Jun 28, 2011

Terminator 2: twenty years old this week

"Genuine revolutions come in two installments, with first the boy wonders — the Dantons, the Trotskys, the Spielbergs — to be followed, a few years later, by a much steelier strategist: a Napoleon, a Lenin, the man who would be king of the world. For all his tech-head savvy and SFX wonkery, don't overlook the stroke of genuine genius that was the casting of Robert Patrick in Terminator 2. Almost any other director would have come up with a Terminator that was bigger than Arnold—heftier, more hi-tech—but Cameron tacked the other way, devising a slim, sinuous shape-shifter, a "porsche" to Arnie's Panzer. What makes T2 such eerie viewing now is seeing how accurately it foreshadows the very real threat America would face on 9/11, a cellular, hydra-headed demon who absorbs every punch, its molecules scattering before regrouping again, deploying the sheer might of its attackers against them. Don't forget that when Cameron was five, he saw the United States invade Vietnam, and was 21 by the time they extricated themselves. This meant that during his teenage years – his formative years as a filmmaker, when his head bloomed space battles and blue people – Cameron witnessed the long, slow defeat of the giant who lived next door. It made a big impression, instilling in him a curious political mixture, the leanings of a liberal trapped inside the titanium exoskeleton of a hawk – or as Colonel Quaritch says in Avatar: "A marine inside a Na'vi body. That's a potent mix." It is this feel for the dynamics of an asymmetric fight, his interest in how small forces defeat larger ones, that lends Cameron's films their punch. How the mighty fall is his big theme, from The Terminator right through to Titanic, and it is a million miles distant from the top-heavy bravado of a Michael Bay film, or the infinite regress of the Wachowskis'Matrix trilogy, whose godlike opponents were so equally matched that there was no reason, beside audience boredom, for the movies ever to end."
excerpted from my book Blockbuster How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Michelle Bachmann

"Well, what I want them to know is just like John Wayne was from Waterloo, Iowa, that's the kind of spirit I have too" — Michelle Bachmann
As readers of this blog know, I tend to float like a butterfly over the sordid comings-and-goings of the political news-cycle, but every now and again, someone makes a gaffe so delightful, improving the quality of one's life so inordinately, that commendation must follow. Michelle Bachman's mix-up of John Wayne - the movie star who endeared himself to the American right in dozens of movies - and John Wayne Gacy - the 'killer clown' who committed the rape and murder of 33 teenage boys and young men between 1972 and 1978 - is just such a gaffe. The great thing about it is not just the indelible portrait of the congresswoman crouched over Google investigating her hometown — for it is a gaffe originating in the written, not spoken word — but the enthusiastic progress it makes in a direction exactly opposite to the one desired: I want them to know is just like John Wayne Gacy was from Waterloo, Iowa, that's the kind of spirit I have too. Quite so. This is not one to be forgotten in a hurry. Better than Palin.

Jun 27, 2011

INTERVIEW: Jessica Chastain

'For a long time she was known only as the set of cheekbones with a funny name who had captivated Terrence Malick on the set of his latest film Tree of Life. As the director labored in the editing room polishing and repolishing his masterwork, Chastain busied herself with a series of roles — as a mossad agent in John Madden’s The Debt, a Southern Belle in The Help, Salome in an Al Pacino’s film version of the Oscar Wilde play — none of which the public has actually been able to clap eyes on, thanks to the vagaries of movie scheduling, until this week, when The Tree of Life finally sees release. Finally! People were beginning to talk. On the set of her most recent movie, The Wettest Country In the World, Chastain turned up to find her fellow cast-members dubious of her very existence. “I showed up for the first read through, and I think for them it was case of ‘does this woman actually exist?” she says, laughing. “Who is this Jessica Chastain? Has anyone ever actually seen her? Or is she just a figment of Terry Malick’s imagination?”

With her flame red-hair, pale blue eyes, sculpted beauty and high-end surname (“its French”, she explains, “on my mother’s side”) she is an exotic bloom. You’d be far less surprised to see her image on the side of a Greek vase showing sailors what to avoid if they wish to avoid shipwreck than, say, the pages of People magazine. But I am pleased to report that this mythical creature does in fact exist; to prove it she turns up to our interview at Manhattan’s Crosby street Hotel wearing a leg brace, having torn a tendon in her left leg while dirt-biking in California. Some mythical maiden. She took a motor-cross course to decompress after the glitz and glamour of Cannes where Tree of Life won the Palme D’Or, and at the film’s LA premiere, had to hobble along the red carpet on crutches. “So stupid,” she says, shifting in her seat. “I’m still trying to find new ways to sit.”
from my interview with Jessica Chastain for The Sunday Times

Boredom is in the eye of the beholder

"Boredom for a subject does not reflect a defect in the subject, but in our understanding of it. In the ears of the ignorant, a foreign language is a monotonous barrage of meaningless intonations, but knowledge of its grammar transforms sound into speech, capable of conveying Shakespeare's or Plato's meaning. The surface of Mars seems to me a tiresome landscape of red dirt, but to an astrophysicist who speaks the obscure language of rocks, it is a crossword puzzle written by the Big Bang. We protest to the passionate not to bore us with details, not realizing that lack of details is precisely what bores us, for details reveal the richness and inner coherence that are invisible from a distance, as a microscope reveals teeming life in a drop of muddy pond water.... I love to hear of people devoting their lives to pursuits that sound dull to me, for I know that their enthusiasm is right and my boredom is wrong, and I am happy for the rebuke. I convert my specific boredoms into general fascination with passion's possibilities, reflecting that, under altered alignments of choice and chance, I might have given my days to different causes. There is more worth loving than we have strength to love. A foolish trope of modernity is that experience leads to disenchantment and ennui. Boredom with life does not result from exhausting life's riches, but from skimming them. Nothing is boring, except people who are bored." — Brian Jay Stanley

I've often thought something similar with regard to my friends. It's much harder to be bored by a friend, I've found, than it is by as stranger — nobody is more potentially tedious than someone one has just met — and the reason is not because I have a particularly fascinating set of friends, although I would obviously like to flatter myself, and them, than this is so. Rather, they are not boring because they are my friends — which is to say, because I have lifted the velvet rope and allowed them into the VIP area of the familiar.

Jun 26, 2011

Clive James on David Thompson

"Most people of his generation who have spent their lives seeing every properly released movie even if it stars Steven Seagal are incapable of judging them. The reason is simple: those people are monomaniacs. Thompson has found time to do other things: read books, breathe clean air, cook and eat real food. It takes someone with greater resources than a mere buff to ask whether his chosen field might not have reached a point in its history where the best movies, being aimed successfully at an audience that wants art, are no longer for everyone. On the other hand, such a moviegoer can see that he might just be getting old. Whatever the subject, a real critic is a cultural critic, always: if your judgment doesn’t bring in more of the world than it shuts out, you shouldn’t start. Writing at his best, Thomson is well qualified. You have to know about more than just the movies to see the “nobility” in Denzel Washington’s best acting; to isolate Al Pacino’s characteristic of “outrageous inner size,” you have to be up to speed with short-legged Napoleonic warlords since Alexander the Great; evoking Warren Beatty’s “puzzled look” is a nice way of describing catatonia, but it proves that the critic’s eye for aesthetic value can penetrate a surface; and it takes a knowledge of the American class structure to make the correct observation about Katharine Hepburn that she “loved movies while disapproving of them.” Thomson just loves them, but he knows there is a world elsewhere." — Clive James on David Thompson

A nifty slalom down Thompson's slopes, although James mistakes one of his weaknesses as a strength. The sense of movies as the playground for literary men — a pretext for men of sensibility to reel off their silk — is the one thing I don't like about his writing. It leads to too much sighing. The fit with Hepburn is exact.

Jun 24, 2011

Fall movie screengrab: actors

From top: Ryan Gosling in Drive; Brad Pitt in Moneyball; Michael Fassbender in A Dangerous Method; Gary Oldman in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Henry Hopper in Restless

Jun 15, 2011

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Michael Powell

"The first question I would ask you, is what is the tone of the director? It is a take-it-or-leave-it tone? It is a dispassionate tone? Is it meant to be the wiseguy’s thoughts - or meditations - or memories? And, in the final hiding place, is he resigned to his completely anonymous existence, or does he expect that they will catch up with him some day? I think that the narration is brilliantly handled on the page, and the tone of the narration will be equally important. How have you managed to sustain the action and narration side by side for the whole length of the script? It’s a masterpiece. I can only compare it with the script of The African Queen, or Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity." — Michael Powell, writing to Martin Scorsese in 1988 about the script for Goodfellas, then Wise Guys

Jun 9, 2011

Reviewing movies before they are imagined

"No unshot movie will ever fill me with such apoplectic loathing as Jerry Bruckheimer andGore Verbinski's The Lone Ranger, which will hit screens in December 2012. There's no option for Johnny Depp but to portray Tonto as a Native American Jack Sparrow. And poor Armie Hammer, such a perfect fit as the Winklevi twins in The Social Network, using his straightforward blue-eyed jockiness to play the Lone Ranger? In a script written by the thoroughly corrupted Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio? The only element affording a sliver of hope is that Revolutionary Road screenwriter Justin Haythe is co-credited." — Jeff Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere
Online film commentators faces many hurdles that traditional film critics do not, but chief among them has to be the inability to watch the films they often write about. They get around it by a variety of ingenious means. They review the script. They review the trailer. They review the title. They inhale deeply, clear the channels and intuit, through sheer ambient divination, the quality of the vive they are getting from the general direction of the yet-to-be-released movie. I don't think I've ever read someone review an entire film before a single frame of it has even been shot before, though. Naturally Wells 's insights into the quality of The Lone Ranger bring out my competitive side. So here goes: Paul Thomas Anderson's next film after The Master is going to be a minor work from a major filmmaker who seems systematically intent on denying himself creative possibilities. There. I just reviewed a movie that hasn't even been imagined yet.

Jun 8, 2011

Aronofsky gets Biblical on our asses

"I'm told that town is tantalized by a package circulating with Darren Aronofsky directing Noah, an edgy re-telling of the Noah's Ark story." — Deadline Hollywood
What — Noah will be a Travis-Bickle-like obsessive who longs for the flood to wash away all the junkie scum ad filth? The animals will all be in threesomes, hate themselves and have their mothers watching while they try to repopulate the earth?

Jun 5, 2011

REVIEW: Beginners (dir. Mills)

Because the weather is a little dismal. Because Donald Trump is back in the news. And because the latest job figures are so bad.... for all these reasons and more, you should all go and treat yourself to Mike Mills' Beginners, a comedy about love and loss lightly dusted with pixieish melancholy — or am I just thinking about Melanie Laurent's performance? She plays the film's Designated Spot of Outstanding Natural Beauty (French, whimsical, prone to wearing rollerskates indoors) but holds her nerve, shrugs off the compliments and quietly works her way into every corner and crevice of the movie — as pure a pleasure as sunlight on your skin. I felt the entire audience lean forward in their seats to better soak her up. "You're thinking about her aren't you?" asks Ewan McGregor's best friend, played by somebody or other. "You're not saying anything about her. That's how I know." B

Jun 4, 2011

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Richard Schickel

"Movies, I believe, are an essentially worldly medium, playful and romantic, particularly in America, where, on the whole our best directors have stated whatever serious intentions they may harbor as ignorable asides. There are other ways of making movies, naturally, and there’s always a small audience available for these noble strivings—and good for them, I guess. But I’m with Preston Sturges, who gave this immortal line to Veronica Lake in “Sullivan’s Travels”: “There’s nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive you out in the open.”' — Richard Schickel

Jun 3, 2011

Why boredom is still a bad thing

In a recent article extolling the virtues of the slow and boring, Manohla Dargis cites a scene in Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” in which a housewife makes a meatloaf in real time.
"It’s a tedious task that as neither a fan of meatloaf or cooking, I find difficult to watch. Which is the point: During the film’s 201 minutes Ms. Akerman puts you in that tomb of a home with Jeanne, makes you hear the wet squish-squish of the meat between her fingers, makes you feel the tedium of a colorless existence that you can’t literally share but become intimate with (you endure, like Jeanne) until the film’s punctuating shock of violence. It makes you think."
No. That is false. It did not make her think. She found it tedious. But afterwards, then she got to thinking about the tedium and decided it was okay since the character was bored, too. It is just this kind of falsified reaction — an initial spasm of boredom, converted in retrospect into something fancier-sounding, like "it makes you think" — that causes people to distrust critics. While watching The Tree Of Life I had many opportunities to ponder the following: the wobbliness of my seat, the likelihood that it would be repaired in the next six months, the economics that determined how often the cinema could employ someone to tighten the screws in its seats, the role of the studios in lowering the profits of the cinemas, and so on and so forth until the entirety of God's creation stood before me in all its dense brocade. Dargis seems to have had similar thoughts about meat-loafs while watching the Akerman film. The difference between us is that she chalks up her checked-out thought stream as the movie's victory. I see it as a sign that my mind is wandering. One thinks only while watching a drama that is not working. "Ideas" are chloroform.

Jun 2, 2011

REVIEW: Super 8 (dir. Abrams)

There may be greater directors at work today but none can hold a candle to Spielberg when he was in the twenties and early thirties: Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T — is there a greater quartet in the history of popular cinema? Spielberg is the great carny poet of American cinema, with the soul of an artist and one of those shallow, tin-man tickers that just happens to beat time with the hearts of millions. Even the gaps between those films seem to breath their own significance, the seat-of-your-pants improv of Raiders loosening Spielberg up to shoot his most personal film, E.T. The Extra-terrestrial; the raucous shock of Jaws cleaving to the hushed wonder of Close Encounters, almost as if Spielberg had listened to the expectant hush that descended on the world after Jaws, and then turned that hush into a movie.

Anyone expecting anything like that from Super 8 — J J Abrams attempts a Vulcan mind-meld with cinema's great dauphin prince — will spend much of the movie with their fingers in their ears: the movie begins with a train crash as crunchy and spectacular as they come, and then gets crunchier from there, although the flying corvettes had a silent, Keatonesque charm. Abrams is a keen, diligent student, particularly in his use of heraldic detail — a departure of dogs in the area, then car engines, striking exactly the right tone of indirect, prosaic spookiness. He knows how to goose us. His movies (Mission Impossible 3, Star Trek) and TV shows (Alias, Lost) demonstrate an unfakeable feel for the ripples and rip-tides that govern a mass audience; in the era of Michael Bay and the pseudo-popularity of franchise filmmaking, that is no small thing. In the first 45 minutes or so, Abrams maps out the Spielbergiana with the glee of a kid who has the run of a theme-park at night. He's Charlie loose in the Chocolate Factory. Group of friends shooting a home movie, check. Sadness at home involving the absence of a parent, check. Bike-riding, check. The use of baroque intra-teen insults, check. Extra-terrestrial in the backyard, check. A sinister evacuation of the surrounding area by the United States Army, check. We even get anamorphic lens flares — a nod to the photography of Spielberg's Oscar-winning cinematographer on Close Encounters, Vilmos Zsigmond — and a touching use of the word "turkey," an insult sorely missing from the American vernacular since Richard Dreyfuss hurled it after an unhelpful motorist in 1977.

Can you make a movie entirely out of your memory of another man's movies? Abrams' enthusiasm for its source material is infectious, although one of the lesser dividends of making an hommage to a filmmaker as popular as Spielberg is that it condemns ordinary moviegoers to the accursed existence of film critics. You sit there, crouched in the dark, collecting motifs, comparing riffs, making furious mental notes so that you can share them with everyone afterwards. Only once the alien beastie started racking up a body count did I feel properly pulled into my seat, as the familiar sensation of losing myself in the movie take a hold, not least because it laid to rest my biggest query about Abrams aliens, namely: friend or foe? In Close Encounters Spielberg famously looked to the heavens and found, in a blinding benediction of light, a set of aliens that, for all their childlike limbs and foetal faces, occupied a position in the human psyche closer to that of galactic parent, responding to the bit of Dreyfuss that longed to shuck his adult responsibilities and be a big kid again: if there's a higher intelligence at work in the universe, then why turn up to your job on Monday morning? Spielberg has a genius for tugging the heavens closer to home. There was an E.T, shaped hole in Elliott's heart before E.T. showed up — the one left by his father — and while Abrams follows the template, depriving his hero, young Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) of his mother in an industrial accident, the massive, multi-fanged beast that turns up in his backyard, tearing gas station clerks to shreds, bears scant resemblance to mom. There's no denying the pall of disappointment that hangs over the final act of Super 8, as childhood longing drains away to reveal just another monster flick. The monster gets a Twilight-Zoneish backstory involving area 51, where government experimentation turned a good alien bad, when all he wants is a kind word and the chance to return home, like E.T., a twist that gives even the other kids whiplash: "What was that?"

There's a fair amount of this in Super 8. Abrams is adept at staging Spielberg-sized spectacle — who can't these days? — but his facility with manipulating emotion feels merely serviceable, the work of a diligent student, rather than a true violinist. Spielberg's aliens came from the very heart of him — they were as personal as Fellini's whores — whereas Abrams's aliens just come from watching old Spielberg movies, and his sense of topography sucks — characters are routed and rerouted, paths criss-crossed at will. The strings of this puppeteer are all too visible. At times Super 8 seems less a Spielberg hommage, than the most technically accomplished Goonies movie you ever saw — a reprieve from the summer doldrums, but never quite amounting to a full transport of delight. There is certainly much to enjoy here, not least Elle Fanning's willowy, sunflower-stualk presence and Joel Courtney's round, Charlie-Brownish moon-face. "If they're in love the audience won't want them to die," says the budding auteur behind the zombie flick they are making, a piece of advice that works its snub-nosed magic here, too. I was roused by Super 8, jumped out of my seat a couple of times, and did not want to see the two leads bite the dirt, but my heart-light remained only falteringly lit. B