Category Archives: USA

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)

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)

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]

Upstream Color

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USA 2012. Dir: Shane Carruth, Scr: Shane Carruth

At Better Than Disneyland we sometimes worry that we get too bogged down in trying to tie things down, trying to understand what the director wants to say.  Sometimes we just want to answer the question, “Is it beautiful?” For Upstream Color this definitely feels like the more relevant question to ask, but the answer isn’t simple. This is a film whose powerful beauty is of the strangest kind. Instead of luxuriating, we find ourselves worrying. While it might be the most sensuous film we’ve seen this year – we feel the images and sounds they are so strong – it’s also possibly the most challenging.  The narrative is not only obscure it is also far from a pleasing montage – the content is at times disturbing and horrifying.  Although an award winner (for Sound Design) at Sundance, the film divided opinion – but what metaphysical science fiction romantic thriller wouldn’t?  We don’t find ourselves doing anything as simple as loving it, we find ourselves absorbed by it, lost in thought about it and we nod in appreciation of a director who is challenging conventional cinematic language, comfortable with a bold language other than words.

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A natural organism – a worm, a bug – is fed by a thief to a woman to drug her. The drug puts her under his control so that he can commit a sophisticated robbery. The organism, seemingly alive inside her, makes her ill. After an X files-like sequence to extract it in which she is “sampled” – her body is connected to a pig, she begins a difficult process of recovery and rehabilitation. She is thrown together with a man she meets on the train.  He has lost his job due to a financial crime he committed (to recover money lost in a similar way?).  Both are desperately fragile but they find protection in each other from things like the malevolent “surgeon”/pig-farmer who provides an otherworldly threat throughout.

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If this seems bonkers, Carruth manages to keep the audience transfixed. His extraordinary use of sound, his mix of camerawork both angled and direct and his mix of the lyrical and the brutal amplify our emotional responses:  we grimace as the woman clumsily tries to extract the organism herself, we feel the precarious safety of the two lovers as they hide away in their bath, wrapped in each other. He also handles the disturbing scenes in the early part of the film delicately. The drugged woman loses all choice, all power. The thief is in her apartment. But any sexual violence or exploitation is avoided and, at the same time, the thief is shown without judgement, almost in the abstract. Carruth also stars in the film with Amy Seimetz, who has a face that can reflect perfectly both emptiness and, in turn, inspiration by love. His bold creative talent is matched by his intelligence and his ability to worry. He worries about identity and what happens to someone when this is lost. He worries about how life is pieced together when someone has been violated.  And he worries about nature and purity.  Has man, or something, already interfered too much? Just as significant as the wild orchid turning an artificial blue is the final image: at first sight an upbeat, gentle note. But it’s a much more ambiguous image. Of mother and child, perhaps? It is a film to file under “special”, “unique”, a film to respect.

Emanuel And The Truth About Fishes

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USA 2013. Dir: Francesca Gregorini, Scr Francesca Gregorini

Gregorini’s second film, after Tanner Hall, is a fairy-tale with a deep soul.  It isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, to deal with those who are and feel marginalised – those whose secrets and experiences create a behavioural tension with society’s norms but, with a light touch, Gregorini links them with important questions about motherhood: the absence of a mother, the loss of a child, the inability to have children. It’s an imaginative story, it has surprises and dark humour and it’s gorgeous to look at – a modern fairy-tale about souls, lost and empty, looking for connections and being saved by doing the saving.

Emanuel is a “troubled” 17-year old who has never been able to shake off feelings of guilt and longing linked to the death of her mother as she gave birth to Emmanuel. She lives with her father, played sympathetically by Alfred Molina, and his new wife of a year – a benevolent and understanding woman but a stepmother that Emanuel can’t accept.  But when a new neighbour, Linda – played by Jessica Biel, moves in next door Emanuel is captivated. She sees not just a single woman with a young baby but an ethereal, mysterious figure resembling her absent mother. Emanuel agrees to babysit and, from the moment she walks into Linda’s elegant bohemian home the two women are drawn to each other and the more Emanuel sees of the Linda’s complex inner world the closer and more protective she becomes.

