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Friday, April 18, 2014

Unhook the Stars - A Film Review

Unhook the Stars (1996) - This is one of my favorite movies about female friendship, written and directed by Nick Cassavetes.. Two women find solace in each other, as well as support, love, and friendship. Gena Rowlands plays Mildred, a lonely widow whose children are grown and gone. Marisa Tomei plays Monica, a single mom struggling to support her family. The two become friends when Mildred offers to babysit Monica's son J.J. (Jake Lloyd) while she;s at work. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement: Mildred gets to have companionship and to be mothering again, and Monica gets to have a trusting friend and support while working out her issues with work and her estranged husband.

What makes this film special is the performances by Gena Rowlands and Marisa Tomei. Their characters feel like real people, like ordinary people one would know. Rowlands excels at characters who are flawed and touched by life's troubles, yet always carries a sense of class with her, and a sense of inner pride as well. She portrays Mildred as a sweet grandmotherly type who enjoys doting on a quiet little boy, and is a sympathetic and kind person. Tomei is an underrated actress (despite having an Academy Award, she was often written off as a fluke because she won for a comedic role) who can play the funny best friend or the mysterious seductress, and her role as Monica is a great combination of being rough, sexy, and funny. A particularly funny and well-timed scene is when her profane and angry phone call conversation overlaps with a positive family conversation, her retorts syncing up as unintentional responses to innocent family talk.

Besides friendship, the film centers on Mildred's self-discovery as an elderly woman living on her own, and her life is touched by her relationships with Monica and J.J., as well as sweet and flirtatious moments with a local Quebecoise truck driver (Gerald Depardieu). It isn't often to see films that are about elderly people or senior citizens moving into the next phase of their lives after children and spouses have gone, and the film gives hope to the idea that a new beginning is always around the corner, no matter what age. There isn't a major plot to this movie, and there doesn't have to be. With a strong script and talented actors, just people talking about everyday stuff can be fascinating.

The Other Woman: A Film Review

The Other Woman (2009) - This was a very interesting drama, featuring an unsympathetic and often unlikable heroine. Natalie Portman took a risk playing a woman who knowingly sleeps with a married man, gets pregnant, marries him after he leaves his wife, and her baby dies after three days of life. Emilia is often cold, snobby, and deals with the grief of losing her baby by talking down to her 8-year old stepson William (Charlie Tahan), being irritated whenever he rambles, asks personal questions, or wastes her time. She's a really difficult character, and especially bad when she looks down on others while ignoring her own transgressions.

But the film has depth, and Emilia has to accept her baby's death while learning to accept her stepson, and own up to her coldness due to emotional trauma. The movie at both treats her as a three-dimensional character while not ignoring her awful attitude towards William (giving him ice cream when he is lactose-intolerant, giving sarcastic answers, snapping at him to shut up when he talks about her baby). She has to confront her selfishness towards her relationship with her husband and her part in the destruction of his family. The movie feels real, and took a chance on making a story about a difficult and unlikable character, especially a woman who would be called a "homewrecker."

The director/screenwriter Don Roos has a talent for making films with complicated female leads, like in Happy Endings or The Opposite of Sex. He also consistently works with Lisa Kudrow, giving her roles that were more complex and serious than the roles she played on Friends and The Comeback. I am not always a fan of Natalie Portman, as she can be very wooden, but this film allowed her to play a more human character, both good and bad, and to work with more depth and texture.

Brief Reviews of Films About Best Friends

The Sweetest Thing (2002) – This movie bombed when it came out due to a weak plot of a woman chasing a guy mixed in with gross-out gags, but the saving grace in it for me was the wonderful chemistry between Cameron Diaz and Christina Applegate as best friends Christina and Courtney. The two have this banter of dirty jokes, girlie bonding, and support for one another.  You can really feel the deep history they have between them, from their in-jokes, references to past adventures (singing along to “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” from Spring Break ’94), teasing of one another about striking out with guys, wearing dirty underwear, wearing 1980s’looking dresses, and their own personal smells. The actresses worked really well off of each other, as if they had been best friends for years. The banter between the two of them is really warm, funny, and special, and is a highlight of an otherwise forgettable movie.

I Love You, Man (2009) – This movie had a good premise to it: a man realizes he doesn’t have any male friends and goes out on platonic dates to get them. Paul Rudd and Jason Segel worked so well together as Peter and Sydney, especially whenever they nerded out to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer,” bonded in the “man cave,” or talked in silly made-up words to each other, like “Totes McGotes.” The plot was relatable, as it can be hard for people to make new friends or find more friends of the same sex if they don’t feel macho or girlie enough in a general way.  Sydney helps Peter to bring out his looser side, to not feel socially awkward when he makes bad jokes or stumbles, and to feel good with a male friend without feeling like he has to change himself. This friendship is not a bromance, because that cheapens it. They do grow to love one another, but it’s not romantic or obsessive. It’s just deep best friend love.