I consider Plastic Bag (2009), directed by Ramin Bahrani and starring Werner Herzog as the voice of the titular protagonist (yes, really), one of the most affecting and memorable short films I’ve ever seen. Recently, I finally got around to watching one of Bahrani’s much-praised indie feature films: Goodbye Solo (2008).
The film begins with a conversation a taxi driver, Solo, has with one of his customers, William. The latter intends to pay the former a significant sum to drive him to a North Carolina landmark at a later date. William intends it to be a one-way trip, heavily implying that he wants to kill himself.
The rest of the film follows Solo’s attempts to befriend William, both to find out the reasons for his decision and to make him change his mind by showing him the simple pleasures of Solo’s familial and professional life.
Goodbye Solo is not the kind of movie interested in answers, or a pat happy ending. We are dropped into Solo’s and William’s lives, and a few film-days later we leave them again, without really having witnessed any kind of emotionally satisfying arc. That doesn’t mean that the film is clinical, just that the storyline and character development are very naturalistic and don’t follow the conventions of Hollywood cinema.
The performances by the mostly non-professional cast, too, may well be a turn-off for some; sometimes you definitely notice, sometimes you don’t, but overall I didn’t think it distracting. The lead actors in particular are very good, and the lack of pretence in depicting their daily lives makes the ending, which stays with you, quite affecting. For the way its characterisations sneak up on you and for its frank discussion of the question whether even self-destructive decisions should be respected, the film is well worth watching.
Megamind (2008), too, has something to say about decisions. The eponymous main character knows his place in the world: He is a brilliant supervillain, forever fated to try gaining dominance over Metro City. His attempts are invariably foiled by the heroic Mega Man, but Megamind is content to play the loser; the “game” gives structure to his life.
Then, one day, the unthinkable happens: Megamind wins, more or less accidentally ridding himself of Mega Man and setting in motion a search for his purpose.
The premise is a good one. Sadly, the execution is decidedly mediocre. “You are who you choose to be” is a nice message, but it’s been told more cohesively and timelessly in Brad Bird’s animated films, particularly The Iron Giant (1999). Megamind the character isn’t one-dimensional (though some of his personality quirks are quite annoying, like a tendency to make his dramatic entrances to gratuitous rock songs). But, overall, he has very little edge to him, which is understandable given his role as the protagonist, but also a missed opportunity to give his journey to redemption sufficient weight. The other characters are mostly just “there”, acting evil or kooky when the plot requires them to.
Visually, the animation is okay, but the character designs are highly unappealing. I imagine they would have worked much better in traditional animation. I’m not a Dreamworks Animation hater or mindless Pixar fanboy (see Cars 2), but design is just one of those areas that the Disney-owned company has always outshined its main rival. Megamind isn’t the worst Dreamworks film by any stretch of the imagination (for one, all of the Shreks are far inferior), but the studio has produced better.
Speaking of Brad Bird, his twitter’d recommendations made me pick up Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) sight unseen a year or so ago. Like Goodbye Solo, it’s an independent production. Whereas Bahrani’s film cultivates a somewhat gritty, naturalistic aesthetic, first-time director Colin Trevorrow gives Safety a more polished look.
The film’s nominal main character is the strangely-named Darius, a twenty-something intern for a Seattle magazine who’s had trouble fitting in ever since her mother died when she was a child. She is portrayed by Aubrey Plaza, who plays the similar, but less reserved and tightly-wound April Ludgate on Parks and Recreation. Darius joins a more experienced journalist and another intern in a mission to write a story about a strange ad: A person seems to be looking for a time-travelling companion. After the reporter strikes out with the guy, he sends Darius to gain his trust and find out whether he’s for real. She finds him genuinely charming and eventually has to make a choice.
Genre-wise, the movie is clearly a romantic comedy in the best sense of the word, in that it’s both funny and romantic, but not at all formulaic. The question whether it’s also a science-fiction film is best left unanswered, not for spoilery reasons, but because it doesn’t matter. Time travel isn’t a plot device in Derek Connolly’s script, it’s a thematic device.
Several of the characters wish they could go back in time to undo or alleviate regrets the past has saddled them with. Darius’ boss, for instance, only takes the job initially so he can rekindle an old romance from his youth. But the title is instructive both for him and for Darius: safety is not guaranteed when it comes to matters of the heart. You may get hurt and disappointed. The question the ad asks and the question the film asks is: is it worth the risk?
It’s not hard to see why both the director and the screenwriter have been snapped up by major studios to work on bigger projects despite this being their first feature. The script is clever and original, and Trevorrow’s direction is surprisingly assured: The actors are concinving, cinematography and music are just the right side of “indie” without slipping into trying-too-hard hipstertude. I like the film a great deal, even the ending, which makes you think after you started hating it at first.