Carol


A different type of Christmas Carol.

A different type of Christmas Carol.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Kevin Crowley, Nik Pajic, Carrie Brownstein, Trent Rowland, Sadie Heim, Kk Heim, Amy Warner, Michael Haney, Wendy Lardin, Pamela Evans Haynes, Greg Violand, Michael Ward, Kay Geiger, Christine Dye. Directed by Todd Haynes

We sometimes look back at the 1950s as a kind of idyllic era, a time when America was the pre-eminent world power (although I’m sure the Soviet Union had a thing or two to say about that), when life was simple and the American way of life was at its peak. However, for all the affection we have for that time period, there were some undercurrents that were much more ugly than our collective memories would credit.

Carol is set in 1952 as America’s post-war paradise was in full flower. Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, it can be said that the movie is about the relationship between shopgirl Therese (pronounced as if it rhymes with “caress”) Belivet (Mara) and well-to-do housewife Carol Aird (Blanchett). While Christmas shopping for her daughter, the elfin Therese catches the patrician Carol’s eye and things evolve from there. Unfortunately, the kind of relationship the two women have in mind is frowned upon in that era.

To make things more complicated, Carol is in the midst of a contentious divorce with her husband Harge (Chandler) who has already endured a Sapphic affair by his wife with her friend Abby (Paulson) although that, we learn, actually took place before he married her. The thought that his wife has been intimate with another woman apparently drives him a little bit batty, but he loves his wife and wants her to stay, but his problems with alcohol and rage make that impossible. Carol is trying to keep things low-key between her and Therese but left alone and needing to get out of town, the two women hop in a car and head vaguely West, not really with any specific destination in mind although once they get to Chicago they stay at the swanky Drake Hotel. However, the repercussions of Carol’s actions will force her to choose between her needs and her daughter.

This is exquisitely acted, with likely Oscar nominations coming to both Blanchett and Mara. While this is clearly not about Carol as much as it is about Therese, film title notwithstanding, Blanchett gives Carol an icy upper class veneer with a warm center when it comes to other women. She is graceful and a bit brassy; after a loud fight with her husband witnessed by (and to a large extent caused by) Therese, Carol in an exasperated tone exclaims  “Just when you think it can’t get any worse, you run out of cigarettes!” It’s the type of line that would have been uttered by a Joan Crawford or a Rosalind Russell, but not nearly as well as Blanchett delivers it.

Mara’s naturally gamine features have gotten her comparisons to Audrey Hepburn, although she is somewhat more sophisticated an actress than Hepburn. She does have Hepburn’s charming youthful inexperience, but beneath that is a sexuality that lights up the screen, particularly later in the film when the relationship between the two women begins to get physical. Mara is very much desired by a good deal of men in the story, not the least of which is her boyfriend Richard Semco (Lacy) who very much wants her to be his wife a little further down the line. His earnest delivery is perfect for a character who is completely puzzled that his girl simply isn’t behaving the way she’s supposed to.

One of the characteristics of the era was its elegance and from the exquisite fashions to the furniture and settings, the movie gets it down pat. They capture the speech patterns of Manhattan sophisticates, which was more genteel than we’re used to hearing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an evocation of 1950s New York that captured as well as this one for a film not made in that era. I think that an Oscar nomination is very likely for costume designer Sandy Powell, whose fashions here are beautiful, simple, stylish and perfect for the time period.

And yet for all the praise I’m heaping on the movie, you’ll notice the rating doesn’t seem to match and here’s why. The movie takes a very long time to go a very short distance. The addendum at the end of the movie is nearly pointless, as by that time we’ve emotionally checked out of the film. Haynes has a definite case of the on-too-longs and the film would have benefitted from some judicious editing.

But let’s be clear about this – I’m very much in the minority when it comes to the critical opinion of the movie, which you can tell from the scores below, so do take my remarks with a grain of salt but the thing that really makes me wonder about the universal critical acclaim is this question; would the movie have received the same kind of praise if the couple at the center been heterosexual? I have a very disturbing feeling that it would not.

