Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Phantom Thread

The first film Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis made together, 2007's monumental There Will be Blood, brilliantly gave us a vivid sense of who its protagonist was in the opening minutes. A prospector in the late 19th century, Daniel Plainview was introduced working silently, doggedly and alone as he mined for silver. When he broke his leg in a calamitous fall, he dragged himself across the desolate landscape to stake his claim before giving a thought to medical attention. We instantly understood something fundamental about this man, and we could see that he had what it took to build an empire and to destroy anyone who dared to get in his way.

The pair achieve a similar trick at the start of Phantom Thread. When we see Reynolds Woodcock dressing and preparing for the day – pulling on his socks, combing his hair, buffing his shoes – his every move is fastidious and rehearsed; this is clearly a morning ritual that has been in place for a very long time. Reynolds is a renowned dressmaker and, like many artists, he needs everything to be in place, the atmosphere to be just so, in order to create. At the breakfast table he sits and works quietly with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) and the current woman in his life Johanna, (Camilla Rutherford), who has had enough of these stifling breakfasts and dares to say so, puncturing the solemn air. Shortly afterwards, the decision is made to get rid of her. “She's lovely,” Cyril advises him, “but the time has come.” There have been many women before Johanna, and there will surely be more.

You might think we're back in Plainview territory here, with another fiercely selfish character driven by an obsessive desire to dominate in his field, a man who will use up and throw away whoever he needs and won't brook any obstruction or dissent. You might think you know where Phantom Thread is going, but you'd be wrong. When a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) literally stumbles into Reynolds' view, the whole movie seems to trip along with her. She's a little awkward and hesitant, and her initial conversations with him are punctuated by odd pauses. “If you want to have a staring contest with me,” she playfully tells him after one such period of silence, “you will lose.” Reynolds is smitten, if for no other reason than because her body is his ideal shape, but she is not the type to play the quiet muse. “No one can stand as long as I can,” she proudly boasts. An ideal trait for a model, of course, but also indicative of a steely determination that may exceed the master's own.

Phantom Thread is, in many ways, new territory for Anderson. It's the first film he had made outside of the United States and the first on which he has acted as his own cinematographer (not taking a credit, but doing astonishingly elegant and evocative work); but the central relationship makes it feel like a kind of companion piece to The Master. That 2012 film is Anderson's most evasive and oblique, but Phantom Thread is utterly captivating from the opening frames, moving with a briskness and verve that I found irresistible, and finding so much unexpected humour  in the shifting power dynamic between Reynolds, Alma and Cyril. While films such as Rebecca and The Red Shoes and directors like Max Ophüls and David Lean are obvious references points for this film, Reynolds' growing unease with his new wife put me in mind of Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid, and during one of their breakfasts together the aggravating sound effects  as Alma butters her toast or pours her tea  are ramped up to absurd levels. Reynold and Alma's romantic bond is sealed during a late-night heist, when they attempt to reclaim one of his dresses from a drunken socialite, and Reynolds is prone to shouting things like “No one gives a tinker's fucking curse about Mrs. Vaughn's satisfaction!” when he flies off the handle. Phantom Thread is a film about a perverse, toxic relationship that plays gloriously as a wry and raucous romantic comedy.

Anderson's judgement of tone throughout Phantom Thread is remarkable. The comedy never undermines the complex emotional battles and psychological gamesmanship inside these central relationships, and the director succeeds in laying out a straightforward and utterly engaging narrative while constantly taking surprising detours and keeping aspects of his characters shrouded in mystery – like secrets sewn into the lining of his film. He has always drawn wonderful work from his actors, of course, but what is striking here is the discipline and refinement that he brings to his direction of his cast. As the two women working around the fragile but demanding male ego at the film's centre, Lesley Manville and Vicky Krieps have so many moments when a simple glance of a pointed silence can communicate volumes about their innermost thoughts. When they push back against Reynolds we believe in their quiet determination, and he looks completely dumbfounded when faced with two such formidable adversaries. For the very first time, he is not the master of his domain.

And what of Daniel Day-Lewis? The recent announcement of his retirement has inevitably cast a different light on this final appearance, and it does feel like a valedictory work, as well as being perhaps his most nakedly personal performance. There is no accent or extravagant facial hair here; there is no great physical transformation. There is just this unbelievably compelling and charismatic actor inhabiting the role of an artist and artisan in a film about the toll that the pursuit of perfection takes on the mind, body and spirit, and the occasional need to break the cycle. The star worked closely with Anderson as he developed the script and it almost feels like a tacit autobiography. Maybe he feels exhausted after this experience, understandably so, or maybe he simply feels like there is nothing left to say. Daniel Day-Lewis has given us many indelible performances, but in Phantom Thread it feels like he's giving us himself.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Downsizing

Paul Safranek is a very typical Alexander Payne protagonist. As personified by Matt Damon in Downsizing, Paul is a doughy, middle-aged guy from Omaha who feels that his life has somehow stalled. When we first meet him he is visiting his sick mother, and when we catch up with him ten years later we discover that he is still living in his late mother's house, now with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). They both yearn to trade up for a bigger home, but their combined incomes from doing jobs they find repetitive and unfulfilling won't allow them to do so. Paul once had dreams of being a surgeon and a meeting with a former classmate who made it as a successful anaesthetist stings his pride. Maybe there is a way for Paul and Audrey to transform their fortunes? Paul may be a typical Alexander Payne protagonist, but fortunately for him, he is not in a typical Alexander Payne film.

The title Downsizing refers to a scientific process dreamed up by Norwegian boffins that will shrink people to roughly five inches in height and – in theory – ease the problems caused by overpopulation and our rapacious use of the earth's resources. That's the PR-friendly pitch, anyway. The attraction for ordinary Americans like Paul and Audrey is much more basic. “You mean all that crap about saving the planet?” Paul's shrunken friend Dave (Jason Sudeikis) scoffs. “Downsizing is about saving yourself.” When Paul and Audrey attend a glitzy sales seminar, they are told that that the $150,000 they currently have to their name will translate into $12.5 million in the tiny town of Leisureland. Neil Patrick Harris seduces them with the promise of an opulent mansion and Laura Dern cameos to show off the diamonds she bought for a song. This is the life, and nobody has much to say about saving the world.

There are many things a filmmaker could do with Downsizing's high-concept premise. Payne's choices are, to say the least, unexpected, and they will undoubtedly be unsatisfying for those expecting a lot more comic mileage from the contrast between little people and large objects. Instead, when Paul eventually ends up living alone in Leisureland, he finds that his life hasn't changed that much at all; he feels just as stuck and just as lacking in purpose in this world as he did outside. It might feel that Payne has inexplicably abandoned the sci-fi uniqueness of his film's opening third in order to focus on the mundane middle-aged concerns that have been the focus for much of his cinema, but that is part of the film's gag. Given the opportunity to build a whole new society, these microscopic Americans revert to type, living a life of abundant material wealth and thoughtless waste, with neither a thought nor a care for whoever will be cleaning up their mess.

A brief but telling shot in Downsizing occurs early in the film when a still-unconscious Paul has just gone through the shrinking procedure and is collected on the other side of the Leisureland divide by a group of orderlies, most of whom are black. When a team of cleaners turn up at the apartment owned by the hard-partying racketeer Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz, enjoyably smug), we notice that they are all Asian women or Latinas. It seems the social hierarchies and racial divides of the big world have been imposed on the little one too, and when Paul befriends one of the cleaners, a one-legged Vietnamese refugee named Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), he gets to see how the other half live – in a tiny slum on the outskirts of Leisureland, invisible to its mostly white citizens.

Being largely selfish, passive and clueless, Paul is not a great central character for a movie, so it's a relief when Ngoc Lan hobbles into view and finally gives us someone worth rooting for. Ngoc Lan was smuggled into the US in a TV box (consumer goods having replaced trucks as a potential route for tiny refugees) and she was the only survivor of that ordeal, although her left leg didn't survive with her. A devout Christian, she never bemoans her lot or dwells on the hardships of her past. She simply works tirelessly and spends the rest of her time caring for the sick and poor in the slum. “When you know death come soon, you look around things more close,” she tells Paul in her broken English, and her clear-eyed perspective on life and death helps open Paul's eyes to an existence beyond his own.

There are a lot of fascinating ideas in play here and, in truth, I'm not sure Payne really knows how to strike the right balance or follow through on most of them. When Paul embarks on a third act voyage with Ngoc Lan, Dusan and Dusan's seafaring buddy Konrad (a hilariously deadpan Udo Kier), the film begins to feel particularly unwieldy, introducing a potentially cataclysmic plot twist that doesn't have time to settle. But I was happy to stick with Downsizing all the way to the end of its odd journey, which came as something of a surprise given how much I disliked Alexander Payne's last two features Nebraska and The Descendants. Both of those movies felt inert, bitter and condescending, whereas Downsizing feels like something genuinely and refreshingly new. It's a film that looks outwards and reaches for something beyond the territory Payne normally operates in, possessing a strain of optimism and – thanks to Chau's remarkable performance – empathy that I found very moving. Downsizing is far from a perfect film, but it's a thoughtful and ambitious one, and it deserves more than the dismissive response it has received thus far. Perhaps it's easy to see why a film like this has flopped in the current moviegoing climate, but I hope Alexander Payne isn't discouraged from continuing to think big.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Hostiles

Hostiles opens with a scene in which a family’s home is besieged by an Apache tribe, who kill the man of the house and his three children, including a newborn baby, leaving the anguished mother (Rosamund Pike) half-crazed with grief. We then meet two soldiers as they sit in near darkness and boozily reminisce about their past exploits, such as the time when one of them sliced a Native American "from stem to stern." Ah, good times. Shortly afterwards, when Captain Blocker (Christian Bale, looking and sounding like a young Sam Elliott) is tasked with escorting an ailing Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) to his home so he can die on his own land, he responds by walking out into the wilderness and howling at the sky at the injustice of it all. These characters hadn’t even begun their journey, and already the film’s pervading sense of despair and violence was suffocating.

That, it seems, is the Scott Cooper way. Like his last two films Out of the Furnace and Black Mass, Hostiles moves from the first scene with a gravity it hasn’t earned, as if presenting itself as a serious piece of work is enough to ensure we should take it seriously. Cooper's slight but charming 2009 debut Crazy Heart now feels like an outlier, as each of the subsequent movies have been defined by a brooding demeanour and a focus on violent, tortured men. It’s hard to recall any characters in his films cracking a smile, unless you count Johnny Depp’s sinister grin in the lamentable Black Mass. The problem is not the grim tone, the problem is a lack of inspiration and ability. There is nothing in Cooper’s direction or storytelling to elevate this material. It just feels like we are dutifully trudging across old territory.

Hostiles is essentially Cooper’s spin on The Searchers. As the racist and vengeful Blocker reluctantly shepherds Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family, he gradually comes to see the humanity of the man he once despised and learns how alike they are, but Cooper fails to illuminate this path to understanding. When Blocker tells Yellow Hawk towards the end of the film that “a part of me dies with you,” it doesn’t resonate because the film hasn’t dramatised his changing perspective effectively. Blocker spends most of his time interacting with Pike’s Rosalie Quaid (his upright, courteous behaviour is quite touching) or the various characters they meet along the way, such as Ben Foster’s convict, who reminds Blocker that they have both lived violent lives and that he might be the one in chains under different circumstances. Much of Hostiles consists of these men reckoning with their violent pasts, with Rory Cochrane’s gradual breakdown being the most strained aspect of the film. The scene in which he tearfully apologises to Yellow Hawk for everything that has been done to his people and hands him a bag of tobacco as a peace offering just feels like the filmmakers paying lip service to the plight of Native Americans.

It would have been better if Cooper had given them a voice of their own. It’s a fatal misjudgement for the film to have Yellow Hawk and his family (Q'orianka Kilcher, Adam Beach) existing primarily as mute props for Blocker’s enlightenment. Given the film’s 135-minute running time and many dry passages, it’s astonishing that Cooper makes so little effort to share the Cheyenne characters’ point-of-view or to give them any sense of an inner life. Wes Studi is a great actor and a unique screen presence, but here is asked to do little more than remain stoic, noble and silent – it is such missed opportunity. As I watched Bale, Studi and Kilcher together on screen, I couldn't help wishing I was watching Terrence Malick’s The New World instead; a film with the empathy, curiosity and imagination to see the world from multiple points of view.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Rey

Revisiting Jean Cocteau’s Orphée recently I was again struck by the simplicity and beauty of the film’s effects, and how basic tricks like reversing the image to show a man rising rather than falling, or a pair of gloves slipping seamlessly onto hands, possess a timeless magical quality. I was reminded of this as I watched Rey, in which we are introduced to the protagonist Orélie-Antoine de Tounens (Rodrigo Lisboa) as he crouches above a creek, the water seeming to flow from the river below up into his hands. It’s a perfect introduction to a man who believed he was driven by some divine right to rule the land he walked on, and to a film that finds imaginative ways to let us share his perspective.

A French lawyer-turned-explorer, de Tounens declared himself King of Araucanía and Patagonia – a region long under dispute between Chile and Argentina – in 1860. He claimed he had been elected by the native Mapuche tribe but when he was captured by the Chilean authorities, he was quickly declared insane after a brief trial and sent back to France with a warning that he would be executed if he ever set foot on his self-proclaimed kingdom again. As a tale of a man losing his mind in the dense jungle, Rey will inevitably draw comparisons with the work of Werner Herzog, but the more surprising associations I made as I watched this hallucinatory and haunting film were filmmakers like Guy Maddin or Peter Greenaway.

There’s also a hint of Don Quixote in de Tounens as he marches through this unchartered territory on his donkey with his guide Rosales (Claudio Riveros), being led in circles by a man who doesn’t know the way, doesn’t speak the languages he claims to, and doesn’t trust this oddball Frenchman. When de Tounens is captured and interrogated, both his and his captors adopt papier-mâché masks, giving these scenes a strangely theatrical quality – almost reminiscent of Commedia dell'Arte – and as our protagonist grows sickly and weak, the decay shows on his mask. In fact, decay is one of the film’s central motifs. Even the film itself seems to be rotting from within. Rey was written and directed by Niles Atallah, who shot footage on 16mm and then buried the film in his garden to age it. The image is frequently scarred by scratches and mould, with some of the blemishes clearly being more deliberate than others (scratches on de Tounens' eyes and mouth are a brilliant way of simulating his madness), and the insertion of flickering archive footage adds another layer to the film’s disorienting collage.

As you might expect with a film that is so eclectic in its form and its focus, not everything in Rey clicks. The film’s ultimate purpose remains shrouded in mystery. A closing text dedicates the film to the indigenous tribes of Latin America such as the Mapuche, the Tehuelche and the Yagán people, but aside from a couple of brief scenes (including a cherishable encounter with a man and woman who offer de Tounens and Rosales help on the road), they don’t really register as a presence in the film. Atallah is much more preoccupied with his man who would be king – with depicting his encroaching madness as he is defeated by the territory he felt entitled to  and even if it doesn’t fully coalesce in the end, the journey is perhaps more valuable than the destination.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Why is Martin McDonagh’s new film called Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri? The title recalls some of his work for the stage, such as The Beauty Queen of Leenane, The Cripple of Inishmaan or A Behanding in Spokane, but it also suggests a specificity that isn’t borne out by the film. Three Billboards was shot entirely in North Carolina, some 900 miles away from Missouri, and this fictional town could easily have been situated in a multitude of American states, so why not call the film, say, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, North Carolina? Maybe McDonagh just thinks it sounds better. Maybe none of this matters. Admirers of the film will argue that the location isn’t relevant as McDonagh’s film is about universal truths and the human condition rather than any particular group of people, but his grasp of these issues appears to be as weak as his geography.

What do we know about Ebbing, anyway? We know that there’s a long road that nobody uses “unless they got lost or they’re retards” and that alongside this road there are three derelict billboards, which haven’t been rented since the '80s. We know that the Ebbing Advertising office sits directly across the street from the police station (for storytelling convenience), and this is where Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) goes after the vacant site has caught her eye. RAPED WHILE DYING / AND STILL NO ARRESTS? / HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY? the signs soon read in stark black letters on a background that bathes every passing driver in red when their headlights hit the boards at night. It was Mildred’s teenage daughter who was murdered seven months earlier, and her attempt to shine a spotlight on this apparently dormant case turns almost everybody in the town against her.

Most of those who turn against her are men. It would be interesting to know what the women of Ebbing, Missouri think about Mildred’s actions, but as written by McDonagh – and played by Samara Weaving, Kerry Condon, Abbie Cornish and Amanda Warren – they don’t seem to have many thoughts in their heads at all. Samara Weaving’s Penelope just read a book about polo and still gets it confused with polio – the kind of line that might get a cheap laugh but doesn’t actually make a lot of sense, which is the case with much of McDonagh’s writing. When Mildred tries to provoke the racist cop Dixon (Sam Rockwell) by asking him, “How’s it all going in the nigger-torturing business, Dixon?” he indignantly replies, “It’s the persons of colour-torturing business these days, if you want to know. And I didn’t torture nobody.” This exchange is twofer for the writer-director, aimed at stinging viewers with the casual use of a racial slur from the ostensible heroine and then making them laugh at Dixon’s dopiness, but all I could think was: Who talks like this?

Part of McDonagh’s goal here appears to be testing how far we’ll stick with this grieving mother as her rage and grief drives her to commit an escalating series of irrational acts in the name of justice. Mildred tells a priest to get the fuck out of her house, she attacks a dentist with his own drill, she kicks two high school students in the crotch, she firebombs the police station. She doesn’t face consequences for any of her actions, but neither does anyone else. We already know that Dixon has gotten away with torturing a black suspect before we see him punching a young woman in the face and throwing a man through a first floor window. He might be finally kicked off the force as a result, but no criminal charges are apparently forthcoming. Instead he receives forgiveness from the victim of his violence just a few scenes later (they are placed side-by-side in the hospital, naturally) and quickly turns the corner towards redemption.

Guilt and forgiveness are key themes in Three Billboards but McDonagh’s writing is insultingly glib, and too much of it feels like a rough first draft in need of further revisions. McDonagh’s writing in his previous films In Bruges and particularly the dire Seven Psychopaths was often incoherent and full of cheap shots, but those flaws feel more pronounced here because he is attempting to grapple with real emotional pain. Isn’t there a better way to suggest Mildred’s feelings of guilt than a flashback in which we learn that “I hope you get raped too!” were the last words she shouted at her daughter? The actors McDonagh has assembled are too good for the film to be complete write-off – Frances McDormand relishes a rare meaty role, and Woody Harrelson is much-missed when he’s not on screen – but they are playing cartoons rather than real people, pawns in McDonagh’s game, and no more flesh-and-blood than the egregious CGI deer that turns up at one point to hear Mildred’s monologue. Ultimately it doesn’t matter where Three Billboards is supposed to take place, because nothing in it feels real.

Monday, January 08, 2018

All the Money in the World

In 1965, J. Paul Getty wrote a book called How to be Rich. Not how to get rich, mind you; this one was aimed at those who had already amassed their wealth and were now thinking about the best way to use it. I wonder if the book had a chapter on what to do if a family member was kidnapped and held for ransom? If so, it was probably a short one. In 1973, when Getty was regarded as the richest man who had ever lived, his teenage grandson Paul was kidnapped in Rome, with his captors demanding $17 million for his safe release. Getty's response was to do nothing. Months passed, an ear was received in the post, but Getty insisted he would not pay a penny; unless, of course, the ransom was dropped to an amount that was tax-deductible. That might stir his interest.

It's a fascinating story, and Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World gets right into it, staging Paul's kidnapping as soon as the opening credits have elapsed. But then the film begins jumping around in time, sketching in Getty's tenuous relationship with his family, and thereafter it never quite finds its focus again. Is this the story of young Paul (Charlie Plummer), stuck in a filthy cell with the increasingly agitated kidnappers? Is our protagonist Gail (Michelle Williams), the boy's anxious but determined mother? Perhaps the lead is Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg, never looking entirely comfortable in the role), the ex-CIA man instructed by Getty to deal with the problem as efficiently and inexpensively as possible. It doesn't feel like any of these characters are really driving the film, and they're all ultimately reduced to thin supporting parts, swamped by the shadow of the man playing JP Getty – and the man who's not.

All the Money in the World is destined to be remembered as the film that swapped out one key actor for another within weeks of its premiere, with the release schedule not skipping a beat and the film generating plenty of headlines. Aside from one awkward shot in the desert early on, the presence of Christopher Plummer (no relation to his young co-star Charlie) in place of Kevin Spacey is seamless; in fact, it's hard to picture Spacey pulling off this role so effortlessly. Plummer's Getty is cold and aloof, but pragmatic; a man utterly single-minded in his pursuit of wealth and power. When asked what on earth could possibly make him feel secure, he simply replies, “More.” He is a man more interested in things than people – beautiful artworks never change, he reasons, they never let you down – and there is a cruel irony in the way he coos “beautiful child” over a newly purchased painting as his grandson suffers. It's a plum role, and Plummer makes the most of it.

Plummer also benefits from playing a character who can appear in just a few scenes while maintaining a constant presence throughout. The rest of the actors are defeated by a film that never gives them enough room to dig below the surface or give us a real sense of who these people are. When Gail first hears about her son's kidnapping over the phone, Scott abruptly cuts into an expository flashback instead of giving us a moment with her as she processes this news, and the film is marked throughout by remarkably inelegant transitions. I think Williams is giving a really strong performance here, but it feels chopped up and scattered, reduced to a few brief emotional bursts that don't develop or connect. She and the miscast Wahlberg never come into focus while the more theatrical villainy offered by Plummer and Romain Duris – as a kidnapper who forms a tenuous bond with Paul – allows them to make a more vivid impact in the time allotted to them.

Not many filmmakers are reliably efficient enough to have been capable of pulling off the Spacey-Plummer switcheroo so quickly, but that is all Scott brings to the film – efficiency. All the Money in the World just plods from one scene to the next, never generating or sustaining any kind of momentum or tension. It has no life, no pulse, and no sense of depth beyond the basic story it tells. I guess the film is about the corrosive power of wealth, but it doesn’t have anything interesting to say about this and it feels like there are far more interesting wrinkles in the narrative that Scott and his screenwriter David Scarpa are failing to explore. For example, the film ends by telling us that Getty’s vast art collection formed the basis of the Getty Museum after his death, but my favourite postscript detail is one I discovered for myself after I got home from the screening. When Getty died in 1976, he left his son John just $500 in his will. And his grandson, the one who had spent months in captivity? He got nothing.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

"If we all have to live like the Kardashians and if everybody has to fly private to feel like they are a success, then we are headed to certain catastrophe." - An Interview with Mike White

Mike White began 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival with Beatriz at Dinner – which he wrote for director Miguel Arteta – being hailed as the first great film of the Trump era, and he ended the year with Brad’s Status, the first feature he has directed since 2007's Year of the Dog. Both films are astute social commentaries, with Brad’s Status exploring issues of privilege, jealousy and perspective as Brad (Ben Stiller) wonders why his perfectly satisfactory life doesn’t match up to the extravagant lifestyles enjoyed by his wealthier peers. Ahead of its UK cinema release this week, I spoke to Mike White about both of his acclaimed 2017 features, as well as his more unlikely involvement in one of the year’s most critically derided blockbusters.

When you were writing Brad’s Status, was it always written as a film that you were planning to direct yourself?

I had written Beatriz at Dinner just earlier and I had given it to Miguel Arteta to direct, so I was thinking that if he was busy with that then this was something I could do. I knew that it was a tonally specific movie, and sometimes as I get older it's just easier to do it myself rather than try to unpack it for another director.

There are a lot of thematic connections between Brad’s Status and Beatriz at Dinner, with the discussion of class and privilege, and the sense of feeling like an outsider. Did these two stories come from the same place?

After I wrote Beatriz at Dinner and had written Enlightened, I kind of wanted to explore the psyche of someone who is first a man and is dealing with masculinity and its discontents, and that kind of thing, but I was trying to come at it not only in a satirical way but in a way that had some compassion for him. It's about his privilege issues but also I can relate and I see it in my world a lot, and it's something that I think is worth considering.

The interesting thing about Brad is that he sees himself as being on the outside, but everyone in the audience is likely to look at him and see him as someone who is very much on the inside, and is lucky to be living so comfortably.

I think that's very true to life. Most people see themselves as the underdog in their own story. I mean, just look at Trump. Even as president of the United States he is the underdog hero facing all of these obstacles and the haters and all of that. I think we project onto other people who we see as having more advantages, but when you actually get inside their heads they don't see it the same way. I think Brad is obviously reduced to that feeling, he's kind of monomaniacal throughout the movie about feeling this sense of being put-upon or an outsider, but I think that's something that is universal. There are a lot of rich, white men who run companies and see themselves as coming up against all odds and still striving, and from another perspective we'd think they have everything. I think it just all depends on where you stand.

We spend a lot of the movie inside Brad’s head but the occasional different perspectives on him from the younger characters are crucial. They seem to be grounded and have a wisdom or a philosophical outlook that he lacks. 

I thought it would be interesting to have the wisdom coming from the youth, giving his son and his son's friends some perspective that he doesn't have, and I also think that's more true to life in some ways. As you get older your identity becomes more concretised and you're more on your heels about where you are, and I think when you're young you are all potential and you're still forming, and so you look at older people's defensiveness or anxiety about their identity with a perspective they don't have.

I’m sure Brad once thought of himself as being as hopeful and passionate as these students, though. Do you think they’ll inevitably end up as embittered and feeling stuck as he does?

I mean, obviously Brad is an extreme kind of character, because I was trying to unpack that certain kind of comparative anxiety and really let him embody that. I think in one way you have the ability to get wiser as you get older, but when it comes to your identity and stuff, I don't know, people paint themselves into corners psychologically and it's hard not to get beaten down by life in a lot of ways. I often see it with my peers. When you're young you have a certain kind hope and idealism, and things don't always pan out as you'd hoped. I think it seems like Troy is pretty grounded and you would hope that it would remain so.

What was it about Ben Stiller that made him perfect for Brad? I think it’s interesting that he made a Walter Mitty movie a few years ago and this feels like a riff on the Walter Mitty story in some ways.

Yeah, that was part of it. I'm a big fan of Ben and I've been wanting to work with him for a long time, and he's also been really kind about my work, so I felt that would be a collaboration that would be enjoyable. I do think he has trafficked in this and part of me was wondering if that is an issue, but I came down on the side that it might be more interesting, because to me the movie does have parallels to Walter Mitty, but it's the hyper-specific version. I got excited about the idea of doing something that seemed like a familiar Ben Stiller movie but by making it more low-frequency and nuanced, certain colours and tones would come out that might be unexpected.

I think that’s something you tend to do a lot, tapping into some aspect’s of an actor’s persona but also pushing them into something new. I’m thinking of Jennifer Aniston in The Good Girl and Salma Hayek in Beatriz at Dinner, for example.

For me, I enjoy writing for actors who have a comedic sensibility and I find they're more enjoyable to make movies with. At the same time, if I don't connect emotionally with the character it feels empty, and I do think Ben gave a soulful performance in the movie that I was excited to see and show people.

So having not directed a film for ten years, did it feel different this time? Did your experience working on Enlightened help you approach this film in a different way?

I did feel that Enlightened allowed me to feel more comfortable directing. Because I have quite a specific tone it just made me be more confident that I would be a good interpreter of my own work. To be honest, I'm a writer by nature and I really don't like to be in charge of a lot of people, so the managerial aspects of directing take a lot out of me. It's not a place that I want to be in all the time, but I feel like if the elements all line up in a way that seems like I can have a good time doing it, I'll think, “yeah, let's try it.” But then when I'm done I'm like, “OK, I'd like to go back to the writer's life for a while.”

How does it work with Miguel? Do you collaborate on set or do you give him the script ad trust him to take it from there?

Usually we work together, but while Beatriz at Dinner was shooting I was prepping Brad's Status, so I couldn't be there during the shoot, but I was there for rehearsals. Because Miguel and I have worked together over the years on many things there's a kind of shorthand and I feel comfortable just letting go, but he's always very good about not having ego about it and letting me be as involved as I can be or want to be, so that's why it works for us.

How did you feel about Beatriz at Dinner being hailed as a great “Trump-era” movie when it debuted at Sundance? Obviously you made it before there was a real possibility of Trump being elected, but were you conscious of tapping into something there?

Well, Trump had started his campaign, we were still in the Republican primary stage, and the truth is that it certainly made it a better story for cultural critics writing about the movie and things like that. But unfortunately the truth is America has become more polarised and I think those issues that came up in the movie would still have been relevant even if he hadn't won. To both our dismay and surprise, Trump's inauguration was just after our premiere so it made for strange sense of timeliness.

That polarisation feeds into Brad’s Status too. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening so much, a guy like Brad feels a desperate need to keep up and not get left behind.

Right. I think there's an extreme sense of what being a 'have' is today, and that's what the movie is also trying to get at. Obviously there is poverty in the western world but so many of us do live enviable lifestyles, and whether it’s capitalism or social media or our own psychological failings, there’s this sense of us grasping and not really realising how lucky we are and how much we have. That kind of philosophy or sense of lack is psychologically crippling and, from a more macro point of view, it's globally destructive. If we all have to live like the Kardashians and if everybody has to fly private to feel like they are a success, then we are headed to certain catastrophe.

How consciously does the political atmosphere affect your work as a writer? Do you feel compelled to respond to what’s happening in your work?

When Trump became president, I was really grateful that I was talking about Beatriz at Dinner or the topic of Brad's Status during that period rather than just entertainment stuff. When you feel that your civic values are at stake you do want to be part of the conversation and use your art of whatever it is work as a way to weigh in on the conversation.

On the subject of entertainment stuff, I’m not going to ask you much about The Emoji Movie as I haven’t seen it, but I wonder what is it like for a writer to be brought into a big studio franchise movie like that? Obviously those jobs pay the bills, but can you get some kind of artistic fulfillment from it or is it simply a job of work?

I do get a lot out of it. I worked on The Emoji Movie for just three weeks, and I'm not exactly sure how I got credit on it. I've worked on other movies where I've done a lot more and didn't get credit on it. In terms of what I get from it...you see how the sausage is made, I guess, and you're actually part of the sausage. Sometimes when you read reviews or people writing about movies, it sometimes feels naïve because with something like The Emoji Movie, you realise it's a product. It's obviously not Mike White's Emoji Movie - and it's not even the director's Emoji Movie, to be honest - it's Sony's Emoji Movie. I think there's a desire for some kind of authorial ownership, whether it's a writer or director, but that's just a perception of the public or film writers. Studio movies have become so expensive, and there are so many people being a part of the process, that at some point you don't even know who deserves the credit or the blame for any of it, you know what I mean? It just feels like its own kind of weird beast.

So where do you see yourself as a writer now? You’ve done a lot of work in independent films and television. Do you feel more comfortable in one medium than the other? Is one a better fit for your sensibilities?

TV plays to my strengths because I like to write and I wrote all the episodes of Enlightened. I think that if Enlightened had been a movie it wouldn't have had the depth that I felt it ultimately had, and that's just because you can keep going back and filling out the characters and their world, so I like that. It just takes a lot out of me, and the truth is that I was lucky with that show to be at HBO where they were pretty supportive of what I was doing, but sometimes when you're doing all of that work and then you're also fighting for it, that can be very stressful. For me, I'm not eager to get back to TV unless I feel like I have a passion that's worth all the work it's going to be and all the fights that come with it. Each thing has its positives and negatives, though. I like writing independent films, those are where I feel like my voice is able to be heard. There was a time around doing School of Rock when I thought I could maybe dovetail my own sensibility with something that was a bigger studio type of thing, but I think it's harder than ever to make original movies in that space. It's all franchises and intellectual properties where you have to come in and dance for The Man.

In that environment, it’s very heartening to see a film like Beatriz at Dinner taking in over $7 million in the US. Not a lot of small movies get any kind of traction at the box office these days.

Yeah, it's crazy. You never know. I mean, nobody wanted to finance Beatriz at Dinner and we had to make it on the smallest micro-level, even with the names we had. The theatrical world for those movies has kind of become a sucker's game, which is why places like Amazon and Netflix are the only places who really have the ability to lose money on these things and still somehow make it worth doing. It's a tough time. It was hard to get even my friends to go to the movie! They know they'll watch it on demand or they'll watch it on an airplane, or something. Unless it's a superhero movie or a Dunkirk, something epic in scope, it's just hard to get people to go out to watch movies in the theatre.

Brad's Status is release in the UK on January 5th

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Brad's Status

Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) should be happy. He has a good job, a nice home, a loving wife and a son on the verge of going to Harvard. He is comfortable. So why does Brad’s Status open with its protagonist lying awake at night, consumed by a gnawing sense that his life has gone wrong somewhere along the road? Brad’s problem is envy, provoked and exacerbated by the fact that his contemporaries from college have all gone on to achieve ridiculous levels of wealth and fame, leaving him feeling like an outsider with his nose pressed up against the glass.

Much of Brad’s Status takes place during a trip to Boston, where Brad’s son Troy (Austin Abrams) has a couple of college interviews scheduled. While he is initially excited to have this precious time together with his offspring before he leaves the nest, his insecurities threaten to scupper everything. He can’t go five minutes without letting his mind wander into a fantasy of what his life might have been like. What if he hadn’t been so quick to settle? What if he had taken more chances? Couldn’t it have been Brad frolicking on the beach with two bikini-clad beauties whose combined ages don’t match his own? Or getting away from it all on his own private jet? What if… what if…

Read the rest of my review at Little White Lies

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Molly's Game

“Did you know that the centre of our galaxy smells like rum and rasberries?” Only in an Aaron Sorkin script would one character walk up to another and begin a conversation this way. Molly’s Game is full of characters spouting such factoids and anecdotes, and it’s Molly herself who has a monopoly on the spouting. At one point her voiceover digresses into the story of Matthew Robinson, who shattered the 200m record at the 1936 Olympics but is forgotten because he finished second to Jesse Owens by two-hundreths of a second, and this is how Sorkin leads into Molly discussing her more successful brothers. She’s constantly talking about one thing as a way of talking about another. The film opens with an energetic detail-heavy sequence showing her previous life as an aspiring champion skier, with Molly musing in her voiceover about “the worst thing that can happen in sport.” After we've watched and listened to this for a couple of minutes, she adds, “None of this has anything to do with poker.”

Everyone in an Aaron Sorkin movie has a tendency to sound like Aaron Sorkin, and that can undeniably be fun. The rapid-fire repartee in his films is frequently witty and literate, but it can also feel superficial and exhausting, which is how Molly’s Game started to feel a long way before its excessive runtime was up. Molly’s Game is about as Sorkin-ish as it gets, which might be because the writer is also sitting in the director’s chair this time around. In the same way I prefer the films that David Mamet has written for other directors than those he directed himself, Molly's Game lacks a filter or an alternative voice, and Sorkin is not a visually imaginative enough director to compensate for this torrent of talk. He relies too heavily on voiceover to tell the story, and Molly’s narration is so heavily utilised the film sometimes feels like an audiobook, with her constantly telling us exactly what is happening instead of simply letting us watch it happen.

It’s not such a hardship to listen to Chastain, though. She nails the particular cadence and tone of Sorkin's writing and she’s a compelling actress who – as we saw in Zero Dark Thirty and Miss Sloane – is extremely comfortable as this type of sharp, self-possessed, single-minded character. Chastain may have got her break embodying “the way of grace” for Terrence Malick but now she has become more readily associated with an unshakable resolve and a determination to get what’s hers, and she’s particularly adept at showing what it takes to succeed as a woman in a world dominated by men. The film is clearly set up as an examination of patriarchy, which makes it all the more baffling and frustrating that Sorkin reduces everything to Molly’s relationship with her father (Kevin Costner). This strand of the film culminates in a shockingly bad scene late in the film, when Sorkin diagnoses her daddy issues in five minutes of cod-psychology on a park bench.

Perhaps this is why Molly  for all of Chastain’s charisma and skilful shifting of modes  wasn’t an intriguing enough character to hold my attention. Molly’s Game is slick but shallow, with all of Sorkin’s verbosity covering up for an empty centre. The best scene in the film actually has little to do with Molly herself, instead focusing on two of the gamblers at her table. Brad (Brian d'Arcy James) is a notoriously clueless gambler who loses every hand, while Harlan (Bill Camp, superb) is a skilled and cautious player, but his inability to read Brad’s oblivious poker face sends him into a maddening tailspin that ends up destroying his life. This mini-drama contains more emotional truth and a more engrossing, surprising narrative arc than anything else in the movie, and after sitting through Molly’s Game’s 140 minutes, it’s the only thing that has really stuck with me. Well, that and the smell of the galaxy.