May 31, 2011

REVIEW: The Tree of Life (dir. Malick)

Does Terrence Malick intend Sean Penn's die-job in The Tree of Life as an example of mankind's corruption of the Natural Order? Why must every character weave their hand through the sunlight like a dolphin coasting through waves? Where does Jessica Chastain get all her dresses? Where do we come from? Where are we going? And if I work it out before Brad Pitt unfurrows his brow do I get a prize? Such heretical thoughts were prompted by the new Malick flick which the wife and I caught this afternoon. I say "caught" and "flick" advisedly since the whole experience more closely resembles that of going to church to kneel in prayer that Malick may deliver us from the Evils of Cinema. The effect he's going for is the cinematic equivalent of six Hail Mary and half-a-dozen Our Fathers. You emerge from the experience feeling as if the better angels of your nature have had an all-expenses-paid spa weekend for two. You feel as if no video clerk will ever be able to chastise your film choices ever again. Not with this puppy in the bank. One viewing and you've pretty much earned the right to watch as many crappy superhero flicks and summer blockbusters as you like — whole franchise streams, Troglodyte cycles, Orc sagas, junk marathons, as much popcorn as you can eat. Bring it on, Captain America! Beam me up, Steven Spielberg! Ahem. You'll have to excuse my tone. It's what happens after two-and-a-half hours suppressing my lower instincts. Sex. Humor. Irony. Plot. Dialogue. Pretty much all the things the critics said were missing from this picture are indeed absent and unaccounted for; my only complaint is that it is not nearly as boring as some have suggested. For a good hour in the middle there, I was wholly absorbed by Malick's account of growing up in Waco, Texas in the shadow of his father, played here by a stern, stony-jawed Brad Pitt, and the (sinuous, sun-dappled) shadow of his mother, played here by Jessica Chastain, an actress of such pale, sculpted beauty that when butterflies land on her you simply accept it as you do Snow White's way with the morning lark. Chastain is shot from the breastbone looking up, to accentuate her mythic stature, or in silhouette against clean linen sheets, to suggest her diaphanous nature and fleeting detachment from this all-too-sullied earth. Malick's attempt to convert cinema into a Joycean novel-of-consciousness is surprisingly effective, largely thanks to the fact that childhood itself, particularly early childhood, is largely devoid of sex, humor, irony, memorable dialogue and so on, too. All I can remember are huge, ambient washes of feeling — safety, threat, joy, despair — all meeting and merging like coalescing cumulus. And if there's anybody who can capture this internal weather — with all its barometric build-ups, cloud bursts and lightning strikes — it's Malick. Hollywood's long-lost auteur is also cinema's answer to the weather channel. There is some lovely behavioral stuff here about brothers and the tender, fretful static that flies between them.

Would that Malick had left it there. It should have been enough. It gives me no pleasure to report, however, that in addition to making this supple, impressionistic film about childhood, he has also squared off against his demons, summoned hither his muse and succumbed to the entirely regrettable impulse to deliver a masterpiece. Regular readers of this blog know that I have a relaxed, laissez-faire position towards many things — character arcs, sequels, special effects, Adam Sandler — but a zero-tolerance policy for talk of masterpieces. I found There Will be Blood a monotonous dirge. The only Kubrick film I really like is The Shining. I find Strangers on a Train preferable to Vertigo. The reason people like Vertigo so much, I've found, is that it's the least Hitchcocklike of Hitchcock's films. It's too long, its plot wanders, and it contains no jokes. Same with the White Album: the one Beatles album that sounds least like The Beatles. Which makes me wonder about the people who call it their 'masterpiece', as I wonder about the people who say the same thing about Vertigo. They tend to be the same people who talk of "transcending" genre, and refer to directors as "masters", as if cinema were something to be bent to the will of a single man, rather than forged in the roughhouse of creative collaboration. The trouble with Malick's "mastery" of his movies is that he tends to overwhelm them, blenderizing his characters into one vast, soupy Malick-consciousness, thinking the same Malicky thoughts, expressed in the same Malicky way. There is barely a line in The Tree of Life that couldn't be uttered by any or all of the characters — and some are. Gestures are repeated, longings pool, Whitmanesque reverie breaks its banks, flooding all. Malick is a dreadfully incurious artist when it comes to things like work or sex, which rules out his ability to offer solace or wisdom on about 80% of the human condition — which is odd, when you think about it, because the human condition is pretty much the one horse Malick has put all his money on. If he doesn't get that, then what's the point of him? To be worshipped, I guess, although Malick's "depth" is too often just a bunch of fancy reverb effects; the much-vaunted theme of The Tree of Life just needless amplification. So in addition to Malick's tender, fretful evocation of childhood's lost Eden, we get an actual, literal Eden: a history of the world in 25 chapters, complete with dinosaurs, lava flows and angelic choirs, plus a climax set, I think, in the afterlife, where the entire cast get to hold hands and gaze into one another's eyes while walking across a white sandy beach suspiciously similar to the white sandy beach last used to represent the hereafter or sell sanitary napkins, or life insurance, depending on which channel you chance upon. That's how you know its a 'masterpiece': the redundant stuff about dinosaurs and beaches. I know there are people who drop to their knees at the mere mention of Malick's name, so I'll put this as delicately as I can: using the books of Genesis and Revelation as bookends for an otherwise mesmeric bildungsroman about childhood is simply a very bad idea —grandiose, over-literal and structurally ugly. To tell a tale of childhood so well that people compare it to the story of Genesis would be a wondrous thing. To supply the comparison yourself, not so much. A nice performance from Pitt, though, maybe his best. B-

May 30, 2011

Why Indiana Jones is a lousy archaeologist

On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark, first released on June 12th, 1981, an excerpt from my book Blockbuster How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer :—

Indiana Jones is not a very good archaeologist. His sprinting has pace, his whip-handling real snap, and his classes in archaeology are unusually well-attended, but as a practitioner, Dr. Jones is, one regrets to say, singularly unproductive. In the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark we see him recover a Peruvian statuette from a booby-trapped cave, only to deliver it to the feet of his rival Belloq (Paul Freeman). Never one to miss a beat, Indy fixes his sights instead on the ark of the Covenant, only to lose that, too, to Belloq, who crows, “Once again, what once was yours is now mine.” He recovers it one more time, only to lose it, finally, to the American government, who stash it at the film’s end in a cavernous, Kane-style vault. A quick glance forward to the other films in the series confirms that his luck does not improve much. Of the three Ankara stones which he spends so much of Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom trying to retrieve, two he loses into a ravine and the third he gives away to a crowd of deserving villagers. The same with the Holy Grail in the third movie, which according to Jones “belongs in a museum” although what he obviously meant to say is that it belongs at the bottom of a deep lava-spitting crevasse. The trilogy records a massive strike out. Indiana Jones’s contributions to the the sum total of archaeological findings is precisely, zero. One hopes that Marcus Brody’s museum has a large and profitable gift shop. “He's not very good at what he does," says Spielberg. " Everything that hapopens with Indian Jones becomes soemthign he learns that will sreve him in his next adventure but he brings back no spoils. He saves the girl, he saves himself, but he doesnt bring enough back to Marcus Brody to really earn him tenure. It's something that George and I joked about a lot.”

A fault in an archaeologist is, however, a major plus in the hero of a blockbuster film franchise, for it is precisely Indy’s failure to acquire any baggage that allows each film to reset its bean counter and begin again: the women are different every time; all he takes with him are his hat and his whip, snatched from the under closing doors, in the nick of time. Everything else returns to zero, cancels out, comes full circle. In this, he is very much a George Lucas creation, for there is no thriftier imagination in modern movies; just as
Star Wars had shaped up as a sort of intergalactic rag-and-bone-shop of floating junk, endlessly recycled and reused, so too with the Rube Goldbergish world of Raiders, a world abhorrent of waste, in which economy and equilibrium rule, in which the junk is just that little bit older, and even old testament caskets double up as a handy “telephone to God.”
If you were 12 years-old — or thereabouts — when
Raiders came out, you probably left the theatre, floating lightly about a foot above the sidewalk, thinking: right, that’s it. Everyone can go home now. Someone has finally cracked it. They’ve broken the sound barrier, worked out what the formula is. E equals MC2. The secret is out. Soon, a brave new world of movie excitement will be upon us, and your next thought was to feel a little sorry for Spielberg and Lucas, who would surely, you felt, be left behind, as one unbeatably exciting action-adventure gave way to the next — a little like Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, breaking the sound barrier all on his own, scoring his own quiet victory, while the astronauts jet off into space. Well. The era of non-stop action adventures did arrive, but not in the form we imagined. It was certainly non-stop, but the pace of Raiders would easily turn punishing, in film after film, while the “action comedy” would turn into Hollywood great graveyard genre, swallowing such blushing debutantes as Ishtar, Hudson Hawk, and Last Action Hero, in which the action and the comedy, far from engaging in sylph-like dance, sat in opposite corners of the theatre, sulking. The fusion turned out to be harder to achieve than we thought. E did equal MC2, but nobody else understood why.

It helped matters that the competition in 1981 was creaky as a zimmer-frame, of course. The other action-adventurers that year were for the most part a procession of over-the-hill eyebrows: Burt Reynolds’, frowning over the conundrum of his own sexiness in The Cannonball Run; Sean Connery’s, furrowed with the task of figuring out the differences between Outland and Alien; and Roger Moore’s, arched with amusement at the thought of his 12th outing as Bond in For Your Eyes Only. Here was one offer made by Jaws and Star Wars that Hollywood was happy enough to refuse: their disavowal of stars, and the same goes for Raiders, for while it made Ford a star, it wouldn’t have worked had he been one already: Indy needed to arrive under his own steam. Despite two outings as Han Solo, Ford had followed through with roles in such uber-dreck as Hanover Street and Force Ten From Navarone, and in 1980 was working as a carpenter to make ends meet, which fed perfectly into Indy’s weary fatigue, his air of a man who while perfectly happy to leap across ravines would be altogether happier at home putting up bookshelves. Raiders had its debt to Bond, of course, not least in its pre-credit sequence, bowling Indy along in front of that giant boulder before you’d even had a chance to take you seat, like someone greeting you with a tap of their watch, but Ford’s ability to turn a stumble into a run, and to grope for rope with a blind man’s fingers — all his gifts for conveying physical extremity — work to keep Indy subtly off-balance throughout. Bond was this stirred but never this shaken.

Nor did you get from the Bond movies anything like the careful daisy-chaining with which Spielberg links up his action: the truly exhilarating thing about Indy escaping that boulder is that he escapes it only to land right at the feet of Belloq — the solution to one conundrum proving the set-up for the next, the film batting Indy from one danger to the next with the lightness of a badminton ball. It was these powers of concision — all the stuff that had been chopped out from beneath Indy’s feet — as much as the speed, that left you breathless, giving the film its distinctive weightlessness, and pushing its tone outwards towards giddy comedy. “I’m making this up as I go along,” says Ford, not itself an unscripted line, but it rings true to the picture’s feel of goosy, light-fingered opportunism: when Nazis plug a casket of liquor in Marion’s bar, she stops briefly to grab a mouthful before getting on with the fight. Lucas would never have shot that, or if he did he would have cut it, but for Spielberg, such touches are, you feel, almost the reason for shooting the film. While speed excites Lucas — because it seals him off from what blurs past — it seems almost to relax Spielberg, loosening him up for his most debonair dabs of characterisation and his best gags: it is Raiders, rather than 1941, that is Spielberg’s true homage to the art of slapstick, to the finely-callibrated chaos of Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton, and most of it plays perfectly well with its sound down. The moment when Indy shoots the swordsman is funny precisely because Indy says nothing, turns on his heel and gets on with the chase. Bond wouldn’t have been able to resist a wisecrack — a bit of comic relief, to lighten up the action — but Spielberg works on the assumption that action is already inherently comic, and in no need of relief: when Indy spins like a top when punched, or uses an Nazi’s gun, still in the dead man’s hand, to shoot down another as he advances, the choreography of thrills and laughs is so tight, it is difficult to tell when the action stops and the gag starts, exactly — a twinned-tone caught perfectly in Ford’s lopsided grin, which could go either way, up or down, depending on the proximity of the nearest ravine.

“Theres a lot of slapstick in Raiders," says Spielberg. "which is why one of the great lines in Last Crusade is Sean Connery turning to Indy, talking about the grail diaries saying, ‘I should have mailed it to the Marx brothers’. I have a lot more courage with comedy when Im selling action, adventure and drama than when I'm selling a comedy. I've never made a movie that was intended to be funny. E.T. has a lot of funny things in it but the premise of E.T. is about divorce. As long as I know I’m not making a comedy I can be brave about my humour.”

Here’s one thing that Raiders didn’t do: it didn’t ‘open’ big, taking just $8,305,823 on its opening weekend, June 12th. Spielberg remembers the look of disappointment on the face of Paramount’s head of distribution, although today it would have resulted in someone losing their job, not just their composure. Nobody at Paramount knew how to sell the film. “Steven had an idea for the teaser trailer,” says Sid Ganis, then Paramount’s head of marketing. ‘Somewhere in the deepest desert there was an artefact, nobody knew its power, nobody understood its value...’ then you saw sand blowing in desert and the ark opening up to reveal the title of the movie. George said, ‘no, no, no, no, no, no no’.” So they shot another trailer, this emphasizing that it was a throwback to another kind of movie, a cliffhanger; and this time it was Barry Diller that put his foot down. So: the marketing was a mess, and while the film would eventually take $209 million, more than any film in Paramount’s history until that point, it did so under its own steam and in its own time, chugging around at the one-and-a-half-million-a-week mark for the best part of the next year, so that by March of 1982 it was still taking $1,362,289. In other words, Raiders arrived with little fanfare, punched above its weight, fought for its fingerhold, and then held on for dear life. Sounds like Indy.

The making of Badlands

TERRENCE MALICK: At the end of my second year in Los Angeles, I began work on Badlands. My influences were books like The Hardy Boys, Swiss Family Robinson, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn—all involving an innocent in a drama over his or her head. I wanted the picture to be set up like a fairy tale, outside time, like Treasure Island.

SISSY SPACEK: Terry would give me little rolled-up pieces of paper with lines of dialogue on them, and I would say them, and he would just howl with laughter; that just egged me on. He'd tell me little bits of things about Holly. More than anything, he was asking me questions. I felt like I was being mined. It was just wonderful.

MALICK: Kit [sees himself] as a subject of incredible interest to himself and to future generations. The movies have kept up a myth that suffering makes you deep. It's not that way in real life, though, not always. Suffering can make you shallow and just the opposite of vulnerable, dense. It's had this kind of effect on Kit.

