LBJ

lbjHot on the heels of Chappaquiddick comes another American political drama that wades neck-deep into the complex machinations of America in the sixties. This time it retells the story of Lyndon B. Johnson’s untimely rise to power as a result of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

The film’s title, LBJ, sardonically mimics Lyndon B. Johnson’s desire to emulate the acronym’d greats of the Oval Office (JFK, FDR, etc.). And despite sounding more like a new gender fluidity term for the twittered masses, his is an acronym that stuck. 

As the film attests, Johnson was viewed by some in the office as a wolf in sheep’s clothing; a Democrat in name only who hearkened from the deep-seated Republican hotbed of America’s south. But as it turns out, he wasn’t quite the red-neck they had him pinned for, managing to eventually push through Kennedy’s controversial Civil Rights Bill, around which much of this film revolves.

Inches deep in facial prosthetics Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of the divisive politician is surprisingly animated; a testament to Harrelson’s immense screen presence.  The same can’t be said for Jeffrey Donovan, whose robotic portrayal of John Kennedy shows even less life than Harrelson’s inanimate hair-piece.

Director, Rob Reiner (A Few Good Men) has elected to dice his story up by inter-splicing the main action of LBJ’s political wrangling as vice president, with brief flash-forwards of JFK’s doomed cavalcade.  The building tension is palpable as the cavalcade begins to pass recognisable landmarks that we’ve all seen in the historic footage of JFK’s death.  The inexorable pull towards the catastrophic events that would put LBJ into the oval office makes for intoxicating viewing.

Unfortunately after such a solid build-up, Reiner slips into neutral for the film’s final stanza and seemingly loses interest in telling a compelling story. Despite the charismatic performance by Harrelson who skilfully walks the tightrope of moral quandaries and myopic determination, LBJ’s flat finish renders it a disappointing fizzer.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

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The Wife

thewife.jpgBehind every great man, there is an even greater woman pissed off she’s not getting the recognition she deserves; which in a nutshell sums up Meg Wolitzer’s provocative novel. Adapted for the screen by Jane Anderson (Olive Kitteridge), The Wife pits the forces of traditional marital dynamics against a lop-sided distribution of talent.

When American author and Nobel laureate nominee Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) learns of his impending award, he gleefully prepares a jaunt to Stockholm, family in tow. His wife Joan (Glen Close), also a talented writer, has long since packed away her typewriter in order to fan the flames of Joe’s successful career. On the eve of what was to be a celebration of his literary work, Joan confronts the widening cracks in their marriage; cracks that threaten to expose the secret they both hide.

Unsurprisingly, the film’s success hinges mainly on the role of its protagonist. Glen Close applies her breadth of experience to deliver a superb performance that encapsulates a heady mixture of humility and rage in the face of a hidden injustice. The film’s plot twist is not too difficult to decipher, although The Wife excels through the immutable pace at which it is delivered.  It is the kind of steadfast reveal that will have you second guessing if what you think is happening, will actually come to pass.

Glen Close is wonderfully (and perhaps ironically) supported by Jonathan Pryce whose desperate desire to be adored shows a narcissist at the peak of his consumption.  These brilliant performances work well in tandem with Swedish director Björn Runge’s crisp story-telling. His measured cinematic style exposes the undercurrent of inequality and proceeds to calmly grill it under a white-hot spotlight.

Runge credits his audience with enough wits to dig below the film’s gentle nature to ascribe meaning.  And dig you should, because beneath its amiable (and at times quite hilarious) surface is a film that packs the pin-sharp discomfort of feminine rage. It’s the kind of movie that operates as a parable of our times.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Interlude in Prague

iipWith all its pomp, ceremony, feathers and wigs, Interlude in Prague encourages movie poster quoting descriptors such as “lavish”, “exquisite” or “sumptuous”. Indeed the classical period, in which this tale is set, is an era that cinema has shown its fair share of adoration for.  Visually, Interlude in Prague comfortably slips into cinema’s favourite feathery slippers and delivers a film that is utterly gorgeous to look at. However, no amount of “lavish” production design, “exquisite” costumes, or  “sumptuous” cinematography (all of which are valid here) can hide this film’s shortcomings.

