Andrew Haigh’s bittersweet British drama/romance 45 Years (B) continues the talented director’s intimate character studies into complex people, examining their public and private lives with sophisticated perception. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay give outstanding late-career performances as a couple grappling with a relationship-altering revelation the week before they partake in a milestone party celebrating their marriage. Deliberately paced and quietly observed, the film ponders the “what if” of what could have happened if a loving couple had followed different parallel paths. Rampling is particularly marvelous as a woman coming to grips with demons of the past that could jeopardize legacy and the very nature of her near-half century love affair. Tiny details simmer to the surface in this slow-burn melodrama that mostly sidesteps conventions. The film is small in scale but big on ideas and will reward intellectual film-goers in search of meaningful stories.
Given the film’s depiction of the joys and promises of immigrating from Ireland to New York boroughs just six decades ago, John Crowley’s Brooklyn (B) should be required viewing for a few presidential aspirants. Saoirse Ronan carries the drama on her capable shoulders and shows her character mature right before our eyes; the actress is rather magnificent in coming-of-age mode. Her central character falls head over heels for a working-class Italian suitor (a charming Emory Cohen), and the film’s primary conflict involves this burgeoning love in The States versus the promise of a different life with another man in her homeland (Domhnall Gleeson in an underdeveloped role). The plot really stacks the deck given the mounting successes of life in America, but the overall journey is enjoyable as Ronan’s character pulls considerable empathy. The art direction and costuming are authentic and lush, and what could have devolved quickly into melodrama is lifted in Crowley’s skilled hands. On both sides of the Atlantic, there are women as peers and elders who want to hold our heroine down, and her ability to be resilient and push forward is inspiring.
Check out the trailer for Brooklyn below:
Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort are extraordinarily charming leads in an Josh Boone’s unconventional contemporary love story The Fault in Our Stars (A). Buoyed by crackling conversations about fate, mortality and making the most of every moment, this young adult drama defies genre limits and expectations to present well rounded characters of epic scope and scale. The film deals beautifully with cancer, disabilities and a bunch of hot button topics that are presented as part of the overall fabric of life. Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe are effective in supporting parts. Prepare to be moved throughout by the winning performances and chemistry.
James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (B+) reminded me of the ’80s fave Lucas with a similar melancholy I found so affecting in Perks of Being a Wallflower, and lead actor Miles Teller as the effortless charmer harboring an alcohol addiction channels a sort of Say Anything era John Cusack, if he were on an endless bender while winning love with jambox held aloft. The theme is about intoxication, to alcohol and to first love: Shailene Woodley is devastating as the naive good girl heroine, filling her first boyfriend’s flask for him as he drunkenly drives her to a date he’s just dreamed up. It’s eerie how much this could have just been called the Lea Michele/Corey Monteith story. The take-away, that life and relationships are more enduring than the episodes between blackouts, rises above the potential afterschool special pitfalls.
Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (B) tells an austere, autumnal next chronicle in the romantic saga of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s Jesse and Celine. This time it’s not all fun and games and wit and wordplay as we witness scenes from a marriage that is real and raw and may not still have much of the magic we remember from the young couple that met one night on a train nearly two decades ago. It is dramatic and tricky but sometimes a little stuck in its own rut. See it for the cannily observant viewpoints on keeping things fresh while aging together. And as fascinating as they are, let’s hope we’re not gearing up two more decades from now for a talky Amour featuring this duo.
Although pretty as a postcard, Water for Elephants (C-) is as formulaic as a tale can be that blends animal cruelty and forbidden love. At pachydrm pace, this three-ring melodrama fails to ring true. Robert Pattinson has acting skills on par with Luke Perry. Witherspoon and Waltz dial it in as the other stock characters in the most mediocre show on earth.
Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (B+) is a highly perceptive and dialogue-rich British-set film about two men who spend a few days together discussing the nature of love, relationships, art and the Big Topics of our age before one leaves the country. More than just a gay riff on the Before Sunrise movies or My Dinner with Andre, it’s a smart and discerning character study about the space between where passion starts and true love truly blossoms. Tom Cullen and Chris New are magnificent in their roles, and Haigh is masterful in depicting how they let down their guards. His documentary-like and episodic style conceals a deeper mission, as he’s accomplished quite a profound glimpse into the origins of romance.
Phyllida Lloyd’s film adaptation of her theatrical hit Mamma Mia! (B) is largely a joyful confection, taking its cues from the music catalogue of Swedish hitmakers ABBA to playfully chronicle how the plucky young female descendant of a 1979 “dancing queen” cavorting with three summer boyfriends on an exotic Greek isle endeavors to discover the identity of a dad to walk her down the wedding aisle. Central to the charm of the film is the relationship between Meryl Streep as the mom and Amanda Seyfried as her inquisitive offspring; each has a natural warmth and pleasant singing voice. Some of the supporting subplots and singers (ahem, Pierce Brosnan) are a bit atonal or adrift. The musical numbers are lovely and limber, and the locale adds enchantment to the affair, as if something vaguely mythological is afoot. It’s a rom com within a rom com with karaoke moments to punctuate every Big Emotion. It’s frisky, fun and recommended.
Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust (B+) is a whimsical adventure in the tradition of The Princess Bride. Michelle Pfeiffer, Claire Danes and Robert DeNiro are standouts in this fantasy about getting over the walls that block our way to our dreams. Witches, pirates, unicorns, voodoo dolls and so much more are part of the journey ahead. This is a pleasant surprise of a movie that nobody seemed to see in theatres but that has enchanted folks who have seen it.
Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer (B+) is a charming and sophisticated romantic comedy featuring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as young people searching for love amidst the iciness and irony of modern Los Angeles. The film is enriched by its nonlinear structure in which the 500 primary days of the central duo’s relationship are told out of order. Gordon-Levitt is the revelation here as the greeting card writer who aspires to put his sunny solicitations to good use and ultimately his actual architecture skills to work in building a legacy. For a debut feature, Webb’s work is remarkably assured. It’s a funny valentine to being young and a bit confused, and the film’s unusual structure ultimately gives it the propulsive force that makes it move in its own distinctive and inspiring way.
Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (A) pairs brilliant actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as men who fall in love in the Wyoming wilderness of the 1960’s and spend the rest of their life trying to reconcile their forbidden desires to their wives (played by Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway) and hide their emotions from themselves. It’s a heartbreaking reverse-romance as most of the love is unrequited. The cinematography and storytelling are exquisite, and the brittle emotions cut to the bone. The passage of time parallels the creeks and brooks of the gorgeous countryside, even if the emotions run deep and powerful but often unexplored. Ledger and Gyllenhaal may be more daring than they even know for taking on these roles with such abandon, and Lee gives them a narrative that resonates.
Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (B) reunites the spontaneous lovers played so memorably by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise. This time the conceit is that the roving conversation (this time in Paris) plays out in real time. It’s a bit more experiment than narrative continuation and only occasionally nails universal truths as before. But rarely do you get films with emotions laid this bare, and it’s fascinating to watch what Jesse and Celine will do next.