Valentines Day Date Movies. The Roommate, Gnomeo and Juliet, Modra

Do you long for the good old days of your youth, when people gave holiday gifts purely out of love, and commercialization had yet to permeate all our rituals and celebrations?

I want to say that I’m bothered by the ever increasing commercialization of holidays, but I’d be lying. I’ve been handing out store-bought candy and valentines since I was a little kid, so I have no memory of a non-commercial Valentine’s Day, if there ever was one. So, in keeping with spending money to say I love you (or I lust for you), here are some potential date movies for next week, that explore themes of romance, passion or love.

The Roommate

Dir: Christian E. Christiansen

… gives us a not-so-typical relationship of sorts, a story of a poor little rich girl who just want to be friends, but takes it to a new level.

Sarah (Minka Kelly) is from Des Moines, Iowa, but loves studying fashion in Southern California. She may not be rich, but she has a sense of style that can’t be taught. She has a tattoo of her dead sister’s name above her left breast. She has a funky Lesbian pal, and dorm mates who know how to drink and dance. At a frat house with her party-girl friend, Tracy, she meets a frat boy and they fall in like.

But when her new roommate, a rich and sophisticated, but somehow troubled, Rebecca (Leighton Meester), moves in, things begin to change. Rebecca has lots of expensive clothes, but Sarah dresses her up to be cool. “What are you a label whore?” Sarah asks. “I got this vintage jacket for 20 bucks at a garage sale!” Sarah also lends her a pair of earrings, not noticing that Rebecca doesn’t have pierced ears… Rebecca takes then anyway — cause Sarah’s her friend! — and pokes them through her earlobes drawing blood. And when she licks the blood from her fingers she gets a little evil smile on her face… Uh oh. (Don’t worry, this is a psychological thriller, not a vampire flick.) Things go downhill from there.

Rebecca likes drawing, but will not show Sarah what’s in her sketchbook. She becomes fixated on her roommate, and intensely jealous whenever Sarah’s friends seem to intrude on their lives. Party girl, ex-boy friend, frat boy, fluffy kitten… they are all potential targets of Rebecca’s increasingly warped mind. It’s not a romance; Rebecca just wants to be her (only) friend.

This is a weird movie, that varies from a few good spooky scenes, to lots of incredibly predictable TV style pap. Rebecca’s the stalker and Sarah the stalked, but the actress playing the victim character forgot to learn how to do scared. She’s better at “I like you!” “this is fun!” and “That’s OK!” (as she brushes back her hair from her pretty face) than at looking stressed or terrified. Leighton Meester is better, but she just looks deranged, and not nearly evil enough. And maybe its me but the whole movie seems too tame. If there’s a potentially crazed killer, you want to see at least some graphic splatter and gore, right? No…? This movie wasn’t scary.

This is a very forgettable (but fun enough), cable TV-grade, B-movie. I had a good time, the actresses are all attractive, and there were some neat aerial-view shots from the ceiling, like in a Hitchcock or De Palma horror movie. But the unintentionally funny scenes — like a montage of double-exposures of lips and eyes in a phone- sex scene; or Billy Zane as a supposed fashion expert, but wearing ridiculously clownish clothes as he teaches his university students about true fashion and style — were more interesting than the rest of the movie.

Leaving the theatre I overheard one girl repeating, “I’m never having a roommate… ever!” Which I guess sums up this not-very-thrilling, dumb thriller.

Gnomeo and Juliet (in 3D)

Dir: Kelly Asbury

This is a reworking of Shakespeare’s play about the star-crossed lovers of Verona, Romeo and Juliet, and their feuding families, the Montagues and the Capulets. This version is unusual in that it’s told using plaster lawn ornaments in the main roles. Yes, you heard me: Plaster lawn ornaments.

Like garden gnomes — those little germanic-looking statues — cute lawn bunnies, plastic pink flamingoes, and ceramic frog. They live in a parallel universe, where, in the world of quaint suburban, English homes, they decorate the gardens, whenever the humans are around, but live their own lives when they are alone. Their one unbreakable rule is they have to switch back to immobile statues whenever a person comes near. And they all wear pointy hats.

This version is aimed at the pre-teen set, so, to make it easier to follow, they’ve turned Juliet’s Capulets into the red-hats, (who live in the garden ruled by Lord Redbrick) and Romeo’s Montagues into blue hats from the yard of Lady Bluebury next door. And instead of duels with sword fights, competitions take place in the back lanes involving drag races using old-school, chugging lawn mowers. The gnome statues are not allowed to go in each other’s yards, but when cute adventuress Juliet in disguise, meets equally rambunctious Romeo in a neutral area, they soon fall in love, without realizing they are from opposing clans. Juliet (with the voice of Emily Blunt) dresses in mittel-European clothes, while Gnomeo (James McAvoy), like all the male gnomes, has a graying neck beard, but otherwise acts like a teenager.

Meanwhile the feud between the two families, including the bullying Tybalt, escalates, even risking intruding on the human’s lives. Vicious gnomes attempt to symbolically castrate their rivals by smashing their point hats. Peacekeepers, like Featherstone, a flamboyant lawn flamingo looking for his long lost mate, and Juliet’s Nurse/Frog, proffer advice and warn against potential ruin, but death and destruction seem inevitable, as in the classic tragedy. Will this version end up with the death and suicide of the romantic lovers? While it’s true to Shakespeare’s original, keep in mind this is a Disney cartoon aimed at little kids.

It’s a cute, fun, cartoon romance, suitable for young kids, accompanied by a soundtrack (for some reason) of Elton John’s 70’s pop hits. While it does occasionally verge upon Disney’s old standby theme of the helpless girl needing to be rescued by the brave prince, they have mainly moved on, and give the modern Juliet her own strength and courage, so both boys and girls can have their requisite positive role models.

Good for an afterschool group date.

Modra

Dir: Ingrid Veninger

For a very beautiful, subtle, and gentle semi-romance of two teenagers from Toronto visiting Slovakia in the summer, you really should see Modra.

Modra is about a 17 year old girl named Lina (Hallie Switzer). She breaks up with her boyfriend just before they were supposed to fly to visit her relatives in Slovakia. On an impulse she invites a guy, Leco (Alexander Gammal) from her high school to go with her instead. So they land in this very small town, with orange rooftiles in a green valley. And Leco, who speaks no Slovakian, is introduced as her boyfriend – they’re given a room to share.

Lina and Leco’s – who make a very cute couple – relationship shifts gradually from non-existent to estranged, to warm, and back again over the course of their week long visit. This is not a conventional, mainstream boy-meets-girl drama, with revealed secrets, and big plot turns. And the European locations aren’t there to evoke glamour, The Slovakian town is isolated and rustic. The locals wear their traditional costumes for special occasions – embroidered dresses, men with black feather plumes on their hats as they sing or dance folk songs. There’s the town mute, the local ranch, the local hood who hits on Lina. Loudspeakers on poles make echoey announcements harkening back to its Stalinist precedents.

“Modra” is a very sweet, low-key, naturalistic film, with first-time actors – and non-actors – experiencing things on camera at the same time as the audience. It’s a gentle, verite travelogue of two kids on the cusp of adulthood. I like this kind of almost-documentary film when it works — and in Modra, it really works.

It was voted one of the Top Ten Canadian movies of the year, and I couldn’t agree more. It has that new Toronto feel to it, that I also saw in No Heart Feelings and This Movie is Broken. It would make a great Valentine’s Day date movie.

Rommates is now playing, Modra opens today in Toronto at the Royal Cinema, and Gnomeo and Juliet also starts today, across North America. Check your local listings.

Next: The Eagle,  Ong Bak 3

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