Local cinemas this week

Rita Hayek as Shirine and Adel Karam as Tony in Ziad Doueiri's The Insult
Movie of the week: The Insult

It’s easy to see why this Beirut-based drama got its Academy Award nomination and then went on to win the Audience Award at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. Writer/director Ziad Doueiri’s has brilliantly taken a simple premise – the provocative power of words – and weaved a complex and immensely satisfying moral tale. At first it crackles and spits with anger, then thrills with a tense and exciting courtroom battle, and finally calms us all down with a note of compassion and peace. If only all the identity politics warriors hurling insults at one another online would go along and understand its message… They won’t of course, for like the combatants in The Insult, they just have too much emotional energy invested in being “right”.

The hostilities start when Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), a Palestinian Muslim refugee running a construction crew fixing infrastructure on the streets of Beirut installs a drainpipe on Tony’s (Adel Karam) balcony without his permission. Tony is a hot-headed a Christian garage owner with a pregnant wife, Shirine (Rita Hayek), and a couple of choice expletives are exchanged. Shirine and Yasser’s boss try and sooth things over, but to no avail – the real problem here is rooted in the complex web of identities and historical fractures that plague Middle East politics today. Before long words have escalated to blows, and the dispute heads into the courts where showboating lawyers (Camille Salameh, Diamand Bou Abboud) deftly exploit the wider social tensions. Politicians and the media latch on, of course they do, and by the time the verdict is due to be reached, the situation in Beirut is so explosive the Army is on stand-by.

All that could be quite satisfyingly seen as a satire – a poignant and topical one at that. But Doueiri has something far more vital in mind – getting to the very heart of what pulls communities apart – and unites them. That leads to some highly emotional scenes in the court, which may seem a bit on the nose in the way they pull at the heartstrings. Here the skills the two lead actors comes to rescue – they are both absolutely superb. The lawyer’s antics too, which will thrill fans of wordy debates – may seem a bit improbable, but even when The Insult is at its bluntest and most obvious, it’s still a powerful plea for empathy and understanding. And no one is going to argue with that, are they?* M from Aug 30. Inner west cinemas include Palace Norton St, Palace Central and Dendy Newtown  ★★★★1/2

* Actually, of course they will. It’s easy enough to find commentary critical of the film online – which is typically annoyed that, “it doesn’t take sides – MY side!” Precisely…

Crazy Rich Asians

Chinese/American Rachel (Constance Wu) is pretty smart – under 30 and already a professor at NYU in something called “game theory” (whatever that is). But not smart enough to know the first thing about the guy she’s been dating for over a year. It turns out her lovely laid-back and hunky boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) is an insanely wealthy heir of massive Asian real estate empire and Singapore’s most eligible bachelor. Details, details… he apparently forgot to mention that, but oh yes ladies, he does look good without a shirt…

After the pair arrive in Singapore for a family wedding, the truth is out. Introduced as a probable future bride, Rachel meets Nick’s crass and outrageously snobbish relatives, endures a full blast of chilly scorn from his imperious mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) and endures Machiavellian plotting from others determined not to let this upstart American run off with the family’s crown jewels. Can true love prevail? So far so predictable… It’s pretty clear though that director Jon M. Chu, in adapting Rachel’s story from Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel (which focused on other characters as well), is inviting us to laugh at people stupid and shallow enough to spend $1 million on a pair of earrings and so obscenely opulent they decorate entire houses in gold. Though it’s best not to read too much into its scornful satire – especially if you’re just a disinterested white observer. Plenty of others have, mind you… There’s been unhappiness with the racial stereotyping, sniping about the casting (Golding is English), complaints about it “not being Asian enough,” and others have even (oh please, help us) whinged, “But it doesn’t represent ME!” On the other side plenty seem excited at finally seeing “cool Asian” lead actors on screen, and Time magazine’s editors were so thrilled by its diversity breakthrough they gave it a cover story. 

But those reluctant to dive into that identity politics sinkhole and just wanting a good laugh and a pleasant date movie will definitely get one – Crazy Rich Asians is a featherweight rags-to-riches fantasy refreshing free of any trace of the tacky sleaziness that bedevils most mainstream American rom-coms. It’s a genuine feel-good Cinderella update with well-worn but still funny sit-com gags and characters, the sort of entertainment that will be instantly forgotten in the time it takes to walk out of the cinema. And yes, of course “superior” individualistic American values triumph over Asian ideals of sacrifice for the sake of family. Would it have got that cover story if they hadn’t? Would it even have been made? PG from Aug 30. Inner west cinemas include Palace Norton St, Palace Central Broadway, Burwood, Auburn, Rhodes and Dendy Newtown ★★★1/2

The Flip Side

These days I walk into Australian movies with a sense of trepidation. No one in the media wants to appear unsupportive of the local industry and write bad reviews, but then again, no one on a Friday date night out wants to spend upwards of $80 (two tickets, two drinks and a snack) and leave the cinema feeling cheated. What has happened to that maelstrom of creative energy and ability that once gave birth to our Mad Maxs and Priscillas? Where has the mad, erratic brilliance of people like Baz Luhrmann gone? Has it all departed these shores for Hollywood? Or worse (now here’s a scary thought), New Zealand?

So I won’t bang on about debut director Marion Pilowsky’s Adelaide-based rom-com, except to say that it contains neither rom nor com. It stars English actor Eddie Izzard (miscast), TV comedian Emily Taheny (best known for roles in Mad As Hell) and a kangaroo – who seems to be a piece of inserted stock photo footage. The Flip Side is getting a cinema release presumably for a bit of exposure before its transfer to streaming service oblivion. But if that publicity is just (and sadly this is inevitable) one and two star reviews, then shouldn’t its backers, which include the normally savvy multinational 20th Century Fox, try a different strategy? Why risk pissing those Friday night punters off? M from Aug 30. Inner west cinemas include Palace Norton St, Palace Central, Burwood and  Dendy Newtown 1/2

Also opening this week

Mile 22 and Kin – both unpreviewed.

Reviews – Russell Edwards