Director and co-writer John Stephenson has examined the period when Mozart was to compose Don Giovanni. I’m no historian, nor a Mozart fanboy, but a quick google reveals his time in Prague did seem to have a significant influence on the famed opera.  But beyond that, Interlude in Prague seems comprised of half-truths, unrelated rumours of infidelity and other bits and bobs. It’s a potpourri of questionable facts that are lavishly fleshed out with more gratuitous embellishments than Trump’s twitter account; the result is an inventive fantasy about how Mozart’s famous opera might have been inspired.

Zuzanna Lubtak (admirably played by Morfydd Clark), a delicate young soprano in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, is to be betrothed to the evil Baron Saloka (James Purefoy); a womanising predator who makes Weinstein look like a choir boy. Purefoy’s portrayal of the Baron shows fleeting moments of pure malice but for the most part, his character comes across as over-drawn and laughable. Enter Mozart (again, played admirably by Aneurin Barnard) to right the wrongs … oh, and fall in love with Zuzanna in the process.

If this all sounds a smidge camp, then you’re not too far from the full symphony. From the odd mixture of accents to the stilted and episodic story-telling, Interlude in Prague constantly threatens to descend into parody. Thankfully, it never does. Which is a relief, because the aforementioned poster quoting descriptors, along with some of the burgeoning acting talent makes Interlude in Prague juuuuust worth sitting through.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Funny Cow

funcowThe damp misery of England’s summer-less north isn’t the first place you’d look for a few laughs. But that’s where this tale about an aspiring standup comedian is set.  However, its illustration of domestic woe might catch you off guard as this story is more a survival tale than a celebration of feel-good laughs—for a movie about a standup comedian, it’s relentlessly glum. 

Maxine Peake (The Theory of Everything), plays the titular role of Funny Cow (we never discover her real name) as the film traces her life story from childhood giggler to fully-fledged standup comedian.  Brought up at the hands of an alcoholic mother and a violent dad, she copes with the horrors of her upbringing the best way she knows how—by defiantly laughing in the face of her abusers. As with her belligerently cheeky disposition, this film is an exercise in resilience and offers very little in the way of the comic relief.

That’s not to say it is entirely bereft of lighter moments. Her affair with the ironically named Angus (Paddy Considine) applies a dry-witted eloquence to proceedings. His response to her backstory — “Why is it all the beautiful people are fucked up and all the wankers bestride the earth untouched” — so eloquently summarises most of the film’s broken characters. But despite offering some light at the end of the tunnel, even Angus eventually succumbs to the film’s oppressive mood.

Oh, and fair warning, Funny Cow’s standup routine, although historically authentic to the working men’s clubs of the time, provides the kind of questionable racism that might make some viewers uncomfortable.

But these quibbles aside, the film still has plenty to admire. Beautifully shot in all its bleak squalor, the cleverly considered narrative structure quite brilliantly reveals her life through fractured flashbacks. Some laser guided fourth-wall breaking, coupled with Peake’s superb performance, hammers home some of the film’s more salient themes. And if you can get through its depressing demeanour, Funny Cow does deliver a powerfully told tale of domestic survival that tugs on the heart-strings.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

American Pastoral: Blu-ray review

AP5Actors who try their hand at directing often yield mixed results.  For every Affleck, Eastwood, or Gibson (who gave us masterpieces such as Gone Baby Gone, Unforgiven or Apocalypto) there are their flagging counterparts. Whoever heard of a film directed by Nicholas Cage.  That’s right, no-one, because his only effort, Sonny, barely registered a blip on the consciousness of the film going public.  It wasn’t a flop; it’s only a flop if anyone cares.  It was just a bland piece of “been there done that” box ticking—a place to hang up your coat when you’ve lost your good looks (although I’m unsure if Cage had any good looks to start with).  There are plenty more ho-hum actor-turned-director efforts from where Cage came from.

Here’s one.

It’s been a while since the somewhat tepid theatrical release, but American Pastoral has finally made its way onto Blu-ray. This film represents another “have a go at directing” attempt by an A-list actor—namely Ewan McGregor, who also plays the film’s main protagonist, Seymour “Swede” Levov.  

The story begins in the turmoil of ’60s America and spans a few decades after.  The Levov family represent all that is “wholesome” about America. Together, Swede, an all-American college star and his beauty-queen wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) bring up their daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning).  Conservative, yet with a liberal edge, this well-mannered family are blissfully living the American dream when their life is derailed by Merry, who in her teens unexpectedly turns into a violent activist. Her criminal acts and then disappearance haunt Swede and rocks the foundations of his marriage and his repeated attempts to find Merry are met with heartache and ultimately a life-defining discovery.

Philip Roth’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, from which this film is based, has been languidly adapted by John Romano (who also wrote the Coen brother’s worst film; Intolerable Cruelty).  His rather bland hand is a seemingly safe bet for a novice director.  However, I can’t help but wonder what McGregor’s might’ve achieved had Romano injected a bit more spunk into his adaption.

But as it stands this ho-hum release feels very tame—a gunpowder factory would take more risks. What remains is a mildly engaging story maintained most likely because of the source material rather than its cinematic embellishments (or lack thereof).  

The Blu-ray offers two bonus features: Making the America Dream is an 18-minute feature that explores behind the camera, the film’s locations, costume design etc.  The second feature, American Pastoral: Adapting an American Classic, is a 28-minute investigation into the film’s characters, cast, and direction. Both features offer extensive interviews and a reasonable amount of depth.  The feature is encoded in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and there is an optional director’s commentary included.  Its picture is beautifully rendered in 1080p with a 2.40:1 screen ratio and takes advantage of Martin Ruhe’s (Control) deft hand with the camera.

American Pastoral Blu-ray hits shelves 11th July.
 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Mary Shelley

Mary1It is apt that Haifaa Al Mansour, the first female feature filmmaker from Saudi Arabia, has made a movie about a subversive feminist from yesteryear. Mary Shelley tells the true story of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (as she was known at the time), the author of one of the greatest Gothic horrors ever written; Frankenstein. While the misogyny of the day might not have recognised her fictional monster staring back at them, this film makes it crystal clear the reasons for its creation. 

Set among the cloying mud and muck of early nineteenth century London, Mary’s ill-advised fling with the dashing poet Percy Shelley (Douglas Booth), is in full swing. It is a romance that carries their elopement to Lord Byron’s bohemian holiday home where the first pages of her book were penned. As the dust settles on their relationship, we discover that Percy’s free-spirited and narcissist nature pushes Mary to the margins of his life. The casting of a very brooding and smouldering Elle Fanning (20th Century Women) matches a woman whose demeanour is one of hapless defiance.

The film only glances at her fascination with science, choosing instead to focus on other influences that brought about Mary’s lonely and neglected monster. Clearly, she saw herself as the creature of her creation: forlorn, outcast and abandoned.

Tonally, there are hints of Jane Campion’s Bright Star, minus the Kiwi director’s delicately infused feminist nuances or spell-binding cinematography.  This film is more conventional and literal in its scope, and screenwriter Emma Jensen’s rather safe approach to the subject matter might’ve benefitted from some more venom.  It is something that Fanning’s performance goes some way to compensate for. Her sullen portrayal is the driving force of this biopic and brings some rectifying depth to the film’s many double-entendres, innuendo and knowing looks.

As Mary says of her book; “It is a message for mankind” and it seems appropriate, in the current age of feminine resurgence, that this film has been made. And despite its conventional hand (and a slightly clumsy ending), Mary Shelley remains a fascinating and timely story.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

Edie

edieFrodo’s jaunt to Mount Doom meets The Leisure Seeker meets Scottish promotional video in this cinematically beautiful crowd-pleaser about an ageing woman’s desire to climb Scotland’s prominent Mount Suilven—she’s woefully prepared but equally determined to knock the bastard off. 

Having lived in the clutches of a controlling husband, the recently widowed Edie (Sheila Hancock) now finds herself at one of life’s big crossroads. Does she pursue the adventure she always wanted or resign herself to seeing out her days in a retirement home? It’s no secret what she chooses and her ill-advised decision to climb one of Scotland’s most iconic mountains is met with amusement, surprise, and then concern from the people around her.

Packing her bags with equipment circa 1970, she heads off to Scotland naively in pursuit of fulfilling a lifelong dream. On arrival, she fortuitously strikes up a friendship with a local guide, Jonny (Kevin Guthrie), who lays out some quick-fix guidelines and goals. He offers her a loch-side pebble, a sort of sentimental talisman with which she is to carry up the mountain. Similarities to Frodo’s journey abound as she attempts her ascent (minus the special effects, of course). But rather than casting her pebble it into the fiery furnace of Mount Doom, Edie must set it atop Mount Suilven and bask in her own sense of achievement … that’s if she makes it.

The scenery is jaw dropping, almost to the detriment of the film; the result eliciting a slightly dreamy quality. One does wonder if the Scottish Tourism Board slipped cinematographer August Jakobsson a fiver to show off their beautiful countryside.

Shelia Hancock does a commendable job of playing an ageing woman whose steely resolve shuns the predetermined life laid out before her. However, the chemistry between her and nice-guy-guide Jonny is unconvincingly patchy and their relationship oscillates between feeling authentically believable to cloyingly forced with exaggerated moments of lighthearted whimsy.

But despite its pitfalls, Edie still provides a satisfying sense of catharsis and is at times quite sublime, and although the sweeping landscapes are quite fawning, it still makes you want to sign up for a trip to Scotland.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Adrift

adriftWell versed in the art of intrepid cinema, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) has helmed an absorbing film that recounts the true story of a free-spirited couple, who in 1983 sailed directly into tragedy.

Shailene Woodley (The Fault in Our Stars) offers a heartfelt performance as Tami, a free-wheeling Californian whose jaunt across the Pacific sees her land in the open arms of an earnest but charming Englishman. Sam Claflin offers a deliciously syrupy performance as Richard, one he’s perfected since his roles in Me Before You and Their Finest.  Tami and Richard’s discussions on whether the sunset’s colour is “beet-infused tamarind”, or simply “red” wonderfully paints a blossoming relationship of artistic opposites.  Together the love-struck couple take a job to sail a 44-foot yacht from Tahiti to San Francisco—a journey that would unfortunately see them sail directly into one of the most catastrophic hurricanes in recorded history, leaving them hopelessly adrift in the Pacific with no help in sight.

I went into this film knowing very little of the true events surrounding Tami and Richard and certainly, the film would be to the detriment of spoilers, so avoid them if you can. That said, it is fairly heavy-handed on foreshadowing certain crucial events.  Dare I say it, the story might’ve benefited from indulging in some cinematic embellishments. I know, have me drawn-and-quartered and bludgeoned with the film-critics code of conduct for suggesting such things—but Adrift sets sail on some very interesting ideas and then, unfortunately, weighs anchor. Beholden to the duty of telling a true story, it becomes quite literal rather than delighting in the coddling arms of cinematic ambiguity.  Shame, but I guess if you tell a true story, then the truth you must tell.

Ultimately though, it is to Adrift’s credit, that it does stay its course. It competently recounts Tami Ashcraft’s memoirs and certainly, the sanctity and the spirit of her words are intact. Missed opportunities aside, it remains an engaging and haunting tale.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.

Top of the Lake: China Girl DVD review

topIt is the first question on everyone’s lips when enquiring about season two of any TV production; How does it compare to the first?  The exceptionally good True Detective, (which tonally shares a lot with the Top of the Lake) suffered the dreaded fate of the season-two-blues. Its initial overwhelming success seeming to shackle writer/director Nic Pizzolatto with unreasonable expectations and crippling time constraints for a follow-up of equal quality. 

Unfortunately, expectations tend to grow legs over time—as they say, absence makes the heart grow fonder. Well, I’ve become very fond of Top of the Lake’s first season so was bound for disappointment.

Thankfully, my pessimism was unfounded because despite it lacking the narrative purpose and visual poetry of season one, Top of the Lake: China Girl is, for the most part, a solid production. This season is a lot more introspective in scope than the former and elects to explore the seedier internal wilderness of urban life and the devils within. Comprising of six episodes, it picks up five years after the devastating events that took place in New Zealand.

Having returned to Sydney where her estranged daughter lives, Detective Robin Griffen (Elizabeth Moss) uncovers a dark connection between the murder of a prostitute and her own troubled past. She reconnects with her daughter whom she had previously given up for adoption (the result of a teenage pregnancy—information we were privy to in season one).  In a wicked twist of fate, Robin begins to discover that her personal life and the case she is working on are intertwined. 

China Girl’s tenuous plot is tethered together through some deft writing that distracts you from the implausibility of it all. Writer/Director Jane Campion has a penchant for telling women-centric stories and here she successfully mixes an intimate personal drama with a wider story arch. Like a leaky sewer pipe China Girl drips with male sexual oppression and counterbalances this with a level of female rage appropriate to our current age of feminine resurgence. It is a white-hot example of Campion’s modus operandi, and is wonderful to behold her feminist approach to filmmaking. 

Visually, series two isn’t quite as indulgent as its predecessor and lacks its graceful purpose.  This is partly due to the location, but also a change in cinematographer, from Adam Arkapaw’s (who, coincidentally worked on True Detective season one) fawning New Zealand landscapes to Germain McMicking’s grittier urban Sydney.  The change in visual style is the first thing you’ll notice and China Girl feels a lot more cop-procedural than season one.

The DVD offers six short bonus features that explore behind the camera, its locations, interviews with Campion and her cohorts and other ephemera. Although they are interesting, they are too short to offer much depth.  The DVD set contains two discs with three episodes on each (optional subtitles included).  Each episode is encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1 and uses a 1.78:1 screen ratio.

DVD hits shelves Thursday 27th June. 

See my reviews for Witchdoctor here.

The Leisure Seeker

tlseeker“I love it when you come back to me.”—it is a seemingly innocuous line but speaks volumes about The Leisure Seeker’s exploration into an elderly couple’s wrestle with dementia.

Based on the book by Michael Zadoorian, Italian director Paolo Virzì has helmed a film that is both playful and poignant and illustrates the importance that memories have on life-long relationships.

An ageing couple, John and Ella, head out on an ill-advised road trip aboard their old Winnebago, or “The Leisure Seeker” as it is affectionately nicknamed.  John (played by a delightfully polite Donald Sutherland) suffers from dementia. The debilitating memory loss that comes with it sees his day continually break down with moments of total confusion. His long-suffering wife Ella (Helen Mirren) is hiding some of her own medical conditions and sees the road-trip as their last opportunity to drive cross-state and knock a few destinations off their bucket list.

Tonally, The Leisure Seeker is a bit of a conundrum.  On the surface, it is a life-affirming road movie bursting with positivity and a lust for life, but this veneer seems to belie the underbelly of some fairly dark material and a couple who are just holding it together. The result is an uneasy tension between buoyant and sombre and its wavering tone renders the film aimless and meandering at times.  And although this mimics John’s wayward mental condition, it is awkward to watch. A conscious decision to shoot much of the film in the fading light of day—while appropriate to the protagonist’s predicament—also makes it no easier to digest.

Thankfully Sutherland and Mirren prop up the film despite its tonal disparity. Mirren’s turn as John’s plucky wife is a pleasure to watch and the two stalwarts of the acting fraternity turn in wonderful performances that exude humour, pathos and a genuine sense of chemistry.

But the couple’s spirited performance can’t rise above a film that covers some fairly depressing material. And although The Leisure Seeker wants to celebrate life, the weight if its subject material creates uncertainty about its convictions. 

See my reviews for the NZ Herald and NZME here.