romance

The Last Cowboy (2003)

The Last Cowboy ranks in the top half of Hallmark movies, not because of its pedestrian story about an estranged father and daughter in cowboy country but because of the actors who play them. Lance Henriksen and Jennie Garth slip into their roles without fuss, avoiding histrionic confrontations in a script that could easily descend into that.

Garth is Jake Cooper, a Texas girl turned California hotshot who left home eight years earlier and hasn’t looked back. She crashes back into her family’s life after her grandfather passes away, barreling into the funeral at the last minute dressed like she’s ready for a Hollywood costume party. It’s a misleading entrance though because Jake turns out to be nothing like the diva that we expect her to be. Instead, she’s a no-nonsense horse trainer with a gentle side, one that she doesn’t show to her father whom she blames for her mother’s death.

John Cooper, meanwhile, is an old school cowboy, a guy who probably talks more to animals than to people. He’s been running the family ranch, Dry Creek, for years, but with his father’s death, the vultures are circling and he must fend off buyers interested only in carving up the land for profit. John is too emotionally stunted to try to reconcile with Jake, but he warms up to his grandson, and the kid creates an opening for father and daughter to work things out.

The movie slows once everyone tries to figure out how to save Dry Creek and doesn’t really pick up until the very end. There’s a lot of talking and negotiating that gets repetitive. Garth and Henriksen are appealing as stubborn opposites who turn out to have more in common than they let themselves believe. They’re also sympathetic and show off the tender side of their characters that they don’t show each other.

Whenever the plot starts to drag, John’s friend and ranch hand, Amos (M. C. Gainey) steps in. A chatty Texan who mentions cow patties on multiple occasions and regularly throws up the word “ornery,” he’s blessed comic relief. Brad Cooper also makes an appearance and is admittedly why I watched this movie. He plays Jake’s business partner and fellow horse trainer. Fans don’t have too much to look forward to though. Cooper has a few token scenes as Jake’s main cheerleader, supporting her proposal to turn Dry Creek into a training stable and horse rehabilitation center. He also wants to support her romantically, but she first has to work out her relationship with her father.

The movie’s setting offers some nice shots of Texas, or whatever substituted as the filming location. There are plenty of fields for horses to gallop through and we get herds of cattle stirring up dust clouds as the sun blazes down. I always wish for bigger budgets and imaginations when it comes to anything that takes place in open land though. The movie gets boxed in, visually and narratively, but I suppose that’s why it’s on television.

Released: 2017
Dir: Joyce Chopra
Writer: J.P. Martin
Cast: Jennie Garth, Lance Henriksen, Bradley Cooper, M.C. Gainey, Dylan Wagner, John Vargas
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark
Reviewed: 2017

The Heartbreak Kid (2007)

The Heartbreak Kid is not a good movie, and it deserves to be thrown into the Hall of Shame alongside Adam Sandler’s oeuvre. Plenty of films are tedious, populated with grating characters, some are dull and infuse no life into routine plots, and still others overestimate an audience’s tolerance for whatever shtick they’re trying to peddle (see every Adam Sandler movie). The Heartbreak Kid, based off a Neil Simon screenplay and corrupted by the Farrelly brothers, combines all these into one steaming pile of dung.

After San Francisco sports store owner Eddie (Ben Stiller) is humiliated at his ex’s wedding and then berated by his father (Jerry Stiller) for being single and forty, he runs into Lila (Malin Åckerman) while trying to stop a purse snatcher. He doesn’t get the guy but he does get a date with her. A mere six weeks later, he proposes, partly because she’s hot and partly because her job wants to relocate the single people to Rotterdam. Despite reservations, he decides it’s the right decision and starts to look ahead to his honeymoon in Cabo.

The first twenty minutes are, like the characters, deceptively normal if a little dull, but things go downhill in a flash. The script draws from a wellspring of misogyny that Eddie dips into immediately after taking his vows. He and his friend Mac (Rob Corddry) balk when they see Lila’s overweight mother, a sure sign that this relationship is going to end in disaster. His father only adds to the shameful behavior with a mouth that would make Donald Trump proud.

Lila though is hardly a model of maturity and compassion either. She’s even more self-absorbed than her husband and possibly one of the most annoying characters I’ve ever seen. The wife from hell, she earns the title several times over. Some of her habits can be reduced to harmless personality quirks – she’s a little overenthusiastic about carpool karaoke, for example, but much of her behavior would be grounds for annulment. Lila’s tortured relationship with the truth means that she’s lying even if when she thinks she isn’t. She’s not upfront about her troubled finances, the nature of her environmental research job, or her former coke habit. Moreover, marriage seems to make her feel more entitled and demanding, thus confirming all of Eddie’s fears about long-term relationships and reinforcing multiple stereotypes in the process.

In most cases, I’d be side with Eddie, but Stiller doesn’t give much reason to warm up to his character. He plays the guy he usually does, a beleaguered everyman trying to make the most of a bad situation. It’s not very compelling and he lacks the charisma to justify sticking it through with Eddie. Åckerman, on the other hand, gives Lila an abundance of personality; unfortunately it’s the kind that makes you want to throttle her character.

There’s not one sympathetic soul until Miranda (Michelle Monaghan) breezes in. She’s vacationing with her family, good, sensible Mississippi folks, and is too pure for this mess. But Eddie gets involved anyway, adding yet another layer of deception and hysterics. At one point, Miranda rightly decides she’s had enough, which is that attitude we should all take with this movie.

Released: 2007
Prod: Ted Field, Bradley Thomas
Dir: Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly
Writer: Scot Armstrong, Leslie Dixon, Peter Farrelly, Bobby Farrelly, Kevin Barnett
Cast: Michelle Monaghan, Malin Åkerman, Jerry Stiller, Rob Corddry, Carlos Mencia, Scott Wilson, Danny McBride
Time: 116 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

I’ll Be Home for Christmas (2016)

Sometimes you come across Christmas TV movie that looks – for a few precious moments – like it could be tolerable, a treat even. The opening scene is picturesque, the music gets you in the mood, and the lead actor rumbles onto the screen with little apology. I’m describing the first minutes of I’ll Be Home for Christmas, where James Brolin meanders through the countryside in a rusty RV while his wife, the divine Ms. Barbra Streisand, sings the title song. It’s certainly a step up from your usual TV fare, and you’ll be forgiven for wanting a little more from Hallmark.

As it turns out, a compelling script would have been enough. Granted, you’re not watching this or any other Hallmark offering for its original screenplay, but a fresh idea would be wonderful and, please, dialogue that wasn’t lifted from a 8th grader’s journal. But, no, this movie is a depository of clichés with two big screen actors standing around to make the whole thing look respectable.

The movie starts with an argument between Jackie Foster (Mena Suvari) – assistant DA, single mom, and estranged daughter of Jack (Brolin) – and Mike Kelly – police detective, single hot guy, and loyal protégé of Jack. They fight over a parking space, not knowing that this is only their first of three run-ins that day. The Pride and Prejudice rule applies here. Jackie and Mike can’t stand each other, and besides, she’s in a Very Serious Relationship with rich guy Rand (Jacob Blair). That can only mean one thing; Jackie and Mike are bound to be together. (By the way, if movies are anything to go by, single ladies, go out and get yourself into a feisty tête-a-tête right now with the first hot dude you see.)

While they’re busy doing their thing, Jackie must also figure out what to do with Father, as she calls him. This one’s harder to decipher. The status of their relationship is never that clear. Jackie has far more animosity towards him than he does towards her. She resents all the time he spent away from the family, especially during the holidays, while he was working as a police officer and is also upset that he upped and left after her mom died three years ago. I can’t tell when Jackie’s hating on her dad though and when she’s stressed out and exhausted by her slavish need to follow a schedule. For his part, Jack seems conciliatory, awkwardly trying to make amends with his precocious granddaughter (Giselle Eisenberg) and forever delaying a planned fishing trip in Mexico. Brolin doesn’t seem to know what his character is up to, which is strange since he directed the damn movie.

Mostly, I’ll Be Home for Christmas is frustrating for its dullness. The predictable plot doesn’t bother me so much as the lack of imagination when it comes to characters. Jackie, Jack, and Mike are entirely forgettable and without one spark of wit. Pretentious Rand stands out a little thanks to his villainy. I mean, the guy scoffs at the mere suggestion of volunteering at a homeless shelter. Various subplots and secondary characters also get thrown in – a destructive police dog, a theft at the local tree lot, the closing of said shelter, but none of this makes the movie more engaging. If, like me, you get to the thirty minute mark thinking you’ve reached the third act, then give in to your urge to change the channel.

Released: 2016
Dir: James Brolin
Writer: Robert Bernheim
Cast: James Brolin, Mena Suvari, Giselle Eisenberg, John Reardon, Jacob Blair, Angela Asher, Laura Miyata
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Hallmark Movies and Mysteries
Reviewed: 2017

Rodeo and Juliet (2015)

First things first, Rodeo is actually a horse, so I’m not sure this metaphor works. Secondly, two young lovers who hide their romance from bickering parents does not a Shakespearean adaptation make. Thirdly, no one dies. Where is the happy dagger? Where is the grave man?

Now, I know I should have known better – I always should know better, but the earnest Shakespearean scholar in me thought I might give this a chance for the sake of research. So putting my ninety minutes to use, this yawning horse show is getting filed under “adaptations that allude to Bill S. but in fact are completely unrelated.”

Besides the curious title, which seems to endorse bestiality, the movie tries to capitalize on the timeless tale of forbidden young love with one of its own. City girl Juliet (Nadine Crocker) gets hauled to the countryside following the death of her grandfather, and her new environs do not agree with her – because hello, no cell coverage and what is that fresh air smell? But lucky for her, there’s a barn dance the very next night, and who does she meet but her gentle Romeo Monty (Zeb Halsell). Hands touch, eyes meet, sudden silence, sudden heat – wait, wrong fantasy. But hearts do leap in a giddy whirl, one that’s immediately quashed by Juliet’s mom, Karen (Krista Allen)

This Lady Capulet will not stand by as the nephew of her avowed enemy woos her daughter with his cool country ways. And Lord Montague (Tim Abell), well he’s not just the cowboy who supervised Karen’s dad’s ranch all these years while she was off writing saucy romance novels. Hugh wants a share of the property and, more importantly, a second chance with his old girlfriend.

I can accept this twist on warring houses and in fact think it makes the classic love story more compelling, but this isn’t exactly challenging TV. Karen and Hugh are a world apart from Juliet and Monty; they’re living in a Lifetime movie while the young’uns inhabit a poorly scripted CW spinoff. We’re only reminded that one story has bearing on the other when Karen checks in to make sure her daughter’s having quality alone time with her horse Rodeo and not her man Romeo. Those wanting a countrified Shakespeare will find only a scant two acts from the bard’s play, and those wanting an engaging romance shouldn’t be watching bad TV in the first place.

But if you want some rural landscapes, say because you grew up next to a soybean field and now live in a 250’ flat in Hong Kong, then by all means pop this on while you’re doing the ironing. There were plenty of open fields and tree-lined ranches to sate my country soul. I also gave the movie a single point for including a black character, a wide-eyed rodeo girl who takes on a Nurse/Friar Laurence role. Otherwise, seek out quality Romeo and Juliet adaptions. Even the one about garden gnomes is better than this.

Released: 2015
Dir: Thadd Turner
Writer: Stephen Beck, Harry Cason
Cast: Tim Abell, Krista Allen, Nadine Crocker, Zeb Halsell, Ariel Lucas
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: Up TV
Reviewed: 2017

Maid in Manhattan (2002)

Sometimes you come across a bad movie at the right time and, despite knowing better, still find it enjoyable. It’s happened to all of us, and Maid in Manhattan is one that caught me unawares on a lazy Saturday afternoon. A lifeless, predictable romance, if we’re being honest, this movie nevertheless wormed its way into the edges of my heart. It’s not exactly a romantic comedy, though it does have its stock of absurd characters and situations, but I liked Wayne Wang’s quiet direction, which was content to let the story hum steadily along.

The movie still depends on wacky, blown-up moments that pivot the action from one point to the next. Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez), a maid in the rich people’s floor in a fancy Manhattan hotel, is a devoted single mother with aspirations of joining management. When her friend convinces her to try on a guest’s discarded Dolce and Gabbana, she catches the eye of Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), a state assemblyman with aspirations of joining the U.S. Senate. He mistakes Marisa for Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson), whose room she is cleaning, and they go out for a walk. Unable to stop this train, she continues the deception, much to Chris’s confusion when the real Caroline shows up at a private lunch.

Anyone who’s seen a romance knows where this is heading and how it will work itself out. The movie doesn’t get its fuel from its original storytelling but in part from the charisma of its supporting characters. The actors ham it up, exaggerating the drama just so. Richardson has the most fun with her role and teases the clueless, British Caroline. Stanley Tucci also makes an impression as Chris’s dry chief of staff, ever on guard for media stories that may threaten the Senate campaign. Others have roles that aren’t as juicy, a young Tyler Posey as Marisa’s politically obsessed son and Bob Hoskins as the avuncular head butler, for example, but they stand out for their sincerity.

The real weak link is the lead characters. It isn’t so much that Lopez and Fiennes are bad but that they have no chemistry. In fact, I easily fell for Marisa’s flinty personality and Chris’s wayward Republican attempt to see past himself. But the two act at each other, both characters earnestly in love with someone, just not the someone in front of them. Marisa makes a dynamic first impression on Chris because of the way she looks, but his continued devotion to her is puzzling, predicated on the fact that she will tell it like it is while his staff are all too eager to shield him from any hint of controversy. Likewise, she’s smitten, but since she always ends up lecturing him about the working class, what’s the attraction?

Besides making for a frustrating romance, this lack of clarity also raises questions of how race, class, and gender are portrayed. That the Latino girl moves up thanks to the generosity of the dashing white guy is just one of the concerns. Marisa is never really more than the maid who makes good, something that is emphasized most clearly in the closing scene when her name and photo are splashed across magazines and newspapers. Even after she strikes out on her own, she is always presented in relation to her former job or her partner. Once a maid in Manhattan, always a maid in Manhattan.

Released: 2002
Prod: Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas, Paul Schiff, Deborah Schindler
Dir: Wayne Wang
Writer: Kevin Wade
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Ralph Fiennes, Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci, Tyler Posey, Marissa Matrone, Amy Sedaris, Bob Hoskins
Time: 105 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017