Ladies in Black

lIBWho knew that in 1959 Sydney also had a beady-eyed store-mounted Santa sporting a creepy “come hither little child” mechanical finger.  It’s just one of many cultural touch-stones on show in this adaptation of Madeleine St John’s bestselling novel.

Director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy) has played it safe in his treatment of the source material.  There is little conflict or anguish to be found in here, as Beresford paints a summertime Sydney in full glow. The pallet is bright and breezy, much like the film’s characters all who buoyantly waft on and off the screen with the innocence and exuberance of the period.

Lisa (Angourie Rice), around whom much of the action revolves, is an earnest young summertime recruit of an upmarket Department store. Her doe-eyed innocence is met with curiosity as she is taken under the wing of two seasoned saleswomen, Fay and Patty. At the group’s core is the matriarchal Magda (Julia Ormond), a glamorous Slovenian immigrant who manages the high-fashion floor. Ormond positively shines in a scenery-chewing role as she effortlessly glides around the set, ushering the other three in and out of various social quandaries. The narrative is fairly low-key and occasionally meandering, but what it lacks in plot machinations, it makes up with satisfyingly rich and engaging characters.

Magda’s Eastern European roots allow the film to examine Australia’s elephant in the room; immigration.  Australia’s influx of refugees, or “reffoes” as they are referred to in the film, is as relevant a topic now as it was back in the fifties. However, beholden to the tone of St. John’s novel, Beresford has chosen to gently tiptoe through the sensitive topic, lest he set off alarm bells in Australia’s off-shore detention centres. But despite his very light hand, the film is a multi-faceted portrayal of identity and opportunity, and doesn’t ignore the immigrant influences that found their milieu within post-war Australia.

While the film feels slightly avoidant of the deeper issues at stake, what remains is a delightfully warm-hearted film that turns a topical minefield into an inviting meadow you’ll want to roll around in.  

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

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Searching

searchingThe secret world of a teenager’s digital life is explored in this engaging desktop thriller. It is a Hitchcockian Rear Window for the modern generation, with the action taking place entirely within the confines of an electronic screen.

Helming his first feature film, writer/director Aneesh Chaganty has dipped his digital toes into the growing pool of Bekmambetov styled desktop thrillers.  It’s a bold move for the fledgeling director, who almost pulls it off. 

John Cho (Star Trek) plays David, a recent widower who is managing to keep it together as a solo dad.  But when his teenage daughter fails to return home one night, things begin to unravel. Her disappearance is as much a mystery to the case Detective Vick (played by Debra Messing) as it is to David.  His desperate investigations into her whereabouts traverse a dizzying scape of social media and streaming sites which lead him down a warren of false-turns, dead-ends, and red-herrings. The bulk of the film is essentially David getting to know his daughter without actually spending any time with her.

It’s engaging stuff and the format offers fertile ground to garner insights from its characters as it flits between various online services. A momentary mouse pause over an icon or word deleted during a message speak volumes for what is going through David’s mind, and here it is used to full dramatic effect.

Unfortunately, when the action is required further afield, things begin to derail. Beholden to its modus operandi, the enforced confines of the digital screen are stretched to breaking point and when David is required to visit other locations the film can’t quite maintain a sense of plausibility. It begins relying on tropes such as streaming news-casts to elucidate proceedings beyond what they would normally do. And despite director Chaganty’s noble efforts, the action begins to feel awkward and slightly gimmicky.

That said, it is just this gimmick that elevates Searching above what would’ve otherwise been a bog-standard crime thriller. So, “like” to that at least.

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

Wayne

waynePerhaps stymied by the calibre of great documentaries currently showing, Wayne, a film about Australia’s celebrated two-wheeled maestro, doesn’t quite achieve pole position.

The film tells the tale of Aussie racing legend Wayne Gardner, who rose through the ranks from a five-dollar dirt bike rider to World Motorcycle Grand Prix Champion.  He became a household name in the eighties, quite literally—even I’d heard of him, which is saying something. 

The film gets off the grid with a turbo-charged montage of the titular leather-clad Aussie sporting hero; revving bikes, adoring fans, mullets and stubbies in full force, and all to the backdrop of a wailing Jimmy Barnes.  It’s a pulsating and glorious snapshot of eighties Australia in full effect. Unfortunately, the film never manages to maintain that level of energy and backs off the throttle into a more dulcet tone for the remainder of the film.

Brought up by a relatively poor family in the steelwork and mining town of Wollongong, Gardner’s story follows a familiar trajectory common to many sporting heroes; a blinkered passion for the sport, strained relationships, triumph in the face of adversity—it’s all there. But where this doco is most interesting is the effect Gardner had on Australia’s many adoring fans at a time when the big red country was flexing its muscles on the sporting world. 

Considering it’s his first feature documentary, Director Jeremy Sims (Last Cab to Darwin) has done an adequate job. He has, however, been found disappointingly short of archival footage of Gardner’s early life, and his decision to plug the gaps with quasi-anime styled cartoons is an odd one—perhaps a wink to the Japanese bikes on show, but here it feels out of sorts with the rest of the documentary.

Wayne will definitely appeal to past and present enthusiasts of the sport, or the man himself.  Beyond that, it remains frustratingly mild and all too briefly hits top gear.

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

McQueen

mcqueenSome might reserve their benefit pay for vices such as cigarettes or alcohol, but in the early days of British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, his dole money was spent on textiles. His literal rags-to-riches tale is a familiar one; a tortured artist driven by his passion to the point of self-destruction.  Yep, seen it before. But here, documentarians Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui have told McQueen’s tale with the kind of technical virtuosity that is utterly compelling. 

Right from the opening credits this film drips and oozes with rich imagery.  The camera is seldom still as McQueen’s life on the catwalk unfolds like a delicious sensory feast. Bonhôte and Ettedgui structure the film around a handful of foundational runway shows, including the infamous “Highland Rape” collection. McQueen was a reluctant provocateur, but unapologetic for exhibiting on the catwalk his own personal truth. His tenacity and authenticity brought about some of the most vivid fashion shows to date and bore out cathartic events, often expressing a darkly violent and ironic inner beauty—the kind of brutal truth that lies beneath a children’s nursery rhyme. Ultimately, his vivid imagination did not go unnoticed and landed him within the hallowed walls of Givenchy and Gucci. But with a rack of skeletons in the closet and numerous demons to wrestle, his is a fairytale that was never going to end well.

Rather than relying solely on archival footage, this very well sourced documentary is laced with anecdotal stories from friends and family who give an emotional account of the troubled artist. The breadth of candid interviews is worth noting. From larger-than-life personalities such as Isabella Blow who took McQueen under her wing, to his mum, schoolmates, models, industry confidants, friends and family, all flesh out the McQueen story. Add to that, Cinzia Baldessari’s (Almost Heaven) deft editing and Michael Nyman’s (The Piano) heady score and you have a glorious symphony for the senses that runs the gamut of emotions; occasionally amusing, often macabre … but always fascinating. This is bravura filmmaking of the highest order and begs to be seen on the big screen.

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

Spitfire

spitfire“The aura surrounding the Spitfire is more a post-war phenomenon than a war-time thing. It was just an instrument of war then”—a softly spoken sentiment shared by one of the few remaining RAF Spitfire pilots still alive.  As this documentary makes crystal clear, the iconic WW2 fighter, which has since been idolised and romanticised, was a design of practicality made to do a job. But it was a design of such influence that it most likely turned the tide on history. Certainly a sobering thought.

The film traverses the Spitfire’s history from its pre-war design and introduction to its evolution and final retirement.  But rather than roll out a bland history of sequential events, documentarians David Fairhead and Ant Palmer have mixed up the Spitfire’s tale with a plethora of anecdotal stories from the people who made, delivered, and flew the craft.  A lively marriage of archival and modern-day footage spurs proceedings as it covers the Spitfire’s crucial use in the Battle of Britain. Sparsely narrated by the very recognisable voice of Charles Dance (Game of Thrones), his resonant timbre and clipped British accent provide the kind of regal gravitas to match the iconic plane’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engines that growl throughout.

It’s the kind of documentary that doesn’t require an interest in the subject to make it worth your while. Certainly, the intoxicating imagery is both sad and thrilling, but it’s the fascinating personal accounts that resonate most. Worthy of note is its examination into the role that women played; whose skills were not only employed in the manufacture and design of the aircraft, but also their piloting prowess in delivering the 22,000 Spitfires to the airfields. 

Like their subject, Fairhead and Palmer have delivered an elegant documentary. And although the emotive musical score is perhaps a little too fawning, it does soften the film’s British stiff upper lip. Appropriately, Spitfire doesn’t side-step the awful loss, finishing on a personal note that pays homage to those who lost their lives. As one ex-pilot implores “In all conscience, this world needs a change from all this hostility and warfare. The world needs a change.”  Indeed it does.

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

On Chesil Beach

ocbWedding night nuptials have never felt this awkward. Ian McEwan’s (Atonement) adaptation of his own Booker-nominated novella, On Chesil Beach, opens with a sweet young couple walking hand-in-hand along the titular beach. Their honeymoon suite awaits.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, for starters it is immediately apparent that these two brits—a blushing English bride and a handsome but bumbling groom—have a physical intimacy as fragile as glass. 

Set in 1962, ironically at the dawn of the sexual revolution, On Chesil Beach pits good will against the brutal truth of sexual countenance. Slowly, through flashbacks, we learn about Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward’s (Billy Howle) romance that leads to their engagement which was born on the wings of a burgeoning friendship more than sexual attraction.  Now, in their honeymoon suite, there is something clearly amiss as the couple struggle to consummate their marriage.  Bereft of any physical warmth, their honeymoon quickly becomes stilted, self-conscious (almost comically so) and strained. The sexual subtext occupies the room like a rutting bull-elephant. And despite the clipped “no sex please, we’re English” demeanour the film addresses the topic head-on with the momentum of a freight train. When inevitable derailment eventuates, you wonder how it happened so quickly.

There are, of course, reasons behind their awkward courtship, one particularly pointed event, which McEwan has chosen to only hint at. For the most part, the film concentrates on the immediate break-down of their relationship.  The confidence of a novelist who has adapted his own book is in full effect here and feature director debutant Dominic Cooke has done a commendable job managing McEwan’s material, helped immensely by Ronan and Howle’s vivid performances.

Unfortunately, the film’s final throw, a desperately sad flash-forward, loses itself in inches of poor facial prosthetics. A shame to have the story tarnished by a technical distraction, because otherwise On Chesil Beach delivers solid performances, an intriguing story, and perhaps the most beautifully framed final shot I’ve seen in a while.

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

Crazy Rich Asians

craCinderella meets Singapore tourism promotional video in this modern fairytale of love and family fallouts. Employing every cliched Hollywood trick in the book, Crazy Rich Asians is a tale that taps into implausible but archetypal characters and familiar narrative arcs … it’s wonderfully vibrant and wafer thin.

Rachel (Rachel Chu) and Nick (Henry Golding) are a young New York couple in love, but when she is taken to meet his family in Singapore things go a little pear-shaped.  It turns out Nick’s family are obscenely wealthy; the type of gratuitous showy wealth that has you despairing for humanity. Soon after hitting Changi Airport’s tarmac, the supporting cast of cliches begin to roll out—the flamboyant gay cousin (comic relief: check); the catty ex-girlfriend (minor antagonist: check); the disapproving future mother-in-law (major antagonist: check); the list goes on. Rachel must negotiate a minefield of disapproving looks and back-handed comments as she is reluctantly dragged around the many extravagant events, parties, and occasions that highlight Singapore’s opulence. One does wonder if the Singapore Tourism Board slipped Director Jon M. Chu a fiver to show off the city’s lights and glamour.

Plot-wise there is nothing fresh here, but it is visually sumptuous and exudes plenty of feel-good warmth. The pairing of an entirely Asian cast with familiar Hollywood tropes is a master-stroke that will no doubt do wonders at the international box office. However, even-though the east-meets-west sensibilities might herald ethnic diversity, there is an unsavoury whiff of cultural imperialism at play here; the long-arm of western consumerism is laid bare like a Coke bottle in the Sahara, although here it’s an Aston Martin in Singapore.

But lest I lose myself in murky cultural waters and lose sight of the obvious fantasy, Crazy Rich Asians seamlessly weaves its many cliches into a dazzling rom-com.  Perhaps a tad light on the “com”, but still a sensory light-show that will melt many hearts … and no doubt do Singapore tourism some big favours as well.

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

DVD review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

gurnseyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society; with a title that long, it was always going to spark curiosity. As cast member Matthew Goode quips in his clipped British accent “Crikey, that’s quite a mouthful”. Add to that the burgeoning career of its star, Lily James, and a handful other recognisable faces, many from Downton Abbey and you’ve got a hit on your hands.  Now, with this week’s DVD release you’ll be able to take Guernsey’s adored literary group and put them on your bookshelf, snuggled between your Downton collection and Auntie Dot’s 101 Uses of the Common Garden Potato.

The film centres on Juliet (Lilly James), a free-spirited writer whose decision to write about the wordily named society, digs up raw memories about one of the Society’s missing members, Elizabeth (Jessica Brown Findlay). With the German occupation still fresh in their minds, the Guernsey locals are reticent towards a bright-eyed Londoner asking questions.  But as the ice melts, love blossoms, and the mystery of Elizabeth’s whereabouts begins to unfold.

Fascinating as Guernsey’s back-story is, Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral) has elected to keep things very safe.  Despite the seemingly rich work from which this film is based, very few boundaries have been pushed. The result is a complex tale that has been over-seasoned with warm and accessible romantic whimsy; pleasantly untaxing but also frustratingly tame.

The DVD offers four brief bonus features, which give a welcome peek behind the film’s production.  Each is only a few minutes long but offer interviews with the cast and crew, and explores the film’s adaptation from Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow’s novel. Of special note is a longer featurette which examines the unique history of wartime Guernsey, and despite the brevity, it’s fascinating stuff.  The main feature is encoded in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound and there is an optional audio description for the vision impaired and English captions of the hearing impaired.  Its picture is nicely rendered in 1.85:1 letterbox ratio and expresses well the fawning landscapes of Guernsey’s modest 65 square kilometres.

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

Book Club

bookclubIn his directorial debut, Bill Holderman (who wrote A Walk in the Woods) has delivered a conservative package of feel-good twee and whimsy that straddles that awkward line between amusing and irksome.  Unfortunately, Book Club tends toward the latter.

Book Club’s impressive cast is wasted on the lightweight script of Holderman and co-writer Erin Simms, focusing on four ageing (but not yet aged) women who regularly get together for, yes, you guessed it, a book club.  Although, they really should have called it Wine Club as they seldom are without a glass of plonk in hand.  

Whiteness is everywhere – the furniture, the sets, the lighting, the wrinkles on their faces … even the wine they’re drinking is white.  The only thing not white is the decidedly beige plot. Typecast roles fill out the group; the film’s widowed mainstay, Diane (Diane Keaton), the divorced Federal Judge, Sharon (Candice Bergen), the sexually charged free spirit, Vivian (Jane Fonda) and finally the married but frustrated Carol (Mary Steenburgen). 

When Vivian brings Fifty Shades of Grey for the group to read, it re-awakens their sexuality. The film becomes a quasi-sex comedy for the elderly as the women attempt to reignite their love-lives. A cavalcade of suiters roll past the camera; the old flame (Don Johnson), a debonaire Pilot (Andy Garcia) and the internet dating Accountant (Richard Dreyfus). Even the married Carol gets in on the act as she slips her hubby (Craig T. Nelson) some Viagra.

It’s all fairly silly stuff—a kind of puerile whimsicality that is accentuated by Peter Nashel’s ingratiatingly buoyant musical score. To be fair, it does settle down in the middle stanza and even delivers a couple of mildly amusing gags, but for the most part Book Club makes it almost impossible to suppress your cynicism.  Yes, it will appeal to those who want to switch off and be entertained by a film as light and fluffy as a pav on helium.  But if you’re after more heft, you’d be better off curling up on the couch with a good book … and pouring yourself a wine.

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

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.