Tuesday, March 12, 2019

"We haven't destroyed Vertigo, we've just taken it apart, looked at all its component pieces, and stitched together a Frankenstein's version of it." - An Interview with Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin has worked with his share of recognisable names over the course of his career, but The Green Fog is surely the starriest cast he’s ever had. Rock Hudson, Michael Douglas, Karl Malden, Vincent Price, Joan Crawford, Nicolas Cage, Glenn Close, Humphrey Bogart, Sharon Stone, Donald Sutherland, Whoopi Goldberg and Chuck Norris are just a few of the actors who appear in the director’s latest film, most of them making fleeting cameos in roles you may have seen them playing before. Commissioned to create a piece celebrating San Francisco for the 2017 edition of the city’s film festival, Maddin and his co-directors Galen and Evan Johnson have stitched together footage from the countless films and television programmes that have been shot there over the course of decades, but this is no mere collage. As the film progresses a familiar narrative shape begins to emerge, and it quickly becomes clear that The Green Fog is audaciously remaking Hitchcock's Vertigo by reconstructing its key scenes. This a typically ingenious, surprising and hilarious piece of work from one of the most distinctive artists currently working in world cinema, and it’s one that rewards repeated viewings, allowing audiences to catch the unexpected cameos, gags and allusions that initially zip by. Our originally scheduled interview had to be postponed because Maddin was away on a location scout, but we caught up by telephone a few days later.

How was your location scouting this week? Did it go well?

It's kind of tiring. You know, my entire movie career has been spent on cheap handmade sets shot extremely claustrophobically, highly artificial – and then The Green Fog, which is the result of the work of other location scouts – so this is the first time I've ever done a location scout. The real world can be really dispiriting and ugly and ordinary, and I have a tsunami of newfound respect for people who can make the real world look really interesting. Even though we knew that the city of Winnipeg would look pretty drab for our project, and that drabness was even important to it, to find drabness that would play interestingly on screen is… I'm just really out of my comfort zone. But I do keep trying to put myself out of my comfort zone. I should have forced myself out of such comforts decades ago, so it’s better late than never.

It feels to me that you have been pushing yourself in new directions for a couple of years now. The Green Fog is certainly something entirely new.

I've always been a big fan of re-purposed or found footage films. There's this early '60s Canadian guy named Arthur Lipsett who made some really cool movies. Joseph Cornell, of course, the granddaddy of all found-footage films; I love Rose Hobart, I've seen it a million times. I love the work of Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller, who made The Phoenix Tapes, this centennial tribute to Hitchcock by re-purposing footage from the entire Hitchcock oeuvre to make little short film essays or prose poems. I'm an enormous fan of those, they're really cool. You know, Hitchcock just has a way of shooting hands, for instance, and mothers come up often, so they've organised little observational films around themes common in Hitchcock. So I've just always been an ardent supporter of these things that have never had a broad release, they've just occupied glorious but niche existences in the film world. I'm a big fan of the city symphonies too, the main ones anyway. Seeing Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera with live accompaniment at Telluride Film Festival was one of the great experiences of my life, and I like Berlin: Symphony of a City, Vigo's À propos de Nice. So when I was approached by Noah Cowan, the head of The San Francisco Film Festival, to make some sort of tribute to the San Francisco-ean cinema, I had a chance to make what I quickly assumed would be a city symphony and a re-purposed footage movie combined in one. It ended up not being so much a city symphony, not any more than any movie short in San Francisco is, but it did end up being a re-purposed film orgy.

One thing I love about the film is that it's a great reminder of how cinematic San Francisco is. I’ve never been there so my only experience of this city is through its depiction in movies. Was that your relationship to it?

Oh, for the longest time. I started my filmmaking career in the '80s, the pre-internet days, and Winnipeg, this isolated city, was genuinely isolated. I didn't travel until I started getting into film festivals, so all my impressions of cities – not just of San Francisco but of Cleveland, Kansas City, New York, Albuquerque – it was just things gleaned from watching movies and TV shows, just myths. I knew they probably weren't accurate, and I'd known for a very long time that the preeminent medium of mythmaking since the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century was film, or the moving image. You're not really properly mythologised until you're mythologised in a motion picture. So I had a sense of these cities but I always thought they were kind of poetic facts, the cities as presented to me. You know, I didn't really expect The Streets of San Francisco to feel obliged to represent the city, to go into its slums or discuss its gentrification issues that plagued the actual citizens or anything like that. By the time we started this project I'd been there and my collaborators had never set foot in the place but, just like you, we had a strong sense of what it was like. You know, movies make it possible for you to just stay at home and not go anywhere.

It is funny how many images you found that rhyme with Vertigo. There are so many shots of chase sequences, characters following and watching each other, people hanging from high ledges. I wonder if there is just something about the architecture and layout of the city that lends itself to this kind of filmmaking.

Yeah, I think so. Before we started on Vertigo, we were organising along the lines of whenever we saw a bridge, or whenever a car went up a hill, or whenever people were falling, or dangling precariously from things. We started to log the timecodes for every appearance of things like that, and sure, some of those things appear in other movies, but Hitchcock would often choose locations that he intended to exploit. If you have hills and bridges and a big phallic tower jutting out of the cityscape, you tend to want to exploit them. Hitchcock was pretty good at writing scripts that include locations that matter somehow, Mount Rushmore and... well I could just go on and on but I'm sure I don't need to teach you. Sometimes it was just a matter of all the film crews in LA being busy so they had to head north to San Francisco, but I think there's a big difference between the two cities. There's a different wealth between Hollywood and San Francisco, and all the things which go with that, there's a different atmosphere. Some decisions by producers and directors are probably made subconsciously and they don't even know why; they just say, "This is a San Francisco kind of story." I find it interesting that Point Bank starts and ends in the Bay Area, but takes place entirely in LA – or Los Angeles, sorry Thom Anderson. I bought Rebecca Solnit's book on San Francisco with the intention of really learning about the city, but the commission was taken on with such a short deadline, I think we had a month to make the movie. We just ignored the deadline and delivered the movie a couple of days before it was to screen, so we ended up having about four months in total and there wasn't time to read books or anything. Once we'd decided on Vertigo we didn't even re-watch it, we knew it pretty well.

So at what point in this process did the Vertigo inspiration strike you?

About halfway through our watching about 300 movies that were shot in San Francisco, most of them on fast-forward, we started noticing that Vertigo elements were popping up in the films. Sometimes there are homages to Vertigo but sometimes it's just coincidence; sometimes it's in films shot years or decades before Vertigo. After a while one of us just glibly said, "Hey, we should remake Vertigo but just not using any of the shots from Vertigo." Then we thought we'd allow ourselves one shot, the very first shot of Vertigo should be allowed.

Aside from recreating Vertigo through this footage, did you feel like you were exploring particular aspects of it, or offering some sort of critique on the original?

More than any other Hitchcock film, Vertigo pretty much makes it known how aware it is of how horribly destructive the male gaze can be. You're often not quite sure how aware Hitchcock is of that, especially in light of Tippi Hedren's accusations of his behaviour on set, but it's pretty clear he knows that Jimmy Stewart's character is behaving destructively. He's taking someone who only existed as a figment of Gavin Elster's machinations, and then recreating her by changing a woman against her will into that person. So by taking a person who never existed and using her as a template for someone he never knew and changing her... it's pretty cruel, and it ends up destroying her and destroying him, in that it breaks his heart. It's a pretty knowing portrayal of how savagely destructive this male gaze is, whereas with the other films you often wonder if it's just "That's the way it was in those days!" or something like that. I remember how thrilled we were when one of my collaborators found that footage that's able to pry the camera away from the male gaze for a while, and show a scene between two women having lunch, one of them a sort of stand-in for the Kim Novak character. For once you're actually getting the would-be Madeleine Elster confiding in a friend about how uncomfortable she is with this whole plot Gavin Elster's launched her into.

It would have been interesting to do that a bit more, if we had been able to find the footage, to show the flip side of a scene. Instead of showing the counterpart of a scene in Vertigo, to show the scene that Hitchcock doesn't, that he leaves out. Since gentrification is an ongoing civic concern in San Francisco, because it's got to be the most expensive city in America to live in, and poor people have been perennially moved out and relocated heartlessly, the idea that Vertigo was also kind of a gentrification of a person rhymes with that nicely. There are a few movies made on the subject; Pacific Heights is one of them, and we got some footage from that, along with a kind of Bond villain monologue about gentrification. So yeah, it's a long-winded and stuttering way of answering your question – sorry – but we were able to take a slightly different angle on it, and I think illuminate some of the things that Hitchcock's up to. It's not like we need to take the piss out of the movie. We also joke that we had the advantage over Hitchcock because we got to see Vertigo first, and tighten it up and eliminate all of its dull patches, and improve upon it. We've taken the all-time greatest movie according to Sight & Sound and knocked it down a notch, so now in 2022 when the next poll comes out, we expect to see The Green Fog on top. Hitchcock will have to make do with second place. As a matter of fact, if we have time to make our own version of Tokyo Story we'll probably occupy the top two spots, with Hitchcock and Ozu in three and four.

One of the great finds in the film is that shot of Mel Ferrer from Born to be Bad, watching the two girls in the gallery. It feels like it speaks so directly to the themes of Vertigo; the voyeurism, the doubling, the male-female dynamic.

And not only that, he's so brazenly creepy in it! He's not even pretending not to be watching them while they're looking at portraits. Yeah, it's unbelievably creepy, especially out of context; I mean, even in context of the original film it's creepy enough too. You get really lucky, and what a great privilege it was to make this movie. I mean, yeah it was a job of work and we needed the money, so we accepted this commission. I think I'm lucky that way. I get commissions like this because I've never been able to stockpile enough savings to turn them down, but they enable you to vivisect a film. We haven't destroyed Vertigo, we've just taken it apart, looked at all its component pieces, and stitched together a Frankenstein's version of it. By the time you've finished that exercise you really know the movie and you know more about how movies are put together then you could ever learn from just making your own movie from scratch, in a way. It's a really interesting way of learning about cinema. It feels great to be in my early 60s and still learning like crazy.

It’s interesting to hear you say that about getting these commissions, because I’d argue that some of your very best work has come from commissioned pieces, going back to The Heart of the WorldDracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary or My Winnipeg.

I agree. I'm always honoured that somebody would trust me with money and a deadline, but I'm also competitive and I want to over-deliver. I want to give them more than they ever expected, so I usually do. I've been lucky. When I was commissioned to make my short movie The Heart of the World, and similarly a ballet version of Dracula and this, in each case they ended up over-performing. Instead of just one-offs, for a festival or TV broadcast, they ended up with theatrical releases and big festival screenings. I know some people accept commissions with a different attitude, and they kind of mail something in and save all their creative genius for their own work  which might be smarter than me in the long run  but when I accept them I have so much adrenaline, and it's the same with my collaborators, they really want to deliver. I think I have too much freedom on my own projects and these commissions really excite me.

So how does the relationship with Galen and Evan work? I understand they were more heavily involved in the creating visual style of The Forbidden Room. Did the collaboration work in a different way on this one?

On The Forbidden Room we were really strongly collaborative at the screenwriting stage too, at the researching stage and writing it. On the set, Evan and I stood like conjoined twins, and I yelled "action" and "cut" and spoke to the actors most of the time, but he was never far from me. He helped me because we had to shoot so much footage in such a short time for that film, and we shot it live and in public. It was such unorthodox shooting conditions, I just needed him to be like another hemisphere of my brain, you know? On that project Galen was the production designer, but the sets were so small he was basically another director as well. On this one, we just watched all the footage together but then I had to go back to Harvard where I was teaching, so they would just edit late at night and send me cuts in the morning. I'd give them a few notes but not much, I was basically just waving pom-poms like a cheerleader on the sidelines while they assembled the movie. My job is to collaborate with the lawyer and the composer and with the San Francisco Film Festival, so they did way more work on this one. On the project we're working on now we're writing together and we'll see how it plays out on set. I guess it's more common if there's more than one director for there to be two, and for them to be brothers, so maybe eventually they can just take over and be the Johnson brothers, the JoBros. They can put flowers on my grave.

So your ultimate goal is to have them doing all the work and then you can just be the mogul barking orders.

Yeah! I can come in and smoke a cigar and rub my eye patch, or something like that. But I do need them and I like to think they need me, but they probably need me a little less with each project.

One of my favourite recurring gags in The Green Fog is the conversations that take place with all the dialogue removed. How did you arrive at that choice?

We found this footage that would serve as placeholders, substituting for the Vertigo counterparts, but they weren't saying the right things, so it was a perfect example of where a practical need actually produced something way better than just a practical solution. We needed to cut out the dialogue where they're talking about the non-Vertigo things, but the result is when you cut out dialogue you’re left with all that in-between stuff, the stuff that's not meant to be featured; people listening but only for a second, people getting ready to say a word, and then the moment after they've said it. It’s all the detritus of dialogue, the floor-sweepings of a scene. It puts such a strange stress on an actor’s presence. These actors are far from household names, they’re just character actors, with richly titled filmographies. I know Jeff Goldblum and I was talking to him one day after he'd seen the movie, and he was naming off all these actors who I couldn't name because he's been around Hollywood for 45 years, but they're not meant to be reeled off, a lot of these people. They're not known by the general public, but to me they're part of the star system we're creating, the three of us, because those are our favourite scenes.

He’s a more recognisable actor, but the Chuck Norris sequence is a particularly wonderful use of this technique.

That one is less jagged and there are very few jump-cuts, I guess because his directors felt he was limited as an actor. He has lots of scenes where he's just thinking or driving or walking or running. It's perfect to cut together, a Wagnerian Parsifal moment, and you realise that his almost expressionless face is Bressonian in the power of its clean slate qualities. It's just changing the context of something that changes everything. It's risible, but only because we've thought of Chuck Norris mostly being an action star. Once you take away the things he's most famous for, it turns out he has this incredible presence, really mysterious. You're laughing but you're also moved by the music, and his face isn't ruining the music, they're not in competition with each other, they seem to be helping each other somehow, and it creates both delight but there's a surprising power in it too. I'm sorry, I'm just formulating a lot of these thoughts for the first time. I hope I'm not overselling my own accomplishments. Evan edited that sequence together, and I think the Wagner helps, but there's something in that blankness that reminds me of Bresson in his best movies, where the same dynamic is at work. You project onto that face and it's really beautiful and elegant in Bresson and The Green Fog is…er…something like it. A really cut-rate Bresson.

The other star you get a lot of mileage out of is Rock Hudson, and again this is quite an unusual context to see him in. I wasn’t at all familiar with his TV series McMillan & Wife.

He's one of the great melodrama actors of all time, he's got such a beautiful voice. I'm also aware he's been re-purposed already in Rock Hudson's Home Movies, and done very well. We don't have anything to say that hasn't already been said about how Rock presented himself as hetero role model and concealed a gay lifestyle, but there is just something about him being the mayor of San Francisco television, presiding over the city during its most glorious television existence. We're decidedly not using him in that Rock Hudson's Home Movies way, we're just kind of wilfully ignoring that.

You know, that masterpiece is an underground film classic and that brings me to another thing. There are so many things that San Francisco is famous for – the epicentre of queer culture in America and the world, earthquakes, fires, beatniks, AIDS, a lot  but underground cinema was a huge thing in San Francisco. It was arguably the most important city for it, maybe along with New York City. I made a decision – and we didn't have enough time, and maybe that was a factor – but it's one thing to take footage from movies made by big studios and exploit them because nobody is hurt, but I wasn't about to take footage from artists who maybe never got money for making their films, and there were some really good movies that I would have loved to use. It would have been a matter of securing permission from the actual artists or their estates so I decided not to. There's one exception: it's a shot of George Kuchar, who is my favourite underground filmmaker, period, and he worked in San Francisco most of his life. But he was a friend and so I stole from him lovingly, just because I needed to have George Kuchar in this movie.

Your film also made me think of Bruce Conner’s work and he is another key San Francisco underground artist.

Yeah, he is so important to me, but I didn't know him personally and I wouldn't dare exploit an artist who worked with god knows what relationship to money or the studio system or anything like that. My conscience is pretty clear, and I'm in the clear thanks to the advice of my fair usage lawyer. In a way, I felt like those people could be declared out of bounds because I too am an underground filmmaker, and to steal from a colleague wouldn't be right. It's like only we underground filmmakers exist, and all those studio things are just part of the environment in which we operate. It's the air we breathe, and so we're allowed to breathe it.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Samuel Maoz on Foxtrot

Samuel Maoz will never forget his darkest hour. As a teenager, his daughter had developed an unfortunate habit of oversleeping and being late for school, and she would often ask him to call for a taxi instead of taking the bus. “Of course, this started to cost a bit of money and it seemed to me like a bad education, so one morning I got mad and told her to take the bus like everyone else,” Maoz recalls. “Maybe she'd be late but she needed to learn the hard way to wake up on time. The bus was Line 5, and half an hour after she left I heard on the radio that a terrorist blew himself up on Line 5 and dozens of people were killed.”

An hour after this news broke, Maoz’s daughter returned home unharmed – she had seen the fateful bus pulling away as she ran to the station – but the agonising period that he spent waiting for news still haunts him to this day. Unable to contact her because the phone network had collapsed under the strain, Maoz could only sit helplessly at home, fearing the worst. “That day I experienced the worst hour of my life, it was worse than the entire Lebanon war,” he admits. “Afterwards I asked myself, what can I learn from this experience? I realised I can learn nothing but I wanted to explore the gap between the things we can control and those that are beyond our control.”

Read the rest of my article at The Skinny

Thursday, February 21, 2019

I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians

How do you make art that illuminates past atrocities? How do you do so in a country that seems determined to forget such dark periods of their history? How does an artist work under censorship? These are some of the questions tackled by Radu Jude in I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, the title being inspired by a quote from Conducător Ion Antonescu that kickstarted a 1941 massacre of Jews in Odessa, and the Romanian government’s subsequent complicity in the Nazi Holocaust. The superb Ioana Iacob plays Mariana, a theatre director hired to stage a large-scale public event celebrating Romanian military history. The authorities are expecting something patriotic and valedictory, but Mariana has very different ideas.

Read the rest of my review at The Skinny

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 Skarsgård 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

Sunday, January 20, 2019

One Cut of the Dead

Halfway through Shin'ichirô Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead, I have to admit I wasn’t entirely feeling it. The film opens in an abandoned warehouse, where a low-budget film crew is shooting a zombie feature. A young woman (Yuzuki Akiyama) cowers in the corner as her former lover (Nagaya Kazuaki), now zombified, lurches towards her. She screams, but not realistically enough for the film’s director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu), who yells cut and then angrily berates her for the lack of genuine fear in her performance. It’s the 42nd take, and everyone is exhausted. The director storms out, giving the actors the chance to sit and have an awkward conversation with the film’s makeup artist Nao (Syuhama Harumi), who reveals that this building was the site of some genetic human experimentation once upon a time. You know where this is going.

The chief selling point for One Cut of the Dead is that the first half of the movie unfolds in a single unbroken take. It’s a filmmaking gambit than can be exciting and propulsive, but one that can just as easily come off as laboured, awkward and forced. One Cut of the Dead falls into both camps. It’s hard not to be charmed by the sense of ambition and the scrappy energy on display here, as Ueda’s cameraman races up and down stairs, chasing the film’s central characters who are in turn fleeing the lumbering undead. But then a spray of blood hits the camera prompting a hand to enter the frame and wipe it off, and Higurashi turned to the cameraman and ordered him to keep shooting, making me wonder whether this cameraman was supposed to be an additional character in the drama. Whose perspective are we seeing this film from?

There’s also the rather slapdash quality of the filmmaking to get used to. One Cut of the Dead is obviously a low-budget venture, but the amateurish nature of its technique kept getting in the way of the fun that I felt I should be having with the movie. At one point, the camera is dropped to the floor and it just lays there on its side for what feels like a minute until it is picked up and the action can resume; later, the shot is held on Akiyama as she screams for a ridiculous amount of time, obviously while some bloody prosthetics are being prepared behind the camera. It’s funny, for a while, but it’s also a little vexing. As much as I admired the energy, creativity and audacity of the whole enterprise, I kept wondering why it had to be presented this way. When the credits finally rolled around forty minutes into the movie, I felt a little relieved, but also curious. Okay Ueda, I thought, what else have you got?

I can’t remember the last time a film confounded my expectations and won me over so comprehensively in its second half. After its credits sequence, One Cut of the Dead restarts one month prior to the events we’ve just witnessed. A struggling filmmaker who describes himself as “Fast, cheap but average,” Higurashi is hired to shoot a live TV stunt for a new Japanese horror channel, with their attention-grabbing idea being a zombie movie shot in a single take. Ueda’s filmmaking is more conventional now, but it's also more entertaining and more involving. He introduces us to the various characters who will play a part in this production and sets up some running gags – one character’s alcoholism, another’s chronic diarrhoea – and subplots that will pay off later. The performances are all on point and the comic timing is sharp, with Ueda developing and shifting our perception of these characters, before taking us back to that warehouse, where Higurashi is about to call “Action!” on his ambitious and possibly insane long shot.

The climax of One Cut of the Dead runs through that opening forty minutes again, this time deconstructing it from behind the scenes, and it reveals that all of the awkwardness and clumsiness that aggravated me in the first half was a feature, not a bug. One Cut of the Dead presents itself as a shambolic amateur production, but Ueda is in complete control of his film. It’s as brilliantly constructed a comedy as I can recall seeing, and it’s also hysterically funny, generating an exhilarating, ever-escalating momentum as this rag-tag cast and crew desperately try to keep their film on track under the most chaotic circumstances. As Higurashi and his team clambered on each others' shoulders to pull off the film's ending, I found myself getting a little choked up; the sight of these endearing characters pulling together to achieve their near-impossible goal gives the film a triumphant and hugely satisfying climax. It seems the contrived clumsiness of the film's first half isn't One Cut of the Dead's only bait-and-switch. The film is being sold as a wild zombie comedy, but it ultimately reveals itself to be one of the great films about filmmaking; a savvy, sweet and profound celebration of the the ingenuity and teamwork required to bring a low-budget feature to life against the odds.

Friday, January 04, 2019

Welcome to Marwen

There was always something creepy and off-putting about the characters who populated Robert Zemeckis’s run of CGI movies in the first decade of the 21st century. The motion capture techniques he adopted in The Polar Express presented us with awkward, dead-eyed figures more chilling than endearing, and although improvements were made in the subsequent Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, a core elements of these movies always felt unnervingly off. While Zemeckis has subsequently returned from the uncanny valley to live-action filmmaking, he’s always had one foot firmly planted in the digital world, and Welcome to Marwen feels like a film that no other director could – or would – have made.

Fortunately, the plastic quality of the CGI characters in Welcome to Marwen is intentional. Inspired by the life and works of Mark Hogancamp, whom some viewers will have already met in Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 documentary Marwencol, Zemeckis’s film brings to life the models he captured in still photographs, creating spectacular WWII battles for these toy soldiers to engage in. The film’s Hogancamp (Steve Carell) has his own tiny avatar in Hogie, a tough American soldier who we meet in the opening scene as his plane crashes into enemy territory. He disembarks from his flaming jet, swaps his burned boots for a pair of women’s heels, and walks straight into some Nazis, before being saved by gang of gun-toting Barbie dolls. There’s a strange and unnerving dissonance in effect as we watch these toys shoot at each other; we don’t see any blood, but the Nazis scream in pain as their bodies are riddled with bullets, and when their corpses hit the floor they do so with an amusingly hollow clatter.

There is a point to all of this. The original town of Marwencol was an art project that Mark Hogancamp began as he recovered from a brutal beating that he suffered at the hands of a gang of men, prompted by his admission in a bar that he liked to wear women’s shoes. The attack left him with no memory, a loss of cognitive functions, and a deep trauma that he filtered through the highly detailed scenarios and tableaux he created with his dolls. The fighting women of Welcome to Marwen are all based on real people in Mark’s life who in some way helped him after the attack: his friend from the model shop (Merritt Wever), his Russian nurse (Gwendoline Christie, struggling with a dreadful accent), his rehabilitation partner (Janelle Monáe), etc. There’s also Nicol (Leslie Mann), whose likeness is added to Marwen when she moves in across the street.

Mark’s sense of longing for the sweet and understanding Nicol gives the film one of its central narrative threads, but Mark’s relationship with women in general is complicated and confounding. He has a collection of 287 pairs of women’s shoes, claiming they connect him to “the essence of dames,” and he’s constantly making full-throated declarations like “Women are the saviours of the world!” and “I love dames!” But he clearly fetishises these women rather than understanding or connecting with them. This is, after all, a man who claims his favourite actress is a porn star (played by  Leslie Zemeckis, the director's wife) best known for the Bodacious Backdoor Babes series. The women he can control in his model village are preferable to the women in the real world who come with layers of complexity and messy emotions. Mark withdraws when Wever's Roberta raises the possibility of them going on a date, but he's happy to have her toy version's blouse torn as she flees the Nazis, her plastic boobs bouncing as she goes.

All of which might go some way to suggesting how weird Welcome to Marwen is. The film is presented as an uplifting tale of triumph over adversity, of the power of community to lift up a broken man, of the value of art as a means of processing trauma, but it's full of jarring, awkward pieces that don't always fit together elegantly, if at all. Zemeckis introduces a tonal whiplash as he cuts between Mark's real world and his imagined one, with the dolls and their battles often crashing unbidden into his real-life situation. (One even disrupts a porn film he’s trying to watch. Nazis really do ruin everything.) Credit is due to the actors who work hard to find moments of truth even as they are being asked to do a lot of seriously goofy shit, with the sensitively played scenes between Carell and Mann giving the film a crucial emotional ballast. In particular, I’m thinking of the moment when the damaged Mark mistakes Nicol’s kindness for reciprocity, a scene that unexpectedly took my breath away, with Zemeckis capturing the moment in a static shot that doesn’t gives us the chance to look away from the characters’ awkwardness and pain.

Regardless of its uneven tone, the misjudged stabs at humour (the “More ammo”/”More gumbo” gag doesn’t make a lick of sense) and the often clunky writing, Welcome to Marwen is a beautifully made film. Zemeckis is a director who has always known how to frame his images for emotional impact, who prefers to move his camera rather than to cut, and who understands how to tell a story visually. The manner in which he pulls us in and out of Mark’s fantasy world, blurring the barriers between the two, is frequently ingenious and surprising. As in his undervalued 2016 Allied, this old-school filmmaking craftsmanship feels like a breath of fresh air, and it’s hard to understand the outraged, mocking and dismissive nature of the film’s critical reaction. If you want to see Mark Hogancamp’s story, I’d advise you to watch Marwencol, because Welcome to Marwen  for better and for worse  is every inch a Robert Zemeckis movie. It’s an eccentric, flawed, risky and sincere picture that is attempting to get at complicated emotions in unusual and imaginative ways, and in the current climate of American studio filmmaking, that's not nothing.