Category: American Independents

The Last Five Years (US 2014)

Last5yrsposter

The Last Five Years is a film musical based on an off-Broadway 2002 stage musical by Jason Robert Brown (which I hadn’t seen nor heard of until now) and directed by Richard LaGravenese (whom I only know for his screenplay for Behind the Candelabra, the Liberace biopic.) It is a musical melodrama rather than a musical comedy, largely a two-hander, about the rise and fall of a love affair and marriage. It’s the story of a young couple who fall madly in love only to be pushed apart by the complications of life and their relative success and failure in their respective careers. Cathy (Anna Kendrick) plays the small town girl trying to make it in the city as an actor and singer. She meets Jamie (Jeremy Jordan), an ambitious young writer (the “new Jonathan Frantzen” according to his agent) searching for a publishing deal. As Jamie’s new novel projects him to the top of the literary scene, Cathy is still doing summer stock musical theatre in Ohio, and their diverging levels of success pose pressing and dire challenges to their relationship.

In a way the film reminded me of the various versions of A Star Is Born in that one of a couple feels the pain of their partner’s success. But whereas A Star Is Born involves the formerly successful partner declining while the other one rises from obscurity, Cathy in The Last Five Years never actually makes it and Jamie’s success combined with Cathy’s failure poisons the relationship.

The film is structured around sixteen scenes, each based on a song, eight for Cathy, seven for Jamie and only one where they sing together in the same scene. This occurs at the halfway point where they are in Central Park and Jamie proposes to Cathy and then the scene segues to their wedding in the same location. They sing first of all separately and then in a duet, the only one in the film. The fact that they don’t sing together, with the exception of this scene, derives from the original stage musical where the two characters sing on the stage alone in alternate scenes, appearing together only in the Central Park scene. I don’t know how effective this was in the stage musical but in the transition to film it could have been problematic. As one of the couple sings, the other stays mostly silent, reacting with looks, gestures, occasional grunts and minimal verbal responses. Sometimes the problem is dealt with one of the couple speaking to the other on the telephone and we infer the other’s responses. And in one scene, the action is conveyed by a Skype conversation. It could have resulted in mannered, one-sided interactions between the characters, but overall, I found this stylistic trope strangely beguiling in the way that it embodies visually the couple growing apart.

The first scene in the film, based on Cathy’s ‘I’m Still Hurting’, (“Jamie is over and Jamie is gone / Jamie’s decided it’s time to move on / Jamie has new dreams he’s building upon / And I’m still hurting.”) tells of the end of the relationship. This revelation might be considered a spoiler; however, the film itself opens with this spoiler as it is the first scene in terms of the plot and the last of the story. (I’m referring here to the distinction between plot and story with story consisting of all the events we see, hear, and infer in chronological order; and plot as the way these events are presented to the audience and which sometimes departs from chronological order.)

After this scene I expected film would flashback to the beginning of their relationship which indeed it does with Jamie’s song, “Shiksa Goddessbut rather than continue the narrative chronologically, we cut to the penultimate scene (in terms of the story’s chronology) – “See I’m Smiling” – which marks the beginning of the end of their relationship five years later. It then reverts to Jamie’s song, ‘Moving Too Fast’, showing the relationship developing in its early stages. What becomes clear is that all of Cathy’s songs begin at the end of their marriage and move backwards to the beginning of their relationship while Jamie’s songs start at the beginning of their affair and move forward to the end of their marriage. This can be a little confusing at first but you soon grasp that it ‘s neither in chronological order nor a simple flashback. Of course this (double) departure from conventional narrative structure can be seen as gimmicky but, on balance, I found it an effective way the portray the couple drifting apart.

It is a musical as well as a drama and so performance is of paramount importance in both fields. Producers of musicals have the problem of actors who can’t sing (the film has fun at the expense of producers of musicals when Cathy expresses her frustration at a casting session of not being paid enough attention with the lines, “Why am I working so hard, these are the people who cast Russell Crowe in a musical. Christ!”) and singers who can’t act. Classic Hollywood film musicals used to solve the singing problem by providing – uncredited – dubbing for the voices of well-known actors; for example, Marnie Nixon is only recently getting the credit for her work as the voice of Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. But in The Last Five Years the performers cope more than adequately (Jeremy Jordan) and much better than that (Anna Kendrick). With the exception of Into the Woods, I wasn’t too aware of Anna Kendrick as I’m not exactly the demographic for the Twilight films where she got her break as the friend of the character played by Kristen Stewart (whom I wasn’t aware of until Still Alice). An interview in the Guardian last Friday reminded me that I must have seen her with George Clooney in Up In The Air but I don’t remember her. But in this film I found both her acting and singing to be excellent. She handles the fundamentals of dramatic singing — like phrasing and placing enunciation in the right places — so well. And her acting expresses very effectively the extremes of emotion Cathy is subject to.

It helps that Cathy gets the best songs and her characterisation is more nuanced than Jamie’s. Both characters get a comedy number. Jamie’s ‘The Schmuel Song – which I don’t think really worked – is a story about a tailor who achieves his dreams and, apart from cheering Cathy up after another rejection, contains a kind of ‘follow your dreams’ message. Much good it did her. Cathy’s comic song, ‘A Summer in Ohio’,  relates to Jamie (by Skype) just how miserable she is while doing summer in Ohio as Jamie remains in New York. She cheerfully belts out lyrics like, “I could wander Paris after dark / Take a carriage ride through Central Park / But it wouldn’t be as nice as a summer in Ohio / Where I’m sharing a room with a former stripper and her snake, Wayne”.

Brown’s score is an eclectic mixture of musical styles drawing on a number of genres  – jazz, rock, pop, Yiddish folk, ‘Sondheimian’. The songs are occasionally soulful. The best song, the break-up song that the film opens with, is quite poignant. The problem is that the subsequent songs don’t match up to this. Only a few of the songs stand out musically as opposed to being acceptable vehicles for developing the drama (though certainly no less than the much vaunted Wicked which I saw last week). This is a pity given the talent available.

Another problem for me is that, apart from a few words of spoken dialogue, it’s a sung-through musical (i.e. virtually all the dialogue sung – cf Les Misérables, Eva, Miss Saigon) and often this leads to a kind of relentlessness, depriving the audience of breathing space. One way of avoiding this is to create a soundtrack where big numbers alternate with a sort of melodic recitative with recurring musical motifs but this is not – with the exception of a section in the I’m Still Smiling scene – the approach of The Last Five Years, which is simply a sequence of songs that lack organic unity.

It seems to have been such a minimal theatrical release that it is more like an advertising campaign for its VOD release (which is where I found the film). The interview in the Guardian with Anna Kendrick I referred to above didn’t even mention the film. This is a pity as, despite the caveats I have expressed, I found the film engaging and enjoyable.

The information on the stage musical comes from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Five_Years

and the film from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Five_Years_(film)#Musical_numbers

Here is the UK trailer.

Into the Wild (US 2007)

Kristen Stewart as Tracy and Emile Hirsch as Alex/Chris

Kristen Stewart as Tracy and Emile Hirsch as Alex/Chris

This is the third in my case studies of Kristen Stewart roles in independent films. In this she was 16/17 and only makes a 12 minute appearance. I’ll come to that later. In the meantime I have this long and highly-praised film to deal with. It’s written and directed by Sean Penn – who in her comments on my ‘Thoughts on Acting‘, Rona picks out as an actor with whom Stewart has some things in common. That’s an interesting observation but it creates a problem for me since, though I know something about Penn’s ‘status’ as an actor/director, I was amazed to discover that I’d only previously seen one of his films as actor or director. I can only conclude that he chooses projects that don’t usually attract me since I’ve nothing against the guy. At least it means that I approach Into the Wild without preconceptions.

This is a very well-known story but if you don’t want to know what happens, be warned, there is a major SPOILER in what follows.

We know that the film is a form of ‘independent’ since it was financed by the now defunct ‘indy brand’ Paramount Vantage. But this means that it has studio backing and a budget large enough to allow shooting in several widely scattered locations (IMDb suggests $15 million). In genre terms this is a road movie, a form of ‘coming of age’ story and a ‘spiritual adventure’ that eventually becomes a ‘survival film’. It is based on a 1996 book by Jon Krakauer that documents the true story of a young graduate who decided to abandon his expected career path and to seek to ‘find himself’. Cutting himself off completely from his parents and sister Christopher McCandless travels West from his graduation party in Atlanta in 1990 and spends two years on the road and in various temporary jobs/communities before he heads ‘North to Alaska’ where he intends to spend several months alone ‘in the wild’. He never made it out of the wilderness and died in 1992. In 2006 Penn’s film was joined in production by Ron Lamothe’s documentary The Call of the Wild in which the filmmaker repeats many of the journeys made by McCandless and in doing so refutes some of the claims made in Krakauer’s book and Penn’s film. But it is the book and the Hollywood feature that have attracted readers/viewers and critical acclaim.

