Mar 24, 2015

REVIEW: While We're Young (dir. Baumbach)

'... There are distinct shades of Crimes and Misdemeanours here, in which Woody Allen’s forlorn documentarian had to bite his knuckles while Alan Alda’s bumptious smoothie pontificated loudly on the secret of his success (“tragedy is comedy…plus time”). You couldn’t help but wonder if Allen weren’t, in this pairing, serving up two aspects of his own character —whether the Alda character wasn’t an exaggerated version of his own success, a means of dramatising his own feelings of unworthiness and fraudulence. Baumbach is cut from the same cloth as Allen, unquestionably — the same ambivalent herringbone, cutting first this way, then that, driven by the same truth-telling instinct, close to pedantry, which propels his Eeyoreish donkey-men to soft, inevitable self-defeat.  You suspect they are half in love with it. The terminal passivity of his protagonists is not without its structural problems: his films tend to dribble to a halt, or simply fade away, like a weak handshake. Even “Frances Ha”, much praised for its infusion of nouvelle vague spirit, pooled in the same funk of self-defeat that swallowed “Greenberg” whole, with Greta Gerwig’s heroine flopping from one humiliation to the next. Absent from his work are the usual Hollywood growth curves and third-act catharses.  People do not learn from their mistakes in his films: they keep doggedly betraying themselves. But watching them do so can amount to it's own form of petulance — a lack of charity posing as an absence of illusions' 
— from my review for Intelligent Life 

Mar 15, 2015

Freaking out the fourth wall

“I was worried about the farting,” he says now. “But John Calley, one of the executives at Warner Brothers, said to me, when I asked, ‘Can I punch the shit out of an old lady?’  He said a brilliant thing. He said, ‘If you're going to go up to the bell. Ring it.’” The peals can still be heard. Critics are fond of pointing out that Brooks films ushered in the modern gross-out comedy as we know it — a direct line can be traced from his films to the Naked Gun pictures, to the comedy of Jim Carrey, to the films the Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow — but less remarked upon is how irreducibly cinematic Brooks’ films are. The farting gag in Blazing Saddles is essentially a joke about the conventions of the Western, wherein men sit around campfire for hours ingesting beans with nary a parp. And while everyone objected to it individually; en masse, they howled. Brooks films are fourth-wall freak-outs, the butt of his jokes frequently film form itself — tracking shots that go crashing into windows; soundtracks that turn out to be played by the actual Count Basie band, marooned in the desert... his comedy is infantile in every sense of the word. His characters cry and storm and suck on their blankets, driven by their unappeasable bodies and insatiable appetites for money, love, succor, comfort. They claw for the teat.'

— from my interview with Mel Brooks for The Sunday Times  

Mar 14, 2015


'One of the great benefits of digital consumption is that it is democratic: In cyberspace, there's nobody to judge you. If this 57-year-old wants to hear what Joey Badass sounds like, I don't have to run the gauntlet of incredulous stares in cool record stores: There! I'm listening to Paper Trails as we speak! And yet part of the point of culture is that it allows us to demonstrate our tastes publicly — it helps us find our tribe. (Thanks, Joey, but I'm going back to the new Valentinos compilation.) The arts are the most elaborate and most precise social network ever invented, but if it's going to work properly, you have to get out of the house sometimes and show who you are and what you love. You have to go to shows and galleries and bookstores, you have to ask for what you want out loud. And this expression of taste must involve an impulse that, at its heart, is anti-democratic: Somewhere you have to believe that what you like is better than what all those other losers like.'  
Nick Hornby writing for the Hollywood Reporter on the possibility of a High Fidelity sequel

