Month: August, 2018

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.