Saturday, April 22, 2006

A Discourse on the Romanic Comedy

You know what, I like romantic comedies. I like them a whole lot. In any event, I like them a whole lot more than the average guy. If you know me at all, or have read my prior posts, this revelation will not come as a surprise at all. And you know what, I'm tired of apologizing for my taste in movies, and of pretending not to like something that I DO like, and of being made to feel inferior for my taste in motion pictures. It is my contention that romantic comedies are not a blight on the intellectual movie consciousness, as they are often made out to ben, and that a well-made romantic comedy can be among the most satisfying moviegoing experiences out there. I'm gonna talk about romantic comedies, why I love them, why they get bad press, then end with several examples of romantic comedies I did or did not like and what worked or did not work about them.

A word in advance: This post is strictly gonna be about romantic comedies, which I will define in the primary sense it will be used here as a movie where the primary point of the story is a romance, and there is some comedy there to keep the movie light. So any movies which are primarily comedies but with a romantic story thrown in will not be included. And though I'm not including other types of movies, the points in this post could probably be applied to several other types of movies that I also enjoy (e.g. kids movies in the vein of Life-Size or teen movies, or other movies which are primarily liked for being "cute").

What makes a good romantic comedy good?

There are several factors that go in to making a good comedy, and where people get confused about them is that the factors that make a romantic comedy good are not the factors that we normally look at in a movie. Also a lot of the standards that we normally apply to films aren't really appropriate to apply to romantic comedies (see the next section for further discussion on this). These are the most important points of a romantic comedy, in descending order of importance.

1. Chemistry between the leads. If the leads don't have the chemistry there, the movie just will not work. There needs to be a good rapport between the leads, they need to work together well, for the romantic backbone of the movie to be believable. This one should be obvious.
2. Dialogue. The quality of the dialogue between the characters needs to be high, because this is what generally is gonna drive the actions and the plot of the movie, and this is what is supposed to make us believe the characters are falling in love. Poorly written dialogue will sink any romantic comedy, no matter how witty and charming the leads are.
3. Believability of the ending. A romantic comedy will almost always end up with the main characters together. Anything else, with a few notable exceptions, is just not conceivable. Most romantic comedies take place over a very short period of time, with the main characters having not had much interaction with each other, so it has to be believable that the main characters end up together. Furthermore, the audience has to really believe that they are gonna STAY together, and not break up one week later. Everything leads up to this point, if it doesn't work it kinda ruins the point of the journey.
4. Quality of the acting. Usually this is more important for the female lead. This seems like an easy role, but, again, it needs to be judged on different terms than regular acting. The important and essential characteristics of a female lead are that she is sweet and cute and funny and charming. There usually isn't too terribly large an emotional range required, but you really need to be a charmer, and not all good actresses could pull this off.
5. Factors keeping the main characters apart. Delayed gratification is the point of a romantic comedy, they can't get together until the very end. On the other hand, the characters have to be shown and made to be falling in love slowly throughout the film, so the ending will be believable. So if they're already in love, why not get together? There have to be external forces keeping the characters apart. A certain suspension of disbelief needs be granted in this regard to the film, but sometimes they can take it overboard. A move where two people who are in love can't get together just because of their own idiotic decisions and actions can become too stupid to watch at a certain point.
6. Emotional arc of the film. A good romantic comedy should end with both the male and female main characters having learned something about themselves en route to ending up together.
7. Actual quality of the comddy. All things considered, a romantic comedy that is legitimately funny will be preferable to one that is not. This one isn't super important though, a movie can succeed as a superior romantic comedy even if the jokes aren't very good.

A Much Maligned Genre

Hardly any genre receives as much scorn from intellectual moviegoers than the modern, bubbly romantic comedy. The most common complaint given about romantic comedies is that they are too predictable. This complaint bugs me to no end. YES, the main characters will end up together in the end, YES they will say a cheesy line, and YES the film will often end on, or just after, a lingering shot of their oh-so-romantic first kiss. You're just gonna have to get over that. Not every movie needs to have a surprise ending to be good, and it can be very satisfying to watch the events play out even if you basically know where it's going. Every once in a while they'll throw a nice curveball in there too (e.g. Little Black Book, Down With Love).
Furthermore, extending on the comedy comment above, to be honest, the actual quality of the jokes is not a big deal. To me, the "comedy" portion of the romantic comedy serves to keep the mood light, and whatnot, and not necessarily to cause laugh-out-loud jokes. Everything is in service to the romantic story in these films.
Anyways I think this film genre is highly maligned, and the reason is people are judging it on the wrong terms. For the romantic story/drama, we might judge it on the basis of a dramatic film. The most important thing in a normal dramatic film is a plot, and most romantic comedies have stupid and very predictable plots, even the good ones. From a comedy standpoint, a lot of romantic comedies have kind of unoriginal jokes, that's the nature of the beast most of the time. So people judging it from a comedic standpoint are gonna be disappointed as well. But the point of a romantic comedy is the journey of seeing the interactions between the people, and watching them fall in love. The ending is important because we gotta see them end up together, but it's the character interactions that really drive a romantic comedy. The other problem with romantic comedies is that by their very nature they really can't be watched with a critical eye. They work best when you are just sitting there and letting yourself get caught up in the emotions. This obviously works against it a lot of the time from a critical standpoint.
All this being said, there are 3 reasons I can think of which I would consider to be valid as reasons for not liking the whole of romantic comedies:

1) Extreme reliance on the plot of movies, to the exclusion of other elements. If you consider plot, and the development/resolution of plot to be the most important part of all films you enjoy, you won't like romantic comedies.
2) You only or mostly like to watch movies to be intellectually stimulated. Obviously this rules out most romantic comedies.
3) You cannot or do not like to get emotionally involved in the events of movies.

There are probably more that people can come up with, I will review those on a case-by-case basis. But, each of these three reasons are valid, and I wouldn't consider any to be signs of being closed-minded. What DOES annoy me though is when people say/imply that the romantic comedy is an inferior genre of film based on their own biases of enjoying films. Or the seemingly common belief that romantic comedies are for brainless idiots. I like other aspects of films than you do, doesn't make me any worse. Also it annoys me when people say they don't like romantic comedies because they are too predictable, even when they like other types of movies which are not inherently plot based (e.g. my friend Rich). Just admit the real reason, which is that you are too much of a "man" to get emotionally involved in love stories.

Illustrative Examples

Romantic Comedies that Worked (like usual, a lot of these reviews are gonna contain spoilers):

Notting Hill - This is a movie made in 1999 starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. I'm gonna assume you all basically knew that and basically know the plot of this movie, as it is one of the more famous romantic comedies. This film is written by Richard Curtis, who also wrote two other excellent romantic comedies in Love Actually and Four Weddings and a Funeral. All three films work exceptionally well, and are a delight to watch, and for the same basic reasons. Richard Curtis is an expert at writing dialogue, and also writes characters very well. In addition, Notting Hill is legitimately funny. Hugh Grant plays the same character he always does, and does just as well as he always does, which is quite well indeed. The funny thing is, I don't like Julia Roberts at all (actually I kinda hate her), but, damn, I gotta admit she is perfect for this role. She does a damn fine job in this role. In addition, addressing the other points above, the forces keeping them apart, she being a celebrity, and him a commoner, work just fine in the film, and the ending is well deserved. We have seen they have fallen in love with each other, and the ending plays out in a very sweet, very cute way, right after the famous scene in the bookstore (ie the "I'm just a girl" scene).

Just Like Heaven - This was a film released just last year starring Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo. Using the above scale of factors noted, the most important things that this movie has working for it are #1 (Chemistry of Leads), #3 (Believability of Acting), #4 (Quality of Acting of Female Lead), and #6 (Emotional Arc of Film). Reese Witherspoon is probably my favorite actress working today (non-Amber Tamblyn division), and her and Mark Ruffalo just work wonderfully together. The chemistry between them really is excellent, and Reese is just so perfect for acting in a romantic comedy. The emotional arc of this film is both excellent, as both characters learn important lessons in the film, and it really does have a good message. As to the plot and the comedy, the plot is highly original for a romantic comedy, but doesn't really add a ton to the romantic arc, and the comedy is OK but really derivative. But the ending of the movie, oh, the ending. I was really surprised at how emotionally affecting the entire film was, but especially the ending. It's probably not quite correct to say it made me cry, but my eyes were welling up, and certainly I was made highly emotional. If this film doesn't hit you emotionally you seriously must have a heart of stone. This was the best romantic comedy in a long while, and one of the best films of 2005 period. I highly recommend either this film or Notting Hill if you are a first-timer to romantic comedies who has never really given 'em a chance.

