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Tim Grierson on “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the Best Thanksgiving Movie

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With Thanksgiving just around the corner, I was thinking about movies set around the holiday. Movies as different as the comedy “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” and the dark suburban drama “The Ice Storm” come to mind, but for me “Hannah and Her Sisters” is the best of the bunch — even though Thanksgiving doesn’t seem to have much to do with the film.

This Oscar-winning 1986 film from writer-director Woody Allen takes place over the span of two years and three Thanksgivings. The movie opens on the first of those Thanksgivings, as Elliot (Michael Caine), who is married to the talented and beloved Hannah (Mia Farrow), is nursing a desperate, unrequited crush for her younger sister Lee (Barbara Hershey). There’s also a third sister, the baby of the family, Holly (Dianne Wiest), who can’t seem to ever pull her life together. Though maybe more cultured and successful than most, they feel like a pretty typical brood with all the love and madness and quiet regrets that are part of every family.

If for some reason you haven’t seen this wonderful comedy-drama, I’d rather not spoil anything else in the plot, but suffice it to say that Elliot decides to act on his feelings for Lee, while Hannah’s ex-husband, TV producer Mickey (Allen), is going through an existential crisis as he ponders mortality and the meaning of life — in a very funny way, of course. These seemingly disconnected plot strands come together over the next two years’ Thanksgiving meals.

As you can see, Thanksgiving serves mostly as a framing device in “Hannah and Her Sisters;” it’s not integral to the plot like it is in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” But as I’ve re-watched “Hannah” over the years, I’ve begun to appreciate the film as more than just a touching, hilarious look at a group of well-drawn characters but also as a reflection of the emotions that are stirred up by the holiday — specifically, the complexities of family and the very notion of what it means to be thankful.

Allen’s films have often examined the inner workings of families — “Interiors,” “Radio Days,” “Cassandra’s Dream” — but “Hannah and Her Sisters” does so with a compassion that allows us to see these people for all their faults but love them regardless. Though her name appears in the title, Hannah is less the central character in this story than she is the guiding light for everyone else in her family. Her parents adore her, her younger sisters envy her success as an actress and a mother, and her husband — although he’s contemplating having an affair — is in such awe of her that he feels that she doesn’t need him. But being the golden child of her family doesn’t make life easier for Hannah, who has to be the resilient glue that holds everything else around her together. Thanksgiving is one time every year that families meet up, which is tough for people who have difficult relationships with their siblings or parents. So it’s understandable why Allen might have chosen this particular holiday as a motif: It’s during the film’s three Thanksgivings when major revelations occur and new understandings about the characters develop.

Then there’s the film’s grappling with the idea of what Thanksgiving means. Beyond the turkey, stuffing and football games, the holiday is supposed to mark a time for all of us to be appreciative of the good things we have in our lives. (If you don’t like hanging out with your family, perhaps the one thing you’re appreciative of at that moment is that you’ll be away from them soon enough.) While “Hannah and Her Sisters” is about a lot of things — art, love, faith, death, the Marx brothers — gratitude wouldn’t seem to be a major theme. But from the right perspective, it absolutely is.

In different ways, all the characters are looking for happiness. Lee feels stymied in her relationship with her domineering older boyfriend (Max von Sydow), Elliot longs to be with Lee, Mickey wants answers to the mysteries of existence, Holly wants to stop floundering from one failed pursuit to another, and Hannah can’t figure out why her husband suddenly seems so distant. Allen’s movies tend toward melancholy endings that aren’t always happy — he’d rather be true to his complicated characters than force tidy resolutions on them — but “Hannah and Her Sisters” (despite its often clear-eyed view of human foibles) was a rare instance when he gave his characters a reprieve, allowing them contentment as the credits roll.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Allen has lamented that decision ever since. “I copped out a little on the film,” he once said, “I backed out a little at the end.” He added, “I tied it together at the end a little bit too neatly. [My character] should have been a little less happy at the end than I was.” Maybe, but the film’s happy endings aren’t exactly gumdrops and unicorns — they come from the characters, at one lucky moment in time, finally beginning to understand what they have in their lives that’s worthwhile. Often, Allen’s movies are about characters striving for things out of their reach that they think will give them fulfillment. In “Hannah and Her Sisters,” at that final Thanksgiving, they recognize that life is never perfect but that sometimes we can cobble together enough happiness to keep going. Whenever I watch the ending, I’m always overcome with a sense of gratitude — not just for the experience of watching a great movie but also for the realization that there are reasons to be thankful all around us, if only we’ll stop and appreciate them. And, really, isn’t that really what this holiday’s supposed to be about?

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As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

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IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

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When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

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Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

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Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

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Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

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The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

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Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

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First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

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In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

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Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

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15. All My Children Finale, SNL

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SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

Tim Grierson on the Six Ways That the Oscars Are Actually Better Than Political Campaigns

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Now that the presidential election is finally over, we can turn our attention to another never-ending campaign: Academy Award season. As we move closer to Thanksgiving, some of the potential Oscar front-runners have already been released — “Argo,” “Lincoln,” “The Master” — with a bunch more coming very soon. I’ve mentioned before that, despite the many reasonable objections to the contrary, I remain a fan of Oscar season, and as I reflect back on the political campaigns that have been waging over the last several months, I’ve noticed several instances in which Oscar campaigns are far more tolerable than the buildup to elections.

Let’s be clear: I’m not trying to minimize the importance of elections. As opposed to Oscar handicapping, they’re actually a meaningful part of our democracy that can shape the future of our country. But after enduring months of political ads and televised debates, I recognize that certain elements of awards season aren’t nearly as toxic. For that, we can be grateful.

Here are six ways in which the Oscars are better than elections:

1. They almost never go negative.

Most political campaigns, presidential or otherwise, spend a fair amount of time attacking the other candidate’s positions. You and I can grumble all we want about the mudslinging, but there’s a simple reason why both Democrats and Republicans keep doing it: Going negative works.

By comparison, Oscar campaigns almost entirely are based on the merit of a particular film or performance. The Academy Awards may be a tiresome parade of self-congratulatory fluff, but at least the trades and Oscar sites aren’t filled with ads where, say, Warner Bros. tries to pump up Ben Affleck’s Best Director credentials for “Argo” by bashing “Life of Pi” filmmaker Ang Lee. At least on the surface, there’s an appearance of civility about the whole thing. (And the times that there hasn’t, it’s been a bit ugly. The backers of “A Beautiful Mind” had to confront a whisper campaign that alleged that their movie wasn’t a worthy contender because its subject, mathematician John Nash, wasn’t the heroic figure that he was portrayed in the film. It ended up not working: “A Beautiful Mind” won four Oscars, including Best Picture.)

2. There’s not a two-party system.

Every election cycle, observers wonder if there will ever be a time when a viable third-party candidate challenges the two major, deep-pocketed political parties. But aside from the stray independent — like Angus King, who won a Senate seat in Maine — you’re normally stuck with just two choices when it comes to President of the United States.

Money matters in Oscar campaigning as well, of course — studios can spend much more than small indie companies — but at least the little guys have a chance in the major categories. In 2011, “Winter’s Bone” (from Roadside Attractions) benefited from there being 10 Best Picture slots, just like “Precious” (from Lions Gate) and eventually winner “The Hurt Locker” (from Summit) benefited in 2010. Granted, these smaller companies are still competing with the big boys — even so-called indies like Fox Searchlight and Focus Features are part of larger studios — but at least their movies get to be part of the conversation. If movies were like presidential elections, those smaller films would all be Gary Johnson, a third-party candidate who ran for president and got almost no attention.

Not that the Academy Awards aren’t narrow-minded in their own way. While Pixar has helped break the bias against animated movies for Best Picture, it’s still incredibly rare to see an action movie or a comedy in the running for the big prizes.

3. They don’t make you hate the thing they’re supposed to be covering.

Despite the importance of presidential elections, the ceaseless campaigning can’t help but foster a cynical attitude toward politics and politicians. That doesn’t happen with the Oscars. Like I’ve argued before, the Academy Awards may be little more than a popularity contest, but they still do stir debate about what constitutes great films. You may end up hating who wins the Oscars, but it doesn’t turn you off from the art form as a whole. (If anything, it maybe just makes you hate the Oscars.) But even then, there’s still a place for you: Perhaps you’re someone more closely aligned with the Spirit Awards or the different critics’ prizes. Political elections can inspire people to turn apathetic and become disinterested in the democratic process. By comparison, if you’re mad that the Academy loved “The Artist” so much, you’re not going to stop watching movies because of it.

4. They don’t reward the same people over and over again. (Well, maybe not quite as much.)

Like a lot of fields, politics definitely has a bias toward name recognition: George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush; Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton; Ron Paul and Rand Paul. It doesn’t guarantee you victory, but it definitely doesn’t hurt your chances. And it goes beyond famous families: Members of Congress are voted in again and again because their constituents are familiar with them, even if Congress gets abysmal approval ratings.

This familiarity goes on in Hollywood as well. A respected actress like Meryl Streep and an acclaimed screenwriter such as Woody Allen have been nominated plenty over the years. And being the daughter (Sofia Coppola) of a celebrated filmmaker (Francis Ford Coppola) has its advantages. But I’d argue that there’s more turnover in Oscar nominations and wins than there is at the polls. For one thing, once an actor or director wins an Oscar, they tend not to win ever again. Sure, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, and Kevin Spacey and others have two for acting. And, granted, Steven Spielberg has two for directing. But when Oscar prognosticators start making their predictions, they tend to factor out nominees who have previously won, figuring that Academy members might want to reward a new face.

With that said, though, the Academy can still be a pretty complacent bunch, especially when it comes to technical fields. Sandy Powell and Colleen Atwood have each won three Oscars for Best Costume Design, and they’ve won all theirs within the last 13 years. Rick Baker has won seven Best Makeup Oscars in 30 years.

5. You can’t Nate Silver-ize them.

This year, one of the biggest stories in the presidential campaign was about Nate Silver, whose FiveThirtyEight blog had been stunningly accurate in predicting 49 of the 50 state outcomes in the 2008 election. Using a sophisticated mathematical analysis that took in to consideration different state polls, weighing their party bias and polling methods, Silver gave Barack Obama the edge to win this year’s election, despite considerable pushback from conservative commentators who argued that he was relying too much on statistics rather than intangibles such as gut feelings about each campaign’s momentum. (Additionally, they argued, polls don’t matter.)

Silver’s model was ultimately vindicated, but those who dismissed the statistician would probably love the Oscar horse race. Because the Academy doesn’t publish a list of its almost 5,800 members, it’s hard for news agencies to poll these individuals to see who they’re voting for. (Around the time of the broadcast, Entertainment Weekly will ask members of different branches of the Academy to reveal their ballot anonymously.) So, unlike Silver’s rigorous approach to crunching data, a lot of Oscar handicapping is an absolute crapshoot. Sure, there are patterns you can follow to make informed guesses — Silver did that himself a few years ago — but without much information about who these members even are, you can’t be sure exactly which way they’re leaning. (Plus, we never find out what the final vote total is.) We’re all going with our gut when it comes to picking the Oscars, and it does make for an exciting evening. Even if we think we know which performances and films will be crowned, there are always surprises.

6. In the end, the outcome doesn’t have any bearing on the real world.

When politicians run for office (or reelection), we the people decide who wins. (If we vote, that is.) That brings with it a responsibility that none of us should take lightly. You could argue, in fact, that it’s the most important thing we do as citizens.

By comparison, we have no control over the Oscars at all — unless, of course, you’re an Academy member who’s reading this. With a presidential election, you have a certain stake in the outcome, but when it comes to the Academy Awards, it’s all sport. That powerlessness is something of a relief, frankly. When the winners are announced on February 24, 2013, your and my life won’t change in any significant way. We’ll wake up the next morning and go about our day as we normally would. Having just gone through a contentious presidential election will hopefully give us all some perspective as Oscar season starts ramping up: There are bigger, more important contests going on in the world, and while art absolutely has its place, the handing out of little gold trinkets doesn’t mean all that much. Honestly, we’re lucky to live in a society that allows us the luxury of obsessing over such things as Oscars for months at a time. We should never take it for granted.

Tim Grierson on the Smart, Sexy Romantic Drama “28 Hotel Rooms”

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Every year, the Sundance Film Festival serves as a launching pad and seal of approval for worthy indie fare, and this January’s festival was no different, introducing the world to films like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “The Sessions,” “Sleepwalk With Me” and “Safety Not Guaranteed.” But sometimes, great movies fall through the cracks, and one of this year’s festival’s very best offerings is about ready to arrive in theaters. (It’s already available On Demand and through iTunes.) It’s a beautiful romantic drama called “28 Hotel Rooms.” When I saw it in January, I was pretty sure I loved it. Watching the film again recently, I’m convinced.

The plot of the movie, which is the feature debut of writer-director Matt Ross, is right there in the title. A rising-star novelist (Chris Messina) and a married accountant (Marin Ireland) hook up one night, having passionate sex in a hotel room. It would seem like a one-time thing — he lives in New York and she lives in Seattle — but they run into each other at another hotel later and decide to continue the affair. Thus begins a series of 28 hotel encounters that trace the arc of their unlikely relationship.

With a running time of just 82 minutes — and that includes five minutes of end credits — “28 Hotel Rooms” has several narrative quirks that add to its compelling design. For starters, we only see these characters in their encounters with each other in the different hotel rooms. We never see her husband, nor know his name, and we also have little idea about his girlfriend that he has in New York. We don’t even know the main characters’ names. The film’s habit of withholding information extends to where the characters are when they’re having their affairs, how long it’s been since their previous encounter, and also how long precisely their affair runs. “28 Hotel Rooms” exists entirely in what the characters might consider their parallel reality: a world of high-end hotels where they can escape their real lives and enjoy these brief, sexually-charged flings. Everything outside the hotel rooms is a mystery, a separate zone that’s off limits to each other and to us in the audience.

The film’s construction may remind some of “Same Time, Next Year,” a 1970s play turned into a movie that featured two married individuals who have a standing annual date to carry on their affair in a small California resort. But unlike that work, “28 Hotel Rooms” isn’t interested in making its characters be representatives of America’s shifting social values. Rather, Ross just wants to focus on these two individuals and their bond, examining how their clandestine relationship affects each of them over time.

Of the two actors, Messina is the better known: He was the supportive husband to Amy Adams in “Julie & Julia,” and he’s appeared on TV shows as different as “Damages” and “The Mindy Project.” Here, he plays a man who isn’t your typical one-night-stand sort of guy. From the beginning, you get the sense that he feels something for this married woman, even though she’s a bit withholding about what goes on in her life. (And because we never see them away from the hotels, we have to take the few clues we get into their worlds at face value.) Messina’s counterpart, Ireland, isn’t quite as high-profile, although she was a part of the “Mildred Pierce” miniseries and appeared on “Homeland.” (This summer, she played the daughter of Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep in “Hope Springs,” a nice piece of casting because Ireland bears a slight resemblance to Streep, particularly her sad, smiling eyes.) Ireland’s “28 Hotel Rooms” character is less emotionally available than he is. That’s in part because she’s married, but over time we begin to understand that it goes beyond that: She’s simply a distant person, although she’s incredibly warm and loving at the same time. In lesser hands, “28 Hotel Rooms” would be a schematic study of opposites — he’s an artist, she’s a businesswoman; he’s impulsive, she’s practical — but Ross and his cast love these characters too much to look at them as types.

Last year, we got not one but two Hollywood romantic comedies about unconventional no-strings-attached relationships: sex without the tedium of being boyfriend and girlfriend. “No Strings Attached” and “Friends With Benefits” both tried to flaunt their modern twist on typical boy-meets-girl love stories — it was meant to seem “sexy” and “naughty” — but they ended up as traditional in their attitudes as a Kate Hudson rom-com. The characters in “28 Hotel Rooms” travel down a somewhat similar path — their early encounters are filled with nudity and sexual banter, while their later meet-ups often consist of emotional, substantial conversations with their clothes on — but there’s a nuance to the story’s arc that makes its trajectory far from predictable. And it’s also an incredibly sexy film, not just because of the nudity but because of the intelligent, grownup construction of these two characters. He and she are smart, articulate, sophisticated people, and they have a warm rapport that feels genuine to the way couples actually behave, even if this particular relationship is far from normal. “28 Hotel Rooms” never judges its characters because of their affair, and in this way it’s actually nervier than those other recent movies, in which there really weren’t any emotional stakes.

When I saw “28 Hotel Rooms” back in January, I was quite taken by its structure, its performances and the subtle way in which it explores how all relationships begin with such passion but then must evolve if they’re going to last. Revisiting the film, I felt the same way, but I was surprised by another reaction: I had missed these people — not the actors, per see, but these two characters. Without realizing it, they had stayed in my mind for months, and I relished the opportunity to relive their hotel adventures. They make each other laugh, and they make each other cry, and they might not survive if they tried to end the charade and admit to their significant others that they’re in love. But I found myself rooting for them all over again, even though, as a married man myself, I probably shouldn’t be supporting such behavior. But I think that’s ultimately one of this film’s great strengths: It takes an adulterous relationship seriously enough that its contours become indistinguishable from any other romantic relationship. Musician Lou Reed once sang, “It always comes to this/It’s all downhill after the first kiss,” and it’s important to remember that he was in the midst of a long-term relationship when he wrote this lyric in an otherwise happy love song. All couples, no matter how contented they are, are always trying to keep a spark alive. In a sense, all relationships are their own self-contained mystery, unknowable to the outside world. With “28 Hotel Rooms,” we get a chance to peek inside one of them, and damn if it doesn’t speak to so many of our own.

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