Split Screen: BLUE VALENTINE and TAKE THIS WALTZ

Split Screen is a new series of articles focusing on two films that pair well together as a double feature. The connection could be anything – themes, style, cast, or maybe a combination of many things. The films I select will be those I generally consider to be very good. I’m in no way suggesting you should feel the same. The subjective nature of cinema, or any art, is what makes conversations about it so provocative.

The objective is to spur conversation. Tear apart my kooky analysis, or shower me with praise for opening your eyes to new ideas.

At the very least, maybe I’ll add some good flicks to your cinematic radar.

Ah February, when aisles at big box retailers turn decidedly pinkish/red and humans pretend Conversation Hearts candies are edible. (They aren’t. Just because you can stencil words onto sidewalk chalk, doesn’t mean you should eat it.)

Valentine’s Day.

It’s the time of the year where relationships are put to the test, success or failure teetering on the purchase of just the right gift to say, “I love you.” (Helpful Hint: Anything displayed at the register of a Cumberland Farms is likely to be frowned upon)

Cineplexes fill up with fans eager to engage in the latest Fifty Shades of Penthouse Forum film, and streaming services load up the greatest hits from Ryan Reynold’s early ‘aughts iMDB page.

But, for our purposes here, I’m going to focus on the antithesis of Valentine’s Day… the relationship gone bad. Call me the anti-cupid.

The two films that came to mind when I conceived this particular theme were 2010’s Blue Valentine (written and directed by Derek Cianfrance), and 2011’s Take This Waltz (written and directed by Sarah Polley.)

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine cross-examines the relationship between married couple Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Michelle Williams). Bouncing timelines back and forth between the early stages of exciting, youthful romance, and the tumultuous road to dissolution, the film pulls no punches in exposing the harsh realities of broken love.

Staying focused strictly on the relationship, and how each action shapes its direction, allows the film to breathe naturally. As Dean and Cindy’s marriage becomes increasingly combustive, we feel the rawness of the emotional strain tugging at them. We are given just the right amount of exposition to acquaint us with both characters, helping us understand the impact each of their actions has on the overall relationship.

In the end, there’s no way for the audience to dodge the inevitable heartbreak, even though we can see it forming throughout the film.

Take This Waltz

Take This Waltz centers on another doomed marriage, but takes a different approach to getting there. Here, Margot (Michelle Williams) and Lou (Seth Rogan), gradually become distant partners. Lou, oblivious to Margot’s feelings of boredom and loneliness, is focused mainly on creating a chicken cook book. Margot just wants to find the fire that once burned in her relationship.

Enter the good looking, single neighbor Daniel (Luke Kirby); a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, capable of turning on an innocent charm just effective enough to lure the vulnerable Margot. Daniel is a master of manipulation, constantly planting seeds to entice, but always leaving Margot to make decisions for herself.

The film takes the infidelity trope and bends it by focusing on the female as instigator. Doing so feels refreshing compared to the usual patriarchal charlatan character that often accompanies stories in this genre.

By the end of the film we are left with deeply flawed characters with honest feelings of regret and remorse. It’s an expose of human nature and the need for acceptance and intimacy, turning a lens on the consequences of acting on those needs outside of the marital union. It’s sad to see two people who clearly have feelings for each other fail because of their inability to provide the emotional support an effective relationship needs to succeed.

The Connecting Point

The prevailing theme in these films is relationships, and the tenuous line between succeeding and failing in them.

Even though we get to essentially the same place by the end of Blue Valentine and Take This Waltz, our couples take very different paths to get there.

It’s hard to determine which film feels more authentic to our preconceived ideas on modern relationships, because both manage to feel like plausible scenarios. I’m guessing we all know people who have separated due to irreconcilable differences (Blue Valentine), or due to infidelity (Take This Waltz). And I’ll wager that we’ve taken sides in each of those instances. What’s unique about these two films is the way in which the characters are fleshed out, making it difficult to choose who to feel most empathetic towards. Even actions we cannot condone at least can be understood from a perspective of what instigated those actions.

By the end of Blue Valentine we’re leaning more toward #TeamCindy, due to Dean’s progression into booze and aggression. But Dean is also very clearly in love with Cindy- wanting to do the right things to earn her affection and trust- yet can’t quite get out of his own way long enough to succeed at it. Instead of trying to win back Cindy, Dean focuses his attention on trying not to lose her, which proves futile.

In Take This Waltz, we can hate more easily on Margot since she is the one that strays into another man’s bed, but Lou is so ignorant of his lack of attention to her that we can at the very least understand the frustration that led her down that road. Just like many real life relationships, the lack of communication is what ultimately dooms Margot and Lou. Her passive aggressive hints at needing more from Lou just fly over his head.

Both films feel like a gut punch in the end. We generally want to see both relationships succeed, but each fall into familiar couples traps that prevent a happy ending, just as they often do in real life.

This makes each film relatable.

Common Thread

Michelle Williams.

On the surface, Cindy and Margot might have a lot of similarities, but Williams adds subtle personality quirks to each character, making them unique to each other.

Cindy has spent her life trying to overcome her father’s demanding aggression. She has a history a poor relationships, or at least one that we know of. It stands to reason she’s going to keep falling into similar circumstances because it’s what she knows.

But Williams plays Cindy with a self awareness that at least keeps her trying to make the right choices. Dean has a lot of moments signaling he is a good and decent man. But every so often, he presents himself in ways that align a bit too close with what Cindy is trying so desperately to avoid.

Every frustration and regret has etched itself on Williams’ face, and the look of defeat in her eyes is haunting and sad.

Margot’s backstory isn’t as neatly fleshed out as Cindy’s, but based on her current arrangement, it could be reasonable to think she comes from a much more stable upbringing.

Here, Williams still manages to convey frustration and sadness, but with much more of a mischievous tone. Her sad, lonely eyes are at once defeated and contemplating. Margot has a secret, and Williams gives just enough to be both confident and nervous as she exists in her double life.

The Moment

What is “the moment?” It’s the scene in the film that most resonates, at least for me. It could be revealing subtext or providing the “aha” moment in which we connect some of the narrative dots. Or, it just might be a cool scene that stands out regardless of specific motives behind it.

In Blue Valentine, it was a point of no return for Dean and Cindy. Frustrations had been bubbling up throughout the film, tensions were at a peak, and Dean’s self destruction crosses some lines from which he cannot return.

Dean, angry and drunk, shows up at the hospital where Cindy works and causes a scene.

It signifies a final nail in the coffin of this doomed marriage, and both Gosling and Williams are at their best.

In Take This Waltz, the moment signifies everything that presumably crosses the minds of two people engaged in forbidden love, without one word being spoken.

Margot and Daniel are on an amusement park ride called The Scrambler. As they whirl around, so many different expressions come across their faces; joy, sadness, melancholy, and even regret. In the end, it’s hard to tell which of these moods wins out.

Plus, The Buggles.

Consider This

Here’s a topic for discussion…

How do you feel the dissolution of relationships in these films is shaped by the perspectives of the writer/director, one of whom is male (Derek Cianfrance, Blue Valentine), and the other female (Sarah Polley, Take This Waltz)?

Closing Thoughts

Blue Valentine and Take This Waltz share a lot of similarities but are uniquely different experiences. Each offers a different perspective on how a relationship might struggle and ultimately fail, but neither is afraid to explore the harsh truths that come with it.

Each film is helped by great writing and directing, and a top notch cast willing and able to express deep emotions and vulnerability in order to bring their stories to life.

This isn’t meant to be a deep dive analysis at hidden subtext in these films, just some insights to ponder and discuss.

Let me know if you have seen either of these films, and if you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said.


phpxnctheamSTEVE CLIFTON has been writing moderately well on the Internet at this blog, Popcorn Confessional, for the better part of the last decade.  His love for movies can be traced back to the North Park Cinema in Buffalo, NY circa 1972, when his aunt took him to see Dumbo.  Now living in Maine, Steve routinely consumes as much film, television, and books as time will allow.  He also finds time to complain about winter and Buffalo sports teams.  He is a big fan of bad horror films and guacamole, and is mildly amused by pandas.

What We Learned This Week: January 1-13

LESSON #1: EITHER BUSINESS IS BAD OR PEOPLE ARE FINDING THEIR ENTERTAINMENT ELSEWHERE— I have found that in the box office business, trends rarely lie.  Looking past inflation and price changes, the reported actual ticket sale counts are alarming according to the year-end news reported in several places.  A six percent drop is telling but not drastic.  “Lowest in 25 years” is a whole other thing.  To me, as I’ve stated in this column frequently, it’s all about the price point for family dollars.  The wave of unlimited TV and streaming options available at high quality and far lower costs than it takes to bring the average family of four to the multiplex with refreshments is becoming a no-brainer for those cost-minded folks.

LESSON #2: SPEAKING OF BUSINESS, APPLE MIGHT HAVE A COUNTERPUNCH TO DISNEY— Once Disney bought 21st Century Fox, they gained controlling percentage of Hulu Plus at the same time as they’ve been positioning to launch their own dedicated streaming platforms.  The target was placed on Netflixes back, especially after the Mouse House pulled all of their content off the platform to bring under their own roof.  Netflix might have found a benefactor and powerful one.  According to reports sourced by Citi, Apple is angling to buy Netflix with a billion dollar price tag.  Throw Amazon’s power in there, and this WWE triple threat match in a streaming ring just got big

LESSON #3: SPEAKING OF BUSINESS, KEEPING ADVOCATING FOR EQUAL PAY ACROSS GENDERS— You can try to slice it, refocus the points, or pretend to justify the reasons however you want, but the Mark Wahlberg/Michelle Williams All the Money in the World compensation disparity story that broke this week is kind of sh-tty no matter which way you play it.  It just flat-out looks bad.  I’m glad it’s getting investigated by the union (Screen Actors Guild).  I keep the benefit of the doubt going that good faith is out there or that contracts are this and other contracts are that.  For that to remain, a positive outcome (with a rolled head or two) must arrive or this will only incite more from an already fractured female demographic, and rightfully so.

LESSON #4: WE HAVE TO CONSIDER THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI A FULL-FLEGED OSCAR CONTENDER NOW— To me, the Golden Globes have been a joke, are a joke, and will remain a joke with some of their category distinctions, silly nominees, and oddball choices.  That said, the Golden Globes aren’t the only awards Sam Rockwell, Frances McDormand, and Martin McDonagh’s film are sweeping up.  The two actors have been surging and now stand as legitimate co-frontrunners with Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) and Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water) who have dominated the Best Supporting Actor and Best Actress categories.  These dark horses aren’t so pitch black anymore.  By the way, you know which Golden Globe winner is not a real contender?  James Franco.  Via con dios, dude.

LESSON #5: THE STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI HATERS ARE GOING TO BE BUTTHURT FOR A LONG TIME— …and it’s going to be agonizing to deal with them.  Most of the haters are just harmless snobs and sub-trolls.  Their rants and forgettable and carry weak traction, like silly petitions to remove the latest film from canon.  However, some of them take it too far.  This recent story of Kelly Marie Tran dealing with racist and sexist comments is a prime example.  That’s the kind of crap that goes too far and isn’t “fansmanship” nitpicking over water cooler talk anymore.  That’s the hurtful garbage that needs to go and get a life.

LESSON #6: CIRCLE BACK TO THE BEST OF 2017— Rotten Tomatoes closed the 2017 calendar with their list of 100% Tomatometer films.  Seven titles never received a bad review.  Use JustWatch to seek them out in this boring and empty annual moviegoing wasteland known as January.  Liam Neeson flicks can only keep your attention so long.  If you want more films after those seven, you’ve got five top-ten lists right here on Feelin’ Film from your hosts and contributors.


DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson.  As an elementary educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical.  He is a proud member and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle.  As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends.  Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on FacebookTwitterMedium, and Creators Media.

 

Episode 091: The Greatest Showman

We wanted to open up 2018 with a bang, so we called in That Guy Named John from the About to Review podcast to have a lively discussion with us about Hugh Jackman’s new circus musical. We all three enjoyed this show very much, but we do spend some time discussing criticism revolving around the real-life P.T. Barnum versus his portrayal in the film. The Greatest Showman is a film that brought us lots of smiles and joy, and we hope that listening to this conversation will do the same for you.

The Greatest Showman Review – 0:01:49

The Connecting Point – 1:06:54

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MOVIE REVIEW: The Greatest Showman

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017)


GOING IN

If there were only two genres of film that I could watch for the rest of my life, they would be Science Fiction and Musicals (and if I had a third it very well might be Biopics). The Greatest Showman is the latter two and looks to be shamelessly nostalgic. Its story of P. T. Barnum’s founding of the famous Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus appears full of bombastic dance numbers, bright lights, and big voices. Jackman’s work in the movie adaptation of one of my favorite musicals of all-time, Les Miserables, coupled with his passion for bringing this project to the big screen instill in me the utmost hope. The thing that I love most about musicals is how they can make me feel and that starts with the entire team of creators buying in first. Jackman has said, “A bad musical stinks to high heaven, but when a musical works, there’s nothing like it. It’s everyone coming together and opening their heart.” I couldn’t agree more. My heart is open, too, and I’m ready to receive the spectacle.

1 Hour and 40 Minutes Later.


COMING OUT

P. T. Barnum is famously quoted as saying, “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” With The Greatest Showman, the Australian duo of director Michael Gracey and star Hugh Jackman fully embrace this sentiment in retelling the birth of show business. From the sensational opening scene, watching the film is a joyful experience. An homage to big musicals of the past, it progresses from start to finish linked together by one grandiose song after another, full of over-the-top production and exciting choreography. The passion poured into the project oozes off the screen in every performance and its multiple positive messages about chasing your dreams, using your imagination, and accepting everyone as they are serve as inspirational lessons for child and adult alike.  Also creating that emotional connectivity are the excellent songs, featuring lyrics from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the break-out songwriters of La La Land‘s award-winning “City of Stars.” Expect at least one of The Greatest Showman‘s awesome musical numbers to receive similar recognition at the 2018 Academy Award ceremony.

Jackman as Barnum is perfect. He has the charisma and vocal talent needed to a showman, and he pulls off both Barnum’s overconfidence and feelings of inadequacy equally well. One thing that must always be considered with biopics is whether or not they accurately depict the characters portrayed. In this case, Barnum’s slave ownership is overlooked completely and the film most likely treats him as more of a champion for the marginalized than he may have been. That being said, it does keep him balanced, showing plenty of poor decisions along with the ones that made him such a success. As a movie-goer, my primary desire is to be entertained, though, and whether its historically correct or not, the pleasure it provides is undeniable.

Also standing out are Rebecca Ferguson as “The Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind and Zac Efron as Phillip Carlysle, Barnum’s eventual partner and romantic interest of trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya). Ferguson is outstanding and has the most touching solo vocal performance of the film. Efron, meanwhile, provides solid work throughout as someone who slowly becomes a sort of grounding figure for Barnum. He also has a standout musical number with Jackman that made me want an entire movie of just those two actors singing to each other while dancing their way through a plot.

The Greatest Showman is not without fault, however. It’s not a perfect script, and like many musicals of old some cheesiness does slip in. It also could have used a little more character development for the circus performers. While there are the briefest of backstories for them, their unique looks or talents would have been fun to explore further. Yet that would have also made the film longer. As is, its tight runtime of just over an hour and a half is a very good thing, allowing the music to stay center stage and never be silent for long.

VERDICT

The Greatest Showman‘s reverence for the musicals of old shines through in every way. Full of impressive songs that form a soundtrack worth listening to on repeat, it is emotionally provocative and will have viewers smiling and humming their way out of the theater. Though its story may not be 100% historically accurate, the inspirational messages are no less meaningful. Likely to end up one of my most frequently re-watched films from 2017, The Greatest Showman continues the revival of the Hollywood musical and is one of the most enjoyable theater experiences of the year. Take the kids to this family friendly spectacle and enjoy the show!

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Minisode 014: Manchester by the Sea

In this minisode we’ll be discussing the multiple Oscar nominated film, Manchester by the Sea. This is a film that deals with grief as realistically as any we’ve ever seen and unpacking its layers of emotion was both exciting and, like watching the movie, a little bit rough. It is also a masterwork in filmmaking and deserving of its recognition as one of the best films of 2016. This is one emotional discussion that really gets us “feelin film”.

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