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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: February 11, 2019

Leave ‘The Notebook’ behind and watch these alternative Valentine’s movies

Written by: Dennis Perkins

Callahan/Shutterstock.com

“Indie Film” is here to save your Valentine’s Day – from boring “romantic” movies, at least. I’m not going to send you to Venice, or bake you an erotic cake or anything. Still, finding some off-the-path alternatives to the traditional and forgettable couples’ night movie fare is a better gift for your significant other than a box of chocolates, or even one of those pairs of underpants shaped into a rose.

For the couple looking to spice things up: Forget “Fifty Shades” of anything and watch “Secretary” instead.

I know those “Fifty Shades” books sold a forest’s worth of copies, but, at heart, E.L. James’ fanfic-level fantasies are, for all the paddling, deeply – if voyeuristically – judgmental about its protagonists’ dabbling in anything but the most conventional sexuality. (Plus, the movies’ stars so clearly dislike each other, it’s genuinely creepy to watch.) “Secretary” (2002), on the other hand, presents two characters (played by two tremendous actors in Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader) whose “unconventional desires” might stem from similar uneasy compulsions, but who ultimately discover that finding a partner with the complementary kinks is actually rewarding, liberating and deeply satisfying. (Plus, as if to stress the gap in quality between the films, Jamie Dornan’s wooden character in the “Fifty” films and Spader’s dominant are, strangely, both named Grey.)

For those looking to swoon about love in the face of death: Ditch Nicolas Sparks.

“Safe Haven,” “The Notebook,” “Message In a Bottle,” “Dear John,” “The Best of Me,” “The Lucky One,” “The Blandly Attractive White People With a Secret Who Kiss Beside a Picturesque Body of Water.” Sure, only one of those titles is made up, but if you’ve seen one movie based on the works of prolific romance weepies, Nicholas Sparks, you’ve seen them all, in their hanky-dampening, manipulatively tragic, “you know someone’s actually dead or gonna die” glory. But I kid the profitably formulaic hack. Still, who’s not a sucker for a tragic love story, preferably with a soupçon of magic realism or outright supernatural “love triumphs over death” magic thrown in? So try 1990’s “Truly Madly Deeply.” It’s got an attractive (if unconventionally so) couple, played by Brits Juliet Stevenson and the late Alan Rickman. It’s got tragedy – he’s recently and unexpectedly died, leaving her shattered. And it’s got magic, in that, with no explanation, the dead Rickman shows up back in the couple’s shared apartment, and they decide to just make it work. And never fear – as in all good (or, alternatively, Sparks-ian) afterlife-touched love stories – there’s heartbreak. (And the underrated Stevenson expresses grief like no one else in screen history.) Slyly funny, sweetly sexy and swooningly romantic all at the same time, it’s the sort of Valentine’s night film that won’t evaporate from your mind like Sparks’ wispy, wan confections. (As a bonus pick, try the 1976 Brazilian flick “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” where the stunningly sexy Sonia Braga has a similarly unexpected visit from her hunky dead husband and has to choose between his undeniably disreputable lovemaking skills and those of her staid, loyal new spouse.)

Watch the trailer for “Truly Madly Deeply”

If your other would rather watch a superhero movie: Trick him or her (well, him) into enjoying “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World.”

For one thing, it’s got a pre-“Captain America” Chris Evans and a post-“Superman” Brandon Routh in it. For another, it’s chock-full of imaginatively choreographed and witty fight sequences, as the titular Canadian slacker (played, in the role he was born for, by Michael Cera) finds himself forced to literally fight for the affections of new crush Mary Elizabeth Winstead against her “seven evil exes.” Directed by the always-stellar Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead,” “Baby Driver”), the film is a giddy, music-driven, whiz-bang of a comic book adaptation that, at the same time, conveys a slyly sweet examination of young-adult angst and infatuation that’s both surprisingly affecting and romantic.

Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman in “Truly Madly Deeply.”
Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Company

If you and yours think Valentine’s Day is one big joke: Laugh your way through “They Came Together.” Writers David Wain and Michael Showalter (of “The State” and “Wet Hot American Summer” fame) clearly love rom-coms. They also can’t help but craft this deliriously funny anti-rom-com out of the stale, sugary clichés that make most romantic comedies cloyingly sweet. Comedy gods Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler play the typical mismatched, starry-eyed sweethearts, whose road to eventual happily-ever-after is strewn with meet-cutes, contrived rivalries and some of the funniest people in comedy (Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, Kenan Thompson, Jason Mantzoukas, a dozen more), all slotted pitch-perfectly into side-characters you’ll recognize from literally every rom-com, ever.


COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

PMA FILMS
Thursday-Saturday: “Painting the Modern garden: Monet to Matisse.” PMA brings all of us trudging through a bitter Maine winter a splash of welcome sunshine and color in this documentary about how the great painters practiced their creative skills in their real-life gardens along with their two-dimensional canvases.

RAILROAD SQUARE CINEMA
Saturday and Sunday: “The Third Wife.” Acclaimed and visually striking period piece about a young Vietnamese bride (her polygamist husband’s third) whose seemingly idyllic life is shattered by secrets.

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