Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies

Can we talk a bit less about acting? (or: please only cast Scarlett Johansson in weird movies)

Scarlett Johansson is on the cover of this month’s Vanity Fair. Now, the choice of magazine cover star is a bit more haphazard than you might believe, and although I’d like to think that VF is better run than most of the publications I’ve worked for, its cover story often feels like the feature that’s had the least care put into it.

But Johansson feels like the right person at the right time. There is a lot to talk about, including her scuffle with Oxfam. But mostly, her career, which had seemed becalmed for the best part of a decade, has come to life with Her, Under The Skin and Captain America: The Winter Soldier – the blockbuster balancing the two prestige gigs. They are three very different films – Spike Jonze’s melancholy, eccentric comedy-drama*, Jonathan Glazer’s startling mix of gonzo porn and Kubrick, and the latest instalment in Marvel’s crowd-and-critic pleasing Avengers saga. They could, however, all be considered sci-fi, and, like a lot of sci-fi, concern the question of what makes us human.

Johansson matters to the success of all these films – it’s not just that she is in them and people happen to like them. Her value is obvious in Under The Skin where she is constantly present. But you could say that in Her, on the other hand, she is ‘only’ a voice, and she was a very late addition to the movie, and in Captain America she has one of a pair of sidekick roles. That would be to misunderstand both films – with Her, Jonze took the decision that Johansson’s voice worked better than that of Samantha Morton**, who I think most people who have an opinion on the matter would consider a superior actress. Not having seen a version with Morton’s voice, I can’t judge whether this was right, but Johansson works. In The Winter Soldier, she has to make the amiable but depth-free Chris Evans look interesting – as sidekick roles go, this is a substantial and satisfying one.

It’s been a long-standing belief of mine that we put too much emphasis on individual acting performances. This is, of course, what awards ceremonies steer us towards – looking for a combination of skill and commitment. While I feel that good and bad acting are real things (but there is no consensus on what they are, otherwise Ewan McGregor wouldn’t have a career), I think most of the time we’re better off talking about use (by the filmmakers) and choices (by the actor and her/his ‘people’).

So let’s say that Scarlett Johansson has some assets (feel free to insert joke here): a weird beauty that is genuinely that (rather than a polite way of saying she just looks weird), a great body***, a terrific smile that transforms an otherwise moody face, and a distinctive, husky voice. When not smiling, however, she often appears bored or disengaged as a default position – perfect in Ghostworld or Lost In Translation, less appropriate in other parts.

I would argue that comedies like He’s Just Not That Into You, We Bought A Zoo and In Good Company failed to use her for what she’s good at. Other movies she’s been in – The Black Dahlia, The Spirit – were so spectacularly rotten all round it seems unfair to apportion blame to any of the actors****. Johansson had her phase as Woody Allen’s muse, from which she only escaped relatively unscathed from Vicky Christina Barcelona – Match Point, for instance, disappears into a black hole whenever the energy-deficient pairing of Johansson and Jonathan Rhys Meyers appears on screen.

The question is, has Johansson become better at acting lately? Does she now seem capable I’d stuff she could never do before? Not to any great extent, I’d argue. Maybe a bit in Her – though I find it hard to judge as there no performance of hers to compare it to, and towards the end of Under The Skin. But mostly – at the risk of sounding like meat-and-potatoes football pundit Steve Claridge – it’s all about putting the right actors in the right roles.

Certainly craft and talent come into it, but take someone having an even better year than Johansson – Matthew McConaughey. Lots of people, including me, loved the chest-thump/tribal drone humming thing that he improvised in The Wolf Of Wall Street. Could he have done the same thing in Failure To Launch or Sahara? Well, yes, I can imagine that. Would we be hailing it as genius? I think not.

Nothing captures our collective contradictory take on acting as much as the awards season. On the one hand, the acting awards are the ones that get media and public most excited – you don’t tend to get headlines about the winning cinematographers or screenwriters. At the same time, clearly lacking faith in their ability to spot a great performance, the Oscar voters in particular tend to rely on easy-to-grasp markers – is the actor playing someone in a wheelchair, someone dying, mentally ill, with an addiction, or a real famous person against whose memory we can gauge the performance? So, from recent years in the Best Actor category, we have McConaughey – Dallas Buyers Club (weight loss, critical illness); Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln (historical figure, martyr); Jean Dujardin – The Artist (a rare comedy win – but a bunch of difficulty points for acting without spoken dialogue); Colin Firth – The King’s Speech (historical figure, disability); Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart (alcohol addiction); Sean Penn (historical figure, martyr)… And so on. There are exceptions, but for every Denzel in Training Day you get a Geoffrey Rush in Shine.

As he ploughed round the interview circuit talking about his trifecta of triumphs (Wolf/Dallas/True Detective), McConaughey made it clear that the most important thing he had done was keep saying ‘no’ for months on end. Refusing to make any old crap, refusing (he didn’t say this explicitly, obviously) to share screen space with Kate Hudson or Jennifer Aniston. In his case, the choices were crucial – I think romcom

producers and (say) Richard Linklater like a lot of the same aspects of what he brings to a role, it’s the movies around him that are different.

With Johansson, carefully targeted use is more crucial. Cast her as a spoilt Jersey Jewish princess w/the hot bod – as she is in Don Jon – and she is OK, but you miss out on the weirdness that makes her so worth watching in Under The Skin, or the rare capacity for embodying utter boredom you get in the best of her early films.

I do believe that great acting exists, but it’s a rare thing, which is why the loss of Phillip Seymour Hoffman was so massive. Because for every Hoffman, there are 50 Keanu Reeves – perfect in the right film (both Bill And Teds, Point Break), horrible in the wrong one. Hell, I’ve even seen Hayden Christensen – so widely trashed for making the Star Wars sequels even more horrible than they already were – doing perfectly decent work on stage and screen.

So let’s be a little less mystical and a little more analytical about why the same actor can be so watchable in some roles and so off-putting in others. Although if anyone has a better name for it than ‘use and choices’, please let me know.

*The film that causes sharp girls to talk in a sighy, soft voice after they’ve seen it.

**Unless you buy into the idea that Her is some kind of answer film to Lost In Translation, in which case Johansson’s presence has a whole different reading. 

***Although a friend and I have spent too much time arguing whether Johansson has stumpy legs or not.

****Although, dear god, the horrifying miscasting of Hilary Swank in The Black Dahlia – you can see why she wanted to get away from being cast as ‘the chick who makes a convincing dude’, but… well, sometimes by trying to shatter stereotypes you just reinforce them.



Until The Light Takes Us

Directors Aaron Aites & Audrey Ewell Stars Varg Vikernes, Gylve Nagell USA 2008 Language English (with occasional bits of Norwegian and Swedish) 1hr 33 mins Colour

Everything you wanted to know about black metal but were too much of a fucking wuss to ask

Sometime in the mid-2000s. Infernus, the leader of Norwegian black metal band Gorgoroth, is waiting to talk to a journalist from a mainstream music magazine. He knows that journalists are liars, morons, treacherous by nature, and British ones worst of all. But he also knows that black metal has thrived on notoriety, its ability to generate lurid headlines seemingly confirming that its musicians did the stuff other bands just sung about* – church burnings, murders, the eating of brains – turning it from a little local scene in a previously musically unremarkable country into an international phenomenon. And Infernus has a couple of juicy things to talk about – his band’s blood-drenched live show has got them into trouble with the authorities in Poland, and his guitarist is doing time for assault, an incident that allegedly involved him threatening to drink the victim’s blood**. All this gives Infernus the opportunity to share his vision of Satanism in magazine with U2 on the cover.

The journalist turns out to be the biggest idiot, the lowest worm, the most outrageous waste of oxygen with whom Infernus has ever spoken to. Not only does he know nothing about Gorgoroth or black metal in general, he keeps trying to tell Infernus that he needs to watch some Disney cartoon that – this British imbecile claims – reconnects superheroes with the Nietzschean concept of the übermensch. Where do they get these mental deficients?

So that was my one and only encounter with black metal, writing a news story that tied in three murders in Italy with the original Norwegian scene. I interviewed a priest from the Catholic body that trains exorcists as well as failing to convince Infernus that he would find The Incredibles philosophically interesting. I’d like to think it was a classic clash between a dogged investigative reporter and an unrepentant extremist, but I suspect nobody was any the wiser at the end of it, certainly closer to why these people were so furious at having to grow up in wealthy, safe, fair Norway.

Anyway, poor old Infernus doesn’t even merit a mention in this fascinating, funny, disturbing documentary telling the story of the most metal of metals, the mentalist of metals, an account that ranges from the innocence of a bunch of kids all working and living together in a record shop – like noisy Nordic Monkees – to death, destruction and – although the directors pull their punches on this – political views that are at once childish (in essence, ‘why can’t we still be Vikings?’) and vile (answer, ‘because the Jews won’t let us’). It’s a world where everyone goes around with names like Hellhammer and Demonaz – my favourites being the two chaps from Immortal, who resemble nothing so much as a pair of gangsters being played by Hale and Pace.

Given raw material this good, the directors had some important choices to make. As with any music documentary, the first question is: how much time are you going to give to what these bands sounded like? Here, it’s surprisingly little – I’m not sure there is any live footage, and only short bursts from records; the bulk of the soundtrack is actually moody electronica. Next, who is telling the story? As there is no narration and no experts, it’s the musicians themselves, with a bit of news archive to fill in the gaps. And what story? So, rather than a panoramic view of the genre along the lines of LA metal classic The Decline Of Western Civilisation Part II, we focus on two of the founding figures – Gylve Nagell from Darkthrone (the one into the music), and Varg Vikernes, from Burzum (the one more into dodgy ideology). Both are far from the Spinal Tappian bozos of popular myth – Nagell, aka Fenriz, with the long, straight, dyed black hair, is an engaging depressive, wrestling with his part in the scene’s unexpected success, and telling one interviewer that anyone who took the lyrics of his recent albums to heart would feel compelled to commit suicide. Vikernes (former nom de metal: Count Grishnackh) by contrast, is confident and effortlessly articulate, the picture of Nordic healthiness with his neat blonde hair and youthful looks – only a sculpted beard adding a vague rock touch. He can be quite waspish – on his former mate Nagell, for instance: ‘Gylve is a special person with special goals, and it’s impossible to know what those goals are’. The funny thing is that at the time the film was made, Nagell was free to roam the world while Vikernes had spent most of his adult life in prison for the murder of the third of the genre’s pioneers, Øystein ‘Euronymous’ Aarseth from Mayhem.

It becomes clear that for both Vikernes and Nagell, the early days were the best – working at Euronymous’ shop back at the start of the 1990s and taking the piss out of the customers, searching out the shittiest musical and recording equipment to make the most fucked-up sound possible. Then things escalated.

What united the two of them by the time this was filmed is a sense of disappointment – not regret for the lives lost or the senseless vandalism, but the timeless lament of the dimestore demagogue: what they imagined was going to be a rebellion of the gifted against the mediocre*** mostly attracted either the very damaged or people they regarded as pondscum. Vikernes snipes, ‘I was frustrated when I realised this movement was the same bunch of braindead metalheads’ while Nagell ruefully sums up his life’s work with, ‘I guess sales of black lipstick went through the roof.’

When you see the footage of the trial in 1994, you realise that Vikernes was just a kid at the time. And I started speculating, based on no more watching than this documentary, that maybe that’s why he seemed so content now when he was interviewed for the film, having spent a decade or so as a guest of the soft-touch Norwegian state he despises. He compares his time in prison to being in a monastery, but considering his age when he went in, it’s also like he was able to be a permanent student. For a hyper-bright but immature and hopelessly self-centred kid, what could be better than being allowed to play with your ideas and not have to deal with the grind of everyday life – the bills, the rent, practical decisions. He was released in 2009, and now reportedly lives in France with a wife and kids. I wonder if that was a shock to his system…

Serious black metal folk apparently have big gripes with this film: it retells an old, old story, it ignores their particular faves in favour of Nagell and Vikernes, and it has far too little of the right kind of music. For the curious, though, it’s terrific.

*In that way, it has parallels to gangsta rap, which broke through around the same.

**At this trial, his mother testified, ‘My son is a vegetarian and very fussy about food. He eats absolutely no innards. That is why I do not believe this at all’, thus trashing his Satanist cred in one swift move.

***See what I meant about The Incredibles?

(With thanks to Sarah – this was a much better shout than Celebrity Big Brother)


Don Jon

Director Joseph Gordon-Levitt Stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore USA 2013 Language English 1hr 30 mins Colour

Comedy of contemporary sexual manners

Masculinity in crisis – Hollywood has always had a taste for that. These days, the danger apparently is the internet. So meet Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a working-class Italian Jersey boy good at the surface performance of being a man - he’s got the muscles, the muscle car, the ability to get hot girls to come home with him - but in essence (the film suggests) is a sad little tosser, who prefers solo pleasures with his laptop to real women.

Then, one day, he encounters the ‘most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen’ at a club… and she won’t put out. Having to make an effort to woo Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) – going out to lunch, watching the romcoms she loves – is an eye-opener for him, but not quite enough to make him change all his ways…

There’s a lot to enjoy about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut. It’s snappy, it’s reasonably funny, it’s well-structured around a series of recurring scenes – confession at church, Sunday lunch with his parents (Tony Danza and Glenne Headly) and silent sister (Brie Larson), and trips to the gym (where he performs the weekly penance prescribed by his priest). And I liked the argument about cleaning products.

But that might not be enough. I was uncomfortable with the class and sexual politics of the movie. Star/writer/director Gordon-Levitt is not a Jersey guy – he grew up in an LA showbiz family. I feel that he’s sneering at these characters – at Jon, at pushy, cock tease* Barbara, at Jon’s parents, at pretty much everyone except Jon’s slighty wiser buddy Bobby (Rob Brown) and Esther (Julianne Moore), the sadness-tinged bourgeois hippy who represents the path to light. This is a film that toys with the idea of moral equivalence between watching Anne Hathaway films and, oh, Anal Bandits 17, but dodges away from that before anyone gets too offended. This is a film in which hair product is a signifier of spiritual corruption. Like a lot of comedies, it wants us to enjoy its antihero’s caddish antics and then at some point switch abruptly and cheer him on the path to redemption.

Me, I don’t think Jon was that bad to begin with – he’s not a liar or a hypocrite, he’s houseproud and loyal to friends and family. He has an addiction, but the film never makes it look very degrading or damaging – this isn’t Shame, not by a long way, nor does it have the bleakness of Alfie. On the Patrick Bateman scale of narcissistic misogynists, Jon is barely a two. Arguably, although I’m sure Gordon-Levitt intended this as a feminist movie, when you look at the way Barbara is portrayed, the film has more of a problem with women than he does.

And it’s that simplistic, snobbish, slightly nasty worldview that in the end lets Don Jon down.

* The film’s big ‘ew’ moment, which is funny, happens when we see the sartorial consequences for Jon of Barbara’s ‘look, touch but don’t… ’ tactics.


The Future

Director Miranda July Stars Miranda July, Hamish Linklater Germany/USA 2011 Language English 1hr 31mins Colour

Bleak comedy about facing up to the fact that your life hasn’t gone to plan

Some years ago, performance artist Miranda July made an indie comedy called Me And You And Everyone We Know. I was sceptical about it, possibly because of the title, maybe because I had read a little about July’s other work. Anyway, I don’t remember much about the film, except that I liked it.

Her second film, The Future, is darker. If I tell you that it is narrated by July playing a cat, it will sound horribly twee. But there is a point to this device – the animal (we only see its blatantly fake paws, one bandaged, one not, as it talks) – is an ailing rescue cat that a couple have promised to adopt once it has recovered from treatment. The pair are warned, starkly, that if they don’t turn up in exactly a month’s time, the cat will be put down.

The couple are Sophie (July, again) and Jason (Hamish Linklater). In their mid-thirties, with no kids, getting the cat, who they are told could live another five years with good care, is their stab at commitment.

‘We’ll be 40 in five years.’

’40 is basically 50, and after 50 the rest is just loose change.’

With that thought, they descend into a blind panic, deciding they have to transform their lives in the few weeks before their freedom expires. They both quit their jobs with little idea of what do next, except Sophie has decided to film 30 dances to upload to You Tube when they get their internet turned on again (going offline being another of their abrupt resolutions).

At the start, Sophie and Jason seem to one of those couples who are a little too much alike. They both have curly mops of dark hair – his is longer, making him look like he should be in a band from 1983 – and similar features. July has said both characters are basically both her, so that makes sense. In the opening scene, they seem happy living pretty much on top of one another (he does some kind of tech support from home), but the cracks soon show.

At heart, this is an acutely observed look at early midlife crisis, when you reach that realisation that you will never amount to that much. But July peppers that with little moments of magic realism, just enough to give The Future a mood all of its own, rather than simply choking you with its anxiety.

I liked lots of bits of dialogue (or, often, monologue, because the characters aren’t really communicating). Sophie says, ‘I wish I was one notch prettier – I’m right on the edge, where it’s up to each person to decide for themselves. I have to make my case with each new person.’

Jason, faced with the knowledge what Sophie is about to say is going to ruin his life, says something we’ve all thought, but I think the way he expresses it is good: ‘If you’re going to say something really bad, could you just wait a moment, I need a moment…’

What the film does then is interesting, too…

In a lot of ways this is classic US indie stuff – there are only a handful of characters, the main ones are boho types who think way too much – but that’s OK. I like its take on Los Angeles. I’m even broadly OK with the interpretative dance (I have no idea whether we’re meant to think it’s any good or not, but that’s fine, too. I think).

It’s not a happy film. If you going through one of those times when you question pretty much everything about what you’ve been doing for the last 10 or 20 years, this might be uncomfortable viewing. Then again, it might useful viewing.


The Double

Director Richard Ayoade Stars Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn UK 2013 Language English 1hr 33 mins Colour

Darkly (literally and metaphorically) comedic

Clanking and clanging. Whirring and wheezing. There is a lot of noise in The Double, all the way through, allthough it peaks when the main character, Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg), is trying to overhear a conversation across the other side of a restaurant while being foiled by loud music and two blenders at once.

The people he wants to hear are Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), the co-worker and neighbour he is obsessed by, and James Simon (Eisenberg again), who looks just like him (right down to the same suit and shirt) but is as suave and confident as Simon is hideously self-effacing.

The world this takes place in, that clangy, clanky world, is one of those that doesn’t quite map on to our history - it has the look of the 1940s with a technology roughly like that of the 1980s, plus a wonderful soundtrack of vintage East Asian pop that further makes it harder to place. The film itself has a look of a retro-minded movie from the ’80s or early ’90s, with echoes of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, Delicatessen, the Coen’s Hudsucker Proxy, early David Lynch and Aki Kaurismaki. It’s as claustrophobically atmospheric as any of them.

The story starts off with Simon’s painfully inept attempts to attract the attention of either Hannah or his bosses, and then takes a turn with the arrival of James, who manages both effortlessly (literally, to some extent, as he gets Simon to do all the work at work). Simon treats James as a threat, but James suggests that their uncanny resemblance - ignored by their colleagues -  could make them an effective team.

The story this is based on is by Dostoyevsky, but the writer brought to mind by Simon’s nightmarish existence is Kafka, or at least cinema’s borrowings from Kafka, plus the German cinema of his time - there’s plenty in the way of shadows and fog here.

Richard Ayoade seems to be a popular chap. As well as drawing a couple of at least indie-big international stars in Eisenberg and Wasikowska, he’s packed the film with familiar faces – the great Wallace Shawn, Raging Bull’s Cathy Moriarty, one legend of British cinema, a couple of the director’s TV mates and most of the main cast of his debut, Submarine, including a very enjoyable cameo from Paddy Considine.

What’s never in doubt is that Ayoade knows exactly what he’s after here, and he achieves it. The result is a beautifully shot, dark, funny, smart and enjoyable film.


Veronica Mars

Director Rob Thomas Stars Kristen Bell, Jason Dohring, Enrico Colantoni, Krysten Ritter USA 2014 Language English 1hr 47mins Colour

 Teen noir TV series gets a big screen resurrection

 Or: ‘A long time ago, we used to be friends…’

It’s as simple as this: if you are unfamiliar with Veronica Mars, the fairly short-lived US TV drama that owed an equal debt to Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer, then this film is of no possible use to you. Oh, there is a long opening montage and monologue filling in the story so far, but I suspect that is for old fans who haven’t found the time to rewatch the show before seeing the film.

But if you are a fan, this does the job splendidly. Rightly so, I guess, because the fans made this possible by stumping cash up on Kickstarter. In return, the show’s creator, Rob Thomas, has given them what presumably most of them wanted – a film that rewards loyalty, one that is rich with in-jokes both within its fictional world and about the making of the movie, his own name, the star’s apparently more ample chest… The more love you bring, the more you’ll receive, in this case at least. On its own peculiar terms, the Veronica Mars movie succeeds impressively.

In the unlikely event you’ve read this far and never watched the show, here’s what you need to know. Like Buffy, Veronica was a popular high school blonde who lost her social status* but found her soul and her calling. Veronica’s fall from grace occurred with the murder of her (very rich) best friend and her sheriff father’s politically suicidal attempts to solve the case. He was left to struggle as a private investigator and she got a taste for the family business, while replacing her elitist old chums with the new black kid in school, a female computer geek and a Latino biker. Plenty of murder, blackmail, sex crimes and political nastiness followed over three seasons – VM didn’t just nod to noir because it had an old-fashioned voiceover from our teen PI, it was a noir because it unearthed all the bad shit was happening in this starkly class-divided California town.

The other noir element, the thing that the writers struggled most with, was the show’s homme fatal, Logan Echolls, the bitterly wisecracking rich kid and frequent police suspect whom Veronica repeatedly falls for. That unshakable attraction is what starts off the movie – seven years after we last saw her, Veronica (Kristen Bell) is being interviewed for jobs at top law firms in New York. Then Logan gets arrested for the murder of his pop star girlfriend – also one of their schoolmates. That brings Veronica home, just in time for her Neptune High 10-year reunion.

Thomas makes sure that Veronica gets to meet up with as many old faces as possible as she sets off again to prove Logan innocent, despite her father, her nice-guy boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) and the law firm trying to get her back to New York. But where’s the fun in that?

So it looks like a TV movie, and it has a transparent crowd-pleasing agenda, but saving the day is terrific writing. Thomas does a smart job of when he brings in old characters, and how, which much of the time is very funny. There are a lot of laughs here, although not at the expense of the moodiness that was also always a component of the show.

I mentioned Ross Macdonald earlier - the class system of California is superbly explored in his novels. It’s something of an obsession for Thomas too – I think it’s series 2 of the TV series that explains in some detail about incorporation, the tactic by which wealthy American communities set themselves up as new cities, relieving themselves of fiscal responsibility for their poorer neighbours. And in the movie, topically, developers are aiming to reclaim the once rough bits of downtown, aided by the corrupt sheriff’s department. There’s a political edge here, which of course makes Veronica’s dalliances with Logan all the more of a headfuck for her.

The cast all look comfortable picking up these characters again, especially considering that the film was made in a hasty 23 days. Special praise is due to Ryan Hansen, still funny as hell as Logan’s bozo spoilt surfer dude bud Dick.

I’m not sure I liked the ending**, or the resolution to the case, and looking back, Logan is fairly passive beyond his initial call to summon Veronica – but then maybe he always was. Those are all minor grumbles, though, because the quality of Thomas’ writing means that spending time with these characters again is a real pleasure.

*Incidentally, the film makes me think of something I only half-noticed about the show: although she’s a weirdo and an outcast to her many of her peers, in her crime-solving exploits, Veronica has no doubts about attractiveness to older boys and (ahem) men (That Bell wasn’t actually a teenager, just playing one, maybe made the network OK with this). (A girl’s confidence in her effect on males of course in no ways assumes she’s comfortable as a sexual being, obviously, as the show made clear). This matches up with how several women I know remember their own teen years – people rarely fit neatly into boxes.

 **SPOILER ALERT: Possibly again fan-driven, the ending reflects the TV view of character determinism, made most explicit on the Friends ‘what if?’ double episode The One That Could Have Been – ultimately, you are who you are, no matter what you try to do to change that, and you can’t escape your fate. So, ‘down these mean streets a woman must go…’





Directors Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman Stars James Franco, Jon Hamm, David Strathairn USA 2010 Language English 1hr 24mins Black & white and colour

Fact-based account of Ginsberg’s poem, its legal troubles, and his life

I’ve always struggled with poetry - maybe I don’t have the ear for it, maybe the mind to unwrap allusions, unfurl metaphors into images and emotions. Maybe I just lack imagination.

The funny thing is that the difficulty of grasping a poem was one of the central questions in the obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, a court case that is one of the main elements of this film. And yet Howl And Other Poems is the only book of poetry I’ve bought of my own volition, and I’ve never found the title piece baffling (although I prefer America in the same collection).

I first read it in the school library, drawn in a typical teenage way to the idea of the beats. On The Road, which I read not long after, I found tremendously disappointing, but Ginsberg I liked from the start. Crucially (for me) he was funny and Kerouac wasn’t. (And because I do care about these things, it probably helps that the school library edition and my one, bought some years later, and those seen in the film, are all the same little City Lights: The Pocket Poets Series Number Four volume).

This curious little film entirely uses existing words for the script: the poem itself, the trial transcript, and interviews with Ginsberg at the time of the trial. We get Ginsberg (James Franco) reading the poem in public in San Francisco in 1955, plus animation illustrating the words, while the interview bits cut from showing us Ginsberg talking in his apartment to flashbacks of what he’s remembering, but the soundtrack is still him speaking. The trial sections - with David Strathairn as the prosecutor and Jon Hamm as the defence lawyer - are the most dramatically conventional parts of the film. Inconveniently, Ginsberg wasn’t there - Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights, the publisher, was the man on obscenity charges, and Ginsberg claimed his own presence would be unhelpful.

Franco is absolutely terrific as Ginsberg, and the interview segments breathe life into the off-told tale of Allen’s relationship with Kerouac and Neal Cassady (although I wondered whether in the end he ever grasped how much more talented he was than either of them).

It looks great too, both in the 1957 colour sections and the lovely black-and-white of anything that happens earlier. The animation I could happily live without, and I think it sells short the power of the poem itself – we don’t need the pictures if it’s creating pictures in our heads.

For all that it is a pleasant meander (and a fairly short film), the rising of the tension during the summing-up of the trial is a reminder of why movies generally do have plots, and how dramatic situations get our attention in the way things just happening don’t.

But still, it’s an intriguing tribute to a fascinating man and his most famous work, and a sturdy defence of the right to free expression. And I love the fact that it ends with the real Ginsberg singing one of his poems.


Shadow Of The Thin Man

Director WS Van Dyke Stars William Powell, Myrna Loy, Donna Reed USA 1941 Language English 1hr 37mins Black & white

Enjoyable later outing for Nick and Nora

People are always moaning about the number of remakes, sequels, copycat movies we get these days, but ever since Hollywood has existed, it has loved a winning formula. It’s a fact often repeated (by me, at least) that the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart Maltese Falcon from 1941 was the third movie adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s book, which had only been published in 1930…

Which brings us to Shadow Of The Thin Man, which was the fourth in the series inspired by another great Hammett novel. Hammett had come up with the stories for the first two sequels, but for this one he’s just credited with having created the characters. They are, if you’ve never seen one of the films or read the book (and do read the book), Nick and Nora Charles. Nick (the brilliant William Powell) is a former private eye, friends with all sorts of dodgy characters, who has moved up in the world since marrying heiress Nora (Myrna Loy, every bit Powell’s match). They both drink, a lot, an awful lot – Nick never orders one cocktail when he can have two, and probably three. Somehow, despite being constantly sozzled, they consistently solve crimes ahead of the police.

By the fourth film, they, and their terrier Asta, have been joined by Nick Jr. Nick Sr’s struggles with fatherhood are the source of a fair number of the gags in this one, especially when he is forced to go on a merry-go-round when, if anything, even more pickled than usual.

As I mentioned in my review of the superficially similar Star Of Midnight, one of the interesting things about the Thin Man series is that the crime plots are played straight. There are no funny bits involving the bad guys, often a standard bunch of B-movie lowlifes. That leads to a weird fluctuating of moods – and in this film more than ever, because someone is found hanged, which is for some reason rather more sobering than a shooting.

The plot this time involves the death of a jockey, some shady types who run a wrestling arena and a crusading sports reporter. The Charleses manage purely by chance to be on hand when all the drama takes place – ‘Funny how I meet you at all my homicides,’ mutters Lieutenant Abrams of the SFPD (Sam Levene). He’s the one, though, who insists that Nick has to help him crack the case.

There’s a huge food fight, a running gag about a fancy hat, and a probably slightly overlong gathering of the witnesses at the end. I’m not sure it adds anything the previous films were lacking – unless you’re particularly tickled by the idea of a functioning alcoholic as a dad – but it’s still very funny, and Powell and Loy are great together. One word of caution: the film does have repeated gags built around the idea of the easily confused fat black maid, which make uncomfortable viewing these days.


Only Lovers Left Alive

Director Jim Jarmusch Stars Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Jeffrey Wright UK Germany France Cyprus USA 2013 Language English (with a little bit of Arabic and French) 2hrs 3mins Colour

Jarmusch does vampires

So from the moment I saw the poster for this, the question was, ‘Is this going to be a load of goth bollocks?’ Because it looked like goth bollocks, and god knows the world doesn’t need more goth bollocks. And this was worrying because ever since I saw Down By Law way back when, I’ve bought into the whole Jim Jarmusch thing. I know that – and can understand why – some people find his films slow and unnaturalistic and contrived and reliant on the whole ‘hey, I like this obscure cool old stuff – do you dig it, too?’ angle. But I’ve always found his work funny and charming, and, yes, I do like a lot of the stuff he’s referenced and used in his films – from the stuff I knew about (the Rza’s soundtrack to Ghostdog: The Way Of The Samurai) to the stuff I didn’t (Ethiopian jazz in Broken Flowers). I’ve never really struggled with any of his movies, not even the critically reviled The Limits Of Control.

But the vampires worried me. Not that vampires are necessarily a problem – vampires can be done well. But skinny, long-haired, languid posh British vampires? That – and the title – made it feel like this would be revisiting people I knew back when I was a teenager, the kind who had red light bulbs in their rooms and knew the address of Robert Smith’s mum’s house.

I shouldn’t have stressed so much. It’s not the film I feared. It’s, well, it’s something with a mood of its own. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) have been married for over a century – she’s a few hundred years older than him. She lives elegantly in Tangiers, mostly alone with her books, occasionally hanging out with her vampire chum Kit (John Hurt, exactly as you’d expect). Adam, meanwhile, is over in a wrecked mansion in crumbling Detroit, hiding from the world and only dealing with his dealers – Ian (Anton Yelchin), who sorts him out with rare guitars and other bits of old gear (very Jarmusch, that), and nervy Dr Watson (Jeffrey Wright), from whom he gets medical-grade O Neg. Concerned about her ‘suicidally romantic’ (she blames his old pal, Shelley*) spouse, Eve reluctantly flies over to Detroit. Later, they’re joined by her wilful, immature sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). And that’s about all the plot you can expect in a Jim Jarmusch movie.

The main roles are well-cast – for a start, it is no struggle to believe that these two are vampires. I like that it’s Hiddleston, younger in real life and by a few hundred years in the film, who plays the world-weary one; Swinton’s Eve is more resilient, practical. Their worlds are nicely put together, too – Adam’s accumulation of old tech appealing rather than clangingly retro-chic, although his shrine of pictures of his heroes (he keeps insisting he doesn’t have heroes) is maybe a self-indulgence too far by the director, including at least a couple of his now-deceased stars (Joe Strummer, Screaming Jay Hawkins) and his old film teacher (Nicholas Ray).

Ray would have surely appreciated one of the best aspects of the film – a couple of great (night-time, obviously) drives through the wreck of Detroit, an astonishing filmscape that has been underused.

Jarmusch is such a distinctive filmmaker, it’s worth noting that he hasn’t stood still all these years. The static cameras of the early years are long gone. And where he once used musicians in the main roles because they didn’t act like actors, and likes actors for whom English is a second language, this film has a musician played by Tom Hiddleston, your actual British Shakespearian thesp. Mostly that works OK – there’s just one moment where John Hurt milks it in a way that previously Jarmusch stars wouldn’t have.

Only Lovers Left Alive very funny in places, although more laughs would have been nice. And at two hours, it drags a bit – a couple of things happen, but not that much. But it looks lovely and it’s kind of moving and the soundtrack, as ever, is terrific. On balance, Jarmusch has taken on the vampires and survived.

* Some people have complained about the name-dropping. I didn’t mind – but then I’m a notorious name-dropper myself.



The Good German

Director Steven Soderbergh Stars George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire USA 2006 Language English, German, Russian 1hr 45mins Black & white

Clooney adrift in the wreck of Berlin

There are films that I hear about when they are being made, very much look forwards to, and then by the time they come out, the word is bad and seeing them seems less urgent. In the case of The Good German, enough to mean I didn’t see it until seven years after its release.

I know why I was interested in the first place. I love film noir, and Steven Soderbergh always seems an interesting figure. So the idea of Soderbergh shooting a 1945-set noir as if it had been made at the time sounded intriguing, if risky.

The setting is promising. It’s Berlin at the time of the Potsdam Conference between Stalin, Truman and Churchill. The war in Europe has barely ended, and the war in Asia and the Pacific continues. If during World War II the question of why we were fighting (to which Frank Capra was assigned to respond in a series of films) was fairly easy to answer for the vast majority of Brits and many Americans, the way that war was conducted was as morally messy as any other war, and once Hitler had fallen, things got really complicated.

The story begins with journalist Jake Geismer (George Clooney) flying in to cover the conference, and meeting his army driver Tully (Tobey Maguire). Tully’s (typical Maguire) ‘oh, gee’ persona covers up for the fact that he is ruthless black marketeer selling to the Russians and using the profits to enjoy all wrecked Berlin has to offer, including Lena (Cate Blanchett), an aristocrat reduced to prostitution (how unpleasant is Tully? He dismisses a Holocaust survivor who has no legs with the words ‘Everybody’s got a sob story.’)

The situation soon gets dangerous, as Geismer, despite his experience of Berlin in the 1930s and the war itself, continuously underestimates how far both individuals and the US government will go in pursuit of their own interests. ‘You’ve been wrong every step of the way,’ he’s told, correctly, late in the film.

The sets, filming and (in theory) the acting are all meant to be authentic to 1945. It’s not only in a vintage aspect ratio, but is in the kind of black and white that really looks black and white, as opposed to the soft greys we got get in the batch of b&w films that were released in the last couple of years (the cinematography is by Soderbergh himself, using the name Peter Andrews). The exception is the language, both in the use of obscenities and open discussion of subjects including rape.

The Good German got some fairly rough reviews when it was released. I don’t think it’s a bad movie as such – it looks good, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into in terms of both plot and history. One of the problems is that it’s openly taking on some great films: there’s a key scene that essentially a big nod to Casablanca. The black market in a city occupied by the four Allied powers inevitably brings to mind The Third Man. I thought too of Samuel Fuller’s superb House Of Bamboo, set in Tokyo under US military governance. Geismer’s blind march towards a horrifying truth recalls another Jake, in Chinatown. And although it’s resolutely studio-bound and a genre film, the moment in which it is set has The Good German tussling with the ghosts of Roberto Rosselini’s filmed-on-the-spot Rome Open City and Germany Year Zero.

Soderbergh knows his film history. That’s the challenge he’s chosen to take on, as well as trying to make a movie that, considering the politically and emotionally charged subject matter, has to be more than a loving pastiche. And that’s the nub, because if you weigh all that up, you’d be looking for a better film that this.