Tough Love — (500) Days of Summer

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: As I said once before, we don’t really review “chick flicks” (or, films about relationships in general) on this website.  Partly because James and I are men and we have more masculine tastes; partly because they are an easily exploited genre, and finding truly worthwhile films to review can be, well, cumbersome.

That said, 2009’s cult hit ‘(500) Days of Summer’ is a little different.

I suppose people might have thought it was traditional romantic stuff when the film first came out.  You know, boy meets girl, they fall in love, a lot of “will they?/won’t they?” before they finally do.  But that’s not what ‘Summer’ does.  Very boldly during the opening, it announces that the boy and girl will NOT wind up together at the end.  Crazy, right?  But it works, for the most part anyways.
Tom Hansen, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt (‘Inception’!), is a young romantic who believes in true love.  Summer Finn, played by Zooey Deschanel, is a coworker who does not.  They slowly begin a relationship (though Summer maintains that they are not boyfriend and girlfriend), and the film, told from Tom’s perspective, chronicles 500 days of it, through good and bad, through their break up, and what we conclude is their final goodbye.  The entire film is told nonlinearly, showing their break up early in the movie, which, combined with the film’s opening promise that they won’t fall in love, manages to keep us involved throughout; we, like Tom, look back through the past to see what went wrong in their relationship.

But that’s just it: their breakup, sad as it is for Tom, is not due to any flaws in either his or Summer’s personality or any mistakes they made.  Neither was a bad person, neither was unreasonable.  Though it could be assumed that they broke up because of their different views on love, this isn’t really true.  That Summer does learn to believe in love at the end of the film (albeit with another man) shows that she was not beyond growth.  She admits that Tom was right about love, just not about them.  So, nothing really went “wrong,” beyond that they simply weren’t right for each other.

Thematically, this reminds me of the biblical Book of Job, which tells the story of a man who, while virtuous and god-fearing, still suffers greatly in his life.  The point of that story, I think, is that, while we like to believe that we can, in some way, “earn” a good life, we are ultimately always at the mercy of others, always subject to forces beyond our control.  Bad things do happen to good people.  And so it is with love.  We cannot win love, we cannot earn it, we do not deserve it, and we are not entitled to it.  Love is simply given and received.  All we can really do, then, is share our own love with others, and hope that they return it, knowing full well that it doesn’t always happen.  That, I think, is what Tom learns at the end of this film.

I said that ‘(500) Days of Summer’ mostly works.  It’s very well-crafted and creative, and I think it was right for someone to make a movie that, while not completely realistic, more or less draws from realty.  In that sense, ‘Summer’ is a very unique, important film.  Perhaps the only thing about the film, though, that doesn’t really work is the ending, which implies that, for Tom anyways, true love is “just around the corner”, which, while ending the film on a hopeful note, feels a bit forced.  But I won’t fault it for that.

That said, for those of us who have gone through what Tom Hansen went through, the film is a little painful as well.  It is uncompromising in showing that sometimes the people we love don’t love us back the same way, and sometimes our greatest hopes and dreams are smashed in front of our very eyes.  It’s a bitter pill to swallow, and while I’m glad I watched the film, I can’t see myself watching it again any time soon, if only because the experience itself was so harsh.

‘(500) Days of Summer’ is the kind of film that comes only occasionally, although that’s more than sufficient.  It’s a “tough love” story for the audience that will challenge more than comfort.  But it’s also a very good, truthful film, reminding people that, sometimes, even Summer has to end.

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The Adjustment Bureau

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A rare cerebral and hearty science fiction film with charm and thrills, though weakened by the demands of standard Hollywood plotting.

Review:  Here is a movie that works on levels usually rendered inaccessible by genre-specific direction.  It’s got brains, drama, thrills, and most refreshingly, heart.  Capraesque Americana, Kafkaesque paranoia and classic Hollywood romance blend together with surprising smoothness.  It reaches sci-fi conceptual heights, but remains accessible to a wide audience.  It’s heartwarming, entertaining, intriguing and memorable.

Its chief flaws are trade-offs due to this balancing act.  The paranoid elements gradually soften as the plot mechanics make the titular organization more familiar, and even somewhat friendly.  The Americana of its protagonist’s political ambitions fades out as he falls in love.  So while it lets down two parts in favor of the whole, the film still works because of the strong relationship at its center.  Matt Damon and Emily Blunt have great chemistry and elevate writer-director George Nolfi’s script, which is not bad on its own, into something more believable.  Because we can so easily sympathize with them, the Bureau’s effort to keep them apart — for reasons not unsympathetic on their end — creates real tension.  We may be torn between the Bureau’s point-of-view and our hope for the lovers, but we are never confused.  We know how we want this story to end, and Nolfi executes this dramatic dénouement quite well.  He picks the perfect moment to fade to black.

On top of everything, he manages to invoke an oft-derided (for good reason) but classic plot twist, the Deus Ex Machina, in just the right way.  Done badly, the Deus Ex Machina cheats us, but done well, it seals the story with mystery.  Consider ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and the wrath of God sequence — any other ending, including the one the filmmakers had originally planned, would lack punch and punctuation.

Philosophically, the film’s free will vs. determinism narrative presents a reasonable compromise.  It works as less of a dialog and more of a polemical allegory with obvious Judeo-Christian influences.  This is not necessarily a weakness, as this particular story begs for a conclusion, but there are films that handle the issues in a more compelling way.

Overall, the film is an above-average success.  What it lacks in subtlety and impact it makes up for in entertainment value.  This is sci-fi done right.

Shaun Of The Dead

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A clever, funny and horrifying social commentary.

Review: The zombie subgenre of horror runs on the rules and themes established by its godfather, George Romero, and chief among the allegories is the similarity of modern consumer culture to the ravenous cannibalistic behavior of the zombies. Since romantic comedies are often driven by sex appeal and shiny objects, it’s almost too brilliant to turn one into a Romeroesque zombie movie.  Director Edgar Wright — who should be on my top ten directors list — succeeds in creating the rare perfect mashup, a film that satisfies the appetites of both of its genres.  This means you have to enjoy (actually clever) romantic comedy just as much as gory horror, but if you have the taste, the movie is stunning.  Its packed with references without being loaded down, brisk without being breathless, heartwarming without being schmaltzy, funny without straining for gags, scary without compromise, and all around excellent.

Simon Pegg is Shaun, an electronics salesman who sleepwalks through life.  He lets his best friend, played by Nick Frost, get away with being a couch potato, and fails at giving his girlfriend, Liz, real attention and love.  He’s so checked out, in fact, that a zombie apocalypse sweeps across England and he doesn’t notice until a zombie practically knocks on his door.  Taking a page from the romantic comedy playbook, the filmmakers discard the usual bleak, nihilistic ending of zombie pictures and turn the apocalyptic circumstances into character transformation for Shaun.  The zombie allegory doesn’t just touch the viewer, it gets to the characters, and arguably makes it more powerful.

The movie captures the gritty, horror film look and, partially on account of its limited and aged locations, feels pretty retro.  Edgar Wright mixes this classic look with hyperactive, intelligent shots and transitions, and the result is positively unique, bearing fingerprints I recognize in Wright’s other films as well, the mark of an auteur.  What Wright & Co manage to do with limited locations and budget is positively inspiring for young filmmakers like myself.  Every time I imagine the film, it feels bigger than it looks while I actually watch it.  That’s the spark of imagination.  It’s really quite brilliant, and for the next generation of indie filmmakers, I can’t recommend this stunning debut enough.

Buy It From Amazon: Shaun of the Dead [Blu-ray]

Classic Review: Breakfast At Tiffany’s

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary: A delightful romantic comedy that is deeper than it realizes.

In my own way, I feel as though I’m breaking new ground here. This maybe the first fullfledged chick flick reviewed on the Silver MIrror, albeit it’s quality and popularity have allowed it to transcend the genre somewhat. And this IS the chick flick to see, if you only ever see one.

Audrey Hepburn stars as Holly Golightly, a beautiful New York socialite who always has a man or two waiting at her door. Thanks to a free spirit and a strong sense of independence, though, she remains single amist her courters. Life changes though, when the young writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard) moves into the apartment upstairs from hers. What follows is a surprisingly complicated tale of love, as Holly struggles between other courters, Paul, and eventually her own desire to be “free” and “uncaged”, before, ultimately, the ending you know has to happen happens.

Great pefromances all around. Audrey Hepburn is positively breathtaking as Holly, and is in my opinion the most beautiful woman ever caught on film. George Peppard is equally memorable as Varjak, a strong, sensible, smart, and very compassionate man. Fans of 1980s television might remember Peppard as John “Hannibal” Smith, the cigar chomping leader of ‘The A-Team’. Though I don’t know for sure how Hannibal would have delt with someone like Holly, it would probably involve many more explosions. Mickey Rooney also co-stars as the Asian landlord of the apartment, a charcter who, while funny, shows a considerable degree of racial insensitivity. Its the only real sign that the film is dated.

Earlier I mentioned that the film is deeper than it itself might realize. The idea of freedom is a strong theme of this movie. Holly’s belief that she is free and wild and untamed because she is unattached emotionally to a man is called into question when it prevents her from being with the one she loves. In order to be free she won’t be with Paul, even though she loves him. All of the sudden her freedom has become a cage. It’s a deep concept for a film like this, and to fully elaborate on it, I think, requires a separate entry, which I plan to follow through on.

In short, though, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a lovely film and a true classic. I recommend seeing it and, fellows, it is still the best chick flick for you and your girlfriend to see.

Buy It From Amazon: Breakfast At Tiffany’s – Paramount Centennial Collection (Mastered in High Definition)

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A unique, creative, eye-popping movie that gets what it means to grow up at the turn of the millennium.

Review: I feel blessed. I’ve been given a gift I didn’t know I wanted. I’m a child of the American 90s, and I have some difficulty, unlike a person from, say, the 60s, 70s, or 80s, really articulating what that means. For every generation there’s a handful of striking films that capture their identity. It may be “just” an action comedy based on a comic book, but ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’ is one of those films, and that’s probably why it’s going to take some time for the culture to catch up and realize they have something special on their hands.

From the 90s through the 00s, we’ve seen the emergence of the internet and, with it, the rising of geekdom. It’s not just a youth subculture, anymore, it’s pretty much taken over. Hence the massive success of superhero films, the increasing demand for higher quality geek-oriented products, and the pull of websites like aintitcoolnews. Video games are fast becoming recognized as not just juvenile, brainless entertainment, but a legitimate artform, a shift in perspective we can blame on aging geeks like myself.

Based on a comic book series written by Bryan Lee O’Malley, ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’ completely caught my attention as something special, because it really captures what it felt like to grow up in these past two decades.  It does for 90s and 00s youth culture what ‘Kill Bill’ did for Quentin Tarantino’s childhood and 70s grindhouse cinema.  I was nothing short of thrilled. So, subjectively, it’s a movie I’ll always cherish for really “getting-it”, and just at the right time, too, with my childhood now gone and adult responsibility taking over. When I want a film to show my kids what it was like to be me, growing up at the turn of the millennium, I’ll choose this.

‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’ didn’t go over well in its opening weekend. It’s quickly leaving theaters. The critics generally approved of it, but persons over 25 seemed mostly befuddled, with the possible exception being the 40-year-old dude sitting in front of me when I first saw it who couldn’t stop laughing. It seems that it’s cursed by the generation gap and the fact that summer is over and young folks might not afford to see two movies, so we chose ‘The Expendables’ instead, which is a shame because by all accounts that film kind of sucks. ‘Scott’ may be so perfectly tailored for the “ADD Generation” that general audiences just don’t get it. I’m pretty sure they will, though, once the film hits video, and the geek community catches on.

From a more objective standpoint, without sentimentality, what makes ‘Scott’ so deserving of four stars? The excellence of the craft, the wit, and the invention. ‘Scott’ moves fast and is deeply layered. I sincerely hope it gets an Oscar nod for best editing. The cinematography is unique, striking, and often quite beautiful. In a world of teal and orange, ‘Scott’ dares to use a varied, eye-popping color palate.  It dares to try visual storytelling techniques not seen outside of video games and comic books, and succeeds in making perhaps the most inventive film in the past 10 years.  It doesn’t matter if you get it or like it or not, ‘Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World’ is a significant film.  I happen to think it’s fantastic.

Buy It From Amazon: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World [Blu-ray]

Shrek

Stars:  ★★★☆

Summary:  A fun, clever, doubly-subversive animated fairy tale.

Review:  I’m not a fan of the majority of DreamWorks Animation.  They tend to rely on pop culture familiarity, some adult humor, and a lack of strong, intelligent themes & plots.  I haven’t seen all of them — I’m willing to watch more in the hope of proving myself wrong — but the second major CGI film they produced, ‘Shrek’, remains my favorite thus far.

The film seems to have uneven tone at first glance, bobbing and weaving between a fairly adult, cynical and subversive story, and a message movie that is universally appealing, hopeful, and traditional of western cultures.  The titular protagonist perfectly embodies this narrative conflict (calling himself “an onion with layers”), which is what we call a smart move.  In the opening, he literally wipes himself with a page from an archetypical fairy story, but by the end he embraces it wholeheartedly.  This isn’t a standard subversion of fairy tales.  It is a subversion of subversions of fairy tales.  The main theme is appearances, accompanying assumptions, and the damage jumping to conclusions does to everyone… which is why the apparently wobbly tone is actually an integral part of the film.  It’s kind of interesting, actually, because the film’s ability to keep the audience on its toes is also shared by Disney’s 2003 film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, which was also co-written by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio.  Hmm.

But perhaps the weakest part of ‘Shrek’ is the mild vulgar and sexual humor, which, even in this intentional blender of a film, seems mostly out of place.  This is not because it’s an animated movie, but because it fails to gel completely. This seems indicative of a broader problem with DreamWorks Animation, that is the assumption that animation is a children’s medium, and that for adults to enjoy an animated movie, there must be anachronistic cultural references and humor that adults supposedly like.  Ironically, it just makes Shrek unfortunately more juvenile and restricts the potential audience somewhat.  Contrast this with Pixar, which for the most part has focused on making damn good movies that rely on the appeal of their usually strong premises and are thick with fantastic characters the spawn more of their own memes than they reference others.  This is because Pixar understands that animation is a tool, not a genre, and that people are attracted to stories that stand on their own.

The most engaging aspect, the hook, of ‘Shrek’ is the great chemistry that Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and John Lithgow have with each other.  In the hands of lesser voice actors, the story might have failed.  The most enduring humor, in my opinion, comes from their interactions.

‘Shrek’ is essentially ‘The Princess Bride’ for my generation, but I don’t believe it will, in twenty years, be nearly as enduring at that movie.

Classic Review: Groundhog Day

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A film that transcends its genre with a brilliant exploration of its premise.

Review: What if you had to relive the most boring, frustratingly stupid day of your life over and over again, with no hope of escape?  It’s a bloody clever little premise for a movie, isn’t it?  And, in all sincerity, thank God that it was translated well into the legendary ‘Groundhog Day’.  The movie pushes every successful romantic dramedy button correctly.  What makes the genre so popular in the first place is that, unlike the more escapistic fantasies that dominate the American box office, the films try to provide extensive touchstones for the life of the typical audience.  Because of this, a romantic dramedy is never a film out of time and place.  An ’80s film of this type is quite different from one in the ’10s.  ‘Groundhog Day’ marries this “average American life” conceit with a fantasy concept too good to pass up, because of the inherent conflict and the familiar nightmare of mediocrity that afflicts so many of us at many points in our lives.  With this addition, ‘Groundhog Day’ becomes more universal, a classic that transcends time and place.  Romance, laughs and self-discovery are common to the genre; the interweaving of some serious religion and philosophy is rare indeed.

At the outset, Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, represents us at the moment before a moral revelation, when we are blissfully ignorant and arrogant.  Even after going into the time loop, he stubbornly refuses to recognize what kind of person he is, seeking every wrong choice possible in each go through The Day.  When his attempt at therapeutic hedonism fails, he falls into despair and experiences the sort of inevitable breakdown every self-absorbed person has eventually; suicidal self-loathing.  But Phil can’t die, and whatever sticky situation he finds himself in at the end of the day is wiped clean when he wakes up again.  Eventually he realizes that he just wasn’t trying the right kind of crucifixion.  The only way for Phil to exist is in selfless, generous, joyful living.

I don’t really think of ‘Groundhog Day’ as a comedy, even though it contains great comedic elements.  It’s not a film I watch very often, simply because it’s too good, like a rich Chocolate cake that is best consumed in a small dose.  There’s something surreal about it.

‘Groundhog Day’ is a great film.

Buy It From Amazon: Groundhog Day (15th Anniversary Special Edition) [Blu-ray]