: the daily grind of being a sex addict. It kicks off with a spellbinding sequence in which Fassbender undresses a woman on the subway with his eyes — an entire sexual act unto itself, from first blush to to shaky aftermath. You half expect them to light up. There's even a stab at comedy: a scene in which Brandon goes on an actual date. As the poor girl starts to ply him with personal questions you can practically see the curtain come down in Fassbender's eyes: he's long gone. Fassbender has a great smile for the purposes of this film: tight and clenched, barely a smile at all — even having fun he looks like he's undergoing root canal. During the day he works at a high-paying but unspecified corporate job — there's talk of "pitches" and "viral campaigns" — but the unspecificity is purposeful, the vagueness enshrouding everything like low-lying cloud, or amnesia: his sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up unnaounced, in need of a place to crash while she performs at the Boom Boom room. Isn't that a rather chi-chi gig for someone as strung out as Cissy? Never mind. What matters are the cool, austere compositions and the abstract curlicues of dialogue left hanging in the air: "Your hard drive is filthy, "you want to play" and so on. This minimalism only becomes a problem las McQueen ratchets up the emotional temperature of the Fassbender-Mulligan confrontations and the two actors find themselves grabbing for lines of dialogue like "I'm trying to help you" and "What are you trying to do to me?" It's all a little actors work-shoppy — urgent but context-free. And the final descent is a little slow to get going – I wanted more dire intimations, maybe some consequences at work, to kick in at about the hour mark — but the ending has a pleasing grimness to it. Kate and I exited the cinema clinging to one another, grateful. B

Dec 1, 2011

Daniel Day-Lewis photographed eating dinner at a restaurant in Virginia while shooting Lincoln

Nov 29, 2011


For much of the year my favorite performance of was Ralph Fiennes's Voldemort in the final Harry Potter film. Voldemort has always been the best reason to sit through a Harry Potter film — a sinuous wraith, infused with the physical grace of Nureyev and the haggard fixity of Max Shreck, blue eyes blazing with hatred, ladylike wrists delicately cocked as he looses hellfire upon the denizens of Hogwarts. By the end Fiennes had layered him into a figure of tragic dimension: daring to believe that he might have that wretched boy within his grasp, positively giddy at the prospect of his death, before feeling his heart break again — the look on his face when Harry returns is unforgettably dire. March brought the sight of John C Reilly standing in a swimming pool with a trash lid on his head, too drunk to do anything but stare at Ed Helms making out with Ann Heche, like a child — a glorious sight, sad and funny and pathetic all at the same time; freed from Will Ferrell's side, Reilly seemed as liberated as Dudley Moore was from Peter Cooke — a man possessed of his own comedy djinn. I was tickled by Adrian Brody's Dali in Midnight in Paris, ("Dal-i!"), impressed by Hayley Atwell's upper-cut in Captain America and thrilled by the movie-star apprenticeship of Ryan Gosling, channeling McQueen, Delon and Rumblefish-era Mickey Rourke in Crazy Stupid Love and Drive. In decades to come, students of career chess will, I believe, study Gosling's tack-to-centre in 2011 as they now study Livitsky's classic moves. My crush of the year was Melanie Laurent, giving a performance as direct and pleasurable as sunlight on your skin in Mike Mills's Beginners. Jennifer Ehle was one of the best scientists I have ever seen — a wonderful mixture of blitheness and concentration — in Contagion. My favorite comic performance was Kristin Wiig's in Bridesmaids, mining a vein of spaz-out so loose-limbed and Thurberish she seemed capable of running into her own behind. My favorite piece of casting was Viggo Mortenson as Sigmund Freud, going big on the cigars and chiselled shrewdness but remembering to make him a voyager, feeling his way in the dark. "Columbus didn't know what country he'd discovered," he says, like Aragon on the threshold of Mordor, "only that he'd touched land." My favorite piece of type-casting was Amy Ryan's terrific mom in Win Win — tough and compassionate, quietly taking up residence as the movie's moral centre; in the same film, Paul Giamatti delivered one of his most yeoman-like performances — one with all the soft defeat of a deflated souffle. Jessica Chastain arrived aloft the pearlescent shell of Tree of Life like Botticelli's Venus, and quickly made up for the lack of a part with a small fusillade of films (Take Shelter, The Help and The Debt) in which she revealed quick, sure and unshowy acting instincts and a fascinating, multi-planed beauty — luscious and drawn by turns — that left you hungry for as many angles as possible. Someone put her in a 3-D movie. Olivia Coleman was astounding in Tyrannosaur — a woman surviving lightning strikes, summoning storms of her own. Viola Davis was a picture of mute forbearance in The Help, but seemed oddly out of place in that film's largely comic universe; I much preferred Octavia Spencer's Minnie, with her pear-shape, duck face and comic fast-ball. Elizabeth Olsen was subtly arresting in Martha Marcy May Marlene: lost in others' surfaces, as if learning to be human by osmosis. (In interview she was even more impressive, sounding somewhere between 17 and 70.) But my favorite performance of the year was also the greatest bit of movie-star trompe-l'oeil: Brad Pitt's Billy Beane in Moneyball. First off: that name, the perfect follow-up to Benjamin Button. Secondly: his eyes, shot in extreme close up, and the mixture of bravado and panic combined therein — always the combo in any Pitt performance, but normally tripping it up, rather than powering it along, as they did here, his usual frolicsome flicks of the tail acquiring notes of sadness and weariness which induced, in this viewer at least, the strangely pleasurable chagrin that comes from knowing you have misjudged an actor. A genuine surprise, unlike so many star turns, and a heavy-boned portrait of unflagging devotion.
1) Brad Pitt, Moneyball
2) Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Macy May Marlene
3) Ralph Fiennes, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
4) Olivia Coleman, Tyrannosaur
5) Octavia Spencer, The Help
6) Viggo Mortenson, A Dangerous Practice
7) Jessica Chastain, The Help
8) Amy Ryan, Win Win
9) Kristin Wiig, Bridesmaids
10) Paul Giamatti, Win Win

