Movie Review: Maggie’s Plan, directed by Rebecca Miller

maggies-plan-poster

Poster for Maggie’s Plan

A general statement would be that I greatly admire Ethan Hawke’s movies. (His “serious” movies. I’ve never seen his more commercial work.) Just as true is the fact that I rarely like the characters Ethan Hawke plays in these movies. Too often they seem to me to be self-involved posers. To wit, while I truly love the three Richard Linklater films (Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, and Before Midnight), I do not like the Ethan Hawke character, particularly in the last. (As his success as a writer grows in these movies, so does his self-involvement and pomposity.) I believe that Hawke himself to be an interesting, knowledgeable and intellectual artist, honest about his art and serious about his decisions, but playing one on film is another thing. My god, the most annoyingly self-centered intellectual twit of all time is Hamlet, and Ethan Hawke’s version of the character is true to form. Though I love this version of Hamlet, I’m pretty glad when Hawke’s Hamlet gets it in the end (by gun this time rather than sword.)

Having said that, Maggie’s Plan is a sweet, whimsical film, filled with quirky performances and centered around the Ethan Hawke typical role–a wannabe novelist, anguishing over his work, and pretty sure the world revolves around him.

'Maggie's Plan' Film Set

Greta Gerwig as Maggie. Photo Credit: Kristin Callahan/ACE/INFphoto.com Ref: infusny-220

Quickly, the film concerns a young girl in New York, Maggie (Greta Gerwig) who wants to get pregnant. She finds a potential sperm donor–a friend from her undergraduate days in Wisconsin (Travis Fimmel). However, at the same time she meets  John (Ethan Hawke) a  professor at New York’s New School where she also works.

And so, they begin an affair.

John is writing a novel, and is not getting the support he wants from his wife Georgette, a superstar intellectual played by Julianne Moore, who hilariously uses an accent that channels Madeline Kahn from her Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles days. John begins having Maggie read his work-in-progress, which is basically how he seduces her.

Hawke and Gerwig

Quickly Maggie and John get married, they have a child, and just as quickly she wants to give him back to his wife. His self-centeredness is simply too much to cope with. So elaborate plans are made to “return him.” (This could be the “Maggie’s plan” of the title, or it could be her strategy to have a child.)The plot to get the original husband and wife together is humorous and flawed and is the gist of the film.

Helping Maggie along are her two friends Tony and Felicia, played by Bill Hader and Maya Rudolf. Both of these actors continue to grow their talents in a variety of interesting projects, and in Maggie’s Plan, they make the most of the minutes they are on the screen.

Maggie herself is quirky and likeable and somewhat innocent. Her wardrobe (which seems to be what can only be called 1950s Wisconsin-chic) places her as an outsider in savvy New York, and her contact with the intimidating Georgette only underscores this.

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Maggie (Greta Gerwig) reveals her plan to Georgette (Julianne Moore)

Maggie’s Plan is light fare–so much lighter than director Rebecca Miller’s previous work. There is a sweet and satisfying (though hinted at) ending and there are some wonderful performances. (Again, Julianne Moore is hilarious, and seems as if she is enjoying playing so over-the-top.)

It is not the kind of film where one goes for  coffee afterwords to deconstruct and analyze it–and it is not intended to be such. Maggie’s Plan is simply a pleasant way to pass a few hours in the summer.

 

 

 

Movie Review: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, dir.)…verisimilitude in film

“Verisimilitude” is a word I know from movie criticism and from literary criticism. I define it as a strict faithfulness to the truth of reality. And it is a concept that the movie director, Richard Linklater, has striven for in his triology, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. In many ways he has succeeded.

For those who don’t know, in 1995, Linklater cast his stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in the first movie, Before Sunrise, as young twenty-somethings who meet on a train from Budapest to Vienna, who spend a day and night together and go their separate ways. (That the day is June 16th, the day that James Joyce met his life partner Nora Barnacle and the day that his novel Ulysses takes place is one of the many Joycean allusions in the triology.)

Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) in Before Sunrise

Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke)
in Before Sunrise (1995)

To be truthful to his quest for truthfulness, Linklater nine years later, cast the same two actors to play the same characters who happen to meet again nine years later. This time Hawke’s Jesse is on a book tour in Paris when Delpy’s Celine meets him. His book–which fictionalizes the day they had spent together a decade ago–is a success. They spend this second time together walking through Paris before he must fly back to America. (Because the film takes place in mid-afternoon, Linklater only shot at that time to get the light exactly right. This is verisimilitide. )

Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) in  Before Sunset2004

Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) in
Before Sunset 2004

Now in the summer of 2013, we catch up once more with Jesse and Celine. As it is with the actors, it is with the characters–nine more years have passed for both. Now, in Before Midnight, Celine and Jesse have been together for nearly a decade. They have twin girls, and Jesse’s son with his ex-wife, now a young boy going into high-school, has spent the summer with his father and his new family in Greece.

In fact, as the film begins, Jesse is dropping his son off at the airport for the return flight home. Jesse is now a very successful novelist, having written two critically and commercially acclaimed novels (both based on the events that we saw in the previous two movies.) However, he is unhappy about his distance from his son and is toying with the idea of moving his European family to Chicago to be closer to the boy.

The film is divided into three basic scenes: the trip to the airport, a dinner at the villa they are sharing, and a night at hotel together without their daughters (a gift from their friends at the villa.) In the first scene, we see Jesse struggling with saying farewell to his son, Celine announcing that she has the opportunity to change jobs, and the two bantering amicably in the car, both daughters asleep in the back seat. However, Celine does not like the idea of a move to America or the prospect of refusing the career opportunity that has just now cropped up.

Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) in Before Midnight (2013)

Celine and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke)
in Before Midnight (2013)

The second scene is at their villa where the males sit outside discussing literature while Celine and the women prepare the dinner. It is light, gregarious, and beautiful–but you feel the emotion lying low within Celine. The dinner itself is wonderful. At turns, amusing, intelligent, and poignant, the conversation is witty and enjoyable. There is a tad of acid in some of Celine’s comments, but for the most part, it is a dinner which I very much would have liked to have joined.

As a gift, their friends have bought them a child-free night in a hotel in the local town. After dinner, the two walk into town, talk, reminisce, and plan for the future. In the lobby, Jesse is recognized and asked to sign a book. Celine is also asked, as the reader assumes (correctly) that she is the woman whom Jesse writes about. She reluctantly agrees.

The night however does not go exactly the way they had planned.

Like its predecessors, Before Midnight is wonderful because it seems real. (There’s that “verisimiltude” again.) People talk, plan, argue, hurt, and enjoy. There are no cataclysmic disasters pushing them into conflict, no terrorists to fight, no snarky humor to overcome. It is simply two people at a patch in their relationship that is proving a little rough. In their forties now (both the actors and the characters), they are looking at life differently and with more cognizance of its quick passing. If I have problem, it is that Celine’s outburst–while we anticipate its coming–still seems to come out of nowhere. But it is wonderfully honest and wonderfully real.

But, maybe that’s the truth of life–and the truth of relationships–we know little of the turmoil going on in a partner’s soul. Maybe that’s the truth of the movie.

And while Hawke and Delpy have comfortably grown into their parts for the past two decades and while the small supporting cast is more than excellent (Walter Lassally as the aging writer with whom they are staying, Xenia Kalogeropoulou as his widowed friend, and Yiannis Papadopoulos and Athina Rachel Tsangari as the couple who present them with the child-free night), it is the setting that struck me most. Filmed on the southern Peloponnesian coast, it is filled with gorgeous coastline, quaint villages, memorable sunsets, and illuminating sunlight. When I got home from the film, I spent the next two days searching real-estate in the area.

I spent two weeks there once. I wouldn’t mind spending more.

Here’s the trailer, if you want:

Movie Review: Much Ado About Nothing dir. Joss Whedon…another inevitable comparison

Claudio in Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing

Fran Kranz as Claudio in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing

The summer of 2013 began with the release of Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby, and everyone was in a race to compare it with the Robert Redford version from the 1970s. To be truthful, I never cared for Redford as Gatsby, but thought the rest of the cast was spot on. The opposite goes with Baz Luhrman’s film, in which I prefer DiCaprio’s Gatsby to the rest of the cast.

Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby (1974)

Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby (1974)

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby 2013

Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby (2013)

But we forgot about all that–and rather quickly– before the summer actually began, and now we have a new version of another “classic” work of literature: Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Joss Whedon, which must undoubtedly be compared with the Kenneth Branagh version of 1993.

The story behind Whedon’s project is fun. It was something that he had long wanted to do, and finally his wife suggested that instead of going away on vacation for their 20th-anniversary, they make the film. And they did…entirely in their gorgeous home. Whedon gathered many of the actors who had played in his previous productions, and the first that Hollywood knew about the film was when they announced that photography had been completed. They had wrapped things up in 12 days.

Whedon chose to film in black-and-white which gives the film a stylish patina. And yet, I found it drained some of the emotion from the story. Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker) are likeable enough, and quite funny at times, but they shine mostly when they are apart…there are few sparks when they are together. Invariably, one has to compare them to Kenneth Brannagh and Emma Thompson–whose fire (both on film and personally) was palpable. And the golden sunlight of Tuscany, the shimmering palette of the entire film, gives Brannagh’s version a much richer patina.

Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedck

Amy Acker as Beatrice and Alexis Denisof as Benedck

Emma Thompson as Beatrice and Kenneth Brannagh as Benedick (1993).

Emma Thompson as Beatrice and Kenneth Brannagh as Benedick (1993).

Whedon’s actors all handle the dialog well and naturally, and after a few minutes you might even forget you are listening to Shakespearean English.

In both films, the constabulary are very good–verbal slapstick and mental banana skins. Nathan Fillon’s doltish Dogberry in Whedon’s film is every bit as memorable–and laugh-inducing– as Michael Keaton’s dimwitted portrayal in the 1993 version.

And the performance of Clark Gregg, as Leonato, Hero’s father is likeable and believeable. Much of the audience will quickly forget that he is Agent Phil Coulson of the Avenger’s franchise (also by Joss Whedon).

Clark Gregg as Leonato and Jillian Morgese as Hero

Clark Gregg as Leonato and Jillian Morgese as Hero

However, there are a few choices that Whedon made that I am not so sure about. The character of Conrade, for example, which was played by Richard Clifford in the Brannagh version has now been changed to a female role, played by Riki Lindhome. This in itself is usually not a problem. For instance, in Michael Almareyda’s Hamlet (starring Ethan Hawke), Marcello was changed to Marcella and played by Paula Malcomson. But nothing is changed, the part is minor, and her lines are few. In Whedon’s Much Ado…, the Conrade character is quite sexy and there is even a bit of titillating bed-play between her and Don John (Sean Maher), although the words of the play would not lead us to think so.

There is also a scene that is not in the play–during the opening credits–where Benedick sneaks out of Beatrice’s bed in the early morn. Beatrice lies there feigning sleep, but slyly opening her eyes as he dresses and leaves. We are left with the vision of her wide awake in bed, with eyes that speak of her aloneness. If this scene is supposed to prepare us for the friction between the two when the play proper begins, it fails.

Whedon shares writing credits with William Shakespeare, and, to be honest, he does a very admirable job. He has cut judiciously, and the only time he has changed the language was in Act 2 where he excised an anti-Semitic remark and changed it to a statement about love’s foolishness. The new line flows seamlessly into the original.

In all, I prefer the Brannagh version, but that is not to dismiss Whedon’s, which also I like very much. Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing is inventive and imaginative and aimed at a whole new audience. The filming is crisp, fresh, and confidant–and quite stylish. Whedon has successfully taken Shakespeare out of the classroom and made it very hip, without destroying the story at all. It is certainly worth viewing…and more than once. If this was his gift for his 20th anniversary, I hope he tackles another Shakespeare title before his 40th anniversary comes around.

Here is the very elegant and engaging trailer: