I’ve long held that the best single-line summary of every unsuccessful relationship ever occurs in High Fidelity (one of the very best “relationship” movies ever). Upon discovering that his girlfriend, Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), has begun sleeping with somebody else, Rob (John Cusack) stands outside her apartment in the pouring rain and shouts up towards the window:
“Charlie, you fucking bitch—let’s work it out!”
In (500) Days of Summer, Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) spends much of the movie acting out a very similar sentiment towards his girlfriend, Summer (Zooey Deschanel). He’s simultaneously pissed at her for breaking up with him and yet still very much in love with her. The movie documents the course of their entire relationship, from day 1, when he meets her, to day 500, when he finally gets over her after a long and painful breakup process. The story is told out of order, with each section introduced by a card specifying on which of the 500 days of their relationship it’s taking place.
It’s a fun storytelling device, and it works well, particularly in highlighting the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum between which Tom oscillates. On day 29, he’s blissful and dancing on his way to work, but then the next scene is day 290, and she’s just told him she doesn’t think they should see each other anymore. Or maybe it’s the other way around. The order here isn’t as important as the pendulum-like swings, and the style lends itself well to emphasizing the extremes. One moment he’s calling her a bitch, the next he’s imploring her to work things out.
First-time director Marc Webb employs other stylistic tricks as well, the net result being a fun film that maintains a light and playful tone throughout, despite the fact that its primary emotion is heartbreak. Along with the non-chronological storytelling and the titles explicitly spelling out which point in the story we’re at as it progresses, there are split screens and other framing tricks, a humorous musical number, and a creatively clever post-breakup scene that /Film called “must watch”:
Although it may seem like I’m giving away too much by revealing that Summer breaks up with Tom, the end of their relationship does not play the same storytelling role it does in your typical romantic comedy (usually as the second-act climax, which is then resolved in “heartwarming” fashion by the end of the third act). In fact, the breakup itself is one of the earliest scenes in the film. The focus instead is on how Tom attempts to deal with it as he reflects upon the entire course of their relationship. The narrator even informs us that we “should know up front, this is not a love story.”
Said narration is an example of the screenplay going a bit overboard in pulling out every trick in the bag, and it’s one that doesn’t quite work as well as some of the others. Having a narrator is fine for the trailer, but in the film itself it feels a little cumbersome and totally unnecessary. To use the above clip as a further example, the subtitles designating “Expectations” and “Reality” should be sufficient for the audience to understand what’s being depicted, but the script feels the need to make use of an expository introduction to that scene, with the narrator blatantly explaining what we’re about to see. As opposed to a film like Little Children, which used narration as a means of helping to solidify its “fairy tale for adults” tone, here it’s an annoying crutch used by first-time screenwriters who don’t seem to have sufficient faith in their characters to convey the story on their own.
These characters are able to tell their story through their actions alone, though, thanks to good performances from the two leads. The best thing that can be said about a movie like this is that it makes you believe you’re watching real people in real situations, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel certainly pull that off. There’s a bit of an overabundance of all-too-hip pop-culture references, but they’re effective at establishing Tom and Summer as true-to-life characters. One such reference even works as a subtle bit of foreshadowing: of course a chick who you’re introduced to via her love of mopey music like The Smiths is going to end up breaking your heart. The supporting cast also feels very real, particularly Tom’s friends, whose ruthless ribbing knows no bounds (most noteworthy is Geoffrey Arend, who plays the role of the brutally honest sidekick). There’s also a nice beat involving karaoke that serves the same function as the bridge scenes in Adventureland to which I was just recently referring, and it’s almost as resonant—not to mention almost as uncomfortable.
I don’t know why the title of (500) Days of Summer has the number 500 in parentheses, other than it being another example of a slightly over-the-top stylistic choice. These choices tend, more often than not, to be clever and welcome ones, adding up to a refreshing take on a sometimes oversaturated genre, and providing a fresh twist on it in the process.
Status: In theaters (opened 7/10/09)
Directed By: Larry Charles
Written By: Sacha Baron Cohen & Anthony Hines & Dan Mazer & Jeff Schaffer
Cinematographers: Anthony Hardwick and Wolfgang Held
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Gustaf Hammarsten, Clifford Bañagale
You can’t recreate spontaneity. This is something I’ve experienced in my own life a lot: this collection of people found themselves at that location and ended up having a great time, so at a later date somebody tries to get the same people in the same place, hoping to have another similar experience. But it never works out that way. By trying to forcibly revisit a scene that developed organically the first time around, you lose the very essence of what made it so magical in the first place. This is an emotional truth (one of many) that Adventureland absolutely nailed: the main character, James, takes a date to “park” under a bridge, and they end up really connecting and experiencing an eye-opening moment. Later, on a date with another girl, he returns to this same location, but the magic isn’t there, and the result is an awkward attempt at forcing a “moment” that never comes.
What does this have to do with Brüno? Well, the whole movie felt to me like Sacha Baron Cohen and Larry Charles continually returning to the bridge they found themselves under with Borat, but never locating the same magic.
The problems start with the difference of character: whereas Borat was the naive but lovable foreigner who could coax people into revealing their prejudices by simply playing the role of the outsider, Brüno, an over-exaggerated gay stereotype, is abrasive and confrontational. He’s not so much coaxing his subjects into revealing their anti-gay prejudices as just going out of his way to piss them off. A lot of the bits seem like they’d play out exactly the same no matter which character you put in Brüno’s place. He goes on a hunting trip with some manly-men, and the real shock is how tolerant they are of his constant badgering. In the middle of the night, Brüno crawls naked up to one of the hunters’ tents, waking him up, and asking if he can come in. The response is surprising only due to how measured it is; it doesn’t reveal the guy’s homophobia, it reveals his desire to sleep without being disturbed. Nothing to see here.
Perhaps sensing that he wasn’t getting the kind of coverage needed from his interview subjects this time around, Baron Cohen makes Brüno himself the primary focus, opting to go for shock value above all else. This, too, feels overly forced, not unlike the decidedly unfunny style of “shocking” comedy attempted in Jody Hill’s recent Observe and Report. There’s a talking penis, a contraption similar to the “surprise” George Clooney’s character made for his wife in Burn After Reading, and a gratuitous sex scene with Brüno and his pygmy companion (Clifford Bañagale) which inspires more laughs for its use of black censor bars than for the acts depicted themselves.
The one section that stands out as truly shocking is when Brüno holds a casting call for a show that will involve children, and the extent to which the kids’ parents are willing to go in search of celebrity is appalling. (I think I might’ve been even more shocked by this were I not used to hearing tales of bad parenting on a daily basis from my wife, who teaches preschool in the city.) Even this, though, like the rest of the movie, feels obviously staged to a much greater extent than even the most contrived scenarios in Borat. This film’s worst such example, though, is its final scene, which I won’t give away here—it’s probably the only segment of the film not spoiled by the trailers—except to say that it provides a grand, final letdown of a gesture to a film that already seems beyond redemption by that point… and proves it to be so.
As I was just saying of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, Brüno too feels almost like an attempt by has-beens trying to relive their previous glory—though I certainly hope that is not the case (with either film). There’s an extremely loosely-constructed narrative that follows the format of Borat all too closely, including a producer companion (Gustaf Hammarsten) who tries to keep the lead character on track. The various set-ups and sketches are edited together randomly, with nothing cohering one to the next. The movie’s ostensible goal is to expose some truths about our culture’s obsession with celebrity, but it goes about proving this point in the most subjective way possible, by having Brüno himself seek to become famous by any means he can. It reminded me a bit in this regard of Super Size Me, in which a guy who wanted to prove that eating McDonald’s makes you sick ate some McDonald’s and then pretended to get sick. There’s no insight to be gained from such a tactic, and Brüno provides painfully little humor as a fallback, leaving virtually nothing of note left to speak of.
Status: In theaters (opened 7/1/09)
Directed By: Michael Mann
Written By: Ronan Bennett and Michael Mann & Ann Biderman
Cinematographer: Dante Spinotti
Starring: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard
Michael Mann has made a fantastic film that examines both sides of a classic cops-and-robbers tale in a modern way. It shows not only the actions of the good guys and the bad guys, but their backgrounds, motivations, and personal lives as well, comparing and juxtaposing the similarities between his fully-realized characters on both sides of the law. It portrays the fine line that exists between the two vocations, and makes you as an audience feel for the cops, the criminals, and their wives and girlfriends as well. Its conclusion feels simultaneously inevitable and regretful, further establishing the blurred picture of good-versus-evil that his film spends two and a half hours painting, while solidifying the dichotomy exemplified by the two leading men.
This film is not Public Enemies, although I’m quite sure Mann would love it if his most recent film could fit that description. The film described above is Heat, and unfortunately Public Enemies is unable to live up to that previous masterpiece, but it’s not for a lack of trying. Everything about this movie makes it seem like it had a single-line pitch: “Heat, but with Dillinger.” That’s what it feels like, only the execution in nearly every facet isn’t as good.
I still remember walking out of the theater after seeing Heat, with a friend who commented, “I loved that movie… but then again, they could make a movie that’s nothing but Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sitting in adjacent stalls in a bathroom for two and a half hours, and I’d probably love that, too.” It’s tempting to feel a similar sentiment heading into Public Enemies: Johnny Depp as John Dillinger and Christian Bale as the G-man who pursues him sounds like, if nothing else, a formula for a showcase of acting and characterization (while Bale has been a dud in his two most recent films, he’s still capable of being one of the best actors working today when he really commits himself to a role). And indeed, this is the one area in which Public Enemies really succeeds: the performances throughout are excellent, and not just the two leading men, but also the absolutely enchanting Marion Cotillard as Dillinger’s love interest, and a supporting cast that counts Billy Crudup in a spot-on rendition of J. Edgar Hoover as one of its highlights. (I also loved seeing Jason Clarke from Showtime’s Brotherhood in a significant role.)
The material the cast is given to work with, unfortunately, is not sufficiently developed to be carried by their performances alone. This script is not at all interested in exploring the human side of its characters; they exist simply as states of being, with no background or motivation or development to be found. Dillinger is a man who robs banks just to rob banks, and that’s all we’re given. That Depp manages to evoke any sort of sympathy from his performance is almost a miracle. Bale’s character, Melvin Purvis, seems like he might have an interesting story, but we are never privy to it; we’re introduced to him as he chases a bad guy (Pretty Boy Floyd, played by Channing Tatum), and as far as we know that’s all he does. There is absolutely no sense of who these people are or, more importantly, what causes them to be who they are. They’re characters in the most superficial sense.
Thankfully, they do something a bit more interesting than sitting on toilets, although it’s almost as monotonous. I didn’t count, but there had to have been at least half a dozen major shoot-out scenes in this film, and none of them had anything resembling the brilliance or technical accomplishment of the iconic scene from Heat. Mann prefers to shoot his shoot-outs in Public Enemies almost exclusively in claustrophobic close-ups, often with shaky hand-held photography, providing no sense of where the characters are in relation to each other, and making it nearly impossible to even tell what’s going on. This is certainly not helped by his choice to use digital cameras and to shoot the majority of these scenes at night; the result is a grainy, pixelated jumble that only contributes to the audience’s sense of confusion. It’s an impressive (in a bad way) feat to make shoot-outs involving one of the most infamous criminals in history feel boring, but that’s the net effect here: it’s too hard to see what’s happening, so it just ends up feeling like a randomly-edited collection of unrelated shots of muzzle flares and indistinguishable people hiding behind trees, corners, and cars.
This isn’t to say that it’s all bad. As I mentioned, Marion Cotillard is beautiful and mesmerizing, and her character’s introduction to and ensuing relationship with Depp’s Dillinger is pretty much the only character development in the whole film. That it’s not fully fleshed out comes as no surprise given the rest of the movie, but at least there’s some semblance of traditional storytelling to be found. The overall narrative—what there is of one—is extremely linear and singularly focused: here’s a bad guy, here’s a good guy; the good guy chases the bad guy, they get into shoot-outs, the bad guy gets away, rinse and repeat until the final confrontation. It’s almost as if a fan of Heat tried to make his own movie, using well-known historical figures rather than bothering to come up with characters of his own, and doing a piss-poor job of emulating Michael Mann’s style. That it’s actually Michael Mann himself behind Public Enemies would be almost sad, if he didn’t redeem himself somewhat by eliciting great performances from his cast, and by anchoring his story with a couple of pivotal scenes amongst the endless shoot-outs.
I’m even a bit confused as to why the title is plural. The film only focuses on Dillinger, with the other “public enemies” almost completely relegated to the background. This is sort of indicative of the film as a whole: it wants more to simply have an engaging story than to actually work to establish one. As Ebert is fond of saying, it knows the words but not the music; these are great characters, and a great film could be made about them, but you actually have to do something with them to get to that point, and unfortunately Public Enemies finds itself mostly at a loss in this regard.
I took a few weeks off to attend to some real life stuff, which I’ll blog about in the near future, but for now I’ve got at least 4 film-related entries I’ve been working on, so we’ll get to those first.
Status: In theaters (opened 5/29/09)
Directed By: Pete Docter
Written By: Bob Peterson and Pete Docter
Cinematography: Jean-Claude Kalache, Patrick Lin
Starring: Edward Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai
Evoking genuine sympathy in an audience for a character is hard enough to do with real actors, so it’s even more impressive when an animated film is able to accomplish such a feat. This is doubly true when it does so better than many live-action movies, at that. This is largely the case with Pixar’s Up, which tells the story of an elderly man named Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) who sets out to fulfill his lifelong dream of adventure. After losing his wife in one of the most strikingly touching introductory scenes I can recall, Carl heads to South America via a very unique mode of transportation: he attaches hundreds (thousands?) of helium balloons to his house, turning the whole damn thing into an airship and setting course for the fictional Paradise Falls in Venezuela.
In South America, Carl finds the adventure he’s always longed for, thanks in part to his bumbling young Wilderness Explorer companion, Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai). They find a long-lost explorer and Carl’s boyhood hero, Charles Muntz (voiced by Christopher Plummer), who had been believed lost but has really been stubbornly remaining in South America until he finds a giant exotic bird that he’s just sure exists. Muntz is also a whacky professor of sorts, having invented voice boxes for his sole companions, a large pack of dogs that serve and protect him. These devices function much like the gorilla-speech gimmick from Congo, although unlike in that film here they’re at least intended to be funny. The dogs fill a familiar role common to all movies that follow the now-well-known Pixar template, the formulaic adherence to which is this film’s biggest disappointment.
After the very emotional and very adult opening act, the rest of the movie’s hijinks come as somewhat of a letdown. This is the second film in a row (after WALL-E) where Pixar has shown that they are fully capable of making mature, well-told stories with a lot of embedded social commentary, but also that they are happy to eschew their brilliant set-ups to appeal to their core audience of children. Up keeps its focus a little better than WALL-E did, though, by not as thoroughly abandoning its opening premise in the name of screwball comedy and routine, over-tread chase scenes. Muntz’s dogs, for instance, are search-and-replace updates to the robots from the Axiom in WALL-E. One of them in particular—the requisite black sheep with a heart of gold—becomes the Jar-Jar Binks of this film. I’m sure the kids love it, though.
It’s hard to know how to judge a movie like this. I’ve heard it’s a very “serious” film, been told that it’s as appealing to adults as it is to children, and that I should take it seriously as an important work of art. It opened Cannes (the first-ever animated feature to do so). And yet, about two-thirds of the movie is, to me, nothing more than yet another rehash of The Brave Little Toaster‘s formula, which animated films have been recycling for over 20 years now (including those produced by the venerable Pixar). That said, for what it’s trying to do, it does it very well, and framing the zaniness with a real human story is certainly preferable to the alternative of churning out yet another mindless piece of children’s entertainment.
Still, I find myself wondering if a guy like Pete Docter wouldn’t be better off going all-in with a real story and avoiding the kiddie-bait altogether, whether he did it as an animated feature or as live action. I’ll not presume to know his aspirations, but it feels to me like in the recent Pixar films (especially WALL-E and now Up) there is a talented and visionary writer behind them who is forced to sneak his true stories into what would otherwise be juvenile animated features. Then again, maybe that’s the intention all along, and while that might be a good thing as far as the children in the audience are concerned, it also proves to be a bit unsatisfying for the adults.
This was the second film I’ve seen in 3D, utilizing the RealD technology, after Coraline. Whereas that film was very dark (both thematically and visually), however, Up is meant to be bright and vibrant, with a vivid color palette and many beautifully rendered vistas throughout. In this regard, having to wear polarizing glasses greatly diminishes the visual aesthetic of the film, as all of the colors are dampened at the sake of adding the third dimension. Despite the fact that the 3D effects are done tastefully and unobtrusively, this aspect alone makes it not worthwhile. My recommendation would be to see this movie in 2D and forgo the RealD experience this time around, fun as it may appear to be.