Tag Archives: review

Calling Aaron Sorkin’s bluff: Molly’s Game review

13 Jan

Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom and Idris Elba as her lawyer in Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. This courtroom scene, with its extended seat-switching gag, is cute on the page, but leaden and ludicrous on-screen, requiring a screwball comedy both performers lack.

Poker does not translate well to the big screen. The drama is mostly internal. Watch a YouTube video of any key hand, and it will last several minutes. For most of that time, one player remains deep in thought: “He bet this, but on the last street he bet that, which means he could have this, but then this player often bets like so, and also he probably believes I have this whereas in fact I have that, and therefore…”

Fellow poker players find this internal drama gripping, because they will be going through the same thought process as they watch. Non-players, ie the majority of the film-going public, just see someone sitting on a chair frowning.

Major movies with poker scenes usually solve this problem by going over the top with preposterous hands and stakes. The classic example is Casino Royale, in which James Bond wins a $115m pot with a straight flush vs Aces full vs eights full vs a flush. Only Rounders remains true to the thought processes and rituals of the game, by means of extensive voice-over to get us into the heads of the players.

Molly’s Game, the directorial debut of peerless screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, ducks the problem entirely. The few poker sequences are filmed in the now hackneyed slow/fast motion style that directors reach for when they want to jazz up a scene and make it look “cool”. As to the rituals of poker that make it so compelling to its acolytes – the secret language of trips, boats, nuts and check-raises, the banter and the unwritten codes of table etiquette – those, too, are sidelined. It’s a particular shame here, as Molly’s Game took place in a world of high-stakes home games open only to the privileged few: we would have liked to peer behind the curtain.

Instead, Aaron Sorkin makes it a character study of Molly herself: a high-achiever with a hard-driving father whose Olympic skiing ambitions were crushed early by injury, and who found herself, almost by accident, running an illegal high-stakes poker game to Hollywood A-listers, hedge-fund millionaires and – her downfall – a smattering of mobsters.

This should be right in Sorkin’s comfort zone. From A Few Good Men through The West Wing to The Social Network, he has made a speciality of fast, intelligent dialogue spoken by fast, intelligent people. That he fails even in this is down to the central performance, or possibly Sorkin’s direction of it. As becomes painfully obvious from the opening voice-over, Jessica Chastain just can’t get her mouth around his script. She rattles it out, but doesn’t own it, like a soap star called upon to do Shakespeare.

As the lawyer who defends her, Idris Elba, too, seems at sea. There is no chemistry between the two, and his American accent is ludicrous. Only Kevin Costner as Molly’s father gives any sense of being a complex, flesh-and-blood person with an emotional hinterland, rather than an actor reciting lines.

In fairness, I should point out that many of my fellow reviewers seem to disagree, praising at least outstanding performances by two great actors at the top of their game, if not Sorkin’s direction. All I can imagine is that they have fallen into a classic poker trap of being influenced by the players’ strong past records, and believed the bluff.


First full review of The Last Jedi (spoiler-free)

12 Dec

Daisy Ridley as Rey and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

As someone who made a pact with God in my teens to spare my life until all nine films in the proposed Star Wars canon were completed, I watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi with mixed feelings. On the one hand it’s brilliantly acted, often funny, occasionally affecting, and with a climactic scene of startling beauty and grandeur. On the other hand, if I am to be struck down by a bolt of lightning after the next one, I’m not sure it’s entirely worth it.

Let’s start with the good stuff, and I promise to keep this spoiler-free. Daisy Ridley, already good in The Force Awakens, has grown into the role of Rey: she’s not just tough, she’s really funny. It seems like she’s been given all the best lines, until you write them down and realise they’re not that witty; it’s just the way she tells ‘em.

Adam Driver, of course, is a “proper” actor with an impressive indie CV that includes the sublime Paterson, and in this second film of the third trilogy he’s given much more scope to display his range. When he and Ridley share the screen, locked in a Jedi mind battle with a frisson of sexual tension, the effect is electric.


Kawaii! One of the loveable Porgs in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Benicio del Toro also briefly joins the cast, and enjoyably out-hams the lot with a stutter like Hannibal Lecter sniffing a liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. He plays an incorrigible rogue of no fixed allegiance, which goes some way to filling a Han Solo-shaped hole. Non-human additions include the Porgs, fat birds that have evolved the very sensible defence mechanism of being so kawaii that predators feel too guilty to eat them; the Fathiers, which are like extra fast and strong horses with goat-like faces; and the friendly Vulptices or crystal foxes.

There are some knowing winks to the original trilogy: Kylo Ren spinning briefly out of control in his TIE fighter, as Darth Vader once did; a rather gratuitous sequence in a casino where the score echoes the music during the alien bar scene of the very first film; and Princess Leia’s brilliantly bathetic opener to Luke Skywalker when they finally meet again after many years apart: “I know what you’re going to say,” she tells Luke: “I changed my hair.”

And though some action scenes are underwhelming – once you’ve seen one spaceship chase, you’ve seen ‘em all, and by now we’ve seen dozens; plus there’s a key lightsaber battle that is flat-out badly choreographed – there is one extended scene so breathtaking that it would not be out of place in Hero or House of Flying Daggers. It’s on a planet of salt flats that cover hidden scarlet sands, such that the boundless white plains, when trod by boot or furrowed by laser cannon, become streaked with red. These few gashes, as vivid as a Rothko, by the end merge into a vast charnel field of red, in which a single figure stands alone…

This is a pay-off that has taken 40 years to build, and it’s worth the weight.

And now the negatives. The Last Jedi is busy. Very busy. Aside from some obligatory Force mumbo jumbo between Rey and Luke on “the most unfindable place in the galaxy” (in reality Ireland’s Skellig Michael), it’s all running around without really any place to go. The Resistance forces have no clear or noble goal, beyond trying not to get blown up. They engage in numerous red herring missions of questionable logic. And there are glaring and, frankly, unforgivable inconsistencies in plot and character motivation that I would love to enumerate but won’t (because spoilers). To pick just the biggest, the hot-headed Poe (Oscar Isaac) would in any other army be court-martialled and vilified for gross insubordination with disastrous consequences – not once, but twice! – yet here he’s somehow still treated as a hero. No wonder the First Order are winning.

All the same, massive kudos to writer/director Rian Johnson for taking the best-loved movie franchise of all time and making not just a film that the fans can get behind, but a movie that feels like it’s his own.


Raiders of the Lost Art: the singular MuBild exhibition of Frith Powell

2 Nov
FP painting

“Playing Field of a Circular Argument”, by Frith Powell

I saw two art exhibitions at the weekend: the magnificent collection of 50 Cézanne portraits and self-portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, and an astonishing retrospective of the work of Oxford-based artist Frith Powell.

Cézanne was termed “the father of us all” by Matisse and Picasso, yet he was at first ridiculed by art critics and achieved recognition only later in life. Though he first submitted work to the Paris Salon in 1863, the first (and last) of his paintings was not accepted until 19 years later.

It made me wonder how many great artists are currently hiding in plain sight, unheralded by their contemporaries.

Later this weekend, I got my answer. One, at least, is living in Oxford.

Stepping into the Barn Gallery at St John’s College, one feels something akin to what those Victorian explorers hacking through the jungle must have felt when the undergrowth suddenly gave way to a lost civilisation. Frith Powell’s major exhibition, “The MuBild of Arte Normale and the Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti”, is not just an extraordinary body of work, previously unseen. It feels like a whole new lost branch of art.


“MuBild” translates as “nothing art”: “Mu” being Japanese for “nothing”, with “Bild” German for “art”. The term “Arte Normale” stems from a meeting in the ‘90s between the artist and Time Out’s then Art Editor, Sarah Kent, which in fact I helped engineer. Frith Powell says that Sarah looked at his paintings nonplussed, saying that this was not “normal abstraction”.

Indeed it’s not. This “nothing art” is like nothing else. It’s an attempt to make abstraction real: to give symbols and figures from Frith Powell’s id solidity and form, in an alternative language whose rules and syntax seem all clearly thought out but are tantalisingly not quite divinable to the outsider. The connection is made overt with a horned symbol that recurs in many paintings, but which Frith Powell has also given physical form in white marble. The sculpture is exquisite, a thing of beauty and mystery, alternately suggesting devil’s horns, a crown, or a plucked tooth.

Frith Powell himself says that “the essential challenge for me, as an abstract painter, is in creating what could be called a ‘fiction of reality’, something that looks as though it might be real, at first sight, or is at least highly suggestive of reality, but on closer examination is seen to be unrecognisable. Other.”

FP Beckley view

“View from the Common Road, Beckley” by Frith Powell

Though the paintings vary in style and medium, having been created over several decades, the whole is astonishingly coherent. Only one work stands out like a sore thumb: “View from the Common Road, Beckley” is a detailed landscape in pen and ink, the perspective perfectly proportioned, the trees just right. One wonders if it is included as a definitive rebuke to the uncharitable viewer who might be wondering whether Frith Powell chooses abstraction only because he lacks the technical skill for representation.

And this is just one half of the exhibition. The other is “The Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti”, which is a collection of sculptures and objects housed in glass display cabinets. The fact that this exhibition is just five minutes’ walk from Oxford’s ethnographic Pitt Rivers Museum gives it extra piquancy. These objects are like the artefacts of some lost tribe – some functional, some religious, some sexually charged.

FP woodland deities

“Woodland Deities”, by Frith Powell

The anime director Hayao Miyazaki would appreciate the series of “Woodland Deities” carved from funguses in the remote forests of Northern Scandinavia, or the twisted branches that have been turned into fantastical flutes, or the faces found in or struck from pebbles. Conversely, Frith Powell (or rather his craftsman alter-ego, Fabio Penitenti) has returned civilisation to nature with three acorns that, if you look closely, were carved from Champagne corks, or spiralling Christmas trees fashioned from tin lids.

Also striking (and very funny; much of the exhibition is playful and raises a smile) are a gigantic spoon carved from a massive block of wood, that has a strong whiff of Christian iconography; and the “Poet’s bird feeder hat”, with bird seed stored in its brim for anyone wanting to play St Francis of Assissi for the day.


Part of the Singular Apprenticeship of Fabio Penitenti

In the interests of journalistic balance, I must declare an interest: I was at Oxford with Frith Powell’s wife Louise, also an artist, and have known the couple, on and off, for three decades. But I have seen only the odd piece until now. If I hadn’t been impressed, I would have written nothing. It is as a critic, not a friend, that I say this is an exceptional body of work, all the more astonishing for having been hidden from the light for so many years – Frith Powell is now 70.

Will art critics make the trek to Oxford? Are any editors still interested in unearthing fresh talent rather than chasing the clicks of the more established names? Perhaps not. But take my word for it. If you are in Oxford between now and November 16, do visit the Barn Gallery at St John’s College.

Remember that even Cézanne was once unknown.


Why Rogue One is more historical drama than sci-fi – and all the better for it

18 Dec

Felicity Jones leads the way in Rogue One: a Star Wars Story

Director Gareth Edwards has said he wants Rogue One: a Star Wars Story to be considered a heist movie as much as science-fiction. Actually, it occurred to me it was more like a historical drama.

Of course all the events in Star Wars do play out in the past, relative to our Earth (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”). But Rogue One, unlike The Force Awakens, is also set in 1977 – or rather, whatever vision of an alternative world George Lucas was able to come up with in 1977, which is always dictated by the times. Look at any sci-fi film, and despite the attempts of futurity, you can always tell exactly when it was made. Lucas’s genius was to make his world pre-distressed, so that it seemed relatively ageless  but you’re still aware of the hydraulic whirrs on the machinery, the primitive (by now) recording systems that lie at the heart of Rogue One’s plot, the minimalist colour schemes that (like in Logan’s Run and Lucas’s own THX 1138) passed for futuristic in the ‘70s.

Edwards has recreated this world meticulously, so that it slots in seamlessly with the original trilogy. But just as BBC historical dramas sometimes get straitened and stifled by their corsets, there was always a danger he would follow the template too slavishly, to give us the Star Wars formula with none of the fun.

Instead, it’s a minor triumph. Rogue One is funny, exciting, moving, brilliantly acted, with plenty of surprises, and very much Gareth Edwards’ own.


Arrival: thank God (or alien equivalent) for sci-fi with a brain

13 Nov

Amy Adams attempts to communicate with the visitors in Arrival

Arrival is that vanishingly rare thing: a major sci-fi release with a brain. When was the last one? Probably Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar in 2014, and its brain was pretty small: the whole film seemed based, as I wrote at the time, on a Queen song, while its striking time-dilation planet scene will be familiar to any fan, as Nolan is, of the works of Alan Moore (Halo Jones Book 3 on the planet Hispus, I’m looking at you).

Directed by the awesomely talented Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) and based on a short story, it imagines what would happen, and how people would feel, if alien ships suddenly took up position over the earth. Spoiler-free hint: it’s nothing like Independence Day.

I don’t want to give away too much about the film, as ever, but I will just give you one example of why and how it works. Doctor Strange has several striking fight scenes in which gravity is spectacularly upended. They are fun. But they don’t make you think. It’s all just special effects. The moment in Arrival when the heroes realise that gravity is no longer working according to accepted laws is a hundred times more powerful. Communicated through the panicked breath of Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, it feels real. We’re there, with them, as the enormity of the situation takes hold. There really are aliens, and they really are changing the laws of physics.

It’s that level of realism, applied to a science-fictional premise, that makes this a great film. I had thought, coming out of a preview a few months ago, that Amy Adams would be a lock for Best Actress at the Oscars. I’ve since seen La La Land, and without question that will sweep the board, including, probably, for Emma Stone. Nevertheless, Adams is terrific: Arrival rests entirely on her slender shoulders, and she Atlases it. Go see.


David Bowie’s Lazarus musical hits London: first review

7 Nov

Michael C Hall as Thomas Newton, with (left) Amy Lennox as the woman obsessed with him and Sophia Anne Caruso (right) as his guardian angel, in David Bowie’s Lazarus musical

Does Lazarus, the new David Bowie musical which has just transferred to King’s Cross in London from a sell-out run off-Broadway, live up to the mostly positive if faintly baffled reviews it received in New York? Put it this way: I went with four other people, three of them ardent Bowie fans, one so-so. By the end, I was the only one who hadn’t walked out. And I stayed largely on the basis that, having shelled out £75 for a ticket, I was damn well going to find something to enjoy. Then again, many in the audience gave it a standing ovation, so it hits the right note for some.

The plot – or more accurately premise, since there is nothing so jejune as a plot in evidence – is that we pick up where The Man Who Fell To Earth left off: with alien entrepreneur Thomas Newton trapped in a bare hotel room in unageing anhedonia, living off gin and Twinkies, and assailed by visitations of guardian angels and serial killers. Bowie songs begin and end pretty much at random, without troubling themselves to reflect the action.

The kindest thing one can say is that they demonstrate what a great singer Bowie was, because, delivered in musical style, they mostly sound hideous. Lyrics such as “It’s on America’s tortured brow, that Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow” are belted out as though profound rather than tossed off archly as Bowie would have done. Even Heroes, which you’d think was bullet-proof, sounds naff. Changes made me feel almost physically sick.

It’s not all bad: All The Young Dudes, The Man Who Sold the World, Valentine’s Day and It’s No Game work well, and the band, visible behind a perspex screen, are solid. Director Ivo van Hove pulls off the odd coup de théâtre, especially towards the end, making spectacular use of a floor-to-ceiling video screen. Michael C Hall of Dexter fame is in good voice as Newton, though he can’t rescue the bizarrely wooden dialogue. Michael Esper makes a convincing psycho.

But to me it’s all too little, too late, to save a production that feels like it was cobbled together in very little time from a few half-formed scraps of ideas – which, having subsequently read up on the genesis of the show, seems to be pretty much what happened in the rush to put on this “play with music” while Bowie yet lived.

Others will disagree. It’s a polarising, love-it-or-hate-it production. And in that, if nothing else, it’s a fitting testimonial to Bowie’s restlessly inventive and mercurial artistry.




Siberry the best: an intimate gig from ‘Canada’s answer to Kate Bush’

4 Oct

Jane Siberry: new album Angels Bend Closer is out in November

“My darlings, arise from your mossy beds, and leave your lichen dreams behind…”

These were the first words Jane Siberry uttered when she got up on stage last night. The opening lyrics to her song Morag were subtly altered to address her audience directly; they were liltingly spoken and not sung, without accompaniment from the guitar hanging round her neck. Instantly the 350-strong crowd gathered in London’s St James’s Theatre Studio – a far more intimate venue than this Canadian superstar would have commanded back home – were drawn close into Siberryland, a place where none of the usual rules of music, performance and even rationality apply.

Jane Siberry is sometimes described as Canada’s answer to Kate Bush, or to Tori Amos, as a way of explaining the reverence in which she is held in her native land. In truth, she has no more in common with them than they do with each other, beyond the fact that they all defy easy comparison or categorisation.

Siberry’s songs are like poems, or fragments of dreams. Her tunes are achingly beautiful but, like a painter who’s never quite happy with their canvas, she likes to mess them about in live performance until they are more perfectly imperfect. Her voice is a softly skirling, whirling bird of a thing, gusting upward on a sudden draught of inspiration and hovering briefly on its flight of fancy, before swooping down again to carry off the fugitive melody.

“Whoops,” she says at one point, smiling and correcting the fingering on her guitar, “I’ve drifted away from the chord.” After nearly 40 years in the music business, she seems more relaxed and at home on the stage with a crowd of strangers than most people are in their living room with close friends.

And she’s funny. After a particularly loud and long round of applause, she says, mock petulantly, “Fine. Chase me away with your clapping.” She introduces her song Dante by saying it’s not about the Italian poet, but named after a horse “who stamped negative energy into the ground”.

Having praised her sometime collaborator, k.d. lang, by saying “for some reason, artists like her and Frank Sinatra, their soul leaks on to their everyday voice”, she immediately undercuts her gushing with an aside, in the serious tones of a doctor delivering a diagnosis: “It could be leaky soul syndrome.” And, finding herself getting too deep about her combative mother, she adds: “I was thrilled when she died, because I finally got her to admit that if she’d been born in my times, she’d have been texting way more than me.”

Siberry has a new album out in mid-November: Angels Bend Closer, her first major recording in six years. On the evidence of this enchanting and enchanted evening, even with 20 previous CDs behind her, Siberry has plenty of magical surprises still up her sleeve.