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Archive for the ‘American Independents’ Category

Dallas Buyers Club (US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 18 March 2014

Jared Leto as Rayon and Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff

Jared Leto as Rayon and Matthew McConaughey as Ron Woodruff

Watching Dallas Buyers Club transported me back to those 1970s days when Hollywood routinely offered hard-edged narratives rooted in recognisable communities. Or perhaps on second thoughts it is more akin to some of the gay-themed dramas of the 1980s. Most of the writing on the film seems to have focused on the performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto that won Academy Awards. Yes they are both extraordinary (in the “what will an actor do for the sake of authenticity in the part” stakes) and very effective in helping to construct a human drama. They certainly merited awards but this film is much more than just those two performances. In particular, praise should go to the scriptwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack and to Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter who got this complicated true story into production – and to the highly-skilled Montreal crew who shot it for Québécois director Jean-Marc Vallée.

For anyone still unaware of this story, it details how an ‘ordinary guy’ in Texas in 1985 contracted the HIV virus (presumably through sharing needles or sexual contact with women who had bisexual partners) but instead of succumbing to AIDS and the various diseases that attack when the immune system is down, he fought back and lived for seven years after diagnosis. The notable aspects of the story are that Ron Woodruff (in the filmic representation – I don’t know how authentic McConaughey’s character is) educated himself about the drug research into HIV/AIDS and that he then organised a local network to support others in a similar position. And what is remarkable is that Woodruff who had been casually homophobic and generally dissolute in his social behaviour was able to change and to accept gay people as his friends. At the same time he was able to fight the Federal Drugs Administration that threatened to close down his business importing anti-viral drugs into the US. It isn’t a romantic story about a noble sufferer – Woodruff initially ran a business and made good money in order to support himself before widening his concerns.

The film isn’t a documentary, it’s a personal story. I think that because of that distinction audiences are prepared to overlook the holes in the script – e.g. the almost magical way in which a man who is presented as barely capable of organising his kitchen can become an effective researcher (and international business operator) seemingly overnight is skipped over very quickly. A common criticism of the film has been that the role of the doctor played by Jennifer Garner is very restricted. I didn’t feel that but for me the more important lack was any kind of background given to the remarkably calm and efficient African-American woman who ran Woodruff’s office and dealt with many of its clients/’members’ etc. Unless I missed something she seems to just appear and take over. Having said that, the film is action-packed and doesn’t waste any of its running time. The transgender character played by Jared Leto has been created for the film adaptation (as has I think the Jennifer Garner character). The two new characters offer a more audience-friendly means of exploring Woodruff’s predicament and his emotional state – i.e. they enable the scriptwriters to explore relationships rather than focus the whole time on Woodruff’s struggle to build and maintain the ‘Club’ of people he helps to obtain anti-virals.

The film works because of the combination of direction, performances and camerawork/mise en scène. There is a useful collection of notes on the Focus Features website for the film. I was particularly keen to read the thoughts of Jean-Marc Vallé as it was my enjoyment of his film C.R.A.Z.Y (Canada 2005) which propelled me into watching Dallas Buyers Club. Vallée tells us that his inspiration was John Cassavetes and the ‘free’ – liberated – camerawork on his independent features in the 1960s and 1970s. Dallas Buyers Club was shot in just 25 days using an Alexa digital camera and, as far as possible, only available light. This meant long days shooting (with long make-up sessions for Leto and McConaughey) but allowed great freedom of movement. In the same Focus Features editorial piece there is also an interesting discussion with the costume designers ‘Kurt and Bart’. Overall the look of the film seemed to me to work very well and certainly evoked its period setting much more successfully than American Hustle. I realise that the comparison is not completely valid since they are two very different types of film. All I can say is that where American Hustle made me fume, Dallas Buyers Club was a very positive viewing experience.

Posted in American Independents | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Only Lovers Left Alive (Ger-UK-Greece 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 27 February 2014

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as the lovers

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as the lovers

I’m intrigued by the production credits for this film. I was going to classify it as an American Independent, but the credits make clear that it is mainly a German production (like some of Jarmusch’s earlier films) with a UK partner and some financing from a Greek company (which IMDB reads as ‘Cyprus’).

Jim Jarmusch is a distinctive filmmaker and I enjoyed his first two films in the 1980s. I remember the later films less well. I know I saw Broken Flowers (2005) but I’m much less sure that I saw Dead Man (1995). I mention this because Only Lovers has such a languid feel that I could have dreamt that I saw it. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

I was expecting a vampire film and there are many of the tropes of that genre in place but this is mainly a film about romance and ennui – an unlikely pairing but probably quite common for anyone who is a few centuries old. What plot there is sees ‘Eve’ (Tilda Swinton) leaving her house in the old city in Tangier to travel to the wastelands of crumbling Detroit – a city gradually reverting to its natural state – to see her husband ‘Adam’ (Tom Hiddleston). She leaves behind her equally aged friend ‘Kit’ (John Hurt). Apart from a sudden interruption by Eve’s sister Eva (Mia Wasikowska) not a lot happens. Certainly there is little in the way of ‘horror’. Instead this a film that offers gentle pleasures of erudition. I think the script, by Jarmusch himself, is clever and witty. There are little jokes about real historical figures and characters from literature as well as meditations on fame, the artistic temperament and the difficult problem of finding things to do when you have had so long ‘alive’ and have learned so much. In some ways the best things about the film, apart from the dialogue are the production design and the music.

I had a pleasant afternoon’s entertainment and now I want to visit Tangier. One shot in particular will stay in my memory. It has the lovers in long shot framed through an alleyway or possibly an arch and lit only by moonlight and the dim yellow streetlights. They are sat on a low wall and behind them is a pair exquisitely decorated panels that represent the best of Islamic art. Of course this is old Tangier and it has been ‘dressed’ for the part. Sadly the Ciné Alcazar which the couple passes is actually closed. Still Tangier is a powerful presence – I’m guessing that the location is partly an hommage to Bertolocci’s film The Sheltering Sky (1990) based on a Paul Bowles story (with Debra Winger as ‘Kit’) since Jeremy Thomas’ Recorded Picture Company was involved in both films. One mystery is why Adam and Eve refuse to fly via London – are there too many painful memories?

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Her (US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 15 February 2014

Theodore waits for his new OS to load – and become 'Samantha'.

Theodore waits for his new OS to load – and become ‘Samantha’.

A few years ago Her might have been called a ‘smart film’ – made for and appreciated by a specific niche audience (of well-educated, arthouse patrons). In 2013-4 it has taken $23 million at the box office in North America and I’ll be intrigued to see how it does in the UK. It already has an IMDB score of 8.4 and 94% on Rotten Tomatoes. I found it an ‘interesting film’, well worth seeing but not completely satisfying. It’s been described as a romcom which I don’t think is helpful. I would say that it is a hard science fiction film utilising comedy. I realise that this won’t be a common reaction, but I can argue a case.

I find it very difficult not to see most SF films coming out of the US as anything other than Dickian narratives – i.e. inspired in some way by the ideas of Phil K. Dick. Possibly I haven’t read enough or I became obsessed by Dick at a particular moment in my cultural education and I can’t throw him off. Still, I can imagine this as one of Phil’s short stories. Set in the ‘near future’, Her focuses on Theodore (itself a Dickian name, referring to ‘God’s gift’). He’s in early middle age, recently separated from his wife and working as a writer of emotionally-charged letters for customers who are themselves less than emotionally literate. His social life is as he indicates a non-choice between internet porn and videogames. One day he buys a new Operating System, ‘OS1′, for his phone/computer and promptly falls into a relationship with the artificial intelligence who voices the software and calls ‘herself’ Samantha. I don’t want to give away any more than that (though in contemporary cinema, blogs and promo material tend to tell you everything).

The film looks beautiful. It is shot in LA and Shanghai which provides cityscapes and, I suspect, the High Speed train that takes Theo on holiday. The photography is by the Hoyte van Hoytema who has worked in Sweden, UK and North America and the costume design with its distinctive (but hideous) high-waisted pants for men combine to create a world of warmed-up pastels and bland environments. The music, mostly by the Canadian band Arcade Fire, surprised me by sounding a little twee for my taste but it worked in terms of the narrative. Joaquin Phoenix as Theo and Amy Adams as his close friend give good performances and Rooney Mara copes well with the difficult role of Theo’s wife. The problem is that as a film the narrative poses problems for writer-director Spike Jonze. Many scenes consist of shots of Joaquin Phoenix talking to Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) via his smartphone’s integrated microphone. I confess that people who talk on their mobiles in public via earphone/mike combinations drive me almost to murder so I was aggravated by these long sequences. OK, perhaps that is an extreme reaction, but these sequences are not cinematic. The Amy Adams character is trying to construct a documentary film about sleeping. This – and the reactions to it from Theo and Amy’s husband – make for an interesting commentary on the overall narrative of the film.

There is a great deal of talk about relationships – and about sex. There is little sexual activity on screen though I did find one scene strangely arousing. I’m not sure that there is much ‘romance’ and for me not much emotion. More important, I think is the satire on social relations in this future world. And what a sanitised world it is – seemingly ‘cleansed’ of old people, poor people, black people, disabled people etc. I was reminded at various points of Charlie Kaufman’s script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I don’t think Her is as good.

I am intrigued by the discovery that Samantha Morton is the Executive Producer on the film and that she was initially the voice of the OS. It seems that her voice was replaced for production reasons. I’m a huge Samantha Morton fan and I do wonder what her voice would have contributed. Johansson does a good job, but it would have been a different element in the mix as voiced by Morton.

Her did make me laugh at various times, not because of the romance but more because of the recognition of human frailties in the face of artificial intelligence. I think the film could lose 30 minutes and it might have benefited from more, not less, ‘plot’. I don’t regret 126 mins in the cinema and I enjoyed the overall experience, but as with American Hustle, if this is one of the Oscar choices, American cinema is in trouble. The film is in some ways ‘global’ but its sensibility seems to be the wan emotionless world of Southern California.

Posted in American Independents, Comedies | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

Inside Llewyn Davis (US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 10 February 2014

Llewyn (Oscar Isaacs) trudges through the snow in a framing reminiscent of the cover of Dylan's Freewheelin' album (referenced several times in shots of Greenwich Village – but this is Chicago). photo by Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC

Llewyn (Oscar Isaacs) trudges through the snow in a framing reminiscent of the cover of Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album (referenced several times in shots of Greenwich Village – but this is Chicago). photo by Alison Rosa ©2012 Long Strange Trip LLC

You have to hand it to the Coens. They are intelligent and highly-skilled filmmakers who know how to engage diverse audience groups. They also like to ‘play’ in a serious way, creating controversies and teasing their fans. The most interesting comment I’ve read about Inside Llewyn Davis is that the title could fit on an album cover and that the individual episodes might represent a collection of introspective songs about the artist’s unhappy lot. That seems a good call to me.

Llewyn is an angry man who isn’t making much money from applying his talent in as authentic a manner as possible. He has no home and moves from the floor or couch at friends to the occasional bed. His sister is about to sell his parents’ house. He is primed to insult anyone who offers the hand of friendship – but he is topped in the angry stakes by Jean, one of his former lovers. This is a Coens’ movie though and thankfully he isn’t ‘redeemed’. Many of those who don’t like the film suggest that it has no story or rather no ‘meaning’. I take the story to be about the folk singer who fails to find success because of a combination of bad luck (fate?), the unfortunate ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – just missing being in the right place at the right time – and the inability to compromise just enough to gain acceptance without squandering his talent. For me, the turning point of the narrative is Llewyn’s ‘audition’ for Albert Grossman (or his fictionalised counterpart). This is his big chance to impress the main promoter on the folk scene and he sings a song that many commentators have seen as ‘miserabilist’, a ‘real downer’ etc. In fact it is a beautiful rendition of an old English ballad (arranged in the version that Oscar Isaacs sings by the Irish guitarist Dáithí Sproule). It is contrasted with the smoother, more ‘poppy’ and conventional songs sung by the ‘Jim and Jean’ characters (played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) and some other performers.

The Grossman who turned down Llewyn Davis would go on to promote Bob Dylan (who appears as a character towards the end of the film) – and the much more polished Peter, Paul and Mary – but who in 1961 doesn’t see what might become a commercial possibility.

I think the film is well written, beautifully photographed and, as might be expected from the Coens, the soundtrack is wonderfully arranged/scored/constructed by T-Bone Burnett. Oscar Isaac’s performance of the songs is very good and worth the price of the admission ticket on its own. But here is where the Coen’s get playful and tease. The ‘community’ of singers associated with the Gaslight Café and Greenwich Village generally in 1961 is based on and ‘around’ the historical figures of Dave Van Ronk and several other well-known names such as the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and Tom Paxton. I’m sure I read/heard that the Coens said that they didn’t know that Ewan MacColl only wrote ‘Shoals of Herring’ in 1960 – but the narrative implies that Llewyn had sung the song to his father many years before. Did they really not know? There are other anachronisms as well, including a poster for The Incredible Journey (1963) (part of the entertaining narrative of a Greenwich Village cat). The barely disguised impersonations and sly jokes (Llewyn comments on the sweaters worn by the Clancy Brothers performers) and the anachronisms provide ample material for fans either of the music itself or of the Coens’ films to discuss at length.

Inside Llewyn Davis has prompted me to explore Dave Van Ronk’s music. He’s someone I’ve always vaguely known about but never properly listened to and now perhaps I will. I guess it helps (to get funding) if the characters in a kind of faux biopic like this are relatively young and beautiful. I wonder how important Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan (whose husband Marcus Mumford has a leading role in the music performed in the film) are to the success of the film for younger audiences? It occurs to me that a biopic of a similarly ‘difficult’ but older and less photogenic character like Ewan MacColl would offer personal dramas, songs at least as good and a similar clash of ideas about where the music should be going – but would add some radical politics as well.

The official website for Inside Llewyn Davis carries a useful background piece on the folk scene in New York in 1960-2.

Inside Llewyn Davis is clearly a film with American cultural content and it is an ‘American’ film, but it’s worth noting that it has been made in association with StudioCanal – a link going back to the Coens’ early work with Working Title/Universal/Vivendi? – and the UK company Anton Capital Entertainment which currently supplies 30% of StudioCanal’s funding. So Inside Llewyn Davis is technically a US/France/UK film.

Posted in American Independents, Film music | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Nebraska (US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 30 December 2013

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte)

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte)

Immediately after I saw Nebraska my impression was that I had seen one of the most enjoyable films of the year and also one of the best. Since then I’ve thought about it several times and it’s in danger of becoming the year’s No 1. There are several reasons why it stands out. First it looks terrific in Black and White CinemaScope with slow pans across the flat landscapes and a higher than usual number of long shot framings by Phedon Papamichael, director Alexander Payne’s regular DoP. Second, the excellent casting and wonderful performances give us convincing representations of communities in the small towns of the ‘high plains’ of Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. This is a film about a ‘real America’ – strangely beautiful even when run-down and tired. I should also mention the excellent score by Mark Orton. I’m actually listening to the soundtrack streamed live as I write.

Of course, part of my fascination is because the film speaks specifically to men of a certain age. The narrative offers us a father and son on a road trip – which, as someone who didn’t like the film pointed out to me, combines two of the most common traits of American cinema. The trip involves a bemused and possibly bewildered retired man who wants to travel from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his ‘winnings’ in what he thinks is a lottery but which in reality is just a marketing promotion by a magazine publisher. This is Woody Grant (Bruce Dern). His wife and sons attempt to dissuade him, but in the end the younger son David (Will Forte) decides to drive him to Lincoln, hoping that the journey will give him time to re-build his relationship with a father who he felt was ‘absent’ during his childhood.

The setting takes Alexander Payne back to his home state and reminds us of both Election (set in a high school in Omaha) and About Schmidt (a road movie, starting from Omaha, with a similarly aged character at its centre played by Jack Nicholson). Like those two films, Nebraska has both comic moments and ‘real’ characters with elements of both hero and anti-hero. One difference, however, is that both the earlier films were literary adaptations but Nebraska is an original script by Bob Nelson, himself a native of South Dakota. Nelson and Payne know the territory and the people and, apart from the intrusion of some black comedy ‘business’ with a couple of ‘goonish’ cousins, the film is pretty close to Rossellini’s ideas for neo-realism. It’s a story taken from a real community with family secrets and relationships that most of us can recognise as ‘real’. I’ve heard criticisms that the film is depressing but I found it to be uplifting and optimistic because it seems to deal with life as it is and not as fantasy.

Father and son outside the old family house in Hawthorne, Nebraska

Father and son outside the old family house in Hawthorne, Nebraska

It has been fascinating to read some of the commentary on the film and some of the interviews and to discover the influences and references, many of which occurred to me watching the film and others which make sense on reflection. The strength of the film in aesthetic terms is its representation of landscape and characters in that region which represents the spine of ‘middle America’ and in Hollywood terms the terrain of the classic Western. In cultural and geographical terms this is the region from Montana down through Wyoming and South Dakota to Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and North-West Texas. The two films that came to mind as I studied the landscapes were Brokeback Mountain and Hud (1963). I remember from Brokeback the opening scenes in Signal, Wyoming and the drama of the huge skies. Similarly with Hud, I remember the Texas landscapes presented in Black & White ‘Scope.  Those two films are linked by the inputs of Larry McMurtry, the great storyteller of the ‘Twilight Western’ who helped to adapt Annie Proulx’s short story for Brokeback and whose novel Horseman, Pass By was the source for Hud. McMurtry has the feel for landscape and communities in the region and I wasn’t surprised to discover that Alexander Payne had always wanted to cast Bruce Dern, a ’1970s character actor’ in what Payne saw as his own version of a ‘Peter Bogdanovich film’ (see this informative interview with Kevin Tent, the editor on the film). Bogdanovich made two black and white films in the early 1970s – the depression-set road movie (travelling through Kansas) Paper Moon (1973) and the Twilight Western, The Last Picture Show (1971) – based on Larry McMurtry’s novel and set in a Texas town in the late 1940s/early 1950s.


Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar walking into the town of Signal, Wyoming at the start of Brokeback Mountain

The Last Picture Show – at the Royal in McMurtry's creation of 'Anarene'

The Last Picture Show – at the Royal in McMurtry’s creation of ‘Anarene’

The small Texas town in Hud

The small Texas town in Hud

The Last Picture Show is the most often quoted reference for Nebraska. As well as the monochrome landscapes and small town views of the plains, there is also a thematic resonance with all three films I’ve mentioned here. The Twilight Western is in this particular formulation a contemporary story set in the geographical ‘West’ as defined by Hollywood. There are usually two central male characters, one upholding the honour/traditions of the West and the other negotiating with ‘modernity’. In both Hud and The Last Picture Show there is also a generational narrative with an older and younger man attempting to learn from the other. These primarily male narratives are about loss – the loss of ‘freedom’ and the ability to ‘act’ with dignity and honour. Perhaps it is a push to equate the confused Woody with older characters such as those played by Melvyn Douglas in Hud or Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show (or indeed Robert Preston in Junior Bonner with Steve McQueen as the younger man) – but the links are there. Woody has turned to drink and to lassitude, remembering his past as the owner of a small garage. We learn later that he might have been an honourable man in business – but also that he might have suffered from his experience of the war in Korea. Several commentators refer to him as an alcoholic but he seems to me to have been a man who drank beer in bars rather than face his demons at home. That judgement is something audiences have to think through for themselves – the narrative doesn’t judge the man as such. I’m not sure he is suffering from any form of dementia either. He doesn’t say much and his belief in his ‘win’ is perhaps pathetic, but he still has an identity that he cares about. Bruce Dern’s performance is remarkable but it would be a shame if it overshadowed that of Will Forte as David – the genuine protagonist of the narrative. Forte seems to have worked mainly in TV, but he is very good in this film.


Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’


Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’ (print held by the Museum of Modern Art:

The interview with Kevin Tent throws up two more interesting references in terms of the look of the film. One is to note that ‘Woody Grant’ is a name that reverses ‘Grant Wood’, the artist who painted ‘American Gothic’ the iconic portrait of the rural American couple and a potential model for Woody and his formidable wife Kate played by June Squibb – another terrific performer mining the comedy in the script. There is also a suggestion that another iconic painting, Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’ (1948) was an influence – even though Wyeth was from Maine. ‘Christina’s World’ is possibly my favourite painting so perhaps my appreciation of the beauty of these desolate landscapes is somehow triggered by memories of the painting?

The music is the final part of the aesthetic construct. Again, I have to confess that American ‘roots music’ is my favourite form. In this interview from Film Music Magazine, Mark Orton explains his own background and that of his colleagues in the Tin Hat trio:

We had all studied classical music but were all improvisers as well. We listened to Smithsonian records, Thelonious Monk, Iannis Xenakis, and Willie Nelson. We were a composer’s collective and the only thing we had decided about the group early on was that we would stick to an acoustic instrumentation and use extended techniques and preparations rather than anything electric or processed. Whatever of bluegrass’s past that found its way into my/our sound did so naturally. (

That’s a pretty eclectic mix and the interview is well worth reading. As Orton puts it, the music takes the film away from a specific genre while at the same time firmly locating it in the American ‘Heartland’. The characters are at one remove from the rural people of the dustbowl stories and the cowboys of the Twilight Western, but they certainly ‘connected’.

Nebraska is a triumph of aesthetics and storytelling. I’m sure there is a great deal more to say. What did you all think?

Posted in American Independents | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

The Retrieval (USA 2013)

Posted by keith1942 on 14 November 2013

Nate and Will cross the Bayou

Nate and Will cross the Bayou

The screening of the US Indie at the Leeds International Film Festival was its UK première and was attended by the director Chris Eska.

The film is set in the later stages of the US Civil War, 1864. The Union armies are into the Confederate territories and we see both a violent skirmish and the aftermath of some battle. However, what makes the film distinctive is that it focuses on black slaves, runaways and freed slaves caught up in this great conflict. For much of the film we are alone with a small trio of black men. There is thirteen year old Negro boy, Will [a fine performance by Ashton Sanders]. His mentor is Marcus (John Keston) who has trained him to work alongside as they assist a gang of white mercenaries who are hunting down runaway slaves for the bounty on their heads.

Marcus with Will is sent north into Union-held territory to bring back fellow Negro Nate (Tishuan Scott). He is not a runaway but a freed slave. However, six years earlier, in resisting an attempt to capture and enslave him, he shot a white gang member. So the journey involves both revenge and a bounty. Marcus and Will use a tale of a sick brother to entice Nate back close enough to the gang’s camp to enable his capture.

Most of the film is taken up with the journey and the changing relationships between the three men. On the way they encounter both a live battle and the strewn corpses of the aftermath of another.

A civil war film that spends most of its time with three black men is distinctive. However the story in which they are embedded is fairly conventional. I could reckon many of the developments before they arrived and the resolution of the film became more clearly predictable over the course of the film’s 92 minutes.

The director Chris Eska also wrote the screenplay and edited the film. He is quoted in the Festival Catalogue: “I start with the emotions first, then I tend to work backwards to find the setting of the characters that are going to highlight those emotions and themes.” Using a civil war setting seems to have been the third possibility considered. This explains why there are so many familiar tropes in the film. In fact the emotions are the strongest aspect of the film. The characters interactions and developments are engaging. There is one very fine sequence when Nate and Will visit the homestead Nate left six years earlier. And they meet his former wife and her ‘new man’. It is done sensitively filmed and acted.

The visual aspects of the film are also very good. The film was shot by Yasu Tanida in the 4K digital format. And the landscape along the journey looks great.

But there is also a serious weakness to the film. This is the music score by Matthew Wiedemann and the Yellow 6 band. Wiedemann seems to have provided the primary input, with ‘sixteen tracks’. The majority of the score accompanies the sequences of the journey. The music accompanies the changing landscape and also signals dramatic development. But at times it did not seem to have a discernible function. I thought the film was over-scored. This is a shame, because the natural sounds on the track when they appear are extremely well done.

I assume the music was worked out with Eska as he remarked that he and Wiedemann and he had worked together before. Eska participated in a Q&A after the screening. I, unfortunately, had to leave to catch a bus. A friend told me about some of the discussion. Eska remarked that finding funding for an independent film in the USA was hard: harder than a decade ago. I had found the final closing sequence of the film the most conventional. Eska explained that this was added because one of the producers would not accept the original ending. He talked about the editing which he found was essential in creating the structure that he wanted. He also talked about working with the Afro-American actors, for whom these were the first opportunities to play a leading role.

There is no indication of a UK distributor yet. It is to be hoped that one appears. Despite its weaknesses this is a good film, and given the reissue of Gone With the Wind (1939) there should be some interest.

Posted in American Independents, Festivals and Conferences | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Behind the Candelabra (US 2013)

Posted by Rona on 30 July 2013

The ‘real’ Liberace at home

At 30,000 feet Steven Soderbergh had a revelation from a neighbouring passenger’s i-pad. Its owner was watching just the non-narrative action, dialogue-free sequences from various movies which Soderbergh judged to be like watching a form of ‘mayhem porn.’ “Something is going on” in our culture and ourselves if this is what we want to watch now. So begins his eloquent dissection of and diatribe on the state of cinema and movies (between which he makes a clear distinction) and which explains his decision to move away from mainstream, feature film-making. Well worth viewing anyway (reference below), he includes a discussion of some of the issues of financing Behind the Candelabra a subsequently made-for-TV biopic about the pianist and showman, Liberace. Being a subject-matter “too special” (in Soderbergh’s words) for mainstream feature production studios, it was HBO who financed the project. More evidence, then, if any were needed of the increasing ascendancy of television over films as the medium of independently-minded creativity.

The made-for-TV biopic used, at one time, to signal a kind of Sunday-afternoon movie to lounge in front of – and a distinctly inferior product to studio-produced versions. Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra explodes that idea, at the same time as it follows the trend of recent years where very-established film directors have moved across (not down) to work in cable television. The name HBO has become a shorthand for this kind of ambitious style because it has been able to attract, for example, Todd Haynes to make his Mildred Pierce or Martin Scorsese to begin Boardwalk Empire (directing the pilot episode).

A Song to Remember (1945)

A Song to Remember (1945)

Television, of course, is referred to as the starmaker and it’s where Liberace became a huge hit from 1950s (first in America and then syndicated to countries including the UK). An instinctive showman, beginning with the addition of the candelabra to the piano (apparently inspired by A Song to Remember, Charles Vidor’s biopic of Chopin starring Cornel Wilde and Merle Oberon). Old Europe hangs over Vidor, Wilde (Hungary) and Liberace (Poland) whilst Wilde and Liberace became quintessential American stars. Those of us old enough remember the excessive glamour of his later TV appearances remember how – in 1970s Britain –  they were the kind of dazzling entertainment that suggested everything of American glitz, the kind that Hollywood as well as Las Vegas excelled in.

A great irony, then, that apparently Soderbergh failed to find financing for the project in Tinsel Town because of the subject matter for that conservative institution, being the relationship between Liberace and his young lover, Scott Thorson. The film uses the book written by Thorson, Liberace’s lover during the late seventies and early eighties, about his affair and their time together. An interesting article here:

Importantly, Soderbergh – with his two stars Michael Douglas and Matt Damon – has decided to play this straight. The kitsch, the excess are all there in the lavish sets and costumes that were Liberace’s everyday world, but the film represents an important statement because of way it treats the love story as the story of any relationship in those circumstances. Some of the most affecting scenes are those which show how relationships can go – the intimacy which gives way to disappointment, petty jealousies and hopeless demands, with moments of reconciliation. The backdrop may be marble, gold and crystal inauthenticity but Damon and Douglas remain in this story, rather than playing it ‘to the side’ with the kind of knowing irony or camp humour and the success is that these are character performances rather than star turns. (Although Liberace’s mother exuded star value despite the wig, make-up and glasses – revealed as Debbie Reynolds in the guise of an ordinary person). It’s generous re the story’s point of view, embracing Thorson’s book without criticism (as a typical TV biopic would do). I wrote this prior to reading the Sight and Sound review, and was interested to see that Douglas and Damon intended it as a love story, but the S&S reviewer had counted them to have failed in this. I don’t agree – the play on the real and the unreal is more multi-layered in this film.   Richard La Gravenese’s script and the leads’ performances make comprehensible such things as Liberace’s request for Thorson to undergo plastic surgery to look like him (Rob Lowe embracing the comedy-villain, plastic surgeon enthusiastically). That’s no mean feat. I would say it deserves a nod to A Star is Born (1954) (and Vidor’s 1945 film) rather than Mommie Dearest or Pasolini’s Salò – as S&S suggests, a deliberately odd review flourish in the latter case. This is, in fact, a film that rather than milking the Hollywood Babylon effect, shoots it as if it became your everyday condo (which is what it did for Thorson).  And there is no monster at the centre of this labyrinth.

A real relationship - Behind the Candelabra (2013)

A real relationship – Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Douglas’s performance plays a huge part in this, It won’t be rewarded, however, perhaps mercifully (given the suggestion that ‘playing gay’ somehow always deserves plaudits), since it fails to qualify for Oscar honours as a television movie not distributed in the cinemas in the U.S. It is a great performance nevertheless. Soderbergh serves the drama throughout with his filmic style – because he always understands the kind of film he is making (hence the contrast between Out of Sight with The Limey with Bubble with Haywire etc. etc). LaGravenese imagines a linear narrative structure, but which has many elements of repetition and circularity – ideal to emphasise the melodrama at its core. Stylistically, there are some deft and subtle choices in the cinematography (as frequently on other films, Soderbergh as Peter Andrews). Near the beginning, Scott enters the Casino, Las Vegas during a performance. Being shown to the table, we track him and his companion in the foreground while deep in the background of the frame moves this blurry, glittering object. Something beautiful, indistinguishable and out of reach. The ending of the film shows the film returning to the promise of this fantasy – which, after all, is what Liberace spent his life creating.

HBO has long been involved in financing work in the independent sector in America. Television as a medium certainly seems to have come of age as a player in the film industry and will hopefully provide the disillusioned Soderbergh with somewhere to do his creative work. A great relief for those of us who went into anaphylactic shock at the news he was retiring. A new series called The Knick is in the pipeline for cable and satellite (Time-Warner-owned) Cinemax.

His cri de coeur at the San Francisco International Film Festival: returns to a number of themes that Soderbergh has discussed and attempted to live his professional life by – the use and nature of art, how talent can be nurtured, what’s wrong with the studio system (and includes the remarks on financing this film).    Much is reminiscent of William Goldman’s famous ‘nobody knows anything’ mantra re the business. What Soderbergh knows is that business shouldn’t be so completely in charge. It’s half-an-hour of articulate explanation of why ‘cinema’ (work executed as a singular vision) is under threat, and the business structures that are killing innovation and art.  Some of the foreboding in relation to independent film was also a feature of producer Mark Gill’s warning blast in 2008  to the LA film festival re independent production: (which might therefore be of interest).

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Before Midnight (US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 9 July 2013

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) check-in to a hotel.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) at check-in in the hotel.

So here is the most talked about film of the moment – a film which must mean something to anyone who has ever been in a relationship of any kind that has lasted more than a few years. It’s a beautiful-looking film with terrific performances by its two leads speaking the lines they created with director Richard Linklater – who demonstrates just how well he understands cinema as an art form. There are thousands of words already out there in which fans describe how much they love the film and a smaller number by those who want to find fault. I’m going to try to look at the film a little differently by thinking about in terms of its formal properties and the questions it raises about representation and ideology.

I should explain that I didn’t see the film in which the couple played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke first met – Before Sunrise in 1994. I did see the second film in which they re-kindled their relationship in Before Sunset (2004) and I remember that I enjoyed it very much but, possibly because I hadn’t seen the first film, nothing really stuck in mind other than the general idea of a film narrative based on a long conversation  between two people. I think that the third film stands up on its own. No doubt those who have seen all three will argue that it is much better viewed as a three-part long-form narrative. Linklater’s brilliance is that he can clearly please both camps.

The central question about the film for me is how the narrative, both in its content and in its formal strategies negotiates what I see as a series of contradictions or ‘binarisms’. The first of these is the use of cinematic devices connoting realism/naturalism v. the tightly structured and controlled two-hander acting displays. The devices include the long take, long shot sequences including the 14 minutes in the car, the scenes at the house, the walk through the village and the long hotel room sequence. In fact, after adding in the opening at the airport, there aren’t many more locations/set-ups in 109 minutes – most of the ‘action’ takes place in just five settings. If you haven’t seen the film, I should briefly sketch the outline (without giving away spoilers). Jesse (Hawke) is an American novelist who met Celine (Delpy), a French environmental project worker, on a train and then spent time in Vienna in 1994. In 2004 they meet again when Jesse is in Paris and decide to live together. Jesse has to leave his wife in Chicago with his young son. At the start of Before Midnight we meet Jesse saying goodbye to his son (now 14) at the airport in Kalamata in the Pelopponese region of Greece. The boy has been enjoying a vacation with his father and his new family and is now returning to his mother in Chicago. Outside the airport Celine is waiting. The boy’s departure is the ‘inciting moment’ because Jesse realises how much he has enjoyed being with his son and it prompts him to think about how he could be a much bigger part of  his son’s teenage years. But this is something which would clearly affect Celine and her future. The couple will have to talk.

The long take, long shot approach is associated with realist filmmaking, stretching from Renoir and Mizoguchi in the 1930s via a host of filmmakers, but perhaps most notably the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s, up to the present. Although it does occur in aspects of Hollywood cinema it is generally anathema to the streamlined, central-character-based Hollywood narrative form. In Before Midnight Linklater makes his strategy explicit by having Celine talk about a film she saw as a teenager. She doesn’t name the film, but its unique plot details – a married couple wandering through the ruins of Pompeii and being affected by the bodies of parents and children preserved by the lava flows – can only be from Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1954). Many of the audiences for Before Midnight won’t understand the direct reference so it isn’t particularly useful to compare the relationships between Delpy and Hawke and Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders in the Rossellini film. Even so, by making the reference at all, Linklater looks ‘out’ from the naturalism of the couple on the streets of a Greek village to the artifice of a cinema feature.

Walter Lassally (left), Ethan Hawke and Yiannis Papadopoulos relax while the women work in the kitchen!

Walter Lassally (left), Ethan Hawke and Yiannis Papadopoulos relax – while the women work in the kitchen!

The outdoor scenes, captured by the Greek cinematographer Christos Voudouris offer a ‘real place’ utilising the fantastic light. Linklater also includes some local colour caught in the long shot framing. More strikingly he elects to include passages of dialogue in the background in Greek that are not subtitled. There is also a moment when Celine talks in rapid French, also not subtitled. In neither case is the lack of translation a problem in moving the narrative forward – but what it does do is underline the sense of this being a film narrative that is taking place in a real location (in Rossellini’s ‘real world’) rather than a Hollywood confection that needs a colourful background. However, in the long hotel sequence, the verbal exchanges between Delpy and Hawke become more like a stage play – I thought of Coward’s Private Lives. This tension between the ‘natural’ (artfully constructed of course) and the skilfully contrived is linked to a second set of binarisms of character and actor and then of male and female, French and American, scientific/social/rational and artistic/romantic.

Delpy and Hawke are ‘film stars’ who manage to resolve the conundrum of the star image – how to project that sense of being somehow ‘special’ but at the same time just like you and me, to use their fantastic skills of timing and verbal dexterity to make the scripted seem naturalistic. This is highlighted in the scenes around the dining table when Patrick (Walter Lassally) speaks. Lassally at 85 has had a remarkable career in the cinema as a German refugee who became a leading cinematographer in the UK in the 1960s, eventually winning an Oscar for Zorba the Greek in 1965. Now he lives in Crete, so although he has not (as far as I know) acted before, his presence in the film is perfectly understandable. Yet when he speaks, he can’t manage the naturalistic speech of Delpy and Hawke and his lines therefore point towards their performances. Delpy by contrast can suddenly switch into another kind of performance when she pointedly plays the bimbo for everyone’s entertainment.

At times during the screening I actually closed my eyes because I found some of the dialogue just too real and too painful. At other times I allowed myself to become distanced from the conversation so that I could think about what the two characters represent. I felt at times that Delpy was being very ‘French’ and Hawke very ‘American’. There has been a great deal of discussion about the scene in which Julie Delpy plays topless. What’s more to the point, I think, is that she plays a romantic lead in an American film in which she is a 42 year-old woman with a real woman’s body, a little thicker and broader in places, but still beautiful and very sexy. By comparison Ethan Hawke seems rather brattish and definitely less mature, less ‘rational’ in his attitudes. It’s never clear how much the audience is expected to see Celine as at least in some way based on Delpy and Jesse based on Hawke. This is relevant because the plot includes the idea that Jesse has had successful novels published, supposedly based on the two earlier encounters between himself and Celine.

The long walk through the village and down the country road.

The long walk through the village and down the country road.

Reading interviews with Julie Delpy after the screening I’m a little puzzled as to what she was aiming for in her contributions to the script. She talks a lot about her feminism and she clearly alienates some American audiences with her atheism. These two facets do figure in Celine’s make-up as a character. Watching the film I did feel that at times Celine seemed too whiney and shrew-like – though most of the time I was completely with her. By contrast Jesse seemed too much like a little boy lost who had some useful practical arguments but who perhaps didn’t want to face up to facts. But perhaps this is the brilliance of the film? These are complex developed characters, not romcom cardboard cut-outs. I’m still thinking about the film. Go see it – you won’t be disappointed.

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