INTERVIEW: Brit Marling

'The first thing Brit Marling does, upon entering the suite at the Crosby street hotel where our interview is to take place, is to walk right over to the large promotional cut-out for her movie Another Earth — on which she is depicted staring dreamily at the camera in front of a large milky planet— and turn it back to front. “We can’t have a serious conversation with this looming over us,” she says. “Remind me to turn it back when they come to get me.”

Take it as a sign of her newness to the Hollywood hall of mirrors. Just six months, Marling was just another hopeful, living in shared digs with two screenwriter friends, trying to find a distributor for two micro-budget movies which were all that stood between her and a role in torture porn. Then both films, Another Earth and Sound of my Voice, got accepted at Sundance where they were picked up by Fox Searchlight and overnight Marling became the festival’s breakout darling: a brainy, beautiful poster girl for soft-knit, eco-conscious, indie fabulosity. Which is how she finds herself in a hotel suite in New York, staring at a cardboard cut-out of herself posing in front of the planet Earth. No wonder she flips it. “The thing that is so crazy about it is that you are the same person before and after,” she says. “Your skill set hasn’t changed. You are the same person who could not audition anywhere in town and nobody would hire you do anything, and now suddenly you can read some of the best scripts that are being written. What is that all about? I’m still trying to wrap my head around that.”

To get the obvious out of the way: she is extremely beautiful, with sky-blue eyes and long, fine, blonde hair of the kind rarely seen outside ads for conditioner, exuding a kind of alt-rock singer-songwriter vibe that pulls her towards paisley and floppy hats. She’s like a Manhattan-era Meryl Streep, reinvented for the Wikileaks generation, holding forth on a variety of subjects from the invention of the light-bulb to the macro-economics of the paper napkin in front of her with the high-flying radicalism of youth, while registering consistent bookworm-in-the-limelight amazement that the world is paying her any attention at all. A beautiful intellectual! And in the movies, no less!'

— from my interview with Brit Marling for The Independent

Nov 26, 2011

INTERVIEW: Martin Scorsese

'There were times during the shooting of his new movie, Hugo, a $170-million dollar blockbuster set in 1920s Paris, when Martin Scorsese would return home, his head aching with the logistics of shooting in 3-D, exhausted by his insanely accelerated schedule, to find his 12-year-old daughter wanted to have a conversation about armadillos.

“The child doesn’t know what’s going on, you’re exhausted,” he remembers. “She goes ‘look at this I need you to see this — is that a horse to you, or is at armadillo?’ There was a time when I would have walked right by. But now you say, ‘waidaminute, waidaminute, are you trying to tell me that’s an armadillo? Because that’s not an armadillo. That is an anteater’. ‘No its not.’ Suddenly there’s a hole in the world that you’ve gotta fill.” His voice lowers to an imploring whisper. “‘But look I gotta get to sleep, honey, I gotta get to sleep. I’m going to go into the room upstairs, there’s a little room, I’m going go to lock myself in, I want you to be quiet.” ‘Oh I’ll be quiet….’ Because I’ve got to get up tomorrow morning at 5 O’Clock….’ This is my life.”

He laughs — a rocket of a laugh that fills the room, and doubles him over. You half expect him to slap his knee. Scorsese’s hair is snowy white these days, lending him the air of someone lit by a higher calling — maybe the priesthood, for which he once trained, or the cinema that turned out to be his true religion. Alongside Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg, he is one of the handful of movie directors who are not just household names, but household faces, his wraparound grin, thick, caterpillar eyebrows and thick horn-rims making up an instantly recognizable trademark which signifies “film director” as surely as Hitchcock’s protuberant silhouette once did.These days, one reaches him through a chain of sotto voce female assistants, well-versed in the art of shepherding the maestro with the minimum of fuss or interruption. “Do you think you could come and stand outside the door,” one of them calls my cell-phone to ask me, in a whisper. Don’t knock. And don’t call. We’ll come get you.”

Finally you get to the man himself. Small, at 5ft 3, he brims with undiminished vigor, standing on the earth staunchly, like a boxer in the ring, barrel-chested, unrockable — the better position from which to launch those glorious riffs of his. Scorsese is, like his mobsters, an overpowering talker, a ferocious monologist whose rapid, rat-tat-tat speech patterns were once compared by New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane to those of a “preacher caught between the pulpit and the gents.” Any hint of shyness is limited to his posture when it is your turn to ask a question: head down, arms crossed, staring into his lap, as if your words were incoming missiles, whose intent can only be divined by an act of feral concentration. I caught him a few days off his 69th birthday, recently released from the editing suite where he has been beavering away to get Hugo finished in time for its Thanksgiving release.

“He was the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” says Hugo’s producer, Graham King, who has worked with the director on Gangs of New York, The Aviator and the Oscar-winning The Departed. “He had new toys to play with. He saw a whole new way of filmmaking. He would come on set and you would hear that great laugh rippling through the train station. He was loving it, loving the process — the hair, the make up — loved having two kids as leads. They were so naïve as to who he was. Leo di Caprio, Mark Wahlburg, Nicholson, Damon, Day Lewis, they know who he is and act accordingly. These kids didn’t know and didn’t really care. ‘Hey Marty, what did you do last night? What did you have for dinner?’ Leonardo Di Caprio does not come onto set and ask Martin Scorsese that.”

Was that why he made it? The chance to slip his own post-Oscar coronation and enjoy a King-Lear-with-flowers-in-his-hair moment? Hugo doesn’t just represent a departure, I tell him. It detonates the entire airport. Scorsese looses another rocket. “Thank you, thank, you. The story itself was a joy….. wait, that sounds…. It was…..pleasant, the story, in a sense, it was…. Exciting. I enjoyed the cleverness of it,” he says, his hesitations perhaps suggestive of a man unused to having his cinematic fate held in the palms of 8-year-olds. “I used to like that W C Fields line about never working with animals or kids,” he says, before proceeding to tell me a story about the fluffy white bijon frise bought him by his fourth wife, producer Barbara de Fina, the moral of which appears to be: the Sentimental Education of Martin Scorsese.

“I was really against it for the first four days. It was everywhere, it was not housebroken. You know, I left the lower east side, where nothing was housebroken. The whole place was not housebroken, I’m outta there. By the fourth or fifth day the way the dog was looking at me, I guess it was sentimental. There was something about the dog that expected something from me. Attention and help of some kind. What does she expect me to do? Does she want this? I do something. No. What about this? Yes! That was it! Isn’t that interesting. I’ve communicated with this dog. And I fell madly in love with her. I put Zoe in The Age of Innocence, my mothers holding her in Goodfellas, she was on my lap while I was directing a lot of the scenes in Goodfellas. Poor dog became a nervous wreck because of all the shouting and gunshots.”

This is so wonderfully entertaining in the classic Scorsese-wiseguy manner — one thinks, in particular, of Joe Pesci’s cod art-crit session in Goodfellas (“one dog goes one way, the other dog goes the other way, and this guy's sayin', ’whaddaya want from me?’) — that it takes me a few seconds to realise Scorsese has ducked my question. I ask him again why he made the film.

