Movie Review ~ Sylvie’s Love

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Sylvie has a summer romance with a musician who takes a summer job at her father’s record store in Harlem. When they reconnect years later, they discover their feelings for each other have not faded.

Stars: Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Lance Riddick, Jemima Kirke, Erica Gimpel, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tone Bell, Ryan Michelle Bathe, Regé-Jean Page, Aja Naomi King, Eva Longoria

Director: Eugene Ashe

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  With all of the delays due to the pandemic, Disney and Amazon Studios couldn’t have predicted that both would be releasing films about jazz musicians examining their lives at critical junctures around the same date in December but here we are, several days out and both Soul and Sylvie’s Love loom large ahead of us.  The two films are unique at their core and speak for different audiences, but the way they overlap is interesting to note, in particular the way that it deals with the role of influential men in the lives of the young.  This Christmas, it will be nice to see multiple options of representation for inclusive storytelling available to distinct target demographics.

One also can’t even begin to talk about Sylvie’s Love, a romantic drama from writer/director Eugene Ash that’s been in various stage of development as far back as 2014 and not mention the old-fashioned melodramas so popular in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when the film takes place.  Emulating the feel of a Douglas Sirk escapade that’s more big-city than Anytown, USA, Sylvie’s Love wears its many factions of homage clearly and proudly, which succeed in making it a more entertaining feature and also prevents it from being accused of not understanding that it is neck-deep in soap-opera scenarios.  Unfortunately, it bites off more than it is capably comfortable chewing on and experiences serious drag in the final 1/3, a disappointing shift in what up until that point had been a nice balance between the sudsy and the serious.

After a brief glimpse of the early ‘60s, we go back to the late 1950s where Sylvie Johnson (Tessa Thompson, Creed) is working at her father’s record store while her fiancé is overseas.  Since her mother (Erica Gimpel) runs a popular local charm school and it wouldn’t be ladylike for Sylvie to, gasp, work, Sylvie and her father (the excellent Lane Reddick, Angel Has Fallen) have to pretend she’s just watching the store and have placed a Help Wanted sign in the window, though it’s really just for show. Then musician Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha, Hello, My Name Is Doris) walks in to apply for the job, mostly to talk more with Sylvie and also because he needs a little more income seeing that his band isn’t booking big gigs at the moment.  The job is his and, hopefully soon her heart will be too.

As expected, the two eventually fall in love despite her mother’s protestations on Robert’s profession and financial situation.  Their summer together is filled with new experiences and special moments, often conveyed by Sylvie with twinkle eyed wonder to her more experienced best friend, Mona (Aja Naomi King, The Upside) as they lay out listening to records and taking in some sun.  When Robert books a job that takes him overseas, he expects Sylvie to go with him…a decision that changes their lives together for the future.  When the film jumps back to the 60s to find Sylvie an assistant producer to a brassy TV cook (Wendi McClendon-Covey, What Men Want) and Robert a successful musician, we witness them navigate their relationship and how it has evolved, for better or for worse.

With both stars serving in some form of producer role on the film, you can tell they have a vested interest in how the characters are represented.  That may be why there’s more to Sylvie’s Love than just, well, Sylvie’s love.  Back in the day these romances always had some motivating side stories but there’s more time spent on these diversions in this instance, so much that they begin to come off as distractions from the people we do want to see more of…Thompson and Asomugha.  While it’s filled with familiar faces in supporting roles that range from the large to the tiny, none are interesting enough to pull you in their direction…well, maybe except for McLendon-Covey who Thompson’s character sees a spark in that’s being hidden by the senior producers of her show.  Casting Longoria as a fiery Latinx singer and then having her actually sing and dance was smart but, again, unnecessary since she is barely seen or established up until her late in the game production number.

The film does thrive when it’s just Thompson and Asomugha sharing the spotlight together.  Thompson tends to bring out the best in whatever costar she’s working with, human or CGI and here she’s matched with one that doesn’t need too much prodding to deliver.  A former NFL cornerback for nearly a decade, Asomugha cuts a convincing figure as a jazz musician and is a fine actor on top of it all.  Though he’s sadly part of several of the film’s less successful attempts at arch melodrama, he comes out unscathed from these sequences thanks to his honest approach to the character and to Thompson.  There’s a vulnerability to Asomugha, and in Thompson to a lesser extent, that is appealing and becomes an effective tool in keeping the audience with him along the way.  I liked that the script gave Thompson more autonomy that we usually see in films set in this era and it’s that unpredictability that keeps the movie from running too far out of gas, though it does feel like it has several endings as it makes its way to the final finish line.

Set to a gorgeous score from Fabrice Lecomte, the overall production design of Sylvie’s Love sublime and while Ashe hasn’t directed that many films, he clearly has an eye for what stands out and an ear for setting the mood. While Ashe is able to lean away from Sirk’s penchant for going overboard with strife as the film nears the conclusion, enough roadblocks are put in the way of our main couple to keep the resolution hard to figure out until the finale.  Even though an early glimpse may hint at the future, it isn’t quite the wrap-up audiences might think while watching.  It’s a completely worthy watch for those who miss an old-fashioned love story, well-told and performed, that isn’t trivialized or heavily weighted down with a coat of syrup.

Movie Review ~ The Upside

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A comedic look at the relationship between a wealthy man with quadriplegia and an unemployed man with a criminal record who’s hired to help him.

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Genevieve Angelson, Aja Naomi King, Julianna Margulies

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I’m going to level with you and let you know that for the most part remakes are just not my cup of tea.  I just don’t see the point of the exercise so unless you are going to go your own way (hello, Suspiria), then I’d rather filmmakers spend their time on creating new work.  Don’t even get me started on American remakes of foreign films, just another way Hollywood plays into the notion that audiences won’t sit for two hours reading subtitles.  Box office notwithstanding, there are but a few examples where an English film has surpassed its international counterpart but there are times when a movie makes the leap over the ocean to our shores without tarnishing our good memories of the original.

Thankfully, The Upside is an example of the happy path a film can take when translated and it has arrived in theaters by the skin of its teeth, nearly lost indefinitely due to a controversy within its production house that delayed its release for nearly a year.  Originally set to be distributed by The Weinstein Company, when the scandal involving Harvey Weinstein sent waves through Hollywood their slate of films set for release were canned and sold off to other studios.  It’s unfortunate The Upside suffered under this melee because, while imperfect, it’s largely an audience pleasing dramedy that feels like the kind of critic-proof feel-gooder that could be a sleeper hit if audiences bite.

Based on Olivier Nakache & Éric Toledano’s The Intouchables from 2011, this is a fairly faithful adaptation of the original work with some modifications that I felt were improvements…but more on that later.  The set-up is still the same: mega-millionaire Phillip (Bryan Cranston, Trumbo) is a quadriplegic looking for a new care-giver who chooses recent parolee Dell (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer) against the advice of his executive (Nicole Kidman, Boy Erased) because he’s the least qualified for the job.  The two are a mismatched pair with Aretha Franklin loving Dell clashing with opera-fan Phillip in fairly benign ways.  As Dell learns more about responsibility after largely being absent from his own son’s life and Phillip gets a new lease on living via Dell’s tough love methods, the two form exactly the bond you expect but don’t arrive there in quite the way you’d think.

Director Neil Burger (Divergent) and screenwriter Jon Hartmere have tinkered with the story, removing some of the more white savior-esque moments from the original which just wouldn’t have gone over well in this age where everything is under a different microscope.  Dell is more of a fleshed out character than his French counterpart was, there’s less imposed upon him but rather he is the driving force in many of the key developments of the movie.  There’s also an interesting splitting of one character into two (kinda) and the insertion of a tense scene between Phillip and woman played by Julianna Margulies (Ghost Ship).  With movies like Green Book running afoul of the PC police, I feel The Upside slides by largely without incident.  In the end I guess you could unfairly boil it down to it being about a rich white guy somewhat educating, and by proxy being educated by, a poor black man but the movie rises above that antiquated trope largely on the strength of its casting.

We talk a lot about chemistry in the movies and how hard it is to come by and it’s clear at this point that Hart can create chemistry with just about any costar you put him with.  Cranston has his moments as well but Hart is what really fuels the film even when it teeters into preachy schmaltz or cornball familiar territory.  He’s dialed his routine down a few notches but that hasn’t diminished his delivery or screen energy.  It’s not hard to see why there was early buzz on his performance being a bit of a revelation.  Confined to a wheelchair and not able to move his extremities, Cranston can only use his face to sell the scenes and it turns out that restraint works wonders for coming across less earnest.  Though saddled with a wig that always seems like it needed to be brushed, Kidman’s tightly wound exec gets to cut loose a few times, though some developments later in the film feel a tad underdeveloped (if not wholly underwritten).

It’s surprising to me how popular The Intouchables remains seven years after its release.  It was the second biggest film in France that year and last time I checked it was #40 on IMDb’s list of Top 250 films…ahead of Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  I quite liked the film that inspired The Upside and was surprised at how easy this remake went over with not just me but the audience I screened it with.  The laughs were where they should be and, as expected, when the credits rolled it was met with enthusiastic applause.  This says to me that audiences won’t be swayed by critics thumbing their nose at this decently entertaining buddy film.  I’d still suggest watching the original but if you’ve given that one a spin then there’s no downside to seeking out The Upside.