Tag Archives: Romance

Strawberry and Chocolate

[3 stars]

This is a decidedly low-budget affair with moments of brilliance amidst a lot of mediocre and painful presentation. But those moments really do make the time worthwhile, as numerous festivals and the Oscars agreed.

Jorge Perugorría and Vladimir Cruz make an unlikely pairing of friends from opposite sides of the political spectrum. Cruz is a true believer in the Communist party in Cuba, while Perugorría is a bit more aware of the realities of life and politics…not to mention a gay man in a macho society.  With a bit of help from the neighbor, Mirta Ibarra, the three become friends and help one another heal.

The story that plays out is more than a little forced, but the commentary and emotions that are surfaced are as applicable today as they were over 20 years ago when this film was made. The relationships that form are genuine, even if the ages of the actors and backstories for the characters are a little off. As a peek inside Cuban culture, and loving look at people generally, it is a funny and heartwarming journey as director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s penultimate contribution to film.

 

On the Basis of Sex

[4 stars]

Who would have thought that a movie about tax law could be so riveting? It brings to mind The West Wing, which famously made the census and picking a postage stamp must-see TV.  But, of course, this film isn’t about tax law, it is about equality and a social movement that still struggles today. In fact, next week will mark the third Women’s March, inspired by the continuing fight against people who would like to throw the country back to an earlier era where women, in particular, were seen as second class citizens at best, and property at worst.

On the Basis of Sex isn’t a perfect movie, but it is a solid one thanks to a heart-felt script and a solid cast. Felicity Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) takes on the mantel of RBG, bringing her to life as a young woman and, more importantly, a person. With Armie Hammer (Sorry to Bother You) by her side and Cailee Spaeny (Bad Times at the El RoyaleVice) as their daughter, we see a family engaged in the process and devoted to one another’s efforts and successes. Depicting them as a family adds the deeply personal to the deeply political that could have easily overwhelmed the story.

Justin Theroux (Mute), as the ACLU’s Mel Wulf and Kathy Bates (The Great Gilly Hopkins) have nice supporting roles who both guided and impeded RBG at times. But ultimately, they helped push her to becoming the great, practicing jurist she has become.

On opposing counsel, Sam Waterston (Miss Sloane),  who continues his lifelong career of onscreen litigators, got to portray an out and out asshole, mired in a past that is far too reflective of a good part of today’s political world. Along with Jack Reynor (Kin) and Stephen Root (Life of the Party) the three become the voice of fear and oppression. They are true believers, and perhaps a bit too emphatic in their delivery, rather than calm. Emotionally, it is more palatable for them to be evil and wrong, rather than contemplative and wrong, but it made them less believable as people.

That said, the strength of Daniel Stiepleman’s first script is that it tends to remain focused on the human rather than the political in the story. Yes, the law and the impact are central, but the motivations and the impact are all personal. That the real story of RBG is, in fact, a wonderfully dramatic starting point didn’t hurt his efforts.

For all the great joy, impact, and subtlety of this film, Mimi Leder’s direction let it all deflate at the end. Honestly, I was ready to applaud when the final credits rolled, as was the fairly packed theater I saw it in. And then Leder let the story just sort of die with blocks of text. Truly a shame. It didn’t ruin the film, but it certainly robbed it of a feeling of triumph and possibility. And, frustratingly, a small set of edits could have kept up the energy and feeling rolling so that the last moments of zipping into the present would have felt triumphant rather than as a quiet button to the tale. Despite that let down, it does leave you with a sense of how far we have come and what we risk losing as a society if we don’t keep fighting to protect it.

So, yes, you should see this wonderful depiction of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and impact on law in this country. Bring  your daughters and sons or young person of your acquaintance. Remind them how new and vulnerable the law is and society can be, why we fought and why we must continue to fight. Getting entertained at the same time is a nice bonus.

Cutie and the Boxer

[4 stars]

Certainly you can approach this purely as a documentary about Ushio Shinohara and/or Noriko  Shinohara, but that is just the surface of this odd window into the lives of the couple.

Zachary Heinzerling’s first film captured, as well as forced, a story to creation simply by being present in lives of these two people. We learn of their art and their impetus, but we also watch them change and say things that have clearly long been gestating…and you get the strong sense that they never would have been said without the cameras being present. That aspect brings an odd and wonderful layer to this documentary. It creates as well as captures art, simply by existing.

While this may all sound rather breezy, the story that unfolds is actually rather complex and, at times, dark. But it is also full of powerful attachment and love. Love we come to understand and, ultimately, see played out during the final role of the credits in a very direct way.

