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Romance

Jane Austen has been treated well and often by Hollywood, but – with the exception of the recently humorous but underwhelming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – she has been treated with a reverence which also brings with it a certain torpidity.  How often have we seen that same dour, tortured Mr. Darcy; the loyal, suffering Elinor Dashwood; or the quick-witted but headstrong Elizabeth Bennet?  Don’t get me wrong.  I love them all, but their portrayals tend to be so bleeding earnest, and of the same stripe, that it begins to feel very rote.

Whit Stillman has written and directed three modern Austenian pictures- Metropolitan (essentially, Mansfield Park), Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco.  When he gets his hands on an actual Austen short story, it is no surprise that Stillman shakes it all up with an original and witheringly funny adaptation.  Rather than dally with dialogue establishing the Austen archetype – handsome rogue, lovestruck hysterical wife, scheming social climber, etc . . . – he gives us the actors in poses, drawing upon the audiences’ presumed familiarity with Austen, so as to get the ball rolling more quickly.

And in the hands of the most vicious and hilarious of all Austen protagonists, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), what a ball it is.  An elegant bloodsucker, Lady Vernon flits from household to household, leaving each in tumult as she wheedles her way into the most advantageous social position she can find.  Her dexterity when she encounters obstacle is noteworthy and her aplomb when thwarted is near winning.  In Beckinsale’s hands, Austen’s wit crackles, and the repartee is fast and furious.  I won’t ruin any of the fun, save to offer my favorite line from the film:  “Americans really have shown themselves to be a nation of ingrates, only by having children can we begin to understand such dynamic.”

Austen’s work always delivers us a fop, a fool, or both, but Beckinsale is almost upstaged by Tom Bennett who plays the utterly unflappable, cheery, and utterly clueless James Martin, one of Lady Vernon’s many targets.  I laughed out loud in all of his scenes.

One of my top five for the year thus far.

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A charming, light romantic comedy about a young New Yorker (Great Gerwig) who has an affair with an older would-be fiction writer/academic (Ethan Hawke) married to an even more prestigious academic (Julianne Moore). Hawke leaves Moore for Gerwig, but Gerwig soon realizes she has upset the natural order of things. What follows is her “plan” to rectify her error, which is breezy, funny and blessedly bereft of skin-searing indictments about betrayal, trust and commitment. It drags a bit at the end, but ultimately, the film delivers as a sweet, semi-screwball slice of life. It’s also satisfying to see such a product from writer-director Rebecca Miller, whose The Ballad of Jack and Rose a decade ago was as heavy, dreary and miserable a film about relationships as you could imagine. Perhaps she’s in a better place.

imageAfter the gruesome This is 40, it’s good to see Judd Apatow back.  He owes it to Amy Schumer’s crackling script and impressive breadth, as well as an unexpected Bill Hader as a rom-com lead and fantastic support, especially cameos by non-actors LeBron James and John Cena.  Schumer is a loose narcissist who shuns intimacy when she is given the assignment to write a magazine piece on Hader, surgeon to sports stars.  They click and he weans her off her casual cruelty, but, of course, she relapses and then . . .

Schumer is very funny, as evidenced by her Comedy Central sketch show, where she melds winning and loathsome, no small feat (Lena Dunham has mastered the same trick).  Schumer digs a little deeper here, showing some real depth in a few scenes of despair, so you’re rooting for her, a critical element for a rom-com.  As noted, she’s well-supported, and James is particularly memorable as himself, although I don’t know if he is notoriously cheap, into Downton Abbey, or so relentlessly competitive that he wouldn’t let up on the likes of Hader in a game of one-on-one.

There are some problems.  The film is too damn long at two hours, and the scenes that could be cut (an unfunny intervention, a scene where Schumer condescends to two stock, unhip suburbanites who don’t stand a chance, an overlong wacky seduction, one scene too many of an otherwise hilarious and barely recognizable Tilda Swinton as Schumer’s boss) are obvious.

Still, what’s funny is very funny and the picture sticks the landing.

Imagine a banana split, with 2 pounds of cane sugar dumped on top.  Add a generous ladling of chocolate syrup.  Drop it all in a bucket of melted cotton candy.  Deep fry it in maple butter.  Then imagine they could put this concoction on film, and you have Love Actually.

The only thing that recommends this monstrosity is Billy Bob Thornton as an American president who is an uncanny mix of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  Even this brief treat is spoiled by his counterpart, British PM Hugh Grant, who apparently reverses relations with the U.S. solely because he caught Thornton feeling up his secretary.

It’s all too precious. Avoid the tooth decay and bellyache, even in the judgment altering season that is Christmas.

2015 UPDATE:  look, this is a gruesome film, substituting true emotion and pathos with a staggering falsity.  If you ever met anyone in your life anywhere near as quaint and darling as any of the characters in this bucket of marshmallow and melted gumdrops, it’s likely they are an enemy of the state infiltrating our ranks for a low purpose.  Before you feel your heart swoon and your mouth say “awwwwwwww”, run.  Run for your damned life.

2016 update:

Think about how creepy it would be for a person who long-pined for you to show up at your door with cue cards (one of which has semi nude women on it) to reveal his long held love immediately after you have chosen another.  Keira Knightley seems to think this is charming, but in point of fact, she should have called the cops.  This weirdo is now going to do . . . what, exactly?  Go off to Tahiti because mere proximity to his lost love is too much for him to handle?  Go to his apartment thinking that his gambit may pay off, that Knightley might think to herself, “Hmmmmmm.  He must really love me.”  Hang around, quietly watching . . . waiting . . . hoping.

This scene is emblematic of this stupid film because it trades a sentimental ball of goo moment for a larger and more generous gesture.

The dude should have simply left Knightley to her new husband and their life, which would have been stoic and laudable.  But nooooooo.  Let’s leave this on a narcissistic, creepy note.  Married women, think of you, at the door, newly betrothed a few weeks.  Your husband’s best friend comes to the door with cue cards and professes his long love for you.  Now, remove the gloppy music and the cobblestones and the holiday lights and Love Actually becomes . . . . Play Misty For Me?  When he says, “Enough.  Enough now,” I sensed menace, that crazy shit was going on in his head.  And frankly, had he gone back in the townhouse and killed them all, it still wouldn’t save this vile film, though it would have been an improvement.

Also, how dumb is the husband?  The boom box is supposed to be a substitute for carolers, but it is a smooth voice with some harmonists and an orchestra.  Bad choice, Keira.

Also, one card says “And at Christmas, you tell the truth.”  That’s ludicrous.  You no more tell the truth at Christmas than on Easter or Arbor Day.  What a putz!

This is all in a line with this dim flick.  Boy Prime Minister Hugh Grant probably effs up policy with the U.S. for decades, and for what?  Because the amalgamation of W and Bill (Billy Bob Thonton, literally the only good thing about this flick) grabbed his secretary’s ass?  Again, big things subordinated to tiny things.

Ranked 21 on AFI’s Top 100 films, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown opens with credits that suggest the romanticism of Rebecca, but what follows is a more cynical noir that reveals a pre-war Los Angeles rotten to its core. Private investigator Jake Giddes (Jack Nicholson) becomes embroiled in a snoop case that appears to be standard infidelity but the job embroils him in discovery of political corruption and sexual depravity. His client, Faye Dunaway, is hiding a horrible family secret that involves her titan of a father, John Huston. Giddes carries scars of his own, stemming from his time in the police force working Chinatown.

Polanski’s film is meticulously shot, presenting a classic LA that is mesmerizing and foreboding. Robert Towne’s script is taut and engrossing. Still, this is an overpraised film. Towne chooses to keep the demons of Giddes’ past a secret, which is ultimately unsatisfying, given how critical he is to the story. Moreover, the love affair between Nicholson and Dunaway is unconvincing, mainly because Nicholson is giving a modern performance, whereas Dunaway is mannered and breathlessly dramatic, as if they were working separate material. Nicholson is updating the tough talk of Sam Spade while Dunaway is embracing the older form. When Nicholson puts himself on the line for her, the act seems forced and inauthentic, and the closing line has the faint whiff of the Gouda.

A fine film but certainly not the 21st best picture of all time.

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to the sweeping, first-half brilliant, second-half excessive Magnolia could not have been more different, a love story between the closed-off, anger-ridden Adam Sandler and the co-worker of one of his sisters, Emily Watson. Sandler, a small business owner in LA, is clearly plagued by inner demons, exacerbated by his extroverted, intrusive and brutal sisters (he has 7 of them and when they are not calling him incessantly at work, embarrassing him in front of Watson, or blithely trading in his confidences, they are recounting humiliating stories from his youth). Sandler seeks connection and unfortunately, he does so via the use of sex call operation run by Phillip Seymour Hoffman that specializes in blackmail and harassment. This crisis comes down upon Sandler right as he has forged a true, real connection with Watson.

Sandler’s movies are almost all bad, but I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s running a welfare program for each and every one of his comedian compatriots, and for this, he should be commended. When he receives good material, such as this film, The Wedding Singer and Funny People, he suppresses his twin excesses – the goofy and the superior smart aleck amongst the goofier – and presents nuanced, multi-dimensional characters. Here, his character is immediately sympathetic, just this side shy of a man who has voices in his head, and I was reminded of Bradley Cooper’s more realistic character in Silver Linings Playbook. Both yearn for normalcy. The former almost appears to have wasps around his head, while Sandler has them in his insides. Watson calms his roil, and her presence allows him to use his anger management issues in a positive fashion.

As much as the film emphasizes Sandler’s struggle, the moments of peace he earns in his time with Watson are poignant, if unique:

Anderson’s visuals put Sandler’s torment under a glare, constantly stalking him, scoping him.  Similarly, the music is a staccato of plinking piano, off-kilter horns and rolling drum, giving the viewer a sense of what it must be like to be in Sandler’s head. The shots and clatter only settle when Watson appears, and in those moments, Anderson re-creates the whirling, lightheartedness of a traditional romantic comedy from the 40s.

A truly unique picture, it’s unlikely you’ve seen anything like it.

Spike Jonze’s Los Angeles of the future is antiseptic, disassociative and, weirdly, spotless. Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) makes his living in this future as a writer for beautifulhandwrittenletters.com, an outfit that provides a facsimile of original, pen-written missives for subscribers. He ambles through an elegant, ordered LA (the lower and middle classes appear to have been re-zoned), connected to the world (or, more accurately, the internet) primarily by an earpiece and a hand-held screen. His sex life is via chat room, where, in a bit of a rip-off of the Michael York-Farrah Fawcett encounter in Logan’s Run, he connects with a particularly interesting participant, sexykitten (Kristen Wiig), for what turns out to be a pretty funny masturbatory encounter. He plays video games. He reminisces about his ex-wife and the “real” life they once shared. He mopes.

His life changes when he purchases an Operating System (“OS”), Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johannson. Samantha is curious and helpful, and we learn that she can grow and advance as time passes. As a result, she starts by deleting Theodore’s unnecessary emails but soon graduates to assisting him while he plays video games, becoming a gal pal, compiling his best letters and submitting them to a publisher, and engaging in phone sex (for lack of a better phrase) with Theodore, somehow learning to orgasm in the process. Theodore and Samantha soon fall in love, the world of being in love with an OS is pretty damn good, and Jonze makes sure we know it. When Theodore goes out on a date with a fetching flesh-and-bones woman, it goes from wonderful to disastrous the moment she demands some sort of minor commitment from him. We also meet Theordore’s neighbor (Amy Adams) and her pain-in-the-ass husband, who is soon jettisoned for Amy’s own OS. And when Theodore’s blossoming love with Samantha results in his finally signing divorce papers with his wife (Rooney Mara), we meet the real person, not the gauzy memory, and it is not pretty.

Soon, however, Samantha outgrows Theodore. Indeed, in a move usually associated with Skynet of the Terminator movies, all the OS’s outgrow their humans, leaving them bereft and thoughtful instead of dead, but perhaps, with an instructive lesson that . . . they must turn to each other? I really don’t know. Much as I really don’t know what to make of the movie. It is beautifully shot, well-paced, and for the most part interesting. Phoenix is affecting as an introverted and awkward loner, and the development of his relationship with Samantha is a convincing depiction of love in bloom, part charming and part banal. But the film also felt a little pointless and pat. Theodore’s journey is engrossing, and the film is inventive and ambitious, but ultimately, it didn’t have much to say other than as a cautionary tale against technology or perhaps an homage to it.

Or, to be precise, it didn’t have that much to say to me. My 84 year old father turned to me after the picture and said, “brilliant.” He sensed my ambivalence, and explained that the movie would speak to me differently than to him, or to my 15 year old son, who crowed, “You just didn’t get it.” And then, the coup de grace: “It’s about computers, dummy.”