Wednesday, August 19, 2009

#137: (500) Days of Summer


(500) Days of Summer
Written by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Directed by Mark Webb
Released September 7, 2009 (UK)

I'm sad to say that, considering my near love for lead actors Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (500) Days of Summer (I will be dispensing of the parenthetical after this mention) has turned out to be just a little less than the sum of its parts.

It's not that I don't appreciate the fact that director Mark Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Mike Weber at least tried to bring us a love story (or, a story about love) in a fresh way. There are some really fantastic moments of whimsy, like an out-of-the-blue dance number set to a Hall & Oates song or a brief black & white homage to European cinema.

Unfortunately, these little scenes serve to highlight the fact that the filmmakers were capable of doing so much more, of having much more fun, of being so much more creative, than what we're left with for the rest of the movie. For every truly moving and interesting segment (like the split screen presentation of how Gordon-Levitt's Tom hopes a dinner party will turn out, juxtaposed against the images of how it actually turns out), there are pat, conventional ideas like the karaoke scenes or the not-so-clever observations about the sentiments behind greeting cards.

I read a review of this over at IMDB which said Days was "one hundred times more authentic than the usual romantic comedy fare churned out by Hollywood." Problem is, this isn't true. I just don't understand where this idea of authenticity is coming from. Is it because the soundtrack features The Smiths instead of Carrie Underwood? If you've seen the movie, think about that awful ending and try to tell yourself that it would seem out of place if Jennifer Aniston or Kate Hudson were the woman sitting on that couch.

Sometimes I worry the indie crowd is too easily swayed by something that, metaphorically, is wearing the same t-shirt that they wear. I have been in far too many heated arguments about why I think movies like Juno or Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist suck despite the fact that their characters may like what I like. (To put it more succinctly, if Juno was a kitten, I'd put it in a burlap sack and drown it in a fucking river.)

There's a line in the movie that, while directed at Gordon-Levitt's character and his seemingly instant affection for the titular Summer, perfectly sums up my feelings about these kinds of movies:

"Just because she's likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn't mean she's your soul mate."

While I might appreciate the fact that I get to hear a montage set to the sounds of a Band of Horses song instead of a Nickelback fart, I'm still not going to be an easy lay. These things -- songs, images, pop culture references -- are supposed to accentuate a film, not define its personality.

These kinds of cues are really just a product of lazy writing. Why explain a certain character's background or worldview when all you have to say is, "He loves Joy Division" and your hip little audience will know exactly what you mean? And if they don't know about a certain band and therefore don't understand your shorthand, well, fuck them for not being cool. As a huge fan of The Shins, I can't tell you how embarrassed I was by the "The Shins will save your life" scene in the awful Garden State. Say what you will about typical populist Hollywood romantic comedies, but at least you can't accuse them of being elitist.

Another unique but not necessarily enjoyable quirk about 500 Days of Summer is the fact that the relationship presented in the movie is a story told in an episodic, out of order fashion. We learn from the beginning that this relationship is doomed to fail, and then explore the chronology to find the good and the bad. I found myself wondering if, without the gimmick of telling this story out of order, this movie would be a crushing bore. By cutting it into bite-sized pieces, Webb adds a little chaos into what would be a somewhat predictable bummer of a story. There are a few moments that are served well by this kind of editing, most explicitly the opening scene from Day 488 of their relationship which shows Tom holding Summer's hand as she wears a wedding ring.

Beyond those few scenes and the likable aforementioned moments of whimsy, the most enjoyable thing about Summer is the undeniable chemistry between Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel. Levitt's performance is especially affecting, as he is asked to cover the gamut of human emotions throughout the movie. He and Deschanel could have been just as satisfying reading the phone book to each other, as proven in this video for "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here," a song from Deschanel's collaboration with musician M. Ward. The three minutes in this video are more intoxicating than any moment in the movie:

For more on (500) Days of Summer:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Check out movie clips, bloggage and more at the official movie site.

