Category: American Independents

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.

Glasgow FF15 #4: Rosewater (US 2014)

Gael Garcia Bernal as Maziar Bahari (with the blindfold) and Kim Bodnia as the interrogator.

Gael Garcia Bernal as Maziar Bahari (with the blindfold) and Kim Bodnia as the interrogator.

This was the weakest of the films I saw on my first day, but it was the one that got the most audience applause. I’ve never properly watched The Daily Show which made the name of début writer/director John Stewart, so I was primarily attracted to the appearance of Gael García Marquez and Kim Bodnia (from The Bridge) as the two main characters.

There is nothing wrong with the film as such and it is clearly a project with its heart in the right place. Bernal plays the Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari, whose book of his experiences covering the 2009 election in Iran, rigged by the authorities, was the original property adapted by Stewart. He is arrested and imprisoned and Bodnia is the ‘specialist’ assigned to extract a confession that will be broadcast as part of the regime’s propaganda. All of this is well done, shot in Jordan as far as I can make out. Apart from a spoof interview that could be part of a comedy show, Stewart plays it all straight – although I did like the appearance of the journalist’s dead father in his cell offering advice on how to survive based on his own incarceration under previous regimes. Bahari’s dead sister also appears.

The only real problem is that we’ve seen this before and Iranian stories told from the US, even when they use a couple of strong Iranian actors (the mother and sister here), find it difficult to compete with the real thing. Films by Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf cover similar territory in much more oblique and powerful ways. Stewart’s film is primarily delivered in English so it will reach a wider public and that is good if it heightens awareness. It’s also good that a film about the real bravery of journalists worldwide should find an audience. Perhaps it can act as an introduction to the complexities and, despite the horrors, the ‘pleasures’ of the terrific Iranian cinema of the last twenty years, which is able to use subtle forms of humour to undermine the regime?