(500) Days of Summer (Dir. Marc Webb, 2009)
My crush on Zooey Deschanel & my admiration for Joseph Gordon-Levitt aside, director Webb’s maiden mishap (500) Days of Summer is a nearly insufferable emo fable. If you have any qualms about a generation that blindly covets another generation’s touchstones (The Graduate, The Smiths, Joy Division, Salinger, early Springsteen, Nancy Sinatra…) you’ll undoubtedly start groaning about five minutes into this film & won’t stop until you convince your date you’ve succumbed to food poisoning. Gordon-Levitt plays Tom Hanson, a generic sadsack greeting-card scribe whose personality is summed up by his Joy Division Unknown Pleasures T-shirt (one for when he’s a young boy, one for when he’s a lonely twenty-something) & his love of The Smiths. Oh, and he’s also an architect, but for some vague reason doesn’t design buildings. Maybe he accidentally killed another architect in the ring, hard to say.
Of course, Hanson cannot fucking believe it when he meets new company employee Summer Finn (and that’s not even the first groan of the film), who also likes The Smiths AND Springsteen AND Nancy Sinatra and – get this – “other bizarro crap.” They bond over the TV show Knight Rider, Magritte (she has a fedora with an apple atop it on her coffee table), Belle & Sebastian, Goethe & some other stuff they read about in a Wes Anderson interview. He falls for her hard & for good reason, she’s Zooey Deschanel & she has insane pale blue eyes which are irresistible to boys like this. She likes him & for good reason, he’s a nice, boring guy whose soul she can devour without breaking a sweat. Because he’s so in need of being slapped into something resembling consciousness by his friends & family (including the requisite precociously wise little sister), we don’t feel particularly sorry for him.
An hour of celluloid is spent in thrall to details like Summer’s heart-shaped birthmark & the way her hair blows to the breeze from classic Kinks songs. There is some undeniable chemistry between the two actors, but it’s not enough to make you pull for them. The fact that Summer can’t read Tom’s dishonesty when he says he can handle a casual relationship with her, makes her a dangerous commodity & it’s difficult to see her point of view as she willfully ignores the bared heart on the young man’s sleeve. A dead person could see he’s in love, but somehow she misses it. When Summer tells Tom she doesn’t believe in love, he counters, “It’s love, it’s not Santa Claus,” and it would be a valuable point if believing in a romantic love this blatantly tenuous weren’t sadly akin to believing in St. Nick. If you have a view beyond your own reflection, (500) Days of Summer is bound to be more of a chore than it’s worth.
Fringe Benefits: Of course, the soundtrack – Patrick Swayze’s “She’s Like the Wind” aside – is pretty good. Cinematographer Eric Steelberg (Up in the Air, Juno) deserves major kudos for creating a predominately cloudy, very New York-ish Los Angeles, concentrating on the city’s oldest buildings & parks & filming in weather that’s always on the verge of inclement. There’s also a movie marquee advertising the film Vagiant – “Part Vampire, Part Giant”.
9 (Dir. Shane Acker, 2009)
As the world is ending, a scientist who’s inadvertently invented the instrument for total destruction uses old school alchemy to create a rag-tag band of sock-golems to combat a giant Johnny Quest-inspired insectoid robot. Produced by Tim Burton, Acker’s 9 is far too indebted to much better films to give it much resonance. Burton’s stylistic obeisance to German Expressionism is on display, the whole Machine Domination thing is ripped from the Terminator franchise, the Judaic golem myth is liberally pillaged, the doll parts & sutures smack of Brothers Quay, the faux-Nazi iconography seems lifted from Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, and -- as mentioned -- the robot creature is straight out of Johnny Quest. One of the little potato sack dolls even splatters portraits of fallen comrades in the style of Ralph Steadman. While all this borrowed ambience does make 9 a watchable diversion, it sure doesn’t make it stand out in a market currently agog with innovations in animation.
Fringe Benefits: An old phonograph powered by dancing sock-golems creaks out some old 78s, including Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow”. Not particularly original, but the giant old album covers are pretty cool.
All About Steve (Dir. Phil Traill, 2009)
Sandra Bullock, sporting Juliette Lewis’ hair like a yeti scalp, plays Mary Magdalene Horowitz, the Jewish-Catholic cruciverbalist (hey, I’m not your mother, look it up!) for a Sacramento newspaper that’s apparently never heard of crossword puzzle syndication. Horowitz is all geek, all the time, from her shiny red vinyl boots to her overstuffed noggin & when her parents (Howard Hesseman & the ubiquitous Beth Grant) set her up on a blind date with the titular Steve (The Hangover’s Bradley Cooper), a studly cable news correspondent, she immediately begins to drool (I wish I were kidding) & offers the poor frightened sod all Mary Magdalene Horowitz has to offer. The next day’s crossword puzzle is, um, all about Steve & apparently makes it to print without a single other person having looked it over. The rest of the movie is just this sad, desperate woman stalking Steve & his crew (Thomas Haden Church & Hangover’s Ken Jeong) across the country from one media mini-circus to the next. Gradually, Mary develops a cult following of Sarah Palin’s “real Americans” & the movie unwisely aims for social satire, think Billy Wilder’s classic media critique Ace in the Hole, as performed by the cast of Hee-Haw. This miserably unfunny comedy is as desperate & cloying as Mary is. In the end, All About Steve doesn’t even have the good sense to happily resolve the love story, as if that would somehow compromise the movie’s spork-dull message. In a just world, a grating central performance like this would halt all Oscar talk for Bullock’s football movie, The Blind Side. Featuring DJ Qualls as Howard the apple-sculptor, the well-endowed Katy Mixon from HBO’s Eastbound & Down & about 30 different examples of how life is like a crossword puzzle.
Fringe Benefits: Well, Daily Show’s Jason Jones shows up as a rival reporter. How’s that?
Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (Dir. Peter Hyams, 2009)
Considered lackluster Fritz Lang when it was originally released in 1956, noted hack Peter Hyams’ (Capricorn One, Running Scared, Timecop) remake of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is damn near as much hooey as one can fit on a screen without expanding to Cinerama. What may have worked marginally for a low-budget high-stylist like Lang is just a dizzy, unintentionally hilarious Law & Order episode in Hyams’ fumbling grip. Jesse Metcalfe (Desperate Housewives, John Tucker Must Die) plays C.J. Nicholas, an ambitious TV crime reporter who suspects slick, indomitable District Attorney Mark Hunter (Michael Douglas, sleepwalking) may be bolstering shaky cases with fraudulent DNA evidence. To prove it, he decides to frame himself for murder, which sure beats nosing around for evidence like less imaginative investigative journalists. But like feigning insanity to uncover corruption in a mental hospital, this sort of thing has age-old cinematic risks. In fact, what C.J. is attempting would only work in a city with 12 people in it, where matrices of coincidence don’t appear downright supernatural. Like a snail inching up a garden wall, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt slogs along to its obvious, albeit ludicrous, conclusion without generating CSI: Des Moines-level tension. Attempts at snappy Ben Hecht-style dialogue do nothing to bristle the infuriatingly tame proceedings. Amber Tamblyn, as the Assistant D.A. who also happens to be C.J.’s girlfriend, nobly tries to save her scenes with a thankless professionalism, but the script, the director & her co-stars conspire wickedly against her. She does get a howler of a last line though & we can only hope it was addressed to the entire cast & crew: “Fuck you.”
Fringe Benefits: Amber Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn’s nude body double & easily the most boring time-condensing montage ever committed to celluloid.
District 9 (Dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
Easily one of the best films in a pretty shoddy year, Peter Jackson-acolyte Blomkamp’s District 9 proves you can make a galvanizing, action-packed alien invasion movie whose appeal isn’t restricted to the pointy-eared set. It certainly helps that, but for the alien element, District 9 incisively mines the world’s current woes for its satiric kidney punches. Once aliens have parked their ominous spaceship over Johannesburg(yeah, the irony seems a little heavy at first), they run out of alien oomph & are packed into the refugee camp District 9. The aliens (called “prawns” for obvious, but inaccurate, reasons) are quickly disarmed, though their very sophisticated & quite deadly weapons are integrated to their particular biology & cannot be used by humans, a fact that drives the world’s military into a barbaric research frenzy, of course.
When the District 9 tent & corrugated metal Hooverville becomes a hotbed of illegal activity & an eyesore, Africaaner poster-boy for Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, Wikus Van De Merwe, is sent in, ostensibly to roust the alien population & divert them to an – ahem -- less central location. As Wikus, Sharlto Copley turns in an exhaustive performance that ingeniously splits the difference between Steve Carell’s Michael Scott from TV’s The Office & Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead series. That, in the end, this oblivious bureaucrat succeeds as an action hero of sorts, is testament to Copley’s range. During the alien relocation, Wikus is exposed to some prawn fuel & immediately begins vomiting black bile, loses his fingernails & teeth, starts molting & eventually sprouts an alien arm, which allows him to operate the prawn arsenal. Suddenly he’s “the most valuable business artifact on earth” & must choose between being harvested for further military experiments or falling in with his new alien brethren.
Like a slightly less cynical Paul Verhoeven, Blomkamp has a way of seamlessly integrating social satire & violent genre tropes, so the eggheads can half-grin at the sly commentary & the popcorn gobblers can thrill to blistering New Iron-Age shoot-outs & the free-flowing visceral guck. Those of us who wisely hold court in both camps can integrate the two like the aliens & their big, smart guns & thrill to all the bravura filmmaking on display.
About the only shortcoming in District 9 lies in the film’s erratic structure. It begins in the overused fake documentary mode & when that can no longer accommodate the mayhem, it switches awkwardly to straight narrative. The change in POV is jarring at first, but then the careening momentum of the film’s latter half runs roughshod over such meager formal considerations. Highly recommended!