The First Time

First TimeThe very sweet teen romance written and directed by Jon Kasdan (son of filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan) is disarmingly honest, with characters that feel so real there isn’t the hint of artifice.  Centered around two teens who meet by accident, become friends, and each decide to give up their virginity to the other, this film will leave you with a warm, gooey feeling that makes it a worthwhile viewing experience.

Aubrey Miller (Britt Robertson) is a junior in high school.  Leaving a party, she sees Dave Hodgman (Dylan O’Brien), a senior at a different high school, rehearsing a declaration of love for his longtime friend, Jane (Victoria Justice).  In spite of herself, she coaches him on how to do it right, explaining several times that she has a boyfriend and that she hates public displays of affection.  When the party gets busted, he walks Aubrey home and they talk about themselves and what they want to do with their lives.  At the door, she invites him inside and he is blown away by the collages that fill her bedroom.  They have some wine and end up falling alseep on the floor curled up together.

The next morning, they are awakened by a knock on her door.  Panicked, Dave spills a wine glass on his way out the window.  Her parents (Joshua Malina and Christine Taylor) lecture her about drinking, but Aubrey convinces them that its better for her to be drinking at home than at a party or driving.  Through friends, Dave is able to get her home phone number and calls her up, wanting to see her again.  She tells him that she’s going to see a movie with her boyfriend, Ronny (James Frecheville), an older guy who is rather obnoxious.  After the movie, one of their friends invites them to a party at her parents’ house and they all go.

During the party, Ronny tells Dave that he is going to have sex with Aubrey later that night and Dave is depressed that her first time should be with such a putz.  He gets some time alone with Jane, but finds that he is no longer interested in her.  Driving around on his own, he gets a call from Aubrey, who has broken up with Ronnie.  He picks her up and they each reveal that they have feelings for the other.  At her door, they kiss passionately.  The next morning, they go out with his little sister, Stella (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), who approves of their relationship.

Aubrey finds out that her parents will be out for the evening, so she invites Dave over.  Although they are passionate at first, when Aubrey gets a condom for him, everything slows down and they both become extremely nervous about having sex for the first time, which leads to an unfortunate experience.  Afterwards, they are both depressed and when he leaves, she tells him that she will call, but they both have the feeling that it is over.  Each waiting for the other call, they obsess about their feelings for each other.

Eventually, as she prepares to leave for school, Dave shows up.  Once again, he’s been rehearsing what he wants to say to her, but it comes out simply: he likes talking to her and he wants to keep talking to her and maybe they can figure out what happens next along the way.  She asks him for a ride to school and they talk about maybe doing everything better in the future.  In spite of her hatred of public displays of emotion, she says to hell with it and kisses him passionately outside her school.

There are several reasons why the movie is successful.

One of them is Kasdan’s script, which is so incredibly simple that it really tugs at the viewer’s heart.  Many script writers of teen romances try to complicate the story by throwing in all kinds of unnecessary complications, but Kasdan relies on being a teenager as all the complication required and it works amazingly well.  His direction is also simple, very clean, with lots of long two-shots where the actors are allowed to carry the story without any gimmicks.

The other reason for the movie’s success is the performance of its two leads.  Dylan O’Brien gives us a character who is incredibly innocent, who wants so much to be in love that he targets his best friend, without realizing how different they are.  Britt Robertson creates a character in Aubrey who sees the world through cynical eyes, but ultimately wants nothing more than to be with someone who cares about her.  They are both rock-solid performances, completely believable, and ultimately very likeable, creating terrific chemistry together.

This film is short, simple, very well-made, and very heartfelt, with just enough comedy to offset the deeper emotions that it evokes.

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 Save the Last DanceSave the Last Dance

Save the Last Dance is a surprisingly well-thought out film.  Although it is primarily concerned with dance, it also deals with some big issues.  Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick  Thomas are great as two dancers with completely different backgrounds who come together to merge classical and hiphop dance styles.  Lots of fun, great music, and some serious issues.


Viola and Shakespeare in bedShakespeare in Love

Written by Tom Stoppard (author of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) and Marc Norman, this 1998 film is both a comedy and a romance–and it is very successful at both.  Great performances by Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, and Judi Densch fuel this terrific comedy and unpredictable romance!


Silence Lambs 01The Silence of the Lambs

When a serial killer dumps the bodies of several young women into various rivers between Ohio and Pennsylvania, with parts of their bodies skinned, newspapers anoint the unknown assailant as “Buffalo Bill.”  The head of Behavioral Sciences at the FBI recruits a beautiful young agent-trainee, who is earmarked for his division, to help him out by interviewing one of the most notorious serial killers of all: Hannibal Lecter, a cannibal.


Cooper and Lawrence Silver Linings PlaybookSilver Linings Playbook

This delightful comedy/drama was written and directed by David O. Russell, adapted from the book The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick.  Centered around two quirky people, both at a crossroads in their lives, the film presents bi-polar disorder as a condition that can be overcome.  Jennifer Lawrence gives an Academy Award performance opposite Bradley Cooper, with Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, and Chris Tucker.


Speak-Movie-kristen-stewart-7224892-960-540Speak

Here’s a 2004 film that really went under the radar.  It was screened at Sundance and aired on Showtime and Lifetime, but I’d never heard of it.  Based on the novel by Laurie Halse Anderson, it tells the story of a high school freshman, Melinda Sordino, who is brutally raped at a party by a senior boy.  Starring Kristin Stewart in a wonderful performance.


Shailine Woodley int The Spectacular NowThe Spectacular Now

The Spectacular Now aims much higher than any run-of-the-mill teen romance and its success in achieving a film that goes beyond the limits of genre is to be highly commended, yet there are problems in the movie and it would make the film an excellent study for any film theory class.


amy adams emily blunt sunshine cleaningSunshine Cleaning

Sunshine Cleaning is a delightful comedy and drama, with a great cast, a strong script by Megan Holley and crisp, clean direction by Christine Jeffs.  Although it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, the two performances at the center of it by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt really propelled the two actresses to the acclaim they so richly deserve.

To Catch A Thief

To Catch a Thief 01This is Alfred Hitchcock’s most visually beautiful movie.  Filmed on the French Riviera, the gorgeous hills, dotted with old mansions overlooking the Mediterranean Sea vie with the stark beauty of Grace Kelly and chiseled features of Cary Grant to provide enough eye candy to last a lifetime.  The following review contains plot spoilers.

The story is simply an excuse for the beauty.  American ex-patriot John Robie (Cary Grant) is a former jewel thief who was known as “the Cat” before World War II.  He paid his dues by fighting in the French Resistance, killing over 70 Nazis proving his loyalty to France.  After the war, he put aside his thieving ways and lives respectably and very well, thank you, in a villa on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean.  This idyllic life is disturbed when a copycat burglar begins stealing the most expensive jewels on the Riviera.  When the Police come calling, thinking he has renewed his life of crime, he evades them in a breathtaking car chase through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  Turning his car over to a woman on the street, he hops a bus and sits next to Alfred Hitchcock.

He goes to see his old friend from the Resistance, Monsieur Bertani (Charles Vanel), who runs a restaurant that is manned by head waiter Foussard (Jean Martinelli) and more of their old Resistance buddies, who are all suspicious that the Police are right about Robie.  Bertani helps him escape with the aid of Foussard’s daughter, teenager Danielle (Brigitte Auber) who has a crush on him.  She takes him across the water to the Hotel Carlton, where beautiful American tourist Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) sees him.  He makes contact with a British insurance company representative, H. H. Hughson (John Williams), and pleads his case, that he is innocent and only wants to catch the thief to clear his name.  Caught by the Police, Robie is released due a lack of evidence and convinces Hughson to give him the names of his clients who have the most expensive jewels waiting to be stolen.  Abashed at having already had to pay out huge sums, Hughson agrees, also sharing the list with the Police to hedge his bets.

To Catch a Thief 02He begins by meeting rich American tourist Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), mother of Frances, and posing as a rich Oregon timber man.  After a stimulating evening, he escorts the two ladies back to their rooms, but before he can depart, Frances gives him a passionate kiss and arranges to meet him the next day.  While swimming, he runs into Danielle and Frances becomes jealous.  She and Robie take a drive to look at villas and are followed by the Police.  When he asks her to drive a little faster, she speeds up considerably, taking a kind of devilish delight in tempting fate.  They safely evade the Police and find a nice spot overlooking the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean and she tells him that she’s figured out that he’s actually John Robie.  He denies it, but after lunch the end up kissing again.  She tells him to meet her in her room to watch the fireworks or she will reveal who he really is.

That night, she seduces him again, proposing that they go into business together as burglars.  He continues the façade of being a tourist, but when she goes to sleep, he keeps watch in her bedroom.  During the night, however, the burglar robs Jessie of all her expensive jewels and finally Robie reveals himself to them.  Frances calls the Police on him and he departs over the rooftops as they arrive to search for him.

Hiding out, he stakes out what he thinks is the next target, alerting Hughson and putting the Police on notice.  As he waits in the dark, he is attacked by a man dressed in black.  Struggling, he throws the man over the cliff.  The Police find the body of Foussard in the Sea and announce that he was the burglar, clearing Robie of charges.

At her father’s funeral, Danielle becomes distraught and calls Robie a murder.  Chagrined, Frances again hooks up with Robie and he tells her of his plans to capture the real burglar by attending a fancy costume ball.  The Police follow and also stake out the ball, which Bertani is catering, with Danielle’s help.  After changing disguises with Hughson, Robie waits on the roof for the burglar to show up, but when he does, it turns out to be Danielle.

To Catch a Thief 03On Robie’s hillside villa, Frances kisses Robie again, remarking that her mother is going to love the house.

From beginning to end, the cinematography is stunning, so much so that the film won Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s longtime associate an Academy Award.  Although nominated for her incredible costuming, especially of Grace Kelly, Edith Head did not win.

This film has a different feel than most of Hitchcock’s work.  Although it contains a lot of humor, the film is not a comedy.  There is certainly some mystery as to who the real burglar is, but the film lacks the tension and suspense that mark most of Hitchcock’s movies.  In truth, this is a feel-good romance, concentrating, as it does, so intensely on beauty.  This was the last film he made with Grace Kelly before she married Prince Ranier of Monaco and gave up acting and it is appropriate that she shows so well.  Stunning in an array of dazzling Edith Head costumes, the three gowns she wears are all breathtaking.

It moves at a really good clip, coming in at under two hours, and you never notice the time passing because there is always so much beauty for your eye.  It is a fun movie, something you can’t really say about too many Hitchcock films and it transports you to a time and place full of such charm that it can honestly be said to elevate one beyond the every day.

A stunning film!  I highly recommend this movie for all audiences.

Rachel Getting Married

RachelGettingMarried_9This is a film that is uncertain of its genre. It starts out and has the feel throughout of a slice of life movie, yet, underneath, a great tragedy is struggling to get out, and, at the end, it bursts into a kind of feel-good film.

In Stamford, Connecticut, Kym (Anne Hathaway) is given a weekend pass from her drug rehab center to attend the wedding of her older sister, Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) to Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe). She is picked up by her father, Paul (Bill Irwin) and stepmother, Carol (Anna Deavere Smith), so the presence of two inter-racial marriages is brought front and center.  As if that wasn’t interesting enough, the wedding has a East Indian theme, with a group of fascinating Middle-eastern musicians who provide a kind of world music backdrop to the action and featuring Robyn Hitchcock, singing and performing.

Right from the beginning, Rachel and Kym clash and it is a battle that will carry until nearly the conclusion of the film. Kym is totally self-absorbed and constantly turns what should be a joyous occasion for Rachel into a story about her own problems.  Recognizing the Best Man, Kieran (Mather Zickel), from Narcotics Anonymous, she has sex with him and he reveals that she is not to be Maid of Honor. Rachel has asked her best friend, Emma (Anisa George) for that honor and Kym becomes extremely upset, thinking that it should have been her.  Exasperated, Rachel asks Emma to step down and let Kym be Maid of Honor.

At the rehearsal dinner, where we finally meet their mother, Abby (Debra Winger), amid a great many toasts, Kym apologizes to Rachel for her screwed up life, but afterwards Rachel viciously attacks her for making the wedding all about her and not about Rachel and Sidney.

The next time Kym goes to her Narcotics Anonymous meeting, she explains how, when she was totally messed up on drugs, she drove off a bridge and killed her little brother, Ethan, who could not get out of his child seat. Once this is revealed, we see the real tragedy emerging: the blame from Rachel and the protectiveness of Paul now make perfect sense.  Kym’s inability to forgive herself is at the center of the movie.  It shouldn’t be any surprise that the very best part of the movie is the wedding itself.

First, the good news.

All of the acting is stunningly good, especially the two leads, Anne Hathaway and Rosemarie DeWitt, who deliver such a natural feel to their characters that they are absolutely beyond a doubt believable and empathetic. You really care about them and what happens to them and you root for them to solve their problems and find a way out of their problems.  There were times when one or the other of them nearly brought me to tears with their beautiful performances.  The supporting cast is also incredible.  Bill Irwin and Debra Winger are so honest and believable as the divorced parents of the girls that not once do you question their action.  Anna Deavere Smith is also terrific and every supporting character has the solid feel of being a real person.

Filmed in a cinema verité style using hand-held cameras, sparked by extensive improvisation by the actors, the film sparkles as a slice of life movie.  This is the way people talk and act, in kind of a haphazard way that just doesn’t feel scripted at all.  Much of the credit for this success belongs to director Jonathan Demme, who urged the cast to be acting all of the time as a cadre of cameras worked their way around the set and the musicians improvised a soundtrack that was recorded at the same time as the dialogue.

This film was written by Jenny Lumet, daughter of terrific director Sidney Lumet and granddaughter of Lena Horne. A middle school drama teacher, she has attempted several screenplays, but this is her first effort actually produced.  Since I haven’t seen the screenplay—and since director Jonathan Demme depends a great deal on actor improvisation in this movie—it is impossible for me to judge the quality of the script. 

That being said, the film has a few obvious problems and I’m inclined to ascribe them more to Demme’s direction and control over the editing than Lumet’s screenplay.

At one hour and 53 minutes, this movie is at least 30 minutes too long. Demme filmed long, improvised scenes at the rehearsal dinner, the musical portion of the dinner, and at the wedding itself where he simply fell in love with the ensemble and included much, much more than was needed in the final cut.  Everything that takes away from Kym’s and Rachels conflict should have been cut down to size.  A sampling would have done the job and put us back soundly into the main story.  Sometimes what is left on the cutting room floor will determine whether a movie is good or great and I’m inclined to think that is the case here.  If it had been tightened up, then perhaps the tragedy and feel-good ending would have come together to make a truly great film, but the slice of life aspect overcomes everything else and makes the film really drag in places.

Anne Hathaway was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the film and she certainly deserved it. In fact, there could have been multiple acting nominations because all of the actors are just that good.  Much of the directing is also excellent and all of the music is amazing.  All of the ingredients for a great film are present.

Ultimately, I think someone needed to step forward and say, “This is a about Kym and Rachel and we’re going to focus and hone the movie to that purpose.” The ending would have been much more poignant if it had been the natural outcome of a drama built steadily in that direction.  Perhaps the slice of life aspect of the movie would have suffered some, but I honestly believe that this movie has a great deal more in it and that great deal should have been more tightly focused.

C

 Calendar-Girls-001Calendar Girls

Even though the cinema is full of buddy movies and mindless stupid comedies, the joy of friendship, through good times and bad, isn’t celebrated enough in film, yet it is the heart and soul of this wonderful 2003 British comedy-drama.


 Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-CapoteCapote

Bennett Miller’s film Capote is a well-crafted, thoughtful look at the process by which Truman Capote sculpted his novel In Cold Blood.  The restrained control of color, minimal sets and costumes, and stark cinematography make this film so good that it should be studied in film schools as a masterful use of time and funding.


Cheyenne AutumnCheyenne Autumn

Cheyenne Autumn was the last western film in the great career of director John Ford.  Released in 1964, it was the first big Hollywood film to portray Native Americans as human beings, people who were not only more than primitive savages to be killed and driven off their lands by the white man, but people who were victims of the bigoted and corrupt government of the United States of America.


 Chocolat VienneChocolat

Most things that are good are not necessary bad.  In fact, most things in life that we enjoy are quite without sin, even if they do induce sensual pleasure, such as, let us say, chocolate, that most wonderful of confections.


 John WayneThe Cowboys

This 1972 coming of age western stars John Wayne as Montana rancher Wil Anderson.  When his hands abandon him to join in a gold rush, Anderson solicits the aid of local schoolboys to help him move his herd of cattle and horses 400 miles to market.


Juno

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I was really bowled away by Juno. What a great film!  The story of a teenage girl named Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) who gets pregnant and decides to carry the baby and give it up for adoption to a needy couple, this movie really delivers great comedy and great drama.  Page is so natural and relaxed in her performance that she is completely believable and she literally carries the movie. The Academy Award-winning script by Diablo Cody is a wonder.  The dialogue is quick, witty, full of pithy phrases that separate Juno and her friends from the run-of-the-mill teenagers at her high school (“Desperately seeking spawn” LOL).  Directed by Jason Reitman, it hits every note spot-on and leaves you with just an amazingly good feeling.

It’s full of wonderful supporting performances, including: Michael Cera as Paulie Bleeker, Juno’s dorky boyfriend and father of the child, J. K. Simmons (the wonderful pitchman at Farmer’s Insurance University) as her dad, Allison Janney as her step-mother, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner as the anticipated foster parents. They all work together brilliantly in an ensemble cast all clustered around the wonderful performance by Ellen Page at the center and heart of the movie.

So GOOD! I highly recommend this film to literally EVERYBODY!