Chris/Alex in Alaska

Chris/Alex in Alaska

Even from this brief description of the story it’s clear that Into the Wild is an American story. McCandless (Emile Hirsch) follows in the steps of real and imaginary American characters driven towards the frontier/the wilderness/the ‘new world’. It’s a story of individualism and in cinematic terms it uses ‘American genres’. It isn’t surprising then that it has received both critical and popular support. I suspect some of that support is focused on the young man’s story and some on its philosophical and cultural underpinnings. Personally, while I responded to the film’s technical and artistic achievements in cinematography, music (at least most of it) and performances, I didn’t feel fully engaged because I had problems with McCandless as a ‘character’. I’m wary here since I don’t want to offend the real McCandless family and also because it appears that Sean Penn may in any case have changed aspects of the story. I’ve read suggestions that McCandless (who changed his name to ‘Alexander Supertramp’) is a representative of Generation X in the US – born in the late 1960s and ‘coming of age’ in the early 1990s. We are all allowed to be a bit daft in our early 20s but this is a disturbed young man who draws on the work of a variety of writers such as Byron, Tolstoy, Thoreau and Jack London – and seems to have little common sense when it comes to survival in the wild.

Jena Malone as Carine with Emile Hirsch as Chris on his graduation day

Jena Malone as Carine with Emile Hirsch as Chris on his graduation day

Penn tells the story through a flashback structure, opening with the arrival in Alaska and then going back to Emory University and graduation day. The narrative then shifts between Alaska and a series of episodes broken into ‘Chapters’ detailing the central character’s adventures and relationships with characters he meets. Kristen Stewart’s appearance comes in the Chapter titled ‘Family’ in the later stage of his journeys through California. McCandless refused to contact his parents when he left Georgia and Penn reveals their anguish. Also ‘cut out’ was his sister (played by Jena Malone) and it is through her voiceover that we learn of the reasons why Chris wanted to part from his parents. His treatment of his sister, however, remains a mystery. When he arrives in Slab City, California (which Wikipedia tells me is the meeting place for ‘snowbirds’ in their camper vans looking for a desert retreat in Winter) Chris meets up with an older couple he has encountered before. It’s an emotional reunion with Rainy (Brian Dierker) and Jan (Catherine Keener) as ageing hippies who now run a travelling book stall. Jan has a son she hasn’t seen for many years and she asks Chris about his parents. Rainey pushes Chris towards a meeting with Tracy Tatro a young woman who they have seen performing a song at the evening community concert. This is the Kristen Stewart character and she joins the trio for a meal. Since this is the Christmas holiday period the image of ‘family celebrations’ hangs over the proceedings. Chris/Alex is resolved not to ‘weaken’ and he leaves a few days later after turning down Tracy’s invitation to her trailer while her parents are away for the day. But before he leaves, he joins Tracy to sing a duet at the next concert.

Kirsten Stewart sings two songs but I don’t know if she plays the guitar on the soundtrack. It’s difficult to analyse the performance of the songs. The first, ‘Tracy’s Song’, is credited as written by Stewart and David Baerwald (a well-known singer and composer of songs for films). The second is one of my favourite songs, ‘Angel from Montgomery‘ written by John Prine. Whereas ‘Tracy’s Song’ sounded merely pleasant and Stewart’s singing lacked confidence, ‘Angel from Montgomery’ was truly affecting and Stewart and Hirsch together sound accomplished – Hirsch sings harmony and plays an electronic keyboard of some kind. The duet refers back to a live Bonnie Raitt track in which she sings with John Prine. My problem/query is: does Kristen Stewart deliberately sing the first song in a less accomplished way so that the duet becomes more of a revelation? Or is it that I’m reacting to a song that I’m very emotionally attuned to? Did Penn and his musical advisers choose ‘Angel from Montgomery’ deliberately for its impact in terms of music and lyrics – which could be seen as particularly relevant here. This is a potentially optimistic chapter in the film about family and a possible future that is rejected as Chris/Alex is determined to still go to Alaska. Stewart plays a performer in several of her roles, most obviously in The Runaways but also as an aspiring actress in Still Alice where she is seen in a ‘summer stock’ production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. These ‘performances’ within a film narrative attract the attention of both Stewart’s fans and her detractors. Kristen Stewart has referred to her approach as ‘mostly playing myself’. To perform ‘badly’ – i.e. as an amateur/novice – is presumably quite difficult for a young actor with plenty of experience but who still feels that she needs to prove herself.

