Category: American Independents

Chi-Raq (US 2015)

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This is the new Spike Lee film set mainly in Chicago (or Chi-Raq) and which ‘The Guardian‘ review praised with four stars. It added a comment

“magnificent, rage-filled drama.”

I saw the film at the Leeds International Film Festival, The Catalogue quoted the director, who commented

“I think that we have the same indignation and hatred and anger when we do it to ourselves . . . “

on the ‘black-on-‘black violence that is the subject of the film.

I was underwhelmed by the film and found it rather scattergun in its treatment of the important topic. A couple of friends at the Festival offered similar opinions and one of them only gave it one star out of five.

The problem seems to be that the parts are better than the whole. The film uses rap-style dialogue, dramatic scenes, large scale set pieces including musical numbers and sequences that are predominately realist and other sequences that are fantastic even fanciful. I thought the set-pieces worked best, with Lee’s usual panache. The realist drama is based on actual figures in Chicago, a woman campaigner and a male priest. Replaying actual people and events can be tricky and I found some of the dramatic scenes somewhat ineffective.

Peter Bradshaw’s review adds

“It interestingly looks like a filmed stage play in the Aristophantic or maybe Brechtian style.”

Those two playwrights were skilled at balancing drama, irony and satire. Moreover, they worked in the theatrical medium and translating their ideas and practices to the medium of film is often problematic. This only works well when the filmmakers can translate these into the distinctive form of film. Spike Lee did this in a masterful fashion with his seminal Do the Right Thing (1989). Chi-Raq never achieves that level.

Peter Bradshaw also comments that

“it shows women of different ages banding together, organising, taking action.”

I found this aspect less than convincing. There are a series of short sequences where the activists in Chicago are supported by women in other lands and cultures, but there are not really convincing factors to explain this.

And Bradshaw also draws a comparison with Spike Lee’s own

Bamboozled (2000) or Kevin Willmott’s CSA: The Confederate States of America (20034).”

The first is a masterful satire and one of the exceptional US films of the last couple of decades. The latter is cartoonish and heavy-handed. Though Chi-Raq is better than that it does suffer from the same weaknesses.

I really like Spike Lee’s work so I was seriously disappointed on this occasion

Nocturnal Animals (US 2016)

Still life? Amy Adams as Susan seems like a statue in her art gallery, posed at the opening of her new exhibition next to one of the naked women hired to act as exhibits.

Still life? Amy Adams as Susan seems like a statue in her art gallery, posed at the opening of her new exhibition next to one of the naked female dancers hired to act as exhibits.

This film has been roundly praised in some quarters but I’m not sure I’m so enthusiastic about it. Director Tom Ford, who was responsible for the similarly acclaimed A Single Man (2009), is best known as a designer, starting in ‘interior architecture’ and moving on to fashion before making A Single Man. That film’s been sitting unwatched on my hard drive recorder for a while and I’ve noticed that some critics have argued it was more about style than substance. Nocturnal Animals has generated some similar comments and I’m afraid that’s my reaction too.

‘Nocturnal Animals’ is the title of a ‘story within a story’ – a form of mise en abîme which also occurs in cinema when fictional characters might stage a play/make a film which in turn reflects on the lives of the fictional filmmakers. In this case, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a first novel, written by Edward, a man in his late 40s, and posted as a manuscript to his ex-wife. She is Susan Morrow, a college lecturer, now a woman with a family and married to Arnold, a surgeon. The lead character in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is Tony, a maths professor who becomes the victim of an altercation with three men on a remote road at night in Maine which also threatens Tony’s wife and teenage daughter. Susan starts to read the novel and can’t stop. The author of the ‘framing novel’ entitled Tony and Susan was Austin Wright, a Cincinnatti Professor of English. It was his last novel, published in 1993 and he died in 2003. Although the novel received praise from critics on publication and was sold for a possible film adaptation, it didn’t sell books in the expected numbers and it wasn’t until it was seen as successful in the UK that it was re-published in the US in 2010. At this stage, Tom Ford was able to work on an adaptation, seemingly creating his own adapted screenplay with some significant differences to the original novel.

