A few months of films

I’ve taken a (partly excusable) hiatus from my film reviewing due to a mix of study commitments, doing other writing and a good dash of laziness. I can tell you that I’ve watched a lot films though, and a lot of TV about OJ Simpson. This post is a round-up of what I’ve been watching the last few months, with two reviews of things that really got to me.

The End of The Tour (2015) – Biopic about David Foster Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest. Wallace was endearingly played by Jason Segel. Rarely for a film, it made me a bit teary at the end.

Chinatown (1974) – After wrapping my head around the layers of corruption and deceit at the heart of the plot, I loved this film, especially Jack Nicholson’s suits and the Rolls Royces.

The Color of Money (1986) – I liked the tough female role of Carmen, the road tripping and the focus on down-and-out America, but I did find it hard to get absorbed in a movie about pool and male egos.

A pool table like the ones seen in The Color of Money
Image via Flickr user Jaded One

Maggie’s Plan (2015) – A typically neurotic Greta Gerwig character was offset nicely by the cool yet oddball academic played by Julianne Moore. Overall, the film was pretty enjoyable but the story jumped around a bit in the early part of the film and maybe needed a bit more meat.

Mustang (2015) – Absolutely adored this. Its focus was entirely on the female spirit and the beautiful, complicated and unwavering bonds between women. An amazing and slightly fantastical scene happens at a soccer match.

Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

The 'snake' of cloud that winds its way through a valley in the Alps
Image via Bucketlist

I found this a struggle to sit through. My main issue with the film was that there were so many shiny lures cast out by director Oliver Assayas that he never returned to (and this lasted right up to the last 20 minutes of the two-hour film).

The questions I was left with at the end ranged from the details (did Christopher Giles’ partner die from her suicide attempt? What happened between Burt and Val?) to the film’s whole trajectory (Why mimic the Helene-Sigrid relationship in Val and Maria, but then not follow this through to completion?).

I wanted to see more of the rehearsals between Maria and her younger counterpart, Jo-Ann, who was playing Sigrid. We got a brief taste of the inevitable clash between old master and young upstart, but it was never explored any further. Would the actress playing Sigrid in fact ruin Maria as she does Helene in the play, or has Maria gained enough insight from the recent tumult with Val to understand her weaknesses and limitations at this point in her life?

Essentially, I felt like the film wasted its potential to explore topics as diverse as female relationships (both working and personal), homages to deceased artists, the experiences each actor brings to a role, the differences between film and theatre, power imbalances, and youth versus old age. None of this was dealt with in a nuanced or insightful way.

I can certainly draw my own conclusions on these questions, but the film didn’t lead me on any kind of journey towards these, nor did it take me down unexpected routes of discovery. I left the film thinking ageing is hard, but so is being young; old and young women don’t understand each other; theatre and film are very separate crafts; and I want to visit the Swiss Alps (that was the biggest revelation!).

Val and Maria's conversations are the centrepiece of the film but often don't go anywhere
Image via Flickr user Universo Producao

The film’s best line was delivered by Kristen Stewart who says to Maria, ‘You can’t be as accomplished as you are and as well-rounded as an actress as you are and still expect to hold on to the privileges of youth; it just doesn’t work like that.’ It’s hard to see whether this astute (and very true) observation affects Maria or is even processed by her at all. The two characters seemed to sometimes exist on their own plane, occasionally bumping into one another.

I’m ok with films not ‘saying’ anything, or even discussing things overtly. In fact, I often prefer films like that (Dogtooth and Play Time are two stand-outs for me). But this film was actually very wordy, and it promised to do so much yet delivered so little. It wasn’t experimental, and it wasn’t a great piece of story telling; instead it just got bogged down in minor plot details and chose no particular thread to pursue. A bit like the ‘snake’ of the play’s title (a reference to a snake-like cloud that occurs under certain conditions in the Alps), it was a slippery illusion except this one wasn’t worth the climb to the top of the mountain.

OJ Simpson binge

If I was to try and recall this last winter sometime in the future, TV devoted to OJ Simpson will be the bright detail that stands out among the lethargy and darkness. After beginning the chilly season with the highly watchable The People v. O J Simpson from FX, I spent most of June and early July with O J Simpson: Made in America, which was kind of like the book to the Wikipedia-like focus on pure facts that characterises The People.

OJ Simpson in court was on TV most days as the trial was filmed live
Image via Flickr user Charles Le Blanc

I was about seven or eight years old when OJ Simpson first entered my consciousness, and I realise now this must have been during the civil trial because I only remember seeing a series of sketches of the man, wearing cream suits and sitting in court; the always-on criminal trial would have been a couple of years earlier. I never understood why the story was on the news each night as we ate dinner, given the man lived so far away and neither of my parents had adequate answers to my many questions about the case.

The People was the perfect re-introduction then, re-creating the events (as much as they were known) and giving the sense of being an onlooker to the drama as it was unfolding in 1994. The casting was definitely considered, if not always spot on. Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian both spoiled the façade of the show a little, but then we got John Travolta in a hilariously gauche role as celebrity lawyer Bob Shapiro. Emily Nussbaum described Travolta as ‘as an Easter Island head of fatuousness’. Gestures were brilliantly played with a mixture of flamboyance and contrived refinement. Every scene of his made me sit up a little and giggle.

John Travolta as Robert Shapiro
John Travolta as Robert Shapiro via dlisted

The rest of the show didn’t leave much room for laughter, dealing deftly with the gender and race politics that lay behind much of how the case unfolded.  In fact the show was a timely reminder of where much of today’s political battles stem from: black men are still being over-policed with lethal consequences, women’s lives are still endangered by their partners, feminism has a long way to go before it is truly inclusive, and money is still a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

While race was always at the heart of the Simpson case thanks to the circumstances of early-90s LA and some clever media manoeuvring by Simpson’s legal team, gender power imbalances and domestic violence are brought to the fore by the writers, and inevitably by the times we now live in, where sexism is called out far more often and publicly. Scrutiny of Marcia Clarke was relentless and horrendous but what really got to me was the disregard by many for Nicole’s life in the face of OJ’s dazzling fame. That tragic element is heightened in OJ Simpson: Made in America, as the long history of domestic violence and Nicole’s attempts to flee OJ are documented in more detail, including by diary entries of Nicole and photographs of her injuries from previous assaults.

Made in America is overall much darker, beginning with the segregation of blacks and whites in 20th-century America and following the thread of institutional racism through education, media, sport and politics up to the LAPD’s particularly brutal period of the 80s and early 90s. The show’s thesis is that OJ was a highly motivated, self-made but narcissistic star who craved adoration and avoided anything that might risk that. The last episode that showed his later celebrity, via reality TV exploits, was a particularly harrowing look at the vacuousness of that world if there’s nothing else motivating you.

Protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally in 2014
Image via Flickr user Gerry Lauzon

While I loved the wide net cast by the show and its forensic examination of the historical conditions surrounding the crime and the trial, I was disappointed in the lack of a ‘conclusion’ so to speak. Charting OJ’s fall from grace is the easy story to tell. Making sense of who the man is and what he says about America is much harder. The show did this maybe 80% of the time but ran out of steam towards the end.

His wealthy white friends who knew how he treated Nicole but never stepped in were all too happy to express their sadness and disgust at her murder, but there was little self-reflection on their own role and the historical position they occupy with their privilege. It felt a bit like ‘Once OJ’s trial was over, we could get back to hanging out with our own kind again’, as though their experiment with ‘integration’ had predictably failed. Perhaps that was the comment the show was trying to make but I feel like it didn’t give these characters the chance to answer that charge, which would have made for far more interesting viewing. And the show was definitely smart enough to do that.

The People was an excellent procedural that documented the trial in and outside of the court room and was slickly executed; Made in America was a fascinating treatment of fame, race and gender in America, especially for an outsider. Highly recommend that you watch them in that order.

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