Blue Jay


What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

What could be more romantic than slow dancing with your high school sweetheart?

(2016) Romance (The Orchard/Netflix) Mark Duplass, Sarah Paulson, Clu Gulager, James Andrews, Harris Benbury, Daniel Brooks, Mary Brooks, Bill Greer, Cindy Greer, Ana Iovine, Leo Munoz, Loretta Munoz, Brady Rice, Karen Rice. Directed by Alexandre Lehmann

 

The romances of our youth are often the ones that burn the brightest in our memories. Who among us hasn’t wondered “what if” in regards to what might have  been if the relationship had survived past adolescence?

Jim Henderson (Duplass) is back in the small California town in the Sierra Nevada range where he grew up. He’s there because his mom recently passed away and he’s getting her home ready to go on the market, emptying it of her things….his things too. His mom was something of a pack rat. There’s a melancholy to Jim that isn’t all grief; his eyes have the disappointed look of a man whose life has gotten away from him.

At the grocery store to pick up some condiments for his meager dinner, he runs into Amanda, his old high school sweetheart. At first they don’t recognize each other – it was 20 years ago, after all – but then the memories begin flooding back. They agree to meet for coffee in the Blue Jay Café where they hung out as teens. Although the coffee is terrible, they begin to bond and agree to spend the rest of the day together.

They end up at Jim’s house – well, his mom’s – and while going through her things they find old photos, audio cassettes of them rapping and of play-acting their 20th anniversary (do teens really do that?) and she finds his journal, reading poems he wrote about his feelings for her ages past. The two dance to songs long forgotten but now freshly remembered. They watch the stars…and the married Amanda, in town to visit her pregnant sister, is now not so sure. She is a mother and a wife and has a satisfactory life…or does she really?

Jim is a drywall installer in Tucson now and unmarried. Never married, in fact. But he is finding that his life is changing; there’s an opportunity for a fresh start. But there was a reason the two broke up in the first place. The secret of that break-up and what has been hanging over the both of them all those years is just below the surface, ready to get out at a moment’s notice.

This little indie took me by surprise. I’m a fan of both Duplass (who wrote the script) and Paulson, so I thought it would be pretty good but considering the simple concept I found this to be one of the best-written scripts so far this year. This is a movie that is built in layers; as layers are added, they simultaneously reveal what’s inside. It’s a breathtaking job of script construction and every bit of it feels note-perfect.

Some might find the black and white cinematography off-putting and in fact early on I thought it was a bit pretentious. It looks like a beautiful little mountain town and surrounding areas that they filmed in; it’s a shame they didn’t use the colors of the mountain to their advantage but I also get the sense that they were going for a kind of retro feel, It is no accident that the longer Jim and Amanda spend together, the more they revert to adolescent behavior, dancing wildly and re-enacting their 20th anniversary dinner from the tape they heard.

I was reminded of Thomas Hardy a little bit here. He famously wrote “You can’t go home again,” but he wasn’t just referring to a place. What I believe he meant was that you cannot return to a life and time already lived, as much as you would like to. It is a melancholy truth, one few of us admit to ourselves. Deep down we always believe that we can recreate the magic of our youth but it really amounts to catching lightning in a bottle. The best we can do is make new magic instead.

The ending is bittersweet but absolutely appropriate and the big reveal is a secret so organic you just feel everything that went before it fall into place like dominoes. Again, a sign of masterful writing. This is a gem of a movie that is likely to bring back memories of your own – assuming you’re not making some new ones with the person you’re seeing this with.

REASONS TO GO: Possibly the best-written film of the year so far. The performances Duplass and Paulson are epic. A wonderfully insightful and bittersweet film without an ounce of contrivance to it.
REASONS TO STAY: The black and white cinematography is a bit pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of profanity and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was shot in just seven days.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunset
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The White Helmets

Far from the Madding Crowd (2015)


Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan nuzzle in the Dorset countryside.

Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan nuzzle in the Dorset countryside.

(2015) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Tilly Vosburgh, Juno Temple, Jessica Barden, Bradley Hall, Hilton McRae, Sam Phillips, Victor McGuire, Jody Haise, Pauline Whitaker, Belinda Low, Leonard Szepietowski, Harry Peacock, Mark Wingett, Dorian Lough, Jon Gunn, Richard Dixon, John Neville, Lillian Price. Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

In Victorian England, women didn’t generally have very many choices and those that did usually got them because they were stronger and more aggressive than most. Perhaps that’s why most Victorian heroines remain role models for women even today.

Bathsheba Everdene (Mulligan) is an educated, forthright young lady who loves the rural Dorset that she grew up in. She also loves horseback riding and it is during one of her rides that she encounters neighboring shepherd Gabriel Oak (Schoenaerts), a quiet man of good character. He falls hard for the impetuous young Bathsheba (who hates her given name by the way) and impulsively asks her to marry him, promising to buy her a piano if she does. She declines, telling him that she would want a man who could tame her and the quiet Gabriel never could. Shortly after that Gabriel loses his flock in a particularly devastating way and must sell his land in order to pay his debts. He sets out to find employment. In his travels he comes upon a barn fire and with the farm manager and owner both missing, takes charge and puts the fire out. When the owner returns and thanks him, he asks for a job. The owner turns out to be…Bathsheba.

In the meantime she had suffered a reversal of fortune of her own; no longer poor, she had inherited her uncle’s farm and was determined to make it successful. After firing her corrupt and useless manager (McGuire) she sets about managing her farm with the aid of Liddy (Barden), her assistant and Gabriel’s able stewardship it begins to turn a profit.

She also gets the notice of William Boldwood (Sheen), a neighboring farmer and the wealthiest man in the district. Lonely and socially awkward, he had been engaged once only to be jilted. Now mistakenly thinking that Ms. Everdene is interested in him romantically, he pursues her doggedly with his own offer of marriage and as a wedding gift, a piano. By this time however, she has a piano of her own and declines, valuing her independence too much.

But not for long. Into her life comes soldier Frank Troy (Sturridge), a dashing young man who dazzles her with his swordplay and ardor. Completely head over heels, she marries the military man even though Gabriel counsels her not to and loses his job because of it, only returning to work because the sheep are dying from a disease that only he knows how to cure.

It soon becomes evident that Troy has no interest in farming and less in Bathsheba. He prefers to gamble their profits away, and his ardor is reserved for Fanny Robbin (Temple) whom he had once intended to marry and had been left standing at the altar when she went to the wrong church. She is now pregnant with his child. All of these events are priming the players for tragedy and for Bathsheba Everdene, a choice – which man truly is the one for her?

This is the fourth filmed version of Thomas Hardy’s classic novel (the first released exactly 100 years ago in a silent version). In many ways, it captures the rural life that Hardy so loved (and through him, his characters) better than any of them. Certainly cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen captures the loveliness of the Dorset countryside in vista after vista; silky mist-shrouded mornings, blazing colorful sunsets, bucolic woods and fields.

Vinterberg (The Hunt) is best known as a co-founder of the influential but spare Dogme 95 movement in filmmaking and he would seem an odd choice for a lush classic of such epic sweep as Hardy but he keeps much of the movie simple. The country life that he depicts here seems almost heavenly; one could long for a lifestyle of washing sheep and harvesting grain, walking the country at dusk and singing with the farmhands at supper by candlelight. It is definitely enticing to those of us beset by the fast pace and cold technology of modern life.

Mulligan, Oscar nominated ] for An Education, has done the most brilliant work of her career thus far here. She captures the spirited nature of Bathsheba Everdene but also her vulnerabilities without making her seem too modern, although in many ways Bathsheba belongs more to the 21st century than the 19th, even back when Hardy wrote her – so much so that Suzanne Collins filched her surname for her spunky lead character in The Hunger Games. That Bathsheba chooses the dashing soldier over the security of William Boldwood and the bedrock but unspectacular love of Gabriel Oak is a lament that many guys, unable to compete with the cute and the popular in high school, can understand.

Schoenaerts is a Belgian hunk who has all kinds of upside. He reminds me a bit of Viggo Mortensen and has that charisma necessary to be the leading man in a big budget movie and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find him on the Hollywood A-list before too long. Sheen has continued his exemplary work of recent years and makes the haunted farmer Boldwood flesh and blood, as opposed to the kind of creepy pervert that Peter Finch portrayed him as in the 1967 version.

While it’s possible this could be contending for awards come Oscar time, it’s unlikely given the early summer release date. It’s quite possible that an autumn re-release might put Mulligan, Christensen and even Vinterberg up for Oscar consideration but even if not, this is a film worthy of attention even beyond the film buff and older audiences. I have to admit that it is a smart move to use this as refreshing counterprogramming to the big blockbusters that will be filling up the multiplex screens this time of year. Those who prefer their movies less loud and teen-centric should keep their radar out for this one.

REASONS TO GO: Really gives a sense of the beauty of rustic life. Mulligan is a strong lead. Classic story.
REASONS TO STAY: Adds little to previous film versions of the novel.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of violence and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mulligan suffered a concussion when she was thrown from a horse. Nobody realized she was injured until she fell to her knees during the next scene to be filmed. Schoenaerts thought she was acting and continued his lines; it was only when she slumped over that anyone realized that there was something wrong.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wuthering Heights
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Child 44

Tamara Drewe


The bucolic English rural village scenery is just breathtaking.

The bucolic English rural village scenery is just breathtaking.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Sony Classics) Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Roger Allam, Luke Evans, Bill Camp, Tamsin Greig, Jessica Barden, Charlotte Christie, James Naughtie, John Bett, Josie Taylor, Bronagh Gallagher, Pippa Haywood, Susan Wooldridge, Amanda Lawrence, Zahra Ahmadi, Cheryl Campbell. Directed by Stephen Frears

Thomas Hardy famously wrote that “you can’t go home again.”  I have always taken that to mean that when you leave your home, your journey elsewhere changes you or time changes your home. Either way when you return the changes made to you, the place you call home or both leave it an entirely different experience altogether.

Tamara Drewe (Arterton) left the quiet Dorset village of Ewedown to seek her fortune as a journalist in London. She left an ugly duckling with a nose large enough to put off the village boys (except for one) from being friendly with her; she returns a beautiful swan, not only having found success in her career but a skilled plastic surgeon as well.

She’s returned to sell the home she grew up in after her mum passed away. But not only has Tamara changed, Ewedown has as well. It has become home to a writer’s colony, set up by bestselling crime author Nicholas Hardiment (Allam) but mainly administered by his tolerant wife Beth (Greig). Nicholas is a bit too busy philandering to really take an interest in it.

Tamara’s arrival as far as Nicholas is concerned means one more pair of panties to get inside but to others in the village, it means a different thing altogether. For Andy (Evans), the boy we spoke of earlier who was the only one to be romantically drawn to Tamara, it means a second chance to be with the woman he loves (but it also means additional income as Tamara hires him to help get the house in order for the sale). For local teens Jody (Barden) and Casey (Christie) it means someone else to torment and another life to investigate. Jody in particular has it in for Tamara because she has been having an affair (after Nicholas has come and gone) with rock drummer Ben Sargeant (Cooper) whom Jody has a huge crush on. And for aspiring writer Glen McCreavy (Camp) who has come to Dorset from America to immerse himself in Hardy and perhaps find a muse, it is an opportunity to develop a relationship with Beth whom he slowly becomes infatuated with – it must be the scratch-baked pastries.

All in all, there will be meddling, secrets revealed, tragedy, comedy and frankly, a lot of people getting what they deserve. But what would Thomas Hardy think?

Frears is a marvelous director who often looks at the libidinous nature of life and finds humor in it. He directed one of my favorite all-time films in High Fidelity as well as some pretty high quality efforts in My Beautiful Launderette and The Queen. He shows a good sensibility for capturing the rhythms and quirks of English country life here, largely due to an intelligent and well-written script by Moira Buffini.

Arterton has been developing an impressive resume of both big-budget tentpole films and more intimate indies and dramas. Here she’s mostly required to be sexy, which she is amply qualified for. While she receives top billing, the movie really isn’t about Tamara. Tamara is more of a catalyst.

Frears has wisely cast a group of actors who don’t necessarily have a lot of name value (although Cooper and Evans are both building respectable careers) but are entirely capable. Greig in particular does extremely well in the sympathetic role of Beth who manages to be kind and supportive even though she is no fool and is perfectly aware that her husband is a rotten human being.

The film is high on charm albeit low on insight. This isn’t a movie to turn to when you want to learn something new about human nature, although if you lack experience in such you might sing a different tune. To be honest, there are definitely many films out there (including by Frears himself) that capture the foibles and quagmires of love more succinctly.

The one real misstep in the script is a fairly major one – the characters of Jody and Casey. While they do cause some of the major plot points to occur, in all honesty every time they take the screen as a kind of Greek chorus, they tend to summarize what’s going on with each of the characters that they are in the midst of investigating. The movie loses what momentum it has when this occurs and could have done better without them.

For me, this was a movie that while charming is ultimately full of empty calories. The pastries that Beth bake are from scratch, crafted with love and honest ingredients. The film however feels store-bought in a lot of ways. Me, I would rather enjoy something home baked than something out of a box.

WHY RENT THIS: Superb performance by Greig. A great deal of charm. Captures rural English village life in the 21st century perfectly. Intelligently written.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t really offer much in the way of insight. Jody and Casey tend to stop the film in its tracks when they are onscreen.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of bad language and a fair amount of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original graphic novel by Posy Simmonds was itself a collection of comic strips originally published in the UK newspaper The Guardian and was a modern re-imagining of the Thomas Hardy classic Far From the Madding Crowd.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a discussion with Frears and Arterton on how the graphic novel was transformed into a film and some of the differences therein.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $11.9M on an unreported production budget; this was very likely a solidly profitable film.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sense and Sensibility

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Great Gatsby (2013)