Film review: MAGGIE’S PLAN, from ‘Built For Speed’

Somewhere between endearingly quirky and irritatingly pretentious writer director Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan is the latest in what could be termed the alternative rom-com genre, a filmmaking style typified by the works of Noah Baumbach. It’s also part of that growing cinematic sub-genre, the Greta Gerwig film, in which Gerwig plays the lovably ditzy but still capable and philosophical young woman trying to negotiate romance and New York bohemia. Needless to say those who love Gerwig’s shtick will embrace this film while those who recoil at her kooky characters will be grinding their teeth throughout.

In this film Gerwig plays Maggie, a 30-something woman who decides she needs to have a baby but is unwilling to commit to a relationship and instead seeks a semen donation for artificial insemination. In the midst of this she encounters John (Ethan Hawke), a new lecturer in something called crypto-ficto anthropology at the university where she works. Falling for John, who is unhappily married to a severe Euro-intellectual ice queen Georgette (Julianne Moore), Maggie soon finds herself in the middle of a strange love triangle. As this odd situation developes Maggie, who has always organised people’s lives, hatches a strange plan which she thinks will resolve the situation for everyone.

Like recent Cameron Crowe films, Maggie’s Plan struggles to find a clear and satisfying tone as it drifts from relationship drama to quirky comedy to satire of bourgeois intellectual manners. It seems Miller was so enamoured of a particular type of young hip academic that she created the story simply to enter their world. Consequently, the plot lacks momentum and dramatic punch. The same could be said of some films by Woody Allen, a director whose work this film at times recalls, although Woody is able to explore psychology and characters quirks in a more insightful and funny way.

That’s not to say Maggie’s Plan fails as a comedy or drama. There are some funny moments particularly when Maggie’s acerbic fiend Tony (Bill Hader) is on screen. Also, the film provides convincing insights into the difficulties of relationships and parenthood. Added to that, the film makes effective use of music – particularly Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark – as an emotional release for the characters and a connection to their fading youth as Gen X-ers.

As Maggie, Greta Gerwig is mostly the same kooky, slightly befuddled character she seems to play in every film. Consequently, it feels odd when the film also tries to claim that she is some sort of disciplined control freak. Regardless, Gerwig still has that enjoyably idiosyncratic way of delivering lines that suggests someone with a slightly askew take on reality.   Ethan Hawke, is disappointing here, after his terrific performances in the Richard Linklater Before Midnight series, he’s bland and doesn’t convince as someone whom two highly intelligent women would desperately pursue. With here ‘Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle’ accent Julianne Moore is something of a caricature as the contemptuous academic Georgette but Moore is such a fine actor that she is able to make this oddball convincing. Maya Rudolph makes the most of an underwritten role as Maggie’s best friend.

Aussie audiences and Vikings fans will be pleased to know Travis Fimmel makes an appearance in this film even though he plays an awkward creepy guy who has pined for Maggie for years.

For those who can’t stand the cast or quirky hipster rom-coms this film will be a chore but for most audiences it will provide just enough enjoyable moments to make it worthwhile.

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: Drama/ romantic comedy.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Rebecca Miller.

Release date: 7th July 2016.

Running time: 98 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


Film review: PREDESTINATION, from Built For Speed

The genesis of Predestination seems to have been a competition to come up with the most brain-twisting time travel story imaginable. Never has a film folded in on itself quite like Predestination.  Based on the Robert Heinlein short story All You Zombies and touching on other time travel and sci-fi films such as Looper, Time Cop and Minority Report, Predestination eschews straightforward narrative for a neuron-twisting, gender-bending puzzle that provides an intriguing intellectual exercise but doesn’t really add up to a complete film.

Predestination stars Ethan Hawke an agent working for a mysterious organisation which has developed the ability to travel through time. Their purpose is to identify perpetrators of mass killings, travel back in time and stop them (generally by killing them). Central to this film is Hawke’s pursuit of a (fictitious) terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber who, in 1975, detonated a massive bomb in New York City.  During his journey through time he encounters a young woman (Sarah Snook) who seems to hold important secrets concerning the bomber and Hawke.

Predestination is the brainchild of writer/directors the Spierig Brothers, who gave us the impressive Vampire thriller Daybreakers.  Like that film Predestination operates on a limited budget but unfortunately this film suffers more from the lack of funds.  Too much of the film looks like it was shot in a couple of rooms and some of the interior sets are unconvincing. Having been shot around Melbourne, the film also suffers the curse of the recognisable locations which evokes memories of the cringe-worthy 1993 Jimmy Smits/ Naomi Watts film Gross Misconduct.

The film also suffers from an occasionally dull script.  The early part of the film is seriously weighed down with exposition and voice-over and much of it simply features Hawke sitting in a bar talking to Sarah Snook who is disguised by heavy prosthetic make up.

The film does up the action quotient considerably in the second half as Hawke closes in on the Fizzle bomber.  The increase in the film’s intensity also coincides, however, with an increase in the brain-boggling strangeness. Previous time travel films have challenged our sense of logic but Predestination goes to an entirely new and bizarre level.  Despite this the film still manages to telegraph its final revelation leaving it somewhat underwhelming.

Hawke is fine if not utterly compelling as the agent but Sarah Snook is terrific in a demanding multi-layered role that should earn her Hollywood attention.  Noah Taylor also appears in a badly underwritten part and has one of the worst American accents in cinema history.

Predestination will probably benefit from repeated viewings which might reveal additional plot subtleties but the initial experience of watching this film may not be enough to inspire that second viewing.

Nick’s rating: **1/2.

Genre: Science Fiction.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): The Spierig Brothers.

Release date: 28th August 2014.

Running time: 137 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

What’s on BUILT FOR SPEED, Friday 29th August 2014

After our focus on Bob Dylan last week Built For Speed returns to more contemporary music with new tracks from Mia Dyson, Morrissey, Bob Mould  and many others.  We also take a look at the latest film for the amazingly prolific Woody Allen with Magic in the Moonlight.  For those who enjoy a brain-twisting time travel fantasy we tell you all about Aussie sci-fi drama Predestination.  Don’t forget our regular preview of gigs and TV for the week.  Check out Built For Speed, Friday 8-10pm on 88.3 Southern FM.

Film review: BEFORE MIDNIGHT, from Built For Speed

Amid the onslaught of chaotic, brain-pummelling effects-driven computer games posing as movies comes romantic drama Before Midnight, a film that actually relies on character development and intelligent dialogue.

Before Midnight is the concluding chapter in the trilogy director Richard Linklater began in 1995 with the much-praised Before Sunrise.  That film saw itinerant American student Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and French student Celine (Julie Delpy) meet on a train and spend a passionate and confessional night together in Vienna.  The sequel, 2004’s Before Sunset saw them meet again as 30-somethings trying to reconcile growing adult responsibility with the unfulfilled dreams of their youth. Like the first film it ended with their relationship in a hopeful but uncertain state.  Before Midnight sees Celine and Jessie now in their early 40’s living together in Paris and parents to twin daughters. The film provides only a few tantalising details about what happened in the ensuing nine years. Their lives and their relationship appear stable but as they head off to a seemingly idyllic holiday in the South Peloponnesus, personal issues and irritations begin to permeate their conversation presaging the conflict that will later threaten their relationship.

This film, like the previous instalments, is composed of thoughtful, articulate and often disturbingly realistic set-piece conversations although this time there’s a lot more arguing. As Hawke and Delpy drift from a sunlit luncheon on a Greek island to the cobblestone streets of an ancient village to the sterile interior of an upmarket hotel, their conversation shifts from playful discussions about literature and virtual reality sex to spiteful bickering about the current state of their lives.

The dialogue, which was written by Linklater, Delpy and Hawke, precisely captures the bitterness, resentment and disappointment that ensnares people as career pressures, family responsibilities and diminishing personal time take their toll.  Delpy and Hawke so precisely evoke the painful emotions, sarcasm and spite of a warring couple that it’s often uncomfortable to watch.   Woven into their conversations and arguments are the themes that have emerged in all three films such as the cruel march of time and the inevitability of death.

While this is a dialogue-driven film, we shouldn’t discount Linklater’s direction.   Tasteful and restrained like Woody Allen at his best, Linklater’s direction gives the language and performances the space to breathe and take full effect.  Linklater’s light touch, philosophical dialogue and use of naturalistic settings also recall the work of the great French director Eric Rohmer.

Before Midnight is a superbly written, powerful but nuanced film that poignantly completes a memorable trilogy.


Nick’s rating: Four stars.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): Richard Linklater.

Release date: 18th July 2013

Running time:  109 mins.