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,” 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.
Mountain Between Us, The (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 (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.
Five-Year Engagement, The (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 (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 (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.
★★★★ / ★★★★
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 (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.
American President, The (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★
Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), president of the United States, was up for a possible re-election within a year’s time. His team (Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox) believed that by passing a bill, vaguely designed to reduce crime, there was a great chance that he could win another term. But when he met Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), hired to get the president’s attention toward a bill aimed to protect the environment, he was swept by her radiance, intelligence, and fearlessness to speak what was on her mind. Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), the leading conservative figure who had shown interest in running for presidency, took advantage of the budding romance and started to question the president’s character and accused Sydney of being a radical because of a picture taken thirteen years ago. Written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Rob Reiner, “The American President” was a romantic comedy for adults. While the material milked the obvious, like the first few scenes designed to paint the president as not only an amiable person in the work place but also an active figure in his daughter’s life, it was highly entertaining because of the smart dialogue and wonderful performances. In romance pictures, I always look the moment when one or both persons realize that they just might be falling for each other. There was a wonderful scene in the Oval Office when Bening scrambled to find the words to express how embarrassed she was for insulting the president. As she attempted to clean up her verbal vomit, Douglas gave her a specific look, which lasted for about half a second, that meant she was the one for him. As for Bening, I’m used to seeing her in intense performances so it was nice to watch her let her hair down and smile from ear to ear. She was completely captivating as a smart and strong woman who was rendered defenseless by the president’s charm. She could have played her character as a typical ditz throughout the film but as the couple got more comfortable with each other, we saw how passionate and serious she was about her work. As the events turned for the worse, reflected by rainy weather, scenes shot at night and bad poll results, the issue of public versus private space came into focus. While Andrew and Sydney were a great match romantically, there was growing tension between them politically. We even start to think that maybe it was good idea for them to not be together for a while. It gives me great annoyance when I read reviews claiming that the movie was terrible because it was nothing but liberal propaganda. They completely missed the point. The romance was supposed to be the foreground and the politics the background. It might have been Capra-esque in scope of how the government really worked, but there was confidence in its execution and we invested in the couple to make it through the end. Sometimes that’s just exactly what we need.
Nights and Weekends (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mattie (Greta Gerwig) and James (Joe Swanberg) were in a long-distance relationship. Mattie resided in New York while James lived in Chicago. They tried to visit each other once in a while but there was a limit to how much effort they could put into their relationship when distance was clearly an issue. Written and directed by the two leads, “Nights and Weekends” had an excellent first half but fairly weak second half. The first half focused on the romance between James and Mattie. We learned things about them which ranged from the impersonal, like their jobs and the careers they would like to have, to more important details such as whether they would be happy if they turned out like their parents. We got a feel of their personalities. James was patient, a bit of a hopeless romantic, and he didn’t see himself as physically attractive but that didn’t stop him from projecting confidence to the world because he had a mental picture of a more attractive version of himself. Meanwhile, Mattie was adorable but a bit needy. Unlike James, she was more than willing to voice out what she thought was disgusting like when her boyfriend ate the dark brown area of a banana. When she was annoyed, she expressed it. For instance, she didn’t like the fact that she was left in the hall for ten measly minutes because James had to drop something off at work. Yet she was the one who didn’t want to meet his co-workers because she thought it might be awkward. Strangely enough, which is uncommon when it comes to romantic dramas, I related more with the male. Nevertheless, I wanted to see their relationship succeed because, despite the occasional tension between them, they were a very good fit for each other. But then there was a jump forward in time. Everything felt awkward. The tone it established prior was thrown out the window. It was unclear whether Mattie and James were even in a relationship. There was even a heavy-handed metaphor that involved Mattie trying to water plants, a symbol of her attempt to sustain their so-called relationship, but the plants wouldn’t absorb the water. I wondered what happened to the film’s naturalistic approach, something I found very charming and interesting, like the directors’ brazen decision to not reshoot when the actors stumbled over their lines. I liked the picture most when it captured real life. Sometimes our tongues just can’t keep up with our thoughts and we’re embarrassed in the fact that we’re not as eloquent as we would like especially when we’re trying to get a point across. But we continue and pretend that we didn’t make a blunder. I craved the realism it effortlessly seemed to have. Ultimately, the positive outweighed the negative. I admired that the film allowed its characters, in their twenties, to be immature, sometimes shallow, and consumed by their neuroses. The relationship didn’t have to be particularly meaningful or special because Mattie and James were still searching for who they were.
Long dimanche de fiançailles, Un (2004)
★★★ / ★★★★
Mathilde (Audrey Tautou) wouldn’t accept that Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), her fiancé, could possibly have died in the trenches during World War I’s Battle of the Somme. So she hired a private investigator (Ticky Holgado) to aid her search for the truth. Based on a novel by Sébastien Japrisot, “A Very Long Engagement” was romantic, shot in a golden glow, full of hope and optimism, a nice change of tone from most movies about war. While it still featured the violence and chaos in the front lines, the picture had a habit of going back to Mathilde and her tireless quest to prove that her lover was alive. But it wasn’t just Mathilde’s story. During her investigation, she met strong women along the way who were similar to her in terms of their loyalty and the great lengths they were willing to go through to preserve what they had prior to the war. There was Tina Lombardi (Marion Cotillard) who was on a desperate mission to murder the men who mistreated her lover in the trenches. On the other hand, Elodie Gordes (Jodie Foster) tried to keep a secret the fact that her husband, who was infertile, asked her to sleep with another man so they would eventually have a total of six children. When a soldier had half a dozen kids, the soldier was sent back home. The film took a bit of getting used to because it attempted to juggle the brutality of war and the romance between Mathilde and Manech from when they were children up until Manech had been summoned to serve his country. Admittedly, the two conflicting ideas didn’t always work together. Having less scenes in the trenches could have been more effective. However, the lighthouse scenes were beautiful and it was the point where I became convinced that what Mathilde and Manech had was something special. The film came into focus when Mathilde had to endure and sift through other people’s versions of the truth. I sympathized with her for the majority of the time but there were other times when I just felt sorry for her because she only listened to things she wanted to hear. It was as if denial was her only comfort through difficult times. She had the tendency to play a strange game of “if” and “then.” For instance, if the train she was on reached a tunnel within seven seconds, then it would be a sure-fire sign that her lover was alive. Her games often led to unexpected and slightly amusing results, but we had to understand that it was her unique way of coping in order to avoid an emotional meltdown. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Un long dimanche de fiançailles” was touching and uplifting. Equipped with more than a dozen key characters and subplots, one of its downsides was it would most likely require audiences multiple viewings to fully understand how they were all connected.
One Day (2011)
★ / ★★★★
On July 15, 1988, Emma (Anne Hathaway) and Dexter (Jim Sturgess) graduated from university. They were ecstatic because, like most graduates, they were convinced that the world was ripe for their picking. Emma strived to be poetess/writer in London. Dexter was uncertain but he had plans of vacationing/teaching English abroad. Over the course of twenty-something years, the film, based on the novel and screenplay by David Nicholls, checked in on them on the same day each year. While its premise was interesting, the storytelling was disjointed and unconvincing. What Dexter and Emma had was supposed to be an example of a deep friendship. After all, they pined to see or call each other when something important happened in their lives. However, there was a drought of clues in terms whether or not they even saw or heard from each other on any other day except July 15. As a result, as each year passed by, it became increasingly difficult to buy into what they supposedly had. After all, deep friendships are also rooted in going through ordinariness together. Emma had a crush on Dexter even before they formally met. While understandable because he commanded great hair that seemed to come out of a high fashion magazine, Dexter was almost completely charmless. His jokes felt more like personal jabs and he was an unapologetically hedonistic womanizer. He’d go in the direction, without careful thought for the feelings of others, that made him feel good the most. So how could we feel sympathy for him when his career as a television presenter reached a screeching halt? And why did Emma want to continue seeing him for as long as she did? The most obvious answer is that she enjoyed being heartbroken. This was disloyal to her character who initially smart, funny, and always strived to be independent. The best part of the film was Dexter’s mother (Patricia Clarkson) and her struggles of dealing with cancer and watching her son traverse the path of self-destruction. Clarkson wasn’t given much screen time but each time she was on screen, she provided a fiery complexity that the material desperately needed. When the mother looked at her son, I stared in her eyes and I couldn’t fully determine what took more energy out of her: Was it her illness combined with the chemotherapy or was it her son being blind to the fact he was so far from what he hoped he’d become? Unfortunately, Emma’s parents were nowhere to be found. I wanted to know how they saw their daughter other than a one-dimensional sweet girl, occasionally sporting a great haircut circa 2003, with nice dreams. I waited and hoped that someone practical would just bluntly tell her to snap out of her fantasies and remind her that aging comes hand-in-hand with prioritizing. The fact is, you can’t wait for a man or woman until he or she sees something in you. “One Day,” directed by Lone Scherfig, was supposed to be romantic and inspiring but it was ultimately masochistic. Much of its criticisms had something to do with Hathaway’s English accent. It had bigger problems than that. It’s a movie made for women but I’m afraid it doesn’t have much respect for them beyond the surface level.