Poor Things”, More and Less of The Same

(Apolo­gies to sub­scribers who received a sec­ond and con­fus­ing mail on the Israeli/Arab post from Decem­ber (below). Mail­er­Lite had a glitch. Noth­ing I could do about that, but apolo­gies all the same.)

Poor Things is the eighth fea­ture from Greek film mak­er Yor­gos Lan­thi­mos and the fourth of his Eng­lish lan­guage films, which he’s been mak­ing with the Irish pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny Ele­ment Pictures. 

But it was his third fea­ture, Dog­tooth, from 2009, which brought him to the atten­tion of inter­na­tion­al audi­ences and set the tone that we’ve come to expect from him.

Lan­thi­mos makes the sorts of arche­typ­al­ly Brecht­ian films designed to con­front you with your expec­ta­tions, to there­by upend them. Instead of using nar­ra­tive con­ven­tions and visu­al tropes to draw the view­er in and sub­merge them in his sto­ry, he delib­er­ate­ly draws their atten­tion to the con­ven­tions and tropes that he’s using. 

The idea being that you’re there­by forced to more active­ly think about what it is that you’re watching.

There’s noth­ing inher­ent­ly wrong with traips­ing sim­i­lar ter­rain to Lars Von Tri­er and Michael Haneke, or, for that mat­ter, to messrs Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Lind­say Ander­son, Dou­glas Sirk and Luis Buñuel before them. But it does mean that, the old­er you are and the more famil­iar you are with that well-trod­den path, the less like­ly you are to be impressed this time around. 

In oth­er words, Lan­thi­mos makes the sorts of films you loud­ly cham­pi­on in your teens and very ear­ly twen­ties, but which you lat­er become qui­et­ly embar­rassed about ever hav­ing celebrated. 

And, sure enough, Lan­thi­mos too has moved on, at least up to a point. His last two films, The Favourite, from 2018, and now Poor Things, both have rel­a­tive­ly con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tives that are most­ly told in the tra­di­tion­al way. The prob­lem is, that ‘most­ly’. 

Because he’s just not capa­ble of ful­ly jet­ti­son­ing his nat­ur­al anti-nar­ra­tive ten­den­cies. The result is a film that veers from being a con­ven­tion­al com­e­dy come social satire, to one that looks as if it could become an orig­i­nal and visu­al­ly arrest­ing art house film, before veer­ing back to being a ho-hum meat and two veg social comedy. 

All the per­for­mances are excel­lent. Emma Stone, obvi­ous­ly, as the harum scarum reimag­in­ing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s mon­ster for the me-too era. But equal­ly Mark Ruf­fa­lo, Willem Dafoe and Christo­pher Abbott. And, at times, it looks pos­i­tive­ly resplen­dent, with Rob­bie Ryan’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy com­bin­ing daz­zling­ly with Géza Ker­ti’s arrest­ing art direction.

But their tal­ents are con­tin­u­al­ly reined in as the direc­tor insists on pok­ing you in the ribs with his cal­cu­lat­ed overuse of those tedious fish-eye shots. He’s the peren­ni­al bright but over-active teenag­er who dis­cov­ers some­thing that irri­tates you, and keeps on doing it, know­ing that you know that he knows that it’s its rep­e­ti­tion that’s real­ly annoy­ing, rather than the thing itself. 

And so he’s just going to keep right on doing it, over and over again. Repeat­ed­ly. Until that but­ton in duly pushed. 

Which is a shame, because at times, that heady mix of cin­e­matog­ra­phy and art direc­tion sug­gest the film could have devel­oped into a fas­ci­nat­ing com­pan­ion piece to Dario Argento’s Sus­piria (1977) (reviewed by me ear­li­er here) and Fassbinder’s Querelle (1982), if only it had been allowed to.

Instead of which, all we end up with it an unnec­es­sar­i­ly extend­ed (yet anoth­er near­ly two and half hour film), con­ven­tion­al comedy.

You can watch the trail­er for Poor Things below:

Bet­ter still, watch the trail­er for Argento’s Sus­piria:

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Cat Power Covers Dylan’s 1966 “Albert Hall” Concert

When Bob Dylan per­formed for the third time at the New­port Folk Fes­ti­val in the Sum­mer of 1965, he was a man on a mis­sion. He’d arrived there in ’63 and had been greet­ed as a prophet, and had been wel­comed there the fol­low­ing year as the sec­ond coming. 

But over the course of 11 famous months, that is to say in less than a year, he’d deci­sive­ly moved on and had pro­duced three of the most impor­tant albums in mod­ern music, with Bring­ing It All Back Home, High­way 61 Revis­it­ed, and Blonde on Blonde. One of which had pro­duced his first num­ber one hit sin­gle, Like a Rolling Stone

So it’s not as if he’d been hid­ing what he’d been up to under a bushel. When then he got to New­port in ’65 he was deter­mined to spread the good news. And he and his full band went out on stage and per­formed 3 songs with every bit as much noise, ener­gy and ampli­fi­ca­tion as they’d done in the stu­dio. But they were uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly booed off stage. 

When, even­tu­al­ly, they were able to per­suade a shell-shocked and furi­ous Dylan to go back out on stage, he returned to per­form anoth­er three songs with just his acoustic guitar. 

And for the next cou­ple of years, they toured the rest of the US, Aus­tralia and even­tu­al­ly Europe in that same way. Dylan would go out with his gui­tar and per­form the first half of his set acousti­cal­ly, before return­ing with the rest of the band to blow them all off stage with a rau­cous elec­tric sec­ond half set. 

And duti­ful­ly, the crowd would polite­ly applaud that first half, their appre­ci­a­tion being tem­pered by what they knew was com­ing. And then, once the amps were plugged in, they mechan­i­cal­ly booed the rest of their performance. 

(By the bye, I will per­son­al­ly spon­sor any PhD stu­dent who agrees as part of their doc­tor­al the­sis to track down as many of the then teenagers who were inter­viewed in D. A. Pen­nebak­er’s sem­i­nal Don’t Look Back doc­u­men­tary, to ask them how they feel about hav­ing com­plained about a con­cert they went to, know­ing exact­ly what it was they were going to see and hear. And going any­way, with the express pur­pose of boo­ing the per­former off the stage. 

I’d be curi­ous to dis­cov­er pre­cise­ly how many of them went on into adult­hood to unmask the piz­za­gate “con­tro­ver­sy”.)

This bat­tle of wills cul­mi­nat­ed with the gig Dylan and the band did at Man­ches­ter in ‘66, which was lat­er mis-labelled by the boot­leg­ger as hav­ing tak­en place in London’s Albert Hall. It’s this sto­ried set that Cat Pow­er has cho­sen to repro­duce, in a live per­for­mance she gave, mis­chie­vous­ly, in London’s Albert Hall.

Chan (pro­nounced Sean) Mar­shall per­forms as Cat Pow­er and has had a sim­i­lar­ly tem­pes­tu­ous rela­tion­ship with her audi­ence. Crip­pled by stage fright, she turned to alco­hol and drugs with all the usu­al dire and trag­ic consequences. 

Many of her albums pro­vide ample evi­dence for an eclec­tic musi­cal her­itage. 1998’s Moon Pix was record­ed with the Dirty Three, Nick Cave’s back­ing band, 2003’s You Are Free was with Dave Grohl and Pearl Jam’s Eddy Ved­der, and 2006’s The Great­est was record­ed in Mem­phis with an array of soul and RnB luminaries. 

Nev­er­the­less, Pow­er man­ages to pro­duce this remark­ably dis­tinc­tive voice and sound. With any­one else, there’d be the con­stant risk and wor­ry of monot­o­ny and rep­e­ti­tion. But some­how, all she ever sounds is true.

Nonethe­less, I was a lit­tle anx­ious on hear­ing about this lat­est album. Why would any­one want to repro­duce, almost note for note, a per­for­mance as famous as this? And, sure enough, on the first few lis­tens, I have to con­fess, I was momen­tar­i­ly disappointed. 

After all, the angry con­tempt that those songs were born of, and which were then fuelled so vis­cer­al­ly by the atmos­phere that they came to be per­formed live in, is some­thing that Mar­shall is lit­er­al­ly inca­pable of. She’s so weighed down by doubt and bouts of self-loathing, that any anger can only ever be direct­ed inward.

And yet, that even­tu­al­ly becomes the album’s strength. Stripped of Dylan’s fury, all you’re left with are the actu­al songs. It’s as if they were final­ly allowed breathe. 

Dylan has always insist­ed, to the rest of the world’s bemuse­ment, that he’s prin­ci­pal­ly a musi­cian and only sec­on­dar­i­ly a writer – though how much of that he real­ly believes is anyone’s guess. Removed from Dylan’s very per­son­al and par­tic­u­lar explo­ration of Amer­i­can roots and 20th cen­tu­ry Amer­i­cana, what you’re left with is a burst of extra­or­di­nary lyri­cism, mind-expand­ed imagery and an un-fet­tered, explod­ing imagination. 

And yet, it’s still un-mis­tak­ably, and tri­umphant­ly a new Cat Pow­er record.

Lis­ten to Cat Power’s She Belongs to Me here:

Watch her per­form Like a Rolling Stone here:

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The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs, the 1998 TV Series

Nor­ma Per­cy has pro­duced doc­u­men­taries on some the world’s most volatile regions, with The Death of Yugoslavia (1995), Iran and the West (2009), The Iraq War (2013) and most recent­ly, Putin Vs the West (2023), which was reviewed by me ear­li­er here

But in 1998 she made a six part series on what is sure­ly the most con­test­ed cor­ner of the entire globe; The 50 Years War: Israel and the Arabs.

What Per­cy man­ages to do, some­how, is to per­suade prac­ti­cal­ly every sin­gle one of the prin­ci­ple play­ers to sit down and talk to her, on the record. The rea­son they agree to do so is that she allows them to artic­u­late their views, what­ev­er they are, which she presents in a trans­par­ent and entire­ly neu­tral manner. 

Here, we hear from a host of Israeli defence, for­eign and prime min­is­ters, includ­ing Ben­jamin Netanyahu, Shi­mon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir, a wide range of com­bat­ants, nego­tia­tors and min­sters from both the PLO and a num­ber of its splin­ter groups, from for­mer U.S. pres­i­dents Jim­my Carter, George Bush and Bill Clin­ton, from for­mer KGB oper­a­tives, Jordan’s King Hus­sein and from an array of senior diplo­mat­ic and mil­i­tary fig­ures from every cor­ner of the region.

It’s both com­pre­hen­sive and con­sis­tent­ly illu­mi­nat­ing, with prob­a­bly the most sur­pris­ing rev­e­la­tion being the fact that it was in fact the Rus­sians who’d qui­et­ly trig­gered the Six-Day War in June of 1967.

They’d looked at how stretched the Amer­i­cans were over in Viet­nam, and had con­clud­ed that open­ing up a sec­ond war front in the Mid­dle East could be the final nail in their cof­fin. So they put a great deal of effort into con­vinc­ing every­one in the region that the Israelis were amass­ing troops on their bor­der with Syr­ia. Which, plain­ly, they were not. 

They even went so far as to try and con­vince the Israelis that that was what they were doing, even though they knew per­fect­ly well that they were mak­ing the whole thing up!

Then, in the after­math of that war, after Yass­er Arafat and the PLO had plant­ed them­selves in Jor­dan, a fac­tion with­in the PLO took it upon them­selves to go to war with their hosts, on the grounds that they clear­ly weren’t being suf­fi­cient­ly sup­port­ive of them. 

And before he knew it, King Hus­sein found him­self under attack from Russ­ian-pro­vid­ed Syr­i­an tanks that were on their way to Jor­dan, fund­ed and sup­port­ed by Egypt, to help their Pales­tin­ian broth­ers with their fight against the Jor­da­ni­ans. Arab against Arab. 

So the King turned to the only mil­i­tary force capa­ble of com­ing to his aid. But the Amer­i­cans insist­ed that they could have noth­ing to do with what was going on. It would have to be the Israelis. So the King of Jor­dan was final­ly res­cued by the arrival of Israeli jets, that sent the Syr­i­an tanks scur­ry­ing back to whence they’d set off from. 

