Wednesday, November 27, 2013

November Mini Reviews: The Butler, Mr Pip and Enough Said

The Butler (October 31) - Lee Daniels' (The Paperboy) latest film traces a number of significant United States historical events that changed the nation - the assassination of JFK, the Freedom Riders movement, the Vietnam War - through the incredible story of Cecil Gaines' (Forest Whitaker) decade-spanning butler service to the White House and eight Presidents, and his son Lewis' (David Oyelowo) involvement in the burgeoning civil rights movement. It is an incredible story that is worth telling and ultimately quite moving, but it is a shame how awfully inelegant some of the editing is, and how uneven and episodic this self-consciously well-intentioned film is in tone and subject.

The mild-mannered Cecil's personal journey, his comradeship with the other butlers in the White House (Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz), his relationship with his wife Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), and the domestic tension that arises as a result of his son's political activism, are where Daniels excels. It didn't need to direct so much individual focus on Louis' exploits, nor Gloria - whose struggle with alcoholism and an affair with a neighbour don't contribute a lot at all. This should have been predominantly Cecil's story, and sometimes I think that Daniels forgot about that, distracted by the more provocative civil rights stuff. He tries for too much, and while it was more confronting than I expected, a lot of the power just doesn't resonate. This is Daniels' best-looking film to date, and he continues to be a most interesting filmmaker. My favourite of his films so far remains The Paperboy. Oprah, looking a likely nominee for Best Supporting Actress, and Whitaker impress most from the whos-who cast while the always-charismatic James Marsden (as Kennedy) is perhaps the pick of the various Presidents. Others (Cusack as Nixon) don't fare so well. ★★

Mr Pip (November 7) - Based on the novel by New Zealand author, Lloyd Jones, Mr Pip is directed and adapted for the screen by Andrew Adamson. Set against the backdrop of civil war in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, it weaves together this shocking and violent period of recent history with a powerful story of how a literary classic, told in a unique way, can relate in an unlikely context and how a young woman finds necessary hope and inspiration from the most unexpected of sources.

With many of the young men in her village fighting with the Revolutionary Army for Bougainville's independence, the school is closed and fourteen-year-old Matilda (Xzannjah, a newcomer and a talent) and the other remaining children in her village are left without a teacher. A kindly, soft-spoken and eccentric Brit, Mr Watts (Hugh Laurie, excellent), living on the island with his ill wife, volunteers to take over the teaching duties, despite having no prior experience, with his classes set around the reading of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. A gifted orator, he brings this classic work of literature to life. Matilda is especially taken by the story, letting her imagination run wild as she visualizes the sandy beaches of her island transformed into the streets of London and interacting with her own imagining of Pip. Matilda's mother is not so pleased by the words of Dickens, taking over Watts' classes to emphasize the important lessons found in the Bible. The children, and many of the other adults, are more interested in escaping their struggles through Pip's adventures, however.

For the most part this is a sweet, pleasant story but there are some unsettling shifts in tone that challenge Adamson's film's status as family-friendly. Visually handsome, there are plenty of surprises - Watts' past remains the most intriguing mystery, his teachings have dangerous consequences, some sacrifices genuinely affecting - but due to the unrest there is an ever-present tension and some gut-wrenching violence (implied, not shown). While the stressing of the Bible's teachings - to accept their reality, and not to try and escape through a fictional character - is a tad heavy-handed, and I did struggle to accept just how much bearing the innocent mention of 'Pip' has, I found Mr Pip to be quite moving. ★★★1/2

Enough Said (November 14) - Writer/director Nicole Holofcener's latest film is a charming romantic dramedy - it's achingly funny very often, and yet the inevitable speed bumps in a relationship send these full-blooded characters down some saddening paths. It is an honest, astute and often uncomfortably realistic study of the unpredictability of human interaction and middle-aged relationships amidst the messy navigation of post-divorce loneliness and paternal anxiety by a filmmaker interested in creating real, relatable human beings for the screen. It is also about the unique attraction people have for one another; a spark that only they can feel. Your new best friend continually rags about the guy but you can't see the flaws yourself - unless you start looking for them. It poses the question: How much are our feelings for someone influenced by by how others feel about them?

Eva (Julia Louis Dreyfus) is a divorced single parent and masseuse who dreads her daughter's impending departure for college. When she meets Albert (James Gandolfini) at a party - a sweet, funny guy in a similar situation - their romance quickly blossoms. At the same party Eva also befriends Marianne (Catherine Keener), a new massage client. Marianne doesn't speak fondly of her ex-husband, and when Eva learns the identity of this man, she finds her new relationship begin to unravel. Holofcener smartly manages to defy genre conventions even if one of the odder relationships, Eva's new-found closeness with her daughter's needy best friend (a potential stand-in for when she leaves for college?), who she begins to feel more comfortable confiding in and mothering, than her own daughter, don't work as effectively as those between the adults (ex-spouses bicker at dinner parties, new lovers flirt and best friends gossip). Holofcener has created a film that is romantic and heartfelt in an unorthodox way, adult without being unnecessarily crude and with a wryness tamed by warmth.
Enough Said comes recommended for the sharp dialogue and the exceptional chemistry between the talented cast alone. Louis-Dreyfuss and Gandolfini, whose mutual attractiveness to one another and the comfort and ease that they fall into companionship is a progression never in doubt, are a terrific pair. Toni Collette and Ben Falcone provide excellent support as a playfully bickering married couple. Louis-Dreyfuss is perfectly equipped for this role after year's of improvisation with her male cohorts on Seinfeld. It is far too long since we were privileged to see her limitless talents in the cinema and Holofcener has written her a fantastic character here. The tragic recent passing of James Gandolfini this year gives this film a melancholy context. Taking on a role completely against-type, he is absolutely extraordinary. Just this morning, actually, he was honoured with a posthumous nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards. I have continued to appreciate Enough Said the further removed I am from it. It is still screening regularly at independent cinemas. ★★ 

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