EIFF 2015: ‘Amy’ Review 0 95

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With his Formula 1-themed documentary Senna a few years back, director Asif Kapadia painted a thorough and complex portrait of three-time F1 World Champion Ayrton Senna, a heroic driver cut down in his prime by the talent he had and the industry he so clearly loved.

He does something similar with his latest documentary, focusing this time on the late singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse who died at age just 27, and it’s every bit as compelling and illuminating as his previous film, proving once more that he’s a filmmaker who can jump from subject (matter) with effortless ease.

Using never-before-seen archive footage, photos and deeply personal interviews with family, friends and industry professionals who admired her both from up close and afar – Kapadia makes the brilliant choice to only have them in voice-over rather than the more generic talking heads style appearances –  the director paints an at once compassionate, intimate and detailed portrait of the late musician, immersing viewers in her life as a performer and the destructive ways and personal demons that gripped her off-stage.

It’s a film of real openness and honesty, using construct in filmmaking to enlighten rather than to twist words or events – slick editing doesn’t have to mean concealing the truth – and one that instils the feeling that you’ve truly learned something even about a woman that was, not too long ago, all over the national media on a daily basis. And yet despite its utter frankness throughout – there’s footage and photographs towards the end of her physical state that are shocking – it’s also not a film that judges Winehouse for her behaviour but rather giving a tremendously sympathetic view of her life.

Interestingly it shows a different side to the usual self-destructive drug addict behaviour story in that it portrays a group of enablers and or at least those who could see her problems but did little stop it, either through passiveness, being ill-equipped to handle the situation or just plain using it to their advantage/exploiting it; for example, there’s a point where she goes on holiday to St. Lucia to try and get off drugs, her father (who was barely around when she was a kid) shows up with a camera crew for a TV show.

There are shades of light and dark in the film, and the former stops it from being the entirely morose affair that it could have been, but also a feeling that lightness is being stripped away piece by piece and, of being pushed towards a tragic conclusion even if you’re willing it to somehow not be the case, just as it was in the singer’s life itself. It’s also a film that truly celebrates her musical talents, both her voice and her evident lyrical prowess – often visualised with the words appearing on-screen like poems – which saw her go from an ordinary London girl to duetting with her idol Tony Bennett in the space of a few years.

Like Senna before it, Kapadia has managed to make Amy accessible to fans and non-fans alike. Yes, it might hit harder on an emotional level for those who worshiped and adored her but there’s no doubting that this is a universally relatable and tragic story with which anyone can get invested and feel that emotional punch to the stomach once the inevitable strikes towards its conclusion. The titular songstress was a candle that burned twice as bright half as long, and this documentary does an insightful, empathetic and passionate job conveying that.

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 422

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 454

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10