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Entries in Romance (6)

Thursday
May122016

CAFÉ SOCIETY

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Parker Posey, Judy Davis, Paul Schneider and Anna Camp.
Writer/Director: Woody Allen

Opening Night Film, 69th Festival du Cannes; reviewed at the Salle Debussy Theatre.

Rating: 4/5

Given the richness of Vittorio Storaro’s breathtaking cinematography and the rose-coloured hint of melancholy it invokes, the urge is to posit Café Society in with Woody Allen’s ‘Americana’ period of the 1980s. Just as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days reminisced on bygone days, his latest is an often giddy, always gorgeous love-letter to both the Los Angeles of Hollywood’s golden era and New York’s swinging jazz club scene of the 1930s.

Yet for all the declarations of passion and sun-bathed joie de vivre of lovers encircling each other, Allen’s characters are an immoral, shallow, even shady bunch. They are descendants of comic creations that the auteur has crafted superbly in past works, that much is true, just not the films that Cafe Society aesthetically recalls. These self-absorbed philanderers and shallow socialites are the miscreants of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Match Point.

To his own narration, Allen opens his film poolside in LA, as a Hollywood party is in full swing. Uber-agent Phil Dorfman (Steve Carell) is holding court, name-dropping with sleazy Hollywood abandon (“I’m expecting a call from Ginger Rogers”), when he hears from his East Coast sister, Rose (Jeanne Berlin, stealing most scenes she is in); his nephew Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is heading his way and needs work. The young man’s arrival leads to some neat fish-out-of-water bits that don’t particularly further the plot (notably an extended gag about Bobby’s first visit from a professional girl), before he is given a menial job at the agency and assigned to Phil’s PA Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) on weekends to be shown around town.

Eisenberg, riffing on Allen as has become de rigueur for the director’s leading men, and Stewart, whose lightness of touch proves a revelation and classically photogenic charms are adored by Storaro’s lens, have developed a sweet rapport after past efforts together (Adventureland, 2009; American Ultra, 2015). Their courtship scenes are the best moments in Café Society, especially a sequence that has them tour Beverly Hills, taking in the star’s palatial digs while wonderfully revealing character and chemistry. Another glorious set-up, during which the electricity in Bobby’s apartment blacks out and he tends to Vonnie’s broken heart by the glow of candlelight and streetlamp, all but guarantees DOP Storaro mention come Oscar time.

Soon, the machinations of plot take over and we learn that the love that keeps Vonnie from Bobby is very close to home. The west coast scenes skip along at a lively pace, endearing each character and milking the most from a storyline that is not very ambitious (and, to Allen’s fans, a tad familiar) but which engages thanks to Allen’s ensemble and masterful sense of timing.

The story shifts to New York and characters that were peripheral comedy relief become the centre of an ever-expanding narrative. Bobby returns home and begins to walk in the shadow of thuggish big brother Ben (Corey Stoll), robbing the film of Carell’s and Stewart’s presence and the ‘zing’ they share with Eisenberg. As Bobby’s east coast love interest Veronica, Blake Lively is every bit as captivating as Stewart but is afforded far less character development; an underworld subplot that involves murder and corruption feels unconvincing and perfunctory (and often overtly bloody). The Woody Allen who once perfectly captured the alienation of a New Yorker in Los Angeles is nowhere to be found here; Allen’s LA story is sublime, while his NYC-set narrative stutters.

Allen last filled the Cannes opening slot with arguably his best film in recent memory, Midnight in Paris. If Café Society does not match the sheer delight of that period piece gem, nor attains the caustic and captivating immorality of, say, Crimes and Misdemeanours, it fits with a body of work from a director still determined to explore the shading between the themes of love and deceit, truth and pretension, desire and commitment. Though not the sum of its many wonderful parts, Café Society still represents a captivating melding of the light-and-dark complexity of Allen’s best work. 

Friday
May152015

PIKU

Stars: Amitabh Bachchan, Deepika Padukone, Irrfan Khan, Balendra Singh and Moushumi Chatterjee.
Writer: Juhi Chaturvedi.
Director: Shoojit Sircar. 

Watch the trailer here.

Rating: 4/5

Bollywood’s biggest stars revel in life’s smallest moments in Piku, Shoojit Sircar’s sweetly insightful family ‘dramedy’/road movie. As the ailing patriarchal figure, the legendary Amitabh Bachchan brings both dramatic heft and lightness of touch to a showy role, but it is Deepika Padukone who emerges as the film’s heart and soul.

Bachchan plays proud Bengali-born 70-something widower Bashkor Banerjee, a cantankerous shut-in suffering from a severe bout of constipation. The passing of a stress relieving ‘motion’ has become the soul focus of his life, much to the chagrin of his daughter, Piku (Padukone). An architect on the verge of earning partnership status in a top firm, her life has become increasingly consumed by her father’s needs, both medicinal and psychological.

When the opportunity arises for the pair to travel cross-country from their Delhi base to the family home in Kolkata, they employ cab company owner Rana (a very fine Irrfan Khan) to drive them. The 1500 kilometre journey allows for many truths to be explored, the destination representing a spiritual home for both father and daughter. The frankness of Juhi Chaturvedi’s script and the skill with which she forms naturally free-flowing and over-lapping dialogues keeps the film buoyant and energised. The sparse use of lowbrow humour in a film that that explores potential cures for Bashkor’s condition ensures the three key cast members never stoop to puerile scatology.

Still exuding the towering, screen-consuming personality that embodied his iconic character Vijay in Yash Chopra’s 1975 classic Deewaar, a boisterous Bachchan fearlessly goes that extra yard in the name of both truth and laughter; he is a joy to watch. But Padukone, too often lumbered with the ‘pretty girl’ role in recent films, matches the great actor beat-for-beat in occasionally fiery dramatic moments. It seems entirely plausible that the pair have been living together for too long, and that the clashing stems from a very real fear that they will soon not be together anymore. Despite the drama feeling slightly over-extended by the middle of the third act, the tears shed and romantic developments feel very real.

With his fourth feature, Kolkata-born Sircar solidifies his reputation as a filmmaker with an assured touch across a variety of genres. After his 2005 debut Yahaan, a contemporary warzone romance, he enjoyed a critical and commercial hit with Vicky Donor, a smart farce that found favour with international audiences drawn to its ‘sperm-donor’ premise. In 2013, Sircar explored counter-espionage techniques and fervent nationalism in Madras Café, an ultra-realistic action thriller set against the Tamil Civil Wars of the 1980s.

Sircar enters a gentler realm with his narrative here, the likes of which is synonymous with auteur James L Brooks. The Oscar winner’s skill at scripting bittersweet, deeply human moments is honoured in the structure of Piku. It recalls both Terms of Endearment, in which a put-upon daughter (Debra Winger) struggled with an eccentric parent (Shirley Maclaine); and, As Good As It Gets, which posited a churlish curmudgeon (Jack Nicholson) in a car with mismatched travel buddies (Greg Kinnear, Helen Hunt).

Filled with top tech contributors, of particular note is the lensing of DOP Kamaljeet Negi (working with Sircar for the third time). The angles he achieves within the confines of the vehicle aid the character drama immeasurably; a sequence shot in the riverside town of Banaras, captured just after ‘the magic hour’ has passed and lamps are beginning to illuminate the waterfront, evokes a dreamlike, romantic ambience that is particularly beautiful.

Sunday
Apr122015

THE AGE OF ADALINE

Stars: Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Baker, Amanda Crew and Anthony Ingruber.
Writer: J. Miles Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz.
Director: Lee Toland Krieger.

Rating: 4/5

After his acid-tongued, ultra-contemporary take on burdened romance in 2012’s Celeste and Jesse Forever, director Lee Toland Krieger embraces a far more fantastical and glowingly cinematic incantation of fateful love with his follow-up, The Age of Adaline.

Boldly departing from her small-screen persona in her first film-carrying lead role, Blake Lively plays Adaline Bowman, a well-to-do turn-of-the-century 29 year-old whose life appears cut short when her car plunges into river waters turned freezing by a freak North Californian snowfall. Taking its mystical cue from the likes of Back to the Future and The Natural, a bolt of lightning strikes her over-turned vehicle and affords Adaline the apparent virtue of eternal youth.

A soothing voice-over smartly imbues the premise with credible fantasy and a lovingly cinematic extended montage (recalling the weepy opening from Pixar’s Up) leads to the modern day, where the still 29 year-old Adaline lives a work-focussed life in a very photogenic San Francisco. After eight decades, she no longer indulges in notions of romance; her blessing has become a curse, her life spent alone, bar the companionship of her now aged daughter, Flemming (Ellen Burstyn). But Adaline’s existential defences are worn down by the persistent romancing of rich philanthropist, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman, very charming), who whisks his dream girl off to a family get-together on their lush estate.

The second-act kicker brings added emotional depth, when Ellis’ father William lays eyes upon Adaline and both are gripped by overwhelming memories of the soulful romance they shared 50-odd years hence. As William, Harrison Ford emerges as Krieger's trump card; the moment when they reconnect, and William’s intellectualism is confronted by a torrent of emotions, represents some of Ford’s best ever frames of film. It is a raw, vulnerable performance that ensures the film soars and draws fresh reserves out of Lively (the definition of 'Supporting Actor', surely); their scenes together are deeply moving, transcending any ‘fantasy genre’ trappings. (Kudos, too, to the casting department for finding Anthony Ingruder, whose physical and vocal rendering of a twenty-something Ford in flashback is uncanny).

Krieger’s vivid, melancholic melodrama emerges as a major work in the tough-to-pull-off ‘romantic fantasy’ genre subset. The cult fan base that fondly recall Jeannot Szwarc’s Somewhere in Time, the Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour weepie from 1980 in which self-hypnosis brings together lovers born 100 years apart, will adore the narrative boldness that Krieger employs and the visual richness that DOP David Lanzenberg paints with to sell the premise. Nor will they bat a tear-sodden eyelid at the multi-generational leaps in logic that scriptwriters J. Miles Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz slyly ask of their audience.

Revelling in the role that will come to define her transition from tabloid starlet to bigscreen A-lister, Lively exhibits maturity beyond her years and recalls the incandescent bigscreen presence of the likes of Jessica Lange, Eva Marie Saint or Françoise Dorléac. The Oscar-worthy work of Australian costumer Angus Strathie (Moulin Rouge, Catwoman) never overwhelms the star, although it has every right to. Fittingly, all below-the-line department heads - Claudia Pare’s production design; Martina Javorova’s art direction; Shannon Gottlieb’s set decoration - on The Age of Adaline bring their A-game.

Wednesday
Mar182015

MANNY LEWIS

Stars: Carl Barron, Leanna Walsman, Damien Garvey, Roy Billing, Simon Westaway and Richard Green.
Writers: Carl Barron and Anthony Mir.
Director: Anthony Mir. 

Rating: 2.5/5

Not the giddy rom-com romp its marketing would have you believe, Anthony Mir’s Manny Lewis is a rather more darkly-hued look inside the fractured heart and self-obsessed mind of that unique breed, the stand-up comedian. Baring his psychological all in the service of the script he co-wrote with his director is Carl Barron, stepping into the leading man role with a pleasing, if occasionally too understated dramatic ease.

Barron upped his profile from pub comic to stadium filler via appearances in the mid 1990’s on the blokish television hit, The Footy Show, and has carved a profitable, much-loved niche for himself in the Aussie showbiz landscape. His off-centre observations often involved his formative years as a misunderstood young man and later-in-life failings as a romancer; in that regard, Manny Lewis is Carl Barron, albeit a version of the man gripped by a stark loneliness and hollow-eyed depression that will take many of his followers by surprise.

