Category: American Independents

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.

Sorry to Bother You (US 2018)

Tessa Thompson as ‘Detroit’ and Lakeith Stanfield as ‘Cash’

This is an African-American Independent film that has received significant support for a début feature. The director Boots Riley appears on IMDb with a smattering of different credits as a writer and performer and he has had a successful musical career through the rapping collective The Coup, but for his first feature he has recruited Danny Glover, Forest Whitaker and Rosario Dawson in small parts and has Tessa Thompson in the lead female role. His protagonist Cassius (Cash) Green is played by Lakeith Stanfield, also an established actor, and Riley finds himself as the cover story for Sight and Sound‘s December issue. Inside, the interview conducted by Kaleem Aftab reveals that Riley comes from a family of left-wing activists in Oakland, that he went to film school and that he was inspired by Spike Lee. His film was also supported by the Sundance festival and is distributed by Focus Features/Universal in the UK.

I found the film interesting throughout, but there were also moments when I thought it wasn’t working. Adam Nayman’s review in Sight and Sound makes a couple of points that seem relevant to me. The first is to compare Sorry to Bother You to a film like Black Panther (which I haven’t seen) and to suggest that whatever the flaws in Boots Riley’s film, it is straightforwardly honest in its attempt to expose several different but connected political issues. This is quite different from the political impact of a ‘branded blockbuster’ which requires critical attention to reveal its possible political discourses. Secondly, Nayman suggests that Sorry to Bother You bears a resemblance to Jordan Peele’s Get Out from 2017 and that certainly did occur to me (Peele was also to be offered the role of Cassius until he had his own big success). These two connections go some way towards explaining why Sorry to Bother You has attracted attention.

Cash at his phone cubicle with Langston (Danny Glover)

In attempting to ‘read’ Sorry to Bother You, I did feel caught between a sense of missing some cultural references (e.g. rap music) but also being sidetracked by other filmic references. Our hero ‘Cash’ starts the film broke and living in his uncle’s garage with his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a performance artist who earns some money as a ‘human billboard’ advertising local businesses. Cash needs a job and is hired by a ‘telemarketing’ company. This explains the title which is the opening line of a standard script for ‘cold calling’. Riley makes the intrusive nature of the business clear by literally throwing Cash into the same frame as the poor unfortunates who answer their phones. Very quickly, Cash learns from an older colleague (played by Danny Glover) that he will be more successful if he uses his ‘white voice’. He also learns that if he shows promise by hitting high sales targets he might be promoted to ‘power caller’ and ascend to the top, exclusive, floor of the building. Meanwhile, references on local TV and billboards to a new social work/housing programme suggest that this is in fact an ‘alternate Oakland’ in which private enterprise is developing a new quasi-fascist system of communal living and working – mostly it seems for African-Americans.

At this point we realise that this isn’t a simple social comedy but some kind of absurdist satire on US capitalism and its dependence on racial divisions. The narrative then has to bring together the telemarketing scam and the work programme and develop Cash’s role as the seeming innocent who will be drawn into the process and will be offered inducements that will persuade him to betray his friends and co-workers. We know that Cash is an intelligent and generally likeable character who could resist, but the lure of riches is strong when you are broke. Riley chooses to develop a plot involving unionisation of the telemarketing drones and Detroit develops a performance piece which savagely critiques the exploitation of African resources and points the finger at US policy and all individuals who buy phones and other technologies dependent on coltan from the Congo (DRC). The stage is set when Cash is promoted and meets the figure behind the work programme (played by Arnie Hammer). At this point the similarity to Get Out becomes apparent.

I don’t want to spoil the narrative but from this brief plot outline it should be clear that Riley is ambitious in his targets and that’s no bad thing. But political satire is very difficult to pull off and the melding of comedy, politics and fantasy is particularly difficult. In the Sight and Sound interview, Riley says that he spent some time with Spike Jonze and Kaleem Aftab the interviewer later suggests that the film is ‘Brechtian’. Pushing together these two sources of ideas about how to present a narrative gives an indication of the problem Riley faces. I’d add a third in that I was reminded of David Cronenberg’s Existenz (Canada 1999) described by some commentators as a ‘science fiction-body horror film’. I might also add that several lesser American independent films flashed briefly across my mind. And for me that is Riley’s biggest problem – a lack of a consistent tone to his film so that it retains its control over an argument. I can see that there is an argument that this very lack of consistency is itself Brechtian, pushing the audience away and making us think about the film’s construction, but I think other elements work against this idea and that overall the narrative is conventional even as it draws on various genre repertoires.

Director Boots Riley with Steven Yuen as ‘Squeeze’

The supporting roles in the film are interesting. The union organiser in the telemarketing company is ‘Squeeze’ played by the Korean-American actor Steven Yeun. I don’t know whether this has any significance in an Oakland context but it does make the multi-racial union of workers a more potent political force. On the other hand, I think that Tessa Thompson as Detroit is under-used apart from her very disturbing performance piece. I thought she was very good in Dear White People (2014) but again under-used in Creed (2015). She’s also featured strongly in a wide range of other major films. Women generally don’t figure strongly in Sorry to Bother You. They are often simply background figures necessary to present a comic sequence (Rosario Dawson is the voice in the lift to the exclusive floor) and that is definitely a weakness. The sense of (in)coherence is my main concern with the film. But perhaps this can be forgiven in a début film? There are enough well-made political points alongside the visual inventiveness and successful comedy scenes plus music performed by the Coup to make this a film to be recommended and to push forward Boots Riley as a filmmaker to look out for in future. It’s an intelligent film and I’ve deliberately not mentioned some of the links to other specific satires to avoid spoilers.

The trailer doesn’t give away everything – which is a relief:

Hard, Fast and Beautiful (US 1951)

Florence (Sally Forrest), Mrs Farley (Claire Trevor) and Fletcher Locke (Carleton G. Young)
Photo courtesy Everett Collection / Rex Features ( 794943a )

This was the fourth feature directed by Ida Lupino and produced by her husband Collier Young for their company The Filmakers. It has received far less attention than the first three and suffered more from a critical dismissal. I think there are two reasons for this. First, its subject matter is less sensational/socially conscious than the first three (which deal with unwanted pregnancy, polio and its effect on young lives and rape) and secondly it is adapted by Martha Wilkerson from a novel (or possibly a short story) by John R. Tunis. On the previous three pictures, Lupino and/or Young had been involved in the writing. My own feeling is that although the film has weaknesses it is overall a well-made film on a modest budget that has several good points and provides both an enjoyable entertainment and food for thought – partially provided by the original material by John R. Tunis.

The best way to describe this 77 minute picture is as a sports film and family melodrama hybrid. It tells the cautionary tale of a young female tennis star and her pushy mother played by Sally Forrest and Claire Trevor, the two stars in the cast. Forrest had played the lead in two of the earlier Lupino films, Not Wanted and Never Fear. Claire Trevor was just a few years older than Ida Lupino and had experienced something of a similar career. I remember her from Stagecoach (1939), Farewell My Lovely (1944) and Born to Kill (1946). She would have known Lupino at least through shared experiences of working with Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and other leading stars (e.g. on Key Largo (1948)).

Gordon (Robert Clarke) is torn between his love for Florence and his anger about the way she is being led astray by her mother and Locke

Sally Forrest is Florence Farley, an 18 year-old high school graduate practising tennis shots against the wall when she is spotted by Gordon (Robert Clarke, also in Outrage). He has a temporary job at the local country/sports club and invites her to play tennis there. Florence is seriously talented and before long is a local junior champion and over the next couple of years becomes a contender for National Women’s Champion at Forest Hills and then at Wimbledon. Her rise to tennis stardom is orchestrated by her mother (Claire Trevor) in cahoots with the oily Fletcher Locke (Carleton G. Young), an Eastern tennis agent. Both Gordon and Florence’s father Will (Kenneth Patterson, again, also in Outrage) are left struggling in Florence’s wake.

It is when Florence and her mother opt to travel to Europe with backing by Locke through his contacts with hotel chains and other ‘sponsors’ that Gordon, who has proposed to Florence, refuses to follow her. Instead he rails against the sponsorship which threatens her ‘amateur’ status. I was a little surprised by this (and an earlier similar scene on a smaller scale). I remember how tennis, like athletics and rugby always had the important professional v. amateur divide, but I do wonder how American amateurs could afford to travel to London, Paris and Melbourne without some form of sponsorship – presumably through their official federation? The reason why this is a strong element in the film’s plot goes back to John R. Tunis who was a fierce critic of professional sports and the way they were covered by the media. He usually wrote what would now be termed ‘Young Adult’ fiction (his publishers actually pushed him into writing for younger readers) with a strong moral undertow. Many of his books were about baseball and American football but his novel American Girl (1930) and short story Champion’s Choice (1940) were about tennis. By all accounts Tunis was a highly regarded and very well-known writer as well as tennis commentator. It’s unfortunate that the film’s short running time doesn’t allow Tunis’ ideas to be developed in a more organic way. At the end of the film when Florence has ‘repented’ to some extent, she gives an interview about fair play and being a role model to a journalist who is rolling her eyes in disbelief at the fiercely moral line that is being taken.

The sensational poster dreamed up by RKO’s marketing department

The short running time is a feature of The Filmmakers’ films. This was mainly because of limited funding, though in the best films it means a lean and supple narrative. Hard, Fast and Beautiful is one of the films funded and distributed by RKO. According to various sources, Howard Hughes offered The Filmakers around $200,000 per picture but did not interfere in the productions. However, this film certainly shows all the signs of a rushed ending and the narrative almost seems to collapse in the final scenes as Florence performs a volte-face and her mother is left to try to understand what has happened. The quandary for Lupino and Young as The Filmmakers is neatly summed up by the marketing campaign devised by RKO exemplified by the poster above. The imagery and the tagline both oversell and distort what the film has to offer – but on the other hand, RKO muscled the film into cinemas and attracted audiences. However, the film ultimately failed because it actually bears little resemblance to the poster’s suggestions. Hughes organised grand openings for the film in various cities – but The Filmakers picked up the expenses bill and this wiped out their share of any profits.  The Filmmakers’ films have also suffered from the label of ‘B picture’ attached to them by critics and general commentators. I suspect the tag comes mainly because of the short length and the relatively low-budget. But Hard, Fast and Beautiful is not a ‘B’ in conception or execution. Ida Lupino herself associated The Filmakers with the director-producers she named as ‘Independents’ including Stanley Kramer, Robert Rossen and Louis de Rochemont (see below). Using this term suggests a link between Ida Lupino and later ‘American Independents’ like John Sayles.

Florence speaks to her father (Kenneth Patterson)

The film is photographed by Archie Stout who shot Lupino’s first three pictures but is best known for his work with John Ford and edited by William Ziegler (known for work with Hitchcock). The music is by RKO’s film noir master composer Roy Webb and the two art directors, Albert S. D’Agostino and Jack Okey were responsible for the sets on Out of the Past (1947) – in my view the best noir from the 1940s. This is a list of veteran talent that any ‘A’ film production would be lucky to attract. These were hard-bitten Hollywood pros, some of whom were happy to work with The Filmakers more than once because they admired Ida Lupino’s talent and desire to learn as a director.I think a lot of that industry knowledge is up there on the screen. The tennis matches, mostly filmed in California or at Forest Hills are very well put together. I’m no tennis expert, but Sally Forrest was convincing for me. There are many long shots of the courts with cuts to Forrest serving and returning and she certainly hits the ball ‘hard and fast’. Lupino was well-known for her use of location shooting and for her interest in both neo-realism (she met and admired Roberto Rossellini) and in the American form of ‘semi-documentary’ championed by Louis de Rochemont in which crime and ‘social problem’ pictures were shot on location. Lupino probably also followed the career of Mark Hellinger, the producer for whom she worked on They Drive By Night (1940), High Sierra (1941) and Moontide (1942). In the late 1940s he produced two New York-based films noirs with extensive location shooting, the Jules Dassin directed Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948).

But it is the melodrama which intrigues in Hard, Fast and Beautiful and Lupino must have known instinctively how to direct Forrest and Trevor, having played similar roles herself. In the scene above the mise en scène conveys so clearly the family conflict. Hollywood showed us so many twin beds in married couples’ bedrooms, but I’ve never seen them back to back like this. The divide is very clear and almost doesn’t need dialogue. The film’s script draws on the mother-daughter relationship seen in films like Mildred Pierce (1945) though the roles are reversed to some extent. Mildred has a much stronger story but on the other hand, Ida Lupino and Collier Young present a more realist feel for the situations faced by their characters. Claire Trevor is also a match for Crawford as the mother. I can’t help feeling that if The Filmmakers had had a little more time and a little more money they would have made a fine melodrama.

Summertime (UK-US 1955)

summertime

To do or not to do

The opening scenes of this melodrama look like a travelogue graced by Jack Hildyard’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography. I guess tourism was becoming more popular in the post-War era and the shots of Venice would no doubt have tempted many to visit. All these scenes lack is a complacent voice over selling us the place’s charms in a twee way. Fortunately the film stars Katharine Hepburn.

The slight ‘holiday romance’ story was adapted, from Arthur Laurent’s play, by director David Lean and H.E. Bates (and the uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart). Hepburn’s ‘independent woman’ persona is to the fore at the start as she’s touring on her own but finds the ‘romance’ of Venice casts her loneliness into the foreground: cue Rossano Brazzi’s Italian charmer, Renato di Rossi. What makes the film distinctive is the way Jane Hudson’s (Hepburn) loneliness is portrayed as it isn’t just something that is presented as a ‘narrative lack’ to be fulfilled ‘happily ever after’ at the film’s conclusion. There’s real pathos in Hepburn’s performance as she hesitates to go for the ‘holiday fling’. Her ‘middle aged spinster’ characterisation takes up a fair proportion of the film and the scriptwriters don’t compromise with their ending.

In a striking scene, when di Rossi first sees Hudson we get that rare beast: the male gaze directed at an ‘older’ woman (Hepburn was 48 at the time). We see him appreciatively look at her body, particularly her exposed calf. Even the ‘cute’ kid isn’t too irritating though Lean’s tendency to shoot a lot of the conversations in long takes and an immobile character tends to drain the drama. However, the numerous shots of Hudson wandering around a crowded Venice are skilfully executed.

Apparently the adultery fell foul of the Production Code and scenes were cut: the film leaves us with a firework display. Hepburn received one of her numerous Oscar nominations; Lean, too, was nominated.

Puzzle (US 2018)

Kelly Macdonald as Agnes and Irrfan Khan as Robert outside the ‘puzzle shop’

Puzzle stars two of my favourite actors on the top of their game in an American remake of an Argentinian film. Irrfan Khan has been widely recognised as a great actor within India and around the world for both festival films and international popular films but Kelly Macdonald has often been excellent but underused as a supporting actor. In Puzzle she is given the lead role for what I think might be the first time in 52 films. (Later, I realised I’d seen her in the lead in just her second film, Stella Does Tricks in 1996.) How did she manage to be overlooked for so long for a lead role? I’m tempted to say that is the ‘puzzle’ at the centre of this film and in a way it is.

Agnes completes her first puzzle

Although the narrative involves jigsaw puzzles and a national ‘jigsaw puzzling competition’, it is really a narrative about a woman who attempts to solve the puzzle of her own life – in effect to ‘find herself’ as the modern cliché has it. And it’s perhaps the case that few actors could pull off the performance achieved by Ms Macdonald that makes the film particularly interesting. She plays Agnes, the forty-something mother of two sons, Gabe, planning to go to college, and Ziggy, reluctantly working in his father’s garage repair shop. The father is Louie. Agnes is still living in her father’s old house in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her family are Hungarian-Americans and besides the housework she is a member of the Churchwomen’s Guild of her local Catholic church. Everybody takes Agnes for granted, more in an unthinking than an unkind way.

The family at the dinner table, from left Louie (David Denman), Gabe (Austin Abrams), Gabe’s girlfriend Nikki (Liv Hewson), Agnes and Ziggy (Bubba Weiler)

She seems to be even putting on her own birthday party to entertain everybody else. Discovering (or ‘rediscovering’) her genius for puzzle-solving one day leads her into another world and into a ‘partnership’ with Irrfan’s character, Robert, a wealthy man in Manhattan. She then finds herself commuting twice a week to New York to meet Robert and practice solving jigsaw puzzles against the clock. Sketching out this bare outline, I realise how conventional a story it must sound. I was reminded of another American re-make, that of the Japanese film Shall We Dance? (1996). Fortunately, Puzzle is much better than the dreadful US version of that film with Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez (2004). The more I think about Puzzle though, the more I realise that it is a familiar story in terms of structure in which a husband or wife discovers something they can do well after many years of routine, but they don’t tell their family – with the inevitable consequence that they will be found out. But Puzzle is interesting because Kelly Macdonald is mesmerising and because the script by Oren Moverman, Polly Mann based on the Argentinian original, Rompecabezas (2009) written and directed by Natalia Smirnoff, is carefully nuanced and only occasionally a little too clever. Oren Moverman is a writer-director I remember for The Messenger (US 2009)

Out of the house and walking across Manhattan

What makes a film like this is the portrayal of characters who seem human because they aren’t perfect. Agnes certainly isn’t. As her confidence grows she perhaps says and does some things that might be hurtful and perhaps arising from resentment. Robert too isn’t perfect. Louie (David Denman) is a good man let down by a lack of education and an insensitivity perhaps caused by living in a relatively closed kind of community. He loves his wife. His sons are each differently challenged by the situations they find themselves in. The narrative ending works well for me. In real life there are always loose threads and things we could do, but which have consequences we might not be prepared for. It sounds trite but life is a puzzle. Macdonald and Khan are excellent – and so are the rest of what is a strong ensemble cast.

Agnes at the cabin by the lake

The technical credits are worth mentioning. Agnes and Louie’s house is quite dark and subdued inside and outside seems to be located in a fairly prosperous but conservative area. I’m still unsure how wealth and social class work in the US since Agnes is not employed and the repair shop is not making big profits, yet Louie has in the past managed to buy land in the interior which has a cabin, a lake and fishing rights. Robert’s house in Manhattan is spacious and beautifully furnished and the journey for Agnes by train and on foot across Manhattan is well presented through the cinematography of Chris Norr. The score by Dustin O’Halloran is effective without being overpowering. I was also struck by the subtle changes in the costumes worn by Kelly Macdonald, though when she arrives in Manhattan wearing a bright red sweater, the outcome feels predictable. The film was directed by Marc Turtletaub, best known in the film industry as a producer of independent films such as Little Miss Sunshine (US 2006). He chose to direct this film because of a personal interest in the script since he saw in Agnes a character resembling his own mother, to whom he dedicated the picture.

Puzzle is a quiet but strong and satisfying film that I found to be affective. In the UK the film is distributed by Sony Classics, opening on ‘100+’ screens. That’s quite a few screens and suggests either a high-profile ‘specialised film’/art film or a mainstream film that the distributer isn’t quite sure of. My feeling is that Puzzle is the latter. It could appeal to a fairly wide audience and we saw it in a late morning slot in a multiplex with just a tiny audience. It seems to be on at odd times here and there with little promotion. It has little chance of benefitting from ‘word of mouth’ if potential audiences struggle to find a screening. I’ve found this is a problem with Sony Classics before (e.g. with the excellent Maudie (Ireland-Canada 2016)). Do try and see Puzzle if you can, it’s well worth the effort.

Miles (US 2016)

A story about a boy and his mum?

I thought from the opening images of this film, beneath the credits, that I would enjoy this film. The CinemaScope images are nicely composed by Hunter Robert Baker and show us farmland and the local high school in Pondley, Illinois in 1999. For a UK viewer this announces small town life in the Mid-West. It’s early morning (6.39 AM) and 17 year-old Miles is on his computer with headphones for music from his Discman. Through a dial-up connection he’s looking for some action in a chatroom. His mother wakes and makes breakfast. Later we discover that his mother is the English teacher in the town high school and Miles, entering his senior year, is in her class. So this is going to be a teenpic, a high school film in a rural setting? (I thought of Election (US 1999) set in Omaha.) Well, yes, it is and then again, no, it isn’t.

The central conflict in the narrative is that Miles is determined to get a college place in Chicago, but circumstances mean that he doesn’t have access to the money for the fees charged by the prestigious film school he wants to join. The only option appears to be winning a scholarship and the one he finds is a sports scholarship. But the only sport that Miles is good at is volleyball. The school only has a girls’ volleyball team, so he applies for that. Miles is gay, but in this narrative that isn’t an issue. The biggest problem for Miles is that he is determined to leave the one-horse town (as he sees it) where people become zombies, accepting a dull life. The practical problem is that Miles is good at volleyball and when he gets on the team, they win too easily and parents in the district complain about their daughters having to compete against a boy.

Miles bonds with team-mates. His shorts are a bit long and loose?

Generically, we have a ‘sports movie’ hybridising with a high school pic. We don’t have a teen romantic comedy, but we do have a situation in which Miles’ mom sees her future as to some extent tied up with Miles being on the girls’ team. The film is announced as ‘inspired by a true story’ and may indeed be partly autobiographical for writer-director Nathan Adloff. Miles (skilfully played by Tim Boardman on his début) is not a tortured soul as a gay teenager and he takes inspiration and re-assurance from his online friend in the chatroom. We only see him in class on one occasion and the girls on the volleyball team are supportive, as is the coach (Missi Pyle). There is a limited negative response from some boys. The narrative manages to weave the story of Miles’ mum Pam (as played by veteran TV and film actor Molly Shannon) into Miles’ story. I enjoyed everything about the film up until the final section. The story had great potential but somehow it doesn’t quite make the last step into something really memorable. Ends get tied up with no real explanation. There is a high school graduation which would usually suggest the ending to a high school pic, but it’s a bit low-key here. There is a personal ending for Miles and for Pam (and possibly for the coach of the team) and in a sense, as one reviewer has suggested, there is a quasi-Disney ‘happy ending’ all round.

I’m a bit torn by the film. It isn’t the kind of realist drama the credit sequence promised. It did occur to me that some might find Miles too self-obsessed but more importantly, I think, the film is different in making its gay teenager someone who just gets on and does what he thinks he has to do. I’m not the gay audience but I note that the film has been successful at various LGBTQ festivals winning top prizes and ‘audience awards’. There is a sense of injustice in the reactions to Miles on the girls’ team but that sense of ‘rebellion’, often represented by music, fashion and other elements of youth culture isn’t really there. Miles argues that the state allowed a girl onto the boys’ team, so why not the other way round? In some ways the film is too sensible – only Pam gets really silly. Still, it’s good to see a film about a teenage boy and his mum.

Miles is now available on DVD from Matchbox films – click on the cover below for the Amazon page:

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (US 2017)

This is the most recent documentary from Frederick Wiseman. Since Titticut Follies in 1967 Wiseman has been a prolific and central figure in observational documentary: after all these years he is almost the definition of films that offer a dispassionate but detailed portrait, mainly of institutions. In this long film, 197 minutes, he examines both the famous landmark in Bryant Park on 5th Avenue (a key setting in the successful The Day After Tomorrow, 2004) and a number of the other libraries in the New York public network. I have been fortunate enough to visit the iconic central building and one of the pleasures of the film was how Wiseman explores both the parts I have seen and the less seen staff and machinery behind this.

The film opens with great style as we observe an event in the libraries main foyer; Richard Dawkins giving a lunch-time talk with all his eloquence and commitment. We see a number of such events, some like this less formal, and others in one of the library auditoria with a more formal presentation and a large audience. I particularly enjoyed the session of an interview with Elvis Costello. And we see smaller events, more open, at branch libraries. The most fascinating was a young black woman explaining the ‘southern ideology’ which criticised Northern capitalism from a right-wing standpoint; not quite as formidable as that by Karl Marx but an important component in the struggle over slavery. There are concert performances in auditoria but also less formal presentations and the odd amateur improvisation; not a part of the official library. Title cards identify performers and venues for the viewer.

Wiseman tends to wander around an institution and he records and presents his observations without comment. Seemingly these sequences are laid out in arbitrary manner. So along with the events we gets shots of the staff, both at the main library and at branches, occupied in their tasks, frequently involving library members and members of the public. One is a telephone enquiry service and we see and hear as an operator checks the word ‘unicorn’ on a computer and answers questions by a caller. This is one of those moments of sympathetic humour found in Wiseman’s films. We see staff checking in and out books and other library resources. Behind the scenes we see a group of male workers at a conveyor belt to sort books for return to their branches.

Wiseman offers repetition of groups and settings and the most frequent in this film are a series of meetings involving the library management. We see and hear them discussing the library finances: after some years of reductions 2016 saw a welcome increase in the budget allocated by the city. We also hear how important is the role of private funding for the library. And they discuss some of the processes in running the library, developments at particular venues and some of their longer-term goals.

Their discussions and the sequence of library staff and activity demonstrate how much wider than printed books are the resources of a modern library. British users of libraries will recognise this and both the parallels and differences in the library system. Certainly the New York Public Library network appears to have avoided the savage cutbacks experienced in Britain.

Whilst Wiseman presentation seems an ad hoc portrait of the public library the editing, in particular, provides a less formal and slightly ambiguous commentary. There are frequent touches of irony as Wiseman’s camera moves from one activity to another. One notable counterpoint follows a meeting of the management discussing (with liberalism) vagrancy and the problem of the libraries being used as a place of sleep rather than activity. Then we see a sleeping African-American user at a desk. This points up, (as do other parallels), that the management is also uniformly Caucasian.

As the film passes from branch library to branch library we get shots of New York streets and intersections. New Yorkers will probably place buildings in this way: less likely for British viewers. For me these felt rather more like the ‘pillow shots’ that fill films by Ozu Yasujiro, though Wiseman only provides natural sound.

The film is long but absorbing. However, I did find the last twenty minutes or so palled. This was not so much due to the length but to the repetitions. At the end we visit another management meeting, I forget the topic. Then we see a meeting of African-American women at a branch (Queens I think). They all talk volubly but briefly. The lengthy contribution comes from an African-American director of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture. There follows a formal event in the main auditorium which fits into Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas regarding ‘aesthetic dispositions’.

There is clearly some irony intended here. But by this stage I felt we had had more of such events and of managers than of ordinary users and workers. I have not seen National Gallery (2014) again but my memory is that film had more of such moments; it certainly emphasised the ironic contrasts between British and North American staff at that institution. In fact we do not get a sequence where the ordinary workers in the public library discuss issues in the space offered repeatedly to managers. Nor do we see any Trade Union activity. I wondered if there as not an occasion where the workers of the conveyor belt seen earlier – the most repetitious and alienating activity in the film – had a gathering or talk. The managers are very liberal but by the end I felt that their behaviour was affected by their consciousness of the camera. I did not feel this with the ordinary staff.

The Sight & Sound, August 2018, review offers,

“Lofty idealism informs conversations about what kind of society the library wants to help to build, giving a surprising urgency to scenes of people sitting in rooms talking.”

From one angle this is true but I did not get a sense of what the pressures of budgets, routines , public demand and the compulsion of wage labour exerted on the staff/workers in the network. I suspect that they are there. Certainly one gets a sense of this in some of the other Wiseman documentaries.