Out of Blue (2018)

Carol Morley has been a key creative figure in British cinema for over a decade, having made such films as the exemplary hybrid documentary Dreams of a Life (2011), as well as The Falling (2014), a film tinged with as much mystery as her latest film, a US-UK co-production set in New Orleans.


People really dislike this film, it turns out, having looked up some reviews while forming my thoughts, and that really surprises me for some reason. There are aspects of the film that feel to me somewhat over-written at times, the way all those little images and sonic clues come back full circle to gain meaning within the plot later on, not to mention that boldly astrophysical subtext — cinematic strategies that  certainly aren’t always pulled off with any great success in other films. And yet I think director/writer Carol Morley has a really strong feeling for atmosphere, in evoking memory and trauma, an almost spiritual presence that exists beyond the frame. At times it comes across somewhat like a woman’s take on Twin Peaks in that sense, of unsolved mysteries, a woman spiralling out of control, and rather less like, say, the noirish-ness of Destroyer, another recent film about a veteran woman detective coming apart. Also, Patricia Clarkson is a wonderful actor, perhaps the closest that the North American cinema has to Isabelle Huppert. So, yes, I rather liked this film.

Out of Blue film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Carol Morley (based on the novel Night Train by Martin Amis); Cinematographer Conrad W. Hall; Starring Patricia Clarkson, Toby Jones; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Sunday 31 March 2019.

Easy A (2010)

Easy A is a late entry into that cycle of ‘classic texts given a high school teen film twist’ — the genre largely inaugurated by Clueless 15 years earlier and continued most effectively by 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) — but a surprisingly deft one.

I would, however, put its success largely down to Emma Stone who is wonderfully engaging and funny in the role of Olive, whose character must endure the gossip and slurs of others at school for her easily but inaccurately-acquired reputation for being ‘easy’. In this respect, the lineage it most evokes is Mean Girls (2004), though it lacks that film’s, well, mean streak. That’s not to say that Easy A entirely avoids any slightly lazy stereotyping. For example, having your lead villain (Amanda Bynes) be a bitchy and hypocritical Christian conservative student is hardly a stretch, though it makes her nastiness easy to ignore. It’s also interesting in that I read recently that young Americans who practise religion are often more liberal than their parents’ generation, with so many of those touchstone issues having little traction amongst the young. This all goes to making this film’s ‘social problem’ seem that much more anachronistic: it’s surely not believable that in 2010, a young woman would be the object of so much speculation for this kind of transgression (sleeping around). If it’s a ploy to tap into and comment on current forms of social networking, then the film is doubly out of step, preferring to focus on (strangely high-definition) webcam confessionals.

And yet despite feeling like a throwback to another era, I still find the film by and large charming. After all, this is a constructed movie world, where everyone looks glamorous and your teachers are played by Lisa Kudrow (who seems to be minoring in this kind of film, after her appearance in the woeful Bandslam, and whose guidance counsellor character is sadly no Ms. Perky) and Thomas Haden Church (delightful). Better even than the teachers are Olive’s parents; Olive earlier berates her best friend’s folks for being ‘hippie’, but Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson’s characters are the proper hippies — free-spirited and supportive — and steal the film whenever they’re on screen. The rest of the cast is largely forgettable, especially the male leads, but that’s fine: this is a film primarily about women relating to one another and the boys at school — in the film as in the film’s plot — are expendable.

If it’s a minor film in the scheme of things, it’s at least a sweet one. It won’t corrupt anyone (whatever its classification, though a 15 rating seems strangely high), nor will it provoke one to worry about the youth of today. I’m really more worried about the screenwriters.

Easy A film posterCREDITS
Director Will Gluck; Writer Bert V. Royal; Cinematographer Michael Grady; Starring Emma Stone, Amanda Bynes, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, Lisa Kudrow; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 27 July 2013.

The East (2013)

It’s always a precarious thing, trying to capture in a fiction film a flavour of contemporary counterculture. You only have to look back to attempts to depict the earnest ferment of young minds in the 1970s to see how laughable the outcome can seem in hindsight. Of course that’s not entirely fair: it’s not all to do with the filmmakers or the period fashions. In part, it’s to do with the way that earnestness (much like faith) comes across on film: in the darkness of the auditorium, passively taking in images, it’s difficult not to be a jaded, judgemental cynic. This is never more so than when faced with the passionate belief of characters who are trying to actively engage with a corrupt system. There are times when the protagonists of The East, young ecological activists (anarchists, perhaps, or “terrorists” to the authorities), come across as a bit ridiculous, but they’re certainly not fools.

Fiction film has never seemed a particularly effective medium for protest, and I can’t imagine it ever being so. There have always been attempts to create films that challenge the viewer and move the argument beyond the auditorium, whether the bold agitprop of Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s, or Latin American filmmakers like Fernando Solanas with La hora de los hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces, 1968), who actually programmed in discussion breaks to screenings. Fiction’s strength is in being able to give a bit of insight as to how activists operate and why they do what they do, and perhaps thereby create doubt in the viewer’s mind as to the veracity of society’s orthodoxies. As such the protagonist here is Jane, a corporate spy played by co-writer Brit Marling, who infiltrates the group as an undercover agent called Sarah, and comes to harbour doubts about what she’s doing.

Aside from being the title of the film, The East is the name the activists give to their group, which engages in ‘jams’ — which is to say, interventions against corporations they perceive have wronged people or the environment. The film opens with video footage they’ve uploaded to the internet showing them pumping oil into the home of a CEO whose company is responsible for massive oil spills. However, as the company is a client of Jane/Sarah’s firm, she is assigned to get information on them that they can then pass to the FBI. As the company’s boss Sharon, Patricia Clarkson does an excellent job as confidant (and arch-manipulator) of the younger Jane.

It’s clear that the activists are all well-educated middle-class kids, many having coming from the same enshrined power base as the capitalist moguls they are targeting. Their choice in resisting and fighting against these power structures is shown to be a result of their education and world travel. As a result, on several occasions in the film their resistance group seems closer to a cult: they have a leader figure filled with a sort of evangelical zeal (Alexander Skarsgård’s Benji), not to mention rituals of initiation and group bonding that reaffirm their communal social structure and attachment to the environment. It’s Jane/Sarah’s experience that mediates this for the audience, and the precarious line the film must walk is in moving from our initial shared experience of their group as being rather affectedly ridiculous, to one in which Sarah (and hopefully the audience too) feels more sympathy and engagement with their beliefs.

The East is in the end a gripping film that never mocks or condescends to its earnest protagonists, as they engage with real issues affecting the world. Playing the wary central character, who limns the divide between the forces of authority and anarchy, Brit Marling does a wonderful job, yet I’m not sure that either she or the film manages to quite carry me through as an audience member to the denouement. In the darkness of a cinema, I remain a cynic to the end, but then I equally can’t imagine the film’s activists being much enamoured of cinema and its passive spectatorship. Still, it’s a bold attempt to try to be more than just a petit bourgeois escapist pleasure, while being satisfying on just that level.

The East film posterCREDITS
Director Zal Batmanglij; Writers Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling; Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov Роман Васьянов; Starring Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Sunday 30 June 2013.