Category: Romance


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Life is as much defined by loss as it is by growth and experience. We lose relationships, our youth, our hair, and, if we get old enough, our memories which are the very nature of our existence begin to fade. Learning to deal with these losses is a defining element of the life experience, and the most successful lives are charted by facing these troubles and persevering. But there are the losses that we can move past: losing a girlfriend, the death of an elderly parent, getting fired from a job; and then there are the losses that create black holes at the center of our very being. The emptiness consumes our entirety and we are broken possibly for the rest of our lives. No film has explored that type of loss with such raw precision as 1993’s Blue from Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski as part of his French “Three Colors” trilogy.

There are few fears more intense than the death of a child. Even for the childless, the safety and well-being of children is paramount, and when children die of cancer or in school shootings or at the hands of a serial predator, it sparks our deepest existential fears. If children, particularly those too young to yet be corrupted by the world, can suffer the pains and cruelties of this world, then the idea of a benign and caring creator seems laughably unlikely. And if you lose both your child and your husband at once, what reason could you have for continuing in a world intent on taking those things which matter above all else? By the end of Blue, it’s impossible to avoid that question ever again.

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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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If your romance doesn’t break new ground or provide deep and true insight into the relations between man & woman (or whatever your romantic pairings are), your only hope of a watchable film is the spark of real chemistry between your stars. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a fairly conventional “forbidden love” romantic drama, but the chemistry between William Holden and Jennifer Jones was sizzling and it made the film enjoyable despite the melodrama. Similarly, Penny Serenade is typical 1940s romance, but Irene Dunne made you wholly believe her love for Cary Grant (I’ve never believed Cary Grant’s interest in any woman on screen because he’s seemingly incapable of even pretending to be attracted to a woman). The African Queen transcends it’s dime-novel source material thanks to the fierce chemistry of leads Humphrey Bogart (To Have and Have Not) and Katharine Hepburn (Bringing Up Baby).

Director John Huston (perfect as the villain of Chinatown) brings a standard boy’s adventure tale to the big screen but, through sheer technical prowess and wonderful performances all around, pulls a gorgeous, almost lyrical tale of class, romance, and will from such meager starts. With one of the best performances of Bogie’s career (and the one that he would win his Oscar for) and an archetypal Hepburn turn, The African Queen isn’t a great film, but in the world of classic adventure movies, it’s hard to find one with more heart and sheer fun.

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After her minister brother is murdered by German soldiers during the early days of World War 1 outside of their African church, British missionary Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn) is forced to seek passage back to England with the help of rough-edged steamboat captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) on the titular African Queen. But, getting back to England will be more difficult than navigating the already dangerous rapids of the African river. Their only path back into British territory involves crossing a lake guarded by one of the most powerful gunboats in the German fleet.

There is nothing exceptional in the storytelling of The African Queen. The central romance hinges on the classic “rough and uncultured man is tamed by the strong-willed high class Lady” theme, and The African Queen plays zero games with that set-up throughout. The adventure is a series of set pieces where our hero and heroine almost lose their life but persevere, and the film doesn’t take many breaks to really allow these characters to breathe though a bit in the middle where Rose finally pours out all of Charlie’s gin that the movie lets you see some of the bite beneath Bogart’s  bark.

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But, The African Queen has to be a textbook example of how sheer filmcraft can overcome a conventional story (that also happens to be well-told despite its familiarity). The Technicolor photography still looks vibrant and beautiful 63 years later. It’s possible that you’ve never truly experienced the color green until you see this film in all of its remastered HD glory. The film’s major action set-pieces are something of a mixed bag because the sections that actually look like they were shot in Africa (much of the film was) make the green screen segments that much more embarrassingly dated and fake looking.

And, of course, Bogart and Hepburn make the most out of roles that are more caricature than character. As Rose Sayer, Hepburn crafts the type of character that I think of when I envision Hepburn (even if I had never seen this film before): strong-willed, middle-aged, spinster-ish with a romantic heart, and fiercer than any man on screen. Hepburn tends to bowl over her male leads with the strength of her personality, but in Bogart’s Allnut, she finally found a man as crazy and stubborn as her, and the emotional pyrotechnics as they match wits made the entire film worthwhile.

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Bogart didn’t live long past the shooting of this film. The African Queen was released in 1951 and he passed away from esophageal cancer in 1957, and part of me suspects that the rough, lean look Bogie has in this film can be attributed to the onset of his illness, and as one of the last great performances from one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars, The African Queen simply can’t be missed. At the end of the day, it never stops being a rousing adventure, but in an era where action movies had artistry, who can rightly complain?

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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A few years back, comedian Louis C.K. released a stand-up special for HBO, and one of the first bits of his set was an extended rant about the inherent misery of life. His initial metaphor was that anytime you buy a child a dog, you’re actually setting everyone up for misery sooner or later when said dog dies. He then took it further by saying that all human relationships are predicated on inevitable tragedy. Either you date and you break up, you date and you get married, or you date, get married, and then one of you dies. Louis C.K. was taking human mortality for somewhat deep comedic laughs, but the newest film from Austrian director Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon) is an extended dramatic meditation on the untold tragedy and suffering of what happens if you’re a married couple that’s “fortunate” enough to make it to old age together. And, Amour, the 2012 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language film is nearly as emotional an experience as it gets.

Considering the film’s subject matter (an elderly couple’s battle with Alzheimer’s), it was somewhat ironic that this was the film I watched right now for this blog because my best friend and I had a fairly in-depth conversation on the topic just the other day. Amour wrestles with the question “Is it worth keeping someone alive who is no longer themselves in any sense of the word?” It would be easy to misinterpret this film as a chronicle of one husband’s almost selfless devotion to his wife, but that would be the wrong way to look at the film. The film wonders (in a vein more similar to The Road than one might think) whether the notion that human existence is sacrosanct is really true and if there are, in fact, moments when it would just be better if we were dead. And, if my interpretation of Haneke’s thesis is correct, I would be hard-pressed to name a film that handles these topics with more care or brutal insight.

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An elderly French couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne Laurent (Academy Award nominee Emmanuelle Riva), wile away their few remaining years in their well-kept but antiquated Paris apartment. Anne is in her 80s but in her youth, she was a much-respected piano instructor and one of her star pupils, Alexandre, is now a famous concert pianist, and the film opens on Georges and Anne at one of his concerts. Sadly, for this otherwise happily married pair of octogenarians, this will be their last night resembling happiness as Anne is on the verge of manifesting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (though it’s never stated as such in the film) and she’s not long away from the first of a series of strokes. And though, Anne is somewhat functional at first, it isn’t long before she loses any semblance of her former self and Georges, with occasional help from his daughter Eva (La Ceremonie‘s Isabella Huppert), is forced to spend every waking moment caring for the shell of a person that used to be his wife.

If you couldn’t tell from that description, Amour is a sad film. It reaches Synecdoche, New York/Rachel, Rachel levels of misery. In fact, it’s safe to say that it exceeds both of those films in terms of brutal heart-ache. Yet, it accomplishes all of this without falling into the trappings of melodrama. There were a million ways that writer and director Michael Haneke could have spun this tale, but he went for horrific honesty. There are few possibles fates in life more terrifying than to succumb to a degenerative mental illness like Alzheimer’s and Haneke captures it without sentiment or embellishment or any possible silver-lining. For those who have seen The Notebook, this film comes off as the antithesis of the big reveal of that film. With haunting realism, Amour stares suffering at its purest in the face and doesn’t blink.

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Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for Best Actress at the Academy Awards this year for her performance in this film, and now, I honestly don’t know whether or not she or Jennifer Lawrence should have won. I can’t begin to fathom the amount of research Riva put in to nailing all of the physical symptoms of not just Alzheimer’s but also the multiple strokes her character suffered. It is a commitment to a realistic portrayal of a type of mental illness that’s nearly on par with Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. My family had a close friend when I was a child who ultimately succumbed to Alzheimer’s so I’ve seen the torment the illness wreaks on a human being. And Emmanuelle Riva channeled the bewilderment and constant terror that Anne was feeling any second she wasn’t in a state of merciful lucidity.

However, in a vein similar to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (though at least Anne has an arc, but it’s an arc towards stasis), the real emotional core of Amour was carried by Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges. One can not belittle the suffering that Anne goes through. By the end of the film, she exists as a barely conscious being. But, it is through Georges’s eyes that we experience Anne’s suffering. And slowly throughout the film, Jean-Louis transforms what appears to be a selfless devotion to his wife into an entirely selfish desire to keep her alive because he couldn’t bear to be alone. And Georges is cognizant of his own suffering and has to deal with knowing every day and every night that the woman he’s been with decades is gone and he’s clinging to mere memories and her corporeal existence. And, as a portrait of the malignant reality of getting old and facing the end of everything you’ve ever cared about, Jean-Louis Trintignant is just as good as Emmanuelle Riva. He (along with several other performers) impressed me more than the theatrics of Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln, and Day-Lewis is my favorite living actor.

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The cinematography from Darius Khondji paired with Haneke’s direction is uniformly excellent. The camera captures in rich detail every inch of Georges and Anne’s apartment and the quiet life that Georges wants to live versus the tribulations that have been forced upon him and his wife. And, Haneke’s decision to consistently incorporate lengthy takes only adds to the heightened realism of the picture. The takes in Amour become uncomfortably long, but by refusing to turn away from a brutal moment with cuts that alleviate the tension, Haneke forces the viewer directly into the suffering of Amour‘s world. There’s a moment towards the end of the film that I don’t want to spoil for anyone that involves Georges reciting a tale from his childhood to his essentially catatonic wife that ranks among the most effectively shot, written, and acted sequences of modern memory.

Amour is so singular in its dedication to heartbreak that by the end of the film, one may (though it seems mostly doubtful) find themselves inured to the misery. I am a crier. It does not take much to make me cry in a film. And, although Amour is without question one of the most distressing and gut-wrenching films I’ve ever sat through, it did not make me cry. And, I think that was intentional on Haneke’s part. Eventually, Amour begins to leave the realm of sad and enters existentialist horror. You become too overwhelmed with the notion that this could easily happen to you or someone you care about to be able to process the film in typical emotional ways. Or at least, that was my response. By Amour‘s end, I began to experience a physical sense of dread. The misery of this film manifested itself in me as a sense of being physically ill. That’s powerful film-making.

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Watching Amour is a commitment. It’s not entertaining in any traditional sense, and there were moments where the film’s unwavering artistic vision bordered on torturous (in the good sense). You are volunteering yourself to two hours of heart-ache and suffering without any hope of a gilded edge to soften the pain. But, Amour is an edifying experience of truly exceptional power and uncompromising respect for the viewer’s intelligence as well as the plight of its protagonists. For those with an interest in powerful cinema and for film-making that has something to say, Amour was easily one of the best films of last year. However, if you are already depressed or sad about something, hold off on watching Amour until you can come in with a more even-keel because, otherwise, I fear that this film could ruin you.

Final Score: A

(One final note. I have now finally seen all of last year’s Best Picture nominees. This was the last one to come out on DVD/Blu-Ray. And, boy did the Academy really FUBAR what won. For those curious, this is my list of the order of the films nominated for Best Picture [This disqualifies my top two films of the year which weren’t nominated, The Master and To the Wonder]:

1. Life of Pi

2. Amour

3. Silver Linings Playbook

4. Django Unchained

5. Zero Dark Thirty

6. Lincoln

7. Argo

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

9. Les Miserables

 

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In my review of Werner Herzog’s breathtakingly beautiful Antarctica documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, I went on a lengthy discourse of my definition of a “spiritual experience” removed from any explicitly religious context. To me (an agnostic), a spiritual moment or experience are those times in your life where you are exposed to something of great beauty or an undeniable moment of human communion. And, of course, when I described films that I found to be spiritual experiences, I mentioned Terrence Malick’s stunning masterpiece, The Tree of Life.  Beyond the film’s peerless cinematography, The Tree of Life was philosophical and existential in a way that few American films have ever been. Breaking his streak of waiting years and years between films, The Tree of Life‘s follow-up, To the Wonder, was released after only a two year hiatus, and Mallick hasn’t come close to losing his touch.

Though Bergman was fairly explicitly agnostic, Terrence Malick joins Werner Herzog as being one of the most spiritual and philosophical directors since the great Swede slipped from this mortal coil. What his detractors mistake for ephemera and a sense of muddled clarity is in fact the poetic subtlety of his work matched with Malick’s grand, almost unachievable ambitions. Between The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, it is clear that Malick is obsessed with the notion of man’s struggle to find meaning in our lives. But rather than tackling that most ancient of philosophical questions, Malick is more interested in looking at the heartbreak that comes when that definition isn’t present and the pain and suffering that life itself foists upon us without our consent just through our existence. And if The Tree of Life asked these questions from the point of view of a child discovering the terrible power of the universe, To the Wonder paints a portrait of adult loneliness and desperation and the ultimate fragility of romantic relations.

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Even more than The Tree of Life, plot is a secondary concern in To the Wonder. What story that exists is advanced not by typical plot devices by the emotional power of images, soaring orchestral music, and often half-heard narration. To the Wonder‘s goal is the evocation of a specific set of emotions first and then one can spend the second half of the film trying to suss out the ultimate meaning and ambitions of the film (which are there if one has the patience). And so, like The Tree of Life, if you don’t have the patience for Mallick’s fetishistic devotion to cinematography over traditional characterization and story, To the Wonder will be a torturous experience unlike any other. But, if you can handle a film whose ambitions are more equivalent to a visual tone poem than a conventional film, this film is as must watch as they come.

But, I suppose if I’m going to get any of you to actually watch this film I must tell you “what it’s about” even if the story almost doesn’t even exist. After spending time in France, environmental scientist Neil (Argo‘s Ben Affleck) returns to his native Oklahoma and brings the French single mother, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), he fell in love with back with him to the United States along with her daughter. But the taciturn and emotionally reserved Neil can not give the free-spirited and effervescent Marina the affection and emotional support that she needs and not long after making it to Oklahoma, Marina begins to feel trapped in her new existence. Complications arise when, during a break in their relationship, Neil strikes up a romance with an old friend, a widow (Midnight in Paris‘s Rachel McAdams), who proves a contrast to the jubilant joie de vivre of Marina. Meanwhile, a lonely Catholic priest, Father Quintana (No Country for Old Men‘s Javier Bardem) experiences a crisis of faith.

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The only other films that I can think of that reach the complexity of understanding of adult romantic relationships as this film are masterpieces like You Can Count on Me and Manhattan, and those films have the advantage of having actual plots. Terrence Malick’s ability to project so much emotional complexity through so little is an act of cinematic wizardry without equal. Even his peers of Bergman or Fellini in terms of visual mastery rage against conventional plot through post-modernist gamesmanship, but there’s still the structures of great storytelling. In To the Wonder, I suppose there is an underlying plot but it is so secondary to the simple power of images and suggestion. You can’t accuse Malick of being a minimalist because Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is too lush and magical for that to be true, but more than any other filmmaker of the modern age, Malick has reduced cinema almost to the bare building block of individual images and wrests stunning art away in the process.

That’s not meant to insult other aspects of the film. Olga Kurylenko’s performance in particular stands out despite the fact that she has very few actual lines on screen that aren’t her voice-over narration. Similar to Berenice Bejo in The Artist, Kurylenko has to evoke almost the entire spectrum of human emotion but hardly ever say anything. She does this and more. It doesn’t hurt Kurylenko’s case that Malick’s camera turns her into a stunningly beautiful figure out of some majestic painting. Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams also shine. Affleck probably speaks less than thirty words in the whole film yet he still captures the essence of Neil. But, the other stunning performance from the film was Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana which should do more to make audiences understand the loneliness and isolation of the clergy than any film that has come before.

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If Malick doesn’t get a Best Director nod and if Emmanuel Lubezki doesn’t get a Best Cinematography nod at this year’s Oscars, it will be a crime. When these two men work together, what they produced goes beyond magical; it borders on divine. To the Wonder is photography at its absolute finest and unmatched. Malick has an unerring ability to make even the most mundane aspects of human life look gorgeous with a near religious fervor. One need look no further than the sequences shot in grocery store parking lots or on run-of-the-mill suburban streets to see Malick and Lubezki’s talent to wrest beauty from whatever is on hand. You could watch The Tree of Life with what little dialogue there is as well as the narration turned off, and  if you love cinematography, you would hardly lose much of the experience.

Now, before you see my score for this film, I’ll reveal it early and say I’m giving it the same top marks I gave to The Tree of Life which I only give out a handful of times a year (To wit: Only one film from 2012 received an “A+” from me, The Master), and To the Wonder is the first film from 2013 to get that nod. But, I think The Tree of Life is a marginally better film. It has a grander, more existentialist ambition than To the Wonder. But, to me (and I know how divisive Malick’s later work has become), To the Wonder is a simply flawless film that more than accomplishes its goals of examining the nature and futility of human relations. Malick works entirely within his own sphere of film-making, and if there’s any doubt that he’s crafted yet another masterpiece, you must simply be incapable of enjoying Malick’s particular style.

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For those with any interest with cinema that pushes the boundaries of what is possible in the medium, To the Wonder goes beyond must-watch. To not see this film (or The Tree of Life) would be a dereliction of your duty as a film-lover. Every frame in this film shines with the detailed composition of a Renaissance painting. It is a haunting masterpiece from the opening seconds until its heartbreaking close. Terrence Malick has another film scheduled for release in 2014 and if this means he is back to making films at a regular pace and they are all as powerful as this, Malick just reconfirms his position as not just one of the greatest filmmakers of the modern age but one of the most visionary filmmakers that has ever lived. Malick walks among the gods of the medium.

Final Score: A+

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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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(A quick aside before my actual review. So, some context for long-time readers about why I haven’t done any other blogging this week. As some of you may know, I work at a bar where there are slot machines. Generally, they’re fairly safe, but every once in a while, they get robbed. I was robbed Tuesday at knife point by a dude on heroin. He put a big-ass butcher knife against my ribcage and made me give him all the money in the bar. Anyways, for obvious reasons, my mind hasn’t been on blogging and so I apologize for that and for the possibility that this review is going to be a mess)

The 90s were the true hey-day of independent cinema. Don’t get me wrong; there’s still an extraordinary amount of great independent film-making being done today (Margaret, The Master, Winter’s Bone to name a few). But, the birth of modern indie cinema as we know it in the early 90s was a pure feat of wonder that was only multiplied ten fold when visionaries like the Weinsteins (over at Miramax) realized that there was a mainstream audience for these independently developed films. One of the most popular (and well made) indie dramas of the 90s, which was overwhelmed at the 1997 Academy Awards by a certain movie about a ship and an iceberg, was the Gus Van Sant directed Good Will Hunting. And while age has worn a tiny amount of the luster off this still wonderful film, nothing can take away from the superb performances from Matt Damon (The Departed) and Robin Williams (Hook).

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As a film on the topic of undiscovered genius, Good Will Hunting is slightly hit-or-miss. But, as a film on the idea of social alienation and the long-term psychic costs of abuse and abandonment, Good Will Hunting remains one of the most emotionally powerful films of the 1990s. I bring up the aspect of undiscovered genius because though the film makes clear, time and time again, how absurdly smart Will is, those moments aren’t nearly as interesting as the time he spends with Robin Williams and Minnie Driver. Perhaps, there’s a slight coldness to the Stellan Skarsgaard (Thor) sections of the film, but mostly, the Oscar-winning script from Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (Argo) shines so bright when we’re confronting the emotional problems of one of the most psychologically complex characters of the 90s that everything else just pales in comparison.

Unbeknownst to anyone but his circle of friends, a lonely, angry MIT janitor, Will Hunting (Matt Damon), is a genius of nearly Einsteinian proportions. When a Fields medal winning MIT Professor (Stellan Skarsgaard) puts a complex mathematical proof on a chalkboard at the beginning of a new semester, none of his students are able to solve the proof, but Will is. But, Will, an orphan with an angry streak a mile wide, doesn’t want to be the genius the world wants him to be. But, after punching a police officer, Will is given the choice between going to jail or going to math lessons with the professor as well as weekly therapy sessions. After pissing off every therapist who comes his way, Will finally meets his match in Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) whose brand of tough love reaches the emotionally damaged young man. But, when a bubbling romance with a Harvard girl (Minnie Driver) revs up Will’s abandoonment issues, it threatens to undo all of the work he’s accomplished with Sean.

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First and foremost, I feel relatively certain in my proclamation that this is the best performance of Matt Damon’s career. The only reason I can’t say the same thing for Robin Williams is that Dead Poet’s Society exists. Will Hunting is the type of meaty, complex role that any young actor would kill for, and perhaps because he wrote the script with co-star Ben Affleck, Damon is acutely aware of the psychological pathology on display in his character (an abused child with a genius intellect with crippling abandonment and intimacy issues). Throw in the heart-wrenching vulnerability and emotional nakedness that he displays as his walls are slowly torn down, and it’s easy to see why Damon’s performance and the Will Hunting character have become an archetype in cinema for the troubled genius.

But, the best performance of the film is Robin William’s Sean Maguire. It speaks directly to Robin William’s immense talents as a performer that though he is most famous for comedic roles like Aladdin‘s Genie or the DJ in Good Morning Vietnam that he is also capable of producing jaw-dropping feats of dramatic acting. Robin Williams won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar at the 1997 Academy Awards, and looking at the list of the other nominees, I can’t imagine anyone else winning. Once again, the role and the performance have become so iconic that the tough and troubled mentor has become its own archetype. Sean helps Will work through Will’s issues, but Will is just as instrumental in helping Sean work through his own problems. And William’s beautifully understated performance (which still allows him to utilize deadpan humor to great effect) is a wrenching and haunting portrait of despair and mourning.

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In fact, my only substantive complaint about the film is Gus van Sant’s direction which leans a little too far into 90s indie cliches that we’ve thankfully gotten rid of since then. It’s not that his direction is bad. There are inspired shots, but often the film feels leading. Where the screenplay is showing subtlety or restraint, the film’s visual composition (and particularly the score when it’s not Elliott Smith songs) are too obvious. It’s a similar complaint that I have with Forrest Gump, but clearly, Good Will Hunting is leagues better than that film. And, though I appreciate how Will’s romance with Skylar is used as a way to examine Will’s abandonment issues, Skylar’s characterization is fairly paper-thin. She is more of a plot device than a character in her own right, and in the face of the richness of Will and Sean, it’s a shame that such a major character seems so flatly drawn.

If by some stroke of poor luck, you’ve yet to see Good Will Hunting, you need to remedy that situation immediately. It is one of those rare defining films of a decade that is completely deserving of the praise heaped upon it. It’s not quite perfect. I think when I sat down to watch it the other night that I was likely to give it one of my rare “A+”s and it didn’t quite cross that threshold, but it’s still an absolutely superb film. It actually makes me sort of sad to think that Matt Damon’s early career dedication to subversive and complex roles like this and Rounders has disappeared as he’s took on the task of less complex, blockbuster roles (The Departed a major exception). I wish he would go back to the indies that helped turn him into the star he is now. And Good Will Hunting is 100% responsible for that.

Final Score: A

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. Two main points. One, I watched this film in the wee hours of Sunday morning. It is now the wee hours of Thursday morning, and I’ve only just now had the chance to write this review. I’ve had to work many more hours this week than I had originally intended, and I stupidly kept putting off writing this review. So, I apologize if it is not my most well-written piece because this excellent film deserved a proper review. Second, we’re on a bit of a hot streak here on my blog. For this particular 50 film set, of which there are only 13 or so films left to watch, I’ve only given away 5 “A”s, counting the movie I’m about to review. And four of those five have been within my last ten reviews. So, it’s been a good time for me to write about the films I’m watching because otherwise this particular set has been mostly underwhelming to mediocre.)

There are two types of “sad” films. There are films that are sad because there is virtually no other way to approach their subject matter. These films involve genocide (Schindler’s List), terminal cancer (One True Thing), or the death of children. Other films are sad because they present truths about life and the human condition that we would rather ignore or look past. Synecdoche, New York is almost overwhelmingly depression for a variety of reasons, but perhaps, the most clear reason is the way it forces viewers to face their own mortality and the ultimate meaninglessness of our lives. A Single Man‘s portrayal of loneliness, isolation, and desperation are truly haunting, and I could tick off dozens of other films that I’ve reviewed that are overwhelmingly sad without being melodramatic about it. 1968’s Rachel, Rachel is one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen that falls into this latter category.

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It’s rather shocking that I find Rachel, Rachel as moving and soul-crushing as I do because I am clearly not the film’s target audience, and Paul Newman’s (The Color of Money) directorial debut does not seem like an easy candidate for a film that would age particularly well.  A movie that is very much the product of its late 1960s heritage as well as the obvious political sympathies of Paul Newman, Rachel, Rachel should, by all counts, come off as terribly naive and dated. It doesn’t; it doesn’t in the slightest. Never has the existential dread that comes from being stuck in a small town and controlled by the not necessarily malevolent but rarely benign machinations of others been so well-displayed. If you have ever felt lonely or like your life is rushing by with you as a mere observer, the powerful portrait that Rachel, Rachel paints may be overwhelming. It was for me.

Rachel Cameron (Joanne Woodward) is a 35 year old schoolteacher that lives under the thumb of her overbearing mother. A virgin with absolutely no excitement in life, Rachel’s quickly approaching middle age and knows she has nothing to show for it. The summer is approaching and when Rachel isn’t turning down invitations for social activity from her best friend, Calla (Estelle Parsons), or dinner invitations from her school principal, she’s dreading the end of the school year because she knows it means she will have nothing to do but pass the time at home with her widowed mother, making sandwiches and running errands and having no life of her own. It isn’t until Rachel meets a man from her childhood that she begins to make any decisions for herself, though her affair with the rakish Nick (James Olsen) proves to be anything but a fairytale romance.

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Easily, part of the reason why I thought I would find this film unappealing based on Netflix’s barely accurate plot description was that it is almost the archetype for countless, lesser films that followed. These are films that follow “wound tight woman learns to live when she meets a gregarious and young suitor with a true joie de vivre.” That’s more or less an entire subgenre of romantic dramas/comedies. What the other films fail to capture is the unerring vision of reality that Rachel, Rachel exudes in every scene (though it also indulges in the fantasies of the heroine but those are usually used for subversive reasons). Rachel, Rachel is a dark and unyielding look into the life of a woman whose path has been decided without her say from the start, and she may have reached the point where it’s too late to fix things. Any optimism in the film is tempered with healthy doses of unvarnished suffering, not just from Rachel but from nearly every person around her.

But, as insightful as the writing is, what truly makes Rachel, Rachel an under-appreciated and now obscure classic (but a classic nonetheless) is the frighteningly fierce and heartbreaking performance from Joanne Woodward. Without her, this film isn’t half as good as it is. With every line of her face and subtlety of expression or gesture, you feel the immense pain and sorrow that has totally consumed Rachel’s life. With the exception of Synecdoche‘s Caden Cotard, I’m not sure if I can think of a film character who seems so totally miserable,  but in a way that’s relatable to anyone who has ever struggled with depression. And when Rachel lets her guard down, Woodward ensures that the audience knows how difficult this is for her (and the writing makes it clear that opening herself up to Nick is a mistake). It is a truly masterful performance and it’s a shame that it hasn’t become iconic of powerful female acting.

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As I said earlier, I watched this nearly four days ago now so I’ll draw this review to a close. I feel like if I write any more, I’ll just muddle what I’ve already said. My recommendation for Rachel, Rachel is as simple as this. If, in your life, you have ever experienced the intense pangs of loneliness or isolation or existential desperation, Rachel, Rachel has the potential to become a profoundly moving experience. Though I did not cry any during the film, the sadness I felt during this film wasn’t of the crying variety. It was of a powerfully drawn picture of a spectrum of the human condition that most cinema would rather avoid. If you like your films with window dressing that obscures the sadder realities of life, Rachel, Rachel will not be your cup of tea. But, if you can brave its stormy thematic waters, you will discover a haunting and spiritually piercing film.

Final Score: A