Tag Archives: Romance

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

Wonder Wheel

[3.5 stars]

Wonder Wheel starts off like many Woody Allen (Cafe Society) films: A hapless narrator explaining the romance/farce/tragedy that is about to unfold. In this case, it is a bit of all of that, but it also quickly shifts into a new mode for Allen. With the immense help of Jim Belushi (Twin Peaks) and Kate Winslet (Collateral Beauty), we are suddenly transported into a Eugene O’Neill play with moments of Tennessee Williams, complete with claustrophobic set, heavy use of alcohol, violence, and disastrous romantic longings. Not to detract from Winslet’s more subtle performance, but Belushi is the real powerhouse behind these scenes; he is an unexpected gut punch in what you expect to be a light, period romance.

Those truly phenomenal scenes are broken up with more typical Allen moments, but without the forced, halting aspects that tend to distract in his movies. All of the scenes flow nicely, though the tenor of the dialog becomes lighter and a tad stilted. Justin Timberlake (Trolls) tends to herald these moments. To a degree, I understand the choice and it is explained at the very top of the film, but the scenes cut into a more powerful story and I think it could have been smoothed through a bit better.

Running between the two worlds along with Winslet is Juno Temple (Black Mass). She brings most of the Tennessee Williams sensibility: fragile, naive, tough, intelligent, lost, and desperate to be loved. She is a breath of Southern Gothic dropped into the Northeast Tragedy.

In many ways, while not necessarily the best Woody Allen film, it is one of his most impressive. The use of language and setting is powerful. The story is relateable and yet utterly designed. The tragedy inevitable and yet totally avoidable. If not for the recent events in the industry, Wonder Wheel would have garnered a lot more attention and nominations. That it didn’t is a complicated conversation every person will have to answer for themselves. But, from a purely artistic point of view, I can recommend the film for the performances, writing, and direction and it may suggest an entirely new direction for Allen’s oeuvre.

Wonder Wheel

Tulip Fever

[2.5 stars]

Tulip Fever, much like the mercurial bloom’s marketplace namesake, is beautifully filmed, but ultimately not particularly satisfying on any level. The story here is purportedly one of romance, but it is as much about feminism, class, politics, greed, and a reflection of modern times. Unfortunately, all of that is easy to see, but not really felt in the final cut.

The story revolves around two couples and one man. Alicia Vikander (Jason Bourne) and Dane DeHaan (A Cure for Wellness) are the focus of the story, providing the main thread to pull us through. But the story is being told by Holliday Grainger (Strike), who’s relationship with Jack O’Connell (Money Monster) is affected as well. Both couples do what they can, though neither are particularly magnetic nor gripping in their passions emotionally, despite some nice on-screen physical examples. Frankly, when all is said and done, it is the path that Christoph Waltz (Downsizing) walks that is the most interesting. It is his most sympathetic and compelling role in a while. He is subtle and tormented in fascinating ways, and he manages to support the film from the background rather than trying to dominate it with a crazy portrayal.

There are also several notable supporting roles and characters. Tom Hollander (The Night Manager) and Judi Dench (Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children) are the most amusing and believable, but Matthew Morrison (Glee) and Zach Galifianakis (Lego Batman Movie) add their own value too. Galifianakis is hurt more by the script than his performance in this (but I’ll get to that). Finally, in a bit part that sort of goes nowhere is Cara Delevingne (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets). The only reason to call her out is that she was paired with DeHaan in her next film; the performance here is fine, and I give her credit for making of it what she could.

So with all this talent, why did it fail? Despite being co-written by the great Tom Stoppard (Anna Karenina), the script is the real problem for this story. It depends entirely on two incredibly stupid choices by characters. It isn’t that the choices aren’t set up, but they are both avoidable and, in one case, purely ridiculous that no one stops it from happening. No amount of commitment or clever aspect of plot nor unexpected endings can overcome those points for me because they undercut the credibility of the story as a whole. Using the conceits of farce amid the romance just deflated the whole for me. And, while these items are also used in classic tragedy, they need to be credible to work. In this case they were blindingly avoidable.

There is some interesting history and reflection to absorb with this film. And Chadwick directed it reasonably well. But only make time for this if you must see the actors or have some deep interest in Holland in the 1620s, though historically you are likely to feel short-shrifted.

Tulip Fever

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

[4 stars]

At its heart, this is a movie about love. That is also a biopic about the creator of Wonder Woman and his bold choices in a repressed era becomes window dressing. Though, I have to admit, I will never look at Wonder Woman the same way again.

Luke Evans (The Girl on the Train), Bella Heathcote (The Neon Demon), and Rebecca Hall (The Dinner) pull off a beautiful triangle. They manage to bring to life the complex emotions, fears, and desires that drove and challenged the relationship they formed without making it puerile or cliche. In our current times, it is also a great lesson in moral fibre and learning to be who you are despite societal pressures or assumptions.

There are some very nice smaller roles that are worth noting as well, JJ Feild (Captain America: The First Avenger) in particular. On the sidelines are Oliver Platt (The Ticket), and Connie Britton (Beatriz at Dinner) that provide some intriguing bridging characters too, though we never really get to know them.

Writer and director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) does something wonderful with this tale. She approaches it without judgement of her characters, but rather flips that to her audience and those around the unusual family. As her second feature, it is beautifully modulated and subtle. I will say that while the romance and personal aspect of the story is very effective and believable, Robinson’s other goal (layering on Marston’s psych theory as a structure for the movie) is less effective. It doesn’t distract or diminish the film, but it doesn’t really add much to it either. You can see the ideas, you can’t avoid them given the transitions, but I didn’t find them to build on or explain much either. Frankly, it is a minor criticism in this story as it is still character appropriate and adds some interesting structure, even if it is less than impactful.

Whether you know the history of of these people, or have an interest in Wonder Woman comics, this is a story that will grab you early and keep you intrigued. Marston was no ordinary man, nor were the brilliant women he had in his life. What is fascinating is just how little things have changed since their story began in the late 1920s.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

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

God’s Own Country

[3 stars]

Josh O’Connor (The Durells In Corfu) and, in his first major role, Alec Secareanu make an unlikely and wonderful pair in the harsh northern England countryside. The growth and challenge of their relationship is almost all internal, but completely obvious. O’Connor, in particular, takes us from not really liking him, to understanding him, to cheering for him all while his navigates a personal path that is barely mentioned.

In his first feature, acting as both writer and director, Francis Lee has created a painfully wonderful tale of first love. In fact, though mostly missed by audiences, it covers a lot of the same ground as Call Me By Your Name, but better highlighting a lot of the emotions I felt were missing in the Oscar contender.

Driving the story from the background are two well-known faces: Gemma Jones and Ian Hart as O’Connor’s parents. The interplay here is also subtle and almost entirely unspoken. Some of this is the culture of the north, but some is Lee’s respect for his audience; not forcing explanations and confrontations and trusting the viewer to understand. Both deliver solid performances.

Do be warned of one aspect. This film is not for the feint of heart when it comes to what it is to really be a farmer with livestock. There are a few moments that remind you why some people become vegans. It is all done with a purpose and, frankly, all fair and true to life, but not everyone will want to see it. The moments are short and you can avert your eyes and continue on if it bothers you, but the warning is necessary.

As a whole, this is a slow, intense film, but very well done, especially if you handicap it for the number of new roles its creators were taking on. It is touching and sad all at once, but ultimately uplifting as each character finds their place in the world, even if it isn’t quite how they expect to.


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.


November Criminals

[2 stars]

While this flick starts off with an interesting premise, it quickly slides into vague mediocrity. It is a shame since the cast is really pretty solid. Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver) and Chloë Grace Moretz (The Equalizer) work well together, and David Strathairn (The Darkest Hour) and Catherine Keener (Get Out), as their respective parents, deliver too. Even the ideas, as it heads down a Vanishing sort of path, is full of possibilities.

However, the adaptation from director and co-writer Sacha Gervasi (Hitchcock) is overly compressed. All the interesting stuff that is hinted at bleeds out to the point that even the title is never explained (I had to look it up to figure it out–turns out Elgort’s character in the book loved dark, Nazi-tinged  humor; the term refers to those that involved with the Versailles Treaty at the end of WWI which led to the Weimar Replublik and the rise of the jackbooted fiends). Even after learning the roots of the title, I can’t map it to the actions in the movie, which implies strongly that it failed. I imagine the title was kept only to try and draw in the book audience, even though much of the book’s core had been scrubbed out.

The overall movie holds together, in a sort of light way, but there was clearly a lot more there when it started. The locations were a lousy choice as well; trying to pretend Rhode Island is Washington DC was a deadly stretch. In the end, it feels like Gervasi ran out of shooting time and made of it what he could.

As a high school romance, with a bit of life thrown in, I suppose it could be diverting for some. For the rest, I’d say just skip it. All of these actors have better venues to be seen in and you have better ways to spend your time.

November Criminals

Happy Death Day

[3 stars]

Happy Death Day is an irreverent horror/dark comedy distraction that is actually worth seeing. It has suspense, mystery, comedy, clever writing and a respect for its audience. Sure there are some standard tropes and not an insignificant amount of violence, but it all builds on itself nicely and to a point with plenty of surprises.

Jessica Rothe (La La Land) is both the nasty chick in heels and the heroine of ability; imagine Buffy meets Heathers. But she is also the  butt of the jokes, which Rothe navigates rather well as she grows the character through her ordeals. Helping her along is Israel Broussard (Earth to Echo) serving as a natural counter-point and obvious romantic interest. The two make the perfect unlikely and inevitable couple.

What makes this work even more is that the movie admits you know the base story and keeps subverting it nicely. It is up there with Final Girls for recent horror satires that are still truly horror (unlike Get Out which is surely satire, but still primarily horror). Director Christopher Landon and writer Scott Lobdell took a tired old trope and really made it sing.

If you like the horror genre at all, this is worth your time. If you enjoy laughing at horror, and can still handle the violence, it is also worth your time. If you want to see something a bit different and that has its tongue firmly planted in cheek, yep, also worth your time. Blumhouse productions continues to do for small budget horror what A24 is doing for indies in general: finding the unusual and getting it to an audience that will appreciate it…even if they don’t know they will till they see it.

Happy Death Day

Phantom Thread

[3.5 stars]

If you approach Phantom Thread at face value, as depicting simple reality, it is a somewhat diverting tale of artistic drive and obsession with beautiful production values. Frankly not that exciting and, at times, just bewildering in the relationships. However, if taken more as metaphor (think of it with the subtitle: The Story of a Muse and Her Boy ), it is a discussion of art and the artist and who owns who in that relationship.

Given the title, Phantom Thread, I have to think writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice) was going for something less prosaic than just sex and inspiration. In fact, there is no onscreen sex, though there is some implied. But all moments of intimacy lead to creation in this film. Much like The Post, the focus of shots is often not the people but rather the objects they are in service to. In this case that is the clothes. And, my oh my are there clothes! In the end, the drive to create, and the process involved, is powerfully driven home by the final scenes and revelations.

Daniel Day Lewis (Nine, Lincoln) gives another memorable performance as the couturier, Reynolds. A man recognizable as the head of any house of fashion but uniquely his own. Opposite him, Vicky Krieps (A Most Wanted Man) holds her own and often dominates the screen quietly and with subtle expressions. Their relationship never fully jumps off the screen, but it doesn’t have to. It isn’t about romance, it is about their give and take with one another; the battle for supremacy. It is all very Greek.

Around the two main characters are two wonderful supporting performances. Lesley Manville (River) as Reynold’s sister is a master of understated humor and control. And Harriet Sansom Harris, in a critical, but small role, is sadly hysterical; you both feel for this lost woman and laugh at her.

Phantom Thread isn’t going to resonate with a wide audience. It is a highly personal view of the creative impulse at the far edge of genius, something that most people just don’t think about. Making it manifest has been done before (in The Muse, for example, or Ruby Sparks), though never quite like this.

Perhaps I am being an apologist for a flawed romance story, but I don’t think so. If you are looking for something a bit more straightforward, you’ll likely be disappointed. If, however, you’re a fan of haute couture or Anderson himself or are fascinated by the root of creativity, you will enjoy this half-fantastical journey, not to mention a chance to see Lewis’s farewell performance (maybe) on screen.

Phantom Thread