Jun 28, 2014

REVIEW: TRANSFORMERS: AGE of EXTINCTION (dir. Bay)

From my Guardian review:—
'Extinction really does seem to take an age in this film,  its running time distended to a lumbering 144 minutes by Bay’s love of check-out-my-shot slow-motion, so we catch the exact angle with which the Transformers pirouette through the air, and the exact number of inches by which they fail to miss an overhead bridge, and the precise scatter-pattern of cratering masonry that results.  Extinction really does take an age in this film — the Debbie Does Dallas of destruction porn.  The real progenitor of these films is not Steven Spielberg, or even Irwin Allen,  but Smokey and the Bandit, Honkytonk Freeway, and all those other Kentucky-fried, demolition derbies  that littered up the back end of the seventies with their multiple shunts, pile-ups and smasheroos.  “That was insane!” says one young scientist after the Autobots have torn up  much of Chicago’s Michigan avenue, “It was awesome but it was insane!” It is also curiously boring. One of the stranger aspects of the Transformer oeuvre is that you can watch all four movies back to back, find your eyes comprehensively boggled, your ears played like timpani, and yet discover that your pulse has not deviated once above a steady 60 bpm. Bay has all the attributes of a great action director except the ability to instill fear in an audience. He wants us thrust back in our seats, not on the edge of them, overwhelmed with awesomeness not fretting over what is going to happen next.  The summer blockbuster may originally have pitched battle against outsized antagonists — gigantic Death Stars, giant sharks — but their protagonists were pint-sized, Davids plucking up the  courage to face  Goliath. “Aren’t you a little short to be a stormtrooper?” asked a skeptical Princess Leia. ““I don't want to ever feel you could kill that shark,” Spielberg told Roy Sheider while shooting Jaws, filling out his cast with uber-nerds, beta-males and lily livers. Bay’s snickering giganticism, together with his withering disdain for anything that smacks of weakness, make him very much the man of America’s imperial hour.  The Transformer movies delivers a Hobbesian vision of man and machine, in which Goliaths are thumped by even bigger Goliaths, only to be creamed by even more vast uber-Goliaths, in infinite regress. Does the inside of Dick Cheney’s head look like this?' 

Jun 26, 2014

The Actor Who Broke The Movies

From my essay for  The Atlantic:—
'... Budd Schulberg’s original speech — “I could’ve been a contender. I could’ve had class and been somebody. Real class. Instead of a bum, lets face, it, which is what I am” — is streamlined by Brando into the more idiomatic, “I coulda had class, I coulda been a contender, I coulda been somebody — instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it” with the emphasis now falling on Molloy’s appalled self-recognition. For The Godfather, he reduced the Don’s scripted exchanges by half. “You come into my house on the wedding day of my daughter and you ask me to do murder and you say ‘how much shall I pay you?’” becomes  ”you come into my house on the day my daughter is to be married and you ask me to do murder for money”, the alliterative disgust of “murder for money” now irresistible, although the real kicker to the scene is, of course, the cat: a stray Brando had spotted on the set, scooped up, and cradled in his lap throughout, the very control required to be so gentle, while so angry, frightening in itself. 
 Brando touched everything. In that scene in The Godfather alone he touches the cat, his hair, his chin, his cheeks, the chair. He peels hard-boiled eggs in Streetcar, fondles a quarter in The Wild One, picks up Eve Marie Saint’s gloves in Waterfront, plays with puppies in Zapata, and lampshades in Last Tango in Paris. “He touched whatever he touched as if it were part of him,” wrote David Foster Wallace in a wonderful passage in Infinite Jest, one of the most perceptive things ever written about the actor. “The world he only seemed to manhandle for was him sentient, feeling.” Brando’s fondlings were a both a means of centring himself in the here-and-now, an instance of rampant scene stealing, and a means of rendering fond communion with the universe, his playful epicureanism often serving as an uncanny premonition of death. Those puppies in Zapata are almost the last thing he touches before he is mown down by federal agents, just as Don Corleone’s last act, before the attempt on his life, is to pick out fruit from a vendor’s stall (“he points so as not to disturb the vendor display” notes Mizrahi, with pleasing delicacy). Its telling that when asked to name their favorite movies in the 2008 presidential election, John McCain picked Zapata, while Obama went for The Godfather, the rebel and the patriarch, both picks telling you much about the extent to which that presidential contest was fought out between conflicting notions of paternal authority: McCain’s maverick instincts honed in the shadow of his famous admiral father, Obama’s more patient paternalism a simulacra reconstructed in the absence of his.'

Jun 24, 2014

25th ANNIVERSARY: BATMAN (d. Burton)


“They’re saying to me, these record guys, it needs this and that, and they give you this whole thing about it’s an expensive movie so you need it. And what happens is, you get engaged in this world, and then there’s no way out. There’s too much money. My major concern is that there is so much awareness and hype. I keep thinking, ‘I hope there’s a movie attached to all of this’.” — Tim Burton   
 What is hype, exactly? Where does it come from? Newspapers use the word to refer to the the publicity blitzes concocted by the studios —”studio hype.” The studios, on the other hand, use it to describe the self-induced feeding frenzy of the press — ”media hype.” The film director, meanwhile, sits in the middle, observing that it has a “life of its own.” Hype, it seems, is something a catch-all, a nonce-word, covering a multitude of sins, none of them ever your own. I anticipate, you expect, others hype. It’s a bit like trying to work out where air comes from. Even its commonly presumed etymology is fake: “We live in a world of hyperbole,” said a Doubleday editor in 1980. '”Hyperbole has become so common that we now refer to it by a cozy contraction. We call it 'hype.' We decide to apply it, as if it were a wax compound for shining up a car.” But hype is not a shortening of “hyperbole” but of ''hypodermic needle'', and refers to the hopped-up state of drug users; when newspaper columnist Billy Rose praised a 1950 movie for having “No fireworks, no fake suspense, no hyped-up glamour,” his assumption was not that hype was something applied to a movie’s surface, buffing it up to a nice shine; but something internal, intravenous — which is much the way it works in Hollywood: As Will Rogers once remarked, “The movies are the only business where you can go out front and applaud yourself”, in which case the blockbuster is the only species of movie in which the hype is at its loudest within that movie itself. One of the more curious aspects about the hype for Batman, for instance, is that it never quite cleared. After all the hype, that’s what Batman turned out to be about: it was about hype. 
“Tell your friends, tell all your friends,” whispers Batman to his first criminal catch, before letting them go, having realised that the benefits of good word-of-mouth far outweigh the benefit of having two more petty criminals behind bars. He then gets involved with newspaper photographer Vicki Vale ( Kim Basinger), who ensures that Batman’s name is spread city-wide, and it is the quality of Batman’s media coverage, far more than his actual deeds, that most enrages the Joker, flushing him out of hiding. “Can someone please tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed as a bat gets my airtime!” he complains, before shooting up his TV set. “Wait’ll they get a load of me!” he says and hits back with a PR campaign of his own, hijacking the airwaves to run a series of advertisements for himself — parodies of the hard-sell adverts of the fifties, with Batman in the opposite corner, representing the matte-black, soft-sell eighties. This is how the central battles in Batman are played out, not on the streets, but at press conferences, across the airwaves and in the newspapers. It is a PR war for the soul of Gotham city, and it resembles less the battle between two superhero colossi, than it does a presidential race, with two candidates endlessly finessing their public personae. What kind of a movie it is where all the villain wants to do is be more popular than its hero? It goes some way to explaining why Jon Peters had so much trouble trying to inject some genuine antagonism into the actual meetings between the Batman and The Joker: they’re like two presidential candidates who have somehow slipped their entourages, and accidentally met, away from the spit and fury of the hustings, only to find themselves getting along fine. There’s nothing between them personally. It’s all for the folks back home. 
The one thing you don’t see much of in Batman, though, is folk. For all the energy that Batman and the Joker expend to win the hearts and minds of Gotham, it’s a strangely underpopulated place: at a press conference in front of the town hall, a gaggle of extras do their best to suggest a pullulating crowd, but Burton’s heart is not really in it — he doesn’t really have the bullying instinct for crowd scenes. He can’t summon the demagogic charge that you catch off all the great popular film directors — Capra, a great rouser of rabbles, or Hitchcock, never happier than when losing his heroes in a sea of faces. Nothing signalled Steven Spielberg’s entry into their hallowed company better than the crowd scenes in Jaws, with their ebb and flow of push and panic; there’s even a nun in there, just to remind us that this is the seventies. The thrill of the crowd pushes straight past Burton, who much prefers the sequestered darkness of the bat cave or the lonely eyrie of Batman’s perch atop a skyscraper — he is one of cinema’s natural loners, like Nicholas Ray. But he is no action director, and everything in Batman — its stop-start pace, its sputters of visual wit, its hero’s entrapment within a costume that gives him all the mobility of a neckbrace — suggests sulky self-sabotage on it’s directors part: revenge on a hero he just didn’t get. There’s not much to get, but you do need an honest instinct for hero-worship to shoot a comic-book, and Burton’s temperament is naturally mock-heroic; he can’t fake the tones — the athletic heft, the blockbuster high style — needed to sweep a movie like this along. Despite what he thought, “Death Wish in a batsuit” is almost exactly what it should have been. Reading the re-writes ordered up by Peters, its not to hard to figure out what was going on: the producers were using the Joker to smuggle back into the movie all the showmanship they felt their recalcitrant director was refusing to provide, and the movie belongs, in the end, to them. “Have fun, cause the party’s on me!” shouts Nicholson at the end, a version of Peters’ own high-rolling largesse, distributing cash to the greedy Gothamites, in what amounts to the movie’s last word on the delicate art of winning public favour: we can be bought.  
And they were right — up to a point. The summer Batman opened was a one of the blockbuster’s landmark summers, just as 1984 had been before it, and whose records its casually smashed. “There’s a point beyond which no one can project,” said one Box-office analyst, “Anticipation is so high, the question this summer seems to be, how high is high?” The anticipation was guaranteed, however, if for no other reason than that 1989 saw the tidal wave of sequels set loose on the mid-eighties finally engulf cinemas — Lethal Weapon 2, Ghostbusters II, Karate Kid III, A Nightmare on Elm Street V, Star Trek V: The Final frontier, Friday the 13th part VIII, The Return of the Musketeers, Eddie and the Cruisers: Eddie Lives, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Police Academy V, The Fly II and Back to the Future II. “We’re thinking of calling it The Abyss II,” said Fox’s Tom Sherak, entrusted with the task of promoting one of the seasons few non-sequels, James Cameron’s The Abyss. If for nothing else, 1989 deserves a place in the history books as the year in which fewest people had an original idea for a movies than at any other time in Hollywood’s history. What this meant for cinema-goers was an equally dense barrage of promotional campaigns, all vying for their attention. That year, the discerning movie-goer could choose between entering the James Bond License to Thrill sweepstakes to win a weekend getaway to Key West, the Indiana Jones Pepsi-Cola sweepstakes, and a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids McDonald’s promotion. You could win a trip to Tasmania courtesy of Young Einstein, you could follow the Great Balls of Fire publicity junket to Memphis. You could trot along to the Hollywood palladium to listen to Bobby brown and Run DMC sing the Ghostbusters theme, and try and win yourself the Ectomobile, all the while chewing on your Slimer Bubble Gum. Or you could go for a replica of The Batmobile, courtesy of a promotion on MTV, and jig around to ‘Batdance’ by Prince — ”an ode of the movie,” as he called it, which is rock-star speak for “they didn't use any of my tracks in their lousy movie but you might as well have them anyway.” Alternatively, you could always go see a movie. Or the movie, for Batman soon became the blockbuster to see, unless you wished to announce your recent decision to join an order of Trappist monks.  
 It opened in 2,194 cinemas  and took $42.7 million in its first weekend, ”the biggest opening weekend in history” proclaimed Warner Brothers, and proceeded to take $100 million in under ten days — another record, breaking Hollywood’s four-minute mile. But it also slid from pole position faster than any movie that has ever made that much money, too, taking just $30 million in its second weekend, a drop of about 25%, and the weekend after that, $19 million, a drop of 36%.. Blockbusters never used to fade like this — E.T.  had stayed at the top for 10 weeks (see graph), and increased its grosses as it went along, while Back to the Future had stayed up there for 13. But Batman came and went in the blink of an eye — that year, even Look Who’s Talking had greater staying power at the number-one spot. The most popular movie of all time was also just flavour of the month. Far more so than Jaws, it marked the beginning of the long, slow erosion of audience word-of-mouth — asked how much influence he thought the negative reviews in Variety and Time would have, Peters responded, “none” —  and with it, a crucial shortening of the audience’s reaction times, which is to say our ability to respond to a movie, and then signal our collective approval or dislike by either staying away, or flocking to it in greater numbers. Who could tell, looking at Batman’s grosses, and their tail-off, to what degree people had enjoyed the film or not? More importantly, who was even interested in concluding anything from grosses of $251 million? “The audience can smell it faster than we can sell it,” Spielberg had said of E.T.’s release. As of 1989, we had just a little less time in which to do so. The art of selling bats had caught up with the art of smelling rats.
From my book Blockbuster

