Julie & Julia (2009)

As long as we’re watching films on Netflix, there is a rich seam of upbeat, rosy-tinted content, whether banal seasonal movies, romcoms, stand-up specials or the singular work of American master Nora Ephron, whose last film was this curious tale of two women divided by time but united by a love of very fatty food.


I am decidedly not someone who is ever going to eat any of the food seen on-screen in this film; of all the major world cuisines, I sometimes feel as if classical French cooking is about the least likely to get in my belly (at this point in my life, now that I’m vegan). However, like growing up atheist in a nominally Christian country, you can’t help but avoid its influence over your everyday life, and what’s more everyday than eating? Julia Child is, of course, one of the key figures in popularising French cooking in the English-speaking world (well, in America; you could make a case that Elizabeth David was more influential in the UK), but it’s her presence on TV that probably holds the most appeal to an actor as expressively imitative as Meryl Streep. Truly her scenes — ably supported by an always-watchable Stanley Tucci — are the backbone of this film, with all due respect to Amy Adams and Chris Messina, who are also likeable but aren’t Meryl and Stanley. Of course, true life stories aside, Nora Ephron is the key creative woman in this enterprise, and her filmmaking can be divisive, but I have always broadly liked her films, and this one is no exception. It’s a soufflé, a warmly-coloured confection with glowing kitchens to match any in a Nancy Meyers movie, but it’s also a film with a generous warmth towards its subjects and which is every bit as incisive about upper-middle-class New York marriages as anything else you can find on Netflix right now, and probably more easily rewatchable too.

Julie & Julia film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nora Ephron (based on the memoir by Julie Powell, and the autobiography My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme); Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt; Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 10 December 2019.

American Hustle (2013)

We’ve not really had much of the year, so it’s a bit of unwarranted hyperbole (or backhanded sarcasm) to start proclaiming this the best film so far this year, but I did enjoy it a fair bit. I might even go so far as to say that if I’d seen it last year, I’d have included it somewhere in my ‘best of’ list. It’s a story about storytellers, and it lets them get on with telling their respective stories with fairly little practical interest in the plot details (they’re there of course — it’s even loosely based on real events — but they’re hardly emphasised). It’s more of a series of character studies interconnected by music-focused setpieces — in fact, so foregrounded is the contemporary pop music that the film strongly brings to mind the cinema of Martin Scorsese (and his later imitators, like Paul Thomas Anderson), helped along by the cameo appearance of one of his key collaborators of the 1970s. As a pastiche of period style and set design it’s very accomplished, and as an entertainment it’s certainly enjoyable; I’m not convinced it’s very much deeper than that, but there are worse people in whose company to spend a couple of hours at the movies.

I say it’s without deeper meaning but that’s not strictly true, since in a sense it deals with that most evergreen of US cinematic themes, the pursuit of the ‘American dream’. Each of the characters is scrabbling desperately after a slice of something better, and while the intentions of most — both crooks and cops — are self-interested, there are also characters like the mayor, Carmine (Jeremy Renner), who are acting out of some sense of obligation to a greater social good. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The key players here are Christian Bale’s shlubby Irving and his partner-in-crime Sydney (the talented Amy Adams), whose strictly small-time swindles are rather forcibly taken to a bigger and more dangerous stage by the intervention of FBI agent Richie (curly-haired Bradley Cooper). Irving is content in his shady little corner of the New Jersey underworld, and Sydney is trying to escape her south-western upbringing by affecting the title of Lady Edith and a generic English accent which is only good enough to convince the local marks of her apparently upstanding intentions. It’s Richie and his boss’s boss who are the ones motivated by their own professional gain to try to net Mafia and the government (first the local mayor and then Washington figures) in the scam operation.

But that’s all just a framework on which to hang these multiple tales, interwoven like a Tarantino or Anderson narrative with a propulsive 70s pop-hit-laden score, and overlaid with personal testimonies from the key figures, presenting almost Rashomon-like their own takes on what’s going on. It’s all cannily edited together, and as I’ve mentioned already, shot and made with a fastidious (almost overbearing) attentiveness to glossy contemporary detail, but this is primarily a performer’s film, and you can see why people continue to want to work with director David O. Russell. Even smaller characters get to tell their stories, and there’s an increasingly hilarious running gag involving Richie’s boss Stoddard (Louis C.K.) who’s trying to impart some advice to his younger charge.

Of the core cast, Jennifer Lawrence is one of the most talented young actors around and even with credits as excellent as The Hunger Games and her breakout in Winter’s Bone, and even with a relatively small role here, she still manages to stand out in every scene she’s in by sheer force of character. But then again, Russell and Eric Singer (who wrote the original screenplay) have put together a collection of larger-than-life characters — or maybe caricatures, as after all they are indeed quite a bit more showy than anyone in real life — and all the actors get a chance to twirl in front of the cameras. If Lawrence gets the histrionic part, then Amy Adams has a far more shaded character, which she just hits perfectly, while Christian Bale stands out primarily in the extent to which he’s underplaying Irving, an underplaying which oddly makes the character even more compelling than he has any right to be.

All of this adds up to a film that feels loose, like a shaggy-dog story that seems rather easily led away down winding digressive paths, but is in fact really quite tightly structured. It probably does seem unfocused to those who are looking at it as a rendering of the historical Abscam events from which it draws its inspiration, but as a film that’s ultimately about performance — there’s even a literal stage at one point — and about people’s capacity for telling (and believing) stories, this is as carefully put together as they come.

American Hustle film posterCREDITS
Director David O. Russell; Writers Eric Warren Singer and Russell; Cinematographer Linus Sandgren; Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner; Length 138 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Sunday 5 January 2014.

Man of Steel (2013)

Zack Snyder is not a name to inspire great confidence in filmgoers (at least not those I’ve talked to). I’ve only actually seen one of his directorial efforts, and I may be in a minority in quite liking Sucker Punch (2011). That was a film which seemed to depict its abused characters coping with and overcoming their traumas by reconfiguring them as video game challenges; it may not have been entirely successful, but it was a very interesting concept. There’s plenty of trauma in Man of Steel, too, but mostly on the audience’s part. The film itself seems curiously shorn of any human emotion, at least by the time it reaches its absurdly overextended denouement.

A key moment for me in this respect is a kiss shared amongst the crumbling detritus of a ravaged Metropolis, a falling skyscraper barely enough it seems to get the two to break off their kiss to take a look. It would be a moment of bathos if I could rouse enough emotion to care about anyone by this point, but after half an hour of mechanised (and curiously bloodless) destruction, there’s little empathy left in me. If this and Marvel’s The Avengers last year are anything to go by, American blockbuster movies seem to revel in destroying their cities, which is a curious place to be all things considered.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. The first half of the film concerns itself with the origin story and is (relatively-speaking) fairly low-key and interesting. Most filmgoers are probably aware of the basics: how Kal-El is sent to Earth from the dying planet Krypton by his father Jor-El, pursued by General Zod and his gang of usurpers; how he grows up in rural Kansas as Clark Kent, only slowly growing to understand and control his special powers; how he meets and falls in love with intrepid Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane. If there’s a sense that some of this is superfluous for most viewers, it’s nevertheless welcome if only for its calmer tone and pacing.

It’s never far from the surface that the Superman mythology is a thinly-coded Second Coming allegory, with Kal-El/Clark as a specifically American Messiah; he even has a scene of questioning doubt in a church at one point. As his father, then, Russell Crowe does a good job as a calm centre of Krypton’s benevolent patriarchal power, matched by Kevin Costner as Clark’s human father, even if a lot of his role involves staring off into the middle-distance and mouthing moral platitudes. Nevertheless, Costner’s a master at this kind of thing, and does it well.

These snippets of his rural upbringing are interwoven as flashbacks in what has largely become a peripatetic existence for Clark, as he shows up in enough different places to pique the interest of reporter Lois Lane. The way this unfolds all feels rather perfunctory, and Amy Adams, although likeable as an actor, has little to work with here. It’s not, in truth, a great film for actors of subtlety and imagination. Michael Shannon, for example, plays General Zod, and though he may have had some great roles in his time, Zod seems to require little more than shouting and glowering, a waste of Shannon’s more acute talents. Luckily, this helps the blandly attractive Henry Cavill to impress more as the titular hero. In a film where actorly insight has been pushed into the background, looking the part becomes more of an asset, and Cavill with his chiselled jaw and impressive physique certainly does do that.

I’ve already mentioned the way that by the end, the film seems to lack a sense of humanity: it’s a dour and serious film, dark and brooding without much in the way of levity or humour. This certainly sets it apart from the earlier film series with Christopher Reeve, and may point to the involvement of Christopher Nolan, whose Dark Knight franchise similarly ‘rebooted’ the Batman story, kitting out its world in cold, hard metallic surfaces and glowering darkness. But Batman is an anti-hero at best, where Superman is supposed to embody all the best of humanity. By the end, I feel as a viewer like Laurence Fishburne’s newspaper editor, watching impassively at the filmic destruction all around. Perhaps he feels unable to move from his window (though he does, at length) because he too is wondering where it all went wrong.

This is undeniably a visually impressive film, but at some basic level it has gone awry. I am left cold by its cold surface textures, and there’s little to convince me that any of the characters have any heart. And for a film about a character embodying the best of human nature, that’s a real failing.

Man of Steel film posterCREDITS
Director Zack Snyder; Writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan (based on the comic book Superman by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster); Cinematographer Amir Mokri امیر مکری; Starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe; Length 143 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay [2D], London, Wednesday 19 June 2013.