Tag Archives: datenight

Flower

[3.5 stars]

Looking for one of the odder, darker, coming-of-age rom-coms? This will probably do you then. Well, it will do something. Flower is a delightfully enjoyable, entertaining, and weirdly bleakly hopeful story. Yeah, it really is all over the place, though some of that reaction may be due to a generation gap; hard to tell from this perspective.

The success of the story is really down (perhaps a poor choice of words) to the ebullient Zoey Deutch (Before I Fall). She continues to enchant and surprise me in her roles. She is scarily natural on film and comfortable playing whatever is necessary for the character without shame or judgement or even triumph; she just “is.” Her characters are also strong but not without levels.

Her unlikely counterpart, Joey Morgan (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), was a great foil and, ultimately, with a bit more to him than was originally obvious. And as their parents, Kathryn Hahn (The Visit) and Tim Heidecker create a backdrop that is a bit extreme, but suited to the occasion.

On the side is Adam Scott (Krampus) in a role unlike any of his others I’ve seen. It is contained and quiet, with an interesting tension underneath.

As his second feature film, Max Winkler directed this well, keeping it light but not without the gravitas it needed. Like a good sauce, it seamlessly thickens as it cooks and holds together well. Winkler also co-wrote the tale, with McAulay and Spicer (Ingrid Goes West). I can’t even imagine the story sessions this trio had coming up with the plot, but they clearly worked well together. [Sidebar: If you were hoping for the Liz Phair song that shares the titles name you’ll be disappointed; but I’m still convinced it was part impetus for this movie.]

Flower is not your traditional film, and may not be for everyone, but it is one worth seeing for its surprise and craft in front of and behind the camera.

Flower

The Mountain Between Us

[3 stars]

Two great actors and an indefatigable dog make this a hard movie not to like. Kate Winslet (Wonder Wheel) and Idris Elba (Molly’s Game) make an interesting pair, in acting chops and romantically. The story goes from the mundane to the extreme quickly, though some of the character secrets are held back more by force than logic. Small parts by Beau Bridges (Bloodline) and Dermot Mulroney (Sleepless) help round out the tale…and, of course, the aforementioned dog.

The script is a departure for Chris Weitz (About a Boy, Cinderella, Rogue One) who is more often on the light fantasy side of things. But he was balanced by J. Mills Goodloe (Age of Adaline, Pride) who tends to stick closer to romance and more real-world relationships. But it is director Hany Abu-Assad, whose pension for depicting desire in the midst of adversity, who takes it all over the finish line.

The survival tale is a good one, and relatively credible. But, in reality, this is more a long metaphor for love and relationships…and on that level it gets a little strained, however on the mark it may be. And I get the sense the dog’s story got lost or his import somehow drained out on the cutting room floor. In the final cut, he is entertaining, but superfluous other than as additional color. Both of these aspects lower the final assessment of the movie for me, despite the successful building of the delicate relationship and aftermath of the adventure.

All that said, the scenery is gorgeous. The tension and dangers palpable. And the interplay is well done. The movie is worth your time when you’re in the mood for either a story of survival or of relationships forged from shared experiences and needs. The tight focus on the two main characters for the majority of the film is intense; it is rare you get to see that kind of talent with little distraction around it. But do bring a blanket…watching all that snow and ice really gets to your bones.

The Mountain Between Us

Finding Your Feet

[3.5 stars]

Yes, another tale of late-life discovery and rebirth. But it does it well, with humor, and with a hell of a cast.

The story is led by the incomparable Imelda Staunton (Pride) and Celia Imrie (The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) as a pair of estranged sisters reconnecting after more than a decade. The two work brilliantly together both emotionally and with their timing. Imrie’s world is full of other characters that spur Staunton’s rediscovery of herself and life. Chief among these are Joanna Lumley (Me Before You) and David Hayman (Macbeth) as the core of her group along with the most unlikely of the cast: Timothy Spall (Denial). Spall has often carried stories, but rarely, as in this case, as the romantic male lead. Not your typical choice, and yet he manages a sweet magnetism and vulnerability that makes it all work.

The script for this life and aging adventure was from a pair of writers: first-timer Meg Leonard and the more-heeled Nick Moorcroft (Burke & Hare). But as fun as the film is, it falls prey to taking a couple simple “outs” with the plot rather than working toward their goal in a more challenging way. Honestly, it was a bit of a shame as the scope of the story across age, love, and loss was pretty sweeping; perhaps a little too sweeping given how they solved the problems. But, they still manage to land the moments and the point, even if a few of the paths were far too generic and obvious from the get-go.

Regardless of any weaknesses or clichè in the script, Richard Loncraine (Richard III) directed the story with a sure and powerful hand, controlling the leaps in time and emotional evolution well. The story borders on broad comedy, but has just enough of a tinge of bitterness and embarrassment to feel real during the most challenging moments. It is also unafraid to quietly feel pain at its rawest.

As a tale and reminder that life doesn’t end until it does, this is a great couple of hours. It is for the romantic, at whatever age, and the time invested is worth it just to get to the final frame.

Finding Your Feet

The Leisure Seeker

[4.5 stars]

Forgive me, I’m going to kvell a little. It just isn’t all that often that a movie grabs me so completely. Director and co-writer Paolo Virzì (Like Crazy) delivers a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of love and life that will suck you in and wring you dry;  a wonderful, emotional canon which I highly recommend for any movie lover or romantic. It is both obvious and subtle, tackling aspects of age and marriage in wonderfully real ways. But it is relationship that takes the fore, with the ailments that ultimately drive the story very much in the background rather than the front and center focus of other films, like Still Alice or, for that matter, Marjorie Prime or The Memory of a Killer.

Virzì gifts us with a set of performances and story that quietly grips you from the moment it begins and refuses to let you go until the last, triumphant moment. It is both a tragedy and a comedy, a love story and a tale of glory (in its way). It is inevitable and unavoidable, but the path and the revelations are constantly surprising. The resulting film and performances are already up for awards this year, but will likely be forgotten for the majors since it released so early though I hope it won’t be.

Though Helen Mirren (Winchester) dominates the screen throughout, it is Donald Sutherland’s (The Calling) quiet performance and moments of shift that make this a devastating and emotional film. In a wonderful bit of direction, Janel Moloney (American Crime), as their daughter, delivers a performance that mirrors Sutherland’s in many ways.

I will admit, it isn’t quite a perfect movie, though it is close. It chooses to nail itself down in time to the summer of 2016 irrevocably for reasons I never quite puzzled out. And Christian McKay’s (Florence Foster Jenkins) turn as Mirren and Sutherland’s son is just slightly off, never quite fitting into the movie as a whole. Neither choice ruins the movie, but it knocks it down just a notch in my rating and recommendation.

But this is a must-see film for film lovers and anyone with either elderly family members or those in or above middle-age. It is a reminder of why we struggle and why we love. It is, above all, an homage to marriage and relationships, with all their warts and shine. You will laugh a lot, cry a lot, and ultimately smile as you leave the theater.

The Leisure Seeker

Love, Simon

[4.5 stars]

Simon delivers in the most wonderful ways and still finds a core truth to make it work. In fact, my theater broke into applause more than once during the movie (once at the penultimate moment we’d been waiting for and once at the end credits). In the last 20 years I can only think of a few films that got genuine, spontaneous applause in a general viewing, so that’s saying something.

Nick Robinson (Jurassic World) does a great job embodying Becky Albertalli’s title character from her book. He gives us a Simon that is easy to like and understand, not to mention who you want to slap silly for his missteps (and then forgive him all the same). There is no nod or wink, he simply is a teenager dealing with life.

Robinson is helped along with a collection of other young actors, all dealing with life in their own ways. Katherine Langford (13 Reasons Why), Alexandra Shipp (X-Men: Apocalypse), and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (Brigsby Bear) complete the core group of friends. Logan Miller (Before I Fall), Keiynan Lonsdale (Legends of Tomorrow), Miles Heizer (13 Reasons Why), and Clark Moore are all nice additions around the rest of the tale.

Jennifer Garner (Men, Women, Children) and Josh Duhamel (Unsolved: Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.), as Simon’s parents strike just the right tone for this somewhat idealized, gee-I-wish-this-had-been-my-home feel. I dare you to make it through their critical scenes without shedding tears. Even Tony Hale’s (American Ultra) over-the-top Vice Principal manages to strike a tone that works for the story.

Speaking of tone, director Greg Berlanti did a brilliant job with that throughout, no doubt helped by his extensive background as a producer and writer. He took what writing team Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker (This is Us, About a Boy) delivered and made it sing. Their script manages to tease out the humor and the emotions without wallowing. As a first feature film script, they also proved they can leap media. And, as a team, Love, Simon brings us the first major, main-stream release of a gay rom-com to screen. That it is aimed at teens should be no surprise since that generation is significantly less judgmental than most of their parents. The irony is that on a personal level, the struggle is still the same in any generation; coming into your own is never easy.

Which means there is both a specific truth and a general truth to this story, which is what makes it so wonderfully universal. The specific truth, the stress of coming out as a teenager, is the written core of this relatively faithful adaptation. But different is different in High School, regardless of what that difference is. And, of course, we all feel “different.” That is the general truth.

Go see this movie. Admit going in that when you see a film like this, you are accepting a contract to be manipulated. You do so not only willingly, but with the desire for the release. But it is wonderful and uplifting and, no matter how manipulated or idealized, it feels true or like you want it to be true. It is well acted and well delivered and will leave you holding someone close to you and grateful for having them in your life.

Love, Simon

Game Night

[3.5 stars]

Though an ensemble film, the driving forces in this romp are Jason Bateman (The Family Fang) and Rachel McAdams (Doctor Strange). The two have great chemistry and timing, running the knife edge of comedy, action, and romance. As absurd and predictable as the movie can get, you really care for and cheer on this couple.

Around them are  are a host of, generally, small-screen actors breaking out nicely on the big screen. From Kyle Chandler (Carol), Sharon Horgan (Catastrope), Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Lamorne Morris (New Girl), to Kylie Bunbury (Under the Dome), there isn’t a performance that doesn’t match the need.

And then there is the outsider Jesse Plemons (Battleship) who has been popping up all over the place these days. Plemons plays a dry and creepy neighbor so over-the-top you almost believe in him. And, finally, there are two smaller amusements with Danny Huston (Wonder Woman) and Michael C. Hall (Dexter).

While this movie wouldn’t have worked without the comic and dramatic abilities of its cast, the real star is the direction and script that threaded the needle. The co-directors of the much less funny Vacation, John Francis Daley (also known for his turn in Bones) and Jonathan Goldstein, reteamed for this very entertaining farce. Add to it the clever, even when predictable, script by Mark Perez (Accepted) and the team really brought unexpected magic to what could have died up on the screen.

I admit, I wouldn’t have gone to this weren’t it for MoviePass, but it surprised me. I laughed a lot more than I expected and was even surprised at times. I admit, for me Bateman was also a draw. I find his brand of dark humor compelling most of the time, and he certainly entertained on that account. Whether you see this on big or small screen, make time for it when you want an off-color but not tasteless romp with action and humor. You won’t be disappointed.

Game Night

Maggie’s Plan

[3 stars]

The story of Maggie’s Plan is an odd, modern look at romance and love which somehow manages a sense of the romantic and a jaundiced eye at the same time. It feels wholly unreal and utterly believable given the characters involved.

And it is the characters that make this very NY love story work, not to mention the cast that brought them to life. Ethan Hawke (Maudie) and Julianne Moore (Kingsman: The Golden Circle) are a cantankerous couple who are as much in love with one another as they are frustrated as they pursue careers and raise children. Similarly, Bill Hader (Power Rangers) and Maya Rudolph (Idiocracy) navigate those waters, with a different approach and somehow better results.

But is Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, 20th Century Women) who pulls this all together and makes it work. There is something wholly engaging and magnetic about her as an actor, and this performance is no exception. She comes across like real person that has wandered onto the film set and somehow became part of the story.

Maggie’s plan is romantic at its heart, but not in the typical sense. But you can’t leave it without feeling like love is both real and possible. Whether you survive it or not is the bigger question.

Maggie

Dave Made a Maze

[3.5 stars]

How do you describe a totally gonzo film? Endlessly inventive seems trite. Perhaps mention the fact that it won the hearts of a dozen film festivals? Or, perhaps, just mention that as director and co-writer, Bill Watterson’s deliver a surprisingly solid movie out of an idea that, in most hands, would have failed; he and Steven Sears’s script is totally absurd (in a good way). Or, maybe, that Watterson, as his first time directing, navigates the cast through the tale genuinely, which keeps it all grounded?

The cast were a game bunch, some of whom you’ll recognize and some you won’t. Nick Thune (Garfunkel & Oats, Bad Johnson) and Meera Rohit Kumbhani (Donny!) are the core of the gang and embody a lot of modern relationship issues, but are clearly committed to one another despite everything. Their friends are a motley crew of abrasive and supportive pals that are recognizable in just about anyone’s life. Adam Busch (Colony), James Urbaniak (The Boxtrolls), Stephanie Allynne (One Mississippi, In a World…), and Kirsten Vangsness (Criminal Minds) are principal in those roles. Despite the insanity around them, their performances remain calm and accepting of the insanity and focus on solving the problems.

I don’t want to oversell this film. It isn’t so much that it’s brilliant as that it is surprising. Despite its low budget and crazy ideas, it is funny and, in its way, touching. But it doesn’t really come to a conclusion. It is more a giant metaphor for imagination and artistic desire, or humanity’s drive to build and succeed. But it is definitely worth your time when you want something a bit different and wryly amusing.

Dave Made a Maze

The Shape of Water

[4.5 stars]

A beautiful period creature tale or simply a wonderful love story, either way this film is like a warm hug on screen. And I say this despite some of the uglier sides of the period being unequivocally shown, not to mention the obvious nods to our current culture. It is both clear-eyed and well timed as a reminder of how things were and how they have been going.

Sally Hawkins (Maudie) is captivating as Elisa, and she manages it with nary a spoken word. Richard Jenkins (Kong: Skull Island) is heartbreakingly wonderful as well. Even Michael Stuhlbarg (Miss Sloane) gets to put on a (mostly) good face for a change, and delivers a nicely nuanced character. Only Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) is stuck with cliche, and even he gets to add some uniqueness to it all.

This film also marks the opportunity for Doug Jones (Star Trek: Discovery) to expand on his Abe Sapien role from the Hellboy series. Abe is a character that has always deserved his own story. Though this is not that tale, it feels like a satisfying exploration and conclusion given that Del Toro will not be completing his trilogy. And, ultimately, you won’t even see the creature suit. Without speaking a word, Jones lets you see the “person” inside the skin of his character.

Supporting the story, Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) does a great job as well. Though not her best role, it is full of detail, humor, and bite. Smaller roles by Morgan Kelly (Killjoys), David Hewlett (Stargate: Atlantis), and Nigel Bennett are some of the more notable other appearances. 

Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone) has always been a story teller with a particular vision. Each of his tales is unique, but they all bear his signature in look and feel. Shape is no exception in that regard. It is a luscious production suffused with light and corridors and odd but human characters. He loves humanity and has a strange, dark optimism about us as a culture and a species. Or maybe he’s just a hopeless romantic, as this tale of otherness finding love may attest.

See this on the big screen. It has amazing production values and excellent sound. Let it make a hopeless romantic of you as well.

Warning: Spoiler Follows

My only gripe with this incredible film is that I knew exactly where the film ended just as it began. It was a bad choice and could have been easily covered if I’d only seen one side of Hawkins’s neck rather than both. It isn’t that you don’t know where it is all going anyway, so it isn’t a huge loss, but I would have loved that Aha! moment that I heard in gasps around me at the theater. Instead, I had been waiting almost 2 hours to see it play out. I’m looking forward to seeing the film again so I can let go of the anticipation and just fully enjoy the ride.

The Shape of Water

Paris Can Wait (aka Bonjour Anne)

[3 stars]

Dang but its nice to see truly adult characters on screen in a comedy. Diane Lane (Trumbo) turns in a wonderful performance in this odd (sort-of-romantic) comedy. Her character is utterly compelling and in control while also being just a bit mischievous and aware of Arnaud Viard’s intentions. Watching the dance of these two, in a waltz of seduction-by-proxy via food, wine, art, and landscapes is quite a bit of fun to drool over.

Writer/director Eleanor Coppola (yes, wife of THAT Coppola, but with a cv all her own) helms this bit of diversion. Paris, however, is her first time directing a piece of fiction. She very cleverly structures the film so that we are also pulled into our own side trips as we gawk at the food and art and landscapes ourselves, forgetting the movie (the intention) for the moment, just like Lane. She captures Lane’s awakening and joy by making us, if not feel it too, wish we could. She delivers that sense even as she ratchets up the tension between the characters. And that is the “sort-of-romantic comedy” comment; it is more about Lane’s love of herself than it is about the men in her life, but the men do figure into the drive of it all.

As a movie, Paris Can Wait is, itself, a wonderful diversion for an evening. The performances are nicely understated and believable. The emotional intent is sweet without feeling too forced. The result, while not perfect, is a strong delivery out of the gate for Coppola and another great notch for Lane’s reel.

Paris Can Wait