Film Review – What Maisie Knew (2013)

Pint-sized Maisie (Onata Aprile) has a skewed view of adult life, with slammed doors and whispered rows as much a part of her world as playmates and puzzles. Her parents are Beale (Steve Coogan), a globe-trotting, supercilious art dealer and Susanna (Julianne Moore), a rock star who fails to notice how heavily she is flirting with cliche as a rock star with panda eyes, messy hair and ever-present cigarettes. Their marriage has dissolved into open hostility as Susanna locks Beale out of their luxurious Manhattan apartment. They next meet at divorce court, where both seek full custody of Maisie.

The court instead orders joint custody in allotments of ten days for each parent, starting a heart-sinking cycle where both parents fail to keep up with their responsibility to pass the child onto the other, meaning the wide-eyed Maisie is left at school, in a bar, in the lobby of the apartments. Beale quickly ups the stakes, marrying Maisie’s somewhat timid but well-meaning nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) and setting up house with her.

Fuelled by spite, Susanna retaliates with a marriage of convenience of her own, quickly wedding Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), a naive bartender who soon develops a bond with Maisie. Both parents continue to throw emotional barbs at each other through their daughter, but as they both start spending more time out of the city for work, Maisie ends up increasingly left in the care of either Margo or Lincoln, or sometimes both.

Told entirely from the point of view of the neglected Maisie, this is a fragmented story made up of overheard snippets of conversation, claim and counterclaim. Completely convincing and beautifully nuanced, it becomes an involving affair, all the more effective for taking an unconventional route to your heartstrings and generally eschewing the kind of histrionics or easy sentimentality that could have come with this territory.

Based on Henry James’ 1897 novel of the same name, the story has been seamlessly moved from the 19th century to the present and from London to New York, suggesting there is something essentially timeless at the heart of this story.

Despite the presence of a quartet of first rate actors who nail all the details of their respective roles, the narrative’s exclusive focus on the child’s perspective of events means What Maisie Knew has to live or die on the performance of Aprile, who was aged just six at the time of filming. Thankfully her performance never hits a false note. Acting as the tale’s unlikely moral centre, she is remarkable as a child who maintains her essential goodness in the face of deplorable neglect and selfishness.

 

Film Review – The Way Way Back (2013)

Some movies have a moment where they just click and you instinctively know the filmmakers know what they’re doing. In The Way, Way Back that moment comes when the painfully awkward Duncan (Liam James) is being driven to the beach house where he will spend the summer and he locks eyes with Owen (Sam Rockwell). The low-key but undeniable chemistry in that scene is a hallmark of a film which gets all the small details right.

Having been told he’s a “three out of ten” by Trent (Steve Carell), a passive-aggressive jerk who is dating his mother, Pam (Toni Collette), Duncan plans to keep a low profile during his holiday. But any chance of a quiet summer is soon scuppered by nosy neighbour Betty (Allison Janney), who plots to have Duncan become friends with her long-suffering son Peter (River Alexander), who she torments because of his lazy eye. It’s Betty’s daughter Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb) who can sympathise with Duncan though, and they form a faltering friendship as the adults leave them to their own devices.

As Susanna observes, the beachside community is “like spring break for adults” and while Trent and Pam make merry with Trent’s friends, the introverted Duncan goes exploring on a a bike and ends up seeking refuge at Water Wizz, the slightly rundown but much-loved local water park managed by perpetual adolescent Owen. Seeing something in the earnest teen that nobody else sees, Owen decides to give Duncan a job as a dogsbody at the park, bringing him into a group of misfits that includes Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), who is growing irked at Owen’s irresponsible ways and Lewis (Jim Rash), a sad sack who continually threatens to quit the park to pursue his dreams of being a storm chaser but never quite manages to leave.

The Way Way Back‘s story of a shy teen finding his place in the world over the course of a long, hot summer is by now a well-worn coming-of-age narrative, but this always feels more comfortable than cliched. The seaside small town with its endless beach parties and beer-soaked barbecues is lovingly evoked. The performances from an ensemble cast are uniformly topnotch, though it is Sam Rockwell who steals every scene as the sweet, funny and unexpectedly wise Owen.

Writer-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon previously collaborated on the Oscar-winning The Descendants and have again struck gold, fashioning a wryly funny and nicely understated script which leaves the actors plenty to do. A big-hearted, bittersweet look at the pleasures and pains of growing up, and the compromises of adulthood, this is perfectly realised and way, way charming.

Originally appeared in: Concrete Playground

Film Review – Step Up To The Plate (2012)

As the sun sets on his acclaimed career as a chef, Michel Bras reflects on how important the role has been to him. Much more than just a job, it has been an all-consuming passion, a never-ending quest for culinary perfection. This gentle French documentary charts his slow withdrawal from his fabled restaurant set in a beautiful rural location and the lessons he passes on to his capable son Sebastian.

Favouring long, lingering shots capturing the meticulous preparation of their dishes, this is a reflective, slow-burning affair, focusing its attention on the pair’s almost painterly compositions, with tiny splashes of flavour, edible flowers and miniature cuts of herbs and vegetables all part of their palette. Their food draws on countless hours of perfectionist obsession to detail, but also the warmth of childhood memories and a deep love for preparing food with care and artistry.

Gorgeously shot, Step Up To The Plate achieves a similarly calm, almost meditative mood that this year’s other great foodie portrait Jiro Dreams of Sushi pulled off. On one level, this works as an up close and personal look at life in the rarefied surrounds of an elite French fine diner, but there is something more universal and poignant at play here. It’s the story of a man finding his niche and devoting himself to something completely and, ultimately, about the bittersweet experience of having to let it all go.

Originally appeared in: Broadsheet

Film Review – Everybody Has a Plan (2013)

Deep in the woods of an Argentinian forest, Pedro (Viggo Mortensen) leads a simple life. He lives on his own in a cabin, tends to his bees with local girl Rosa (Sofia Gala) and is involved in less legitimate activities with childhood friend Adrian (Daniel Fanego) and the latter’s slow-witted godson Ruben (Javier Godino). But when he begins coughing up blood, he knows he is quickly succumbing to cancer and he decides to make a rare trek into the city to see his brother.

Meanwhile, in the city, his identical twin brother Agustin, a paediatrician, leads a comfortable but unhappy life and feels only numbness when his wife tells him they can adopt a baby. When the scruffy, chain-smoking Pedro visits unexpectedly and offers him a cash reward for treatment, Agustin seizes a chance to take his sibling’s life and kills him, leaving his body to fake his death, enabling him to return to the cabin in Pedro’s place.

Agustin soon realises his brother’s life was no idyllic backwater breeze, however, as he has to feign his sibling’s ailments while piecing together his estranged brother’s life and figuring out how to extract himself from the kidnapping scheme Pedro got himself involved with. The bees which make their way into his unfamiliar beekeeping suit turn out to be the least of his problems as he inherits a vendetta with the owners of a local general store, further isolating himself from the remote community. He also has to navigate an uneasy relationship the gun-toting, bible-quoting Adrian and convince Rosa that he hasn’t been acting strange since he returned from the city.

Everybody Has a Plan is a ponderously paced though richly atmospheric affair, its picturesque setting all broody swamps, hazy sunsets and fields speckled with ghostly trees. But a strong sense of place isn’t matched by the story, which is thin and difficult to ever really care about. Similarly, the romance with Rosa feels underdone. The main reason to see this, a debut picture from Argentinian Ana Piterbarg, is Mortensen, who turns in not one but two intense and convincing performances, in Spanish no less. Mortensen remains a great screen presence, but he needs a better avenue for his considerable talents.

Originally appeared in : Concrete Playground 

Film Review – The Look of Love (2013)

One of the UK’s most versatile and interesting directors, Michael Winterbottom, is a hard man to pigeonhole. Teaming again with Steve Coogan, whom he collaborated with on 24 Hour Party Peopleand the wonderful The Trip, his latest is a biopic of Paul Raymond, the controversial figure who became the ‘King of Soho’, pulling crowds with risque theatre at his nightclub and successfully branching out into the world of magazines with his bestselling lad’s mag, Men Only.

The action opens with a shaken Raymond (Coogan) pondering tragic events involving his daughter and driving around the district of London he rules with a small child, pointing out the business he owns, markers not just of his great wealth but also his striving for respectability. His rise was marked by his audacity and knack for turning setbacks to his advantage — when a newspaper condemns one of his theatrical productions for including “arbitrary displays of naked flesh”, he slaps the quote on the promotional poster as a selling point.

After leaving his family for his mistress, Richmond finds himself on the wrong end of an expensive divorce settlement (“I think you’ll find it’s the most expensive divorce settlement in UK history” he corrects reporters), but remains focused on empire building. Along the way he reconnects with his daughter Debbie (an excellent Imogen Poots), whose ambitions of stardom are not accommodated by the public and whose frail confidence is boosted by lashings of champagne and cocaine.

Moving from the swinging sixties to the darker onset of disco, Raymond continues to show an unerring sense for what the public want and gleefully pushes the boundaries with his magazines and live shows. He intuited what the public wanted was a taste of his hedonistic, womanising lifestyle. Yet behind the glamorous facade, there was a melancholy underside to his life, with Raymond’s inability to let go of his humble beginnings and his unusual relationship with his daughter forming the wounded heart of this impressive biopic.

Impeccable in its period detail and scored by the sweeping melodrama of Burt Bacharach songs,The Look of Love gives the always watchable Coogan meaty, complex material to wrestle with. Some will be disappointed at the way it brushes over the darker corners of his porn empire; Raymond had a way of deflecting difficult questions that the film also uses. Whether Raymond deserves such a sympathetic biography is debatable, but there is no questioning the aplomb with which Coogan and Winterbottom have brought this contradictory and ultimately quite sad figure to life.

Originally published at: Concrete Playground

Film Festival Highlights: Sydney Underground Film Festival 2012

The four-day Sydney Underground Film Festival celebrates left-of-centre cinema, cult classics, overlooked gems and the just plain weird. This year’s program has something for everyone bored of formulaic Hollywood fare, from disturbing documentary and edgy short film to absurdist comedy. Broadsheet picks the highlights from this year’s selection.

God Bless America

Depressed after finding he is terminally ill and being fired from his job in farcical circumstances, Frank (Mad Men‘s Joel Murray) decides a cross-country crime spree is the answer to his woes. Linking up with a warped schoolgirl Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), the unlikely pair takes on reality TV, conservative shock jocks and people who talk during movies. Gleefully over the top and unashamedly B-list, God Bless America nonetheless has more to say about US culture than many more ‘serious’ films.

Bad Brains: A Band in DC

Co-directed by Mandy Stein, an old pro in the rock genre (after well-received documentaries on CBGBs and the Ramones), this frantic biopic dives headlong into the world of legendary hardcore band Bad Brains. While the dynamic between band members is almost as volatile as their music, the real highlights here are priceless archival footage and passionate recollections of the jazz-trained group from a wealth of musicians they influenced, including Henry Rollins, who reflects that his “life started that night” during a typically raucous Bad Brains show.

Keyhole

Jason Patric, playing way against type, and the legendary Isabella Rossellini star in this elliptical black and white film noir, which takes the form of a loose (very loose) retelling of Ulysses with the journey set inside a haunted, sprawling house of mirrors. Dreamlike is often a word associated with pleasant and even bland art, but Canadian director Guy Maddin evokes a mood more reminiscent of the dark, unsettling side of dreams, where anything can happen and nothing quite makes sense.

Freaks, Geeks and Almost X-Rated Peeks

A variety program presented by Jay Katz and Miss Death, whose Cult Sinema Monday was a Sydney institution and whose love of kitsch, unintentionally funny and just plain bizarre cinematic ephemera continues through their Mu-Meson film nights. Hysterical public service announcements and hilariously outdated commercials are particular favourites of theirs, while this selection – which is accompanied by live commentary from the pair – also promises promotional films made by “people who should have never picked up a camera”.

Originally appeared in: Broadsheet

Film Festival Highlights: Lavazza Italian Film Festival 2012

 

One Day More
Raffish ladies man Giacomo (Fabio Volo) is so averse to commitment that despairing friends give him a puppy to try to introduce him to the concept, an experiment which ends with the dog palmed off onto a long-suffering friend. When he spies the gorgeous Michela (Isabella Ragonese) on a train, Giacomo thinks he has the ideal solution to get his friends off his back, passing her off as his girlfriend, a plan which becomes somewhat problematic when they actually meet. Further shenanigans, including a detour to Manhattan where the unlikely couple act out the plot of a popular romance novel, ensue in this oddly episodic but completely likeable romcom.

 

Take it Easy!
“Other people’s real stories are better than my made-up ones,” curmudgeonly Bruno (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) complains as he goes about his routine of ghost-writing a porn star’s autobiography and half-heartedly tutoring neighbourhood kids. But his life story is about to take on an unexpected new chapter as Luca, a teen with dreams of being a mobster and one of Bruno’s less enthusiastic students, comes to stay and is revealed to be Bruno’s son. A familiar setup perhaps, but what follows is a gentle comedy with a winning performance from Filippo Schiccitano as the deluded but charismatic teen.

 

The Entrepreneur
The political becomes personal in Giuliano Montaldo’s award-winning drama as Nicola (Pierfrancesco Favino) scrambles to find the money to save the factory he owns before the bank forecloses on him. Too proud to take financial help from his wife’s wealthy family, he becomes beset by paranoia as he spies on his wife’s attempts to help him and fears the worst. One of a number of festival films that focus on the global financial crisis, The Entrepreneur makes sparing use of colour – the limited palette matching the pessimism of its central character.

 

Shun Li and the Poet
A lyrical and tender tale of a bashful Chinese barmaid who has moved to Italy with a debt hanging over her head and a plan to one day earn enough to reunite with her son. Relocated by her masters to the picturesque northern fishing town Chioggia, she strikes up a friendship with Beppi, a poetry lover and retired fisherman, but suspicion and prejudice from the community threatens their relationship. Unfolding at a leisurely pace, this quiet and delicate film gradually builds into something quite moving.

Originally appeared in: Broadsheet