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.

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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.

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.