Aug 30, 2013

First 'Under The Skin' reviews

'This first act of the picture finds Laura driving her truck around the urban areas of Scotland seducing men on the street. She coyly convinces them to come back to what they think is her apartment.  Instead, Laura hypnotizes them like a Black Widow and they strip down only to walk into a merciless fate in what can only be described as a liquid prison.... Glazer may be the visionary behind "Under the Skin"s cinematic highs, but it must be noted that this film lives and dies on Johansson's incredible turn. Johansson's dialogue is mostly limited to her pickup lines as she scours the city for new meat. Even though a majority of her scenes are silent the 28-year-old actress still finds a way to bring a distinct dramatic arc to her character.' — Hitfix 
I'm in. Glazer's Birth was one of the great films of the 2000s. 

Aug 28, 2013

'Gravity' first reviews

"At once the most realistic and beautifully choreographed film ever set in space, Gravity is a thrillingly realized survival story spiked with interludes of breath-catching tension and startling surprise. Not at all a science fiction film in the conventional sense, Alfonso Cuaron's first feature in seven years has no aliens, space ship battles or dystopian societies, just the intimate spectacle of a man and a woman trying to cope in the most hostile possible environment across a very tight 90 minutes.... It's as if Max Ophuls were let loose in outer space, so elegant is the visual continuity, making for a film that will have buffs and casual fans alike gaping and wondering, “How did they do that?” and returning for multiple viewings just to imbibe the sheer virtuosity of it all." — Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter 
"In Alfonso Cuaron’s astonishing Gravity, Sandra Bullock, playing a lost astronaut stranded 375 miles above Earth, seeks refuge in an abandoned spacecraft and curls into a floating fetal position, savoring a brief respite from her harrowing journey. Of the many sights to behold in this white-knuckle space odyssey, a work of great narrative simplicity and visual complexity, it’s this image that speaks most eloquently to Cuaron’s gifts as a filmmaker: He’s the rare virtuoso capable of steering us through vividly imagined worlds and into deep recesses of human feeling. Suspending viewers alongside Bullock for a taut, transporting 91 minutes (with George Clooney in a sly supporting turn), the director’s long-overdue follow-up to “Children of Men” is at once a nervy experiment in blockbuster minimalism and a film of robust movie-movie thrills, restoring a sense of wonder, terror and possibility to the bigscreen that should inspire awe among critics and audiences worldwide." — Justin Chang, Variety 

Aug 20, 2013

Going Dutch

Sad news. From Anthony Lane's appreciation:—

'... I recall being given a copy of “The Sea, the Sea,” the Iris Murdoch novel that won the Booker Prize in 1978. It came heartily recommended, so I wasted no time in laying it side by side with “The Switch,” which had been published in the same year. A random sample, from Dame Iris:
Oh, he was slippery, slippery, touchy, proud. I must hold him, I must be tactful, careful, gentle, firm, I must understand how. Everything, everything, I felt, now depended on Titus, he was the centre of the world, he was the KEY. I was filled with painful and joyful emotions and the absolute need to conceal them. I could so easily, here, alarm, offend, disgust.
Huh? It’s like being swallowed alive by a giant thesaurus. How are we supposed to work out, with any precision, what these fellows actually mean, through veils of verbal blubber such as that? Meanwhile, over in Detroit:
“You notice in the drive?” Ordell said to Louis. “He’s got an AMC Hornet, man, pure black, no shit on the outside at all, your plain unmarked car. But inside—tell him, Richard.”
Richard said, “Well, I got a rollbar. I got heavy-duty Gabriel Striders. I got a shotgun mount in front.”
“He’s got one of those flashers,” Ordell said. “Kojak reaches out, puts up on his roof?”
“Super Fireball with a magnetic bottom. Let’s see,” Richard said, “I got a Federal PA one-seventy electronic siren, you can work it wail, yelp, or hi-lo. Well, in the trunk I keep a Schermuly gas grenade gun, some other equipment. Night-chuk riot baton. An M-17 gas mask.” He thought a moment. “I got a Legster leg holster. You ever see one?”
Be honest, now: Which is better, Dame or Dutch? That is to say, leaving aside both snobbery and its inverse (for no fictional setting, genteel or rough, is intrinsically superior to any other), who is more alert to the life of an English sentence—its rises, failings, falls, and emergency stops? You know the answer. It certainly saved me from spending too much time on Booker Prize novels, whether winners or nominees, then as now. Decades on, I still laugh at the Kojak line, and it’s easy to imagine how a clumsier or less adventurous writer might have handled the same idea: “It’s the kind that Kojak has on TV. He reaches out and puts it up on the roof.” See? Dead on arrival. But technique is not all; more mysterious is what radiates out from such technical command, amid the speeches, and lends dramatic energy to the owners of the mouths. The Murdoch paragraph has a lot to say, but it leaves us utterly clueless as to what either Titus or the narrator is like; they earn no place in our mind’s eye. Whereas Ordell is right there in a couple of deft strokes, egging Richard on, and Richard himself, well, even the words “he thought a moment” put us instantly in the presence of a major blockhead—a wannabe cop, who, it transpires, collects Nazi memorabilia. Character is language in action.'

Aug 14, 2013


'With his piercing blue-green eyes, set high like an otter’s, cheekbones like car bumpers, and unruly mop of chestnut hair, Cumberbatch has the kind of looks that seem to call out across alpine mountain-tops for the adjective “Byronic”. But his energy levels are more Tigger.  Offsetting the tousled, raffish, slightly boyish air is that rich Burtonesque baritone of his, last heard terrorizing the crew of the Starship enterprise in this summer’s blockbuster, Star Trek Into Darkness. Bill Condon calls it “a cello,” in which case, conversation with him can resemble a Haydn concerto, allegro con brio. The boy can talk. When I ask him a question about whether he asked Streep about the niceties of playing a real-life person, he delivers a ten-minute answer (10:32 seconds to be precise), brilliantly digressive, touching on a conversation they had about process, and music and notes, but to which actual answer, strictly speaking, is: no. “I’m sorry did I get off track?” he says blinking innocently, as if abashed by his own brilliance. He says his mother always knows he’s about to start another season of Sherlock because he starts talking double speed. “His voicemail messages are one of the great highlights of our friendship,” says Rebecca Hall who has known him since she was 13 saw him acting in a school stage production of The Taming of the shrew at harrow. “They contain whole conversations. They’re just joyous.”' — from my Vogue profile     

Aug 5, 2013


BEST FILM: August: Osage County, 12 Years A Slave, The Butler, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, Saving Mr Banks, American Hustle, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

BEST DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuaron, John Wells, Steve McQueen, Joel Coen, David O. Russell

BEST ACTOR: Forest Whitaker, Leonardo Di Caprio, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba, Robert Redford

BEST ACTRESS: Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock, Emma Thompson,  Julia Roberts

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: John Goodman, Tom Hanks, Michael Fassbender, Matthew McConnaughey

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Oprah Winfrey, Carey Mulligan, Lupita Nyong'o, Amy Adams, Juliette Lewis


'Everything you type on a typewriter sounds grand, the words forming in mini-explosions of SHOOK SHOOK SHOOK. A thank-you note resonates with the same heft as a literary masterpiece. The sound of typing is one reason to own a vintage manual typewriter — alas, there are only three reasons, and none of them are ease or speed. In addition to sound, there is the sheer physical pleasure of typing; it feels just as good as it sounds, the muscles in your hands control the volume and cadence of the aural assault so that the room echoes with the staccato beat of your synapses. You can choose the typewriter to match your sound signature. Remingtons from the 1930s go THICK THICK. Midcentury Royals sound like a voice repeating the word CHALK. CHALK. CHALK CHALK. Even the typewriters made for the dawning jet age (small enough to fit on the fold-down trays of the first 707s), like the Smith Corona Skyriter and the design masterpieces by Olivetti, go FITT FITT FITT like bullets from James Bond’s silenced Walther PPK. Composing on a Groma, exported to the West from a Communist country that no longer exists, is the sound of work, hard work. Close your eyes as you touch-type and you are a blacksmith shaping sentences hot out of the forge of your mind.' — Tom Hanks, New York Times 

Aug 2, 2013

Mad men and the single girl

My Guardian column this week finds me in a testy mood. 
'The testosterone comes off Bret Martin’s new book, Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution like wafts of Brut. A short, stocky account of the rise of such shows as The Sopranos, The Wire, The Breaking Bad, Mad Men, it comes with the muscular thesis   that cable TV has “become the significant American art form of the first decade of the 21st century, the equivalent of what the films of Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, and others had been to the 1970s or the novels of Updike, Roth. And Mailer had been to the 1960s.” You see? Now that’s what I call a thesis: beefy with name-drops, and a cultural frame of reference that could stun a herd of bison at 30 paces.

Martin corrals as hairy a group of alpha-males as have graced the pages of a book since Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders’ Raging Bulls. Here is David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, Eeyorish grump and attacker of desks, determined to “stick it to the bastards in their own house, right under their noses, and make them thank-you you for it,” in Martin’s words. Here is David Milch, veteran of NYPD Blue and creator of Deadwood, peeing out of a second-floor window onto flowers, showing off his drawer full of money, and — his party piece — whipping out his dick. Here is David Simon, future creator of The Wire, wearing ponytail and ripped jeans, thrusting his crotch into the face of colleagues at the Baltimore Sun. And here is his Wire star, Dominic West, working his way through his female fans. “A man could live off his leftovers” said Wendell Pierce. As  Andre Royo, who played Bubbles put it, “I look at Idris? Nothing but bitches outside his trailer. Dom West? Nothing but Bitches. Sonja? Dudes and bitches. Me? I’d have junkies out there. They fell in love with Bubbles.”

All this horse-play was, says Martin, par for the course for a creative revolution so fragrant with male pheromones you could float a jock-strap down the corridor on the thermals. “Not only were the most important shows of the era run by men, they were also largely about manhood,” he writes, “ in particular the contours of male power and the infinite varieties of male combat”, an unpersuasive bit of bluster the first time we come across it — really? infinite? — but by the time we read that Mad Men, too, is about the “infinite varieties” of male combat, you get a little impatient for specifics. There’s “bald stocky, flawed but charismatic” Tony Soprano; also   The Shield’s bald, stocky, flawed but charismatic Vic Mackey. We have The Wire’s alcoholic, self-destructive cops; or Rescue Me’s alcoholic, self-destructive firefighters; and so many “dark,” “flawed”, “morally compromised” anti-heroes that shades of grey begin to seem merely the new black — spray-on cynicism, a fake tattoo of cosmetic morbidity. All belong “to a species you might call Man Beset or Man Harried — badgered and bothered and thwarted by the modern world,” writes Marti, for whom  “men alternately setting loose and struggling to cage their wildest natures has always been the great American story.”

Doubtless, this sort of flattery slips down a treat at GQ, where Martin is correspondent, but it will come as news to anyone who thought Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, or Bette Davis’s Margo Channing, or Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping told American stories.  You could argue that they’re not great American stories, of course, and Martin gives every impression of a man ready for the challenge. There is a consistent denigration of female achievement throughout Difficult Men, and only the skimpiest mentions of Homeland, Nurse Jackie, Sex and the City and Girls. As Emily Nussbaum noted in The New Yorker, Martin gives Sex and the City “credit for jump-starting HBO, but the condescension is palpable, and the grudging praise is reserved for only one aspect of the series—the rawness of its subject matter,” but his condescension swells even more ostentatiously for Girls, which garnered attention, he says, “because a) it was good — though not hefty enough to support the weight of all the Rorschach-like baggage commentators bring to it b) it was created by a woman”. The chauvinism aside, you’d think that someone who refers to The Rockford Files as  being “post-Watergate, post-Vietnam” in sensibility, and spritzes every room with the word “auteur” as if laying rose petals for the Queen of France, would think a little more carefully before skewering others for “Rorschach-like baggage.”

In it’s own way, Martin’s book reminded me of all that I don’t like about many cable shows. There’s certainly an off-putting sweat stain of machismo at HBO; poor Kelly McDonald cannot open her mouth on Boardwalk Empire without channelling the writer’s-room funk of men stymied for the sort of thing woman are rumored to say. The Emmies distract themselves with rewarding every performance on Mad Men except the one that really counts — Christrina’s Hendrick’s Joan Harris, an extraordinary alloy of bombshell armor-plating and plush Monroe-like vulnerability.  (“Of course Joan is the bitchiest character,” one of Matthew Weiner’s colleagues tells Martin. “ And Matt is a quintessential Queen bitch. He could write that character for days and days.”) It’s no accident that Hendricks is one of few Mad Men cast members, other than Hamm, to enjoy a successful transition to the big screen; or that cable has provided a platform for such actresses as Claire Danes, Glenn Close and Edie Falco to deliver career-defining performances, while David Chase’s determination to swing his Sopranos gravitas into a movie-directing career faltered with last year’s Not Fade Away. Even Chase still wanted into the movies.

Cable TV is going enjoying an uptick in quality at the moment, but I wouldn't exchange the entire 5 seasons of  The Sopranos for a single reel of Goodfellas, which it cribbed so mercilessly (and which is mentioned only once in Martin’s book). Of the rest, only The Wire really stands out, a masterpiece of flinty, impassioned journalistic fabulism in the vein of Dickens and Orwell, but — and this feels almost like it goes without saying — there is no visual stylist to be found amongst Martin’s show-runners to match Scorsese or Coppola or Malick, no visual storyteller to match Spielberg or James Cameron or Ang Lee. Hollywood can breathe easy.'