Movie Review – Beast

tumblr_p7fx9tJzZJ1s56t2eo1_1280

EXPECTATIONS: A compelling, unpredictable character study, with a great performance from Jessie Buckley.

REVIEW: According to a book by renowned author Christopher Booker, there are seven different plots in stories, which are:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Rebirth
  6. Comedy
  7. Tragedy

And since we have so many stories that essentially are encapsulated in one of these plots, what would make a story stand out from the large crowd? It would either be the execution of the story; or it could be the combinations of plots; or it could be the attempt to create unique and distinct characterizations. In the case of Michael Pearce‘s psychological crime drama, Beast, it is an attempt combine all three of the above.

Gaining critical buzz as the Toronto International Film Festival 2017 and this year’s Sundance Film Festival due to its intense story, combinations of genres and memorable performances, will it live up to the hype in this writer’s eyes? Or will it unleash the beast of the film critic within?

beast-1

Set in the island of Jersey, a troubled young woman, Moll (Jessie Buckley) is in a state of oppression, thanks to the very short leash of her mother (Geraldine James). After leaving her own 27th birthday party, she goes into a nightclub to dance the night away.

The next morning, a man who she was dancing with threatens her with sexual violence until a mysterious outsider, Pascal (Johnny Flynn), helps her out of her predicament. The two eventually share a simmering chemistry, which drives Moll to escape her oppressive family. When Pascal comes under suspicion for a series of murders, she defends him at all costs.

BEAST 4

The story of Beast was partially inspired by Edward Paisnel, the so-called “Beast of Jersey” who carried out a string of sex attacks on the island between 1960 and 1971. And while that plot is in the background, the plot in focus is about the character progression of Moll and her developing relationship with Pascal and thankfully, that is where the film succeeds.

First off, the direction by Michael Pearce overall works effectively in developing a brooding atmosphere and getting into the character’s skin. The cinematography by Benjamin Kracun captures the beauty of the Jersey island setting, lending it a Gothic fairy-tale quality; as well as the simmering passion and darkness within the characters like in a scene where Moll and Pascal embrace in the water.

Props should also go to the sparse musical score by Jim Williams, which provides ample tension as well as accentuating the emotional state of the characters succinctly i.e. during a scene involving a funeral.

MV5BNGIzNjdhOWYtNzBjNS00OTFlLWJjYWYtNWRiN2U0NThkMzIwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzQ1ODAxMjU@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,740_AL_

The problem with the film is that some of its filmmaking techniques are so blatantly on-the-nose as to what it is metaphorically implying; that it becomes laughable. There is one specific scene that involves a full moon that implies that there’s a bad moon rising. Or in another scene where a police interrogation between a police detective (played excellently by Olwen Fouere) and Moll becomes so intense, a blackout happens, ruining the dramatic tension rather than accentuating it.

And when the film shifts from the relationship between Moll and Pascal to the serial killer plot, it becomes less interesting due to the lack of innovation and going by basic whodunnit tropes like incompetent rookie cops, grizzled veteran detectives, shifty strangers, exposition scenes involving interrogations, it follows them all to a T.

BEAST 5

Thankfully, the performances from the cast just about make up for the film’s shortcomings. Jessie Buckley provides a masterful performance of nuance and absolute control of a woman who is emotionally repressed. The simmering rage, the wide-eyed innocence, the feral and rebellious attitude; Buckley nails every stage of her character perfectly and shoulders the film to the finish line.

Johnny Flynn lends a certain empathy and life to the magnetic, mysterious and enigmatic character of Pascal, who may or may not be the serial killer that the police are looking for. While that ambiguity is present, Flynn has such a charisma that it is easy to buy into the fact that Moll would be attracted to Pascal.

The other standout is Geraldine James as Moll’s mother. She easily convinces in conveying the oppressive, chilling side of her character. But what makes her performance great is that she also hints that she may not be as antagonistic as one might think, thanks to the paternal side that James conveys convincingly.

Overall, Beast is a compelling, if not entirely successful, character study that struggles to reach its goals due to director Michael Pearce‘s overzealous direction and some story contrivances and problems but thanks to Jessie Buckley‘s powerhouse performance, she keeps the film grounded until the perfect moments when it needs to go primal to make a huge impact.

BEAST-PC-Kerry-Brown-1600x900-c-default

ns3q9eWl_400x400

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

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn, Trystan Gravelle, Geraldine James, Shannon Tarbet, Olwen Fouere
Director: Michael Pearce
Screenwriters: Michael Pearce

Advertisements

Movie Review – Searching

Sony_featured_video_1400x526_SRCHING

EXPECTATIONS: A crafty thriller that improves on its similar stylistic predecessors like Unfriended, The Den and Open Windows.

REVIEW: It is quite amusing to think that we have many films released over the years, regardless of genre, that span across many imaginative worlds, planets, fantasy settings and so on. With the vast amount of superhero films and blockbusters, it’s hard not to see why.

But the world that has not been mined more than enough, despite the great films we have made from it, is the world wide web. Such ingenuity can be extracted from such a setting that we can have great films like The Social Network, Catfish, Unfriended, The Den and so on, it is mindboggling to think that this isn’t done more often.

But what’s even more mindboggling is that is that the new upcoming thriller, Searching, is that this is the first Hollywood mainstream thriller to feature an Asian-American in the lead. It’s puzzling enough that we rarely have focus on Asian-American families on-screen but the fact above…wow.

And speaking of a potential wow, we have a new technological cyber-thriller from feature debut director Aneesh Chaganty, which has been gathering some critical buzz since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. With established actors (John Cho, Debra Messing) and rising talent (Michelle La), will Searching hit that wow factor?

maxresdefault

After David Kim (John Cho)’s 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La) goes missing, a local investigation is opened and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to the case. But 37 hours later and without a single lead, David decides to search the one place no one has looked yet, where all secrets are kept today: his daughter’s laptop.

Where her social life on the world wide web becomes an illuminating rabbit hole that goes deeper and deeper. And with a limited amount of time, David must trace his daughter’s digital footprints before she disappears forever.

mv5bntyxmtc3ntgtzwi1ns00zmnklwi4owitzdc1yjczntbhmdyzxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyntc5otmwotq-v1-sx1777-cr001777999-al

One of the major positives that makes Searching work is how writer/director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian really attacked the material with a lot of verisimilitude, using the exact sounds and layouts of the programs like Skype, YouTube and Mac programs, and it really adds to the gripping storytelling. Even the video freezes and sound lags are used to great effect, adding to the atmosphere and immersion.

Also adding to the storytelling is the acts of the characters on how they use technology. One example is how a character would start typing a message and then erase it and change it completely. That is a clever bit of storytelling that adds much-needed character development and is realistic within people’s use of technology. There is even some very ingenious foreshadowing for eagle-eyed viewers, if they notice fast enough on side-windows and browsers, which adds to the replay value.

Another example is how these characters think they are invincible behind anonymity, thinking they can get away with their bad deeds, but when their secrets are revealed, we know more about the characters. The progression between their anonymity and clarity is scary since again, it stems from reality. The film even drives the point of internet addiction into the tale (i.e, not resisting opening e-mails, many tabs on the internet browser) and it sells the premise quite well as it alleviates supposed plot holes.

searching-movie-grab-e1535471034768

Next comes the great performances. John Cho, who has always been an understated actor in indie dramas like Columbus, Gemini and even the Harold and Kumar films. But in the case of Searching, he has his first leading role in a Hollywood thriller (To reinstate, any Asian-American actor for that matter) and he does a fantastic job.

Cho makes the character progression from grieving single father to obsessive investigator to a man driven with simmering rage look smooth and effortless. In one particular scene, his character goes from being aggressive to conflicted and eventually collapsing to the fetal position and it is a compelling gut-punch to witness and Cho really nails it.

The other two leads, Debra Messing and newcomer Michelle La also give great performances that are nuanced and convincing in portraying the hidden depths of their characters. La in particular, has the harder task mainly due to her limited screen-time and Chaganty’s attempt to skew one’s perception of her character, but the moments when she’s on-screen (particularly during the live-broadcast moments) is where she positively stands out.

john-cho-searching

As for the film’s glitches flaws, Chaganty does veer towards sentimentality at times. It particularly becomes prevalent when he relies on the musical score by Torin Borrowdale, which is quite jarring considering that the film takes place on technological screens, despite having some leeway in showing Cho’s character listening to peaceful music from YouTube.

Some restraint would have also been beneficial as to how much Chaganty and cinematographer Juan Sebastian Baron tend to zoom in/out of the screens to telegraph the drama or hint towards revelations, although it is understandable that it is done to cater to those in the audience that are not computer-literate. And there are the plot contrivances that pile up during the third act when the revelations and character reveals come into place (eg. how is it that this specific character was able to accomplish all that in that short amount of time.) that detract the plausibility of the situation.

Overall, with clever and immersive storytelling thanks to its creative use of the technological angle of the internet, great performances, rich characterizations, surprising twists and ample amounts of food for thought, director Aneesh Chaganty has made a great feature debut with Searching, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next.

ns3q9eWl_400x400

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

Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La, Sara Sohn
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Screenwriters: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian

Movie Review – Crazy Rich Asians

CAAM_presents_Conversation_with_CRAZY_RICH_ASIANS_Director_Jon_M_Chu_on_Wednesday_May_16th-1.jpg

EXPECTATIONS: Likable rom-com fluff.

REVIEW: A film like Crazy Rich Asians is a long time a-coming. For the past 25 years since Wayne Wang‘s expansive drama, The Joy Luck Club, there hasn’t been a lot of films in the Hollywood system that were representative of Asian-Americans in substantial roles; let alone assemble a talented ensemble cast.

Here we have the independent film system, where we have many wonderful films spanning different genres of Asian-American persuasion like Justin Lin‘s Better Luck Tomorrow, Junya Sakino‘s Sake-Bomb, Emily Ting‘s It’s Already Tomorrow In Hong Kong, Danny Leiner‘s Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (which spawned two sequels) or my personal choice of entertainment, Jessica Yu‘s Ping Pong Playa.

And we have the Hollywood film system, where since The Joy Luck Club, we have had films that slot roles for Asian actors/actresses that are small in nature; roles they are repeatedly slotted in (eg. people skilled in martial arts) or worse; roles that are placated insignificantly for the China market (eg. Jing Tian in Jordan Vogt-RobertsKong: Skull Island and Zhang Jingchu in Christopher McQuarrie‘s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation).

Even when Hollywood attempts to tell a story that significantly involves Asian culture, the attempts come across quite poorly or misguided (eg. Rob Marshall‘s Memoirs of a Geisha, which cast Chinese actors for roles of Japanese descent), despite some exceptions like Clint Eastwood‘s Letters from Iwo Jima.

So now we have Crazy Rich Asians, the latest film from director Jon M. Chu, (who is known for directing glossy films like Step Up 2: The Streets, Now You See Me 2 and G.I Joe: Retaliation), which is jam-packed with both established and upcoming Asian talent, including Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh. Will the film succeed as an entertaining film as well as a stepping stone for representation?

day15CRA019.dng

The story follows New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an American-born Chinese professor of economics and game theory, who travels to her boyfriend Nick’s (Henry Golding) hometown of Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin (Chris Pang).

Before long, his secret is out: Nick is from a family that is impossibly wealthy (or comfortable, as Nick puts it), he’s perhaps the most eligible bachelor in all of Asia, and every single woman in his higher-upper-ultra-peak social class is incredibly jealous of Rachel and wants to bring her down.

But that is all small potatoes in comparison to the biggest obstacle Rachel has to contend with – Nick’s disapproving mother (Michelle Yeoh).

crazy-rich-asians-1-e1532706900229

Crazy Rich Asians is a winningly enjoyable romantic comedy and it is also a step towards representation of Asian-Americans in the limelight. Let’s start off with the positives as to why it succeeds as a film. In order for any romantic comedy to work, the chemistry between the lead actors has to be convincing, genuine, enjoyable to watch and they have to compliment each other as well as work separately. Thankfully, both Constance Wu and newcomer Henry Golding are up to the task.

Wu has already proven her mettle in the hit TV show, Fresh Off The Boat, and her roles in films like Zal Batmanglij‘s Sound of My Voice and she takes the reins of the role of Rachel like a pro; exuding charm, humanity and a steadfast demeanor that is both compelling and refreshing for a romantic comedy lead, let alone a female one.

Golding is likable and charismatic in his acting debut. Although he is not given much to do in terms of dramatic range, he not only convinces that he is in love with Rachel from the very first second he’s on-screen (and vice-versa for Wu), he also has an appealing presence that keeps him grounded and down-to-earth, making it easy for the audience to relate to him, aside from his wealthy origins.

08012018-Pageone-Crazy

The supporting cast are all great in their roles of variable screen-time, including Awkwafina showing good comedic chops as Goh Peik Lin; fellow Aussie Chris Pang lending fine support as Colin Khoo; Gemma Chan, who gives a fantastically nuanced performance as the conflicted Astrid Leong-Teo and Sonoya Mizuno, who finally has a fun character (Araminta Lee) to sink into, who is not a dancer, an android or an extraterrestrial being. But the real standout is Michelle Yeoh, who exudes grace and heart to the supposed antagonist of a character (Eleanor Young) with a performance that could’ve easily veered into evil-stepmother territory.

Another plus is Jon M. Chu‘s direction, which gives the film a strong visual and aural punch that works aesthetically as well as emotionally. Director Chu, editor Myron Kerstein, composer Brian Tyler and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul pace through the various characters with efficiency and briskness, convey the high-life of the titular people as garish and overblown as possible and capture the beauty of Singapore (both the metro and the country) settings beautifully. A well-chosen soundtrack certainly helps, with young artist Kina GrannisCan’t Help Falling In Love With You and Cantopop superstar Sally Yeh‘s cover of Madonna‘s Material Girl (known as 200 Degrees) being the standouts.

But the most important of all, the crew give the film a spit-shine to the romantic comedy tropes that make the genre feel fresh again i.e. relying more on strong characterizations rather than stereotypes (whether cinematic or racial), showing restraint rather than histrionics or even overt emotions and conveying different cultural viewpoints on lifestyle, status and even film tropes. A scene in the third act that involves a conflict between Wu and Yeoh during a round of Mahjong is executed with remarkable subtlety and detail and is emblematic of all of these positives.

crazy-asians

So far, what we have proven here is that Crazy Rich Asians is an above-average romantic comedy. But what makes it truly stand out from the pack is the accurate look through filial traditions and viewpoints, which lends the story and the romance a strong, emotional through-line as well as a compelling dichotomy between what is seen as wealthy and what is seen as traditional.

As for the negatives, it is quite overlong at just over two hours and the formulaic trappings of the romantic comedy genre in the script by Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli do break through eg. scenes involving a dash to the airport or involving makeovers that have been done many, many times. And there are audiences out there that will say that the film does not represent the true nature of the Singaporean community.

But overall, it is with great pleasure to say that Crazy Rich Asians is a load of fluffy, old-school rom-com fun, thanks to likable leads, memorable characters, visual pizazz and some welcome thematic weight thanks to its respectful look on family traditions. Is it a major step for representation for the Asian community? No, but it is a loud step that people will know about thanks to its keen commercial sense and hopefully, there will be more films like this.

Constance-Wu-Locamente-millonarios-Empeliculados.co_

ns3q9eWl_400x400

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

Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Sonoya Mizuno, Jimmy O. Yang, Christopher Pang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi
Director: Jon M. Chu
Screenwriters: Adele Lim, Peter Chiarelli, Kevin Kwan (based on his book of the same name)

Movie Review – Summer 1993

Summer1993Poster

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?

summer-1993

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.

summer93_site1

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.

Summer-1994-image-4

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.

v1.bjsxNjkyMzIzO2o7MTc3OTQ7MTIwMDsyNTAwOzE2Njg

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.

maxresdefault

lhs

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

Movie Review – Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again

MM2_INTL_JETTY_DGTL_1_SHT_OV.indd

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?

maxresdefault

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…

mamma-mia-press-photo-2018-a-billboard-1548

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.

O9mmc9wPwEavN7zlyyfmNQ

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.

fid18261_trid16354

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.

static.playbill.com

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.

2495_d067_00191r_preview

lhs

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)

zurlLs1uCMkNxv9QoF1FUdtNU3W

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?

201803301424429428

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.

201803301424461708

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.

201803301424392926

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.

201803301424553899

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!”

201803301424572422

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)

Dawp8LFWAAAzyQ8

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?

5df7a54e-fa68-43cc-a516-51357eb78b53

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.

4therider-feature-1600x900-c-default

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.

rider-e1524785665839

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.

screen_shot_2018-05-08_at_9.28.20_am

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.

e90916b735

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.

brady-jandreau-the-rider-chloe-zhou

lhs

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)

c369ccfb915604a7b770dbf4d6840119

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.

holiday_og (1)

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.

1275776_holiday_95205

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.

Holiday7_1000

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.

201804041052453506

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.

Holiday - Still 1

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

lhs

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)

the_miseducation_of_cameron_post-785789800-large

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?

miseducation-cameron-post-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000

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.

the-miseducation-of-cameron-poster-chloe-moretz-sasha-lane

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.

The-Miseducation-Of-Cameron-Post

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

lhs

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)

the-heiresses_poster

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.

maxresdefault

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.

RGB tiff image by MetisIP

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.

The-Heiresses-1200x520

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.

the-heiresses-berlinale

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

lhs

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