Archive for July, 2014

Chef_2014

USA 2014

Director: Jon Favreau

Writer: Jon Favreau

Runtime: 114 minutes

Chef is a culinary feelgood movie that lacks bite

Jon Favreau’s Chef is a mildly enjoyable feelgood movie that doesn’t entirely make sense. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a respected chef at a restaurant run by Riva (Dustin Hoffman). When he learns that the restaurant is going to be visited by prominent food critic/blogger Ramsey Michel (the name presumably a blend of Gordon Ramsey and Michel Roux), Casper decides it is time to give their menu a bit of an overhaul. However, this is frustrated by Riva who insists that they should stick with what they know works. Unfortunately, the supposedly reliable offering receives a lacerating online review that is then retweeted by hundreds of people.

Casper responds by getting into a Twitter flame war with Michel (played by Oliver Platt), followed by another dispute with his boss which leads to him losing his job. Following a trip to Miami with his ex-wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) Casper is inspired to set up a mobile food van selling cubanos (a kind of Cuban sandwich). His son Percy (Emjay Anthony) gets involved, enabling them to bond, as does Martin (John Leguizamo), a friend from the old restaurant.

It’s all good-natured fun, but lacks any real drama. Once they get the van on the road the story stays on an upward trajectory until the end. It is a staple of feelgood movies that the characters should experience some major setback on the road to goal achievement (think of the police raiding the rehearsal and taking Robert Carlyle’s son away in The Full Monty). I was therefore waiting to see whether Casper would fall foul of child labour laws or if his van would be declared unroadworthy, but in fact there was no such issue to give the story some bite.

It also did not quite make sense that Casper should have blown a fuse with Ramsey Michel in the first place, when he knew full well that the real problem was his boss’s conservatism. But possibly Chef‘s worst sin is the complete wasting of two star actors. For the brief time that she is onscreen, Scarlett Johansson (playing the restaurant hostess) does little more than tell Casper how talented he is. Robert Downey Jr. plays a former husband/boyfriend of Casper’s ex-wife, who is in a position to give Casper some help at the point when he needs it. There is the potential for some tension to be thrown into the mix here, but unfortunately such tension that there is gets resolved in nanoseconds.

Chef seems to have done quite well at the box office, which I can only assume is the result of good timing – perhaps in the middle of a hot summer people want something undemanding that will maintain their positive mood. But really this seems to be the cinematic equivalent of the “playing it safe” approach that led to Carl Casper’s stinking review.

Rating: 6/10

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Vivian_Maier

USA 2013

Directors: John Maloof & Charlie Siskel

Writers: John Maloof & Charlie Siskel

Runtime: 87 mins

 

A fascinating portrait of a ‘lost’ street photographer – but not the full story

**SPOILER WARNING**

One of the qualities of street photographers, notes Joel Mayerowitz – one of the great practitioners of the art – is that they are both gregarious and solitary. They are gregarious because they like to go out and be among other people on the streets, but they are also solitary in that they generally keep their distance and try to be unobtrusive. So it must have been for Vivian Maier, unknown in her lifetime, but now claimed by some as one of the great street photographers. In order to appreciate whether an expression is worth capturing, a photographer needs to have some understanding of the humanity behind it. Maier clearly had this understanding, but paradoxically she seems to have spent much of her life alienated from people, especially so as she grew older. Finding Vivian Maier tries to uncover who this woman really was.

Maier died in 2009, aged 83, and completely unheard of in the world of photography. Two years earlier, out of financial necessity, many of her belongings were auctioned off, including thousands of negatives and hundreds of undeveloped rolls of film. John Maloof, co-director of this documentary, was one of the buyers. Unfortunately, this film makes no mention of the fact that there were two other buyers, Ron Slattery and Randy Prow (in fact, they purchased various boxes and suitcases, not knowing that they contained any photographic works). This has given rise to some controversy, including the suggestion that Maloof is trying to glorify his role in Maier’s story. Maloof himself declined to take part in a BBC Imagine documentary last year, called The Vivian Maier Mystery.

Finding Vivian Maier is presented as a detective story, beginning with the discovery of the negatives and films and then following Maloof as he tracks down and interviews people who knew Vivian Maier. Her story is undeniably fascinating, though this is as much because of the unanswered questions that remain as for the things we now know. Maier was a tall woman with somewhat angular facial features, who wore figure-concealing clothes and large boots. She worked as a nanny, which seems to have given her the freedom she desired to obsessively pursue her photographic interests. One of the children she nannied says they used to refer to her as “the wicked witch of the west”, and in many of the photos of Maier – including her own self-portraits – she often looks quite severe. However, in pictures where she is depicted smiling her features seem to soften and she struck me as really quite beautiful. As far as we know she never had an intimate relationship.

Some of the mystery about Maier, as presented in this documentary, seems to be less about her and more about the faulty memories or differing perspectives of the interviewees. At one point, a big deal is made about the French accent that she had. Was this real or affected? One acquaintance swears it was real whilst another, a linguistics professor who wrote his thesis on French speech, assures us it was faked. Only after we are presented with this discussion do we learn that Maier in fact spent many childhood years with her parents in France. So even if she occasionally “turned up” the accent a bit, it was undoubtedly based on actual experience. What therefore was achieved by presenting us with the conflicting opinions, other than making a linguistics professor look foolish?

In another segment two sisters who had been nannied by Maier disagree about the way she took photographs in the street. One swears that she never posed her subjects, whereas another says she always posed her subjects. But a glance at her photographs shows that there is no mystery: some were clearly posed and others were taken surreptitiously.

What remains fascinating and unanswered about Vivian Maier, however, is the nature of her personality. There are differing accounts from the children she nannied; some found her delightful, others say they were bullied. She didn’t care for men and seemed frightened of them. One interviewee speculates that she might have been abused. Maloof reports that all the family members he traced were incredibly private people and disconnected from each other. Whatever laid behind Maier’s personality, it does seem to be the case that at some point mere eccentricity began to tip over into something darker. As Maier became more alienated from people she also became more lonely.

As a photographer who occasionally dabbles – mostly badly – in street photography, I became aware of Maier and her photographic work sometime last year. Shortly after, I spoke to a “name” street photographer who asked the question: “But is she any good?” He thought that she probably was, but he ventured that it was difficult to evaluate her work separately from the mystery surrounding her. A similar point is made by one of the interviewees in this film, who says “I find the mystery of it more interesting than the work itself”. Sadly, Joel Mayerowitz and Mary Ellen Mark are the only two photographers who venture any opinion on Maier’s work.

In many ways Finding Vivian Maier is a good documentary film. The pacing is good, the telling of the story works well, and the music unobtrusively suits the mood throughout. However, there is a nagging feeling of dissatisfaction that comes from the knowledge that two other owners of Maiers photographs have been written out of this story.

Rating: 6/10

One of my favourite films – maybe even my favourite film – is The Ipcress File, based on the novel by Len Deighton. At some point I’ll probably write an appreciation of it here. But if you aren’t familiar with either the film or the book, then all you really need to know for now is that the central character is a kind of anti-Bond, a cultured working class soldier who is coerced into spying for his country under threat of imprisonment, owing to some dodgy dealings he got caught for whilst stationed in Germany.

Given the disparity between James Bond and Deighton’s spy (unnamed in his novels but called ‘Harry Palmer’ in his screen incarnation), I was therefore delightfully surprised when Amazon proffered a new Len Deighton work as a recommendation: James Bond: My Long and Eventful Search for His Father. This short work of non-fiction, only available as an e-book, actually concerns another disparity, the one between the “stuffed shirt” James Bond that Ian Fleming first described in Casino Royale and the character we know from the movies. Some people have attributed the movie Bond to Kevin McClory, a man Deighton describes as Fleming’s “nemesis”.

McClory, a forceful Irish patriot who nonetheless served with the British forces in World War 2, had a fairly admirable history in the film industry and offered to bring Bond to the cinema. McClory and Fleming seem to have been chalk and cheese in nearly every respect, except that they were both “cursed with a measure of ambition so large and all-consuming that no achievement could satisfy it”. The seemingly easy-going Deighton appears to have enjoyed both men’s company, which makes him remarkably well-placed to tell his tale in a fairly even-handed way. Fleming comes across as a rather withdrawn fantasist, an “inscrutable titanium product of an over-disciplined upbringing” who actually hated writing. By contrast, the outgoing McClory was remarkably ill-disciplined, a gambler, and always late for meetings. Despite a career in the Navy, Fleming did not love the ocean and was rather afraid of some of its inhabitants, whereas McClory loved the ocean a great deal – this despite having spent two weeks in a lifeboat, watching friends die, after being torpedoed by a German U-Boat during the war. When McClory insisted that a new Bond film needed a long underwater sequence Fleming was extremely doubtful.

The seeds of conflict were therefore sown early on. However, whilst McClory certainly did have a big influence on the screen Bond that people know and love, Deighton makes clear that ultimately the story of Bond is bigger than just these two men. The film industry is just that – an industry – and before a movie on the Bond scale reaches the screen, a very large number of people have had an input. Even at the level of the writing it becomes difficult to know who did what, and Deighton cites the old adage that “a screenplay isn’t written; it’s rewritten” (often by multiple authors). Sadly, Fleming, McClory, and various others became embroiled in copyright litigation and the stress of this almost certainly contributed to Fleming’s early death (though the heavy smoking and drinking in the face of doctors’ warnings didn’t help). Neither did legal action do much for McClory or producer Harry Saltzman. Both had squandered their millions by the time they died.

My only disappointment with Deighton’s tale is that it was so short. He has taken a story of film industry machinations and turned it into a rattling good yarn. I would happily have read more.

 

 

Beatles

UK 1964

Director: Richard Lester

Screenplay: Alun Owen

Runtime: 87 mins

An enduring classic is re-released in a restored version

Clang!! This greatest of all pop music films opens with the resounding chime of the greatest chord in pop music, a chord that renders the title track instantly recognisable to millions of people worldwide. As the rest of the song plays over the opening credits, we see The Beatles being chased by their fans, indicating the frenetic lifestyle that is documented throughout the rest of the film.

Now showing in a newly-restored version, A Hard Day’s Night stands alone from any pop music film made before or since. On the surface, it presents a fictionalised day-in-the-life story about the preparation for a television variety show, in which The Beatles will be the headlining act. In order to add some episodes of dramatic conflict, the writer Alun Owen introduces the character of Paul’s scheming grandfather (“a real villain, a mixer”), played by Wilfred Brambell, who drives other characters to behave in ways that threaten to derail the TV show.

However, Owen also shows us the flipside of fame, in which the world’s most famous musicians are constantly seeking to escape from the demands placed upon them. He also delivers some sly satire on the manufacture of teenage fashion. And visually the film is a treat. Much has been made of Richard Lester’s borrowings from the French new wave cinema of the time, but it is possible to overplay this influence. Other more conventional techniques are also deployed to great effect and the heralded “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence obviously borrows from Lester’s own 1960 work, The Running, Jumping & Standing Still Film (a favourite of The Beatles themselves).

There is a very beautiful shot in the “And I Love Her” sequence, when the camera slowly pans around McCartney’s head until a spotlight begins to make the screen white-out, until eventually we see a nicely backlit profile of Paul. This reinforces the dreamy nature of the song itself. During the same song there is also a nice shot of John sitting in the background playing the guitar, whilst in the foreground we see him reflected upside-down in what appears to be a drumskin.

Having never before seen A Hard Day’s Night on the big screen, I watched this restored version at the cinema on two separate occasions. The second time I went was on a Saturday, and the audience were mostly adults including various older adults who had brought their young children. On this occasion there were only a few lines in the film that elicited some isolated titters. The first time I saw the film was a weekday evening, and the audience was easily dominated by young people who giggled at various bits of dialogue and sight gags, including things that would surely have been incomprehensible or bizarre to a modern audience. Did they understand that the joke about Paul’s grandfather being “very clean” is a reference to Wilfred Brambell’s role in the 60s & 70s TV comedy Steptoe and Son, where his son constantly referred to him as a “dirty old man”? One of my favourite moments shows the boys in the studio where they are due to perform, and John elicits some mocking laughter by saying “Why don’t we do the show right here?”. The line is a reference to earlier, more innocent, pop musicals; there may have been only one film that used this line, but in my imagination it feels like every Cliff Richard movie has a scene where his gang – having been thwarted from performing at their intended venue – turn up at a country field, whereupon someone delivers that cliché. The knowing use of the line consciously sets A Hard Day’s Night apart from all the earlier pop musicals.

The film also has some blink-and-you-miss-it moments, as well as some elements that you can’t imagine appearing in any other movie. In one extraordinary scene Paul’s grandfather, who is Irish, is taken to a police station for his own safety, where he also bumps into Ringo. There, he launches into a diatribe against the coppers, telling them he knows it will only be a matter of time before the rubber cosh appears, and singing “A nation once again!”  The scene works because the policemen in question are in fact friendly bobbies, offering their guests cups of tea, but it still seems quite incredible to slip in such a reference to police brutality against the Irish. Quite a few of the media and showbiz figures in the film are clearly camp gay men, though thankfully you always feel these are good-natured depictions rather than homophobic (The Beatles themselves were famously accepting of the sexuality of their manager, Brian Epstein). At one point John Lennon encounters an actor in a regency costume; the two stop as they are about to pass in a corridor and the actor suggests they swap costumes. “Cheeky!”, laughs Lennon, and they move on.

To modern eyes it is surprising to see grown men behaving in a mildly flirtatious manner with girls in school uniforms, as The Beatles do in one early scene. But again, this scene is played entirely humourously and the representation of schoolgirls was almost certainly a simple recognition that this demographic was then the core audience for the Beatles. At one of the screenings I attended there were two very young girls next to me, and they giggled throughout at the scenes of similarly young girls screaming, crying, and hugging each other as The Beatles play onstage. It is only later in the film, when fully adult women appear – actresses – that The Beatles show any real interest in the opposite sex.

A Hard Day’s Night concludes with the boys departing for the midnight matinee at Wolverhampton, a reminder that they haven’t escaped the crazy hardworking schedule that fame has brought them and which, in real life, would eventually see them abandon live music and retreat into the studio. However, as the title track played over the final credits such dark thoughts were swept from my mind and I was lifted once again by some of the most wonderful pop music that has ever been made.

Rating: 10/10