This is one of the great romances. Writer/director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (A+) is a French historical drama tracing the contours and the canvas of an enduring love. Set in France in the late 18th century, this masterwork obeys the conventions of period romances with its windswept coast and Gothic homestead but upends the typical narrative rules in tracing a truly scorching and revolutionary tale. Noémie Merlant plays the commissioned painter and Adèle Haenel her aristocratic subject, and both actresses are spellbinding in their passion for detail and commitment to superb tandem acting. Merlant’s character is told her subject is unwilling to be sketched and thus must be painted in secret, and thus begins an observation period with flourishes of the forbidden. Sciamma creates indelible characters in a ravishing work and weaves an intoxicating chronicle. This feisty and fiercely feminist film rewards those who are patient for character studies and relish movies with the heart of a classic text. This is one of the great sleeper films of 2019 and one adventurous cinema lovers should seek out and see.
The Erwin Brothers create faith-based movies filled with inspiration and hope. And while their latest Christian-centric biography based on a chapter in the life of worship musician Jeremy Camp, I Still Believe (C), accomplishes its goal of showcasing a moving real-life romance forged against the odds, it largely misses the mark in terms of originality and craft. KJ Apa and Britt Robertson offer earnest enough acting in their central romance filmed in a Hallmark-worthy glow but are written with such cherubic reverence that they don’t often register completely as real characters. Supporting actors Gary Sinise and Shania Twain are so underused as the leading man’s parents that it feels like they were loaned for just a day or two on set. Only Nathan Parsons as a friend, mentor and near hypoteneuse of a chaste love triangle registers as an actual conflicted human being. For a film ostensibly about overcoming illness with faith-restoring music, the film doesn’t really pulse with much of a flair for either medicine or music. When compared to a performance sequence in A Star is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody, for instance, the big concert numbers appear strangely detached, like the crowds weren’t even filmed in sync with what’s happening on stage. It all means well, of course, and the purity of the romance at the center is really what it’s all about. But for a film that praises risk-taking, it sure plays it safe.
Director Bradley Cooper’s unlikely remake of A Star is Born (B) throws in all the tropes of a good melodrama: it’s a Rose of a Love Story packaged within a gritty and naturalistic ‘70s film aesthetic. It’s also a vanity project seemingly stripped of vanity, and Cooper and leading Lady Gaga pull the heartstrings in one of the most spectacular love affairs since Rocky Balboa met Adrian Pennino. He’s a rockabilly musician fighting the demons of addiction; and she’s a moonlighting waitress and his singer/songwriter salvation with a pop music career on an upward trajectory. Their romance and music soar, for the most part; and when all elements are working in precision, it’s amazing to behold (their first duet as well as a stunning finale are alternately indelible and incredible). There’s just too much predictable not-very-good filler stretching the experience into an unnecessary “Oscar qualifying” length (movies with long running times have more pedigree, so they say, and this feels way longer than its 127 minutes!). The on-screen lead lovebirds also co-wrote the stirring music with help from the likes of Diane Warren, Mark Ronson, Lukas Nelson and Jason Isbell. There’s a long stretch of story without a new song that seems to lack oxygen because of it. Overall, the film is a marvelous star vehicle for the pop icon, who de-glams and leaves it all on the screen. I’m not sure a glimpse of Gaga’s lady was fully necessary; nonetheless the musician proves a revelation of an actress in every frame. Cooper is a bit too Sling Blade in his role with a distracting drawl that doesn’t fully match his character, and Sam Elliott is inexplicably cast as his brother (you know, the kind of sibling who is about 40 years older). Cooper’s directorial debut is intentionally messy around the edges; and there are times it feels he has captured the magic of love on screen. It’s far from original, but like a play with a soul-stirring revival, it’s worth seeing for these stars’ fetching takes on the roles.
Best known until now as a director of Step Up sequels, a Justin Bieber concert movie and flop flicks about G.I. Joe and Jem and the Holograms, Jon M. Chu seems an unlikely helmer of one of the first nearly all Asian American ensembles since 1993’s Joy Luck Club and one of the most satisfying romantic comedies since 1990’s Pretty Woman or 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, but here’s his film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians (A-), and it’s bliss. Although not a musical, the film simply sings. Although not entirely a fairy tale, it’s enchanting. Chu’s star is born, a crouching tiger ready to unabashedly entertain, and he draws spectacular chemistry from the luminous Constance Wu and the dashing Henry Golding. She’s a Chinese American professor invited to accompany her humble boyfriend to a wedding in his Singapore homeland where she quickly discovers he’s part of one of the country’s most wealthy families and heir to a fortune. Hilarity and heartbreak are in store abroad. Michelle Yeoh is incredibly fierce portraying the perfectionist matriarch-antagonist as a battle royale unfolds between family duty and the messiness of love. The film is splashy, soapy and sensational; you’ll want to book a trip to the opulent, exotic city it depicts: a place of glistening razzle dazzle dancing and locales, of kaleidoscopic fashion and costumes. The film veers into a few arch moments threatening to tonally derail it, but the committed cast members remain jubilant journeymen. American rapper Awkafina is a hoot as Wu’s sassy sidekick. There are also two popular American songs sung in the film’s native tongue, adding extra glitter and throwback to Chu’s fanciful fantasia. In a year when racial representation on screen has already delivered a stellar superhero film, it’s lovely to have such an enjoyable escapist romcom from the Asian perspective. This is one of the best times I’ve had at the movies this year.
Note: The film opens wide August 15, 2018 after buzz building sneak previews. #CrazyRichAsians #GoldOpen
Alas sometimes these super sequel troopers leave you feeling like a number two. Ol Parker’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (C+) has a lot working against it: soundtrack of ABBA B-sides as opposed to the first film’s greatest hits, a largely missing Meryl Streep (whose credibility helped elevate the preceding film to its guilty pleasure status) and the lack of the musical whodunit propelling the original’s narrative. Still, many of the songs soar with giddy delight (“Waterloo,” “Angel Eyes and “I’ve Been Waiting for You” are favorites), and it’s fun to see the assorted cast of characters cavorting on a lovely Greek Island once more. Lacking a consistent or cogent new plot, Parker goes full Godfather II with flashbacks to Streep’s younger self lovingly played by Lily James. She’s good, but neither she nor present-day Amanda Seyfried can quite heed the script’s S.O.S. It’s all rather obligatory but watchable, and both a spry director and a game ensemble give their all with the paltry lot they’ve got. Thank you for the music; no thank you for the cash grab.
It’s the ‘70s punk rock era Britain-set coming of age Kama Sutra alien infiltration cult curiosity you didn’t know you were looking for. The always imaginative auteur and champion of underground subcultures John Cameron Mitchell’s latest film merits a B rating. The movie has a video store friendly title, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, but that’s where the mainstream elements end. Alex Sharp, a spitting image of young Bob Geldof, is charming as a music scene denizen whose friends stumble upon a house party and an intriguing young woman, played convincingly and enjoyably by Elle Fanning, who may not be of this earth. The rules of her tribe provide a few complications for a burgeoning romance, but Mitchell’s electric kool-aid picture show plays by few expected rules in chronicling the young couple’s brief time together. This kaleidoscopic escapade is overstuffed with ideas; it’s telling when Nicole Kidman in a guise akin to Bowie’s Goblin King is one of the least strange things afoot. There’s a crazy cool music number, some of the strangest sexual goings-on this side of Planet Transylvania or Mitchell’s own Shortbus and some provocative but only lightly explored themes about what generations appropriate from each other to create a fresh scene. The film runs out of steampunk towards the end and doesn’t stack up as one of the director’s best. The romance is only ok, but the vibe is bonkers. Recalling the great philosopher who once said even bad pizza is still pretty good, it’s nice to have this new if wildly uneven work to enjoy. This new wonder from Mitchell will undoubtedly scratch an angsty itch and become a cult find for a certain adventurous crowd. Oi!
In the case of impresario P.T. (Anderson, that is) and the greatest sew-man of posh 1950’s London, the peculiar and perversely romantic Phantom Thread (B+) raises sartorial obsession to high art and establishes an arch melodrama out of the romantic embellishments that temper a tempest. Daniel Day-Lewis is the mercurial fashion designer at the film’s center, and it’s another performance for the ages as he charms and disarms every person who dares disturb his perfectly tailored existence. Vicky Krieps is a revelation as the woman drawn in to tame the beast with her own wily techniques. She’s breathtaking in the role, as is Leslie Manville as the couturier’s equally controlling sister. It’s a slow burn of a character study before Anderson’s poison pen careens a plunging plotline into the fore, leaving everyone involved on pins and needles. The production design, including lavish gowns and lush countrysides, is hypnotizing, and Jonny Greenwood’s nourish score hauntingly gorgeous. Anderson’s film is sure to be polarizing, as its central relationship mushroom clouds into droll extremes; but for those seeking an oddball odyssey into human fixations, it’s a stunner.
A love that dare not speak its name gets its most magnificent due in an uncommonly affecting and breathtaking new film. Director Luca Guadagnino’s idyllic, romantic coming of age drama Call Me by Your Name (A) transports viewers to 1983 Northern Italy and, despite its foreign film aesthetic and slow burn pacing, presents a truly accessible story of summer love and its lifelong consequences. The character peculiarities and specificity of the time and place breathe a special life force into the proceedings. The likability, charm, intelligence and wit of the movie’s protagonists, the preternaturally talented Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, who has never been better, anchor and uplift the film. And Michael Stuhlbarg gives a final act speech that sums up the movie’s themes of personal acceptance with astonishing flourish. James Ivory deftly adapted this André Aciman novel about a fleeting love that burns bright, and Sufjan Stevens provides much of the film’s memorable music. Guadagnino blends joy and pathos into a true wanderlust of emotions in a film of picturesque physical and emotional splendor. It’s one of the great films of this or any year.
Vincent Gagliostro’s After Louie (B) is ostensibly a “May-September romance” between Alan Cumming as an artist and Zachary Booth as his muse. Through the lens of an engrossing inter-generational relationship, the film spotlights attitudes about the AIDS crisis reflected through those tethered to the heights of its tragedy and those buoyed by a renewed and sometimes more casual outlook on dealing with the disease. The film centers on Cumming’s character getting out of his own head as he clings desperately to the crusades he once championed. His young companion challenges many of his mores and expectations. Both men in the center of the film give sage performances. Don’t let Booth’s matinee idol looks eclipse what a well modulated performance he offers. Some subplots are better developed than others, with a sequence involving some creative painting as a highlight. Character driven with moments of poignancy, it’s a thinking person’s film with some imaginative flourishes.
The relationship status of Christian and Anastasia continues to be “It’s Complicated” in James Foley’s not-as sloppy-seconds-as-you’d-think sequel Fifty Shades Darker (C+). Dakota Johnson and Jaimie Dornan actually improve a bit on their original portrayals of a couple from different sides of the track marks, as they advance their unusual romance against the demons of his dysfunctional past. It’s perplexing, but they make the far-fetched characters relatable. The struggle to tame this wounded billionaire is real, and sometimes he earns a little Red Room. Overlong and oddly paced most of the time, this erotic thriller could have used some whips, chains and clamps in the editing room. The final act begins to progress like a season of a campy eighties nighttime drama (Falcon Breast?). In a particularly saucy role as a BDSM mistress who keeps showing up to warn Ana about Christian like a Dickensian apparition, Kim Basinger seems to cast all fifty forms of shade. The movie is beautifully filmed, a kind of love letter to Seattle through the spherical lens of Ben Wa. There’s even an homage to Johnson’s real-life mom with a line right out of Working Girl as Ana advances in her publishing company. The cliffhanger in the original didn’t prompt much interest in this sequel, but Foley tarts things up enough this go-around that he may indeed have built interest in bringing on a third.
Damien Chazelle’s kaleidoscopic modern musical La La Land (B+) explores the eternal question of whether you should put your art or your love life first. Or maybe you can have both! OK, it’s not exactly a universal question – and possibly a first-world problem at that – but in the hands of starry-eyed and fleet-footed leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, they surely confront these themes with a spectacular charm offensive. After an impressive musical number atop and around cars stopped on the Los Angeles freeway (west coast Fame meets West Side Story), the film riffs into Meet Cutes and Meet-Not-So-Cutes, ups and downs and very few surprises aside from it all being a musical. Much is done in an Umbrellas of Cherbourg type leitmotif, but it doesn’t necessarily rain with consistent results. The songs are enjoyable, and Stone is luminescent in a big audition number. The Technicolor dance sequences are quite whimsical and wonderful. Gosling gets his best role yet, with the film exploiting many of his dapper deadpan assets. Stone is a radiant delight, with note-perfect expressions and game takes on a sometimes cliché ingenue part. The whole enterprise would have benefited from some zestier supporting characters and a smidgen of extra substance. Sometimes it’s a film that begs to be loved just a bit too much, but this love letter to a town where dreams are made, dashed and rehashed is overall pretty nifty to behold.
Tim Kirkman’s Lazy Eye (B) advances one of my favorite genres of film: the talky, plaintiff romance. This two-decades later Before Sunrise effect seems to be casting its spell into every corridor, from the early days of Barack and Michelle (the recommended Southside with You) to gay-themed stories of young love (Theo & Hugo). In Kirkman’s life-affirming entry in this genre, the story centers on two men whose romantic relationship ended 15 years ago but who are reunited to possibly rekindle their love affair anew. Lucas Near-Verbrugghe is the central figure, a bespectacled graphic artist in L.A. who has let many of his passions sputter; and Aaron Costa Ganis plays the dashing dreamer (the one who got away) re-entering the picture. Through both a modern story and flashbacks from 15 years before, rendered flawlessly, the audience follows the trajectory of a couple with great potential. There’s a very natural flow to the relationship and clear tension about what it could become. Although clearly committed to the role, Near-Verbugghe simply isn’t as strong a screen presence as Ganis, causing at times a lopsided narrative. In fact, Ganis is so charming in the role, most co-stars wouldn’t stand a chance. The characters aren’t quite as indelible as hoped, but Kirkman does a wonderful job creating a contemplative “what if” through line of theming. Additionally, the film transports viewers to an ethereal time and place in the West Coast desert, summoning a spiritual and cerebral atmosphere for asking the big questions about the choices we make.
Note: This film was screened at the Out on Film festival in Atlanta and is playing at additional festivals around the U.S. It premiered in NYC and Los Angeles mid-November and is now available for streaming and on-demand.