Category Archives: American Independents

Killing Them Softly (US 2012)

Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy as the rather gormless petty criminals in Killing Them Softly. Image © The Weinstein Company

I watched this with Nick in a nearly empty specialised cinema. It’s an intelligent and very well-made film but it doesn’t work for me and in some ways it seems indicative of the problems with contemporary American cinema. Box office has actually been OK in the UK during the opening week – I think that it has probably drawn bigger audiences in multiplexes (but there have also been walkouts according to IMDB so the second week drop-off will be interesting). On the other hand, the three big foreign language films this week had much higher screen averages. The film doesn’t open in North America until November 30th.

The source material is a George V. Higgins story. Higgins was a highly-admired crime novelist who was also a journalist, a high-ranking lawyer and an academic. The only other Higgins novel that was adapted for Hollywood was The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) with Robert Mitchum. 1970s Hollywood remains the benchmark for intelligent, grown-up popular cinema and Eddie Coyle is a lost gem, now hard to find on DVD. You can easily see what attracted Brad Pitt and Andrew Dominik to Higgins’ 1974 story Cogan’s Trade. Pitt plays Cogan, an efficient assassin brought in by ‘the mob’ to restore ‘order’ to the illegal poker schools which have protection. Cogan is professional, but everyone else in this scenario is either too stupid, too inexperienced or too fucked-up to function properly. This isn’t therefore an action film or a mystery. The film’s ending is inevitable from the opening scenes onward. Instead, this is a character study set in the sleazy world of crime that Higgins knew well from his experience as an attorney in Boston.

Dominik as screenwriter has chosen to shift the location from 1970s Boston to post-Katrina New Orleans and to make the timing very specific in the weeks around the presidential election of 2008. I confess that I didn’t twig that it was meant to be New Orleans. I didn’t notice any local references and now I think back there are no African-American characters or indications of Cajun culture – nothing in fact to suggest the crime world as envisaged by a writer like James Lee Burke and his New Orleans cop Dave Robicheaux. I’d just assumed that the film was set in some run-down Northern industrial city. Dominik presumably wants to suggest a kind of mythical setting, so the characters drive ancient models of cars. (I know nothing about US car models, but it was surprising to see the character played by Ray Liotta using a key to lock his car.) The music, by far the most pleasurable aspect of the film for me, is suitably ancient going back to at least the 1950s and probably the 1940s. A great Johnny Cash track is perhaps the most modern recording and Ketty Lester’s classic ‘Love Letters’ from 1962 the most evocative for me. Is Dominik trying to rival Scorsese’s use of popular music?

Given these touches, the heavy emphasis on speeches by Obama and George W. Bush on the financial crisis seems out of place. On several occasions, TV and radio broadcasts are presented high in the mix – in situations where they wouldn’t normally dominate – such as on a TV set in a bar or  in an airport arrivals hall. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps they do in the US, but even so, the use of these speeches seems clumsy and a final speech by Cogan/Pitt sums up the central message of the film in the closing scene. Many crime fiction fans are attracted to the genre because it expresses a political discourse beneath the action and the procedural elements, but usually it’s achieved in a more subtle way.

There’s something odd about a standard-length feature (97 minutes) that feels much longer – my attention drifted in some of the long conversations, especially the two between the Pitt character and another assassin/enforcer played by James Gandolfini as a washed-up alcoholic addicted to hookers. On the other hand, the slow pace allowed me to compare the performance styles of Brad Pitt and Scoot McNairy. In a scene at a bar, Pitt plays as film star, exuding confidence as a dominant character while McNairy ‘acts’ a role as the dumb criminal whimpering and almost crying. I like McNairy – though it took me a while to recognise him from his roles in Monsters and In Search of a Midnight Kiss. In this kind of film, I think the star should be in the downbeat role. The Pitt character Cogan is too much the dominant character.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle was directed by Peter Yates at a time when European directors were taking on American subjects (e.g. Karel Reisz (The Gambler, Who’ll Stop the Rain?), Jacques Deray (Outside Man), Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way) etc. Perhaps the Antipodean Dominik would have been better off looking towards these guys rather than wandering into Tarantino territory? But the main production company behind this appears to be Brad Pitt’s Plan B. The weight of the Weinstein Company as distributor is also there, so rather than a straight studio movie this is one of those star-driven ‘super-indie’ films that gets sent to Cannes and then hits the multiplexes flexing its star power. It occurs to me that it also resembles Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive with Ryan Gosling – another well-made film that uncertainly bridged the mainstream/specialised cinema divide. Both films contain sequences that are much too violent for me, but Refn’s works better overall. None of my reservations about Killing Them Softly can detract from Andrew Dominik’s talent – I need to go back and look at The Assassination of Jesse James a second time.

Your Sister's Sister (US 2011)

(From left) Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt

Not too much to say about this. The performances are excellent and the dialogue is witty. It’s enjoyable but slight. A few days ago someone asked me about the concept of ‘Smart Cinema’ and I said that I thought it had now run its course. Perhaps this is the current version of a type of film that plays off the standard Hollywood romcom and offers similar pleasures but more intelligent characters and some genuine dramatic tension. Mark Duplass plays Jack – a kind of ageing slacker in suburban Seattle who needs to take more time out after the death of his brother Tom. Tom’s girlfriend Iris (Emily Blunt) comes up with the perfect bolt-hole in the form of her father’s palatial log cabin on an island in the bay. Unfortunately her own half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is already in residence having herself just split up with a long-standing (female) partner. When Iris pays a surprise visit to the cabin she joins Jack and Hannah and an interesting ménage à trois ensues.

Writer-director Lynn Shelton is clearly a talented filmmaker and it’s good to see someone working in their home environment. The little we see (and the music we hear) of Washington state is very attractive. I enjoyed Rosemarie DeWitt’s performance the most, but Emily Blunt is definitely turning into a fine comedienne. If only the male character had had a bit more about him than simply a puppy dog expression and a facility with words.

Detachment (US 2011)

Adrien Brody and Betty Kaye in ‘Detachment’

British director Tony Kaye is a ‘controversial’ figure in Hollywood following the furore that erupted around his first fiction feature American History X (US 1998) – when he attempted to disown the picture and sued New Line Pictures. His background is advertising, documentary and music videos – which he was still able to produce when Hollywood producers wouldn’t return his calls. Detachment is in some ways his ‘come-back’ feature. Though clearly a low budget film, it boasts a fantastic cast including Adrien Brody, Marcia Gay Harden, Lucy Liu, James Caan, Blythe Danner, Tim Blake Nelson and Christina Hendricks.

Detachment attempts to give the audience an insight into the current state of public high schools in urban America. There is an outline plot with three main narratives focusing on the relationships between substitute teacher Adrien Brody and his grandfather, one of his students and a teenage runaway he befriends. Each of these narratives has a resolution over three weeks, but the film encompasses a wider selection of characters associated with the school and these characters are the players in sequences that are more like sketches. There are also some animated sequences. The film begins with animated credits utilising a blackboard and vox pops from presumably ‘real’ teachers discussing their attitudes towards the profession. Adrien Brody as ‘Henry Barthes’ (the title of the film is from a quote by Albert Camus) also reads to us what seem like diary entries and we get to see flashbacks to his own troubled childhood. Brody was reported as having accepted the role (and becoming a producer) because his own father was a public school teacher.

You have probably gathered from this description that Detachment is not a conventional high school drama of the type that perhaps began with Blackboard Jungle in the 1950s and continues with more recent titles like Dangerous Minds (1995). These films generally feature a liberal teacher who wins the hearts and minds of difficult students. Henry Barthes in Detachment is himself a troubled figure and though he does try to engage with his students, he isn’t necessarily successful and the film shows the struggles of the other teachers in the school (although Henry’s is the only classroom we see – most of the other teachers are seen in the staffroom or school offices).

There have been a few negative reviews of the film, but the majority of audiences seem to have found the film compelling and have endorsed the selection by writer Carl Lund of confrontations between teachers and students that appear in the film. If you’ve ever taught in a school classroom you will have experienced some of these – critics from sheltered backgrounds might not understand, but the film is in this sense quite realistic. The cast is generally excellent and Kaye’s direction (and cinematography) is very lively. I enjoyed the animation and some of the other devices. This isn’t to say that there aren’t weaknesses in the approach, though I think that I probably need to see the film again to make a more balanced judgement. One problem is that we don’t know the situation that Henry is in when he reads his statements as voiceovers – is he in prison, in hospital or perhaps writing a biography? The other potential problem is Henry’s relationship with the young woman on the streets who Henry takes home because she is clearly too young and too damaged/abused to survive for long on her own. I did think that a) she ‘brushed up’ too well and looked far too healthy after only a couple of days of recuperation, b) the situation seemed unreal in comparison with the all too real problems in the school and c) I eventually felt manipulated by this narrative into making a conventional Hollywood emotional response. On the other hand . . . other viewers enjoyed this aspect of the film and it does work in terms of melodrama. The main point is, I think, that Detachment has so many different elements both working together and offering different ways of presenting its overall commentary, that it doesn’t really matter if one doesn’t work – you’ll soon be offered another.

Anyone who has worked in, cares for or has simply thought about education should see this film. I doubt you will be bored if you seek it out! Here’s the trailer. The film opens on Friday July 13th in the UK – though I suspect it will be difficult to find, so keep your eyes peeled.

Sing Your Song (US 2011)

Harry Belafonte and the Belafonte Folk Singers perform ‘Coconut Woman’ on Bell Telephone Hour, NBC TV 1964 (the show appeared 1959-68)

Sing Your Song is a ‘bio-doc’ celebrating the extraordinary life of Harry Belafonte, the legendary African-Caribbean-American singer, actor-producer and political and social activist. The title comes from advice given to Belafonte as a young performer by the equally legendary Paul Robeson:

“Get them to sing your song and they will want to know who you are.”

I enjoyed the documentary very much, particularly because it wasn’t until the 1980s that I began to understand the importance of Belafonte as a political activist – and then it was in relation to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and also Belafonte’s role as a producer in independent American cinema. In the 1950s I was aware of Belafonte as a singer, but for a child in the UK the politics of race in American society were not very visible. The documentary spends most of its time focusing on Belafonte’s TV career and his leading role in assembling support from other entertainers for the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s. With his high profile in American music and television he had clout and he was prepared to put his career on the line to fight for equality. I’d not seen most of the TV and news footage presented here before so this was very exciting.

However, there are two problems with the film that I did find frustrating. The first was purely technical. Having discovered so much incredible archive footage, it was a real shame that the filmmakers seemingly made no attempt to process the footage in the correct aspect ratios. The result is that the TV footage from the 1950s and 1960s is stretched from the 4:3 standard and made to fill a 16:9 image (I’m assuming that the film was made for TV screening as the home for many US documentaries – HBO is listed as one of the distributors of the film. (I converted the TV image above as the Press photos also include some stretched images.) Since the whole point about Belafonte’s appearance in the 1950s was that, as well as being very handsome, he was tall and slim, it’s very disappointing that you don’t get that from the footage. This is surprising in that the documentary is made by Belafonte’s own production company. But this in itself constitutes the second problem. Although the film’s director is Susanne Rostock, a distinguished documentary-maker, Belafonte narrates the film himself and his daughter Gina is a producer. My impression is that this is Harry Belafonte’s preferred view of his own story. Which is fine, but since he deals with a wide range of political issues it would be interesting to get a wider perspective on his achievements. I admit that one of the aspects of his career that I would have liked to learn more about was his experience in Hollywood. He clearly feels that his political activities have been more important than his disaffection with the film industry. When I did some work on Belafonte’s film career, I found it very interesting and a few more posts might well follow this one dealing with specific films. In organising an event associated with a screening of Sing Your Song, I produced some notes on his film career which are downloadable: BelafonteNotes

Harry Belafonte with JFK in a campaign film which used to urge African-Americans to vote for Kennedy in the 1960 presidential campaign. (The ad can be viewed on YouTube.)

My slight reservations about Sing Your Song aren’t intended to put anyone else off watching the film, which I hope will show on UK TV after its cinema run and DVD release. There is also a book, My Song and the official website for the film provides a wealth of resources. Harry Belafonte has been working in the American entertainment industry for more than sixty years and he is still active, using his resources and his celebrity status to develop political campaigns aiming to promote social, economic and political equality, both in the US and in the international arena. As many reviewers have said, he is an inspirational figure and I’m glad an accessible document like Sing Your Song exists. As well as learning about his current political work, I also learned a lot from the archive material. I hadn’t really appreciated just how big a musical and TV star Belafonte was in the 1950s/60s – and therefore the weight that his endorsement of causes carried. His ‘development’ of Caribbean folk tunes in an American context, though in one sense appearing ‘inauthentic’, in another sees him as opening up American popular music to new influences. But it is his strong character that enabled him to challenge the race divide in American broadcasting. I knew about the controversy surrounding his appearance on Pet Clark’s TV Show in 1968 (when the sponsor’s representative objected to the physical contact between the two singers) but not about Belafonte’s own TV show, which was not renewed because the sponsor felt uncomfortable with its social concerns and its ‘blackness’. This morning, the Guardian‘s third editorial, often used as an ‘in praise of . . .’ piece, singles out Harry Belafonte’s book and reiterates his importance as a celebrity figure who commits completely to his political work.

BIFF 2012 #5: Turkey Bowl (US 2012)

A team talk in 'Turkey Bowl'

This was the other half of the double bill with Distinguished Flying Cross in the Uncharted States of America strand. At 64 mins this film comes in just below the conventional time length that separates ‘short’ from ‘feature-length’ – and that may be a defining constraint for audiences because this is a fiction narrative that for me required more time to tell a satisfying story.

Writer-director Kyle Smith has imposed some tough constraints on himself with a total of ten characters who play out a game of American Football on a summer’s day in a Los Angeles park. The narrative is composed in what appears to be nearly ‘real time’ (there is conventional cutting between shots but no obvious ellipses in the presentation of events).

Seven of the ten know each other  from college and are meeting for their annual game with the winner getting the turkey. One guy brings his girlfriend and two other players just happen to be in the park and are invited to join in. They go through team selection and then play the game. My dissatisfaction is probably because I find the game itself fairly incomprehensible. It isn’t a ‘beautiful game’ but I guess it can be the basis of interesting narratives given time for more background than is possible here. Competitive sport brings out the worst in people so inevitably there is bickering and stand-offs between those who play to win and those who don’t. Race, gender and class become divisive issues, but not quite in the way we might expect. I found several of the group to be simply offensive at first but they are nuanced enough as characters to enable a dramatic narrative to take shape. However, it has nowhere to go, so the final result is like a film school exercise. (I’m not sure why we need to see the whole game – a bit more social interaction would have suited me.) Having said that, it is well-acted, nicely shot and edited and works well in its own terms. I can see why the film was highly praised at the SXSW Festival in Austin. This review from indieWire gives a more sympathetic view and makes some interesting points.

BIFF 2012 #4: Distinguished Flying Cross (US 2011)

The only known photo of Wade Wilkerson's helicopter in combat

Screened as part of a double bill of short features, Distinguished Flying Cross is a 61 minute documentary about a US Army helicopter pilot sent to Vietnam in 1965. According to the festival brochure, Film Comment named director Travis Wilkinson as one of the top avant-garde filmmakers currently active. This turned out to be rather a misleading introduction to the film which is actually a conventionally structured eye-witness documentary. The simple structure uses title cards to announce questions and chapter headings for the statements of Warrant Officer Wilkerson who is shown in a head-on shot flanked by his two sons. The trio drink beer and mull over the father’s memories. Intercut with these scenes are clips of the war taken by unnamed army filmmakers (including some interesting footage of local bands playing for the Americans) and acquired by Travis Wilkerson via US National Archives.

Wade Wilkerson has an extraordinary memory from which he digs out some matter-of-fact observations of what happened and why. He was in Vietnam because he wanted to fly civil jetliners and the only way to get such jobs was via military training. He would have needed a college degree to get into the Navy or Airforce but the Army took him without questions. He wasn’t a very good soldier according to his own account and the incident which earned him the DFC, although certainly heroic on his part, was probably awarded for the wrong reason. An excellent raconteur, Wade tells an interesting story well exposing the bullshit as he puts it. I enjoyed the tales (most of which are familiar enough from the well-known books on the war such as Michael Herr’s Despatches or Philip Caputo’s A Rumour of War) – but I don’t think I’ve heard the specific helicopter pilot perspective before. This perspective is also important because this was 1965 when the US was supposedly ‘aiding’ South Vietnam and the anti-war movement was still in its infancy. Wade is quite illuminating about what it was like to be a mature student at a university a few years later.

If this pops up on TV at some point, I would recommend it.

Drive (US 2011)

Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan meet in the lift in their apartment building.

I didn’t know too much about Drive when I sat down to watch it. I remembered vaguely that the film had done well at Cannes (it won the Director’s prize for the Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn). We covered his 2010 bloody historical film Valhalla Rising, so I should have been prepared for the severity of the violence in Drive – but I wasn’t. My usual response to excessive violence is just to shut my eyes. I try not to be too moralistic about it and I endorse depictions of violence towards some form of socially useful purpose, but in this film the actions of the central character just seem excessive. In one particular scene he kisses Carey Mulligan in a tender and sensitive way and then turns and kicks a man to death. Yes, it was self-defence, but the brutality wasn’t justified. (Reading various responses this is clearly a key scene for many in the audience who discuss why ‘the driver’ Gosling) did it and what he expected the response to be from Irene (Mulligan).

I think that I am reacting here to the avalanche of praise for the film and in particular the repeated cry that this film is ‘So Cool!’. It is extremely well-directed, brilliantly paced, beautifully designed and well-acted and it conjures up numerous noirish crime films from 70 years of Hollywood. The script by Iranian-Brit Hossein Amini, based on a novel by James Sallis is tightly constructed. This is what is fascinating. The ‘cool’ tag is partly applied because the film title most frequently cited by reviewers is Bullit with Steve McQueen. The link is a central character who is mostly silent, wearing his shades and driving gloves and driving with great skill and control through the streets of LA and its environs. McQueen traded on his looks, his lack of expression and occasional facial tics and his demeanour. He was a great star. Ryan Gosling looks and acts the part and is a coming if not ‘arrived’ star. But there the direct link to Bullit‘s narrative ends, I think.

Drive offers us Gosling as an unnamed central character, who works as a skilled mechanic and moonlights as both a Hollywood stunt driver and a getaway driver for local hoods. He has no background, no ties and in his criminal activity he is strictly disciplined. His boss at the garage hopes to make him a stock car driver but this involves getting into bed with a local gangster. The ‘the driver’ meets ‘the girl’ – with a young son and a husband in prison. That’s all you need to know. As usual, Philip French makes all the appropriate film connections and he has unearthed a producer who links two ‘European’ directors taking a different look at LA crime – Peter Yates in Bullit, John Boorman in Point Blank plus the Americans Walter Hill (The Driver), Michael Mann (various titles!) and William Friedkin (To Live and Die in LA) making films influenced by European Cinema. I’d add a further title directed by a Frenchman in the 1970s, I think, but I can’t track it down.

Personally, I think that the narrative match is with The Driver. This has Ryan O’Neal as a similarly unnamed ‘Driver’ – although here he is pursued by a cop (played by Bruce Dern). French suggests that The Driver was influenced by Jean-Pierre Melville and certainly I remember thinking that the central character was a form of existentialist hero. The Gosling character seems more like a kind of avenging angel. One comment I read suggested Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ noting the toothpick the driver chews much as Eastwood chewed cheroots. This would be the Eastwood of High Plains Drifter. But this doesn’t really explain how a highly-skilled ‘driver’ transmutes into a brutal avenger (i.e. beyond just saving himself).

In The Driver, the female lead is Isabelle Adjani, in Bullit it’s Jacqueline Bisset. Here, it is another European, Carey Mulligan. I know she has been in Hollywood movies before, but to me she is about as American as Typhoo teabags. She’s very good of course and her Englishness means she can be both ‘ordinary’ and ‘mysterious’ at the same time.

The obvious point is that Drive is not a car chase movie – even if there are a cuople of well-planned chases. It’s a classy thriller which made me think of two other crime films with car/driving connections – Don Siegel’s The Killers (with John Cassavetes as a racing driver) and Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. To compare Drive to these two films sounds like high praise I think, but I don’t like the idea of it being ‘cool’.

An interesting take on the US release of Drive and its box office performance (below some predictions) here.