Arguably one of the greatest parts of Crazy Rich Asians (2018) is its rather tongue-in-cheek opening scene. The humorous prologue sees Eleanor Young, her sister-in-law Felicity and their two children Nick and Astrid, arrive sopping wet at a London hotel hoping to check into one of its more prestigious suites, only to be turned away. It’s a crucial moment that forms the foundation of the movie, establishing Michelle Yeoh’s character as a fierce woman not to be trifled with, after she winds up calling her husband and, much to the chagrin of the staff, ensuring he buys the hotel. It’s sharp, witty and cleverly-played, but is also somewhat of a social commentary by director Jon Chu, about the way Asian representation on the big screen has played out for years. Casual racism is a prevalent part of our society, so it’s pleasing when the situation is flipped on its head.
Based on the popular novel by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians (2018) follows Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu who’s been dating her boyfriend Nick Young for just over a year. Everything seems to be going well until she and her beau jet off to his home country of Singapore to attend the upcoming nuptials of his best friend. It’s then she learns Nick actually comes from an uber-wealthy ‘old-money’ sort of family, with a matriarch that’s hell bent on making sure Rachel doesn’t end up a part of it. It’s certainly not an original premise, the idea of a working-class woman from New York ending up with a proverbial prince from a far-away land. Neither is having his parents disapprove. In fact, almost every aspect of the storyline, from the wild bachelor party to the literal glow-up in her best friend’s bedroom, seems to have been recycled from rom-coms of the past. Including the overblown if not spectacularly-set ending. But where Crazy Rich Asians (2018) differs is in how it gets there. It’s about sacrifice, and as they say early in the film – playing to win instead of playing not to lose.
The cinematography is gorgeous and, in a way, serves as metaphor for the film itself. Flashy and fashionable, but at the same time underpinned by heart and soul. Take the exquisite and endearing set piece of the central wedding, where guests are seated between reeds, the bride enters through flowing water and fireflies, and the soft melodic sounds of ‘Can’t help falling in love’ envelop the whole room. There’s never been a more glorious wedding march moment in the history of cinema. And yet, it’s not the supposed $40 million price tag that makes it great. It’s the short-but-sweet ‘I love you’s’ that are passed between our protagonist’s lips while it’s happening. Gold and opulence continually come second to the smaller moments, whether that be a family making hundreds of dumplings together with a method passed down through the generations, or two women bonding as they bury a dead fish. Wealth doesn’t buy happiness here, and the camera consistently reminds us of it, even when the dialogue doesn’t.
As far as the acting goes, Constance Wu shines as the story’s leading lady Rachel Chu, playing her as both equal parts glamourous and down-to-earth. Not only is her performance refreshing for everyone that’s had enough of seeing blonde, breasty girl-next-door types plastered across theatre screens, but she brings an honesty and unpretentiousness to the tired rags-to-riches archetype. Main-man Henry Golding, meanwhile, provides a wonderful turn in what is hard to believe is his first feature film. The English-Malaysian model is dashing as the Bachelor-esque Nick Young, delivering just the right amount of charm and wit to make audiences swoon. Yeoh brings a brutality to the Tiger mom role of Eleanor, with her unpredictability one of the highlights of the piece. But the scene stealers among the cast are the comedic duo of Awkwafina and Nico Santos, with the former’s college friend Peik Lin Goh the main source of laughs, from her Ellen hair to ‘walk of shame’ car clothes. While the latter is the self-declared ‘rainbow sheep’ of the family, whose flounces and flourishes are a priceless addition to what could have been a run-of-the-mill movie.
At lot has been said about the film’s desire to showcase that minority-led films can be just as good as the mainstream blockbusters starring straight, white men and women. And quite frankly, it’s been a long time coming. I mean, statistics from just two years ago show that around only one per cent of lead roles went to Asian actors and actresses. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a review that doesn’t mention how the movie is the first Western-produced, Asian-led film since Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) and The Joy Luck Club (1993). It’s incomprehensible that films like these are still outliers. Especially when there are hundreds of thousands of people with the same background, ethnicity or skin-colour who should rightfully be able to see people like them on theatre screens. And it’s just not right to say it’s a money thing. Crazy Rich Asians (2018) has raked in more than $130 million at the box office and Black Panther (2018) ended up with a $1.3 billion run. Representation matters, plain and simple.
For me, the best bit about Crazy Rich Asians (2018) is the decision by the film’s creators to pass on a lucrative deal with Netflix. Not only were they reportedly offered a trilogy of movies and artistic licence but were practically guaranteed seven-figure contracts. And still they chose to go with a studio willing to give the film widespread cinematic distribution. They chose the integrity of the audience over their own personal gains. They chose to sacrifice things for themselves so that people around the world would be able to see Asian characters in a place they have every right to be seen in. Like Rachel, throwing away the winning tile in the movies climactic third-act Mah-jong game, they proved that you don’t always have to win to prove you’re the best. Sometimes it’s better to rise above.
Rating: 4 Asian Ellens out of 5
Fifty Shades Darker Review - A grey sequel that proves only slightly more pleasurable than its first film
When Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) first hit screens on Valentine’s Day two years ago, the trailers told audiences to expect a sleek, sexy, edgy and eyebrow-raising look into the world of BDSM. Naturally, it was none of those things. While the film went on to earn millions worldwide, critically it was deemed a disaster, hobbling away with a C+ CinemaScore and a dismal 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This time around those trading their hard-earned cash for a ticket to the sequel have no excuse for the film they are delivered. Swapping directors and again promising a stylish and saucy take on what was originally Twilight (2008) fanfiction, Fifty Shades Darker (2017), is at best a blunt, unfeeling and oddly unsexy attempt at a big budget blockbuster. At worst, however, it is a complete mockery of what real relationships should be. See, while there is no doubt this instalment is more elegant and engaging than its predecessor, it is hard to shake the notion that the film just isn’t about experimenting in the world of BDSM anymore. But instead about the role of a man in controlling a woman.
We pick up just a few days after Ana and Christian awkwardly parted ways with their laughable and cringeworthy elevator goodbye. Since then Miss Steele has managed to establish herself as the personal assistant of Seattle Independent Publishing’s editor Jack Hyde, while Mr Grey has been wallowing in self-pity, keen to reignite whatever ‘passion’ the duo had to begin with. Following Ana to her friend Jose’s art exhibition, Christian begs her to give him a second chance and invites her to dinner. Ana, the strong, independent woman she is, agrees to the date if only ‘because she is hungry’, and the further into the movie we go the clearer it is her appetite is for something a little more salacious than a simple salad. So, she reluctantly agrees to pick up where they left off provided Christian renege the rules and punishments and soon the two are back in a routine and revelling in their newfound ‘vanilla’ relationship. Vomit spew. The baseless plot doesn’t end there though, with the pair’s rekindled romance threatened by two former flames. Leila (Bella Heathcoate), the sub-turned-suicidal-stalker and Elena (Kim Basinger), the dom-turned-jealous-cougar. And that’s all before Ana’s boss gets his creep on, a helicopter crashes and a proposal gets announced. Not even daytime soapies could write a story this stereotypical.
Where does one start with this film. Well, first-off let’s discuss the sheer-volume of questionable clichés that pop up in the two-hour runtime. We’ve got wine-tossing, face-slapping, masquerade-ball attending, a helicopter crash and not one, but two crazy stalkers. Most cliché of all though is the notion that Anastasia is a self-sufficient woman who ‘don’t need no man’. For all her feigned-independence she lasts about three minutes before she goes crawling back to Christian, who proves to be just as domineering, controlling and manipulative as he was before. To him, Anastasia is a possession and one he must own, whether that be her image, her time, her company, her job, or her sexuality. Similarly, the duo’s relationship in this film once again presents the idea that one partner must change for it to work. Where Anastasia had to challenge her notions of a ‘normal’ relationship in the first film, here Christian must give up his sadistic ways to keep the girl.
As for the script, they may have abandoned their ‘fifty shades of fucked up’ train-wreck that closed out the first film, but they clearly haven’t learnt from it. Instead the filmmakers use a myriad of corny and ridiculous scenes to justify their own ends. Say, like the time Ana wows an editor’s meeting by stating they should simply turn to online authors. A bit like the one who wrote this rubbish to begin with. You can’t really discredit scriptwriter Niall Leonard for trying there, especially when he is in fact the husband of the book’s author E.L. James. But even the worst of films can be worth the ticket price provided the script is somewhat decent. Sadly, that is where Leonard fails. Too caught up in pandering to his wife’s original content, the movie becomes a cyclical bore. Stalker here, Ana fed-up with Christian’s domineering there, sex scene and then kiss and make-up. Rinse and repeat. Not only does this add nothing to the ‘kinky’ genre they are trying so hard to establish, but it adds little to the cinematic world in general. Even the sex scenes don’t sell the film, framed in the same way, nearly shot-for-shot. Breasts, bare skin and ‘sex eyes’ don’t seem to be enough to keep people interested anymore.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. At least this time around the leads have both relaxed enough into their roles to develop some sort of chemistry. While Johnston continues to give it her all in that charming and naïve ‘girl next door’ way, Dornan continues to play Grey as somewhat of a brick wall. Expressionless yet chiselled, he is around only for his good-looks. And appreciate them the female viewers will, as he saunters around shirtless for half the film almost entirely for no reason. But just like the way Johnston’s Anastasia is pitched as the better half of the duo, so too is the actor better than this film and even she seems to be staring off into the void at times. It may have got her the career-boost she desperately wanted, but some things just aren’t worth selling your soul for. New additions Basinger and Heathcote are criminally underused too, appearing on screen for five-minutes apiece like they are simply literary tools thrown in to give the film some edge. It’s as if the filmmakers (or maybe more accurately the scriptwriter) didn’t know what to do with them once they had conjured them there. When Rita Ora almost becomes the best bit of a film, something has clearly gone tragically wrong.
There is no doubt that Fifty Shades Darker has tried hard to distance itself from its former film. And in some ways it even succeeds, playing into its cringeworthy sadism instead of running from it. But BDSM, at least according to the readily available literature on the subject, seems to be the trust between two people to take chances and experiment. And while this film does that with its audience, it forgets the fundamental rule that you ask whether everyone is okay at the end. Because for all the goofy fun and popcorn escapism we are delivered, the novelty of such love has certainly worn off. And we’re definitely going to need some wine before we can be Fifty Shades Freed.
Rating: 2 Seductive Stares out of 5
At the heart of Sony Pictures latest piece Passengers (2016) there is a major moral dilemma that demands to be debated. So much so, after attending a screening my friend and I argued relentlessly, having taken vastly different approaches to analyzing the film in those tired and intellectually-hazy moments after the credits roll. While I viewed the ethical conundrum as understandable, even somewhat inevitable, my friend was quick to profess that no matter the circumstances, such actions are inexcusable. While we stubbornly butted heads for the next half-hour before ‘agreeing to disagree’, such heated discussion shows just how Passengers has stolen its way to something more than ordinary. No great film for sure, but it is an important one if only for the fact it challenges people to make their own decision on such morally ambiguous problems. Beware though, spoilers abound henceforth.
We begin our filmic journey aboard the Starship Avalon, a spacecraft transporting 5000 souls in suspended animation on a 120-year journey to the new world of Homestead II. Despite promises from the global conglomerate operating the expedition that it is fail-safe and the passengers will awake just three months before they should reach their destination, during a meteor storm one pod malfunctions and mechanic Jim Preston finds himself alone onboard, with 90 years still to go. Denied access to the crew’s quarters and unable to find a fix to reset his pod, Jim’s loneliness begins to get the better of him. With his only company that of robotic bartender Arthur, after a year of unsuccessful attempts to fix his situation he reaches the end of his tether and drunkenly decides to launch himself from the ship sans helmet. Backing out at the last minute, Preston stumbles, quite literally, across the gorgeous, golden-locked and very much asleep Aurora Lane. Cyber-stalking her through the computer’s database, Preston begins to fall for the proverbial sleeping beauty and in one of the year’s biggest filmic quandaries, decides to wake her up. Oblivious to the truth behind Preston’s actions, which have doomed her to live out her life on the ship as well, Aurora begins to grow closer to the engineer, while he tries unsuccessfully to bury the guilt of his staggeringly selfish decision. But when a slip of the tongue brings the façade down just as the ships systems begin malfunctioning, the two must put aside their differences to protect everyone else onboard.
Visually, Passengers is a masterpiece, launching audiences into the wide expanse of space with a stunning display of control. From adrenaline infused anti-gravity moments, to solar fly-bys, beauty abounds even when the script slips up. One moment in particular is as excruciating to watch as it is impossible to look away from, with Lawrence experiencing a weightless dip in the onboard pool. Craftily choreographed and stunningly realized thanks to some CGI help, it will be a standout for years to come. Jon Spaihts script in comparison, does few favours to those onboard, laying down a foundation of clichés thick and fast. One can’t help but feel he has taken bits and pieces from every story out there, crafting a utopian world that is perfectly pristine while simultaneously infusing it with one of the oldest tales around – that of the famed Adam and Eve. So much does he struggle that he even employs a literal Garden of Eden to pick up the slack.
It is also hard to pin Passengers down to a simple genre, as it tediously flips back and forth between sci-fi, drama and action piece. While it handles the jump to explosions and fireballs with aplomb, it’s hard not to focus on how easily it also slips into suggestive stripper territory. With multiple sex scenes and plenty of naked torsos abounding, we bounce back to the tradition that a movie can’t make millions if it doesn’t display a little skin. It’s not a complaint per se, but if everyone is all too willing to call out the clichéd and cheesy romance between our leading lady and lad, then they should be just as quick to question their steamy screen appearances. Thankfully, the film never slows down enough for our minds to wander to this, as we yearn to know what pleasures the ship affords, what backstories will be brought to light and whether anyone else will awaken to help our plucky protagonists out.
Utilizing the world’s two top stars in Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence is a smart move by director Morten Tyldum, and it pays off two-fold as they deliver impassioned and empathetic performances. Their chemistry is undeniable, quipping back and forth with genuine emotion, however even Pratt, the breakout hit he is, struggles to fully encompass the absolute weight of destroying someone’s life. Michael Sheen does far better with his supporting character Arthur, bringing charm, wit and warmth to what could otherwise have been a detached and distant role. Despite the script’s limitations, he packs the energetic punch we need, in an otherwise dreary monotony. Lawrence strips back her regular routine too, humanizing Aurora in the process and helping guide the film along at a good pace. Resourceful as everyone in the picture seems to be and despite the smile they consistently bring to the corner of your lips, it’s a shame that for the most part they appears to simply be along for the ride, rather than steering the ship home.
Of course, the main moral dilemma has already set many a critic’s tongue a-wagging, with labels such as ‘disturbing’ and ‘sinister’ thrown about. However, as foolish as it is to argue against such a stance, it is just as imprudent for society to ignore the deeper discourse it braves to travel. There are countless hard decisions we face every day and it’s important to discuss how we as individuals would choose to handle them. For starting the discussion, Passengers has already achieved the glory it warrants. Is taking someone’s freedom away ever right? Or is there such a thing as true love? Better yet, if you were faced with a lifetime of loneliness, would you have the willpower to say no? So the film’s biggest flaw falls not on its formulaic approach, or even it’s ‘big’ twist, but rather in its choice to fall back on blowing things up in Act III, an action that reeks of big budget studios trying to cash in. Released in the same month as the mega-movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), the film could easily have singled its self out as a strong and empowering exploration of the human condition rather than challenging the sci-fi realm. Instead, after all the bravado and beauty, it simply fades into the night sky, just like the Avalon.
Rating: 3 Unhelpful Computers out of 5
Grace under pressure, courage under fire, call it what you will but the ability to keep a level head when bullets fly or hell rains down from the heavens is something that just can’t be taught. From Saving Private Ryan (1998) to American Sniper (2014), in the war genre bravery is almost always represented by a character that faces extreme loss and threatened principles, only to rise from the ashes in glorious fashion. While Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is no different in its determination, it takes the phrase to a whole new level, showing the steadfast resolve of a man who would not quit or compromise in his belief that raising a weapon was not the only way to win a war. When biology conditions us to freeze, fly or fight in the face of fear, one man proved that there is another option. An option we can only call faith.
A film more than 14 years in the making, Hacksaw Ridge tells the tale of Desmond T. Doss, a conscientious objector who after serving in World War II received the highest award that can be bestowed on a serviceman - the Congressional Medal of Honor – having singlehandedly saved approximately 75 men yet never raised a rifle in the process. A devout Seventh Day Adventist, when we first meet Doss he is a country kid from the Blue Ridge Mountains, already drawn to helping people after saving a young man crushed beneath a car. Wanting to do his part in the war and follow in the footsteps of his brother and father, he begins to read up on healing practices and enlists to become a medic. Refusing to carry a weapon based on his beliefs, when he is assigned to an infantry unit Doss is faced with overwhelming ridicule and persecution, not just from his company, but from the army itself. To them, it seems that he goes against the golden rule of American warfare; that of protecting your fellow soldier’s back, just as they protect yours. Steadfast in his stance, he is eventually sent to the battlefield at Okinawa, sans gun, where he is finally able to prove just what protection he can afford, going from believer to hero and ultimately, legend.
A lot has been said about the film’s director Mel Gibson in the last few years, but for all the anger and intolerance he has thrown around it cannot be denied that he does not bear at least some of the same courage and conviction of his lead character. His first film since 2006’s Apocalypto, it might be his best yet, if only for the fact he has dug through the proverbial dirt and grime of his own life to carry it to victory. The sentimentality is overwhelming at times, the score swelling with every emotional moment and slow motion camera shots lingering over our heroic angel-esque lead. But there is a distinct sincerity in the way Gibson handles this, crafting a slow burn build-up that helps us understand why Doss takes Pearl Harbour personally, but still wants to save lives instead of take them.
A scrawny Brit best known for his turn as The Amazing Spiderman, Andrew Garfield sinks his teeth into portraying a different kind of superhero here. Despite the sickeningly sweet nature of his character, one who sets his heart on marrying a nurse the first moment he meets her, Garfield is able to tread a miraculously fine line in proving that even the most pious among us can still have darkness within. For Doss, the real battle is rising above, ensuring his violence never bubbles to the surface like it did for his abusive and alcoholic father. Supporting him on that journey is an exemplary cast, each giving it their all to ensure our eyes never leave the screen. Vince Vaughn is reserved as Sergeant Howell, a man quiet in his ferocity yet instantly likeable in his devotion. Similarly, the bevy of Australian actors who round out the roles all manage solid performances, including Sam Worthington as Captain Glover and Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker, elevating their angry and villainous stereotypes into well-rounded characters.
The visuals are incredible, roaring to life with a grim relentlessness that drums home the reality of war. It is bloody, it is violent and above all, it is not something to glorify as many directors often try to do. Instead, it is bodies lying broken in the mud, tourniquets that can’t save people and the rush of heat as flesh is set on fire. As an audience member it is such a spiritually draining experience we are left questioning just how the men were able to go through it themselves. Staged, choreographed and shot beyond precision, the camera never shies away from the nightmare, providing one of the most detailed and unflinching portrayals of war put to screen. Thankfully, buried beneath the bloodshed there is also an incredible humanity to the battle, with friendships forged in the bowels of the staggering violence and the ‘no man left behind’ mentality pushed to its extreme. Gibson’s propensity for gore in almost unrivalled in Hollywood, however here it never feels overdone or thrown in for the pure shock value. It would be a dishonour to those that fought in the Pacific theatre to depict it any other way.
Careful and calculated in its every move, Hacksaw Ridge is at its purest a look into the human soul. Even without the strong religious connotations it imbues, one can sense a power and poignancy to such sacrifice. It is, after all, an innately human thing to summon the courage to run back into the fray over and over, with only the mantra ‘help me get one more’ to keep you safe. This is perhaps best exemplified by video of the real Doss at the end of the film, recalling those same words in his American sprawl and looking like your average 87-year-old. For us audience members, we are just thankful he got there.
Rating: 5 Saved Lives out of 5
How To Be Single Review - The art of being alone even when you're trying really, really hard not to be
For a feature film entitled How to be Single (2016), Warner Brother’s newest rom-com certainly spends a lot of time showing us what it means to be in a relationship rather than alone. There’s a serial hook-up harlequin, a woman who decides to settle down and have a baby, and another young female looking for her Mr Right. None of these however, are our lead protagonist, the one who teaches us the real moral of not how to be single, but the age old question of why.
The story follows Alice, a recent college graduate played by the doe-eyed Dakota Johnson, who decides to take a break from dating her college sweetheart Josh to move to the Big Apple, pursue a job as a paralegal, and find out who she is when she’s alone. Her first day in the office is no walk in the park however, as she is befriended by Robin, played by the boisterous Rebel Wilson, a hilarious desk-mate who acts as the proverbial devil on her shoulder, steering her in the direction of fun, frivolity, and the art of being frisky. After just one racy rendezvous with local man Tom the Bartender, our plucky protagonist sees the error of her ways, squandering the rest of the 2-hour run-time pining after her lost (and long moved on) love, playing family with a widow, and notching up a number of other marks on her bedpost. Rounding out the main quartet is Meg, Alice’s neurotic (not crazy, never crazy…) obstetrician sister, who is seeking neither a baby nor a man at the start of the film, and somehow manages to find both by the time the credits role, and Lucy a woman who has narrowed down the dating pool to a percentage of eligible men equal to that of half a crushed peanut.
Basically, How to Be Single is a film about three women learning how not to be single, playing remarkably like this decade’s version of He’s Just Not That Into You (2009), flaunting a stellar cast, a flimsy script, and a lot of gags to keep you going. In saying that, like the aforementioned film though, it’s not a bad journey. We learn the art of self-discovery, are given a lesson in growing-up, and feel ourselves rise to that sense of maturity we all found thrust upon ourselves at the tender age of twenty-one, when we left home / university / our first job, and had to ask what the hell were we doing? Most importantly, it reminds us that happy endings are not always found in a guy and a girl falling madly in love. Sometimes they are found in madly loving yourself.
Abby Kohn, Marc Silverstein and Dana Fox’s screenplay is at times startlingly refreshingly, proving a winner in its unprecedented gender equality. Not only does it imply that girls can party hard, decide to ‘take a break’ in a relationship, or choose to sleep around without consequence, but they reinforce these ideas without making a fuss or calling attention to them. This is the twenty-first century, and for once women are just as entitled as men. Christian Ditter rightly deserves some praise here too for the direction of his second English language book adaptation; however he must also cop some flak for his driftless and formulaic choices. It’s a good film, just not a great one.
Bumping the film up though are the performances of leads Wilson and Johnson, the former bringing the laughs big-time, firing off her now iconic brand of humour with startling precision. Not only does she nail a beautiful sequence in which her character tries to prove she can cure a hangover, get her hair and make-up done, and get to work in less than twenty minutes, but her riffing prowess in describing Alice’s down-town area by referencing Gandalf is legendary. Johnson too is a wonder, proving herself one of the best young actresses around at the moment. No matter how hard you want to hate her for signing on to the Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) trilogy, she is charming and compelling here, if only a little bit bland.
This isn’t a film of blockbuster proportion. Or a smart and sexy indie soiree. It’s a rom-com, pitched as a rom-com, which finds itself… you guessed it… focusing on romance and comedy. Like the proverbial dilemma of who came first the chicken or the egg, How to Be Single teaches you that knowing yourself helps you appreciate who you become in a relationship, and that loving someone helps you learn how to handle yourself when you’re alone. And it’s okay to be alone. To be single. To relish the moment when you are finally not tied by invisible heartstrings to another human being.
Rating: 3 Lonely Hearts out of 5
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