Jan 27, 2018

On my iPod: January 2018

1. Motion in Field – Tom Rogerson & Brian Eno
2. Release Me — Inara George
3. Kaleidoscope — Nils Frahm
4. Heartworms — The Shins
5. Fireworks — First Aid Kit
 6. House of Woodock — Jonny Greenwood
7. 875 Dollars — De Lux
8. Say You love Me (remastered) —  Fleetwood Mac
9. Afterglow — Jose Gonzalez (with the Bride Lites)
10. The Presses Roll — John Williams

Jan 26, 2018

Review: NOTHING by Hanif Kureishi

'The idea of a celibate Hanif Kureishi hero tormented by the very urges he once indulged is an excellent one — think Phillip Roth in a chastity belt. Given the current cultural and political climate, in fact, that idea may have even more than usual appeal. The more or less unfettered license that male writers have enjoyed when it comes to holding up every stain in the bed-sheet as a palimpsest of their smarting, solipsistic souls may be time for an overhaul. Sexual jealousy has produced many a major and minor classic, from Saul Bellow’s Herzog to Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square and Julian Barnes’s Before She Met Me, but the trick of these books lies in the skill with which the writer evokes, through the heat haze of their protagonist’s obsession, the bobbing horizon line of reality, however fleetingly glimpsed. There must be more to Lolita than just Humbert Humbert’s lust.  Here, Kureishi runs into trouble. There’s really nobody in the book besides Waldo, the other characters existing mostly to ferry congratulatory bouqets to his much-garlanded imagination.  “Waldo you’ve got the filthiest imagination of anyone I’ve met,” says Zee, who nevertheless supplies him with sordid stories of Eddie’s past involving sodomy and rape.   “Your mind is like a roaring wind tunnel,” admonishes his movie actress friend Anita (“not a woman a man can look at for long without wanting to put his penis in her mouth”) but she too brings him further reports of Eddies affairs, pecadilloes, and “orgies with in his school uniform with important people.” But what a stroke of luck!   The world is exactly as florid as the fantasist first imagined it to be. The book is a little like one of those fake knots that, once pulled, turn out to be just a piece of string. Even paranoiacs can be plotted against, of course, but there’s a word for the kind of writing in which too neat a sense of reality is made to line up with loamy sexual fantasy:   pornography. I suspect Kureishi knows this. That pre-emptive shrug of a title almost defies us to take his book seriously.  “As a reader I’m done with literature,” declares Waldo as he asks Anita to read him one of his favorite detective stories again, “I only want fun.” But fun for a writer and fun for a reader are different things and while it may have been fun for Kureishi to write of Zee, “when I could still rim her little hole, or halo, as I call it, and push inside, she’d almost slice the tip of my tongue off” it is rather more arduous work for the reader to square that with the devoted nurse they had been picturing a few pages previously: one minute a Florence Nightingale, the next a lithe vixen who slaps Waldo and attempts to smother him with a pillow.  The behavior that might have driven her to such an act is carefully elided, if not hard to imagine. For all his self-obsession, Waldo shows little instinct towards the kind of degree-zero self-appraisal to which Bellow subjected Moses Herzog: “To his country, an indifferent citizen. To his brothers and sisters, affectionate but remote. With his friends, an egotist. With love, lazy. With brightness dull. With power passive. With his own soul evasive. Satisfied with his own severity, positively enjoying the hardness and factual rigor of his judgment, he lay on his sofa....” That final sentence is a killer, with Bellow dinging him for the complacency and self-congratulation of even accurate self-knowledge can breed. Ouch. Compared to that, Kureishi is still on the beginner’s slopes, practicing his snow-plough. Whether you enjoy it is very much down to how much of a jolt you can get from his epigrams, most of them loitering in the 25-watt range:  “the libido, like Elvis and jealousy, never dies”; “a saint is only someone who has been under-researched”; “boring people are always popular. They never do anything unexpected.” All of which have the requisite cynical snarl but collapse at the gentlest inquiry. “The imagination is the most dangerous place on earth,” asserts Waldo, but Kureishi has supplied him with the safest possible paddock in which to roam: a world carefully Waldoized, confirming his every suspicion and offering his steamy imaginings the least possible pushback. Where’s the danger in that?' - from my New York Times review  

Jan 21, 2018

Review: THE POST (dir. Spielberg)

'The story opens in 1966 in the jungles of Vietnam, where government analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) hears the secretary of defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), complaining that the war is being lost, only to watch him turn around and say the exact opposite at an airport press conference upon their return to Washington. Sickened by the disparity, Ellsberg takes it upon himself to secretly copy the top-secret 47-volume, 7,000-page Department of Defense study of the war which U.S. leaders admitted was lost from the get-go.  After the spookiest of photocopying scenes, with shadows cast by the moving bar walking up the ceiling and walls, the papers arrive on the desk of the Post’s rakish editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) in nothing more ceremonious than a shoe-box — a detail of surpassing Spielbergian ordinariness. When it comes to presenting us with the extraordinary, historical or otherwise, Spielberg likes his paperwork. It brings out the Rockwell in him. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. both took their names from snippets of officialese.  Schindler’s List took its theme not from the the horrors of the Holocaust but its bureaucracy. Private Ryan is plucked from the battlefield by a bit of sharp-eyed admin. Liz Hannah’s script has it’s share of bromides defending truth, justice and the American way, but by framing the story as a business story, Spielberg keeps any high-mindedness at heel. With its busy rhythms and urgent camerawork, The Post moves like a thriller, or a domino cascade, each image impelling on the next in irresistible sequence until the larger pattern is revealed — from  pay-phones with dangling receivers  to pounding type writers and the sight of journalists shouting excitedly with one another in Bradlee’s living room, while his daughter makes a killing on lemonade.  “My God, the fun,” Hanks remarks at one point and it is fun: Spielberg has finally found a way to make his civics-class movies as enjoyable as his adventures used to be. His shot-making is as industrious as a humming-bird these days, but one shot, in particular, is inspired. Nixon has issued a court order blocking publication. The Supreme Court, and possibly prison, awaits. Half a dozen advisors are on conference call awaiting Graham’s decision, and as she gathers herself,  the camera prowls the ceiling like a circling hawk, or a cloud of thoughts demanding release. Finally, a decision comes. “Let’s publish,” she says out of nowhere, almost as surprised by herself as everyone else is — as if such a momentous decision could only sneak up on her, a last-minute jumping of the tracks designed to outwit Kay’s ingrained habit of second-guessing herself. That this champion of the free press should be wearing a milky-white evening wear caftan only reinforces your sense that, with impeccable timing, Spielberg has made his first explicitly feminist film. It’s also the closest Streep will probably ever come to making a superhero movie. She modulates her performance beautifully. First seen walking into roomfuls of men where she is surrounded by dark suits, Kay hmms and haws, is spoken over, or for. But gradually, Streep lends her strength, locating the steel behind her feathery voice, as Kay realises that she’s not just the caretaker of her late husband’s company. It’s her company now.  The suits scatter. The caftan wins.' — from my Sunday Times review

Jan 14, 2018

Review: DARKEST HOUR (dir. Wright)

'Here he comes, padding around in his dressing gown,  cheeks plump, jowls low, cigar stub jutting like an anti-aircraft gun, barking rewrites to his secretary  in between mouthfuls of scotch. Gary Oldman’s Churchill looks heavy — wadded in his fat suit and prosthetics — but he feels light, a sprightly soul, quick on his feet, quoting Macbeth and Hamlet —  “an actor, in love with the sound of his own voice”  in the words of one parliamentary foe. Nobody enjoyed playing Churchill like Churchill, it is implied.  So we get a performance within a performance, two for the price of one, Oldman playing Churchill playing himself — and such fun is had by all that you could almost forget there’s a war on. One of the revelations, in fact, of both Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour and the book on which it was based, by Anthony McCarten, is how close Britain came, in spring of 1940, to negotiating for peace,  even after Hitler had swept through mainland Europe. Newly installed as prime minister, Churchill is distrusted by most of his war cabinet, including Chamberlain and Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), who pressure him constantly to petition for peace. King George VI  (Ben Mendelsohn) finds Churchill’s belligerence “scary.” The French finds his talk of victory at any cost “delusional.” Churchill himself wears these arrows almost as badges of honor, happily copping to “wildness in the blood”. If ever a historical moment called for a little wildness, argues the film, it was the spring of 1940, when delusion and courage looked a lot alike. Maybe the country needed a little crazy. Centered on the five weeks between Churchill taking office as prime minister on May 9th until the evacuation of Dunkirk in June 4th, the film covers Churchill’s seemingly solo effort to shore up support in his government and rally the British people for the coming conflict.  How did he do it?  “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” in the film’s climactic line. Anthony McCarten’s script is essentially a run-through of the big speeches, starting with his battle anthem offering “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”  Wright intercuts Oldman’s delivery with a conveyor-belt breakdown of the speech’s genesis, as it is typed up by secretary (Lily James), revised in the bath, with last-minute amendments scribbled  en route to the commons, where Wright slings his camera underneath the type-writer to see the keys as they hit, then hoists it up high in the rafters, looping and swooping, as if trying to match  Oldman for rhetorical bluster. Blood, toil, sweat, tears and a lot of fancy camera angles.  Oldman wins, with a bespoke version of his distinctive voodoo. The sight of Churchill scarfing down eggs, bacon and whiskey for breakfast is, in its own way, as rock n roll as the sight of Johnny Rotten windmilling his bass in Sid And Nancy, or count Dracula licking bloody razors in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Oldman likes his appetites, the stranger the better. Coming to the film from more expansive literary adaptations like Atonement, Pride and Prejudice, and Anna Karenina, Wright directs as as if hellbent on refuting the“nice performance, shame about the film” criticism usually thrown at biopics. We get slow motion, swish pans, extreme close-ups, elaborate tracking shots, spiraling booms, and endless aerial shots, the camera yo-yoing up and down through the clouds following the course of the bombs as they fall. His performance is almost as busy as Oldman’s — the directorial equivalent of selfie — and it robs the film of gravity, quite literally, or any sense of impending threat.' — from my Sunday Times review https://www.thetimes.co.uk/?sunday


'In  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a grieving mother who has rented three billboards attacking the local police chief  Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) for what she sees as his inaction in her daughter’s case. “Raped while dying”; “And still no arrests?”; “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Such is the starting point for Martin McDonagh’s pitch-black revenger’s comedy — imagine Dirty Harry as written by Samuel Beckett and you’re close. The playwright-turned-director of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths McDonagh a gift for gallows humor that catches in your throat. The police chief turns out to be a  sturdy, decent man played by Woody Harrelson who also happens to be dying of cancer. Might she rethink the billboards?  “They wouldn’t be so effective after you croak, right?” she replies. McDormand says she based the performance on John Wayne and it shows. Dressed in overalls and bandana, her face stony with grief, her eyes narrow with accusation, Mildred marches into scenes with such freedom from giving a rat’s ass — she kicks one of her son’s female classmates in the groin and even firebombs the police station — the effect is thrilling. Not just any avenging mother, she turns Mildred into the avenging mother, a figure risen from the  angry, disenfranchised,  Trump-voting, rural unconscious (though the film’s politics skew left). “How’s it all going in the nigger-torturing business, Dixon?” Mildred asks the police’s departments in-house racist,  Dixon (Sam Rockwell),  a  dim-witted screw-up who lives with his mother and jives listening to Abba’s “Chiquitita” on his walkman — a blissful turn from Rockwell, who duly corrects her  “That’s the person-of-color-torturing business these days.” McDonaugh can seemingly write this stuff by the yard: zesty, profane dialogue between prickly, quarrelsome characters bound in mutual exasperation, nipping and biting like ferrets in a bag. Scene by scene, the movie snarls with viperish life, although there are one too many clever-clever jokes about the characters’ sub-literacy — Wilde is quoted,“hard of hearing” mistaken for “hard of reading” and so on. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri may be McDonagh’s most satisfying film to date, but the London-born playwright’s bard-of-the-Ozarks ventriloquism isn’t exact, and his construction hasn’t shed all traces of the stage. The violence escalates and explodes, leaving the town in flames, but he chooses to end with a shaggy-dog shrug rather than a note of catharsis or release. A better sense of landscape might have helped: here, you barely notice it. But McDormand’s Mildred is one for the ages. She doesn’t want catharsis or release.  She’s still out there still, putting up billboards, putting fear into the wicked.' — from my Sunday Times review

Jan 8, 2018

Review: ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (dir. Ridley Scott)

'The black joke that unfurls at the centre of this film — part thriller, part morality tale — is that the boy would probably better off with his kidnappers. The boy’s father is long out of the picture,  lost in an opium cloud in Marrakesh.  Only the mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams), seems to care, and it is her resolve that powers the story. Long bruised by any entanglements with her estranged husband’s family, she alone seems to know what to expect. The greed of the kidnappers seems almost quaint when set besides that of her father-in-law. The toughest negotiations of the film will be not with them, but with him. “I like things,” says Getty, surrounded by old-world treasures and gilt-framed masterworks in the crepuscular gloom  of his estate. “They never let me down.  There is a purity to beautiful things that I’ve never been able to find in another human being.” Critics have been saying the same thing about Ridley Scott movies for decades. A chilly Midas, shoring up Vermeers and Ming vases against his ruin, Getty is the perfect embodiment of a figure Scott has long been fascinated with, from Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner, sat atop his ziggurat collecting owls and chess pieces to Hannibal Lecter poring over his Dante manuscripts at the Palazzo Capponi in Hannibal Scott, too, likes his objets, sometime more so than his people — not for nothing are the most memorable characters in his work androids and replicants —  which is why this film is such a sleek fit for him. In Getty he’s found his Corleone — his shadow self. Who knows what Spacey did with the role — probably telegraph his villainy to the audience with a wink, like he always does — but Plummer  brings an avuncular twinkle and sly wit to this reptile: eyes narrowed to crafty slits, crafty and cold-blooded, his Getty is almost provocatively unsentimental, like a rascally relative prodding the world for its reaction. You half expect Harrison Ford to arrive in his hover car and subject him to a Voight-Kampff empathy test to see if he’s fully human. Instead we have Michelle Williams — acting’s answer to the Voight Kampff. Williams is extraordinary in this picture,  alternately fierce and fragile as she pushes her way through the paparazzi, focussed like a  laser on getting her son back, suppressing all her rage and panic beneath brittle Kennnedyesque diction, but unable to stifle gallows humor at the absurdity of the situation: begging the richest man in the world to spare a penny for his own grandson, she doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Neither do you. Williams’ mordant, heartsore performances roots the entire film. ' — from my Sunday Times review

Jan 2, 2018

Review: THE LAST JEDI (dir. Johnson)

'At the close of Star Wars The Force Awakens, J J Abrams giddy, good-humored reboot of Lucas’s original saga, one could be forgiven some trepidation as the narrative reins were handed over from Harrison’s Ford’s Han Solo — always the saga’s most charismatic character with with his lop-sided grin and grumbling asides  — to Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, it’s most chipper and anodyne, the closest the galaxy had to a Walton. The first bit of good news relayed by Star Wars: The Last Jedi is that Luke has had the stuffing knocked out of him. Grizzled and grey-bearded, he has turned his back on the Jedi and is now holed up on his island hideaway like Ben Kenobi in the first film,  at first refusing to train Rey (Daisy Ridley) in her fight against the evil First Order. “It’s time for the Jedi to end,” he says, one of many calls to forget the past in a film in which everyone seems hell-bent on disinterring their legacy and cutting loose from their legend. There are more flashbacks in this movie than all the others combined. Rey still doesn’t know who her parents are, while Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Sith warrior with the inferiority complex, is grappling with his own recent ventures into parricide. “Let the past die,” he implores her. “The Sith, the rebels, let it all die.”  Fat chance. Soon Luke is training Rey in the way of The Force, which are much as they always were — granting powers of telekinesis, mind control and a sudden, intense interest in natural fabrics — but now with one important new feature, allowing Rey to establish direct long-distance mind-to-mind communication with Kylo Ren. Think of it as the Force’s answer to texting. Soon they are at it like teenagers. “I feel the conflict in you,” insists Rey, like Jane Eyre before her, thinking she can turn the bad boy good. “You’ll turn. I’ll help you.”  The light sabres are not the only thing giving off extra heat these days. With his long gaunt features and Byronic mien, Adam Driver has now grown into the closest the series has to a Mr Rochester: mad, bad and dangerous to know. The subtitle of this movie ought to have been Inter-Galactic Bad Boys and the Women Who Love Them. I only wish Johnson had pushed if further. There’s one great scene where they briefly join forces and slay a roomful of Snoke’s lieutenants that is just crying out for a climactic, blood-drenched kiss. How Johnson fluffed that opportunity I will never know.' — from my Sunday Times review

Review: MOLLY'S GAME (dir. Sorkin)

 'Chastain is in her element. Dressed in low-cut designer dresses, cleavage on full display, but refusing all the propositions that come her way, she  saunters around her high-end gambling den, elusive and unattainable, hand-picking the guests, recruiting fresh meat to throw to sharks like   “Player X”, a movie star who lives for the kill:  “I don’t like playing poker , I like destroying lives.” That he is played by Michael Cera allows for some some sly subversion of Cera’s pencil-necked beta-male  image. In real life it was Tobey Maguire — further accompanied by Leonardo Di Caprio, Ben Affleck and, on occasion, Matt Damon — but Sorkin, like Bloom herself, has mastered the art of cloaking names with a seductive flutter. We hear talk of Saudi Princes and hedge-fund billionaires, find out good players can lose to bad ones if they don’t yet know how bad they are, one pro (Bill Camp) losing everything in the course of a game lasting three days. “Go home,” Molly tells him.  I’m not sure we ever figure her out. In his debut as director, Sorkin shows a slight inability to let his performances breathe or deepen. Betrayed a second time, Molly  says in voiceover, “depression and anger gave way to blinding rage at my  powerlessness over the unfair whims of men” the narration stealing what it should be an actress’s job to show. As with many of her roles, Chastain burns with a cool blue flame, a player who refuses to be played or drawn into the compromise of intimacy, the closest we get to an intimate relationship her strained relationship with her psychotherapist father (Kevin Costner) who turns up in a climactic scene full of gimcrack Freudianism  — “I’m going to give you some answers” he says — that nevertheless pulls off a little magic. Sorkin can pull rabbits out of hats, but it’s interesting to compare Chastain’s diamond-cut integrity with the more pliable populism of someone like, say, Julia Roberts. Chastain may not want to be that kind of star, although if you’re looking for the reason audiences may not have yet fully embraced her, here it is. Like Dietrich before her, she seduces the camera, but refuses to be seduced by it, breaking the age-old compact that connects a performer’s sexuality and the screen. It’s fascinating stand-off. I can’t wait to find out how it turns out.' — from my Sunday Times review