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The Eternal Pairing of Music and Breakups: A Review of “Begin Again”

Grade: A-

Music and Breakups have been together since Samson and Delilah. It’s an amicable pairing. They complement each other perfectly— Mr. Music is the soothing savior to Ms. Breakup’s destructive rage. The duo are like two peas in a pod and nothing will break them apart. Pints of coffee ice-cream and rebound make-out sessions with strangers may briefly catch Ms. Breakup’s eye and distract her, but in the end she’ll always come back to her one true staple when she needs to feel better— music.

The louder the better, the greater the anthem. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

begin againWho hasn’t, in the midst of relationship destruction, turned to Beyonce’s “Irreplaceble” as a pick me up? Or Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know”, Adele’s “Someone Like You”, or Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain”? Whatever your fancy, music and breakups go hand in hand. They always have. The music industry can thank relationship blunders for 90% of their songs and 90% of their profits. The two “just get each other.”

Director John Carney (Once) understood this eternal pairing of music and breakups very well, which is exactly why his latest film, Begin Again—a break-up movie/musical—manages to hit all the right notes.

In the film, Greta (Keira Knightley) has just broken up with her soon-to-be-famous boyfriend of five years, David Kohl (Adam Levine). The two were a talented writing duo, but David has chosen fame (and a hot assistant at his label) over her. After a friend drags Greta on stage to sing one of her own songs at an open mic night in NYC, she catches the eye of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a “former” music exec equally down on his luck. Dan decides Greta is the next big thing and to get the attention of his label that has lost faith in him, the two begin work on an outdoor album recorded in myriad locations throughout the city. For Greta and Dan both, this opportunity is a much-needed fresh start sure to reap leagues and leagues of benefits.

Cue the folky/pop music.

Break-up movies are easy to mess up in the same way that romantic movies are. Too many feelings. Too many opportunities for cheesy lines. Too many opportunities for sappy tears, cliché “just dumped” boxes of his junk, and sloppy rebounds. But the biggest hurdle to cross is that romance and breakups are about feelings—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and depicting these emotions on film without simply telling the audience how the characters feel in a string of sappy clichés is the challenge. Movies need to show and not tell. We don’t want to see the characters whine, but we want to understand why they might be whining without having to sit through their blubbery tantrum.

Thankfully, with Begin Again, Carney has expertly found a way to have us perfectly understand what the characters are thinking and feeling without them having to tell us—he makes them tell us through song.

The characters are songwriters. It’s perfect! It’s fool-proof. All the things Greta would confide in a sappy monologue she can now perform—the words she sings are the truths she’s feeling. And it’s not melodramatic. And it’s not driven into us until we’re forced to get it—we just get it. We get what she’s feeling. We get what she’s thinking about. We get where she’s headed next. We understand because of the words she sings and the ways in which she sings them.

The most satisfying moment in the film where this happens is when Greta comes home to discover that David has just won some sort of “Best New Artist” award. His image is plastered all over youtube and he thanks his adoring fans for their support. Naturally, Greta reacts by throwing back some whiskey and writing a song. The next shot we see is of her iphone, duct-taped to a pole like a mic, and David Kohl’s name on the front of the iphone screen. And then she starts singing. She pours out her heart, telling him everything she’d wanted to say but didn’t get the chance to—in a simple, succinct ballad sent straight to his voicemail.

And we get it. We get exactly what she’s thinking, what she’s doing, and how far she’s come with this drunken act of defiance. It hits us like a gust of stale subway air blowing up our dress and exposing us— exposing us to the vulnerability and the truth of the act we’ve all lived before. Because we’ve all had times where we’d kill for this moment. The chance to say what you need to say to the one who did you wrong in a way that is neither dramatic, crazy, or desperate. We never have to shake our head at Greta’s behavior or slap ourselves on the wrist for having done the same thing ourselves. We’re neither embarrassed for her, or uncomfortable, or cringing at the cheesiness that other, lesser movies may have created. We just get it, without Greta having to speak a word.

In this way, the complicated situation of a breakup becomes simple, pure, manageable, and easy to deconstruct despite its apparent complexities. And the perfect pairing of music and breakups gets us there seamlessly.

 

 

 

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Take This Waltz: A “Show Don’t Tell” Gem

Grade: A

Take this Waltz, an indie from the brain of writer/director Sarah Polley that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011 and now streams on Netflix, is a stylized, pure, simple romantic-comedy. Michelle Williams plays Margot—a seemingly happily-married woman who falls for the mysterious artist (Luke Kirby) who lives across the street.  take-this-waltz-still2On the surface, the premise seems like nothing we haven’t heard before, just another struggling marriage dipping into the fetid waters of infidelity, but I was thrilled to discover that the film is decidedly unique in its storytelling. Most specifically, in it’s use of visual comparison.

There is very little talking in this film. When the characters do talk, it’s important and you notice it, when they don’t talk, you ask yourself why. And in a story where the lead character, Margot, is choosing between two paths—staying married to her loving best friend of a husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), of five years, or moving on to the shiny-and-new neighbor, Daniel, who is full of all the passion and mystery that her current relationship lacks, the constant comparison of how she is and how she talks to Lou alongside her interactions with Daniel is one of the major indicators of where her head is at.

Perhaps lacking the fire it assuredly did in its early days, Margot’s relationship with her husband is still full of recurring sweet and silly games that only they understand, ritualistic contentedness, and lots of his cooking (he’s writing a cookbook on chicken, and as a result, all they eat is chicken.) On the other hand, Margot’s relationship with Daniel is intriguing and new and sexy even though all they do is talk about what they might someday do. Both men are likeable, both have admirable qualities, and for the most part they’re on the same level but just on different pages with Margot. Still, the story is Margot’s. She’s the dynamic character, she’s the one who is restless, she’s the one on the verge of a major change.

“Show don’t tell.” They drill it into you in film classes, English classes, and really any “storytelling” class—make your audience understand without a long drawn out soliloquy of exposition.  If they gave out Oscars for the best use of “show don’t tell,” Sarah Polley would surely be a contender. Her skill comes into play in countless places throughout the film, but nowhere else is it as captivating as it is just before the end of the film, in a lengthy tracking shot sequence circling around Margot and Daniel and their new life together after she leaves her husband.

The sequence had me scooting to the edge of my seat waiting to see what the next 360 would reveal. There is no talking, just a tracking shot circling the couple as months pass between them, and the 2-3 minute shot describes their entire life together without having to say a word. The sequence starts with an empty, beautifully spacious loft. Light beams through half-circle windows as Daniel kisses Margot for the first time on-screen in deep silhouette.

And then the camera starts moving.

It circles them once and the couple transitions to sex on the bare floor, it circles them again and now a mattress is added. With another 360, the sexcapades grow—adding another woman to the mix, adding another man, but with another turn it’s just Daniel and Margot again but with more furniture. Each time more furniture, until the end when Margo and Daniel sit side-by-side on a living room couch watching the news. They are hardly touching. They are fully clothed. Their faces are expressionless to both the program they’re watching and each other.  They are content, sure, but bored. There’s a Christmas tree in the room and we see how far they’ve come. Margot breaks the silence to say, “I wuv you” in the way she once bantered with her husband. Daniel doesn’t hear or understand and she says, “I said, ‘I wuv you.’” Whereas before, Lou would mimic her tone and silliness as he said it back, making a game of it, Daniel simply whispers it in her ear so quietly we can hardly hear.

The sequence says it all; it sums up the entire movie. Margot married too young and although her marriage was comfortable and there was a common ease between them, she longed for the desire and intrigue that her current relationship lacked. But when she sought it out with Daniel, she had that passion for only a blip before the same lukewarm contentedness settled in.TakeThisWaltz-Still5 As Margot’s sister-in-law quipped earlier in the film, “Even the new things get old” and that’s what Margot found out the hard way. Yes, she’s happy with Daniel, but she was also happy with Lou.

In another telling scene, Margot and Daniel are brushing their teeth in the bathroom when Margot sits down on the toilet to pee. As soon as she does, Daniel leaves the room. Before, in Margot’s other life, Lou would walk in and strike up a conversation with her as she peed, completely unaffected by the private act. Margot and Lou where closer and warmer, and sure, who’s to say that Daniel and Margot won’t reach that same level of comfort in a few years, but we can’t help but see Margot question her choice. Did she give up a good thing and hurt someone deeply in exchange for the same good thing with a little less ease?

Margot longs for her old life.

She misses the chicken.

And the best part about Sarah Polley’s film is that we understand that all without Margot ever uttering a word on the subject.

Revisted: Attempting Innovation – A Short Review of "My Best Friend’s Wedding"

My Best Friends Wedding 1997

Grade: B-

Director P.J. Hogan and writer Ronald Bass were probably the pre-adolescent boys who slaved over an elaborate sand castle just for the joy of later pummeling it to pieces. As grown men, they do just that with My Best Friend’s Wedding, building a romantic comedy exactly the way you’d expect, complete with last minute chases, unexpressed love, and a desperate “choose me” scene muddied in lies, betrayal, and ubiquitous pop music. Julia Roberts plays the ruthless Julianne who conspires to make her best friend, Michael (Dermot Mulroney), realize she’s the one for him before his “I do’s”. Immediately, once Hogan and Bass have adequately shoved your face in this rom-com premise, they begin fracturing conventions, mistakenly expecting shock and awe to come from their demolition. Sure, they break our expectations—Kimmy (Cameron Diaz) the stereotypically perfect, pastel-wearing fiancée interestingly becomes more wounded puppy than villain.  Similarly, Julianne plays both hero and foe as we simultaneously want to root for her and shake our heads at her behavior. Secrets aren’t held as long as we’d expect, the “chase” scene has us questioning who’s chasing who, and our happy-ending becomes more and more uncertain, but the film never attempts to make up for the emotion it’s losing in its attempt to be innovative, but simply relies on the fact that it’s doing something “fresh.” Take away the happy-ending, the likable protagonist, the hated villain, and you’re left with a film devoid of feeling. Breaking the mold should be refreshing, instead the audience yearns for the old conventions the filmmakers worked so hard to break just to feel something at the end.

A Few Hawaiian Shirts Short of the Gold: A Review of “The Descendants”

Grade: B

To any cinematic follower, or dabbler in pop-culture, or even those who consider themselves as cultured as every narcissistic character in a Woody Allen film, Alexander Payne’s recent award season buzzed film, The Descendants, is the movie to watch for that Oscar gold. (It’s recent Golden Globe win doesn’t hurt either.) It certainly has all the ingredients of an award contender: George Clooney; George Clooney out of his element as anything but a suave bachelor; Fox Searchlight indie spirit with the ten-year-old daughter’s penchant for using her middle finger and talking about “masturbation movies”; and finally, the sniffles heard in the theater that are assuredly nthe-descendants-photo-03ot a result of the common cold. The Descendants is a tear-jerker. What’s startling, and what’s applauded by the onslaught of television ads promoting the film, is its ability to be both heart-wrenchingly tragic and laugh-out-loud funny. That element of the film works beautifully, but not every element of the film is deserving of myriad trophy accolades. Perhaps, and I don’t feel it’s risky to say, George Clooney’s name alone carries this movie closer to critical acclaim than it maybe deserves.

The Descendants follows Matt King (George Clooney), an understudy of a parent and husband, who must juggle the lives of his complicated daughters as he deals with the pending death of his wife (Patricia Hastie). Grief, family grapples, father/daughter discord, and the realization that bad things happen all are given ample screen time amidst the not-so-perfect backdrop of Hawaii’s lush islands. Throw in a little infidelity, a complicated family decision about what to do with their land trust of a yet to be commercialized patch of pure Hawaiian soil, and a hard-ass father-in-law played by the perfectly cast Robert Forster, and you’ve got a complicated plot to fit alongside the complex matter of dealing with untimely death.

What works well works very well: Clooney’s believability as a struggling father and his impeccable chemistry with the surprise star Shailene Woodley.

Woodley plays Matt’s seventeen-year-old daughter with a dirty mouth, a drug-littered past, and shaky relationship with both parents rooted in anger, betrayal, and misunderstanding. And while on the surface, Woodley’s character is entirely clichéd and exactly like every other troubled teen that’s ever graced the screen, Woodley adds a surprising element of authenticity to the role.

Coming from an actress who is best known for her work on the horribly written and horribly acted teen series The Secret Life of an American Teenager, I didn’t expect much from Shailene Woodley, but I was pleasantly surprised. She perfectly captures an authentic American teenager in The Descendants and you can read every glare at her father, every loving touch on the shoulders of her younger sister Scottie (Amara Miller), and every cross of her arms at an uncomfortable situation as actions of a true, struggling, defensive seventeen-year-old girl. I’m not completely convinced that she does it on purpose. In some ways, her trying too hard to come off as a volatile teenager makes her portrayal of one even more effective. By adding an extra dose of teen-attitude, and piling on the eye rolls, her character becomes more real almost by accident—capturing the excess emotions that teenagers often dish out by nearly over-acting herself. In the process, Woodley becomes the one to watch, taking attention away from her typical scene-stealing costar, George Clooney, and commanding the screen with her casual, makeup-less, girl next door appeal.

But what is truly a pleasure to watch is the growing closeness between Alexandra and her father. In an expertly inserted sub-plot, Alex admits to her father that her mother was cheating on him. This triggers a string of comically rich scenes involving the stalking and confronting of Matt’s wife’s lover which creates countless moments for skillfully tiered character development.  The subplot is particularly effective in showcasing the growing bond between Alethe-descendants-12142011x and her father as they work together to seek self-satisfying revenge.

“Don’t do that,” Matt tells Alex as they make plans to visit the cheater, Brian Speer (played by Matthew Lillard), at his rented beach cottage and confront him, “Don’t go getting excited.” But she is excited, and he’s excited, and the complex nature of the situation—confronting the man that you’re dying wife/mother cheated with, alongside the drama of the real emotions involved, is too interesting to not get excited about even as audience members. It is through this mystery that Alex and Matt are solving that we see their relationship build and shift. And the idea of bonding over something so heavy, and being able to convey it with comic appeal is one of the high points of the film.

The scene where all this culminates, when the cheater’s family and Matt’s family meet, is priceless old-school comedy gold where a character is cornered in an incredibly awkward situation and struggles to get out of it. It’s hands down the best scene of the movie. And all the while, amidst the comedy, Clooney subtly captures the rage, sadness, and forgiveness of a man who is losing his wife not to the man who she cheated with, but to bad luck and a boating accident.  It’s a unique emotion, and one that Clooney conveys in a way that makes the audience sigh in anguish and just as quickly laugh with pleasure.

And while this plot point to find his wife’s secret lover is effective, there are other plot points that fall flat. In many ways, the movie ties the plot too tightly, making too many knots. Some characters are unnecessary. The first one that’d be on my chopping block is Sid—Alex’s dumb friend (played by Nick Krause) who tags along on the family’s adventures. His pure purpose is comic relief, and while his character involves humorous punches to the face when he says ridiculous things, he’s only good for a dumb laugh that we’ve seen countless times before.  The big mistake with his character was trying to bring heart to it. In an awkward and forced scene, Matt confronts Sid when he can’t sleep and Sid opens up about his father’s recent death. The scene intends to parallel Alex’s mother’s pending death. It was supposed to humanize Sid, make him more than the dumb teen who talks like a surfer dude and cracks lame “retarded’ jokes.  But it’s ineffective. Clooney seems to have no sympathy for Sid, no chemistry with Sid, and nothing enlightening or satisfying was accomplished by their late night chat.

Another woven plot strand deals with the land trust Matt and his cousins must decide to sell or not.  This plot line introduces ten ubiquitous cousins that pop into scenes throughout the movie, urging Matt to go along and sell their land in order to pave the way for million dollar resorts and golf courses that’ll give each of the cousins some extra zeros on their bank statements. The decision to sell is a big one and everyone has an opinion, but the plot meanders with this storyline. In one scene, the decision to sell the land is given a lot of attention and weight, and in the next scene, Matt argues that he has bigger things on his mind like the death of his wife. It’s difficult to understand how much weight this decision was intended to have in the plot. What purpose does it serve except to introduce way too many excess characters who superficially care about their dying family member, but mostly just care about their own pockets? And predictably, in the end, after countless uncomfortable scenes with locals insisting that selling is a bad idea because of traffic and family legacies, Matt decides not to the sell the land, but what purpose does this serve? Yay! Hawaii will stay pretty! Yay, the family will still be able to camp on the land like they used to with their mother. So what, we understand that Matt has changed? That he wants to hold on to what’s his? We understand he’s changed without this plot point. We see it in his interactions with his daughters. We see it in how they respect him, how they understand him, how they walk next to him by choice.

The resolution about his decision not to sell feels incomplete. We’re left with so many questions—how much did the fact that Brian Speer would benefit financially from the sell factor into his decision not to? How do his cousins take the news? We’re led to believe not well, but at the same time, there isn’t one character who feels particularly strong about the issue.  We’re given a batch of superfluous cousins to add to the plot who all have opinions, but none of them have strong enough ones to warrant our interest. The conflict is flat. The resolution is mute. The audience is happy with his decision because it feels right, but at what benefit for the character that wasn’t achieved elsewhere?

At times, the film feels like it was shoved into a plastic bottle in order to contain some of the drama. It’s squelched in places where the drama could thrive. Sometimes, the drama doesn’t hit at hard as it could. And while this light-hearted tragedy seems to be the goal of the filmmakers, it would illicit more emotion from the audience if the weight of the drama was allowed to flourish.

The scene where Matt tells Alexandra that her mother is going to die ends too quickly.  The news is given too flatly, the beautiful shot of her crying underwater ends too immediately, and the angry attack at her father for telling her the news while she was in the pool cuts the emotion and ends the scene just as the weight of it is beginning to resonate. It’s too rushed.  The next scene follows too quickly, and the characters and the audience are cheated of their time to grieve.581851-2011_the_descendants_010

The same is true in the scene where Alex tells Matt that her mother was cheating on him. Clooney plays the role of wounded bird beautifully, where you can almost physically see the blow the news is to his face and his composure, but just as this resonates, again, we’re given a humorous scene where Clooney goofily runs down the street on his way to talk to his wife’s closest friends about what he’s just heard, tripping on his sandals, and looping around the boulevard.

I understand that the gem of the film is its ability to allow comedy and drama to co-habitat, and while this is achieved tonally through the narrative twists, the filmmakers’ penchant to immediately rush to a joke snubs some of the movie’s ability to hit hard with the devastating emotion of the scenes. It has all of the pieces needed in order to get the audience crying with laughter while retrieving their hearts from the popcorn-littered floor, and in many cases it does, but it misses an opportunity to master both comedy and drama by cutting to comedy too quickly, and refusing to cut a few too many superfluous plot-lines.

The pure pleasure, though, of watching Matt’s relationship with his daughters morph and grow in an entirely organic and humanist way is worth struggling through a few awkward Sid-involved scenes and one too many cousins in Hawaiian shirts. And the film’s final shot of the three remaining members of the King clan sharing ice cream underneath the blanket their mother was cloaked in in the hospital is a beautiful send-off, and a near-perfect bow on the entire story. It encapsulates the characters and how they’ve changed, starting out separate, on opposite ends of the game board, and ending up amicably together—they may have lost their mother, but they have their father back.  And thankfully, the freshly-black-eyed Sid is no where to be found.

Movies are how I understand my world

59thstbridge(2) I understand the world through movies. I only understand economics in terms of the film industry and politics in terms of documentary and politically twisted plots. I know which fork to use first from Titanic, and I understand Duke and Duchess culture from The Duchess, 80s fashion from Sixteen Candles, and how to best rob a bank from The Town. My earliest basic understanding of football came from Remember the Titans. I better understand my childhood, and the nostalgia associated with it, when I view anything by Spielberg, or my childhood favorite Free Willy, or when I experience the sadness of Andy giving away his toys in Toy Story 3. My role models are fictional: Andie from Devil Wears Prada, Rachel McAdams in anything besides Mean Girls, Celine in Before Sunset/Sunrise. Not only do films like Juno and Charlie Bartlett influence my own writing style, but the plots influence my life. I know not how to hold a coffee cup from my parents but from an actress. My idealized dream of New York City is entirely based on how it’s depicted in Woody Allen movies; and it is that image of the city, that shot of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sitting beneath the Queensboro bridge in Manhattan that put dreams of New York City into my head until I obtained a NYC address of my own. I want Clementine’s spunk in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, to be loved with the intensity Robby feels in Atonement, to be as adorable as Penelope Cruz is in Vanilla Sky. I want to hear “you had me at hello,”  and I want a tiny Jonathan Lipnicki, spiky hair and all, to keep in my pocket at all times spouting things like, “Do you know that my next door neighbor has three rabbits?” My morality, my idealism, my cynicism, my dreams, goals, aspirations, limitations, hairstyles, fashion, thoughts, perceptions, perspectives, and opinions are all shaped by film. It doesn’t hurt that I submerse myself in as many as possible, but apart from a few reality/fantasy boundaries I can’t differentiate, I don’t feel tainted by my cinephile ways. Its variety has shaped me.

I owe it to the movies, then, to give them my two cents. After all, they’ve provided me with an unmatched education.