Category: American Independents

Creed (US 2015)

Sylevester Stallone as Rocky Balboa and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed discuss strategy and tactics in the ring!

Sylevester Stallone as Rocky Balboa and Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Creed discuss strategy and tactics in the ring!

I chose to see Creed because I wanted to see an African-American film (not always easy in the UK outside London and a few key cities). I missed Fruitvale Station (which certainly didn’t have a wide release) from director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. I saw the original Rocky film starring Sylvester Stallone in 1976/7 but I don’t think I’ve seen any of the sequels. Creed sees the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s greatest ring competitor Apollo Creed trying to live up to his father’s name in the fight game. Creed has had a wide release in the UK, probably because of Stallone as actor, producer and co-writer – i.e. the Stallone factor gives distributors more confidence that the film will appeal beyond the Black British audience. I find this sad, but that’s the way the industry in the UK is. Even so, I was once again the only person in a 90 seat cinema. I like being on my own, but I do wonder how the cinema keeps going. Anyway, I had a great time. I’m glad I saw this in the cinema and I have to say I was surprised on several counts.

Creed has been widely discussed as a ‘reboot’ of the Rocky ‘franchise’. I’m not sure that knowing this is particularly helpful if you haven’t seen the previous films. My impression is that this is a much more sober/sensitive feature than much of Hollywood’s output while still adhering to the generic structure of the sports drama and particularly the boxing drama (boxing being one of the few American sports that has appeal outside North America). Ryan Coogler is a remarkable young director, here also responsible for the story with a co-writer’s credit for the script itself. The film is well-cast – more on that later – and brilliantly photographed by Maryse Alberti. Alberti has had a long career, much of it in TV and independent film productions. He was one of the cinematographers on the Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings (1996) and on The Wrestler (2008) by Darren Aronofsky. I’m no expert on boxing but I’ve seen a few boxing films and Creed  convinces me with its fight sequences. Coogler elects to use a long take and sometimes long shot style familiar from arthouse/independent cinema and his editors Claudia Castello and Michael P. Shawver both worked with him on Fruitvale Station along with production designer Hannah Beachler. I’m sure if I looked, I could find more personnel who were on both films. Creed cost around $35 million but has already grossed $161 million worldwide. This demonstrates that a film can be a global hit without resorting to a fast-cutting ‘immersive’ style. Creed is 133 minutes and some have argued that it is ‘flabby’ and could be tightened. Ash Clarke in his very good Little White Lies review uses this term and suggests that part of the Rocky Balboa personal story could be cut. I don’t think that would be a good move, but I concede that a little tightening up in some sequences could trim off a few minutes from the running time. I have to say though that for me there was no flabbiness. Aesthetically, Creed works well. The music seemed fine as well. But what of the narrative?

Tessa Thompson as Bianca, congratulating Adonis

Tessa Thompson as Bianca, congratulating Adonis

I think an important issue might be whether Creed is an ‘African-American’ film in the sense that, to take polar extremes, a Tyler Perry or a Charles Burnett film might be so described? Or is this a mainstream genre American film that just happens to have an African-American central character and director? To some extent that depends on whether there is a genuine exploration of a specifically African-American cultural milieu. And this is possibly what makes Creed different. Professional sport, alongside popular music, has long offered opportunities for young Black people to make a decent living and achieve a public profile in both the Americas and Europe. Creed offers us a young Black boxer (Michael B. Jordan), two boxing gyms in Los Angeles and Philadelphia and a relationship for young Adonis Creed with a promising Black singer played by Tessa Thompson (recently seen in UK cinemas in a lead role in Dear White People and in a smaller supporting role in Selma). The sport/music combination is sometimes seen as a restrictive/constraining factor in terms of Black culture, limiting the range of opportunities and typing Black characters in particular ways. Creed partially avoids this charge by making Adonis a character who spends time as a youth in a wealthy home and who gets a good education followed by an executive job in the finance sector. When he ditches the job to follow his dream to be a boxer and goes to Philadelphia he is therefore a ‘different’ character to the other boxers he meets. The film is also interested in Stallone’s Rocky Balboa who must be tempted out of retirement to train Adonis (‘Donnie’) and when he has the big international fight, Donnie and Rocky travel to UK to fight ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan in Everton’s Goodison Park football stadium. My feeling was that the script didn’t attempt to type the fight as ‘black v. white’, though I was concerned that the Liverpool boxer was being typed as a working-class ‘Scally’ figure. Again, however, I think the script handled this well in the end. The ‘real’ pro boxer Tony Bellew plays Conlan and I thought the fight was credible. I’m guessing that the inspiration for this pairing was the recent history of Ricky Hatton’s fights in the US. By all accounts it was Stallone’s interest in Everton that located the fight on Merseyside. Some location footage of the stadium on a (football) match day helped the fight sequence feel genuine (though I was disappointed not to hear the Z-Cars theme and I’m sure someone was waving a Liverpool scarf).

Michael B. Jordan is excellent as Creed and I was impressed by Stallone’s Rocky Balboa and the way the script handled the relationship between the two. Tessa Thompson was also very good and it was a shame that her role was not explored a little more. One potential narrative about her career and tensions between Adonis and a group of musicians seemed to be cut off too soon. If there is a follow-up, her role and that of Phylicia Rashad as Apollo Creed’s wife and the woman who fostered Adonis Creed after he was placed in juvenile detention could be usefully developed. Overall this film has helped restore my faith in the potential of Hollywood genre movies and I’ll certainly seek out a follow-up if it is made.

Life (Ger-UK-Australia-Can-US 2015)

Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) about to take the iconic image of James Dean (Dane DeHaan) in Times Square in 1955.

Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) about to take the iconic image of James Dean (Dane DeHaan) in Times Square in 1955.

Life is an unusual film for several reasons, not least its global credentials. Written by an Australian, directed by a Nederlander, photographed by a Dane and starring a Brit it tells us about an encounter with a Hollywood icon. Oh, and most of it was filmed in Canada. The focal point of the narrative is a single iconic image – that of a young James Dean walking in Times Square, New York on a rainy March morning a few days before the première of his first film East of Eden in 1955. The star of Life is the contemporary matinee idol Robert Pattinson here playing freelance photographer Dennis Stock, whose image of the ‘moment’ appeared in a Life magazine spread, helping to create Dean’s star image and boosting Stock’s fledgling career at the Magnum photo agency. James Dean in the film is played by Dane DeHaan. Stock’s book, Fifty Years Ago, recounting the shoot was published in 2005.

The cover of Dennis Stock's book

The cover of Dennis Stock’s book

James Dean at the local high school's Sweethearts Ball on St. Valentine's Day in Fairmount, Indiana, 1955. (Photo by Dennis Stock from the Time-Life website)

James Dean at the local high school’s Sweethearts Ball on St. Valentine’s Day in Fairmount, Indiana, 1955. This scene is reproduced in the film. (Photo by Dennis Stock from the Time-Life website.)

Director Anton Corbijn is himself a photographer, best known for his work for UK music magazines photographing late 1970s and 1980s New Wave artists which in turn informed his first film-directing venture, Control (UK 2007) about the tragic life and musical career of Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division in the late 1970s. Knowing this and then avoiding the assumption that Corbijn is more interested in Stock’s story than Dean’s is quite difficult – especially when Corbijn has said as much himself.

The production has some distinguished backers including the former head of film at Channel 4, Tessa Ross and See-Saw Films, the UK-Australian company behind The King’s Speech and earlier Control with Corbijn. For Life they were able to put together a budget of between $10 and $15 million, small by US standards but considerable for a European film. It’s strange then that Life had only a limited release on 48 screens in the UK in September 2015 and will not open in North America until December. The opening was not a success and the UK distributors seem to have had little faith in the film. It is all too easy to lose a film in the current UK super abundance of new releases each week. Perhaps Life will find a more comfortable home on UK television’s Film 4 in a few months time? After its Berlin opening and the restrained critical response, the US market possibilities are not that encouraging.

Robert Pattinson as Dennis Stock shoots Dane DeHaan as James Dean in 'Life' (Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg)

Robert Pattinson as Dennis Stock shoots Dane DeHaan as James Dean in ‘Life’ (Photo by Caitlin Cronenberg)

Part of the problem for audiences is that the film depicts events of 60 years ago and because those events feature numerous famous names and faces, a modern audience without detailed knowledge of the period might not grasp exactly what is going on in several scenes. I know all the historical figures but they are not played by ‘doubles’ so it sometimes took me a few minutes to recognise that I was watching Nick Ray or Raymond Massey on screen portrayed by actors who had some of the same physical characteristics but obviously not all. All of this is relatively minor however, compared to the film’s big challenge in presenting a believable James Dean. Dane DeHaan is a highly-regarded young actor and his performance succeeds in getting across aspects of Dean’s personality alongside some of his mannerisms. It doesn’t matter that DeHaan is not a ‘double’ for Dean but it’s a tall order to play someone so distinctive and to my eyes so beautiful. DeHaan’s face is just a little pudgy and I found that did bother me. The hairstyle he has been given seems too exaggerated (compare the images above). On the other hand, studying portrait photos of Dean it’s clear that the make-up artists and costume designers have tried to replicate the photos and to a large extent they succeed. Photos from the original Life magazine shoot and the published magazine spread can be found on the Time-Life website and many of these are staged in the film.

The main interest in the film should perhaps be Robert Pattinson who has been choosing independent films now for a few years and he has a good go at bringing to life (ouch!) Dennis Stock – a not very likeable character in some ways according to the script. I enjoyed the visit to the farm home in Fairmont. It is Dean who is at ease here and Stock who becomes agitated. You do wonder how much he wanted to understand Dean. If you are a Dean fan you might find these rural scenes the most affecting.

Life got some poor reviews. Peter Bradshaw called the film “a laborious, lugubrious movie maintained at a somnolent cool-jazz tempo – a waxworky piece of American icon worship”. I’ll agree that the film is slow but that’s not a problem. Bradshaw also makes the more interesting comment that as far as Dean’s sexual identity is concerned the film “. . . keeps its tense hints at the subject largely in a heavy closet of its own making”. That’s a fair point. The script and Corbijn’s interpretation of it seem to be caught between several possible narratives. In some ways the film seems more interested in the machinations of Warner Bros. and its studio publicity machine than in the taking of the Life magazine photos. So we see Dean having a fling with Pier Angeli who had just finished filming Silver Chalice with Paul Newman (who could be seen as Dean’s rival for young male leads at the studio). The script shifts her marriage to Vic Damone back a few months to make this work. On the other hand we don’t get much about the photographic process Stock used. My viewing companion, a keen amateur photographer, complained that the sound of the shutter on Stock’s Leica was far too loud – indeed the 1950s Leica was noted for its quiet operation. The film soundtrack emphasises the sound of the shutter so that Stock’s obtrusive shooting is more obvious. I don’t think that the script actually mentioned Magnum as the agency – but surely it was as well-known as Life magazine itself?

I found Life absorbing and puzzling. I think I learned something about James Dean as a person but I don’t think I learned much about Dennis Stock or about his form of portraiture or magazine feature photography. I’ll certainly look closely at James Dean’s three films again.

Australian trailer:

East Side Sushi (US 2014)

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) and Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi) 'out front' in the sushi restaurant 'Osaka'

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) and Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi) ‘out front’ in the sushi restaurant ‘Osaka’.

The ‘East Side’ of this title is in Oakland, California which is home to a significant Latino community. Juana is a single mother with a small daughter. Juana lives with her ageing father and works as hard as she can to support her family. With significant experience in the kitchens of local taquerías, Juana one day sees a job vacancy in the kitchen of a sushi restaurant. Although this is just a kitchen assistant’s job, she is attracted by the medical insurance benefits that come with a permanent post. Once in post, Juana soon impresses with her knife work and before long she becomes fascinated with the art and culture of sushi preparation.

East Side Sushi is an ‘ultra low budget’ film by writer-director Anthony Lucero. Although he had to virtually fund the film out of his own pocket, Lucero was able to use industry colleagues as crew and professional actors for key roles. In a Q&A he revealed that his day job is “freelancing for Lucasfilm in the documentary division”. This is evident in the strong documentary feel to parts of the film. I learned a great deal about the actual process of preparing the ingredients and presenting the sushi plate – more in fact than I got from the excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (US 2011). Lucero also had the aim of showing the meeting of cultures, Mexican and Japanese, and this becomes one of the drivers of the narrative. Juana clearly has the knife skills to become a sushi chef, but will the twin issues of her gender and ethnicity prove to be unsurmountable obstacles?

Juana can see that there isn't much future in her fruit cart business . . .

Juana can see that there isn’t much future in her fruit cart business . . .

But East Side Sushi is not a documentary and it isn’t ‘social realism’ in the sense understood in European film cultures. This is an American film and it employs that familiar American narrative structure of ‘the hero’s journey’ – even moving into the genre of the ‘competition/sports film’. Can Juana win the regional heat of the ‘Champion of Sushi’ TV competition? Judging by the comments of the reporters of its film festival success (lots of ‘Audience Awards’ in the US), East Side Sushi is a winning ‘feelgood film’. I have to agree. Anthony Lucero might believe that he has produced a film that is ” . . . [not] mainstream, not your typical Hollywood film” – but it does have the same kind of audience appeal. The technical credits are all good and so are the performances, especially that of Diana Elizabeth Torres as Juana. The music works well and the subject is interesting. I enjoyed the film very much and I would support and recommend its wider distribution. Perhaps the one aspect that takes it outside the (US) mainstream is that a large part of the film is subtitled with dialogue in Spanish or Japanese. This leads into the most germane question for this blog. Is East Side Sushi a potential international film?

There is a large and rapidly growing Hispanic film and TV market in the US which, like the South Asian film and TV market in the UK, is largely confined to Spanish language TV stations and specific cinema distribution networks. It’s difficult to get a sense of how this works from a distance but I note that East Side Sushi will open in cinemas in California on Friday 18th September and particularly in the Maya Cinemas chain – multiplexes serving areas with a significant Latino population. Screening details are available via the official website (screenings are also scheduled for Colorado, Arizona and Texas) which includes extra information about the filmmakers.

Thinking about this film, I realised that the only directly similar film I can remember getting a (very limited) UK release was Real Women Have Curves (US 2002) which helped launch the career of America Ferrera. It would be good to see Diana Elizabeth Torres get similar further opportunities. Interestingly, Paraíso (Paradise, Mexico 2014) also features a cookery competition as a generic device. Although I have seen only a few films like East Side Sushi, I do note that it is often a younger woman who seeks to find ways to improve herself and in so doing has to prove her worth not only to her employers but also to a (usually supportive) father. I won’t spoil the narrative here except to point out that it does to some extent rely on generic elements in order to build up our expectations. I think I would have liked a grittier social realism feel to the story – but then I would have missed the detail of the sushi presentation and TV competition! So, if you get to see the film I’m sure you will have an enjoyable time.

Here’s the trailer:

and the Facebook link.

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.