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Archive for the ‘American Independents’ Category

Welcome to New York (France-US 2014)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 25 August 2014

Sex part for M. Devereaux

Sex party for M. Devereaux

Few directors divide audiences quite like Abel Ferrara. I can remember having seen Ms 45 (US 1981) and Bad Lieutenant (US 1992). I think I might have seen at least one more. I wasn’t repulsed by these films as many critics have recorded. I was intrigued by this new film as I did follow the news story about Dominique Strauss-Kahn which provides the story details – although I didn’t follow every aspect of the coverage. That’s quite important because Ferrara provides no context or ‘back story’ to what we see and there were several references that I didn’t recognise until I researched the story after the screening.

The film opens with the usual disclaimers about being fictitious but ‘inspired by’ etc. What then follows is an interview with Gerard Depardieu, something like the pre-credits sequence of Godard’s Tout Va Bien, in which he says he doesn’t like politicians and that as an actor he doesn’t ‘feel’ for the characters he plays. All this is directed towards journalists – and at one point, I think, delivered straight to camera, something which happens again later in the film proper. This device leads to suggestions that Ferrara has created some kind of ‘meta text’ – a view supported by the inclusion at various points of video footage from the ‘real’ Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) news story. At another point later in the film the lawyer for the Depardieu character tells us that the whole trial in which his client is appearing is not happening in the ‘real world’ but, á la Baudrillard, is playing out as a media text/construction in which the real people involved are ‘playing’ roles. Add to this the very presence of Depardieu as a ‘tax exile’ and reviled superstar of French cinema, sometimes seen as prostituting his talent in unworthy projects, and we have a very interesting set of representations.

Depardieu plays ‘M. Devereaux’, a French banker of international standing who is passing through New York on his way back to Paris. He is introduced as the kind of man who employs young women to offer sexual favours to anyone who visits his office and who finds a sex party ready for him when he registers at his Manhattan hotel. We are then offered around twenty minutes of sexual activity in which the grossly overweight Depardieu satisfies himself with various call girls and then later assaults the woman from housekeeping who comes to clean his room – the crime for which DSK was arrested. There aren’t many ’18’ films around these days and the sex here seemed fairly explicit (much bearing of breasts and buttocks but no genitals) and it was only later that I realised it wasn’t anywhere near as explicit as Nymphomaniac. I’m not sure what I make of that observation. I’ve seen reviews that express disgust and others that see Ferrara as offering ‘soft porn’. I suppose that the latter is technically correct. My own reaction was to note that Ferrara and his regular DoP Ken Kelsch film the sex action in a very ‘matter of fact’ way. There is no attempt to make it ‘erotic’ – instead, it is left to the audience to create their own eroticism from what is shown. There is ‘violence’ in terms of spankings but I think that Ferrara distinguishes between the prostitutes who laugh and giggle after the event and the two women who are later shown to be very upset after assaults by Devereaux. The women playing the call girls (‘real’ prostitutes?) are treated as sex objects, but the amount of female flesh is almost matched by the acreage of Depardieu’s paunch (we would get more of a full frontal if the paunch wasn’t in the way). I’m not sure if this stops the film being sexist. The film also suggests that M. Devereaux has a sex addiction, or at least believes himself that he does.

Devereaux and Simone (Jacqueline Bisset)

Devereaux and Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) in the town house where he is kept under ‘house arrest’

I can’t really ‘spoil’ the narrative because the film follows the ‘real’ story – DSK was arrested and kept in prison on remand before being released on bail. Charges were then dropped. Clearly there is an opportunity for satire here – on the American legal system, the ‘equality’ of the law as it pertains to international bankers etc. What actually follows, I think, is a film which holds attention mainly through the performances of Depardieu and then Jacqueline Bisset as his wife who arrives from Paris, furious that she has to rescue him again. Bisset looks very good (is it really 46 years since I saw her in Bullitt?) and plays her role very well. (Her character has the inherited wealth and is concerned for her own status/public profile.)

Whatever critics might think about Depardieu he commands the screen and he exerts a certain kind of charm even as his flesh billows out all around him. The key scene here is when he is strip-searched in prison. The whole prison sequence is riveting. I read that Ferrara employed ‘real’ prison warders. It’s hilarious but somehow Depardieu keeps his dignity. The other prisoners, real hard guys, look bemused but respectful.

The ‘real’ DSK case fizzled out (the prosecutor decided that the victim would not be a reliable witness in court) with suggestions in the media that both DSK was being stitched up in the way the case was constructed but also that he was probably guilty. Either way he wasn’t able to pursue a political career and is now (according to Wikipedia) facing further charges in France. What does Ferrara’s film offer in response? Well, I enjoyed the film on several levels without condoning the behaviour of M. Devereaux. The audience I was with also seemed to enjoy it and one man on the front row laughed uproariously at regular intervals. Ferrara also showed that the story could be told without resorting to tabloid sensationalism. I’m not sure I learned too much about international banking or the US legal system but I do feel that some questions were raised and some positions/arguments exposed. Overall a good thing I think.

The film is released in the UK by Altitude Films:

Posted in American Independents, Comedies, French Cinema | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Blood Ties (France-US 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 21 August 2014

Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as ? and ?

Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as Chris and Frank

There is no reason why Blood Ties shouldn’t make perfect sense. The crime film or polar is a popular form in France and one of its principal features is an interest in American culture. many polars have been based on hardboiled American pulp fiction, published in France alongside the French variety in ‘Serie Noire’ novels. French films – and indeed French crime fiction novels – have been re-imagined for the US market by Hollywood filmmakers and there is a history of French directors going to North America to make films in both French and English. The most recent high profile examples include the first of the Mesrine films about the French gangster (set mostly in Canada) and Bertrand Tavernier’s problematic production of the James Burke adaptation, In the Electric Mist (US 2009). (Blood Ties reminds me of Mesrine.) Why then does Blood Ties feel so odd? It might be because I’d read one negative review by Leslie Felperin in the Guardian and I was unconsciously looking for faults. But I kicked myself after the screening when I realised that this project of the actor-director Guillaume Canet was actually a re-make of the French film Les liens du sang (2008) which I’d not only seen but also written about. Doh!

The original film, based on a novel, Deux freres, un flic, un truand by Bruno and Michel Papet was based in Lyons in the early 1970s. That film was directed by Jacques Maillot and starred François Cluzet and Canet as the two brothers of the title, one a cop (Canet) and one a criminal (Cluzet). Canet and Cluzet had previously worked together on the very successful Tell No One (France 2006) based on a Harlan Coben novel. Canet decided on the remake to be made in English with the same story but set in New York in 1974. However this would still be a mainly French production. The main American creative input came from the writer-director James Gray, a friend of Canet, who was hired to co-write the script. Canet is clearly interested in American culture – and American popular music – so an English language film in America is not surprising. But why go for a period shoot with the resultant expense? IMDB suggests a budget of $25.5 million which is nearly up to Hollywood levels for this type of production. I suspect it was only viable because of the interest from various French TV channels. I can only assume that Canet wanted to get the feel of those New York policiers of the 1970s such as Serpico (1973). Certainly he searches for locations carefully. One film I was reminded of was Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco, not a 1970s movie (it was made in 1997) but an evocation of the era.

The main problem in the film is the casting of Clive Owen and Billy Crudup as the criminal and the cop. They have no fraternal resemblance at all (nor to their father played by James Caan). Crudup looks like a perfect 1970s stereotype with a trim moustache and shaggy hair, whereas Owen looks like a leftover rocker from Coventry complete with leather jacket and tattoos. But the real problem is when they open their mouths. I’m no expert on New York accents but several critics have fingered Crudup for missing the mark. I don’t need any help to know that Clive Owen slides about all over the place. Now this isn’t to suggest that either actor puts in a bad performance. In fact they are both very good and after the first 30 minutes or so I began to enjoy the film quite a lot. My comment is really about Canet and his producers not having the nous to consider casting and script together. I suspect that Canet just doesn’t have the ‘ear’ for the nuances of English. That may be unfair, but something is amiss. Marion Cotillard (Canet’s partner) is cast as an Italian (I think that is right, but she might be Spanish – Monica seems the wrong name in any case) and her co-star from Rust and Bone, Matthias Schoenaerts plays the real bad guy in the narrative – with as far as I could hear, a very acceptable accent. (I should explain that ‘bad guy’ is a plot statement – the ‘good guys’ are actually horrific in terms of wiping out any opposition.) This is an excellent cast, with the further addition of Zoe Saldana, Mila Kunis, Noah Emmerich and a rather wasted Lili Taylor.

The idea of two brothers on different sides of the law is a familiar trope of crime films from the Hollywood studio era and from the polar. What is more unusual is the time devoted to the relationship between brothers and general family and police team background. The film has been criticised in North America because there is less ‘action’ and more melodrama and the action is supposedly not well choreographed or doesn’t use the correct CGI. It looked fine to me but my gripe would be that given potentially important roles for the four women in the cast, only Marion Cotillard really gets the chance to shine.

So, not perfect by any means but better than most Hollywood crime films of the same type and very much better than American Hustle in recreating the 1970s. It will probably disappear after the first week and come out on DVD pretty quickly, but if it comes to a screen near you it’s worth 125 minutes of your time.

The US trailer:

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Boyhood (US 2014)

Posted by Rona on 24 July 2014

boyhood linklater

Linklater’s latest film appears to be acting as a lightning rod for critical reaction to his work. There is a great deal of review and commentary, a sudden rediscovery of Linklater as auteur,  as he was first embraced when he brought out Slacker during the indie explosion at the end of the 1980s into the early 1990s. Linklater, I think, has suffered from his ability to match form to the material. He has talked about envying the kind of career Vincente Minnelli could have in the Hollywood studio system, directing a wide variety of material on call. For Linklater, this ability has meant that he has been underrated – both in his treatment of form and content. Perhaps a willingness just to direct – such as Bad News Bears – might reduce his value in the eyes of some.  How useful is it to think of him as an auteur, now the term has resurfaced.

The obvious – and great – achievement of Boyhood is how it maintains one consistent tone in the visual appearance of the film, in the performances in filming (shooting on film and not digital) over 12 years. There’s a nice scene, as part of Gabe Klinger’s totally engaging documentary portrait: Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2014) where Linklater shows Benning some of the work-in-progress on Boyhood. Sandra Adair, his long-time collaborator as editor, talks about how their relationship was formed. (Long-time collaboration is a characteristic of auteurs – and Linklater). Slacker – his defining feature (his second feature film) – demonstrates not only the crafting of a complex narrative structure, but Linklater’s passion for a community of literary, philosophical and artistic engagement and his strong roots in Austin, Texas. These traits have been constantly apparent through films from Slacker, through Waking Life (2001)  and up to Bernie (2011). This latter film failed to gain commercial distribution (emphasising how increasingly difficult it is to release independent work, even when you have the kind of name and track-record Linklater does). It represents the parts of East Texas, Linklater’s home turf, with humour, with sympathy and with a writer’s eye for a great story, however uncomfortable the revelations or strong the local feelings about them. (Bernie is after all, a tale of the convicted murderer of an elderly lady and still continues to generate controversy – not least following Bernie Tiede’s release on the basis he lives at Linklater’s property).

Art and life intertwine in the above. Linklater’s work is generally all about connections – in the structure of his films, in the empathic way he draws people so that we recognise their feelings and relate to them strong. However, there is a detached intellect drawing these connections and making them work successfully as narratives in the cinema which avoids sentimentality. This makes me question the parallels made in reviews with documentary, and highlights a crucial difference between what a documentarian is attempting to do compared with a fiction film writer. Linklater is art not life – a storyteller rather than an observer. What is most visible in Boyhood is the European influences Linklater draws on – and how he develops them in a parallel narrative structure.   Mason Junior reminds us of Antoine Doinel in Truffaut’s (self)exploration in Les quatres cents coups, not in control of his own fate and acted upon by the adults in his life. Linklater, though, likes to construct a narrative out of the different threads and see how they throw up comparisons and contrasts as it unfolds. He signals this connectivity – and this construction – through metaphors running through, visually, in the frame. Patricia Arquette’s single mother raises the two children working hard, limited by her circumstances whilst Ethan Hawke as the father works and travels away on a whaling ship. The nearest she comes is the whale on the side of the removal van and the artwork on her children’s walls. Strong symbolism to emphasise the difference in circumstances. One of the greatest strengths of Linklater’s episodic design is how the threads of both adult and children’s lives intertwine and we shift perspective constantly to walk a mile in each of their shoes. It’s filmmaking of great control and detail which appears to unfold as naturally as documentary observation.

As part of a showing at Bradford with its hard-core of dedicated cinéphiles, a member made an interesting observation about those directors who have place associated with them and mentioned another native of Austin, Texas: Terrence Malick. It’s an interesting comparison – how each of these filmmakers use their understanding of space (and their place) in a different way. There are the parallels between something like Boyhood and Malick’s Tree of Life, both epic in their treatment because they explore the idea of growing up and maturity (and what those things mean). Tree of Life tested audience’s staying power because Malick introduces his modes of reflection by moving out of the diegetic, narrative space.  Linklater, as evident throughout the Before trilogy, is ‘the auteur’ of staying in the moment with his characters. This might be one reason that many of the reviews focus so heavily on the documentary models, ignoring how highly-wrought his work is. It’s curious to see the parallels with Seven Up, the Michael Apted-directed British series that has followed a number of children through their lives. Their stories have a resonance for all of us. Linklater’s purpose, though, is much more like Malick’s than Apted’s. He wants to explore what boyhood means, how the kind of childhood we have affects the kind of adults we might become. And, as sprawling nineteenth century novels did, weave in philosophical and intellectual reflection around our emotional engagement with the characters. The casting becomes a narrative device and productive in itself. We watch in parallel as Ellar Coltrane (and Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater) grow up through the production of the film – whilst we are strongly rooted in the present tense in each episode. Just as we watched Hawke and Julie Delpy talk, argue discuss and fall in love in the long takes of the Before trilogy but grow up/grow older across the trilogy. Linklater is fascinated with all these aspects – reviews that seem to centre him as an auteur of ‘boyhood’ seem reductive. Perhaps his own boyish face is to blame for this review ‘chatter.’ (As an aside, how fortunate that he chose the kinds of actors who can/are prepared to age on screen. The close-up on the smooth, modern star’s face is eliminating that very thing that makes Linklater’s films so fascinating – being able to empathise with the characters and see ourselves reflected in their faces).

Boyhood, therefore, was the ‘indie epic’ – to use Linklater’s own description. As another of our Bradford group commented, he is in control of structuring emotion – of creating scenes of our lives which convey emotion acutely.  His work creates a real sense of connection and connectivity. He’s the guy who made School of Rock after all. Boyishness aside – Linklater’s body of work is a masterclass in narrative filmmaking.

Sight and Sound July 2014 – carries an interesting inteview with Linklater as part of their feature:  http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/film-week-boyhood

Posted in American Independents, Directors | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

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.

brokeback1

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_DeVolson_Wood_-_American_Gothic

Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’

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Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’ (print held by the Museum of Modern Art: http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78455)

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. (http://www.filmmusicmag.com/?p=12017).

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 »

 
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