Their Finest (B+). It doesn’t have the grabbiest title, but this picture by Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) is my favorite of the year so far. The year is 1940, and Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton, Quantum of Solace) has moved from Wales to London with her artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). But his dour art isn’t selling, so Catrin gets a job as a screenwriter on a propaganda film about the evacuation of Dunkirk. She clashes with the obnoxious head screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), learns to massage the bruised ego of past-his-prime movie star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy, I Capture the Castle), and generally gets a crash course in the trials and tribulations of moviemaking. Jeremy Irons (Appaloosa) pops up unexpectedly as a pompous war minister. The sexism of the era is conveyed effectively without being overdone. On the whole, I quite enjoyed the movie.
Passengers (B). The critics haven’t been too kind to this new sci-fi flick, but I liked it pretty well. For this particular movie it’s kind of hard to know what would count as spoilers, so first I’ll just say what the movie is about based on the first ten minutes: an awesome starship from Earth is on a 120-year journey to a new world, with 5,000 passengers and a couple hundred crew members all sleeping the voyage away in suspended animation. But a little problem crops up, and a single passenger—a lowly engineer named Jim (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World)—is woken up 90 years too soon. There’s no way he can put himself back into hibernation, and communicating with Earth is impossible, so he faces living the rest of his life completely alone. The movie is about how he deals with that fate.
The rest of this review might contain spoilers if you haven’t seen any previews for this movie.
As the previews show, and as even the movie’s posters give away, Jim doesn’t stay alone. Another passenger, the lovely Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence, Silver Linings Playbook) also wakes up. How that comes to pass, and how she and Jim get along after she wakes up, are among the most interesting parts of the movie. Michael Sheen (TRON: Legacy) turns up as Arthur, the robotic bartender. The movie’s final act gets rather less interesting as coincidences and unbelievable events pile up. Still, I liked the movie overall. I thought Pratt and Lawrence were very likable, kind of like Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land. If you like science fiction, I say give Passengers a try.
Café Society (B). I know Woody Allen is a skeezy old moral nihilist who married his lover’s adopted daughter. Still, I have to say I have enjoyed at least some of his recent movies. (Irrational Man was a pretty glaring exception.) I caught a private screening of Café Society the other night and enjoyed it pretty well. (Okay, it just happened that I was the only person in the theater that night. Still, I felt special.)
Jesse Eisenberg (To Rome With Love) plays “the Woody Allen character.” His name is Bobby Dorfman, and he’s a young man at loose ends in 1930s New York. So he moves to L.A. where his uncle Phil (Steve Carell, Crazy, Stupid, Love) is a hotshot agent to all the top movie stars. Bobby falls in love with Phil’s secretary Veronica (Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria), but she’s got a boyfriend. Meanwhile, back in NYC, Bobby’s older brother Ben (Corey Stoll, Midnight in Paris) is making a living as a thug and racketeer. I can’t say more without committing spoilers, but I thought it was an entertaining picture. Bobby is less loquacious and neurotic then most of the Woody-esque characters in Allen’s films, which is a nice change of pace. I’m not sure Kristen Stewart is as pretty and interesting as the movie needs her to be, but I could suspend disbelief well enough.
Love & Friendship (B). I cannot find anything to criticize in Mom Under Cover’s fine review, so I will simply register my agreement. I expect Whit Stillman will get an Oscar™ nomination for his screenplay, adapted from the work of the divine Jane Austen, and I won’t be surprised if Kate Beckinsale (Whiteout) scores a nomination for her entertaining turn as the hilariously self-interested Lady Susan. Still, I don’t think this movie is quite up to the same level as Stillman’s amazing trilogy of movies Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) (co-starring Mira Sorvino), and The Last Days of Disco (1998) (starring Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, just like Love & Friendship does). If you like Love & Friendship, by all means look up Stillman’s earlier work. (Damsels in Distress (2011) is not quite in the same league as his trilogy.)
Incidentally, Stillman had also published a novelization of Love & Friendship that sounds very interesting. From what I have read, this novel is written as though it were the work of one of Lady Susan’s relatives, and he attempts throughout to defend her utterly indefensible behavior as described by Jane Austen. (The full title of the book is Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Fully Vindicated.) It sounds pretty funny. He also published a novelization of The Last Days of Disco, with the expanded title The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterward, which I have also never read.
Another movie that feels like a play is Amazon’s first feature film adapted from Jane Austen’s unfinished epistolary novella, Lady Susan. Whit Stillman (Metropolitan 1990, Barcelona 1994) kept the dialog sounding true to period, witty with barbs. Kate Beckinsale, as Lady Susan Vernon, delivers beautifully. The plot is much like a Shakespearean comedy. Lady Susan is a widow without means whose attempts to score a new hubby (Xavier Samuel as Reginald De Courcy) are almost undone when the intended becomes interested in Lady Susan’s daughter, Fredica (Morfydd Clark), who is much closer to his age. Solid performances by Stephen Fry, Justin Edwards, and Chloë Sevigny.
I don’t remember this film in 2014, but it’s worth watching. Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline, and Kristen Scott Thomas star in respected playwright Israel Horowitz’s directorial debut. Horowitz adapted his own play for the screen and it feels like a play. Kline arrives in Paris to check out the apartment he inherited upon his estranged father’s death to find that Smith has a sort of life estate in the apartment due to a quirk of French real estate law. Smith delivers the acerbic and witty lines we’ve come to expect from the Dowager Countess. Kline is a perfect scoundrel whose glib confidence gives way to a darker side. Scott Thomas, Smith’s dutiful daughter, is rightfully skeptical of Kline’s motives. As you might guess, these three have more in common than the apartment.
[For The Movie Snob’s rather different opinion about this movie, click here.]
Sing Street (B-). I’m back from a 10-day holiday, plus an extra week-long sabbatical nursing a bad cold, and I’m eager to see some current releases. This one, from John Carney (director of Begin Again and Once), was OK but a little bit of a disappointment. The year is 1985. A sensitive Dublin teenager named Conor (newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) falls in love with an older girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton, Miss Potter) and tries to impress her by asking her to be in a music video for his rock band. When she agrees, he has to come up with said band, and the rest of the movie kind of goes from there. I liked a couple of the supporting characters, like Conor’s song-writing buddy who’s strangely fond of rabbits, and Conor’s older brother Brendan, who’s a screw-up but genuinely cares about his little brother and helps him grow his musical taste. Boynton looks a little too old for 16, but she’s a suitably attractive muse; she looks a little like Emma Roberts (We’re the Millers) with a splash of Debbie Gibson (Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark). Conor’s mom (Maria Doyle Kennedy) looked very familiar, and it turns out she was in another famous Irish rock-n-roll movie, The Commitments. On the downside, Carney makes the Catholic priest who runs his school unnecessarily mean, and implies he’s a predator to boot, and I didn’t care for the movie’s ending at all. So it’s kind of a mixed bag.