Wish I Was Here Movie Review 0 16

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After a remarkably accomplished debut with ‘Garden State’, actor-writer-director Zach Braff (still probably best known from TV’s ‘Scrubs’) continued to mine a lot of the same ground, to lesser effect, in acting work such as ‘The Ex’ and particularly ‘The Last Kiss’, to name but a couple. Now he’s back in the director’s chair with ‘Wish I Was Here’ and while it may not reach the heights of his debut, he has delivered another impressive film about human connection.

Braff plays Aidan Bloom, a struggling father, husband and actor who is still trying to find a purpose at age 35. With audition after audition but no real acting work on the horizon, he is forced to re-examine his life and starts to learn more about himself after he takes on the responsibility of home schooling his children because his dying father (Mandy Patinkin) can’t afford to keep paying for the school costs.

Braff’s latest film attempts to tackle some complex issues surrounding family life, particularly what it means to be a father in the modern age. His character is an actor who seems to be perpetually auditioning but never really getting there, always chasing a goal of becoming a successful thespian that’s consistently out of reach.

He at first seems to be a vein indie-man child version of the sort of character Adam Sandler usually plays and it almost gets to the point of “Why should we care?” However, Braff is smart enough to go deeper with the character and not making it all about him. In one of the film’s most effective scenes his wife, played by Kate Hudson giving possibly her best performance since Almost Famous, confronts him about her having put her dreams on hold, working in a boring office in order to support him in his quest.

The film flits from comedy to drama at the drop of a hat, sometimes working in the films favour, while others working against it. Often it provides for a nice meshing of comedy and tragedy, from the funny scenes with Aidan trying to home-school his children – played by Joey King and Pierce Gagnon (you may remember him as the little boy from ‘Looper’) – to the extremely moving scenes at the bedside of his dying father, played with real heart and emotion by Mandy Patinkin. It ties together rather beautifully when the subplot involving Aidan’s brother (played by Josh Gad) not having talked to his father in years comes to the forefront towards the end.

It’s a shame that at other times the mix of tears and laughter feels rather jarring, almost as if Braff is not quite sure which type of film he wants to be making. This spills over into the film’s most fantastical moments in which his character imagines himself as a spaceman-superhero visualised with CGI that looks like it’s been lifted straight from a video game. You can see what he was going for with them but these flights of fancy don’t really work. While they certainly add a certain visual flair to the film, they ultimately get in the way of otherwise grounded storytelling.

We may be firmly in first world problems territory here but Braff’s writing is layered enough for it to be likeably quirky and sincere without tipping over into irksome or self-aggrandizing. It also feels intensely personal, especially when it comes to the aforementioned subplot involving Aidan’s relationship with his estranged brother, which makes sense since Braff co-wrote it alongside his real-life brother, Adam. It’s a film full of little ideas and observations about life. While many of them may exceed his grasp, he has nevertheless made an admirably ambitious and genuinely heartfelt film that proves his first effort wasn’t just a lucky fluke.

This review was previously published on Scotcampus.

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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 0 358

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 0 388

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