Tag Archives: Movies

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)

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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)

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.

In The House (Dans La Maison)

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France (2012). Dir: Francois Ozon, Scr: Francois Ozon

I came out of this film with an uneasy feeling that it was worth quickly checking that my wife really was my wife and my friends really were, well, friends.  But it didn’t last long.  It was just Ozon, full of mischief.  He was being more mischievous than usual.  I’d enjoyed a film that was imaginative, very funny, poignant, satirical (of course), well-acted and with music that enhanced each scene. I’d also been carried off to a place where it wasn’t clear what was fact and what was fiction and where longing seeded betrayal but guilt and innocence weren’t pinned down.  Consequences were unintended and in a spiral. And it was all possible when, and because, we write stories.

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Fabrice Luchini plays Germain, a disaffected school literature teacher who wishes he was a writer.  His wife, played by Kristin Scott-Thomas, is the curator of a commercially precarious art gallery.  He is aloof in his scorn for her choices for the gallery and insensitive to the pressure she feels at work. But they engage, albeit in slightly distracted language. He is marking the first assignment of the term, deriding the lazy efforts of  “the worst class he has ever taught” when he stumbles on something by one of his students, Claude, that he reads out to his wife. Claude, who lives at home with his disabled unemployed father, records how he puts into action his desire to be in the idyllic family house of his friend, Rafa, closing sensually with how he was struck by “the singular scent of a middle class woman”.  It feels voyeuristic, manipulative and calculating but it’s a fabulous read.  It is also “To be continued…”.  Both Germain and his wife take the moral high ground immediately, “He’s making fun of his friend and his mother” she says and he gives it a B+.  But the story has them hooked and, in Claude’s inchoate talent, Germain rediscovers his purpose.  The film then charts Germain’s deepening involvement with the development of the story and, as the sequence of decisions, actions and consequences progresses, the lines between fantasy and reality become increasingly blurred.

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When it comes to the bourgeoisie, Ozon loves picking the wings and legs off the comfy insect. He encourages ridicule at the modern art in the gallery.  He makes Rafa’s benevolent father suitably alpha, with mid-level manager anxieties.  Both of Rafa’s parents hold dear aspirations that are both pointless and shallow.  Ozon also loves the idea of an intruder disturbing the stable protected harmony of the bourgeois unit.  He loves kicking off that unpredictable chain of events.  And in this film they are kicked off by the young but arrestingly talented Ernst Umhauer, who can perfectly reflect moral ambiguity in an otherwise beautiful face.  So, there is much to enjoy in the film’s dark playfulness – in Ozon’s particular take on life imitating art and art imitating life.  Some will spot literary references in the title and elsewhere (how bourgeois is that?) and, I think, we forgive a slight messiness towards the end as a moving, optimistic final scene reminds us that there really are a million stories.

Also by Francois Ozon (selection):

Potiche (2010)

Swimming Pool (2003)

8 Women (2002)

Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000)