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‘Enough Said’ (2013) says so much.

23 Oct

Enough Said posterTell me, dear reader, are you aware of the name Nicole Holofcener? She’s only one of American film’s most compelling writer-directors, yet nobody seems to know who the hell she is. Why is that? Maybe she makes too few films (just five in 17 years). Maybe her witty dialogue seems too artful for the average Cineplex goer. Or maybe it’s because she’s a woman.

Enough Said stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Eva, a divorced masseuse. Upon befriending poetess and potential client Marianne (Catherine Keener) and falling for the infectiously charming Albert (James Gandolfini), she soon discovers that Albert and Marianne used to be married, and they both enjoy weaving detailed yarns about how gross and/or snobbish the other is. Juggling her newfound friendship with her equally fresh romance proves tough, but makes for riveting viewing.

Eva and Albert, a pair of single parents, each have a university-bound daughter flying away to college soon, which underscores not only their need for one another, but also Eva’s longing for a female friend in Marianne. With impending empty nest syndrome breathing down her neck, Eva is slow to give either of them up, all the while prodding Marianne for dirt on Albert. She’s committed to both, even though the two together are slowly but surely poisoning the well.

Enough Said is brimming with memorable performances from everybody concerned. Louis-Dreyfus (who, incidentally, looks like a glorious amalgamation of Tina Fey and Steve Carell) could play lovely in her sleep, but she’s outdone herself this time. Eva may be clumsy and awkward, but she doesn’t let it define her. Her and Albert’s first kiss, on his back-porch step, is adorable in that clunky, maladroit sort of way usually reserved for teenagers in such movies.

As for Gandolfini, approaching this movie without a tinge of melancholy over the late, great actor’s passing is tough. Although his charismatic and lovably goofy personality shines through the dark clouds looming over this posthumous performance, his loss is felt. Future film historians will treat his name with a similar level of reverence they currently hold for Gregory Peck, Marlon Brando and other legendary stars of yesteryear; Enough Said is a fitting legacy.

Golden performances aside, it’s the sheer brains behind this film that captivates. Enough Said is a rarity among romance movies in that it understands how adult relationships actually work in reality. The movie knows full-well that Gandolfini isn’t textbook-attractive and that middle-aged divorced mothers aren’t typical ‘catches’, but as Holofcener is the living master of nuanced subtlety, she writes bucketloads of soul into these characters. It’s easy to see the attraction.

Enough Said is the perfect autumn movie – intelligent and deftly written, deserving of high praise without brazenly demanding Academy Award recognition. It’s up there with Blue Jasmine, Frances Ha and Mud as one of the best dramatic pictures of 2013.

Simon says: it’s great, ’nuff said.

Written for [GCN]

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Family Affair; ‘Like Father, Like Son’ (2013).

21 Oct

Like Father, Like Son posterLike Father, Like Son is the latest in a long line of demure, unassuming family dramas from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Much like 2011’s I Wish,his latest enterprise also focuses strongly on the plight of misplaced children, featuring a pair of six year-olds who were incompetently swapped at birth. As the winner of the prestigious Jury Prize at Cannes, does it deliver the promised goods?

You betcha, it does. Like Father, Like Son centres around a busy architect called Ryota Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukushima) who lives with his wife Midori (Machika Ono) and their polite, neatly turned-out son. Keita. A harrowing call from Midori’s former maternity hospital results in the gruelling discovery that Keita is not really her or Ryota’s kid, but biologically belongs to a Mr and Mrs Saiki, who likewise have raised the ‘wrong’ boy. Nature battles nurture in Ryota’s mind as he struggles to reconcile tradition with his own emotions.

Both families rendez-vous at shopping centres and playgrounds in an effort to get along. While both mothers empathise in their shared ordeal, the two dads wage a socio-cultural war of words. Ryoto finds Mr. Saiki buffoonish and irresponsible, while Mr. Saiki finds Ryoto’s arrogant pretension hard to swallow – his ultra modern Tokyo apartment is total anathema to the Saiki family’s barely profitable electronic knick-knack emporium-cottage hybrid.

Like Father, Like Son captures a magic unique to its Japanese setting. A famously patriarchal society, as well as one traditionally obsessed with familial bloodlines, Japan is the ideal artistic soil for planting the seeds of a mismatched children story. Ryota is stereotypically onerous, forcing hated piano lessons on poor Keita and politely demanding dinner upon arriving home. While his archaic behaviour isn’t excused by the geography, it’s certainly contextual.

Mercifully, a vital sense of humour underscores the proceedings; a lack thereof would render Like Father, Like Son a very sombre affair indeed. The Saiki family’s whimsical, happy-go-lucky attitude is perpetually regarded with derision by Ryota, but Kore-eda shoots their personal scenes at home with a playful coyness that’s utterly charming. Rather, it’s Ryota’s insufferable snobbery that the movie lampoons, all the while championing diversity and unorthodoxy.

Spellbinding drama is a tough gig to maintain, and unfortunately Like Father, Like Son wavers and loses focus by the third act. Unnecessary distractions are peppered throughout, from aimless dialogue to gratuitously protracted ‘nothing’ scenes, which culminate in the last half-hour. The film infuriatingly delays the finale and drags out the runtime for no apparent reason other than arbitrary longevity. A generous 20-minute haircut would have really suited.

Whisperings of an upcoming Spielbergian remake of Like Father, Like Son seem somewhat counterintuitive. Although Kore-eda’s traditional ‘absent father’ yarn would place it in familiar Spielberg territory, the delicate finesse displayed here would likely be tarnished by the heavy-handed Hollywood movie-grinding machine. Lets leave the movie as it is – an overlong but gentle, intriguing and fabulously acted examination of Japanese social norms.

Simon says: finally, a refreshing change from the usual scares or cartoons of usual international Japanese cinema.

[Written for GCN]

Monroe Mash-Up; ‘Love, Marilyn’ (2012).

18 Oct

Love, Marilyn posterThere are three types of people in this world: those engaged in eternal mourning for the untimely death of film icon Marilyn Monroe, naysayers who deem her an overrated ‘bowl of hot nothing’ and the mediators who lack an opinion either way. Your enjoyment of Love, Marilyn will rest heavily on whichever bracket you fall into, as well as your tolerance for idolatry.

A documentary about the rise and fall of the ‘50s movie star, Love, Marilyn celebrates the recent discovery of Monroe’s handwritten memoirs. Directed by Liz Garbus and featuring a cavalcade of stars, from Uma Thurman to Paul Giamatti by way of Viola Davis and Elizabeth Banks, Love, Marilyn is essentially a 107-minute lecture on the greatness of the eponymous sex symbol. Don’t think she’s that great? Well, this movie exists to change your mind.

Chock-a-bloc as it is with intriguing tidbits of information, Love, Marilyn proves to be an educational experience for those less steeped in Monroe lore. But owners of countless Marilyn books or furious bloggers who tirelessly defend her will presumably already know everything this movie has to offer. Newfound documents only confirm suspicions that she was more than just a pretty face – there’s no grand revelation or shocking declaration to be found in Love, Marilyn.

What one can expect is a flurry of famous faces reciting lines from Monroe’s personal writings, often adding their own dramatic spin. It works on occasion – Banks, Davis and co. pour buckets of soul into their performances, proving themselves to be Monroe devotees – but asking these talented actors to read a chicken recipe Monroe prepared for Joe DiMaggio, among other random trivialities, is a mistake. It does a disservice to all those involved, living or dead.

By far the most engaging aspect of this film is the gleaned insight into Monroe’s relationships. Having met renowned playwright Arthur Miller at a party following the publication of his Death of a Salesman, the internal workings of their eventual marriage and how they impacted one another creatively, prove to be highlights. Archival interview footage with Miller and Monroe’s former co-star friends feels jarringly real in the face of the sporadically loopy acting dotted throughout.

Swap the comma for an exclamation mark, stick it at the end and you’ve got an infinitely more accurate title for Love, Marilyn – it clobbers you over the head with its unfaltering schmaltz and unwavering reverence. Die-hard Monroe fans will be pleased, and those lacking an opinion on the starlet could indeed be swayed in her favour. Her detractors, however, won’t be budged.

Simon says: ‘LOVE MARILYN!’ would be a far more honest moniker for this love-letter.

[Written for GCN]

Failure to Land; ‘Baggage Claim’ (2013).

15 Oct

Baggage Claim posterWatching Baggage Claim is kind of like being slapped in the face with an insultingly wet fish. First off, it expects you to buy the carved-out-of-marble-gorgeous Paula Patton as a hopelessly single spinster. Secondly, it offers a selection of such innocuous jokes, only a toddler might mistake them as comedy. But it’s the film’s odious and distasteful ridiculing of its predominantly female audience that brings Baggage Claim’s crashing out of the sky, not even thirty seconds into flight time.

Montana Moore (Patton) is an incredibly beautiful flight attendant who finds it impossible to get a date. And, to compound Montana’s fuckless life, her younger sister is getting married in a month’s time, thereby beating her to the altar of heteronormative happiness! So, using her airline connections, our drop-dead gorgeous heroine ‘accidentally’ runs into all her past boyfriends in a last-ditch effort to track down the elusive ‘Mr. Right’ and get hitched before her little blister.

If the premise of a thirty-day time limit sounds ridiculously arbitrary, that’s because it is. Nonsensical and dripping with conceit, the self-imposed challenge is so artificially contrived, it’s doesn’t even tick the Looney Tunes comedy box. Why is it thirty days? Dreadful writing, that’s why, complete with unfortunately, frivolous and clunky plot devices that are merely the tip of the iceberg of wrongness that haunts this film.

Baggage Claim compounds all its silliness with an air of childish innocence. Take the character names, for instance: Jill Scott plays Montana’s sexually liberated bestie, Gail (because every black woman’s best friend is named ‘Gail’), whose surname is none other than ‘Best’; while the calm and collected neighbour (Derek Luke) is known as… wait for it… Mr. Right. It was genuine surprise to this writer that the obligatory male flight attendant was called ‘Sam Gay’.

While we’re on the subject, Sam (Adam Brody) is the sole believable character of the whole affair, which speaks volumes because he’s a walking (nay, mincing) stereotype. He remains eminently watchable, which is an achievement in itself given that everyone else, down to the extras, is a cartoon character. When Patton’s not convulsively twitching her face or gesticulating weirdly, she’s running to catch a flight, swinging her roller-bag in the air; just as air hostesses really do. Don’t they?

All of the goofiness would be fine if Baggage Claim was in any way funny. However, the only laughs stem from Taye Diggs’ would-be congressman character. Trying and failing to be the quintessential politician’s wife, before storming out Patton yells: “I don’t trust black Republicans!” A lump of satire floating in a sea of doltish buffoonery, it’s a welcome deviation from the gag-inducing gags that abound in this misfiring comedy.

At best, Baggage Claim is a moronic, profoundly dumb exercise in how to bore an audience for 96 minutes. At worst, it’s an offensive dose of misogyny, hammering home every archaic, outdated and plain ole bad cliché about single women Hollywood ever trotted out. Rest assured, total racial equality in making pointless, terrible romantic comedies has been achieved.

Simon says: Baggage Shame.

[Written for GCN]

Super Human Condition; ‘Hannah Arendt’ (2013).

13 Oct

Hannah Arendt posterAlthough philosophy is undoubtedly one of the fundamental cornerstones of academia (read: human existence), and has been since our ancestors first became self-aware, movies about philosophers rarely get made. As this writer is both a film critic and a philosophy student, he finds this phenomenon somewhat irksome. Thankfully, along struts Hannah Arendt, chain-smoking and dressed in a grey-brown dress, shattering all expectations by delivering perhaps the most engrossing, thought-provoking film about a thinker to date.

Directed by Margarethe von Trotta (Rosenstrasse, The Last Honour of Katharina Blum), Hannah Arendt stars Barbara Sukowa as the eponymous philosopher, who fled a fledgling Nazi Germany in the ’30s in order to pursue an academic career. She ended up in the USA, where she decided to cover the infamous 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, an ex-Nazi, for the legendary New Yorker magazine. Her resulting article expresses her shock at how ‘normal’ Eichmann appears, while also making controversial statements about the role of Jewish leaders in the Holocaust. The movie examines this, along with the resulting plethora of vitriol she receives.

Biopics about philosophers rarely emerge because while they may have made extraordinary claims, their literature is often so dense and ideas so complex that it’s difficult to strike gold on-screen. Thankfully, Hannah Arendt decides to focus almost entirely on the Eichmann trial and its consequential fallout. I say “thankfully”, because a film centred around her actual philosophy would be a tough sit. However, von Trotta does apply the gist of Arendt’s high-concept thoughts on totalitarianism and evil to what would otherwise be a fairly standard drama; this other-worldly, almost ethereal element gives the film a real artistic heft that’s rarely seen at the cinema these days.

Barbara Sukowa dominates the screen, proving herself to be an impressive, wonderfully convincing character actor. If this movie has an Achilles’ Heel, it lies in the supporting cast. While they are, for the most part, charming – Axel Milberg stands out as Arendt’s philosopher husband Heinrich Blücher, and Ulrich Noethen as Hans Jonas is likewise endearing as Arendt’s philosopher friend – both Arendt’s wisecracking novelist friend Mary McCarthy (Janet McTeer) and the New Yorker’s staff occasionally feel stiff and clunky. Their attempts to inject some comedy into the mix are flawed, unnecessary, and ultimately undermine the serious ideas the film explores.

Minor complaints aside, Hannah Arendt remains a touching and surprisingly moving picture that blends themes of misunderstanding and communication breakdown with the emergence of a fascinating political philosophy. It’s a worthy telling of a little-known story about one of the few thinkers to truly grasp the banality of evil. A must-see for philosophy students, and a should-see for everybody else.

Simon says: the best philosopher movie yet.

A Pirate’s Life; ‘Captain Phillips’ (2013).

12 Oct

Captain Phillips posterMe nerves! Having just recently recovered equilibrium after the tension-fest that was The Call, I’m called upon to review Captain Phillips and thereby jettison my anxiety levels to another extreme, and not for the right reasons. Why do I do this job?

One could also ask why Captain Phillips (aka Tom Hanks) does his job in this decidedly unpleasant, if absorbing film, which unfortunately forgoes artistic finesse for a gung ho, pro-USA mantra.

The good Captain is a seasoned sailor of the seven seas with a knack for clairvoyance. Following a gratuitous ‘he loves his wife’ opening scene, Captain P sets sail aboard a colossal, Kenya-bound freighter. As the ship approaches the Horn of Africa, a gang of Somali pirates swiftly seizes control before speeding off aboard a sealed submarine-like lifeboat, with Hanks on board. A biopic of the real-life Captain Richard Phillips, this movie draws inspiration from his terrifying 2009 ordeal.

Good docu-dramas aim to underpin what the audience already knows with some revelatory or hitherto unearthed information, as expertly demonstrated by 2013’s Academy Award-rumbling Zero Dark Thirty. Although Captain Phillips concerns itself with atomically smaller stakes (ZD-30 shook us with conspiracies and a likely apocalypse; this has an assortment of skinny men), what really sinks this ship is its unflinching dedication to two-dimensionality.

At dubious loggerheads with the rationale that cargo ships are looted to combat impoverishment, or at least for some mix of socio-political reasons,Captain Phillips paints its pirates as mindless, greedy villains. While the boat’s crew and the Navy SEALS display robotic proficiency at their jobs, and the good Captain himself proves to be the sole benefactor of any characterisation whatsoever, the dead-eyed Somalis behave like hyperactive children on cocaine.

Muse (Barkhad Abdi), the commander of the invaders, is granted a few throwaway lines about the bullying nature of larger nations (who overfish in Somali waters) and his duty to local warlords (who pocket the bulk of the pirates’ plunder), but the rest of his screen-time is spent chewing khat leaves, barking orders and generally acting like a monster. The film submerges any humanising of Muse beneath swathes of inexplicable menace, making Hanks look positively saintly by turn.

Director Paul Greengrass is no blinkered defender of world superpowers – his Bloody Sunday is a thoroughly detailed yet impassioned examination of Britain’s negative legacy in Northern Ireland – but here his portrayal of the heroic white American hero’s immeasurable suffering at the hands of antagonistic African thugs comes off as crass. Sure, the movie sticks to the facts, but the choices Greengrass makes are just embarrassing.

On the surface, Captain Phillips succeeds in giving us two hours of stressfully claustrophobic tension, with the sort of melodramatic ‘old white guy in peril’ role that could guarantee Hanks another coveted Oscar. To deny the movie’s gripping nature would be doing it an injustice, but to label it as much more than star-spangled flag-waving would be an even graver affront to the complex truth that lies behind the growing problem of piracy on the African seas.

Simon says: bring some sea sickness tablets.

[Written for GCN]

Pint-Sized Culture; ‘The Irish Pub’ (2013).

4 Oct

The word ‘alcohol’ is virtually synonymous with ‘Ireland’, and such stereotyping acts as a double-edged sword in some respects. On the one hand, the assumption that the Emerald Isle is a nation of drunks, alcoholics and general tipplers is not a particularly wholesome international image to peddle. On the other, it does wonders for the tourism industry, and without this international cultural perception, cinematic gems like The Irish Pub would be viewed by next to nobody.

A documentary concerned with, would you believe, the Irish pub, The Irish Pub focuses specifically on the the smaller, three generations of family-run types you’d usually find in old rural towns. The film features public houses from Mayo to Cork, Dublin to Donegal and everywhere in between, and cuts between interviews with the bar staff and their customers. The cast features a whole host of publicans, their aged clientèle, and whoever’s holding the camera. It’s directed by solicitor-turned-filmmaker Alex Fegan, who deserves congratulations for whatever epiphany he had to leave behind that particular profession.

Yes, as a documentary this is an informative movie. Various little tidbits of information are thrown around, from the astounding ages of the pubs as well as a plethora of amusing anecdotes. Did you know, for example, that a young Winston Churchill would roll marbles along the clay floors of Blackhorse Avenue’s ‘Hole in the Wall’? Fascinating factoids abound in this film, but they merely scaffold the conflicting yet effectively blended cocktail of melancholy and ever-so-slightly hopeful pessimism that runs throughout.

Publicans acknowledge that their trade is in decline, due to a combination of a downward-spiralling economy and a greater number of people choosing to drink at home instead. In addition to both their (generally) elder years and those of their similarly matured clientèle, they present a tangibly bleak outlook for their craft. That said, many describe the 80’s as a far worse period of decline, and the whole bunch collectively overcame that decade-long hurdle. A resurgence in cultural tradition nudges the negative clouds away somewhat, and according to them, the future is bright.

This counterbalance of wonder with woe is supplemented by some fabulous displays of wit. In delivering, the assorted staff prove that years of babbling from behind the bar honed their skills as storytellers; much like the film itself, the actual interviewees range in tone from articulate shoe-gazing  to light-hearted wisecracking ; one particular barman from Cavan incites roars of laughter from the engaged audience.

A beautiful clarinet score underpins the whole movie, which at a mere 76 minutes long won’t eat up much of your time. The Irish Pub is one of those films that says a lot with relatively few words. Knowing full-well that its cast and their surroundings carry the film with ease, Fegan made an excellent decision to stand back let them do the talking. Go see it, and definitely head out for jars afterwards.

Simon says: this movie made me really happy. That never happens.

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