Archive for the Romance Category

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.

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Crazy Rich Asians

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance on August 19, 2018 by Mark Hobin

crazy_rich_asiansSTARS3.5Hollywood is so steeped in the culture of comic books and sci-fi these days that when a movie comes along that hinges on the various alliances between a clan of a well to do socialites, the occurrence seems almost unique.  There was a time when Hollywood used to regularly finance big-budget relationship-based tales.  The romantic comedy in particular has a long history of stock characters that the audience can easily identify.  We cheer and jeer accordingly.  That is the case with Crazy Rich Asians.  However, there is a very essential distinction to this account. This is the first major studio offering since The Joy Luck Club to feature a predominately Asian cast.  Hard to believe that was 25 years ago.  That makes the film significant, but more importantly, it also happens to be incredibly entertaining.

Crazy Rich Asians is based on the 2013 bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan.  The narrative features a large cast but is centered on longtime couple Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) and Nick Young (Henry Golding).  Two attractive people that are intellectually distinguished and utterly pleasant in every way.  If they have faults, they aren’t shown here.  They’re blandly perfect.  She is an American born economics professor at NYU of Chinese descent.  He is a professor at NYU as well.  He currently lives with Rachel in New York City but is originally from Singapore.  She comes from modest beginnings but he, unbeknownst to her, hails from a very prosperous family living back in Singapore.  Things are set in motion when Nick’s best friend Colin (Chris Pang) invites Nick to his upcoming wedding back home.  This is a golden opportunity for the longtime couple to of course attend, but also meet Nick’s parents in the process.   Father is away on business but mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is very much present and a force with which to be reckoned.

Crazy Rich Asians is a big budget spectacle fashioned around the “wedding of the year.”  Jon Chu directs this story with an eye toward luxury and elegance.   There’s an abundance of wealth on parade – enough affluence to accent several movies. This is colorful entertainment.  An escapist movie built on extravagance.  Nick’s family makes him a well-known member of the upper class.  We live in a celebrity-obsessed age. Just how exactly Rachel is unaware of his social standing is rather incomprehensible but I’m game.   I’ll suspend disbelief.   The speed at which gossip travels in our modern world is featured to delightful effect. There’s a moment early on when Nick and Rachel are on a date in public and a stranger from a blog site snaps a photo of the two together. News of the mystery woman (Rachel) gets back to Nick’s mother.  The cinematic vignette of how that photo goes viral is brilliantly presented with a succinct flair that encapsulates the power of social media in seconds.

Crazy Rich Asians is always giving us something to see. The ensemble is highlighted by a large cast of interesting individuals. There’s too many to mention each in detail. However, Rachel’s friend Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina) stands out. She’s a larger than life personality.  Her family’s ostentatious residence is done up in the gilded and gold style of the Palace of Versailles or “Donald’s Trump’s bathroom” as she jokes.  Nick’s second-cousin Oliver (Nico Santos) also seizes the viewers’ attention whenever he is on screen. So too does Gemma Chan as fashionista Astrid, Nick’s cousin.  When first introduced, I was getting vibes of Audrey Hepburn.  In fact, I was thinking more about her marital woes with husband Michael (Pierre Png) than the main storyline.

The myriad of human bonds intertwine and elevate the drama. They affirm that detailing interconnected relationships is an idea worthy of a film.  This saga is a glorious soap opera.  I say that with respect not ridicule. Director Douglas Sirk appealed to the same emotions. His work in the 1950s pushed the genre into art.  Crazy Rich Asians is a lot sillier than that.  We’re poking fun at class obsessed people who think that where you come from is more important than who you are.  There’s side glances and disapproving looks galore.  If looks could kill, this movie would have the highest body count of the summer.  Crazy Rich Asians makes sure to condemn those superficial sensibilities but still manages to simultaneous revel in them anyway so the viewer gets lots of opulent displays. The wedding is a wow!  It’s a charming amalgamation that is a worthy addition to the pantheon of light, frothy rom-coms.

08-18-19

Beast

Posted in Drama, Romance, Thriller with tags on June 14, 2018 by Mark Hobin

beast_ver4STARS4Beast is a hard movie to characterize. Pundits often label this as a psychological thriller. I suppose the designation works because the account deals with the emotional state of a person. Yet it really doesn’t adequately embody the gorgeous mood of the film. That’s what makes this picture so affecting. Let’s call it an atmospheric thriller. One might even say dreamy. This is a character-based drama about two people who need each other. Although this is not your conventional love affair. There are elements to the romance that might make this seem like more of a horror flick. It’s those conflicting dichotomies that make this feature so enthralling.

Beast is about a repressed 27-year-old woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley). She lives on Jersey.  Not the U.S. State — the UK location.  The Bailiwick of Jersey is the largest island in the English Channel. Moll works as a tour guide and lives with her overbearing mother Hilary (Geraldine James). Her family is celebrating Moll’s birthday but she’s not having a very good time. It’s meant to be her day, but her older sister (Shannon Tarbet) steals her thunder by announcing that she’s having twins. Mother’s demand that Moll fetch champagne for the guests is the last straw.  Frustrated, Moll leaves her own party. She goes to the local watering hole and dances the night away. She later absconds to an isolated area with a guy she meets at the club. Their date grows sinister when his flirtation becomes increasingly hostile. Pascal (Johnny Flynn), who happens to be illegally hunting game in the area, rescues her from the scoundrel. The only problem is there’s been a rash of murders in the area and her “savior” appears to be a person of interest in the ongoing investigation.

Beast is the debut feature from British director Michael Pearce who also wrote the script. It had its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival where it was nominated for the Platform Prize (Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country won). It was released in May with a limited run in U.S. theaters to critical acclaim.  Peace was born on the island of Jersey so he obviously has an affinity for this location. The events were inspired by the real-life case of a serial attacker known as the “Beast of Jersey” back in the 1960s. The setting is an asset because the remote location gives the production a timeless feel. It seems almost otherworldly. The sumptuous cinematography from Benjamin Kracun helps to heighten the mood. The movie kind of burrows its way into your consciousness. Moll and Pascal’s love is a slowly mounting anxiety that creeps up on you. These two have incredible chemistry.

You’d think the suspense in knowing whether “is he or isn’t he the killer?” would propel the narrative but actually it’s the relationship between Moll and Pascal. Moll projects a spirited intensity that has finally been allowed to breathe after years of oppression. Although a fresh-faced innocent, she doesn’t look like your classic ingenue. Her fiery ringlets of red hair are enough to separate her from the cookie cutter naïfs we typically see in romantic dramas.  It’s easy to see why Moll is drawn to Pascal. He exudes kind of a rakish charm suggesting a more working class Ryan Gosling. He represents a way out from under the oppressive rule of her domineering mother. She rules over her behavior with a passive-aggressive stance. Although Moll expresses regret when she inspires her mother’s ire, you can tell she resents her dominant posture. Her mother’s dislike of Pascal is clearly a plus in Moll’s eyes. Moll and Pascal form a dynamic duo with a charismatic fervor that only the coldest of hearts could ignore. The production is extremely well crafted. That makes the crushing feeling you have when you exit the theater such a heartbreak. The chronicle culminates in a denouement in which the tension just drains away from the picture. The resolution is seriously flawed, but that’s a discussion for people who have seen the movie. Until that point, however, Beast creates a hypnotic experience and that is something to treasure.

05-31-18

Love, Simon

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on March 20, 2018 by Mark Hobin

love_simon_ver2STARS4Love, Simon has all the hallmarks of a conventional teen romantic comedy. There’s the attractive cast of young adults that form a group of friends, the well-meaning parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) that want to be hip, and the principal (Tony Hale) that unsuccessfully relates with the students. We get setpieces at all the predictable locations: the big house party, the football game, the local diner. There’s the thread of gossip that informs the main plot, the poppy soundtrack, and voiceover from the main character to narrate the story. It’s about a boy coming to terms with love for the first time. On the surface, this would appear to be another typical coming of age tale. The difference is that boy is struggling with feelings for the same sex.

Interestingly, Love, Simon isn’t revolutionary for the subject matter itself. The portrait of a gay youth has been tackled before. Most recently by notable art-house hits Call Me By Your Name and last year’s Moonlight. No, what makes this production so groundbreaking the manner in which this idea is presented. This is a coming-of-age tale reimagined in the style of a John Hughes’ film from the 1980s. I’m talking movies like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink. That easy accessibility is unlike anything that has ever come out before.  No pun intended.  We’ve seen independent art house offerings that can be difficult for the masses to appreciate and then there are the mainstream efforts where that individual is relegated to the role of the sassy best friend. This is the first of its kind to put that teen as the central character and put out by a major Hollywood studio (20th Century Fox).

Our narrative begins rather matter-of-factly when Simon (Nick Robinson) begins to talk about his family. His account is a loving portrayal of a traditional upper-middle-class suburban life. The chronicle is set in motion when an anonymous fellow classmate calling himself “Blue” confesses he is gay on the school’s blog. Intrigued, Simon decides to e-mail “Blue” directly. The two strike up a pen pal relationship via e-mail. This is the 21st century after all. They each reveal bits and pieces about themselves without ever divulging who they are. Simon calls himself Jacques (“Jacques a dit” is French for Simon Says). Over time, their bond deepens and Simon begins to have feelings for him. But who is Blue? This is the central conundrum of the saga.

Despite the familiar trappings, Love Simon is ultimately elevated by a fresh and appealing cast. Nick Robinson (The Kings of Summer, Jurassic World) stars as the titular character. Compassionate and affable, he’s a likable presence. Much of the fun is derived from determining Blue’s true identity using clues in the e-mails. There are a few potential candidates. This all occurs in between hanging out with his classmates who are none the wiser about his secret. His 3 best pals are Leah (Katherine Langford), Abby (Alexandra Shipp ) and Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.). Their interactions with each other are a charming feature of the movie. They have a palpable camaraderie. Conflict arrives when class clown Martin (Logan Miller) inadvertently discovers Simon’s e-mail correspondence.

The object of Simon’s desire does make this profile of growing up distinct. However, that difference alone wouldn’t mean anything without a compelling story. Screenwriters Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger of TV’s This is Us fame, skillfully adapt the young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. They capture the general hardships of growing up that are a part of every teen’s journey into adulthood. The awkwardness of adolescence is universal and that is the part that will ring true for all audiences, It’s surprising how natural everything plays out.  Director Greg Berlanti keeps the atmosphere lighthearted and comedic. The screenplay never feels like it has any ulterior motive other than to entertain. It’s merely another well-written teen romantic comedy, but from a slightly different perspective.

03-15-18

Phantom Thread

Posted in Drama, Romance on January 20, 2018 by Mark Hobin

phantom_thread_ver2STARS3.5Ever since actor Daniel Day-Lewis revealed that Phantom Thread would be his last movie, the announcement has cast a shadow over every discussion of the film. Yet this production is notable in other ways. Phantom Thread is an odd — no make that bizarre — chronicle. On the surface, it would seem to be a costumed period piece about a fashion designer in glamorous 1950s London. It is that at first glance. The narrative concerns one fictional Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock celebrated dressmaker to British high society. Yes, that is indeed his name, the first of many affectations that occasionally push this serious period drama into comedy on more than a few occasions.

Reynolds is a confirmed bachelor by his own admission. Yet a series of young women have always influenced his work as a means to provide inspiration and companionship. They are ever changing. Each one occupying the sole muse in his life until he tires of them when they subsist to become useful. Overseeing this behavior and career is his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville). She is his business partner and equal. She forges a co-dependent relationship with her brother. Cyril is rather dictatorial herself. Her severe appearance and icy demeanor belie her personality. For a while, it’s about them. That all changes when Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young woman working as a waitress, enters his world. She is a clumsy, seemingly reticent soul. He is a grand couturier to the wealthy elite. It is at that moment that Phantom Thread assumes its proper direction as a tale about two oddballs in love.

Phantom Thread is a meticulously manicured production featuring a lush score by Jonny Greenwood and stylish cinematography that goes uncredited. Director Paul Thomas Anderson insists it was a collaborative effort and not attributable to any one person. Haute couture fashions (Mark Bridges) and lush production design (Mark Tildesley, Véronique Melery) unite to create a vision befitting of its subject. This fastidiously behaved fashion designer cuts, drapes, and sews with the precision of a master as he crafts his latest collection. The last time Daniel Day-Lewis acted in a film helmed by Anderson (There Will Be Blood), the actor won an Oscar. It’s a pretty safe bet that he’ll get another nomination for his work here. As the domineering Reynolds, the method actor inhabits the role with unswerving intensity. He is a creature of strict routine that views even the slightest aberration to his daily habits as an affront to his very being. He is clearly in charge as he commands a large staff that answer to his every whim. Spontaneity and surprise are his very enemy. It is often at the breakfast table that these interactions are highlighted. Alma scrapes butter across her toast and pours tea from a high altitude. The liquid hits the cup with such noisy gusto. I suspect the sound designer helped out a little because the sounds are humorously loud. It unnerves him. He worships order as if it were a religion and he makes demands upon Alma and his sister Cyril like a disciplinarian.

Simply put, Reynolds is a control freak. The mere utterance of the word “chic” sends him into a conniption fit. Given its portrayal of the way oppressive qualities can affect a marriage, I was reminded of Mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s fable of psychological horror that came out in September. In contrast, Alma is more of a match to her husband’s overbearing behavior. It’s clear he doesn’t appreciate change. His sister Cyril understands this. Alma recognizes this as well. At one key juncture, she intends to dismiss the staff and surprise him with a home-cooked meal. When she first informs Cyril of her intention, his sister vehemently advises against it. When Alma disregards her advice, the ostensibly benevolent gesture becomes like a concerted intervention carefully designed to upset him. It won’t be the last time she finds a way to assert power in their relationship.

Phantom Thread has director Paul Thomas Anderson embracing romance but from his own decidedly unique perspective. For a while, it is unclear as to where the auteur is going with all this. At first, it appears that the screenplay, also penned by the filmmaker, will detail the portrait of a domineering male genius. Then he subverts our expectations as the situation gradually changes. The account can get a bit taxing at times. The self-consciously fanatical devotion to minutiae requires a leisurely pace. His attention to style can get a bit tedious. It could’ve gone south at any point, but it never did. I was captivated throughout by this obsessive courtship between two souls in love. It’s also underscored by a subversive wit with touches of humor that are so peculiar as to be laugh out loud funny at times. This is intentional I am sure. I had cooled on Anderson’s work as of late. It has been a decade since There Will Be Blood, the last movie of his I truly adored. Both The Master and Inherent Vice have their ardent fans, although I don’t count myself among them. I enjoyed this though. It all culminates in an ending that perfectly crystallizes their marriage. It involves submission and the willingness to compromise. It’s disturbing to ponder and yet it all makes perfect sense. These two people were truly meant for each other. I guess that’s love.

01-18-18

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

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