It takes more than a good actor to command the screen the way Julia Roberts does as Erin Brockovich’s titular beauty queen turned lawyer. This role could have only ever been pulled off by someone with the presence, charisma, and confidence of a true movie star, delivering whip-smart takedowns and monologues that simultaneously stretch credulity and inspire cheers. Steven Soderbergh may assert his own stylistic freedom every now and again, but there is no doubt that this biopic is primarily a showcase for Roberts, who is as profusely articulate as ever in her Oscar-winning role.
Brockovich herself is a cunning, self-aware character, fully understanding the ways in which her presentation can be used either against her or to her advantage. That she so effortlessly works her way into a job at a law firm with no prior experience already sets her up as a woman with a powerful authority, but as she follows a trail of real estate files and medical records, it is her shrewd mind which becomes her most admirable quality. In low-cut tops and heels, she drives out to the rural community of Hinkley where she puts on the act of a naïve secretary and charms local administrators into providing access to documents. Enemies are made along the way though, and even within her own firm she butts horns with co-workers who condemn her manipulative methods and abrasive personality.
Sparse as it is, Soderbergh does on occasion let through traces of his Alan J. Pakula influence, particularly in those low angles that captures rows upon rows of fluorescent lights lining the ceilings of offices and courtrooms, shedding a murky glow over his mustard yellow production design. The impact of these visuals is subtle but significant, casting Erin’s pursuit of truth in a dangerous light while remaining true to the era-specific décor, especially when she heads out to bars and city streets at night where green neon signs dimly illuminate her environment.
For the most part though, the menacing threat of Erin’s legal adversaries merely linger in the background. As a strong-willed woman in a profession that emphasises gender roles, she predominantly faces accusations within her own office of being emotional and erratic, as well making her work personal. From her perspective, she has every right to do so. Her holistic investment in her pursuit of truth and justice is both her greatest strength and flaw, and makes her passion all the more infectious and fascinating to watch. Together, Soderbergh and Roberts keep us in Erin Brockovich’s tight grip, and energetically drive the narrative towards its stirring, rewarding conclusion.
Erin Brockovich is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Video.
Almost Famous rolls along with all the thrust and exhilaration of a rock concert, as steeped in 70s pop culture as Cameron Crowe himself. Fifteen-year-old William Miller is his surrogate, and in his naïve, coming-of-age ventures following famous band Stillwater as a wannabe music journalist, we see traces of the director’s own origins. With such an autobiographical approach to the subject matter, a loosely structured flow between nostalgic hangouts, and hints of an existential, ever-encroaching adulthood, there is a great deal of Richard Linklater’s influence milling around this screenplay. In the examinations of fame and celebrity ridden through Almost Famous though there is a star power that Linklater has always rejected, and which Crowe fully embraces in drawing lines between past and present representations of pop culture.
Patrick Fugit as William may be the biggest unknown here, and even as the lead there is little he can do to stand up against the big names listed alongside his in the opening credits. Frances McDormand and Philip Seymour Hoffman steal scenes in their supporting roles, and in smaller parts Zooey Deschanel, Anna Paquin, Jimmy Fallon, Jay Baruchel, and Fairuza Balk also make memorable appearances, each putting a charismatic shine on the glamourous lifestyle that lies far beyond William’s home. Carrying him through on a swell of sincere compassion and love though is a radiant Kate Hudson, playing a fictional take on socialite Pennie Lane – a self-proclaimed “band aid” who follows bands for the music, thus differentiating herself from groupies who are there for the sex.
About as prolific as Crowe’s cast is his boisterous rock soundtrack featuring virtually every 70s pop icon under the sun from The Who to Simon & Garfunkel, and additionally becoming the cornerstone of scenes that let the cast become part of the playlist. One joyous bus ride takes off with a singalong to Elton John’s ‘Tiny Dancer’, and even beyond those instantly recognisable classics, Nancy Wilson contributes original tracks ‘Fever Dog’ and ‘Lucky Trumble’ to further carve out this fictional corner of the culture inhabited by Stillwater and their fans. Crowe’s pacing surfs along on these songs like waves, only ever pausing long enough to contemplate the disappointment, heartbreak, and danger of the industry before wholeheartedly leaping back in.
