Category: American Independents

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.

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: