Movies for the Homebound X: Love Stories You Probably Missed

Posted on May 26, 2020 at 8:00 am

Copyright Magnolia 2008
We all love romance. And we’ve all seen the recent classics: “Notting Hill,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “The Notebook,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and all-time classics like “The Philadelphia Story” and “My Favorite Wife.” (If you haven’t, hey, watch them!) But you probably missed these, and they are all delights and blissfully romantic.

“I Love You Again” The all-time record-holders for romantic movie couples are William Powell and Myrna Loy, who not only created the greatest married couple in the history of movies with the Thin Man series but made other great films as well. “Libeled Lady” is one of the best, but my favorite is this one, about a stiff, stingy man who is hit on the head and discovers he is in fact a con man who has had amnesia for years, during which he got married and worked at a pot factory in a small town. So he decides to set up a swindle until he starts to fall for the woman he married but cannot quite remember. It is clever, sweet, and very funny. And romantic.

“Next Stop Wonderland” This is one of two movies on the list where we fall in love with the lovers before they fall in love with each other. Hope Davis is radiant as a just-dumped (by Philip Seymour Hoffman) woman whose mother takes out a personal ad for her.

“And Now My Love” In this French film, everything that has happened in the lives of two people (and in pretty much everything that has ever happened) seems to be for the purpose of getting two people together. By the time they are about to meet at the very end, we have been on the journey will them and know happy ever after is what comes next.

“Happy Accidents” The writer/director of “Next Stop Wonderland,” Brad Anderson, also wrote and directed this sweet story with Marisa Tomei as a young woman with a history of bad relationships who meets a man who seems great except that he insists he is a time traveler from the future.

“Ira and Abby” Jennifer Westfelft wrote and stars in the story of a man who has just gotten out of a relationship because he could not commit (a terrific Chris Messina) and impulsively marries the slightly nutty but very charming and warm-hearted young woman he meets at a gym (Westfeldt).

“The Baxter” If you’ve seen a romantic comedy, you’ve seen a wedding that was interrupted at the last minute when the bride’s true love burst in to carry her off. Well, according to his film, the poor loser left at the alter is called “the Baxter.” And this movie is the story of the Baxter, played by Michael Showalter, with an outstanding cast that includes Michelle Williams, Elizabeth Banks, and Justin Theroux, with a sensational performance by Peter Dinklage as a wedding planner.

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The High Note

Posted on May 25, 2020 at 12:01 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, and suggestive references
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 25, 2020

Copyright 2020 Focus
If you find yourself, in what all the commercials are calling “these challenging times” looking for cinematic comfort food, “The High Note” is here, and when I say “here,” I mean coming to you in your home. One of the films switched to streaming as the question of when, how, and whether movie theaters will open remains unsettled, “The High Note” is entertaining without being challenging. If its twist is among the least surprising ever scripted, that itself has its own satisfactions when everything else is so uncertain. It’s a Cinderella tale with (not much of a spoiler alert) a happy ending, in a glamorous setting with beautiful people and some good songs.

Maggie (Dakota Johnson) is personal assistant to a world-famous, if slightly fading singer named Grace Davis, played by Tracee Ellis Ross, the daughter of a world-famous and never-fading superstar Diana Ross. Grace has not released any new music in many years, but still fills arenas with adoring fans. Her manager (Ice Cube) is urging her to accept a very lucrative residency in Las Vegas. She can stop touring and sing her hits every night for as long as she wants.

No one pays much attention to Maggie, unless Grace needs some green juice or some highly inconvenient errand run. But Maggie loves music and, though Grace does not realize it, Maggie is Grace’s truest fan, the only one around her who sees her as a songwriter and performer and not just as a nostalgia cash cow. Seeing the world of music, even from the edges, inspires Maggie to want to be a producer. She hesitantly disagrees when a successful producer wants to remix one of Grace’s hits by adding synth, with digitally created voices for back-up singers. And when she meets a young singer/songwriter who busks outside of a grocery store (fast-rising star Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of “Luce” and “Waves”), she tells him she is a producer and persuades him to let her bring him into a recording studio.

So far, so good. But then it veers off the rails. Cinderella without a godmother makeover — fine. “All About Eve” without the ferocious, greedy ambition — also fine. But then we get a wholly unnecessary scheme so preposterous that even Lucy and Ethel would consider idiotic. And Maggie is supposed to be savvy about the music business and supremely competent. The only benefit of this ridiculousness is a lovely scene with Eddie Izzard, who brings such an air of lived-in wisdom that for a moment it almost makes sense. Almost. And the non-surprising surprise is on top of that.

Ross is fun to watch as the diva, especially when she is on stage, the many opportunities she has had to watch from the wings paying off as she brings authentic star quality to her interactions with the audience (for better) and the crew (for not so much better). She’s especially good in a scene where Grace gets real about the prospects for an over-40 woman of color in the music business. Johnson is sadly underused. She has such a rare gift for comedy, glimpsed in “22 Jump Street” and “The Five-Year Engagement” and yet Hollywood keeps casting her as a wide-eyed little mouse. She would have been better cast as the high-spirited roommate (Harrison is the one to watch her, with very bit of the star quality the part or the goofy housekeeper (though Zoë Chao and June Diane Raphael are reliably delightful in those roles). Harrison has all of the star quality his character requires and more, especially impressive given the wide range of his recent appearances.

There are moments when a movie’s predictability is an advantage rather than otherwise. It benefits this film that it is released I such a time, into our homes, where we most appreciate its comforts.

Parents should know that this film includes brief strong language, some sexual references and a non-explicit situation, and questions of parentage.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Maggie tell David the truth about herself? Which song was your favorite? If you were producing a song, how would you begin?

If you like this, try: “Music and Lyrics” with Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant and “Black-is” with Tracee Ellis Ross

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I Still Believe

Posted on March 5, 2020 at 10:33 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic material
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Terminal illness
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: March 13, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 4, 2020
Copyright Lionsgate 2020

If a movie is called “I Still Believe,” you can be pretty sure it is aimed at those who already believe. Based on the real-life love story of Christian musician Jeremy Camp, it is set in a world of believers and very much in the tradition of Christian testimony, where tragedy is overcome or at least understood through faith. It is also a sincere and tender love story with attractive stars, tuneful songs, and a score by John Debney.

Jeremy Camp is played by K.J. Apa, who plays Archie on “Riverdale” with dark, handsome features that look like a cross between 90s-era Josh Hartnett and Wes Bentley. He is the oldest son of a loving family. As he leaves home for college, we see that he is kind and patient with his developmentally disabled youngest brother, and honorable and generous. His father offers to let Camp take his own guitar to college, saying that “for me, music is a hobby. For you it is a gift.” But there is a surprise. His parents bought him a brand new guitar, a sacrifice that will mean no Christmas presents. They knew he would be too thoughtful to leave his father without music.

Jeremy arrives at a small Christian college where Kry, a Christian musical group he admires, is performing, and he sneaks backstage to meet the lead singer, Jean-Luc La Joie. He asks for advice about “making it.” La Joie says, “It’s not about making it. It’s about what the songs give to people. What do you want to give to people.” He tells Camp to write what he cares about. La Voie writes “love songs to God.” But lately, he’s been writing one to a girl. Jeremy will learn what that means when he sees the girl for himself and is immediately drawn to her.

Melissa (Britt Robertson), and like Jeremy her life is committed to faith and to music as a way to express and strengthen her faith. This is a movie where the usual falling-in-love montage includes not just walking on the beach but service to others as a way for the couple to connect. It is difficult for her to admit her feelings for Jeremy and that creates stress in their relationship. They are on something of a break and he is back home with his family when he gets a call — she’s in the hospital with cancer.

They face it together and get married, against the advice of his family. They are very young and this is a daunting challenge at any age. But as the title tells us, their faith endures.

Those who are not believers in this particular kind of Christianity may question the unquestioning faith of these characters. There are many faith traditions that would see these incidents differently, and the movie has a closed and circular perspective some audience members will find reductive and exclusionary. But Robertson and Apa make a sweet couple and their commitment to God and each other gives their story a tenderness that even those with different beliefs will find touching.

Parents should know that this movie includes a very sad terminal illness, with scenes of medical treatment and suffering and a tragic loss.

Family discussion: What do we learn about Jeremy when he turns down his father’s guitar and gives his brother his phone? Should Melissa have told John-Luck sooner? When you can’t decide what to do, what helps you?

If you like this, try: “A Walk to Remember” and “I Can Only Imagine” and the music of Jeremy Camp

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Emma.

Posted on February 24, 2020 at 4:00 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for brief partial nudity
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: Wine
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 21, 2020
Date Released to DVD: May 18, 2020

Jane Austen described the eponymous central figure of her 1815 novel as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” The opening sentence of the book almost challenges us to like her: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” How can we root for someone who already has everything?

The answer, as Austen knew, is to immediately have her lose much of it. She will still be handsome, clever, and rich. But the rest of the story will bring plenty to distress and vex her. Emma’s past freedom from distress and vexation has left her blissfully unaware of the risk of failure. She is about to find out that those risks include not just personal humiliation but pain caused for others.

As this brightly sumptuous story begins, Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy), who lives in a Downton Abbey-like great house with her widowed father (Bill Nighy) is delighted to have arranged a match between her neighbor (Rupert Graves) and the governess who has been her dearest friend and substitute mother (Gemma Whelan). It was such a triumph that she is eager to do more to rearrange and improve the lives around her, starting with an unassuming young woman named Harriet Smith (Mia Goth). Just as the last match had the double benefit of romance and an elevation of status (from paid companion to wife of landed gentry), she expects the same for Harriet, who is in the society no-man’s-land of having been born out of wedlock to unknown parentage. A step up for her would be a match for the local clergyman, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor). Emma is determined to make this happen.

Meanwhile, two newcomers arrive in Emma’s very small community, where the number of people near her social level, meaning worthy enough to be entertained in her home, seems to be around a dozen at most. A kind-hearted spinster named Miss Bates (the wonderful Miranda Hart of “Call the Midwife” and “Spy”), who lives with her hearing-impaired mother, is delighted that her niece, the lovely and talented but poor Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) has come for an extended stay. Emma is no longer the center of interest, just as she has new reason to wish to be noticed. The other arrival is the handsome and charming Frank Churchill (Callum Turner). Also in the neighborhood is George Knightly, whose brother is married to Emma’s sister, which gives him some basis for familiarity. He does not hesitate to correct Emma when he thinks it is called for.

As Emma tries to orchestrate the match between Harriet and Mr. Elton, she ends up making one mistake after another, hurting her trusting friend, and revealing her own snobbishness. She tries to impress Frank Churchill, publicly humiliating someone else and revealing her own insensitivity.

There have been many versions of the Emma story, most notably the elegant Douglas McGrath version with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam and Amy Heckerling’s wittily updated “Clueless” with Alicia Silverstone. This one, a first time feature from music video director Autumn de Wilde is an “Emma” for our times. It is visually luscious, with endless, exquisite period detail. But to keep it from feeling stuffy, it is briskly edited, almost a door-slamming farce at times, with literally cheeky touches (a brief look at a couple of very attractive bare bottoms). The costumes are meticulously researched with details to swoon over, but they are also perfectly suited to provide more insight into each of the characters.

I was particularly taken with the hat worn by Mrs. Elton that made her look like an exclamation point and the red capes of the schoolgirls who march in rows through the town. The food in the novel plays a significant role, and it does in the film as well. Sparkling performances by a cast mostly not (yet) big names make this a welcome ensemble piece. If Knightly or Churchill or Fairfax were played by people already featured in People’s “most beautiful” issue, we would be able to anticipate some of the storyline’s best surprises. The most recognizable, of course, is Bill Nighy, perfectly cast as the anxious Mr. Woodhouse, always worrying that someone might be in a draft. This interesting essay speculates that he is not just querulous but actually suffering from early stage dementia, which puts Emma’s attentiveness/co-dependence and need to control others in a more nuanced light.

Most of all, this movie is fun, as much fun as Austen herself would have wanted it to be. “Emma” movies just keep getting better, like Emma herself.

Parents should know that this film is unrated. There is brief, nonsexual rear male nudity and there are some tense and uncomfortable situations.

Family discussion: Why was Emma so thoughtless with Miss Bates? Why was it hard for her to see the truth about Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax?

If you like this, try: the Gwyneth Paltrow version of “Emma” and the book and the updated version, “Clueless”

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Olympic Dreams

Posted on February 13, 2020 at 5:28 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some language and sexual references
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 14, 2020
Copyright IFC Films 2019

“Olympic Dreams” is a slight but sweet story set inside a big, colorful, dramatic world, the Olympics. It is the only movie ever filmed inside the actual Winter Olympic Athletes Village, and the behind the scenes settings and encounters are a lot of fun to see, giving us an idea of the vast scope and international culture of the games. Alexi Pappas, who represented Greece in the 2016 summer Olympics 10,000 meter race, co-wrote and stars in the film with her co-star, Nick Kroll, and the director (and her husband), Jeremey Teicher.

Pappas plays Penelope (a tribute to her Greek heritage), an American cross-country skier whose event is on the first day, so once it is over, she does not really have anything else to do. Kroll plays Ezra, a dentist who has volunteered to be on the medical team at the Games. There are not a lot of dental issues, so he, too, has a lot of free time. Much of the movie is just the two of them at various places in the Olympic Village, having awkward conversations. Her side is awkward because she has done nothing but prepare for the Olympics her whole life and has not had much opportunity to have non-sports competition related interactions. His side is awkward because he is an awkward guy, trying to re-connect with his ex long-distance and generally anxious.

So, kind of like “Before Sunrise” if the two people involved were older, less open, and not as good at putting their feelings into words. Much of the film has a gentle, improvisational tone that is appealing, and Kroll in particular shows his range. Pappas is not as experienced an actor, and her director/husband lingers longer on her face than a non-husband might have chosen to do. Real Olympian Gus Kenworthy is a natural in a small role as a sympathetic athlete, and it would be great to see him do more films. The bittersweet romance does not have much depth, but the novelty and natural interest of the setting and the small incidental details provide enough interest to make up for it.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language and sexual references.

Family discussion: What will Alex do next? How did she make Ezra think differently about his options?

If you like this, try: “Before Sunrise” and “Medium Cool” (which also used a real-life setting, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, as background to a fictional story).

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