MARTIN SHEEN: Terry told me to think of my gun as a magic wand. Kit's idea of solving problems was just to wave it: Excuse me. Problem solved. I dismiss you. All the best. Nothing personal.

DONA BALDWIN (hair and wardrobe): Terry would study people.

JAKE BRACKMAN (screenwriter): He's always been able to connect with people in an unusual way, and a lot of it is quite debunking and satirical, but it's in a way that people really feel he's paying attention to them and kind of has their number. He'll allude to things that point to their weak spots in a humorous way, for example, but that is flattering.

TONY PALMIERI (assistant camera): He would observe you, because he had an interest in what made you tick. What made you special. He took out the best of you. Not just the actors. Anybody.

SHEEN: [Assoc. producer] Lou Stroller made some comment about Mrs. Malick, and Terry was not having it, and beat the hell out of him. In true Texas style — he was so Texas. Didn’t even hesitate, just started swinging. They were down like two buffalo — they were big guys — and they were on the ground, rolling around, and Terry just whupped him. Oh, I acted outraged — “What a breakdown of discipline, this fighting on the set!” — but I couldn’t have been prouder of him. Can you imagine? If more directors would beat up their producers, we’d have a lot more artistic freedom.

BRACKMAN: Whatever it took to function as a Hollywood personality had an enormous price for him, and he could see it as something that destroyed a lot of people, and almost made nobody get better as a person. And you've only got one life, and do you want to live it this way, where you're constantly having to schmooze the suits? He's incredibly skillful at something he presumably abhors, and maybe at a certain point he had to throw that over or drown in it.

ARTHUR PENN (director; friend): I think it was a desire to save his life. To save his sanity. When Hollywood suddenly drops down and bows at your feet, one indulges—I speak here personally—in a terrible sense of deservedness. It believes that everything you say is right. And not only that, but that everybody is in agreement with it. It's terribly intoxicating, and without value. Resistance has gone out of your life. It's so dangerous that I think Terry fled it, because he was offered the world by Charlie Blühdorn at Paramount.

SHEEN: I've worked with Mike Nichols, with Coppola, Scorsese, and Spielberg, but Badlands is the film I'm proudest of. I don't mean to denigrate any of the others. It's just the raw facts.

from GQ's oral history of the making of Badlands

May 29, 2011

Because it's not really a Christmas movie...

... unless it contains a shot of Daniel Craig suppressing his gag reflex. A bootleg of the new Fincher trailer is up.

May 28, 2011

REVIEW: Roddy Doyle's 'Bullfighting'

"There is not a writer, currently producing work in English, who can match Doyle for the fluency with which he tacks back and forth between the hilarious and the heartbreaking. “Sad and good had become the same thing,” thinks a mourner who has attended one too many funerals in another of the stories — and in Bullfighting Doyle hits that sweetspot again and again. “He’d be Robin Williams in half an hour,” thinks an English teacher fighting off the urge to drink between classes in ‘Teaching’. “One of those Seize-the-Day classes. The way he used to be all day.” When a pupil’s inquiry jolts loose a jumble of memories — the teacher’s near misses with various women over the years, the sexual abuse he suffered as a kid and which possibly explains that life of near misses — he finds himself completely unmanned. “He wished that kid was his. It was ridiculous — the thought just rolled through him.” That “rolled” is beautifully chosen, very Doyle, with its sad echo of the gales that ripped through the Barrytown books — “They roared”, “a giggle ran through her and out.” Doyle’s high spirits have over the years proved a bone of contention with those critics who prefer their literature a little more blanched of cheer. The argument risks ingratitude, also inaccuracy — the inhabitants of Barrytown may blaze across the page, talking a blue streak, but there’s no missing the pain nipping at their heels, whether the shame of teenage pregnancy in The Snapper, or the penny-pinching humiliations of unemployment in The Van. But where Jimmy Rabbit sr remained firmly ensconced in the bosom of his family, happily shouted down by the hubbub at the breakfast table, Doyle is now roughly the same age as Jimmy and the view from over the hill is not nearly so convivial."

— from my review of Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle for The New York Times

May 25, 2011

Obama in England: Diana redux

'A Buckingham Palace spokesman said Her Majesty has been intimately involved in the planning of the Obamas' State Visit; she hosts only two State Visits a year. "Very warm words have been spoken between the royal family and the Obamas," he said. "There is a genuine, genuine - and I really mean this - a genuine warmth between the two families."' — The Daily Telegraph
Of course there is. Watch the footage of them together and the Windsors are practically tanning themselves in the Obamas' toasty celebrity glow. They're heaven-sent: a chance for the Royal family to redo all they got wrong with Diana, to embrace modernity, kick back, blow away the cobwebs, indulge in a little unscheduled PDA and offset those nasty charges of racism clinging to Prince Phillip.

The summer blockbuster goes retro

"Break out your Madeleines, the summer blockbuster is experiencing a Proustian rush. If the movement of last year’s movies was solipsistically inward, probing such deep epistemological matters as whether we are, or are not, a figment of Leonardo Di Caprio’s imagination, this year’s crop jump backward, their plots o’ercast with the amber hue of retrospect. On June 3rd, we have X-Men:_First_Class, an origins story set in 1962; Magneto and Professor X are in college, duking it out over who gets top bunk while the Cuban Missile Crisis plays out in the background. This is followed a week later by Super 8, J J Abrams touching ode to being ten in 1979, when aliens from another planet were greeted with Spielbergian wonder and not a full pat-down and cavity search. On July 22 we have Captain America: The First Avenger, in which a 90-pound weakling steps into a science lab and emerges big enough to bounce Nazis off his bicep. A week after that we have Cowboys and Aliens, which pretty much speaks for itself. If this keeps up we can presumably look forward to a new Superman movie in which the caped crusader is returned to his Depression-era roots to do battle with moonshine bootleggers, and the new Terminator movie, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger travels back to the roaring twenties to protect Zelda Fitzgerald from character assassination by future biographers of her husband.

What the deuce — or blue blazes, depending on period — is going on? The summer is not traditionally the time when Merchant Ivory trot out their picnic hampers and cucumber sandwiches. Not that you could mistake any of these films for latest Henry James adaptation, exactly — no film called Cowboys and Aliens is intent on cleaving too hard to the historical record. On the contrary, the anachronism is the point, just as the appearance of blackberries in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was designed to send the pince-nez flying from the noses of Conan Doyle fans. We live in the era of the movie mash-up; in the salad bar that is the head of the modern movie executive the past is ripe for tossing. In some ways, pictures like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter constitute the sweetest of compliments, there being no greater attribute we can bestow on historical personages than an ability to smush the undead. Even Roland Emmerich, king of the disaster-zone, is making a picture about Shakespeare, for heaven’s sake, which tells you something about the shifting loyalties of today’s audiences: we’ve seen how the world ends, and, frankly, it’s getting a little samey.

Have you been back to the future recently? If the last installment of the Terminator franchise was anything to go by, the future has long since succumbed to terminal rust. That film, like so many others, gave us a darkened, battle-scarred plainland of mud browns and post-apocalyptic taupes, in which the haggard bark orders at the hoarse beneath skies the color of vengeance. Buck Rogers would fall into a dead faint. The present is scarcely much brighter. Ever since Chris Nolan turned The Dark Knight into a scowling disquisition on Bush-era justice, no self-respecting piece of popcorn cinema has felt complete without a salting of war-on-terror subtext, whether it be the responsibilities that beset a lone superpower (Spiderman), the threat of the illegal arms trade (Iron Man), or the virtues of diplomacy versus boots on the ground (Transformers 2). Even the last Harry Potter sank beneath to a profound, late-stage Imperial gloom. “These are dark times, there is no denying it," intoned Bill Nighy, while the forces of darkness encircled our heroes, shivering, in a tent. I always thought pop culture was supposed to be about fake uplift—a draft of Leithian forgetfulness to ease the pain of our cramped late-capitalist existences with a cheerful blast of false consciousness?

from my article about retro blockbusters for Slate

May 23, 2011

I suppose I am going to have to see this

Critics have been falling over themselves in their efforts to make Terrence Mallick's Tree of Life sound as unappealing as humanly possible. " A transfixing odyssey through time and memory that melds a young boy's 1950s upbringing with a magisterial rumination on the Earth's origins," proclaimed Variety's Justin Chang, with heroic lack of persuasiveness. "The greatest expression of heady Malickian concepts, which usually involve humanity adrift in the chaos of the universe and the meaning of everything (or lack thereof)," decided Eric Kohn, his tone tugged between urgent recommendation and weary dismissal. "A cosmic-interior epic of vainglorious proportions, a rebuke to realism, a disavowal of irony and comedy, a meditation on memory, and a gasp of horror and awe at the mysterious inevitability of loving, and losing those we love," concluded the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, remaining silent on the question of what those of us dullards who remain wedded to comedy and irony and realism ought to do with ourselves. (Thats some disavowal). Anthony Lane came the closest to spilling the beans. "The Tree Of Life remains not just a joke-free zone but nervous of bodies that misbehave," he noted. "The whole tale is bent upon the flatlining of desires." Viewers "may find it increasingly lonely and locked, and may themselves pray for Ben Hecht or Billy Wilder to rise from the dead and attack Malick’s script with a quiver of poisonous wisecracks." Put that way it sounds dreadful, but Lane bit his notoriously quick tongue at the last minute, leaving the reader with the lurching, interrupted feeling you get when critic lands a film on the ropes, prepares his killer upper-cut, only to seize up with respect. His review is a masterclass in how to smuggle the most number of negative hints into a review (humorless, solipsistic, erotically flatlined, monotone) and still wind up registering a 90+ score at Metacritic. Lane even went soft on the dinosaurs. "You can call this entire passage overblown, or diversionary, but what it is not is incoherent or mad. It strikes me as a straightforward account of creation." Some beautifully faint praise: overblown, diversionary, yes but definitely not certifiable. Steers clear of actual lunacy. Not dribbling soup down it's tie. When did our standards get so low? What I find interesting is that every critic is building these big caveats into their reviews — this isn't for everyone, it's going to divide folks, its a case of love it or hate it, etc, etc — but not one of them thus far has dared to articulate that opposing view, one that makes a case of storytelling and humor and irony, and why they might be, you know, good things*. They just hint darkly that not everyone is going to love the film and then they cave, respectfully.

