Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Just in Case You Want to Support a Company Other Than Hasbro This Summer...

I feel like a bit of a sellout. I have seen a number of solid indie movies this summer and I have completely failed to give them any attention here on the blog. So, in an overdue attempt to make up for it, I have written up brief reviews of four small films that are worth your money this summer.

Away We Go

Maya Rudolph is pregnant with boyfriend, John Krasinski's child. Let the self-consciously indie rumination begin! This one is from director, Sam Mendes, but rest assured, it is not "Revolutionary Road." In fact, this far less a portentous Oscar contender than it is a warm, light cup of Alexi Murdoch-flavored tea.

While the film may be far too eager to woo its target audience (people with beards and army surplus jackets, or people who date people with beards and army surplus jackets), it just barely succeeds. Thank the leads. The two performances are not revelations on the level of, say, Bill Murray's rebirth a few years ago, but they are solid. Rudolph, in particular, is incredibly endearing whilst buried behind her giant belly. (Her talents are wasted on SNL. Get out while you still can!) Krasinski still lacks some range, in my opinion, but its hard to lay a great deal of blame on any of the actors in this film, because the script tends to be quite wonky.

The film is composed of four or five chapters, each devoted to a certain city. Our couple, you see, is searching for the best place to raise their little surprise. The chapters, while they are certainly unique, come together to create a rather uneven film. The Phoenix chapter is the biggest offender of all, featuring an annoying appearance from Allison Janney. It, thankfully, comes early on, though. The subsequent chapters consistently improve, as various friends and relatives show us their unique brands of family. The Toronto segment stands out, as the portrayal of a warm, happy family with adopted children develops a strikingly melancholic tone.

Even as each chapter becomes more poignant, however, it's impact on the leads is not well-developed, especially given the inevitable conclusion that they must build their own kind of family in their own town. Still, earnest performances and rustic cinematography glaze over these rough edges enough to make the film go down easy.


Science fiction has not exactly been doing well lately. "Moon" has come to the rescue, assuring us that there is still some life yet in the the genre. Even the makers of "Away We Go" should take note of this one, as it is a decidedly "indie" film, but it has no interest in flaunting that fact. Sam Rockwell plays a guy named Sam Bell who has been hired to keep an eye on a power company's moon-based mining operation for a period of three years. His stint is almost over and he is looking forward to rejoining his wife and kid at home.

Sam is alone, save for an AI named GERTY (conspicuously voiced by Kevin Spacey). Director, Duncan Jones takes his time developing Sam's daily routine and his relationship with GERTY. The isolation is apparent, but it never becomes tedious. Few actors could pull off the tall order that this film entails, but Rockwell easily conveys Sam's weariness, boredom and loneliness while still being quite likable. Furthermore, GERTY is never quite as menacing as sci-fi filmgoers will expect. It sounds like a car commercial and knows more than it lets on, but its role in the film is more complex than your typical malevolent AI, even beyond the emoticons it sports.

Things do get weird, though. After Sam crashes a truck into a harvesting vehicle and reawakens inside the base, he seems to think there is another version of himself walking around the base. It turns out to be a clone (not a huge spoiler, I swear). The way the Sams' relationship develops is beautifully restrained and surreal. The injured Sam slowly comes to accept the presence of his clone and Jones, once again, knows not to rush this process on screen. Once the two begin to converse and question the situation, the mystery begins to unravel. Rockwell rises to this second major challenge ably, never overplaying the subtly varying personalities of the two Sams. Look for weird split-screen effects all you want; the interaction between the clones almost never feels fabricated – a credit to everyone involved.

"Moon" takes what could have been a weighty epic and makes it an understated, character-driven film. Its small budget does nothing to subtract from the experience (having one main set and one major character probably helped in that area) – in fact, it probably benefitted the film. GERTY chugs around like it has seen a few years' action and the director never gets carried away with the outdoor scenes, allowing the moon's spare drabness to come through. Rockwell will get a lot of attention for this film, and he certainly deserves it, but "Moon" is solid through and through. Sci-fi fans: rejoice.

500 Days of Summer

"500 Days of Summer" will see "Away We Go" its Alexi Murdoch and raise them a Regina Spektor. Even setting aside the indie soundtrack arms race, however, this one is a knockout. As lovable as the cast of "Away We Go" may be, they cannot hold a candle to Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This one has a great script and some downright lyrical visuals to boot.

I cringed the moment I realized that the movie's title is actually its central means of organizing the narrative. We are treated to a literal, on-screen counter each time the film bounces from one point to another in this couple's 500 day-long romance. While an out-of-sequence narrative is a very easy way to lend some artificial complexity to a film, Marc Webb's sharp directing, along with the witty script, wrings every last ounce of humor and emotion from the idea.

Telling the story from the woefully earnest perspective of Gordon-Levitt's character, Tom, the film is rife with other little gimmicks that (downright confoundingly) work more often than not. A sequence where Tom's expectations for a party play out on one side of the screen while reality does on the other may seem like mere busy work for your eye. Yet, the respective scenes play out with unexpected subtlety and it builds a great deal of tension, leading up to a big revelation. A series of seemingly random images from various scenes in the film repeat throughout the story, each time gaining a bit more meaning. It provides a uniquely skewed perspective on the film's events as we, along with Tom, attempt to make sense of his love interest's apparently confounding behavior.

Even amid all of this conspicuous narrative machinery, there is a genuine soul to the film. Tom's obsession may often be the butt of jokes in the film, but it is still undeniably earnest and tender. The banter Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt share is witty enough to sell its cuteness and there are a few moments where the narrative gives way to passages of romantic bliss that are genuinely beautiful. This really is a good romantic comedy. One does not get to say that very often.

The Hurt Locker

Chalk this one up as another unlikely success. Movies about the war in Iraq are few and far between. Good ones are virtually nonexistent. Good ones directed by a woman... well, you get my point. (It may sound strange to point out the director's gender but this film almost exclusively features male characters. Oh, and when was the last time you saw any movie directed by a woman? Probably not recently... if ever. That's a crime, if Kathryn Bigelow is any indication.)

Jeremy Renner plays Staff Sergeant William James. Staff Sergeant James defuses IEDs (improvised explosive devices). He is also insane. The film opens with the team losing its original bomb technician in a gruesome display of the power of these crude devices. It explains why, throughout the film, James and his men find other soldiers cowering at the sight of the telling garbage piles that tend to hide them. When James joins the team, his reckless approach scares and angers his men. He quickly proves his abilities but consequences do come – in some ways that are less obvious than others.

This is the strength of "The Hurt Locker" – there is hardly a single note of certainty in the film. From the characterizations of the men to each bomb sequence, nothing is clear-cut. Dull tension is pervasive. Even when a bomb is finally defused, the anxiety relents in a way that is so minute it is difficult to perceive. One standoff even ends with a tentative, "I think we're done," after hours of silence. Bigelow's assured directing is to thank. Each bomb scenario James faces builds slowly and surely, without ever resorting to melodramatic performances or heavy handed musical cues. The camerawork has a typically gritty texture, but Bigelow never throws the camera around in order to fabricate drama.

It is easy to want "The Hurt Locker" to have some sort of arc – some sort of progression to the situations James and his team faces. While one could say that each is more stomach-turning than the next (the later events are, indeed, particularly disturbing), writer, Mark Boal knows better than to force any clear meaning onto the film's events. Even when one incident manages to get under James' skin, his attempt to assert some sort of justice is painfully inadequate and, ultimately, pointless. Anything more would have made "The Hurt Locker" a lesser film. As it stands, however, this is the first great war film in years – a striking fact, considering just how long we have been at war.

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