Judge for yourself how well she sings ‘Angel from Montgomery':

Kristen Stewart’s 12 minute cameo works very well in the film and this must have been a very useful role for her. A few years later she would find herself working again with the French cinematographer Eric Gautier whose work on The Motorcycle Diaries had impressed Sean Penn. That film was directed by Walter Salles who would direct Stewart in On the Road (2012). Kristen Stewart picks her films very well since she has worked with not just excellent acting talent but also top directors and crews.

I must confess that the more I studied Into the Wild, the more impressive it became – but I couldn’t get away from my irritation with the character. I’m very puzzled though by the box office figures for foreign markets published by Box Office Mojo. I’ve argued that this is a quintessentially American narrative. Yet the foreign total is in line with the norm – the international take is twice the size of North America. But the real interest in the breakdown into individual markets which shows fairly modest returns for traditionally strong markets such as the UK and Scandinavia but high figures for France and Italy (which together are bigger here than the US and Canada. Perhaps Rona is right and Sean Penn’s reputation in France is a contributing factor. Into the Wild took less than $2 million in the UK and over $13.5 million in France (roughly the same size of market).

The Runaways (US 2010)

Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett (left) with Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie

Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett (left) with Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie

This was Kristen Stewart’s other ‘indie’ in 2010 and something different to Welcome to the Rileys. ‘The Runaways’ were an ‘all girl’ teen rock band in Los Angeles in the 1970s founded in 1975 by Joan Jett (the Stewart role in the film) and drummer Sandy West but packaged by manager Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) and fronted by 15 year-old singer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning). The film is not a music biopic of the band but rather a ‘coming of age’ story focusing primarily on the Cherie Currie character (whose 1989 book Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway was published in a revised form in 2010 and provided the basis for the film’s narrative). This perhaps explains why, despite sharing top billing and playing the more substantial music performer, Kristen Stewart is in effect a supporting player in Dakota Fanning’s film. (Since my main focus here is Kristen Stewart’s performance, I won’t be spending time on Dakota Fanning’s input to the film – but this shouldn’t be read as any kind of criticism of Fanning’s contribution.)

I remember Joan Jett from the later 1970s but most of the story was new to me so I would have liked to know more about the history of the band. Writer-director Floria Sigismondi, best known for music videos, had an estimated $10 million from independent producers and she sketches in the background to Joan Jett’s initial introduction and Cherie Currie’s home life but we learn little about the other three band members or about how most of the songs (mostly written by Jett, Fowley and Currie) were developed. So the band goes from performing in clubs in the American South-West to an international tour in Japan seemingly in a single step. (The Runaways didn’t have much chart success in the US but they did make an impact in Europe and East Asia, especially Japan.)

The focus is on the relationship between Joan Jett and Cherie Currie with the latter’s life producing the more dramatic episodes. Viewed on this level, the film does offer an interesting story about teenage girls and how they both challenged the male music industry and attempted to avoid being consumed by it (Joan Jett being more successful on both accounts from what I’ve read/seen). Sigismondi shot on Super 16 and certainly managed to capture the vitality of the band and to represent the milieu of the Los Angeles punk scene.

My main interest here is the casting of Kristen Stewart and how she performed in the role. Although the films are very different, Stewart’s role does have some similarities with the ‘runaway’ character in Welcome to the Rileys. Here is another potentially angry teen with a dark, gothic or emo look, but this time she is very focused and she knows what she wants. Also, Joan Jett is a real person and she was an executive producer on the film. Stewart must have felt the pressure to ‘become’ Joan Jett. This is one of the options for an actor, especially in music biopics where ‘performance’ is highlighted. Stewart in effect disappears behind the hair, make-up and costumes in becoming Joan Jett. She uses her own voice in some of the music performances (the original songs also appear on the soundtrack) and plays the guitar (although it is Joan Jett’s playing that is heard on the soundtrack.

Joan Jett and Kristen Stewart on set

Joan Jett and Kristen Stewart on set

We also learn from the DVD’s ‘making of’ feature that one of the reasons why Kristen Stewart was cast was because she had worked with producer John Linson on Into the Wild in 2007. Linson tells us that he knew Stewart was a good actor and that she could be Joan Jett. This statement is important since Kristin Stewart was already by 2010 earning considerable amounts of money because of her fame achieved with the success of the first two Twilight films. There doesn’t seem to have been any push to ‘cash in’ on her celebrity in either this film or Welcome to the Rileys. Neither film appealed to Twilight‘s main audience. Even though The Runaways is about teen girl ‘rebellion’ most of those who saw the film on its (curtailed) cinema release were over 25. It is, after all, a historical film depicting events more than 30 years earlier. The younger audience probably found the film on DVD. But where Welcome to the Rileys put Stewart alongside James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo in an ‘adult drama’, The Runaways was perhaps more of a project she simply wanted to try because it sounded interesting and she was able to do something different in playing a living person (who was frequently on set – which must have been unnerving).

The film requires Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning to be on screen together for much of the time with Stewart often (but not always) playing the more composed and stable character and Fanning pushing her character to breaking point. In some ways, Dakota Fanning has had a similar career to Kristen Stewart and in two of the Twilight films she has been a secondary player in Stewart’s franchise. How important was this familiarity between the two young women an important factor in the casting of the film and their eventual performances? The trailer below clearly indicates that it is Fanning who is being promoted as the main attraction in The Runaways – yet the film requires Stewart as Joan Jett to both set up the possibility of the narrative (i.e. to create the band) and to hold it together and I think she succeeds in that task.

Welcome to the Rileys (US 2010)

James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart

James Gandolfini and Kristen Stewart

Following the success of Kristen Stewart at the Césars in February when she won Best Supporting Actress for Clouds of Sils Maria, I’ve decided to go back and look at some of her roles in American independent films with a view to exploring how acting performances are evaluated.

Welcome to the Rileys is a ‘low budget’ family drama (by Hollywood standards – it cost $10 million, though I’m not sure where the money went since this kind of film would cost half that in Europe). Directed by Jake Scott and produced by father Ridley and uncle Tony from a script by Ken Hixon, the film puts Kristen Stewart alongside two of the best character actors in the US at that time, James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo.

The story is familiar. Doug (Gandolfini) and Lois (Leo) have been married thirty years and their relationship has stalled since the death of their teenage daughter. Lois has withdrawn so much that she cannot now leave their house in Indiana. Doug owns a small business and during an industry convention in New Orleans he goes into a strip joint where he meets a teenage bar girl, Alison/Mallory (Stewart). He ‘just wants to talk’ to her and eventually she allows him into her life. Lois meanwhile decides that she must overcome her fear and drive down to New Orleans.

The story is simple and no doubt predictable in how it turns out. However, the three central performances and Scott’s restraint in presentation drew me into the story and I thought it worked well. The IMDB entry on the film is interesting. The professional critics were split down the middle with the detractors particularly scathing. Audiences did not go for the film in cinemas, but the ‘user ratings’ on IMDB create an average score of ‘7’, suggesting that audiences that did find the film enjoyed it and thought it worthwhile.

The major weaknesses identified by Hollywood Reporter and others turn out to be why I like the film. At times it’s like a European social realist film in its refusal to look for exciting camerawork and fast-cutting. Jake Scott also makes the best use of a small number of locations. He avoids the touristy images of New Orleans and places Alison’s grubby crash-pad in a poor district. I particularly like a meeting outside a run-down po’ boy cafe. Gandolfini takes the film in his stride. I never watched The Sopranos but I agree with the reviewers who argue that he moves very comfortably for a big man and that his physical bulk is carried lightly so he doesn’t become in any way threatening.

Melissa Leo has in some ways the more difficult role which requires her to change as a character – to move from frightened middle-aged woman to a much more confident and active woman after she has been in New Orleans for a while. She also has to hold together a quasi-comical sequence when she tries to get Doug’s car out of the garage, having no knowledge of modern car electronics.

With these two highly competent actors offering quality performances how does Kristen Stewart stand up? Very well actually. I sneaked a look at one of the later Twilight movies made around the same time in which she has smooth white skin like alabaster. Here, rake thin with tousled hair smudged kohl eyes and skin marked by pits and scars she looks the part of the runaway and she is able to generate the energy verbally and visually to match Gandolfini’s calm. She can also match Leo’s similarly calm approach. It isn’t easy to move through acceptance, anger and then playfulness in the same few scenes and to switch at the drop of a hat but I think she manages it.

This was a good start to my Kristen Stewart in the Indies tour.