Friday, 12 November 2010

London film festival review: Somewhere

If you've seen the trailer, you have pretty much seen Somewhere, Sofia Coppola’s new film. What remains in Coppola’s fifth feature, no matter how beautifully shot and performed, feels like lightweight riffs on her earlier Lost in Translation.

I’m aware that Coppola’s breakout hit now seems to have as many people firmly against it as for, but I remain a big fan. I’ve been impressed by Coppola’s work generally – I even like her much-maligned nu-wave inflected period romp Marie Antoinette. But this is definitely the least interesting film this promising young director has made – not a step backward so much as an example of an artist merely exercising her talent, rather than stretching or refining it in any way.

The opening scenes encapsulate what I think Somewhere gets slightly wrong in the way Lost in Translation got so right. We are introduced to the ‘Bob Harris’ figure – fading movie star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) – as he listlessly races a sports car around a track over and again. We are in classic Coppola territory already – the blank affectless world of celebrity and isolation, an existence of pool parties, endless gatherings at the ch√Ęteau marmot (where Johnny lives) press junkets and photocalls.

The problem is that where Bill Murray’s character felt like a man truly exhausted and jaded with the circus all around him, Dorff, who I must say is actually very good here, just seems like a bit of a bore . Not hateful in any way, just empty and uninteresting.

Plus his life really doesn’t seem that bad to me. Johnny has the freedom to do whatever he wants; drive in a nice sports car, attend a few important meetings and junkets (all of which are handled by his PA), hang out with likeable, dufus brother (Jackass’ Chris Pontius in a very relaxed likeable performance) and enjoy the constant attention of hot women.

It’s like a hipster feature length version of a Robbie Williams song – the ones about how trapped he felt having to perform the music he loves and deal with endless supplies of blow on tap and willing teenage girls wanting to shag him.

Coppola does shoot a couple of very funny scenes that explore the theme of excess and boredom – pole dancing twins grind for Johnny in his hotel room in the most bored style imaginable while he looks on, either exhausted or asleep. But again, I couldn’t help thinking ‘wow this jaded, empty lifestyle sure looks like fun!’. And that will be a stumbling block for many audiences. It’s hard to really care in any way.

Compounding this is the subplot involving Johnny’s daughter from his estranged relationship. While it’s commendable that Coppola shies away form the corny’ kid teaching life lessons’ shtick that you might expect, the downside is that Chloe (Elle Fanning; amazing and totally natural) ends up bringing almost no drama or conflict into his life at all. In fact they enjoy a nice easy relationship. Despite the distance, she’s fantastically well adjusted and self reliant in ways that Johnny isn’t; cooking up perfect eggs Benedict for him for breakfast while he hops in and out of various women’s beds. In contrast, Johnny struggles with a mountain of spaghetti when fending for himself.

And because this is a Sofia Coppola movie, all this ennui is set to her standard shoegazey soundtrack and shot through with that agreeably hazey Sundance ‘glaze’ look. Indeed, watching Somewhere at times is like nodding off in an opulent gallery while an entire issue of DAZED&CONFUSED is projected onto a massive, blank wall.

It sounds like I am being really hard on Somewhere, but it does have some good things going on. Coppola has lovely relaxed way of directing her performers, and the scenes with Fanning, Doff and Pontius hanging out and goofing off are nicely played. This isn’t a major misfire and I’m confident that Coppola will dazzle again.

But it might be time for her to step away from the comfort zone. This film probably means an awful lot to Sofia Coppola – and that’s maybe its biggest problem. I suspect for most viewers the only time this pleasant and forgettable confection will flicker into life is in the moments it reminds them of its earlier, more resonant and original companion piece.

Film review: 127 Hours

This will come as no surprise to those that know me, but, just for the record, I want to make it clear that I have absolutely zero interest in extreme sports. Like Evan Dando, I am no ‘outdoor type’, and I wouldn’t even lie about it. So when I first caught the ‘whoahh dude’/lucozade-ad style trailer for Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, I feared the worst.

I’ve always found these kind of characters – with their regulation fleeces, hats and Oakley wraparounds – to be, almost without fail, wearisome, ingratiating bell-ends with exceptionally poor music taste. You’ll find them prone to proselytising about ‘the rush’ and eager to impress – and potentially sleep with – your girlfriend.

In addition to this unqualified hatred, I have a palpable fear of almost anything that might put my life in danger. This meant that, even during the initial ten minutes of 127 Hours – where our central character Aaron Ralston is enjoying himself, perfectly at home dangling off cliff edges and encouraging girls he’s just met to jump off ravines – I could feel the rumblings of a panic attack coming on.

In short, I really couldn’t see how I was going to enjoy this film at all.

But not only did I thoroughly enjoy the film, I felt like I ‘experienced’ it, and I think this is key to understanding what makes it such a resounding success.

Like Buried; 2010’s other ‘man- trapped’ flick, this is a film that, in synopsis, you just can’t see working or being sustained over feature-length. Unlike that movie, Boyle’s film uses the limitations of enforced confinement to create a feeling of optimism and hope as opposed to something nightmarish and despairing. And it works brilliantly.

It’s a distinctly Boyle trait to see hope in the most despairing of situations; after all that formed the basis for his phenomenally successful Slumdog Millionaire. So he’s the perfect choice of director to essay Ralston’s real life plight. That plight is something I won’t go into here for various reasons. What’s is surprising is that I think that whether you do or don’t know what Ralston’s ultimate fate was, it works either way, leaving you queasy and uncertain regardless.

Lightening the doom, Boyle gets inside Ralston’s head as the delirium of his circumstance kicks in and it’s in these freewheeling and frequently funny interludes that the inner life of 127 Hours really kicks in

Key to making the film work, and Ralston a much more likable character than I feared, is an adrenalised, physical and surprisingly moving performance from James Franco. In lesser actors hands Ralston could’ve come across as a Point Break style tool, with fleece for brains, but the actors’ winning charm and easy nature means that you are entirely with him during the whole freaky, hideous enterprise.

I’ve always admired Danny Boyle hugely without totally loving his films (although I thought Slumdog was tremendous entrainment). I often had issues with what I see as his frequency to over-embellish with whizzy visuals and endless sound tracking.

It’s almost as if he doesn’t trust his own powerful stories enough, and he’s never met a set piece that he didn’t want to put alongside an incredibly obvious song choice. He does that a fair bit here actually, but it really heightens and benefits the mood, working in tandem with the material rather than taking you out of the picture. Boyle’s aggressive style puts you inside the mind of his protagonist perfectly, as Ralston ruminates over his thus far short – potentially very short – existence.

127 Hours doesn’t make me want to do the kind of things that Ralston did (and still does, the insane bastard) but through Boyle’s film I feel a bit closer to understanding the mindset of people who want to test themselves, in extreme circumstances, and what draws them to it. And if the film is based on truth then Aaron Ralston is both fantastically resourceful and brave as well as being, quite clearly, a nutcase. And I’m still scared to even go camping.