Category Archives: Movies

Home Alone came out 25 years ago today, but it’s never really gone away

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Home Alone has been one of my favorite holiday movies for as long as I can remember. It’s got that perfect combination of humor, sentimentality, and satisfying personal narrative that makes it eminently watchable — plus there’s a weird fascination in comparing cherubic eight-year-old Macaulay Culkin with … present-day Macaulay Culkin.

Since the movie is having its 25th anniversary, I got to write about its enduring popularity for Vox — and learned a lot of things about it (including some things I probably should have known already). For instance, it was written by John Hughes, the ’80s movie king responsible for Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, among many, many other films. I learned that Hughes always wanted Culkin as the star, but director Chris Columbus auditioned more than a hundred kids anyway, before realizing there was no one better than Culkin. I learned that Marv and Harry probably would have died from their Kevin-inflicted injuries in real life, and that the crew was constantly in fear for the stunt performers’ lives. (I also learned it is a bona fide holiday tradition in Poland, possibly even more so than in America. The more you know!)

Most of all, researching this story just reminded me of what a weird, unpredictable combination of hard work, cash, and serendipity it takes to create an enduring classic. Articles that reflect back on the making of hits like this always make it seem like fate — like the stars aligning to create something that will sketch itself onto the public consciousness for decades to come. The creators often talk about when they realized they had something truly special on their hands. For Columbus, it was during the first test audience screening. He told Chicago Mag:

When we previewed the movie for the first time in Chicago, it was amazing. You’re in a situation where the audience was literally running from their seats to go to the bathroom or to get popcorn, and they were running back to their seats. It was like a rock concert. John [Hughes] and I kept looking at each other. That’s when we knew we had something special.

There’s something so interesting about the happenstance behind nostalgia; the properties you consumed endlessly as a child were likely not totally your choice but rather were selected by your parents or drilled into your brain via advertising. I’ll never have memories of watching Frozen as a kid (still haven’t seen it, actually), but kids growing up today have probably had the merchandise adorning their rooms since before they could be fully conscious of it. I’m all for every generation getting their own heroes to look up to and their own high-tech equivalent of the Talkboy to go along with them. But I hope someday I’ll still get to introduce my kid(s) to the misadventures of Kevin McCallister — preferably with an epic brownie sundae as a movie-watching snack.

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If you’re so inclined, you can read my full Home Alone piece at Vox.

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Is it time to retire James Bond yet? (Yes. Yes, it is.)

Last night I went to a screening of Spectre, the latest James Bond movie starring lumpy Brit Daniel Craig and directed by Sam Mendes. I am not by any means what you’d call a Bond superfan; I missed the last two movies, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall (or saw them and promptly erased them from my brain). I also didn’t know much about Spectre except that it had some fab (and highly publicized) leading ladies in Léa Seydoux, Naomie Harris, and Monica Bellucci as (finally, praise the lord) an age-appropriate love interest for 007; and that, per the Sony leaks, it had a shitty ending.

So I wasn’t expecting to love it, but I figured it’d probably be entertaining. So I watched it. And I am unashamed to tell you that I thought. It. Sucked.

Spoilers ahoy — you’ve been warned.

WOW was this movie not my bag. First off, it was almost two and a half hours long, which is one of my least favorite movie trends (along with studios remaking movies as “lady movies” to double their cash). Second, those much-ballyhooed leading ladies? Naomie Harris as Moneypenny is just there to do men’s secretarial work. Léa Seydoux, though she gets a couple badass moments, is still there mostly to wear clingy dresses and fuck Bond once before professing her love for him after they’ve known each other for like two days. And Monica Bellucci? One of the only “Bond girls” in more than five decades to be anywhere close to Bond’s age (51 to Craig’s 47, versus Seydoux’s 30), who would be far too hot for him at any age? She appears for maybe eight minutes of screen time, three of which are spent making out with Bond’s face wearing the suit she buried her husband in while he pins her against a mirror. It’s like these movies have the mentality of a horny teenage boy who thinks any two people left in a room together for more than five minutes are bound to start screwing each other, because that’s just what adults do.

Also offensive? This film doesn’t even have the decency to have an original plot. As I watched it, all I could think about was how it felt like a retread of this summer’s miles-more-fun Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. A shadowy government agency is forced to shut down, as one maverick agent with superhuman capabilities stumbles on an evil multi-country plot to destroy the world and has to take it down with the help of his small band of loyal friends and a gorgeous woman. Even Spectre letting its female lead take down some baddies is something Mission: Impossible did already, and much, much better. I thought MI5’s decision not to have its leading lady go for a roll in the hay with Ethan Hunt was one of its best decisions; as I wrote after seeing the movie, “It’s a smart move by Cruise et al. to move his character away from dashing romantic lead toward more of a (no-less-dashing) mentor figure rather than having him stray into verging-on-creepy cradle-robber territory.” Sadly, the Bond franchise has most definitely not gotten the memo. (There’s also a villain who sounds like Woody Allen and a truly tiresome Bond backstory, about which the less said, the better.)

This is all bad, but it’s not even the worst part of the movie. No, the worst has to be how purely joyless, and airless, this ponderous thud of a blockbuster is. Things that should be exciting — Bond takes out three cars with a rapidly disintegrating plane! Bond uses his magic watch to escape his maniacal face-drilling sorta-stepbrother! Bond kills two goons while handcuffed and with a hood over his head! — instead feel rote and robbed of all their tension. Situations are introduced and resolved so quickly they barely have a second to let the audience feel the tension. Instead we’re merely left staring into the vacant blue of Craig’s eyes to contemplate how his expression barely flickers whether he’s contemplating yet another woman’s naked body or a man who’s just had his eyes gouged out of his head.

Spectre is no doubt intended to be a throwback to classic Bond movies; there are references galore, including a fluffy white cat that was my favorite part of the movie. But honestly, all they did was serve as a giant reminder of how outdated the whole idea of Bond is. This is, after all, a hero created in 1953. Hilariously, a big part of the plot of Spectre involves a character repeatedly pointing out that Bond — and the entire 00 program — is hopelessly outdated. This guy advocates for drone strikes and increased surveillance; granted, he’s in cahoots with an evil mastermind who wants to sow chaos and discord worldwide, but dude has a point. A drone doesn’t get tired. A drone doesn’t have to take a break to seduce a woman half its age before changing into another slightly-too-tight suit. A drone won’t steal your £3 million Aston Martin prototype.

So the question is: Why are we still making movies about this slick, womanizing, DGAF white guy when his fictional foes lampshade his obsolescence and the real-life star says he’d rather slash his wrists than make another one of these movies? He’s old-fashioned, but in the worst way, and all the modern technology in the world isn’t disguising it well. People have been making Bond movies since 1962. It’s time to shake things up. If the gadgets and the suit cuts can evolve, the gender politics sure as hell can. And when the same old mold is churning out duds such as Spectre, really, what is there to lose by trying something new?

Update: I wrote about how the Bond franchise by taking a few lessons from Mission: Impossible for Vox; you can read it here.

 

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Heartbreak and word choice: The Last Five Years

Falling in love: an extremely hazardous undertaking.

Falling in love: an extremely hazardous undertaking.

My day job requires me to be a massive grammar nerd. My days are filled with constant internal debates — that or which? alternate or alternative? palate or palette (or pailette??), which might seem like the seventh circle of hell to some but to me affords endless opportunities to contemplate just how nuanced and byzantine and gloriously, wonderfully confusing this language we call English is. And that’s just what I was thinking about recently when reconsidering a movie I watched a couple months ago, The Last Five Years. In case you’re unfamiliar, it’s based on a Broadway show of the same name by Jason Robert Brown, and follows Cathy and Jamie (Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan in the movie) through their meeting, marriage, and breakup. The twist: Cathy’s story starts at the end of their relationship and moves backward, while Jamie’s does the opposite; they intersect once, in the middle as they marry.

As you might have gleaned from the premise, it is a downer of a movie (though with some fun songs); you probably don’t want to watch this if you’re having one of those “I’ll be alone forever” evenings. Anyway, it wasn’t until a while after I watched the movie that I really considered its title: the last five years. See, my first real boss taught me the subtle but important difference between “last” and “past”: Most people would use them interchangeably, but she explained to me that last really means final, as in the end-all, be-all — my last days on Earth, the last unicorn, etc. Yes, the movie takes place over the course of Cathy and Jamie’s five-year relationship, so it is technically their last five years together (as well as their first) — but if Brown just wanted to convey the passage of time he could have called the show The Past Five Years. I don’t think most people even after a breakup would consider their entire relationship a slow and inexorable slide toward its bitter conclusion, so if the title were meant to convey the end of the relationship maybe it should have been called The Last Two Years, or The Last Seven Months Except That One Weekend We Went to Montauk, Because That Was Pretty Fun Still.

But when you take The Last Five Years with the full weight of that word — last — it underscores just how tragic and earth-shattering this story is for these two people. They have had their last kiss, their last lazy batch of shared Sunday bagels, their last fight that ends in tears followed by apology sex. They are divorced; their relationship is over. There’s a sense of finality that can’t be erased; something has been broken that will never be mended. It’s the kind of pain that’s as physical as it is emotional, that makes you feel like you literally might die from it, and even once enough time has passed that you start to feel better, you’ll never be the same again. “Cathy and Jamie” have died, the title says; now there’s only Cathy and Jamie, alone once again.

What a lot of heartbreak in just one letter’s difference.

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Why there won’t (and shouldn’t) ever be a St. Elmo’s Fire remake

Recently on a bored weeknight, I sat down to watch the 1985 Brat Pack classic St. Elmo’s Fire. I’m not entirely sure why it is a classic, because it wasn’t really that good of a movie. If it were a 30-year-old person instead of a movie, it would have all the signs of having spent a few too many hours in the tanning bed. Not to say it’s surprising a movie whose success likely hinged on the It Kid status of its stars hasn’t aged well, but damn if this movie doesn’t seem like a frozen slice of a very different time — one that it seems nigh on impossible to update without scrapping basically everything about it besides the extremely basic (generic) premise.

See these people? They are all monsters.

See these people? They are all monsters.

The characters are what we’d today call the dreaded millennials: just-graduated professionals trying to figure out a place and a direction in life. They live (like me) in DC; they lust after one another; they struggle with money and relationships and various vices. So far, so relatable, right? But then you get into the details: Alec and Leslie (Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson) are on their way to engagement and live in an insanely cavernous apartment that they somehow afford despite Alec working on the Hill. Billy (Rob Lowe) is a deadbeat dad whose mullet, earring, constant face sweat, and saxophone-playing prowess make him irresistible to the ladies, especially Wendy (Mare Winningham), a frumpy, good-hearted virgin doormat who seems destined to be married off to an actuary type named Ralph. Then there’s the promiscuous, broke Jules (Demi Moore), and tortured, possibly gay writer Kevin (Andrew McCarthy).

And then there’s the worst character out of all of them — and I include womanizing asshole Alec in that — Emilio Estevez’s character, Kirby. Kirby works at a shitty Georgetown restaurant to pay for law school, but his real job is stalking Dale, a beautiful doctor he met like one time and has decided is now his possession. Remember how Gaston treats Belle in Beauty and the Beast? Yeah, this is like that, except without any of the catchy song-and-dance numbers or raw-egg swallowing. Kirby is an actual monster: He literally stalks Dale to parties where he knows no one, then causes a giant scene; gets a job with an attache of some kind just so he can throw a party at the guy’s house to invite her to, then verbally harasses her roommate when she doesn’t show up; then literally stalks her some more, all the way to a cabin in the mountains, where she is having a perfectly nice, consensual vacation with a perfectly nice guy, and proceeds to act like a giant whiny baby and ruin their entire night. Oh, and then he mouth-rapes her before driving back down the mountain with nary an apology to either her or her boyfriend. And the worst part is, Dale is written to find this all vaguely charming and a bit amusing, rather than immediately calling the fucking police to get a restraining order.

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Unless I’m missing something big, I have a really hard time believing anyone, even in the coke-addled ’80s, would find this character anything but repugnant. Then again, all of the characters are pretty repugnant in their own ways, with the exception of Wendy, though she’s such a wet blanket it hardly even counts.

What’s extra fascinating, though, is the economics of these people’s lives, so different from today’s millennials. If this movie were set today, Kirby would live with nine other dudes in a group house whose bathrooms hadn’t been cleaned once since they moved in; Alec and Leslie would share a studio in Glover Park and hate each other silently most of the time; and Kevin would be homeless and probably addicted to heroin. Jules wouldn’t be able to get even a single advance on her paycheck; Kirby in the movie switches from law school to med school to being a diplomat’s assistant without even breaking a sweat (whereas today he would definitely be a Subway sandwich artist).

Their struggles should be understandable, but they just feel hollow and horrible; why should we root for a guy who abandons his wife and kid and tries to rape his good friend, or really care about a spoiled girl whose only cross to bear in life is her obvious raging daddy issues? The movie ends relatively upbeat, but you have to wonder: Why? I guess that’s why this movie feels so fully ancient and untranslatable now: Its vibe, its characters, its message, everything about it, is just as selfish and decadent — and ultimately doomed to ruin — as the decade it was made.

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A few thoughts about Mission: Impossible after seeing the fifth (!) movie

The fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise came out July 31 this year, 19 years after the original. Tom Cruise, 34 in the first film, is now 54, and perhaps a tiny bit wrinklier around the face (thought not so much the torso, as a pointed shirtless scene reminds us). I saw Rogue Nation in the theater — paid $13 for it and everything — and it was a freaking blast.

I haven’t seen movies three or four, but this latest one at least purposely leans hard on the very “impossible” conceit inherent in the title: After 19 years, Ethan Hunt has basically achieved superhuman status, to the point where his associates toss him increasingly insane feats of physicality (“So all you have to do is hold your breath for three minutes”) like they’re giving him a particularly stubborn jam jar to open. It’s a smart way to poke a little fun at itself and give some humanity to unstoppable badass Ethan.

But perhaps the best part about Rogue Nation is that though he is still very much the star of the film, good old Tommy Cruise is more than willing to move aside and let his costars have a turn. Simon Pegg, the bumbling, goofy genius in more than one big-screen franchise, gets to take down a baddie himself; Jeremy Renner’s IMF director backs up his wayward agent with hardly a question asked. And most surprisingly, Cruises’s female lead gets to be a sexy, killer spy without having to bed Ethan at any point. Okay, the movie can’t resist the idea completely — one eye-rolly scene has Ilsa beseeching Ethan to run away with her — but she also gets whole action sequences without Ethan, taking on opponents twice her size and even saving Ethan’s bacon in the aforementioned three-minute underwater challenge. It’s a smart move by Cruise et al. to move his character away from dashing romantic lead toward more of a (no-less-dashing) mentor figure rather than having him stray into verging-on-creepy cradle-robber territory. Rebecca Ferguson/Ilsa might return in a later movie — which would be great — and she and Ethan might then wind up in bed together, but for this film at least she escapes in a hot car with all her professionalism intact.

The other great thing about the M:I movies is how their plots are now basically 100 percent pure MacGuffin. In that, they remind me of the other massive action franchise of a similar time period: the Fast & Furious movies. Both have been impressively performing hits, managing to bring back the same leads every few years to create something reliably entertaining. Beyond the ever-more-ridiculous stunts and set pieces, F&F’s appeal hinges on the chemistry of its main ensemble, while M:I rests on Cruise’s muscled shoulders and toothy grin. Both are wildly, hubristically American — F&F distinguishes whole cultures by a few shots and slightly different kinds of house music; M:I insists that the fate of the world lies in the hands of one American agent, who radiates so much goodness and importance that a total stranger working for a rival agency refuses to let him die on principle. It’s hilarious and soothing at the same time: Here, in these film universes, America occupies its proper place as the unquestioned, unbeatable leader of the world, with the superhuman movie characters as the essence of the American Spirit — unkillable, undefeatable, daring, and above all, righteous.

After I got home from the movie theater I put on the original Mission Impossible and found myself dazzled, as always, by young Tom Cruise’s pure charisma. At 34 he crackles with vitality, impossible handsome, unfailingly intense, the perfect encapsulation of a modern American movie star; nearly two decades later he’s still handsome but has mellowed slightly into the role. That might sound odd for a character who spends the entire film on the run from baddies of various nationalities, affixing himself to the sides of planes, and kicking the shit out of a man who looks like a mutant NBA player and is nicknamed “the Bone Doctor” — but it’s true. He carries himself like a man who knows exactly who he is — and, for that matter, who you and your mother and everyone you’ve ever met are, too.

Ethan Hunt may only feel truly alive when he’s nearly killing himself, but he is completely at home with himself, as I imagine Cruise is with these movies. The suspense doesn’t come from whether Ethan can pull off stunt after wildly improbably stunt, because we, and he, know he can. And the plot, the original of which required many repeated viewings for me to wrap my head around, barely matters this far along the line. There’s a shadowy agency controlled by Britain’s prime minister that’s an evil polar opposite to the IMF? Sure! To save Benji from being blown to smithereens in a café Ethan memorizes a massive list of precise names and dollar amounts in the time it would take you or me to floss? Why not! It’s a weird corollary with these and, again, F&F: As the stakes ostensibly get higher and the action even more action-y, it’s easier for us to settle in with our popcorn and just enjoy.

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The F’d Up Beauty of Gone Girl (Book and Movie)

Even though the book has been out for more than two years and the movie for almost a month, I’ll say it anyway: SPOILERS AHEAD.

I didn’t know much about Gone Girl before I started reading it recently—the closest I’d come to reading a review was my friend Taylor telling me the first half was super slow but the second part suddenly became excellent. Still, I knew by the number of blog posts by major news outlets dedicated to the movie development that it was a Big Deal. And when I finally ponied up the $7.99 for the iBooks version, I wasn’t disappointed: The story is, if not truly great, at least extremely entertaining, full of metaphors I don’t agree with and characterizations that are so realistic they hit a little too close to home for anyone who’s ever done anything they feel even the slightest bit ashamed of. It’s a cynical lampooning of [insert overused phrase here] our current obsession with reality television—but with the stakes elevated, warped, to impossibly dangerous levels. It rolls in the pervasiveness and discomfort of gender stereotypes, the ugly typical narrative of domestic violence, the unstable American economy, the corrosive power of money over relationships—it tells everyone’s story and no one’s all at the same time. That’s the beauty of the book, right? It’s an allegory that tells the everyman/woman’s tale of falling in love and eventually realizing the story you bought into, that you committed to for life, is not the truth—but at the same time, to put it bluntly, the two main characters are also completely fucking insane.

All this is to say, I enjoyed both the book and the movie, but for different reasons. I mean, the movie—David Fincher continues to be a badass, Trent Reznor continues to crush his movie-soundtrack assignments; Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike gave incredible performances. But the movie betrays some of the book’s essential points. For instance: Movie Go never doubts—really doubts—Nick’s innocence. The minute she sees the woodshed, she just understands. Desi is so much more predatory, less a strange and misguided man than a for-now-mild-mannered rapist-in-waiting ready to pounce at the first available opportunity. And, horribly, Nick finally does resort to abuse, shoving his murderer of a wife and her “bleached-blond wedge haircut” into a wall because he can no longer stand her lies, cracking open the delicate eggshell of the twisted marital mind game that is the bedrock of Gillian Flynn’s novel.

But most damning of all is the limitations of the book-to-movie translation: Flynn’s work depends intrinsically on the persuasive, corrosive power of perspective, an aspect that, filtered through the lens of a director and the mindset of actors, was bound to be diluted. I rushed through a first reading of the book—I have to know what happens—and then luxuriated in the second, and in doing so discovered that the repeat read (as was Flynn’s intention) throws into question every aspect of the story. Who’s the more insane? Who’s the bigger asshole? Who is more convinced that he or she is really sharing the truth with us? The answer to the last question, thankfully, remains mostly unanswered, leaving the audience to know we are as much the chumps as those confused and sweaty Missouri cops.

I waited a long time to see this movie, and I’m glad I had some distance from the book (though not too much). I tried my hardest to avoid the spoilers, to resist the thinkpieces with provocative titles like “Yes, Gone Girl Has a Woman Problem.” Bottom line: It is absolutely a movie worth seeing and a book worth reading, for the fantastic acting (and the surprising charm of Tyler Perry), and the terrible, tooth-ache pleasure of seeing the marriage of two beautiful, witty people dissolve into madness.

Both book and movie end unsatisfyingly—at my screening, the woman next to me exclaimed, “Wait, really?”—but both also retain the necessary ambiguity. Meaning if you come away thinking man or woman is the true bad guy, the real bottom-line jerk, it probably says more about you than about Flynn’s or Fincher’s work. But if either (or both) has you rethinking the idea of getting married, I certainly wouldn’t blame you. Hell, I’ll weather that powdered-sugar storm with you.

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Friday Haiku-Off

My friend and I got into another haiku-off over gchat today. Here are the results.

About biscotti (and dipping said biscotti in chocolate)

My friend’s:

Tanya uses care

I dip with reckless abandon

No risk no reward

Mine:

Twice-baked and tasty

Giving fancy potatoes

A run for their dough

And another round, about my new favorite movie, Wreck-it Ralph (sooooo many fantastic candy-based puns).

My friend’s:

Banished to the cave

No franz no life no future

Damn you pixlexia

Mine:

Huge swinging ham fists

Tried to smash me into crumbs

But he just glazed me

Have you seen Wreck-it Ralph, by the way? Please do yourself a favor and go. It’s completely delightful. Wanna join the haiku-off? Leave one in the comments!

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Pop Culture Phenomena I Either Missed or Intentionally Skipped (A List)

  • The Wire
  • Most of The Sopranos
  • Most of Lost
  • Twilight
  • American Idol, Dancing With the Stars, Toddlers & Tiaras, (insert name of terrible reality show here)—I did, however, watch a couple seasons of So You Think You Can Dance with my sister. We both loved it.
  • 50 Shades of Grey
  • Furbys
  • Beanie Babies
  • Saved by the Bell
  • Justin Bieber
  • Taylor Swift
  • LOLcats for the LONGEST time and now I kind of think they’re hilarious

There are so many more, I’m sure, and the ones I didn’t totally miss I became aware of way after everyone else. I guess I’m not usually what you would call an early adapter. For the most part I’m okay with missing out on this stuff (although I do plan to watch The Wire and The Sopranos in their entirety at some point.)

Remember High School?

Yeah, I don’t miss it at all. Mine was big—my graduating class was 1,168—and it was split between grades, meaning I went to a different school for grades 9 and 10 than I did for grades 11 and 12. I had friends, I made okay grades, I did some extracurriculars and went to prom and all that jazz—but by the time college application season hit, I was practically foaming-at-the-mouth ready to go somewhere completely new, where I didn’t know a single person and could finally just be who I wanted to be.

And that’s exactly what I did.

The reason high school is on my mind tonight, when I normally try to block it out completely, is that I went to see The Perks of Being a Wallflower with a couple of friends. I’ve read that book at least four times and really love it, and the movie was, surprisingly, almost as good as the book—achingly poignant, beautifully filmed, surprisingly funny, and with a fantastic soundtrack (the credit of which, I nerdily noticed, goes to Alexandra Patsavas of The OC and Gossip Girl fame). While the story goes to some dark places, it had the odd effect of making me nostalgic for a high school experience I didn’t actually have. The main character, Charlie, goes from being a complete outcast to falling in with seemingly the only high school kids in existence who are absolutely sure of themselves, confident in their weirdness and completely un-shy about showing it. What’s more, all these kids have carved out their own little space in the social hierarchy of high school despite, perhaps, pretending to operate completely outside of it. What I wouldn’t have given to have had that faith in and knowledge of myself at that age. Hell, even now I struggle with it. But to be accepted completely and utterly for who you are even when the cracks begin to show—that is a wonderful thing.

Part of me (most of me) sees the movie as overly idealistic, a glossed-over and softly lit look back at a simpler time (nervous breakdowns and abuse aside). But part of me just clings to the feeling it evokes: that feeling that sometimes in life there are these perfect moments, these snapshots in time that come along unexpectedly but that change, even in subtle ways, how you see the world. And yes, someday they’ll just be stories you tell your kids—but remembering those moments is what reminds you why life is worth living.