Tag Archives: drama

‘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]

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]

Black and Blue; ‘Blue Jasmine’ (2013).

27 Sep

Blue Jasmine posterIt’s that time of year again! Christmas has come early for Woody Allen connoisseurs, as his annual motion picture hits cinemas. Arriving amidst a flurry of eager anticipation and wrapped in Allen’s trademark studio polish, the real treat is that Blue Jasmine not only betters 2012’s middling To Rome with Love, but also presents a career highlight for the veteran director.

After a three-year European holiday, Allen returns to the United States (sun-soaked San Francisco to be exact), where the singularly uptight Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) comes to stay with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Reeling from the imprisonment of her husband (Alec Baldwin) and corresponding collapse of her affluent social life, the movie follows her downfall from riches to rags and how she deals with the resulting emotional trauma.

Allen’s filmic endeavours can usually be neatly divided into either the ‘comedy’ or ‘drama’ brackets; Blue Jasmine is a rare example in that neither shoe really fits. The peppy trailer and neurotic female star are both comedic Woody Allen hallmarks, and undoubtedly funny moments are sprinkled throughout the film’s 98 minutes.

But only a masochist could label this a comedy. Blue Jasmine is tragic in the classical sense of the word in that it examines a powerful figure’s fall from grace. Jasmine is a mess, boasting a litany of mental issues while simultaneously combating apparent alcoholism (she’s hooked on Stolichnaya, no less). Her downward spiral is difficult to watch at times, and as various secrets are revealed, her collapse becomes increasingly upsetting.

Although she’s the protagonist here, Jasmine presents next to no redeeming qualities whatsoever. A condescending, elitist snob who avoids her impoverished sister like the plague, until of course she needs a favour, that we sympathise with her at all is not only a testament to Blanchett’s acting prowess, but also a reinforcement of the scriptwriting and directing talent of Woody Allen.

Blue Jasmine also features a spectacular supporting cast. Sally Hawkins is marvellously convincing as the ditsy Ginger, Michael Stuhlbarg has a handful of wonderful scenes as a pervy dentist (the hilariously-titled ‘Dr. Flicker’, who refuses “to beat about the bush”); and who knew Louis C.K. could act? This veritable cornucopia of stellar performances should linger in the minds of Oscar nominators in the coming months.

Eyebrows are raised at the inclusion of an older man running off with a teenage girl, though Allen movies usually bear some semblance of autobiography. More sociologically-minded folk may also find Allen’s miscomprehension of the working class slightly nauseating – Ginger’s “hovel” of a flat is charming and spacious, while the less wealthy characters sport embarrassingly awful haircuts that only the blind could appreciate.

That said, Blue Jasmine is Allen’s most emotionally complex movie in a long time, featuring perhaps Cate Blanchett’s greatest performance yet. It’s a tough but rewarding Woody classic.

Simon says: Allen’s best work in years.

[Written for GCN]

Red Herrings in the Sunset; ‘Prisoners’ (2013).

26 Sep

Prisoners posterAt what point exactly did Jake Gyllenhaal become so goddamn old? Gone are the days where he’d either play the resourceful son (The Day After Tomorrow), an impressionable young cowboy (Brokeback Mountain), or a hot soldier lying around in his underpants (Jarhead). As an oily-haired cop literally exuding a negative backstory in French director Denis Villeneuve’s American début, Prisoners, he has finally joined the elders club, along with co-star Hugh Jackman, who let’s face it, was old before his time when we first met him in X-Men.

Jackman is a deeply religious and devoted father that likes to shoot deer; Gyllenhaal is a quiet, softly-spoken cop with a facial tic. Their paths cross when the former’s kid (and her equally adorable friend) go missing during a Thanksgiving thunderstorm, and what follows is a gripping crime drama full of plot twists, some supremely tense scenes and a veritable ocean of red herrings.

Prisoners fails to break even a square inch of new ground, but in digging up the long-established tropes of the suspenseful thriller it manages to strike gold. Yes, every single character is a stereotype, and yes the whole affair peddles the tired ‘family is important’ message, but Aaron Guzikowski’s clever script manages to keep us guessing before finally revealing the big ‘gotcha!’ moment, which even I didn’t predict.

A major flaw comes in the form of a minor – one of the abducted kids, Erin Gerasimovich, displays such wooden acting that in her handful of scenes you’re kind of glad she’s kidnapped and out of the action. On the other hand, both Jackman and Gyllenhaal turn in decent performances. Actually, because Jackman plays a white drunk with a missing kid though, he’s virtually guaranteed an Oscar nomination.

Although the film’s 153-minute runtime could have done with a half-hour haircut, Prisoners cherry picks the highlights from many’s a dramatic thriller that came before it to make for riveting viewing. Unfortunately, it’s also bursting with the genre’s tired clichés and the curtains are only drawn following an irritatingly derivative CSI-esque final act. Still, Hollywood needs to know that dialogue-driven dramas can still sell tickets, so check it out.

Simon says: bring a picnic.

[Written for GCN]

Irresistibly poignant: ‘Any Day Now’ (2012).

21 Sep

Any Day Now posterTackling the ongoing “issue” of gay adoption (and, by virtue of association, LGBT rights in general) is a difficult feat for any director to achieve in an artistically credible way. An emotionally charged topic by definition, Travis Fine’s latest picture could easily have descended into a preachy political lesson or some morality sermon. Thankfully Any Day Now manages to compassionately woo its audience while also avoiding any sort of cloying sentimentality.

Alan Cumming plays the enjoyably audacious Rudy Donatello,  an aspiring singer by day and drag queen by night with a New Yawk drawl so thick you’d lose a shoe in it. It’s the 1970’s, so poor Rudy is forced to put up with his awful drug-snorting and T.Rex-blaring neighbour (Jamie Anne Allman). One day he discovers her intellectually disabled son Marco (Isaac Leyva) frightened and alone; we learn that his mother has been thrown in jail, so Rudy and his recently-acquired lawyer boyfriend Paul (Garret Dillahunt) undertake to raise Marco as one of their own. Amidst a culture of internalised fear and loathing of homosexuality, can a same-sex couple hope to raise a disabled kid in peace?

Irrespective of one’s viewpoint on the idea of gay adoption (for which none should exist; it’s a non-issue), Any Day Now exudes so much charm and such wonderful acting that to fault it on a technical or performance level would betray all reason and logic. Ridiculous wig or not, we’ve never seen better out of Alan Cumming as the punchy drag performer who, as this movie showcases, has a truly remarkable singing voice. This is likewise a career-best for Dillahunt, while newcomer Levya steals the show and, in doing so, breaks some exciting new ground in championing screen presence of actors with Down’s syndrome.

But the movie’s focus on the child, Marco, is what makes Any Day Now such a profoundly moving and potent experience. The singularly nefarious antagonists (right-wing lawyers, conservative judges, horrible bosses etc.) aside, the film repeatedly chants the mantra of “this is about the child”; Rudy and Paul’s (believably) idyllic household boasts an immeasurably higher quality of life for Marco than anything his empathy-devoid mother could possibly provide, especially while behind bars. Fine could easily have centred events around the two adult leads, but in advocating the kid’s welfare as top priority he utterly eradicates any and all remnants of a debate.

Regardless of whether custody rights are granted or not, the ending could only ever have been a tear-jerker. But the route taken is so harrowing, so heartbreaking that leaving the cinema with a pair of completely dry eyes is a virtual impossibility. Bring tissues, but make no mistake; this is a stunningly beautiful movie with a powerful message that’s unfortunately as relevant today as it was four decades ago.

Simon says: a message movie that hits home like a wrecking ball.

Awkward adolescent angst: ‘The Way, Way Back’ (2013).

31 Aug

There’s something to be said for films that adhere to the standard tropes and archetypes of a choice genre, that disregard any and all notions of innovation, but also manage to churn out something memorable. The Way Way Back is a total ‘formula’ movie in this regard, yet what it does with the established recipe is so marvellous that it’s impossible to criticise its lack of originality.

The directorial début of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (two intelligent and very funny Groundlings whose repertoire includes Community and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), The Way, Way Back stars Liam James as Duncan, a quiet and unassuming teenager who keeps to himself. At the behest of his unhelpful mother (Toni Collette) and awful stepdad Trent (Steve Carrell), Duncan is forced to spend the summer at a beach house. He escapes the unfolding drama at home by landing a job at the local waterpark, and making an unlikely new friend in the form of Owen (Sam Rockwell), the park’s manager.

What sounds like a clichéd and potentially dull film is bolstered by actors who really play to their strengths. Liam James personifies awkward, and now that he finally has a great movie under his belt I’m curious as to where he’ll go next. Steve Carrell plays his second douchebag of the year (following Burt Wonderstone), espousing the acting range he clearly has. Maya Rudolph is as charming as ever, but it’s a draw between Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney (Duncan’s soul-brother and the waterpark and his awful neighbour, respectively) for the comedic highlight; virtually every line from each conjured a giggle.

Probably my favourite aspect of this film is that Faxon and Rash realise and empathise with the plight of the introvert. Duncan’s parents, their friends and the insufferably low-functioning beach girls all endeavour to coax him out of his metaphorical shell in many different ways: forced socialising, teasing and general prodding only serve to make things worse. The directors know that the problem isn’t his shyness; it’s the seemingly endless amount of unsympathetic people Duncan’s surrounded by, which is exemplified upon his discovering the waterpark.

In flogging the tired tropes and clichés of “that one summer than changed everything” movies, Faxon and Rash have hit a homerun with The Way, Way Back. Sprinkled with just the right amounts of sweetness and melodrama and garnished with sterling performances and deft writing, this is one of the better movies you’ll see all year.

Simon says: Adventureland for the new generation.

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