2018 Summer Movie Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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Juliet (Lily James) and Dawsey (Michiel Huisman) walk on the beach getting to know each other’s story in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. (Source: Irish News)

After its premiere in the UK back in April, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society received a warm reception throughout Europe, Australia and New Zealand. That’s due to its charming, old-fashioned portrayal of how a tiny English island suffered so much during World War II. The residents are given a new light when a stranger arrives.

Four months later, it finally graces the small screens in the U.S., where everyone can enjoy the heartwarming tale in the comfort of their own home after browsing endlessly on Netflix. Director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) provides more than a typical history lesson.

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, the movie is set in 1946. It has barely been a year since World War II ended. London is feeling optimistic about the future. For author Juliet Ashton (Lily James), smelling fresh paint on doors suggests a new start. She’s trying to get another big break after writing humorous columns about life during the war. One day, she receives a letter from a farmer named Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman, Game of Thrones), a resident of Guernsey, an English island on the Normandy coast.

While her publisher Sidney Stark (a deadpan Matthew Goode) suggests her to write about literature, Juliet sets sail to the tiny island after becoming so intrigued by learning about a secret book club developed when Guernsey was occupied by Nazi Germany as a way to avoid curfew (the movie opens up in 1941, where the members are caught by the Nazis, and must come up with an excuse). She receives a warm welcome by the group, and they tell their stories about the island and the disappearance of its founder Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay, Downton Abbey), in which the residents refuse to speak about.

The German-occupation of Guernsey (and Jersey) has rarely been depicted in film. Newell and three screenwriters including Kevin Hood (Becoming Jane) do such a wonderful job providing a fictional yet authentic interpretation of the events that unfold, carefully bouncing back and forth between 1941 and 1946. With Zac Nicholson’s gorgeous cinematography, the Devon coast Guernsey is used as the backdrop for Guernsey, which he tries to avoid it looking like a travelogue.

Fresh from showing her inner Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Lily James is no stranger to period pieces. From Downton Abbey to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies to War and Peace to Darkest Hour, she has a long career ahead of her. Again, she proves she’s more than a pretty face. She delivers another delightful performance as Juliet, who understands how much the Guernsey residents have suffered over the years. Because of this, she’s also getting over a tragedy of her own. She leads a gifted cast of colorful characters including Tom Courtenay as postman Eben Ramsey; famous for his cooking his bland potato peel pie, Katherine Parkinson as gin-maker Isola Pribbey, and Penelope Wilton (another Downton Abbey alum) as Amelia Maugery, who gather around in a circle laughing, reading, and discussing primarily the books of Jane Austen and the Brontës. They reluctantly accept Juliet’s offer to write a book about them. “Our Friday-night book club became a refuge to us,” Dawsey says in a letter to Juliet. “A private freedom to feel the world growing darker all around you, but you only need a candle to see new worlds unfold. That is what we found in our society.”

While it might drag every now and then, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (“Crikey, that’s quite a mouthful,” says Sidney) tells a fascinating story about something I knew very little of. Book fanatics and history buffs will most certainly get something out of it. This romance contains enough mystery to carry through. The best Netflix original film of the summer!

3.5/4

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2018 Summer Movie Review: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Film Title: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Young Donna (Lily James) sings with The Dynamos in the sequel to the 2008 sleeper hit Mamma Mia! (Source: Variety)

Based on the popular stage musical, the 2008 sleeper hit Mamma Mia! was a campy, silly, and harmless yet somewhat enjoyable film. It featured a great cast singing their own renditions of ABBA’s greatest hits (as well as some overlooked ones)–some good and some bad–on a beautiful island on the coast of Greece. The classy yet overhyped Meryl Streep was the heart and soul of the movie. Ten years later, the original cast are back in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. They join other talented actors to sing, dance, jive, and have the time of their lives. The sequel is like a B-side of a vinyl record. Nobody asked for another one of these movies, but if there is one surprise to come out this summer, it’s definitely this one!

This movie is a prequel/sequel; going back and forth between 1979 to the present day. One year after the events of the first film, Donna (Meryl Streep) has passed away from…who knows what? Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is struggling with her marriage with her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper). She invites her relatives to the grand reopening of the villa, under the management of Señor Cienfuegos (Andy Garcia), on the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi dedicated to her mother’s memory, while unaware about the arrival of an estranged guest (Cher).

Meanwhile, in flashbacks, the audience learns how young Donna (Lily James) graduated from Oxford University with her friends Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davies). She decides to travel around Europe where she falls in and out of love with three handsome beaus–Swedish sailor Bill (Josh Dylan), Irish architect Sam (Jeremy Irvine), and English banker Harry (Hugh Skinner)–who would become Sophie’s possible fathers (Stellan Skarsgård, Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth, respectively). To tell their story, they sing and dance the night away.

A sequel might not have been the most necessary, but it’s interesting to see how the story started and continued after the original, where Sophie’s actual biological father being left ambiguous. Being a fan of ABBA, how hard is it to resist?

James made a brief singing debut in the 2015 remake of Cinderella, where she sang a snippet of the English lullaby “Lavender’s Blue” and the famous “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” during the credits. She also sang a little in last year’s action film Baby Driver. This movie, however, features the performance of her lifetime.

Her spectacular performance captures the bubbly, energetic and optimistic spirit of Streep, with her long, curly blond hair and infectious smile–not to mention, amazing singing voice. It’s hard not to smile and tap your toes during her delightful rendition of “When I Kissed the Teacher” in the opening scene at her Oxford graduation. From that moment on, she’s on fire! She joins along with a talented young cast; particularly Irvine, in which I’m surprised to see him deliver another good performance seven years after War Horse.

It’s a shame Brosnan doesn’t have the same beautiful voice as Irvine’s. I still can’t get over his botched rendition of “S.O.S.” from the original. Thankfully, he doesn’t sing a whole lot–with the exception of “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper”, but that’s with the entire cast. Other than that, the song covers in this movie will have you dancing in the aisles–from the hilarious rendition of “Waterloo”, set in a Napoleon-themed restaurant in Paris, to a seductive version of “Why Did It Have to Be Me?”, set on Bill’s sailboat.

Writer/director Ol Parker joins Richard Curtis to bring forth some really funny moments–as well as some great one-liners, too–and really emotional ones. Robert Yeoman (a frequent collaborator of Wes Anderson) brings forth gorgeous cinematography–I particularly love the editing trick where the camera pans away from one character and cuts to another (i.e. the “One of Us” sequence).

While I smiled through the whole movie, it did have its fair share of narrative flaws. For instance, do we really have to know Bill has a twin brother? There are times in which the film feels forced and rushes a bit. Nevertheless, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is a rare sequel that slightly outshines the original. The spirit of Streep still remains intact. Be on the lookout for cameos by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.

Also, thank God for Cher and her version of “Fernando”!

3/4

Movie Review: Darkest Hour

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Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) writes a little something on her typewriter for Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. (Source: Seattle Times)

Starring in about a hundred films, Gary Oldman is one of the greatest character actors working today. Ranging from Sid Vicious (Sid and Nancy), Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK),  Commissioner Gordon (The Dark Knight films), Sirius Black (Harry Potter), Dracula, Stansfield (Leon: The Professional), and Zorg (The Fifth Element), he has one impressive repertoire. Now–he takes part in delivering the most ambitious role of his entire career.

Hundreds of actors have played U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill; from Timothy Spall in The King’s Speech to John Lithgow–a surprising turn–in Netflix’s The Crown. After spending 200 hours in the makeup chair, Oldman is unrecognizable as Churchill in Joe Wright’s new film Darkest Hour. With a screenplay written by Anthony McCarten, it might be a romanticized portrait of Churchill’s first days as Prime Minister, but there is a lot to like here.

In May of 1940, World War II is in full steam. Nazi Germany has just invaded Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Churchill (Oldman) steps in to replace Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup, who took John Hurt’s place after his death) as Prime Minister, accepted by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn). Right away, he must find a solution to a peace agreement with Germany. With the support of his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James) and wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas), he does whatever he can to save British troops on the beaches of Dunkirk.

Darkest Hour makes a great triple feature with this year’s Their Finest and Dunkirk. Through the long, unbroken shots, the dramatic close-ups, and the gorgeous, vintage sets, this is pure Joe Wright. Oldman delivers his performance with enough wit and empathy that the audience forgets they are watching an actor. We laugh when we’re supposed to (“Will you stop interrupting me while I’m interrupting you!?” he sneers at his War Cabinet.), and we root for him every step of the way when he attempts to save the world.

While James and Mendelsohn are worth mentioning of their wonderful performances, Darkest Hour is Oldman’s show through and through. How can you not have the feeling of standing up and cheering after he delivers his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech in Parliament? I would be shocked if he doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar. He is long overdue for one!

3.5/4

2017 Summer Movie Review: Baby Driver

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Baby (Ansel Elgort) puts on his earbuds and goes for a ride in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. (Source: The Playlist)

That’s what I’m talking about!

When it comes to writing and directing, Edgar Wright is unlike any other filmmaker. He brings forth the most unique visual style in movies, such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (a colorful tribute to graphic novels and video games) and The Cornetto trilogy—Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End (my absolute favorite). After ditching Ant-Man (which, to this day, has no interest in seeing), to do Baby Driver, the latest action-comedy that only Wright wrote the screenplay.

Baby (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in our Stars) is a marvelous getaway driver living in Atlanta working under crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey). As a child, he witnessed his parents getting killed in a car crash. It left him with tinnitus, or constant ringing in the ear drum. The only way he can drown out the ringing is listen to music on his iPod. While he doesn’t sit with his team—including Buddy (Jon Hamm), his girlfriend Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Bats (Jamie Foxx)—he can repeat back the heist plan even though he’s preoccupied with his music.

One day, at a local diner, he locks eyes on a gorgeous waitress named Debora (Lily James, Cinderella and Downton Abbey). He decides to leave behind his life of crime, so he can be with her.

I have never had this much fun at a movie theater all summer. Baby Driver is no exception! The movie has it all: action, laughs, romance, twists, turns, and straight-up emotion. Most—if not, all—of the action and stunts seen on the screen is actually real. There are a couple of shootouts in the movie where the guns go off in sync with the music, compared to Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim. Goofy, yes. However, it’s a ton of fun to watch, and it makes the audience wonder how the sequences were performed without any accidents.

Elgort leads a terrific cast bring enough energy, either behind the wheel or interacting with his crew, foster dad, or his new girlfriend. Even when he is singing and dancing to his playlist (particularly during the opening credits), it’s hard not to crack a smile. The soundtrack is one of the best of the year. It’s as if Awesome Mix Vol. 1 and Awesome Mix Vol. 2 had a baby (a big baby!), and got Baby Driver. Featuring music by Queen, Golden Earring, The Commodores, and many more, the movie is like a rock opera mixed with a straight-up action film. One of the year’s best films.

Oh—and always remember: “The moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet.”

4/4

Movie Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

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Liz Bennett (Lily James) and her sisters kick some zombie ass in Burr Steers’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

Based on Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel of the same name, this mashup of the undead coming into Jane Austen’s classic story of the high social class in 19th century England might sound trashy. Smith’s previous adaptation was 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The satirical tale took its premise way too seriously.

With countless adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, this is the first one to contain zombies. Director Burr Steers balances the humor and the thrills well. The zombies are as comical as they are disgusting. Not to mention one scene involving a church communion where the zombies drink pig’s blood with pig’s brains (even that could get away with a PG-13 rating). There isn’t as much zombie action as one would expect, but there is plenty to keep the film going. The gore is mostly off-screen, except for some brief shots of the zombies getting their brains blown off. Yet again, it’s Pride and Prejudice. It’s not without its romantic charms.

Known for her performances on Downton Abbey and last year’s live-action version of Cinderella, Lily James proves to be more than just a pretty face. In her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennett, she doesn’t necessarily need a husband–or Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) in this case. She takes care of herself fighting off the zombies. When he sets eyes on Liz, Darcy is impressed by her knowledge of the martial arts. They have each other’s back. The downside is that Darcy can be a bit aggressive. They even get physical at one point. The rest of the cast–including Bella Heathcote, Charles Dance, and Lena Headey–is solid, but Matt Smith steals the show as the socially awkward Mr. Collins, whose comedic timing and expressions are nothing short of perfect.

With the beautiful sets, scenery and costumes, it is undeniably flawed. As enjoyable the action is, some of the editing can get a little choppy. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies can get out-of-hand by the last act. It doesn’t end, it more than just stops. Nevertheless, it offers enough for fans of Jane Austen and zombie fans. This is one inventive, hilarious, and entertaining mash-up.

3/4

Movie Review: Cinderella

Lily James and Richard Madden in Kenneth Branagh's live-action rendition of "Cinderella"

Lily James and Richard Madden in Kenneth Branagh’s live-action rendition of “Cinderella”

Since 2010, with the release of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Disney is remaking their classic films for the new generation. But, they don’t quite live up to their original source material. Last year’s Maleficent was a prime example losing of its focus. Even though it wasn’t bad, not to mention Angelina Jolie’s devilishly evil performance as the title role, it didn’t live up to the hype. Now in 2015, we get a new live-action rendition of the 1950 Disney classic Cinderella. What a delightful surprise! Director Kenneth Branagh (Thor) and screenwriter Chris Weitz capture the fairy tale with a few twists while keeping it old-fashioned and beautiful without overstuffing with CGI effects.

Because I hardly remember the Disney version (I might have seen it when I was really little), doesn’t mean I’m not familiar with the story. Following the death of her parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin), Ella (Lily James, Downton Abbey) is forced to live with her evil stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her stepsisters Drisella (Sophie McShera) and Anastasia (Holliday Grainger). She endures the abuse from them (not to mention giving the name Cinderella) and she spends most of her time doing her chores around the house. She starts to lose hope until Kit, a prince (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones), announces to the public that he is holding a ball at his palace so he can have an ideal mate. This gives Cinderella the opportunity to meet the love of her dreams and fall in love. She loses her glass slipper at the palace, and…you know what happens next.

I didn’t expect Cinderella to be something spectacular. It’s not like Snow White and the Huntsman or Maleficent where it’s a much darker take on the source material. This is a much more faithful take on a whimsically beloved fairy tale. The cinematography is simply gorgeous, and the sets and costumes are ravishing. With a gifted cast including Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter (genuinely amusing as the Fairy Godmother), I cannot picture a better actress to play Cinderella other than Lily James. Not only is she drop-dead gorgeous, she also gives a lot of heart from the very beginning. A lot of people have been wondering if her waist was computer-generated while wearing the dress. Because the skirt is so big, her waist is actually that small. Lily James had to have a diet in order to fit in that dress. Gosh, does it look so good on her!?

Featuring a wonderful score by Patrick Doyle, Cinderella perfectly blends wit and emotion with the theme, as said by Cinderella’s mother early in the film, “Have courage and be kind.” This is the first great movie of 2015.

4/4