Category: American Independents

Adapting Highsmith #5: The Two Faces of January (UK-France-US 2014)

The three characters 'off road' on Crete

The three characters ‘off road’ on Crete

This film is included in the ‘Adapting Highsmith Tour’ but I managed to catch it on TV via Film Four. I remember its cinema release and wondering whether to go and see it. Something made me decide not to see it then. TV is not the same but I’m glad I did see it eventually.

The Two Faces of January was published as Patricia Highsmith’s ninth novel in 1964. This film adaptation uses Highsmith’s main settings, starting in Greece in 1962. Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is an American con-man with an attractive younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), seemingly on vacation but in reality ‘on the run’ from those he has swindled. Touring the Parthenon in Athens they meet Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaacs), a young American tour guide who tells them he has just left Yale and hasn’t decided yet what he wants to do. Fortunately he speaks several languages and he impresses Colette. Soon he is being invited to dinner at the couple’s 5 star hotel. The film’s title points towards the ‘two-faced’ Roman god Janus, sometimes thought to be the basis for the naming of ‘January’ as the first month. In the story, all three central characters are deceitful and deceptive and a typical Highsmith scenario sees the development of a multi-faceted relationship between Chester and Rydal – one aspect of which is a struggle over Colette.

The production background for the film suggests an American independent with full Hollywood presence (Timnick Films – previously responsible for The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) from Anthony Minghella) in conjunction with Working Title and StudioCanal (a partnership dating from Vivendi’s ownership of Universal in the 1990s). Perhaps then it’s best to think of the film as an international co-production – a European film with American stars. The writer-director Hossein Amini was born in Iran but raised in the UK from age 11. Best known as a writer (for films like Drive (US 2011), this was his directing debut. IMDB suggests his favourite director is Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French director of polars – French crime films – an interesting twist on Highsmith? The cinematographer is Marcel Zyskind (best known to me for his work with Michael Winterbottom), the music is by Alberto Iglesias – the sound of Pedro Almodóvar – and the editing by Jon Harris, a regular on the last two Danny Boyle films and who had previously worked on Liliana Cavani‘s Ripley’s Game (2002), another Highsmith adaptation. With three lead actors of the stature of Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac and these creative talents behind the camera it is perhaps surprising that the film got only a limited release in North America through the independent distributor Magnolia Pictures. The film’s generally successful ‘international’ release was negated by a failure in the ‘domestic’ US market. One interesting aspect of the international release was box-office success in Spain and Argentina where Viggo Mortensen is popular. The quoted $21 million production budget is large by European standards.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Most of the money does appear on screen. Great care has gone into production design and costume design – ‘dressing’ locations in Istanbul and finding vintage outfits for the actors. Zyskind’s cinematography and the score by Iglesias work very well. The problem with the film for me is that the script delivers plot details and clues about the characters’ motivations very quickly and almost subliminally. So, like the other Highsmith stories, this is essentially about relationships between characters and to some extent the set pieces, e.g. a scene in an airport lobby where MacFarland escapes from Keener, get in the way of the character study. We spend more time combing these scenes for plot cues to try to work out why they happen like they do rather than focusing on the characters. Amini in the Press Notes refers primarily to Hitchcock’s romance thrillers and says that he went back to the 1960s ‘Mediterranean thrillers’ such as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Le mépris and most of all Clément’s Plein soleil – the first adaptation of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. He also mentions Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990) in relation to the relationship of the married couple under pressure. (See this interesting Empire piece on Amini’s influences.) All of this is fine, but somehow the director fails to produce either the thrill of the adventure or to get to grips with the psychology of the characters which all of the above do in one way or another. Keener has somehow transferred his neurosis about his difficult relationship with his father to a new neurosis about MacFarland. This is stated a couple of times but I never really ‘felt’ it in the interaction of the two characters. Similarly I didn’t get much from the problems in the marriage and Colette is not given much space at all. The film looks great and it is nicely choreographed but it doesn’t deliver enough and it can’t compete with the French and German Highsmith adaptations.

