THE NIGHT WATCH (2006)

Sarah Waters often traffics in thrilling historical lesbian romances, which is obvious by the names of her earlier novels, such as TIPPING THE VELVET (1998) and FINGERSMITH (2002).

THE NIGHT WATCH (2006) is a bit of a detour, as it’s far more Dickensian — in spirit, not time as it takes place in various times before, during, and after World War Two in London — and far more of an ensemble, which features not only a lesbian couple, but also a straight couple, and one jailed man whose sexuality is slightly more complex. (There are additional supporting characters, but those are the major players.)

If that description sounds maddeningly vague, it’s by intent. THE NIGHT WATCH is incredibly restrained with doling out character particulars, and jumps around in years to intentionally provoke intrigue and drama, but also serves to contrast how these characters have coped with wartime and recovery.

In that sense, it feels remarkably relevant in this age of COVID-19, as you read how the characters shelter-in-place, experience how they put themselves at risk by venturing out into the world, tales of first responders, and the like. More than anything, it’s about living with an invisible threat while also living a hidden life, and yes, it’s just as loaded as it sounds.

While all of the characters are richly drawn, I can’t help but wish that Waters had dialed back the scope a bit, as I found myself drawn to the queer relationships lived by Helen, Kay, and Julia, as opposed to the straight and male romances lived through Viv, Reggie, and Duncan, all of which felt like their relationships were hitting the same notes, but with less-satisfying results.

Regardless, Waters is an expert at balancing literary storytelling while also penning extraordinary steamy content, and it’s worth reading THE NIGHT WATCH solely for the more tantalizing passages and the relationship dynamics that she details.

THE SOUVENIR PART II (2021)

(Cinemas) I wrote a bit about THE SOUVENIR (PART I from here on out) a few days ago, in case you missed it. You might want to start there.

Given that I will watch anything from Joanna Hogg, I intentionally neglected to watch THE SOUVENIR PART II’s trailer (PART II from here on out), going in cold. What I saw wasn’t even close to what I thought we would get. I was thinking it would be something along the lines of THE UP series — checking in on the character as they age.

PART II is far more interesting than that.

PART II, an overtly autobiographical piece from writer/director Joanna Hogg, picks up approximately where the first part left off and follows aspiring filmmaker Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) as she tries to process the events of the first ‘film’ of her life (in several ways), while also becoming a more singular being.

I imagine there will be a number of folks who will find PART II to be too inside baseball. (That said, film nerds will eat this up.) Instead of focusing on a realistic relationship melodrama, PART II is specifically about Julie trying to find the images to deal with what she’s going through, and most of that is done through her work on her final student film. There’s a lot of riffing on PART I, there’s a lot of film jargon, and a lot of time spent on film sets and film crew members angrily bickering with each other.

In other words, the narrative propulsion is the polar opposite to PART I, but the center is still the same: it’s all about Julie’s journey, and Hogg handles it masterfully. Just like with PART I, it’s so beautifully and effectively shot — you can tell it’s a Hogg film based on how she frames buildings and navigates interior urban spaces, how she opts to obscure people’s faces more often than not, have them ‘turnout’ or ’turn in’.

I can’t recommend these two films enough, but I would suggest watching them relatively close together. I hadn’t seen PART I since it screened in theaters in 2019, and felt like I was missing out on a lot in PART II because, uh, my memory, and the past two years have been particularly harrowing.

Lastly, Vadim Rizov’s A.V. Club review touches on a lot of film and autobiographical references and riffs I wish I had time to note.

THE SOUVENIR (2019)

(hoopla/kanopy/Prime/Showtime/VOD) I saw THE SOUVENIR during its theatrical release on a sparsely attended Sunday afternoon matinee at the Lakeview Century Cinema, an act only a handful of Chicago folks would do, even in the before times.

THE SOUVENIR is a story from writer/director Joanna Hogg — who also wrote and directed EXHIBITION, which I dragged some folks to a Chicago International Film Fest screening many years ago which I loved, but I’m pretty sure they have yet to forgive me — about a young woman named Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne, and yes, Tilda Swinton appears as her mother) who makes terrible relationship decisions that she firmly believes in, but can’t see that they’re awful. Classic youth romanticism. There’s a lot of class work thrown in, commentary about art and film, facets of addiction and the like, but ultimately it’s about her navigating, discovering, reckoning.

Right before the credits rolled, I thought I couldn’t love THE SOUVENIR more, then it closed out with a new Anna Calvi song (see also the previously recommended music video STRANGE WEATHER) and I shivered. Then an older women behind me complained to her companion:

“I don’t know, the whole film was weird. I mean, this song too! So weird!”

Damn right it was, and we need more of it.

Astoundingly, Hogg received funding for a sequel in which Robert Pattinson was to co-star. Then COVID and THE BATMAN happened, but the sequel did go into production — sans Pattinson — and is now in theaters! Give yourself the dramatic double-feature you deserve!

DEFINITELY, MAYBE (2008)

Programming note: I’m swamped this month balancing NaNoWriMo and work and life, so the few posts I’ll eke out will be brief and will often lean on others.

(peacock/VOD) DEFINITELY, MAYBE is one of my favorite modern rom-coms, and I was elated to see that Caroline Siede featured it in her fantastic WHEN ROMANCE MET COMEDY series (despite the fact that it took me several months to finally read it):

“Definitely, Maybe isn’t a “soulmate rom-com” about how there’s one perfect person for everyone. Instead, it looks at the realistic ways in which timing, circumstance, and miscommunication can impact and upend relationships. And it finds hope in the fact that good things can still come out of a romance that’s not meant to last. Definitely, Maybe is essentially the cinematic equivalent of the adage that people come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime—and that there’s value in all three.”

https://www.avclub.com/ryan-reynolds-traded-snark-for-sincerity-in-an-underrat-1847432954

I’M YOUR MAN (2021)

(Cinemas) Temporarily pausing the horror posts, because, well, because this was the second part of a self-inflicted double-feature with LAMB, and I loved it.

I’M YOUR MAN is a high-concept romantic drama from actor/director/writer Maria Schrader (perhaps best known in the U.S. for the Netflix series UNORTHODOX, but I know best for portraying Jaguar in the German historical docudrama AIMEE & JAGUAR), that features Dan Stevens as an ideal robotic romantic companion to middle-aged academic Alma (Maren Eggert). The film leans on a lot of rom-com tropes, notably those of a ‘perfect’ man who can fix one woman’s self-made woes, but then intentionally subverts them. (I’m a sucker for this sort of thing. See also: TIMER (2009))The end result is a very smart look at not just what folks want from partners, but how their romantic histories inform each other.

The trailer leans in a bit too much on the shock that Dan Stevens can actually speak German — I’ve forgotten almost all of the German I learned in college, so I can’t attest to whether his approach works, although I imagine the fact that he’s a robot works in his favor — but I applaud his effort.

Lastly, I’d like to note: while I do often enjoy watching empty rom-com trifles via Lifetime or Hallmark — I won’t deny it — I’M YOUR MAN is funny, sensitive, and substantial. If you have a heart, the closing will stick with you.

THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT (2012)

(HBO MAX/VOD) Tom (Jason Segel) is an up-and-coming chef in San Francisco, and he’s been happily involved with his academic girlfriend Violet (Emily Blunt) for some time. He awkwardly proposes to her, she says yes, and they start to plan their wedding. However, she gets a job in Michigan, which sidelines the wedding, then his career falters, but pratfalls ensue and matters escalate.

As someone married to an academic, it was a surprising gut-punch of a watch. As it’s another film from Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segal — they wrote/directed FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL — I thought it’d be a standard Apatow-ish shaggy comedy about an emotionally stunted adult man and, while there is some of that, it was surprisingly thoughtful and measured. The perspective balance isn’t exactly what I’d like it to be — it definitely skews towards Tom — but their career conflicts are better handled than most romantic dramas.

(My thanks to Damon for recommending it to me — I would have missed it otherwise!)

“This is why we do not delay weddings!”

ELECTRIC DREAMS (1984)

(DVD/BR/YT) ELECTRIC DREAMS is an odd high-concept romantic rivalry/surveillance thriller about architect Miles (Lenny von Dohlen, best known as the agoraphobic florist from TWIN PEAKS), his computer, cellist Madeline (Virginia Madsen), and the love triangle they inhabit, one with shades of CYRANO DE BERGERAC.

Given that I was both a computer nerd and practicing cellist as a youth, I’ve seen this film more than a few times over the years. Yes, its portrayal for what a mid-1980s computer was capable of doing was wildly overblown, but it had a fantastic soundtrack — as you would expect as it’s courtesy of Giorgio Moroder — and was extraordinarily shot. It has a number of lush scenes that highlight the difference between video and film, as well as a more than a few fantastically composed visual vignettes, and Madsen is absolutely charming as Madeline. It certainly was one of the first narrative films that ‘spoke’ to me, that made me feel seen, given that it was both about computers and a cellist.

The film features a musical number where Madeline warms up by playing Bach’s Minuet in G Major (what the ELECTRIC DREAMS soundtrack dubs as the ‘Mad Minuet’), which was one of my warm-ups when I was a young cellist so I can’t help but love it, but I also adore how long and -fun- the scene is. I was never a brilliant cellist — although I was good enough to be in a quartet to play for then-Vermont governor Howard Dean — but when I got on a roll, when I was in the zone, it felt just as exuberant and gleeful. You can view the number below:

ELECTRIC DREAMS has been unavailable in the U.S. for some time now, but there was a recent UK Blu-Ray release via Second Sight (https://secondsightfilms.co.uk/products/electric-dreams-blu-ray ). There’s also a copy floating around YouTube that I may have already ‘accidentally’ linked to. (Shh, don’t tell!)

“Hm. Very smart, but weird.”

P.S. There’s a great post-mortem about the film available on YouTube. And, for what it’s worth, there are two scenes I remember vividly from watching it as a youth: the motherboard being washed out, and Madeline’s cello being crushed in the elevator. Madsen’s method time was worth it.

FRIENDS WITH KIDS (2012)

(HBO MAX/VOD)? I recently rewatched WHEN HARRY MET SALLY with my wife and remarked about how modern rom-coms simply don’t talk about sex. If they do, it’s often bawdy and meant for laughs as opposed to sincerity.

FRIENDS WITH KIDS is very much in the WHEN HARRY MET SALLY mould, as it’s about two friends who platonically love each other: Jason Fryman (Adam Scott, toeing the line between asshole and sweet guy) and Julie Keller (Jennifer Westfeldt, who wrote/directed it, but — based on your age — is probably best known as Pauline on YOUNGER or for appearing in and co-writing the cult classic KISSING JESSICA STEIN*). Neither of them are getting any younger and both want a child, but they’ve seen their friends who have had children flounder in their marriages. Consequently, they decide to have a child and ‘split the cost down the middle’ and pursue separate relationships. They assume it’ll be a win/win.

Despite FRIENDS WITH KIDS being rather overstuffed with abrasive personas — it’s brilliantly cast with folks like: Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, Chris O’Dowd, Maya Rudolph, Megan Fox, -and- Kelly Bishop — I ultimately found it winsome solely on the merits of Scott and Westfeldt. Your mileage may vary, of course, as it’s extremely heteronormative, and definitely an affluent white person film, but under all of that is a refreshingly adult take on friendship and romance.

Oh, and it’s rather audacious when it comes to letting time lapse, as it effortlessly hopscotches across months, even years, to cut to the quick regarding how these friends’ relationships change.

It stumbles a bit crossing the finish line, but in a world that’s succumbed to mostly-forgettable Hallmark or Netflix romantic fare — nothing wrong with ‘em, I enjoy those breezy trifles from time to time! — it’s a substantial examination of relationships.

  • See https://www.autostraddle.com/kissing-jessica-stein-is-a-classic-of-queer-jewish-anxiety/ and http://gomag.com/article/millennial-queer-girl-reviews-kissing-jessica-stein/

I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING! (1945)

(Criterion/VOD) A very specific romantic drama from Michael Powel & Emeric Pressburger, where a willful woman — Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) — has mapped out from her childhood the exact life she wants: to look lovely, to have fine things, and to have a husband with a title who can provide her with all she wants.

She has a life-plan which she’s followed through on and, frankly, most of us in these current days would envy.

She’s one step away from realizing it: she just needs one boat to see her to her title-bearing beau, and she’ll have seen her plan through. However, she meets Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), a RAF sailor/landowner of a tiny Scottish island meant to shuttle her to her final destination, storms prevent her departure, and her plans start to unravel.

In less-capable hands I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING! could have been a treacly melodrama, but master filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (THE RED SHOES, BLACK NARCISSUS) deliver up an extraordinarily winsome and surprisingly thrilling romance that also acts as a love letter to rural Scotland, not unlike OUTLANDER but with significantly fewer rape scenes. It’s worth noting that, while much of it was shot on location at the Isle of Mull, a significant portion of the film was shot in a British studio due to Livesey’s work schedule, and the fact that the seams don’t show is a testament to cinematographer Erwin Hillier’s skills.

What’s especially intriguing about the film is that there’s none of the push-and-pull and internal questioning that you have with most modern romantic dramas. From the moment Joan meets Torquil, she immediately realizes she’s in trouble, that this man could upend all of her hard work. Granted, it’s never stated outright, but Powell & Pressburger do a fantastic job of conveying it visually.

Unfortunately I was unable to locate a trailer, so this memorable scene will have to suffice:

KAJILLIONAIRE (2020)

(HBO MAX/VOD) I’ve previously typed about how I love films about hucksters and con-artists, but this is a bit different. Miranda July’s film is all about a daughter named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) endlessly trying to win the affections of her parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) by participating in their endless grifter schemes, and they keep using and using her until she breaks. She finally finds some sort of solace in a potential mark named Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) who has always wanted to take part in OCEANS 11-ish hijinks, but quickly realizes it’s not quite the lark she thought it might be.

While Jenkins is brilliant as always, and Rodriguez can visually snap from cheerful to heartbroken in the blink of an eye, the film’s held together by Wood’s performance. I love her forced baritone voice and loose-fitting, masculine clothes — inferring that they wanted a son, not a daughter — and how that same voice warbles near the end of the film. Wood’s posture and physicality is also especially noteworthy, facets Old Dolio thought up to try to ingratiate herself on her unloving parents.

There’s a turn near the end of the film that you’ll see coming, but it’s still devastating, and that’s what makes it a remarkable work.

“Me, I prefer to just skim.”

“So do I!”