As much as I love a good Hollywood popcorn movie, there were many times in 2009 when I wondered who the hell green-lighted so many pieces of crap and gave them $100 million budgets. For my money, the worst offenders were the big budget "sci-fi" movies and the romantic comedies that littered multiplexes and made Gerard Butler far more money than he should be getting (from EITHER genre!). So as a public service, I present to you a pair of alternatives to the parade of crap taking up shelf space in video stores (do people still use those?)
Problem: Boring science fiction retreads, sequels and remakes with no grasp of story and too much CGI.
Solution: Moon, with Sam Rockwell.
I heard good things about this one from friends, but never got a chance to see it in theaters because it was never playing anywhere I could see it. So I went into the DVD totally blind, and I’m glad I did. This is some HARD sci-fi, reminding me of what Pandorum was trying for but couldn’t pull off. Rather than CGI and camera tricks for the sake of it (Transformers 2, I’m looking at YOU), this movie distills it down to the basics of good storytelling combined with effects that make sense for the story and no more. Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, a lonely technician on the moon who works for a faceless energy corporation in the not-too-distant future. People in his job sign a three-year contract and only get the companionship of a computer (voiced with a surprising amount of personality by Kevin Spacey), which no doubt explains the impending craziness that seems to hang over him. Indeed, as he anxiously awaits the end of his tenure and return to Earth, he seems to be going a little nuts and begins seeing people who can’t possibly be there. One such appearance causes him to crash his moon rover into a harvesting station, and he awakes some time later in the infirmary, unable to remember what got him there. Questions are immediately raised in the viewer’s mind about how he was able to get back there with only the computer to assist him, but the answer is quickly forthcoming when he returns to the crash site and finds something VERY peculiar. More than that I won’t say for fear of spoiling the experience, and I think this is a movie that works best when you’re made to puzzle out the solution for yourself. And then this isn’t a "twist" movie. The reveal happens early on and the suspense is generated by Sam dealing with the situation and learning everything that’s going on along with the audience. And although this is essentially Sam Rockwell in a lower-budget one-man play, the story is strong enough that it doesn’t need fancy CGI (outside of one bit of camera trickery that is necessary to the story). Highly recommended.
Problem: Boring romantic-comedies where you can figure out the whole movie from the trailer, featuring cartoon characters instead of real people.
Solution: (500) Days of Summer, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel
Having been forced to watch my share of movies that barely qualify as either "romantic" or "comedies", it was a breath of fresh air to get one that was obviously written by a real person rather than a committee of cynical screenwriters. At heart this movie reminded me a lot of another favorite of mine, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where one person discovers that the things they used to love about someone have turned into the things they hate about them. Apparently this movie is quite divisive in terms of people’s reaction to the way the story is presented. Personally, I loved it and would count it as one of my favorite movies of 2009, but then I went through much the same thing as the protagonist in the movie in my younger years.
500 Days of Summer follows Thomas, a greeting card writer who wants to be an architect, as he proceeds through a relationship with flaky Summer (Zooey Deschanel in her usual role). However, since the movie is written entirely from the perspective of Thomas and memories are not always in order, things proceed in a more or less random order to better illustrate the contrasts between early love and the dying days of the relationship. The fundamental problem for him is that while he considers himself madly in love, for her it’s just a casual thing. There’s no better example of this disconnect than an inventive sequence late in the movie, when Thomas attends a party hosted by (now) ex-girlfriend Summer, and the screen splits into "Expectations" and "Reality", revealing two drastically different outcomes to the night. It was this kind of wildly inventive spirit (including a dance number to celebrate their first night of sex and a stunning moment when the world becomes a sketched drawing) that I found so charming and different from every other boring "rom-com" out there right now. In fact, this is an anti-love story, as we know from the beginning that they break up by day 500, and the movie is about how they started and how they ended up there. I think though that what I liked best amidst all the crazy chances taken artistically is that Thomas is a very real person. There’s a moment when anti-commitment Summer suddenly reveals that she’s engaged, and Thomas feels anger not only at being played for so long, but at not even being informed by her. I HAVE LIVED THAT MOMENT. This is a screenwriter who has been screwed over by an evil woman before and perfectly nailed down the emotional resonance of the experience.
I should note that there a lot of people who hated this movie, for a lot of the reasons I loved it so much. It is definitely not predictable or safe in the way it presents the storyline, and there is no attempt made to understand or justify the behavior of Summer. It’s strictly presented from the male side of things and Summer is left as an enigma for the most part, much like the character herself would have wanted. So if you’re looking for safe and banal, there’s always Did You Hear About the Morgans?, but if you want something presented by real people and not Hollywood drones, this movie will prove hugely rewarding. It’s also got one of the best closing lines in a movie I’ve heard in years, so there’s that going on as well.
Winner: Get them both. Both discs are packed with special features as well, making them great for repeat viewings.
Tags: 500 Days of Summer, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Moon, Sam Rockwell, SmarK Rant, SmarK Rants, zooey deschanel