Sunday, January 23, 2011

Somewhere


When Sofia Coppola released The Virgin Suicides in 1999 to film festivals, the daughter of the legendary Francis Ford Coppola was emerging as a promising new filmmaker. When the film came out a year later to the public, it was a huge art house hit. Then in 2003, Sofia released Lost in Translation which garnered rave reviews and was a surprise hit in the box office. Sofia would win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay as anticipation ran high for her next feature film which would be a bio-pic about Marie Antoinette.

Released in 2006 as Marie Antoinette at the Cannes Film Festival of that May, the film divided critics. While some were dazzled by Coppola’s radical interpretation of notorious young French queen as well as its look. Some where angered over its lack of historical context and the use of early 1980s post-punk and New Romantics music. Coppola took a break from the spotlight following its release to raise her new baby Romy with partner Thomas Mars of the French band Phoenix. Working on various projects including a commercial and running Zoetrope studios with her brother Roman, Coppola would finally return with her fourth feature film that has her exploring the world of celebrity culture with Somewhere.

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola, Somewhere tells the story of a bad boy Hollywood actor whose life of decadence has left him directionless. When the appearance of his 11-year old daughter shows up while her mother is dealing with her own issues. The actor is forced to bring his daughter to the world he wants to shield her from while dealing with his own life choices. Inspired by Peter Bogdonavich’s Paper Moon and the Federico Fellini short Toby Dammit along with Coppola‘s own childhood experiences. The film has Coppola delving into the lost world of celebrity culture that she had previously explored briefly in Lost in Translation. Starring Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Michelle Monaghan, and Chris Pontius. Somewhere is an extraordinary yet mesmerizing film from Sofia Coppola.

It’s another typical day for bad-boy actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) as he rides around in his black Ferrari and do the things he does in his life when he’s not working. Living at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood, Johnny’s life is filled with endless parties with his friend Sammy (Chris Pontius) and bed a groupie or model. Sometimes at night, he would be entertained by twin strippers (Karissa and Kristina Shannon). Yet, the lifestyle that Marco lives in has him becoming bored and unsatisfied as if he’s leading a nowhere life.

Then one day, his daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) arrives with her mother Laila (Lala Sloatman) where he and Cleo spend the day together as he watches her do an ice-skating routine. It was a good day and a break that Johnny needed as he is set to do some promotion for a new film. A photoshoot with his co-star (Michelle Monaghan) doesn’t go well while he’s called in to do some make-up effects for another film. When Cleo arrives unexpectedly one day to be with her dad and Sammy, Johnny learns that Laila is unable to take care of Cleo due to some unexpected issues. Johnny takes Cleo to Milan for a promotional appearance where he’s to receive an award as father and daughter have fun despite the appearance of another groupie (Laura Chiatti).

Returning to Los Angeles and the Chateau Marmont as Cleo is set to go to camp near Las Vegas for a few weeks. Johnny and Sammy help her out with what she needs as Johnny devotes the rest of his time towards Cleo. Aware that Laila might be away a bit longer and Cleo won’t be around him either. Johnny is forced to face the life he’s been living for so long.

While the film’s plot, or lack of, is about a bad boy actor whose hedonistic lifestyle changes once his daughter appears doesn’t seem like a great idea on paper as it could be told in such a conventional fashion. When it’s told from someone like Sofia Coppola, it’s anything but conventional. In fact, there is very little dialogue told throughout the film and there are scenes where there is no dialogue as it’s all about the image and what is happening in the film. In a lot of ways, it’s a film that recalls all of the themes that Coppola has visited in her previous work. Yet, unlike Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette, it’s all about an individual trapped and bored by the life he has lived as he finds a semblance of hope once his daughter arrives.

Of her films in terms of structure, this one is the loosest since there isn’t a traditional structure. Though the narrative is mostly straightforward, it mostly plays like a silent film where it’s more about what isn’t being said and action rather than words. The story explores a lot of what kind of life Johnny Marco is leading. Initially, it seems like a fun life. Working in films as an actor, getting all of the things a guy could want. Be in parties, be entertained by strippers, drive a Ferrari, and bed the occasional groupie. Then, it starts to get boring where all of those things of a hedonistic lifestyle becomes repetitive, routine, and just ongoing.

For someone to live that lifestyle for so long, it becomes soul-crushing as Johnny loses his lust for pleasure. Even at one point when he’s about to have sex with a groupie, he falls asleep. In some ways, he’s been trapped in this lifestyle that he is nearly comatose in a metaphorical way until his daughter Cleo appears and practically wakes him up. Though Johnny is a very flawed character who lies to his daughter a few times and is probably more concerned in being fulfilled sexually than being with his daughter. He’s not a bad guy but makes stupid decisions. The scene where Cleo is having breakfast with Johnny and this Italian woman is where the woman is talking while Johnny notices that his daughter remains silent with a very disapproving look.

It’s in that style of not just Coppola’s writing but her direction that really keeps the story to be more than what the plot suggests. She’s more interested in how characters interact without a lot of dialogue or anything that is presented in a conventional manner that is often seen in more mainstream films. It’s really about something that is intimate in a father-daughter relationship where though Marco wasn’t around in her life very much. At least the time he spends with her becomes more rewarding as the film progresses. Cleo does sort of play a maternal figure as she cooks for Johnny and Sammy while even getting to play video games with them. There is something that is carefree and natural in how Coppola creates those scenes by just letting the actors feel relaxed and let the camera capture it all.

The lack of a conventional screenplay would definitely bring challenges to anyone that is trying to tell a story in a familiar manner. Coppola however is more concerned with trying to create a mood for a certain scene while following this character who is definitely losing himself. After going through some of grandeur and mass production that she endured in Marie Antoinette, she strips it down by just shooting on location with very few built sets and just go. Even as she decides to be confrontational in a subtle manner.

The opening shot of the film is essentially a black Ferrari driving around in some race track and it goes on for a few minutes with no cuts. This is even before there’s any opening credits and once the film starts again after the opening credits. There’s scenes of parties, dancing strippers, and more Ferrari driving and that’s about 10 minutes of the film with very little dialogue. For a conventional audience, that can be a chore and it’s an example of what the rest of the film can be. Still, Coppola knows when to break out of that where she will add a few things that seems out of place but actually fits in with the film.

Notably a scene where Marco is about to get a massage from a male masseuse (Paul Greene) where its in middle of the film as it’s an example that he’s starting to wake up a bit from the lifestyle he’s lead. It’s where Coppola knows how to place humor in something that seems off while others like the awards ceremony in Milan and the scene where Johnny meets a very famous actor in an elevator are very funny. The latter of which is an in-joke about something that supposedly happened at the Chateau Marmont with that actor.

At the same time, Coppola’s approach to framing a scene is becoming more evident as she is also becoming more confident as a director. The scene of Johnny on a floating bed in the pool as it moves out of the frame shows how to shoot something that expresses a lot by not really doing anything but keeping the camera still. It’s part of Coppola’s genius into expressing such subtleties in something that can be told in a simple form. Even as she delves into her trademarks like scenes where Cleo looks out in a car but not as much where trademarks can become redundant.

The film’s ending alludes to the title where the opening is scene is really a man driving around in circles where he’s not going anywhere. The ending is actually a simpler yet metaphorical as he’s about to go somewhere though no one knows where Johnny Marco is going. The overall approach to Coppola’s direction is truly hypnotic and engaging. Even as she is becoming more confident in how she wants to present scenes and create sumptuous compositions that brings a quality that is magical. In the end, Coppola ups her game as a director while refining her style that keeps her audience coming to her films.

Taking over for Coppola’s regular cinematographer Lance Acord is the renowned Harris Savides. Savides’ photography has a luminous yet simplistic quality that is more straightforward than the work Coppola previously did with Acord. Even in a lot of the Los Angeles exterior scenes where at the daytime, it’s just gorgeous along with the scenes at night are just as fun including that great shot overlooking Los Angeles from the Chateau Marmont. The interiors have a more intimate yet softer look for the scenes at the hotel in Milan while the look of the scenes inside the Chateau Marmont at night have this old-school feel that is a bit grainy but also lush as Savides’ work is definitely the film’s technical highlight.

Coppola’s longtime editor Sarah Flack does an excellent job with the film’s stylized editing that emphasize more on creating a rhythm that is slow yet methodical. Particularly in not creating cuts where it would move the film much faster except a few jump-cuts in scenes where Johnny Marco is driving his car. It’s straightforward though the pacing of the film is definitely something that not everyone will be into. Even as Flack helps to maintain something that is out of the norm that is happening with a lot of editing styles in today’s mainstream films.

Production designer Anne Ross, with set decorator Fainche MacCarthy and art directors Andrea Rosso and Shane Valentino, does a phenomenal job in creating the rooms and pieces for Johnny Marco‘s room as it has a more organic feel to it. Even in the decoration for some of the places inside the Chateau Marmont while the hotel suite that Johnny and Cleo lives in is wonderful with an indoor pool as the art direction is lovely to watch. Costume designer Stacey Battat creates wonderful costumes that is mostly straightforward and casual for the most part. Notably the jeans and t-shirts that Johnny Marco wears while the standout is the dress Cleo wears at the awards ceremony that is truly beautiful.

Longtime Coppola sound designer Richard Beggs, along with co-sound editor Michael Kirschberger, creates an amazing collage of sounds that plays up to Johnny Marco’s world that he is surrounded by. Notably the chaos inside the Chateau Marmont and in the awards ceremony while a lot of mostly silent with louder mixes of revving engines whenever Johnny drives. It’s definitely masterful in what Beggs does with the sound as it’s another of the film’s great technical achievements.

The film’s music soundtrack is mostly driven by the music of the French band Phoenix as their two-part song Love is Like a Sunset drives the film where the first part opens the film and the second part closes it. Other tracks in the film features ambient-driven score pieces by William Storkson while a large portion of the soundtrack appears as if its being played in the scene. Among the music that appears in the film are the Foo Fighters and Amerie as the background music for the strippers performances. For the scenes with the Rock Band game that Johnny and Cleo play include tracks by the Police and T. Rex while some of the party music includes stuff by Kiss and Sebastien Tellier.

Other pieces in the film’s soundtrack includes cuts by Romulu who plays his song live at the Chateau Marmont plus Valeria Marini and Gwen Stefani in Chloe’s ice-skating routine. Two other tracks that play for the film is a demo of the Strokes’ I’ll Try Anything Once and in the closing credits, Bryan Ferry’s cover of the Platters’ Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. While it’s not up to par with previous soundtracks that Coppola has created, it is still a diverse, fun soundtrack that plays up to the complex moods of the film.

The casting by Nicole Daniels and Courtney Sheinin is wonderful for the array of appearances from everyone that includes musicians, actors, and models. Among those who appear in the film making cameo appearances is Sofia Coppola’s cousin Robert Schwartzman and his band Rooney, Tetro star Alden Ehrenreich, model Angela Lindvall as a blonde in a Mercedes, and a very famous actor who created a legend at the Chateau Marmont. Other small appearances include Laura Ramsey as a girl in a sailor hat, models Erin Wasson and Nathalie Fay as partygoers, Ellie Kemper as a publicist, Paul Greene as a masseur, Eliza Coupe as a hotel neighbor Johnny sleeps with, and Giorgia Surina as a boisterous Italian TV reporter.

Other notable small but memorable appearances include Nunzio Alfredo “Pupi” D’Angeri as an Italian PR person with Jo Champa as his wife along with Laura Chiatti as an Italian woman who wants to be with Johnny. Karissa and Kristina Shannon are very good as the twin strippers who entertain Johnny in his room with their own poles and costumes as their performance in stripper poles is a great mixture of something that can be awkward and at times un-sexy in a funny way. Michelle Monaghan is very good in a small cameo as an actress who despises Johnny as she seems to quietly insult him during their photo shoot. Lala Sloatman is also good as Cleo’s mother who is only seen once as she appears mostly through phone calls as she’s dealing with her own problems. Chris Pontius is a great in a fun role as Sammy, a friend of Johnny who befriends Cleo as they have fun creating guitar palettes for their Guitar Hero base.

Finally, there’s the duo of Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning as they give their best performances of their career. For the veteran Stephen Dorff, it is the comeback performance he needed after a near-decade period that saw him in bad and mediocre films. Dorff truly plays off the bad-boy persona of Johnny Marco by being someone who doesn’t seem to care much about things and really rub people the wrong way. Then, he allows the audience to feel for him by not really doing much as he remains quiet throughout as he starts to feel bored and unenthused about his situation while proving to be a more upbeat guy when he’s with Cleo. It’s also Dorff at his most vulnerable as it is definitely a remarkable performance for the actor.

Elle Fanning is a real revelation as Cleo, Johnny’s daughter as she plays the role as if she’s not some caricature that is often seen with child actors. Instead, she’s a real girl with the kind of aspirations and observance of someone seeing things from afar. Even as she sees how much of a screw-up her dad can but not call him out on it. There’s also a radiance to the way she can do something without speaking whether its doing an ice-skating routine or just be in a dress looking very lady-like. This is definitely a performance that truly shows that Elle Fanning is someone to watch out for. Even as her scenes with Stephen Dorff is what makes the film so interesting by the natural chemistry they have which leaves the audience wanting more.

***Additional DVD Content Written & Posted on 4/19/11***

The 2011 Region 1 DVD for Somewhere from Focus Features presents the film in its anamorphic widescreen theatrical aspect ratio of 1:85:1.  Also presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound for English, Spanish, and French along with Spanish and French subtitles including English subtitles for the hearing impaired.  The film on DVD is wonderful to look as it plays to the naturalist yet gorgeous photography of Harris Savides along with layered sound work of Richard Beggs.

While the film looks great on DVD, the lack of special features in the DVD is one of the disappointing aspects as the only major special feature is a 17-minute making-of documentary.  Featuring interviews with Sofia Coppola, Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning, Chris Pontius, Alfredo “Pupi” D’Angeri, Kristina and Karissa Shannon, producers Roman Coppola and G. Mac Brown, cinematographer Harris Savides, sound designer Richard Beggs, production designer Anne Ross, costume designer Stacy Battat, and Chateau Marmont manager Phillip Pavel.  It’s a documentary about how the film is made as it also features appearances from Sofia’s parents Francis and Eleanor Coppola, her boyfriend Thomas Mars, and their daughter Romy.

Coppola essentially talks about the difficulty of making Marie Antoinette as she aimed for something simpler while wanting to experiment more with minimalism.  Savides talks about the approach to the photography as he and Sofia aimed for a more natural style of shooting and lighting.  Pavel reveals that he was delighted to have Sofia shoot at the Chateau Marmont whom he had known as Sofia had a birthday party there many years ago.  Stephen Dorff and Chris Pontius reflect on their own party experiences at the Marmont.  For the scenes in Milan including the hotel, G. Mac Brown reveals that part of the difficulty in working with Sofia is that she knows what she wants and there isn’t a second choice.  Particularly with the booking of a certain hotel that she needed as Pupi recalls a time he knew her many years ago since he hung out with her dad.

Elle Fanning talks about Sofia’s approach which she says is more relaxing as opposed to other productions she’s been where it’s rushed at times.  Sofia discusses her experiences about going into these places as a kid where she went to Cuba with her dad one time.  It’s a wonderful yet stylish documentary that includes a lot of slow-motion shots of actors rehearsing and such.

Other minimal features includes ads for Focus Features, Blu-Ray, and the Film Foundation along with trailers for Blue Crush 2, the DVD promo for The Dilemma, and varied films from Focus Features like Away We Go, Pirate Radio, Greenberg, Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, A Serious Man, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Lost in Translation.  While the DVD with its making-of documentary has something that hardcore fans of Sofia Coppola would have.  It’s lack of strong special features makes the DVD release a bit disappointing as Sofia often puts more stuff in her DVDs despite her resistance to doing audio commentary.  It’s worth getting though it’s best to get the DVD when the prices are low.

***End of DVD Tidbits***

Somewhere is definitely a gorgeous yet ethereal film from Sofia Coppola that features fantastic performances from Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning. While it’s not a film for everyone, including Coppola’s detractors. It’s a movie that shows Coppola’s artistry at her finest as she takes the themes of alienation, existentialism, and identity into new territory while playing with ideas of traditional story structure. Fans of European style art-house films will enjoy this for its unconventional approach as well as fans of Coppola while its best to keep expectations low. It’s nowhere near the brilliance of a film like Lost in Translation but Somewhere manages to hit all of the right notes needed for a film that could’ve been much flatter in lesser hands. In the end, Sofia Coppola scores another great piece of art with Somewhere.




© thevoid99 2011

2 comments:

Laura said...

It's interesting because Coppola, for obvious reasons, has a fascination with celebrity. With the exception of The Virgin Suicides, her other three films are about fame, wealth and living in the public eye.

I agree that Coppola is anything but conventional and I admire her ability to sell art in the mainstream media.

Unlike Lost in Translation, which was clearly scripted because Charlotte and Bob talked about life, marriage and children, Somewhere didn't seem to have a script at all. it'd be interesting to hear an interview with Sophia about whether or not she let Dorff and Fanning ad lib. It seemed like they did.

thevoid99 said...

Well, from what I've heard. The script was only 40 pages long. I don't think Sofia is interested in having dialogue advance the film or something. Even as I believe she is trying to make something close to a silent film.

Sometimes, dialogue can be too much and it ends up being distracting to what the plot needed. I often think of Terrence Malick's approach to film where he would often cut out dialogue to go for more action and poetic voice-over narratives.

As far as Coppola's fascination with celebrity. I think she is more interested in not just the human aspects of it but also the downside. It is very interesting.

Plus, I think she has a total sense of disdain with the current celebrity culture that we are surrounded by. In interviews, she talks a lot about what it was like then when there was no Internet and no tabloid shows and such.

It is a very different culture. Back then, Entertainment Tonight focused on what's coming and such. Now, it's become more of a tabloid news thing where I can't watch it anymore.

Thank you for the comments. I have a lot more to say about Somewhere. I'll probably wait when the DVD comes out.