May 112013


Mud (2013)Matthew McConaughey

Subtle and clunky, arty and crafty, nuanced and simplistic: Mud can be a frustrating experience. At times entrancing, at times flirting with absurdity, Jeff Nichols delivers an enjoyable, gorgeous-looking but, ultimately, incomplete piece of cinema that hits some, misses others of its targets and ends up a little too close to betraying the cultural lineage it’s so carefully paying its respects to.

It’s a sort of thriller, Mud, a sort of silver-screened Woody Guthrie/Springsteen song, a sort of folk tale, a sort of straightened-out Coen Brothers piece, a sort of Steinbeckian story of the family, and capitalism’s assault on ordinary people, a sort of Stand By Me-style coming-of-age movie, a sort of meditation on love, a sort of elegy for a disappearing America. Some of these it does well, some less so…

At times, there’s a breathtaking tension in the characters’ (and our) attempts to work out the truth about the relationship between Matthew McConaughey’s eponymous fugitive and Reece Witherspoon’s ambiguous femme fatale; there are shots of the Mississippi that are exquisitely, sparklingly seductive; there’s one moment of genuine, pleasurable shock. The whole thing is beautifully illuminated by Tye Sheridan’s performance as a Huckleberry Finnish kid struggling to force his way into an adult world in which men are crap fathers, hapless victims of feminine wiles, dark and reticent haunted ghosts… or all three. Sheridan, Witherspoon and the rest of the supporting cast are brilliant: it’s hard to take your eyes off them.

And the same is true of McConaughey, but not necessarily in a wholly positive way. Occasionally, both his character and his performance drag things ham-fistedly toward cliche, toward superficiality, toward artificiality, toward unintentional humour. He’s big, strong, monochromatic, Messianic; he talks like every cowboy/loner/misunderstood male figure in cinematic history rolled into one. There’s a rare delicacy to his responses in one scene that frustrates because of that very rarity: why couldn’t Nichols/McConaughey dig out more texture, more originality, more… authenticity? (And, while there’s a reasonable(ish) plot reason for McConaughey to do his usual crowd-pleasing thing and take his shirt off, by the time this happens the silliness of aspects of his character undermine the significance of the act)

All of which might make Mud sound worse than it is. And it’s a long film that doesn’t really feel long, it’s neatly paced, entertaining, literate and thoughtful. It pays too much homage to Great American Stories yet it’s sincere and sporadically winning in the way it attempts to do so. It straddles indie cinema and the mainstream unselfconsciously. It’s…good, pretty good. Not great – it could/should have been great – but still well worth seeing.

Feb 222013



Ear-biting cold, eye-stinging sleet, choking rush-hour traffic, exhaustion, bewilderment, misplaced anger and a Spurs team 1-0 down in France: not the greatest combination of things to drag with you into a late-afternoon Bloomsbury cinema, not the greatest preparation for some arty, subtitled Japanese film. And, for an hour, the paceless, near-plotless, meandering series of clean, careful, exquisitely-captured family snapshots that Hirozaku Koreeda offers up seems deliberately designed to further bewilder and exhaust and enrage. Another two hours of my life I’ll never get back… Continue reading »

Feb 282012









Touch me, baffle me, make me laugh, challenge me, hurt me, tell me something new, get me out of here for a couple of hours. That’s all I want. It’s all about projection. And all about the projectionist.


Having just staggered past my first half-century, I feel more than usually aware of time, of narrative, of history. Each of these films nods vigorously to the past, to the fables we create, the myths we tell, each offering a European perspective on American dreams. Each attempts to confront loss and desire, to address our need to climb out of the everyday, to play with our desperation to transcend, to connect. Each is referential, self-conscious, unafraid of its lack of originality; each sparked a response in me that pulled me away from – and then turned me back into – myself. Three days, three approaches to cinema, three more ways to look at your life:

I loved The Woman In The Fifth: it’s taut, tense, engaging, empathic, seductive, sinewy, unpredictable, is built solidly, skilfully on everything that has gone before. It’s flawed and humane and afraid.  It’s half art, half entertainment. It wishes we could all be different. It holds up mirrors, discomfiting as it tries to smooth the wrinkles, show us our own scars. Its echoes are far too much mine to leave me with any answers or any sense of neat resolution. It whispers snatched memories of Don’t Look Back (and of early Polanski). It made me want to invent my own Kristin Scott Thomas and realise the utter stupidity of wanting to invent my own Kristin Scott Thomas. It’s serious, a little silly, scary and satisfying.

I enjoyed The Artist: it’s sweet and clever, looks wonderful, is exquisitely, adoringly crafted. It’s in love with film, with film history, with the moving image, with glamour and escape and the allure of the superficial. It’s half craft, half entertainment. It wishes we were still in the Thirties, is both knowing and innocent. It shouts loudly and proudly about Billy Wilder and Singin’ in the Rain. It’s threadbare-plotted but, as I watched it,  I wanted to live inside it, just for a while (I still do).  And it made me feel guilty for wanting to describe it as ‘inconsequential’. Oh – and it made me want to be rescued by Berenice Bejo.

I hated Carnage: it’s cold, clinically well-crafted, stagey, clunky, manipulative, in love with the aesthetic rather than the soul of dialogue.  It wishes we were still in the Sixties. It’s constrained craft and unsubtle art and one (admittedly very funny) scene of real entertainment. It’s nothing like – and has little to say about – my life or anyone else’s, though it thinks, smugly, that it’s being wry, caustic and viciously misanthropic as it plays little satirical games that have been played far better before (some of them invented by its own director in another lifetime). It made me want to tell Kate Winslet to come home and stop wasting her talent, to ask Jodie Foster why she bothered, to shake Polanski and tell him to go and watch The Woman In the Fifth. Its only real warmth comes at the very end, in a teasingly cute twist that undercuts the weary cynicism of the rest.

Fantasy: it’s all fantasy, of course, and there’s no doubt all three films create/draw from feminine and masculine archetypes that fill, in very different ways, unimaginative, sentimental holes in the viewer. The three (male) directors (and any viewer) inevitably project our emptinesses into these avatars, these almost-humans, just as we do onto the films as a whole. But maybe – maybe – that’s OK: if those fantasies and projections can be exposed, mocked, re-drawn (as they are in The Woman In The Fifth and The Artist) while we escape or laugh or shiver, then maybe that’s everything that cinema can and should do. It’s just a shame that Polanski seems unable to learn his own lessons.






Jan 302011

I really wanted to like this…

One Saturday afternoon, when I was about twelve or thirteen, I found myself- to my horror- trapped in a well-dressed, respectful theatre in the West End watching Swan Lake. My dad was sitting to my right, my thrilled mum and rapt and awed sister to my left. About twenty minutes into the first Act, dad turned to me, pulled at my sleeve, whispered, ‘Shall we go?’ and led the way out of the place and into a crisp, white, sunny, free London. We walked down the river to see HMS Belfast- and I loved it.

A thousand years on, I’ve lost much of my class- and gender-resistance to the posh, to the ‘feminine’, to high culture and art, to strong and graceful men in tights making me feel inadequate and to women spinning lithe, sensual, sinewy emotion into and around narrative and metaphor and melody. I have in fact, I hope, tried actively to embrace all of that (with the exception, so far, of men in tights) and, belatedly, opened myself up to so much more than the phallic guns and shells, insularity and barely-suppressed rage of the Englishman. Continue reading »

Nov 132010

In a similar vein to the piece I wrote recently about the paintings that had had a sudden, visceral impact on me, here’s a few of the films that have had that kind of effect. It’s not a definitive list of ‘the greatest films’ or even of my ‘favourite’ films, just a few thoughts about some of the most affecting ones I’ve seen. Continue reading »


Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: