MARK WATNEY (MATT Damon) is one of a team of scientists doing pretty boring routine research work on the planet Mars (sometime in the near future) when disaster strikes. A howling Martian storm threatens the stability of their aircraft and Watney is slammed by a piece of debris and swept away into the darkness. Believing that he’s dead and fearing for their own safety, the ship’s captain (Jessica Chastain) makes the call…and leaves him behind.

Of course he’s not dead; he simply has a piece of antennae sticking out of his stomach. Watney drags himself back to base camp, repairs himself and begins the yawningly long process of fighting to survive for the next few years until help can reach him. He’s a very clever botanist. Call him MacGyver on Mars. He wraps the inside of his Martian habitat with plastic (who knows spacecrafts carried so much plastic with them. You learn something new every day), manages to manufacture water, uses his own carefully packaged feces and Martian dirt to grow potatoes, rigs up a contraption to get a message back to earth and fights off loneliness and despair by complaining about the disco song selection left behind by the captain.

Meanwhile, back on earth, crew captain Mitch (Sean Bean) and lead scientist Vincent (Chiwetel Ejiofor) must battle the PR conscious head of NASA (Jeff Daniels) about funding a search and rescue for Watney. No matter how fast they act, they won’t get to him in under two years.

But this is no Castaway talking to a football for company (or Robert Redford for that matter, not talking at all, in that wonderful survivor movie, “All is Lost”). Redford and Tom Hanks really invited us into their minds as they desperately battled to stay alive, batted to stay sane on an empty island. But Director Ridley Scott isn’t really interested in the mind twisting, psyche damaging madness of being stranded on a distant planet with, realistically, no means of escape. He’s more interested in showing how awfully clever and gung-ho his wise-ass astronaut botanist is. He remains ever chirpy in the face of disaster.

It’s probably Matt Damon’s most one-dimensional role…proving, I guess, that there really IS no life on Mars.

But let’s not judge “The Martian” on criteria that it wasn’t meant to be judged by. This is no ponderous “Prometheus” or pretentious “Interstellar”. “The Martian” is simply a good natured, late summer adventure blockbuster. It certainly has all the elements to offer a decent surge of blockbuster adrenaline: brilliant visuals, howling gales, people floating in space tethered delicately to rotating spacecraft, an “Apollo 13” type gang of braniacs trying to fix things from earth, Jason Bourne himself showing of his pecs and a climatic denoument set in the limitless darkness of the void.

And all as dull as dishwater.

Ridley Scott…the brilliant Ridley Scott, the man who gave us “Gladiator”, “Black Hawk Down”, “Thelma and Louise”, “Blade Runner” and “Alien” seems to be settling into an ouvre where pomp and circumstance (“Exodus: Gods and Kings” was his latest production) are replacing thrilling stories with engaging characters.

For pomp and circumstance there certainly is much of: the production design (by his go-to designer, Arthur Max) is impressively credible (apparently all NASA approved) and editor Pietro Scalia (“The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) stitches together the elements to squeeze every ounce of life out of the story.

It’s just that “Thunderbirds Are Go”, that old puppet series on TV had a better script and more interesting characters than “The Martian”, where unfortunately, even actors of the caliber of Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara and Michael Peña remain cardboard cut outs mouthing spacecraft mumbo jumbo.

Ah well, at least in space, no one can hear you shout

99 HOMES **** High Rise Excellence


MICHAEL SHANNON (FROM the underrated “Take Shelter”) is one of those actors who always seems to pop up in interesting movies. In “99 Homes”, he does not disappoint. The movie could well have been called “99 Lives”. It focuses on the agonizing human side of the 2008 housing crisis when, it seems, half of blue collar America had their lives foreclosed.

The movie begins with a stark image of the lives shattered by the implosion of cheap mortgages: we see the blood-smeared wall of someone who’s just shot himself. And emerging from the scene of this suicide, liken a succubus, is Rick Carver, Shannon’s real estate agent turned gun-toting eviction supremo. Carver is the cold, ruthless amoral face of the bank closures. As he tells his distraught victims, “I’m not evicting you, the bank is”… in other words, don’t blame me! For Carver, a home is no more than real estate… just a concrete box waiting to be flipped for a profit.

One of the concrete boxes he forecloses on (with, of course the full support of the police) is that of Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield who co-produced, emerging out of his Spiderman outfit to give a stunning performance). Nash is a recently unemployed carpenter/plumber/mason and general Jack of all trades. He lives with his young son (Noah Lomax) and mother (Laura Dern in a thankless role as his distraught conscience) in the home they’ve always lived in. No matter. The clash between Carver and Nash is the existential clash (as Carver sees it) between winners (“America is only for winners” he tells Nash) and losers; between an implacable (and in this case, corrupt) law and a sense of moral decency; between the abstract and bloodless idea of ‘The Bank’ and the tears of ‘real’ people; between real estate and a home.

The human dimension of Writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s well-crafted moral maze comes when, in urgent need of a handyman, Carver turns to Nash. Out of desperation, Nash swallows his revulsion of working with the man who kicked him out of his home and begins to work for him. Carver finds that he’s lucked out: Nash is more than a handy man; he’s an excellent leader. He’s also desperate to get back his home. And, as Carver well knows, a desperate man will do desperate things. Bit by bit, the lure of easy money, much of it made by bending the law, strips away Nash’s conscience and self worth. Profit as always, wins out over the values of human decency and empathy. Justice loses out to the law. The trajectory of the story follows Nash’s moral decline…his drift from proud father and son to a ‘nose’ following the scent of the money.


In the hands of lesser actors, Bahrani’s fable of human frailty could easily have come across as a bit too strident, as there’s no question whose side the director is on. But Garfield’s Nash emerges as a basically decent person (with a wonderfully realized bond with his son), torn apart by circumstances and his own too fallible humanity. The Englishman Garfield inhabits this down and out blue collar American as if it’s his own skin. As he suffers wordlessly, introspectively, his is a master-class of acting with the eyes. He allows us to see beyond them to his conflict and despair and greed and tragic loss that’s tearing him apart.

For Carver however, as the embodiment of the housing crash, of ruthless profiteering, ever on the prowl for fresh victims like some daylight Nosferatu, Shannon offers a portrait of unfeeling sleaze. If Garfield communicates his anguish via the despair in his eyes, Shannon’s sneer shouts his contempt of the losers.

It’s a writer’s movie. Bahrani shares writing credits with fellow writers, Amir Naderi and Bahreh Azimi. Theirs is a screenplay that’s densely, almost theatrically articulate. For the sleazy Carver is, if nothing else, a glib, smooth talking apologist for unrepentant greed. And those writers gave him a magnificent script to bring alive.

It’s a jucily written role in a jucily well directed film.

And finally as an aside, the team that brought this very American tale to the screens are Americans of Saudi, Iranian, Russian, Afghani and English descent. How very American (but don’t tell Trump)



“AMERICAN ULTRA” WRITTEN, by Max Landis (John’s son) and directed by Nima Nourizadeh (a British Iranian), is a confused, blood-drenched, humorless little movie. From the trailers, it seemed like a cliched but funny enough premise: a stoned, sleeper agent is activated, and, much to his surprise turns out to be a highly trained lethal weapon. Call it a pastiche of “Bourne Identity” meets “The Long Kiss Goodnight”.

But by reel two (to use an antiquated reference point) the comic vein dries up. Landis is a very young (he’s only 30), but prolific writer and he just didn’t have the experience or nous to sustain this one trick pony of an idea for the entire 90 minute journey of the film. So, in a movie that seems to have been written even as it was being shot, he segued away from absurdist humor to what feels like an homage to Robert Rodriguez in his “Machete” phase. It’s not a successful genre mash-up.

Alas, neither the nerdy charm of Jessie Eisenberg nor the low-keyed sparkle of Kristen Stewart, manage to rescue this farrago. Jessie has already settled into a cinematic ‘type’ and here he lives up to his own cliché of the bumbling nerd. He’s not alone. Tony Hale, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ fawning, effeminate bag-man from “Veep” phones in his own cliche in a role as a fawning effeminate drone operator. Poor Kristen: she had the hardest job. With no character type to fall back on, she tries valiantly to make something of her underwritten mish-mash role – of loving supporter, come CIA operative.

In the end, “American Ultra” feels like something concocted after the pleasures of a large bong and directed while still stoned, with the ghost of Wes Craven hovering around and screaming for more blood, more spilt guts and more explosions to pump up the excitement. What started out as an ephemeral evening’s entertainment has clearly morphed into some crazed producer’s wannabe franchise with the new (and totally unconvincing) badass Jessie. Call him Jessie Stratham.

But perhaps there’s a bigger idea hiding here. Maybe someone should turn this ” amnesiac is really a trained killer” trope on its head. How about the trained killer that turns out to be an estate agent. Maybe from Foxtons. Or maybe there’s really no difference there.

Whatever. Give this one a miss


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IN THE FIRST room of the new (and often misogynist…since the curator seemed more interested as Barbara as Nicholson’s lover and his influence than her art) Barbara Hepworth exhibition at Tate Britain, are her early, smaller, table sized sculptures. They’re mainly of animals and a few torsos – a curled snake, a couple of birds, mother and child etc. They are all smooth, almost tactile objects, from which any extraneous ornamentation has been excised. The result, are objects that resemble talismans; iconic representations of the spirit of the animal or human suggested by their forms. By the late 30’s and 40’s when Hepworth was in her ascendency, abstract sculpture was by no means new. However these almost abstract, shapes, merely suggestive, like Platonic forms, of their inspirations seem to herald a fresh kind of visual perspective.

They have such a caressable, tactile quality – pushing the three dimensional density of sculpture into a dimension of touch – that you wonder where Jonathan Ive’s Apple designs would be had there been no Hepworth.

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Many of her works are simply called, “Form Number One” etc. Imagine being able to give birth…to bring a new form, like a new colour, into the world? Artists are gods.

These early works feel as though Hepworth had reached back a millennia to rob the past of some of its images, stripping away the eschatology and inserting her own spiritual energy. As a result, somehow the early sculpture on show wouldn’t feel out of place had they been exhumed from the dark bowels of some sand blasted pyramid.

And yet, they belong in another world.

As her career progressed, the forms become larger, more abstract. But their inspiration remains the natural world. She has translated the landscape around her – natural rock formations, trees – into her, burnished, re-shaped perspective and infused it with a point of view and meaning.

It’s almost landscape sculpture. She has reframed the external universe into her own perspective

To that point, it’s interesting to compare her work – and how far sculpture had come at this period – with, say the work of Rodin (see below). His large muscular sculptures have a strong narrative drive… clear expressions of an idea, an historical point of view. Of these you can ask the question, “What does it mean?” and engage with the work through this perspective. Hayworth’s work operates at a different level. “What does it mean?” becomes a meaningless question.

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Her wooden pieces glorify the material – the wood glows. The pieces breathe. It’s as if Hayworth had seduced rather than chopped it into its forms. Far from Plato’s dumb-ass criticism that art is mere imitation (of nature), here art IS its own nature.
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Often placed as they are, outdoors (she was fastidious on where they were located) these -man made- objects offer an interesting dynamic: amidst the mutability of nature, their timelessness impose an ontological shock. Here are works inspired by the natural environment that feel both naturally in their right places and still incongruously out of place. They’re as meaningless and impractical and as critically vital as, say, a tree or a stream, or a chance encounter with an idea. They force viewers to engage with them both as objects qua objects and also as a means of refocusing on their surroundings.

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We tend to take art for granted as something that hangs on a museum wall or some place of hallowed power and importance (which of course du Champ turned on its head). But the strategic location of the works of sculptors such as Hepworth, Henry Moore or, of late, Anthony Gormley, so abruptively there, forcing viewers to stumble upon them with all the shock of bumping into a friend or a sudden naked man is a fundamental part of the dynamic of the art.

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Street art – Keith Herring (back in the day) and now Bansky, Stick Man etc is, like Pop Art was in the 60’s, probably some of the most exciting art around. Literally. But I digress
Her later art – the metal pieces – are stark contrasts to the earlier wooden pieces. Whereas the former felt coaxed into life, these later metal pieces seem to have been wrestled into submission. This is the sculptor exercising her mastery over her material, bending the harsh heavy metal to her will, forcing it to assume surprising curves and twists. It’s as though the material, through its shape is breaking out of its limitations, breaking away from its heavy masculinity to delight and surprise its viewers with an energy and rhythm and, at times, flippancy.

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The link with the earlier stone and wood pieces is the organic relationship that seems to exist between sculptor and her material. You feel as though the designs triangulate her strong sense of her environment and the materials themselves. Michaelangelo spoke of sculpting as a means of uncovering of the form within the stone; the sculptor as explorer and discoverer. Her work is so cliché free and honest that some of her work feels like this… as though the tortured curves of her bronzes demanded their creation. And, fortunate for us, she came along.

45 YEARS***** Masterful


THE FORTY FIVE years referred to in the movie title is that of the wedding anniversary of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay). It’s an innocuous enough event (the last one having been cancelled due to his bypass operation) in the lives of a pleasant, happy, retired couple. But then a letter arrives informing Geoff that the body of a woman whom he had dated fifty years ago –Katya- has been discovered. It was fifty years ago when, on a hike somewhere up in the Swiss Alps, she slid, suddenly, into a crevasse and disappeared. And now, the Alps slowly melting as they are with the warming world, she has reemerged, entombed in ice.

The past has returned to cuckold the present.

The Geoff we’re introduced to is a man who seems to be shuffling toward senility and death (“the problem with old age” he tells one of his friends “is that you lose purposefulness”). He has been struggling to read Kiekegaard, the Danish philosopher. But with the arrival of the letter and the resurgence of a love long held in deep freeze like the ghost of Katya, he changes. Purpose returns. Turns out he is Katya’s next of kin. The authorities thought they’d been married. It’s a small fact he ‘thought’ he’d told his wife. He becomes secretive, petulant, and prone to prevarication. He starts smoking again. At nights, Kate discovers, he has begun to slip out of bed to their attic where, via a slide show of Katya, he can relive his past, give in to his memories and wallow… perhaps fall in love all over again with a woman dead for fifty years. Perhaps even Kate was just a wannabe version of Katya…the names are more or less the same after all.

Andrew Haigh’s brilliant movie (from a short story by David Constantine) riffs on Kiekegaard’s central philosophical construct: “Life can only be understood backward but it must be lived forward”. The issue isn’t so much that the past is always part of the present (T. S. Eliot re-construed Kiekegaard in “The Four Quartets” with his words that could be the tag line for the movie: “All time is eternally present”). Indeed the whole point of an anniversary is the celebration of the elasticity of love from past to present (and Haigh’s soundscape wonderful knits present and past together with all the hits of the 60’s.) The issue rather is that Geoff’s past is a secret unshared.

It’s as though he’s having an affair with a memory.

The discovery by Kate of Geoff’s secretly rekindled romance alters the dynamic of their relationship. The couple we met pre the arrival of the letter was one in which she was definitely the one in charge: the dynamic vibrant and somewhat superior one, guiding – as is expected of wives – her ageing, mumbling spouse (For the first half of the movie, Geoff isn’t greeted with the usual words “Hello, how are you?” but with the words “Are you OK?”). After the letter, as the reality dawns upon her that Geoff is escaping his present – her – for a better past –Katya – the wind in her sails dies away. You feel as though she’s imitating the actions of a person, distractedly planning their engagement party; but still maybe clinging to the hope that Geoff’s new found passion is just a phase (he has the desire to make love again…just not the prowess).

The big moment is the anniversary celebration where the song to which they’d danced forty five years ago was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. For some reason we all remember that song as one of those uber romantic songs. But as they dance, the darkness of the words sink in and the secrecy of the past finally trump the present:

“Now laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide.
So I smile and say
When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes”

“45 Years” seems to be quietly reeling in awards: both Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay won awards recently at the Silver Berlin Bear Festival. And it won Best British Film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. They’re well deserved. Rampling and Courtenay’s acting is impeccable: understated, nuanced, compellingly believable (and interestingly, miles away from the showy agonies demanded of an Oscar).

The movie itself is a jewel of movie-making craftsmanship.

In the first scene, we see a jaunty Kate returning home (a nice cottage in Norfolk). She’s greeted by the postman and their very average, very pedestrian exchange maps out the entire movie’s concerns: she remarks to him how unusually early he is. He replies that it’s because of the newborn. Oh of course, she replies. She’d forgotten. She implores him to give her heartfelt best (she says she really means it) to his wife. She bids him goodbye and reminds him to call her Kate. It’s been a long time since you were a student, she concludes.

As she enters the house, we meet Geoff pouring over the letter

In two minutes, we not only get a sense of her (she was a teacher, strongly empathetic, brisk and energetic, but childless) and him (he’s bumbling, confused, trying to understand a letter written in German and given to prevarication), but the themes of birth and death, of the links between the past and the present, are immediately announced.

And so it continues for the entire movie… the references to Kiekegaard, his regression to smoking (…gets in your eyes?), her tender caring, like a mother to her child, when he cuts his thumb etc. are all part of the fabric of a movie where there’s not a wasted scene; where what passes for the casualness of everyday life or everyday conversation is always loaded with meaning.

So nice to find an adult movie among this summer’s morass of mediocrity.

MISTRESS AMERICA*** Almost Very Good



“MISTRESS AMERICA”, THE new movie from Noah Baumbach (of the brilliant, “While We Were Young” and “Frances Ha) refers to a short story penned by the young, impressionable Tracy (Lola Kirke from “Gone Girl”) about her exuberant, selfish, charismatic friend, Brooke (Greta Gerwig from “Frances Ha”, “Greenberg” etc. who also co-wrote).

Brooke has wild and totally unrealistic dreams about opening a restaurant, come community center, come hair salon, come art gallery…having herself never opened a restaurant before or for that matter, even knowing how to cook. It’s just one of the many schemes, bright ideas and follies that, undifferentiated one from the other, clutter Brooke’s lively imagination. She’s a sexy, trippy, funny, thirty year old egomaniacal loser who, in her own mind, is a success just waiting to happen. It’s not clear whether she’s simply self-delusional or has a massively inflated ego-driven overdose of self-belief.

To naïve Tracy, she’s both a leader you want to follow, and, more importantly, a character study waiting to be written. Finally to the more withdrawn, thoughtful observing eye of Tracy, here is a subject fitting her own self-centered powers of observation.

Around these two planets circle a number of lesser constellations: Tracy’s ‘object of desire’ is a nerdy looking Tony (Matthew Shear, also of “While We Were Young”) a fellow writer who seems to share none of her romantic interests; his sourpuss girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) is someone who may or may not have been around prior to Tracy’s crush on him; Brooke’s clear-sighted ex-boyfriend, Dylan (Michael Chernus:“Captain Phillips”) is on-tap to be, she hopes, a willing investor in her madcap restaurant dream; and his wife (Heather Lind) is the pretty, cynical guardian against any renewed amorous interests on Brooke’s part. Various parents, the deus ex machina of the entire plot, hover dimly out of sight

As with all of Baumbach’s movies, there are many wonderfully well-observed moments and sharp, nicely written repartee. Gerwig skillfully manages to make a pretty unpleasant character come across as charming and attractive to us as she appears to her coterie of fans.


“Mistress America” is billed as a comedy, but the neurotic, emotionally stunted, self-centered, Woody Allen-ish characters whose lives we observe are anything but comic. This is really a story about the failure of relationships, all of which are loosely held together, woven into the story of Brooke’s misguided plans to turn her restaurant fantasy to reality.

The characters don’t so much as relate to one another as intersect. No one quite gets along with anyone else: jealousy, self-centeredness, greed and possessiveness rather than either love or affection are the only glues that (barely) hold the relationships together.

It’s as though the title is suggesting that in this modern hip urban universe, the selflessness of love and marriage has been replaced by the selfishness and transience of the Mistress with its connotation of slightly seedy loveless coupling.


There are meta-fictions at work here. For “Mistress America” is both the name of the movie and the name of Tracy’s short story, which is both a literary success and, possibly, just her own enamoured/jaundiced view of Brooke and her world.

Indeed, art itself can at worst be nothing more than a jaundiced, highly personal view of the world. What redeems it are the inner truths and human insights that free it from misanthropic distortion. Here, Tracy’s short story is seen less in the light of its literary achievement, more as a violation of friendship. Perhaps the ego-centricity we see of Brooke is really just a projection of Tracy’s own artistic selfishness. And the loose, episodic structure of the movie, where the relationships never quite feel real is simply Baumbach’s way of a reflecting Tracy’s still immature inability to process and fully understand the underlying dynamic of couples.

In other words we’re seeing “Mistress America” both as Baumbach’s and as Tracy’s story.


“Mistress America” (why America?) is a very mixed bag: fitfully brilliant and often silly. The story’s choppy, episodic structure, with several irrelevant scenes seemingly thrown in for no purpose other than humor, give the film a forced theatrical sensibility. This is rescued only by Greta Gerwig. Baumbach is an intelligent, thoughtful writer (such a relief from Summer blockbuster rubbish), but his directorial storytelling still feels too self-conscious, too striving after a style that too often imposes itself on the story.

As a director he needs to chill and just go with the flow.