Category: Romantic Comedies


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One of the great myths of life is that love is something magical, that it exists beyond our electrochemical human functions, that it is pre-ordained and written in the stars. It isn’t. We love because of chemical reactions in our body, socialization, and the pool of people we have the geographic (or, in our modern time, digital) capability to love. But, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and just because you can love others doesn’t mean that your love for a specific individual is lesser. Love would be less messy and less painful if we could recognize that we will never truly be one with another human being and simply celebrated the moments we can share with others who value our presence and affection. Perhaps more efficiently than any film since Manhattan, Spike Jonze‘s Her cuts straight to the core of romantic love, wrapping it all in a sci-fi world that seems all too real now.

It’s easy to talk about love in a logical way. It’s easy to recognize the evolutionary functions it no longer needs to serve. But living life in a way that maximizes your romantic pleasure and minimizes yours and (just as importantly) others romantic pain isn’t as easy as philosophical discussions. To err is human and we want to possess our partners. We want to be the missing piece of our partner’s existence and for them to be the same for us, but no one can meet those expectations and fantasies. And romance wanes and dissolves when the person we love isn’t the person we fell in love with and the cycle of loneliness and misery begins anew. So, it’s no wonder it takes a machine to solve this most human of dilemmas.

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Among artists of a certain stripe, there’s an uncontrollable urge to make art of meaning, and if they can’t make art that contextualizes some aspect of the human experience, it can drive these artists to mania and depression. And while art that forces us to examine our place in the universe is often the most rewarding, we can’t discount the power of entertainment and escape. Situated at the tail end of Woody Allen’s transitional period from his early comedies to his later “serious” films, 1980’s Stardust Memories is a pitch-perfect encapsulation of one artist’s struggle against his own commercial talents as he desperately craves the ability to craft work of genuine import. And, in the process, he discovers maybe you can do both.

By 1980, Woody Allen had won a Best Director and Best Picture Oscar for Annie Hall, and Manhattan was a turning point for him as a dramatic storyteller, but the mixed critical reaction to Interiors and the even more mixed audience reaction to the increasingly dark and realistic nature of his films was taking its toll on Allen. He felt pigeonholed as a director of silly farces, but Allen cut his teeth on foreign art house cinema, and he wanted to make works more inspired by Bergman and Fellini than the Marx brothers. And Stardust Memories is a stunning work of art as self-therapy as Allen reconciles these warring impulses in a feat of pure cinematic magic truly worthy of its clear cinematic peer, 8 1/2.

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(A quick note before I write this review. I think [emphasis on think] that I watched this movie on Monday evening. I was going to review it when I came to work on Tuesday but I forgot to bring my laptop that day and I’ve been on the road since then because of an Arcade Fire concert in Pittsburgh Wednesday and then a Paul Simon/Sting concert in DC on Wednesday. So I ap0logize in advance for the possible weakened state of this review)

Towards the beginning of Heathers, Winona Ryder’s somewhat morally centered Veronica voices her hesitancy to one of the cruel pranks of the powerful Heather clique, and Queen Bee Heather Chandler drops one of the film’s many great throwaway lines, “Well, fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” While I’m glad such absurd aphorisms would no longer sound natural in today’s world, language in the 1980s had character. That character was often garish and patently over-the-top, but it rarely felt dispensable or throw-away. 1984’s Sixteen Candles has not aged particularly well and it plays hop-scotch with being downright offensive at times, but it has more character and memorable style than any modern teen film that isn’t The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

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This viewing of Sixteen Candles was my first since high school (when I was a vocal member of the church of John Hughes. For what it’s worth, I still think that Pretty in Pink is his best film), and after years of catching glimpses of the watered-down broadcast for TV version, I had forgotten how dark and raunchy elements of Sixteen Candles actually are. The film predates the PG-13 rating system, so this is likely one of the few PG films you’ll ever see with bare breasts, the word “fuck,” and more cursing and casual date rape jokes than you can throw a stick at.

The actual plot of Sixteen Candles is about as simple (and well-trod these days) as it gets. Wallflower high schooler Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald) is turning sixteen the day before her beautiful (and brainless) sister’s wedding, and in the chaos surrounding her sister’s wedding, including visiting grandparents and their insane Chinese exchange student, Sammie’s family forgets her birthday. To make matters worse for Sammie, she’s in love with gorgeous senior Jake Ryan (MermaidsMichael Schoeffling), but she doesn’t think he knows that she exists, and all the while, a far too horny and overbearing nerd (Anthony Michael Hall) keeps trying to win Sammie’s heart for himself.

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As I said, the plot of Sixteen Candles is simple to a fault, and it’s been done a million times since, and time hasn’t been kind to one of the original high school romantic comedies. Everything involving Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) is so racist and insensitive that it’s a wonder this movie was made by a major studio. He’s such a collection of awful Asian stereotypes (can’t drive, can’t speak English, yells “Bonsai” when dropping out of a tree despite being Chinese not Japanese) that I spent whole portions of the film cringing. Although to Gedde Watanabe’s credit, he rolls with the part and sells it for as many low-brow laughs as he can get.

Jake Ryan is arguably the Ur-“Dreamy High School Crush” archetype, but I never realized prior to this viewing how much of a sociopath he actually is. Let’s put this into perspective: Jake Ryan’s fragile ego is stroked by a shy girl who constantly looks at him but he knows nothing about her. He only barely knows her name. So, he decides to go on an epic quest to meet this girl despite the fact that he has a gorgeous girlfriend. He abandons said girlfriend who is completely shitfaced, black-out drunk to try and call Sammie and meet her. And then, he abandons his girlfriend to the clutches of the horny nerd and tells her that the nerd is him, and then Jake makes a joke about how the girlfriend is so drunk he could “violate her ten different ways.” He’s a terrible person.

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Despite those huge complaints, there’s a sincerity in Sixteen Candles lacking in the majority of modern teen comedies. When Sammie stares at herself in the mirror when she wakes up on her birthday and bemoans the size of her bust, that’s something many high school girls have had to deal with. When Sammie wallows in her seemingly unrequited crush on Jake Ryan (despite the fact that the two barely know each other), it feels real because everyone who was ever in high school has been there. And when she talks to her father, we recognize the real awkwardness of parents and children talking about romance.

And, most importantly of all, Sixteen Candles is legitimately funny. Anthony Michael Hall’s Farmer Ted/The Geek is the film’s unsung comic hero, and he and his friends (including a young and already charming enough to be a star John Cusack) provide many of the film’s best moments. Farmer Ted and his crew crash a senior party and not long after arriving, Ted leans against a beer can sculpture and knocks it over earning the ire of the jocks. And the payoff comes later as Farmer Ted’s friends are being driven home in the trunk of the jocks’ car, and they’re both convinced that they’ve made new friends. And the film has plenty of great little bits like that.

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Sixteen Candles is an 80s classic, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great film. And there are times where it’s outright bad (Jake Ryan is legitimately one of the most loathsome romantic leads in any rom-com ever), but with a subversive streak a mile wide and an honest ear for certain elements of teenage life, Sixteen Candles‘ shelf life is sure to last for years and years to come. One can only hope that future generations who discover this film move on to Hughes better features, The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink as well.

Final Score: B

 

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An avalanche of rapid-fire dialogue, slapstick humor, and gags from start to finish barely scratches the surface of the madcap genius that is 1938’s Bringing Up Baby. The screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s are the golden era of pre-Woody Allen and post-Chaplin comedy, and Bringing Up Baby is surely one of the definitive films of that form. With stars Cary Grant (My Favorite Wife) and Katharine Hepburn (Woman of the Year) at the height of their comedic abilities, it is a non-stop laugh riot. And shy of Modern Times, I’d be hard-pressed to name a comedy from before the 1960s that’s as consistently hilarious as this Howard Hawks classic.

Humor in the purest sense of the word is derived from the unexpected and, like poetry, well-timed repetition. You expect one thing to happen to your heroes but, with expert timing, something else occurs. Say what you will about the non-intellectual nature of slapstick, but setting up the right series of physical gags and pratfalls takes perfect coordination of writer, director, and actor for it not seem contrived or silly. And what makes the screwball classics of Hollywood’s Golden Age so memorable is the ease with which its films transition in and out of hilariously painful physical humor, verbal ping-pong, and constantly escalating situational humor. And, from start to finish, Bringing Up Baby succeeds on every perceivable comedic front without ever having to resort to gross-out gags, foul language, or raunchy sex.

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Clumsy paleontologist David Huxley (Carey Grant) is a brilliant figure in his field but something of a nervous, put-upon mess. His fiancee, Alice (Virginia Walker), insists that they not have a honeymoon for their wedding which is only a day away and that David return immediately to his work, which involves putting the final bone in piece to a massive Brontosaurus skeleton, after their wedding. The pressure on David is compounded by a golf session with the lawyer of a rich woman who wants to give $1 million to David’s museum. And on that fateful golfing trip, after David hooks his starting drive, his life is changed when he meets Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn).

Susan is a desperately ditzy and oblivious heiress. And, in her first meeting with David, she steals his golf ball (because it was on her fairway) and then, leaving the golf course, she drives David’s car without his permission so that it would be easier for her to get out of her parking spot later. And though David positively loathes Susan from first sight, she is struck head over heels for him and concocts increasingly zany schemes so that he will not make it to his wedding. From saddling David with her pet leopard Baby to dragging him to Connecticut on the promise to make amends on costing him his golf meeting with the lawyer, the adventures and laughs never stop once the pair are together.

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Ignoring the complete lack of sexual chemistry that Cary Grant ever seemed to have with any of his female co-stars (his rumored homosexuality not withstanding, he should be able to at least pretend it), Cary Grant is a deliciously funny comic performer. Yes, his dramatic turns in films like Penny Serenade are brilliant, but his sardonic and deadpan comic delivery are a wonderful delight. David is very much a reactive role as he has to respond to the various misadventures Susan (the meatier part) drags him into and with every sigh, roll of his eyes, and exasperated shrug, Cary Grant had me in stitches. Not to mention the verbal rhythm he established with Hepburn’s motor-mouth Susan.

But, let there be no question, this was Katharine Hepburn’s show, and she commands the attention of every scene. The performance is astounding, not just in a comedic sense (though she gets many of the film’s biggest laughs) but in the whole range that Hepburn draws from. Cary Grant is a handsome, charming man, but there’s nothing sexual about him. He never seemed attracted to Susan. And so while Katharine turns Susan into a tough, air-headed, scheming, scatter-brained brilliant mess, she also played Susan in the thrall of a gradual swoon towards David, and the romantic aspect of the film would have fallen apart were it not for her natural magnetism and vulnerability. With the exception of Diane Keaton and Irene Dunne, few female stars have been able to dominate a film as thoroughly as Katharine Hepburn.

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I harped on this during my introduction but Bringing Up Baby was an astoundingly flexible and multi-faceted comedy. It’s one of the talkiest screwballs this side of My Man Godfrey (the similarities between Katharine Hepburn’s character in this and Carole Lombard’s in that are eerie). But, the physical humor is just as expertly pitched and Buster Keaton would have been proud. Few films have ever made the consistent toppling of shelves, tables, and human beings so refreshing. Bringing Up Baby‘s instincts for when to have David or Susan take a spill are perfect. And, then of course, the gags are endless such as a moment at a fancy restaurant where Susan accidentally tears David’s coat and then David accidentally tears Susan’s dress and they have to waddle their way out of the restaurant to spare her dignity.

When Bringing Up Baby was first released, it was something of a critical and commercial flop but it has been vindicated by the annals of history as the classic it truly is. Some old films age poorly, but the best seem as fresh today as the did 75 years ago. Bringing Up Baby has lost none of its pleasures. Proving my long-held belief that real comedy is timeless, I can’t imagine anyone stepping into this world and not finding themselves rolling in the aisles when all is said and done.

Final Score: A

 

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After the Steven Soderbergh disaster known as Bubble back at the beginning of September, I was hoping that it would be a while before I was forced to watch another complete trainwreck of a movie. Apparently, the blog gods hate me more than I suspected (after a surprisingly strong go around for my current 50 film block). Because 1989’s Shag is a strong contender to be the most unintentionally abrasive and tedious films that I’ve ever forced myself to sit through for this blog. Recently earmarked by Buzzfeed as a film from the 80s that all kids should see, let’s just say that I disagree heartily with that assessment. With absolutely reprehensible behavior rewarded in both its male and female characters, Shag is a loathsome moral lesson that indulges in the worst kinds of casual misogyny despite being a buddy comedy for women.

I sat through the kitschy schlock known as Forrest Gump, The Help, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close without letting my attention wander too greatly. Despite my immense dislike for those films, I sat through their entirety while giving them my total attention. But, like How to Marry a Millionaire, it took around an hour or so before I realized I had devoted all the mental energy that I possibly could. And even though it seemed like maybe the movie was finally finding something resembling direction or meaning for it’s last thirty minutes, the damage done by the film’s first two-thirds was irreparable and Shag had lost its ability to make me care. That’s a tried and true axiom of film-making. If you can’t grab your audience in the first ten minutes, you’ve lost. Shag failed to make any positive impact whatsoever for the first hour and was mostly insufferably bad.

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In the summer of 1963, four Southern Belle best friends straight out of high school, straight-laced Luanne (Page Hannah), wild child Melaina (Bridget Fonda), self-conscious Pudge (Annabeth Gish), and engaged Carson (Phoebe Cates), whisk themselves away for one last weekend of fun before they become adults once and for all. Luanne and Pudge are off to college, Carson is set to marry the dull Harley (Tyrone Power Jr.), and Melaina wants to pursue a career in Hollywood. And, so the girls head off to Myrtle Beach to spend time together one last time, meet boys, and have the last hurrah of youth. And at Myrtle Beach, they meet Buzz (Robert Rusler) and Chip (Scott Coffey) who begin to woo the engaged and hesitant Carson and the overly shy Pudge respectively. And, the whole time, you wish you were enjoying this movie 1% as much as these girls were enjoying their beach weekend.

I made the joke on twitter last night that Shag was the kind of thing the U.S. government might show to prisoners of war in order to get them to divulge military secrets, and while the movie may not actually qualify as torture, I’m probably going to regret the 98 minutes I lost to this movie for the rest of my life. There were three aspects of this film that weren’t utter failures. The soundtrack is actually really spectacular with lots of great early 60s/late 50s numbers and classic beach tunes. The soundtrack was easily the best part. Also, it featured Bridget Fonda at the peak of her undeniable attractiveness (she was even better looking than her aunt Jane in Jane Fonda’s heyday). And, Annabeth Gish (related to silent film darling Lillian Gish) was adequately relatable as the insecure Pudge.

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Everything else about the film was an abject failure. From its focus on absurdly self-involved Southerners (an aesthetic that is sure to drive me away) to its total misunderstanding of how bohemians actually acted (apparently, in Shag, they’re just cut-out copies of Rizzo from Grease) that it’s alright for a man to more or less sexually harass a girl until she falls for him, everything about the first hour or so of Shag drove me absolutely nuts. And, even if it looked like the final act was making things better, it wasn’t enough for me to suddenly start caring about this film. Roger Ebert gave this movie three stars out of four, and I have no idea what crack pipe the otherwise esteemed critic was smoking because this movie is bad, and unless you long for this fantasy world presented in this film, I can’t imagine any reason to ever watch it.

Final Score: D

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There are certain films that I have to watch a couple of times before I realize how brilliant they are. It wasn’t until my second or third viewing that I began to truly appreciate how great The Big Lebowski or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas were. But, sometimes, there are films I simply fall in love with on first sight. They speak to me with such resonance and deeper meaning that they become a window in to my own life. Chasing Amy and Annie Hall are the classic examples there. While Marc Webb’s (The Amazing Spider-Man) 2009 directorial debut may not quite reach the zenith of one of the greatest films of all time as Annie Hall does it has certainly earned its moniker as the millennial generations response to that classic film. I’ve watched the film more than a dozen times since it was first released and with each subsequent viewing I find something to love about this modern classic.

What separates (500) Days of Summer from the rest of its romantic comedy brethren is what separated Chasing Amy and Annie Hall from their peers. Though the film is nominally a comedy and scores plenty of laughs, (500) Days of Summer is as much a drama about the inherent silliness and psychological danger of intense romantic commitments and putting “dream girls” on a pedestal as it is any type of typical comedy. It is a serious treatment of the last hurrah of “young love” before we realize that maybe the world doesn’t work the way we’ve wanted it to. It earns its comparisons to Annie Hall through a strikingly non-linear structure and an almost total lack of a fourth wall, but it is in its grown-up and honest portrayal of modern romance that (500) Days of Summer makes its most momentous impact.

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Told over the course of (you guessed it) 500 days, the film is the type of total portrayal of a relationship that is hardly ever seen in your typical rom-com. It chronicles the early attraction, the courtship, the break-up (trust me it’s not a spoiler), and the emotional fall-out of a tough break-up. Tom Hanson (Looper‘s Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young, idealistic romantic stuck working in a dead-end job writing greeting cards in L.A. because he’s too scared to pursue his real passion of architecture. Tom believes in “true love” and destiny which can be blamed (to quote the film) “on an early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate.” And when the effervescent but complex Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) stumbles into his life, Tom thinks he has found the one. But, once again to quote the film, “This is a story of boy meets girl but this is not a love story.”

Summer and Tom are clearly a match from the first moment that Summer compliments Tom on his fandom of the Smiths as “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” plays on his headphones in a shared elevator ride. And though Summer is very much attracted to Tom, Summer is not looking for a real relationship. She believes in being young and casual and not tying oneself down with stifling commitments. Tom tries to go along with Summer’s wishes to keep things slow, but Summer can be the master of mixed signals, and whether either one liked it or not, their relationship begins to show signs of the messy emotional entanglements Summer so desperately wanted to avoid. And when Tom’s intense feelings for Summer aren’t reciprocated equally, it’s only a matter of time until their magical relationship comes crashing to a destructive end.

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Before my viewing of this film again on Friday night (with the same friend that I watched Primer with; I mostly watched the film cause he had never seen it), I hadn’t watched the movie in over a year and a half after I watched it with a girl that I was… dating? It was complicated in the same way that Tom and Summer’s relationship was. It was a (unknown at the time) depressingly prescient viewing of the film as our courtship would play out almost to the tee the way the movie played out with me as Tom and her as Summer (though I was thankfully never as hopelessly lovestruck as Tom… Thank God). And as much as I appreciated the themes of this film even before I lived out a real-life version of its plot, this particular viewing was especially emotionally brutal as I could finally relate to just how honest and richly detailed (500) Days of Summer‘s portrayal of unreciprocated romance.

It also doesn’t hurt the film that (500) Days of Summer has a fully realized and masterfully achieved aesthetic vision guiding its also excellent storytelling. If the movie is iconic for any reason whatsoever (outside of its intense fandom), it’s the general recognition that it has one of the greatest soundtracks of the last twenty years. Along with Perks of Being a Wallflower and Rushmore, I can’t name many films with a better integrated soundtrack.  There’s a sequence in the film where Regina Spektor’s “Hero” is being played that is possibly one of my 10 favorite scenes in any film ever where Tom’s expectations of the events of a party Summer is throwing are shown simultaneously with what really happens to positively brutal effect. And who can forget the glorious use of Hall & Oates’s “You Make My Dreams” for a fourth-wall shattering sequence after Summer and Tom sleep together for the first time.

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But the film’s aesthetic strengths are more than just its brilliant soundtrack (a perfect mix of modern indie pop and classic British pop like the Smiths). The friend I watched the film with is a sucker for great style in terms of clothing, and he consistently remarked on how the film’s fashion aesthetic was practically perfect. And, alongside Tom Ford’s A Single Man (a film that I watched last night with the same friend), I would be hard-pressed to name a film that labors such an almost fetishistic effort into presenting the best of fashion (in this film’s case, modern fashion as opposed to A Single Man‘s 60s fashion). And, the visual beauty goes beyond the clothing. The movie is gorgeously shot. And the cinematography accurately mimics Tom’s state of mind so that the film is stunningly beautiful when he’s happy and dark and miserable when he’s sad. Not to mention the fact that the movie finds itself capable of mimicking multiple different cinematic styles when it engages in its fourth-wall leaning fantasy sequences (i.e. Bergman and Fellini references).

And of course, the performances from the two leads are sublime. Alongside his breakthrough turn in Brick, this was one of the movies that really shot Joseph Gordon-Levitt into the mainstream consciousness. I hate to belabor my Annie Hall comparisons but if you took Woody Allen’s performance as Alvy Singer but gave Woody actual dramatic chops, you’d have an idea of what to expect from JGL in this film. It’s one of the strongest romantic comedy performances in recent memory, and the way that he makes you feel Tom’s psychological torment is astounding. Zooey is also phenomenal. Jess from New Girl and Summer from this (her two most high-profile roles) couldn’t be more different, and in many ways, Summer is meant to be a subversion of the typical Zooey “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” archetype. She shows a modern woman with complexity and depth that you never see in modern rom-coms and it must be commended.

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I’m hungry and need to eat lunch so I’ll draw this review to a close. If you can’t tell, I adore (500) Days of Summer. Though I don’t think it’s necessarily one of the greatest films ever made (as evidenced by the score I’m about to give it instead of an “A+”), it is, without question, one of my favorite films of the last 10 years. Without fail, I force every single one of my friends to watch this film that haven’t seen it already. I don’t even know if I can name any real substantive flaws with the movie off the top of my head. The movie has developed an odd hatedom over the last couple of years which I mostly chalk up to hype backlash and a general fatigue of Zooey Deschanel. You shouldn’t let that deter you from watching this true modern classic of the romantic-comedy genre. It’s a beautiful and important look at modern relationships.

Final Score: A

 

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When I think of Billy Wilder, his legacy is divided firmly into two categories. The dark and moody noir like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard and then his later comedies such as Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. At least one of those four films come up on virtually every list of the greatest films ever made (and usually there are several). The Austrian turned American become of the most beloved directors of the 1940s through the 1960s, and list of the greatest directors of Hollywood’s golden age is complete without him near the top. And though his direction is stunning per usual, perhaps it’s the lionized ideal of his works that I hold in my head which caused me to find his 1954 romantic comedy, Sabrina, so lightweight and insubstantial.

No one would ever accuse the light-hearted farce of Some Like It Hot as being cerebral or challenging material, but the lightning-fast nature of its script and the manic energy of Lemmon and Matthau make up for the fact that it lacks the dark overtones that made Wilder so famous in the first place. But, in Sabrina, there’s much to love but almost as much to remove us from the experience. From the lack of any real romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart to a turgid script that feels as if it never wants to get off the ground to some material the feels blatantly misogynistic and condescending to women in a modern viewing, Sabrina is a truly enjoyable film but not nearly one of Wilder’s best works.

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Sabrina is a modern spin on the classic Cinderella “rags-to-riches” tale. In 1950s New York, the Larrabees are a family whose wealth seems to rival the Rockefeller. The daughter of the family chauffeur, Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn), is in love with the youngest of the Larrabee men, David (Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing‘s William Holden), a rakish skirt-chaser who’s been divorced three times and is set to be married yet again. Though his current engagement has been set up by his brother Linus (To Have and Have Not‘s Humphrey Bogart), the mature and responsible member of the family. When Sabrina sees David seducing a floozy in the tennis court, she tries to kill herself but is rescued by Linus who pretends to be unaware of her original intentions.

Afterwards, Sabrina heads off to Paris to learn to be a cook so she can continue the family tradition of serving wealthier families in the New York area, but when she befriends a wealthy baron, Sabrina returns from Paris a woman fully grown and confident in her own beauty and value to men. David picks her up at a train station and she is so transformed that he doesn’t even recognize her until he brings her back home. Linus, too, falls in love with Sabrina, and both men begin to compete for her affections. Though at first, Linus simply wants to remove Sabrina from the family’s affairs as she threatens David’s new engagement which is holding together a priceless business deal, but sooner or late,r Linus discovers he has to confront his own feelings for Sabrina.

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To the film’s credit, the black and white photography by Charles Lang is beautiful in the way that only black and white films from the period could be. We go back and watch movies like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street, and for many movie lovers, you long for films with such crisp and clear visual ambition. Sabrina may not look quite that good, but when Wilder has the camera glide in and out of parties and into subtle close-ups which frame the sexual yearning between David and Sabrina and Linus and Sabrina, it’s accomplished with a grace and ease that few film-makers today could hope to match.

But sadly, the film’s story isn’t as good as its direction (which is the case, I feel, for so many of the films before the 1960s). Audrey Hepburn is more or less emotionally manipulated and abused by both David and Linus for the entire film, and though David suffers his fair share of hilarious mishaps as punishment (a broken champagne glass providing one of the film’s funnier moments), Linus only gets a happy ending with no personal cost. He constantly tries to ignore, buy off, and exile Sabrina, but at the end, they still fall madly in love (I can’t imagine that obvious ending being a major spoiler). He treats her mostly like a nuisance, but she never seems offended by it. My sister and I were both rooting by the end of the film for her to say “Fuck it!” and abandon both men.

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Most damning for the film is that the romance between Hepburn and Bogart (which is the very core of the film) carried about as much sizzle and heat as a snowman. The much older Bogart (he was thirty years older than Hepburn at the time of filming) had been in a passionate love affair with Lauren Bacall for ten years in 1954, and it is clear that he had almost no attraction to Hepburn, and subsequently, he couldn’t make it seem like Linus did either. The only romantic scenes which seem to work involve the pouting and long-suffering Sabrina lusting after the elusive and roguish David, if for no other reason than Hepburn’s beautifully expressive face captures the depth of Sabrina’s longing and pain.

All those complaints aside, Sabrina is a lovely and very enjoyable film. It just seems so… light and shallow compared to the greatest films in Wilder’s library. Of course, my sister expressed a most Philistine of opinions when, after the credits rolled, she turned to me and said she enjoyed Sabrina more than Casablanca. I may have to disown her for such heresy, but perhaps my indifference to the romantic whimsies of this film are rooted in the fact that I am an often cynical male and not the type easily swayed and romanticized by the fantasy of this tale. For Bogie and Hepburn fans, Sabrina may not be their best work, but it’s still a must-see film.

Final Score: B

 

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Every movie lover has that one film that you can put in a million times, and every time you watch it, you get something new out of it. With our favorite films, repeat viewings become not only a type of security blanket where we can bask in the predicted pleasures of a treasured piece of art, but they increasingly become extended sessions of wonder that one team of filmmakers (from the director on down) were able to get things so perfectly right. They are films that infiltrate every aspect of our lives and we learn and evolve with these experiences so that sometimes, if the film is great enough, something about the film grows to define part of you. I am a lifelong film lover, but 1977’s Annie Hall is my favorite film of all time, and not only is it the crowning jewel of Woody Allen’s career, it’s the most important romantic comedy ever made.

Manhattan may be deeper; Midnight in Paris may be more whimsical; and Crimes and Misdemeanors may be more tragic, but no other film in the Woody Allen canon has transformed cinema to the extent of Annie Hall. Taking the most overdone film genre of all time, the romantic comedy, Annie Hall turned every genre convention on its head. From expectations for a happy ending to the classic manic pixie dream girl archetype to the notions of linear storytelling to a respect for the existence of the fourth wall, Annie Hall obliterated the standards of 1970s storytelling and prior with a rapturous disregard for the way movies were meant to be made. Clearly enthralled with Fellini and Bergman, Woody Allen brought foreign art-house sensibilities into the mainstream.

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Like so much of the best cinema, Annie Hall is an especially autobiographical film. In a vein similar to Chasing Amy (or even Allen’s later Husbands and Wives), Annie Hall is a cinematic portrayal of a crumbling relationship played out by the real life partners in the relationship itself. Neé Annie Hall in real life, Diane Keaton (Love and Death) plays the titular object of Allen’s desire. Diane Keaton was Woody’s greatest muse of the 1970ss, and with Annie Hall, Allen fuses a fantastical and romanticized embellishment of his youth thrown into the tragic downfall of one of the great relationships of his life.

Thus, Annie Hall is the decades spanning tale of the life and loves of Alvy Singer, a purposefully transparent stand-in for Woody Allen. A marginally successful stand-up comedian, Alvy lives in New York. With his best friend Rob (Tony Roberts) and two ex-wives, Alvy’s life isn’t exactly a shining example of having your life together. And his world is only complicated when he’s introduced to the ditsy, sensitive, and complex Annie Hall who bounds into Alvy’s life like an electric jolt to the heart. But the gulf in their intellectual ambitions and Alvy’s own cynical, pessimistic outlook on life spell an inevitable doom for their on-again/off-again relationship.

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If you have ever been in a failed relationship, Annie Hall is a sprawling, exquisitely detailed roadmap of everything that could have possibly gone wrong. Even if you’re a 24 year old kid from rural WV who had never even been to NYC until years after watching this film for the first time, Woody’s tale of lost love, regret, and the rush of dawning romance is timeless and universal in its appeal. I remember watching this film for the first time as a sophomore in high school and immediately being overwhelmed by a sympathy with Alvy Singer, and the relatable nature of this story has only gotten more painfully intense as I’ve gotten older and had more experience in the type of tale Woody has crafted.

And, that attention to detail and brutal effectiveness in detailing a relationship on its way up and just as quickly on its way out is what has made Woody Allen one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time. It would have been too easy to paint a one-sided portrait of the collapse of his time with Diane Keaton, but instead, Allen showed an honest, subtle look at the dynamics between men and women and the ways that we desire different things in life and how those desires can spell doom for love. Annie has become one of the go to examples of the “manic pixie dream girl” but if you actually watch the film, it’s clear that Annie is meant to deconstruct that typical male fantasy.

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But it isn’t just the effective realism and honest intentions of the film that makes Annie Hall the classic it’s become (though that’s certainly a major part of it). Annie Hall stands head and shoulders above its peer because it was the first major film to successfully incorporate serious themes and an actual emotional message with laugh-out-loud fourth wall shattering humor. Over the course of Annie Hall, Woody Allen doesn’t just lean on the proverbial fourth wall; he takes a chainsaw and demolishes it until you’re not sure if the fourth wall ever existed in the first place.

Having his characters directly address the camera, incorporating not only flashbacks but flashbacks where the present day characters can interact with the people in the past, using animated interludes, devolving into downright fantasy, and using sardonic thought bubbles to explain the actual thoughts of characters during dialogue, Annie Hall isn’t afraid to remind you that you’re watching a movie, and it’s better off for it. Some great films have aped this style since ( (500) Days of Summer an obvious example), but no movie has so successfully married the heartwrenching, the hilarious, and the surreal as well as Annie Hall.

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Diane Keaton won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar at the 1977 Academy Awards for her portrayal of Annie, and the only performance by a woman in a comedy that I can think that is better than her turn in this film was Jennifer Lawrence last year in Silver Linings Playbook. Diane Keaton may have essentially been playing herself, but it was a fierce and now iconic portrayal. What makes Woody such a great writer is that he writes such complex roles for his female leads, and Annie is possibly the best role he’s ever written. Diane Keaton sees Annie through virtually the complete human emotional experience, and she never falters along the  way.

Woody lost that year for Best Actor to Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl, and I actually agree with that decision from the Academy. Woody’s turn as Alvy is probably one of the top three performances of his career, but there’s simply no denying that Woody is better behind the camera than in front of it. There are moments here and there where Woody stops acting (even if he’s supposedly conversing with a friend in the film) and just starts performing one of his stand-up routines and the difference in his cadence is too apparent. Still, when the scene calls for it, Woody Allen too hits all the right emotional and dramatic points required for the film.

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I could go on an on about how Annie Hall is a perfect snapshot of life in the 1970s or how brilliant the “It Had to Be You” interludes are or how Allen’s neurotic, nebbish Alvy Singer became the basis of a million rom-com heroes to come, but I think I have probably bored all of you enough with my adoration bordering on worship of this masterful film. I’ve written three unpublished screenplays, and it’s no stretch of the imagination to say that Annie Hall is (with Chasing Amy and Pulp Fiction) the reason I want to be a film-maker. If, in my life, I can write a film that is one-fifth as good as Woody’s opus, I will consider my career a success. I’ll leave you with a quote.

Alvy Singer: [narrating] After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I… I realized what a terrific person she was, and… and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I… I, I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before my actual review begins. After I put up this review, I will have now seen and reviewed all of this year’s Best Picture nominees except for Amour which still doesn’t even have a release date on Netflix yet. The Michael Haneke directed foreign film may take a while to make it to our shores in DVD/Blu-Ray form. Anyways, that’s exciting so I can finally move back to my core list of films which I’m still in the process of remaking.)

Perhaps because it is the most easily commercialized and most consistently mass-produced genre of film this side of low-budget horror movies, it’s real easy to cast aside most romantic comedies out of hand. With cookie-cutter plots, emotionally vapid stars, and diabetes-inducing sweetness, rom-coms are an easy contender for one of the worst film genres. Which is sort of funny when I consider that two of my top three films of all time are romantic comedies (Annie Hall and Chasing Amy). So, leave it to David O. Russell (whose The Fighter I found almost uniformly over-rated barring the performances) to provide one of the best romantic comedies in years with the darkly comic and subversive Silver Linings Playbook.

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Part of me is suspicious of how much I enjoy Silver Linings Playbook. Because despite the pitch black comedy trimmings, the film is still structured very much like a conventional romantic comedy. It’s only in the details where David O. Russell (and the author of the book the film is based on) finds ways to distinguish his tale. But, the details are so intimate and impressive that you almost forget the familiar story structure. And in a film where the lead performances are as electric as this one, it’s easy to forgive yourself for just wanting to bask in the glow of what will certainly be remembered as career-defining roles (not simply because Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for this film).

After spending eight months in a mental hospital for nearly beating a man to death who was sleeping with his wife, Pat Solitano (Wet Hot American Summer‘s Bradley Cooper) returns home to live with his parents in Philadelphia. Determined to win back his wife’s love (despite a restraining order), Pat tries to get in shape and turn his life around with the help of his dad (The Godfather: Part II‘s Robert De Niro) and mom. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, life itself is a struggle for Pat and his anger, and all it takes to set him off in to a rage some nights is disappointment in the ending of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

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One night, at a friend’s dinner, Pat meets Tiffany Maxwell (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence), a widow whose sister is close friends with Pat’s ex-wife. Tiffany has her own mental problems and after suffering from severe depression after the death of her husband, Tiffany began sleeping with nearly any person she could just to feel something. Tiffany promises to give Pat’s wife a letter if he’ll help her enter a dancing competition. And so, as these two become closer and learn to deal with their anger and depression and mood swings together, the question becomes whether Pat will get back with his ex-wife or if he’ll find love in the arms of the wounded Tiffany.

Jennifer Lawrence is 22 years old. She is a full year younger than I am. Yet, she has now been nominated for two Oscars and won one for this film (making her the second youngest Best Actress winner behind Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God). She’s starred in two of the biggest summer blockbusters of this decade (The Hunger Games and X-Men: First Class). Jennifer Lawrence hasn’t simply set herself up to be one of the greatest actors of her generation. She is easily the best actress of her peer group. If I thought she was great in Winter’s Bone, I was not prepared for the tour-de-force performance she brought to bear in this movie.

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Her performance as Tiffany in this film is the kind of role most actresses spend their entire career trying to land. The fact that she’s playing a character with such depth and emotional complexity at the age of 22 is just astounding beyond words. Jennifer Lawrence should only get more talented as she ages, and I expect her to rack up a Meryl Streep-esque career before it’s all said and done. Tiffany is a contradictory, explosive, deeply hurt woman who is barely hanging on by a thread, and with every second she spends on screen, Jennifer Lawrence makes you feel her pain, joy, and love. Congratulations Oscars. You actually got this one right.

And Bradley Cooper… I was almost at a loss for words when the film ended. I did not think Bradley Cooper was a good actor (except for his awesome work on Alias), let alone a great one before watching this movie. I literally could not have been more wrong. This may sound crazy, but Bradley Cooper was so much more interesting in this role than Daniel Day-Lewis was in Lincoln (though I still think Joaquin Phoenix should have won for The Master). Bradley Cooper committed so much to the craziness of Pat that it became frightening in some of the more intense scenes. Maybe this performance was a flash in the pan and a fluke, but I pray that it’s a sign of great things to come from Mr. Cooper.

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It also doesn’t hurt that Robert De Niro gives what is arguably his finest performance since Goodfellas as Pat’s obsessive compulsive father. It becomes clear rather quickly that Pat Sr. has just as many anger problems as his son (with a serious OCD problem thrown in for good measure and a gambling addiction), and Silver Linings Playbook gives De Niro a chance to flex his acting muscles that he hasn’t been using after a decade of stale comedies. Chris Tucker is also surprisingly excellent as a fellow patient from Pat’s mental institution who is always escaping early with hare-brained excuses and plots.

Silver Linings Playbook‘s willingness to deal so frankly with mental illness and depression and anger is beyond refreshing. Though the film is a comedy (and my sister and I found ourselves laughing hysterically during the movie), the movie doesn’t make light of Pat’s bipolar disorder or Tiffany’s acting out. When it occurs, it is tragic and scary and real. And through this lens of actual human frailty, Silver Linings Playbook succeeds where most other rom-coms fail by presenting two realistic, flawed heroes to guide us through a tale of growth and redemption. That the film still manages to be hilarious is a testament to just how strong the writing is.

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If you pushed me to try and find flaws in the movie (and the reason I’m giving it an “A” instead of an “A+.” trust me it was close), I would have to say that perhaps the ending feels a tad bit rushed and that the visual direction of the film is a little stale. Otherwise, Silver Linings Playbook has even eclipsed the wonderful Life of Pi as my favorite of the Best Picture nominees of 2012. For fans of great acting, great storytelling, and great romance, Silver Linings Playbook has it all. And, I imagine it will be a couple years before another romantic comedy this great rolls around.

Final Score: A

Big

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Certain actors get typecast for a reason. They just exude a specific trait with such intensity that it’s almost impossible to buy them in any other role. Although Jack Nicholson has a marvelous range, 90% of his most memorable roles involve him being some type of crazy because he brings manic energy like few others. Tom Cruise has perfected the cocky but sensitive pretty boy. And, with the possible exception of Jimmy Stewart, no one has been better at portraying the all-American innocent than Tom Hanks. Maybe it’s his big, puppy dog eyes. It’s definitely his boyish good looks. But there’s just something about Tom Hanks that screams purity and tenderness. It’s partly why I think he’s overrated as an actor. He plays the same types of roles so much (Philadelphia a massive exception). But in his original wide-eyed innocent man role, 1988’s sweet and charming Big, I was reminded why I can’t help but love Tom Hanks in comedic roles.

After making a wish at a carnival genie machine to be big, despondent 12 year old Joshua Baskins is transformed into the 30 year old version of himself (Tom Hanks). And when his new form terrifies his mother and makes everyone think he’s been kidnapped, Josh is forced to run away with the help of his best friend to New York City to lay low until they can find the same fortunetelling machine and switch Josh back. But being a grown-up means having grown-up problems and Josh is forced to get a job as a computer technician for a big toy company. And after impressing his both with his youthful enthusiasm and childlike knack for knowing what makes great toys, Josh quickly rises up the ranks of the company and even begins a relationship with the gorgeous Susan (Elizabeth Perkins). Josh is living the high-life but it isn’t long before he finds himself yearning for the childhood he’s abandoned.

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The ease with which Tom Hanks seems to slip into the role of a 12 year old boy stuck in a 30 year old’s body speaks leagues about why Hanks would ultimately spend the rest of his career playing the same type of characters. He’s a marvel. If Hanks metaphorically winked at the camera once or lent the performance even the slightest hint of camp at any time, the whole film would have fallen apart. But what makes Big so special (besides Penny Marshall’s great direction and Gary Ross’s great script) is that it’s played with such sincerity. Hanks seemingly taps into the natural wonder, joy, and innocence of childhood so effortlessly that he’s the emotional center that keeps you wrapped in this film’s heart and whimsy. And he’s buoyed by such great support from Robert Loggia as his boss, the seductive Elizabeth Perkins as the ice queen his warmth defrosts, and the great young talent Jared Rushton as his best friend Billy Kopecky.

But even more than Hanks, the film features a truly winning script. I was consistently bowled over by how much I allowed myself to enjoy this film despite my own sneaking suspicions that I’m a jaded, cynical bastard at heart. The film works on two levels and it’s the interplay between these two competing subtexts that makes Big such a lovely movie. On the one hand (and the primary place this film operates), it’s simply a good-spirited fantasy about what kids wish being an adult meant. It’s escapism but a ton of fun. But on the other hand (and where I got the most pleasure from the movie), it’s also a scathing satire of the greed and narcissism at the heart of the 1980s and the “me” generation. Though Josh is just a child, he’s more caring and giving and level-headed than most of the jerks he works with, particularly the ladder-climbing shark played by Home Alone‘s John Heard. It’s the great type of kid movie that works for both the parents and the kids.

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This is one of those “classic” films that for whatever reason I never got around to watching. It just never had a priority in my personal film education so thank the blog gods that they decided it was finally time for me to dive into this lovely movie. I’m not sure if its great, whatever that means. The satire is there is admittedly surface level stuff but still fun and enjoyable. But, sometimes you have to turn the cerebral part of your brain off and just appreciate something as light-hearted and fun as this movie. I can say without question that this is one of my favorite Tom Hanks performances of all time and easily the best of his comedic performances. Part of me wishes the man had just stuck to comedies because he’s never more charming than when you aren’t actually having to dissect the nuances of his characters or his sometimes shallow dramatic characterization.

Final Score: B+