Roman Holiday - This is my favorite film of all time, as I have said before. I absolutely adore Audrey Hepburn, and she is outstanding in this film (actually she won the Oscar for it), and her and Gregory Peck have tons and tons of chemistry. The reason I bring this film up is because it does violate the central tenet that the main characters will end up together. Normally I hate it when that happens, but it WORKS for this film. It doesn't seem self-indulgent, and the very last scene of the movie, a lingering shot of Gregory Peck walking away, is one of my very favorite film scenes of all time. You are just sitting there waiting for the classic cheesy romantic comedy scene were Audrey runs out and yells at him to stop and they kiss and all is well, but you know it can't happen.

Down With Love - Another personal favorite, not nearly as emotionally affecting as the above but works because Ewan MacGregor and Renee Zelwegger each have tons of charm, and the film keeps a great breezy light pace throughout. It's very pretty to look at, and the humor is generally actually pretty funny. There is a pretty funny twist thrown in at the end, but most of this movie is just a very surface-y but very fun romantic comedy.

Romantic Comedies that Didn't Work (just my opinion):

How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days - This is a romantic comedy that is torn down by the plot, the very rare kind. Roger Ebert has a great term, the "Idiot Plot". This is a plot that is driven only by the fact that the two main characters are idiots, and the entire plot/misunderstandings would be solved if only a couple people would get together and have one decent length conversation. For example, most episodes of Lost would meet this description. He also wisely points out that in a well-made film (such as Just Like Heaven), the idiot plot can serve the film really well by creating tension. In a poorly made film, such as this one, it just completely destroys the film. The main issues I have with this film, from the list above are #3 (believability of ending) and #5 (factors keeping main characters apart). I didn't believe the ending to this movie, I didn't feel like it "earned" it, and I didn't feel like the main characters were staying together. The whole film was just kind of a mess, which is a shame because Kate Hudson is very cute and charming and I would love to see her star in a good romantic comedy

Tying into a previous post, Hello Sister, Goodbye Life, though not technically a romantic comedy could easily be judged on the same scale. And by the scale it fails on #2 - #4. As I noted, the acting was bad, the dialogue was unrealistic, and the ending was not justified by the prior events in the movie.

Final Conclusions

I guess the reason I wanted to write this post was because I often see romantic comedies trashed in reviews that completely miss the point. Often when reading a negative review of one, it is clear that the person writing the review just doesn't like romantic comedies as a genre at all, and people just think that's okay! I mean, it's absurd, I'm not gonna go write a review of some metal album, or some slow paced arty foreign film, because I don't get those genres and I don't like them. But because it's a "romantic-comedy" it's COOL to hate. And oh yeah, guys don't like them either because you have to be emotionally involved to like them, which we are all trained out of as children. But EMBRACE THEM. It's really fun, and it plays to a kind of primal, inborn desire in all of us for true romantic love. Anyways, I've read so many reviews of romantic comedies that trash them for being predictable, or for not being funny enough or something, that I just wanted to make a post on what factors IN MY OPINION are properly used in judging a romantic comedy. And if this post seems kinda gay or stupid, whatever, I'm through with apologizing for my taste in movies.

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

Movie Review - "Hello Sister, Goodbye Life"

I just want to point out ahead of time that this review is gonna contain spoilers in order for me to fully identify why this film was disappointing to me. But fear not, dear reader, as everything which happens in this film is telegraphed well in advance.

THE FILM: "Hello Sister, Goodbye Life"
STARRING: Lacey Chabert, Sammi Hanratty, and Wendy Malick
PLOT OUTLINE: A college student, Olivia (Lacey Chabert) has a very fractured relationship with her father, who divorced her mother long ago and married another woman. With this other woman, he had a daughter, Celia (Sammi Hanratty), who is aged approximately seven at the start of the film. Olivia is very close to her kind of wacky and young-acting mother Barbara (Wendy Malick), however. Unfortunately, Olivia's father and step-mother die in an automobile accident, and would you believe it, the father's will stipulates that Olivia is to be given custody of the children. Wait, what? OK, this requires a bit of a leap of faith, as it's never really made clear why Olivia takes on this role (keep in mind that she barely knows her sister at all by this point, they've only seen each other a couple times, and Olivia considers her to be bratty and spoiled). Anyways, she DOES take it on. And earlier in the film, her long-time boyfriend has revealed that he is moving to Italy and would like her to move to Italy with him, which she had been planning on doing but will be obviously impossible given her current living arrangements. Anyways, Barbara moves in with Olivia to help with Celia, and things proceed in the expected direction, i.e. Olivia shows herself to be woefully underprepared and they hate each other. Eventually she is convinced to give up custody of her child, to the girl's grandparents, who live in Argentina. This seemingly important fact is something that she keeps from Celia, not wanting to hurt her. That will turn out well. They make arrangements for Celia to fly to Argentina to stay with her grandparents, and they will get the paperwork finalized there. But, lo, what is this, Olivia and Celia start to BOND in the last couple of weeks! The shock! But then Celia finds out about Olivia's plans to abandon her and gets mad at Olivia again. Will Olivia give up on Celia and move to Italy with her boyfriend, or stay with Celia at home? Watch the film to find out!!!

Okay, of course she stays.

Now carefully review that plot summary and then read the following plot summary from IMDB. See if you can identify any factual or grammatical errors, or inconsistencies with the description presented above: "A college (Chabert) is forced to care for her 7-year-old half sister when her dad and step mom die."

KEY TURNING POINTS: The (usually) best parts of films like this are the scenes where touching moments happen between child and adult which cause them to bond, and cause the audience to get progressively more and more choked up.

Moment One: After trying, and failing, to discipline Celia, Olivia and her boyfriend are talking, and her boyfriend convinces her to give up custody of Celia and move with him to Italy after all.
Desired Emotional Response: "Oh no! Give it a chance to develop! You and Celia are perfect for each other, and this guy is kind of an a-hole."
Actual Emotional Response: "Good. You are clearly unprepared for this awesomely huge task and are doing both yourself and Celia a disservice."

Moment Two: While picking Celia up from school, Olivia talks to Celia's teacher. The teacher shows her a story that Celia has been writing in class, about a cat and a dog who initially hate each other but grow to love each other. This story is an obvious allegory to Olivia and Celia.
Desired Emotional Response: "Good god is that the most adorable thing ever. Now you HAVE to stay."
Actual Emotional Response: "WTF! Where did that come from? There have been no scenes of apparent or actual warmth between these characters up until this point." (side note, even I had to groan at this story).

Moment Three: Olivia watches Celia score a goal during a soccer game, and is very excited. When they get home, Celia lets Olivia glue a starfish onto a mural her and her mom had been making. When Olivia had previously attempted to even touch this mural, Celia totally freaked out, as only CELIA and HER MOM were allowed to touch it.
Desired Emotional Response: "Awwwww, she sees Olivia as a mom now!"
Actual Emotional Response: Basically the same. This scene is well done despite, again, being telegraphed well in advance.

Moments Four and Five: Celia accidentally finds about Olivia's plan to give up custody to her, thus forcing Celia to move to Argentina, oh, about 2 days before the move was to occur. Then, Olivia and Celia have a touching talk by her bedside in which Olivia apologizes, Celia forgives, and much weeping occurs.
Desired Emotional Response: "Oh no, Olivia you blew it. Now you have ruined this precious bond you've forged." "Oh thank GOD, everything is back to right with them!"
Actual Emotional Response: "Oh come on Olivia, what did you honestly expect? You HAD to tell her earlier than that, it's HER OWN life!" "Ah, letting her off the hook a little easy, eh Celia. She must really not want to go to Argentina, and is trying to guilt Olivia into staying."

Moment Six: After all this, Olivia decides to stay home when she realized 3 things. 1) Her daddy loved her after all, 2) her and Celia are PERFECT for each other, 3) her boyfriend is kind of a jerk and doesn't really love her.
Desired Emotional Response: "Finally, you've come to realize what we've known all along and grown as a person all the while."
Actual Emotional Response: I'm not gonna put this in reactionary form, but the ending (even though you KNOW it's gonna happen) comes completely out of left field from an emotional standpoint. I don't think they "earned" it.

AND THEY ALL LEARNED A VALUABLE LESSON: Celia learns not to be so spoiled, and to cut people a break once in a while, and also begins to cope w/ her parents' death. Olivia learns to open up and love people! And also that her dad did love her after all. Awwwww.

WHAT WENT WRONG: Okay, in case you couldn't tell from the tone of all the previous, I really did not care for this movie at all. I hate to say it, because I have nothing against Lacey Chabert, and it seems kind of cruel to insult kid actors, but the acting in this movie was probably the biggest problem. Wendy Malick completely phones it in, in a somewhat similar role to what she plays on "Just Shoot Me" (which I HATE). Lacey Chabert is just way too one-note in her performance in the movie. I haven't mentioned it above, but Olivia is made to be an extremely sarcastic person in this film (Character Trait!), and Lacey just totally plays it up way too much. She's just very locked in to the somber, sarcastic person, and then when she suddenly switches at the end, it just doesn't work for me. Most of the joy of these movies is in seeing the characters gradually change. And though this change is written into the script, in my opinion, it is not adequately reflected in the performance.
I always cut child actors a lot of slack, so I don't really wanna say anything bad about Sammi Hanratty. She was OK for a child actor, but she did have a few scenes where her delivery was painfully bad. Though she was plenty cute AND precocious! Here's a key example Rich would want me to point out (paraphrased):

CELIA: [unbelievably snotty tone] No, we don't eat microwaved food in our house. Mom says it's bad for us.
OLIVIA: Well, you might not know this, but sometimes when people say bad, they use it to mean good. So maybe she was saying it's good for you!
CELIA: NO, she meant the REAL WAY [ridiculous emphasis on last two words].

This is the kind of scene where you can picture the director: "No, Sammi, cut, cut. You need to be bigger on the last two words. MORE EMPHASIS."
Although the story of this movie was extremely played out and predictable, I usually don't really count that as a point against these kind of movies, because the plot is basically a crutch from which to hang the characters and their emotional interactions. A film like this is properly judged by the weight of the emotional impact (good or bad) of the characters' decisions and interactions with the viewing audience. In that aspect, the movie falls below expectations.
Besides the acting, I thought a lot of the character changes and realizations built into the script were too abrupt, and probably could have been fleshed out more, leaving aside some of the more pointless elements of the movie (Olivia's boyfriend, for example) to focus more on the relationship between the sisters.

OVERALL COMMENTS: A lot of you will insult/berate me for having any expectations at all going into this movie. But I'm gonna tell you, there is hardly anybody you will meet at all who is a bigger sucker for this kind of movie than I am. All it really needed to be was competently done and I would have really liked it. I get emotionally swept up in this type of movie very easily, but even at the end, when she decides to stay and it shows her pushing Celia on a swing, while the re-read the ultra-adorable cat/dog story Celia had written earlier, I really didn't feel any emotions at all. Not even choked up a bit. And I'd admit to that, as I get choked up at similar movies easily. That's why I was disappointed, because I AM the target audience to this film, and I just felt kind of let down. It could have/should have been much better given this story, and these character set ups.

FINAL RATING: 4/10. I can't recommend it, unless, I guess, if you are a huge Lacey Chabert fan.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

The Most Awesome 80s CD Ever

This CD is created as a public service. Now nobody else ever has to make an 80s cd, because the perfection has already been achieved. This CD only considers 80's POP music, no indie or anything like that, and a lot of good stuff got left off because I just wanted good songs that are very pop and very 80s in nature. I was also trying to lean more towards the stuff that is not as commonly anthologized. OK, here's the tracklist, first out.

1. Information Society - "What's On Your Mind"
2. Erasure - "A Little Respect"
3. Gloria Estefan - "Don't Wanna Lose You"
4. Madonna - "La Isla Bonita"
5. Roxette - "The Look"
6. Kim Wilde - "Kids in America"
7. Diana Ross - "Upside Down"
8. Genesis - "Invisible Touch"
9. Psychadelic Furs - "Love My Way"
10. Irene Cara - "Flashdance (What a Feeling)"
11. Glen Frey - "You Belong to the City"
12. Eddie Rabbit - "I Love a Rainy Night"
13. Huey Lewis & the News - "The Power of Love"
14. Debbie Gibson - "Only in My Dreams"
15. Matthew Wilder - "Break My Stride"
16. Katrina & the Waves - "Walking on Sunshine"
17. Human League - "Human"
18. ABC - "When Smokey Sings"
19. Pretenders - "Brass in Pocket"
20. Howard Jones - "Things Can Only Get Better"

And thus we have the ending of unquestionably the greatest 80s pop cd ever created. Thoughts, comments, exclusions? Leave a comment!

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