birds of passage

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by/nicholas leon
The Orchard/125 min.

Releasing four years after their debut film, Abrazo de la Serpiente (English title: Embrace of the Serpent) the Colombian filmmaking duo Ciro Guerra and Cristina de Gallego are back for another look at their country’s indigenous population, this time with a twist to the traditional gangster film.

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Focusing on the Wayuu people of the Guajira region, the story is set in the burgeoning years of the illicit drug trade in Colombia. But whereas an American audience might only know of or be interested in the exploits of Pablo Escobar and his ilk, the filmmakers take a look at how a Wayuu family gets involved and even on top, if only for a time. Told over the course of five chapters, in total spanning about a decade, the film chronicles the story of Rapayet, a Wayuu man with ambition than spans outside of his familial tradition, in the drug trade.

It’s hard not to compare debut filmmakers’ sophomore work to their debut, and I only do so now because I view these particular filmmakers as ones who are much more unique in terms of who they choose to focus their work on, compared to some of their contemporaries.

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Whereas Abrazo had a clear definition of what its characters were after and effectively showed how the characters’ journeys affected them, Pajaros (from the film’s Spanish title: Pajaros de Verano) takes a different tact. Time skips between chapters, visuals and dialogue which allude to things audiences are not entirely privy to, and other aspects make the film a bit more of a challenge than the previous one. I don’t think this is necessarily a detriment to the movie, but, at least in the early parts of the film, it was slightly puzzling, having to piece together how the characters made a small drug empire after selling only a couple thousand pounds of weed. Of course, through visuals and dialogue, the pieces are there, and I am glad that the filmmakers trust the audiences enough to be able to think on their own, but a little bit more connection would have helped to clarify what happened during that particular time skip from the first couple chapters. As the film progresses, however, it’s clear that the directors took that path in order to get the characters where they need to be for the latter parts. Even though it doesn’t trip the film up, it still comes across as a slight misstep.

But the filmmakers more than make up for this early stumbling block with stellar filmmaking and writing. Supporting characters like Ursula (Carmina Martinez), Peregrino (Jose Vicente Cote), and the friend-turned-enemy Anibal (Juan Bautista Martinez) supply the story with its tension, as each tries to help or hinder Rapayet in his climb. Of important mention is the role of Moises, played by Jhon Narvaez, who plays a pivotal role in the beginning turns of the plot. Each character has their own unique personality. Ursula is calculating, willing to take risks as long as it furthers her clan’s prosperity. Peregrino is the cool uncle who wants the best for his nephew, Rapayet. Anibal is reluctant to join in on the trade, but once he gets a whiff of the money, it all changes. And lastly, there’s Moises, who is Rapayet’s catalyst for entering the illicit trade. An alijuna (outsider in the film’s presentation of the Wayuu language), Rapayet’s involvement with Moises greatly impacts the way of life for his clan, and it is in this way that the film most prominently subverts the gangster genre.

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Great focus is placed on the Wayuu way of life. From courtship, to the power of dreams, to the importance of staying within the culture. As the power of money and illicit substances take hold on the various characters, we see respect for culture break down, and that becomes the continuous driving force of the conflict, up to the very last bullets that are fired. It’s refreshing that, in an Oscars year when the Mexican indigenous actress Yalitza Aparicio almost cinched Best Actress, that more filmmakers are getting in on these untold stories.

 

the competition (le concours)

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by/chris stevens
Metrograph Pictures/121 min.

Writing about a movie that opens with 1000 people writing about a movie makes you terribly self-aware of writing about movies. But that’s a perfect microcosm for the overall effect of Claire Simon’s The Competition, a documentary that follows the application process for hundreds of French students eager to study at La Femis, one of the most prestigious film schools in the world, but also one of the most selective in their admissions. The movie obviously revolves around film; film school, filmmakers, the film industry, etc. Movies about movies can easily breach aggravation thresholds, but that doesn’t really happen here because the impact and intention of the film has much less to do with cinema than it does with people, competition, and conversations that happen behind closed doors.

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Claire Simon and her team take a Wiseman-esque approach to shooting the documentary, acting as flies on the walls that have clearly gathered an extreme amount of footage, cutting it down into a smooth and well-paced 2 hours. She has an eye (truly, as she’s also the Director of Photography) for capturing conversation in visually stimulating ways, so despite technically being a talking heads piece, it never has the sedated energy those are known for, instead feeling consistently engaging. The structure is objective and detached, dropping the viewer into unknown stages of the application process — often times in the middle of interviews — without any idea of how far along in the process we are, who the person being interviewed is, what department they’re interviewing for, or how the interviewers feel about them. This means that we have to piece the information together ourselves and garner our own opinion on these applicants, rather than the movie guiding us into how it wants us to feel. This is a refreshing, liberating approach to documentary filmmaking that works particularly well with this subject matter.

 

What’s most interesting here is definitely the dialogue between the interviewers as they evaluate the prospective students. They are ruthless. The moment that the doors close behind these kids, they tear into them with deep, cutting critiques. Most of them are well thought out and well argued, but sometimes these criticisms can cross into morally iffy territories, mocking some of them for being “autistic,” or poor, or making bizarre racial comments. The interviewers can also fall into petty arguments at times, which adds a layer of skepticism for the audience, questioning how qualified these people really are to be making these decisions. Regardless, seeing their conversations and critiques grow increasingly heated and high stakes the farther along they get in the process is genuinely dramatic, tense, and just fun to watch.

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The major thing that The Competition lacks is a unique emotional weight. Not to say it’s devoid of emotion. It’s sad to see applicants call the school and learn that they haven’t been accepted, and there’s a really lovely sense of victory in seeing certain students make it into the program near the end. But since the movie doesn’t focus on any central applicants (we do see a few of them more than once, but never in a way that’s particularly emphasized), it limits the emotional impact. It might be a sacrifice worth making, as it also frees up the structure to be more interesting, but there are ways to do both. Something like Wiseman’s High School works in a similar structure about a variety of nonspecific students in educational institutions, but it uses that structural freedom to make a larger comment about the impact that these institutions have on individuals. It’s that broad, abstract commentary that leads us to a really palpable emotional place. But where this is so dedicated to its objective style, it can’t really make those comments either.

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But also this piece isn’t really operating all that much on emotional significance so much as intellectual significance. This sets out to be compelling in an academic regard, getting the audience to think about questions of criticism, art, artistic validity, and the challenges artists everywhere will face on the road to success. Whether or not they always overcome those challenges isn’t really the issue, the issue is just seeing how arduous it is to even try in a field as particular, unforgiving, and competitive as the film industry, or any artistic industry. This depicts that strikingly well. It manages to do what it’s striving to do through strong technical achievement, great pacing, and a fascinating structure, without being onanistic or falling into obnoxious film worship. Even though it lacks a fully realized emotional texture, this is still an effective film that gets you talking and thinking about questions that are complex, but worth the thought.

they shall not grow old

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by/nicholas leon
Warner Bros./95 min.

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They Shall Not Grow Old, the latest feature by Peter Jackson is a World War I documentary that changes a critical aspect of the footage it uses to bring one hundred year old stories to life. While there are certainly some other war documentaries on television that have performed similar techniques, none have done so with the personal care and attention to storytelling that Jackson employs in this film. Neither jingoistic nor judgmental, They Shall Not Grow Old takes a sort of fly on the wall approach in which viewers are constantly accompanied by the interviews of war veterans archived by the Imperial War Museum, which also provided the footage Jackson uses for the film. There are no talking heads discussing the physical or mental toll on the soldiers, or the overlying causes of the war, just the men who fought it, speaking frankly of why they went, or who they killed, or who they watched die. I say “the men who fought it” because the interviews seemed only to be comprised of male veterans.

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There is no chronological through line with which the film progresses. It begins with a veteran remembering that a fella in Austria got shot, and that’s how the war started. Then, with the accompanying narration, viewers are taken through the process of enlisting, training, getting more men to enlist, and then going to Europe. If you’ve seen the previews, then you’ll know that the hook of this film is Jackson’s conversion of archived, black-and-white film footage to color. Besides the fact that it was about World War I, a topic I am passionate about, this is probably the element that I found myself most excited for. But it is something that viewers, and in a way the soldiers as well, have to wait for. I wasn’t keeping time, but I would guess that the film spends something around twenty minutes, maybe more, during the preparation to go to Europe, only transitioning to color once the soldiers are in Europe.

It’s something to say about Jackson’s pacing that it feels so long for the film to get to what some may call the action. The black and white civilian life is contrasted to the horrors—and, what some of the veterans call—and adventures of warfare in ways both visual and not. Jackson provides the most direct visual allusion to transformation in the ways that he transitions from older aspect ratios to current ones, in the way that the images within the frame start small, but slowly the frame (and the images within) draws out to envelop the entire screen. The transition to color is mostly smooth, but there are occasional hiccups that should be expected when it comes to such a conversion. Depending on the discrepancy of frame rates, certain elements of the picture might move too fast, while others will move too slow. Faces sometimes morph expressions, rather than change naturally. But luckily these are few and far between, and the scenes are a wonder to look at. Additional audio is provided by voice actors and sound that replicates anything from tanks and artillery the sound of men treading muddy trenches.

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They Shall Not Grow Old does not lack for much. Being a first of its kind, it makes for a tremendous standard bearer for these types of documentaries. Prior to the start of the film, Jackson states that it only uses footage archived by the Imperial War Museum, so viewers know that they’re in for a documentary showing the hardship of the Great War from the mainland Britisher’s perspective. There is a scene however, towards the back half of the film, which depicts a battle. Going with the film’s vague approach, viewers do not know what specific battle they are about to go into (at least, in the way it was told, I know I didn’t). What follows is an arrangement of battle footage mixed with propaganda posters. It should be completely understandable that cameramen probably were not very keen on getting their large cameras set up with the very real possibility of getting torn to bits by machine guns, but I am sure that, with the amount of archive footage Jackson had at his disposal, that we probably could have gotten some more, rather than having to put up with vintage posters shouting jingoistic slogans. I understand the irony at work, but the film’s power lies in the authenticity of the experience it portrays.

They Shall Not Grow Old is something of a masterpiece. Combining modern conventions such as zooms condensing frame rates, and just adding humanity to something that seems so far removed from modern life is nothing short of astounding, just like the film itself.

2019 oscar nominated shorts – documentary

by/nicholas leon
Shorts International/137 min.

A word on ratings –

If you’ve been keeping up with my reviews of the Oscar-nominated shorts, then you have probably noticed that I have not been issuing ratings. Frankly, the reason for this is because I don’t think that I can properly give a numbered review to these shorts because, although they all have their own merits and shortcomings, they shouldn’t be overly discounted or praised based on a number.

A Night at the Garden – In 1939 a pro-Nazi rally took place in Madison Square Garden. Attendance was high, and white nationalist jingoism was the talk of the session. A Night at the Garden, in approximately seven minutes, shows, with non-diegetic sound, that Nazis infiltrated America a long time ago. Tense and foreboding, the piece is powerful, but is absent a few characteristics such as specific names of the speaker and perhaps some of the attendees. It is a tiny thing that I noticed, but I think it is more a jibe of personal taste than any mark on the artistic merit of the short.

