My week in film: Trainwreck, The Diary of a Teenage Girl and more…

It’s been over a year since I updated my weekly film journal here on Cinematic Investigations and in that time I’ve worked for three festivals, visited four more (including IFFR and Alchemy in Hawick) and seen a host of fantastic films. Working for festivals means that any writing I do is mainly of the brochure copy kind, so it’s time now to catch up on viewing and share some thoughts on the latest cinema releases, my neglected stack of DVDs and the ever-increasing ‘to watch’ list of old and new classics.
6One I missed at EIFF was The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel starring Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård. Powley plays Minnie, a fifteen year old living with her mother, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister, Gretel (Abby Wait) in 1976 San Francisco. Minnie becomes involved with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Skarsgård) and this first sexual experience awakens for her, a torrent of feelings about sexuality, power and responsibility. Powley’s performance is remarkable, portraying acutely Minnie’s potent teenage combination of naivety and self-awareness. Minnie is at once defiant in her desire for Monroe, whilst struggling with the feelings of vulnerability that such passion creates. Heller handles her directorial debut with confidence, always maintaining the perspective of her enthralling central character. Sara Gunnarsdottir’s animation perfectly incorporates Minnie’s inner world and the creativity that she’s just learning to harness, enhancing the narrative by opening up possibilities for the character beyond what she sees and hears.

The Diary of a Teenage girl is successful in presenting a female character unafraid of her sexuality, Minnie learns that her self-esteem has to come from accepting herself, rather than approval from men around her, as her mother has tried to teach her. It was interesting to compare it to Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, which also presents a female character apparently content with their sexuality and autonomy within a male-oriented world (the office of a men’s lifestyle mag). Written by the very talented and funny Schumer, and directed by Judd Apatow (who I would only really give credit to for producing Girls), Trainwreck fails to support the independence of its central character – but what was I expecting from a film with such a judgemental title?
14-trainwreck.w529.h352.2xAmy is introduced as having been trained to reject monogamy by her father since childhood, now comfortably living alone and working as a writer for a magazine (Tilda Swinton is hilarious and almost unrecognisable as her editor, Dianna) and enjoying regular one-night-only sex with various men, and dates with sort-of boyfriend Steven (John Cena). Not an unusual lifestyle you might think, though perhaps one not represented in mainstream cinema so much, and yet despite Amy Schumer’s reliably feminist output in her TV show Inside Amy Schumer, Trainwreck seeks to delegitimise is protagonist’s choices. Amy’s refusal to ‘settle down’ is attributed to a fear of rejection and her ultimate lesson [sigh] proposes that her life until she falls in love with a nice doctor (Bill Hader) has just been training for ‘the main event.’ It’s a disappointing descent into romantic comedy cliché, where Amy is presented as just another immature Apatow-type rogue, one that must conform to marriage and children to be truly ‘happy.’ Where Schumer regularly critiques a culture that infantalises women and makes them complicit in attempting to attain sexual desirability – and certainly Trainwreck’s Amy is presented as the product of such hypocritical messages – it’s the resolution for the character that’s problematic here. How radical it would have been if Amy had instead learned to love herself, and maybe started her own magazine.
mistress-americaAnother, more effective and charming portrayal of female lives is Mistress America, the second collaboration between writer/actor Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach following the brilliant Frances Ha. Gerwig plays Brooke, a self-proclaimed autodidact who tumbles into the life of soon-to-be stepsister Tracy (Lola Kirke) who is trying to navigate the awkwardness of college for the first time. Tracy becomes fascinated with Brooke’s life, which encompasses various jobs including maths tutoring, spin class instructing, interior decorating and her latest enterprise, opening a restaurant. Unbeknownst to Brooke, Tracy uses her as subject of new short stories, her whirlwind of costume changes, appointments, confident declarations of advice and apparent self-awareness giving Tracy the impression of someone maintaining the illusion of togetherness. This fast-paced screwball comedy doesn’t require its characters to learn anything though they are given plenty of opportunities to do so. Rather that Tracy and Brooke are in altered circumstances by the end of the film feels entirely convincing as having come from the characters themselves. Tracy looks at Brooke and thinks that, as a person twelve years her senior, she should have life ‘figured out’ by now and both judges and admires her. Whereas in Brooke’s mind her experience tells her that the years she has on Tracy are irrelevant.

Also watched:

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, dir John Cameron Mitchell, 2001. Sing-a-long screening at Filmhouse.
Inside Out, dir Pete Doctor, co-directed by Ronnie del Carmen

My week in film, 20 Feet from Stardom, Calvary, The Double and more…

This post will hopefully mark the resurrection and continuation of My week in Film… (though this new instalment technically covers a selection over two weeks) after a lengthy hiatus due to my day job as a Festival/Programme Coordinator. Inevitably when working for a film festival the only films I’m able to see are those in the programme, however due to the month-long nature of AV Festival (my current gig), and an average schedule of one film per day, I did manage to see Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson). With Glazer’s unnerving film I was equally impressed and irked by the melding of documentary style shooting and stylistic, art-horror sequences, not to mention a fantastic performance by Scarlett Johansson, whilst Anderson’s latest film was simply joyous, perhaps closest to Fantastic Mr Fox in tone and noticeably more vicious (Goldblum’s fingers!) than previous offerings.  Clavary Attempting to catch-up with current releases, I saw the much-hyped Calvary in which, following The Guard in 2011, Brendan Gleeson again brings his considerable charisma to the central role for writer/director John Michael McDonagh. That the film is an allegory is clear, and the attempt to approach the subject of the Catholic church’s culpability and guilt with the director’s characteristic dark wit is engaging and entertaining, but I couldn’t forgive what amounted to a cast of caricatures in place of real characters, and a self-awareness in the dialogue that was outright smug. For a well-balanced review, see Donald Clarke in the Irish Times. 20-feet-from-stardom-review-photo20 Feet From Stardom (Morgan Neville, 2013) was everything I expected from this Oscar winning documentary – an all-star cast of contributors including Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler and Bruce Springsteen, singing the praises of the backing singers who brought depth and soul to their recordings from the 1960s to the present. Slickly edited with a strong focus on showcasing the very talent that normally goes unnoticed, what is so enthralling about the lives of these singers – including Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer and The Waters – is hearing of their less-successful solo careers and the suggestion that despite their raw talent, what prevented them from becoming ‘stars’ was sometimes their lacking in the ability to self-promote, to perhaps take on the role of the exhibitionist that seemed to come so naturally to performers like Tina Turner or The Rolling Stones. For Táta Vega, there could only be one Aretha, no matter how often her substantial talent was compared to the legendary soul singer. The film undoubtedly provides the recognition these singers deserve, revealing one astonishing performance after another, that will surely change the way we listen to songs like Gimme Shelter or Young Americans forever. the-double-trailerFinally I saw Richard Ayoade’s The Double, an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name, which sees Jessie Eisenberg play a man named Simon James – a person infuriatingly incapable of even the simplest of human interactions – whose life is irrevocably harassed by the presence of his doppelganger, James Simon. Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine create a distinctly desperate world for their protagonist, whilst Andrew Hewitt’s score provides a perfect prickliness to compliment Simon’s drab environment. Perhaps the most joyous part of Ayoade’s second feature is the fictional action sci-fi TV show seen on monitors littered throughout the otherwise grim world the characters inhabit. Appearing at crucial moments as if to antagonize Simon’s ineffectuality, Paddy Considine stars in a gleefully retro styled show called The Replicator, in a nod to Ayoade’s involvement as writer/actor in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004) which also provides perhaps the perfect continuation of Considine’s performance as a ‘psychic’ alpha male, would-be home wrecker in Submarine.


Also viewed: Celluloid Man (Shivendra Singh Dungarpoor, 2012), full review here, the glorious Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013) – just as good on second viewing, Say Anything (Cameron Crowe, 1989) – in which, though it makes obvious why John Cusack became such a big star, is actually a rather baffling film, switching from tender youthful romance to high-stakes crime dad, fear of flying awfulness. Finally the past fortnight also saw me revisit Jean Renoir’s La Règle de Jeu (The Rules of the Game, 1939), which is still just a remarkable film.