Meewella | Critic

According to P

QuickView: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (2023)

“It gets tiring. Trying so hard all the time, doesn’t it?”

Barbara Simon

Having spent several years raving about writer-director Kelly Fremont Craig’s debut, The Edge of Seventeen, her name drew me to this film more than the Judy Bloom book on which it is based. The source material is evidently beloved by many and, whilst some consider it strange that it has taken 50 years to receive a film adaptation, the regrettable reason is likely its refreshingly frank discussion of female puberty. Craig sets the film in the 1970s, when the novel was published, a move that serves to highlight the story’s lasting relevance. Margaret is dragged from New York to New Jersey, forced to find a new clique of friends who, on the cusp of adolescence, are desperate for their first period in order to be perceived by their peers as mature. The adult cast features a host of big names — particularly Rachel McAdams in an expanded, sympathetic portrayal of Margaret’s mother as a woman dealing with her own issues of identity — but Craig casts relative newcomers as the children. Abby Fortson and Elle Graham stand out, the former through wry comedic sensibility and the latter through bold charm and energy. Despite the title, religion plays a limited role — Margaret’s parents have sought to escape their Jewish and Christian heritage, resenting interference from the grandparents. In making another coming of age film, Are You There God? falls squarely within Craig’s proven abilities and she again writes a likeable but flawed protagonist and deftly examines the positive and negative aspects of the friendships and familial relationships around Margaret whilst limiting melodrama.


QuickView: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse (2023)

“Everyone keeps telling me how my story supposed to go.”

Miles Morales

Across the Spider-verse embraces its multiverse glitching conceit from its opening logos which flash between styles, displaying a time-consuming attention to detail that is the hallmark of this bigger and bolder sequel that once again outdoes the majority of its live-action counterparts. Whilst Miles Morales originally took us Into the Spider-verse and remains front and centre in the marketing, Across the Spider-verse feels as much Gwen Stacy’s story. She embodies the themes of isolation (“This line of work, you always end up a solo act,” she explains after quitting her band) and Hailee Steinfeld’s voice acting captures a yearning for the understanding and acceptance she found in Miles. In a more overt way than the Loki TV series, we are presented with an interesting view of “the canon” as either inescapable destiny or a restrictive refusal to try to change things — it reflects the artistic conundrum of entertaining audiences with nostalgic familiarity retold in a new guise or seeking growth with something new that could result in disaster. Lesser-known, bumbling villain Spot provides the story’s catalyst, but it is Miguel — the severe leader of a Spider-Society working to protect the canon — who acts as Miles’ chief antagonist. Unfortunately, Miguel remains largely unknown even as the credits roll and this feeds into the film’s structural weakness as an incomplete story: by not marketing itself as a two-part story, Across the Spider-verse is likely to leave many unsatisfied by a truncated ending to be concluded in next year’s Beyond the Spider-verse. Everything else is an elevation of its predecessor’s artistic flair, irreverent comedy, and earnest narrative. The anarchic Spider-Punk is a perfect example, initially feeling about four decades out of date with his newsprint styling, but becoming both characterful and plot-relevant in his anti-authoritarianism. Deeper and perhaps less joyful than its predecessor, Across the Spider-verse is another high water mark that highlights the staleness of the live action superhero genre.


QuickView: Sisu (2022)

“He just refuses to die.”


The title referring to a Finnish concept of extreme courage that arises once all hope is lost, vengeful and relentless protagonist Aatami is like an alternate reality John Wick seen through a Tarantino-like lens of Western-inspired landscapes and indulgent violence complete with chapter headings. From Jalmari Helander, the writer/director of the wonderfully weird Christmas-themed Finnish horror Rare Exports, there is plenty of creativity as the grizzled soldier-turned-gold-prospector faces off against a group of murderous Nazis as World War II draws to a close. The use of Nazi enemies provides a safe justification for enjoying the violence, brutal enough to cause the viewer to flinch on multiple occasions. The scarred Aatami is like an undying revenant, his wartime exploits shrouded in myth, almost zombie-like in the injuries he ignores, stapling himself back together. The “hunters become the hunted” tale is flimsy at best, the Nazi convoy and captive women adding a touch of Fury Road but without Miller’s powerful excess. Tone is more important than story, Helander using arresting anachronistic juxtaposition like a prospector by a campfire under a sky of warplanes, or a horse rider confronting a tank. The cinematography cannot quite compete with its various inspirations but there is still beauty, like dusk shots as the light bleeds through the mist. Sisu is stylish if insubstantial, then, but its swift pace and lean running time make it easy to recommend to those seeking a fresh violent delight.


QuickView: C’mon C’mon (2021)

“I’m not fine and that’s a totally reasonable response!”


Precocious younger children in films have a tendency to be written as cloyingly sweet or unrealistically witty, a trap that Mike Mills largely avoids with Jesse — this is elevated by Woody Norman’s naturalistic performance, as infuriating as he is charming, and knowledgeable without undue wisdom. C’mon C’mon’s overarching theme is fear and hope for the future, explored most overtly through genuine interviews with American children who candidly articulate their concerns to radio journalists played by Joaquin Phoenix and Radiolab producer Molly Webster. This is crystallised in Jesse who has a general awareness that his neurodivergent father is troubled and fears the same fate will befall him. Whilst his mother tends to his father, Jesse is left in the care of his uncle Johnny, whom Phoenix portrays as unprepared but not unwilling. As an uncle to a fascinatingly intelligent nephew, I was immediately drawn into this relationship, presented not in idealised fashion but with insecurity and rage alongside the friendship blossoming between them. Set across LA, New York and New Orleans, the black and white cinematography renders the cities more orderly without the cacophony of colour, in a way that suits the focus on audio recording. Whilst there is a slight air of artificiality to its setup, C’mon C’mon is successful in highlighting children’s own oft-ignored anxiety for the future rather than merely using them as a mirror for adults’ apprehension.


QuickView: Close (2022)

“Imagine that you are a very small chicken. You just hatched. You just opened your eyes for the first time.”


A heartbreaking look at adolescence and masculinity, Lukas Dhont’s second feature explores the relationship between two 13-year-old boys in the Belgian countryside as their inseparable childhood friendship is disrupted by starting a new school. Léo and Rémi’s tactile relationship draws comments from their peers, causing Léo to pull away and divert his focus to rough-and-tumble ice hockey. This simple depiction of the destructive power of societal expectation has wider consequences as Close unfolds, but Dhont’s direction is restrained, at its best when the camera lingers on an actor’s expression as they watch someone. Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele are both impressive in their first feature, particularly Dambrine’s depiction of Léo’s guilt over the loss a friendship. What is more devastating is how isolating that pain becomes, reinforcing how early boys are denied the ability to expose vulnerability and seek support — one student claims only to cry through anger, not sadness. An explosive confrontation late in the film does not feel as natural as what came before, but nor does it detract from the film’s powerful effect. Indeed, Close ultimately provides a similar catharsis to the excellent Manchester By The Sea with its own character study in unresolved grief.


QuickView: A Field in England (2013)

“It does not surprise me that the Devil is an Irishman, though I thought perhaps a little taller.”


A hallucinatory experience set during the English Civil War, realism waxes and wanes throughout A Field in England, its occult themes obtusely depicted through contemporaneous folklore imagery like mushroom circles whilst eschewing expository explanation. Throughout much of his directorial career, Ben Wheatley has surrounded himself with same creative cadre from film to film, including writer Amy Jump and cinematographer Laurie Rose. Shooting in black and white (which was experiencing a revival in the early 2010s) allows the audience to take in the texture of costumes and landscapes without the garish overload of colourful uniforms that would detract from the actors. It also no doubt helped a tight shooting schedule on a frugal budget of under £350,000. A Field in England is interspersed with tableaux vivants, awkwardly staged by the characters as a visual language pre-dating the dawn of cinema, a medium that would make sense to the characters if not the audience. Meanwhile disjointed depictions wrong-foot the viewer like diagetic singing around a campfire, accompanied by a lute from nowhere. The overall result is ethereal filmmaking, physically constrained to a single field yet broader in imaginative scope.


QuickView: After Midnight (2019)

“It’s human nature. We’ve been letting our imaginations draw faces on the noises in the dark since we were living in caves. And we always draw sharp teeth.”


Since 2010’s Monsters, I have been fascinated by the subset of indie monster movies that use the genre as a setting rather than a focus, instead using this backdrop to explore the human relationships which form the heart of the movie. After Midnight falls squarely into this category, as a bartender barricades his house from a creature which seemingly appears just as his long-term girlfriend leaves without explanation. The project is co-directed by Jeremy Gardner (who wrote the script and stars) and Christian Stella (also the cinematographer). For the first half of the film, the absent Abby is seen entirely through repeated flashbacks — the familiar, lazy Hollywood trope of a man remembering a sweet, smiling woman without any depth at all. Thankfully, that changes entirely in the second half, where Brea Grant is able to provide a far more nuanced performance that tackles the difficulties in the pair’s relationship, which becomes the crux of the film. Sidelining the monster aspect in this way will no doubt frustrate those hoping for standard genre fare, and the blending of disparate styles in romantic drama, psychological horror and a monster movie will alienate others. Due perhaps to its ambiguous target audience, After Midnight is an underrated indie horror that, whilst not successful in everything it tries, presents fresh ideas in a bold package and — clocking in at under 90 minutes — does so without the bloat that often results from mixing genres. If nothing else, its ending is guaranteed to provoke a reaction.


QuickView: The Daughter (2015)

The Daughter poster

“Everyone’s got a story like this… it’s as old as the hills.”


Densely packed with interrelated characters tying together two families who harbour a number of secrets, The Daughter explores whether some secrets are best left concealed rather than forced destructively into the open. Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck provides the relationships and the central theme (as well as Hedvig’s name, distractingly conspicuous in the modern Australian setting). A remote logging town in its death throes provides a precarious backdrop to intense drama and an illustrious Australian ensemble cast imbues even supporting roles with depth. Unfortunately The Daughter eventually veers from bubbling tension into overwrought melodrama, resulting in a less satisfying final act once secrets are revealed than the careful build-up which led there.


QuickView: Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie (2023)

“Actors don’t become actors because they are brimming with self confidence. An actor’s burning ambition is to spend as much time as possible pretending to be somebody else.”

Michael J. Fox

I rarely read autobiographies — in part because I don’t believe that being famous automatically gives one a greater insight into the human condition — but one that has stayed with me is Michael J. Fox’s 2002 memoir Lucky Man, written a few years after he went public with his young onset Parkinson’s diagnosis. Twenty years later, Davis Guggenheim’s documentary is a very similar experience, allowing Fox to narrate his life story with the same incurable optimism whilst also showing more vulnerability — there is footage of him falling during physiotherapy, covering bruises with makeup (“Gravity is real, even if you only fall from my height”), whilst interview segments show him struggling at times to speak clearly as he balances the timing of his medication. Whilst Fox narrates, Guggenheim illustrates his rise to fame using thematically relevant scenes from Fox’s work — it is more effective than one might expect, particularly with his breakout sitcom Family Ties. Conversely, with hindsight it is is fascinating to see Fox visibly masking his symptoms in footage from Spin City. His positive tone is mirrored by a light and upbeat score that avoids saccharine sentimentalism. Though Still may hew closely to the stereotypical rise and fall documentary, there is a depth evident the multifaceted title which refers simultaneously to Fox’s inability to remain still as an energetic child, his concealment of his Parkinson’s tremors for seven years, how he has been forced to be still and present in his life, and the fact he is still here. Perhaps most moving is an unguarded moment in which Fox admits the strain he feels in needing to present a positive image as an advocate for those with Parkinson’s, to which his physiotherapist suggests he should not always be holding himself to that public role, “It’s okay not to be Michael J. Fox sometimes”. Still may not cover new ground as a documentary, but its autobiographical nature makes it more personal, elevated by Fox’s grace and good humour.


Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.

QuickView: Driven (2018)

“The darkest dark is the dark beside the spotlight. You can do anything there and no one seems to notice.”

John DeLorean

Ostensibly covering the scandal which engulfed the respected car designer John DeLorean which he tried to establish the DeLorean Motor Company, Driven is oddly written in a way that largely sidelines both the man and his iconic car. Instead, the focus is on the affable FBI informant who was involved in setting him up, a mustachioed Jason Sudeikis seemingly test running the performance that would later become Ted Lasso. This approach provides a light-hearted tone with a character easy to root for, but it robs the film of much of its real-world interest in favour of a by-the-numbers sting. The DeLorean’s futuristic design with its immediately-recognisable gull-wing doors, and the compromises that undermined its launch, are worth of centre-stage but are relegated almost to a McGuffin. Working with very little, Lee Pace impressively imbues John with determination and a quiet, tragic depth — there are similarities with his role in Halt and Catch Fire, a series which far better captured the entrepreneurial struggle and spirit of the 1980s. The period setting is effective, in the colour grading as much as the wide-collar constuming. Driven is a forgettable joyride, sufficiently enjoyable in the moment but derivative and ill-focused.


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