May 29, 2012

Bearing the moral weight of a nation

"Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents. With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies. Mr. Blair, the former director of national intelligence, said the strike campaign was dangerously seductive. “It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness,” he said. “It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.”— NYT
I would be equally worried by the damage done to Americans.  Waging war has never felt as painless as it does to 21st century America. We are heavily insulated from the cost of war by media squeamishness, an all-volunteer force, heavy debt, and now drones. They offer a Lethean draught of moral absenteeism, removing us from all sense of agency with regard to actions carried out in our name. Killing a man ought to carry more weight.  
Aides say Mr. Obama has several reasons for becoming so immersed in lethal counterterrorism operations. A student of writings on war by Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, he believes that he should take moral responsibility for such actions. And he knows that bad strikes can tarnish America’s image and derail diplomacy.
One gets the sense from the Times report not just of the burdens of office, but something altogether unhealthier: the moral responsibility of a nation being borne by one man, rather like those Tokyo nuclear plant workers who absorbed all that toxicity to prevent meltdown. It's got to be cooking his insides. 

Ridley Scott wants what you have

"Macho? Tony's very macho. He'll still climb bloody El Capitan; I tell him he's a fucking idiot. But I prefer the tennis court. I've got a knee replacement because of the tennis." Naturally, Scott's friends are rivals, too, and it was a visit to the set of Cameron's Avatar that convinced him to shoot Prometheus in 3D. "I said to Jim: 'You've gone and raised the fucking bar again! I've got to do something about this...'." — Ridley Scott in The Independent
Ineresting. I don't think "competitive" is the word for this. I've long thought Scott to be the most covetous filmmaker working. It's an extension of his ad background, but everything in his movies is stuff you want, or which he wants, or he wants you to want. His films are eaten up with envy, be it for the rich (Someone to Watch Over Me), for cool hardware (Alien), for great architecture (Blade Runner), for rich food (Hannibal), for French real estate (A Good Year) for high shutter speed shots of dirt raining down on scenes of combat (Gladiator) and now for 3-D. He covets. 

REVIEW: Men In Black 3 (Sonnenfeld)

I liked Men in Black 3 much more than I thought I was going to, but then I did read one too many reviews, starting with Richard Brody's in The New Yorker:—
It’s surprising to see an action film that plays so jitteringly like the stretched-thin, papered-over adornment of an elaborately contrived script that it leaves its framework sticking uneasily out between the edges.
The New York Times's A O Scott asked,
Can you think of a new movie with less reason for existing than “Men in Black 3”?
then regained his good humor in time to conclude
You don’t need to study up on the previous installments or master a body of bogus fanboy lore to enjoy this movie for the breezy pop throwaway it is. Your expectations may be pleasantly low, and you may therefore be pleasantly surprised when they are exceeded.
Ah the cruelty of that kicker. Why has everyone been so begrudging? Are they trying to out-sourpuss Tommy Lee Jones? Play the grumpy cuss to the movie's Will-Smith-like indefatigability?  David Edelstein, in New York, was the best at combining both smile and frown:—
As the younger K, Josh Brolin wears a semi-squashed nose (it is age-appropriately less spread), slits his eyes, and replicates the music in Jones’s voice — that weary, quarter-tone-up-the-scale Southern sigh that makes good comebacks bluesy. They’ve cast a still-untapped major talent — Jemaine Clement, of Flight of the Conchords — as the snarling extraterrestrial villain Boris “the Animal” and concocted a fascinating character in Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), a disheveled entity hidden under multiple layers of clothes and driven mad by his ability (more curse than gift) to see multiple futures at once. Such agreeable personalities as Emma Thompson (as the new boss), the dishy Brit Alice Eve (as the younger Thompson), and Bill Hader (as Andy Warhol!) flit in and out. The finished product is in a different league than the whompingly terrible Men in Black II — it hits its marks. But it’s not inventive enough to overcome the overarching inertia, the palpable absence of passion. 
This is why Edelstein is the best film critic we have right now: he will always let a performance steal from him the severity of his own conclusions (that description of Brolin doing Jones is marvellous). He's a floozy for fleshtones. Because put like that the movie sounds pretty good. And it is. I don't know why everyone has their legs crossed so tight. In many ways it is the fullest expression of Barry Sonnenfeld's anarcho-absurdist view of history as cosmic-pinball-machine: the MIB series has always been the best adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy never made. I loved all the jokes to do with scale in the first film — tiny guns that blasted you off your feet, rubber balls that wrecked buildings, whole galaxies in tiny amulets and so on. It was the world's first schlemiel blockbuster, with a cosmic-neurotic's view of the universe that turned the machismo of action moviemaking on its head. (Imagine Sleeper, if Woody Allen had been press-ganged into active duty on a summer blockbuster and somehow survived). I can't remember anything that happened in II — Will Smith must have hit me with that neuraliser of his — but the third is roughly the equal of the first, thanks to a deep bench of gags, Michael Stulberg's neurotic omniscient (the closest Sonnenfeld has come to a self-portrait), and an expectedly sweet ending that hit me right between the eyes (Brody thought it "gloopy", but then that's critics for you: the one thing they consistently undervalue is emotion — even the good ones like Anthony Lane, who thought Finding Nemo a mis-step for Pixar because it was too 'sentimental'). I would take Edelstein's point further and suggest letting the performances carry you away and forget about plot completely, rather in the manner of the old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby 'Road' pictures. The only thing I really didn't like was Will Smith's paranoia about people invading his space; it didn't seem a joke to me any more, after that footage of him slapping that Russian. It could be his Oprah's-sofa moment. B

May 28, 2012

The new blog title: an explanation

So the blog has undergone a name change. Not because I'm any less taken with our president, who continues to do an excellent job, but because the innocence of the 08 election has been dissipated. When I first started blogging, I came up with the title Taking Barack to the Movies in part because my heart was touched by Obama's complaint that he couldn't get out as much as he used to; also because the election felt like the biggest movie I had ever seen  — except it was real, and developed a little bit every day, with plot twists and recurring characters. It even had its own soundtrack: first the National's 'Fake Empire', that the campaign used, then Trevor Rabin's ludicrously stirring theme from Remember The Titans, starring Denzel Washington, which played the night of the Democratic Party Convention, and again on election night, as if to prove that sometimes life can turn out as well as a Denzel Washington movie. The new title is taken from Friar Laurence's warning to the young lovers in Romeo & Juliet:— "These violent delights have violent ends / And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, / Which as they kiss consume. The sweetest honey / Is loathsome in his own deliciousness ' And in the taste confounds the appetite." Which is how I feel about a lot of things these days — summer movies, election stats, the candy from the newly-opened Sugar Shop on Baltic street. 

May 26, 2012

Far from the bright centre of the universe

One of my favorite pieces of writing about Star Wars, which celebrates its 35th anniversary today:—
'In the summer of 1977, I saw "Star Wars" twenty-one times, mostly by myself. I was thirteen—that kid alone in the ticket line, slipping past ushers who'd begun to recognize me, impatient to get to my favorite seat. All twenty-one viewings took place at the Loews Astor Plaza at Forty-fourth Street, just off Times Square. The Astor Plaza was a low, deep-stretched hall with a massive screen and state-of-the-art sound, newly enough renovated to be free of the soda-rotted carpet that was a feature of New York theatres in those days. I associated the theatre with the Death Star; getting into it always felt like an accomplishment.'
My own thoughts on seeing the film as a kid in Cornwall here:—
'... to the average 10-year-old, there was only one only thing that could possibly be cooler than the thought of owning your own spaceship. And that was the thought of owning your own spaceship for such a length of time that it had broken down on you repeatedly, reaching the same level of fond decrepitude into which people let their cars sink. “What a piece of junk!” exclaims Luke. “She may not look like much,” replies Han Solo, “but she’s got it where it counts, kid”— an exchange of dialogue that provides such a neat encapsulation of critical opinion on the film that you wonder why critics in 1977 didn’t simply put their feet up and leave the film to itself. For junk is everywhere in Star Wars. It fills its characters’ garages and homes, their spaceships and speeders. One race of creatures trades exclusively in junk: when R2 D2 and C3PO land on Tatooine, they fall into the hands of Jawas, small feral creatures who drive around the planet in a big mobile rag-and-bone shop for robots, stopping every now and again to hold a garage sale, which is how Luke comes to buy the droids — as junk. The Star Wars universe, in other words, seems to run on roughly the same principle as a New York thrift store, except with less in the way of woolly hats and more in the way of laser cannons. The only piece of new technology on display is, of course, the Death Star, which disposes of its junk in a big garbage masher, and into which Luke and his merry band naturally fall, like seeking like. That the Empire are the only people in the universe who haven’t yet heard of recycling is enough to mark them out at the bad guys. The good guys don’t buy off the peg; they tinker and solder, retrofit and weld. They are to be found in their garages, souping up their landspeeders, or up to their necks in the wiring of the Millennium Falcon. As Han Solo says proudly, “I made a few modifications to her myself.” 
Everything points back, in other words, to Lucas’s most formative experience — souping up his Fiat Bianchina in his garage — and forwards towards his defining aesthetic as a filmmaker. For Star Wars, as many critics have pointed out, is itself junk — quite literally so. It is made up from the spare parts of other movies — offcuts of western, snippets of swashbuckler, and scraps of dialogue well past their sell-by date. “You can type this shit George, but you sure as hell can’t say it,” complained Harrison Ford — the only real actor in there, who further embarrassed proceedings by giving the only real performance, in which his disdain for the goings on is palpable: the sequels would fight hard to keep him and Luke separated, as if sensing that Luke’s ascent up the Jedi pole would never withstand Ford’s powers of sarcasm. But then Star Wars was never really about good acting, any more than the Road Runner cartoons were about the detailed delineation of beaks. A film which avoids close-ups like an introvert avoiding eye contact at a party, it is a movie consumed with motion blur and escape velocity, forward thrust and back blast. That’s all the Force was, really, once you had stripped it of some of the more mystical mumbo-jumbo in which Lucas wrapped it: that feeling you get when you’re driving so fast and well that you feel you’ve merged with your car, no longer really conscious of the decisions that you’re making, but thinking through the car’s fenders and chassis. If you’ve ever gone into the Zone while playing a video game, its much the same feeling. Star Wars is junk but it is fast junk. It’s got it where it counts.'

America vs The World: Bombs Away!

The second of my film columns for The Guardian:—
Memorial Day is fast approaching, so naturally one’s thoughts turn to the Fallen, and to the shared sacrifice of European and American continents as they united in common cause against the spectre of global tyranny. But that’s enough about the reviews for Battleship. 
“A preposterously lunkheaded salute to American naval machismo” snorted Tim Robey in The Daily Telegraph. “It seems that the U.S. Navy is as much committed to the production of this film as is the toy company” opined Le Monde’s Thomas Sotinel. As news of the hostile European reception spread, American critics equipped their reviews with a pre-emptive Euro-snob missile defense shield. “That the movie didn’t exactly receive hosannas in Europe should surprise absolutely no one. This is a Super-American movie,” bristled Jeff Simon of Buffalo News. “It would be like asking Belgian or Italian or French audiences to be happy about a sudden American invasion.” 
Ah Memorial day: an opportunity for solemn reflection on the folly of foreign conquest. At the cinema, on the other hand, it marks the start of blockbuster season, when the studios roll out their latest squadron of world-beaters designed to club the indigenous cinemas of the world into whimpering submission. When Jurassic Park came out in 1993, Gerard Depardieu compared the American film industry to a “war machine,” while French culture minister Jacques Toubon declared the movie “a threat to French national identity” claiming it was every Frenchman’s “patriotic duty” to see Germinal instead, there being no better known antidote to T Rexes that works more effectively than a 21/2-hour film about French coal-mining. 
It’s not hard to understand why the French would be sensitive to the threat of invasion — complaining of "McDomination" and calling Paris Disneyland a "cultural Chernobyl"— after their experience in the second world war. Ironically, it was America’s military success in 1945, and the ensuing popularity of all things American, that first brought a tidal wave of Hollywood movies down on European heads — 120,000 prints in 1950 alone, causing producer Walter Wanger to hail a victory for ”Donald Duck diplomacy” and calling Hollywood “a Marshall plan for ideas... a veritable celluloid Athens,” more important to America “than the H Bomb.” 
Or failing the H Bomb then Clark Gable — the most lethal device for intercontinental submission after the V-2 rocket. When Gable went shirtless in It Happened One Night (1932) he caused a drop in Argentinian undershirt sales; and when he instructed an Italian boy how to eat a hamburger in It Started in Naples (1960), he sparked a furious row amongst Italian chefs about the pernicious effect of Yankee imperialist cuisine. As one of the characters in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair, 1948) drily remarks, “If you give them food its relief. If you leave the labels on it’s imperialism.” 
There has always been a contradiction in the charge of cultural imperialism that globalization has only exacerbated. When Brian Keenan was taken hostage by Hezbollah extremists in 1986 he noted with some puzzlement that they were all dressed a headband tied and knotted at the side above the ear, like Rambo:— “This all-American hero, was the stereotype which these young Arab revolutionaries had adopted. They had taken on the cult figure of the Great Satan they so despised and who they claimed was responsible for all the evil in the world. Emulating Rambo they would reconquer the world and simultaneously rid themselves of that inadequacy which they could never admit.” 
Kennan’s story illustrates a fascinating paradox: like the muscled, flag-waving American action heroes that came after him, Rambo was a big success in America, but an even bigger success overseas by a box office margin of almost 2 to 1. He was a Frankenstein’s monster shaped by the international trade winds. The same with Spielberg’s dinosaurs which made 1993 the first year in Hollywood’s history that overseas revenues outstripped domestic ones — a crucial tip of the see-saw. 
“Jurassic Park was a political hardball that was used as a symbol of the American invasion, the second invasion of France, this time not to liberate but to occupy,” Spielberg told me when I interviewed him most recently. “That was the party line on it, and I was caught up in the middle. The blockbuster began in America, so no matter who the writer and director and producers are, of those films, even if it’s an Italian director, and a French writer and a British producer, if it makes a lot of money, almost too much money, it will accused of being an ‘American’ blockbuster. The world is shrinking. The internet has shrunk it to half its original size. We are closer neighbors in cyberspace than we ever have been in our collective history.” 
If this was true in 1993 it is even truer today. In 2012, the proportion of profits coming to the studios from overseas is a staggering 70% — an industry-reconfiguring statistic. In many ways, Hollywood has ceased to be the indigenous film industry of North America and become instead the world’s jukebox, pumping out what Michael Eisner once called “planetized emtertainment”. Which is why Battleship, like The Avengers before it, opened overseas first, leaving the domestic market to follow the foreign lead. 2012 will likely go down as the year Hollywood looked abroad to find out which of its movies were hits. While Battleship bombed domestically, taking only $25 million in its first weekend — “John Carter numbers” as one analyst put it — it took over $200,000 million overseas, with the very people most predisposed to finding it a “lunk-headed salute to American naval machismo.” 
Americans can be forgiven a note of complaint at this ongoing effort by the rest of the world to paint them as lunkheaded and macho and obsessed with their military. They tried to kill Battleship. As Al Pacino says in Godfather Part III, “Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in.”

May 20, 2012

REVIEW: The Dictator (dir. Charles)

In Borat, Sasha Baron Cohen impersonated a fictional Kazahkstani journalist, roaming the streets of New York, whose Stone-Age views about women and virulent anti-semitism are received by his smiling American hosts with a rictus of dumb-foundment and horror. The joke depended for its effectiveness on the patronizing attitudes lurking within the warmth his American hosts extended to their foreign guest, trapping them in ever tighter circles of squirming unease. We didn't just laugh because Borat was backward — we laughed because anyone could believe someone so backward could exist. The film satirized credulity.  In The Dictator, by way of contrast, Sasha Baron Cohen plays a fictitious Middle-Eastern dictator roaming the streets of New York, whose Stone-Age views about women and virulent anti-semitism are received by his smiling American hosts with a rictus of dumb-foundment and horror because they are paid to do so, being actors in a movie. I don't think Cohen has realized just what a seismic shift in writing style was being asked of him here.  The shift from pseudo-documentary to fictional comedy, if done properly,  would have sent him back to the drawing board to relearn his craft, recalibrating his outrage-levels, offense-loads and torque-percentages to see what fictional situations could bear. He appears not to have done any of this this. He's simply written what once he improvised, acted what once he enacted, and the results, with a few exceptions — a great gag about General Aladeen learning to masturbate  the 9/11 helicopter skit you've already seen in the trailer — simple roll out of end of the canon, and drop to the ground with a thumpFew of the gags connect with anything because they're not aimed at anything. Cohen isn't satirizing credulity because credulity is something actors are paid to suspend: Ana Farris must make her way through her scenes with Aladeen affecting not to notice his offensiveness, which seems a little less impressive, once shorn of the daring Cohen displayed in Borat, most of whose scenes risked  a punch in the hooter. We admired his balls, and that admiration was a good enough substitute for our sympathy. But sympathy in fiction must be earnt, and requires a very different sort of daring. He seems to have fast-forwarded right to the late part of Peter Sellers career where he couldn't get through a sketch without corpsing, and everyone sniggered along, too frightened not to join in. C+

May 19, 2012

Girls on Film: Auterism and hotties

The first of my film posts for The Guardian:—
Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows may have received a kicking from critics, but one person has emerged from the dust-up unscathed: Eva Green, the French actress who plays the evil witch Angelique Bouchard. With her red-lacquered lips, her crazy-beautiful eyes and possessed-marionette limbs, Green’s lolling vamp represents the perfection of a type Burton has long been trying to get right —  from Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns, to Lisa Marie Smith bosomy Martian in Mars Attack, to Anne Hathaway’s White Queen in Alice in Wonderland. Critics may be wearying tired of the rest of Burton’s directorial signatures — the ornate production designs, the seventies kitsch, the collaboration with Depp — but he’s finally perfected his vamps: peroxide-blonde, big-chested, cinch-waisted, eyes like Bambi’s.  
All film directors have their types. Everyone knows Steven Spielberg for his suburban settings, alien visitations, and Godlike shafts of light but equally consistent is his taste for hot moms, in long t-shirts, cut-off jeans and morning-sexy hair: Teri Garr and Mellinda Dillon in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist, and Dee Wallace in E.T. (dressed as Catwoman for Haloween, she even sends E.T, into a swoon).  Scorsese scholars find rich pickings in the director’s Catholism, his taste for violence, his bruisers, misfits and loners, but less so the women in orbit around them, whether sexily-damaged like Rosanna Arquette in After Hours and Illeana Douglas in Cape Fear, or spitfires like Lorraine Bracco in Goodfellas and Sharon Stone in Casino, giving as good as they get. 
 To which we could add Tarantino’s foot fetish (“he gave her a foot massage!”), Fellini’s breast-love, the lifelong connoisseurship Michaelangelo Antonioni brought to women’s legs, David Lynch’s thing for misapplied lip-stick, Darren Aronofsky’s taste for brainy brunettes and David Fincher’s love of skinny Goth girls viewed from the rear. As New York film critic David Edelstein to concluded, recently, “Fincher is an undies-and-butt man.” You could be forgiven for concluding that the most enduring definition of an auteur is a filmmaker who populates his movies with women he wants to boff.  
The big guns of auteur theory are strangely silent on the matter. In his seminal essay Notes on Auteur Theory in 1962, the influential American critic Andrew Sarris determined that auteur status was conferred by meeting the following benchmarks:  technical competence, personal style and something called “interior meaning” which he variously defined as a director’s “ vision of the world” his “attitude to life” and “elan of the soul.” He said nothing about sexual pecadilloes. Even though the two film directors hoisted highest by the French and touted as auteurist poster boys — Howards Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock — are famous for their taste in women, bequeathing us, respectively, the Hawksian woman and the Hitchcock Blonde.  
In his groundbreaking 1953 Cahiers du cinema essay, ‘The Genius of Howard Hawks,’ Jacques Rivette identified Hawks as “a bundle of dark forces and strange fascinations” — his  “obsession with continuity”, his “obsession with primitivism” and "bouts of ordered madness which give birth to an infinite chain of consequences" — but passed over his equally fervid obsession with insolent, self-possessed foxes, lounging against doorways in tailored suits like Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not (“You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and ... blow.")  Likewise, in their landmark study, Hitchcock: The First 44 Films,   Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol identified the “Hitchcock touch” through all the Catholic motifs in his work — original sin, guilt, martyrdom, crucifixion and so on — but had little to say about his lifelong worship at the altar of cool blondes with perfect manners and a nice line in double-entendres, as epitomized by Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief (“Do you want breast or leg?”), though Truffuat touched on the subject in his book of interviews with the director. 
 It’s a puzzle. French men are not known for their immunity to the charms of women. On the other hand, there’s always been a strong hint of chauvinism to auteur theorists. The carving up of the movies, a collaborative medium, into a series of solo acts, each bearing the unmistakeable imprint of an all-controlling “master,” most often male, is basically the Great Man Theory of history transplanted into movie theatres — the big swinging dick of film theories. Which is maybe why auterism, as conceived by the French in the 1960s and imported into America in the 1970s, has largely been the hobby-horse of young men in their twenties. Control is a young man’s sport. "There are no good and bad movies, only good and bad directors,” said Truffaut, at 21, believing that a real man’s signature comes through regardless, like musk or sweat.  Jacques Rivette, at age 25, found Hawks world to be “exclusively male” and dissed Marilyn Monroe as “that monster of femininity.” 
 So what about the women? The recent complaints from the Croissette about the lack of women directors at Cannes   — a “great pity” according to jury member Andrea Arnold — should not obscure the significant advances women have made in turning the cameras on men.  Kathryn Bigelow’s onscreen testosterone experiments have taken her from the young bucks of Point Break —  “young dumb and full of come” — to the more pathological daredevilry of Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker. Sofia Coppola has showcased her rapport with father figures (guess who) in Lost In Translation, and sleek young blades like Stephen Dorff in Somewhere. But the Female Gaze Award for Male Objectification surely has to go to Jane Campion, who got full frontal nude scenes from Mark Ruffalo in In The Cut and Havey Keitel in The Piano. 
He feigns the active while (re)presenting the passive posture,” writes Missouri professor Jaime Bihlmeyer of Keitel’s nudity in his 2003 academic paper The Female Gaze, the Speculum and the Chora within the H(y)st(e)rical Film. Citing Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva’s work on phallocentrism, Bihlmeyer concludes that by stripping for the camera, Keitel “appropriates a state of ambiguity” and becomes “unstuck from the linearity of the Law of the Father in this display of Other than subjectivity."  
Or, as Ruffalo tells Meg Ryan in In The Cut, "some women have no sense of the cock". Perhaps there’s our definition: you haven’t really qualified as an auteur until an American film scholar has used French psychoanalytic theory to render your ouevre as impregnable as Jean Baudrillard’s left nut.

May 18, 2012

What is Bill Murray doing right now?

Regular readers of this blog will know we like to keep to tabs on Bill Murray's extracurricular activities when we can. They tend to include either 1) a Scandinavian companion. 2) Tequila. 3) Golf carts. Or some combination of all three. The man is as close to an argument for compulsory 24-hr webcams as can be found. So we were delighted to receive the following update from New York magazine's commendable Vulture blog:—
"Swinton joyously jumped in, as did longtime Wes Anderson friend Waris Ahluwalia. Soon the circle was at least twenty people deep. And we were off! We circled one way, then back the other way, doing alternate forward high kicks at a ferocious speed. "Kick higher! You have to kick higher!" Murray instructed. We kicked higher. And higher. And circled more and more, and all ran toward the middle and then all ran away. By the time the song ended, there wasn't one among us who wasn't exhausted and beaming. Seamus and Gabriel gave me high fives and told me that that had been better than chocolate, if such a thing is even possible. Murray seemed pleased. He’d just helped a roomful of jaded Cannes partygoers remember what it feels like to be a kid."  

My Top Ten Movies of All-time (05/17/12)

Some people have been posting their Top Ten Movies of All-Time. I'm probably as close as I'll ever be to knowing what mine are so here goes. In chronological order:—
The Lady Eve (Sturges, 1941)
Notorious (Hitchcock, 1946)
The Apartment (Wilder, 1960)
Jules et Jim (Truffaut, 1962)
Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)
Jaws (Spielberg, 1976)
Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986)
Goodfellas (Scorsese, 1990)
Before Sunrise (Linklater, 1995)
The Social Network (Fincher, 2010)
I went back and forth like a ping-pong ball between Rear Window and Notorious. I was frustrated not to find room for Toy Story, The Wild Bunch, Badlands, All About Eve, or any Lubitsch, but a top ten is a top ten, so there we have it. Tinkety-tonk, old fruit, and down with the Nazis.*

*As I recently learned the Queen used to sign her letters during the war 

May 10, 2012

REVIEW: Dark Shadows (dir. Burton)

As the witch Angelique Bouchard  in Dark Shadows Eva Green has big, crazy-beautiful eyes, a grin like the Joker's, and long rangy limbs that do seem to flop into place, even when standing upright. When she points your way, lowers her head and stares through her eyelashes at the camera, she looks like a demonic mirror-image of a movie director: a marionette, pulling her own strings. Her director here is, in fact, Tim Burton, who is clearly in love with the alabaster-skinned vixen they've brewed up between them to bewitch pale, vampiric Johnny Depp, and rightly so. The movie itself is pretty thin stuff: a beautifully-photographed pastiche of the old Hammer horror films, complete with magenta-and-grey color scheme and looming score, that labors to stretch its single joke — vampires are spooked by lava lamps! — into a 90-minute feature. It's Depp and Burton's 8th film together and their famous mind-meld, which bypasses mere words, or human understanding, has bypassed the need to come up with a fresh script: it's nothing you haven't seen in The Addams Family, with Depp repeating his English Stiff Act from Sleepy Hollow, or any other of the films he's made with Burton in which he stares out at the audience through a pancaked rictus like a terrified marmoset. But Green is a knockout in every scene she's in, her head lolling as if might at any moment detach itself from her neck, roll down her outstretched arm and drop into your lap. Lucky you. This is acting as out-of-body experience, fleshy and delirious: nobody seems in possession of her body, least of all her. B-/C+

May 8, 2012

Why 'Girls' is a hipster 'Peanuts'

 From my blog post for Intelligent Life:—
'Where else have we encountered the Dunham’s  preoccupation with ill-matched couples, self-abasing love and self-basting humiliations than in Peanuts? Admittedly, Charlie Brown’s love for Little Red-haired Girl never got him as far as an actual date (“You know why that little red haired girl never notices me? Because I’m nothing! Hos can she see someone who’s nothing!”) whereas Dunham’s Hanna achieves regular, monkeyish intercourse with an artsy Prospect Heights carpenter who likes to take her from behind on his dirty sofa. But the look on Dunham’s face as he does so, squished into the sofa so that she almost seems to be turning out to face the viewer, seems to cry out for a fluffy thought balloon above her head containing the words “Good grief.” Or better yet: *sigh* Charlie Brown, it will be remembered, is the punch-bag for endless jokes about the size of his head, just as Hanna is teased mercilessly for her flabby body; both seem to draw punishment from the universe like air moisture, suckers for an endless succession of humiliations, disappointments and set-backs which leave Brown, at least, staring out at the reader despondently, as if to say: do you see this? As Schulz’s biographer David Michaelis puts it, “No rage boils up, no self pity spills over, no tears are shed, no lunch line is squeezed out — just silent endurance”.'

May 5, 2012

On My iPod: May 5th 2012

1. The Things You Do — Patrick Watson
2. Sometimes You Need — Rufus Wainwright
3. Holland — Cold Specks (pictured)
4. Open — Rhye
5. The Veidt — Deadmau5
6. In Your Light — Gotye
7. Return to Form — Daniel Rossen
8. The Alphabeat — David Guetta
9. Garden — Mike Snow
10. My Sweet Lord (Demo) — George Harrison

REVIEW: The Avengers (dir. Whedon)

Theres a rather thrilling moment towards the end of Joss Whedon's The Avengers. Bruce Banner and co are staring down some alien robots who have slipped through an intergalactic portal in the sky — they look like giant mechanized eels whose tails turn masonry to meringue. They look as pissed as they did at the end of the last Transformers movie.  But Banner (Mark Ruffalo) is not one to be spooked. He runs towards them — "you want to know my secret?" he yells "I'm always angry!" — and right then and there turns into the Hulk and brings down one of these slithering eels with one giant green fist. The audience lets out a startled whoop. At last! They have been allowed to complete a thought process that has been denied them by the rest of the movie, and the release in the air is palpable. The thought process is this: Huh. That green guy beats mechanized eels from space. It's the first time they've been allowed to think anything like that. Time and time again a pair of opponents whirl and pound away at each other in different combinations — Thor vs Iron Man, Iron Man vs Captain America and so on — decimating whole streets and forests, only to find the other still standing amid the rubble: they are exactly and evenly matched.  That's the whole film: a game of scissors-rock-paper-stone, in which everyone has a pair scissors. No doubt there are kids out there who get a kick from knowing that their guy can't be put down, but dramatically it's a recipe for tedium. I've never got the point of superhero ensembles. I like my supermen and women pursuing solo careers, living amongst us regular folks in disguise, until such time as they are called upon to act — by a call of conscience, a spur to action, or else just a villain of surpassing iniquity who simply cries out be stopped. As Dash puts it so memorably in The Incredibles, "If everyone's super, then no-one is." It doesn't help that the villain here is played by an extremely effete Englishman who lowers his voice at the very beginning of the film to sound menacing, but then lets it creep up as the movie wears on, as if forgetting. His name is Loki, which may be the worst name for an inter-galactic villain I have ever heard. It sounds like the name of a baby dolphin. Loki spends most of his time locked up in the bowels of the Avengers ship, visiting not the slightest scintilla of threat upon a single living creature. It's a bit like an episode of Star Trek in which the Klingons are locked up in the Enterprise's brig the entire time. Where's the fun in that? Shouldn't they let him out to jazz things up a bit? Where are the Avengers going in that ship? What urges them on? What are they hoping to achieve in the small amount of screen time allotted them before they return into the ether from which they came? Thank heavens for Ruffalo, who's tousled, bashful turn is pretty much the sole reason to see this crappy film. C+

May 4, 2012

Going underground

Richard Estes, The L Train, 2009

From my article about advertising on the MTA for Craig Raine's Arete magazine:—
'Up above, the surface dwellers are sipping designer vodka by the pool, looking out over a sea of razor-flat abs. Down below, the most fervently expressed wish is for a face that does not look like a pizza. If the advertising above-ground is the city’s super-ego writ large, the advertising you find on the New York city subway is something like its subconscious: knotted with frets and fevers, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Do you have alcoholism? Too many chins? Bed bugs? Do you need a personal injury lawyer? Night school? A chemical peel? Not that advertising on the subway is without aspiration, necessarily. As on the London Underground — or, for that matter, the dystopian futures shown in the films Blade Runner (1982) and Brazil (1985) — it boasts its fair share of ads for beach getaways and booze, there being nothing quite like being trapped in a 42-tonne steel coffin with 188 of your fellow New Yorkers to sharpen one’s taste for escape. “The other 9 to 5”, runs one vodka advert, offering a grimly comic choice of rat races: round-the clock work or round-the-clock obliteration. You choose. 
This is exactly why I love the subway, the natural mode of transport for daydreamers, poets, escapologists, fugitives from justice and fantasists of all stripes. On the street, you walk through the city protected by a force field of potential litigation, and driving by car or taxi is much like high-speed luging. I spent my first few years in the city nervously fondling the taxi ID numbers written in braille on the back of the driver’s seat, wondering what impression it would leave on my forehead in the event of a crash and whether it would count as written evidence. The subway pushes you into close and unfamiliar proximity with the human beings you actually happen to share the city with, and the very unpleasantness of the experience offers an on-the-spot lesson in tolerance. “A Million New Yorkers Are Good Without God,” states an advert paid for by a private donor last year. “Are You?” Actually, no, I’m not: not with my fellow man’s armpit just a few inches from my left nostril. If this is all there is to life, I’m getting off at the next stop. 
The MTA is the last place you’d want to advertise atheism. On the contrary, the urge towards transcendence is acute, as evidenced by the strain of metaphysical yearning to some of the ads. One of my favorites is for something called the School of Practical Philosophy, which offers a 10-session, $90 introductory trot through such time-tested truisms as “Become aware of where you are right now,” and “Feel your feet on the ground” and “Watch the breath as it enters and leaves the body. Now be aware of hearing… Taste. Smell.” None of this is advisable on the subway, you understand, and likely to lead to an immediate loss of consciousness, but the ads made a bold pitch nonetheless: “THIS POSTER CAN MAKE YOU HAPPIER THAN ANY OTHER ON THE SUBWAY”. That’s how the poster read when I first arrived in the city, anyway. A year or two later, I looked up and found that the more achievable promise of “SUSTAINABLE HAPPINESS” had been put in its place. If only Thomas Jefferson had followed a similar amendment when drafting the declaration of independence, I thought, and America might have turned out to be a very different kind of place.

When the New Young Americans are British

From my first film column for Intelligent Life, about British stars playing American:—
'Today’s young British stars are different creatures. Gym-toned, buff, flanked by their super agent and accent coach, they aspire to ambidextrous, trans-Atlantic careers — more American than the Americans. When Christian Bale loosed a torrent of expletives on the set of Terminator: Salvation after a director of photography walked into shot, the greater shock for Americans was not his language, but the accent it was delivered in:  “Christian Bale is British???” spluttered one blogger. After playing an English-rose-in-bloom in An Education, Carey Mulligan couldn’t pluck her own petals fast enough, first in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, then Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent thriller Drive, and then Steve McQueen’s numb sex-addiction drama Shame — a record-breaking trip to the dark side, achieving in two years what Helena Bonham Carter managed only after two decades of patient struggle. 
Partly, it’s a generational shift — Mulligan and Garfield are the children of globalization, the internet, Labor’s ‘rebranded’ Britain. Mulligan was born in 1985, the same year A Room With A View was released, the flagship of the Merchant Ivory fleet. So was Kiera Knightley.  Garfield and Henry Cavill were born two years earlier in 1983. The girls were five and the boys were seven when Tim Burton’s Batman all but blotted out the moon. The big British hits of their youth were Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Trainspotting (1996), an odd couple on the face of it, but both rooted in a particular world — West London and Glasgow, respectively — and also possessed of the double-jointed marketing savvy to view those worlds from the outside, thus playing like gangbusters for foreign audiences. 
Slumdog Millionaire pulled off much the same trick — a self-conscious exoticism that exactly catches the flavor of national identity in the globalized, internet age. Caught in the moon-glow of YouTube, the Disney channel and The X Factor, kids dream the same dreams now, from Brixton to Bangladesh. The great question driving the internet, above all others, is “Who are you?”  — or, as the first line of Hamlet has it, “who’s there?” The web has made Hamlets of us all, soliloquizing into the ether, fishing for contact, both newly conscious of our national identity and quick to discard it if we don’t find it working for us — if it doesn’t ‘play.’ “I'm not American and I'm not French, actually,” Michel Haznavicious told the DGA when he accepted his directing award for The Artist last year. “I'm a filmmaker.” A canny bit of awards-season politics, perhaps, in which one feels the hand of the maestro himself, Harvey Weinstein. But a revealing glimpse into the multi-colored fuse-box that is the soul of the 21st-century entertainer. Just don’t tell Superman. I think the guy is an illegal alien.'