Reviews

V is for Vita & Virginia (2018)

The love affair between socialite and popular author Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) and literary icon Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki).

Vita & Virginia is one of those films I chose to watch for two reasons and neither of them was because I thought I’d really enjoy the film. Those two reasons were one; it had an actor I liked a lot in it (in this case, Gemma Arterton) and two; it’s directed by a woman so can count towards my 52 Films by Women challenge. I didn’t go into Vita & Virginia thinking I’d hate it (and I didn’t) but equally, it wasn’t a story I was particularly interested in.

Based upon their real letters Vita & Virginia tells the story of how these two women met and became entangled in each other’s lives. There are many times where the letters are just read out by the actresses and the camera lingers on the face of the recipient as they register the words. This was an interesting way to show how they kept in touch and felt about one another to begin with, but the repetition soon got old.

It’s unfortunate that while the two leads do a decent job with what they’re given, it’s their relationships with their husbands that is far more touching and interesting than their forbidden love affair. Arterton and Debicki don’t have great chemistry whereas the support and care both Harold Nicolson (Rupert Penry-Jones) and Leonard Woolf (Peter Ferdinando) show their respected wives feels more real. Both couple’s marriages are unconventional in different ways and it’s a shame that’s what interested me more than what was happening between the titular characters.

The cast is good, it’s just how the film is put together (and a sometimes-dry script) that lets them down. How Vita & Virginia is edited feels weird. Some scenes or moments are cut too short so any intended emotional impact is lost while others meander or build to something that never happens. It makes this one hour and 50 minutes film often feel a lot longer than that. The music is also a bit strange at times, with almost techno, dance music playing during a party. It kind of feels it was going for the Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette anachronistic vibe of clashing the historical and the modern but as it wasn’t consistent in Vita & Virginia, it’s just more jarring and feels out of place.

Overall, while the cast does what they can with what they’re given, the lack of chemistry between the leads and its slow-pace makes Vita & Virginia feel far longer and duller than what it probably was. 2/5.

U is for Upside-Down Magic (2020)

Nory (Izabela Rose) and her best friend Reina (Siena Agudong) enter the Sage Academy for Magical Studies, where Nory’s unconventional powers land her in a class for those with wonky, or “upside-down,” magic. Undaunted, Nory sets out to prove that that upside-down magic can be just as powerful as right-side-up.

As I near the end of my A-Z Challenge I wanted to watching something that wouldn’t be too taxing and found this Disney Channel Original movie on Disney+. It’s based on a book (which I haven’t read) and it’s almost a combination of Harry Potter and Sky High but that works surprisingly well.

Reina’s power is creating fire and she is good at it but lacks confidence, especially when Nory is no longer with her to be her hype woman. Those two are some of the best tween best friends I’ve seen in media for ages. Both young actresses were great and I really believed in their friendship. Nory’s power is that she can change into a creature, but not just one, she always ends up as a mixture of two or more animals which doesn’t fit in with the neat aesthetic of Sage Academy.

Honestly, the teachers at Sage Academy are the worst. So many of them are super strict and expect perfection all the time that it makes the kids unsure of themselves. Plus, as the sort of moral of the story is embracing all your weirdness and differences, there’s a lot of adults who are against that and the headmistress especially is dismissive of Nory. Skriff (Kyle Howard) is the groundskeeper/teacher for Nory and the three other kids whose powers don’t fit into the neat normal and he’s a bit jaded too to begin with but once he starts to help Nory and the others too, he becomes a lot more likeable.

Upside-Down Magic feels like one of the Disney Channel Original Movies that they actually spent some money and effort on. The young cast are all pretty great, the special effects don’t look terrible, and it’s a film with a good message and themes. The villain of the film is interesting and looks pretty good too, and how they build the weirdness and make a book super creepy is admirable.

Overall, Upside-Down Magic is a fun, easy-watch kind of kid’s film. There’s a lot of great friendships between various characters, like the bond formed between Nory and the other kids with upside-down magic, but really, it’s Nory and Reina’s friendship that’s at the heart of this film. They really are the best of friends. 3/5.

T is for The Trouble with Harry (1955)

The trouble with Harry is that he is dead and, while no one really minds, everyone feels responsible. After Harry’s body is found in the woods, several locals must determine not only how and why he was killed but what to do with the body.

Because some of Alfred Hitchcock’s most well know films like Psycho, The Birds, and Rear Window (only one of which I’ve seen but their reputations precede them) are horror or thriller films, I always get a bit surprised when I watch one of his films and find it’s a comedy. There’s still a dead body and the mystery of who killed him, but The Trouble with Harry is a much more light hearted film than I expected.

While everything does revolve around a murder the dialogue is often quite witty. As the characters try and figure out what happened to Harry and who was really to blame, the situation surrounding Harry’s body gets more absurd as by trying to save themselves, they might actually be making themselves look more and more guilty.

The Trouble with Harry is Shirley MacLaine’s first feature film and it’s so interesting to see her in a role like this when all the films I’ve previously seen her in she’s been a cranky and/of humorous older lady, granting wisdom or causing mischief. It’s clear she had her comic timing from the beginning and she has good chemistry with John Forsythe – even if their characters romance seemed a bit rushed. Though that’s probably because the events of The Trouble with Harry all take place across just a couple of days, meaning any reveals or blossoming romance between characters does feel a bit quick.

Even though there’s a corpse at the centre of The Trouble with Harry, thanks to where it’s set and all the scenes outside, it feels like a very autumnal film. It has a charm to it that I wasn’t expecting and is a very family friendly murder mystery. 3/5.

S is for Space Cowboys (2000)

When an aging Russian satellite suffers a system failure that could set it on a collision course for Earth, retired engineer Frank Corvin (Clint Eastwood) is called into help as his now outdated guidance system is what the satellite runs on. He blackmails his former boss Bob Gerson (James Cromwell) in order to get his old team back together to complete the mission, and soon Frank, pilot William “Hawk” Hawkings (Tommy Lee Jones), flight engineer Jerry O’Neill (Donald Sutherland) and navigator Tank Sullivan (James Garner) are all going through training at NASA to prove their fitness for the mission.

I love a good space movie, especially ones that focus on the technical aspects of space travel and have all the usual tropes with interesting characters in ground control as well as in space, office politics, and things not going to plan – Apollo 13 and The Martian are my favourite space films. Space Cowboys ticks all those boxes so I had a great time with this film.

The friendship between the old teammates is what really made Space Cowboys for me. So many of the scenes when they’re all together, just chatting, or messing around during their training were fun to watch. It all seemed so natural as they took the mick out of one another but also clearly cared about one another. Some of them hadn’t seen each other for years but the sign of a good friendship is being able to easily fall back into the old rhythms of a friendship like no time had passed at all.

The first two acts of Space Cowboys are Frank getting the team back together and them going through training together. There are the usual clichés of clashes between the old, would-be astronauts and the young, trained professionals but things never turn too nasty and as their training progresses you can see there’s a grudging respect between the two generations. The third act is the mission into space and naturally just about everything that could go wrong, does. There’s a bit of a farfetched reveal about the satellite but besides from that the mission in space is tense and action-packed.

As someone who grew up watching James Cromwell as the nice and gentle farmer in Babe, it’s been a weird experience watching the rest of his filmography as I get older, especially when he plays characters who aren’t that nice at all. Whenever he and Eastwood butt heads it’s fun to see but Cromwell’s character has such a shifty undertone to him it’s a bit disconcerting.

Have to mention the needle drop of *NSYNC’s Space Cowboy which was not a song I’d ever think would be in a Clint Eastwood movie but when the title works, it’d be a crime not to use it.

Overall Space Cowboys is a fun film with engaging characters. Sure, the main plot is saving a failing satellite but really it’s a film about friendship, loyalty, and trust and it has one of the most believable group of friends I’ve seen in film in a while. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD Timor-Leste: From Timor-Leste to Australia: Seven Families, Three Generations Tell Their Stories edited by Jan Tresize

A collection of stories and poems from seven families who recount their lives in Timor-Leste and how events like the Japanese invasion during WWII, being a Portuguese colony for almost 500 years, civil war between different political parties once Timor-Leste is decolonised, Indonesia invading, and finally the country gaining its independence after the people vote for it in a referendum in 1999.

Like many countries I’ve read about in my Read the World Project, Timor-Leste is one that I didn’t know anything about so From Timor-Leste to Australia was a real eye-opening and informative read. For each of the seven families there’s at least two people telling their story; sometimes their siblings, or more commonly it’s a parent and then a child. That way the reader can see how these huge events affected different generations as sometime the children were ten years old or younger when they were forced to flee their homes and move to countries far from home so for some it seemed like an adventure and the realities on their situation was lost on them.

Having members of seven different families share their experience is a good way to get a broad idea of what happened to the Timorese people. Some families were wealthier or had connections to the government while others were poor and had little support, but often they all ended up in similar situations, running from their homes and uncertain of what the future held. Those who stayed in Timor-Leste throughout the Indonesian invasion naturally had different experiences to those who managed to get to other countries. So many people still wanted to get back to their home country though, and how some of these people described what they feel is their nationality was interesting. Some now are Australian residents but feel more Portuguese because they spent their formative years there, others feel Timorese first and foremost but still feel at home in Australia or Portugal.

It was interesting to see how these families got displaced with some being separated by loved ones for years and how they adapted to their new countries. One family was in Mozambique for a time as that was also a former Portuguese colony before the revolution there forced them to flee to Portugal. A lot of the families ended up in Portugal for years, sometimes over a decade or more. This was because Timor-Leste was a form Portuguese colony and some of the families had Portuguese parents or grandparents so had connections in the country that could vouch for them. Others ended up there as it was where was deemed to be safest, living in refugee camps for years.

By the end of each of the families’ stories, most of them had ended up settled in Australia, where communities of Timorese people had begun to thrive. This was due to the Australians fighting against the Japanese in WWII and Timorese people would often hide and protect Australian soldiers when the country was occupied by the Japanese.

From Timor-Leste to Australia was quite a sad read at times as so many people in these families were imprisoned, killed, or separated from loved ones for years. People wen through such hardships and nearly every time it seemed like things would get better for the Timorese, something else would happen. The relief and joy when the people of Timor-Leste successfully voted for their country’s independence was palpable in every family member’s recollection. But the resilience of these people and how families managed to stay connected even across oceans was impressive – especially as lot of this happened from around 1942-1999, a time where phones and technology to keep in touch were not how it is today.

R is for Rope (1948)

Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) attempt to prove they’ve committed the perfect crime by hosting a dinner party after strangling their former classmate to death.

I’ve currently only watched like three Hitchcock films but this is definitely my favourite. It has so many tropes I love like the plot just being contained to one location and disaster gays because yep, this film from the 1940s is one of the gayest things I’ve ever seen. Honestly, I went into Rope knowing nothing about it and 10 minutes in I had to pause it and google “Rope Hitchcock gay” as I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much into it from a modern perspective but nope, turns out it was understood to be pretty gay in the 40s too.

This comes from the relationship between Brandon and Phillip, two friends and flatmates. Dall and Granger have great chemistry and their relationship is fascinating. While Phillip slowly starts to unravel as the guilt and tension gets to him, Brandon relishes in their crime and the fact their dinner guests are unaware that the missing guest is currently dead and in a chest in the middle of the living room they’re all sitting in.

Rope is so gripping as you spend most of the film in the murders shoes and not wanting them to get caught because they are both very likable. Brandon’s effortlessly charming, though he can make a biting comment now and then, and Phillip is sweet and as he gets stressed about their situation, so do you.

It’s Rupert (James Stewart), their former school housemaster, who poses the biggest threat to the murderers. A lot of the theories about morality that Brandon buys into he learnt from Rupert and as he knew them both when they were younger, Rupert is likely to be the one to figure out when something’s not quite right.

Filmmaking-wise Rope is just great. It’s just set in their New York apartment and so much of the action takes place in the living room, with the chest with a body inside a presence in the room that as the viewer, you’re always aware of. Rope is comprised of a lot of long takes, each are often five minutes long or more, and it’s so interesting when you realise what’s happening. It makes the film feel like everything’s happening in real time and therefore the tension builds organically. The way the camera and actors move around the set is like a dance and a lot of the cuts are “hidden” so it zooms into the back of someone’s jacket before moving out again or something similar.

While obviously Dall, Granger, and Stewart are the main focus of Rope (though Stewart doesn’t actually appear on screen until almost 30 minutes into this 80-minute film) the supporting cast are a good too and the characters feel and act as they would at a slightly awkward dinner party. I loved Janet (Joan Chandler), Phillip and Brandon’s friend and the girlfriend of the missing party guest. She has a wry sense of humour and isn’t afraid to call out Brandon’s sly comments.

Rope is just a really interesting film. It’s a tense film with a great cast and the homoerotic subtext between Brandon and Phillip just adds extra layers to it all. 5/5.

Q is for Quincy (2018)

Documentary about the life and career of music legend Quincy Jones.

This documentary is a bit of a mixed to negative bag. For me personally, Quincy Jones was a person I was aware of but definitely didn’t know a lot about. So, Quincy is a good overview of all the musicians he’s been involved with, his work through the decades and his personal life, however it never really delves deep into any of it so if you were a Quincy Jones fan who knew a lot about him already, I doubt you’d get anything from this doc.

The documentary goes between the present and Quincy Jones’ whirlwind work schedule even though he’s in his mid-80s and the past, starting at his childhood to how he got into music and made a career out of it. The segments in the past are narrated by Jones, making them feel less genuine in a way and also pretty unoriginal. You never really get an insight into his creative process and how working with various other artists might’ve made it different. Instead, it is just a man, telling his life story and the various anecdotes about the musical legends he worked with like Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles are nice to hear it all feels like a rehash of his Wikipedia page.

The moments where something surprising does happen, like the two times Jones has a medical emergency and ends up in hospital, are glossed over pretty quickly. While he is told he needs to do more exercise and work and travel less, what you see on screen doesn’t make you think he took the doctors warnings that seriously.

Quincy is co-directed by his daughter, actress Rashida Jones, and the whole production does feel very much like an outcome of nepotism. One of the first scenes is of Rashida Jones trying to learn how to use the camera and it feels a bit awkward. She’s often with her father, asking him pretty leading questions so it feels staged and like she gets the answers she was aiming for.

As a documentary it’s pretty standard and while it does give a decent overview of Quincy Jones’ career, if you knew his major career milestones like becoming a film composer, working with Michael Jackson on “Thriller”, becoming a producer and “discovering” Oprah Winfrey, then you don’t need to watch Quincy. It’s like the greatest hits of his life and features a load of famous people singing Jones’ praises. It feels a bit shallow and maybe it’s because the documentary was made by his daughter that there aren’t any huge surprises or much depth. She may not want to probe deeper into her father’s life out of respect for him and Quincy Jones has the power to just make the documentary what he wants. 2/5.

P is for Psycho (1960)

Secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a young man with a domineering mother.

Due to pop culture osmosis, I knew the general gist of Psycho and a lot of the twists before watching it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t surprise me though and I was thoroughly gripped throughout. Seeing how those famous pop culture moments unfolded was probably just as thrilling as if I knew nothing at all about it.

As soon as the opening titles appear accompanied by that iconic score by Bernard Herrmann I was enthralled. The fact that it starts with that unsettling and creepy music puts you on edge from the very beginning. The music, along with it being a Hitchcock film, makes you unsure who to trust long before anything really bad or suspicious happens. When Marion is leaving town with the money and encounters a police officer, the way he’s framed and the fact she can’t see his eyes because of his sunglasses makes it feel like he’s always watching her. His presence makes her act more nervous and guilty and that makes his presence felt even more.

Anthony Perkins is just brilliant as Norman Bates. He’s young and good-looking, and he has that boy next door kind of charm to him so when he does become serious it feels more unnerving. He does a great job of juggling the various shades of Norman’s personality and Psycho is one of those films that wouldn’t have worked so well with someone else in the role.

It’s kind of fascinating watching Psycho now, sixty years after it was made because it’s clear that it’s the inspiration of so many other films and the filmmaking feels ahead of its time. The silent by imposing police officer reminded me of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and so many of the scares have been riffed on in other films and shows but seeing the original now just demonstrates how great it actually is.

I’m very pleased I’ve finally watched Psycho. It’s a classic that lives up to its reputation; it’s creepy, foreboding and just fantastic filmmaking. 5/5.

O is for One for the Money (2012)

Stephanie Plum (Katherine Heigl) is down on her luck when she gets a job at her cousin’s bail-bond business. Her first assignment is to bring in wanted local cop and guy from her past Joseph Morelli (Jason O’Mara), but as she chases him, she finds herself attempting to unravel the crime he’s accused of.

Based on a book series, One for the Money attempts to combine a chick flick with an action film to mixed results. It is perhaps more of the former than the later but thanks to Heigl’s easy charm and decent chemistry with O’Mara, their characters’ game of cat and mouse is an entertaining one.

There’s everything you’d expect from a film about a character who’s almost a wannabe detective. Stephanie goes around asking questions, makes friends with the local prostitutes including Lula (Sherri Shepherd) who helps her out and is funny, and has help from hot and experienced bounty hunter Ranger (Daniel Sunjata). It’s always nice to see a character who is fed up with their mother trying to find them a husband and who feels a bit aimless, actually find something she’s good at and enjoys.

One for the Money does lack a bit of threat and excitement though. While it does appear that Stephanie is being targeted due to her line of questioning, there’s no chases or particularly tense moments. The times where Stephanie is threatened by a big dude are resolved very quickly, not really allowing you to feel that she is truly in danger.

With a 90-minute runtime, One for the Money is a fun, breezy kind of film. Heigl is pretty great as Stephanie, though her voice over narration in the likes of noir thrillers doesn’t always work. However, Debbie Reynolds as Stephanie’s grandmother is a hoot and steals every scene she’s in. 3/5.

N is for Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)

Seventeen-year-old Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) is pregnant and can’t get an abortion in rural Pennsylvania where she’s from without parental consent. In order to get the procedure, she and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) travel to New York and end up staying there days and nights longer than they anticipated.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is one of those quiet, almost contemplative films that says so much with so little. The relationship between Autumn and Skylar is great. They are quite different, Autumn is more reserved while Skylar is a bit more confident, but there’s so many moments where they communicate with just a look or a gesture. As the audience too, you don’t need the characters to say things like “I feel like this because X happened” because you can tell the history of these characters through how they act. Autumn and Skylar don’t actually talk to one another much, at least not about big important things, but you can still see how they care for one another and how supportive Skylar is of Autumn’s decision through their actions.

This is a sign of a great script, great directing, and great performances from these two young actors. Flanigan especially is incredible. She can convey so much with just a look and her fear, frustration and sometimes desperation is clear to see. Likewise, when it looks like she will be able to have an abortion, her relief is almost palpable. There’s a scene in the clinic where a counsellor is asking Autumn a series of questions and it’s pretty much one long take focused on Autumn’s face as we hear the councillors voice off screen and Flanigan’s performance is just stunning. It’s not just what she says and the answers she gives, it’s what she doesn’t say in the pauses and hesitation as she is forced to relive her experiences and realise that some of what’s happened to her was not OK.

So often in teen shows or movies the teenage characters are played by actors who are in their mid-twenties and look far older than what their characters are supposed to be. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Flanigan and Ryder do look like a couple of seventeen-year-olds who are out of their depth. This is probably a combination of their natural looks but also the making up and costumes as Skylar especially sometimes looks like she’s trying to be older than she is.

Never Rarely Sometimes Always is such an important and timely film. It shows the lengths women, including teenagers, go to in order to get the healthcare they need and to make the choices that are right for them. It does all this without being overtly political or preachy which is to its benefit. Some will say that Never Rarely Sometimes Always is political purely by the nature of its subject matter but women’s healthcare and the right to choose what happens to their bodies shouldn’t be political. 5/5.