The Mediocrity of Modern Romance

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For some time now I have been thinking about why exactly I struggle to connect with modern additions to the romance genre. I haven’t been able to explain it in an adequate manner. However, I believe I finally know why I cannot connect with these films, and the main fault lies in the writing.

What I have often found with newer romance films is that I do not like the characters. They are meant to be people I can connect with and furthermore sympathise with when things go wrong, and yet they just annoy me. So the problem that comes from them annoying me is that I lose interest; I do not care about what happens to them. If they are unhappy then I’m not particularly bothered, it’s a fitting consequence of them being an annoying little shit. That may sound unreasonable but if the writers want me to engage in a film I need to do so in my own way without them telling who I like.

In the past I’ve written about romance films I didn’t like, and upon examining all of them it is evident that this rule applies.

The first example I should draw your attention to is the recent over hyped but underperforming schmaltzy pile of nonsense The Fault in our Stars. Now already I can hear the sound of people saying “oh you didn’t like it because you’re a boy” WRONG! My gender has absolutely nothing to do with it. I love romance, it’s one of my favourite genres and actually for me it’s one of the most important genres in cinema. The reason I didn’t like TFIOS is because it genuinely is a really bad film. A dull, self indulgent, appallingly written and poorly acted piece of cinema that had an excessive running time and characters that are beyond irritating. I don’t have any moral qualms with Hazel, she is a strong willed realist whom I think is an interesting character. But Augustus.

It is a shame that Hazel’s love interest has to be such an annoying arsehole. Not only is he a dull, arrogant and unfunny idiot who blames his disability for his failure in losing his virginity, but he also relies on this absurd little hipster metaphor in attempt to parallel his cancer with smoking cigarettes. He keeps a cigarette in his mouth without lighting it, allowing him to be arrogant of the fact he isn’t giving it the power to kill him, the same as if he sat in his car without turning the engine on and then claiming he’s not giving it the power to kill him in a collision. This is meant to be like his cancer, until you consider the multiple reasons as to why the metaphor does not work. Most notably because his cancer is out of his control and does eventually kill him (thus rendering the metaphor redundant) but also because smoking is a choice, cancer is not. It’s little quirks such as this, and his annoying habit of using Hazel’s first and middle name, that make me dislike him. As soon as this happens I start to lose interest in the character and so I become less engaged in the film.

This is not the only culprit however, I couldn’t possibly write about this topic without discussing a film I have slated on numerous occasions: 500 Days of Summer. In the past when I have discussed this film I made it quite clear that the main reason I didn’t like the film is the characters. I can’t stand the character of Tom because he’s an idiot for placing his happiness entirely in one person’s hands despite this person expressing clearly that they don’t  want a relationship, and on the other side of that coin I found Summer to be cringeworthingly annoying with her disorganised approach to life and ‘anything goes’ attitude. Together they were clearly dysfunctional and yet I’m meant to feel bad that things don’t work out? Absolutely not, it’s their own actions that lead to their unhappiness. They need to grow up, stop kidding themselves by hammering mismatched jigsaw pieces together, and accept they’re not meant to be. By the end of the film I don’t care if they’re happy or not, I don’t feel sad that they’re not together because it is glaringly obvious that they do not work as a couple, so the writer needs to stop attempting to make me feel bad for Tom.

I’m not trying to say that everything should be completely functional in a romance film, because obviously that would be boring and would indeed undermine my argument from a few weeks back. What I am instead suggesting is that I dislike it when romance is covertly dysfunctional, when it doesn’t have the courage to tell us that the characters are written for a certain audience and won’t be liked by everyone else. This my problem with TFIOS, the young couple are meant to be happy and I’m meant to feel pleased for them but it doesn’t work because Augustus is so bloody annoying. If the writers of the film stopped trying to make him seem like a nice guy and to make me like him and actually admitted how annoying he is then I would connect more with it. I would be able to accept his flaws there and then and continue developing an interest in the film. If they made it so he wasn’t such a flat surface, such a two dimensional character without depth, then I might find it easier. Hollywood writers need to stop trying to make my like their characters.

If you look back at some of the best writing in romantic films you can see that the characters are not perfect because they’re not meant to be, they reflect how people are in real life. We see every element of them, the good and the bad wrapped in a three dimensional package so we can make up our own minds without being forced to like or dislike them. But in these cases the writers aren’t trying to make them seem like decent people, they are showing us how people can be complete wankers or bitches beyond belief, and yet we can still connect with the film because they are giving us the truth, they are giving us every angle of realistic characters that could be real human beings.

Take for example one of my favourite films, Ruby Sparks written by Zoe Kazan, you’ve got a main character called Calvin who is very conflicted. At the beginning of the film he appears to be a very solemn person who is distant from those around him. He is rather lonely but what he really wants is a functioning relationship, and so we do somewhat feel sympathy for him because deep down every human wants to be loved. But then as the film progresses and we see him developing the ability to control Ruby just by writing down a statement on his typewriter we see a darker side to him. We begin to see how controlling and manipulative Calvin can be in the sense that he wants Ruby to be absolutely perfect for him and for her to meet his every desire. He wants to control who she sees, how often they see each other, how happy or sad she is, and it does turn the circle into a sphere and develop who he is. It does take a rather psychotic turn towards the end as we see his actions take a more serious turn, but he is still a character we connect with. Kazan was not trying to make us like him, she was showing what a human would do if they had this power and then leaves it for the audience to make up their own mind. It is as if she is saying “right, there’s both sides to him, you decide” and I actually feel that it is one of the most admirable scripts of recent years.

I’m about to sound like a stuck record with this next point but I couldn’t possibly be talking about characters in romance films that we’re not meant to like without mentioning the work of Woody Allen. It seems to be a recurring element in his work that we are presented with main characters we are not meant to like. With Annie Hall the character of Alvy is shown as his most neurotic self and Allen is clearly not trying to make us like him. Alvy is given to us as someone who has never quite gripped reality properly, who talks too much and ruins things in a relationship by making sex one of the most important elements, and yet we are in no way distant from the character. We see how Alvy is a tender person and he genuinely cares about Annie. One of the most hard hitting scenes of that film is when Alvy goes round to see Annie at three in the morning, long after they have broken up. She is in tears and yet he still goes round to listen to her and comfort her. It’s one of the most human moments you will ever find in film. It may be a surreal comedy that relies on the nonsensical and absurd, but Alvy is still a three dimensional character that the audience can engage with through developing their own opinion based on what they see.

This thread does run throughout Allen’s work, for example in Hannah and Her Sisters the main characters are not the most likable. It is made clear from the start that they are a conflicted bunch. Mickey is shown to be a hypochondriac who is annoying as hell with his constant health scare nonsense, and then Elliot is someone who is falling out of love with his wife and in love with his wife’s sister. They are not likable characters and Allen does not for one minute attempt to make us like them nor dislike, which makes the film more engaging because we are able to develop our own individual connection with the characters. We find other ways to connect with the characters without the need to try and fool us into thinking they are decent people. The same goes for the main character in Manhattan, a character whom is often looked upon with untrusting eyes due to the fact he is a middle aged man in a relationship with a young girl, who then falls for someone else, only to realise he still loves the girl and then has to attempt to win her back. He is not a likable character and it is clearly a dysfunctional romance film, but this is made clear from the outset and so we know where we stand. We’re not fooled into initially thinking everything is fine and these characters are nice people, to later find we were deceived. Allen is very good at writing characters that are incredibly annoying or just plain nasty and yet the films are still engaging and we are still somehow connected to the characters on screen.

Obviously it is quite a tough argument because I don’t think there is a set way romance films should be written. What I don’t like is having a character rammed down my throat and then being told to like or dislike them. I don’t want to be judged for not liking a romance film when the characters were so annoying they ruined it for me. I would much rather make my mind up for myself. In some cases I like the characters and the film is better in my opinion, in other cases the characters are more annoying as so the film doesn’t work. Either way I am still an open minded film fanatic and so I am more than willing to give every film a fair chance.

Unfortunately I am never going to see eye to eye with TFIOS, let’s just keep it that way.

Further thoughts on ‘Her’ by Spike Jonze

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about the new Spike Jonze film, Her. The basis of the post was the different thoughts that occurred to me whilst watching the film, spanning from thoughts about technology to relationships and communication. Upon reflection I have thought about the film more and have realised one element that I liked about it the most: talking.

It’s an unconventional love story, taking place between a man and an operating system on a computer, but if you remove the idea of Samantha being a computer then the way she and Theodore fell in love seems more normal; they just started talking. That’s all they did, they had time to kill together and so just made conversation, talking about the smallest things. I think for a modern film to focus on this is very admirable.

Too many romantic films focus heavily upon physical appearance being the basis of characters falling in love. I’m red up of seeing boring and unimaginative films that are filled with comments like “oh my god he’s gorgeous!” or “hey dude she’s hot”. I found Her rather refreshing because it removes this element entirely, it wasn’t about physical appearance at all. In fact when Samantha sets up a scenario in which physical appearance comes in to the equation it doesn’t work, Theodore isn’t able to go through with it. There’s a real focus on the talking and it’s quite beautiful.

The film makes sense to me because of what happened between me and my girlfriend, Micaela, before we got together. We both attended a Halloween party last year, and this was the point in which I clearly liked her and people know about it. I had my friends constantly saying “kiss her! kiss her!”. I didn’t want to rush in to it in case she didn’t want to, so I decided to take my time. Now by this point I already thought she was beautiful, she had these I just kept drifting off in to, all I had to do was not embarrass myself  by being an idiot in conversation. We had spoken before many times but this was the stage in which I was thinking of making a move and so I had to choose my words carefully. And basically what ended up happening was that for the next three hours we were stood in the kitchen talking. It was really nice just to talk to someone without any distractions, and I fell in love. I fell absolutely head over heels. Granted it took another two weeks for me to pluck up the courage and kiss her, but I’m glad we shared the night of Halloween together, talking. It was one of those nights I look back on with great fondness, and I know I always will.

So, the point of raising that anecdote was to show that talking helped me not only find a girlfriend, but a best friend too, and that’s exactly what happens to Theodore in Her. I really liked how Jonze’s script was very dialogue heavy because it makes the relationship more believable, thus allowing you to build a connection with the characters. They’re three dimensional, so a sense of pathos is built at the right moments and then a lack of sympathy is even better placed.

Again like I said in the original post I like how the film doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, because it’s more realistic. I like the cyclical nature of the narrative; it was talking that started the relationship and then it’s talking that inevitably breaks it back down. It’s strong willed because it doesn’t try to explain the relationship in terms of fate; it clearly places the success and the failure of the film on human behaviour (and computer behaviour if you’re going to be picky and go down that route). It’s a rather Roman styled ending. It reminded me somewhat of Virgil’s Aeneid which is famous for having an abrupt ending because it displays the brutal reality of human behaviour. That’s what Her presents, it’s not an ending where scores are settled and people are happy, it’s more realistic than that. It’s aimed at a more mature audience who can handle what the real world is like without needing to dress it up and make you believe people are always happy.

Thinking about it the film reminds me very much of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise in which Julia Delpy and Ethan Hawke spend the entire film talking and building this relationship that’s somewhere between love and friendship. The two films have common ground because they’re based upon two people falling in love because they took and they talked. It’s like I said in my last blog post about film series in which I talked about Before Sunrise: sometimes the best weapon in a film maker’s arsenal is well written screenplay, and that’s exactly what you’ll find in Her as well.

The film also reminds me of Calvin from the film Ruby Sparks because much like he writes Ruby to be his ideal partner, Theodore has Samantha who is programmed to fulfil his every need. And in both cases the relationship doesn’t last, but I like that about the films. It shows how love isn’t about a checklist or criteria or even about controlling your partner; love is more uncertain than that. The two films deliver the same message about how falling in love is exciting because it’s unexpected. It’s like going to an airport and booking the first flight you see without knowing what you’ll do when you land. It’s about going out there without expectations, and finding something genuinely special. The problems faced by Theodore and Calvin arose because they expected too much of their partners and tried to mould them in to whatever they wanted them to be. If you look at films like the previously mentioned Before Sunrise it’s clear that the relationship worked because it was about loving someone for who they are, rather than for something they could be. And that’s a message I think we can all take away from the film.

I still maintain that I really like Her, it’s delicate and thought provoking and so proved to be a rather unique film experience. I’ve completed two blog posts on the film now and I still have more things to discuss so expect a third installment to follow in due course. The original blog post can be found on the link below:

https://adamdlester17.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/thoughts-and-analysis-of-her-by-spike-jonze/

But enough about me, I want to know what you think. I’m curious to know what other people have made of the film, so please feel free to leave a comment. If you leave a comment I’ll get back to you as soon as I can, either with a straight forward reply or with a blog post dedicated to you.

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Thoughts and analysis of “Her” by Spike Jonze

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This post was originally going to be a review of the film, sticking to my usual structure of going through cast, directing, writing and so on. But then I decided against that, because this film was different. It was a film that had me thinking constantly whilst watching it. The issues that were raised were very profound, and thought provoking, making difficult for me to actually give it a rating because I liked and disliked it on different levels.

It’s hard to describe the film to someone in basic terms without using the sentence “a man falls in love with his operating system”, because that it’s too basic, there is so much more to the film than just that. It’s not just about a lonely man who falls in love with a piece of technology, it’s about the human condition and what it actually means to be a human. I’ve never really been a fan of Spike Jonze so I did approach the film with caution, but I’m overjoyed to say that it completely raised my opinion of him as a writer. It is fantastically written, with a strong premiss and an even stronger screenplay the film is held together very nicely. I did have some concern because I have disagreed with the Academy’s choice for Best Screenplay in the past, but as someone who takes a great interest in script writing I would argue that this year’s choice was very well deserving and it’s the option I would have picked.

Firstly I would say to anyone who is thinking of watching the film it is very delicate. It’s set in the future with a glimpse in to the scenery you would expect to see in a science fiction film so visually it is very pleasing, particularly the use of colour and the prominent red throughout. However the film relies very heavily on the screenplay. There’s a lot of sequences where people just talk, but for me that is never a problem if it’s done well. In the case of “Her” I would argue that it is done very well. The characters are three dimensional and you develop a genuine connection with them, so when the character of Theodore, played brilliantly by Joaquin Phoenix, gets hurt then you feel sympathy for him. Jonze has added depth to the script so you develop this sense of pathos for both Theodore and his operating system, Samantha.

As I said before the film did raise some interesting points, and I actually started to keep a note of them as they occurred, for the purpose of going through them in detail. They’re linked to them film so if you have seen it you may understand a little bit more about it, if not then I promise there are no spoilers to follow.

Do we actually feel genuine emotion? – as Samantha points out her emotions are just pieces of programming that she has been designed with, so that could mean that humans are the same. If you think about it we are taught about different emotions as we grow and what their meanings are as a way of explaining how we’re feeling. So without being taught what they mean would we even experience feelings like love or hatred? And that’s what worries Samantha, the idea that she’s not actually feeling anything and it is all just down to design, it just made me think that maybe as humans we’re like this too.

Will technology actually get to be like this? Will machines talk to us in such an in depth manner like Samantha did to Theodore? – it was actually quite surprising just how fluently the operating system could talk, as if it were in a conversation. In turn this had me thinking, we’ve already got technology that speaks to us; Siri talks to us on our iPhones, escalators tell us to stand still and hold the edge, self service machines tell us to scan the next item, so will this go further in the future? I actually imagined being in a grocery shop and hearing a self service machine talking to a customer about the items they were buying, and it did give me a bit of a chuckle but again made me worried that this could happen. Some technology is designed to remove human contact, but we could take a step back again maybe.

People look worried when they see a man in love with his operating system, but we already have relationships like that today so it’s not all that bizarre – I was talking to people about the film before watching it and they all said the same thing “he falls in love with his computer? That’s a bit weird isn’t it?” If I’m being totally honest I don’t think it is weird. We live in a world where men and women have actual platonic relationships with a life sized dummy or doll and they can’t actually speak, so why can’t a man fall in love with something that can speak? In the film Theodore falls in love because his computer can speak. Surely that’s more normal than people who get married to their cars? But on the other hand, who’s to say what normal actually is?

Why do people get jealous when their partners talk to other people? – as the film develops we see it turn in a rather “Ruby Sparks” styled manner to the focus of the people in the relationship wanting to talk to others. As with most films that explore this topic it ends with either person being jealous, and it just had me thinking about why people get jealous in that scenario. We live on a planet with over seven billion other people who inhabit the surface, it’s an almost certainty that the person you love will have to interact with them at some point. For Samantha in the film it is different because she can listen to what her partner is saying and who he’s saying it to so paranoia can manifest somewhat, but with every day couples I can’t understand people who want their partners to talk to them and them alone.

“How can he be in love if he can’t see her?” – this is a question several people have asked me since watching the film and the answer is simple; it’s because they talk. I really liked how the film draws upon the point that physical appearance isn’t the most important factor in a relationship. I admire the character of Theodore because he is able to fall completely in love and maintain a relationship just by talking, which I think shows the true reality of what love is. I’m not understating the influence of physical attractiveness but Theodore clearly shows how language is key to falling in love. It’s not just about fancying someone, it’s about someone making you feel safe, making you smile, making you laugh, making you feel like you can be yourself around them and be accepted for who you are. I admit the scenes of phone sex are a misuse of the English Language, but aside from that he is a very clever man, with an impressive vocabulary and even more impressive ability to articulate.

The ending to a love film doesn’t always have to be happy – now for those who know me well enough you’ll know that if a romance film is done well then I will love it, I will absolutely love it, and one of the key factors that made me like “Her” so much was the ending. Now it’s not a spoiler to say that it has an unhappy ending because that’s just my own interpretation, but I rather liked the lack of poetic justice. I think it’s more realistic to show an ending that’s unhappy because too many romance films have happy endings that don’t represent life realistically. For me, I felt that “Her” presented the harsh reality and cold truth about love and relationships, but that only made the film more special.

What does it mean to be human? – I know it’s a bit heavy for a Tuesday morning, but the film does address the issue of the human condition and what it actually means to be human. It is an interesting topic and one that is explored in great depth within the film, to the point of Theodore and Samantha discussing the functions of a sigh. During conversation Samantha sighs quite heavily, which Theodore questions because he discusses how humans breath because they need oxygen, Samantha is a computer so why would she need to breath? It just makes you realise how tiny little things, like a sigh, can show just how human we all are. It reminded me very much of “Prometheus” in which the robot character of David fails to comprehend fear, excitement and most importantly the concept of faith. He even wears an oxygen unit when on the surface of the planet because he feels that it would make him appear more human, which again makes me wonder what it means to actually be human. All of the factors on the outside like smiling, laughing, crying they’re all just packaging. It’s more about how you feel.

What is our purpose? – it’s difficult to think about for us humans, whereas Samantha has a full understanding of who made her, why they made her and where she comes from. It makes me feel quite lost as a human because we don’t know why we’re here or how we even got here. It’s a chilling thought, but as Amy Adam’s character says in the film “I’ve come to realise we’re only here briefly, and while I’m here I want to allow myself joy, so f*** it”.

As I mentioned previously I did like the film and I’m not ashamed to admit that I liked it because I would say that it is a good film. It’s the first film in a very long time that made me think so much about different issues so it was quite a special experience for me, It’s delicate and well thought out with a terrific script, but I wouldn’t say it’s perfect. I know a lot of people didn’t like it and I can admit that it has got problems, which is why I want to view it for a second time to see if I feel the same way.

For the time being my opinion of Spike Jonze has improved and my opinion of the film is standing very tall indeed. I would recommend it to anybody who is looking for a good film. Regardless of whether you are interested in love films or not I would suggest watching it either way, you won’t be disappointed.

It was just refreshing to see a film that had a really good script as the most important element, and there are lines within the film that redeem it in my opinion. In fact I will leave you with the line from the film that I liked the most:

“Sometimes I think I have felt everything I’m ever gonna feel. And from here on out, I’m not gonna feel anything new. Just lesser versions of what I’ve already felt” her poster

500 Days of Summer Results in 500 Minutes of Over-Thinking

It’s only been four months since I turned eighteen and yet there are more signs appearing that I am a fifty four year old man trapped inside a young man’s body. I find myself feeling negative even after watching a film that’s meant to be funny. It’s not negative as in “everything is awful” or “I don’t like living” but it’s more just me thinking about why people are so annoying. 

I’m starting to consider the fact that it might not be films I dislike, but it’s the people in them that I dislike. It sounds silly because I know they’re not real, but I allow myself to get to immersed in to a film that for the time they’re on screen, they’re real people. It’s odd how I develop a bigger hatred over an hour and half running time for someone who doesn’t exist than I do for someone over a number of years who does exist. It’s the reason why films that are loved by everyone else are less enjoyable for me, as I found recently this is the case with the film ‘500 Days of Summer’. 

Don’t get me wrong, I like how the film is written and the style of it is very well delivered, it was a romantic comedy that I was able to sit through and find myself enjoying it, but it made me uncomfortable. It’s curious how romantic comedies are set up to make you like or dislike certain people, and even more curious how I can take this rule and turn it completely on it’s head. I’ve seen the film four times now and after each time my thoughts became more distorted, like so:

First viewing: “I dislike the female character. It was unfair for her to lead the man on and make him feel as bad as he did. It’s her fault that he ended up feeling so unhappy”

Second viewing: “Actually I dislike the male character. It’s his fault that he’s unhappy because she clearly stated at the beginning that she wasn’t looking for a relationship, so it’s his fault for jumping in too quickly and assuming it was a solid deal. His unhappiness is caused by his own stupidity”

Third viewing: “You know what? I dislike both of them. They’re not going to be happy together so there’s no point in them even trying to patch things up. I don’t think either of them actually know what they want because the line between friendship and having casual sex has been completely removed. If they’re going to string it out over a five hundred day period then they deserve to be unhappy quite frankly”

Fourth viewing: “I don’t like anyone in this film. The couple (if you can call them that) are just plain annoying because neither of them can look after themselves let alone another human being so they shouldn’t be trusted with the idea of a relationship, the friends are beyond useless because they’re written to be the stereotypical beer drinking, football watching guys that every American is supposed to know, I don’t even know why Chloe Grace Moretz is in this film because her character is about as important as the football she kicks around, and then the people that the guy works with are beyond irritating. Why do they care so much about stupid greetings cards? All of their ideas on love are so distorted, they just need to take a step back and think about their actions. Or are they all too busy singing Karaoke at the bar? I’m glad they’ve all stopped talking and don’t actually exist”

So when I said my thoughts became a little bit distorted, what I actually meant was that they spiralled out of control and lead to me not wanting to speak to anyone in case they annoyed me as much as people in the film did. It’s annoying how it went from being a film I actually quite liked the first time I watched it to being one that can easily irritate me when I think about it. 

It wasn’t just the whole relationship crisis that annoyed me in the film, it was the fact that Zoeey Deschanel plays the character that’s supposed to be different and mysterious…again. 

The word that is often used to describe the film, and Deschanel’s character in the film is “quirky”. It’s a word that annoys me beyond belief when describing a person, let alone a film. It’s a word that people use to justify being slightly odd, or dressing in a different way, or listening to music that others haven’t heard , or eating hummus in a onesie at three in the morning or blah blah blah. It’s a word that it used by so many people it completely negates the meaning of the word. Now to describe a film as that suggests to me that you haven’t got a lot else to say about it. It’s almost as bas as when a film is described as a “sexy comedy” because that suggests the best the writing team behind it could come up with was cleavage shots, a food fight and then a gag about male genitals.

Anyway getting back to the Deschanel’ issue, it was annoying how she was meant to be “quirky” because it made her character quite irritating, but then it was made worse by the fact they tried to link this behaviour to listening to the Smiths. Now I’m a big fan of the Smiths so it was annoying to see their name being used as another “quirky” interest for the young Summer. I like the Smiths but I’m not anything like Summer. I think the writing behind their lyrics is superb and it reflects so much about Morrissey, but I’m the sort of fan who knows that they have more songs than just “there is a light that never goes out”. 

I think it’s just one of those films that I like and dislike at the same time but I well never truly settle on one side of the argument. I will never go so far as to say I hate the film because it’s not that bad, but then equally I will never go so far as to say I love it because I admit it has flaws. I don’t know if I dislike it because I’m thinking about it too much or because it’s meant to be annoying, but either way it’s allowed the inner old man in me to moan, which shouldn’t be done on any occasion.

In summary the old man part of my mind doesn’t like female characters who flutter their eyelashes and have supposedly “cute” laughs, guys who don’t think properly about situatons, young people not appreciating old music, people who are named after seasons, greetings cards, and the word “quirky”.

After thinking about it for so long I’m worried what my thoughts on the film will be after watching it for a fifth time.