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Michel Gondry made one truly exceptional film, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," ten years ago, and hasn't quite gotten back to that level since. HIs subsequent projects have all been interesting and watchable (with the exception of a certain superhero reboot that wasn't really his fault), but none have had quite the same clarity and resonance of that Charlie Kaufman-scripted love story. "Mood Indigo" isn't quite "Eternal Sunshine" either, but it does get fairly close. It's an ungainly, over-designed, exhausting film to watch because Gondry gives full rein to his usual whimsical stylization, but there is a solid core to it that gives it some real kick.

Based on Boris Vian's surrealist science-fiction romance novel "Foam of the Daze," "Mood Indigo" tells the story of a man named Colin (Romain Duris) who lives a carefree life with his talented man-servant Nicholas (Omar Sy), bibliophile friend Chick (Gad Elmaleh), and a mouse roommate (Sacha Bourdo). After Chick gets a girlfriend, Alise (Aïssa Maïga), Colin decides that he too should fall in love, and soon after meets the lovely Chloe (Audrey Tatou). Colin and Chloe enjoy a whirlwind romance, but alas their happiness is short-lived. Chloe becomes ill, Chick and Alise's relationship becomes strained, and Colin's charmed life is soon beset on all sides by misfortune.

It's always a tricky prospect to make a surrealist film, and Gondry's approach seems to have been to translate every element I imagine was metaphorical in the source material as literally as possible for the screen. Colin appears to live in a Parisian Pee-Wee's Playhouse, where Nicholas consults with a cooking mentor who inhabits the oven, and the doorbell is a bug-like creature who has to be swatted to be silenced. At one point the walls physically close in on Colin when he receives bad news. Some of these conceits work, like a character who literally ages years in days due to worry, but others, like a dance sequence where all the characters are obliged to don cartoonish, elongated prosthetic limbs, do not. Some are too literal or too obviously analogues, so the film lacks the truly absurdist free-wheeling nature of something like Leos Carax's "Holy Motors." And I don't think anything involving the mouse character worked at all.

When I'd first heard that the distributors wanted to edit the film down for international release, I was completely against the idea, but now having seen it for myself, I think it's a reasonable choice. "Mood Indigo" has pacing problems and could stand some trimming, especially in the meandering first half that chronicles new love in bloom. Gondry's wild visual inventiveness is always interesting, and I appreciated his efforts, but they kept getting in the way of his storytelling. I've liked Romain Duris and Audrey Tatou in other films, but here their bubbly love connection is not so much enhanced by all the graphic blandishment, but weirdly disconnected from it, such that it feels like the couple is enduring each new scenario - a flight in a cloud car, a picnic that takes place in the sun and the rain at the same time - instead of embodying them.

The story and visuals mesh together considerably better in the second half of the film when things take a darker turn. Suddenly all the whimsy and delight begins to transition to decay and despair, and the central relationship becomes truly compelling as the pair begin to face hardship and doubt. There's a greater universality to Colin and Chloe's downward spiral, and Gondry is more adept at reflecting them in their surroundings. The performances come into sharper focus, particular Roman Duris's, and the supporting characters become more important and are better defined. I especially enjoyed the arc of Chick, who obsesses over a particular writer to such a degree that he finds new ways to consume his writings by turning them into injections and eyedrops, until his whole life is consumed by them.

For fans of Michel Gondry's work, this is about as Gondry as it gets. Though the production values of "Mood Indigo" aren't as high as those of the films he made in Hollywood, his ambitions are as large as ever, he clearly wasn't working under any studio constraints, and he attracted all the right talent to the project. Though there are a lot of missteps, I found this to be a much more cohesive and successful film than anything else Gondry has produced in a long time. Though the documentaries and smaller projects like "The We and the I" have been all well and good, it's the larger fantasy projects like this that continue to be his most distinctive and rewarding. It's hard to imagine anyone else making a film like this, with such commitment and such fearlessness.

"Mood Indigo" is far from perfect, but there's enough good mixed in with the mediocre that I'm glad it got made. I do hope Michel Gondry keeps shooting for the moon. He may never make another "Eternal Sunshine," but his work is always worthwhile.
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It doesn't matter how ludicrous a premise is as long as the ideas behind it are strong the filmmakers are committed to it. And so it is with "Her," Spike Jonze's science-fiction fable about a quiet, depressed man named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who falls in love with his new Siri-like operating system, or OS, named Samantha (Scarlett Johanssen). The film is frequently funny, but it takes the relationship between Theodore and Samantha absolutely seriously, and takes care to develop it like any other conventional romantic connection. The pair have their ups and downs, their problems and their issues. Theodore is still coming to terms with his separation with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara), while Samantha's consciousness is still developing, and she has insecurities about her intangibility.

Because the relationship exists entirely in the conversations that the pair have, the film depends heavily on Phoenix and Johanssen, the later of whom is never seen onscreen. However, the dialogue is so strong and the actors are so committed, it works. Phoenix carries much of the film, often the only character onscreen, playing intimate scenes against nothing more than a voice in his ear. And then there's Johanssen, who manages to convey so much emotion and feeling through her monologues. I admit that I was skeptical when I heard that she was getting some awards attention for this performance, but after seeing the film it's not had to understand why. Samantha's believability as a sentient and vulnerable living being is what the whole relationship and the whole story hinges on, and she's easily one of the best artificial intelligence characters I've ever seen in film.

And around the couple, Spike Jonze creates a melancholy Los Angeles of the near-future, where human life is more intertwined with technology than ever. Creativity is still valued, though, and most of the characters we meet are artists of one kind or another. Theodore works as a writer of heartfelt personal letters. His best friend Amy (Amy Adams) is a documentarian. One of Samantha's many interests is in composing music. Instead of taking photographs to capture the moments between her and Theodore, she writes songs. The film has a unique, delicate atmosphere that is fiercely personal. Nearly everything we see is limited to Theodore's daily personal interactions, and the narrow scope is just right for the story. Larger issues about the ramifications of the OSs becoming part of society are hinted at, but "Her" is primarily concerned with being a love story, and brings up plenty of questions already.

The conversation surrounding "Her" has been fascinating to follow, because this is one of the first films to tackle this subject matter that is so sympathetic to the human that falls in love with the computer. Usually these stories have a dystopian bent, and getting too close to an AI is symptomatic of something wrong with the human partner or the relationship is supposed to be a metaphor for technology becoming too invasive. In "Her," Theodore is perfectly capable of romantic relationships with other women, as we learn from flashbacks to his marriage to Catherine and his efforts with a blind date, played by Olivia Wilde. In addition, Samantha may not be tangible, but it's the film's position that she's a real sentient being and the feelings between her and Theodore are real. So the problems that develop between them are no less valid than the problems faced by any other couple.

"Her" can be seen as a new take on the "My Fair Lady" story, where a romantic partner who is initially guided and defined by man eventually grows beyond his narrow conception of her and becomes something he couldn't anticipate. The commentary on life in the digital age also hits the mark. In a sense Samantha stands in for all technology, conceived of by well-meaning inventors to meet certain human needs, but that becomes an independent entity that takes on a life of its own, with unexpected consequences. I'd hesitate to call it a cautionary tale, though, because Theodore's relationship with Samantha is hardly more damaging than or unhealthy than one he might have had with a physical person.

This may be my favorite Spike Jonze film, because it's so personal and so idiosyncratic. Not that his earlier films weren't these things, particularly "Where the Wild Things Are," but none of them have been this unabashedly romantic. I love that it's not scared to be emotional and corny, and that Theodore is such a sensitive soul whose vulnerabilities are so easy to see. Phoenix's performance isn't very showy, but it's one of his best too. Freddie Quell from "The Master" was a lot of fun, but playing an ordinary man in love with someone that he never lays eyes on is something I don't think many other actors could have pulled off.

Considering the talent involved, I had pretty high expectations for "Her," but I didn't expect to be bowled over to this extent. "Her" is one of the best screen romances in recent memory, and one of the best science-fiction films too. It's easy to make fun of its silly premise, but "Her" makes the strong case that it may not be so silly after all.
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People have been complaining about the state of romantic comedies for years, me included, so it's nice to see one come along that happily subverts the status quo while still being, unarguably, a romantic comedy. Written, directed, and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular ladies man, this film has been billed in some circles as a more realistic story about relationships from the point of view of a typical guy. The main character, Jon Martello, is a modernized version of the famous lover, a nightclub-hopping ladies' man who never gets emotionally involved with his conquests and admits that pornography is better at sexually gratifying him than his flings with actual women. There's a "Jersey Shore" vibe too, since Jon is Italian-American and from what appears to be the New York area. In short, this isn't your typical rom-com hero.

But then into his life comes the girl, the "dime," as Jon refers to her, a rare winner of the top score on the 1-10 scale that he and his buddies use to rate potential hookups. This is Barbara (Scarlett Johanssen), whose sex appeal is so high that she gets Jon to break many of his rules in order to win her over. He finds himself getting into a real relationship with her, and willing to meet her demands, including going back to school. The only real sticking point is Jon's consumption of internet porn, which Barbara has no tolerance for, and Jon finds difficult to give up. Does the real girl win out over the digital ones? Well, it's not as simple as that, and Jon discovers that he's got a few other issues that he needs to work out regarding his love life.

I'm not surprised that this film has gotten some mixed reactions, especially from audiences who traditionally enjoy romantic-comedies. "Don Jon" is so much raunchier and testosterone driven than your typical romance, initially it comes as something of a shock. We see R-rated, but still fairly graphic examples of the porn Jon prefers, and he describes his masturbation practices for us without a hint of shame. He uses pick-up-artist techniques and discusses women as disposable objects without hesitation. Jon is charming enough to get away with it, of course, but it's also clear that he is not bad person. He does nothing out of line with any of the women we see him with, but he's got certain notions about relations with the opposite gender that are troubling.

"Don Jon" offers some interesting commentary on the differing versions of ideal love connections that modern day men and women often subscribe to. Jon may have bought into the player culture to a potentially damaging degree, but Barbara has been similarly conditioned to expect the fairy-tale romance. Of course, she's a fan of more typical romantic comedies. Where did Jon's ideas about gender relations come from? Well, there's his family, headed by his hyper-masculine father, played with delightful brashness by Tony Danza. And then there are Jon's weekly trips to the church confessional, where all his myriad transgressions are easily confessed and absolved.

Jon doesn't interact with women who aren't family or don't score high on his rating scale, so the most important relationship he develops in the film isn't with Barbara, but with an older woman he happens to meet and become friends with at college, Esther (Julianne Moore). Most of the discussions of "Don Jon" I've read don't talk about her much, probably because her role involves a lot of spoilers. That's a shame, because she is a big reason why the film works as well as it does. Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance is the one driving the film, of course, but many of his better scenes are with Moore. I'm sorry to say that Scarlett Johanssen feels a little wasted. She looks great, but there's really not much to her character.

As for Gordon-Levitt as a director, this is certainly a promising first film, nice and light without feeling flippant, stylized without feeling overworked. Moreover, I find it encouraging that this is the kind of material he chose to tackle for his debut, a friendly tweak on a masculine ideal that fits right in with Michael Bay's "Pain & Gain" and Scorsese's "Wolf of Wall Street." And he got to play a role that I don't think anybody would have thought to cast him as - mind you, I hope this isn't indicative of the role that Gordon-Levitt wants to play from now on. One movie with him as The Situation's stand-in was fun, but it could get old real quick.

"Don Jon" skews more guy-friendly, but I certainly enjoyed it and appreciated its aims. It should be an entertaining watch for anyone that doesn't mind a little smut and knows what they're getting themselves into. And for those of us tired of the usual rom-com formulas, it's a welcome change of pace.

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The original French title of this movie is "The Life of Adèle," which gives the viewer a better idea of what they're in for than the English one. When we meet teenage Adèle, played by Adèle Exarchopoulos, she's attending high school, dates boys, and gossips with her friends. We watch her pursue a relationship with one boy that seems promising, but Adèle has doubts. Then an encounter with a female schoolmate introduces the possibility that Adèle may prefer women, which is confirmed when she goes out to a gay bar one night and meets blue-haired art student Emma (Léa Seydoux).

Let's get the prurient parts out of the way first. "Blue is the Warmest Color" has several scenes of explicit lesbian sex, as well as at least one heterosexual one. I'm honestly not sure what to make of them. They're unrealistically rendered and borderline exploitative to the point where I have to wonder why they made the final cut of the film - and if director Abdellatif Kechiche learned anything from making "Black Venus," the crushing biopic of Sarah Baartman, the "Venus Hottentot." Or maybe he just has a fascination with women's bodies and didn't realize how unrelentlingly the male gaze intrudes on his characters' most intimate moments together. Fortunately it's fairly simple to separate out the sex scenes from the rest of the film, and I don't think that they hurt the final product much.

And the rest of the film is certainly worth watching. Seydoux has proven a dependable actress, and she's wonderful here, but it's Exarchopoulos who carries the film. The story is told from Adèle's point of view, and Exarchopoulos's face frequently dominates the frame, sensitive and vulnerable. We see her at her best and worst, running the full spectrum of emotions and bringing the audience along at every step. The relationship between Adèles and Emma is beset by drama from the very beginning, and Adèle's growing pains and sexual awakening don't go smoothly. Adèle's happiness and heartache are beautifully conveyed, but it's her moments of uncertainty and doubt that are the most memorable.

The film is broken up into two parts, the first showing Adèle at school when she first realizes her attraction to Emma, and the second some time later when they are an established couple, and things begin to go awry. I prefer the first half a little more than the second, but both are highlighted by hair-raising confrontations scenes where Adèle is put on the defensive. The film's running time is over three hours, but it's not a slog. Rather, the time is necessary to get to know the pair in depth. We see them at work, at play, with friends and family, and the differences in how they approach life. This gives the most dramatic moments the necessary context to make the most impact.

"Blue is the Warmest Color" has attracted quite a lot of controversy, not only for the sex scenes and the contentious production, but because of the debate over the portrayal of the relationship. The original author of the graphic novel that the film is based on, Julie Maroh, intended for the relationship to be mundane and ordinary to demystify homosexual relationships. In her view, and those of several prominent critics, Kechiche undermined this by idealizing the heroines, taking care to make them look beautiful and comparing them to classical figures in paintings and sculptures.

While Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are certainly lovely, and the sex scenes are regrettable, I thought the film did make the pair relatable, accessible, and fairly ordinary. Perhaps at first, through Adèle's eyes, Emma is someone mysterious and exotic, but that goes away along with the blue dye in Emma's hair in the second half of the film, where they struggle to cohabitate. After the giddy rush of first love, Adèle and Emma face the same problems that most couple do - mismatched expectations, struggling to fit into each other's lives, and competing demands on their time and attention.

Notably, I like that the film addresses the characters' attitudes toward the lesbian relationship with considerable care. Adèle has a gay friend but is much less sure about being homosexual herself, and is more reluctant than Emma to embrace the lifestyle. The first big confrontation scene is between Adèle and a group of her school friends, who are curious about Emma. There's a mix of reactions, only one of which could be interpreted as homophobic, and it's Adèle's unwillingness to out herself that escalates the situation.

No broad political statements, and no grand messages. In the end the story is about Adèle and Emma and their relationship, shaped by their personal feelings and issues, strengths and flaws. I suspect it's not a particularly good adaptation of its source material, but it stands perfectly well as a film about two young women in love.
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Sutter Keeley (Miles Teller) doesn't seem to have the problems that usually plague teenage boys in coming-of-age films. He's a charismatic and charming high school senior who has no trouble with the opposite sex, works a job he likes, and doesn't lack for self-confidence. Sure, he's getting over a bad break-up with longtime girlfriend Cassidy (Brie Larson) and he's in danger of failing trigonometry, but soon enough he's getting into the good graces of another classmate, Aimee (Shailene Woodley). He gets her to tutor him and romance blossoms, but Aimee isn't like the girls Sutter usually dates, who just want to have a good time. The possibility of a real commitment forces him to examine his own life and choices, and he doesn't like what he finds.

Shailene Woodley is rightly getting a lot of praise for her performance as Aimee, a sweet girl who lets Sutter coak her out of her shell, and then bravely tries to weather the ups and downs of a tumultuous first relationship. She delivers exactly the right kind of unaffected, genuine performance that the film needs to work as intended. However, it was Miles Teller I came out of this film really impressed with. I'd seen him in a few films before this, but never with the material available to him to really show what he was capable of. Teller looks a little like Shia LaBeouf, but has a far more appealing presence and nuanced delivery. There aren't many young actors in stories like this who can manage to make me forget that I'm watching an actor, and Teller managed that effortlessly within a few minutes of screen time.

It helps that this is a very well-written character piece about a teenage boy that probes deeper than you might expect. James Ponsoldt's last film was the underseen "Smashed," about a pair of young alcoholics in crisis. Sutter likewise has a serious drinking problem, the extent of which is slowly revealed as the film progresses. However, the drinking doesn't define the character and the addiction narrative doesn't define the film. There's a whole mess of other issues that are fueling Sutter's troubles, the most fundamental of which is that he's romanticized the idea of living in the now and has rejected any ambitions for a future that's any different. There are also long-simmering issues with his estranged parents (Jennifer Jason-Leigh, Kyle Chandler) and sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in play. On top of that, he hasn't really come to terms with his breakup with Cassidy.

It's been a pretty good year for movies about teenage boys making the bumpy transition into adulthood, with "The Kings of Summer" and "The Way, Way Back." But despite the familiar trappings of young romance, alcoholism, and dysfunctional families, this one felt the least contrived and the most mature. The scenes of Sutter and Aimee's relationship progressing, from tentative flirtation through the emotional fireworks of arguments and fights, are all fantastic. And I love how the story doesn't get hung up on sexual intimacy or disapproving friends or other typical sources of conflict. Instead the conflict comes straight from Sutter himself, from his flaws and self-delusions. The buildup is so nicely handled too - a seemingly inconsequential beer bottle in the opening shot, Sutter telling a friend that dating Aimee is out of charity - and it really makes the more dramatic developments feel earned.

In addition to Teller and Woodley, there are several other performances that should be singled out for praise here. Brie Larson has only a few scenes as Cassidy, but uses them to convey so much about the relationship her character had with Sutter, refuting the dismissive version of events he presents at the beginning of the film. There's potentially an entire other film about the relationship and breakup from her point of view. And then there's the brief appearance by Kyle Chandler in some of the film's most devastating scenes. He may not be onscreen for very long, but the impact is immense. I also liked Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Sutter's sister Holly, who in her own way is as responsible as her parents for the state of Sutter's home life.

"The Spectacular Now" is one of the year's best, but because of its subject matter and its relatively modest pedigree, it's one of those films that's in the greatest danger of falling through the cracks and being overlooked. It would be far too easy to lump it in with all the other indie dramas about substance addiction or privileged, photogenic male teenagers struggling to overcome personal adversity. This one is different, both for the quality of its storytelling and the strength of its message. It doesn't say anything that we haven't heard before, but says it in terms that are uniquely personal, heartfelt, and affecting.

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The recent French romantic comedy "Populaire" depends heavily on the fact that it takes place at the end of the 1950s, when a bright young woman named Rose Pamphyle (Déborah François) considers a secretarial job for an insurance firm to be something to aspire to. Her new boss, Louis Échard (Romain Duris) quickly dubs her a terrible secretary, but is intrigued by her ability to type at incredible speeds. He maneuvers her into competing in speed typing competitions, becoming her coach and biggest supporter. Is there any doubt that his prickly exterior will eventually soften, and the two will end up together, just as Rose faces her greatest challenge on the world stage? But as always, it's the execution that makes all the difference.

Romances and competition films have similar structures, and it's a mystery to me why they're not paired up more often to such good effect. My guess is that the filmmakers have trouble balancing the two sides of the story, and tend to lose the character drama as the sports cliches take hold. "Populaire" manages the trick by throwing its full weight behind the love story, which is very much a new spin on the old "Pygmalion" plot. The leads have wonderful chemistry and they have plenty of room to build up good characters and establish their onscreen relationship. Déborah François is charming and fresh, while Romain Duris comes off as a jerk at first, but slowly metamophoses into someone worth rooting for.

What I really appreciated about "Populaire" was that it's fairly straightforward, with few of the maddening little arbitrary complications that tend to plague most modern romantic comedies. When the roadblocks do come up - Échard still having feelings for an old flame Marie (Bérénice Bejo), and Rose rising to greater fame, they come up organically and they're earned. The end of the second act, when sports movies generally toss in some new group of rivals, or romances have an old boyfriend return out of the blue, avoids the common pitfalls by digging deeper into its characters. Rose has had all the growth and development so far, so now we turn to Échard and figure out his motivations, and see how he's been changed by the experience.

One of my favorite segments of the film is a brief series of scenes where Rose is left with nowhere to go on Christmas, so Marie takes her to Échard's house and introduces her to his assembled family as Échard's fianceé. A different film would have dragged out the deception, or inflated its importance. "Populaire" does not, simply using the evening to get the pair used to the notion that they make a good romantic pair, and Échard's family are neither seen nor mentioned again. Or then there's the running series of bets that Échard makes with his friend Bob (Shaun Benson) on the typing competitions. This is not a plot point at all, but a gimmick used to illustrate Échard's character. It's revealed to Rose very early on, and it barely seems to matter to her. How many other romantic films have blown similar bets all out of proportion?

As a result, "Populaire" is a breeze to watch, very familiar and predictable and pleasant. The typing competitions are a lot of fun, exciting and agreeably silly at the same time. A lot of humor comes from the subtle satire of the time period, with lots of visual caricatures of businessmen and typists, particularly the period fashions. The production design is very bright and colorful, heavy on the pastels and graphic patterns. Homages to older films are everywhere and brief appearances are made by older stars. You get the feeling that if you just walked a few blocks away from the clattering typists, you might run across a Jacques Demy musical taking place at the same time.

I think I reacted so well to "Populaire," because there have been far too many romantic-comedies that have gotten it so wrong in recent years, too goofy, too melodramatic, too complicated, too subversive, too retro, or too modern. Or more often, they get all the right components lined up, but end up with all the wrong proportions. "Populaire" is perfectly balanced, between the sport and the romance, between Rose and Échard, and between the giddy effervescence of the '60s trappings and the decidedly more forward-thinking attitudes of our heroes toward being in love.
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"Monsters University" is nearly gone from theaters, nobody wanted to see "Turbo," and I was not going to pay full price for tickets to "Planes" or "Smurfs 2." So what option did that leave me for taking the younger cousins out to see a cartoon feature this weekend? "Despicable Me 2."

I want to spend this post looking at the movie's mixed messages about parenthood and family, some of which are a little troubling. This is not a proper review of the movie, but I'll give you a short, spoiler-free one up front. I liked the original, and the sequel is a clear step down, pushing Gru (Steve Carrell) and his girls into a formula rom-com, that occasionally remembers the main characters are supposed to be foiling a mysterious villain and saving the world. Fortunately the little yellow minions get a lot of screen time, and they're plenty of fun. I'm glad they'll be ditching Gru entirely for their own movie in the near future. All in all, "Despicable Me 2" is a pretty slapdash, though well-intentioned venture, and I couldn't help spending most of the running time thinking of ways that PIXAR or Dreamworks could have done the whole thing better. But the kids liked it, so I certainly feel no animosity toward the movie's existence.

Spoilers ahead.

Now let's talk about motherhood. I was kind of tickled at first to discover that "Despicable Me 2" really is a romantic-comedy through and through. Gru is partnered up with secret agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig) to bring down a villain they have tracked down to a local mall. Gru and Lucy connect, Gru finally works up the courage to ask her out, and at the end of the movie we see them get married, and Lucy happily become the girls' new mother. The whole movie is pushing the superiority of the traditional nuclear family pretty hard. Many children's films are guilty of this, but in "Despicable Me 2," it's especially obvious because of how simple and formulaic the plotting is. At one point Lucy, on her way to a new job in Australia, has the sudden epiphany that she's in love with Gru. She's so smitten that jumps out of the airplane she's in mid-flight, shouting "I choose Gru!" and hang-glides her way back to where she left him. This happens, despite Lucy showing no real romantic interest for Gru up until that point, and barely meeting his adopted daughters Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher).

Some of this can be chalked up to bad plotting and bad storytelling, but it's still telling that the movie purposely skips over all the complicated parts that happen in real life. It doesn't bother to ask the most fundamental questions. Does Lucy want to be a mother? Will becoming one impact her plans to be a great secret agent, a job she's very, very passionate about? Do the girls get along with her? Do they mind that she occupies so much of Gru's attention? Does the prospect of a new mother bring up any issues they might have with losing their birth parents? All of these questions might have been brought up and addressed offscreen - the movie suggests that the courtship is not a quick one - but expanding a family is not a matter to be taken lightly, and the movie may be giving the wrong impression to younger viewers. "Despicable Me 2" simply isn't ready to deal with something so emotionally complicated, so it gives us the perfect fairy-tale rom-com version. Lucy is accepted immediately by the girls, and expresses no qualms about changing her whole life to become part of Gru's. And they all lived happily ever after. The End.

Another issue I've seen others bring up is that the ease of Lucy's integration into the family makes one-parent households seem inferior. I can see this, as single mothers are pretty common in fiction, but single fathers get married off as quickly as possible. Still, I think this is mitigated to some extent by the movie showing that Gru is an excellent single dad. He's willing to do just about anything to make the girls happy, including dressing up as a fairy princess for Agnes's birthday party. However, he's not willing to pursue women simply to find a mother for the girls. This is made clear by the running subplot involving a nosy neighbor, Jillian (Nasim Pedrad), who keeps trying to set Gru up on terrible dates. As for the girls, the older two don't express any interest in having a mother, though Margo tries to set Gru up for online dating. It's only the youngest, Agnes, after being given the contrived assignment to deliver a Mother's Day speech (by the most insensitive teacher ever), who awkwardly points out that she doesn't have a Mom, and then latches on to Lucy at first sight.

But this is just a kids' cartoon, you might say. It's all a fantasy. Yes, but that didn't stop "Brave" from tackling thorny mother-daughter issues, or "Incredibles" from addressing the struggles of being special, or "Up" from giving us a heartrending picture of loss and regret. "Despicable Me 2" could have been so much more meaningful and more interesting if it had just tried a little harder and took itself more seriously. I wouldn't say that its messages rise to the level of being bad or harmful in any way, nothing that a hundred other pieces of media haven't done in the past, but it because it tries to play it safe, it does end up perpetuating some worrisome ideas.

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If you dig deep enough into world cinema, it's inevitable that you're going to run across films depicting the rise of various socialist movements across the globe, from France's "Grin Without a Cat," to Argentina's "Hour of the Furnaces," to those early masterpieces of Soviet cinema, "Battleship Potempkin" and "October." Here in the West, where socialism is still met with knee-jerk rejection, it can be difficult to remember that in the early days, The Revolution was once viewed in a very positive light by a broad base of passionate supporters, who believed it could change the world for the better. And so it was very surprising to come across Warren Beatty's "Reds," a biopic of the American journalist and radical "red" activist John Reed, best known for writing the book that "October" was based on, Ten Days that Shook the World. Despite being made in the early 1980s, during the highly conservative Reagan era, the film is deeply sympathetic to Reed, and offers a fascinating look at a long forgotten historical figure and American social and political movement.

"Reds" is usually billed first as an epic love story, using the relationship between Reed (Warren Beatty) and fellow journalist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) as its main throughline. The two meet in Oregon in 1912, and Bryant follows Reed to New York, where she becomes swept up in a community of freethinking artists and intellectuals and bohemians, including playwright Eugene O'Neill (Jack Nicholson) and anarchist Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton). The relationship between Bryant and Reed is a rocky one, as Bryant is fiercely independent and finds it difficult to work in Reed's shadow. They attempt to have an open relationship, which proves to be disastrous. Many eventful years later, they travel to Russia to cover the events of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 together, which becomes a major turning point for Reed, radicalizing and politicizing him. It's Reed's involvement with the American communist and socialist movements, and his ties to the Bolsheviks, that eventually threaten to separate him from Bryant for good.

I admit that I had "Reds" in the back of the queue for a long time, simply because of its length. A three hour film based on such obscure subject matter didn't sound appealing. However, I failed to appreciate that "Reds" belongs to that class of old-fashioned historical epics that does such a marvelous job of immersing the viewer in a particular place and time and milieu, and pairing that experience with first rate character drama. The scope and the detail of the recreations of Greenwich Village and revolutionary Petrograd are stunning. The cast is great, lead by Beatty and Keaton are at the top of their game. They're so good as a pair of magnetic young artists in love, who can't help but be drawn together again and again, even though they frequently make each other miserable. Their fight scenes are particularly effective, full of politics, philosophy, and the kind of deeply personal invective that only really clever people who know each other very well are in a position to deliver. But more than the intellect, it's the way that the actors capture the zeal of their characters for their cause and their work that makes it so easy to get invested in their lives, even if we know that Reed and Bryant ultimately end up on the wrong side of history.

And that history is never forgotten for a moment. Beatty, who directed, produced, and starred in the film, and shares writing credits with Trevor Griffiths, went to considerable lengths for historical accuracy. "Reds" has a strong documentary element, as the dramatized narrative is interspersed with several snippets of interviews from real people who knew Reed and Bryant, or were otherwise involved in the events depicted in the film. Many were involved with the American Socialist party and other political movements of the day. Credited as "witnesses," the elderly interviewees provide firsthand accounts of their experiences during the era. Some speak to social conditions, some repeat gossip, and the various claims occasionally contradict each other. This serves to bolster the film's portrayal of Reed and Bryant, and remind viewers that their lives weren't so far removed from our own. It's a wonderful technique, one I'm surprised we don't see used more often.

Though Beatty clearly wants the audience to examine its own preconceptions, I think it's important that he never pushes too far. It never feels like he's stumping for Socialism at any point. He plays John Reed as an admirable true believer, but one with plenty of faults and hypocrisies who made some major mistakes, particularly toward the end of his life. As a romance and a biopic, I found "Reds" extremely satisfying. And as a passion project, this is one of those rare beasts where the sky high ambitions of its creator are fully matched by stellar technical and storytelling skill. In fact, this may be the best American epic film I've ever seen.
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A quick note before we start that many of these films don't have release dates yet and are included here because they are expected to debut before the end of the year. There's a good possibility that some of them won't be completed or land distribution deals in time, particularly the foreign ones. "Gravity," for instance, was on last year's list too.

"Upstream Color" - Premiered at this year's Sundance Film Festival and is getting a limited release in a few weeks. Director Shane Carruth has finally delivered a new film after the success of "Primer" nearly ten years ago, after a different planned follow-up project fell through. The early reactions I've read suggest this is going to be a very polarizing one, an ambitious genre film full of wild concepts with an unconventional narrative, that will leave many audience members confused and frustrated. However, I love movies like this, so I can't wait.

"Gravity" - Here we go again. Alfonso Cuaron's long delayed, much anticipated science fiction film about a female astronaut, played by Sandra Bullock, stranded in outer space, is slated for an October release date. After test screenings were held for an unfinished print last year, the word is that this is going to be challenging and visually gorgeous and well worth the wait. Frankly at this point I'll be more than satisfied if Warners can refrain from moving the release date back again. Can you believe it's been seven years since Cuaron's last film?

"Captain Phillips" - Formerly known as "Maersk Alabama," the film will dramatize the 2009 hijacking of a cargo ship by Somali pirates. Tom Hanks will be playing the title role and Paul Greengrass, best known for "United 93" and the "Bourne" movies is directing. Along with screenwriter Billy Ray, that's an interesting combination of talent that could elevate the film above the level of your usual bio-pic, and makes it a considerably more attractive prospect than Hanks' other big film this year, "Saving Mr. Banks," where he'll be playing Walt Disney.

"Snowpiercer" - Bong Joon-Ho's multicultural post-apocalyptic adventure story about a new society that has formed aboard an ever-running train, will be his English-language debut. It's got quite a cast attached, including Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, and Ed Harris. "Snowpiercer" is currently in post-production and expected to premiere in South Korea sometime later this year, but the Weinsteins are handling distribution domestic, so who knows when American audiences will be able to get a look at it.

"Mood Indigo" - Michel Gondry's last film, "The We and the I," is finally getting a limited release in the U.S. next week, but the buzz is already going strong for his next one. The French language "Mood Indigo," based on the Boris Vian's surrealist fantasy novel "Froth on the Daydream," will star Audrey Tatou and Romain Duris as young lovers. The trailer features the whimsical fantasy visuals that Gondry is best known for, including a cartoony cloud car, and multiple scenes where the characters are floating or flying. Even if it's a mess, it'll be gorgeous.

"Fruitvale" - The big winner at Sundance this year follows the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, an Oakland resident whose shooting death in 2009 by transit police sparked massive public outcry. The buzz is that "Fruitvale," named after the BART station where Grant was killed, could follow a similar trajectory of critical acclaim and financial success as "Beasts of the Southern Wild." However, my interest is mainly as a Bay Area resident, who used to ride the BART trains every day, and happened to be living in Oakland at the time these events took place.

"Labor Day" - Jason Reitman has directed four films so far, which can all be categorized as dark comedies or satires to some degree. His next one is going to be "Labor Day," starring Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin. From the descriptions online I initially thought that this was going to be a crime thriller, and maybe it will be to some degree. However, further digging revealed that this is gong to be a small scale interpersonal drama, a little darker than the usual material Reitman works with, but not entirely a departure from his usual style and genre.

"Foxcatcher" - Steve Carrell has done dramatic roles before, but nothing quite like what he's going to attempt in Bennett Miller's "Foxcatcher." The film will be a dramatization of a bizarre crime, where multimillionaire John duPont, played by Carrell, shot and killed a longtime friend in his driveway in full view of witnesses. There aren't many more details yet, but Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum will also star. I also want to note that "Foxcatcher," along with the next entry on the list, were both financed by the increasingly vital Annapurna Pictures.

"Her" - Here's one that's been flying very far under the radar so far, but Spike Jonze's new film has an irresistible premise to a science-fiction geek. A romance between a lonely man and a sophisticated new operating system? Where Joaquin Phoenix is playing the lead? And Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Samantha Morton are also in the cast? I'm in. Spike Jonze will be scripting this one solo as well as directing, which is going to be a first for him. He co-wrote "Where the Wild Things Are," though, which I adored, so I have plenty of faith in him.

"12 Years A Slave" - Last, but not least, we have Steve McQueen's upcoming film based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, who was born a free black man in New York, but kidnapped during a business trip and sold into slavery in the South in 1841. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who we haven't been seeing nearly enough of, has the lead role. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this ends up overshadowing more typical Oscar bait like Lee Daniels' "The Butler" next awards season. And it should provide an interesting contrast to "Django Unchained."
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It's pilot season in Hollywood, and we're about to get a new crop of television shows based on movies. This is a trend that has been around for decades, and has yielded plenty of classics. Some movie premises worked better as television shows, like "MASH" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." So I'm going to take a look at five of the movie-based series, currently in development, that may be coming soon to a small screen near you. I'm leaving out "Marvel's S.H.I.E.L.D.," which is really a spin-off of the Marvel films, and will only be featuring one or two of the minor characters, existing very much on the sidelines of the ongoing movie franchise.

"Beverly Hills Cop" (CBS) - The 80s action comedy series is becoming an hour-long police procedural. Brandon T. Jackson of "Tropic Thunder" fame will star as Axel Foley's son Aaron, a young police officer following his dad's footsteps. "The Shield" creator Shawn Ryan is on bard as producer, and Barry Sonnenfeld is directing the pilot. No word yet on whether Axel himself will be stopping by the Beverley Hills Police Department to check up on his son. Interviews suggest that the tone of the show will stay light, but it won't be an out-and-out comedy. The original film series was heavily dependent on the charisma of Eddie Murphy, and new version without him might not work. However, between 80s nostalgia and the public's love of police procedurals, I can certainly see why the studios decided that a reboot deserved a shot.

"Bad Teacher" (CBS) - Remember the 2011 summer comedy starring Cameron Diaz? It did all right at the box office, but not well enough that anyone is clamoring for a sequel. However, CBS thought the premise has potential as a half-hour comedy, and is in the process of transmogrifying it into sitcom form. Ari Graynor will replace Cameron Diaz, and the new cast also includes David Alan Grier and Ryan Hansen. The raunch and the foul language of the movie is going to have to be toned way, way down for television audiences, to the point where I doubt the series will bear much resemblance to the film. Still, the concept of an immature, irresponsible female teacher looking for love should have plenty of legs. Television is generally friendlier to female-led comedies than the movies are, so the TV "Bad Teacher" may actually have a better shot there.

"About A Boy" (NBC) - A decade ago, "About a Boy" was a decent sized hit, but I have no idea what prompted writer-executive producer Jason Katims to decide that now was the time to revisit the property and convert it into half-hour sitcom form. Still, this is the guy who resurrected "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood" as critically acclaimed television series, so I'm not inclined to question his instincts. FOX actually tried to turn "About a Boy" into a series way back in 2003 with a different creative team, but nothing came of it. This time, they’ve gotten as far as a pilot directed by John Favreau. No word on casting yet, but considering the scarcity of Hugh Grant over the past few years, and the rate that major movie stars have been doing television projects, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that he’d consider returning to the role.

"The Joneses" (Bravo) - This David Duchovny and Demi Moore indie was released in theaters in 2010, but hardly anyone saw it. That's a shame, because the idea at its core was a fascinating one. The main characters are employees of an advertising agency who are hired to live together as a fake family, push products to their neighbors, and encourage them to keep up with the Joneses (Get it?). Bravo has ordered a pilot as part of its first foray into scripted programming, after ABC took a shot at development. Considering how the movie ended, the television series will likely be a total reboot. Since so few people saw the original "Joneses," it should escape being called a retread. However, I'm not sure about Bravo's claim that it will speak "to the Bravo brand of great aspirational female-driven upscale worlds.” My irony alarm is going off.

"Zombieland" (Amazon) - And finally, Amazon is hot to catch up with Netflix in the production of its own content. It has ordered a half-hour comedy pilot based on 2009's "Zombieland." A sequel never quite came together though there was a lot of interest in one, and the possibility of a television adaptation has been lobbed around Hollywood for a while. Amazon finally took the initiative. The film's original writers have scripted the pilot, and three of the four leads have been recast so far. The zombie craze is still going strong this year, so I expect this one to have a high chance of success. On the other hand, Amazon's distribution system isn't quite where Netflix's is at the moment, and I'm not sure if they have the subscriber base to support a show like this. There are a lot of different factors that could affect this one, so stay tuned.

Happy watching!
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The Oscars are fast approaching, and since I've covered just about all the major nominees, it's about time I wrote about "Amour." I saw the film at the end of last year, but was extremely hesitant to address it, because it's a difficult piece of work. All Michael Haneke films are, from what I've seen of them, and I still find it astonishing that the Academy would single out his newest film this year for honors. "Amour" simply does not fit the profile of your typical Oscar contender. It features a pair of older, celebrated French actors who Americans would not be particularly familiar with. The subject matter is certainly weighty and important, but the scale is small and the drama is intimate. There are no gimmick's like last year's "The Artist." There are no controversies, like those raised by "Zero Dark Thirty." And rarely do you see a film this raw and honest and bleak, with such limited commercial prospects, penetrate the defenses of the generally more conservative, more Hollywood-oriented, mainstream-oriented Academy electorate.

Then again, "Amour" is perhaps one of the most accessible Haneke films. The story is simple enough. It concerns an elderly couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who are both in their eighties, and have enjoyed a long and happy relationship. One day Anne pauses a little too long in the kitchen, her movements arrested and her face going blank. Something has begun to go very wrong, and Georges is helpless to prevent Anne's slow, but certain decline. She suffers a stroke that leaves her bedridden and in need of constant care. She undergoes an operation that makes things worse. One of her last coherent requests to Georges is that she not be hospitalized, so Georges takes on the monumental task of caring for her needs at home, as best he can. Nurses and aides are retained, and then dismissed when Georges finds fault with their treatment of his wife. The couple's grown daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert) comes to visit and tries to intervene, but Georges is resolute. How it will all end is no mystery. The story is told in flashback after an opening scene where the police force their way into Georges and Anne's sealed-off apartment, to discover Anne's carefully laid out corpse.

When I first heard about "Amour," I was expecting something much grimmer and more disturbing. Michael Haneke is known for emotionally harrowing films that frequently employ shocking violence and reveal the darkest, most grotesque sides of human nature. In "Amour," there are no hidden monsters, no awful secrets to be brought to light. There is only a man who loves his wife, but who pays a heavy price for that love. Haneke confronts the audience with the reality that even the happiest relationships end in cold death, often demanding unbearable pain and suffering before the end. Perhaps that's why "Amour" comes across as one of the more humane Haneke's films. His characters are allowed a measure of peace, and perhaps even a little sentiment before the end, which make the harsher scenes go down quite a bit easier. Make no mistake that "Amour" presents an unflinching end-of-life narrative that many viewers will find difficult to watch, but it's not cruel, and it's not without mercy. Perhaps one of our most reliable modern provocateurs is softening a little with age.

The performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are remarkable here, creating an evolving onscreen relationship that feels very rich and genuine. Riva is particularly strong. Her character may not have much control over her situation, but displays a steely willfulness and defiance that keeps her very present in the narrative. As for Trintignant, his character's decline is in some ways more pronounced and devastating to watch than this wife's. In the often overlooked and sorely undervalued category of films starring elderly actors, these are rare, challenging roles. I'm not nearly familiar with the long careers of Riva and Trintignant as I should be, but I've seen them both in various French classics from the 60s and 70s, and it's gratifying to see them get the chance to continue to do good work.

Ultimately, though, I'm not sure what I think of "Amour." It's a brave, challenging work of art featuring great performances, and I'm very glad the Academy went for it instead of something easier and more familiar, like "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." On the other hand, so much of the movie is about the immediate, visceral impact of experiencing the couple's end, and the story feels sorely lacking in the kind of context and depth that might have given it more lasting impact. Haneke is not a director in the habit of giving straightforward answers, but this time his oblique symbolism and ambiguous moments don't work as well as they have in the past, and I had no urge to try to unpack them. I came away neither shocked nor particularly moved, though I was impressed with the filmmaking and the approach to the subject matter.

"Amour" is a bold and impressive film, but I didn't get much out of it.
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I put off watching "Les Misérables" for as long as possible, because even though I generally like movie musicals, I've found most of the recent ones underwhelming. Filmmakers have the bad habit of choosing star power over the ability to actually sing, resulting in musically mediocre efforts like "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Sweeney Todd." I'm happy to report that Tom Hooper's version of "Les Misérables" does not have this problem, featuring Hugh Jackman, Broadway veteran, in the starring role of Jean Valjean, as well as several cast members from earlier stage productions. Unfortunately Hooper's intimate approach to the sweeping, epic material does not do the new film version any favors.

On paper it makes sense. "Les Misérables" is full of plaintive solos, sung by characters in isolated, existential misery. Valjean is a convicted thief in nineteenth century France, who elects to break parole and go on the run in order to start a new life. Despite being hunted by the ruthless police inspector Javert (Russell Crowe), Valjean becomes a successful businessman and eventually mayor of his town. One of his factory workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), is dismissed and left destitute when it is discovered she is hiding an illegitimate child. Believeing his failure to intercede wronged Fantine, Valjean takes responsibility for raising her daughter Cosette, (Isabelle Allen as a child, Amanda Seyfried as an adult). Still on the run from Javert years later, when Cosette has grown up, the pair find themselves caught up in the events of the 1832 June rebellion. Among the student revolutionaries is young Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who falls hopelessly in love with Cosette, and his friend and secret admirer, Éponine (Samantha Barks). And every single one of these characters gets plenty of chances to express their angst through song.

"Les Misérables" is absolutely packed with musical numbers, deviating only slightly from the hefty stage musical written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. Minor revisions keep the film under three hours in length, but this means that it's constantly jumping from one famous song to the next, with hardly any pauses to process what's going on. There's hardly any chance for any extra context or exposition outside of what's provided in the lyrics. Fortunately the art direction makes up for a lot, recreating the poverty and despair of 19th century France that Victor Hugo's novel was written to address. The 1832 sequences with hordes of beggars on the streets and the erection of the student barricade are visually spectacular. Unfortunately, these moments are rare. Hooper shoots most of his actors in tight close-ups, utilizing a lot of hand-held camera work, and is fairly stingy about scenic vistas and even crowd shots. While "Les Misérables" is known for its solos, it's also known for the rousing anthems like "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and "Master of the House," which rely on the ensemble, and those numbers simply don't work as well in this style.

The focus on realism and the rejection of theatricality results in a "Les Misérables" that feels grittier and starker, but also smaller and more closed-in than it should. One thing I noticed immediately was the more muted orchestrations of many songs, which puts more emphasis on the raw performances. The stronger singers like Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway don't have any problems getting their emotions across, but then you have poor Russell Crowe as Javert, who completely fails to convey the intensity and obsessive nature of Inspector Javert. His big solo "Stars" is the low point of the movie. Then there's Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen as the comic baddies, the Thénardiers, who are never allowed to be as broad or as funny as we know that they can be, and vocally run into some trouble. This is almost certainly why Hooper chose to cast Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks over bigger names, because they deftly rise above the limitations of the stripped down, deglamorized production.

I hesitate to be too harsh with the director, because his instincts weren't bad. There is a very modern, very timely feel to this "Les Misérables," and it never feels like a stuffy costume drama or a glitzy, overproduced event film. However, the execution is so uneven, and there are so many ideas that just fall flat, I found it difficult to become immersed in the film. I liked most of the performances, especially Anne Hathaway’s broken Fantine, but I don't feel they were particularly well served. If you're a fan of the musical, as I am, I think it's worth a watch to enjoy some of these performances. However, the film does a pretty poor job of capturing what was so stirring about the stage version, and the Victor Hugo novel for that matter - the sheer immensity of its scope and the impact of its drama.
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October is for horror movies. December is for family and holiday movies. Summer is for action blockbusters. And February... well February has become the default month for romantic movies, for no better reason than because the biggest commercial February holiday is Valentine's Day. And I guess that this is as good a time as any to check up on the state of what has become the least loved movie genre in recent years. At this point romances and romantic comedies are viewed with about as much enthusiasm as religious epics, social justice documentaries, and the lower forms of indie coming-of-age biopic.

We know there is an audience for romantic films, because most of them do make money, no matter how terrible they are. And they have been pretty terrible The studios keep churning them out month after month, using them to fill in the holes in their schedules and as occasional counter programming to big action blockbusters, but there's rarely much enthusiasm for them. Unlike superhero films and franchise spectaculars, nobody devotes columns or websites to romances. Nobody tracks their release dates or speculates about the possible pairings of directors and stars. No, romances have quietly slipped under the radar, existing for casual consumption mostly by young women. The only time they attract much of the spotlight is when the romance is combined with a more exciting genre, like the "Twilight" movies, or if it's the product of a recognized auteur, like "Silver Linings Playbook" or "Moonrise Kingdom."

Still, 2012 was pretty good for romance. We had more gender-balanced ensemble pieces like "The Five-Year Engagement" and "Think Like a Man," and fewer one-woman trainwrecks like "One for the Money." Romantic comedies built solely around a female star like Jennifer Lopez or Katherine Heigl seem to be on their way out, not because there aren't actresses who are capable of carrying these films, but because Hollywood had pretty much conceded that they don't know how to make or sell them anymore, and the next Julia Roberts has failed to appear. The more gender balanced or male-led romances have generally been better, including smaller projects like "Friends With Kids," "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," "Celeste and Jesse Forever," and "Hope Springs." On the other hand, the year's biggest romantic moneymaker was the deeply stupid melodrama "The Vow," which made $125 million at the box office a year ago, though "Silver Linings Playbook" might get close to that over the next few weeks.

Looking ahead to 2013, the trends are pretty clear. We're getting more "Twilight"-esque supernatural romances like "Warm Bodies" and "Beautiful Creatures" aimed at the teenagers. Ensemble romances like "The To-Do List" and "The Delivery Man" are all about sex and relationships, but downplay anything that looks more typically romantic while emphasizing the comedy. The inescapable Katherine Heigl will return in April's "The Big Wedding," but as a member of a large cast of far more talented actors. The Nicolas Sparks brand of tearjerker melodrama continues to be popular, so an adaptation of his "Safe Haven" will try to replicate the success of "The Vow" when it opens next Friday. Meanwhile, the reign of Tyler Perry continues unabated for African-American romantic comedies and dramas. The only thing that looks like a typical star-driven romantic vehicle is the Tina Fey and Paul Rudd romantic comedy "Admission," which has the added benefit of being written and directed by the well-regarded Paul Weitz.

Even though I grumble about female-led films being in short supply, I can't say I'm too upset about seeing fewer promising actresses like Amy Adams and Kristin Bell and Greta Gerwig being shoehorned into formulaic dreck like "Leap Year" and "When in Rome" and "Arthur." And the truth is that all of our movie stars across the board have been losing ground to CGI-heavy franchises over the last couple of years, and ensembles are more popular all around. And most romances fit that range of middle budgeted, character-driven films for older audiences that have been shrinking for years. It's no wonder that the better ones all seems to be smaller indie pictures these days. And yet, even though there are fewer and fewer films being billed as romances or romantic comedies, there are still plenty coming out next year that fit the category, like "The Great Gatsby." As much disdain as there is these days for love stories, you can't really get away from them.

In short, the romances aren't going anywhere, even though they're in a pretty sorry state right now. It's going to take some time and some serious reinvention and rebranding to get away from the awful rom-com chick flick reputation the genre has now, but I'm optimistic that it can be done, eventually. But right now, there just aren't enough people in high places who will take romances seriously, or are willing to commit the right talent to the right projects, or who appreciate the decades and decades of wonderful films that came out of this genre. And that's why we're still getting Nicholas Sparks movies and why Katherine Heigl still gets work.

And that's why for Valentine's Day, I'll be seeing the next "Die Hard" movie.
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"Silver Linings Playbook" comes with an unfortunate amount of baggage. It's currently the subject of an overzealous Harvey Weinstein marketing campaign, and has been nominated for more Oscars than it probably should have been. I worry people are going to go into it expecting something more profound than the movie has to offer. At its core, "Silver Linings Playbook" is a perfectly solid, enjoyable romantic comedy, where the main characters happen to have some severe emotional and psychological issues to work out. There are some good performances to enjoy, and the script has fun knocking down the usual flimsy rom-com clichés.

Bradley Cooper stars as Pat Solitano, who we meet as he is being discharged from a mental health facility. He has bipolar disorder, and had to be institutionalized for eight months after a violent incident. Pat goes to live with his parents, Pat Sr. and Dolores (Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver), since his wife Nikki has left him, sold their house, and gotten a restraining order against him. Pat struggles in recovery, fixated on reuniting with Nikki and repairing his marriage. However, he also becomes involved with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a recently widowed young dance enthusiast, who is working through her own assortment of emotional problems. Thanks to her influence and support, Pat is able to confront some of his demons.

Now I understand why people are rallying around the movie, because it does have some nice surprises and admirable impulses. I've complained before that our best directors should be stretching more and tackling material outside their comfort zones, and David O'Russell making any kind of romantic comedy certainly fits the bill. This is the sort of unconventional approach to conventional material that should be encouraged and rewarded. Also, Jennifer Lawrence does deliver a hell of a performance as the delightfully screwed-up Tiffany, and Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro commit to their roles in a way that we don't see too often from either of them. O'Russell may have a reputation for being difficult, but he sure provokes some good work out of his actors.

Romantic comedies have been in such a sorry state these past few years, it's become a rare pleasure to find one that is actually about believable relationships, and has well-rounded characters you can feel some sympathy for. That's why it's so tempting to want to overlook the film's flaws. First and foremost, the treatment of mental illness isn't the best, and I think it's fair to say that O'Russell fudged more than a few things for dramatic effect. Pat's bad episodes are marked by a lot of screaming and yelling and dysfunctional family fun that get the intensity of his emotional state across, but avoid any darker, cavernous depths. The raucous fight scenes often feel too close to O'Russell's previous film, "The Fighter," to be entirely a coincidence. However, you never feel for a moment that he's not taking these characters and their problems absolutely seriously.

Then there are the various plot complications that didn't really work for me, like the set-up for the third act. As good as "Silver Linings Playbook" is about avoiding some of the typical rom-com pitfalls, it happily embraces plenty of other contrivances. And I mean really, really obvious use of formula that I was surprised O'Russell would resort to. Then there are the minor characters. You may have noticed Chris Tucker in the trailers as Danny, a friend of Pat's from the institution. He's moderately engaging in the few scenes he has, but O'Russell can't seem to work out what to do with him. Same thing goes with Ronnie Maxwell (John Ortiz) and his wife Veronica (Julia Stiles), who are introduced to help bring Pat and Tiffany together, and then have a sort-of peripheral, half-assed subplot that feels like a last minute afterthought.

None of these issues bothered me enough to affect my basic enjoyment of the film, and I do happily recommend it if you're in the mood for something romantic and heartfelt with some edge to it. However, sorting out my reactions after the movie, I concluded that there was nothing I really found noteworthy or special about it. Directors like Thomas McCarthy and Jason Reitman and Alexander Payne have all made far better films that cover similar territory. I can't really work up any sort of justification for "Silver Linings Playbook" being on the receiving end of a whopping eight Academy Award nominations. Best Film Editing? No. Best Supporting Actress? I like Jacki Weaver, but her role as the Solitano matriarch is slight at best. Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director for David O'Russell? I think he's more deserving here than he was for "The Fighter," but it's still a real stretch.

I wish I'd seen "Silver Linings Playbook" earlier in the season, because as I careful as I was trying to be, I think the hype did effect the way I watched the film to some degree. Still, I truly did enjoy it, even if I can't root for it. And I'd love to see David O'Russell take another shot at a romantic comedy.
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Joe Wright, the director of "Atonement" and "Hannah," has proven to be a reliable talent, especially with period films. Tom Stoppard is a playwright of rare esteem, who co-authored "Shakespeare in Love" among other classics. And then there's Keira Knightley, whose acting chops I've occasionally found reason to question, but she's delivered some good performances, including the title role of "The Duchess," which was about an adulterous noblewoman going against the social rules of her day and age. I'm not sure which of these three is to blame for the unfortunate state of the latest cinematic adaptation of "Anna Karenina," its director, its writer, or its leading lady. I suspect all three are partially responsible.

The first hour of the film is fine, if a little frantic. For those of you who don't remember your Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, played by Knightley, is married to Count Alexei Karenin (Jude Law), a rising figure in the Russian government with whom she has a young son. Anna travels to Moscow to help smooth over the aftermath of an affair involving Anna's brother Stiva (Matthew Macfadyen) and his wife Dolly (Kelly Macdonald). During Anna's visit, Dolly's younger sister Kitty (Alicia Vikander) rejects the affections of one suitor, Konstantin Levin (Domhnall Gleeson), in favor of the dashing cavalry officer Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Unfortunately for Kitty, Vronsky and Anna become involved in a love affair that ultimately results in Anna's downfall in Russian society. Running parallel is the story of Levin's continued courtship of Kitty and his evolving understanding of his place in Russia's future.

"Anna Karenina" has extremely ambitious visuals. Much of the main action plays out on a literal stage, with shifting backdrops and props denoting changes in location. A character may ascend into the catwalks above the curtain, dressed to look like the docks, or drop beneath the stage into the trap room, which stands in for the slums. In one long take, we watch as an accounting office is transformed into a restaurant, the extras swapping visors for waiters' uniforms, dancing into position as the scenery changes. Musicians briefly invade the set before disappearing backstage again. It's all very beautifully choreographed, and the theater being a metaphor for Russian society is an apt one, but it's a conceit that gets tired very quickly. Fortunately, whenever the action moves away from the cities, Wright sets his scenes in the real world, with an emphasis on nature and farming life.

Now all the stagecraft and spectacle is fun up to a point, and I found that the introductory scenes played well. The trouble comes when Anna and Count Vronsky become involved, and their romance becomes the driving force of the rest of the film. This is where everything falls apart. Keira Knightley is clearly doing her best, and Anna Karenina was always a difficult character, but I don't think I've ever seen a more unsympathetic take on the tragic heroine. She gets no help from Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who comes off as pale and weaselly more than anything else. Jude Law fares much better as the wronged party, and creates some real tension when he and Anna clash. However, Knightley ends up alone onscreen for too many endless scenes, and it's simply too much for her. I don't think she does a bad job, but there's something terribly off-putting about her work in this film. At several points she struck me as miscast, a little too stiff to convey the consuming passion that drives Anna Karenina to ignore all instincts of self-preservation.

Then again, it doesn't help that Anna's descent is severely truncated, and her emotional state is too often unclear. Stoppard's script does a fine job with Karenin's arc and Levin's arc, but when it comes to Anna, it falls short. There's not enough time spent establishing her reasons for jealousy and doubt, and her later actions appear mercurial and mean-spirited. I understand the reason for shortening this section, because it would have been a long slog the way Wright presented these events. All that spectacular stagecraft mostly disappears in the last act, where it could have been a real help to liven things up. I was disappointed when I realized that Wright wasn't going to extend the theater metaphor to Anna's isolation and madness, choosing instead to play things completely straight, and falling victim to the tedium he was trying so hard to avoid. Instead of building to the famous climax, the movie just sort of meanders there. Maybe if Wright had stronger lead actors this approach wouldn't have seemed so underwhelming, but Knightley and Taylor-Johnson needed all the help they could get.

The rest of the cast boasts some formidable talents. Olivia Williams, Emily Mortimer, and Ruth Wilson appear in smaller roles. Alicia Vikander is a relative newcomer, but proves herself to be someone worth keeping an eye on. Jude Law gives the best performance, but I think my favorite is Matthew Macfadyen as the jovial Stiva, a valuable source of comic relief whenever he appears. Some may point to the inclusion of the Levin section as being too much of a distraction from the main story, but Domhnall Gleeson is very good at being depressed without being dull, and I ultimately found his subplot far more satisfying than watching Anna and Vronsky's labored love affair. Even cutting out all the poiltics and the religion, the filmmakers managed to get Levin right.

So it continues to confound me how they managed to get Anna Karenina so very wrong.
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Ruby Sparks is a dream girl. She's not some perfect feminine ideal, but instead the kind of kooky twenty-something cutie, played by Zoe Kazan, who would appeal to a sensitive young man like Calvin (Paul Dano). Calvin is a writer, whose great tragedy is that he wrote a hugely successful novel in his teens, but has failed to live up to his talent in the subsequent ten years. Having about as much luck with the opposite sex as he has with his recent writing, Calvin is depressed and seeing a therapist (Elliot Gould). One night he has a dream about Ruby and begins writing about her, hoping to overcome his writer's block. The next thing Calvin knows, Ruby has appeared in his house and believes she lives there as his girlfriend. Calvin and his brother Harry (Chris Messina) discover, after some experimentation, that Calvin can change Ruby however he wants by altering his manuscript. However, Ruby proves to have a mind of her own.

In addition to playing Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan also wrote the script for the film and Paul Dano is her real life boyfriend. Thus the metaphysical and metatextual implications abound in a story about writers and writing, creators and their creations. Directed by the husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, "Ruby Sparks" is a very simple and small-scale story. Perhaps it's a little too small-scale, because several of the movie's central concepts aren't explored to nearly the extent that they could have been, and few of the characters besides Calvin and Ruby have much depth to them. When Calvin discovers his new powers, he doesn't question how or why he suddenly has this ability. Those questions are left to Harry, whose role is pretty much limited to sharing Calvin's secret and acting as a reminder that Ruby isn't a real girl. And despite the appearances of many familiar actors like Elliot Gould, Annette Bening as Calvin and Harry's mother, Antonio Banderas as her boyfriend, Alia Shawkat as a fangirl, and Steve Coogan as a rival author, they don't get very much to do.

However what they script does get very right is the relationship between Calvin and Ruby, and how Calvin has to deal with the realization that even though Ruby is his ideal, he's not prepared for the emotional reality of dealing with her day to day. The story focuses on what happens after a hero lands his dream girl, on mismatched expectations, inevitable frictions, and misunderstandings. It doesn't matter what the mechanism of Ruby's existence is ultimately, when the point is to comment on the consequences of being with girls like Ruby, who fit that "manic pixie dream girl" trope. Harry even warns Calvin at one point that Ruby is the kind of girl who it's fun to fantasize about, but who doesn't make a good girlfriend in real life. The self-awareness of the writing helps to distance the film from any overt supernatural "Twilight Zone" vibes or the usual wish-fulfillment silliness like "Weird Science." "Ruby Sparks" technically could be classified as a romantic comedy, but it skips right over the meet cute and the courtship, and ends up putting the characters in some pretty unexpected places.

It also helps that the leads are both strong. Paul Dano has had a good year, taking on several lead roles in smaller indie films, including this one. Calvin is a pretty shameless cliché of the earnest, but frustrated young writer with a tendency to romanticize things, but he's very convincing in the part. In fact, he's so convincing that I'm a little worried that Dano is going to get himself typecast playing moody writers after this and "Being Flynn." There's something awfully sympathetic about him, even when he's being a complete jerk. Zoe Kazan has a decent list of screen credits to her name, but this is the first movie where I really took notice of her. I like that Ruby comes off as pretty ordinary at first, and it really is her personality and her particular charm that distinguishes her as Calvin's idea of a perfect girlfriend. Dano and Kazan's chemistry together also translates well to the screen, and I could easily image the two of them in a more typical romance.

As for Kazan's as a screenwriter, I liked the ideas in "Ruby Sparks" a lot more than the execution, but I certainly enjoyed the movie and think she has a lot of talent. I liked the humor and the attitude and the idiosyncrasies. I think she certainly has it in her to tackle something bigger and more ambitious if she wants. And I really appreciate that Kazan had the guts and the foresight to not just wait for the right part to come along, but to write her own best role for herself.
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There's a substantial possibility that Wes Anderson's "Moonrise Kingdom" will make a showing in the major Oscar categories this year, so though my review is extremely late, it may still have some relevance.

Not having written about any of his previous films, I feel I should first say a bit about the director, who is one of the more polarizing figures in current American cinema. He has cultivated a very particular visual aesthetic that hasn't changed much over the last decade, which some viewers have heartily embraced and others have rejected as overly indulgent and repetitive. Anderson's rigid composition, penchant for long shots, retro stylings, and fetishization of objects has been well documented, analyzed, and parodied. The term "hipster" comes up a lot. However, Anderson has found new variations on these common elements, with an animated film in "Fantastic Mr. Fox," and an exotic travelogue in "The Darjeeling Limited." Some have worked better than others, but I think Anderson has been steadily heading downhill since the high of "The Royal Tenenbaums" back in 2001.

And so we come to "Moonrise Kingdom," which is a tale of young love told in the style of a fantastic children's story. Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), a pair of glum prepubescent loners, conspire to run away together. While Sam is on an outing with his Khaki Scout troop on the picturesque island of New Penzance, off the coast of New England, he secretly meets up with Suzy, who he had met the previous summer, and the two make their escape into the wilderness. The adults responsible for them, Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton), Suzy's parents (Bill Murray, Frances McDormand), and local Police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), must find the children before an impending hurricane arrives. Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Bob Balaban, and Harvey Keitel also appear in smaller roles, but the film largely belongs to the two young leads as they explore the island together.

Wes Anderson fans and detractors will be quick to point out the whimsical production design, the precisely framed shots, and the slightly peculiar speech patterns of the characters – all typical of Anderson. And even though the director's favorite Futura font has been abandoned in favor of more whimsical calligraphic lettering, there's no getting around how familiar the whole film feels. Here are the lonely heroes, acting out in alarming ways because nobody really understands how they feel. Here are the dysfunctional families that need to be shaken up in order to come together more strongly. Here are the silly visual gags, delivered with a straight face. Here are a few minutes of charming animation. Here is Bob Balaban as your narrator, dressed like a jovial lawn gnome. Just 'cause.

In short, if you like Anderson's other films, and you like his style of storytelling, this film should work for you. If you find him insufferable, you may still want to give this a chance. The new variation this time around is the use of the kids' POV. Yes, it's the same Anderson story at its core, but filtered through the kids, the edges are softer, and the conceits are easier to cut through. Suddenly the stylized designs make sense, as they help the film achieve the look and feel of one of the fantasy books that the young heroine carries around with her. And where many Anderson heroes were men and women in arrested development, here the youngsters are pleasantly mature for their age. The story is also full excitement, with lots of camping and hiking and kayaking. Oh, and there's a hurricane, of course. And just when you think the kids are all sweet and innocent, we get a firm reminder that this is not a Hollywood film, and it's not rated PG-13 just for the smoking and fisticuffs. Twelve-year olds in this movie have hormones and act on them.

The younger actors prove capable at carrying the film, but that's not to say that the grown-ups don't pull their weight. The committed Scout Master is probably my favorite Edward Norton performance in years. Bruce Willis gives Captain Sharp some real heart, and he looks livelier than he has in most of the action films he's been in lately. I wish we got to see this side of Willis more often. Frances McDormand doesn't get enough screen time at all, but makes the most of it, and Bill Murray gets even less, but I'm not inclined to complain when he genuinely appears to be enjoying himself.

"Moonrise Kingdom" feels awfully derivative at times, and I don't think it hits the highs of "The Royal Tenenbaums" or "Rushmore," but it is the first Wes Anderson film I've felt so positive about in a long time. I'm not sure where Anderson is going to go from here, but I think he's proven that his formula or his template or whatever you want to call it, has proven very adaptable. And I'm very curious to find out where his inventories and his French pop songs and his zooms and overhead shots are going to pop up next.
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I've always liked UK actor Rufus Sewell, who has long been typecast as a villain in his film career, despite several excellent turns as a leading man. So it was nice to see him in the title role of the BBC detective show "Zen," which came and went fairly quickly back in January of 2011. Like the outwardly similar "Luther" and "Sherlock," its three episodes are feature-length, running about ninety minutes apiece. I'm afraid "Zen" doesn't match up to the highs of either of those shows, but then it's more consistent and succeeds in setting itself apart from other British crime dramas.

Aurelio Zen (Sewell), is a detective in Rome. Separated from his wife, he lives with his mother (Catherine Spaak), works too much, and contemplates a relationship with his boss's new assistant, the lovley Tania Moretti (Caterina Murino). Zen has a reputation for being both an outsider and a man of unusually strong morals, who does not engage in the sort of politicking and corruption that is endemic in his department, as exemplified by Zen's chief rival, Vincenzo Fabri (Ed Stoppard). However, he knows how to use the system of political favors and under-the-table dealings to his own advantage, including taking delicate assignments straight from a well-placed cabinet minister, Amadeo Colonna (Ben Miles). And like almost all hero detectives, Zen has a habit of bending the rules and ignoring direct orders when they would get in the way of seeing justice done.

I was not surprised at all to learn that the Aurelio Zen of Michael Dibdin's novels, which were the source material for "Zen," is introduced as being about a decade older than the one in the television series, is far more morally compromised, and is generally described as an anti-hero figure. The show abandons most of these shades of gray, giving us a version of the detective who is faced with few deep moral quandaries, and difficult decisions. Every episode seems to involve him putting his career on the line due to the shady machinations of higher authorities in the police force and the government, but Zen remains untouched by the corruption. Instead he's a terribly romantic ideal of a lone detective who values the truth over furthering his own interests, and despite the costs to his personal life, he bucks the system and always seems to come out on top in the end.

The series is set in Italy, and mostly populated by British actors without a trace of an Italian accent. The exception is Caterina Murino, playing Zen's primary love interest. Their hot-blooded, libido-driven romance sets the tone of the show, which is reminiscent of early James Bond as it plays up the intrigue and sexiness. Love affairs are open secrets, and practically every female character tries to seduce the reluctant Zen at some point. Throw in picturesque Italian locations and a dreamy, nostalgia-tinged score, and we're clearly dealing with a heavily exoticized version of Rome that doesn't really exist. Zen's cases all involve high-profile political victims in compromising situations, that require hushing up potential scandals, but there's no real social commentary or any sense that we're getting a candid look at Italian society. In fact, I spotted several things that an genuine Italian would probably cringe at.

But as an old fashioned detective fantasy, it's perfectly serviceable entertainment. The stories are nothing new or memorable, but the execution provides just enough kick to keep it interesting. The actors in particular are a major asset. Far from looking villainous, Rufus Sewell's Zen is immediately sympathetic and has an appealing underdog charm. Even when he's dressed to the nines, there' still something vaguely scruffy and down-to-earth about him. Caterina Murino gets a tricky character to play, so overtly sexual and sexualized that I wasn't sure if "Zen" took place in the past or if it was a matter of cultural differences, but she can certainly hold her own on the screen. And it took me a while to figure out where I had seen Ben Miles before, since his performance as Colonna is light years away from goofy Patrick from "Coupling" - in a good way.

"Zen" didn't last beyond its first season, but it makes for decent casual viewing, especially if you like crime procedurals. Even though I think the picture of the Italian police force it paints is highly suspect, it's nice seeing a depiction that doesn't incorporate any of the usual clichés and tries doing things a little differently. And I like to think that if the show had returned for more series, it might have gotten darker and more interesting the way that the original novels did. If you're impatiently awaiting the return of "Sherlock" and "Luther" like I am, "Zen" is no substitute, but it might help to tide you over.
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Last week there were some eyebrows raised at the announcement that Penguin Press was going to publish a popular fanfiction story, "Loving the Band," written about the UK boy band One Direction, by a sixteen-year-old named Emily Baker. It'll have to go through some revisions first, specifically scrubbing all references to One Direction or its band members, a practice known in fanfiction circles as "filing off the serial numbers." The most famous example of this is, E.L. James' "Fifty Shades of Grey," which started off as "Twilight" fanfiction featuring Edward and Bella. There have been rumors of other deals in the works, so it seems like we have the beginnings of a trend here.

There have been varied reactions to this, some outraged, some despondent, but almost all negative. The biggest complaint has been that these publishers are just chasing after the next popular thing, looking for stories from the biggest, most hyped-up fandoms of the moment in the Young Adult sphere to exploit. They're not interested in promoting real talent, but the writers with the ability to attract a rabid audience of young women. Also, they're not asking the authors to write something new and original, but choosing to publish something that has already attracted attention and been well-received by the target readers, piggy-backing off the success of the source media itself. Would "Fifty Shades of Grey" have taken off if the original fanfiction story, "Master of the Universe," hadn't already been popular with the "Twilight" crowd? Would Penguin be interested in "Loving the Band" if that band wasn't One Direction? Sure they change the names of all the characters before going to press for legal reasons, but there's an understanding with the fans that nothing substantive is different. It's such a blatant cash-grab and such a terribly cynical one. What's really worrisome is how easily publishers could seize on this as a new model to churn out cheap new money-makers.

Many members of the fanfiction community aren't happy either, because the young writers getting all the attention don't write particularly good examples of fanfiction in the first place. Looking over the summary of "Love the Band," it breaks almost all the cardinal rules of good fanfiction. The main character is original, a "Mary Sue" self-insert who becomes the focal point of a love triangle with two members of the band. She exists primarily for wish fulfillment purposes. Being able to "file off the serial numbers" generally means that the author has written something either so generic or so far removed from their chosen fandom, the use of existing characters doesn't actually affect the story. The point of fanfiction is exploring the existing universe in a way that the canon work doesn't allow for. So if you've written a "Doctor Who" fanfiction where you could replace the time-traveling alien adventurer with someone from the cast of "Glee" without having to rework significant amounts of the plot, you're probably doing something wrong.

Then again, I do see a positive side to this. I've remarked before that the first rule of fanfiction is that you don't make money off of fanfiction, but there has been a growing pressure to find some way of monetizing the huge, diverse, fanfiction universe. I think some of the old rules are starting to change. The danger of fanfiction being shut down for copyright violations isn't as great anymore, because it's become more visible and acceptable to the mainstream public over these last few years. Sure, it still gets no respect, but at least it's out in the open and people have a better idea of what it is and who's participating in it. That doesn't mean there isn't still some stigma, since fanfiction is in a legal gray area, there are no quality controls, and a lot of people simply don't understand the idea of writing for fun. However, if fanfiction is seen as a sort of training ground for burgeoning writers, and a potential source of new material to exploit, that gives the publishers a financial incentive to let the community exist on its own terms.

As for more trashy fanfiction being published as legitimate books, well, it honestly doesn't bother me much. I remember a lot of equally poor YA books when I was younger, the sort of trendy, weightless fluff designed to appeal to a certain kind of girl who wouldn't read anything else. Remember "Sweet Valley High"? Or if you liked the kinkier stuff, remember V.C. Andrews? And then of course there are the official tie-in novels written for much of the same media that the fanfiction is written for. Why shouldn't fanfiction share shelf space with the books that would technically be counted as fanfiction if the author hadn't been paid by the license holders?

I should note that there has been a small, but persistent group of "Twilight" fanfiction writers trying to follow in E.L. James' footsteps, self-publishing their "Twilight" fanfiction with the names swapped out, in hopes of attracting similar attention. They've been dismissed as craven opportunists by many in the fanfiction community, and I'm not inclined to disagree, but their emergence is indicative of changing attitudes. Fanfiction and pro-fiction are edging closer together. I can imagine some nightmare scenarios where the lawyers get involved, but if they can figure out how to coexist, it may be to the benefit of both sides.
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I think I finally get Whit Stillman. During one of my Criterion binges of yore, I stumbled across his first film, "Metropolis," which has nothing to do with Fritz Lang's, and couldn't make heads or tails of it. Here were a group of young people who talked like dictionaries, going to various parties where they never did anything that looked like fun, dabbling in relationships, and having many, many long-winded and impenetrable conversations. Intimidated, I carefully ignored anything else he did for about ten years, which coincided with Stillman's own thirteen-year hiatus between his last film and his latest, "Damsels in Distress." This one I liked. I liked it a lot.

New freshman Lily (Analeigh Tipton) comes to the lovely Seven Oaks college, and is quickly adopted by a trio of older girls: Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Heather (Carrie MacLemore). The trio aspire to be do-gooders, so they mind the campus suicide prevention center with a box of donuts, lead therapy groups where tap-dancing is the primary form of treatment, and crusade against the boorishness of certain campus traditions held dear by the school's male population. Violet is the ringleader, who dates a pleasant lunk named Frank (Ryan Metcalf). Lily, meanwhile, attracts the attention of two potential romantic partners: fast-talking Charlie (Adam Brody), and a European grad student, Xavier (Hugo Becker). Neither of them are quite what they seem.

It took a while for me to pick up on what Stillman was doing in "Damsels in Distress." This is college life through the lens of fantasy and nostalgia, existing in a world where a trio of the most earnestly preppie girls who ever lived are courted by potential beaus through civilized discourse, and believe that changing the world may just require a few scented soaps and starting a new international dance craze. At first I thought their overly formal and polite modes of conversation were anachronistic, but they weren't. Rather, all the dialogue is stylized to be overly literate and precise, even coming from less articulate characters like Frank. The rules of engagement between the sexes have been severely desexualized, though sex is certainly still in the picture. Under these conditions, the girls deal with typical, modern relationship troubles and interpersonal tensions. They talk and act like they're above the problems of the characters in every other college picture ever made, but they're not. In short, Stillman satirizes the hell out of the very East Coast intellectual milieu that he's best known for exploring.

And the nice thing is that he does it so very gently, without malice or snideness. Greta Gerwig, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite young actresses, is absolutely delightful as the ludicrous, self-important Violet. Here is a classic queen bee and utter snob, who is so sweetly sincere and so naïve in her convictions, I found it very hard to dislike her. In spite of all her affected superiority and practiced nonchalance, she falls victim to all the same pitfalls she warns Lily against. Sometimes Violet teeters on the edge of being too naïve to stand up to scrutiny, but Gerwig sells it with all she's got.

Alas, the other three actresses simply can't compete. I could hardly remember anything about Carrie MacLemore as Heather an hour after I finished the movie. Analeigh Tipton is bright and sympathetic, but seems to struggle to hit the comic notes in her material. Megalyn Echikunwoke is sadly underused as the hostile Rose, a transplanted Londoner who takes great pleasure in labeling every unworthy male a "playboy operator." The male half of the cast holds their own against the ladies, but are a little difficult to distinguish visually and none of them really stand out performance-wise either.

I think this is because Stillman's dialogue so dominates the picture. The visual style is interesting, with its period details and occasional graphic puns, but Stillman gives the bulk of his attention to the rapid fire, densely droll dialogue, from Violet taking Lily a tour of the campus and explaining the philosophy of her group, to the various relationships being built up and dissected, to several characters self-analyzing themselves when they hit rough patches. And like with Stillman's "Metropolis," occasionally I got lost. However, I found enough of the voluminous verbiage funny or clever or simply prodigious enough that it held my attention.

Moreover, there's an ease and a lightness to the picture that I appreciated. It doesn't take itself nearly as seriously as the characters take themselves, and even includes what can legitimately described as flights of fancy. Whit Stillman is clearly an acquired taste. I can easily see your stereotypical average filmgoer, used to a diet of Adam Sandler comedies, walking away from this with glazed eyes, mumbling vague threats against hipsters. However, if you know girls like Violet, or if you've ever been a Lily, "Damsels in Distress" may be the film for you.


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