November 07, 2012

NewYorkCityPhilia

On arriving at Heathrow airport to a rattling board of cancelled flights, the reasonable man would retreat and carefully plot a new course to New York City. The unreasonable man would book a seat on the next thing smoking to the Eastern seaboard, then finding his connecting flight to a deluged La Guardia cancelled, he would not see the night out in a Toronto airport hotel but would race for the last plane to Philadelphia. There, bolstered by the firm American turf beneath his feet, he would rent the last car on the airport lot and drive for three hours through a pitch black, hurricane-blitzed Garden State, with only an outdated SatNav for company. Were that SatNav to send him hurtling towards a flooded Holland Tunnel, he would not turn back, but would instead rely entirely on guesswork to creep his way along the toll roads and turnpikes of a half-submerged Staten Island to finally reach Brooklyn - that bolshy, sighing, stylish older brother to the flashy kid, Manhattan.

I did not take the path of the reasonable man.

No other city on earth could so stir my blood and send me hurtling recklessly into a storm to visit her. Not even my own. My infatuation with New York is verging on some '-pathy' or '-philia'. I have loved her since childhood and while my reasons have upended and overrun one another, the passion has never ebbed. I will never deny or seek to contain the giddiness that overwhelms me when I emerge from Penn Station to a blast of cold Hudson air and that dazzling canyon of glittering midtown lights; but it's not Christmas and Time Square and yellow cabs that get my heart racing anymore.

It's the cracked and cobbled streets of the LES. The Sartorialist will-be's on every West Village corner. The 'shhhhh' bars and the speakeasies. The droll Billyburg baristas. The plaid-frocked, moustached taco stand owners of Rockaway Beach. The Victorian-era tattoo parlours and wincing scotch enthusiasts. The local microbrews and the esoteric jukebox selections. These are the flavours that my ever-evolving palette longs for now.

Aside from all of this, there are also those constant and abstract values that will never shift from this city. The resilience. The stubbornness. The gruff, beguiling charm. The openness. New Yorkers are New Yorkers not because of where they were born, but because of how invested they are in the narrative of their city. They are wholly caught up in it. They take pride in it.

This was broadcast to the world this week in the form of a muted and careful response to days of flooding, fires, and black outs. When a boardwalk in the Rockaways washed away people lamented it all the way from Queens to the Upper East Side, because it's their city. It chills my blood to picture that hurricane hitting almost any European city right now. It would be chaos and anarchy. There is real hate and nihilism spreading quietly like dry rot across so many of our cities. How much must a metropolis of this size be doing right to bear this sort of catastrophe with such powerful humility? The fraternity of New York - a city of immigrants, lest we forget - is an astonishing and valuable thing. It is addictive, and I am in deep.

And finally there's just the sight of the place, which to this day makes me draw breath. By day the brick and concrete buildings and thick hulking girders stand proud beneath a clear, powder blue sky. It is industrial magnificence writ large in brown and grey across an island as slender and strong as any of her buildings. No other city feels so BIG. The Coliseum, St Marks Cathedral, La Sagrada Familia - all are undone by the minute details that distort the beauty of their sheer size. In New York, such fussiness would be sniggered at. Here, the only interruption to sleek concrete and iron are the nuts and bolts that join them. The closest thing to "decoration" is the Empire State Building with its glaring steel eagle gargoyles - and without a giant ape or a caped crusader hanging from them, they look out of place.

By night the whole city is transformed. Driving along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway Wednesday night and staring across the East River at the gigantic skyscrapers in darkness was the closest I will ever come to a slumbering Leviathan snoring in the shallows. This was the city that wowed Fitzgerald with its, "flashing, dynamic good looks, its tall man's quick-step." From the astounding billboards of Times Square to the dingy neon of Greenwich village. From the mirrored apex of the Chrysler building to the pulsating grid lights of the Marcy Projects. When the sun retreats the whole city sparkles like a pinstriped emerald. A crystal city standing proud where the unfathomable tide dissolves the shore.

September 12, 2012

Butterflies and Bruises: Alma Har'el's Fjögur píanó


N.B. Click on the image above or scroll down to the bottom to watch the film.

How would you tell the story of love? Split it up into acts and set pieces? A sleek dialectic of heady triumphs and devastation? Give it a beginning without an end? Impossible. Love is a hazy netherworld. A performance of repetition. A choreographed dream.

And what colour would you paint it? Rich, dark, Renaissance crimson? You’d be wrong to. Love has a pale colour palette of flesh and curtain lace. Ruptured by smeared charcoal and finger-scraped scars. Gentle plum bruises. Butterflies and shawls that warn more than they delight.

Alma Har’el’s beautifully conceived film for Sigur Ros’ Fjögur piano is an astounding exploration of love: bleak and indicting, yet strangely hopeful. Cautious, honest, and deeply moving.

Shia LeBouf and Denna Thompson tumble majestically through a staggering and intimate performance. Painfully rehearsed honesty boxed in by a bedroom window frame.

Diving into trashy, colourful, hedonistic video guilt. Glaring aquamarine. MTV and ketamine. Generation something.

Slipping silently into a room filled with butterfly memories. Carefully preserved. Muted mauve melancholy. Calm. A delicate and cherished place they intrude upon with the people they've become – crashing in at dawn, trailing the mire of late nights and unblinking eyes.

Pushing each other into sudden frenzied anger. Volatile. Locked in to one another. Free falling.

Then suddenly absent. Panicked and lonely. Fragile.

Then clashing again. Tearing and grasping at each other. Frenzied hand marks tracked in tar. Laying in a nest of hair and tear stream smears. Frozen mid fight in a petrified, breathless sleep.

Waking to a new day. A new tussle of love…

Love. The most impossible dilemma and the simplest truth. A shifting, ungraspable boundary we yearn for like a desert horizon - longing for that crisp canyon cut while we're swallowed whole by the endless earth.

The sweet Harpy song that tears you away from the things you knew and throws you headlong into a gathering storm. All life's lessons unlearned in an instant.

Love is endless splendour. Bewildering and dangerous. Blamed and cherished. The suture for our deepest wounds. Never. Ever. Forgotten.
The Halcyon bird.
The Phoenix that survives the flames.

September 04, 2012

REVIEW: Anna Karenina (dir. Joe Wright)



Cast: Keira Knightley, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jude Law, Matthew Macfadyen, Kelly Macdonald, Olivia Williams, Domhnall Gleeson

Anna Karenina (Knightley) has settled quite happily into the safety and luxury of marriage to a respected St Petersburg aristocrat by the name of Alexei Karenin (Law) – a steely, stoic man with watery eyes and thinning hair. But on a visit to Moscow to save her brother's marriage, she meets the youthful and charming Count Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson). Their first meeting is marred by the tragic death of a railway worker, but there is no mistaking what has passed between them… they are in love. Forced into exile by a society that cannot accept their forbidden tryst, Anna and Vronsky find themselves alone, shackled together and tumbling headlong towards tragedy. There can be no peace for them, only misery and greatest happiness.

Joe Wright’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece is a wonderfully theatrical affair. Scene transitions involve magical, clunking, mechanical sets and hordes of sooty stagehands in period garments. Many scenes that should take place in streets or restaurants actually take place in the atriums, hallways, and rafters of a gigantic Russian theatre. Sometimes a scene appears to be on location, but suddenly a wall pulls away and we find ourselves back beneath the hulking proscenium arch.

Wright’s stylish vision successfully evokes the theatrical nature of late 19th Century Russian aristocracy in a new and exciting way. But the story relies too heavily on this visual treat for pace and energy. The flashy modern aesthetic – part Fosse, part Gondry, part Brecht – cannot be relied upon to update the tattered subject matter. What relevance does Tolstoy's story of forbidden love have at a time when our heir apparent has married his (alleged) mistress without so much as a raised eyebrow? How much more important are films like Shame that deal with the consumptive, addictive power of lust in a modern society where every need is catered for, and nothing is out of bounds?

That aside, there are also the usual pitfalls of reducing a 900 page tome into a modern feature film. Tolstoy’s novel is timeless because of the minutiae; Wright’s film is over a century out of date because it is forced to deal in generalisations. Characters are half-etched, dialogue over simplified, entire story strands overlooked. The cast can hardly be blamed for failing to mark their characters with anything approaching real emotion (with the exception of Domhnall Gleeson whose performance as Levin is breathtaking).

We are left with an entertaining but hollow story filled with entertaining but hollow characters. By the end, you’ll feel as though you’ve just left one of St Petersburg’s many large social gatherings: so many people you desperately wanted to meet, but as the carriages arrive you’re left with nothing but a procession of strangers and ghosts, known by name but nothing else.

May 15, 2012

REVIEW: Casa de mi Padre (dir. Matt Piedmont)

Cast: Will Ferrell, Diego Luna, Gael Garcia Bernal, Genesis Rodriguez

To make fun of a genre film, you really have to love the genre. When you watch Blazing Saddles - or Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood - it feels like the filmmakers are ribbing a dear old friend, rather than spitting on a hated foe. When you watch the later Scary Movies there is no joy to be had, because the passion for horror cinema has disappeared. Fortunately, by the end of the opening scene of Casa de mi Padre, we are left in no doubt that Matt Piedmont and his gang of talented artistes have an unabashed passion for the trashy Mexican Westerns of the 1950s and 60s. I don’t know if it’s the intentionally disastrous continuity errors, the badly painted backdrops, or the fact that Will Ferrell speaks in seemingly fluent Spanish… but something tells you that these guys really love what they’re doing. Maybe too much.

Armando Alvarez (Ferrell) is, as his father regularly points out, not the sharpest nacho on the platter. Compared to his recently returned prodigal brother, Raul (Luna) – a sharp-suited, slick-haired lothario – well, let’s just say you wouldn’t leave Armando alone to pet your rabbit (and if you think that’s some sordid analogy, you need to read Of Mice and Men… immediately). Raul’s return from Mexico City, and the announcement of his engagement to the jaw-dropping Sonia (Rodriguez), are greeted with screams of praise from the entire Alvarez ranch… finally Raul has returned to save the family!

Unfortunately, Raul didn’t make his money the hard way in the city. He’s a major drug baron with a long list of enemies, and his return to the family ranch brings unwanted attention from the local drug lord Onza (Garcia Bernal), who also happens to be Sonia’s uncle. When Armando discovers that his brother is a no good gangster, he realises his time has come to take the mantle of hero and patriarch, and save his family from the wolves and coyotes gathering at the gates.

If that brief synopsis sounds melodramatic then I’ve still probably underdone it! This is easily as uproariously clichéd and on-the-nose as any of the wonderful B-movies from that era. This is pure send-up, pure farce. You’re never allowed to settle into the story and start the laborious process of “caring” about the characters, because every time you start down that road, Garcia Bernal sticks three cigarettes in his mouth at once, of Ferrell attempts to help a lady onto a horse but gives up halfway and leaves her hanging awkwardly off the side. It’s a mad-dash slapstick caper with wonderfully shoddy sets and intentional ham acting.

Of course, being objective, that’s as much a tick in the ‘con’ box as it is in the ‘pro’. There’s plenty of room for fun in a film with some heart, and removing all the emotional depth from any human story – no matter how melodramatic and funny – is a shame. But at a trim 84-minutes, there’s plenty to keep us entertained and I can’t imagine anybody leaving the cinema dissatisfied.

And the whole production actually works as a new canvas for the wonderful Will Ferrell. We’ve seen him in his own projects and in a few great dramas in recent years, but this is the first time we’ve seen him in a feature film that is as surreal and farcical as his early SNL sketches. The camp madness that surrounds him here lends his grumpy upturned smile, shifting bear-like eyebrows, and twinkly blue eyes a strangely mature and sturdy edge. Compared to everything around him, he seems to be underacting! It’s an interesting and enjoyable spectacle.

April 18, 2012

REVIEW: American Reunion (dir. Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg)


Cast: Jason Biggs, Alyson Hannigan, Chris Klein, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Tara Reid, Seann William Scott, Mena Suvari, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Eugene Levy, Jennifer Coolidge,

Ten years after that fateful, ‘virginity-busting’ prom night… nothing happened. There was probably some sort of reunion, but Jim, Kevin, Oz, and the rest of the gang were too content in their lives to dig up any of those old feelings and memories. Three years later, however, and everybody is miserable: Jim and Michelle’s leporine flame has been extinguished by the arrival of their first child; Kevin, now a full-time househusband, is too scared to tell his wife how much he hates reality TV; and Oz presents a sports newscast and has the ditsy pin-up girlfriend to prove it (she’s a queen bitch, and couldn’t be less suited to our rugged, cuddly lacrosse star.)

It’s clear a trip back home is exactly what the boys need to get a bit of perspective on their lives. Fortunately, that all-important 13th High School Reunion has arrived – what a great excuse to get the old band back together!

Finch arrives before they’ve even entered their first bar: screeching up the street on a supercharged motorcycle with tales of his adventures in Latin rainforests. Shortly after, they run into the one person they’d hoped to avoid… Stifler. Ah, Stifler: still living at home with his slutty mother, and even as an office temp he manages to wreak havoc wherever he turns. The moment he arrives the shots start flowing, and we sense that everything is slipping out of control in much the same way it did thirteen years ago.

That’s all I’ll give you in prose, but here’s a little list of buzzwords to whet your appetite: an 18th birthday party by a lake, more awkward conversations with Jim’s dad, bondage gear, taking a dump in a beer cooler, more awkward moments in Jim’s kitchen, MILF chants, waking up next to Vicky, waking up next to Heather, waking up next to Stifler’s mum (Eugene Levy, you dawg!), realising you’re not in High School anymore and it’s time to grow up, waking up next to Finch’s mum.

Well, that about covers it. There is nothing new here: nothing progressive in the script, nothing original in the comedy or performances, nothing complicated in the narrative. But it’s not a ‘new’ film… it’s a reunion! You can sense it as soon as you glance around the cinema at all the other late-twentysomethings giggling with glee and remembering all the naughty little things they did in their teens, after they first saw American Pie. Anyone who remembers the heady teen thrills of the original film can’t help but feel a pang of nostalgia the moment Jim wanders into his childhood bedroom. It’s a treasure to revisit a place with so many fond memories, even if the memories aren’t technically real… or ours.

March 16, 2012

REVIEW: Contraband (dir. Baltasar Kormákur)


Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Kate Beckinsale, Giovanni Ribisi, Lucas Haas, Diego Luna

Getting out of the game… it’s so hard, it almost makes you not want to get into the game in the first place. If Carlito and Michael Corleone couldn’t work it out then nobody ever will. In Baltasar Kormákur’s Contraband, Mark Walhberg plays Chris Farraday: a major smuggler transporting drugs and counterfeit money into the impenetrable USofA via the world’s major cargo lines. But... ah blast! He’s just done his last job, and we missed it. Ah well, everybody out of your seats, lets see what’s showing on screen sev... wait... what’s this? Farraday’s cowardly little brother-in-law just got himself into trouble with the biggest gangster in New Orleans? and now Chris has to dive back “into the game” to save the youngster’s life? Well, it looks like we’ve got a bit of a film on our hands after all.

So here we are: a reluctant criminal mastermind has reassembled his trusted crack team to bring in “one last heist” to save the life of his little brother. If Gone in Sixty Seconds was Speed, then this is Speed 2: it’s the same story… just on a massive boat. Fortunately for us, this is no shimmering ocean cruiser: it’s a hulking, rusted leviathan full of shifty-eyed dock workers and a pompous captain with a thick Southern drawl and a cracked, bitter, evil face. We can smell the stench of oil and metal. We can feel the cramped, tinny confines of the sleeping quarters. Kormákur possesses that very Icelandic ability to translate the salt and grime of the ocean onto film; and it makes for a surprisingly gritty and believable tone for this unabashed, action-packed blockbuster.

It’s when the crew touch down in Panama that the film bolts out of the gates, dragging us through the Latin dust like an angry bull. They have a matter of hours to locate their contact, load the huge crates of counterfeit bills into a truck, and get back to the ship before anyone notices they've left. Unsurprisingly the plan falls apart, and suddenly it’s a race against time that is frantic and powerful enough to whip us up into a frenzy. Unfortunately, the unrelenting force of our hero's progression actually damages the suspense. The film is so eager to get to Farraday's climactic, heroic ending that we are never really given time to doubt his success or feel he might lose.

The twists and turns of the ending are in turns exciting and hilarious, but again, they are never exactly “edge-of-your-seat”. Ben Foster, Diego Luna, Giovanni Ribisi and J.K Simmons provide wonderful support as the 'bad guys', but their power is muted by the inevitability of Farraday’s unimpinged success.

All in all, this is an exciting, evocative, and beautifully shot action movie with some great central performances. It feels gritty and dirty despite its obvious Hollywood sheen; and the ending is still very entertaining despite its truth-stretching and predictability.

March 01, 2012

REVIEW: Wanderlust (dir. David Wain)


Cast: Paul Rudd, Jennifer Aniston, Justin Theroux, Alan Alda, Ken Marino, Malin Akerman

In America, you have to be for something or against it. Democrat or Republican, North or South, hawk or pacifist, vegan or carnivore. At one end of the scale you might find a man in a golf shirt driving a Lincoln 4x4 between his various mistresses while his frail, slutty wife drinks herself into a stupor in front of their 65" plasma. At the other end, you'll find a gang of nudist, vegan winemakers practicing free love on a ranch commune in Georgia. People who live in New York are uniquely privileged in being able to avoid this dialectic: they can own a "micro-loft" apartment and buy locally produced groceries from a "village store", whilst still working for a giant corporation and owning the 65" plasma. But what happens when your company goes bust and you can't afford to live in 'The City That Doesn't Have To Make Up It's Mind' anymore? You have to choose: are you with the guy driving the Navigator between his suburban pile and his lucrative Portaloo company? Or are you with the free-lovin', hummus-dippin' hippies?

This is the central premise of 'Wanderlust', David Wain's latest creation starring the louche and sparkly-eyed Paul Rudd, and the still-somehow-smiling Jennifer Aniston. When George and Linda's NYC dream comes crashing down around them they are forced to move to Atlanta to live with George's jockish, unbearably "American" brother, Rick (played by co-writer Ken Marino). On route they stop off at a roadside ranch called Elysian to rest their heads, but discover themselves captivated by the free-spirited and light-hearted community of oddballs that resides there. After a few days under his brother's thumb, George decides they should return to the ranch and allow their spirits to truly wander free for the first time. What follows is a hilarious and observant take on America's modern day hippie subculture - nudity, peyote and all - and what happens when middle-class people try to embrace it.

David Wain is probably best known these days as the creator of Role Models - another charming and funny Paul Rudd vehicle - but he was also a key proponent of the wonderful 90s sketch troupe The State, and co-collaborators pop up all over this film. Ken Marino picks up a screenwriting credit as well as starring as the utterly pathetic and detestable Rick; and Joe Lo Truglio also stars as Wayne, the nudist winemaker. American comedy veteran Alan Alda also gives a delightful performance as the frail, acid-frazzled founder of Elysian. Other familiar relationships have shaped the cast of this project: Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd spent years together on the set of Friends, and Aniston's current beau Justin Theroux stars as Seth, the talisman and lothario of the commune. In fact the only person that doesn't have an obvious connection is Malin Akerman; and the reasons for inviting her along are self-evident.

I labour this point because of the old adage, "you only get out of it what you put into it". If you put a gaggle of like-minded, familiar, and hysterical friends in an idyllic, summertime location and set a camera rolling, you'll make something hysterical, charming, and friendly. That's how it works. This film isn't going to stick in your mind because of a stirring and original narrative or heart-wrenching lead performance; it's going to stick there because it is just good fun, plain and simple.

It is also laugh-out-loud hilarious. The mixture of breezy ad-libbing, masterful comic timing, and a brilliant, observant script should be enough to make the most dismissive viewer chuckle. Who wouldn't laugh when Seth, asked why he sleeps outside in the rain, says, “I drink the nourishment that God is feeding me through her cloud teats.”Anyone who dismisses this as "another Jennifer Aniston film" would be doing an unforgivable disservice to the legion of talented comedians and comic filmmakers involved. And, frankly, they'd be doing a disservice to Aniston too. Maybe she'll never win an Oscar, but she has put the hours in throughout her career and fashioned herself into the sort of wilful, doe-eyed comedienne that the world learned to love with Meg Ryan.

Still not convinced? This film has the best cameo appearance since Bill Murray in Zombieland. There… now you have to watch it.