This seems to be the cycle experienced by musicians and fans alike, and despite the warnings from older journalists not to consider these people friends, William still finds himself by Stillwater’s side, riding their highs and lows. The way this lifestyle is depicted almost seems like a drug addiction at times – right from the moment he first drops the needle on a record his sister gave him when he was 11, Crowe fades the scene into a series of long dissolves of the vinyl, the cover, and his ecstatic face, looking as if he has been transported into an entirely new world.
With such potency in Crowe’s characterisations and soundtrack, it is not hard to understand the concerns of Elaine, William’s mother, played by McDormand as a sympathetic hard-ass. This is the time of her son’s life that he is most impressionable, and the worry lines that crease her brow appear permanently etched into her face. When she overhears a girl on the other end of the phone talking about hydroponic pot and later asking if William wants to see her feed a mouse to her snake, we can easily forgive those times that she comes off as unreasonable. The comedy lands brilliantly in this screenplay, but beneath it all Crowe maintains a layer of drama, rooting his adolescent protagonist to his unshakable core relationships.
At times, this light brush of comedy only barely conceals the industry’s deeply entrenched misogyny and objectification of women, consistently drawing out the tragic undercurrent to Pennie’s character in scenes that see her gambled off or overdosing on quaaludes. Elsewhere, the repressed darkness of these characters is played for laughs when a cascade of grim secrets and confessions tumble out into the open on a plane that briefly appears to be crashing, before stabilising and forcing its passengers to sit in a painfully awkward silence. For Crowe, it is a skilful tonal balance that he conducts all through Almost Famous, propelling this narrative through its tensions, trials, and trans-American travels, and tying each set piece together into a nostalgic reflection on a musical era as joyfully uninhibited as it was potentially soul-destroying.
Almost Famous is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube and Google Play.
Recently paroled gangster Leo Handler finds himself at a similar turning point in The Yards as the one which Michael Corleone faced many years before in The Godfather. The decision to either follow in the footsteps of the family business or turn against its patriarch is absolutely pivotal to both journeys, and one that James Gray chooses to examine even closer than his predecessor, Francis Ford Coppola. In placing the dilemma under intensive moral examination, a pervasive unpredictability underscores Gray’s dramatic tensions, constantly ready to tip over these family dynamics into full-blown antagonism. Even if The Yards is not a wholly original crime drama, it still retains a freshness in moving its study of classical corruption and redemption arcs in inverse yet complementary directions.
Perhaps in 2000, three years out from Boogie Nights, it might have seemed that Mark Wahlberg was destined for a career trajectory that would place him among the best actors of his generation. He is by no means weak here as the morally conflicted Leo, but within this well-rounded cast of established and newer talents, he is not afforded a lot of chances to dominate the screen. It is his young co-stars, Charlize Theron and Joaquin Phoenix, who often carry greater urgency in their performances, and Phoenix especially whose disintegrating integrity as Willie sets in motion some of the film’s most heartbreaking moments.
On the older end of the spectrum, it is surely no coincidence that Gray calls in James Caan from The Godfather to play the equivalent Marlon Brando role, bearing more than a striking resemblance to the Don with his thin moustache and slicked back hair. Frank Olchin heads this shady crime family from the dim light of his office which itself looks modelled off Vito Corleone’s, and in his close circle of confidantes Gray pulls in the talents of veteran actors Faye Dunaway and Ellen Burstyn. It is almost as if Coppola acolyte himself is setting in motion a passing of the torch between older and younger generations of Hollywood stars, lending an even greater weight to the ensuing havoc wreaked upon cultural traditions.
It is fitting that we first meet Leo leaving prison on the same railway that his family exerts corrupt control over, heading towards a welcome home party where each key player is introduced one by one amid joyous celebrations. Gray lights this world with murky yellow and green lighting, not unlike that which David Fincher was innovating at the time with Seven and Fight Club, and the visual impact is tangible. Through hospitals, houses, and train yards, moral ambiguity dominates our characters’ journeys, wrapping them in an uneasy atmosphere crafted by their elders as if to test their loyalty and fortitude.
As Leo and Willie travel along divergent paths from the inciting incident that sees them accidentally hospitalise one man and kill another while out on a vandalising job, The Yards grows progressively gloomier in its lighting, accompanying them with an ever-encroaching visual darkness. Guilt weighs heavy on both their consciences, and yet most of the blame lands squarely Leo. Perhaps this is partially what motivates him to seek some sort of redemption, while a relatively unscathed Willie submits to his angriest, most jealous impulses.
Ultimately, it is not just the actions of one man speaking the truth that brings down this crime family. It is just as much the reckless impulsivity of its own loyal children that sees them fall from glory. If Leo is who Michael could have been had he turned against the family, then The Yards might as well be an alternate proposition to The Godfather’s statement of generational decline. Whether it is by corrupting old traditions or bringing them down through the force of justice, the ties of family are not destined to last long in these modern worlds. At least in The Yards, the youth who survive retain some dignity.
The Yards is not currently available to stream in Australia.
Amores Perros opens in media res with a car speeding through the streets of Mexico, a wounded dog bleeding to death in the backseat, and a yellow truck right on its tail. At this point in time, we know nothing about the men in the front seat, Octavio and Jorge – who they are, where they have come from, or where they are going. And then all of a sudden, just as we get our bearings in this frenzied chase, there is glass shattering, metal splintering, and smoke filling the air.
The places that Alejandro Iñárritu takes his debut film from here goes far beyond the immediate questions we might have about this car accident. Its effects spread out to strangers from across class boundaries, and bit by bit a landscape of violence, disloyalty, and abuse begins to form in this urban ecosystem of decay and moral depravity.
Though it is structured around three separate narrative threads, Amores Perros is not as rigidly segmented as one might initially assume. Iñárritu certainly makes good use of titles bearing the names of his characters to open new chapters where our focus dramatically shifts, but bits and pieces of each plotline also obtrusively bleed into the others. In the first, “Octavio y Susana” which follows an affair between a man and his sister-in-law, it is not immediately clear who the haggard, bearded man is that pursues and kills a stranger without hesitation, nor do we understand why Iñárritu keeps cutting to Daniel, a magazine publisher cheating on his wife with a supermodel. In time, the justification for the inclusion of both will be revealed in their own chapters, within which Octavio and Susana will appear in reduced capacity. But for now these two subplots remain unsolved mysteries, running beneath a more dominant narrative set in a working-class neighbourhood and an underground dog fighting ring.
When it comes to those depictions of animal abuse, Amores Perros proves itself to be a particularly confronting experience. Sure, there is a lot of vicious imagery to flinch at all across the board, especially in one shot where Iñárritu’s camera closes in tightly on a splash of fresh blood aggressively sizzling across an open grill. But the torture which is continuously inflicted upon dogs through all two and a half hours of its run time is truly testing, and much of the moral substance of these characters can be gaged by who we see inflicting it, who is trying to fight it, and who can do nothing but simply empathise with their pain.
In Octavio’s decision to let his dog, Cofi, fight another, Daniel’s choice to leave Valeria’s dog trapped beneath the floorboards, and her selfless attempts to rescue it, we witness this running metaphor become the source of some brilliant character work. Especially when considering canines not just as representations of innocence, but also as symbols of loyalty, a broader picture begins to form of a city that places such little value in any of these, with affairs and betrayals running rampant in virtually every relationship.
In reflecting this urban hellhole, the grittiness of Iñárritu’s rapid-fire editing and grainy visual style feels almost entirely inverse to those films from later in his career, Birdman and The Revenant. Both those movies flow smoothly in long takes even as they wrestle with similarly existential questions and, in the case of The Revenant, viscerally violent imagery. The masterclass of filmmaking in Amores Perros is of an entirely different kind though, in which he presents us with an environment of utter chaos, and then dedicates himself to sorting through the madness to find some sense in it. A skilful balance and wide scope is achieved not just in editing between each of the three main storylines, but even in the skilful parallel cutting contained within these individual strands, contrasting Octavio and Susana’s affair with the one her husband, Ramiro, is simultaneously conducting with a co-worker.
Through these constant juxtapositions between plot threads, Iñárritu constructs a pattern of deterioration brought about by selfishness and cruelty, which continues to reverberate outwards. Even Valeria, one of our most noble characters, is not immune to this, as her efforts to counteract Daniel’s malice simply worsens her condition, right up until she hits rock bottom with a leg amputation, cutting short her illustrious modelling career. In poignant correspondence, her perfume ads stuck up high on billboards around the city are similarly torn down, her fall from grace writ large in this wretched environment.
And then as Amores Perros reaches its finale act, “El Chivo y Maru”, there is an unexpected shift in Iñárritu’s pattern in the place we least expect. Where Octavio and Valeria are involved in the car crash out of pure bad luck, hitman El Chivo is simply a witness, and chooses to involve himself in rescuing Cofi from the wreckage. The bond that forms between the two is unlike any other human-pet relationship we have seen yet. Like El Chivo, Cofi has been trained to kill, though it is not in his nature – it is a learned instinct as a result of an environment that has told him it is the only way to survive.
From the great sorrow that El Chivo feels for this corrupted creature there emerges an indignant anger, but also a huge amount of remorse. Unlike Valeria, his deliberate reaction against the decay of the world is not directed outwards in attempts to fix it, but rather inwards to his soul, so that he may fix that which is broken in his own life. After all, it is from there that we have seen reverberations ripple outwards, dictating the paths of lives beyond these characters’ immediate understandings. And with just one extra force of goodness out there in this city, Iñárritu pensively leaves us with some shred of hope for its future.
Amores Perros is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.
Unsatisfied with the escapist, expressionist Fifth Wave of Chinese filmmakers, Jia Zhangke burst onto the scene in the 1990s leading the more grounded Sixth Wave, and with his second film, the neorealist epic, Platform, he turned to China’s recent history to bring in the new millennium. This “epic” descriptor is only really applicable in the way it might be for a film like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – not much “happens” in any individual moment, but the sheer span of time which we spend with the same characters reveals an accumulation of small changes set in motion by an increasingly globalising culture, pressing in on their lives and pushing them in separate directions.
As the 1980s dawn upon the young performers of the state-funded Peasant Cultural Group, they collectively ruminate on what sort of future lies ahead for their country in the year 2000. “The four modernisations: industry, agriculture, defence, science,” one of them conjectures, and he’s not wrong, though clearly they are unprepared for the sort of social and artistic shifts which will impact them in a far more personal manner than anything else. Three years after chairman Mao Zedong’s death, his likeness still adorns the walls of their homes, but in the coming years it is the new Paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, whose influence and embrace of consumerist policies will come to dominate their lives.
Even when we first meet these characters though, many of these changes are already in motion. There are no pivotal turning points in Platform for Jia’s characters, but their lives are rather made up of miniscule shifts in cultural behaviours towards western trends. Foreign films and fashion fads are considered bad influences, and as early on as the ten-minute mark we see one of the group’s central performers, Cui Minliang, being scolded by his parents for wearing bell-bottomed jeans – an attitude he simply puts down to “the generation gap.”
In choosing to shoot on location in China’s Shanxi province, Jia makes the most of the region’s dilapidated architecture, dwarfing his characters beneath these towering, crumbling buildings in an abundance of wide and mid-shots. The lack of structural maintenance is evident, as we return twice to the same set of half-constructed stairs which turn this part of the city into an obstacle course for Jia’s characters to navigate, leap across, and climb. Much like Cuarón would do in Roma 18 years later, Jia often pans his camera around his scenes, soaking in the detail of the dirtied interiors and streets of 1980s China. Early on, a trivial conversation between two performers, Zhang and Zhong, is set right next to a political rally for the newly-imposed one-child policy, and although the two affairs don’t directly collide in this moment, it paints out a politically-charged landscape of cultural turmoil that is slowly seeping into the everyday lives of its citizens.
Later, Cui and Yin, a performer with whom he shares a mutual attraction, meet on the ramparts of a grey brick fortress to discuss their relationship. With the camera planted just halfway around a protruding corner, we are only ever privy to one side of the conversation at a time, as both characters alternate positions into our scope of vision to deliver their own perspective. In doing so Jia effectively creates the same isolating effect that cutting to either side of the conversation might have, and yet through his patient, static camera, he instead uses the imposing architecture of the city to come between his characters.
Eventually Yin finds herself slowly dragged away from her friends and passion to enter a planned marriage. “Everything’s arranged for me,” she quietly laments, and yet even in falling into this traditional custom, she too finds herself swept along a separate strand of consumerism which dominates China’s workplaces and private homes. Though she is bound to her stable, middle-class station in life, even she still can’t help bursting out into a small dance when she finds herself alone in her office, reminiscing on her nostalgic past.
The inevitable privatisation of the Peasant Cultural Group plays out in such understated moments, we might almost hope along with the characters that it won’t affect things too much. There is a brief reflection from one performer on how putting them up for sale effectively cheapens their livelihoods, but it is quickly cut short by the leader’s reassurance that he is making as much of a sacrifice as them. Regardless, we do witness a drastic evolution taking place in Jia’s sprinkling of their performances all throughout. While touring into an urban area, they are requested to “play concerts of light music” as opposed to their more traditional fare, in a bid to appeal to the more worldly city types. Later, Zhang returns home from an overseas trip with some new cassette tapes featuring euro disco music, and the song “Dschinghis Khan” quickly becomes a hit within his social circle.
Bit by bit, the Peasant Cultural Group’s repertoire of Chinese folk music shifts to pop and rock, their muted outfits are replaced by colourful spandex and double denim, and they are eventually renamed the All-Star Rock and Breakdance Electronic Band. They have spent their careers spreading the state-approved message that a bright future awaits their generation, and yet by the end these promises are revealed to be utterly empty.
“Young friends, this spring will be yours. Yours and mine. The new generation of the 1980s!”
When it comes to the source of these promises, we turn to the older generations who, while not a significant focus of Platform, do find representation in the form of Cui’s troubled parents. Despite all their moral and ideological reprimands, they are far from sinless, as Cui’s father’s affair is only briefly confronted before it becomes a natural part of life, slowly fragmenting the family over the years.
This is the way relationships come to an end in this new modernised culture – not with a farewell and a hug, but a silent tapering off, disappearing before anyone realises it. This set pattern pays off in an especially weighty scene towards the end, as Cui and Lin run into each other again after years of unresolved separation. Though they ruminate over the old days, the interaction remains morose. The closure they find in this moment together is special, but they also recognise it is not a privilege that they were granted with their other friends, recalling the last times they were together.
“Leaving without a word. And since then, no news.”
These losses and adjustments are incremental yet irreversible, and it is in this slow, gradual development over ten years that Jia’s melancholy reflections on China’s modernisation comes into focus. He isn’t exactly full of praise for the Cultural Revolution of the 60s and 70s either, as he exposes the superficiality which lay beneath its nationalism and deification of Mao, but he rather expresses a nostalgia for the blissful hope and ignorance of youth that seeps away with time. Though we can appreciate the immediate impact of Jia’s stark, minimalistic aesthetics giving visual context to these characters’ struggles along the road to modernity, it is only by the end when we look back at his formally ambitious construction of China over a ten-year span that we realise the full extent of the loss that has taken place.
Platform is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.