Tag Archives: Romance

Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation

[3 stars]

You don’t check into the Hotel Transylvania expecting depth or subtlety, even though it was directing and co-written by Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack). You check in for silly fun, like its previous installments.

There isn’t any voice talent really worth calling out other than Chris Parnell (Life of the Party), whose silly fish was nicely surprising and dry. The rest are either reprising their roles from the past movies or are standard cartoon. Even the new additions of Jim Gaffigan and Kathryn Hahn (Flower), while effective, weren’t great performances.

There some good aspects to this cinematic distraction. Primarily, it is some silly distraction and humor for the summer and kids. The message is solid and well placed for its young audience (and even a good reminder for adults these days). Oddly, the best joke of the entire film is a throw-away chupacabra reference for which the film pauses and then moves on. It doesn’t really come back or mean anything, but it is clearly a gift that Tartakovsky or the producers weren’t willing to give up, even though it added nothing other than a brilliant nod and wink to the audience for those that understood it.

There are some big issues as well. The animation is a bit uneven in design approach. There are very realistic moments followed by oddly flat, cartoonish sequences. Though you can can clearly see Tartakovsky’s sensibility in some of the characters, but it isn’t nearly as inventive overall. Also disappointing was the ending battle, which desperately needed a music expert to pull it off. The idea was a riot, but the presentation was far too clunky to get to the result. A shame, really. It could have been an amazing final sequence.

If you enjoy the series, be assured it hasn’t really diminished over time. It is what it always was and even opens up some new avenues to continue. It isn’t really aimed at adults, though there are some gifts sprinkled in the script throughout. Go to escape the heat or distract your kids, but it isn’t some high form of animation.

Sense8 (Finale)

[4.5 stars]

I originally wasn’t  going to bother writing up this late add-on to Sense8. In fact, I had avoided it fearing a huge let-down. The show was cancelled and this was a nod by Netflix to not totally tick off the fans. Who knew what it would manage to do in a single episode wrap-up?

BUT, I needn’t have worried. This was a fabulous and breathless finale that ran 2.5 hours without a moment’s hesitation or break, and ends with a complete wrap up and sense of release (literally). While I still preferred the first series’ approach to the multi-cultural and multi-language issues, this finale managed to find a balance in language and culture that the second series missed in moving to all English.

If you waited like me, I do recommend rewatching the final episode (You Want a War) in the regular series to retrench you on where things were. The finale picks up directly and carries on from there. Yes, it is a bit rushed and, yes, the final image could be debated, but overall it was an amazing effort. The result compacts a huge vision into a small space in order to explain and complete the story that was intended to stretch over seasons. Honestly, it is the best we could have hoped for given the circumstances, even as we mourn what might have been for the series had it continued.

Sense8 is one of the most audacious and amazing bits of television, let alone science fiction, to ever grace the screen. The Wachowski’s, Straczynski, and Netflix (not to mention Tykwer) all need to be thanked for their bravery and talent in creating it. Someday it will be recognized for the seminal event it is, but for now, for those of us who discovered and can enjoy it, we should celebrate it and its message of hope and love.

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica)

[4 stars]

Like his award-winning Gloria, this award-winning film by Sebastián Lelio focuses tightly on an individual woman’s experience of family and death. He re-teamed with Gonzalo Maza to write the script as well. Daniela Vega, who brought her very real experiences to the set and story as a consultant and who ended up playing the lead role, is powerful in her portrayal.

The story is a simple one and one almost everyone has experienced: The death of a family member and the resulting fallout and personalities that are released. Admittedly, Vega’s character and situation add some wrinkles to everything, and certainly serves to expose a seething sort of bile in a good number of Santiago’s residents, but the situation itself is common. While the story is quiet, it is held so taut in Lelio’s hands as to make emotions sing even while Vega navigates it all with a calm reticence.

Also like Gloria, A Fantastic Woman taps into emotions anyone can understand and mines a deep intensity in its characters with few words and simple gestures. It is a beautiful film and emotionally battering at times. While it doesn’t quite reach the same triumphant moment in its finale as Gloria, it makes its point nonetheless. Just be prepared to look up the opera reference unless you know your music really well or your subtitles are better than mine were (which didn’t translate the obviously important lyrics). If it weren’t for that choice at the very end, which shifts from an emotional core to something a bit more intellectual, this would have been a five star movie. That shift, however important and poignant, took some of the intensity and deflected it for me. It did not in any way ruin the film.

