Monday, December 21, 2015

Under the Radar Films: Movies For the Heart

The holidays are upon us, and just like the youth of America, our favorite TV shows are on Winter Break. So what’s a person to do for some fresh viewing pleasure? We have Redbox, Netflix, and movie channels to keep us occupied, but what’s really new to watch? HBO and Starz continue playing the same hit movies over and over again. Redbox is chockfull of all the summer blockbusters that we already enjoyed on the silver screen. And Netflix keeps giving us the same recommendations, even if we’ve already watched them. We’ve all seen the classics and all the new releases, and it makes us question if there’s anything left to watch that’s worthwhile. With the convolution of the film industry, it’s a matter of mathematical certainty that good movies fall through the cracks, never getting the proper recognition they rightfully deserve. That’s why this month I’ll be unveiling some great under-the-radar films from every genre, to give you cinephiles some sweet gems to enjoy during your holidays. To kick things off, I’ll start with a few heart-warmers.

First up:

What If  (a.k.a The F-Word(2013)

Having discovered that his girlfriend cheated on him with his Anatomy teacher, Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) decides to drop out of medical school and inevitably moves into the attic of his single-mom sister’s house. Down on his luck and having lived the past year in social seclusion, he finally resurfaces after his best friend Allan (Adam Driver) forces him into attending a party where Wallace meets the utterly adorable Chantry (Zoe Kazan). He quickly becomes smitten by the animator as the pair shares a wisecracking evening, only then to learn at the end of the night that she already has a boyfriend. Wallace genuinely likes Chantry as a person, and he soon finds himself in the most miserable place known to mankind: the friend-zone.

With a delightfully witty script by Elan Mastai and a perfectly casted set of actors, What If is essentially the modern-day When Harry Met Sally, begging the age-old question: Can a man and woman REALLY be just friends? Radcliffe and Kazan share wonderful chemistry and the forever scene-stealing Adam Driver delivers the perfect balance of dry humor and slapstick as cleverly crafted dialogue flows effortlessly from start to finish. Director Michael Dowse gives us a sophisticated take on the romantic comedy, riffing perfectly between the lighthearted conventions of the genre as well as the deeper examination of real relationships. What If is an irresistible charmer for sure.

Perfect for fans of: When Harry Met Sally and Definitely Maybe.

Ruby Sparks (2012)

With a world-renown debut novel looming overhead, young author Calvin (Paul Dano) suffers from a severe case of writer’s block as he struggles to recreate his earlier success. Crippled by this fear, he turns to his therapist (Elliot Gould) who gives Calvin a one-page assignment to write in an attempt to get him out of his funk. To his complete and utter surprise, the project works, inspiring Calvin’s fictitious muse, Ruby Sparks. Situated at an old typewriter, Calvin begins writing his new story and subsequently falls in love with his character. He then wakes one morning to find Ruby (Zoe Kazan) actually in his apartment. Initially believing he’s hallucinating, he soon discovers that the feisty redhead is in fact REAL, and that his imagination somehow invented her. Everything that Calvin writes about Ruby comes true. And with great power comes great responsibility…

The idea of Ruby Sparks can easily turn into a by-the-books raunchy comedy, but screenwriter Zoe Kazan (who also plays the title character) elevates the premise into being something quite fantastical and heartfelt. On the surface, it’s a comedy-drama, but the exploration of real life relationships in the guise of fantasy makes Ruby Sparks a very unique viewing experience. And the film’s whimsy finds itself in perfect hands with co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine). Ruby Sparks is quirky, funny, insightful, and deeply satisfying, made all the more absolute by real life and on-screen couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan.

Perfect for fans of: Stranger Than Fiction and Midnight in Paris.

Kinky Boots (2006)

After the death of his father, reluctant young marketer Charlie (Joel Edgerton) desperately searches for a niche market to save his family’s failing shoe factory. A chance encounter crosses his paths with a sassy drag queen named Lola (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and the two strangers form an unlikely partnership. Despite the profound skepticism from the employees, Charlie and Lola reinvent the straitlaced company by custom designing sexy fetish heels for drag queens.

The concept of a business resorting to outside-of-the-box strategies to save itself isn’t exactly new, and it’s hardly a stranger to comedy either. Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story is a prime example. What makes Kinky Boots so watchable isn’t its groundbreaking formula. It rests solely in its touching message and superb cast. There’s a standard nowadays when drag queens are put to film. They’re either pre-surgery transgender or flamboyantly gay to the point of being an offensive parody, but almost never as actual human beings. They’re usually caricatures. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s portrayal of Lola though dives into this unobserved world by peeking behind the curtain and seeing the real person.

Lola isn’t just a sassy singer with a fierce strut and perfectly manicured nails. She’s a fighter. Being a drag queen is a great way to expression yourself, but it also opens the door for ridicule and harassment from the close-minded. The way Lola handles herself shows just how much heart she really has, while also presenting the vulnerability underneath. As Lola says in the film: “Put me in heels and I can sing ‘Stand By Your Man’ to a crowd of strangers. Put me in jeans and I can't even bloody well say hello.” Seeing the layers peel away is quite heartwarming, and so fantastically unique that you can’t help but fall for Lola. Major kudos goes out to Chiwetel Ejiofor for his performance. This role showcases just how versatile this incredible actor truly is, and that’s why it’s so disappointing that this film flew under the radar from the general public despite him snatching a Golden Globe nomination for the role. His Oscar-nominated performance as the lead in 12 Years a Slave thankfully gave him the recognition he so longly deserved, letting him finally become a household name. Kinky Boots follows in the step of plenty of other delightful British comedy-dramas, but Ejiofor’s take on this fish-out-of-water tale makes it a cut above the rest.  

Perfect for fans of: The Full Monty and Calendar Gils.

Stay tuned for some more great underrated films… 

"The F Word theatrical poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

"Ruby Sparks poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

"Kinky Boots (movie poster)". Via Wikipedia.

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