Monday, December 05, 2016

The Human Condition in Sight & Sound

I recently spent a weekend watching Kobayashi Masaki's monumental epic The Human Condition, which has just been released by Arrow Films in a superb new blu-ray edition. My review is in the January 2017 issue of Sight & Sound, which is on sale now.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A United Kingdom

When Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo) met and fell in love in 1947, they knew their families would disapprove of the union. Yet they probably didn’t expect to find the full weight of national governments conspiring against them. She was a white Londoner working as an office clerk, he was an African prince and heir to the throne of Bechuanaland (now Botswana). Their marriage was seen as a transgressive, provocative act, crossing lines of race, class and politics. It was met with a particularly dim view in Bechuanaland’s neighbouring country, South Africa, whose Prime Minister called it “nauseating.”

All of this is fertile emotional and political territory to explore, but A United Kingdom is not up to the task. Director Amma Asante and screenwriter Guy Hibbert (working from Susan Williams’ acclaimed book ‘Colour Bar’) have smoothed the edges and flattened the complexities of Seretse and Ruth’s story, filling it with one-dimensional characters and trite expository dialogue. The British authorities are represented by a pair of shady diplomats played by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton, seemingly designed to elicit hisses from the audience whenever they appear on screen. Their sneering superciliousness is so pronounced it is insulting both to the central couple and the audience. “Do you know what apartheid means?” Davenport’s Sir Alistair Canning asks Ruth early in the film, and we might wonder if he’s addressing her or us.

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies

Friday, November 18, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I took my first steps into J.K. Rowling's world with a review of her Harry Potter spin-off/prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. You can read my verdict over at The Skinny.

Friday, November 11, 2016

"If you're taking this movie seriously, you're in the wrong theatre." - An Interview with Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader has experienced a lot of highs and lows over the course of his forty years in filmmaking, but having Dying of the Light taken away from him and recut against his wishes in 2014 was perhaps his most grievous setback. Schrader – along with his stars Nicolas Cage and Anton Yelchin and producer Nicolas Winding Refn – publicly protested against the film’s treatment to no avail, and the director found himself at his lowest ebb, but he has bounced back in style with Dog Eat Dog. Reuniting with Cage, and wielding his right of final cut with evident relish, Schrader has produced a film that pushes him into thrilling new territory. As a writer and director, Schrader has already crafted one of the most consistently eclectic, provocative and ambitious bodies of work in American cinema, but Dog Eat Dog feels like something entirely new. It’s a hilarious, grotesque and audacious low-budget film made with high style, and I had the privilege of discussing it with Paul Schrader ahead of the film’s premiere at the London Film Festival.

I didn't know what to expect from Dog Eat Dog, but I certainly didn't expect what I got.

Yeah, it's pretty hard to figure out where it's going.

I was trying to think of another film you've done that I could compare it to, but I couldn't come up with anything.

No, I haven't done anything quite like that before. It came about in a kind of backdoor way, which was that I had been involved in an unpleasant situation with Nic and we just wanted to work together again, to prove that we could make a film that people would see. I read this script and I thought maybe this is the one. Nic wanted to do it, but now I was doing a crime film and I thought, I'm not a crime film director, you know, so I'd better start studying. I had a whole summer studying crime films, and how do you make a film after Scorsese, after Tarantino and after Guy Ritchie? So that became the goal, to make a crime film that felt like it was made in 2016.

And to make a comic crime film from a book that's definitely not a comedy.

Well, as we got into it, more and more I kept thinking, this stuff is funny, I can't take these guys seriously. And we just kept moving more and more along that road. Of course, the guys don't know they're funny. Then when I was editing it, I realised that if people started laughing in the opening scene they'd laugh throughout, but if they don't then they'll never laugh. So we had to really amp up that opening scene in the editing to make it very, very clear that if you're taking this movie seriously, you're in the wrong theatre.

If I was to try to compare it to one of your films, I'd say it's as audacious and surprising as Mishima.

[Laughs] Sure, but not quite as intellectual.

And Willem Dafoe's performance is unlike any he's given for you in the past.

Willem's a friend, which is unusual because directors and actors aren't usually friends. What was interesting was that I wanted to take this film away from being just another Nic Cage film, so I gave Willem a big section in the front and a big section in the back. Then we were bringing in Chris Cook, who's a new actor, and Willem was working with him, because Chris was a little rough and Willem said to me, "Let me work with him." But then we had a situation when Nic quit the film on the first day because he hadn't been paid. I turned up on the set and asked where's Nic, and he was on a plane going home. The producers finally got him paid so he came back the next day, but now we had a day to shoot without Nic, and the pink room wasn't ready yet, so all I had was that long scene at the end. I said to Willem, do you think you can do your big final scene on the first morning, and he said, "Yeah, I can do that." So that was the first thing we shot.

And even though they are three despicable characters, there's something quite endearing about Mad Dog's yearning for friendship.

Yeah! "I only want love...I believe in redemption."

Working on these low budgets must be frustrating in a lot of ways but is there something liberating about it too?

Yeah. I don't need that much money. I don't need that much money in my life and I don't need that much money on screen. I'd rather just do something lower key, I don't need the big toys. There was a documentary that I watched about De Palma, where Brian said all he wanted to do was to get the big toys - the cranes, the cameras, the big sets - and I've never felt that.

One thing that struck me looking back at your recent work is that the only two films since 2000 on which you've had a writing credit are The Walker and Dying of the Light. This seems strange given how noted you are as a writer-director.

I'm not sure why. I wrote a number of things that didn't happen, as we all do. Scorsese and I tried to do a series for HBO that didn't get picked up. I wrote a number of other scripts that I got paid for. I was going to do a film with Shah Rukh Khan and Leo DiCaprio and I wrote that but it didn't get going, and I was going to do a film in Russia about a ballerina, but that didn't go anywhere. So I've been writing, it's just that sometimes they don't get made. Now the next film I have written, and then if I do another one, if it's the one I'm thinking about, it will be one I haven't written.

You seem to be attracted to material that nobody else will take on. Does that sort of challenge entice you into doing something?

That's happened to me a couple of times. With Patty Hearst nobody could figure out how to shoot a movie when the main character's in the closet for the first half-hour. I said, well if she's in the closet then anything she imagines is real and we can use it. Then Schlesinger was going to do The Comfort of Strangers and he backed out of that because he thought it was too nasty, so I've been able to pick up some films that other people couldn't make. And Adam Resurrected, I loved that idea of the man who used to be a dog meeting a dog who used to be a boy.

When a piece of material comes to you do you have to find a way to make it personal?

That's inevitable. When I first directed a script that I didn't write it was Cat People. I thought it would be interesting to do somebody else's material and just adapt it to a genre piece, but by the time I finished that film I realised it was as personal or maybe more personal than the others. So I think it's kind of inevitable that you take ownership. I did two films with writers that had a very strong signature, and I didn't touch their scripts, one was Pinter and one was Bret Ellis. I really tried to respect their voices.

That's interesting because I think The Canyons feels very much like a Bret Easton Ellis movie, but I don't feel that way about The Comfort of Strangers, perhaps because of the aesthetic style you bring to the movie.

What's interesting there is you have Ian McEwan's thing, which is that men and women are inherently incompatible and no amount of socialisation can paper this over. Then you have Harold's thing, which is that language is a tool we use not to communicate. I thought that was enough, but then as I started making it I thought of a third theme, which is the Mishima theme, that beauty is in and of itself dangerous. I liked the film because we had three interesting themes working around each other.

To get back to the theme of this film, you have three ex-cons hoping to take advantage of their liberty to do something big, I was wondering if it felt personal in the sense that this is a kind of release for you after Dying of the Light?

I don't think it's that one-to-one. In fact, I think this film is more about crime films than it is about criminals. These guys in some way know they're in a crime movie. You know, they talk about it, and so it's a meta-film in some way.

But you do seem to have been reinvigorated by the possibilities of digital filmmaking and distribution.

Yeah, I mean, it has become relatively inexpensive to make a film now, so the film that took 45 days when I began now takes 25 days, and you have more footage. The next film I'm doing, which is a kind of quiet, meditative film, I could have never done under the old economics. This is a film that has to be done in a very limited way, and 15 years ago it would have been too expensive to shoot.

You always seem like someone who is very engaged with the technology of cinema. Your Game Changers series of articles in Film Comment looked at that aspect of cinema's development. Do you have a sense of where we are now and what the next threshold is?

I used to think that we were entering a period of transition. I now believe that we have entered into a period of constant transition, and we will never get out of it. Just like the computer is out of date by the time you open the box, every film model is out of date by the time you finish the film. The distribution models, the technology models, it's all changing very quickly.

One of the common refrains on Bret Easton Ellis's podcast is that he meets students and recent graduates who tell him they don't want to make movies anymore, and they just want to shoot web content or whatever.

Movies aren't going away, but the 20th century notion of them is going away. There will always be audio-visual entertainment, even if you're watching it on your glasses. But the big difference I think between that moment when I came in, the late '60s early 70s, to today is not the talent, it's not the subject, it's the audiences. Movies used to be the centre of the social conversation and audiences were turning to artists for advice: what do we think about the war? What do we think about gay rights? Women's rights? Black rights? And the moment audiences ask artists for input, great art will emerge, it's that simple. There are always great artists around. When audiences don't think art is important, like my kids don't think movies are important, well then it's awful hard to make important movies. When I was my son's age I thought movies were very, very important.

All of those directors who came up with you in the '70s seemed to have periods in the '80s and '90s being in favour with the mainstream, but you've been working outside the system for almost your whole career.

The first three or four films I made for the studios. Then I went to Japan, I came back, and the studios weren't making those kinds of films anymore. They were now independent films. I just kept making them.

Was there ever a possibility of making a studio film in the subsequent years or did it just not come up?

I don't think so. I can't say I was ever in a situation like that, but maybe that's a good thing. I mean, I was asked me to do that Exorcist movie and it was a mistake, I shouldn't have done it. I've been fortunate that I've been forced to be a self-starter, because the self-started projects are always more interesting.

I still think that first run of five films that you made - Blue Collar, Hardcore, American Gigolo, Cat People and Mishima - is one of the great opening runs of any filmmaker. They are also very different films. Were you trying to find your voice in this period?

There are a couple of different models. There's the Hitchcock model where you find something that you do, and then there's the Kubrick model where you're trying to do something different every time. I've always been more attracted to the Kubrick model. What can I do that I haven't done before? What can I do that's different? What new challenge can I try? Can I self-finance a movie and pull it off? Can I make a film about a girl in a closet, you know? I go to the cinema sometimes and look at the screen, and I think how do they stay awake? They've all made this film five, six times before. The next film I'm doing will be a film unlike any I've ever tried to do.

I re-watched Blue Collar recently. It's one of my favourite films and I think it stands as one of the great American debuts. I know you had a difficult time making it but it's an incredible achievement.

The fact that I survived it is an achievement. I don't really have a perspective on it. When it was all over I thought, if this is what moviemaking is I can't do it. My goal in directing that was just to get through it and illustrate the story. It wasn't until a couple of years later that I started to really think visually and realise that images are ideas in the same way that words are ideas.

So did you approach American Gigolo in a different way?

Yes, that was primarily because of this fellow named Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who was the production designer for Bertolucci and had done The Conformist and Last Tango. He came to LA and I fell under his spell.

What about learning to work with actors? You had these strained relationships on Blue Collar and then went straight onto working with George C. Scott on Hardcore, who was another strong personality.

Well, nothing could be harder than Blue Collar, because race came into it. If you're just dealing with bad behaviour, irresponsible behaviour, angry people, that's one thing, but when they start bringing race into the conversation, it's tough. You know, Richard Pryor said to me, "The first white man I ever met came to my momma's door to fuck her and you're just like him."

Wow. How can you respond to a statement like that?

I just said, "Well, that's interesting Richard. I never thought of it like that." [Laughs] Then we went back to work.

Dog Eat Dog is released in the UK on November 18th

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

LFF 2016 - Strange Journeys

Staying Vertical (directed by Alain Guiraudie)
Given the prominent erections that featured in Alain Guiraudie's The Stranger by the Lake, the title of his new film Staying Vertical might suggest more of the same, an impression that is strengthened when Léo (Damien Bonnard) stops his car in the opening scene and attempts to pick up a sullen youth. But Léo is in fact cruising in another direction, wandering aimlessly through the French countryside until he meets a shepherd (India Hair) with whom he abruptly decides to settle down and start a family, despite repeatedly calling on the teen on whom he apparently still harbours a crush. Guiraudie doesn't give us much context for his characters' behaviour and Staying Vertical unfolds as an elliptical series of incidents that grow increasingly strange as Léo finds himself trapped in a nightmarish and apparently inexorable downward spiral. Léo is a screenwriter trying and failing to make progress on a script that was apparently due months ago, but his every attempt to run away from his responsibilities only leads him further into trouble. There is no escape.

In fact, Staying Vertical feels like Guiraudie's own spin on a Charlie Kaufman-esque creative crisis film. No matter where he turns, Léo remains trapped by the same handful of characters – people he seemed determined to milk for inspiration, who subsequently appear to be conspiring against him – and he is incapable of working himself out of whatever tight spot he writes himself into. The curious tone that Guiraudie strikes throughout makes it impossible to pin down the exact meaning or purpose of Staying Vertical, but as strange and discombobulating as it all is, there is a sense that the film is working to its own consistent internal logic, and even if it's hard to grasp what Guiraudie is trying to say here, his film is so peculiar and mordantly funny on a scene-by-scene basis it remains entirely absorbing. Damien Bonnard makes for a terrific protagonist, his deadpan expression registering a Keaton-like bemusement and dismay as a series of misfortunes befall him, and the film boasts some of the most startling moments you'll find in any film this year – from a very close look at a baby being born to an extraordinary assisted suicide scene that is largely baffling to comprehend but, in the context of this film, makes a weird kind of sense.

Further Beyond (directed by Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor)
Ambrose O’Higgins was born in 1720 in County Sligo. When he died 81 years later, he was known as Ambrosio O'Higgins, having made his way to Chile, risen through the military ranks to become the Captain General of Chile and subsequently the Viceroy of Peru. There's surely ripe material in this eventful life for a biopic, you might think, and filmmakers Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor thought so too. But Further Beyond is not their screen depiction of O’Higgins' life and times; in fact, by the end the film they have barely made a start on telling that story. Instead, Further Beyond is all prologue, with the filmmakers exploring all of the questions that must be tackled before telling somebody's life story on screen; questions of historical accuracy versus storytelling necessity, history versus memory, and the questions of what must be included and what can be left out. The filmmakers take an oblique approach to all of this, hiring two voiceover artists to read their scripted thoughts and muse on the pluses and minuses of any particular approach without settling on one.

As I watched Further Beyond, I was reminded of Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, in which the narrator's attempts to tell his own life story are continually stalled by tangents and digressions. The most fascinating and unexpected sidetrack Molloy and Lawlor take here is a diversion into the life of Helen Dowling, Joe Lawlor's mother, who appeared in a theatre piece they made 18 years ago and – more pertinently to the film's theme – had the course of her life altered by journeys between America and Ireland. As an essay film on the nature of cinematic storytelling and the history of Irish emigration, Further Beyond is stimulating, playful and propelled by a genuine sense of curiosity. I don't know if Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor will ever get to make their Ambrose O’Higgins film, but this meandering yet compelling investigation is a decent start.

Nocturama (directed by Bertrand Bonello)
There's a disconnect between how I felt as I watched Nocturama and how I feel about it afterwards. As a cinema experience, Bertrand Bonello's film is something to behold. The long opening section of the film gives us little context or characterisation to grip onto, but we are swept along by the film's rhythm as a group of French youths criss-cross Paris in a way that reminded me a little of Out 1, but also had echoes of Elephant. Bonello plays tricks with time and perspective as he teases out the this set-piece, and it takes some time for us to realise that this is a coordinated terror campaign, with bombs being planted across the city and timed to detonate simultaneously. The opening hour of Nocturama is exhilarating in its fluid, kinetic thrust, but the second half of the film is more deliberately paced and composed, with the young insurgents taking refuge in a department store overnight, waiting for the panic on the streets and the city-wide manhunt to subside before returning to their homes.

Aside from brief forays outside by the antsy David (Finnegan Oldfield), the film remains locked inside this multi-level building for the rest of its duration, a potentially inert scenario rendered hypnotic by Bonello’s astounding formal precision and the brilliant production design. There’s something eerily dreamlike about this location, with the characters cut off from the chaos outside and with little sense of time passing, playing loud music to avoid being left alone with only their own thoughts and consciences to contend with. They eat and drink, they play in the toy aisle, they raid the clothing ranges, and they do what they can to allay their fears. (What happened to the one member of the group of failed to arrive at the rendezvous point? Was he captured? Is he dead?) At some point, however, I started to wonder what it is that these freedom fighters were fighting for. Bonello begins to give us flashbacks showing them plotting the attack but stops short of going back to the point where their ideological identities were formed, and all we get are statements like “We did what we had to do.” The director has said that he conceived this film over five years ago and was in production before the attacks in Paris, but the film’s attempt to depict these acts as the inevitable reaction of a disenfranchised youth feels off. Perhaps recent events have simply created a context that we can’t help but apply to this film, a weight that it cannot bear, but Bonello doesn’t help himself by having one of his darker-skinned characters talking about going to heaven when they die. These are the questions that troubled me after I’d finished watching Nocturama and left me wanting more, although none of these queries crossed my mind as I watched it. As a piece of pure filmmaking I’ve seen little to match this in 2016, and the climactic twenty minutes had me holding my breath, but the plaintive cry of one character just before the end credits strikes me as an expression of a glib vagueness that undermines Bonello’s undeniable artistry.

Mascots (directed by Christopher Guest)
A decade has passed since Christopher Guest's last film as a director, but very little has changed about the filmmaking itself. You might wonder why anyone would advocate tinkering with a winning formula, but the Guest house style was starting to look a little creaky in 2006's For Your Consideration and there's a definite sense that the formula needs shaking up in Mascots. Guest's latest film sticks to the template established by Best in Show, following a disparate group of oddballs and obsessives as they prepare to compete at a major tournament, in this case the 8th World Mascot Association Championships (or The Fluffies), and finding comedy in their delusions and insecurities. Some of these characters are nicely drawn and played; for example, Tom Bennett's Owen Golly, Jr., proudly continuing the family tradition of being the mascot for their local football team, and there's a touching sense of broken dreams being partially fulfilled in the relationship between Parker Posey and Susan Yeagley as cheerleading sisters.

Bennett and Yeagley are newcomers who impress here, but others – such as Chris O'Dowd and Zach Woods – fail to make an impression, and the bigger disappointment is how uninspired the returning members of Guest's regular ensemble feel. Bob Balaban, Jennifer Coolidge and Fred Willard play characters barely distinguishable from those they have appeared as before, while Guest himself underlines the lack of freshness with his inexplicable decision to reappear as Corky St. Clair, last seen twenty years ago in Waiting for Guffman. Of the Guest regulars who don't figure here, I wonder if Eugene Levy is the most notable absentee, as he has had a screenplay credits on their previous collaborations and might have helped to give this film a greater sense of shape and identity, or helped establish a stronger narrative through-line. It's not like Mascots is completely devoid of laughs – there are too many funny people involved for that to be the case – but everything here feels secondhand. Even the faux-documentary conceit, always shakily applied in Guest's work, feels completely half-assed here. More often than not, Mascots just comes across as another badly shot comedy, with the uniqueness and element of surprise that we anticipate from Christopher Guest sorely lacking.