Florence in January

‘No one cares if you like the place, or hate it, or why.  You are simply a tourist, as a skunk is a skunk, a parasitic variation of the human species, which exists to be tapped like a milch cow or a gum tree.’ – Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana (1937)

The people are still here.  Of-course they are.  Even the wet and cold cannot keep the people away.  Are there more Americans than Italians here?  Or are they just louder?  I am surprised to see a subcategory of the American tourist, one different from the bootcut jeans, blonde, slightly overweight group of young women finding their true selves in Europe.  This subcategory falls somewhere between bro, jock and prep school, and they not all strictly male, though mostly.  They are dressed shockingly well and appear to be in town for the beer rather than the culture, which in an American is very odd to see.  I am a hypocrite.  The bells are ringing at 18:40 for some reason, and I am on my second glass of wine.  On the way to the apartment from the train station, I passed through the square where the great black and white cathedral complex sits.  It is a three-dimensional chessboard, and a daunting monolith both night and day.  Whilst straining my neck gazing up at the chunks of dome and rot on white, I contemplated when climate change would take it.  It was a blessing to get this out of the way whilst in motion, rushing past remarkable human achievement to make the check-in time.  The greyness of the sky made the bell tower incredibly ominous in its peering over the amateur photographers beneath it, sickened by the queue waiting to get inside its stomach.  I imagine whatever is inside is worth queuing hours for, but there was no chance I was doing that.  The wine is not great, and I picked it up from tiny supermarket on one of the narrow streets that sits below Piazza del Duomo, and making my way to the apartment I scouted for somewhere to get a pizza later on.  I am in Florence, Tuscany, Italy.

The apartment is pleasant enough in its design, with white walls and oak furniture.  It is in the shape of a fork – the left prong a narrow hallway to a square kitchen, the middle prong a small bathroom, and the right prong a spacey bedroom.  The window in the kitchen is at an angle whereby the inside of the apartments across the way are fully visible, which is unsettling rather than alluring.  It is clearly a place for a couple and not a single man.  The wine really is not great, I think I may abandon it, close my laptop, and go for dinner.

I walked to one of the restaurants I noted as a possibility earlier.  It was a cramped place that had no speciality, but it was quiet, affordable and had a welcoming décor.  In my hand I carried The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron, which is the ultimate cliché given what I’m writing, but my ego is not too large to not know that very few people deeply inspect the title of the book that you are reading, nor am I under any pretentions that the general reader is aware of the Everest of travel fiction.  The most striking thing about the book is the description Byron puts into everything he sees, with such detail and poetry, however he is documenting the middle east in the 1930s, not a honeypot in the twenty-first century where Assassins Creed and Instagram exists.  There is a sadness to a world uncovered, touched all over, and violated, but it may allow for new avenues of description, such as selfie stick sellers or families wearing surgical masks because of the Coronavirus.  I cannot believe Microsoft Word is not spellchecking that.  It was not only Eastern Asian’s paranoid about air pollution, but whole groups of Europeans, and North Americans looking like they were heading into a seven-hour triple bypass.  When walking past them, fear of not having my own mask would arise for a fleeting moment, then I’d go back to stressing about my usual problems.  It became more concerning when I saw a sales assistant in the Gucci store wearing a branded mask.  Those stores are horrifying enough already.

In the restaurant I was surrounded by some interesting diners.  Ahead of me by the window was a group of four – two slobby bald men with two attractive blonde women ten years younger than them, eastern European, who gave me a few ‘pathetic young man on his own’ looks.  To the left of me was an American couple, the guy keeping his baseball cap on, asking odd questions like: ‘What’s in the Ravioli?’  I wished Tony Soprano was in the restaurant too.  When eating alone, you can drift away into other people’s conversations without them knowing, and usually you are irritated by what you hear.  Though even the thought of hearing back my own conversations makes me want to die.  The pizza was fine, got better as it got cooler, and its best quality was that it cut well under the knife into neat slices.  I made the common mistake, albeit a happy one, of choosing somewhere in an unfamiliar city that looked accommodating and was, more importantly, cheap.  Florence is certainly a town with somewhere to walk after dinner, and I walked a little drunk through a couple of the main centrepieces.  At night these grand attractions are surrounded by far fewer people, and still visible thanks to floodlights attached to the buildings opposite them.  An attractive couple was stood in front of the old chapel of Il Duomo in perfect composition, and I tried to take a photo of them, then they moved, and I awkwardly acted like I was taking a photo of something else.

Travelling alone is a peculiar experience.  I did not feel lonely, but I did crave the ability to share what I was doing with someone.  Having your own routine and schedule is relieving, and there is zero pressure of being bored or going somewhere disappointing.  With no-one to talk to, however, you find yourself thinking a lot, and I probably wrote this thing a thousand times over in my head, and probably massaged a few Wagyu cows of doubt to greater levels of muscle density too.  The Friday night after dinner walk was better than the Saturday night one, because I was more optimistic, there were fewer people and there were a couple of buskers that I spectated that were not terrible.  Food digested, I felt like sleeping.  A couple of doors down from the apartment is a night club, and at four am when it closed, I was woken up by the leaving customers.  In a daze I thought it was the morning and got up.  My watch told me it was four and for a moment I was genuinely lost somewhere.  I went back to sleep.

The beginning of a tour outside the window was my alarm clock around mid-morning.  People interrupting my peace again.  I had decided I would explore the town via bookstores, which in Florence creates a lovely circular route that touches the corners of the city centre.  Some of these bookstores were glorified stationary stores, and one of them was essentially an elderly guy’s office where it was possible that I had walked into an estate agent’s by mistake.  Nestled on an alleyway is a bookstore that has a large collection of English language books, and I picked up a book of Virginia Woolf essays and Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.  I was satisfied and ended my bookstore route.  The truth is I struggle to get excited about historic landmarks, or museums, and they are always a bit disappointing.  This led to a rather aimless session of wandering.

I have been thinking about why I decided to take this trip.  There does not need to be a reason, but I want one.  Perhaps it is because of the solo trip Greta Gerwig takes to Paris in Frances Ha.  It turns out to be a bit of a depressing catastrophe in the film, and my trip would probably end in the same fashion, at least emotionally, and what will I have learned?  The discovery of a new place is arbitrary if you take nothing away from it, whether that’s good food, an original photo, or whatever.  As of right now, it has solidified a few things in my mind, rather than create new ones.  It is like a twisted form of confirmation bias: yes, I am sad, yes, I am worried, yes, I think sightseeing is basically meaningless, yes, tourists are annoying, yes, pizza.  It could be because I wanted to write something like this, though really the inspiration only came when I got to Florence.  Keeping in constant transit to take your mind off things is a flawed hypothesis and it takes constant activity instead.  Walking around a town alone does not provide this, and on the second day I slipped into a deep melancholy.  Only the destinations of grandeur could save me, which meant going to Piazza Della Signoria, somewhere I frequented as it was a couple of roads down from the apartment.  The Palazzo Vecchio’s clean brownness is less disconcerting than the Duomo.  Its clock, an angel at the top of the tree, shows the wrong time.  At its foundations are a collection of sculptures, men and women alike locked together, statue of David-esque, and a freebie view at some of the heritage of the town.  To truly respect the artistry, I ate a sandwich sat below one, dodging photographers, and shifting my eyes from the square to the palace.  The focaccia and speck did not match with the soft cheese, but I have had lunch in worse places.

Geographical locations rarely let me down and the river in Florence is about the only thing I saw and thought: wow I am glad that I am looking at this.  Naturally, the infamous Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) is littered with people, but still remains pretty.  The river water is green, and the flow appears artificial, like they are pumping a limited supply of water in from the grassy banks.  It expands through many bridges and does manage to weed out some of the crowds, as the other side of the bridge has to be where the people in the know go, surely.  That’s the thing about Florence, there is no separation, no districts or areas that divide class or age and it is all close in together, which makes it difficult to find the best spots on first arrival.   Resisting the urge to throw myself off one of the bridges, I returned back to the apartment where I wrote most of this, hence the confusing tenses.  Fuck it.  Did David Foster Wallace care?  I mean he hung himself, but in his writing, what rules did he play by?  None of it matters.  There is this Vaccines song called No Hope on their second album Come of Age, and it’s a great tune about being in your early twenties, anxious about where your life is and where it’s going.  I like the song because it has the line ‘I find my life ever so moving,’ indicating a self-awareness of the self-pitying, I’m special my experience means something, that I think about and write about constantly.  It is this built-in romanticism of a chosen one mentality where the whole world is on your shoulders, when really it is not that deep.   I headed back out in the evening because I was thinking too much.  I had done some research on where to get the best pizza and settled on a place not far from the apartment.  It was a buzzier vibe than the restaurant the night before, and a much better pizza.  Eating it, I actually felt like I was enjoying something.

I had a second glass of beer because of my change in mood, and a queue began to form at the door to the restaurant.  A good sign, and a good time to leave, so I finished my drink with a couple of big gulps to free up a table.  It was raining somewhat heavily outside, and there was a deep puddle in the crevice between the path and the road.  My shoes were already filthy.  There is some cover where the market resides in the daytime, and at night it’s illuminated by the fluorescent sign of an H & M, a shop that gives me PTSD.  A presumably homeless painter was sat on a stool in front, taking shelter from the rain, leaning his canvas on a limestone pillar.  I watched him work for a while, then ventured back out into the rain.  These towns full of people continue to puzzle me.  I often wonder if normal people with normal jobs live in these towns.  There must be some – there are universities and offices.  I feel bad for those people.  The florid ideal of living in Florence would soon be crushed by the daunting realisation that the endless stream of tour guides never ends, and only increases year by year.  Florence is effectively a massive outdoor museum.  I did not get a feeling of real life in the town until my six am walk to the train station to leave back to France.  This is where I saw regular dog walkers, and people still faded from the night before.  Until then, it had been an insight into the world of taking a photo of your husband in front of old shit, and I had seen enough of it.  Take me away.

