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Entries in Family Film (2)

Saturday
Apr022016

FATHERS AND DAUGHTERS

Stars: Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Kylie Rogers, Aaron Paul, Diane Kruger, Bruce Greenwood, Jane Fonda, Quvenzhane Wallis, Octavia Spencer and Janet McTeer.
Writer: Brad Desch.
Director: Gabriele Muccino

Screening at the 2016 Young at Heart Film Festival.

Rating: 3/5

Despite a title that implies a broad ‘everyman’ perspective, Fathers and Daughters offers little resembling the ‘real world’. From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author prone to public seizures to the social worker sex addict reconnecting to the world through the mute orphan, Gabrielle Muccino’s overripe melodrama positively overflows with a giddy commitment to its own ‘only in the movies’ excess. Audiences who well-up at the first sound of a single violin note will find enough to moisten a hankie or two in this lushly packaged, star-heavy soap opera; cynics, stop reading now.

Thematically tackling in sweeping brushstrokes the connect between childhood trauma and adult dysfunction, Muccino ultimately relies very heavily on editor Alex Rodriguez (Y Tu Mamá También, 2001; Children of Men, 2006), whose skill is tested to the limit in his handling of first time scribe Brad Desch’s back-and-forth narrative timeline. In 1989, a car crash leaves upwardly mobile writer Jake Davis (Russell Crowe) a widow and his cutie-pie daughter Katie (Kylie Rogers) without a mom; when mental health issues dictate Jake needs time in a sanitarium, Katie is put in the care of Aunt Elizabeth (Diane Kruger, gnawing on the set mercilessly) and Uncle William (Bruce Greenwood). When Jake’s latest book bombs despite the best efforts of lit-agent friend Teddy (Jane Fonda), Bill and Liz make their move on the tyke, seeking full time custody.

As all this high drama unfolds in the distant past, we become entangled in the present-day life of adult Katie (Amanda Seyfried), now a caseworker at an inner-city clinic. One minute, a hollow commitment-phobe who partakes in binge-boozing and public bathroom sex to feel any kind of connection, the next an empathetic human connection for recently orphaned Lucy (Quvenzhane Wallis), Seyfried’s doe-eyed performance runs the gamut from passion-free blankness to public histrionics. By her side in her exploration of daddy issues is writer Cameron (Aaron Paul), who brings his own obsession with Jake’s writing.

Gabrielle Muccino’s embrace of shamelessly saccharine sentimentality has found favour with international audiences previously. After scoring big beyond his homeland with the arthouse hit Remember Me, My Love (2003), Hollywood beckoned; he obliged, delivering the Will Smith double The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and Seven Pounds (2008). Returning to grand family drama after the dire rom-com Playing For Keeps (2012), the Italian stages Jake and Katie’s journey with an unyielding commitment to gorgeousness; in line with the florid dramatics on show are DOP Shane Hurlbut’s rich visuals, production designer Daniel Clancy’s lavish sets and composer Paolo Buonvino orchestral score. When the time-hopping plot starts to strain, there is always something cinematically compelling in Fathers and Daughters.

However, Muccino’s greatest assets prove to be more personal, in the form of leading man Russell Crowe and co-star, Kylie Rogers (a seasoned pro despite her tender years after roles in Space Station 76 and the current release, Miracles From Heaven). The pair’s genuine warmth and chemistry is energising, even when the film is running off the rails in every other regard. In addition to conveying the horrible physical stresses of a grand-mal seizure on several occasions, Crowe gives a performance that invests Jake with a grounded dignity; the effortless nature of his scenes with a quivery-lipped Rogers recall the father/child dynamic between Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry in Kramer vs Kramer (yet, in all fairness, comparisons with that or any Best Picture winner must end there).

Wednesday
Jan072015

PAPER PLANES

Stars: Ed Oxenbould, Sam Worthington, Deborah Mailman, Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke, Ena Imai, Terry Norris, Peter Rowsthorn, Julian Dennison and David Wenham.
Writer: Steve Worland and Robert Connolly.
Director: Robert Connolly.

Rating: 2/5

Although it is tempting to be swayed by the ‘…but the kids’ll love it’ point of view, highly respected director Robert Connolly’s change-of-pace family pic Paper Planes is folksy, heavy-handed whimsy that barely finds its wings before crashlanding.

Writing with Steve Worland, whose last feature screenplay was the stomping dance pic Bootmen in 2000, Connolly foregoes the smarts of his more mature work (The Bank, 2001; Three Dollars, 2005; Balibo, 2009) to win over his target demographic with trite dialogue and plotting that grinds through the feel-good tropes. There is exuberance in the staging but not an ounce of real-world emotion in the narrative, which manufactures cute contrivances in place of genuine heart and accomplished storytelling (such as that found in the Oscar-winning animated short Paperman, also featuring the folded flying phenomenon).

The key protagonist is poor country kid, Dylan (Ed Oxenbould), a self-sufficient tween-ager who lives with his emotionally distant father Jack (Sam Worthington) on the dusty outskirts of Walerup in the Western Australian hinterland. The setting represents a return to the troubled dad/spirited son outback milieu that Connolly handled with far greater skill as producer on the Eric Bana 2007 vehicle, Romulus My Father (Bana returns the favour with an executive producer’s credit here).

The pair are doing it tough, with Jack struggling to deal with the grief of having lost his wife, Cindy (supermodel Nicole Trunfio, in flashback) only five months before. That said, Dylan seems to have bounced back pretty well from the loss; Oxenbould’s one-note performance conveys none of the shattering sense of loss a boy his age must be experiencing. The actor’s greatest struggle is more often with breathing any life into his strained, cumbersome lines.

Bouncing between Dylan’s home life and time spent in the company of cool maths teacher Mr Hickenlooper (a fun Peter Rowsthorne), these early scenes rarely ring true, mired in a struggle to establish a believable tonality. Dylan suffers at the hands of funny fat-kid bully Kevin (Julian Dennison), whose actions seem particularly callous given the recent tragic past; Grandpa (Terry Norris) is a randy old codger (wink-wink scenes with Dylan as he skips between bedrooms at the local nursing home are off-putting), who encourages his grandkid’s imagination but seems ignorant of the financial strife his grief-stricken family is in.

A chance school visit by a paper plane whiz kid leads Dylan to discover that he may have otherworldly skill in the art of A4 aeronautics, when his first attempt soars through doorways, down corridors and, ultimately, beyond the horizon. This early scene establishes that the ‘paper planes’ of the title won’t be paper at all but CGI renditions, capable of extraordinarily dexterous mid-air manoeuvrability. It’s a ‘go with it or be left behind’ challenge by Connolly, whose film soars or sinks on how willing its audience is to suspend disbelief in several key moments while also demanding a very real emotional involvement it never earns.

Dylan’s new skill takes him to Sydney, where he meets ambitious competitor Jason (Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke, playing villainy so broadly he might twist his moustache if he were old enough to have one), lovely Japanese entrant Kimi (Ena Imai) and ex-champ-turned-administrator, Maureen (Deborah Mailman, laying on the ‘comedic support’ schtick). Also on hand is David Wenham as Jason’s dad Patrick, a wizened ex-pro golfer who flits in and out of a handful of scenes as if he was above the whole endeavour.

The plot beats a very familiar path from here on in, with competition heats determining who goes to Tokyo for the Paper Plane World Championships conjuring some undeserved moments of faux excitement. The only left-field surprise in the third act is one character’s skill at securing cash for a plane ticket and getting from rural WA to the Japanese capital in less than a day.

Full disclosure: your reviewer’s 9 year-old daughter had a remarkably better time watching Paper Planes than her dad did. Granted, given all the shortcomings with which reviewers are likely to take issue, there is something to be said for the film’s efforts at a certain joie de vivre, especially at a time when children’s films exist mostly to spruik a toy tie-in.