Somewhere (2010)

Somewhere is an exercise in taking Sofia Coppola’s trademark vacuousness and amping it up to the max for an examination of Hollywood life and postmodern city life. It’s not an immediately, or perhaps at all, engaging film with the first dialogue only coming after 15 minutes and remaining sparse throughout since it is about a character who is totally detached, reflected by the film at many points.

Stephen Dorff, who I’d never heard of before, is fantastic and understated as Johnny Marco, a famous actor, left unsatisfied despite his success and struggling to find meaning or pleasure in life. A combination of the sparse script and Dorff’s subtle and internalised performance means that he’s not a particularly likable character per se, neither is he unlikable, he feels like a thoroughly realistic character with his guard kept incredibly high. Critics often say that film is unable to communicate the interiority and motivations of a character to the audience as well as a novel, I think this film is one of countless good examples to add a separate view to this discussion. Whilst in this film we don’t get any concrete insight into Marco’s mind, I would argue that is part of what makes the character so interesting, his behaviour leads the audience to really think about and consider his motivations for themselves as that’s the only way we get explanation. He’s a fascinating character too, a man who has been absorbed by Hollywood and as a result lost his identity, brilliantly symbolised in a scene where he get a full face mould, the camera is trained on this image of his image totally obscured by plaster, isolated in a room. Marco lives a life with no centre, he seemingly has no permanent home, instead living his life out of hotels he doesn’t leave unless necessarily, even in Italy, he spends the entire time, not including an award show, in the hotel. The closest thing he has to a home is his black Ferrari , much like Repo Man, cars are central to the film, both taking place city of LA where car transport is a necessity. In fact we never see a character walking to a new location in this film (spoilers) until the end where Marco drives into the countryside, leaves his car and walks aimlessly away, to anywhere else, shedding his identity to create his own (spoilers end). Marco isn’t particularly comfortable in his own skin and he’s definitely not comfortable with his celebrity and hence he isolates himself so as to avoid interaction (one scene features a nice cameo from Alden Ehrenreich). It feels like an odd thing to praise or mention at all, but Dorff’s body is a direct reflection of his life, he is clearly very muscular for his action roles as he has huge biceps and a very defined adonis belt amongst other muscles. However this isn’t really who he is, his stomach is sustended, pushing his abs against the skin of his bulging stomach, the muscles are the means to an end as a blockbuster actor but its not his wn decision as he doesn’t maintain that figure unless necesarry.

Marco’s life is peppered with occasional visits from his daughter Cleo, played by the remarkably accomplished, and deservedly so, Elle Fanning. Marco doesn’t know how to properly connect with his daughter, resorting to play video games with her, even then these games are Guitar Hero and Wii Sport, games based on activities the characters could actually do. Cleo is resilient and independent, often cooking not only for herself but also for her father, with considerable skill as well, contrasting with Marco who seems has no idea about portion control with even simple meals. Cleo is clearly left alone fairly often and sure enough the main narrative drive comes from Cleo’s mother going AWOL leaving Johnny to look after Cleo having to find a way to fit her into his life. From spending all that time wth her father, Cleo starts to met his cold exterior and makes him feel confident, enough so that eventually he is comfortable swimming and sunbathing amidst the public. The pain of his distance is still real though and there isn’t an easy fix.

The film is filled with scenes just of driving, demonstrating the postmodern commercialism and fragmentedness of the world the characters inhabit. One particular shot stands out as the main focus in the frame is a huge billboard advertising ‘Tom Ford for Men’. One of the most accepted theories of the postmodern, posited by Jameson is that of intertextuality replacing depth, with postmodern art being fundamentally shallow and surface level which is perfect for a film about Hollywood. One scene which stands out, in general as well as in theoretical terms is when Marco and his co-star played by Michelle Monaghan pose for a photo shoot promoting their new action film. The characters seamlessly alternate between smiling for the camera and belittling each other, and after the shoot is over, the camera cuts to reveal that Marco has been standing on a wooden block to create the illusion of height. The hotels Marco stays in are a fantastic example of postmodern theory at work as they serve to create their own centre as locations that cater to every need, particularly the Italian hotel which latches on to the modernised notion of commercialised historicity in its decor. The Marmont hotel has a life of its own, there are constant gathering of people in the halls, as well as being a place where sexual appetites are served accordingly. Marco goes through a serious of meaningless sexual encounters (including a surprise Eliza Coupe cameo which is always a treat), where he never knows the names of the women he is with, and even falls asleep whilst performing cunnilingus.

As mentioned earlier, the film isn’t the most engaging film, but it has some fantastic scenes and some fun cameos (Michelle Monaghan, Benicio Del Toro, Eliza Coupe, Ellie Kemper and Alden Ehrenreich). Unlike the world that Coppola presents, this film is thematically rich with a lot of potential unpacking if wanted.

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Repo Man (1984)

I wouldn’t know how to ever describe this film, it goes slightly beyond comprehension in the most fantastic way. The film is actually theoretically quite dense but its disguised by layers and layers of fantastic 80s kitsch and comedy so much so that it’d be incredibly easy to miss any deeper point and to just enjoy it for what it is.

The film stars Emilio Estevez as Otto, an 18 year old kid from a poor family who pretends to be older than he is and has an outlandish style, complete with a Madonna-esque holy cross earring. Otto has a surprise induction into the world of repo man but finds himself embracing this lifestyle, the mentorship and the code that it comes with. As repo men they repossess cars of people who cant pay their bills and hold them till they pay up, however, its not all that simple as they have a fierce rivalry with the other repo men in town, the Rodrigues brothers. The car is central to this film, set in LA, a fragmented city where you have to drive everywhere, the car becomes an incredibly significant representation of the driver, it is it’s own self contained world. The identity affixed to cars is a key part of Otto’s own self discovery of his identity. It sounds simple enough, but theres more, a trio of punk anarchists are wreaking havoc across LA, with such fantastic lines as ‘lets go do some crime’, they are a biting satire of counter cultural youths who don’t contribute much to the narrative but are so ridiculous and funny you’ll always be glad when they pop up. As if this wasn’t all enough for a fleshed out film, I neglected to mention the opening, which sets up a huge element of the film. The opening finds a man driving a malibu in the desert with a secret in his trunk, this secret is alien life and anyone who opens the trunk gets immediately evaporated, the radiation is also destroying this driver the longer he’s around it. This malibu becomes a hot commodity that Otto and his crew compete with the Rodrigues brothers to find in order to claim the bounty, they’re not the only ones, theres a conspiracy group, the United Fruitcake Organisation (UFO) and a government branch lead by a torture happy woman with a metal hand. All these groups try to get the malibu, backstabbing each other, forming alliances, having fights and eventually converging on the malibu, now glowing from radiation, causing a literal storm and setting people on fire. Otto and one of his co-workers get in the car which proceeds to raise into the air and fly around the city, like Grease but radioactive. So yeah, its a pretty crazy film.

I’m not going to try and unpack the film properly, that’s a job for a potential essay and either way I’d need to watch it again, needless to say, theres a lot at play in this film and some interesting ideas being represented. The film has a wide range of visual and spoken comedy mixed in with some slightly more serious moments. It is a genre bending, sci-fi, drama, comedy, post-modern, action epic and I don’t think I’ll ever see anything quite like it again.

The Good Place – Season 1 (2016)

This was a binge watch in varying states of sobriety so my recollection may not be as detailed, and unlike every other time I say I’ll keep things short and then write loads, I really think this one will be short.

Written by Mike Schur, the creator of Parks and Recreation, a favourite sitcom of mine, The Good Place is similar in some ways regarding the tone especially, but at the same time an entirely different beast. The main similarity comes in the form of kindness, one of the things that made Parks and Rec stand out so much was that everyone was overall kind to one another (excluding poor Jerry). With The Good Place being set in heaven, this niceness is a common thread and its reflected by the bright, colourful aesthetic and characters who by and large treat each other nicely. This setting also provides some clever humour as expletives are not fit for heaven and as such they are replaced by similar sounding, albeit unrelated words, a clever and humorous solution to the limitations of cable TV. However unlike, Parks and Rec, The Good Place isn’t actually particularly funny, its very pleasant and enjoyable but I can’t recall any jokes that actively made me laugh, perhaps this is due to a much smaller ensemble and a less compelling lead than Leslie Knope. This isn’t Kristen Bell’s fault, she does a good job with a not particularly interesting character, in fact none of the characters are particularly interesting and therein lies the problem. The ensemble does a good job with their material, particularly Kristen Bell and Ted Danson (also wonderful in Fargo S2) and a standout performance from D’arcy Carden who provides the bulk of the show’s humour and she does it so fantastically. However the characters lack chemistry and dont feel like a particularly united ensemble, perhaps due to the lack of group scenes or scenes where we have odd character pairings as the focus is almost always on Bell. This seems like a somewhat unfair critique as all sitcoms take time to find their footing and develop that chemistry, which is particularly hard with only 13 episodes, perhaps in the next season they’ll form a more cohesive group.

What the show lacks in outright laughter, it makes up for with its incredibly finely tuned and precise narrative which is unlike any sitcom I can recall ever seeing. The show has a great concept that could last many seasons but the show never rests on that, they completely change the dynamic about halfway through and then have a finishing plot twist that makes season 2 incredibly exciting, but also incredibly difficult to figure out how it will work. The plot twists never feel extraneous or forced but rather quite natural to the world Schur created, you can tell this show was intricately planned before production, as these plot twists are pulled off perfectly, more so than Westworld (which I loved) that prided itself on its twisty narrative but got quite messy. The writers employ an Orange is the New Black-esque mode of flashbacks to provide insight into the characters’ backgrounds, showing life before death as opposed to life before prison.

Despite not being the funniest show ever, it is really very enjoyable and must be applauded for the commitment to the complex narrative especially in a genre that doesn’t expect it. I’ll definitely watch season 2, but maybe wait for it to be over so I can binge it as that feels like a good way to watch this show.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Going to see this film was procrastination from a busy work day as is writing this, so I’ll try to keep it brief so I can get cracking on better things. I’m not a huge fan of Star Wars having never seen the original trilogy and my recollection of the prequels is spotty at best but I like watching new movies and keeping up to date with things and I’d heard this was a gritty war movie take on the franchise.

This was an extremely frustrating film to watch, not only because the concept could have been awesome, but also some of the very questionable creative decisions behind it. So for example, the film opens with our protagonist Jyn watching her mother get killed and father taken away to work for the empire, we get re-shown this sequence in flashbacks about 15-20 minutes later for no added benefit. There are many instances of this kind of needless screenwriting, in the battle for Scarif, we constantly get put into the cockpits of pilots in the fight, I get that this is a call back to the old films but its totally pointless. We don’t need to see a pilot exclaim ‘We’re going down!’ right before the ship hits the ground, we already know there’s someone in there and we know exactly as much about their character as we did before, all it does is remove us from the action. There are lots of instances of implied action, we’ll see a gun get fired or we’ll see a stormtrooper get hit but totally in isolation, these shots hold no weight at all. That being said there were some action sequences with the potential for strong action, and one action sequence at the end which was pretty awesome, but the action fell flat due to the characters. I personally need to be invested in the characters I’m watching to be invested in the action and for the action to feel like it has stakes. To this film’s credit, it certainly does have stakes as (spoilers) all the main characters die in the fight on Scarif, but it doesn’t live up to it’s potential because hoow can we care about such thinly written characters. Not only do the characters have no depth beyond, nervous, mystic blind asian cliche or long hair with a gun, but none of the actors are capable of delivering good performances, largely due to their ridiculous dialogue. I generally like Felicity Jones as an actress and she does a good job with her silent reactions and the scenes relating to her father, however she isn’t believable as an action hero or a leader although she does her best and comes out the strongest of the lot acting wise. Whilst talking about the actors: DISNEY, STOP HIRING MADS MIKKELSEN ONLY TO NOT ACTUALLY UTILISE HIS TALENT!

One thing I did enjoy was seeing a nice variety of planets with interesting and distinct locales, I though Jedhur was a particularly interesting location. However the motivation for blowing it up was unclear until a couple of scenes later when it was explained to be the last bastion of the Jedi, which left that sequence feeling like a poor excuse to do an Independence Day 2-esque cgi sequence of destruction, rubble and flying. Whilst a more savvy viewer who is familiar with the lore might have figured this out more quickly, as a casual viewer I was left thinking, why don’t they test it on pretty much anywhere else on the planet which was desolate as they end up whining about backlash from it anyway? There are a few examples of this seemingly thoughtless plotting, for example Saw Guerrera for some inexplicable reason refusing to leave his crumbling base only to then leave the base and watch out the doorway and so on.

Credit has to go to Gareth Edward’s eye for scale, the Death Star and various other space ships and the AT ATs did look genuinely imposing, he really has an eye for the colossal, as evidenced in his superior debut Monsters. The score was in line with classic Star Wars, but in ways that I didn’t experience in The Force Awakens, it often times took me out of the action due to how over the top it was, although perhaps I was never really in the action in the first place. I honestly cannot say I enjoyed this film, but neither did I hate it, if I’m being perfectly honest, for blockbusters last year, I much preferred Warcraft and in the case of a night where you might consider this, I’d suggest watching District 9 instead.

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

There’s not a huge amount I feel I can really say about Roger Corman’s adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ and ‘Hop-frog’ and that’s because its a film without a huge amount of substance. In so far as it’s faithfulness to the texts, it takes huge liberties and the majority of the characters are inventions of the film, but really that’s necessary coming from such sparsely detailed texts, but they capture the spirit and main plot points faithfully.

The film has an original heroine and audience surrogate in Francesca, a young christian peasant girl who is taken in by the nefarious Prospero. Prospero is the only named character in the story ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, but is given no characterisation, for the flm, the character seems to be largely derived from the nameless king in ‘Hop-frog’ with a healthy dollop of satanism. It becomes essentially a morality tale between these two opposed characters, with such side characters as Juliana (played by Hazel Court who does her best with such kitsch material) a mistress of satan, Gino who is Francesca’s boyfriend and Francesca’s father. Francesca is taken under Prospero’s wing and clothed with the best clothes and given the best food in the hopes he may conver her to Satanism whilst Francesca plays along in order to try and save Gino and her father. All the while Prosero throws wild hedonistic parties with the nobles he has barricaded in his castle to rotect against the red death afflicting the surounding villages. Its at these parties where we are introduced to Hop Toad and Esmerelda, re-imaginings of Hop-Frog and Tripetta, when Prospero’s advisor strikes Esmerelda, Hop-Toad vows revenge. This story line is ancillary to the main narrative of the film, like a b-plot on a TV show but it captures the mythic spirit of the story well as well as providing us with a 8 year old girl being dubbed over by a 30 year old woman which is just great. The entire film is incredibly kitschy in this same vein and to an extent films don’t quite reach anymore, it has some light leanings into the exploitation genre ut it does have artistic ambitions. Roger Corman had a great fondness for Poe’s work and clearly wanted to do it justice, not only is the narrative a clever adaptation and expansion of the stories, the cinematography is actually good with fantastic pathecolor throughout. Even the wackier sequences such as Juliana’s dream after her stanic ritual is rooted in some cultural ntions of exoticism. That being said, the film totally glazes over any symbolic meaning behind the 7 different coloured rooms, a key feature from the story and the film is at the end of the day, a camp b-movie.

La La Land (2016)

If any film ever had the danger of collapsing under its hype for me, it was this one, I have been excited for this from the second I read ‘Ryan Gosling and Emma stone to star in musical’. Then you add in the heaps of praise and critical acclaim I thought there was no way this could live up to the hype but, as I sit hear listening to the soundtrack for the 4th time today, I can happily say it lives up to every bit of the hype. I don’t think theres even much I can say about it to be honest, its just so fantastic, but I’ll give it a go, just be prepared for some intensely sycophantic writing.

Emma Stone has long been one of my favourite actresses and she is beyond stunning in this, and it really is her film. Whilst her voice isn’t particularly strong, its lovely but it lacks any oomph, and her dancing isn’t quite as good as Gosling, she acts the hell out of every second in this film and thats what its all about really. Chazelle allows the camera to linger on her face in Bergman-esque close ups which allows Stone to show how fantastic she is, you can see every single thought going through her mind at any time with subtle transitions between emotions and responses to what’s going on. She is so intensely present in her character and the story, aided by her huge, and hugely expressive eyes, you believe every single second of her story and empathise so strongly with her struggle. And whilst I said she isn’t the strongest singer or dancer, she brings such a vivacious energy to her dancing that you hardly notice and as mentioned the songs are acting exercises above all else. (spoilers) Towards the end when Mia has achieved fame, Emma Stone carries the effects of fame on her character in her posture and voice with a fantastic subtlety whilst maintaining a clear transformation (Spoilers). Then theres her chemistry with the wonderful Ryan Gosling, one of my favourite actors and long time idols. These two have proven time and time again that they have the most electric chemistry and it is never stronger than here. Gosling is a real jack of all trades and this is a great showcase for him as he moves fantastically and as we know from ‘Dead Man’s Bones’ he can sing and as evidenced in plenty of films he is a fantastic and versatile actor although his role perhaps has less meat than Stone.

I admittedly have still yet to see Whiplash although it is at the top of my Netflix queue, but I was so impressed by Damien Chazelle’s direction and writing. The camerawork throughout was energetic and fluid, never cutting unless it really needed to allowing us fantastic long takes, and he’s not afraid to linger on quiet moments. The scene where the hold hands in the movie theatre may be the most exhilarating moment put on film in all of 2016 and then it lead into that magnificent Planetarium sequence which was pure film magic. The cinematography was also just beautiful, the way the street art was incoporated into shots and the frequent sunsets along with the beautiful colour grading made LA look like a wonderland. The costumes were also stunning throughout, particularly for Emma Stone.

I feel like I can’t actually continue writing about this right now, I cannot capture how I felt about this, being extemely hyperbolic, it feels like everything I’ve ever wanted in a film. A bittersweet love story between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone with fantastic direction, singing, jazz old hollywood nostalgia and a big dose of melancholy, its like Damien Chazelle looked into my brain and plucked out my favourite film.

Sorry this is such a shit blogpost, might try and touch it up later

RSC’s ‘The Tempest’ (2016-17)

Last night I finally managed to watch Gregory Doran’s new production of The Tempest with the RSC, unfortunately tickets for the stage version were entirely sold out so I had to settle for watching a live stream at the VUE. I have problems with the format of theatre screenings so perhaps some of my complaints wont be valid in regards to the actual production.

‘The Tempest’ is the first play of Shakespeare’s that I really understood and enjoyed thanks to a week long course I did at RADA when I was 15, and under the tuition of a wonderful man named Vivian we studied this text. Due to that I have quite a close attachment to this play so combined with the new stage effects by intel and the imaginarium, never done on stage before, I was very excited. I suppose it makes sense to get those effects out of the way since that’s probably the main point of interest for most people. Where the effects excelled was in the projections on the set which were used in a variety of ways, from the simple changing the scenery to forests, beaches, fens, etc they looked fantastic, to the more magical with Prospero creating a mark with his staff. These effects were particularly well executed in the wedding masque sequence as the stage was transformed into a variety of idyllic watercolour landscapes, as Ceres emerged from the stage, her dress flowed out (imagine the end of Defying Gravity with Elphaba’s gown) and flowers were projected all over her dress. Moments like this were truly magical and its hard to imagine them being done justice without these fantastic projections and despite the magnitude of the visual effects, the text wasn’t forgotten. Elly Condron as Iris, in a wonderful costume had a truly incredible understanding and control of the language and was a joy to watch, definitely one of the most impressive performances of the show.

However these effects weren’t always so successful, the creature effects were often somewhat lacking, the worst offender being an almost laughable Cerberus. Ariel, played by Mark Quartley, had a variety of avatars, all of which moved responding to movements Quartley made live on stage. I certainly appreciate the innovation here and the fact that this is (as far a I know) new ground for theatre, however I felt it was somewhat lacking. I understand that capturing live on stage allows people to feel as though they’re seeing something unique each night, I’m just not sure the technology is quite there yet. The animation looked awkward and like something you might expect in an old video game (as did the model for the harpy) and I did notice one or two occasions when it wasn’t quite in sync. I just wonder if perhaps they would have been better served with pre-rendered figures, the avatars were the focus with Quartley often performing the movements in the corner (although this may be a result of the camera work understandably focusing on the avatars). I just think that Quartley’s movements were probably largely choreographed anyway and a smoother animation would have made the production more cohesive.That being said there were some fantastic moments involving Ariel, namely a reenactment of his entrapment in a tree prior to the play (with wonderful projections on the stage) and a second act dance in the forest with multiple avatars.

The set was, in true RSC tradition, fantastically made up, with the ground looking like dry earth that was easily transformed by projection and what looked like the hull of a ship framing the action. The magic wasn’t all done by projection either, one moment that particularly stand out is when Alonso and his party come across a banquet in the woods and as the table cloth is ripped off, there seems to be nothing supporting it. Mixing small moments of practical work such as this in with the heavy visual effects really helped to ground the action and are a great example of theatre at work.

Moving on to the less technical aspects of the play, I was in general quite let down, I still very much enjoyed the production but there were many areas it could have been stronger. I should first make clear why I don’t love these recordings of theatre as it could very well be responsible for some of my nit-picking. I feel as though these recordings sometimes forget the difference between stage and screen and they pull us far too close in to the actors, with extreme close up and a variety of angles. What this does is it cuts off the majority of the action on stage and brings to light the differences of stage and screen acting. These actors perform 8 times a week and they have to get the words and the emotions out to the hardest of sight and hearing and the people on the back row of the third balcony. This isn’t conducive to naturalistic acting which is where close ups excel, all a close up does here is show that the actors aren’t crying at all and telegraphs incredibly heightened emotions and acting. That being said, I found the acting in this production to be pretty lacklustre which is disappointing after some truly wonderful performances at the RSC this year*. Simon Russel Beale lacked any presence or gravity as Prospero, he clearly understand the text wonderfully and he gets that across, but he often looked quite lost on stage and failed to get across the cantankerous attitude he talked about in the pre-interviews. He gained some steam as the production went on with two great monologues in the second half and by the end of the play he was connecting more to his words but still lacking the weight an actor like Anthony Sher could have brought. Mark Quartley did an admirable job as Ariel and had really fantastic physicalistion, although conceptualising Ariel as cold and detached without an ounce of playfulness really limited what he could do with the role. Joe Dixon was particularly disappointing as Caliban, I felt as though he never truly committed to the physicality and was often just not present in the scene with responses that felt rehearsed and unjustified, never actually in resonse to what was being said. Thankfully he was accompanied by Tony Jayawardena and Simon Trinder who bought a tremendous amount of energy to Stephano and Trinculo respectively, with fantastic chemistry and comic timing. I didn’t love the extent of Trinculo’s clowning with full face make up, an incredibly annoying horn and clown laugh, and both took a lot of liberties with the text that didn’t always seem entirely justified. But they were both totally committed to everything they did and they bought a huge amount of humour to a strangely humourless production for the RSC who often find humour even in the darkest plays. Jenny Rainsford did a sound job with Miranda, which is a hard part to make not annoying, ignoring her overly tremulous voice, she bought a fair amount of spunk when needed. Alonso and his party were servicable with some fantastic moments but largely they failed to make you believe or care for the characters they were playing as they didn’t connect to many of the emotions of the scenes,not heled by a particularly frustrating Antonio and Sebastian.

Barring the amateurish opening sequence on the boat which lacked any impact in any way at all, the play never lagged thanks to its steady direction and fantastic visual effects. It’s also worth mentioning the original music, the RSC has always had beautiful live music and this was no exception. Despite its faults, I really did enjoy this production, its a wonderful play and Gregory Doran and his production team really managed to bring some magic to it.

*The great acting refers to the astounding performance by James Corrigan in the terrible production of Two Noble Kinsmen and Oliver Johnstone as Edgar in King Lear, two of the best performances I’ve ever seen on stage. Also Anthony Sher, Antony Byrne and David Troughton in King Lear, the leads in Dr Faustus and Jamie Wilkes in Two Noble Kinsmen.