Archive for the Romance Category

Call Me by Your Name

Posted in Drama, Romance on December 28, 2017 by Mark Hobin

call_me_by_your_nameSTARS4In T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” the speaker famously ponders, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” The somewhat pretentious but probably erotic musing hasn’t entered my mind since the poem was first foisted on me in high school. I was reminded again of the oft-studied work while watching this film. That image of eating a peach is both literally and figuratively referenced in Call Me by Your Name. Oh and let there be no misunderstanding — in the case here — it is most definitely a sensual undertaking.

Call Me by Your Name is based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman. Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a precocious 17-year-old boy that lives with his parents in Italy. Oliver (Armie Hammer) is a 24-year-old doctoral student that has been invited to come stay with them by Elio’s father, a professor of archaeology.  This happens every year actually.  Professor Perlman invites a different scholar to live with the family for 6 weeks to help out with his academic studies. Elio doesn’t like having to give up his room for the guest every year, but he’s used to it. This saga portrays their burgeoning attraction. Given that description, the locale and the early 1980s time period, one might expect a controversy-filled plot filled with repression, condemnation and/or affliction. Their ages are indeed an undeniably messy matter, much like first love itself.  The screenplay intends this to be a conundrum.  Yet Call Me by Your Name is largely conflict-free. There is unease, however.  The tension is one of emotion, and it depicts a developing friendship that positively aches.

That passion is heightened by an overall milieu of luscious backgrounds.  The setting is a relaxing vacation at a villa in the summer of 1983. A laid-back pastoral village in northern Italy is the exquisite backdrop for a story of first love that unfolds during one memorable summer. Young men and women play volleyball outside in the sun-soaked air.  Families leisurely have their brunch al fresco.  Gentlemen ride bikes along the cobblestone streets past historical buildings to piazzas. “Mystery of Love” by Sufjan Stevens is heard on the soundtrack.  His tranquil folk music creates an idyllic mood like Simon & Garfunkel’s music was used in The Graduate. The pace is languid, the environment is gorgeous.  The entire movie advances like one long uninterrupted fantasy.

What makes the drama so effective is the magnetism of the two leads.  Elio and Oliver aren’t sure how to voice their inclinations. Their intentions are hidden under behavior that belies their true feelings. Elio hangs out with his girlfriend, Marzia (Esther Garrel). Oliver is attracted to a local girl named Chiara (Victoire Du Bois). But when Elio endeavors to act as a matchmaker between the two, Oliver reprimands him for getting involved. Later, Oliver’s chaste attempt at giving Elio a shoulder massage during a volleyball game is instantly rebuffed by the young man. Timothée Chalamet has the juicer part, and he downplays his affection throughout. He gives an extraordinarily authentic performance. Armie Hammer, as the older of the two, is even more enigmatic. He is cool, confident and aloof. They don’t always say what they mean. A conversation between the two implies some possibly suggestive ideas but remains so incredibly oblique, it prompts one of them to ask “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” This and other interactions between them illustrate how one’s demeanor can hide real anxiety when experiencing closeted desire.

This is a surprisingly dignified account. The screenplay written by James Ivory moves the romance at a gradual pace. Things evolve so slowly that some viewers may grow hungry for actual events. The lack of conflict establishes Call Me by Your Name as a rather unique portrait. It is what makes these characters tick that that captivate our interest. Elio is Jewish and notices that Oliver is as well from the Star of David he wears. Elio is remarkably well read and can converse on the same level with Oliver. And yet they are separated by objectives in life that make them dissimilar. They each want different things. It is the inscrutable motivations of the two leads keeps us enrapt. They are charismatic to be sure, but also mysterious and guarded. In the end, we the audience are drawn to the two leads as they too are fascinated by each other. For director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), sensuality has been a common theme.  Call Me By Your Name elegantly details a summer affair. The chronicle uncovers both the joy and pain of first love – that longing for another person. In that way, the narrative transcends sexuality and relies on fascination and unspoken longing. Those feelings are universal and Call Me by Your Name beautifully captures our humanity.

12-21-17

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The Shape of Water

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on November 21, 2017 by Mark Hobin

shape_of_water_ver3STARS3Have you ever wondered what it would be like if Amélie was sexually attracted to The Creature from the Black Lagoon? If so, then The Shape of Water will be the cinematic revelation to satisfy that curiosity. At heart, The Shape of Water is rooted in the well-worn design of a fairy tale. The idea that two disparate individuals should find their soulmate is a tale as old as time, right? Director Guillermo del Toro’s fable utilizes the structure of classics like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. A human falls in love with something that isn’t human, but The Shape of Water goes farther. This is not a children’s story. This is del Toro’s take on interspecies romance and as such, it has his decidedly adult interpretation.

The setting is early 1960s Baltimore. Not the warm nostalgia for a twinkly bygone period seen through rose colored glasses though. This is the cold intolerant version of that era with a racist, close-minded person in charge.   Our lead character is nothing like that.   Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) a shy woman whose vocal cords were slashed when she was a child (ouch!). As such, she is mute. At night, she works as a janitor at the Occam Aerospace Research Center. One day, the facility receives a new discovery from the rivers of South America courtesy of the heartless Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). After Elisa meets new acquisition, an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones), she begins sneaking into the enclosure. He’s obviously not human. He’s green, scaly, has fins but he walks upright, is very tall and has a muscular frame. Elisa is immediately drawn to this amphibious beast for reasons that aren’t quite clear. However, their developing connection is plainly shown. She feeds him hard-boiled eggs and plays records on a portable phonograph for him. I felt their friendship. The couple gradually form a special bond that eventually goes — you guessed it — there. I didn’t feel that.

Sally Hawkins is Elisa Esposito, a sort of a melancholy mute plagued by erotic urges. This means the audience is subjected to Elisa pleasuring herself in the bathtub while her naked breasts rest just above the water. The scene feels surprisingly exploitative in what mostly feels like sentimental folklore. Elisa is seemingly modest in other ways. She’s gently timid and reserved at work. Her friendship with the creature is like a couple of lost souls united by love. It’s hard not to feel something for Elisa. A few judicious edits here and there could easily turn this R-rated male fantasy into a PG-rated family film but that would be at the expense of the artist’s creative vision. This is Guillermo del Toro after all, not Frank Capra.

Elisa is surrounded by two charismatic personalities. She lives in the same building as Giles, a closeted commercial artist who pines for a young man that runs the pie shop. Giles is amiable and friendly. His advertising work are like the illustrations of Norman Rockwell. Elisa’s co-worker is fellow cleaning woman Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer). She is Elisa’s good friend and confidant. These three are clearly the archetypal “good” people of the story painted in broad strokes so as not to confuse the viewer.  Despite the formula, there’s still something kind of intriguing about these individuals. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Colonel Richard Strickland portrayed by Michael Shannon. He’s the baddie. Strickland views the sea creature as an affront to God because he isn’t made in his image. “You may think that thing looks human. It stands on two legs, right? But we’re created in the Lord’s image,” he says. “Some more so than others”, he sneers at Zelda who happens to be black. We know Strickland is an outrage to civil rights, but his characterization as an indefensible piece of garbage is about as subtle as a flying brick.

The Shape of Water is a sumptuous production. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen even captures the glossy surfaces of the government facility with a stylish sheen. Its gorgeous set design and costumes are only matched by its luscious score by Alexandre Desplat. Richard Jenkins’ opening narration beautifully sets the stage for a lush yarn of sweetness and warmth. I was enchanted with the beginning. I desperately wanted to celebrate the elegance of this saga before being shaken by less savory elements. Sex and violence are often about context. Their appearances are awkward here. At one point a man is actually shot in the face and dragged across the floor by the hole in his cheek. You can’t unsee these things. When was the last time you saw that in a Disney movie? The question is fair because del Toro is operating within that vocabulary. At its core, this is a rather simple legend that a child would embrace. Nothing wrong with a straightforward ode to love. Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are basic tales of a seemingly mismatched pair and they charm children of all ages. The difference here is that it’s filtered through a clouded lens of decidedly adult sensibilities. The ultimate objective is that by the end you’re transported to a feeling of joy. Some apparently are but I was kinda creeped out.

The Shape of Water is scheduled for release in the U.S. on December 8, 2017, after a December 1 limited release in New York.

11-13-17

A Ghost Story

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on July 31, 2017 by Mark Hobin

ghost_story.jpgSTARS2.5If nothing else, writer and director David Lowery’s new feature is a curiosity. A tale without a distinct narrative to understand so much as to experience. In that respect, this meditation on life is a difficult movie to review. The chronicle is not about events per se, but rather a feeling you appreciate while watching it.

David Lowery has reunited the two stars from his 2013 crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.  At the center is a married couple played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara.  A Ghost Story is a chronicle indifferent to details.  The characters aren’t given names for example.  The credits list Casey Affleck as ‘C’ and Rooney Mara as ‘M’ but even those letters aren’t expressed in the script.  They’re just two people.  We can infer a few things from what we observe.  They’re human.  They’re married.  He’s a musician but not making a lot of money doing that.  Suddenly he’s bloody, sitting motionless behind the wheel of a smashed car.  We can assume he has just died in car accident.  The collision itself happens offscreen.  We do however see the aftermath.  Then we see him at the morgue.  He’s lying down on a table for an uncomfortable length of time.  His body is covered by a clean white sheet.  Minutes pass by with no discernible change in the room.  At one point I thought the film had been paused.  Then he slowly arises, still under the sheet.

Casey Affleck wanders the halls under a sheet with two eyeholes cut out. He does this for the entire duration of the picture.  The openings are deep black and empty.  They offer no hint of a human face underneath.  It caused me to wonder if Affleck’s eyes were edited out in post production.  Ah but I digress.  It soon becomes apparent that no one can see him.  He walks to the end of a hallway and a luminous portal of light opens up. He stares at it without entering.  After awhile, the shimmering gateway closes.  That a ghost is embodied in the most cliched representation possible is really the only predictable thing about this film.  The set-up is merely a construct in which to present a mood piece.  That is, it’s not plot or character driven, but rather a reason to luxuriate in an elegiac tone.  The saga as it exists is constructed as a reflection on life, or more appropriately, death.

Rooney Mara grieves looking forlorn and despondent. In one scene, we watch her eat most of a whole pie for what feels like an eternity. It’s a static shot, not particularly well lit and she’s sitting on the floor. I read somewhere that it’s only 9 minutes long but the very manifestation is an endurance test of artistic license. It’s an unconventional exhibition to be sure but upon reflection, it comes across as a self-conscious choice.  I saw it as an indulgence motivated by the ego driven impulses of a director unrestrained. Some might praise Lowery’s choice to film an activity so mundane as audacious and bold.  Yet I didn’t see a woman grieving.  I saw a filmmaker shooting a scene.

Director David Lowery is unconcerned with time.  Time passes, first days, then years, then centuries.  Certain scenes play out in real time.  In others, the years go by in the blink of an eye.  People move on. Buildings are torn down and rebuilt, but Casey Affleck’s portrayal of a disconnected soul remains.  What Lowery is saying and how much that affects you is probably where you’ll derive your enjoyment from this.  Adherents should find it hypnotic, surreal and deep while detractors will find it affected, empty and inert. Let’s just say they both have a point.  I would’ve liked to have seen A Ghost Story on a flat screen TV mounted to the wall of a museum.  There its artistic passions could be celebrated.  It’s an evocative rumination on which to deliberate.  In that respect the production triumphs as an objet d’art.  Without the expectation of plot or character development, Lowery’s introspection piece succeeds, but as a movie, this disembodied account left me unfulfilled.

07-27-17

The Big Sick

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance on July 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

big_sickSTARS5I adore romantic comedies.  Good ones, that is. The genre gets such a bad rap nowadays, but when they’re good, they can be transcendent. They capture that most sublime of all human emotions: love. It’s when we, as people are at our most vulnerable. It Happened One Night (1934), Roman Holiday (1953), When Harry Met Sally (1989), The Princess Bride (1987), Notting Hill (1999), 500 Days of Summer (2009): these are my very favorites. We’re talking some of the best movies ever made. Let’s add another title to that growing list of rom-coms: The Big Sick.

You’ve heard the old adage before: Write what you know. Screenwriters Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon really took that to heart. They’ve been a married couple for 10 years now. The Big Sick is the story of their lives fully realized in cinematic form. Stand-up comedian Kumail Nanjiani plays a mildly fictionalized version of himself. Actress Zoe Kazan (Meek’s Cutoff, Ruby Sparks) plays Emily. Kumail is a Chicago-based stand-up comic who first meets Emily, a grad student, at one of his shows. She is in the audience and her heckling, which is more flirtatious in nature, piques his interest. The two chat after the show and you can practically see the physical sparks ignite in the air. What begins as a one-night stand develops into a full blown relationship with deep romantic feelings. It gets the early stages of a courtship perfectly and it’s a giddy experience.

Now if that set-up was all there was to The Big Sick, it would still be a profound paean to love. But there’s a unique point of view that makes this drama unlike any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. Kumail and his parents are from Pakistan. They have emigrated to the U.S and now live here. Kumail is very close to his folks and he visits them regularly. Mom and Dad are conventionally religious Muslims. They believe in arranged marriage. The seemingly endless parade of women that just happen to “drop by” their home is an amusing facade. We know mom is behind all this, hoping that one of them might be a match. Yet there is a very real cultural tradition at play here and it’s presented with sensitivity and compassion. However, Kumail wants no part of that practice. He wants to find his own true love, although he is loath to bring up the subject.  He is afraid to express his actual feelings to them. In fact, his parents know nothing of his association with Emily. Emily’s realization of this fact is a heartbreaking moment that causes a serious rift.

If it feels as though I have described the entire plot, rest assured, I haven’t even come close. The story, as are the ups and downs of any relationship, is a series of setbacks. I still have yet to even detail the biggest one of all. I won’t though. I will only say that it gives us the opportunity to meet Emily’s parents played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Simply put, they are wonderful. They express grief, pathos, and humor in a way that is absolutely masterful. Their performances blend the gravest of circumstances with a tragicomedy touch. Although they are merely supporting parts, we get a full and rich understanding of their affinity as well. Their bond feels as breathtakingly real and nuanced as any I’ve ever seen put up on the screen. I rarely talk Oscars this early in the year, but both actors are worthy of a nomination. They are so genuine in their portrayals.

The Big Sick embraces all the ideals of what makes the classic romances succeed. It’s a saga about when two people who are truly meant for each other, fall in love. It sounds simple to do but few movies detail the experience with this much soul and authenticity.  What can I say?  Actors Zoe Kazan and Kumail Nanjiani captivated my heart. I was emotionally invested in their relationship. The Big Sick is humanity with all its imperfections and idiosyncrasies on full display. The screenplay mines humor in the clash of cultures but it also extracts the awkwardness of relatives. The idea that “You don’t just marry a person; you marry into a family” is a concept that frequently comes up. It’s not going to be smooth. Judd Apatow and Barry Mendel produce. Michael Showalter directs. Individually, these people have done a lot of great work. Yet this combination of talent utilizing a script from Nanjiani and Gordon, have produced a masterpiece. It’s a flawless testament to a couple in love. The pièce de résistance is that it’s actually true.

07-02-17

Colossal

Posted in Action, Comedy, Drama, Romance, Science Fiction on April 26, 2017 by Mark Hobin

colossal_ver2STARS2.5Colossal is a bizarre movie. So strange in fact that I’m almost tempted to give it a pass simply because it’s audacious. And yet I really can’t say that I completely enjoyed the experience. Oh, it’s entertaining in parts. Particularly in the first half when we’re trying to make sense of it all. Yet the production meddles with tone to the point of exasperation.

The story begins with a random flashback involving a Godzilla-like monster that terrorizes a little girl in South Korea. Then flash forward to the present day and Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is getting kicked out of boyfriend Tim’s (Dan Stevens) apartment. She is an unemployed writer and has just come home in the early morning, drunk yet again. “I expect you to be gone when I get home.” Tim leaves for work angry. He leaves her sitting there in disbelief. All of a sudden a bunch of her friends come over and start partying. Colossal is highlighted by awkward tonal shifts like that. One minute it’s deadly serious, the next it’s trying to make you laugh. But mostly it’s trying to make you laugh. It’s silly and light until it isn’t.

Colossal starts out like a romantic comedy with a lighthearted touch. Gloria journeys back to her quiet hometown and moves into her parent’s vacant home. While struggling with an inflatable mattress she runs into old childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis). Their meet cute turns into a date at the bar Oscar owns. They have drinks. She meets his friends Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and Joel (Austin Stowell). The group have a palpable chemistry together. We remember ex-boyfriend Tim broke up with Gloria because of her drinking problem. Yet the affable Oscar happily offers her a job working in his bar. Peculiarly the atmosphere still remains upbeat and appealing. Then it develops into a kaiju movie when a giant reptilian creature magically appears out of thin air over in South Korea. I told you it was bizarre. I enjoyed the whimsical spirit because it’s unexpected and charming. Gloria’s morning stumbles through a children’s playground after a night of drinking seem to coincide with this astonishing event. Yet it still keeps the same silly and light atmosphere. Side note: Anne Hathaway is possibly the cutest/most fashionable portrayal of a drunk I’ve ever seen in a film.

The screenplay is vague. At times it doesn’t even seem to be aware of its own absurdities.  The story eventually falters when a once sympathetic individual grows increasingly dark in ways that are incoherent and unreasonable. Oscar abruptly becomes strangely cold and cruel in a way that defies sense. The character doesn’t logically evolve. The narrative’s ability to subvert expectations is admirable, but the failure to lose all sense with a well-written personality is not. Is it an underdeveloped script or is it Jason Sudeikis’ inability to convey the complexities of a capricious character?  Jason Sudeikis is too good to simply lay all the blame on him. It’s a bit of both.

Colossal is essentially a fable about alcoholism. It’s emblematic of the film’s obliqueness that that word is never uttered. If you haven’t guessed by now, the fantastical tale is very metaphorical. The giant beast is literal but can be figurative too. It’s about the devil we become when we succumb to addiction or perhaps the monster is also the person that enables our addiction. The narrative clumsily goes through some labored machinations that enable it to present a kooky conclusion. The screenplay is provocative yet the narrative’s oddly shifting mood is disjointed to the point it’s more irritating than innovative. I’ll celebrate the subversive enthusiasm to a point. I liked the unpredictability of the genre: romantic comedy vs. sci-fi flick vs. alcoholic drama. Surprise! It’s all of these things Yet the ever-shifting mood from silly to dark and back to fun again are completely random. The human behavior on display is even more haphazard. I grew frustrated at the experience.

04-23-17

La La Land

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical, Romance with tags on December 13, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo la_la_land_ver3_zpssdnqlcs6.jpg photo starrating-5stars.jpgI want to live in Los Angeles. Not the real LA mind you, but the glittering jewel of a city in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. The city often gets a bad rap. There are the oft-mentioned reasons: smog, extreme traffic, insufficient public transportation, crime, gangs, the pseudo-spiritualism, the unchecked vanity, the obsession with celebrities. It kind of seems like everyone is trying to make it into show business there. Easier said than done.  It wasn’t nicknamed the city of broken dreams for nothing. And yet millions choose to call LA home. La La Land makes me understand why.

The city isn’t famous for its culture. Yet Chazelle sees the beauty within. La La Land is a practically a tourism ad making use of many real Los Angeles landmarks. It’s only a matter of time before the Hollywood location tour pops up. There‘s Griffith Park, the Observatory there, Angels Flight Funicular, Colorado Street Bridge, the Rialto theater, Hermosa Beach Pier. The “You Are the Star” Mural at Hollywood & Wilcox provides a backdrop. Each location becomes an enchanting setting. Anyone who has ever found themselves in LA’s nightmarish bumper to bumper gridlock would beg to differ. However, even a traffic jam seems like a wondrous delight. In the film’s opening scene, Chazelle makes congestion on the 110-105 interchange exactly that. Again I emphasize that this is not a set and the experience is all the more galvanizing because of it. As the characters slowly emerge from the protective confines of their metals cells, they begin to sing “Another Day of Sun”. Gradually getting on top of their cars in a rapturous display of dancing by choreographer Mandy Moore (not the pop singer turned actress). It’s a fantastic way to start off the picture. It’s so captivating, I was overcome with emotion. The way it harnesses joy out of the everyday is magical.

First and foremost, La la Land is a love story. Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) pursue each other. They’ve got palpable chemistry. This is actually the third time the two have been on screen together Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad were the others. Emma Stone is such a pleasure. As the jittery aspiring actress waiting for her big break, she is an anxious bundle of charm. Ryan Gosling plays a confident but frustrated jazz pianist. He dreams of opening his own club but earns a living by playing Xmas songs in a cocktail bar. Deep down he prefers the traditions of the past while being forced to adopt the affectations of the modern era. John Legend is his friend Keith that looks to the future. “Jazz is constantly evolving,” Keith argues. Neither side is wrong according to the film. It’s not being true to yourself that’s the problem. Mia supports this idea. Sebastian accepts a well-paying job playing backup electronic keyboards for Keith’s commercially successful band. “Did you like it?” Sebastian asks of Mia after a very well-attended concert of jazz-pop fusion. “Yes, but did you?” she responds.

They’re a pair out of some long lost Hollywood musical of the 1950s. In a previous generation, Ryan would be played by Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. Gosling is certainly not a proficient singer/dancer like Kelly. Emma Stone can’t vocalize like Judy Garland either. Stone has what you might call a delicate whisper of a voice. Damien Chazelle is aware they aren’t up to that standard, but that’s OK. In some ways, their inadequacies are part of their appeal. There is a lack of pretense and polish to their numbers that actually makes this more accessible and less artificial. When they burst into song, the expression appears almost naturally – an outpouring of their passion already existing on the screen. What they miss in singing ability, they more than overcompensate for with feeling. Those overly produced pitch-perfect confections on the TV show Glee may be flawless from a sonic standpoint, but they often forget the human element that gives the composition feeling and soul. When these individuals croon they reach for your heart first. Your brain might tell you they aren’t accomplished vocalists, but your heart tells you they’re in love. That is what ultimately matters in a story about human emotion.

We already knew director Damien Chazelle was talented. His last feature Whiplash garnered 5 Oscar nominations and 3 wins, including one for its star J. K. Simmons. He briefly appears in a cameo here. However following up success can often be an intimidating task for a newcomer. Damien Chazelle tackled a daunting project. Musicals aren’t common these days. Oh sure there’s Disney’s animated flicks and the occasional Broadway adaptation, but most younger moviegoers are unfamiliar with the idea. When actors break into song it can feel corny. An indifferent viewer rejects the idea with disbelief. How do you stage a production grounded in the past but present it to today’s jaded audiences? What Damien Chazelle pulls off in La La Land is nothing less than miraculous.

In La La Land the “City of Angels” is reimagined through the glorious sheen of the late 40s/early 50s Hollywood musical. For examples, watch An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, or The Band Wagon to see what I mean. What makes Chazelle’s 3rd feature so incredible is how brilliantly he understand how to reference history. He skillfully recontextualizes the vernacular of the American musical for the modern age. The exquisite score by Justin Hurwitz, elaborate production design by David Wasco, those costumes by Mary Zophres, the Technicolor, the romance – La La Land‘s aesthetic borrows from history but the time period and the characters are rooted firmly in contemporary society. 2016 is all here: cell phones, Hybrid vehicles, the part-time job as a barista. Chazelle makes our present era seem so much more magical. There is an exuberant quality I haven’t seen recently.  Mia and Sebastian radiate sweetness too. This uncorrupted pair shares a purity. You want them to be together. Their emotion is real. You fall in love. This why we go to the cinema. If I may paraphrase a famous expression once said by Humphrey Bogart, La La Land is the stuff that [movies] are made of. It is sublime.

12-08-16

The Light Between Oceans

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on September 9, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo light_between_oceans_zpspo3k7olj.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgLabor Day weekend is the very last weekend of the summer season. It’s not a desirable date on which to have a movie released. Unfortunately this is the slot onto which The Light Between Oceans was unceremoniously dumped by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures . This being the final DreamWorks film distributed by Disney through its Touchstone label, might have had something to do with that. I can’t say, although I do know that this production deserved a better release date. The adaptation is based on a bestselling novel by author M.L. Stedman, directed by the critically acclaimed Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines), and features two white-hot stars of the moment: Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander. The drama is admittedly not cutting-edge. It’s proudly old-fashioned. Still, this feature is far superior to the promotion it got.

The Light between Oceans is the kind of grand sentimentality we seldom see anymore. Weepy, dated, hopelessness old fashioned – these may sound like digs but that’s only because most people don’t value such things. As a matter of fact, I do and thus, I mean no disrespect. There is a real need for this type of picture because it so rarely exists in the current cinematic climate. This is a love story – fully realized by a production design with a loving eye for period detail, beautiful cinematography, and a gorgeous score by Alexandre Desplat.

But what of the specifics of this saga? Well, that’s where the luster of this highly polished vase of a film does lose a bit of its shine. Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) is a lighthouse keeper living on Janus Rock, an island off the coast of Western Australia, post World War I. Tom’s job is a lonely task. Luckily he soon makes the acquaintance of one Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander). She is a forthright girl who tenaciously pursues Tom. Her sense of purpose is one I haven’t seen in period pieces from women that portray this era. Isabel’s behavior may be anachronistic, but it’s unexpected too and that’s refreshing. They return to Janus Rock as husband and wife to begin their new life as a married couple. Two miscarriages later and we’re already experiencing her deep emotional pangs from the loss of her children. Then one day a small boat washes ashore. Inside they find a baby girl, still very much alive, and the body of her father, presumably, who didn’t survive the journey.

The Light Between Oceans deals with tragedy and ‘what if’ scenarios in a fascinating way that will have you weighing in on the “right thing to do” vs. “what feels right”. The moral quandary is heightened by a series of events that veer dangerously close into melodrama. Yet screenwriter Derek Cianfrance masterfully weaves an ethical dilemma to keep the viewer’s attention enrapt. It’s also acted to perfection by Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender, both fresh from recent Academy Awards nominations last year. She won. He didn’t. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the two are amorously involved off screen as well. So yeah, they have chemistry together. That’s pretty important in a love story and a key element as to why this romance works. There are some irksome developments. A frustrating resolution could have easily been averted with a simple conversation or two. But ah, such is life! The real world can be troublesome. The Light Between Oceans has flaws, but it will also make you feel. More often than not, that emotion comes naturally. We need more experiences like that at the cinema.

09-03-16

Café Society

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on August 1, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo cafe_society_zpsegp6dclo.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgWoody Allen is an auteur. As any director that releases a movie every year (side note: are there any others?), he operates on 2 levels. There is his essential canon and then you have his dispensable curiosities. Blue Jasmine is the last movie I’d place in the former category. Sadly I’d have to say Cafe Society belongs more in the latter category. But I sound harsher than I mean to. Cafe Society is enjoyable in parts. It’s certainly a major step up from Magic in the Moonlight. However this slight tale of woe isn’t as vital as his best.

Cafe Society is a chronicle of missed connections and love lost. This period comedy set in the 1930s details the story of Bobby Dorfman, a nobody that comes to LA and begins doing menial errands for his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a very powerful and influential talent agent. Phil has his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) show Bobby around and get settled in Hollywood. Bobby becomes smitten by her down-to-earth personality and easy going temperament. However she is taken and unavailable to date.  Vonnie is already seeing “Doug”.  Notice I put “Doug” in quotes. That’s not actually her boyfriend’s name. Any guesses as to who the Doug really is in this romantic triangle?

Woody Allen movies are a casting agent’s dream. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart gracefully inhabit their parts. Steve Carell on the other hand, is somewhat less captivating. Yes Phil is a rich powerful man in Hollywood but he still doesn’t seem to convey the charisma that would sweep a pretty young girl off her feet. There’s some nice supporting work here though. Parker Posey is modeling-agency owner Rad Taylor, a sparkling wit of the nightclub scene. The luminous setting in the 2nd half gives the film its title. Carey Stoll plays Bobby’s elder brother Ben as a gangster who resorts to murder to solve every problem. It’s a running joke. There’s also a gorgeous Blake Lively as Veronica Hayes. She is Bobby’s too-stunning-to-be-considered-merely-a-backup-choice girlfriend.

The script is a saga that weaves passion, desire, melancholy, and pathos. Jesse Eisenberg’s dramatic arc from a gabby naive Jewish boy into a worldly nightclub owner is rather improbable. Yet it happens so gradually it’s believable. His stuttering rhythms and affectations are pure Woody Allen in his prime and it’s easy to see the director playing this role in 1977. I can’t remember a time when Kristen Stewart was so fetching. Her makeup and wardrobe beautifully recall screen legends of yesteryear. As the object of Bobby’s affection, she exudes gum smacking sensibility with a brassy charm, but still enough sweetness to be alluring.

Cafe Society is a blast from the past. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have an established chemistry, this being their third collaboration after making both Adventureland (2009) and American Ultra (2015) together. Their synergy is the most exciting reason to see this picture.  There are a few missteps. The account doesn’t end as strongly as it begins. It just sort of fizzles out. Woody Allen also chooses to narrate the story himself. His gravely voice is so awkward when juxtaposed with the beauty of the age. But oh what a time! The cast is bathed in the retro glow of the 1930s. Legendary Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro soaks the film in rich hues. His photography celebrates the spirit of the era.  If you needed more, his work is validation enough to see Cafe Society.

07-27-16

Hello, My Name Is Doris

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on April 1, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo hello_my_name_is_doris_zpsswa4fm3b.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgHello, My Name Is Doris is a whimsical misfit comedy that could have formed the basis for a pretty funny sitcom. It’s precious and cute, full of clever observations about what it means to be “out-of-step” with the world. Meet Doris Miller (Sally Field) a sixty something never-been-married accountant . She has spent her life taking care of her sick mother at the expense of her own happiness. She continues to work but appears close to the age of retirement, if not past it. Compared with the similarity of age and style of her budding co-workers, she sticks out. She’s “quirky”. Enter handsome new office art director John Fremont (Max Greenfield). He’s a much younger man in his 30s. She’s smitten but shy. However after she gets inspiration from a self-help guru (Peter Gallagher), she decides to pursue him.

Director Michael Showalter is an actor/comedian who first came to recognition in the early 90s as a cast member on the sketch comedy series The State on MTV. He also wrote and starred in Wet Hot American Summer. Hello, My Name Is Doris is brimming with vignettes that poke fun at her awkward demeanor. There’s a scene where John helps Doris pump up the exercise ball while she’s sitting on it at her cubicle. The scene is a visual riot of physical comedy. On several occasions her romantic escapades are suddenly revealed to be nothing more than a fantasy. I was never fooled for a second by these developments because the chronicle stays firmly rooted in a grounded sensibility. Occasionally it can be cruelly serious. At one point, Doris’ oddly insensitive therapist (Elizabeth Reaser) arrives to help her get rid of the excess junk she has accumulated over the years. Doris’ subsequent breakdown is heartbreaking.

Hello, My Name Is Doris is one of those life affirming character studies that begs you embrace it like a warm hug. The idea of a senior citizen aggressively pursuing a man half her age is a bit incongruous. The fact that John truly enjoys her company keeps her optimism flowing. The script clearly wants us to laugh at her delusional behavior. In the hands of Sally Field, the individual is rather delightful. Actress Tyne Daly plays Roz, Doris’ best friend. Roz isn’t afraid to dish out some tough love truth. She’s pretty wonderful in her part too. The problem is, Doris veers a little too close to pathos for comfort. Her crush develops into something so intense that her unmarried hoarder personality veers into the uncomfortably pitiful. There’s a thin line between love and stalking. Nevertheless, it’s an absolute joy to see the veteran actress, who turns 70 this fall, be the star of a movie. Sally Field is fantastic and the #1 reason why I still heartily recommend this film.

03-31-16

Carol

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on November 30, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo carol_zps8paop2ot.jpg photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe story is simple. Carol details a relationship in the 1950s. In this case, between Carol Aird, an elegant society woman who resides in the upscale suburbs of New Jersey and a struggling young salesgirl named Therese Belivet who works in a Manhattan department store. Carol is going through a difficult divorce while trying to maintain custody of her child. In contrast, Therese, who is at least a decade younger, is on the precipice of a new life with her fiancé. This pair couldn’t be more different. In fact Carol is a reflection in contrasts. Certainly there’s the social disparity – that these women from two different worlds would seemingly have little in common. But then, more importantly, there’s the departure from what convention allows and from what their heart compels them to do. The narrative is a study in desire.

Initially, Carol’s chance encounter with Therese occurs while buying a gift in the toy department. What follows is a tastefully polite discussion that belies an attraction that is hinted at but not acknowledged, at least not immediately. The conversation ignites a spark that draws them ever closer. Cate Blanchett is beautifully vague at first. A refined creation with curved blonde hair styled in waves, bright red lips against her porcelain skin, wearing a scarlet dress and hat to match, ensconced in fur. Rooney Mara is waifish and shy. Doe-eyed and timid, her beauty suggests Audrey Hepburn in the face, but frostier in temperament. Perhaps the delicate visage of a young Jean Simmons exuding a curious intensity that hides a pain she cannot discuss. Given the two leads, the scene, as well as the entire film, is also a contemplation on etiquette between the mores of society and the amorous impulses that cause people to deviate from what is considered accepted behavior.

Carol is an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) bestseller. The Price of Salt was the renowned author’s second publication. Although back in 1952, it was originally published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan due to the book’s unconventional content. Sold in drugstores and mass-marketed as pulp fiction, it was priced at $0.25 and branded with the tagline “The novel of a love society forbids”. The idea was actually motivated by an incident in the author’s own life while working at Bloomingdale’s, a job that lasted a mere two weeks. The inspiration was real, the subsequent relationship however was a fabrication. Nearly forty years would pass before Patricia Highsmith would even admit to being the publication’s true author.

Todd Haynes’ sumptuous adaptation is a luxurious rumination that defines cinematic art. The director is truly in his element. This is very much a companion piece to his 2004 period drama Far From Heaven, a film that grafted a modern theme onto the kind of movies that Douglas Sirk made. What made those “women’s pictures” so evocative was the way they mined feeling as some sort of majestic gesture. Those grand, gorgeously expressive melodramas were ardent soap operas.

Carol is an exquisite drama that manages to capture a moment in time, not as it really was, but how we romanticize it to be. The polite nod, the gracious smile, the unspoken thought, all confirm a cultivated behavior that complements a rich visual tableau. Whether it be costumes so luxe, you can almost feel the fabric’s texture or a set design so vibrant, you believe you could step right into the frame, the display is presented with such incredible detail the screen positively bursts with the spirit of the age. Composer Carter Burwell’s score creates an elegiac mood with strings and woodwinds. Jazzy tunes of the era are peppered throughout. The whole experience is that you’ve actually unearthed some long lost work, rather than watching an idealized recreation.  All of this would be for nothing if it didn’t have personalities to give the production life. Blanchett and Mara own the drama. They alone carry the thrust of the chronicle on their talented shoulders. The picture belongs to both of them. While they occasionally behave as if what they’re doing is no big deal — odd given the time period — they both captivate the viewer with their bewitching performances. The film positively aches with their emotion.

11-05-15