Mississippi Grind (2015)

Searching for images from the film to put at the top of my review, there’s a lot of the two stars Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn at the craps table, or playing poker, and it’s true these images have a hint of glamour to them. But that’s not what I think of when I think about Mississippi Grind. It’s a film that lives more in the moments at the bar after the game, as these two sup on a bourbon, get drunk and fantasise about what could be. Because, yes, this is indeed another movie about the faded lustre on the American Dream, which channels a story that touches on the peculiar way that class manifests itself in America via money, the pursuit of it, and more often the lack of it, the difficulty in getting it, and how not having it can ruin your life.

The gambling plays its part in this allegory, but is not depicted as inevitably doomed (though of course that does colour the tension going into a lot of the scenes), but rather as having its ups and downs, as indeed it does in life. And these two guys have their personal ups and downs as they travel the byways of the American heartland, down the Mississippi River and a series of small, faded American gambling towns. For Mendelsohn’s Gerry, you get a sense of a lot more downs, but part of the film is in teasing out exactly what’s behind Reynolds’s mysterious Curtis, who shows up at Gerry’s poker table at the start and is quickly seized on by him as a sort of lucky mascot, into which fantasy Curtis is happy to play for a while. As a marker of his aspirations is his insistence on drinking Woodford Reserve bourbon, both a product placement and something that plays a role in defining their relative paths. Narratively, though, this isn’t tight in the sense we’ve come to expect from US cinema, but has a meandering looseness that harks back to an earlier era (I’ve seen the 1970s mentioned a lot by critics, and that seems fair).

The charm of the film — in a quote that’s recited by the characters a few times — is that it’s about the journey, and in that sense it has a lot of false endings: in a way you can choose whether these guys are successes at life, or losers, and you get the sense that it will continue to go either way for them if they keep at the gambling. But for a couple of hours, it’s an enjoyable amble through some of the less lustrous landmarks of the American Dream at its most capricious.

Mississippi Grind film posterCREDITS
Directors/Writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck; Cinematographer Andrij Parekh; Starring Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 26 October 2015.

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Lore (2012)

We’ve all seen a hundred films set amongst the European ruins and detritus of World War II, but this film from Australian director Cate Shortland has an interesting angle to it, as it tracks the travails of Hannelore (Saskia Rosendahl), a young woman living out in the Black Forest, who finds herself as head of the family when her apparently fairly senior Nazi parents are taken into custody by the Allies. However, it’s filmed from her point-of-view, so the war itself is a spectral background presence and her parents’ fates are mysterious and elliptically presented. The film settles down to being a sort of fractured road movie, as this new family unit moves across the country towards Hamburg and the home of their grandmother. The abiding quality of these (blonde and blue-eyed) children making their way through the contested space of post-war Germany is akin to that of The Road or other similar apocalyptic visions, as every space seems to be suffused by the constant fear of death, or worse. It’s interesting that despite its Australian genesis, the film is shot in German and acted by German actors, which would usually be the kind of weirdly international co-production that should act as a red flag to potential viewers, and yet it’s all done very well and with plenty of emotional power, as Lore finally comes to get a sense of the new reality from which she and her family had until then been so isolated.

Lore film posterCREDITS
Director Cate Shortland; Writers Robin Mukherjee and Cate (based on the novel The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert); Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw; Starring Saskia Rosendahl; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 24 August 2015.

Hot Pursuit (2015)

I feel like I spend quite a bit of time trying to say nice things about films which aren’t objectively any good. I shouldn’t really have liked Exeter or Return to Sender to take two recent low-achieving candidates for the straight-to-DVD shelf, but they had at least a kernel of something I enjoyed within them. Hot Pursuit is no doubt competently put together by a Hollywood journeywoman — and it’s nice to see that women just as well as men can be picked on for such a thankless task — but it suffers from a fatal flaw, without which no film can ever truly achieve its potential. It has a shitty script. It has a script so insufferably bad that it contrives ridiculous plot twist upon banal cliched plot device to try to distract the audience from the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever. Now this kind of thing can be redeemed by a light touch and self-aware acting (I’d say She’s Funny That Way manages to at least partially rescue a tired and similarly-screwball scenario by such means), but neither Witherspoon as the by-the-book strait-laced Texan cop or Vergara as the sultry gangster’s wife are ever allowed to stop being shrill and incompetent at everything they do, except for a short scene of heart-to-heart bonding (I think it’s over Witherspoon’s character getting a man) and another which allows us to imagine just for the briefest of moments (like, maybe 10-15 seconds) that Vergara may turn out not to be a hideous Latin American stereotype, but another slightly-less-hideous Latin American stereotype. In fact for a woman-directed film with two women in the lead roles, it’s remarkably willing to degrade and insult them for our comic delectation — except that it’s not funny, not even a tiny little bit. Not during the “hilarious” transphobic sight gag in the opening montage, nor the “comedy” explanation of menstruation in order to get out of a fix which relies on all men being entirely unaware of either its existence or what it actually entails, certainly not during the “slapstick” sequence where they pretend to be lesbian lovers to get out of an entanglement with a redneck wielding a rifle, and most of all not for the fact that Witherspoon is apparently a trained law enforcement officer and one who is supposed to take herself incredibly seriously (for laughs, of course), yet cannot seem to do anything with any measure of professionalism. But you know, whatever. I’m sure it’s been successful and everyone who made it are happy with their paychecks and the return it’s made on its investment and etc etc. Just don’t, whatever you do, make the mistake of thinking this will be interesting or transgressive or even enjoyable just because it’s a female buddy comedy directed by a woman and passes the Bechdel Test. Because it isn’t interesting and it isn’t transgressive and it definitely isn’t enjoyable.

Hot Pursuit film posterCREDITS
Director Anne Fletcher; Writers David Feeney and John Quaintance; Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton; Starring Reese Witherspoon, Sofía Vergara; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 3 August 2015.

पीकू Piku (2015)

I may go to see a lot of films, but the Indian film industry (Bollywood, if you will, at least when describing Hindi-language film production) is still largely a mystery to me. The popular notion is that it’s all glitzy overblown melodrama punctuated by dance numbers, but if anything Piku proves there’s still plenty of room for refreshingly grounded character-based drama. But Piku is a success no matter what country’s film output you’re used to watching, as it manages to find a light comedic tone even while dealing with some pretty big themes in an understated way. Key to that is the film’s central relationship, which isn’t a love story; in fact, the film should be commended for introducing a female central character (the Piku of the title) who lives independently, has a fulfilling and successful career and, even up to the very end, does not define her life (as some of those around her do) by whether or not she has a man. No, instead the film is largely a two-hander between the testy and stand-offish Piku — the resourceful and beguiling Deepika Padukone (who in the course of this one film has quickly staked her claim on my affections at least) — and her irascible father Bhaskor, the latter of whom is played by an icon of Indian cinema, Amitabh Bachchan, who turns out to have pretty deft comic timing. The film’s subtitle or maybe tag-line is “motion se hi emotion” which (as far as I can gather from, er, Google translate) means “motion leads to emotion”, where the ‘motion’ in question is at one level a reference to the film’s last third being a road trip, but more specifically refers to bowel motion, and indeed Bhaskor’s constipation is the film’s ongoing running gag — which to be fair does provide some intermittent amusement. If this were all the film had to offer, I wouldn’t be able to recommend it, especially as, for all the wit and vigour of Juhi Chaturvedi’s dialogue, the editing can get rather frenetic at times and the film doesn’t always entirely succeed in tying together a disparate range of genres. However, ultimately, the toilet humour is more a way to channel issues around ageing and death, as Bhaskor deals with his mortality and his relationship to his wider family, including his daughter. In the end, it’s touching, and while there is a romantic subplot of sorts (with Irrfan Khan’s entrepreneurial taxi company owner), the focus is firmly on the father-daughter relationship.

Piku film posterCREDITS
Director Shoojit Sircar সুজিত সরকার; Writer Juhi Chaturvedi जूही चतुर्वेदी; Cinematographer Kamaljeet Negi कमलजीत नेगी; Starring Deepika Padukone दीपिका पादुकोण, Amitabh Bachchan अमिताभ बच्चन, Irrfan Khan इरफ़ान ख़ान; Length 125 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 11 May 2015.

Chef (2014)

I’ve lived in London for just over ten years now, and if you’ve known me over that time, you’ll know I’ve put on a bit of weight. I’m pretty sure it’s not from lack of exercise, though having a job (and a hobby!) that involves sitting down all day probably doesn’t help. No, I suspect it’s because I like food, and anyone who also likes food (especially if they live in a large metropolitan area) can scarcely have failed to notice the rise of food trucks over the last decade as a delivery mechanism for more than just ice cream and hot dogs. You can get just about anything from trucks these days. In some American cities (like their spiritual heartland in the Pacific Northwest), they are often to be found rotating around a set of fixed locations (‘pods’, if you will) and turning up at all kinds of outdoor, beer or food festivals. Indeed, the concept of ‘street food’ has really taken off, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. So this new film starring and directed by my compatriot in girthfulness, Jon Favreau, can at the very least be said to be on-trend.

In it we see Favreau as Chef Carl Casper at a staid suburban restaurant, where he doesn’t feel creatively stretched, despite having a great team (Bobby Cannavale as his sous chef, backed by John Leguizamo, and Scarlett Johansson on front of house duty). Things come to a head over the visit of and subsequent nasty review by a food blogger (Oliver Platt, touching on another trend), so Chef Casper heads off and, via a sub-plot involving Robert Downey Jr being appropriately RDJ-ish, gets himself a food truck. In truth, a lot of the drama feels a little forced, conflict added just to move the film along and add a bit of spice (as it were), especially the relationship between Chef Casper and his ex-wife and son. It’s like Favreau, having baited the foodie trend, felt the need to shoehorn in a touching story about father-son bonding.

This could all have fallen apart so very easily, but somehow Favreau manages to make it very charming, sweet but not too much so, with a soufflé-light touch. Key to this is that the film really likes all its characters. There’s conflict, sure, and big life changes, but this is a comedy in the classic sense and it wants the best for everyone (even the food blogger gets his redemption). The actors are all enjoyable to watch, especially John Leguizamo, while Sofía Vergara manages to make even her blowsy ex-wife character a likeable one. If some of the father-son moments are rather too saccharine for my taste, if they don’t raise my hackles like they would elsewhere, then perhaps I’m just a sucker for the setting after all. It’s not a film to watch when hungry, and thinking about it now, I could quite happily go for one of those cubanos Cuban sandwiches at which the food truck specialises. In fact, I was a bit disappointed that a truck hadn’t been parked up outside the cinema when I came out, and I imagine you will be too, unless your local cinema is really on its game.

Chef film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jon Favreau; Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau; Starring Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, EmJay Anthony, Sofía Vergara, Scarlett Johansson; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Saturday 28 June 2014.

Nebraska (2013)

My take on Alexander Payne’s films that I’ve seen is that they lament the way that masculinity is threatened or is in decline. Maybe that’s too simplistic, but they always seem to me to be very male-centric films. With Nebraska, the decline on show is very much physical, dealing as it does with the stooped and broken figure of 80-year-old Walt (played by Bruce Dern) trying to collect the million dollars he believes he’s won in a sweepstake. He’s abetted on this quest — very much reluctantly — by his son David (a hangdog Will Forte), and together they move from Montana to Nebraska, trailing back through Woody’s own family history. Still, whatever the pleasures of these two characters (and both are very well-acted), for me the film’s highlight is Woody’s cranky wife Kate (June Squibb), who is unconstrained in her criticism of both her husband and son, and their foolishness.

The film comes across as a picaresque journey through parts of America which aren’t so often seen on film, with something akin to the same laconic comedy of The Straight Story (1999). You could also refract it through a different set of musical reference points, as looking at that poster it evokes a classic rock vibe, like Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen — who after all had an album of the same name, which had a sort of similarly mythic middle-American bleakness to it. In the film, having travelled to Nebraska, Walt re-connects with his brothers and their extended family, and it’s certainly not clear whether this was a worthwhile thing, especially once they learn of his ‘winnings’ and start to gently (and, in the case of his nephews, not so gently) exploit this for their own gain. In this regard, there’s a fine appearance by Stacy Keach as an old friend he meets in one of the gloomy local bars, who hides a mercenary streak behind his show of warmth.

Perhaps what’s most noticeable on first encounter, though, is the black-and-white cinematography. However, it avoids a zingy, high-contrasty effect, but rather goes for a range of greys in between, suggesting perhaps the vastness and uniformity of a lot of middle America, as well as a timelessness to its storytelling. It doesn’t go out of its way, in other words, to be showy, and just adds a further layer of wistfulness to the film’s elegiac tone.

It’s the uniformly strong acting which is the real asset of this film, although as mentioned above, I felt more warmly towards Squibb than Dern in this respect, the latter mainly doing a sort of stooped mumble and constantly having to look bewildered and confused. Will Forte is particularly good, and I don’t know why it should be that comedians (and both he and Bob Odenkirk, who plays his brother, have experience on Saturday Night Live, amongst other such shows) put across such good portrayals of lives which, if not crushed, have at least not fulfilled their potential. It’s not that the film is about unhappy people — in their ways, they all seem perfectly contented — as it’s about ones who are just fundamentally unremarkable. There are plenty of occasions that might in another movie prompt some sententious homily, but Payne thankfully never goes down that route. And as the movies goes on, we get more of a sense of the opportunities the elderly characters had earlier in their lives, and the different paths that their lives could have taken.

This isn’t a film of regrets, though. There’s a melancholy, but it never overwhelms the characters or the story. Like those reference points, it’s still fundamentally about men on a quest that brings them into contact with their insecurities and fallabilities, and if it were just the two men then I’d probably feel less warmth towards this kind of self-regarding narcissism, but I don’t know, maybe I just have a weakness for quiet stories about lost lives. I don’t want to make grand claims, but to me the film Nebraska feels like a film about how people lie to themselves to keep going in life, and the necessity of those lies.

Nebraska film posterCREDITS
Director Alexander Payne; Writer Bob Nelson; Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael Φαίδων Παπαμιχαήλ; Starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Monday 9 December 2013.

Week End (1967)

If Bande à part seemed to herald the end of the nouvelle vague, then this film of Godard’s, three years later, has a far more self-consciously terminal message, expressed as the final words on screen: “FIN DE CINEMA” (end of cinema). It’s an apocalyptic-themed sign-off to the pop art 60s, a grand gesture of defiance to those who would try to integrate his cinema into the mainstream, and — as ever — a heady fvck you to the United States and the forces of capitalism. It’s far from easy to stomach, but it certainly deserves a prominent place in his filmography, if only for the multiplicity of brightly-coloured messages it puts across in its relatively short running time.

As has become evident over the course of watching Godard’s 60s films, the way that the film opens is often a key to the message the film is pursuing (whether Karina’s face from various angles in Vivre sa vie or the self-reflexive tracking shot that opens Le Mépris). In this case, the title card itself holds that hint — the word “WEEK END” is broken up, repeated and reconfigured across several lines in red, white and blue colours, suggesting the fractured, disintegrated world the film is aiming to depict. At points, the film itself fragments, with repeated shots separated by black leader, and during one automotive conflagration, the film’s framing is even shifted so that the edges of the film show up (such that the tops of characters’ bodies poke from the bottom of the screen, while their legs are at the top). Returning to the film’s opening, although we begin in middle-class comfort among some executives in a meeting high up in a building, they soon spot a fight down at street level below. There’s an Olympian detachment to this scene that doesn’t last long, as the film quickly throws the middle-class couple at the centre of the film, Corinne and Roland (played by Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne), right into the heart of that conflict.

The couple’s story itself is fairly dispensible — in fact, when I watched the film most recently I didn’t even pick up on the plot point that they are travelling across country to kill her parents and then themselves. The key, really, is the journey, a twisted version of the classic American road movie presented as a series of largely self-contained blackly comic setpieces that cycle through murder, rape, arson, political theory and the wholesale dismantling of bourgeois Western civilisation. The fact that it doesn’t really hang together as a coherent plot may account for some of my difficulties in wholeheartedly liking it (and hence my rating), but then again that’s part of the film’s point. According to an early intertitle, it is a “film found on the junk-heap”, and it feels like that’s where Godard has returned the film by the end. During a lengthy scene of two revolutionaries reciting texts of radical liberationist theory, our protagonists can be found sitting on a literal junk-heap on the back of a truck.

Along the way there are many scenes pointedly skewering the hegemonic pervasiveness of consumerism and pop culture, as imported from the United States. “A scene of Parisian life” has our protagonists trying to back out of their driveway while being accosted by a child dressed in a native American costume, leading to them bumping into their neighbour’s car. The ensuing fight quickly escalates to gunplay and bloodshed — an absurdist overreaction to a minor automotive incident, but such is the way of the film, where affronts to one’s possessions frequently lead to bloody violence. In another scene, a horrific pile-up of cars and dead bodies, the only voice heard is Corinne screaming over the loss of her Hermès handbag. It’s the road movie trope that the movie keeps returning to, with its pervasive focus on car culture — generally in the form of twisted, burning wrecks. The film’s most famous scene is probably the long tracking shot along a traffic jam in the French countryside, the gridlock created by a fatal accident.

Those familiar with Godard’s cinematic development know that after this film he started concentrating on explicitly political films, with a Marxist-Leninist undertow, though this political consciousness was developing in his films throughout the 1960s. Therefore it’s no surprise to find a strong engagement with the class struggle (“lutte de classe” as per intertitles frequently flashing up on screen), sometimes framed by history, sometimes by literature or art. The poster-boy of the nouvelle vague, Jean-Pierre Léaud, wanders across the screen in Napoleonic costume declaiming a revolutionary text, while the character of Alice is set fire accompanied the words “this isn’t a novel, it’s a film!” (The reference here may be to Lewis Carroll’s children’s book character, though it might as well be to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”, a psychedelic anthem for American youth released earlier in 1967.) Elsewhere we see a woman arguing with a farmer in front of her car propped against his tractor, the dead body of a man adorning it (she is of course arguing about the cost of her totalled car). Working-class bystanders look on implacably, framed by hypersaturated posters for various entertainments. At the end of the scene, all these characters pose together as if in a photo accompanied by the intertitle “FAUXTOGRAPHIE” — implying perhaps that photography (or filming for that matter) can create a false bond between the classes, who are ineluctably in war with one another. The disjunction is only enhanced by a later scene depicting an earnest grand piano recital at a farm, watchfully observed by the farm labourers.

The epithet most frequently applied to the film that I’ve seen is “carnivalesque” and it does indeed have that feeling of the ritualistic inversion of societal norms. At every level, bourgeois society and its underpinnings are satirised by Godard, abetted by the steady gaze and stately tracking shots of his cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Characters are all decked out in primary coloured costumes (not least the band of revolutionaries into whose orbit Corinne falls at the end of the film), and though the human blood effects have the same cartoonish quality, the film progresses to some rather disturbing live animal slaughter by its denouement. For this reason — as well as for its extended longueurs (scenes frequently unfold at a very measured pace) — it can be a difficult film to watch. Nevertheless, it’s self-consciously crafted as a grand statement on cinema and civil society in 1967, presaging the kind of upheavals that would happen in May 1968 (and to which French films even now still occasionally refer). As such, it’s possibly Godard’s most potent synthesis of his aesthetic and political concerns, and a fascinating document.

Next Up: An odd interlude in Godard’s career, and also his largest budget to date, was the collaboration with the Rolling Stones in London, One Plus One (also released as Sympathy for the Devil), but it furthers his political themes of the late-60s and looks towards a new collective cinematic creation.

Week End film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Luc Godard; Cinematographer Raoul Coutard; Starring Mireille Darc, Jean Yanne; Length 99 minutes.
Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, February 1999 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Wednesday 18 September 2013).