So mopey is his persona, it is hard to gauge why Manny is popular at all (other than the passers-by yelling, “Hey, love you Manny!”). He has amassed considerable fame out of exploiting childhood memories, most notably ripping apart the parenting skills of his father (Roy Billing, too warm a screen presence for this role), yet is suffering through an existential crisis that is putting all he worked for at risk. The comedian is on the verge of signing a massive US deal and has a live primetime concert set to air, but baulks at any interaction with his fans and phones sex-worker hotlines when gripped by insomnia.

It is via one such anonymous hook-up that he connects with ‘Carolyn’ (Leanna Walsman), a voice with whom he can share his (many) woes. When ‘Carolyn’s real-life alter ego, Maria, stumbles across a) her phone-john’s true identity, and b) the man himself at the local café, a bumpy romance blossoms. These scenes should play with a lightness of touch that skims over the less plausible beats of the narrative, yet much of the first act plods. It is to Walsman’s credit that the tropes play with any conviction at all; her dramatic acting chops are the film’s key asset and explain away the absence of a ‘comedienne’ as the female lead (achieving a similar balance to that Paul Thomas Anderson created by casting Emily Watson opposite Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, though all comparisons end there).

Barron and Mir (directing his first feature since 2003’s You Can’t Stop the Murders) never seem entirely invested in the romantic machinations of their story. They are far more concerned with the psychological framework of those that seek a career plying the stand-up craft. Yet the revelation that most comics are desperately yearning for the approval of their parents and are so self-absorbed as to not see the goodness of the world before them is not exactly groundbreaking. Fans will recognise that Barron is also retiring some old material; a bit he’s been doing for most of the last decade, the “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” routine, is central to a third-act meltdown that all but ensures it won’t be dragged out for any Leagues Club encores in the future.

The ‘sad clown’ genre is filled with far more skilfully realised examples (Judd Apatow’s Funny People; Billy Crystal’s Mr Saturday Night; David Seltzer’s Punchline; Chris Rock’s Top Five), none of which take the sombre, maudlin route employed here. Unlike the bigscreen transition of such popular local comics as Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee), Jimeon (The Craic) and Mick Molloy (Crackerjack), Carl Barron’s brand of moody introspection and manufactured romance is unlikely to connect with old fans or win over many new ones.

Friday
Feb272015

SUNDAY

Stars: Dustin Clare, Camille Keenan, Jacob Tomuri and Steve Wrigley.
Writers: Dustin Clare, Camille Keenan and Michelle Joy Lloyd.
Director: Michelle Joy Lloyd. 

Rating: 4/5

With the cracked, crumbling façade of earthquake-ravaged Christchurch as a metaphorical backdrop, Michelle Joy Lloyd’s sad, sweet two-hander Sunday deftly explores the complexities of balancing the fantasy of youthful ‘true love’ with the realities of late twenty-something adult life.

We first meet Lloyd’s protagonists frolicking in sun-drenched memories, when surf, sex and sweet nothings defined their blossoming romance. Rakish Aussie charmer Charlie (Dustin Clare) and sweet Kiwi party-girl Eve (Camille Keenan) bond in a hedonistic haze of dance club rituals, ruffled sheets and languid beach interludes, only to have the fibre of their love tested when she becomes pregnant and he accepts an army posting.

The narrative picks up their relationship at an awkward airport rendezvous, when Charlie returns after five absent months to find Camille nearing full term and barely hiding her bitterness about his decision to leave her. So unfolds a day of awkward tenderness and boundary redefinition as the pair, once the ‘soul mates’ of romantic lore, try to place themselves in the reality they have somehow created.

Sharing writing duties with real-life partners Clare and Keenan, the direction of feature debutant Lloyd skilfully crafts a realistic portrait of tarnished love. As Eve and Charlie take in the restoration of Christchurch, so to does the audience watch a hopeful rebuilding of the past; like those that survived the February 2011 quake, there is a purveying mood that life will return to normality but that the memory of a better time will never fade away.

Crucial to the intimacy of Sunday is the effortless chemistry between the leads. The list of ill-suited real-life pairings on-screen is endless, yet the eminently photogenic pair (he, TV-series veteran with roles in McLeod’s Daughters, Underbelly and Spartacus; she, an Oz-based Kiwi expat with a similarly extensive small-screen resume) succinctly convey the intricacies of their character’s lives with performances that are naturally engaging yet strongly cinematic. Be warned; an ample supply of Kleenex is recommended for a denouement that tested even this hardened critic.

Although the wanderings of two young adults at an existential crossroad suggests more than a hint of Richard Linklater’s ‘Before…’ trilogy, Sunday charts its own emotional landscape. If the films do share one thing, it is in the vastness of their wisdom. Like so many great movie couples, Eve and Charlie are flawed, fascinating, heart-and-soul humans yet convey a richness that also makes us want to be them.

Screening at the 2015 Byron Bay Film Festival. Session details and tickets available here.

Saturday
May172014

IN YOUR EYES

Stars: Zoe Kazan, Michael Stahl-David, Jennifer Grey, Nikki Reed, Mark Fauerstein, Steve Howey, Steve Harris and Preston Bailey.
Writer: Joss Whedon.
Director: Brin Hill

Rating: 2.5/5

Indulging in the kind of starry-eyed, low-profile magic-realism project that only directing a Marvel-backed blockbuster will facilitate, writer Joss Whedon threatens to turn all his fanboy followers into diabetics should they seek out director Brin Hill’s take on the Firefly scribe’s ultra-saccharine romantic fantasy, In Your Eyes.

Core demographic devotees of The Avengers (and their parents, who fondly remember his Buffy the Vampire Slayer series) left bewildered by Whedon’s last under-the-radar effort, the modern retelling of Much Ado About Nothing, will find their fan love strained further by this twee, simple-minded love story. The hipster/festival crowd who might otherwise warm to such an offbeat idea are just as likely to react against the under-developed premise, suggesting that rainy afternoon cable viewers will be the film’s likely audience.  

The ‘delightfully dorky’ Zoe Kazan plays Rebecca, an East Coast society gal who is feeling increasingly ill at ease with the airs and graces she must put on to advance the career of her boorishly ambitious hospital administrator husband, Phillip (a slimy Mark Fauerstein). Same time, different place; pretty-boy ex-con Dylan (Michael Stahl-David) is trying to make a new life for himself as a mechanic in a seedy New Mexico town. Stahl-David gets to play his bad-boy dreamboat to the hilt, ably assisted by the production design team who have him living a loner’s life in a caravan overlooking a picturesque gorge; he is usually dressed in a white singlet and spends his free time planting a flower garden in the glow of early evening sunlight.

When Rebecca and Dylan connect telepathically and they both (rather too quickly) cope with the fact they can talk to each other across a continent, an unlikely romance blossoms.  All the expected highs and lows that could manifest from this predicament are played with conviction by Kazan and Stahl-David, who generate a modicum of chemistry despite next-to-no screen time together. How they deal with their secret allows for some meagre comedy (she gets in his head intrusively while he is trying to woo Nikki Reed) and one saucy bout of self-love, the sensations conveyed despite the space between them.

There are a few too many ‘Hey, who were you talking to?’ close-calls with support players; it is never made clear why the pair need to speak aloud when conversing, but…well, they just do. Nor is it ever coherently explained how they can turn the ‘gift’ off (or turn it back on) or why they never connected for all the years he was in prison or she was being romanced by Phillip. The all-too predictable climax is on the back of some wildly convoluted third-act developments that puts way too much strain on the premise and audience suspension of disbelief.

However, these kinds of film’s do find a great deal of love amongst the die-hard romantics; be very careful in whose company you deride such malarkey as the Christopher Reeve/Jane Seymour weepie Somewhere in Time or Sandra Bullock’s letter-box love-story The Lakehouse, both of which awkwardly mix fantasy and romance yet have proven inexplicably enduring. The same following is likely to grow for In Your Eyes, a disposable but not entirely unlikable confection that feels like a first-timer’s passion project and not the work of an A-list writer of Whedon’s stature.