Monday, February 18, 2019

In praise of Elaine May

Elaine May’s reputation has travelled further than her films. She has been hailed as a key influence by a whole generation of American comedians – including Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin and Woody Allen – but her work has been allowed to fall out of circulation and she's been largely neglected by Hollywood for over 30 years. The reason for that absence from filmmaking lies in another reputation that casts a long shadow. May’s long-delayed and over-budget comedy Ishtar (1987) was widely derided as a disaster before it even hit cinema screens and it quickly became the go-to title for hacks discussing the worst movies ever made. Its failure marked an abrupt and unjust end to a thrillingly unconventional directorial career.

Watching Ishtar now, it’s hard to understand how this goofy and frequently inspired buddy comedy could have once inspired such opprobrium, but as May noted in 2012, “If all of the people who hate Ishtar had seen it, I would be a rich woman today.” The film seemed a cursed project from the start, but behind-the-scenes drama was par for the course by the time May came to Ishtar. Two of her first three pictures led to long and acrimonious battles with Paramount, with the studio excising more than an hour from her debut A New Leaf (1971) before its release and then dumping a hastily assembled version of Mikey & Nicky (1976) in a handful of cinemas following a two-year editing period. A brilliant improviser who had revolutionised sketch comedy with Mike Nichols in the 1960s, May brought that same improvisatory spirit to her filmmaking; the freewheeling, exploratory approach that made her such a headache for producers is what gives her films their unique rhythm and energy.

Read the rest of my article at The Skinny

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Cold Pursuit

Cold Pursuit attempts offer a fresh twist on the standard formula of the Liam Neeson action thriller – a semi-regular fixture in the year’s opening quarter since Taken made him a surprise box office draw in 2008 – but the most surprising twist occurred a few hours before I saw the film. When Neeson inexplicably decided a random junket interview was the ideal place to bring up an incident from his past, in which he contemplated an act of racist violence after his friend had been raped by a black man, he set off a storm that dominated the news cycle for the rest of the week and completely overshadowed the film he was supposed to be promoting.

Perhaps that was inevitable. There isn’t a great deal to say about these films aside from assessing their varying degrees of accomplishment. On the plus side you’ve got the inventive, nimble work of Jaume Collet-Serra – the director of Non-Stop, Run All Night and The Commuter – or the haunting existential drama of The Grey, but on the other hand we have the Taken series, which has grown less exciting and more incoherent with every installment. A decade in, perhaps Neeson decided it was time to poke a little fun at these movies, or at himself. Cold Pursuit is a black comedy in which the body count is a series of punchlines. A remake of the 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance, the film is about a snow plow driver in a remote, sleepy town who kills his way through a criminal enterprise after his son has been found dead from an apparent overdose. That film starred Stellan SkarsgĂ„rd as Nils Dickman; in the remake, Neeson’s character is named Coxman.

Both films were directed by Hans Petter Moland, and while I haven’t seen the original, a look at the trailer suggests a near-shot-for-shot remake. I wonder if the darkly comic tone was more precise and effective in the Norwegian film, because Cold Pursuit doesn’t really work at all. In refashioning the revenge thriller as a shaggy dog story, the film falls between two stools; it never develops the momentum or tension that the central narrative of Coxman’s hunt for vengeance requires, but by the same token it’s never eccentric or absurd or funny enough for the more comic elements to land. The film keeps detouring away from Coxman to spend time with local drug kingpin “Viking” (Tom Bateman, amusingly smug and petty) – who is attempting to juggle the running of a drug cartel with the raising of his son – and his henchmen, one of whom discusses his tactic of seducing hotel maids by laying naked in bed with a $20 bill resting on his genitals. This is the kind of downtime chatter between criminals that is often described as Tarantino-esque, but here it’s more reminiscent of the seedy, small-time crooks you might meet in a George V. Higgins novel.

All of these characters are destined to be arbitrarily offed, anyway, along with a few from a secondary storyline, in which Viking’s bewilderment at his disappearing henchmen prompts him to spark a gang war with a group of Native Americans. Every time a character is killed, his name and his nickname appears in sombre white-on-black text with a small cross above it (or whatever emblem best represents the departed's faith); a deadpan touch that grows into a faintly monotonous tic, with few of the deaths having any kind of impact, whether they’re played seriously or for laughs. None of these people matter, we’re just marking time until the final confrontation between Coxman and Viking, and such inconsequential secondary characters are dotted all over this picture. Laura Dern disappears early after a handful of scenes and barely any dialogue (although her minimalist “Dear John” letter is a nice touch), and Emmy Rossum shares some amusing repartee with John Doman as a pair of local cops – She’s the eager up-and-comer, he’s the lazy cynic  but their investigations go nowhere and all they do is pull focus from Neeson. These films have generally been at their best when adopting a slick, straightforward approach, but Cold Pursuit seems to be fruitlessly pulling in three or four directions at once.

If Neeson really wanted to find a different angle on the revenge thriller, maybe he should have played up his character’s everyman status more. Coxman is a diligent, humble working man, just a regular good citizen, rather than the ex-cop or ex-CIA operative that Neeson has inhabited in previous films of this type. There’s no evidence that he should be a man with a “very particular set of skills,” and Cold Pursuit might have benefited from playing up the comical aspect of an ordinary man coming to terms with being a killer, but Coxman takes to murder like a duck to water, dispatching people with a brutal efficiency and not flinching at the bloodshed or the moral weight of his actions. On paper, Nels Coxman might have looked like an intriguing twist on the archetypal Liam Neeson protagonist, but the actor just seems like he’s going through the motions. Perhaps the 66 year-old Neeson is growing weary after a decade of action movies, and one wonders how much appetite there is for more Neeson-led tales of vengeance following his recent comments. Only time will tell, but according the Internet Movie Database his upcoming slate includes films called The Revenger and Retribution.

Thursday, February 07, 2019

If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk is only the second screen adaptation of James Baldwin’s work, following an obscure French take on the same novel in 1998, and the spirit of Baldwin infuses the whole movie. It feels like Barry Jenkins sat down with the late author to craft this screenplay, which has emerged as a brilliant fusion of their distinct artistic visions. It’s impossible to imagine a film better capturing the romantic, yearning, angry, incisive tones of Baldwin’s voice, and Jenkins’ attempt to find a cinematic equivalent to his prose has pushed the director and his cinematographer James Laxton to give us a visually rhapsodic experience.

Read the rest of my review at The Skinny

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Mule

One might reasonably expect a drug mule to get from A to B as quickly as possible, avoiding getting sidetracked and drawing attention to himself, but Earl Stone (Clint Eastwood) is no ordinary drug mule. When he spots a family whose car has broken down on the side of the road, Earl pulls over to help – much to the chagrin of his cartel handler (Ignacio Serricchio) – and he can’t resist interrupting his journey to enjoy “the best pulled pork in the Midwest.” He’s no ordinary mule, and The Mule is no ordinary drug-running movie. Marketed as a nail-biting thriller, the film unfolds at a leisurely pace, upending our expectations with eccentric touches and surprising detours. It’s an odd and generally delightful experience, but as the weight of drugs in Earl’s pickup grows with each successive trip, so too does the film’s emotional weight and thematic resonance.

The strangest thing about The Mule is the fact that it is based on a true story, being inspired by Sam Dolnick’s 2014 profile of 90 year-old Leo Sharp in the New York Times. The role fits Eastwood like an old suit, but instead of coasting along comfortably on his charisma and long-established iconography, Eastwood gives one of his most tender, open and vulnerable performances. Earl Stone is a horticulturalist who spent years developing his business and reputation and neglecting his own family; the film opens in 2005, with 78 year-old Stone enjoying the adulation of his peers at a flower convention instead of attending his daughter’s wedding. The fact that Earl’s daughter is played by Eastwood’s own daughter Alison (her first role in four years) suggests a certain amount of reflection and self-critique in this portrait of a man seeking to make amends for past mistakes.

That has often been the Eastwood way, after all. As I Watched The Mule I thought of Robert Redford’s recent role in David Lowery’s wonderful The Old Man and the Gun. That film burnished and enshrined Redford’s screen image, being powered by his distinctive star quality and relishing the twinkle in his eye, but Eastwood has always been interested in interrogating his screen persona. The Mule was written by Nick Schenk, who scripted Eastwood’s 2008 feature Gran Torino – the last of his films that he also starred in – and these two pictures ten years apart form an intriguing double-bill. Both Walt Kowalski and Earl Stone are old men coming to terms with their place in a changing world, but if Gran Torino was a veteran gunslinger’s last stand, The Mule is more concerned with an old man contemplating the limited time he has left.

In fact, what’s surprising about The Mule is how little gunplay there is in it. For all of the menacing cartel foot soldiers standing around with machine guns in hand, the only firearm we see being fired on screen is the ostentatious golden rifle that a drug kingpin (brilliantly played by Andy Garcia) shoots skeet with – even a shot that takes out a major character is obscured from view  but the threat of violence is always present. Eastwood lets his camera linger on a couple of corpses, and he has rarely looked so frail as when he is roughed up by a couple of cartel enforcers, enraged by his penchant for going off the radar. It’s also a film in which Eastwood considers his own privilege, including two pointed scenes in which non-white motorists are stopped by police while Clint glides by with his trunk full of coke, or one in which his two cartel handlers feel the uncomfortable, suspicious glares of white Americans as they sit down to eat. “They see two beaners in a bowlful of crackers,” Earl tells them.

These scenes are played with a light, jovial touch, with the point being made all the more effectively as a result. The whole movie is like that. The Mule disarms the viewer with its offbeat, ribald comedy – scenes of Clint happily eating a choc ice while crooning at the wheel of his car, or partying with women young enough to be his granddaughters – and its casual filmmaking style, before shifting gears in a way that caught me off-guard. The scenes that Eastwood shares with Dianne Wiest, as his long-suffering wife, possess a gentle intimacy and a shared sense of lost time that is incredibly moving, while a quietly emphatic conversation between Eastwood and Bradley Cooper feels like a passing of the torch. Clint Eastwood’s recent films have been concerned with ordinary people pushed into acts of extraordinary heroism, but this tale of an elderly horticulturist just attempting to make the most of his remaining years and to rebuild broken relationships is one of his most thoughtful, profound and satisfying achievements. This great icon has given us his most ordinary hero. He’s earned the right to stop and smell the flowers.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Bergman: A year in a Life

In 2013, Jane Magnusson invited an impressive collection of international filmmakers to Ingmar Bergman’s home on Fårö to comment on his VHS collection and consider his legacy. The result was Trespassing Bergman, an engaging but haphazard documentary, memorable primarily for Lars von Trier musing on his idol’s masturbation habits.

Bergman: A Year in a Life is a more robust and illuminating piece of work. The year Magnusson has chosen to build her film around is 1957, which makes sense when you look at what he achieved in the span of 12 months. Two of his most beloved masterpieces (The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries), a film for television, a radio play and four ambitious stage productions, all while juggling an increasingly complicated personal life.

It’s an output that might have impressed Fassbinder, who famously blitzed his way through projects with a cocktail of drugs, but Bergman’s furious work rate was apparently sustained by nothing more stimulating than yoghurt and biscuits. “He didn’t have the top one, in case someone touched it. Instead he’d fiddle one out from underneath,” Lena Endre says, recalling the packet of biscuits that was permanently within reach on set.

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies