Category: American Independents

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.

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: