Category: American Independents

Café Society (US 2016)

Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg)

Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) and Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg)

Woody Allen is still making movies at nearly 80. Is that a good thing? Some directors make important films in their last decades. Ken Loach (the same age as Woody) has just won the Palme d’Or for an angry cry out against austerity and neo-liberalism, but Woody seems to just keep going without any real purpose except to just keep going. I’m making this judgement based on reviews I’ve read since I’d only seen one of his films, Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2009, in the last twenty years before I caught his new film as a holiday treat. Despite a strong cast I thought that Vicky Cristina Barcelona was deeply flawed. Café Society has a similarly strong cast, but it is at least an enjoyable entertainment.

Opening Cannes this year, Café Society went straight into a French release. It offers us Jesse Eisenberg in a familiar role not dissimilar to the twin roles he played in The Double by Richard Ayoade. His character Bobby Hoffman begins as a shy, socially inept young man from the Bronx thrown into Hollywood society in the late 1930s and working for his uncle (Steve Carell) an important agent/wheeler-dealer. Bobby meets Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) his uncle’s secretary, falling in love and unwittingly creating a family problem as well as learning a whole range of new skills. Transformed by his Hollywood experience Bobby returns to New York and becomes a successful house manager at the night club owned by his gangster brother. Having been forced to leave Vonnie in Hollywood, the plot sets up the possibility of a later meeting in New York. But now Bobby is also able to woo other women in New York.

Allen riffs on two distinct genres that he has ‘played’ before. A musical analogy is not inappropriate since the setting is the period of Woody Allen’s early childhood and he fills the soundtrack with sublime music (matching the equally sublime cinematography of Vittorio Storaro) mainly performed by Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks. A New York Jewish family comedy-drama is melded with a romantic drama. Bobby also has an older sister married to a socialist ‘intellectual’. His mother is the driving force in the family with Ken Stott a surprising but pretty effective father in the background. The setting also brings to mind Some Like it Hot – and perhaps the Viennese comedies that Wilder himself was riffing on. Because of the gangster angle we get some very dark comedy moments but mostly Allen seems to be reworking material he’s done before. My interest in the film was mainly the chance to see the further development of Kristen Stewart as a compelling performer. I thought she was the standout in a very good cast. She manages to make believable a character who wears an alice band, white socks and short 1930s dresses but who is also clearly bright (a literature Masters) and more than capable of negotiating the twists and turns of Hollywood insider life. I suspect that in choosing a Barbara Stanwyck clip to set up Vonnie as a ‘player’, Woody Allen was going with Stewart’s own preference.

This was a pleasant way to pass 96 minutes. The story was interesting enough to engage us, the performances were all good and the technical credits were excellent. Woody Allen himself did the voiceover narration – which I know many people don’t like, but it worked perfectly for me. It was worthwhile Woody. As long as actors (young and old) want to work with you, there is still  market for films like this.

Here’s the French VOSF trailer:

Chronic (Mexico-France 2015)

chronic

I saw the film last Saturday at the Hyde Park Picture House and, disappointingly, I was one of only twelve in the audience. I think the film has suffered as its release comes at the fag end of the BAFTA/Oscar season. And its marketing by Curzon Film World has been low key. Moreover the film has not been assisted by critics. The Sight & Sound review was generally positive but included the odd comment:

“but if he [the director Michael Franco] wanted his films to be viewed by the general public, would he not invest his distressing themes with humour, . . .” [Why the ‘general public’?].

Michael Franco’s previous film After Lucia (Después de Lucía, Mexico-France 2012) won Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival. Even so it failed to get a UK release, though it was screened at the Leeds and London International Film Festivals. Chronic won the Best Screenplay at last year’s Cannes Festival. It also contains a superb performance by Tim Roth, with greater depth and complexity than that which won Leonardo DiCaprio awards at the BAFTAs and from the Hollywood Academy.

Roth plays David, a care worker. It is important to note that he works in the US medical industry. In the course of the film we see David caring for three patients, one suffering from AIDS, one who has suffered a stroke and one who has cancer. David is meticulous, involved with his patients but also seems somewhat obsessive. It is his character rather than the situation of the patients that is the film’s focus. There are however explicit scenes of the sort of situations such sufferers face. So the film is occasionally ‘distressing’ but not grim and it has a real sense of humanity.

The film is fairly opaque, so whilst the original ‘chronic’ refers to time the periodity of this film is unclear. Likewise the place or places are not detailed. The S&S review has more detail on character and plot, but I suspect this is from the Press Pack rather than the film. The editing is elliptical, so we move from scene to scene, and later on one patient succeeds another, but how long this all takes is ambiguous, as is the motivation of David himself.

The film is dominated by the mid-height mid-shot, mostly in long takes: variants on the plan Américain. Long shots often include framing to achieve a parallel effect. And the central focus is David or David and a patient. Other scenes and the settings seem mainly about character. There are occasional tracking shots, including the long reverse track that ends the film. At this point Franco, who also scripted the film, includes a change of emphasis that parallels his earlier film.

I found this a rewarding viewing. And the quality of the production means that it is worth going to the cinema rather than settling for an inferior video version. The Hyde Park has it on Wednesday but the audience will include parents and young children. Picturehouse at the National Media Museum now have it programmed for April 19th. It may already have been and gone at the Curzon venues in Richmond or Ripon.

GFF16 #3: Miss Sharon Jones (US 2015)

MissSharonJones

This joyous documentary deserves a wide audience who will lap it up. I was going to categorise it as a music documentary but it has two other important elements. It is also about one woman’s fight against cancer – a difficult subject for documentary – and about her personal biography (which introduces themes about identity, racism and the music business).

I’d heard about Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings but never registered their music or knew much about them. It was wonderful to hear the music. I didn’t know the songs but the sound was so familiar – the mainly southern soul of the 1960s and 1970s with allusions to Stax, Atlantic, Chess, FAME etc. Although Jones is based in New York her family is still in Georgia and the North-South (and West) axis of the band led by Gabriel Roth, AKA Bosco Mann, harks back to the time of the link-up between Stax and Atlantic. Roth and Jones met up musically in the mid-1990s and ‘Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ was born soon afterwards. Miss Jones became a star later in life than most artists and she enjoyed a decade or more of success with live shows and records under the band’s own label, Dap Tone. Then in 2014 she started treatment for pancreatic cancer and the band’s future seemed uncertain. Somehow the band’s new recording was completed and a tour was organised even as Sharon recovered. It’s this period through 2014 and into the early part of 2015 which provides the drama in a documentary by two-time Oscar-winning documentarist Barbara Kopple (honoured for Harlan County, USA in 1976 and American Dream in 1991).

Kopple’s approach is to stick fairly close to Sharon Jones during her recovery from treatment when she convalesces with a friend, visits her family and finally gets back into recording and onto the road for live shows. During this time the singer talks about her life and the attitudes she met in the music business when she was told she was “too black, too short and not pretty enough”. You have to feel that this is the modern culture of Black Music in the US – it was once a question of whether you could sing and if you had ‘soul’ – Ms Jones clearly has both attributes. Kopple weaves her footage together effortlessly and intersperses it with band interviews and live performances. The screening was in the Centre for Contemporary Arts a couple of blocks down from the Glasgow Film Theatre, in the ‘Theatre’ space which had a big screen and good sound so these performances worked very well. (But I learned to accept an extra cushion for my next screening in this venue!)

Miss Sharon Jones! played at Toronto in September 2015 and the New York City Doc Festival a month or two later. A US release is expected in 2016 but as yet the film doesn’t have a distributor and Barbara Kopple’s Cabin Creek Films doesn’t seem totally geared up just yet. There is a Facebook page for the film and you can check out Cabin Creek Films and the band’s own website. I do hope that the film gets a cinema release in the UK. It’s a great story and although it would still work on TV, I think the live performances are best on a big screen with an audience.

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.