Apr 18, 2014


From my Guardian review:_
 '... In one sense, Pfister and his screenwriter Jack Paglen have judged correctly: the audience don’t want anyone jamming up the works with objections, not with the prospect of a laptop-portable Johnny Depp in sight, but it's the first sign that the film is unwilling to raise any questions, or prompt any train of thought, that cannot immediately be triangulated and tabbed back to its respective plot algorithm — a besetting overneatness that marks it out as a Nolan production. Amongst big budget directors currently working he may be the one least gripped by the spirit of excess. He’s a neatnik showman — his films summoning genies that fit obediently back into their lamps. There’s a nice moment here when they first establish connect with the newly uploaded Will only to find his digitized voice rambling deliriously about “loss” and “dreams,” as if drunk on pixels and ether. “He’s still fragmented,” says Evelyn, but he soon pulls himself together to demand more power, access to Wall Street and connection to the internet, like every other megalomaniac. Most people would take this as a sure sign to pull the plug, but the power of love being what it is, Evelyn decides instead to head off into the desert, buy Will a small town, and instill an underground bunker in which he can amass a small genetically enhanced army to help him while away eternity.    Transcendence suffers from terrible timing, arriving a few months after Spike Jonze charmed audiences with his semi-futuristic love story Her, which flipped a century’s worth of technophobia on its back, to view what futurist Ray Kurzwei calls “the singularity” — the point at which humans are eclipsed by their computer counterparts — as a version of romantic bliss: Annie Hall for the iGeneration. Now, along comes Pfister, as if to say: no, no, forget that, be afraid again. He’s put together a handsome-looking film, no question; his cinematographer Jess Hall has a soft spot for slow-mo water droplets and the sun flaring through solar panels at dawn; the score, by Mycheal Danna, is a haunting mixture of Satie-like piano nocturnes and glassy choral arrangements; and the cast is classiness personified: Bettany, Hall, Mara. But what’s the point of calling in Rebecca Hall to do your power-hitting — her early shows of grief are textbook examples of sharp fluid, emotional economy— if you’re then going to ask her somehow not to smell a rat while Depp amasses enough power to light up Southern California? Meanwhile, Will’s shows of romantic ardor grow ever creepier: wine, dinner, dimmed lighting, something folky and hand-picked on the turntable, complete with a digitized recreation of the sound of Johnny Depp chewing his food. “I thought it would make you more comfortable,” says Will. When Evelyn demurs, he says accusingly, “You’ve changed.” He can talk. She’s not the one staring out of a computer screen the color of seasick green, electrodes attached to her skull, faking the sound of steak tartare stuck in her molars.    
 It's the old story, I’m afraid: the essential boringness of omnipotence as a plot device.  Depp is believable enough in his early scenes, if a little checked-out — he gets one nice bit of topspin on a line about the techno-terrorism being light on logic, but not irony — but the moment he uploads, the life seems to go out of him and the movie. A digitized Oz, Depp stares down stiffly, bereft of any inner turmoil that might have allowed him to turn this mad scientist riff into something more interesting. Being able to coerce internet stocks is one thing, but once Will gets the ability to fly anywhere in the world via small silver molecules contained in rain— they look like iron fillings falling upwards — you feel the film’s energies dissipating in the air alongside them. That kind of morphing technology looked snazzy around the time James Cameron completed Terminator 2 back in 1992. All the warnings about the perils of technology nobody had time to raise in the first half of the movie seem to crowd out the second, whose empty desert setting seems to cry out for   a few more perils, and a few less warnings.' 

Apr 12, 2014

Critics + film technique = Auterism 3.0

From my piece about film criticism for The Guardian:—
'...The only thing lacking from internet film appreciation — and it’s a telling blind spot, encouraged by the mole-tunnel solipsism of the internet itself — is a sense of the movies as a communal experience. The audience has been vaporised. These young film critics are burrowers, not broadcasters. To read them is to imagine a cinema filled to the brim only with film critics, balding, bearded and bespectacled, all feverishly taking notes on deep-focus mise-en-scène.   "The editor wanted me to concentrate on the plot and characterizations and performances because, well, you know, we're mainstream,” is Seitz’s characterization of the typical film critic’s resistance to his manifesto. “It pisses me off,” he fumes. The animus towards Kael often voiced by Richard Brody, The New Yorker’s film editor, drips with similar condescension:

"Kael properly deduced that a huge part of going to the movies consisted of how the audience responded to the people on the screen, rather than simply basing her critique on the competence of the writing or the technical aspects of the cinematography. Her sentences in her radio and print reviews about the onscreen talent of the twentieth century rise to the level of expert observation of humanity in all its manifold variety."
In other words: she forgot what she was watching was art. She thought the little people were real.  She got lost in the illusion. 
So do a lot of people. It may not be the prettiest definition of cinema — boring old characters and plot — or the only one, but it is one that holds for 99% of the people who go to see movies, and also the one that is hardest to get right. It’s not as if Hollywood is exactly excelling in these areas right now. To hear these guys sound off you’d think that we were living in the golden age of film narrative and Rembrandt-rich character studies. At the risk of pointing out the obvious: We’re not. To sit through the average Hollywood movie, it’s not the technique that’s lacking. Most young film directors, reared in music videos and advertising, can cut like Aderall-addicts and swing their cameras from the rafters like Howard Keel, but their grasp on narrative and insight into character limps way out back.
 Hollywood needs policing on its weaknesses not its strengths. And what is more most neglected in today’s film culture and could most do with lionization is the not the director’s art but the producer’s — that all too rare ability to corral together a loose, combustible, creative team required to draw the lightning strike of a great movie.  “Marlon this part is much closer to you and to myself, too,” wrote Elia Kazan to Marlon Brando in a remarkable letter, during rehearsals for On The Waterfront, in which he drew out the similarities between himself, the actor and character of the orphan Terry Molloy in Budd Schulberg’s script — an act of three-way autobiography, each man seeing himself in the character, all corralled together by the exertions of legendary producer Sam Spiegel.
 A similar three-way communion went into the making The Graduate between writer Buck Henry, director Mike Nichols and star Dustin Hoffman, all of whom saw themselves in Benjamin Braddock. Of course it is also a storehouse of film technique, a virtual textbook in how to express internal states onscreen.  “I needed everything I had learned in the last 30 years to shoot the Graduate,” said the film’s cinematographer Robert Surtees in an article he wrote for American Cinematographer entitled Using the Camera Emotionally. “We used the gamut of lenses, hidden camera, pre-fogged film hand held cameras…. whatever we could think of to express the mood, the emotion of the scene.” It was all about Benjamin. Scorsese’s grasp of technique, too, was never more fluid or expressive than it was in Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, where it was entirely subservient to expressing the internal state of a single character, born of a three-way tug  of love between screenwriter Paul Schrader, director Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro, all of whom thought they were Travis Bickle. “The three of us just came together,” said Scorsese. “It was exactly what we wanted; it was one of the strangest things.” One of the strangest things. Call it Auteurism 3.0: the belief that great films arise not form one man’s mastery but a three-way collision of souls, director, writer and star, all intent on an act of simultaneous autobiography. It’s true of On The Waterfront, and The Graduate and The 400 Blows, it’s true of The Godfather, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and There Will Be Blood and The Social Network. It’s also — and this should make even diehard formalists happy what makes those films films, uniquely so. Creative collaboration breathes its own air, brings its own special suppleness, one which allows the audience to get under the skin of a character, into their heads, behind their eyes. So yes to discussions of technique, but can we remember what the technique is there for?' 

Apr 6, 2014


"... the rare bird who calls herself Self-Styled Siren adds fine judgment and a fluent conversational prose style to her daunting store of information. Because America is a democracy enslaved to gurus -- a paradox that de Tocqueville was first to spot -- it usually has room for only one big name in any critical field. Once, the movies were the province of Pauline Kael. In my estimation, the Siren has better judgment than Kael, and a wider range of appreciation, and loses nothing by having left the print medium behind, bringing nothing of it with her except its rules of discipline. Indeed, almost the best thing about her is that she can enjoy the freedom of the web while incorporating all the virtues that used to be imposed by writing for a newspaper or a magazine. Keeping it brief, respecting the facts, she edits herself. If she had an editor, she might have been compelled to tell us who Max Ophuls was. As things are, she can just steam ahead and explain how his great movie Letter from an Unknown Woman was made possible by the influence, generosity and wisdom of Joan Fontaine. In the fifty years since I saw that movie, I had somehow never seen that fact in print anywhere. But suddenly there it was, on the web, along with miles of other stuff that the Siren knows about the actresses of the past, and the actors too; and the directors, and the costume designers, and… well, anyone and everything. In being so comprehensive, yet so easily readable, she is helping to set the standards of a new critical medium." — Clive James

Apr 5, 2014

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Thomson on Birth

"It's the story of Anna, whose husband dies, jogging in the snow in Central park. For 10 years she mourns and then she agrees to marry again. But at the engagement party a boy appears, and tells her he is her husband. Anna laughs, but the boy is serious, and gradually the occult idea breaks down her sanity or security. I won't say more about the story, or what the film means, but as directed by Jonathan Glazer (he made Sexy Beast – which you may have seen), this is a mysterious and haunting study of emotional insecurity. Nicole Kidman is Anna, and if you have ever doubted her, this is the film to see. For a few years I have been doing all I can to get everyone to see Birth. Try it – you will see, and you won't believe anyone got away with making a film like this." David Thomson on Birth 
I'm not sure about the stuff about emotional insecurity, but I, too, have been dragging people to this film since I first saw it in 2004. The story has the thematic purview of the more thoughtful type of horror film (Rosemary's Baby, Don't Look Now, The Sixth Sense), the roiling emotions of a Puccini opera, and is shot with the spooky, poker-faced imperturbability of a Midwich cuckoo. It's one of those films you fear you might have dreamed — true limbic brain cinema.  

REVIEW: The Ballad of A Small Player

From my review for The New York Times:
'Damn. Another writer I have to care about. After a certain age it is as irksome to add to the list of writers one reads as it is to add to one’s circle of friends. For most of his career, Lawrence Osborne gave the impression of someone one could safely ignore. He wrote a novel in his youth that went the way of most first novels, before carving out a career as a travel writer and wine connoisseur, but then in his fifties something jolted him into writing another novel, The Forgiven, about Westerners partying on the edge of the Muslim desert, which turned out to be dark, brilliant and about as ignorable as a switchblade. Now he’s written another, and every other page there’s an image that catches the eye or sticks in the mind: “She handled them in the way that a buyer in a market will handle small fish before buying them.” That’s a woman betting on a hand of Baccarat. What’s great about those fish, apart from the way their size makes them so easy to flip, is the fear that they may go bad, just like a hand of cards. And how quickly they turn, too. You see? How can you hang into your indifference in the face of a simile like that? The setting is Macau, on the tip of mainland China closest to Hong Kong, where our narrator, a man known only to the locals as Lord Doyle, sits hunched at the baccarat tables of the local casinos, mustering a show of exceptional indifference as he burns his way through a stash of money in his suite. He is watched only by a call-girl in her late twenties named Dao-Ming, who observes, after sleeping with him, “you play as if you don’t care.” He doesn’t disagree. Lord Doyle, we quickly learn, is no such thing, but a lawyer from Sussex on the run after embezzling money from an elderly widow. Now he plays like a man in a freefall, waiting for the bottom to hit. “Everyone knows you’re not a real player until you secretly prefer losing” he observes. He’s certainly picked the right game: Baccarat, the game of instant death, dispensing millions, or raining damnation, in a matter of seconds, which may explain why it is the preferred game of James Bond. “It has danger, a steel edge to it,” says Doyle. For sheer clarity of exposition, there will probably never be any beating the famous opening scene of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, in which Bond relieves his opponent Le Chiffre of 70 million francs by a mixture of mathematical wizardry and good old-fashioned intuition. “You never play your hand, you play the man across from you,” says Bond. One shudders to think what Bond would make of Lord Doyle, a lost soul locked in mortal combat with himself, a pallid ghost ensnared in Macau’s casinos, with their neoclassical gold, potted palms and unmistakable smell of “humans concentrating on their bad fortune.”'

Apr 1, 2014

Playing hardball with the male gaze

Last week, The New Yorker sent its film critic Anthony Lane to profile Scarlett Johansson, to mark the occasion of two new movies featuring the actress, Captain America: Winter Soldier and Under The Skin. He found the newly-pregnant Johannsson “radiant”, possessed of a “dry and dirty” laugh “as if this were a drama class and her task was to play a Martini.” But the libations really flowed around her performances. In Vicky Christona Barcolona, she “seemed to be made from champagne.” In Her, she acted using only the “honey” of her voice.  Johannsson is well “aware of her sultriness” onscreen, noted Lane. “If the opening shot [of Lost in Translation] was a sly joke, presenting us directly with Johansson’s backside, barely veiled in peach-colored underwear, the rest of the movie was dedicated to the principle that she would no longer be treated as a nice piece of ass.”

The reaction to the piece was swift and merciless.  “Try to imagine The New Yorker running this about Matthew McConaughey, or Michael Fassbender” fulminated Esther Breger in a piece for at the New Republic, entitled Anthony Lane's Scarlett Johansson Profile Turns The New Yorker into a Men's Magazine.” She found itthe worst profile I can remember reading in The New Yorker.” Over at Slate, Katy Waldman said that the problem with the piece was  " not [just] that it salivates over ScarJo, but that it refuses to treat her as a human subject, with qualities of mind” she said. “A real profile would have peeled back the sex appeal altogether and shown us the woman underneath.”

Ah. That, certainly, is the illusion we have come to expect from the modern-day celebrity profile, which turns an hour of carefully-alotted time with an actor or actress into a cunningly crafted facsimile of intimacy, from which all PR apparatus has been carefully photo-shopped. Lane’s piece stood in stark defiance of such conventions.  He pointed out that not only had he been forbidden from asking personal questions, but also that a member of Johansson’s PR team hovered in constant view lest he should; he hung around for the 17-minute photo-shoot to observe something of the actress’s chemistry with the camera, and when writing up his piece, showed much more interest in elaborating  and toasting her onscreen persona— the “honey  of her voice”, the “champagne” of her skin etc — than he was in probing the performer for tidbits.

It’s what happens when you send a critic to write a profile. “The first duty of a film critic — the sole qualification, to be honest — is to fall regularly, and pointlessly, in love with the people onscreen,” wrote Lane in his review of Before Sunrise.  Send them to meet the people behind the people onscreen and the results tend toward controlled delirium. Kenneth Tynan’s profile of Greta Garbo, for Sight and Sound in 1961, began with this famous declaration of intoxification:—

“What, when drunk, one sees in other women, one sees in Garbo sober. She is woman apprehended with all the pulsating clarity of one of Aldous Huxley’s Mescalin jags. To watch her is to achieve direct, cleansed perception of something which like a flower or a fold of ilk, is raptly, unassertively and beautifully itself.’

Objective? Of course not.  Smitten? Almost certainly. Personal info? Almost none. By the standards of today’s celebrity profiles, Tynan’s piece is as much of a wash-out as Lane’s. He spent an afternoon walking around Westminster Abbey with the actress, noting  the “broad ivory yoke of her shoulders,” which “belong to a javelin thrower”, her “secret half smile”, strong knees and “sidelong, tentative,” way of entering a room “like an animal thrust under the a searchlight”. Walking, she “seeming to idle even when she strode, like a middle weight boxer approaching an opponent.” Of her famed androgyny he wrote,  “she has sex but no particular gender. Her masculinity appeals to women, her sexuality to men.” As for the  ‘woman underneath’ the sex symbol: phooey.  Tynan gave us the woman on top, the triumphant exterior, the shining chassis, lovingly polished  in a 3,000-word rhapsody to lay alongside James Agee’s prose bouquet to Liz Taylor  and Pauline Kael’s to Cary Grant.  “If it is true that no clothes seem meant for her, much less to fit her, that is because her real state is not in clothes at all… She implies a nakedness which is bodily as well as spiritual,” he wrote, adding “I dwell on Garbo’s physical attributes because I think the sensual side of acting is too often under-rated. Too much is written about how actors feel, a too little about how they look.”

If that seems a shocking statement today, it is because we are  probably more, not less, conflicted about the question of looks onscreen than we were in 1961. The level of beauty required from our actors and actresses is probably even higher than it was in the hey-day of the studio system — just look at the winner's paddock at this year's Oscars — but our denial that this is so is ten times greater, with performers fleeing any hint that their success is tied to their sexual availability as if the mere mention of it were career death. That's why I find Scar-Jo so refreshing: she's the only A-List actress I can think of to dare to touch this third rail and live to tell the tale. She plays hardball with the male gaze. She has received her fair share of flack for it, often from female journalists — "she's no Natalie Portman" sniped a reporter from Forbes, after the actress self-depracated about her SAT scores — but shrugged off that nude selfie with an equanimity worthy of Monroe: "I know my best angles."  This disapproval of her is partly fueling the disapproval for Lane's piece, I feel.  But he didn't ask her about Woody. And that would deliver her quintessence as a screen performer how exactly?  Under The Skin is fantastic, by the way: a horror-sci-fi fantasia on human desire and as seen through the Baconian meat shop, featuring Scarlett as an alien preying mantis in dark wig and laddered tights, feasting on Scotsmen who seem to have wandered in from a Ken Loach docudrama about unemployment figures. A film of vast ugliness and surpassing beauty, sex and death, Hollywood star wattage and Caledonian grunge, it's Lynch without the camp flourishes, just a hard driving through-line of images as dire and unignorable as oncoming headlights in rain. I white-knuckled my pen throughout, and later found a near undecipherable trail of words in my battered critic's notebook: strobe, desire, meat, mountain, baby, pitiless, Tommy Cooper!, burr, death. My first A- of the year.