SYLVIE’S LOVE (2020)

December 22, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. For those who enjoy an old fashioned Hollywood romance, with set design and costumes taking priority over the intricacies of a story, then writer-director Eugene Ashe has the cure for what ails you. In contrast to the numerous films this year addressing topics of socially-conscious issues, this is an unapologetic, soapy, melodrama with beautiful actors and some cool jazz.

Tessa Thompson (CREED, 2015; AVENGERS: ENDGAME, 2019) stars as Sylvie, a young woman working in her daddy’s (Lance Reddick) Harlem record store while her fiancé is off fighting in the war. Her co-star is Nnamdi Asomugha (a 10 year NFL career, mostly with the Raiders) as Robert, a saxophone player in the Dickie Brewster Quartet. They have their ‘meet-cute’ moment, and despite the fiancé and Sylvie’s career aspirations of being a TV producer, they fall in love. The chemistry between Sylvie and Robert works because Ms. Thompson can light up the screen with her smile.

Director Ashe starts the movie in 1962 as Sylvie and Robert bump into each other by mere chance. It’s then that we flashback 5 years to their first meeting in the record shop. It doesn’t take long to establish that Sylvie is an expert on music and television, and has an independent streak that would be considered unusual for the era. As the two fall in love and appear well-matched, Robert’s group lands a prestigious gig in Paris. Just like that, the relationship is over.

Falling in and out of love over many years isn’t the right description for what happens to Sylvie and Robert. No, they are always in love (whether together or apart) … it’s just that life happens, and timing can be cruel in such matters. Additional supporting performances include Jemima Kirke as the Countess and Robert’s agent, a character based on Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter; Wendi McLendon-Covey as Lucy, a TV actor on a cooking show; Erica Gimpel as Sylvie’s appearances-obsessed mother; Eva Longoria as Carmen, replete with a New Year’s Eve song and dance routine; John Magaro as a music producer; and Alamo Miller as Lacy, Sylvie’s fiancé and husband. Despite her limited screen time, Aja Naomi King is a standout as Sylvie’s friend and party-girl-turned Civil Rights Activist. Her character is one of the few that gives any indication of what’s happening socially in the country at that time.

It’s a film that fully embraces the melodrama – a predictable love story, contrived to the point that Sylvie keeps a secret so personal that we would ordinarily find her despicable; yet in this film, her actions are presented as compassionate. Mr. Ashe’s film is a soap opera that looks fantastic, while glossing over the real challenges faced by blacks in the era. It’s truly a throwback in style, era, and substance. The people are beautiful. The cars are shiny. The music is hypnotic. Production design by Mayne Berke and Costumes by Phoenix Mellow add to the elegance presented by Ms. Thompson and Mr. Asomugha. You surely know if this is your type of movie. See you later alligator.

Available on Amazon Prime December 23, 2020

watch the trailer

 


FIRST COW (2020)

December 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. A modern-era woman (Alia Shawkat) is hiking along an Oregon river with her trusty dog. Something catches her eye and she begins tentatively brushing away decades of leaves and soot. Ultimately it turns into an excavation of two human skeletons nestled together. How many years since these two laid down for the last time? Why in this spot?  It’s a terrific way to begin a story, and does justice to what follows … all of which takes place in the early 19th century.

Director Kelly Reichardt has already made her mark with such standouts as CERTAIN WOMEN (2016), MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010), and WENDY AND LUCY (2008), and this time she adapts the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond from his 2004 novel, “The Half-Life”. Cookie (John Magaro, also seen in this year’s SYLVIE’S LOVE) is initially seen traveling west with a band of trappers. Skirting the law as they make their way in this new world, the men act as bullying brutes towards Cookie, a quiet and sensitive man. During one stop for camp, Cookie is rummaging the brush for food when he stumbles upon a naked Chinese man who is hungry and running from Russians (aren’t we all?). Cookie provides King-Lu (played by Orion Lee) with food and shelter, a Golden Rule act that comes full circle not long thereafter.

Cookie and King-Lu begin establishing something more than a friendship. It’s a life bond (but probably not in the way you might be thinking). It’s more natural instinct – a ‘two heads are better than one’ partnership. Despite the hardships of early frontier days, the two men share their version of the American Dream, and it’s about this time that our titular bovine makes her entry stage left. The cow belongs to Chief Factor (Toby Jones) who is eager to create a more refined life in this untamed wilderness. Cookie views the cow’s milk as the key to creating tasty biscuits (a rare treat), and King-Lu immediately recognizes the possibility of profit. The nightly heist features Cookie’s one-directional conversation with Evie the cow … presumably making her first screen appearance.

Ms. Reichardt’s film is not nearly as simple or slow moving as it appears. She fills it with a slow-build tension, especially in the second half. The film requires patience and attention to detail from viewers. How can something so quiet and peaceful be filled with such danger and difficulty? That’s the brilliance of the film. Supporting work is provided by Scott Shepherd as a military officer Factor tries to impress, the late Rene Auberjonois (whose presence seems a tip of the cap to Altman’s classic MCCABE AND MRS MILLER), Ewan Bremner (whose accent requires subtitles for comprehension), and Lily Gladstone as Factor’s Native American wife.

This is the first film I recall where a clarfoutis plays a key role, and there are sprinkles of dark comedy throughout … which plays well off the rugged characters and environment. William Tyler’s score and Christopher Blauvelt’s cinematographer mesh well with the fine performances throughout.  Ms. Reichardt opens the film with a William Black quote, “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship”. We witness the friendship, and by the end, we wonder if it’s also a web.

Available on Showtime and streaming outlets

watch the trailer


THE FINEST HOURS (2015)

January 29, 2016

finest hours Greetings again from the darkness. The U.S. Coast Guard has played a role in many movies over the years, but only a few have placed this service branch directly in the heart of the story … most recently The Guardian (2006), which was little more than a cheesy, too-talkative water-based rip-off of Top Gun.  Director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, 2007) takes a much different approach as he presents a look at one of the most legendary and heroic real-life rescues in Coast Guard history.

The Oscar-nominated writing team behind The Fighter (2010): Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson have collaborated on the screenplay based on the book from Casey Sherman and Michael J Touglas. It’s a worthy tribute (and clearly Disney-influenced) to what is described as the greatest Coast Guard small-boat rescue. It combines a boat-load (sorry) of tension-filled ocean-based sequences with some pretty interesting character-based sub-plots within a Massachusetts community that has become all too familiar with storm-based catastrophes.

Chris Pine stars as Bernie Webber, an awkwardly shy and obsessive rule-follower, who has lived under a cloud of doubt ever since a previous rescue mission failed, resulting in the death of a local fisherman/husband/father. We first meet Bernie as he bungles through a first date with Miriam (Holliday Grainger, a young Gretchen Mol lookalike). The film then jumps ahead to 1952 when they become engaged and Bernie is ordered into a questionable mission by his “not-from-around-here” commanding officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana). See, a huge storm has literally ripped apart not one, but two giant tankers, leaving crew members battling for survival. It should be noted that Bana the Australian, tosses out a laughable southern accent that is a joke within the movie and within the theatre (for different reasons).

Bernie and his crew: Richard Livesay (Ben Foster), Andy Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner), and Ervin Maske (John Magaro), take off against all odds in a too-small boat against too-big waves in a desperate attempt to rescue the tanker crew that includes brilliant engineer (and quiet leader) Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) and characters played by John Ortiz and Graham McTavish. Affleck excels as what can be termed a quiet leader. Of course, we know how the story ends, but the heroic efforts against a very powerful Mother Nature show-of-force make for compelling movie watching.

