Archive for the Romance Category

The High Note

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music, Romance with tags on June 10, 2020 by Mark Hobin

high_note_ver2STARS3At first, the focus of this fetaure appears to be Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross), an R&B/pop music superstar along the lines of Beyoncé or Rihanna.  However, Grace Davis is older than those artists.  To its credit, the screenplay makes a feeble attempt to address the concerns of an aging woman in the music industry.   Unfortunately,  it merely pays lip service to those feelings without tackling them in any meaningful way.  Manager Jack Robertson (Ice Cube) assumes that her hit-making days have passed.  He advises Grace to accept a Las Vegas residency.  He’s not wrong.    I’ve always regarded a residency as an impressive honor.  In the last decade beloved performers such as Celine Dion, Elton John, and Britney Spears have solidified their ongoing appeal in this way while reaping millions of dollars in the process without having to tour.  Curiously the drama regards the very consideration as an embarrassing desire — an acknowledgment of being irrelevant.  Call me crazy, but the idea is not hitting rock bottom folks.  Far from it.  This is in fact an account detailing the enviable choice between two very attractive options.   There are literally no stakes here and therefore the plot is inconsequential at best.

The narrative slowly morphs, however, into a tale centered around a completely different person.  Grace is indeed a big personality.  She is a demanding individual with a huge talent and the sizable ego that comes along with it.  But she also has Maggie, a personal assistant (Dakota Johnson) who is a dedicated and overworked soul.  Maggie’s job description apparently requires her to do trivial things like break in Grace’s new pair of shoes.  Maggie’s dream is to be a record producer.  Much to my surprise, it is really her ambitions that ultimately become the main focus of the film.

Figuring out the point of view of The High Note is rather confusing.   You’d think supporting the achievements of an aging woman in show business would be something we should admire.   Yet Grace Davis is presented as a wholly self-centered creature.  She carelessly dismisses a request from a fellow accomplished and well-known musician (Eddie Izzard) because he doesn’t have as many Grammys as she does.  In other scenes, Grace is hellbent on suppressing her own creativity.   It has been years since the artist put out new material.  Assistant Maggie encourages her boss to release a new album because she believes in her talent.   Nonetheless, Grace doesn’t agree.  She counteracts with a declaration highlighted in the trailer:  “In the history of music, only five women over 40 have ever had a No. 1 hit and only one of them was black.”  [Fact-check: Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler, Cher, Madonna, Sia and Mariah Carey have all had #1’s over the age of 40.]  Maggie is trying to support the creative expression of this celebrity, while the woman herself argues against the idea.  Maggie has taken the time to learn everything she can about her employer.   She is uplifted as an intrinsically kind-hearted human.   I’ll admit these admirable qualities may be a requirement of Maggie’s job but Grace can’t even be bothered to learn Maggie’s last name.  Ouch!

The High Note is a glossy pop distraction directed by Nisha Ganatra (Late Night) and written by first-time screenwriter Flora Greeson.  This superficial fable won’t any awards for originality.  However, it’s well-acted by the entire cast.  It exists as lighthearted entertainment that is easily consumed as comfort food to make you feel good while sheltering at home during dark times.  Let’s not ignore the fact that this music superstar is depicted by the daughter of one of the most iconic personalities that ever lived: Diana Ross.  Tracee Ellis Ross brings knowledge and depth to a role that few others could.  There are two additional standouts: Dakota Johnson is engaging as the assistant.  I continue to be impressed by her.  Check out The Peanut Butter Falcon if you need further proof.  There’s also Kelvin Harrison Jr. who plays David, an aspiring singer who becomes Maggie’s love interest.  The actor was also in Waves last year and he’s definitely a rising star.   See the movie for them.  If you want to watch something new and you need it now. The High Note will suffice.

05-30-20

The Photograph

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on May 20, 2020 by Mark Hobin

photographSTARS2.5The Photograph is living proof that a compelling story matters.  Gorgeous cinematography, a soothing jazz score (by Robert Glasper), and a pair of charismatic stars are indeed appreciated.  Yet, all of those lovely ingredients ultimately come up short.  The screenplay is the most important component of a movie.   A drab tale can tank a film no matter how many sophisticated and artistic elements are employed.  This production has the look of quality.  I’ll admit that director Stella Meghie (Everything, Everything) is a talented individual.  She is nothing if not prolific.  The Photograph is her fourth feature since 2016.  There is so much to admire here.   Nonetheless, the script that director Meghie also wrote for this drama isn’t one of them.   It’s stridently humdrum although it’s not distasteful at least.   For some, that will be enough to recommend this lifeless flick.   I — however — am not one of those people.   30 minutes in and I was already checking my watch.

Michael (Lakeith Stanfield), a reporter from New York City is captivated by a portrait of a beautiful woman he inadvertently discovers named Christina (Chanté Adams). His investigation uncovers the mother has a daughter Mae (Issa Rae). She happens to work as a curator at the Queens Museum.  His intern Andy (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) sets up an interview.  Michael and Mae meet and they chat about a variety of topics including rap. He likes Kendrick Lamar.  She prefers Drake. Nevertheless, sparks fly between the potential couple.

The Photograph is a romance built upon a foundation of wistful stares and longing looks.  This is a decidedly light and gauzy affaoir.  Thankfully the leads have chemistry.  That’s significant because the plot is a complete snooze.  Director Stella Meghie employs a non-stop playlist of R&B classics to underscore every scene.  I love listening to legends like Chaka Khan, Al Green, Anita Baker, and Whitney Houston as much as the next person.  Honestly, I probably cherish those artists more because (statistically speaking) I’m likely older than most of the readers of this column.  I’m OK with that because with age comes wisdom.  The music undoubtedly serves to enlighten the mood but a greatest hits of Quiet Storm ballads can only go so far.  The stakes here are pretty low.  Meanwhile, there’s precious little passion to engage our emotions.  It’s hard to give a care about whether two fashionable professionals with fabulous wardrobes and impeccable smiles get together or not.  Sorry, but I prefer more substantial pursuits.

05-14-20

Little Women

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on January 3, 2020 by Mark Hobin

little_women_ver10STARS3.5Little Women has been adapted to film 7 times.  That includes two silent entries.  Then there’s the myriad of productions for television.  The Houston Grand Opera even commissioned a piece in 1998. Needless to say, it’s been a beloved tale since Louisa May Alcott published her novel in 1868 and then 1869 in two volumes.  At this point, her work been covered so many times that you assume they’d have to include some new twist to make it fresh for a modern audience.  In the newest (and surely not the last) version, Greta Gerwig does indeed make several directorial choices to modify this timeworn saga.

The 2019 account of Little Women is self-referential.  In the beginning, writer Jo March is seen submitting a manuscript to a publisher (Tracy Letts).  That text is the very movie that we are watching right now.  Little Women is seen as a work of semi-autobiographical fiction so the line between main character Jo and real-life author Louise May Alcott has always been kind of blurry.  I guess the mere choice to go meta with the story is not exceptionally radical.  However, it also adds an ongoing conversation between the publisher and author as a commentary on the developments.  There’s a memorable discussion about the ending that introduces ambiguity from a contemporary perspective.

Gerwig assumes you’re familiar with the chronicle and begins 7 years later and then cuts back and forth between parallel timelines.  One is of the young girls living at home with the family and the other is of them all grown up and pursuing different paths in life.  It’s basically Jo’s memoir and actress Saoirse Ronan is a charismatic presence but the other sisters get significant consideration too.  In particular, Florence Pugh as Amy has an illuminating arc.  I found the nuance to her bratty temperament rather fascinating as her personality develops over time.  Meg (Emma Watson) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) get somewhat less attention, but I found all of their interactions to be compelling as well.  All the girls come across as interesting individuals.  The rest of the cast is dependable.  I would be remiss if I didn’t cite Laura Dern as matriarch Marmee March and the legendary Meryl Streep in a minor role as their aunt.  It’s a quibble but I was less enamored with Timothée Chalamet’s performance as Laurie.  The actor is usually captivating but he’s kind of bland here.

