Friday, December 18, 2009

In Anticipation of Year's End Lists

I didn't get a chance to write about these movies when they were released this past summer so I'm taking this opportunity to briefly comment upon them before the deluge of Oscar titles arrives in my town. With the end of the year fast approaching you'll probably be hearing more about these titles through top-ten lists and Oscar nominations, so I'll waste no more time before throwing in my two cents about them.

By now, Miyazaki may as well be Japanese for magic, for magic is exactly what his films generate, in their layered beauty and easy fantasy that are totally absorbing. With Ponyo, Miyazaki has crafted another beautiful, fun, exciting, tender film. This time around, the plotting is so simple (it’s aimed at very young children) but the fantasy is so complex that there is a bit more of a wheeze to the exposition. But that’s almost secondary, and it doesn’t drastically distract, from the (typical for Miyazaki) effortless fluidity of the imagery positioned perfectly on the border between man and nature, real and unreal. The characters are adorable and the message is strong and sweet, making this perfect viewing for children and those charms aren’t lost on me either. There’s a magical trance-like quality to the exquisite minutia and vivid imagery that slowly draws me in. It’s confident, captivating filmmaking of the Miyazaki kind.

Armando Iannucci's In the Loop follows an eccentric ensemble of low-level political figures who may just decide to go to war if they ever stop endlessly circling the central debate with petty semantic parsing and furious flurries of insults, invective, and bile. It’s painfully familiar evil bureaucracy, but the movie is a non-stop laugh machine, sending wave after wave of quotable dialogue towards the audience in rapid-fire, profusely profane bouts of eloquent swearing. It’s not above a well-crafted sight gag either, like the sequence which follows a supposedly secret meeting that keeps growing in attendance, even after the committee switches to a larger room. The best of the consistently funny cast is Peter Capaldi as a spin doctor who storms through the movie insulting and complaining about anything that moves with the most creatively, wickedly hilarious vulgar metaphors I’ve ever heard. One of the most fascinating moments in the film arrives late in the plot when, in the U.N. meditation room, he stops talking and we get a chance to look at his face as he realizes, for the first and only time in the entire film, that he’s speechless, revealing most starkly that behind the flurry of words, there’s ultimately nothing. And that very nothing is what takes us to war.

There is so much suspense in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker that the further it went on, the longer the tension mounted, the more my stomach twisted in knots. By the time the movie was barely half over, I was sick to my stomach. The movie is so completely immersed in the day-to-day work of an American bomb squad in Iraq, with great performances (especially by Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie, who are in almost every scene) and set-pieces all the way through, that it adds weight to the skillful summoning of sickening dread. It’s by turns unexpected, exciting, chaotic, scary, violent, and eerily beautiful. We are only given one sequence, late in the picture, with the luxury of being on the home front, away from the chaos of war, and it arrives with the force of a rug being pulled out from underneath you. The jump cut from the shimmering sands of the desert to the sterile, flickering fluorescent lights of a grocery store is as disorienting a cinematic moment as I’ve felt all year, one that helps the film say much more about the effect of war on soldiers than any Iraq War movie to date.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Quick Look: The Messenger (2009)

The debut feature from Israeli director Oren Moverman, The Messenger, is a well-written, exceedingly well-performed drama that follows two soldiers – a young man (Ben Foster) and a middle-aged vet (Woody Harrelson) – on assignment as the bearers of bad news to families whose loved ones have just been killed in action. The scenes that follow the men into the homes of the recently deceased to deliver the news are perfectly written and performed howls of pain. These are electrifying moments of human drama, of suspense and anguish, of deeply humanizing expression. But ultimately, the greatness of these scenes has a strange effect of making the film its own worst enemy. Outside of these perfect moments, the movie has a captivating, endlessly watchable nature, but it’s never as good as its own best moments. The story meanders a bit, fleshes out its lead characters and introduces new ones, including a widow played by the always perfect Samantha Morton, but the movie never quite adds up to a cumulative effect. Moverman directs with a clean, even-handed style that sits back and observes the characters as they go through their lives. This is a deeply political film, yet it is depoliticized. There is no heavy-handed moralizing or clunky speechifying. It’s simply and powerfully a look into the human cost of war. When the movie is at its best, it’s staring unblinkingly at the moments just before a family will be devastated by tragic circumstances and then keeps the cameras rolling as the reactions set in.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Quick Look: An Education (2009)

Carey Mulligan is almost unbelievably cute in the lead role of An Education, but that’s hardly the only good reason that so many critics and Oscar prognosticators have fallen in love with the film. On the one hand, it’s just a fairly routine coming-of-age story about a 16-year-old girl learning about life and love. On the other hand, it’s a very well done version of it. Mulligan, who I was surprised to learn is actually 24, plays the part with grace and charm and, in Jenny, she’s given a great character to play. She’s carefully poised with superficial depth and sophistication masking surprising emotional depth yet childishness. Mulligan’s also blessed with amazing support from an excellent cast that includes Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams, and Emma Thompson, who all perform admirably. Sally Hawkins, so good in last year’s Happy-Go-Lucky, turns up for one scene that’s so emotionally involving, and well done, I wished she could have been given more to do. Director Lone Scherfig keeps the film moving at a brisk pace, hitting all the right notes with the help of frequently beautiful cinematography by John de Borman and a charming screenplay by Nick Hornby, capably adapted from Lynn Barber’s memoir. The early-60s time period is evoked with just-so production design which matches the matter-of fact charm that runs through the film. Likewise, the music is a mix of period songs and original songs that blend seamlessly with each other and with the nimble score. With all of this going for it, the movie should be really great, right? I wish. It’s almost there. In the end, the movie is a very enjoyable experience, light and fun with a handful of spiky dramatic moments, but it doesn’t stick. The movie’s impact seemed to be evaporating as I crossed the theater’s lobby, but, in the days since I have seen it, I’ve felt a growing desire to see it again. The movie’s impact might not be long-lasting, but it is still well worth feeling.

Monday, December 14, 2009

THE GOODS. Not so much.



I had never realized how much I liked Will Ferrell until he showed up for one scene in the middle of The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard dressed as Abraham Lincoln while falling to his death in a tragic skydiving accident. As he plummets, he provides a running commentary that provoked the only smile to cross my face during the entire movie. That’s not to say it’s a particularly funny scene, but rather that Ferrell’s good-natured loopiness was a welcome respite to the mean, suffocatingly noxious humor provided by Jeremy Piven, dominating nearly every scene in the movie as Don “The Goods” Ready, a mercenary salesman who is hired to save a failing car dealership. Piven gives such a convincingly slimy performance as this cocky jerk that it coats the movie with unpleasantness and smarminess that would be less of a problem if the movie itself weren’t so persistently mean-spirited in its comedy and downright ugly in its visuals. It strands such likable actors as Ving Rhames, David Koechner, Kathryn Hahn, Ed Helms, Tony Hale, and James Brolin with embarrassingly unfunny things to do. This is a comedy that wields profanity and inanity as bludgeons in an attempt to beat laughter out of the audience. It’s just plain off-putting, ultimately giving cause for nothing more than 89 minutes of near constant, headache-inducing, brow-furrowing.



Sunday, December 13, 2009

Quick Look: Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)



Sure, Fantastic Mr. Fox is animated. Sure, it’s based on a book by Roald Dahl. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t purely a Wes Anderson movie. Mr. Fox (George Clooney) is the latest in what is becoming a long line of typical Wes Anderson protagonists, joining Dignan from Bottle Rocket, Max from Rushmore, Royal from The Royal Tenenbaums, and Zissou from The Life Aquatic as another man who exercises control over a family unit, but whose struggle to reconcile his incredible talents (or perceived talents) with his lifestyle brings his entire unit into crisis. If it sounds like Anderson (and co-writer Noah Baumbach) deviated from Dahl’s slim novel, it is because they did. This is as oddball a family film as Spike Jonze’s and Dave Egger’s Where the Wild Things Are and as distinctive in its visuals. Anderson has created a stop-motion dollhouse world of flat backgrounds and diorama-like sets that have tangibility and specificity in their exquisitely detailed bric-a-brac. Essentially, what Anderson and his team of animators have achieved is the perfect recreation of the Anderson aesthetic, or rather, through the complete control of animation, they have allowed it to be brought to its greatest realization yet. That the story itself, a wildlife-planned heist of sorts that pits forest critters against a trio of vindictive farmers, moves in an uneven pace with dialogue occasionally too precious (like using the word “cuss” as an all-purpose profanity stand-in) almost doesn’t matter. This is a movie worth seeing just to look at, not just in its auteur’s style and its excellent miniature set dressing, but in its incredible character design that makes the animals look like gorgeously designed toys ready to play with.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Quick Look: The Boys Are Back (2009)

Clive Owen is definitely a movie star. If you haven’t figured that out from his excellent performances and distinctive persona on display in films as varied as Children of Men, Sin City, Inside Man, The International, and Duplicity, you’ll discover it here in The Boys Are Back, not because this is a great movie, or even a good one, but because his mere presence illuminates an otherwise dull endeavor. It’s a based-on-a-true-story teary-eyed tale of a widower who has to juggle his sports-writer career with raising his two sons. That’s rich material and easily emotional, but that’s precisely why it fails. Director Scott Hicks, who has done excellent work in the past and will hopefully do so again, doesn’t strive to reach any emotion beyond that which is already hanging so low, the branch has snapped off of the tree. Every scene is slathered in sentimentality, though the shots themselves sometimes achieve a kind of beauty denied the film as a whole. The script, by Allan Cubitt, is merely competent. It’s a good thing then, that Owen, and the two young guys who play the sons (George MacKay and Nicholas McAnulty), are such sharp, appealing performers. Together they almost make the movie better than the script ultimately allows.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Sky is Falling! And the Seas! And the Mountains! And theaaah!



Back in the 1970s, when Irwin Allen was the master of disaster, filmmakers regularly trotted out the same old creaky tropes by grouping together a hodgepodge of celebrities, of varying renown and talent, and then throwing them in harm’s way. The formula didn’t always work, but it did work often enough for moviemakers to keep trying. Allen produced two of the best examples of the disaster film with these tropes: the capsized-ship story The Poseidon Adventure, and, my favorite, the burning skyscraper story The Towering Inferno. Those two films are prime examples of expertly crafted cheese and the reasons that I have such a goofy affection for the entire disaster movie genre. I love the way the varied cast members interact amidst the effects, especially Inferno’s parallel plotlines starring Paul Newman and Steve McQueen that build to the inevitable meeting of these two very cool men. To this day, I get excited when I see one of those posters with the line of little portraits revealing the cast in peril.

Since the mid-1990s Roland Emmerich has been making big-budget explosion films that are mostly of the disaster persuasion, staking out a corner of contemporary cinema that looks an awful lot like Allen’s 70s pad. But Emmerich has been wildly inconsistent. There’s the passable Independence Day (1996), which, despite its exploding landmarks, is actually more of an alien-invasion movie. He followed that with Godzilla (1998), a horrible half-hearted movie. But somewhere around the middle of this decade, Emmerich went full-disaster with The Day After Tomorrow (2004), a flawed but enjoyable popcorn flick that found weather raining down destruction on New England (elsewhere too, but our ensemble is exclusively East Coast). Now, with 2012, Emmerich has used a misreading of the Mayan calendar as the jumping point to top all of his movies, and all disaster movies, in premise, not always in quality. He exploits the same kind of whiplash-inducing “thousands are dying, but save the dog!” mentality that has long served peddlers of schlock well, and here it is done very well. Forget escaping a boat. Forget putting out the fire. Forget staying warm. There’s nowhere to run when the whole world is coming to an end. (But don’t worry too much; some of the cast will still have a happy ending).

Speaking of the cast, it’s an odd mix that’s suitably eclectic, with two very likable actors, John Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a sci-fi writer and a scientist, respectively, doing most of the earnest heavy-lifting. (It’s nice to think that someone, somewhere, might think Cusack and Ejiofor could be our Newman and McQueen). Ultimately we need to think that the problems of the small ensemble cast do amount to at least a hill of beans on this hemorrhaging planet and Emmerich was lucky enough to get an ensemble that would work hard to elevate the horrendous dialogue that he co-wrote with his composer, Harold Kloser. There’s Amanda Peet, as Cusack’s ex, and Tom McCarthy as her new man. There’s Danny Glover as the U.S. president and Thandie Newton as his daughter. There’s Woody Harrelson as a kooky conspiracy-nut and Oliver Platt as a slimy bureaucrat. There's also some cute child actors and a little dog. Even George Segal shows up in an extraneous subplot, but then again, anything that isn’t a crumbling landmark is sort of extraneous.

Let’s get back to the disasters. Earthquakes! Volcanoes! Tidal waves! There’s nothing but destruction happening here and it’s played out with incredible special-effects that are sometimes scary, sometimes silly, but always enjoyable. Emmerich has perfected a kind of industrial-strength filmmaking here in an entertaining blend of silliness and suspense from the ominous title card to the perfect deep-fried cheese that is the end-credit-caterwauling of Adam Lambert. Other than a lame half-hearted nod towards a social conscience, the movie proceeds with a determined desire to let us marvel at the effects, to let us revel in his amiably dumb light-and-sound show. I was never bored, occasionally thrilled, and often amused. Emmerich finds a good spot between camp and cool and rides it for two-and-a-half hours.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe



William Kunstler is a fascinating figure, a lawyer who was, by all accounts, normal, with a quiet suburban life, living the 1950s American Dream, until the Civil Rights Movement awakened something within him. He began to take on difficult or unpopular causes defending all manner of undesirable cases and calling himself a "radical lawyer." The story of the second half of his life plays like a checklist of important events. He defended the Chicago 7. He was a negotiator for Native Americans who took over Wounded Knee and for prisoners who took over Attica prison. He defended alleged murderers, rapists, and terrorists, sometimes convinced they were innocent (in fact, they occasionally were), other times convinced, simply and purely, that everyone had a right to be defended. For this he received jeers, even hatred, and indeed it's often hard to reconcile the need for justice and the need for revenge when confronted with some of his most difficult cases. It's amazing that he held so stubbornly to his ideals in the midst of so much conflict.

