Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Basic Instinct 2: Brisk Shag

Oh yes. It's terrible in ways both profound and choice, folks: the first turkey since Killing Me Softly, or maybe Equilibrium, that I think I'm going to be actively recommending to everyone I know. There will be Basic Instinct 2 DVD parties round our flat in three months' time, you just know there will. I don't want to spoil too many treats, but the movie is deliriously, off-the-wall bad in ways that only crazy-tawdry production-line sequels to already dire films can be: self-parodic from the off, cretinously illogical, and kitted out with unimprovably absurd performances. I'm not entirely sure when it was that Sharon Stone turned into a scowling waxwork, but she's got the job for life, as far as I'm concerned; David Morrissey, as the hot-shot psychologist being lured into her web, ages about 12 years trying to smuggle out his dialogue, and the gallery of supporting “characters” makes the average Mel Brooks film look like peak-period Eric Rohmer. It’s the kind of movie in which Charlotte Rampling, playing a lesbian shrink called Milena Gardosh, is unable to answer a crucial phone call because she’s plugged into a Hungarian-for-Beginners tape swotting up on that family background, perhaps? and indeed the kind of film in which every single character has a “past record” instead of, you know, a past. Pauses between lines are pregnant with embarrassment, mainly because we know another line’s coming, and it might just be even worse. (“Too many questions, too many answers, no one gets laid” Stone’s problem with psychiatry, in a nutshell.) The Gherkin, becoming the de rigueur London landmark for filmmakers who have no idea what the hell they’re doing here (see also: Match Point, V for Vendetta) thrusts upwards into the City skyline and gets, about fifteen times, the biggest giggle for a phallic symbol since the climactic red lighthouse in In the Cut. “What happened?” asks Morrissey, entering the bedroom of a sleazy journo (“Urbane Magazine”) who’s been throttled by a bondage strap. Er, he slipped? And so on, and so on. I’m giving it its own grade twice, because it’s golden turkey, fortissimo terrible, and it shouldn’t be missed. FF

Monday, March 27, 2006

Key Personnel: John Williams

OK, this is an admittedly perverse inaugural choice for a series about the undersung. Williams, Mr 45 Oscar nominations and counting, is not exactly wasting away in his need for mainstream validation, in a field where as ripely innovative a talent as Alexandre Desplat (Birth, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Syriana) has yet to score his first nod. But I’m starting as I mean to go on, in another sense, because I want to make the point that Williams is both over- and under-rated, to fend off the perpetual backlash, and give him his due. The Academy might lap up his stodgiest work on the stodgiest movies (The Patriot, Amistad, you know the drill) with a maddening lack of discrimination, but Williams-bashers — and there are plenty out there — are all too often guilty of the same misjudgement: quick to lump his scores together when they least deserve to be, and too slow, I think, to appreciate his quicksilver versatility and experimental verve on the right project.

Williams has been both helped and harmed by his career-long association with Spielberg. Harmed, because (a) he’s the go-to man for a samey, funereal low-brass worthiness à la James Horner when Spielberg’s tackling his Big Subjects (Saving Private Ryan, Munich) and (b) his inexhaustible melodic fanfare on the fun stuff (Jurassic Park, say) can get a little… exhausting. But he’s been helped along the way by Spielberg’s own peculiarly neurotic attempts at genre-hopping, since it’s when the director’s been somehow least in control of his own movies — as a couple of the choices below attest — that Williams has often jumped up and most radically surprised us.

Five of the best:

1. AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001). Bubbling up with a genuinely weird fusion of techno-creepy, ambient and plangent sound, Williams’s score guides the movie through long passages of crawly ambiguity, and then pushes us into florid but equally untrustworthy realms of persecution and moist-eyed fantasy. Even when the film seems to break free of Spielberg’s grasp entirely, plumbing terrain more compellingly unresolved than anything he’s consciously alighted upon in his career, the score — perhaps its composer’s most virtuosic ever, in showcasing his underappreciated magpie fluency in all manner of seemingly batshit-incompatible idioms — comes along exhilaratingly for the ride.

2. Jaws (1975). Instantly reinventing what film music could achieve as a motor for suspense, synchronising itself ingeniously with Verna Fields's editing rhythms, and giving sharks a soundtrack for ever, this borrowed its throbbing semitonal attack from Stravinsky and probably gets more concert-play these days than The Rite of Spring.

3. The Empire Strikes Back (1980). A score that stands in the same relationship to Star Wars as its movie: more bristling, more fervent, tinged with doom, dread, loneliness, the prospect of the abyss. And the classic “Imperial March”, first heard here, is a black-booted fascist stomp like no other.

4. Catch Me If You Can (2002). The film’s hardly essential. But, if few knew Williams could revive the spirit of Henry Mancini so jauntily, even fewer could have expected this score’s curiously sinister, pensive undertow, its sad and petering hesitancy. It’s light jazz with daddy issues.

5. Nixon (1995). The third and best of Williams’ three collaborations to date with Oliver Stone, this uses ruminative nostalgia to hoist Nixon on to his own wobbly tragic platform, getting misty-eyed about his childhood, surveying where he could have gone, mourning his own epic failures. It digs open a necessary soft centre for the film’s self-aggrandising, self-analysing subject.

And one of the worst:

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Williams as self-plagiarist for hire, barely reorchestrating the first film’s sticky bouquet of themes and adding limp and dreary little doodles for the new characters. Someone gave him a shot in the arm for The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), which had a fresh feel of Hallowe’en gamesmanship and a thoroughly amusing, tick-tock urgency. As opposed to this, which made the titular chamber about as mysterious and enticing an aural environment as a smelly old gents.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

I'm feeling kindly...

Two of this week's UK releases are real growers. I'm upgrading André Téchiné's lucid and moving Strayed to a B+ — I still think the final reel's flawed, but I'm going to be going back for another look — and John Turturro's Romance & Cigarettes to a B—, because it's a total mess with wonderful things in it, and I'm finding it hard to shake.

In other news, Inside Man is a Spike Lee film for people who don't like Spike Lee films, into which category I rather neatly fall. It often stalls, and it's all a teeny bit crude and trumped-up, I have to say, but I marginally prefer its businesslike genre housing to the interesting but overpraised and seriously trumped-up 25th Hour.

Looking forward to everyone else's thoughts on these.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

#1: (drumroll) The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)

Because I'll cut the crap. It makes me feel glad to be alive.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

#2: The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Because it's the real space odyssey.

Technical torment

Blogger's being boring and not letting me post photos right now, so you're going to have to wait for the top two at least till tomorrow, folks. Can you bear it? In the meantime, I've just finished reading an amazingly clever and bold stage adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley by Phyllis Nagy, which has inspired me to read a whole load more plays in the coming weeks. Handy thing, having a theatre critic as a flatmate: you get tons of them on tap! Thanks Maxie! Next up is Caryl Churchill's A Number, then Nagy's Never Land, then Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane.

Also, I have an idea for the next ongoing feature after the top 100 is put to bed. I'm going to pick random film people from all walks of the profession and discuss their work. If that sounds unenticingly vague, it'll get more specific soon, and, anyway, I quite like the idea of not being constrained under any particular heading or topic. I'm just going to sound off about people. People I rate. We'll call it Key Personnel.

I may also have to do a "Reevaluating" jobbie on The Double Life of Veronique, which I had an unexpected allergic reaction to this morning. I'm pretty convinced it's an overrated nightmare, for reasons I'll explain in more detail when I get a moment. But it has a lot to do with the cinematography. Back soon!

Monday, March 13, 2006

#3: Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)

Because it unselfs you in a fractured mirror.

#4: Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

Because it's Hitchcock pushing us to the furthest limits of his artistry.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Saturday, March 11, 2006

#6: The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942)

Because it's a dream from which we wake too early.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

#9: The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)

Because the film's vicious beauty is part of its psychology.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

#10: La ronde (Max Ophüls, 1950)

Because this passing show deserves the best possible performance.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The morning after the car wreck before

Have your tears dried? Is the champagne back in the fridge? I won't pretend I'm not smarting. I went from being the smuggest person in our front room, with $20 riding on Brokeback at a juicy 9/1, a bet I placed way back in September, to the most dumbfounded. I'm still almost speechless in a way that quite surprises me. How could they? Crash??! I know some people had been predicting it Shakespeare in Love-style, but it still came as a massive, unwelcome shock, as if a mouth-watering banquet had been prepared for us only for it to be whisked away at the last minute. I was almost relieved there were no reaction shots for the BBM team, as they'd have been too much to bear. Watching Ang Lee's little face crumple in disappointment would have destroyed me. Instead we just glimpsed Jake and Heath scowling politely in their aisle seats while the auditorium went crazy.

Crash, no question, was the worst of the five best pic nominees, and for its button-pushing messaginess to win out was depressing beyond belief. But can we agree on some other things? It was a fun night, with some priceless little jabs from a coyly professional Jon Stewart I think the Scorsese/Three Six Mafia one takes the cake and some even more priceless George Clooney reaction shots. Clooney's might have been my favourite award of the night, actually, not because I thought he was anything special in Syriana, but because he's one of the few actors in Hollywood who knows what to do with a podium and a microphone. (Contrast Rachel Weisz, whose humility was so frigging acted it felt like arrogance.)

Let's cut to the chase though. All we really want to know is who the hell, who who who, which giggling, drunk, or developmentally impaired prankster, thought those Crash and Hustle and Flow interpretative dance bits were a good idea, as opposed to, say, the single most laughable thing you've ever seen in your whole life. I actually said, in jest, as Kathleen York took the stage to perform the Crash one, that they ought to accompany it with people bumping in to each other downstage, just to, y'know, feel something. And then heavens above they actually went and did it. Jaws dropped. Hands were clutched to dropped jaws. Pepsi Max sprayed out of nostrils. How monumentally naff. And if they were going to do it, they might at least have gone the whole hog. I wanted Thandie Newton moaning and crawling around in the wreckage. Couldn't we have had Matt Dillon's dad on the loo? Jennifer Esposito looking terribly intense on a cellphone? Good God it was dire. And it managed to nail what's fatuous, pretentious and fundamentally suspect about Crash better than any single review I've read.

The Hustle and Flow one was almost as bad, in part because the set made it look like a particularly unfunny one-off skit from In Living Color, but mainly because I had no idea who the various people cycling past upstage were meant to signify. A song I quite like became an instant parody of itself. The deserving winner in this category, "Travelin' Thru'" from Transamerica, may not have won, but at least it emerged performatively unscathed. Go Dolly! No one, let's face it, was going to upstage those tits, least of all a whole load of pre-op trannies being wheeled about on gurneys or something.

Some other bombshells:
  • Costumes for Memoirs of a Geisha I could live with. Dion Beebe is a good enough cinematographer that him winning over the likes of The New World is only a bit of a travesty. But art direction? The whole thing looked like a kind of Six Flags: Geisha Mountain if you ask me.
  • Editing for Crash. Let's face it, anything for Crash, after the above-described floorshow did such a fantastic job of tearing the whole movie to pieces.
  • Make-up for The Chronicles of Narnia. Almost as inept and funny as the stuff Will Ferrell and Steve Carell were wearing.
  • March of the Penguins. I wish they'd just get over it. This wins, Brokeback Mountain doesn't, and that's the sound of right-wing pundits everywhere chortling with delight.
I liked:
  • Three awards for King Kong, and ones it deserved.
  • Gustavo Santaolalla, whose score is the single best thing about BBM.
  • Robert Altman's acceptance speech, mainly for the beautiful image about his films being sandcastles swept away by the tide.
  • The gay cowboy montage. Didn't everybody? The scoops on dirty Oscar campaigns good work, Daily Show team. None of the other montages though, thank you very much. Enough with the montages already. Stop the montages! They began to remind me of Nick Apollo Forte's crooning routines from Broadway Danny Rose "Beautiful faces from the past who are now deceased", etc etc.
  • Amy Adams's face, on the other hand, was a joy throughout the night, as she seemed genuinely thrilled to be there and thrilled for every single person who won. She got moist around the eyes for them too.
We love Amy. Tell me we all love Amy. And commiserations to all Brokeback-lovers out there, from a Brokeback-liker. Maybe next year's gay cowboy movie will have slightly less rotten luck.

Where were you...

...when they lynched Jack Twist again? I don't even love the film, and I'm mortified.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

#11: Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)

Because it slices right down into our subconscious.

Friday, March 03, 2006

#12: Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray, 1955)

Because its appreciation of life leaves you overwhelmed.

Night Haunts

My colleague Sukhdev Sandhu has been working on a multimedia project about the London night. He goes up in police helicopters and describes his view. It's seductive stuff, well worth going along for the ride.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

#13: The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)

Because it turns banter into an art form.

Nick on Freedomland

I hope he doesn't mind me doing this, but there's no sign of a link over at his own blog, and, heck, someone has to fly the flag for film writing this good. I haven't even seen the movie and I was nodding at every word.