Movie Review – Summer 1993

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EXPECTATIONS: An illuminating look at one’s childhood.

REVIEW: It is perfectly reasonable to believe that the majority of the world sees cinema as a temporary reprieve of the burdens of the outside world. We all see enjoyably bombastic things that would never occur in real-life like dragons, magic, aliens, sea creatures; features that are proven to provide examples of powerful cinema.

But on the other side of the spectrum, witnessing stories that are incredibly realistic and true-to-life can also provide examples of powerful cinema. Case in point: Carla Simon‘s directorial debut, Summer 1993.

Receiving full critical acclaim from various film festivals around the world, it was selected as the Spanish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards (but it wasn’t nominated). Will the film live up to its sterling reputation?

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In the summer of 1993, following the death of her parents, six-year old Frida (Laia Artigas) is forced from bustling Barcelona to the Catalan provinces to live with her aunt (Bruna Cusí) and uncle (David Verdaguer), her new legal guardians.

The couple’s own daughter Anna (Paula Robles), even younger than Frida, welcomes her new sister with open arms without an ounce of jealousy, but Frida has a hard time coping with her emotions in her new chapter of her life.

Even as the new family begins to find some semblance of balance, the nature of her parents’ passing casts a shadow over how Frida is treated by the local community. Indeed, her life will never be the same.

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A complete surprise in the best of ways, Summer 1993 is one of the best films of 2018. Let’s begin to discuss why that is. The many themes in the film of death, loss, loneliness are dealt with subtlety, nuance, honesty and conviction from Carla Simon‘s direction.

Her filmmaking immerses the audience into the story, making them feel the summer heat (thanks to cinematographer Santiago Racaj), hear the sounds of nature like the gusts of wind and the insects buzzing (thanks to the sound editor Roger Blasco), the awkwardness and the slow-burn tension of the many conflicting emotions of the lead character.

Since the story is somewhat autobiographical to her life experiences as a child, she pulls one hell of a trick to convey those themes from the perspective of a six-year old girl. Not to mention the nature of the death as well as the reputation of Frida’s parents and the time the story is set. In one particular scene, one mother even her daughter away in terror when Frida cuts her knee, scared that she might be contagious.

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The film also becomes brutally honest, as we follow the actions of Frida, as she contemplates how to get some of the affection that is embraced upon her younger cousin, Anna. The passive aggression and jealousy causes her to be selfish and sometimes, shockingly cruel, especially in a scene that involves a lake that will definitely draw gasps from the audience.

But none of this would work if we don’t believe in or empathize with the lead characters and Simon succeeds with flying colours, as she gets captivating performances from her child actors. In interviews, director Simon said that she simply gave direction during shooting just by standing next to the camera, giving instructions.

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It was something that easy that gave us two fantastic lead actresses in both Laia Artigas and Paula Robles. Both deliver likable, believable and thankfully, naturalistic performances that lend the film the authenticity and they never act to the camera in a precocious fashion. The supporting cast consisting of Bruna Cusí and David Verdaguer, do a great job lending credibility to the film, but the stars of the film are Artigas and Robles.

What is best about Summer 1993 is that Simon never makes the film mawkishly sentimental. Every emotional moment feels genuine and earned without resorting to histrionics, blatant overuse of the stirring musical score and especially the lead performers acting all cutesy just to wring a few more tears out of the audience.

Featuring fantastic performances from its cast, sensitive and illuminating direction from director Carla Simon and an assuredly humanistic look on the mindset of a child, Summer 1993 is one of 2018’s best films. Please go see this film because if we don’t see the films that deserve it, we get the films that we deserve.

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Laia Artigas, Paula Robles, Bruna Cusí, David Verdaguer, Fermi Reixach, Isabel Rocatti
Director: Carla Simon
Screenwriters: Carla Simon

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Movie Review – Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

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EXPECTATIONS: As enjoyably frivolous as the original.

REVIEW: If there was one sequel this year that people did not see coming, it’s Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again. The sequel to the 2008 blockbuster hit has the entire original cast reprising their roles and we have welcome newcomers into the mix like Cher, Andy Garcia and of course, Lily James.

The reaction from the first film is quite interesting due to the fact that the film was not successful despite the polarizing reactions, but it was successful because of them. Numerous complaints were due to the lack of plot, the amateur staging and filmmaking, the vocal performances from the cast (which included Pierce Brosnan, who copped the brunt of it) and its sheer optimism.

But people flocked to the film and saw it for its negative qualities and because the film had ABBA songs in it. British film critic Mark Kermode (who is a huge fan of ABBA) enjoyed the film, despite claiming that it was like seeing A-listers doing drunken karaoke. With the sequel, which has unused ABBA songs, more A-listers and upcoming talents, coming into the picture, will it capture the same lightning in the bottle the original had?

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Five years after the events of Mamma Mia!, on the Greek island of Kalokairi, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant with her Honey Honey, Sky’s (Dominic Cooper) Chiquitita(?), while running her Super Trouper mother’s (Meryl Streep) villa. Her relationship with Sky has been turbulent for some time, giving her cause to call out SOS, doubting that she can survive without her mother, Donna, who may have Slipped Through Her Fingers.

With Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie’s (Julie Walters) guidance, Sophie says Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! to them to find out more of Donna’s past, including how she fronted The Dynamos, started her villa on the island from its dilapidated state, met each one of Sophie’s dads (Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgård, and Colin Firth), and raised a daughter, without a Dancing Queen mother to guide her.

And When All Is Said and Done, Voulez-vous, Sophie gets an unexpected visit from someone she has never even met: her grandmother, Ruby Sheridan (Cher).

Oh and some singing and dancing ensues…

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Since the film is flooding (or in some cases, spewing) with positivity, let’s start off with the good stuff. Director/screenwriter Ol Parker stages the musical numbers with more skill and verve than previous director Phyllida Lloyd (who is credited as producer), as he keeps the camera dynamic and adds stylistic flourishes that give it much-needed pop. The choreography is more intricate, the set designs are more garish and the costumes are more vibrant, lending the film a brimming positivity (or corniness) that is enjoyably reminiscent of 60’s and 70’s musicals.

Parker also does his best to mitigate the negatives that plagued the first film i.e. he delegates the majority of the singer to the young counterparts, rather than the present ones, who were criticized for their lack of singing proficiency, particularly Brosnan. Although he does have a brief, yet effectively melancholic moment where he sings while reminiscing about Donna, that was quite touching.

And this is where the big positive factor that Parker, co-writers Richard Curtis and Catherine Johnson have cooked up. There’s a surprisingly emotional punch, where the film builds a strong connection between the characters and the audience, with themes like family, motherhood, heartbreak, romance, sexism, loss, controlling your own destiny, that gives the film a poignancy that earns its tears. The musical number of My Love, My Life with Streep, Seyfried and James is so well-done and Streep, of course, knocks it out of the park.

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The newcomers and young established talents all make the most out of their variable screentime. Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner and Josh Dylan are all convincing and charismatic as the young counterparts of Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth) and Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and even manage to belt out choice numbers with a lot of pep, particularly Skinner in the Waterloo number.

Jessica Keenan Lynn and Alexa Davies are both a hoot, just like their present counterparts, Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters). Lynn replicates Baranski’s posh attitude accurately while Davies manages to nail the impulsiveness and acerbic attitude of Walters to a T.

But the obvious standout is Lily James. Underused in critically acclaimed films like Baby Driver and Darkest Hour, she finally gets the leading roles she deserves with her talent like in The Guernsey Literary and the Potato Peel Pie Society and here in Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again. Not only does she convince as being the young counterpart of Donna and she sings and handles the choreography convincingly, she brings much heart and likability to the part that you can’t help but root for her.

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Unfortunately the review needs to Andante, Andante as we go through the negatives. For those that ironically like the first film, it has less of the qualities that people would have laughed at eg. less of the original male cast singing, less of the awkward set-ups of the musical numbers and less of the awkward shot set-ups. And for those who are only willing to see the original cast of the first film will be slightly disappointed with their reduced times on screen.

There is the location that director Parker had to shoot on, which is a film set, rather than Greek island of Skopelos where the original was shot. Since Parker had to rely on such a set, copious amounts of greenscreen had to be used, and it is absolutely dreadful; making the film look like it was set on another planet. And continuing on the tangent of other planets, the entrance, appearance and singing of Cher is out-of-this-world.

So much so, it creates a continuity error from the first film, which states that she was an angry Catholic and dead. But who cares?! It’s Cher and she gives a predictably entertaining performance where she makes fun of herself, ala her performance in the 2003 comedy, Stuck on You.

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Overall, Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again retains the spirit of the original whilst having a few substantial surprises, the original cast having loads of fun and the newcomers lending a new sense of energy to the proceedings, especially Lily James, who is a pure joy. It’s a sequel that is so well-done, it makes you appreciate the original more in retrospect and considering the times we live in, it could not have arrived at a better time.

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Amanda Seyfried, Andy Garcia, Celia Imrie, Lily James, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Hugh Skinner, Pierce Brosnan, Omid Djalili, Josh Dylan, Gerard Monaco, Anna Antoniades, Jeremy Irvine, Panos Mouzourakis, Maria Vacratsis, Naoko Mori, Togo Igawa, Colin Firth, Anastasia Hille, Stellan Skarsgard, Susanne Barklund, Cher, Jonathan Goldsmith, Meryl Streep
Director: Ol Parker
Screenwriters: Catherine Johnson, Richard Curtis, Ol Parker

Movie Review – Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops (Nippon Connection 18)

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EXPECTATIONS: An interesting filmmaking experiment as well as an entertaining exploration on the vigor of youth.

REVIEW: Japanese director Daigo Matsui is an acclaimed filmmaker who has always specialized in the youth of Japan. Whether it is about the lure and folly of social media like in the music-video motif film Wonderful World End, the enthusiasm and passion of youth in the road comedy Our Huff and Puff Journey and as something as innocuous as puberty in the seemingly comical Sweet Poolside, Matsui knows his way around.

After his anarchic and ambitious comedy/drama Japanese Girls Never Die, we now have his latest film, Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops, an ambitious piece that gained certain buzz due to being filmed entirely in a single take. Does the film succeed above its gimmick and become more of a substantial entry in Matsui’s filmography?

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Based on a true story, six boys and girls (the entire cast play themselves) are chosen through auditions to act in a play of “Morning” by Simon Stephens. Through the course of a month, the cast and crew try really hard to prepare for the scheduled play.

Unfortunately, one of the producers informs them that the play is cancelled due to lack of interest, which shocks the group, making them blame each other for the failure. But one of them declares to the group to continue on rehearsing, regardless of the cancellation.

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Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops is an interesting experiment, as it showcases Matsui’s stellar direction whilst playing around with the artifices of filmmaking in a mischievous way.

