Wednesday, October 22, 2008

LFF: some capsules

Two Lovers

It is my absolute joy and privilege to be accompanied by Nick Davis over the remaining days of this festival, and my lasting shame that he will continue to produce brilliant reviews out of thin air, seemingly while I’m fixing breakfast. I beg to differ with that piece on two specific points: Nick isn’t the only one who thought James Gray’s We Own the Night was one of the most satisfying and technically distinctive American films of last year, and at least two of us (if you check the comments on his blog) raced to it, and loved it, precisely on his say-so.

My disappointment with Gray’s follow-up, an uncertain though nagging sensation throughout its initial stretches, is quite a lot milder than Nick's – for me the movie has something clear to say on that very feeling, and my early resistance fell away as it seemed to push itself ever further into the arena of desperate and deluded pseudo-romantic impulses that so few movies about contemporary relationships ever risk exploring. Lo and behold, this is an insane downer, even for Gray – only he could begin with a suicide attempt on Brighton Beach and proceed to allow Joaquin Phoenix’s life to deteriorate yet further, as he dithers between the sure, steady girlfriend his parents want to foist on him (Vinessa Shaw) and the neurotic, homewrecking flirt in the apartment opposite (Gwyneth Paltrow).

It’s true that neither actress fully succeeds in complicating these rather primitive stereotypes, but Gray and Phoenix have a bold bead on the traits of male squirming and borderline-stalker behaviour, particularly in a splendidly composed, edited and acted sequence when Phoenix finds every possible means to prolong a chance encounter with Paltrow on her commuter route, while trying to maintain a moment-by-moment façade of rumpled obliviousness. Letdown lurks around every corner in this too-neat diagram of Selfish Love, but I think Gray remains a heroic poet of disappointment even on an off day – a poet trying out a new metrical scheme (look – no guns!) and stumbling his way towards a bitter, broken destination that’s just about worth the climb. B


Michael Winterbottom talks nineteen to the dozen and turns out movies at roughly the same per-annum ratio, which is great when the urgency and passion click (In This World, A Mighty Heart) and less good, as we find here, when you feel he’s barrelled his way into a scenario that neither springs from nor reaches any especial point. Little about Genova, including the screenplay from Winterbottom’s normally excellent collaborator Laurence Coriat (Wonderland), suggests an awareness of what that point might be, save the technical achievement of filming down the constricted and sloping alleyways of its chosen city, and the balancing act of depending like crazy for plot tension on Don’t Look Now while coyly eschewing any overt homage. I’ll grant that there’s some simple, direct force to the film’s visceral moments of grief, when Colin Firth’s bawling daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine) continues to blame herself for the car accident that kills her mum (Hope Davis) in the opening sequence. But Winterbottom and Coriat can’t decide how to map that grief into the abstract (let alone specific) menace of a foreign urban geography, and just go through the motions, reprising Wonderland’s core motif of an untended child exposed to danger, without even plunging us particularly into her damaged and parent-haunted headspace (in the bolder, freakier manner of Terry Gilliam’s Tideland, for instance). As drama, and as filmmaking, too much of Genova comes off as flustered and arbitrary, an exercise in “fixing” broken family dynamics with a strange premium on emotional development, and a dismayingly thin role for Catherine Keener as one of Firth’s academic colleagues, a virtual tour guide popping up with choice little nuggets of Genoese history. If you’re interested, these tell us quite a lot about Genova as a 16th century Spanish trading post, but not much about why this movie needed to be set there – or indeed, anywhere. C

Thursday, October 16, 2008


We’re only two days into the London Film Festival, which kicked off last night with the world première of Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon. I highly doubt I’ll manage more than occasional posts on the fest’s goodies, what with juggling my weekly reviewing responsibilities at the same time and being, in general, a lazy bugger. But before the maelstrom really gets going, I’ll grab this chance to alert you to some early festival grades (in the sidebar) and express a fair degree of pleasant surprise on the opening night choice. Though I suspect this view will be a minority one, Frost/Nixon is to my mind a better film than The Queen (from the same writer/star team, Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen) and probably Howard’s best since Ransom, with a galvanic performance from Frank Langella that deserves serious awards consideration. Langella’s work and certain aspects of Howard’s direction overcame some, if not all, of my doubts about the material, adapted from Morgan’s play about the 1977 set of TV interviews between the ex-president and former/future BBC talk-show host David Frost. I have to say this whole growing Morgan oeuvre – he’s tackling David Peace’s terrific football novel The Damned United next, again with Sheen – is beset for me by a pretty basic cramping of imagination. I want everyone involved to take more creative leaps, to gamble on richer portraits and bolder psychology than this pedantic adherence to the record, give or take Morgan’s tweaking of timeframes, usually gets them. (Casting Natalie Portman as a Tudor hottie does not, for the record, count as a creative leap.) For its first half Frost/Nixon has all the same problems as The Queen, viz. the pantomime quality of the supporting cast, the antsy staging, the wishy-washy, televisual look. (What with this, Edtv, and the pivotal sequence in Ransom, it’s not hard to see that Howard’s more comfortable around cathode ray tubes than he ever has been behind a movie camera.) But the closer it gets to the crux of the matter – specifically the interrogation on Watergate – the more I found myself pulled in to this blustery prize-fight, and the more it seemed to make sense in its new medium.

Sheen spins a shrewd, funny Frost impression that’s no more nor less than his Tony Blair – if there’s significant overlap between the performances, you could argue for a fair bit of common ground between those two slippery men in the first place. Better, Langella’s lurching, crafty Nixon, ready to drone his way expansively out of any tough line of questioning, becomes a genuinely hypnotic site of facial drama when Frost and Howard start to probe in earnest. I actually became grateful for Howard’s doggedly straightforward pacing, the long-withheld close-up, slowly closing in, and preserving the minute vacillations of a half-mythic figure (barely a man) deciding how far he will allow himself to go, or to atone. Through a curious paradox it is pure theatre but better than theatre, for the reasons Morgan himself explores – the supposedly “reductive” power of that close-up, achieving a more natural climax on film than it can ever have done blown up on screens at the rear of the stage, is in fact the very opposite of reductive here. At this juncture and elsewhere, the script still falls short on cogent analysis – Morgan resorts to a fairly hokey late-night phone call to force his protagonists into a wary complicity, as if they were auditioning for a Michael Mann face-off, like Pacino and Crowe in The Insider, or Ali and George Foreman. (Or perhaps Liz and that stag.) Langella is utterly spellbinding in the last interview session. Almost fittingly, the second it ends the movie grinds to a resounding halt, and the coda is pure padding, ratcheting proceedings right back down to their earlier mediocrity. Nonetheless, I’ll give Morgan and Howard credit here for zeroing in on a historic moment, patiently establishing its importance, and confidently gearing up to show it, where Morgan and Frears never even seemed to decide what their equivalent moment was. B–

Thursday, September 18, 2008

2008 -- a mid-year report

Following in Nick's footsteps (and excluding The Fall, which I listed in many categories this time last year)

Couscous – A serious and engaged ensemble drama, not one of those cute foreign foodie flicks
Hunger – Finds a radical formal framework for its political ire
Of Time and the CityIrresistibly personal docu-essay from a voice worth heeding
Summer Hours – A beautiful minuet on themes of art and possession
Unrelated – Spry, Rohmer-esque study of a holiday gone wrong

Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours) – As fluid and rigorous as ever in wistful, classical mode
Joseph Cedar (Beaufort) – You say inert and aloof; I say powerfully alert in his very detachment
Abdel Kechiche (Couscous) – Strings out a harrowing mini-epic with his roving attention
Steve McQueen (Hunger) – Impressive mastery of space, sound and perspective
Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) – Barnstorming confidence with cast and camera

Colin Farrell (In Bruges) – A major revelation, a lost boy with a vicious streak
Richard Jenkins (The Visitor) – Astutely inhabits the picture’s one rounded role
Ben Kingsley (Elegy) – Fills this defensive man with layers of self-knowledge
Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) – Pushes his character’s psychosis to scary, lacerating extremes
Ryan Phillippe (Stop-Loss) – Unexpectedly thoughtful in a film that’s lying to itself

Asia Argento (The Last Mistress) – Her volcanic sexual energy has a furious point here
Sandra Corveloni (Linha de passe) – A painful study of careworn maternal love and disappointment
Penélope Cruz (Elegy) – Touching and fluent as if acting in Spanish
Keira Knightley (The Edge of Love) – Comes vibrantly alive for only the second time in her career
Kathryn Worth (Unrelated) – Up there with Marie Rivière in Rohmer’s Green Ray

Thomas Haden Church (Smart People) – No one does louche disrepute more hilariously
Barney Clark (Savage Grace) – Preening and self-assured, owns his little section
Stephen Dillane (Savage Grace) – Expert at being aloof yet self-aware as an absent parent
Michel Lonsdale (Heartbeat Detector) – A self-diagnosed corporate relic, deserving a better film
Maxwell McCabe-Lokos (Mouth to Mouth) – Physically and emotionally expressive as a wiry misfit

Farida Benkhetache (Couscous) – A dynamo of excess talk and recriminations
Patricia Clarkson (Elegy) – Both brittle and tender in her few excellent scenes
Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron Man) – Hardly taxed, but never more luminous or fun to be with
Mary Roscoe (Unrelated) – A manipulative friend, crabby and tactless
Edith Scob (Summer Hours) – Thinks sharp and sets the film’s whole tone

California Dreamin’ – Wittily lets the plot stagnate to fuel its satire
The Escapist – A clever, tick-tock structure that makes you think backwards
In Bruges – McDonagh at his near-best, forceful with vernacular
The Mist – Pushes itself into daring conflicts, but keeps a sense of humour
Savage Grace – Terse, evocative snapshots, directed with too-heavy winks


Original score, In Bruges (Carter Burwell)
Sound and production design, Wall·E
Makeup and production design, The Dark Knight
Score and cinematography, Linha de passe
Editing, The Escapist
Cinematography and editing, Out of the Blue
Visual effects, Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Song score, The Wackness

Friday, August 29, 2008

Tattling on The Informer

[With thanks to Nick, Nat and Mike, among others, for inspiring me to pull my finger out and get reviewing again on this blog.]

I’m not good on early John Ford. Until this point I’d seen literally nothing pre-Stagecoach (1939), and from there it’s an awfully big gap until My Darling Clementine (1946), even bigger if you consider that he was bashing out two or even three films a year throughout that period. I’m also not entirely convinced I’ve ever seen a movie with Victor McLaglen in it, from which you can probably deduce that I’m not all that hot on mid-to-late John Ford either. To begin rectifying this thoroughly naughty situation, I promise I’ve just put The Grapes of Wrath on my lovefilm queue, and just settled in to watch Ford’s Dublin guilt-trip drama The Informer, inspired by the topic of 1935 Oscar-winners memorably raised by some blog buddies.

The Informer won both Ford and McLaglen statuettes, beating the stars and director of Mutiny on the Bounty, but I’m afraid it’s exactly the kind of picture that reminds me why I rarely curl up on the sofa for an afternoon with John Ford. True, the film starts quite promisingly and remains visually arresting almost throughout, with the lamplight on Dublin’s streets serving as an immediate, if perhaps over-stark, cue for its themes of guilt and exposure. Ford and his cinematographer, the oddly unnominated Joseph H August, tell the story through crisp, robust set-ups which rarely tire the eye, even if there’s an excess of clunky “suspicious” close-ups of the supporting cast when McLaglen’s Gypo is spilling his ill-gotten gains all over the shop. In the opening reel, I was impressed by the stealthy work of this bruiser-ish leading man, a dead ringer for Anthony Quinn with his burly, hunched physique, as he persuades himself to betray drinking buddy Frankie (a rather annoying Wallace Ford) and allows remorse to start gnawing away before the information has even left his lips.

Then he starts drinking, and the film gets plastered. You could mark the disintegration of its focus, and the draining of any subtlety in McLaglen’s performance, on the whisky bottle from which his first shot is poured. Theoretically I admire Ford’s decision to break ranks with his hectoring story arc here -- allowing the guilty party to forget himself, making him act less guilty the closer he gets to being rumbled, does prove an unexpected wrinkle in his otherwise straight-ahead path to perdition. But using a lot of boozy Irish revelry to keep the man occupied is a script decision that kills the drama.

The more I watched The Informer, the more I became convinced it would have worked altogether better as a silent film, since the mainly dismal dialogue and crazy bevy of accents do its thunderous, if thin, plot few favours. (In fact, the same novel was adapted into a little-seen version in 1929, which, curiously, is supposed to have turned into a talkie half-way through.) McLaglen recovers himself with one good, sweaty moment when he spots an enemy’s pistol poking towards him, but otherwise his boozy braggart routine has the effect of blurring the film’s ostensible subject past the point where it's actually being dealt with; and even Max Steiner’s Oscar-winning score, with its loping dotted rhythms, seems to be abetting the clumsiness of this section as Gypo stumbles from one messily incriminating situation to the next.

The problems mount late in the day with the pitying and vapid function of all three female characters, who are like saintly ciphers from a below-par Graham Greene adaptation, but by this point, with McLaglen well into a predictably strenuous James-Mason-in-Odd Man Out fugitive routine, my attention was admittedly straying somewhat. Five minutes after it started, when The Informer was still boding well, I had said to myself, “I bet this ends in that church over McLaglen's shoulder”. And you know what? I wish I’d been wrong. C+

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Things I learned near Avignon last week

(with apologies/thanks to six things)

1. Getting the Eurostar is much nicer than flying
2. PD James is a terrific novelist to read during thunderstorms
3. Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie kinda sucks
4. Animal Crackers is better than Monkey Business, which is better than Horse Feathers
5. My familiarity with the Avignon Papacy remains sketchy
6. Best to apply tanning lotion before you start peeling, not after

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Lots of gin, lots of chatter

Forget the Vanity Fair post-Oscar party or the Elton John one, the pre-party over at Nat's Film Experience site is the place to be seen, and I was honoured to be inducted into the inner circle for the first time this year. The company was peerless, and they all had sharp and funny things to say, particularly about Juno, milkshakes, meta-performance and orange tic tacs. Come join us! I feel I was nitpicking about too many of the nominated films, but tried to get some love across for the performances...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The boys who came in sixth

It feels awful to post anything above that picture of Heath, so I hope I've managed a respectful pause before saying: I know I'm not the first to point this out, but wow, what a great year 2007 was for supporting actors. If this is some indication of how good, Heath Ledger himself was borderline-great in I'm Not There and he still got nowhere my list. My final five took an unusual amount of whittling down this year, so I've been planning to give a shout out to a few more fellas who were jostling for a slot, and who at various times (right after I'd seen their movies, usually) would have made it in. 

I was this close to singling out Vlad Ivanov in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days for playing the anti-Vera Drake, an abortionist less likely to ply you with tea than, well, drown you in it. Sydney Pollack was nearly in, too, for doing his Changing Lanes thing again in Michael Clayton and being so unpretentiously perfect at it that he's the second best thing in the movie. If I had to pick one actor from the I'm Not There ensemble and we weren't counting the ladies, it would have been Bruce Greenwood, whose BBC interviewer, unlike Geraldine Chaplin in Nashville, actually seemed like a BBC interviewer, and visibly relished being an uncool foil to the whole film's studiously constructed Dylan-ishness.

Excellent though Casey Affleck was in The Assassination of Jesse James..., I think it's a pity no one's noticed how good, and how much more genuinely supporting, Sam Rockwell is in the background of half his scenes -- Robert Ford can whinge on about being overshadowed, but imagine being Charley. 

On a second viewing I'll concede that Paul Dano's acting in There Will Be Blood wobbles a little towards the end, but he's not budging from my list, not even in favour of the eerily still Dillon Freasier or -- though it's close -- the shabby, sad-eyed, more-cadaverous-than-ever Kevin J O'Connor, an actor I've long loved, for giving away all his character's secrets in that beach scene while outwardly hiding them and barely moving a muscle.

Two other actors had astonishing moments but not quite enough screen time to crack the big five. I'll find it hard to think back on 2007 without remembering William Hurt's single-shot collapse onto the street at the end of Into the Wild, the single most powerful thing I've ever seen him do. Nor will I quickly forget the year's most inspired line reading, which came courtesy of eighth-billed Benedict Cumberbatch in his big Atonement paedo creepathon: "You have to bite it..."

UPDATE: Oops, and I missed off Devid Striesow, not only a capable lead in Yella but a smiling wonder as the cherubic Nazi officer in The Counterfeiters. Sorry Devid!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

For the record...

Because it's list season, and because Oscar nominations are announced on Tuesday, and, well, really, just for the heck of it, I'm going to interrupt my best/worst countdown with acting citations for the year just gone. Those, and one other category -- my favourite in movies last year -- which is Best Original Score. (Incidentally, the way the pictures taper off in size has nothing to do with the stature of the performances. I'm just being lazy and can't be bothered to crop them further.)


Chris Cooper (Breach)
Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood)
Philip Seymour Hoffman (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead)
Viggo Mortensen (Eastern Promises)
Benicio Del Toro (Things We Lost in the Fire)

Worst: Ed Harris (Copying Beethoven)


Helena Bonham Carter (Conversations With Other Women)
Marina Hands (Lady Chatterley)
Angelina Jolie (A Mighty Heart)
Laura Linney (Jindabyne)
Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days)

Worst: Gong Li (Curse of the Golden Flower, Hannibal Rising)


Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood)
Joseph Gilgun (This is England)
Hippolyte Girardot (Lady Chatterley)
Fabrice Luchini (Molière)
Alfred Molina (The Hoax)

Worst: Jeremy Davies (Rescue Dawn)


Seema Biswas (Water)
Charlotte Gainsbourg (I'm Not There)
Deborra-Lee Furness (Jindabyne)
Jena Malone (Into the Wild)
Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton)

Worst: Alexandra Maria Lara (Youth Without Youth)


Marco Beltrami (3.10 to Yuma) clip

Carter Burwell (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) clip

Nick Cave, Warren Ellis (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) clip

Jonny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) clip

Wojciech Kilar (We Own the Night) clip

(A word also for the year's two best song scores, for Once and Into the Wild...)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Election googling

Want to get the low-down, readers outside the US, on those sinister, grinning Republican candidates all jostling for position in the primaries, and their respective policy ideas? I have an easy google browsing solution. Where the candidate's name is "X", simply type the words "X is scary" into your search engine, and all the facts will be revealed. It really works! I just tried it.

The Best of 2008: #1

I should have known it. You draft your top ten, start the posts... and then finally get round to seeing Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which clearly belongs way in the upper reaches of anyone's list. Technically, the film's UK release date is the 11th Jan, so I could fudge it and wait till next year, or bump another entry to #11, I guess... But it will be easier, I propose, to hold on to a film which isn't scheduled to come out anywhere for a good few months yet -- Tarsem's wonderful The Fall, which I caught last February at the Berlin film festival -- and reshuffle the list to accommodate Mungiu's masterly abortion drama. Consider The Fall a ghostly presence in the backdrop of this top ten: it was way, way up there at #3, and there's no film I'm looking forward to revisiting more in the coming months. In truth, my memory of this haunting fantasy metanarrative could do with a refresh anyway. Let's just say that, for the time being, it occupies my number one slot for the best films officially being distributed in 2008, and it will be a damn fine spring for the movies if it's dislodged any time soon.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Best and Worst of 2007: #9

9th best -- Les petites vacances

This year's Red Lights prize for underheralded French drama that I could hardly have liked more goes to Olivier Peyon for his subtly disquieting granny-and-tots road movie. New wave veteran Bernadette Lafont, as the disobedient gran indefinitely prolonging a day out with the kids, offers a smiling enigma of a performance that's calibrated beautifully, and Peyon, a new name to me, has something of that Cédric Kahn/Laurent Cantet/Ray Lawrence knack for creating a kind of abstract unease by letting the camera linger: the sustained rear-view shot of a slow-moving log truck as the movie opens is a case in point, setting up a lot of the film's tensions by both obstinately stalling progress and prompting a dangerous urge to overtake.

9th worst -- Good Luck Chuck

After a grimly appropriate performance as a sleazy voyeur in Mr Brooks, Dane Cook returned to default obnoxiousness in the year's most calculatedly vile -- if not quite its creepiest -- mainstream rom-com. Jessica Alba "broadened her range" by playing a pratfalling penguinologist, and the penguins did not look impressed. They looked vaguely appalled. Worst bit: Cook testing his romantic mojo on the least attractive female he can find, whereby we discover that if you're over a size six in this movie, you lick your own warts, stuff yourself to farting point, and are barely human. This was like an STD infecting multiplexes.