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.

MMM: So Long! I Will Carry Time

James here with Movie Music Monday!

These three pieces are from my favorite cinematic moments of 2010, those exaltant, transcendant scenes that make me cry buckets, even just hearing the music.  It’s what it’s all about.

The Coen brothers manage some of the best endings possible.  They leave me hanging, in a good way.  This isn’t quite the ending of ‘True Grit’ — but it’s the final scene between Mattie and Rooster, and certainly the defining moment.

This ending cannot help but leave an impression.  It’s joyous, mysterious, and appropriately dreamlike.  I stole this song for my short film ‘Point A’.  Then again, I pretty much stole the whole score from ‘Inception’ for its purposes.

‘Toy Story’, with its third and best installment yet, has achieved cinematic apotheosis.  Randy Newman’s score is a big part of this.

NR: Beyond The Flickering Frame

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

I really appreciate J.J. Abrams’ approach to meta-narrative; that is, cinema lives beyond a film’s running time, or should, anyway.  Abrams approaches filmmaking as mythmaking, which is a noble idea, but very hard to execute properly.  He possesses a very old school love for mystery, expectation, wonder and surprise, an affection that it is difficult to sustain in the Information Age.  His next foray, ‘Super 8’, is an intriguing blend of 70s era Spielberg — with support from the man himself — and his own sensibilities.  Collider recently posted a collection of subliminal clues to its story, discovered in the Super Bowl teaser, a brisk 30 second spot that I have embedded below.  Behold!

The proverbial old man by the fire has only begun to relate the myth, and I’m already hooked.  The teaser promises a powerful collision of wonder and horror, an apocalyptic tale with a child’s eye view, and that’s something we haven’t seen in cinema for far too long, it seems.  Spielberg has sailed on from his signature childlike fantasy films into more dangerous waters, and he has no clear successor.  Even Abrams, despite showing an affinity for that sort of material, gravitates to stories with more violence and less poetry.  If anything prevents ‘Super 8’ from successfully emulating Golden Age Spielberg, it will be that tendency.

What’s important about this excellent teaser for ‘Super 8’ is what it doesn’t show.  I have always maintained that, especially in fantasy films, what is most effective is what filmmakers stop just short of showing.  In ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, Spielberg did not show the Mothership’s interior until a Special Edition rerelease gave him the opportunity.  He immediately regretted spoiling the heavenly mystery that the original ending created, and this blissful ignorance got restored in the Director’s Cut.  Abrams would do well to show similar restraint in the final cut of ‘Super 8’.  Proper advertising, however, creates a sense of great expectancy that needs great satisfaction.  The payoff must equal the setup.  So far, the trailers have created a distinct tone for ‘Super 8′, but wisely they left much of the plot out of sight.

What separates Abrams’ mythic strategy from predictable, tell-all advertising that plagues most films is that it expresses a real confidence in the movie.  If the filmmaker believes they have something great, a story that really surprises and thrills, they will treat marketing as an artistic prelude.  Consider the gradual reveal of Nolan’s passion project ‘Inception’ through these three trailers:

Striking images.  Bone-rattling sounds.  Terrifying.  It cast a spell on me.  The next brings on action and hints of the story’s meaning, with some deliberate misrepresentation of the plot:

The last trailer reorients audiences from the previous two, which had strong psychological horror overtones, further digesting the premise into a highly emotional action movie:

Progressively, the trailers expand on the movie’s key themes, but demand resolution.  ‘Inception’, even before we sit down for the main event, is already being told.  In the film itself, the story resolves, but does not firmly end.  It leaves us with questions, so we can go on experiencing the story after we’ve left the theater.  This is similar to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’; Spielberg resolves the conflict, but leaves us with wonder.  The adventure continues in our hearts.

‘Super 8’ has a similar marketing campaign.  The first theatrical teaser gives us, like the first for ‘Inception’, strong horror elements: An absurdly violent, apparently deliberate trainwreck, releasing an unseen alien monster, juxtaposed with a rapid zoom out from grainy Super 8 footage containing subliminal images.

The next, embedded at this article’s beginning, expands on the horror hook with gorgeous American nostalgia, primal familial emotions, and apocalyptic destruction in ’70s suburbia.  Present in both, doing most of the heavy lifting, are two strains of Midwest mythos: UFO cover-up conspiracies, and amateur filmmaking.  The Super 8 camera, I’d venture to say, is symbolically Hollywood’s lost childhood.  Many great filmmakers used it to hone their skills as children.  As digital devices take its place, its symbolic power only increases, an effect certainly related to Abrams’ film.  J.J. is using it as a deliberate homage to Spielberg, whose films have defined cinema for a generation.  So, while ‘Super 8’ may seem an incongruous title for a film about aliens and paranoid conspiracy, it’s obvious that the camera and the kids behind it are the film’s heart and soul.

If ‘Super 8’ has a great story, as I am ready to believe, then it had better include that final, crucial magic trick; the hint at things to come.  Not a sequel, not a television series, not a comic book; a story that lives forever, unstained by cash grabs, beyond the flickering frame.

NR: Cultural Inception

James here with Wednesday’s News Reflections.

The subject today is the role film plays in changing popular perceptions and cultural norms, piggy-backing off an article in the LA Times about the evolving portrayals of women in cinema.  It’s a fascinating piece and I suggest you read it.

In essence, the article says that the richness of the characterizations found in a new wave of female protagonists denotes a cultural shift, partially necessitated by filmmakers attempting to establish broad audiences.  I would suggest that it isn’t merely an economic consideration.  How filmmakers think about the sexes has changed due to more liberal education and the trails blazed by previous storytellers.  They’re also kicking the ball in a different direction, not merely imitating their forebears.  Although sexism and egregious hyper-sexualization continue to permeate Hollywood portrayals of women, the next generation of filmmakers have the ability to curb these problems considerably in favor of a fair, realistic norm.  They’ll do this simply by doing their jobs.

In Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal ‘Inception’, the team works together to plant an idea in a subject’s dreams, the titular process that mirrors the science of narrative cinema.  The audience, like the subject, gets carried along for an emotional journey in a world based on its own logic.  The magic trick of celluloid is in getting the audience to accept the filmmakers’ philosophical propositions without realizing the process is taking place, at least until the audience “wakes up” upon leaving the theater or turning off the video player.  Cinema is the longstanding practice of cultural inception.  The influential filmmaker chews the cud and breaks her/his ideas down into the simplest emotional concepts, then constructs a narrative out of the raw material.  The narrative itself is a meditation, the gradual awakening to a new idea vicariously experienced through characters.

Now, the trouble is, filmmakers should hold themselves responsible — and if they won’t do it, the critics should — for the ideas that they unintentionally propagate.  Unlike the film ‘Inception’, where the titular process is profoundly difficult due to the mind’s natural defenses, cultural inception via cinema is sometimes frighteningly easy.  Even in something as common and base as a simple shoot ’em up action-adventure story, the filmmaker can perform inception.  A popcorn thriller can promote sexism, knee-jerk violence, and brainless jingoism while all the filmmaker usually wants is to photograph explosions and attractive people.  Because the Hollywood system relies on the kinds of movies that maximize cashflow, the studio system will reflect the negative aspects of culture by giving people what they want.  Say a popcorn thriller with bad philosophy earns a hundred million dollars.  Then a dozen retreads will spawn and the negativity will not only remain, but spread.

This act of cultural “inception”, trying to radically change gender portrayals in cinema and thus society’s basic assumptions about the sexes, must be deliberately, intelligently handled by filmmakers in every genre.  While its true that money is Hollywood’s bread, butter, and gasoline, the opportunities to speak strongly to issues philosophic, political, and even religious are not rare.  Conscientious storytellers must seize the day and make sure that when audiences sit down, they are emotionally moved in the right direction.  Resorting to heavy-handed preaching isn’t the answer.  They must make great movies.

Shutter Island

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A powerful, skillfully plotted film about the dangers of self-illusion and refusing responsibility.

Review:  Let’s talk about plot.  Some movie plots are bad, being separated from logic and character, and some are good, being the same with character and organically interrelated.  A plot’s nature is its shape, a simple movement from point A to B, naturally a straight line, which can get complicated and turn in any direction at the artist’s whim.  For those films that draw their plotlines in radical shapes, often the result is a twist ending, which can shock an audience, providing the rare pleasure of surprise.  Is this preferable or superior in any way to a straight ending?  It depends primarily on the emotional content.  Catharsis is the goal, here; resolution, for better or worse.

I have heard complaints that Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel ‘Shutter Island’ did not successfully pull the wool over the audience’s eyes.  The surprise factor, for some, was lost.  But what is a temporary surprise compared to releasing buckets of suspense?  ‘Shutter Island’, thematically and structurally, is not about springing a trap, but the slow, terrifying revelation that the trap has already taken hold.  Madness, the film’s preoccupation, is not a bestial thing suddenly snapping at you from the dark, but the refusal to accept the truth that you share the nature of that bestial thing.  ‘Shutter Island’ doesn’t have a proper twist ending.  It doesn’t try for the magic act of, say, ‘The Sixth Sense’.  It’s more like Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’, where the truth is gradually revealed, like steam wiped off a mirror.  In Scorsese’s film and Nolan’s, we sympathize with the protagonist and stubbornly believe his version of reality, until it becomes impossible to do so anymore.  Therein lies catharsis, as we let go of our fear and indignation and reorient ourselves.  Whether the protagonist comes to terms with the truth or not, we move on, hopefully having divined the narrative’s moral purpose.

‘Shutter Island’ is the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’.  Coincidentally, they share the same lead actor, but otherwise they are thematically similar, with different ideas and resolutions.  They are both concerned with tragedy, loss, guilt, dream logic and the in-movie use of stories as redemptive tools.  Pared down, ‘Shutter Island’ is a study in plot, how a story’s complexity works around the mind’s defenses and moves the primary participant — the audience, or in this case, the protagonist — according to its agenda.  ‘Inception’ focuses on the positive effects of self-revelation and abandoning illusions, while ‘Shutter Island’ does the exact opposite.  Note that both stories grow on the one tree.  They’re the same straight line from point A to B, but they take radically different directions, with ‘Shutter Island’ acting as ‘Inception’s filmic shadow.

On the surface, the film asks the question, “Is it better to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”  In the plot below, however, it asks, “Is it better to live with painful reality, or to live in an endless nightmare of your own devising?”  The death posed in the surface is not necessarily literal.  It’s a spiritual death, the loss of an honest, ugly self in favor of an attractive façade.  When facing guilt, the soul must decide whether to abandon itself to mercy — not forgiveness, per se, but judgment — or to deny any reason to be guilty at all.  There is no other choice.  In Orthodox Christian theology, Christ’s unconditional forgiveness draws the soul to honest self-appraisal, but it still must decide whether the painful, terrifying truth is preferable to defiant fantasy.  Hell, in this theology, is God’s love perceived by the deluded mind.  ‘Shutter Island’ illustrates the dangers of illusion most beautifully.  The waking nightmare of the mad man’s hell crawls with horrors, but it provides an escape from the sanest, scariest thing of all: self-knowledge.

Martin Scorsese and company have a masterful film here.  It’s packed with spiritual insight, cinematographic genius, and genuine thrills.  I think it’s obvious… I loved it.

MMM: Daft Punk’s Tron, Inception Piano, The Social Network In Motion

James here with Movie Music Mondays, the unpretentious series in which we assault you with rhythm and melody.

This week, I’m giving you the customary three pieces, off YouTube as usual. They’re samples from my favorite scores of the year: Daft Punk’s ‘Tron: Legacy’, Hans Zimmer’s ‘Inception’, and Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ ‘The Social Network’.

 


Daft Punk delivered. Their theme is hummable. Now, that’s a pleasant surprise! It’s rare that you get one of those these days. Most films have scores devoid of personality. Not so here. I hope this delightfully eccentric duo sticks around in celluloid.


I don’t know who this piano player is, but his cover of Hans Zimmer’s excellent ‘Time’, which finishes out ‘Inception’, is pristine. I want an extended version of this. Badly. Check out the rest of this chap’s covers. Really exceptional stuff.


Great, hypnotic stuff. Another good reason to see and love ‘The Social Network’. As far as hummability, if you will, the score boasts several tracks I find myself whistling, especially this one.

Following

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  Lean, mean, rich film noir.

Review: Christopher Nolan’s rarely-seen first film, ‘Following’, is a claustrophobic, intricate noir. Here we enter an urban jungle populated by crafty criminals, femme fatales, and eccentrics; one such eccentric is Bill, a struggling writer who stalks people.  He does so because he needs experiences to write from, but it becomes an obsession, compelling him to invade the lives of others further and further.  With the help of a man named Cobb, he becomes a thief.  Cobb’s motivation is simple, “You take it away… to show them what they had,” but Cobb is far more devoted to this fiendish ideal than Bill realizes.

‘Following’ is spellbinding.  Unlike many low-budget, independent filmmakers, Nolan makes his limitations work for him.  Aesthetically, the film is grungy, off-kilter and bleak, the perfect feel for a neo-noir.  The story is quick to the point and has no fat.  Nolan makes use of the fractured narrative — something that would become his signature — to keep us disoriented, uncomfortable, and on our toes.  There is never anything uninteresting; every detail has some significance.

The film’s central themes are invasion and manipulation. The idea of following random people, just to get a glimpse into their lives, is downright prescient. Thanks to Twitter and Facebook, I can do that from the comfort of my couch. Most films about thieves center around greed, but the character Cobb insists that burglary isn’t the point.  Cobb wants to touch the human soul, to remind them of something they’d once known is true, but chose to forget.  He insists that “Everyone has a box”, a place in their homes where they keep their most prized mementos.  This functions like the safe in ‘Inception’, where the dreamer keeps their secrets.  Bill is attracted to Cobb’s seeming nobility, his philosophical approach, his comfort in such a risky enterprise.  But Cobb isn’t noble, he’s a predator, and whatever rhetoric he espouses to justify his bizarre lifestyle is just a cloak.  

Bill’s identity as a writer tells me that Nolan created the character autobiographically, at least to some extent.  Writer’s block is the worst, and I have contemplated carrying a notebook and observing people for inspiration.  When I realized the cost, I considered writing it into a screenplay, only being simultaneously disappointed and relieved that Nolan had already used the concept.  What happens to Bill, then, is every writer’s subconscious fear, that the world they strive to create will swallow them up.

I highly recommend ‘Following’ to fans of Christopher Nolan, film noir, independent film, and film in general.

Buy It From Amazon: Following