Tag Archives: romance

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

14 Feb

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’: Sparking ache, painter is also responsible for capturing it

 

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For those still mulling awards season, Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was by far the best film that wasn’t up for consideration at Sunday’s Oscars party. The French romance (award eligible last year, yet coming here aptly in time for Valentine’s Day), for all its impressive accomplishments in cinematography, direction, riveting performances and more, wasn’t its country’s selection for Best International Feature Film (“Les Miserables” was).

Somber, strong and palpably felt, the staid aura of “Lady on Fire” echoes its setting on the eve of the French Revolution, when maintaining one’s posture as a “lady” is practically all society registers. We never drink in that society – though we do feel its effects – and see barely any men. Most of the film takes place in a spare chateau atop the oceanic cliffs of Brittany, where Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a portrait artist, has been summoned to paint the likeness of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), betrothed by her mother (Valeria Golino) to a Milanese nobleman. The young woman and man of station have never meet. The painting is in essence Héloïse‘s Match.com profile pic and calling card. So far, par for the course, but there’s a few complications: Héloïse’s older sister had been promised to the same noble and for reasons never fully illuminated, yet wildly provocative, may have taken her life to avoid the ceremony. Héloïse, next in queue, has vehemently opposed both the painting and the arrangement, making Marianne‘s task something of a challenge beyond her professional expertise. To circumvent such obstacles, Héloïse‘s mother suggests Marianne embed herself as companion and something of a handmaiden, employ observation and, later, commit the evocation to canvas when in solitude. Continue reading

If Beale Street Could Talk

26 Dec

‘If Beale Street Could Talk’: Young and in love, but shackled by brutally cruel racial injustice

 

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The love between two black men at the center of Barry Jenkins’ Academy Award-winning “Moonlight”certainly had the texture and mood of something wrested from the pages of a James Baldwin novel. It wasn’t – it was an original screenplay – but it is fitting to learn that for his follow-up Jenkins has adapted the culture-rattling author’s 1974 work, “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The title, while simple, is telling, reflective of the dangerous complacency of silence and, worse, those eager to score justice without evidence or cause other than the color of skin.

The film begins with a series of lushly jazzy romantic framings of lovers Tish (newcomer KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) – something that hasn’t really been seen on screen with such poetic resonance since Spike Lee’s great run in the late ’80s and early ’90s (“Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever” and “Mo’ Better Blues”). The soulful score, imbued with melancholy by Nicholas Britell, wells up inside you as the pair’s tightly framed countenances convey deep love, but also the brimming prospect of trouble. Jenkins leverages it for his orchestration of Baldwin’s material: hope and idealism undercut by harsh reality and social injustice. 

Trouble in “Beale Street” (the reference to a throwaway in Memphis from 1916 W.C. Handy blues song, though the action takes place in 1970s Harlem) comes from all angles. Tish, 19, and Fonny, a few years older, have known each other since childhood. When they finally consummate their affection, Tish gets pregnant. The sell to Tish’s parents (Regina King and Colman Domingo, both excellent) is a bit of a challenge, but nothing compared with the fracas that ensues when Fonny’s devoutly religious – and over the top – mother (Aunjanue Ellis) swings by with sisters to learn of the news. With fire and brimstone ire, she professes Tish a temptress and not good enough for Fonny. But then again, Fonny’s not there to speak for himself; he’s in jail for a rape he did not commit.

Yes, this is where Baldwin and Jenkins take us. The palpable helplessness of a person of color snared in a rigged justice system, where getting a rap – whether you did it or not – is simply part of the process. Tish and her mother fight back hard. They get an attorney convinced of Fonny’s innocence and later there’s a harrowing sojourn to Puerto Rico to track down and confront the accuser, who has her own set of unhappy circumstances to contend with.

Throughout it all Jenkins tempers the present with delicate, carefully curated flashbacks, be it the lovestruck Fonny and Tish shopping for an apartment, often turned away because of their pigment, or Fonny catching up with old mate Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry, smoldering quietly) just out of jail himself and with volumes of wisdom to share. The film is at once intimate and universal. Fonny is the face of everyman of color, and yet he isn’t. Jennings finds the perfect balance between social critique and personal tale, and palpably so. 