The result of Heinzerling’s efforts was the well deserved receipt of multiple awards, including an Oscar nomination. How you view the final product, as art, story, performance, or simply couple’s therapy is part of the charm and fascination of the piece.

Flower Of My Secret (La flor de mi secreto)

[3 stars]

Admittedly, as a filmmaker, Pedro Almodavar (I’m So Excited) is a matter of personal taste. I happen to enjoy his dark humor and skewed vision of the world. Flower of My Secret is actually a bit more mainstream than a lot of his earlier work, though Almodavar was a great choice for adapting the Dorothy Parker short story (The Lovely Leave).

In many ways it is riffing on a theme of independence that is getting a lot of attention these days (though this is from 1995). It would live comfortably alongside another Spanish language offering, Gloria nicely, though with a very different sensibility. 

Marisa Paredes (Queens) is wonderful as a grand dame lost and without a sense of her own strength, but eventually fighting to find it. Opposite her, in an unlikely role, is Juan Echanove. “Unlikely” because of his story and path, not because of the actor. Their relationship is best described as symbiotically odd. And yet, it works in Almodavar’s capable hands. 

Smaller roles by Almodavar stalwarts Rossy De Palma (Broken Embraces) as Paredes’ sister and the late Chus Lampreave (Broken Embraces) as her mother bring in some needed comedy and homespun grounding. The three work together wonderfully as a dysfunctional family devoted to one another. Another actor no longer with us,  Manuela Vargas, adds some other wonderful layers and moments as Paredes’ maid. 

For a bit of distraction that is less bittersweet than usual, this is worth catching up with if you missed it when it came out. Almodavar never picks easy characters for us to love, but he usually wins us over to their side before the final credits and helps us see ourselves in them while he’s at it. 

The Favourite

[3.5 stars]

This makes three for three highly noticed, and very different, films for director Yorgos Lanthimos who hit the cinema consciousness with The Lobster followed by Killing of a Sacred Deer.  The first was surreal look at love, while the second was dark examination of family, life, and suburbia (or perhaps something else…honestly that one baffled me).

Despite the wildly different styles, there are some commonalities in his work. First, he gets great talent to bring his vision to life. In this case Olivia Colman (The Night Manager) and Rachel Weisz (Disobedience) reunite with Lanthimos to bring us two very different women. Colman as Queen Anne is a bundle of emotional issues, but with the power to move continents. Weisz, as her long-time friend, confidant, and adviser is either a Machiavellian blight on England’s rule, or Anne’s and her country’s protector from a ill-prepared monarch. Into this steps Emma Stone (Battle of the Sexes), a fallen aristocrat, and cousin to Weisz, trying to survive. Dark hilarity ensues.

And that is the second aspect of commonality for Lanthimos: dark humor. It is a language he revels in and that suffuses his stories. Supporting that humor from the sidelines are Nicholas Hoult (Equals), Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Boy Erased), and James Smith (In the Loop), but this is very much the women’s movie.

One of the other striking commonalities for Lanthimos’s movies are the endings…or lack of them. His three most recent offerings all have contemplative endings that are open to interpretation. While he wrote Lobster and Sacred Deer, Davis and McNamara’s script for the Favourite fits comfortably with these other two at the final credits. I would say that the end of this movie is a bit clearer and has some powerful commentary, but also some aspects that left me pondering the meaning. That open end is likely pure Lanthimos as it is about the presentation rather than the dialogue. Honestly, it is the ending that dropped my rating of the overall film, which is otherwise an incredibly entertaining tale of court politics with enough of a contemporary flare to reach a wide audience and powerhouse acting to sell it.

This isn’t quite the laugh-fest I had hoped for when I sat down, but I did enjoy it a great deal. Colman, in particular, delivers a wonderful performance, only bits of which were spoiled by the trailers. That isn’t to diminish Weisz or Stone’s equally strong performances, but Colman ultimately controls this story.

Lanthimos continues to prove himself capable of delivering gripping, dark stories about people that entertain and make you think. I would still prefer slightly less cryptic endings, but the journey is worth the uncertainty at the end.

The Female Brain

[3 stars]

Spicing up the standard sort of romcom by layering it with a non-fiction book on neurophysiology was actually a bit inspired. It doesn’t make the standard part of the story any less silly at times, but it does make it more entertaining and engaging. And credit to  Whitney Cummings who wrote, directed and starred in the result. Cummings took her wry abilities from 2 Broke Girls and tempered the humor so it was more grounded and palatable.

The story revolves around 4 couples. None of whom actually feel very well suited for one another, but all of whom have fun with the script. Each couple, Sofía Veraga (Modern Family) and Deon Cole (Black-ish), James Marsden (Shock and Awe) and Lucy Punch (Vexed), Cecily Strong (Ghostbusters) and Blake Griffin, represents a different phase and challenge in relationships. It is more comedy than reality, but there are some good moments that everyone will recognize. And, of course, there is Toby Kebbell (The Hurricane Heist) for Cummings along with her sidekick Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) to round out the story and pull a thread through it all.

Interestingly, while it is entertaining (and even educational at times) it doesn’t feel very affirming for women. This despite the intention and focus of the original book and being created by a clearly powerful and talented woman. But for a distraction, it’s a fun evening and allows a number of its cast to try out new types of characters.

Puzzle

[4 stars]

I so enjoy being surprised by a movie. You wouldn’t be wrong assuming this is a small, simple romantic comedy of sorts. However, it is much richer than that, with complicated relationships and less than obvious paths. I’m not saying it isn’t a bit oversimplified and a little over-structured, but it is a wonderful ride with lots of nice sharp turns.

Kelly Macdonald (Goodbye Christopher Robin) dominates this film from a position so unassuming you don’t even see her doing the driving. It is an odd role in that way, but one we’re seeing more often. Gloria and Shape of Water each come to mind for different reasons.

David Denman (Logan Lucky) and Irrfan Khan (Inferno) each play their roles well. Neither is breakout, but they are there for a purpose and they don’t overstep it. Likewise, Austin Abrams (Tragedy Girls) and Bubba Weiler (The Ranger), in much smaller roles. The collective whole the men around Macdonald form is essential and entirely real. And a lot of that sense is down to the careful directing.

Better known as a producer than a director, Marc Turtletaub (Gods Behaving Badly) tackled this very genuine story with confidence. The opening sequence, in fact, is inspired. With great economy he  sets up a wealth of relationships and history before the front credits have even completed. And while I haven’t seen its Argentinian original, Rompecabezas, this remake has no sense of hollowness to it the way some remakes can. It feels unique and solidly on its own feet. Turtletaub claims to have not viewed the original until his own final cut was complete; a smart move on his part that paid off.

Practiced remaker Oren Moverman (The Dinner) paired up with newcomer Polly Mann to adapt the script. I have some minor quibbles with aspects of the story and pieces that get lost (no pun intended), but it feels comfortable in its shift to NYC and Bridgeport from its South American origins.

This is a film definitely worth your time. It is sweet, but not saccharine. It is honest, but not preachy. It is simple, but not boring or painfully predictable. And, yes, it is romantic, but not palling. Watching the story come together into a complete picture is a wonderful experience.

The Happy Prince

[3  stars]

When Oscar Wilde died, he was buried beneath a monstrosity of neo-classical faux Egyptian frieze of his own design…that, of course, had an enormous phallus extending from the winged vision of himself like some kind of air rudder or, more likely, a final statement to the world for how they treated him. So the story goes, shortly after its unveiling an elderly woman came by and whacked the adornment off with her umbrella.

Whether apocryphal or accurate, the sense of that ongoing tale, told daily in Père Lachaise cemetery, is mirrored in this reflection of Wilde’s final years. A clash of ego and society, a sense of self versus a sense of decorum. Woven though the movie is the thread of Wilde’s own children’s tale, The Happy Prince, which metes out the lesson much more poignantly. It reminds us also what he gave to the world and what the world did to him.

Writer, director, and star Rupert Everett (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) wore many hats for this period production. He gives us a tired and ruined Wilde in the last couple years of life, but with a strong memory of what came before. It is an intriguing performance, though only sympathetic through the actions of others against him; Wilde is just not a very nice guy in almost any way in this portrayal, though he is deeply passionate. Everett’s directing is subtle and he navigates a very complex narrative to bring us to the end. Ultimately this is as much metaphor about artists and outsiders as it is about Wilde (the near ultimate of both).

Everett is helped along by a number of solid performances, by the likes of Colin Firth (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), Emily Watson (Lear), and Tom Wilkinson (The Titan) to name a few. Joshua McGuire (Lovesick [nee Scrotal Recall]) has a particularly strong bit part to deliver too. However, it is Colin Morgan (The Living and the Dead), as Wilde’s long-time and volatile lover, Bosie (Lord Douglas), and Edwin Thomas as Wilde’s longtime friend that form the structure of the tale and its downward spiral with intense performances.

The Happy Prince isn’t a happy tale, to be sure. I can’t tell whether Everett liked or disliked Wilde, but he certainly tried to tackle him in one big gulp with this first feature script and first time directing. Unlike another recent artist biopic, Final Portrait, while we do get a glimpse inside the mature artist at the end of his days, we don’t quite get a sense of why he was the icon he had been; it is in this I think Everett missed, or perhaps made, his point. Honestly, either works but we’re more used to seeing Wilde as an outrageous and brilliant character than as a broken man. It isn’t that there aren’t moments of joy and glimpses of his glorious past, but simply that it is all through Wilde’s lens of loss with little triumph.

Ultimately, it isn’t a great film due to its pacing and slightly muddled resolution and focus. But it is a disturbing reflection of our current times and a hard look at the end of Wilde’s life without flinching. If you are intrigued by Wilde’s life, it is a look at this period in a rather different way than we’ve seen before in films like Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance or the more recent (and wonderful) Wilde. The performances are a study in quiet longing and devotion, even when unreciprocated. And the recreation of the era across several countries well executed. That may sound a bit clinical, but as I noted, Wilde, who dominates the story, isn’t particularly sympathetic, even if those around him are. It is a film you need to be in the mood or be warned that it may take you some dark places.

I Think We’re Alone Now

[3 stars]

Peter Dinklage (The Angriest Man in Brooklyn) and Elle Fanning (How to Talk to Girls at Parties) may not be your first thought as a pairing, but the two balance each other nicely with neither’s presence taking over the screen at the cost of the other.  And, as unlikely as they are, they make a credible couple…given the circumstances. And, yes, circumstances matter. These two are the latest to tackle what is becoming a renewed trend: quiet apocalypse films.

Director Reed Morano (Handmaid’s Tale) takes her time laying out the tone and emotional landscape of these survivors. Like Into the Forest, These Final Hours, Z for Zachariah, even 10 Cloverfield Lane and A Quiet Place, to a degree, the end of the world is a backdrop to an emotional drama rather than the point of the story. The movie also manages marry current sensibilities with two classics from The Twilight Zone: Burgess Meredith’s turn in Time Enough at Last and Elizabeth Montgomery/Charles Bronson’s Two. And if you haven’t seen these two, find time to do so.

Charlotte Gainsbourg (The Snowman) and Paul Giamatti (Morgan) round out the small cast and add some necessary layers. Neither is particularly brilliant in their roles, but they are intended to feel out of place.

By the end, it is clear the film is as much metaphor as it is its own story. In fact, it has several messages, some highly personal and human and some social commentary (particularly in the final moments). It is to Marano’s credit that she delivers a kaleidoscope that allows you resolve those aspects that reflect on your own mood and place in life.

As always, watching Dinklage perform is a pleasure. Fanning delivers as well, adding another positive result in an opus that is less consistent for me. This isn’t a fast or even overly intense story, but it is highly human and very effective.

Old Man & the Gun

[4 stars]

Whether or not this is Robert Redford’s (The Discovery) final film, as he claims, it would be a solid one to go out on in performance and message. Redford is in full charm offensive and as wonderfully subtle as ever in his acting. Though he has Danny Glover (Proud Mary) and Tom Waits (Seven Psychopaths) as his partners-in-crime, his gang and this story is really a cult of personality: his.

And from the fringes and the pews, Redford brings along a motley group of additional folks. Primarily he pulls Sissy Spacek (A Home at the End of the World) into his orbit, who is every bit Redford’s equal in performance. Along with Spacek was an understated but effective Casey Affleck (A Ghost Story) as a disaffected cop looking for justice and what’s “right,” even when the choices aren’t easy or obvious. And, in a smaller role supporting Affleck, Tika Sumpter (Ride Along) is magnetic.

Writer/director David Lowery gathered Redford and Affleck from his previous efforts to pull off this rather impressive film: Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story respectively. What makes Old Man & The Gun so good is that Lowery gets us to gets us to react just like the people Tucker robbed. We cheer for Forrest Tucker and don’t feel bad about doing it. Lowery leaves us feeling both great about Tucker and about our own possibilities.

Lowery also did some clever work with the film to make it feel like the early 80s; from shaky credits, to washed out color, to the choice of fonts, a sense of appropriate nostalgia and current action was established. Amusingly, it was also screened for me on an old, reflective screen at an aging theater, which added an unintended layer to Lowery’s efforts that was wholly appropriate.

While this isn’t a big screen must, it is a wonderfully entertaining and, ultimately, positive film. It will be part of the awards buzz this year, so see it now rather than wait. And it doesn’t hurt to remind studios and distributors that there is a big market out there for just good film. Not everything has to flash, buzz, or blow-up to keep our attention. Though I certainly don’t mind that occasionally either, I like variety in my entertainment diet.