The trailer:

#136: The Hurt Locker


The Hurt Locker
Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Released October 10, 2008 (Italy)

Anybody else out there used to watch the A&E show The It Factor? When I lived in Chicago with two of my best friends, we obsessively watched a season of the short lived reality/documentary show which followed nine unknown actors and actresses in their daily lives in Hollywood. While the program was chock full of weirdos and inflated egos, there was one stand-out performer whom seemed so dedicated and yet humble that you couldn't help but root for the guy every time he was called for an audition.

Ever since that show, I've had my fingers crossed for Jeremy Renner. Near the end of that series, he lands the lead role in a motion picture about serial killer Jeffery Dahmer. Renner would occasionally pop onto my radar after that, most notably in midsize rolls in movies like S.W.A.T., The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and as the hero in 28 Weeks Later.

With his lead role as bomb defusing specialist Staff Sgt. William James in director Kathryn Bigelow's (Point Break, Strange Days) newest film, Renner has taken the next and biggest leap in his career: a near definite Oscar nomination. That's because Renner makes what could have been a typical action movie role -- the "wild man" soldier whose addiction to high stress situations puts those around him in danger -- and throws in layers of complexity (charisma, humor, anguish) that humanize what could have been an unsympathetic superhero.

Of course, Renner is not without help from a fine supporting cast that includes bigger names like Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce, and lesser known talent like Anthony Mackie as Sgt. James's conflicted, by-the-book and utterly frightened next in command. While the movie follows Renner's company in the final days before its tour in Iraq is complete, the true focus of the movie is in following how everyone reacts to the presence of Renner's seemingly reckless bomb expert.

For Bigelow, who has made an entire career out of skewed takes on genre films (her Near Dark is an underrated classic vampire flick), The Hurt Locker is her masterpiece. In one sense it's an action movie, but it moves at a pace and level of constant tension that almost no action movie can pull off. Like an action movie, it revolves around a handful of setpieces, but unlike typical action movies these setpieces are not car chases or plane crashes, but rather isolated locations booby trapped with explosive devices. An action movie lets an audience live an adventure vicariously through its hero; by contrast, every time a character in Locker steps into a setpiece, we beg them to just walk away.

The other interesting element here that makes The Hurt Locker different from most other action or war movies is the fact that there is no conventional plot or story arc. There is no face you get to conveniently attach the "bad guy" moniker to, and no ratcheting up of the action to help us know that things are coming to a conclusion. No, in this war, every single day of this company's tour could be its last. Your fate remains the same on your final day as it did two months prior: wholly uncertain.

One of Bigelow's greatest achievements with the film is the fact that, unlike most movies covering the war in Iraq, its stance is apolitical. There's definitely a message here (highlighted and hammered home a bit obviously by a quote in the opening frames), but it's not what you'd call a "message movie." For the soldiers portrayed here, politics are irrelevant. A ticking time bomb does not take sides; it obliterates all with equal prejudice. That's not to say the film lacks depth, because it's absolutely no stretch to see this movie (especially the final 15 minutes) as an allegory for our country's addiction to war.

No female has ever won an Academy Award for directing. If any one has ever had a shot, it's Bigelow. (Special note must also be given to the sound editing and sound design here. Oscars for these categories are typically awarded to big budget, bloated action flicks, but I think this year The Hurt Locker is going to give tripe like Transformers a run for its money.)

For more on The Hurt Locker:
- Movie information at IMDB and Wikipedia.
- Check out movie clips and more at the official movie site.

The trailer:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

#135: The Good Life


The Good Life
Written and Directed by Stephen Berra
Released November 4, 2008

Holy Film School 101, Batman.

I don't know why, but I cannot seem to resist watching movies set in my home state of Nebraska. At this point I should probably know better, since the movies -- with a few exceptions -- are typically horrible (if you happened to read my review of the Dave Foley disasterpiece California Dreaming, I touched briefly on this compulsion).

In all honesty, it wasn't the setting that drew me to this movie, but the appearance of Zooey Deschanel and the convenience of it streaming on Netflix.

Its title taken from Nebraska's state motto, The Good Life is writer/director Stephen Berra's cinematic and questionably unintentional manifestation of every jaded high school poet's secret diary. Berra creates a fictional Nebraska town (I guess this is supposed to be Lincoln?) that looks more like a bad part of Detroit, inhabited by one of the saddest fucking sacks of a character named Jason (played convincingly by Mark Webber).

Jason is basically a mutt of a puppy that gets kicked around before our very eyes for 100 minutes. His father tells him he's ugly, and the rest of the family barely pays him any mind. He gets harassed and punched in the face by the town bully (a believable, if cartoonish, performance by Nebraska native Chris Klein). He works two jobs, one at a run down movie theater that somehow survives screening movies to two people a night, and the other at a gas station where every single patron threatens or abuses him.

Deschanel appears here, as she does in most movies, as the beautiful and sexually aggressive dream girl whom would normally be unattainable if she weren't a complete writer's construct. Examine her catalogue of performances, from Gigantic to even The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, if you don't believe my claim that she has been officially typecast.

There is some question about her character's background and her sanity, until a completely unbelievable reveal late in the movie makes her character even more ridiculous. The chance encounter that enlightens Jason to her identity is the kind of coincidence that most teachers of creative writing must beat out of their adolescent students.

The plot itself can be boiled down to a singular thought that every whiny emo kid from any "small" town has had while toiling through Junior High: "These people don't get me, and I can't wait to get out of this town." But at no point in the film does Berra prove that it's the town that is holding this morose little mope-bag down. He shows us nothing to make us believe that Jason has squandered potential (beyond having Deschanel literally say it at one point), that he has an extraordinary mind or that he'd blossom under a different set of circumstances.

Sad to the point of being absurd, this shoe gazing wank fest's most redeeming qualities are its consistency of tone (DOUR) and some quality lighting and photography. Berra has definitely made a good looking film that never visually slips into the amateurish and pretentious traps of his script where he asks the audience to understand barely touched upon plot points and how they might affect our character. For example: we don't wind up understanding why he hates football, or even the city in which he lives; we are simply told how he feels.

The movie even manages to make the ultimate mistake by having its main character, in a bit of narration, LITERALLY SPELL OUT WHAT HAS HAPPENED. Here, read this and try not to roll your eyes:

But it's not pain. It's laughing with your friend at a time when you shouldn't. It's the sweat in your palms wanting to know someone you see and the pit in your stomach when they actually see you. It's being touched by hands that aren't your own. It's the thrill of an escape that almost wasn't. It's the embarrassment you feel, naked for the first time. It's helping a friend find something they lost. It's a smile, a joke, a song. It's what someone does that they like doing. It's what someone does that they like remembering. It's the thinking of things you may never do and the doing of things you may never have thought. It's the road ahead and the road behind. It's the first step and the last and every one in between, because they all make up the good life.

Holy shit, right? To make matters even worse, this monologue plays over the exact scenes from the movie the character is referring to, as if we've finally decoded some secret of the universe. Ugh.

The Good Life opens with a tracking shot that follows Jason to what seems like the site of his suicide. As the movie flashes back to the events leading up to this moment and you witness the pinnacle of hopelessness that has become his life, you'll almost find yourself hoping that the kid really goes through with it. It's the only ending that makes sense after this movie spends so much time staring at its own shoes.

Unfortunately, Berra doesn't let Jason or his audience so easily off the hook, giving us a completely unbelievable last minute reversal of fortune that rings even more hollow than anything preceding it.

I think Film Threat's review says it best in the opening sentence of their review:

"Honestly, the fact that I didn’t shoot myself in the face after this movie amazes me."

For more on The Good Life:
- Movie information at IMDB
and very little at Wikipedia.

The trailer:

Monday, August 10, 2009

#134: Funny People


Funny People
Written and Directed by Judd Apatow
Released July 31, 2009

Have you ever met, or known, a stand-up comic? They're certainly a strange lot. I've known or befriended a few in my day, and the first thing that you realize after spending some time with a comedian is that they just aren't funny. I knew a guy who was pretty uncomfortable to be around in social situations. He was loud, kind of rude and never seemed to be able to engage anyone on a personal level because it always seemed like he was trying out material.

Onstage, when the time came to ply his craft, he was actually pretty good at what he did. Shit, the dude even won Star Search. But he was living proof that funny people, for the most part, aren't funny.

The same can be said for Judd Apatow's new overlong and heavy-handed film about comedy. It's weird, socially awkward and really just not all that funny.

Funny People was not helped by a confusing ad campaign that not only misrepresented what the audience was getting into (is it a comedy? is it a drama?), but totally GAVE AWAY THE FUCKING MAJOR PLOT POINT that Adam Sandler's character beats the potentially fatal disease that forces him to examine his life in the first place.

I'm sure you already know by now, but Sandler plays a version of himself named George Simmons, a once-hilarious stand-up comic who has gone soft over the years by whoring himself out doing terrible concept comedy films about mermaids and dudes who have been turned into babies. Simmons professional life has gone the way of Eddie Murphy and, well, Adam Sandler, raking in piles of money at the expense of his credibility.

Upon receiving the news of his imminent demise, Simmons is inspired to get back to his roots in stand-up. After a disastrous surprise visit to a comedy club, Simmons meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an up-and-coming (and fairly unfunny) comic whom he hires as his assistant and joke writer.

This was all Apatow needed for a plot, but he takes what could have been an informative and incisive look at comedy, fame and celebrity (shit, maybe even mortality) as seen from behind the curtain and instead totally fucks up his entire movie by throwing in a ridiculous third act attempt by George to reconnect with The One That Got Away.

It's with this turn of events that Funny People essentially becomes Dicks, with virtually no character becoming likable or doing anything that isn't completely selfish or despicable. We're presumably supposed to aim our laughter in the direction of Eric Bana's cheating husband Clarke, but by the end of the movie, you'll have more sympathy for him than any of the other characters.

It's an unfortunate thing that Apatow decided to go this direction, because the first half of the movie -- while still mostly devoid of big laughs -- is still fairly interesting, ambitious and handled pretty well. Rogen pulls of a friendlier than usual character, and Sandler -- while a bit detached -- has the dramatic chops to bring Simmons' angst to life. Funny People certainly looks a thousand times better than any Apatow movie that has come before, primarily due to cinematographer and frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski. Paired with tighter editing that does away with the typical Apatow-ian element that makes it feel like all the dialogue is being improvised, it's definitely the director's most "professional" work.

This tight editing is failed, however, by the movies absurdly long running time. Go see it with anyone you know... your best friend, your mother... and ask them when the movie is over which parts they would have left on the editing room floor. Chances are that the 20 to 30 minutes of footage they could do without might be different for each person, but each person's edit would more than likely result in a better film. Cut the ex-girlfriend, cut the James Taylor shit, cut the montage where George sings with his hired band. Hell, even cut the Eminem scene, probably the funniest scene in the movie but tonally stands out like a sore thumb. Give any jerkoff a pair of scissors and access to the negative and you'll probably wind up with a less boring film.

I realize my review sounds a little more harsh than I may have intended. It's not that I hated Funny People, it's just that I saw so much potential in it and was disappointed to see that potential squandered by the 90 minute mark. By going the direction he chose to go with his characters, Apatow winds up teaching them and his audience nothing about this world in which he has lived for the past twenty years. At best, the life lesson that George Simmons learns when all is said and done is essentially "I should be less of a prick."

For more on Funny People:
- Movie information at IMDB
and Wikipedia.
- Check out the fake NBC homepage for Yo Teach!, the terrible sitcom that stars Jason Schwartzman's character. A similar fake page exists for the works of George Simmons.

The trailer can be found HERE.