April 29, 2014

No lovers left alive

Nymphomaniac (Lars von Trier, 2013). Von Trier’s sex epic is at its best when it seems like an anguished sequel to Antichrist, with Charlotte Gainsbourg as the director’s most effective suffering surrogate or disordered woman and Stellan Skarsgard as his most patient listener, and at its worst when von Trier seems to be simply impersonating 70s Euro-smut pretensions with a straight face (largely in the first half, when the less expressive Stacy Martin is in the Gainsbourg part). A throwback to 70s daringness and 70s auteurism is the point, of course, and is part of why Nymphomaniac feels both dated and out of time. Is it even possible that Skarsgard’s namechecking of The Decameron, Canterbury Tales and 1001 Nights during the long overnight conversation that frames the film is von Trier’s way of handing the Pasolini baton to himself? (The literary storytelling devices are also highly Sadean.) Nymphomaniac concludes von Trier’s “depression” trilogy and it’s been fascinating to see how, since Antichrist, he has created a kind of non-specific von-Trier-land somewhere in Europe, where English is spoken in a range of soft accents by a regular company of actors, joined this time by Christian Slater and Uma Thurman, both doing their best work in years. This is sometimes ridiculous, sometimes brazen and always provocative: as ever in von Trier, black humour and philosophical heaviness live side by side or are even interchangeable, such as in the stunning blasphemous hallucination or non-religious ecstasy sequence early in the second half (during those moments, you can easily read this as the Satanic Breaking the Waves). 

April 28, 2014

Lose track of time

I like to express my beliefs through cinema. After all, movies can be the equivalent of mantras. They cause you to lose track of time and to become disoriented because magical things can happen.  Kenneth Anger 

April 27, 2014


Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, 2013). Again, some deep (American) fear and hope: the dream of rescuing lost children, even retrospectively and even if it requires a miracle (this opened four months before True Detective aired and four months after the world heard about Ariel Castro). The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski is full of ideas – perhaps too many – and a few loose ends, but Villeneuve’s direction, Roger Deakins’ shooting and the acting carry it. A bearded Hugh Jackman is as gruff and unyielding as an Old Testament patriarch, but I wanted more of the lonely, blinking, obsessive cop given depth by Jake Gyllenhaal with only a sketch of a back story.

April 24, 2014

The world went orange

Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim/Louis Malle/Federico Fellini, 1968). Three adaptations of Poe stories with name stars but only the Fellini – “Toby Dammit” – is anything other than inert. Actually, it’s riotous: an imaginative, hallucinated actor-out-of-his-depth-in-Rome story (with a blonde, wasted Terence Stamp) that might have influenced Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. After the Vadim and Malle shorts, it’s like waking up in the future, feeling wildly confused.

April 22, 2014

Untrue detective

A theory that those who say that True Detective reminded them of Twin Peaks really mean, or should mean, Fire Walk With Me. Not just because the detectives worked in pairs in Fire Walk With Me, or because David Lynch was able to be more brutal or darker or more serious than he could be on television in 1990 and 1991 (he could get away with television at the Fire Walk With Me level for HBO now, if True Detective is anything to go by), or because it offered a kind of cosmic/Gnostic happy ending not unlike True Detective’s “the light is winning”, but different from the ambivalent ending of the series, but because the supernatural element dominated and complicated the story. Evil is both stronger and less clearly identifiable – less easily isolated – in Fire Walk With Me just as it is in True Detective, in which we never felt that the crime or mystery was entirely solved or even fully explained. Evil has seeped out into the world and now it goes on and on – in True Detective’s Gnosticism (and Lynch’s) the material of the world itself is evil and goodness is remote. Like True Detective, Fire Walk With Me also paid attention to the psychic damage done to agents, but in a less realistic way.

Early on I thought that both True Detective and Rectify were series made in the shadow of the West Memphis Three story. In Rectify, Daniel Holden (Aden Young) gets out of prison after 19 years on Death Row on rape and murder charges – he even resembles Damien Echols, with his pale skin, black hair and air of dazed gentleness, and the names Daniel and Damien are obviously similar. The timeframes match: as Rectify aired in 2013, we could assume that the rape and murder happened in 1993 or 1994, while the murders of the three boys in the West Memphis case also happened in 1993 (both Daniel and Damien were found guilty and locked up as teenagers, and then cleared). Rectify is about the difficult adjustment to life after prison, possibly a fantasy of how things could be for Damien. True Detective initially unfolds in a world in which occult panic was easily summoned – it is 1995, just two years after the West Memphis Three killings, which were assumed to be ritualistic and were interpreted in the wake of 80s-era Satanic panic. All three stories are Southern: Georgia is the setting of Rectify; Louisiana for True Detective; Arkansas for the West Memphis story. If not intended as analogues, they at least hint at some dark, shared, traumatic cultural material, a questioning of received religious systems and a persistent, strained hope that justice (legal, cosmic or both) will triumph in the end. 

April 21, 2014

Backwards and back further

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014). Who said that you have to love all of Wes Anderson or none of it? I don’t buy that. It can sometimes be too twee, too intricate, too in love with its production design, but I liked the smart comedy of The Fantastic Mr Fox and I like The Grand Budapest Hotel even more. Its nods toward melancholic mood are never that persuasive – it’s much better as flat-out middle-Europe screwball, with those blink-and-miss-them Anderson details (newspapers called the Trans-Alpine Yodel and, in the communist era, the Daily Fact). Ralph Fiennes is in very good comic form as Gustave, the hotel concierge, and it would be bad manners to suggest that Anderson could lose some of his passengers (okay, since you asked: Owen Wilson). I didn’t see what others saw in Moonrise Kingdom, but the Anderson experience is a highly subjective one and even when you don’t like the films, you admire his singular vision or ambition. Anyway, his best since Rushmore. For the ski chase alone. 

April 20, 2014


The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, 2013). Clio Barnard’s first dramatic feature grows naturally out of her experimental documentary The Arbor: the same Yorkshire housing estates on the edge of cities, the same dead-ends of drug abuse, poverty and unemployment. The only “industries” here seem to be salvaging scrap metal and stealing copper. As in the great British social-realist tradition, from Ken Loach to Andrea Arnold (with more than a hint of the Dardennes), Barnard is enormously sympathetic and gets remarkable, heartbreaking performances from her child actors, Conner Chapman as – coincidence? – Arbor and Shaun Thomas as Swifty.  

April 19, 2014

Edge of 17

The Turning (various directors, 2013). Of the 17 Australian directors making 17 short films from the 17 linked stories in Tim Winton’s The Turning, Snowtown director Justin Kurzel makes the most innovative contribution with his version of “Boner McPharlin’s Moll” – he gets a suburban mood both desolate and nostalgic, presented as faux-documentary. Others are more literal-minded (“Big World”, “Reunion”) and others are too … well, pretentious is the best word (“Immunity”, “Abbreviation”). This is a disappointment overall, not least because the high concept – different actors play the same characters – means that we can miss the connections that are such a vital part of Winton’s book. But as a novel attempt at adaptation, it’s a noble failure.

April 17, 2014

April 15, 2014


When I was shooting Walkabout, there was a scene where the young boy is in a state of shock and sadness as he sees two hunters shoot a buffalo. The boy gazes at the killing of the animal, and with the simple reversing of the animal falling we put it back up again and intercut it with the boy staring. It becomes a beautiful moment in the thoughts of a child. The thrill of what can be done with the retained moving image and linking it to our behaviour in life has never left me. ‘If only we could put the clock back’ – isn’t that what’s often said? Well, in film we can.
Nicolas Roeg, from The World is Ever Changing (Faber and Faber, 2013)  

April 13, 2014

The wrong man

Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi, 2012). If Anthony Hopkins wasn’t right for it, who would be? Or was it just a bad idea to start with? Hopkins gets the voice but not quite the look; he waddles around looking morose, is occasionally witty, but never has the playfulness you remember from Hitchcock appearances, that kind of audacity. Hollywood biopics are about turning points in which important aspects of character are revealed. But was Hitchcock’s decision to chase a lurid B-movie project (Psycho) really one of those?

April 12, 2014

Teenage Ginsberg

Kill Your Darlings (John Krokidas, 2013). Daniel Radcliffe’s Allen Ginsberg is timid, a bystander, in a film that is a prequel even to the previous literary prequels (Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Epstein and Friedman’s Howl and Salles’ On the Road) that used the most important fictions to tell early Beat history. This is New York, 1944. Young Columbia University student Ginsberg finds a way in to the bohemian demi-monde via the more experienced and wilder fellow student Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan, a discovery). Brideshead meets Rimbaud. The true subject of the film is Carr’s relationship with the older, obsessed David Kammerer (Michael C Hall), which ended in a sensational murder; around that event, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs slowly emerge as their public and pre-published selves. The latter two are flatly impersonated by Jack Huston (Kerouac) and a very dry Ben Foster (Burroughs) but Radcliffe is a greater let-down. DeHaan aside, this small but fascinating slice of social and cultural history is mostly undone by its poor casting. And that’s before we get to Jennifer Jason Leigh as Naomi Ginsberg, rattling around wide-eyed in the attic. (Beats on the roof, from left: Foster as Burroughs, Radcliffe as Ginsberg, DeHaan as Carr and Huston as Kerouac.)

April 11, 2014


Enough Said (Nicole Holofcener, 2013). For the obvious decency that could not ever be completely hidden behind the monstrous form of Tony Soprano – that in fact changed the way we viewed Tony Soprano.

April 9, 2014

Chris and Cosey top 10

Good choices, these. I have trouble with A Clockwork Orange myself but regardless. And who wouldn’t like the notion of Throbbing Gristle as secret Star Wars fans, hiding pieces of Lucas dialogue and film soundtrack inside the civilisation-wrecking noise?
Later, I managed to get hold of the audio from the film, and if you listen carefully to some of the early Throbbing Gristle recordings (the live tracks) you can hear all sorts of Star Wars clips that me and Sleazy (Peter Christopherson) were spinning in from cassette – bleeps, explosions, bits of dialogue. Here’s a funny six degrees of separation: in 1977 I was also working part time in a furniture store in Hampstead, London, when a buyer from Lucas Films came in and ordered a dozen or so expensive Italian black high-backed chairs. I was tasked with delivering them to Elstree studios, which I did, right onto the Star Wars set. The chairs were used in the ‘Death Star conference room’ scenes with Darth Vader and Peter Cushing.

April 6, 2014


The Rum Diary (Bruce Robinson, 2011). Hunter S Thompson’s invention of Hunter S Thompson, years after the event, is rendered as Withnail antics in Puerto Rico with occasional outbursts of oracular Gonzo speech (at the sight of Nixon, on television, 1960) not quite spoken by Johnny Depp in the voice he mastered for Terry Gilliam. A vague sense of journalism’s failure is the final moral of his life.

April 5, 2014

Families, fathers

Wild Bill (Dexter Fletcher, 2012). Excellent every second Charlie Creed-Miles is on screen. Pubs, drugs, fights, and a kind of nihilism taken for granted (Wire-like gangs, children as couriers), so that hope is more valuable, even earned.

April 3, 2014

They were uglier in real life

The Look of Love (Michael Winterbottom, 2013). If the Coogan/Winterbottom partnership has been running in parallel with the DiCaprio/Scorsese one, maybe The Look of Love is their Wolf of Wall Street. Rename it The Smut-peddler of Soho (indeed, The King of Soho was the original title). The biopic’s subject is Paul Raymond, property developer, strip club proprietor, lad mag owner, but Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and writer Matt Greenhalgh (Control, Nowhere Boy) don’t have much of a point of view on him or his times. Is he a tragic figure? Is he comic? (Coogan is more comfortable with the comic, busting out a Sean Connery impression.) It’s at its strongest when it focuses on the downward spiral of Raymond’s relationship with his daughter Debbie (a very good Imogen Poots), and at its weakest in the repetitive sex, coke and disco montages that are compulsory in films about pornographers (“That 70s montage”, they call it, in relation to American Hustle), as we go from topless innocence to seedy experience.

April 1, 2014

“When I lay upon a mountain / And my father’s hand was trembling”

Noah (Darren Aronofsky, 2014). From a few lines in Genesis, and some more from The Book of Enoch (those Watchers, or awkward stone angels), Darren Aronofsky fashions a typically idiosyncratic psychedelic Biblical epic, a multi-million dollar personal film that may prove to be less provocative in the long run than The Last Temptation of Christ or The Passion of the Christ and closer in its strange and singular vision to the Matrix trilogy, but with as much to say about right now (extinction, stewardship and, for a moment, the appealing idea of a world without people) as the Christ films did about back then. (You might also wonder if Aronofsky has been watching Nicolas Winding Refn’s dread-drenched psychedelic art film Valhalla Rising, which was shot, like much of this one, in Iceland). I liked the commissioned Patti Smith song about mercy but Aronofsky could have easily played Leonard Cohen’s “The Story of Isaac” over the closing credits, because in the end maybe that is what this is, what Aronofsky has to struggle with: how do we understand that Old Testament moral view now? Where does mania intersect or overlap with conviction, or cruelty with justice? Terrence Malick was working his way through similar material in The Tree of Life. He had dinosaurs but Aronofsky has stone angels. I liked the stone angels. I even liked Anthony Hopkins and Russell Crowe. When did that last happen?