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Ah, love. You can’t eat it, but without it, you’ll starve. You can’t drink it, but without it, you’ll never feel quenched. You can’t wear it, but without it, you feel naked. You can’t sleep under its roof, but without it you’ll feel homeless.
And when it comes to love and war, well, let’s face it, love is the more universal language (why else do you think Shakespeare in the Big L won the Oscar over Saving Private Ryan?).
A few films have opened lately that explore the idea of love (and in once case amor and in another case amour), or more accurately, how absolutely awful and moronic we are at it. Perhaps one of the themes that connects all three movies is reflected in Hal David’s lyrics from the musical Promises, Promises, “So for at least until tomorrow/I’ll never fall in love again”.
Whether, then, these stories are comedies or tragedies (or both) is up to you.
Okay, enough of the poetry crap. Or as Ewan McGregor’s character says in I Love You Phillip Morris: Enough romance, let’s fuck.
Orsino, Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
Begin Again, the new rom mus (that’s romantic musical for those not in the know, though it makes sense that you wouldn’t know this since I just made it up) written and directed by John Carney, the filmmaker who come to the world’s attention with his marvelous, though a tad smaller, rom mus Once, has kind of an odd beginning that in many ways didn’t bode well for me.
It opens with Steven (the roly poly infectious actor James Cordon who won a Tony Award for the comedy One Man, Two Guvnors) talking his reluctant friend Gretta (Keira Knightley, an actress who, for some reason, I always think I’m going to dislike, but I always end up liking immensely) into playing one of her songs at an open mic.
She does, but the whole bar pretty much ignores her.
Except for one man.
A yeti-like figure with a weird and rapturous smile on his face (Marc Ruffalo, with ruffled clothes and shaggy hair that makes him look like he’s going to be picked up by dog catchers at any moment).
The reason why the whole thing was kind of odd is that I had no idea why the bar was ignoring her. She was obviously far too good to be treated so indifferently. In fact, I thought she was not just good, she was damn good. So for me, this prolog didn’t really make a lot of sense.
Of course, that sort of scene is not always easy to pull off: how to make someone lackluster enough for people on screen to ignore them, yet talented enough so that a one in a million can recognize what’s there, and the movie audience find it believable.
And I’d have to say that Carney doesn’t quite pull it off.
But still, overall, Begin Again is not without its pleasures. The basic story is about two people who have been wounded by love, but who find a way out of their back stories of heart break by creating music.
And it’s in these scenes when the movie really comes alive, the scenes where the various characters come together and make art, producing something that really means something to them, creating songs that take the audience out of their familiar surroundings for awhile.
This creation of theirs revolves around a clever idea for an album that Gretta and Dan (shaggy dog Ruffalo) come up with. Since they have no money, make lemonade by forgoing sound studios and go out on the streets, alleyways, parks, subways, and record the songs there.
Can’t afford musicians? Recruit people who will work for free because they can’t stand playing what they’ve been playing anymore (the funniest possibly being a poor schnook forced to make his living shelling out tunes for pre-teen girls taking ballet).
And get everybody in on it, including some brats on the street who won’t stop kicking a ball and making noise, so they end up being background singers, as well as Dan’s rebellious daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) who is understandably angry at her father for his being distant and irresponsible and a drunkard and self-pitying and a failure…well, you get my drift.
And these scenes are real moments of magic that almost make the movie worthwhile on their own.
The rest is more of a mixed bag. The personal travails of the two characters (Dan’s wife cheated on him and he had a nervous breakdown and became an alcoholic while Gretta’s boyfriend, up and coming singer Dave, cheats on her while on tour and ends the relationship upon his return) are pretty familiar. There’s nothing really new or exciting here.
It’s certainly not as fresh and original as Once.
But still, it’s not a total loss either, at least when it comes to Dan’s story. And that’s because the actors (including Catherine Keener as his former wife) make the most of it and just won’t give in to the familiar melodrama they are somewhat saddled with. Everyone treats it all as if Eugene O’Neill wrote it and they pretty much get away with it.
And Knightly and Ruffalo make marvelous chemistry as well. Their first scene together is in the bar after Gretta has bombed at the mic and Dan tries to bullshit her into making her believe he’s the new Barry Gordon. But Gretta can smell bullshit a mile away (or the alcohol on is breath, or both) and the result is a don’t meet cute moment.
And you can feel the electricity between them as actors connecting and the energy is tremendous.
But, and I’m sure you weren’t surprised to discover there was a “but” coming, the movie also stars Adam Levine as Dave. And, God bless him, though he is a superb singer and I assume he has great presence on a stage, the movie stops dead just about every time he appears on screen (his most interesting moment is when he shows up with a beard that makes him look as if a swarm of bees have started a hive on his face).
It’s not that he’s untalented. He’s just bland and doesn’t give off anything. It’s a tribute to Knightly that in their lengthy scenes together, she manages to keep up her end of the bargain, even though she doesn’t seem to be getting anything from him.
The movie finales on an appropriate coda. I won’t tell you what it is, though it’s not that surprising. Carney tries to create some suspense there, but it’s kind of a false kind since the whole story has been leading up to only one conclusion. But it’s an effective ending that actually makes you feel good about life and even brings a wee drop of a tear to the eye.
Dr. Otternschlag, Grand Hotel
In The Empty Hours, the new motel movie from Mexico, written and directed by Aaron Fernandez Lesur, very little happens…except life maybe.
Now, if that sort of thing interests you, I would strongly suggest you check into the film for the hour or so of its length (of course, if you do, you’ll probably be checking in far longer that most of the characters do who take a room at the central location, the Los Palmas Real).
The story is basically a study of three characters. First, the 17 year old Sebastian who has come to run the motel while his uncle is in the hospital for an operation.
Sebastian is just starting out in life, sexually inexperienced, though naïve is the last adjective you would use to describe him (when an older man checks in with a younger male companion, Sebastian doesn’t act surprised, he just finds it funny). And in fact, he’s a better manager than many who have a college degree (when he catches someone stealing the motel’s coconuts, he just strikes up a deal to get a cut of the sales).
Second is Miranda, an older woman who sells condos and who comes to the motel for an occasional tryst with her married lover. Miranda is going through a transition. As she says, she missed the marriage train and she’s sort of okay with it, sort of not; she realizes that it doesn’t fit in with her lifestyle of work and traveling, but still, it does tend to leave her with the leftovers when it comes to a romantic life.
The third is the motel itself, a semi-isolated coastal hideaway that rents its rooms to those who, shall we say, aren’t big on long range plans. It more than prides itself on discretion and has such amenities as curtains for the carports so no one can see what vehicles are there, and a half barrel built into the wall of each room so a motel worker can give the clients condoms, liquor, towels, etc., and turn the half barrel around so no one has to enter the room.
Sebastian’s early days are filled with boredom. The motel may be morally questionable, but that doesn’t seem to translate into much excitement.
But soon he and Miranda drift into a friendship, then into something more, then into something less. A love affair ends, a love affair begins. Someone leaves, someone stays. Que sera sera.
The Empty Hours is satisfying and charming.
Yes, I know the pacing is unhurried, relaxed, laidback, paced, leisurely with a dose of lethargy thrown in for good measure, which makes sense since both Sebastian and Miranda’s lives are filled with plenty of, yes, the titular empty hours.
But in doing so manages to be riveting as well.
It’s very specific as to time and place. But in doing so, manages to be universal as well.
It is what it is and doesn’t try to be anything more. But in doing so ends up being a lot more than most blockbuster films.
With Kristyan Ferrer as Sebastian and Adriana Paz as Miranda.
Revelations 3:16, King James Version
A Summer’s Tale is the third film in the series Tales of the Four Seasons, a group of films written and directed by the great French filmmaker Eric Rohmer (the other three being A Tale of Springtime, A Tale of Winter and Autumn Tale). Though made in 1996, it is only now getting its American release.
A Summer’s Tale unfolds over a number of days as the central character Gaspard arrives in Breton for a vacation before he starts a new job. He is there because his girlfriend who is traveling in Spain is supposed to arrive any day now.
Maybe. Perhaps. Then again maybe not. Actually, he doesn’t really know when she will get there, or if she will even show up at all.
Yeah, you’re right. Something sounds a little rotten in the state of relationship here, but he’s young, he’s in love, he doesn’t have a cell phone (they haven’t been invented yet).
And as time passes, he finds himself becoming entangled with two other women. But he has trouble choosing between the three of them. So he tries to keep all of them in play until he can ultimately make up his mind as to which one he really wants.
The result is that he takes so long to decide, he doesn’t end up with any of them.
And somehow, you feel for him while at the same time you think, well, you dug your own grave, you know.
Rohmer is not to everyone’s taste. His films are gentle comedy dramas that unfold at a quite leisurely pace and are not unknown to have more than a bit of philosophical talk and long conversations along the way.
And A Summer’s Tale is no different.
In fact, it starts out so leisurely, with Gaspard arriving and having nothing to do but walk along the beach and get a beer and sandwich, that when the first day ends so abruptly, you laugh at how inconsequential it is. You even laugh at how inconsequential he is as he has nothing, does nothing and says nothing that in any way shows that there is anything to him.
But as the film goes along, it grows in charm and you find yourself becoming involved in this slight situation of someone who tries to have his cake and eat it too.
It turns out that Gaspard has gotten a degree in mathematics, but also wishes to write music (he spends much of his time working on a lovely sea shanty, a genre Breton is known for, and a song that seems to reflect his feelings about his missing girlfriend). In fact, he got the degree in order to be a teacher to leave him time to pursue his artistic career.
In this, I couldn’t help by think of Blaise Pascal, who was also a mathematician, but whose real love, in many ways, was his philosophical and religious writings and who was also a Jansenist, a religious outlook (a sort of Calvinistic Catholic pre-destination determinism) that has influenced much of Rohmer’s writings.
And Gaspard does seem to find his life here to some degree pre-determined. No matter how hard he tries, he just can’t get control of the situation.
But has anyone ever really been able to get control of love?
With Melvil Poupaud as Gaspard (he was the terminally ill young man in Time to Leave and Johnny ‘Goodboy’ Jones in Speed Racer). He has a great head of hair, but as Gaspard he tends to screw up his face and bite his lip and look skyward as he tries to think…and he thinks a lot. A lot. Still he does eventually earn your empathy.
With Amanda Langlet (Pauline in Pauline at the Beach), Gwenaelle Simon and Aurelia Nolin as the three women in his life.