Monthly Archives: February 2013

May or May Not.

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Sometimes I find it hard to really sum up my taste in films. I’m definitely a film geek but I wouldn’t describe my tastes as too obtuse. I have friends who hunt out their sustenance in the most unexpected places. Some travel the world to film festivals in far-flung places, others trawl archives and torrents for unreleased gems, most of my friends veer towards the cult subjects – the grimy horrors, the campy sci-fi, the saucy sex comedies of the 1970s British suburbs. My tastes are more mainstream but not actually mainstream. The films that have always fascinated me are the films that were meant to be mainstream. Those weird little aberrations which crop up on every star’s IMDB page. Films which had big casts, proper budgets, everything going for them but… for whatever reason… just didn’t happen. Sometimes they were mis-marketed, sometimes victims of behind-the-scenes politics at the studio, sometimes they were just released at the wrong moment in history. I like finding great, high quality films that vanished. There are thousands of them.

Now, although every star has one and, indeed, every director and producer and writer has one, it’s rare to find a director who worked completely in the mainstream but whose entire career consists of such films. Let alone one whose entire body of work deserves to be recognised as classic cinema. I mean, sure, there are directors who made shitty films for years and, with the assistance of passed time, achieve a level of unintended kitsch glory. But I’m talking about a director who made three incredible movies. Two with A-list Hollywood stars and one with an A-list cast of highly respected character actors. A director whose final directorial effort had a $40 million budget in 1986. How does a director like that, and their entire body of work just slip through the cracks?

I’m talking about a writer/director called Elaine May. You might have heard of her, if you have, it will probably have been for one of two reasons – either because she was a highly respected and influential comedienne or because she was the director of Ishtar. Ishtar, that’s the film of hers most people have heard of. Heard of, but I’d wager, not seen. Most people haven’t even heard of it. It was considered toxic long before it was released, was famous mainly as a punchline and became the frame of reference for a Hollywood flop for a couple of years before it was unceremoniously forgotten about. It was the saddest kind of flop, too. Because it was neither gloriously shit or belatedly discovered. Nobody went to see it. Nobody remembers it. I had to buy a French DVD of it as the UK ‘uncut’ release (a baffling minute shorter than the standard version) is long out of print.

So, if you like your comedy black yet full of pathos. If you like your characters existing on the fringe of society and the brink of sanity and you like your films well-observed, wry and heartfelt, it would be my pleasure to introduce you to the cinema of Elaine May…

A NEW LEAF (1971)

This was May’s first film and she writes, directs and co-stars. I can’t think of another female director from that era working in the mainstream who was allowed such a favoured situation. She hits the ground running. The film tells the story of a vile millionaire playboy called Henry Graham, played with majestically aloof pomposity by Walter Matthau. Graham blows his whole inheritance through financial laziness and, when faced with the prospect of poverty, sets about to find himself a wealthy wife who can keep him in the style to which he is accustomed. Matthau is a misanthrope of the highest order and finds the notion of having to marry to be a massive inconvenience and treats all of his prospective partners with a dismissive weariness. As time runs out, he happens upon Henrietta Lowell, a nerdish, clumsy, uncomfortably comfortable botanist. He bites the bullet and romances her as best he can, planning to fleece her or, if needs be, engineer an accident to finish her off. Like all the best rom-coms, what he doesn’t expect is to come to love her. If that’s what even happens. Like May’s other lead characters, there is something deeply, unrepentantly vile about Graham. He doesn’t deserve love. He’s a bad person. But maybe he isn’t. May has a skill with creating characters who aren’t simply flat stereotypes, they are conflicted, animalistic and intensely human. So as much as we hate Matthau and feel bad for May, the eventual promise of romance is an exciting one. It’s also one of a very rare breed of films – a sneeringly sarcastic romantic comedy. The background is populated by incredulous, snarky old men. The leads are unattractive individually and together. Yet, here is a deeply funny and quite moving little piece. It feels like the kernel that Wes Anderson’s entire oeuvre sprung from and if you dig his films, you should hunt this one out. And so you would expect May’s career to head merrily down that path – the female director churning out the better-than-average spunky little romantic comedies. But no. Four years later, she’s making a film almost completely diametrically opposed in every way…

MIKEY AND NICKY (1976)

What’s the last film you’d expect from a female ex-comedienne director in the mid-seventies? A grimy gangster film. It would be horribly misogynistic to declare surprise that a female director could produce a dark, intelligent, brooding hoodlum flick – and I’m not. But I am surprised that any studio in the 70s paid for that to happen. Surprised and delighted because, frankly, this one is a corker. How Mikey and Nicky is not a bonafide cinema classic is beyond me. it features character acting legends Peter (Columbo) Falk and John Cassavettes as two small-time crooks. Lifelong friends. Cassavettes’ Nicky has stolen some money from the mob and holed up in a cheap hotel ravaged by paranoia and a burning stomach ulcer. Out of his mind, he calls Mikey to help him out. Making Mikey jump through hoops in a desperate bid to help flee the city and not get killed. To begin with, it’s unclear whether there is even a hit out on Nicky but slowly, with the appearance of an impassive Ned Beatty, we realise there might be something to his paranoia. But that’s not all that happens slowly.

The story itself never really develops from the first ten minutes, it’s the story of one night on the streets and hovels of New York in which two friends try to avoid a hitman. What develops – masterfully – is the backstory. The history as to how they got to this point. And that story is Shakespearean. A story of friendship, love, loyalty, betrayal, power, greed, redemption and futility. We don’t just learn these characters’ stories, we learn about every side of their personalities. Again, May’s strength is in creating complex, real characters. We flit between loving and hating these guys. Trusting and fearing them. Some of their actions are unforgivable, they’re randomly violent to innocent victims. They are feral and thoughtless. But they are also damaged and reflective, nostalgic and scared. This is a portrait of the male psyche. At first it seems like there will be no female characters at all in this night-landscaped journey, but the wives and girlfriends start to appear and here May excels.

A scene in which the boys visit Nicky’s ‘girlfriend’ is possibly the most awkwardly uncomfortable sex scene I’ve seen. It is neither graphic nor entirely non-consensual, it is just a harsh illustration of male disrespect and frustration. The scene pays out in real time whilst Nicky patronises, lies and wears down Nellie’s defences, rejects her intelligence and wishes and leaves her no option but to have sex with him whilst his friend waits, listening on awkwardly in the kitchen. When the act is over and Nicky tires of her, Mikey – clearly the nicer of the partnership – approaches her seemingly to make her feel better but, no, he’s just making a move too.

This film is brilliant. When you compare it to the films from that era and genre that have become classics, it’s impossible to figure out why this doesn’t sit amongst them. To me, this makes Mean Streets just seem like a bunch of posturing. The emotional depth and intelligent intensity of Mikey and Nicky seems to stem from the shooting method. Apparently May was fearsomely idiosyncratic in her directing style. According to Wikipedia, she shot 1.4 million feet of film for this – three times the amount of film used in Gone With The Wind. The acting was largely improvisational and the cameras would just roll and roll. This pays off. The two lead actors show their range and their brilliance it’s both a buddy movie and a thriller. Again, it is rife with pathos but also darkness.

ISHTAR (1987)

So, commercially, Ishtar was dead on arrival. The stories of its production had already lead to industry mocking. By this point, May and the film’s stars Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty (who also produced) were known as three of the most difficult forces in Hollywood and this wasn’t helped when May firstly flew the whole crew out to a remote part of the Moroccan Sahara because she wanted perfect sand dunes, only to decide that dunes were cliched and order the crew to flatten a square mile of them instead. What May was attempting was bold – a broad comedy film in the Bob Hope ‘Road To’ mold – but starring two non comedians in the comedic leads. Neither Hoffman nor Beatty were what could be called comic actors but – as you’ll have seen in the clip above – the trio work this to its advantage. The roles are played deadpan with a dimwitted intensity which is consistently pant-wettingly funny. The first half hour alone of failed gigs, wretched songwriting sessions and embarrassing suicide bids is some of the funniest American tongue-in-cheek I’ve ever seen. The thrust of the ensuing narrative – a mistaken-identity style political/military farce is serviceable but the performances never fail to be anything but charismatic and hilarious. The supporting cast features M.Emmett Walsh and the always great Charles Grodin. Fuck, even the extras in this film are brilliant. This is a Sunday afternoon film of the highest order. Is it brilliant? Maybe not, maybe it’s not a classic but it’s so much fun. It bears repeated viewings. It deserves to be fondly remembered. It deserves to be remembered. It deserves to be available.

May wrote a couple more films for her ex-comedy partner, Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate) and it’s not like she hasn’t been busy over the years – she did a lot of comedy and a lot of theatre. I’m sure she’s kept busy and achieved a lot but it upsets me that these three films (along with The Heartbreak Kid, a decent Neil Simon scripted Grodin film which she directed) represent her entire body of writer-director work. I would have loved to have seen what else she had to offer. I feel that she was accomplished and talented from the first film to the last, so I’m not so sure that she would have got any better, I just wish she had done more. There is such a scarcity of confident directors who understand comedy, film acting and really grasp the concept of character. Her work is at least equal to that of her contemporaries at the time and although I have no idea whether the absence of any further work is through her own choice or that of the system, I think it’s a massive shame that we were denied more from this rare talent.

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Searching For Better, Man.

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OK, so I’m about to start this post by talking about something I really don’t come out of well. It’s an opinion I’ve held for a few weeks now but I’ve been scared to offer it in public or online as I know it makes me look bad. So, before I even type it, let’s acknowledge how it will likely be received. Chances are, it’ll make me look either bitter or obstinately contrary. I understand this and will spend a couple of paragraphs justifying the opinion but for now, I’ll accept the outcome and just damn well say something that needs to be said…

Searching For Sugar Man is a fucking shitty film.

There, I said it. It’s a total piece of shit. I’m so sick of seemingly sane people singing its praises. It’s a piece of shit. Why might that opinion paint me as contrary? Well, it has a 96% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes – that’s hard to go against the grain on. Everyone – critics and audiences alike – undeniably love this film. And why does it colour me bitter? Well, because my own music documentary (http://www.acpgthemovie.com) came out around the same time, also deals with the cruelty of the music industry, and whilst Sugar Man has gone on to be seen my millions and get Oscar nominated, mine has… not. I could claim not to be bitter but few would believe me and, honestly, I wouldn’t believe me either. But the bitterness is not why I hated this film.

I hate Searching For Sugar Man for several reasons. I was excited to see it but quickly realised how insidious I found it. Firstly, it’s a dishonest film. A dishonest documentary. It’s constructed and marketed in a strange way. There is an implication that the filmmakers themselves are conducting the search for Rodriguez. We even believe this as the film is going on. When they finally find the man, it’s exciting. We are shown glimpses of him through a window as if the excited camera crew have started rolling before they even ring the doorbell. When we finally get an interview with the man, he is almost silent, clearly awkward being filmed. As you would be if you had lived out of the limelight for decades. But then the truth is slowly leaked out as quitely as possible, purely because it’s unavoidable. That truth is that Sugar Man had actually been found some 15 years earlier and hasn’t been missing at all since he’s been touring and performing again for well over a decade. Not only that, but there was nothing exclusive about the central interview. He has been doing interviews over the years for other people and the interviews he’s done in the wake of the film have been far more eloquent and engaging.

Documentary is a tough proposal. There is no such thing as truth, there is only perspective. But the filmmaker is honour bound to either serve to honestly document or to use the footage to clearly express a point of view. To document or polemicize. Not to manipulate an emotional response for the sake of gravitas. The truth is that, had it been constructed honestly, it wouldn’t have been so engaging for its audience. The SEARCH is more important than the Sugar Man. Had the timeline and editing been conducted honestly, it would have merely been a far less interesting or charming version of Anvil: The Story of Anvil – which is an amazingly bold and honest film.

Searching For Sugar Man is akin to that clip of Susan Boyle singing I Dreamed a Dream on whatever shitty Simon Cowell monstrosity that appeared on. A pretty uncommentable everyday event edited and presented in such a way as to illicit an emotional response. I guess ACPG taught me that the bulk of great musicians don’t get rich and famous, maybe Sugar Man was the film that taught that to the world and their response to that injustice was to mistake emotional manipulation for great filmmaking. It’s a shitty film.

Anyway, it got me thinking about amazing music documentaries that haven’t had the appreciation they deserve and there’s a couple that I particularly wanted to turn your head towards. I think what unites them is that their subjects are particularly, distinctly, uncool. I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the reason they have been overlooked. It’s an easy mistake to make – why would you want to see a documentary about a band/performer you don’t like? Well, that’s a problem unique to music doc as we’re happy to watch political and social docs about people we hate. I suppose the assumption is that anything made about such performers will be record company fluff but the two films I really want to recommend are by very well established and respected documentary directors and you should check them out regardless of your feelings about the performers.

SHUT UP AND SING (2006)

I know, right? Who’d want to watch a film about the Dixie Chicks? Syrupy country rock pop bleurgh. I had less than no interest in this film before I caught the trailer on some other DVD. My mistake. I’ve watched the film several times since. This isn’t a film about the band, it’s a film about Bush’s America. It’s a film about the corporate stranglehold over the media and it’s a film about how the concept of free speech is misunderstood. The whole story stems from a single comment made by lead singer Natalie Maines on stage at a gig in London at the height of the Iraq war. She says that the band is ashamed that George Bush is from Texas. Whilst they carry on their European jaunt, word filters back to their homeland and a media storm is whipped up. A media storm over here is very different to one in America as it’s not just content that comes and goes, not only does it knock their careers off track as whole media conglomerates refuse to play their music but it also motivates the public to respond in very real ways. There are mass demonstrations and public displays of fury. Their ticket sales take a massive hit. Worse than this, death threats start to appear. We are in the band’s inner sanctum throughout this whole chain of events and, even if you have no time for their music, you grow to respect them intensely as people. There is a constant pressure for them to apologise, even from their friends and management, but they hold true. Their bravery is cast in stone when some very real death threats surface. The band decide to play a stadium gig, in the round, despite confirmed threats from a confirmed and unlocated psychopath that Maines will be shot to death if she goes on stage. This is not just an important social document but it’s edge-of-your-seat watching.

DON’T LOOK BACK (1967)

Have you seen Don’t Look Back? If you’re into music docs, you probably have. It documents Bob Dylan’s UK tour of 1965. It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking. Usually we experience stardom and cultural shifts only through a filter. We’re told of cultural relevance retrospectively or analytically, we don’t get to experience it. That’s why so much of it now is fake. Marketing and media have learned how to emulate such documenting and create phenomenons themselves rather than wait for them to happen. But here, we get to experience it from the inside. We get to see Dylan’s fragility and bewilderment as he realises that he is no longer an ordinary man. The world has turned on its head and everyone wants a piece of him. We travel with him in cars as he pleads for someone to get teenage girls off the roof lest they get hurt. He finds normal interviews about his work turned into hostile encounters, having to defend himself from labels other people have put on him. Even his fans boo and jeer him as he tries to move his work on from traditional folk to rock. Everyone wants a piece of him. It’s exciting watching. You are witnessing history being written from a perspective rarely granted an audience. It’s rightly hailed as a classic and I shouldn’t therefore be recommending it to you, just by my own remit for this blog. But there is a reason I want you to remember, or at least, be familiar with it. it’s because I want to talk about what I consider one of the best music documentaries ever and you need to share my frame of reference for it.

GERI (1999)

Unfortunately I can’t find a single clip online for you but I’m telling you now to get hold of a copy of this film. The film starts as Geri Halliwell leaves the Spice Girls. The biggest character in the biggest band in the world. She starts keeping a video diary but – perhaps filled with hubris or an inflated ego – decides that this should be properly documented, so pulls in the UK’s most respected female documentary filmmaker. Molly Dineen. Dineen is one of my favourite filmmakers ever, she has an ability to become part of the story, her empathy and warmth endear her to her subjects in a very real way and allow her to present honestly without ever exploiting. Her most famous film is probably the incredible Home From The Hill about a retired colonel forced to leave the luxuries of his life in Africa for the realities of an impoverished UK pensioner. Dineen quickly becomes Halliwell’s only real human contact outside of her family. It is a worthy sequel to Don’t Look Back. It is shot in a very similar observational but immediate style and echoes the whirlwind/eye of the storm feeling. For the period that Dineen captures, Halliwell is the most sought after person in the world media, yet to be with her at this time is an unerringly lonely and confusing experience. When you watch this back-to-back with Don’t Look Back, it tells the story of how music and culture has changed but media and public hysteria have not. Dylan was a poet, an intelligence, a rare creature who deserved his attention. Halliwell was a corporate product, a puppet, a poor naive innocent. In her quieter moments we see her lack of wits and she is like a sweet child. There’s a bizarre scene in which she is spirited to New York to become an ambassador for the U.N. and as she sits in the meeting an awkwardness falls on the room as those around her realise she thinks she has been given the job because of her potential and ability rather than her fame. It’s observational documentary filmmaking at its best. Compulsive viewing which uses its subject to explore much wider issues. You can get it on Volume 3 of the Molly Dineen Collection DVDs released last year by the BFI. I recommend you buy all 3 volumes, there isn’t a bad film on them and volume 2, which features her TV series The Ark is breathtakingly good.

So, that’s that. Music documentary – it’s not the subject you should be concentrating on so much as the perspective. Of course if you really want to see that in action….

Keep On Keaton On.

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I fucking LOVE Michael Keaton. Here’s a guy, a cinematic energy who has been buzzing around cinema since the early 80s, occasionally poking his head above water but generally just amusing himself with a string of fascinating roles and kinetic, passionate performances.

I’m struck by how unappreciated Michael Keaton really is. He’s basically famous for being the proto-Johnny Depp. For the briefest moment in cinema history, he was Tim Burton’s muse and fronted two of his most significant films. In Beetlejuice, he let rip and created one of the most charistmatic figures of modern cult cinema. That film still defies categorisation in so many ways and his performance, both central to the film but also very much the troublesome agitator rather than a main character is unrivaled in sheer glee, sleaze, glibness and energy. His second Burton collaboration was Batman in which he offered a far more restrained performance and one which, despite being iconic and perfectly professional, probably wasn’t terribly well suited to him as an actor.

This is what never sat well with me. By having played Batman – arguably the biggest blockbuster studio movie of all time, you would assume that Keaton would have become a Blockbuster star. But he never did. After the inevitable Batman sequel, he seemed to step immediately back into his safety zone of strong character-lead performances in unflashy films. I want to suggest you check out a few of his lesser-known offerings.

GUNG HO (1986)

By this point, Keaton has established himself as a dependable comic actor, he’d worked with director Ron Howard as the comic relief in Fonz-lead-mortuary-sex-comedy Night Shift and had played lead in a couple of smaller comedies Mr Mom and Johnny Dangerously. Gung Ho represents his first real performance. It’s a nifty little time capsule of a movie preserving the moment in America where globalisation became reality. Set in a small midwestern town whose entire economy is built around the automotive industry, it tells the story of a factory foreman fighting to smooth the transition of a Japanese corporation taking over the business. It plays on and explores the incalcitrant arrogance of the American blue collar worker and the merciless efficiency of the Japanese white collar executive. Nominally the film is regarded as a comedy but I’ve never really seen that. The film is unafraid to get quite dark, is staunchly critical of both sides of the conflict and presents, in Keaton, a deeply flawed hero. A liar who is usually more concerned with furthering his own situation and being perceived as a hero than he is really solving problems. A very human hero. A very human film.

CLEAN AND SOBER (1988)

Clean and Sober is a muted but completely compelling film which, once again, deals with a central character of highly questionable character. Keaton’s Daryl is a drug addict so deeply fucked up that he checks himself into a rehab program to hide from the police, ironically unaware that he is even an addict. His anger and jaundice with the world prevent him from taking the notion of help seriously until he’s some way along the process. Keaton’s energy is furious and captivating and the only reason we don’t completely hate him is because his performance is deeply honest and he displays his damage for us to see, even if the character is at first incapable. The film is an uneasy redemption story, supported by a strong cast of character actors including M. Emmet Walsh and Morgan Freeman in quiet, deferential brilliance. It’s a visually stark piece, I don’t think there is any sunlight in the whole film. It feels muddy and squalid but never self-conciously so. It can be a tough watch but the quality of performance is always fascinating. It’s one of those films that couldn’t happen now. Every performance in modern equivalents feels geared towards Oscar glory rather than meditative honesty.

MY LIFE (1993)

I will never understand how My Life is not just not a better-known film, but also not regarded as a classic. It’s one of my very favourite films. It is unique and nuanced. Written and directed by Bruce Joel Rubin, it concludes what I have always considered his unrecognised trilogy of death. He also wrote Ghost – a film about the grieving process and Jacob’s Ladder – a film about the physical moment of death. My Life is his musing on the very process of dying. When you think about how many characters have died in cinema history, it’s striking how few decent films there are about the process of dying itself. This film starts with Keaton’s character – an unfairly young entertainment agent called Bob Jones – being diagnosed with terminal cancer. At the same time, his wife played by Nicole Kidman is revealed to be pregnant, a brilliant device which allows Keaton’s emotionally closed character to reveal so much in the videos he makes for his unborn child. The film sounds, and is frustratingly marketed, in a mawkish sentimental way but is a deeply intelligent, unflinching and genuinely charming piece of work. Keaton nails the role and offers one of my favourite film performances ever, we see every side of this character. The selfish, angry man, the sweet, nostalgic soul. We follow his whole journey as he mends bridges, becomes crippled by fear and eventually accepts and embraces his destiny. It is, ultimately a very life-affirming piece of cinema but, like the best things, it makes you work. It’s an exhausting film to watch but you feel all the better for having stuck with it.

THE LAST TIME (2006) and THE MERRY GENTLEMAN (2008)

Keaton seems to have drifted away from his career in recent years. He went through a spate of playing smaller supporting roles as fathers in teen movies, popped back up briefly in the lead of the excellent horror film White Noise and has subsequently vanished into an ether of DTV movies and voicing animations. The Last Time is a bold idea failed by an inexperienced writer/director. Keaton plays a nasty piece of work, a cutthroat cocky salesman who is unliked by all and espouses a subdued nihilism to his own life. He is paired up with naive Brendan Fraser to save the sales team of a company that is fast disappearing down the toilet. The reason I mention the film, which I wouldn’t particularly recommend, is how interesting it is to see Keaton still keen to explore these fundamentally unlikable yet charismatic characters. He has aged well, which is perhaps a little frustrating as I feel he has some wonderfully cantakerous old codger roles awaiting him. The Merry Gentleman is interesting in that it his debut as a director. Unfortunately, like so many films directed by actors, it eschews storytelling chops for overly indulgent, long and fairly boring scenes of acting. That said, he takes on a far more toned down role than he usually might. A quiet hitman looking for a little salvation. There are some great moments in this film and I might be generous but I feel the problems lie more in the screenplay and editing than in Keaton’s directorial eye.

I get excited about Michael Keaton, there is no other actor like him. He has carved out this brilliant identifiable but infinitely adaptable screen persona. He plays characters who are touched by darkness, have a certain moral ambiguity and self-interest yet are incredibly charismatic. He brings with him a manic energy – sometimes anger, sometimes enthusiasm – which explodes with honesty and depth. I might be pushing it here, but to me, Keaton somewhat sums up America. There is a vile detestable fundamental to it, an arrogance and uninformed self-righteousness but that gets coloured by this irresistible chaotic energy, reluctant decency, enthusiasm and warmth.

So yeah, watch more fucking Michael Keaton films!

What do you reckon? What do you make of him? What films have I overlooked?