ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE COEN BROTHERS

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE COEN BROTHERS

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE COEN BROTHERS: SUBVERTING THE ROM-COM GENRE.

The vast majority of romantic comedies will follow a relatively predictable structure. Boy meets girl (a ‘meet-cute’ more often), boy meets girl again (a more in depth get-together), boy and girl actually get together, boy and girl split up and finally, boy and girl realise their feelings and get together for good. There are complications along the way – careers, third parties, parents etc. – but come the end, love conquers all.

Yet what happened next? The credits roll and the audience goes home happy that the two people who were meant to be together ended up together. What of the couple though? Do they stay together forever? Do they get married and have a wonderful life? Or do they get bored with one another or drift apart? Could, conceivably the central marriages in Sam Mendes films American Beauty and Revolutionary Road have started with much joy and love in the way many romantic comedies end?

Ideally, we’re not meant to ponder on this. It ruins the illusion, the magic of the movies. As Basil Exposition from Austin Powers would say – try not to think about it too much and just enjoy yourself. The happiness of the relationship is preserved in an almost inverse way to Romeo & Juliet where the titular couples tragic demise preserves their short relationship for all the ages.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE COEN BROTHERS

Some films do try and give us a glimpse of ‘what happens next’ often via a montage or clip set some time after the main bulk of the action. Notting Hill ends with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts sitting together in a park, both happily married and her obviously pregnant. Wimbledon shows Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst teaching their children to play tennis. Maid In Manhatten shows us a magazine cover from boasting that Ralph Fiennes and Jennifer Lopez are ‘Still together – One year on!’ It’s a way of extending the fantasy.

Yet when films play with the convention of genre, it can make for something rare and unique and there have been few better genre-benders in recent cinema than the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. Bizarrely, their 1987 screwball comedy Raising Arizona actually does conform to the aforementioned structure yet it brilliantly subverts it. For the opening ten minutes serve like a whirlwind rom-com.  H.I (Nic Cage) and Ed (Holly Hunter) meet and get married all before the opening credit has rolled, just ten minutes into the film. It’s an absurd set-up that we often get in romantic comedies- she is a cop and he is a criminal and they meet via his appearance in a police line-up.  The rest of the film then follows their attempts to start a family – by kidnapping the son of a furniture tycoon. It’s a romantic comedy that manages to squeeze the standard bulk of a romantic comedy into its opening gambit before stretching out what is traditionally a closing montage into the bulk of a ninety minute film. It’s a simple but effective trick that makes for a unique film. It reminds us of the difficulties that may lay ahead, post-wedding.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE COEN BROTHERS

Similarly, with Intolerable Cruelty the brothers made a screwball romantic comedy that also follows the standard structure. However, the key difference is that Marilyn (Catherine Zeta-Jones) plans much of the plot out herself. She sets things up so that she can meet Miles (George Clooney), have him fall in love with her and get together before she divorces him and walks off with a healthy cheque. The only un-planned element of the whole thing is that come the end, she actually does fall in love with Miles – love conquers all, even in the bitter world of divorce lawyers and gold-diggers. It may be more conventional, but its application is almost post-modern.

Of course part of the reason that many romantic comedies do culminate in a wedding or a moment of union is that they often represent the happiest point of a relationship. Many relationships do run a joyful course with, as mentioned, many films demonstrating a snapshot of life after sunniest of moments but some of course do not. In life people get bored, drift apart, have affairs, decide they’re not right for each other or discover things about the other that they don’t like. Some relationships end in bitter separations with the couple having nothing good to say about one another. Romantic films rarely deal with this idea – with a notable exception of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE COEN BROTHERS




Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel (Jim Carrey) are experiencing one such break-up leading to him visiting Lacuna, Inc. to erase all memories of said relationship. However, as the process takes place, the bad memories from later in the relationship are the first to go leaving Joel with happy memories of his time with Clementine. These memories are ones he forgot he had and he realises he doesn’t want them erased. In showing the relationship in this way, the film is doing something unique – it is working backwards. Instead of leading up to the happiest moments, it is working back towards them. At a relationships start we don’t know they’re coming – at the end we’ve forgotten they were there.

It’s a shame that there aren’t more examples of love stories which subvert the genre in the same ways as the aforementioned films. While the not-so-secret formula works well for audiences and bean counters alike, it takes the likes of Raising Arizona and Eternal Sunshine to show up the most predictable of genres which is, ironically, about the most un-predictable human emotion.




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The Wonders of Punch-Drunk Love

The Wonders of Punch-Drunk Love

The Wonders of Punch-Drunk Love

So, what is love? It can be evoked with a minor chord and a lyric from your favourite song, it could be imagined freeze-framed in a candid photo of successful celebrity couple, or it could be just like in the movies.

There’s the straightforward black and white love, naïve teenage love, the jealous kind, the unrequited kind, tragic love, and the happy ever after love.

There’s every romantic comedy Hollywood ever produced; the binary perfection, the yes/no, up/down, often simple and idealistic version of love. Devoid of its strangeness, and lacking complexity, just hair and shoes, heroes and villains, in love or not in love.

With the confronting complexity of the modern world, where just being alive can be confusing, knowing what love is and attempting to find it within the homogenised cityscapes and monotonous conveyor of a grey working week can be difficult.

We can feel lost as we aimlessly doggy paddle across the surface of the vast oily ocean of our own seemingly endless and bewildering needs and wants.

There’s a strange love that Hollywood occasionally reminds us of, a messy, awkward, but beautiful thing that exists because we are messy, and we are awkward, and we’re living in a messy, and awkward world.

The Wonders of Punch-Drunk Love

Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ is a study in loneliness, and how we can survive but not exist, and how we can tolerate but not fight back. We sit back and become half of what we’re capable of, experiencing half of what we possibly could because the world sometimes just doesn’t feel right.

The film wants us to be in love, and it wants us to love Barry Egan, played with subtle intensity by Adam Sandler – a truly inspired casting choice and a surprise to  everyone who previously only knew Sandler as the Waterboy or Happy Gilmore. Yes, the guy can act.

The Wonders of Punch-Drunk Love

Punch Drunk Love appeared three years after Anderson’s three hour epic, ‘Magnolia’, a film that is everything a three hour film should be. Magnolia was a critical success, and really did showcase the skill and competency of Anderson as a filmmaker. With ‘Punch Drunk Love’, Anderson decided to do what many successful artists do, and instead or doing what would be expected, and take Magnolia as a template for his next film, he decided to strip things right back and make what in essence is a very simple film, with a small cast, few shooting locations, and a running time of only 95 minutes – a truly concise film.

Anderson’s film hurls us immediately into the mundane and awkward existence of Adam Sandler’s ‘Barry Egan’, his straightforward world being spun chaotically by those around him.

The film begins with the onset of big changes for Egan, when a motor vehicle spectacularly crashes before a another vehicle drops off an unusual gift. Its change that Egan needs, and the changes seem to be finding him.

Emily Watson plays Lena, a friend of one of Egan’s seven bullying sisters, and someone who is determined to force the change that she can’t possibly know that Egan needs. She speaks his secret language, and they fall for each other almost immediately. She then becomes the centre for all that Egan is, and his reason for existing. He becomes an unlikely romantic hero.

The Wonders of Punch-Drunk Love




Egan’s character is complex, but more than anything we see him as extremes; passionate and sometimes violent extremes.

Anderson’s film gives us a spectacularly dizzying view from inside Egan’s head, as we vividly live his conflicts and anxiety through Jeremy Blake’s hallucinogenic artwork and Jon Brion’s evocative score – which together are stunningly effective.

During some scenes the film seems to moves at an almost headache inducing pace, with dialogue crashing against dialogue as much as the physical world around Egan is being smashed apart. The high tension and then calm release within Egan can feel so palpable, and the aesthetic created by Brion and Blake works perfectly to create something really quite beautiful and unique. Anderson moves the handheld camera subtlety and smartly to describe the bubbles of tension within Egan, then gives us Brion and Blake to allow us a moment to breathe.

The Wonders of Punch-Drunk LoveA special mention goes to Philip Seymour Hoffman and his portrayal of Dean Trumbell, the ‘Mattress Man’. A hilarious performance of a character that is almost the antithesis of Egan, a man that presents Egan with an opportunity to face up to himself. In challenging the Mattress Man Egan validates himself, he’s the good guy, and he becomes hero he deserves to be.

Also, the Hawaiian sex scene involving Sandler and Watson’s characters is quite unlike anything seen on film before. It’s weirdly playful and it’s untidy, but it’s familiar, and the dialogue is hilarious. There’s a wild and natural sense of the real with what is presented, even if it doesn’t quite seem right.

‘Punch Drunk Love’ stands out as a film quite different to Anderson’s other work, and perhaps because of this it’s a little bit misunderstood and underappreciated. Maybe it’s the title, maybe it’s Sandler’s name on the poster, maybe it’s the fact it has to live in the shadow of Magnolia?

Whatever it is, it altered the perception of how a romantic comedy should be and added something unique to the genre.

As a piece of work it could be considered Anderson’s best, it doesn’t really put a foot wrong and it’s practically perfect in its execution. It feels like nothing else, and it also gave us a different version of Adam Sandler, a Sandler we’d all like to see again.

Words: Marc Heeley



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MOONLIGHT shines over The Custard Factory

MOONLIGHT is a coming-of-age story in three acts, chronicling the life of a young man, Chiron, from childhood to adulthood, in a rough Miami neighbourhood across the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Anchored by extraordinary performances across a tremendous ensemble cast, MOONLIGHT follows Chiron’s relationship with his drug-addict mother and the life-changing relationships he forms along the way. MOONLIGHT is a ground breaking and universal story about who you choose to be, versus who you are.

The specially commissioned MOONLIGHT is created by David Brown AKA Panda from GraffitiArtist.com and is based on a triptych image of Chiron across the three stages of his life as depicted in the film.




People can find out Birmingham screening info via www.moonlight.film

Pre-Order Moonlight here:

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SLUMDOG AND THE FEELGOOD FACTOR

Slumdog._V1_One of the key selling points of romantic comedies is the guaranteed ‘feel-good’ factor that the audience is going to experience come the end. Romantic Comedies tend to be crushingly formulaic wherein a couple meet, get together and break-up only to realise their true feelings and unite just before the closing credits.

More often than not, these things tend to happen to well-to-do good looking people. Many British romantic comedies have detailed love stories between professional tennis players, a human rights lawyer and a T.V. presenter, a bookshop owner and an actual film star and that’s before we’ve even got to the cast of Love Actually or Four Weddings and a Funeral. Across the pond we often find attractive characters with impossibly big New York apartments who have a seemingly interesting job working for a magazine yet find themselves looking for love.

In spite of the fact that characters in such films tend to be good-looking, rich and with decent jobs, we still find ourselves routing for them to find love and get the feeling that come the end their lives are complete, they’re completely happy and we’re happy for them. Some films succeed more than others at this and it often depends on how likeable the characters are (often a contrast is made with a repulsive character such as a Daniel Cleaver to emphasise this). Yet it could be argued that the ‘feel-good’ endings these films often promote are not really earned. The films tell us life is incomplete without love but this can be deemed a falsity. Things might turn out alright in the end but often they were pretty good to start with. Without feeling true despair, how can we feel truly happy when things work out?

One film that plays the real notion of ‘feel-good’ is Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Is it a romantic comedy? It’s up for debate, but it does have a central romance and is at times very funny. The film however had what was, some would argue, a mis-leading marketing campaign. An image of a smiling Dev Patel and Freida Pinto smiling amidst a shower of ticker-tape while a dominating critic quote proclaimed it to be ‘The feel-good film of the decade’ adorned cinema hallways and the sides of buses during the films release. Some audiences were then shocked when they encountered many of the film’s harsher elements. During the screening in which myself and fellow Outward collaborator Matthew Simmonds watched the film, there was a telling moment in the cinema after the horrendous ‘blinding’ scene. The audience had collectively winced and a lady sat just behind us turned to her husband and stated ‘I thought you said this was a nice film…’

It most certainly isn’t a ‘nice’ film in many ways but does that stop it being feel-good? Absolutely not. In fact, quite the opposite. Lest we forget that SPOLIER WARNING Jamal wins the television show fortune and subsequently manages to reunite with Latika. It all ends with a Bollywood inspired dance number and we’re happy for the central couple who are now rich in money and love.

Yet what sets Slumdog Millionaire above the ‘feel-good’ films we’re more accustomed to is that it truly earns its happy ending. The film takes us to the very brink of despair and before bringing us back to an uplifting conclusion. To that end it takes its structure from the greatest ‘feel-good’ film of all time – It’s a Wonderful Life.

Frank Capra’s masterpiece is guaranteed to give you a lift come its final, iconic ending. Yet it goes to some very dark places. In one episode of Friends Monica gives Phoebe is shocked to learn that not all films end happily (Rocky loses, Old Yeller is shot, E.T. leaves) and so Monica gives her a copy of the James Stewart starring masterpiece  to cheer her up, only for it to actually drive her further down. ‘ I don’t know if I was happier when George Bailey destroyed the family business or Donna Reid cried, or when the mean pharmacist made his ear bleed’  she sarcastically tells her friend. ‘Didn’t you think the ending was pretty special?’ Monica retorts to which Phoebe confesses ‘I didn’t get to the end, I was too depressed. It just kept getting worse and worse!’




Part of the comedy in this instance comes from the idea that anyone could be depressed after watching It’s a Wonderful Life but this is a reminder that it does go to some dark places.

And Phoebe doesn’t even mention the worst part – that George Bailey actually gets to the point of suicide. He’s not just feeling a bit down, but is ready to throw himself off a bridge leaving his wife a widow, his young children fatherless and a crippling amount of debt behind. It takes us to the very brink of human despair before bringing us back. The night is darkest just before the dawn.

Much like Slumdog Millionaire it has a wonderful, feel-good ending and the reason both films work so well is because they earn it, by taking their characters to the darker recesses of humanity. Where the two films perhaps differ is that for some characters in Slumdog they don’t come back such dark places – notably the aforementioned blinded boy and Jamal’s brother who winds up being gunned down by a slum gang.

Yet this doesn’t stop the film ending on a wonderful feel-good note which actually refutes the claim that the famous advert was ‘mis-leading’. It is an uplifting, feel-good film and the claim that it was the ‘feel-good film of the decade’ is a fair one. It’s just somewhat odd that some don’t feel this way, simply because the sentiment and the joy is something the filmmakers actually worked hard to achieve.

Words: Phil Slatter

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Love in Film

Below are some films we think really capture the nature of love that encompasses both the good and bad aspects of life.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE

Patrick Fischler Mulholland Drive

Applying a generic genre to a film is rendered both redundant and unnecessary when entering a world where dreams become the story of our innermost desires. And David Lynch’s ferociously intense vision fuels the fundamental element that makes this magnificent masterpiece work so wonderfully; love. Love here shows all its faces: this is no syrupy rom-com territory. Here are all the sides of love we don’t want to admit to: the burning jealousy, the unrequited lust, the need to possess the essence of the person we most desire. Through Naomi Watts’ conflicted actress and Laura Harring’s seductive amnesiac, Lynch captures the polarised nature of the heart that can ultimately lead to our total destruction. Yet even amidst this dark and sinister mystery (and love is the ultimate dark mystery) there is a lyrical beauty of emotions in thrall as well: sexual chemistry, shared humour and the realisation one person has found a path to your very core. The sensations love brings are as honest and true here as any film that pretends to know the romantic genre by explicitly box-ticking. In other words, Betty and Rita feel like true love; in all its facets.

 

ANNIE HALL

Annie Hall

The perfect romantic-comedy from Woody Allen’s golden period, this has the blend of comedy, pathos and truth that has proved the litmus test for all romantic comedies since. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton may not appear the most likely couple on paper but their delightful and unique chemistry capture something very real, with their verbal sparring the crux of the film’s enduring joy. The film is absolutely hilarious from start to finish (an achievement in itself) with great gags and one-liners abundant. Allen’s Alvy Singer is caustic and narcissistic and Keaton’s Annie Hall is flighty and awkward but both characters remain immensely endearing and the film itself is very sweet in many respects. But it has a hard edge that often escapes the rom-com and, particularly in the concluding scenes, there’s a stark reminder that we don’t always end up with the person we want and even most love. This is a film about how love is subject to our own caprices, failings and errors in judgement. We all should remember to keep the shark moving.

 



BLUE VALENTINE

Blue-Valentine

One word can be used to sum up Derek Cianfrances 2010 drama, that word is raw. This is an examination of love from an unlikely perspective, this is the love that lingers once a relationship is about to meet an end.  Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play the couple in love, we see them find joy, optimism and eventually misery in this unforgiving cautionary tale of how love can leave you feeling two very different emotions. Blue Valentine is not easy viewing and I can see why most would choose not to watch with a loved one. But there’s a measure of love within this that’s rare, by showing the severe emotional strain this break-up has on Gosling and Williams you also highlight just how much love these two people had invested in each other. At times you have to see the dark to appreciate just how involved you are with another person; love can make us behave in ways that’s completely alien and cold. Blue Valentine is the perfect manifestation of a love that’s clinging onto every last hope of survival.

BRIEF ENCOUNTER

Brief Encounter

Very similar but also very different to Blue Valentine is David Leans Brief Encounter. Not only does this film provide one of the most iconic shots in modern film history but it also has the depth to explore the repression women felt in a post war Britain. On the surface the film explores the notion of meeting the perfect stranger and wondering what could be. The subtext however is riveting, there’s passion, austerity and morality. The film builds to a finale that even though you know the relationship between Laura and Alec cannot extend to adultery you believe something good could come from this brief encounter. It might be brief but the weight of love can be felt from the first scene to the last.




SHAME

Shame - Directed by Steve McQueen

You wouldn’t initially think of Steve McQueen’s Shame as a love story in any way shape or form. It’s the tale of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a good-looking man with a decent job who has no problem meeting women. However, his life is somewhat in-complete and he’s trying to find someone with whom he can save a meaningful relationship. While in some ways this is the set up for many romantic comedies set in New York,Shame is a much darker and disturbing film. For Brandon has a secret – he is a sex addict. It’s not something that is openly discussed (the word ‘sex’ is only actually used once in the entire film) but is the guilt to which the film’s very title refers. Yet Shame does have at its heart a love story. It might appear that this will come via the relationship between Brandon and Marianne (Nicole Beharie), the women with whom Brandon actually connects on a level other than sex but subsequently she is the only woman with whom he is not able to sexually perform. The love story actually comes through his relationship with his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). She clearly has her own psychological issues but unknowingly the two characters find and rescue one another amidst their turbulent lives. McQueen uses music as a way of drawing the audience in to their relationship which seems on the surface to be volatile and argumentative. Yet when Sissy sings ‘New York, New York’, it reduces Brandon to an emotional level, a rare glimpse of him letting his guard down and unveiling the true sadness in his life. As the film progresses, the non-diegetic  music comes into prominence. During a scene when Brandon sleeps with two prostitutes there is a pain etched on his face while Harry Escott’s high-pitched score makes a passionate sex scene a repulsive and off-putting thing to watch. This is quite brilliantly juxtaposed with the films climax in which Brandon finds Sissy in his bathroom, wrists slashed and blood everywhere. There is a different type of pain on Brandon’s face this time, one of fear that he might lose the one person that could get through to him and the soft piano music turns a horrifying situation into an almost tender scene. Brandon cradles his sister, hoping, wishing and praying that she might pull through. It’s this central love story that brings Shame through to its ending that is both happy and sad, tragic yet optimistic. Sissy and Brandon might just be ok if they can iron out their differences and stick together. After all, as Sissy says to her brother before her suicide attempt, they’re not bad people, they just come from a bad place.

AMOUR

Amour - Dir Micheal Haneke

 

Micahel Haneke paints a sad tale in many ways yet uplifting in others, in this story of an elderly man looking after his wife following a stroke. It’s a true representation of the marital vow ‘in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, till death us do part’. With little cutting and only diagetic music, the screenplay and two leads portray a simple yet poignant tale, rich in detail  and theme and profoundly moving. It’s a tale we can all relate to, some more directly than others and it is pitched at absolutely the right level. It’s a real film about love and commitment and to this end is quite uplifting when you think about it (which you will do, for a long time). A shining light of a film in a world full of appalling rom-coms that think they’re about love, when they’re actually about 2 rich people that fancy each other and get together at the end to manipulate the audience into thinking they’re feeling something about life. It’s stripped of all this nonsense and it is an absolute masterpiece.




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