In the end, however, “Beale Street” is not about vindication – if that’s the movie you’re hoping for, you’re going to be disappointed – but about the sad state of racial affairs that as penned by Baldwin remain too true today. At the heartbreaking epicenter loom star-crossed lovers kept apart by forces with cold, aloof agendas. “Beale Street” is “Romeo and Juliet” for the racially divided now.

Jenkins has done it again: “Beale Street” didn’t just make the Day’s top 10 of 2018, but won Best Picture, Best Score and Best Supporting Actress from the Boston Society of Film Critics this month. Expect more to follow.

A Star is Born

6 Oct

‘A Star Is Born’: Palpable and often painful, this remake makes an old story new again

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After re-seeing the 1976 version of “A Star Is Born” with Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand – a film that barely worked – I walked into this one thinking, “How could this possibly be any better?” I mean, Kristofferson and Streisand were musicians by trade, and Bradley Cooper, while being a likable thespian with a pleasing mug, was going to croon a tune, strum guitar and direct for the first time too? I feared a vanity project or worse, but prejudgment is best saved for Big Macs, presidential tweets and bottom-shelf tequila, not art.

Lack of chemistry pulled the Kristofferson-Streisand project down to near camp. Nothing clicked between the two charismatic leads – not on stage, not at the piano, not in the studio and not in the bedroom. Who would ever buy a prog-rock, Iggy Pop kind of growler get jazzed up about a Broadway-tunes crooning chanteuse, or vice versa? Here, Cooper coupling with pop diva Lady Gaga nails it by coming at it straight from the heart as Jackson Maine, a country superstar in the mold of Keith Urban who can play a mean guitar. He also loves the bottle – perhaps more than his music – which is what leads him to a late-night watering hole after a podunk show. It’s there at a drag revue that Gaga’s Ally, adorned with Divine-etched eyebrows, belts out “La Vie en Rose” with such poise, power and control that Edith Piaf might just give up the mic. Jackson takes notice, they go to another bar, he drinks enough to make a small village comatose and she punches out an angry fan to defend his honor. One’s clearly on the way up, the other’s wallowing in self-loathing, and the two get each other completely.

Like any good romance, the night doesn’t end between the sheets, but in a parking lot with her hand strapped to a bag of frozen peas. And yes, they do sing at each other a bit – just a tiny, perfect bit. The next day Jackson’s on a plane and onto the next city and show, but he sends for Ally, who reluctantly hops a Learjet and even more reluctantly lets him drag her out on stage to sing that little parking lot ditty – a neat country crossover. From the 1932, ’37, ’54 and ’76 versions of the success-cum-tragedy melodrama, based originally on an article by Adela Rogers St. Johns and later retooled by Dorothy Parker (the first three entries were about Hollywood aspirations, not the music biz) you know how the story goes, yet Cooper, also holding a co-writer credit, floats the prospect of redemption and a different resolution.  Continue reading

Results

5 Jun

Sometimes having everything makes you empty. Such is the paradox explored in Andrew Bujalski’s “Results,” part fable, part human experiment in desire, fears and means, and perhaps the most offbeat love triangle to grace the screen since Joe Swanberg’s brew-mance “Drinking Buddies.” It’s an apt comparison too, with Swanberg a stalwart of the mumblecore filmmaking movement and Bujalski long considered its godfather with such lo-fi (and low-audio) efforts as “Funny Ha Ha” and “Computer Chess.” With “Results,” however, Boston-born and Harvard-educated Bujalski goes upscale with some A-minus-list actors and a bigger budget – although what that figure is seems to be a secret to all but Bujalski and the NSA.

060515i ResultsBujalski’s first film cost just $30,000 to make (it grossed about $75,000) and starred no-name actors; here he’s blessed with the reliable Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders (Agent Maria Hill in the “Avengers” movie and “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” television series) and character actor Kevin Corrigan (“Superbad” and “Goodfellas”) who steps to the fore and delivers a knockout performance. “Results” is based on the well-being fad, in which everyone wants to get physically and emotionally fit and fortified. Danny (Corrigan) newly and painfully out of a marriage he didn’t want to exit, transplants to Austin. He’s doughy, rich and angry. He also wants to be able to take a punch, so he signs up for a personal trainer at Power for Life, a boutique health spa run by Trevor (a gaunt and toned Pearce) who pushes the philosophy that wellness is more than physical beauty, even though his crew of crack coaches look like magazine cover specimens. The upbeat but aggressive Kat (Smulders) gets the assign and spends time at Danny’s palatial spread trying to get him lean and buff, but he drags her down into his routine of single-malt scotch and weed. Turns out she’s a bit depressed and angry too. If there’s a deadbeat client, Kat’s more than happy to switch over to into loan collector mode, and boy can she run – look out Lola, she’s on your tail.   Continue reading

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them

18 Sep
Jessica Chastain stars as the titular Eleanor Rigby

The notion of there being two sides to every story isn’t a new one. And Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them isn’t the first film to explore the two perspectives of a couple, even more so if the duo is in turmoil. Right from the start The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them sets the table as the titular Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Conor (James McAvoy), appear to be a perfect couple doing the casual fine-dining thing in a swank New York eatery when they decide to up and split on the bill. It’s not that they can’t afford din-din, it’s just their united expression of freedom, frolic, and a strange sense of foreplay. The scene is short and sweet, then in the next scene, and at some future time, we catch Eleanor (so named affectionately after the Beatles’ song) walking her bike across a bridge. She’s despondent and troubled, and, in a flash, she’s over the rail. It’s a strong visual juxtaposition of how relationships can change, almost seemingly at the drop of a hat.   Continue reading

Magic in the Moonlight

1 Aug

‘Magic in the Moonlight’: Promised twists and turns are illusion, leaving a love story

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Woody Allen at nearly 80 is still cranking out a film a year, but not with the success he had in the  ’70s (“Annie Hall,” “Sleeper” and “Manhattan”) or ’80s (“Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors”). Nuggets such as “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” show up about every third or fourth off, but with the recent near hits of “Midnight in Paris” and “Blue Jasmine,” by math alone “Magic in the Moonlight” is not in that sweet spot. It’s a great-looking film, scrumptiously shot by Darius Khondji, who’s framed most of Allen’s recent works, and well acted, but something in the plot just never works.

072814i Magic in the MoonlightColin Firth gets a big scene-chewing role as Stanley Crawford, a 1920s illusionist who takes the stage as a Fu Manchu-like incarnation known as the Great Wei Ling Soo. He wows audiences, making elephants disappear and sawing women in half and, like Houdini did in his time, debunks hoaxes, which Stanley agrees to do when fellow magician Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) asks him to come to a country villa in France to expose a young American woman shaking down a susceptible and well-off widow (Jackie Weaver). The young American woman in question, Sophie Baker, is played by none other than Emma Stone, a big-eyed cutie with auburn locks and by logistical association alone muse du jour to Allen. But she’s no Diane Keaton, not even a Mia Farrow or Mia Sorvino, for that matter. She’s game, but asked to do a lot with a little and beyond her range. Thankfully she has Firth to play off of, and he’s masterful. Initially when the game is afoot in the gorgeous greenery of Southern France, there’s promise and a playfulness in the air. The film suggests twist and turns to come, false reveals and oneupmanship, but then romance floats into the picture, and the notion of god too. What a buzzkill.

The chemistry between Firth and Stone has a foisted feel, but it’s not truly their fault. They’re likable enough – and Firth’s hubris and braggadocio makes for a great period character – but just don’t have a story worthy of their potential. It’s almost as if Allen set out to make one movie and in the process of penning it, had a nostalgic, romantic yen that he let consume the second half of the script. It becomes indulgent and uninteresting. We all want love, and this is the very milieu that Allen at his best employs hyperbole and pops with sharp, deprecating humor, but nothing comes. And that’s what’s missing: There is no zing. Firth, as the elegant lion, holds it together for a good time, but left to chew on a shoe for too long, even a well-mannered lion will roar with contempt.

Words and Pictures

12 Jun
Words and Pictures is a little ditty about Jack (Clive Owen) and Dina (Juliette Binoche)

The basic plot of Words and Pictures isn’t anything new. A washed-up great — in this case — writer is wasting away at a ritzy boarding school until he finds someone to save him. Hell, the film even uses “O Captain! My Captain!,” the famous opener from the Walt Whitman poem about Abraham Lincoln that got good play in Dead Poets Society, albeit this time as a jocular form of connection between an embattled instructor and a class clown. And although the reuse doesn’t carry as much emotional gravitas as it did in Peter Weir’s 1989 boarding school saga, Words and Pictures does bear fruit. It just comes from different stems, most notably the crisp performances by its able leads and an intermittently sharp script that clearly had some thought put into it.

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