Tag Archives: Romance

Dracula (2019)

[4 stars]

I’m not here to stake Dracula, but to praise him. Well at least Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for their imaginative retelling of Stoker’s classic. The two used their Sherlock chops to capture the original’s sense and structure, but recast it and the dialogue into something more digestible for today’s audience.

Gatiss (Christopher Robin) also took the plum bit part of Renfield for himself. Who can blame him, it is always a tasty role.

But while Claes Bang (The Square) burns up the screen as a rather self-aware Dracula, it is Dolly Wells (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) who steals this show utterly. Her alacrity with language and facility with accent set her apart. She really has the best lines as well. Which isn’t to say the rest of the cast isn’t strong. They are, and many are recognizable from earlier Moffat/Gatiss collaborations. Outside of the known ensemble, there was also a nice showing by Matthew Beard (Vienna Blood) and Lydia West (Years and Years) in smaller roles sequestered to the third episode and a nice, if type-cast role, for Patrick Walshe McBride (Shakespeare & Hathaway).

The 3 90-minute episodes allow the story to expand in ways that a 2 hour movie just can’t manage. We get depth and scope as well as answers (some clever, and some inconsistent) and a solid parallel to the book that is usually a jumping off point rather than template. That said, the series definitely departs radically from the book in specifics, but somehow retains the intent and purpose, making it the most authentic version I’ve seen. Even the ending, which is not exactly satisfying (to say the least), best mirrors Stoker’s final pages as compared to other adaptations (the book ending was challenging as well).

Overall, this is an emotionally and intellecutally dense portrait of Dracula, with enough of all the bits we’ve particularly loved about this tale over the last 123 years (sex, violence, murder, seduction, romance). Moffat and Gatiss yet again prove they can take dated, original material and honor it without just slavishly following it.

 

 

I Lost My Body

[4 stars]

There’s nothing more romantic than a severed hand making its way back to its body, right? OK, the whole thing is meant as metaphor, but this film takes the idea of soulmates and makes it literal, not to mention loss. Through the travels and adventures of the hand as it wends its way through Paris, we learn about the life and relationships the young man at the center of it all has experienced.

And somehow it works beautifully. Creepy as some of it can get, particularly for those of us who grew up watching horror films like The Beast with Five Fingers (or any number of others over the years), Jérémy Clapin’s first full-length anime somehow stays sweet and hopeful. As far as movie magic goes, this is amazing (and forgive me) sleight of hand.

Clapin delivers the story in an understated way, forcing you to pay attention, to evaluate and think about what you’re seeing. The animation is wonderful and simply falls away, leaving you with its reality. Unlike its probably awards competitors, this is a wholly adult film, with themes and statements that will resonate for anyone who ever had a romantic bone in their body, hands included. But while focused on that aspect, there are also oblique reflections on society today that make it a richer tale. That Clapin co-wrote this with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s oft-time partner and font of source material, Guillaume Laurant (The Young and Prodigious T. S. Spivet, A Very Long Engagement, City of Lost Children, Amélie, Micmacs), should give you a sense of the core and scope of the film.

There is a reason I Lost My Body has been sucking up awards, and will continue to into the Oscar race this year. It may not be your typical fare, but it’s a magical and unexpected journey that never quite goes where you expect it to. More importantly, it sticks with you as you internalize and digest it long after the viewing. And, if you’ll forgive me one last bad reference, it is the visual equivalent of one hand clapping: creating the beautiful from the impossible.

 

Sylvia

[2.5 stars]

Are famous people interesting because they’re famous or famous because they’re interesting? Which is to ask: why did Christine Jeffs (Sunshine Cleaning) decide to take on John Brownlow’s (The Miniaturist) weak attempt to dramatize Sylvia Plath’s tale? And I ask because, while there are some nice performances, the story is a vapid and male-filtered view of Plath’s struggles with writing and mental health, not to mention life in general. Not what you’d expect from a female director taking on this icon of poetry.

It’s important, I suppose, to note this movie is 16 years old at this point, well before #metoo, though still in a world that was self-aware enough to recognize the issues with the cleansed biography. While Gwyneth Paltrow’s (Iron Man, Sliding Doors) journey as Plath finds many levels and nuances, the presentation is not kind nor sympathetic to her (unlike Joker was for Phoenix) when portraying mental health issues.

Despite the point of view being clearly through Plath’s eyes, her story seems to be lensed through her husband’s experience, Daniel Craig (Knives Out) as Ted Hughes, and her friend, Jared Harris (Carnival Row). Michael Gambon (Judy) and Blythe Danner (Hello I Must Be Going) add some sympathy and insight to Plath’s portrayal and life, but not enough to overcome the inherent issues.

The story is neither honest enough nor gripping enough to excuse its nearly two hours on screen. The issues here are very much with the direction and script rather than the performances, so if you want to catch some earlier roles for the leads, particularly Craig before his breakout in Layer Cake, you can invest your time. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.

Little Women (2019)

[3 stars]

I have to be honest here, I only went to this film because of Greta Gerwig (Isle of Dogs). The reality is that I am not a fan of the original material, even after playing Laurie myself in a production. But I do like Gerwig’s light touch, sense of humor, and her refreshing perspective on the world and was intrigued to see what she could produce.

And Gerwig did draw out some great and award-worthy performances, particularly from Saoirse Ronan (Mary Queen of Scots), Florence Pugh (Fighting With My Family), and Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy). Each of these characters had nicely crafted arcs and at least one scene that is truly great. Unfortunately, most of these have been shown over and over during interviews and trailers which sucked a bit of the power out of them when finally seen on screen.

There is also the amusing addition of Tracy Letts (Ford v Ferrari) and Larua Dern (Marriage Story) to the cast. Each are notable for their other performances this season, but they are playing quite different characters in this movie for some interesting dissonance as you burn through the awards nominated fims this year.

However, despite being inventive and engaging, Little Women is an uneven whole. There are some great scenes, but they are knitted together by far more lesser ones. The anachronistic is mixed with the period in dialogue, but without a lot of purpose. And in this epic, the young protagonists themselves don’t believably appear as girls so they can grow up. In addition, the time frames aren’t crisp as we bounce back and forth in the narrative.

In other words, it felt just a bit beyond the scope of Gerwig to control. I almost wish Gerwig and co-directed and co-written this with Sofia Coppola, who tackled a lot of these same problems with her Marie Antoinette rather more successfully and bravely.

What I will grant Gerwig and this production is that her love of the characters is clear. Her rework of the ending, inspired. And her ability to make many of the muddier choices of the book more believable, well done. It is an enjoyable movie, if not brilliant. And it didn’t make me feel ashamed to be without ovaries while sitting in the audience, nor to be male at the end. Clearly, however, the more you are enamored of the book, the more you will enjoy her offering.

Marriage Story

[4 stars]

Noah Baumbach’s (While We’re Young) latest film is a wonderful example of what a unique eye can bring to a common situation in order to defy expectations, and how framing is everything.

Adam Driver (The Dead Don’t Die) and Scarlett Johansson (Jojo Rabbit) are riding high as actors this year with multiple roles receiving multiple awards nods. This effort is no disappointment. Together they create a wonderful and subtle story of a family weathering divorce while trying to remember how they got there, who they are, and what they really want.

This sounds depressing as hell, doesn’t it? And I won’t lie, it has its moments, especially thanks to Laura Dern’s (Wilson) and Ray Liotta’s (Pawn) portrayl of evil-incarnate divorce attorneys who assume all divorces must be blood baths. However, this isn’t Kramer v Kramer...because of how Baumbach framed the film. The overall effect he creates, and even much of the journey, is one of relief and hope rather than depression and anger.

Marriage Story is an homage to the institution and to love, while recognizing that it doesn’t always work out. But, as the story tells, that doesn’t mean it has to be a permanent disaster nor unending strife. Life goes on and, especially when kids are involved, a bond remains as a reminder of what was, even if the deepest emotions that created that life no longer apply.

Watchmen

[4.5 stars]

I know others have gotten out there before me, but I really hate writing up a show before a season is complete. There are just too many chances for a series to go off the rails after a great start. And with Watchmen, I was holding my breath as it started strong and just kept improving as it went…at least until the very end where it, perhaps, lost just a tad bit of steam wrapping it all up and prepping for what’s to come.

This series grows naturally out of its birthing material, without leaving behind the graphic novel or the movie. It does it without forgetting or forgiving what came before, which is a real gift. Those who love the original find all kinds of touchstones while those that are new to it sense the depth of the world and its underpinnings.

Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) is a powerhouse and full of complications. Her story and journey hold together the entire series. But she isn’t alone in the tale.

Some of the most interesting characters arrive later in the sequence. Jean Smart (Legion) and Hong Chau  (Downsizing), for instance. And Jovan Adepo  (Overlord) as the younger version of Louis Gossett Jr. navigates a world of levels.

Jeremy Irons (Red Sparrow) gets to play alongside the main plot for more than half the sequence before having direct impact. And with Sara Vickers (Endeavour) and Tom Mison (Parade’s End) supporting him, the trio have a wonderful plot of their own that is loaded with humor and horror.

This is a wonderfully constructed world, unafraid to go where it must. The story is both familiar and topical without having to be completely obvious. Well, not always anyway. And it manages to treat time and flow in a way that will surprise and even insist you go back and rewatch to catch everything; taking on some of the same challenges as Legion, but in a more grounded way.

I am not a huge fan of Damon Lindelof as a writer. But in this case, he took his time to craft something wonderful. It is full of ideas, adult humor, bleak forcasts, and complex characters. I can’t wait to see where he goes with it next. But even if there isn’t more to come (and Lindelof is admitting he has nothing in the pipe to do so), this works as a cycle on its own, with a few open questions to tickle your brain as you consider implications.

Waves

[3 stars]

Horror auteur Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night) takes a hard left with his latest production. Waves is an often painful, sometimes triumphant look at a Florida family, all to the backbeat of a range of curated music. Structured in two parts, we get to watch the disintegration of one sibling and its effect on the family and remaining sib.

Shults didn’t just work with his actors to set mood and action. His camera work and lighting, from the opening through to the final moment, are designed to elicit emotion and energy. He manages to create the out-of-control energy of being a teenager as well as the contemplative, anchorless sense of being lost as a way to inform the already powerful performances. However, if you suffer any degree of motion sickness or sensitivty to flashing lights you may find it challenging to watch at times.

Part one of the story is focused on Kelvin Harrison Jr.  (It Comes at Night) and Alexa Demie (Euphoria), whose relationship is intensely passionate. At the same time, we see Harrison navigate the expectations of his parents and himself. The combination is, as you’d expect, volatile.

Taylor Russell (Escape Room) and Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased) head up part two of the story, who pick up the thread of the story and tie it back to the opening of the film. The relationship here is the yin to her brother’s yang tale. The combination turns the movie into a visual Taoist structure.

In a bridging story, Sterling K. Brown (Hotel Artemis)  and Renée Elise Goldsberry (Altered Carbon) give us the parent’s perspective that wraps and reflects on the young adults around them. It’s a complicated situation for them and their household, but it is also a little forced as written.

The movie is a bit more of an interesting experiment and piece of art than it is a great film. In part that is due to its length and structure, but it is also due to the self-conscious visuals and editing. That isn’t so much a ding as an acknoweldgement that this story happens more to you than with you. It is sweet and brutal and honest, but it is also somewhat presentational. That said, there are moments that will drop your jaw and, in my theater, had people talking out loud. So there is no doubt it is effective.

Eat With Me

[2.75 stars]

Yeah, I’m splitting hairs on the rating here. But that’s because while Eat With Me is enjoyable…it’s also a lo-fi, first film with many of the attending issues and tells that implies. Writer/director David Au came up with an interesting story and set of venues, but he’s still working through his craft. For instance, in pushing for naturalism on screen, he allowed a lot of moments to fall flat, and the rhythm of the film as it unspools is halting rather than smooth. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it, it just means you should go in with correct exepectations.

The movie is loaded with semi-familiar faces, but only one you’ll know for sure; George Takei (To Be Takei) as, well, himself in a critical cameo. Mind you, Au could have delivered his story without George, but it was a nice bit.

The main tale is a mother/son relationship. Sharon Omi is the focus of this story, though that aspect gets a little lost at points. Her semi-estranged son, Edward Chen takes a lot of the focus, which feels right, but ultimately confuses the balance. Aidan Bristow and Nicole Sullivan flesh out the plot and momentum in supporting roles.

The only real quibble I have with the movie is that, for a movie named “Eat With Me,” and with a main character who’s a cook, food never quite became the connecting or healing thread I would have expected. Food was only a convenient way to bring people into frame together. That just wasn’t quite enough for me. Again, this was more my expectation than, perhaps, Au’s intention, but it was what I was working with. Regardless of that, it is still a sweet tale of family and relationships and a peek at a new voice in film.

I couldn’t help but wonder how Au might have approached this if he’d started now rather than 5 years ago. With the unexpected hits and influence of Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, and Always Be My Maybe amongst other movies out there now, would any of his choices or execution have shifted given the interest and examples? Purely musing, but it is amazing how much the landscape has changed in the last couple years alone.

Last Christmas

[3 stars]

I know what you’re thinking: It’s damned early in the year for a Christmas movie. And too bloody right you are. However, I am a sucker for a well-done romance. Fortunately, Last Christmas delivers more to the romance with a slightly cynical/amused eye to the holiday. A solid script, co-written by Emma Thompson (Late Night), and direction by Paul Feig (A Simple Favor) give it a leg up with sharp English wit and intelligence amid the holiday sweetness.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that Emilia Clarke (Solo: A Star Wars Story) has charisma and wonderful comic timing. She and Henry Golding (A Simple Favor) make a fun, reluctant couple while Clarke builds a family around Michele Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians), Emma Thompson, and Lydia Leonard (Abstentia). There are also some fun cameos from Maxim Baldry (Years and Years), Patti LuPone (Parker), Peter Serafinowicz (The Tick), Peter Mygind, Jade Anouka (Turn Up Charlie) and others.

As a solid date night film, with just enough brains and bittersweet in it to keep it from collapsing under its own weight in sugar, this is a fun outing. And I say that even if it is way too early to be starting the themed stories this year. Though, admittedly, it may well have gotten lost in the crush of tentpoles if they’d waited. Take someone you care about and enjoy being played like the proverbial piano in a way that will leave you warm, happy, and high on life.

Shadow (Ying)

[3 stars]

Director and co-writer Yimou Zhang (The Great Wall) brings his sense of production and action to this court intrigue with umbrellas. That isn’t, “he does it with umbrellas,” but rather that it is a “court intrigue with umbrellas.” Really, that will make more sense when you see it.

Chao Deng (Detective Dee: The Mystery of the Phantom Flame) does an amazing job of playing the two roles of a man and his double. The distinction between the two is complete, though admittedly helped by the forced nature of one of them. Li Sun and Xiaotong Guan provide Deng a nice backdrop along with the slightly extreme Ryan Zheng (The Great Wall). But the story is more subtle than you expect, especially by the end. While the characters are in some ways fairly stock, each has layers and moments that break those boundaries.

Shadow isn’t brilliant, but it is gorgeous and intriguing. It keeps your interest and continually surprises both in plot and visually. If you enjoy Chinese cinema, and Yimou’s work in particular, it is a nice addition to his opus.