Monday


Love can leave us underwater.

(2020) Romance (IFC) Denise Gough, Sebastian Stan, Yorgos Pirpassopoulos, Michalis Laios, Michalis Alexakis, Giorgos Valais, Vangelis Mourikis, Fivos Kontogiannis, Grigoris Sarantis, Panagos Iokeim, Dominique Tipper, Prometheus Aleifer, Dimitris Kouroubalis, Orfeas Aygoustidis, Alexandros Logothetis, Syllas Tzoumerkas, Nikos Gialas, Elli Tringou. Directed by Argyris Papadimitropoulos

 

The flush of love is equal parts sex and ego. We feel a connection that builds us up, comforts us, makes us feel deserving and worthwhile. And then there’s the sex. Let’s not forget that.

Greek director Papadimitropoulos (Suntan) doesn’t let that happen as his ex-pat couple Chloe (Gough), an immigration lawyer living in Athens but preparing to return to the States to take a hefty offer at a Chicago law firm, and Mickey (Stan), an oh-so-fine musician now working as a popular nightclub DJ, engage in passionate sex at the drop of a hat, or generally, with a whole lot less cause.

This romance takes place over the course of several weekends in their relationship, all involving some sort of watershed moment in the couple’s lives. We see them meet in an Athenian disco, begin making out before even learning the other’s name, and ending up naked on the beach which gets them escorted to the hoosegow. Despite Chloe’s career plans, that draw towards Mickey changes them and the two begin a relationship.

We learn that Mickey is the irresponsible one, a manchild who lives a party hearty lifestyle in a profession that most certainly has a shelf life, and is the father of a six-year-old son that his ex won’t let him see because of Mickey’s irresponsible tendencies, tendencies that will begin to surface and imperil the budding relationship, although it doesn’t stop them from having sex anywhere and everywhere.

In case you haven’t guessed from my vague clues, there are a lot of sex scenes in the movie which may make certain viewers uncomfortable or downright hostile. If sex scenes bother you, this is a movie to be avoided. Me, I’m all for a good roll in the hay during a movie, but while I get that the director was trying to make a point, I do subscribe to the theory that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

The saving grace here is that Gough and Stan are not only attractive but charismatic screen presences, particularly Stan who most viewers know better as the Winter Soldier in the MCU films and Disney Plus TV show which has created quite the stir among fans in recent weeks. Stan has tended to be cast as a second banana in many of his appearances but Monday at least proves that the young actor is ready to take the next step in his career.

The movie clocks in at nearly two hours long which is about half an hour too long for a movie of this sort. Cutting about half of the sex scenes might have done the trick. Still in all, if you’re in the market for watching a couple of hot, attractive people in a romantic, sun-drenched location, this might be the cup of tea for your kettle.

REASONS TO SEE: Stan is a charismatic performer with a future as a romantic lead.
REASONS TO AVOID: Much too long for what it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a great deal of sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Harrison’s mother is Vietnamese and met her father, a U.S. soldier, during the War. They eventually got married and had seven children of which Patti is the youngest.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews; Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Realm of the Senses
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Rookies (2021)

Older


As we grow older, life and love grow more complicated.

(2020) Romance (Rialto/Indie Rights) Guy Pigden, Liesha Ward Knox, Astra McLaren, Harley Neville, Samantha Jukes, Michael Drew, Michelle Leuthart, Louise Higgins, Jay Simon, Simon Ward, Peter Coonan, Melanie Bevan, Kelvin Taylor, Carey Lee. Directed by Guy Pigden

 

For the most part, we are all dragged kicking and screaming into maturity. When we are young, we are self-indulgent, self-centered and all about hanging out with friends, feeling good, and putting off responsibility just as long as humanly possible. Sooner or later, though, we are faced with the reality of growing up and becoming an adult…of getting older.

Alex (Pigden) hasn’t yet gotten there. An aspiring filmmaker, his one film was soundly rejected by critics and public alike, and he has retreated into a kind of rut, living with his Mum (Leuthart) and Dad (Drew), getting high, jerking off, and hanging out with a dwindling group of friends including Henry (Neville), his best friend from childhood who has started to make that climb into adulthood. He is living with his fiancée Isabelle (Jukes) and had a baby with her. Suddenly, Alex and Henry aren’t on the same page anymore.

At Henry and Isabelle’s wedding, Alex reconnects from a couple of women from his past – model Stephanie (McLaren), whom Alex has had a thing for since high school, while Jenny (Knox) was his partner in crime along with Henry. Alex is very interested still in Stephanie and it turns out she has some interest in him, while he enjoys hanging out with Jenny. Both relationships eventually lead to sex, which eventually leads to complications. All of the parties in this triangle are aware that they are far from exclusive with one another, and that’s fine with them – Stephanie doesn’t seem to have much of an emotional connection to Alex and while Jenny certainly has one, she’s no more interested in building a future with him than he is. She’s content to run her coffee shop, hang out with Alex and other partners on occasion – that is, until one of those annoying real life complications hits her smack in the face, giving Alex – who up until now has been quite the likable bloke – the opportunity to do something utterly stupid, and damn near unforgivable.

For his part, Alex is also dealing with real life events that have left him forced to sort out who he is and more importantly, who he wants to be. Alex, at 29, now realizes that maturity is beckoning whether he wants it to or not; and while he can choose to ignore it and continue to exist in the comfortable rut he has lived in for years (and that’s always an option), the consequences of that choice may be more than he can bear.

Pigden, who also wrote and directed the movie, actually comes off as extremely likable despite the immaturity that is basic to the character and other than one incident alluded to above (note to all young men – the question he asks Jenny (and you’ll know what it is when you hear it) is one that you should never EVER under any circumstances whatsoever ask a woman you have any feelings for)you’ll find yourself enjoying his company which is a good thing because he’s in nearly every frame of the film.

While I don’t object to flashbacks per se, the way they are utilized here in what is essentially a linear narrative comes off as overuse which, I admit, might just be a personal taste thing on my part. He also utilizes a kind of romcom type of template particularly near the end of the movie that veteran movie buffs might find off-putting. There is also a fair amount of nudity, sex, and what some would consider bad behavior but might for a segment of society just be another Friday night, so if that kind of thing bothers you, be aware.

But most of all, this is a movie that hits al the right notes. It’s the kind of movie that bores into your brain like that song you can’t forget and as time goes by, you regard it more fondly than you did the first time you experienced it. Pigden has written that this is a personal film for him, and you can tell that it holds an awful lot of meaning for him. While not strictly autobiographical, enough of his life experiences have been included to give the movie a whole lot of authenticity. I imagine that you might not have had this on your radar – unfortunately, the film received little publicity or fanfare which is sadly the case for most indie films – but this is a jewel worth seeking out, particularly if you are of an age where your twenties are in jeopardy of becoming your thirties and you’re wondering if that’s all there is. Spoiler alert; it isn’t, and movies like this can take the sting out of getting older.

REASONS TO SEE: Snappy dialogue and smart soundtrack. Pigden is extremely likable for the most part.
REASONS TO AVOID: Relies on flashbacks a little too much. Uses a few standard romance tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, sex, and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes from Alex’s horror film are actually Pigden’s award-winning short No Caller ID.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, Roku, Tubi, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Second Chance
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Dead of Night

Little Fish


When you’re losing everything, hold on to what you have tightly.

(2020) Romance (IFCOlivia Cooke, Jack O’Connell, Soko, Raul Castillo, David Lennon, Mackenzie Caldwell, Ross Wirtanen, Heather Decksheimer, Natalie Smith, Ronald Robinson, Wyatt Cameron, Morgana Wyllie, Monique Phillips, Paul Almeida, Toby Hargrave, Albert Nicholas, Chris Shields, Jeff Sanca, Naomi King, Darius Willis, Emily Stott, Samantha Spear. Directed by Chad Hartigan

 

What makes us who we are? There are those who will argue (convincingly) that it is our experiences, our memories. Everything in our lives is filtered through them. The loss of memory is a kind of death; the loss of the essence of who we are, dying away in a fog of forgetfulness.

A pandemic has swept the world – no, not that one – of a disease called NIA: neuroinflammatory affliction. Think of it as a kind of supercharged Alzheimer’s; it affects the old and the young, causing memories to disappear; sometimes all at once, other times gradually. Emma (Cooke), a British ex-pat working as a veterinarian in Seattle, is fully aware of the ramifications of the disease. She is married to Jude (O’Connell), a photographer. She is trying to document everything about their relationship in the case that one or both of them are afflicted by it.

It has already hit close to home. Musician friend Ben (Castillo) has contracted the virus and is desperately racing to get his songs recorded before he forgets them or how to play at all. He is also beginning to forget his wife Samantha (Soko) which is terrifying to Emma. It becomes all the more terrifying when both her mother and Jude get NIA and while Emma can do nothing for her mother, she desperately tries everything to save her husband’s memory before she becomes just another face in the crowd to him.

This is a very poignant film that not only spotlights the true horror of diseases like Alzheimer’s but underscores the disappearance of thousands due to the pandemic we’re all experiencing. Hartigan utilizes the overcast Seattle weather and the rugged landscape of the Pacific Northwest to great effect. The movie is narrated by Emma as a series of journal entries in her quest to keep the relationship alive in Jack’s fading memory; the futility of her effort makes the movie all the more affecting.

Much of the reason the film works is the obvious chemistry between Cooke and O’Connell’ the intimacies of little moments – a touch here, a glance there, a caress across the back of the head – feel authentic and serve to remind us that true love is not a series of grand gestures, but of small ones. Yes, there are some Hollywood moves like kisses while holding sparklers on the fourth of July, piggyback rides and other horseplay but because the feeling between Cooke and O’Connell comes off so genuinely it doesn’t feel as forced as it might ordinarily.

We get very little context on how the disease is affecting the world at large. We get a sense that people are forgetting how to drive their boats and cars, abandoning them and walking (or swimming) back home. Most air travel has been banned because of the possibility that a pilot might forget how to fly a plane mid-flight. We don’t see how that would then affect supply chains, of how civilization itself would start to come to a screeching halt. Other than a scene at a clinic where people are signing up for an experimental treatment that could potentially be a cure, we don’t see the panic something like this would cause. If people aren’t willing to wear a simple cloth mask, how would they react to something like NIA?

For those who have lost loved ones to COVID, this might hit a little too close to home. Those with loved ones suffering from Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia may also find this troubling. For all others, the bittersweet quality might be the perfect tonic for some Valentine’s Day snuggling in front of the TV or movie screen.

REASONS TO SEE: A heartbreaking allegory. Terrific chemistry between Cooke and O’Connell. Achingly bittersweet.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending seems a bit drawn out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set during a pandemic, the movie was completed before COVID-19 was a news item.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YoTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Vow
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Woman in Motion

Chop Chop (2020)


Live can’t come to the door, she’s all tied up.

(2020) Thriller (GravitasAtala Arce, Jake Taylor, David Harper, Mikael Mattsson, Jeremy Jordan, James McCabe, Mike Thompson, Nicholas Correnti, Natasha Missick, Lizzie Chaplin (voice), Jazmine Jordan, Theresa Byron, Emily Katter, Paul Syre, Mandy Martino. Directed by Rony Patel

 

Most couples appreciate the quiet evening home alone. Someone cooks dinner, maybe a movie (and microwave popcorn) out on the couch, and then to the bedroom for *ahem* the main course. Sounds like a pretty good night to me.

And that’s what Chuck (Taylor) and Liv (Arce) have in mind. Then, there’s a knock on the door. There’s a guy there named Teddy (Harper), delivering the pizza they ordered. Except, they didn’t order any pizza – Chuck made dinner, so Liv tells Teddy thanks but no thanks, and shuts the door, and goes back into the living room.

And that’s where she finds Teddy waiting for her. “I have abilities,” he says, almost modestly. He also has a bag of bloody severed heads. Now, that’s as promising a beginning for a movie as it gets, thinks I. Sadly, Chop Chop doesn’t quite live up to that early promise.

When Teddy attacks Liv, Chuck comes to the rescue and ends up killing Teddy. However, instead of calling the cops – technically, they were defending themselves which isn’t illegal, even in California – they decide to dispose of the body themselves, calling in some favors from some shady underworld types. When a cop (Jeremy Jordan) stumbles on what’s going on, the couple have to shove him in the trunk as well. And all these underworld sorts are, inexplicably, trying to kill Liv and Chuck. I mean, WTF, right?

Along the way, they meet all manner of killers and fend them off as best they can before they end up being captured and set up for torture…but by that point, you’ll be wondering why you’ve stayed with the movie even this long. The story is told in such an incomprehensible manner that you can be forgiven if you think that the chapter heading for the first scene, Teddy, actually refers to Chuck – it isn’t until a little later that you find out that Teddy was the dead serial killer. The one with abilities…that are never explained, or referred to. And let’s face it, Liv took them pretty much in stride. Do lots of people that she knows have abilities?

Another flaw of the film is that nearly all the action takes place off-camera, or is so brief as to be blink-and-you-missed-it. I’ll give Patel the benefit of the doubt and assume that was for budgetary reasons, but it may well be inexperience, or an attempt to set his thriller apart from the glut of them on the market. I will give him that the concept is solid.

