Author Archives: pabetterthandisneyland

Frances Ha

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USA 2012.  Dir Noah Baumbach. Scr: Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach

This is a delightful film. Enough of a fairy-tale to be uplifting, not too much of a fairy-tale for the toes to curl. A light, fresh riff set in a black-and-white contemporary New York that seems to wish it was Paris, but realises that it has its own romantic potential. And it’s a film that unashamedly gives us, in the charming Greta Gerwig, a new muse: think of your nicest friend and mix her with Anna Karina and Adrienne Shelley. She has a face on which the camera lingers: we don’t want her or want to be her, we just understand each other and smile.

Frances is the slightly ungainly understudy in a dance company for whom life is a series of disappointments and situations where she is, again slightly, out of place. But she has a special best friend, Sophie – played by Sting’s daughter Mickey Sumner, and an innocent optimism and vibrancy, which people like. But not only is the strength of her most important relationship tested when Sophie hooks up with a banker who is posted to Japan, the dance company then decides that it cannot give her work in the winter show that would have provided confidence, purpose and the ability to pay rent.

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But this is a generous film about being young. On the whole all the (young) people are shown in a positive light and no-one is judged, especially not by Frances. It has a rare narrative spine: it’s about the relationship between two women as their paths diverge. From symbiosis, a friendship is reshaped and redefined. And when we see Frances running through the streets of New York – with some dance steps here and there – as David Bowie’s Modern Love plays, we feel good.  We feel there’s a chance that our modest dreams might be within touching distance. We feel that, like Frances, after many stumbling starts we might guided by an invisible hand towards a dream we didn’t know we had.

Also by Noam Baumbach:

Greenberg (2010)

Margot at the Wedding (2007)

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

The Act of Killing (Director’s Cut)

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Denmark/Norway/UK (2012). Dir: Joshua Oppenheimer

I doubt you will ever see a documentary like this again. And you may never experience a nightmare quite like it.  Imagine a film-maker gaining the trust of the surviving members of a death squad from an earlier generation, giving them the freedom to tell their story – not as talking heads – but by re-enacting their “interrogations” and executions, with reference to their choice of  Hollywood cinematic genre: noir or camp musical, for example.  It really does put you into a nightmare: shocking, sickening and disturbing but also unfathomably surreal. Cinematically, there is genius at work and in getting to the truth it is both brave and important. But it leaves you with the troubled queasiness of balancing on a very high moral tightrope.

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In 2002, Oppenheimer traveled to Indonesia to talk to and film survivors of the relatively unknown 1965-66 cleansing of “communists” and ethnic Chinese. An intelligent man, a good man of principle, who wanted to publicise a neglected, dark episode in history, he was frustrated in his attempts to put together the story of the victims and their families. But his research revealed an astonishing openness from the perpetrators. What became clear, almost 50 tears on, is an environment of fear for most people but casual impunity, a sort of celebrity status, for the subjects of the film. But, at the same time, the complexity, the ambition, of Oppenheimer’s project changed dramatically, from documentation to an attempt to explain the motives behind man’s inhumanity to man.

What we learn is at times unbearably gruesome. But, it is also a truism to say that “all acts of evil are perpetrated by human beings”. The difficulty for Oppenheimer – and this is difficult stuff – is that he, of course, finds that he can’t really give us much more than the little we know already about cruelty’s motives – under the right (wrong) circumstances, you or I or the next-door neighbour, etc. But he is in so very deep that the piece turns into an emotionally exhausting pursuit of signs of remorse. It becomes a self-fulfilling process of humanisation.

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The credits show that the vast majority of those working on the film on location have asked to remain anonymous.  This speaks volumes about the environment in which Oppenheimer worked and his bravery.  It is a unique film that uncovers the truth in a way that is utterly compelling while, simultaneously, making the audience want to run for the exit. At the same time, Oppenheimer may have, unintentionally, overstepped a line.  It is now a couple of weeks since I saw the film. It has stayed with me, but my emotional response has been anything but simple. What I am left with is an overwhelming sadness.

Breathe In

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USA 2013. Dir: Drake Doremus; Scr: Drake Doremus, Ben York Jones

The only reason to see this film is for a three-minute sequence in which ten fingers (supposedly attached to Felicity Jones, who plays Sophie, an exchange student) caress a piano for a little-known Chopin piece.  It’s as much of a stunning, glorious surprise to the film audience as it is significant to the plot development. It certainly put a momentary, but abrupt, stop to my tutting, sighing and giggling at the laboured direction and predictability of the unlikely story.  Sadly, the film reverts to type in minutes.

It’s the kind of story we feel we’ve seen many times before. Keith, played by Guy Pierce, is an aging musician who has been living as a teacher without spontaneity or inspiration since the birth of his daughter, Lauren, seventeen years ago. He is, of course, disappointed in Lauren, who isn’t musical but does a bit of swimming. His lovely, loving wife of eighteen years puts a strain on any communication by introducing pragmatism. Into the nest comes dark-haired and dark-eyed Sophie (She’s English, but irony is completely absent). Not only does she attract the boy Lauren fancies but, more significantly for the family unit, she can really play piano.

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The film might as well have been made by a big studio for its predictability and need for suspension of disbelief.  Sadly the “indie” ingredients are delivered with formulaic heavy-handedness: close-ups of emotion-addled faces, laconic interaction and lingering shots of door-frames, corridors and tree-limbs. Doremus extends this to what he squeezes from the cast: “Do more acting!” he seems to be shouting in every take, as everyone tries so hard. And in the end we just don’t believe it, in part because we don’t really find much out about Sophie or Keith.  Despite staring into her face for some time, we don’t get to know Sophie. And while we get that Keith might be weak, narcissistic and selfish, we don’t get how his family hasn’t sensed this before. The music is very pretty (you know, nice) but it’s a film that is self-consciously weighty and feels forced, bringing to mind the phrase, “I could have made it more natural if I’d worked harder at it.” Doremus needs to work much harder at it.

Also by Drake Doremus:

Like Crazy (2011)

Silent Souls

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Russia (2010). Dir: Aleksei Fedorchenko, Scr: Denis Osokin

On DVD

I sat down to watch this film just after its first run in an old church in Tunbridge Wells, a polite town known to locals as Royal Tunbridge Wells.  I can’t recall when we realized there were no English subtitles but, although it seemed impolite to leave, soon we had to file out. But even in those early moments, we had been struck by something special – perhaps it was the solitary man walking his bicycle across the wooden pontoon bridge as it moved with the current. Returning a year later to the DVD, I marveled at 75 lyrical minutes of perfect cinema: a contemplation on universal themes – in this case, death, grief, companionship, love, sex – in an utterly unique setting, one rich in atmosphere and completely outside the viewer’s normal frame of reference. Watching it is like falling in love in another world.

Miron is the middle-aged senior manager at a factory in central Russia. He calls his friend, Aist – who also narrates, from the shop-floor onto the roof to tell him that his young wife, Tanya, died the previous night, “I’m not taking her to the morgue.  I’d prefer to do everything with you”. They are descended from the Merja, a race of Finnish émigrés assimilated into Russia centuries ago and he was asking Aist to help him honour the almost forgotten rites of passage, including accompanying him on the long journey back to where he married to build a funeral pyre by the river.

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While the film has its roots in the orphaned villages linked to a distant past, it not a documentary about Finno-Ugric culture. It doesn’t seem to matter what parts are Merjan tradition and what parts are (beautiful) poetic licence: the tender rituals are special to reflect an aching and all-encompassing love for his wife and Miron performs them, carefully and methodically, to cope with grief. And Aist is, of course, important on the journey to help with rituals both physically and also emotionally. He listens to the “smoke”, when a grieving Merjan speaks of intimacies and says things “you’d never tell a stranger, to make your face brighter and turn grief into tenderness”. It’s also important that Aist hears that their friendship transcends guilt or forgiveness.

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The camerawork of Michael Krichman is mesmeric. There’s a rain-soaked melancholy and quiet magnificence to the lansdscape and every frame is an elegant composition, a perfect fit with the poetry of the narrative. On this particular road trip from their beloved Neya it is also fitting that metaphor and symbol are never far. After the pair meet a couple of girls after the cremation, Aist muses “A live woman’s body is also a river that carries grief away”. Most significant is the pair of bunting birds in their cage that Aist couldn’t leave at home. Without subtitles this would be a gorgeous film. With them it is an inspiration.

Something In The Air (Apres Mai)

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France (2012). Dir: Olivier Assayas; Scr: Olivier Assayas

It is 1971 in the Paris suburbs and the zeitgeist of May 1968 – the student occupations, wildcat strikes and street violence – is felt strongly by a group of restless, creative high-school friends. In a perfectly composed recreation of the early seventies Assayas, unashamed but with some confessional humility, presents a (self) portrait of the artist as a late teen passing into a twenty-something: middle-class, rebellious, searching but rather more self-centred and just “afraid to miss out on his youth”. It’s a film so rich in atmosphere, so evocative of place and time, so immaculate in detail that story becomes subordinated to the feeling that we are drawn into Assayas’ memory. It’s less nostalgia than a shared experience: the terrible adrenalin thrill of running from crowd violence, the hopeless love for a (more) sophisticated free-spirit and the comfort of drifting. Time passes, chapters open and close, often in flames.  It envelops you.

We first see Gilles, played by Clement Metayer, scratching the anarchy symbol into his desk in class.  He distributes leaflets by the school and argues – angry, self-contained – at smokey meetings.  We see his breathless and terrifying escape from the Police after he and his friends join a demonstration in the city. Early on we also see Gilles’ muse, Laure (Carol Combes), an ethereal child of nature (they meet on a woodland pathway). She reads lesser-known beat poets and is unselfconscious about her body and sex. She tells him she is moving to London because her dad is going to work with Soft Machine.

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Gilles’ group step up their nocturnal activism (against their school buildings) and Gilles gets closer to Christine, played by Lola Creton. But their lives change when a night raid goes badly wrong and one of the group faces charges, so Gilles, Christine and another friend, Alain (Felix Armand), travel to Italy to lie low.  There they they hook up with beautiful itinerant young people on a higher plane of grooviness. Alain heads off to Afganistan with Leslie, an American who wants to study spiritual dance and Christine drives off in the campervan of a group of political film-makers.  Eventually they each drift homeward, Gilles first.

The film steers clear of developing a coherent political argument, because Gilles can’t – the filmmakers in Italy deride his reading material and don’t take him seriously enough to help his film project,“We do agitprop, we don’t lend for fiction”. In fact, Assayas doesn’t want us to like Gilles: he is always “outside the real struggle”, wealth cushions any risks he takes (he’s happy to rely on nepotism back in France) and he is selfish. But while we feel more sympathy for the committed Christine, whose (hopeless) love for Gilles endures, and the idealistic and supportive Alain, Gilles is no less real.

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The cinematography is exquisite. It glows. The music of the time is selected with a passion: Syd Barrett, Nick Drake, Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart and Tangerine Dream.  Assayas is also particularly in tune with a kind of asymmetric young love – the disappointments are poignant and quietly dramatic. And around this he reminds us of a communication that we may have lost: when she leaves for London, Christine gives Gilles a copy of Corso’s book of poems, Gasoline, and, most moving, Alain gently urges Leslie to go to see two paintings on display near to where she will be.  At the time it is the most loving, thoughtful present he can give.

In A World

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USA, 2012.  Dir: Lake Bell, Scr: Lake Bell

One of the nice things about Lake Bell’s first feature-length film is the genuine recognition given to legendary film trailer and TV advert voice-over artist Don LaFontaine, “The Voice of God” or “Thunder Throat”, who died in 2008. There’s no irony in her opening tribute to the undisputed king of an obscure cottage industry supplying The Movies. Closer to the real LA than the glamour of Hollywood, this insular world is, nevertheless, characterised by egos, rivalry, hierarchy and sexual politics. But these are playfully undermined by Bell as she introduces a fictional group of characters to the real-world vacuum left after LaFontaine’s death. With a warm universal (at least mid-Atlantic) humour that blends quirkiness, self-deprecation and throwaway lines, the film is wonderfully funny.  It is a film of such charm that, while Lake Bell is becoming a well-known TV actress, the audience can see it has made a discovery and, in her – writer, director and leading actress, it has discovered a phenomenon.

Carol is the voice-coach daughter of successful, now retired, larger-than-life film trailer voice-over artist, Sam, played by Fred Melamed. She still lives at home but, early on, Sam talks about his girlfriend moving in and the need for Carol to move out, “I can’t continue to support your emotional handicap.”  Carol stays with her sister, Dani (Michaela Watkins), and her partner, Moe (Rob Corddry) – an arrangement which helps develop the subplot around tests of fidelity. The sweet, geeky recording engineer, played by Demetri Martin, who fancies Carol arranges for her to record a test voice-over, which is well-received. After winning an advertising job, “Wow, you’re the voice of Sunny D!”, Carol is added to the shortlist for the voice-over of the trailer for the next Hollywood fantasy blockbuster.  When her father hears, he decides to compete against her.

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The film is easy to love and difficult to fault. The Dani and Moe sub-plot is in to show the rounding of characters, how people are flawed, the real LA.  It is perhaps slightly over-done in the film, but the “Sisterhood” between Carol and Dani is both silly in-joke and important statement. Bell is a smart feminist: she is making her mark in a (man’s) world because she is a workaholic with huge talent, energy, passion and interest.  But, in a scene with a brilliant cameo by Geena Davis she acknowledges that affirmative action has a place. As a sign that her popularity, rightly, seems to be growing we see if not better, then funnier, cameos from Cameron Diaz and Eva Longoria. The infectious, child-like vibrancy we saw at the Q&A at Sundance London permeates the film.  She talked of performing “The Late Lake Show” between the ages of 5 and 11 to put off bed-time and I don’t think she’s changed: why sleep when you can be tangential? Oh, and she loves doing accents – The valley girl, the Russian (her favourite), the wide-boy – and they all appear in the film.  She is, well, just lovely – a sort of lozenge of light.  She has everything you’d want in a best friend.  And anyone who can slip Haircut 100 into a party scene is a friend of mine.

PS: Technically, one of the accents in the film was Bulgarian, not Russian.  Russian is still her favourite, I think.

Running From Crazy

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USA 2012.  Dir: Barbara Kopple, Scr: Barbara Kopple

The film opens with the scene being clearly set: Seven of Mariel Hemingway’s relatives, including grandfather Ernest, committed suicide.  But there’s a still more disturbing moment when the final credits show that Oprah Winfrey is executive producer.  It’s easy to be suspicious: we imagine OW in a big gleaming limo on the phone to Kopple, “Make ’em cry, Babs”.  But this does the director a massive disservice.  This a brave film and she is in control.

It’s the story not just of Mariel but of the three sisters living with the Hemingway gene – the daughters of Ernest’s eldest son’s marriage, one that was unhappy and blurred by “wine time” every evening. Muffet is the eldest: she was elegant, sporty, clever, nomadic, but often institutionalized and now barely recognisable, living on the margin of society, unable to fend for herself.  Margaux, the wild child, drinker, fighter, big partier, at one time the highest paid model in the country and star of films with mixed critical and commercial success, now dead after a drug overdose in 1996.  And Mariel, a more successful movie star who – after her husband’s cancer, a broken marriage, battles with depression, faddish life-style obsessions – actively campaigns for suicide awareness and, here, talks with disarming honesty about coming to terms with being from “the other American family that had this horrible curse”.

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Kopple’s style here is passive, she’s a watcher and a collector. The narrative doesn’t build momentum, nor is there a big surprise moment that shifts the gear or direction nor onion-peeling detective work.  And it is more subtle than a polemic on mental health. The film is a collage with a chronological spine. It splices together family film footage, interviews and fly on the wall views of Mariel with film and tape interviews with Margot along with excerpts from an unfinished film of hers, retracing her grandfather’s footsteps.  These sections are the highlight as Margot’s louche, self-destructive allure commands our attention.  In a striking scene we are shown Margaux’s distress at the brutality of the bullfight.  Mariel reflects that the event is a “metaphor for Margaux’s life”.

Kopple never spoon-feeds opinions to the audience: the almost off-the-cuff revelation that the girls were sexually abused by their father is left hanging and passes – its a “what did she just say?” moment; footage of the “Out of the Darkness” festival for people touched by suicide is used only as moving context to show the bond between Mariel and her daughter, and; we are encouraged to form our own view of Mariel. Kopple indulges her self-pity at times – how she never felt important, how she provided the support to a mother who “lacked physical affection”. But shows her remorsefully reflecting on tension with Margaux, who “Idolized all the things I hated.  I thought she was stupid”. This candour  shows her strength, emphasized when Kopple takes a directorial risk, by showing a sort of reality tv argument between Mariel and her partner.  But then she neatly cuts to Mariel pulling herself up a sheer rockface by her fingertips.

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It’s a brave film about women who, though not Nobel-prize winning novelists, deserve attention for trying to build their own lives in the shadow of “Papa” Ernest and who are interesting in their own right, albeit tragically.  Its subject matter does takes us close to, not quite over, the schmaltz line once or twice but the most painfully sugary moment is when Margaux explains her change of name (from Margot): it was the wine her father was drinking when she was conceived.  She stops short of saying whether he was chateaud at the time.

Also by Barbara Kopple (Selection):

Bearing Witness (2005)

American Dream (1990) [Oscar for Best Documentary]

Harlan County, USA (1976) [Oscar for Best Documentary]