The film itself is now also called Nocturnal Animals and this title is presented as referring to Susan during her time with Edward. It also seems to refer to her now as she reads Edward’s manuscript over one weekend when she can’t sleep (and the novel is dedicated to her on the first page of the manuscript). The major difference between Wright’s novel and Ford’s film, however, is a change of setting, including the occupations of Susan and her husband. In the film, Susan (as played by Amy Adams) is a high-profile gallery operator focusing on modern art and her husband Armie Hammer is some kind of ‘money man’ who is clearly spending a weekend away with a mistress when supposedly on business. This is the weekend when Susan reads the manuscript. The manuscript has also changed a setting with the highway altercation now in the wastes of West Texas (where there is no mobile phone signal).

The gallery sequences are filmed with great attention to interior design, lighting etc. and if you like this kind of thing no doubt you will find it interesting – I don’t enjoy this clinical, hard design style. Worse, an actor as engaging as Amy Adams seems imprisoned in the set with all the life drained from her. I like Amy Adams and I like Jake Gyllenhaal, but both seem miscast here, although Gyllenhaal, who plays ‘Tony’ in the manuscript story does OK in that role. The film has three parts, the ‘now’ of Susan over the weekend, the ‘telling’ of the story she reads and her flashbacks to her time together with Edward (also Gyllenhaal). These flashbacks aren’t really credible. I haven’t read the novel, but various reviews suggest that Susan and Edward broke up 25 or 20 years ago, after grad school, which would put them in their late 40s. In the film, Susan appears to have been married to the Armie Hammer character for at least 19 years because she has a daughter at college. Hammer is not even 30 but playing Susan’s husband, whereas Adams is 41 and Gyllenhaal 35. It’s a stretch to ask Amy Adams to play 25 and Hammer is completely wrong (unless I’ve misunderstood the plot).

West Texas, the setting for the novel Susan reads

West Texas, the setting for the novel Susan reads

The most interesting part of the film is the West Texas story which features a standout performance by Michael Shannon as the local detective who investigates what happened and cajoles Tony into an unwise adventure. This narrative is realised as a genre piece recalling both the hard-boiled noir of Jim Thompson and various horror stories and crime stories. It’s beautifully photographed by Seamus McGarvey who handles all three narratives very well in visual terms.

From what I’ve read about the novel, I can imagine that it works well. I calculate that Wright must have imagined the ‘now’ of his story as the early 1990s, meaning that Edward and Susan were in graduate school in the late 1960s. I think that would make a difference to the story. Again, Tony in the novel’s story, as a maths professor who is intellectual rather than instinctive, reminds me of the Dustin Hoffman character in Straw Dogs – though he doesn’t have Hoffman’s resilience as depicted by Peckinpah. I do wonder, though, whether Wright was influenced by Straw Dogs or Gordon Williams’ original novel. Tony’s purpose in sending the manuscript to Susan is as a kind of revenge – putting Susan through the torment that he felt when she left him all those years ago. As she reads the story Susan sees herself as the wife and mother in the car (and the mother is played by Isla Fisher, looking so similar to Amy Adams that some audiences have been confused). But also important is that Austin Wright, an academic literature scholar, writes a novel in which a maths professor with literary ambitions sends a genre novel to a college lecturer – a revenge scenario couched in the framework of literary theory/praxis. None of this works when Susan is represented as an art ‘gallerist’. I found her character emotionally stiff and therefore the interconnections just didn’t work for me. The other puzzles are firstly why Ford casts four British actors, three of them as art world denizens – is it something about Brit Art? There is a Damien Hirst piece in the film and also something by Jeff Koons and I suppose the ‘now’ sequences in the film might be seen as some kind of satire on the art world. But I’m not up to analysing that. I recommend an article from ‘Flavorwire‘ for an informed lowdown on this aspect of Nocturnal Animals. There is one other aspect of the film that I haven’t mentioned – Laura Linney’s role as Susan’s bourgeois mother who tells her daughter not to follow the course of her ambitions after graduate school. I’m not sure if she is a character from the novel or one of Ford’s inventions, but she works to repress poor Susan still further.

I realise I’ve spent over 1,000 words on a film I didn’t really like, but I guess that means it is of some interest. I think I’ll now have to read the original novel to see whether my hypothesis was correct – i.e. that it works more effectively. I can also then resolve some of the conflicting points about the characters that appear in reviews.

(Nocturnal Animals was screened in Screen 14 at the Vue, Leeds, The Light – not sure when this screen was added but as a small ’boutique’ screen it is quite different to the larger screens originally built for Ster Century and it has a screen shaped for ‘Scope)

Paterson (US 2016)

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This is the new release from Jim Jarmusch. It was the opening film at the Leeds International Film Festival and goes on a ‘wide’ release from November 25th. Jarmusch also scripted the film and the Festival Catalogue quotes him:

” I love variation and repetition in poetry, in music and in art. Whether it’s in Bach or Andy Warhol. In the film I wanted to make this little structure to be a metaphor for life, that every day is a variation on the day before or the day coming up.”

What we get in the film is the slight variations in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver) who lives and works in the city of Paterson. The city is sited slightly north west of New York and on the Passaic River in New Jersey. The city has a famous Great Falls. Its other claim to fame is as the subject of an epic poem by William Carlos Williams, a member of the US modernist poetry movement.

Paterson, the man, is an amateur poet but works as a bus driver. The film has a number of puns and there is a repeated doubling effect. The variations take place over seven days. We see Paterson at work, visiting the Falls in breaks and writing poetry in his notebook. There are occasional encounters including with a much younger would-be poet.

Mornings, evening and night-times are spent at his house which he shares with Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and her dog Marvin (Nellie, playing in a cross-gender role). Laura seems mainly involved in domestic labour. Marvin, a ‘British Bulldog’, clearly is jealous of Paterson. But his antipathy is likely fuelled by Paterson, on their evening walk, leaving him outside a local bar whilst he has a quiet drink. The bar is where we see the most of local inhabitants and some of the drama in their lives.

The film is low-key as is the humour. The observation of Paterson and his environs is absorbing. However, he is a slightly fey character and Laura is even more so. I did think that Farahani’s part was seriously underwritten. Broken Flowers (2005) has much better characterised female parts, though it is also a more dramatic film. But I thought that Marvin was more developed in character. It would seem though that this will be Nellie’s only film role an end title is dedicated to her memory.

The production of the film is well done. The cinematography by Frederick Elmes is clear, direct and makes good use of settings like the Falls. And the editing, by Alfonso Gonçalves, works well and makes some of the humour in its cuts. The composer Carter Logan, who worked on Jarmusch’s last film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) adds to the irony with judicious music.

I was under-impressed but I should note that the Sight & Sound review by Henry K. Miller thought this the best work by Jarmusch since Ghost Dog (1999). If your taste is in Jarmusch movies then you may like it more than me. I thought this type of character better done by Wes Anderson, both the leads in his Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, have supporting roles in this film.

I think the poetry may also help some viewers. it is clearly a central interest for Jarmusch. The Festival Catalogue quotes him again on amateur poets:

“. . . I love poets because I never me a poet that was doing it for the money. William Carlos Williams was a full-time doctor and paediatrician . . . They don’t do it for the money. So you know they mean it. They love the form.”

And indeed fans will recognise once again the distinctive form of a Jarmusch movie.

Adapting Highsmith #5: The Two Faces of January (UK-France-US 2014)

The three characters 'off road' on Crete

The three characters ‘off road’ on Crete

This film is included in the ‘Adapting Highsmith Tour’ but I managed to catch it on TV via Film Four. I remember its cinema release and wondering whether to go and see it. Something made me decide not to see it then. TV is not the same but I’m glad I did see it eventually.

The Two Faces of January was published as Patricia Highsmith’s ninth novel in 1964. This film adaptation uses Highsmith’s main settings, starting in Greece in 1962. Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) is an American con-man with an attractive younger wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst), seemingly on vacation but in reality ‘on the run’ from those he has swindled. Touring the Parthenon in Athens they meet Rydal Keener (Oscar Isaacs), a young American tour guide who tells them he has just left Yale and hasn’t decided yet what he wants to do. Fortunately he speaks several languages and he impresses Colette. Soon he is being invited to dinner at the couple’s 5 star hotel. The film’s title points towards the ‘two-faced’ Roman god Janus, sometimes thought to be the basis for the naming of ‘January’ as the first month. In the story, all three central characters are deceitful and deceptive and a typical Highsmith scenario sees the development of a multi-faceted relationship between Chester and Rydal – one aspect of which is a struggle over Colette.

The production background for the film suggests an American independent with full Hollywood presence (Timnick Films – previously responsible for The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) from Anthony Minghella) in conjunction with Working Title and StudioCanal (a partnership dating from Vivendi’s ownership of Universal in the 1990s). Perhaps then it’s best to think of the film as an international co-production – a European film with American stars. The writer-director Hossein Amini was born in Iran but raised in the UK from age 11. Best known as a writer (for films like Drive (US 2011), this was his directing debut. IMDB suggests his favourite director is Jean-Pierre Melville, the great French director of polars – French crime films – an interesting twist on Highsmith? The cinematographer is Marcel Zyskind (best known to me for his work with Michael Winterbottom), the music is by Alberto Iglesias – the sound of Pedro Almodóvar – and the editing by Jon Harris, a regular on the last two Danny Boyle films and who had previously worked on Liliana Cavani‘s Ripley’s Game (2002), another Highsmith adaptation. With three lead actors of the stature of Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac and these creative talents behind the camera it is perhaps surprising that the film got only a limited release in North America through the independent distributor Magnolia Pictures. The film’s generally successful ‘international’ release was negated by a failure in the ‘domestic’ US market. One interesting aspect of the international release was box-office success in Spain and Argentina where Viggo Mortensen is popular. The quoted $21 million production budget is large by European standards.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Press Photo of Kirsten Dunst in a street market from Magnolia Pictures.

Most of the money does appear on screen. Great care has gone into production design and costume design – ‘dressing’ locations in Istanbul and finding vintage outfits for the actors. Zyskind’s cinematography and the score by Iglesias work very well. The problem with the film for me is that the script delivers plot details and clues about the characters’ motivations very quickly and almost subliminally. So, like the other Highsmith stories, this is essentially about relationships between characters and to some extent the set pieces, e.g. a scene in an airport lobby where MacFarland escapes from Keener, get in the way of the character study. We spend more time combing these scenes for plot cues to try to work out why they happen like they do rather than focusing on the characters. Amini in the Press Notes refers primarily to Hitchcock’s romance thrillers and says that he went back to the 1960s ‘Mediterranean thrillers’ such as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Le mépris and most of all Clément’s Plein soleil – the first adaptation of Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. He also mentions Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky (1990) in relation to the relationship of the married couple under pressure. (See this interesting Empire piece on Amini’s influences.) All of this is fine, but somehow the director fails to produce either the thrill of the adventure or to get to grips with the psychology of the characters which all of the above do in one way or another. Keener has somehow transferred his neurosis about his difficult relationship with his father to a new neurosis about MacFarland. This is stated a couple of times but I never really ‘felt’ it in the interaction of the two characters. Similarly I didn’t get much from the problems in the marriage and Colette is not given much space at all. The film looks great and it is nicely choreographed but it doesn’t deliver enough and it can’t compete with the French and German Highsmith adaptations.