Tag Archives: Romance

Time Freak

[4 stars]

Romance, comedy, and time travel, especially when wrapped in honesty and told with some intelligence, is a triumverate always guaranteed to grab my attention. Unlike the recent Palm Springs, the character intent here is deliberate, but they both deliver the story in a similar way that let’s you connect with it immediately and get on board for the ride.

The story, despite its scope, is really driven by just three characters. Asa Butterfield (Slaughterhouse Rulez) and Sophie Turner (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) are the romantic crux of the story. And while that may sound like an odd combo, it’s supposed to be. And yet the two have a believable chemistry between them. More surprisingly, it comes mostly from Turner’s performance, which is the best I’ve seen her do. I actually believed her completely, something all of her previous performances have lacked for me. Butterfield is playing into his strengths in this film, but does so with heartfelt earnestness that wins you over.

While the main couple certainly carries the story forward and keeps it focused, Skyler Gisondo (Santa Clarita Diet) adds the final element that makes it all work: comic relief and, often, common sense. This is especially amusing as he’s a complete screw-up. This isn’t the basis for comedy I usually enjoy, but it works here due to its restraint and evolution. Even Will Peltz’s (In Time) side character, as extreme as he takes it, manages to find ground often enough to add to the depth of the tale rather than distract from it.

Writer/director Andrew Bowler expanded his Oscar nominated short into this truly delightful and funny exploration of life, love, and relationships. The cleverly written script spends the first third in familiar territory. And, honestly, even if it hadn’t expanded on that, I would have enjoyed the movie thanks to his control of the performances and pace. But it is Bowler’s willingness to try to explore the characters and plot more deeply that makes this particular run at the sub-genre something worth seeing.

When you need something enjoyable and not entirely devoid of logic and intelligence, queue this one up. You won’t be sorry.

The Whistlers (La Gomera)

[4 stars]

Oddball films that really work are hard to find. Corneliu Porumboiu’s Whistlers certainly falls into that category as a delightfully dark comedy that doubles as one of the odder mobster love stories you’ll get to see. It isn’t perfect…in fact I want to slap him around just a bit for not following through on the main conceit, even though he does use it. And, before you ask, yeah, it’s real.

What sets this story apart from so many similar stories of betrayal, dirty cops, and semi-honorable thieves is how the tale is told. Porumboiu fractures the story and tells it with parallel chronologies to make the story as much one of mystery as it is suspense.

Vladimir Ivanov (Toni Erdmann) and Catrinel Marlon (Tale of Tales) are at the center of the story. Ivanov’s even temperament, despite any circumstance, is both amusing and amazing as he sells it every time. And Marlon’s femme fatale approach is both cold and spot on; her sharp intelligence always on display.

The couple are surrounded by a host of interesting supporting characters. Rodica Lazar, in particular, as Ivanov’s boss, is a fascinating and quiet portrayal.

Basically, this is a romp, with dark, Romanian overtones. But is also a comedy, which keeps it all from getting too weighty and uncomfortable. If you haven’t found it yet, and are looking for something a bit different but not too fluffy, this is a good way to go.

The Whistlers Poster

Lucifer (5: penultimate series)

[3.5 stars]

I’ve said it before, but getting off broadcast was one of the best things that ever happened to Lucifer. And this season continues to get even better. In fact, they’re getting more inventive and having more fun than ever, while still building on the story and characters.

While this fifth series was originally going to be its last, Netflix granted them a sixth in order to pull together all the threads they’ve been stringing out. It makes for a much more focused and complex set of interactions, and a real sense of forward motion for the characters.

I admit that it’s still not brilliant writing, but the character work and humor continues to keep me coming back. And over these last couple seasons there has been a lot of growth for each of the characters as well. Lesley-Ann Brandt, especially, has an interesting path to tread, and continues to improve her chops in the process.

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Charlotte Gray

[3 stars]

This is a fairly standard, though gorgeously filmed, WWII espionage/love story, with few surprises. What makes it worth seeing is Cate Blanchett (Where’d You Go Bernadette). The 2001 season was a good one for Blanchett. The month prior, she’d wow’d audiences with her Galadriel, which would permanently set the tone of her screen presence.  When she steps on screen, regardless of character, she dominates; confident, radiant, terrifyingly in control. But in Charlotte Gray, she starts, uncharacteristically, weak and grows into her role without ever quite becoming that pillar of power. It’s almost like watching the growth of Blanchett as she matured into a star.

The rest of the cast is quite the list as well. With Billy Crudup (After the Wedding), Michael Gambon (Sylvia), Rupert Penry-Jones (Whitechapel), and Anton Lesser (Endeavour) driving the main plot with Blanchett, and a slew of others around them, the movie is packed with talent. These are all great reasons to spend time in Vichy France. In fact, given our current world politics, it’s a good time to be reminded why that form of collaboration and conciliatory/accommodating  attitude can be so destructive.

Director Gillian Armstrong (Little Women (1994)) managed the story well. She certainly helped guide her actors through complex challenges without ever quite having them tip over into melodrama. But she couldn’t quite escape the obvious. Even if there were moments of surprise, they were almost all tipped or inevitable. Really, her triumph in this is the evolution of Blanchett’s character. For that it is worth your time.

Charlotte Gray Poster

A Life Less Ordinary

[2.75 stars]

Even with my enthusiasm for the collaborative efforts of director Danny Boyle (Yesterday) and  writer John Hodge (Trance), I somehow had missed this movie. For their third feature outing, the duo brought us this dark romantic fantasy that blended Heaven Can Wait with a bit of Sid & Nancy. Honestly, even taking into account the 23 years between, the result doesn’t entirely work though there are some fun moments.

What makes this worth seeing, other than Boyle’s crazy ability to direct the bizarre, is the cast. The list is led by Ewan McGregor (The Impossible) and Cameron Diaz (Gambit). McGregor was, as usual, fairly solid and full of vulnerability and guilelessness. Diaz was less effective and credible, and is the main reason for the failure of the movie overall. The story depends on the reality of these two so that we not only believe them but can also cheer them along.

The leads are accompanied by a massive list of recognizable faces, some of whom had yet to become well-known. They’re mostly all credited, so it’s less spot-the-actor as it is just enjoying the sea of talent. In the primary supporting roles are a young, though not untried, Holly Hunter (Incredibles 2), and a semi-young Delroy Lindo (Point Break). Neither is particularly brilliant, but they are the main comic relief through the story and play their absurdist, dark clown parts well.

Overall, this isn’t one of my favorite Boyle’s. It doesn’t quite have his signature control and he hasn’t quite learned yet how to slip between the fantastical and reality in fully satisfying way. That he pulls off this bizarre tale at all is a credit to the abilities he did have. You come back to this out of nostalgia or a need, like mine, to fill in a gap in the opus of the folks involved. Otherwise, there are better stories out there, and better performances by all involved.

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Caramel (Sukkar banat)

[4 stars]

Writer/director Nadine Labaki loves people, and all their facets; and she puts those truths into her movies. Her pile of nominations and wins speaks to how much that resonates with audiences and critics. Every one of her movies, starting with this first feature of hers (and continuing with Where Do We Go Now? and Capernaum…even Rio, I Love You), builds upon this idea. Each movie expanded her ability and her recognition as a director, writer, and actor. Basically, her films are a joy to watch because they feel true and celebrate people, even when the circumstances are less than wonderful.

Caramel follows the lives of several women in Beirut. Each has a compelling story to share, but in many cases never even speaks to it. Their stories are on display, but we are granted the point of view and freedom to understand them. The movie is also very lo-fi, but Labaki makes you forget that by sucking you into the world of these women.

Adding to the interesting aspects of this film are that it was finished just days before war descended on Beirut. We get to see the city before it was ravaged (again). And, on a personal note, I watched it a day after Beirut was back in the news when a factory blew up, levelling a good part of the city again and killing 150+ people.

What comes through her films is how much she loves her country, in all its contradictions and flaws. But what makes the stories work is how much she loves and celebrates life. She doesn’t pick happy subjects, but the stories always feel hopeful. Her sense of the human condition is one of possibility, a sensibility that goes a long way in today’s world.

Caramel Poster

Becoming Jane

[3.5 stars]

As his follow-up to Kinky Boots, Julian Jerrold produced this bit of snarky reflection on Jane Austin’s early days. He was also immensely helped by Kevin Hood and Sarah Williams’s clever adaptation of Austin’s life to show us the budding 16-year-old author and the events that launched her into history. The pair both managed to both mirror her works and riff on the known history.

The flick is led wonderfully by Anne Hathaway (Serenity) and James McAvoy (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) in the Austin and Lefroy roles (actual age of the actors aside). Lefroy truly existed, and there is evidence of their deep affection and end to their story, though the script does take liberties in order to give more power to Austin. The change is forgivable given the purpose and the difficulty in doing a comedy of manners from the late 1700’s in modern times.

The duo are supported by a great cast as well. With Maggie Smith (Sherlock Gnomes), Julie Walters (Wild Rose), James Cromwell (Dante’s Inferno), and, in a small but pivotal role and his final performance, the late, great Ian Richardson pitches in as well.

And then there were other emerging talents such as Anna Maxwell Martin (The Bletchley Circle), Lucy Cohu (Summer of Rockets), and Laurence Fox (Inspector Lewis). Each provided a foil for Hathaway and deepened the tale.

Now, all this effusive outpouring aside, it is still, at its heart Austin. Not my favorite. I loved the verbal banter between Hathaway and McAvoy, which they delivered well. They also made a credible couple. They even managed to agonize in ways that helped make the challenge of the times (romantic attachment vs. duty to family/semi-arranged marriage) at least clearer, if not entirely palpable. But the base issues just never quite grab me as I just find it all so frustrating, even if accurate to the period. This came close to helping me settle into the realities a bit more and feel the story, but there is still a good deal of assumption about what the audience already understood and accepted. But adding to the positives, it is also sumptuously filmed.

If you like Austin, you’ve probably already seen this, so I don’t need to tell you. If you are roped into seeing it, as I was, it honestly isn’t all that bad. It will never make my top 10 movie list, but it might easily make my top 3 Austin/period piece list. So, that’s something.

Becoming Jane

Step Up

[3 stars]

I know this is the movie that launched both a franchise of many movies, a series, and, probably most notably, Channing Tatum (Smallfoot), but as a movie is it only just OK.  And, yes, I know this is Fame-like fantasy. The formula is intentionally predictable and obvious. The relationships, banter, and tragedies foregone conclusions. They only left out sexual confusion and discovery from the standard mix. So perhaps my expectations should be set on acceptance rather than a desire to be impressed. But for all its silliness, the original Fame had a lot more heart and impact because the characters were that much more real.

But, clearly, the focus on street dance and music hit a chord with audiences that continues to last. I can’t say I was bored, and I certainly laughed many times at intended points; I just wasn’t transported. Part of the problem was that the movie was unbalanced, the focus being pulled by Tatum’s character rather than as part of the equilibrium.

Even the  director, Anne Fletcher (The Guilt Trip), knew that the real star, or at least find, of this movie was Tatum and not his co-star and eventual spouse Jenna Dewan. Not that she isn’t a solid dancer and a good actor, it’s just clear that the movie is Tatum’s. Need definitive proof? During the final, climactic scene of the performance that Dewan’s character has been striving toward, and around which the entire movie pivots, not only is she not center stage, the follow-spot is always on Tatum and never her…unless she’s in Tatum’s arms. Forgetting the fact that Fletcher didn’t know how to film dance, it was the most distracting element of the movie for me because it was so blatantly wrong for the story and the moment. She didn’t even really use Rachel Griffiths (Hacksaw Ridge) to her full extent, though perhaps that was fair, if disappointing. And even with little screen time, she does make an impression here.

It’s worth noting that, in addition to Tatum, several others got a boost from this flick. Writer Melissa Rosenberg went on to create, among other things, Jessica Jones. Co-writer Duane Adler went on to do several more in this series and other dance films, having found his niche. Damaine Radcliff leveraged this to go on to several industries and interests. Of course Heavy D and Mario already had careers, but it gave them some nice moments. Mario, in particular.

When you’re looking for some thin romance, and some romanticized stories of the “street” and having it tough but being able to succeed, this may do. It isn’t realistic, it isn’t brilliant, but it is entertaining enough to carry its weight. At this point, I’m probably far too jaded to just give in to the fantasy of it all. For its intended audience of tweens and teens, it’s going to be much more effective.

Step Up Poster

 

State of the Union

[4 stars]

When Nick Hornby (Juliet, Naked, High Fidelity) and Stephen Frears (Victoria & Abdul) decided to tackle the meaning and humor of marriage in ten 10-minute segments, you can be sure it will be both insightful and biting. Now make it, generally, a two-person show with Rosamund Pike (Radioactive) and Chris O’Dowd (Juliet, Naked) and the delivery is guaranteed to entertain.

To be fair, O’Dowd was a bit of an easy choice here. He’s playing into all his strengths, and is somewhat reprising his role in Juliet, Naked. Pike, however, has created a woman taut with guilt, doubt, and bound by her own upbringing.

Each segment is a week apart, covering a 10-week course of therapy for the couple. And each segment manages to provide mountains of information about their relationship and each other. It is a credit to all four that so many levels can be exposed with subtext, looks, and smart dialogue.

Admittedly, the longer you’ve been married, the more there is to get from the 100 or so minutes of the whole series. It hits on truths and fears that only 10+ years of living with a spouse can manifest. Absent that, it’s a simply a fun tale that is easy to digest and satisfying to laugh with and at. And probably a show worth coming back to at different points in your life.

State of the Union Poster

Palm Springs

[4 stars]

Such wonderful, sweet, evil fun.

Neither Andy Samberg (Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance) nor Cristin Milioti (Modern Love) are strangers to comedy or satire. The two navigate the absurd landscape of life in Palm Springs in hysterically believable ways. And, with the help of a smaller role by J.K. Simmons (21 Bridges), you can easily commit to cheering, jeering, or sympathizing with their various predicaments.

First time feature director Max Barbakow did a wonderful job dancing along the edge of absurdity to deliver a romantic tale of finding yourself and finding another. Certainly, a lot of credit has to go to Andy Siara’s script as well, which expands on the themes of his other efforts in Lodge 49, though in much more satisfying way. And his opening scenes are a beautiful study in introducing a well-known trope in a new way.

Palm Springs had been heading to be a big splash indie release…in the before times. And I’ve no doubt it would have found its audience and done reasonably well. But the pandemic had it go straight to stream where, frankly, it lives comfortably and doesn’t feel diminished. This isn’t a big effects film, it is, for all its far reaching commentary, a small and intimate romance that will have you smiling and laughing through to the end, and into the credits.

Palm Springs Poster