Three Thousand Years of Longing review

For F*** Magazine

Director: George Miller
Cast : Tilda Swinton, Idris Elba, Aamito Lagum, Burcu Gölgedar, Matteo Bocelli, Kaan Guldur, Jack Braddy, Erdi Yasaroglu
Genre: Fantasy/Romance
Run Time : 108 min
Opens : 1 September 2022
Rating : M18

George Miller has one of the most eclectic filmographies of any director currently working: between the four Mad Max movies, Babe 2: Pig in the City and the two Happy Feet movies, there’s a level of unpredictability to his choices. With Three Thousand Years of Longing, Miller’s first film since 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road, he adds to that filmography a tale of an unlikely meeting between an academic and a mythical being.

Dr Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) is a narratologist. She has dedicated her life to studying stories and the history of storytelling and travels the world attending academic conferences. The latest such conference brings her to Istanbul, Turkiye, where she is hosted by Prof. Günhan (Erdil Yasaroglu). While at the Grand Bazaar with Günhan, Alithea chances upon a peculiar blue and white bottle. Back in the hotel room, Alithea cleans the bottle and unleashes a Djinn (Idris Elba), trapped inside. He offers her three wishes, but Alithea is much more interested in learning about him. The Djinn regales Alithea with stories of his past and the circumstances that led to his incarceration. These include run-ins with such figures as the Queen of Sheba (Aamito Lagum) and Ottoman rulers Murad IV (Kaan Guldur) and Ibrahim (Jack Braddy). Alithea must make her three wishes to grant the Djinn his freedom, but as she becomes increasingly fascinated with him and his stories, what she might wish for is thrown into question.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is adapted from the short story The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye by A.S. Byatt. This is an imaginative, vibrant and earnest movie, at once strikingly original and comfortingly familiar. The movie is a family affair for director Miller, who co-wrote the screenplay with his daughter Augusta Gore, and whose wife Margaret Sixel is the editor. Cinematographer John Seale came out of retirement for Mad Max: Fury Road, and he un-retires once more for this movie. The segments set in the past are exquisitely composed and bursting with colour and texture. There is a warmth and beauty to the story and Miller both delights in the details and has a light enough touch. It’s a story about stories, and how stories are a big part of what make us human.

The movie is reliant on vignettes, meaning the characters and stories are necessarily straightforward and archetypical. Unfortunately, this can make it difficult to connect to any of the supporting characters. The movie’s last act becomes disappointingly simplistic, with the story centred firmly on romantic attraction when the set-up hinted at a wide range of human emotions and relationships. After the bulk of the storytelling is over, everything from then on until the end of the movie feels like a let-down.

The movie rests on the interplay between Swinton and Elba, who make for an unexpected but fascinating pairing. The movie is at its most interesting in the earlier stages, when neither fully trusts the other and Alithea is wary of the Djinn because of her familiarity with stories about trickster figures who come bearing wishes.

Elba’s Djinn is at once powerful and vulnerable, susceptible to feelings of attachment and often undone by them despite his otherworldly abilities. Just the contrast between Elba’s and Swinton’s physiques and the way the actors hold themselves makes the frames that they share immediately interesting to look at.

Summary: Three Thousand Years of Longing is a whimsical, imaginative, lavish and heartfelt fairy-tale for grown-ups. It might not go quite far enough with its themes of the role human desires play in interpersonal relationships and in history, and its ending might be a bit too mundane and pat for some, but it is quite unlike most things in the cinema now. Director George Miller infuses the story with warmth and displays fine attention to detail. While the movie’s reach seems to exceed its grasp, especially as it moves into its final act, it is still wondrous to behold.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Star Is Born (2018) review

A STAR IS BORN

Director : Bradley Cooper
Cast : Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos, Rafi Gavron, Greg Grunberg, Michael Hanley
Genre : Drama/Romance/Musical
Run Time : 135 mins
Opens : 4 October 2018
Rating : M18

It’s a tale of love, loss and rock and roll: A familiar story is given a new lease of life by star/director Bradley Cooper and his leading lady Lady Gaga in this musical romantic drama.

Cooper plays hard-drinking rock star Jackson Maine, whose years on the road and life of excess have left him numb. Jackson finds new meaning in life when he chances upon Ally (Lady Gaga), a young singer performing at a dive bar. Jackson decides to take Ally under his wing and invites her onstage to sing a song she wrote with him at his concert. Jackson and Ally fall madly in love, but Jackson’s demons haunt their relationship, as prominent producer and Ally’s new manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) tussles with Jackson for control of the rising talent’s career.

A Star is Born is the third remake of the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. The film was subsequently remade in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. A third remake of the classic film has been in the works for a while, with actors including Christian Bale, Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio variously linked to the project. Clint Eastwood was going to make the film with Beyoncé. Considering the previous well-known iterations of the story and the somewhat bumpy production process, one would be forgiven for fearing a messy result.

Those fears are firmly assuaged with a film that has a linear, uncomplicated plot, but is inhabited by characters who feel like real people and whom audiences will care about. Praise has been heaped onto both Cooper and Gaga, who prove deserving of said praise. This does not feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker, and Cooper directs with a clear-eyed confidence. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique, oft-collaborator of Darren Aronofsky, contributes to the balance of the dreamlike and gritty, real atmospheres which entwine hypnotically.

This a movie about music, so it lives or dies by the soundtrack. Thankfully, the songs are great and do help in moving the story along. Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, and his band The Promise of the Real appear as Jackson Maine’s band. Nelson also served as Cooper’s ‘authenticity consultant’ and co-wrote the song Black Eyes. Lady Gaga co-wrote many of the film’s songs, including the signature track Shallow, a passionate, soaring duet.

Gaga’s hordes of little monsters across the world already know she’s talented, and while she has appeared in movies and on TV before, Gaga displays a side of herself we haven’t yet seen in this revelatory performance. While Lady Gaga has been an established pop star for a decade, she convincingly portrays a fresh-faced ingenue who undergoes a whirlwind transformation into a musical sensation. It’s an incandescent performance refreshingly free of vanity that lets Gaga showcase the full range of her artistry without coming off as self-indulgent.

Cooper’s performance as a shambling rock star who is a shadow of his former self is eminently sympathetic. We gradually learn bits of Jackson’s tragic back-story and through his heated interactions with manager/older brother Bobby, see how Jackson’s self-destructive tendencies wear on those around him. The character is constantly burning bridges and trying to put out the resulting fires. Cooper draws on his own struggles with substance abuse earlier in his career, making this a personal, raw performance. Cooper also has a lovely singing voice that’s very apt for the type of character he’s playing. Cooper cast his own (absolutely adorable) dog Charlie in the film.

The supporting cast, including comedian Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father Lorenzo and Dave Chappelle as Jackson’s friend Noodle, all bring authentic, endearing performances to the fore. Musical theatre star Anthony Ramos is a joyous presence as Ally’s friend and co-worker Ramon but doesn’t get to sing. Rafi Gavron’s Rez comes off as a little flat by comparison, the manager character being the most one-note.

While the palpable chemistry between the leads carries this a long way, A Star is Born does demand a level of suspension of disbelief. Ally’s meteoric rise through the industry is almost too good to be true, and we rarely see Jackson and Ally’s relationship from the outside – in real life, gossip and speculation from fans and the media is sure to weigh at least a little on the romance.

There are many moments when the movie veers too close to all-out melodrama – it seems like Gaga is willing to go there, while Cooper reins things in. Co-writer Will Fetters’ credits include the syrupy Nicholas Sparks adaptations or Sparks-esque romances Remember Me, The Lucky One and The Best of Me, and some vestiges of that remain. Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Cooper rewrote Fetters’ initial draft. The movie’s ending plunges head-first into schmaltz, but by then, A Star is Born has earned the right to be shamelessly manipulative.

The rapturous reviews and deafening Oscar buzz are in danger of over-hyping A Star is Born by a little, but there is still plenty to admire. This is a film that will make audiences hungrily expect Cooper’s next directorial effort and Gaga’s next starring role. It’s a story that’s been told before, but this heady, emotional, heartfelt take on it proves that in the right hands, stars can indeed be reborn.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Midnight Sun movie review

For inSing

MIDNIGHT SUN

Director : Scott Speer
Cast : Bella Thorne, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Rob Riggle, Quinn Shephard, Nicholas Coombe
Genre : Romance
Run Time : 1h 32m
Opens : 5 April 2018
Rating : PG13

Watching the sunset is one of those cliché things couples do, but in this romantic teen drama, that’s not an option for Katie Price (Bella Thorne). 18-year-old Katie has had a rare condition called Xeroderma Pigmentosum since birth. This means that even the slightest exposure to sun could lead to cancer and eventually death. She spends the whole day in her house behind specially-coated windows and is homeschooled by her father Jack (Rob Riggle).

Katie’s social interaction is limited to her best friend Morgan (Quinn Shephard). Katie has long harboured a crush on Charlie Reed (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who passes by her window every day, unaware of her existence. The two finally meet face-to-face when Katie is busking at the train station one night. Charlie is immediately smitten and they both fall for each other. However, Katie is intent on keeping her condition a secret, worried that learning about her illness will change Charlie’s perception of her. Will true love triumph blossom in the darkness?

Midnight Sun is a remake of the 2006 Japanese film of the same name. It will be difficult for anyone over the age of 13 to take this movie too seriously, as it feeds into the fantasies of many an adolescent girl. Midnight Sun feels as if it’s an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks book, and it also feels like a Lifetime “illness of the week” movie. Of course, there are the unavoidable comparisons to 2017’s Everything, Everything, which was about a girl who couldn’t go outside because of an autoimmune disorder. It seems blissfully oblivious to the cynicism it will generate, which perhaps lends it some charm.

This is the second feature film by director Scott Speer, who made his debut with Step Up Revolution and has directed music videos for most of his career. Midnight Sun feels like an extended music video, and perhaps one could imagine it being the plot of an early Taylor Swift MV. There’s too much gloss and artifice, and nothing in the film feels remotely real. At the same time, it isn’t heightened enough to work as a fantasy. This is to say nothing of the dialogue, which is unintentionally awkward rather than realistically reflecting the awkwardness that arises when one talks to their crush.

Like many teen romance films, Midnight Sun is wont to give kids unrealistic expectations of high school romance. Katie falls in love with the first boy she sets eyes upon, and it turns out that he loves her right back. True love, forever and ever. This is compounded by how the film romanticises Katie’s condition. She is adamant that Charlie sees her as more than just her illness, but the film seems incapable of doing the same. Her other defining trait is that she writes songs and plays the guitar, but for the most part, Katie is little more than someone who has Xeroderma Pigmentosum.

Both leads are attractive but have little genuine chemistry. Thorne is appealing and effectively conveys how Katie feels held back by her condition. Schwarzenegger is strapping and exceedingly handsome, fitting into the Abercrombie model mould of Hollywood’s current leading man crop. Neither is terrible, but the dialogue does them few favours and the would-be romantic scenes are hopelessly cheesy.

Rob Riggle plays the requisite cool dad, who has been helping Katie cope with her condition since childhood. Unfortunately, Riggle is more adept at playing cynical, unlikeable comedic characters, and sometimes struggles to muster the sweetness required to play Jack.

Quinn Shephard is an effervescent presence as the stock best friend, but the Morgan character never transcends her designation as the stock best friend.

This reviewer is a hopeless romantic, and there were times when he felt caught in Midnight Sun’s tractor beam. However, it’s easy to realise just how emotionally manipulative the film is, and this reaches laughable levels by the time Midnight Sun reaches its conclusion. It’s derivative of other teen romances and while the target audience might be moved, this film will induce eye-rolling in everyone else.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Basmati Blues movie review

For inSing

BASMATI BLUES

Director : Danny Barron
Cast : Brie Larson, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Scott Bakula, Saahil Sehgal, Donald Sutherland, Tyne Daly, Lakshmi Manchu
Genre : Musical/Comedy/Romance
Run Time : 1h 47mins
Opens : 8 Feb 2018
Rating : PG

Many famous actors have done movies they’d rather the filmgoing public forget about: Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger have Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Jennifer Aniston has Leprechaun, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire have Don’s Plum, and George Clooney has Batman and Robin.

Brie Larson has Basmati Blues.

In this musical romantic comedy, Larson plays Dr. Linda Watt, a scientist who, with her father Ben (Scott Bakula), has invented the genetically-engineered Rice 9. Linda is sent by her boss Gurgon (Donald Sutherland) to Bilari, India to sell the new strain of rice to local farmers.

In India, Linda meets Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an agriculture student who has returned to his village because he cannot afford his tuition. Linda is wooed by William Patel (Saahil Sehgal), the crooked agriculture ministry liaison. It turns out that Gurgon plans to exploit the farmers and is counting on them not reading the fine print in the contract. Linda must save the people she has befriended from the schemes of her boss.

Basmati Blues was made in 2013, before Larson hit the big time with her Best Actress Oscar win for Room. Larson is now an A-lister, set to play Captain Marvel in the MCU. This means it’s an opportune moment to release Basmati Blues, which really should’ve sat on a shelf forever.

Despite the producers’ protestations to the contrary, Basmati Blues is a white saviour movie. It trades in outmoded exoticism and retrograde stereotypes and is a fish-out-of-water love story in which a sheltered white woman learns to embrace life as she falls in love with a man in a foreign land. Basmati Blues attempts to address the western exploitation of India by way of having its villains be unscrupulous corporate overlords, but it takes a step forward and about ten back. The film was shot in the South Indian state of Kerala, but takes place in Uttar Pradesh in the North, with no effort made to ensure the authenticity of details like the languages used on signage.

Nearly every decision seems like the wrong one, and this is amateur hour in the extreme. Director Dan Baron makes his feature film debut with this film, which is ostensibly a love letter to Bollywood musicals. There are ways to do tasteful homages to the cinema of other countries – this is not the way. The production values seem cheap, the choreography is inept, and many of the songs are downright awful. We will admit to kind of enjoying the romantic duet “Foolish Heart”.

One of the primary tasks of any musical is to convince audiences that it’s perfectly normal for the characters to burst into song. Basmati Blues does not achieve this. Brie Larson dances around a lab, singing about how great it is to be a scientist, and things don’t get any less awkward from there.

None of this is Brie Larson’s fault, apart from that she should’ve known after reading the script not to have said yes to this. Her performance is sufficiently amiable, and she has a fine singing voice, but it’s hard not to feel waves of second-hand embarrassment washing over the audience whenever the Oscar winner is onscreen.

Utkarsh Ambudkar, best known for his role in The Mindy Project, is charming and earnest and, like Larson, trying to make the most out of terrible material. Saahil Sehgal is extremely handsome and believably slick, but the love triangle is tiresome. There are more misunderstandings between the main couple than in five rom-coms put together.

Respectable actors Sutherland and Daly are absolutely slumming it, but Daly does have the best voice in the whole cast. Bakula is barely in the film, but even so, he hasn’t lost his ‘aw shucks’ charm.

The Hanlon’s Razor principle states “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The filmmakers behind Basmati Blues likely never intended malice, and some might probably even be genuine fans of Bollywood cinema. However, stupidity is enough to do damage. This misbegotten travesty is a blight on Larson’s filmography, and is destined to become a so-bad-it’s-good cult classic. Prepare to cringe like you never have before.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Mountain Between Us Movie Review

For inSing

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US 

Director : Hany Abu-Assad
Cast : Idris Elba, Kate Winslet, Beau Bridges
Genre : Adventure/Romance
Run Time : 112 mins
Opens : 2 November 2017
Rating : M18

Being stranded on a snowy mountain would be a nightmare scenario for most of us. Luckily for Kate Winslet, she’s stranded with Idris Elba in this adventure drama. We should be so lucky.

Elba plays neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Bass, while Winslet plays photojournalist Alex Martin. The two strangers decide to jointly charter a private flight out of Boise Airport in Idaho, because Ben needs to perform an emergency surgery in Baltimore and Alex needs to get to her wedding, which takes place the next day.

Local pilot-for-hire Walter (Beau Bridges) flies Ben and Alex out of Idaho, but the plane crashes in the High Uintas Mountains. Walter dies in the crash, leaving Ben, Alex and Walter’s dog to fend for themselves. With no way to contact anyone, and no flight plan filed because it was a last-minute flight, Ben and Alex are left stranded. Making do with limited supplies and sustaining injuries from the crash, the pair must rely on each other, making a desperate bit for survival.

The Mountain Between Us is based on the novel of the same name by Charles Martin. Oscar-nominated Dutch-Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad directs from a screenplay adapted by J. Mills Goodloe, Chris Weitz and an uncredited Scott Frank. The film clearly aspires to be sweeping and romantic – while the Canadian filming locations are breath-taking, much of the dialogue is unintentionally funny, and the predicament that befalls our protagonists never truly feels sufficiently treacherous.

Survival films have the power to transport audiences into perilous, exciting situations. The Mountain Between Us strives to serve up its share of edge-of-your-seat thrills, but is hampered by sometimes-overwhelming romance novel-style melodrama. The slightly silly title should’ve been enough of an indication that this is how the film would end up.

The film weathered several major casting changes: Michael Fassbender and then Charlie Hunnam were attached to the Ben role, with Rosamund Pike, then Margot Robbie being cast as Alex. The final casting works, as both Elba and Winslet are skilled and charismatic performers. However, try as they might to sell the lines they’re given, the overall silliness stymies even these two respected actors.

It’s a good thing that Ben just happens to be a doctor – if a photojournalist were stranded on a snowy peak with a film critic, both would die in about 30 minutes. Elba is as gruff and sexy as he typically is, and does eventually get to be vulnerable and emotional. In part because Ben is as adept at survival skills as he is, the film strains suspension of disbelief.

While Winslet does her best to give Alex personality, the character largely comes off as annoying. The bickering between Ben and Alex stays a safe distance from being like what one would find in a romantic comedy, but the progression of their relationship is still unconvincing. Both actors have passable chemistry, but audiences can sit quite comfortably because they won’t be swept up by anything.

This reviewer did enjoy The Mountain Between Us because it features a Labrador Retriever who looks to be having just the best time playing in the snow. However, we gather that the filmmakers’ intention was not to have us bursting into fits of laughter. The Mountain Between Us benefits from its talented leads, but also demonstrates that even good actors are at the mercy of the material. If you love dogs and/or Idris Elba, you might be compelled to give this a go, though.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Sex Doll

For F*** Magazine

SEX DOLL 

Director : Sylvie Verheyde
Cast : Hafsia Herzi, Ash Stymest, Karole Rocher, Paul Hamy, Ira Max, Lindsay Karamoh
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 103 mins
Opens : 4 May 2017
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes)

Did that title catch your attention? It’s the only thing about this movie that will. This drama takes place in the underground realm of London’s high-priced escorts. Virginie’s (Herzi) family back in France believes she is working as an estate agent. In reality, she’s a sought-after prostitute working for Madame Raphäelle (Rocher). While partying with her friend Electre (Karamoh), Virginie meets a mysterious young man named Rupert (Stymest), who takes an interest in Virginie. While Virginie is initially dismissive of Rupert, she finds herself drawn to him, but is unsure of his motives. Virginie is tasked with showing new girl Sofia (Max) the ropes, but things go awry during Sofia’s first night on the job. Virginie, Sofia and Rupert go on the run, with the powerful men they’ve upset gaining on them.

Sex Doll’s original French title Amoureux Solitaires translates to ‘Lonley Lovers’. The film is written and directed by Sylvie Verheyde, who seems unsure of the kind of film’s she set out to make. From the premise of an erotic thriller set in the world of high class call girls, the film could go in one of two directions: a sobering, uncompromising, look at the realities of sex work, or an over-the-top exploitative fantasy. Sex Doll does neither, spending most of its running time meandering in limbo. It’s a film that has arthouse aspirations, but there’s little depth to be found beneath the endless parade of soft focus extreme closeups. While there is a lot of grunting, the sex scenes aren’t as graphic as one would expect – especially given that this a French film, and Fifty Shades of Grey was infamously passed with an “ages 12 and above” rating in France.

The film doesn’t work as a character study because the characters are so poorly defined and underdeveloped. While Herzi possesses sufficient elegance and poise to convincingly play a seductress, the character of Virginie isn’t especially fascinating. We suppose Verheyde was aiming for a sense of poetic irony in naming a prostitute “Virgin(ie)”, which is quite on the nose. Aspects of Virginie’s work that would make sense to explore, including how she climbed the ranks, how she maintains her relationships with her regular clients, and what’s at stake if she should run afoul of them, are barely examined.

Stymest is an English model whose lanky proportions give him what one might describe as “an interesting editorial look”. Unfortunately, he’s painfully stiff. The character is intended to seem aloof while hiding something beneath that façade, but Stymest merely comes off as bored.  Rocher doesn’t play up the stereotype of a stern, uncompromising madam, but has too little screen time and interaction with Herzi to make much of an impact.

For a film set in an environment rich with illicit thrills and tragedy, Sex Doll is a slow, passionless affair. Sex Doll doesn’t play enough with the ‘diary of a call girl’ formula, and is neither exciting nor, to be frank, all that sexy.

Summary: Fidget-inducing rather than provocative or alluring, Sex Doll is a dull portrait of a high-end prostitute’s life.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bitter Harvest

For F*** Magazine

BITTER HARVEST 

Director : George Mendeluk
Cast : Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Barry Pepper, Tamar Hassan, Terence Stamp, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Austen, Richard Brake, Gary Oliver
Genre : Historical/Romance
Run Time : 1h 44min
Opens : 20 April 2017
Rating : NC16

The Soviet famine of 1932-33, also known as the ‘Holodomor’, is an oft-overlooked historical atrocity. This romantic drama is set against this event, as Joseph Stalin (Oliver) seized farmers’ harvests and starved the Soviet Ukraine populace, as part of his collectivisation campaign. The starvation is accompanied by indiscriminate slaughter, with Stalin’s troops rounding up dissenters and throwing them into gulags, where they eventually face firing squads. Yuri (Irons), a young artist whose grandfather was a famous warrior, is separated from his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Barks) when he travels to Kiev to attend art school. Back home, Stalin’s men, led by Commissar Sergei (Hassan), are terrorising the farmers and their families. Caught in the violence and despair, Yuri must make his way home to be reunited with Natalka.

Bitter Harvest is directed by George Mendeluk, a Canadian filmmaker of Ukrainian descent. Mendeluk co-wrote the film with Ukrainian-Canadian screenwriter Richard Bachynsky, who decided to make a film on the subject when he visited Ukraine in 1999. This is a labour of love for both men, who feel a responsibility to shed light on this man-made famine which only became public knowledge after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. While Mendeluk and Bachynsky have noble intentions, Bitter Harvest falls short of being the impactful, revelatory and visceral experience it could’ve been.

This is a film that aspires to be a sweeping period romance, setting a fictional tale of young lovers rent apart by the horrors of war against an actual historical tragedy. The love story at the core of Bitter Harvest is rote and melodramatic. It is intended to be a way in for audiences, the vast majority of whom will be unfamiliar with the historical context, but instead, it serves to cheapen the actual suffering experienced by the Ukrainians. While it certainly wasn’t what Mendeluk intended and despite the horrifying actions of the Soviet troops that are depicted, Bitter Harvest is sometimes in danger of romanticising the Holodomor. The film busies itself with looking painterly above delving into its characters. Most filmgoers don’t want to sit through a history lesson, but the compelling story of the anti-Bolshevik resistance ends up playing second fiddle to a ho-hum love story.

Bitter Harvest benefits from location filming in Ukraine itself, as well as the talent and experience of veteran cinematographer Douglas Milsome. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, with its lush, mournful strings, sounds just like what one would expect from a film in this genre. Despite its strong production values, various factors undercut Bitter Harvest’s authenticity. One such factor is that everyone’s speaking with clipped English accents. We understand that making the film in the English language broadens its reach, and that the U.K. cast might have sounded silly affecting Ukrainian accents, but this sonic incongruity is often distracting. It also invokes “Englishness = prestige”, the same reason why everyone in The Danish Girl sounded a little Masterpiece Theatre-esque.

Even more detrimental is the sheer cheesiness of the dialogue. “You shouldn’t love me. I will only bring you misfortune,” Natalka tells Yuri forlornly.

“Oh, I have been a fool for lesser things,” Yuri replies, as the audience rolls their eyes.

Irons, who will have “the son of Jeremy Irons” following any mention of his name for the foreseeable future, is a bland leading man. Yuri is a sympathetic character, a sensitive soul who is more at home painting than taking arms against enemy combatants. As played by Irons however, we never fully step into Yuri’s shoes, and it’s hard to feel a lot of him even as he endures significant hardship.

Barks, who finds herself associating with student revolutionaries again after playing Éponine in Les Misérables, occasionally gets to exhibit the blend of fighting spirit and fragility that served her so well in that film. Hassan’s Sergei is little more than a snarling villain, while Terence Stamp pops up in a dignified supporting role. Aneurin Barnard’s spirited resistance leader is entertaining to watch, but he has too little screen time.

The general critical consensus on Bitter Harvest is that while it will raise the awareness of the Holodomor, it doesn’t do the victims of the famine-genocide due justice. It aspires to the soaring, searing wartime romances of yore, but its cheesiness and complete lack of subtlety work against it at every turn.

Summary: Bitter Harvest shines a light on a dark, little-known chapter of history, but its hokey romance and heavy-handed treatment of historical events let it down, despite the filmmakers’ admirable intentions.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

Director : Bill Condon
Cast : Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor
Genre : Musical/Fantasy/Romance
Run Time : 2h 9min
Opens : 16 March 2017
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)

You know how this story goes: Belle (Watson), who lives in a provincial French town with her father Maurice (Kline), is misunderstood by the townsfolk because she’s intellectually-inclined and doesn’t conform to the norms of the time. Belle catches the eye of the boorish Gaston (Evans), always accompanied by his sidekick Lefou (Gad), but Belle rebuffs Gaston’s advances. When Maurice loses his way in the woods and is held prisoner by a frightening Beast (Stevens), Belle volunteers to take her father’s place as the Beast’s captive. The Beast was formerly a handsome prince, who has been cursed by an Enchantress for his haughtiness and unkindness. The household staff of the castle were also cursed: the suave head butler Lumiere (McGregor) is a candelabra, fussbudget majordomo Cogsworth (McKellen) is a clock, and matronly head of the kitchen Mrs. Potts (Thompson) is a teapot. Belle must fall in love with the Beast to break the curse, but when Gaston learns of the Beast’s existence, he will stop at nothing to kill the Beast and take Belle for himself.

These days, the foundation stones of the House of Mouse are nostalgia. Beauty and the Beast is a remake of the landmark 1991 animated film, which was in turn based on the 18th Century French fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. It’s easy to be cynical about the practice of live-action remakes, a practice Disney is keen on continuing. While there are elements to this lushly designed, beautifully photographed live-action remake that are worthwhile, it does hew closely to the venerated 1991 version. Director Bill Condon, who earned his musical cred with Chicago and Dreamgirls, dutifully assembles a work of prefab nostalgia.

This is not to say Beauty and the Beast is not enjoyable. This reviewer had goosebumps through much of the film, and there’s a novelty in seeing flesh-and-blood actors (alongside multiple computer-generated characters) telling this tale. There is an effort to stick a little closer to the original story. For example, the Beast imprisons Maurice because Maurice plucked a rose from the castle gardens, Belle having requested her father bring a rose back from his travels. That’s in this version. Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos’ adaptation of Linda Woolverton’s screenplay includes flashes of rib-tickling wit.

The production design by four-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood is sumptuous, with lots of dizzying details to take in. Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are similarly beautiful, but the friend whom this reviewer saw the film with noticed that the gold leaf details were printed onto the dress rather than sewn on. It’s also fun to parse when exactly this is set, given clues like Gaston having fought in “the war”, Belle reading Shakespeare to the Beast, the powdered wigs worn by the aristocrats, and the mention of the black plague, historical markers that were absent from the 1991 version.

Much of the nostalgia factor is directly linked to the music. The songs from the 1991 film, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, have been etched into the collective consciousness. In this iteration, there are lush orchestral arrangements and some very pretty harpsichord parts.

However, this reviewer couldn’t suppress his disappointment that the songs from the stage musical adaptation, including If I Can’t Love Her, Home, Me and Human Again, are conspicuously absent. Instead, Menken has re-teamed with Tim Rice, the lyricist for the additional songs in the stage musical, to write a few new numbers. These include the Beast’s solo Evermore, which is a sweet torch song but is an also-ran replacement for If I Can’t Love Her, and Days in the Sun, a more melancholic take on the wistful Human Again. It seems odd that given how this started out as a direct movie adaptation of the stage musical, those songs are all gone. Menken and Rice are plenty talented, so the new songs are good – just not as good as what we had on Broadway.

Watson has stated that the character of Belle was a big influence on her when she was growing up, and as such she’s honoured to get to play her. While Watson is fully convincing as a feisty bookworm, since she spent around ten years playing one earlier in her career, there seems to be something missing. Perhaps it’s how iconic the animated Belle is, that it’s hard not to see Watson the actress/activist when looking at this Belle. Her singing voice has also been autotuned into oblivion, disappointing when compared to how lively and engaging voice actress Paige O’Hara’s performance was in the 1991 version.

Stevens sounds remarkably like the Beast’s original voice actor, Robby Benson. This version makes multiple attempts to render him as sympathetic as possible, to tamp down the icky Stockholm Syndrome connotations. As such, the Beast is never really fearsome, even when he’s locking up Maurice in the beginning. At times, his computer-generated visage seems suitably animalistic, and at others, it looks like hair has been digitally flocked onto Stevens’ face. He also looks more than a little awkward while singing.

Gaston steals the show, as Gaston is wont to do. Evans flings himself into the part with great aplomb, seemingly channelling Hugh Jackman, who played Gaston on stage in the Sydney production. Much has been made of how Lefou is “officially” gay, and it can’t help but seem like a marketing device to generate controversy more than anything else. Gad is ideal casting and a fine complement to Evans. Maurice is less of the clumsy, absent-minded elderly man he was in the animated film, Kline lending the character warmth and a degree of grounding.

The all-star cast extends into the actors voicing the enchanted objects. McGregor seems to be putting in the most work, affecting a French accent and having fun with the role. He shares great vocal chemistry with McKellen, whose voice sounds apt emanating from a stuffy, unyielding worrywart. Thompson does a full-on Angela Lansbury impression, which is quite charming. This also marks a reunion for Hermione and Prof. Trelawney. Stanley Tucci voices a new character, the court composer-turned harpsichord Cadenza. Broadway star Audra McDonald voices the wardrobe Mme. Garderobe, and gets to perform an aria that seems awfully like Prima Donna from The Phantom of the Opera. The enchanted objects must’ve been the biggest stumbling block in translating the animated film into live-action, and there are several moments which work much better in the 1991 film, Be Our Guest being chief among them.

Beauty and the Beast will charm and entrance large sections of moviegoers, but it seems preoccupied with hitting its marks, glancing down at the floor on occasion. Things get lost in translation, and Disney devotees will be locked into continuously comparing this with its animated forebear. Still, it will be largely futile to resist gasping when each petal falls off the rose, even though we know how it’s going to end.

Summary: While it’s largely bound by an enforced slavishness to the now-classic 1991 animated film, more than enough delights await within this refurbished castle.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Space Between Us

For F*** Magazine

THE SPACE BETWEEN US 

Director : Peter Chelsom
Cast : Asa Butterfield, Britt Robertson, Gary Oldman, B.D. Wong, Carla Gugino, Janet Montgomery
Genre : Sci-Fi/Romance
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : PG (Some Sexual References)

the-space-between-us-posterEnder’s Game might not have been successful enough to warrant a sequel, but Asa Butterfield is back in a spacesuit anyway in this sci-fi romance. Butterfield plays Gardner Elliott, who has spent all of his 16 years living in the East Texas habitat on Mars, raised by the scientist Kendra (Gugino). Gardner’s mother Sarah (Montgomery) was an astronaut on the pioneering manned mission to Mars, who died giving birth to Gardner. Nathaniel Shepherd (Oldman), the owner of Genesis Space Technologies, and mission director Chen (Wong) disagree over whether to go public with Gardner’s existence. Gardner befriends Tulsa (Robertson), a disaffected teenage girl, online. When Gardner arrives on earth, he convinces Tulsa to help him search for the father he’s never known. When Kendra, Nathaniel and Chen conclude that Gardner will be unable to withstand earth’s gravity and atmosphere, they must save him before it’s too late.

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The premise of a kid who’s spent his whole life on a different planet and becomes a fish out of water on earth has tremendous potential for drama and comedy, unfolding within a sci-fi context. Director Peter Chelsom, whose credits include Serendipity, The Hannah Montana Movie and Hector and the Search for Happiness, approaches this as a teen romance. There are several scenes set on Mars and there’s some vaguely credible techno-babble tossed about, but the bulk of the film ends up being a largely ordinary road trip love story. While it’s admirable that this is a character drama at heart, the film’s tone lands somewhere between awkward-cute and melodramatic rather than genuinely stirring or thought-provoking.

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We learn from Sarah’s memorial plaque on the Martian surface that she died in 2018. Gardner is 16 years old, so the bulk of the film takes place in 2034. It turns out that the United States of 2034 is barely distinguishable from that of 2017, and it seems due more to budget constraints than anything else. There’s a transparent laptop or two, but other than that, there’s nothing in the scenes taking place on earth to indicate that this is set in the future. It’s a bit of a shame, given that there’s attention to detail paid in other aspects: for example, Mars is accurately depicted as having a weaker gravity than earth, something which The Martian dispensed with because it would be too labour-intensive to portray consistently.the-space-between-us-asa-butterfield-1

 

Butterfield can play endearingly awkward in his sleep, and is fun to watch here. While there are too many twee fish out of water moments in which Gardner is awestruck by the most mundane things, there’s a real sweetness and sincerity that Butterfield brings to the part. The relationship between Gardner and Tulsa is central to the film, and while attempts at character development are made, the romance progresses too quickly and too Hollywood-y to be believable.

the-space-between-us-britt-robertson-1Robertson is a lively performer – her facial expressions in Tomorrowland reminded this reviewer of a Pixar character come to life. Both Tulsa and Gardner haven’t had much meaningful human connection in their lives, and find solace in each other. However, the journey from rom-com bickering to heartfelt professions of love takes a remarkably short time. This means that the relationship drama is not entirely successful at grounding the more fantastical elements of the story.

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Oldman is never a boring actor to watch, but his performance here is broader than required, with too much flailing and bluster for us to take him seriously as the boss of a spaceflight technology firm. Gugino’s Kendra is warm and intelligent, but unsure of how to connect to Gardner as his maternal figure. Wong doesn’t get to do much beyond arguing with Oldman, but it did let us imagine that Commissioner Gordon was having a heated disagreement with Hugo Strange.the-space-between-us-asa-butterfield-2

The Space Between Us isn’t an adaptation of a Young Adult novel, but it sure feels like one – perhaps it should be called The Fault in Our Mars. As a quirky teen-aimed romance, The Space Between Us has its charms and its leads are appealing enough to make up for the cheesiness and soap opera melodrama, especially in the concluding big reveal. It’s too bad that the film fails to meaningfully examine the themes of belonging and the role of scientific advancements in how we connect to other people. A science-fiction film that focuses on relationships rather than wham-bam spectacle or mind-bending metaphysics is a novel prospect, but The Space Between Us misses the opportunity to be sublime and profound.

Summary: The Space Between Us tries and barely succeeds at blending coming-of-age teen romance with science fiction, but it attains lift-off thanks to its endearing young leads.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Light Between Oceans

For F*** Magazine

THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS

Director :  Derek Cianfrance
Cast : Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender, Rachel Weisz, Florence Clery, Jack Thompson, Thomas Unger
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 2h 13min
Opens : 19 January 2017
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scene)

the-light-between-oceans-posterAs Elizabeth told us in the video game Bioshock Infinite, “there’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city.” There isn’t really a city in The Light Between Oceans, but two out of three ain’t bad.

In this period romantic drama, there’s a lighthouse – it’s situated on Janus Rock, off the coast of Western Australia. There’s a man – World War I veteran Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender), in search of a quiet existence after braving the horrors of war. Tom becomes the lighthouse keeper of Janus Rock, and falls in love with local girl Isabel Graysmark (Vikander). Tom and Isabel marry; the couple keen on having children. One day, a rowboat washes ashore. Its occupants: a dead man and a newborn baby girl. Isabel convinces Tom that they should raise the girl, whom they name ‘Lucy’ (Clery), as their own daughter. Tom later spots a woman visiting the grave of her husband and daughter, who were lost at sea the day Tom and Isabel found Lucy. This is Hannah Roennfeldt (Wesiz), and it turns out that Lucy is indeed her daughter and is actually named Grace. This revelation torments Tom and Isabel, who know it’s the right thing to return Lucy/Grace to her biological mother, but who have grown attached to her after raising her as their own child.

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The Light Between Oceans is based on the 2012 novel of the same name by M.L. Stedman. Writer-director Derek Cianfrance, known for The Place Beyond the Pines and Blue Valentine, stated that he had set out to make “a John Cassavetes movie in a David Lean landscape”, which is quite the lofty goal. The Light Between Oceans has the makings of an old-fashioned, sweeping romance, bolstered by the picturesque setting of Stanley, a seaside town in Tasmania. While Cianfrance adopts the vocabulary of classic filmmaking, The Light Between Oceans sometimes feels like a pastiche of arthouse prestige period pieces. The film is bald-faced in its emotional manipulation and while the central conflict has the potential to be heart-rending, it’s handled more as a full-bore assault on audiences’ tear ducts than anything else.

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With its acclaimed indie darling writer-director, leads who are either Oscar nominees or winners and a bestselling novel as its basis, The Light Between Oceans has a lot going for it. If one can overlook the heavy-handed cheesiness and leave their cynicism waiting outside the theatre, the film has its charms. Some viewers might find themselves pondering what decision they would make if they found themselves in the dilemma that plagues Tom and Isabella. However, others will be distracted by the contrivances in the narrative and the nigh-absurd coincidences required to keep the story moving.

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Both Fassbender and Vikander are ideal leads for a period romance: he has the pulchritude of a male lead from Hollywood’s Golden Age, she is expressive and endearing, and they both have acting chops to spare. Despite their considerable skills and the chemistry the leads share, Tom and Isabel can’t help but feel more like ciphers than satisfyingly developed characters. The circumstances under which Tom and Isabel fall in love are awfully convenient. He’s the withdrawn, tormented soldier and she’s the beautiful, lively local lass who gives his existence meaning. It’s not plain sailing, and that’s when we get slightly more histrionics than are strictly required.

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Since Weisz’s Hannah only shows up during the second half of the film, we’re conditioned to root for Tom and Isabella. Weisz’s performance allows us to see Hannah’s point of view as well, leading us to accept that there really aren’t any bad guys in the equation. The scene in which Lucy/Grace is separated from Isabella is difficult to watch, and parents will be able to relate to the anguish experienced by both Hannah and Isabella. The supporting cast consists of reliable Australian character actors, including Bryan Brown and Jack Thompson.

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Adam Arkapaw’s sumptuous cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s melancholic score might give The Light Between Oceans an air of class, but pare away the standard prestige pic bells and whistles and you’ll be left with soap opera hokum. Granted, it’s soap opera hokum that’s packaged and presented extremely well. This reviewer felt a little like Elaine from Seinfeld, who is confused and angry at how everyone around her seems to adore The English Patient, which she finds insufferably dull.

Summary: The Light Between Oceans features gorgeous scenery and gorgeous leads, but it’s hard to stay afloat in its sea of mawkish sentimentality.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong