January 24, 2016


Fantasia (multiple directors, 1940). Andrei Rublev (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966). Dark nights and bright mornings. 

January 23, 2016


Brooklyn (John Crowley, 2015). What is happening with Domhnall Gleeson? He seems to age about five years between films, even though I’ve seen him in four these past six months (Ex Machina, Star Wars, The Revenant, Brooklyn). At this rate, he’ll be playing his dad in two years. He’s very good in Brooklyn, a tasteful, slightly cautious and reserved drama about independence and home adapted from a small but emotionally powerful novel by Colm Toibin. The star is Saoirse Ronan as Eilis, guided through her immigrant experience by benign mentors. It’s a sunny picture darkened only during a Christmas scene early in the film, when elderly Irish men in New York gather for a dinner that the church – here, only ever a benevolent institution – puts on.  These are the men that built the tunnels and bridges, here 50 years but still homesick. 

January 22, 2016

Cheats and prophets

The Big Short (Adam McKay, 2015). How can we make this stuff interesting and clear? Any ideas? Adam McKay and Charles Rudolph try everything they can in adapting Michael Lewis’ account of the 2008 banking meltdown. Anthony Bourdain chopping fish in a kitchen gets it; Margot Robbie in a bubble bath gets it; Selena Gomez at a casino table gets it. Why make a documentary when you can make a doco-like comedy? How many different, inventive ways can we find for some of Hollywood’s better movie actors – Christian Bale as an Asperger’s-tinged prophet, Ryan Gosling as a smooth front man, Steve Carell as a furious cynic, Brad Pitt as a hyper-Redford; all outsiders and smarter than the system – to say “fuck you” to each other and everyone else? Bale is tremendous and it’s entertaining while it lasts but gimmicky too, and weirdly anticlimactic: financial Armageddon just sort of comes and goes.  

January 19, 2016

The kids were just crass

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (DA Pennebaker, 1973/2002). This is no Dont Look Back: an enigmatic Bowie reveals nothing in the backstage sequences, not even Dylan-style cryptic messages or put-ons. Angie seems more present than him. Or perhaps it was his nerves or his dedication keeping him quiet. The usual notion is that Ziggy was a character, but that isn’t the right way of putting it, nor is alter ego. Instead, Ziggy was the concept of a rock singer, a vague outline, the presentation of Bowie as the leader of a cult of teenage girls, an adult playing knowing, even manipulative songs about teenage frenzy to frenzied teenagers, flashing ass and thighs, but through the shameless, inspired and nearly obscene distancing device of Ziggy Stardust. The songs address the kids, they flatter them, exalt them, charm them, turn them on (“You’re wonderful! Give me your hand!” in the closing song). Ziggy is lascivious, smirking and ruthless, more confident and extroverted than the man himself; you can understand that the concept might have threatened to take Bowie over and that one of them had to go, as though Ziggy was a long psychotic break or manic episode. Or more realistically, that Bowie grew bored and restless, limited by these teenage boundaries. The final Ziggy show in July 1973 was the first of Bowie’s staged exits over four decades; there were other departures and other comebacks before the departure we all mistook for a comeback (Blackstar this month). The shooting of the concert is murky but energetic and catches the mania – is anyone in the audience older than half Bowie’s age? Of course they are but this version plays to the myth. And there are such brilliant songs, of course, played by a small, tight band led by the ferocious guitar of Mick Ronson. The take on “My Death” is here but there are other places to look for clues and continuity, which we are all doing now: when I saw him do his mime act of opening a wall and stepping through during the long hard rock work-out on “Width of a Circle”, I thought for a moment about these esoteric comments about other dimensions and even the image in the very last video, “Lazarus”, of Bowie stepping back, into the wardrobe, almost the same act in reverse, slipping in and out of worlds. 

January 18, 2016

The Tarkovsky connection

I mentioned Tarkovsky when talking about The Revenant the other day. Andrei Rublev would be the obvious one; that sense of a complete, raw, vanished world caught on film. As production designer Jack Fisk says here, Inarritu asked Fisk to watch Andrei Rublev – he’s talking in connection with the ruined church in the wilderness, but the influence is broader and deeper. 

January 16, 2016

Car windows

We talked three years ago, after watching Radio On and listening to the commentary, about car windows as movie screens. Maybe Alice in the Cities is the best example of that. 

January 15, 2016

Mountain of skulls

The Revenant (Alejandro G Inarritu, 2015). The trees, snow and mountains, the low angles, close-ups and wide shots: in The Revenant, Inarritu blends the spiritual cinematic visions of Malick and Tarkovsky – look out for a levitating woman as an obvious pointer – with the economic brutalism of frontier history to create a masterpiece that is both highly immersive and deeply artistic. Nature is a cathedral and the temporary works of man are a ruined church, a fort on the edge of the wilderness and, most notably, a mountain of buffalo skulls. Look beyond the western: in this intimate epic of struggle and revenge, Apocalypse Now and the Mad Max series seem like natural predecessors, and by building on and deepening the fluidity and ease of Birdman, Inarritu avoids the pretentiousness that threatened to sink the likes of Babel and 21 Grams. It is a film made of astonishing sequences – the Indian attack, the bear attack, every other attack – with nearly unidentifiable movie stars buried under frozen beards and layers of fur (not buried enough in Tom Hardy’s case, perhaps). Despite all the Oscar talk about Leonardo DiCaprio as mildly embellished historical figure Hugh Glass, actors seem almost secondary: surely the movie’s real star or hero is the gifted DOP, Cuaron and Malick collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki. 

January 12, 2016

Believing the strangest things

He made his death a work of art, said Tony Visconti, and none of us knew how he had planned it. We mistook his departure for a comeback. Apart from the generosity and the artistic control, I am impressed by the vulnerability, which is striking for an artist that private, who rarely slipped autobiographical details into his work, or overtly at least. David Bowie in the blue hospital waiting room above is a still from The Hunger, 1983. A fuller review is here, from last September. And the vulnerability of Bowie in those Hunger scenes seems to anticipate the final two videos, for Blackstar and Lazarus

“I found in Celliers all too many areas of guilt and shortcomings that are part of me. I feel tremendous guilt because I grew so apart from my family. I hardly ever see my mother and I have a step-brother I don’t see anymore. It was my fault we grew apart and it is painful – but somehow there’s no going back.”

January 11, 2016

We can forget it for you

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004). Rewatching this clever, funny, tender, complex masterpiece about love and forgetting after 10 years, this stands out: it all happens in a pre-social media age. No online profiles, no curated selves to wipe. Like Scientologists, you put your stories onto audio tapes and into manila folders, to be kept by others.  

January 10, 2016

Snow in Texas

Joy (David O Russell, 2015). Can every story be improved by the application of Russell’s patented screwball exuberance? No, not really. What cuts through the chaos: the movie-star charisma of Russell’s company of actors – De Niro, Cooper and especially Lawrence.