Saturday, July 13, 2013

Low on Life (FFM Short Take)

"People say I once had a horse's head put into a man's bed while he slept."

At this stage in his career, it shouldn't be surprising for an actor like Robert Duvall to command a movie as he does in Get Low. From his film debut as the mute, Arthur "Boo" Radley in the film adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Duvall has made a career of playing a leading man in character actor's clothes or in scene-stealing supporting roles. Largely, Duvall has avoided the pitfalls of his Godfather brethren by not slumming it in projects unworthy of his prodigious talent (DeNiro), or becoming a caricature (Pacino), or worse still, a punchline (Brando). At first blush, Duvall's portrayal of the laconic Felix Bush seems like a simple exercise in curmudgeonly restraint, but as the film progresses the gravitas that Duvall gives every scene is palpable. While the mystery surrounding the cause for Bush's hermit-like existence begins to wear a bit thin before the movies' final act, Duvall's performance keeps the movie afloat, and a film that could've wallowed in morbid excess finds a certain lighthearted rhythm. Bill Murray's funeral parlor owner looking to cash in on the rural legend that is Felix Bush doesn't hurt.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Full of Sound and Fury

"We must first say a prayer to the apple spirit before you shoot it off his head."

You have to tip your cap to James Cameron. Only he would have the
cojones to pioneer a new form of motion capture technology while reinventing an old trompe l'oeil chestnut like 3D for the 21st Century to tell a story about the evils of modern, mechanized man and the sacrament of the natural world. Oh, the irony! Granted, that may be a more metatextual interpretation than Cameron intended, but after viewing his ten-years-in-the-making opus, Avatar, thoughts turn to things such as these.

The movie's perspective is simplistic at best: corporate men are irredeemable plunderers of earth's riches and the the blue denizens of the planet Pandora are the noble creatures who have this whole living-as-one-with-mother-earth thing figured out. Almost twenty years ago, there was a lighter hand but a similar message
imbedded in the Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves. While both films are too preachy by half, Wolves still resonates today because its story is part of the fabric of our country and the performances are not filtered through a computer. Avatar is an alienating romp through a wonderland of CGI candy. For each moment of hi-tech wizardry, the movie's rock-em sock-em plot dressed up as a environmental PSA drifts further into the background. By the movie's overlong climactic battle sequence, you find yourself rooting for more amazing effects and spectacular explosions. It no longer matters who lives or dies as long as Cameron keeps delivering the goods.

Cameron has created a junkie culture. We expect each scene to outdo the previous and forget (once again) the laws of diminishing returns. We now stand on the precipice of a full-on descent into a world of prevalent 3D movies and television, and the enormous success of
Avatar is to blame. As other studios scurry to cash in on the newest craze, the outlying voices expressing dissent are drowned out by the trailers for the next 3D experience. The horse is out of the barn and hurtling towards you.

Perhaps it is unfair to saddle Cameron and
Avatar with such a weighty analysis, but as thoughts of the movie itself quickly evaporate into the ether, the only thing left to ponder was its cultural significance as film (Can we still call these things that?).

35 years ago,
Jaws ushered in the era of the blockbuster, that special movie that captured everyone's imagination and attention to the point that film-goers would quote lines and remember every detail. Avatar is the apex of what has become more and more commonplace. It is the Roman Empire of forgettable blockbusters. As a commodity, it is a Hollywood game changer whose effects will be felt and seen in an extra dimension for years to come. As a film, it is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

They Call Me "Mr. Fox"

"Can you dig it?!?!"

In the early moments of Wes Anderson's
Fantastic Mr. Fox, the propulsive opening strains of the second-tier Beach Boys hit "Heroes and Villains" accompany a 30-second scene filled with the kind of hilarious inventiveness that demands repeat viewing, and Mr. Fox is the kind of movie that will be watched over and over again in the living rooms of its fans. Even as the reality of immersive 3D visuals comes to our neighborhood multiplexes and LCD TVs, this film will stand as a testament to old-fashioned film-making for decades to come.

The movie is a valentine to the kind of stop-motion animation which for all our nostalgia, does not hold up very well today. Sorry, Rudolph. In the past 20 years, Henry Selick's
The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach and Coraline, and Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit series and Chicken Run have elevated the art to heights that Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass must have thought impossible. While not evident at first, Anderson's Mr. Fox is a different animal than Selick's spindly creations and Park's trademark putty skin and google eyes. More than his predecessors, Anderson embraces the low-tech roots of stop motion animation by not trying to wow us with a polished technical achievement as much as entertain us with a quirky and wildly hilarious story.

The movie has the look of being made in a mad genius' basement under yellowing light fixtures, and I mean that in the most flattering way. Each animal has fur that ripples with every passing frame and every character is outfitted with a unique ensemble of real clothing. This serves to remind viewers that a human hand is at work here and suspends the suspension of disbelief. While this would ordinarily have an undesirable effect,
Mr. Fox achieves something in spite of this in that the characters have the look and feel of inanimate dolls that have come to life to have adventures in a perpetually autumnal landscape. There is a non-sterile, imperfect and altogether magical quality to the look of this film that evades a perfect description, and perhaps that is praise enough on that account.

As is the case with most "animated" films made in the last twenty years, the cast is a roster of well-known Hollywood names, not voice actors. Anderson regulars such as Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Jason Schwarztman are on-hand here, and each of their deadpan deliveries which have frankly grown a bit tiresome in Anderson's live action films are given new life when uttered by badgers, foxes and other field animals. The mercurial Meryl Streep does admirable work as Mrs. Fox, in what must have been a huge "get" for Anderson, but George Clooney's voice work as Mr. Fox steals the show. Clooney's effortless cool transfers well to the titular character, and Clooney's willingness to make off-the-wall choices throughout his movie career continues to serve him well. I have often referred to Clooney as a modern Cary Grant, but I doubt that Grant would have ever lent his voice to a talking animal.

When people talk of films (as people often do),
Fantastic Mr. Fox may not be referred to as a masterpiece, but it may well be viewed in career retrospectives as Anderson's finest film. The acquired taste and mopey deadpan humor of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic has not so much been replaced by a new aesthetic as it has found a new medium, and haven't we been told for years that the medium is the message?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Declawed

"Dude. Ask anybody. I totally had my mutton chops first."

In Bryan Singer's
X-Men, the 2000 film that introduced the popular Marvel comic mutants to the silver screen, we meet Hugh Jackman's Wolverine in a snowy Canadian roadhouse. He is blue jean legged, cowboy booted, and shirtless. He is leaning against chicken wire, and chomping on a cigar in between cage fights where he has dispatched challenger after challenger with the kind of ferocity that only a man with superhuman regenerative powers and an adamantium coated skeleton could. From our first glimpse of the man, we know he's not someone to be trifled with, and his introduction is comparable to some of the coolest in modern cinema (see Indiana Jones, Honey Ryder, Darth Vader, et al.)

Singer's
X-Men was a lean and mean 100-minute romp through Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters where we meet a cavalcade of characters, each with his or her own unique mutation, but the mysterious Logan (aka Wolverine) is clearly the star of the show. The second entry into the series, X2, follows Logan on his search for his past and introduces even more characters along with expanding on a compelling prejudice subplot. With its added running time and bloat, X2 still moves briskly and purposefully toward a satisfying conclusion, but Singer's touch is missing from X-Men: The Last Stand, the third film which collapses under its own weight. Although it is the culmination of a satisfying story arc, Brett Ratner creates a movie without the humor and pathos of the previous two installments. Worse yet, Wolverine is relegated to a supporting role.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine begins with a flashwayback that gives the character with the mysterious past and the go-to-hell demeanor the kind of backstory reserved for ageless vampires. Thanks to Marvel Comics' desperate attempt to create more stories for one of its most popular characters, a comic book miniseries was crafted in 2001 that gave Logan a 19th Century birth date. Unfortunately, the movie sees fit to dispense with that trove of potential material by the end of the opening credits and quickly devolves into boilerplate action and kiddie-pool-depth characters. As a creative decision, it's hard to fault this kind of production. A modern day Wolverine allows for equally modern action set pieces, but the result is that much of what makes Logan a man of mystery stay a mystery. Perhaps this is to be commended, as the march to give an enigmatic character's every tic and motivation a raison d'etre has become a crutch in modern storytelling. Drips and drabs go a long way. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this film's plot, we are left with a story that just tells us what we already know or could have guessed. Wolverine is a tough hombre with some emotional baggage.

However, the film's worst offense is that it trades the titular bad ass's grit for gloss. The pitch perfect introduction from X-Men is a thing of the past. This Wolverine is about as fierce as a focus-tested anti-hero can be. Sure, he's still an angry dude with a chip on his soldier, but as the fait accompli presented here, he might as well be John Rambo. Rambo was great mid-eighties lone wolf popcorn cinema, and Logan's baby-oiled pectorals and feathered hair could have a worse pedigree. However, the aesthetic seems out of place in 2009, even with the comic book geek's retro sensibility. Logan does have something that Rambo lacked in Liev Schreiber's Victor, a worthy mano-a-mano adversary, but the rift in their decades-old relationship feels like a convenient contrivance rather than true animosity. Think "Nobody picks on my little brother but me," but replace "picks on" with "kills".

In the end, Gavin Hood, the film's relatively unknown director, does little to expand on Wolverine's unique place in the annals of great comic book characters. If anything, the movie might signal the beginning of the end of the comic book movie renaissance before it can truly take flight. It's no longer enough to put a four-color character on screen and expect the fanboys to flock to the multiplex. Jackman takes his role seriously here, and there are some visually exciting set pieces. Unfortunately, by the time the credits role, the whole affair feels like an unnecessary addition to the character's canon. Will another visit to Wolverine's story yield even more diminished returns?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Once and Future Things

"Yeah, so, I'm not sure how to put this."

A review of a movie like
Terminator: Salvation consists of two things. One, did it make sense? Two, did it kick ass? As for point one, McG's new addition to James Cameron's Terminator oeuvre is an intriguing take on the story of Skynet's world domination. It's a prequel that takes place in the future. It's the stuff that led up to Arnold Schwarzenegger going back in time and knocking on doors in the L.A. area and asking, "Are you Sarah Connor?" in 1984's The Terminator. The first film was a low-budget endeavor that led to what became a landmark for cinematic special effects, 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day. A game Schwarzenegger even showed up for round 3 in 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which shows the events that lead up to the Judgment Day referenced in the previous movie's title. McG's Terminator: Salvation shoehorns perfectly into the Terminator saga and opens doors for further adventure.

"Salvation" is a washed out vision of the future. The North American landscape is more akin to the Middle East than it is amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesty. It's a post-apocalyptic terrain that shares the Mad Max films' penchant for barren desolation. The ruins of glass and steel bake in the sun, and the resistance led by John Connor and a network of generals carry out hit and run raids from the safety of subterranean (and even submersible) hideouts, biding their time for the one crippling blow they will inflict on Skynet.

John Connor is played by the increasingly ubiquitous Christian Bale as a stoic and humorless man on a mission. The son of Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor from the first two films, he shoulders the burden of his future and past. A fault in the film is that it doesn't allow Bale much humanity, and the irony is that newcomer Sam Worthington, who plays an early model T-800 Terminator, elicits more pathos than his human cohorts. Worthington steals the show as a machine with a heart (literally). His role is an action movie goldmine.

Now, does
Salvation kick the proverbial ass? In that sense, it shows viewers that are fans of modern-day sci-fi things that are both familiar and new, but much like most films that aim for the whiz bang, the development of the characters is given short shrift. Terminator: Salvation rides on the wave of Terminator film nostalgia and the franchises' caché. It treads carefully so as to not sully the legacy of its forbearers. The main criticism is that it does not dare much that is new and fresh. For all its grittiness it is surprisingly tame. When the climactic Skynet raid takes place, viewers are treated to a surprise worth the price of admission, but overall, the ass kicking feels more like a mechanized love tap.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Bloom then Bust

Subtle Imagery

Director and screenwriter Rian Johnson's
Brick was an exercise in style. The pseudo hardboiled murder mystery set in and around a high school where the students spoke like characters in a Dashiell Hammett novel was a novelty, but the UPN television series Veronica Mars executed the same conceit better because the show's creators were far more subtle about their homage to West Coast pulp. Also, for all its barely post-pubescent hard-nosed characters and adult themes, Mars had a heart. Johnson's Brick definitely had a pulse, but it had about as much heart as the Tin Man.

Johnson's
The Brothers Bloom is an homage to old Hollywood glamour, and this time the substance almost measures up to the style. With large portions of the film shot in Prague (the European Vancouver), Romania and Montenegro, the film looks amazing. Sunlit esplanades, verdant hillsides, bustling ports and centuries-old architecture combine with a touching exposition to give the plot a storybook feel. Bloom also sports a nifty cast of Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo as the titular brothers, Rachel Weisz as a lonely New Jersey heiress, Robbie Coltrane as an eccentric scene stealer, and Rinko Kikuchi, as a demolitions expert, of course.

The brothers are con artists and Weisz' Penelope Stamp is the mark in the infamous duo's final con. As is often the case in these sorts of movies, Bloom (Brody) has lost his taste for the game. His brother Stephen, the mastermind behind all their grifts who maps each con out in an organized flow chart with an accompanying notebook full of storyboard style setpieces, agrees to let his partner out once the job is done, but we know how these "final scores" usually go.

There are some interesting ideas at work here. The notions of life as a parlor game and destiny as a script are the undercurrent beneath the jaunty steamer that carries the story along on sparkling waves. Unfortunately, when that undercurrent takes center stage in the movies' final act, the simple message of the price of an unscripted life feels, well, off. To put it another way, it's like renting a Caterpillar backhoe to start an herb garden. It's the worst kind of bait and switch. However, I can't say Johnson didn't warn us in the exposition that this kind of finale was imminent, but a con movie without a satisfying ending is like a Jane Austen novel that doesn't end in a wedding.

The movie's first hour and a half is some of the most fun you can have at the movies. It's littered with scenes that are the stuff that great escapist cinema is made of, but just like the price the title characters pay for all that fun, we pay the price too.

Monday, May 18, 2009

To Boldly Whoa

Spock attempts to cure Kirk's hiccups.

J.J. Abrams'
Star Trek reboot is the kind of kick in the pants that the stodgy old franchise needed if the 40-year-old property was to survive another 40 years. Gene Roddenberry's creation and its spinoff series and movies had already become largely irrelevant to all but the most most ardent of fanboys, but Abrams' has delivered the kind of movie that old fans and the uninitiated can hang their hats on: a space opera for the 21st Century.

While someone else might have been content with trotting out younger versions of the USS Enterprise's crew, Abrams and Co. go the extra mile and crank up the cleverness factor to the brink that the characters themselves almost seem keenly aware that they are reinvigorating the Star Trek brand, but clever is never a bad thing in this Golden Age of cinematic retreads. The entire production is a go-for-broke, breakneck affair that takes such joy in blowing the roof of your local multiplex that you may forget to pay attention to the actual plot. For those who may have missed it, the script's time traveling premise and inherent paradoxes are embraced so wholeheartedly that any thought of questioning the story's logic flies out the cargo hatch. It helps that from the film's opening moments the action throttles forward in a way I have not seen since
Raiders of the Lost Ark.

At the center of the action is relative newcomer Chris Pine. His James Tiberius Kirk is a thrill-seeking delinquent content to pick fights and generally wreak havoc on his terrestrial home before he enters Starfleet Academy and discovers that he's got the stones to captain a starship. It's a testament to Pine and the screenplay that he doesn't come off as snotty boy wonder. You see, this kid has some baggage. The same is true of Zachary Quinto's Spock. While the Enterprise's first mate had always been the spawn of a human mother and Vulcan father, Quinto's Spock is clearly a product of both childhood prejudice and adult tragedy. It will be interesting to see how Quinto's portrayal evolves over the life of this new series. For now, it is a virtual pantomime of his predecessor's, and the glimmers of Spock's idiosyncrasies are curveballs from the script rather than subtleties in Quinto's performance. The rest of the crew is filled with perfectly acceptable and oftentimes inspired casting decisions. Karl Urban's prematurely curmudgeonly Dr. McCoy and Simon Pegg's ebullient genius Scotty get relatively short shrift here, but look for them to play a larger role in the next installment as long as it doesn't take screen time from the mesmerizing Zoe Saldana, the crew's new Uhura.
Star Trek is clearly the product of our post-millennial society. Every scene is crammed with more stuff to look at than a Facebook page and moves as fast as a Bloomberg ticker. There are enough sly references to the old series for longtime fans of the franchise to feel like this Trek belongs to them as much as it belongs to the teenager with ADD sitting next to them, who wonders why it's so funny when John Cho's Sulu says he's skilled at fencing but doesn't dwell on it very long, because, you know like, things are exploding on screen. Star Trek is a rare balancing act. While some might quibble that emotional depth and weighty issues have been sacrificed for spectacle, true spectacle is a rare commodity these days. We've seen it all, but no one has seen a Trek like this before.

The film's 2:16 running time contains more lens flare lighting effects than you can shake a stick at and moves by briskly because time flies at warp speed when you're having fun.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Graphically Novel

"Oh yeah? You should have seen me in 'Sin City'"

Zack Snyder's film interpretation of the groundbreaking
Watchmen comic series created by Alan Moore and David Gibbons, published in the mid-eighties and later compiled as a single volume graphic novel is exactly what you would expect. It is a technical marvel, stuffed full of eye-popping visuals, meticulous detail and near slavish devotion to the source material, but where Robert Rodriguez's pulpy Sin City and Snyder's own 300 excelled at bringing the 4-color page to the screen, Watchmen feels flat. While the movie begins promisingly enough with a superbly choreographed fight scene and a clever opening credits sequence set to Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A'Changin'" that provides ample exposition for the viewer unfamiliar with the comic book world's answer to James Joyce's "Ulysses," the remaining two and a half hours plod joylessly toward a cataclysmic finale that packs the emotional wallop equivalent to a city council meeting debate about water rationing.

At least the actors generally appear to be having fun with their roles even if we aren't. Jackie Earle Haley tackles the enigmatic Rorschach with gusto and infuses the movie with what little heart it has, while Billy Crudup is saddled with the tall order of playing an emotionless and often pantsless Dr. Manhattan. What any living actor could have done with the role is beyond me, but a more commanding voice would have helped. Finally, Patrick Wilson's Night Owl may be one of the worst casting decisions ever. I like the guy, but it's a sad day when they get a handsome actor like Wilson to play an over-the-hill impotent doughboy like Dan Dreiberg. Can't overweight guys ever catch a break in Hollywood?

While it's difficult to acquit Snyder completely for the film's lack of thematic depth,
Watchmen the comic book series is a tough nut to crack. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' work was a dense and multi-layered commentary on society and how it would really be if costumed crime fighters walked among us. It's a conceit that's been revisited in film since Moore's comic treatment, most notably and with a lighter hand in Pixar's The Incredibles, which actually has more evocative things to say than Snyder's film-by-numbers.

The eccentric Moore has long since written off Hollywood even though Hollywood continues to plumb his work for screen fodder with varying results (see
From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and V for Vendetta), and I had always written off Moore's opinion that his work was too "special" to be made into a summer popcorn movie by an able director. This time, he has a case. While Snyder was up to the challenge and even got Moore's partner in crime Gibbons to publicly bless the production, Watchmen was not written to be a feast for the eyes as much as it was to be a treatise on society at large and a glimpse at an alternate reality before CG effects were rendering alternate realities with such frequency in film.

Watchmen in comic form is a hodge podge of ideas and storytelling techniques. There are prose interludes and narrative tangents that make the books special and that popular film, for all its potential greatness, usually rejects. Popular film is a passive medium. Books are active, even when they are filled with colorful pictures. While "Watchmen" the mini-series could accommodate the ideas that populate "Watchmen" the comic book, "Watchmen" the movie has been so stripped of subtext that we are left with a series of bummers leading up to one giant bummer. Snyder's film is like reading the Star Wars comic book that George Lucas authorized and Marvel published to cash in on the cultural frenzy of 1977. It too was a pale substitute for the medium for which the story was designed.

Certainly books (even difficult books) can be turned into successful movies (cue
Lord of the Rings music), but Watchmen the movie proves that for all of the clamoring from the halls of geekdom for the film adaptation of this, the beloved crown jewel of the comic book canon, some things should be appreciated just the way they are.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tell Everyone

"For the last time, I will not pull your finger!"

Tell No One is the kind of movie that Hollywood doesn't make these days (and maybe never did), but you can bet your ass that Tinseltown execs would line up to greenlight an overblown remake of this engrossing French thriller and cast Russell Crowe and some starlet du jour in the lead roles if there was enough money in it. I can even picture cross promotions with cell phone providers or foreign car manufacturers.

In the adaptation of a novel written by Harlan
Coben, François Cluzet, a dead ringer for Dustin Hoffman's taller, more athletic, and younger brother, plays a man who is sucked into a labyrinthine mystery eight years after losing his wife in a sudden act of violence. To reveal any more of the plot would do a disservice to this intricate, multi-faceted jewel of a movie that is best enjoyed with little to no background. It's a movie that hits the ground running after a pastoral opening (much like Cluzet's Alex), and doesn't skimp on detail as it feeds us visceral thrills coupled with David Mamet-like plot twists and complex emotional themes.

Alex's wife Margot, played by Marie-
Josée Croze, is luminous in her relatively limited screen time, and Kristin Scott Thomas plays the friend who gives Alex the tough love that only someone outside of the family can. The rest of the supporting cast give their characters a lived-in quality that's almost documentary-like in its execution.

Director Guillaume
Canet's Tell No One is a true joy even though its core premise is unflinchingly sad. The cathartic closing scene is the perfect end to this nearly flawless movie, but the lingering sadness I felt while leaving the theater was mingled with the regret that the American movie machine does not see the value in making movies like this. Even if they tried, the non-stop bombast associated with our country's thrillers would drown out the more delicate scenes that give Tell No One its true weight. It's a "man on a mission" movie that doesn't end in a double or triple digit body count. The deaths in this film actually mean something to the characters on screen... and to us.

Tell No One is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray. What are you waiting for?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Kids Are Alright

Norah wins the staring contest despite Nick's last-ditch strategy.

Michael Cera has been typecast. For anyone who has followed his brief career, this is not news. It's just a testament to the myopia of casting directors and the dearth of actors that can portray the prototypical American teen in all his awkward glory as effectively as Cera. The titular Nick in
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is not a stretch for the young actor. Even if Nick is saddled with the cliches of today's youth centered movies like being in a band (I mean, who isn't?) and driving a vehicle with kitsch cred (what, they couldn't find a Gremlin?) Cera effortlessly slips into the role of Nick. Can he be too far from Cera's real life persona? Nick's Norah is played by the relatively unknown Kat Dennings. She's the girl in high school who can only be fully appreciated in hindsight, unless you're Nick. He knows there's something different about this girl. Norah is drawn to Nick too, even though he's hung up on his ex. Of course, these kids are cagey, and they know they belong together, even if they're not sure why.

It's refreshing that the high school romance drama has been elevated to this. Thanks to geek chic, the nerds are no longer the spectacle wearing next-door neighbor/best friend waiting to be noticed for his/her inner beauty by the football team captain/prom queen, and there's no high school feudal system, the basis for tension during the 80's heyday of teen movies. Screenwriter Lorene Scafaria dispenses with those trappings to give us what is the new template for the youth-centered rom-com.
Think When Harry Met Sally but with teenagers and compressed to less than 24 hours. Boy meets girl. Sparks fly. Boy and girl try to screw it up. SPOILER ALERT! Boy and girl get together despite themselves. Certain cinematic youth staples endure with a slight twist: The plot is driven by coincidence but doesn't feel contrived. The villainous ex-girlfriend actually has second thoughts about kicking her old beau to the curb. The main character's sidekicks are all young gay men, and the drunk party girl is a generally good-hearted foil to the film's heroine in between bouts of chewing the scenery.

That scenery is the icing atop
Nick and Norah. Director Peter Sollett films it as a valentine to New York City as much as one to budding love. The Big Apple feels quirky, warm, inviting and safe, and this New York, New York might as well be the Modesto, California of American Graffiti. These kids cruise its concrete and glass corridors with ease and without the aid of GPS.

Then there's the music and the ubiquitous playlist of the title. Beyond the synergistic yoking of a surefire bestseller soundtrack, the film is about the ways that music connects people. If there's a heady insight to be had in this breezy film, it's that mutual love of tunes may be the best predictor for a successful relationship. It's a simple premise, but it's a simple film about good-natured kids fighting through their hang-ups and following their bliss. When the sun comes up on Nick and Norah's all nighter, we suspend our cynicism. These two belong together.