Blog Archives

The Only Living Boy in New York (2017)

The Only Living Boy in New York may have made me hate New York. I was rolling my eyes at about every moment of this movie, not just because it wads cliché, not just because it confused the cliché with transcendent and relatable commentary, not just because the characters were aggressively loathsome and inauthentic, and not because it appears to be someone’s idea of Graduate Lite (though, yes, these are all contributing factors). It’s because the movie takes the easy way out at every route and wants to be congratulated for its artistic integrity.

Thomas (Callum Turner) is a twenty-something who feels that New York City has lost what made it special. He’s drifting through life, thinking about becoming a writer, and also trying to romance his best friend Mimi (Kiersey Clemons). His mother (Cynthia Nixon) self-medicates via dinner parties. His father (Pierce Brosnan) has a different approach, namely sleeping with another woman, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale). Thomas follows Johanna and makes his presence known to her. He convinces himself he’s falling in love with her and impulsively chases her as a romantic option as well.

I think the movie wants me to be charmed by its male lead, the young protagonist that looks like a lanky Richard Gere. This twerp made me so angry and he pretty much embodied a creepy blend of entitlement. He’s tired of being in the friend zone with Mimi, but he keeps pushing, sneaking unauthorized kisses, and trying to wear down her defenses after she’s told him no. She’s annoyed that her friendship is by itself not good enough for him, and even though they had one “magic night,” that he won’t accept her repeated stances about not wanting to be together romantically. But what’s a woman’s ability to choose matter to Thomas, who we’re constantly told from every other character in this stupid movie, is clever, bright, good, virtuous, and a prized talent in the making. The movie never shows you these things, never provides evidence of his talents or even his virtues, and so it becomes another series of empty gestures. He’s just so captivating that all the women of New York can’t help themselves around him. This wouldn’t feel so tone deaf and backwards if the film did a better job of making Thomas feel like a living, breathing human being rather than some misguided, coming-of-age hipster creep.

The premise here has promise, a wayward son who ends up having an affair with his father’s mistress. That could work and devise plenty of palpable dramatic tension. Except because we never get to know Thomas beyond a superficial level, the affair only feels like another conquest of entitlement. Even a more interesting subtext, punishing his father for putting their family dynamic at risk, is only kept at a distance. What does Thomas learn about himself, his father, Johanna, or the world through his affair? If you cannot come up with a good answer then that means your plot point is lacking substance. Perhaps they just like the danger or the attention of one another, and yes Beckinsale (pick an Underworld movie) is an attractive woman so that’s a plus for a horny young lad. Most frustratingly, nothing seems to be pressed by this affair. It pushes some eventual third act confrontations but Thomas and Johanna’s tryst, for lack of a better term, just kind of lies there. It doesn’t do much, which is strange considering what it involves. It feels like its real purpose is to engineer jealousy from Mimi, which is gross. Johanna is never more than another trophy for the most blithe boy in New York.

The drama is pitched to a level that feels like it dances into self-parody, except it plays everything so unrelentingly serious. The narration begins by calling out life moments pulled from movie watching, but then it presents these very moments without any ounce of satire. We open with a New York dinner party where the attendees lament how the city has lost its soul (“The only soul left is Soul Cycle,” someone says like the worst 1980s stand-up comedian). Oh no, CBGB’s closed down. Oh no, there are Starbucks on multiple corners. Oh no, a city of ten million plus people is now only a commercialized hell, worry the rich elites from their ivory towers and their faulty memories of New York City being more pure when it was older. Not one character feels like an actual human being in this screenplay by Allan Loeb (Collateral Beauty). This is the kind of elitist, out-of-touch, artificial, self-involved characterization of New Yorkers that hacky conservative writers like to cling to when criticizing their big city targets.

The actors do relatively fine work with what they’re given, though special mention to Brosnan who tries his hardest to imbue notes of complexity in a character that, for 90 percent of the movie, is set up as a snide and disapproving patriarch. I don’t want to give up on Turner (Assassin’s Creed) as an actor because the part did him no favors. Mostly I just felt sorry for them. Cynthia Nixon deserves better. The charming Kiersey Clemons (Dope) deserves better. Jeff Bridges is an executive producer, so he deserves what he gets as an alcoholic author/mentor with an out-of-nowhere ending that feels pulled from a soap opera. These characters are powerfully boring, shallow, and unappealing.

At only 88 minutes long, The Only Living Boy in New York still feels punishing in length, protracted, and not worth the overall effort. Even the title makes me irritable. It’s a reference to the Simon & Garfunkel song that you better believe will get played, one more desperate attempt to glom onto the legacy of The Graduate. The title refers to Thomas, our entitled hipster of a lead, but does that mean that he’s the only one who really feels things, man, because the rest of us are just dead to the world, living our lives, and this hip young man just sees through all the nonsense of the day-to-day and, man, if only we could give him the platform he so rightly deserves then we’d all be better off. I wanted the cameraman to abandon the film and run a few corners and join a new set (it’s New York City, so by the law of averages, there has to be another film shoot a few blocks away). The Only Living Boy in New York is insufferable, haughty, pretentious, privileged navel-gazing masquerading as deep thought; it is smug New York hipster twaddle.

Nate’s Grade: D+

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

It’s only been a mere ten years since Marvel’s signature web-shooting, wall-crawling super hero leaped onto the big screen and smashed box-office records, and yet he’s already getting the reboot treatment. Usually we reserve reboots for movie franchises that ended in colossal artistic failure. I don’t know anyone that will ardently defend director Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3, but I know of no one that puts its in the same vicinity as the atrocious, franchise-slaying Batman and Robin. Spider-Man 3 suffered in comparison to its predecessors, which formed the gold standard of super hero films (even in my review I called out for some new blood if this was any indication what we had left to expect). But then in 2010, Sony decided that it would rather start all over with its billion-dollar franchise, so Raimi was out, so too were stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, and 500 Days of Summer director Marc Webb was tapped to direct. The (rebooted) Amazing Spider-Man swings into theaters with a serious case of déjà vu attached. Are we far enough out to forget about Raimi’s accomplishments? My spider sense is telling me we’ve been here before and better.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a geeky high school student living with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) ever since his parents had to vanish mysteriously one night. Peter is picked on at school and crushes on cutie-pie Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) but all that changes when he’s bitten by a genetically engineered spider. He gains super spider-like abilities including improved dexterity and the ability to stick onto surfaces. He designs his own webbing devices that allow him to shoot long tendrils of super-strong spider webbing he can swing around with. Peter is trying to unravel the mystery of what happened to his parents and he seeks out Doctor Connors (Rhys Ifans), a notable genetics scientist who worked with Peter’s long lost dad. Peter supplies his father’s secret math formula and gives Connors the breakthrough he was hoping for in genetic replication. When injected with a serum, creature should be able to regrow lost appendages. Connors turns himself into a human guinea pig because he’s desperate to grow back his amputated right arm. But the serum causes Connors to transform into a hideous lizard creature for periods of night and only Spider-Man can stop him.

Simply put, I liked Spider-Man when it was made the first time and called Spider-Man. I understand the desire to reboot after the disappointing mess that was 2007’s Spider-Man 3, but did we need to start completely from scratch? Could we not have just eased into a Spider-Man 4 and replaced the original actors? Though I personally had no problem with Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy (yum). I don’t need to see another version of the Spider-Man origin tale because it was already covered just ten years ago. The worldwide public is familiar enough with Spidey’s back-story that I don’t understand why we couldn’t just start with our hero already doing his business. I don’t need another hour of setup for the guy to become Spider-Man. This “sameness” seems to sap much of the energy out of Amazing Spider-Man, a competent and occasionally thrilling superhero flick. It does plenty of things well enough but you just can’t shake the feeling that the movie, at its core, is unnecessary or at least tripping over redundancy. Do we really need to see Peter Parker discover his powers again? I understand that we want to experience part of his joy at discovering his fantastic new abilities, but it just feels like all too familiar. I don’t think we would have missed anything by simply condensing all the back-story and doling it out as a series of concise flashbacks.

Despite some serious déjà vu, The Amazing Spider-Man has some other serious issues. Firstly, the tone just seems like a bad fit. This is a much darker, somber, and angsty tone for a character that was never intended to be as brooding as, say, Batman. Just because the dark tone worked for Christopher Nolan’s Batman films doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for every comic character. I’m not saying that Peter Parker doesn’t have his issues and plenty of guilt to struggle with (more on that in a moment), but this movie feels like the fun has been squeezed out. It’s a kid who was abounded by his parents, bullied at school, and he teems with repressed frustration. Peter Parker is not meant to be a brooding antihero. He’s supposed to be the high-flying jokester. Regardless, you can interpret the character however you’d like, I just don’t think this darker, gloomier incarnation works despite the best efforts from Garfield. The spirit of the movie feels like it’s being suffocated at times. Raimi’s films had their dramatic material but they never lost a sense of fun. It’s hard to tell if anyone is enjoying himself or herself for much of Amazing Spider-Man.

Now let’s talk about one of those areas of Parker’s guilt, namely his guilt over the murder of dearly beloved Uncle Ben. Peter chooses not to get involved and from that action Ben is murdered by the same criminal Peter could have thwarted earlier. In Amazing Spider-Man, it’s transformed into an inane example of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Ben just so happens to run into the same guy and he stupidly wrestles for the man’s gun. It’s hard to make any real connection for Peter to blame himself. Spider-Man 3 did something similar by rewriting the back-story so that the Sandman was responsible for Uncle Ben’s death. I wrote: “By introducing a new killer it means that Peter has no responsibility for his uncle’s death. This completely strips away the character’s guilt and rationale for what compels him to swing from building to building to fight crime.” Now, this new Spider-Man, since he’s so edgy and dark, is only hunting for bad guys who bear a likeness to the robber who killed Uncle Ben. Yes, Peter Parker has become a vigilante defined by his all-consuming sense of vengeance. And guess what? He never finds the guy. Get used to all sorts of storylines being dropped or forgotten throughout the film (I guess we’ll have to wait for future films to explain what happened to his parents).

While I think a darker interpretation of Spider-Man is mislead, I wish the movie would see it through rather than keep having moments to break the reality of this more grounded approach. I’ll buy that Dr. Connors turns into a giant lizard creature from the magic DNA serum whatever. I’ll even buy that he goes mad with power because of it. However, what I won’t buy is that this guy, all of a sudden, decides to relocate his lab into the sewers. What? The guy has everything he needs in a giant scientific tower, and he says he “gave the staff the week off.” Well then do your crazy mad scientist science stuff in your lab. Why the sewers? Do you know how many trips this guy would have to make to haul all that equipment down into the sewers, and remember he’s only got one friggin’ arm! The entire character of the Lizard feels so poorly developed and adds no greater thematic message to the movie. And then there’s the case of Peter Parker being a world-class dweeb mocked in high school. As presented, he’s a pretty hunky, smart, athletic kid who has fabulous hair. It makes no sense that he has absolutely zero friends and that there wouldn’t be girls crawling all over this guy. Are there no alternative-style girls in this school besides the one girl with glasses we keep cutting back to for reaction shots? And how many times is Aunt May going to watch her nephew come home at odd hours and covered in bruises before she says anything?

Then there’s just the forehead-smacking number of coincidences in the movie. With most movies you accept that the characters exist in a small universe where they will regularly continue to run into one another, but in Amazing Spider-Man it’s absurd. As my pal Mike Galusick noted, you have Peter who just happens to have the last steps needed in a formula who just happens to go to Oscorp and poses as another student with shocking ease who just happens to wander off a tour and much up with lab stuff because security cameras do not exist in this universe and who just happens to meet the same scientist who is responsible for his parents missing and the guy also happens to have a head intern who just happens to be Peter’s crush and she just happens to be the daughter of the police captain (Denis Leary) trying to hunt down Spider-Man. Phew. I haven’t even mentioned the construction worker dad (C. Thomas Howell, for real) whose kid was saved by Spider-Man so he makes sure to rally all his fellow construction workers to synchronize their beams for Spidey. It is moments like this that undermine the filmmakers’ grounded approach.

It sounds like I really disliked this film, and I didn’t. Amazing Spider-Man is a completely serviceable superhero tale and the cast does a great job of covering up for many of the narrative shortcomings. The action, what there is, seems a little too rushed and missing that spark that Raimi had in abundance. There is one nifty sequence that Webb deserves credit for: in the foreground a librarian listens to classical music, which drowns out the background action as the Lizard and Spider-Man smash through shelf after shelf of books. This was the only moment in the movie where it felt fresh and exciting and I wanted to see where it would go. It’s just that the movie cannot capitalize on its potential. Take for instance a late incident where the Lizard unleashes his mutant gas and transforms a cadre of police officers into giant lizard creatures. You’d naturally expect that if you were introducing a lizard army that we’re upping the stakes and that the movie would do something with this new team of antagonists. Wrong. No ramifications. Webb’s film does benefit from advances in computer wizardry as the CGI is far more advanced and Spider-Man doesn’t resemble the cartoon character he often did in Raimi’s trilogy. The brief moments swinging through the city, feeling the rush of exhilaration with the character, are the movie’s visual highpoint. I found the Lizard’s face eerily similar to the goombahs in the reviled Super Mario Brothers movie.

