New York

Review: Frances Ha

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Frances HaThe Pitch: Manhattan Mumbler Mystery.

The Review: In a world where there’s a paucity of decent female roles – seemingly around one per film if you’re lucky – it’s no surprise that the most talented young actresses and writers are turning out to be one and the same. The likes of Lena Dunham and Greta Gerwig are breaking out of the mumblecore and into the mainstream, and Gerwig has been able to leverage her success to be able to strike a balance between the mainstream and retaining her roots. She’s also made a few collaborations with fellow indie filmmaker Noah Baumbach, and their latest joint effort sees him directing, her acting and the pair scripting in the tale of a modern dancer of moderate ability attempting to make her big break in New York City.

Gerwig’s own trajectory may still be resolutely upwards, but Frances Halladay is struggling to keep on an even keel. Her dancing abilities, or lack thereof, have seen her opportunities severely limited with her dance company. Her relationship is going nowhere, so she passes up the chance to move in with her boyfriend to stay rooming with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). When Sophie moves out anyway, Frances’ already shaky existence is sent spiralling across a number of different lives and friends’ couches or spare rooms – the passage of time indicated by black and white intertitles indicating each time Frances has to change abode by acting as change of address cards – and attempts to make sense of her life as it appears to be adhering closely to the principles of Murphy’s Law (if anything can go wrong, it will).

Let’s make it clear at this point: Gerwig here is very much a mix of the typical mumblecore downer, but with an almost bipolar flipside of the energy and relentless cheeriness of a manic pixie dream girl (without the associated annoying tweeness) and a kooky clumsiness that helps her to remain endearing in the face of repeated adversity. I say endearing, but if that sounds as appealing as rinsing your head in gravel then Frances Ha is not the film for you. Do not pass go, do not collect £200 and do not part with 86 minutes of your life that you’ll spend a week moaning you’ll never get back. For those more open to Gerwig’s deliberate charms, this is one of her most appealing on screen performances, even as Frances’ life choices fly in the face of common sense or practicality. Gerwig can light up the screen when she puts her mind to it, and a decent mix of her own dialogue and the joyful vigour with which she attempts to deflect misery and cling to the few things in life she holds dear make Frances’ own arc a relatable one for anyone who’s struggled with the pre-middle aged ennui caused by life heading in the wrong direction.

To what extent you’ll enjoy the rest of Frances Ha will depend entirely on the way you live your life. The cast is filled out with characters who feel normal for New York – but people who you may recognise more from fiction than your own existence – and Frances’ varied interactions with the varied levels of the class system give the film a decent amount of depth; the fact that some of these characters are likeable and just as sympathetic as Frances might even come as a slight surprise, but a welcome one. If you’re a fan of the French new wave, then you’ll quite likely enjoy the homages that Baumbach has made, even the title being a reference to a Jean-Luc Godard work, and Frances even takes a fruitless trip to Paris to ram the point home. Baumbach even delivers homages to French homages to the French new wave, with Frances running down a road to the sounds of David Bowie’s Modern Love a lift from Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang. If like me you’re an uncultured slob and still think Francois Truffaut was just the French guy from Close Encounters, then Baumbach’s layers and setting need to work on their own terms and they don’t always, the occasional stilted conversation tipping too far away from the naturalism and the ending feeling too neat and bow-wrapped. None of it detracts from Gerwig too much, and fame, fortune and a bright future remains more likely for Gerwig than it would seem for her characters.

Why see it at the cinema: The grainy, monochromatic visuals may not sell either New York or Paris to their best effect but Baumbach makes reasonable use of the scenery. See it with a middle class crowd and there’ll be enough knowing titters to make the collective audience experience worthwhile.

What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language and sex references. That amounts to about two and a half dozen f-words and one discussion between the two female leads about awkward sex. Anyone under 15 isn’t going to relate to the characters and their first world problems anyway, so the rating is more of an issue if an average of one swear word every three minutes is likely to offend.

My cinema experience: Picturehouse Cinemas have a regular Sunday morning free members’ preview series, and it’s not often I can get over as I have other Sunday morning commitments. On this occasion, I just about managed to squeak away from those in time to make the dash to the Abbeygate in Bury St Edmunds. I think I was the last person there, so I let myself in (having booked my ticket over the phone the previous day; the phone line had a computer glitch but I got an e-mail confirmation with an e-ticket, all very civilised). The washed out black and white did make it a slight struggle to find my seat, but thankfully the reclining comfort and top notch projection and sound of the Abbeygate’s smaller screen made it all worthwhile. Just a shame it was too early for a glass of wine…

The Score: 7/10

Review: Mary And Max

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The Pitch: Letter From America / Australia.

