Tag Archives: Romance

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

[4 stars]

A quiet but intense love story that is (dare I say it?) a slow burn. I was worried that, despite all its awards, director/writer Céline Sciamma’s (Tomboy) two hour story of a portraitist and her subject would drag. It doesn’t.

The silences between Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel are tense with unspoken thoughts. Their verbal sparring is equally charged, though spare with words. And Merlant’s relationship with her supplies and canvas is just as intriguing. Watching these women discover each other and themselves never let’s you relax.

Around the main story are smaller tales supported by Luàna Bajrami and Valeria Golino. Both women bring a lot of story with very little explained.

One of Sciamma’s achievements with this film is that it is, essentially, all women. And all strong women, in their way. Men are not only incidental, they are a hindrance to their worlds. It is also visually a stunning piece of cinematography; as painterly as the story it tells. And the final moments of the story are a collection of joyously heartbreaking scenes. It reminded me of the end of Gloria in its ability to deliver a resolution.

Portrait is an unexpectedly moving story and one worth seeing. On big screen it must have been breathtaking, but even on a smaller screen it is a feast for all your movie senses.

Cyrano de Bergerac (2008)

[4 stars]

I haven’t seen Cyrano for many years…and had totally forgotten just how wonderful a story it is. And this production of it, with Kevin Kline (Last Vegas) as the titular man with the nose, is transcendent. His control of the language and the emotion is gripping.

And then there is the rest of the cast. While Jennifer Garner (Wonder Park), as Roxanne, eventually finds her feet in this play, she’s nothing particularly wonderful. On the other hand, Chris Sarandon (Fright Night) is more than up to the task of playing Kline’s nemesis, as is Daniel Sunjata (Manifest) for playing his handsome but dim-witted rival.

Filmed stage plays aren’t always successful. They often feel too distanced or too forced. But director Matthew Diamond guided the play and preserved the performance wonderfully. And the staging and set are clever, functional, and flexible. In other words, it is a feast for all the senses and aspects of theatre love.

Make time for this when you can. Honestly, it is so much better than you likely remember, in large part due to the fabulous Anthony Burgess translation, but also for the sheer romance and comedy of it all, no matter how dark some of it may get.

Cyrano de Bergerac

Frankie

[3 stars]

A rumination on the nature of love, life, and family against the beautiful backdrop of Sintra, Portugal. In many ways, Frankie is After the Wedding’s less overwrought cousin. There are several common themes and dynamics, though the stories are driven by different stakes and pressures.

Isabelle Huppert (Greta) is the lynchpin at the center of a blended family that spans multiple marriages. Her sense of entitlement as well as her own sense of self keeps bumping up against her recognition of the realities of that complexity, but all in very quiet and introspective ways. There are few histrionics despite the tensions between people and the situation in which they are mired. It is all about the reactions and silences, which director and co-writer Ira Sachs (Love is Strange) orchestrates with great confidence.

Along with Huppert, Brendan Gleeson (Assassin’s Creed), Marisa Tomei (Only You), Jérémie Renier (Double Lover), Vinette Robinson (A Christmas Carol), Sennia Nanua (The Girl With All the Gifts), and Greg Kinnear (Same Kind of Different as Me) fill out the other main roles. Their paths are all separate, but also all reflect and intersect on Huppert’s journey and life.

This isn’t a fast movie, but it is gripping in a very quiet way. And, ultimately, it brings together its point and moments in a wonderful bit of visual metaphor that is simply presented for us to absorb and enjoy. Frankie is about life and legacy and the meaning and complications of love. It is certainly bittersweet, but manages to avoid being maudlin or at all self-righteous. It’s simply a view and point of view of a collection of lives bound by blood and circumstance. And, like Sachs other works, emotionally hypnotic through to the end.

 

Frankie

Standing Up, Falling Down

[3 stars]

Honestly, the elements of this film worried me to no end as it opened and laid them out for inspection. Boomerang kids trying to find their way, bad comics finding their path, old widower trying to make amends, and romantically desperate people aching for “the one that got away.” It just shouldn’t have worked. But Peter Hoare’s (Kevin Can Wait, Killing Hasselhoff) script is simple, honest, and clever, which Matt Ratner directs with great care. In fact, for a first feature, Ratner really shows some chops containing the potential disaster of elements and emotions, not to mention the cast he managed to land.

Without question, Billy Crystal (Monsters University) holds this story together. Without him, it would have simply fallen apart even though Ben Schwartz (Parks and Recreation) is the main character driving the movie. Around these two, there are a host of solid performances and interactions. Grace Gummer (Learning to Drive) and Schwartz have some wonderful brother/sister interactions (again a credit to Ratner), and Debra Monk (Mozart in the Jungle) is the perfect Long Island mom. There are a lot of other fun, smaller roles worth spotting as well, but why give them all away?

This isn’t a revelatory movie, but it is well done and entertaining. It’s delightfully contained and rides the line between reality and absurdity with skill. Keep an eye out for it or pick it up on stream as it exits the festival circuit and becomes more generally and more affordably available.

Standing Up, Falling Down

Little Joe

[3 stars]

I’m always a sucker for intelligent science fiction, whether it is near-term like Arrival or far-future philosophical like Blade Runner 2049 (and it says something that both of those are by the same director) or even total gonzo pieces like Aniara or 28 Days Later. The point isn’t the presentation, it is the amount of thought behind the world and characters that snags me.

Little Joe walks some very well-trod ground, but approaches it with care and at an oblique angle. It even picked up several awards, including a Cannes Palme d’Or nomination and a Cannes win for Emily Beacham (Hail, Caesar!, Into the Badlands) as best actress. Honestly, I don’t really quite understand either recognition, though director and co-writer Jessica Hausner certainly maintained control and vision throughout the piece. And her script, written with Géraldine Bajard, is an interesting riff on a subject that will be familiar to anyone who enjoys the genre.

Supporting Beacham are Ben Whishaw (Mary Poppins Returns), Kerry Fox (The Dressmaker), Kit Connor (His Dark Materials) and Sebastian Hülk (Dark). Each brings a different level of creepy or concern to the story. None of the performances are particularly brilliant, but the quiet, understated approach to the tale is consistent and, often, subtle.

The film is just a little long for its inevitable payoff for my taste (both in metaphor and reality), but it does manage to pull you along and the production design is striking. Little Joe is a worthwhile time investment if you like genre. It isn’t a perfect little gem, but it is a surprising ride, being dealt with intelligently and as adult fare.

Little Joe

Faraway, So Close! (In weiter Ferne, so nah!)

[3 stars]

In 1987 Wim Wenders hit the international consciousness as a writer/director with Wings of Desire… a tale of isolation and revelation with the backdrop of the Berlin Wall as metaphor. And then, in 1989, the wall fell and the world changed. In 1993 Wenders revisited his characters in this new reality with this award-winning, if not as successful, sequel.

Wings was a wonderful film…after the first 20 minutes of philosophical setup. You can argue that the extended prologue was necessary, but it honestly kept the film from taking flight, which it did once we really got to Earth and let the story go. Faraway is structured much the same, but with even more philosophical musing and exposition (45 minutes). This time, however, the discussion is set amongst the world and it sets up a lot of the movie’s ultimate action. Of course, that isn’t clear for a long time and is, perhaps, one of the more surprising aspects of the film. A lot of very disparate threads and seemingly tangential moments all come together for the final sequences in some very unexpected and, in one case, hysterical ways.

All of the main characters from Wings return: Otto Sander (from a personal favorite: Killer Condom), Bruno Ganz (The House that Jack Built), Peter Falk, and Solveig Dommartin (Until the End of the World) to bridge the stories. However, other than Sander, they are all secondary to the new plot. Part of what makes this film so clever is that it really is a new story, even though we get to see what happened to those who were the focus of the first.

The new people in this tale are rather surprising…Willem Dafoe (Motherless Brooklyn) and Nastassja Kinski (Cat People) join the story, and there are even small roles for Mikhail Gorbachev and Lou Reed. Which brings up the soundtrack…loaded with Reed and other period greats. It doesn’t have the staying power of Until the End of the World’s soundtrack, but there are some interesting surprises in it.

Though Faraway is a direct sequel in many ways, I’m not sure you need have seen Wings of Desire first. I think the relationships and returning characters get explained enough. However, you’ll definitely have a different experience if you see them in the intended order. But Faraway is, ultimately, a better crafted film, if a little overwrought at times. It is a worthy sequel and cleverly crafted. But it is, in every sense, a very European film of its time. It is slow to build momentum, highly intellectual, full of poetry and grand gesture, and not quite reality, though very down to Earth (literally) in its grounding. If you enjoy Wenders’ work or just want to see something with very different pacing and approach than today’s hyper-kinetic fare, this is an excellent, if long, choice.

After the Wedding

[3 stars]

This is a slippery film in many ways. It doesn’t hold a lot of surprises, or didn’t for me, but the performances and the motivations are nicely shifting sea of emotion and interaction that keep it flowing along.

Director and writer Bart Freundlich navigated the material well, holding back his actors from breaking until the right moments. He was particularly lucky to land Michelle Williams (Fosse/Verdon) and Julianne Moore (Bel Canto) in the main roles. [To be fair, it didn’t hurt that Freundlich and Moore are married in making that happen]. And Billy Crudup (Where’d You Go Bernadette?) added a wonderful pivot point between the two.

The story itself, while a dark sort of romantic fantasy, manages to keep just to the right side of credible. Given the players and the stakes, that wasn’t an easy task. Freundlich’s adaptation of Susanne Bier and Anders Thomas Jensen’s 2006 version manages to flip the situation nicely for some new facets to emerge.

This is, for all the tears and provocative situations, a somewhat light story of family: what makes it, what you’d do for it, and how to keep it. It’s the performances and framing of the tale that makes it worth your time.

After the Wedding

Wild Nights with Emily

[3 stars]

Emily Dickinson has remained a surprisingly controversal character in the field of poetry.  This somewhat comic biography/exposé of her life isn’t likely to reduce that. In fact, for some, it may shatter their sense of her.

The movie is at its best when writer/director Madeleine Olnek (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) is using the story to skewer the literary world and literary criticism. Primarily this is through the voice and actions of Amy Seimetz (Pet Sematary), who’s smarmy, self-important Mabel Loomis Todd provides the narrative thread to explain what we thought we knew about Dickinson’s life and art. Olnek counterpoints it throughout with the re-enactments/fictional conceptions based on the recent revelations of Dickinson’s letters and poetry.

Molly Shannon’s (We Don’t Belong Here) is often restrained as Dickinson, but occasionlly a little unleashed. She and Susan Ziegler (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) present the challenge of a life-long relationship in an era where it should have been impossible. And yet, it appears to have been one of the worst kept secrets of its village and family. It was the rewriting of that history that hid that truth for over 100 years.

Where Olnek’s film is at its weakest is when she allowed the comedy to get too broad (no pun intended). Some of this is with Shannon, but it extends to side characters too, such as maid Lisa Haas (Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same) or Emily’s brother played by Kevin Seal (Laggies). Also, the overall structure is somewhat fractured, slipping between a sort of forced period movie approach and contemporary speech and editing. The combination isn’t always comfortable or effective.

The odd sensibility and choices aside, the film works. The angering absurdity of the time and situation, not to mention the impact of the decisions, hits home well. For something a little different that will entertain and even educate a little, this is a good choice.

Wild Nights with Emily

Only You (1994)

[3 stars]

Romcoms never quite go out of style, though only a few retain their well-intentioned joy as years go by. Only You is somewhat on the cusp of losing its mandate due to cultural shifts. However Norman Jewison’s (Moonstruck) light romance, echoing Roman Holiday, had one aspect really going for its longevity: it’s cast.

Long before they were to match up (non-romantically) in Spider-Man, Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Jr. got tangled up in this light comedy. And while Downey certainly has some fun and commands the screen, Tomei is the one to watch here. She is as luminescent as Audrey Hepburn, with the same vulnerability and strength. She takes the weakest of lines and moments and turns them into something magnetic, keeping the story rolling along despite any of outlandish choices Diane Drake’s (What Women Want) script forces her to make.

Along with Bonnie Hunt (Toy Story 4), and some smaller roles by Fisher Stevens (Motherless Brooklyn) and Billy Zane (Tales From the Crypt: Demon Knight),  the story unspools across two relationships, one new and one old. And, of course, the question of destiny and love hangs over it all.

This isn’t a brilliant film. And, as I mentioned, it’s showing its ages at the seams. However, it is a reasonable distraction just to see Tomei work the screen and glow as she does. So if you’re in the mood for a light romance and to see a couple of stars in their younger days, turn this one on and let it wash over you. Just don’t expect too much or think too hard.

To Be or Not To Be (1942)

[3 stars]

Before Jojo Rabbit, but after Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, Carole Lombard and Jack Benny took on Hitler and WWII in their own slightly-screwball comedy of Polish acting royalty battling the Nazi invasion in Warsaw. And they had help from a very young Robert Stack.

There is a lot to enjoy in this wartime, feel-good flick. Director Ernst Lubitsch helped the cast navigate the darker sides of war, leaning into it as a foil rather than sinking into it in despair. Given this was created and released less than a year after Pearl Harbor, that’s pretty amazing.

Admittedly, the rhythm of the comedy overall is a bit odd for today. Though Lombard’s fast, sharp wit, a la her previous Twentieth Century, is certainly one of highlights. Overall, there is more of a stage sensibility with the dialogue and odd pauses. But, despite the dated feel, it manages to entertain and surprise with a clever script and focus on the human in the danger. But it isn’t a satire or larger commentary, it is purely a romantic comedy with WWII trappings.

And I could be wrong, but To Be or Not To Be is also probably one of the last comedies about Hitler until Mel Brooks tackled him again in The Producers 25 years later. (Note: though I know Abbot and Costello made Hitler Ho!, I can’t find a year for it anywhere, let alone a copy). As WWII quickly progressed, humor about it was not what people were looking for.

For a silly escape with some historical significance, this is worth looking up at some point…and the Criterion restoration is crisp and beautiful.

To Be or Not to Be