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.