It’s the June round-up!
Always Be My Maybe
As kids, and then teenagers, Sasha (Ali Wong) and Marcus (Randell Park) are inseparable, until the awkward moment when their friendship crosses some boundaries. Years later Sasha is a successful, but perpetually stressed, chef dealing with a new restaurant opening and a vacuous fiancee, while Marcus remains at home, serving as his father’s caregiver and still playing with his high school band. When fate puts the two back together, there is a chance to answer the crucial question of “What if?”
This, I think, would be a film remarkable only for it’s Asian-American leads – minorities as the rom-com principals is getting less and less rare, but no so much yet that it isn’t worth noting – if not for the involvement of the internet’s current meme-generating messiah Keanu Reeves, who pops up to play what I can only assume is a warped version of himself for the second act. Up to then Always Be My Maybe has dabbled with being different from the formula, and inventive with its story, but it takes Reeves’ film-stealing show to really make the thing stand-out.
And that’s a shame because there is plenty to get excited about here. Wong and Park are both good as the conversely neurotic and issue-laden central duo. The snark flows with abandon in their snappy back-and-forth, and Park especially makes as much as he can from a very rare central role. They have obvious chemistry, but they only really excel when others are in the picture, like the aforementioned Reeves – who spends a scene in an upmarket restaurant weeping while listening to the sounds of the animal he is consuming – but also Vivian Bang as Marcus’ annoying quirky girlfriend, Daniel Dae Kim as Sasha’s way-too-enlightened fiancee and a really charming James Saito as Marcus’ father (he describes Sasha as an “Asian Oprah” then asks, in deadly old man earnest “How much money do you have now?”).
In that sense Always Be My Maybe is a decent ensemble piece, where for too long only two of the cast are on-screen. There are some excellent shots taken at the pretentiousness of the restaurant industry (“Let me ask, do you have any dishes that play with time? With the concept of time?”), and Park’s band – the aptly named “Hello Peril” – steal a few scenes here and there.
Much like Trainwreck or Isn’t It Romantic, and to a lesser extent Set It Up, Always Be My Maybe has pretensions of blowing the rom-com genre out of the water, but ultimately sticks rigidly to everything you have come to expect of it. Perhaps I am overly-harsh on such a flaw, but I feel like there is more to be mined from this genre’s seam. There are some troubling aspects of proceedings too, such as the reason for the main two’s initial falling out. Sasha initiates sex with Marcus shortly after the death of his mother, which leads to a destruction of their friendship when he doesn’t know how to handle the emotional implications: if the genders were reversed, it would be one of the creepiest scenes of the year.
Always Be My Maybe doesn’t have enough going for it for a viewer to be able to look past this glaring problem. It is generally as OK as a direct-to-streaming rom-com can be, but without Reeves this would be a whisper in the wind. Partly recommended.
I Am Mother
In a future where humanity has apparently been wiped out in a self-inflicted cataclysm, the robotic AI “Mother” (Rose Byrne) raises a single embryo from a stock of thousands in an underground bunker complex. When “Daughter” (Clara Rugaard) grows up, she starts asking difficult questions about the outside world, a situation exacerbated when a “Woman” (Hilary Swank) starts hammering on the door.
Netflix has become the apparent go-to place for low budget high-concept sci-fi, and why not if they continue to get behind projects like this? I Am Mother proceeds with a fairly simple idea, one that you couldn’t even call all that original: a bottle-episode sci-fi tale, with only two human cast members and one voice. But even if it is following in the wake of efforts like Moon or Orbiter 9, I Am Mother still manages to stake its own claim, through a focus on maternal bonds and the ever-lingering question of who or what to trust in extreme situations. If I was to compare I Am Mother to another sci-fi film, it would not be those mentioned above, but 2018’s Annihilation, by virtue of the fact that both are almost entirely female-populated science fiction tales. It seems to be catching on a tad, and that is no bad thing.
In a three-hander like this, in a very limited internal environment, you need your cast to be doing their damnedest, and the triumvirate of Rugaard, Swank and Byrne mostly do so. The relatively new Rugaard shines as Daughter, taking her first steps of adulthood in very strange circumstances, Swank is appropriately desperate and manic as the outsider Woman, and Byrne, in a role very much outside her typical fare, gives an excellent depiction of a maternal AI, programmed to be, or at least to appear, nurturing, while concealing some very important information from her charge.
Themes of maternal instinct and parental trust are all over I Am Mother, where the struggle between Mother, Daughter and Woman become a microchasm for the human race in general, particularly on the issue of lies we tell our children. It’s cleverly done, taking advantage of the limited space of the setting to tell a story that swings between idealistic in its optimism and doom-laden in its cynicism. Suffice to say, the film gives you only an open-ended answer to questions about the survivability of the human race.
If you were to criticise I Am Mother for its looks, you would definitely point at the over-the-top spartan-ness of the bunker where Mother and Daughter live, which calls attention to the fact that it’s probably a deserted factory set somewhere. Other than that Grant Sputore actually does a great job in the presumably frugal circumstances. The landscapes of a ruined Earth are well realised, and the CGI/prop work of Mother is exemplary: for that, the props need to go to Weta, who have long since graduated from Middle-Earth to become one of the industry’s best production organisations. Clever, deep and with some great performances, this is recommended.
In 1984, footballing prodigy Diego Maradona signs for Serie A Side Napoli, amid a furore of press interest. With him, the club, and their long suffering supporters, will enjoy their greatest period of success, but after reaching his apogee, Maradona will experience one of the most dramatic falls in footballing history.
I have been late to the game for both of Asif Kapadia’s critically acclaimed biopic documentaries, but enjoyed both Amy and Senna when I did get the chance, with the latter being part of the reason for a resurrection of my interest in motorsport as of late. Kapadia has a way with his subjects, of crafting a documentary that is certainly driven by a documentarian’s narrative, but which still seems adapt at giving a fully formed view of the individual.
And that is no less the case for his Diego Maradona. The rise and fall of one of the world’s best footballers is a good enough story of its own accord, and the greatest hits fly by. 1986’s World Cup is given an obvious spotlight, but Diego Maradona remains primarily the story of how the title character crashed and burned at club level, with his international exploits just fuel to that fire (Ireland’s dear departed Jimmy Magee gets a cameo for the sections on Italia 90).
That’s before you get into the myriad of intricacies that surrounded the man during his time at Napoli: how he catapulted an unexceptional team into the heights of Serie A; his numerous love affairs, and unacknowledged children; his friendships with local mafia kingpins; his Godlike status among fans of club and country; his spectacular breaking point with Italy in 1990; and the cocaine fuelled descent into ignominy, obesity and mania.
The picture you get is of a man with a friendly, engaging and even charming private persona, and an outrageous, dangerous and self-destructive public one, a dichotomy summed up by his personal trainer as “Diego” and “Maradona”. The public one takes over as time goes on, to the point that “Diego” pretty much vanishes: with every success comes more pressure, and with every bit of extra pressure comes more recourse to drugs and other vices. The final tailspin leaves us with a pathetic malcontent whose entire career, for club, country, and in management, ended in ignominy; he’s left crying in TV interviews.
Kapadia, as is his style, lets this play out with very little active involvement, refraining from narration and limiting himself to some very basic text crawls. Everything else is archive footage and interviews with the man himself as well as a host of journalists, teammates, girlfriends and family members. The director focuses up on Maradona’s face in interviews to wordlessly tell a story, to great effect, whether it’s his concerned confusion when asked about the Naples mafia in his first press conference with the club, or his absent-minded misery at a Christmas party years later when he is desperate to leave.
Kapadia ultimately manages to give us some understanding into what lead to Maradona’s spectacular fall from grace, to the point that he remains largely a figure of buffoonery nowadays. It’s good to be reminded of the days when he dribbled his way into legend, and of how easily he threw it all away. Recommended.
On the occasion of Rebecca’s (Rachel Dratch) 50th birthday, a group of friends – plan focused Abby (Amy Poehler), work obsessed Catherine (Ana Gasteyer) and, awaiting medical news, Naomi (Maya Rudolph), among others – gather for a celebration in a country house. There, barely hidden stresses in their personal lives and relationships rapidly come to the fore, in an increasingly wine-fuelled weekend.
Perhaps I can be forgiven for having a look at this and thinking that I was going to be watching something akin to Bridesmaids. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The all-female cast, including the excellent Rudolph, parts of the premise, it seemed like it was heading in that direction. I mean, there are some comedy greats in this cast, and none of them are doing bad work per say.
But I was wrong about what I thought this film would be. Wine Country perhaps aims to hit the heights of Bridesmaids, but if that was the goal, it misses it by a fair margin. It isn’t that the film is not funny. It is, in large stretches. But it just isn’t that funny. Wine Country, in the end, turns into a bit of a slog, too long by a good twenty minutes, and too wrapped up in the drama part of the dramedy.
So yes, all of these middle-aged women have issues (established in some outright painful exposition dumps early on) and you bet they are going to come out into the open in a stress-free weekend turned stressful. Abby can’t stop planning things down to the last detail, Naomi can’t bring herself to call back the doctor about some potentially bad medical news, Catherine is obsessed with sorting out a work contract, Val (Paula Pell) has some serious romantic hang-ups, Jenny (Emily Spivey) is a perpetual worrier. You kinda know how this goes. Drinks, truth, fights, reconciliation. Amy Poehlers’ feature length directorial debut (she’s previously directed TV) goes through the motions, and I wouldn’t say looks very impressive either.
The film only really comes to life in brief moments, such as when a cameoing Tiny Fey is on-screen – I was honestly surprised not to see her on the writing team, as parts of Wine Country feel strongly of her kind of work – when Jason Schwartzman pops in as the cook/driver/annoyance who “comes with the house”, when the party takes in a negatively-tinged tarot card reading, or when the cast take the opportunity to undertake some cruel, but cutting send-ups of stereotypical millennial art hipsters late-on. These are just set-piece moments though: the larger film struggles with its comedic timing and pacing.
Everything else is a regrettably limited series of drunk impressions as the ensemble, literally, stumble around and slur their words, which might be funny to the a certain generation the film is primarily aimed at, but not so much for everyone else. Where something like Bridesmaids pushed the envelope and went for a constant drip of hysterics, Wine Country is too slow-boil and too conservative in what it’s trying to pull off. In the end, it will rank fairly low on the list of otherwise great Fey/Poehler projects. Not recommended, with regret.
(All images are copyright of Netflix and Altitude Film Distribution).