Monday, August 17, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

(500) Days of Summer (2009): This is a story about a boy and a girl, but this is not a love story. The narrator makes this abundantly clear right at the beginning of (500) Days of Summer. And for the next 90+ minutes, the story perfectly portrays the postmodern romantic zeitgeist.

For those of us under the age of 30, we've grown up in a media-saturated world with two contradictory views about love. There is the naively idealistic notion of love portrayed in popular films and music. This is the soul-mate love, the "I just can't help it" love, the sweaty palms and broken hearts kind of love. This is the Jack-and-Rose, the formulaic romantic comedy, the idea that there is someone special out there for each of us.

Then there's the biological/hedonistic view of love, which has mostly has to do with either hooking up or procreating. There aren't soul mates or warm fuzzy feelings in love; our exorbitant amount of divorces and crappy marriages proves it. When scientists find the chemicals in our brain that make us "love" someone and we watch our parents' marriages fall apart, we're convinced that true love might not even exist. So if it doesn't exist, we might as well take advantage of what nature gave us and hook up with the hottest people we can find before we get old and wrinkly.

We're given both views quite readily, and sometimes even in the same song, film, or TV commercial. (As a case study, read the lyrics to every song off Justin Timberlake's album "Bringing Sexy Back." He jumps from heartbreak from a monogamous relationship to hooking up with the hottest and/or drunkest girl at the club. When he proclaims that he is the bringer of all that is sexy, he must know what he's talking about.)

Tom has the former view of love. He's idealistic, emotion-driven, and a bit angsty. Tom's existence in L.A. is rather mundane, working for a greeting card company and wondering where his life is headed. That changes when the titular character of Summer enters his life. And for 500 days, Tom's life is defined by this enchanting woman with her frank honesty, her '60s hairstyle, her bright eyes, and her complete disinterest in love. Summer is the latter type of love. She's very up front about not wanting a serious relationship and holds on to her opinion of love for the length of the film. The two are a perfect contrast, which makes them a perfect couple for this case study on love in the 21st century.

The narrative jumps all over the place during those 500 days, painting an elaborate mosaic of a story. For the Internet-using ADD generation this film represents, this style of narrative is perfect. We see Tom and Summer in every mood as their relationship begins on that idealistic high and sinks to a devastating low upon breaking up. (Yes, they break up. This isn't a love story, remember?). Filmmaker Marc Webb uses some creatively original elements to communicate the emotion of the moment, from dance sequences to animation. A particularly wonderful scene sets up a split screen between Tom's expectations and reality, contrasting the two simultaneously and allowing the audience to really feel Tom's disappointment when his dream begins to fall apart.

The film is also infused with pop culture. Some are quite discernible, such as a romp through IKEA and references to The Beatles and The Smiths. Some are a bit more obscure, like a sequence where Tom sees himself in Ingmar Bergman films. There is a heavy reference to The Graduate, as Tom's entire view of love is based on a misreading of the film (and sad British pop music). But this is where our culture is at, right?

I wonder how much of my generation's view of love is influenced by romantic comedies, pop songs, and the observation of their parents' failed marriages.

As a film, the story is never dull, the cinematography is creative and original, the characters are delightful (if a bit frustrating at times), and the script is refreshingly honest. For all of the ups and downs of love in the story, it has a strong message about the power of marriage and true love when it's finally found. Despite being raised on the Internet and wondering if true love really exists, we have hope. There are healthy relationships out there. Love does exist; it just takes the right person at the right time. (500) Days of Summer is the Annie Hall of the 21st century and one of my favorite films of 2009 thus far.

Coraline (2009): Man, this film was weird. Was this meant to be a kids' film? I'm not too sure. There are alternate universes, dancing circus mice, ghosts, and buttons sewn into eyeballs. Set in a large house turned into apartments in the rainy northwest, Coraline is an alternate Alice in Wonderland, a story of a little girl entering a dark world full of strange and danger wonders. When Coraline's family moves into the house, her life seems to have taken a downward spiral. Friendless and bored, her parents don't pay her much attention. When she discovers a tiny door leading into another "better" world, she becomes quite enchanted with the possibilities of this new realm.

While the story of Coraline is interesting and original, it's the aesthetics that make this film remarkable. The longest stop-motion film created yet, Coraline is filled with magical characters and a darkly original look that has hints of Tim Burton's influence (This is the same director who did The Nightmare Before Christmas). The entire environment is bewitching; the use of colors and incredible attention to detail make this a film worth viewing just to see what can be done with stop-motion animation.

The ongoing theme in Coraline is a prevalent one in our culture--the allure of a false world over the harshness of the real one. In the alternate world, Coraline is the center of attention. Her "other" mother and father dote upon her, showering her with gifts, food, and affection. The only catch is that she must sew buttons into her eyes. It reminds me of the alternate worlds we can create through technology. When we're spending more time playing Wii and X-Box online than reading or creating with our imagination, something has gone awry. When my text messages outweigh my personal conversations, I've missed something. When my Facebook avatar becomes my identity, I've just embraced my buttons. Coraline realizes that despite her real parents' flaws, they truly do love her with a messy love that isn't always perfect, but is still authentic.

It begs the question, what are my buttons? What are the things that are blinding me from reality, from seeing and embracing the truth, no matter how harsh? How am I self-medicating and choosing to create a false reality instead of working on bettering the true one? Coraline's story may have some plot holes and flaws, but its message is a timely one. While not quite a kids' film, this modern-day fairy tale has artistic merits that are worth your viewing.

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