Breaking Out and Flying High

Syd (Radha Mitchell) - High Art

Lisa Cholodenko has recently become a far more familiar name since the success of her fourth film The Kids Are All Right. She has however, been making films for thirteen years, with her debut coming in the shape of 1998’s High Art. Coupled with Laurel Canyon (2002), these two early films share many common threads and offer interesting readings on women, sexuality, liberalism and perhaps even the movie industry itself.

Both films share a similar premise, and focus on the awakenings of, and rebellions by, their female protagonists. In High Art, young magazine intern Syd drifts further away from her steady, dependable boyfriend as she becomes increasingly enticed, both professionally and personally, by drug-addicted photographer Lucy. Whilst in Laurel Canyon, the innocent and naïve Alex is seduced literally and figuratively by her fiancée Sam’s unorthodox, record producer mother and her rock star boyfriend. As Syd is rebelling against the humdrum of heterosexuality, whilst trying to advance her career, so Alex revolts against her work; putting off completing her dissertation in order to shed her timid, book worm persona by getting high with the band and her potential mother-in-law. Cholodenko wants both of her protagonists to have more. Unsatisfied by academic or career related success, Syd and Alex desire freedom from both the bonds said successes encumber, as well as from the conventions of contemporary society; a liberation they find mainly in sexuality and drugs.

Alex (Kate Beckinsale) - Laurel Canyon

[Plot spoilers ahead]

In a male dominated sphere, in which female directors are often pigeon-holed or told they should be making certain types of films, Cholodenko’s early works provide an apt metaphor for women filmmakers as a whole. Yet interestingly however, the outcome is largely negative for both Syd and Alex. Having left her boyfriend and gained a front cover thanks to her lover Lucy’s pictures, Syd is left alone and distraught as Lucy dies from an overdose; perhaps alluding to the difficulties women face in balancing a successful personal and professional life. Similarly, at the conclusion of Laurel Canyon it is inferred that Alex will too be alone, as Sam, having discovered his fiancée’s dalliances, appears as though he will leave after simultaneously harbouring growing feelings for another woman; showing that liberation and freedom come at a cost.

In spite of these possibly pessimistic conclusions, Cholodenko certainly rebels against the aforementioned difficulties female directors face. And as well as familiar thematic strands, her first two features also share stylistic similarities – in the sense that the filmic form she produces, matches and compliments the content of each plot. In High Art, the cinematography is distinctive and fitting for its imperfection, slightly drained colour tone and raw photographic quality. In Laurel Canyon on the other hand, Cholodenko switches her focus to music, and the film’s soundtrack, which encompasses both diagetic and non-diagetic tracks.

After two films in four years, Cholodenko’s ratio unfortunately slowed. Following the release of Cavedweller in 2004, there followed a six year hiatus until The Kids Are All Right. The success of the latter however, both critically and commercially, will hopefully mean that there will be more prolific work to come from a director who has strived to soar out of pigeon holes by producing, particularly with her first feature, the highest of art.

High Art                                                      Laurel Canyon

18                                                                   18

101 mins                                                     103 mins

**** out of 5                                              ***1/2 out of 5


A Ma Soeur! [Five Word Review]

Sisters Anais and Elena

A Ma Soeur!/Fat Girl (Breillat, 2001)

Plot:  Whilst on a family vacation and left to their own devices by inattentive parents, a young, cynical and overweight girl watches on as her slightly older, more attractive, yet naive sister is seduced by an older man; events that will lead to shocking consequences.

Boiled Down:  Provocative.  Explicit.  Harrowing.  Cold.  Excessive.

Rating:  2 out of 5 stars.

Paper Moon [Five Word Review]

Father & Daughter: Ryan and Tatum O'Neal

Paper Moon (Bogdanovich, 1973)

Plot:  During the Great Depression, a charming con-man finds an unlikely partner in the form of a recently orphaned young girl, who in fact may, or may not, be his own daughter.

Boiled Down:  Touching.  Comic.  Evocative.  Picturesque.  Light-hearted.

Rating:  3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

Taking Lives [Five Word Review]

Angelina Jolie

Taking Lives (Caruso, 2004)

Plot: An unorthodox FBI profiler is enlisted to help catch a vicious and brutal serial killer, whilst simultaneously traversing relationships with the local police and a key witness.

Boiled Down: Jolie.  Psychological.  Typical.  Predictable.  Boring.

Rating:  1 out of 5 stars.

The Glass Key [Five Word Review]

Alan Ladd & Veronica Lake.

The Glass Key (Heisler, 1942)

Plot:  A crooked politician looks to go straight by associating himself with more respectable company, in turn angering a former gangster acquaintance, who sets about destroying his new image with slander, kidnap, blackmail and murder.

Boiled Down:  Ladd.  Lake.  Noir.  Corruption.  Fistycuffs.

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars.

Five Word Reviews

Some films are so spellbindingly good that it is necessary to use no more than five words to encapsulate their genius. On the other hand of course, there are films that are so awful that the gift of five words in which to sum them up simply becomes an exercise in finding synonyms for ‘appalling’.

With this in mind, I will attempt to review random films, as and when I watch them, in just five words (as well as a short plot synopsis… just to show that I am trying to be helpful, and not just lazy). Enjoy!

The Best TV show you may not be watching…

Spiral Season 4 - coming soon to BBCFour

Engrenages (Spiral)

2005 – Present

Whilst investigating a sprawling network of drug dealers, crooked politicians and shady money men, The Wire’s super-sleuth detective, Lester Freamon, determines that ‘all the pieces matter’. If season three of Engrenages is anything to go by, then the show’s creators Guy-Patrick Sainderichin and Alexandra Clert were certainly listening to Lester – and how.

Cinematic history tells us that if there’s a genre that French filmmakers do well, it’s crime, and its various delinquent offspring. From Jean Renoir’s early realist forays with frequent collaborator Jean Gabin, to Melville’s Hollywood inspired existentialist noirs, all the way up to the gangsters and cops of contemporary specialists Jacques Audiard and Olivier Marchal, France has a rap sheet to rival the USA. In more recent years, this expertise has sauntered its way onto television screens, most notably with Marchal’s own Braquo and since 2005, the outstanding Engrenages.

Engrenages literally translates as gears, yet the English title is given as Spiral – either works perfectly. The show is set amidst the cogs of the French judicial system, and just like the oily, abrading mechanisms of a huge, ever turning machine this arena is composed of numerous uncompromising, slippery characters. Aside from, and yet so often forced to be side-by-side with, the corrupt politicians and morally bankrupt businessmen that populate this Parisian cesspit, are those charged with law enforcement – the good guys. They come chiefly in the form of feisty Police captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust), suave golden-boy Prosecutor Pierre Clément (Grégory Fitoussi) and the ruthless Judge Roban (Philippe Duclos).

So far there have been three seasons, each bringing with it a new case and new set of contemptible criminal types. Season one centred on people trafficking and a brutal slaying, whilst simultaneously employing the hideously gripping tactic of beginning each new episode with the discovery an abhorrently murdered victim. Season two changed up and moved onto drug smuggling and the dilemmas of being undercover, whilst the most recent third season delved into the hunt for a serial killer, political corruption and prostitution. With its vast construct then, it is perhaps unsurprising that Spiral has drawn favourable comparisons with aforementioned and masterful The Wire. Whilst it may not quite equal the scope of HBO’s crime bible (nothing yet has), it is certainly beginning to run it close.

If the show is increasingly ‘Wire-esque’ in its construct, then season three also injects a fresh vial of The Shield into proceedings. As cops and judges descend deeper into law-bending, and indeed breaking, we are reminded of Vic Mackey’s Strike Team and the abundance of predicaments that Shawn Ryan’s infamous anti-heroes found themselves in. Comparisons can also be found closer to home, primarily in the films of the aforementioned Marchal such as 36 (2004) and MR73 (2008), both starring Daniel Auteuil. Aside from these associations however, it is worth noting that Spiral is very much its own show, a show that has both matured and excelled as it has gone on. Indeed, there were three years between season one and season two, and in this time it appears Spiral grew in ambition; successfully negotiating its transition from first time juvenile offender to fully fledged criminal kingpin.

Like the corruption and injustice that fills the screen, the dark World of Spiral is all consuming. We see barely a flicker of a home-life for any character, with the briefest flame of possible fulfilment outside of the job, swiftly snuffed out. The mise-en-scene is drenched in greys, blues and browns; the muted aesthetic providing a potent metaphor that in Spiral nothing, or nobody, is black and white; all is created from a spectrum of grey. This visual style can clearly been seen as a nod back to Melville, and the nihilism of Le Samourai (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and Un flic (1972) in particular. Yet, whilst nodding back, it is necessary to stress that Spiral is also a show that nods forwards. Thus far it has continued to grow, twirl and swirl, with each new season successfully bettering the previous one. And with the news that we are guaranteed at least one (tentatively three) more grinds of the gears, it is pretty safe to say that all the pieces will continue to matter.