romance

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.)

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 without a 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, 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

Made in America (1993)

Made in America, a film about surprising discoveries, manages one of its own. The first half plays like a manic comedy, something along the lines of star Whoopi Goldberg’s performances in Ghost and Sister Act, but the second half dials back the energy and settles into a thoughtful romance, one that takes advantage of Goldberg and Ted Danson’s considerable and real-life chemistry.

But it takes awhile to see that, and the first hour of the movie is wasted on establishing the lead characters as opposing stereotypes. Goldberg plays Sarah Matthews, the fiery owner of a black bookstore, The African Queen, and mother to Zora (Nia Long), a star science student. Danson’s character, Hal Jackson, has an equally loud personality but is a used car salesman with a penchant for cowboy get-ups and acrobatic sex partners. The two come together when Zora finds out, via a blood typing assignment, that Sarah’s deceased husband is not her father and that she was conceived via mystery sperm. After asking her friend Tea Cake (Will Smith) to help break into the sperm bank, she learns that her biological father is none other than Hal.

What follows is endless hysterics, granted much of it justified, from all three characters. Zora can’t get over her mother’s deception and the fact that she is half white, Sarah is aghast that her requested donor, an intelligent black man, ended up being a hee-haw showboat, and Hal doesn’t know how to handle the sudden intrusion of two black women into his life. The scandal is dominated by race and ensuing questions of identity, but any nuanced examination of this is overshadowed by a misguided attempt at physical comedy. This newfound reality creates its own fireworks, but the movie decides it needs to throw in a circus to draw out the humor. There are literally a bunch of circus animals parading around, all in the service of Hal’s daffy television ads, and I wish they’d traded the dancing elephant and monkey for some tamer conversation scenes.

It’s apparent how unnecessary this noisy clash of personalities is when the story finally quiets down, and that’s when the movie starts to do something special. Once Sarah and Hal shed their comic exteriors, you suddenly see two very real people inhabiting these roles, two deliberating adults trying to make sense of this confusion. It’s delightful watching Goldberg and Danson together. Rather than broad, showy gestures, they allow their relationship to reveal itself in details, like the way Sarah holds her gaze at Hal after a first date and the way he kisses her. It leaves you longing for more, both from the couple and from movie relationships in general.

Long contributes a great deal to this chemistry too. She gives Zora a tenacious spirit worthy of an MIT-bound student but also a vulnerability of a young woman who wants and needs her parents in her life. I also liked Smith’s performance, which didn’t carry as much emotional weight as the others but still proved to be inspired comic relief. It’s no wonder things worked out for the young star.

The strong cast allows you to make an investment with a good payoff in the end, but I can’t help but think about how this movie plays out in 2017, some twenty-five years after its release. The electricity and honesty of Goldberg and Danson’s middle-aged, interracial relationship is still a rarity, and as surprised as I was to see it in this time capsule of a film, I was reminded at how surprised I would be to see that portrayed in any movie today. There are other more questionable eyebrow-raising moments though. Despite Hal’s connection to Sarah, he is bold enough to use their brief and tenuous history to suggest taking certain liberties with her on their first night out. It’s presumptuous and offensive. A pair of elderly white ladies who visit Sarah’s shop also make an impression, though not a good one. In what’s supposed to be a jab at their ignorance on the history of white racism – they claim to have “had no idea we’d done so many awful things,” the humor and mockery doesn’t register. Instead, it amplifies the shocking sense of privilege that contributes to the racism we continue to experience.

Released: 1993
Prod: Arnon Milchan, Michael Douglas, Rick Bieber
Dir: Richard Benjamin
Writer: Marcia Brandwynne, Nadine Schiff, Holly Goldberg Sloan
Cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Danson, Nia Long, Will Smith, Jennifer Tilly
Time: 111 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017

Take Me Home Tonight (2011)

Take Me Home Tonight is a weak excuse for an 80s throwback reunion film, two of the lazier genres out there. It’s a needless movie that probably wants to distinguish itself by capitalizing on the nostalgia craze but doesn’t and slips out of your mind as easily as it goes in. The action takes place on one night in the late 1980s as a group of former high school classmates gather for a giant house party, as twentysomethings do. Matt (Topher Grace), a recent graduate from MIT, is wasting away at his job at Suncoast Video – look that up on Wikipedia, kids. While he isn’t putting his expensive education to good use, he does get a chance to reconnect with his high school crush, Tori (Teresa Palmer). In order to impress her, he lies about working at Goldman Sachs, which gets him an invite to the party.

He doesn’t need one though because the host is his twin sister Wendy’s (Anna Faris) boyfriend, Kyle (Chris Pratt). Wendy is adjusting to post-college life a little better than her brother. She’s awaiting an offer to study at Cambridge but needs to work some things out with her goofball, partying boyfriend. He doesn’t even know where Cambridge is, so you can guess where this relationship is heading. Rounding out their crew is friend Barry (Dan Fogler), an unhappy car salesman who’s just been fired for his devil may care attitude.

The story touches on all the usual clichés about reconnecting with your past in order to figure out your present and future. Matt and Tori are hitting it off, but the deeper they get into his fantasy, and lie, the bigger the fallout promises to be. It’s a similar situation for Wendy when Kyle proposes to her after an already tedious night of playing co-host. You can be sure that these friends will sort out some important life decisions though. There’s a bruising run-in with the law that involves a stolen car, cocaine, and Matt’s police officer dad, and if that doesn’t help clarify things, then a climactic giant steel ball race that ends in a near drowning surely will.

None of this helps the movie stand out. Faris, as usual, grabs the spotlight by alternating between very funny and very vulnerable. Fogler also has some moments as the resident wild man. But the extras don’t do much, like the 80s theme, chosen for no other reason than to add some extra neon and use a song-as-movie-title gimmick. The story diverges slightly because it’s not a high school graduation blowout or a ten year reunion, but the post-college timing is a bit awkward for this kind of reflective comedy. It’s at once too removed from high school and not enough to relive petty rivalries and reevaluate friendships. The big issue seems to be Matt’s lack of seriousness when it comes to finding a job, to which I say, the kid just graduated from MIT; I think he’ll be alright.

Released: 2011
Prod: Ryan Kavanaugh, Jim Whitaker, Susan Bowen
Dir: Michael Dowse
Writer: Jackie Filgo, Jeff Filgo
Cast: Topher Grace, Anna Faris, Dan Fogler, Teresa Palmer, Chris Pratt, Michael Biehn, Lucy Punch, Michelle Trachtenberg, Demetri Martin, Michael Ian Black, Ginnifer Godwin, Bob Odenkirk
Time: 97 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2017