Archive for the Romance Category

Licorice Pizza

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on December 30, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Never underestimate the power of a simple story exquisitely told by a passionate filmmaker. The year is 1973 and the setting is the San Fernando Valley. Gary Valentine is a 15-year-old teen but with the confidence of a man twice that age. Actor Cooper Hoffman is the son of the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s got personality to spare. It’s school picture day at his Tarzana high school and he’s smitten by the photographer’s assistant, 25-year-old Alana Kane. Actress Alana Haim is memorable in her feature film debut. In real life, Alana is a musician in the pop/rock band Haim. Her familial group also includes her two older sisters, Este and Danielle who play her siblings in this movie.

Gary and Alana are an odd couple romance. She’s the yin to his yang. I wouldn’t say they exactly hit it off. He flirts and she fends off his persistent verbal advances. He’s a decade her junior after all. I’ll concede their age difference seems inappropriate. However, they look about the same age and she still lives at home so they seem compatible on a maturity level. His persistence pays off. She agrees to meet him for dinner at this bar/restaurant where he’s a regular. Thus begins a fascinating relationship with many ups and downs.

Gary is a hustler that gets by on sheer determination. His mother Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) works for an advertising company that Gary created. He’ll start a water bed company and open a pinball palace during the chronicle. Gary boasts he’s an actor. At first, it sounds like something he simply made up to impress Alana, but we soon discover it’s the truth.

Licorice Pizza is a brilliant movie that flawlessly weaves reality with fiction into a compelling tale. The character is based on Gary Goetzman, a Hollywood producer who was a former child actor. Goetzman’s presence in the comedy Yours, Mine and Ours inspires a most delightful production number. In a personal appearance, Gary performs on stage with a shrewish star named Lucille Dolittle — a thinly disguised portrayal of Lucille Ball. In a year where Being the Ricardos exists, who knew the funniest depiction of the comedienne would come from Christine Ebersole? That’s not the only tie to the real world. Sean Penn portrays a highly fictionalized version of William Holden, Bradley Cooper hams it up as hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters and Benny Safdie is Joel Wachs, an LA politician running for mayor.

This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s ninth feature and his fifth to be set largely in California’s San Fernando Valley, where he’s lived most of his life. It’s a place the director knows well. The title refers to a bygone chain of record stores in southern California. The Glendale-based business flourished in the 1970s. The words “Licorice Pizza” are never uttered or referenced but its aura informs the narrative. Cherry-picked tunes are catchy selections you haven’t heard a million times. They perfectly convey the laid-back ambiance: “Stumblin’ In” by Chris Norman and Suzi Quatro, “Peace Frog” by The Doors, “Let Me Roll It” by Paul McCartney and Wings, and “Life On Mars?” by David Bowie are just a few. The music truly enhances the mood.

I love a director that has done his homework. Licorice Pizza is an engaging dive into the early 70s aesthetic. This is an auteur working at full capacity and the results are an absolute joy. The finely tuned ensemble piece highlights a series of captivating vignettes. On the surface, it’s a meandering saga with a lackadaisical plot. Yet the journey back in time is perfectly realized. I was amazed at the detail. Honestly, the portrait is so convincing, I question whether Anderson used a time machine to film this picture. In a word, it’s immersive.

12-25-21

The Power of the Dog

Posted in Drama, Romance, Western with tags on December 6, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The “power of the dog” can be those physical and psychological forces that come to destroy us. Jane Campion’s latest is a western of sorts, but given the output of the iconoclastic director, you know this won’t be a straightforward actioner with cowboys and gunfights. She’s helming a feature film for the first time in 12 years. The New Zealand filmmaker’s last was Bright Star (2009), but she is best known for The Piano (1993). Her current feature is a character-based drama that she adapted from a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. Call it an anti-western.

This tale set in the 1920s concerns the Burbank brothers. Ranchers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) live together on their parents’ sprawling ranch in Montana. Phil is a spiteful man consumed by personal demons. Unloveable and seemingly incapable of love. He is a bully, dominating others before he can be dominated. On the other hand, George is considerably more civilized: quiet and polite. He still affects the air of a gentleman. To put it more simply, George takes baths. Phil doesn’t bathe. Despite being less intellectually inclined than Phil, George handles the paperwork of the ranch as the businessman.

The languid story begins to take shape at the Red Mill restaurant. During a cattle drive, they stop at the establishment run by a fragile widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Soon after meeting, George reveals that he and Rose have married. Their relationship will prove to be a thorn in Phil’s side. Phil’s bitter dislike of Rose festers over time. His behavior has a detrimental effect on her well-being. She also has a son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a frail teen the oppressive Phil insults. These interactions will weigh on his mother.

A sample of one antagonism that really got under my skin. When Phil and Peter first meet, the boy is waiting tables at the restaurant. Phil is a patron. The intricate paper flowers Peter has created adorn the tables. We’ve seen the care he puts into making each one. The exquisitely made decorations embody delicacy and beauty. “I wonder what little lady made these,” Phil taunts. He casually sets one afire to light his cigarette in front of its creator. The callous act is the gleeful destruction of hard work, and it’s unnerving in a way that’s hard to explain. The sinister gesture perfectly clarifies his outlook more than pages of words ever could.

The Power of the Dog is an impressive ensemble piece concerning individuals with ambiguous motives. Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee all contribute memorable performances. But it’s the nuanced achievement from Benedict Cumberbatch as the tragic figure at the center of it all that unites the chronicle. He exposes the compelling depths of the human psyche within this multi-faceted soul. The narrative can be seen from more than one point of view. The aching void of loneliness has reduced Phil to a hateful shell. George is trying to eke out a happy life in a savage frontier. Meanwhile, Peter wants to save his mother’s descent into alcoholism brought on by a pernicious presence in her home. The three form a triad that engages the viewer. These are impressively complicated personalities. For example, Peter is capable of creating exquisite centerpieces from paper, but can also unemotionally dissect a cute bunny rabbit in his desire to become a surgeon.

The Power of the Dog is an unrelenting depiction of sadness. The saga can be difficult to embrace. However, there is so much to appreciate here. Cinematographer Ari Wegner (True History Of The Kelly Gang) beautifully highlights the visual sweep of the American West. The expansive vistas evoke the work of legendary directors John Ford and George Stevens. Johnny Greenwood’s (Phantom Thread) uneasy score is the aural manifestation of impending danger. The methodic pace of the gradually unfolding account builds. I kept second-guessing the intentions of the characters at every turn until the very end. The narrative takes quite a while to get started but things get pretty intense in the final 30 minutes. The ending is a shocker that will undoubtedly inspire conversation. I’m still thinking about these people and their motivations. Our contempt and disdain are elicited throughout the picture. Yet these people have humanity which means sometimes our gut reactions may not be justified. Jane Campion’s meticulous portrait ends in tragedy. Where the tragedy truly lies, however, is open to interpretation.

12-02-21

The French Dispatch

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Romance with tags on November 2, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Over the last quarter-century, Wes Anderson has built up an impressive oeuvre. Ever since he debuted with Bottle Rocket in 1996, he has consistently released a new feature on average every 2 to 3 years. That’s downright prolific for an auteur. From the superlative (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom) to the merely tolerable (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) — if you’re familiar with the director’s aesthetic, you know his style is instantly recognizable. Fastidiously produced productions featuring a large cast with a lot of care that goes into the construction. Each piece is a thoughtfully manicured diorama of minutiae. Every shot is the manifestation of perfectly placed objects in a dollhouse. His movies can be a little difficult to embrace for the unconverted. They’re so twee. This one is no different. Yet I am a devotee and so I relish them all. The French Dispatch doesn’t rank among his very best, but I did admire the effort that went into making it.

A Wes Anderson release is nothing if not precious. At times the degree of whimsy almost verges into a parody of his technique. It’s set in a fictional French town called “Ennui-sur-Blasé.” Both “ennui” and “blasé” of course are fancy words for similar things. The saga begins as a tale about a newspaper staffed by a team of American expatriates living in France. The paper itself is loosely based on the New Yorker magazine. As it begins, it’s about the journalists writing articles. The account frames this in a vignette about “cycling reporter” Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson). From there, he recounts an anthology of three columns each told by separate individuals: art impresario J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton), journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand), and food writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright).

The chronicle grows even more convoluted. For you see, those three stores then become a framing device for introducing the proper stories. The first is about an art dealer (Adrien Brody) and a jailed painter (Benicio Del Toro) who uses a female prison guard (Léa Seydoux ) as a model. The second concerns a group of young activists (Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri), and the third is about a celebrated chef (Stephen Park) who solves a kidnapping plot for a police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric). The narrative configuration becomes something of a Russian Matryoshka doll — those wooden figurines of decreasing size placed inside one another.

The French Dispatch has a romantic affection for Europe, the past, literary pursuits, and quirky details. Like all of the director’s compositions, the piece is filled with meticulous production design amusing sight gags, and dry dialogue. It’s inspired by actual people and events. If you get the references you’ll adore it more. There are so many performances and every actor has a scant amount of screen time. Tilda Swinton sporting big hair and a sophisticated accent while addressing a crowd in an auditorium was a favorite.

Wes Anderson has a fondness for historical happenings and personalities. He weaves that enthusiasm into the fabric of the film. As we delve deeper, the story is influenced by a multitude of real-life people. Those with a knowledge of luminaries like Joseph Mitchell, Rosamund Bernier, Lord Duveen, and James Baldwin will be at an advantage, It isn’t necessary to share his artistic passions. However, it will certainly give you a greater appreciation for Anderson’s indulgences. Other than Baldwin, I was unaware of these tangible connections. I still enjoyed the whimsical nature, but I have always been a fan. File this under the heading “Your mileage may vary.”

10-21-21

Malcolm & Marie

Posted in Drama, Romance with tags on February 11, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Movies put the fun in dysfunctional. The simple act of an argument between a couple can be an interesting acting exercise. In 1962 Edward Albee published and produced Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the stage. Ernest Lehman adapted it into a landmark picture that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It won 5 Academy Awards and set a slew of Oscar records in the process. I guess it isn’t surprising that other writers might draw inspiration from it. Yasmina Reza’s 2008 play God of Carnage is an example. Malcolm & Marie is another, even down to the black and white cinematography. Yet appearances can be deceiving. That was good. This is not.

A filmmaker (John David Washington) and his girlfriend (Zendaya) return home following a well received movie premiere. Malcolm is ecstatic about his impending fame. What should be a joyous occasion turns sour when Marie brings up the fact that he forgot to thank her in his acceptance speech. From this seed of a beginning sets off over 100-minutes of bickering that grows increasingly tiresome. An all-night debate could be an opportunity to explore some thought-provoking themes. No such luck. Sam Levinson is satisfied watching a couple of privileged, self-involved, narcissists argue in circles. Like the loquacious equivalent of a cat playing with a ball of yarn, Levinson’s script is content to merely banter random topics back and forth without arriving at an apparent resolution to any of them. Malcolm & Marie is a cacophonous explosion of words in deference to a supremely empty experience.

The conversation begins with the common courtesy expected in a relationship but moves on to introduce a litany of aimless thoughts only to discard them so he can advance new ones. Levinson utilizes John David Washington as a device. In one diatribe, Malcolm bemoans the ignorance of a “white lady critic from the LA Times”. If I understand this monologue correctly, he means to assert that black art cannot ever be clearly understood by a white person. Sam the writer and director — who also happens to be the son of successful filmmaker Barry Levinson (Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man) — is also white. This begs the question: does Levinson mean to impugn his own writing? If so, he might be onto something here.

Malcolm & Marie is a hollow interaction. The screenplay is the problem. The lack of purpose to this nonsense is highlighted by a peculiar idiosyncrasy that kept shining through. Writer Sam Levinson is inordinately preoccupied with obscenities, particularly the F-word. I’ve watched many profanity-laced films in my time: The Wolf of Wall Street and Uncut Gems have achieved a modern zenith. Yet, in their favor, they each detailed a world that was less than savory. In contrast, this is the depiction of two attractive people ostensibly in love. Never have I have ever heard a release drop F-bombs in such a short amount of time without any justifiable reason. It’s almost comical as if he recently learned a new vocabulary word and wanted to use it as much as possible. His fascination with it is positively jejune. Wikipedia places this at #23 amongst all films ever to frequently use the word. Pulp Fiction is #30 for comparison. Granted #22 is high but it actually feels a lot worse. It’s an overall mood, but I now consider this the nadir of foul language in my own cinematic experience. Regardless, I’m not about to suffer through this again to confirm whether it should rank higher. I’ll trust Wikipedia.

Much like the movie, this review is a rant. Malcolm & Marie may be tedious but it’s not all bad. It features stylish black and white cinematography by Marcell Rév. Although star Zendaya spends most of the time in various states of undress so visually it evokes a glossy but suggestive Calvin Klein underwear ad. Sam Levinson has worked with the actress before on the HBO drama series Euphoria. This was a side project when production shut down because of COVID. Their familiarity with each other brings out a believable performance. Her achievement here is emotionally authentic. Still, it doesn’t make the liaison depicted in this account any less disgusting. Malcolm and Marie need to stop talking and go to bed immediately. Sleep it off and then break up in the morning. They shouldn’t be together and audiences shouldn’t be subjected to their nasty quarrel.

02-05-21

Ammonite

Posted in Biography, Drama, Romance on November 25, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Let me just begin by saying that if Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are starring in a movie together, I’m already on board. The two are among the best actresses of our time. I am an avowed fan. Given my predisposition to appreciate the talent involved, you’d think I would be awarding Ammonite at least four stars. Then I saw it. I struggled to maintain even a modicum of interest in this story. Precious little happens.

Ammonite is loosely based on the real Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), an acclaimed paleontologist whose explorations in the Jurassic marine fossil beds along the Southern English coastline yielded an abundance of scientific finds. Ammonites were among the fossils she discovered. Yet this is not about her glory days as a researcher but rather pure conjecture as to how she spent her later life. She currently supports both herself and her dying mother (Gemma Jones) by selling common fossils to wealthy tourists. Things get — shall we say — interesting when Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) arrives and entrusts his sickly and fragile wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), to Mary’s care. Mary begrudgingly accepts because the pay is good. Although the two women have a somewhat antagonistic relationship at first, they develop a deep bond. They amble about looking for fossils and ever so slowly fall in love.

This is the kind of experience that inspires earnest critics to consult a thesaurus. One must interestingly describe an account with a more creative word than “boring.” “Inert” is a favorite of mine. The definition includes “chemically inactive” which perfectly describes the scientific reaction this presentation had on my physical state. “Lethargic” and “listless” work too. Any comparable vocabulary word would effectively convey this saga — any except perhaps “impotent” due to its sexual connotation. This does in fact feature two sex scenes, one explicit. Yes, I realize I’ve now inadvertently recommended this to some of you. The lovemaking incongruously pops up in such direct contrast to the rest of the tepid tale. Maybe it’s not so shocking, however. Their seemingly schizophrenic personalities are rooted in an idiomatic cliché: “A lady in the streets and freak in the sheets.”

19th-century lesbians find love by the Ocean. The subject, time, and locale have all converged to be very hot in the art house circuit as of late. The well-reviewed Portrait of a Lady on Fire got a widespread U.S. theatrical release back in February. Meanwhile, Ammonite has likewise garnered critical acclaim. I won’t be adding my praise to the heap. It’s not for lack of trying. Kate and Saoirse do their capable best to imbue these characters with humanity. The actors radiate sincerity, heart, and pathos. But their thespian skill can only carry this chronicle so far. Ammonite is the follow up to British director Francis Lee’s feature debut, God’s Own Country. I’m not faulting Ammonite for its similarities to Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s is a thoroughly dreary film judged on its own terms — visually drab and narratively aloof. Quite bewildering that the characteristics of both works are so similar, though. Comparisons are inevitable. If you haven’t seen either and the subject interests you, the choice is blazingly clear.

11-19-20

Palm Springs

Posted in Comedy, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance with tags on July 27, 2020 by Mark Hobin

palm_springsSTARS4So I’ll just cut to the chase and start off by saying that Palm Springs made assembling my Top 10 list for 2020 a little easier.  I wasn’t prepared for how thoroughly enjoyable this tale would be.  Romantic comedies are often given short shrift when it comes to discussing great cinema but when they are done well the genre can hit emotional highs in a way that few stories can.

The amorous entanglement concerns two strangers who are both guests at a wedding in Palm Springs.  They meet and then promptly get stuck repeating the same span of time over and over.  It’s obviously similar to Groundhog Day.  I cherish that classic and I dare say Palm Springs is a close 2nd in all films featuring a time loop.  That may seem like a narrow bar but there’s a surprising number of choices that qualify: Source Code, About Time, Edge of Tomorrow, Naked and Happy Death Day are but only a few.  This is a story about how Nyles (Andy Samberg) and Sarah (Cristin Milioti) become an unlikely couple in the midst of bizarre circumstances.

Palm Springs has a breezy screenplay that doesn’t take itself very seriously.  Yet it’s smart and coherent when it needs to be.  Nyles and Sarah aren’t about love at first sight.  He’s actually there with his girlfriend Misty (Meredith Hagner) who one of the bridesmaids.  Oh, it’s OK he flirts with Sarah.  Misty has been cheating on Nyles and he knows it.  Sarah isn’t some demure heroine.  In fact, she’s kind of edgy and bitter. Meanwhile, Nyles isn’t a suave leading man. He can be a goofball but he’s still charming nonetheless.  Neither Sarah nor Nyles wants to be a guest at this wedding.  So they have that in common and are united by this feeling.  That’s enough.  Then the temporal loop shenanigans begin.

None of this preposterous — albeit inspired — nonsense would work if the two stars weren’t so charismatic.  The saga stars Andy Samberg who got his start on the long-running late-night sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live in 2005.  He’s part of a contingent with a persona like Adam Sandler and Jimmy Fallon in the ensemble.  Pete Davidson currently holds that casting slot.  This may sound like I’m negating actor Samberg’s individuality.  I’m not.  In fact, he is probably the most appealing member that has ever held that niche.

Nyles has met the woman who will change his life in Sarah.  Cristin Milioti is probably best known for her role in the final season of the TV sitcom How I Met Your Mother.  She’s featured in one of my favorite scenes in this production.  Sarah is hardcore studying quantum physics to figure out how to end this infinite time loop in which she’s stuck.  The inspired montage is set to “The Brazilian” by Genesis.  Another endearing musical vignette involves the couple’s impromptu dance in a bar while “Megatron Man” by Patrick Cowley blasts in the background.  These displays aren’t rare occurrences but representative of the many delightful moments contained within.  It’s been a while since a romantic comedy captivated me this much.  It’s funny, sweet, and a little acerbic.  I loved it.

07-11-20

The High Note

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

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

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

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

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

05-30-20

The Photograph

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

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

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

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

05-14-20

Little Women

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

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

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

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

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

12-27-19

Waves

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

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

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

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

12-05-19