*Except for Mr Edelstein, as beautifully multi-valanced as ever.

REVIEW: Midnight in Paris

In Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson plays a writer who gets to road-test his nostalgia for 1920s Paris against the real thing when he is magicked back in time to swan around with Hemingway, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Dali and the like. The film is a charming confection, with the wispiness of many late works. The moment the fictional characters in The Purple Rose of Cairo hit the real world, they also hit a series of snags — no iris fade-outs after a kiss, punches which leave real bruises — which drew out the movie's theme: fantasy vs reality and why the two should never have moved in together. About round three of Owen Wilson's sojourns with Hemingway et al, you realise that Allen isn't interested in developing his idea: Wilson is not being disabused of any preconceptions about the past, or having his expectations tested or upended in anyway. Allen is interested solely in mining the wide-eyed comedy of mixing with your heroes, which turns out to be enough for 70 minutes or so, at which point, Marion Cotillard turns up as everyone's favorite muse, and the jokes is: she is nostalgic for the Belle Epoque — a wormhole within a wormhole — and begs Wilson to stay with her there, much as she begged Leonardo Di Caprio to stay locked in Inception's dreamscapes. Cotillard is fast turning into filmmaker's favorite femme fatale of the Unconscious — a Siren of the Id, luring her male costars to loiter with her in Lotusland. Midnight in Paris is Inception for nostalgics. With jokes. Rachel McAdams is miscast as a young shrew, and Adrian Brody steals the show as Dali — "I am.... Da-Li!" he pronounces with a flourish, upon the merest prompting, to people he was introduced to just minutes before — and everyone goes home with the happy sense that they have seen one of the better Woody Allens. B-

May 22, 2011

One small step for this blog...

"The obvious question to ask about Ockham’s razor is: why? On what basis are we justified to think that, as a matter of general practice, the simplest hypothesis is the most likely one to be true? Setting aside the surprisingly difficult task of operationally defining “simpler” in the context of scientific hypotheses (it can be done, but only in certain domains, and it ain’t straightforward), there doesn’t seem to be any particular logical or metaphysical reason to believe that the universe is a simple as it could be. Indeed, we know it’s not. The history of science is replete with examples of simpler (“more elegant,” if you are aesthetically inclined) hypotheses that had to yield to more clumsy and complicated ones. The Keplerian idea of elliptical planetary orbits is demonstrably more complicated than the Copernican one of circular orbits (because it takes more parameters to define an ellipse than a circle), and yet, planets do in fact run around the gravitational center of the solar system in ellipses, not circles." — Massimo Pigliucci
Ah but is the Copernican theory complete? This blog rarely comments on scientific matters, in which we have no training, but something about the logic of this argument against Occam's Razor — of which we are inordinately fond — seemed fallacious even to a layman. You could argue that in order to explain why the earth's speed varies as it does, or why the seasons are the length they are — facts which are perfectly well explained by Kepler but reconvert to anomalies under Copernicus — the Copernican world-view has to become much more complicated. It has only the illusion of simplicity because it is not challenged to answer for these anomalies. Once it has been thus challenged, it becomes vastly more complicated. Ergo: Occam's Razor wins again.

May 18, 2011

Some arguments are not worth having

"Women in the comedy world have long been smeared as, in the words of the late comedian John Belushi, "just fundamentally not funny." And if you believe his Saturday Night Live colleagues like Jane Curtin, Belushi made a commitment to sabotaging his women colleagues in an effort to prove himself prophetic. So while the characters in particular might not be particularly feminist, the film is a step forward in the sense that it proves a lingering stereotype utterly false." — Adam Serwer on Bridesmaids
Well, that's a relief. To know that what I was doing while watching Meg Ryan, or Julia Roberts, or Sandra bullock, or Lucille Ball, or Shirley McLaine, or Barbara Streisand, or Katherine Hepburn, or Rosalind Russell, or Irene Dunne, or Claudette Colbert was in fact laughter, rather than some strange, recurring yet strangely forgettable muscular spasm induced by too many hours spent in the darkness of the movie theatre. I mean c'mon. Some arguments are so dumb they cretinize even the attempt to rebut them. Bridesmaids is t'riffic by the way — half an hour too long like all of Judd Apatow's productions, but every scene lifted and spun like a top by Kristen Wiig's rangy, loose-limbed spaz-outs. A solid 'B.'

May 17, 2011


“In this Wild West gold rush even industry insiders can’t keep track of what’s what or who’s who,” writes Lowe his new memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. It’s unusually well written: smart and self-aware, with a great account of the Darwinian death match that was the audition-process for The Outsiders in 1983: Lowe’s breakout role, opposite a young Tom Cruise, already on the phone to his agent (“Paula they are making us share…”), Patrick Swayze howling like a wolf in tight-t-shirt and jeans (“he makes Cruise look lobotomized”) and, best of all, Matt Dillon, sauntering through with a boombox on his shoulder, a Marlboro drooping from his lip, and a girl lodged in his armpit, beaming like she had won the lottery after being plucked from the crowd. “Matt yawns and the elevator door closes,” writes Lowe. “The entire transaction takes less than 45 seconds.”
He sounds like he was taking notes. “I was taking notes,” says Lowe. “I was like: you have to be fucking kidding me! It was like: ‘here let me show you what I do. I need some money, I’m going to go to this bank, I’m going to say hey I’d like some money, they’re going to give it to me and I’m going to walk out.’ It was as if that was the lesson. Wow. I couldn’t get a girl to look at me in the fucking lunchroom in the Santa Monica [High School]. I didn’t know how fame worked. And I had never seen anybody exercise it in that way. You give me five or six years and I’m gonna’ learn by God.'
Lowe adopts a variety of tones when addressing his sexual history, both in the book and in person, as if caught between the warring impulses of telling a good story, and staying true to the studly spirit of his 24-year-old self, while inking in the deeper understanding of his behaviour that has come with marriage and 20 years of sobriety. “Believe me, I really, really get the whole, ‘oh you poor guy, it must have been hard to have women throwing themselves at you.’ For a long time I was happy to live my life without digging into why I was the way I was but after a while, you can’t just say ‘oh yeah I’m the kind of guy who comes home on any given night and girls have broken into my house and are naked in my bed wearing my underwear. That’s just the way it is.’ When you start digging into that stuff you find that it isn’t funny or sexy or weird. It’s a lot of other things…. that are hard for people to understand and justifiably so.”

Actually, it’s not too hard to understand: take one dazzlingly beautiful 24-year-old male, arrest his development at 18, when he still thought himself the class nerd at Santa Monica High School (“I was the acting fag. That’s what they called me”), so he’s still playing catch-up in his head, stir in a lurking resentment towards his piece-of-meat treatment by some of his female fans, provide an inexhaustible supply of the world’s most beautiful women and — voila! That is not a recipe for a Trappist monk.

from my interview with Rob Lowe for The Daily Telegraph

May 16, 2011

Tortured logic

"The Bush administration offered formal legal opinions that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” it authorized were not torture under United States law. The Times adopted the view that labeling these as “torture” in news articles could create the appearance of taking sides... The editorial department had the easier path: it could just weigh in with an opinion. In the newsroom, though, taking sides was the wrong thing to do." — NYT
As good an example of bogus neutrality as money can buy. There was only one 'side' who thought that what the Bush administration got up to did not constitute torture — the Bush administration. The Times agreed with them. They took Bush's side, although understandably enough would prefer not to think of it that way. They would prefer to see 'taking the government's side' as not taking any side at all. The key phrase here — the one explaining the whole mess — is "could create the appearance of taking sides" (my itals). Now this is true. They did indeed avoid the appearance of taking sides. But appearances and reality — it is my embarrassing duty to report — are not the same thing.

May 15, 2011


"... If that sounds like the kind of Inspirational Coach movie that Hollywood trots out every year to keep Dennis Quaid in work, you are reckoning without the warm, flinty idiosyncrasy of McCarthy’s writing, and the bruised flesh tones of the film’s performances: not just from Giamatti, dog-paddling like crazy to keep his law practice afloat, but also from Amy Ryan as his Bon Jovi-loving wife and Bobby Cannavale as the best friend who attaches himself to the wrestling team to escape his disintegrating marriage. We hear indie comedies praised all the time for extracting laughs from dark material, but rarely has the uplifting and the downbeat been as beautifully married as they are here. Shot in his childhood home of New Providence, New Jersey, the film started life as a conversation between McCarthy and an old friend, Joe Tiboni, who used to be on the high school wrestling team with him. They started reminiscing and McCarthy thought: there’s a movie in this, and asked Tiboni to help him write it. “Now if Joe and I weren’t as close as we were I might look at him and go 'what’s interesting there?’. Because I know him, and I love him, I’m totally invested in him. If I look at him as this middle-class lawyer guy who never left his home town, then who cares? It has to come back to character.” It’s as close to a vision statement as you’ll get from McCarthy who, in his conversation as much as in his films, steers clear of grand pronouncements in favour of the nuts-and-bolts of his craft. To wit: the art of making fictional people matter to an audience as much as to their closest friends. It’s how he is in person, chatting as if picking up an old conversation. It’s also the theme of his films, which draw disparate strangers into proximity: the unlikely friendship between a dwarf, a mother in mourning and a hot dog vendor in The Station Agent; between an economics professor and his Senegalese squatters in The Visitor, or between a geriatric, a scout and a talking dog in Up" — from my interview with Tom McCarthy in The Daily Telegraph

May 5, 2011

The decline of Birtherism?