King Hus­sein of Jor­dan, by the way, exudes effort­less grace and charm, and is the most mar­vel­lous adver­tise­ment for breed­ing and the kind of edu­ca­tion that only obscene wealth can pro­vide you with. And the con­trast he pro­vides to the sight of those sim­i­lar­ly schooled clowns who’ve been knock­ing the fur­ni­ture over in West­min­ster for the past decade or so is, to put it mild­ly, stark.

There are, inevitably, one or two gaps. I was sur­prised that there was no ref­er­ence to the way in which the price of oil was used by the Arab coun­tries in the wake of the Yom Kip­pur War in 1973. Notwith­stand­ing which, this is a land­mark tele­vi­sion series. 

But it’s impos­si­ble not to note that, for all the vio­lence, blood­shed and hatred that was then in the air, when the series end­ed in 1998, that was, we now know, a high point in Israeli-Arab relations. 

What­ev­er about the first 50 years, the next 25 would, unimag­in­ably, see a sig­nif­i­cant deterioration.

Very unusu­al­ly, you can see all 6 episodes on YouTube:

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Killers of the Flower Moon” Perpetuates the Crime it Chronicles

Killers of the Flower Moon is a sump­tu­ous beast of a film that’s impec­ca­bly direct­ed by Mar­tin Scors­ese and boasts pow­er­ful per­for­mances from Leonar­do diCaprio and Robert De Niro. And the more that the nature of its sto­ry sinks in, the more dis­ap­point­ing that is. 

Based on David Grann’s award-win­ning best­selling book, it tells the true sto­ry of the Osage, who briefly become the rich­est peo­ple on the plan­et when oil was dis­cov­ered under their cor­ner of Okla­homa in the 1920s. The result is a world that’s been turned upside down, with impos­si­bly wealthy brown skinned peo­ple being served and wait­ed upon by white maids, lack­eys and chauffeurs.

Inevitably, the white major­i­ty are deter­mined to restore the nat­ur­al order, which they do by mar­ry­ing into the Osage and sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly mur­der­ing any­one who stands between them and their now right­ful inheritance. 

Okla­homa, by the way, was where the Tul­sa riots took place in 1921, when planes were used to bomb the town of wealthy black peo­ple. Which was the oth­er way that the white pop­u­la­tion sought to restore the nat­ur­al order, and which was used so potent­ly as the back­drop for Damon Lin­de­lof’s The Watch­men, reviewed by me ear­li­er here.

The book of The Killers of the Flower Moon tells this sto­ry by fol­low­ing the par­al­lel nar­ra­tives of Mol­lie, one of the vic­tims, and of the FBI agent whose inves­ti­ga­tion uncov­ered what was going on. 

But a cou­ple of years into the film project, DiCaprio told Scors­ese that he was uncom­fort­able with the way they were telling the sto­ry because it was so obvi­ous­ly the sto­ry of Mol­lie, her peo­ple and what was done to them. 

So Scors­ese was faced with a dilem­ma. Does he do the obvi­ous thing, and turn it into Mollie’s sto­ry? Or does he com­plete­ly re-fash­ion the whole nar­ra­tive so that he can keep his two favourite actors cen­tre stage? 

Under­stand­ably, he opts for the lat­ter, mak­ing De Niro the regal mas­ter­mind and cast­ing DiCaprio as Mol­lie’s schem­ing hus­band. After all, mak­ing a film takes lit­er­al­ly years. And we’re talk­ing about two of the most tal­ent­ed and excit­ing actors in mod­ern Amer­i­can cin­e­ma. So what we’re giv­en is a film whose script con­demns the two men, but which shows us a pair of love­able rogues whose charm and mag­net­ic screen pres­ence make them impos­si­ble to hate in the way that their con­duct demands.

We have of course been here before. Good­fel­las sim­i­lar­ly asks us not to think too deeply about the vic­tims of the vicious thugs the film so lov­ing­ly cel­e­brates. And most of us are more than hap­py to sit back and enjoy the ride. 

So we watch as Good­fel­las tells us that crime doesn’t pay, but which shows us impos­si­bly glam­orous indi­vid­u­als, beau­ti­ful­ly lit and impec­ca­bly chore­o­graphed to the tunes of white pick­et-fence, 1950s mid­dle Amer­i­ca. And, as with The God­fa­ther, we’re pre­sent­ed with a crim­i­nal under­world that’s seduc­tive­ly roman­ti­cised and impos­si­ble to resist.

But unlike Cop­po­la, whose pri­ma­ry inter­est is in sur­face spec­ta­cle and the busi­ness of enter­tain­ment, Scors­ese seemed so much more inter­est­ing, and was and is clear­ly an artist riv­en by guilt and dri­ven by self-examination.

And Good­fel­las, it seemed at the time, was but a momen­tary dis­trac­tion that Scors­ese was divert­ing him­self with before return­ing to the busi­ness of more serous fare. And Killers of the Flower Moon is exact­ly the more seri­ous affair that we’d all been wait­ing for him to return to. Which makes it all the more disappointing. 

What a pity they didn’t all sit down togeth­er to watch Once Upon a Time in the West. De Niro could have been hand­ed the black hat and giv­en a small­er but much more mem­o­rable part as the unequiv­o­cal vil­lain, just as Hen­ry Fon­da had been in Leone’s film. And they could have made it what it clear­ly is, Mollie’s story. 

An unknown actress could have been giv­en the same kind of spring­board that Dustin Hoff­man was afford­ed in The Grad­u­ate or Al Paci­no in The God­fa­ther. And Mollie’s hus­band would have remained the very minor and irre­deemably nasty char­ac­ter that he was in real life. A revolt­ing, despi­ca­ble indi­vid­ual so blind­ed by greed that he was pre­pared to do lit­er­al­ly any­thing if he thought it might feath­er his nest. 

And DiCaprio could have mag­nan­i­mous­ly stepped aside to take on the dull but wor­thy and much small­er role of the FBI agent. So that the spot­light could have been left to focus exclu­sive­ly on where it so clear­ly ought to be, on Mol­lie and the sto­ry of how her fam­i­ly were mur­dered and their land raped and stolen.

Instead of which, we get a beau­ti­ful­ly craft­ed film with a pair of impres­sive per­for­mances from two of Amer­i­c­as finest actors. And the more you think about that, the more qui­et­ly and pro­found­ly depress­ing that is. Both the film and the way that it’s been so casu­al­ly if pre­dictably lauded.

You can see the trail­er for Killers of the Flower Moon here:

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Past Lives”, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering etc etc. 

Past Lives is the fea­ture debut from Celine Song and arrives gar­land­ed with awards and fes­tooned with dew and misty-eyed reviews. 

A 12 year old boy and a girl are sep­a­rat­ed when the girl’s fam­i­ly emi­grate from Korea to north Amer­i­ca. 12 years lat­er they redis­cov­er one anoth­er on a thing called the Inter­net, and 12 years after that they final­ly meet, when he pays her a vis­it in New York where she now lives with her writer husband. 

What a joy it is to see a female film mak­er final­ly being giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to make some­thing that’s every bit as for­mu­la­ic and as dogged­ly sen­ti­men­tal as any­thing pro­duced by one of her male counterparts. 

Past Lives is every bit as dull and con­ven­tion­al as any of the recent offer­ings from Steven Spiel­berg or Ron Howard. Or, for that mat­ter, as Oppen­heimer was, a film that did such a ster­ling job of look­ing exact­ly like some­thing that either of the for­mer pair could have made. 

The, yawn, Fableman.

In fair­ness, and in stark con­trast to The Fable­mans, Oppen­heimer or prac­ti­cal­ly any oth­er film we’re sub­ject­ed to these days at the cin­e­ma, at least Past Lives has the good grace to come in at under the 2 hour mark. But lordy, they’re some of the slow­est min­utes you’ll ever have to sit through

Pre­dictably then it’s being loud­ly her­ald­ed from all around the Hol­ly­wood hills. And none of us will be sur­prised when Song gets reward­ed by the bean-coun­ters with one of the vehi­cles pro­pelling one of the cere­al-pack­et, action-fig­ure, meal-deal super­hero fran­chis­es that keep draw­ing pre-teens to mul­ti­plex­es to feast on buck­ets of salt and gal­lons of sugar.

Past Lives is absolute­ly fine. It’s per­fect­ly inof­fen­sive, tech­ni­cal­ly com­pe­tent and pro­fes­sion­al­ly pro­duced. Her agent must be thrilled.

You can see the trail­er to Past Lives here:

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