Month: November 2015
In John Wick, Keanu Reeves is like a mobile sketch, slinky lines of iconicity encased in a cloud of depressed earnestness, and he’s terrific; as is Alfie Allen, giving a more traditional type of naturalist performance, as the callow, amoral, edgy son of a Russian gangster. As to the rest, the film is a series of action pieces, excellently directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch in a straightforward no-nonsense manner that allows one to see what’s going on. I really liked it.
It didn’t get great reviews upon its release; and it didn’t really deserve them. However, the clothes are beautiful, the film in general looks handsome, and it’s one of the few films I can think of that’s about the maintenance of a long-term relationship, about what happens after a gay couple move in and what they do to stay together. I found moments of it deeply moving.
Pierre Niney as Yves Saint Laurent is slightly repressed, as if he’d make his effeminacy public and dangerous when not coiled into himself; shy but self-centred; nervous and on the verge of hysteria – a great performance. Nikolai Kinski, who greatly resembles his father Klaus, plays Karl Lagerfeld, to lesser effect than Niney’s St. Laurent, perhaps because Lagerfeld is currently more familiar to us, but with great presence and charisma. Xavier Lafitte is Jacques Des Bascher, who supports St. Laurent throughout and who turns out, perhaps self-servingly, to be the hero if not the subject of the story. It’s mostly all still about drugs, sex, haute couture and low-down loucheness , which is stereotypical but which I like.
It’s got a few laughs; the set-pieces are very expert; Gwyneth Paltrow is as beautiful as ever and less annoying than usual; Robert Downey Jr’s humour is beginning to grate; I might be reading this into his performance, but he conveys that snappish superiority typical of recovering addicts; ‘if I’m in recovery, you’re not having your shit together is unacceptable; any problems you might have are small beans compared to mine; deal with them’. He is now exuding such a lack of empathy, one feels like waving some choice drugs under his nose just to remind him of human frailty and restore some kindness, empathy, understanding of human weakness and cowardice, all the things we loved him for, all the things that made him a great actor, all the things he now seems to lack. He’s become master of mechanical flippancy with no heart: an irony machine. It’s like the iron suit has killed the soulful actor that used to lurk inside it and neutralized all he was once capable of expressing: I hated the sections in the small town; and I think the exchanges with the kid are sitcom-y and false. It’s a painless two hours; in financial terms, a blockbuster hit. But superhero films can offer so much more. And Robert Downey always used to offer so very much more than he does here: he’s an actor that seems to have lost touch with what it is to be human.
Very funny in spots, now seems more contrived in others. Little Miss Sunshine predates the 2008 financial crash though there is still a mourning for a past ideal of America that the film values, longs for, and represents as now lacking. Steve Carrell is very convincing as the gay brother; the relationship between him and his sister (the marvelous Toni Collette who is wasted but nonetheless very good here) made touching in small details: the holding of hands, the looks. The film is a bit crude; the jokes mostly revolving around pretending to find scandalous and funny what comes out of Alan Arkin’s mouth and what the little girl (Abigail Breslin) does. I found the scenes with the policeman chuckling at the pornography rather forced and somewhat sad. I would say it was an easy indictment of contemporary America except so few films attempt any critique at all that any effort must be appreciated. It was a big box-office hit.
The Beats seem to be in fashion. A few years ago the Barber Institute here in Birmingham displayed the original manuscript of On the Road to great crowds. Last year we got Walter Salles’ dynamic and interesting take on Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which deserved to be a greater success than it was. However, it seems that artists are more interested in these quests for personal, sexual and social freedom than audiences have been, as if the current reality is too harsh to nurture such romantic dreams.
Kill Your Darlings is handsome fizzle that is not without interest. It has an arresting structure that begins with what one thinks is a scene of love and ends with what we will learn to see as an act of murder. Narratively, what’s led from one to the other? Thematically, what is the connection between the two? Extra-textually, it’s based on a real incident that connects to, and is meant to enlighten us on, the Beats.
The film has an interesting story to tell — based on on real events and anchored in the Allan Ginsburg character played by Daniel Radcliffe — and an interesting project: to illuminate a structure of feeling in a culture of repression and dramatise its effects. Kill Your Darlings also has a brilliantly textured cinematography by Reed Morano; lovely early 40’s jazzy swing; imaginative editing that brings out values in a scene the direction seems to be unable to; a superb cast (Kyra Sedgwick, Jennifer Jason Leigh) with lead actors (Michael C. Hall, Daniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan) that are taking considerable risks, that fascinate but that ultimately can’t compensate for the flaws in the story’s telling. DeHaan, for example, always seems troubled, is often mesmeric but is rarely transparent: Jack Huston is terribly miscast as Kerouac. A complex film with a difficult subject and superb actors that is lovely to see and hear but doesn’t quite work. I’m nonetheless glad I saw it.
A bit romantic, a bit surrealist, a bit dystopian, a tiny bit long. But very funny and imaginative and with some superb performances: Farrell does a great, kind of schlubby, almost anonymous everyman who nonetheless can’t get pushed beyond a certain point; even watching him walk is a joy to behold, combining both characterisation and theatre: he knows how to make the ordinary extraordinarily delightful. As to Weisz, she’s almost emotionally transparent, always also treading that line of ordinary/beautiful and thus gracing us all. They’re a joy individually and together. Farrell might not have remained in the A-list for long but he’s quickly developing into the star character actor of his generation. Ben Whishaw, Olivia Coleman, John C. Reilly and Léa Seydoux also appear and also make an impression, reminding one that it takes a lot of stars, from a lot of different countries, to get any kind of low-budget movie made today, particularly one as original as The Lobster.
The plot revolves around newly single people who are taken from their homes, institutionalised and given 50 days to find a new partner; if they fail, they get turned into an animal of their choice. Inmates can extend their stay by hunting down singletons living off the grid and hiding away. Their stay can get extended by one day per singleton shot. The single people also huddle in gangs and these are not without rules and restrictions either: no flirting, no coupling of any kind is allowed and the punishments can be terrible. There’s no place for single people or individual desires in this world and everyone in the city proper, where every singleton desires to return, has to carry documentation proving they’re in a couple or risk expulsion. The film gets very large laughs from its very low-key tone, restrained to the point of seeming recessive but punctuated by periodic bursts that embrace the absurd and that result in surreal and very funny explosions of the unexpected, sometimes including slapstick. There’s a moment where the Colin Farrell character kicks a child that elicited the same kind of disturbed laughter we get when the groundsman shoots the child in L’Age d’or. An extraordinary film.
Brooklyn is funny and charming, with great delicacy of tone, a marvellously restrained performance from Saoirse Ronan and a great comic turn from Julie Walters. I found it quite touching though the last half-hour dragged a bit. I do think it worth seeing on a big screen as much of what matters is in the details and it doesn’t have enough plot or incident to properly propulse it though a small screen. From some angles, Ronan’s eyes look aqua-green and seem to indicate she possesses all the secrets of existence but won’t tell them you just now.
Chris & Don: A Love Story (Tina Macara and Guido Santi, 2007) explores the relationship between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy and is a film everyone who sees it will have a lot to say about: the thirty-year difference in age; the enormous gap in social class; the equally wide gap in artistic achievement.
Both Isherwood and Bachardy were seminal figures in the Gay Liberation Movement of my youth and I felt I knew quite a bit about them: Isherwood, the left-wing, upper-class, pacifist, pal of Auden, the author of Goodbye Berlin, Isherwood and His Kind, I Am A Camera and A Single Man; Bachardy, the fashionable portraitist of Souther California’s most modish, famous and talented; both at the very the centre of a group of artists that included Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, David Hockney and so famous for their salons that George Cukor set the beginning of Rich and Famous at a party in their Santa Monica house; an out gay couple when there were no others and iconic for having the courage to be so.
However, I had never heard Don Bachardy’s voice and I was startled by it here. Why does a California native speak like an aristocratic Englishman?: that tone, that accent, that manner. A Queen is free to choose who s/he wants to be but the choice made is not without significance. He’s clearly submerged himself into his idea of Isherwood; his ideal way of being is that which Isherwood represented to him. Love, self-hatred, snobbery, fandom (and Bachardy liked to insert himself in the pictures of the movie stars he so worshipped) surely all played a role in such a choice. The film offers so much to think about and say, with perhaps very little that is good or enhances one’s appreciation of what they once represented.I at first found myself a little judgmental but then concluded that we each imagine and try to construct a way of being and a way of loving. Theirs worked much better than most.
Isherwood looks hale, avuncular, kind and patient throughout. Bachardy looks like a very young underage boy in the earliest of the gorgeous fifties colour footage we get to see, someone trying too hard to look young in the later footage, later still, someone whose subsumed their very being into that of another; when we see him talking to his brother, it’s like people from two worlds speaking across different cultures and bridging that gap with love, care and affection.
In letters and notes, Isherwood paints himself as an old pack horse; Bachardy is the mewling cat; they obviously loved each other very much; and like all gay couples then, invented what it meant to have a loving relationship for themselves. Isherwood’s Diaries, exhausting in their precision, perfection, and constancy are nonetheless very good at evoking this developing relationship in social contexts long gone and sometimes hard for us to imagine. What the film has to offer that one can’t get from the Diaries is the home movies. They show a lost world of sea voyages to glamorous European capitals. Their colours alone, the product of now disappeared film stock, evoke a lost word. They also afford the sight of the home in which so much took place, friendly but not usually open to guests like us, and of course the voices.
Isherwood/Bachardy meant a lot at a time when even a firmly shut closet door didn’t keep out the ill-wind of homophobia and it took guts to be out much less proud: few ventured to be open about gay relationships. There was always something touching about a couple’s desperate search for domesticity of the most basic and complacent kind being branded the worst kind of outlaws by society and all its structures of control, like insisting on living out an idea of sharing food when they’re sending drones out to bomb someone for making an omelette.
The fact that their relationship was seen to be so long-lasting was held up as a role model and somehow validating of gay relationships. They helped change the focus of the discussion from sex to love. The truth is always more complex than any attempt to represent it. I’m sure Isherwood/Bachardy will remain significant — Cabaret will go on ensuring that the writer of its original source material will be remembered; A Single Man might also add gloss to the shine of his reputation; Isherwood will carry on being one of the most celebrated of 20th-Century writers; the couple will carry on signifying, albeit perhaps differently, they will continue to mean a lot to future generations of gay men; they will continue to discomfort; and this film certainly adds to our knowledge.
Bette Davis — shown here fat in the fifties in one of those photographs Bachardy used to insert himself in and get celebrities to autograph later — once said that old age isn’t for sissies. But my lasting image of this film is that of an old sissy,colour-co-ordinated from tip to toe, riding out to the Farmer’s marker with a crew film behind him, and enjoying every moment of it and of where his life had brought him to; being brave about a lot of things, not least acknowledging his wants; and living them out with a few tears, panache and a great deal of love.
Available to see on Sky Arts
It seems a sin that Maggie Smith’s performance in Lady in the Van — surely one of the very greatest in living memory — be showcased in as drab-looking, poorly directed, and stagily-structured film. Alan Bennett — Mr. Modest, Mr. Timid and Mr. Professional Yorkshireman — also turns out to have an ego the size of the Twin Towers, appearing in four different guises throughout the film, two as himself doubled by excellent impersonations from Alex Jennings, one as one of the Alex Jennings Bennetts appearing in ‘Talking Heads’ at The National, and yet one more time, as the real Alan Bennett coming to greet the fictional Alan Bennett as he’s shooting a film about Alan Bennett, like the coy milking of applause by an ageing diva, half-hiding behind the fan of her previous celebrity, saying ‘no, please, little old me?’ with one hand and urging the audience to amp up the applause with the other. It’s shameless.
There are lots of laughs, almost all from Smith, and lots that is unspeakably bad, almost all due to Hytner, who doesn’t seem to know the basics of using a camera, or lights or sound or editing; and who uses the device of the two Alan Bennetts speaking to each other – an old trick that is hoary now even on stage – without any imagination as to sight or sound on film and is a device that holds up the narrative. Also, there’s so much reading of narration (all timid Bennett’s of course as read by modest Bennett) you sometimes wonder whether the filmmakers remembered they were making a movie. Maggie Smith, star that she is, survives, rises above all this naff incompetence, and in my humble view gives the finest comic performance on film since Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin, in spite of the director who doesn’t know how to showcase her, and in spite of a writer who tries to push her out of the picture to make room for himself.
The film rewards viewing as an embodiment and prime exemplar of the many negative qualities historically ascribed to British cinema and as a lesson to future filmmakers in what to avoid.
The Welsh National Opera’s Production of Sweeney Todd was a pretty typical opera rendition of a musical: the voices were superb; the singing more concerned with hitting the right notes than with conveying mood and feeling; the acting was weak and generally lacking in characterisation; and the whole show was slow and had a rather portentous tone: it lacked verve and pizzazz. The audience, however, lapped it up. What I was most interested in, aside from listening to one of the very greatest of Broadway musical scores played by an excellent orchestra, was the staging.
The WNO has been doing very daring things with video mapping, lighting and other aspects of mise-en-scène. Seeing Mariusz Trelinski’s gorgeously inventive joint productions of Hans Werner Henze’s Boulevard Solitude (see image below) and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut (see image above), with its neon frames, video imagings of Occupied Paris and film noir effects in the 2013-14 season was a revelation and remains thrilling to think about. It seemed to bring together the visual and narrative possibilities of cinema with immediacy of theatre and the emotional power of great voices and expert musicians singing and playing in the now. Each production was ver powerful, seeing them together made them made them even richer, and both have left a vivid imprint.
Sweeney Todd is not as visually exciting though there is a wonderful moment at the beginning when I thought what we were seeing was a video image mapped onto a bed-sheet of Sweeney Todd with his wife and child before he was sent to prison for 15 years, the catalyst to the narrative, which turned out to be ingenious work of lighting from Chris Davey, and becomes a thrilling theatrical moment when the characters appear from behind the sheet — which stands in for their flat and, later still, for the barbershop — and start descending onto the stage.
Though one can quibble about the performative and interpretative dimensions of the singing, it was still a joy to hear those powerful, trained voices singing that brilliant score. The one performer I would like to single out, however, is Jamie Muscato’s Anthony Hope. Everytime he came onstage and opened his mouth, something beautiful happened that seemed to offer hope not only to the character of Johanna but to us. The one performer who not only had a great voice but who used it expressively to convey feeling, and did so in a way that was powerful, immediate and touching.
In spite of all my reservations, and though in some ways it was not the equal of a school production from Eltham I saw earlier in the year in Edinburgh, I would have relished a chance to see it again
The best of the comic-book-connected series that I saw last week was Jessica Jones on Netflix. It initially reminded me of Sarah Paretsky’s V.I. Warchowski novels: a solitary female detective scouring the nights of the city to solve crime, often of a corporate nature, sometimes drinking herself to oblivion, interested in men and sexually active but in a series of failed relations and with a neighbour in the building that appears regularly to comment on the action, provide a change of tone, and not help. Warchowski used to get beaten up a lot in the novels too if I remember correctly.
Jessica Jones is smart. and sexual; she’s not afraid to ask for what she wants. She can take it, she says. Jessica’s drinking way more than what’s good for her, trying to forget something terrible that’s happened which is clearly indicated as some kind of rape though what we’re shown is a mental violation — to the point of physical possession and erasure of will — and with jarring but indistinct sexual overtones. So here we have a woman, just like men in the best noir’s, trying to survive in a dangerous world, drinking to forget someone who’s bruised her beyond repair, doing her best to earn a living, and screwing with whatever looks tasty and doesn’t cause too much trouble: It saves on the drink. The opening line in the series, spoken in voice-over, is a great one: ‘New York may be a city that never sleeps but it sure does sleep around. Not that I’m complaining. Cheaters are good for business. A big part of the job is looking for the worst in people.’
The voice-over, the tone, and the graphics all place us firmly in a noir world, one which interestingly seems like of an inverse negative of the up-to-now more successful DC series like Supergirl and The Flash; Arrow also, for though the latter is visually coded in noir, it’s a noir that looks to light and sunshine.
Jessica seems less mentally strong than Warchowski. In fact she’s been the victim of a man’s mindfuck — he took over her mind and made her do ‘things’– and then the episode reveals, discretely, some superpowers which we don’t yet know the extent of. It has a great noir look too, at least as imaginative at that of Daredevil and is more interstingly polysexual and multiracial than the series on ‘The Man Without Fear’. The object of desire here is who will be revealed to be Luke Cage, a hunky black bartender, made to seem lusciously desirable, who we are shown to have slept with a black woman before Jessica. The series is treading carefully on the politics of representation.
This seems a more complex series than Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow or even Daredevil; it’s less camp than Gotham, and a lot more enticing than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The plot revolves around rescuing a young athlete from the same series of events that seem to have only recently crushed her and has a wonderful twist at the end.
Krysten Ritter has an intriguing look of crumpled intelligence. Her face seems poised in a state of smirky disappointment and can look very beautiful and also quite down-at-heel. Carrie Anne Moss appears as a two-timing lesbian corporate lawyer who sometimes throws crumbs of work Jessica’s way. The first episode moved really well, with the editing evoking a sense of a dangerous past impinging on the present, something that could be a memory but could also be a presence and in either way dangerous. It’s very sexy too, with the sex being a context for an exchange of tough-talking dares that reveal as much as they hide. I look forward to the following episodes.
I installed Now TV, Google Chromecast and also subscribed to Netflix last week so much of my cultural consumption this week has been spent trying to explore their offerings. I very much enjoyed seeing Ballet 422 in which Justin Peck, a member of New York City Ballet’s ‘corps de ballet’ is chosen to choreograph a new work. The series follows Peck from the moment he starts his choreography to the moment the work is premiered at Lincoln Centre.
I find ballet glamorous and moving in its idealisation of art in posh settings. Here are all these young people, totally committed, totally absorbed, totally disciplined; sacrificing their youth, their beauty, their health and most likely their future earning power for art in full knowledge that even the very best in the world can mostly only expect to eke out a living in that milieu for a few years, that that form is ephemeral and disappears at the very moment of enactment, and that only the rich or the fanatically committed have access to that art they serve. At the end of Ballet 422 there’s a moment when Peck is in front of the house with the audience — proud Mom by his side — as he thrills to see his work onstage; then as soon as the houselights dim, he dashes backstage, changes into costume, and joins all the other background dancers onstage for the next ballet, ego submerged, the collective over the individual, always part of a company, now back to anonymity within it. I found it moving.
I also loved seeing Hollywood: Singing and Dancing on Sky Arts, a thirteen-episode history of film musicals narrated by Shirley Jones. It’s one of those series that not only has clips from the main figures — Garland, Astaire, Chevalier etc– but also includes delicious rare clips from B musicals featuring the likes of The Andrew Sisters and the Big Bands and Peggy Lee; the filmmakers prove very knowledgeable. All styles of the genre are well represented and the long form means the series is luxuriously peppered with glorious numbers. It’s also great to see Mickey Rooney’s appreciation of Eleanor Powell, hear why Leslie Caron didn’t like Busby Berkeley musicals (all the strict formations reminded her of the Nazis) and hear Shirley MacLaine’s views on Maurice Chevalier, whom she worked with on Can-Can with Frank Sinatra and Louis Jourdan: ‘’Chevalier was a supreme narcissist. He knew who he was; jeez he never forgot it. He was Mr. France and knew it but after all he *was* Chevalier. I liked him very much’.
Supergirl is the reason I subscribed to Now TV: I was so eager to see it! And I so wanted to like it. It’s perhaps the most overtly feminist series on television ever. It’s got a female superhero with a sister who in spite of not having super-powers also does daring things. They look after each other. Jimmy Olson is now black. It’s got Calista Flockhart doing a Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada and in fine form…and yet. I didn’t quite get into Arrow either though I haven’t fully given that a chance yet. Likewise the few episodes of The Flash I have seen doesn’t tempt me to see more. Perhaps I’m now too old for this kind of thing. And ye, as i’ve written here previously, I happily sat through the whole first series of Daredevil….
The best of the comic-book connected series that I saw last week was Jessica Jones on Netflix on which more later…
I’ve been loving the first season of Daredevil currently on Netflix. The whole myth of origin, so cumbersome and dull in a feature film of finite length, has more space to breathe and to develop here in ways that entice and excite: we see young Matt Murdock’s relationship with his boxer father; the reasons and pressures Murdock Sr. had for throwing fights, how Matt became blind and had his senses enhanced, how both are gluttons for punishment and able to take extremes of it; later in the season, in episode seven, we get to see how Stick (Scott Glenn), the equally blind sensei, came to train him in martial arts; why he did so is left enticingly murky and is clearly a narrative touchstone for the character to return, one highly anticipated by me.
I loved seeing Scott Glenn in the series. But isn’t Vincent D’Onofrio also a great Kingpin? And he’s the main antagonist, with his own backstory given almost as much importance as Daredevil’s (Charlie Cox) so we get to see a lot of him, though not as much as I’d like. Watching Daredevil and the first episode of Supergirl made me realise that marvellous actors such as Glenn, D’Onofrio, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Rosario Dawson and Calista Flockhart seem to have found a home with room for expression in this type of TV and what a treat, a recurring one, it to see old familiar faces in such great form.
However, what to me was a truly unexpected delight, is how much pleasure the look of the series gave me. It definitely feels like TV: the image doesn’t have as much depth or texture as you’d expect in a movie, the frame is relatively bare, it’s not as textured an image. However, I’m finding the neon-noir look of the movie so beautifully designed and filmed that what might initially seem a fault is actually a plus; colours are used brilliantly, in bold big lines, or occupying entire sectors of the frame in large blocks, and usually associated with a character or a theme. The spare lines of the image are used in the same way comic-book frames are, and the outlines themselves are beautifully expressive in their sparseness. The lack of texture draws the eye onto the TV frame clearly onto what’s important and attempts for maximum expressiveness within that limitation.
Loren Weeks and Scott Murphy are credited for the Production Design and Toni Barton for the Art Direction of the first series and they deserve to take a bow. It’s truly superb. I was also ready to throw bouquets to Matthew J. Lloyd’s cinematography until I got to episode 12, ‘The Ones We Left Behind’ and noticed how badly filmed Ben Urich (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and his wife were in the hospital sequence. Like they hadn’t been properly lit. Like Matthew J. Lloyd doesn’t know how to film black people. The whole series is a noir; the faces are meant to be encased in shadows; but there is a way of lighting black people to achieve the same effect that doesn’t make their faces almost entirely dissolve into the darkness. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it?
In the light of recent events in Paris and Beirut, I thought I’d make a video of some footage I took of the demonstrations in Bucharest last weekend. It’s not equivalent to them and I don’t want to reduce our visit to Bucharest into a kind of Social Disintegration Tourism. Bucharest will be remembered by Nicky Smith and myself for the kindness and generosity of its citizens, for the ballet, the food, the antiques; for seeing how beautiful the nearby Carpathians are; and, most lastingly, for being introduced to the work of the great Geta Brātescu by new friends. But 51 people lost there lives there; and there were also nightly demonstrations against what seemed senseless loss, in this case sparked by corruption; and somehow the seeming instability — not at all evident when walking through the city in daytime — the expression of dissatisfaction, of protest against a larger injustice is both linked to and distinct from recent events. In Bucharest, there was no fear; one could walk down the streets safely and find a place to read or a place to dance. But it does demonstrate that the sense of dissatisfaction and upheaval is one shared across Europe and the Middle-East.