"The number of Americans saying President Obama was born in another country has been sliced in half, according to a new Washington Post poll... We do not live in a post-factual world. And producing valid proof of contested or queried claims is not pointless. The biggest shift in opinion? Among conservative Republicans. If journalists spent more time getting information rather than preening about which information should be dispersed, we'd have fewer conspiracy theories, not more." — Andrew Sullivan

Not so. All this means is that the number of people who have judged that they can no longer deliver that insult without fear of mockery has gone up, not that the number of people actually believing it has gone down. It was never about belief, merely disrespect.

Making Bin Laden an offer he couldn't refuse

An idyllic mountain retreat, verdant and green. A compound hidden behind high stone walls, within which children play, and women prepare meals for the men. One man in particular, quiet and gentle-seeming, who come seeking shelter from his violent past. You would not know it to look at him, from the way the children play at his feet, or the tenderness he bestows on one of the women, but this man is feared by the world over for his ruthlessness and cunning. He has lived his life by a code of violence which necessitates an existence in the shadowlands, but he knows deep down, that sooner or later his past will catch up with him, in a scene of stunning violence which leaves this idyll shattered and his family slaughtered.... Ah yes, the Sicilian car-bomb scene in The Godfather, most mythically predictive of all epics. Maureen Down calls Obama's execution of Osama "cinematic" but neglects to mention that it's Bin Laden's life that is the more cinematic, not least its penultimate act. The Economist:-
"Somewhere, according to one of his five wives, was a man who loved sunflowers, and eating yogurt with honey; who took his children to the beach, and let them sleep under the stars; who enjoyed the BBC World Service and would go hunting with friends each Friday, sometimes mounted, like the Prophet, on a white horse."
For as every armchair scenarist knows, a life of atrocity-fuelled pathology must be capped with a penultimate idyll, a brief arborial retreat, a last supper of sorts — Michael Corleone's Sicilian retreat, Mark Anthony forcing his men to drink 'til "the wine peep through their scars" in Shakespeare's Anthony & Cleopatra, the final visit to the whorehouse by William Holden and his men in The Wild Bunch. The Daily Mail even reports Bin Laden giving a rabbit to a kid who came to retrieve his cricket ball. I mean, c'mon. If Osama didn't hand over that bunny with a certain lingering wistfulness, exchanging looks with the kid in a way that suggested he knew what was coming to him, and right then wanted more than anything for that bunny to enjoy the long life that was about to be denied him, then I don't know movies.

May 4, 2011

The fine art of suspense, botched — again

"As we report in a story in Tuesday's Times, the movie business is in a bind. Executives and filmmakers sense an opportunity -- the Bin Laden killing is one of the few post-9/11 military tales with a satisfying conclusion for American audiences. But it's also tough to make a story suspenseful when everyone on the planet knows how it ends." — LA Times
This is one of the great idées reçues, an all-time zombie misconception that simply refuses to die: the idea that suspense consists of not knowing the outcome of events. Au contraire, said Hitchcock. That is merely surprise. Suspense consists of letting an audience know precisely what is about to happen and then making them wait for it.

Are liberals more accurate predictors of events than conservatives?

"Partisanship had a significant role in a prognosticator’s overall accuracy. Our scale measured it from 1 (most conservative) to 9 (most liberal,) and as partisanship “went up” one level (a person was rated more liberal) there was a moderate increase in their predictive capacity...Democrats seem to be better at predicting than Republicans, but we are cautious in claiming that this is a generalizable conclusion outside of our time period. There may be underlying factors in the 2008 elections that might not occur in other time periods. It’s also plausible that partisan strategies may lead to inaccurate predictions by Republicans--Republicans, unlike Democrats, may hope to face who they see as the weaker candidate from the opposing party in November. This may mean that some predictions are not really meant to be predictive--rather, they hope to shape the debate. Of course, it is certainly possible that Democrats really are better predictors." — Are Talking Heads Blowing Hot Air?An Analysis of the Accuracy of Forecasts in the Political Media

In others words: Republicans are either a) whistling to keep their spirits up, b) are in possession of a genuinely less empirical world view, or c) some mixture of the two. The results:—

Paul Krugman 8.23

Maureen Dowd 7.27

Carl Levin 7.2

Ed Rendell 7.0

Chuck Shumer 6.92

Nancy Pelosi 6.3

David Brooks 5.55

Eugene Robinson 5.45

Mick Huckabee 3.36

John Kerry 2.5

Newt Gingrich 2.5

Bob Herbert 2.22

Thomas Friedman 2.0

Hillary Clinton 0.0

George Will -0.04

Joe Lieberman -1.1

Lindsay Graham -3.26