Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Midsummer Movie Roundup: "(500) Days of Summer," "Harry Potter," "Public Enemies"


directed by Marc Webb
starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel

I’m not looking for anything serious right now.

I’m willing to bet that many, if not most, of you out there have either said or heard those exact words at some point in your dating life. And most of you are probably savvy enough to understand that at bottom they mean nothing more or less than I’m just not that into you. But oh, how willfully, if not blithely, the smitten listener can ignore that message! “(500) Days of Summer” is a movie aimed directly at anyone and everyone who’s ever been on either end of that situation.

In brief, it's the story of a guy who gets his heart run over by a siren of a girl. The guy is a sensitive, attractively wistful-looking dude named Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an architecture student turned greeting-card designer, who sketches views of the city (Los Angeles) in his free time but seems to be waiting for someone to come along and give his life meaning. The girl is Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel), his boss’s fetching new assistant, who doesn’t seem to be waiting for anything or anyone in particular. In due course, Summer picks up on Tom’s interest and reciprocates it—to a point. They hang out, hook up, and effectively start dating, with the caveat noted above. She wants to keep things casual, and tells him so early and often, even as she draws him into greater intimacy—an arrangement that wreaks havoc, both joyous and wretched, on Tom’s peace of mind.

On paper, it’s a fairly unremarkable variation on one of the oldest stories ever told, but director Mark Webb and writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber try a number of different tricks to give it a fresh spin. They shuffle the narrative so that we see scenes from Tom’s 500 days of (not with) Summer out of chronological order, hopscotching from post-breakup to the breakup to the first meeting, and back and around again—the idea apparently being to convey the fragmented process of remembering a relationship. They also intersperse little cinematic flourishes—including a literal song-and-dance sequence and an extended split-screen juxtaposition of Tom’s “expectations” and his reality—and film-nerdy nods to everything from Godard and Ingmar Bergman to “The Graduate” and “When Harry Met Sally.” All this may sound like they’re trying way too hard, but in fact the movie has a surprisingly relaxed, loose-knit feel—aided by an easy-on-the-ears soundtrack that reflects what A.O. Scott aptly calls the “semi-hipster” tastes that link Tom and Summer (think the Smiths, Regina Spektor, and Carla Bruni’s Quelqu’un m’a dit, for starters). Webb also makes lovely use of the setting, showing a side of the city (mainly downtown) that’s rarely seen in the movies: L.A. from the viewpoint of not a Hollywood producer or a film noir detective, but an architect. (The fact that a good deal of L.A.’s most remarkable architecture is constantly in danger of being razed or falling into disrepair adds a subtle extra tinge of melancholy to the fragile romance in the foreground.)

The result is a slight, sweet film, flawed but interesting, fitfully charming, and a little bit all over the place. Rather like the heroine, in fact (and just about every character ever played by Zooey Deschanel). Or, for that matter, like the hero, who’s equally winsome despite being a noodle for romance, generally, and for Summer in particular. It’s to JGL’s credit that he makes Tom endearing and sympathetic rather than merely pathetic: through him, the movie deftly captures the exhilaration and despair of falling for someone whose feelings don’t sync with your own. That emotional zigzag is something “500 Days” understands and for the most part gets poignantly, often humorously, right.

What it doesn’t get right, alas, is any character or interaction between characters other than Tom and Summer. Nearly everyone else in the movie functions purely as comic relief, which might be tolerable if they were funnier. There’s a precocious little sister, grating as precocious kids in comedies usually are; a bland, inoffensive boss; and a couple of unmemorable buddies, though the geeky one (Geoffrey Arend) has a few amusing moments. Oh yeah, and there’s also a nameless douche who hits on Summer at a bar, a scene so cartoonish it’s impossible to take seriously, even though it leads to serious fallout. And there’s still another character, introduced near the end, whose name alone induces major eyerollage. The sloppiness in these details is disconcerting, the more so when compared with the writers’ far more nuanced treatment of the central relationship. Even as to the latter, there’s also a sense in which it fails or, perhaps, succeeds too well. Summer as a subject, rather than an object, remains opaque and elusive, which one could argue is as it should be. After all, the story unfolds primarily from Tom’s perspective, not Summer’s, though we occasionally catch fleeting glimpses of her “I” through Tom’s alternately rosy and stormy-clouded vision of her. But as a consequence, the film overall, like that vision, ultimately feels wispy and a little insubstantial.

Not that this necessarily mars its watchability or even its long-term durability. “500 Days” coasts quite a bit on charm and good intentions—again, not unlike its heroine, and like her, just might get away with it. As a film, it doesn’t pretend to offer any particularly incisive insight into how or why such imbalanced relationships happen. What it does offer, in its best moments, is a wry, tender valentine to the fact that they do happen, and will happen, for as long as men and women continue to search for love.



directed by David Yates
based on the novel by J.K. Rowling
starring the usual suspects - Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Bonnie Wright, Tom Felton, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Helena Bonham-Carter, and introducing Jim Broadbent as the latest Brit thesp to join the Hogwarts faculty

I’m beginning to think I should stop reviewing the Harry Potter movies. Not because I don’t enjoy them, but because with the single exception of the fifth one (“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”), I have come out of all of them with only slight variations on the following two-part reaction:

1. It wasn’t bad, but it didn’t even come close to capturing the power of the books
2. I’m not really sure what the filmmakers could have done to remedy this.

With “Phoenix,” I was delighted to discover a break in the pattern, in that I actually thought the movie was arguably superior to the book. But my lukewarm response to the sixth and most recent installment, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” confirms something I’ve suspected for some time – that there tends to be an inverse proportion between how much I like a book and how much I like the screen adaptation.

I guess to some extent it stands to reason, since the less I like a book the less concerned I am with the liberties and/or excisions the filmmakers may make (Exhibit A: Order of the Phoenix). And vice versa. Half-Blood Prince happens to be one of my favorites in the series. But it’s more than just an issue of faithfulness. Frequently, the aspects of a book I enjoy most aren’t easily materialized on screen, or, if the attempt is made, are either diluted or flattened out in the transition.

This, I find, is generally true of the Harry Potter series. What makes the books so compulsively readable doesn’t translate into particularly compelling, or even convincing, film. In the earlier episodes, it was J.K. Rowling’s unparalleled ingenuity and endlessly inventive ability to create a rich parallel world in which every commonplace human necessity or amusement had its equally commonplace (but much less mundane) magical counterpart. These devices—from Quidditch to the Ministry of Magic—were, in my opinion, much better left to the reader’s imagination than the admittedly impressive yet oddly hollow real-life wizardry of CGI. In the later books, the emphasis shifted away from these tricks and treats (though Rowling would continue to throw at least a few brilliant new ideas into each successive book) to the much heavier task at hand: no less than the defeat of evil itself. She made this interesting, too, by digging deeper into the character and family background of Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), the boy who might or might not be the downfall of Mr. Evil himself, Lord Voldemort. However, she also offset the deepening shadows by continuing to show a lively interest in the everyday existence, relationships, crushes, tensions, and rivalries of Harry and his friends.

One would think the latter would be easier to get right in the movies, once the hand-picked cast grew and settled into their roles. But it turns out to be not so easy. “Half-Blood Prince,” in particular, has a tricky tonal task, in that it juxtaposes one of the most emotionally traumatic events in the entire series with some of Rowling’s funniest, most PG-13 depictions of exploding teenage hormones and thwarted romances, and the film doesn’t completely succeed in capturing this balance of light and dark. The muted tone that director David Yates got exactly right in “Order of the Phoenix”—the growing atmosphere of dread, and Harry’s growing isolation, the tempering of the rage that (rather tiresomely) filled the pages of the book—carries over into “Half-Blood Prince,” where it simply doesn’t work as well. While there are moments of hilarity – and considerable mugging by Rupert Grint as Harry’s best pal Ron – they’re largely overshadowed by the build-up to the book’s climax. Although I’m obviously not the most objective critic since I’ve read the book (cough) times, I found myself getting a little bored and restless waiting for each step towards the inevitable endpoint, and the moment that tore me apart when I read it had curiously little impact on me when I saw it on screen.

Moreover, except perhaps for Ron, who tries a little too hard but at least is trying to inject some jollity into these proceedings, the characters all seem to have lost their mojo. Radcliffe regresses from the fine work he did in “Phoenix” into a disappointing blankness; Emma Watson, meanwhile, is far too distractingly pretty to make her moping over obtuse Ron believable. Bonnie Wright, previously a background player in the franchise, is likable enough as Ginny Weasley, the object of Harry’s affections, but she lacks the fiery spark that draws Harry in the book; in almost every shot of her, she looks pale and somber (rather like the movie as a whole), or at best, pale and serene. Jim Broadbent, as the new teacher, Horace Slughorn, captures the character’s inherent timidity but not his voracious appetite for comfort and prestige.

Faring better are the characters who are supposed to be pale and somber, like Alan Rickman’s Snape, who gets far too little screen time but makes every second of it count, and Harry’s personal nemesis, Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton), whom Harry suspects of being entrusted with a dark mission that may be more than he can handle. And, of course, Tom Riddle (aka the boy Voldemort), about whom we learn a deal more over the course of the movie. The scenes showing memories of Tom are quite effective—the kid who plays Riddle at his youngest (whose name, I kid you not, is Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, and yes, he’s related to Ralph) is particularly memorably creepy. But it says something about the movie as a whole that the character who seems to be having by far the most fun, in her half-mad, chaos-sowing way, is the relatively minor figure of Bellatrix Lestrange, played by Helena Bonham-Carter with more glee than most of the rest of the cast put together.

Unfortunately, everyone else seems to be operating at low power, which doesn’t bode particularly well for the remaining movies (also directed by Yates), of which there are two, not one, more to go. (Insert here your muttered aside of choice about WB’s shameless milking of the HP cash cow by splitting the last book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, into two separate movies.) At least there’s a glimmer of hope as far as I’m concerned: book 7, while a satisfying series-capper, has major flaws and is nowhere close to being my favorite. Maybe, just maybe, this will work to the movie’s—I mean, movies’ advantage. In any event, I know come opening nights for both parts I and II, I’ll be there. I never learn, do I?



directed by Michael Mann
starring Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Billy Crudup, and a whole lotta cameos

Never mind “Heat”—Michael Mann is a cool filmmaker in every sense of the word. Though his movies aren’t lacking in gunfire or human passions, there’s something about his temperament and palette that brings to mind a Miles Davis riff or a Cubist cityscape—something taut, steel-blue, aloof yet sensuous, self-contained and unhurried. Consistent with that quality, his works have a habit of suspending moments of extreme tension just long enough to allow the audience to feel every detail of their texture, rather than smacking them with it and moving on to the next thing.

“Public Enemies” is no exception, and the result is another story about men (and a few subsidiary women) drawn into cycles of violence and reprisal that somehow manages to remain at once coolly remote and strangely riveting. Sleekly shot in HD digital by veteran DP Dante Spinotti, whom Mann also used in “Heat” and “The Insider,” the film invests the desperate bravado of Depression-era crime with equal parts ineffable style and brutal messiness. Mann’s focus is ostensibly on John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), a notorious bank robber who was elevated to Public Enemy Number One by an early-career J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup) and eventually hunted down by special agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale).

Except it isn’t really. Mann’s Dillinger begins and ends as an enigma, a problem for some critics. We don’t, frankly, get much insight into who John Dillinger was beneath the persona or what made him tick: the film offers little more than a passing gesture towards answering that question, and it plays almost like a joke—a flippant line about his past tossed out as a pickup line. But this, I think, was a deliberate choice on the director’s part. The movie is based at least partly on Bryan Burrough’s book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, and the plural in the title isn’t just a reference to Dillinger’s gang. Indeed, “Public Enemies” is far more effective as a snapshot of a particular period of time, which happens to be shot from the perspective of one criminal, than as a study of that criminal. Burrough’s thesis—and by extension Mann’s—appears to be that Dillinger was one of the last of a generation of colorful outlaws (including Purty Boy Floyd, Bonnie & Clyde, “Baby Face” Nelson) eventually squeezed out by the federalization of both organized crime and criminal law enforcement.

The latter development creeps up slowly on the viewer, as Purvis ponderously touts the efficacy of the modern techniques employed by the FBI, only to be left in the dust repeatedly by Dillinger’s gang. Still, there’s something impressive, and rather terrible, about the sight of the FBI machinery—the vast network of radio and telephone surveillance, for example—just beginning to move into action. In the end, it’s a combination of that machinery, its collusion with the equally formidable machinery of the mob (which we also see, in direct parallel), and good old-fashioned coercion, that bring down Public Enemy No. 1.

Yet there remains something irresistibly fascinating about Dillinger the man as well. Even as one of a shrinking, dying breed, he registers as a type quite different from his peers—different, for example, from a gangster like Baby Face Nelson, who kills with almost lecherous abandon, different in the jaunty dignity Dillinger maintains even as the chase increases in both intensity and ugliness. There’s his rapport with the public and the media, which is rather thinly sketched in, but filled in by Depp’s natural charisma. There’s his loyalty to his partners in crime, almost reminiscent of bonds formed in the military. And of course there’s Dillinger’s pursuit of Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), the stunning hat-check girl he spots across a literal crowded room and courts with a mixture of dashing gallantry and compulsive need to be needed. Depp offers just enough of a glimpse into these various facets to tease, even tantalize, the audience while ultimately keeping Dillinger’s interior life swathed in mystery. An unfortunate effect of this approach is to mute the chemistry between him and Cotillard, who’s otherwise very good as the smitten but surprisingly strong-minded, clear-eyed Billie.

There’s not much crackle between Dillinger and Purvis, either, though that’s partly because the latter comes across as a man not so much particularly obsessed with Dillinger as just trying to do his job and keep his face. As Purvis, Bale stays mostly in stoic mode, though he has some fine moments where he lets a little bit of vulnerability seep through the impersonal professional mask. His FBI colleagues are in some ways more memorable, particularly Crudup, in his highly mannered, oddly enjoyable turn as the already-power-hungry Hoover, and Stephen Lang as the hard-bitten field agent Purvis recruits from Texas when his men in Chicago don’t come up to snuff. The rest of the expansive cast overflows with “where-have-they-beens” from the ’90s and early oughts, e.g., Lili Taylor, Stephen Dorff, Giovanni Ribisi, Leelee Sobieski—used mostly to good effect, even if they tend to become part of the movie’s mise en scène.

But what mise en scène! Mann’s eye for visuals is, as always, virtually flawless. He evokes the feel of the period—from the trenchcoats, fedoras, and long rifles of the robbers to the alluring red of Billie’s “two-dollar dress” and the pinched faces and forlorn houses, echoing with poverty, compelled to accommodate the passing outlaws—without in any sense turning the movie into a period piece. If anything, the film gestures towards a modernity in which figures like Dillinger can no longer exist, even as it captures that last gasp, that last flicker of glamour, before crime as an act of existential rebellion gave way to crime as one more form of big business.


Monday, July 20, 2009

A Month of Passings

In the past month, as I've been settling in to my new home and new job, there have been many passings of individuals of note. I don't really have anything to say about any of them that hasn't already been said. Still, here is my moment of silence for

FRANK MCCOURT - thank you for Angela's Ashes

WALTER CRONKITE - and the ideals of journalistic dignity and integrity he represented

ROBERT MCNAMARA - the walking moral conundrum

KARL MALDEN - for his extraordinary embodiments of ordinary men

MJ - the musician and performer, who will endure, whatever else about him may not.

Exemplary lives or tarnished legacies, these are people to remember. May they all rest in peace (yes, even you, Bob McNamara).