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!


Hail, Caesar!

All Hail Hollywood!  And, all Hail the Coen Brothers!

1951 was a bit of strange time for Hollywood. The studio system was starting to shift and the oligarchic owners were starting to lose power. Rather understandably its stars were getting fed up of being owned by the studios. The studios got to decide what they would be starring in, who they would be working with, what they looked like and even who they were dating. The post-world war two boom had begun to grow to a standstill and film-makers weren’t quite sure what the people wanted. Some classic films were made that year (A Street Car Named Desire, Alice In Wonderland and The African Queen, to name but three) as were a lot of terrible movies from every genre and hybrid-genre you could possibly think of. If the people don’t know what they want, adopt a ‘throw-everything-at-them-and-see-what-sticks policy’. It’s these issues that make the era a perfect setting for a movie. It’s also the reason that the Coen brothers are the perfect men for the job.

The life of the head of production at Capitol Pictures is not an easy one. In 27 hours Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) must handle one drama after another. First there’s the lead of his series of synchronised swimming epics (Scarlett Johansson) who’s both pregnant and unmarried. Then there’s the all-singing and little-talking cowboy(Alden Ehrenreich) who is forcibly being made to transition from Westerns into thespian drama, much to the bitter frustration of his new luvvie director (Ralph Fiennes) followed up by a check-in on the latest musical starring multi-talented (Channing Tatum), dodging the four preying eyes of gossip columnist twins (both played by Tilda Swinton) and most importantly finding his A-list star (George Clooney) who has disappeared from set. Maybe his job offer from the aviation industry isn’t that unappealing after all…

First I want to state that this is not a perfect movie. Its pacing is off, and the entire film feels like a series of rather delightful misadventures as opposed to one overarching narrative. That fact will put some people off (although that doesn’t really explain/justify the 16 people who walked out of the screening I attended). But for others, including myself, this fundamental flaw is in fact another reason to cherish the movie as surely that rhythm or tone of chaotic mayhem is how life working in the dwindling studio system would have been. What is also allows the Coen brothers to do is duel-handily poke fun at the farce-like-ness of this period of time, and also lovingly embrace it.

Each set-piece is beyond stunning. Every single costume is stunning, with every single character feeling like a tribute to a by-gone era. The synchronised swimming sequence featuring a giant, mechanical whale reinforces the notion that this is THE Dream Factory. The loving pastiche theme continues with Channing Tatum’s ludicrously inventive tap dance and singing number, where he and a dozen sailor lament their going on door as ‘We Ain’t Gonna See No Dames.” However, speaking from personal preference, it’s Alden Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle the Cowboy-turned-actor who totally steals the show. When considering the talent (ahem, Brolin, Johansson, Finnes and Cloonney!) this is truly no mean feat. Doyle is the perfect blend of dim but charming. His attempts at ‘serious’ acting are utterly charming but it’s his date with Carlotta Valdez (cheeky nod to Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ there!) , an up-and-coming Latina actress that will win the hearts of the nation. His accidental wooing of her is pinch-his-cheeks and say ‘nawww’ levels of adorability. He is definitely one to watch.

Although the ‘star of the show’ may not actually steal the spotlight (as hopefully outlined and justified above) it’s Clooney’s storyline that solidifies the fact that this film is not throughway fluff. His ‘journey’ whilst held hostage provides much reflection on the nature of Hollywood ideology, a subliminal critique of the industry by reflecting on the very nature of entertainment, the ugly work that goes into creating what we view as such beauty…but that’s a discussion for another day, (ideally in a pub, with a drink in hand!)

For now, I’ll leave you with this. For those of us who are nostalgic for a time we never lived (I’m including myself in this category) there’s escapism and incredible tributes to the past. For cinephilles there’s subtle reflection on the ugly/beautiful process of cinema-making. There’s also romance, lots of humour and Channing Tatum signing (who knew he had the voice of an angel!?!)

If you’ve got a spare hour and forty minutes this is a film well-worth your money. Enjoy!






A Bigger Splash

A rockstar, a record producer, a documentary-maker and a recently discovered illegitimate daughter go on holiday…

The hardest thing I suspect I will find about writing this review is overusing the adjective ‘beautiful’ and its various synonyms, because that is what A Bigger Splash is. Beautiful. Beautiful cast in beautiful scenery that is beautifully shot and with a story that is beautifully told.

Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is a rockstar of arena-like proportions. After surgery on her throat and vocal chords renders her mute for several weeks (as part of her post-operative recovery) she decides to go into reclusion with her partner Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). They are staying on the remote Italian island of Pantelleria when their weeks of nudity and nookie are interrupted by the arrival of her ex-producer and ex-lover Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who has brought with him Penelope (Dakota Johnson) who recently discovered that Harry is her father. What follows will test the ties of fraternity, paternity and sexuality with catastrophic consequences.

The events of the film play out in a way that is unpredictable, sweaty and bitterly humorous. This is Swindon and Fiennes at the top of their respective games. Due to her character’s temporary muteness Swindon has little dialogue; the few lines she does say are husky and barely audible. Instead she says entire monologues on matters of the heart with her facial expressions – bitter rage, frustration, mortification, adoration and admiration shown through looks. A less-skilled actress would be constricted by her characters damaged vocal chords; instead what could be a limitation showcases the true skill Swindon possesses. The grace and manner of her movements and expressions, along her facial expressions, bring Marianne Lake: Rock Star to life. Both when painted in David Bowie-esque costume and make-up and when wearing nothing at all, it feels like you are watching the life of a real, if fatally flawed, person.

At 52, with countless film and theatre credits which demonstrate his mastery, it is incredibly impressive that Fiennes can still surprise. His Harry Hawkes is a bundle of raw energy, a magnetic charisma who dominates each scene. Along with providing the funniest moments of the film (and a dance sequence to The Rolling Stones that I challenge you to be able to watch without averting your eyes in bewildered embarrassment) he demonstrates the mythical fine line between comedy and tragedy. Harry Hawkes is a man who uses his charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent to mask much inner-darkness. His self-destructive descent into hedonism is (dance sequence aside) utterly enthralling.

It’s a pleasure to see Schoenaerts on the big screen again, roughly 10 months since the release of Far from the Madding Crowd and his enamouring take on loyal and noble Gabriel Oak. His character here, Paul, is one who initially appears to have fewer layers than his romantic partner and love rival, but this proves that appearances can be deceptive. He is currently one of the most interesting and underappreciated supporting actors in cinema at the moment, and I greatly look forward to seeing more of his (admittedly rather beautiful) self.

And then there’s Dakota Johnson, of 50 Shades of Grey infamy. What A Bigger Splash succeeds in doing is adding another reason for why Shades is such a mediocre movie, as A Bigger Splash proves that not only can Johnson act but she is mighty fine at it. In fact, she well and truly holds her on with her fellow leads. Penelope is an intriguing character, made even more so by Johnson’s acting ability. Penelope is a character who almost defies description (in a complimentary way), suffice to say she is a product of her father in the best/worst of ways.

 There is one more crucial player in A Bigger SplashPantelleria itself. Located 100km southwest of Sicily (fact found courtesy of Google) it is a place I had not heard of prior to the film and is of such unrivalled beauty that I cannot escape mentally from the mysticism of it. Few places, when on the screen, are displayed in such heart-stopping and breath-taking beauty. The events of A Bigger Splash, when splayed out in a review such as this could seem almost borderline-soap opera. It’s the scenery, and the skill through which it is shown, that prevents this. Yes some sequences possess a degree of melodrama, but setting it in such a beautiful (alluring, dazzling, exquisite, stunning, and wonderful) landscape only elevates the emotional response of the subsequent events. However, it’s the slightly oddball, quirky tone of these events that makes the film truly memorable. Though the pacing is slightly stilled on minor occasions, with one or two plot points that drag, there is a humour tinged by darkness that makes the plot haunting and ultimately cataclysmic.

A sun-kissed soap opera told with class and comedy with an abundance of tragedy. A must-see.