On the surface, there’s really nothing unique or special about (500) Days of Summer apart from its maddeningly oh-so-clever use of brackets in the title. But unlike most romantic comedies and more like actual, real life relationships, it’s the perfectly nuanced nothing-specialness of the central relationship which makes the film so enjoyable.
Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a greetings card writer who one day claps eyes on the boss’ new assistant Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). He knows immediately that she is ‘the one’ and clumsily pursues her. When he finally gets close to her, she tells him that she’s not looking for a relationship and she doesn’t believe in true love. They split up, he mopes around trying to get over her and begins to look back on their time together.
It’s better than it sounds (in fact it sounds a bit like the tale of woe that you’d hear from one of your boring mates down the pub). The story itself is so mundane that it would star Jennifer Aniston and Matthew McConaughey if it were told straight. However, its stars are a large part of what makes the movie – Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel are recognisable but not in an A-list, cover-of-Heat way. That’s what makes the characters so sympathetic – they could be your best mate, your brother, that girl in your office. They hurt, they cry unashamedly and, in the case of Tom, they drunkenly sing karaoke.
Gordon-Levitt, in particular, impresses. A far cry from the weird kid in Third Rock from the Sun, he once again proves his leading man status after his bruised turn in Brick. He strikes just the right note as an ordinary guy – vulnerable, disgruntled, deeply human and seemingly devoid of ‘interesting’, unconvincing quirks.
This is strange since the movie is full of neat gimmicks. Tom goes to the cinema – a potentially throwaway scene – and sees him imagining himself in a black and white European arthouse film. The morning after his first night with Summer, his sheer elation is expressed through an increasingly gaudy dance number, complete with cheerleaders and a cartoon bird. It’s with touches like this that the tone of the doom-and-gloom plot is raised, keeping it zipping along at a nice rate, rather than weighed down with indie kookiness.
And, yes, the story is presented in a seemingly random order (those pesky brackets actually serve a purpose, to frame the changing numbers, rolling like a fruit machine), but this makes it akin less to Memento or Pulp Fiction, and more to the arbitrariness of human memory. Immediately after we see an early in-joke in their relationship (later revisited in a wonderful Doves-soundtracked scene in Ikea of all places), we see the same gag repeated hundreds of days later, but by now, like their relationship, it has lost its sheen. It works in just the same way as your brain would connect two related events. Moments of unbridled joy (Tom and Summer attempt to outdo each other screaming a one-word obscenity in a park) jostle for attention with scenes of inconsolable misery.
In both celebrating the euphoria of love and bemoaning the brutal comedown of rejection, (500) Days of Summer succeeds where other romantic comedies fail by adopting a positive, whimsical tone – it seems to say love hurts but it’s worth the pain. It’s not perfect – an on-off voiceover gets in the way even if it is occasionally necessary, and Tom’s guru-like little sister is one quirk that’s a little hard to take – but it still remains a winning example of a humdrum genre. (4/5)
The only film I watched this week was Unbreakable which was so much better than I remembered having only seen it once before on its original cinema release. I remember thinking that the twist wasn’t as good as that of M. Night Shyamalan’s previous hugely successful film The Sixth Sense. However, focusing purely on the twist is doing the film an enormous disservice – it’s a solid piece of drama with two very interesting characters and some fascinating themes. Plus while the twist of The Sixth Sense is clever (I certainly didn’t see it coming back in 1999), it does reveal some gaping plot holes in the film. The ending of Unbreakable, on the other hand, ties the film up nicely without forcing you to rethink absolutely everything the previous 100 minutes. (4/5)
Incidentally Unbreakable was the first film I saw at a UK cinema, having had to make do with what little Guernsey had to offer. This means that I hadn’t experienced decent seating or large arm rests with cup holders until I was about 20, which, for a film fan, is regrettable, almost unforgiveable. Nothing I can do about that now though.
Crew members Lieutenant Payton (a beardy Dennis Quaid) and Corporal Bower (Ben Foster) wake up from suspended animation in an enormous spaceship and realise that neither of them can remember what their mission is. While Bower goes off in search of the reactor (ie, runs around in the dark), the other stays behind to guide him remotely (ie, hangs around looking grizzled and bored). Bower’s quest sees him meet Exotic Sweaty Woman, Warrior Who Speaks A Strange Language, Scummy Older Plot-Exposition Man and the monsters from The Descent. The camera moves around so fast that you generally don’t know what the hell is going on, which doesn’t matter anyway because whatever the hell is going on is going on in the dark. (2/5)
Copied and pasted from the previous three, this last instalment in an increasingly shoddy series adds nothing to the franchise but the hope that this really is the final Final Destination.
The idea of a coherent or original plot was dashed after the original inspired outing, so all that anyone expects by now is some devilishly convoluted Mouse Trap-style set-ups and some dumbass teens getting finished off in a variety of gruesome ways. But even that, apparently, is now too much to ask for. The original disaster takes place at a race track (obviously) and the subsequent accidents occur in such odd and tenuous places at a swimming pool and a shopping mall. The deaths themselves are disappointingly tame, and even have the gall to include a rehash of the sudden truck squish from the superior first instalment.
The frustrating thing is that it’s impossible to totally despise because the appalling acting, the brainless script and the ridiculous CGI make it quite a laugh. As a horror, it’s a disappointment, so watch it as a comedy instead. (A generous 2/5)
OK, it’s been a while, but I’m back with loads more films in a four-weekly update. Last week’s will follow shortly along with a few cinema reviews too.
From the shame list:
THX 1138 (1971)
Six years before Star Wars made George Lucas a household name, he made a feature length version of the student film that won him first prize at the 1967-68 National Student Film Festival. The human race lives in a tightly controlled underground society where emotions are kept in check with medication, people pray to a painting of Christ and are entertained with holographic image of sex and violence. THX (Robert Duvall) becomes a fugitive when he stops taking his meds and falls in love with his roommate LUH. Lucas was borrowing heavily from George Orwell’s 1984 but not unsuccessfully – it’s a classic dystopian science fiction premise and Lucas shows his flair for stunning visuals, if not for dialogue. (4/5)
Wall Street (1987)
Released bang in the middle of the 1980s, Oliver Stone’s ‘money makes the world go round’ drama is the perfect artefact of The Decade That Taste Forgot. Michael Douglas earned his only (so far) acting Oscar as Gordon Gecko, as slimy as an oil slick. It’s the kind of drama that nobody would dare make anymore (although the theme is just as relevant today, if not more so). Rarely has there ever been a film been quite so much of its time – the smoke filled offices, the trenchcoats, the big hair, large eyeglasses and enormous mobile phones. It’s almost as if Oliver Stone went forward 20 years, asked people what was funniest about the 80s, and then went back and made a film based on his findings. (4/5)
Shame list total: 1,200
I Love You, Man (2009)
What happens when audiences get bored of regular romantic comedies? Make the central relationship about the heterosexual relationship between two men. It’s not entirely new territory (the ‘buddy’ subgenre is burgeoning) but in this man-meets-man-com here it’s a little off kilter. Peter (the ubiquitous but enjoyable to watch Paul Rudd) gets engaged but can’t pick a best man as he has no male friends whatsoever. Fiancée Zooey (Rashida Jones) suggests that he goes on some man-dates to find one. He meets and befriends cocksure, brutally honest Sydney (Jason Segel) but, inevitably, their growing friendship starts to have an effect on Peter’s relationship with his fiancée. It’s full of the kind of throwaway quirks you see in this new wave of Apatowesque man-child comedy – Peter and Sydney bond over an unlikely shared love of rock band Rush (who were presumably bigger in the States than in the UK) and there’s a pointless sub-plot in which Peter (a real estate salesman) struggles to sell one-time TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno’s house. Paul Rudd is a great comedy performer and gets the most out of an underwritten role, but the film belongs to Segel, perfect as the laid-back lunk. Overall it’s a bit empty and forgettable but worth watching just for Paul Rudd’s comic talents. (3/5)
If released at the same time, Push and Jumper would be a great head-to-head battle the like of which we haven’t seen since Armageddon faced off with Deep Impact. Both films have science fiction themes and ideas which are far better and more interesting than the plot. People born with a variety of special powers are pursued across the world by a shadowy company called Division. ‘Mover’ Nick Gant (Chris Evans), ‘Watcher’ Cassie (Dakota Fanning) and ‘Pusher’ Kira (Camilla Bell) – three of the many people born with special abilities – are pursued across Hong Kong by Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou), a dangerous agent of shadowy company Division. Basically it’s basically a cut price version of X-Men, or Heroes: the movie. The special powers are nothing new and the clumsy plot meanders about without enough decent set pieces to hold your patience, leaving you focusing more on the Hong Kong scenery than anything that’s going on. (2/5)
Psychotherapist Claire (Anne Hathaway) is assigned to help a group of survivors of a plane crash including Eric (Patrick Wilson) who doesn’t seem as traumatised by the event as he should be. As Claire gets closer to Eric, strange things start to happen. To say any more would spoil things which is the problem with ‘twist’ films like this. They’re designed to keep you guessing from the outset – can you really call it a twist when you know from the start that what you’re being shown isn’t what’s really going on? Still, it’s not a bad little twist and it makes for a fun ninety minutes of guessing games before the big reveal and a fairly satisfying ending. (3/5)
Seven Pounds (2009)
Ask anyone whether who’s seen Seven Pounds whether it’s any good will probably give neither a positive nor a negative opinion. The adjective that immediately springs to mind is ‘depressing’. IRS agent Ben Thomas (Will Smith) with a secret attempts to change the lives of seven strangers and falls in love with one of them (Rosario Dawson). To say more would be giving the game away because it maliciously uses sleight of hand to make you think one thing and then reveal another. It’s not actually as depressing as many people make out, but it does feature another Oscar- baiting performance (he didn’t even get nominated though) from Will Smith who spends a lot of the time looking very serious and at one point goes for a run in the rain – the mark of a good drama. (3/5)
Ghosts of Girlfriends Past (2009)
That this film is even watchable has nothing to do with Matthew McConnaughey. The man’s acting talent comprises just two facial expressions: smug pervert and confused goldfish. Plus from out of nowhere, he’s developed an unusual tic of squealing like a parrot when his character is in trouble: watch the wedding cake scene. Based fairly loosely on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, three ghostly figures take McConnaughey’s glamour photographer on a journey into his past, present and future in an effort to change his womanising ways and see that big-chinned beauty Jennifer Garner is the love of his life. Of course, the fact that the film is actually fairly enjoyable has more to do with the quality of Dickenss tale than some Texan pretty boy. Oh and it’s got Michael Douglas as a dead playboy. Every film should star Michael Douglas as a dead playboy. (3/5)
So zippy, so sparkly, so hugely entertaining that I fell asleep. The bits I stayed awake for (I estimate about 40% of the film) were actually not bad. If only I could have timed my naps so that I saw all of Paul Giamatti’s and Tom Wilkinson’s performances and none of Clive Owen’s. (An estimated 3/5)
Fireflies in the Garden (2009)
If there were a competition for the meanest screen father of all time, Willem Dafoe would score highly. Well, he would if this film was more well-known. As it is, it’s a typical family drama with all the charm and warmth of a dip in the North Sea in February. It is saved by an all-star cast (Ryan Reynolds, Julia Roberts, Emily Watson to name a few), not because they’re all good (most of them are on auto-pilot) but because they’re all there. Viewing the film is punctuated by gasps of incredulity – ‘Oh my god is that him from Fantastic Four?’ is followed by ‘That’s that bird from The Matrix, isn’t it?’ – which only goes to show that star power is nothing compared to an engaging story. (3/5)
I also watched Full Metal Jacket for only the second time in my life, and Eyes Wide Shut for the nth time. Man, that Kubrick fella was good.