Two Early-2000s Australian Films Directed by Women: The Monkey’s Mask (2000) and Japanese Story (2003)

I have to admit that some of my film choices in watching Australian cinema (or indeed, a lot of older cinema) are driven by what’s in the collections at my local DVD rental store, Close-Up — yes we still have one in London, and when I say “local”, I mean that it’s the only one (so far as I’m aware) in the city. It has a pretty diverting selection, but it also means I can’t claim any comprehensive overview of the development of the national cinema, which would in any case surely be beyond the purview of a video shop halfway around the world. Still, there are a few interesting titles, including a number of films directed by women, some of which — as these ones do — show their age a little bit. The early-2000s, after all, does feel like a hangover from the 90s.

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Miss You Already (2015)

It appears to be the time of year for what are often dismissively termed “chick flicks”. I hate that term, like “women’s pictures” for the melodramas of the 1940s, it smacks of snobbish derision. There are already too many self-satisfied dude auteur films dealing with alienation and violence courting the film school pseuds, not to mention all those deadening superhero epics, so there can never be too many contrasting visions of the world. That all said, I’m not a huge fan exactly, though as far as a melodramatic ‘weepie’ goes, Miss You Already does fine. Drew Barrymore remains a potently charismatic and cheerful presence on any cinema screen even as she reaches her (shock!) 40s, but this film is all about Toni Collette’s English rock-n-roll chick (her accent doesn’t grate, thankfully), with whom Drew’s character grew up, as she acts out, gets into trouble, then has a family (apparently adjusting with ease) and, as we catch up with her, is now coping with a cancer diagnosis. Being set in London, everyone has those kind of perfect London homes that surely don’t really exist (Barrymore and boyfriend played by Paddy Considine live together on a boat overlooking Battersea Power Station!), and meaningful moments take place in picturesque locations — though at least the geography isn’t strained too far beyond credulity. More to the point, Collette gets through the tearful and angry scenes with her dignity intact, which is more than can always be said for whomever scored the film, though leaning on late-80s alt-indie classics is I suppose in keeping with the characters. It’s certainly not a bad film, and it’s even heartwarming in its way.

Miss You Already film poster CREDITS
Director Catherine Hardwicke; Writer Morwenna Banks; Cinematographer Elliot Davis; Starring Toni Collette, Drew Barrymore, Paddy Considine, Dominic Cooper, Jacqueline Bisset; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wandsworth, London, Sunday 27 September 2015.

Enough Said (2013)

Nicole Holofcener makes movies about fairly unexceptional people in their middle-age just working things through in a slightly messy way, the kind of thing that’s apt to be overlooked, but her films — and this one in particular — have a warmth and generosity to them that’s more rewarding than a lot of other romantic comedies out there. It helps in this case that the late James Gandolfini is involved, as despite ostensibly playing against ‘type’, he is exactly the right kind of gregarious presence for this story, although most of the focus is on Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Eva, a woman who’s trying not to be in a relationship, but seems to just fall into one.

It’s not perfect by any means. There’s a rather too neat plot twist that ties in Eva’s work relationship as a masseuse to poet Marianne (Catherine Keener) with her burgeoning love interest in Gandolfini’s Albert, and the way that twist is developed feels a little bit too forced. Yet there’s still a lot that is wonderful and well-observed, little moments of characterisation that feel true to life. There’s comedy too, though this is a comedy primarily in its broad strokes and its feeling for its characters; maybe it would be fairer to say that within its comedic framework there’s a strong streak of melancholy.

A lot of the film’s success is due to the actors, and while the leads may be more familiar from television, they show a great aptitude for small gestures that show up so well on the big screen. There’s a bit of manipulativeness with the musical score, sure, and the parallel sub-plot of the leads’ respective daughters moving out of home towards college has some in-built corniness. However, I think the movement of Louis-Dreyfus’s eyebrows or Gandolfini’s watchful sideways glances hold a lot more power within the film’s context than any of the more obvious plot contrivances. Just seeing Gandolfini on screen provokes a fair bit of pathos, knowing that such an engaging screen presence is no longer around.

I fully admit I have little helpful to add to the critical commentary on this deft romantic comedy, but between its likeable lead players, it’s a welcome presence that’s both diverting and entertaining.

Enough Said film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Nicole Holofcener; Cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet; Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Toni Collette, Catherine Keener; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Sunday 13 October 2013.

The Way, Way Back (2013)

Coming of age movies have never been my favourite. You’ll have gleaned that from my seriously underwhelmed review of Mud (2012), a film many others loved. A lot of the same kinds of elements are in place here, but within a comedic framework (rather than Southern gothic), and I have a lot of the same qualms.

If the central character’s arc is familiar — and Liam James plays the browbeaten and sullen teenager Duncan perfectly well — then it’s in the supporting performances where this film is made. Allison Janney is always a delight whenever she appears in any film or TV show, and she’s thankfully on screen for a reasonable amount of time. After a long, awkward opening scene in the car while driving to the beach, in which Steve Carell’s stepdad Trent (or rather, his eyes in a rearview mirror) belittle Duncan as the rest of the family sleeps, Janney’s Betty immediately enlivens things with her embarrassingly drunken mother in the neighbouring Cape Cod beach house.

The main plotline, though, is of Duncan slowly coming to feel comfortable with himself — and with Betty’s curious daughter Susanna (Annasophia Robb) — via a series of small family humiliations. He’s also aided by the discovery of a retro water-based themepark, which is presumably a nostalgic figment in the memories of director-writer team Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, the latter of whom grew up in a Massachusetts seaside community. The themepark becomes like a separate world away from his family and those he knows, where he can start to become the person he’s never been allowed to be under the eye of his hated stepfather. It also allows for the introduction of a range of more permissive and accepting characters, including Sam Rockwell (always a wonderfully enjoyable screen presence) as the overly relaxed park manager Owen, and his put-upon girlfriend Caitlyn (SNL alumna Maya Rudolph), not to mention the director-writer team in supporting roles.

It’s also the site of some of the more dubious elements of the film’s humour, for most of these characters are themselves in need of growing up, and try to inculcate in Duncan some of their borderline-creepy dudebro behaviour — not least in an unnecessary scene ogling attractive teenage girls on the waterslide. Maybe the nostalgic past is not always the safest place, after all.

Nevertheless, despite the sullen central character, the earnest sermonising of the denouement (an ever-present hazard of the genre) and the fetishising of the 80s and all its trappings, there are enough enjoyable central performances to make this film likeable and diverting. The relationship between Duncan and his mother Pam (Toni Collette, making a welcome reappearance after too long away from mainstream cinema) is understated and touching. There’s a lovely scene in which Duncan moodily stalks off from a gathering of adult friends while Pam, remaining, exhibits signs of similar social awkwardness, if expressed in a rather less adolescent way. It’s a little the way I feel around some of these characters, but in the dark of the cinema I at least don’t have to nod and smile when the film wavers. Luckily, for the most part, it remains sunny and likeable.

CREDITS
Directors/Writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash; Cinematographer John Bailey; Starring Liam James, Sam Rockwell, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, Steve Carell; Length 103 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 1 September 2013.