See this one when you get the chance. And keep Lelio on your list of directors to follow. He has an uncanny ability to strip away the surface of a character and present the core in wonderful ways.

The Bridge (Bron/Broen) – Series 4

[5 stars]

The fourth, and last, series of this Swedish/Danish phenomenon goes out in style over eight episodes and with a feeling of completeness. The previous series had left Sofia Helin’s (The Divine Order) Saga in a precarious place; this series picks up a few months later. With her series three partner, Thure Lindhardt (The Borgias), the two assail a wonderfully complex mystery while also tackling their own demons. Helin’s performance continues to evolve and impress while Lindhardt really comes into his own this series.

The Bridge has always done its homework, even if it has pushed the limits of credibility at times. This most recent round is no exception. Through to the end they are getting things right, even when you think they’re getting them wrong. Series 4 will not disappoint anyone who has come to love and appreciate a storyline that has launched several copies and riffs (The Tunnel, The Bridge (US), etc), and helped open the door wide for more mysteries from its corner of the world.

I really give credit to the writers and producers who were willing to leave it on a high note rather than stretch it out until it lost its quality. That takes guts…but it also frees them up to give us new and different shows. Kudos and luck to them!

The Bridge

Flower

[3.5 stars]

Looking for one of the odder, darker, coming-of-age rom-coms? This will probably do you then. Well, it will do something. Flower is a delightfully enjoyable, entertaining, and weirdly bleakly hopeful story. Yeah, it really is all over the place, though some of that reaction may be due to a generation gap; hard to tell from this perspective.

The success of the story is really down (perhaps a poor choice of words) to the ebullient Zoey Deutch (Before I Fall). She continues to enchant and surprise me in her roles. She is scarily natural on film and comfortable playing whatever is necessary for the character without shame or judgement or even triumph; she just “is.” Her characters are also strong but not without levels.

Her unlikely counterpart, Joey Morgan (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), was a great foil and, ultimately, with a bit more to him than was originally obvious. And as their parents, Kathryn Hahn (The Visit) and Tim Heidecker create a backdrop that is a bit extreme, but suited to the occasion.

On the side is Adam Scott (Krampus) in a role unlike any of his others I’ve seen. It is contained and quiet, with an interesting tension underneath.

As his second feature film, Max Winkler directed this well, keeping it light but not without the gravitas it needed. Like a good sauce, it seamlessly thickens as it cooks and holds together well. Winkler also co-wrote the tale, with McAulay and Spicer (Ingrid Goes West). I can’t even imagine the story sessions this trio had coming up with the plot, but they clearly worked well together. [Sidebar: If you were hoping for the Liz Phair song that shares the titles name you’ll be disappointed; but I’m still convinced it was part impetus for this movie.]

Flower is not your traditional film, and may not be for everyone, but it is one worth seeing for its surprise and craft in front of and behind the camera.

Flower

Soap (En soap)

[3 stars]

As the title and tag promise, this is very much structured as a sort of French new wave soap opera…in Danish.

  • It is low budget.
  • It is episodic, in a sort of forced way.
  • It is full of heightened emotion and strange characters.
  • It has unlikely and crazy antics.
  • It even has a cat fight, of sorts.

But, while done in earnest, it manages to keep its tongue firmly in cheek as well.

More importantly, Soap also manages to delve into the psychology of gender identity versus gender preference, something very few movies or shows have ever really tried to present. Even Transparent mostly missed that train.

David Dencik (The Snowman) gives us a wonderful Veronica as an actor, though he is always just a bit too unshaven to be credible for me. I don’t know if that was a choice or mistake, but it was distracting. Opposite him Trine Dyrholm walks the complex line of woman attempting to understand herself and find happiness. She struggles and fails and flails, but somehow remains sympathetic even as she lashes out at those around her. 

I can’t say this is a great film. It is, however, compelling in its way. And it is funny at times too. Directed by the multiple award-winning  Pernille Fischer Christensen who also co-wrote it with Kim Fupz Aakeson (Perfect Sense), this odd comic-romance feels like a throw-back to the 70s, but somehow keeps its footing here in the present. It isn’t something you need to queue up immediately, but at some point, sure, it is an interesting evening loaded with a lot of recognized talent.

Soap

Kiss & Spell (Yeu Di, Dung So!)

[3 stars]

This Vietnamese rom-com cum horror is an amusing and touching escape for an evening. A remake, or seriously inspired by, the Korean movie Spellbound, it follows a magician and his muse as they both struggle with finding out what actually makes them happy…with a bit of the supernatural thrown in along the lines of My Left Eye Sees Ghosts.

The comedy is broad at times, but it is well-contained and not nearly as over-the-top as you might fear. Even the romantic bits remain very sweet, but never melodramatic. Thanks to the late writer/director Stephane Gauger, it balances rather well and never wanes in energy despite its two hour length. He managed to walk the line of Far East and American comedy nicely, keeping it accessible to both audiences. Even the horror bits, which lean more toward Japanese horror influence, aren’t so much scary as pointed for the tale.

Gauger had a short but impactful career. He came out of the gate strong when he shifted to the director’s chair and gathered a number of awards quickly. He clearly had a career ahead him and it is a damn shame we’ll never see what it could have been. In the meantime, he left us with a range of films worth spending some time with…this one included.

 

The Mountain Between Us

[3 stars]

Two great actors and an indefatigable dog make this a hard movie not to like. Kate Winslet (Wonder Wheel) and Idris Elba (Molly’s Game) make an interesting pair, in acting chops and romantically. The story goes from the mundane to the extreme quickly, though some of the character secrets are held back more by force than logic. Small parts by Beau Bridges (Bloodline) and Dermot Mulroney (Sleepless) help round out the tale…and, of course, the aforementioned dog.

The script is a departure for Chris Weitz (About a Boy, Cinderella, Rogue One) who is more often on the light fantasy side of things. But he was balanced by J. Mills Goodloe (Age of Adaline, Pride) who tends to stick closer to romance and more real-world relationships. But it is director Hany Abu-Assad, whose pension for depicting desire in the midst of adversity, who takes it all over the finish line.

The survival tale is a good one, and relatively credible. But, in reality, this is more a long metaphor for love and relationships…and on that level it gets a little strained, however on the mark it may be. And I get the sense the dog’s story got lost or his import somehow drained out on the cutting room floor. In the final cut, he is entertaining, but superfluous other than as additional color. Both of these aspects lower the final assessment of the movie for me, despite the successful building of the delicate relationship and aftermath of the adventure.

All that said, the scenery is gorgeous. The tension and dangers palpable. And the interplay is well done. The movie is worth your time when you’re in the mood for either a story of survival or of relationships forged from shared experiences and needs. The tight focus on the two main characters for the majority of the film is intense; it is rare you get to see that kind of talent with little distraction around it. But do bring a blanket…watching all that snow and ice really gets to your bones.

The Mountain Between Us

Book Club

[3 stars]

Book Club is exactly what you expect it to be: a semi-sappy, slightly sarcastic look at love later in life for four women. What makes the movie is who those four women are. Each is a solid actor and comedienne. Each brings a slightly different type of outlook, and each manages to make you invest in them.

It is also true that they are each somewhat typecast. Diane Keaton (Love the Coopers) is slightly neurotic, lost, and sweet. Candice Bergen (Boston Legal) is tough but seeking connection even as she denies it. Mary Steenburgen (A Walk in the Woods) is the devoted wife with a bit of romantic wild-side. And Jane Fonda (Youth) is the tough-as-marshmallow-filled-nails successful woman who’s denied herself to avoid pain. All of this is laid out for you in the first few minutes and you know exactly what is to come: the men that will change their lives.

And the male cast makes as much a difference here as the female. Primarily that is Craig T. Nelson (Grace and Frankie), Don Johnson (Django Unchained), and Andy Garcia (Geostorm). But there are a few nice cameos and smaller roles as well. There are no cads in this story, just mismatches. It maintains its light and fluffy sensibility through to the end.

First-time director Bill Holderman re-paired with his A Walk in the Woods producing partner, Erin Simms, to write this diverting bit of trifle. It is effective at what it does, well-paced, and, of course, expertly acted. In fact, it is the smartest thing Holderman and Simms did was in the casting. And, I admit, I had all the right Pavlovian responses to the tale.

That aside, the story, left me vaguely uncomfortable. On a sociological level, we’re looking at 8 white adults of privilege, who have never suffered or wanted, complaining about their lives. But more disturbing was the odd sense of anti-feminism. Yes, the women are strong and, eventually, in control of their lives (sort of). But they are also very clearly incomplete without a man and, in several cases, having their lives dominated by the choices of the men around them…even when they seem to be in control. It isn’t overt, nor it is it even enough to ruin the film, but it was there as a feint odor under the light comic romance that may have been unavoidable given the genre. The central role of 50 Shades of Grey didn’t work for me either. Admittedly, they needed some MacGuffin to get the story rolling, and it was perhaps the right choice, but it was also about a year or two late for social relevance.

So, if you know what you’re looking for and are willing to be swept up in its highly myopic view of the world, it is worth seeing. If you simply love the actors involved, it is worth it for them as well. If you are hoping for something a bit more transformative or with a conscience…you’ll probably be more like me and wonder why the silly and light fantasy that worked while it was running left an odd flavor in your mouth as you left theater. That isn’t so much an indictment as it is a recognition.

Book Club

Solo: A Star Wars Story

[3 stars]

Solo marks the first attempt at a really new direction for Star Wars since the end of the first trilogy. Episodes 1-3 and 7-9 are all echos of of 4-6…a bit by design and a lot by laziness and inability to write good stories. The fact that this story overlaps with the worst of the triple trilogy and dovetails into that morass is a different matter.

There is also a lot of cultural weight pressing down on these characters. Solo and Chewy are two of most recognizable and beloved of the many movies. Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!) had huge shoes to fill…and his feet are almost the right size, but not quite. He doesn’t have the same charisma nor the acting ability to help me see Harrison Ford the way that, say, Josh Brolin did for Tommy Lee Jones in MIB III or the entire cast of Star Trek did for that prequel. Donald Glover (Spider-Man: Homecoming) came a bit closer for Lando, but there was more leeway there, even if the script made him a bit more craven than swashbuckling. Also, all that talk of pan-sexuality for Lando in this incarnation is utter bull.

The real standouts in this story are Emilia Clarke (Me Before You, Game of Thrones), Paul Bettany (Avengers: Infinity War, Transcendance), and the very unexpected scene-stealing showing by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Flea Bag, Goodbye Christopher Robin). The three new characters they brought actually had some depth and interest. OK mostly that was only Clarke. Bettany was interesting, but not very deep…bit more of a cookie-cutter psycho. And Waller-Bridge was quite amusing, but not with a lot of impact, despite the plot attempts to elevate her. Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) was not bad, but again, just didn’t really rise above what you’d expect in this adventure. Jon Favreau’s (Spider-Man: Homecoming) and Thandie Newton’s (Westworld) characters also stood out and had promise, but the story never did anything with them.

The real issue with this film is two fold. First, the script by the father/son Kasdan duo is predictable and without any risk whatsoever. Second, Ron Howard’s (Inferno) directing is just empty. That Howard came late to this project and still managed to save its release is impressive, especially having reshot more than 70% of the film after his arrival. But the film is flat. There are no great highs, though there are fun and funny moments. There are no great surprises, though there are one or two surprising moments. Even the music avoids the emotional touchstone of the series until the very end. I actually think that last bit could have been a good thing since it provides some breathing room for what is set to become a new branch of the canon. But no one was clapping or excited at the end in my theater. I’ve never seen that at a Star Wars film. Even Rogue One, the only other standalone to date, had chatter and at least light applause as the credits rolled.

So here’s what you get for your ticket. Huge effects. Beautiful scenery. Some interesting background. A couple of new characters. Some potentially classically comic moments. Some answers to some questions. Two and a half hours of distraction. Worth it on the big screen? Yes. Good as a movie? Eh. I admit I am not a rabid fan any longer (Episodes 1-3 took care of that), but I was willing to be won back. Apparently I left the theater un-wooed, but not entirely un-entertained. I just wasn’t wow’ed the way I wanted to be or certainly expected after the Avengers summer kickoff.

Solo: A Star Wars Story