Jun 30, 2015

INTERVIEW: Laura Linney

'Linney has the droll, sympathetic manner of a veteran novelist: the kind of woman you might talk to all evening at a dinner party before realizing in the car on the way home you were the one who did all the yakking. That, you suspect, is how she likes it.  A theatre actress by training, she affects surprise and humility at her movie career, which has often found her playing the kind of women it might be easy to take for granted  — her struggling single mom in 2001’s You Can Count On Me, her devoted first lady in the HBO series John Adams — who nonetheless find themselves acting in a way which surprises them as much as everybody else. She makes mysteries of ordinary people.' — from my interview for Net-a-porter magazine

On my iPod June 29th 2015

1. Life's Work — The Weather Station
2. Vapour —Vancouver Sleep Clinic
3. The Only Thing Worth Fighting For — Lera Lynn
4. I Know I'm Not Wrong — Fleetwood Mac
5. A Field Of Birds — The Tallest Man on Earth
6. Diana Krall — Don't Dream It's Over
7. Depreston — Courney Barnett
8. Somebody Was Watching — Pops Staples
9. Primrose Green— Ryley Walker
10. Gracious — Bobby McFerrin

Jun 27, 2015

The origins of the summer blockbuster

'Not for nothing does the trailer for Jurassic World feature a 15-ton Monosaurus, rearing up from a Seaworld-style lagoon to devour a dangling Great White Shark, acting as bait. These days, Jaws counts as a pre-lunch snack. Jaws has become synonymous with wide openings but the chairman of Universal, Lew Wasserman, actually dropped the number of theatres the film played in from a proposed 900 to 409. Lew said  ‘I want you to drop three hundred of them. I want this picture to play all summer long. I don’t want people in Palm Springs to see the picture in Palm Springs. I want them to have to get in their cars and drive to see it in Hollywood,’” the film’s late producer Richard Zanuck told me before his death in 2012. “He was so fucking clever, because that’s exactly what happened.” In other words, the theatrical release of the original summer blockbuster benefited from the oldest trick in the book — artificially reducing supply to increase demand.  The film’s eventual 409 cinemas wasn't even closest to the widest opening —the year before, Warner Brothers had opened The Trial of Billy Jack on 1,000 screens and watched it take $89 million. And while Universal devoted $700,000 to promoting Jaws, the largest such expenditure in the studio’s history, Zanuck and partner David Brown’s insistence on using the same image of a shark’s head that adorned author Peter Benchley’s paperback, to cross-promote film and the book (“from the acclaimed bestseller by Peter Benchley…”) was a tactic borrowed from the playbook of producer Robert Evans, who had done the same with The Godfather and Love Story. “The making of a blockbuster  is the newest art-form of the 20th- century” Evans told Time magazine. The modern summer blockbuster owes as much to Ali McGraw saying “Love Means never having to say you're sorry” as it does Roy Scheider going “we’re going to need a bigger boat.”  
— from my piece on Blockbuster Strategies for the FT

Jun 22, 2015

REVIEW: INSIDE OUT (dir. Docter)

'Like all Pixar films, the new one seems both impossible when you first hear of it and inevitable once you’ve seen it. The neurological basis of emotions turns out to be a surprisingly good subject for an animated cartoon, the brightly personified emotions almost like mini-animators themselves, pulling levers and pushing buttons to retain control of Riley’s reactions as she negotiates the moody, unruly emotions of pre-adolescence, as joy and Sadness attempt to overcome their differences and return to base. It’s as if Docter were asking: what animates us? Some of his inventions are happier than others.  The Islands of Personality that mark the outer perimeter of Riley’s internal landscape  — Friendship Island, Family Island, Hockey Island, Goofball Island  — had a slightly anodyne, theme-park feel to them, and I was relieved to see them crumbling and slipping into the abyss, as Riley grows more sullen and withdrawn, like those cliffs tumbling into the sea at the end of Inception:  M C Escher meets The Beano... There is a transluscency to the film's ingenuity:  you can see the idea glowing beneath the skin of the movie, which at times resembles a live brainstorming session of the Pixar braintrust. What keeps it from the ever-present threat of abstraction and allows it to find deeper anchor is the increasing size of the role Docter gives sadness. I mean that literally: the actual size of the actual role given actual Sadness. Initially bossed around by the others — “I’m not actually sure what she does,” says Joy “I’ve checked” — Sadness comes into her own as they meet up with some of the discarded relics of Riley’s childhood, including  her old imaginary friend, Bing Bong, a pink elephant-like creature with cat-like whiskers who is destined for the memory dump and who taps into exactly the same melancholy thoughts of their inevitable obsolescence that drove the toys in Toy Story.' 
from my review of Inside Out for Intelligent Life

Jun 18, 2015


'Distinguishing the living from the dead has never been easy in this show. The dead refuse to depart and the living can’t wait to join them. The new season begins with a corpse leaving town, rather stylishly, in the backseat of a limo wearing shades, like a celebrity avoiding the paps.  That corpse leaves a trail that encircles Vaughn’s property deal, beckons us into the sound-proofed rooms and pleasure palaces of the porn industry, before spiraling, as is Pizzolatto’s wont, into the realm of higher metaphysics, the degradations of the human body leading naturally to the flights of its spirit: the third episode even features a Lynchian vision of the afterlife, complete with Paunchy Elvis impersonator.  “Am I supposed to solve this?”  asks Farrell at one point and you can only sympathize. The delicate balance struck by plot and atmospherics —between mysteries and mere mysteriousness — has tipped decisively towards the latter, with director Justin Lin patrolling the toxic wastelands and snaking freeways of outer Los Angeles from on high like a vengeful God on the hunt for sinners, the knot of concrete concourses below a perfect metaphor for the show’s Altmanesque character collisions and plot convolutions.  By the end of the third episode I had happily given up on forming even a basic set of working assumptions about what was going on, instead cleaving to the theory that the moral redemption sought out by each character is in directly proportional to the magnitude of career redemption desired by the actor playing him, minus the square root of the amount that otherwise would have been spent on hair and make-up. If movie stars looking as if they have just eaten something that disagreed with them is your thing, this is your series. Farrell is the clear winner here, with his stringy hair, droopy seventies-era moustache, and complexion a delicate shade of nicotine-gray. Unwilling to take the paternity test that will reveal if his raped ex-wife bore his son, beating up on the kid’s class-mates, Farrell’s Ray is a superb portrait of a man undergoing a comprehensive  spiritual rout. What’s missing so far is what drove the first show: a sense of evil so palpable you felt like you needed a bath after watching it. What we have so far is a snake trail of civic corruption like The Wire, but the political ire that drove that show is not Pizzolatto’s strong suit. His beef with the human race is more personal, intimate: he’s a moralist with an insatiable sweet tooth for moral rot. He wishes to bring no injustice to light; he wishes to join his sinners down in the dark His landscape is that of the fin-de-siecle decadents, those etiolated high priests of the high morbid manner Wilde, Baudelaire and Beardsley, with one foot in Poe’s house of horrors.' 
— from my review for Vogue.com

Jun 14, 2015

REVIEW: MR HOLMES (dir. Condon)

'In form, Mr Holmes approximates the cosy contours of the biopic — there are choo-choo trains, Bentleys, starched collars and walled gardens  — except of course that Holmes is fictional and this lends the film some acuity as an act of literary deconstruction. In place of deerstalker and pipe, we get a top hat and cigar; the books, penned here by Dr Watson, are disdained as “penny dreadfuls with an elevated prose style” by Holmes, who, for an afternoon’s amusement, sits in the cinema, scoffing at the films made of his adventures. Even better is the small, furtive glance McKellen gives around the cinema, post-scoff, to check he hasn't drawn attention to himself — a lovely touch of scampishness in which his isolation can nevertheless be felt. This Holmes is selfish, boyish, privately panicked, sometimes cruel, each note played by McKellen with invisible fingers — the maestro barely touching the keys. Like many of our greatest Shakespeareans, his screen-career has been intermittent and late-breaking.  Olivier and Burton made it as young men, but on the whole Hollywood prefers to let English thespians simmer in their own juices until such time as they can be ‘discovered’ in middle age — ready-made institutions. Just add the right role and stir.  McKellan was a striking beauty as a young man, his face somewhere between the pouty impudence of Keith Richards and the low-lidded sultriness of Charlotte Rampling, but it wasn’t until 1993, when McKellan was 54, that Hollywood perked up. He appeared in four films that year, including a small part in Last Action Hero as Death, come to shuffle Arnold Schwarzenegger from this mortal coil. The link between Shakespeare and Schwarzenegger may not be immediately apparent, McKellan’s subsequent career illuminated a new path for RSC-trained actors in the brave, new wonderland of digital special effects, in which the very laws of physics seen to shimmer on command: providing the voices with the authority of issuing those commands.' — from my review in Intelligent Life

Jun 3, 2015


'You remember the scene. Taking a break from dropping chum into the ocean to lure their rogue shark into the open, Quint, the barrel-chested blowhard, sinks a can of beer and then, fixing Hooper—Dreyfus’s rich-kid oceanographer—with a stare worthy of the Ancient Mariner, crushes it. Hooper, fixing his nemesis with an equally piercing stare, lifts the Styrofoam cup he has in his hand and crushes that. Barrel-chested displays of machismo: 0. Self-deprecating beta-male irony: 1.  That single moment tells you why the “Jaws” anniversary is worth celebrating. The film’s big scare moments may have lost a little of their bite, certainly on the small screen. But still going strong, after all these years, are the film’s fillets of character, often expressed with sight gags: the Styrofoam-cup versus beer-can crushing scene, or the one where the police chief, Brody (Roy Scheider), slowly realises his son is copying his every gesture at the dinner table—his chin rested on his fist, then steepling his fingers, then cradling his face. Both moments came out of the enforced improv sessions Spielberg held with his actors while his mechanical shark wasn’t working. Both moments play out wordlessly, as all the best moments in Spielberg do: the UFO-in-the-rearview mirror gag in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, or E.T.s touching of fingers with Eliot in “E.T. The Extraterrestial”. They reinforce our sense that the director’s real progenitors in “Jaws” was not so much Hitchcock, and still less Herman Melville, as Charlie Chaplin.' — from my piece for Intelligent Life

Jun 2, 2015


'Stars Wars was a battle which landed Lucas in hospital and it shows: there’s fight in the picture. Everywhere you looked you saw marvels  —hammer-headed aliens, high-speed dogfights, light sabres and landspeeders twin suns and detonating moons — all filmed by a director who couldn’t wait to get from one end of his freshly-summoned universe to the other, featuring characters who reserved for these marvels the disdain you or I might reserve for our crappy old cars of a Monday morning.   “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, I made a few modification to her myself” — an exchange of dialogue that provides such a neat summary 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 review itself. Junk is everything to Star Wars. The Jawas deal in junk. The droids are sold as junk.  Our heroes are delivered as junk into the death star’s trash compactor, the death star being the only new piece of technology on display and therefore sign enough of its nefariousness: the Empire are the only people in the galaxy not to have heard of recycling. Everyone else tinkers and modifies, retrofits, recycles and retools. If the vast, multi-billion dollar franchise that Star Wars spawned can be boiled down to a single insight on Lucas’s part, it is this one: that the exact same feeling of slightly crabby, proprietorial fondness Han Solo nurses for the Millenium Falcon was going to be one people would be feeling a lot more in the years to come. They would feel it for their computers, their Ataris, their Apples, their x-boxes, their iPhones and iPads.  That we even have a relationship with technology was, in 1977, news. Lucas took that feeling and on it he built an empire.' — from my review for the New Statesman