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

 


BRAKING FOR WHALES (2020)

April 23, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Their mother amassed quite the collection of whale-related items from eBay prior to her recent passing. The brother needs the inheritance to continue his self-discovery course, which may or may not answer the question of whether or not he is gay. The estranged sister apparently abandoned her young daughter for fear of being a lousy mother. He admits to being ‘lost’, and she admits to being ‘broken’. Self-loathing is on full display in director Sean McEwen’s first feature film.

Tom Felton (Draco from the Harry Potter movies) plays Brandon Walker, and Tammin Sursok (“Pretty Little Liars”) plays his older sister Star Walker. They reunite for the reading of mom’s will, which includes the outlandish requirement for Brandon and Star to dispose of mom’s ashes in the belly of whale in order to receive their inheritance. Needing the money, they hop in mom’s old Winnebago for a 48 hour road trip to a public aquarium that houses the closest whale to Iowa.

The emotional impact of a story about a brother and sister finding common ground on a forced road trip boils down to two things: the chemistry between the two actors and the script. Mr. Felton and Ms. Sursok seem to be committed to the cause, and there are a couple of moments that strike the right chord, but overall the script is what prevents us from connecting to either the characters or the story. The attempts to inject humor tend to be in poor taste, while the dramatic elements either repeat themselves or don’t work because we simply don’t care enough about Brandon or Star.

Having the running gag of Brandon proclaiming “I’m not gay” while Star relentlessly peppers him on the topic comes across as not just dated, but also quite sad – seeing as Brandon is a thirty-something year old man. And worse than that is the stop over at Aunt Jackie’s (Wendi McLendon-Covey, BRIDESMAIDS, “The Goldbergs”) and Uncle Randal’s (David Koechner) house. This sequence of social commentary meant to bash extreme right-wing conservatives is simply embarrassing to watch. I actually felt terrible for the actors in these scenes. Comedy around homosexuality and racism must be handled with grace … whether it’s subtle or cartoonish.

The script was co-written by director Sean McEwen and his leading lady (and real life wife) Tammin Sursok. Respect is due to independent filmmakers who find a way to realize their project, but we do wish more time had been spent on the script. In fact, the whole production felt rushed and unpolished, leaving us with the most dreaded question any movie watcher might ask … how much longer?

watch the trailer:


BRIDESMAIDS

May 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Kristen Wiig is everywhere these days! If you don’t know the name, you certainly know her face. She is credited with 26 projects since 2009 – and that doesn’t even count her weekly work on Saturday Night Live. She is the new Tina Faye … even though the “old” Tina Faye is still going very strong.

While I have little doubt that the success of The Hangover was a driving force behind the green lighting of this film, Ms. Wiig’s writing and acting talent elevate this mixture of chick-flick and comedy into one of the finest female film comedies in quite awhile. That’s probably not strong enough praise since the category is a bit sparse, but as a guy who gets really tired of the formulaic chick-flick rom-coms and sappy dramas, I found the film to be quite refreshing and entertaining.

 Sure, there are many similarities between this and The Hangover, but the difference is that the key element of female friendship is never far away from the often raunchy comedy we are witnessing. Women so value their BFF’s and Ms. Wiig and her writing partner Annie Mumolo (seen as a nervous plane passenger) never lose sight of this.

Also key to any group of female activity is the competitive nature and envious mutterings. They try so hard to appear happy for their friends, when often they are blinded by the current funk in which they find their own life. And look out when a beautiful, rich “new” friend enters the picture. The real fireworks begin … even in the battle for the last word on the mic at the engagement party! I am not going to give away any of the punchlines or set-ups, but I will highlight the cast. Maya Rudolph is Lillian, the bride to be and lifelong friend of Annie (Wiig); Ellie Kemper (The Office) is Becca, the goody-two shoes newlywed; Wendi McLendon-Covey (Reno 911) is Rita, the bitter, frustrated long-time mother and wife looking for inspiration; Melissa McCarthy (Mike & Molly, Gilmore Girls) is Megan, the slapstick, gross-out comedy relief; Rose Byrne is Helen, the aforementioned seemingly perfect “new” friend; Chris O’Dowd (Blind Swordsman in Dinner for Schmucks) is Officer Rhodes, the nice guy who has a crush on Annie; Jon Hamm (Mad Men) as Annie’s Porsche driving bootie call; and Jill Clayburgh (her final film role) as Annie’s mom.

The film is produced by comedy expert Judd Apatow and directed by Paul Feig.  Mr. Feig was the creator of “Freaks and Geeks” and has been involved in most of the best TV comedies over the past 7 or 8 years.  Oddly enough, he also wrote and directed one of my favorite lost gems from 2003 called I Am David.  It’s a drama, not a comedy, but I recommend it.

Here is hoping Ms. Wiig continues to push the boundaries of creative comedy for women. I for one look forward to seeing women on screen as more than just love interests and femme fatales.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are starved for a real comedy with real women characters (written by women) OR you always wondered what a female Zach Galifianakis would look like

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you hated The Hangover OR you prefer your chick flicks to be melodramatic and sappy, rather than raunchy and real