Maggie’s Plan (2015)

Yet another film — I feel like I see one every few months, but maybe I just like to seek them out — that fits neatly into the burgeoning romcom subgenre of New York-set films about middle-class intellectuals trying to find love. Many of them star Greta Gerwig; Maggie’s Plan is no different. That said, and I suppose a range of opinions may be available, but I think Gerwig is great, an intensely likeable screen presence whose delivery energises even the most familiar material. Here, the film follows the usual roundelay of attachments — Maggie is a teacher who falls for social anthropologist John (Ethan Hawke), who’s having trouble in his marriage to the frosty Georgette (Julianne Moore) — but it doesn’t insist on marriage or even romance as the way forward. That in itself makes it worthwhile, quite aside from all its excellent comic performances (Julianne Moore remains a force of nature).


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rebecca Miller | Cinematographer Sam Levy | Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader | Length 98 minutes || Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 12 July 2016

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Trainwreck (2015)

I understand that Trainwreck has done pretty well, both commercially and critically, and I feel good about that for the most part. A lot of the blogs I follow are pretty down on Amy Schumer a lot of the time (possibly in the same way that they’re down on Lena Dunham, for not being, I don’t know, inspiring enough, feminist enough, or being too white, whatever), but she’s a pretty sharp comic writer and there are a lot of laughs in this film. Much of the time they come from that comedy of slight awkwardness, of people not quite knowing how to act around one another, but the casting of the right actors is pretty key in achieving that as well. As the male lead (sports surgeon Aaron Conners), Bill Hader is not your usual love interest, and though his great comic skills (honed over his years on Saturday Night Live) aren’t always showcased, he is pretty good at finding the right tone to play his scenes in order to set up the comedy elsewhere, and that’s a valuable skill. There are a number of other SNL alums in smaller roles (some barely there, although Leslie Jones’ cameo on the subway is worth it), but the real surprises are Tilda Swinton as Amy’s orange-skinned boss Dianna and a supporting turn from basketball player LeBron James as one of Aaron’s clients. For James, it’s unexpected because he’s known as an athlete, though he shows a good sense of comedy timing, whereas for Swinton — as ever for Tilda — it’s sheer WTF value, as once again she pops up and whirls offscreen leaving you wondering if that really is her.

Of course, the key is Schumer herself, who has a good sense of her strengths and weaknesses, no doubt honed over many years of running her own show. She allows herself to take a fair number of hits, but (at least initially) isn’t willing to fit into the female romantic lead stereotypes. Her father Gordon (Colin Quinn) is played with pathos, but is a philandering wreck, and there’s a subtle sense of how that has played out generationally. Where the wheels fall off is in moving towards a conventional resolution wherein she turns her back on her vices and makes up for some of the emotional turmoil she’s left in her wake — and I don’t really think she has much to apologise for. I daresay she doesn’t either; who knows, maybe this is down to test audiences or something? But it feels like Schumer is following the screenwriting rulebook, and it’s somehow sad that things take a Bridget Jones’s Diary turn in the man-chasing denouement. Following up on one of the assumed criticisms I opened my review with, it does sadly also feel like some of the racial jokes are a little misjudged, however much self-awareness the writing introduces them with.

But these ultimately are caveats which don’t change the affection I have towards much of the film — let’s say the first two-thirds (it’s somewhat overlong as well). Schumer puts together a character who is believable and likeable and unapologetic about herself, and if that’s what Aaron has fallen for, then it’s a quality that I think stands her in good stead. I certainly look forward to her future comedy moves.


© Universal Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Judd Apatow | Writers Amy Schumer | Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes | Starring Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton | Length 124 minutes || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Monday 18 August 2015

Inside Out (2015)

It’s been getting great reviews since it was released last month in the States, but for me the signs preceding Inside Out weren’t entirely auspicious, as I’d been feeling pummelled by the sheer weight of all the hype, and the apparent blanket saturation of the marketing. Admittedly, it’s not been quite as aggressive as Minions, but it’s also somehow less obviously appealing (those yellow creatures are awfully cute). The short film that precedes it in cinemas (“Lava”) is also pretty anodyne and faintly annoying (a cod-Hawaiian song about heteronormative volcanoes), so that didn’t exactly help either. Plus there were clearly a few grumpy contingents at the screening I attended, judging from the brief bout of remonstration being levelled at the parents of a crying child (the man’s insistence that the crying child was too young for the film somewhat belied by the film’s U rating, and also hey non-parents get a goddamn grip if you’re going to a U-rated film, even if it’s in the evening).

But — and I sense you’re expecting this “but” — I needn’t have worried. The director Pete Docter comes to this project from his previous Pixar success Up (2009), and if you’ve seen that film, you’ll perhaps have a sense of the emotional tone deployed here. Sure there’s comedy (it’s a Hollywood animated film; there’s always comedy), but the register feels a lot more reflective and even melancholy at times. This is matched by the sound design, which isn’t afraid to jettison the musical score and embrace relative silence when it suits the story, which revolves around the emotional trauma of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, whose parents relocate the family from the Midwest to San Francisco. The particular device the filmmakers use to reflect this is to personify her emotions as individual characters (Amy Poehler voices Joy, Phyllis Smith voices Sadness, and there’s Disgust, Fear and Anger besides), sitting in a control tower in a colourful visual representation of her mind. The animation is crammed with little details that extend the central metaphor (it’s a very metaphorical film), and there are some delightful sequences that play out as Joy and Sadness must make their way back to the control tower from the outer reaches of Riley’s brain (the one that takes place in ‘abstract thought’ comes to mind, as well as the dream sequences).

It’s commendable that Docter and the screenwriters keep the story focused on Riley when it would have been easy to mine further laughs from the similarly-represented minds of those around her (a device sparingly but effectively utilised). It also all seems to work pretty coherently as a metaphorical representation of the mind and its emotional processes, with memories stacked up like bowling balls and colour-coded by the guiding emotion at play, then sent off for filing in a vast repository, which includes a dump for those discarded memories. Core memories stay in the control tower and are the foundations of various personality traits, imagined as outyling islands around the control tower (cerebral cortex, one imagines). The care thus shown to the creation of this interior world, and the film’s avoidance of excessive mawkishness, surely mark it out as one of the finer Pixar filmsm one that’s sure to become one of their audience’s core memories.


© Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director Pete Docter | Writers Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley | Starring Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Lewis Black | Length 94 minutes (+ 7 minutes for the short film Lava, dir./wr. James Ford Murphy) || Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Tuesday 28 July 2015