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!



Adult Life Skills

British indie at its finest

This film sums up what we Brits do well – a somewhat melancholic story told with warmth and humour. An unsentimental tale told with compassion. Also, puns. There is so much to love about this film that I suspect I’ll be championing it a long while yet.

Anna (Jodie Whittaker) is one week away from her thirtieth birthday. She works at a nature resort in a middle-of-nowhere part of Northern England, lives in the shed at the end of her mum’s garden and enjoys making films featuring her thumbs with smiley faces on them talking about nihilism. Due to the relatively recent death of her twin brother (Edward Hogg) she can’t face talking about her birthday, yet it seems everyone from mum Marion (Lorraine Ashbourne) and Grandma Jean (Eileen Davies) to her best friend Fiona (Rachael Deering) and Fiona’s sister Alice (Alice Lowe) to the boy who used to annoy her at school Brendan (Brett Goldstein) want to talk about both her Birthday and where her life is going. 

Although the setting, the majority of the characters and their circumstances may not initially appear universal they really are. The film acts as a reflection on loss, self-isolation and the struggle to find who you are. Yes, as a 23 year old female that may appear more relevant to me than many others it’s relevant to us all. We all have experienced – be that aged 3, 23, 33,53 or 83 – a loss that derailed us, that either out of choice or not, took us on a course we never intended. Grief lasts far longer than the funeral and for some we wake up years later and look at metaphorically derelict path we ended up on. Anna’s self-loathing may be a concept I am all too aware of through personal experience, yet the battle to regain self-confidence is a ubiquitous challenge many of us have/will face. The fact we see such likeable and familiar-seeming characters facing this in ‘Adult Life Skills’ makes for a deep and visceral experience.

I apologise if the above paragraph made the film sound boring and serious. It really isn’t boring but it is somewhat serious, in terms of its themes not how it is told. It is properly funny quite often and whilst I did cry (I think it was at least three times) I did guffaw at least double that and left the screen grinning.

I loved every single one of the characters. I really felt like Anna became a friend whilst watching the film, she’s so well-rounded both in characterisation and performance. I’ve loved watching Whittaker in everything I’ve seen her in (Good Vibrations is my personal favourite) and her performance her is no exception. Fiona is brilliant as the best friend desperately trying to help her lost friend. Brett Goldstein, who was wonderful in  last year’s little known indie flick SuperBob, is just as good here. He is great at playing a logical figure to Anna’s less-than-logical thought processes, providing a truly earnest performance. Pus the man is an expert at eyebrow acting.

‘Adult Life Skills’ is now easily in my top five films of the year so far.  Whilst Mother’s Day (click here to read my review) may be filling cinema screens with a national release, profiting on cheap and disingenuous sentiment,  it is films like this we should be rooting for.  When the film ended it felt like I was saying goodbye to newfound friends. Yesterday’s preview was the first of my many watches of it.


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.


Gemma Bovery

As charming and bittersweet as it’s kindred text

This is not a modern-retelling of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovery,or at least not a conventional update. With similar events and characters the film is instead a winsome, endearing if slightly flawed echo of the 19th Century novel.

Martin Joubert (Fabrice Luchini) moved from Paris to a small village in Normandy seven years previously to takeover his father’s bakery. Martin mostly enjoys village-life; the simple routines of making and selling bread, being a husband and a father. However his ‘years of sexual tranquility’ end upon the arrival of Gemma Bovery (Gemma Arterton) and her husband Charlie Jason Flemyng. Martin cannot believe the coincidence of this British couple with THAT surname taking up residence in his village which has links to Flaubert and his novel. Not only do their names link to the book, but their lives appear to be following the text also. Martin quickly engrains himself into their lives, taking it upon himself to mentor Gemma and guide her away from the tragic end of the eponymous Madame Bovery.

It would make sense to briefly talk about the main, and only, real flaw of this film before really getting into the good stuff. The film doesn’t really have a main focus, instead drifting from scenario to scenario through irregular pacing or, occasionally, irregular links. In fact between a promising first act and a surprising (and rather entertaining) third act, the middle does meander therefore reducing the tautness of the narrative.

But this is compensated by the film itself being utterly endearing. The village and it’s surrounding areas is beautifully shot, with the camera finding beauty in every shot. The main beauty is Gemma herself, who is adored by many men and the clearly the cinematographer. Happily the script and Arterton’s performance combined make this adoration understandable to be audience, creating a bewitching character who is both beguiling yet frustrating in behaviour.

With this film you are forced into a fantasy world, which you are immersed in quickly and readily. The film is fun and engaging but with a melancholic heart at the centre.  Gemma Bovery is pleasant and ambling depiction of how love can be fraught and frantic, full of yearning and seduction, adultery and scandal.