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Gregorini avoids cliché.  The stepmother is not a selfish schemer, but a primly fragile, caring woman with her own secret. Emanuel is “difficult” because she lives on the edge of sadness but she coolly delivers smug lines – a precocity that we laugh with or get irritated by – she is not the hackneyed child from hell. But the film does have its flaws: some of the dialogue feels forced and, sadly, it verges on Hollywood overstatement in the final sequence. That said, Gregorini is an honest storyteller and we are moved by how openly her heart is worn on her sleeve. She is sensitive to the fragility of the human, particularly female, psyche, and she knows beauty when she sees it.  She pulls us in with lingering close ups of a stunning face or eyes or a dizzying 360 degree take or carries us away with an astonishing underwater sequence, when we experience fully the feeling of immersion but breathe easily. And Kaya Scodelario, last seen as Cathy in Wuthering Heights – where her beauty lost out to a vapid part, relishes the role of Emanuel, originally written for Rooney Mara, balancing perfectly a vast emotional range with deadpan humour.

Also by Francesca Gregorini:

Tanner Hall (2009)

PS: for those kind enough to look at our posts we apologise for the hiatus.  We’ve had some technical problems.  We hope to post a review of several other Sundance films over the next few days.

Stoker

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United States/United Kingdom (2013). Dir. Park Chan-wook.

Full of sound and fury, Stoker signifies everything. Or rather, in Stoker’s cinematic universe, everything signifies. After all, Park Chan-wook’s newest (and first in the English language) is wildly, almost overwhelmingly cinematic, a strange film whose tightly-controlled palette of pastels is so beautifully saturated that they sometimes cease to be pastels at all, and whose every surface is so intensely polished that they don’t so much conceal depth as produce a different, weirder variety of depth, of reflections and shadows.

In a way, it’s the perfect thriller, but it’s also the perfect subversion of that genre. On her 18th birthday, the father of India (Mia Wasikowska) dies mysteriously. Attending his funeral is one Charlie Stoker, who uncannily resembles a younger, more handsome version of the deceased, and indeed whose very existence as the deceased’s younger brother was hitherto unknown to the surviving Stokers. Afterwards, he stays with the family at their creepily immaculate manor in rural Connecticut, professedly taking time off from “commitments in Europe” to help out in his late brother’s absence. The ensuing, dread-drenched family mystery is built entirely of stuff that would be only subliminal detritus in another, more typical murder mystery.

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To be clear, I’m talking about the Freudian stuff. And the film, too, makes this very clear — the breathtaking atmospherics produce an effect of the viewer having stepped out of Plato’s cave and into some realm of pure, Oedipal archetypes. So instead of having an unspoken, incestuous subtext, the film — and thereby not entirely unlike Park’s Oldboy — is fairly blatantly about incest! And instead of featuring a shower scene with a Pyscho-style sense of repressed sexuality, this film’s shower scene is… well, I won’t spoil it.

Speaking of Hitchcock, Matthew Goode plays Charlie with a (way-more-than-)”not quite right” charm easily worthy of Norman Bates. Like Psycho, Stoker isn’t so much a movie of compassionate, human performance as of uncannily robotic anti-acting. (That said, Nicole Kidman’s wonderfully jarring take on this as India’s distant mother, is more Lynch than Hitchcock). And although Mia Wasikowska’s role as the hypersensitive India initially seems to veer toward a young adult fiction-ish style of adolescent disaffection, much of the film’s intoxicating momentum comes from the gradual realization — paralleling her transition to adulthood — that our 18-year-old protagonist might not be as horrified at the events taking place around her as the typical thriller has taught us to expect.

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Okay, sure: the film’s demonic coming-of-age storyline is less an eye-opening exploration of authenticity and destiny, and more a delightful pastiche of those things. But even the campiest of parodies can’t help but contain a slippery kernel of the truth — and to be sure, this is far from the campiest of parodies. Instead, and not unlike, um, embracing your true nature as an incestuous spree murderer, Stoker provides the guiltiest of pleasures, and the guilt doesn’t entirely come from the fact that it’s so much goddamn fun to experience.

Also by Park Chan-wook:

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005)

Oldboy (2004)

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

Joint Security Area (2000)