The Review: For years, Disney was the world leader in hand-drawn animation to the extent where it’s hard to think of anything coming close to their consistent level of ouput, but many have tried; similarly, in the new frontier of CGI animation, Pixar have established a benchmark that others have only aspired to for the large part. Such is the popularity of Aardman’s animations, especially the seemingly ubiquitous Wallace and Gromit, that it would be easy to feel nothing else could be achieved with that particular medium. However, if Pixar have proved anything it’s that there are no boundaries to the achievements possible if your storytelling is up to the task, and so it proves with this clay animation from Australian director Adam Elliot.

Mary and Max is the story of two distant characters who become acquainted by a random act, when Mary writes to America to get answers to some of her most burning childhood questions. Mary (voiced first by Bethany Whitmore, then later by Toni Collette) is eight, out of touch with her parents and with a typical thirst for knowledge; her random selection for a recipient for her letter is Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a 44 year old man from New York who writes back almost out of confusion, but of an equal curiosity about the world around him. Although they exchange letters, the effects are often profound and rarely inconsequential, and their friendship is repeatedly examined through the sometimes volatile nature of their correspondence.

Max’s difficulty is driven by a condition he shares with Mary, that of Asperger syndrome, an autistic disorder which causes him to have great difficulty in interacting with others and to be compelled to repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. To explore such a condition without trivialising it in live action would be hard enough; to use a method of film-making normally reserved for children’s stories feels at first risky, but proves to be strangely liberating. Despite the repeated misfortunes of its protagonists, there’s a remarkable vein of humour running right through Mary and Max, although it’s incidental to the fortunes of the characters and so thankfully the jokes are not at their expense.

The film uses Max’s condition and Mary’s responses to explore a wide variety of themes, including their mutual anxieties and loneliness, and as the story progresses Mary’s actions lead her on a downward spiral into depression, and the exploration of her condition is as no holds barred as it was of Max’s. It’s then that you realise how much the earlier humour has brought you to invest in the fates of these characters, and how the quality of the voice actors (also including Eric Bana and the narrator Barry Humphries) has helped to fully and believably immerse you in their world.

In the end, Mary and Max is life-affirming, poignant, uplifting and almost tragic, and has a grip on the emotions that won’t let go. It’s an absolute triumph which proves that animation can be used to tackle sensitive issues in valid and engaging ways, and despite the occasional contrivance or coincidence of the story (or maybe because of them, so immaculately implemented are they in the service of the story), it has every right to be listed in the same breath as any of the classics that I listed at the start of this review. It’s truly something special, and if you have to cross continents to see it, then be reassured that what awaits you is worth the journey.

Why see it at the cinema: To not only admire the quirky details of the wonderfully stylised animated characters in all of their glory, but to be able to check if your neighbour is shedding the same tear as you are by the end. A film to be experienced, discussed and embraced.

The Score: 10/10


Cambridge Film Festival Surprise Film Review: Chico & Rita

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The Pitch: Hello, and welcome to Jazz Club. Tonight, a jazz love story. Mmm, nice.

The Review: When I was growing up, I had a very fixed perception of animation; understandable, since my niece is currently going through the same diet of wall-to-wall Disney films, there’s just a lot more of them about these days. Thankfully, TV came along with The Simpsons and South Park and showed that animation can take many forms and can have many purposes, but it’s still a rarer occurrence than would be preferable to see something different gain an audience in the field of animated movies. (In the ten years of the animated movie Oscar, for example, there hasn’t been a single truly adult animation nominated, although Waltz With Bashir rightly got into Best Foreign Language.) But Chico & Rita is that rare beast that can deliver a grown-up animation, and feel fresh into the bargain.

The setting for the movie is twofold; a framing device of an old man listening to the music of his youth, which turns out to be literally his music. He’s Chico, a talented young pianist in Havana in the late Forties with an ear for jazz. His eye for the ladies falls on Rita, a singer whose voice enchants him as much as her appearance. They begin to make music together, but so begins a tempestuous love story that takes them from Havana to America, taking in the jazz scene at a pivotal moment in its history, but also reflecting critical developments in the evolution of their homeland.

The movie has a distinctive visual style, using rotoscoping to capture the actors from live action, with the supplementation of computer animation. This gives the movie a more idealised and romanticised feel which perfectly complements the storytelling, but also allows the performances to come through and gives a sense of realism in the emotions. (There’s also something about brief full frontal nudity from animated characters that oddly made me more prudish than live action would have done, but I’m pretty sure that’s just me.)

The story navigates seamlessly between the cities and the timeframes, but the star, other than the scenery and the process, is the music itself. Jazz has a history and a passion that’s made it probably the most influential musical development of the twentieth century (sorry, rock’n’roll, nothing personal, just the way I feel), and this is a love letter to the music wrapped up in a love story that spans decades. If your only knowledge of Tito Fuente is from that famous Simpsons episode, then you need to treat yourself to this pair and their compelling story, for if you do, a genuine and unexpected pleasure awaits you.

Why see it at the cinema: The visuals are lush and overtly cinematic as the journey takes you across countries. But being in a cinema with a good sound system will also give you the chance to fully envelop yourself in the gorgeous soundtrack.

The Score: 8/10

Review: City Island

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The Pitch: No Sex Please, We’re Italian-American.

The Review: Think back. Cast your mind as far back as you can – can you actually remember the last good Andy Garcia film you saw? If you ignore the Ocean’s movies, where he got very little of any interest to do other than some slight mugging in the third one, you might find yourself back in the Nineties, with movies like Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Internal Affairs. While he’s always been available to add presence to a movie, it’s often when he gets to show a slightly lighter side as well (think of The Untouchables for an example) that we truly see the best of him.

So it’s a genuine pleasure to see him in something that, while not an out and out comedy, does have enough moments to give him the chance to show a bit of range for a change. Comedy drama might also be an unfair description; probably the closest structure here is that of a classic farce, as the movie serves to layer on implausibilities before they all stack up, ready for the conclusion. As with any good farce, City Island revels in its absurdities; sometimes scenes have the exact outcome you’d expect, simply because you know where the structure needs to take things, although there is the odd surprise.

Thankfully, the quality of the cast on show means that even when the plot is predictable, the movie is never less than enjoyable. Alongside Garcia, Julianna Margulies gets to be shouty and obstinate, his real life daughter gets to be the pole dancer with a heart of sarcasm and Steven Strait attempts to show he’s got more range than the caveman he portrayed in 10,000 B.C. Emily Mortimer is slightly less successful in her role, but doesn’t detract from the overall ensemble, but you will find yourself wishing there was more of Alan Arkin as Vince’s put-upon drama teacher.

It’s the Vince acting sub-plot, as he tries out for his first audition, that allows Garcia to show off his comedy skills, with a bumbling madness that really endears him to you and leaves you wanting the right outcome when the payoff eventually kicks in. The odd thread of the narrative is left slightly unfulfilled, but maybe that’s best as too much more drama at the expense of the light comedy could have unbalanced the whole thing. What we’re left with is a light, frothy adventure in the lives of this family who find it easier to be dishonest than to work through their problems, but if you don’t expect too much from it you should thoroughly enjoy it – and that’s no lie.

Why see it at the cinema: It’s fun, light and frothy, aware of its contrivances but revelling in them, and Andy Garcia is the best he’s been in ages. So why was I the only person in the showing I saw of this, on a Saturday night? If you want a break from the normal round of summer blockbuster entertainment, you could do a lot worse.

The Score: 8/10

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Review: Please Give

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The Pitch: The One Where Everyone’s Waiting For The Old Lady To Die.

The Review: “So no one told you life was gonna be this way…” Six people living in two neighbouring apartments in a New York apartment block and their intertwining lives. But Friends: The Movie this ain’t. There are other TV links, though; writer and director Nicole Holofcener has learned her trade by both writing and directing for TV, in the case of the latter for Sex and the City and Six Feet Under, so she comes with a strong pedigree. What also comes through from her experience is the sense of honesty that both series at their best were capable of exhibiting, in the lives of the central characters, ranging in age in this case from teenage to death’s door.

I’ve just lost a lot of weight over the past year, and it’s interesting seeing people’s reactions. Some are happy to tell you to your face that they thought you were overweight, but would never have said that at the time; some notice when you lose even a small amount of weight and others don’t seem to notice as the weight falls off, but you’re never sure if they’re thinking something, and just don’t want to say. Please Give seems to have captured almost perfectly the knack of exploring these types of social situations, from the mundane to the uncomfortable, with the reactions being sometimes surprising, often amusing but never feeling forced. At the same time, each of the characters comes to reflect at some point or another on their chosen occupation, or in some cases what they feel called to do, and how their own morals and character have led them to the choices they’ve made and the situations they’re in.

The material is typical of other New York movie acolytes such as Woody Allen, in that the characters find themselves in a situation rather than being driven or carried along by a plot, and it’s their reactions in this situation that give the movie its momentum. To make movies like this work, you need a good ensemble of actors, and the name actors appearing (Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet) all bring a lot to their roles without ever being showy. Mentions must go to the other two members of the central ensemble, Anne Guilbert and Sarah Steele, who are least the equal of their more famous colleagues.

What Please Give doesn’t do is anything stunningly original or incredibly daring, but what it does do is present an extremely satisfying and very enjoyable study of people’s reactions to and interactions with each other, and it does so without ever feeling the need to resort to the cynicism which is often to be found in this kind of movie. Holofcener should be applauded for what she’s achieved here, as it all feels effortless, but movies like this don’t come along often enough these days.

Why see it at the cinema: It seems like making movies like this has become something of a lost art, so show your appreciation by forking out for a ticket. And take some of your friends while you’re at it.

The Score: 9/10

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