April 19, 2015

Lysergic properties

The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013). The entirely reasonable psychedelic shifts of Waltzing with Bashir go much, much further in The Congress, breaking out past the limits of time, space, history and identity towards a counter-cultural science-fiction theory of everything. Brave, serious, dazzling and entirely unreasonable. Pictured: Robin Wright, star and subject, in a preparatory moment with a helpful guide. 

April 18, 2015

New life

The Immigrant (James Gray, 2013). Old stories retold as though the base material of the immigrant experience is melodrama purified by time and distance. Unusually, Joaquin Phoenix is never quite right in it (less unusually, neither is Jeremy Renner). But this is a Marion Cotillard vehicle, and a better one for her even than Two Days, One Night to which it almost seems related: she is defiant, frail, sorrowful, haunted, even holy (see above). The thing looks ravishing too with its shooting by Darius Khondji and its obvious and intended Godfather Part II/Once Upon a Time in America richness. The yellow light of history and a cold, brown city. 

April 1, 2015

The whole world is outside this room

Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014). “One day we will know everything.” The hotel room is a non-place, it could be anywhere in the world, and it is probably brighter than you pictured (did you think the curtains would be closed?). The whistleblower appears abruptly in the story and disappears just as abruptly. The narrator and director is never on camera. Sometimes they are just initials in messages, or off-screen voices. Journalist Glenn Greenwald is the most willing to put himself in the public eye, perhaps the most able to bear the weight. Over the course of those strange days in Hong Kong, the outside world slowly closes in, until it is right at the door.

March 31, 2015

Southern death cult

Devil’s Knot (Atom Egoyan, 2013). It’s almost refreshing to see a take on the West Memphis Three case that isn’t all about the Satanic charisma of Death Row survivor and New Age philosopher Damien Echols. Instead, Egoyan and writers Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, adapting a book of the same name by true crime writer Mara Leveritt, return us to the moment of the murders and remind us of the real victims, telling the story through its impact on grieving mother Pamela Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon, at home) and, less successfully, investigator Ron Lax (a sleepy-looking Colin Firth). The specific context of hopelessly inept or simply corrupt Arkansas law enforcement, dubious “Satanic panic” experts and deeply entrenched Christian fundamentalism is laid out comprehensively and Egoyan juggles enough sub-plots to nod towards at least three other suspects, including the mysterious blood-covered man in the bathroom of the Bojangles restaurant. But Egoyan followers won’t be able to escape the feeling that he got into this tricky emotional territory – grieving communities, disappeared children – so much more effectively in Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter (does it help that two Exotica veterans, Elias Koteas and Bruce Greenwood, are here in support roles?). Those films felt like deep and lasting wounds; this is more surface-level. 

March 28, 2015

The only gays in the village

Pride (Matthew Warchus, 2014). A cheerful recreation of turbulent times: Matthew Warchus and writer Stephen Beresford tell the unbelievable but generally true story of a London gay rights group who came to the aid of Welsh miners during the big strike of 84/85. While the storytelling is a little loose and the mode is resolutely feelgood in the near-formulaic manner of triumphant post-Thatcher comedies from the 90s (Brassed Off, The Full Monty), there is some fine acting – Paddy Considine and Bill Nighy as Welsh locals, Ben Schnetzer as activist Mark Ashton – and such obvious good intentions within the Bronski/Bragg nostalgia. But aren’t there times when history would be better served by a well-made documentary? (“There were seventeen of us who came down in that first minibus … Eight of us died in the following years, of HIV/AIDs.” That detail hits harder than any moment in the picture.)

March 25, 2015

March 14, 2015

March 3, 2015

Between Bresson and In Bruges

Calvary (John Michael McDonagh, 2014). Pictured: not explaining the ending of Moby-Dick

February 27, 2015

Other people’s ideas

Always keen on alternate readings, misunderstandings, dream double bills, impossible versions. So, Slavoj Zizek on Ida:
Of course it’s an excellent film, made in a perfect ascetic way, but it is this perfection itself that bothers me — there is something false in it. No wonder Ida made so many people feel good: everything that happens is utterly predictable, there are no surprises. The guilt for the murder of Ida’s family falls on the ordinary poor farmer, and the guilt-ridden Wanda, a promiscuous Communist judge, kills herself. As for Ida herself, after tasting the forbidden fruit of sex (clearly using the saxophone player as a mere instrument), decides to enter the convent, thus bringing about a fantasy-like image of a Jewish Catholic nun. The film immediately aroused in me the desire to imagine different versions of the outcome: what if Ida decides to get married to the sax player, and it is Wanda who discovers faith and becomes a nun? What if, in their inquiry into who killed Ida’s family, the two women discover that a local priest was also involved? One can argue that such a different film would have been much better.
And some guy called Matt on the frankly incredible notion that Titanic’s Jack might have been sent from the future, thus making it a time travel film. But why not? I haven’t watched it recently enough to disprove it. Plus, unmentioned but surely strengthening the case is the similarity with Cameron’s Terminator.

February 14, 2015


Nineteen Eighty Four (Michael Radford, 1984). The exposure in the scene above seems like a clear allusion to something like this. With John Hurt as Winston, Suzanna Hamilton as Julia. 

February 8, 2015

Naked Lunch, 1992

“On the way home, Allen stopped off in Kansas, eager to see Burroughs once again. The two went through a Native American sweat lodge purification ceremony that lasted all afternoon and evening. They even took in the new film Naked Lunch by David Cronenberg, which was both horrific and funny. It was no longer Burroughs’s novel, but a cut-up of all his works, presented as a collage. Still, they both enjoyed seeing it.” Bill Morgan, I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg.

February 7, 2015

Print the legend

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014). Even if this movie Chris Kyle is more idealised and easier to like than the real one, he still persists as a warning about gun love, war damage and the impossible expectations of duty and responsibility to family and country. Like The Deer Hunter a generation ago, American Sniper is concerned with how conservative values create soldiers and how the same values can destroy them (training that breaks down your personality and reconstructs it surely helps too). But an awful question is left hanging: where would we have been without the tragic and ironic ending? It would be a much less ambivalent, less complicated story. 

February 5, 2015


World War Z (Marc Foster, 2013). Sentimental about children and family, militaristic and respectful of authority, lacking in satirical intent, wisdom or insight: here is a zombie action film that is the complete opposite of everything George Romero was getting at.

February 4, 2015

The time traveler’s wife

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014). Thinking about the big stuff (time, the universe, its creation) but operating at the domestic level. Neither is satisfactorily resolved – making the title seem unearned – but both are given remarkable and affecting life by Eddie Redmayne, playing the junior scientist with the eccentric exuberance of a young Beatle, and Felicity Jones as the woman who loves him. Actors trump script, easily. 

January 29, 2015

Wild life

Wild (Jean-Marc Vallee, 2014). Drug user and unfaithful wife Cheryl brands herself with a new surname (Strayed) and gets back to nature, with her walking as ordeal or punishment or a pilgrimage to a better self. Nature not city: “I’d rather be a forest than a street.” It’s not quite damning with faint praise to say that this is better than you expect any film about Reese Witherspoon taking a long walk alone to be, but she does bring a rare toughness to it and the editing (credited to Jean-Marc Vallee’s pseudonym John Mac McMurphy with Martin Pensa) does a fine job of mimicking the shape and feeling of persistent and painful memories. At times, this is almost visionary. The shooting is by Yves Belanger, who also lensed Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club, to which Wild is a natural companion.

January 26, 2015


Still Alice (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, 2014). To lose one’s memory is a slow-motion horror story, and you already knew that Julianne Moore would do all that so brilliantly, but what can you say about a screenplay that gets its greatest emotional effect by quoting Angels in America?

January 21, 2015

Six Six Sixties

“ … went to England from Spoleto and stayed in style with Panna Grady and ran around a lot, finished proofs small book now published Cape-Goliard, yakked on TV and sang Hari Krishna in Hyde Park pot picnic, spent evening with Paul McCartney (He says “We are all one” i.e. all the same mystic-real being), spent a lot of evenings with Mick Jagger singing mantras and talking economics and law-politics during his court crisis – found him very delicate and friendly, reading Poe and Alistair Crowley – on thick carpets with incense and wearing ruffled lace at home – later spent night in recording studio with Jagger, Lennon and McCartney composing and fixing voices on pretty song Dandelion Fly Away” everybody exhilarated with hashish – all of them drest in paisley and velvet …” Allen Ginsberg to Robert Creeley, November 28, 1967, from The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, edited by Bill Morgan.     

“The Maysles brothers aside, this is the Altamont movie. We have to deal with Altamont – and of course Jagger knew about Altamont even before it happened. Performance was shot nearly two years ago, long before the apocalypse at the Speedway, but it’s all here in final form – future tidings neatly catalogued and even pre-analysed. A line from Jagger’s song: ‘We were eating eggs in Sammy’s when the black man drew his knife.’ This is a weird movie, friends … Hence a witchcraft ritual, black magic, hallucinatory soul stealing, at the end of which . . . the apocalypse. Black magic is tricky stuff, and there is no free lunch; Turner pays the only price there ever was … One of the attributes of evil is its ugliness, and on one level Performance is a very ugly film. Hallucinatory though it may be, I would not recommend seeing it while tripping.Michael Goodwin in Rolling Stone, September 3, 1970. 

January 16, 2015

Full metal beach

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014). Yeah,  yeah, we all hate Tom Cruise but his comic look of disbelief – conveyed to the no less incredulous audience – is the only thing going for this punishing Full Metal Starship Groundhog Aliens sci-fi mash-up that has a strong WWII vibe, right down to a D-Day re-run, now against those spidery starship groundhog aliens we talked about. Groundhog D-Day it is, then.