I know. I know. We promised a SmackdownÂ between our poll winner and Garry Marshall’s new “Valentine’s Day”Â offering, but after a very close race, the poll ended in a tie betweenÂ “Love Actually” and “AmÃ©lie.” So…Defending Champions double-team the new kid on the Rom-Com block. Let’s get this party started and see if “Valentine’s Day” deserves a seat at the winner’s table with the big boys.Â Which means you’re gettingÂ what you’ve always really really wanted for “Valentine’s Day.”Â AÂ three-way.
This poll result makes me very happy indeed because some complained that “Amelie” is not technically a romantic comedy and didn’t rightfully belong in the poll. Truthfully though, we did a lot of genre-bending-and-stretching in the poll; I would have predicted that modern day rom-com-transcending classics “The Graduate” and “Annie Hall” would have put up a stronger fight.
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“Valentine’s Day” From everything I’ve seen and heard, I’m fairly certain that Garry Marshall is aÂ very nice man, and I know he set out with the best of intentions making thisÂ film as did all his friends and associates who helped. No one ever intends toÂ make a bad movie, and smacking this film feels a little like hitting a puppy.Â This movie sits there humping your leg, blissfully unaware and unashamed of theÂ giant stinking turd it’s left on the cineplex screen. To extend the metaphorÂ past all usefulness, this puppy hasn’t yet been spayed. It takes major cojonesÂ (or perhaps hubris) to engage such a weak, ungifted and unsuited company ofÂ players in hopes of recapturing the success of “Love Actually.” WithÂ a few major exceptions, the actors just plain aren’t good enough to rise aboveÂ the lame material; most are unable to land any of the marginal jokes or even toÂ remind us of any human beings we’ve met.
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The Defending Champion
“Love Actually”Â features a cast of sublime, mostly British actors in overlapping love storiesÂ that unfold during the five weeks before Christmas. Cinema stalwarts HughÂ Grant, Bill Nighy, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, andÂ Laura Linney light up the screen and serve a mostly seamless script by RichardÂ Curtis. Love actually is all around, contends the film, and it’s impossible toÂ doubt the premise. Brotherly love, fatherly love, romantic love, thwarted love,Â marital love, illicit love – all kinds of love earn equal treatment in thisÂ rarely stupid, often funny, always touching film filled to the brim withÂ brilliant actors and a terrific soundtrack.
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Le Champion DÃ©fendant
“AmÃ©lie” tells the storyÂ of an introverted girl in Paris who makes a conscious decision to make herÂ world a more loving place. She interferes in the lives of all around her,Â making matches, magic, and mischief, and finds true happiness and romance forÂ herself in the bargain. Beautiful, stylish, and endlessly imaginative, the filmÂ reminds even the most jaded viewer how many small pleasures there are to beÂ savored in life, how many small coincidences add up to momentous events. TheÂ opening credits alone evoke nearly every sense memory of early childhood;Â AmÃ©lie’s family history reinvents narrative, cunningly revealing random andÂ crucial details in the most charming way imaginable. The locations areÂ absolutely gorgeous, the many characters rich and diverse, the music, artÂ direction and especially the special effects are lovely and moving. EveryÂ conceivable element conspires, like the film’s gamine heroine, to make usÂ happy. “AmÃ©lie” inspires us to bring joy to others, family, friends,Â neighbors, and even strangers.
“Valentine’s Day”Â unapologetically uses theÂ template provided by “Love Actually.” (That’s a kind and gentle wayÂ of saying ripped off.) Like its role model, “VD” employs a lot ofÂ actors; unfortunately for us, many of the featured players can’t act very well.Â Chosen for their marquee value rather than their acting chops, this strategyÂ may work in the early weeks of a film’s release; loosed on the still- innocentÂ public in a media blitz, this army of celebs will get asses into the seats allÂ right for a strong opening weekend. But word of mouth will likely kill itsÂ long-term box office chances dead. Ineptly written and directed un-stylishlyÂ (that’s a kind way of saying ineptly), “VD” fails on just about everyÂ level. The comedy’s not funny, and the romance isn’t romantic. Critics willÂ likely lambast it thoroughly, probably saying it reeks of television. But as aÂ writer who proudly toiled long and hard making quality television, I contendÂ it’s way worse than most television. The acting on television is mostly good,Â occasionally great, and seldom completely inadequate. The big screen is muchÂ less forgiving; a stale comedy bit falls really flat in a crowded (orÂ cavernously empty) theater. While screenwriter Katherine Fugate went to theÂ right well for inspiration, her “VD” screenplay comes nowhere closeÂ to Richard Curtis’ highly original and intelligent effort.
Ashton Kutcher provides theÂ film’s sweet gooey center; if puppydog eagerness and positive energy were allÂ it took to carry a film, this would be an entirely different review. George Lopez glowed with lifeÂ force and believability. Rom-com naturals Anne Hathaway, Julia Roberts,Â andÂ Jennifer Garner belong on the big screen, but the rest fell flat inÂ under-realized roles. Roberts appears all too briefly, and that smileÂ she flashes reminds us what the genre holds in store when it works.Â Bradley Cooper, Topher Grace, Eric Dane, and Jamie FoxxÂ leave no ripples in the pond; even Shirley MacLaine and Hector ElizondoÂ as theÂ long-marrieds don’t make the impact one might expect. I confess I was grateful to finally see the two Jessicas,Â Alba and Biel, in the same film so I could tell them apart. As it happens,Â they’re both gorgeous, but let’s just say they’re not about to give MerylÂ Streep a run for her money. Biel’s comedy bits fail to coalesce for manyÂ reasons, some well beyond her control. Like many of the film’s other “badÂ guys”, Alba fails to engage our sympathies. EmmaÂ Roberts plays a mystifyingly incompentent nanny and supposedly gifted highÂ school senior headed for Yale in the fall. She tells everyone within earshot ofÂ her plans to have sex with her boyfriend, another pinhead mistakenly admittedÂ to a decent college, Stanford. Even in Los Angeles, eighteen-year-olds keep aÂ little something something to themselves.
The two Taylors – Lautner and Swift – are stuck withÂ references that pass for jokes. A month from now, no one will remember why itÂ was supposed to be funny that she’s “not a cheerleader” and he’s tooÂ shy to remove his shirt. The kid actor (whose name I don’t want to mention toÂ protect the innocent) was just plain dreadful.
“VD” copied from the “LA” template aÂ lot of elements that ultimately don’t matter much. An airport chase, aÂ motherless child in love, sex workers, long-marrieds dealing withÂ unfaithfulness, overlapping stories and relationships. The elements that wouldÂ have saved the enterprise were entirely missing. Beautiful cinematography andÂ lighting for instance. Gifted actors. Intelligent, insightful, and originalÂ material.
Set in relentlessly sunny Los Angeles, the cinematographyÂ of “Valentine’s Day” looks bafflingly muddy and dark; while shot withÂ what I can only assume was sincere affection, the onscreen city lacks allÂ magic and beauty. Only the flower mart scenes exploded with the kind of colorÂ one has every right to expect, and even those shots were workmanlike and uninspired.
The Defending Champions’ London and Paris beckon theÂ viewer to visit; the production design of “AmÃ©lie” reduces the colorÂ palette to a crayon-bright range that’s consistent and thrilling. London,Â bathed in twinkling Christmas lights of every description, has never lookedÂ lovelier or more inviting. Both films boast a real sense of place, their citiesÂ dizzying and real and invested with cinematic trickery and design that boostsÂ the sense of romance and fantasy.Â The entire cast of “Love Actually” is strong;Â renowned actors are interestingly matched with unknowns and elevate theirÂ convincing partners. Only Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson are equallyÂ weighted acting partners, but director Curtis leaves none of his cast membersÂ high and dry. As American dreamgirls, relative acting flyweights January Jones,Â Denise Richards, Shannon Elizabeth, Elisha Cuthbert, and Ivana Milicevic handleÂ their small bimbette roles just fine. In Garry Marshall’s world, they’d haveÂ been given leading roles and allowed to founder.
For those who’ve seen “Love Actually” beforeÂ but not lately, you may find that one of the stories in particular plays more powerfully now than it did in 2003. Liam Neeson plays a recently widowedÂ step- ad, and it’s hard to watch his grief-stricken face without thinking ofÂ his recent real life loss. His face is handsome and rugged and made for suffering, and hisÂ performance is particularly heartbreaking and layered. Even the dopier momentsÂ (the airport chase for instance) work because he’s just that good and that grounded.
All the actors resonate even when they’re not onscreen; the director/writerÂ treats them all with thought and care and intelligence. The funny parts areÂ mostly funny, and the touching parts manage to avoid treacle-yÂ over-sentimentality for the most part.
The messages of “Love Actually” areÂ intriguingly complex for a romantic comedy. All actions have consequence, andÂ adults truly do behave like adults. Decisions are complicated, and choicesÂ aren’t trumped up. One of the sweetest segments of the film feature starklyÂ naked Martin Freeman and Joanna Page meeting cute and making perfectly clearÂ the distinction between love and attraction and just plain coupling. The film’sÂ none-too-subtle political message must have landed hard and with a greatÂ welcome in the UK; after years of Tony Blair’s unpopular capitulations to W.Â and his minions, Hugh Grant (as freshly minted Prime Minister) takes a strong and surprisingÂ stand against Total Creeper/American President Billy Bob Thornton. That scene, the slow build to that scene, and Grant’s dance solo make for memorable moments.
“AmÃ©lie” also has a lot on its quirky beautiful mind. PersonalÂ politics and human kindness take center stage. AmÃ©lie actsÂ locally, not globally. She is the embodiment of making a difference, and herÂ mentors remind her to take a chance, to bravely risk failure and embarrassment. TheÂ beauty of the film itself hasn’t faded in a decade, and neither has theÂ cleverness of AmÃ©lie’s manipulations and schemes; the visually stunning wit andÂ pure joy of fillmmaking and storytelling remains fresh and worth a second (orÂ third, or tenth) look. The exhilarating moments of AmÃ©lie and Nino astride his scooter harkenÂ back to “Roman Holiday” and a long tradition of falling in love onÂ film.
You could spend twenty dollars on twoÂ tickets and see the truly hot mess that is “Valentine’s Day” or youÂ could rent the DVD’s of “Love Actually” and”AmÃ©lie” for aÂ fraction of that.Â Plus no one will kick the back of your chair or talk andÂ you can eat whatever you like. You can even wear your jammies. Or nothing atÂ all. Heck, for the price of two tickets to “Valentine’s Day,” youÂ could subscribe to Netflix for a month and see a whole bunch of terrificÂ movies. So here’s the decision.Â If you’re in the mood for romantic comedy, skipÂ “Valentine’s Day” and stick with the winners.
(For you Smackdown purists, it should be obvious that “AmÃ©lie” is my personal pick for Ultimate Rom-Com champion. After all, that’s the film that topped my ten favorite films of the decade. I feel quite vindicated that so many others agree with my assessment/obsession.)