First Cow (2019)

I have been holding out for this particular film since I first heard about it after it screened at the 2019 New York Film Festival. That was even before there was a pandemic, and needless to say I’m extremely glad it’s finally been screened in NZ, because it’s clearly not the most commercial of pictures. Perhaps some of the director’s previous excellent works got it that slot, or maybe it’s because there was less of a glut of Hollywood nonsense clogging up the screens, but either way I’m glad! It’s great! I saw it twice.

Director Kelly Reichardt’s style by now is pretty evolved, and there’s a gentleness to the pacing that belies some of the emotional stakes. Because at core this is a film about capitalism and exploitation even in the supposed freedom of the frontier, out west in early-19th century Oregon. It couldn’t be more different tonally (and in Academy-ratio colour rather than black-and-white) but I kept thinking of the similar backdrop to Dead Man and how differently the two films handle this land and the characters who are out here forging a life (the kind of loud-mouthed military man played by Ewen Bremner is far more cut from that generic cloth than the two leads, the kinds of people you just don’t usually see in Westerns, being quiet and humble and self-effacing). However, having the comparison in mind already meant it didn’t feel like much of a surprise when Gary Farmer showed up in a small role towards the end. At a narrative level, though, what surprised me is that this is essentially the story of the first hipster food stall in Oregon (of course I jest, it’s so much more than that) but also that suggests an underlying comedy that might easily be missed by focusing on the harsh frontier lives or the pathos of this single cow out there on a rich man’s land.

First Cow (2019)CREDITS
Director Kelly Reichardt; Writers Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt (based on Raymond’s novel The Half Life); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Gary Farmer; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Light House Cuba, Wellington, Friday 30 April 2021 and Wednesday 5 May 2021.

Emma. (2020)

I’m on holiday in New Zealand this week. I’m not exactly sure what’s coming out in cinemas here (it’s not a priority right now) and I don’t want to be sad about what I’m missing out on in London (I think Portrait of a Lady on Fire is out, and if it is, go see it). However next weekend I am going to a wedding, so I am doing a themed week about relationship movies, not all of them about weddings or romances, but I’ll try to fit in a few. Luckily, just about half of all popular culture is about romantic entanglements, so there should be plenty of pick from. First up is this film, the sad yet comical story of a matchmaker.

One wonders sometimes at the need to remake certain films. Clueless (1995) is such an enduring classic that it feels odd to have this updated version, which for reasons best known to the makers they’ve relocated to England in the 19th century. However, I have to admit it’s been 25 years since that previous film, so perhaps the time is ripe, and there is a very picturesque quality to these locations (almost too pastel-coloured at times, though captured with gorgeous clarity by Kelly Reichardt’s regular cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt).

One of the sad losses due to the change of setting is in some of the diversity of the cast: there are no gay characters, and all the principals (in fact, all of everyone) remain very firmly white. However, I can’t pretend there isn’t some joy to be had in the dialogue and the characters, all the same. It’s reaching for a Love & Friendship vibe, and the actors are all very capable at finding the comic potential (not just the noted comedic actors like Miranda Hart and Bill Nighy, but Josh O’Connor as the insufferable Elton, and of course Anya Taylor-Joy as the almost alien-looking title character, whose self-regarding exceptionalism seems to exude from her throughout the film).

For all that the title emphasises a certain finality of execution with its full stop, I do still think the canonical version of this text has already been made. However, this is a pleasant divertissement with little digs at the absurdities of class distinctions, and at Emma’s haughty attitudes. Also, as with every Austen adaptation, the dance sequences are expertly choreographed.

Emma film posterCREDITS
Director Autumn de Wilde; Writer Eleanor Catton (based on the novel by Jane Austen); Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Josh O’Connor, Miranda Hart; Length 124 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Victoria, London, Monday 17 February 2019.

LFF 2016 Day Eight: Certain Women (2016)

I saw just the one film on Wednesday 12 October due to competing plans, and despite my avowed desire to avoid ‘big’ films destined to return, I made an exception… and it turns out to have been my favourite so far (albeit no surprise, given the director).

Certain Women (2016)Certain Women (2016, USA, dir./wr. Kelly Reichardt, DOP Christopher Blauvelt)
I always knew I was going to like this film, because Kelly Reichardt makes films I always like. Her last film at the LFF was Night Moves (2013), and that was practically a genre thriller, albeit with Reichardt’s customary style, but this new one dispenses with the genre baggage. So we’re left with a sort of purity to the slow rhythms, the steady gaze, the emotional depth.

I spent much of the running time wondering where it was going and what it was trying to achieve — although liking it a lot, don’t get me wrong; the 16mm-shot cinematography is spectacular for its framing and the beautiful open landscapes which are captured. But then the film finished with three brief coda scenes, to each of the three narrative strands (one featuring Laura Dern, another with Michelle Williams, and a third with Lily Gladstone and Kristin Stewart), and it all came into focus for me a bit. Sometimes you just need that cinematic nudge. I don’t want to overplay it though: if you’re bored by the film, the ending won’t suddenly turn you around. But this is stark, emotional, yearning, bleak at times but absolutely masterful filmmaking.

There’s a desire for human connection that runs through it, and there’s sometimes a paucity of connection too. There’s a weariness to some of these women, and for good reasons, but there’s nothing forced about the way it unfolds. I had felt initially that Michelle Williams wasn’t quite ‘right’ as a mother, but now I think that feeling was a response to her role and the way she played it: lacking support from her (cheating) husband and teenage daughter, why shouldn’t she be cagy?

No, this is fantastic stuff, up there with Meek’s Cutoff, and I’ll happily see it again.

Night Moves (2013)

I feel like I’ve been using terms like “watchful” a lot about films I’ve seen recently, as if there’s a lot more filmmakers making observant little stories about people which are suffused with a sort of quiet observancy as they go about their lives, and Kelly Reichardt’s films more than most have this quality. Her earlier features, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) are filled with this kind of tense tranquillity, and I particularly loved Meek’s Cutoff (2010) for its story of a group of women in 19th century Oregon picking their way slowly across country. This new film too is set in Oregon and has all of the same qualities, a slow-burn story of a group of friends splitting apart.

It’s very much a film of two parts. The first half has all the tense forward momentum of a heist film, as a group of environmental activists (or eco-terrorists, if you will) plot to blow up a dam. Even though their actions are destructive, the film puts you right there amongst them, and you find yourself almost willing them to get away with it and achieve their optimistic goals, for each wants to spur the world towards being more environmentally-conscious. At the heart of the film is Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), who has a good job working for a collective organic farm, and who seems to be close to Dena (Dakota Fanning), a young woman working at a health spa, whose wealthier background allows the plan to move forward. They are aiding the shadowy Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), whose plan this appears to be, and who lives ‘off the grid’ out in the wooded wilds of upstate Oregon.

However, this is only half the film, and there’s an abrupt change of pace once the plan has been put into effect, as the three deal with their consciences with regards to its outcome. This is where the relationship between Josh and Dena becomes particularly fractured, and in which Josh reveals all his nervy paranoia. It’s also where the payoff to the minutely detailed ‘heist’ of the first half follows through, as Night Moves reveals itself to be a film that’s about the psychology of terrorist action, bringing home with these three middle-class white characters how a well-meaning intention can become warped and distorted. The film tracks Josh as he becomes progressively disenchanted with his ideals and is ironically pushed by his destructive actions towards the very capitalist society to which he had initially seemed so opposed.

The acting is all excellent, of course, and if Eisenberg seems to be doing a version of his familiar sullen loner, substituting quiet tenseness for his usual nervy chatter, it’s a character very nicely detailed. Fanning too extends a run of strong performances with her conflicted Dena, who has in some ways the most difficult part, revealing all the vulnerabilities that lie behind Dena’s very strong and motivated facade (never clearer than in the sequence where she must purchase a large quantity of fertiliser for the bomb without having any ID on her).

The very strong and brilliantly orchestrated first half is the highlight while the film is running, but the second half opens up questions which linger for some time afterwards, extending and deepening the mystery of the film’s surface. As the title suggests (ostensibly taken from the name of the speedboat they buy, which forms part of the group’s plan), there is a tense, dark atmosphere suffusing the film, and there’s certainly a quality to the cinematography and the settings, all earthy and overcast, which harks back to tense psychological thrillers of decades earlier. In all, Reichardt has crafted a film that takes an aspect of modern society and gives it the timeless resonance of a morality play.

Night Moves film posterCREDITS
Director Kelly Reichardt; Writers Jonathan Raymond and Reichardt; Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT1), London, Thursday 17 October 2013.

The Bling Ring (2013)

I suppose that when I think of films about teenagers, I think of those films that play to their self-involved fantasies of acting out — films with clever scripts where teens get the better of the adults and engage in witty verbal sparring. These are films based on established (and establishment) literary sources such as might be studied at school (Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You or Easy A, for example). Occasionally, as with Brick (2005), the source text is a more ‘grown-up’ film genre (in that case, the hardboiled detective flick), but wordplay remains key.

But then there are those films, like this past year’s Spring Breakers, which seem to put teenagers and their behaviour under a magnifying glass, like a mould culture preserved in agar jelly, beautifully curated and preserved yet strange and distant. Not that I’m comparing director Sofia Coppola’s style directly to that of Harmony Korine, but the two films have some genetic matter in common. Both directors have been observing this strangeness for years, Coppola’s signature look being a sort of woozy, pastel-hued haze of Californian sun dappled through airless modernist cubes of Los Angeleno domestic architecture.

Coppola’s youthful characters hardly display any dazzling linguistic inventiveness. The kids are at their most reflective in the framing interviews with Vanity Fair (whose story is the basis for Coppola’s script), but for the most part they speak in the language of the Facebook updates we periodically see on screen — “wow!” “oh my god!” “fuck!” “woah!” — not least when poking around people’s homes. Their texts are not Jane Austen, William Shakespeare or Nathaniel Hawthorne, but gossip magazines and websites like Which celebrity has been banged up on DUI charges, who is wearing Miu Mius and who Louboutins to an awards ceremony, and how they’re making mistakes with their hair extensions. These images flick across the screen as if swiped past on a smartphone, or clicked through on the web, grainy online footage of reality TV stars such as Audrina Patridge or Paris Hilton (the latter of whom was involved with Coppola’s film). It’s Lindsay Lohan, though, who seems to preside regally, dissipatedly over everything, her style an inspiration for lead character Rebecca (played by Katie Chang), just as her troubled ‘private’ life seems to encapsulate everything rotten about this rarefied existence.

If it’s the lifestyle these kids aspire to — that they are quite literally stealing from the celebrities on whom they dote — then it’s a style in which the characters are filmed. They bask in it, glow with refracted celebrity under the gorgeous lens of late cinematographer Harris Savides (to whom the film is dedicated). None of the famous victims are actually seen in the film, aside from a brief glimpse of Hilton at a club and the grainy internet footage that pops up throughout, but instead it’s the thieving kids who steal the limelight here as the celebrities of Coppola’s film. Aside from Emma Watson — whose real-life counterpart appropriately had a brief flirtation with celebrity — the actors are largely unknowns, which is exactly right: these teens get to be the stars of their own big budget film, they just don’t get to win over adult authority with their wordplay. Or maybe they do.

The discourse the teenagers move so fluently in — gossip sites and social networking — is dominated by their voices and cynically craves their attention. The adult figures glimpsed in the film are even more dumbly incapable of argument (when they’re not wrapped up in the vapid new age speak of Leslie Mann’s Laurie), unable to engage with their kids any more than the kids can with all the material possesions they covet. There’s a strange transference of power between the kids and their parents, just as there is between the kids and their celebrity idols. These teenagers are far from poor, and they operate in world where what you want can be taken — attention craved in a club can be consummated with a selfie uploaded to Facebook, and the cars and homes of the rich can it seems be entered at will with apparently minimal security. If the kids’ willingness to share everything with their peers is in part their undoing, the punishment of the adult world scarcely seems to be of much lasting consequence. This, after all, is a place in which all manner of legal infractions by celebrities are punished with a slap on the wrist or a few days in LA County correctional institutions. At one point, one of the lead girls is involved in a crash while under the influence and immediately afterwards is seen boasting about it and asking after the next party, barely wasting breath to complain about her sentence (picking up litter).

Coppola’s is a film of ravishing surfaces, the effortless-seeming construction of cool credibility, in its fashion, in its look and in its music. It’s in some ways a match of form to content, so viewers should be warned that the plot itself is thin. Marc (Israel Broussard) transfers to a new school, one reserved for drop-outs and underachievers, where he feels out of place and awkward, but soon meets Rebecca, and through her the narcissistic Nicki (Emma Watson) and her adopted sister Sam (Taissa Farmiga). Rebecca leads him into petty thieving, which soon escalates into breaking into the homes of absent celebrities. These heists are intercut with interviews of the ‘Bling Ring’ a year later after they’ve been captured, and are punctuated by scenes in their bedrooms, at home and in clubs, where they talk about fashion and celebrities. But it all moves by at a fair clip, the final film clocking in at 90 minutes, and if the heists themselves are repetitive, that seems to be by design. The viewer’s attention is retained by some of the staging, such as the break-in to Patridge’s home, presented in a single steely night-time long-distance take as the two teens move around the various areas of the house, switching lights on and off, and picking up mementoes.

This is another wary portrait of Los Angeles, of disaffected overprivileged kids and their ennui, a familiar theme from Coppola’s films. There’s not much sense of escape from this bitter cycle of fame and crime and obsession, cynically shared by both perpetrators and victims (who are often the same people). It’s hardly a flattering portrait of Los Angeles or of celebrity culture, but at least everyone looks great — that new, more insidious American Dream.

The Bling Ring film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola (based on the article “The Suspects Wore Louboutins” by Nancy Jo Sales); Cinematographers Harris Savides and Christopher Blauvelt; Starring Katie Chang, Israel Broussard, Emma Watson, Leslie Mann; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 7 July and Monday 8 July 2013.