Sep 30, 2012

REVIEW: Beasts Of The Southern Wild

My review of Beasts of the Southern Wild for Intelligent Life:-
Who would like to see a really good film about America? One of the chief virtues of being carpet-bombed by American movies has always been seeing what the country had been up to lately — how the old girl was shaping up. She’s been a little absent from screens of late. Sure, we get to see a generic New York smashed to smithereens every summer, but the giant vistas that once haunted John Ford, or the jittery streets that kept Martin Scorsese up nights seem to have faded from cinema screens. Woody Allen sends postcards home from London, Barcelona, Rome; even Scorsese went Parisian for Hugo; while the hip young auteurs circle the globe, collecting hosannahs from the international festival circuit: Wes Anderson’s latest, Moonrise Kingdom, is his first set on American soil in a decade. 
We’ll always have the Coens, of course, quietly at work stitching together a patchwork quilt of their country  — New York in the 1950s (The Hudsucker Proxy), Los Angeles in the 1940s (Barton Fink), Mississippi in the 1930s (Oh Brother Where Art Thou?) Minnesota in the 1960s (A Serious Man), Arkansas in the 1880s (True Grit), their quirky charm resting in their ability to see their country from the outside — strangers in their own land. Something of that mixture enlivens Beasts of the Southern Wild. Made on a shoestring by a resourceful New Orleans-based collective, and directed by 29-year-old Benh Zeitlin, the film came out of nowhere to snatch the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Camera d’Or at Cannes, and rightly so. It’s easily the most original American film of 2012. 
It’s about a black six-year-old named Hush Puppy, played by newcomer Quvenzhan√© Wallis, who holds the camera’s attention with an indomitable poise, a thick thatch of hair, a feral scowl and a smile that could melt ice-caps.  “In a million years, when kids go to school, they’re gonna know: Once there was a Hushpuppy, and she lived with her daddy in the Bathtub,” she tells us, blessed with innate solipsism known to children and narrators of fiction, from Huckleberry Finn to Terrence Malick’s boys in The Tree of Life. She acts as if the centre of the known universe. In many ways, she is.  The film is set in the marshy Louisiana lowland called the Bathtub, whose hardscrabble inhabitants spend their time fishing, scavenging, breaking open crabs and drinking moonshine like there’s no tomorrow in rickety, water-logged shanties built from pieces of old cars and caravans, with occasional breaks to howl at the moon. 
On the outskirts of the swamp sits a city belching pollution — a grey Oz. There are melting ice-caps, and a flood, and finally monsters, but none of this amounts to a plot, any more that did the wanderings of Odysseus. Instead, Zeitlin tunes into the lyrical voodoo of childhood with a liquid feel for sequence and consequence: a blow to her father’s chest sounds to Hush Puppy like a thunderclap. A missing mother sounds her Siren call. This has to have been the movie playing in Spike Jonze’s head when he made Where The Wild Things Are: a howl-at-the-heavens ode to being child king, feet planted in the mud and mess of America, head filled with myth and magic. Imagine Mad Max as retold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and you’re halfway there. 
Maybe that’s how America should look on screen right now, I thought as I left the theatre. Maybe that’s the American genre now: magic realism. It used to be realism, at the movies as much as on the page, but the role of national chronicler has largely fallen to television these days. In another era, Deadwood, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and Band of Brothers would all have been movies, but the industry that would have made them is now largely dead. In a recent New York Times article, Michael Cieply noted that of the 20 biggest hits of last year, only two — Bridesmaids and The Help —were set in anything recognizable as North America. In 1992, it was 15 out of 20. It’s one reason the Academy has gone fishing overseas for its big Oscar winners in recent years — The Artist, The King’s Speech, Slumdog Millionaire — always reserving a spot on the nominations for something flinty and home-spun from the indie-world: two year’s ago it was Winter’s Bone, which plunged audiences into the meth labs of the Ozarks.  This year, it will be Beasts of the Southern Wild. 
It’s not entirely free of the romanticism that dogs the genre, and it is now a genre: call it the American Exotic, ferrying news from the furthest pits of national squalor to the comfort of the urban movie house. Zeitlin is a Rousseauist. The drunken dysfunction of Hush Puppy’s family is lushly ennobled — her father even refusing medical treatment to keep the corrupting influence of civilization at bay — but the film gets you with all its glorious rot, like mud between your toes. It’s a sensory marvel. At one point, Hush Puppy and her family are fished out of the flood waters and forcible evacuated; such has been your immersion in the movie’s muck and clutter, that the entire scene, with its bright antiseptic lights and clean, white orderlies — “Like a fish tank without any fish” says Hush Puppy — plays like a report from Mars.  Actually, no. Just America. Which might be the same thing, these days.

Free advice for filmmakers

  • WES ANDERSON: make a movie with only 3 characters in it
  • PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON: allow your characters the possibility of change. 
  • MARTIN SCORSESE: make a (fictional) movie about your parents
  • STEVEN SPIELBERG: make more star vehicles
  • ANG LEE: keep doing what you're doing
  • DAVID O. RUSSELL: ditto
  • BEN AFFLECK: stop acting in your movies
  • DAVID FINCHER: act in someone else's movie
  • SOFIA COPPOLA: adapt a fifties spy novel, nouvelle vague style
  • DARREN ARONOFSKY: make a big flop, work on your compassion
  • QUENTIN TARANTINO: write something that comes in under 100 minutes
  • JAMES CAMERON: leave Avatars 2 and 3 to someone else
  • MICHAEL MANN: make a war movie (maybe Napoleonic) involving lots of tactics
  • STEPHEN FREARS: make another movie set in America
  • TIM BURTON: ... something for Pixar?
  • TERRENCE MALICK: collaborate with an Oscar-nominated screenwriter
  • DAVID LYNCH: just make another goddam movie

Sep 27, 2012

Fall Movie Screengrab

From top:— Mia Wasikowska in Stoker, Robert de Niro in The Silver Linings Playbook, The Life of Pi, Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, Denzel Washington in Flight, Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables, Matt Damon in Promised Land.

Sep 23, 2012

Is The Conformist too beautiful?

Can a film be too beautiful? I was pondering this while rewatching The Conformist the other day, only to be newly gobsmacked by Giulia's zebra-shadowed apartment, and that blue, late afternoon light which suffuses the Parisian section. Storaro brings up the artificial lights (in the shop windows, at Sanda's dance studio and at the dance)  to the point where they just starting to compete with the declining day light — peaches and oranges and blues all intermingling to the point where if you printed the scene in black and white, they would all come out the same tone. Watch this film with the sound down — the sure test of any great movie — and you would be hard pressed to guess that it was about a conformist, or the intersection of bourgeoisie and fascism, or the rage for normalcy in Mussollini's Italy. You would guess that it was about a sleek, stylish spy, with a chic, sexy wife, who travels to Paris for a menage-a-trois with a bisexual Frenchwoman married to the spy's French nemesis. It's the least conformist movie ever made, and up to a point this may have been intentional. You could argue that what is visually dramatised by the film is not Clerici's conformity, but the opposite — his subconscious, all the roiling abnormality he is attempting to hold back. Certainly the scenes in which he visits both parents (at the abandoned mansion and the asylum) have the depopulated nature of a dream. But Bertolucci's Rome is just as empty. He never gives us an idea of what Clerici is trying to conform to — the crowd into which he wishes to blend. His wife, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), is supposed to represent petit-bourgeois small-mindedness — a hausfrau, thinking only of the "bedroom and the kitchen", who worries she may not be glamorous enough to go to the dance. Who is Bertolucci kidding? Does he have any memory of the Sandrelli who danced through that zebra-striped apartment in a dress to match at the start of the film, looking as if she had recently escaped from the pages of Italian Vogue? All the film's contrasts — between the two women, the two countries — are overwhelmed by it's uniformly lush production design. It's themes are merely scripted.  I suspect Bertolucci couldn't stop himself, like a boy gorging himself on birthday cake; ever the sensualist, he  simply couldn't find a point of contact with the cold, reptilian Clerici, who in the film's very first scene primly covers Sandrelli's bottom with a bedsheet. (He later receives a homily from his blind friend about how the essence of normality is a man checking out a woman's behind: here, Bertolucci speaks loudly and clearly on the subject). So the film never beds down into a character study the way The Godfather did.  Clerici is not Bertolucci's alter-ego the way Michael was Coppola's, or Terry Malloy was Kazan's. That three-way synergy between actor, role and director which lies behind so many great films simply didn't take place. Clerici remains as mystifying to Bertolucci as he is to us.

Sep 20, 2012

Cinematographer Robert Burks' camera angles for the the crop dusting sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. All 61 bullet points  represent a specific camera angle. From Casting a Shadow: Creating The Hitchcock Film.

REVIEW: Hyde Park On Hudson

Those of us who believe Bill Murray to be God are quite sincere in our belief. How else explain the  mixture of omniscience, unflappability and infinite boredom he displayed in 1993's Groundhog Day? That role remains the best fit of his career, perfectly in keeping with our sense of Murray as a man who  knows what is about to come out of everybody's mouth before they do, pre-savoring everyone and everything with the ennui of a Puckish deity — maybe a lesser-known Greek, or one of those wine-soaked Pagan guys. Think about. There's no other explanation. It's also why his role as FDR in Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson is heaven-sent — the most seamless dramatic performance Murray has given in his career to date and the most skilled, purely pleasurable performance from an actor you are likely to see this year. It's pure bliss. Blinking, owl-like, over his pincez-nez, his voice hoisted up a register in imitation of FDR's famous patrician drawl, his martini glass brimming o'er with Wodehousian good cheer, Murray doesn't disappear into the role so much as disappear into the air of moonlit mischief that hangs over Roger Michell's charming, if slight, movie. It's an odd-jointed thing, but perfectly cast and tightly scripted, with Laura Linney as FDR's fifth or sixth cousin, Daisy, who becomes his lover after a fashion, administering a handjob to the president in his car while parked in a field. It's a strangely touching sight: Murray bobbing up and down in his Plymouth surrounded by purple thistles. Michell's movie is full of such incidental pleasures, without ever having much for them to be incidental to. Linney narrates, but the action soon sets her to one side to explore the comic niceties of having the King and Queen of England pay their first Royal visit. Did you know that the phrase "special relationship" dates to a Royal wolfing-down of hot dogs? I didn't. Plates are smashed, Royal etiquette blown a raspberry, lovers storm off and return by dawn's wan, bluish light. Then everyone wolfs down those hot dogs. Only with the score does Michell overplay his hand; as Jeremy Sams' strings surged and swooned romantically around Linney's renewed feelings, I did find myself thinking "this is a film about one woman's fight to give presidential hand jobs." But Murray doesn't flinch from the admonishment in Linney's gaze, and keeps the whole thing humming along like a game of badminton, or one of those Plymouths, a twinkly master of ceremonies, frequently confined to a wheelchair, but nevertheless giving off an air of boundless reach — you barely notice he's crippled if only because he seems to pay it so little heed himself. The complete absence of anything resembling self-pity may be the only thing standing between Murray and an Oscar, though I'm damned if I can see who else to give it to this year*. B

Hyde Park on Hudson is playing at the New York Film Festival on September 30th, October 3rd, and 8th. Tickets available here.  

* How stupid of me. Phoenix will win for banging his head against the wall in The Master.  

Sep 19, 2012

What it's like to be president

“You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t...” 

Many if not most of his decisions are thrust upon the president, out of the blue, by events beyond his control: oil spills, financial panics, pandemics, earthquakes, fires, coups, invasions, underwear bombers, movie-theater shooters, and on and on and on. They don’t order themselves neatly for his consideration but come in waves, jumbled on top of each other. “Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically... 

“Obama structures meetings so that they’re not debates,” says one participant. “They’re mini-speeches. He likes to make decisions by having his mind occupying the various positions. He likes to imagine holding the view”... His desire to hear the case raises the obvious question: Why didn’t he just make it himself? “It’s the Heisenberg principle,” he says. “Me asking the question changes the answer. And it also protects my decision-­making.” But it’s more than that. His desire to hear out junior people is a warm personality trait as much as a cool tactic, of a piece with his desire to play golf with White House cooks rather than with C.E.O.’s and basketball with people who treat him as just another player on the court; to stay home and read a book rather than go to a Washington cocktail party; and to seek out, in any crowd, not the beautiful people but the old people. The man has his stat­us needs, but they are unusual. And he has a tendency, an unthinking first step, to subvert established stat­us structures. After all, he became president." 
from Michael Lewis's profile of Obama in Vanity Fair

REVIEW: Band of Horses 'Mirage Rock'

For a while back there it looked like Michael Kiwanuka's to lose but Band of Horses fourth album, Mirage Rock, produced by 70-year-old British producer Glyn Johns, is just terrific.  It sounds like an album of garage-rock covers of Southern/SoCal classics which you've somehow managed, by the most cockeyed set of coincidences imaginable, never to hear. B+ 

Sep 18, 2012

ON MY iPOD: Sept 17th 2012

1. 'Manhattan' by Cat Power
2. 'Who' by David Byrne and St Vincent
3. 'Baby' by Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti
4. 'Keep Your Eyes Open' by Bill Frisell
5. 'Hold On When You Get Love And Let Go When You Give It' by Stars
6. 'Sunset' by The xx

Sep 16, 2012

REVIEW: Arbitrage (dir. Jarecki)

In Arbitrage, Richard Gere plays a crooked Wall Street financier who walks off when spoken to, shushs women with a single upheld finger, caresses their face as if considering buying a fine piece of sculpture, breaks off eye contact with you when you say something he doesn't like, stares into deep space and occasionally gets his hair mussed between the revolving door of his brokerage and his waiting limo. He is, in short, Richard Gere — and quite magnificent he is at it by now. Pushing his mid-sixties, his hair gorgeously leonine, he still walks like a 25-year-old, with that same smooth strut that propelled him through American Gigolo as if on silver ball bearings. His best roles — in Gigolo, but also a sleazy cop with his hands up everyone's skirt in Mike Figgis's excellent Internal Affairs, Brooklyn's Finest and now Arbitrage — have allowed him to suggest a roiling, narcissist's disloyalty beneath his sleek hood-ornament beauty. He gets angry the way kids get angry: when things don't go their way. And a lot doesn't go his way in Arbitrage — a car crash that kills his French mistress and from the site of which he flees, the tightening noose of a police investigation led by Tim Roth, threatening a billion dollar deal that, if it doesn't go through, could expose the fraud he has been perpetrating on his company's finances. I didn't understand much of it, but I understood the beading of perplexity on Gere's brow, the pain of his broken ribs, the funk of anxiety brought on by a late-night text. The film is not a grabber — there are no set-pieces apart from that car cash, and little action — but nor does it let go of you. You hope he gets away with it right to the last minute. B

Sep 13, 2012

BEST FILM OF 1931: City Lights

1. City Lights
2. M
3. Frankenstein
4. Monkey Business
5. The Public Enemy

BEST FILM OF 1932: Freaks

1. Freaks
2. Scarface
3. Boudu Saved From Drowning
4. Vampyr
5. Horse Feathers

BEST FILM OF 1933: Zero de conduite

1. Zero de Conduite
2. King Kong
3. Duck Soup
4. The Testament of Dr Mabuse
5. 42nd Street

BEST FILM of 1934: It Happened One Night

1. It Happened One Night
2. L'Atalante
3. The Thin Man
4. Twentieth Century
5. The Merry Widow

BEST FILM of 1935: Top Hat

1. Top Hat
2. The 39 Steps
3. A Night At The Opera
4. Triumph of The Will
5. Sylvia Scarlett

BEST FILM OF 1936: Modern Times

1. Modern Times
2. Partie de campagne
3. Camille
4. Fury
5. Sabotage

Sep 11, 2012


"To The Wonder doesn't precisely fart in your face. It leads you rather to wonder what the air might be like if you've just cut one in a shopping mall and there's someone right behind you, downwind. That's obviously a gross and infantile thing to think about, but To The Wonder frees you to go into such realms if you want. It's your deal, man. Be an adult or a child or a 12 year-old or a buffalo. Or a mosquito buzzing around a buffalo. Naah, that's dull. Be a buffalo and sniff the air as Rachel McAdams walks by!" — Jeff Wells, Hollywood Elsewhere

Sep 9, 2012

Nothing breeds success like failure

'Are flops good for the soul? The belly-flop of 1941 at the box-office certainly did wonders for Spielberg. Raiders is a miracle of economy, from it's lean, Lucas-enforced budget to the circularity of the gags — Indy shooting the scimitar wilding Arab, or using one opponent's gun to shoot another — all of which are applied Pythagoras: the shortest route between two points.  It’s remarkable how common the pattern is, not just of good films following bad — which would be statistically unremarkable — but of best film following worst. Persona, arguably Bergman’s best film, follows one of his worst, All These Women. Kubrick’s The Shining follows Barry Lyndon; David Lynch’s Blue Velvet follows Dune; the Coen’s No Country for Old Men follows The Lady Killers; Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler follows The Fountain; and Scorsese’s masterpiece, Raging Bull, follows his biggest box office flop, New York New York. It’s almost as if the flop clears the way for the masterpiece, rather in the way your body sweats out a fever, or a demolition job suddenly opens up the view. Scorsese’s flame-out was exacerbated by drug use, but it’s a useful metaphor for the metabolism of young careers:  the twentysomething director, head-swollen by prizes and plaudits, is tempted into a fatal over-estimation of his powers at precisely the point when the powers-that-be grant him more money than he has been used to. He decides to make his long-nursed dream project, a love letter to the entirety of the movies, and it’s a stinker — of course. He hits bottom, and picks himself up, bloodied but humbled. But now he has nothing to lose, he has nothing to fear, not even failure, and so has the spiritual wherewithal to summon his own truly necessary film — E.T., Blue Velvet, Raging Bull. “One of the things I will always thank the French for was giving me that grand prize at Cannes for Taxi Driver that allowed me to reveal to myself what a total failure I could be,” admitted Scorsese, later.' 
— from my column for The Guardian   

Sep 3, 2012

BEST FILM OF 1937: Snow White

1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
2. The Awful Truth
3. Grand Illusion
4. A Star Is Born
5. A Day At The Races

BEST FILM OF 1938: The Lady Vanishes

1. The Lady Vanishes
2. Holiday
3. Bringing up Baby
4. Jezebel
5. La Bete Humaine

BEST FILM OF 1939: La Regle du Jeu

1. La Regle du Jeu
2. The Wizard of Oz
3. Gone With The Wind
4. Stagecoach
5. Only Angels Have Wings

BEST FILM OF 1940: His Girl Friday

1. His Girl Friday
2. Rebecca
3. The Shop Around The Corner
4. Pinocchio
5. The Philadelphia Story

BEST FILM OF 1941: The Lady Eve

1. The Lady Eve
2. Citizen Kane
3. Sullivan's Travels
4. The Maltese Falcon
5. The Little Foxes

BEST FILM OF 1942: Casablanca

1. Casablanca
2. The Palm Beach Story
3. Cat People
4. Now, Voyager
5. To Be Or Not To Be

BEST FILM OF 1943: Shadow of a Doubt

1. Shadow of a Doubt
2. Heaven Can Wait
3. Ossessione
4. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
5. I Walked With A Zombie

BEST FILM OF 1944: Meet Me In St Louis

1. Meet Me In St Louis
2. Double Indemnity
3. To Have and Have Not
4. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek
5. Lifeboat

BEST FILM of 1945: Les Enfants du Paradis

1. Les Enfants du Paradis
2. Brief Encounter
3. Mildred Pierce
4. Rome Open City
5. Spellbound

BEST FILM OF 1946: Notorious

1. Notorious
2. Partie de campagne
3. The Big Sleep
4. My Darling Clementine
5. Beauty and the Beast

BEST FILMS OF 1947: Out Of The Past

1. Out of the Past
2. Monsieur Verdoux
3. Odd Man Out
4. Brighton Rock
5. Kiss Of Death

BEST FILM OF 1948: Lady From Shanghai

1. The Lady From Shanghai
2. Bicycle Thieves
3. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
4. Red River
5. Unfaithfully Yours

BEST FILM OF 1949: The Third Man

1. The Third Man
2. On The Town
3. Adam's Rib
4. The Passionate Friends
5. The Heiress

BEST FILM OF 1950: All About Eve

1. All About Eve
2. Sunset Boulevard
3. La Ronde
4. Rashomon
5. In A Lonely Place

BEST FILM OF 1951: A Place In The Sun

1. A Place In The Sun
2. Strangers On A Train
3. Diary of a Country Priest
4. An American in Paris
5. The Lavender Hill Mob

BEST FILM of 1952: Singin' in the Rain

1. Singin' in the Rain
2. The Narrow Margin
3. Ikiru
4. High Noon
5. Umberto D.

BEST FILM OF 1953: The Earrings of Madame de...

1. The Earrings of Madame de...
3. Tokyo Story
3. Roman Holiday
4. The Wages of Fear
5. From Here to Eternity

BEST FILM OF 1954: On The Waterfront

1. On The Waterfront
2. Rear Window
3. Seven Samurai
4. A Star Is Born
5. La strada

BEST FILM OF 1955: Night of the Hunter

1. The Night of The Hunter
2. The Ladkillers
3. Lola Montes
4. Les Diaboliques
5. Smiles of a Summer Night

BEST FILM OF 1956: A Man Escaped

1. A Man Escaped
2. The Searchers
3. Giant
4. The Man Who Knew Too Much
5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers

BEST FILM of 1957: Sweet Smell of Success

1. Sweet Smell of Success
2. Paths of Glory
3. Wild Strawberries
4. Funny Face
5. The Incredible Shrinking Man

BEST FILM OF 1958: Vertigo

1. Vertigo
2. Touch of Evil
3. Mon Oncle
4. Some Came Running
5. The Lovers

Sep 2, 2012

BEST FILM OF 1959: The 400 Blows

1. The 400 Blows
2. North by Northwest
3. Some Like It Hot
4. Pickpocket
5. Les cousins

BEST FILM of 1960: The Apartment

1. The Apartment
2. A bout de souffle
3. Psycho
4. La dolca vita
5. The Magnificent Seven

BEST FILM of 1961: The Misfits

1. The Misfits
2. 101 Dalmations
3. The Hustler
4. Yojimbo
5. Lola

BEST FILM of 1962: Jules et Jim

1. Jules et Jim
2. Lawrence of Arabia
3. Lolita
4. Vivre sa vie
5. Knife in the Water