Tuesday, 19 June 2018

On Chesil Beach

I had read Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach to Kathy in April, just a few days before we saw the trailer for the film, and we had much enjoyed it, so we could hardly miss an opportunity to watch the film version on the big screen. That big screen was certainly helpful in allowing us to enjoy the excellent cinematography (it was actually filmed on Chesil Beach), but watching Dominic Cooke’s film so soon after reading the novel wasn’t ideal: Despite the fact that Ian McEwan wrote the screenplay himself, the film failed to do justice to his novel.

On Chesil Beach uses the backdrop of a wedding night in 1962 to tell the story of the bride and groom through flashbacks. Florence Ponting (played by Saoirse Ronan) is a brilliant young musician from an upper class family who dreams of leading a String Quartet on the world stage. Florence knows little about sex and is terrified about what she does know. Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) also doesn’t know much about sex, but otherwise is avery different person. Coming from a working class home and living with a mother whose brain was damaged in an accident, Edward has few ambitions other than getting away from home.

The unique flashback structure (in which most of the film involves flashbacks) worked well in the novel, filling in the story of the two nervous newlyweds in a way that fit nicely into the short excursions back to the wedding night. Unfortunately, I did not find that this structure worked well in the film. On the contrary, I found it awkward, with no clear flow from past to present or vice versa, making for slow going at times. I also found the new extended ending to be awkwardly contrived. Where I was hoping for some new scenes to add to my appreciation of the novel, I found the new scenes did the opposite. 

Which is not to say that the writing was inferior. Many scenes in the film, as in the novel, featured thoughtful and well-crafted dialogue. And the acting was outstanding throughout. With such acting and writing, I had hoped for a more engaging film, but that was not the case for me. Perhaps this is partly the fault of having a rookie director.

In the end, Kathy and I enjoyed watching On Chesil Beach, with no regrets for having seen it, but we came away disappointed because of how much more we had enjoyed the novel. A solid ***. My mug is up. 

Friday, 15 June 2018

Ocean's 8

Ocean’s 8, directed and co-written by Gary Ross, is a film about eight women trying to pull off the biggest jewel heist in history - at the Met (museum) in New York City. Leading the gang is Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), sister to Danny Ocean (George Clooney, who isn’t in the film) from the Soderbergh films. Debbie just got out of prison, where she spent five years planning this heist. Now she gathers together her team, played by actors like Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulsen, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina and, later, also Anne Hathaway. Ocean’s 8, in other words, is a film about women. Women don’t usually pull off heists, and I assume this is a film that’s supposed to draw attention to the lack of films featuring women in such roles and do its part to counter that lack.

But here’s the thing: Ocean’s 8 only really got entertaining for me when James Cordon got involved in the last quarter of the film. Cordon plays John Frazier, an insurance investigator who knows the Oceans all to well. Every minute of Ocean’s 8 with Cordon in it was more entertaining than all the minutes without him. I consider that a huge fail on the part of the writers. The problem isn’t that Cordon outshines the women as an actor. He is very good, but so were all of the women, especially Bullock and Blanchett (as Debbie’s partner). The problem is that Frazier is just a better-drawn character than the ones the women play (whom I’m not even bothering to name), and his lines snap the way all the lines should have snapped. The only other male actor of note was Richard Armitage, but he didn’t fare as well.

The entire film needed to snap and flow instead of meandering along with some scattered fun scenes between the women (the best involving Bullock and Blanchett). And by the time we get to the twists that are mandatory for the end of every heist caper, they almost made me yawn because of their lack of originality and boring delivery. 

And what was with the change of date at Danny Ocean’s grave marker: At the beginning of the film it read 2017; at the end it was 2018, which no one else seems to have noticed?

Thanks to Cordon, Ocean’s 8 was worth a look and there was just enough fun along the way to slide over into ***. My mug is up, but, again, just barely.

Thursday, 7 June 2018


Walter was in town, and we were fortunate to catch a new indie film to watch together.

Sebastian Lelio made my seventh-favourite film of 2017 (A Fantastic Woman), so I wasn’t about to miss his new film, regardless of subject matter. I was surprised by how very different Disobedience feels to his last film, but I was not disappointed, though its one major flaw prevents it from receiving the four stars which would have guaranteed Lelio’s second consecutive appearance on my top-fifteen list.

Disobedience tells the story of three close friends in London whose lives have taken unexpected turns and who are brought together again after years of separation (one lives in New York, for reasons which become clear during the film), resulting in the release of long pent-up emotions and passions.

Rachel Weisz plays Ronit Krushka, a New York City artist who has abandoned her Jewish faith but now returns to the Orthodox Jewish community in London after the death of her father (the community’s rabbi). Ronit does not receive much of a welcome, even from one of her close friends, Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola), who has married Esti (Rachel McAdams), Ronit’s other close friend. In an absolutely brilliant first half hour, we are slowly introduced to these three characters (whose surface successes seem clouded by deep unhappiness and even loneliness), their relationship and the reason Ronit left her father and friends to move across the ocean.

It’s only an introduction, though, as additional pieces fall into place throughout the film. Disobedience is in no hurry to reveal its secrets, which is great, though its major flaw is related to this strength. I would like to leave all the secrets for you to discover (as you know, I rarely do spoilers), but since every other reviewer (and even the film’s poster) gives away the central secret, I suppose I need to do so as well (minor spoiler alert): Ronit and Esti’s friendship goes much deeper than friendship and was the cause of the estrangement between Ronit and her father. 

I share this because one of the film’s highlights is the perfect chemistry between Ronit and Esti, made possible by the wonderful understated performances of Weisz and McAdams (perhaps their best performances ever). The acting of everyone in the film is excellent and this is matched by the outstanding cinematography and score (the singing is another highlight). 

Unfortunately, Disobedience could not sustain the brilliance of its first half hour. As it moves towards its unexpected ending, there is an increasing sense that vital pieces of character development are missing, especially for Dovid. Decisions seem to lack enough context, as if the film is sometimes as lost as its three central figures. The result is a last half hour with moments of great beauty and power but too many moments that don’t quite satisfy. 

Nevertheless, Disobedience is a marvellous, thoughtful and moving drama that gets a solid ***+. Two mugs up.