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 – 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 review – Haute Cuisine 2013

 

Whisked from her idyllic farm with the promise of a job cooking for a high-level government official, it is only when Hortense Laborie (Catherine Frot) gets to Paris that she learns the position will actually involve being the private chef for French president Francois Mitterand. She has a moment of faint surprise, but only a moment. The job offer is a bolt from the blue, but she knows she’s up for it.

 

Based on the true story of the first woman to be the president’s chef, Haute Cuisine alternates between Hortense’s time in the palace and a later spell as the inscrutable but beloved head chef on an Antarctic research station. In a clunky plot device at odds with the rest of the film’s unhurried feel, an Australian journalist (Arly Jover, doing a deplorable accent) is making a documentary about the station and tries to unravel the enigma of Hortense, including why she left her high-profile role for such an unlikely and isolated outpost.

 

Not unlike last year’s similarly foodie-friendly Step Up to the PlateHaute Cuisine is almost defiantly low-key, offering little in the way of revelation but instead opting for a detailed, quiet character study and a wealth of lovingly filmed food preparation scenes.

 

Initially feeling isolated in her position, Hortense finds herself ill at ease in the rarified surrounds of the Elysse palace, all cavernous rooms and chilly stylishness. She is unsure of the tastes of who she is cooking for, is eyed suspiciously from the chefs in the much larger public kitchen and has running battles with bean-counting bureaucrats who can’t understand the time and money she pours into sourcing the finest truffles and foie gras.

 

Eventually she does meet Mitterand (played with sparkly eyed verve by Jean d’Ormesson, making his film debut at age 86) and the pair bond over the heartfelt, rustic food of his childhood. Working with the timid but capable sous chef Nicholas (Arthur Dupont) she becomes a favourite of the ageing president, only increasing the jealousy of her male counterparts.

 

Haute Cuisine is a small story but it is an interesting historical vignette, and it is to the film’s infinite credit that it does not overstay its welcome a minute.

Orginally appeared in: Concrete Playground

 

Film review – Flight (2013)

‘Whip’ Whittaker (Denzel Washington) wakes up in a hotel room, disentangles himself from last night’s paramour, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), surveys the wreckage of liquor bottles, does a line of cocaine, argues with his ex-wife, then heads to his day job. As a commercial pilot.

While his co-pilot, the straitlaced Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty) thinks something is amiss with Whip, it is smooth sailing as Whip pulls off an audacious move to get the plane through some bad weather then rewards himself with a mid-flight vodka and orange juice.

Then things start to go very, very wrong. In one of the most gripping set pieces seen on the big screen in years, the plane finds itself in trouble and not responding to any of the usual fixes. It is soon plummeting towards earth and the passengers and crew resort to panic and prayer. Whip, however, remains cool and in a brilliant piece of quick thinking, inverts the plane to take much of the force out of the landing. The manoeuvre mitigates what could have been complete calamity and when the wreckage is surveyed, only six people have lost their lives.

After such a bold start, the film moves into the more familiar territory of addiction drama, but there is far too much complexity and moral nuance here for the film to be anything less than intriguing. It is revealed the plane wasn’t properly maintained and was an accident waiting to happen. Whip’s audacious actions were not performed in spite of his state of inebriation but actually because of it. Another pilot, one free of drugs and alcohol, could not have done what he did and saved as many lives as he did.

He meets heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly) in hospital, and the pair are soon shacked up at a secluded cottage, hiding from the world. But when the legal ramifications of the crash ramp up after Whip has a testy meeting with Hugh (an excellent Don Cheadle), a driven criminal lawyer who is confident he can have Whip’s toxicology report thrown out as evidence, he falls back off the wagon, skulling vodka with a vengeance and hatching plans to escape to Jamaica in a small plane.

Whip’s actions become increasingly pathetic as his supporters try to curb his powerful self-destructive streak and keep him from having a public meltdown before the hearing that will hopefully clear his name for good. Still, he insists he drinks because he wants to. He’s had years of practice at getting away with it and finds himself on the brink of freedom.

If Flight loses its nerve somewhat in the closing minutes, it only serves to cast the truthful and arresting drama that has come before in an even brighter light. Featuring one of the best performances in Washington’s career, it’s a tough and taut film which asks questions that linger long after its closing credits.

Originally appeared in: Concrete Playground