Film Review: Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Dir. Luca Guadagnino
Starring: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois
Rating: R
Runtime: 2hr 12min
Spoiler level: Minor (some dialogue is revealed)

Each year, I make an effort to see every Best Picture nominee for the Academy Awards, and was lucky enough to have time to see Luca Guadagnino’s film Call Me By Your Name on the last day it was playing in my town, after a mere 6-day run at one of two local chains. I went into this film unsure of what to expect, and emerged from the theater, 2.5 hours later and teary-eyed, with a new personal favorite for Best Picture at the Oscars this year.

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Adapted from André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name, Call Me By Your Name explores the relationship between seventeen-year-old Elio Perlman (Chalamet) and twenty-four-year-old Oliver (Hammer), an American scholar who is staying with the Perlman family as an assistant to Elio’s father (Stuhlbarg), as it evolves over a summer in 1980’s Italy.

Call Me By Your Name‘s strength is a combination of beautiful cinematography, strong performances from a brilliant cast, and the way it delivers its messages and themes to the viewers. While fellow Best Picture contender Phantom Thread (which I saw the day prior) is a film that makes you think, to wrack your brain trying to pick apart the character’s motivations and desires and connections to one another, Call Me By Your Name is a film that makes you feel. It draws on emotions from various different angles – from the awkwardness of adolescence, to the conflicting pain and elation of first love, to the lamentation of wasted days and the curiosity of sexuality, to the bond between parents and children and family of different generations, to the thrills of desire – and it never feels disingenuous. The emotions felt and expressed by the characters resonate off the screen and linger long after the credits have rolled and the lights come on, and it will be a film that sticks with me for a long time.

Overall, the film is paced in a way that allows the relationships between the characters – not only the leads, but the supporting cast as well – to develop in an organic manner, that does not feel rushed or forced. The film also does a marvelous job in exploring the beauty of small moments – small gestures, brief touches, the flicker of a gaze or a soft sigh – and it makes every scene, even the ones with no dialogue (only the excellent soundtrack) – explode with purpose and meaning. The scenery of a summer in Italy provides a gorgeous, lush backdrop for the character interactions, and is shown in a way that I could almost feel the heat or the gentle breeze or the coolness of the river.

Though it will be a challenge to dethrone current award-season Best Actor champion Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour), Chalamet’s performance as Elio is remarkable, and might just be my current favorite dark horse in the Oscar race. His nuanced portrayal of a seventeen-year-old experiencing the roller coaster of emotion that comes with a first love is rife with subtle mannerisms, evocative dialogue, and familiar elements that anyone who has felt a similar way, or who has ever been a somewhat awkward teenager growing up in a world they don’t fully understand yet, can likely relate to. His final scene in the film was enough to draw a tear or two, and the way his voice broke on the “Can you come get me?” line was enough to split even my cold heart in half.

Hammer delivers a powerful and moving performance as Oliver – I found myself often focusing on his facial expressions, and how he was able to masterfully portray a myriad of emotion in such small, subtle motions and gestures, especially as he grapples with his feelings for Elio and the worry of how his actions might be perceived. Though the age gap between the characters might draw the side-eye from some (and understandably so) their relationship unfolds in a way that does not come off as exploitative or manipulative, and does not rely on common LGBTQ tropes or themes. Their chemistry is palpable, their conversations feel raw and genuine, and their connection to each other is expressed more prominently in their growing emotional intimacy than the physical. It’s somewhat of a subversion of the genre, and a breath of fresh air – as is Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as Elio’s father. His speech to Elio in the third act of the film is so real, and so wonderful – the line “But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste!” (which originates in the novel) is the single greatest line I’ve heard in a film all year, and Stuhlbarg delivers it beautifully as he attempts to support and help his son navigate the tribulations that come with such an intense emotional journey.

Call Me By Your Name is a unique coming-of-age-film that expertly handles matters of the body, heart, and soul, and exposes the vulnerability of emotion, relationships, and first love in a beautiful, compelling, and heart-wrenching fashion. It might be a dark horse, but any gold statues it takes home on March 4th (and I hope it gets some) will be utterly deserved.

Overall rating: 9.5/10

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Film Review: Home Again (2017)

Dir. Hallie Meyers-Shyer
Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Michael Sheen, Nat Wolff, Pico Alexander, Jon Rudnitsky, Candice Bergen
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 1hr37m
Spoiler level: Light

This past Tuesday, for the first time in ages, I went into a film without looking at the RT score. I saw the trailer a couple of times, chuckled a bit, and decided that I wanted to see it based on that, and it turned out to be a wise move; the RT score is currently at 35%, but I still loved the film!

