Archive for the ‘New Movies’ category

Julie & Julia – Review

October 11, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

Also be aware, as I was, that I was not the target audience for this film.  However, there were a few reasons that I held out hope that this movie wouldn’t be too bad.  First, it was a movie about a blog writer who made it big – I must admit, there is something appealing about that idea.  Second, it’s a movie about good food – again, I can relate.  Third, well, okay I’m out.

I did, however, go in with some reservations.  First and foremost, it had some of the trappings of a “chick flick.”  It didn’t seem too bad in this regard, though.  It wasn’t about a relationship with a sensitive but wounded man, it wasn’t about a group of girls finding understanding through each other, and it didn’t star Sandra Bullock, so I was still holding out some hope.

Another reservation had to do with what I heard from people who saw the movie.  They all opened their description of the movie with the same basic idea: Meryl Streep’s performance was amazing.  To me, that’s a giant red flag.  It’s the equivalent of someone describing a blind date as having “a great personality.”  Movies like Ray, There Will Be Blood, and anything Jack Nicholson has been in since The Shining have elicited similar descriptions and, in every case, I found myself walking away thinking “yes, that was a great performance, but I still wish I could have the last two hours of my life back.”

Finally, I had reservations about the basic premise of the movie.  I just didn’t understand how they would make an entire film out of one woman struggling to write a cookbook and another woman using that cookbook as a means of confronting her struggles as a writer through blogging, especially since we knew from the very beginning that Julia would publish her cookbook and Julie would find success as a blog writer.  I’m not always averse to movies in which the ending is a foregone conclusion.  Sometimes, the process of getting there is interesting enough to warrant my attention.  But cookbook writing and blog writing (believe me) are not interesting enough in their own right to keep me interested for more than just a few minutes.

Unfortunately, this film went on for a lot more than a few minutes and, as I feared, all of my reservations proved valid.  I knew I was in for some trouble when, at the beginning of the film, Julie sat down to lunch in a Manhattan restaurant with three of her friends and they began exchanging witty dialog while Julie’s inner monologue provided cynical commentary on the proceedings.  I suddenly had flashbacks to every Sex in the City episode that I’ve ever seen (which is basically all of them since that show is really just one episode repeated for five seasons).  But I can handle the occasional “chick flick,” so I hunkered down and tried to keep an open mind.

The trouble is, the film never gave my open mind anything to consider.  Just as I had feared, there simply wasn’t enough interesting material in either of these women’s lives to sustain a whole movie.  Julie spent a year cooking and eventually made it as a writer.  Julia worked for years on a cookbook that eventually got published and became popular.  That’s about it.  Neither story is really worth telling on its own, and putting them together doesn’t change that.

In fact, if anything it made each story more tedious since the movie’s vague attempts at creating parallels between its two main characters made it impossible for it to explore the few interesting moments that arose in the course of the film.  When Julie’s obsession with her blog causes strain in her relationship with her husband I perked up a bit – this could get interesting.  Unfortunately, Julia’s relationship with her husband was still solid.  So, Julie and her husband quickly made up and that was that.  When Julia’s husband comes under investigation because of McCarthy’s witch hunts I suddenly saw potential.  But Julie and her husband had no such struggle in their lives, so the film just kind of dropped it.  The most egregious moment, though, was when Julie learns, after her blog has become a success, that Julia didn’t like it.  When this occurred I finally took real interest – here would be the tension around which an interesting movie could be made; this would be the moment that would explain what the previous two hours of film had really been about; at long last the movie would quit giving us exposition and finally take the narrative in an unexpected direction.  Alas, the director’s need to keep the two narratives in parallel meant that, like all things parallel, they could never really connect – so rather than explore this interesting turn in the plot, the movie just shows a brief scene of Julie coming to terms with it and moves on.

While all of my reservations about the film proved valid, though, it was something that I didn’t anticipate that was perhaps the film’s greatest shortcoming.  The movie is, after all, first and foremost about food.  Unfortunately, taste isn’t one of the sensations that film engages.  Sure, a lot of the dishes looked delicious, but beyond that I had to simply depend on the reactions of the characters to know what the food actually tasted like.  It felt a little bit like having someone try to describe a great work of art, or trying to appreciate a song by watching the video with the mute button on.  It just didn’t work.  Neither did this movie.

I must admit, though, that Meryl Streep’s performance was amazing.  But, I still wish I could have those two hours of my life back.

500 Days of Summer – Review

October 11, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

Somewhere between the release of Little Miss Sunshine and Juno it became apparent that the so-called “indie” film had become a genre of its own, complete with stock characters and cliches. Cute, sassy youngster played by an actress talented beyond her years? Check. Hip soundtrack full of “indie” music? Check. Awkward, misunderstood young man? Check. Occasional unconventional shots that will convince teen-agers and college students that the film is profound? Check. Slightly (but only slightly) rough around the edges production values? Check. Lots of irony? Check. Constant reminders that this isn’t a Holllywood movie? Check. And there you have it – an “indie” film!

And there we have it – 500 Days of Summer.

Which was unfortunate because, underneath the layers of indie film cliches was a potentially interesting movie. Since I imagine most people already know the basics of the plot, I won’t go into to it too much, but, in a nutshell, Tom Hansen (Jason Gordon-Levitt) gets in a sort-of relationship with Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) (is “Finn” a clever reference to Huckleberry Finn? How clever! How subtle! How “indie”). The problem is she’s not ready for a relationship so, eventually, they break up and he has to get over it. All of this, of course, takes 500 days.

This film is wildly unconventional in part because it doesn’t tell the story chronologically (chronological narratives are sooooooo Hollywood). It’s also unconventional because they don’t end up together in the end. In fact, not only do they not end up together in the end, but the movie doesn’t even keep us in suspense about it, nor does it follow the Casablanca model of making us lament their final break-up (or so I’ve been told, I’ve never seen Casablanca because I hate movies). Clearly, this isn’t a Hollywood movie. And, just in case we don’t realize this and thus don’t give the film all of its due “indie” cred, the opening voice-over tells us that this is not a love story, which is good because the hip “indie” music that played during the opening credits raised my hopes – I’m feeling more subversive already.

The rest of the film continues down this “indie” road (which I think was also a title of a song on the soundtrack). Tom initially courts Summer via their shared love of The Smiths (did I mention that the film has a hip soundtrack?). When they eventually have sex Tom ends up doing a choreographed dance number down the street (wow, what filmic irony). When he’s mired in depression following the break-up he gets sage advice from his sassy, wise-cracking little sister, Rachel (Chloe Moretz who has acting talent way beyond her years). Throw in cut-aways in which the scene slowly fades into a pencil sketch and the occasional black and white shot in which we briefly see the characters as children and there you have it: an indie masterpiece.

Now to be fair, one of the indie cliches in this film actually does work: the non-choronological story telling. Since we see the break-up before we see Tom and Summer get together, the film never asks us to invest in their relationship. As a result, this film isn’t about the break-up but is about the process of a relationship; it’s an exploration of the struggles that go into trying to make a relationship work, and the heartbreak that follows when a relationship comes so close to working out, but somehow, for some reason, doesn’t.

And when the film stays focused on exploring these emotions, it actually works pretty well. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel have great chemistry and do a good job of showing the audience just how much their characters seem to truly enjoy each other’s company. Summer never comes across as a bitch, nor does Tom come across as pathetic. Instead, they both come across as very sincere and genuine portraits of two people who are almost, but not quite, a perfect match.

And this is the tragedy of this film. As an exploration of the challenges that accompany relationships – the struggles to truly communicate, the heart-break and guilt of a break up, the difficulties of letting go – this film is really quite moving and if that had remained the focus I might have actually liked it. But every time the film executed a superbly sincere moment, it undid itself with a pastel painting of a tree and a number scrolling back and forth to tell us which day we were on, or a slightly scratchy voiced folk singer strumming a guitar would float through the theater’s speakers to remind us just how “cool” and “hip” this movie really was, or the screen would split into concurrent scenes of what Tom hopes will happen when he sees Summer after their break-up and what actually happens. In other words, every time the film became interesting it felt the need to stop and remind us how interesting it was.

Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe the film is supposed to leave us feeling like Tom – and the movie itself is our Summer. After all, he clearly saw a great deal of potential in her, enjoyed the genuine moments that they spent together, and was perpetually frustrated that just when their relationship seemed most sincere she would hide beneath her sarcasm and cleverness. I felt the same way about this film and, in the end I, like Tom, was ready to be done with it and move on.