Archive for the Romance Category

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

Brooklyn

Posted in Drama, Romance on November 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

 photo brooklyn_ver3_zpsdyjwt9ge.jpg photo starrating-5stars.jpgMovies concerning the cultural assimilation of an immigrant into American life are rare. Nostalgic period pieces about the experience are rarer still. Into this atmosphere comes Brooklyn. In stark contrast to the current zeitgeist, it’s like a invigorating breath of positive air. That’s not to say her new country is a bed of roses. However opportunity does exist for those with an indomitable resolve. The drama is a paean to the spirit of new beginnings, a fresh identity in a foreign land. It’s unapologetically old fashioned and I mean that in the most grand, romantic, heartwarming sense of the word.

On paper, the plot is perfectly ordinary. Eilis Lacey is around 20 years old and living in 1950s Ireland. Things could be better as her life has become stagnant. She journeys to the U.S. searching for better opportunities. Eilis deals with simple problems: the boat trip across, her accommodations in America, starting a new job, going to school, the people she meets, homesickness. A chronicle so straightforward, the sum total of which could be summarized in 2 sentences. The relationships she develops and her conflicting feelings regarding her past and her current experience come into play. I won’t spoil with specifics. We’ve seen this material before.  What makes Brooklyn so affecting is the fully realized portrait of American life, as seen through the eyes of an outsider.  The entire composition is rather profound. Brooklyn is based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Irish author Colm Tóibín. The screenplay is adapted by Nick Hornby (About a Boy, An Education) and directed by John Crowley (Boy A). Brooklyn somehow presents the subject in a way that feels innovative and new. The depiction is honest, sweet, lovely and sincere.

At the heart of Brooklyn is Eilis Lacey, a young Irish immigrant played by Saoirse Ronan. Her talent was famously recognized in 2007 after a supporting part in Atonement for which she received an Oscar nomination. She’s all but assured of another, this time in the Best Actress category. The film’s narrative rests completely on the shoulders of the ingenue. She beautifully upholds the story in every scene with poise and class. She’s supported by a fairly large cast. Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Bríd Brennan all support her in key roles. Every single actor having a chance to shine with their rich performances. But this is Saoirse Ronan’s show and she commands the screen.

It has been said that eyes are the window to the soul. Director John Crowley utilizes this to his advantage. Sometimes the camera simply lingers on Saoirse’s expressive face. Her countenance speaks volumes, but there’s also a sophistication just in the way she carries herself. She recalls classic Hollywood with her hypnotic presence. You’ll marvel that this actress is only 21 years old. The maturity of her performance is nothing less than a flawless achievement that elevates the entire film. A Best Picture nomination somehow eluded Avalon & In America, pleasantly optimistic tales about immigration. I’m hoping that changes with Brooklyn.

11-11-15

The Age of Adaline

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Romance with tags on May 8, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Age of Adaline photo starrating-4stars.jpgNo genre receives less respect in the 21st century than romance. Even the once maligned horror gets more critical acclaim. And woe unto the film that eschews the comedy and dares to simply be a sentimental drama. Writer Nicholas Sparks has had box office success in this area with adaptations of his novels like Dear John and Safe Haven. But those treacly tearjerkers prove my point. Audiences may flock to them but critics hate them. Occasionally an exception will attempt a more elevated take. The Theory of Everything is a good example. The Stephen Hawking biopic was a bona fide romance that actually received some recognition. But even that had a vociferous minority of detractors. Heck Best Picture winner Titanic is often unjustly maligned now. It wasn’t always this way. Roman Holiday (1953) and An Affair to Remember (1957) are great examples of unabashed emotion. Critics still adore those films. Perhaps the idea of an earnest love story almost seems regressive in our current era. Tenderness must be presented with sarcasm or artifice for it to be believable apparently. Into this climate comes The Age of Adaline. This heartfelt romance is a real throwback. It won’t get respect, but it should.

Lee Toland Krieger directs a cheerfully old fashioned tale that hearkens back to love stories of pre-1965 cinema. It stars a stunning Blake Lively as a perpetually 29 year old woman. She was born on New Year’s Day 1908. She originally had a normal life. She fell in love, got married, had a child. She became a widow when her husband suffered a tragedy during the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. Then one night a snowfall in Sonoma County leads to a freak accident that causes her to stop aging. A talkative narrator explains how it scientifically happened with hypothermia and lightning. Yes it’s absurd. But if you openly accept the powers of every Marvel superhero and you can’t even wrap your head around this little conceit, then you are clearly a walking contradiction.

One would think staying forever young would be a blessing. However Adaline is apprehended by the FBI so they can study her abnormality. So she decides to escape. Every ten years she creates a new identity and a new life. This goes on for eight decades to our modern day. Only her aging daughter (Ellen Burstyn) knows her secret.  This gives the production an excuse to outfit our heroine in a variety of hairstyles and costume changes to reflect the times. This is a gorgeous looking film. Let’s just say chief hair stylist Anne Carroll, head of makeup Monica Huppert and costume designer Angus Strathie are major assets. Ditto composer Rob Simonsen whose luscious score further gives the atmosphere an exquisite sophistication. Adaline doesn’t physically age although her fashion most assuredly does.

All the style of this fantasy wouldn’t mean a thing if we didn’t care about the characters. In order to be captivated by a romance, we too must fall in love with the people. Blake Lively is a vision. Her film choices have been spotty (Green Lantern, Savages) but she negates any lingering doubts in her acting ability here. The script allows her to casually deliver some very witty one-liners that poke fun at the way she transcends time. There is a subtle aristocratic air about her that appropriates the refinement of say a Katharine Hepburn. Perhaps I go too far, but it’s a quality I rarely see in modern movies so I’ll stand by the comparison. Her beau is Ellis (Charlie Huisman) to whom she introduces herself as Jenny on New Year’s Eve 2014. With his beard and ‘stache he looks kind of like a mid-70s era Kris Kristofferson. Huisman has undeniable chemistry with Lively. He pursues her with the single-minded passion of a man in love. They’re appealing together but the saga’s greatest moment is the late in the narrative introduction of Harrison Ford in a small but pivotal role. His emotionally powerful performance carefully straddles the line between contentment and regret. Ford gives his greatest performance of the last two decades in film and one of the best of his entire career. The Age of Adaline is such a delicate little unsung movie, I almost passed it over. I only hope other people are willing to give it a chance.

05-07-15

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Posted in Horror, Romance, Thriller with tags on November 26, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgA Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is unlike any Iranian film you‘ve ever seen. At first, you wonder what bizarre cosmic alignment has allowed this artfully constructed, but distinctly subversive picture to be made. I mean it’s not exactly something you’d expect to pass the censors in that country. As a matter of fact, the production did NOT originate in Iran but rather the U.S., specifically California. Yet the dialogue is in Farsi and features a cast and crew made up of the extensive Iranian expatriate community in the Los Angeles area.

The setting is Iran in the fictional town of Bad City. With a name like that, I suppose one can debate the allegorical overtones. With its arid landscape broken up by oil fields, it a desolate place. It is a world populated by pimps and addicts. Ah but it is the romantics that are the heroes.  Arash (Arash Marandi) drives a’57 Thunderbird and lives with his father. With his white t-shirt, jeans, tousled hair and brooding intensity, the guy suggests James Dean. Also living in the town is a woman known simply as The Girl (Sheila Vand). She is a mysterious young lady and only goes out when it gets dark – sort of a vigilante out for justice. At home she listens to new wave music and decorates her bedroom with a mirrored ball suspended from the ceiling. Look closely and you’ll notice posters of Michael Jackson, Madonna and the Bee Gees on the walls. In this environment The Girl looks like any other of her age, but when she slips on her chador and goes out at night, she has a much more eerie presence.

The eclectic indie rock soundtrack is an important part of the mood. It plays throughout the entire story. An Ennio Morricone-like score is courtesy of the Portland band Federale. The group provides selections that wouldn‘t sound out of place in a Sergio Leone movie. Underground Iranian bands like Kiosk and Radio Tehran are included as well alongside White Lies, a UK band.  Their 2008 synthpop song “Death” is used to underscore a tender kiss in one hypnotic scene.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a cinematic blending of influences as disparate as spaghetti westerns, vampire flicks, graphic novels and feminist ideology. At times the production reminded me of an earlier release this year, Only Lovers Left Alive. Indeed Jim Jarmusch is clearly an idol of director Ana Lily Amirpour, but so is David Lynch with his nonsensical narratives. The bare bones plot and black and white cinematography support the comparison. Occasionally the creation comes across as a bit of an appropriation. However Amirpour melds the inspirations in a way that cherishes them while creating something new. The first-generation Iranian grew up in Bakersfield, California where most of this was shot. The formula is equally shaped by her ancestral background as it is by her studies at UCLA film school. Her unique point of view signals the arrival of an exciting new talent to watch. Granted the plot can just seem weird without a clear purpose. It doesn’t always makes sense, but then what feminist Iranian vampire western does anyway?

11-23-14

Beyond the Lights

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on November 22, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Beyond the Lights photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgShowbiz melodramas get a bad rap. Rags to riches stories are a cliché but they’re a good one. An emotional drama detailing the rise to fame from humble beginnings to massive exposure can be captivating. It’s why the 1937 film A Star Is Born has been remade twice, so far that is. Warner Bros. has plans for another remake. It’s also why the chronicle can be seen as the blueprint for a host of other movies that happen to have female leads: Funny Girl, Mahogany, The Rose, Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Bodyguard, Dreamgirls. Now add Beyond the Lights to that list. It’s not the most innovative work of art, but it does take something hackneyed and update the model with enough flair for the 2010‘s.

What elevates Beyond the Lights is the acting, particularly of the lead Gugu Mbatha-Raw, This is the second time I’ve seen the aspiring actress in 2014. She was also the star of Belle which came out in May. If these two roles are representative of what is to come, we are witnessing the arrival of an exciting new talent. Here Gugu plays Noni Jean, a rising R&B singer that has just had a hit with heavily tattooed white rapper Kid Culprit (real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly). The song is called “Masterpiece” and it’s steadily climbing up the charts with her featured performance. Gugu actually does her own singing when performing, although other artists perform the background music.  “Fly Before You Fall” for example is beautifully sung by Cynthia Erivo. The soundtrack is mostly written and produced by R&B super-producer Terius “The Dream” Nash.

All would seem right in Noni’s life but she is not happy. A attempt at ending her own life is failed by a handsome cop (Nate Parker) assigned to guard her. Kaz Nicol has political ambitions that should preclude his association with the racy pop star.  Minnie Driver is Noni’s agent and stage mother, Macy Jean. A fiercely loyal but overbearing presence in her life that puts her daughter’s career first and her own well being second. At times Macy seems so driven by success as to be inhuman, but you can see the desire she has for her daughter to be successful. She’s been there since the beginning and it’s her “us against the world” mentality that humanizes Macy. A touching early moment is when young actress India Jean-Jacques (Noni as a little girl) sings “Blackbird” at a talent competition. Her mom is a most exasperating character, but it’s obvious she does love her daughter.

Beyond the lights is a tale that inhabits the contemporary R&B realm of artists like Rihanna. Noni feels pushed by her domineering mother into fronting a hyper-sexual image with which she doesn’t feel comfortable. Her musical style sports vocals that are technologically enhanced by Auto-Tune and deep percussive bass. She wishes to retreat to a more simple style of her artistic idol Nina Simone. These portraits of the music industry often lambaste the pre-fabricated, highly choreographed pop star, but one look at the Top 40 will show that is what people want. As her momager’s behavior widens the divide between them, Noni escapes to a island resort. Here the narrative takes on a poignancy I didn’t expect. Lamenting the way people are marketed for a mass audience is old hat, but Gugu renders her sorrow with distinction. As she literally strips away the long colored strands of straight hair woven into her own, she symbolically reveals her true self. Her subsequent triumph of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” in a karaoke bar becomes a declaration. It’s an affecting transformation and Gugu makes the metamorphosis seem fresh and new.

11-19-14

The Theory of Everything

Posted in Biography, Drama, Romance with tags on November 20, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Theory of Everything photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgThe Theory of Everything is a Stephen Hawking biopic. But more specifically, it is the story of Stephen Hawking as it pertains to his relationship with Jane Wilde, who became his wife. As such it is based on her memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. This makes the tale more than just a mere biography of the scientific genius. It is that to be sure, but the chronicle is also a romantic drama. This is a most unique approach to the profile of a man more famous for being an astrophysicist and cosmologist than for whom he fell in love with. The method humanizes the man in a way that is altogether unexpected.

Most of us know Stephen Hawking after he was stricken with ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s Disease), the motor neuron disease that causes muscle weakness and impacts physical function. The brain however remains unaffected. But the production starts well before he was stricken with that ailment. In the introductory scenes Redmayne suggests a socially shy but intellectually confident young man. It is the 1960s and Hawking is pursuing a doctorate in physics at Cambridge. Felicity Jones is stirring as Jane Wilde, the language arts major (medieval Spanish poetry) he meets while there. As the presentation juggles Stephen’s work and illness, she is the romantic connection that unites the two intensifying the already emotional thread throughout his life. An early conversation between Jane and Stephen’s father warning her that she might not be prepared for what is to come is particularly affecting. Director James Marsh inserts beautiful montages that glow with the warmth of people in love. These extravagantly shot interludes could have become glossy affectations. Yet inserted amongst the events taking place on screen, they help to highlight the passage of time and make the film’s visceral high points resonate more clearly.

Any discussion of The Theory of Everything must focus on the lead, Eddie Redmayne. Up until now, best known for playing Marius in the cinematic version of Les Misérables. Granted he was extremely good in that, but somehow I would never felt him qualified to play this part. Oh how wrong I would’ve been. Somehow Eddie Redmayne, who had never suggested a visual similarity to Stephen Hawking before, completely inhabits the role. There have been many many great performances at the movies, but a significantly smaller number where the actor chosen for the part so perfectly resembles the individual in speech, behavior and physicality that you indeed forget you’re watching an actor. Ben Kingsley as Gandhi comes to mind. Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking is another.

If one is to judge a movie by the way it makes us feel, by the emotion that it elicits, then The Theory of Everything has got to be considered an unqualified success. After the disease takes hold, Stephen Hawking embarks on a transformation whereby the deliberate degradation of his body manifests itself. Slowly, painfully, we watch as this brilliant man succumbs to the affects of this disorder. Actor Eddie Redmayne bends his frame in ways that look as if he truly is suffering from the actual condition. At no time does the performance every feel exploitative,. Nor does his achievement ever read like he is showing off. Redmayne simply is, progressively contorting his body while battling the increasing difficulty with which he is able to speak. Gradually that ability disappears as well. The effect is heartbreaking and yet it is a testament to the strength of will that Hawking had to summon in order to overcome his disability. It is a flawless triumph that celebrates the man’s success with respect and dignity.

11-16-14

Gigi

Posted in Comedy, Musical, Romance with tags on August 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Gigi photo starrating-4stars.jpgHistorically August has never been the month for which studios save movies with boffo box office potential. Imagine my surprise when Guardians of the Galaxy, which was released on August 1st, turned out to be the biggest hit of the year so far. And it deserved to be because it’s a terrific film to boot. That accounts for the fact that the movie has largely dominated the entire month. Ok so there was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles too but that was awful. Seeking some counter programming was the impetus behind my decision to see a revival of Gigi at The Stanford Theatre. It was the palate cleansing sorbet in a month of mostly bitter tasting selections.

The MGM musical won a then unprecedented 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture for 1958. It held a short-lived record until Ben-Hur won 11 the very next year. In addition to Gigi, lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe were responsible for creating Camelot, Brigadoon and perhaps most famously, My Fair Lady. Gigi pales in comparison to that similar smash hit also thematically built around a Cinderella transformation. Gigi isn’t my favorite musical, but it’s still entertaining.

Gigi is based on the 1944 novella of the same name by Colette. Rich and attractive millionaire Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jordan) is bored with the superficial lifestyle of the upper class in Parisian society. The year is 1900 and he’d prefer to hang out with the former mistress (Hermoine Gingold) of his uncle (Maurice Chevalier). Gaston calls her Mamita. Madame Alvarez is also grandmother to the carefree Gigi, with whom he enjoys hanging out with as well. She is currently a young girl but on the verge of becoming a woman. Madame Alvarez encourages Gigi to spend time with her Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans) to educate Gigi in the ways of becoming a courtesan, that is a wealthy man’s mistress. Important skills like walking elegantly, how to choose a cigar, and pouring coffee in the proper fashion, are part of the lesson plan. How long before Gaston notices this tomboy of a girl has matured into a beautiful young woman?

Director Vincente Minnelli fills the screen with so much color and pageantry, the eyes can barely contain it all. There’s a magnificence to the presentation that seems to have spared no expense in recreating the French fashions. Cecil Beaton’s production design, costumes and scenery is the ultimate. It is sumptuous. There’s such an old fashioned grandeur that relies so heavily on sets and wardrobe that it is kind of fascinating. Even for 1958, Gigi was a bit of a throwback to an earlier time. It was the last great MGM musical of Hollywood’s golden age, although Minnelli would direct Bells are Ringing in 1960 and that’s pretty wonderful too.

The cast is captivating. My favorites are Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold. They are an absolute delight, particularly in their witty duet, “”I Remember It Well”. Other song highlights are “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” and “Gigi”. Leslie Caron is a spirited vision as the title character. No one conveys indignant exasperation like suave Louie Jourdan. The script is rather funny too. Isabel Jeans as the highly strung Aunt Alicia delivers some of the best lines with perfect timing and intonation during her tutelage. Classic lines abound. “A topaz? Among my jewels? Are you mad?” “Bad table manners, my dear Gigi, have broken up more households than infidelity.” “Wait for the first-class jewels, Gigi. Hold on to your ideals.” The social mores and customs are amusingly dated, but that’s really the point now isn’t it? Let’s just say, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

08-24-14