Category: American Independents

Support the Girls (US 2018)

The ‘girls’ at Double Whammies. Lisa (Regina Hall) is in the centre, not wearing the outfit. Next to her are Danyelle (left) and Maci (Haley Lu Richardson, right)

This screening was frustrating and disappointing, partly because the promotion material was misleading. I’d persuaded friends to watch it on the basis that it was a comedy. I sought out the film with some difficulty (it played a handful of venues locally for a couple of showings). My interest was in its lead player Regina Hall whose earlier roles in Girls Trip (US 2017) and The Hate U Give (US 2018) had impressed me. But Support the Girls isn’t a straight comedy. Some reviewers call it a comedy-drama. I think that for me it may be a form of satire. I did know that it was an ‘American independent film’ rather than a mainstream African-American film like the two titles listed above and I did recognise the name of writer-director Andrew Bujalski, but I hadn’t seen any of his previous films. I was perhaps too reliant on the bold claim in the promo trailer that this was a ‘big-hearted comedy’.

On reflection I can see that the film has merits and it’s actually quite a serious observation of a particular slice of American popular culture and importantly, the people who work to make it possible, the ‘girls’ of the title. Regina Hall’s character, Lisa, is the manager of a sports bar, a privately-owned version of bars like the national Hooters chain with the wince-inducing title of ‘Double Whammies’. The bizarre concept for the film is a bar featuring big-breasted and scantily-clad serving women that is also meant to be ‘family friendly’! It’s situated in a strip mall on the outskirts of Austin, Texas. The ‘plot’ is barely visible but it begins with Lisa opening up the bar in the morning when she is already upset by something. But she is a trouper and just gets on with things. Throughout the next 24 hours she will deal with a whole range of problems, most work-related but others involving her life outside work. She deals with every challenge in the best way she can. Despite everything, Lisa loves her job and she loves her girls, most of whom return the affection but don’t necessarily understand her position. As one reviewer put it, Lisa is the archetypal ‘den mother’ and who wouldn’t want to work for a manager who backs her staff if customers misbehave and who, if she has to fire someone, will do it as humanely as possible, always trying to be ‘fair’? She inspires loyalty and regular customers like her too. Regina Hall carries off the role to perfection. But are today’s events just too much, even for Lisa?

Lisa argues her case with the owner ‘Cubby’ (James le Gros)

The concept behind the bar is difficult to understand from a UK perspective. (There is one Hooters bar, in Nottingham, I believe. It’s been open since 2010 but the chain hasn’t expanded.) UK sports bars don’t have provocatively dressed ‘waitresses’ as far as I’m aware and the focus is on the sport. I tend to avoid such bars myself but I’m sure they have female as well as male customers. The concept is odd, even in the US. Andrew Bujalski himself explains how he sees it:

You don’t see many stories set in this slice of Americana, and with good reason. It does not lend itself to grand dramatic arcs, or, really, to gut-busting comedy. But it certainly is full of contradictions, and incredibly fertile with opportunities for subtle spiritual conflicts. I couldn’t pretend to untangle these from an insider’s perspective, so I dreamed up a kind of outsider character, Lisa the general manager, to walk in there with a spirit of openness and love – and plenty of her own pathologies – to see what she might discover in there. While it is a very specific story in many ways, I hope that anyone who’s ever worked for a living will relate. Most of us have to buy/sell one crazy ‘concept’ or another to pay our bills, and some days, you’re not sure if your humor and dignity will survive to the end of the shift . . . (Press Notes Director’s Statement)

This statement suggests that Bujalski knew what he was up to and for many critics in the US he succeeded. Many see the film as celebrating the sisterhood of female workers at a time of #MeToo. The film also scored highly with the Spirituality & Practice website. As well as the simple daily grind of Lisa’s job and the endless stream of decisions in the face of new problems she has to contend with, the narrative offers two distinct critiques. One is the way in which the owner carefully subverts ideas of diversity in employment practices when he requires Lisa to ensure that there are never too many Black or Latino girls working together on the same shift. The other is a sequence in which we eavesdrop on a hiring scenario for another, similar, establishment in the same strip. The ‘Man Cave’ is a national chain (fictitious, I assume) and the woman spouting corporate guff has risen through the ranks. She speaks as if she actually believes what she says. This might have been part of a ‘mockumentary’.

I think that if the film had been promoted as a drama about working in this kind of place, I would have engaged with it differently. But there are still problems with the production, whatever the perspective. One is the poor quality of the sound recordings/presentation. I often do have difficulty following American dialogue, not so much the language or the accent, but when the sound is muddy or actors mumble or talk over each other it becomes difficult to follow the details of the plot. We all agreed this wasn’t a ‘Hollywood’ film, but all the same we did expect some kind of coherent plotline. It’s not often that a film ends when you are still trying to work out what is going on. In retrospect it all makes sense but this isn’t the kind of film which should require that kind of retrospection. As well as Regina Hall, I should also pick out Haley Lu Richardson as Maci and rapper Shayna McHayle as Danyelle, the two main employees supporting Lisa. US TV watchers will also no doubt pick out Lea DeLaria of Orange Is the Only Black as one of the regular customers, Bobo. There isn’t too much to say about the look of the film, though I did enjoy the brief montage of food preparation in the kitchen. In the end, I think this screening simply proves that I’ve lost touch with some aspects of American popular culture and filmmaking.

GFF19 #8: Alice’s Restaurant (US 1969)

Arlo and his friend Roger are arrested for ‘illegal dumping’

The free programme of archive prints at GFF this year was dedicated to a group of films that challenged traditional Hollywood in 1969 and the festival strand was entitled ‘The End of Innocence’. Alice’s Restaurant is a particulary good example of a film that fits the selection criteria and was introduced as such by the GFF co-director Allan Hunter. It’s a rarely-screened film from 1969 and we watched a digital print from Olive Films in the US.

The director of the film was Arthur Penn who alongside the other two ‘Ps’, Peckinpah and Pakula, belonged to the maverick group of 50s/60s directors who began in TV or theatre and were never really happy with the studios. Robert Altman was another and this quartet were older and possibly wiser than the Movie Brats who formed the next generation. Penn had his big success with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 (sharing its success with producer-star Warren Beatty) and he was in a position to make this unusual film with a reasonable budget. Hunter made two useful statements when first he told us that Arthur Penn himself had attended Black Mountain College in North Carolina, an ‘experimental college’ with an emphasis on art and that he was therefore predisposed to make this film about the ‘counter-culture’ based around various events in the life of Arlo Guthrie and celebrated by the young folk singer in a long narrative song which appeared in 1967.

Alice (Pat Quinn) and Ray (James Broderick) on their wedding day

Secondly, Hunter quoted Penn himself saying that his film was the most ‘authentic’ of the studio pictures attempting to capture the brief period of the counter-culture. I’m not sure if there is much competition for such a title, but certainly Penn’s film feels authentic, not least because of Arlo himself in the lead. There are others in the cast too who are non-actors, some of whom were directly connected to the original events that form the basis of the narrative. Alice and her husband Ray are played by the actors Patricia Quinn and James Broderick (and the real Alice and Ray) have small parts. Alice is the familiar ‘earth mother’ figure of the commune narrative whereas Ray is the older figure, a man around 40 who perhaps fought in Korea and is now enjoying a kind of delayed adolescence.

The Thanksgiving dinner

The film is conventional in including scenes of the clash between the young ‘long-hairs’ and the conservative townsfolk of the small Montana town where Arlo attempts to become a student to avoid the Vietnam draft and then, after his expulsion, the antics he gets up to ‘fail’ the draft board medical. By contrast the initial opening of the restaurant and the founding of an ‘alternative community’ in a de-consecrated church in Massachusetts at first goes well. The incident at the centre of the narrative when Arlo and his (real) childhood friend ‘Roger’ (Geoffrey Outlaw) illegally dump the garbage from the Thanksgiving Day party when they discover the town tip is closed now appears the oddest act in the film. No self-respecting ‘alternative’ group today would despoil the countryside with litter.

Pete Seeger playing for Woody with Arlo’s accompaniment

Arlo’s father, Woody Guthrie was hospitalised with Huntington’s chorea, a hereditary and ultimately fatal nervous disease. He died in 1967. Woody is played in the film by the actor Joseph Boley but when Arlo goes to visit on one occasion he discovers Woody being serenaded by the real Pete Seeger with his banjo. I was surprised to see a couple of reviews stating this performance was out of place in the film. Pete Seeger is one of the great men of the 20th century for me and when Arlo joins him on harmonica, I found this to be the most emotional moment in the film. It was nearly matched by a later song at a funeral when Tigger Outlaw sings Joni Mitchell’s ‘Songs to Aging Children Come’. (Tigger was possibly the first wife of Geoff Outlaw according to one internet source?)

I’m not sure what I make of the film from this 2019 viewing and I can’t remember whether I saw it the first time round. The music still resonates and it stitches the narrative together in following the song lyrics. Arlo is a likeable character and Pat Quinn as Alice is very good but the more generic sequences don’t do much for me, especially the extended party scenes. The sub-plot about trying to help a heroin user carries more weight but not enough to support the narrative on its own. Perhaps what surprised me most was the importance of the motorcycle sequences, which seem to hark back to the 1950s as a ‘challenge’ to conservative America. They also create some tension with the sense of a peaceful alternative community.

Arlo during his draftboard medical with M. Emmet Walsh

The counter-culture didn’t last that long in North America, perhaps from 1967 to 1970? In the UK, despite being in London during that period, I felt the impact of the ideas about ‘alternative lifestyles’ wasn’t really evident until the later 1970s. Fortunately Harold Wilson kept the UK out of the Vietnam War, one of the few times the UK didn’t slavishly follow US foreign policy. Arlo Guthrie in one interview has stated that for him the anti-war rallies were the high point of the 1960s.

One of the other points that Allan Hunter made was again to quote Penn in saying that it was a white middle-class alternative lifestyle. I think in general that’s probably true, but there are actually African-American musicians in the film and Arlo’s girlfriend is Asian-American. I’m glad I saw the film but questions about the ‘End of Innocence’ were always more likely to be raised by the next programmed archive screening of Medium Cool.

[I haven’t included a trailer because there seem to be several free online offers of the film that you can explore.]

Vice (US 2018)

Christian Bale (left) as Dick Cheney and Sam Rockwell (right) as George W. Bush, photo by Matt Kennedy © Annapurna Pictures 2018

Most of the critical attention given to Vice has focused on Christian Bale’s remarkable performance as Dick Cheney in this biopic, of sorts, about the American politician. It is an extraordinary performance, not least in dealing with all the prostheses and make-up necessary to represent the older Cheney. Equal praise should go to Amy Adams, also unrecognisable in her depiction of Cheney’s life partner Lynne. But I think the real questions to ask about this film are to do with its purpose. As I used to suggest to media students, the best starting place is to discuss the purpose of a media text and also to examine who made it.

I should point out that I watched this film with a group of friends on a social night out (screening and meal) and it wouldn’t have been my choice, but I went along with a group decision. I therefore watched the film with a slight prejudice and the knowledge that I have mainly avoided films about US politicians and especially about Republican politicians. But here I’ll try to be objective. This film, written and directed by Adam McKay focuses on Dick Cheney’s rise to become arguably the most powerful Vice President in US history during the two George W. Bush administrations from 2001-9. It begins with a brief look at Cheney as a student thrown out by Yale and then given a dressing down by Lynne before a recovery at the University of Wyoming and an eventual internship in Washington DC. Cheney’s starts a political career during the 1968 Nixon presidency.

Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld who inspires Cheney when addressing interns in 1968

Is this meant to be ‘entertainment’ or is it first and foremost a political satire aiming to expose Cheney’s shenanigans? I guess that many audiences (apart from die-hard Republicans) will find it entertaining. I did laugh, but mainly ironically at the acute analysis. Mackay adopts an approach utilising a range of devices which arguably ‘distance’ us from the realism of events. There are some surreal moments of editing, there is a character who talks to camera and there are some bravura casting decisions which I took to be deliberate exaggerations. The comic actor Steve Carell plays Donald Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell gives a performance as George W. Bush, both of which seem broad satire to me. There are some animated characters plus the use of archive footage and there are other ‘whacky’ devices that I won’t describe so as not to spoil your possible enjoyment. But do all of these devices and the coherent satire of monsters like Dick and Lynne add up to a politically challenging exposé? I’m genuinely not sure.

Political satire has become a difficult business. The film opens with a statement along the lines of “This is all true, or as true as is possible in discussing someone as secretive as Dick Cheney. We did our fucking best!” And that seems a reasonable statement. But when you consider that Cheney is not in prison and that he still has the millions he ‘earned’ as a result of Halliburton’s commercial interest in the post-invasion clear-up in Iraq – and that Donald Trump is still the current President despite all the charges against him –  the reality of American political life seems beyond satire.

I will admit that I learned things about the foundation of Fox News and the de-regulation of American broadcasting that I didn’t know and I should have known and for that I’m grateful. Perhaps there is an argument that the film is ‘educational’? When it comes to who made it, the film appears to be a Hollywood ‘art film’ production as an ‘independent film’ that cost $60 million according to IMDb. I wonder if the huge budget for an ‘independent’ undermines the credibility of the film? Personally, I found the casting of Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell and the bizarre presence of Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, a neocon academic and politician, each fitted in with the satire but also drew attention away from the exposé. I realise that I’m probably guilty of criticising this film for things that I would find acceptable in other, non-American, films, but that’s my problem with American politics.

The remarkable performances of Christian Bale and Amy Adams are at the centre of the film. Only the eyes tell me this is Bale?

Perhaps the main problem with Vice is that in trying to cover such a long period of American politics (and aspects of Cheney’s personal life) it’s inevitable that some issues are left out or dealt with in a perfunctory way. That is in its own way quite proper when the major issues need more time.

I know audiences will have enjoyed the film. I wonder what they will take away from it beyond the laughs and the performances of Bale and Adams? In North America audiences are holding up after 8 weeks on release but I think the film will need to do well in the international market to at least cover its costs if that budget estimate is correct. So far, it is doing well in many territories. What I don’t know is whether the audience in the US is only the ‘libtards’ (a term used in the film) or whether audiences outside the US are thinking ‘OMG!’ or laughing nervously at the thought that someone like Cheney could discover ways of gaining so much power. Seeing an archive clip of Tony Blair supporting the Bush-Cheney war in Iraq is possibly the worst moment in the film for many of us Brits.

Casa de los babys (US-Mexico 2003)

The opening sequence of a nursery in an unnamed Latin American country

John Sayles has been away from UK cinema screens for a long time. I think Honeydripper was the last of his films to get a UK release back in 2008 . These days the ‘godfather of American Independent cinema’ is mostly based in Mexico it seems, or at least concerned with Spanish-language films. Casa de los babys is an earlier film made in Mexico, partly in English as well as Spanish. The film was never released in the UK but I bought a Region 1 DVD some time ago and finally managed to watch it. I wasn’t disappointed.

MGM’s poster for the film ignores the local characters

The ‘House of Babies’ of the title is a seaside hotel ‘somewhere in Latin America’. The country isn’t named but the location for the shoot is given as Acapulco. There are six ‘anglos/gringas’ who have come to this city in the hope of adopting a baby to take back to the US. Sayles has acquired a starry cast, no doubt attracted by his reputation for female-centred melodramas with a political edge. The Americans are Maggie Gyllenhaal, Mary Steenburgen, Marcia Gay Harden, Darryl Hannah, Lili Taylor and the Irish actor, Susan Lynch. The hotel they are staying in is run by the indomitable Rita Moreno.

Eileen (Susan Lynch) offers a book to one of the boys on the street

The large ensemble cast is no surprise in a John Sayles film. He often writes screenplays which bring together several personal stories and this film is no exception. The criticism of Sayles’ films tends to have been that, because he usually edits his own films, he allows the blend of narratives to develop into a meandering multi-strand narrative. That’s certainly not the case here. He’s still the editor but the film is a concise 95 minutes and if anything is cut short rather than allowed to dawdle.

Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaa) and Skipper (Darryl Hannah) with Rufino (David Baez), a local man who wants to emigrate to Philadelphia

The focus is not just on the Americans but also on the local characters, a maid in the hotel, the hotel manager’s family, three young boys sleeping on the street, a 15 year-old pregnant girl, a student and an older man desperate to emigrate to Philadelphia (the ‘home of Liberty’ as he explains to the women). Each of these characters shares the spotlight at some point, allowing Sayles to explore the complex relationships between ‘North and South’, ‘Latin America’ and ‘Anglo America’. The six women do not necessarily get along. Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is the most aggressive towards the locals, while most of the others are, perhaps naïvely friendly (naïve because the don’t speak Spanish), and grateful for the opportunity. Leslie (Lili Taylor) is the most sussed, a Jewish New Yorker and a single woman who speaks Spanish. Skipper (Darryl Hannah) is mistrusted by some of the others and seen as fitness-obsessed. But like most of the women she has a back story to be revealed.

Asunción (Vanessa Martínez) is one of the most important characters who says little but reveals a great deal. Here she listens to Eileen’s story, although neither can understand the other’s language

I found the film entertaining and rewarding and, typically for Sayles, the narrative plays fair to all the characters, American or Mexican. Audiences might however feel short-changed as this is not a Hollywood film with a neat ending in which we find out which of the women gets a baby. But that’s OK, I think. The purpose of the narrative is to introduce us to the complexities of what adoption means and especially what it means in the power exchanges between North and South. But it also explores what it means for both the childless Anglos and the Latinas who lose/give up their babies.

Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) here with Eileen is the least likeable American character but she has a story as well

Reading some of the negative comments (which are more than balanced by the positive ones) on IMDb it’s amazing just how prejudiced some people can be. This isn’t in any way a didactic film. Sayles simply offers a number of scenes featuring the different characters and allows us to work out for ourselves what the meanings might be when they are edited together. That might sound like it’s a foregone conclusion but really it isn’t. There is a lot more material on the DVD dealing with the production itself and it’s clear that different people involved in the film have their own ideas about the ‘trade’ taking place.

It’s time, I think that some of the UK distributors decided to bring us the more recent John Sayles films on DVD/Blu-ray or download if not in cinemas. We can’t afford to forget what a terrific filmmaker he is – and how different he is to most American filmmakers. Search through the cast list here and you’ll find various actors and crew who have worked with Sayles during the last thirty years and more.