This is a beautifully shot movie with superb acting performances, and on that basis alone you should likely go see it. Certainly if you’re an Oscar buff, you’ll want to catch the lead performances which are likely to both be nominated. However, be aware that you may find some of the movie a bit tedious and mannered, which while it fits in with the era it’s set in, may indeed not necessarily fit in with modern moviegoing audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Blanchett and Mara deliver award-worthy performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is much too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, brief nudity and a little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Highsmith said she was inspired to write the novel after a chance encounter with a blonde woman wearing a fur coat in a department store in 1948.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Far From Heaven
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Tomboy

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Brooklyn


The romance of Ireland meets the romance of Long Island.

The romance of Ireland meets the romance of Long Island.

(2015) Romance (Fox Searchlight) Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Maeve McGrath, Fiona Glascott, Eileen O’Higgins, Peter Campion, Emily Bett Rickards, Eve Macklin, Nora-Jane Noone, Mary O’Driscoll, Samantha Munro, Jessica Paré, Jane Brennan, Eva Birthistle, Brid Brennan, Hugh Gormley, Jenn Murray. Directed by John Crowley

There comes a time in the lives of some people – a lot of people, actually – in which the realization that they have no future sets in. At that moment, they may choose to accept that fate or they may choose to pack up and leave and try to make something of themselves elsewhere.

Eilis Lacey (Ronan) had that decision made for her, by her fiercely protective big sister Rose (Glascott) who wrote Father Flood (Broadbent) in New York to help find Eilis lodging and a job in the Big Apple and so he does, in Brooklyn which in 1951 (when this is set) was full of a rainbow of different cultures, including the Irish. Leaving Rose to care for their widowed mother (J. Brennan) and leaving the employ of a miserable harpy (B. Brennan), she sets sail for the Land of Opportunity.

Once in Brooklyn, she is given lodging at a boarding house run by the no-nonsense Mrs. Kehoe (Walters) who tries to keep Patty (Rickards), Diana (Macklin) and Sheila (Noone) in rein which given their Irish high spirits is no easy task. Desperately homesick, Eilis tries to fit in at the boarding house and tries to fit in at the high-end department store where she works under the watchful eye of Miss Fortini (Paré).

At a dance put on by the local Church, she meets Tony Fiorello (Cohen) who has a thing for Irish girls. His soft-spoken geniality and gentle self-deprecating humor appeals to her and slowly she starts out liking her new beau to falling in love with him. However, a family emergency calls her home to Ireland where she ends up facing a new wrinkle there in the form of a new suitor who is equally kind-hearted and quite the catch, young Jim Farrell (Gleeson) who by the standards of Enniscorthy in County Wexford is well-off. Now the young woman’s heart is torn between two continents and two very different lives. Which will she choose?

Da Queen is fond of describing acting performances that she admires as “quiet,” a trait I find curiously endearing. It means something much different to her than to thee and me and yet in this case, I think she might have something. Ronan is absolutely outstanding here, almost certain to get a nomination for Best Actress at the forthcoming Oscars. Much of her acting takes place in her eyes and on her expressive face; her lilting Irish accent is easily understood, and her longings and yearnings are written in her expressions. Any critic who dismisses the role as bland and unmemorable clearly hasn’t been watching this actress closely, and they are well-advised to – methinks she will be one of the industry’s outstanding actresses for decades to come.

The film is beautifully photographed, from the lush greenery of the Emerald Isle to the windswept barrens of the Long Isle (Long Island NYC) to the brownstone comforts of Brooklyn. Much of the movie takes place in the latter location, a Brooklyn where the Dodgers are still Dem Bums, the streets are alive with color and vitality, Coney Island is still the working class escape and the world is full of possibilities. Sure, this is an idealized Brooklyn because it is largely the Brooklyn of memory and memory makes fonder the places we’ve lived in. The Los Angeles of the 1960s was far from perfect but in my own memory, it is an idyllic place and probably nothing like what it really was and certainly nothing like what it is now. That is the nature of places; they change, often faster and more profoundly than we do ourselves.

While the love triangle between Jim, Tony and Eilis is a bit of a stretch (finding two really nice guys who are actually gentlemen is damn near impossible as any woman will tell you), the relationships that Eilis works out with the two of them feel authentic. Eilis is at times too good to be true – a little naive but with an absolute heart of gold (in fact, the movie has no real antagonist other than the harridan Miss Kelly at the grocery where Eilis works at the movie’s start) and a sweet nature that is straight out of a 50s romance movie.

The world has changed a lot since the time Brooklyn was set in and much of the innocence of that time is long gone. It is not uncommon for those who remember that era to long for its simplicity. Don’t discount the value of nostalgia in marketing a movie – as fellow critic Roger Moore correctly pointed out, the movie seems to be consciously aimed at those who like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And there’s nothing wrong with going after that demographic either; certainly the audience we saw at our screening skewed older. However, nostalgia isn’t all this film has going for it; Ronan’s star turn is likely to get that Oscar nod and could well attract more film buffs here than nostalgia-seeking retirees. This is a contender for my year’s best ten list; go give this one a watch and it might end up on yours too.

REASONS TO GO: Ronan is magnificent. Beautifully shot. Well-written. A lovely slice of life.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a little too idealized.
FAMILY VALUES: Some brief profanity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Ronan was born in The Bronx, she was raised in Ireland by her Irish parents; this is the first time in a movie that she’s used her native Irish accent.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Avalon
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Ridiculous 6

The Last Holiday (2006)


Gerard Depardieu missed lunch but Queen Latifah lets him eat a finger or two.

Gerard Depardieu missed lunch but Queen Latifah lets him eat a finger or two.

(2006) Comedy (Paramount) Queen Latifah, Gerard Depardieu, Timothy Hutton, LL Cool J, Alicia Witt, Giancarlo Esposito, Jane Adams, Mike Estime, Susan Kellermann, Jascha Washington, Matt Rose, Ranjit Chowdhry, Michael Nouri, Jaqueline Fleming, Emeril Lagasse, Lana Likic. Directed by Wayne Wang

We are most of us so busy making a living that we forget to actually live. Our noses are so far down to the grindstone that we fail to notice the blue sky and sunshine above our heads. We certainly are prone to forgetting that our lives are short and can end without warning; so many of us leave it with so many of our dreams unfulfilled.

Georgia Byrd (Latifah) works at a New Orleans department store giving cooking demonstrations and selling cookware. She is crazy about co-worker Sean Matthews (LL Cool J) but is far too shy to make a move. She goes home at night and watches cooking shows, making gourmet recipes that she serves to a neighborhood kid (Washington) while she consumes Lean Cuisine frozen meals because she’s dieting.

One day at work she hits her head and loses consciousness. She is taken to the store infirmary (do any department stores really have those? Outside of Harrods in London I mean) where Dr. Gupta (Chowdhry) takes a CAT scan on the used machine he has just received and to his horror discovers several brain tumors – products of the rare condition Lampington’s Disease. The size and location of the tumors indicate that Georgia is in the final stages of the Disease and has only a few weeks. The operation that might save her may well do no good at all and the prohibitive cost of the potentially life-saving surgery is something her HMO won’t cover. Georgia hasn’t the time to contest it.

She decides to spend her final Christmas season at the Grandhotel Pupp in Kylovy Vary, Czechoslovakia. It’s an exclusive resort but Georgia has been frugal and has accumulated a pretty good amount in her 401k so she cashes it out and flies out to Czechoslovakia. Why there? Why, her favorite chef – Didier (Depardieu) is the executive chef there.

Once there she intends to indulge herself and pamper herself with spa treatments, skiing lessons and of course sampling one of everything from the Chef’s menu. He is so grateful that she is not another diet-conscious American requiring substitutions of “healthy” ingredients that he comes out to meet her himself. This draws the curiosity of a neighboring table where Senator Dillings (Esposito), Congressman Stewart (Nouri) are sitting, as well as the man who is wining and dining them – Matthew Kragen (Hutton) who happens to own the department store chain where Georgia was formerly employed. He sics his assistant Ms. Burns (Witt) with whom he is also having an affair with on Georgia to find out just who she is. The paranoid Kragen is concerned she’s out to ruin his deal that the support of the politicians is crucial for.

Her can-do attitude and positive outlook are inspiring to the lot of them and the more enchanted they become with Georgia, the more suspicious Kragen gets. He gets the officious Gunther (Kellermann), a hotel concierge, to go through Georgia’s things. Gunther discovers that Georgia, whom all the others (as well as the hotel staff whom Georgia treats with kindness and respect – something they aren’t used to) assumes is extremely wealthy, is a store clerk in one of Kragen’s stores. But her triumph quickly turns to shame when she discovers a letter that Georgia has written instructing hotel staff what to do should she pass away while she’s at their hotel.

Sean, in the meantime, decides that he needs to tell Georgia how he feels about her (it turns out the feelings were mutual) and decides to fly to the hotel to do just that. However a blizzard has made getting there precarious and Georgia herself has decided she’d rather spend her last days at home. Will the two be able to get together before the end?

This is a remake of a 1950 comedy starring Alec Guinness in the role Queen Latifah plays here. It’s a very different movie, somewhat more witty and a good bit darker (there’s an astonishing twist that you WILL not see coming near the end of that picture that is absent here). This is much more heart-warming, a kind of a warm hug on a winter day by a beloved friend. Latifah shows her chops as a leading lady; she’s done a lot of comedies both before and since but this is really in many ways the best of the lot.

Georgia starts out kind of mousy (which is really playing against type for Latifah) but good-hearted and as she finally comes out of her shell and allows herself to live we get a sense of the joyfulness she has inside her. She simply learns to enjoy the things that are good in life; good food, good friends, taking risks and trying new things. It’s a lesson not all of us learn in many more years of life than Georgia has lived.

The supporting cast is particularly solid, with kudos going to Depardieu as the chef who feels underappreciated (although with the foodie revival of the last few years he may be feeling better these days) and Hutton who’s Keegan is a greedy paranoid bastard but not altogether without saving graces. LL Cool J, who has become quite accomplished as an actor since on L.A. NCIS shows some good chemistry with fellow rapper Latifah.

This isn’t a particularly remarkable story – even in 1950 when Guinness did it this was pretty tried and true stuff. It’s simply done very well here, largely due to the screen presence of Latifah who makes the audience feel like old friends. Much of why the movie works is due to Latifah who simply makes this movie a vehicle for her personality. While some of the dialogue is clumsy and has the characters saying things that human beings don’t say in reality, it can be overlooked if for no other reason for the warm fuzziness coursing through your veins when the end credits roll.

WHY RENT THIS: Really heart-warming. Latifah shows that she can carry a film on her own here. Depardieu is a whole lot of fun here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The dialogue can be awkward. A bit too rote in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few sexual references but nothing too overt.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the scene where Georgia is serving Sean duck hash on toasted baguette, the Food Network chefs who were advisors and on-site chefs had to substitute for the duck in Sean’s portion because actor LL Cool J doesn’t eat duck.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are a couple of Wolfgang Puck recipes that you can make at home, as well as an interesting featurette as to how this remake nearly hit the screen in the mid-80s…starring the late John Candy, which was shelved at the comedian’s death until Latifah’s agent read it and thought it would make a great starring vehicle for his client.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $43.3M on a $45M production budget; the movie failed to recoup its production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holiday

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: John Dies at the End