Feb 27, 2014

REVIEW: NON-STOP (dir. Collet-Serra)

From my Guardian review:—
 “Nervous flyer?” asks Julianne Moore after she notices Liam Neeson fiddling nervously before take off.  “It never quiet goes way,” Neeson replies. You don’t know the half it it, lady. The last flight Neeson was on crash-landed in the Alaskan Tundra, where his fellow passengers were picked off, one by one, by a pack of ravenous grey wolves. The year before that, in Unknown, Neeson landed at Berlin Tagel Airport for a biotechnology summit only to have someone steal his wife, his identity and all respect for German traffic codes. And before that we had Taken, in which Neeson had his daughter kidnapped at Charles De Gaulle airport by Albanian slave traffickers. Neeson and foreigners don’t mix. Neeson and airports don’t mix. But Neeson and foreign airports is really asking for trouble. If Moore had any sense, she would have seen who was sat next to her, excused herself and caught the next flight. Such are the lessons of the Neeson action thriller, or Neesploitation film, as it is affectionately known. The affection is genuine enough. Every year, as everyone is booking their Oscar de La Renta gowns for the red carpet at the Oscars, the studio release a thriller in which Neeson has his daughter or wife stolen from him, thus forcing him to drive construction nails into men’s thighs and say things like “I’ll tear down the Eiffel tower if I have to!” For all their brutality, the films plug into and rely upon the essential gentleness of the Neeson persona — that soft protective burr.  Only Neeson could deliver a line like, “In about five seconds I am going to start beating the shit out of you” as he did in The Grey and make it sound, not like a boast, or a threat, but merely a helpful piece of information, shared in the interests of a peaceful resolution for all concerned parties.  
Still setting flight attendant hearts a flutter, but too decent to flirt with the too-young tootsie in the seat behind him, Neeson enjoys a nice, relaxed rapport with Moore, whose looser, Keatonesque side seems to come out when cast opposite noble hunks. Neeson plays Bill Marks, a retired air marshal with a drink problem and a picture of his daughter in his wallet. In case you haven’t heard: someone on the plane starts texting Neeson, threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is deposited in a bank account.  I’m a sucker for aircraft thrillers that try to observe the Aristotelian unities — a small if flawed group that includes Executive Decision, Passenger 57, Flight Plan, and Wes Craven’s half-brilliant Red Eye — although I’m less of a fan of these screenwriter-ex-machina villains, with their overly precise demands and insinuating insights into the hero’s private life. They’re really little more than Post-It notes from the screenwriter saying “Villain to Come…”   The general rule seems to be that the amount of threat summoned in the first half of the movie is exactly equal to the ludicrousness of the explanation tying everything together in the second. The director, Jaume Collet-Serra, has improved on the pacing of his last collaboration with Neeson, 2011’s Unknown. He’s also assembled quite a cast: Lupita Nyong’o, in her first post-Oscar role, as a flight attendant with two or three lines to rattle off in a cockney accent; Corey Stoll as a NYPD officer also on the flight; and Downtown Abbey’s Michelle Dockery, whose elegantly dulcet voice threatens to mesmerize all within a 30-yard radius every time she opens her mouth.  Collet-Serra shoots with a shallow depth of field, blurring everyone into shapes looming in Bill’s background, whether because of the Scotch he downed before the flight or his incipient paranoia is hard to tell. 
 For all the brushed-steel modernism of the film’s cinematography, the plot pays touching tribute to Miss Marple, and in particular to the old Agatha Christie trick of ushering the entire dramatis persona into the vicarage, before allowing the finger of suspicion to fall on each in turn. Substitute an aircraft at 40,000 feet for the vicarage and Liam Neeson for Angela Lansbury and you pretty much have Non-Stop“I’m not a good father! I’m not a good man! But I want to save this plane!” declaims Neeson at one point, as the bodies start to pile up at his feet, and the tide of suspicion threatens to sweep him away. He’s asked to rough-house a few of the passengers and it looks a little unconvincing, to be honest — bouts of Segal-ish brutality that Neeson can't be done with fast enough. He’s big and bearish, but he’s never been a brute. He’s at his best striding up and down the aisles of the aircraft with that big, rolling gait of his, carving out great wads of air with his hands, barking orders, his face in Rodinish profile, his destiny, like Mitchum’s, enlivened by a nobility far greater than the film he finds himself in — the true sign of a b-movie king. Only once has the Neesploitation film touched greatness, in Joe Carnahan’s The Grey, a keening, white-knuckled scrap of a film about life and death in the Tundra that is on its way, I believe, to becoming a minor classic.  Non-stop is the flimsiest of black box recorders, by contrast, that never threatens to make even intermittent sense, but it hangs together on the bulky shoulders of its star. Nothing I saw on TV this week was quite as civilized as the actor’s admission, on Sixty Minutes, that he was a “wee bit embarrassed” by the prospecting of beating people up at the age of 61. As if violence were something young men grow out of. Imagine. 

Feb 24, 2014

What constitutes great screening acting?

“My dear boy, “ replied Alfred Hitchcock after being pestered by Gregory Peck as to his character’s motivation in Spellbound, “I couldn’t care less what you're thinking. Just let you face drain of all expression.” Some 60 years later, are we any clearer on what, exactly, constitutes great screen acting? The Academy awards will be presented on March 2nd, to a set of Blanche du bois impressions, drunkalogues and drag acts nominees with gummed-on toupees, bloated bellies and false teeth. Screen acting has never been showier than it is right now. ‘Stunt’ performances which were once relatively rare are becoming a necessary audience hook,” wrote Raging Bull’s screenwriter Paul Schrader in a Facebook posting recently, “emaciated McConaughey, comb-over Bale, silent Redford…”He should know. It was De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull, for which the actor ate his way around Northern Italy to get his weight up from 145lbs to 215llbs, turning his body into a form of cinematic ‘event’ that had to be seen to be believed, that first showed the way for actors to hold their own in the age of special-effects spectacle. They would make quite literal spectacles of themselves—not so much acting as morphing. More than ever before, screen acting has become a series of spectacular coups de theatre come see Nicole Kidman’s nose! Meryl Streep’s dementia! Tom Hanks’ weight loss! Christina Bale’s weigh gain!—even as some of us wonder what has happened to the magnificent ease that used to mark their progress across the screen. 
 In a famous experiment in the 1920s, the Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov cut between the blank expression of a Tsarist matinee idol and a series of shots showing plate of soup, a girl in a coffin, a woman on a divan, then showed it to an audience, all of whom praised the actor for his display of hunger, grief, sexual attraction, etc. Hitchcock had a version of this in Rear Window, when he cut from the same shot of James Stewart looking out his window at variously, a dog going pee-pee, a pianist, and a nubile girl exercising in her bedroom, his character turning into a peeping tom with one cut.   The best screen actors have always known this — the enormous limbic power of a look, or gesture, as well as the filmmakers power to recontextualize it — and taken appropriate action. Ceding control of the scene to filmmaker, they seek gravitational influence within the frame. They become gestural minimalists, concentrating on the two areas eye-tracking experiments have revealed as the audience’s first ports of call: eyes and hands. Gary Cooper’s eyes were beautiful, but so were his hands, and he liked to keep them occupied—in one scene in Morocco (1930), he played with, variously, a burnt match, a child’s doll, a fan, a whiskey tumbler, and an apple, as if finding replacements for the one thing he would like to get his hands on, Marlene Dietrich, who stood framed in a doorway. From Cooper flow all the tricks in the modern scene-stealers handbook, including: chewing toothpicks (Ryan Gosling), constant snacking (Brad Pitt), speaking sotte voce (Kevin Spacey), refusing to look your co-stares in the eye (Al Pacino, who was doing this even before he played blind in Scent of a Woman, and after which he simply doubled down on the technique. He hasn't looked at anyone in decades). You may smile, but such tricks points to the importance, more than mere acting, of existing on screen—capturing the camera, holding the space, compelling and keeping the audience’s gaze.

Feb 21, 2014


From my Guardian review;—
The Wind Rises, the new film from 72-year-old Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, takes its title from a line in a Paul Valery poem (“The wind is rising! We must try to live!") and is inspired by the life of aeronautical engineer Jirô Horikoshi who designed  Mitsubishi’s A6M Zero fighter. It’s probably the gentlest animated feature about an armaments designer you’ll ever see. “Poor countries want airplanes”, Jirô (Hideaki Anno) is told, as they watch oxen haul the latest prototype out onto the field for testing. Lacking the power of Western engines, Jirô and his fellow engineers must instead work with everything at his disposal — flush rivets, split flaps, retractable undercarriages, the lightest aluminium alloy — to reduce the drag on that aircraft and pluck it into the vast, blue yonder.
In that face-off between Western power and Eastern ingenuity you have both a portrait of pre-War Japan, its economy in the tank, desperate to pull itself into the 20th century, and a clue to what gives Miyazaki’s film its lyrical lift. In many respects, the animation traditions of America and Japan follow the course of their aeronautics industries. Whether it be Mickey losing control of his magic in The Sorceror’s Apprentice, young Dash learning to temper his speed in The Incredibles (“I'll only be the best by a tiny bit”) to the young sorceress of this year’s Disney hit Frozen, relishing the icy thrill of female empowerment, America’s animated features are, to a large extent, soft power tutorials — parables of the risk and responsibilities of great power.  They put kids in the cockpit and teach them how to take their country for a spin. Mizyaki’s hero is instead marked by a more modest, even self-effacing gallantry. Too short-sighted to be a pilot, Jirô peers at the world through thick Harold Lloyd spectacles, watching planes carve great arcs against slowly moving cloudbanks. In his dreams, he talks a walk on their wings alongside his hero Italian aviator Giovanni Caproni (Mansai Nomura), who tells him "Airplanes are not for war or making money. Airplanes are beautiful dreams waiting to be swallowed by the sky.” Miyazaki’s fascination with flight goes all the way back to 1984’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, whose heroine negotiates the post-apocalyptic jungle by glider; was most fully explored in 1992's Porco Rosso, about a flying ace who happens to be a pig, chasing air pirates in the Adriatic sea.  
The Wind Rises certainly doesn't scrimp on its aeronautic minutiae— taking inspiration from a mackerel bone, Jiro’s designs for strut fittings spring to life from his table in demonstration of aerodynamic principle — but for Miyazaki, the wonkishness equally edges into another abiding obsessions: the animating power of nature herself. From it’s shots of blooming parasols, breeze-filled curtains, fluttering snowflakes and rustling bamboo grass, there is barely a frame of The Wind Rises that doesn't serve as a reminder why Miyazaki named his studio after a wind, the Ghibli, capable of reshaping whole desert landscapes at a single stroke. Sounds awfully lot like an animator to me. It even blew Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas into each other’s arms in The English Patient, if memory serves.  

Feb 18, 2014


From this week's Guardian Oscar column:— 
Mathew McConaughey hasn't had a “comeback” by the textbook definition of the term. He didn’t languish in movie jail like Mickey Rourke; he didn’t fall off the map for a decade like Dennis Hopper. Rather, like John Travolta, he sank in plain view — in the sunlit terrariums of rom-com-land, where, if anything, he seemed even to be enjoying himself. But the rescusitation of his critical fortunes has involved much the same course as Rourke’s: a scouring of the flesh, a purification of the body — “this old, broken down piece of meat” in Rourke’s delicious phrase from The Wrestler. Playing the stricken Ron Woodruff, in Dallas Buyer’s Club, McConnaughey is reptilian, feverish, emaciated, containing just the element of trompe o’oeile the academy has learned to consider ‘acting.’ They have decided to reward his role in Dallas Buyer’s Club but it could as easily have been for any of the roles that have marked out  the McConnaughaissence, starting with   2011’s The Lincoln Lawyer, in which he dirtied up the attorney role with which he first made his name in 1996’s A Time to Kill. In Magic Mike, he deconstructed his own reputation as Cinema’s One Truly Objectified Male, whipping up the waves of female lust that buffeted the stage of the Xquisite like a conductor. Last year the fusillade of roles had become unignorable: Bernie, Killer Joe, Mud, Dallas Buyer’s Club, The Wolf of Wall Street, which he stole with a piece of improv designed to get him into character. People have won Oscars with far less. If McConaughey wins Best Actor on March 2n, as looks increasingly likely — with wins from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and Broadcast Film Critics Association now under his belt — it will be for one of the more protracted hot streaks in recent years.

Feb 16, 2014


From my Sunday Times profile:—
“A make-out scene with James Franco is, I mean, so important for a trailer these days” says Shteyngart, seigneurially, when I catch up with him at his apartment in the East Village, in the middle of a book tour that has already covered the East and West coasts, and next week heads for Canada, the UK, Australia. Books line one wall of his sparsely furnished, Scandinavian-style living room; next door, a dishwasher can be heard finishing its cycle. “You do things that are insane. I'm reviewing a nose trimmer for the New York Times. Anything you can do.  It's a laser-guided one so I may lose half of my face.” Such ingenious outreach may speak to the perilous state of publishing in the goggled-eyed age of YouTube and Facebook. “The era of the big writer is over,” admits Shteyngart, “Roth is really the last one. And he stopped. So let's just bow out with dignity here. Or not. Stupid trailers. My fault.” But is also speaks to the semi-parodic gusto with which Shteyngart has thrown himself onto conquering what remains of it. A prodigious blurber and lit party hob-nobber, a teacher at Columbia who doesn’t think twice about calling on ex-students like Franco to help promote his books, Shteyngart is a ”publicist’s dream” in the words of his publicist, a literary showman and media entity whose persona — part Woody Allen nebbish, part Borat naïf, topped off with his amazing, elasticated Groucho eyebrows — has sometimes made him seem more a character sprung from the pages of his books —The Russian Debutante’s Handbook (2002), Absurdistan (2006), and Super Sad True Love Story (2010) — than their author, prompting one reviewer to ask: Can an author be too entertaining? “I don't know what happened to the idea that something can be illuminating and entertaining at the same time,” asks Shteyngart back, those eyebrows performing a pogo-dance of exasperation. “What happened to that?”

Feb 8, 2014

The Beatles during a news conference before their first US concert, two days after their Ed Sullivan appearance — Time

Feb 7, 2014


From my review for The Guardian:
When a movie as such as stiff as George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, it becomes an object of fascination in its own right— like your first glimpse of a dead body. It's stillness is mesmerizing... as if Clooney feared that any sudden noise or action would wake his performers up. It speaks to the energy levels of the film that when Balaban and Murray come across a frightened German youth with a gun, Murray resolves the stand-off by asking inviting all to sit on the grass and be quiet for a minute, and soon they are all puffing on a cigarette — a very Clooneyesque moment, you can’t help but feel, all conflict resolved in a blur of geniality. He must be the only director in America who to use Bill Murray as an emollient.  This is his fifth film and it’s by now apparent that his great flaw as a director is what makes him interesting as a movie star: he disdains conflict as a means of generating drama. For Clooney, all conflict means stupidity and there’s no crime in his book worse than stupidity, no argument that can’t be settled agreeably between agreeable men over a brandy snifter.  I wonder, though, if his brand of intelligence isn’t the greater liability in a director. The great directors  — Huston, Ford, Hawks, Peckinpah — were ornery old dogs, barkers and borderline crazies, unbound by the need to be liked, howling at the moon to get their vision in place. Clooney puts movies to sleep with his reasonableness. I know Goodnight and Good Luck had its fans, but I can't now remember a single scene from that film, outside a generalized impression of men in darkened rooms, smoking, remonstrating and reasoning with one another — a vision of sotte voce cinema, void of unnecessary exposition, where drama means never having to raise your voice unnecessarily.  

Feb 2, 2014


From my profile for The Daily Telegraph:
Matthew McConaughey is on his knees, begging me to take him back. “I am nothing!” he implores, his hands clasped, rocking back and forth on his heels. “My life is nothing without you! If you’ll take me back I can be something!.” 
He is halfway through explaining the DNA of the romcom to me. We’ve already done Boy Meets Girl and Boy Loses Girl. We’ve touched on one peculiarity of the romcoms McConaughey appeared in in the 2000s, which is Boy Strips for Girl — a scenario that tested the ingenuity of screenwriters in film after film (shower scene, surf scene, a change of shirt after a sweaty commute, change of T-shirt after it is splashed by passing truck, job as a submariner). Now we’ve got to the Man Chases after Girl, generally by motorbike (How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days) or moped (The Wedding Planner). We’re at the climax. The kisser. Crunch-time.

“The directors in those things always want the man to come crawling back on all fours,” McConaughey says. “‘I was nothing’, and so on and so forth... I was always like, what woman wants that guy? I’ve got to find a way to keep the balls on the guy. To walk back in with dignity and stand tall.” He leaps to his feet with one bound, and starts pacing. “I don’t mind going, ‘I’m sorry I screwed up.’ Say you want to give it another shot. I can do that. I can understand that. End it with a little bit of hope. But do we have to wrap it up with the guy completely emasculated going ‘Take me back!’ and we lived happily ever after and had eight kids. Who wants that guy?” He upturns his palms to the heavens.
Nobody, I murmur, spellbound. But this guy? The one in front of me? The 188lb of glorious, 46-year-old Texan, buff and tanned, who throws his whole body into stories, springing around the room, loosing long, cascading riffs peppered with sun-kissed mysticism (“keep on livin’”), self-development bumper stickers (“find your frequency”), and other assorted personal hustle-and-jive? This guy? This guy is on fire. People have been noticing, too. In the past few years McConaughey has been on an acting tear, cutting loose from the money roles for a series of down-and-dirty acting roles — as a scuzzball lawyer in The Lincoln Lawyer, a mangy drifter in Mud, a strip-club owner in Magic Mike, a psychopathic killer-for-hire in Killer Joe and now a trash-talking Aids activist in Dallas Buyers Club — that have reminded everyone why they made such a big deal of him in the first place. After his win at the Golden Globes, McConaughey is now the front runner to win the Oscar. “Le come-back de l’année” France’s TF1 News said, or as GQ recently termed it —the “McConnaissance.”

“The Mer-CON-nay-SONCE,” McConaughey says with a grin when I trip over the pronunciation, before slipping into the third person he sometimes uses to dramatise important points in his self development. “I’m surprising people. ‘Jeez, You’re really emerging McConaughey. I’m seeing you differently. Things you’re doing are sticking. You’re like wet shit,’ as Ali Farka Ture would say. The African blues man? I asked him once. ‘Why don’t you play in the US and Europe more?’ ‘Because there I would be dried shit. Neither me nor my scent would stick with me,’ he told me. ‘But here I am wet shit. Both me and my scent stick with me.’ Evidently I’ve got some wet shit going on.” The physicality is entirely fitting. McConaughey is a physical actor, a physical talker and comebacks are a physical business, as Mickey Rourke found out in The Wrestler — “this broken down piece of meat”, offering up the one thing an actor has left after everything has been stripped from him. The star having fallen, his body must be offered up in fresh sacrifice. Playing a strip club impresario in Magic Mike, McConaughey, dressed in leather chaps, savouring out the waves of female lust buffeting the stage like a violin virtuoso, stunningly deconstructed his reputation as a Shirtless Lust Object Number One — cinema’s one truly objectified male.   

Feb 1, 2014


From my New York Times review:—
How disgusting the British find themselves! Let me rephrase that. If you were to go by the output of a certain strand of young, male British fiction writer, you could easily be forgiven for thinking the main activity of British life is being disgusted by the physical form of oneself and one’s fellows. Ian McEwan famously began a short story noting the peculiar smell that asparagus lends the urine (“it suggests sexual activity of some kind between exotic creatures…”). Martin Amis spent large parts of his early career detailing his character’s bleeding gums and cracked molars. Will Self’s books come so awash in bodily fluids, that throw any of them against a wall and they will likely stick. Male self-disgust, rooted in the moist tumult of adolescence, and extended into one’s twenties and thirties under cover of literary careers apeing the clinical imperturbality of Nabokov and Joyce, has almost bequethed us its own genre, which we might call, in the manner of those outraged letters to British broadsheets,   “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.” And now we have Byron Easy, the young hero of Jude Cook’s debut novel bearing his name, sandwiched between the “Hogarthian mob” of an intercity train bearing him from the “piss-filled” underpasses and “haggard” pigeons of “sewery, dogshitty London” (p44), towards his home-town in the North of England.  Byron is a poet of the self-published and permanently wine-stained variety, his single claim to fame being a pamphlet of poems entitled Hours of Endlessness. In flight from a collapsed marriage, he busies himself with unforgiving inventory of his fellow passengers (those “hawkers, tutters, scratchers, groaners, verbal diarrhoics, carol-hummers, dribblers, tongue-lollers”)  before zeroing in on a subject much closer to home: his ex-wife— his hatred of whom is to provide the engine of Cook’s 500-page comic novel with its furnace.