“The kids,” he says. “At a late age, I’ve been living with a child almost every day for the past 12 years. It changes things. It was different from when I had my other daughters. I was much younger, you had the future ahead of you. Now it’s different. So now I’m seeing the future through the eyes of my child. She is perceiving the world around her: ‘what does that mean? What is this? Who’s that? I believe this, I don’t believe that…’ All this goes on, you talk and talk and talk and before you know it you’re living with this, your dealing with it every day — animals or different stickers, or laminated tings that you can see in 3-D, or the museum she went to that day.”

Scorsese two other daughters, Catherine, by his first wife whom he met while still a NYU film student in the mid-sixties, and Domenica, by his second wife, journalist Julia Cameron whom he married in 1975 after she interviewed him for Rolling Stone. Both daughters are now grown up — he recently attended Catherine’s wedding in Chicago — but it his fifth marriage, to book editor Helen Morris, whom he met while filming Kundun, that has lasted the longest, and this third pass at fatherhood seems to have had the deepest impact. Together with two West Highland terriers named Flora and Desmond, the family share a brownstone townhouse on the Upper East Side, filled with wall-to-wall bookshelves, wooden Laurel & Hardy figurines, and a Stratocaster belonging to the Robbie Robertson from The Band. “I’ve seen the change in him,” says King. “When you have kids at an older time eat life, it means more than when you’re 30. That has a lot to do with this. No question.”

For all Scorsese’s frank bafflement at Hollywood cliché — “what’s a fish-out-of-water?” he is said to have remarked, upon turning down the chance to direct Beverley Hills Cop — his career breaks down into a classic three-act, rise-fall-comeback structure. First we have his bullet-like trajectory from the lower east side to Hollywood, making films like Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull: personal, incendiary, hair-trigger works performing root-canal on the director’s obsessions, seeming to fly centrifugally from his own cratered psyche. Scorsese had a famously loose temper — he was a phone thrower and wall smasher. His office had the phone guy on constant call, so frequently did he rip it from the wall. On one occasion, he was yelling down the phone at his producer, threw the phone and broke it, went down the elevator, put a dime in a pay phone, and continued to yell at his producer from the street.

“His first words when he woke up were always fuck-fuck-fuck fuck-fuck,” recalls Isabella Rossellini, who met the director at the height of his fame, after winning the Palme D’Or for Taxi Driver, and married him in 1979. “I think he used rage as his gasoline to get out of bed and confront the world. If he wasn’t a fighter wanting to fight I think he would have felt overwhelmed — because he’s very small and constantly asthmatic, with his oxygen masks and tanks. I think he needed that rage. Friends would say ‘oh calm down don’t be angry.’ But I saw it more like an engine, a little car, catching in the morning. BBRRRRMMM. BBRRRMMM.”

These were the days of coronation and excess — of forcing 150 extras to stand around waiting while Scorsese spoke to his therapist from trailer on set of New York, New York; of dispatching a private jet from the 1978 Cannes film festival to score some coke in Paris. Things finally came crashing down on Labor day of that year, when, succumbed to a mixture of bad coke, asthma and high altitude at the Telluride film festival, Scorsese was admitted to hospital, weighing just 109 pounds, bleeding internally, his platelet count down to zero.

“It was very frightening,” says Rossellini. “Marty was very sick. I wasn’t sure I was going to see him alive again.” While recuperating in hospital in New York, Scorsese was visited by Robert de Niro, who held in his hand a battered copy of the script for Raging Bull, his pet project about the methodical self-destruction of boxer Jake La Motta. Scorsese didn’t want anything to do with it.

“I didn’t know anything about boxing,” remembers Scorsese. “But Bob came to me in hospital, and said ‘come on what is it you want to do? Do you want to die, is that it? Don’t you want to live to see your daughter grow up and get married? Are you gonna be one of those directors who makes a couple of good movies and then its over for them?' He said ‘you could really make this picture.’ I found myself saying okay. Ultimately, finally, when I was down and out, I realized yes I should do this movie. Going down in flames meant that if it was going to go down, let it go down. I didn’t care anymore, I just knew this was the last thing to say. If I could say anything, this was the last chance to do it.”

It was Raging Bull’s failure to secure an Academy Award for best film or director — Scorsese lost out to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People — that set the pattern for Oscar shut-outs for years to come and set the stage for his second act: this time as long-suffering saint of American cinema, crucified by the suits and studio bean-counters, cast out into the wilderness, unable to raise the cash to make dream projects like The Last Temptation of Christ, putting himself through career rehab on pictures like The Color of Money, the budget for which didn’t even stretch to a phone for the director. Cruise and Newman both got phones — not Scorsese.

“The last studio movie I made in Hollywood, The King of Comedy, was considered ‘the flop of the year.’ No-one would come near me. I tried to get Last Temptation made. That was cancelled. So it’s time to go home. I came back to New York and made independent films. I was like a wounded person trying to get back in shape. I tried a few pictures to see if I could just be a pro. I don’t mean that as false modesty. A pro is a very important, professional person. They can be depended on. They can work.”

When I put it to him that these leans years were arguably the best thing that ever happened to him — toning him up for the glories of Goodfellas, quite possibly his best film — he agrees. “I am American, so I have to work within the system, whether it’s studio or independent.” He has little time, these days, he says, for the old battle-lines between the artists and the suits, and readily admits to a financial motive for making movies. “I do have to pay for the school, for the kid. And some clothes And I don’t really know any other way,” he says. “I was doing this Q and A with Jim Cameron in LA the other day. Maybe a film that costs a lot of money like I’m doing…. could be a good film. That could happen… That could happen…. Maybe a film that cost no money, is not good does not stand the test of time….. That could also happen.”

He says this warily, as if half expecting the ground to give out beneath his feet. His third act is a balancing act, a tightly-fought compromise between the lures of commerce and the demands of his artistic conscience, between his work-life and the recent outbreak of domestic tranquility. When I ask him what it was about his marriage and fatherhood, this time around, that made it stick, he thinks for a long time before replying.

“We all became older, some of us our friends are gone now. At that time we were learning from each other and it was new and it was fresh and as time moved on we all changed. What can we learn from each other now. What do you learn from a party? Besides what do you go to a party for. Do you need that? At a certain point, you leave. I enjoy the company of people but these days, we are pretty much closed off. It’s the wasting of time, putting that time into work, finding the time that’s more rewarding with people you love, people who love you.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise. Martin Scorsese, the mobster king, poet laureate of addled loners, smalltime hoods and spiritual misfits everywhere, just wants to love and be loved, like the rest of us. His Oscar win for The Departed, after decades shut out in the cold, clearly meant a lot to him. “Everyone teases me ‘Scorsese did not expect the Oscar.’ I did not. I was just tying to continue working. Because the real success and satisfaction was having made these movies without having major box office without having academy awards. That was the thing.”

Did it have anything to do with Hugo, which is to say his newfound desire to take on the mantle of Entertainer-in-Chief? “It may have. Whether its Shutter Island or Hugo or Living in the Material World [his George Harrison documentary] in the end they’re all responses to that. I do like making Hollywood narrative cinema, the kind that I grew up on, so I’ll always be drawn there but I don’t have the time any more. I try. I try to find that something that you’re burning to say.”

His mention of time is revealing. There are clocks ticking throughout Hugo, which, together with Shutter Island, another haunted house, cobwebbed with memories and bent on bringing the dead to life, marks the decisive arrival of Scorsese’s late period, a Prospero-like summary of confabulation and magic. I ask him if he ever thinks about the amount of time has left — the number of films he still has in him.

“That’s really what it is now, the only consideration really, the amount of time I have left,” he says, detailing three possible future projects: another delve into the criminal underworld with De Niro, an HBO series about the business of rock’n’roll with Mick Jagger and, most promising of all, Silence, an adaptation of a Shusaku Endo novel about two Jesuit priests, to be played by Daniel Day Lewis and Benicio Del Toro, attempting to spread the gospel in 17th century Japan.

“There are some technical, legal issues we’re working out but literally it’s imminent. I’m watching my Blackberry,” he says. “It’s always the material. Are you attracted to the material at all? Can you find a way to saying something that sit your heart or your mind? All I can do it try and put as much as myself into it I as I can — give it the attention, the love, the anger, the patience, the humor, the drama, all the craziness that goes into the making of a picture until the very, very end. I've gotta do that."

He glances at his blackberry, lying on the table next to him, as if willing it to ring."
— my interview with Martin Scorsese in The Times