The special effects are stout, though not be as spectacular as The Perfect Storm (2010) or In the Heart of the Sea (2015), and it’s the human-factor that provides more than enough thrills, excitement, and tension. In fact, the biggest issue I had was that I saw a 3-D version which is an absolute disservice to the film. Most of the story takes place at night and at sea, so the 3-D consequence of dimmed light and muted colors results in a far too dark and dull look to the film. I spent much of the movie sliding the 3-D glasses down my nose in a simple attempt to enjoy a bit more brightness. The recommendation would be to skip the higher-priced (money grabbing) 3-D version and take in the more pleasing “standard” version.

Disney makes feel-good movies. Their target market is not cynics or the overly critical among us. The romance pushes the “corny” meter, but keeps with tradition of other Disney movies based on true stories like The Rookie (2002) and Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story (2005). Keep this in mind you’ll likely find this one pretty entertaining. Stick around for the closing credits as a slew of real photographs from the actual 1952 event are displayed, as are photos of the real heroes from that night.

watch the trailer:

 


CAROL (2015)

December 26, 2015

carol Greetings again from the darkness. When Patricia Highsmith first wrote her novel “The Price of Salt”, she had it published in 1952 under a pseudonym (Claire Morgan). This was a sign of the unforgiving social conventions of the era, which also play a key role in the story. At the time, no author would publically admit to writing a book about lesbian lovers, much less admit their participation in such an affair. Highsmith’s novel is the source material for director Todd Haynes’ bookend to his stellar 2002 film Far From Heaven. In that film, Dennis Quaid’s character struggles with his secret life as a gay man while married to Julianne Moore. In this new movie, Cate Blanchett is a married upper class socialite trying to deal with her true feelings for the opposite sex, while fighting to not lose custody of her young daughter.

Haynes has a real feel for attraction … what causes two people to be attracted to each other, and how do they handle it? He re-teams with cinematographer Ed Lachman to create yet another beautiful film with camera work, sets, costumes and a score (Carter Burwell) that complement the romance depicted by the two outstanding lead actresses: Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Rooney Mara (Therese). Ms. Blanchett is a 2-time Oscar winner (5 time nominee), and has become one of the few actors who make each of their films a must-see. She is a true force here as she sweeps into the captivating first sequence (a wonderful long take) and has her first interaction with wide-eyed shopgirl Therese as the two dance together through words and innuendo. It may be the best scene of the movie … at least up to the stunning final shot.

At its core, this is a pretty simple romance of two opposite worlds colliding at a time when their attraction was just not tolerated. 1950’s social conventions, being what they were, meant Carol’s husband (Kyle Chandler) could use her sexual preferences as evidence of immorality in his fight to gain sole custody of their daughter. Cinematically, it’s much more about style. Carol is a beautiful mink-wearing work of art, while Therese is seeking her place in the world, while trying to make sense of her feelings. Every scene drips with style … the cars, the clothes, the restaurants; even cigarettes become a fashion accessory between the fingers of Carol.

Carol and Therese take a road trip, and it’s not until Iowa that the relationship is consummated – a scene that finds neither actress shying away from the moment. Fittingly, this occurs in a motel located in Waterloo … leaving little doubt the turn this story will take.

Supporting work is provided by Sarah Paulson (“American Horror Story”) as Carol’s friend and ex-lover, Jake Lacey (“The Office”) as Therese’s would-be suitor, John Magaro (The Big Short) as her friend and supporter, and Cory Michael Smith (“Gotham”) as a double-life salesman. But this show belongs to Blanchett and Mara. They are terrific together – capturing the unspoken, subtle gestures required by the repressive era they find themselves.  Mara’s character is difficult to describe, but most intriguing to watch and absolutely vital to the message.

Phyllis Nagy adapted Ms. Highsmith’s novel (which was re-published in 1990 under her own name), and her care for the material is clear. Todd Haynes then worked his magic with the look of the film, and the two lead actresses deliver a clinic in nuance and dealing with oppression. As it plays, the strength of the film is with the internal struggles faced by the two lead characters. It leaves us to wonder if the film might have been more powerful had it delved a bit deeper into what the characters would have faced from the outside world.

watch the trailer: