The Curse”, almost unwatchable, completely unmissable

The Curse, a 10 part com­e­dy dra­ma, or dram­e­dy if you will, is the ulti­mate in car-crash tele­vi­sion. It’s hor­ren­dous­ly uncom­fort­able to have to watch, and yet you can’t take your eyes off of it. 

Cre­at­ed, writ­ten and pro­duced by a com­bi­na­tion of its three prin­ci­pals, the series revolves around the mar­riage of Emma Stone and Nathan Field­er, and the real­i­ty TV show his col­lege friend Ben­ny Safdie is mak­ing about them and the work they do. 

Stone and Field­er are a patch­work quilt of every con­ceiv­able lib­er­al urge. They buy up prop­er­ties in under-ser­viced, periph­er­al sub­urbs – i.e. the ones where black and brown skinned peo­ple eke out their mea­gre exis­tences — and replace exist­ing dwellings with eco-friend­ly, ultra-mod­ern and over-priced monstrosities. 

Their end­less talk of invest­ing in local com­mu­ni­ties and nur­tur­ing indige­nous tal­ent does noth­ing to hide the fact that all they are in fact engaged in is a rapa­cious gen­tri­fi­ca­tion scheme designed to make them a shed-load of mon­ey, that they’re try­ing for­lorn­ly to dress up in lib­er­al frills and bows.

The Safdie broth­ers’ Good Time.

As the episodes progress, each aspect of their arche­typ­al­ly lib­er­al façade is unmasked to reveal a mon­strous mess of neu­ro­sis fed on an entrenched sense of enti­tled privilege.

And through­out all of which, it’s – at least ini­tial­ly – unclear whether Safdie intends glee­ful­ly expos­ing this in the real­i­ty show he’s mak­ing around their exploits. Or whether he too is caught up in the glare of their ambi­tion and the vor­tex of their solipsism. 

Could he con­ceiv­ably turn out to be even more self-cen­tred than they are? Or is there the chance that some­thing inter­est­ing might actu­al­ly result from what he’s shooting?

We are then very much on the same ter­rain that Ricky Ger­vais mapped out in the orig­i­nal The Office series, and where Curb Your Enthu­si­asm went in some of its ear­li­er episodes. Gen­uine­ly painful to behold, and absolute­ly riveting. 

This is what tele­vi­sion can do when three incred­i­bly gift­ed indi­vid­u­als decide to pool their tal­ents to expose what lies under­ground, beneath the sur­face of the soci­ety we’ve con­struct­ed for our­selves. And the less you know about any of the par­tic­u­lars, the more you’ll get out of watch­ing it. 

Watch the trail­er for The Curse here:

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the very best and worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!

The Zone of Interest: Jonathon Glazer Comes of Age

Dur­ing the 1990s, a cohort of direc­tors emerged to team up with some of the more ambi­tious indie bands and brands to pro­duce a wave of ground-break­ing music videos and ads. 

Spike Jonze, David Finch­er, Mark Romanek, Michel Gondry and Chris Cun­ning­ham made music videos for, respec­tive­ly, the Beast­ie Boys (Sab­o­tage), George Michael (Free­dom), Fiona Apple (Crim­i­nal), Daft Punk (Around the World) and the Aphex Twin (Come to Dad­dy).

Many of whom, you’ll have noticed, went on to make the move into fea­tures. But, with the excep­tion of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Adap­ta­tion, and Gondry’s Eter­nal Sun­shine of Spot­less Mind (all three of which were writ­ten by Char­lie Kauf­man), their films proved to be every bit as con­ven­tion­al and stu­dio-bound as the wave of from-adver­tis­ing-to-fea­ture film mak­ers who’d pre­ced­ed them, with the likes of Rid­ley and Tony Scott, Adri­an Lyne and Alan Park­er.

Radio­head­’s Street Spirit

And when Jonathon Glaz­er, the classi­est mem­ber of that for­mer cohort, made that same tran­si­tion, it seemed that he too was des­tined to sim­i­lar­ly disappoint. 

Glaz­er had made the icon­ic videos for Radiohead’s Street Spir­it and Kar­ma Police, and Jamiroquai’s Vir­tu­al Insan­i­ty, as well as Guin­ness’ surf­ing-hors­es and Sony Bravia’s explod­ing-paint-in-a-Glas­gow-hous­ing-estate ads.

But his ini­tial for­ay into fea­tures was decid­ed­ly under­whelm­ing. Sexy Beast (2000), Birth (2004) and Under The Skin (2013, and reviewed by me ear­li­er here) were thin and nar­ra­tive­ly under-cooked. So it was with some­thing of a heavy heart that I sat down to watch his fourth fea­ture, The Zone of Inter­est (2023).

How refresh­ing to be proved so unequiv­o­cal­ly wrong. The Zone of Inter­est is both a seri­ous film and one of gen­uine substance.

Guin­ness

It doesn’t seem to have much of a sto­ry, and you’d be for­giv­en for think­ing there’d been lit­tle writ­ing involved in the craft­ing of the script. But the supe­ri­or writ­ing comes in what Glaz­er leaves out from the source mate­r­i­al of Mar­tin Amis’ 2014 nov­el. As ever then, the writ­ing is in the editing.

It is the fact that noth­ing remark­able hap­pens, as the Ger­man fam­i­ly go about their dai­ly busi­ness some­where in Poland, in 1943, that makes it impos­si­ble for us not to notice that they are liv­ing lit­er­al­ly next door, not just to a, but to the most noto­ri­ous con­cen­tra­tion camp ever con­struct­ed. That then, dev­as­tat­ing­ly, is the story. 

How on earth can that be? How can human beings pos­si­bly live right next door to that, and not be con­sumed by it? As such, it becomes a sear­ing indict­ment of the Ger­mans, the east Euro­peans, and of the whole of the West. After all, every­one there knew what was going on, but almost no one did any­thing about it.

In his New York­er review , Antho­ny Lane won­dered whether an entire fea­ture film was the best way to explore what was being avoid­ed. After all, hadn’t Alain Resnais done that so much more eco­nom­i­cal­ly in Night and Fog, his 32 minute doc­u­men­tary film from 1956?

But it is pre­cise­ly because we already have Claude Lanz­man­n’s mon­u­men­tal 9 hour Shoah (reviewed by me ear­li­er here) and Resnais’s Night and Fog, both of which address the holo­caust head on, that a film which refus­es to do so becomes so potent. 

By not to fac­ing up to what ought to be unavoid­able, the film forces us to address those unan­swer­able ques­tions. And, irre­spec­tive of how unsat­is­fac­to­ry any answers might be, it’s vital nonethe­less that those ques­tions are asked.

You can see the trail­er for The Zone of Inter­est here:

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month, on All the very best and worst in film, music and tele­vi­sion!

Poor Things”, More and Less of 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:

Sign up for sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month, on All the very best and worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!

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:

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month, on All the very best and worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!

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:

Sign up for a sub­scrip­tion right or below, and I shall keep you post­ed every month on All the very best and worst in film, tele­vi­sion and music!