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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Love Is All Around

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

For all the writing I do about zombies, chainsaws and dead hookers around here, I'm really just a big soft-touch. I really do love movies that bring a tear to your eye and a lump to your throat…as long as they're smart. Movies that tap into genuine emotion and sentiment, that are sweet without being sickening, and that leave you feeling better about the world and the people in it.

In honor of Valentine's Day, this edition of the Bottom Shelf looks at three of my favorite movies of 2007. At first glance, they may seem to be a mismatched group. But look closer and you'll find an ideal triple feature. All three are about underdogs reaching a moment in their lives when they decide to pursue their dreams. All three are yearningly, big-R Romantic. And all three are best enjoyed while cozied up to your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, longtime companion or lesbian life partner. But then again, what isn't?



When I placed Once at the top of my Best of 2007 list a few weeks back, I worried that I might have cause to second guess that decision. I loved the movie when I first saw it but wasn't sure if its quiet, subtle charms could endure repeat viewing. Watching it again on DVD, I was relieved that I made the right choice. Once is a small, uncut gem of a movie whose flaws only add to its perfection.

The story of Once is so simple, its main characters don't even have names. Glen Hansard plays the Guy, a busker who works in his father's Hoover repair shop and only performs his own songs at night when the streets are virtually empty. One night he meets a Girl (Markéta Irglová), a Czech immigrant who sells flowers and cleans houses to support her mother and daughter.

They form a close bond over their shared love of music and she volunteers to help him record a demo. It's fair to say they fall in love, even though they never so much as kiss. The Girl is married, her husband not yet arrived in Ireland, while the Guy is still carrying a torch for the girlfriend who went off to London and hoped he'd follow.

Even though there isn't much plot here and the movie runs only a lean 85 minutes, the depth of emotion is extraordinary. Part of this is conveyed through the subtle, quiet performances of Hansard and Irglová. Neither of them had any acting experience prior to this film, which only adds to the naturalism. But most of the feeling comes from the great music written and performed by the two stars. Despite the fact that the movie was shot in semi-documentary style with shaky, handheld cameras, Once is first and foremost a musical. But the songs are so integral to the story and woven in so neatly that this aspect sneaks up on you. It isn't until Irglová walks down the street singing the beautiful "If You Want Me" that we see our first overtly musical moment. And, like all the best musicals, the story is told by the songs, not merely decorated with them.

Fox's DVD isn't a full-fledged special edition but comes with quite a few top-notch bonuses. There are two brief but interesting featurettes with compelling behind-the-scenes footage of writer/director John Carney working with his actors. There's an animated "webisode" for the song "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy" and a free download of the lovely Oscar-nominated song "Falling Slowly". Best of all are a pair of commentaries featuring Carney, Hansard and Irglová. One is feature-length, the other focuses on the songs and is scene-specific to the musical sequences. Both are well worth listening to.

[Editor's Note: For those of you who crave more bonus material, the film's soundtrack is available separately on CD in two versions. The 2-disc "collector's" edition of these includes a bonus DVD that adds a very good documentary, The Real Life End: A Story on the Making of Once, along with live video performances of "Falling Slowly," "Lies," "When Your Mind's Made Up" and "If You Want Me" - about 46 minutes of material in all. The deluxe version's CD also includes two additional tracks not available on the single-disc CD. Hansard and Irglová have also released a separate CD called The Swell Season that features different versions of four songs appearing in the film, plus six more.]

There aren't too many movies I think are absolutely perfect but Once is one of them. I love every single thing about this movie: the music, the performances, the writing, the look and most of all, the mood. Like life, Once can be bittersweet. But the movie feels so right that any sadness you feel at the end just makes you feel even better.

Film Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/A-/B

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

What in the wide, wide world of sports is a documentary about competitive video gaming doing in a Valentine's Day column? Bear with me. All will be made clear.

The King of Kong tells the true story of two men's epic battle to be the world champion Donkey Kong player. The champion: Florida hot sauce entrepreneur and "Gamer of the Century" Billy Mitchell. The challenger: Steve Wiebe, a Washington high school teacher who's never reached higher than second place his entire life. It's clear from the get-go where director Seth Gordon's sympathies lie. Billy comes across as an arrogant, self-aggrandizing braggart who long ago started believing and even creating his own legend. Steve, on the other hand, seems to be a decent, hard-working ordinary guy who just wants one moment in the spotlight after a lifetime of disappointment.

Given the subject matter and the wide array of obsessed gamers on display, it's not too surprising that The King of Kong is deeply, often hysterically funny. What is shocking is how uplifting and inspiring it all is. Gordon tells the story as if it were Rocky, getting you to cheer Steve on and invest in his success whether or not you give two figs for video games. A lot of that is thanks to the hidden love story at the heart of The King of Kong between Steve and his wife, Nicole. Nicole doesn't really care about Donkey Kong. All that matters to her is that it's important to Steve. Therefore, it's important to her. You can see on her face how much she loves this guy and wants him to win. When it seems as though Billy won't be making the ten-minute drive to play Steve face-to-face, Steve is disappointed but takes it in stride, as usual. Nicole, on the other hand, gets genuinely annoyed. The King of Kong likely would have been entertaining no matter what. But Nicole helps add an emotional layer to the story that makes it universal.

The DVD from New Line also doesn't claim to be a special edition but it may just as well. It looks and sounds really good, for one thing, better than a lot of documentaries do on disc. Plus, the disc is crammed full of extra features. You get plenty of bonus footage, including Q&A sessions from festival screenings and deleted sequences, and extended interviews with the players. There are two above-average audio commentaries: one with Seth Gordon and producers Ed Cunningham, Clay Tweel and Luis Lopez, the other with Chris Carle from the IGN website and Jon M. Gibson, founder of the i am 8-bit site. Gibson's i am 8-bit crew also contributes a neat animated short called A Really, Really Brief History of Donkey Kong and a lengthy art and music gallery featuring Donkey Kong-inspired artwork. Finally, there's an arcade glossary for gaming virgins and trailers for this and other New Line titles.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters might prove a hard sell to anyone who doesn't like video games. Don't give up. Promise your video-game-hating special friend that they'll enjoy it. Personally, I play video games once or twice a year at most and the only home console I own is one of those Plug 'n Play joystick deals that plug directly into the TV and let you play Ms. Pac-Man. That didn't stop me from thoroughly enjoying The King of Kong as a classic root-for-the-underdog story.

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/A



If your tastes are anything like mine, you're going to take one look at the cover art for Waitress and think it looks like a sugary-sweet, traditional romantic comedy that'll make you gag on its down-home, cornpone charm. I don't blame you one bit. But let me assure you, you have nothing to fear. Written and directed by actress Adrienne Shelly, perhaps best known for her appearances in Hal Hartley's Trust and The Unbelievable Truth, Waitress is actually smart, funny and genuinely engaging. Its charm is natural and its sentiment is real.

Keri Russell positively glows as Jenna, a small-town waitress who unexpectedly and undesirably finds herself knocked up by her abusive lout of a husband (Jeremy Sisto).

Jenna gets some fresh excitement in her life when she embarks on an affair with her new doctor (Nathan Fillion). But deep down, she's happiest when she's inventing a new pie, a talent passed down to her from her mother.

Waitress could have been an easy movie to tip into mawkish sentimentality or cartoonish over-the-top goofiness. But Shelly's screenplay gets the balance just right. Every single character is vividly drawn and fully fleshed out, from Jenna's waitress friends (played by Cheryl Hines and Shelly herself) to Old Joe, the cantankerous diner owner played by Andy Griffith in a brilliant masterstroke of casting. Best of all, neither of the men in Jenna's life come across as either perfect or perfectly dreadful. Sisto's character is genuinely obnoxious but he plays him as a real human being, plagued by frailties and weaknesses. As for Fillion, one of the most effortlessly charming actors working today, he's clearly a better catch but the fact that he's cheating on a wife that loves him very much makes him just as flawed in his own way. As a director, Shelly keeps the pace popping right along. Whenever things could turn too sweet, she injects just the right amount of tartness in to make it palatable.

On DVD from Fox, Waitress looks great, with the colors of Jenna's pies bursting off the screen. Extras include four brief featurettes, including Written and Directed by Adrienne Shelly: A Memorial, a sweet, heartfelt tribute to Shelly, who was tragically murdered before her film could be released. There are also three segments from the Fox Movie Channel series In Character With, focusing on Keri Russell, Cheryl Hines and Nathan Fillion. Russell also takes part in the audio commentary along with producer Michael Roiff and contributes a brief message about the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, a nonprofit group supporting women filmmakers.

Romantic comedies are a dime a dozen and most of them to come from Hollywood aren't worth the cynicism to dismiss them. Waitress, on the other hand, isn't from Hollywood and it shows. It's smart, sharp and genuinely warm-hearted. Feel-good movies tend to be looked down upon by a lot of hipper-than-thou moviegoers. But when they're done as well as Waitress, you remember that feeling good is actually positive. After all, who doesn't want to feel good?

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B/B-

Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page
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