I have an answer as to why I took the trip: It was an exercise of progressing time, progressing moods.  Running scared rather than escaping.  I do not want the power to go back in time and change things, I want the power to go forward in time, to a point of non-dwelling.  What I have to remind myself is to make the time useful.

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1917 – Film Review

Sam Mendes returns from the world of James Bond (after the absolutely awful Spectre) with a World War One movie, in memory of his grandfather who fought in the conflict.   It’s an Oscar favourite, the kind of film that ticks across several categories, and its being sold as a triumphant achievement in filmmaking that has to be seen on the big screen.  The chances of the film falling under its own weight, and ‘one-shot’ style, were very high going into this one.

It’s 1917, and two young soldiers who have already seen their fair share of action are given the mission to get behind enemy lines to pass a message on to a commanding officer.  That simple, effecting plot, pushes the film forward with great force in the film’s opening.  Before learning how insane the job is, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Prince Tommen from Game of Thrones) picks partner Schofield (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic, Pride) to go with him, and they set off in haste after receiving the orders from a chubby Colin Firth.  The commanding officer they need to get to is in charge of a company that is unknowingly walking into a German trap of great armaments, and it is a company Blake’s brother is a member of.  And so, despite Schofield’s hesitations they rush to jump over the trenches into no man’s land.  This set up allows for a thrilling first twenty minutes, where the two men hurry through the trenches, the Steadicam pulling in front of them.  Going over the front line, the stress of moving across no man’s land is inevitable, and Mendes evokes a lot of tension with his fluid camera, like the mission they are on, however, this has a time limit.

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The one-shot, unedited, constant rolling picture is thankfully not a gimmick here, at least for the first half of the film.  It is a very effective technique when characters are walking towards something, and there are variations in height and scenery to keep it interesting.  Probably the most mind-boggling shot of the film is in that first sneak to the German line, where the camera goes down into a crevice, tracking the two men across a body of water.  It is an exciting build-up, that is unfortunately let down once they have made it past the German trenches.  Not to say the film is particularly dull from there on, but certainly the highlight of the film is that gripping, daring hop over the front line.  Then comes the one cut in the film, that’s right, an obvious unhidden cut in a one-shot movie.  This is not a problem; however, it does signify a big slice down the middle of the film.  In this second half, Mendes slips into one of his classic characteristics – over-sentimental, florid imagery that comes across as incredibly pretentious.  Schofield dashes through a film set playground of catholic church iconography, that looks so fabricated that it cannot repeat the tension of the opening act.  Then the energy of the Steadicam is lost in a silly and melodramatic central scene that stops the plot dead in the tracks.

Mendes’ emotional connection with the story is obvious, and what he does manage to capture is the absolute horror of war, at times replicating the same feeling that The Thin Red Line does – the feeling of fear and hopelessness of the soldiers.  This is a respectable viewpoint to take, though it leads to a flawed film, whereby Mendes floats too long in mushy motifs and makes the one-shot idea pointless for a good chunk of the runtime.  Luckily, he has crème de la crème of Hollywood cinema Roger Deakins shooting for him, meaning there are some extraordinary shots towards the end of the film that stop the film from being boring.  The inclusion of the odd huge star popping up throughout the film was welcome as well, which is usually distracting, but here it added some gravitas, and a new lease of life at times when it really needed it.  George Mackay does his best with some awful lines of dialogue, and Mendes should have really kept the focus on the camera rather than the actor.  It is possible to achieve empathy in a war movie, rattling along, not worried about having scenes of quiet to prove it cares about the people too.

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The forceful nature of those quiet scenes really tarnished the anticipation of the initial conceit of the film and leaves it nowhere near greatness.  It is one of those films, where it’s curious to wonder about those who have been completely amazed by it.  The film has a fine pacing and fine message, and is expertly well constructed, but there is nothing extraordinary about it.  Its nomination in Best Editing at the Oscars is a strange one (one in your face cut, and a few covert ones) and its nomination in Best Original Screenplay is even stranger.  The script is a bad one, and a World War One film working on the memories of a family member is not entirely original concept, whether Mendes (and Krysty Wilson-Carins) penned it from scratch or not.  Although it is hard to dog on a film this noble, it is another example of a product sold to mainstream audiences as a filmmaking feat, where really it is just extremely unremarkable.

Top Ten Films of 2019

I’ve been living in France since September, so I’ve seen both UK and France releases this year, which means that this list is properly dodgy, as there are films that would usually be in next year’s list (like Parasite, which doesn’t come out till February in the UK).  To not lose any in-between films, I’ve kept it to 2019 releases in either France or the United Kingdom.

Firstly, here is 20-11:

20. Under the Silver Lake (David Robert Mitchell)

19. Us (Jordan Peele)

18. The Sisters Brothers (Jacques Audiard)

17. Midsommar (Ari Aster)

16. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)

15. The Edge (Barney Douglas)

14. Ad Astra (James Gray)

13. Woman at War (Benedikt Erlingsson)

12. The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg)

11. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

  1. Minding the Gap (Bing Liu)

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A skateboarding documentary, which like all the best documentaries it’s not really about the main subject matter.  The skateboarding acts as an aesthetic and a backdrop to stories on troubled youth, race, and toxic masculinity in places forgotten by the American establishment.  Where the film becomes something special is a gentle reveal of how much the director plays a part in the lives of the people on screen, and his own battles to get where he is now, thinking about the friends that made him.

  1. Parasite (Bong Joon Ho)

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This film is much higher on most people’s lists, and rightfully so, it is just about perfect.  I found love in other films from the year, however this is a masterful piece of work, even aside from the actual content of the movie.  It is a South Korean auteur picture that has managed to be marketed in the US, seen by huge audiences, which in itself is a hopeful thing.  The film is best seen without knowing a single thing about it, all you need to know is that you will be engrossed from start to finish.

  1. High Life (Claire Denis)

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Every year these lists are very personal, and the films that make it are usually ones that inspire me or shift my emotions in some way.  Claire Denis’ English language debut did both of those things, and it made me write THIS.

It is a space sex dungeon existential crisis orgasm and I fucking love it.

  1. A Hidden Life (Terrence Malick)

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The depth of this film is quite outstanding, telling the story of an Austrian farmer who refuses to fight in World War Two.  It asks questions about faith, resistance and protest without recognition, leading to a moving experience, and a mature ending.  Unsurprisingly it is ridiculously well shot, with wonderful Austrian countryside vistas, in a peaceful and mechanical setting.  Valerie Pachner as the left-behind wife Fani is one of my favourite performances of the year.

  1. Burning (Lee Chang – Dong)

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A transcendent work of fiction that works like a great novel does.  For a while it is a sort of love triangle movie, building to a stunning central scene, where the film changes completely to a noir-esque thriller.  You can take multiple interpretations from it, and I always enjoy it when an artform questions itself through technique, and metaphor, not being too concrete.  Steven Yeun’s performance as a massive smarmy bastard is great fun, amongst a film with endless meaning.

  1. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese)

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It is amazing that Scorsese even got this made, and it shows that he is still one of the greats, managing to pull a story this vast together.  Robert De Niro carries the film right through to the bitter end, the crushing phone call scene at the peak of it.  Joe Pesci’s performance is remarkable considering he’s hardly worked for twenty years, finding a character presentation in this film that is higher than being a simple gangster tough guy.   The film winds down to a profoundly sad ending, where Scorsese offers an idea about dying without epiphany – creating all this and it means nothing!

  1. Varda by Agnes (Agnes Varda)

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As a filmmaker and a human being Agnes Varda has given the world so much, and in this documentary, she reminds you of it all step by step.  She is giving lectures on her work, cutting to parts of her filmography, telling stories about her process.  The level of genius she has produced for the image and moving image is hard to comprehend, when you view the variety and sheer amount of work that she has done.  Every legendary artist should do this before they die.

  1. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach)

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Again, perhaps another perfect movie.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johannson disappear into these roles, moulding themselves around an excellent script that balances both sides of the argument in an honest way.  Johannson’s monologue on her initial meeting with divorce lawyer Laura Dern and Adam Driver singing ‘Being Alive’ are two of my favourite scenes of the year.

Full review HERE.

  1. If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins)

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I’ve never quite a cinema experience like this, for a multitude of reasons, including my mental state and the person I was with.  Barry Jenkins is a sublime filmmaker, and this is a beautiful, heartbreaking adaptation of a James Baldwin novel that captures the essence of Baldwin’s writing.  The soundtrack from Nicholas Brittle is one of my favourites of all time, and I can’t listen to ‘agape’ without breaking down.  When the credits rolled, I was audibly blubbering.

One of the few things that I have written that isn’t actually bad HERE.

  1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig)

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This is a special film.  An entrancing rhythmic symphony of storytelling.  A tactile, physical, romantic, loving experience.  Meta, and intelligent in its nods to the original author of the book.  Gerwig imagines the story in a baseline gorgeous way, then adds subtilties that raise it to interesting high art.  I was falling off the Timothee Chalamet bandwagon slightly, but after this film, I am firmly back on it, some of the things he does with his face! And Saoirse Ronan as well is unbelievably adorable, and relatable in a role that she brings so much life to.  It is one of those films that I did not want to end, and I will be watching it continuously in the foreseeable future.

Wrote something about the film HERE.

Little Women – Subtle Poetry

Something fresh that filmmaker Greta Gerwig brings to the Little Women story, in the new adaptation, is the elements of meta.  Her screenplay weaves in biographical details about Louisa May Alcott, the original author of the classic novel, creating a sense of reverence for the writer that establishes the real-world accomplishments of the source text.  It is a wonderful notion, that doubles the meaning of the work, in both a fictional and historic manner.  Aside from that, Gerwig presents a further meta about writing and directing, whereby the plays of Shakespeare are discussed in the film in terms of work that managed to be both poetic and popular.  Little Women 2019 is the perfect example of a repeatedly told story, that is newly remarkable because of talented authorship, and the reach to artistic achievement in a sellable mainstream affair.

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The undeniable brilliance of the original story is important, and it’s why the book keeps getting adapted, and why it keeps working.  Writer and director Greta Gerwig is faithful to the material, and never really messes with the intricacies of the plots, just plays around with the camera, setting and character.  Saoirse Ronan stars as Jo March in an utterly gorgeous performance, splitting the timeline between childhood and adulthood, hued memories and bleak realities.  Her sisters are all given as much development as she is, in slightly less time: Florence Pugh as Amy, Emma Watson as Meg, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth.  Their mother, played by Laura Dern, is a piece of all of them, in her clothes and the shades of colour in her hair.  In a film full of moving scenes, it would easy to overlook the quieter moments where the sisters are bickering in their family home, talking over the top of each other rhythmically, all written exactly by Gerwig.  This is when you fall completely into the setting and are happy to stay there.  Across the road, in a much larger home, lives Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence, again beautifully performed by Timothee Chalamet, who lives with his austere grandfather, played by Chris Cooper.  In contrast to the warmth of the March house, the Laurence manor is far more masculine and impersonal, only brought to life when the girls visit.  One of the stunning extracts of the film is when Laurie is stood on a chair undergoing a teaching lesson from tutor John Brooke (James Norton), when he spots Amy outside the window, saying to John excitedly: “There’s a girl out there.”  Soon all the sisters are in the study, catching the boy’s infatuation, bringing a spark to the spacious mansion.

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It is in this scene when the little details of acting and directing prowess are ever-present.  Jo gallops into the room inspecting the vast collection of books, and Laurie tracks her with his eyes, in love with her of course, Chalamet has it all over his face.  It’s a look we have all given, and Chalamet’s recreation on screen is a constant, building this mesmerising chemistry he has with Ronan.  Their movements seem almost in sync, dancing together, rubbing each other’s hair, embracing tight and long, agonising for Laurie and comforting for Jo.  If you know the story, then you’ll know that at the heart of the romance is this pair, how perfect they seem for one another, yet it cannot work out.  Ronan and Chalamet’s time on screen together encapsulate this, and the inevitable confrontation they have is truly astonishing cinema.  Due to an excellent screenplay that loses all silliness and exaggerated chivalry, the crescendos confession from Laurie and subsequent rejection from Jo is neither melodramatic nor pretentious, instead feels contemporary and honest to life.  Thanks in part to the tactility, and closeness to their friendship, where it is an absolute joy to see Jo punch Laurie on the arm whenever he is being particularly stupid.  Away from the bonds between characters, the film has modern sensibilities because of the style of the players when they are viewed singularly, such as Jo’s hairstyle, or the way Laurie wears his American Civil War era clothes.  Even Saoirse Ronan’s running has a twenty-first-century beat to it, like the way Gerwig runs herself in Frances Ha.  All of that being said, it is in the editing where Gerwig really brings the story to the now, and the choice to have two narratives side by side throughout is an effective one, being bound only by the families it has the impression of separate readings.  It traverses as expected from a New York trained indie filmmaker, whilst keeping tight with the time period, and it is difficult to not be seduced by its charm.

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There is genuine and sincere poetry in this film.  It has ideas on female recognition, love, contentment, childhood, and writing that are fledged out to a base level.  The film is funny and heart-warming, treats its sadder moments with respect and allows each character to act out in meaningful ways.  And it is all packed into a story that is important to so many and will be seen by huge audiences across cinemas all over the world.  Greta Gerwig has achieved poetry in the mainstream, with subtleties and intelligent casting, matched with a cinematographer (Yorick le Saux) who gives energy to each shot and lighting choice – every time it cut to a new location, I was excited to see what my eyes saw next.  I think we are lucky to have a film like this, one with such magic.  I do not believe the film is radical, nor groundbreaking and I’m not about to try and understand the complexities of a feminist message.  Little Women is ultimately about a level of compromise, and you do not have to squint hard to see Gerwig herself sacrificing a perhaps more impactful protest by succumbing to the pressures of producing a film that can be easily adored.  When you have a film this special, that imagines impossibly strong emotive reactions, at least from myself, you get a free pass into greatness, placed into a column titled: what makes life worth living.

 

 

 

 

The Report & Marriage Story – Film Reviews

The Report

Films on the retrospective history of the Iraq War are coming, and The Report is one that makes sure it picks the right side.  Adam Driver plays real person Daniel Jones, an FBI office dork working for Californian senator Dianna Feinstein (Annette Bening), performing an exhaustive investigation of the CIA’s torture of suspected terrorists in that awful post 9/11 era (still pretty bad now).  The narrative consists of a lot of reading by Jones, cut to the torture happening, then Jones taking the information back to Feinstein where they have a conflict on whether it is pertinent to publish the discoveries.

This is one of Amazon Prime’s attempts at credibility for their original titles, a drama with recognisable actors and a fair enough budget.  Unfortunately, at times the film does have the feel of a TV movie (something that Netflix is moving away from), with a terrible title sequence font and some fluff lines, Driver literally says ‘I’ll start at the beginning,’ early on in the runtime.  The direction is competent enough, and screenwriter by trade Scott Z. Burns does whatever he can to make the paperwork reading and keyboard tapping more intriguing to watch, such as including explicit torture scenes.  These moments are effective in that you are disgusted by what is happening, however they make the film unremarkable and formulaic.  It takes you out of Jones’ headspace, because we can see the torture, but he cannot, leaving the film empty of character.  One of the strengths of the 2015 film Spotlight is that director Tom McCarthy never shows any of the abuse, yet the emotion is still there, because of the scope, and weight of how the journalists cope with hearing the stories.  More ambiguously The Report is most powerful in the proceedings before the torture methods were sanctioned, where phony psychologists are pitching their ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in a cosy meeting room in Washington.

It advances at a polite pace, and never stagnates, though it is probably twenty minutes too long, and the outcome is clear after it moves past a welcome Tim Blake Nelson cameo as a whistleblower.  At first, the impression is that Driver is playing this in a low-key manner, he’s pragmatic and calm.  Then the film becomes less about him and more about the work, so he eventually shows a great deal of frustration and anger.  This is fine, there does not always have to be a three-dimensional protagonist, it can be about the work, and effectively that’s the film: it’s about the events, not the people surrounding it.  It is placid grey colour tones and a one-sided historical presentation, which is usually a bad thing, but here it stands as worthy because it is the correct side.  Even though the film is forgettable, it is a necessary telling of a story in a mature, intellectual, fact-based way that serves as a catalog to recognise mistakes made by the US government.

Available on Amazon Prime NOW. 

Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s second feature with Netflix, and one plagued by Twitter discourse and awards buzz is one of the best films of the year.  It is based on Baumbach’s own divorce with actor Jennifer Jason Leigh, with some of the truth in the story being relevant, and some of it not.  Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson take on the respective roles, as trendy artist couple Charlie and Nicole, separated and going through a divorce.  The film acts as part procedural, showing the effects of the technicalities of the law, whilst also handling the delicate problem of arguments and communication in long term relationships.

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The entire film is not as formal as that description and is ultimately a full-fledged weepy.  There has always been a sweetness to Baumbach’s work, that soft-boy cuteness that you would see in an Éric Rohmer (Ma Nuit Chez Maud, Le Rayon Vert) or a Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) film.  In the past Baumbach has a sharp New York City wittiness alongside this sweetness, which can leave it slightly too biting, but with Marriage Story he dives headfirst into the heart and soul of the characters.  The film is definitely still witty, and extremely funny, it’s just more endearing and moving than some of his other work because he has embraced the romance.  It’s an upsetting film, with an agonizing climax, full of dramatic moments to go with scenes of levity and honesty.  You are allowed the melodramatic if you are true to reality and have space for the more absurd aspects of life, like one moment where Adam Driver has a gruesome accident with his arm.

The script is incredible, highlighted in a scene where Johannson meets divorce lawyer Laura Dern for the first time, and monologues about the problems of her relationship, seemingly in a stream of consciousness, though all preciously written by Baumbach.  It is important to note that after this scene, about a third of the way through, the film switches almost completely to the perspective of Driver, and this a strength of the movie rather than a weakness.  Baumbach is not pretending to totally understand Johansson’s character, perhaps being true to his own experience, instead he is focusing on Driver’s inability to leave his ego behind and accept his wife’s vacancies about him.  It creates an accurate depiction of a long-term relationship, the barrier that will never be broken down, that you need to let go of trying to have all the answers.

Both main performances are great, and you really forget that Johansson is an avenger and Driver is Darth Vader’s biggest fanboy or whatever.  They are acting!  Johansson in particular really pulls you onto her side, and though Driver gets to shine towards the end, she is perhaps more well-rounded in the film.  Then you have Laura Dern and Ray Liotta as the sleazy lawyers, used as pawns by Baumbach mostly, but are highly entertaining, not to mention Alan Alda stepping in for some much-needed transparency to the American divorce system.  The result is a film of expert moving parts: a tight – meaningful screenplay, poignant direction, and grounded character acting, whilst having some space to explore into less serious details.

Available on Netflix NOW, and some cinemas across the UK (probably other countries too). 

 

2016, 2013, 2017, 2012

The coldness of an ascending order rank, or is it descending?  A pastime of listing, where personal satisfaction outweighs any relevance.  IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU MR REVIEWER.  There are too many ideas, and not enough talent.  Bong Joon Ho made an entire movie and you wrote an eight-hundred-word article explaining it.  I’m deleting all of this.  If a writer deletes his work in the woods, was the work ever there?  Hot take: there are good films and bad films.  Orange, blue, pink, violet.  And there are other films, the ones that mean something to you, the ones that transport you to a void of personal gratification.  Now to fight through the snow of endless agonising hypocritical minutia.

PATERSON (2016)

Two separate dreams about actor Adam Driver:

  1. Somewhere along the French Riviera, except the topography is disjointed. An extended family are holidaying in the summer, and they are joined by a new member – American actor Adam Driver.  He’s somehow managed to end up dating an aunt or a cousin of our narrator, who is of course a massive fan.  The narrator is the guide for the trip, and he wants Driver to like him, so much so that he is scared to do or say anything wrong.  It’s an anxious chess game of trying to be cool.
  2. Memory loss.

A film about creativity in everyday life, contentment to return home to the one person you love the most.  Simply living and breathing, instead of chasing something that does not exist. 

UPSTREAM COLOR (2013)

The water before you is somehow special, it is better than anything you have ever tasted, each drink is better than the last, take a drink now.  With extreme precision, a minuscule bug is crawling through a vein like it is going backwards up a waterslide.  It’s quenching its first.  Push away, come close, small kiss, intense embrace, the beginnings of explanations destroyed under the pressures of a countertop.  Their hair is almost the same length, connected in a masterplan of irrelevant stakes that is too much to handle.  All roads lead to the bath.

A film about control over your path, about the chemistry behind love and attraction.  The end result a twisted fate of wrapping yourself up as warm as you can, to prepare for the disappointing answer.

A GHOST STORY (2017)

Being immortal is a great privilege, said the joker to the thief.  Twenty-one is a quarter done already, but those first ten didn’t count, right?  That is such a selfish notion when you are surrounded by spectres every way that you turn.  Imagine the amount of death floating around you in a city apartment building.  It’s either comforting or disturbing, and what of memory acting as reality?  If you close your eyes and see a loved one’s hand can you reach out and grab it?  Too many questions, and that is why it has made it here.

A film about losing the only true connection you have in the world.  The only thing you have left are the images of all sides of them, sweet and ugly, hovering over you. 

RUBY SPARKS (2012)

Joy!  Sunshine gleaming down onto this fucking graveyard.  Zoe Kazan’s doting and critical words that do not embark into cringe.  Writing!  The death of the author, postmodernism, all that jazz.  Selfishness and the old ego are hard to ignore with this one.  The enjoyment comes from reflection, and the fading romanticism of growing to a point of no return.  Pragmaticism must be respected, as tall as the mountain might seem.  This whole thing clearly cannot get past the summit.

A film about seeking perfection in life and art, where leaping just far enough will grant you enough enchantment to keep you hopeful that it’s not all numbers, and biology. 

 

‘Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on,’ – Masatoshi Nagase, as the Japanese poet, in Paterson.

Paul (short story)

The café is in Berlin, but it could be in Belfast, Brighton or possibly Brussels too.  Not France, certainly not the south of it.  The wallpaper is red, bedding canvas paintings with price tags attached to them.  It is not busy, however conversations can be overheard with little effort, and a table behind us are speaking a mix of German and English.  This happens a lot here.  The coffee is black and average, poured into dainty white mugs that are very similar to the ones in the apartment that I am staying in, which makes me wonder if the place is a Polish joint, as the apartment owner is a Pole.  It would only be ignorant guesses, trying to work out whether the décor had a Polish look.  I’m sat at the window that looks out onto a narrow street, something incredibly uncommon in this city, where three-lane roads are a mountain to climb every time you need to be on the other side, a tally in the con’s column.  Across the street is a beige building, around three floors of rectangle, and a protruding tower that rises two floors higher.  It is peri-metered by a gate that would take a ladder to traverse, before worrying about the spikes at the top.  Through the bars I can see an etched in stone marking that reads: Jüdisch Gymnasium.  The rest underneath is not visible.  I glance over to my companion, who looks even more tired than they did yesterday, and older than I’ve ever seen them.  They are fifteen years older than I am and starting to show it.  I glance back outside to see that two policemen have appeared.  It is peculiar seeing regular police with guns, and they are hopping around whilst chatting, trying to stay warm.  There is a clear impression that they have been walking this beat a while and walking it together a while too.  A woman with a limp walks by, then another woman with a similar injury, causing me to infer that there must be some kind of physical surgery facility down the road.  I make a comment about this to my companion, who is writing ineligible notes down, and ignoring me.  The policemen are chatting vigorously, as a man approaches them.  He’s short, has dark hair and a moustache.  On his approach the policemen have stopped talking, and the man instigates a handshake, to which is completed with familiar smiles.  My eyes track the moustache man as he advances along the gate, out of my vision, then returns on the inside, entering the building.

“That was nice,” I say, sipping my coffee.

My companion looks up from his notebook.  “What was?” He asks.

“It doesn’t matter.”

I continue to gaze outside.  After some deliberation, one of the policemen leaves the other, and the remaining one crosses the road to come right up to the glass, putting a single air-pod in his left ear as he is moving.  For a second, I think that he is looking at me, then he begins talking to himself, obviously in some kind of telephone conversation, still pacing to keep warm, his gun shaking gently on his hip.

“I’m sorry,” my companion says.  “I actually feel inspired to write something down for once.  I think the art might have helped.  You were right to take me there, all the years I’ve been living here, not once have I seen something made after 1990, until today.  Maybe I’m exaggerating.”

His American accent is more subtle than it used to be, having spent the majority of his life in Europe by now.  He’s forty-six and called Paul, the greys in his beard are more prevalent than the ones in his head, and he’s put on a bit of weight.  The good looks are not fading just yet, and during the last week he has attracted some female attention, thanks to some fame and some precise complexion in his face.

“You look tired,” I say.  “You could put the notebook down for a while, enjoy the coffee.”

“The coffee is shit,” he says.  “They get it wrong here and besides, I thought you wanted me to write more, isn’t that why you’ve been sent to Berlin?”

“I’ve not been sent here.  I’m here as a friend, I’m here to help.”

“So the tasteless coffee isn’t going on the expenses?  I’m sorry, I shouldn’t get so worked up.  It’s this damned book, short stories, who would have thought?  I don’t think I’ve read a short story in my life.  They’ve always seemed pointless to me, and we both know no-one buys them.  I like you; I do, you are about the only person I trust in publishing, and you’re definitely the youngest person I speak to these days, but I know why you’re here.  You want another novel, your bosses want to bleed me dry one more time before the contract ends, before I’m out in the wilderness, eating rice for breakfast, probably scratching poetry into the walls.  I can’t write anything long anymore, there is no commitment in my life for it.  News moves too fast and I can’t take another line being added to the subway map.  It’s the same everywhere.  I would have been happier being a carpenter like my father, he was making shelves for money till the day he died, the miserable bastard.”

It was hard not to laugh and I would kill for half of the talent he has or used to have.  “The projections for the short story collection are solid,” I say, calculations running through my mind.  “And they are going to be posted online, so they’ll get read and you’ll get paid.  What more do you want?”

“I don’t know anymore,” he says.  “The joke would be to ask my ex-wife I guess, wherever she is.  You know when we first met you sounded a lot like a writer, now you sound more like one of them.”

“I’m not a writer.”

“Neither am I, anymore.  I’m an old computer cycling through programmed instincts, hitting simple notes on a piano that will get a definite reaction.  I haven’t written anything good for years.  Perhaps I ought to move again, rinse another European city for every last drop of inspiration it can give me, suck the oil out of the ground, and ignore the cries of the dying children.”

He lit up a cigarette and wafted smoke way from his eyeline, knocking spectral thoughts into the ether.

“You’re lucid now that you have stopped drinking,” I say.  “If you can’t write, talk, and dictate.”

He coughed.  “I have no daughters or sons to dictate to,” he says.  “That’s disgusting anyway, like I have a disability or something.  Next one, surely the bosses gave you more tactics than that, rather than the pressure of you looking over my typewriter.”

“There’s no tactics Paul, and no pressure.  To be completely honest with you, I think the company cares less about your output than you think.  Sure, you used to be a cash cow, and lately less so, but that works in your favour because they have less to lose now.  Times are changing and if you asked for another contract extension, they’d give you one.  It would be less money of course, and they might ask you to move back to London, or even New York.”

Out of the corner of my eye I can see the policeman jolt away and run down the street.

“That’s not happening,” Paul says, getting my attention back.  “There is no way I am going back to either of those godforsaken places, not in this life.  I don’t want another contract with the leeches you work for, no offence.  I want to be able to write again, to feel something in my fingers other than pragmaticism.  I should start drinking again.  I’ll take brief painful anxiety over eternal depression.  Or I’ll get back on the meds, and call it quits completely, check myself into the home for washed-up writers, call all of the people I’ve wronged and apologise.”

He had finished his cigarette too fast and I could tell he was dizzy.  I order two more coffees, and he gets up to go to the bathroom.  The street outside had lost all of its foot traffic, and I notice we were now in the café alone, with the employees making muted noises in the back after delivering the fresh cups of coffee.  On the table is Paul’s notebook, only a short movement away from my hand, and to resist the temptation I’m drinking the coffee quickly, tasting the same bland liquid as the first one.  Paul has returned and is sitting back down like he is in pain.

“I feel better now,” he says.  “Always do after a piss, or a meal.  Or a cup of coffee that tastes better than this.  Let’s talk about something else and get out of here soon.”

I wonder what there is to talk about with a man like Paul, in a state like this, not anything distressful that’s for sure.  Sometimes when I visit him, he asks about my two children, or my wife, which usually led to a conversation about how I manage to keep everything so stable.  Lying to myself, I would tell him, and having no talent.

“My son is five now,” I say.  “And has started to read a little.”

“Poor kid,” he says.  “Get him out of that and get him in a team of some kind, talking to other kids.”

“Thanks for the advice.  My daughter is the sporty one, like her mother.”

He has drifted away again and has pushed the new coffee away from him.  In silence, he is starting to put on his coat and scarf, and I’m looking up at him like he’s one of the great Berlin memorial statues.

“Are we leaving?” I ask.

“I have a headache,” he says, whipping a scarf tail around his neck.  “We have to get the train before it gets too crowded.  I’m sick of touching other people involuntarily.”

I’m standing up, and looking outside once more, seeing an eerily sparse scene, where the city seems to have died in between sips of my drink.  Paul gives me a flat smile now that we’re both ready to leave.  We get to the front door, saying danke and auf wiedersehen to women that we cannot see nor hear, then suddenly we’re hearing a bang in the distance, that is followed by an echoing crackle.

“What was that?” Paul says, hand on the door handle.

It could have been an earthquake, a train derailment, a gunshot, an explosion, a plane crash, or a dog barking at a stranger.