Movie review Tuesday

Since I’m on a movie-viewing kick for the moment, I figured I’d write about the flicks I watched over the previous week. I’d have included them in yesterday’s What It Is, but it’d get too long and unwieldy, and take attention away from the all-important gin section of the post. So here’s what I saw and what I thought:

(500) Days of Summer: Nice germ of a story, completely wasted by a lack of faith in itself. See, the story’s meant to be out of sequence; we’re shown different days of the 500-day span of when the protagonist knows The Girl. On its own, this could’ve made for an interesting structure for a movie. It’s no Betrayal, that awesome flick by Pinter in which each scene goes back 1 or 2 years from the previous one, so that the opening of the movie is really the end of the relationship that we subsequently see unfold. In the case of (500) Days of Summer, the film-makers decided that, in addition to the “non-linear” sequence, they’d hedge their bets by including

a) an omnipotent voiceover that intrudes at critical points to tell the viewer things that the writing and acting are too shoddy to convey, and

b) flashbacks!

Why flashbacks, of all things? For God’s sake, the only novelty of your movie is that you’re telling the story “out of order,” so why on earth would you then have characters tell stories from the past to fill out the “present” scene? Wouldn’t you be better served actually including a scene from that day, instead of cheating by showing it within another day? You’re conceding that your structure doesn’t stand on its own, so your movie’s one unconventional element is really only a worthless gimmick! But, hey: good thing you have that omnipotent voiceover to tell us when something important is happening. A total failure of storytelling.

Up: Maybe it’s because I was watching this at like 2 a.m., but I found it pretty boring and trite, as far as Pixar flicks go. Was there some point at which the viewer was supposed to think, “This cantankerous old man is going to abandon the little kid, lose the goony-bird to the aged villain, watch the dog get mauled, and not live up to his dead wife’s memory?” Sure, it was gorgeous, there was plenty of action, and the “growing old” sequence at the beginning was deft, but the whole exercise felt formulaic. Maybe it was the best movie of 2009, like some people were saying, but that’s damning with faint praise.

Once In a Lifetime: Impossibly entertaining, but that may be because I was a Cosmos fan as a kid. Still, I think a casual viewer would find the story pretty amazing, in terms of what soccer was like in the U.S. in the early ’70’s, what Pele’s arrival meant on the world stage, and how Giorgio Chinaglia could succeed in New York as an egotistical Italian who spoke English with a Welsh accent.

Inception: It was a mind-blowing visual spectacle, but I’m struggling with what to make of it. With a day’s distance, I find myself bothered by the sheer orderliness of the dreams that the characters invade. Maybe it’s because there’s an “architect” character who creates dream-structures, but they all seemed Escher-like at best, not surreal and identity-shifting, the way we tend to dream (right?). That is, the dreams seemed ordered and logical, which contradicts my (and I assume everybody’s) experience with dreams. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a fantastic flick, but I think “dreams” really means “movies” in Christopher Nolan’s world, and that this was a movie about the layers of imagination that go into our movie-watching experience.

Part of it is that there’s a lot of time spent explaining “the rules” of being in dreams. I used to complain that the Sandman comic book would occasionally pull some dream-rule out of its ass as a deux ex machina. In this flick, you get all The Rules spelled out, but there are a ton of them, and they still seem a bit arbitrary. The most important one, in terms of storytelling mechanics, is the differing experience in time for dreams within dreams. Thus, Nolan’s able to have one event take place in “level one” incredibly slowly while the dream one level deeper is moving more quickly. (This piles up in a fantastic way. It reminded me of the moment in the Rush documentary, when someone talks about the song Spirit of Radio, and marvels over how the song repeatedly changes time signature, and yet manages not to lose the audience.)

Early in the movie, I thought the most apt comparison would be Synecdoche, New York, as the discussion of layers of reality, consciousness and artifice were in the fore. By the end, I realized the closer comparison would be to another Charlie Kaufman-written movie, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Both movies center around an “invasion” of the mind, and have unconventional story structures. Kaufman and Gondry’s flick has all the heart that’s lacking from Nolan’s extravaganza, but that’s no knock; I think Eternal Sunshine is one of the best movies about love in the past 20 years. What Nolan made is a movie less about dreams and memory than about movie-making, and maybe a specific type of blockbuster movie-making. That said, it’s a hell of an experience, and the fight scenes in the hotel, in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt battles security goons in a hallway in which the plane of gravity keeps shifting, are worth the price of admission. (However, the visual hat-tips to Keanu Reeves and The Matrix kept reminding me that this was a movie about movies.)

It’s a monstrous achievement, but I’m not sure I’ll be reflecting on it years from now, or even a few months from now.

So that’s last week’s movies (not including American Splendor, which I’ve seen 5 or 6 times already). If I watch anything good this week, I’ll try to pontificate about it for you.