Ok, so I’ve been keeping a secret.  Truth be told, I’ve never read the book nor seen any of the movies so I walked into this one completely fresh.  Forgive my lack of familiarity in this area, but naïveté can be a positive.  I am not beholden to the source in the way an adherent may be.  Yet I admit it could also be a drawback.   This gets confusing.   I found the shifting timelines weakened the clarity of a simple narrative.  The chronological flip-flops occur frequently and without warning.  You just have to sort of gather it from the manner of people’s dress and how they’re acting and the subtle color palette changes of the cinematography.  I didn’t appreciate these stylistic choices as a first-time initiation to the material.  Although I can see where it may enhance one’s understanding if you’re already acquainted with the text.  Other than the nonlinear structure, it is a respectful adaptation.  This could have been a staid period piece but the traditional dialogue flows effortlessly from their lips with the natural cadence of modern conversation.  It’s quite lively.   That ultimately elevates this as a distinguished interpretation.  Furthermore, the presentation looks and sounds amazing (costumes, production design, score).  As I mentioned before, the performances are a commendable achievement.   There’s a lot to recommend.   I was entertained but ultimately I wasn’t WOWed.

12-27-19

Waves

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on December 31, 2019 by Mark Hobin

wavesSTARS4Waves is a drama that gradually becomes an epic.  It concerns a typical suburban family as they navigate that roadmap of emotional complexities that we call life.  The chronicle begins rather deceptively as a simple melodrama.  Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a popular high school senior. He’s a smart kid and a star athlete with a bright future.  Depending on your age, he could be your best friend or perhaps your son.  But things aren’t always what they seem.  As we are introduced to the characters that populate Tyler‘s reality, there is an inherent sense of foreboding.  He’s constantly pushed to be better by his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown).  His stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is less domineering and more compassionate.  His younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) is also a calming presence.  He spends time with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie).  Things appear stable but soon that will change.  Tyler begins to suffer some setbacks.  The way he deals with misfortune will have a profound effect.

Director Trey Edward Shults masterfully illuminates how the choices we make can affect what happens to us for the rest of our lives.  That would be enough.  What augments the film into something more is the about-face that he takes in the middle of the story where a major event completely shifts the spotlight from one character to another.  A dreadful act appears to signify an end but in fact, the narrative is taking on a new beginning.  It is that transfer of focus where the movie becomes something much greater.  We now see the scope of action from a different angle – how the decisions of one can alter the lives of another.  The intensity of the portrait is magnified by the stunning cinematography by Drew Daniels and an abstract score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  Both intensify an elegiac mood.

Waves is an ambitious tale.  Yet director Trey Edward Shults makes it seem effortless.  That elevates his achievement into something even more affecting.  The human experience is multilayered and deep.  A split-second decision can affect the rest of our existence.   Here, an impulsive choice made in the heat of the moment is the impetus for a demoralizing change.  A life filled with joy can transform into one filled with unendurable pain.  Shults’ camera is like a voyeur lingering on the interactions of a family in places where we should not be.  His unflinching gaze presents a snapshot that is both heartbreakingly beautiful and extremely ugly.   The depiction will inspire an individual to reflect on their own behavior.  We may consider ourselves good people at heart.  Yet we can behave in unforgivably grotesque ways.  Director Schultz beautifully realized account details that idea in the extreme but in doing so he brilliantly ruminates over the idea of what it means to be human.

12-05-19

Marriage Story

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on December 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

marriage_story_ver3STARS4At first glance, it would appear that Marriage Story is a paean to love given that title.  It begins eloquently, with a wife’s declaration about all the things she loves about her husband.  He too expresses lovely thoughts about her and we hear both of them as voiceover monologues in the respective voice of each writer.  However, this is a narrative from the mind of filmmaker Noah Baumbach who brought us acidic works like The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding.  It turns out those letters were written under the direction of a therapist.  The two are having a counseling session.  In fact, this account is a tale about a couple getting a divorce.

Marriage Story is a fully realized take on a disintegrating relationship.  Noah Baumbach knows a thing or two about this subject because it’s a fictionalized version of his very real split in 2013 from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.   Since then he has indeed tempered his caustic takes on relationships with warmth (Frances Ha, While We’re Young).  The chronicle evades the upbeat tone of those recent efforts, but it’s in the carefully presented details where he captivates the viewer.  Noah Baumbach’s screenplay acknowledges that separation is painful but the depiction is extracted from a place of affection and understanding.  It’s both intimate and unique which makes this feature refreshingly realistic.

Anyone will tell you that a lifelong union is about compromise. Divorce is about the inability to concede.  A lot of this couple’s disagreements focus on where the family will ultimately live.  Adam Driver’s Charlie is a New York guy.  He’s in the theater and writes plays.  Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole has a TV pilot that’s taking off and so she prefers LA.  They also have an eight-year-old son together.  Obviously, young Henry (Azhy Robertson) can’t live in both places at the same time so this is where their problem lays.

Marriage Story is a fascinating saga where very little happens, but so much is said.  This is simply about getting to know two people and why they can no longer stay married.  This is where the movie comes alive.  The talk is the action.  The dialogue is elegant, witty, sharp, funny, and quick.  Their problems really don’t seem all that bad in the beginning.  I mean, nothing so unsolvable that several good discussions might fix.  But as things develop we get a nuanced snapshot of how their relationship has deteriorated past the point of no return.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the decision to involve outside counsel.  They initially agree to amicably separate without the use of lawyers.  Then Nicole hires one (Laura Dern) and things deteriorate steadily from there.

Marriage Story is highlighted by a whole ensemble of compelling performances.  It goes without saying that the power of this film rests on the authenticity of acting from main stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.  The skill of thespian achievement doesn’t end with them.   I could write a whole paragraph about Laura Dern.  The greatest lawyers must savagely but intelligently manipulate laws.  As attorney Nora Fanshaw, Dern is absolutely brilliant at conveying understanding toward her client and utter contempt for her opponent.  She’s beautifully nasty.  Alan Alda and Ray Liotta also play advocates for Charlie’s side at different points.  One is sensitive (but ineffective) at his profession.  The other is a pit bull.  You can figure out who plays which.

So who is to blame?  The depiction is sure to incite a debate.  Given this is a personal tale from Noah Baumbach, you’d expect a more sympathetic viewpoint for the man.  Yet I found it to be an even-handed presentation of the two sides.  For example, it doesn’t sidestep the ugly fact that Charlie actually cheated on Nicole even though their breakup isn’t due to his immoral act.  At one point, Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) asserts, “Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best; divorce lawyers see good people at their worst.”  Noah Baumbach may not have originated that cogent declaration, but he perfectly utilizes it in his crackerjack screenplay.  It’s in the little details where the movie soars.  Charlie and Nicole both have their redeeming features and failings.  Why Charlie’s at fault vs. why Nicole is to be condemned is an interesting conversation.  I could go on and on giving precise details as to why for each,  but that’s why you need to see this film.  Marriage Story is a heartbreakingly effective portrait of how love fades where it once blossomed.

12-06-19

Yesterday

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Music, Romance with tags on June 29, 2019 by Mark Hobin

yesterdaySTARS2.5What if the music of the Beatles never existed?  That intriguing suggestion is the foundation for the latest offering from Danny Boyle, the visionary director behind Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire and a lot of other excellent films.  Unfortunately, this isn’t one of them.  The high concept idea is set in motion when singer/songwriter Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) is hit by a bus.  At that very same moment, an electrical storm causes a blackout across the entire world.  After he awakes in his hospital bed, minus a few teeth, he gradually comes to realize that while he still remembers the Beatles and their songs, nobody else does.

It’s an interesting premise and there are so many ways in which this proposition could have been manipulated for laughs, drama, and enjoyment.  The problem is the narrative doesn’t investigate any of them.  Danny Boyle’s films are so different from one another.  That’s where this really has the stamp of Richard Curtis.  The rom-com legend wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually.  Working from a story by Jack Barth, the script explores its hypothesis, but without depth or interest.  After passing off the compositions as his own, Jack quickly becomes a huge success with hardly any trouble at all.  The account never contemplates the considerable charisma that John, Paul, George, and Ringo had together.  It also doesn’t acknowledge their performing ability, superior arrangements or production methods.  It simply assumes the tunes are inherently great and anyone with the ability to sing and play guitar could become just as big a star as the Beatles.  A more trenchant observation would have been if Jack didn’t become popular at all.  Perhaps it could have examined the fickle nature of fame or even the importance of being at the right place at the right time.

Jack sings “In My Life” on TV and catches the attention of eternally scruffy looking singer Ed Sheeran who shows up in an extended cameo that is woeful at best.  When Ed’s phone rings, “Shape of You” is his ringtone.  He grew rather tiresome.  I presume the feeling was intentional for comedic effect.  Ed is very impressed by Jacks talent.  “You’re Mozart, man,” Sheeran compliments him “and I’m definitely Salieri.”  Methinks someone is still overestimating their influence.  The line did make me laugh but probably not for the right reasons.  Crossing over the boundary of irritation and then obliterating it, is Saturday Night Live comedian Kate McKinnon who plays Sheeran’s manager.  She also takes on Jack as her client.  Her caustic personality is mined for laughs.  She brazenly asserts the belief that she’s only in it for the money with every declaration that spews from her hateful mouth.  Any musician with even a modicum of self-respect would fire this abrasive leech within 30 minutes.  Yet she endures.  McKinnon wears out her welcome real fast.

This fable explores its concept with all the wisdom of a 20 minute short — not a 2-hour feature.  I found myself fantasizing about more compelling developments in my head.  There is precious little depth.  In time Jack learns that other random bits of information have been erased from the history books as well.  Coca-Cola and cigarettes don’t exist either.  Cigarettes have had a profound effect on human life or rather the lack of it.  You’d think such a realization would generate more than a shrug but that’s the only reaction the screenplay allows.  I was literally squirming in my seat for this half baked story to finish.  This rom-com has absolutely nothing to offer but rote plot developments.  Jack has been best friends forever with Ellie (Lily James).   They’re extremely close, so it’s not clear why they aren’t a couple other than for the inevitable to happen later in the climax.  By the time one formally proclaims their love for the other, it occurs more than 90 minutes after you predicted it would happen.  At least the movie begins well.  Then it stumbles toward a generic conclusion.  The nicest thing I can say about Yesterday is that it’s an inoffensive romantic comedy with some great music.  The lead Himesh Patel (BBC soap opera EastEnders) is an appealing presence and he ably plays the guitar while singing the songs of the Beatles.  “Now I need a place to hide away.  Oh, I (don’t) believe in yesterday…”

06-27-19

Alita: Battle Angel

Posted in Action, Adventure, Romance, Science Fiction with tags on February 17, 2019 by Mark Hobin

alita_battle_angel_ver2STARS3.5Alita: Battle Angel is an immersive sci-fi fantasy that plunges the viewer into an imaginary world.  I really enjoyed this production, but no amount of complicated exposition can disguise the fact that it’s essentially a cyberpunk update of 1975’s Rollerball.  It certainly doesn’t start out that way.  It’s the future (naturally) – 2563 to be exact and a cyberphysician (Christoph Waltz) who repairs people with android parts discovers the discarded remains of a female robot in a junkyard.  He takes the head, which houses a still active brain, back to his laboratory and rebuilds her.  He names her Alita, after his deceased daughter.  She is of youthful age and this only cements the fatherly attachment he forms to her well being.

Alita: Battle Angel is based on Yukito Kishiro’s manga series Gunnm. The titular cyborg is portrayed by Rosa Salazar.  The actress is in her thirties but she is made to look like a teenager here.  Her appearance is actually a mix of CGI and human performance.  With her somewhat vacant uncharacteristically wide eyes, she resembles a Margaret Keane painting.  She’s got a spark to her personality though.  Her burgeoning attraction to Hugo (Keean Johnson) is more captivating than what you’d expect out of the obligatory love interest role he fulfills.   Hugo also functions as her introduction to this gladiator-style game called Motorball which is a mishmash of football, basketball, and roller derby.  Turns out Alita has quite the talent for the game.

This is fundamentally a martial arts/sci-fi B-movie but it’s given vibrant life with an A-list cast.  Christoph Waltz is the fatherly Geppetto, er uh I mean Dr. Dyson Ido, a cybernetics mastermind.  The seemingly ageless Jennifer Connelly is his ex-wife Chiren, who now works for a nefarious businessman named Vector played by Mahershala Ali.  Fashion-wise he makes a very strong case for a Blade reboot.  Vector hires malevolent cyborgs for the Motorball matches in an attempt to kill Alita for reasons I didn’t completely understand.  His identity is somewhat ill-defined.  He’s definitely a villain and that’s apparently what they do in a dystopian society.  CGI is liberally used to re-imagine scenery and in many cases, the actors as well.  Many figures in the movie are a mix of both organic and fabricated elements.  Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Jeff Fahey, Edward Norton, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jai Courtney all appear.  Some more recognizably human than others.

The screenplay by James Cameron (Avatar) and Laeta Kalogridis (Shutter Island) is fairly standard issue.  When good people do bad things – that’s the level of innovation.  A few characters have this moment.  At times, the narrative morphs in needlessly convoluted ways that are uninteresting.  The crux of the plot is about playing a futuristic sport.  The lively action consistently returns to Motorball time and again, even ending at the arena.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  There’s artistic value in simplicity.  Alita manages to recall both Frankenstein and Pinocchio by way of creating life from a once lifeless body.  This is a story for children.  Director Robert Rodriguez was responsible for Spy Kids and this should charm the same audience.  However, the writers still felt the need to throw in one, and only one, prominent use of the F-word.  The visuals are fun as you’d expect when James Cameron is the producer.  The classic battle of good vs. evil is presented under a pretty veneer of special effects and charismatic actors.   There’s a pure joy here and with a little judicious editing, this could’ve been quite spectacular.  As it stands, it’s fitfully entertaining.

02-14-19

Cold War

Posted in Drama, Music, Romance with tags on January 30, 2019 by Mark Hobin

zimna_wojna_ver2STARS2.5Cold War is a clever title.  Yes, it clearly refers to a time period.  Pawel Pawlikowski’s love story begins in Poland in the aftermath of World War II.  However, it could also refer to the chilly relationship at its center.  Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) are musicians.  They meet in 1949.  Musical director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a pianist holding auditions for a traditional folk song and dance troupe.  Music plays an important part in the lives of these entertainers and it often underscores the striking visuals.  Zula isn’t the best singer, but Wiktor is infatuated by the sultry blonde.  He hires her.  The impropriety of an older teacher lusting after his young student is a bit unsettling at first.  Those feelings are somewhat assuaged later when we learn that Zula isn’t the innocent that she appears to be either.  She’s not to be toyed with. There’s a rumor that she killed her father.

This isn’t a sentimentalized portrait but rather a tempestuous affair highlighted by bitter disagreements.  Neither character is what they seem.  As their connection deepens, their show becomes a hit and the state appropriates their production for propagandistic purposes with massive posters of Stalin behind them.  Unhappy with the turn of events, Wiktor and Zula make a pact to flee and reunite in West Berlin.  Then she inexplicably stands him up.  They will meet again but it’s years later.  Incredibly over an efficient 85 minutes, the picture chronicles 15 years of a relationship that traverses across Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia, and Paris.

This tale of star crossed lovers without children is fictionalized but director Pawel Pawlikowski’s based the pair on his own late parents.  His work has received many accolades.  His last feature, Ida, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015.  So too has Cold War garnered Oscar nominations in 2019 — 3 to be exact: Foreign Language Film, Directing, and Cinematography.   In an interesting coincidence, it will compete against Alfonso Cuarón’s even more heavily nominated Roma, another black and white movie inspired by the director’s own life.

Cold War is indeed highlighted by stunning black and white camera work by Lukasz Zal. Curiously the format of the presentation is in a boxy 4:3 ratio.  I must assume that widescreen would have only enhanced the visuals.  Perhaps this decision was to recall the past and mimic the way Hollywood movies looked before 1953.  Despite the truncated image, it still looks enchanting.  Yet the rapport between these two enigmatic people is not.  Indeed this just might be the bleakest romance ever given a luminous facade by way of gorgeous black and white photography.  This is the profile of a stormy love.  The justification for the desire that keeps them returning to each other is wholly unexplained.  To make matters more bewildering, the motivations for certain behaviors is frustratingly vague.  For example, please witness a dreamy moment where the couple is lying together in a sunny meadow showing sweetness. Now during that very same scene, Zula suddenly admits to an act of betrayal.  Here and elsewhere, I felt nothing but apathy for these two.   Yes, the cinematography is absolutely captivating.  The on-again, off-again love story at the heart of the drama?  Eh not so much.

1-24-19

If Beale Street Could Talk

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on January 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

if_beale_street_could_talk_ver2STARS3Writer James Baldwin’s 1974 novel is lovingly adapted into a beautifully filmed love story about a Harlem couple in the 1970s.  The last feature director Barry Jenkins made won the Oscar for Best Picture so expectations are understandably high.  If Beale Street Could Talk is about Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne), newly engaged to her boyfriend Alonzo Hunt (Stephan James), better known as Fonny.  We are presented with scenes that show they grew up together.  They have known each other since childhood.  This is fashioned as a romance for the ages.  However, conflict has entered the sanctity of their lives which threatens to upend everything they hold dear.  Fonny has been falsely identified for a crime he didn’t commit.  We see Tish visit Fonny in jail to deliver some major news.  She is pregnant. Cinematographer James Laxton lingers on faces like they’re masterpieces carved in marble.   These images cast a spell that gently invites the viewer to reflect on the disparity between the beauty of their relationship and the ugliness of what has befallen them.  Barry Jenkins screenplay is a somber contemplation of a love fret with hardship.  There are many elegantly composed scenes that convey a feeling in the absence of dialogue.  Indeed the deliberate pace comes at the expense of action.

There is an early moment in Beale Street that tempts the viewer with what might develop into an electrifying ensemble piece.  Tish must break the news of her pregnancy to her parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo) and her sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris).  They are shocked but supportive.  Now how to tell Fonny’s family? There’s his religiously sanctimonious mother (Aunjanue Ellis), more easygoing father (Michael Beach), and judgmental sisters (Ebony Obsidian and Dominique Thorne).  Sharon invites them over to their home for drinks.  Then the verbal fireworks start.  It’s a memorable scene.  Occasional flashbacks throughout show us how Tish and Fonny’s life was before he was arrested, then contrast it with their lives in the present.  Yet nothing matches the sheer drama of the earlier showdown.

If Beale Street Could Talk is compelling in fits and starts.  I call those moments Regina King.  The actress has been picking up awards left and right for her work.  She’s extraordinary.  Sharon’s drive to prove her son-in-law’s innocence ultimately necessitates a trip to Puerto Rico.  It’s the portrait of a mother who only wants justice and truth.  The halcyon days of Tish and Fonny’s romance are idealized with gauzy cinematography highlighting two pretty young people.  Fonny is a sculptor and he works amidst cigarette smoke swirling around a piece he’s creating with a saxophone wailing in the background.  They gaze longingly at each other and the dreamy display is not unlike the sculpture he’s creating — a precious objet d’art to study and appreciate from afar.  A grave injustice underlies their lives and yet there’s no there there.  The action, or lack of it, concerns what appear to be in the details.  How can the reflective inertia of the rest of the film compete with mother Sharon’s emotional fire?  Every time actress King is on screen I was riveted and every time she garners accolades for her achievement, I get it.  I simply wish there was more of her.

12-13-18

A Star Is Born

Posted in Drama, Music, Romance with tags on October 8, 2018 by Mark Hobin

star_is_bornSTARS4It’s been 42 years since the last adaptation of A Star is Born.  I suppose we were about due.  The original script by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell has proven to have a quality that transcends time as the narrative evolves to suit the tastes of the current generation.  The core remains the same.  It’s rags-to-riches!  It’s got romance! It’s got tragedy!  Yes, it’s full of showbiz clichés.  That’s because good stories never go out of style, especially one with a charismatic female lead as its central focus. The 30s had Janet Gaynor as an aspiring actress who surpassed a fading movie actor depicted by Fredric March.  The 50s transomed the property into a musical as Judy Garland was the ingenue taken under the wing of a former matinée idol played by James Mason.  The 70s version had Barbra Streisand as a nightclub singer plucked out of obscurity by a rock star played Kris Kristofferson.  Bradley Cooper’s adaptation adheres most closely to this one.  The actor directs, writes, produces and acts. Anyone tabulating the years will notice the 90s should have gotten their own rendition.  Flash forward to the present and we have Lady Gaga as Ally, a woman who waits tables by day and croons “La Vie en Rose” by night in a drag bar.  Bradley Cooper portrays the established artist, Jackson Maine, a country music superstar that performs to sold-out arenas.  Jackson stumbles upon Ally’s show while searching for a bar to drink booze.

Lady Gaga can act.  She happens to already have a Golden Globe for TV’s American Horror Story, so perhaps not a shock.  Some might contend that she’s essentially playing what she knows – a singer.  However, Ally the unknown cabaret performer unsure of herself is decidedly different than Lady Gaga the confident multi-platinum selling celebrity.  The pop star-turned-actress naturally captures that mix of fear and elation a novice has in front of a crowd.  There’s a moment where she crystallizes this feeling so perfectly, that I was overcome by the experience  It occurs early on about a third of the way in when Jackson Maine is giving a huge arena concert for his fans.  He flies Ally out to the gig.  She is brought backstage ostensibly to watch the show.  He finishes his tune, then addresses the audience.  He strides over side stage up to Ally and asks her to duet her own song with him.  The look of shock on her face is so genuine, we feel her terror as well.  She declines.  “I’m going to sing your song with or without you,” he asserts and then proceeds to do just that.  As he begins, she’s left standing there obviously conflicted, an anxiety of emotions bubbling up until she’s inspired to take the stage.  It’s a masterful scene.  I got goosebumps.

Lady Gaga’s outstanding achievement is somewhat expected.  Bradley Cooper is even more surprising.  As the fading arena rock musician, he affects this comfortably lived in existence.  His voice, a deep, gravelly mummer exists all in the lower register.  He instantly recalls grizzled actors like Kris Kristofferson (star of the 1976 version) and Sam Elliott, who actually plays his older brother Bobby in this.  Perhaps it’s a bit of an in-joke when Bobby, who is also his manager, criticizes Jackson the artist for stealing his “voice”. Cooper’s world-weary exterior is a physical transformation as well.  His complexion is weathered with a ruddy texture.  His skin blighted both by the sun and years of drugs and drinking.  Bradley Cooper isn’t afraid to look messy.

A Star is Born delights with the highs and lows of a melodrama that is a nothing less than solid entertainment.  The tale of these two people is a bewitching saga that allows the two actors to exhibit considerable chemistry as their connection develops over their love of music.  Their relationship is collaborative and fosters a more supportive connection than in previous iterations.  The first half is endlessly compelling.  The second is a bit less so.  Yet there are subtleties to the drama that make this interpretation of the classic chestnut something to discuss.

The narrative arc succumbs to the standard story beats that would be clichés to anyone who has ever caught an episode of Behind the Music on VH1.  As Ally’s popularity rises, Jackson’s declines.  The reason for the awkward growing tension between the two is a fascinating mix of factors.  Certainly drugs and alcohol derail Jackson’s career but his growing dissatisfaction is more complex.  Success changes Ally’s musical style.  Her appearance on Saturday Night Live performing “Why Did You Do That?” is presented as a pop-oriented betrayal of her authentic self, complete with outré makeup and hair.  I found the critique ironic since Lady Gaga the artist has never been one to tone it down. Jackson’s growing frustration with her success is certainly a reaction to this persona but there’s some jealousy in there too.  Jackson is torn because he’s losing the woman he knew to her growing fame, but he also doesn’t want to stand in the way of her success.  A slick manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) hammers this point even further.  There’s a lot to consider and the screenplay does a nice job at handling the many facets of a challenging relationship.

This is quite simply a love story.  It turns out the utter simplicity of A Star is Born is perhaps its greatest strength.  Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper have a chemistry together that is so palpable it carries the film.  Throughout it all, Lady Gaga sings.  Even Bradley Cooper manages to effectively deliver a few tunes (the Jason Isbell penned “Maybe It’s Time” is quite good).  Lady Gaga further solidifies her talent as an electrifying performer. She has a voice.  The soundtrack is full of memorable songs that highlight a captivating tale.  “Shallow” is the first single.  It’s wonderful, but there’s a handful of numbers that really catch the ear.  “Always Remember Us This Way”, “Is That Alright”, and the finale “I’ll Never Love Again” really stand out amongst a solid collection.  In the movie’s weaker 2nd half, the music is what keeps us enrapt.  Still, following the ups and downs of the melodrama is solidly entertaining.  Melodrama isn’t a bad word.  It simply appeals to the emotions while relying on tried and true plot developments.  A Star is Born does it well. The production manages to capture our heart while dazzling the ear.