A New Leaf & The Return of Elaine May

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A New Leaf

In 2020, Elaine May is to direct her first new drama since 1983. Nothing much is yet known about this new project other than it’s called Crackpot and it is to star Dakota Johnson.

Here’s a slightly updated review of her finest work, A New Leaf, which originally mourned the fact that May’s directing career had been cut short. Assumptions. Assumptions.

A New Leaf was one of the most critically acclaimed American comedies of the 1970s, but over the years it mysteriously fell out of favour.

Based on the short story The Green Heart by Jack Ritchie, the film was adapted for the screen and directed by Elaine May, who also gave herself the role of Henrietta Lowell, a complete klutz with owl-like glasses that are almost permanently are on the brink of falling off her face and who needs ‘to be vacuumed every time she eats.’ Despite these eccentricities, she somehow also manages to hold down a job as a professor of botany.

Her co-star here is Walter Matthau, who plays Henry Graham, a dirty rotten scoundrel who has blown his entire inheritance and is desperate to continue in the bone idle yet extravagant manner to which he has become accustomed.

Aloof, irresponsible and filled with self-pity, he has managed to avoid responsibility at all costs throughout his life and with no business acumen, no real skills and a serious aversion to any kind of gainful employment, there seems only one solution to his problems and that is the one suggested by his English butler Harold – marrying an enormously wealthy woman who can subsidise his wasteful ways.

Cap in hand, he visits his Uncle Harry to beg for a $50,000 loan, so he can keep up appearances while he woos the unsuspecting female. Harry realises in all likelihood the money will never be paid back although an agreement is reached to give his nephew the loan for a period of six weeks with Henry forfeiting his home and valuables if he doesn’t repay the cash on the dot, meaning that he’s in danger of losing his swanky city apartment, cool modern art and Ferrari if his plan goes awry.

This looks likely after a series of failures but then he stumbles across the bumbling Henrietta.

A New Leaf (1971)

This becomes a true love–hate relationship. She adores him. He detests everything about her, even her spectacular gullibility which allows him the chance to prey on her. Henry certainly likes her wealth, though, the bulk of which comes from her heiress status.

So, he turns on the charm and makes his move on her. Oh, and I should also probably tell you here that he decides that bumping her off might just be an equally good idea, so screwball comedy moves into the territory of black comedy.

There are some very funny scenes here such as when Henry reads Beginner’s Guide to Toxicology while, in the background, she is on the edge of a cliff, seeking out an as yet unrecognised species of fern leaf, and there’s also a great slapstickish routine where he becomes involved in the epic task of helping a flustered Henrietta fit into her toga-style dress after she inadvertently manages to stick her head through the armhole of the outfit. I did tell you she was a klutz, didn’t I?

As well as being a hoot, the scene is also rather touching and Henry’s patience with her is actually rather admirable. Her ineptitude does somehow bring out the best in him and, of course, this seemingly very odd couple do have more in common with one another than Henry initially suspected. He might find her mightily kooky but he insists on driving his car wearing a motorbike crash helmet, to name only one of his own peculiarities.

With his hangdog expressions and flawless comic timing, Matthau is brilliantly cast here, and May in her only starring role in a film she directed herself is every bit as good and the perfect foil.

Elaine May and Walter Matthau in A New Leaf

Matthau made two other films in 1971, Plaza Suite, which was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture, and Kotch, which saw him being nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor but it’s A New Leaf that is the pick of the trio. The whole film from beginning to end really is a lot of fun and ranks up there with Harold and Maude, Annie Hall, Slap Shot and Paper Moon as one of the finest American comedies of the 1970s. All these years later it’s still definitely worth seeking out and with the promise of Crackpot being shot soon, this is the perfect time to see it if you haven’t already.

Why you might ask is the film not better known?

My theory would be the fact that Elaine May was entirely dissatisfied with the version of the film that was released, having been removed from the project by Paramount head honcho Robert Evans, who set about drastically chopping out over an hour of her cut himself, mainly by excising a subplot that involved Henry killing Henrietta’s crooked attorney.

May attempted to have the film shelved, and then when this failed, she also failed to have her name removed from the credits before publicly disowning the film.

Whether her cut would be an improvement on the studio release I have no idea but after watching the movie I’m certainly glad she was unsuccessful in having A New Leaf suppressed.

Like her directorial debut, May’s career seemed to be cut short after the critical and box office failure of her fourth film Ishtar. I haven’t ever seen this one, maybe because critics like to dub it ‘The Heaven’s Gate of comedy’ and ‘One of the grossest miscalculations of the blockbuster era.’

May did continue to work in Hollywood, most significantly penning the screenplays for The Birdcage and Primary Colors but on the evidence of A New Leaf (and to a lesser extent The Heartbreak Kid and Mikey and Nicky), it’s a real pity that she didn’t get the chance to direct more movies.

Hopefully, Crackpot recaptures the form of her first three directorial efforts and let’s face it, you’ve got to root for any 87 year woman given the chance to sit in a director’s chair, haven’t you?

Best Films of 2019 (Part Two)

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Best Films of 2019 pt2

10. The Farewell
Beijing born writer/director Lulu Wang’s film immediately announces that it’s ‘based on an actual lie’. This lie took place when Wang’s own grandmother was dying in China and her family decided not to inform her of her impending death. As we learn during the course of The Farewell, this is commonplace in the Far East and doctors are prepared to go along with it, the lie intended to prevent terminally ill loved ones from living in fear throughout the remaining days of their lives.

How to avoid arousing the dying gran’s suspicions when the whole family want to see her for one last time? Plan a lavish wedding as an excuse for a joyous get together.

Amazingly enough, The Farewell largely avoids mawkishness until veering in that direction right at the end when some of the music verges on boke-inducing. Nevertheless, it’s a triumph.

9. Joker
‘The most disappointing film of the year,’ according to the Guardian and ‘a viewing experience of rare, numbing emptiness,’ if the New York Times is to be believed, negative reviews of Joker weren’t hard to find in the media. Indiewire did say some nice things about it but also branded it ‘a toxic rallying cry for self-pitying incels’.

No, it’s not as good as the two films that influenced it most – Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy but how many films are? And speaking of those two classics, I had long ago given up hope of Bob De Niro ever appearing in two of the best movies of any year, but 2019 proved that just occasionally his performances nowadays aren’t always dialled in. Even better is Joachim Phoenix, who is now American cinema’s nearest equivalent to the 1970s/80s De Niro.

8. Donbass
Named after a region in Eastern Ukraine, Donbass is a film about what is going on there and how it affects the people living on both sides of the divide. The Ukrainian regular army and volunteers fight separatist gangs, supported by Putin’s Russia. Corruption and criminality of all kinds are rife. Humiliation is commonplace. Violence can flare at any moment.

Each of the thirteen segments that make up the film is based on a real event and are loosely linked. It’s like a series of nightmares, which when taken together, offers a damning critique of what is going on in this part of the world.

7. The Favourite
The film premiered at the 2018 Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. Its release date in Britain was on the very first day of 2019, hence its inclusion on this list.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ love/power triangle tragicomedy featured not one, not two, but three outstanding performances: Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Olivia Colman, who deservedly won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Queen Anne, a woman who is infantile, idiosyncratic and utterly incompetent. Fantastic bawdy fun.

6. The Third Wife
You might not guess it from the name but Ash Mayfair, the director of The Third Wife, is Vietnamese. Born in Ho Chi Minh City, she is currently based in America. The inspiration for her debut feature comes from real-life stories of her grandparents and great-grandparents and the ordeals they lived through that have been passed down through the generations.

She shows great promise here. Her tale of a girl coerced into a forced marriage is a quiet film – which reflects its late 19th century rural setting. Its dialogue is sparse and its pace meditative. Nguyen Phuong Tra My’s performance as May deserves great credit too. Twelve when cast, she was thirteen during the shoot and is pretty much pitch-perfect throughout.

5. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
I did set out to see the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino without reading any reviews, features or interviews about it. Inevitably I did learn of the criticism of his portrayal of Bruce Lee, in particular the fact that the Hong Kong kung fu legend wasn’t able to get the better of Brad Pitt’s character in one fight scene.

This perplexed me. Tarantino is a big Bruce Lee fan and a highly vocal fan of martial arts movies in general.

I also became aware that this was another Tarantino film that embraced a revisionist-history fantasy. Obviously the fate of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate would be very different to that of the real-life Tate.

This provided a possible solution as to Quentin’s depiction of Lee. It was surely included to give audiences a little nudge in the direction that they shouldn’t be looking for historical accuracy with regard to the real-life characters on-screen.

But this theory appears to have been wrong. Tarantino based Cliff Booth on a notoriously tough stuntman who had a rumble with Lee on the set of TV show The Green Hornet, which you can read about here.

I still don’t think the scene worked, although the movie as a whole is a great way to spend two and a half hours. I’m even already looking forward to seeing the four hour cut that Tarantino has recently mentioned possibly coming out next year.

4. Shadow
‘Chinese kings have always feared assassination in times of turmoil. To survive, they secretly employed surrogates known as ‘shadows’. Absent from the annals of history, they lived their lives in obscurity and vanished without a trace.’

This is the story of one such shadow, directed by Zhang Yimou, a man with an impeccable wuxia CV. He gave the world Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower and this definitely deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those epics.

Although shot in a metallic greyish pallette, Shadow looks stunning throughout and the action is incredible too. I’ve seen umbrellas utilised as weapons before in Asian movies but never umbrellas as lethal as the ones used here.

3. The Irishman
In the run up to the release of The Irishman, Martin Scorsese kickstarted an almighty media stooshie when asked about Marvel movies.

‘I’ve tried to watch a few of them and they’re not for me,’ the director replied, before going on to explain that: ‘They seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life.’

As is the norm in the 21st century, a backlash began immediately with Marvel brand loyalists and others deriding America’s greatest living director as old, out of touch and even elitist.

He is certainly old but out of touch? I’d guess some of the most out of touch individuals I’ve come across in recent years have been obsessional Marvel fanboys and fangirls. Some of these Marvelistas have even persuaded themselves that they’re some kind of modern-day rebels, determined to hit out at any old farts who dare to voice any criticism of films made by a company that is owned by the world’s largest media conglomerate.

Yes, Disney – who as the Guardian revealed just over a year ago – employ hundreds of women in sweatshop factories who work in pathetically poor conditions and are forced to work monstrously long shifts and astonishing amounts of overtime while making Disney’s Ariel doll. When the costs of this toy – which retails in Britain at £34.99 – were broken down each of the women on a factory production line in China were receiving just 1p for every one they helped to make.

Presumably virtue signalling Marvel star Brie Larson has no idea that sweatshops like this exist or she would surely speak out strongly against these practices as she jets around the globe talking up her part in the mega success of the MCU. Nevermind, I’m sure these Chinese women will still find Captain Marvel an absolutely empowering watch.

Personally I’d rather go on a theme park ride myself. And I’d rather watch a single minute of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino or Joe Pesci in The Irishman than the entire 2010s output of Disney.

And yes, I did enjoy some of Ricky Gervais’ gags as he hosted his fifth Golden Globes.

2. Parasite
Wonky sci-fi environmental parable Okja made it to #7 in my Best Of List two years ago. Bong Joon-ho’s latest film is even better.

Dazzling, unpredictable and downright funny at times, this takes a look at class and inequality but in the kind of cinematic fashion that Ken Loach couldn’t even begin to imagine. Crucially, Joon-ho’s characters all have their share of good and bad traits and you care for them all.

A wildly inventive satire set in Seoul, this must surely be the strangest upstairs/downstairs movie ever made and with it, Bong Joon-ho has truly established himself as one of the greatest filmmakers working anywhere in the world today.

1. Ash is Purest White
A saga about power and money, love and loyalty set across a China that is modernizing at a truly staggering rate.

This is the story of Qiao (Zhao Tao) and Bin (Liao Fan) a ‘jianghu’ gangster on the rise, which is brought to a sudden end when one of them is imprisoned after using a gun to stop a spectacularly brutal streetside brawl. It’s an action that will not unsurprisingly carry profound consequences for both.

Director Jia Zhangke’s films really are must-see events and his wife and regular leading lady Zhao Tao puts in the best female performance of 2019 here.

Finally, the year’s biggest disappointment. This has to be Danny Boyle’s decision to follow up to T2 Trainspotting by collaborating with Britain’s blandest screenwriter Richard Curtis, whose scripts over the years have displayed as much bite as a cuddly toy dog.

A high-concept romantic comedy with a load of woeful Beatles covers and Ed Sheeran and James Corden playing versions of themselves, the premise behind Yesterday wasn’t even original. A French graphic novel created in 2011 by David Blot and Jérémie Royer, also titled Yesterday, shared a very similar premise. Even Goodnight Sweetheart (a mediocre at best 1990s British sitcom) had an episode that apparently bore strong similarities to the central concept behind Boyle’s film.

There is nothing that I could recommend about Yesterday. It is to Trainspotting, what Paul McCartney’s Mull of Kintyre was to The Beatles’ A Day in the Life.

Choose life, Danny. Choose to direct something that isn’t so completely mind numbing next time around.

Best Films of 2019 (Part One)

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Goodbye 2010s, a cinematic decade where the conveyor belt of superheroes and sequels have clogged up multiplexes like never before.

Anyone who is naive enough to think that cinema audiences have not grown more conservative over recent decades, should have a look at IMDb’s Highest Grossing Films of the Decade List.

Here’s the top ten worldwide: Avengers: Endgame; Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Avengers: Infinity War; Jurassic World; The Lion King; The Avengers; Furious 7; Avengers: Age of Ultron; Black Panther and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2.

Disney produced seven of those ten and only two other companies (Universal and Warner Bros.) are represented. By my counting, of the top 50 highest grossing films, only four were not remakes, sequels or parts of a franchise.Frozen, Zootopia, The Secret Life of Pets and Bohemian Rhapsody being the exceptions.

Frozen and The Secret Life of Pets have since become franchises and a Zootopia sequel will appear next year. No surprises there. Such is the lack of originality in Hollywood that it wasn’t even much of a surprise when rumours emerged last spring about a Bohemian Rhapsody 2.

Luckily, plenty of very good films are still being made and 2019 saw its fair share of triumphs (including one from the decade’s 50 highest grossing list). Here are the first ten of my twenty favourites.

Best Films of the Year - Part One

20. The Souvenir
Honor Swinton Byrne made her acting debut in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir and Honor Swinton Byrne is a name you’ll be hearing a lot more of in the future. The daughter of Tilda Swinton (who also plays her mother here) and playwright and artist John Byrne, she plays Julie, a posho film school student who wants to make a film about a working-class boy in Sunderland obsessed with the idea of his mum dying. It’s likely a misjudged idea but not as misjudged as her relationship with Anthony (an equally excellent Tom Burke).

19. Samurai Marathon
A highlight of this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival, Samurai Marathon is inspired by a real-life race that continues in Japan to this day. There’s fantastic action, humour, and Philip Glass supplies one of the year’s finest scores.

18. Crawl
Haley Kelley (played by Kaya Scodelario) is a competitive swimmer, a very good one, and her skills will prove very handy during the course of Crawl, a movie that Quentin Tarantino touted as one of his favourites of 2019.

Set in Florida during a Category 5 hurricane, Haley goes in search of her missing father. She finds him in the giant basement of their former family home, which has become the residence of some very unwelcome guests in the shape of a congregation of alligators. He’s trapped and one or more of the ‘gators have dined on a chunk of his leg.

Don’t ask why they didn’t finish him off. Crawl veers towards the daft regularly but it is a film that grips right up to its climax. Great B-movie viewing.

17. Lords of Chaos
A film about Scandi black metal band Mayhem starring the younger brother of Macaulay Culkin might not sound very promising but this is a blast from start to finish. Mayhem by name, mayhem by nature. Expect murder, devil worship, suicide, cannibalism and church burnings.

16. Hail Satan?
Keeping up the Satanic panic here. This documentary proved that Satanists appear to have a better sense of humour than the members of any mainstream religions. Many appear to be pranksters. Some are maybe more accurately described as attention seekers, and a small minority take it far too seriously.

15. Her Smell

The band Something She opens Her Smell with a version of The Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet that fails in every way to match the sheer brio of the original. Luckily, the music here isn’t the movie’s strongpoint.

That’ll be Elisabeth Moss. Her turn as Becky Something, a batshit crazy, manipulating and ultimately tragic egomaniac who wrecks emotional havoc wherever she goes is up there with the best of the year.

14. Marriage Story
You’ve likely already read about the superlative performances of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson but Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, and Alan Alda are all very deserving of praise too as the three lawyers they employ.

A suggestion, if you liked this then go seek out Baumbach’s earlier The Squid and the Whale, another tale that deals with divorce, albeit from a different perspective. I’ll be in a minority, but I reckon it’s the better film of the two.

13. Monos
If asked to conjure up atmosphere and essence of Monos, I could only point you in the ballpark direction of Werner Herzog directing Lord of the Flies or Alejandro Jodorowsky remaking Apocalypse Now. Mica Lev­i’s inventive percus­sive score is the perfect accompaniment to this visually striking film by Alejandro Landes.

Premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, where it lifted the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award, Monos has since been selected as the official Colombian entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.

12. Pain and Glory
A semi-autobiographical work, this tells the story of a gay Spanish filmmaker with a long list of health issues, who has stopped working and begun thinking more and more about his past. It may lack the flamboyance of Pedro Almodóvar’s earlier work but it lures you in slowly, then won’t let you go until the very last frame.

It debuted at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or, while Banderas won the festival’s award for Best Actor. Pain and Glory was chosen by a poll of Time magazine critics as the best film of the year.

11. The Lighthouse
I’d always assumed that living and working in a lighthouse might be an ideal job. Fantastic views, crisp sea air and likely not too much hard graft.

Not if your boss is Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Here a day’s work is back-breaking. The food is rank. Gulls squawk incessantly. Wake farts pretty much incessantly. It would be enough to drive you crazy.

Last year a Dafoe film, At Eternity’s Gate featured on my Best Of list, while in 2017, The Florida Project also put in an appearance. Is Dafoe America’s most under-rated actor. He might just be.

Best Film Reissues 2019

Here’s some 2019 reissues I’d like to recommend too:

Stranger Than Paradise (Criterion); Three Films with Sammo Hung (Eureka); Coming Home (Eureka); The Protector (88 Films); The African Queen (Eureka); Legend of the Witches (BFI); The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (Arrow) and That’ll Be The Day / Stardust (Studio Canal).