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:

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!

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:

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!

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:

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!

Cillian Murphy and the casting of “Oppenheimer”

David Bad­diel has ques­tioned the cast­ing of the non-Jew­ish Cil­lian Mur­phy in the role of Robert J. Oppenheimer. 

And both Clarisse Loughrey and Peter Brad­shaw were sim­i­lar­ly crit­i­cal in their reviews of the film for The Inde­pen­dent and The Guardian respec­tive­ly. But the film’s far more egre­gious sin, sure­ly, was its fail­ure to cast an actu­al physi­cist in the role.

After all, his voca­tion as a nuclear physi­cist was far more fun­da­men­tal to Oppen­heimer the man than his cul­tur­al her­itage. But, bizarrely, the film­mak­ers chose inex­plic­a­bly to cast an actor in the role! Which isn’t just frankly sil­ly, it’s gross­ly unfair. 

Antho­ny Hop­kins, doing his best.

How on earth can an actor be expect­ed to have any kind of under­stand­ing or feel­ing for the casu­al back­stab­bing and ruth­less com­pet­i­tive­ness that aca­d­e­mics have to deal with, every day?

The only way to make a role like that in any way believ­able is by cast­ing an actu­al physi­cist. Actu­al­ly, now that I think about it, you know who would have been absolute­ly per­fect? Stephen Hawk­ing. If of course he’d been Jew­ish. And still alive. 

It’s that kind of old fash­ioned, colo­nial-era mis­cast­ing that’s bedev­illed Hol­ly­wood since God was a child. Exam­ples are, almost, too numer­ous to cat­a­logue. But prob­a­bly the most infa­mous was the sor­ry sight of the mild-man­nered, unfail­ing­ly polite and vis­i­bly well-mean­ing Antho­ny Hop­kins try­ing for­lorn­ly to con­vince in the role of Han­ni­bal Lecter.

Orson Welles as Othello.

Sure­ly they could have found one of the many flesh-eat­ing mass mur­der­ers bid­ing their time in any num­ber of the jails there to take on the role? Whose idea was it to imag­ine that Hop­kins could be in any way believ­able por­tray­ing a char­ac­ter he clear­ly had absolute­ly no cul­tur­al con­nec­tion with?!

And don’t get me start­ed on Orson Welles as, if you can believe it, Oth­el­lo!! Or, for that mat­ter, Mar­lon Bran­do as, wait for it, Mark Antony!!

Bran­do had nev­er set foot in Italy, had nev­er stud­ied the Clas­sics and had had absolute­ly no prac­ti­cal expe­ri­ence or knowl­edge of the life or world of a prac­tic­ing politi­cian, what­so­ev­er. Nev­er mind a Roman one!! And yet there he is, casu­al­ly don­ning a toga, if you don’t mind. 

Mar­lon Bran­do as Mark Anntony.

What is it about priv­i­leged, white, mid­dle class, mid­dle aged males that makes them imag­ine that all you need do is don a cos­tume, mem­o­rize lines that have been care­ful­ly sculpt­ed and painful­ly ago­nized over, and immerse your­self in an exten­sive pro­gramme of pro­found, unre­lent­ing and often mani­a­cal­ly obses­sive research, that can stretch for months and years at a time, and then, hey presto, you’re sud­den­ly equipped, mag­i­cal­ly, to some­how inhab­it anoth­er char­ac­ter?! I mean, seriously?!

Would that it were that sim­ple, gen­tle­men. All any of that can be called, I’m afraid, is cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion, pure and sim­ple. And I, for one, say enough. Enough is enough, it real­ly is. It’s lit­er­al­ly the same word (© any num­ber of Late night Amer­i­can stand-ups).

Which isn’t, of course, to in any way take away from any of the mar­vel­lous per­for­mances that actress­es have giv­en in the role of, for instance, men. Each of which, with­out excep­tion, were coura­geous, thought-pro­vok­ing and bril­liant­ly chal­lenged our social mores and cul­tur­al preconceptions.

I’m think­ing of course of Judi Dench as M, Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There, Gwyneth Pal­trow in Shake­speare in Love and, for that mat­ter, any one of those won­der­ful­ly inven­tive all-female pro­duc­tions of Shake­speare. Which, delight­ful­ly, are often per­formed in the park.

Welles’ cel­e­brat­ed pro­duc­tion of the Scot­tish play.

Equal­ly, Welles’ ‘voodoo’ Mac­beth, from 1936, in which all of the Scot­tish parts were per­formed by an all black cast, was brave, admirable and entire­ly to be applaud­ed – and one of the few that things that, for once, Welles man­aged not to make a mess of. 

But as for that unfor­giv­able per­for­mance in -

(con­tin­ued on pages 62–187. For the full list of all the films that we should nev­er watch, ever again, see Appen­dices F(1) F(2) and S.)

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!

Hit the road”, sunshine and dark clouds from Iran

Hit the Road, the fea­ture debut from Panah Panahi, has been described as Iran’s answer to Lit­tle Miss Sun­shine. But this being mod­ern-day Iran, its sur­face whim­sy masks sin­is­ter under­cur­rents and gen­uine danger.

A young man is dri­ving his par­ents and his caf­feinat­ed 7 year old broth­er, some­where. And the film’s easy charm, par­tic­u­lar­ly in its first half, is gen­er­at­ed by the things the lat­ter says and does because he’s only sev­en and doesn’t know any better.

But as the film and their jour­ney progress, we realise that, con­trary to appear­ances, they’re trav­el­ling with a very spe­cif­ic des­ti­na­tion in mind; a seclud­ed and out of the way bor­der crossing. 

Panahi is, as some of you will have sur­mised, the son of Jafar Panahi, who direct­ed the infec­tious­ly charm­ing and gen­uine­ly mov­ing Off­side, from 2006, about a pair a teenage girls deter­mined to go a world cup qual­i­fy­ing match. In 2010, he was sen­tenced to 6 years in prison and banned from mak­ing films for 20 years.

But a year lat­er, in 2011, he defi­ant­ly “made” This is not a Film, which was smug­gled out and shown inter­na­tion­al­ly (reviewed by me ear­li­er here). And ever since which, he’s remained there under house arrest and under con­stant threat of being sent to prison. 

Remark­ably, as it’s con­sid­er­ably eas­i­er said than done, his son here strikes up exact­ly the same deft bal­ance of pro­duc­ing a fly-on-the-wall win­dow on to inti­mate, domes­tic ten­sions, togeth­er with the sub­tle, unspo­ken cri­tique of a regime that forces ordi­nary peo­ple to act in ways they would nev­er nor­mal­ly have dreamt of.

All the per­for­mances are out­stand­ing, and there’s just the right mea­sure of direc­to­r­i­al flour­ish­es to lift the film for­mal­ly, with­out allow­ing it to descend into wan­ton quirkiness. 

Hit the Road is yet anoth­er rea­son to cel­e­brate one of the most vibrant film mak­ing cul­tures in the world. And for lament­ing a regime that insists on for­ev­er pun­ish­ing its peo­ple for their defi­ant and stead­fast refusal to stay silent.

You can see the trail­er for Hit the Road 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!