Criterion Sunday 489: Monsoon Wedding (2001)

This film is about a wedding, as you might expect from the title, and so it’s hardly bereft of stress, or free from drama — both within the family and beyond it. There are some plotlines that go in quite dark directions, and yet all the time we’re brought back into something regenerative and vibrant, as this Punjabi family prepares to celebrate the arranged marriage of their daughter Aditi (Vasundhara Das). The film is made in a loose manner, at times not unlike a documentary, but still retaining an elegance and most importantly some rich and vibrant colours. The father tells off the unreliable wedding planner P.K. Dubey (Vijay Raaz) at one point for trying to use white for a marquee, but the film is generous enough to allow even Dubey a romance of his own. But that’s where the film is so good, leaving you with a feeling of warmth and regeneration at the end, never wallowing in the paths not taken.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Mira Nair मीरा नायर; Writer Sabrina Dhawan सबरीना धवन; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Naseeruddin Shah नसीरुद्दीन शाह, Vasundhara Das वसुंधरा दास, Shefali Shah शेफ़ाली शाह, Vijay Raaz विजय राज़, Tillotama Shome তিলোত্তমা সোম; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 18 December 2021.

Sylvie’s Love (2020)

This didn’t make my favourites list last year, but it was recently released on Amazon Prime streaming, and it’s a gorgeously-mounted period piece about Black people in New York, which makes a change from the usual 1950s NYC milieu.


There’s a lot I really like about this romance film, most of which boils down to the sumptuous setting. It’s late-1950s to early-1960s New York City, and Tessa Thompson is our lead actor, as she falls for the rather earnest (and a little bit wooden) saxophone player Robert Holloway (Nnamdi Asomugha). It’s not ironic or winking at us in any way, nor is it a romcom. I don’t know why I associate this genre primarily with African-American themes, but maybe it’s because some of the greatest recent examples of romance films have been from filmmakers like Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball is practically a template) or have been films like Love Jones. This is hardly as well-written or developed as either of those classics, but is played entirely straight, a period drama that doesn’t pivot around virulent violent racism, but instead is a story about two people in a place learning to navigate their feelings for one another. It’s very sweet, and entirely lovely.

Sylvie's Love film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Eugene Ashe; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Aja Naomi King, Lance Reddick; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at hotel (Amazon streaming), Picton, Monday 28 December 2020.

Ricki and The Flash (2015)

The Flash are a bar-room band and Ricki (Meryl Streep) is their lead singer. She’s in a relationship with the lead guitarist but isn’t willing to acknowledge it, and she’s estranged from her family (ex-husband Kevin Kline, a daughter and two sons) but events conspire to pull her back into their orbit after a decade away. It’s an odd experience this film, because I entirely believe in the characters — director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Diablo Cody put in all kinds of details that seem to ring true. There’s a faint sense of desperation around the edges, Ricki/Linda has a day job to make ends meet, there’s the bijou apartment she lives in, and the bar where she plays, with its name tacked hastily over the previous one outside. This care to build believable characters extends too to her ex, to her daughter (played by Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) and minor characters like the woman her son is marrying, dreadfully concerned with how things look to her conservative family. It’s just that I don’t buy any of the emotional relationships or character arcs: I don’t believe the decisions Ricki makes, and everything just seems too neatly constructed and overwritten. However, it’s a very likeable film in that old-fashioned way where every character has their reasons and we end up wanting the best for all of them.

Ricki and The Flash film poster CREDITS
Director Jonathan Demme; Writer Diablo Cody; Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Wednesday 16 September 2015.

Admission (2013)

This new film pairing Tina Fey and the seemingly unaging Paul Rudd has come in for some fairly disappointing reviews since it was released in the States earlier this year, but I rather liked it. It certainly isn’t a spectacular example of the romance genre (terrain familiar to both lead actors), but its virtues are solid and it has a good supporting cast of characters to enliven proceedings.

As it happened, I saw this back to back with Stuck in Love, another film set amongst bookish intellectuals inhabiting the cynical north-east of the United States, and if it’s possible Admission is even less nuanced with its character arcs. Fey plays Portia, a cynical, uptight and childless middle-aged admissions clerk at Princeton University, while Rudd is John Pressman, a free-spirited progressive educationalist with an adopted family whose star student Jeremiah (Nat Wolff) wants to go to Princeton. So far, so predictable, and in truth there’s little that shakes the viewer from that early assessment. Portia shelters herself from family commitments within her protective Ivy League enclave, while Pressman flits around the world engaging with developing communities to much the same end, so there’s little surprise in way their journey progresses. It’s never quite clear why Jeremiah wants to go to Princeton or whether this kind of elitist education is genuinely worthwhile, but it allows for some gentle comedy at the clash of cultures between the Ivy League and the liberal do-gooding of Pressman’s academy (which incidentally doesn’t seem to be at all academically rigorous in its methods).

Whatever its merits, it is worth noting that Admission is a comedy only in the broadest sense: there are few laugh-out-loud moments. In keeping with its pretentious milieu, the comedy in it is far more about wry smiles and occasional embarrassment such as at Portia’s ineptitude with the younger generation. That said, her mother Susannah is played by a wonderfully deadpan Lily Tomlin as an unreconstructed old-school feminist and brings a joie de vivre (not to mention some of the best outright jokes) to the film. Her presence also allows the film to embrace more configurations of happiness in life than some of the heteronormative married-with-children anxieties that Portia seems to be dealing with, as she wrestles with an apparent mid-life crisis in her attempts to nurture a parental bond with Jeremiah (and it is this drama which is really at the heart of the film). Luckily Admission never quite settles down to this path, and the central coupling suggests a resolution which does not entirely involve romantic clichés, almost refreshing in the context of this type of romantic enterprise.

As one who works in university administration, I don’t feel particularly convinced by its portrayal of the Princeton admissions office, though then again I don’t doubt that the Ivy League (or for that matter Oxbridge over this side of the pond) are quite different in this regard; certainly the assessment of students as candidates according to their whole personal history rather than just their academic results, seems like an odd focus. Still, the inter-office relationships are nicely sketched out (with another Clueless alumnus, Wallace Shawn, as the dean of admissions), and it’s good to see they’re not all heartless bureaucrats. Still, it’s unfortunate that Portia’s personal trajectory has to result in humiliation in her professional life.

For all that, the film is a pleasingly low-key romantic (sort-of-)comedy with likeable central performances. It probably seems like faint praise, but it is the kind of film that I would happily watch and probably enjoy even more on a long-haul flight, or when stuck at home in my sick bed. It has an unshowy and traditionalist spirit (it even ends with the words “The End”), and that is its own kind of virtue.


CREDITS
Director Paul Weitz; Writer Karen Croner (based on the novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz); Cinematographer Declan Quinn; Starring Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Lily Tomlin, Nat Wolff, Michael Sheen; Length 97 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Friday 14 June 2013.