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New Year, Luang Prabang

They packed up, sold their home,
and free
of everything they owned
they built a place for butterflies
outside Luang Prabang

A handsome couple,
Swedes or Danes;
he sold the tickets and she ran the cafe.
Business was slow,
but they seemed to like it that way

It was near some rare bears
and a blue series of pools
that sluice down
through the limestone – a local swimming spot –
and the markets
that throng
points of interest,
whether you want them or not

Downhill
the Swedes
had their own bit of stream,
a whole slope,
stocked with those nibbling fish
that swarm the
callused feet
of tourists

While I soaked mine,
a butterfly stopped on my thong
enclosed, an attraction
like the white-collared bears up the road
gathered like evacuees
from the burned mountains
the smoke only now tamped down
by the wet’s first rains
a few days in advance of
the New Year here

Children lined the road
like heralds,
slinging buckets of Mekong
into the open bed of our truck,
the Laotian reserve all gone:
we foreigners
paid the compliment
of being fair game,
included in the revels

Some took it as affront
back in town,
sticking close to hotels,
their wallets
worn on lanyards,
sealed in plastic bags

I bought a pair of pistols
and fired back,
running past the riverside crews
with their full
barrels
and missiles of dyed flour

In the midst of a gunfight
I ran into the road
and a motorbike slammed
its rough surface of tyre
at walking pace
into my thigh

I ran on, dripping,
my pistols near empty,
looking for a tap

Water ran through that day,
from the falls
to the river soon swollen,
a brown plenty they could throw away,
borrowing against the monsoon,
a marvel to this
Australian child of drought.

Lana Del Rey’s ‘Lust for Life’

There’s a progression implied in the title – from Born to Die to Lust for Life, in the space of five years. For the first time, Lana Del Rey smiles on an album cover – though, typically, that smile is ambiguous, the flowers in her hair implying pastness, naïveté, the smile itself the slightly fixed expression of someone asked to pose for a photo, someone trying to achieve an image of happiness.

There’s power in images, in archetypes, particularly for someone whose identity is in flux, or beset by annihilating emotions. The critiques of Del Rey’s sad girl poses have never accounted for the real feeling that courses through them. If you’re paralysed by sadness, you might as well be beautiful, desirable, mysterious into the bargain: the image confers meaning on those feelings, allows you to live with them, even turns them into a source of power. I think part of the negative reaction to Del Rey – the way ‘authenticity’ (a weird expectation anyway in pop music) is used as a stick to beat her with – is because, unlike other sad girl singers like Julee Cruise or Beth Gibbons, she includes her awareness of the pose in her persona, in ways that raise questions about her intention and sincerity. That’s why, though she seems born for the Roadhouse stage in Twin Peaks (the guitar that opens “Get Free,” the final song on Lust for Life, is pure Angelo Badalamenti), she’s also unimaginable there: she couldn’t help subverting the inert melancholy that David Lynch goes for in women singers.

Part of the resistance to Del Rey is a simple resistance to sadness. There’s little relief on this new album; the optimism that she expresses periodically is asserted against that sadness. Even the beats, when they arrive on the choruses, do not provide a lift or release – the excitement usually promised by the arrival of rhythm – but a louring, an intensification of the feeling expressed in the verse, or, as in “13 Beaches,” the fragile equilibrium of the verse giving way to despair. It’s a very specific – and very consistent – mood, and it’s not for everyone. Part of the resistance, though, is straight-up sexism: Thom Yorke and Frank Ocean are just as sunk in gloom, but in them it’s considered a mark of seriousness. Like them, Del Rey’s emotional range is constricted, but she’s hardly the first artist to have a set of thematic preoccupations or a dominant mood, and Lust for Life takes both in interesting directions.

Del Rey’s gifts as a songwriter and musician are too little remarked, particularly the canny way she writes melody for her voice, using different parts of her range. Her voice is central to her appeal, and usually it’s front and centre in her arrangements: for me, Ultraviolence is her weakest album, largely because what’s distinctive about that voice is lost in that album’s reverb and multi-tracking. Typically, a Del Rey song – “Love,” the lead single from Lust for Life, is a good example – will start low in her range, where her voice keeps catching on its lovely, arresting croak, like a sleeve on branches. The arrangements are spare, like the simple guitar pulse on “Love,” the better to foreground her voice. Often, on the chorus, she vaults an octave, into her breathier high range; it’s like her voice is reaching out of a darkness, towards the light. This is particularly effective on “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing”: on the chorus her voice starts low, asking the question, “Is this the end of America?” before soaring to answer (and this is probably the album’s deepest optimism), “No – it’s only the beginning.” On Born to Die and Ultraviolence, there was a third, bratty voice (on “Off to the Races” and “National Anthem”), when she was playing the bimbo, the gold digger, but this has disappeared from her work. She’s an intelligent, compelling singer, conscious of her effects.

Del Rey is smart enough to know that the imagery drawn from the 50s, 60s and 70s (roughly, the Mad Men era) that so dominates her lyrics and videos plays differently in the MAGA era, when nostalgia for the lost middle class has become a weapon used against anyone outside its narrow conception of America. The signifiers on the new album are more modest: the “kids” she addresses on “Love” are dressing up “to go nowhere in particular/back to work, or the coffee shop”. The role-playing is down to a minimum: “Groupie Love,” a melodic highlight, feels like a throwback in this regard. There’s a new first-person directness to the words, and the second half of the album is an extended interrogation of her relationship with America. This leads to new strengths and exposes weaknesses, sometimes in the same song: “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind” opens with the specificity of Del Rey leaning on a girlfriend’s shoulder at a concert (one of the few times another woman has shown up in her songs), before devolving into a lazy Led Zeppelin reference on the chorus and empty showbiz promises (“I’d trade the fame and the fortune”), meaningless because Del Rey will never have to act on them. But the song also ruminates in an intelligent way on whether the goodwill generated at a music festival has any real world application, and the songs that follow – decorated with acoustic guitar and piano (and Stevie Nicks), gestures to the singer-songwriter past – have interesting things to say about America. “God Bless America – and All the Beautiful Women in It” identifies America with the women of the title, and those women with “Lady Liberty shining all night long”. The biggest misstep in this sequence is the Sean Lennon feature, “Tomorrow Never Came,” a flurry of old song titles in lieu of a lyric. Del Rey has always included quotes from classic rock in her songs (more so even than Madonna) – often effectively, as in the bit of “Space Oddity” that climaxes “Terrence Loves You,” or the bit of “Don’t Worry Baby” that serves as the coda to “Love” – but this feels lazy.

The album highlight is a character song. Given Del Rey’s public friendship with Courtney Love (and the shoutout to Love in the album notes), it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that “Heroin” is about her. In some ways she’s the perfect Del Rey subject, our generation’s most infamous example of the predicament of loving a doomed, beautiful man. Crucially, the character is older: she no longer enjoys the luxury of youth, which for Del Rey is what makes sadness beautiful. The horizon has moved in; the song’s bridge, with its organ, the percussive sound effect like a gun being cocked, the weird, blown-out harmonies, and Del Rey chanting about kids leaving “writing on my walls in blood and shit,” is disturbing in a way she has never attempted before. Her empathy for the woman “taking all my medicine/to take my thoughts away” raises the question of how Del Rey herself will age, and how her music will change as she does.

Movie Diary 21/7/17

Kurt Russell and Samuel L. Jackson in THE HATEFUL EIGHT.

The Hateful Eight (2015) – This is not so much a Western as a tribute to those all-star 1970s Agatha Christie adaptations like Murder on the Orient Express or Death on the Nile, complete with crimes re-enacted in flashback and the detective building his case out loud, to a room of captive suspects. (The steady elimination of characters – all guilty in some way – also suggests Christie’s And Then There Were None.) It’s a bummer, unfortunately: the paper-thin characters that are a feature of this genre are supposed to represent different forces in Reconstruction society, and they can’t take the weight. Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue is too often flat exposition, without his usual currents of tension or flashes of wit; the characters’ interactions are monotonously hostile. The longest flashback – a whole, redundant chapter, showing us what we already know – seems an admission of failure, as if Tarantino knew his main story was uninvolving, the main point of interest the precise manner of each death, and decided to punish us with the brutal deaths of people we’re actually sorry to see die. The movie looks great – even the frames in the haberdashery are full of detail, people moving in and out of the background – but this is Tarantino’s weakest film. **

