The Scarlett Johansson Project — #2

Being quarantined at home may be the perfect time to look back on a movie that explores loneliness and connection. This was obviously not something I planned, but social distancing has a way of making us look at things differently and that includes the way we experience certain movies. That’s what’s happening with me and the classic romantic comedy Lost in Translation (2003) anyway.

I have a lot of love for this movie and I do think the feelings it evokes are intensified by this interruption in normal social life we are going through. Lost in Translation is a bittersweet story focused on two kindred spirits floating through weird periods of their lives. Neither know what they want, and both happen to meet in a foreign city and find something in each other that bonds them in a profound way. Lost in Translation featured a 17-year-old Scarlett Johansson alongside comedic great Bill Murray, who was stepping into a dramatic role for the first time in nearly 20 years. Director Sofia Coppola was completely blown away by the reception her movie received, feeling certain it would be viewed as pretentious and self-serving. It ended up netting her an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year.

In rewatching it in preparation for my monthly feature, I had forgotten how fleeting Lost in Translation really is — it’s all wrapped up in about 96 minutes. What happens within that time, however, what is said (and almost as often, what is not said), makes it so hard for me to leave the movie behind. I simply love these characters, especially when they’re together.

Scarlett Johansson as Charlotte in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation

Role Type: Co-lead

Premise: A faded movie star and a neglected young woman form an unlikely bond after crossing paths in Tokyo. (IMDb)

Character Background: Charlotte is a native New Yorker and recent college grad who is feeling unsatisfied and disillusioned with her marriage to John (Giovanni Ribisi), a celebrity photographer. On assignment in Tokyo, he’s kept busy and away from the hotel room leaving Charlotte alone and with plenty of time to wonder why she ever married this guy. She’s empty inside and her wandering eyes say as much. So she gets out into the city and does some exploring, soon turning acquaintances into friends, such as Charlie Brown (Fumihiro Hayashi). Over the course of about a week she also forms a deep connection with an older man named Bob Harris (Murray), a fading actor who’s staying at the same hotel while he endures a dreadful commercial shoot promoting whiskey. It is through their meaningful conversations and one really fun night soaking up the nightlife that we learn more about her and see her personality open up a bit more.

What she brings to the movie: very little experience for a role that aged her up 4 years from what she actually was. When Lost in Translation started shooting Scarlett Johansson was only 17 and had but a handful of acting credits total. Her claims to fame at the time were a starring role in Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001) and a supporting role in the Robert Redford drama The Horse Whisperer (1999). Charlotte is her first adult role as far as the emotional complexities involved and the thematic content. Yes, it is true that Sofia Coppola would not have made this movie had she not been able to get Bill Murray, but Coppola also enjoyed Johansson’s performance in the 1996 comedy Manny & Lo so much she had to land her as a lead in one of her movies (Johansson would pass on Coppola’s début effort The Virgin Suicides, feeling it wasn’t right for her at the time).

In her own words: [on the age difference between her and Bill Murray, who is more than 30 years her senior] “It was hard to relate to one another, but I think what worked is that when the cameras were rolling and [it] actually came time to do the work, we worked really well together.”

Key Scene: I mean . . . there are other choices. There’s a really nice moment when Bob and Charlotte are talking while laying on a bed, having a deep conversation about whether life or marriage get any easier as time goes by. It’s a quiet but important moment that further solidifies their bond. But the key scene is in the way Sofia Coppola brings this wonderful week to a close. The kiss that almost never was, the mystery of whatever it is that Bob whispers into Charlotte’s ear. The sounds of the streets teeming with passing strangers. By the time The Jesus and Mary Chain come in with “Just Like Honey,” it’s very close to a perfect ending. Well, it’s one of the most bittersweet endings I’ve ever seen anyway. I never wanted this story to end, and yet Coppola does it about as gracefully as she possibly could have. According to her, “I just wanted to show a whole relationship just in a few days.”

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


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Photo credits: IMDb

Allied

allied-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Steven Knight

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Brad Pitt finds a new ally in Marion Cotillard in his post-Angelina Jolie world. Sad face.

Actually, those were just rumors. And this isn’t a gossip column.

On the other hand, the two are pretty convincing playing a pair of lovestruck assassins whose loyalty to one another constantly competes with their loyalty to their own countries. Robert Zemeckis’ homage to classic wartime romantic epics is undeniably better because of the effortless charm of his leads, though Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh they are not. Not that that’s exactly a fair comparison. Allied isn’t setting out to reinvent the wheel; it rather feels more like a new tire with fresh tread. Perhaps it is better to consider the film more in the context of how it measures up to the classics found in Zemeckis’ back catalog as opposed to where it lies within the genre.

The film opens with SOE operative Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachuting into the sand dunes of French Morocco. It’s 1942 and he’s on a mission to take out a Nazi ambassador in Casablanca. He’s to work with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who narrowly escaped France after her resistance group became compromised. On the assignment they pose as a married couple and are successful in eliminating their target and escaping with their lives.

What begins as merely a cover story develops into the genuine article, and soon Max and Marianne are married and settling down to start a family in London. In a particularly memorable scene they welcome their daughter Anna amidst the chaos of another aerial raid accompanying the German blitzkrieg that devastated the East End. Even under normal circumstances the birthing of a child is an event that tends to really bring a couple together, so I can only imagine going through that experience literally on the streets while debris and gunfire are raining down around you would do wonders for your ability to commit to your significant other.

The intensifying pressures of the war make Max’s job a living hell when he is told by an officer that outranks both himself and his direct superior Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) that his wife is a suspected double agent who is actually working for the Germans. He is ordered to trick Marianne into playing into a trap and once it’s proven she is indeed a German spy he must execute her himself or face being hanged for high treason. Behold, the great sacrifices that must be made in love and war. Or in this case, love during war.

Old-fashioned romance is shaped by two terrific performances from Pitt and Cotillard who once again remind us why they are among the industry’s elites. The heartache accompanying Max’s dilemma is compounded when you take into account how good their characters are at what they do. The performances within the performances are compelling. Steven Knight provides the screenplay, tapping into the psychological aspect of a most unusual and highly dangerous profession. The first third of the film makes a point of fixating upon that idea, of how trust is so hard to come by when you’re a professional spy.

That same third is a good barometer for how the rest of the film will play out. If you’re expecting bombastic, flashy displays of wartime violence you may need to look elsewhere, although the aforementioned blitzkrieg provides some pulse-pounding moments. Knight’s story ditches numbing CGI in favor of a more human and more intimate perspective. It’s an approach that admittedly contributes to a slower paced narrative but one that never succumbs to being boring. This is a film that’s more about the way two people look at each other rather than the way entire nations fight each other. On those grounds alone Allied feels like a throwback to war films like Gone with the Wind and Casablanca, and where the former lacks the latter films’ sense of grandeur it more than makes up for it in nuance.

Ultimately Allied finds its director working comfortably within his wheelhouse while offering  a darker, more subtle story that’s well worth investing time into.

allied

Recommendation: The trifecta of a steadily absorbing narrative, plush cinematic texture that contributes mightily to the mise en scène, and excellent performances from two seasoned pros makes this an easy recommendation. Especially if you are partial to Robert Zemeckis’ compassionate voice. Every one of his films have been tinged with a romantic element but whereas The Walk, his penultimate release, suffered from an over-reliance on it (to the point of schmaltz, in this reviewer’s opinion) his 2016 effort uses it to its advantage, creating an ultimately enjoyable and often surprising wartime drama that will reward repeat viewings.

Rated: R

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Hey, what happened to my kiss?” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Sing Street

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Release: Friday, April 15, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: John Carney

Directed by: John Carney

John Carney returns to the emerald-green shores of his native Ireland for his latest quasi-musical/romantic comedy Sing Street, his third such feature after 2007’s Once and 2014’s Begin Again. Though it possesses many of the traits that made his higher-profile, New York-set dramedy an inspired blend of genre-blurring cinema and original sound, Sing Street is a woefully misguided venture that suggests people who form bands are really just in it for the notoriety and not the craft.

The film may be set in 1980s Dublin but the whole enterprise reeks of that part in Van Wilder where Ryan Reynolds professes his loneliness to some passing stranger — a college sophomore with a cute face — through the majesty of Air Supply’s ‘All Out of Love.’ Far from being the only flick to feature a boy trying to win over the girl by strumming a few chords on a Gibson acoustic, even in the context of that particular lampoon the level of cheesiness was shameless. But at least it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. In Sing Street it is. This is a matter of love-and-death, a 14-year-old boy’s whole-hearted attempt to half-ass a band just enough to impress The Cool Chick fulfilling not only plot but thematic components.

Irish musician and singer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo makes his acting debut as Conor, the youngest of three in the Lalor clan, spearheaded by patriarch Robert (a criminally underused Aidan Gillen) and wife Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy) who all throughout are falling out of love. With his family also plagued by financial hardship Conor finds himself transferring into Synge Street CBS, an inner-city public school where he is met on a daily basis with ridicule and hostility, most notably from bullying archetype Barry (Ian Kenny) and school principal Dr. Baxter (Don Wycherley), a disciplinarian plucked straight out of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall.’

When Conor spots the mysterious Raphina (Lucy Boynton) standing on her stoop just across the street from his school, he’s instantly smitten — so much so that he tells her that since she’s aspiring to become a model in London she should appear in a music video he and “his band” are about to shoot. What he doesn’t tell her is that he is yet to form a band. So he sets about recruiting fellow classmates who might have some musical talent. It’s not so much recruitment as it is serendipity. A drummer, a keyboardist/pianist and a bassist all fall right into his lap. Oh, and there’s also Eamon (Mark McKenna, a 19-year-old who simply “has that look”), whose multi-instrumental abilities instantly liberate the band from sonic stodginess.

Carney strings together a few fun musical sequences where we see the band starting to find their groove. They dub themselves ‘Sing Street’ in an ironic gesture to the miserable school they attend. What begins in a back alley as a cringe-inducing exercise in amateur cover-band antics soon develops into a more unified, distinctive and fashionable quintet playing original songs. Such change is encouraged by Conor’s older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor), a college drop-out who knows a thing or two about how this whole life thing works. Because music. Because records. Reynor is a wonderful presence, fully supportive of his brother’s decision to pursue music as a way to melt Raphina’s heart. Who knows, maybe Conor will end up finding success and breaking out of the depressing hole that is Dublin circa 1985.

Once more viewers will leave the theater with much of the soundtrack stuck in their head. And the way Carney infuses the work of real-life, established bands into the mix — Duran Duran, The Cure, The Clash, Genesis and others are called upon here — remains a strong draw. All the same, the very premise Sing Street runs with smacks of pretension. At its core Carney’s latest rings totally insincere. The music is good — often great — but the story is . . . well, it’s something else. Something kind of the opposite of good.

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Recommendation: Sing Street is bound to appeal to fans of John Carney’s previous outings as it stylistically shares a lot in common with Begin Again (this reviewer has yet to track down Once but I’d venture a guess that it’s more of the same) but the story is just god-awful. Unless you enjoy watching serendipitous little confections that make you roll your eyes so much they end up flipping backwards into your skull I gotta say give Sing Street the ole swerve. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 106 mins.

Quoted: “When you don’t know someone, they’re more interesting. They can be anything you want them to be. But when you know them, there’s limits to them.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Light Between Oceans

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Release: Friday, September 2, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Derek Cianfrance

Directed by: Derek Cianfrance

Derek Cianfrance has emerged once again with another sweeping, emotional epic, this time The Light Between Oceans, an adaptation of the 2012 international bestseller by M.L. Stedman. Maybe you saw The Place Beyond the Pines, Cianfrance’s previous effort. From an ambitious meditation on how one man’s actions can have a rippling effect across generations of family, he turns now to a deeply personal exploration of a young husband and wife trying to start a family.

‘Deeply personal.’ Some people might call it something else, like . . . melodramatic. Which it is; The Light Between Oceans is so melodramatic. It’s also often too depressing for its own good; a joke or two wouldn’t have hurt, but you know what else it is? Incredibly well-acted. So much so, in fact, that leads Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander found art imitating life, er, rather, inspiring it. Since working on the project the two have entered into a romantic affair that they have (largely) kept private. Given everything the actors go through bringing this tale to life, it’s not that surprising to find fictional romance has begotten real-life romance. (If only the same could have applied to John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer.)

That last paragraph was risky for me. I vowed once upon a time that I would never allow my musings on film to become a gossip column. But I just find it so interesting in this case because actors this good — and these specific actors — often make it impossible to discern professionalism from deeper personal bonding. The Light Between Oceans absolutely demands chemistry, in the same way The Notebook demanded chemistry. In the same way A Walk to Remember demanded it. Fortunately, Oceans is a great deal better than one of those two, and I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the one with Ryan Gosling — incidentally an actor who has already appeared twice in Cianfrance’s brief but memorable back catalogue.

Tom Sherbourne (Fassbender) has returned from the Great War to a remote fishing village in Western Australia. He’s taking over the post at the Janus Rock lighthouse after the former keeper quit by, quote, throwing himself over the side of a cliff. (Hint-hint: this job is difficult insofar as it is lonely.) Tom believes isolation will be good for him after his horrendous experiences in the war. After three months he takes a ferry back into town, where he happens across a beautiful girl named Isabel Graysmark (Vikander), who takes a keen interest in him. Her father Bill (Aussie Garry McDonald) is actually the one who took Tom on as a keeper.

There’s an undeniable spark between Tom and Isabel — not the kind that’s scripted, but that which evolves from actors being genuinely comfortable in one another’s presence. The only thing more natural than Vikander’s smile is the pair’s affection for one another. Soon enough they’re crossing off one major item on the checklist for A Perfect Life Together and find themselves happily married, ready to start a new life together on the lonely island. Love faces its toughest test after the couple’s first miscarriage. After a second, life becomes downright unbearable. Then, quite serendipitously, a rowboat washes ashore carrying what appears to be a dead man along with a still-living infant.

The Light Between Oceans is meditative, a two-plus-hour runtime stretching out like the yawning cerulean gap between Australia and the nearest land mass. It is a very. Long. Sit. Perhaps that’s due to the frequent bouts of depression we must battle along with our characters that makes it feel that way. It’s slow going but Cianfrance, along with his DP Adam Arkapaw, makes the physical world such a wonder to behold. The whole thing feels like a postcard from Australia. Too bad the weight of the complex morality play ongoing eventually causes it to collapse in on itself come the dying light of the film.

It’s not Rachel Weisz‘s fault, who plays the part of Hannah Roennfeldt, a grieving mother who recently lost her husband and baby out at sea (cough-cough). We’ve been expecting (or is that, dreading?) to meet her. Her tremendous performance certainly leaves a mark, even if the character itself is more of a tool rather than a real person. Hannah represents a physical consequence of Tom and Isabel’s actions and yet the way Cianfrance chooses to insert her  (and depending on how faithful an adaptation this is, this flaw could be true of the book as well) feels blatantly manipulative. Her backstory is handled in a simple flashback or two, as opposed to the hour we get to spend with the other two. The manner in which she is brought into close proximity to the couple turns out to be the most offensive contrivance of all.

Contrivances be damned, though, when an experience lingers in the mind like this one does. It may not be easy viewing and it can be emotionally manipulative — the knife-twisting in the final act really proved a bridge too far for me — but Oceans is a film with tons of heart. It is further confirmation of why I love these actors. It’s a movie that made me feel, that made me bleed. Okay, not really. But still.

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Recommendation: The Light Between Oceans is an old-fashioned romance epic whose frequent trips into melodrama remind me why I can’t do romance that often. But when one features stars as reliable as these two, I find it very hard to say no. There’s a lot to like about it, including the breathtaking postcards-from-Australia scenery. It’s all a grand gesture, and for those who don’t mind sitting through a long, meditative drama this should definitely appeal.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “One day this will all feel like a dream.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Brooklyn

Brooklyn movie poster

Release: Wednesday, November 4, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Nick Hornby

Directed by: John Crowley

For future generations, when kids look up the word ‘nostalgia’ in the dictionary, they’ll just see a poster of The Force Awakens beside it. And, you know, that’s cool. I can’t say that would be a poor definition.

I guess what I’d like to see is a little asterisk directing attention to the footnotes, where John Crowley’s Brooklyn would get at least some recognition for its heavily nostalgic appeal.

Here is a gorgeously mounted production, the culmination of inspired performances from rising stars and notions of old-fashioned romance steeped absolutely in nostalgia. A labor of love propelled by an urgency to prove ‘old-fashioned’ isn’t necessarily synonymous with ‘old hat.’ Okay, so the film is set several decades ago but its consideration of foreign environments and experiences resonates strongly in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis. And any American watching on is sure to be reminded of their own border crisis with their southern neighbors.

I should probably stop myself there. This film needs not to be introduced as some polemic political statement. Immigration isn’t so much problematic as it is traumatic. At the same time, Brooklyn shouldn’t be misconstrued as a film that romanticizes the immigration process. In this film life is far from a fairytale — it’s tough, and so it should be. Driven by emotion, it depicts the conundrum Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) finds herself in having left the comforts of sleepy Enniscorthy behind to pursue a life in the States. Story ultimately measures the success of its protagonist on the basis of her ability to overcome (or perhaps embrace) notions of familial customs, cultural acceptance and personal growth.

Screenwriter Nick Hornby adapts the 2009 Colm Tóibín novel of the same name, fashioning a drama that warms the heart as effortlessly as it breaks it. Though the story certainly drifts and never forms into something entirely unexpected, the more contemplative scenes play out naturally, unburdened by structure, and are rather potent given the conditions the protagonist must endure for some time. It all feels a little less aimless when Eilis meets the kindhearted Tony (Emory Cohen), a boy from an Italian family whose confession over liking Irish girls — hence his presence at a small get-together put on by Irish Brooklynites — endears him to her.

And so it is: Brooklyn becomes an acting showcase. Cohen turns out to be nothing short of a revelation. His Tony oozes the kind of charisma most Movie Stars today wish they were gifted with. He may not light up as many cigarettes or don any leather jackets, but Cohen has that James Dean swagger. Tony is the kind of stand-up guy who merits comparisons to the likes of Romeo Capulet and Jack Dawson. In that way, the film aches with nostalgia for the days where genuinely good men fell into genuinely romantic relationships, not contrived meet-cutes in which the likes of Gerard Butler and Justin Long find themselves flung into . . . because, script.

In this movie our ultimate concern revolves around relationships, but that’s not for a lack of ambition. For someone trying to assimilate to another part of the world, establishing relationships is a crucial step. It’s the only step at first. Through a deeply introspective character study Brooklyn proposes that one little step can form an entire bridge. For the thousands of people who have passed through Ellis Island and elsewhere, it can be a matter of life and death, and that’s not a reality the film takes for granted.

Of course, ultimately Eilis is a very fortunate young woman. And the film doesn’t take that for granted. Tony’s introduction tinges the film with a romantic filter. The light in an otherwise dark room. Call it a fairytale if you wish, but precious little feels good about the sacrifices Eilis must make in order to get to a good place. There’s nothing particularly magical about the background from which Tony hails. He may be a plumber, but he’s also a hard-working, good-natured young man who shows genuine interest in Eilis’ determination, intelligence and forward-thinkingness. If ever there were a couple who deserved one another’s company this year it is these two.

In the context of contemporary romantic offerings, Brooklyn reigns supreme in 2015, but don’t call it a perfect movie. Serendipity isn’t the right word, but a subplot involving her return to her homeland following a tragic development is rigged with convenience at every turn. Locals seem to conspire against Eilis ever returning to America: a friend is to be married a week after she is scheduled to return to Brooklyn and her mother accepts an invitation on her behalf; she is set up on dates with eligible bachelor Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson, picking up steam now); Eilis is even coerced into taking over her sister’s desk job. People can’t seem to stop talking about Eilis’ good fortune. Time constraints come to define this phase of the story and some of these later scenes, and Gleeson’s character in particular, feel underdeveloped as a result.

But the purpose of the return journey is very well understood. Going back to Ireland adds complication. The second boat ride gives an already conflicted girl (and viewer) yet another perspective to consider. What if life in Enniscorthy actually could be different, more opportunistic? How radically has the girl changed in the time since? The transformation may not be so dramatic but it is certainly noticeable and remarkable. If it weren’t for such confident and prideful work from its young stars, the film wouldn’t be in a place where it could reasonably pose these questions. Brooklyn is stunningly authentic, incredibly enjoyable and the fact it so effectively communicates its reverence for classic cinema qualifies it as one of the finest this year has to offer.

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Recommendation: Brooklyn has classic romantic appeal, and with any luck it will attract a larger audience than its silly little trailers are likely to generate. Performances make the characters easy to buy into and feel for in the end, while a sublime 1950s milieu is too easy to believe as the genuine article. A great study of character, not to mention a great date night.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “I wish that I could stop feeling that I want to be an Irish girl in Ireland.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com  

TBT: Amélie (2001)

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Our second stop this December on Throwback Thursday finds us head-over-heels in like (?) with a very unique girl. A hopeless romantic. A dreamer. A dream-weaver. Though this entry doesn’t strictly qualify as a film that spreads holiday cheer, it’s one that spreads cheer and is the definition of a feel-good film. It’s a testament to the combined strengths of the performances, some delicious cinematography and memorable visual effects that I was eventually won over by this film. I was so very tempted to shut this thing off after about 40 minutes as it is a rather slow journey. But by the end I was actually kind of moved. For the second time this month I’m having a new experience with  

Today’s food for thought: Amélie (2001).

Amelie minimalist poster

Romancing the City of Love since: November 2, 2001

[Netflix]

The City of Love dazzles and shines in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s fantastical portrait of a young girl touching the lives of many a downtrodden Parisian. It aches with a melancholy the warm yellow hues of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography (he helped set the mood for Inside Llewyn Davis with his distinctly colder, bluer photography) help offset, but only just. There are people everywhere but not much life to be found. People are shells of their former selves, save for Amélie, who has grown up in a unique but largely unenviable way.

Her parents, both hard workers but far from ideal caretakers — her father, never spending much time with her, had his only daughter incorrectly diagnosed with a heart condition; mother, a bit of an emotionally cold person who sadly lost her life in a most bizarre manner — effectively isolated Amélie from social settings. She was homeschooled. Amélie’s upbringing created many challenges for her, but that didn’t stop her from being curious about the world of which she was a part.

After witnessing the news of the death of Princess Diana and coming to the realization that life is all too fleeting, she became hooked on the idea of spreading joy to other people’s lives. She hoped maybe she could help them improve their outlook and in so doing, make her life have meaning. She sets about helping an older man recover a box filled with all sorts of memories from his past; a reclusive artist learn how to socialize; a young boy overcome his circumstances working for a nasty, ungrateful boss at a corner market. She even starts working her magic at The Two Windmills, a small café she has been working at, playing Cupid for one of her co-workers who can never seem to attract the attention she longs for from a regular customer.

It’s strange that someone who suffered such a cruel childhood could grow up to become such a romantic and an eternally kind-hearted person. In fact this protagonist is so incongruent to the way in which the real world works she comes across as a character only a movie could create. Amélie is a little girl nobody really seems to pay much mind to, yet she’s larger than life. I found it difficult to buy into her blossoming as a young woman. Not to mention, the film takes an eternity to get to where it really wants to go. The first half of this picture is nothing short of a slog as it sets about establishing dynamics between these many other lost souls who have all, in some way, shape or form had their hearts turned to stone.

Despite the unlikeliness of this enigmatic personality, it’s something of a task to resist her charms. Amélie may crawl like molasses spilling forth from the jar but it’s this process of slow absorption that finally won me over. I just couldn’t help it. I mean, how can you not fall in love with this girl, the short-cut, jet-black-haired woman with a perpetual twinkle in her eye that suggests she’s up to something? Parts of her recall Macauley Culkin in Home Alone, what with her mischievous nature as she goes to lengths to make life a little more difficult for the people who deserve it, while sending a potential lover, Mathieu Kassovitz’s Nino, on a whimsical journey across the city, scattering clues all over in an attempt to win his heart and, in effect, make her first true connection to someone in the real world.

And this is what, for me, made Amélie often a challenge to root for. She can be so helpless. She’s been programmed not to make direct contact with others, despite her affinity for passing through their lives like wind through the leaves on a branch. As the reclusive Dufayel observed, unable to conceal his disdain: “she would rather imagine herself relating to an absent person than build relationships with those around her.” It’s not all her fault of course but at some point it’s less about her failure to make that contact as it is her fault that she fails to do so on so many different occasions. “For Pete’s sake, go and get him!”

Indeed the film is nothing if not a traditional love story, steeped in karmic and coincidental reality. Amélie seemed destined to help others, but — and the film is almost too conscious of it — she’d be a fool if she would forget about her own happiness in the process. As the film builds into a crescendo composed of the efforts she has made to brighten others’ days, it begins to gain an unwieldy belly that, for the most part sits content, but often can feel a bit overstuffed and bloated. Engorged on sugary romance. Part of me wants to say this film isn’t exactly my tasse de thé and if it weren’t for Tautou’s mesmerizing performance I would have never made it past those first 40 minutes.

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Recommendation: A film defined by its central performance, Amélie is one for romantics at heart and French cinema enthusiasts. While bearing some fantastical camera techniques that remind one of Charlie Kaufman, this is a decidedly more upbeat and optimistic film than anything he’s done. Entertaining, beguiling, entrancing. This is a pretty great movie and I was ultimately rewarded for committing to it.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: Of all the things this movie inspired, it wasn’t so much passionate love affairs, but rather the advertising campaign of Travelocity. Throughout the film, Amélie, in an attempt to inspire her shut-in father to get out and see the world, hatched a scheme wherein the family garden gnome would be sent to various famous international locales and have its picture taken and sent back to him. Hence, the Travelocity Gnome.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

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Mercifully the month of February comes to an end this weekend. I say this not because of the romantic theme I’ve put everyone through on this feature over the last couple of weeks (I guess that’s bad enough), but because the weather around here has been downright crazy. Last night I put my car in a ditch. Or almost did. I live on one of the nastiest roads in Knoxville and last night I almost fell victim to its twists and turns. Thankfully I was helped out in a matter of minutes. So I’m really ready to move on to some better weather, and hopefully some sunshine.

Today’s food for thought: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

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Erasing painful memories since: March 19, 2004

[DVD]

The fact that Jim Carrey’s unforgettably restrained performance became overshadowed by universal themes of love and heartbreak isn’t a flaw within Michel Gondry’s psychosomatic journey. Quite the opposite in fact. You could say the same for Kate Winslet’s turn as Agent Orange-haired Clementine and to a lesser extent the collective of Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson. Tremendous performances had a hand in building this production into something memorable but the lasting impact was more a result of everything coalescing together. There are few films that made us feel the way Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind made us feel.

Reflecting upon past relationships, whether they went out with a bang or quietly petered out wasn’t the film’s duty; it has always been our own. Eternal Sunshine isn’t fiction, it’s the brutal truth.

I don’t know if I’m a Joel Barish but there has got to be some part of me that has been, at one point or another. Just the same as the women I’ve dated have reflected some qualities of Clementine, regardless of whether this would ever be something we’d ever bring up. In the film, Joel’s recent ex has undergone an experimental procedure to rid any and all memories of him and once Joel learns of this he wants the very same treatment. In the real world we might jump the gun and label this hardcore bitterness, but screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, along with French director Michel Gondry, expressed it not only as a powerful plot device but an indicator that what once was a beautiful harmony between two individuals had finally reached a critical low point, a proper divorce devoid of the paperwork and legalese.

Dr. Mierzwiak (Wilkinson)’s office personified that which we like to dismiss as a useless emotion. In this dreamscape bitterness and regret functioned, and functioned extremely effectively. As Joel undergoes the procedure at home, with the help of sleazy assistants Stan (Ruffalo) and Patrick (Wood) a switch is flipped somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind that tells him this might be a mistake. He soon begins fighting the process every step of the way in an effort to keep Clementine in his life in any capacity. Anyone who has denied they have done something similar is either a rare exception or is lying to themselves, though understandably (and hopefully) there were less wires and computers involved.

The device is ingenious, but I too would be lying if I said that’s the only thing that propelled Eternal Sunshine into the realm of the classic romantic-comedy (if ever there were such a thing). Describing it like that is like describing one’s relationship as a classic, actually. It’s just awkward and doesn’t feel quite right. Performances and chemistry, yeah they were all in attendance and in great abundance — who knew Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey had the potential together to make Leo jealous? — but let’s dive below the surface. It was the handiwork of those behind the cameras, intertwining the real with the psychological world; juxtaposing Joel’s emotional hangover against evidence explaining it. This was a beautiful relationship insofar as it was properly if not painfully documented. The first encounter on the train to Montauk. The house on the beach, Joel and Clementine sitting on its steps. The pair sprawling out on a frozen lake.

Gondry’s film was as much a visual treat as it was a maze through the mind and heart. Innovative cinematography and set design was largely responsible for relaying an entire spectrum of emotion. I’d also like to back up a bit and not totally neglect Jim Carrey here. My brief address of him earlier isn’t indicative of how I feel about him as Joel Barish. He’d been good before in films I have yet to see (I won’t mention those because, you know . . . embarrassment) but he set a new standard in this one, putting such a distance between his Ace Ventura personality and a character that one might reasonable assert as how he might have been growing up in a desperately impoverished Canadian household, maybe sans the disdain for love and Hallmark holidays. The argument purporting Carrey’s inability to emote was officially rendered invalid with Eternal Sunshine.

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5-0Recommendation: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a unique work of cinematic art. For those into that sort of thing, particularly when it comes to diving into the murky waters of discussing relationship problems — how they begin and how they are resolved — I can not think of too many better than this one. It’s at times pretty heavy but manages to uphold a quirky comedic tone that never allows drama to devolve into melodrama. Performances are universally great and for those looking for a more three-dimensional Jim Carrey may I suggest you give this one a look.

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

TBTrivia: The voice whispering the above quotation is actually a combination of Kate Winslet’s voice echoing itself, and the voice of an editor working at Focus Features. Apparently, the editor was asked to do a quick voice-over, before Winslet arrived, and it was kept in the final cut.

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Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: Titanic (1997)

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Welcome boys, girls. . . . and all others, to another sappy, tear-filled romantic edition of Throwback Thursday. (I know, gross, right?) The whole idea behind today’s post is about being subtle. . . . . . as subtle as a 40-foot-tall iceberg protruding from the chilly North Atlantic water. As subtle as that scene where Jack paints a picture of Rose. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, I know all of you are just chomping at the bit to read something mushy and heartrending. (I know I am!) Well, you certainly get it here in James Cameron’s preposterously successful, epically-imagined, prodigious smash-hit, a.k.a.

Today’s food for thought: Titanic.

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Getting that sinking feeling since: December 19, 1997

[VHS]

Like an aftershock ripping through L.A. the power of James Cameron’s great water-bound tragedy strikes me today with a force seemingly laying dormant since my first viewing. When I was a wee lad and watching this gigantic mess unfold for the first time (‘mess,’ in this case being a huge compliment) I am pretty sure I hated Titanic for its prioritizing of love over visual spectacle. I wasn’t into critiquing movies of course but I already resented Cameron for turning what I saw as a simple disaster film into a needlessly saccharine romantic epic.

Ah, behold this wonderful thing called hindsight. I would never have described the whirlwind courtship between Jack Dawson (Leo) and Rose Dewitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) then as genuine, truly tragic, or even ‘good;’ before puberty hit me like a ton of bricks I was frequently annoyed by sappy stuff on TV and in films and would just as quickly dismiss the love angle as stupid and pointless as I would the overall experience as a waste of my time as well as of its own potential. Looking back, that’s just too dismissive. I realize now that the only valid argument I do have against this iconic work has everything to do with the movie running over three freaking hours long. It was one of the first films I was aware of actually having its own intermission. (There’s a throwback for you.)

Silly little Tom — Titanic wasn’t a movie; it was an experience. Accidentally or not, it burgeoned into an industry unto itself. Back in the day you couldn’t hold a conversation without being obligated to eventually talk Titanic. Those who were opposed, either ideologically or merely put off by its overwhelming popularity, seemingly had more on their minds than those who went with the explicit purpose of getting their Romeo and Juliet fix. Simultaneously one of the highest-grossing films of all time (adjusting for inflation, it ranks fifth behind cinematic trivialities like Gone with the Wind and Star Wars), and doing battle with William Wyler’s Ben Hur as one of the most Oscar-friendly films ever made, taking home 11 of its 14 potential golden statues, Titanic granted its Captain passage into the theretofore uncharted waters of the billion-dollar club in terms of worldwide gross. Statistics sort of speak for themselves though, so what about the emotional state it left us all in? (Now I can say ‘us’ because I too am a believer.)

I’m only now coming around to accepting that what the young starlets accomplished was indeed a good thing for this world, and I can’t imagine what it was like for the ’90s teens swept up in their own fantasies of being with the then-Hollywood heartthrob in those frigid North Atlantic waters. How they would gladly take his place in the water. Or at the very least, help him climb on to the door (come on, that thing is not going to go under with two small people on it). I can time and again look to Titanic for a number of examples that support the cliché how it may indeed be unhealthy to take one’s entertainment so seriously.

When you have Celine Dion belting out a tune at a wine glass-shattering pitch I guess I shouldn’t be taken aback by the phenomenon of entire blogs being devoted to Jack and Rose. Is there any more damning evidence of me softening in my late 20’s than the fact that her voice, those lyrics, rather than annoying me actually haunt me? There’s (and yes, I’m going to say it) something epic about her song, some part of it that has never quite left my body since I first heard it as that wee lad. I can’t recite much beyond the chorus, but seriously — why does that matter? It’s impressive that after all of this time passed, there are elements and aspects to Titanic that I’m finding more and more intriguing, and more crucial to the general health of romance in contemporary film.

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There’s a reason the passionate romance outweighs the sinking of the ship. Jack and Rose living on in cinematic infamy, their reward for being so damn good-looking and inseparable. Superglue fails to provide the kind of bond that these two were able to form and in such a short amount of time. I suppose jealousy and envy could apply to me as a youngster when I watched these two steam up a car window and proceeded to fast-forward though this bullshit, though I think it’d be more accurate to say I just didn’t appreciate the gravity of this blossoming romance. Now, I can’t see another duo encapsulating, at the very least, the sheer joy of being young and carefree out on the open waters. No two performers would be Jack and Rose like Leo and Kate were Jack and Rose.

I’m not sure what you call it when a ship pulls a total 180 in the water and heads back in the opposite direction, but that’s exactly what has happened with my outlook on this voyage. There’s style and beautiful cinematography to ogle over, but these things I’ve never had an issue with. Titanic looks and feels classy in every way it possibly can. But today Cameron’s decision to place the star-crossed lovers front-and-center has finally struck me as not only appropriate, but creative. It’s the only way to bring millions of viewers on board the ship, as well as into the lives of many a doomed seafarer who had plans of arriving in the Big Apple.

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4-0Recommendation: A tragedy of R.M.S. Titanic-proportions, James Cameron’s vision just has to be applauded. As if I need to endorse this thing. Seriously? Why is this the second film in a row here where I pretty much don’t need to write anything in this section? Actually, it’s kind of nice. I don’t have to do this extra work now. Cool.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 194 mins.

TBTrivia: After finding out that she had to be naked in front of Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet decided to break the ice, and when they first met, she flashed him.

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Photo credits: http://www.dailyorange.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Romeo + Juliet (1996)

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It’s a little difficult to outfit TBT with a ‘romantic’ theme without turning the spotlight on *the* romance movie. . . or at least without recognizing one of cinema’s most popular, ill-fated couples. I’m sure if I were to ever nominate the Baz Luhrmann adaptation as the romance film to end all romance films I could expect to see that comment box at the bottom fill up with many an impassioned, even hateful, hurtful comment. I probably wouldn’t blame them either. It’s kind of a mystery as to why I’m going with this one but sometimes spontaneity is just what this blog needs. While this modern approach is hardly a patch on old Will’s play I think there are one or two interesting elements worth talking about with

Today’s food for thought: Romeo + Juliet.

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Seriously, these two have been kissing since: November 1, 1996

[VHS?]

Since the dawn of time, man has always . . . .

No. There’s absolutely no way I’m going that route. But at a certain point doesn’t the mere mentioning of the names Romeo and Juliet in any kind of discussion feel like a cliché in itself? There’s really no point in going through this post by ticking off the usual boxes: the quality of the overall experience, the effectiveness of its major elements (cast, setting, score, editing, etc.), any of its lingering effects . . . yadda-yadda.

I’m much more keen to talk about what I think the big man (no, not God — Shakespeare . . . which, for some, I guess the two could be interchangeable) would think of what Mr. Flamboyant has done with his timeless examination of two of the strongest human emotions, love and hatred. Would the world’s greatest writer take offense in knowing how many times his ideas have been revisited? Revised? Butchered (or just a little battered and bruised)? Would he spin in his urn knowing one particular film starred a version of Leonardo DiCaprio prior to him becoming one of the great thespians of the 21st Century? What about the concept of integrating ye olde dialogue — the stuff we largely accept now as archaic and impractical — into a modern context, would William approve or would he face-palm from beyond the grave?

Ignoring some factors only we modern audiences are likely to criticize — why couldn’t Leo be as good then as he is now? — there are a few tweaks that the great playwright maybe wouldn’t “get.” Take for instance the hallucinogenic Romeo takes at a party which sets him on a collision course with a most tragic fate. “Ecstasy? What, pray, is this ecstasy of which you speak? Doth thou hold no interest in retaining logic, for very little of it is produced in thinking one can swallow thine own happiness in a physical manner. Return this ‘ecstasy’ from whence it came; scrub this fantasy from the deepest recesses of thou perversed mind! Me be damned to mine own coffin, I do believe the kids got fucked up on wine.”

Oh, but Good Sir I must retort: the spirit of Romeo and Juliet still lives! Just because wine has little place in Verona Beach, that does not mean this city has no place for love. In fact the heart beats ever stronger for a couple as mesmeric (and pretty) as DiCaprio and Danes. The Capulets and Montagues are still fiercely at war with one another, through staunch ideological differences of the seedy mob-world variety. Ted/Caroline and Fulgencio/Gloria, in this day and age now tied in with the mafia who have ‘legitimate’ business competition, still hate each other. And their hatred is almost proportional to the intense feelings their offspring hold for something that is apparently forbidden: seeing past a rivalry and accepting the individual for who they are. Good Sir, that has been a sentiment echoed throughout the ages, and it does more than just enhance this modern adaptation of arguably your greatest work. Blind devotion comes to define the picture, as it ought to.

This, despite other, more notable deviations. You should rest easy knowing that even if Luhrmann wanted to swap out a couple of Capulets for some Montagues (and vice versa) the essence of this complicated family dynamic isn’t distorted or diminished. I don’t claim to understand why he wanted to make some name changes, but if anything it helps to distinguish this one particular entry from the legions of other versions. There are no friars here, nor swords. We have public officials and more advanced weaponry to not only elevate but contextualize this timeless drama.

Romeo + Juliet certainly is more lavish in its design, more heavy-hitting in its violence and yet more relatable in terms of Lords and Ladies being unable to sweep the dirt of the past aside in order to allow for even a single flower to grow. It’s a testament to the strength of your writing, Good Sir, that even a bizarre and controversial decision to modernize a film while retaining the original dialogue and basic story structure can still make us feel that our own hearts have been poisoned too.

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3-5Recommendation: Not everyone may see this is as a worthy adaptation, but I certainly do. It’s also one of the only things Baz Luhrmann has produced that I’ve really felt suits his particularly colorful style. Romeo + Juliet doesn’t particularly add anything significant to the ever-increasing canon inspired by the play, but its devotion to the spirit of the classic, combined with a fresh environment is enough to set it apart from other, much duller attempts. If you haven’t seen this yet I suggest taking a look. If nothing else it’s funny to see a few familiar faces in this before they really blew up (looking at you in particular Leo, and also Paul Rudd, who plays Juliet’s would-be suitor, Dave Paris).

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 120 mins.

TBTrivia: Apparently Natalie Portman was originally cast for Juliet Capulet, but after watching some of the footage, it was deemed that the age difference between Leo and her was great enough to make the romance not only unbelievable, but it gave the appearance as though Romeo was quote, molesting her in several scenes. So they recast it for Claire Danes. There. Much less molesting.

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Photo credits: http://www.cinematerial.com; http://www.film-grab.com  

The Theory of Everything

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Release: Wednesday, November 26, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Anthony McCarten 

Directed by: James Marsh

If you want to talk ambition, meet British director James Marsh. He once thought it realistic to stuff everything Stephen Hawking-related into a two-hour romantic drama. There are obvious issues with such a strategy. Not so obvious perhaps are the compromises he’s made in producing something worth watching.

Or, maybe they are. Either way, it looks like it will still be some time before we get the definitive guide on the inner workings of one of the greatest minds this world has and likely will ever see.

Marsh (Man on WireShadow Dancer) blends elements of the standard biopic with those of a romantic drama while infusing the production with at least the pretense of science. More often than not intellectual stimulation is sacrificed in favor of powerful emotional recoil at the sight of a body enduring prolonged deterioration. Yes, the experience fails to manifest as an interesting journey as much as a heartrending commitment to watching what we already are aware has happened. But it’s a perfectly inoffensive approach all the same.

Considering the number of similar films attempting to fashion glamorous takes on the lives of many an ill-fated genius or savant — Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind being one of the most memorable in recent years — it’s hard not to feel the nagging tension of having been there, done that this time around. Howard’s muse happened to be brilliant economist John Forbes Nash. The crux of that particular film revolved around schizophrenia and how it nearly eroded the passionate love shared between an ailing Nash and his fiercely determined wife Alicia Lardé. Fast-forward to 2014 and you simply change the variables. The constants remain, though: bodily dysfunction, emotional trauma, and the very human ability to somehow ignore and even triumph over it all.

The Theory of Everything plays out like the autobiography Professor Hawking will probably never write. (That’s not intended as a cruel joke, in any way, shape or form. I simply just don’t envision this man ever writing one.) And by rights, it should. While camera angles hew intimately to Hawking’s views of the world, it’s his first wife whose work has most directly inspired this particular Oscar-hopeful. Adapted from her memoir ‘Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,’ the film logically detours away from the scientific to focus on the romantic aspects of a life less ordinary.

Leaning on mush and sentimentality does not crush Marsh’s project, luckily enough. After all, he has been afforded a pair of breathtaking performances in the form of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. The pair of young performers will seem inseparable after this. In the last several weeks, a certain someone has been knocking on this blog’s door with more questions about whom he should consider grooming next for the big stage in the Dolby Theatre. Now it would seem to be the young and freckled Londoner’s turn to be called upon. What he accomplishes in Theory is nothing short of revelatory in practice.

Twisted, pained expressions dominate Redmayne’s facial features for the film’s later stages, a development made all the more heartbreaking when given his cheerful, exquisitely nerdy countenance early on. It’s one aspect of the film that absolutely demanded perfection regardless of the surrounding material or narrative flow. Redmayne understood this and courageously ran with what will down the road be described as one of his career’s most challenging and daring decisions.

This is also Felicity Jones’ finest hour. She is a force to be reckoned with alongside the towering Redmayne, channeling her inner Jennifer Connelly appropriately. As Jane Wilde, Jones exudes strength and bravery in a situation that would surely demolish both in any ordinary mortal. There is nothing theoretical about the performances here. The film radiates sincerity and the rapport between Jones and Redmayne single-handedly elevates a somewhat pedestrian narrative. That much is most certainly clear.

What’s less clear is how much Marsh actually appreciates Hawking himself. Regrettably The Theory of Everything ends terribly. The final scenes threaten to drown out any sense of originality on the subject, as the narrative merges with the collective populace’s impressions of the guy: he’s no doubt an inspiration. But we know this already. That’s why there’s now several movies made about him. These last shots may resonate, but they resonate for the wrong reasons. It becomes evident in Theory‘s awkwardly sweeping yet rushed conclusion (why do these stories always end in big auditoriums or conference halls?) Marsh doesn’t want to put too fine a point on the harsh reality of Stephen’s triumph. He doesn’t want to betray the public perception of the iconic wheelchair-bound professor.

That’s why he saves one of the film’s most inspiring lines for the very last moment. Too bad I can’t say the same for this review.

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3-5Recommendation: Arguably laden with cheese and sentiment, The Theory of Everything features a lot of heartbreak and cold science (of at least the medical variety) to help try to balance the equation. Two incredible performances help stabilize it a little more, though ultimately this is a movie that belongs on the Hallmark channel more than anywhere else. This is a light year away from being a bad film, but it’s just as far from being original or truly moving. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.”

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