Mar 10, 2015

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Raine on Degas

'Here are some chairs I noticed. An empty chair at the natural optical centre of Degas’s Dance Foyer of the Opera at rue le Peletier (1872), occupied by a fan and a puddle of white cloth. It is waiting – and the viewer is waiting, subliminally – for its occupant to return and claim the fan. It is reserved. Someone has bagged it. Not a circumstance you often see painted, though common enough in real life. Nor is the violinist playing. He is pausing, his bow at rest on his trouser leg. Degas has painted a pause. A thing that hasn’t been painted before.' — from Craig Raine's review of Inventing Impressionism for the New Statesman

Alfred Hitchcock's 'White Album'

'... This tendency to praise Hitchcock for his flaws is most evident when it comes to Vertigo, a fulminous cloudscape boasting the most unsatisfactory ending of the director’s career yet “so purely a movie – so purely involved in what movies do — that we can almost let the plot go,” writes Wood. “It doesn't get lost. But it mimes the lostness of characters caught between conspiracy and desire, between sobriety and fascination.” This is an elegantly executed dive from the high-board, even if it sounds like an ad for a new fragrance ("between conspiracy and desire, between sobriety and fascination... Eau de Alfred"), and doesn’t shake one’s suspicion that Vertigo is the Hitchcock movie for those who, above all, wish the director had been French, in the same way that the White Album is the Beatles album for those who most wish they had instead been The Doors. Adapted from a French potboiler by the author of Henri-Georges Clouzet’s Les Diabolique, to which it was a direct response, the film is a maze with no exit, lots of wandering, looking, longing, and virtually no jokes. Which is not to say that it isn’t the also most wrenching of his works — if ever a film was meant to find a second life, it is this one, with its plot involving possible reincarnation, and a love story which pushes Hitchcock’s pygmalionism to its heartbroken conclusion. But excessive praise for it is something of a backhanded compliment to the rest of the oeuvre, as if Hitchcock’s fingers had first to be prized loose from the cookie jar of narrative before he could be rewarded.'
— from my review of Michael Wood's Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much for Intelligent Life

Mar 6, 2015

REVIEW: Still Alice (dir. Glatzer / Westmoreland)

'There’s always seemed something masklike about Julianne Moore’s face: she seems walled in by her beauty. When she smiles, the only thing that moves is her mouth; that superb fenderwork of bone remains as impassive as a sphinx. This very inexpressiveness gives her of an air of trapped intelligence which she used to great effect in the early part of her career playing a string of numbed out beauties— her coked-up porn actress in Boogie Nights; her neurasthenic housewives in Safe and Far From Heaven, all dying behind the eyes. More recently she has cut loose to channel something of Diane Keaton’s jangled-nerve comedy in The Kids Are Alright, in which her performance was a revelation: Moore has never been so loose or so funny. In Still Alice, she plays a victim on early-onset Alzheimer’s and you can see why they gave her an Oscar for it. It’s like watching a career retrospective only in reverse: come see the more radiant, vivacious Julianne Moore of late regress into one of her early pathos-of-emptiness roles.'  
— from my review of Still Alice for The Spectator

Mar 3, 2015

Most Anticipated Films of 2015

Hail Caesar (Universal) — dir. Joel and Ethan Coen w/ Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Channing Tatum, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill  
Star Wars: The Force Awakens — Abrams (Dec) 
St James Place — dir. Spielberg  w/  Tom HanksMark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Billy Magnussen, Eve Hewson. (Touchstone/DreamWorks /20th Century Fox)  
Spotlight —Thomas McCarthy, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Liev Schreiber, Billy Crudup, and John Slattery 
The Hateful Eight — Quentin Tarantino, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Demián Bichir, and Kurt Russell (Weinstein Co.)  
Midnight Special — Jeff Nichols, Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver, and Joel Edgerton (Warner Bros.)   
Crimson Peak — dir. del Toro w/ Chastain (Oct 16th)
Far from the Madding Crowd dir. Thomas Vinterberg w. Mulligan (May 1)  
Trumbo — Jay Roach, Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, Louis C.K., Helen Mirren, and John Goodman (Bleecker Street)  
Brooklyn — Nick Hornby, directed by John Crowley and starring Domhnall Gleeson and Saoirse Ronan ( Fox Searchlight)  
Trainwreck dir. Judd Apatow (July 17) 
 The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott, November 25)
Joy dir. David O. Russell w/  Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, and Édgar Ramirez.  (20th Century Fox, 12/25)  
Triple Nine — John Hillcoat, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Chris Allen, and Anthony Mackie. (Open Road)  
Our Brand is Crisis (Warner Bros.) — dir. David Gordon Green‘s with Sandra Bullock, Scoot McNairy, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackieand Ann Dowd
Beasts of No Nation — dir.  Fukunaga w / Elba   
Everest (Universal) — dir. Baltasar Kormákur w/ Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright 
That's What I'm Talking About — dir. Linklater   
Life (no distributor) — dir.  Anton Corbijn w/ Robert Pattinson Dane DeHaan  Ben Kingsley, Joel Edgerton 
 The Revenant (20th Century Fox) — dir.  Alejandro González Inarritu (director/screenplay) w/ Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson  
Hughes — dir  Beatty, w/ Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Candice Bergen    
Triple Nine — dir. Hillcoat w/ Winslet, Harrelson, Ejiofor, Affleck (Sept 9th)
Carol (Weinstein Co.) — dir. Todd Haynes w/ Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler   
Silence — Martin Scorsese,  Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield, Issei Ogata, Adam Driver, and Tadanobu Asano. (Paramount)  
Ricki and the Flash — dir. Demme — w/ Streep (Aug 7th) 
Icon — Stephen Frears,  Ben Foster, Lee Pace, and Chris O'Dowd. (Working Title, no US distributor) 
Sea of Trees (no distributor) — dir. Gus Van Sant w/ Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe, Naomi Watts, Katie Aselton, Jordan Gavaris 
Knight of Cups (no distributor) — dir. Terrence Malick w/ Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer
Queen of the Desert dir. Werner Herzog w/  Nicole Kidman, Robert Pattinson, Damian Lewis and James Franco.  
Grandma — Weitz, Tomlin 
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Thomas Mann and RC Cyler  
Mistress America Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach (Fox  Searchlight) 
The Diary of a Teenage Girl Marielle Heller, Bel Powley, Kristin Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard (Sony Pictures Classics) 
The End of the Tour — James Ponsoldt, Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg (A24) 
Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash — starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, and Dakota Johnson (Fox Searchlight)  
Jean-Marc Vallee's Demolition, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Naomi Watts, and Chris Cooper  (Fox Searchlight) 
Woody Allen's Irrational Man  starring Joaquin Phoenix, Parker Posey, Emma Stone, and Jamie Blackley (Sony Pictures Classics) 
Brian Helgeland's Legend starring Tom Hardy as the Kray twins and Emily Browning. (Working Title, Universal) 
Justin Kurtzel's Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard (The Weinstein Co.) 
Alejandro Amenábar's Regression starring Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, and David Dencik. (The Weinstein Company) 
Stephen Daldry's Trash starring Rooney Mara and Martin Sheen. (Working Title, Focus Features)   
Robert Zemeckis's The Walk — starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, James Badge Dale and Charlotte Le Bon. (Sony/TriStar, 10.2)

Feb 23, 2015

The morning after the Oscar night before

20/24 in a hard year — not bad. Of my four misses, I was most surprised by Big Hero Six winning. They really don't like sequels, huh? But still: a superhero origins story. I thought we were all against superheroes on this one night of the year. Pleasantly surprised Tom Cross won for Whiplash's editing, disappointed Chazelle didn't get adapted screenplay. (The Imitation Game is a truly terrible winner, even if expected). And puzzled Anderson didn't get original screenplay, even if Birdman's script is the sizzler. At one point the evening looked like the coronation of Wes Anderson ("Thank you Wes" being the rallying cry of the night). It will be remembered in this neck of the woods for Redmayne's squeal, NPH's strip, the number of boobs, underpants and skinny boys, Arquette's speech (and the cutaway to Streep), the constant self-reassurances that the Academy isn't racist, the dedication of both the top acting trophies to the degenerative neurological diseases of the subjects, that wonton act of cruelty involving The Sound of Music, and the genuinely nail-biting finish.

Feb 21, 2015

My Oscar picks 2015

'To start with the most hotly contested categories first. Best Picture is as close a race as can be between Birdman and Boyhood, two Davids in a field with no Goliaths. Birdman won all the guilds, Boyhood the BAFTAs. The Academy’s preferential ballot would seem to favor the more mild-mannered Linklater but its slightly fey, gentle spirit has always struck me as unlikely to close the deal with the steak-eaters, or Braveheart voters. Gun to head, I’m going to go with Birdman riding the same you-don’t-have-to-be-mad-to-work-here-etc spirit that helped Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz to its wins, making this the third best picture winner in a row set in the world of show business, after Argo and The Artist. Birdman is out there for the Academy, no question, but in the absence of any film addressing the state-of-the-nation or the way-we-live-now, maybe they’ll settle for a baring-of-the-showbiz-soul.   

Best Editing is usually a handmaiden of Best Picture but Birdman doesn't have a nomination — all those long, continuous takes were judged to have assembled themselves — so I expect it to go to Boyhood (and if it goes to the much-admired Whiplash instead, you can definitely count Boyhood out of the running for Best Picture).  Iñárritu will probably pick up the Best Director Oscar for Birdman, clearly a bravura directorial feat, as Gravity was last year.  The Mexicans seem to be owning this award at the moment, as they do cinematography: expect another win for Emmanuel Lubezki. And while one would normally favor Birdman’s Michael Keaton, too, for Best Actor — the academy have a having of siding with American veterans in any run-off with outsiders — Eddie Redmayne’s mixture of craft and emotion in The Theory of Everything gives him the edge. Just.' 
My picks for Intelligent Life:—

Will Win: Birdman
Could Win: Boyhood
Should Win: Birdman

Will Win: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
Could Win: Richard Linklater
Should Win: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu

Will Win:  Julianne Moore
Could Win: —*
Should Win: Marion Cotillard

Will Win: Eddie Redmayne
Could Win: Michael Keaton
Should Win: Eddie Redmayne

Will Win:  J K Simmons
Could Win: —
Should Win: J K Simmons

Will Win: Patricia Arquette
Could Win:—
Should Win: Meryl Streep

Will Win: Boyhood
Could Win: Whiplash
Should Win: Whiplash

Will Win: Birdman
Could Win:—
Should Win: Birdman

Will Win: The Imitation Game
Could Win: Whiplash
Should Win Whiplash

Will Win: Grand Budapest Hotel
Could Win: Boyhood
Should Win: Grand Budapest Hotel

Will Win: Grand Budapest Hotel
Could Win: Into The Woods
Should Win: Grand Budapest Hotel

Will Win: Grand Budapest Hotel
Could Win: Into The Woods
Should Win: Grand Budapest Hotel

Will Win: Grand Budapest Hotel
Could Win: The Theory Of Everything
Should Win: Grand Budapest Hotel

Will Win: Selma
Could Win: —
Should Win: Selma

Will Win: American Sniper
Could Win: Interstellar
Should Win: Interstellar

Will Win: American Sniper
Could Win: Whiplash
Should Win: Whiplash

Will Win: Citizenfour
Could Win: Virunga
Should Win: Last Days in Vietnam

Will Win: Ida
Could Win: Leviathan
Should Win: Leviathan

Will Win: How to Train Your Dragon 2
Could Win: Big Hero Six
Should win: How to Train Your Dragon 2

Will Win: Interstellar
Could Win: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Should Win: Interstellar

Will Win:  Grand Budapest Hotel
Could Win: Guardians of the Galaxy
Should Win: Foxcatcher

Will Win: The Phone Call
Could Win: Our Curse
Should Win: Our Curse

Will Win: Feast
Could Win: The Dam Keeper
Should Win: The Dam Keeper

Will Win: Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Could Win: Joanna
Should Win: Our Curse

*— indicates a lock, meaning a win for someone else would constitute that rarest and loveliest of creatures, an Oscar Upset

What Hollywood sees in the mirror

'The Oscars are about self-image, picking a Best Picture that will act as an ambassador for the Hollywood filmmaking community. It’s about how the industry wishes to be seen. This year, the picture that emerges is a Dorian-Grey-like portrait of deep ambivalence.   Outside, it’s raining dragons and superheroes, but inside the comfort of the Kodak theatre it’s renegades, indies and mavericks, with the biggest haul of the night possibly going to Wes Anderson, the dauphin prince of corduroy quirk, for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Best Picture, meanwhile, has turned into ahead-to-head fight between  Linklater’s gentle, mild-mannered bildungsroman, Boyhood and Birdman, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fabulous, nutty, bravura deconstruction of Hollywood’s superhero complex. The artistic redemption of those up to their elbows in blockbuster dollars is exactly what Iñárritu’s film is about, although one of the reasons the race has been so difficult to call is that both films represent the kind of critically acclaimed, left field pick that, in any other year, would be playing underdog to the studio’s 600lb goliath. In the absence of any such beast, the field is all underdogs — all Davids. Increasingly, the Oscars seem to be functioning almost as a kind of wish-fulfillment — a visit to an alternative universe where, for one night of the year, the industry can reward the very films it spent the other 364 days of the year coming up with watertight reasons not to make.'  
— from my piece about the Oscars and the disappearance of Hollywood's mid-budget movie for the Financial Times

Feb 15, 2015

My new Woody Allen top Ten

1. Annie Hall
2. Love and Death
3. Hannah and Her Sisters
4. Bullets Over Broadway
5. Zelig
6. The Purple Rose of Cairo
7. Manhattan
8. Manhattan Murder Mystery
9. Sleeper
10. Blue Jasmine
So I'm finally finished the text of my Woody Allen book and as is my won', I've drawn up a top ten list to contrast with the top ten I drew up before writing the book. And what can I say except: what was I smoking? Firstly, my deepest and most heartfelt apologies to Love and Death, inexplicably absent from the top ten the first time around and now tightly ensconced at number two. I first saw the film when I was nine and didn't remember much except the battle scenes and the fact that he dies at the end. The film seems to me the high water mark of Allen's pre Annie-Hall comic films —a real head rush of parody, pastiche and allusion, unashamed of its smarts — it's Allen at his most literary, but at the same time most accessible. It's no-brow. Hannah and Her Sisters: I'd misremembered this film, again seeing it at the wrong age. It's got novelistic density and detail, moves with the assurance of great cinema, with the most layered, complex tone of any of his films. Plus, it has Diane Wiest as Allen's his most appealing flake. She may even be my favorite leading lady of his. The other major mover is Blue Jasmine, which cracks the top ten with its tightness and fluency — you would never guess form it that this was the guy who labored over Interiors of September. Allen seemed to come full circle with that film — his tragic muse finally outpacing his comic one, while Jasmine is both Allen and Mia, wrapped in one. 

Feb 14, 2015


'One day, tracking shots that salalom around a maze of computer chips will look dated as montage shots of spinning newspapers, or those morse-code trails left by airplanes across maps in 1930s serials. Until then we have Blackhat, Michael Mann’s new cyber-thriller about hacking, a subject Hollywood has been trying to get right ever since Sandra Bullock ordered online pizza and accidentally tapped her way into an FBI mainframe in 1995’s The Net. From its opening scenes, in which an anonymous hacker brings down the cooling system of a Chinese nuclear plant, Blackhat announces itself as an ineffably superior beast, full of sotte voce chatter about “malware,” “remote access trojans” and “edge routers”, shots of pulsing dots swimming through fiber-optic cables and reluctant male warriors offering their profiles against   pixillated cityscapes suggestive of capitalism’s last stand. In other words, a Michael Mann movie. Our reluctant male warrior in this case is Nicholas Hathaway, a hacker languishing in high-security prison for relieving some banks of $46 million, though he is soon sprung by a US-Chinese coalition keen to use his expertise to track down the anonymous hacker — much like Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter, Mann’s adaptation of the Thomas Harris thriller Red Dragon. There, Lecter was played with cerebral suavety by Brian Cox. Here, Hathaway is played by super-hunk Chris Hemsworth, last seen swinging his hammer as Marvel’s Thor, a bold move on Mann’s against the stereotyping of computers nerds as overweight mole people. Whether audiences will buy what they get instead —which is to say, 200llbs of ripped Australian, whose bookshelves include Foucault and Derria and who pounds away at his computer keyboard with his shirt open three buttons to show an acreage of evenly tanned chest — will depend largely on how sun-kissed audiences will allow your average jailed computer hacker to be.' — from my review of Blackhat for Intelligent Life

One more and then I'm done

"... Shone’s reflections on Scorsese and his films are expressed with surprisingly lovely prose and demonstrate not only a great appreciation for the director’s work but an intimate understanding of what makes him tick, of the rhythm that beats beneath the surface of his films. In the chapter covering Goodfellas, he has this to say:“It marks Scorcese’s most ebullient performance as director, with editing, camerawork, and sound all working at full tilt to create a great, rolling, runaway ribbon of celluloid – cinema as guitar riff – that surges, chugs, and kicks like a Keith Richards guitar lick. ‘The moviemaking has such bravura you respond as if you were at a live performance,’ said Pauline Kael. ‘All you want to talk about is the glorious zigging camera, the freeze-frames and jump cuts. That may be why young film enthusiasts are so turned on by Scorcese’s work: They don’t just respond to his films, they want to be him.' Up to a point. That Steadicam shot through the Copacabana is a show-off piece of filmmaking, but it works because Henry himself is showing off in order to seduce Karen – so Scorcese seduces the audience, too. His exuberance is born of the vitality of his hoodlum antiheroes, who even as they dish out death are themselves full of life – vibrant, awful, vulgar life, with their wide suits and hot cars, their lacquered women and their terrible taste in home furnishings.” (page 149)" — Fourth and Sycamore

Feb 12, 2015


'Taylor-Wood has taken great care in the casting of her heroine: soft of voice, absent-minded of manner, Johnson manages to spill into scenes seeming both sleepy and flustered at the same time, as if she had gone to bed the night before knowing she was to star in a movie mainstreaming the pleasures of bondage porn, but had overslept and was now keen to get up to speed. What Christian does like to do — or certainly what he talks endlessly about doing, drawing up 20-page contracts which elaborate in power-point detail what he would like to do, if allowed — is to be found in what he calls his “play room”: red-velvet-lined vaulted deep in his penthouse kitted out with slings, harnesses, handcuffs, whips, and all manner of equipment seemingly on loan from the local circus.   “I thought you meant your x-box and stuff, says Anastasia, fuelling the delicious sense that both she and her director are in eye-rolling cahoots together against the resolute humorlessness of James’s book.  “Two things. I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard,” he tells her, leveling her with a particularly intense eyebrow-piercer.   “And the second?”  asks Anastasia, after a pause of such sustained magnificence that it hard not to fall just a little bit in love with her. I’m not sure how Johnsons’ career as the willing partner in middle-of-the-road sadomachistic fantasy is going to shape up, but somebody out to cast her in a comedy immediately.'  
— from my review of Fifty Shades of Grey for Intelligent Life