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Home Again follows newly-separated and newly-40-year-old mother of two Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), the daughter of a renowned filmmaker, who, while attempting to rebuild her life, ends up offering her guest house to 3 aspiring 20-something filmmakers. Naturally, as the boys lives become entangled with her own, Alice learns how to let go, move on from the past, and embrace the future.

The story is straightforward and solid, but many plot points are predictable; Alice striking up a romance with Harry (Pico Alexander), her ex-husband Austin (Michael Sheen) re-entering the picture and stirring up a whole bunch of tension, the boys negotiating with producers and directors on their dream project, etc, but don’t let the familiar premise fool you; the narrative does contain a few (mostly pleasant) surprises. While there’s shades of tales told many times before, there are a couple of fresh twists to keep the viewers guessing or hoping for a particular outcome. There’s a smooth balance of humor and drama, though perhaps less romance than a traditional rom-com, as the film takes the time to explore a variety of real-life issues, such as ambition versus reality, turning a new page, and taking risks.

The exploration of numerous ideas is both a boon and a bane, as there are times where the film feels as though it is stretched too thin and tries to do too much, so certain plot-lines don’t get as much resolution or attention as they deserve. Issues get resolved in a “last minute” fashion, almost like an afterthought. For example, there’s a plot device about Alice’s deceased father being a filmmaker that is intriguing, and is a stepping stone for Alice connecting to her three unlikely house guests, but sort of gets discarded in the latter half of the film. The music and montages seem to aim for an old Hollywood type feel, but at the same time, the tone doesn’t remain consistent. When the boys get into an argument, it gets resolved in a disproportionately swift manner compared to the set-up. As such, the pacing suffers a bit, as resolutions don’t live up to the set-ups, but regardless of this, the film doesn’t drag – I found myself engaged throughout.

The cast also delivers; Witherspoon carries the film with a charming performance that reflects both strength and vulnerability as a woman dealing with a new start at 40 years old. The 20-something trio (Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky, Pico Alexander) all shine in a unique way, particularly Rudnitsky as George. Michael Sheen and Candice Bergen are also great in their roles, despite having less screen time, and both of the children (Lola Flanery and Eden Grace Redfield) were delightful in their supporting roles, and looked like they could be the actual children of Witherspoon and Sheen.

Honestly, the film is not awards fodder, but it provided me with a fair amount of laughs, and even if it treads familiar ground, it conveys a message that doesn’t get old despite multiple re-tellings. If you need an enjoyable way to pass a rainy afternoon or have a couple of hours free in the evening with nothing else to do, and you enjoy a decent rom-com for a bit of light-hearted fun, this film is a treat. Or, you know, if all the showings of It are sold out, this is a nice, if not comparable, alternative.

Overall rating: 7/10

Shameless plug: My book tour for my YA novel, I’m With You, is still ongoing! Check it out here: LINK! Plus, the ebook is only $1.99 or (£1.55) on Amazon Amazon UK. 

Unexpected and Underrated

Before I became a frequent movie-goer, one whiff of a bad review would be enough to convince me to avoid a film. I’d go to the theater to see the “hits,” the usual popcorn flicks, but that was more or less it. Now, over the past few years, my film taste palette has expanded considerably. Since this shift in my habits, I have seen a slew of movies that I found enjoyable despite a poor performance at the box office, as well as movies that I loved against my expectations. So, I’ve compiled a list of my favorite “underrated” films and “unexpected” films.

The Grey (2011)
Whenever I am tasked with thinking of an underrated movie (which is almost never) my automatic answer is The Grey. I only ended up seeing it when some friends recommended it to me during my second year at college. It’s a survival/thriller about an oil-drilling team stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash in Alaska, and their efforts to survive both the harsh weather and being stalked by a pack of grey wolves. Plus, it stars Liam Neeson, which should have been enough to drive throngs of people to see it. It’s a sort of “subtle” thriller, in a way – it’s not super fast-paced, nor does it feature nonstop action, but I was completely engrossed throughout the film; especially as details of the character’s lives start to trickle through the narrative. The colors/imagery/cinematography of the film are also excellent, as is the tension/suspense woven throughout. I can still picture the ending of this movie in vivid detail, complete with Liam Neeson’s closing narration – the film really stayed with me, like a grey wolf on my periphery, and it made me think. It’s easily one of my favorite Liam Neeson performances (besides Schindler’s List, obv) and a seriously underrated and unexpected hit. Even if you aren’t a fan of survival thrillers, complete with seemingly hopeless situations and increasing feelings of despair among the characters, I recommend giving it a try. AND SPEAKING OF UNDERRATED, Dermot Mulroney also stars in the film and he is consistently great.

Tron: Legacy (2010)
Tron: Legacy is a movie that I did not expect to love as much as I do, to the point where words cannot accurately convey my adoration for this movie. I like the original Tron just fine, despite the fact that it has not exactly aged well, but the sequel is one of my all-time favorites. The story follows Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) and his journey into the digital frontier of The Grid in order to rescue his father, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who has been missing for two decades. It’s not groundbreaking in terms of plot or character development, but the story is compelling enough and the acting is superb on all fronts, though it does take some time to get used to CLU and Kevin (both played by Jeff Bridges, though John Reardon was the body double for CLU) being onscreen at the same time. Bruce Boxleitner is also back as Tron/Alan, though Rinzler is physically portrayed by the talented Anis Cheurfa. The cinematography and stylistic elements are amazing, and the symbolism, while overt at times, contains more subtle allusions that I didn’t notice until my 2nd or 3rd time watching – and yes, I did see it 3 times in theaters. The 3D was phenomenal, and the film is a visual and auditory feast. I love this movie so much I even wrote a 20+ page paper on Tron Legacy in college, entitled Biodigital Jazz, Man: Simulation and Identity in Tron Legacy for my Video Games in Literature class. AlsoI still consider Daft Punk not getting at least nominated for Best Original Score one of the worst Oscar snubs of all time.

Crimson Peak (2015)
When I went to see Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak about a week or two after it was released, my mom and I were the only two people in the theater – though I attribute this mainly to the fact that it was a Wednesday afternoon and “Back to the Future Day,” so most folks were at the theater to see the one day re-release of “Back to the Future” – someone even had a flux capacitor with them in the concession line. I think Crimson Peak also suffered from a minor case of mis-marketing, because people seemed to think it was a horror film, when really, it was a gothic romance which contained elements of horror – but all the ads I saw seemed to encourage the “horror” aspects of the film. I enjoy period pieces and the like, but I went in with no expectations, so I was not disappointed. It’s a gorgeous film, though it doesn’t delve quite as deep as it could – the story is somewhat predictable, but that didn’t make me enjoy it any less. It has typical “horror” moments, and romance moments, and suspense, but, while it has so many components of a gothic romance, it never quite realizes a concrete identity. The film has an all-star cast in Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, and Charlie Hunnam as the leads – Chastain is especially and wonderfully creepy in her role, and the highlight of the film. It’s visually arresting, and I recommend seeing it solely for how beautiful it is, from the music to the sets to the costuming, especially for fans of del Toro’s style.

The Finest Hours (2016)
Though T.S. Eliot might disagree, I think January is the cruelest month – especially when it comes to film releases. I don’t know exactly what causes this to happen, but January seems to be the month where new movies go to die a slow and painful death, and I think 2016’s The Finest Hours was an unfortunate victim of this phenomenon. I actually saw it on opening night, so it was pretty busy in the theater – but attendance waned in the following weeks, and ultimately, the film bombed. I don’t think it should have crashed and burned, though – because it was a perfectly good movie. Following the true story of the 1952 Coast Guard rescue of the SS Pendleton during a vicious storm, The Finest Hours boasts a stellar cast (Chris Pine, Holliday Grainger, Casey Affleck,) an engaging story, and all of the elements to make a great movie; and, in my opinion, it is quite good. Certainly underrated, considering the poor performance at the box office; I came out of the theater impressed, and definitely expected it to do well in spite of an unfavorable release date. It just couldn’t rise above the January doldrums, and it’s a shame that it didn’t.

This Is Where I Leave You (2014)
Although I just finished reading Johnathon Tropper’s 2009 novel This Is Where I Leave You a few weeks ago, I saw the movie adaptation when it was released in 2014 – and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Following the colorful (and conflict-ridden) Altman family during their time sitting shiva in the wake of their father/husband’s death, the film has an excellent cast – Tina Fey, Timothy Olyphant, Adam Driver, Jason Bateman, among several others – and the chemistry between them gave off a very believable family vibe. It’s not the most fast-paced or exciting film, but it has its fair share of humorous moments and poignant moments, and never tries to do “too much” in either department, so the story is relatively balanced and the pacing is decent. While it doesn’t attempt “too much,” it also doesn’t do quite “enough,” especially with such a stacked, talented cast – though I did find the narrative more entertaining and engaging than the lukewarm reception implied. However, the real highlight of the film is the cast; I recommend seeing it solely for the sibling relationships portrayed onscreen, especially between Fey and Bateman.

Rise of the Guardians (2012)
This animated gem is a visual triumph and features a stellar voice cast (Hugh Jackman as the Easter Bunny is a stroke of genius, as is Alec Baldwin as Santa) but it failed to become a real “hit.” When my best friend and I saw it, the theater was almost empty; but I still remember how ensnared I was by the film’s trailer. The story, based partly on a book series by William Joyce, is unique – when the evil Pitch Black threatens the world, the four “Guardians” must band together with the enlisted help of Jack Frost to stop the rise of darkness – and though it contains familiar tropes, it’s plenty entertaining, and it features intriguing interpretations of well-known characters, from the Sandman to the Tooth Fairy. It had all the components of a great film, yet still resulted in a studio loss. For fans of animation who missed this film upon its initial release, I definitely recommend giving it a chance. It was likely hindered by being released around the same time as a few box-office giants from that year (a Twilight film, Skyfall, Lincoln) but I found it to be an unexpected delight, and I still think it didn’t quite get the recognition that it deserved.

The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014)
My mother is my most frequent movie-going companion, because we share a similar appreciation for film, both as an art form and as entertainment. I like to think of it as being film snobs who simultaneously don’t take it too seriously. Regardless, The Hundred-Foot Journey is one such example of a “mom and me” film. It’s got a great cast, and engaging story about an Indian family who opens a restaurant after a tragedy forces them to relocate to France, and the subsequent rivalry with the Michelin-star restaurant 100 feet away. The film also focuses on Hassan (Manish Dayal), the son of the Kadam family, who strives to make a name for himself as a chef. It’s a story about love, compromise, competition, and acceptance; a great movie to see on a Friday night when you want to put the stress of the work week behind you. I mean, it’s about warring restaurants, and it stars Helen Mirren and Om Puri – what’s not to like? It’s a prime example of a great film that is entertaining and heartwarming, but doesn’t try too hard – resulting in an unexpected delight.

Whisper of the Heart (1995)
When people think of Studio Ghibli, they probably think of the landmark titles like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke, three memorable projects by legendary director Hayao Miyazaki. Because Miyazaki’s works are consistently brilliant and are the most well-known of the Ghibli lore, some other works from the studio get overshadowed. Yoshifumi Kondo’s  Whisper of the Heart is one such film, and it is actually my favorite Ghibli production – plus, it features The Baron, my favorite Ghibli character. It’s a sweet and simple story about a young girl who dreams of being a writer and her interactions with a boy who aspires to make violins. It follows the trials and tribulations of adolescence, young love, and the struggle between making dreams come true and facing reality. The animation is gorgeous, the music is great, and the writing (provided by Miyazaki) is poignant. It might not carry a message as deep as Mononoke or feature the whimsical magic of Howl’s Moving Castle, but Whisper of the Heart is a subtle slice-of-life that hits the closest to home, and fans of Ghibli’s other projects shouldn’t miss out on this underrated gem. And semi-sequel The Cat Returns is a hilarious companion to the film that is well worth seeing – especially since Cary Elwes reprises his role as the Baron.

Oblivion (2013)
I didn’t hear much about Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion when it was first released, and, as such, I didn’t see it until it came to Red Box. The film is a post-apocalyptic scifi film about a tech named Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) and his partner Vika (Andrea Riseborough) who are doing recon/repair work on Earth while the rest of Earth’s population has allegedly relocated to Titan; however, Jack is haunted by flashes of memory of a previous life, which leads him to question his purpose and his identity. While the film does rely on previously used scifi tropes (hey, if it works, it works, as long as it’s entertaining) and it’s somewhat predictable, I also think it did an excellent job of not making familiar material feel stale, and it does introduce some new, fresh ideas into a genre with so many possibilities. Also, the film is gorgeous – it’s sleek, like Tron Legacy, only with a different aesthetic. I just saw Arrival (2016) the other night and Oblivion’s setting/atmosphere was semi-reminiscent of that; futuristic, but subtle and not over the top. It allows the viewer to put the pieces of the story and characters later, and doesn’t rely on excess exposition and explanation, which scifi does tend to fall victim to. I know that many folks have grown weary of the “post-apocalyptic” style of scifi, but Oblivion breathes a whisper of new life into it.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
My parents and I ended up seeing this film after the film we wanted to see was sold out – and I ended up enjoying it so much that I don’t even remember what we originally intended to see. The story is about an employee of Life magazine named Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) who must embark on a search for a film negative and, subsequently, finds himself hunting the “meaning of life.” It’s definitely not a runaway box-office hit, but I found the premise of the film intriguing, and was definitely engrossed by the story as it was unfolding onscreen; as such, I was stunned when I found out that reception to the film was mixed, with some folks loving it and some hating it. If a ~50% Rotten Tomatoes score is enough to deter you from seeing I film, I recommend you reconsider that stance and give this film a shot. It’s a visually stunning film with a good story, amazing scenery, and a great cast. It might not be award-fodder and it doesn’t hit all the high notes, but it’s worth seeing simply for the fact that most people can likely find a bit of themselves in the character of Walter Mitty.