One amusing example is the fact that the film has a musical score and yet the music is played live by MOROHA, throughout. Not only is it quite funny, due to some very funny and yet truthful lyrics, but it does convincingly delve deep into the character’s emotions convincingly.

Since the film involves rehearsals as well as real-life events, Matsui plays with the aspect ratio, changing from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1 from time to time to differentiate the difference, although in the later stages of the film, it does become quite disorienting, which was Matsui’s intent.

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While it does showcase the many conflicting emotions that today’s youth go through (the play itself involves a murder due to jealousy and resentment), it also provides an ample showcase for the thespian skills of the cast, who all give great performances.

Kokoro Morita, in particular, fills the many facets of her character, whether it’s giving an intentionally bad performance to showing heartfelt emotions but most important of all, switching those emotions on and off convincingly and seamlessly, Morita does a great job.

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Speaking of being seamless, major props must go to director Daigo Matsui and cinematographer Hiroki Shioya. The sheer meticulousness both the camera choreography and the blocking create a thrilling experience that makes it easy for the audience to immerse themselves into the story. When the film ends, you can just see and feel the exhaustion from everyone involved and when the credits come up, don’t feel surprised if you end up having the urge to cheer.

As for its flaws, the shifts between reality and rehearsal can be quite jarring. Since it clocks in at 74 minutes, it is safe to assume that the film can be seen as slight (like this review). But as an experience in both filmmaking as well as whom the characters represent, Ice Cream and the Sound of Raindrops is a film worth running out for.

“We are the cosmos made conscious!”

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Quickie Review

PROS

The camerawork and performances synchronize together so well

Cast give great performances

Matsui’s direction lends credibility to themes about youth in Japan

CONS

Shifts between fantasy and reality can be quite jarring

May be seen as slight or insubstantial

SCORE: 7.5/10

Cast: Kokoro MORITA, Reiko TANAKA, Taketo TANAKA, Yuzu AOKI, Guama
Director: Daigo Matsui
Screenwriters: Daigo Matsui

Movie Review – The Rider (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: A film about a bull rider who can’t ride. How good can it be?

REVIEW: Expectations can be a very powerful thing, especially when they are low. When people are asked to survey a form of art with subject matter that doesn’t interest them, it’s very certain that they won’t like it. But there are those forms that exceed one’s expectations and manage to give a satisfying experience and what would pique that interest is word-of-mouth.

One of my personal cases was when I watched Milos Forman‘s Amadeus. A fictionalized biography about Mozart? That did not spark the slightest interest in me but the word-of-mouth was so positive that it had to be seen. With an open mind, I saw the film and it was one of the best films I’ve seen.

In the case of Chloe Zhao‘s The Rider, the subject matter of a life of a bull rider didn’t pique my interest. But again, the rapturous word-of-mouth the film got from Sundance and other film festivals, I went in with an open mind. Will The Rider be a surprise that will have me enthused like I was for Amadeus?

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Brady Jandreau stars as Brady Blackburn, a rodeo bronc rider who suffers from a severe brain injury after a riding accident. Brady is determined to get back up on the high horse as quickly as possible as bronc riding is all he knows.

But deep in his heart he knows that returning to the rodeo isn’t easy. Considering that it comes with increased risks, which is confirmed by his doctor who tells him that he cannot sustain further injury or else he could die, Brady has to decide on whether he has to give up his love of riding for a new purpose in life.

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The Rider is one of the most satisfying films I’ve seen in recent years and it all comes down to director Chloe Zhao. She takes the small-natured story, extracts all the beauty and humanity of it and puts it all up on the screen and it is a marvel to behold.

The cinematography by James Joshua Richards is absolutely brilliant and it bring positive comparisons to the best of Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven, particularly) and he also films Brady, making him the true focus of the film, without resorting to overstated camerawork like POV-shots. Even a scene as simple as Brady training a wild horse that has never been ridden before is a marvel to witness just due to how real Zhao captures it, in the most humane and loving way.

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It takes a very talented director to take the real-life subjects, put them on film to act our their true/fictionalized events and do it convincingly. While there are good cases like Jessie HibbsTo Hell and Back, acclaimed directors have tried and failed, with examples like Jim Sheridan‘s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ and the recent Clint Eastwood film, The 15:17 to Paris. But in the case of The Rider, director Chloe Zhao has succeeded spectacularly.

Brady Jandreau is a revelation in the lead role, as he looks comfortable on-camera, conveys his emotions convincingly as well as doing in a nuanced fashion, it’s hard to believe that he has never acted before. The supporting cast including Lily Jandreau, who is Brady’s autistic younger sister; Tim Jandreau as Wayne Blackburn, Brady’s hard case of a father and Lane Scott, a former bull rider/quadraplegic who is Brady’s best friend, mentor and hero; are all great in the film, as they all give naturalistic performances and never feel self-conscious on-screen.

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The scenes with Brady and Lily are amusing, loving and surprisingly concise in what needs to be emotionally clarified, while the scenes between Brady and Wayne are intense and carry a lot of emotional burden due to their past mistakes as well as showing the consequences of what happens when one is pushed to do things to “be a man”.

But the real stand-out scenes are with Brady and Lane. You can feel the bond of friendship between the two as soon as you see them together and it is so well-conveyed and acted that even the execution of conveying the message of not giving up your dreams never feels cheesy nor phony.

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Apart from the family and friends, Zhao also shows a snapshot of the people of Lakota Sioux of the Pine Ridge Reservation, and she gets a strong sense of who they are and what their nature of work means to them, without any snark nor condescension. Even the ennui of seeing Brady working in a supermarket is captured perfectly (as this reviewer knows from personal experience).

Overall, The Rider is an incredibly compassionate, beautiful, humane piece of work from the talented Chloe Zhao that everyone should go and see.

As of writing this review, the film is going to be available on a DVD-only release in USA on July 9, which is a crushing disappointment. The Rider deserves to be seen in a release on the highest resolution possible.

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Brady Jandreau, Tim Jandreau, Lilly Jandreau, Lane Scott, Cat Clifford
Director: Chloe Zhao
Screenwriters: Chloe Zhao

Movie Review – Holiday (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: A gory fun time, with a feminine aesthetic on brutal violence, similar to Coralie Fargeat‘s Revenge.

REVIEW: Have you ever seen a film that was so unexpected in its brutality and its disturbing content that you found it unforgettable? Well, one such example that I’ve seen recently was Isabella Eklof‘s Holiday. Judging from the poster, you would expect some sort of exploitative saga about a woman in trouble, but through Eklof’s eyes, it is nothing like that at all, and that is what makes it all the more haunting than one could ever imagine.

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Young, vibrant and presumably naive Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) is the new girlfriend of drug dealer Michael (Lai Yde). She joins Michael and a group of friends on a luxury holiday in Turkey, but must accept that this decadent lifestyle comes at a cost, as such is shown in a scene where Sascha overspends on the credit card near the beginning of the film. Also, not least that her own position within this supposed family is as just another prized possession to be owned and displayed by Michael.

While Michael busy with criminal activities that can have him affording all the decadence, Sascha befriends Thomas (Thijs Römer), a man sailing the Mediterranean by himself. Michael is quickly shown to be violent, abusive, and controlling. He has an explicit code of trust and mercilessly punishes those that breach it (like in a scene of violence that is only heard off-screen).

When Sascha needs a break from Michael, she calls Thomas and begins courting him without ever revealing her relationship. This causes major problems when Michael spots her going to visit Thomas.

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There are a few films that come to mind when watching Holiday. One of them is Gaspar Noe‘s Irreversible, which is a crime-drama revenge tale that is told in reverse and the film is infamous for its elongated rape sequence. Holiday also has a elongated rape scene that changes the entire tone of the story and makes the outlook of the characters change drastically.

Another example is Catherine Breillat‘s Fat Girl, where both films, after the shocking sexual violence happens, all storytelling expectations or tropes are thrown out the window. Nothing will go what audiences will think happen and none of the future events happen only for shock value, but are still unbelievably and irredeemably human. None of the characters are explained due to backstories nor flashbacks; but there is a human element in each of them that can be quite empathetic.

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For a film that has subject matter that is pitch-black dark, Eklof and cinematographer Nadim Carlsen lense the film so bright, so vivid and so crisp, that it almost feels like it is a veneer for something sinister; something that is lurking underneath the surface that looks to good to be true.

And that sort of subversion applies to the characters. Despite what Sascha goes through, she is never portrayed as a victim nor as a person that pleads for help. She adapts to the environment that she inhabits in and plays with the cards that she is dealt with. But there are yearnings that she has; as evidenced in scenes with Thomas and how she interacts with him.

Or in another scene set in a nightclub where she stares at herself in the mirror, looking conflicted about whether to become her believed best self and her honest self. But the gradual character arc she goes through becomes gradually toxic and morally perplexing, that it becomes just as unbearable to watch as the violence, particularly when the film reaches its climax.

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Victoria Carmen Sonne does very well in portraying Sascha, guiding her through the character arc convincingly and never resorts to histrionics nor endearing herself to the audience. She gets deep into the dark nature of the film (both physically and mentally, in such brave terms) and conveys her character honestly, making the film effective in shocking the audience due to what she goes through.

Lai Yde is incredibly scary as the gangster, Michael, mainly due to how he underplays the role. At times, he can be quite charismatic and brutish and jovial, but like the film’s glossy exterior, there is something underneath the surface just waiting to come out, and Yde gives it his all, giving a compellingly repentant performance that is hard to watch, yet difficult to look away from.

Holiday is a morally repugnant, shockingly apathetic and yet strangely alluring piece of work from Isabella Eklof that is sure to shock and provide food-for-thought to adventurous filmgoers. Just be sure to have a strong stomach, because this is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Hesitantly recommended.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great, uncompromising direction from Isabella Eklof

Convincing performances from the two leads

Thought-provoking moral dilemma adds punch to the story

The storytelling is very subversive, throwing the audience off

CONS

The shocking violence will repel people away

A bit of a slog to get through

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde, Thijs Römer, Adam Ild Rohweder, Yuval Segal, Stanislav Sevcik, Morten Hemmingsen, Bo Brønnum, Michiel de Jong, Saxe Rankenberg Frey, Laura Kjær
Director: Isabella Eklöf
Screenwriters: Isabella Eklöf, Johanne Algren

Movie Review – The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: No clue, but considering the cast/crew, something noteworthy.

REVIEW: For those who have read my glowing review of American Honey, I praised the main actress Sasha Lane for being a natural on-screen and a talent to look out for. Flash-forward to almost two years later, we have her on-screen again in the comedy-drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post and that had me excited.

But fortunately, that’s not the only reason. The film is directed by Desiree Akhavan, who had directed the acclaimed romantic comedy Appropriate Behaviour, which dealt with its subject matters of gender roles and cultural perspectives very well. That point alone makes it highly appropriate that she is directing The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

And we have the lead actress Chloe Grace Moretz, whose recent work has been quite polarizing lately ever since starring in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria. Starring in underwhelming films like If I Stay and films that barely got a theatrical release like November Criminals and Dark Places, the film seems to be the perfect opportunity to get out of that rut.

Will The Miseducation of Cameron Post succeed in making a film that is sensitive in its subject matter about queer people as well as succeed in being entertaining?

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Set in 1993, we follow the titular character Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz). On the outside, she seems to fit the appearance of a normal teenage girl. But she has a secret that she hides from everyone, which is her being a lesbian. She is in a relationship with Coley (actress/director Quinn Shephard in a small role) and it takes a turn for the worst when the two are caught in the backseat of a car.

Cameron is sent away to a treatment center in a remote area called God’s Promise, run by Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle). While she is being subjected to questionable gay conversion therapies, she bonds with some fellow residents like the commune-raised sardonic Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and the laid-back asexual Native American Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck). The three gradually become good friends as they pretend to go along with the process while waiting to be released.

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Like the best of coming-of-age films, they all provide an honest outlook in their storytelling. In the case of The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a very well-executed comedy-drama coming-of-age film, indeed. Major credit goes to director Desiree Akhavan, whose direction is never blatant, manipulative and most importantly, judgmental to the characters involved. There is always a human element to these characters that always makes them easy to empathize with, despite their questionable actions.

Even some of the big dramatic scenes of the film are surprisingly nuanced and the small moments in the scene stand out, like in a scene where Cameron makes a phone call, her face is distorted in darkness during the emotional moment and we hear her hand grip the phone.

Characters like that include Reverend Rick Marsh (played by John Gallagher Jr.), a man who is still struggling and refusing to come to terms with his sexuality; Cameron’s overly optimistic roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs), a teenager who is desperate to believe she’s straight and even Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) can’t be called a villain (or what she’s called in the film, a Disney villain). But the great thing Akhavan does is that she never gets into the backstories nor lets the audience why they are who they are; she only shows what makes them flawed and remarkably human.

Alongside that, the best choice that Akhavan does is to adapt the final act of the book for the entirety of the film, which is when the lead goes into the gay conversion camp. In terms of the film, it throws the audience at the breaking point (efficiently and emotionally) where the characters come to the realization of their identity and how it affects others; and a sense of claustrophobia i.e. being thrown into a place almost immediately with no clear way out.

Despite the downbeat subject matter of the story, Akhavan adds plenty of understated humour throughout, which shows how ridiculous outside points-of-view can be towards homosexuality or even religion eg. the Christian exercise program called Blessercise that Erin exercises on.

It helps that the cast all give fantastic performances. Sasha Lane proves that her performance in American Honey is no fluke, as she is so comfortable and charismatic on-screen, all of her acerbic line deliveries are right on target. Forrest Goodluck (best known for his role in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s The Revenant) gives a likable and laid-back performance. Jennifer Ehle is compellingly understated as the matriarch who is always stern with her approach, yet Ehle never portrays her as a cartoon. Emily Skeggs is great as Erin, who hides under her guileless facade to look like she’s straight and Owen Campbell has a fantastic moment in the third act that is just heartbreaking.

But the biggest standouts in the film are John Gallagher Jr. and Chloe Grace Moretz. Gallagher Jr. nails the internal conflict of the character, hiding under a facade of jubilation. The cracks of that facade that become more and more noticeable over time that and Gallagher Jr. makes the gradual character reveal a marvel to watch, especially in the final act.

Moretz has played impassive or taciturn characters before like in the horror films Let Me In and Carrie (2013), but her performances were always flawed due to her inexperience at the time or how the character was written in the script. But in the case of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, she really digs into the character, whether its the self-hatred for what she has done or her gradual realization of who she is. It’s a remarkably sensitive and nuanced performance that is the best in her career, hands down.

Overall, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is an understated and quite powerful film that is sensitive towards all of its characters, is remarkable in how inclusive it is, has great performances and has welcome acerbic humor that made me laugh out loud at times. Highly recommended.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Sensitive and passionate portrayals of the characters

Wonderful performances from the cast

Acerbic and observational humour hits its targets

CONS

Abrupt ending

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, John Gallagher Jr., Jennifer Ehle, Emily Skeggs, Owen Campbell, Quinn Shephard
Director: Desiree Akhavan
Screenwriters: Desiree Akhavan, Cecilia Frugiuele, based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth.

Movie Review – The Heiresses (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: None.

REVIEW: If one were to classify this film briefly, The Heiresses could be seen a cross between Wong Kar-wai‘s Happy Together and Albert and David MayslesGrey Gardens. As Kar-wai says about the title of his film, being happy together is being happy with oneself, and it is within that context is where the journey in The Heiresses comes from.

The story follows the lives of Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun), whom have both descended from wealthy families in Asuncion, Paraguay. The two have been together for 30 years but recently their finances has worsened and they begin selling off their inherited possessions. But when their debts lead to Chiquita being imprisoned on fraud charges, Chela is forced to live a new phase of her life that would force her out of her shell.

Driving for the first time in years, she begins to provide a local taxi service to a group of elderly wealthy ladies, despite her pride. As Chela settles into her new life, she encounters the much younger Angy, forging a new and exciting connection. Chela finally begins to contemplate on her past and starts to ponder major decisions for her future.

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Now that may seem like a depressing story to trudge through, but the characters are well-realized, the performances are compellingly naturalistic and the storytelling is assured and even has a welcome dash of humour, thanks to the sharp, acerbic performance by Marina Martins.

The social context of social status and privileges in Paraguay’s elitist zeitgeist (which is still quite prevalent today) adds a certain punch to the characterizations. In the case of Chela, she is shy of the outside world (and could be suffering from chronic depression) and what it has to offer and yet within the metaphorical shell she has nestled in, she has a sense of pride with what she has before and even after her possessions are taken away.

The storytelling never ventures through predictability nor gets buried in its various subplots and the characters’ growth veers the same way. There are enjoyable moments of intimacy and tenderness like the interactions between Chela and Angy (as well as the housemaid, Pita) that signal the character progression of the former but said attention should also be paid towards the shot selections, which deviate from POV shots and handheld towards more open shots (courtesy of cinematographer Luis Armando Artega), as well as the costume design and make-up, which conveys the gradual vivacity of Chela.

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But none of those things would be effective if it weren’t for the performances. The majority of the cast are all newcomers or those with relatively little acting experience. Brun is understated and yet magnetic in the way she conveys foreign sensations using her expressive face like fear, hurt and hopefulness with aplomb.

Irun is good as Chiquita, the much more grounded of the pair (who can handle the harshness of life more capably) and as mentioned earlier, Martins is a hoot as Pituca, an older neighbour who selfishly berates Chela to drive her to her ladies’ card games. But the other standout of the film is Ana Ivanova as Angy. Convincingly confident, fierce and comfortably sensual, she shares an enjoyable and lovely rapport with Brun.

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While the film may be a bit too understated for its own good (which can test the audience’s patience) and the metaphors may be a bit blatant (one scene involves a spill of a intricately set platter), the film scores mightily with a satisfying ending that achieves what it exactly sets out to do, with a sense of ambiguity as well as a sense of catharsis.

Overall, The Heiresses is a quiet, understated and yet compelling piece of work that is brimming with intimacy, naturalistic performances, assured storytelling and the tactful use of thematically rich subtext. Recommended.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great naturalistic performances from the cast

Strong storytelling, with the social backdrop lending the story punch

Assured direction keeps story on course and tone in check

CONS

Some visual metaphors are quite blatant

May be a bit too understated for its own good

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ana Brun, Margarita Irún, Ana Ivanova, Alicia Guerra, Nilda Gonzalez, María Martins
Director: Marcelo Martinessi
Screenwriters: Marcelo Martinessi

Movie Review – Disobedience (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: A compelling romantic drama that explores its potent themes thoroughly and has fantastic performances.

REVIEW: To say that the expectations for this film are quite high is quite superfluous, but it has to be said nonetheless. We have Rachel Weisz, one of the most talented actresses in Hollywood, who’s had a great run of recent films ever since starring in the weird and sweet quasi-dystopian romance The Lobster and still going strong.

We also have Rachel McAdams, who’s having a great year in 2018, with the film in question as well as the surprise comedy hit Game Night. And we have the Chilean director, Sebastian Lelio, who has made great films like the 2013 drama, Gloria (which is being remade by Lelio himself, starring Julianne Moore) who’s fresh off his latest acclaimed Oscar-winning hit, A Fantastic Woman.

And last but definitely not least, we have the underappreciated chameleon-like actor, Pollux Troy Alessandro Nivola. Ever since the times playing Nicolas Cage‘s brother in John Woo‘s action extravaganza Face/Off, he’s gone off in indie darlings like Junebug, A Most Violent Year, The Neon Demon and most recently, You Were Never Really Here (also showing at Sydney Film Fest).

With all that talent in the pool, how can one not be excited by this film? Will Disobedience live up to the hype?

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Weisz stars as Ronit Krushka, a shunned woman who works as a photographer living in New York. She lives up a bit of a meaningless existence consisting of work, mindless drinking and sexual dalliance. She receives a message from her home in London, saying that her estranged father had passed away.

Ronit returns to her hometown, which involves the same Orthodox Jewish community that shunned her decades earlier for her past decisions. Her return results in awkward conversations with her relatives, the dedicated Rabbi Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola) and most of all, Esti (Rachel McAdams), wife of Dovid.

Feeling more out of place than ever and finding out that her father had not lent her any consideration in his obituary or his will, Ronit decides to return back to New York after going to her childhood home. As Esti takes her there, they bond over their past friendship until something rekindles between them. Something that might put their lives and those around them in jeopardy.

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Before I get into reviewing Disobedience, I must say this: I didn’t like Lelio’s previous film, A Fantastic Woman. The main reason is because the film never delves into its main character and tries to bring its point across by bombarding plot conflicts on its main lead ad nauseum that it becomes baffling and eventually boring. If Lelio got us to know the main lead a little better, then it would’ve been a lot easier for the audience to go along with.

In the case of Disobedience, the film takes its time to delve into its characters and how they react to their daily lives, through visual storytelling and little reliance on verbal exposition.

In the case of the impulsive Ronit, we see through a montage of her day-to-day life what she does and it tells in a concise fashion of what her flaws and predicaments are. In the case of the emotionally repressed Esti, her character is gradually revealed throughout the film through what she does that is kept secret from her community (like taking off her wig) until she becomes more emotive. Whereas in the case of Dovid, his dedication to his faith is reflected through all of his actions, although it is repressive of how he really feels, causing conflicting interests.

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The striking yet surprisingly muted cinematography by Danny Cohen, the moody costume design by Odile Dicks-Mireaux and the majestically conducive musical score by Matthew Hubert certainly reflect the gradually brimming passion of the story. Hubert’s score in particular strikes chords that sounds like birds calling, like a beautifully composed swan song.

Speaking of beautifully composed, the performances from its three leads are fantastic. Weisz, who usually plays characters that inert with their emotions, plays a more open personality (in comparison to Esti) during the parts where she converses with the community, especially in a barbed dinner sequence where the plot thickens. She convinces with her anger and hostility and also gets a chance to convey inner emotions like she does best, like in a ice-rink sequence, that is show in a simple medium shot, following her.

McAdams usually plays more extrovert characters, but in the case of Disobedience, she plays Esti as a woman trapped in her own facade and she does it convincingly. Leilo also never makes her performance appear explicit nor does he provide any spoonfeeding to the audience. Nivola, who is an actor who almost appears unrecognizable in every film he stars in, gives a great performance as a man who is trapped between his friendship between Ronit and Esti and his dedication to his faith.

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In the case of its flaws, there is one musical choice, being Love Song by The Cure, that brings the film down to a fault. While it does convey the past nature between the female leads quite well, the song choice itself is too on-the-nose in what it tries to foreshadow how the characters currently feel, and it makes the end credits feel a little jarring when they come up.

As for the sex scene itself, the execution does veer wildly between tasteful and exploitative. When the scene relies more on the expressions of the actresses, it succeeds in providing a satisfying conclusion with what the characters went through prior, particularly in the case of Esti. But when it comes to the actions during the scene, it veers towards something more strikingly prurient, which can turn some audiences off. Granted, the shots that were chosen to linger (like a shot looking down on Ronit) don’t last long as they could have been (as Weisz oversaw the editing of the scene), it is quite noticeable that the gaze is still prevalent.

Overall, Disobedience is a compelling understated drama that seethes with passion thanks to Leilo’s assured direction, compelling storytelling and fantastic performances from the three talented leads. Recommended.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances from the three leads

Leilo’s reliance on visually nuanced storytelling

Emphasis on well-realized characterizations

CONS

A particular song choice that brings the film down to a halt

Mixed results from the sex scene

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser, Bernice Stegers, Allan Corduner, Nicholas Woodeson, Liza Sadovy, Clara Francis, Mark Stobbart, Caroline Gruber
Director: Sebastian Lelio
Screenwriters: Sebastian Lelio, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, based on the novel by Naomi Alderman

Movie Review – Birds Without Names

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EXPECTATIONS: A compelling dramatic mystery filled with grit. And also, YU AOI!!!!!!!!

REVIEW: Director Kazuya Shiraishi is a filmmaker that has gone of a bit a rise these past few years. Since his breakout hit with the 2013 crime drama The Devil’s Path, from 2016, he’s made five films and they have all revolved or worked alongside on one specific type of genre: the crime film.

Whether he makes a comedy like Twisted Justice, or an erotic drama like Dawn of the Felines, or in the case of this review, a romantic drama, Shiraishi is bound to add a certain amount of grit to make his work stand out.

And now we have Birds Without Names, a romantic drama that revolves around a murder mystery based on a novel by Mahokaru Numata, with a fantastic cast and actress extraordinaire Yu Aoi in the lead role. Will the film stand out and become another stellar entry into Shiraishi’s filmography?

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Yu Aoi stars as the 33-year-old Towako, a woman who has been scrounging off room and board off her live-in-boyfriend, Jinji (Sadao Abe). Jinji is a timid 48-year-old construction worker who keeps Towako fed and clothed while basically not being the boyfriend of the year due to his lack of cleanliness and at one point in the film, his lack of finesse on how to use the toilet.

Towako doesn’t give really care about Jinji, to the point where she verbally abuses him repeatedly. Nevertheless, she needs him to survive. Jinji is submissive and endures the humiliation to keep Towako, while Towako still pines for her ex-lover Shunichi (Yutaka Takenouchi), who broke up with her 8 years ago in a monstrously ugly fashion.

Towako has a weakness for sophisticated looking men, and when Jinji is not around, she sneaks off to love hotels with her current lover, Makoto (Tori Matsuzaka), a married man, who is of course in a designer suit. All of these relationships will coalesce when it is reported to Towako that Shunichi has gone missing.

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Does the film live up to Shiraishi’s stellar filmography? Not only does it accomplish that feat, it might actually be his best film yet. Birds Without Names is based on a novel of the same name by Mahokaru Numata, the famous female author who specializes in crime stories that feature manipulative men, brutal women and complicated relationships; basically the dark side of human nature.

Which makes it the perfect source material for Shiraishi to adapt and expand his directorial range. To manage a story like this, a good director would apply an understated approach to the storytelling and thankfully, Shiraishi is up to the task. Learning from his mistakes with his heavy-handed storytelling in The Devil’s Path, he manages to tell the story at a measured pace which effectively brings out a gradual sense of tension; by ably showing reliance on visual storytelling (for the most part) that compels and most of all, being able to milk great performances out of the committed cast.

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Yu Aoi gives one of the best performances of her career as Towako, a depressed and gradually unstable woman who has not moved on from her past boyfriend, who had treated her monstrously. She never tries to make her character sympathetic and delves into the poisonous flaws of her character with aplomb. There’s a point in the film where she really looks like she is about to burst with emotions and it’s a wonder to behold.

Sadao Abe is equally as good, playing a character who’s hangdog behaviour and naivety make him become the glue of the film that holds it together. He may be the most sympathetic character by default, but he also does irredeemable actions that make him flawed, just like Towako. The supporting cast are no slouches, with Yutaka Takenouchi lending credibility and nuance to an incredibly despicable character and Tori Matsuzaka who capably shows shades of his character being more than what his facade conveys.

As for the flaws, there is a through-line of casual misogyny that will definitely put off some viewers. Especially in the case of Towako’s behaviour, where she basically allows the bad behaviour of the male characters to happen and even gets in on it to harm other women i.e. Shunichi’s wife.

But there is the ending to consider, which is quite touching and compelling to the point where it will make audiences re-evaluate what they thought of the characters prior to the climax.

Overall, Birds Without Names is a great piece of work from Kazuya Shiraishi, that not only succeeds as a great romantic drama but as an actors showcase for all involved, especially Yu Aoi.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The cast all give fantastic performances, with a career-best from Yu Aoi

Measured, nuanced storytelling

Never shies away nor pulls any punches from the dark nature of the story

CONS

Moments of misogyny

Polarizing ending

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yu Aoi, Sadao Abe, Tori Matsuzaka, Yutaka Takenouchi, Eri Murakawa, Masaaki Akahori, Muck Akazawa, Shu Nakajima
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Screenwriters: Taeko Asano, based on the novel of the same name by Mahokaru Numata

Movie Review – The Bookshop

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EXPECTATIONS: An understated, emotionally stirring piece of work.

REVIEW: Isabel Coixet has always been a talented filmmaker, making understated drama films dealing with issues like existentialism and inner turmoil to great aplomb. Although there have been some highs in her filmography like My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words (both starring the talented actress/director Sarah Polley), her last few films have signaled a steady decline in quality.

Since 2009’s beautiful yet empty Maps of the Sounds of Tokyo, her films have ranged from emotionally resonant to thematically lightweight. Now, we have her latest film, The Bookshop, which is adapted from an acclaimed novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald. With its talented cast and strong source material, will it get Coixet out of her slump?

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Emily Mortimer stars as Florence Green, a widow who has just decided to put her turmoils behind her and risk everything to open up a bookshop; the first shop of its type in the sleepy seaside town of Hardborough, England.

But this seemingly innocent decision causes quite a stir in the town, which brings her fierce enemies: she invites the hostility of the town’s less prosperous shopkeepers and also crosses Mrs. Gamart (Patricia Clarkson), Harborough’s alpha who is a wannabe prominent of the local arts scene.

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Is The Bookshop a stellar film that gets Coixet out of her slump? Well…as with all of Coixet’s films, the cinematography, courtesy of regular cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu, is striking to look at. The musical score by Alfonso de Vilallonga is quite effective when utilized at the right moments.

And the last but not least, the standout performance is from Honor Kneafsey. She struggles a little bit in the first act but manages to find the perfect balance in conveying maturity and naivety, as Christine. With her performance here and her work in the murder mystery film Crooked House, her career looks like it could go on to greener pastures.

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Which makes it all the more disappointing that The Bookshop lands with a loud thud. Despite the fact that the film is adapted from acclaimed source material, the characters are as thin as the pages they’re written on. Florence wants to start a bookshop because she likes books and the film never develops the character nor the motivation beyond that. And the same goes for Mrs. Gamart, who wants to use the foundation of the bookshop to build an art center. Mustache-twirling ensues.

The acting would’ve given the characters and the film much-needed vitality but they’re all quite lifeless. Mortimer is okay as Florence, but her performance confuses inner emoting with inactivity. Nighy gets in a few chortles but he looks like he’s reprising his role as a zombie in Shaun of the Dead. His performance doesn’t come off as subtle, it comes off as sedated. Clarkson, who’s shown acerbity like a professional in many films, most recently in Sally Potter’s The Party, is unfortunately quite de-fanged here.

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It certainly doesn’t help the actors that the storytelling is all over the place, led by (or led off?) by Coixet’s loose direction, which just goes off into montages of misery without any character investment. To make up for the lack of convincing conflict and thin characterization, narration (read by Julie Christie) is added and it is patronizing, illogical and snore-inducingly terrible.

In one scene, Bill Nighy’s character, Brundish, tears the portrait pages from book covers and tosses them on a fire, while the narration says “There was nothing that bothered him more than the portraits that appeared in certain editions.” In another scene, we see Florence being angry at the bank teller, the narration actually states that “She is angry”. It’s bad enough that the audience are not only disengaged, but they’re being treated like brain-damaged morons.

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And when the film isn’t being boring, it becomes increasingly creepy, with the inclusion of a slight romance between Florence and Brundish, as the two bond over the love of books. The age difference is just terrifying and speaking of morbidity, the ending of the film is so predictable, that a certain plot device shown early in the film, completely ruins it. The foreshadowing is just insultingly solid-black.

Overall, The Bookshop is a predictable bore that wastes many of its talents on terrible storytelling and emotionally stunted direction from Coixet. Give a hoot, read a book. But don’t watch this movie. See The Guernsey Literary and the Potato Peel Pie Society instead. Now that’s a film that at least conveys the love of books in a more entertaining and compelling fashion.

Quickie Review

PROS

Honor Kneafsey’s performance

Well-shot and in some parts, well-scored

CONS

Inconsistent performances

Patronizing narration

Underdeveloped script

Boring storytelling

Creepy attempt at romance

SCORE: 3/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, Patricia Clarkson, Honor Kneafsey, James Lance, Reg Wilson, Michael Fitzgerald, Hunter Tremayne, Frances Barber, Nigel O’Neill, Jorge Suquet, Harvey Bennett, Charlotte Vega, Julie Christie (narrator)
Director: Isabel Coixet
Screenwriters: Isabel Coixet, based on the novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald