Thursday, December 2, 2010

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Lovely, but Still...


Occasionally I write about movies. This may be news to some of you. But did you know that some of my favorite movies are Christmas ones? Miracle on 34th Street, Love Actually, The Nightmare Before Christmas, A Muppet Christmas Carol: these are Christmas films that are part of my own personal canon of Great Cinema, not just Holiday Treats. I always look forward to catching a movie with snow and mistletoe; luckily, they're in large supply.
This year, the surprise Christmas film was Lovely Still, a romantic comedy about a lonely old man (Martin Landau) who falls in love with the woman across the street (Ellen Burstyn). It's a film I'd been looking forward to seeing but never got the opportunity. It barely got a release, even though there were rumors of an Oscar campaign for Landau, and its DVD release was practically a secret. I didn't even know it was a Christmas movie until I streamed it on NetFlix, but I'm sure anyone who did weren't in the mood for it during its limited run in May. But hey, here I was, finally getting to enjoy it, and just in time for the season!

Christmas-wise, this movie's pure. It's not Toy Story, with a Christmas stinger, nor is it Hardware, whose Christmas setting is incidental, except where William Hootkins' rants come in. Lovely Still does not mess around: it is a Christmas Movie. The film opens with Martin Landau's character wrapping a single present for himself and placing it under his Christmas tree. The entire story takes place between the 19th and 25th of December. There's a subplot about a book of homemade Christmas recipes. There's Christmas shopping, a Christmas Eve party, and a Christmas Day finale. Even dream sequences are made up of images flashing across a haze of red, green and gold light. And, of course, there's a healthy supply of Christmas tunes, both new and traditional.

To paraphrase Up in the Air: All the things you probably hate about Christmas movies -- the shopping montages, the soundtrack of holiday standards, the gift exchange epiphanies -- are warm reminders that I'm home. And this movie was going to give me all that and Ellen Burstyn? I was tickled by this notion. Could there be a better setting for a romance between an elderly couple than in the most hopeful of winter months? The cinematography, the acting, the soundtrack (while sometimes annoying) let me know that I was in for a quirky, feel-good ride. Indeed, about 40 minutes in, I realized that though the film was flawed (the sound mix is abysmal), though Landau was kind of overdoing the quirk, I liked it. Ellen Burstyn's beautiful performance certainly helped, and Elizabeth Banks was doing some remarkably subtle stuff. So what if Adam Scott's character was poorly-written? So what if the Christmas shopping segment didn't work? It's still a good time.

Naturally, I anticipated the dark turn to come. This a movie about old people; chances are, one or both of them is going to display some sign of illness or other. Burstyn's character takes pills, looking at herself tragically in the mirror. Beautiful moment, ok, it's great. Landau's character has a freakout at a Christmas Eve party. Makes sense, he's shown that he's a little weird, a little unstable, maybe he's like Movie Autistic or something. There's even a scary yet wonderful moment on Christmas Day, when Burstyn is horrified by one of the gifts under the tree. The once vibrant colors immediately desaturate, and the subsequent confrontation is jarring. Once again, though, the performances deliver something great, so I was fine. Everything was getting wrapped up in a nice bow.

Then comes the twist. Oh, yes, there's a twist, and thought I kept thinking, "I wonder if this happens..." I kept hoping this wouldn't. But it did. And boy, does that twist raise more questions than it answers. Burstyn (see the trend here?) executes it beautifully, and her performance alone makes it almost credible. Personally, though, it didn't gel. Maybe it makes more sense after a second viewing. I'm willing to give it a shot.

So yeah, I'd say give it a watch. It's enjoyably wholesome entertainment with a few great performances. The score's irritating sometimes, but sometimes it's some of the year's best. And there's three stand-out Christmas moments: a department store Christmas tree with snow falling; a sled ride so beautiful I was reduced to tears; and a dance in the snow on Christmas Eve, which is what I want every Christmas romance to have. And hey, we learn that Christmas just ain't Christmas...without the one you love:

Christmas just ain't Christmas without the one you love.
New Year's just ain't New Year's without the one you love.

Underneath the mistletoe, I saw a face all a glow,

Last year this time.
Now I stand all alone and my house is not a home
Without that girl of mine. Oh.

Christmas just ain't Christmas without the one you love.

And New Year's just ain't New Year's without the one you love.

12 o'clock and all is well and I was doing oh so swell,

Last year this time.
Going shopping for presents together would make it last a week,
But it would never.
It was a waste of time. Oh.

Christmas just ain't Christmas without the one you love. Oh, oh, oh.

New Year's just ain't New Year's without the one you love.

Oh, oh.

Christmas just ain't Christmas without the one you love. Oh.
And New Year's is just another lonely night without the one you love and ohhhhh, no.
(Christmas just ain't Christmas) No, no. (without the one you love.)
I'm gonna be lonely.
I'm gonna be lonely,
(New Year's just ain't New Year's...)
Oh, oh, 'cause I said I need your loving. Need.
Christmas just ain't Christmas without the one you love. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh.

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