June 24, 2016


Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015). When I reviewed Synecdoche, New York back in 2009, I talked about the tangled realities of it, the collapse into surrealism, all of it as a cinematic expression of a total breakdown from which there is no coming back. Anomalisa, co-directed and written by Charlie Kaufman, is familiar territory (see also: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) that operates on a border between narcissistic self-absorption and a kind of sweet sorrow that expresses a wider human condition. Its easier to like or sympathise with than Synecdoche was, at least partly because the child-like puppetry softens the edges of Michael Stones predatory acts on a night away on business in Cincinnati that is disastrous or life-changing, depending on where you sit. The sound design is also ingenious: David Thewlis voices Stone, Jennifer Jason Leigh voices Lisa and Tom Noonan voices every other person, whether male, female or a child (it is an symptom of Stones disorder that everyone else in the world is the same person to him, and its a real condition, known as the Fregoli delusion). The presence of Noonan reminds me of his utterly depressing plays-turned-films from the 1990s, What Happened Was and The Wife, which Kaufman would have known and liked.  

June 18, 2016


Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes, 2015). Nemes’ uncompromising Holocaust film brings hell to the screen in a way that reminds me (blasphemously) of the woozy start of Irreversible – all of hell’s sights, noises, textures, smells. It’s almost more than you can bear and it’s unrelenting, a point of view film suffused with Saul’s guilt and delusion, as well as Nemes’ lasting anger both at the events and earlier, melodramatic depictions. There are few sights more infernal that the sight of prisoners shoveling grey mountains of human ash into rivers. Everything is contaminated by the production of death, and Saul is our guide into the derangement of it. 

June 17, 2016


Shivers (David Cronenberg, 1975) and Rabid (David Cronenberg, 1977). Pool party hedonism in a luxury swingers’ apartment building, an adult movie theatre in the red light district – these are sour (and, yes, deadly) places and experiences in both films. In these early body-horrors, Cronenberg is the sexual revolution’s satirising moralist. The first is wilder and more compressed, limited to the high rise. The second has a larger vision but feels less original. Both are motivated by disgust, and neither is exploitative of its actresses. In both stories, the disease gets out and humans are collateral damage – the most tender sight is of tragic adult star Marilyn Chambers tossed into a truck like garbage at the close of Rabid

June 10, 2016

When you knew it was finished

I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock, 1952). In these authoritarian worlds of men – the church, the law – this is a story in which two women (Anne Baxter, Dolly Haas) transform everything. Among the men, only Montgomery Clift’s Father Michael Logan is as generous and intuitive. Compared to James Stewart or Cary Grant, he seems quiet and introverted. Is this Hitchcock’s most female picture?  

June 4, 2016

In the shadow of Tarkovsky

The Banishment (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2007). In the shadow of Tarkovsky, sure. Not just the big images – wind in the long grass, the lost blonde mother disappearing, with all the yearning and nostalgia – but the small ones too. The jigsaw puzzle the kids are doing, the bookmark – the religious art. But you can’t help suspecting that Zvyagintsev is saying something more, that it’s not just derivativeness or showing off an influence, as some suspected, but it is about asking what the Tarkovsky world looks like when the miraculous no longer intervenes and simple bad luck takes its place. The world that is doomed and secular, or the expulsion that is visually alluded to. 

Raving maniacs

May 31, 2016

World apart

Room (Lenny Abrahamson, 2015). Circumspect in important ways and a film about acting that itself depends on great acting. About acting? To me, the centre of the film comes when Brie Larson’s Joy pretends her son is dead to fool her captor, and her son must then play dead, and carefully follow her instructions. In that moment, their world apart is more apart than at any other time, as the outside world opens up to them and us, and that’s the hinge of it all too: the first half of the story was easier for her to bear and the second half is easier for the boy, who seems so surprisingly wise and grave. 

May 27, 2016

The image of happiness

Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983). Watched again as the President of the United States visits Hiroshima. “I looked at those pictures, and it was as if the entire year of 1965 had just been covered with ashes.” 

May 20, 2016

Not quite rightness

Yella (Christian Petzold, 2007). Not quite rightness, done with such precision and control, such attention to detail. The business activity, the quiet, the envelopes full of cash, the doubling. 

May 14, 2016

It snowed

Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002). Maybe it’s not as grandly-staged or as beautiful as more recent Ceylan – the chief location is the director’s Istanbul apartment – but, and this is a good thing, it’s probably funnier, in a Beckett-like way. There is a lot of talk about Tarkovsky but the gag (to use the word very loosely) is that the film is not really like that.    

May 13, 2016

The green light of the Empire Hotel sign

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). “She had come back from the dead, and he felt it, and knew it, and probably was even bewildered.”  

May 7, 2016

A collector of invented stories

Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000). For fans, this early experimental work, shot roughly on black and white video and blown up for release, has a raw appeal and there are some trace elements of later Weereasethakul masterpieces in it: that sudden, dream-like appearance of the supernatural in the everyday, which is barely even remarked upon as strange or unlikely. To us, the films feel like a version of Thai folklore; it’s hard to know how they seem at home, but one of the revealing and ingenious things about Mysterious Object at Noon is how Weerasethakul invents and develops his own folklore that could pass as “tradition” to us. Equally, though, the films are also open to tough social realities. 

May 1, 2016

Where is thy brother?

The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015). A different kind of horror movie, made with historical fidelity and Bergman or Dreyer-like seriousness – and a rare economy and a gradual increase of dread throughout. This small masterpiece may be the greatest religious film in years – relatively calm and steady where Von Trier’s more personal Antichrist was psychologically overwrought and fiercely anguished, but it is just as deep. 

April 29, 2016


The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau, 2016). Hyper-realist and pleasingly old-fashioned, as though the Disney-Kipling story had somehow been found within a TV nature documentary from the 1960s, with their earnest understandings of animal motivations, power structures and loyalties. The first sight of the giant orangutan is straight out of Apocalypse Now, but so too is the tiger – all menace here, not camp. Humour is added lightly, and never overdone.  

April 19, 2016

I always knew you would come back

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2014). “They think they can make pictures of the Holocaust, and that’s not possible.” – Christian Petzold, interviewed in Sight and Sound magazine, June 2015.  

April 16, 2016

Battle of the Bulgers

Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015). Don’t you feel like you’ve seen all this before? All that creeping fascination with violence, secrets and honour. The wiretapping, the infiltration, the trips down to sunny Florida, the slow drives to somewhere remote to kill and bury somebody. Even Boston isn’t a novelty anymore (The Departed, Mystic River) although the Boston Globe was featured here as an intrepid, investigative paper a few months before it got a much bigger, lasting splash in Spotlight. The gimmick of Black Mass is that psychopathic Boston-Irish crime lord Jimmy Bulger (Johnny Depp, unthreatening despite his vampiric Hunter S Thompson make-up) and FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) are as close as family but it’s not until the credits roll and the screenplay reveals what happened to Jimmy and his politician brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), that you realise what the problem has been: Black Mass followed the wrong story.

April 14, 2016

The guest

Far From Men (David Oelhoffen, 2014). Algeria, 1952. There are astonishing landscapes and silence. It shows you that a world is disappearing from view forever and that nothing could have been done differently. In a French-speaking lead, Viggo Mortensen carries the weight of this himself. It suits his sense of nobility, or integrity.   

April 7, 2016

Knight of Cups, first time

Knight of Cups (Terrence Malick, 2015). I’m glad I read that essay on Heidegger earlier, at First Things. One important thing: you can feel lost in the world and still feel sure, as well, that the world is a beautiful place that you never want to leave. Also, you can be forgiven. “All things shining” is almost a Malick catchphrase or slogan, or it should be (The Thin Red Line). There is a dead brother, with its suggestions of The Tree of Life (and Malick’s own life), as though The Tree of Life’s Sean Penn had, at the end, kept walking on the beach and turned into Christian Bale. There are pilgrims and legends, the desert and the sea, water and light, and us looking upwards. There are hints of Solaris and Mirror in that repeated piece of music and the dense web of sorrow, memory, love and regret. Has a film ever collapsed time quite like this – not even Mirror. There is no clear sense of what is past, what is present, what happened when, what is remembered, what is observed and what is imagined. It is a feat of editing, and it is mesmerising. The use of Hollywood studio lots as settings suggests dream cities or simulations of the real world, but then so does Las Vegas, which looks like paradise. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki stage crowd scenes that are moved through calmly, in real space, with real light, and the mobile camera has its own point of view. “Love and do what you like,” a woman says, quoting St Augustine. If they tell you that the ennui is stylised, that there are too many convertibles, too many girls and parties, say Antonioni. Tell them it’s as good as The Tree of Life, which was a masterpiece, remember?  

April 5, 2016

April 2, 2016

Americans in Europe

The Two Faces of January (Hossein Amini, 2014). Americans in Europe – that seldom ends well. Greece and Crete, ruins and tourism. From a Patricia Highsmith novel and with aspects of a Ripley story, this is cunningly plotted. Yet you sense there is more in the book: more history, more psychology.