Most romantic film #67: Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

This is a very traditional romantic comedy in the British mode with an untraditional message. It is a fun, funny and poignant film with great style that introduced American audiences to Hugh Grant, Simon Callow, Rowan Atkinson, Kristin Scott Thomas and John Hannah… at least in memorable roles in a popular movie.

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There are several plot threads in the story. The main plot involves Charles (Grant) and his on-again/off-again affair with Carrie (Andie MacDowell), an American that he meets at wedding #1.

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Other plots involve the hitching of Tom (James Fleet) and his cousin Deirdre, two aristos who are both socially awkward; the hitching of my favorite character Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman) and Chester, another American; the love affair of Gareth (Callow) and Matthew (Hannah), which ends in the single funeral, which is one of the most moving scenes in the picture, due to Hannah’s performance.

Mostly this is “winsome,” as one critic stated. Or, to employ sort-of synonyms, charming, delightful, clever and ticklish. It plays with the stereotypes of British aristocracy: awkward, reserved, clannish, inarticulate and gives them a smart;y sharp twist to reveal a group of friends who are going through one of the last of the growing-up rituals: marriage and death.

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After all, you see, it is about growing up. About a group of friends–Charles, Scarlett, Tom, Gareth and Fiona–who are meeting their future mates and bringing them into the inner circle, while watching other friends (not quite inside the circle) get hitched and move away, into the adult pre-occupations of marriage, homemaking, pregnancy and raising children. Even death. In the end, each “friend” has to deal with moving into this adult world, finding his or her own way.

And (spoiler!) the “conventional” characters are boring.

Charles (Grant) and Carrie are the last. Carrie marries the Wrong Man first, someone too old, too settled and stable, too conventional. Charles is confronted by former girlfriends who indict him as a serial commitment-phobe, a Dater who breaks up when things get serious. Charles finally “commits” to marrying the Wrong Woman, and must, to right this bad choice, find his own way to commitment, a way that suits both him and Carrie.

Underneath, this film suggests there are a variety of ways to Happy Coupledom. Even perhaps that “marriage” is a flexible term between two people. (Suggesting gay marriage this early? Yes.)

It is a loving look at the scary reality of adult relationships, ones that require commitment of the long-term kind (including parenthood).

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Most romantic film #66: Body Heat (1981)

I’m not certain this is a “romantic” film per se, but it is a sexy film noir that launched the careers of actress Kathleen Turner and writer-director Lawrence Kasden, with a nod to the soon-to-be stars Mickey Rourke and Ted Danson.

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If that seems a lot for one film, this is a big movie.

I hadn’t seen BODY HEAT in a long time but watched it recently, and it is a really, really good film noir mystery.

William Hurt plays Ned Racine, a small-town lawyer in a small Florida Coast town. It is quickly clear that his morals and ethics are loose and adaptable.

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He meets Matty Walker (Turner), the sexy young wife of a rich businessman. Matty is bored and lonely, since her husband is always off on business. She and Ned begin an erotic affair that turns into love. But Matty can’t leave her husband because of a terrific pre-nup that leaves her with nothing — so she suggests that they, she and Ned, kill him.

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Here’s where we meet Mickey Rourke, as a young bombmaker who is one of Ned’s former clients. Teddy (Rourke) builds Ned a bomb.

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Ned’s best friend is the local D.A., played by Danson. Peter Lowenstein (Danson) begins to suspect something.

And so the film unrolls. Cleverly. Compellingly.

When I saw this ‘way back in 1981, I remember being struck by the young Mickey Rourke. He was electric on screen. The next film I saw him in was DINER — same deal. This is a fun film because it is sexy, intriguing, twisty and sophisticated. Couple it with another Kasden film (like THE BIG CHILL) or an earlier film noir like DOUBLE INDEMNITY. Mmm. Then be glad you don’t know anyone like Matty.

Most romantic film #65: The Way We Were (1973)

The mother of all tearjerker love stories for a generation of baby boomers, THE WAY WE WERE was a star vehicle for Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford, directed by Sydney Pollack (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, Tootsie, Out of Africa, The Firm).

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Streisand had already made Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly, but The Way We Were was a more dramatic role, where she did not sing. She plays Katie Morosky, a politically active Marxist Jew in 1930s & 40s America who meets and falls in love with Hubbell Gardiner, a WASP with no interest in politics.

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Redford had been knocking around for a decade in minor vehicles, but in the 1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid he finally got critics’ attention. The Way We Were was probably his next truly popular movie and framed him not only as the romantic lead but as eye candy. Streisand’s character crushes on Hubbell, who is definitely a pretty, pretty boy; the problem is their outlook on politics, life and America.

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The movie tells the story of their love affair, marriage and break-up set against the background of the 1930s and its class issues. Katie objects to Hubbell’s WASP-y friends who don’t do anything but play tennis and drink cocktails, while Hubbell gets exhausted by Katie’s constant hammering of Marxism for unions and rights for workers. Hubbell is a gifted writer, one of the things that attracts Katie to him, but he opts for Hollywood, which Katie considers is a waste of his talent. The relationship between then is poignantly depicted: two people who love each other but cannot live together.

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The title song of the piece was, of course, sung by Streisand (songwriters Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Marvin Hamlisch) and became a huge popular hit. Think Celine Dion and “My Heart Will Go On.” (Hello, Oscars 2013!)

It’s the last scene that gets me: the little hair flip, the hug, the regret.

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Ultimately, Pollock, Streisand and Redford do a great job, although critics didn’t like it. Audiences loved it. I would suggest watching this in a double bill with Casablanca or Out of Africa, accompanied by a good red wine and caramel chocolate chunk ice cream. And bring the tissues.

Most romantic film #64: LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE (1992)

I had forgotten about this book and film until I wrote about LOVE’S KITCHEN last week. But like most people (I think) I like to mix up my cooking, my film watching, and my romantic interaction.

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The story is set in Mexico, around the revolution, but focuses on the forbidden love between Tita and Pedro. Tita can cook “magically,” meaning that her emotions find their way into her cooking and affect the people eating it.

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She loves Pedro but is forbidden to marry him because of a family tradition. Which sets of a chain of events that flow through and beyond the Mexican Revolution.

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The novel was in the style of magical realism, and included recipes for Mexican foods incorporated into the story of Tita. The combination of recipes, food and romance was very sensual in its execution, but the novel also embraced a feminist message not often found in popular novels coming from Latin America. LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE is a love story, a cookbook, a fantasy and a feminist fable all in one — although not all of that translates into the film. The film is rated R, and very sensual throughout. The imagery is beautiful.

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Most romantic film #63: Out of Sight (1998)

I love this film.

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Based on a story by Elmore Leonard and directed by Stephen Soderbergh, this film is interesting for a few reasons.

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Like this is the first collaboration between Soderbergh and George Clooney, followed by all three Ocean films starring the actor.It was also one of the most successful films Lopez made as an actor, unlikethe rom-coms she made following this. It was also a comeback of sorts for the director, whose film sex, lies and videotape had not been followed by real commercial success. It also brought Clooney and Soderbergh into collaboration with Don Cheadle.

The main thread of the film follows the budding romance between Jack Foley (Clooney), a convict and bank robber, and Karen Sisco (Lopez) a U.S. Marshall tasked with recapturing Foley after he breaks out of a Florida prison.

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They meet during the breakout, when Foley and Sisco end up in the trunk of a stolen car driven by Buddy. They… get to know one another.

The supporting players are Foley’s BFF Buddy, their ticket-to-riches Ripley, and various other criminals, ranging from the evil Maurice (Cheadle) to the foolish Glenn (Steve Zahn). There is also Dennis Farina as Karen’s dad and an early appearance by Viola Davis as Maurice’s wife.

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The twists and turns of the story are smart and intriguing, and the attraction/chemistry between Lopez and Clooney is H.O.T. Lopez’s Karen is a tough babe, a gorgeous woman holding her own in a world of men. Clooney’s Jack is a smart guy with impulse issues but no real badness. Their attraction is as puzzling to them as it is clear to us.

This is a stylish and scary thriller with romance as a compelling savory sauce. I highly recommend it.

Most romantic film #62: Catch & Release (2006)

Since it is Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d throw out another romantic comedy I really like, one that few have seen, if I don’t miss my guess. This is the 2006 film, CATCH & RELEASE starring Jennifer Garner and Timothy Olyphant.

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Fair warning: I am head over heels for Olyphant. I fell for him as the heroic and conflicted Sheriff Seth Bullock in DEADWOOD and now I just glue myself to the TV every week for the FX series JUSTIFIED, where he plays U.S Marshal Raylan Givens. Oh, Lordie. Serious crush.

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I also like Garner, who is a charming and talented actress.

