Movie reviews: By The Sea is a vanity project
By The Sea - Cert 15A
Published 14/12/2015 | 02:30
Reviewed this week are By The Sea, Grandma, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict, Sisters and The Night Before.
Two of the biggest stars in the world, attached in real life, play a struggling couple onscreen. By The Sea offers a kind of voyeurism in a film that already boasts voyeurism and beautiful people in a beautiful place. It sounds like a great idea and I can see where Angelina Jolie, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, wanted to go with it. But unfortunately it doesn't really get there, and takes quite a while to do so.
By The Sea opens with Vanessa (Jolie) and Roland (Brad Pitt) driving in the South of France in a sports car. He's a writer, she's a retired ballet dancer, and from the moment they arrive in their picturesque hotel it's clear that there are issues. Under the pretence of writing, he drinks alone in the bar run by a wise old sage (Niels Arestrup) while she languishes beautifully alone in the hotel room, venturing out only to buy supplies. She eschews any intimacy but is transfixed by the newlyweds next door (Mélanie Laurent and Melvil Poupand) who have non-stop sex and into whose room there is a convenient spyhole.
It's a vanity project both in that it really needed to be reined in, but wasn't (Pitt speaking French is admirable but unnecessary) and in the endless flattering shots of the two protagonists. Vanessa's clothes (no sign of the tats) are fantastic, she is fully made up at all times and her nipples deserve their own credit. But the style doesn't match the substance, it feels film school-ish, one-dimensional, too long - and why is French screen legend Richard Bohringer sitting silently on a stool? 2 Stars
Everyone could do with an Elle Reid in their lives. The principal character of this wry, perceptive US indie comedy-drama is exactly the kind of person who can always be relied on to administer hard truths and timely kicks to derrières.
Writer-director Chris Weitz (here a million miles from his previous work in American Pie) completed the character with the help of 76-year-old acting legend Lily Tomlin (Big Business, Tea With Mussolini) and the result is one of the most well drawn female protagonists of the year. Elle (Tomlin, right) is a sharp-tongued former academic and poet when we meet her coldly dumping her younger girlfriend. Soon after, her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), turns up at her door with a serious problem on her 19-year-old hands.
Put simply, Sage needs $600 for an abortion that evening. Elle has scissored up her credit cards in a fit of artistic petulance so she rolls up her sleeves and drags Sage across town to call in favours and rough-up debtors. Along the way, her story is teased out with expert timing while some discussion on the hot-potato of abortion is gently engaged. It's also laugh-out-loud funny. Most importantly, Weitz's screenplay does not take things to their logical Hollywood conclusions, instead ending Elle's character arc in a place that is clear-headed and relatable. It may be light on developed male characters but Grandma is a gem amid what has already been a fine 2015 for indie cinema. 4 Stars
In selected cinemas
Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict
Codger alert - but in an age where so many media hours are devoted to people who haven't done a vast amount it is always refreshing to see the story of a fascinating life. And many unsung lives are more fascinating than the famous ones. As the surname suggests, Peggy Guggenheim had a head start on interesting. Her father, along with a woman thought to be his mistress, died on the Titanic leaving his daughters broke (in Guggenheim terms), with just $450,000.
In the 1920s Peggy moved to Paris where she became heavily involved in the art world, mingling with Surrealists and Dadaists, watching Joyce dance jigs and beginning a love life that would prove busy. She married her first husband before moving to London in the 1930s where she used her art connections and her fortune to set up an art dealership. As Hitler over-ran Europe she bought up artworks from artists keen to flee, and moved back to New York where she continued to do what she herself described as "midwifery" to artists.
Lisa Immordino Vreeland directs the doc she co-wrote based on newly discovered tapes of interviews Guggenheim gave in 1978-79. It's great to have the woman herself narrate much of her life, and although as a character study it's superficial, as a life story it is truly fascinating. 3 Stars
Now showing in IFI
Aw. I was really hoping I'd love this. Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, two of the funniest American comedians of recent times - women who are, in no particular order, clever, glam, funny, un-PC, unambiguously feminist mammies - together in a comedy about women by another Saturday Night Live woman, Paula Pell. Gonna be hilarious, right? Well, funny in places unquestionably, but hilarious, no. It plays on the Bridesmaids comparison - but it isn't as good as Bridesmaids.
Kate (Fey) and Maura (Poehler) are sisters who could not be more different. Kate, although older, has always dodged responsibility, leaving Maura to pick up the responsible pieces. Kate has lost yet another job and home and her teenage daughter (Madison Davenport) is refusing to live with her, wherever that might be. When their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest, looking great) decide to sell the family home and move into a retirement facility, the sisters are charged with cleaning their childhood bedroom. They decide to throw one last party, one where Kate will be responsible so Maura can let her hair down and lose her post-divorce virginity, ideally with James (Ike Barinholtz). They invite their old classmates, with the notable exclusion of high- school enemy Brinda (Maya Rudolph) and are swiftly horrified by the ravages middle age wreaks on the capacity for fun.
There are lots of really good observations, some clever lines and none of it too delicate. But some of the scenes just don't work, it is too long in the middle and the ending is lazy. However the leads are appealing, committed and many people at the screening laughed a lot. Anyone keen on a girls' night out will enjoy this, but there was lots of male laughter too. I think I just expected too much. 2 Stars
The Night Before
Schmaltz is a given with any film release at this time of year. Jonathan Levine's new bawdy buddy comedy delivers its mawkish sentimentality only after it has been preceded by all manner of bold carry-on, from liberal cursing to gleeful Class-A drug hoovering. It's not quite at Bad Santa levels of Yuletide depravity, try as it might, but it does assign Christmas Eve the role of 'Hedonism Playground' - before the goo sets in.
This is fine, in principle. However, The Night Before, a 'comedy' that gift-wraps the men-behaving-badly jokes but forgets to leave them under the tree, is only concerned with the most obvious, force-fed rib-ticklers. The insistence by writer-director Levine (Warm Bodies, 50/50) on bromantic in-jokes and high-fiving in the place of real gags gets very tiresome very quickly.
He reunites Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who grows less and less convincing by the release) and Seth Rogen (top, providing some of the scant few chuckles in this comedic Death Valley). The trio is completed by Anthony Mackie. They are the mid-thirties besties who park their respective life stresses by embarking on one last Christmas Eve bender.
Ethan (Gordon-Levitt) lost both his parents and is struggling to make it as a musician. Chris (Mackie) is a rising American football star who is doping himself to get ahead. Rogen, meanwhile, is his usual 'big Jewish bear' character, here being encouraged by his wife (Jillian Bell) to take a night off from their newborn to get reacquainted with rare herbs and prescribed chemicals.
Between the bong blasts, toilet sex and trite humour, there are more notable features. There's Michael Shannon as a murmuring, mystic drug dealer. Miley Cyrus tries - and fails - to atone for crimes against taste with a cameo. And it's no surprise to see James Franco's dim-witted grin popping up.
The irreverent, near-blasphemous air en route to said schmaltz is to be admired. But unless you are particularly ticklish, The Night Before has precious few proper laughs stirring through its house. 2 Stars
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