Jun 22, 2014

T H E B E S T O F 2 0 1 4 S O F A R

F I L M S:—
1. Under The Skin
2. Grand Budapest Hotel
3. Boyhood
4. We're The Best!
5. Edge of Tomorrow
B O O K S:—
1. Updike, Adam Begley
2. Five Came Back, Mark Harris
3. The Wes Anderson Collection, Matt Zoller Seitz
4. The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan
5. Bark, Lorrie Moore
M U S I C:—
1. Morning Phase, Beck
2. G I R L, Pharrell
3. Are We There, Sharon Van Etten
4. The Voyager, Jenny Lewis
5. Stay Gold, First Aid Kit
T E L E V I S I O N:—
1. True Detective
2. Silicon Valley
3. Last Week Tonight With John Oliver
4. The Americans
5. Mad Men
P E R F O R M A N C E S:—
1. Ralph Fiennes, Grand Budapest Hotel
2. Angelina Jolie, Malificent
3. Matthew McConaughey, True Detective
4. Tom Hardy, Locke
5. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Veep

Jun 11, 2014

REVIEW: THE ROVER (dir. Michod)


From my Guardian review:—
'It’s time to put away those Edward Pattinson jokes — the kid can act. He showed more attachment to the elephant in Water for Elephants than costar Reese Witherspoon, but then he probably knew better how it felt: Twilight turned him into the most gawped at mammal on the planet. He cut like a blade through the first film, cheekbones set to stun, as pale as a rock-star-in-recovery, summoning a palpable sense of threat.  The series emasculated Edward as it wore on, shoving him to the side of the action, while Bella grew increasingly impatient— it was the only vampire series in which the vampires were afraid of the virgins, and exploited Pattinson’s greatest flaw as an actor: his passivity. He was coolly dissipated in In David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis as a megastar essaying the end of the world in blacked-out limo shades, but the film, and the role, both stayed well within the confines of the comfortably numb.  In his new film, The Rover, Pattinson tries a different tack in his pursuit of a world seen without yellow contact lenses: he acts his socks off. 

When we first see him, he is face down in the Australian outback, bleeding out into the dirt. He’s been abandoned by his brother (Scoot McNairy), who heads up a gang of thugs making their getaways in a truck, with another member bleeding in the back. What they have done, or even who they are, is never made clear. The film, directed by David Michod, is set “ten years after the collapse”, in a future where resources like petrol and water have gone much the same place as the world’s reserves of narrative exposition.  You could waterboard this movie and still not get much more out of it. The whole thing is told in the mythic-elliptic style first pioneered in the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and later retrofitted as pulp by George Miller in the Mad Max films — where the post-apocalypse means never having to explain yourself.  So we never find out the exact circumstances that led to Pattinson being left for dead, or why he is speaking in a Southern White Trash accent, while everyone else speaks Australian, or why he is being hunted by squadron of American soldiers. Did he desert? What is important is that he crosses paths with Guy Pearce, about whom we know even less, except that a) He never cracks a smile. B) He looks pissed even before the gang make off with his car. And c) He wants it back. That’s how mythic he is, his character carved out in the dust cloud left by his actions. He’s the Man With No Ride Home. For the first 20 minutes or so, all this enigma flashes brilliantly in the mid-day sun. The director David Michod draws his two plot-lines together as if gathering a noose, the sense of suspense   brought to a head by a wonderful of shot of Pearce sitting in a dimly-lit bar, his eardrums pounded by karaoke, as a car tumbles past the window behind him, unheard, in the blinding sunlight — it’s the kind of shot that makes you yelp with joy, it’s so damn good. There follows a chase, with Pearce in hot pursuit, the camera slung down at fender level, as it was for Spielberg’s Duel, which ends with a tense stand-off between the two vehicles, now stationary at 30 yards distance, the camera lodged just behind the front tyre of one, watching to see who makes the first move.   
What Michod has made, you realise, is a kind of Western — one of those zero-sum Peckinpahs in which men, like scorpions, sting each other to death beneath a baking sun — and would that it were anywhere near as good as those electrifying first twenty minutes. The rest of it is a road movie that runs out of road, as Pearce, now with a captive Pattinson in tow, attempts to turn him against his brother and get that car back. That’s it. I would happily deliver more spoilers but the whole thing is so studiously minimal, that you are now in possession of as many facts about this movie as I am. “You must really love that car,” says the madam of a local brothel which, like everyone, claws out an existence servicing mankind’s baser needs from a ramshackle out-house tucked to the side of the highway. The soundtrack, meanwhile features an assortment of ambient twangs and shivers that can best be described as the world’s first didgeridoo gang-rape. It’s all enough to make you wonder if post-apocalyptic road movies aren’t for Australian directors merely a way of toning up, like Shakespeare for Brits, of movies about losing your virginity for the French.' 

Jun 5, 2014

REVIEW: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS

From my Guardian review:—
'Oh to be a teenager in love, suffering from stage four cancer! Adapted from John Green’s bestselling YA novel about love-struck cancer teens — a piece of doomed-love romanticism served up with bright-eyed, almost evangelical zeal — the film is dubious in the extreme, morally and ethically objectionable from just about every angle. It elevates cancer sufferers to the same exalted state of higher being to which tuberculosis-sufferers were once hoisted by Keats and Byron, or vampires by Kristen Stewart fans. It’s Twilight on chemo. It’s a few inches shy of launching a fully-fledged romantic death cult. It’s the swoony, drop-dead hit of the summer. You’ll love it.'

Jun 2, 2014

AN APPRECIATION: CAREY MULLIGAN

For Intelligent Life:
'It’s the contrast between face and voice that does it. The face is round, pure, with two dimples holding her smile in placeit is the face of childhood yearning, Juliette GrĂ©co EPS and moon-gazing through suburban windows. But the voice is something else: about half an octave lower than you expect, luxuriantly so, with unexpected notes of sanguinity and self-amusementit is unambiguously the voice of a woman, if not fully grown, then bearing a secret apprehension of the oncoming battle between dreams and their disappointment. Yes, the world will let me down, it seems to say, but must we talk about this now? Such was the paradox powering Carey Mulligan’s performance in “An Education” in 2009: that a young actress whose gamine charms sent critics into gauzy reveries of Audrey Hepburn nonetheless packed the pipes of Rita Hayworth, orbetter yetJenny Agutter. Since that first spring of Hollywood’s infatuation with her, Mulligan has carefully plucked the petals from any career playing English roses, avoiding costume dramas like the plague, instead playing a broken torch-singer in Steve McQueen’s “Shame”, and making pit-stops in Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent “Drive” and “Inside Llewyn Davis”, where she rained down cold fury on the Coens’ luckless hero. If a great leading film role has eluded hershe seemed more like Daisy Buchanan’s better-read elder sister in Baz Luhrmann’s gaudy, tricked-out Gatsbyonstage Mulligan has broken into long, galloping runs. She was a terrific Nina in a 2007 production of “The Seagull”, and as Karin in Bergman’s “Through a Glass Darkly” in 2011, caught perfectly the pain of someone suicidal denied suicide...'