Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith
Told through the eyes of the 13 year old Henry, Labor Day is the story of a five day love affair that took place on the Labor Day long weekend of 1987 between his mother, Adele, and a fugitive who sought refuge in their home, Frank. Crippled by her depression and anxiety, Adele rarely ventures outside. On their monthly shopping trip for supplies, they are accosted by a wounded Frank, who demands they take him back to their home so he can hide until nightfall. With his wound not allowing him to leave as soon as planned, Frank sets about making himself useful by performing the household duties that haven’t been seen to since Adele’s husband walked out. A bond is formed between them and, for a fleeting moment, the family feels whole again.
Labor Day is a movie which doesn’t manage to live up to its early promise and represents the first real misstep in the career of talented writer-director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air). While it is based on a novel by Joyce Maynard, the schmaltz gets dialled up so high you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching another Nicholas Sparks adaptation – the centrepiece of the film is a palpably sensual scene reminiscent of the pottery scene in Ghost in which Frank and Adele make a peach pie together. The introduction of Frank into the lives of Adele and Henry creates an intriguing situation, but the story that unfolds is just too simplistic. While they talk as though they are aware of the seriousness of their situation, they sure don’t act like it. If the police are combing the streets trying to find him, what is he doing up a ladder clearing out the gutters? Why do they spend so much time on the back porch or in the yard? Why don’t they at least close the curtains? That the lovers live in this dream world means that film lacks energy and because everything seems to be so easy, so convenient, the plot twists which are required in order to create drama then feel forced rather than arising naturally out of the story.
Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages have been known to empathise with, and in extreme cases fall in love with, their captors, and if all kidnappers were as perfect as Frank it wouldn’t be hard to see why. Having just escaped from a lengthy prison stay he has no issues relating to people, even complex and sensitive people like Adele, Henry and their disabled neighbour Barry. He easily steps into the routine of normal life, cooking up a meal for the family on his first night with them. With his handyman skills and wealth of wisdom he becomes a substitute father and husband overnight. Despite the fact he is convicted of murderer – don’t worry, that gets explained – not for one moment do we think he is going to hurt either of them. Were his character just slightly more complicated it would have gone a long way to helping the film become something quite interesting.
Kate Winslet is magnificent as always, creating a believable and sincere character in Adele. Josh Brolin does well considering the limitations of his character, and the two make for a pleasing pairing. Ultimately, however, this is a film which you are either going to go with or you aren’t. Labor Day is a sweet little love story about two people who have been living in their own prisons and find freedom in each other, but to really enjoy it requires a willingness to overlook more than a few faults.
Rating – ★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, Olivia Wilde
Spike Jonze has demonstrated a knack for left-of-centre, surreal storytelling with films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. His latest and it should be said finest film, Her, is no exception. In the near future – and a surprisingly utopian one given the cinemas penchant for dystopian visions of the future – we meet Theodore Twombly who works at BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com where he puts his skills as a writer to work penning letters for people to send to lovers, friends or grandchildren. A lonely and anti-social man still recovering from a marriage breakup, Theodore becomes intrigued by an advertisement for the newest computer operating system, or OS – the first to feature artificial intelligence. “It’s not an OS – it’s a consciousness.” He buys himself a copy and after asking him a couple of questions to calibrate itself to his needs the OS introduces itself, or rather herself, as Samantha. Her cheerful, friendly demeanour instantly brings some light to Theodore’s life and the two become friends. Samantha organises Theodore’s life and Theodore helps Samantha unpack and understand the world. Before long their relationship becomes romantic.
The central premise of Her – a man falling in love with his computer – sounds like that of an absurd comedy but Jonze chooses to treat it with great sincerity. As such, what we end up with is a surreal, existential exploration of the nature of love, what it is to be human and our relationship with technology. The beauty of this film is how not far-fetched it manages to make this premise feel. We are already hopelessly dependent on technology. Anyone who has ever been forced to go even a short period of time without their smart phone or an internet connection can attest to that. Jonze simply takes that dependence to the next step, asking whether as technology becomes more sophisticated it is possible that dependence could become an emotional one. Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is treated with a surprising normalcy. Theodore’s friends hardly flinch at the idea that he is having a relationship with an OS. In fact, we are told that he is far from the only person out there in such a relationship. There is even talk of a woman who is having an affair with someone else’s OS.
Jonze’s screenplay is remarkable, but it falls on the film’s two leads, Phoenix and Johannson, to sell the authenticity of the relationship and make it all believable. Both actors rise to the challenge, delivering brilliant, unconventional performances. Phoenix is typically chameleon-like as Theodore, this insecure, isolated but deeply thoughtful man. So much of this film is dependent on his face as the nature of the story requires him to deliver the majority of his performance in isolation, relating to a character that isn’t physically present. Johansson’s performance is quite special. Completely disembodied, allowing her no physicality to employ, she nonetheless manages to create a full and empathetic character in Samantha. While it is the screenplay that makes Samantha think and feel, it is Johansson that give her the spark of humanity and enables us to understand how Theodore could fall in love with her. It isn’t objectophilia. It is a genuine two-way relationship.
As the film progresses the story becomes just as much Samantha’s story as it is Theodore’s. Artificial intelligence has usually been treated with suspicion in film. It is seen as dangerous and threatening – think of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Her, we empathise with Samantha. In a variation of the Pinocchio story, Samantha struggles to reconcile the fact that while she thinks, feels and experiences emotions like a human, she is not one. The latter half of the film poses some quite interesting psychological questions about the limitations, or lack thereof, of artificial intelligence.
Her is one of the most touching, thought provoking and unique films of the year.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Carlo Carlei
Starring: Douglas Booth, Hailee Steinfeld, Ed Westwick, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Paul Giamatti, Damien Lewis, Stellan Skarsgard
The Bard is back on the big screen and with this latest adaptation of Romeo & Juliet producer Ileen Maisel – the driving force behind the project – has opted for something quite novel, a traditional telling. In recent times the fashion when it comes to adapting Shakespeare has been to use contemporary setting and dress, but Maisel believed that modern audiences had not been exposed to a traditional, romantic vision of Shakespeare’s most famous play. It has, after all, been 45 years since Franco Zeffirelli’s famous adaptation, still a classroom staple. So director Carlo Carlei’s vision of the greatest love story ever told takes us back to fair Verona in Italy and delivers beautiful mediaeval costumes.
A traditional retelling this may be, but a truly faithful adaptation it is not. The screenplay was adapted by Julian Fellowes of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey fame. Turning an approximately three-hour stage play into a two-hour movie requires a bit of script wrangling, but in addition to this work Fellowes has also carefully and covertly updated some of Shakespeare’s language. The aim was to prevent the language from excluding a younger audience without losing the poetic cadence of the original text. To the untrained ear it all still sounds Shakespearean, but every now and then Fellowes has dropped in a phrase which slightly grates – sayings like “strike while the iron is hot” and “the best intentions pave the way to hell sneak in, and at one point Juliet’s nurse compliments her on her “taste in men.”
Romeo & Juliet assembles a reasonably strong cast of British and American talent. Unfortunately, the two leads don’t quite hit the mark. Hailee Steinfeld established herself as one of Hollywood’s most promising young actresses with her Oscar-nominated debut performance as the headstrong Mattie Ross in True Grit. However, she isn’t nearly as well suited to playing the sweet, innocent Juliet. British actor Douglas Booth, best known for his work in the mini-series Great Expectations, is a very pretty man indeed but also very bland. Kodi Smit-McPhee, on the other hand, is quite good as Romeo’s friend Benvolio and arguably would have made a more interesting and age-appropriate, if less dreamy, lead. Without a doubt though, the film’s scene-stealing performance is Paul Giamatti as Friar Laurence. Giamatti makes the Romeo’s counsellor and the young lover’s co-conspirator the most vibrant and emotionally engaging character in the film.
While visually appealing, this largely uninspiring adaptation fails to unlock any new meanings in delivering the story to a new generation. It won’t have the cultural impact of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 adapation, but could well become the go-to version for high school English classrooms around the world.
Rating – ★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: James Ponsoldt
Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kyle Chandler, Bob Odenkirk
High school senior Sutter Keely is a charming, fun guy, loved by everyone and the life of any party. Sutter lives in the moment, he lives for the now. But as he and his friends approach their high school graduation he finds that everyone else is looking forward, thinking of the future, making plans.
Through a chance encounter he meets Aimee Fineky. A shy, reserved girl, she knows him from school even though to him she has previously been invisible. Sutter finds something fascinating about Aimee, and she enjoys the attention. They become friends and ultimately come to love each other (but is that the same thing as being in love with each other?). Aimee and Sutter provide each other with much needed support. Both come from broken homes with absent fathers, Sutter’s through divorce and Aimee’s through death.
Sutter is a self-destructive character whose emphasis on the here and now is the result of an inability to deal with the past or face the future. He uses alcohol as a coping mechanism, constantly sipping from a hipflask he carries with him – a habit he soon transfers on Aimee – rarely getting excessively drunk but always having a buzz on. This insidious and constant presence of alcohol is much more confronting and uncomfortable than the usual representations of teen drinking we see on screen (massive party binging followed by throwing up and the rubbing or sore heads the next morning), and before long you find yourself willing him to stop.
The characters of Sutter and Aimee have a realism to them that you rarely find in screen teenagers. They look like real teenagers, not thirty year olds in backpacks. They sound like real teenagers, not the razor sharp fantasies of an all-too-clever screenwriter. The two young leads, Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, are not household names but their performances carry this film. The two, who work so well together it is difficult to consider their performances separately, deliver incredibly authentic portrayals of teenage lovers dealing with all the confusion and uncertainty of youth. The pair received a Special Jury Prize for Acting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival “for two young actors who showed rare honesty, naturalism and transparency and whose performances brought out the best in each other,” an apt description of what they bring to this film.
From the screenwriters who delivered the gem 500 Days of Summer a couple of years ago, The Spectacular Now is a film that requires some time to process. It leaves you with a number of questions, resisting the urge to wrap everything up in a nice neat bow. The result is an honest and affecting film, a teenage love story for adults which doesn’t trivialise the teenage experience.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Lasse Hallström
Starring: Julianne Hough, Josh Duhamel, David Lyons, Cobie Smulders
In the last decade Nicholas Sparks has established himself as today’s undisputed king of schmaltz. Safe Haven is the eighth Sparks’ romance to be adapted for the big screen, and it is not one of the best.
Sparks has a bit of a formula – girl meets guy, girl and guy fall in love, girl and guy get caught in the rain together, and then something dramatic threatens to keep them apart. In this case that girl is Katie and that guy is Alex, a single father who runs the general store in a small fishing village that she happens to come through. The thing threatening to derail them is Katie’s secret: she is on the run, wanted for murder and being pursued by a particularly obsessive Boston detective. The thriller element is something different from the usual formula, but isn’t particularly strong, and feels like a concession to all of the boyfriends who will be made to sit through the film by their better halves. The film plods along pleasantly enough before “surprising” you with two plot twists, one which you see coming a mile away, and the other which will surely be one of the most ridiculous and unnecessary twists you will ever come across.
Safe Haven is directed by Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström. Hallström has made some fine films in his career – My Life as a Dog, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, and Chocolat to name but a few – which makes you wonder what on Earth attracted him to Safe Haven. Does he owe someone money? Does he just like spending a couple of months in a lovely location doing not overly strenuous work? More unfathomable is that it is actually his second Sparks adaptation, after 2010’s Dear John. Could he be a fan?
Katie is played by Julianne Hough, a dancer best known for her work in Footloose and Rock of Ages. Those films took advantage of her song and dance background. Safe Haven does not. Unable to employ her primary talents, it appears she has been cast for her ability to smile and wear shorts. She is one of a number of weak links in the film, with her inability to convince you of the burden that is supposedly weighing on her yet she seems so easily to forget, contributing to the ineffectiveness of the whole film. Cobie Smulders from How I Met Your Mother is on a hiding to nothing with her character, the mysterious Jo, but I don’t want to say too much in case I spoil the big twist. The only cast member who can really hold his head up is Josh Duhamel, who tries his heart out as single dad Alex in the face of substandard material, managing to be the only character who you can almost bring yourself to believe could be a real person.
But the lack of interest in the characters is not such an issue given that, as is often the case in Sparks adaptations, the real star of the film is the idyllic location. In this case it is the picturesque fishing town of Southport, North Carolina. Just lovely.
Schmaltzy romances don’t have to be bad, but this one is.
Rating – ★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Rob Reiner
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Emma Fuhrmann, Virginia Madsen, Madeline Carroll, Nicolette Pierini, Ash Christian, Fred Willard, Kenan Thompson, Kevin Pollak
Monte Wildhorn is a grumpy old man. Once a respected author of Western epics, he has not written a word since the death of his wife. Instead, the wheelchair-bound curmudgeon has devoted himself fulltime to his drinking. One summer his nephew organises him a summer house in the small town of Belle Isle for him to stay at and clear his head. The house comes with a dog and neighbours – a recent divorcee and her three young daughters. As the summer goes on, Monte lets down his guard and with the help of some new friends this old and broken man rediscovers the will to write, to live and to love.
The Magic of Belle Isle is a reunion for Morgan Freeman and director Rob Reiner, who previously worked together on The Bucket List, another exploration of growing old. Reiner is, unfortunately, not the filmmaker he was in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he put together one of the most impressive and diverse bodies of work you’ll see from a Hollywood director. What was impressive about Reiner at his peak was his versatility. In an eight year period between 1984 and 1992, Reiner directed the greatest mockumentary ever made, This is Spinal Tap; a great coming-of-age tale, Stand by Me; a much loved children’s fantasy story, The Princess Bride; one of the best romantic comedies of its era, When Harry Met Sally; a Stephen King horror/thriller, Misery; and a courtroom drama, A Few Good Men. Not only is that a streak of great diversity, it is a streak of really high quality filmmaking. In recent times though, Reiner seems to have lost that versatility or at least lost the desire to try different things. He now tends to favour overly sentimental schmaltz (see the aforementioned The Bucket List), and this is more of the same. The Magic of Belle Isle is pretty uninspiring work from a once-impressive filmmaker.
But being uninspiring doesn’t mean the film is unenjoyable. Morgan Freeman possesses everybody’s favourite speaking voice and his character, being an author, is quite eloquent. So, one of the real pleasures of this film is simply listening to Morgan Freeman saying some quite lovely things. The relationships that Monte forms with the adventurous nine-year-old next door, a local young man with a mental illness and the old Labrador he reluctantly finds himself responsible for, are all fun to watch develop.
The Magic of Belle Isle can be sickly-sweet and predictable, but it is still warm and affectionate. Despite its present day setting it feels like it takes place in a simpler time, when people actually had time for one another. It is a lovely, feel-good story, simply told. It is not going to challenge you or make you think and it probably won’t stay with you, but for the hour-and-three-quarters that you spend with it you will be smiling.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean