As well as entertaining or informing cinema audiences, filmmakers can use their work as a vehicle for their political agenda. With his sixth feature in the director’s chair, George Clooney presents a satirical attack at modern America through his crime drama Suburbicon. Set in a picket-fenced idealistic neighbourhood during the late fifties, the plot follows businessman Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) who, along with his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and their young son Nicky (Noah Jupe), appears to live a happy life. The family is rocked when they fall victim to a brutal burglary, which sets off an unlikely chain of events.
Julianne Moore is arguably one of the best actresses of her generation and has worked with a plethora of the best actors and directors in her illustrious career. Despite her strengths and her numerous nominations in the past, she has lacked in awards success until now, winning a BAFTA and an Academy Award for her latest role in ‘Still Alice’. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland and based on Lisa Genova’s novel of the same name, the drama centres around linguistics professor Dr. Alice Howland who is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age of fifty. With her family around her, including caring husband John (Alec Baldwin) and youngest daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart), she faces up to her illness bravely as her grip on life and her memory disintegrates.
The process of Alice’s deterioration lends a slow, meandering pace to the film and it is largely uneventful in terms of the narrative. Instead, it is very much a character driven plot, and anchored by Julianne Moore’s performance as we see Alice come to terms with her condition. When she is on the ball, she is as sharp as they come and is very eloquent, articulated and professional is the way she presents herself. This means that the minute signs of weakness in her memory are easily spotted when they begin to creep in and each stage of her mental downfall is filled with emotion. In an attempt to combat the decline, Alice uses her smart-phone as a helpful tool. This can be heavily related to one of the directors Glatzer who relies on an app to communicate because of his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
The relationships within her family dynamic aren’t straightforward, and take the strain as Alice becomes increasingly dependent on her loved ones. I felt as though casting Alec Baldwin as the husband was strange as his characters usually possess negative qualities. On the whole, here he is the doting partner despite a few selfish flaws. Kristen Stewart impresses as Alice’s wayward teenage daughter, shedding her twilight skin to give a mature, moving performance, coping with the loss of the one person who seems to understand her. At the forefront of the success of the film though is Moore’s frighteningly good acting, keeping the frustrations of her character bottled up initially for them to burst out with a flooring impact.
Performances whereby the lead is diagnosed with an illness or disease tend to be popular around awards season, so it makes perfect sense for Julianne Moore to take the gong this time around, given that she had never received this kind of recognition before. After all, the opposite award for best actor went to Eddie Redmayne across the board for his portrayal of MND sufferer Stephen Hawking. She noticeably lifts what without her would be more suited to the TV movie format but in all honesty, I’ve seen stronger turns from Moore. Even in the past year she put in what I thought was a more powerful performance in Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars though that film didn’t have the same Oscar bait clout that ‘Still Alice’ does…and as Oscar bait goes it’s catch of the year.
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In the film industry, when you make it, you generally go to Hollywood, and the famous hills have become synonymous with the silver screen stars. With fame and fortunes comes power which can bring out the very worst in those who absorb themselves in the glamorous entertainment business. Swinging a brutal bat at this world and those who inhabit it with a satirical study is daring director David Cronenberg. With a powerful cast including Julianne Moore, Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska, ‘Maps to the Stars’ is a shocking piece of cinema that sinks its teeth into celeb culture and refuses to let go.
This jagged filmmaking takes the darkness of Bret Easton Ellis’ brat attack Less Than Zero into the 21st century in a way that Coppola’s Bling Ring couldn’t, every scene coated in a thick artificial gloss along with Bruce Wagner’s biting script that rips into the fragility of stardom. Failing actress Havana Segrand (Moore) represents the has-beens of Hollywood as she yearns for the opportunity to play her iconic dead mother on-screen, in a desperate attempt to use her family name to her benefit. A mess of a human being, her crazed lifestyle is disturbing but vital. She hires young Agatha Weiss (Wasikowska) as her personal assistant, a girl who has been quite literally scarred by her showbiz upbringing, with serious burns on her face, neck and arms. The other key player is Agatha’s brother Benjie (Evan Bird), a Bieber-esque rich kid whose moral compass is non-existent due to the material world he has been raised in. These horribly fascinating characters cross paths in an increasingly interesting narrative that joins dots into a warped image of celebrity.
There is very little innocence amongst the tortured souls portrayed, perhaps only Wasikowska’s character showing slight signs of having principles despite her unpredictably dangerous tendencies. She gives a note-perfect performance and every twisted layer of it is impactful. Equally as impressive is Julianne Moore as we’ve never seen her before. She is maniacal, lost in a bubble of Freudian trauma. Slightly underused is Robert Pattinson, who plays a wannabe screenwriter who chauffeurs the wealthy around in a stretch limousine. He is subdued but quietly effective, befriending Agatha and talking passionately about their aspirations. The supporting cast is made up of John Cusack and Olivia Williams who play Agatha and Benjie’s controlling parents, so absorbed in their glamorous careers that they’re more concerned with their tabloid reputations than their children or each other.
This is the first film of Canadian filmmaker’s that has been made in America, and down to the subject matter it couldn’t have really been filmed anywhere else. Cronenberg is a vicious vulture, preying on pop culture with oily streaks of jet-black humour. I imagine that after this deadly assault, it’ll be a while before he thinks about spreading his wings in Hollywood again, if ever. ‘Maps to the Stars’ can be a difficult watch, but it is engrossing and involving, shining the unflattering satirical spotlight directly above the unglamorous, turning the so-called American Dream into a self-obsessed nightmare.
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Now that the romantic comedy genre has been overdone to the point of cliché, a new wave of work has emerged which attempts to subvert the stereotypes and toy with our expectations, sometimes referred to as anti-rom-coms. Actor turned filmmaker Joseph Gordon-Levitt was a key figure in one of the pioneering movies of this sort when he starred in 500 Days of Summer, and has now had a go himself. ‘Don Jon’ takes a seedy peep into the life of a modern man, Jon Martello Jr, who is obsessed with internet pornography, and who struggles to connect with women emotionally because of this. When he meets his dream girl Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson), who has a fixation of her own in Hollywood romances, can he put his virtual fantasies to one side in return for a real relationship?
In Gordon-Levitt’s directorial debut, he certainly wears his influences on his sleeve. The quick cut quirkiness could be taken straight from the mind of Edgar Wright and is used freely and frequently to illustrate and summarise his interests, which consist mainly of masturbation, working out and attending church every Sunday to renounce his weekly sins. This provides a fun opening third, developing the macho man central character that looks like a product of watching too many Robert DeNiro films and the family dinner scenes play up the Italian-American trademarks entertainingly. The father-son rapport is particularly funny, with Tony Danza playing Martello Sr drooling over his son’s glamorous girlfriend. As the plot progresses, things get a little repetitive and when we sadly find ourselves in more familiar territory, the initial creativity is lost. A more humane personality is introduced in Esther (Julianne Moore) to interact with the one-dimensional lothario leading to a crossroads where he must re-evaluate his priorities.
It is a cheekily clever casting choice from Gordon-Levitt in picking Scarlett Johansson as his love interest. Her curves and blonde locks are impressive attributes to his superficial lead who instantly judges potential lovers by their looks scoring them out of ten with his friends. Is this the twisted representation of the modern relationship it presents itself as, or is it truer to life than he thinks? I think his narrative is, in a way, probably a more accurate social commentary than the lovey-dovey Channing Tatum weepies that Barbara is so fond of, but it is an intriguing topic to tackle nonetheless.
Aside from his writing and acting, Gordon-Levitt manages to give a charismatic performance given that his role, for the most part lacks depth, and he gets solid performances from his supporting cast. Brie Larson putting in a near muted turn as Jon’s sister who is glued to her mobile phone in every scene she is in, perhaps in a fun-poking reference to the insignificant hushed females from old Italian-American gangster movies, another nod from the director to his inspirations. ‘Don Jon’ is an ambitious first outing from a filmmaker who has an impressive knack for constructing nice visual set pieces, but lacks an original concept. The indie quirks are enough to amuse for a while, and Johansson is definitely easy on the eye, but both begin to wear thin when the potential isn’t maximised. It marks an exciting sign for things to come from a fresh thinking filmmaker who I believe that one day will create his masterpiece.
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A modern adaptation of the Henry James novel of the same name, which looks at the break up of a dysfunctional relationship through the perspective of their neglected young daughter. Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan star as rowing rich couple Susanna and Beale, an ageing rocker and wheeler art dealer respectively, going through a turbulent marriage where their six year old girl Maisie (Onata Aprile) is used as a bargaining chip, passed from pillar to post. She only finds occasional solace through nanny turned stepmother Margo, expertly portrayed by Joanna Vanderham, and surprisingly also with Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgård) who Susanna marries soon after the divorce in a selfish ploy for sole custody. Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel, ‘What Maisie Knew’ is beautifully made, full of top drawer performances, great humour and has a heart wrenchingly touching narrative.
Maisie’s isolation is shown effectively through the cinematography, by putting her petite figure in gaping wide shots, a microcosm highlighting her minor significance in the sensationalist lifestyles of her parents. Also, when holding hands with a grown up, we, as the audience, are continuously placed at Maisie’s head height, the faces of her elders often left unseen, illustrating the flimsy nature of her upbringing and letting us into her world. This is a recurring theme, the story allowing us into Maisie’s way of life, through use of neat close ups of her drawings, toys and games of tic-tac-toe, but not shying away from her inner trauma, the built up sadness and torment expressed perfectly in a memorable scene with one single tear. There are zoom fixations on Susanna and Beale, as if the camera represents her gaze and what makes her tale so heartbreaking is that she clearly adores her parents yet her love is unrequited. There are one or two tender moments in which we see that she may well be loved by her mum and dad, but not in the right way.
What aids this success are the magnificent performances from all concerned. Veterans Moore and Coogan are both great in the parenting roles. We see a lot more of Moore’s reckless rock mum which she has down to a tee but Coogan is equally effective in a very Coogan-esque smug but funny role. As with all the actors, they excel in scenes with the amazing Onata Aprile. With shades of Mara Wilson in Matilda, Aprile is impeccable in the titular role. Co-star Vanderham stated that even when Aprile is in neutral mode, her facial expression suggests sadness which works brilliantly, giving off an effortless aura. She not only plays sadness well, she brings a lot of humour, delivering excellent observations on the people around her. Scenes at the school really help to offer a nostalgia of childlike humour, in particular in a hilarious moment when she introduces her new step dad Lincoln to her class like a show-and-tell piece. Vanderham and Skarsgård are really good and their characters are also mistreated and used by Maisie’s parents and through this neglect they form a bond with Maisie.
I have nothing but praise for ‘What Maisie Knew’, and was instantly drawn into the story and the likeable, and relatable characters. Onata Aprile steals the show, evoking a hugely emotional response and the clever direction and camera work links us to her viewpoint. It is interesting to see a feuding break-up film through the eyes of the child, who is inevitably affected the most, their outlook deserving of its showcase. Last year, nine year old Quvenzhané Wallis was showered with award nominations for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, showing young stars can now be recognised in the same way as adult actors. It is easy to fall into the trap of saying she was amazing ‘for her age’ but she was incredible for any age and makes this film a faultless masterpiece.
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