Hell or High Water (US 2016)

Ben Foster (left) and Chris Pine as the brothers Howard

Ben Foster (left) and Chris Pine as the brothers Howard

Hell or High Water is one of the most hyped films of the year with five star reviews coming from several directions. Fortunately it is very good, though it may not be to everyone’s taste. Any film that includes Townes Van Zandt on the soundtrack at the end of the opening credits is alright with me, so this may not be an entirely objective analysis of what is on offer. For most film fans the twin attractions of the film are likely to be that a) it is the second screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario the highly-rated film directed by Denis Villeneuve in 2015 and b) it features one of Jeff Bridges’ many film-stealing performances. Cinephiles may note that Hell or High Water is directed by David Mackenzie, the second Scot to make a Western in recent years after Slow West (UK-New Zealand 2014) and a well-regarded filmmaker with many different kinds of films in his back catalogue. But is the film a Western? I’ll come back to its classification in a moment, first a brief plot outline (no spoilers).

The action takes place in West Central Texas, though the film was shot entirely in New Mexico. In fact the fictional space is perhaps better described as ‘Comancheria‘ (the working title of the film), the area dominated in the mid 19th century by the Comanche people that runs across the modern state lines of Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico – an important geographical factor in the film’s narrative. Two brothers set out on a carefully-designed campaign to rob small banks belonging to the same Texas banking company. They plan to steal only small bills and to launder the money quickly before using the new stash to pay off a large debt the family owes to the same bank. They have to get the money “by Hell or High Water” to meet a strict deadline within the next few days. One of the brothers (Tanner, played by Ben Foster) is a wild professional criminal, having already served time for bank robberies. The other brother (Toby, Chris Pine) is ‘clean’ and he is the one with the brains and the cunning plan. Jeff Bridges plays Marcus Hamilton, a Texas Ranger on the brink of retirement. He’s been waiting for an interesting ‘last case’ and he’s the only one who seems to understand what the brothers are up to. He has a sceptical partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) – a Comanche/Mexican man who must put up with Marcus and his good-natured racist banter. So, two pairs of seemingly mismatched men in a contest. It’s a neat genre proposal.

Jeff Bridges (left) and Gil Birmingham as the Texas Rangers

Jeff Bridges (left) and Gil Birmingham as the Texas Rangers

For me this is a ‘modern Western’ and even possibly a ‘Twilight Western’, one of my favourite genres.The classic description of the twilight Western is that it tells a story about the ‘end of the West’, often featuring two men – one who is wedded to the cowboy code of honour and one who is prepared to change and move on. The ‘Dean’ of the genre in literary terms is Larry McMurtry, responsible for the novels that became the films Hud (1963) and The Last Picture Show (1971), both Twilight Westerns. The latter film starred Jeff Bridges and Timothy Buttons as two young characters in early 1950s Archer City – a small town in West Central Texas which in Hell or High Water is the site of the first bank robbery. It’s amazing (and slightly worrying) to see Jeff Bridges growing old from the fresh-faced kid in The Last Picture Show through countless Western-related roles (one of the most entertaining being the comedy Hearts of the West (1975)) to the aged Marcus. I think he plays older than he actually is in this new role. I guess he has now taken over the roles played by actors like Ben Johnson (who was the father figure to the two boys in The Last Picture Show). It’s clear in this new film that a way of life is dying – and that what’s replacing it does not necessarily signal ‘progress’. Marcus and Toby Howard are on opposite sides but they have something in common. One aspect of ‘progress’ seems to be that nearly every citizen in Texas carries a powerful handgun – which makes bank robbery a dangerous game. Is this a sly commentary on America’s (lack of) gun laws?

But this new film also embraces two other repertoires. One refers to what some critics have called ‘neo-noir’. In a visual sense there is nothing noirish about Hell or High Water, but it does draw on some of the same elements as crime films set in the South-West and based on ‘hardboiled’ pulp novels. Good examples would be Peckinpah’s The Getaway (1972) and Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me (2010), both based on Jim Thompson novels and Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot (1990) based on a Charles Williams novel. These all have the small town Texas locations and the violent action, but they also have a significant focus on female characters that perhaps isn’t present in Hell or High Water. Finally, there is a repertoire that goes back to the 1930s and ‘rural crime pictures’ that might be summed up by bringing together Woody Guthrie’s song ‘Pretty Boy Floyd the Outlaw’ and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). The connection is the practices of banks to, in effect, ‘steal’ the land belonging to poor farmers during hard times when they can’t repay loans. Everyone knows this and therefore potential witnesses are not particularly helpful to law enforcement officers. My favourite scene in Hell or High Water is when the two Texas Rangers try to question the occupants of a diner where the brothers were eating before a robbery. Paul Howard Smith, simply listed as ‘Old Timer’ in the credits, is entirely convincing in response to the Rangers’ questions (see him in the trailer below). A semblance of empathy for the robbers is also evident in Alberto’s comment that “all this was my ancestor’s land before these folk took it and now it’s being taken from them – by these sons of bitches” (nodding towards the bank branch he’s watching). He understands what the robbers feel in ‘taking back’ what has been taken from them.

The performances in the film are all very good and it looks great thanks to British cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (who has worked with Mackenzie before and has many credits on both independent and Hollywood films). The soundtrack lists ‘original music’ by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. I presume that they selected the other songs as well. I particularly enjoyed the Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and Gillian Welch contributions as well as Townes. I’ve also discovered Chris Stapleton because of the film, but I don’t remember hearing the version of ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ played on the trailer below. (I would have noticed it – it appears, sung by Bob Dylan in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973 as Slim Pickens is dying.) Some music fans would call some of these tracks ‘outlaw country’.

Hell or High Water is the kind of film that makes you think of so many other films and reminds you why you enjoy certain kinds of genre pictures. I won’t spoil the ending, but I’m not giving much away in saying that the sight of police cars careering along dusty roads in pursuit of ‘outlaws’ is something that actually belongs in several different genre repertoires from Peckinpah’s Convoy (1978) to Steven Spielberg’s Sugarland Express (1974). We know what’s going to happen but it is still thrilling.

In the Electric Mist (France-US 2009)

Buddy Guy and Tommy Lee Jones 'In the Electric Mist'

Buddy Guy and Tommy Lee Jones ‘In the Electric Mist’

Here is a good example of what can happen when a respected European director, who appreciates aspects of American culture, makes an American film that is dumped onto DVD by its (independent) US distributor and castigated by fans of US genre films. What’s worse in this case is that the film is an adaptation of one of the best books by a celebrated American writer of genre fiction and that the film features a stellar cast. It’s hard not to feel that a lot of people are not getting the respect they deserve because there are far too many ‘tunnel vision’ Hollywood fans out there. On the other hand, the distributor may have been right to foresee problems – but why did they put up money to help finance the film and agree to a distribution deal then? It’s likely that the film would have done better in a French language version. In fact, I don’t know if it was dubbed in France – where most of the tickets were sold.

In the Electric Mist is an adaptation of James Lee Burke’s novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, first published in 1993. It is the sixth story about Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux. The novel series has recently seen its twentieth entry (and these are not short novels). Shooting began in 2007 and updating the story to a post-Katrina world was just one of the changes to the novel made by co-writers Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski. Bertrand Tavernier initiated the project for his own company, Little Bear, with the American producer Michael Fitzgerald and the backing of the French TV channel TFI. Tavernier directed the film himself and it was shot by Bruno de Keyzer. Tavernier is one of the most ‘outward-looking’ of auteurs in France. He is one of the few French filmmaker-critics to have had kind words for British Cinema and he has made films in both the UK (Death Watch 1980) and the US (Mississippi Blues 1983) earlier in his career. He has a previous US crime fiction adaptation to his credit with Coup de torchon (France 1981), a successful film based on Jim Thompson’s notorious 1964 novel Pop. 1280.

There are two real issues at stake in the reception of In the Electric Mist in the US (and UK). The first concerns James Lee Burke and the second the US audience’s take on Tavernier’s approach. As I’ve indicated Burke is a prolific and celebrated writer. His website is unusually commercial for a writer (it offers ‘JLB’ merchandising!) but also presents his array of publications. As well as the 20 Robicheaux novels there are 9 novels about characters in the Holland family of lawyers and Texas Rangers and a further 5 ‘standalone’ novels plus collections of short stories. Over the years I’ve read many of the novels and I recently read The Wayfaring Stranger (2014), one of the ‘Holland Family’ stories set in the late 1940s. I enjoyed it very much and it was this reading that sent me back to thinking about In the Electric Mist. Burke’s strengths are his detailed descriptions of a range of memorable characters, his deep knowledge of the history of communities in Louisiana, Texas and now Montana and his commitment to what in the US are seen as ‘liberal views’. Each of Burke’s protagonists are ‘decent’ men with fatal flaws (often involving alcohol and a disregard for ‘proper’ procedures). All these protagonists seem to have had  colourful childhoods and to be steeped in those community histories with strong commitment to forms of natural justice – i.e. against bigots, racists, fascists etc. – usually driving the narrative. The US book-buying public is large enough to allow Burke to have developed a significant readership who agree with (or at least tolerate) his politics. But what about the cinema audience? IMDB has comments by some of the right-wing trolls that Burke must recognise he attracts. More of a problem for me is that most of the narratives have a very familiar structure as well as familiar characters. Burke’s heroes often know the villains because they grew up with them. And they are also vulnerable because the villain invariably attacks/abducts the hero’s partner/children/parents etc. I can enjoy the novels as long as I have a big gap between reading them. Even so, like many others, I think they are all filmable and I’m surprised there haven’t been more adaptations. The only others I’m aware of are the 1996 Heaven’s Prisoners with Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux and a TV film of Two for Texas (1998) with Kris Kristofferson, a historical narrative featuring one of the Holland family. (There is also a 2015 short film based on a Burke short story, Winter Light.)

The relative lack of adaptations must have meant some anticipation for In the Electric Mist. Tavernier took a great deal of care in casting the film and in selecting locations. He took what is a broadly European approach and tried to cast actors from the South – and as far as possible from Burke’s ‘narrative territory’. Robicheaux is played by Tommy Lee Jones from Texas, his wife Bootsie by Mary Steenburgen from Arkansas. Other actors include Ned Beattie from Kentucky, John Goodman from Missouri (but living in New Orleans) and blues singer and guitarist Buddy Guy (born in Louisiana). Levon Helm from Arkansas plays the Confederate General Hood. Characters speak in thick accents using cajun French creole and other local speech forms. The music includes several zydeco tracks (the Black version of Cajun music) by Clifton Chenier. I can see this might cause problems and I switched the English subs on to watch the UK TV broadcast.

Allied to the use of language, Tavernier composes several scenes in long shot to create a rather different pacing for what viewers might assume is to be a typical crime fiction film. Most alienating of all, the script doesn’t ‘explain’ much – the audience has to pick up the clues. The plot involves the usual James Lee Burke ingredients. The action takes place in Iberia Parish where the ‘reformed’ alcoholic Robicheaux is a police officer who also runs a local bait shop and fishing operation. Three seemingly separate narratives develop. Robicheaux himself begins to see and then interact with a group of apparitions – a band of Confederate soldiers led by Texan General Hood. This is an example of the historical liberties Burke allows himself. Levon Helm was far too old to play the real Hood, who didn’t move to Louisiana until the Civil War was over. Robicheaux also ‘remembers’ seeing, as a child, a shackled Black man being shot running away from a police officer. This is prompted by the discovery of a skeleton with shackles which is ‘unearthed’ by Katrina’s floodwater. Robicheaux is officially involved in the investigation of the murder of a young bar girl. Finally, the local community is also disrupted by the arrival of a film crew (with John Sayles in a cameo as the director). Robicheaux’s bait shop is attractive to the film’s star (Peter Sarsgard) a frequently drunk young man who rent’s Robicheaux’s boat with his girlfriend (Kelly McDonald). Robicheaux is suspicious because of the involvement of a local gangster Julie Balboni (John Goodman) as an investor in the film. Robicheaux has known Balboni since childhood.

It’s an interesting story with unusual ingredients. The cast are all terrific, the film looks good and the music is great. I wish I could have seen this version in a UK cinema (but I’m grateful for the subs on TV). Many European audiences and filmmakers really love the best of Hollywood. Unfortunately the admiration is not always reciprocated. If you get the chance, try to see the full-length version of this film.

Maggie’s Plan (US 2015)

John (Ethan Hawke) and Maggie (Greta Gerwig)

John (Ethan Hawke) and Maggie (Greta Gerwig)

I’d heard many good things about Greta Gerwig and specifically about Frances Ha (US 2012) but so far I hadn’t seen any of her films. On this basis I decided to watch Maggie’s Plan. The smaller Cinema 2 at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre was nearly full for an early evening show. Perhaps that isn’t surprising. Released through Sony Classics, Maggie’s Plan had what was once a standard specialised cinema release on 80 screens across the UK & Ireland and entered the Top 15 with a £100,000 on its first weekend. Is this an example of the new form of acceptable arthouse cinema for middle-class audiences in the UK?

Greta Gerwig is Maggie, a New York university teacher in her late twenties who has decided that she wants a baby, but doesn’t want a long-term lover/partner/husband because she doesn’t think she can sustain a long-term relationship. Her ‘plan’ involves self-insemination with sperm from a donor she knows but the plan is immediately jeopardised by a meeting with John, another teacher played by Ethan Hawke. He is in turn married to Julianne Moore as a Danish lecturer with a comedy European accent and hair drawn tightly back. Hawke’s teacher is an aspiring novelist teaching ‘ficto-critical anthropology’. His wife is rather more prestigious in the same field and she has tenure at Columbia plus a distinguished publications record. Maggie initially seeks to help him with his first novel. She has two close friends, Felicia and Tony, a couple with a small child who are ‘quirky’ in their behaviour but otherwise quite together and they are the foil for Maggie’s encounters with the Hawke/Moore characters.

Felicia (Maya Rudolph) with Maggie

Felicia (Maya Rudolph) with Maggie

The Hawke character immediately evokes his other author roles in Richard Linklater’s ‘Sunset’ trilogy (with Julie Delpy) and in Pawel Pawlikowski’s The Woman in the Fifth (France/UK/Poland 2011). In each case he is an American novelist, but unfortunately in Maggie’s Plan Rebecca Miller’s script and direction don’t manage to keep the usually excellent Hawke within bounds. His acting style doesn’t match that of Greta Gerwig and I found his character insufferable. Probably though it’s his playing against Julianne Moore who seems to be in another film entirely, over-playing manically, that is the real problem. Again Ms Moore is usually very good, so script and direction seem to be the issue.

Maggie goes to a book launch by Georgette (Julianne Moore)

Maggie goes to a book launch by Georgette (Julianne Moore)

There isn’t much plot in the film so the narrative relies on sharp dialogue and performances. Fortunately, Greta Gerwig fits her role well and she is always entertaining to watch. Her costumes – mostly sensible shoes and woollens are suitable for a New York winter. Sometimes they look a bit ‘clod-hoppy’ but mainly her engaging personality pulls her through. Not conventionally ‘beautiful’, Ms Gerwig is very attractive because she is at ease with her body and allows her personality to shine. She is at the centre of the comic moments for me, but reading other comments, I see that some find these scenes don’t work and that opinion is equally divided on the snappy dialogue. Maggie’s Plan is ‘clever’ but I don’t think it is ‘cool’ or ‘smart’ (i.e. in the way that films like Ghost World (US 2001) were once described because of their appeal to a specific demographic). It’s been variously described as an ‘indie rom-com’ and a ‘screwball comedy’. The latter seems some way off the mark to me. The film ends with the possibility of something slightly sentimental. I should add that there are children involved in the various relationships – all of whom are well-written and well-acted.

Maggie’s Plan appears to be a film more loved by critics than by the general audience (Rotten Tomatoes scores it 86% for critics as against 66% for audiences) – but perhaps more so by a specialised film audience. People around me certainly laughed, but often at gags that I didn’t find funny. Conversely, I smiled at moments which didn’t evoke laughter at all. I read that the film could be bracketed with Shakespearean comedies and Woody Allen – neither of which I can claim to know/enjoy. Maggie’s Plan is doing well at the box office and it certainly offers entertainment. I’ll definitely look for more Greta Gerwig performances, but perhaps I’ll avoid this kind of New York comedy.

The US trailer (which reveals the rest of the plot):