Mar 27, 2014

REVIEW: Noah (dir. Aronofsky)

From my piece about God and the movies for The Guardian:
'... In place of a sultry middle East, Aronofsky shoots against the black sands of Iceland in a parched, dessicated landscape that looks less pre-apocalyptic than post-apocalyptic. Like many post-punk imaginations Aronofsky makes a fetish of impurity. This earth looks already destroyed, as indeed, in his telling it has been: by man. The word “God” is absent from this ecological retelling of the Biblical narrative; Noah instead talks throughout of “the Creator,” and the earth is destroyed not for its unchecked fertility and murder rate but the despoliation of it’s natural resources. The film’s boldest stroke, though, comes from a logical quibble with the Book of Genesis: if God was asking Noah and his family to repopulate the earth, was he not demanding incest? Aronofsky adds an adopted daughter, Ila, played by Emma Watson, to give them an out, but Noah remains convinced that God’s intention was to exterminate all of mankind for his sins, including him and his family; he grows homicidal on the Ark, and afterwards drinks himself into nightly oblivion, convinced he has failed. All this is perfectly in line with Aronofsky’s prevailing ethos of adamantine self-punishment, even as it usurps divine prerogative— Noah has almost become a deity unto himself, dispensing his own justice.  He even steals one of His best lines, “be fertile and multiply.” The irony is that if a self-recriminating protagonist, bent on oblivion, was what he was after, the Bible had one all along, maybe not as overtly self destructive as Randy “the Ram” Robinson, or Nina in Black Swan, but a creative, just like them, a perfectionist driven by rage for the imperfections of his creation  (“for I regret that I made them…” 6:7), and so annihilating it in what amounts to a massive fit of artistic pique. Aronofsky’s clearest aesthetic alter ego is entirely off-stage.' 

Mar 21, 2014


From my Guardian review:—
How Orwellian is college?  Very, if Divergent is to be believed.  Adapted from Veronica Roth’s bestselling YA novel, it stars Shaylene Woodley as Beatrice a young 16-year-old girl trying to find her place in a world seemingly modelled on a series of giant Frat houses, each named after an abstract virtue or noun.  There’s Amity, who farm the land Amish-style; there’s Abnegation, who think only of others and work in government; there’s Candor, who tell the truth, doubtless on course for a career in daytime TV; there’s Erudite, who like to show off their vocabulary but can’t for the life of them work out they are an adjective not a noun like everyone else. Finally there’s Dauntless, very much the Extreme Sports set, defined principly by their carelessness with regard to train timetables, since they always run, jump and leap for the train home to an accompaniment of Stomp-style drumming. These gonks are being groomed for jobs in the military although how you would get them to show up on the battlefield is anyone’s guess. I’ve seen better discipline in the Keystone cops. Beatrice, who wears baggy skirts, boots and her hair in a loose bun like an Emily Bronte Fan, jumps ship at her initiation ceremony and choses Dauntless over her native Abnegation, and very soon, she is running and jumping for moving trains, too, all the while harboring a secret: her aptitude test revealed her to be “divergent”, a freakish original thinker, fated to be hunted and killed if she is ever found out.  Quite why she faces this drastic a penalty, given that the rest of Roth’s future society seems wholly bent to the task of identifying and nurturing the skill-sets of its teenagers is hard to fathom. Roth has filled out her world without thinking it through as a dramatic space. She's built a utopia that thinks itself a dystopia.  “They built fences for a reason,” Beatrice is told, which in any other story would be a prelude to monsters, but no more is heard of it. Instead, the bulk of this 2 hour and 40 minute film is taken up with an endless slog of evaluations and physical aptitude tests in smoky, diffusely lit interiors that look like a Bill Fitzgibbons art installation. Director Neil Burger amps up every snap crackle and pop but there’s no escaping the fact: what we have is science fiction that devotes its considerable resources to imagining the future of SAT tests. Maybe that’s why Winston Smith went AWOL: a droopy grade point average.  

Mar 20, 2014


From my piece about bad sex cinema for The Guardian:—
What is it about sex that leaves so many films teetering perilously between the pornographic and the parodic? Maybe because it is one of the few activities to actually rival cinema, less a subject among many others than a rival medium. It asks people to act on their fantasies, usually takes place in the dark, can involve looking and role-play, pulls people into their bodies but aims for a blissful loss of self. To adapt the old quote, making a movie about sex is like dancing about architecture — a redundancy, both too much and never enough. Good sex, anyway. Bad sex restores cinema to full representative powers. Bad sex — which is to say, empty, compulsive, spiritually-deadening sex against graffiti-strewn dumpsters by the light of a thin, existential dawn — is something the camera excels at depicting. In fact, we are in the middle of what some might called a bad sex renaissance. What started with Hannah Horvath having her face planted into the sofa in the first season of Girls has spread like a damp patch to the sticky sheets against which Michael Fassbender grimaced and rutted in Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011), Mark Ruffalo speed-dialled Estonian call-girls in Thank-you for Sharing (2012), Joseph Gordon-Leavitt made love to his porn collection in Don Jon (2013) and Leonardo di Caprio got humped with candles in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). The figure of the sex addict has become for the indie-auteur sphere what the serial killer was for mainstream thrillers in the 1990s: a repeat offender, plot driver and sensation source, drawing audiences with a mixture of curiosity, skepticism and blimey-mate astonishment. This week, comes one such masterwork, Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac: Volume I—in many ways the Kane of bad sex movies, in which Charlotte Gainsborough, or her body doubles, including one with the delightful name of Eljira Friss, is pinned against headboards, dirty mattresses, kitchen tables and train-lavatories to blasts of Teutonic industrial-hard-core while Von Trier swings his camera from thrusting buttocks to bored face. “I’m ashamed of what I became, but there’s nothing I can do now,” she tells the middle-aged academic Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) to whom she is narrating her story and who interrupts her to launch lofty digressions on fly fishing, piano chords, the rise of the bourgeoisie, and Bach. "That's a very clear parallel to fishing in a stream," he yelps excitedly upon hearing that she and her friend competed to seduce men on a train.  “Those are Fibernaci numbers!” he exclaims upon hearing that Shia la Boeuf took her virginity with three thrusts, then five, in the basement of a gutted building.  This leads, as it so frequently does, to a discussion of polyphony and the cantus firmus in work music of Johann Sebastian Bach, as Von Trier splits his screen three ways to view Joe being taken from behind by one lover, given a jungle-cat–style mauling by another, and licked all over by Shia LaBeouf in a third, although if the Transformers star had outsourced the job to one of his robot friends we might have really been in for something special. 
 There’s a deliberately specious feel to this, like Bart Simpson’s sarcastic homework, as if Von Trier were mocking the tendentiousness with which the European art-house has served up sex under cover of metaphysical speculation — Antonioni’s pensées on alienation and lingering shots of women’s legs, Fellini’s mixture of Jungian sublimation and cleavage. The film is all about its frames.  If it had been shot in France, or Von Trier’s native Denmark, it would have been a less provocative beast, but Von Trier’s single masterstroke was to set the whole thing in some unspecified Euro-capital, and have everyone — La Boeuf, Uma Thurman, Christian Slater — speak in wobbly British accents, upping the propriety levels, and pushing the film towards teetering, Pinteresque comedy, as the actors flip their non-sequiters back and forth across railway compartments and breakfast tables. “For me nymphomania was callousness,” croaks Gainsborough in her best Kate-Moss-on-tranquillizers tone, as if advertising a new scent — Sex Doll, perhaps. “We were committed to combating the love-fixated society.” A sensation-seeking nihilist, Joe has sex the same way Von Trier makes movies: to keep the wounds open and salted.  His interest in a return to psychic health is precisely zero... What’s most interesting about the film is the tension between its bristling air of art-terrorist provocation, and the clear nostalgia, left over from Von Trier’s previous film, Melancholia, for the older, more humanist forms of centuries gone: the music of Bach, the novels of Edgar Allen Poe, the penny dreadfuls of the Victorians, which drew readers with promises of lewdness under cover of concern for the nation’s youth. Maybe not so much has changed after all—the Victorians mixture of sentimentalism and moralism is not so alien to the era of Dr Drew, VH1’s Behind-The Music and Celebrity Rehab. Von Trier’s fondness for the formal structures he has long since detonated, is, in some senses, the oldest story in the book. Guess what? Cinema’s enfant terrible misses his parents.   

Mar 4, 2014

I'd like to thank the academy...

Most anticipated films of 2014

Boyhood (Linklater)Gone Girl (Affleck, Fincher, Oct 3) Midnight Special (Dunst, Driver, Nichols) Fury (Pitt, Ayer, Nov 14)  Mr Turner (Spall, Leigh) Foxcatcher (Carrell, Miller)Interstellar (Nolan, Nov 7), Wild (Witherspoon, Vallee, Sept 21), We Are The Best (Moodyson, May 30) Carol (Haynes, Mara, Blanchett), The Judge (Duvall, Downey, Oct), Inherent Vice (Phoenix, Anderson, Dec 12) Birdman (Keaton, Iñárritu), A Very Violent Year (Chandor, Isaac, Chastain), The Giver (Bridges, Noyce, August 15), St Vincent de Van Nuys (Murray, April 11) Godzilla (Olsen, Binoche, May 16) Unbroken (Jolie, Dec 25)  A Most Wanted Man (Hoffman, McAdams, Corbijn) The Skeleton Twins (Wiig, Wilson) While We're Young (Baumbach) Miss Julie (Chastain, Ullman), The Interview (Rogen, Franco, Oct) Far From the Madding Crowd (Mulligan, Vinterberg) Big Eyes (Adams, Burton) Sweet Blood of Jesus (Lee)  The Cobbler (Sandler, McCarthy), Child 44 (Espinosa, Oldman) The Equalizer (Washington, Fuqua), The Double (Wasikowska, Ayoade), The Immigrant (Gray, Cotillard), Locke (Hardy), Manglehorn (Pacino, Hunter, Green), Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie), Blue Ruin (Saulnier), The Two Faces of January (Mortenson, Dunst, Isaac), Suite Francaise (Williams, Schoenearts), True Story (Hill, Franco), The Gambler (Monahan, Wahlberg), The Rover (Michod, Pattinson, Pearce), Everest (Gyllenhaal, Clarkson), The Imitation Game (Cumberbatch).

Mar 1, 2014

My 2014 Oscar Picks: Will Win

My Oscar picks for The Guardian:—
Best Picture: 12 Years A Slave Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron Best Actress: Cate Blanchett Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o Best Original Screenplay: Her Best Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years A Slave Best Editing: Captain Phillips Best Visual Effects: Gravity Best Sound Editing: Gravity Best Sound Mixing: Gravity Best Score: Gravity Best Cinematography: Gravity Best Foreign Film: The Great Beauty Best Documentary: 20 Feet From Stardom Best Costume Design: The Great Gatsby Best Production Design: The Great Gatsby Best Make-up and Hairstyling: Dallas Buyer’s Club Best Animated Feature: Frozen Best Animated Short: Get a Horse! Best Original Song: Let it Go Best Documentary Short: The Lady in Number 6 Best Live Action Short: Helium