Oct 30, 2017

REVIEW: Call Me By Your Name

From my Sunday Times review:—
'The film takes place “somewhere in northern Italy,” and one of its more  immediate effects is to make you want to track down Guadagnino at a film festival and interrogate him for more exact whereabouts so you can start booking flights. In a beautifully dilapidated stone villa, an American professor of antiquities (Michael Stuhlbarg) lives with his French wife (Amira Casar), and precious 17-year-old son Elio (Timothée Chalamet),, a musical prodigy who spends his time transcribes piano etudes from his walkman, whose peace is disturbed in the summer of 1983 by a visit from Oliver (Armie Hammer), an intern of his father’s who has come to intern at the house. A bluff, chiseled showboat in an open neck shirt and pastel colored shorts, Oliver’s first act, upon arriving, is to collapse onto his bed like a felled tree. “Later,” he says, as if he’s off somewhere. Elio is both irritated and fascinated by this brisk-mannered interloper.  “What does one do around here?” asks Oliver, upon awakening.  “Wait for summer” replies Elio, but Oliver is not really the waiting type. You’d be hard pressed to say what type he is, exactly. We’re used to a strict division between our aesthetes and our outdoor types — you’re either translating Homer or you’re playing rugby, but never the twain shall meet — but Hammer smelts them into a single bronzed form:  a Hail-fellow Epicurian,  equally at home on the volleyball field as in the library,  playing cards or  dancing to the  Psychedelic Furs at a disco — not quite as magnificent as sight as Ralph Fiennes Fiennes gyrating in unbuttoned shirt to the Rolling Stones in Guadagnino’s  last film A Bigger Splash (2016), but then few things are. Everybody looks short when stood next to the Matterhorn.   
Before that sultry island thriller, Guadagnino made the exquisite I Am Love (2009),  in which Tilda Swinton fell in love with a dish of ratatouille and a chef, in that order.  Guadagnino is, in other words, cinema’s reigning sensualist, the best since Bertolucci, with particular attention paid to food and sex, and the overlap between the one and the other. Adapted from André Aciman by James Ivory, Call Me By Your Name at first glance seems like the sort of thing Ivory might have taken a crack at himself in the days of his partnership with Ishmael Merchant: ex pat academics, plates of food, French girls on bicycles, an atmosphere of precious intellectual development and simmering erotic fixation of the kind of thing that gets called “languorous” by critics and moves like melted brie on a hot day. There’s some business with a peach that should do for peaches what Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris did for unsalted butter. Here’s the remarkable thing, though: There’s not a trace of torpor to the film. Like the great poets, Guadagnino understands that nothing sharpens our appetite for pleasure more than it’s cessation. He cuts some scenes a lot shorter than you’d expect, often ending them on some off-kilter note —  a power cut, a nose bleed, a sudden plop into a pool — and the effect is playful, frisky, with a touch of Elio’s impatient hauteur. Other scenes he lets play long, like the extraordinary one-take scene in a dusty plaza where Elio and Oliver circle one another like buzzards, while the Sufjians Steven’s piano arabesques come and go, like passing clouds, or  Elio’s faltering courage. Guadagnino hasn’t adapted Aciman’s novel so much as interrogated its moods, going at it with attack, con brio. 
Did I mention that the love affair at its centre is gay? I shouldn’t have to for the greatest love stories at the movies generally are, these days. The tradition of heterosexual romance which peaked with Brief Encounter and received a last hurrah with The English Patient is looking pretty pooped of late, the baton instead passed to films like Brokeback Mountain, Carol and Moonlight, which rend their audiences’s hearts as effectively as the melodramas of old. Hetero romance is too easy — there’s no impediment. But Stuhlbarg has you hanging on every word of his infinitely gentle paternal monologue here about the importance of heartbreak, and how we must resist the attendant temptation to retreat.  “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the time we’re thirty,” he says. “But to feel nothing it not to feel anything — what a waste.” The hush with which these words were received by the audience I saw the film with suggested either copious tears or furious notes. Whatdidhejustsay?'

Oct 8, 2017

The glorious bullshit of Reservoir Dogs

The Glorious Bullshit of “Reservoir Dogs,” Twenty-Five Years Later:—
Nothing around the film has aged quite as badly though as the original reviews for “Reservoir Dogs.” “The only thing Mr. Tarantino spells out is the violence,” wrote Julia Salmon in the Wall Street Journal. “This movie isn’t really about anything,” said the New York Daily News. “It’s just a flashy, stylistically daring exercise in cinematic mayhem.” These are the two canards that everyone seemed to agree upon, and they were the stances on which the Tarantino-bashing industry would be based. One, that his work was ultraviolent, and, two, that it was about nothing more than its own movieshness, with no connection to the real world. This was a myth partly abetted by the director himself, who often told the story of going to Harvey Keitel’s house to discuss the “Resevoir Dogs” script. “How’d you come to write this script? Did you live in a tough-guy neighborhood growing up? Was anybody in your family connected with tough guys?” Keitel asked. Tarantino said no. “Well, how the hell did you come to write this?” Keitel said. And Tarantino said, “‘I watch movies.’”

