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Entries in Romance (20)

Friday
Apr222011

Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants begins like so many romances do. An old timer (this time a man) recounts his younger days when he met and fell in love with the love of his life. He tells his story to an overly eager personality who hangs on every word he says and is kind enough to spare a few hours of his life to listen. It’s not a bad beginning (despite unnecessary expositional dialogue that essentially spoils the ending, leaving no question as to whether it will end in happiness or tragedy), but it is starting to feel overused. All it does is remind us that we’ve seen this all before in other superior films (like Titanic, for instance). Water for Elephants is not great, but few movies are. At least this one is still worth seeing (barely).

The old timer in question is named Jacob (Hal Holbrook), who has more or less run away from his nursing home and is looking for a position at a circus that is traveling through his town. When he gets there, he spots a picture of the girl he fell in love with, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), and begins to reminisce about his days as a young chap (younger version played by Robert Pattinson). He was a Cornell student and on the verge of graduating when his parents were suddenly killed in a car crash. Because of certain circumstances, he lost everything and before he knew it, he was walking the lonely railroad tracks. After some time, a train passed and he jumped aboard, quickly realizing he just jumped on the traveling Benzini Bros. Circus train. Thanks to his studies in veterinary sciences, he was hired by the owner, August (Christoph Waltz), as the animal doctor. It was on this journey that he met and became smitten with Marlena, the owner’s wife.

And the owner is not the friendly type. I guess. August is made to be the obligatory bad guy, but it feels forced. He’s the type of guy who threatens punishment if Jacob doesn’t follow his orders, but then approves of the contradictory choices Jacob makes. He certainly has a mean side to him, but he’s actually kind of charming at times. His character flips personalities so much you don’t know how to receive him: as the hardnosed, no nonsense, my-way-or-the-highway boss man or a generally pleasant guy with an anger issue. By the end, the answer is clear, but it’s a poor juggling act up to that point and it made me care little about what was happening one way or the other.

This lack of caring carries over to the romance, which is incredibly underdeveloped, to the point of wondering what the point was of making the movie. To go into why the romance is left only half finished would constitute spoilers, so I’ll refrain, but what happens near the end doesn’t feel wholly earned. Part of this, however, may be due to the two leads, who simply do not look good together. The 10+ year age difference between the two  is distracting and makes it feel like Witherspoon and Pattinson were put together because of their names rather than because of their chemistry (which is non-existent).

Considering the ridiculous ending that works the absurdity on a number of levels, I find myself questioning why I’m recommending Water for Elephants. The answer is easy: the art direction and performances are fantastic. This is a great movie to watch, even though the story is not a great one to experience. As easy as it is to dismiss Robert Pattinson based on his poor choice of roles in movies like Twilight and Remember Me, it would be doing a disservice to his abilities as an actor. He and Witherspoon may have failed to create a romantic spark, but that’s more a problem of the casting director and is not indicative of how good they can be when separated. Similarly, Christoph Waltz delivers a knock-out performance in spite of his character’s poor narrative evolution, proving that his Oscar winning performance in Inglourious Basterds was not a fluke.

The more I think about it, the more I want to say Water for Elephants is not a good movie, but it is, just less so than I originally thought (much less so). It doesn’t work as a romance, but it works in other ways. So even though you aren’t getting the moving love story you hoped for, you’re still seeing a visually spectacular treat. It’s probably going to work more for nerds (like me) who care about that sort of thing. Those who don’t will likely find themselves staring at their watches wondering when this overlong bore will end. To those people, I say skip it. You know who you are.

Water for Elephants receives 2.5/5

Friday
Mar042011

Beastly

Is “tween” a genre yet? If not, it should be. With crap like Twilight and the recent I Am Number Four flooding screens, it seems like a necessity. Those who venture to the theater to see these things need to be prepared for what they’re getting: an angsty, pity me film about alienation and a longing for love. Beastly is the latest of those to pander to the teenage demographic who sees every one of their measly little problems as an impassable hurdle. Still, the subject matter itself is not the problem. It’s the way it is carried out and Beastly is about as overbearing as it can possibly get.

Essentially, the film is a retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” set in modern times. Alex Pettyfer plays Kyle, a smug, self involved pretty boy who values his looks over everything else. He’s the type of person who strokes his own ego while those around him enable him to do so. He bashes people who look different than him, including Kendra, played by Mary-Kate Olsen, whom he calls a “witch.” Well, as it turns out, she actually is a witch and she puts a spell on him. He suddenly becomes physically hideous and has one year to find someone to fall in love with him or he will be stuck like that forever. Enter Lindy, played by Vanessa Hudgens, who, by one of the most contrived scenarios you can possibly imagine, ends up living with Kyle and accepting him for who he is. Unfortunately, time is winding down and you can’t force love.

Although all films want you to feel a certain way about their characters, Beastly depends on it. Without proper care, the precise emotion you’re supposed to feel towards someone can be lost and that happens here. From the opening shots, where Kyle pretentiously watches himself work out in the mirror, to his subsequent speech where he boasts about his good looks to the student body, you know you’re not supposed to like him. The problem is he may not be a nice person, but his actions border on caricature. Instead of hating him, you just end up laughing at him for being such a pompous ass.

When he finally transforms into the hideous beast, you may find yourself laughing even harder. The make-up job is shoddy at best and includes visual touches like the word “suck” over the character’s left eye, which, in a rare moment of unintentional perception, is indicative of Pettyfer's acting skills. Pettyfer is, quite simply, dull. He has no charisma and no idea how to create a character. All he has going for him is his good looks, which is to say little at all. With this and I Am Number Four, Pettyfer is already responsible for two of the worst movies of the year. If he keeps this pace up, he’ll end up overtaking my entire “worst of” list.

In one of the most unfunny, unromantic, gag inducing films I’ve seen in a long while (that includes explanatory music with lyrics detailing exactly what has been going on up to that point), there is one shining light: Neil Patrick Harris, who plays Kyle’s blind tutor. Among the scoffs and jeers, he manages to deliver a few legitimately funny lines, which proves once and for all that no matter what movie he is in or what character he is playing, Neil Patrick Harris is awesome.

Of course, finding the positives in Beastly is like digging through mounds of manure to find a twenty dollar bill. The few moments of pleasantries don’t make up for the surrounding crap you have to sift through to find it.

Beastly receives 0.5/5

Friday
Jan072011

Blue Valentine

What a joy it is to start 2011 off on the right foot. In a month that is usually relegated for films that the studios have no faith in (known as “dump month”), I’m delighted to see Blue Valentine, a film that made the festival rounds last year and is now finally seeing a proper release. It’s so good in so many different ways that if I had the mind to do it, I’d be tempted to go back and edit my “Best of the Year” list to include it (because it’s technically a 2010 film). Despite having its DC release in this awkward transition period, which will keep it from landing on any of my year end lists (much like the terrific Crazy Heart), it’s a movie that needs to be seen and I implore you to seek it out.

The movie follows a couple, Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams), as they hit the ups and downs in their relationship. It cuts back and forth from the present, where their troubles are persisting, and the past, when their love first blossomed. This non-linear approach helps Blue Valentine strike a perfect balance in tone and pace. It allows us to see how good the two were together while also seeing how they’ve drifted apart.

The beauty in the film lies in the handling of the characters, neither of whom are demonized. While far from perfection, they are both good persons with flaws. Cindy is perhaps a bit selfish and her love for Dean is dissipating while Dean is occasionally quick to anger, though he never violently attacks Cindy, despite one late outburst. In fact, some of his anger is understandable, given a late movie revelation that puts an earlier argument into context. Much of it stems from frustration because his wife, whom he still dearly loves, is failing to reciprocate the feeling. Dean is not a perfect man, but it’s difficult to condemn him because of his genuine love and respect for his family.

In flashback scenes, he even comes off as charming, as does Cindy, and the actors in the roles are stunning together. I can’t recall a time when an onscreen chemistry felt as authentic as it did here. It felt like Gosling and Williams had in actuality been together for many years and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them hooking up off camera.

To say a movie is a “roller coaster ride of emotion” has become a bit of a movie critic cliché and, indeed, the phrase is thrown around far too often, but there’s simply no other way to describe Blue Valentine. Because of the constant alternations from the past and present, the good times Dean and Cindy have mix with the bad so the joy you feel one moment is immediately followed by an opposing feeling the next. Certain romantic scenes notwithstanding, this is not an optimistic movie about love. It’s not about two people who meet one day, are smitten with each other and live happily ever after. This approaches it more realistically. It’s about what happens when the love you have for someone begins to wane. It’s about coping with the idea that the one person in the world you love with all your heart doesn’t love you back. It’s about a crumbling relationship in its final stages that looked like it was going to last forever.

Blue Valentine is not an easy movie. People prefer to look at love from a certain point of view, but this movie dares to view it from another, one not filled with cutesy happenstances and longing embraces. At one point in the film, Dean expresses his own take on how love is supposed to work, going so far as to directly compare it to the multitudinous amount of romance movies he has seen. Like Dean, many people expect love to be grand and never ending, but the truth is far less encouraging and Blue Valentine never holds back from showing it.

Blue Valentine receives 4.5/5

Friday
Dec172010

How Do You Know

The requirements a romantic comedy must meet to be considered a quality product are flimsy. If there’s one genre of film that manages to suck more than any other, it’s that one, so when I see one I know I’m going to recommend, I inevitably wonder if it’s because it’s actually good or if I’m just lowering my standards in response to the cavalcade of garbage I’ve sat through. In the case of How Do You Know, I think it may be the latter. Despite having James L. Brooks, director of As Good as It Gets and the underappreciated Spanglish, at the helm, How Do You Know is a mixed bag of delight and dismay.

Reese Witherspoon plays Lisa, a gold medalist softball player who is about to find out she has been cut from the team. Her new boyfriend, Matty, played by Owen Wilson, is the star pitcher on the Washington Nationals, whose team seems to make spectacular plays in front packed stadiums (which solidifies that this is indeed a work of fiction). But when one of Lisa’s friends gives George, played by Paul Rudd, her number, she finds herself in a love triangle. Like herself, George needs some comfort because he has just been subpoenaed and is under investigation for securities fraud, though he honestly doesn’t know why. He has done nothing wrong. So Lisa finds herself torn and tries to juggle both relationships, though one is clearly working more than the other.

Also thrown in the mix is Jack Nicholson playing George’s father. The cast Brooks wrangled up for How Do You Know is impressive. All are great talents and provide different attributes to the film. Wilson is the funny one, Witherspoon is the sweet one, Nicholson is the mean and selfish one and Rudd is the all around pleasant one, making it easy to understand why Witherspoon could fall for him even though he may see jail time. They’re all wonderful in their roles; they’re just not given much to do.

The characters all seem to be walking a loop, especially Lisa who leaves Matty, then comes back, then leaves again, then thinks better of it and so on. The story aside from the immediate love story is inconsequential, including the entire subplot about the investigation where we find George’s father may have played a part in his downfall. How Do You Know runs nearly two hours long and I could have pointed out a good thirty minutes that could have been cut without losing the overall effect. One long winded scene, for instance, has George handling a video recorder while a minor character gives a sappy speech. But whoops! He forgot to turn it on, so the characters repetitively play through it all again so they can capture it on tape.

How Do You Know is one of the most uneven films of the year, boring you to sleep one moment and charming the pants off you the next. Undeterred by the cumbersome screenplay, the natural charisma of the talent shines through and by the end, I was surprised how much I had come to care about the characters, despite the irksome Lisa, who is essentially a walking proverb, always spouting off some stupid phrase. It’s not particularly funny and its contrivances almost pull it under, as is the case with most rom-coms, but the final moments of the film seal the deal. The last shot in particular, which will remain unspoiled, is utterly beautiful. Without it, my score may have dipped and How Do You Know would have missed a recommendation. That shot is the perfect ending to an imperfect film.

How Do You Know receives 2.5/5

Friday
Dec102010

I Love You Phillip Morris

The road to release can be a long and grueling one for certain films. I Love You Phillip Morris can attest to it. While many factors contribute to the thought process of how and when a movie should be released, many believe the problem here came from the explicit homosexual content. Despite not having much of a problem finding a distributor in foreign countries, American distributors were hesitant to pick it up because homosexuality is still considered taboo and frowned upon (though it’s about time we all grow up and get over it). It’s a sad predicament because I Love You Phillip Morris is quite good. I don’t find myself bitter that I had to wait so long to see it—it’s no masterpiece—but now that I have, I’m glad I did.

Of course, the stated reason it took so long to find a distributor is purely speculative. In all honesty, I Love You Phillip Morris is a tough film to sell. It’s based on a true story of Steven Russell (Jim Carrey), a church going man with a wife and a kid. He’s even a cop and has sworn it as his duty to protect the law. Except all of that is a lie. He is gay, he doesn’t seem to be all that religious and he’s a con man. One day, on his way back from a rendezvous with one of his lovers, he decides to come out to his wife and live the way he wants to, as an openly gay man. However, his illegal, conniving ways catch up with him and he is thrown in jail. While incarcerated, he meets Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor) and falls in love.

While it may sound like your typical romance where two lovebirds meet under the unlikeliest of circumstances, it’s not and that’s why the marketing department has had such trouble with it. Its demographic isn’t clear. Its intended audience clearly isn’t conservatives, but to be fair, they aren’t the only ones that can feel uncomfortable with the subject matter. Its homosexual nature can irk even the most liberal of viewers. Older folks, set in their old ways, may find this morally wrong, while younger audiences are too immature to watch a movie about two people of the same sex falling in love. Is I Love You Phillip Morris for anybody?

I think so. It’s for the people who can look past the explicit male on male sex scenes and see the surprisingly sweet love story surrounding them. In that regard, I guess I’m the target audience. The lengths Steven goes to see Phillip, sometimes even putting his life in real danger, is something anybody who believes in love (of all kinds) can relate to.

Still, I Love You Phillip Morris is a bit uneven. It suffers from subplots that give a flimsy reason for the duo to have some money in a context that makes them feel extraneous to the main story and the latter half stumbles by giving us too much rather than keeping it simple. In what is essentially an overlong montage, Steven breaks out of multiple jails, which is meant to show how cunning he can be (and how strong his love is), but previous plot points (like when he fakes his way into a position as the CFO at a major company) have already done enough to get that point across.

With all this talk of love, I’d almost forgotten to mention this is a comedy more than anything else and a funny one at that. The laughs are sporadic, but the ones that work are hilarious. The climax of the movie at first feels out of place due to what seems like melodramatics, but when the incredible twist comes, you’ll feel like a fool for having jumped to that conclusion. This final satisfying cinematic sucker punch sends the film out with a bang. It’s clever, funny and, most of all, it makes sense. The habitually drab nature of Hollywood means we end up watching the same old song and dance over and over again. I Love You Phillip Morris breaks that trend.

I Love You Phillip Morris receives 3.5/5