HOT SUMMER NIGHTS (2018)

August 5, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Crime, Romance and Bromance battle it out in the summer of 1991, accompanied by music from the 1970’s, influenced by classic films of the 1980’s and 90’s, and starring 4 rising young stars of today. The debut feature film from writer/director Elijah Bynum comes across as the work of a film and music fanboy concerned with not leaving out any ideas in his only opportunity to make a movie. He shows enough here to likely justify another chance, but we can’t help but wonder if assistance from a mentor might have fine-tuned this into a nice little gem, rather than a blip on the resume of the shooting stars he’s working with.

Fresh off his Oscar nominated performance in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, Timothee Chalamet stars as Daniel, a socially awkward 18 year old. After the death of his beloved father, Daniel’s mom ships him off for the summer to live with family in Cape Cod – yet another place where he will be an outsider as neither a ‘Townie’ nor ‘Summer Bird’ (the wealthy preppies in summer homes). An odd meet-cute kicks off the bromance between Daniel and local heartthrob/legend and dime-bag pot dealer Hunter Strawberry (Alex Roe, FOREVER MY GIRL). It’s also the beginning of a business relationship that both showers them with cash and puts them on the road to ruin. Hunter’s estranged sister McKayla is the local object of desire for the male population. Played by Maika Monroe (IT FOLLOWS), McKayla is the town vixen who ultimately and predictably falls for Daniel, unaware of his business dealings with her bad boy brother.

Also in the mix here are Emory Cohen (so good in BROOKLYN) as Dex, the no-nonsense “supplier” who pushes the Hunter and Daniel dealings to greater heights, Thomas Jane as the local law enforcement presence, William Fichtner as the coke dealer Daniel tangles with, and Maia Mitchell as Hunter’s love interest. There is also the fallout from recently deceased parents for Daniel, Hunter and McKayla, as well as the impending storm (now known as Hurricane Bob).

An air of familiarity is not uncommon in movies, but this one is downright creepy in how many films it seems to mimic in either tone, style or content. The romance between Daniel and McKayla is the least effective story line. We want to know more about the brother-sister relationship, and are disappointed that the uber-talented Maika Monroe is given little to do other than bat her wicked eyes. It plays like a Greek tragedy where the only question is whether the tropical storm will beat the group’s self-destruction.

This summer story is billed as ‘coming of age’, but that description doesn’t seem to fit unless it refers to the ever-present young narrator whose place in line only becomes clear near the end. There is a nostalgic look and feel to Mr. Bynum’s film, and it’s always nice to have a drive-in theatre play a role; however, his music choices – though terrific to listen to – seem to fit better two decades prior to the setting: Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes”, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”, Uriah Heep, Linda Ronstadt and The Modern Lovers. Beyond all of that, we do learn that Hunter Strawberry does not like sprinkles.

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CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017)

December 21, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Although confusing the two is understandable, there is a difference between a story of romance and a story of love. That’s not to say that the two can’t overlap; in fact, they often do. In movies, romance is the dish most often served because it’s usually more interesting. Watching the flirtatious dance and often awkward exploratory stage of what was once called the rituals of courting offers a writer, actor and director infinitely more possibilities than what we associate with the years of deep connection labeled as love. Andre Aciman’s novel is adapted by James Ivory (of Merchant-Ivory fame, and 3 times Oscar nominated for Best Director) and the script leans heavily on romance … lustful romance, to be specific.

Director Luca Guadagnino (A BIGGER SPLASH, I AM LOVE) is an expert at making movies that engage our senses. His movies delicately tease us – they slowly absorb us into the emotions and feelings of the characters. Very few filmmakers have the skill to subtly seduce the viewer, and draw us into the story so that we are no longer merely observing. It’s nuanced story-telling at the highest level.

Elio’s (Timothee Chalamet) family spends the summer at their estate in northern Italy. You’ve likely never met a more cultured family. His father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a renowned professor, his mother (Amira Casar) a recognized translator, and Elio himself is a musical prodigy who whiles away the days by transcribing classical music and reading every book he can get his hands on. Oh, he also flirts with the local girls because he is, after all, a 17 year old boy. His intelligence and corresponding wit is of a much older person, standing in stark contrast to his innocence and childlike maturity level with all other pieces of life’s puzzle.

Elio’s world is rocked when his father’s newest research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer), shows up. An “Americano” who offsets his extreme politeness with an unrefined “Later” when departing any encounter, Oliver explodes on the scene like a Greek God. He and Elio have an initial passive-aggressiveness towards each other as they test the boundaries for weakness, and more importantly, interest. Things move very slowly as the passion and curiosity brews during their bike rides, walks through the apricot orchards (forbidden fruit), swimming in every watering hole, and competitive banters on intellectual topics. There is a sensuality to most every scene, though those same scenes are filled with unspoken tension.

The sunlit beauty as each summer day passes initially masks the emotions, and the stunning setting, people, colors, and music is accentuated by the camera work of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom. Nature is on display in its full glory; not just through trees, sunlight, and water, but in that elusive and unexplained connection between two people so strongly drawn to one another.

Director Guadagnino’s film easily slides into the romantic sub-genre of such films as BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, and CAROL, and the artistic approach provides a gentleness that even the peach scene can’t undo. Michael Stuhlbarg (who seems to be everywhere these days) has an extraordinary father/son scene near the end which reminds us that each one of us has a story on how life may or may not have turned out as planned. The gut-wrenching pain with sharing that story usually means it remains untold; however, the invaluable lesson is not lost on Elio. First love and first heartbreak bring both emotional ecstasy and emotional devastation, and whether you believe the film’s statement “We have less to give each new person”, you’ll likely agree that the use of Psychedelic Furs “Love My Way” is spot on.

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LADY BIRD (2017)

November 15, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Joining the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Ben Affleck, Greta Gerwig proves her significance and brilliance is most apparent behind the camera, rather than in front. Her first feature film flying solo as writer and director is without a doubt, one of the year’s best. Surely she has benefitted from having a very talented live-in muse and mentor and partner in Noah Baumbach, but this extraordinary film is clearly Ms. Gerwig’s passion project … and it’s a thing of beauty (character warts and all).

Ultra talented Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, aka “Lady Bird”. She claims it’s her given name – a name she gave herself. Entering her senior year of Catholic High School in Sacramento, she’s the typical blend of teenage insecurity, bravado and restlessness. Her never quite satisfied mom is played by Laurie Metcalf, in what is probably her career best performance, and definitely worthy of Supporting Oscar consideration. A brilliant opening scene finds mother and daughter sharing a cry, which quickly devolves into one of the endless stream of arguments that make up half of their relationship. Their scenes together are sometimes caustic, always realistic, and likely to hit home to many mothers and daughters watching.

Lady Bird is convinced she must escape 2002 Sacramento and live on the east coast, where she assumes culture thrives. This is the age where every teenager is convinced an amazing destiny awaits them … not stopping to contemplate what talent they possess that might actually contribute to society. Lady Bird is an average student who seems to dream not of greatness, but rather of some vision of life where she will be appreciated for simply being herself. So much of what happens is grounded in the reality of high school life, friendships, and family. She jumps at the chance to be friends with the “it girl” who controls the “in crowd”. Leaving her lifelong best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s real life sister) in the dust, Lady Bird finagles her way into Jenna’s (Odeya Rush) inner circle of rich kids, including the cooler-than-cool Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). He’s the bohemian-wannabe type we’ve all come across. Her attraction to Kyle results in confusion over her relationship with nice guy Danny (Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA).

The film touches on many familiar topics, and the script elegantly handles each piece of the puzzle and gives each character their due. Lady Bird’s middle class family is going through some financial difficulties after her dad is laid off. Tracy Letts is superb as the dad who is beaten down by a life that’s nearly passed him by, but he staves off his own depression just enough to provide the basic strength needed by his wife and spirited teenage daughter. Mr. Letts and Ms. Metcalf aren’t TV sitcom parents carefully positioned as punchlines for clever kids, like what we typically see. The emotional bond between parents and offspring is perfectly awkward and deep. Mother and daughter have their shared escapes, while father and daughter share some secrets. There is also a complex sister-brother dynamic, as well as the common issues of school days – teenage girl self-respect, class warfare, teacher crushes, and the pressures of extracurricular activities. Lois Smith has a couple of outstanding scenes as a wise and observant nun who sees Lady Bird for who she is, and provides the necessary guidance. Welcome comedy relief is combined with an editorial statement on the ongoing reductions in funding for the arts, as the football coach (Bob Stephenson) is put in charge of the drama department.

Ms. Gerwig’s excellent (quasi-autobiographical) film defies traditional categorization. It’s part teenage comedy, coming of age, family drama, and character study – yet it’s also so much more. Have you seen much of this before? Absolutely, and it’s likely at least some of this has occurred in your own life, though you may not always enjoy being reminded. What is enjoyable is watching the work of a skilled filmmaker and exciting new cinematic story teller.

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