9 posts categorized "Romantic Drama"

August 29, 2017


Colesmithey4.com“84 Charing Cross Road” is about bonds of friendship formed and maintained by a by a mutual love of literature or, more to the point, books. Anne Bancroft’s earthy portrayal of real-life playwright and script-reader Helene Hanff (pronounced hell-ane han-f) is so effortless and effervescent that it’s enough to turn a generation of young women into chain-smoking, gin-swigging writers, if not full-fledged admirers of beautifully bound editions by the likes of Jane Austin, George Orwell, Chaucer, or Plato.

Helene Hanff was famous for saying that she never read fiction because she could “never get interested in things that didn’t happen to people who never lived.”

Personally, I know exactly where Hanff was coming from, and I concur. So it is that the nature of this film, directed by David Jones, calmly emphasizes the immediate surroundings and social conditions of its characters from the late ‘40s to the late ‘60s. Love of poetry and the written word is intrinsic in the fabric of the narrative. Nothing is strained, even when characters break the forth wall after earning sufficient trust from its audience. We are glad to be spoken to directly. It’s a loving gesture that arrives as a reward.  


Helene Hanff lives in a weathered brownstone apartment on 95th street off Central Park in Manhattan’s Carnegie Hill. She frequents an actual bookstore at 1313 Madison that is still in business at the time of this writing. Unable to locally acquire the specific titles that her ever-hungry literary appetite requires, she responds to an ad for Marks & Co., a London-based antiquarian booksellers overseen by Anthony Hopkins’s Frank P. Doel. What follows is a 20-year relationship of loving commerce elucidated by letters written back and forth across the pond.

Oh what a difference casting makes. There can be little doubt that the separate but resonate chemistry between Bancroft and Hopkins rings as a clarion bell of mesmerizing harmony. Through their constant correspondence we savor Hanff’s lean sense of nearly ribald humor as it rubs on the dry paint of Frank Doel’s heartfelt sense of honest propriety. It should be noted that Judi Dench’s restrained performance as Doel’s loyal but tightly-wound Irish wife Nora adds a layer of stoic resolve to the couple’s marriage.


The primary action of the story revolves around Hanff’s written requests for specific books that she augments with gifts of food stuffs meant for the appreciative staff of Marks & Co., located at the address of the film’s title. Hanff always sends cash.  

So it is that the seemingly pedestrian story catches the viewer off guard when the cumulative emotional effect takes its inevitable toll in a tear-jerking sequence of satisfying catharsis. “84 Charing Cross Road” is a valuable film for all of the right reasons of theatrical balance and narrative truth. It is a movie that hits you like a live play. I can think of no higher compliment for the source material of soul-bearing experience.  


Rated PG. 100 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)

January 27, 2014


Ivan Reitman’s Near-Movie is a Soap Opera Diasaster

Labor DayThere’s almost a movie — one with serious incest issues — hiding somewhere in writer/director Jason Reitman’s bleary attempted adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel. The story revolves around Frank (Josh Brolin), an ex-con who takes Adele, a depressed single mother, and her 13-year-old son Henry hostage after escaping via a second-story hospital window. Blood from Frank’s fresh appendectomy is still seeping through his T-shirt when he comes across mother-and-son shopping in a New Hampshire department store.

The director behind such milquetoast social-commentary excursions as “Thank You For Smoking” (about the tobacco industry) and “Up in the Air” (about corporate downsizing) goes straight for soap opera romance this time around. The film’s bubble-bath effect may possibly appeal to its target audience of middle-aged Caucasian housewives, but other collective stereotypes will likely not be so moved.

It’s the mid- '80s. Frank isn’t as menacing as his dire circumstances and bloody appearance make him seem, at least not after he gets Adele (Kate Winslet) and Henry inside their cozy home. He only briefly ties them up for appearances — in case the cops show up right away. Though under the hot threat of violent arrest, Frank is a calm and collected pushover looking for love. More importantly, Frank is looking to fulfill his smoldering patriarchal and maternal desires. He may be a tough guy, but Frank is also a regular homemaker. Never mind that he was sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing his wife and child many moons ago; that’s another story that gets handled in flashbacks, which include television actor Tom Lipinski playing a younger version of Frank. (Lipinski’s spitting image of a youthful Josh Brolin sends chills.)

Kate Winslet’s Adele is a dejected agoraphobe who can’t get her car into reverse without the help of her strangely detached son Henry (Gattlin Griffith). The story is told from Henry’s perspective as an unreliable protagonist who is just as likely to sabotage his mom’s newfound romance as he is in helping.

Since his father ran off with his secretary, Henry and his bipolar mom have entered into an uncomfortable relationship in which she has become a surrogate girlfriend. They practice dancing together. Adele puts a lot of stock in a man’s ability to dance. Henry has taken his mom on movie dates. The story teases at an underlying subtext of incest on several occasions — the most obvious occurs when Henry listens to his mother’s and Frank’s lovemaking sessions while wondering in voiceover narration about his own inability to appease his mother’s sensual desires. Freaky. A birds-and-bees lecture Adele gives Henry has her emphasizing the way sex “feels” over traditional concerns of emotional commitment, sexually transmitted diseases, or pregnancy. In the hands of competent staff, this would be worth exploring. As things stand, the filmmakers and actors seem oblivious to the bizarre subtext at hand.      

Things get especially peculiar during a suggestive cooking session in which Frank instructs Adele and Henry on how to make a peach pie. The three characters stick their six hands simultaneously into the goop, manipulating the peaches in a display of tactile sensuality that the website epicurious.com named the “World’s Sexiest Peach Pie.” Don’t ask.

During the three-day weekend, Frank goes into patriarchal overdrive, fixing the family car, squeaky doors, and teaching “Hank” to throw a baseball. Of course he’s also busy loving up Adele and warming her up to the idea of making a run for the Canadian border.

Henry manages to fit in a romantic dalliance with a know-it-all girl who tries to convince him that Adele and Frank will surely abandon him so they have sex without him around.

There are so many weird strains of tone-deaf subtext running through “Labor Day” that you have to accept the movie for what it is: a poorly written movie based on a poorly written novel. It might draw tears from the ladies-that-lunch crowd, but this movie rattles like a broken blender.

Rated PG-13. 111 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)


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December 11, 2013


HERWhere Spike Jonze once soared using magical realism — albeit written by someone else — as his guide (see “Being John Malkovich”) he now flounders with a self-penned technology driven story that shrivels before your eyes.

Set in the not-too-distant future, “Her” involves a long distance romance between Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a recently separated writer of personalized letters for every occasion, and Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a software-program love-interest of limited potential — think “Siri.” Samantha (or “OS1”) is billed as, “the world’s first intelligent operating system.” I suppose Jonze never heard of Siri.

The tone is a light comedy with a drop of tepid social commentary thrown in for good measure. The effect is one of intellectual and physical impotence. Imagine a flawed cross between Walter Mitty and “Lars and the Real Girl” and you get the gist.

Jonze transforms Los Angeles into a sanitized smog-free mecca WITH vaguely Asian aesthetics where minority cultures have been scrubbed away beneath a forest of shiny high-rise buildings. Dark-skinned people don’t exist. We may as well be watching events unfold on an alien planet that has mirrored our own through a whitesplaining mirror. The atmospheric self-consciousness extends to Theodore’s introverted character as a socially awkward geek who takes to engaging in a romantic relationship with a mechanized phone-sex “consciousness” like a teen hacker to rough code. "The Man Who Loved Women," this isn’t.
Regardless of how “normal” Joaquin Phoenix attempts to make his character, Theodore is an emotionally stunted man who is more pathetic than empathetic.

With Samantha as his constant companion, Theodore is happy — perhaps for the first time in his life. From the outside he might seem like guy who constantly talks to himself because, well, that’s what it seems is going on. Supposedly, Theodore is teaching Samantha how to be and feel more human. So, in effect, we are watching a guinea pig improving a beta program with a sultry voice — kudos to Scarlett Johansson for some excellent voiceover work.

All concept and style, “Her” floats around like a clinical bubble that pops. There isn’t any pay off— emotional or otherwise. The picture might be attractive if bland to look at, but “Her” doesn’t have the thematic development necessary to fulfill the viewer. Where a film like “Lars and the Real Girl” brought its painfully lonely protagonist to a place of emotional centeredness though the efforts of a community of concerned individuals, “Her” remains too aloof for any such realization. The movie doesn’t want to get its hands dirty.

Rated R. 120 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)


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September 29, 2013


Le WeekEndAudiences familiar with screenwriter Hanif Kureishi’s work — reference “My Beautiful Laundrette” and “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid” — will want to seek out the author’s latest collaboration with director Roger Michell (“Venus”). They will not be disappointed. Revisiting their honeymoon in Paris 30 years later, an elderly married couple enjoys a romantic, bitey, and emotionally challenging experience that eventually lands them on equal footing. Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan play the sixty-something Nick and Meg Burrows with a full range of emotional and intellectual colors that express their struggles as British teachers whose careers have not panned out as they imagined.

The quaint hotel they booked isn’t up to Meg’s standards. Their tiny room is notably “beige.” Tight personal finances don’t prevent Meg from splurging. An expensive sightseeing taxi tour leads the couple to a five-star hotel where they run up an enormous bill while acting like teenagers when the mood strikes. Running out on an expensive restaurant tab presents a challenging adventure — especially for Meg, who is hell-bent to sew at least a few wild oats while basking in the glow of the City of Lights. Nick would settle for a little romp between the sheets. But Meg is not as amorously inspired.

Jeff Goldblum all but steals the movie as Morgan, an expat former classmate of Nick’s from their days at Cambridge. Morgan is everything Nick isn’t — notably a successful writer with a much younger wife. Goldblum’s hyper-intellectual character is so full of himself that you half-expect him to start swinging from lampposts. The poignant nature of Nick’s late-life-crisis comes to a boil during a party at Morgan’s well-appointed apartment over dinner. Nick delivers a devastating monologue that speaks some harsh truths for several generations regarding the 21st century atmosphere of ineffable bleakness. “Le Week-End” articulates a nostalgic sense of romantic aspiration without ever giving in to sentiment. Comedy and tragedy wear the same mask in the city that best represents romantic love. Just as with Paris, you’ll want to revisit “Le Week-End.”

Rated R. 93 mins. ( B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)


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September 15, 2013


Bitwc.colesmithey.com“Blue is the Warmest Color” is one of the most stunning films I’ve ever seen. I realize that sounds like a readymade pull-quote, and it's fine with me if it gets used as such, but I don’t offer lavish praise cheaply. It would diminish this beautiful film to pigeonhole it to a modern standard-bearer for the LGBT movement (which it is); its tremendous depths of emotional intimacy demand more than that. Watching the three-hour love story unfold is a simultaneously transgressive and transcendent encounter in which the audience is compelled in no uncertain terms to fall head-over-heels in love with the film’s romantic heroine.

An epic coming-of-age romantic drama between two captivating forces of feminine nature, “Blue” is as intimate a representation of erotic and romantic love as has ever been committed to cinema. Graphic in its depiction of lesbian sex, it circumvents any accusations of pornographic intent by being hopelessly and sincerely sensual. If that sounds confusing, it should. What director Abdellatif Kechiche achieves is unprecedented.


The camera worships everything about lead actress Adèle Exarchopoulos. It contemplates her persuasively wanton lips, which wait in a constant state of a half-open invitation to be kissed. Her upper lip points in an upward arc that resembles a temple of tenderness. Poets could write a thousand sonnets about the slight wrinkle that flirts at the right corner of her mouth when a certain mood strikes. Every tiny movement of Exarchopoulos’s oral orifice transmits an encyclopedia’s worth of primal and intellectual information. Director Abdellatif Kechiche understands the power of Exarchopoulos’s mesmerizing face, and the filmmaker takes ample advantage of her unique features in extreme close-ups that convey volumes of narrative subtext.

Using the actress’s real first name blurs the line between the comely Exarchopoulos and the exotically nubile character she plays. Adèle is a French 16-year-old high school junior exploring the boundaries of romance as informed by the male classmate who pursues her. Yet Emma, an older woman with blue-dyed hair Adèle passes in the street, fans her inner desires. A chance meeting during her first visit to a lesbian bar introduces Adèle to Emma in a meet-cut sequence full of overflowing curiosity and erotic ambition.

As part of a clique of meddlesome schoolgirls, Adèle is publically humiliated after her “friends” witness her leaving school with Emma (Léa Seydoux). Just when the story seems as though it will stay in one social stratum, it shifts without commentary.

Loosely adapted from Julie Maroh’s graphic novel “le bleu est une coleur chaude,” Kechiche and his co-writer Ghalia Lacroix create extended, seemingly real-time, sequences that allow the characters and story to develop in an organic fashion. That several of these protracted sequences involve beautifully explicit lovemaking sessions between Adèle and Emma adds incalculably to our empathy and understanding of the characters and the lustful nature of their relationship.


Social forces and personal insecurities are the antagonist. Early on, we see Adèle marching and shouting in an anti-austerity protest march. Later on, when she is a few years older Adèle participates in a LGBT parade. She has changed significantly. The audience is left to judge via their own individual perspective exactly how Adèle’s live-in relationship with Emma, and other internal and external factors, have influenced her.

“Blue is the Warmest Color” is a monumental cinematic achievement that must be experienced by anyone passionate about film. That the movie also encompasses national, familial, political, personal, sexual, intellectual, and artistic themes brings the narrative to an epic level of romantic drama. Still, it never over-stresses its implicit nature as an all-inclusive portrait of love.

Rated NC-17. 179 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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July 02, 2012


People_like_usStars Like These
Banks and Pine Go Hepburn and Tracy
By Cole Smithey

Smart dialogue intersperses a by-committee soap opera plot in a movie made better than the sum of its shaky narrative by three terrific actors. Elizabeth Banks, Chris Pine, and newcomer Michael Hall D’Addario exude old-fashioned movie magic, which keeps you hanging on their every word. Every time another forced plot point threatens to make you wince, the actors add in emotional beats to snap the unwieldy material into believable shape. Their intuitive sense of comic timing helps.

Pine plays Sam Harper, the adult son of an L.A. record biz maverick whose sudden passing Sam doesn’t give two shits about. He’d rather stay in New York with his law-student girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) than fly home for the funeral. Still, Sam’s legal troubles at work are worth escaping. Once in L.A. at his mother Lillian’s (Michelle Pfeiffer in a thankless supporting role) house, Sam receives a mixed-bag inheritance that keeps him confused for a good long while about how to execute his dead father’s wishes, which include a sizable chunk of secretly furnished cash. Enter Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), a single mom working as a bartender. Frankie is an AA member who attends regular meetings to avoid the pitfalls of her occupation. Frankie’s 11-year-old son Josh (exquisitely played by D’Addario) has a knack for getting in major trouble at school. Josh does a massive amount of damage to school property with a single act of vandalism that results in his possible expulsion.


Unbeknownst to them, Sam and Frankie share a familial relationship that demands some serious effort on both of their parts if it is to lead to any kind of shared future. Sam’s mother is none too pleased about her son’s recent discoveries.

Television writer-turned-director Alex Kurtzman co-wrote the film’s script with Roberto Orci (“Star Trek”) and newcomer Jody Lambert. The writing team doesn’t so much create a storyline as hammer away at pet plot points — as with one involving Sam’s looming run-in with the New York court system. Note to screenwriters: telephone conversations are an inherently dull way to provide exposition or create dramatic suspense. That the script team never bothers to resolve Sam’s worrisome subplot, involving his questionable business practices, leaves a crater in the film’s coda. Miraculously, even such glaring omissions become forgivable in light of the emotional connection between the main characters. The actors’ fluid choices — involving intentionality, physicality, and phrasing — help mask such clunky plot mechanics. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino (“Frost/Nixon”) also contributes to the film’s success with evocative compositions that expand the harmony of the narrative with precise visual touches.


“People Like Us” is a conundrum. Objectively, it’s not an exceptional movie. Nonetheless, the story has a wealth of compelling emotional hooks, rooted in complex family issues, which more than a few audience members will relate to. As a tearjerker, the drama works like a charm. The real reason to see “People Like Us” is for the positively masterful performances that Banks, Pine, and D’Addario deliver. Modern-day Hollywood has some bona fide movie stars on its hands.

Rated PG-13. 115 mins. (B) (Three stars - out of five/no halves)

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January 02, 2011

Blue Valentine

Messy Heartbreak
Gosling and Williams Go the Distance
By Cole Smithey

Bluevlentine Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams credibly play a young married couple--Dean and Cindy--whose relationship is falling apart in director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance's heavyweight romantic drama. Housepainter Dean (Gosling) is a caring father to the couple's young daughter Frankie (Faith Wladyka). The pressures of working as a nurse constantly on call have made Cindy deeply unsatisfied with her marriage and role as a mother. The filmmakers use a flashback motif to show a series of events and adventures that led to couple to marry under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Cinematographer Andrij Parekh ("It's Kind of a Funny Story") creates a beguiling compositional scheme that incorporates extreme close-ups of the actors' faces for most of the current-period sections of the dueling narrative. In the flashbacks we discover how Dean wooed Cindy when he worked as a professional mover. In the film's most charming scene Dean plays a ukulele and sings while Cindy tap-dances in the doorway of a closed shop at night. The emotional and sexual vibrancy between Gosling and Williams is unavoidable. Sex is a significant ingredient in the film. The emotionally honest scenes of lovemaking are exquisitely executed to give depth and meaning to the relationship.

Derek Cianfrance began making films at 13. He's worked primarily in the documentary format since then. His training has given him specific ideas about compartmentalizing narrative aspects that inform his rigorous process here. For "Blue Valentine" Cianfrance crafted a specific list of rules. All of the past, or flashback sequences of the couple, are shot on film. The current period of their relationship is recorded on digital cameras. For the sequences of the pair falling in love, both actors are held inside the frame as much as possible. But Dean and Cindy are captured individually during the waning days of their marriage. It's a methodology that works subliminally on the audience, making us aware of personal aspects of the characters that go far beyond the scripted page. When Dean shows up at the clinic where Cindy works he sees her happy and smiling. "Is this where the smiles happen?" It's as if Cindy becomes a different person at work. His reaction tells us everything about the status of their relationship. The doctor Cindy works for has been flirting with her. He even makes plans to move his practice with the expectation that she will follow him. Although Cindy pretends to be unaware of the doctor's advances, e-mail clues that Dean discovers tell another story.

"Blue Valentine" represents a new generation of cutting-edge filmmaking. The film uses sex not in a pornographic way, although it is fairly explicit. It's not a method that Cassavetes would have approved, but it achieves a similar imprint of tangible emotional reality. We get the full force of the meaning in the universal physical expression at hand. Like Cassavetes's films, "Blue Valentine" is messy about love and heartbreak.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are two of the finest young American actors working in film today. The emotional colors and understated psychological transitions that Gosling and Williams reveal make watching them a pure joy. As the title suggests, "Blue Valentine" is a sad love story, and a very personal one as well.

Rated R. 120 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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