Tag: romance

In the Mood for Love

In the Mood for Love (2000)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When was the last time you’ve seen a romance picture whereby a man and a woman eat dinner at the same table and the camera dares to focus its attention on the food being consumed rather than the words, looks, and impressions the two share? Yet the scene is not about the food but about the lonely pair, possessing knowledge that their respective spouses are having affairs, who are separated by that table. Although the attraction between them is palpable, they vow not to behave like their partners. And so the distance between the two sharing a meal might as well be from Venus to Mars. Wong Kar-wai’s “In the Mood for Love” works on this level all the way through. It assumes that those looking in are intelligent in the mind, heart, and spirit. By doing so, it avoids common trappings of the genre and forges a unique path of its own.

We are offered one fresh image after another. Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) have spent time with each other on multiple occasions. And yet when they converse in public, the camera tends to hide—behind a stone pillar, metallic bars—as if it were spying on them. At times images are blurry, off-centered. Their backs face the camera. We are forced take on the perspective of a voyeur precisely because, in a way, we are.

Another example, five minutes into the film, involves move-in day for both Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow. They are neighbors, whose spouses are often away on business, and so movers inevitably confuse which possessions belong to whom. But this scene is not played for simple or easy laughs. By placing the camera in a cramped hallway, it gives the impression that the story we are about to experience will be about people moving in and out of rooms and the items—offerings—they carry with them. Sometimes items are left in place. Other times items are taken somewhere else. It is a beautiful metaphor for the impermanence of time, places, and faces. Notice how the writer-director seems to have an affinity for showing faces of clocks.

This is not to suggest that the work can only be enjoyed by being observant. This can be appreciated by viewers who have lived and loved; those who have a penchant for self-reflection. Consider: Despite spending ample time with one another, we never, ever, get to hear Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow share laughter even though it is apparent they thoroughly enjoy one another’s company. We are not spoon-fed why. Rather, we inspired to look inside ourselves to come up with a reason, or reasons, why this might be.

I think it is because sharing laughter, joy, with another person is deeply personal. By not showing the pair laugh, the work is making a statement that even though we get to see glimpses of their interactions, many of which are sensual and intense, we remain outsiders looking in. To hear them laugh is an act of breaching the secret space they’ve created for themselves. Laughter would have overpowered the whispers. I also think doing so would have broken the picture’s mood. We’ve all been in a situation where we hear a couple laughing from several feet away and feeling a bit awkward. We wonder, “What’s so funny?” or “What are they laughing about?” We are meant to gravitate toward Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow, not be repelled by them.

There is splendor within moments of pause. Here is a picture so patient that, for example, it is willing to show how rain lands on street lamps, on people, on stone roads. It demonstrates how rain can change people’s behavior. Many run away to find shelter, some hide under umbrellas, others remain still. Rain can be regarded as an act of renewal, of washing away sins, of evidence, and perhaps of memories, too. “In the Mood for Love” ends in an offbeat path, but it feels exactly right because it is helmed by hands who appreciates how it is like to yearn for a possibility so close to becoming reality, for a life not lived but to go on living anyway.

Ash is Purest White

Ash is Purest White (2018)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Here is a story of woman who gave five years of her life in prison all for her boyfriend. She is convinced that their love is so strong, he is certain to be there waiting for her when she gets out. But when she is finally released, he is nowhere to be found. Jia Zhangke’s gangster romance “Ash is Purest White” chooses to be far more observant and insightful about the big picture idea of love, what it means to us as observers, and what it signifies for its specific and well-written characters than a typical romantic film with the all too familiar plot and an exhausted dramatic parabola. At its core, the film is about human weakness and so we cannot help but be drawn to it like moth to a flame.

The story of Qiao (Tao Zhao) and Bin (Fan Liao) takes place over sixteen years. Divided into three sections—before prison, release day and the following days, a decade after prison—each one is equally compelling and curious. I admired the way the writer-director wallops us over the head with time jumps and gives us time to orient ourselves instead of spoon-feeding us information by employing the usual title cards regarding how many years passed or what happened during the years not shown. It moves forward with conviction, confidence, and purpose. So following a major event, which is often surprising, we cannot wait to discover how might Qiao summon the strength to take a step forward in a world that inherently values men over women, both in terms of traditional Chinese culture and the underworld culture that she is only really marginally a part of—if that.

Although a gangster picture, it is drenched in melancholy colors, heavy atmosphere, and music—not of gunshots and bullets ricochetting but of ballroom music, disco, droning of electricity, mahjong tiles, the rain. Instead of overt violence, its focus is the violence within, what we consider as love does to a person who bought into it hook, line, and sinker. In order to appreciate the picture fully, it is required that we embody the headspace of Qiao.

There are many silent sections in the work that trusts the audience to observe: Qiao at contentment, survival mode, when required to be resourceful, to give and be selfish. Zhao creates a thoroughly believable character with every passing chapter. Also notice how Qiao acts or behaves differently depending on the person she is with. This is a character who cannot—not for one second—afford not to be the smartest, most adaptable, most resourceful person in the room. For good reasons.

Another special trait: it is a romance picture that poses the question of what happens after love fades. The answer is not apathy or feeling nothing at all. Zhangke makes a point that it cannot be described and so it must be shown. It is a prime example of why movies matter because sometimes words are not enough to describe a feeling or a specific situation. Qiao and Bin’s relationship is so complicated yet by the end of the story we have an appreciation of why their special connection evolved the way it did. It’s strange because the movie ends in an open-ended fashion but at the same time there is a finality to it, as if to say we have seen and known the characters well enough that whatever we think might happen next can happen.

“Ash is Purest White” is achingly beautiful, layered, without having to be opaque or obtuse with images, characters, or way of storytelling. It simply trusts that the viewers have the desire to see because we have our own definitions of what love is. So we take those definitions and measure them alongside or against what the movie is trying to show or say. It unfolds like a great novel; I wanted it to go on for another two hours.


Singularity (2017)
★ / ★★★★

Here is yet another movie brazen enough to end without a third act, but that is the least of its problems. Robert Kouba’s “Singularity” tells a story that involves machines directly causing the eradication of humans with the help of an inventor (John Cusack) who wished “to solve all the world’s problems” using advanced artificial intelligence, but it is far from an engaging morality tale with the necessary highs and lows, twists and turns, and bitter ironies. Instead, we experience the once populated planet through the eyes of a bland young man named Andrew (Julian Schaffner) who miraculously wakes up 97 years after the A.I. takeover. In the middle is a deadly dull the romance between Andrew and Calia (Jeannine Michèle Wacker), a survivor in search of the last human outpost, but the couple is not at all interesting together or apart. We are introduced to the strong and independent Calia, only to soften and wilt once in the arms of Andrew. Prepare to roll your eyes and to check your watch constantly. The painfully slow pacing of their so-called courtship brings to mind movies designed for tweens which contrasts greatly against what should be an intelligent and urgent parable. Its emotions are as fake as the laughable computer generated explosions we encounter during the picture’s generic opening minutes. Written for the screen by Robert Kouba and Sebastian Cepeda.


Submergence (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those expecting a typical romance in which a potential couple meet, court, and live happily ever after are in for a big disappointment because, although beautifully photographed, Wim Wenders’ “Submergence” is more adult-oriented than fantasy-leaning escapism. Rather than focusing on plot, it is interested in showing challenging circumstances, building a perfect mood to capture longing and loneliness, presenting the details of one’s work, and underlining the distance between lovers than it is about showing its subjects physically interacting to make the viewers swoon. Its vision is without compromise and I respect that.

Notice the atypical technique in which succeeding scenes are presented. It is fluid, like water, an important symbol in the picture, almost as though we are seeing the images through a flow of consciousness or deeply personal, somewhat guarded memories. It is important, I think, that it is presented in this manner so that audiences get an impression of the feelings of incompleteness that the two lovers undergo when they are separated. Because of their occupations, there is no two-way letter-writing or texting involved. And in addition to the subjects not knowing each other for very long before they must separate, there is only uncertainty. Here is a film in which we grow increasingly unsure whether the protagonists would see each other again—a rarity in the romance sub-genre.

Danielle and James, a bio-mathematician preparing for a deep-sea dive and a British spy posing as a water engineer, are played by Alicia Vikander and James McAvoy, respectively. They share solid chemistry as their characters meet in a stunning seaside hotel in Normandy. As intuitive performers, closely observe their body languages as requisite lines are uttered with subtlety and passion. Because by also focusing on the unsaid, it provides us a more complete picture of what these characters are about and what they hope to achieve. It is critical that we feel or understand Danielle and James’ love for what they do, their personal and professional missions, so that we buy into the idea of why they ultimately choose to put themselves in potentially dangerous situations.

Yes, the dialogue offers some scientific jargon, which may be a challenge to sit through for some, but I think the focus ought to be on the intention behind these words. The dialogue is written so beautifully that at times, for example, Danielle may choose to use opaque words in order to hide her feelings of awkwardness with a man she just met. But what makes James interesting, for instance, is that he is a great listener, a skill that is required in his line of work, and so he is able to pierce through the fog and reach her. Still, however, she offers surprises in store. Their meeting is only the setup for the plot but it is so strong, it could have been an entire picture on its own.

Beauty and brutality collide when Danielle and James follow their respective paths. Hydrothermal vents in the deep Atlantic Ocean look like alien worlds while jihadists treat precious human lives as insects to be crushed at the slightest sign of annoyance. Interiors of ships, particularly of a laboratory filled with curious equipments, are polished and elegant while interiors of war-ravaged buildings, particularly the unsanitary clinic, highlight the fears and overall unhappiness—torment—of a community. We are meant to wonder whether Danielle and James’ contrasting worlds are so different, they might end up getting sucked into them, extinguishing every chance of getting back together. But what’s brilliant, I think, is the picture does not simply rely on a romantic reunion.

The Sun is Also a Star

The Sun is Also a Star (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Daniel (Charles Melton) the poet believes in love, but Natasha (Yara Shahidi) the aspiring data scientist reduces the idea as molecular interactions occurring in the brain. So a proposal: Over the course of a single day, Daniel would prove that love exists by getting Natasha to fall in love with him—despite the fact that they had met less than an hour ago. It goes without saying that “The Sun is Also a Star,” based on the novel by Nicola Yoon and adapted to screen by Tracy Oliver, proudly wears its heart on its sleeve. Naturally, love must win in a story like this. After all, the target audience is young adults who believe deep down that love is the great solution. But the real question is this: Is the journey to that conclusion worth it?

I don’t believe it is. The material does not provide good enough reasons why Natasha and Daniel are worth following together or apart. It isn’t the performers’ fault: Shahidi and Melton share good chemistry even though not a single person will be convinced that they are portraying high school seniors precisely due to their looks, how they carry themselves in movement, and how they appear to be much wiser than the words on the script. When the camera goes for the close-up, the pair hit their marks and are able to provide the necessary emotions in order to create at least a semblance of conflict that the screenplay fails to provide.

This is bizarre because the movie is strangely plot-driven despite the fact that its story unfolds over twenty-four hours. Natasha’s family is set to be deported to Jamaica the day after unless she is able to find somebody who could put on hold or reverse a judge’s decision. Meanwhile, Daniel, son of South Korean immigrants, is scheduled to attend an interview with an alumnus from Dartmouth University so that he could get a letter of recommendation. His parents have chosen for him to become a doctor, but he wants to be a poet. Natasha and Daniel’s chance meeting—or is it destiny, as the film argues?—fails to become thoroughly involving because we are often reminded of the time. Is Daniel late for that all-important interview? Are Natasha’s parents getting worried back home because she still hasn’t packed her belongings?

In addition, you can bet that every time the potential lovers arrive at a new spot and sit down, a would-be compelling revelation is about to thrown on our laps within two minutes. On the surface, these life lessons come across as wise. But think about it: If the person imparting these pieces of knowledge has been aware all along, then why is he or she still written as conflicted? Thus, the drama is a sham. The screenplay defies reason and common sense so credit goes to director Ry Russo-Young for still being able to maintain our interest at least some of the time.

I enjoyed looking at the movie. It is earnest and pretty. We see different spots of New York City even though the place is filtered through the lens of a fantasy. (In reality, NYC is grimier, louder, and a whole lot busier.) But the way it is shot serves the romantic nature of the story. And I did enjoy the actors; I wish for more people of color leading in romantic films. But the screenplay is all over the place, without question too saccharine for its own good. There is a compelling story about assimilation buried here. But the screenwriter couldn’t be bothered to excavate it.

Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing (1987)
★★★ / ★★★★

His first vacation in years, Dr. Jake Houseman (Jerry Orbach) takes his family up on the Catskills to spend a couple of days at a luxurious hotel resort. It seems like just another summer of fine dining and outdoor activities until Baby (Jennifer Grey) lays her eyes on Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), a dance instructor, while snooping around a staff meeting. Soon, it becomes a summer of learning and growing, as a tyro dancer as well as a young adult, when Baby volunteers to be Johnny’s last-minute dance partner.

If taken under a scope of a serious drama, “Dirty Dancing,” written by Eleanor Bergstein, seems forced and phony. The conflict between the rich (the guests) and the poor (the workers) does not have a strong enough core that we can gravitate toward. When it forces us to feel something, the melodrama is cringe-inducing at times. However, as a dance picture, it is impressive, romantic, playful, with a whole lot of verve to spare.

It dives into showing the dancing almost immediately. The scene where older men and women dancing is not particularly well-choreographed—and I don’t think it is meant to be—but it helps to get us into the mood by giving us a sense of place and time. The summer of 1963 is filled with great music, optimism, and a certain openness—to a degree—for the new.

The film captures female sexuality with a precise subtlety. Particularly memorable is the end of the scene when Baby and Johnny dance for the first time. When the song ends, he leaves the dance floor but she is so into the moment that she remains to dance for a couple more seconds. When they are together, we take notice of their body language—individually and as a pair.

But from the moment Johnny steps off, our attention is less on the steps and more on the fact that Baby is turned on by the way her partner touches her, guides her, and encourages her. It is sensual, never sleazy. She looks like a woman underneath the warm lights. And when she finally does realize that he is no longer in front of her, she stops dancing, looks around, and is embarrassed. Not for dancing alone. But for having shown that she is excited sexually by her crush. She is back to being a girl.

I think that is why the material works. For the majority of the time, instead of watching a blossoming relationship between two equals—equal in age, maturity, and status—they seem an unlikely fit. Not only is Johnny at least three to five years older, but Baby, seventeen years of age, does not have the maturity and life experiences of an adult. She gains some throughout the picture, a believable evolution, but they are never on the same level. So when the story ends, it leaves us wondering how it will (or will not) work out.

When the material tries to deal with its subplots, it feels too much like an after school special. A father’s high expectations, an abortion headache, a boring suitor, among many others are not only tired but also atonal. They might have had room in the picture if the writing had given the characters—and their situations—more depth and dimension.

Directed by Emile Ardolino, “Dirty Dancing” is a fun time with great dancing and music. Even the extras watching the detailed dancing have big smiles across their faces. The central performances by Grey and Swayze are magnetic because the actors have palpable chemistry. They manage to be sultry without hamming it up.


Beast (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

“Beast,” written and directed by Michael Pearce, is an interesting hybrid of romance and murder mystery, but it is not a thoroughly engaging psychological piece because the way it is shot gets in the way of telling the story raw and unflinching. Take any individual scene and notice its stylistic flourishes, from the way it is photographed, the calculated acting, and the manner in which the camera moves. Nearly everything is so planned out that we never forget we are watching a movie. The lyricism that courses throughout its the images and the feelings it evokes functions like filter—an incorrect approach because the central couple, particularly the darkness living inside them, demands to be understood without restraint.

Moll and Pascal are played by Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn, respectively, and they share strong chemistry. Physically, they look good together and there are a handful of instances when we are convinced of the romance simply by the two of them looking into one another’s eyes. But the fluctuating screenplay, especially when it is demanded that one of them raises his or her voice suddenly, does not work. It disturbs the relaxed chemistry built by the two performers and the material moves toward the territory of soap opera. One cannot help but wonder that this weakness could be attributed to the fact that it is the writer-director’s first foray into helming a full feature film.

The main question is whether Pascal is the one responsible for the series of murders involving underaged girls that have taken place on the island. Those well-versed in murder mysteries are certain to recognize the classic clues, even subtle ones, that are designed underline the mysterious stranger’s guilt. I enjoyed that the material is seemingly aware of the tropes and so it leaves enough room for us to doubt, that perhaps the many signs are simply red herrings meant to distract. Is it possible that the killer is simply a random stranger that just so happen to be visiting the island?

Intriguingly, the screenplay demands for the viewer to consider Moll as a suspect as well, even though we see the story through her eyes, because of her violent altercation with a schoolmate. Early scenes suggest she is a deeply disturbed young woman, brought up in a home that demands to control every aspect of her life, that she is left with barely any breathing room to be young, free, and spontaneous.

Buckley fits the role like a leather glove; she can look vulnerable and threatening at the same time. It is most unfortunate that the supporting characters, particularly Moll’s family, are so one-dimensional, these people fail to function as mirrors that reflect who Moll is outside of her extreme emotions, blackouts, and tendency to hurt herself or run away. Clearly, in order for the material to work, whether it be a mishmash of genres or otherwise, the drama must be established in a clear, concise, and convincing manner. Here, we never get past curious behavior.

Most beautiful to me is in the way it showcases the story’s animalistic themes. Look at the way Moll and Pascal make love, how they dance, how they wrestle, how they play. Notice how their body language collapses when surrounded by proud trees and verdant meadows. Pay attention to the lack of words shared between the two during deeply intimate moments. Its images are quite strong that at times I considered that perhaps the project might have worked better as a silent film.

The Mountain Between Us

The Mountain Between Us (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Romantic survival pictures are a rarity in today’s film landscape and so it is most disappointing that “The Mountain Between Us,” based on the novel by Charles Martin, is too safe, failing to play upon either extremes in order to create a piece of work that is both daring and different. What results is a watchable picture that is significantly elevated by its lead performers. Without them, it would have been a bland misfire so credit goes to the casting directors for choosing the right actors for the job.

Pay attention to the opening scene, how Kate Winslet and Idris Elba introduce their characters by navigating Alex and Ben, a professional photographer and a neurosurgeon, respectively, after having been presented with information that their flights have been cancelled. Immediately we are intrigued by the characters because Winslet and Elba have a knack for capturing how actual people might react when given unfortunate news. Although a romantic picture, Alex and Ben are not peppy characters typically found in the sub-genre. I enjoyed that upon their meeting, the two are on the verge of frustration and so there is an instant spark there.

The film is visually impressive in that the snowy and mountainous landscapes look dangerous, foreboding, beautiful but clearly not a place one would like to get lost in. Scenes after the plane crash and prior to Ben and Alex deciding to search for a nearby town, if any, rather than wait for rescue are a mixed bag. Particularly annoying, although occasionally cute, are the reaction shots of a dog, whether it be after a comedic line is uttered or a during life or death situation. Using the animal in this way is such a bottom-of-the-barrel technique, often found in brain-dead romantic comedies without much aspiration other than to exist and rake in cash.

Hany Abu-Assad’s “The Mountain Between Us” is much better than such strategy. When it relies on the audience to figure out the assumptions characters make while getting to know one another in the unforgiving wilderness or the sorts of intricacies slowly being woven between them, the film is at its best. Had the screenplay by Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe trusted the audience’s intelligence on a consistent manner, it certainly would have been a stronger film. There is no need for so many reaction shots of a dog, while playful, that does not have much to do with the plot.

But the beacon of the project is the strong acting by Winslet and Elba. In a movie like this, we all know how it is going to turn out. That is, they are going to survive their many trials. This is why the aftermath is perhaps the most fascinating portion of the film—when Alex and Ben have returned to their normal lives. Easily, I could have sat through another hour for the material to explore the rapidly changing dynamics between our protagonists. While these consummate thespians deliver the required complex emotions, fifteen minutes is not enough for the average screenplay to deliver a high level of catharsis.

Upside Down

Upside Down (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

A decade since they last saw each other, Adam (Jim Sturgess) learns that Eden (Kirsten Dunst) is an employee of Transworld, a company that specializes in research and development and serves as a hub for the twin planets of opposing gravities. Adam lives on a planet called Down Below, widely known as home of the poor and the hopeless, while Eden resides Up Top where skyscrapers glisten and the future is bright.

It is considered illegal for anyone to cross between worlds. However, Adam cannot help how he feels so he goes through seemingly insurmountable roadblocks just to get to Eden. His love for her is so strong that, when they do meet, he does not appear at all fazed by the fact that she has no memory of him.

Visually arresting and its unique universe filled with possible surprising complications, it is most frustrating that “Upside Down,” written and directed by Juan Diego Solanas, does not strive to be a great movie—one that will be remembered by future generations. It seems content in telling a sappy romance picture with enveloping science fiction elements. In some ways, it delivers and yet in many ways, it is excruciatingly short-sighted.

Watching the film is like looking inside a gigantic snow globe with multiple kaleidoscopes dancing in unsteady rhythm; there is always something to look at. For instance, it is fascinating and creepy that in their worlds, since the planets are right next to one another, there is no open sky. A character looks up and what he sees is a metropolis; it might very well be that someone is looking back in his direction at that precise moment. I wondered if they knew what a star was or if they ever wondered about foreign worlds outside their own geographically-dependent class system.

While the screenplay does a solid job contrasting Up Top and Down Below, their disparities are only painted on a superficial level. Up Top has spacious environs and its denizens are professionally clothed. Meanwhile, Down Below is covered in trash, the buildings appear dilapidated, and people’s clothing seem secondhand. When it comes to feelings, there is a lack of complexity. Surely there are people Down Below who are happy and content. Likewise, certainly not everyone Up Top are well-to-do. The two worlds are established visually but they do not feel or come across realistic within the context of a futuristic science-fiction feature. There is a disconnect.

The romance between Eden and Adam, though not sharply written, is tolerable mainly because of the performances. Sturgess—with his perfectly disheveled hair—is charming as usual, but Dunst surprised me. Usually, even though she is very beautiful, I find her so cold on the outside that whenever her character is supposed to be feeling sad or tormented, I often detect a fit of forced histrionics as opposed to her acting natural. Here, playing an amnesiac works for her. Those eyes look like they are constantly searching for something. She portrays a softness here that I would like to see more.

If I were evaluating strictly on style, “Upside Down” would pass with flying colors. But substance is and made relevant by the writer-director’s decision to introduce the idea of love and soul mates. There is not enough depth in Adam and Eden to create a love story worthy of critical thinking and emotional investment.

The Five-Year Engagement

The Five-Year Engagement (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Tom (Jason Segel) felt it was time for him and his girlfriend, Violet (Emily Blunt), to get married and settle down so he proposed to her exactly a year since they met during a New Year’s Eve party in San Francisco. Violet was happy and excited to accept the proposal but this was before she found out that she’d been accepted to attend the University of Michigan to further her studies in social psychology. Although Tom agreed to uproot his career as a sous-chef in the West Coast and move with Violet to Michigan, he became increasingly unhappy upon realizing that his life, personal and professional, had grown stagnant. “The Five-Year Engagement,” based on the screenplay by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, had good bits of comedy but was at its prime when it took an unblinking look at a relationship, once healthy and mutualistic, being swarmed by jealousy, guilt, and resentment as one’s success became hand-in-hand with the other’s failure. Casting Segel and Blunt as a couple was both surprising and effective. One rather ordinary-looking and the other quite stunning, the actors were given the responsibility to build and continually work on their chemistry in order to create a believable couple whom we cared about as a duo as well as individuals. Over time, we came understand what Tom saw in Violet and, perhaps more importantly, what Violet saw in Tom. We’ve all come across couples and wondered what one was doing with the other given that we happen to believe that one was not quite on the “same level” of attractiveness as the other. I enjoyed that the writing was aware enough to acknowledge that fact without being so blunt about it. Furthermore, in order to balance negative emotions like fears and insecurities, there was also a lot of sweetness and tenderness between Tom and Violet. Interestingly enough, however, the supporting actors’ ability to steal the spotlight benefited and hurt the the film. Chris Pratt as Tom’s best friend and Alison Brie as Violet’s sister had hilarious lines of dialogue that each time they were on screen, I was excited by the unpredictability of their comic performances. Pratt and Brie commanded such presence that at times I wished the picture was about them. With a running time of about two hours, the bulk of Tom and Violet’s relationship, specifically after they moved to Michigan, contained a lot of sadness which eventually began to feel like a trial. The situations and feelings that were explored were absolutely necessary to story but the pacing was occasionally slow-moving and the various attempts at humor by the central couple were neither consistently funny nor as exciting as the couple serving as foils. Instead of the subplot involving Violet and her professor, arguably the weakest and most predictable part of the film, I would like to have seen the material explore the pressures that Tom and Violet felt from their parents, how the latter kept pushing them to just get married already. A lot of it was played for laughs but when it took a more serious approach, it was both genuine and challenging. Directed by Nicholas Stoller, it was apparent that the struggle between making a strong artistic statement about modern couples and achieving commercial success hindered “The Five-Year Engagement” from reaching its true potential. For what it is, however, it was still a good show.

Baby It’s You

Baby It’s You (1983)
★★★★ / ★★★★

As Jill (Rosanna Arquette) made her way through passing period with her girlfriends, she bumped into Albert (Vincent Spano), nicknamed “Sheik,” a recent transfer from another school. Right away, she noticed his good looks and sharp attire, which incited a second glance from her, but it was he who found himself unable to take his eyes off her. During lunch, Sheik approached and boldly asked Jill out on a date. Jill brushed him off. After all, what could the most promising aspiring actress in school get out of dating a guy who people considered a thug? Based on the story by Amy Robinson and screenplay by John Sayles, while “Baby It’s You” took place in a high school in 1960s Trenton, New Jersey, it wasn’t so much about school and the alienation that came with it than about how one young woman tried to deal with the expectations imposed upon her by her parents and teachers while quenching her soul’s thirst for excitement in a form of a young man capable of bringing just enough danger to threaten but not derail her future. I liked that their flirtatious interactions had a tenderness to them even before they decided to become exclusive. As he towered over the girl he adored, she looked up at him as if he were a prize and we could almost feel how proud she was–but not cocky–to be with the most attractive guy in school. In turn, it was interesting to listen to what Jill’s friends had to say about them as a couple because at times it revealed just enough for us to detect a whiff of jealousy in the comments. I enjoyed getting to know Jill and Sheik because the writing bothered enough to go beyond surface characteristics by revealing their backgrounds, values, and insecurities through organic dialogue in which wit and foibles were not sacrificed. The first half intelligently dedicated its time exploring what Jill and Sheik needed from each other and why, in some ways, they were a good fit. Although they were pretty much opposites in every way, especially in terms of temperament, they had a way of knowing each other’s limits. In turn, when things got bad, they knew exactly which buttons to push to drive one another over the edge. That level of honesty persisted through a more complex second half when Jill attended an all-girls college to hone her acting skills. As someone who was used to being at the top of the pack in high school, Jill learned that success in high school was not necessarily indicative of one’s success in the university. One of the scenes I found most moving was Jill’s letter to her parents where Jill evaluated her experience with classes, people she met, as well as personal and professional goals. There was a sadness in her words and a feigned strength surely designed to protect her parents from worrying. I found myself relating to her most during that moment because when I was away in college, there were times when I didn’t feel like I was performing on a level that I knew I could deliver. Parents being concerned bred guilt–another emotion on already heavy shoulders. Unlike the glossier first half, the reconnection between Jill and Sheik placed more emphasis on their struggles because they were so different. There was a poignancy to it because it asked the difference between romantic love and a love that comes with a friendship. When is it all right to move on from another so that both parties can still salvage what’s left of a relationship? Directed by John Sayles, “Baby It’s You” captured the progression of adolescence and growing up. It balanced sensitivity and insight alongside stylish cars, chic fashion, and foot-tapping music.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) broke up on a park bench. A week earlier, we learned that the reason for their break-up was because Guy had relations with Elena (Sandha Khin), a free-spirited girl who enjoyed every small thing life offered, like a street performance or sharing knowing glances with strangers on the subway. But Elena lacked one quality that Guy saw in Madeline. Elena wasn’t as interested in music which was important to Guy because he was a professional trumpet player. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” contained some catchy musical numbers that brought a smile on my face. When Madeline and her co-workers began to sing and tap-dance in the restaurant, I almost wanted to join them because it looked like they were having so much fun. It didn’t matter that the choreography wasn’t perfectly executed or that the voices weren’t especially great. It was really more about being in a moment and absorbing and appreciating each other’s joy. But there was sadness in it, too. The picture followed Madeline attempting to date other men in order to get over Guy. There was a scene in which she made a boy wait for her outside while she got a haircut only to tell him after (and after he bought her a cookie) that she had made a commitment, a complete fib, and had forgotten about it. So they had to cancel their date. She was lucky the boy didn’t take it personally because most would have. I didn’t agree with her actions but I was glad that Chazelle wasn’t afraid to put his characters under a negative light. The film also managed to capture tension in the awkward moments. Take the scene in which Guy and Elena showered together. In a span of about two or three minutes, the mood changed from friendly chatter to unbearable silence. It was awkward enough to have the camera next to them as they showered but the awkwardness was amplified when nobody said a word. One did not have to have had a boyfriend or girlfriend to recognize that one poorly chosen word or sentence could destroy an otherwise good vibe. However, I wish some scenes made more sense. When Elena met an older man in the streets and he took her to his home, I didn’t understand why that was relevant. I felt like there was a missing scene or two that would help to explain why it made it through the editing room. “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” was surprisingly modern, with moments of effortless introspection from its emotionally troubled characters, despite the black and white cinematography that hearken back to its French New Wave influences. Its confidence could be felt as the characters broke out into song and dance. It implied that falling in and out of love was a celebration.


Titanic (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his crew of treasure hunters found a safe under the wreckage of RMS Titanic, the supposedly unsinkable ship that perished, along with about 1,500 people, on April 15, 1912 while on its way to America. They expected the safe contain a diamond known as the Heart of the Ocean, but what they found instead was a drawing of a topless woman wearing the jewel of interest. Rose (Gloria Stuart) saw the drawing on television and called Lovett to inquire about the artifacts. Rose, as it turned out, was one of the survivors of the doomed voyage. Written and directed by James Cameron, “Titanic” was a great achievement because it was able to transport its audience to a time that was and allowed us to experience what could have happened on that ship as the ocean slowly, then quickly, swallowed it whole. One of the most engaging scenes, perhaps only about minute long, was when one of Lovett’s crew explained the physics in terms of how, after hitting an iceberg, the iron giant began to sink and why it broke the way it did. By giving us a picture using images on a computer, we had an idea of what to expect. Yet when it actually started to happen, the suspense and thrill reached an apogee and wouldn’t let go. The manner in which the picture switched from silence, to musicians playing joyful music in order to distract the passengers from reaching total panic, to the angelic hymns of the score made the images of people falling and jumping off the ship, out of fear and desperation, haunting and exhausting. It’s difficult to forget, once the ship was completely submerged, the sounds of people crying, screaming, splashing, and begging the lifeboats, most having plenty of space, to come back turn into complete silence. Cut to sea of corpses floating on freezing water. The heart of the picture was the romance between Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose Bukater (Kate Winslet). Jack won his tickets to Titanic on a last-minute poker game. Along with a friend (Danny Nucci), the two were ecstatic for the epic journey. Rose, on the other hand, was incredibly unhappy because she was to marry Cal (Billy Zane), a pompous, boring, and self-important son of a steel tycoon. While most people tend to blame the romance for being the picture’s Achilles’ heel, I thought DiCaprio and Winslet had a winsome chemistry, benefiting from classic stories of a young man and woman torn by a demarcation of class and disapproving authorities. The dinner scene when Jack was invited to sit with Rose’s rich and snobbish company was a turning point for the two lovers. Despite pointed comments by Rose’s fiancé and mother (Frances Fisher), Jack proved that was comfortable with who he was and what he could offer. Rose looked at him like he was the richest and most desirable man in the room, the way we perhaps tend to do when we’re convinced that a person is exactly right for us. The script needed less cornball lines but they weren’t egregious enough to distract from the collective experience. “Titanic” was very extravagant. From Rose’s stylish clothes to the intricate designs of the ships’ doors and spacious private rooms, one could argue that the lavishness was necessary, even required, in order to highlight the horrors of destruction and lives being taken.

Like Crazy

Like Crazy (2011)
★ / ★★★★

Jacob (Anton Yelchin) and Anna (Felicity Jones) met at the end of senior year in the university. He was an aspiring furniture designer, she had a passion for writing. After Anna confessed her feelings for Jacob on a note she left on his car, the two decided to hang out and, over time, their relationship naturally blossomed to the next level. Summer arrived and Anna was scheduled to go back to England for two months because her student visa was about to expire. While she was in the U.K., the plan was for her to acquire a working visa and return after two months. However, Anna decided to stay last-minute because she feared the prospect of being apart from her boyfriend for so long. Written by Drake Doremus and Ben York James, “Like Crazy” rubbed me the wrong way not because Anna foolishly decided that rules did not apply to her. After all, everyone is entitled to make a mistake once in a while. The picture was supposed to be a romantic drama but I didn’t find anything romantic nor dramatic about it. While Jacob was bearable, I found Anna to be completely detestable for her selfishness and neediness. Their symbiotic relationship was parasitic rather than mutualistic which was toxic because the basis of the film was for us to root for the protagonists to be together when they were apart and discover small details about themselves when they were together. Since I could only relate to Jacob, it sounds rotten but I actually wanted him to find another girl when Anna wasn’t looking. Sam (Jennifer Lawrence), Jacob’s assistant at work, seemed to be a very good choice. Not only did Sam look gorgeous, it seemed like she knew what she wanted and how she was going to get it. That’s more than I can say about Anna, consistently looking uncouth at work and whose idea of relaxing was drinking. Moreover, the way in which the film presented the difficulties of sustaining long distance relationships felt superficial. There were scenes involving missed calls, voice messages about how late it was and how the couple was exhausted from work, and platitudes about maybe trying again the next day, but what did people in Jacob and Anna’s lives have to say about it? For instance, in my experience, friends get really frustrated when one of their friend’s relationship takes over his or her life. I didn’t like that the social angle was treated like it wasn’t important. Reality is, sometimes, friendships can make or break romantic relationships for whatever reason. However, the film was most exciting when Anna’s parents (Alex Kingston, Oliver Muirhead) interacted with Jacob and Anna. It was a refreshing change because even though we didn’t know much about them, their chemistry seemed effortless. The manner in which they spoke with one another sounded genuine, like a real married couple who had been together for many years. Still, there was one masterstroke I spotted in the film. That is, when the mother looked at her daughter and told her that she’d changed ever since Anna got together with Simon (Charlie Bewley). The line was delivered so succinctly, I wasn’t sure if the mother considered the change as good or bad. “Like Crazy,” directed by Drake Doremus, is an example of how improvised dialogue can lead nowhere. While the actors sounded like a real couple, I was never convinced that the people they were portraying were worthy of each other’s feelings.