Monday, September 14, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

Romantic comedies have been on a steady decline. Unless you're Judd Apatow, you're lucky to balance the gender ratio to a scant 30/70. Luckily movies like (500) Days of Summer come around to prove that you can maintain the footholds of a love story (or "not a love story" as it's advertised) without completely alienating the manlier of the theater-fill.

Summer tells the story from the male point of view, but conveys a tale that we've all been a part of. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom Hansen, an architecture graduate that's settled for a job as a greeting card writer. Opposite him, Zooey Deschanel plays Summer Finn, the temp that he inexplicably falls for. The film flip-flops through the 500 day timeline that is the beginnings and endings of their togetherness. The feelings on both sides of the narrative (Tom's and Summer's) resonate with anyone who's ever been in or on the verge of a serious relationship.

Writer Scott Neustadter used two failed relationships as the template for Summer (both in story and character) and it's plainly obvious that this is a quasi-autobiographical account as soon as the opening, pre-credits titles fade their way onto the screen. The unconventional use of a non-linear timeline ensures that the roller coaster of Tom's emotions never becomes stale or uninteresting. Summer's wardrobe dressed her in a very nouveau-classic attire that recalls a modernized version of classic 50's era looks, coupled with some brilliant IKEA scenes creating the ideal marriage fantasy in Tom's mind. Each scene plays out to just the right length, neither cut too short or outstaying its welcome. Director Marc Webb, who boasts an astounding number of music video credits, transitions seamlessly into the world of feature length film. Though, music is clearly an integral part of the story and pace set to (500) Days. With a soundtrack laced with the now legendary tunes of The Smiths and more contemporary indie rock acts like Wolfmother and The Doves, Summer manages to steer clear of being too "hipster" by being utterly genuine in its execution.

The cast glides through the film with ease. Never once is anyone's performance unbelievable or insincere. Joseph Gordon-Levitt proves yet again that this is the genre that he flourishes in, as the latter day Rob Gordon (of High Fidelity notoriety, Rob Fleming if you're going by the novel and really the only major difference is the shift from London to Chicago.) His previous endeavors as the down and out high school "private eye" Brendan in Rian Johnson's debut film, Brick and the mentally damaged patsy Chris Pratt in the underappreciated psychological heist picture, The Lookout reintroduced him as the familiar face (from 3rd Rock from the Sun, 10 Things I Hate About You) with an astounding range, but seeing a smile cross his face recalls that his comedic roots are still intact. Zooey Deschanel finally works her way out of the slump of her preceding films, The Happening and Yes Man, with a character with some... well, character.

Having wowed audiences at both Sundance and Cannes this year and seeing a decently expanded theatrical run, (500) Days of Summer should pose as the template for any and all future comedy projects that hope to exude some form of romantic sentimentality, whether that romance is long term or not. Thematically poignant and genuinely relatable and humorous, this is likely the best anti-romantic comedy since 2000's High Fidelity or at least the best representation of how romance has changed for the hipster generation.

True Blood, Season Two

Following the finale of season 2, I realized that, despite it's shortcomings (and Oh, there are many,) True Blood hasn't quite reached Heroes caliber Shark Jumping territory yet. However, for a show with a premise as compelling as this, I've found myself only compelled to change the channel due to the overwhelming sense of boredom I feel during at least 50% of each episode. If it weren't followed by a better show (Hung,) I may not have tuned in at all after the first 3 or 4 episodes of its sophomore season.

The plot lines are consistent, if not begrudgingly slow. This is an hour long show that would benefit greatly from a run-time reduction to a 30 minute drama. All that would be lost is extended scenes of Sookie and Bill cooing at each other. Though these doldrums are thankfully offset by the meat and potatoes of the second season arcs involving the Fellowship of the Sun (sadly concluding at the halfway point,) and the gradual moral degradation of the citizens of Bon Temps by the Maenad, Maryann.

Alan Ball knocked it out of the park with Six Feet Under, though I feel that he's either only partially invested in True Blood or is terribly misinterpreting the material. The real world gravity that gave SFU poignancy and grace comes across clumsily and silly in the supernatural realm of Bon Temps. The romance is utterly tepid, stagnant and uninteresting. You'd think that an oiled up Fabio graced the paperback covers of the source material. To its credit there are a fair amount of truly frightening scenes, mostly brought about by Maryann's brainwashed orgy-victims toward the latter half of the season.

The over-romanticizing of the Vampire seems to be the point in which the fan-base has flourished. Whatever happened to the ruthless, bloodthirsty, carnivorous and ultimately EVIL vampires of last century like Nosferatu, Chris Sarandon from Fright Night and the gangs from both Near Dark and The Lost Boys? We could trace this trend all the way back to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, introducing the concept of tamable bloodsuckers, but even Angel/Angelus and Spike maintained a certain amount of viscera amid their broody heroism, or were at least several steps beyond one-dimensional. Bill Compton remains the chivilrous goody-goody (a hornier version of the despicable Twilight character, Edward Cullen *gag*) while Sookie Stackhouse reacts to him about as realistically as an oversexed teenager. Their relationship has no real weight, I don't believe for a second that either of them is actually in love with the other. Bill's affections for Sookie seem little more than an overly manipulative several-night-stand and Sookie buys completely into his act based solely on hormones and little else. Also, Anna Paquin's underwhelming performance creates an all around unlikable heroine (and all-around world's worst psychic) and if it weren't for supporting cast members (the likes of Eric Northman, Sam Merlotte and Lafayette Reynolds) the show would likely be a wash.

The world in itself is interesting enough without having to resort to trashy romance novel camp, hopefully the writing staff will realize this come season 3 next year. Needless to say, if there's nothing better on, I'll keep watching.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Funny People

Judd Apatow returns for his 3rd writer/directorial expedition into comedic humanity. The thing about his latest feature, Funny People, is that there is surprisingly little that's actually funny about it. The material is likely his darkest to date.

Coupling with his former roomate and friend, Apatow deconstructs Adam Sandler's 15 year ascent to Hollywood success through the persona of George Simmons. It's good to see that Sandler has a sense of humor and self awareness to the endless slew of cinematic terribleness he's been unleashing on the public since the early 00's. Basically, Simmons is informed that he has a rare blood disease (a fictional form of leukemia, we're told) that may very well take his life. On a gloomily nostalgic trip to a comedy club, he is introduced to Ira Wright (Apatow regular, Seth Rogen.) Simmons takes the budding comedian under his wing as his new joke writer and sort of legacy-holder while he undergoes an experimental treatment.

For the first hour and a half, Apatow has spun a truly honest tale of our own mortality and the disassociative effects of long term fame. Simmons is portrayed as an almost soulless being, every scrap of true humanity stripped away by a lifestyle that's become too easy, while Ira is struggling desperately to break in to the lifestyle that's broken down Simmons. However, this in depth dissection is interrupted by an all but unnecessary 3rd act involving a now married former flame of George's that really only serves as a showcase for Judd's admittedly adorable, though narratively irrelevant daughters. This segment meanders on for a bit too long and only manages to further de-humanize Simmons, making him even less relatable or even remotely likable.

Sandler finally makes use of the talent most people had forgotten he actually has (last seen displayed in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love.) Seth Rogen shows more range than we've ever seen from him this time around. Paired with Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill as his fame-bound roommates, Rogen sells his morose ambition to a tee. Eric Bana (in an attempt to remind people that he was in something other than The Time Traveler's Wife this summer) goes out on a limb as the aussie husband to Leslie Mann (Apatow's real life wife and mother of his 2 soon-to-be starlet kids, playing the object of Simmons' misguided affections) and really hits some funny notes before anyone can notice that his scenes aren't very useful at all.

At the heart of Funny People is a good story. Unfortunately that good story is hidden inside the trappings of a self indulgent filmmaker that doesn't have anyone who's willing to tell him that a 35 minute tangent about an ex-fiance is a bad idea. The DVD will be worth the time, with the veritable goldmine of extras including uncut comedy performances, outtakes, alternate improvs and deleted material (I'd be surprised if there is any, the movie is so long as it is.) An unfortunate misfire for Apatow after the promise that Knocked Up showed, but even a not-so-great Judd Apatow movie is a pretty decent movie, overall.