CALL ME BY YOUR NAME: first love in a luscious Italian summer

Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Call Me by Your Name is an extraordinarily beautiful story of sexual awakening set in a luscious Italian summer.  The film is gorgeous and magnificently well-acted, but flawed.

Each year, the family of 16-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) spends the summer in a villa in Northern Italy.  Elio’s father is an American professor of ancient Greek and Roman culture, and each summer he invites a different grad student to live in their villa and work on scholarly pursuits.  In this summer of 1981, that lucky grad student is the 26-year-old Oliver (Armie Hammer).  Elio is attracted to Oliver, who is a closeted gay man. Oliver is attracted to Elio, but initially resists Elio’s overtures.  What follows between the two of them is an enthralling and authentic exploration of first love.

Timothée Chalamet is really perfect as Elio, a musical prodigy who is beating off the girls with a stick.  Even really handsome and talented 17-year-olds have some awkwardness, especially while they’re trying too hard to be cool.  Chamalet captures that perfectly, along with the obsessive longing of a first romance.  (Chalamet is also in Lady Bird, where he plays the dreamy kid who plays in a band, the object of Lady Bird’s desire.)  Armie Hammer is also superb as the more worldly Oliver, whose external confidence masks inner conflicts.

Timothée Chalamet in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

The story of the two main characters would have made a perfect film, but famed screenwriter James Ivory adds some distracting implausibility with the other characters.  First, there are Elio’s impossibly cool and understanding parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar) who practically push their teen son into the arms of an older man; nobody has parents like that, especially TWO of them.  (And, yes, I did understand the dad’s motivation, made almost explicit in his final monologue).  Second, Elio hurts the feelings of a girl (in a way that almost every male has hurt some girl).  Later, she forgives him and it’s all made to be okay.  This is just too convenient for Elio, and I didn’t buy it.

And then there’s one of my own movie pet peeves.  I generally despise musical interludes in movies, when the dialogue is suspended and a song is played over a montage of imagery.  This usually indicates a lack of imagination in the story-telling.  A movie gets negative bonus points from me when the music is an insipid pop ballad.  In Call Me by Your Name, there are two such Euro-pop interludes.

On the other hand, the depiction of the Italian countryside, with its rustling breezes, orchards heavy with fruit, ancient buildings and  is pure travel porn.  I think that The Wife would have walked out of Call Me by Your Name – not because she wouldn’t have liked it – but to make reservations for a return to Tuscany.  Director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash, I Am Love) has a gift for making his native Italy unbearably attractive on the screen.  Between the work of Guadagnino and Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), Italy has been well-celebrated in recent films.

Call Me By Your Name is a very good movie, and the core story of Elio and Oliver is great cinema.

THE SHAPE OF WATER: an operatic romance (and it’s inter-species)

Sally Hawkins in THE SHAPE OF WATER

The Shape of Water is an epic romance from that most imaginative of filmmakers,  writer-director Guillermo del Toro.  The Shape of Water may become the most-remembered film of 2017.

The story is set in 1962 Baltimore. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives in a dark apartment above an aging downtown movie palace.  She and her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) work as a janitors on the graveyard shift at a government research laboratory.  The Cold War adventurer Strickland (Michael Shannon), a tower of menace, has captured an amphibian creature from the Amazon and has brought him in chains to a tank at the laboratory.  The male creature, in the approximate form of a human, has dual breathing systems, so he can survive both under water and on the surface; it develops that he also has intelligence, feelings and even healing powers.

The scientist Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to study Amphibian Man to discover how his species could benefit humanity.  Strickland, on the other hand, wants to rush into killing and dissecting the creature.  Strickland is a sadist, who enjoys brutalizing Amphibian Man with his cattle prod.

Elisa is repulsed by Strickland’s torture, and she feel compassion for Amphibian Man.  She starts showing Amphibian Man some kindness.  As Amphibian Man becomes more trusting of Elisa, he feels gratitude for her kindness.  She cares about him, too, first with pity and then with the fondness of a pet owner.  As Amphibian Man’s intelligence and feelings become more apparent, the two become more equal, and their mutual fondness blossoms into passion.

But Strickland’s nefarious plans force Elisa and her supporters into a race against the clock to save Amphibian Man.  And so we’re off on a thriller, with a heist-like rescue and a chase, culminating in an ending of operatic scale.

Now this is a romance that transcends species.  I totally bought into this.  If you can’t, the movie is less moving and much, much more odd.  Romance is often consummated sexually, and this one is, too.

Sally Hawkins is not conventionally pretty, yet del Toro didn’t make Elisa a stereotypical spinsterish ugly ducking.  Elisa is vital, with a rich inner life, a wicked sense of humor and cultural interests, and who expresses herself sexually.  She may only be a night janitor with a disability, but that doesn’t define her.  Elisa’s defiant gaze at Strickland is one of the movie’s highlights.

Hawkins’ performance is a tour de force.  Shannon makes for a formidable villain, especially when he clenches his own gangrenous fingers.  Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer and Nick Searcy (Art Mullen in Justified) are all excellent.

Richard Jenkins’s performance as Elisa’s neighbor Giles is very special.  This is a very vulnerable man, with his sexuality trapped in a closet, his growing sensitivity to his own aging and his career as a commercial artist becoming obsolete.  With his episodes of resolute denial spotted with instances of inner strength, both the character and the performance are very textured.  And Giles’ eccentric reactions to the story are very, very funny.

I highly recommend Guillermo del Toro’s interview on NPR’s Fresh Air , in which he discusses many of his choices in developing the story of The Shape of Water, including shaping the character of Elisa and the inspirations from The Creature from the Black Lagoon.  In the interview, del Toro explains that, if this movie were made in 1962, Strickland would have been the hero, the Cold Warrior protecting humans from the alien creature.  Instead of course, the heroes of The Shape of Water are a woman with a disability, a woman of color, a gay man and a commie spy and, of course, a monster.

None of the characters have any reason to envision that white male supremacy, oppression of gays or the Cold War would end, or even be tempered, in their lifetimes.  It’s a graphic time capsule, with the grand movie palace empty, pushing out a sword and sandal epic to compete in futility with the small screen offerings of Dobie Gillis, Mr. Ed and Bonanza.  It’s a world in which the coolest thing imaginable is a teal 1962 Cadillac De Ville.

Here’s where Guillermo del Toro’s imagination triumphs. This story could not be told as well in a novel, on stage or in any other artistic medium. It has to be a movie.

This is filmmaking at its most essential and most glorious. Del Toro, along with production designer Paul B, Austerberry and art director Nigel Churcher, create a set of vivid and discrete worlds, each with its own palette. There are Elisa’s and Giles’ dark apartments, the brooding institutional green of the laboratory and the bright mid-century modern domain of Strickland’s family.

This is a beautiful movie.  Between del Toro’s filmmaking genius and Hawkins’ performance, The Shape of Water is a Must See, one of the best movies of the year.

Stream of the Week: FRANK & LOLA – Bad Girl or Troubled Girl?

Imogen Poots with Michael Shannon in FRANK & LOLA. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots in FRANK & LOLA.
Photo courtesy of SFFILM.

The San Francisco International Film Festival is underway, so this week’s video pick comes from the program of last year’s festival.  The absorbing neo-noir romance Frank & Lola opens with a couple lovemaking for the first time – and right away there’s a glimmer that he’s more invested than she is. Soon we’re spirited from Vegas to Paris and back again in a deadly web of jealousy.

Lola (Imogen Poots) is young and beautiful, a lively and sparkly kind of girl. Frank (the great Michael Shannon) is older but “cool” – a talented chef. He is loyal and steadfast but given to possessiveness, and he says things like, “who’s the mook?”.

In a superb debut feature, writer director Matthew Ross has invented a Lola that we (and Frank) spend the entire movie trying to figure out. Imogen Poots is brilliant in her most complex role so far. She’s an unreliable girlfriend – but the roots of her unreliability are a mystery – is she Bad or Troubled? A character describes her with “She can be very convincing”, and that’s NOT a complement. Poots keeps us on edge throughout the film, right up to her stunning final monologue.

Shannon, of course, is superb, and the entire cast is exceptional. There’s a memorable turn by Emmanuelle Devos, the off-beat French beauty with the cruel mouth. Rosanna Arquette is wonderful, as is Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies. I especially liked Justin Long as Keith Winkleman (is he a namedropping ass or something more?).

Frank & Lola has more than its share of food porn and, as befits a neo-noir, lots of depravity. But, at its heart, it’s a romance. Is Lola a Bad Girl or a Troubled Girl? If she’s bad, then love ain’t gonna prevail. But if she’s damaged, can love survive THAT either? We’re lucky enough to go along for the ride.

I saw Frank & Lola in May 2016 at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I liked it more than most and put it on my Best Movies of 2016. After a brief and tiny theatrical release in December which did not reach the Bay Area, Frank & Lola is now available to stream on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

Cinequest: THE OTTOMAN LIEUTENANT

THE OTTOMAN LIEUTENANT
THE OTTOMAN LIEUTENANT

The adventure romance The Ottoman Lieutenant, which had its world premiere at Cinequest and is now playing in theaters, is SO bad, so LAUGHABLY bad, that it’s hard to predict whether it will be quickly forgotten or linger in our memories as a benchmark in badness.

Just before World War I, a willful and affluent young American (Hera Hillmar), runs off to remote Turkey to deliver a truck-full of medical supplies to a dreamy young doc (Josh Hartnett), who is running a Protestant mission in an Armenian area of Anatolia.  She encounters the title character (Michael Huisman) and sparks fly.  The natural political conflict between the two men escalates in a fit of sexual jealousy.  Since the title is “The Ottoman Lieutenant” instead of “The American Missionary Doctor”, we know where things are headed…In fact, anyone who has ever seen a movie knows where EVERYTHING is headed in what must be the year’s most predictable movie

The blame starts with the unimaginative story and leaden dialogue from writer Jeff Stockwell.   Director Joseph Ruben contributes the cliché of horse-riding across a grassy plain, bodies rocking in the saddles and bouncing up and down rhythmically, accompanied by SWELLING music.  Not once.  Not twice.  But three times.  The kisses erupt into industrial-scale heavy breathing after precisely two counts (“one-thousand-one, one-thousand two, now let’s hear heavy breathing!”).  There’s even some bad CGI of a passenger ship – kind of Titanic Lite.

The Ottoman Lieutenant also features a dreadful performance by its lead.  Hera Hillmar, known for 25 episodes of Davinci’s Demons, misreads lines and generally fails to interest us at all.  She’s not even interesting when losing her virginity.  Would a better actress elevate this material?  Perhaps, but not all the way into an even mediocre film.  It doesn’t help when Stockwell has Hillmar utter the most obvious observation, “Jude, you’re angry!”, drawing unintended chuckles from the audience.

But it’s Hartnett who leaves us with the most memorable moment of The Ottoman Lieutenant.  He embraces Hillmar after her character’s deflowering and then shoves her back, bellowing, “I can smell him!”.  At my screening, fully one-third of the audience erupted into hearty laughter – an LOL moment unintended by the filmmakers.  Later, I realized that this line was the only unpredictable moment in the film.

The one appealing aspect of The Ottoman Lieutenant is Michael Huisman’s performance.  Huisman (Treme, Game of Thrones) is a very charismatic actor, and, if this movie could have been saved, he would have been up to it.  The Turkish actor Haluk Bilginer is pretty good as the lieutenant’s commander.  Ben Kingsley gets to emote as an older doctor made irascible by personal loss.

While watching a movie, I scribble notes in the dark; this time, The Wife snatched my notebook and wrote, “This is the worst movie ever”.  Tossing multiple millions of dollars at the budget for this movie was like over-inflating a used condom.

Stream of the Week: FRANK & LOLA – Bad Girl or Troubled Girl?

Imogen Poots with Michael Shannon in FRANK & LOLA. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Michael Shannon and Imogen Poots in FRANK & LOLA. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

The absorbing neo-noir romance Frank & Lola opens with a couple lovemaking for the first time – and right away there’s a glimmer that he’s more invested than she is.  Soon we’re spirited from Vegas to Paris and back again in a deadly web of jealousy.

Lola (Imogen Poots) is young and beautiful, a lively and sparkly kind of girl.  Frank (the great Michael Shannon) is older but “cool” – a talented chef.  He is loyal and steadfast but given to possessiveness, and he says things like, “who’s the mook?”.

In a superb debut feature, writer director Matthew Ross has invented a Lola that we (and Frank) spend the entire movie trying to figure out.  Imogen Poots is brilliant in her most complex role so far.  She’s an unreliable girlfriend – but the roots of her unreliability are a mystery – is she Bad or Troubled?  A character describes her with “She can be very convincing”, and that’s NOT a complement.  Poots keeps us on edge throughout the film, right up to her stunning final monologue.

Shannon, of course, is superb, and the entire cast is exceptional.  There’s a memorable turn by Emmanuelle Devos, the off-beat French beauty with the cruel mouth.  Rosanna Arquette is wonderful, as is Michael Nyqvist from the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies.  I especially liked Justin Long as Keith Winkleman (is he a namedropping ass or something more?).

Frank & Lola has more than its share of food porn and, as befits a neo-noir, lots of depravity.  But, at its heart, it’s a romance.  Is Lola a Bad Girl or a Troubled Girl? If she’s bad, then love ain’t gonna prevail. But if she’s damaged, can love survive THAT either?  We’re lucky enough to go along for the ride.

I saw Frank & Lola in May at the San Francisco International Film Festival.  I liked it more than most and put it on my Best Movies of 2016. After a brief and tiny theatrical release in December which did not reach the Bay Area, Frank & Lola is now available to stream on Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube and Google Play.

 

FEVER AT DAWN: romance, identity and a moral choice

FEVER AT DAWN
FEVER AT DAWN

The Hungarian drama Fever at Dawn is a little movie with an epic romance. Set just after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, Hungarian invalids who survived the camps have been sent to convalesce in hospital camps in Sweden. A young patient, Miklos, gets a dire diagnosis and determines to find love once more before he dies. A half century before internet dating, he concocts a scheme to get himself in front of every sick Hungarian woman in Sweden. When he meets his potential soulmate Lili, a moral question rises to the surface – should he share his diagnosis with the woman he is courting?

Some Holocaust survivors experienced ambivalence about the very Jewish identity that led to yellow stars on their clothes and, essentially, targets on their backs. This ambivalence becomes a significant thread of Fever at Dawn and is addressed more explicitly than is common for Holocaust (or post-Holocaust) movies.

Don’t read too much about this movie before seeing it. There’s an unexpected nugget at the end.

I saw Fever at Dawn earlier this year at its US premiere at Cinequest.  It’s being featured at this years San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SJFF36), where you can see it at San Francisco’s Castro on July 26, at the Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theater on July 28, and at CineArts in Palo Alto on July 29.

MY GOLDEN DAYS: the urgency of first love

MY GOLDEN DAYS
MY GOLDEN DAYS

The first love depicted in Arnaud Desplechin’s coming of age film My Golden Days is completely evocative. That first love is inevitable even if the young lovers don’t know it yet, and then filled with passion, importance, obsession, angst, conflict, breakups and makeups. And then it runs its course.

The performance of Lou Roy-Lecollinet as the unpredictable object of the young protagonist’s affection really elevates My Golden Days. Roy-Lecollinet has looks which won’t attract every guy, but would be irresistible to some. She’s able to convincingly play a girl with a devastating combination of confidence, forthrightness, charm, wit, impulsivity and a wandering eye.

That story makes up the core of My Golden Days, a flashback bookended by the contemporary, middle-aged version of the protagonist (Mathieu Amalric). The story of young romance is perfect – one that we can all recognize. But, in the epilogue, the Amalric character (who has lived a full and eventful life in the 15-20 years since) is oddly still fervently bitter about what happened years before; with that distance, most of us would look back with nostalgia or, at least, a wistful acknowledgement of lessons learned. I was a bit put off.

And what’s with the lame title My Golden Days, which makes this sound like the story set in a retirement home? The original title is Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse which I think translates into Three Memories of My Youth – that would be better and there’s gotta be plenty of more appealing and descriptive titles.

My Golden Days, which I saw at Cinequest, is a movie that anyone who is decades removed from first love should see.

 

Cinequest: FEVER AT DAWN

FEVER AT DAWN
FEVER AT DAWN

The Hungarian drama Fever at Dawn is a little movie with an epic romance.  Set just after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps,  Hungarian invalids who survived the camps have been sent to convalesce in hospital camps in Sweden.  A young patient, Miklos, gets a dire diagnosis and determines to find love once more before he dies.  A half century before internet dating, he concocts a scheme to get himself in front of every sick Hungarian woman in Sweden.  When he meets his potential soulmate Lili, a moral question rises to the surface – should he share his diagnosis?

Some Holocaust survivors experienced ambivalence about the Jewish identity that led to yellow stars on their clothes and, essentially, targets on their backs.   This ambivalence becomes a significant thread of Fever at Dawn and is addressed more explicitly than usual for a Holocaust (or post-Holocaust)  movies.

Don’t read too much about this movie before seeing it.  There’s an unexpected nugget at the end.

Fever at Dawn’s US Premiere will be on March 2 at Cinequest, with additional Cinequest screenings on March 3, 7 and 9.

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: if you’re looking for a bodice ripper

Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan in FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD
Matthias Schoenaerts and Carey Mulligan in FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

If you’re looking for cinematic romance with a proto-feminist perspective, you can do worse than Far from the Madding Crowd. Now I’m neither the target audience for a period romance or a fan of Carey Mulligan, but Far from the Madding Crowd is pretty fresh for having been based on a Thomas Hardy novel, and delivers an unusual (for the 19th Century)  female character and sweeping, sometimes operatic melodrama.

Mulligan plays a young woman who is smart, attractive, capable and VERY confident but has the wrong taste in men.  Because she has lucked into affluence, she has no NEED for a husband.  Indeed, under English law of the Victorian period, she would diminish her legal standing and lose her economic freedom if she marries.   A character sings the song “Let No Man Steal Your Heart”, and we know that the stakes are high.

Men DO try to steal her heart, sometimes with cringeworthily abrupt proposals of marriage (with pianos proffered to sweeten the deal).  She is wooed by the “safety” and comfort from a rich guy (Michael Sheen) vs the loyal hunk (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is below her station.  Then a very handsome soldier (Tom Sturridge), who turns out to be shallow and cruel, comes into play with a WOWZA of a first kiss.  We know who is the right guy for her, but SHE doesn’t see it that way, which creates all the drama.

I love the work of Danish director Thomas Vinterburg – 1998’s The Celebration (Festen), 2012’s The Hunt (Jagten).  Here he does a pretty good job keeping the wild swings and improbable coincidences of Hardy’s plot from becoming laughable.  How many ways are there to kill off an entire herd of sheep, anyway?

Far from the Madding Crowd opens tomorrow, and is a good choice for someone looking for a period romance.

DVD/Stream of the Week: I ORIGINS – a thoughtful romance that muses on the boundaries of science and spirituality

Michael Pitt and Brit Marling in I ORIGINS
Michael Pitt and Brit Marling in I ORIGINS

The romance I Origins (which opens tomorrow) explores the conflict between science and spirituality. Our scientist protagonist (Michael Pitt) is completely empirical and militantly anti-spiritual. He is obsessed with the study of iris scans and patterns of the eye (the “I” in the title is a pun). He is hoping to prove that eyes can be evolved, which he believes will debunk the Creationist pseudo-science of Intelligent Design. He meets a model (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) – and they don’t meet CUTE, they meet HOT. Through a string of scientifically improbable coincidences, he is able to track her down for a second encounter that is sharply romantic. They fall in love – an attraction of opposites because she is mercurial and vaguely New Agey.

Along the way, he gains a new lab assistant (Brit Marling), who is just as smart and more driven than is he. Together they find the lab breakthrough to prove his theory. The main three characters are affected by a life-altering tragedy. Seven years later, the story resumes with the public release of the discovery. As our hero takes his victory lap over religion, he is faced with new evidence that cannot be explained by science…

Writer-director Mike Cahill (Another Earth, also starring Marling) has constructed a story that sets up a discussion on the limits of empiricism. I give Cahill extra points for raising the issue without ponderosity or pretension. Some critics have harshly judged the movie, but they see it wrongly as a corny religion-beats-science movie instead of a contemplation on the possibilities. And they altogether miss the fact that the film is basically a romance, which Cahill himself sees as one of the two central aspects of I Origins. Cahill explores and compares the intense lust-at-first-sight, opposites-attract type of love with the love relationship based on common values and aspirations.

There are, however, two shots involving pivotal moments in the story (and both involving billboards) that are such self-consciously ostentatious filmmaking that they distracted me, rather than bringing emphasis to each moment.

Pitt, an actor of sometimes unsettling affect, is very good here, as he was in The Dreamers and Last Days. Berges-Frisbey and Marling deliver fine performances, too. If Marling is in a movie, it aspires to being good – I loved The East, which she co-write and starred in. Archie Panjabi, without the boots and the upfront sexiness she wears on The Good Wife, is solid in a minor part.

I Origins works both as a scientific detective story and as a meditation on romance. I found it to be smart and entertaining.  I Origins is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming on Amazon Instant Video, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Instant Video.