Both of these metrics—how violent and how realistic a film is judged to be—are volatile commodities on the film-historical stock exchange. Nothing dates faster than “realism,” and today’s “excessive violence” is tomorrow’s cinematic aperitif. The first thing to strike a contemporary viewer of “Reservoir Dogs,” of course, is how comparatively un-violent it is—we see a couple of shootouts, a carjacking, and a cop being beaten up, but nothing that you wouldn’t see today on an episode of “24.” To those coming to the film from the freewheeling mayhem of the director’s later work, it’s a remarkably disciplined feat of storytelling, featuring just as many departures from chronology as, say, “Pulp Fiction”—it’s structure is a nautilus-like series of boxed flashbacks, telling each character’s story in turn—but the flashbacks never feel like flashbacks. You’re never antsy to get back to the warehouse. Without an ounce of fat, at a trim ninety-nine minutes, the movie pierces like a bullet, leaving a clean hole. The infamous ear-severing, which caused so many walkouts, is discretely elided by a pan to a wall, and throughout there is eerie, feline use made of fade-outs,  with an implied tick-tock of an impervious fate. The most powerful is the first: from the sight of the Dogs walking in slow-mo down the car lot, their banter about Madonna and tipping etiquette still ringing in our ears, the curtain comes down. We can hear the whimpering of Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) before we see him, squirming in bloody agony in the backseat of Mr. White (Harvey Keitel)’s car. The perennial theme of the heist movie—“the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley” in the words of Robert Burns—is laid bare in a single cut. 
So many great filmmakers have made their débuts with heist films—from Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” to Michael Mann’s “Thief” to Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket” to Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects”—that it’s tempting to see the genre almost as an allegory for the filmmaking process. The model it offers first-time filmmakers is thus as much economic as aesthetic—a reaffirmation of the tenant that Jean-Luc Godard attributed to D. W. Griffith: “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” A man assembles a gang for the implementation of a plan that is months in the rehearsal and whose execution rests on a cunning facsimile of mid-morning reality going undetected. But the plan meets bumpy reality, requiring feats of improvisation and quick thinking if the gang is to make off with its loot—and the filmmaker is to avoid going to movie jail. “An undercover cop has got to be like Marlon Brando,” the detective, Holdoway, tells Mr. Orange:

The things you gotta remember are the details. The details sell your story. This particular story takes place in a men’s room.... You gotta know every detail there is to know about this commode. What you gotta do is take all them details and make ‘em your own. While you’re doing that, remember that this story is about you ... and how you perceived the events that went down. The only way to do that is keep sayin’ it and sayin’ it and sayin’ it.

This is as close to an aesthetic credo as Tarantino ever got, from the intense focus on subjectivity that would turn the structure of “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” into Swiss cheese; his fascination with commodes as the ultimate arbiter of gritty reality; but, above all, his deep, disciplined devotion to spoken English—his dialogue “part Robert Towne, part Chester Himes and part Patricia Highsmith,” as the critic Elvis Mitchell put it. Critics who complain about the lack of reality in Tarantino’s films aren’t listening: reality in his films is received, represented, and reproduced through the ear and the mouth, and, in particular, the filthy, propulsive rhythms of black street vernacular soaked up by the filmmaker when he was a teen-ager in Los Angeles’s South Bay area, and to which he would return when he shot “Jackie Brown,” some twenty years later:

BEAUMONT: I’m still scared as a motherfucker, O.D. They talking like they serious as hell giving me time for that machine gun shit.

ORDELL: Aw, come on, man, they just trying to put a fright in your ass.

BEAUMONT: Well, if that’s what they doin’, they done did it.

ORDELL: How old is that machine gun shit?

BEAUMONT: About three years ...

ORDELL: Three years? That’s a old crime, man! They ain’t got enough room for all the niggas running around killing people today, now how are they gonna find room for you?

People tend to think of “Pulp Fiction” as Tarantino’s essential L.A. movie—only at the intersections of Glendale would it be apropos for Butch (Bruce Willis) to run into Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) while stopped at a red light—but his first three movies are all equally rooted in the nondescript environs of downtown Los Angeles: “Jackie Brown” in the depressing sprawl of ticky-tacky tract houses, strip joints, and malls near L.A.X., “Reservoir Dogs” in the coffee shops and diners of Highland Park, and the funeral home in Burbank which doubled as the gang’s rendezvous point. “Reservoir Dogs,” shot in just under five weeks —thirty days—in the summer of 1991, beneath lights so bright that the fake blood dried to the floor, is much more of a ’hood movie than you probably remember. For all its confinement to that warehouse, you never forget the city outside its door. When Mr. Blonde interrupts his torture of the cop to fetch some gasoline from the trunk of his car, he is followed by a Steadicam, and, as the sound of Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” retreats on the soundtrack, it is replaced by the soporific sounds of suburban L.A. going about its mid-morning business: birds, children playing. Tarantino said that the sequence was his favorite thing in the entire film.

Carefully rooted in place, the film is a little blurrier when it comes to time—not so much ageless as occupying its own peculiar pocket of cultural space-time. With their natty black suits and skinny ties, Tarantino’s gang members look like gangsters from Jean-Pierre Melville’s thrillers of the late fifties and early sixties, but they argue like coffee-shop philosophes from the nineteen-nineties, while their pop culture intake—Pam Grier movies, the TV shows “Get Christie Love” and “Honey West”—stretches back to Tarantino’s childhood in the nineteen-seventies.

NICE GUY EDDIE: Remember that TV show, “Get Christie Love” ... about the black female cop? She always used to say, “You’re under arrest, sugar!”

MR. PINK: What was the name of the chick who played Christie Love?

MR. WHITE: Pam Grier.

MR. ORANGE: No, it wasn’t Pam Grier. Pam Grier was the other one. Pam Grier did the film. “Christie Love” was like a Pam Grier TV show without Pam Grier.

MR. PINK: So, who was Christie Love?

MR. ORANGE: How the fuck should I know?

MR PINK: Great. Now I’m totally fuckin’ tortured.

The idea of pop-culture-literate characters is now so ubiquitous that when the prison inmates of this summer’s “Logan Lucky” pause in the middle of a riot to discuss “Games of Thrones,” we barely blink. By the late eighties, thanks to the ubiquity of the home-entertainment revolution that had first given employment to Tarantino and his buddies at Video Archives, pop culture had attained such critical mass that it was beginning to show up on its own radar. On “Seinfeld,” by 1990, Jerry and George could be heard debating whether Superman had a sense of humor or not (“I never heard him say anything really funny”). Just a year earlier, in “Die Hard,” Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber taunts John McClane (Bruce Willis), “Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo?” To which McClane replies, “I was always kinda partial to Roy Rogers actually… yippee ki-yay motherfucker!”—the best line of Tarantino dialogue not actually written by Tarantino.

Tarantino’s influence became so wide that it influences the very notion of influence: what had hitherto been an unconscious borrowing or homage was now flushed out into the open and worn as a badge of one’s pop-cultural savvy—intertextuality hits the multiplex. Never mind that Tarantino’s original intent was straightforward realism. Most movie characters, he thought, talked about the plot too much. “Most of us don’t talk about the plot in our lives,” he noted. “We talk all around things. We talk about bullshit.” The gang members in “Reservoir Dogs” talk about Pam Grier and Silver Surfer comics and Madonna lyrics not because Tarantino wanted movie characters who sounded like him and his friends. His first three films are black comedies that drop movie-ish happenings—a heist, a kidnap, an overdose—into the laps of characters who freak out, panic, squabble, lose their car in the parking lot, or miss out on the action entirely because they are on the john. They ask: What if a thriller or a heist movie or a cop movie happened, but it’s participants were too dozy to notice?  
From my piece for The New Yorker

The film to launch a 1000 screensavers

From my review of Blade Runner 2049 for the Sunday Times;— 
'Like many sequels, Blade Runner 2049 is a family affair.  A dead tree yields a body, a skull, a woman, a replicant who looks like she might have died in childbirth. Might replicants be capable of reproducing? Might K’s memories be real after all? This plot — basically Pinocchio  with more eco-pollution — is a clever mirror image of the the first film, which left many wondering if Ford himself was a replicant and just as many with the suspicion that for Scott this would have constituted a happy ending. For Blade Runner was above all a hymn to the synthetic —  from its Vangelis score to its fire-belching ziggurats to its rain-slick poetry about “tears in rain” spoken by those beautiful, damned neo-Nietzcheans, the replicants. That tradition is continued here by Jared Leto, wearing a beard, a kimono and scary contact lenses, as the replicants creator, Neander Wallace, delivering megalomaniac-gnomic  pensées about angels and kings —  “We make angels in the service of civilization” — in a deep amber vault traversed by moving shafts of light, like a Bond villain hide-out designed by Frank Gehry. Villeneuve has a cleaner, more organic eye than Scott’s — think of those egg-shaped alien craft in  Arrival, or the gun-metal grey production design of Sicario. He delivers the same hit of urban sublime — his city echoing with the same polyglot babble, and overlooked by massive corporate advertising including touchingly retro nods to the now defunct Atari and PanAm — but he spends more time in the air, not trudging the streets, and roams further outside its limits to find stretches of desiccated desert and third-worldish trash heaps. These are stunningly framed by cinematographer Roger Deakins, but attended by the suspicion that you are watching a series of stunning cinematographic set-pieces strung together on a thin clothes-line of plot. If a grimy pulp blockbuster can be raised to the level of art, have at it. This is the film to launch a thousand screen savers. Weirdly, it plays better in memory that it does in real-time.  
The same might be said of Blade Runner itself, a film at times too becalmed by its own beauty, but you felt a moral grime nipping at its manhunt plot — in the form of all those noir trimmings, Ford’s whisky-spur voiceover-over, and the grimy urgency of M. Emmet Walsh as Deckard’s police captain.  Villeneuve has his mind on higher matters. “This breaks the world,”  barks K’s superior, LAPD Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) of a case that comes bedecked with Biblical trimmings — talk of miracles, God and even an allusion to Pale Fire,  Nabokov’s great false-bottomed masterpiece about obsession, literary theft and megalomania. I’m normal agnostic on this kind of name-drop — when Iron Man 2 referenced James Joyce's Ulysses, you could only laugh at it’s balls — but here it gives you a genuine clue as to what Villeneuve’s up to: he’s made a sequel as much to the memory and myth of Blade Runner — how the film has bloomed in all our heads in the past three decades — as to the actual film itself. Therein lies both his film’s magnificence and occasional longeurs.Ryan’s Goslings hunt for a soul, stretching to some 2 hours and 45 minutes, doesn't quite hold centre stage in the same way that the hunt for a 6’1” Rutger Hauer did, and when Harrison Ford finally shows up, at around the 2 hour mark,  you think, somewhat treacherously: okay, now we’re talking. Bone-weary, haggard, slugging back whiskey  amid  holograms of Elvis and Monroe, Ford seems to register twinkly bemusement at all these thirty-year-old sci-fi franchises that suddenly seem to be knocking on his door.   Who ever imagined that the sci-fi films of yesteryear would turn out to haunt us so?   A gorgeous confession of soullessness whose sweet, synthetic ache may represent the best that Hollywood has to offer right now, Blade Runner 2049 is this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road. A masterpiece? It’s a pretty good replicant of one.  

Oct 3, 2017

First reviews of Tarantino: A Retrospective

"MUST HAVE.... this vibrant compilation ... a visually stunning compendium.... the best book on QT"— Quentin Tarantino FanClub

Oct 2, 2017

From Clive James' website:— 
'Written by Tom Shone, a British critic resident in New York, These Violent Delights is an excellent site about the movies and related matters. Born and raised in Britain, where he emerged as the most disciplined among the writers who contributed to the Modern Review in the early 1990s, Tom Shone now operates out of New York, though naturally his web activities go everywhere. Shone is a clever film columnist who can also write a wise book: two attributes that don't often go together. His book Blockbuster is essential reading about an important epoch in modern Hollywood, when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas changed the scale of ambition, so that such creations as the Indiana Jonesand the Star Wars franchises became standard operational projects. The story of big ideas that worked, Blockbuster can usefully be read beside the late Stephen Bach's Final Cut, the story of one big project that didn't. Shone's big coffee-table book Scorsese is also well done, though it demonstrates the limitation imposed by getting that much cooperation from a biographical subject: it gets harder to hail a specific movie with indifference. With Shone's equally lavish book Woody Allen there is no such problem, because Shone genuinely finds the less successful movies as interesting as the successful ones. Reading his text in amongst the plethora of illustrations, I had to think again about every Allen second-tier movie except Match Point, which in my view becomes more confirmed as a clunker the more closely  it is examined. But with Allen's work the game of preference and disapproval is inevitable. Shone is properly grateful for Allen's abundance, and so should we all be. The movie business, as a field in which to try being prolific, is no more hospitable than nocturnal crocodile wrestling. To be a movie critic, you must first of all be able to admire the bold, and Shone can. To start enjoying the way he thinks, click here.'