However, he changes tone regularly to an almost maddening degree. The movie starts out as kind of a noir thriller, moves into a romantic comedy at one point, and then shimmies into torture porn at the end before finishing up as…well, that I’ll keep to myself. The really maddening thing is that there is a ton of potential here, but the decisions made by the person sitting in the director’s chair as well as the person at the laptop banging away the script (the same person, by the way) just about guaranteed the movie wouldn’t succeed. I think the movie could have worked as a kind of extreme action version of a noir Nick and Nora Charles-type of thing. That’s a movie I’d love to see – John Wick meets The Thin Man. Hollywood, get on that one, wouldja?

REASONS TO SEE: The concept is an intriguing one.
REASONS TO AVOID: Clumsy storytelling vies with questionable directorial decisions for the most damaging aspect to the film’s success.
FAMILY VALUES: This is plenty of violence and profanity, bloody images, some sexual content, and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Patel, who was born in India but currently resides in Los Angeles.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/27/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny Games
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Day 3 of Six Days of Darkness!

Draupadi Unleashed


The lot of a woman in India has long been sadness.

(2019) Romance (Passion RiverSalena Qureshi, Cas Anvar, Taaha Shah Badusha, Dominic Rains, Anna George, Melanie Chandra, Azita Ghanizada, Paras Patel, Saad Siddiqui, Indigo Sabharwal, Abi Bais, Gopal Divan, Anil Kumar, Meghana Mudiyam, Pooja Batra, Kai Gowda, TeriEnna Blanco. Directed by Tony Stopperan and Nisha Sabharwal

 

Passion can be a liberating thing, but it can also be a damning thing. Our passions can lead us into great happiness, but more often, into big trouble. But passion is an indelible part of our nature, like it or not.

Young Indira (Qureshi) has passion to spare, but you’d never know it. For one thing, female passion is frowned upon during the British raj of the 1930s, and certainly in the upper caste to which she belongs. She is expected to be submissive to her husband – when a marriage is arranged for her – and to let him do all the thinking. Her job is to keep his house and make him happy.

But Indira wants more, and more might be her cousin Gautam (Badusha), her childhood playmate grown to handsome young manhood. However, the match arranged for her is with Amar (Rains), the heir to a sugar fortune, but another cousin of Indira, Masumi (Ghanizada) – who happens to be married to the rarely present Dev (Saddiqui) – has designs on Amar. She approves the match, if only so that Indira can turn down his sexual advances so that he is driven to Masumi. Blessing the union of Amar and Indira is the reclusive swami Manu (Anvar) who instantly realizes what’s going on and tries to steer this ship away from the rocks it is heading to, but the tremors that begin to occur with more frequency presage a disaster coming to the city of Quetta that would eventually kill more than 40,000.

I will say this is a lush and beautiful looking and sounding film; the visuals have that Downton Abby sheen of wealth and privilege, while the score – utilizing traditional Indian instruments and melodies – is absolutely breathtaking.

The movie exists in kind of a bubble; the social upheaval going on in India during the same period is never referred to – they may as well have set the action on Mars. There is a curiously bloodless feeling here, as if everyone is on lithium. From time to time, someone (usually Amar) raises their voice, but for someone who is willing to run off with her cousin, Indira sometimes comes off as someone who really can’t be bothered to make a decision on her own. The effect is to make her less compelling as a character, which is a shame because Qureshi has a great deal of charm which shows up in unexpected times and ways. With a little bit more character development, she could have been truly memorable.

Although set in India, this is an American production so the sensuality is a little bit pronounced although still of the PG variety. There is some violence and the climactic sequences are fairly thrilling, although by the time the movie hits the two hour mark you’re pretty much ready for it to be done. I like the idea here a lot more than the execution.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautiful score and costumes.
REASONS TO AVOID: Far too long to be this passionless.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some mild violence and sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sabharwal not only co-directed the film, but she did the narration (as an older version of Indira) and wrote the novel it’s based on.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Remains of the Day
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Racer

The Sunlit Night


Onward to Norway and adventure! Or whatever…

(2019) Romance (QuiverJenny Slate, Alex Sharp, Fridjov Såheim, Gillian Anderson, Zach Galifianakis, David Paymer, Jessica Hecht, Elise Kibler, Justus von Dohnányl, Olek Krupa, Dan Puck, Ginna Le Vine, Malachy Cleary, Anne Carney, Chris Carfizzi, David Corenswet, Stephanie Mareen, Seth Barrish, Michael Kostroff, Cindy Cheung. Directed by Daniel Wnendt

We are often under a microscope that family and friends peer through. They have their expectations and sometimes we work to meet them; others, we defy them in an effort to be our own person. But being under that microscope can be traumatic and depressing. Sometimes, the only way to find ourselves is to run away.

Frances (Slate) is a budding artist in New York City that is struggling to find her voice. Her instructors harshly critique her work as derivative. She lives in an incredibly cramped apartment with her father (Paymer), a well-known artist of anatomical drawings who has a penchant for speaking his mind and is, to put it bluntly, a bit of an asshole. Her mother (Hecht) is a textile artist whose success has been overshadowed by her husband. Her sister Gaby (Kibler) has gotten engaged to her boyfriend whom her father hates with a passion. Frances’ own boyfriend has just unceremoniously dumped her. And her parents are splitting up.

Frances, with these compounded issues, is reeling. She decides to take an internship in Norway with Nils (Såheim) a notoriously reclusive artist. He is working on a project on an island above the arctic circle where the sun never fully sets in the summer. The project – which involves painting an old barn a variety of shades of yellow – is, Nils hopes, going to be included on a map of art-related tourist spots that the Norwegian National Museum is compiling. He doesn’t handle people very well, and expects Frances to work like a mule, leaving her little time for her own art, which she was hoping to work on during her internship.=

She spends time at a local Viking village recreation whose chieftain (Galifianakis) is actually an American from Cincinnati. Also visiting the island is Sasha (Sharp) whose father just passed away and requested a Viking funeral on this island where he had chosen to live out the remainder of his days. Sasha is a New Yorker whose parents were Russian immigrants, and his estranged mother (Anderson) is there to throw a monkey wrench into things. For Frances’ part, she finds the vulnerable New Yorker fascinating. Is there a romance blooming in the land of reindeer and snow?

Most of the movie reference sites online list this as a Romance, so I have done the same, but it isn’t really accurate. This isn’t about the relationship between Frances and Sasha; it’s more about the romance between Frances and herself. In a lot of ways, this is more of  coming of age film than a romance. We see Frances growing from someone lost and adrift into someone who has something meaningful to contribute.

There’s a bit of the manic pixie dream girl to Frances, although one could never use the term “manic” when it comes to Jenny Slate. She is not everybody’s cup of tea, with a voice that sounds like Jennifer Tilly voicing a toddler, but she is a capable actress and tends to shine in these indie films when she’s given the right material. She also gets to do the voiceover narration (which isn’t intrusive, thank the Great Gahoo) but she gets to say things like describing her New York apartment as “A Mondrian of claustrophobia” and referring to her internship as “Arctic detention.”

Also worthy of note is the cinematography which is borderline breathtaking. What isn’t is the infestation of indie tropes and clichés that make me wonder at times if this wasn’t filmmaking by check box. That gives the movie what I believe to be an unintentionally retro feel. There’s also an over-reliance on the use of masterwork paintings to explain the action or various characters in it.

Still, it’s solid enough to check out. Slate should already be on the radar of a number of indie film aficionados and the lovely Norwegian countryside as well as the strong dialogue make this worthy of notice. Still, if indie films of the last 15 years have gotten you wary of the same old thing, this might not be the film for you.

REASONS TO SEE: The dialogue is pretty snappy. Some beautiful cinematography.
REASONS TO AVOID: A lot of indie film tropes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sex, profanity and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rebecca Dinerstein Knight wrote the screenplay, adapting her own novel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/21/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews, Metacritic: 47/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lady Bird
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Wandering Earth

Welcome to Marwen


A bunch of living dolls.

(2018) Drama (DreamWorks/Universal) Steve Carrell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Weaver, Janelle Monáe, Elza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis, Falk Hentschel, Matt O’Leary, Nikolai Witschl, Patrick Roccas, Alexander Lowe, Stefanie von Pfetten, Neil Jackson, Samantha Hum, Siobhan Williams, Eric Keenlyside, Clay St. Thomas, Kate Gajdosik, Veena Sood. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

 

Welcome to Marwen is a dramatic version of the acclaimed 2010 documentary Marwencol (which if you haven’t seen, stop right now and see it) which is the story of artist Mark Hogancamp, who was viciously beaten outside of a bar in 2005 by a bunch of guys who objected to the fact that he likes to wear women’s shoes. The men got off lightly; all of them had been released by the time the documentary came out.

Here, Hogancamp (Carrell) has no memory of his life before the attack (as was the case for the real Hogancamp) and used a fictional Belgian village populated by action figures, mostly modeled after women that Hogancamp knows – from his physical therapist (Monáe) to the clerk at the hobby shop where he buys his supplies (Weaver) – and Hogancamp himself (an idealized heroic version of himself he calls Captain Hogie) set during World War II. Mark’s lawyer is trying to get the reclusive artist to appear at the sentencing hearing of his attackers but Mark is very reluctant; anything that reminds him of that night sends him into severe panic attacks.

Helping matters is the appearance of a new neighbor, Nicol (Mann) who is compassionate and kind, and whom Mark develops an instant crush on. She could be his way out to normalcy or a reminder of past traumas that will send him spiraling hopelessly back into near-catatonia.

Critics tended to hate the film (see below) which I can understand; it’s not an easy story to get across and quite frankly, Zemeckis was not an awe-inspiring choice to make it. His sentimentality tends to rub critics the wrong way, but I found it affecting here, and there are some scenes when Carrell, who is absolutely wonderful at times, just breaks your heart. The romance between Marc and Nicol is absolutely realistic as well.

The movie ends on a bit of a predictable note and might turn people off – the dolls can look a little bit creepy. Some find men playing with primarily female dolls to be un-woke, but in the context of a man badly traumatized trying to deal the best way he can, I think it’s forgivable. Not the greatest movie Zemeckis has done, but it is entertaining and heartwarming enough to be enjoyable.

REASONS TO SEE: Carrell does a good job. Nice special effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is predictable. A bit creepy in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence, some of it bloody. There are also disturbing images, some brief sexual references and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real life doll village Marwen is based on is called Marwencol, which is a combination of Mark, Wendy and Colleen. The Nicol character is based on Colleen, but her name was dropped from the town’s name.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Now, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic:  40/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marwencol
FINAL RATING: 6,5/10
NEXT:
The Wretched

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)


Love in flames.

(2019) Romance (NEON) Noémie Merlant, Adele Haenel, Luána Bajrami, Valeria Golino, Christel Baras, Armande Boulanger, Guy Delamarche, Clément Bouyssou, Cécile Morel, Michéle Clément. Directed by Céline Sciamma

 

The Darkwave band Black Tape for a Blue Girl did a song “A Love That Dare Not Be” which is heartbreaking in nearly every respect; the music itself creates a melancholic mood and there’s the realization that few people have ever heard the song and it so deserves to be heard.

In fact, their Ashes in the Brittle Air album dovetails nicely with Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the latest from French writer-director Sciamma and her most exciting work to date. It is a period piece, set in the mid-to-late 18th century in an isolated chateau on the seacoast of Brittany.

Marianne (Merlant) has been commissioned to paint a portrait of Hélöise (Haenel), the daughter of the countess (Golino) who lives there. Hélöise has just been yanked out of the convent to take the place of her sister in a marriage to a Milanese nobleman; the portrait is to be used to pique interest in the girl as potential marriage material. However, Hélöise is wise to the game and refused to sit for a portrait with the previous painter, who grew frustrated at her obstinance and quit.

Marianne is there in the guise of a companion to accompany Hélöise on walks around the chateau. The countess is concerned that Hélöise might suffer the same fate as her sister, who fell from the cliffs. The house’s sole servant, Sophie (Bajrami) believes it was suicide because the girl didn’t utter a sound on the way to her death.

Marianne is meant to paint surreptitiously in the evening hours. Her canvas and painting supplies are hidden behind privacy partitions. During the day the two women hang out and soon develop a friendship. Marianne is forced by circumstances to notice the details of Hélöise; the curve of her neck, the cartilage of her ears, the elegance of her fingers. Before long, the friendship develops into something deeper – the proverbial love that dare not speak its name.

This is one of the most beautifully shot movies I’ve seen in a while and I’ve seen some good ones. The composition is exquisite, done with a painter’s eye. Whether it is Hélöise standing alone in front of crashing waves on the shore, or Hélöise, Marianne and Sophia cresting a hill at dusk in the wild light of sunset, or Marianne alone before the fire, naked and puffing on a pipe contemplatively, each shot has purpose, each shot conveys emotion.

The emotions are at the center of the performances of Haenel and Merlant. Both are up for Best Actress awards at the César awards that are being presented this coming Friday – the French Oscars. Either performance is award-worthy, although I don’t know how you would choose between the two. Haenel is more reserved, somewhat more melancholy. Merlant has the advantage of being the narrator and setting the tone in that sense. The chemistry between them is natural and believable.

\Throughout the film there are references to the legend of Orpheus – he’s the bard whose love Eurydice died young, so he made the perilous journey into the underworld to beg Lord Hades for him to release her back to the world. Hades, moved by Orpheus’ artistry, grants the request with the caveat that Orpheus must lead the way and not turn back until both of them have left the Underworld; if he obeys, they will live whatever time they have left. If not, Eurydice goes right back into the afterlife, not passing go nor collecting $200. Human nature being what it is, Orpheus looks back as the end is in sight and loses his girl forever.

Hélöise, Marianne and Sophie discuss the meanings of the myth but there are also some other references; appearances of paintings based on the myth and near the end of the movie, as Marianne is leaving the chateau with her Hélöise promised to another, she hears the admonition to turn around and beholds Hélöise in a white wedding-like dress behind her. As Marianne shuts the door, Hélöise disappears from view.

There is a lot of depth here, too much to get into in one article but enough that you’ll be talking about it with your film buff friends for a long time to come. The two-hour movie takes a bit of time to get going, but once it hits its stride it holds your attention firmly. This had a one-day theatrical preview event back in December but is just now hitting a general release. Their distributor, which is still in a celebratory mood after one of their films won the Best Picture Oscar, can start celebrating again; this is another amazing film for their library and one which could very well be part of next year’s Oscar conversation.

REASONS TO SEE: A master class on camera composition. A haunting choral piece really heightens the mood. Wonderful use of the Orpheus myth.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too long; it drags a bit in the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and sexuality including one brief scene of graphic sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During the festival scene, the women sing a choral version of Non Possunt Fugere which is Latin for “They Cannot Escape.” The song is repeated during the closing credits.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes:98% positive reviews: Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Breathe In
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations

Life Itself (2018)


Ah, to be young, in love and expecting a child!

(2018) Romance (AmazonOlivia Wilde, Oscar Isaac, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Mandy Patinkin, Jean Smart, Olivia Cooke, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Laia Costa, Alex Monner, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabel Durant, Lorenza Izzo, Jake Robinson, Adrián Marrero, Kya Cruse, Charlie Thurston, Gabby Bryan, Jordana Rose, Caitlin Carmichael, Bryant Carroll, Carmela Lloret. Directed by Dan Fogelman

 

Life Itself (not to be confused with the 2014 Roger Ebert bio-documentary) has some mighty tall aspirations. It means to show us through all the pain and suffering through life, we can find solace in that love finds us because it is destined to. I’m sure there are plenty of lonely people who would take exception to that theory.

Will (Isaac) and Abby (Wilde) are a young couple who met in college, fell in love, got married and are expecting a child. Or, at least, they were; we see most of that through flashbacks and we meet Will during a therapy session with a sympathetic psychiatrist (Bening) who is trying to guide Will through the ruins of his life after Abby leaves it. We meet their daughter Dylan (Cooke), a petulant young girl who fronts a punk band but is hiding great pain and not hiding it very well. We also meet Rodrigo (Monner), a young boy traumatized at a young age and brought up by a mother (Costa) who is afflicted with cancer and two fathers – his biological dad (Peris-Mencheta) and the wealthy landowner (Banderas) for whom his father works and who has been part of his life since the beginning. We also meet Elena (Izzo), the narrator who has connections with nearly all of these people in some way.

This is a movie that is riddled with sorrow; plenty of the folks I just introduced you to meet tragic ends, but there is also a lot of joy in the relationships with spouses, parents and caring friends. It feels like Fogelman has tried to cram way too much into the movie which helps to give it the feel that it’s going on too long. Some astute viewers will note that Fogelman has become well-known for the TV show This Is Us which this resembles in tone and construction which is probably why my wife likes this movie so much.

Most critics don’t, however, and I count myself among them. Like life itself, the movie has problems and triumphs in equal measure. There are some nice performances – Costa, Isaac, Wilde and Patinkin stand out, and Jackson in what amounts to a cameo at the very beginning of the movie might have caused problems by making viewers think this was going to be a different kind of movie than it actually was. Frankly, I thought that Fogelman should have stuck with the Sam Jackson movie; it’s a much better one than the one he actually made.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some form of catharsis throughout the movie for you to hold onto. There certainly is, but the tone shifts are so abrupt and violent that we are left feeling curiously off-balance, which is kind of what we watch movies to get away from. Life Itself is too much like life itself in many ways and I don’t think most of us love life itself enough to want to watch a movie about it.

REASONS TO SEE: Jackson is incandescent in his brief appearance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Excessively maudlin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is more than a bit of profanity, some sexual references, some violent images and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fogelman listened extensively to Bob Dylan’s 1997 Time Out of Mind album in order to set the mood of the film which blends love and melancholy. In fact, the track “Love Sick” plays over the opening credits.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 14% positive reviews: Metacritic: 21/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Is Us
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The House With the Clock In the Walls

A Faithful Man (L’homme fidėle)


Sometimes tenderness can be found in a teacup.

(2018) Romance (Kino-LorberLouis Garrel, Laetitia Casta, Lily-Rose Depp, Joseph Engel, Diane Courselle, Vladislav Galard, Bakary Sangarė, Kiara Carriėre, Dali Benssalah, Arthur Igual. Directed by Louis Garrel

 

Occasionally, life blindsides us. We go along, thinking things are just peachy keen when out of the blue we are hit in the face by some event destined to change our lives forever. Sometimes though, the path we are on is merely a detour rather than an entirely new road.

Abel (Garrel) is a college student living with his girlfriend Marianne (Casta) in her Paris apartment. The two have been friends since high school and as far as Abel is concerned things are going swimmingly well. That’s when she corrals him just before he’s headed for class with a “got a sec?” conversation that turns out to be a little more than a brief “Oh, and by the way…” subject. It turns out that Marianne is pregnant…and Abel isn’t the father. His best friend Paul is…and Marianne means to marry Paul and raise his son with him. Which means Abel has ten days to move out.

Abel takes it remarkably well but then again, the French are certainly more civilized than we Americans when it comes to matters of the heart. An American might have pulled out an AR-15 and shot her in the face and then gone out to hunt down her family…and Paul’s. Fortunately, this isn’t that kind of film.

Flash forward nine years later and Paul has passed away suddenly, Abel has lost contact with both Marianne and Paul over the intervening years and become a journalist. Hearing about his former best friend’s demise, Abel decides to pay his respects and strikes up a conversation with Marianne and eventually giving her and her son Joseph (Engel) a ride home from the cemetery. Eventually Abel and Marianne begin meeting for lunch and before you know it, voila! Abel is back living with Marianne and Joseph.

Joseph is none too pleased with this development and tries to convince Abel that his mother – in collusion with her doctor lover (Galard) – poisoned Paul. He’s fairly effective at it too – Abel ends up conducting an investigation of his own. And just to complicate matters (too late!), it turns out that Paul’s little sister Eve (Depp) has had a massive crush on Abel over the years and now that she’s grown into a woman, thinks that she would be the perfect mate for Abel and that Marianne, who already has proven that she doesn’t really love Abel that much by giving him up a decade previously, should just give him up. Marianne then suggests that Abel move in with Eve and find out whether his heart lies with Eve or with Marianne. Ah, France!

Garrel – a third-generation actor and second-generation director – has delivered a brief but punchy romance that has elements of a comedy (although the comedy is bone-dry here) as well as some genuinely moving moments that while not the lightest and frothiest of French romances, certainly has the sophistication of one. I don’t know if I personally could forgive a former girlfriend who dumped me for my best friend with whom she had been having an affair for a year and even resume a romantic relationship after my friend kicked the bucket, but then again I’m not French. I don’t have the grace to get past my hurt and anger.

Garrel makes for a smoldering romantic lead. As a director, he has a few fine moves, such as when he says in a voiceover “I never knew how to talk to children” and then goes right out and displays why in a conversation with Joseph who is playing him, as Danny DeVito might say, like a harp from Hell. It helps that the script was co-written with frequent Luis Brunel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, who has amongst his credits The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

The three leads of the triangle – Garrel, Casta and Depp (yes, she’s Johnny’s baby girl) – all perform ably here, particularly Depp who gives Eve dignity without desperation, obsessiveness without creepiness. In the end, Eve is cursed by getting exactly what she wants and isn’t that usually the way?

In any case, I will freely admit that Gallic romances are the finest in all of cinema, and while this isn’t the finest example of the genre, it certainly is a solid one. This is still making the rounds of art house cinemas and should be available to stream in a few months as of this writing. Those who love French films should check it out as should lovers of movies of all flags.

REASONS TO SEE: Nobody understands affairs of the heart like the French.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some might find the comedy a bit on the dry side.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Garrel and Casta are married in real life.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paris Can Wait
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Stuck