Maggie’s Plan

A film well worth planning to see

You have a choice this weekend. You could see cold and divisive Neon Demon (click here for my review) or you could see this proper gem of a movie. It’s so warm and smart, meandering about with utterly superb dialogue. It’s immensely well observed and occasionally practically profound – just how much can we plan and how much do we leave to the hands of destiny?

Maggie (Greta Gerwig) wants a baby. Needs one even. Except she hasn’t got a partner so she’s going to go it alone and use a sperm donor. A friend from college, Guy (Travis Fimmel), is more than happy to help. Best friend Tony (Bill Hader) and his wife Felicia (Maya Rudolph) think she should wait a bit longer, just in case she meets someone. She does, and her plan is interupted by a meet-cute with married John (Ethan Hawke). An affair follows and he leaves his wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore), for Maggie. Three years later and Maggie has the child she was desperate for, but she’s starting to have serious doubts about her relationship with John. Maybe she can give him back to his first wife..?

Several reviews are referring to this film as a screwball comedy. Personally I think the pace is slightly too slow to categorise it as screwball – not a criticism as I love the pace but screwball comedies are noted for their break-neck speed of story and delivery. However, this has many other elements of screwball. Think Woody Allen meets Jane Austen in terms of the characters and their dialogue.Greta Gerwig provides another knitwear-atired delight (I really wish I was friends with her!) who is utterly sympathetic in a role that could easily not be. Maggie is simillar to Emma (title character of Austen’s 1815 novel) as she is a matchmaker who loves to be in control, who is unable to let other forces control hers or others lives.

Hawke is fantastic as John, both glorifying and sending up the figure of intellectual. He also delivers what will most likely be my favourite line of 2016 cinema – “Like is a language condom.” It’s obvious that he is having the time of his life playing this character, which hugely pays off as it’s delightful to watch. The interactions he has with Maggie both convert then subvert the expectations of the romantic comedy, resulting in the film being both old-fashioned yet astutely modern.

The scenes when Gerwig and Moore share screen time are truly electric. All too rarely do we get such well-rounded female figures on the screen at the same time, they bounce off each other and the result is electric. What’s fantastic is how layered Moore’s character is. It would have been all too easy to have her as a woman scorned, who pushed her incredible man away with the glacial and disinterested temperament. We quickly learn there is more to her character than her ex-husband revealed, and that John is far from a perfect husband.

A quick note has to be made of just how fantastic the supporting cast are. Bill Hader, yet again, is superb (I want to be his friend too!), Maya Rudolph has little screen time but contributes massively, Travis Fimmel is really likeable as Guy (far more interesting here than he was in Warcraft) and Wallace Shawn has a lovely little cameo.

It’s funny and quirky, may not be for everyone, but for many it will be a winning comedy-drama. An utter delight to watch!

4.5

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

45% Pride and 45% Prejudice and 10% Zombies

In 2004 Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Edgar Wright created a new hybrid genre called Zombie-Romantic-Comedy (ZomRomCom) with Shaun of the Dead. In 2007 an American author took this one step further and wrote a parody novel of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice by adding in zombies. Nearly 10 years later, after years of development hell (heh, that term has rarely been so apt) we have the film adaptation.  It may not be the most haunting (heh) Austen adaptation, nor will it give others a run for their money (heh, running from zombies) but it is more than entertaining and worth a watch. My main criticism, as you may have noticed from the subtitle is that the zombies make up a small proportion of the film, a too small proportion to really make the most of the high concept.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains. – Elizabeth Bennett. In a world that has been overrun by zombies for almost a hundred years, young women have more than enough to worry about than finding a husband. At least that is what Elizabeth Bennett (Lily James) thinks, and her four sisters agree to varying extents. Their mother Mrs Bennett (Sally Phillips), however, believes otherwise. Mr Bennett (Charles Dance) disagrees with his wife wholeheartedly, which is why he had his girls spend much of their childhood in China, training in the arts of killing zombies, moulding them into fearsome zombie-killing army. When Mr Bingley (Douglas Booth) reopens a residence nearby, he hosts an introductory ball to which the Bennetts are invited. It’s there that Elizabeth meets Colonel Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley) , a haughty monster-hunter renowned and feared for his zombie-killing skills. When the ball is invaded by zombies the Bennett sisters dazzle Darcy and Bingley with their skills, affection and admiration begins. But will the course of love ever run smooth whilst the undead stalk the Earth?

Overall, the film really succeeds for the first fifteen minutes. The concept feels fresh and funny, the zombie/romance balance is level (something I fear I will never get to write again…) and it’s a pleasurable novelty to see the key events of Austen’s novel enhanced by zombie tropes. There’s also a truly beautiful animated story-book style opening sequence, voiced by the legend that is Charles Dance, that informs us of how the zombies came to be. Unfortunately, the remaining 80-odd minutes of the film are not as pleasurable. The ZomRom balance (I’m going to copyright that phrase) does not really warrant the ‘and’ of the title. Maybe it should be Pride and Prejudice and a few zombies and lots of talking about zombies  (though perhaps that is not as catchy). When the zombies are actually on-screen it provides some of the best moments, producing a couple of jumps and a fair few laughs. But there is too much talking about strategies for dealing with zombies as opposed to fighting them.

However, it’s not all bad. The cast for this film is so good, and so well suited for their roles, that you actually wish this was just a straight-forward adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Lily James, who shone in War & Peace last year’s Cinderella, is superb as a feisty and witty Elizabeth. She manages to make Elizabeth’s progression into a trained warrior seem almost plausible. She has great chemistry with Sam Riley’s Darcy, providing a degree of sexual tension previously unseen in adaptations of this work. Austen would have approved I suspect. However, as Parson Collins, Matt Smith steals every scene he is in. It’s great to see Smith in another comedic role (aside from his marmite take as The Doctor). Here his timing is brilliant and his ability to make a relatively small role stand out speaks volumes about his ability. Another wonderful surprise is Lena Headey as the one-eyed-eye-patch-wearing Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who snarls her way through her too-few-scenes. 

To conclude, this is a more than fine way to while away two hours. The cast is superb, the script has enough charm, and the novelty just great enough to entertain. Whilst easy to bemoan the minimal zombie presence, this is an excellent attempt at a twist on a classic with a fantastic cast who prevent it from being a forgettable B-movie.

Action, romance and zombies. Something for everyone with this film.

Trainwreck

It’s not quite a Trainwreck, but it’s not a home-run either.

Amy Schumer is America’s latest ‘alternative’ golden girl. With a hit sketch comedy series on comedy central, her renowned stand-up skills and now Trainwreck (which she both wrote and stars in) she’s being placed in the ranks alongside Lena Dunham (creator, writer and star of Girls) and Mindy Kaling (creator and star of The Mindy Project) in terms of ‘funny women who have something to say.’ It’s a lazy way of grouping (that’s Hollywood for you) but it doesn’t make a degree of sense; with all three women writing and portraying characters who are more life ‘real-life’ with ‘real’ issues and ‘real’ coping mechanisms. It’s also applicable for the film in question, with Schumer consequently being lauded for greatness with the comedy schtick she displays here.

Amy (Amy Schumer, who has admitted the role is a more intense version of herself) and her younger sister Kim (Brie Larson) are told by their father, from a young age that ‘monogamy doesn’t work. This why he and their mother are divorcing; explaining this to the girls using an analogy about dolls and would they really want to ‘only ever play with one doll their whole lives.’ It’s a clever and believable st-up, explaining adult Amy’s ‘promiscuous’ behaviour (let’s just ignore the loaded idea that such behaviour requires an explanation.) 23 year’s on from her dad’s announcement we are reintroduced to Amy who almost has sex with a guy she doesn’t really know, which goes less than smoothly before she ends feigning sleep. In a voice-over narration she pointedly informs us they we are not to feel sorry for her as she has a great job, a great apartment, great family and great friends. This is an aspect really emphasised within the trailers and promo, that Amy has a great life and doesn’t need a man.

However this is contradicted within 15 minutes when we enter her work place, a men’s magazine called S’Nuff. Her boss ( a near unrecognisable Tilda Swindon) is bold, brassy, frequently insulting and demanding. Yet it’s uncertain if we are actually meant to admire her, understanding that these traits are a unfortunate necessity to survive and succeed in the male-dominated industry that is journalism. What is most unsettling about Swindon’s presence her (she is fantastic nevertheless) is how media outlets have reacted to her appearance. She’s tanned, with blown out blonde hair, eyeliner and power suits. Many have been quick to say how ‘glamorous’ she looks, and with an unclear intention of whether she’s a caricature or a statement it’s unsettling as it’s almost saying that her over-the-top stylistics are an ideal whilst ignoring how immensely unlikeable her vulgar character is.

The film is also quick to point out that whilst Amy is having sex with multiple different partners, none of this sex is particularly enjoyable or fulfilling. In fact the sex scenes that the film shows (until she meets Bill Hader’s character) seem more endurance than anything else. Why have a film which makes such a big deal about how the main character is a free and single woman enjoying life, then reveal that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be? That’s the most difficult aspect of the film, and one which is confusing when considering the advertising and how this film is reflecting modern women. Is the film saying that any women who have a lifestyle like Amy’s and who believe they are enjoying it, are actually in denial and in desperate need of monogamy to ‘fix’ their lives and impose a traditional lifestyle? In fact this film could, depressingly, easily be read as an attack of post-feminism and an assertion of conservattist attitudes on ‘deviant’ women.  Because, aside from some of the over-the-top set pieces (director Judd Apatow’s specialty),  this film really is nothing more than a conventional romantic comedy. (Possible spoiler alert if you have never seen a romantic comedy.) Single girl thinks she has a good life, meets a ‘nice’ guy and learns the error of their ways. Then things go wrong, they break up and then she wins him back with a romantic gesture. There is nothing unconventional about that narrative (which at 2 hours running time really drags!) Nor is their anything unconventional about the jokes or humour, with a hit’n’miss joke rate of 3 misses to every one hit.

So why exactly is this film being heralded for being so ‘refreshing’? Because the reviews writing about it have never actually heard a typical conversation had by a group of women? Because a female character in a film got to say things that Seth Rogen has been saying on screen for decades? Or because cinematic gems from last year*, with slightly more original narratives and a refreshing look at female characters. went mostly unseen last year due to limited releases? Whilst Trainwreck is reasonably funny and entertaining, and would be an adequate movie to watch with friends and accompanied with alcohol, it’s merely a frequently used story with fancy accessories to repackage it.

  • *The Obvious Child
  • * In A World…
  • *Appropriate Behaviour