Naivety en­gen­ders joy and pain

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Back in 2011, Lorene Sca­faria, who had at­tracted at­ten­tion for her screen­play of the ami­able Nick and No­rah’s In­fi­nite Playlist, made her de­but as di­rec­tor with Seek­ing a Friend for the End of the World, a charm­ing apoc­a­lyp­tic com­edy-ro­mance with Steve Carell and Keira Knight­ley that was un­justly sav­aged by over­seas crit­ics and, as a re­sult, sank with­out trace — it’s worth a look if you can track it down. Given the enor­mity of the com­mer­cial fail­ure of her de­but, Sca­faria would have had dif­fi­culty ac­quir­ing backing to make a sec­ond fea­ture, but she man­aged it and the re­sult is The Med­dler, a small but beau­ti­fully ob­served show­case for the con­sid­er­able tal­ents of Su­san Saran­don.

The nar­ra­tive isn’t ex­actly orig­i­nal, but there’s a ba­sic truth to this story of a lonely widow who clings to her daugh­ter in ways that the daugh­ter finds in­creas­ingly un­com­fort­able. Since the death of her wealthy Ital­ian-Amer­i­can hus­band, Marnie (Saran­don) has moved from New York to Los An­ge­les to be close to Lori (Rose Byrne), a tele­vi­sion writer who pre­sum­ably headed west partly to put some dis­tance be­tween her­self and her mother. It hasn’t worked. Marnie wants to know ev­ery­thing about her daugh­ter’s ac­tiv­i­ties and con­stantly in­curs Lori’s wrath with her ques­tions about the man Lori is try­ing hard to for­get.

As beau­ti­fully por­trayed by Saran­don, Marnie is a pest but she’s a good-hearted, gen­er­ous woman. Too gen­er­ous, re­ally, be­cause her hus­band left her more money than she knows what to do with. And if Lori doesn’t have time for her, she’ll find other peo­ple who might need her friend­ship and sup­port. There’s Lori’s friend Jil­lian (Ce­cily Strong), for ex­am­ple; al­though Marnie has trou­ble remembering her name, she knows Jil­lian is plan­ning to marry, and she of­fers to make a con­sid­er­able con­tri­bu­tion to­wards the wed­ding ex­penses be­fore she even re­alises this is a same-sex mar­riage, in­for­ma­tion she takes with­out miss­ing a beat. Marnie may be an­noy­ing, but she’s not prej­u­diced. She also takes un­der her wing Frank (Jer­rod Carmichael), a young African Amer­i­can who works at the nearby Ap­ple store and who pa­tiently ex­plains to Marnie — who is def­i­nitely old school — the won­ders of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy.

There are re­port­edly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal el­e­ments to this story and that makes sense; Marnie is such a well-ob­served char­ac­ter, so an­noy­ing and yet in her own way so won­der­ful that it does feel she was drawn from real-life ex­pe­ri­ence. As her be­lea­guered daugh­ter, Byrne is also on the money, as is JK Sim­mons as a Har­ley-rid­ing ex-cop called Randy Zip­per who plays Dolly Par­ton songs to his chick­ens to en­cour­age them to lay more eggs.

The film is a touch long, and runs out of steam a lit­tle in the later stages, but for the most part it’s so de­light­ful that its flaws can be over­looked. It’s a com­edy with a strong ba­sis in re­al­ity, but it’s also rather painful at times. Marnie is des­per­ate to be loved and wanted, and her des­per­a­tion is at times as un­com­fort­able as her wide-eyed op­ti­mism is so en­dear­ing. Any­one naive enough to tell an air­port se­cu­rity guard that her daugh­ter is “shoot­ing a pi­lot” is an orig­i­nal, and Saran­don’s flaw­less per­for­mance gives us a med­dler it’s im­pos­si­ble not to love. In 2013, the Aus­tralian String Quar­tet, which is based in Ade­laide, cel­e­brated the ap­point­ment of its lat­est mu­si­cians: cel­list Sharon Draper and vi­o­lin­ists Stephen King, Kris­tian Winther and Ioana Tache. Soon af­ter the an­nounce­ment was made, Winther and Tache mar­ried. Di­rec­tor Scott Hicks’s de­ci­sion to make a doc­u­men­tary film about the ASQ proved for­tu­itous, be­cause the quar­tet was about to en­ter a very in­ter­est­ing, and con­tro­ver­sial, pe­riod of its ex­is­tence.

Best known for his iconic fea­ture film Shine (1996), Hicks has long had an in­ter­est in mu­sic doc­u­men­taries, as his 2007 film Glass: A Por­trait of Philip in Twelve Parts will at­test. In the de­li­ciously ti­tled Highly Strung he ex­plores not only the ups and downs of the ASQ but also takes the viewer into the world of Ul­rike Klein, an Ade­laide arts pa­tron who is in the process of cre­at­ing a new arts cen­tre on the fringe of the city. As if this gen­er­ous sup­port of the arts was not enough, Klein also ac­quires for the ASQ mem­bers four price­less in­stru­ments, worth millions of dol­lars, made in Italy in the 18th cen­tury by the mae­stro Gio­vanni Guadagnini. She also com­mis­sions the cre­ation of a new in­stru­ment by luthier Roberto Cav­agnoli, who be­gins by scour­ing the same for­est where Guadagnini and An­to­nio Stradi­vari sought wood for their in­stru­ments.

Back in Ade­laide, all is not well. For rea­sons not clearly ex­plained, Winther and Tache an­nounce their bomb­shell de­ci­sion to leave the ASQ, re­turn­ing their in­stru­ments and cre­at­ing a cri­sis on the lo­cal mu­sic scene. It’s a pity Hicks was un­able to get any of the prin­ci­pals to talk on cam­era about what went wrong, as this lack of in­for­ma­tion leaves a gap in the film.

To com­pen­sate, Hicks also in­tro­duces us to a fam­ily of Amer­i­cans, the Car­pen­ters, vi­o­lin­ists who flaunt their wealth, their lack of dress sense and their Stradi­var­ius in­stru­ments. The ap­proach taken by these brash char­ac­ters to­wards clas­si­cal mu­sic is strictly com­mer­cial, and though their scenes make a strik­ing con­trast with those of the more re­fined mu­sic scene in Ade­laide, rather too much time is spent with them. On the other hand, there’s a use­ful con­tri­bu­tion from Si­mon Mor­ris, an eru­dite Lon­don dealer of clas­si­cal stringed in­stru­ments.

Hicks is clearly in love with this world, and we hear plenty of spell­bind­ing clas­si­cal mu­sic. Vis­ually, he opts for a rather jerky cam­era style and rapid-fire edit­ing that doesn’t al­ways suit the ma­te­rial. Nev­er­the­less, mu­sic lovers will find plenty to en­joy in this in­trigu­ing film. The End of the Tour is be­lat­edly get­ting a brief, lim­ited run in Syd­ney af­ter play­ing a while back in Mel­bourne. James Pon­soldt’s film fol­lows Rolling Stone jour­nal­ist David Lip­sky (Jesse Eisenberg) dur­ing the days he in­ter­viewed cel­e­brated au­thor David Foster Wal­lace (Ja­son Segel).

It’s 1996, and Wal­lace’s sec­ond novel, In­fi­nite Jest, has just been pub­lished to rave re­views. Lip­sky, him­self the au­thor of a novel and a part­time teacher at Illinois State Univer­sity, per­suades his ed­i­tor to send him to Bloom­ing­ton, where he finds Wal­lace liv­ing alone with his dogs in a very or­di­nary-look­ing house. Af­ter some ini­tial reser­va­tions, the men bond and the film ex­plores the days they spent to­gether, with Lip­sky at­tempt­ing to pose the sorts of con­tro­ver­sial ques­tions his ed­i­tor re­quires (in­clud­ing whether Wal­lace is a heroin ad­dict) and Wal­lace be­com­ing un­ex­pect­edly jeal­ous when Lip­sky be­comes in­volved in some in­no­cent ban­ter with one of his fe­male friends.

Strong per­for­mances from the lead ac­tors an­chor the film, but the world de­picted is rather too her­metic for any­one not im­me­di­ately in­ter­ested in the sub­ject mat­ter.

Su­san Saran­don and JK Sim­mons in The Med­dler, left; Ioana Tache, one of the mu­si­cians in Highly Strung, be­low left; Ja­son Segel as David Foster Wal­lace in The End of the Tour, be­low right

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