Of all the recent success stories in Asian-American cinema, focusing on Asian diaspora characters (usually Chinese-American, but there are people of Singaporean, Korean, Malaysian, Hong Kong and Vietnamese extraction, amongst others, mixed in here), none has been more notable than the romantic comedy. Of course there are cinematic precedents, like Alice Wu’s touching and likeable Saving Face (2004). However, following Kumail Nanjiani’s well-received The Big Sick the year before, last year’s high-profile cinematic success of Crazy Rich Asians has been matched on the small-screen by the Netflix films To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and this year’s Always Be My Maybe. I expect we’ll be seeing plenty more, and that can only be a good thing.
Early Fellini is probably the best Fellini, in my opinion, free of the baroque stylisation he would later fall victim to. That said, I find it difficult to imagine this as an Antonioni film (he was one of the writers of the original story, if not the screenplay), because it’s so filled with the extra touches Fellini would throw in, all light and music and movement and mugging for the camera. The lead actor is particularly good (Leopoldo Trieste), the one who plays the hapless husband making excuses for his star-struck wife, and it wasn’t until watching a making-of featurette that I realised this wasn’t a satire on film, but rather a satire on a very specific type of literature in which narratives were photographed for magazines, hence why I was confused about the nature of the shoot. Anyway, it’s all very pleasing and silly really.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini; Writers Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano; Cinematographer Arturo Gallea; Starring Alberto Sordi, Leopoldo Trieste, Brunella Bovo, Giulietta Masina; Length 83 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 December 2017.
A sweet romantic comedy about a young Chinese-American doctor, Wilhelmina (Michelle Krusiec), who has trouble coming out to her community and to her mother (Joan Chen), just as her mother has become pregnant by a man whose identity she refuses to reveal, causing her to be kicked out of her home by her elderly parents. So yes, as you can tell, it has plenty of soapy melodrama. However, the strength of the acting and writing is such that it remains sweet and uplifting throughout. It moves towards an ending that tries to tie everything up happily, and in the context of too many films focusing on the burden and heartbreak of being gay in communities with more ‘traditional’ ideas that’s welcome, not that it hides the difficulty its protagonist goes through. However, on the most part everything is kept light and enjoyable, and it’s easy to identify with Wil’s struggles.
Director/Writer Alice Wu 伍思薇; Cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian; Starring Michelle Krusiec 楊雅慧, Lynn Chen 陳凌, Joan Chen 陳沖; Length 91 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 5 August 2017.
If I were being flippant, I’d call this the best Saudi romcom I’ve seen, but of course the Saudi film industry is hardly developed (the only other film I can recall seeing from that country is 2012’s Wadjda, itself a German co-production). However, its existence in a very small industry aside, it’s actually — on any terms — a sweet story of romance, with two fetching leads (Hisham Fageeh as the male Barakah, and Fatima AlBanawi as the woman, though she goes by Bibi for short). It deploys many familiar structures to the romcom genre — the meet cute, the flirting, meeting the family — but these take on new meaning against the background of harsh social strictures designed to prevent any of these things from happening in real life. Barakah’s work as a civic functionary affords him little additional power (the unseen religious police have far more authority), and while it seems that Bibi’s far wealthier life makes her more able to shrug off religious obligations, even she has little power outside the private sphere of the home. Still, the film hardly dwells on such matters (given the wide-reaching grip of religious fervour within this society, it hardly needs to), and the tone remains light throughout: there are some great, properly funny scenes, and some touching ones too, as the two get closer.
Director/Writer Mahmoud Sabbagh محمود صباغ; Cinematographer Victor Credi; Starring Hisham Fageeh هشام فقيه, Fatima AlBanawi فاطمة البنوي; Length 88 minutes.
Seen on a flight from Beirut to London, Monday 29 May 2017.
Yet another film — I feel like I see one every few months, but maybe I just like to seek them out — that fits neatly into the burgeoning romcom subgenre of New York-set films about middle-class intellectuals trying to find love. Many of them star Greta Gerwig; Maggie’s Plan is no different. That said, and I suppose a range of opinions may be available, but I think Gerwig is great, an intensely likeable screen presence whose delivery energises even the most familiar material. Here, the film follows the usual roundelay of attachments — Maggie is a teacher who falls for social anthropologist John (Ethan Hawke), who’s having trouble in his marriage to the frosty Georgette (Julianne Moore) — but it doesn’t insist on marriage or even romance as the way forward. That in itself makes it worthwhile, quite aside from all its excellent comic performances (Julianne Moore remains a force of nature).
NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW
Director/Writer Rebecca Miller; Cinematographer Sam Levy; Starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, Julianne Moore, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Tuesday 12 July 2016.
I was pretty indulgent of this film when it first came out almost 20 years ago, and remember liking it on the big screen, but it was also the last of Kevin Smith’s films I saw and in retrospect I think maybe we just grew apart (I don’t even recognise the titles of some of his more recent works). In truth, my enjoyment of it it may be because I identified somewhat with Ben Affleck’s romantic lead Holden (his ill-advised 90s goatee aside) or maybe, as a friend opines, it’s because it was interesting and relatively unusual to see this geeky subculture of comic books and fan conventions portrayed on screen back then. In any case, it really doesn’t stand up to the test of time (if it ever was any good when I first saw it) and now strikes me as almost amateurish in its style, and in the attitude it takes towards its subject matter — the fluidity of sexuality and romantic desire, specifically as channelled through the character of Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), who is a lesbian… or is she??? [Cue this viewer’s heaviest sigh.] Jason Lee as Holden’s sidekick Banky has far more comic energy, even if his puerile fantasising tends towards aggressive hate words (or so they certainly seem now) and it’s not a stretch to see him as the narrow-minded person Kevin Smith indulgently imagines he’s moving away from, and Holden as a caustic self-portrait of himself not being able to deal with others’ sexuality. But I still feel that would be too forgiving to a set of characters who are all fairly one-dimensionally drawn caricatures, as colourful yet as flat as their comic book alter egos.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Kevin Smith; Cinematographer David Klein; Starring Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at Rialto, Wellington, December 1997 (and on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 17 January 2016).
I feel like I’ve been taking on quite a few unchallenging romcoms lately (as I did action films last year), and it’s a genre that more than many really does stand or fall on the likeability of its lead actors, and the breeziness of its writing. Which is just as well for How to Be Single because it has plenty of both. I mean, sure, it has some cloying sentimentality — most notably when Leslie Mann’s embittered character Meg gets the sudden desire to have a baby after apparently working for years as a maternity doctor — and it does suggest that being single is just a step on the path towards happy, heteronormative coupledom. Still, throughout its running time it does admirably stay focused on the single life of its four female leads, and when characters do get into relationships the film swiftly fast-forwards from first kiss to break-up via an intertitle (e.g. “3 months later”). It also along the way challenges the idea that having children without a father should be strange (though there’s a small role in this respect for Jake Lacy, which seems to present an alternative path from his character in Obvious Child). But whatever else it may do, it’s mostly about how lovely and watchable and empathetic Dakota Johnson is as a star — which is great because she was by far the best thing about Fifty Shades of Grey — and it has a good supporting turn from Rebel Wilson, who thankfully is not required to do an American accent, even if her character can sometimes be just a little too far along the ‘wacky/fun/drunk comedy sidekick’ continuum. Of the other stars, Alison Brie has a fairly minor role, and only Anders Holm as bar owner Tom really makes much of an impression amongst the roster of boyfriends, partners and love interests. Still, that’s fine by me, because this is a film primarily about the women’s experience of New York. It’s largely a middle-class vision (the script cheerfully references Friends and Sex and the City, of course), and as I said above, it doesn’t really challenge too many orthodoxies, but it’s likeable.
Director Christian Ditter; Writers Dana Fox, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (based on the novel by Liz Tuccillo); Cinematographer Christian Rein; Starring Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Leslie Mann, Alison Brie, Anders Holm; Length 109 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 1 March 2016.
Sometimes I like to watch innocuous frothy light-hearted brightly-coloured romantic comedies, the kind of thing which has always been considered the dispensable filler and fodder of the film world. I don’t really ever expect much from them, nor do they always deliver very much either, except something aimlessly diverting. I don’t even expect the protagonists to be people I actually like or deeply identify with — the title characters here (played by Victoria Justice and Pierson Fodé respectively) are self-involved narcissistic young New Yorkers, which is fine by me but I could see it might grate with others. Ely is gay; Naomi is his BFF; and together they have a list of people they both have crushes on but who are out of bounds (hence the title). The main thing is that there be a lightweight off-hand feel to the way things spool out, enlivened perhaps by some enjoyable supporting turns. And that much is in place here, with a range of love interests, friends and roommates who — in a touch which is perhaps slightly too precious — have matching names (Girl Robin is played by High School Musical‘s Monique Coleman, and there’s a Boy Robin too; there are also a couple of Bruces), but all are played with brio. Stretching credulity is that the building’s doorman is also a hunky young guy, Gabriel (played by the winsome Matthew Daddario), but it points to the film’s genesis in Young Adult fiction. Indeed if there’s anything interesting about the film, it’s that it integrates gay characters and a three-way love plot with a somewhat Disney Channel/Nickelodeon-esque inoffensive brightness. Perhaps I’m too easy on it, but it passed the time.
Director Kristin Hanggi; Writers Amy Andelson and Emily Meyer (based on the novel by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan); Cinematographer Anka Malatynska; Starring Victoria Justice, Pierson Fodé, Matthew Daddario, Monique Coleman; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), London, Monday 29 February 2016.
Andrew Bujalski can’t really shake his weird indie beginnings (why would he want to?), and even this film which some commentators have suggested is him going mainstream — by which, in comparison to his last film Computer Chess (2013), means largely more surface sheen to the bright, nicely-framed cinematography, and a more famous roster of cast talent — hasn’t necessarily reduced the overall oddness. Partly it helps to have Kevin Corrigan around, an actor who never fails to radiate weird, awkward vibes whatever he’s doing. He’s Danny, the character seeking the results of the title, a newly-rich, newly-divorced man looking to get in shape, hence contacting Trevor (Guy Pearce)’s fitness centre and being assigned Kat (Cobie Smulders) as a trainer. Pearce and Smulders really put across their characters well, with their can-do upbeat personal training ways, though it’s Trevor who’s particularly filled with the self-help platitudes (particularly in some hilarious YouTube videos we see for his holistic fitness philosophy). Kat has an angrier edge, and rebuffs Danny’s maudlin advances on her. It would be easy to take against the film; Corrigan and Smulders, or Smulders and Pearce are hardly anyone’s idea of perfect romcom pairings. But that’s partly the point: this isn’t trying to be the perfect romcom. It’s deeply awkward at times, and it’s no less weird than Bujalski’s earlier films, but it gets, as they say, results.
Director/Writer Andrew Bujalski; Cinematographer Matthias Grunsky; Starring Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at home (streaming), London, Sunday 24 January 2016.
Having recently watched director Leslye Headland’s first film Bachelorette, I get the sense that she likes characters who are deeply unhappy — not unreasonable, as happy people can make for dull comedies — but at least in this case they are largely likeable. Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) first hook up in college and then, over a decade later, run into each other in New York, whereupon they resume a flirtatious relationship, all of which takes place against various meltdowns in their respective personal lives. It’s the usual stuff of romantic comedies — misunderstandings, infidelities, messy breakups, awkward one-night-stands — except here our leads are largely to blame. It’s the easy charm of the actors that prevents their self-involved sex-addicted characters becoming too tiresome, and they have some nice laid-back chemistry together. The last 10 minutes feel particularly forced, including a stupid cafe fight worthy of Bridget Jones’s Diary, but it allows generic convention to run its course. The film also makes Jake’s notable character trope his tendency towards mansplaining, which is really pushed into the territory of uncomfortable laughs. I guess that kind of blend of discomfort and comedy is a hallmark here, and viewers could go either way on it. I’ll be honest: my benign tolerance for it might be something to do with seeing the new Tarantino film directly after, which scorched the earth to such an extent that I can’t help but feel fondly about this little unprepossessing New York-set romcom-with-a-twist.
Director/Writer Leslye Headland; Cinematographer Ben Kutchins; Starring Jason Sudeikis, Alison Brie, Adam Scott, Jason Mantzoukas, Natasha Lyonne; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Saturday 9 January 2016.