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

Nov 25, 2011

Quote of the day: Martin Scorsese

"You have films with happy endings, which show the triumph of the human spirit, in films like Rocky. And then you have pictures that are a little more realistic and deal with certain emotions and psychological character studies, and they don't necessarily have that uplifting effect. In the 50s through the 70s, they seemed to exist together. Now, it seems that some films don't even have the right to exist. With the advent of Rocky and Star Wars and the Spielberg pictures, on the best side they're morally uplifting; you leave the theatre the way you did at the end of Casablanca. And on the worst side, they're sentimental. Lies. That's the problem And where I fit in there, I don't know" — interview with Chris Hodenfield in American Film, 1989, collected in Martin Scorsese Interviews (Univ. of Miss.), edited by Peter Brunette

REVIEW: A Dangerous Method (Cronenberg)

A new discovery! 11.00am on Thanksgiving morning turns out to be the perfect time and occasion on which to see Kiera Knightley getting spanked in the new David Cronenberg psychoanalysis flick! It's a pitiless, David-Cronenberg time of day, 11 o'clock in the morning. You're awake, but you haven't eaten a full meal yet, insatiate yet alert — the perfect state in which to take in a cerebral chamber-piece about fin-de-siecle sexual repression and the birth of psychoanalysis. Michael Fassbender plays Carl Jung, unhappily married, sexually repressed and therefore wearing a suit half-a-size too small for him, so the Fassbender physique seems to be bursting at the seams. Kiera Knightley plays his hysterical patient, jutting her jaw and screaming with a Russian accent at least two sizes too big for her so you spend most of the film waiting for the invention of valium. Best of all we have Viggo Mortenson as Freud — the happiest piece of casting I have come across all year. There is probably no actor today more in contact with his unconscious mind than Mortenson, with his air of Oceanic internal fixation, his mesmerising horse-whisperer manner and unerring instinct for where the bones of a part lie. Here he goes big on the cigars and chiselled shrewdness — his Freud seems to spend much of his time weighing chess moves against his detractors — but also remembers to make him a voyager, feeling his way in the dark, like Aragon on the threshold of the pit of Mordor. "Columbus didn't know what country he'd discovered," he says, "only that he'd touched land." The script has two versions of why Jung and Freud fell out: one involving their principled difference of opinion on whether psychoanalysis should be allowed to touch upon matters of religion, mysticism and the like; and the second involving their principled difference of opinion over whether Jung should be allowed to paddle the ass of Knightley, which looks almost as much fun as beheading Orcs. You'll never guess which turns out to be the more compelling plot-line. That's always been the way with Cronenberg, whose talking heads have always come a distant second to his exploding ones, and A Dangerous Method certainly tends towards the chalkier end of the spectrum — as befits its origins as a stage play by Christopher Hampton, there are one too many lines of the "I take issue with his dogmatic pragmatism!" variety — but it also summons a nice tone of subdued hysteria, like the thinnest of cracks through the finest bone-china, and the period is beautifully observed, the Fassbender-Knightley relationship playing out against a Lake Geneva that looks so placid and dreamy you'll easily believe it the birth-place of the Jungian unconscious. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! B

Nov 21, 2011

The Return of Silent Cinema

'Of all the cinematic surprises of 2011—the ascendency of Elizabeth Olsen, the excellence of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Woody Allen’s return as hit-maker the renaissence of silent cinema was probably the hardest to see coming down the pike. When Harvey Weinstein enthused about a silent back-and-white film, starring two unknown French stars, which he’d just bought at Cannes, brother Bob suggested he check himself into a mental asylum. After it received a 15-minute standing ovation, Michel Hazanavicius’s homage to the days of swashbuckling matinee idols, iris shots, and Busby Berkeley dance numbers, The Artist, was marked up by Oscarologists as the outside favorite to win Best Picture.

Come November 23rd, cinemagoers will have a choice of two valentines to the silent era: The Artist or Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s 3D adaptation of Brian Selznick’s bestselling children’s book, whose poster echoes Harold Lloyd’s clock shenanigans in Safety Last (1923) and whose final 25 minutes fondly revisit the earliest days of cinema, from Melies's A Trip to the Moon to the Lumière Brothers Arrival of a train at La Ciotat station, which sent its audience flying in panic from the theatre to avoid being crushed by that train. For the earliest filmgoers, 2D was 3D enough. “Two ladies in one of the boxes on the left-hand of the horseshoe, which is just where the flyer vanishes from view, screamed and nearly fainted as it came apparently rushing upon them,” ran one newspaper’s account of a similar film, Empire State Express, in 1897. “They recovered in time to laugh at their needless excitement.”

Finally, in December, we have The Adventures of Tin Tin: Secret of the Unicorn, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the much-loved Belgian comic strip, a movie whose sight gags and breakneck pace hail back to Raiders of the Lost Ark, and from there to the hey-day of Mack Sennett and the Keystone cops. Nobody could accuse modern blockbusters of silence, but the aesthetics of silent cinema—its favoring of the visual over the literary, action beats over dialogue, international markets over domestic— is alive and well. Over at Pixar, filmmakers have been steadily mining Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton to give us the opening 20 minutes of WALL-E and the first ten minutes of Up—modern silent-movie classics. Meanwhile, James Cameron’s Avatar, whose earthling-alien romance, like that in E.T., proceeded via sign language (I-see-you), marked the evolution of an international movie grammar which vaulted borders and left critical sniping about Cameron’s creaky dialogue looking like the nit-picking of flat-earthers. And the guilty secret of Michael Bay’s Transformer movies? They play equally well with the sound down, if not better.

“The eye and mind are both bewildered by the too sudden and too frequent shifts of scene,” wrote William Eaton in American Magazine. “There is a terrible sense of rush and hurry and flying about, which is intensified by the twitching film and generally whang-bang music.” Eaton wrote this in 1914, but it could as easily pass muster as a critical harrumph from the summer of 2011. In fact, the further back you push, the more familiar it gets, as dialogue, plots, and characters all fall away to reveal an exo-skeleton of pure action beats. The very first movies were by definition action movies, made fast and sold by the brand (“every day a Biograph feature”) to an audience made up of largely immigrants and teens, all demanding something “happening every minute, allowing for no padding with word-painting, following climax after climax” as the Brooklyn Eagle put it in 1906. “The backbone of today’s business is the attendance of young people from seventeen to twenty-three years of age,” sniffed Harold Corey in Everybody’s Magazine in 1919. “At 23 other interests develop.”

For The Lonedale Operator, D. W. Griffith mounted his camera on the front of a speeding train in order to better capture the rush; for A Girl and Her Trust, he placed it onboard a car that was racing alongside a racing train, with another car in hot pursuit. His mastery of intercutting between parallel action reached its apogee in the chase sequence of The Birth of a Nation. When that film was released, in 1916, the film’s cinematographer, Karl Brown, noted “bigger and better, bigger and better became the constantly chanted watchwords of the year. Soon the two words became one. Bigger meant better, and a sort of giganticism overwhelmed the world, especially the world of motion pictures.” In many ways, this whizz-bang landscape of thrill rides, cheap scares and teen kicks feels closer to us than the Golden Age of the 1940s and 1950s, or even the 1960s and 1970s, when Hollywood, high on a mixture of the French new wave, auteurism, and pot, enjoyed an unparalleled creative growth spurt, one cut cruelly short by thekerr-ching of the cash registers for Jaws, and the boom of the laser cannons in Star Wars. As we all know by heart now, those two blockbusters flushed delicate arthouse sensitivities down the garbage chute and “pioneered the cinema of moments, of images, of sensory stimuli increasingly divorced from story” in Peter Biskind’s formulation.

This is fine as far as it goes, but if it’s the soul of cinema we’re fighting over, “the cinema of moments, of images, of sensory stimuli increasingly divorced from story” has a far greater claim on cinema’s central nervous system than the woozy psychedelia of Easy Rider. Looked at one way, Star Wars did not betray cinema at all, but plugged it back into the mains, returning the medium, after a brief spell of aesthetic etiolation, to its roots as a carnival sideshow, a magic act, one big special effect, punching through the fourth wall and rocking the audience back in their seats, as they were first rocked by the Lumière brothers cho-choo trains. “Star Wars is basically a silent film, was designed to be a silent film,” said George Lucas when I interviewed him for my book Blockbuster. “In terms of people’s aesthetics, especially critics: they complained bitterly when sound came in, that the medium had been destroyed, but the concept of cinema started as a vaudeville show. It started as a magic act. They took the magician off the bill, put up this sheet and they ran this magic thing, where you could see things you couldn’t see. They say summer is now dominated by films that are aimed towards kids. Well, kids are the audience. It’s a market-driven medium and it always has been.”'

from my piece on silent cinema for Slate

REVIEW: J.Edgar / Tyrannosaur

One of the opportunities presented me by my wife's absence — apart from those for weeping fits, dietary experimentation and dust-ball accumulation — is the opportunity it presents me to catch up on the most depressing movies I can lay my hands on — the more depressing, the better. For some reason that escapes me we spent last Christmas apart, which I took that as a sign to go on a massive Michael Haneke bender, during the course of which I lost all sense of time and space, human warmth leaching from me, the lights of nearby towns and hamlets blurring into a distant memory, until I stood in our apartment — a poor, bare, forked animal, ready to feast on any Romanian abortion epic or neo-brutalist British kitchen-sink drama you could throw my way. The only problem was resurfacing without getting the bends. Kate came back for New Year's Eve and I — still in some kind of altered state — suggested we watch Ken Loach's first film Kes, forgetting that in the final reel the poor falcon, by virtue of symbolising youth's only hope of escape from the grim, dehumanising totalitarianism of the English education system, gets it in the neck with a shovel. I should have known better — all animals appearing English films from the seventies get it in the neck, be they otters or rabbits, if not with a shovel then a bullet. It's the closest we ever got to making The Way We Were. I'm not sure Kate has forgiven me.

Much better to keep this kind of filth for when she's gone. So my first thought, upon waving her off to see her parents in Ohio, was simple: J Edgar. I knew there had to be a place in my life for Clint's stolid two hours of desaturated gay repression and institutionalised paranoia and this was surely it. I wore my Navy Peacoat, rather than my usual Mackintosh, not because I have any particular fear of being thought gay, but a closeted gay is a different matter. In the end, Eastwood didn't quite deliver: despite a lighting scheme that made me worry I'd paid the electricity bill, and the sight of Judi Dench bearing down on poor J Edgar's soul like the mother of Norman Bates herself, I rather enjoyed his movie, and even felt a little trembly of lip towards the end. Nothing like the unconsolable storm of grief that descended on me at the end of Bridges of Madison County, but a tremble nonetheless and for that I was grateful. Clint really getsrepressed emotion, the more depth-charged the better, and something about the tidy little kiss that Leonardo Di Caprio lands on Armie Hammer's forehead at the end of J Edgar did the trick. B-

But not nearly depressing enough, so this afternoon I headed off to see Paddy Considine'sTyrannosaur, which promised so much: alcoholism, wife battery, Northern pubs, rottweilers, the lot. Could it deliver? I wore my peacoat again — big mistake. I should have gone with the Mackintosh. Peter Mullan wears an almost identical peacoat in the movie, thus pointing the finger of shame my way, singling me out as I left the theatre as a fellow wife-beater and drunk. Naturally, there were only five or six men in the theatre, all of them were on their own, and all of them were, in my mind, as I was in theirs, wife-beaters, come to make their amends, to pay silent penance for their sins. You can't win, you see. Closeted gay or wife-beater — these are the two options faced by any man in his forties with limited wardrobe options going to the cinema alone. Anyway. The film. It's grim. A firm proponent of the fark-you-you-farking-caant school of British filmmaking. There's black eyes, racism, dog bludgeoning — and drinking, lots of drinking, of the kind that necessitates you stare into your pint as if discerning in the bleak apartheid of your Guinness the unbudging, fulminous morass of your life. Mullan is a little acting-workshopy — I preferred his alcoholic in My Name is Joe — and the ending is an out-and-out wrist-slasher, but Olivia Colman is as terrific as everyone says she is, and the Leisure Society song at the end is heaven sent. B-


February 3rd
Chronicle (20th Century Fox)

March 9th
John Carter — Andrew Stanton (Pixar)

March 23rd
The Hunger Games — Jennifer Lawrence (Lionsgate)

April 6th
Titanic 3-D (Fox)

May 11th
Dark Shadows — Burton, Pfeiffer, Eva Green (Warner Bros)
The Dictator — Cohen, Kingsley (Paramount)

June 1st
Rock Of Ages — Cruise, Giametti (Warner Bros)

June 8th
Prometheus — Scott, Fassbender (Fox)

June 22nd
Brave (Pixar)

July 3rd
The Amazing Spiderman (Columbia)

July 22nd
The Dark Knight Rises (Warner Bros)

Aug 17th
ParaNorman — Casey Affleck (Focus)

September 14th
Argo — Affleck, Arkin, Cranston (Warner Bros)

September 28th
Savages — Del Toro, Lively, Stone (Universal)

October 19th
Untitled David Chase Project — Gandolfini (Paramount Vantage)

November 9th
Bond 23 — Mendes, Craig, Bardem (Sony)

November 21
Gravity — Clooney, Bullock, Cuaron (Warner Bros)

Deecember 14th
Great Hope Springs — Streep, Carrell, Jones (Columbia)

December 21
The Life of Pi — Lee, Maguire (Fox 2000)
This is Forty — Rudd, Mann, Apatow (Universal)

December 25th
Django Unchained — Di Caprio, Tarantino (Weinstein)
The Great Gatsby — Di Caprio, Mulligan (Warner Bros)

Moonlight Kingdom — Anderson, Willis (Focus)
Anna Karenina — Knightley, Wright, Johnson (Focus)
Lincoln — Day-Lewis, Spielberg (Touchstone)
Gotti: Three Generations — Levinson, Travolta, Pesci, Pacino (Fiore)
My Wild Life — Noyce, Kidman (Universal)
Take This Waltz — Rogen, Williams (Magnolia)
Untitled Bin Laden Project — Bigelow (Sony)

Photo: Eva Green

Nov 15, 2011

REVIEW: The Descendants

Things I loved about Alexander Payne's The Descendants:—
— the rattier bits of Honolulu.
— Clooney's tears by the side of the road, his back to us like Queen Elizabeth II.
yes, alright, the running in sandals.
— the line about Hawaiian businessmen bearing a striking resemblance to "bums and stuntmen."
— Shailene Woodley's scenes on the couch, eyes raw and red. Her blend of prettiness and plainness.
— the link-up of the two plots via a cousin. The cousins in general, and the dramatic use made of this overextended brood.
— seeing Beau Bridges again.
— the ambling pace.
— Judy Greer's brand of guileless, vulnerable optimism. The heartbreak of seeing it depleted.
— Payne's emotional ambition and reach, and the invisible cover it lends the comic switchbacks, to the point where you can't say which came first. Born together, in mid-air.
— One in particular, Greer's bedside speech + Clooney's reaction, is faultless.
— the reveal of Sid's family history, together with his use of the word "boss".
Things I wasn't so keen on:—
— The first scene where they talk to the mother.
— the line "my joy, my pain". Too written. He had me at "my love."

Nov 12, 2011

'Take Care' - Drake & Rihanna

Notes on Martin Scorsese's late style — All Things Must Pass

I'm going to review Hugo properly later in the month but for now would like to note a few stylistic similarities I noticed with Shutter Island — the imagery of ash and scattered paper-storms, together with a preoccupation with artifice and loss which reminded me of Shakespeare's late romances, particularly The Winter's Tale, in which the statue of a wife, long thought dead, comes to life, much as Leo Di Caprio summons Michelle Williams in Shutter Island, and The Tempest, in which an exiled artist-magician conjures storms and monsters:—
These are actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
That could equally well describe Hugo, a Faberge egg of cgi-confabulation featuring its own magician-hero, cobwebbed with loss, who in a climactic act of remembrance, summons his own insubstantial pageants from thin air. What kids will make of it, I can only guess, although I suspect many will find their attention wandering, but as a Melies festshrift, a fond exhalation warming the embers of one filmmaker's work with the breath of another, it works its own brand of wonder, offering us another slice of the gamey neo-Jamesian style with which Scorsese seems to make movies these days. In his review of Edward Said's On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain in The New Yorker John Updike wrote:
What does haunt late works is the author’s previous works: he is burdensomely conscious that he has been cast, unlike his ingénue self, as an author who writes in a certain way, with the inexorable consistency of his own handwriting. Turning this way and that in his last creative torment, he kept meeting, with a shudder, his pet modes of imagining, chimeras on the fault line between the imaginary and the actual.
In other words, late works are haunted houses, characterised, as Hawthorne put it by “a drawing away of veils, a lifting of heavy, magnificent curtains". As the artist's imagination prepares for its final Check-Out, the vividness of lived experience recedes like a fading coal, veiled by a skein of remembrance and nestled within plots that unfurl like Russian dolls. "Late style is what happens if art does not abdicate its rights in favor of reality,” says Said. A perfect description of both Shutter Island and Hugo with their onion-layering of illusion, their urgent summoning of the dead, and air of mazy, elegaic confabulation. The dead are rescusitated, the past disinterred; there are even a few statues looking ominously like they are about to spring to life; the recurring imagery of ash and scattered papers act as vivid memento mori — a previsualisation of all that remains when we, too, are vanished. Scorsese's late period would appear to be firmly in session.

Nov 8, 2011

ON MY IPOD: Nov 8th 2011

  • 'It's Real' — Real Estate
  • 'Facing the Sun' — Treefight for Sunlight
  • 'Hurts like Heaven' — Coldplay
  • 'Change the Sheets' — Kathleen Edwards
  • 'Helix' — Justice
  • 'We Found Love' — Rihanna
  • 'Domino' — Jessie J
  • '1979' — RAC
  • 'Jesus Fever' — Kurt Vile
  • 'The Same Thing' — Cass McCombs
  • 'Dust on the Dancefloor' — The Leisure Society
I take great pride in not hating Coldplay but instead sifting through the chaff looking for the good stuff and 'Hurts Like Heaven', despite lyrics extolling the virtues of emotional masochism, is a full tilt into the wind, with harmonies that slice the room at shoulder-height: they make self-pity as exciting as bungee-jumping. I've never heard of Real Estate before but their entire album, 'Days', has me hooked: they sound like someone melodic from Manchester but in fact are from New Jersey and look to be barely out of their teens. I can't find a mix of Rihanna's 'We Found Love' that I'm happy with (is there one that doesn't sound so Hamburg rave-y?) but the song has me nevertheless. Nothing wrong with the production of Jessie J's 'Domino': the song hangs in mid-air, perfect as a plum. Kathleen Edwards I've already praised on this blog, but 'Change the Sheets' isn't getting any worse. Justice's 'Helix' is a guilty, chunky synth-funk pleasure: the song I most like restraining myself to on the subway. The Leisure Society: this song has really grown on me, but then the song itself keeps evolving, only repeating itself at the 1:50 minute mark. That's halfway through the song — my favorite example of chrysalis structure since Oasis's 'I Hope, I Think, I Know'.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Steven Spielberg

“What? What did he say, again? Well! If he really said that, you just made my last four decades. You're responsible for making my last four decades. I've never heard that!” — Steven Spielberg upon hearing Alfred Hitchcock's comment “young Spielberg is the first one of us who doesn't see the proscenium arch” seemingly for the first time

Nov 7, 2011

Films I am most looking forward to in 2012

1. Moonlight Kingdom. To see if young love (and a return to American soil) can revive Wes Anderson's live-action filmmaking.
2. Lincoln. Because Daniel-Day Lewis's feel for American-historical sinew is second-to-none.

3. Under The Skin. Scarlett Johannson is a man-eating alien in Jonathan Glazer's first film since Birth (2004), the most under-seen great movie of the 2000s.

4. Life of Pi. Ang Lee + Depardieu + 3D + tiger. The choice of project feels both surprising and inevitable — our best hope for a masterpiece.

5. This is Forty. Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd, Megan Fox in a companion piece to Knocked Up.

6. Django Unchained. The rhythms of black speech = Tarantino defibrillator.

7. The Dictator. Crunch time for Sasha Baron Cohen.

8. The Amazing Spiderman. For Emma Stone.

9. John Carter. Andrew Stanton's live-action follow up to WALL-E.

10. Brave. Hogmanay and haggis from Pixar.

Also: — Argo, ParaNorman, My Wild Life, The Cabin In the Woods, Chronicle

Nov 5, 2011

CAREER BEST: Leonardo Di Caprio

“When I can’t immediately define the character, and there’s an element of mystery to it and still a lot to be explored, that’s when I say yes,” the 36-year-old Mr. DiCaprio said in an interview last week on a patio at the Bel Air Hotel here. “I like those kinds of complicated characters. I just do.” Hollywood typically doesn’t like that answer. The star system may have become more subtle since the days of Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, but it’s still a system: American actors are supposed to be more steady persona, less shape shifter. “The apparatus likes to box actors up,” said Brian Grazer, a producer of “J. Edgar,” which is set for release on Wednesday. “Once they become successful in one role, get them into picture after picture where they can do exactly the same thing.” — The New York Times

Why is it that in any battle between a movie star keen to prove his "method" credentials and the wicked studios, who want to entrap him in the role of movie star, I always tend to side with the studios? Nobody likes stereotyping, and yet there is nothing dumb about the aggregate wisdom that seeks out the platonic essence of an actor — in Di Cario's case, a young man's sprezzatura combined with a Huck Finnish resourcefulness. I'm thinking of his diamond smuggler in Blood Diamond and his teen fugitive in Catch Me If You Can, a role which perhaps more than the caught Di Caprio's brand of fleet-footedness, which seems to carry him across the screen like the moving dot over karaoke lyrics. Such gifts, even if they tend towards lightness, are not to be taken lightly. On the contrary they place him in the rarest company — one thinks of the very best movers, Fred Astaire and Cary Grant, both of whom raised the art of ease onscreen to a state of unparalleled grace. But effortlessness has fallen into disfavor these days — we prefer performances that break sweat — so naturally, it's the performance Di Caprio most disdains. The story goes that after filming Catch Me If You Can the actor foreswore ever taking on another ingenue role, preferring the more strenuous acting work-outs he got with Martin Scorsese. I must confess I love di Caprio as an actor and yet his recent career makes me miserable, his performances tending towards the twitchy and self-hating — strangely solitary affairs, as most attempts to prove something to oneself generally are. He goes the distance, but he doesn't take the audience with him, seemingly caught in a permanent state of self-chastisement for not growing up faster. Which is probably why he hated working for Spielberg, hellbent in the opposite direction, but there is something Peter Pannish about Di Caprio. He plays younger than he appears, which mean these attempts to play older seem misbegotten — a cat stroked backwards. He was appropriately feral in Gangs of New York, seething with hidden hatred for Bill the Butcher, but the role turned him into a sneak, so Day-Lewis blew him away. He was simply miscast in The Aviator — too young for the role, and badly let down by his voice, which can never quite hide its high spirits, despite no end of growling on Di Caprio's part. (If he had Kiefer Sutherland's stentorian boom, he would have had an Oscar by now). For The Departed he dug deep into his character's drug-addled psychosis, as if he we were appearing in one of Scorsese's Paul-Schrader-era collaborations, in orbit around a single lost soul, but even Scorsese doesn't summon the tone, or the energy, for such descents any more and Di Caprio looked stranded, even faintly comic, as if he didn't realise there were other people in the movie: every time we cut back to him, he just seemed more bug-eyed and out of it. Maybe that's why his best performances have been playing solipsists, in both Shutter Island and Inception, whose shared preoccupation with fantasy and reality suggests that these mazy, inner-space refugees may turn out to be defining roles for him. One can't but worry about the state of the Di Caprio psyche these days. All those supermodels can't be good for the soul; Howard Hughes and J Edgar Hoover, taken together, suggest an attempt at some sort of self-diagnosis. I hope he's having fun.

1. Blood Diamond
2. Catch Me If You Can
3. Shutter Island
4. What's Eating Gilbert Grape
5. Titanic
6. Inception
7. Romeo + Juliet
8. This Boy's Life
9. The Basketball Diaries
10. Revolutionary Road