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