Month: August, 2018

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.

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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.

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.