Imagine if you’d directed 21 films, but written 22. That doesn’t sound too bad, right: maybe you started your career with the one that got away. After all, Oliver Stone wrote the scripts for Midnight Express and Scarface, and then a decade later bought Natural Born Killers off a video store worker – one of several scripts Quentin Tarantino sold to oil the wheels of success.
Passing on the best
But how would Tarantino feel if he hadn’t directed Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs? Step forward Paul Schrader, a genius of cinema who has written 22 films, directed 21, but only adapted his own work … 12 times. Among the scripts he handed over were Taxi Driver and Raging Bull – two of four scripts he entrusted with Martin Scorsese, leaving a gaping hole in what should be an almighty body of work.
So it’s good to hear that Schrader’s latest, First Reformed (85 on Metacritic; released Jan 10), is his best film this century – and possibly his finest since Blue Collar. After all, we don’t want the man who gave us lines like “You talkin’ to me” and “I gotta problem if I should fuck him or fight him” to be remembered alongside the likes of Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects followed by a Tom Cruise wankfest), Frank Miller (Sin City and then The Spirit, his career a mere ghost), William Monahan (The Departed, last seen off London Boulevard) and Dustin Lance Black (Milk followed by cheese) as masterful screenwriters who couldn’t cut it as directors.
Toller meet Travis
His new film First Reformed has been compared to Taxi Driver, but with a cleric called Toller as the central character, not a cabbie named Travis.
Normally best suited to playing a teenager in a man’s body, its star Ethan Hawke is enjoying a mid-life renaissance – possibly aided by the crisis of Chris O’Donnell (also 48), the only actor of his generation to challenge him for the wet-behind-the-ears roles he one favoured – appearing in popular Nick Hornby adaptation Juliet, Naked and directing acclaimed passion project Blaze. Like Schrader, this is his best work this century.
Just like 1999
Given the stars fronting films this month, it could just as well be 1999, with Clint Eastwood, Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Lopez and Bruce Willis all in action, with the latter again joining forces with erratic director M Night Shyamalan for a sequel fully 20 years after one of his biggest hits.
No, not to The Sixth Sense, but Unbreakable, the superhero with a difference tale in which Willis discovers he is just that. Glass (Not Released Worldwide; Jan 17), with his nemesis (Samuel L Jackson) in the title role this time, welcomes James McAvoy into the fold, and judging by the trailer he’s dialling in his performance from the set of Split.
The same can’t be said of Clint in The Mule (58; Jan 10), who for once isn’t typecast as the grumpy old man you don’t want to mess with – think Grand Torino (2008) and The Trouble with the Curve (2012), his only notable parts over the last decade. But the vulnerability comes easy when you’re 88.
Equally bypass-able are Destroyer (62; Jan 3) and Second Act (49; Jan 17). In the former, Kidman has been hailed for a startling transformation that has earned her an umpteenth Golden Globe nomination. But like with Charlize Theron in Monster, you wonder why the casting agents make it so hard for the make-up department. J-Lo, meanwhile, is again co-starring with Manhattan, but this time not as a maid, but on the make. Make a swift exit!
Tinsel city limits
The line-up offers proof of Hollywood’s limits – 20 years on, it is the same stars, skylines and stories. Bucking the trend, perhaps, is Beautiful Boy (63; Jan 17) starring Timothée Chalamet, an actor just four years old when Bruce was one of a multitude of dead people and Clint could still ride a horse – just. The clamour is strong for him to take the best supporting actor Oscar, but there’s something all-too familiar about the storyline.
Chalamet should be careful as he is developing a type, and so is Noomi Rapace, the original Lisbeth Salander. She reportedly declined playing the role again because she didn’t want to be typecast, but in the feisty-looking Close (Netflix from Jan 18) she plays a bodyguard who beats up a lot of men … let’s just say it’s familiar territory.
The Last Laugh (Netflix from Jan 18) looks promising, with both Richard Dreyfus and Chevvy Chase on board. It feels like a long time since we saw either, and the potential of Chase being cast against type (so neither cheesy nor smug, and funny since the mid-80s) and really delivering is actually quite exciting.
And finally, has a movie ever been better timed than Brexit (HBO Nordic from Jan 7) starring the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch as the orchestrator of the devastatingly effective, ultimately dishonest Leave campaign? One small criticism: it was a little distracting to have some of the more famous Brexiteers portrayed by actors (Johnson, Gove, Farage etc). Having David Cameron playing himself in archive footage (or impersonated in one cameo over the phone) was much more effective.
Over in TV land, three new series stand out, although one is a returning anthology. Noting the success of Ozark, and the rustic setting of its own opener, S3 of True Detective (75; HBO Nordic from Jan 14) is also set in the same area of Missouri, telling a story via three time-lines starring Stephen Dorff and a magnetic Mahershala Ali.
Don Cheadle looks on the money in the US miniseries Black Monday (HBO Nordic from Jan 21) depicting the 1987 Wall Street crash, while Gillian Andersen lends Hollywood clout to the British series Sex Education (Netflix from Jan 14), which looks a cut above the normal US high school fare.
But with Gracie and Frankie (S5, Netflix from Jan 18), S3 of Crashing, S2 of SMILF and S3 of High Maintenance (all on HBO Nordic from Jan 21), as well as S4 of The Magicians (HBO from Jan 24), there are plenty of returning shows should risk-taking not be on your agenda.
It’s not like Schrader is averse to risks – he made Cat People after all – but if only he’d insisted on helming Taxi Driver. Instead his pal Scorsese stole his cab and tore off out of sight.