Movie Review – The White Crow

Ralph Fiennes takes the director’s helm for the third time in his career with The White Crow. While beautifully shot, Fiennes’ latest fails to nail the life story of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Elle Cahill

The White Crow follows the journey of famous Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) as he travels to Paris at a time when the USSR is treated with suspicion all across Western Europe. Intertwined with moments from his poor childhood, The White Crow attempts to demonstrate not only Nureyev’s exposure to and immediate love for the Parisian art and culture, but also why he eventually chose to defect from the USSR.

Ivenko is brilliant as Nureyev, managing to juxtapose his constant arrogance with his physical strength and beauty as a ballet dancer. There are a lot of layers to Nureyev that Ivenko brings to the surface without ever overshadowing Nureyev’s core characteristics.

Director Ralph Fiennes has taken a risk in choosing a professional dancer to star as his lead, as opposed to a seasoned actor with a body double for the dance scenes. His risk thankfully pays off, as it gives Ivenko’s performance a rawness that I don’t think would have been achieved if Fiennes had chosen otherwise.

The White Crow is beautifully shot, with distinct colour palettes used to define different parts of Nureyev’s life. The glimpses we see of his childhood, with a largely absent father and a mother struggling to feed her children has a distinct, dark blue and grey palette that slowly becomes warmer and brighter as he is accepted into the prestigious Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet.

Fiennes has also done a wonderful job of making the ballet performances the standout scenes of the film, with a strong focus on capturing Nureyev’s emotions pre and post-performance. There’s a lot of frenetic energy in this film, which is contrasted by the eerie quiet and stillness of the dance scenes, and the result is truly captivating.

For the most part, this film is a great offering from Fiennes, but at times the storytelling becomes disjointed. We are only offered glimpses of Nureyev’s past and are left to our own devices to piece it all together. There are a lot of questions about Nureyev’s character that are left unanswered, with his underdog side never fully explored and his unlikable qualities never explained or justified.

The White Crow is a visually strong delivery from Fiennes but lacks real direction or purpose beyond showcasing a beautiful harmony between Paris and professional ballet. Much more of Nureyev’s story could have been told if the film did not focus so heavily on indulgent shots of Parisian architecture and galleries.

The White Crow is available in Australian cinemas from July 18

Image © Universal Pictures 2019


Movie Review – The Lion King (2019)

Jon Favreau’s latest CGI-fest is not so majestic.

⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

There is a reason why animals shouldn’t speak in the movies. They don’t express emotion the way humans do. It’s why when a movie like The Lion King is made, it should only exist as an animation. This new “live-action” Lion King, for all its visual splendour, is deeply unsettling, because even though the story pulls its characters through a range of emotions, they’re plastered with the same expression from start to finish. It’s like a nature documentary with the animals possessed by highly paid actors.

I think Disney has entered a dangerous phase. Its movies used to have the power to transport us to faraway places. Now it seems more like a time machine stuck on repeat, hurtling us into the past with remake upon sequel upon remake. This “live-action” Lion King is the poorest remake of them all, because since it basically trades one form of animation for another, it’s neither live-action nor a remake, and struggles to be something in between.

Anyway, I’m sure I don’t need to go over the plot. Anyone wishing to see this picture would’ve seen the original, or the hugely successful Broadway musical that followed, or read Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. The truth is none of it matters, because this Lion King follows the original step by step, down to certain lines of dialogue and shot choices. It offers no room for original thinking. Like Gus Van Sant‘s ill-advised Psycho remake, it’s a brilliant facsimile of a great movie, and irrefutable proof that facsimiles of great movies, no matter how brilliant, are pointless.

So what’s left to talk about? The cast is okay, I suppose. The two best vocal performances come from John Oliver as the hornbill Zazu, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Scar. Ejiofor is really quite frightening. His voice doesn’t register like Jeremy Irons’ from the original, but he finds a cool menace that works for his blank-faced villain. Donald Glover voices adult Simba and almost passes by unnoticed. Beyoncé, as adult Nala, does all her own singing. And we get Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen as the hipster outcasts Timon and Pumbaa, who naturally trigger the most laughs. Meanwhile, James Earl Jones probably sets a record for most Nostalgic Voiceover Paycheques. Though at 88, his Mufasa sounds awfully frail.

Alas, I return to the animals’ faces. Their thorough lack of expression cripples the movie beyond repair. Simply consider the moment after Mufasa rescues Simba and Nala from the hyenas, and Mufasa bellows to Zazu, “I’ve got to teach my son a lesson!”. In the original, Simba’s face weakens and he sinks miserably into the tall grass. At once, the animation makes his fear and embarrassment clear. We get nothing of the sort in this new version, because this Simba can’t emote, at least not in the way we need him to. I felt like I was staring at empty faces, into empty eyes. The animals looked convincing. Their mouths moved. I heard their voices, but no one was home. This Lion King is a grave miscalculation.

The Lion King (2019) is available in Australian cinemas from July 17

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Movie Review – After

Sometimes fan fiction should remain just that. New teen romance After never should have made it from the page to the screen.

Elle Cahill

Based on the One Direction fan fiction of the same name, After follows good girl Tessa (Josephine Langford) who moves away to college and meets resident bad boy Hardin Scott (Hero Fiennes Tiffin). The pair begin a tumultuous relationship, leading Tessa to disappoint her family and friends, and test her once grounded morals. As they fall further and further in love, Hardin’s past threatens to tear them apart.

After is as melodramatic as it sounds. There are many similarities that can be drawn between it and the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise. For starters, neither is any good. Both scripts are poorly written, with highly under-developed stories, and both feature bizarre casting choices, with two leads that lack the connection needed to drive a romantic drama.

If you could take every romantic cliché in existence and put it into a single film, you’ll end up with something that resembles After. The dialogue is jarring and unnatural, making you very aware that you’re watching a film, and there are endless corny  scenes that made me cringe so hard I wanted to be swallowed up by my chair.

Coming in at just under two hours, After is far too long. It moves at a glacial pace that forces you to feel every painstaking minute as you wait and wait for some form of conflict to arrive. But never fear, the conflict eventually comes along, only to be quickly resolved in the last 15 minutes.

Perth-born Langford (younger sister to Katherine Langford from 13 Reasons Why), does her best to find something in the role, making her immediately better than Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades.

Fiennes Tiffin’s performance is wooden and contrived. He seems completely disinterested in Tessa at times, with the exception of a bathtub scene. But alas, he opens his mouth again, and the feeling is lost.

Admittedly, I’m not the target audience for this film, but even so, After is condescending and embarrassing even for chaste teenagers. Apparently, a sequel is already in the works. Let’s hope the filmmakers put more effort into crafting a romantic drama that at least contains some romance or some drama.

After is available in Australian cinemas from July 4

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films

Movie Review – Under The Silver Lake

Put on your tinfoil hats and pop some anxiety meds, you’re in for a brain-melting labyrinth that will probably pick up traction among cinephiles in about 10 – 15 years.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Corey Hogan

Unemployed and unambitious, Sam (Andrew Garfield) passes the days pondering conspiracy theories and possible hidden messages buried in pieces of pop culture. A beautiful and mysterious woman named Sarah (Riley Keough) becomes his new neighbor in his Silver Lake apartment building, and the pair almost immediately grow friendly and flirtatious with each other. After a night where Sarah promises more for Sam the following day, he returns to find her and most of her belongings gone without a trace. Obsessed with finding out what happened to her, Sam uses his sleuthing skills to investigate, uncovering some bizarre clues, shady characters and a much stranger conspiracy than he could have imagined.

When you think about the paranoid delusions that seem to have resurfaced in a magnitude these days – the earth is flat, the Illuminati controls everything, Beyonce is a lizard – perhaps David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake could be a film that defines our age. If it defines anything at all that is, there’s so much and so little going on that it could all mean everything or nothing, or both. Yes, it’s another weird ride.

It follows his much-praised It Follows, but while there’s shades of horror and disturbing imagery here and there, this is Mitchell jumping over the fence in to full-blown David Lynch territory to paint a lucid version of Los Angeles that’s hiding a dark and violent underbelly. An acidic, neo-noir score from Disasterpeace sets an enchanting mood at every turn as we follow Sam tracing clues through high class parties and underground bars, superstars’ mansions, reservoirs and deep underground.

It’s not just the disappearance of Sarah he’s chasing either; Mitchell throws in a missing celebrity daredevil, a dog killer on the loose, a cryptic comic book that may hold its own answers and a songwriter supposedly behind all of history’s hits, among more. Piecing it all together seems an ordeal of its own, and perhaps that’s the point. No matter how pointless it may seem to follow the plot, at least it’s never once boring.

Probably about 40 minutes longer than it has any right to be, shamelessly indulgent and overly ambitious, Mitchell’s Silver Lake is the kind of incomplete, messy masterpiece that has no appeal to a mass audience, but a certain subgroup will absolutely get their rocks off to. Here’s hoping that whatever Mitchell does next, he shoots on film; the beautifully vibrant frames of L.A. are here looking lush but digitalized to the extreme. But wait, maybe that’s another clue waiting to be cracked? Oh boy, onto the next conspiracy…

Under The Silver Lake is available in Australian cinemas from June 20

Image courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment

Movie Review – Tolkien

Tolkien has a quiet, magical quality about it. Not an elvish or wizardly sort of magic, but a desire to find wonder and whimsy in the doldrums of everyday life.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Cherie Wheeler

I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting when I settled in for my Monday evening session of Tolkien. But I do know I wasn’t expecting a film that would make me feel such joy and such sorrow in equal measure.

Tolkien, much like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is a story about friendship, love and war. It tracks John Ronald Reuel Tolkien as an orphaned boy in Birmingham, before becoming a student of Oxford and a soldier conscripted in WWI. Director Dome Karukoski explores how each of these life stages shaped Tolkien into the man who would go on to write the tales of Middle Earth.

As Frodo, Sam, Pippin and Merry served as the heart of LOTR, John Ronald (Nicholas Hoult & Harry Gilby) and his three boyhood friends Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson & Albie Marber), Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle & Adam Bregman) and Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney & Ty Tennant) form the heart of Tolkien.

The entire film is carried by the comradery between these four boys/men who are determined to explore artistic pursuits in a world ruled by propriety and tradition. We share in the spirited highs and crushing lows of their friendship over the years, while a romance simultaneously blooms between Tolkien and like-minded, fellow orphan Edith Bratt (Lily Collins).

Hoult is perfectly serviceable as adult Tolkien. He seems to be making a habit of playing literary figures, following his 2017 outing as J.D. Salinger in Rebel In The Rye. But while Salinger and Tolkien have writing and war in common, that’s about where the similarities end. Salinger was a non-conformist New Yorker who became a recluse. In Tolkien, Hoult conveys a gentle and soulful British scholar with a passion for language and fantasy.

Meanwhile, Collins is unexpectedly pleasant as the charming Edith, bringing a Hermione Granger-type quality to the character. With this and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile now under her belt, she seems to be turning a corner in her career. 

Tolkien is also supported by gorgeous cinematography and incredibly detailed production design that makes the most of early twentieth century fashion and architecture, but it is by no means a perfect film. Far from it.

There are times when emotional beats are overplayed, lingering longer than necessary. At other times seemingly significant moments are brushed over and quickly forgotten. It flits between timelines with little reasoning and becomes heavy handed when referencing and drawing parallels between Tolkien’s life and his works.

I knew very little of Tolkien prior to seeing this film. I didn’t even know what the J.R.R. stood for. All I knew was that I wanted to learn about the man behind one of the greatest fantasy franchises ever committed to the screen. Perhaps that combined with my love of writing and books makes me biased, for in spite of its many flaws, I still thoroughly enjoyed Tolkien.

Others have slammed the film as a ‘plodding biopic’ that ‘struggles to justify its existence’ and the Tolkien family have declared ‘they do not endorse the content’ of the film. Yes, Tolkien may struggle with structure and pacing, and it may lack finesse, but it made me feel something real. I genuinely cared for the four boys and their friendship and I can’t ask more of a film than that.

Tolkien is available in Australian cinemas from June 13

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

Movie Review – Wild Rose

Tom Harper teaches us hard life lessons, in a movie about a country singer from Scotland, of all places.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½ 
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Wild Rose begins with a self-centred country singer from Glasgow, Scotland, and ends with a complex, deeply human student of life. In between lies the discovery that life is a cruel, cruel mistress. Her lessons are harsh. Her punishments savage. There are no reset buttons. And she has a sneaky way of throwing us nasty curveballs when we least expect it. 

The singer is 20-something Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley), who we meet on the day of her release from prison. She was incarcerated for smuggling heroin, but as we’ll learn, heroin doesn’t play a part in her life. As far back as Rose-Lynn can remember, she’s been obsessed with country music. “I was born in the wrong country”, she tells Bob Harris of BBC radio. Her dream is to save up, fly to Nashville, Tennessee, and perform in the Grand Ole Opry, and then, I dunno, maybe a record deal?  

There are just two problems: a daughter and a son, who have lived with Rose-Lynn’s mother Marion (Julie Walters) while Rose-Lynn was locked away. Now Rose-Lynn is back, her kids don’t know her and she doesn’t know them. Dinners are awkward. Time is silent. 

Rose-Lynn deals with her kids the only way she knows how, by not dealing with them. Her heart still belongs to country music and her sights are still set on Nashville. She gets a job as a house cleaner for the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). They become friends, and before long Susannah’s offering to fund Rose-Lynn’s ambitious trip.  

Maybe all this sounds a little bland, but there is a web of consequences beneath Nicole Taylor‘s deceptively simple screenplay that threatens to undo Rose-Lynn. She is clearly a woman who outgrew life at a young age. She was performing at her local pub when she was 14. She had two unplanned children before she was 18. Poor choices landed her behind bars and now she has a family to care for before she ever had the chance to care for herself. Nashville should be the last thing on her mind. Her children should come first. But what Rose-Lynn has to learn is that she must play the hand she’s dealt, even if it means losing the pot.  

Wild Rose is directed by Tom Harper, who crafts it into a quasi-musical where Rose-Lynn is often listening to or performing country music. It’s worth noting that all the songs are sung by Buckley, who proves she’s as tremendous a country singer as she is a dramatic actress. The songs are indeed lovely. I’m not a fan of the genre but I can see why it provides Rose-Lynn with comfort and an escape. It’s what she was born to do. It’s really the only thing she can do. In another life, she might’ve been an international superstar. In this one, she’s a single mother of two in Glasgow, who sings country on weekends, and pays all her bills on time.

Wild Rose is available in Australian cinemas from 13 June 2019

Image (c) Universal Pictures 2019

Movie Review – Little Woods

Nia DaCosta’s debut is well-crafted and tightly acted, but a little more originality would’ve gone a long way.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Nia DaCosta‘s Little Woods is a slick, haunting thriller about the dangers and inevitably of the drug trade. In parts of the U.S. where crime has replaced jobs as the career of choice, drug dealers are on the same level as investment bankers. They provide what everyone needs at prices only the wealthy can afford. When demand is that high, profits are endless. Little Woods dilutes that business into a story about two stepsisters in rural North Dakota who, in desperation, have nowhere else to turn.

The sisters are Deb (Lily James) and Ollie (Tessa Thompson), who must raise $3,000 in a week or lose the house they grew up in. Not exactly the most original premise. To compound their problems, Deb gets herself knocked up. Now she must either have the baby for $8,000 or abort it. This sets up the rest of the movie, which involves the usual close shaves, high-tension encounters, nosy probation officers, rival drug dealers, and culminates in a risky drug run to Canada.

The screenplay, also by DaCosta, throws just about every sympathetic device at us. Deb is jobless, has a sick son to look after, receives no help from her son’s deadbeat dad (James Badge Dale), and has basically lived under Ollie’s protective umbrella. Ollie was nabbed once for ferrying illicit drugs across the border and wants to go straight, get a proper job, do right by her probation officer and still leave a good life behind for her sister and nephew. The last thing she wants to do is fall back into crime.

Little Woods is a sufficient thriller, mainly because James and Thompson are so good in their roles. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t do right by them. As the minutes ticked by, Little Woods began to remind me of Winter’s Bone (2010) and Hell or High Water (2016), two deeper, scarier movies about the relationship between desperation and crime. In fact, Little Woods is a weak fusion of both. So, you see how one might feel underwhelmed.

If you haven’t seen Winter’s Bone or Hell or High Water, Little Woods will likely impress the heck out of you. If you have, it will seem more like a cheap knock-off with performances that deserve a greater story.

Little Woods is available in Australian cinemas from May 9

Image courtesy of Limelight Distribution

Movie Review – All Is True

Branagh looks a bit ridiculous as the old bard, but his tribute to Shakespeare’s final years is nevertheless elegant and tender.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

All Is True leaves me somewhat conflicted. It is a gloomy, brooding picture about William Shakespeare’s final years in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, where it is presumably always dark. It is beautifully shot in candlelight and packed with dynamite performances. It is written in graceful language. Yet it all seems a bit dull, like fries with no salt. I wanna go to a Shakespeare movie to learn about Shakespeare. If you’re gonna skip his career and tell me about the man, make sure the man has a story worth telling. All Is True gives me the impression that he doesn’t.

The plot, such as it is: Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh, who also directs) has stopped writing. He returns to Stratford-upon-Avon to be with his family and start a garden. His eldest, Susannah (Lydia Wilson), becomes embroiled in marital scandal. His younger daughter Judith (Kathryn Wilder) is unmarried and lives in relative discontent. Judith’s twin brother, Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died of the Plague while Shakespeare was away in London. Much of All Is True deals with Shakespeare’s regret.

The screenplay, by Ben Elton, is of course more complex than mere gardening and lonely cries. Hamnet’s death hovers over the household like the Plague itself, reopening festering family wounds. Shakespeare marches into his home with old-fashioned misogyny disguised as paternal righteousness. He quietly blames Judith for surviving her twin brother. He resents her for not performing her designated womanly duty to marry an honourable man, deliver a son, and so on. Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s wife Anne (Judi Dench) sits silently in the corner as the long-suffering spouse guarding a terrible secret.

I suppose this stuff could be interesting, and occasionally it is, but I can’t help feeling it could’ve been a lot more, or perhaps been a different movie entirely. The performances upstage the material. Dench is mostly firm, given her husband’s extended absence, but she is able to soften in a second to reveal a gooey tenderness. Branagh, with his ridiculous fake nose that looks like something out of a Pink Panther movie, is the unwavering centre of his film. His best scene no doubt arrives when the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) pays him a late-night visit to reminisce about what was and what could have been. McKellen, with only a few lines, steals the show with a performance you want to hug.

All Is True is honestly quite a fine movie. It presents Shakespeare’s final days as a tumultuous but rewarding experience for him, his family and their quaint little town. Its candlelit cinematography is gorgeous. The production design by James Merifield and the fashion by Michael O’Connor are absorbing. We feel transported. But ideally, every story should be unique, and I fear this one could’ve been about anybody.

All Is True is available in Australian cinemas from May 9

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Movie Review – The Chaperone

The Chaperone looks and feels great but is hampered by an unfocused story.

⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

“The story centers on the teenage Louise Brooks”, says Wikipedia about The Chaperone, which is a statement so misleading you might go home thinking you’ve seen the wrong movie. For one, The Chaperone is so named because it’s not about 1920’s film star and dancer Louise Brooks, but well, her chaperone. In fact, the movie tells us so little about the life of Louise Brooks that I’m surprised she is in it at all. This is a story that exploits an iconic name, is bound by a vanilla plot and struggles to do Elizabeth McGovern‘s spirited performance any justice.

The screenplay is penned by Julian Fellowes, who created the famous Downton Abbey TV series. We start in Wichita, Kansas, where an unhappily-married Norma Carlisle (McGovern) is smitten with the talent of an aspiring dancer called Louise Brooks (Haley Lu Richardson). Louise is set to join the famed Denishawn dance school in New York City, but, being only 16, requires a chaperone to get there. Norma leaps at the chance.

In a more insightful movie, Norma and Louise might’ve allowed their clashing personalities and generational disagreements to create a dynamic partnership during their voyage. Sadly, they’re thrown together only to gradually pick up each other’s traits. Norma is cautious, conservative, traditional. Louise is energetic, progressive and frivolous. Norma thinks Louise needs to take life more seriously. Louise sees Norma as a boring, uptight prude. If you were to place a wager on the outcome of their relationship, would you bet against Norma learning to loosen up and Louise receiving a hard dose of reality? Haven’t we seen this stuff before?

The Chaperone is directed by Michael Engler, who certainly has a keen eye for period detail and a canny way of encouraging great performances from his cast. McGovern is gripping as the tentative Norma, coming to terms with past hurts, while Richardson seems to be having a blast. She is cute, confident and pert, with a smile that could melt rock. Unfortunately, they are let down by Fellowes’ formulaic screenplay that often leans dangerously toward male discrimination, which is not akin to female empowerment.

Just about every male character is a cheat, a careless fool, a heart-breaker or a sexual predator. In fact, the only good man inevitably becomes Norma’s love interest, proof to her and everyone watching in the cinema that not all men are piles of trash. We don’t learn anything about Louise Brooks, who starred in one of the silent era’s most treasured masterpieces and then diminished into obscurity. That would’ve made a good story. Instead, we are lectured on men’s failings and glued to Norma’s transformation and sappy romance, which, truth be told, is less interesting than a box of nails.

The Chaperone is available in Australian cinemas from 25 April 

Image courtesy of StudioCanal