Garfield (The Social Network) and Stone (The Help) certainly feel like a step up from before. Even though Garfield seems a bit old for high school, he does a more than credible job of being a super smart kid who slowly grows in confidence and demeanor. He can do it all, handle the comedy, the emotional angst, the formation of courage. Garfield is a great addition and he gets along wonderfully with Stone; the actors have great chemistry, which may explain why they started dating after the production ended. Stone brings a comedic zeal to the part and seems far more approachable and les standoffish than Dunst’s Mary Jane ever did. While the movie seems to indicate a fully formed romance for its stars, what we see on the screen plays out more like a nervous flirtation. The actors are cute when they seem to be stammering in awkwardness and mutual attraction. I wish the movie gave us more development rather than skipping ahead, but hey, these kids are great together.

The Amazing Spider-Man, when you get down to it, is less than amazing. It’s a capable super hero movie with some fancy effects and stunt work, but the mounting plot holes, incongruities, tonal conflicts, and overwhelming sense of sameness prove to be a foe even Spider-Man cannot topple. This aims to be a leaner, more emotionally engaging, realistically grounded Spider-Man, but it just can’t pull it off. Garfield and Stone are great but it’s impossible to erase Raimi’s original trilogy from your memory. His films weren’t perfect, though Spider-Man 2 came closest, but they were loving odes to the character and knew how best to link action with character for maximum impact. I can’t think of any real memorable moments in this movie, which is troublesome given its hefty budget and its hefty mission of supplanting the Raimi films. I didn’t have a bad time while watching The Amazing Spider-Man but my involvement and enjoyment was very limited. Even with a glossy reboot, I guess The Amazing Spider-Man is proof enough that sometimes it’s better to go forward rather than reliving the past.

Nate’s Grade: B-

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

977

It doesn’t take long before you realize that (500) Days of Summer is a different kind of romantic comedy. In fact, to slap that genre title onto it does a disservice. I’ve watched plenty of romantic comedies (a notable rise in viewership since getting married in 2006), and the traditional Hollywood romantic comedy exists in a world not our own. It is a sitcom world where people blurt out their feelings, interact in bizarre manners, and get into wacky hijinks and contrived misunderstandings. These tales also exist in “movie world”; (500) Days of Summer, on the other hand, is refreshingly recognizable. Granted the characters still have fantastic if slightly off kilter jobs (writer of greeting cards), and the characters live in fabulous and gigantic apartments. Excusing those contextual quirks, the movie is upfront about its intention. “This is a story of boy meets girl,” a narrator intones, “but it is not a love story.”

Tom (Joeseph Gordon-Levitt) recounts the 500 days he has spent with his ex-girlfriend, Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the girl he aches over because he feels her to be his “one.”

This is a movie about love and relationships but it has such a wider scope. It’s perceptive and insightful in the way that human beings engage in coupling. Tom ping-pongs between memories, tying together happy moments and the failed recapturing of those exact happy moments later. I enjoyed how reflexive the film can be with romance. When Tom is infatuated with Summer he lists her attributes: “I love her smile. I love her hair. I love her knees. I love how she licks her lips before she talks. I love her heart-shaped birthmark on her neck.” And then when he is frustrated with Summer, he lists her faults: “I hate her crooked teeth. I hate the way she smacks her lips. I hate her knobby knees. I hate that cockroach shape splotch on her neck.” I appreciate a movie that tries to tackle the complexities of love in a manner that doesn’t seem trite or sensational. A movie doesn’t have to say anything new about romance (is it even possible to scoop the Romantic poets?), but it can still say something true and revealing. It is a story about love, but not a love story.

It also helps that the characters are meaty and are played by capable actors. Tom is a smart enough guy, though a bit of a foolish romantic. He buys into the love that is talked about in pop songs and greeting cards; he’s not naïve per se but plenty vulnerable enough to get his heart broken in the real world. Summer is an independent woman who says at the start that she is not looking for a boyfriend. She doesn’t wish to be constrained by a relationship and wants to enjoy the carefree days of youth. Yet Tom persists thinking he can wear her down or win her over, waiting for Summer to cave and find solace in Tom’s embrace. He fancies Summer as the “girl of his dreams,” though everyone else isn’t so sure. His little sister argues, “Just because she likes the same bizzaro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.” One of Tom’s friends has a really nice monologue describing his “perfect girl,” and these descriptions noticeably differ from that of his long-term high school sweetheart. But then he stops, reflects, and says that’s what his “perfect girl” would be like, but his current girlfriend, well, she’s better than his imaginary version of a perfect girl. This sentiment really hit home for me personally, perhaps because I had my wife seated by my side. But Summer isn’t a fantasy of romantic perfection, she’s a person. She has her own desires, her own insecurities, her own ambitions, and her own life to lead. These two feel like actual human beings and not stock players, though (500) Days of Summer does carry its own share of stock parts like the square boss (Clark Gregg) and the goofy, horny friend (Geoffrey Arend).

The saying “the camera loves” somebody seems outdated, old fashioned, and liberally applied. But when it comes to actress Zooey Deschanel, well, the camera just loves her. It’s hard not to fall in love with this blue-eyed beauty. She’s adorable, but not in an overly quirky way, and she’s smart, but still approachable, and altogether lovely. She is the face of unrequited love. She can be cold and aloof and jubilant. Deschanel plays the complications and complexities of an enigmatic woman who refuses to abide by labels. Her last conversation with Tom manages to be both crushing and inspirational. Her chemistry with Gordon-Levitt feels entirely naturalistic and pleasant. Gordon-Levitt has been cranking out strong performances in indie films like Brick, Mysterious Skin, and The Lookout. He’s quite possibly becoming one of the premier young actors working today. He has an everyman capability but he also can turn on the charm in a way that doesn’t seem forced, like Shia LaBeouf. Gordon-Levitt is the anchor of this movie and we see the world and Summer through his eyes. He brings great vulnerability to his role and we feel each step of his emotional journey. Both actors deliver terrific performances that don’t stoop to playing by the conventions of the romantic comedy.

photo_07_hires(7)The nonlinear story structure seems like a gimmick until you realize that the writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, have cleverly freed themselves from the contrivances of movie romance time. MRT, for those who prefer their nomenclature in the shorthand, is that unbelievable breadth of time where the characters fall head over in heels in love with each other. It always feels so fast and far too fleeting, so that when complications have to arise late in the second act they too feel rushed. You could apply a healthy dose of montages to signify massive time passages, but those get old unless you’re Sylvester Stallone training to fight another boxing match. (500) Days of Summer tells you right away that this story takes place over a year and a half, and Day One isn’t when boy got girl but when boy met girl. By skipping around to specific dates, Neustadter and Weber are hitting only the highpoints, the memorable moments, and leaving out the unforeseen groundwork. All those mundane yet essential moments of pulling together a successful relationship are there, they are just now implicit. They are implied in the time jumps. The relationship between Tom and Summer, therefore, exists in an expanse of time that feels believable. The nonlinear structure also belies the way our memories work. Human beings don’t remember everything in a straight line, especially in matters of the heart.

There’s a lot of drama to be mined here with the breakup territory, but the movie is also playful and funny. Director Marc Webb, he of the video music world, pokes fun at other filmic expressions of love. At one point, Tom struts down the street and becomes the center of a lively choreographed dance sequence complete with animated blue birds. At another point, during Tom’s heartbreak, the movie descends through Bergman and Fellini visual tropes. It simultaneously communicates Tom’s emotional highs and lows and satirizes the histrionic nature of his feelings. Truly, when one’s in love you couldn’t feel better, or worse, but upon retrospect you can see how silly such in-the-heat-of-the-moment proclamations can be. There’s also a scene later in the film where Tom attends a party that Summer invited him to. The screen cuts in half, and on one side we see Tom’s expectations of what will happen that night and on the other side we see what actually occurs. The visual symmetry is interesting and a great glimpse inside the mind of a hopeful romantic.

(500) Days of Summer manages to be breezy, moving, delightful, perceptive, charming, and just a great time at the movies. It’s a story about falling in love for the right reasons with the wrong girl. Summer isn’t the villain of the piece but her own woman, and she can be fickle and frustrating but she is not cruel or indifferent. Tom is desperately in search for his “one true love” but he’s playing by a checklist he’s drawn up from movies, TV, and love songs. All of this could have been sticky and formulaic (in fact, the dynamic vaguely resembles the characters from the abysmal Ugly Truth), but the filmmakers and the talented actors make the movie feel honest and relatable. The nonlinear narrative allows the movie to simultaneously be more playful, believable, and actually easier to understand, linking selective memories. I left the theater feeling so buoyant and happy, perhaps again because I was walking out hand-in-hand with my own “one.” But no matter your current romantic situation, (500) Days of Summer is a slick antidote to Hollywood’s rom-com factory line.

Nate’s Grade: A

%d bloggers like this: