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.

January 15, 2015


Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2014). This is the newest last superhero movie, after Watchmen (which didn’t make the grade) and The Dark Knight, with the subversion now shifting to the other side of the camera. This is actor insecurity, actor narcissism, actor competitiveness and actor anxiety sending itself up: can former Birdman star Riggan Thomson (former Batman Michael Keaton) make the transition to Broadway in a too-realistic Raymond Carver adaptation? What happens when actors act too much? Why are all the great actors in capes? So many questions. This incredible two-hour stunt has all the meta ingeniousness of a Charlie Kaufman script (call it Being Riggan Thomson), executed with astonishing skill and wit by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (of Gravity and Malick fame). Did you ever expect the director of 21 Grams, Babel and Amores Perros to pull off such a context-specific New York and LA comedy? Did you ever expect to see a vain Hollywood star lounging ostentatiously with some Borges on his sunbed, as part of his “process”? Did you ever expect … and so on. Here is a reminder that you can still be surprised.

January 14, 2015

Under the stars

“It’s not always a buddy’s face I’m seeing. Sometimes it’s a German face. By the end we were shooting moon-faced boys.” Richard Farnsworth as Alvin Straight, in The Straight Story (David Lynch, 1999). 

January 12, 2015

The sound of church bells

Mother Joan of the Angels (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1961). Starker and more cerebral than Ken Russell’s The Devils, to which it could be an unofficial sequel, but made a decade earlier. Don’t look for Poland-under-communism metaphors either. Long exorcism scenes are the centrepiece, and some of the possession actions suggest that William Friedkin was paying attention – but again, so much less lurid. At its heart, there are theological questions – how does love find expression when it’s suppressed or thwarted? 

January 10, 2015


The Brown Bunny (Vincent Gallo, 2003). Coast to coast in his van of sorrows. Boredom does not always equal transcendence.

January 7, 2015

Rain, steam and spit

Mr Turner (Mike Leigh, 2014). There is still the Mike Leigh gift for Dickensian caricature but with the added weight of real life, carried through years or decades by an eccentric, fond Timothy Spall performance as the grunting genius painter. Art, physical pain, suppressed grief, disease and decrepitude, even sex. All that, but also the film is so deeply funny in its use of arcane Victorian dialogue and its affectionate view of the machinations of the art world, a nest of vipers then and possibly even now. Is the gruff defiant painter a Leigh self-portrait and the prissy Ruskin a crack at all critics, even those who support him? Too easy, surely. But this is a masterpiece either way.

January 6, 2015


Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott, 2014). “For my brother, Tony Scott,” says the dedication from Ridley Scott. Was that the most moving moment? How else to understand his interest in this story of two brothers who are not really brothers but whose competitive yet never cruel relationship is the strongest in the movie, perhaps the only real relationship in the movie (wives are perfunctory, even interchangeable, and God is a problem). Otherwise, unlike Aronofsky’s Noah and Gibson’s Passion, this is an entirely impersonal Biblical epic, suffused with doubt and heavy on the CGI (and eyeliner). No one seems to know what to do with the spiritual dimension. 

January 5, 2015

Dreams and memories of flying

The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, 2013). How strange that just yesterday we were talking about the dreams and memories of flying that Werner Herzog put into the mouths of Walter Steiner and Dieter Dengler and then Herzog turns up as a voice actor in the dubbed version of the final Miyazaki film, itself a stunning romance about dreams and flight. The Herzog moment is one of deep seriousness. Compared to the best-known Miyazaki – Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away – this is more old-fashioned in tone, not at all supernatural and with a melancholic mood and ambivalence. Weather is so beautifully done: has anyone ever animated wind, rain and snow like this before? 

January 4, 2015

One day in Sheffield

Pulp: A Film about Life, Death and Supermarkets (Florian Habicht, 2014). Like Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s Nick Cave film 20,000 Days on Earth, Florian Habicht’s film about Pulp avoids the routine conventions of the rock biopic by imagining a day in the life – and not of the star this time, but of the setting that produced the band and to which they returned for a possibly final concert in December 2012. No Habicht film is predictable and this one has an audience emphasis or a fan’s eye view and a strong sense of his ebullient personality. Habicht can seem in his documentary work like a sunnier, more na├»ve Werner Herzog, throwing left-field philosophical questions at his subjects. He asks Pulp front man and lyricist Jarvis Cocker what he last dreamed about, and then illustrates the dream, which has Cocker changing a car tyre in front of a Sheffield housing estate, a meaningful fantasised scene that runs like a version of the dreams and memories that Herzog has given to subjects like Walter Steiner and Dieter Dengler. 

“Are you trying to get a snapshot of Sheffield life, the hopes and dreams of the common people?” says one of Habicht’s more sarcastic interview subjects, and it’s true that he puts more stock in the wisdom of kids and the wisdom of grans than in the words of experts. There are no ageing rock journos here to tell you what Sheffield means, no one to talk about the Human League or Cabaret Voltaire or even Def Leppard, let alone the “socialist republic” and the steel history, and the closest thing to a narrative of the group is when Sheffield guitarist Richard Hawley measures the 12 years between Pulp’s first album It and the breakthrough, Different Class, by holding up their sleeves in a record store. No one recounts Pulp’s influences or talks about the first albums they bought or the time they saw Bowie do “Starman” on Top of the Pops. Author Owen Hatherley’s book-length analysis of “Place, Sex and Class in the Music of Pulp” is condensed into just a couple of sentences. Instead, the film is an affectionate fantasy, a portrait of a city that inspired a band and a band that then provided some soundtracks or unofficial anthems for the city, with “Common People” forever trumping the others. And you may even worry that there is too much of the so-called common person here, but this could be one way for Cocker to keep the spotlight off himself. If in 20,000 Days on Earth, Cave came across as an almost entirely isolated figure imprisoned within the persona he has carefully constructed, the allegedly fame-allergic and highly literate Cocker purports to still be akin to the people he is singing to and about, so he just as skilfully evades our scrutiny. 

January 1, 2015

Trucks, dogs, booze, guns

Joe (David Gordon Green, 2013). The Southern Gothic doom and violence is laid on thick but there is an impressively grimy realism to this: only Nicolas Cage, as the titular Joe, and Tye Sheridan, teenage veteran of Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols, look like movie actors. The homeless Gary Poulter was discovering by casting scouts in Austin, Texas and his performance is the most complex and heartbreaking in it (he died before the film was released). But Cage’s brooding charisma is something to behold too.