Heartbeats (2010) – That poet of adolescence Xavier Dolan was, crucially, still an adolescent when he made this film: like Dolan’s debut, this represents teenage experience with exactness but not with hindsight. His movies have a special immediacy for that reason: in I Killed My Mother, the claustrophobic relationship between mother and son, and here, young people’s dawning sense of their sexual power, and their attempts to construct personae. The two friends at the film’s centre, played by Dolan and Monia Chokri, have a creepy, almost familial resemblance, like vampires, or Jean Cocteau’s self-infatuated siblings; the love triangle they’re drawn into recalls Jules and Jim. Dolan includes these influences straightforwardly, proudly, like posters on a bedroom wall; he shows us the way the characters see themselves, fixes in slow motion that way a particular dress or jacket makes them feel. He exerts almost unbelievable control as an actor, writer, editor and director: when he is purple, he is, like Taylor Swift, purple to a purpose. His films have a powerful sweetness, only heightened by their frequent stabs of anxiety. ***½

The Host (2006) – This remains, along with District 9 and The Babadook, the best monster movie made this century. One reason why is the way director Bong Joon-ho never loses sight of the individual in the midst of action – the monster’s initial rampage on the banks of the Han River (a classic sequence) is a built from brief incidents of panic, death, miraculous escape. Even when they’re only glimpsed for a moment, the people register as people. Another is his weird, complicated sense of humour: his characters – the movie centres on a family who run a food stand by the river – can seem exaggerated, gross, but in this movie buffoonery and heroism are not mutually exclusive, just as the family’s public outpouring of grief when the monster claims one of their own is both ridiculous and felt. This unstable tone, where clowning shades abruptly into suffering and vice-versa, is typical of Bong, and it leaves you off-balance, constantly re-thinking your relationship to the story. The constant is the family’s feeling for each other: none of them gifted in the slaying of monsters, all of them to some degree losers, they never flag in seeking reunion. ***½

She’s Gotta Have It (1986) – The black and white photography and the depiction of New York bohemia recalls John Cassavetes (as does the occasional stiffness of the acting); the way that director Spike Lee casts himself as a fast-talking small fry is in the tradition of Woody Allen’s unflattering self-portraits (the movie’s structure – a series of interviews with the characters giving their conflicting accounts directly to camera – may have been an influence on Allen’s Husbands and Wives); like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Martin Scorsese’s ‘woman’s picture’, it includes a reference to The Wizard of Oz. Lee makes something fresh out of all these influences. The structure is agreeably slapdash: the movie’s a collage like the one in the heroine Nola’s (Tracy Camilla Johns) apartment, with the freedom collage offers to paste in whatever grabs the artist’s eye. The best thing about it is its sense of humour, about men particularly (one highlight is a montage of “dogs” trying out pick up lines). Nola’s three suitors are types – the charming man-child, the self-infatuated yuppie, and the romantic whose grand gestures mask an angry sense of entitlement. The movie shows us what Nola sees in these men and why none of them is satisfying on their own. Her insistence on keeping her options open retains its liberating force. ***½

Walkabout (1971) – Nicolas Roeg’s movie makes no sense as geography: the children arrive in the desert in their school uniforms, as if it were a short afternoon drive from Sydney, and the desert itself is shot more as a series of striking locations than a coherent landscape. Roeg wants the children in uniforms to underline how strange and ill-prepared they are in this setting: this is typical of the director, sacrificing plausibility for the points he wants to make. Much of the film has not aged well, from the prurient way Roeg points his camera up Jenny Agutter’s skirt to the lack of curiosity about the David Gulpilil character’s language and culture. (The young white boy communicates much more fully with Gulpilil than his sister, but Roeg pays scant attention to this: he wants to keep Gulpilil the mysterious native.) It’s memorable nonetheless, with its own Hansel and Gretel atmosphere, chiefly because of Roeg’s gift for making familiar things strange: something as simple as Agutter stepping onto a tarred road seems momentous, a person crossing from one world to another. **½

Movie Diary 21/6/17

Gal Gadot in WONDER WOMAN.