Okay. CATCH & RELEASE is a simple film about a woman mourning her fiance, who was killed on the eve of their wedding (in a stupid bachelor’s party idea gone wrong). Garner’s character Gray is bereft when Grady dies, and finds her life overturned by the non-marriage: the house they rented, the friends they shared, the life they would have lived are impossible for her. She moves into his room with his friends Dennis (Sam Jaeger) who was also Grady’s business partner, and Sam (Kevin Smith), who writes copy for Celestial Seasonings teas. The third amigo Fritz (Olyphant) is a commercial director in L.A., visiting for the wedding/funeral. Dennis is in love with Gray (Garner), Sam is a determind under-achiever, and Fritz is a player who is both attracted to Gray and privy to a secret that Grady kept from Gray.

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Eventually, the secret shows up, in the form of a masseuse (Juliette Lewis) and her son, who she claims was Grady’s kid. All parties (including Grady’s mother, played by Fiona Shaw) must face up to the truth and their feelings and get on with life without Grady.

Which means Fritz and Gray have to resolve their anger, attraction and confusion.

Garner is beautiful and charming in the role of the heartbroken fiancee who discovers that her future husband was an unknown kind of guy. Despite her natural beauty, the film doesn’t bank on it but allows Garner to do more than look pretty. Olyphant is good in the role of player, as if he was a shallow guy who didn’t care about much. We find out he cares about a great deal, and has depths no one really noticed.

If there is a flaw in this film, it is Lewis’s portrayal of some kind of New Age freak. Her Maureen–apparently in contrast to Gray’s depth and realness–is a flighty, shallow, silly woman who I wouldn’t trust with a Chihuahuha, let alone a smart and funny child. Yikes!

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Ignore all that (and the unreality of the love story with Sam) and pay attention to the spine of the film. This is a little gem that suggests we all have secrets and shady sides, but can be loved and lovable nonetheless.

Most romantic film #61: Love’s Kitchen (2011)

This is a charming British film, starring Dougray Scott & Claire Forlani as the happy couple: a master chef coming back to life (and the kitchen) after his wife’s death and a food critic.

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So it’s not just about love and romance, but about really, really good food, too. Set in the British countryside.

The film has not gotten great reviews in the US, but I think that’s in large part the lack of “big star name” for American audiences and the gentle pace of the piece. The beginning looks almost like a cooking show, and one has to wait for the eventual unfolding of the plot.

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Chef Rob Haley (Scott) tries to survive after the death of his wife in a car accident (she was phoning and driving–caution!), but is cooking fast food in a joint instead of doing what he loves — creating delicious native cuisine. His daughter and his friends are concerned but unable to help him.

Until he gets bad review on his careless fast food from an anonymous critic. Fired up, Haley finds a run-down pub in the country going for a song and vows to turn it into a successful eating place featuring haute British cuisine.

(Stop here: for those of you wondering, how can native British fare be haute cuisine, swallow your doubts and past experiences. Clearly our chef gets his toque a-blazing with fine tastes and nibbles!)

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Scott and Forlani are a charming couple (married in real life) with a cute script and excellent supporting players, including Simon Callow (Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Cherie Lunghi (The Buccaneers). The film seems to have suffered from Gordon Ramsay’s association, simply because he became the story somehow.

Listen, rom-coms are not rocket science, right? The reviews for LOVE’S KITCHEN make it sound appalling: it isn’t. Neither does it break the mold for the genre. But if you and your honey want to cook a lovely meal and sit down to this sweet film plus, say, CHOCOLAT or LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE or NO RESERVATIONS or JULIA AND JULIE — other cooking or food-oriented romantic films — you’d be well-served (pun intended).

One critic called it “top cinematic comfort food.” Since the chef’s best dish — the one that converts absolutely EVERYBODY who tastes it — is his amazing trifle, that doesn’t sound like bad praise.

Most romantic film #60: Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Wow, it was 30 years ago this film came out… gotta get over that, first of all.

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In some ways, for my generation, this was the quintessential romance movie. It referred back to the great classic of our parents’ day, An Affair to Remember, and yet did its own 90’s thing.

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And solidly launched the careers onscreen of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks in “lead actor” terms. Ryan went on to make a string of rom-coms, while Hanks kept moving up and away from romantic leads. Oh, and really kicked the writing-directing career of Nora Ephron into high gear, too.

The film includes the wonderful Bill Pullman as Annie’s fiance, Rosie O’Donnell as her boss, Rob Reiner as Sam’s friend (who tries to explain 90’s dating etiquette to Sam), and the charming young Ross Malinger as Jonah. The visual/production style, costumes and music are superb backdrops to the “soulmates” story, soulmates who find each other despite a continent and other people between them…

My favorite moments:

  • Sam (Hanks) trying to explain to his son Jonah why a woman who lives in Baltimore can’t be the “right” woman… using a map.
  • Jonah and his BFF Jessica planning Jonah’s trip to NYC.
  • Annie (Ryan) seeing Sam (Hanks) with his sister Suzy (played by Hanks’ spouse Rita Wilson) and thinking Suzy is Sam’s wife/girlfriend… the reactions of Annie and Sam make for a lovely moment onscreen.
  • The discussion of emo-moments in An Affair to Remember and The Dirty Dozen from the male/female point of view: best explanation of the difference between chick flicks and bromances EVER!

And of course Sam’s initial phone call explaining why his dead wife was the love of his life and why he’s not looking for someone now.

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Most romantic film #59: Enchanted April (1992)

This charming foreign film is based on a 1922 novel. The film won 2 Golden Globe awards, for actresses Miranda Richardson and Joan Plowright, and as the tagline says, “If you liked A Room with a View and Howard’s End, you’ll love Enchanted April.”

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Yes, you will.

The plot is a bit slower, but it starts in 1902s London — a rainy and gray London, where two women read a rental ad for an Italian villa, and decide to make it happen for themselves. Both are married, Rose (Richardson) to a cheater and Lottie (Josie Lawrence) to a self-absorbed prig. In order to afford the villa, they pick up two other women, Mrs. Fisher (Plowright) who is an older, rather controlling spinster and Lady Caroline (played by Polly Walker) who is a flapper who wants to get away from the mad chase her rich and spoiled life has become.

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Despite initial challenges, the villa provides solace and peace and beauty, and all four women are changed. Husbands arrive, the landlord (played by the ever-charming Michael Kitchen) appears, and the houseparty becomes an opportunity for happiness.

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There is not a lot of plot, but the ensemble is wonderful. And, frankly, the villa and Italy are gorgeous. It is also a lovely film about women over thirty (other than Lady Caroline), so not so much about ingenues but mature folk rediscovering love, beauty, and each other.

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Delightful.

Most romantic film #58: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

This is an old-school, studio romantic film in black-and-white starring Merle Oberon and a pre-GONE WITH THE WIND Leslie Howard.

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Based on the play and novel by Baroness Orczy (published and produced in 1903) about the adventures of an English nobleman, Percy Blakeney, who rescues French aristocrats from the guillotine and “The Terror,” under the nose of French authority.

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Howard plays Sir Percy perfectly. Sir Percy masquerades as a fashionable fool with one of the highest titles in Britain. He is married to Marguerite, his beautiful French bride (Oberon), but hides his secret mission from her because he knows she betrayed a noble French family to the guillotine… He also pretends not to care for her: they have the msot fashionable marriage in England, meaning brittle, sophisticated and loveless.

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Of course, they love each other madly but due to political and personal misunderstandings, the marriage is “in name only.

The villain is played by one of my favorite character actors, Raymond Massey. He chews up the scenery in swell fashion as Chauvelin, the French bad guy who blackmails Marguerite and pursues Percy relentlessly (without being as tiresome as the LES MIZ folks).

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Howard is wonderful here, handling his double role of fop and hero with panache. He is not only a man of action, but a man of intelligence and linguistic humor. This is the opposite of his masterful work five years later as Ashley Wilkes: similar type, but Sir Percy has substance as well as style. In real life Howard was a man of action: he was killed in WWII (1943) when he was shot down flying over the Bay of Biscay, possibly on assignment for British Intelligence.

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Oberon is glamorous and moving as Marguerite, the woman admired by everyone but the husband she desperately desires. The actress may be better known as Catherine in the original WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939). Oberon was married to the movie’s director Alexander Korda.

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This story has been re-made in several film versions, including the 1982 TV version starring Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellan (as the French villain Citizen Chauvelin) and the 1999-2000 TV version starring Richard E. Grant, Elizabeth McGovern and Martin Shaw (as Chauvelin).

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The 1934 version is considered the best (by me, too, although I love all of them and the novel). The atmosphere, the pre-WWII politics (this is a 1934 British film directed by a Hungarian, after all), the costumes and glamour — huge, wonderful old studio style.

The novel is unabashedly romantic, and while none of the movies comes close to Orczy’s prose, the Oberon-Howard couple is adult, sexy and surprisingly moving compared to the smooth TV versions that follow.