‘Destroyer’, starring Nicole Kidman

Destroyer

I missed Destroyer first time around, when it was released in 2018. Inexplicably, so did everybody else, and it grossed just $5 million, barely half its budget. Which is criminal, as it’s one of the most intelligent and gripping thrillers made in the last decade.

The fifth film by Karyn Kusama, it was written by her husband Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi, and is their third collaboration together. 

And although her feature debut, Girlfight (2000), was lauded at Sundance and Cannes, it fared poorly at the box office. As did her next two films, Aeon Flux (‘05) and Jennifer’s Body (’09). So she spent the following 5 or 6 years working as a director for hire on television. 

Kidman’s best performance since To Die For in 1995.

But she went back to the silver screen in 2015 for The Invitation, a well-regarded horror that had only a limited release. But Destroyer takes her work to a whole new level.

Confidently plotted and impeccably scripted, the direction and cinematography are constantly thoughtful and carefully choreographed. Which ought of course to be true for every film, but almost never is. While the twist is low-key, subtle and, cleverly, structural.

But the entire film revolves around the vortex that is Nicole Kidman. The gravitational pull of her self-destruction seems to drag the whole of Los Angeles down into the hole she’s hell-bent in burrowing for the grave she’s determined to dig for herself.

Kidman’s a funny one. Her choices are actually almost always both challenging and impressively intelligent. But the few duds are so glaring, they can be momentarily blinding. But really, it’s only The Stepford Wives (’04), Bewitched (’05) and Australia (08) that baffle. Birth (’04), Margot at the Wedding (’07) and Nine (’09), for instance, might not work as films, but they were all choices and risks worth taking.

This though is comfortably her best performance, and is the answer she’ll give when St Peter asks her to point to the one thing that could move him to open the pearly gates for her.

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here.

As for Kusama, she presumably finds herself once more at a crossroads. Having had her fingers burnt trying to produce commercial fodder for the Hollywood bean-counters, she was once again offered the chance to get her hands on a sizable budget, for a re-make of Dracula, only to have the project cancelled. So which way does she go now, to the left or to the right?

Does she follow the path of Kathryn Bigelow, and trade in her intelligence for dollar bills, or that of Lynne Ramsay (whose You Were Never Really Here I reviewed here) and Debra Granick, into the undergrowth and uncertainty of the independent world?

I hope somebody sits her down and forces her to watch repeated viewings of Zero Dark Thirty (’12). There but for the grace of God…

You can see the trailer for Destroyer below:

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‘Elvis’, the trailer, plus a film about music made by a grown up

Elvis

What a joy to be able to see the world as Baz Luhrmann does, through the eyes of a 9 year old boy. Many 9 and 10 year olds note what pleasure they get from eating the icing on a cake. And they have the brilliant idea of asking for one made of nothing else. 

But they note their parent’s weary dismissal of that idea, and they spend a few years investigating gastronomy, learning about appetite and acquiring taste. And they come to appreciate that pleasure without pain, light without darkness and euphoric highs without the depths of despair simply cannot be. They are mutually dependent.

The Velvet Underground, Nica and Andy Warhol

But Lurhmann has said, sod that. I’m staying just as I am. And he’s spotted how much we all enjoy watching music videos and movie trailers, and he’s had the brilliant idea of making feature length versions of them. 

So we got Romeo + Juliette, which manages to defang Shakespeare’s play of its tragedy, and turn it into a poptastic costume fest. Then there was Moulin Rouge, which was a 2 hour music video, pure and simple. Likewise The Great Gatsby

Which, I have to confess, I’ve not been able to actually sit through. So it’s perfectly possible that it’s a carefully considered and thoughtful meditation on doomed youth and fin de siècle disillusionment. But I’m going out on a limb, and presuming that it’s just A N Other 2 hour plus music video.

The Velvet Underground and Nico

And now we have 2 ¾ hour movie trailer about Elvis. So, as with any trailer, you get told immediately who the goodies and baddies are. And every line of dialogue is on the nose and means exactly what it says – just like this sentence. And every frame is stuffed full of information, because you’ve only got two minutes to tell the audience about all the different elements in your story. 

Only it doesn’t go on for two minutes. This is kept up for nearly three hours. There’s stuff stuffed into every frame and on every corner of the soundtrack. It’s like watching a teenage boy who’s just been shown what all the buttons do in his editing software. And so pleased is he with all the effects they can produce, that he can’t stop pressing them, repeatedly. And he’s completely oblivious to the reaction of his parents when he shows them what he’s done.

It’s relentless in its blind bombardment of the senses, and the tedium that results is incessant and mind-numbing.

The Velvet Underground

I always admire though rarely warm to the films of Todd Haynes. But his eponymous documentary on The Velvet Underground is an unqualified joy from start to finish. Serious music from an extraordinary collective who came together at a fascinating moment in time. 

Structured in an appropriately left of field way, it’s a quietly intelligent and thoughtful film about a uniquely influential band. Their first album is one of the great works of art of the 20th century. And remarkably, this film does them justice. 

Watching it after sitting through Elvis is like dropping your child off at a birthday party, only to be greeted there by the excited stare of the birthday boy, as he offers you a slice of his solid icing cake. When suddenly, you’re taken by the elbow and gently led out into the back garden, where you’re handed an ice cold beer and a glass of Jameson. And you sit down together and lean back to contemplate the stars.

You can see the trailer for The Velvet Underground below:

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‘The Northman’, classy video, yawn

The Northman

What you think of The Northman will depend on whether you’ve heard anything about it before seeing it. Unfortunately, its director, Robert Eggers, and his PR team have done such a sterling job promoting it that the chances of you coming to it fresh are almost negligible. 

You’ll be as well versed as I was in how meticulously researched it all was, and about the many and great pains that they all went to to realise his vision. So you’ll very probably be as baffled and as quietly irritated by it as I was. 

What all that painstaking research was aimed at was, apparently, in giving us a window into what life in 9th and 10th century Viking Europe actually looked and felt like. Doing then for the Viking world what Robert Altman and Jacques Audiard did for the western, with McCabe and Mrs Millar (1971) and The Sisters Brothers (2018). Or what Bergman, Eggers’ favourite film maker did for medieval Europe, with The Virgin Spring (’60) and The Seventh Seal (’57). All of which brilliantly redraw a genre’s borders to reimagine its parameters.

Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Millar

But The Northman doesn’t look or feel anything like a film. It’s plainly part of the music video/advertising/video game landscape. All the physiques are perfectly sculpted, everyone’s hair falls just so, and all that killing and mayhem has that choreographed look and feel that we’ll all so familiar with and comfortable watching. 

We know that none of the figures we’re looking up at are actual, real people. They’re just more of those character avatars. Some of whom get decapitated, others of whom survive. None of which matters, because the stakes are necessarily almost non-existent. And the whole thing has that flattened, monochrome look that you get with video, further dulling any interest you might have had in it. 

Worst of all, you never get to hear, and therefore experience, any of the physical things that they’re supposed to be doing. Like, say, taking a bite out of something, or sitting down exhausted into a chair, or taking off a piece of clothing, because all its sounds are neutered by the constant drone of atmos.

Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.

If you’d heard nothing about it before sitting down to watch The Northman, you’d very probably consider it a perfectly pleasant way to while away a stray couple of hours. No doubt you’d have found all that cod, ye oldie, mittle-European dialogue mildly amusing, rather than risibly pretentious.

And you’d probably conclude that Eggers was the younger brother of Baz Luhrmann, determined to treat the world of comic book heroes and D&D with deadly earnestness. Unlike that older brother of his, ever ready to settle for the cheapest thrill and the easiest laugh.

But you’d never for a second imagine that either were working in anything other than the world of video. And when it comes to video, there’s no two ways about it. Eggers is a class act.

Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers

I love music videos, and video games. Just not at the cinema. As a matter of fact, they’re exactly what I go to the cinema to escape.

You can see the trailer for The Northman below – and, by the way, a 2 minute trailer is exactly how the Northman should be best experienced. Just don’t ruin your memory of it by watching the actual film.

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The Many Saints of Newark, damp squib of the year

The Many Saints of Newark.

Like so many others, David Chase only ever ended up in television because he’d been unable to get any of his feature films off the ground. So after the stratospheric success of The Sopranos, it was inevitable that his next move would be to make a feature. 

Which he duly did, with the blink and you’ll miss it Not Fade Away, from 2012. So for many people, this year’s Sopranos’ prequel feels like his real move from the small to the silver screen.

So it’s ironic, if, again, inevitable, that The Many Saints of Newark should end up being so demonstrably a work of television.

To begin with, it’s not even a David Chase film. He got Alan Taylor to direct it. Which is fine, Taylor’s a talented director, as his genuinely charming feature Palookaville (’95) demonstrates. But why, when you finally get to call the shots, would you let somebody else direct your baby?

Palookaville.

Chase has clearly become so institutionalised after decades in television, that that’s the only way he now knows how to work. So instead of directing it, he’s its showrunner.

And television is what he gives us. It’s basically a slightly bloated, 2 hour, extended pilot episode. And it needs all that time to introduce us to the many characters we’re going to be meeting over the course of what are presumably the next 10 or 11 episodes. 

But it does have what appears to be an all-important spine. The meat of the drama centres around the rivalry between Dickie and Harold, over who gets to rule the turf. Which is further heightened by the fact that the former is white and the latter black, and it all takes place in the midst of the race riots of 1967. 

And, for the first hour or so, that tension threatens to build. But then it stalls. And then it’s left casually hanging. To be resolved come the season finale, in who knows how many future episodes’ time. 

The Sopranos.

The real problem here is that this kind of inconsequential, flabby second hour would never have been allowed sit at one of the story meetings, had this been put forward as an episode during the actual Sopranos

It’s only because it’s so confidently directed and slickly packaged, and because so many of us watched it through pairs of impressively rose-tinted spectacles, that nobody’s plucked up the courage to call the film out on its almost complete lack of actual drama.

Never mind. It looks fabulous. And we’ll always have the television series to fall back on.

You can see the trailer for The Many Saints of Newark here

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Burn! Marlon Brando’s favourite film

Burn!

At the beginning of the 1960s Marlon Brando’s life and career took a turn. As Karina Longworth documents on her meticulously researched and compelling compulsive Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This, here, Brando was a unique phenomenon.

On the one hand, he was the first ever Hollywood, and therefore global, celebrity. There had been Hollywood stars before, but their creation had always been the result of a carefully calibrated plan concocted by the studios in cahoots with the press. Brando’s fame was of a different sort and at another level entirely. He generated an air of hysteria and of frenzied mania that was shockingly new.

And on the other, and even more remarkably, indeed uniquely, his fame was the result of his talent. Before he became the global celebrity of the 1950s, Brando had taken the craft and art of acting to pieces and re-constructed it as if from scratch.

A Streetcar Named Desire

His performance, on stage in 1947, and then on screen in 1951, in Tennessee WilliamsA Streetcar Named Desire floored everyone who witnessed it. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael was famously embarrassed, having witnessed what she took to be an actual break down. Only later realising that he’d been behaving like that deliberately.

He got his first Oscar nomination in 1951, for Streetcar, a second in ’52, for Viva Zapata!, a third in ’53, for Mark Antony in Julia Cesar, and a fourth, which he finally won with, for On the Waterfront, in ’54. That’s a working-class thug, a Mexican revolutionary, a Shakespearean hero and a wannabe boxer from the Bronx, each of whom he seems to effortlessly inhabit and actually become.

But after his directorial debut, One-Eyed Jacks, was unfairly overlooked in ’61, and, even more crucially, after then being blamed, again unfairly, for what was seen as the fiasco of Mutiny on the Bounty a year later, Brando became thoroughly disillusioned with the whole business of movies and of acting. And what followed, between ‘62-‘72, were what he later came to call my ‘fuck you years’. 

He now started to devote more and more of his time to the social cause closest to his heart and the issue Hollywood seemed most determined to ignore; racism. He marched with Martin Luther King and attended vigils and protests with native Americans at Wounded Knee. While the films he chose to appear in seemed to have been selected with the express purpose of wilfully derailing his career. 

Last Tango in Paris

But amongst the succession of impressively awful films he made during these years, he quietly snuck in a couple of gems. He starred alongside Elizabeth Tailor as a gay army officer in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, in 1967. And two years later he made Burn!, Gillo Pontecorvo’s follow up to his seminal The Battle of Algiers, from ’66.

Like that earlier film, Burn! is viscerally anti-imperialist. But where the Battle of Algiers had been neo-realist in style, with non-professional actors in what at times could be mistaken for a documentary, Burn! is in glorious technicolour, and has an epic sweep that’s framed by an Ennio Morricone score. And it stars Marlon Brando.

Significantly, it’s Brando’s favourite film of his and one that, shock horror, he seems to have been actually proud of. And this despite the massive falling out that he and the director had during its making. 

Brando had stormed off in protest at the treatment of the Columbian natives who had been playing the extras. And when the film bombed subsequently at the box office, its producer, Alberto Grimaldi, took Brando to court. 

A year later, the producer’s cousin, one Bernardo Bertolucci, suggested a solution. Why don’t they offer to drop the case if Brando would agree to star in Bertolucci’s next film for the bargain basement fee of $250,000? They’d even throw in ten percentage points of the gross, to sweeten the deal? After all, 10% of nothing won’t cost them anything, and in those days foreign language films were completely irrelevant, box office wise. 

Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Last Tango in Paris went on to become the 7th highest grossing film in north America in 1973 and Brando became so wealthy, he was able to sink into what was effectively early retirement in the 1980s. 

In Burn!, Brando plays an unscrupulous imperial adventurer, who arrives on a Caribbean island with a plot to oust the Portuguese and replace them with the British crown. So he manipulates one of the natives to lead a rebellion, only to betray him to the all-powerful sugar beet company which controls the region’s economy. 

Just as he would in the Godfather and Last Tango subsequently, Brando delivers a gloriously ambiguous performance. He’s so casually calculated and his nefariousness is cloaked so charmingly that it’s very hard to know whether to cheer for him or for his Marxist adversary, who we are clearly supposed to be rooting for. 

Like the Battle of Algiers before it, Burn! is mercilessly anti-imperialist and unashamedly champions the black cause and the native culture that will soon be justly liberated. Thrillingly, it’s one of the most openly anti-white and pro-black films you’re ever likely to see.

And it’s a measure of Brando’s intellectual rigour that it is his performance as so repellent a character, albeit a complex one, that remained the performance he was most proud of. And, of course, of his gargantuan self-esteem issues. 

You can see the trailer to Burn! here

And the trailer to the Battle of Algiers here.

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