Julie & Julia (2009)

As long as we’re watching films on Netflix, there is a rich seam of upbeat, rosy-tinted content, whether banal seasonal movies, romcoms, stand-up specials or the singular work of American master Nora Ephron, whose last film was this curious tale of two women divided by time but united by a love of very fatty food.


I am decidedly not someone who is ever going to eat any of the food seen on-screen in this film; of all the major world cuisines, I sometimes feel as if classical French cooking is about the least likely to get in my belly (at this point in my life, now that I’m vegan). However, like growing up atheist in a nominally Christian country, you can’t help but avoid its influence over your everyday life, and what’s more everyday than eating? Julia Child is, of course, one of the key figures in popularising French cooking in the English-speaking world (well, in America; you could make a case that Elizabeth David was more influential in the UK), but it’s her presence on TV that probably holds the most appeal to an actor as expressively imitative as Meryl Streep. Truly her scenes — ably supported by an always-watchable Stanley Tucci — are the backbone of this film, with all due respect to Amy Adams and Chris Messina, who are also likeable but aren’t Meryl and Stanley. Of course, true life stories aside, Nora Ephron is the key creative woman in this enterprise, and her filmmaking can be divisive, but I have always broadly liked her films, and this one is no exception. It’s a soufflé, a warmly-coloured confection with glowing kitchens to match any in a Nancy Meyers movie, but it’s also a film with a generous warmth towards its subjects and which is every bit as incisive about upper-middle-class New York marriages as anything else you can find on Netflix right now, and probably more easily rewatchable too.

Julie & Julia film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nora Ephron (based on the memoir by Julie Powell, and the autobiography My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme); Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt; Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina; Length 123 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Tuesday 10 December 2019.

A Little Chaos (2014)

I could glibly try and claim this is the best drama about gardening released this year, but that wouldn’t really be much help would it? Certainly the subject matter is niche — aside from The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), I can’t think of any films primarily dealing with the creation of a garden (in this case, the Bosquet des Rocailles, or Salle de Bal, at the Palace of Versailles). Of course, it’s really about plenty of other things, like the tentative love affair between Kate Winslet’s Sabine du Barra and Matthias Schoenaert’s André Le Nôtre (the chief designer of the gardens at Versailles, a real historical figure), or the fluid movement of relationships and the shadings of class within the French court of the 17th century. I’m not sure how much of this detail is true to the period — Sabine is a fictional character, and Winslet seems all too English, though the garden Sabine is working on is real — but it allows for some lovely little vignettes, as when Sabine interacts with the King (Alan Rickman) incognito as if he were a fellow gardener. There’s a smaller role for Stanley Tucci as a prominent nobleman within the French court, another excellent reminder of his talent for stealing scenes, while Helen McCrory rounds out the ensemble as Le Nôtre’s jealous and unfaithful wife. As director, Rickman certainly manages to round up a good cast (as you’d expect), so even if the film sometimes seems slight, it’s never anything less than enjoyable to watch.

A Little Chaos film posterCREDITS
Director Alan Rickman; Writer Allison Deegan; Cinematographer Ellen Kuras; Starring Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Helen McCrory; Length 117 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 29 April 2015.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Blockbuster franchises by their nature always seem to be perfect for teenage viewers, more than ever in recent years. I suppose that Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations skew a little older, just as that seemingly unending Harry Potter series went for the younger ones. But even amongst the crowded marketplace, The Hunger Games has set itself rather above the competition to my mind. That said, I haven’t read the books, and I don’t think the films are perfect by any means, but they flesh out a credibly multilayered world with a more dystopian bent than you might expect given the target audience, and occasional flashes of cutting satire. Most of all, the series has for its lead actor Jennifer Lawrence, who’s been carving out quite a niche in playing resourceful young women since her breakout performance in Winter’s Bone (2010). This second film in what’s shaping up to be a tetralogy is another notch in her acting belt and a proficient change of pace for the franchise.

Last year’s first film in the series was certainly enjoyable, but it was primarily pursuing a sort of The Running Man-crossed-with-Battle Royale pastiche featuring teenagers let loose in an inhospitable environment tasked with killing each other off to survive and claim the victor’s prize in this deadly game: a life of ease — though the extent to which this is true seems to depend on the relative comfort the contestants grew up in. For in this world of Panem, created by novelist Suzanne Collins, the population is divided into districts according to what resource that area can contribute towards the wealth of the Capitol. Two from each district fight in the eponymous games, and our heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), like her Hunger Games partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), has grown up in District 12, a dirt poor world of coal miners. Thus, following the duo’s success in the first film (depicting the 74th iteration of these Games), their victor’s life seems just as monochrome and depressing if somewhat less impoverished as the lives they left behind, and the District’s only other Games victor — Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch — just spends his time drinking himself into a stupor in the gloomy shadows of his own mansion.

In starting out the sequel depicting Katniss and Peeta’s fairly underwhelming lives on this forlorn gated victors’ estate in District 12, the series determinedly sets out to move towards a critique of Panem society (a world of panem et circenses, clearly). And while there is a move towards restaging the first film’s Hunger Games — this 75th edition is cunningly engineered to kill off the surviving victors from all the districts — the film, over its somewhat overextended running time, is far more interested in the political dimensions of their fight. A new gamesmaker has been brought in (Plutarch, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), though Stanley Tucci’s brightly coloured and superficial gameshow host is still front and centre in the media of this skewed society. There are some undisguised barbs at media manipulation before things settle down to the apparently familiar conflict.

I won’t say the film is perfect at filling out the world’s politics, and I was personally left desiring more details. All we see of the other Districts is conveyed through the gatherings on Peeta and Katniss’s victory tour. So we get hints at militarisation and oppression but little more than that. Then again, this is a world whose media is so tightly controlled that each District apparently knows very little about the others, so it makes some sense that we as viewers don’t learn very much, but it does make it difficult to know what the stakes are in the rebellion to which Katniss has apparently been co-opted as the figurehead.

No doubt more will become evident in the final (two) films, but for now Catching Fire feels like a mere way station (if a fairly entertaining one) on this ongoing journey. Even given the restaging of the title’s Games, it largely seems to avoid rehashing too much from the first chapter. The film’s palette is more dour and shadowy — a lot of the action seems to take place at night or under lowering skies — and admits of far more shadings of emotional resonance, but it remains a clear-cut fight between the forces of rebellion and repression, and makes me greatly look forward to the inevitably drawn-out conclusion.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire film posterCREDITS
Director Francis Lawrence; Writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt (based on the novel Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins); Cinematographer Jo Willems; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci; Length 146 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 24 November 2013.

Easy A (2010)

Easy A is a late entry into that cycle of ‘classic texts given a high school teen film twist’ — the genre largely inaugurated by Clueless 15 years earlier and continued most effectively by 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) — but a surprisingly deft one.

I would, however, put its success largely down to Emma Stone who is wonderfully engaging and funny in the role of Olive, whose character must endure the gossip and slurs of others at school for her easily but inaccurately-acquired reputation for being ‘easy’. In this respect, the lineage it most evokes is Mean Girls (2004), though it lacks that film’s, well, mean streak. That’s not to say that Easy A entirely avoids any slightly lazy stereotyping. For example, having your lead villain (Amanda Bynes) be a bitchy and hypocritical Christian conservative student is hardly a stretch, though it makes her nastiness easy to ignore. It’s also interesting in that I read recently that young Americans who practise religion are often more liberal than their parents’ generation, with so many of those touchstone issues having little traction amongst the young. This all goes to making this film’s ‘social problem’ seem that much more anachronistic: it’s surely not believable that in 2010, a young woman would be the object of so much speculation for this kind of transgression (sleeping around). If it’s a ploy to tap into and comment on current forms of social networking, then the film is doubly out of step, preferring to focus on (strangely high-definition) webcam confessionals.

And yet despite feeling like a throwback to another era, I still find the film by and large charming. After all, this is a constructed movie world, where everyone looks glamorous and your teachers are played by Lisa Kudrow (who seems to be minoring in this kind of film, after her appearance in the woeful Bandslam, and whose guidance counsellor character is sadly no Ms. Perky) and Thomas Haden Church (delightful). Better even than the teachers are Olive’s parents; Olive earlier berates her best friend’s folks for being ‘hippie’, but Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson’s characters are the proper hippies — free-spirited and supportive — and steal the film whenever they’re on screen. The rest of the cast is largely forgettable, especially the male leads, but that’s fine: this is a film primarily about women relating to one another and the boys at school — in the film as in the film’s plot — are expendable.

If it’s a minor film in the scheme of things, it’s at least a sweet one. It won’t corrupt anyone (whatever its classification, though a 15 rating seems strangely high), nor will it provoke one to worry about the youth of today. I’m really more worried about the screenwriters.

Easy A film posterCREDITS
Director Will Gluck; Writer Bert V. Royal; Cinematographer Michael Grady; Starring Emma Stone, Amanda Bynes, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, Lisa Kudrow; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Saturday 27 July 2013.

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

I don’t think we really need another story about a boy from a poor background overcoming obstacles to become a man by asserting his masculine dominance and attempting to win the love of a high-born woman. If the film had reversed the roles it might have been a bit more interesting, as I rather tire of feisty attractively-coiffed and dressed young women being rescued by weedy male heroes. But then being based on a fairy tale is hardly likely to lead to a work of subtle artistry. So if the script is a bit on the weak side, trading in generic tropes and absurd caricatures, the film still has plenty to commend it in the performances. It is also winningly — and at times breaktakingly — silly, which is a virtue in this kind of enterprise. Clearly, what this film wants most to be compared to is The Princess Bride (1987), and in that it at least, it partially succeeds.

The key pleasure is in the actors, who all have suitably filmic gravitas, but are willing to push their performances to the edge of caricature in the service of what is avowedly a crowd-pleasing family-friendly flick. Ian McShane affects regality as the King, slipping adroitly into bathos early on when he moves pleadingly towards his daughter, revealing that the stately robes he is posing in are pinned to the ground, and that underneath he is dressed in flashy golden armour (which leads to one of the better throwaway lines later in the film when Jack remarks on the similarity of father and daughter’s suits of armour). Stanley Tucci as a grimacing adviser to the King (rather akin to Christopher Guest’s Count in Princess Bride) does everything but cackle maniacally (actually, maybe he does do that), while Ewan McGregor’s head of the King’s guards struts around with dashing aplomb, grinning in the face of all conceivable dangers.

McGregor’s character really should have been the romantic hero, dispensing with Nicholas Hoult’s rather dreary Jack, but then the love story is luckily not the film’s prime interest. It prefers instead to focus on the clash between the humans (the English men) and the giants (all of whom have Irish accents, and four of whom are named Fe, Fi, Fo and Fum, of course), leading to a suitably histrionic climactic third, which nevertheless is all crashingly good fun. The film also sets up for its final scene a coup de théâtre of surpassing preposterousness, which is a good note for the film to end on, and left me feeling fairly satisfied.


CREDITS
Director Bryan Singer; Writers Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney; Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel; Starring Nicholas Hoult, Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane, Stanley Tucci; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at Peckham Multiplex (2D), London, Monday 1 April 2013.