On the Rocks (2020)

Sofia Coppola has made some films I love, while never quite being a filmmaker whose work I seek out. Somehow at their worst — and this is one of her weaker films — they feel quite safe in some ways, but for me The Beguiled and The Bling Ring have been fascinating dramas about what it is to be American. Perhaps this is too, and like those other films it has a very specific sense of place, even if (like all her films) it’s abstracted from lived reality into something rather cozily familiar.

Halfway through watching this film and I was very willing to dislike it, but by the end it had grown a little on me. I still don’t think it’s one of director Sofia Coppola’s most accomplished works, but it’s a deft little miniature about those kind of very privileged New York City people that too many filmmakers make films about. Part of what grated on me, what made me want to dismiss the film, is that by halfway through a quotidian story of a middle-class Black couple (Rashida Jones and Marlon Wayans) negotiating their relationship after many years of marriage, gets sidetracked into being the Bill Murray show. He plays Jones’s father, an art dealer and something of a fantasist who knows everybody and has an easy charm, but his character pushes this into being a different kind of film. His ongoing habit of opining about women is of course tedious, and the way that he makes things about himself becomes what the film is about: his soliloquies are very much to showcase all the ways that Jones has to roll her eyes at him, while his impishly adventurous spirit leads to a catharsis that pulls the movie back to something that feels more emotionally truthful. It’s not a masterpiece, but I did end up liking it just a little bit.

On the Rocks film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola; Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd; Starring Rashida Jones, Bill Murray, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate; Length 96 minutes.
Seen at Academy Cinemas, Auckland, Thursday 29 October 2020.

The Beguiled (2017)

Sofia Coppola’s career has taken in a lot of hothouse environments of young women, guiding and socialising with one other largely independent of men, from her debut feature The Virgin Suicides. Her 2017 feature, from a novel already adapted in 1971 by Don Siegel, received a lot of criticism at the time for its elision of Black people in its southern US Civil War-era story, and there may of course be merits to those criticisms but there are other films that deal with these events, and Sofia Coppola is probably not the best-placed director to do justice to such themes. Instead, it takes the setting as a backdrop for another of her stories about young women’s coming of age, in difficult circumstances.

Sure, there are plenty of valid criticisms you could make, but I like Sofia Coppola’s work and I like what she’s doing with this film. A group of women isolated from their country and society isn’t exactly new territory, and if it’s not quite the masterpiece that The Bling Ring (2013) and Marie Antoinette (2006) were, it’s still very assured. Beautiful cinematography turns on a tightly judged acting performance from each of the women (and Colin Farrell), in which allegiances and sympathies shift markedly with only very subtle changes in the relationships (until it becomes less subtle and then the film just ends, rather swiftly). I don’t know if it says anything really about the period of the Civil War-era America or the end of the antebellum South, but I would venture that it’s more about sex and desire in a cloistered environment.

The Beguiled film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola (based on the novel The Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan); Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd; Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Living Room Theaters, Portland OR, Friday 30 June 2017.

Three Made-for-TV Christmas Films: All I Want for Christmas (2013), A Royal Christmas (2014) and A Very Murray Christmas (2015)

What better time than January to cast our minds back to some of those delights of a December spent at least partially at home, sipping port or whatever is your tipple, and flicking through your TV channels? If you’re in the same place next year you might come across some of these titles.

There are, it seems to me, many different types of film one might talk about. The kinds of productions usually reviewed on this site tend towards the prestige and high-brow — film festival-friendly films, with the occasional popcorn-munching blockbuster towards one end and the frankly experimental/avant-garde at the other, as the feeling takes me. Other sites focus more on cult or genre films (I’m thinking horror and slasher films, as an example) which make up a sizeable but largely submerged world of filmmaking which rarely pokes its head above the middle-brow surface of the kind of cinema I tend to skim across. And then there are various national cinemas: I’ve been dipping my toe into Bollywood over the last year, but it and the other cinemas of the Asian continent have their own almost-entirely-separate ecosystems. So within this vaguely aquatic metaphor I’ve deployed, I don’t quite know where made-for-TV films live — somewhere down in the trenches where weird-looking brightly-coloured sea creatures live — nor do I know quite how heated the discussion around them is, but I’m guessing there must be at least someone enthusiastically poring over the latest Hallmark Channel offering.

Even within this context — and to be clear, we’re not talking the growing arena of TV where quality, high production values and big screen actors make their living (this isn’t Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce or Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake I’m talking about) — even within this corny, cardboard and strictly-no-longer-than-90-minute domain, Christmas movies have their own special place. There are cable channels dedicated to them. There’s a whole world of filmographies that seem to include only films with the word “Christmas” in the title. It’s a permanently frosted, be-tinselled and sparkling place of elven delight and gnomic repartee. (Okay, maybe not gnomic.) My point is mainly to say there’s not really much I can tell you about these films, though one of them is ostensibly a more prestige production, made for Netflix under the auspices of famous director Sofia Coppola and with cameos by actually-A-list celebrities, but I’ll get to that later. No, the bread and butter of this genre is often almost indistinguishable when flicking through plot summaries on your favoured service.

All I Want for Christmas (2013) is largely typical of what I’ve seen: it’s filmed in the ever-sunny Los Angeles, in a series of unremarkable (if not bland) office, home and retail settings, with capable actors who probably get a lot of work but aren’t exactly stretched by the demands of a script which credits at least three or four writers. There’s room for a Santa’s elf with magical powers, but this isn’t Bad Santa (2003), and Martin Klebba might in any case be the best actor in this film — that distinction certainly doesn’t go to Tom Arnold, who is beyond wooden as the boss of Melissa Sagemiller’s Elizabeth. Anyway, thanks to magic and some credulity-stretching plotting, she ends up with (or does she?… okay okay you can probably guess which) Brad Rowe’s executive Robert, whom she first meets cute when she cuts in front of him at a coffee shop, allowing for a bit of comedy grumpiness back and forth for, oh, more or less the film’s entire running time. Anyway, at least I think that’s the plot. It’s been a few months since I saw it, and it blends together a bit with all the other Christmas films I’ve ever seen (I have a friend who likes them, and anyway look, you just need to be in the right frame of mind, which needless to say is certainly aided by mulled wine).

A Royal Christmas (2014)

At a more competent level of quality (not even filmed in LA) is Hallmark’s 2014 production A Royal Christmas. To say it rips off elements of The Princess Diaries (2001, a film which in the context is a masterpiece) would be to deploy some pretty high-level diplomatic language, but for all that it passes by in exactly the kind of pleasing haze I hope the makers are happy to know they achieved. In comparison to Julie Andrews in that earlier work, Jane Seymour leans a little heavily on dismissive hauteur as the Queen of Cordinia, but Lacey Chabert has a goofy charm as seamstress Emily (yes, seamstress! her surname is Taylor!) who falls in love with normal guy-around-the-corner Leo (Stephen Hagan) who turns out to be… a Prince! Specifially, of the aforementioned Ruritanian kingdom, which luckily is English-speaking and looks like a pretty nice set. Once you have a sense of the contours of this genre, there’s really little point in saying very much more than that it’s performed with all the likeability that its programmatic plot allows.

And then there’s A Very Murray Christmas which is a film not dissimilar in its general effect — in fact, if anything it seems to be striving to be a pastiche of something the directors of the films above might have casually tossed off back in the ‘golden era’ of 50s US TV, and which has probably since been lost to time. It purports to present a seasonal live TV variety show hosted by Bill Murray, with the twist being that the hotel in NYC where he’s filming has been snowed in and none of the scheduled guest stars can get there, so it’s ironically distanced by showing the behind-the-scenes trauma of the staging, as a desultory Murray is consoled by his pianist Paul Shaffer and eventually co-opts some of the hotel’s other snowed-in residents (who are played by famous people, in any case). I admire its spirit of drink-sozzled cheer in the face of adversity, which eventually cedes to full-blown fantasia, but even over an hour-long running time it comes across a little uneven.

All I Want for Christmas film posterAll I Want for Christmas (2013)
Director Fred Olen Ray; Writers Michael Ciminera, Richard Gnolfo and Peter Sullivan; Cinematographer Theo Angell; Starring Melissa Sagemiller, Brad Rowe; Length 88 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s flat (streaming), London, Sunday 8 November 2015.

A Royal Christmas film posterA Royal Christmas (2014)
Director Alex Zamm; Writers Janeen Damian, Michael Damian, Neal H. Dobrofsky and Tippi Dobrofsky; Cinematographer Viorel Sergovici; Starring Lacey Chabert, Jane Seymour, Stephen Hagan; Length c90 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 28 December 2015.

A Very Murray Christmas (2015)A Very Murray Christmas (2015)
Director Sofia Coppola; Writers Coppola, Mitch Glazer and Bill Murray; Cinematographer John Tanzer; Starring Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Rashida Jones; Length 56 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 7 December 2015.

Somewhere (2010)

Even by the standards of Sofia Coppola’s films about ennui amongst the lives of the rich and overprivileged, Somewhere is a slow one, but that feels of a piece with its protagonist, movie star Johnny (Stephen Dorff). We open with him speeding around a race track, the camera unmoving as his car loops into and out of frame, repetitively, for several minutes. Other long takes show him sitting prone on his bed or a sofa, watching identical twins give him a pole dance in his Château Marmont hotel room where he’s living. It’s a carefully-delineated existence of perfect boredom, alleviated only by occasional desultory sex with pliable women, and drinks with his friend, all of this taking place again in his hotel room. It’s only when his young daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) shows up for a day, and then again for a longer period during which time they jet off to Milan for a press junket, that Johnny slowly starts to re-form emotional connections. Watching this painfully slow process unfolding, via almost impercetible changes in his mood and activities, is the core of Coppola’s film, beautifully shot by her regular DoP Harris Savides. It’s less accessible perhaps than Marie Antoinette before and The Bling Ring after, both dealing with similar themes, but it still has an almost hypnotic beauty to it that rewards attention.

Somewhere film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Sofia Coppola; Cinematographer Harris Savides; Starring Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 29 October 2015.

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 TMZ.com. 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.