Tag Archives: Romance

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.

Tolkien

[3 stars]

Where Rocketman and Bohemian Rhapsody each used fantasy as a way to tell their realities, Tolkien went the other route: it uses reality to tell the fantasy. Well, about the fantasy, at any rate. The movie is a bit of a confused mess, but it does eventually come together to its point.

Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite) is really quite good at negotiating both the complex emotional challenge and the age challenge of his role as the story unfolds. Lily Collins (Okja), likewise, gets to work a lot of levels, not all of which are comfortable. The rest of the cast is servicable, with folks like Derek Jacobi (Tomb Raider) and Patrick Gibson (The Darkest Minds) probably standing out the most. But, frankly, no one really matters outside the main couple.

The main challenge with this film is that it isn’t very focused. It jumps back and forth in time attempting to show the connections in Tolkien’s life that led him to author his stories. But the narrative is a little forced as we follow him through the trenches while his febrile brain keeps triggering memories. It wasn’t sustainable for the whole movie, so the approach ends about two thirds of the way through. A more chronological telling may have been more effective for the majority of the story; or, perhaps, a more complete commitment to the flashback. The mix and unbalance of the two leaves the rhythm of the film uneven and confused.

Director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) certainly took care with his portrayal. And writers David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford (Pride) were likewise sympathetic. It doesn’t feel like a real biography or look at the man, but rather an homage to him and the work he left behind. And perhaps that is the better way to view the movie: as a biography of The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring rather than of Tolkien himself. On that level it succeeds quite a bit more than as an historical recounting.

The Tomorrow Man

[3.5 stars]

Quirky love stories are catnip to me. Watching two unlikely humans find one another and navigate the terror and joy that is a true connection is affirming, funny, frustrating, and ultimately joyous. John Lithgow (Pet Sematary) and Blythe Danner (What They Had) definitely run through all those emotions, creating two very differently broken people stumbling through life until they careen into one another.

The odd pair are surrounded by a few, solid supporting characters as well. Derek Cecil (House of Cards) and Eve Harlow (Heroes Reborn), in particular, provide sounding boards and act as proxy for the real world outside Lithgow and Danner’s orbit.

Nobel Jones directed and wrote his first feature with a steady and sure hand. The absurdity of his character’s lives never vaulted into the ridiculous. Their quirks and issues, when exposed, simply brought out their humanity and a deep empathy from the audience. It’s a solid story about people and love, with a wonderful and entertaining arc that leaves you with an unexpected smile.

Anna and the Apocalypse

[3.5 stars]

Subtle this movie isn’t, but it is clever and fun. It is also a nice alternative holiday movie, though less on point than, say, Rare Exports. The main focus is really the evolving Apocalypse and the relationships between the high schoolers involved rather than Christmas. And, yes, it is also a musical (as the original creator suggested of its genesis: think High School Musical meets zombies)!

While clearly tongue-in-cheek, it is executed with complete sincerity and effort. It could have used a couple more songs to make it feel more like a musical and less like a movie with a few song and dance numbers in it, but that’s a quibble as the music that is in it is really pretty good.

Ella Hunt (Robot Overlords) leads the cast with some solid talent and chops. She has a long career ahead of her if she wants it. Hunt is supported by a cast of other mostly unknowns, but all of whom bring moments of emotional complexity to what could have been cookie-cutter performances in lesser hands. Malcom Cumming, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Ben Wiggins, and Sarah Swire (who also choreographed) are generally all in new projects you’ll be seeing in the coming year.

And then there were the known faces, like Tom Benton (Shakespeare & Hathaway) who brought all his vulnerable best to bear as Hunt’s father. Only the prolific Paul Kaye really disappointed me in the cast. His choices and antics were notched up just a bit too high from the start…I never believed him nor had any sympathy for him. It’s probably the one truly bad choice I felt director John McPhail made with the otherwise very tight and clever delivery.

When you’re in the mood from something in the Cockneys vs. Zombies range, but with a beat, you should definitely check this one out.

 

Mary Shelley

[3 stars]

Mary Shelley wraps the well-known, apocryphal tale of the genesis of Frankenstein. But where the earlier movie, Gothic, focused solely on the infamous and inspirational evening, this movie focuses primarily on the romance and disappointment of Shelley’s life that fed that inspiration. The two depictions of Mary herself are also significantly different, but they make an interesting pairing.

Alone, this movie is much more of a period romance than it is an historical retelling. It plays with feminism, as it should given the characters involved, but ultimately focuses more on character than polemic. Elle Fanning (Teen Spirit) is a perfect choice for the soft-spoken, galvanized young woman who wrote one of the most enduring pieces of literature in the last two centuries.

Douglas Booth (Loving Vincent) provides the story with a charismatic rake that we eventually recognize for what he is. Tom Sturridge (Velvet Buzzsaw) as Byron helps goad him along and serve as catalyst for the main event. The men in Mary’s adult life are complexly narcissistic, even while often being supportive. Her family, given life by Stephen Dillane (The Tunnel: Vengeance) as Mary’s father, and Bel Powley (Carrie Pilby) as her sister, are also constantly at odds with their own support of her.

Director and co-writer (with Emma Jensen) Haifaa Al Mansour (Wadjda) delivers a tale of women, their place in society, and their strength to ignore those boundaries. Al Mansour’s Mary isn’t a woman to be trifled with or ignored. Though she is failable, she is also aware and learns from her choices. While the result gets tied up in the realities of period drama, there is also a clear message to women to be who they want to be, even when it may not be easy or pleasant.

This isn’t as clean a film as I’d have liked in its message and intent. Given its purpose, it needed to take more lessons from Coppala’s Marie Antoinette than, say, Downton Abbey. It is still well executed and entertaining, at least at times, but it feels more weighed down by its period setting than transcending it. That said, it is one of the more complete views of Mary Shelley’s life I’ve seen.

Carnival Row

[3 stars]

If Ripper Street and Copper had a magical baby, this is pretty much what you’d get. For me, however, the poor child took on the worse qualities of both parents. A shame as it had the potential to tackle the current issues of immigration and xenophobia sweeping a good part of the globe.

In the end, Carnival Row is a marginally thought-through bit of genre, full of strife and demons (personal as well as real). It is a by-the-numbers fantasy with few surprises and cliche characters; the pacing commensurate with its genre, which is to say: slow.

The show isn’t helped by its female lead in Cara Delevingne (Tulip Fever), who has the look of a Fae, but the emotional credibility of cardboard. Despite Orlando Bloom’s (S.M.A.R.T. Chase) backing her, and with some interesting tension between them, she just never became real for me. Even the host of solid supporting actors are generally forced into tiny boxes of behavior, by script and directing, that does little to show off their talents.

Ultimately, I’m still not sure if I enjoyed this first season or not. It is clear that the it was built around the first episode and final moments in the last…with a whole bunch of stretched out filler in-between. It is, in fact, more of a prologue or setup for a story to come. You may find it more engaging than I did, but despite the grand production values, I found myself frustrated far too often to settle into the tale and become a fan.

The Aftermath

[3 stars]

Most war stories focus on the lead up to conflict or the battles themselves. Very few look at what comes immediately after and how it affects people. Mind you, the “aftermath” in this film is a layered statement rather than simply the months after VE day in bombed-out Hamburg.

The story revolves around three survivors of the conflict, each damaged in different, but overlapping, ways. Keira Knightley (Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Alexander Skarsgård (Little Drummer Girl), and Jason Clarke (Serenity) keep the story taut and interesting, even when the events are a little forced at times and obvious at others. Both issues are more due to the adaptation rather than the acting. In compressing the story to fit into a movie, some important moments of change are rushed.

Director James Kent (Inside Men) keeps the story moving and helps the main cast navigate their paths. He also recreated the era and Hamburg with incredible and effective detail. From the opening moments he gives you a sense of the era, the horror, and the desperation. Most of the side characters, however, are a little cliche; there for convenience but without a lot of flesh. Martin Compston (Line of Duty), in particular, is hurt by this, though his screen-wife, Kate Phillips (The Little Stranger), manages to provide depth within the limited script she’s provided.

Even with the few weaknesses in execution, there is enough in the main performances and story to make this worth your time. Watching them attempt to heal their wounds is an affecting and honest tale.

The Souvenir

[2.5 stars]

I so wanted to like this more. I kept trying. There is sense of something buried deeply in its recursive, meta, Sophomoric view of life. Unfortunately, I never quite found it…and the final denouement “Part 2 coming soon” after the credits made me shrink in horror rather than anticipation.

Despite that reaction, I was drawn through the story, though I think that was mostly on a misinformed idea that there would be a pay off. That said, it has Tilda Swinton (Suspiria) in, literally, a matronly role to her real-life and screen daughter Honor Swinton Byrne. The two work well together but Byrne’s character life is hampered by the telling of the story. We don’t really see her changes, we must mostly infer them. But we also never really understand her attraction to Tom Burke (Strike), who does a likewise solid job with what he has to work with. While we don’t have to agree with a character’s choice, we do have to understand it.

Writer/director Joanna Hogg  certainly has a track record, as does this movie, with awards or nominations for every one of her feature projects. But I don’t understand the enthusiasm around this offering. It may have been created with skill, but that didn’t translate into a good movie. At least it didn’t for me.

Medicine for Melancholy

[3 stars]

How do (or did) you navigate the morning after a one night stand? And what happened next? In this first feature by Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk), we get to follow Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins for the day that follows their hook-up. We slowly get to know them as they learn about each other. The performances are nicely understated and unsure as they slowly reveal who they are and what they’re looking for.

Within the often forced dialog and awkward moments, you can see the roots of Jenkins’ films to follow. It is most evident in his focus on character and the sometimes painful discussions of inner beliefs we all experience with those we expose ourselves to. You can also see him reaching to find his voice, even as he plays with imitating influences like Spike Lee. If it weren’t for Jenkins’ subsequent films, this would simply be a notable, but not particularly great, indie. But as part of his opus, it is a curio worth checking out if you want to see his roots as a filmmaker or some of the early work of the story’s stars.