‘Rosewater’ Movie Review 0 49

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This year political satirist, comedian and presenter Jon Stewart leaves behind his long-running Daily Show after a decade at the helm. And you can’t help but feel that part of his reason for leaving is to pursue other creative avenues, the first of which is becoming a fully-fledged filmmaker in his own right.

His debut feature is Rosewater and with it he shows great promise as a filmmaking talent to watch for the future. It tells the deeply political true life story of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) living in London with his pregnant wife. While out in Iran covering the infamous 2009 presidential election and as a result of a spoof interview he did that year with Jason Jones of The Daily Show, he is detained by Iranian forces and brutally interrogated for months under suspicion that he is actually a spy.

The first third of Stewart’s film is basically a “class is in session” lecture (in the best sense of the word) about some very recent, still-pertinent world history that tries to educate anyone not in the know about the Iranian political situation and people living in it. It’s never laborious, however, choosing to put things in context rather than attempting the impossible task of exploring the infinite complexities of East vs. West ideology, politics and religion. There’s heavy use of some rather nifty visual trickery in this first segment of the film such as projections of news footage and graphs appearing on walls as Bahari walks down the street and this gives the film a unique, stylish quality to lift it above being a depressing misery-fest.

That lightness of touch is further achieved in the film’s surprisingly carefree sense of humour that, while it never undermines or undervalues the seriousness of its subject matter in any way, sees the funny side of the warped logic used to justify Bahari’s imprisonment and constant spotlight of suspicion and deep-rooted mistrust shone upon him.

That being said the film takes its complex and difficult themes very seriously, none more so than in the harrowing interrogation scenes that make up most of the film’s runtime. They’re by no means visually graphic as some movies of this kind have been in the past (it was said they didn’t want to numb the audience to the torture by being relentlessly brutal about it) but Stewart rather skilfully conveys the sense of constriction, helplessness and desperation felt by Bahari as he is left to rot in a tiny solitary room – with only conversations with his imagined dead father as company – in between intensely traumatic bouts of so-called questioning at the hands of a particularly ruthless interrogator. Sometimes it might feel like those scenes get a tad repetitive but that only further highlights the relentless nature of his imprisonment.

Much of the film rests on the shoulders of Bernal and he carries it with great aplomb. It might be a little bit odd that Stewart would cast a Mexican actor as an Iranian but Bernal is such a terrific performer able to embody many things – as he has proven in everything from Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros to Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep – and he conveys all the emotion of a driven and passionate man with his feet swept from under him and his freedom wrongly taken away. Equally good is Kim Bodnia (of Scandinavian TV drama The Bridge fame) as the interrogator who gives the film its name because of the sickly sweet scented perfume he wears. Bodnia, in tandem with Stewart’s script, never paints him as a two-dimensional monster motivated by pure evil but as a fully-formed, believable human being capable of terrible things for all the wrong – or at least misinformed – reasons.

Many first-time directors will choose a low-fi character drama as their first outing, something that allows them to gently cut their teeth in preparation for their big project to come. Not so with Stewart who fires right out of the gate with both barrels blazing, delivering an altogether compelling, shocking, complex and important portrait of a recent injustice that deserves to be told and shouldn’t be forgotten.

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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 0 420

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 0 452

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