29 November 2009

Year-End Round-Up Part One: (500) Days of Summer, Bronson, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

It’s that time of year when screeners start piling up next to my DVD player and the magnitude of what I missed this year stares me in the face, tauntingly.

(500) Days of Summer (directed by Marc Webb; written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber; full credits)

(500) Days of Summer chronicles the ups and downs of a relationship, and does so with a delightfully freewheeling filmmaking spirit: direct address, split screens, voice-overs, diagrams, impromptu dance numbers, a jumbled chronology, and a subjective editing structure. Director Webb is like our country’s Christophe Honore, except his sensibilities are so Hollywood, masquerading as Indiewood: there’s the precocious kid, the Greek chorus of ribald pals and, worst of all, the soft music and Tender Moments that seem to conclude every scene; the formal liberation, ultimately, simply obscures an essential shallowness of content. (Webb over-relies on pop music to do the hard emotional work, so much so that when the opening notes of “Bookends Theme” sounded late in the film, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.) The boisterous charm wears off quickly.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the boy and Zooey Deschanel the girl, who he meets, loves and loses over the course of 16 months. The characters, especially Deschanel, are defined merely as a sum of their tastes: her favorite Beatle is Ringo—do you understand what that means? Because it’s really fucking significant. That these kids look and feel so familiar is the most frustrating thing of all: is this what we’ve become? In Band of Outsiders60s Godard is an obvious inspiration—the characters famously raced through the Louvre; here, our lovers run through an Ikea. Let it serve as a sign of the times. Grade: B-

Watch the trailer:


Bronson (written & directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn; full credits)

Bronson is based on the life of Charles Bronson—not the (popular?) movie star, but the famous English inmate, who took the actor’s moniker as his nom de combat: he’s the most violent prisoner in Britain, who has spent decades behind bars thanks to the years added to his sentences for his bloody outbursts. Bronson, in a manic performance by Tom Hardy that exudes a Jack Napier-level of playful insanity, narrates the film from a dark stage, often in costume, chronicling his childhood and young manhood—marked by robbery and disproportionate violence—through his stays in various jails, psych wards, and disco-era England. (He’s briefly released.) Writer-director Refn scores the film with a blend of opera and contrapuntal rock, which heavily stylizes the gory beatings against creamy and colorful textures.

The director posits violence as art, as performance, as a talent, as a calling, as a cause for fame; think of boxing, wrestling, American football or summer movies taken down from their rarified stages, the brutishness placed back into the real world, which asks the audience to confront the cultural fetishization of barbarity. That is, Refn avoids the pitfall of adapting a real life story—getting mired in conforming the complexities of a life into the blueprint of a familiar narrative—by artfully addressing a larger, compelling theme. Until he settles into the biopic’s familiar rhythms, anyway: eventually, there’s a love interest, even an inspirational mentor-slash-foil, who actually says “you have to find the part of you that doesn’t belong here [in prison].” At least he gets a beating like everybody else. Grade: B

Watch the trailer:


Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (written & directed by: John Krasinski; full credits)

Not-so-brief interviews with sometimes less-than-hideous men punctuate a short story collection of the same name by David Foster Wallace; a series of answers without questions, they served the book as interludes, at worst, or thematic mortar, at best. Dispersed willy-nilly into John “Jim Halpert” Krasinski’s film adaptation, they feel contrived to the point of absurdity. Who speaks so eloquently without prepared notes, let alone so frankly? Krasinski errs from the onset by inventing a flimsy narrative frame in which to jam DFW’s monologues: Julianne Nicholson, moping like an abused puppy through a one-note performance, plays a grad student (hey, Brooklyn College!) who, in the wake of a devastating dumping, has embarked on an anthropological study of sorts: how have decades of feminist advances affected the male psyche? So, sometimes Wallace’s (provocative!) monologues are spoken from long tables fitted with microphones, but other times they’re worked into Scenes From a Life. (A chat on the line for the bathroom, for example.)

The interviews usually have little to do with what’s happening in Nicholson’s life. And, anyway, the framing device is thin, a cheap excuse to parade a stream of L.A. actors in front of the camera to deliver what amount to flashy theatrical performances, rooted in gesture and intonation rather than a thoroughly realized emotional center. There are notable exceptions: Frankie Faison recounting his father’s life as the attendant in a ritzy bathroom; Krasinski’s climactic explanation of why he left Nicholson. But even if every scene were a standout, the film still wouldn’t work: this isn’t proper material for a movie, at least one too cowardly to embrace a real avant-garde structure. Maybe it would function better as a stage piece. Or, like, as a series of short stories, collected in some kind of book… Grade: C-

Watch the trailer:

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