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

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Movie Review – Be With You (2018) [Far East Film Festival 20]

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EXPECTATIONS: A remake that would equal the original Japanese film.

REVIEW: When one reviews a remake, is it possible to do so without talking about the original assuming if one knows about the original in the first place? Absolutely not. When the remake has the same story and the same name, how can one not talk about it?

In recent times, South Korea has remade Asian films such as Junichi Mori’s Little Forest and Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Golden Slumber. And in the upcoming times, audiences will also get Believer, which is a remake of Johnnie To’s crime-thriller Drug War. And as expected, the overall critical response is mixed. The former has received positive reviews while the latter has received a more negative response.

While Believer remains to be seen, now we have a remake of Nobuhiro Doi’s 2004 romantic drama, Be With You called…well, you get the idea. With a talented cast, a first-time director and the fact that South Korean film specializes in melodramas, how can this remake go wrong?

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The film starts off with the telling of a fairy tale, detailing the story about a mother who makes a promise to her loved ones that she will come back to life to revisit them.

From there we go to Soo-ah (Son Ye-jin), a loving housewife who before passing away makes an unbelievable promise to her husband, Woo-jin (So Ji-sub), to return one year later on a rainy day.

Miraculously, she keeps the promise and reappears before her husband and son but all her memories have disappeared. Tragically, the relief at their reunion is short-lived, because it turns out that Soo-ah has to leave her family once again.

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Does the film stand out on its own as well as being a proficient remake? The answer unfortunately is no. With most remakes, the problem is simple: they don’t stand-out from their inspiration. The best parts of the film are the parts where the original succeeded in, which means that director Lee Jang-hoon knew what made the original work. Scenes relating to the past, with young love are executed well, particularly with the young actors Lee You-jin and Kim Hyun-soo.

And the problematic parts of the film are the parts that were already present in the original (manipulative musical score and suspension of disbelief) and where the filmmakers try to embellish the story with individual elements. The original film is 13 minutes shorter than the remake, which basically means there are 13 minutes of footage that easily could’ve been cut out. Scenes like the telling of the fantasy story and the scene early in the film involving the father and his health feel blatant in what needs to be conveyed.

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Few of the embellishing moments of the film are quite welcome though. An added sense of humour does provide great contrast to the dour nature of the story, with Ko Chang-seok (and Bae Yu-nam) providing great support as Hong-goo, Woo-jin’s best friend. And there’s also a great cameo from a famous actress that got a big laugh out of me.

But the biggest problem of the film is the lack of chemistry between the leads. Son Ye-jin, who’s done many roles of this nature (from A Moment to Remember to The Classic to Spellbound, the list goes on) unfortunately feels distant and cold in the role of Soo-ah. So Ji-sub, who is better in roles of a darker nature like in Rough Cut, is just okay in the role of Woo-jin. He has good scenes with Kim Ji-hwan, as his son and the comedic scenes with Ko are amusing, but the romantic chemistry with Son never lights up.

For both parts, it is quite hard for the audience to be empathetic of their situation romance-wise in the early stages of the film, but when the film reaches its emotional crescendo and it provides the two a chance to sink her teeth into, it’s too little, too late.

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And the nature of the story is quite problematic as the original was. A feminist critique might focus on how Soo-ah’s importance to the family seems to be directly related to her ability to cook, clean, and basically take care of Woo-jin and Ji-ho, and not how the story really affects her. In this day of age, this issue could’ve been the perfect reason for director Lee to address it and make the remake stand out, but unfortunately, it becomes a missed opportunity.

And that’s all the Be With You remake is: a missed opportunity to be something great. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, it just feels like a lot of remakes nowadays: unnecessary.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Some much-needed mirth

The past flashbacks are the best parts, due to appealing leads

Most parts of the film that work in the original work in the remake

CONS

Lack of chemistry between the leads in present day

All problems in the original are present in the remake

Use of musical score is quite manipulative

Fails to address major issue in premise, especially during current political climate

SCORE: 5/10

Cast: Son Ye-jin, So Ji-sub, Lee You-jin, Kim Hyun-soo, Kim Ji-hwan, Ko Chang-seok, Bae Yu-nam, Lee Jun-hyeok, Seo Jeong-yeon
Director: Lee Jang-hoon
Screenwriters: Lee Jang-hoon, Kang Soo-jine, based on the novel Be With You by Takuji Ichikawa

Movie Review – Phantom Thread

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EXPECTATIONS: Something classical and elegant, which lives up to the reputation of both the director and lead actor.

REVIEW: I must be a really bad film critic since I have realized another error of my film-watching ways. After other mistakes like never seeing a Agnes Varda film before until Faces Places, there is another mistake that I have to confess about and rectify: I have never seen any of the works of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Considered to be the best actor of this generation, his work in films like Lincoln, There Will Be Blood, In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot have gathered massive acclaim all due to his intense commitment in method acting. When it was announced that his latest film would be his last, filmgoers had their hopes up in what would be a swan song and not a swan dive.

And once again, I have another mistake I have to confess: I have only seen one of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s films, which is his romantic comedy/drama Punch Drunk Love. From that film alone, it’s perfectly obvious that Anderson’s direction is idiosyncratic, unorthodox and delightfully playful even during serious moments.

To rectify my barbaric ways of my lack of film knowledge, I ventured to watch Day-Lewis’ and Anderson’s latest collaboration, Phantom Thread. Considering the massive buzz and my lack of knowledge of both the film and the filmmakers, my mind was fresh to expect anything. Does the film live up to the buzz?

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Set in 1950’s London, renowned dressmaker and “tragic” artist Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are the milestone of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutantes and dames with the distinct and famous style of The House of Woodcock.

Women are used and dispensed with in Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes an asset in his life as his muse and his lover. Once feeling meticulous and in control, he finds his carefully tailored life (pun definitely intended) derailed by love.

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Reading into the synopsis, it sounds like Phantom Thread is a film about the whining of a supposedly reclusive artist who complains about his way of life being disrupted until a woman comes into his life and supports him through this supposed dilemma. But this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film, so don’t expect it to follow any genre conventions, as it is really a romantic comedy disguised as a period drama.

Anderson (acting as the cinematographer and writer in-between directorial duties) basically conveys a magical and wondrous mood mixed with acerbic wit to themes that usually wouldn’t warrant such things like sadomasochism, toxic masculinity, gastronomy and of course, tailoring and dressmaking.

But even with doing all of these things, and accomplishing them very well, he never forgets the humanity of the distinct characters. And the storytelling never goes through certain cinematic conventions and tropes, always keeping the audience on edge, particularly during the climax, despite being oddly similar to other 2017 films, due to using the exact same plot device.

Jonny Greenwood‘s score is absolutely magnificent. Emotionally stirring, incredibly catchy and in perfect synchronization with Anderson’s twisted storytelling, the score is basically a main character of the film itself. While Greenwood has made many great musical scores like with Norwegian Wood and We Need to Talk About Kevin, he really takes the cake here.

In fact, the sound design by Christopher Scarabosio is done so well, it complements the story, it adds punch to comedic scenes, it aids the unraveling characters and even adds a sense of palpable tension. And to think that all of this can come from the simple act of buttering toast.

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The acting is also a major plus. Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic as Reynolds Woodcock (no, really), as he isn’t afraid to delve into the flaws of the character as well as imbuing a bit of a tongue-in-cheek quality that makes Woodcock fun to watch, if not repellent in retrospect. Whether he is swearing at his colleagues or beating Alma at mind games (or in one scene, backgammon), Day-Lewis makes Woodcock strangely magnetic.

As good as he is, the actresses are the stand-outs of the film. Vicky Krieps (who is best known to Westerners in films like Hanna and A Most Wanted Man) is absolutely brilliant as the multi-faceted Alma. The more Woodcock (or in another case, Anderson) pulls on the thread about Alma, the more she unravels as an alluring, strong, off-kilter and charming person, and Krieps opens up convincingly, sweeping the audience off their feet in the process.

The interactions and chemistry between Krieps and Day-Lewis sway between wonderful, acidic, funny and a little bit psycho (intellectually and humourously speaking; especially during a dinner scene where they argue about such minuscule issues like how asparagus should be cooked. What’s best about their chemistry is that it never feels rehearsed or prepared; it feels intimate and immediate. In every relationship, there’s always that person that has the upper hand, but in the case of Woodcock and Alma, it’s hard to know who has it, and it becomes quite fun to figure it out.

And of course, there is Lesley Manville. Mostly known for her collaborations with acclaimed director Mike Leigh, she brings much humanity to the role of Cyril Woodcock, that she easily avoids conveying her character as a one-dimensional thorn on one’s backside.

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While the film is definitely unconventional, Phantom Thread can be seen as an experience that can be quite irksome due to the fact that Anderson always avoids cinematic conventions to the point that it can feel artificial and self-satisfying. But if one were to look at it in a different way, that kind of creative influence could apply to the character of Reynolds Woodcock himself.

As beautiful as it is twisted, Phantom Thread is a film worth unraveling, with its wonderful performances, Anderson’s unpredictable storytelling and Greenwood’s emotionally stirring score that is sure to appeal to adventurous cinemagoers.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic acting from the three leads, especially Vicky Krieps

Glorious musical score by Johnny Greenwood

Interesting chemistry between characters and their interactions

Great curveballs in the story

CONS

May be a bit too offbeat for it own good

SCORE: 9/10

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

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Camilla Rutherford, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson, Harriet Sansom Harris, Lujza Richter, Julia Davis
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenwriters: Paul Thomas Anderson

Movie Review – Call Me By Your Name

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EXPECTATIONS: Hopefully something that is brimming with passion and not passivity.

REVIEW: As of writing this review, the Australian Parliament has passed the law, allowing same-sex marriage. What great timing, right?

Anyway, Call Me By Your Name. This film has been gathering up critical buzz ever since it made its premiere splash at Sundance back in January. Then it showed at many other film festivals like Toronto International Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and our very own Sydney Film Festival (to which yours truly regretfully missed out on).

And now finally, near the end of the year, it’s finally here out on local release. Does the film live up to its rapturous hype with claims of passionate romance, astounding performances and emotionally stirring drama? Or will it succumb to be something underwhelming and be thrown away like the pit of a peach?

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The film is set somewhere in 1983’s Northern Italy (it’s stated that way in the film and not due to my lack of research) and we follow Elio (Timothee Chalamet), a 17-year old boy who’s enjoying the Italian summer with his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar).

His father is a professor of archaeology and in every summer, he invites a student over for the summer to help out with his academic paperwork. This summer, he invites an American student, Oliver (Armie Hammer).

Elio, who’s a bit of an introvert due to his fascination with literature, doesn’t really click with Oliver due to his outgoing personality, but over a short amount of time, the two begin to have a growing desire for one another that will change their lives forever.

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Does the film live up to its immense hype? Well, firstly, let me get down to the problems of the film just to get things moving. The film can be a bit overlong and…well…that’s basically it really, because overall, Call Me By Your Name is one of the best films of the year.

One of the main reasons why it succeeds with flying colours is because of Luca Guadagnino‘s unpretentious direction of the small story. Sure, the story may be about a romance that involves homosexuality, but it is exactly that. There are no prejudices, no conflicts arising from said element; it is simply a love story and the filmmakers treat it just so.

The story is incredibly universal with its themes of first love, hidden sexual desires and coming-of-age elements and yet what Guagadnino has come up with has so much passion, so much feeling and so much heart, it makes the film much more eventful and fruitful than it really is.

What always makes first love so memorable are the sights and sounds that accompany it and in Call Me By Your Name, these are very notable indeed. The cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (famous for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and the upcoming Suspiria remake, also directed by Guagadnino) and shot compositions convey the small moments that stick; shots that linger on fruits, people and beautiful summer landscapes that make you almost feel like you’re being a voyeur, spying on these characters.

The blocking in many scenes (i.e. a scene where Elio and Oliver walk around a fountain) convey the development of the relationship perfectly, showing the distance and eventually closeness between the two characters.

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Then there’s the sound design, which consists of buzzing insects, the breeze of the winds and even the sound of a peach being squeezed, it makes the small story feel like it’s brimming with fire and immerses you in with ease. And there’s of course, the soundtrack. All love stories have musical choices that one would remember with fondness and Call Me By Your Name has a couple of doozies. Although I do not want to spoil what songs they are, any film that has a song that featured in the dance film Flashdance gets a thumbs up from me.

The camera also lingers on the two leads as if they are the Greco-Roman statues that are being studied in the film, but unlike the statues, these are full-bodied characters and the film never lets you forget it. And while the interactions between the two never become prurient or salacious, it’s the chemistry between the two actors that make the film and bring it to life.

Armie Hammer has never been more charismatic and alluring here; playing Oliver as an charismatic and confident character who gradually reveals layers under the bravado. Whether he is owning the floor with his unruly dancing or impressing the adults with his American banter, it’s pretty easy to see why the attraction is there.

But really, the film truly belongs to Timothee Chalamet. He plays Elio as pure of heart, even when he is saddled with his naive perceptions on lust and adulthood, his actions ring genuine and true and Chalamet brings a nuanced and convincing portrayal of that. He never hides his feelings about Oliver, but when he tries to hide under a facade of denial, Chalamet hits the mark with his physical acting chops. There is a scene with just him involving a peach that conveys so much of the insecurities and contradictions of the character, that it is both beautiful, enthralling and slightly terrifying.

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And while the supporting cast do well with their parts (including Esther Garrell as Marzia, who brings a timid innocence to her breezy character), the big standout is Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s intelligent and supportive father. In a five-minute scene in the third act, he basically steals the entire film with a monologue that shows love, compassion, understanding and regret all at once, and Stuhlbarg completely nails it.

Overall, Call Me By Your Name is a masterfully told story about first love, hidden sexual desire and coming-of-age experiences with great performances, immersive production values and nuanced direction that will surely dazzle the eyes, enchant your ears and warm your heart.

Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the leads (especially Timothee Chalamet)

Guagadnino’s great direction elicits passion and sensitivity

Supporting cast make the most out of their parts

Production values back up Guagadnino’s vision

CONS

A bit too long

SCORE: 9/10

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

Cast: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Elena Bucci, Marco Sgrosso
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriters: James Ivory, Luca Guadagnino, Walter Fasano

Movie Review – The Mountain Between Us

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EXPECTATIONS: Simple yet romantic survival story.

REVIEW:

WARNING: This review may contain heavy traces of cheese.

Before I start off this review, let me just make this one thing clear. I do like romantic films. This year alone, we have great films like Their Finest, The Big Sick, Our God’s Country and Call Me By Your Name. As much as I cannot stand overstated, implausible films of its ilk, I do understand why people do like them. It’s a fantasy and if there’s an audience for overstated, implausible action films, why can’t we have an audience for the former?

In the case of my expectations of The Mountain Between Us, they were kept in moderation. Having a romance set in a survival story is nothing new; especially when Kate Winslet is in one of the most popular films ever made about that, but it does lend a different twist to the genre and with director Hana Abal-Assad, Kate Winslet and Idris Elba on-board, it could be a worthwhile trip.

But the last romantic film I’ve seen with Winslet was the excremental Labor Day, a film so borderline moronic and illogical that it made me squeamish every time I looked at pies. But The Mountain Between Us can’t be as bad as that. Can it?

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The film starts off with Alex (Kate Winslet), a headstrong and reckless photojournalist who is rushing at the airport, struggling to get back to her fiance (human wardrobe Dermot Mulroney) on time for her wedding day. There she meets Ben (Idris Elba), a cautious, methodical surgeon who needs to get back home in time to initiate an emergency operation for a 10-year old boy.

Noticing the similar predicaments, Alex devises a solution and invites Ben to board a charter plane, with Walter (Beau Bridges) as the pilot and his pet dog as the co-pilot. As they are on the way home, the plane crashes in remote, snowy terrain. Having very little supplies and even less chance of help arriving, the two go on a perilous journey for survival, along with something more.

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Like preparing for a perilous journey, let’s start with the positives. The cinematography by fellow Australian Mandy Walker (who’s worked on a similar survival story Tracks, among others) is terrific. The million miles of pure-ass nature (a line in the film, believe it or not) are captured beautifully and makes it easy to believe that it would be a torture for anyone to trek through. Speaking of torture, the plane crash itself is very well-executed, as the editing is seamless as well as the special effects employed.

And like embracing death during the perilous journey, we get to the negatives, and there’s a mountain-load of them. The biggest one is the incredibly problematic and frankly cheesy script by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe. The willing suspension of disbelief was shaken as soon as I heard Beau Bridges‘ voice as Walter. No one in their right mind would believe that he would be in good health to fly a plane. And the fact that he didn’t devise a flight-plan beforehand was just a honking siren for danger. But wait, there’s more!

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How does the dog keep surviving the long journey through the snow without as much as an iota of frostbite? How does Alex’s leg lose swelling through the ice-cold journey? And what about Ben’s leg cut that bears no ill will to him whatsoever? And the list of unbelievable moments goes on and on and on. It’s almost as if the writers sprinkled Parmesan cheese all over it.

Speaking of unbelievable (and cheese), the dialogue is so laughable and out of this world that it would make the staff at Hallmark fall on the floor, laughing hysterically. With zingers like “I feel alive!”, “I need to occupy my amygdala” and “What about the heart?”, the film makes it head-bangingly obvious that the characters are different from each other. There’s even a moment where a recorder is used to communicate to the audience that Ben likes being in control.

And then there’s the cast. Despite the arctic setting, the only thing in the film that’s frozen is the chemistry between the two leads. They have absolutely no heat or believable passion that not even the cheese in the film can melt the ice. And what’s worse is that the transition from survival story to romantic tale is so mechanical that you can actually pinpoint the starting position where the romance starts (Minor spoiler: it’s when Alex pushes Ben to the ground).

Speaking of mechanical, the moments of tension and thrills in the film feel like they were just bolted in just in case the film lost the attention of the audience. It doesn’t help that the characters never really feel like they’re in real mortal danger. A cliff fall here, a water dive there,  a mountain lion from behind; the only reason that the audience would feel any sympathy for the characters is because they’re played by Kate Winslet and Idris Elba.

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Winslet is really trying her best in a difficult role, but she only ends up being difficult and really trying. Elba lends presence and credibility to the character of Ben but he could only take it so far, as the incredibly sloppy script is concerned. Funnily enough, the press notes actually say that Ben is smart as he is handsome. That basically sums up the effort that went to the script.

But even after all of that, that’s just the cheese of the stuffed crust. The last 20 minutes of the film is where the story basically turns into a tidal wave of cheese that would have swarm upon swarm of rats running in the cinema to jump on the screen. In other words, the supposed romantic tension, the awful dialogue and quite possibly the funniest final shot of the year cap the film not as a romantic drama, but a romantic comedy.

And just hypothetically speaking of the former, if you were to choose between an actor that acts like a tree (Dermot Mulroney) or an actor that is basically built like a tree (Idris Elba), who would you choose? That basically sums up the level of romantic tension in the film.

And as much as the critically acclaimed director Assad and leads Winslet and Elba can do with their efforts, the only thing between them and the audience is a mountain of cheese. With the script on top.

Quickie Review

PROS

The film looks nice

Actors do what they can

CONS

Clumsy script

Cheesiness that permeates throughout the film

Last 20 minutes are almost laugh-out-loud funny

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: Kate Winslet, Idris Elba, Beau Bridges, Dermot Mulroney
Director: Hany Abu-Assad
Screenwriters: J. Mills Goodloe, Chris Weitz, based on the novel by Charles Martin

Movie Review – Their Finest

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that is hopefully better than the last film I saw from Lone Scherfig: One Day.

REVIEW: Lone Scherfig is a film-maker that has always frustrated me. The reason for it is that her filmography is always up-and-down; going from a film I like to a film I dislike and so on. Her Dutch films were great, but apart from An Education, her films were just flops, especially the turgid One Day.

So I wasn’t really looking forward to Their Finest, but I found out that it was a comedy as well as a drama, I had my hopes up quite a bit, since Scherfig‘s Dutch films were majorly comedies. And with a cast consisting of Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan and Jeremy Irons, I thought that maybe this film would be worthwhile after all. Does the film cast and crew live up the title?

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Set in London in the 1940’s, Gemma Arterton stars as Catrin Cole, a scriptwriter who is hired by the British Ministry to lend a “woman’s touch” to their latest propaganda film, writing the dialogue of the women present.

Although her artist husband, Ellis (Jack Huston) thinks she can do better, Catrin’s sheer talent and moxie gets her noticed by cynical, witty and possibly misogynistic lead scriptwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin). Catrin and Buckley set out to make an epic feature film based on the Dunkirk rescue starring the incredibly arrogant and pompous washed-up actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy).

As bombs (figuratively and literally) are dropping all around them, Catrin, Buckley and their variably talented cast and crew work furiously and tenaciously to make a film that will hopefully warm the hearts of the nation.

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Despite my low expectations, I am happy to report that Their Finest was a consistent delight from beginning to end. Director Lone Scherfig shows why her talent and film-making was acclaimed in the first place, as she deftly lays out comedy and drama with an assured hand that it never becomes too cutesy nor does it ever become overly melodramatic (although it does come dangerously close).

There are scenes in the third act that come dangerously melodramatic that it threatens to derail the true point of the story as well as it does feel like it just happens to occur in the film for the sake of drama. Adding to the fuel is Rachel Portman‘s score, which certainly does milk the sentiment all of its worth, but thankfully, it works it never truly hinders the film thanks to the film’s old-fashioned tone but mainly it is because of the appealing cast.

I remember Gemma Arterton in blockbuster roles that always felt like film-makers were trying to stuff her into roles that Rachel Weisz would play early in her career. But seeing her in much more substantial roles like the titular role The Disappearance of Alice Creed to  the seductive vampire in Byzantium to a talking apparition (don’t ask) in The Voices, she clearly has talent. And in Their Finest, she may have given her best performance to date. Conveying inner strength, charm, wit and grace so effortlessly in the leading role, I knew that the film was in good hands the second she appeared on-screen.

Sam Claflin is an actor that I have not been impressed with. Not that he is a bad actor or anything but in roles like The Hunger Games films, the awful Snow White films and the execrable Me Before You, he is not the actor that I would put in a very positive light. Until now. Finally, he is in a role where he has true personality and verve and Claflin plays Buckley with a great sense of dry humour and heart that I almost could not believe that it was him. Arterton and Claflin share great chemistry that grows from disdain to respect and eventually, love. And while the romance could have been perfunctory, the chemistry alone makes it worth the inclusion.

The supporting cast are all great in their roles (including Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Richard E. Grant, Stephanie Hyam and others), with Bill Nighy being the most Bill Nighy in the history of Bill Nighy. In other words, he brings another dimension to the term “self-mockery” and he brings out the most funniest parts of the film. While Jake Lacy is a hoot as the Air Force hero turned token American in the film (within the film) and even Jeremy Irons gets in on the fun in a cameo role as the Secretary of War who enforces government “guidelines” to the film.

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Although the sentimentality of the film does go a bit far for some, director Scherfig surprisingly deals with the story’s feminist message with a light touch i.e. like how men are scared of women who do not want to go back to their domestic roles after taking on some other workplace. The themes are still present enough that it adds to the character arc of Catrin and to the entertainingly meta moments of the film within the film, but they are never hammered to the point that it becomes obnoxious or annoying.

Aside from being a romance, a drama and a comedy, the film is also an entertaining look behind film-making in the old, practical days. It is quite fascinating and very amusing to see how the crew handcrafts the on-screen effects like a scene where the crew are recreating the scene of Dunkirk or how scenes on boats are made on set, rather than in the ocean.

Overall, Their Finest is a definite crowd-pleaser that is sure to please audiences with its insanely likable cast, its old-fashioned film-making (whether its own or the commentary) and its high amount of charm.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic cast

Old-fashioned tone/storytelling

Entertaining look at past film-making

Very funny and emotionally satisfying

Deals with themes of feminism with subtlety

CONS

May get too sentimental for some

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: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Helen McCrory, Eddie Marsan, Jake Lacy, Rachael Stirling, Henry Goodman, Paul Ritter, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons
Director: Lone Scherfig
Screenwriter: Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans

Movie Review – Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (OAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: None whatsoever. Chose to watch it based on the poster.

REVIEW: Break-ups are incredibly hard. While some of them can be done like quickly taking off a band-aid, some of them take ages to get over. In those latter break-ups, not all of the are arduous, but are actually dealt nonchalantly as if the break-up never happened.

And that’s how the current film fits in. In a conventional film, break-up films are either usually about the break-up itself or how one rises from the ashes of said break-up. Love and Goodbye and Hawaii fits in the latter category and there have been great films in that category like the Korean non-rom-com Very Ordinary Couple and the surprise Chinese blockbuster Love Is Not Blind. Will the film be as good as those mentioned or will it be an entry that is easily forgotten like a used band-aid?

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Aya Ayano stars as Rinko, an office worker who currently lives with Isamu (Kentaro Tamura), a graduate student, but the two are in a bit of an unusual dilemma: the two have actually broken up. Rinko still resides in the apartment that Isamu is currently paying for and ironically, the two get along much better than they ever did as a couple.

But Isamu has feelings for a young girl, Kasumi (Kato Aoi), whom also has feelings for him. But when Rinko is made aware of that fact, she too realizes that she still has feelings for Isamu, which causes quite a conundrum that affects the delicate equilibrium of their unorthodox relationship.

But rest assured: this film is not about a love triangle at all. It is about how one’s apathy towards a break-up until one realizes that they are going through a road of denial. And the film succeeds in conveying that dilemma very well. There’s a scene in the film that almost reminded me of a scene in the 2011 dramedy Frances Ha, where Rinko basically wants to take a vacation “from herself” despite her financial situation. But like Frances Ha, it doesn’t turn out the way it’s planned out to be and it ends up being depressingly funny, with all the long waits to connect with someone.

Speaking of funny, there is a nice touch of humour peppered throughout, and it is all based on character. Whether it is about characters being unable to articulate their feelings or how they want to avoid the “big issue” or how friends of the characters judge the situations of the couple, all of it is nicely done and never derails the storytelling.

Like the majority of Japanese cinema, films are dealt with subtlety it is because of that approach that Love and Goodbye and Hawaii succeeds. There are no scenes of dramatic contrivances, no scenes of histrionics and definitely no scenes of cloying music, which makes the dramatic components of the film surprisingly realistic and down-to-earth. And thankfully, the approach is held throughout, particularly in the ending, where it is both low-key and satisfying in its conclusions of its character arcs.

One of the film’s surprises is that we never truly know why the couple have broken up, but in this case, it makes perfect sense within the film’s scope, since the film never places judgment on any of the characters; which makes the audience active to judge for themselves.

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And thankfully, the cast are up to the task. Kentaro Tamura is good as the indecisive Isamu, as he makes a nice impression as to why Rinko liked him as well as why there was tension between the couple. Momoka Ayukawa is hilarious as the sister of one of Rinko’s friends, who in a serendipitous way, becomes the voice of reason.

But the biggest standout is Aya Ayano as Rinko. Whether coming up with an analogy for her break-up or feasting on fast food to ease herself on her living situation or simply having hiccups while she becomes nervous, Ayano shines as the lovelorn woman in the odd situation.

With any relationship, they all have flaws and this film has some. But with the relationships that are long-lasting, it is the supposed flaws that people usually remember the most. Love and Goodbye and Hawaii usually drags a bit in its pacing and it can be a bit too understated for some to truly appreciate, but like Rinko herself, you will end up remembering this film endearingly, hiccups and all.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good performances from the cast

Nice, understated storytelling

Refreshing changes in its approach to the relationship genre

CONS

May be too understated for some

Some slow spots

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Aya Ayano, Kentaro Tamura, Momoka Ayukawa, Aoi Kato, Risa Kameda
Director: Shingo Matsumura
Screenwriters: Shingo Matsumura

Movie Review – Allied

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EXPECTATIONS: A film too old-fashioned for its own good.

REVIEW: Robert Zemeckis is a film-maker that has both enthralled me and frustrated me. For the most part, his films can be exciting, fun and incredibly well-told, like the Back to the Future films, Cast Away and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  On the contrary, his films at worst, can be quite corny and indulgent. Films like What Lies Beneath, his motion-capture films like The Polar Express and even the majority of his last film, The Walk are examples of that.

So when I heard that he was making a spy thriller that is reminiscent of the classic film Casablanca, from a script written by screenwriter Steven Knight, who wrote great films like Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things, I was psyched. And with Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as icing on the cake, it sounds like it would be a sure-fire hit. Does Allied live up to its potential?

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Brad Pitt stars as Max Vatan, a Canadian intelligence officer who is sent to Casablanca in French Morocco to assassinate the German ambassador. He is then teamed up with Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who had escaped from war-torn France after her resistance group was defeated and killed. The plan is to pose as husband and wife as a cover-up until the actual date of the party where the ambassador is going to be. But during that time, the two gradually grow close and they are later both swept up in a sea of lies, secrets and deception that could put both of their lives at stake.

Like all of Zemeckis‘ films, they all look fantastic and have fantastic production values. The cinematography by Don Burgess is incredibly smooth and glowing with some great use of CGI that gives the film a sleek look that is very appealing to look at. Adding to that appeal is the costume design by Joanna Johnston, which is nostalgically striking. The musical score by Alan Silvestri is surprisingly a bit post-modern in its approach but it works, although it can be a bit intrusive at times during dramatic scenes.

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The actors certainly hold up their end of the bargain, with Brad Pitt and especially Marion Cotillard giving stellar performances. Pitt is convincingly stoic and world-weary and certainly looks the part of a debonair spy. Later in the film, he is also convincing when his character starts to emotionally open up as well as his character being anguished due to the fact that his wife may not be who she appears to be. This may not be his best performance in his so-called World War II trilogy (consisting of Inglourious Basterds and Fury), but it is still a good addition nonetheless.

As for Cotillard, she is the best asset in the film. She brings a lot of depth to her character of Marianne, while also pulling off the sensuality and allure of her character with aplomb. It is exactly those two traits that bring Pitt‘s character out of his shell and the two are good together as well as keeping the audience guessing about her character’s motives.

Nothing is more prevalent about the two and their shared chemistry like in the scene where the two make love in a car during a sandstorm. Although the leads are likable and worth caring for, they do not elicit the passion needed to make the romance truly blossom; leaving a bit of an emotional hole, where the heart should be.

The supporting cast are actually a bit wasted with their thin parts, like Lizzy Caplan as Vatan’s sister, who is written as an blatantly obvious lesbian but Simon McBurney is fantastic in his small role as the spy hunter; same as Jared Harris as Vatan’s superior and Matthew Goode in a surprise cameo.

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The storytelling is a bit of a letdown considering the talent involved. While the plot does unfold neatly enough, there are scenes where Zemeckis just overdoes the cliches (of the films Allied is meant to be referencing) with such blunt force, that the film becomes laughable at times. Some of it is definitely intentional (like the use of coarse language), but there are scenes that were clearly meant to be serious, but never feel that way; like a scene where Marianne is giving birth during an air strike.

But none of the cheesiness and corniness will matter negatively in the way the ending does. No matter how you analyze it or how it was built up on, the ending just comes across as anti-climactic and it will be a real letdown for some.

The talent involved really should have made Allied a fantastic film, but the final result only comes out as an entertainingly average experience. Still, we’ll always have Marion Cotillard.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Good leading performances, particularly from Marion Cotillard

Fantastic production values

Good storytelling and script from writer Steven Knight

CONS

Anti-climactic ending

Underused supporting cast

Scenes of corniness and cheesiness

SCORE: 6/10

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

Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Simon McBurney, Lizzy Caplan, Daniel Betts, Marion Bailey, Matthew Goode
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: Steven Knight

Movie Review – Your Name

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that lives up to its buzz.

REVIEW: Makoto Shinkai is an animation film-maker that has been earmarked to become the next Hayao Miyazaki with his spectacular animation. But in my opinion, he’s not really there yet. Although he gets the visuals right, his storytelling is quite flawed due to the slow pace and he never gets to end his films in a satisfying manner.

The endings are either abrupt, lack impact or at one point, incredibly overwrought. But the biggest problem with his films is the use of musical montages. Whenever a film of his reaches an emotional peak, he tends to play a song over it with the intention of eliciting poignancy. But unfortunately it ends up being lazy, cheap and ruins the cinematic panache of the film, making it look like a television episode at times.

So when I heard that Shinkai’s latest film was breaking Japanese box office records AND was chosen to be in the running for Best Animated Film at the Oscars, I knew I had to watch it to see if the film lived up to its hype. So does the film live up to its sterling reputation or will it end up being underwhelming?

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Edited and expanded synopsis from Madman: Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) are two total strangers living completely different lives. But when Mitsuha makes an impulsive wish to leave her mountain town for the bustling city of Tokyo, they become connected in a bizarre way. She dreams she is a boy living in Tokyo while Taki dreams he is a girl from a rural town he’s never been to.

The two realize the situation that they are in and decide to make the most of it until they develop an intimate relationship. But they suddenly lose contact with each other and Taki decides to personally meet up with Mitsuha over at her hometown. Little does he know, he ventures into something that will send both into an emotional journey that few could dream of. Will their relationship survive through the tumultuous turn of events?

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Let us get the obvious out of the way. From the looks of the screenshots alone, Your Name looks visually spectacular. Everything just has a pinkish/orange hue that gives the film such a warm, optimistic feel that made me smile. The music by RADWIMPS (a change from Shinkai’s usual composer, TENMON) gets the emotional pull of the film quite well, despite some major flaws.

As for the storytelling, Shinkai thankfully has improved in some ways. First of all, the editing (by Shinkai himself) has tightened up considerably, leading to a pace that is manageable for the story as well as keeping the emotional momentum going. Secondly, he actually sticks the landing and provides a satisfying, albeit predictable ending. Without spoilers, the ending does not feel abrupt, nor does it feel overwrought and it actually feels earned and rightfully so.

Thirdly, the fun sci-fi premise never interferes with the storytelling. There is very little spoon-feeding and exposition that slows the film down and it benefits greatly from it. And finally, Shinkai finally develops a nice sense of humour that provides the perfect offset from the potentially darker turns of the story.

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As for the voice acting, all the actors give great performances. Ryunosuke Kamiki, who is a veteran in voice acting as far as his projects for Studio Ghibli go, is great as Taki, as he provides the perfect balance between brimming anger and kindness. While Mone Kamishiraishi (who was fantastic in the leading role of Lady Maiko) is no beginner in voice acting due to her performance in Wolf Chidren, is great as Mitsuha, as she makes her character likable and compelling, with a great portrayal of both naivety and hubris. The supporting cast all add life to their roles from Masami Nagasawa providing a certain sultry appeal as Miki, Taki’s senior and romantic crush; to Kana Hanazawa as Ms. Yukino, Mitsuha’s teacher and is a reprisal of a character in one of Shinkai’s previous films.

But as much as improvements go, there is always room for it and Shinkai still has ample space of it. The lightest flaw is typical of films with this premise, which leads to some plot holes and lapses in the film’s logic, but I can’t really say further, since it would spoil part of the film. The other flaw, and this is a major one, is one I stated in the beginning of this review: the musical montages. Yes, they are still present and there are more present than usual, which really harms the emotional pull of the film, as well as unintentionally making the film cheap, looking like part of a TV episode.

But overall, Your Name is Shinkai’s most satisfying and complete film to date. With its amazingly beautiful animation, a fun yet familiar sci-fi premise, a great melding of genres (sci-fi, romance and disaster movie?) and great vocal talent, Your Name is a film that is worth seeing and remembering.

Quickie Review

PROS

Spectacular animation

Fantastic voice work from the cast

Little spoon-feeding and exposition about the fantasy premise

Great storytelling and editing, ensuring a good pace

A satisfying ending

CONS

The use of musical montages

Problematic subtitles

Some plot holes and lapses in logic

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi, Masami Nagasawa, Ryo Narita, Aoi Yuki, Obunaga Shimazaki, Kaito Ishikawa, Kanon Tani, Masaki Terasoma  
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Screenwriters: Makoto Shinkai

Movie Review – Under the Fence (San Diego Asian Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something pleasant and worthwhile from director Nobuhiro Yamashita. Plus YU AOI!!

REVIEW: Director Nobuhiro Yamashita is a director whose work I have followed recently and all of his work that I have seen so far, I have enjoyed. La La La at Rock Bottom was a fantastic comedy/drama with two stellar lead performances (FUMI NIKAIDO!!), while Linda Linda Linda is a favourite of mine, with its realistic portrayal of high school life, lovable performances, its understated humour and a rocking soundtrack.

So when I heard that Yamashita was making a film that had Joe Odagiri and Yu Aoi as the leads, I was psyched beyond belief. So does Over the Fence reach…over the fence?

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Yoshio Shiraiwa (Joe Odagiri) is dumped by his wife (Yuka) and goes back to his hometown of Hakodate. With nowhere to go in life, he attends at a vocational school, learning carpentry for unemployment benefits. At the vocational school, he meets Kazuhisa (Shota Matsuda) and the two become friends.

One day, Kazuhisa takes him to a nightclub for a business proposal and a night on the town. There, Yoshio meets a hostess, Satoshi (Yu Aoi). Endearingly spirited as well as having a strange affinity for the behaviour of animals, Yoshio gradually becomes attracted to her and the two start a relationship. But with complications like troubled pasts and troublesome events at the school, will Yoshio and Satoshi get together in the end?

From the looks of the synopsis, director Nobuhiro Yamashita is back to what he does best, which is portraying the life of the lower-class like in films like The Drudgery Train and Ramblers. But in the case of Over the Fence, the story is a bit more downbeat and depressing, in terms of its themes. That is most likely due to the source material by Yasushi Sato, who also wrote the source material for The Light Shines Only There.

But unlike that film, Yamashita executes the storytelling with an understated, yet assured touch. The revelations, dramatic beats, the lack of a musical score all point out that the film is aiming for more of a realistic yet contemplative vibe, rather than a melodramatic vibe. Not only does it make the storytelling more immersive, but it also gives the drama a much-needed punch when the conflicts arise.

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The actors inhabit their roles really well and adapt their performances with the understated storytelling really well. Joe Odagiri has been playing these type of laid-back characters for years to the point that he could do it in his sleep. In Over the Fence, he does it again, but he still does it well and he makes it easy to believe that his character is a slacker.

As for Yu Aoi, her character is a much more complex role that could have been borderline irritating, but she nails it. Not only does she make her character believable and sympathetic, her star-quality charisma makes her character immensely likable. Her impressions of animal behaviour deliver belly-laughs. Odagiri and Aoi have an endearing chemistry and Yamashita brings out the best out of them in terms of dramatic intensity. With Aoi, it comes to no surprise but for Odagiri, it’s nice to see him being pushed in terms of his acting chops.

The supporting cast all do great with their roles as well, even adding life to their minimal screen-time. Shinnosuke Mitsushima is quietly intense as bullying victim, Mori, while Shota Matsuda does well as the lothario/salesman, Daishima. Yuka makes a big impression as Yoshio’s ex-wife, in her minimal screen-time, conveying the pain of her character convincingly.

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Despite the potentially depressing storyline, director Yamashita still has time to fit in his whimsical humour that made his past films enjoyable. Besides the animal impressions that Aoi does, there are some scenes of absurdity like how a child is left on a theme park ride during an argument between the two leads that are quite amusing.

As for flaws, there was a lack of development of Satoshi’s backstory that could’ve been up to par with Yoshio’s backstory and the pacing could have been tightened up a bit, but it is understandable that the story is told this way, seeing that it involves characters slacking through life and its supposedly boring minutiae that people go through. Fortunately, the film ends in a satisfying way that made the film worthwhile.

Over the Fence is another quality hit for director Nobuhiro Yamashita, with great performances from Joe Odagiri and Yu Aoi, assured direction from Yamashita, a committed supporting cast and an effective balance of realism and the trademark Yamashita humour. Yu Aoi’s impressions of animals is worth the price of admission.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great leading performances

Subtle, understated direction gives revelations a punch

Sprinkled, whimsical humour offsets the potentially grim story

CONS

Inconsistent backstories

Lack of action within the plot

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Joe Odagiri, Yu Aoi, Shota Matsuda, Yukiya Kitamura, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Takumi Matsuzawa, Tsunekichi Suzuki, Yuka
Director: Nobuhiro Yamashita
Screenwriters: Ryo Takada; based on the novel by Yasushi Sato