Category: American Independents

Dear White People (US 2014)

dwp_poster This is a satirical film on ‘race’ in contemporary USA that was produced, scripted and directed by Justin Siemen. So on that basis he presumably bears the major responsibility for the final product. It is certainly interesting, and has a number of distinctive qualities but I also found it fairly flawed. This seems to be an example of the influence of the contemporary meaning of the concept ‘auteur’; young filmmakers want to produce a ‘personal work’. One certainly gets a sense of a personal edge to the film. However I thought that the film would have benefited from a separate and critical view of the script. A friend at the Hyde Park where I viewed the film thought that the director is a ‘developing talent’ and that should allow for flaws. I thought a much sharper focus and delivery would have enhanced both the comedy and the satire. The film began its career through crowd funding. On completion it won an award at the 2014 Sundance Festival. So it falls into the tradition of US independents, but also relies on developments in the industry. The basic setting is an Ivy League University with problems about ‘race relations’. So on one hand this places it in a cycle of films that followed on from John Landis’ campus-based National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) and also, more explicitly, Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988). Both films are mentioned in reviews but the most important influence cited would be Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2011). Spike Lee is referred to in the film’s dialogue: one character bowdlerised [badly] the title of his film production company and another provides the line ‘by any means necessary’. A film within the film reminded one of an early Lee short. Lee’s influence can also be seen in the form of the film, drawing on his Do the Right Thing (1989). For me unfortunately, this only highlighted the greater quality, cinematically and in terms of content, of Lee’s films. Even so the film has a lot to offer in terms on interest and entertainment. The primary focus are four Afro-American students at the fictional Winchester University. These are Sam White ((Tessa Thompson) whose campus radio slot is titled ‘Dear White People’. There is her ex and the current House President Troy Fairbanks (Brandon Bell), whose father is the University Dean of Students. Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams) is gay, has an impressive Afro-hair style and is a developing journalistic talent. Finally ‘Coco’ (Teyonah Paris) is a would-be TV name, and an expert blogger. All have media ambitions, which are a key target in the film. All four come from relatively comfortable backgrounds, obviously have talent but are all conscious of the demeaning and often disadvantaged experience of being black. It is worth noting that the film also has quite a gallery of key characters, and one of its merits is the way that it handles this. There is among the characters a certain amount of sexual activity across the ‘racial’ divide, though much less evidence of any across class divides. dear-white-people-sam Given the genre, it is not a great spoiler that the film’s contradictions come to a head at a House Fraternity party. The film here explicitly foregrounds the often implicit but not always recognised contempt for black people amongst sections of the white population, including the so-called intelligentsia. And, in a montage of stills, the end credits draw attention to the actual scandals that have demonstrated this in the higher Education world in recent years. One of its debts to Do the Right Thing is to offer a clearly staged structure, with a prologue, a number of chapters and finally an epilogue. The film also essays a certain style [often termed Brechtian] offering some distance for viewers. Thus the style of much of the film is almost observational and then becomes very much almost ‘blog-on-the wall‘ for the party. However, like the satire, many of the techniques seem over emphatic. The film uses positioning of characters, often with deep staging, in the mise en scène. But whilst some of this is very effective – a couple of sequences involving Lionel: at other times when it uses the University architecture I rather wondered what the intended point was. I was also distracted by half-a-dozen shots with characters set against a light source: typically a window. This may have meant to offer a visual comment: but it seemed to just diminish visibility. This also applies to the editing, there are some very effective cuts between parallel scenes, for example in the office of the Principal and Dean cutting to characters in the student halls – which suggest both comparisons and contrasts. But at other times, cuts between – say a group of black and a group of white students – seems to be for effect, but with little added meaning. Dear-White-People-group I should note that I did not pick up on all the references in the film. A couple of friends at the screening had similar problems. This presumably relates to the language in the USA, in use by Afro-Americans and in the college system. I was also bemused by the music. There is a seemingly important reference to Taylor Swift but the credits do not seem to feature her music. What was immediately recognisable were extracts from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and Bizet’s Carmen. Their relevance escaped me, though the choice of music may well have been dictated by cost as much as by choice. My major reservations were to do with the values inscribed in the film. Satire is a tricky form to take: it tends to be over-the-top which can make some of the views and positions grotesque. This is a problem, but not the major problem in this film. That I think is how it tackles the interests and prejudices at the University and amongst its characters. The film clearly addresses ‘race’ and class in the contemporary USA: to a lesser degree gender and sexual orientation. And when we reach the epilogue the writing presents the cynical collusion of interests between academia and the representative of the media and Capital. But at the personal level, amongst the key characters, we get a more or less satisfactory resolution of their personal lives. It seemed to me that the contradictions that had arisen in the course of the film were not amenable to such a pat closure. And there seem to be a couple of lacunae in the resolution of the plot. This is where Lee’s Bamboozled stands out: with a final sequence that is both cinematically and politically devastating. I would recommend re-visiting this film if you are able: I intend to revisit School Daze as well. I would reckon Dear White People is definitely worth seeing. A note of warning, the distributor is Curzon Film World and judging by exhibitor’s experience in West Yorkshire it is hard work to get the film. The film was shot on a 4K Red digital camera: but it seems to be circulating in a 2K DCP, which is not that complimentary to some of the exteriors and long shots. It runs for 106 minutes, in colour and 1.85:1. In terms of entertainment, two of the people I talked to after the screenings really enjoyed it and found pretty funny: two others were less impressed but still very interested by what the film had to offer. And it is a film and a treatment that is still relatively uncommon on British screens.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – Instant Reprise

Sheila Vand as 'The Girl'

Sheila Vand as ‘The Girl’

Keith was not very impressed with this film and some of his observations in the previous post seem justified. Overall though I think he’s being a bit harsh on the young Iranian-American writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour (who was born in Margate, going to the US as a small child). I was going to just add a comment but I think that there is quite a lot to say.

First, this isn’t a ‘Hollywood’ film – in many ways it is almost the definitive American ‘indie’ film, developed from an earlier short (that was shown in Iran, I think). Second, I have to disagree with Keith about the location. If I understand him correctly, he says the setting could be like downtown Detroit (tying in with a reference to Jarmusch’s recent Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)). I agree on Jarmusch (but with reference to his early black and white features) but the setting of Amirpour’s film is very distinctive. The fictional location is ‘Bad City’ in Iran but it was shot in the small town of Taft in the Californian oilfields. Amirpour went to school in the nearest large town of Bakersfield. There are two specific ways in which the location contributes to the meaning of the filmic narrative space. The ‘nodding donkeys’ or ‘pumpjacks’ that litter the oilfield appear several times and are perhaps an ironic reference to Iranian oil. The ‘cowboy’ mystique is visually signified by a woman dancing and wearing a classic cowboy shirt, but it is also signified by some of the music (three or four tracks by Federale) which in turn refers to spaghetti Westerns and is ‘Tarantinoesque’. (Country music fans will also know that the ‘Bakersfield sound’ of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard represented an alternative to Nashville in the 1960s and 1970s, replacing syrupy strings with twangin’ guitars.)

I’m probably pushing this too much but I’d also connect the James Dean look of the lead male character with his 1957 convertible to Dean’s appearance in a film like Giant (1956) (i.e in the oilfields), though his white tee-shirt and leather jacket suggest Rebel Without a Cause. Keith’s right of course that the whole film is more about style than narrative drive. I felt compelled by the style to think of other films – A Touch of Evil (1957) for instance, or, in the closing scenes with the headlights on the road, Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Keith mentions Persepolis (France/US 2007) which makes sense as the Ana Lily Amirpour orginally wrote the story as a graphic novel. Sin City (US 2005) would be another possible reference point as a noirish graphic novel adaptation.

What there is of narrative development seems to take a great deal from Let the Right One In (Sweden 2008) or, as Mark Kermode suggests, from Near Dark (US 1987). In terms of building a story A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night doesn’t use these influences particularly well, but in its slow, mesmeric way it creates relationships and images which certainly resonated with me long after the film was over. I thought that Sheila Vand who plays the title role was particularly good and the concept of a vampire clad in a chador skateboarding down the road is sheer genius. In her room the girl plays 1980s music. In various YouTube clips the director explains that the posters in her room were ‘modified’ images of Madonna and the Bee Gees because the budget wouldn’t run to rights for the real posters. This is very much a ‘personal film’ and I recommend the YouTube collection of videos as an interesting set of source materials (check out the various songs as well – the soundtrack of music and effects is one of the strengths of the film and includes Iranian/Middle Eastern rock). Maybe the film is 5-10 minutes too long but the pacing worked for me and I’d recommend giving it a go.

(The entire film is delivered in Farsi – which the director has said she can only write phonetically, making constructing the script difficult. Farsi speakers may find it odd for this reason, but the English subs work well!)

An HD trailer:

The Last Five Years (US 2014)

Last5yrsposter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the UK trailer.

Into the Wild (US 2007)

Kristen Stewart as Tracy and Emile Hirsch as Alex/Chris

Kristen Stewart as Tracy and Emile Hirsch as Alex/Chris

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

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

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

Chris/Alex in Alaska

Chris/Alex in Alaska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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