November 23, 2015

Dinosaur act

Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015). Twenty years later, we’re all so jaded that the things that scared us in Jurassic Park have become our friends, or even our pets. Anonymous understudy Colin Trevorrow and his effects team do less with more; the script barely goes further than being a list of sub-Spielbergian themes and ideas that someone forgot to flesh out later; and the reverence towards its traditions is embarrassing. On the other hand, there’s that pterodactyl attack scene.

November 12, 2015

The helicopter at the end of Werckmeister Harmonies

Which should have appeared in this blog’s selection of great helicopter moments in films. As it’s Tarr, it’s prolonged and ominous. It sees out, we don’t see in. 

November 5, 2015

Wounded animal

Marlon Brando rearranges the disordered ruins of his life into something closer to a redemptive shape in Listen to Me Marlon, with posthumous narration from beyond the grave assembled from Brando’s private audiotapes by writer, director and editor Stevan Riley. The idea of secret recordings in dark rooms might suggest Nixon, Kurtz or Jim Jones – or any other maniac or recluse – but the private Brando is a warmer, much more sympathetic, troubled figure: not so much paranoid as flawed, endlessly self-examining, wounded and deeply sensitive. And no matter how much Brando tried, none of us ever really get to escape scrutiny but at least Riley, acting for Brando Enterprises, finds something to salvage from a tragic and raw story of generational damage, violence, life-changing early success and wasted talent. The meaning of Brando’s life that Riley creates, in the end, is about the pleasure that acting brings to others – a suitably generous conclusion to a fascinating and constantly entertaining account. 

October 29, 2015

Home and humane values

As in Saving Private Ryan, set in equally treacherous Europe a decade earlier, Tom Hanks embodies home and humane values in Steven Spielberg’s cold war thriller Bridge of Spies. Who wants to play pure decency? Hanks’ comedic gifts allow him to wriggle around a little but I was drawn more to the sly Mark Rylance, here as Soviet spy and amateur painter Rudolf Abel. As ever, it’s a handsome production and does any cinematographer anywhere light a scene as beautifully as Janusz Kaminski? His bright white light has become so identified with the Spielberg look that you might wonder what it represents. The light of knowledge, the light of justice? 

October 28, 2015


“Bergman has been remarkably frank in avowing the confessional nature of Hour of the Wolf, which he called an open display of ‘the sore on my soul’. During ‘long periods in my life’, he told a startled interviewer, real ‘demons and bad wolf-hours’ had plagued him … Some of the demons – Bergman has specifically mentioned the old lady who removes her face and the creature who walks on the ceiling – entered the film directly from his recurring dreams.”
The Passion of Ingmar Bergman, by Frank Gado.

“Normally the Anglo-Saxon approach to a ghost story – even in the best cases, like MR James – is an approach that sees the rational clashing with the supernatural. On the other hand, in Crimson Peak there’s a full-blown acceptance of the ghosts being real from the first ten seconds of the film. There is a postulate that opens the movie that says, ‘Ghosts are real. This much I know.’ That’s a very Mexican thing to say.”
Guillermo Del Toro in Sight and Sound, November 2015.  

October 25, 2015

Portrait of a Gothic Lady/Gothic Portrait of a Lady

Can you do the Gothic in the 21st century without it being overpoweringly about the Gothic? (Westerns have a similar problem.) Early on, Guillermo Del Toro’s Gothic ghosts-and-romance melodrama Crimson Peak is up against that challenge: everything seems obvious (ghosts are metaphors of the past, our heroine explains) and there is little sense of mystery and fear. Yet, slowly and subtly, it shifts gears, and an almost stifling reverence about tradition and overt nods at predecessors – the surname Cushing, anyone? – fade like ghosts in sunlight and the story takes more natural and brutal turns, as though Del Toro has finally dug deep into the red clay of his unconscious. Within the beautifully imagined boundaries of this beautifully acted film, there is some highly emotional and maybe even personal material about parental absence and damage – parents are either violently battered or disfigured by disease – and as in a dream, a crimson tide of blood soaks everything, before the artistic impulse turns it all back into a story. If it ultimately seems like the weakest of Del Toro’s three “personal” films – behind The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, both masterpieces – that could be because the film’s world and the material in general is more familiar, to viewers outside Spain at least.

October 24, 2015

Michael Haneke on Salo and violence

“Have you seen Pasolini’s Salò? Forty years ago, that was a key moment in my career as a viewer. Now Salò isn’t much like Funny Games at all. Funny Games is unbearable for its ­relentless cynicism — I don’t actually depict much physical violence. But in Salò, there are people tied up naked on dog leashes, they are force-fed bread stuffed with thumbtacks, blood runs from their mouths while their tormentors are boiling up shit in massive pots to be served up, eaten, and of course they all end up puking. It is unbearable, and Pasolini shows everything. After watching that film I was devastated and unresponsive for several days. Yet Salò was how I realized what you can do in cinema — what the true possibilities of the medium are. That, to me, is still the only film that has ­managed to show violence for what it is. All these action movies” are merely spectacular. They make violence a consumable good. They may be scary, but they’re still a turn-on. Salò won’t turn you on at all — it will turn your stomach. Funny Games was meant as a counterpart to Salò, except that I tried to treat violence in a different way — in the context of a self-reflexive thriller that doesn’t depict physical violence but works through psychological cruelty alone.” From Paris Review, winter 2014

October 20, 2015


You are introduced to a narcotised, nocturnal cinema-world in Ana Lily Amirpour’s slow, sparse, druggy vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – people have said it’s like early Jarmusch or even Sin City but I would say that there is much of the exotic, borderline camp melodrama of Tabu and Blancanieves in here as well. If there is never quite enough happening – too few killings, too many slo-mo reveries – to carry its 90-odd minutes, the world is powerfully evoked and sustained. It’s an enormously appealing world, too. Even sudden and violent death can look attractive.    

October 18, 2015

Violent year

I admire JC Chandor’s A Most Violent Year as a loving replica of some classics of the new Hollywood, and their sombre or violent feeling, their ambition and ambivalent sense of corruption – The Godfather is in there, naturally, and so are Scarface and GoodFellas – but the film feels remote too, bordering on academic. And that’s not just because Chandor is obviously a student of that era but because there is no sense that the story has ever been lived – it never really feels like anyone’s experience.  

October 17, 2015

February 13 1945/October 30 1988

The medieval hero on screen: exceptionalism, prophecy, metaphysics and trauma in the time-travel fantasies Slaughterhouse Five (1972) and Donnie Darko (2001).

October 11, 2015

When the stories run out

Everything from him has been stories. Stories as tricks, stories as frames for experience, stories that play games with time – that was his original gimmick, appearing as a time traveler. The terror near the end of Before Midnight is about the fear that the stories have just run out.  She has to trick herself into trying to believe them again.   

October 6, 2015


Chappie (Neill Blomkamp, 2015). We’re a long way from District 9, Blomkamp’s first film, which seemed like a genuinely radical and clever sci-fi allegory about race, power, media and law enforcement in near-future South Africa. Chappie is set in the same brutal world but the treatment is juvenile and sentimental, like a cyber-Pinocchio – the title character is a law-enforcement robot that develops childlike human consciousness and grapples with free will – while the poverty and crime tourism that seemed bold and fresh back in 2009 now offers diminishing returns. Only the closing minutes finally promise something better: when intelligence is downloaded from broken machines and given a fresh start, you hope that it is analogous again, this time for Blomkamp’s career.   

October 5, 2015


Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973).  

October 4, 2015

On Mars

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015). The prolific (too prolific?) Ridley Scott brings an unusually light touch to Drew Goddard’s tightly-written and entertaining screenplay about Matt Damon’s resourceful stranded astronaut. After Gravity and Interstellar, Scott’s brisk film is less about the deep loneliness of space isolation than the positive values of problem solving and their potential for global togetherness. When a Bowie song hits the soundtrack, it’s not “Space Oddity” but “Starman”, with its uplifting singalong chorus and “Over the Rainbow” melody. It’s a tough movie to dislike and may even be, somehow, the funniest film of Scott’s career. Nasa loves it and no surprise: with its use of documentary approaches, it even tricks you that you’re watching a precise dramatisation of the space agency’s greatest, most humane hour. 

September 27, 2015

Haunted instrument

The Wind Journeys (Ciro Guerra, 2009). I got to this late, via Embrace of the Serpent: like that, a long journey through haunted landscapes. Duels, challenges: the musical instrument as weapon, and cursed object. 

September 24, 2015

Down in the lab

The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983). David Bowie is a delicate, spectral presence in movies and just as that worked so well for him and Nic Roeg in The Man Who Fell to Earth, it also worked for him and Tony Scott in The Hunger. I hadn’t seen this since the late 1980s, on murky VHS on a small television, and given Scott’s love for shadows and dim light through billowing curtains or venetian blinds, it was like looking for figures in the fog. It’s better than I remember and it’s better than its reputation. The 80s high style is hazy and unreal, the mood is listless and eroticised Euro-decadence and the minutes that Bowie spends, abandoned and alone, ageing rapidly in a hospital waiting room, is the most affecting screen performance he ever gave. The Hunger appeared in April 1983 – the mass-appeal commercial breakthrough of Let’s Dance came in exactly the same month. There is something sad and significant in that timing as well, in seeing a reclusive and nocturnal Bowie die onscreen while out in the bright world he was being reborn as a popular entertainer. It was a transitional time: the unhealthy Bowie was on the way out and a healthy replacement was on the way in. With his wide hat and his limo rides, the dying Bowie of The Hunger even looks like the Thin White Duke of the 70s. The use of Bauhaus at the start was so obviously clever (as the band in the new wave club, they play their Bowie-influenced song about a dead movie vampire while Bowie and Catherine Deneuve hunt for warm bodies) but I had forgotten that another key scene is scored to Iggy’s “Funtime”, which was a Bowie co-write (“Last night I was down in the lab / Talkin’ to Dracula and his crew”).