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Period. End Of Sentence – An examination of individuals affiliated with an organization in India that seeks to educate women—and also men—on menstruation, which is taboo in certain cultures. In the beginning of the film there are a few question and answer sessions with Indian citizens over the topic of periods. Many do not know what they are, and although this may come across as tragic, to me it seemed as if the filmmakers were exerting a patronizing view over the perceived Western audience’s knowledge and privilege over these people who perhaps do not receive the same sort of sex education as the viewers do. But this quickly transitions to an actual story of a group of women who try to find distribution for a more secure type of menstrual pad, which is homemade, thanks to an invention by an Indian scientist. It is a small but triumphant snippet of those trying to educate people about matters of the body who otherwise would not get the chance. It does not examine lack of education in a broad context, but it is clear that viewers are meant to think about it. The film’s most powerful element is the awkward but true portrayal of family members speaking to each other about menstruation and then coming to an understanding of it, which elicits a raw emotion of understanding across the individual’s faces.

Black Sheep – Perhaps the most unique of all the documentaries, in which star Cornelius Walker speaks to the camera, and therefore the audience, about his experience growing up as the sole black member of a group of Neo Nazis while growing up in Essex. Spliced with dramatic reenactments, it is a human tale of someone doing something they shouldn’t for the sole purpose of surviving and searching for an environment that will take them in. This, along with the following doc, is my favorite among the selections, because it is so personal, and in a way oddly relatable in its more human aspects, specifically Cornelius’s relation to his father.

Lifeboat – A documentary chronicling the activities of a group called Seawatch, which facilitates rescues of migrants traveling across the Mediterranean towards Europe. The main rescue showcased, of two rubber boats and one wooden boat, is tense and dangerous. The rescue boat, crewed mostly by Europeans, is packed to the brim with hundreds of migrants. The documentary is brimming with the human element, showing interviews with crewmembers and migrants about why they make their respective journeys. Among the migrants’ stories are numerous accounts of slavery, incarceration, and violence. It is stark, frank, and devastatingly emotional. The smaller—and depressing—parts of the documentary are bookends showing searchers on the coast of North Africa finding and recovering drowned bodies of migrants who fell off the boat. It is a complement showing the risks that these people undertake in their journey for a better life.

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End Game – The last documentary I viewed shows the dilemma of patients and their families dealing with the end-of-life process. Touching on a number of families but focusing on one in particular, it is very much touch-and-go on the topics it explores. What ties the patients together is that they are dying, and a few are in palliative care, which is intensive attention by medical professionals to patients during their final days. It is ironic then, that the main patient the documentary focuses on chooses not to go into palliative care for the entirety of the short. This confused me, as the documentary gave me one topic at the beginning, but shifted throughout its runtime. The number of personal stories explored provides some relief from the narrative confusion, but in the end, the short doesn’t do enough to explore some patients beyond even one scene, making for an ending that, while certainly sad, doesn’t do anything to set up any emotional connection beyond the fact that people dying is an unfortunate thing.

2019 oscar nominated shorts – live action

by/nicholas leon
Shorts International/108 min.

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Fauve– A French-Canadian production, directed by Jeremy Comte, follows two boys playing around at a cement plant, the cinematics are what drew me in for this one. From the images of natural decay at an abandoned railway to the gray hills that confuse the viewer as to whether they are manmade or not, to the cross-stitching of asphalt and greenery. A mostly plot-driven narrative, the characters are relatable and their actions are believable enough that the power of the consequences exacted on them prove to be powerful, and leave a lingering feeling after watching. The ending, especially, is searing.

Madre– Shot in one take, this story concerns that of a mother trying to ascertain the location of her son, who is on vacation with his father (inferred as her ex) on a beach in France. The acting and suspense are what powers this piece so effectively, that, as well as the shooting technique. What’s crazy about this short is just how real it feels. A nightmare of the more mundane variety, the terror of potentially losing a child in a foreign country that is within driving distance, yet still being unable to find them when you get there, is palpable and pulsating.

Marguerite– A touching story set in the home of an elderly woman assisted by her caretaker, Marguerite is a touching, if fairly adequate affair. A slow-paced character study, viewers ponder the minds of the characters, until filmmakers show us what motivates them and their thinking. Marguerite is elderly and lonely, and looks to her caretaker Rachel for comfort when certain revelations come to pass. It’s certainly nice, but a little too slow and contemplating for my personal tastes.

Skin– In what is probably the timeliest of the shorts, Skin tells the story of a family of Neo-Nazis who are dealt some ironic punishment after participating in a hate-induced beating. Reminiscent of the short story “Cultural Appropriation” by Percival Everett, the short film pushes the boundaries of realism in a way that, although slightly bizarre, is oddly fitting given the themes that the short is working with.

Detainment– Essentially a long-winded, half-hour Investigation Discovery program, Detainment dramatizes the real-life murder of James Bolger. Usually, the tagline “based on a true story” brings moans and constant doubt as to the veracity of the film, but that would have been helpful here. Intense for the sake of intensity, the piece goes back and forth in time, making for a somewhat nonlinear narrative that, although intriguing at first, gets tiresome with the pained acting and zigzagging of emotions.

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An element of tragedy is the thing that ties all of these short films together. It’s similar to the animated selection in that they were all tied by the aspect of family relationships. But the difference between the two is that all of these shorts are unique unto themselves, which is refreshing. What I find interesting about these live action shorts is that they all function as short stories. The stakes are high for the people involved, and shake their world, with the ripples moving into ours. With that, I have to say that my favorites are Fauve and Madre, with Skin coming in a slightly distant third, if only because I feel like it could have examined its own

2019 oscar nominated shorts – animated

by/nicholas leon
Shorts International/75 min.

The past few years of the Academy Awards have seen a few controversies. From the overabundance of white nominees to the introduction of new categories to compensate for “popular films”. But something I only just recently noticed is the abundance of accomplished pieces in categories that may not get as much attention from the lay audience member – short films. Being someone of particularly low taste when it comes to anything concerning art, short films tend to escape my notice. So it was a pleasant surprise when I got the chance to review the selections for this year’s nominees in animated, live action and documentary features. First up for these were the animated selections, a group of touching, well-thought-out meditations on our relationships to family and others.

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BaoThe first short I watched was an amazingly cute piece from Pixar in which a mother watches her child grow from (in a metaphorical fashion) a small pastry into a human-size adult. It’s easy to tear up in this one because of the way in which the animators tell the story through visual displays of emotion, as well as music. If the short seems familiar, like it did to me, that’s because it originally appeared before Incredibles 2 last summer.

The animation quality is Pixar, so it’s nothing short of great. But what I admire the most is the consistent design around the human body as well as the geometric symmetry of the world. In relation to story, it is mostly cohesive, but the reliance on metaphor to show the growth of the son’s character is slightly confusing, but the ending makes sense out of the plot.

One Small StepAnother touching and a bit more thoughtful examination of a parent-offspring dynamic, this time of a father-daughter relationship from childhood to adulthood. Showing the relationship by a repetition of images in which the father is there for the daughter during her hard times, the short achieves its emotional objective by slowly showing how the relationship evolves in small steps and flashes back to certain images in ways that reminds viewers of the emotional significance of those moments to the characters.

Late AfternoonAn exploration of the life of an elderly woman named Emily intermittently through real time and flashback, as she examines objects of significance while sitting in a room in her home. There are clues to unravel in this particular short, such as who the woman is, and who are the people around her. In this way, the viewer is firmly planted into the mind of the protagonist, and with the assistance of visual clues, can piece together her life alongside her. The animation is simple with lines that clearly define the character, going from a simple sort of realism to wavy abstraction from one scene to the next as Emily transitions from real life to memory. It compliments the scenes, which are narratively simplistic but emotionally powerful.

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Animal BehaviourAn interesting and profoundly more mature take on relationships, this short takes a look at a group therapy session populated by anthropomorphic animals. In a way, this pairs literal animal behavior with emotional needs of human beings. This makes what happens both hilarious and terrifying, and the mature themes make for a unique character study that I find lacking in the other shorts. Ultimately it is at once supremely dark and comic and perhaps the most unique out of all the selections.

WeekendsThis short is about a boy caught between his mother and father, staying with the former during the week, living a mundane if stress-filled life; while on the weekends he goes to live with the latter in the big city. The detail of the animation style is intense, with the environments and people having a dreamlike, chiaroscuro element to them. Although this short does a good job of showing the emotional growing pains of its characters, sometimes the dreamlike qualities can outweigh the more realistic elements in a way that is not entirely satisfactory. But the ending makes up for it with a quiet, emotional satisfaction of well-paced character development through constant hardship.

Out of all the shorts, I think that Late Afternoon and Animal Behaviour were my favorites. The other three were terrific, but Bao and One Small Step ultimately proved to be too similar to really stand out in anything besides their animation. Weekends is fine, but its reliance on dream imagery to communicate what the characters feel weren’t nearly as strong as simple evocation of human displays of emotion. Late Afternoon and Animal Behaviour both take a different tact in how they approach their examination of relationships in unique ways that resulted in unique resolutions for the stories.

cold war

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by/chris stephens
Amazon Studios/89 min.

Visually speaking, Cold War is probably the most accomplished film from 2018. You could pick any shot at random and it would be a strong contender for the poster. The restrained black and white cinematography nicely compliments frames filled with vibrant, dynamic action: dancers spinning and twirling. Lively bands playing music. Our leads drunkenly stumbling after each other, or dancing on bar tops, or walking alone through busy streets at night. Even smaller things like trails of cigarette smoke or a look in someone’s eye, there’s always something interesting and active to look at on-screen. Beyond that, the production design, costumes, and wig and make-up really sell the time period of the film, which spans nearly 20 years during the actual Cold War as two artists fall in love. But unfortunately, that love doesn’t exactly feel real.

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The story follows Zula and Wiktor (Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot, respectively). When we first meet them, Zula is a peasant woman with an excellent singing voice, and Wiktor is a composer and pianist. Over the course of 20 years, the only consistencies in both of their lives are music and each other. But the structure here is rapid, those 20 years fly by over the course of 88 minutes, and we’re always finding ourselves at the most dramatic, intense moments in the lives of these characters because there’s no time for anything else. We see the big melodramatic set-pieces, but none of the build-up necessary to give those things any weight. I don’t believe that these two really love each other. I understand that they do, because the movie tells me they do, but I don’t feel it. This high-speed pace gives me all of the information, but it cuts off the emotion.

Kulig and Kot do their best, though. I believe their performances. Kulig is definitely the strongest of the two, she brings Zula to life with a big and boisterous performance without ever being overt or obnoxious. Zula is someone with troubles, who feels things very strongly and wears that on her sleeve. She is lively and spirited, but when that energy breaks down it feels almost catastrophic, and Kulig captures that wonderfully. Kot is far more subtle in his approach, and at times he can seem somewhat dull, but for the most part you get the sense that he is fully in control of his emotions at all times. The things he can do with a simple look are incredible. There’s a quiet sense of nuance to him, and this plays well off of Kulig’s more animated and exuberant acting.

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And the film isn’t totally emotionally vacant. There are some great scenes that play really well. The opening takes place at a conservatory in Poland for song and dance, and that entire sequence feels alive and captivating. There’s a dinner party with some of Wiktor’s friends from the French entertainment industry that’s meant to convey how the “opposites attract” nature of Wiktor and Zula’s relationship can also be detrimental to them at the same time, and it does so in a painful and explosive way. The ending of the film is visceral and fantastic, and there are many other, smaller beats peppered throughout that manage to resonate, either through the beautiful visuals or the strength of the performances.

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This is by no means a bad film, but it might be an ungraceful film. It has high ambitions and high talent to back those up, but there are major pacing and structural issues built into the story that ultimately damage the development of the narrative and the characters, which hinders the emotional impact. I always understand what’s happening and why, and how these people have changed and grown, but I don’t feel it. Not really. Sometimes I do, in blips, and those are the heights, but I never get the time to see these two people get to know each other. I never get to watch their passion and love organically evolve. It just feels forced. And despite all of its strengths, nothing can really fix that.