Scarface (1983) – Often, Brian De Palma’s better films are, somewhat paradoxically, his uneven ones: what seems merely sloppy will suddenly come together in (or perhaps serve to foreground) one of his classic sequences, like the prom in Carrie or the slow-motion escape in The Fury. These moments stand out more than they would in a more consistent film; often they’re powerful enough to make the movie seem better than it was in retrospect. Scarface isn’t like that – it’s smooth all the way through, which isn’t necessarily an improvement. (The nearest thing to a standout sequence is the drug deal with the chainsaw.) De Palma makes full graphic use of Miami in the 80s, and his long shots – like the one that starts on an overpass and follows Steven Bauer into a refugee camp – effortlessly locate his characters in their world. Yet his technique never provokes the anxious jolts of identification so characteristic of his best work. Perhaps it’s the hackneyed story elements – the Scorsese wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) who enters with style and then has nothing to do but complain; the honest immigrant mother who reproaches her criminal son; the best friend who betrays the hero with a woman. There’s little sense of surprise, and Pacino’s intensity is as monotonous as Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining, so that at the end, there’s only one place to take it – over the top, into ludicrousness. **½

The Thin Red Line (1998) – In many ways, this is the opposite of Apocalypse Now: the jungle is not presented as ominous but rather in terms of its physical beauty (war is, among other things, a desecration of landscape); its perspective is not assigned to a single, alienated officer but dispersed amongst soldiers of various ranks; and unlike the Vietnamese in Coppola’s movie, Terrence Malick grants the Japanese full humanity – the captured enemy are as individual in their pride and exhaustion as their American counterparts, and the sequence where the Americans storm the Japanese camp is the most upsetting thing in the movie. It’s more perfect than Malick’s later The Tree of Life (the flashbacks with Miranda Otto anticipate that film): it’s a masterpiece, maybe the great war movie. You could poke fun at Malick’s lyricism – the fantasy of island life entertained by one soldier, the sexual daydreams of another – if it was not so brutally undercut in the final hour. There’s no going home for these men (the only one who does is sent against his will): the film is, in its unhurried way, relentless, its horror only intensified by its immense beauty. ****

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) – David Lynch has his Wizard of Oz side: his ambiguous images and ominous noises are sometimes the empty gestures of a showman. Here, he drains the original Twin Peaks of mystery and emotion, by repeating familiar effects (Ray Wise’s uncanny shifts in expression; torchlight probing the woods; Frank Silva prowling through a pastel room) and laboriously depicting events any viewer of the show has long taken for granted. The frequent flashes of Sheryl Lee’s breasts and the graphic murders have a gratuitous, exploitative vibe: in this instance, Lynch does not seem that different from the backroom creeps who take advantage of Laura and Donna. And all this is an improvement on the first part of the film, which repeats the show’s initial setup (Chris Isaak plays an eccentric FBI agent coaxing information from the inscrutable inhabitants of a small town) with the slack pacing and stifled giggles of a bad school play, Lynch’s trademark pauses devoid of tension or humour. Isaak is emblematic of the film as a whole: a gnomic, contemptuous hipster, pleased with himself for no good reason. It’s pretty close to terrible. *½

Wonder Woman (2017) – The fact that this was hard to make – that releasing a film with a female protagonist is regarded as a brave gamble – is a sign of what a timid sausage party mainstream movies have become. Unfortunately, that’s the only chance Wonder Woman takes: otherwise it’s a standard superhero movie, with all the genre’s flaws. The first half hour is so bogged down in flashbacks and exposition that it never gets a rhythm going. The last half hour is an interminable monologue by the movie’s villain, and the obligatory green screen duel – on a different, pulverising plane to the rest of the action, so that the story to that point seems almost not to count. Visually, the Greek blues and whites of Diana’s island home are a welcome change from DC movies’ usual relentless sobriety, but it soon plunges back into the murk. The film’s anti-war message is a mess: Wonder Woman never questions her own warrior culture, or perceives any parallels between it and the modern war machine. And for all Gal Gadot’s sad contemplation of the victims of violence, the movie’s (ahistorical) presentation of the Germans in WWI as Nazi-style villains allows her to dispatch them without any pangs of conscience. **

Movie Diary 27/4/17

Ewan McGregor in TRAINSPOTTING.

Power Rangers (2017) – With an off-colour joke about milking a bull, the filmmakers signal a sense of humour about what they’re doing; a bruising car chase, captured in a spinning single shot, signals that they’re as interested in their teen protagonists’ lives as in robots joining combat. The Rangers’ new powers are bewildering to them in the best Buffy the Vampire Slayer tradition; as in Buffy, the superheroics jostle with ordinary adolescent emotions for the kids’ attention. Director Dean Israelite knows he isn’t resurrecting a classic, and the fact that much of the action is set in a quarry seems an affectionate nod to so much cheapo science fiction; the actual small-town set where the climax takes place (a physical environment with its own purpose-built unreality) give the action a pleasant 90s feeling. (There are wry touches throughout, like situating the Hellmouth under a Krispy Kreme.) It’s the most exuberant teen movie since Pacific Rim; better, because it gives its girl characters something to do. ***

Rogue One (2016) – This demonstrates how the new Star Wars franchise could wear out its welcome: by telling the same story over and over. It’s identical in outline to The Force Awakens (and thus to A New Hope): a loner from a remote space outpost discovers a sense of purpose in fighting the Empire, gathering a disparate group of allies around them. What played as homage the last time around here seems like a failure of imagination, and a safe commercial bet. In all the immensity of space there’s only one narrative, and the same old obsession with lost parents; titles now identify each planet we visit, as if the filmmakers were determined to scrub the universe of any mystery. One reason the Ben Mendelsohn character – an Imperial middle manager trying to please his superiors and retain control of his project – stands out so much is that he doesn’t have an obvious antecedent in the Star Wars universe. He suggests the wealth of stories that could be told from other perspectives. The movie goes through its motions proficiently, however, with plenty of exciting gunplay and that special Star Wars earnestness, its future technology carefully grounded in familiar landscapes. **½

Trainspotting (1996) – Visually, this takes its cues from Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch – the use of sets to produce a sense of unreality, the poisonous reds and greens of the junkies’ lair, the sudden, disturbing distortions of time and space – but this is a better, livelier film, with a sharp sense of humour. It has a clear moral sense, without ever taking itself too seriously: Ewan McGregor’s Renton prides himself on being too hip for consumer society (his narration provides much of the film’s energy), but he’s a charming parasite and a quisling, ready to betray his friends but not to stand up to them. The movie looks at their pranks and good times – so often predicated on theft or the prologue to a sudden act of violence – objectively. Their victories are always pathetic, or undercut in some way. Danny Boyle’s effects here are not his later whiz-bang bag of tricks but integral to a vision: the apparitions and distended spaces are genuinely disturbing, approaching the death that claims several of the characters. Perhaps the final third, which concentrates on Renton’s growing ambivalence about his friends, drags a little, but this remains the best work of nearly everyone involved. ***½

T2 Trainspotting (2017) – Much of this is literally self-regarding, the four friends pondering footage of themselves as young men, like Norma Desmond watching her old movies in Sunset Boulevard. Part of the current wave of 90s nostalgia, Danny Boyle and John Hodge throw in familiar elements – the goading music cues, the wry encounters with authority, a tour of locations from the original – like old musos breaking out the hits; Hodge gives Ewan McGregor an updated “Choose life” monologue. The film lacks the original’s élan and its horror: it sticks to the disappointed middle of these men still making similar mistakes in their 40s. It captures pretty well, though, the old mixture of insouciance and futility, and though McGregor has become a cheesy, ingratiating actor, both Robert Carlyle and Ewen Bremner find new dimensions to their characters. The most surprising decision is to make Spud, not Renton, the storyteller, the one who speaks for the group. In this delayed Bildungsroman, it’s Spud who goes away at the end to write the book; the movie’s best moments are about the power of story to make sense of the haphazard events of our lives. **½

Wet

Moisture gets in everything:
the bricks
nearest the ground
store it up,
thirsty shapes,
like the chalk that drinks
blue dye
to make
a scientist’s point.

The garage wall glares at me,
property
that continues
to do its work,
for now,
even as it
courts
its dissolution.

The books curl upstairs,
the rugs
heavy as moss:
the house
responding
to this atmosphere
that makes the paint clam
and
threads new falls
through the bush.

The roof keeps off
only
the part that drops;
not the fog
that floats in,
a slumming cloud,
the air
that with humid fingers
touches
everything
like a child.

The laundry basket,
susceptible
wicker,
falls apart
at one touch.

Glacier

Glacier

His death approached,
a glacier,
advancing
massive, imperceptible,
scouring the rock
to brake,
an insufficient grip.

The trick
was that the changes
seemed to
happen all at once;
we’d wake
and find his crown of ice
had slipped metres
to the ocean,
the place where he would break.

The lie of his size
made him
seem invulnerable,
but he was only
part of the herd
pressing whitely on,
the course
as inexorable
as any
killing floor.

I float
some distance out
and watch him melt,
in this sea
that is warm to him,
cold to me.

He was never any landmark,
and I try not to blame him
as he ceases to be.

He wanted this,
ruminating darkly
on how little he would come to,
closing
around
his progress
like a fist.

Movie Diary 14/3/17

Martin Sheen in APOCALYPSE NOW.

Martin Sheen in APOCALYPSE NOW.

Apocalypse Now Redux (2001) – The movie’s weaknesses are obvious: Martin Sheen’s narration frequently belabours points already made by the images; the black soldiers are, predictably, the first to die; and Coppola never tops the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence an hour in (a problem when there are two hours to go). The Vietnamese are almost invisible in a war fought in their country, and Coppola’s use of Khmer-style ruins as set dressing for his vision of ‘primitive evil’ demonstrates his cluelessness about that great civilisation. It’s a classic anyway, mainly on the strength of its imagery: Laurence (“Larry”) Fishburne dancing on deck with his portable cassette player; the bright rounds of ammunition sailing suddenly out of the jungle; the layered action of the battle sequences. Much of the film’s ambivalent power comes from the way it seems to share the assumptions of the American soldiers: glorying in their seeming invulnerability when attacking from the air; ogling, with them, the visiting Playmates; emptying a machine gun into a boatload of innocent merchants. It plays as a series of set pieces, which draws our attention to their staging: war, it suggests, is another kind of American production, like the USO show, like the film we’re watching. The climactic encounter with Brando is a letdown, his Method monologuing a less persuasive expression of evil than what we’ve already witnessed along the river. The Americans didn’t find evil in the jungle; they brought it with them. ***

Jackie (2016) – Pablo Larraín’s film employs the same strategy as the video for Lana Del Rey’s “National Anthem”: wealth glimpsed in home movie snatches, deliberately scrambled, to evoke a fairytale lost (perhaps imaginary) and remembered in flashes. This turns out to be entirely apt: Larraín presents Jackie Kennedy as an auteur, the conscious creator of that Camelot imagery, at a time when the value of image in politics was not fully appreciated. Natalie Portman plays a woman not entirely comfortable with the technology that disseminates that imagery, setting the terms on which she ventures out of her privacy, stiff with the effort of self-presentation. The movie’s weakness is that it mostly stays on this surface level – Jackie performing her appreciation of a classical recital, Jackie alone in her beautifully appointed White House, Jackie regarding herself in mirrors. It’s structured around an interview she gives after her husband’s assassination: like Jackie with the journalist, the film teases access to her inner life, but gives very little away. ***

Kong: Skull Island (2017) – This isn’t a meaningful engagement with the war genre or even, like Super 8, fun rummaging through movie clichés. The 70s stuff is product differentiation, one of those small points of difference meant to convince audiences that this blockbuster is not identical to all the others preceding it. It’s closer to The Lost World than Apocalypse Now, and it lacks even the memorable set pieces of Spielberg’s lacklustre sequel. The gathering of an A-team is one of the more tedious conventions in this kind of movie, and Kong takes far too long getting to the monsters – particularly when most of the people it introduces are dull (Brie Larson’s war photographer) or actively annoying (Tom Hiddleston’s chest-out posing; Samuel L. Jackson’s crazed militarist). We actually don’t get much of Kong, and the film never involves us with him emotionally – the motor of other, better versions of this story. It’s a just-okay monster movie. **

Moonlight (2016) – This breaks new ground, not only in the specificity of its black, gay perspective, but in dispensing with the coming out narrative altogether. Both Chiron’s peers and the adults in his life take his sexuality for granted; the film is more interested in the larger question of masculinity – of how to be a man in a culture where any softness is a dangerous weakness. Chiron finds his flawed answer in Juan (Mahershala Ali), whose generosity and gentle self-possession are compromised by his participation in the drug trade; he undermines Chiron’s safety even as he provides him with his only haven. The three-act structure is reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for Steve Jobs – the same characters confronting the hero across time – but this has the sense of development that film lacked. Partly it’s the skill with which Barry Jenkins inflects settings and gestures – like the way two different characters cradle Chiron’s head on the beach; partly it’s the amazing continuity of spirit of the three Chirons, from skinny kid (Alex R. Hibbert) to stiff teen (Ashton Sanders) to jacked young man (Trevante Rhodes), so that he seems to grow up before your eyes. Then there’s the beauty Jenkins finds in faces, in the urban environments, in the orange, pink and blue light. It’s a wonderful movie. ****

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) – This has its own stubborn rhythm – we watch the passing scenery on a road trip, hobble with an old woman through a tamarind plantation. The rhythm is expressive two ways: it’s how the country feels to the farmer Boonmee’s relatives, newly arrived from Bangkok, and it’s the pace forced on Boonmee and his sister-in-law by their physical ailments. When the supernatural begins to intrude, it’s unlike other ghost stories because it seems part of this rhythm: the living characters accept the appearance of their dead relatives with matter-of-fact courtesy. Apichatpong Weerasethakul presents a world where people can walk calmly out of life when their time has come, into the jungle. The city characters turn their back on this world, but it leaves their spirits restless (and when their spirits go wandering, they end up sitting in a karaoke bar). It’s a strange, mesmerising film – interrupting the action at one point to give us a fairy tale about a princess – a beautiful meditation on tradition and modernity, life and death. ***½

Movie Diary 6/2/17

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in LA LA LAND.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in LA LA LAND.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) – The wealthy person who employs a coterie of hangers-on to prop up their illusions is a familiar figure in film: what’s novel about Stephen Frears’ movie is that it presents these relationships as loving rather than parasitical. Like Hugh Grant’s character, Frears has become the self-effacing facilitator of star performances; Grant gives a career-best performance as the husband who subordinates his life to his wife’s delusions. The film takes its time orienting us: it’s not clear how the relationships function. This complicates our response to Meryl Streep as Jenkins: there’s something monstrous about the way she commandeers the lives of the people around her, the way she feels entitled to flattering attention. At the same time, straining for the notes, her singing exposes her physical frailty (Streep’s recent roles have all explored mortality): we understand why people are protective of her, even as we grimace at the sounds she produces. ***

La La Land (2016) – More than other movie genres, the musical depends on stars – on their talent, their electrifying presence. Like Robert Wise’s West Side Story, Damien Chazelle’s film is a directorial showcase that feels a bit hollow because of the humans at its centre. Chazelle’s camera is almost sentient, another character: it takes us by the elbow, directing our gaze, while carefully choreographed points of interest pop up, like the animatronics on a theme park ride. At one point it leaps into a swimming pool. But the tour guide is more engaging than the view. When Ryan Gosling tells Emma Stone that she should “write something as interesting as you are,” he seems to be talking about someone else; when Stone gives up on her dream and moves home, it seems a realistic acceptance of her limitations. The bad grace with which Gosling accepts his paying gigs is deeply unattractive, especially when his precious private expression is a simple, sentimental piano figure. (He’s the second Chazelle hero in a row to want to be a ‘jazz genius’.) I was left wondering if Chazelle made his people so ordinary so that his direction could be the star. **

Moana (2016) – The set up – a young tribal leader butts heads with her father because she wants to do things differently – feels like a retread of How To Train Your Dragon, but fortunately the film wastes little time in launching its heroine upon her quest. The movie takes advantage of the quest narrative’s freedom to go anywhere, and the adversaries Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) encounters are pleasantly random, from a marauding horde of coconuts (which have a Miyazaki feel) to a gold-encrusted crab. There’s a cute meta moment kidding Disney’s princess formula, and this represents a satisfying renovation of that formula: this story does not make an issue of the heroine’s gender, nor does it saddle her with a prince. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs communicate context and character with typical precision; the singing voices are strong without that cloying Broadway calculation of effect. The heart of the movie is in Moana’s interactions with the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), a braggart in the Gaston tradition: in the close confines of the boat, their interactions play out with a theatrical crispness, like actors on a stage. Another worthy entry in Disney’s current hot streak. ***

New York, New York (1977) – In outline, this is very similar to La La Land, and there are sequences – like Liza Minnelli fighting her way through a crowd at Robert De Niro’s gig, or the jazz club he opens at the end – that were clearly an influence on the later film. The effect, however, is completely different. Partly, it’s the improvisatory approach: driven by the actors, the scenes take forever getting anywhere. Sometimes, as in the scene where Minnelli and De Niro both try to direct their big band, this pays dividends; more often, as with De Niro’s interminable attempts to pick Minnelli up at the outset, it’s a drag. Crucially, though, both stars suggest artistic temperament, and talent that demands expression; what Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling’s characters in La La Land so singularly lack. That being said, it’s not really a satisfying movie: muddy, with the visual imagination mainly confined to the stylised sets. De Niro’s come-ons are not as charming as they’re meant to be, and there’s a curious break in Minnelli’s performance. In the big band era, she sings controlled, carefully phrased standards; when she gets to the Kander and Ebb stuff she’s bombastic, all fortissimo, arms flailing. She’s a completely different singer, with no hint of one in the other. **

Movie Diary 28/11/16

Elizabeth Berkley in SHOWGIRLS.

Elizabeth Berkley in SHOWGIRLS.

Arrival (2016) – Like The Martian, this concentrates on process – it’s about the effort to understand the language of a recently arrived race of aliens – but it has the sense of mystery and grandeur that Ridley Scott’s movie lacked. Often the process is not very clear – after a big build-up, Amy Adams looking fearful on her long ascent into the aliens’ spaceship, her first encounter with the aliens is weirdly truncated, as if we wouldn’t find it interesting, and there’s far too much staring at whiteboards. It turns out the alien encounters are only a background to Adams’ private drama of bereavement: like Interstellar, Denis Villeneuve’s film neglects the cosmic possibilities of the situation to concentrate on individual feelings. This is yet another space story that dwells on the death of a loved one – in this case Adams’ daughter. It has become a lazy way to imbue space with human emotion. The mood carries you along, though: the camera raked up on a diagonal, watching the skies even inside; the mute elegance of the ships, hovering like mysterious Apple products in the sky; the way the film plays with the perception of time. **½

Elle (2016) – The plot outline – a woman (Isabelle Huppert) with good reason to distrust the police attempts to discover on her own the identity of the masked man who raped and continues to stalk her – doesn’t begin to convey the complexity of what Paul Verhoeven is up to here. Yes, it’s a thriller with the requisite twists and the heroine alone in her house at night, but it’s also a harsh comedy about sex in middle age (Huppert meets with a lover whose disregard for her feelings is almost as total as her rapist’s), a portrait of her extended family, and a profound meditation on the roles we play with our sexual partners, and how trauma figures in the imagination of survivors. The movie opens formally, the sudden sound of broken glass like a bell announcing the action: it’s both ferocious and controlled. The sex – whether rape, consensual, or somewhere in between – packs real, transgressive heat, disrupting the categories. Huppert’s Michèle insists on her own individual responses; she resists any sort of label. It’s an extraordinary performance. This is Verhoeven’s masterpiece. ****

Hell or High Water (2016) – The depressed small town setting – the oil rigs and empty shops, the bleached pastel colours, the gas station revealed in a casual pan to the right to be perched above an infinite plain – is so potent that, like the bayou in True Detective, it overmasters the story that Taylor Sheridan has contrived in the foreground. (Director David Mackenzie may overdo the ironic use of billboards – the robber brothers driving past signs that read DEBT and FAST MONEY.) It’s a problem when a film’s bystanders are more compelling than its protagonists; the waitresses and loitering old men are originals, the wily, slow-moving sheriff (Jeff Bridges) and the volatile jailbird brother (Ben Foster) definite types. It’s the sort of film that might have starred Bill Paxton back in the 90s: one reason for its wide acclaim is that this kind of small-scale crime drama is now a rare breed. It does become more affecting as it goes along, the bond between the brothers deepening, and the final heist and its aftermath are tense and exciting. ***

Showgirls (1995) – From the first, long shot following the heroine onto the highway, Paul Verhoeven uses his camera to explore tacky environments, from expertly choreographed tours of a casino floor and its dressing rooms to the hot pink inferno of a strip bar. Elizabeth Berkley gives one of those compelling bad performances that end up succeeding in spite of themselves: she’s both emotionally thin and totally committed, in a way that makes sense of her scattershot character. Her performance comes together in her dancing, which seems to come from the same place as her sudden fits of rage: she approaches the stage like a warrior, every muscle tensed, moving in violent spasms. She ends up a literal Amazon, going to war with her breasts exposed. Like Nomi, the film is rarely what you expect: it introduces hackneyed elements like ‘art’ versus ‘selling out’, or the lesbian villainess (Gina Gershon), only to take them in surprising directions. Richly deserves its cult status. ***