Category Archives: Romantic Comedy

Blu-ray reissue: Lost in America ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 9, 2017)

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Lost in America– Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Released at the height of Reaganomics, this 1985 gem can now be viewed in hindsight as a spot-on satirical smack down of the Yuppie cosmology that shaped the Decade of Greed. Director/co-writer Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty portray a 30-something, upwardly mobile couple who quit their high-paying jobs, liquidate their assets, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road to “find themselves”; they’ll “touch Indians” (with a “nest egg” of $145,000). Due to unforeseen circumstances, the “egg” is soon off the table, and the couple find themselves on the receiving end of “trickle down”, to Brooks’ chagrin. Like all of Brooks’ movies, it is at once painfully funny and painful to watch (he paved the way for Larry David and Ricky Gervais). Criterion’s extras are a bit skimpy here, but the new 2K restoration is fabulous.

Family affairs: Landline **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 29, 2017)

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Why are New Yorkers always screaming at each other? Is it in order to be heard above the constant din of traffic, sirens, and subway brakes? Maybe there really is something in the water (that same “whatsit” in NYC tap water that makes the bagels taste so…intense).

There’s even more screaming than usual in the latest NYC-based film, Landline. That’s because director/co-writer Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child) sets her tale of two sisters in the mid-1990s, a not-so-bygone era when humans were still experiencing “face time” with each other (now the only time people turn off their goddam personal devices is when they pay $15 to sit in the dark-and watch characters in a film text each other for 2 hours).

Not that there is anything wrong with a dialog-driven film…and every character in Landline has plenty to say, particularly the two sisters I mentioned earlier. Dana (Jenny Slate) is the older of the siblings. She’s recently become engaged to her live-in boyfriend Ben (Jay Duplass), who is a bit of a milquetoast in contrast with his quirky, bubbly fiancée. That could explain why Dana seems to be vacillating about this big commitment.

Something else has been weighing on Dana’s mind…she suspects that her father (John Turturro) has  been carrying on a longtime affair. When she confides this to her sullen teenage sister Ali (Abby Quinn), the previously estranged pair now find themselves bonding as they team up to dig deeper. The trickiest part is how to carry on sleuthing without sending up red flags to their mom (Edie Falco).

Lots of family angst (and yes, screaming) ensues. Fortunately, there are laughs as well. That said, you do have to wade waist-deep in neurotic New Yorker whingeing for 90 minutes to net the choicest zingers (which average about once every five minutes or so).

Frankly, what keeps this derivative mashup of Hannah and Her Sisters and a glorified episode of HBO’s Girls afloat is an appealing cast. The always-reliable Turturro and Falco do that voodoo that they do so well, and Slate and Quinn hold their own against the seasoned players. Slate, in particular is a young actor I’d love to see more of; she has a naturally goofy charm that is hard to resist. She’s like the lovechild of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. For all I know…she is.

SIFF 2017: Zoology **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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This oddity from Russian writer-director Ivan Tverdosky answers the question: What would happen if David Cronenberg directed a film with a script by Lena Dunham? A middle-aged, socially phobic woman who lives with her mother and works in a zoo administration office, appears to be at her happiest when she’s hanging out with the animals who are housed there. That’s because her supervisor and co-workers cruelly belittle her, on a daily basis. But when a doctor’s exam reveals a tail growing from the base of her spine, she is overwhelmed by a sudden feeling of empowerment and begins to gain confidence, perhaps even a sense of defiance about her “otherness”. This does not go unnoticed by a strapping young x-ray tech, who becomes hopelessly smitten as this ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan…a beautiful swan with a freakishly long tensile tail.

SIFF 2017: Infinity Baby **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 3, 2017)

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Merely posing as a “near-future” dystopia tale, Austin-based director Bob Byington’s film is really an examination of modern romance. In other words, it’s only “sci-fi” in the sense that Woody Allen’s Sleeper was “sci-fi” (if you catch my drift). A douchey hipster (Kieran Culkin) with a fear of commitment works for a company that holds a patent on a genetic modification that creates “infinity babies”…human infants forever frozen at 3 months old who never cry and require only weekly feedings and diaper changes (which makes it a fantasy for a lot of first-time parents, I’m guessing?). Onur Tukel’s fitful screenplay works best whenever it steers away from the sci-fi elements and focuses instead on wry observation and passive-aggressive verbal jousting.

SIFF 2017: Entanglement **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Any film that opens with a suicide attempt makes me wary; because let’s face it, they can’t all be Harold and Maude (but oh, they try…how they do try!). This Canadian mumblecore dramedy (directed by Jason James) stars Thomas Middleditch as a (wait for it) depressed divorcee who finds out his parents adopted but then quickly gave up a baby girl after a surprise pregnancy. And so this “only child” sets off on a quest to find and connect with the almost-sister that he never had. Very droll. It’s engaging enough to hold your interest, but marred by a certain amount of predictability.

SJFF 2017: Moos ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 11, 2017)

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This charmer from Dutch writer-director Job Gosschalk follows the plight of a young woman who is torn between care-giving for her widower dad and pursuing her dreams for a life in the theater. When an old childhood friend comes for a visit, everything goes topsy-turvy. Hanne Arendzen is a delight in the lead; her quirky performance (and the character that she plays) reminded me of the young Lynn Redgrave in the 1966 dramedy Georgy Girl.

(For more information, visit the Seattle Jewish Film Festival website)

Funny about love: Top 10 Romantic Comedies

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 11, 2017)

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With Valentine’s Day nearly upon us, I thought that I would share my top ten favorite romantic comedies with you tonight. So in a non-ranking alphabetical order, here we go:

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Amelie-Yes, I know this film has its share of detractors (who are nearly as passionate as Nickelback haters), but Jean-Pierre Juenet’s beautifully realized film has stolen my heart for life. Audrey Tautou literally lights up the screen as a gregarious loner who decides to become a guardian angel (sometimes benign devil) and commit random acts of anonymous kindness. The plight of Amelie’s people in need is suspiciously similar to her own…those who need a little push to come out of self-imposed exiles and revel in life’s simple pleasures. Of course, our heroine is really in search of her own happiness and fulfillment. Does she find it? You’ll have to see for yourself. Whimsical, inventive, life-affirming, and wholly original, Amelie should melt the most cynical of hearts (in theory).

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Gregory’s Girl– Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth’s delightful examination of first love follows gawky teenager Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) as he goes gaga over Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), a fellow soccer player on the school team. Gregory receives advice from an unlikely mentor, his little sister (Allison Forster). While his male classmates put on airs about having deep insights about the opposite sex, they are just as clueless as he.

Forsyth gets a lot of mileage out of a basic truth about adolescence-the girls are usually light years ahead of the boys in getting a handle on the mysteries of love. Not as precious as you might think, as Forsyth is a master of low-key anarchy and understated irony. You may have trouble navigating those Scottish accents, but it’s worth the effort. Also with Clare Grogan, whom music fans may recall as the lead singer of 80s new wavers Altered Images, and Red Dwarf fans may recognize as “Kristine Kochanski”.

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Play it Again, Sam – I don’t know what it is about this particular Woody Allen vehicle (directed by Herbert Ross), but no matter how many times I have viewed it over the years, I laugh just as hard at all the one-liners as I did the first time I saw it. Annie Hall and Manhattan may be his most highly lauded and artistically accomplished projects, but for pure “laughs per minute”, I would nominate this 1972 entry, with a screenplay adapted by Allen from his own original stage version.

Allen portrays a film buff with a Humphrey Bogart obsession. He fantasizes that he’s getting pointers from Bogie’s ghost (played to perfection by Jerry Lacy) who advises him on how to “be a man” and attract the perfect mate. He receives some more pragmatic assistance from his best friends, a married couple (Diane Keaton and Tony Roberts) who fix him up with a series of women (the depictions of the various dating disasters are hilarious beyond description). A classic.

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Modern Romance (1981) – In his best romantic comedy (co-written by frequent collaborator Monica Johnson), writer-director Albert Brooks (the inventor of “cringe” comedy) casts himself as a film editor who works for American International Pictures. His obsessive-compulsiveness makes him great at his job, but a pain-in-the-ass to his devoted girlfriend (Kathryn Harrold), who is becoming exasperated with his penchant to impulsively break up with her one day, then beg her to take him back the next.

There are many inspired scenes, particularly a sequence where a depressed Brooks takes Quaaludes and drunk dials every woman he’s ever dated (like Bob Newhart, Brooks is a master of “the phone bit”). Another great scene features Brooks and his assistant editor (the late Bruno Kirby, in one of his best roles) laying down Foley tracks in the post-production sessions for a cheesy sci-fi movie. Brooks’ brother, Bob Einstein (a regular on Curb Your Enthusiasm) has a wry cameo as a sportswear clerk. Also with George Kennedy (as “himself”) and real-life film director James L. Brooks (no relation) playing Brooks’ boss.

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Next Stop, Wonderland – Writer/director Brad Anderson’s intelligent and easygoing fable about love and serendipity made me a Hope Davis fan for life. Davis plays a laid back Bostonian who finds her love life set adrift after her pompous environmental activist boyfriend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) suddenly decides that dashing off to save the earth is more important than sustaining their relationship. Her story is paralleled with that of a charming and unassuming single fellow (Alan Gelfant) who aspires to become a marine biologist. Both parties find themselves politely deferring to well-meaning friends and relatives who are constantly trying to fix them up with dates. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that these two may be destined to end up together. The film seems to have been inspired by A Man and a Woman, right down to its breezy bossa nova/samba soundtrack.

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She’s Gotta Have It – “Please baby please baby please baby please!” One of director Spike Lee’s earlier, funny films (his debut, actually). A sexy, hip, and fiercely independent young woman (Tracy Camilla Johns) juggles relationships with three men, who are all quite aware of each other’s existence. Lee steals his own film by casting himself as the goofiest and most memorable of the three suitors- “Mars”, a trash-talking version of the classic Woody Allen nebbish. Lee milks laughs from the huffing and puffing by the competing paramours, as each jockeys for the alpha position (and makes some keen observations regarding sexist machismo and male vanity). Spike’s dad Bill Lee composed a lovely jazz-pop score. An influential milestone for modern indie cinema.

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Sherman’s March – Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee is truly one of America’s hidden treasures. A genteel Southern neurotic (Woody Allen meets Tennessee Williams), McElwee has been documenting his personal life since the mid 70’s and managed to turn all that footage into some of the funniest and most thought-provoking films that most people have never seen. Viewers weaned on reality TV and Snapchat may wonder “what’s the big deal about one more schmuck making glorified home movies?” but they would be missing an enriching glimpse into the human condition.

Sherman’s March actually began as a history piece, a project aiming to retrace the Union general’s path of destruction through the South during the Civil War, but somehow ended up as rumination on the eternal human quest for love and acceptance, filtered through McElwee’s personal search for the perfect mate. Despite its daunting 3 hour length, I’ve found myself returning to this film for repeat viewings over the years, and enjoying it just as much as the first time I saw it. The unofficial “sequel”, Time Indefinite, is worth a peek as well.

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Someone to Love (1987) – The perfect Valentine’s Day movie…for dateless singles. Writer-director Henry Jaglom’s films tend to polarize viewers; his work is highly personal, usually steeped in navel-gazing reviews of his own relationships with women. In Someone to Love, Jaglom plays (surprise surprise) a film director, who invites all of his friends who are currently “in between” relationships to join him at a condemned movie theater on Valentine’s Day for a get-together. Once they arrive, Jaglom admits a small deception-he wants each to explain why they think they are alone on Valentine’s Day, and he wants to document the proceedings on film. Very talky-but fascinating. Featuring Andrea Marcovicci (who had recently broken up with Jaglom at the time of filming), Sally Kellerman, musician Steven Bishop, and Orson Welles (don’t ask).

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The Tall Guy –Deftly directed by British TV comic Mel Smith with a high-brow/low-brow blend of sophisticated cleverness and riotous vulgarity (somehow he makes it work), this is the stuff cult followings are made of. Jeff Goldblum is an American actor working on the London stage, who is love struck by an English nurse (Emma Thompson). Rowan Atkinson is a hoot as Goldblum’s employer, a London stage comic beloved by his audience but an absolute backstage terror to cast and crew. The most hilariously choreographed sex scene ever put on film alone is worth the price of admission; and the extended set-piece, a staged musical version of The Elephant Man (a brilliant takeoff on Andrew Lloyd Webber) had me on the floor. This underrated gem is required viewing.

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Two for the Road – A swinging 60s version of Scenes from a Marriage. Director Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain) whips up a cinematic soufflé; folding in a sophisticated script by Frederick Raphael, a generous helping of Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, a dash of colorful European locales, and topping it with a cherry of a score by Henry Mancini. Donen follows the travails of a married couple over the years of their relationship, by constructing a series of non-linear flashbacks and flash-forwards (a structural device that has been utilized since by other filmmakers, but rarely as effectively). While there are a lot of laughs, Two For the Road is, at its heart, a thoughtful meditation on the nature of love and true commitment. Finney and Hepburn have an electric on-screen chemistry.

Any news that fits: Criterion reissues The Front Page *** & His Girl Friday ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo January 28, 2017)

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Travel back with me now to the halcyon days of the chain-smoking star reporter…a time when men were men (and cracked wise) women were women (and cracked wiser), and fake news was but a colorfully enhanced version of the truth (as opposed to “alternative facts”). Actually, this particular version of “reality” existed largely within the imagination of Hollywood screenwriters

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The granddaddy of the genre is Lewis Milestone’s 1931 screen adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 Broadway hit, The Front Page. As Michael Sragow notes in his essay, included with Criterion’s Blu-ray reissue of the film and its 1940 remake, His Girl Friday:

[The Front Page] became famous, sometimes infamous, for its frankness about sleazy backroom politics and reckless, sensationalistic newspapers, and for its suggestive patter and profanity. It brought a crackling comic awareness of American corruption into popular culture, and it made rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue fashionable…

What did he say? “Profanity” in an American film from 1931? Well, this was “pre-Code” Hollywood, which is demarcated by the implementation of the 1930 Hays Code. Not strictly enforced by the major production studios until 1934, the Code set fairly strict guidelines on “morality” and message in films until it finally fizzed in 1968 (don’t laugh…could happen again).

That said, The Front Page feels a bit creaky and tame by today’s standards, and its “rapid fire” dialog is like slow-motion compared to the machine-gun patter of the 1940 revamp (more on that in a moment). Still, its historical value is inarguable, making it a most welcome “bonus” feature.

Bartlett Cormack adapted the screenplay from Hecht and MacArthur’s play, with “additional dialogue” by Charles Lederer (who was later re-deployed to adapt the same source material into His Girl Friday). Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, and Edward Everett Horton lead the fine cast.

O’Brien plays veteran reporter Hildy Johnson, on his last day at a Chicago tabloid. Much to the chagrin of his boss (and long-time friend) Walter Burns (Menjou), he has given notice and is about to head off to marry his sweetheart Peggy Grant (Mary Brian) and start a new career as a New York ad man. However, fate and circumstance intervene when an irresistible “exclusive” falls into Hildy’s lap regarding the imminent jailhouse execution of an anarchist, whose sentencing may not have been determined so much in the interest of jurisprudence as it was to benefit city officials up for re-election (political corruption in Chicago-how’d they get that idea?).

Criterion touts this particular restoration of The Front Page to be the closest approximation to date of the director’s “optimum cut”. It turns out that the version we’ve been seeing on TV, home video and at revivals all these years (along with the copy stored at the Library of Congress) was the so-called “foreign” version. In the early 30s, it apparently was not uncommon to shoot three different negatives; one destined for domestic audiences, and one each for British and “general foreign” distribution (I’ll admit I was previously unaware of this practice). As Sragow elaborates:

Cast and crew invariably saved their best efforts for the American version: the freshest, bounciest performances, the sharpest or most fluid camera work and staging, the keenest beats and cadences. For the other versions, filmmakers often rewrote scenes, substituting language and references that would be easier to grasp in other parts of the world. […] In 2014, the Academy set out to restore The Front Page from a 35 mm print that had been part of the Howard Hughes film collection at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. […] What’s most elating about Milestone’s preferred cut is not merely the restitution of more authentic language but the reclamation of more vibrant rhythms and images.

What he said-although again, I find the film a tad creaky. Still, kudos to Criterion for including it.

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There’s nothing “creaky” about Howard Hawks’ perennially fresh and funny newsroom comedy His Girl Friday, which is of course the “main feature” of this Criterion Blu-ray reissue package. Charles Lederer and Ben Hecht (uncredited) adapted the screenplay from the same Hecht and MacArthur stage version of The Front Page, but added some significant twists: pulling a gender switch on two of the primary characters, and modifying the backstory of a personal relationship.

Hildy remains a veteran reporter, but here is a female character (Rosalind Russell) who quits her job at a New York City paper, disappears for several months, then pops by the newsroom one day with a hot tip for ex-boss/ex-husband Walter Burns (Cary Grant)-she’s off to Albany to marry and settle down with her fiancée Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). As in The Front Page, Walter hates the idea of losing his star reporter (in this case for personal, as well as professional reasons).

In his heart of hearts, Walter (who freely admits that he wasn’t the best of husbands) doesn’t quite buy the idea that Hildy, a highly competitive, hard-boiled adrenaline junkie who enjoys nothing more than the challenge of getting the scoop on a hot story, has suddenly decided that settling down in Albany with a milquetoast insurance salesman is the life that she would prefer to lead. And so he sets about scheming to win her back. At this point, the narrative converges with The Front Page, vis a vis the subplot involving the condemned anarchist and the corrupt politicians.

What ensues is one of the most wonderfully played and rapidly-paced mashups of screwball comedy, romantic comedy, crime drama and social satire ever concocted this side of The Thin Man. This isn’t too surprising when you consider that director Howard Hawks already had two bonafide classic screwball comedies (Twentieth Century and Bringing Up Baby) under his belt.

Something to observe in repeat viewings is how Hawks masterfully frames all his shots; specifically how he choreographs the background action. The natural tendency is to focus on the overlapping repartee (delivered with such deftness and tight, precise pentameter that you could sync a metronome to it), but keep an eye out for sly sight gags that are easy to miss if you blink.

Something interesting that stood out upon my most recent viewing was the nascent feminism of the piece. For a film of its time, it is unusual enough to see such a strong and self-assured female character, much less one so matter-of-factually presented as being on equal footing with her male peers as Hildy. Her fellow reporters look up to her because they all acknowledge her as their best and brightest. That she happens to be a woman, is merely incidental. In this respect, I think of Russell’s inspired portrayal of Hildy as the prototype for future TV characters Mary Richards and Murphy Brown; I also see a lot of “her” in Holly Hunter’s memorable turn in Broadcast News.

Criterion’s hi-def transfer is stunning; I’ve never seen this film looking so good. The audio track (crucial in such a dialog-driven piece) is clean and crystal-clear (ditto for The Front Page, which was treated to a 4k transfer, in addition to its new restoration). Extras include an insightful new interview with film scholar David Bordwell about His Girl Friday, archival interviews with Howard Hawks, a new piece about writer Ben Hecht, radio adaptations of both films, and written essays about each film, presented as a faux-newspaper (a la Thick as a Brick…little reference for you Jethro Tull fans). The year is still young, but this is the best reissue of 2017 at this juncture.

Let’s get physical: Results **1/2

Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 6, 2015)

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 In my 2009 review of Big Fan, which featured indie stalwart Kevin Corrigan, I lamented:

…when is somebody going to give this perennial second banana a starring role?

 Maybe someone was listening. In Results, the latest offering from quirky writer-director Andrew Bujalski (Computer Chess), Corrigan receives equal star billing with his cohorts.

The ever-deadpan Corrigan is well-cast as Danny, a listless, divorced nebbish who has come into a sizable inheritance. He mopes around his spacious, minimally furnished home, seemingly bereft of ideas as to where or how to blow through his pile of money. Stumbling across a YouTube video posted by a local gym manager named Trevor (Guy Pearce), Danny decides that it’s time to whip his paunchy bod into shape. He sets up a meet with Trevor, informing him that his ultimate fitness goal is to “be able to take a punch”. Before Trevor can raise an eyebrow, Danny pulls out a wad of bills and tells him he’ll pay for a year’s worth of sessions in advance. Trevor promptly offers Danny the services of his top personal trainer, Kat (Cobie Smulders). Danny soon develops a serious crush on Kat (who unbeknownst to him, has a history with Trevor)…and hilarity ensues.

Well, perhaps “hilarity” is a bit of an exaggeration; since this is, after all, a Bujalski film. The director is credited (or blamed, depending on your tolerance for the genre) with sparking the “mumblecore” movement in indie film. Not to infer that the actors “mumble” their lines, per se; but referring to a low-key, episodic narrative that shoots along at the speed of day-to-day, humdrum existence (OK…some might call it “boring”).

I’m sure that stalwart fans of Woody Allen will recognize these characters, particularly the neurotic Trevor and Kat (especially the manner in which their egos shadow-box whilst they continue to dance around the fact that they still harbor strong feelings for each other). In a fashion, Corrigan gets short-changed yet again; he’s all but banished from the deflating third act, which meanders mightily as Trevor and Kat hit the road to propose a business partnership with a successful competitor (played with Euro-trashy aplomb by an unrecognizable Anthony Michael Hall). While it’s a somewhat disappointing follow-up to Computer Chess, when compared to the formulaic rom-coms churned out by the Hollywood gristmill…Results is a breath of fresh (-ish) air.

SIFF 2015: Liza, the Fox Fairy ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 30, 2015)

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If David Lynch had directed Amelie, it might be akin to this dark and whimsical romantic comedy from Hungary (inspired by a Japanese folk tale). The story centers on Liza (Monika Balsa), an insular young woman who works as an assisted care nurse. Liza is a lonely heart, but tries to stay positive, bolstered by her cheerleader…a Japanese pop singer’s ghost. Poor Liza has a problem sustaining relationships, because every man she dates dies suddenly…and under strange circumstances. It could be coincidence, but Liza suspects she is a “fox fairy”, who sucks the souls from her paramours (and you think you’ve got problems?). Director Karoly Ujj-Meszaros saturates his film in a 70s palette of harvest gold, avocado green and sunflower orange. It’s off-the-wall; but it’s also droll, inventive, and surprisingly sweet.