He was a noble man who bravely did unpopular things so it’s most interesting to watch William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe and hear his actions' ramifications on his family. The documentary is directed by his daughters, Emily and Sarah Kunstler, and they do a fine job balancing the film between a recitation of the facts of his life and a portrait of their relationship with him. Luckily, they don’t dip into the well of sentiment to jolt their movie to life. They realize that their father had an incredible life and are smart enough to stay out of the way of facts, even if it means that the movie occasionally drifts too far into territory that could be covered by an episode of Biography. But the Kunstlers have an advantage over Biography in their personal connection with the subject and use it, not to filter the facts and create a gleaming hagiography, but to truly grapple with what it means for a person to be uncompromising in pursuit of justice and how that affects those that are closest to him.

This not a perfect film but it’s a consistently compelling one. The footage is often absorbing; the Kunstlers have done a good job mixing home videos with newscasts. The film is remarkably balanced for such a personal story. I’d bet that no matter what your opinion is going in to the film, you’ll come out with plenty of evidence to reinforce it, but also, having been exposed to other points of view, in possession of a more well-considered opinion. Most importantly, this is a story that deserves to be told, and told well. Emily and Sarah Kunstler have done just that. By embracing their father’s flaws, they have created a film that emerges as a complicated and loving portrait of a fascinating man.



Friday, November 13, 2009

What's in THE BOX?


Richard Kelly has been working on an odd little resume, but I like that about him. He made his directing debut with Donnie Darko, a deeply strange, but dreamily haunting little movie about a boy who hallucinates (or does he?) an evil giant rabbit. That film flopped, but developed quite a loyal following. As a follow-up, Kelly made the even stranger, and totally insane, Southland Tales, a cluttered futuristic allegory so disjointed and chaotic it’s as if Kelly skipped the main plot and wrote his own fan-fiction for a world only he knows. Nonetheless, some thought it brilliant while the rest of us scratched our heads. Now we arrive at his third feature, an adaptation of a Richard Matheson short story and Twilight Zone episode, The Box and, while it doesn’t quite have the same emotional spark of demented creativity that can be found in Darko, it has its own haunted brilliance about it.

Set in 1976, the movie opens with a suburban middle-class couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) receiving a mysterious package, left on their doorstep under equally mysterious circumstances at dawn. Upon opening the package, they find a box and a note, informing them that a Mr. Steward will show up at 5pm to explain everything. Indeed he does. Steward (Frank Langella) tells them that if they push the button on the box within 24 hours, two things will happen: 1. they will receive $1 million in cash. 2. someone whom they don’t know will die.

This sets up a moral dilemma that is debated (or dithered about, depending on your point of view) for the better part of the first act, following more or less the format of the original story. But Kelly is sowing the seeds for his expanded plot so that, when the decision is made, the movie makes a leap into stranger and stranger territory while still retaining a spooky sci-fi Twilight Zone sizzle. This is the kind of movie that pulls the rug out from under you and then keeps going, finding more and more rugs until you realize you had been standing on more rugs than you could have ever thought possible. Cue the theme music.

The movie is not set in the 1970s just to take advantage of the garish wallpaper and tight bellbottoms, although those accoutrements are certainly present and accounted for. The movie embodies a low-tech terror in the way research must be done at a library, in the way characters can’t communicate quickly, and in the way that, when something really creepy starts going down, there’s not the calming promise of help a mere cell-phone call away. This is a period-piece freak-out that takes full advantage of its setting, but also its subconscious ties to the filmmaking of the time. Kelly shoots the movie with a soft image, lightly grainy with slightly smeared colors, giving the movie a dreamlike feel of stumbling late at night into a pretty good, half-forgotten and half-junky 70s suspense flick. It feels like it would make a great double-bill with something like The Fury.

The performances are nearly perfect (besmirched only by Diaz’s odd accent) for their type, the kind of perfectly bland persons who find themselves more harried and mangy as the story unfurls. There are all sorts of wonderfully cast supporting roles filled by actors who had to have been picked based mostly on their ability to look conspiratorial. Langella projects an eerie calm in the center of the plot, doing things in specific and methodical ways but with his goals obscured to maintain utmost oddity and creepiness. It’s when we learn why he’s doing what he’s doing, through a long expository sequence, that the movie loses some of its effectiveness.

Like Darko before it, The Box doesn’t quite add up its divergent strands of sci-fi subplots and even if they did it would probably be disappointing, but it cruises along with such admirable effectiveness and a shivery haunted quality that it doesn’t quite matter. The movie stirred up my fears, stimulated my heart rate, and jangled my nerves. Even though the movie lets the air out of its balloon a little too early, it still manages to finish strong by turning the finale into a nifty mirror of the first-act’s moral dilemma, crystallizing the central quandary and pushing aside the twisty, complicated plot to shoot straight to the gut. In the end, The Box is a movie of mood and suspense so admirably sustained that it left me smiling while shivering in my seat as the credits rolled.

Note: The Box would make a great third-section to a triptych with The Happening and Knowing. The three recent films, modern B-movies really, have been on the receiving end of sneers and derision from some critics and audiences, but all three have wonderful Twilight-Zone-style hooks that are enjoyably, if a little inconsistently, executed.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009)



The Men Who Stare at Goats has a great title and, with George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey, a great cast. Unfortunately, it’s a comedy that’s stuck awkwardly between light and dark, soft and edgy. It spins its wheels tonally while also forgetting about narrative drive or thematic development. As a result, it’s merely 90-minutes of watching big stars goof around in a giant sandbox playing true characters, mostly (Clooney, Bridges and Spacey) psychic soldiers trained in a secret Armed Forces project known as New Earth Army. McGregor is just a tag-along journalist (inexplicably shifted from London to Ann Arbor in a pointless case of adjusting the truth) learning about the history of the group, who call themselves Jedi Warriors (cute, considering they’re talking to Obi-Wan Kenobi).

The four men provide the film some modest pleasures. Clooney is good-natured and humorous, as he usually is, here deadpanning dubiously effective combat technique and flatly describing improbable abilities including a “death tap” that killed a man (Instantly? Nope. Eighteen years later. One never knows when the curse of the death tap will strike). Bridges is basically an enlisted Lebowski who indulges in New Age hippie-culture and invents the majority of techniques on display. Spacey has a great few scenes, rolling back his eyes and talking in a funny voice for one scene in which he tries to fake paranormal powers. In another scene he will calmly pass on good wishes to a newlywed couple with the funniest two lines in the movie (Spoiler: “Congratulations. Sorry it doesn’t work out”).

Directed by first-timer, but longtime actor, producer, writer, and friend of Clooney, Grant Heslov, the movie ends up a wishy-washy mess, not as good as it should be, but not as bad as it could have been. The movie’s good-natured enough, but ultimately Heslov can’t muster up enough heft to really start the movie so that by the time it’s wrapping up I found myself thinking “is that all?” It’s a goofy, insubstantial little thing (save for a case of most unfortunate timing with a scene showing an acid-tripping soldier shooting up his base) that just never works. The last scene has McGregor’s reporter typing away, promising to tell the world what happened, then lamenting that his story received little coverage in the media. We’re supposed to sympathize with him, but I found myself agreeing with the media. This story’s a non-starter.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Looking for Scares? Keep Looking. THE FOURTH KIND

The Fourth Kind is two movies, a dumb low-budget horror and its even dumber big-budget remake, fighting with each other. Who wins? I couldn't say, but I do know that it certainly isn’t the audience. This is a howlingly bad horror movie with only two or three scares and those are of the cheap loud-noise variety. The hook is that this movie about alien abductions is peppered with “real” footage and interviews that literally push the glossy picture out of the frame with wobbly split-screens showing the stark contrast between the videotaped “reality” and Hollywood reenactments. Pardon my quotation marks; this is the kind of movie that wants so much to be taken seriously, to make us feel like it couldn’t all be false, that quotation marks are the only proper deflation. I’m fighting silly with sillier.

Milla Jovovich is the lead in the reenactment, as Dr. Abigail Tyler, a psychologist in Nome, Alaska who’s just plain crazy over this whole alien thing. The woman who plays the “real” Dr. Tyler is listed in the credits only as Dr. Tyler which is a shame because she’s giving a better performance. The movie tries to force verisimilitude with little title cards that pop up with the first appearance of a character in the reenacted portions of the film. For example there’s “Elias Koteas, actor” playing a skeptical colleague of Dr. Tyler. A little later we meet “Will Patton, actor” playing Sheriff August, who flips out over the real-world tragedies occurring in his town, including the one nearly effective scene, if you can sift through the kaleidoscope of fake and faker footage shoved on screen, which documents a very real terror of a murder-suicide.

Unfortunately, having the fake and faker footage bounce off of each other constantly makes each look goofier as the movie goes on. If this were meant to be a parody of the stone-faced alien-conspiracy documentaries that the History Channel shows on Saturday afternoons in October, then writer-director Olatunde Osunsanmi is on to something because, after a while, the preview crowd I saw it with sure hooted and howled with each ridiculous turn in the plot. There’s a moment where scary music works overtime while the camera spins around an owl that turns its head to never break eye contact with the audience. It brought the house down. As for me, I got the biggest kicks out of watching Will Patton’s wonderful self-parodying – oh, who am I kidding? It’s terrible – performance as a gruff, no nonsense small-town cop who don’t believe in these gosh-dern alien thangs. He’s a hoot, and so is the movie, when it’s not being frustratingly selfish in its pursuit of Paranormal Activity realism and Drag Me to Hell gloss at the same time. The filmmakers had their cake, ate it too, and then spat it up on the screen.


BOO!

Monday, November 2, 2009

It's 10 pm. Do You Know Where Your Food Is? FOOD, INC.


Director Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. is a commercial documentary that has absorbed the lessons of popular, and populist, docs from the past decade or so, utilizing only their best techniques. Drawing especially from An Inconvenient Truth (without the PowerPoint) and Michael Moore’s work (without the stunts), the movie alternates talking heads with damning footage to build a case against our modern agricultural system which uses all kinds of corporate skullduggery to make ever greater amounts of money off of increasingly unhealthy and unsafe products. I won’t argue with the message; this is another case of a documentary preaching to a choir member. The movie is effective and scary, at times, but ultimately there’s a sense of impersonal gloss over the whole production that proves distancing, as well as a sense that the argument is old news, especially if, like me, you’ve read any of the important food-related journalism of Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) or Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with being reminded of important facts and, since no one can know everything, there were some examples given in the film of which I had been previously unaware. Maybe you haven’t heard any of this before? In that case, Food, Inc. will be a real eye-opener.

Food, Inc. is on Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow, November 3.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Scaring Up Silver Screen Shrieks: A Halloween 2009 Guide

For those who don’t want to be stuck at home to hand out candy today (or have already partied), the multiplex is a surprisingly good place to rustle up some scares this year. Sure, there’s still a Saw and a remake (The Stepfather), both unseen by me, but there are some good choices out there.


First, there’s the low-budget, big box-office, sleeper hit of the fall Paranormal Activity. It’s not a great horror movie but its low-tech effects are all the more scary for being uncomplicated and eerily convincing. It’s a slow-building freak out that grows steadily more frightening as the stakes are raised and the set pieces get scarier. Every night, the lead couple goes to bed. Every night, something weird happens. Through “found footage” the story unspools, with occasional expository clumsiness and a very stupid Ouija Board time-waster, but mostly with unsettling tension. With hype of the “scariest movie ever” variety, I went into the screening ready to prove the hype wrong. For quite a while I had my arms crossed over my chest while thinking “creepy, but not too scary.” By the last third of the movie I was worried I would chew off my bottom lip. It's still not the scariest movie ever, and it's too unsatisfying to be a great movie, but it's good as a horror experience. The movie plays all too well on an elemental fear of the dark and the all-too frightening question: “what happens while you are asleep?” Sure, buckets of blood are startling, but it has nothing on a scream piercing the darkness, jolting a character out of his sleep. Let me tell you, that scream haunted my ears for days.


On a less intense, but even more entertaining, note there’s Zombieland, a zom-com in the vein of the subgenre classic Shaun of the Dead. This film is a bit less great than that one, but it’s still a raucous haunted-hay-ride of a movie. Four survivors of a zombie apocalypse team up to go cross country. A typically odd mish-mash of character types, the group consists of a macho-man survivalist (Woody Harrelson), a nerdy agoraphobic (Jesse Eisenberg), and a young woman (Emma Stone) and her younger sister (Abigail Breslin). Together, they get in to all kinds of wacky adventures and close-calls, not unlike a normal zombie movie but played with a lighter, nimbler, tone. What prevents the movie from being standard and routine are the marvelous comedic performances from all involved, helped tremendously by an uncomplicated and funny script that sails along at a breakneck speed with plenty of wit and good-nature. First-time director Ruben Fleischer directs with a light touch and an enjoyably creative visual style. Zombieland may not be all that scary, but it’s a blast.


As for Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant, it gets a much more qualified recommendation from me. It’s based on the first three volumes of a book series, and it consequentially feels rushed and cluttered, with almost too many underdeveloped characters for its own good. It’s also a movie that has way more wind-up than pitch, with one eye always on a sequel. However, director Paul Weitz (is he jealous his brother Chris has the Twilight sequel next month?) directs with just enough likable style and his cast, especially John C. Reilly as the titular vampire, young newcomer Chris Massoglia as the titular assistant, and Josh Hutcherson as the budding baddie, is just endearing enough that the movie squeaks by. It’s no great thing, but it was an enjoyable distraction on the lazy Saturday afternoon when I caught the matinee.

Forever Held for Applause: THIS IS IT

I went in to This is It with some skepticism, fearing a rushed posthumous cash-grab hagiography of Michael Jackson. Those fears were unfounded. This is a fun and exciting, moving and haunting film, a behind-the-scenes look at rehearsals for a comeback concert cancelled by the death of its star. The tragedy is not unseemly lingered upon; in fact, it’s only implied to have happened. Instead, Kenny Ortega, the man directing the concert who subsequently took on the task of piecing together the film, has assembled the footage from rehearsals and organized it to give a glimpse of what the concert would have been.

Luckily, Jackson does not appear as a drugged-out shell of a performer. He could still dance and sing, if not quite at the same level he was at in the mid-80s. There's an amazing degree of precision in his motions and control in his voice. He wouldn’t have embarrassed himself, but I couldn’t help but wonder if 50 of these shows would have been too many, given the amazing physicality involved. He’s sometimes saving his voice for the big show, but other times he gets caught up in the moment and sings right out. Many of the numbers, even in this raw unpolished form, raised goosebumps. There's a tender version of "Human Nature," a nearly anthemic "Billie Jean," a goofy fun "Thriller," a fiery "Beat It," and a total blast of "Smooth Criminal," among others. It was going to be a great show.

The movie’s simplicity, its singularity of focus, could easily be faulted. After all, there is no attempt at providing context and only once – in a montage of old Jackson 5 clips that makes the heart sink to once again see the contrast between the precious little boy and the surgically altered man – is there a nod to his career as an artist. And, of course, there is no mention of the various scandals and eccentricities that made him a cable-news and tabloid staple for the duration of his final decade. But all of this is ultimately to the movie’s credit. It’s better off remaining uncluttered, positioned admirably between whitewashing and muckraking. It’s not warts-and-all but it’s not totally uncritical. Ortega, while still remaining respectful, shows enough missed notes, false starts and bobbled lyrics to show that Jackson was indeed a human being. The focus is totally on the music, the performance, the planning. This is an intriguing look inside the artistic process, a look that reveals Jackson and his supporting technicians, musicians, and dancers as consummate professionals, eager and excited to put on a great concert. We never got that great concert, but at least we now have this movie to forever preserve what could have been.



Friday, October 16, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Based on the much-beloved (for good reason) 1963 children’s book by Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are had much to live up to, a fact not helped by the transcendent short film that was its wildly-acclaimed teaser trailer. So it is with great joy, and no small amount of exhilaration, that I can report that Spike Jonze’s film is a gem. It’s a beautiful playground of a movie, wild and rambunctious, scary and sad, fun and funny. It’s not only a great family film and a daringly imaginative piece of filmmaking; it’s also Jonze’s best film to date (and that’s saying something after the wildly creative, but totally inappropriate for family viewing, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation). Here kids, and the whole family, are given a great treat. It’s a moving experience and a wonderfully crafted film.

Jonze, working from a lovingly adapted screenplay by novelist Dave Eggers, shoots the film with a startling specificity, positioning the camera at the level of a child’s point-of-view, following Max (played very well by young Max Records) as he wanders through his daily life. Jonze and Eggers have said that they didn’t want to “make a children’s movie but a movie about a child.” They have succeeded. The camera can be buoyant or frantically hand-held in one sequence, quiet and still in the next, capturing the rhythms of childhood. It’s down to even the littlest things that the film gets perfectly right: the way Max builds his snow-fort in the opening scene, pausing to sneak a taste; the way he sprawls at the feet of his mother (a warm performance from Catherine Keener) while she works, gently pulling at the toes of her socks; the way he is effortlessly creative and loving, or worried, lonely, and angry.

After a temper-tantrum, Max flees into his imagination, finding himself arriving at the shores of a place where Wild Things are. They are massive, fearsome and loveable creatures (perfectly voiced by James Gandolfini, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Cooper, Lauren Ambrose, Paul Dano and Forest Whitaker) who are practically extensions of his personality. Max will be their king, and, difficult though they can be, he will learn to love them. By learning to deal with them, lessons will be learned, but this is thankfully not a story of easy moralizing and empty advice. This is also not a picture-book adaptation that goes overboard with padding out the story with false conflict or unnecessary exposition. (Why did Ron Howard think we needed to see The Grinch as a child?) This is a vibrant, messy, wondrous film with endless charm and invention (not to mention a great soundtrack by Karen O and Carter Burwell).

The world of the Wild Things is a realistically fantastical one, with sweeping landscapes (forest and ocean, desert and cliff) both amazing and foreboding. As for the creatures themselves, they are easily identifiable as the ones from the book, their designs perfectly replicated from the illustrations, but they have a surprising tangibility to them thanks to a marvelous mix of puppetry, suits, and CGI, that gives them a sense of weight and warmth. I felt like I could reach out and run my fingers through their fur, feel the warmth of their bodies, sense the vibrations of their thudding footsteps.

The Wild Things (seemingly more childlike and more adult than Max) have their fun and their foibles, their quirks and the squabbles. The problems and pleasures of these creatures are similar to what we’ve already seen in the life of Max, but it’s not a simple matter of “A” equals “B”, like Ms. Gulch equals the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Aspects of personalities and situations are reminiscent, but not identical, to the real world. Max is learning about life through his imaginative play, dreaming perchance to live.

Because of the realistic nature of the fantasy, there’s a small sense of danger, as if Max’s imagination could threaten to take over, yet I always sensed that he was safe, because ultimately he was in control of his own fantasy land, thoroughly immersed in it though he may be. Like Max with the Wild Things, the movie is a journey into another viewpoint. It offers the chance to view the world through the eyes of a little boy. It’s a strong sensation, one that could easily be nostalgic, but Jonze and Eggers don’t tip the film in that direction. They know that to be a child is to be small and without control in a world full of people bigger, more powerful than you. Throughout the film, there are several shots of Max looking at those older than him (his sister and her friends, his teacher, his mother and her boyfriend) and we get the sense that he’s staring into a mysterious world only half-comprehensible, so it’s only natural that, to process his feelings, he flees into another mysterious world with large creatures, one that’s only a little easier to understand but one in which he is king.


Lingering in the Multiplex: Wimpy Gervais, Robo-Bruce

The Invention of Lying comes from the mind of comedian Ricky Gervais (he writes, produces, stars and co-directs) and he has a great hook. What if the human race never discovered lying? At first, the results are hilarious with people dryly pointing out the obvious and sharing innermost thoughts (though why some form of rudimentary manners has also never developed is beyond me). Soon, Gervais discovers he can say something that isn’t (there isn’t even a word for lie) and the comedy moves to a stranger place where he can make just about anything happen because no one has cause to doubt what he says. Unfortunately, even with material this rich, the movie peaks about halfway through, devolving into a depressingly conventional love story that centers around a weak character inhabited by Jennifer Garner. The alternate universe itself becomes tiring, with incessant frankness becoming less tickling and more bludgeoning. To make matters worse, the style of the film’s imagery is nearly suffocating in its blandness. There are some laughs to be found (including one of the funniest scenes of the year) but that just makes the movie’s ultimate failure all the more depressing.


Surrogates is a slick sci-fi mystery from director Jonathan Mostow that takes place in a world where human beings live their lives with little risk due to mechanized humanoid devices that can take their place. But, as is always the case in these kinds of flawless-system movies, something goes wrong. The movie doesn’t chase down the tantalizing implications of its premise as thoroughly as it could have (though, given the barely 90-minute run time, that might have been edited down), but it’s still easily entertaining. It’s the motion picture equivalent of one of those cheap sci-fi paperbacks that can be bought to bring travelers distraction without leaving much impact. The special effects are excellent (especially the weird waxy complexion of the surrogates), as are the well-staged, well-lit action scenes that are often exciting. Plus, after all these years, it’s still a pleasure to see Bruce Willis run around fighting the bad guys. The movie's not at all as good as the similarly-themed Minority Report, but it's good enough for a lazy afternoon.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Final Destination (2009)

When Final Destination was released in 2000, it had cleverness on its side. After years of slasher films that found increasingly tortured origins for their kill-crazy villains, director James Wong (along with writer Glen Morgan) simply did away with the slasher altogether by making death itself the villain. It wasn’t a great movie, but it was a neat twist on a horror staple. Then came installments two (directed by David E. Ellis in 2003) and three (directed by Wong in 2006), which both found the perfect realization of the concept. All three films start with a catastrophic accident (plane crash, highway pileup, rollercoaster derailment) before doubling back to find that a character has had a vision of that accident, which allows for some preventative measures that allow some of the would-be victims to move away from the inevitable. But they were supposed to die, so death (an unstoppable and unseen force) hunts them down. The second and third movies still weren’t great, but they were better than their franchise’s originator in the way they let their slow building dread of death creep up on the characters. All three films successfully turn everyday objects and situations into (increasingly inventive) Rube Goldberg death traps allowing the fear to come not from what’s hiding in the next shadow but from eying all of the objects in the frame with a newfound suspicion.

So here we are with a fourth installment, confusingly titled The Final Destination and back with David E. Ellis directing. This time it’s in (mostly pointless, save for the opening sequence) 3D, but that’s just about the extent of the innovation on display this time around. The opening accident is not quite as sensational. The death traps are not as creatively elaborate. (What used to take several steps in a chain of events now tops out at three or four). The characters are not as relatable or dimensional (not that dimension was ever a major strength of the characters in this franchise), instead they’re uniformly cartoons. Our main characters are the most relatable, but even then, they’re thinly drawn.

Bobby Campo plays the one with the vision and does a reasonable job shouldering that burden, though, like every aspect of the movie, he’s not quite as good as those who’ve come before. He has some friends (Shantel VanSanten, Nick Zano, Haley Webb) and they all seem like they’re in their early-to-mid twenties but I’m not sure what they do. There’s a cryptic reference to studying in the opening scene but the rest of the film finds them only interacting with each other and others on death’s list or lounging (and fretting) around a well-furnished domicile. Where do they get their money? Are they still in school? Are they working? Where are their parents? For that matter, where does this movie take place? No one in this movie has much of a life outside of the plot, whereas in the other movies there were other characters or props that could show us that the world existed before and after the film. Here, the characters seem to only know each other in their bland generalized Hollywood town. This is a hermetically sealed death-machine with a mostly pretty cast sent to die.

The movie is reasonably diverting, though, moving right along. It’s short and barley leaves an impression. I certainly didn’t have an unenjoyable time, but it never truly delights or unsettles in the ways that its predecessors have. The most interesting moment has a (spoiler) movie theater showing a 3D movie strafed with debris from a nearby construction site. Save for this brief shimmering meta-moment, the movie just doesn’t have the creativity to fulfill its concept. With this fourth installment, what started out as a great twist on a tired genre has itself become tired.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Big Fan (2009)

In Big Fan, Patton Oswalt inhabits Paul Aufiero, a painfully realistic character, a needy, dead-end man who latches onto his small nugget of fame as he calls in nightly to a sports talk-radio show to display his fandom of the New York Giants to the region by way of his angst-filled pep-talk monologues which he endlessly writes and rewrites all day as he sits at his job in a parking garage. He’s going nowhere fast, but he barely has time to notice as long as he can keep things all Giants, all the time. It would be a shame to reveal too much about what happens to this character. Shame is exactly what the editors of the trailer and the writers of the official studio synopsis should feel, for revealing is precisely what they did. It’s far better to merely describe the characters, rather than risk betraying the small (near) perfection to be found in the structure of the story created by writer-director Robert Siegel (he previously wrote the screenplay to last year’s most excellent The Wrestler).

Paul lives with his mother (Marcia Jean Kurtz), a tough old woman with pain for her son etched onto her face. His siblings are more successful than he. His brother (Gino Cafarelli), for example, is a lawyer. But to Paul, the Giants are the only thing that matters. This is a dim, grimy, gray Staten Island neighborhood, which Siegel shows us through the spray tans, the breast augmentations, the scrimping, the scheming, and 50 Cent on child’s birthday cake. These are working- and middle-class people struggling, but Paul barely notices, or perhaps suppresses his awareness of his and his neighbors’ circumstances, by relishing his team and his small talk-radio call-in fame. To him, he is an integral part of the team. His best friend (Kevin Corrigan) will listen to the radio show and afterwards call Paul saying “you were great tonight!”

Needless to say, Paul’s fandom becomes a problem. After our slow introduction to the world of the character, there is a sequence of slow-building suspense that ratchets higher and higher as Paul’s fandom causes him to become the victim of a crime. The sequence is superb, closing out the first act with a shock. The second act, however, spins its wheels. The irony, played for both humor and pathos, is that the Giant’s chances of winning the season are now actually in Paul’s hands, but once that is established, and wrung out of its usefulness, the characters continue to fret about what will happen. As interesting as it is that Paul becomes more aware of reality at the same time his fantasy comes true, it’s a great relief when the third act kicks in.

The actions Paul begins to take are kept hidden for some time. Half-glimpsed at the margins of the frame are props which give us clues. Mirroring the first act, the third act is a great showy sequence of slow-building dread mixed with sick suspense. The release of this tension – the punchline, if you will – is one of the biggest rushes of satisfaction I’ve had from any film so far this year.

The film is two perfect sequences sandwiching a flabby midsection, but even when it’s stalling, I was never outside of the film. Paul is a compelling character, a believable character, and I cared what would happen to him, I cared about the other characters in his world, I cared about what he would decide to do next. This is a comedy, sure, but it’s also an affecting character study. It’s not as good as The Wrestler, but Siegel has crafted another interesting, memorable character (though he’s no Randy “the Ram”) and a fairly good movie in which to house him.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

District 9 (2009)

District 9 takes off like a bullet, blasting its opening scenes at the audience with a terrifying speed, quickly overwhelming (but not frustrating) with new information. It opens as a documentary, showing us how, twenty years ago, a massive spaceship stopped over Johannesburg and wouldn’t move. Eventually, a hole was cut in the side, allowing the world to discover, and remove, sickly menial workers of an alien race – quickly nicknamed Prawns – the leaders already dead from disease. The aliens are shuffled off into a ghetto called District 9 where they can coexist without mingling with the humans. The immigration and racism allegories that can, and have, been used for aliens in the past, are joined here by an apartheid allegory, made all the more vivid by its South African setting (a place that really had a District 6), is interesting and nuanced. It makes feelings of revulsion towards the “other” understandable with the ugly design of the aliens (I was revolted by them at some points). What a thrilling opening to the film, a science fiction film with real brains and a fully realized world.

Our main character is Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley, first-time actor), a bureaucrat assigned to evict the Prawns from District 9 and order them moved to District 10. He bumbles along, cheerfully carrying out said job, jesting with the men working with him and playing things up for the documentary cameras. But, as often happens in these kinds of movies, something goes wrong. Wikus makes a critical mistake and consequentially finds himself falling into a bottomless pit of problems. There are scenes of great bodily horror and gross-out gags. The editing grows more frantic, the cinematography nightmarish. The good mockumentary turns into an equally good horror-mockumentary hybrid. But then, a mistake is made.

Writer-director Neill Blomkamp drops the mockumentary aspect altogether and turns the movie into a straight-up sci-fi actioner. The movie works fairly well as an actioner, and the massive set-piece of discharging weaponry that closes the film is impressive, but it’s jarring to have a fairly typical documentary style film throw in a scene that no documentary filmmaker could have captured and then drop the conceit entirely. But if that were the only problem with the last act of the film, this would still be a very good movie. The problem is it’s not the only problem. Wikus takes a series of actions, late in the film, that make little sense given what we’ve seen up to that point. (I’m sure many of you have seen it by now, but I’ll dance around the spoilers anyways). He very quickly turns on a character because he disagrees with the time a plan would take, despite the fact that this other character is the only person who could help him. Just a handful of scenes later, Wikus is helping the other character again. These changes are nothing more than a plot gimmick, a false and forced beat of drama that provides yet another hiccup in the transition from doc to schlock. Both halves are good, but the first half is more successful at its goals than the second half.

But, these quibbles aside, the movie is still impressive, still entertaining, and still good. The special effects are fantastic, stunningly integrated into the live-action material. Sharlto Copley is equally fantastic, especially considering that it’s his screen debut. There are still brains behind the concept, even though it gets harder to see them as the film goes on. There’s great intense energy and propulsion to the film – it only slows down a little in the middle – that creates a visceral series of thrills. It’s a thrill-ride of a movie. It’s not perfect – I won’t be one of those people over-praising it – but in a summer starved for thrill rides, this will do just fine.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

More "Basterds"

I'm sure all of you would love to read what I think about District 9, Big Fan, and The Final Destination - and I would love to finish the reviews I have half-written for them - but I just can't get Inglourious Basterds out of my head. I knew there was only one solution to this problem, so I saw the movie again. It's even better the second time around. I can tell that this will be the kind of film that will increase enjoyment because of the known experience, gaining a richness through repetition, an even greater greatness through familiarity. During the second viewing, tension was joined by anticipation. Not only was I still nervous about character's fates, but I was anticipating lines, shots, scenes, set-pieces, and music cues with giddy delight. I nearly laughed out loud at how much fun I was having. This is a great movie.

With so much to praise, and so much to contemplate (take a look at the spoiler-heavy epic conversation hosted by Dennis Cozzalio), it's not strange that one of its greatest attributes is quite simply that it is an incredibly fun movie. It's also not strange to discover that I left out some praise in my initial review. I was shocked to discover that I barely mentioned the character played by Michael Fassbender, and neglected to mention his name. He's great; a charming and cool critic, as Archie Hicox, he's instantly one of my all-time favorite screen portrayals of the profession, right up there next to Addison DeWitt and Anton Ego.

I was also shocked I failed to mention characters played by Daniel Bruhl and Jacky Ido. As a German war hero and a French projectionist, respectively, they don't have large parts in the film but their performances are wonderful, and their relationships with Soshanna are important to her behavior. Also doing good work with small roles - as mostly silent Basterds - are Til Schweiger (HUGO STIGLITZ!), Omar Doom, and B.J. Novak.

This is a great movie. I already want to see it again, but now my head is clearer and I can move on to the other reviews. I (probably) won't get sidetracked again, and I definitely don't want to get further behind in my posting, but no promises.

As a certain Basterd said so well, "Arrivederci!"

Update (9/2/09): In this post, I singled out actors for praise that I neglected to give in my initial post on the film. Today, I am struck by my neglect (twice over) to mention August Diehl, who is excellent playing a Nazi officer who is a large part in the third chapter's now-famous bar scene. My apologies to Mr. Diehl.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)


Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is pure bliss, the kind of cinematic magic that sends me out of the theater lightheaded and smiling, thinking all is right with the world. It’s intoxicating, running over 150 minutes, yet seeming to last barely more than 70. It’s bold, rambunctious, and energized from frame one, filled with nothing more than great filmmaking. It’s the rare type of film that’s so pitch perfect, so fully realized in every detail, that it lifted me into an incredibly good mood that has yet to wear off. Just typing these words, I’m getting so excited I need to take a deep breath. I need to see this movie again, not just to give added boost to my excitement, not to mention my good mood, but to get my head around it. This isn’t a movie that gently allows you to slowly comprehend. This is a movie that assaults you with entertainment, kicks you upside the head with pleasure, and sends you reeling out of the theater while begging for more. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

Tarantino has crafted an enormous yet intimate World War II action epic that brings his talents and obsessions into good use and tight control. He’s never been more in control over the elements of filmmaking. In his use of sound, color (those reds!), and composition the film, at times, comes across like a sort of dream collaboration between Curtiz, Hitchcock, Godard and DePalma: Casablanca and Foreign Correspondent meets Made in U.S.A. and The Untouchables. But, for the first time since Jackie Brown, a Tarantino film is much more than the sum of its influences. This is a passionate film, full of beautifully rendered and lovingly detailed characters saying and doing memorable things. This is a patient film, allowing for long, sizzling and suspenseful dialogue passages. This is a perfect apotheosis of Tarantino’s filmmaking, a chance for him to, at long last, put cinema itself in the forefront (a film critic becomes a suave spy at one point!), for Inglourious Basterds is, if nothing else, a grand love letter to an art form, a film where the transient yet permanent impact of film can be both a major theme and a major plot point, summed up beautifully with the shot showing a ghostly image of a face projected on a wall of smoke in a burning theater.

Going in to the film, one can be accused of anticipating a pure blood-and-guts, men-on-a-mission exploitation film, given the marketing focused on the elite team of Jewish soldiers – nicknamed “the Basterds” – dropped behind enemy lines to put fear in the hearts of the Nazis. Even though the Basterds, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, in a great, charming, character-actor performance), do their fair share of scalping and bludgeoning in the film, the emotional heart comes from Soshanna (a radiant Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish teen who flees the massacre of her family to eventually become the owner of a movie theater. That theater becomes an important location for the fiery finale, but Soshanna provides an emotional link throughout the film. We follow her growth from a frightened teen to a confident young woman. We care about her and about the plan that she creates in the kind of deep way that only the greatest fictions allow.

The link between Soshanna and the Basterds is the suave and sneaky Nazi detective Colonel Landa – nicknamed the “Jew Hunter” – who comes to us in a brilliant performance by Christoph Waltz, a middle-aged European actor who remains unknown on these shores. He’ll be unknown no longer. In a film filled with great performances, he’s the best. He’s quick witted, hilarious and menacing, delivering Tarantino’s dialogue with perfection. But Tarantino’s strong suit has always been unexpectedly perfect casting which leads to some wonderful performances. Here, he coaxes interesting performances out of such differing people as horror director Eli Roth, Diane Kruger (previously of Troy and National Treasure), and even Mike Myers.

But to get back to Waltz, his Landa (a great character that I loved to hate) shows up in all of the five chapters that Tarantino has broken the film into. Each chapter has only a few scenes, each given a lengthy dialogue scene as its major set-piece. These dialogues – Glenn Kenny has clocked them at about fifteen to thirty minutes each – are tense, funny, suspenseful, riveting and thematically rich. They feature some of the best writing that Tarantino has ever produced, memorable and distinctive while furthering character and plot and, at the same time, allowing the scenes to rise and fall with a sense of natural realism. The dialogue is heightened without being too “Tarantino,” playfully teasing out echoes to films of the 40’s, Leone, and more. These scenes play out like perfectly crafted short stories (chapters, if you will). The dialogue comes in a multitude of languages, all subtitled, and flows with an easy musicality. Often suspense comes from which characters can understand which languages and there’s great fun to be had in following the shifting power structure within the conversations. Through all this talk, talk, talking, the anticipation of the ultimate execution of the main plot grows unimaginably high. There are short bursts of action within each chapter but not until the fifth chapter do all the plotlines – and surviving characters – converge upon a grandly orchestrated and perfectly executed set-piece of suspense and action shot through with humor both quintessentially Tarantino and Marxian (Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, not Karl).

Even with all this subtitled dialogue, and subtle performances, and long scenes infrequently riddled with stylistic embellishments and fast-cut flashbacks (not to mention the score that borrows from Morricone and Bowie), this is the biggest crowd-pleaser I’ve seen in a long time. Every scene was received wonderfully by the audience with which I saw the film. It’s always fun to hear over one hundred people reacting to a film in the same way that you are. We all stared up at the screen and laughed, gasped, screamed and squirmed together. Tarantino knows that an audience – an ideal audience – can be trusted to follow complex lines of questioning and long-winded monologues, to laugh at subtlety and jump on command. Is his film manipulative? You bet. But it’s just as much fun as when Hitchcock famously said he loved playing an audience like a piano. When manipulated by an expert filmmaker, one who’s pushing perfectly crafted buttons, who cares if it’s manipulative?

In its unstoppable pacing and relentlessly entertaining style and craft, Inglourious Basterds reminded me of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Together, they are two World War II movies, in touch with their filmic lineage, that cheerfully warp historical reality in order to go for the jugular. They are unafraid to entertain, and unafraid to get the crowd stirred up and energized by the sight of Nazis getting beat up, shot up, and melted. (Both of them pull from the long tradition of Nazis as villains in pulp fiction including The Dirty Dozen, wherein partying Nazis find themselves torched).They are both the works of filmmakers in total control and using that control to create total perfection in the realm of pure entertainment.

That comparison also brings me to the common criticism of the film that has been heating around the Internet in the days leading up to the film’s release but seems to have cooled some now. Some have said that the movie’s brutality is amoral in the ferocity with which the Basterds treat the Nazis and in this film’s equivalent of the Raiders Nazi meltdown. That’s not an unexpected criticism, especially given the bloodlust bent of the advertising, but it’s completely unfounded by the film itself. The movie is much tamer than you’d expect, especially if you’ve seen the Kill Bill movies or Death Proof (I say that not as a criticism of the violence in those films, but as a means of comparison). Sure, it has its occasional violent moments, and they do earn the film its R-rating, but they don’t exploit World War II itself, nor do they create an irrational hatred of Nazism. The sense of revenge is well-justified, both within and outside the world it creates.

The movie is made up of earned suspense that builds to quick, restrained, flashes of violence. It also contains a built in rebuke, in its final, and most violent, chapter, to audience members who will get a kick out violence for violence’s own sake. (There are spoilers through the end of the paragraph). The characters are sitting in the theater watching a German propaganda film in which a sniper is killing dozens of Allied soldiers. The Nazis go wild, cheering with a ferocity that’s as frightening as it is morbidly comedic. Then Tarantino allows the Basterds’ and Soshanna’s plans to go into simultaneous effect, pulling a sick joke on the characters who had just been enjoying the massacre on screen by making them the recipients of one. This has long been Tarantino’s unsung gift, to at once rebuke and relish screen violence, and he uses it elsewhere in the film, as well, such as a scene where, preceding a Nazi bludgeoning, Aldo Raine tells the doomed man that it is “the closest thing we [the Basterds] have to going to the movies.” (That it’s Eli Roth doing the bludgeoning adds another tricky layer to the moment).

There’s so much to discuss with Inglourious Basterds, so much excitement attached to the way my synapses can’t stop firing with thoughts and memories of the film. I desperately need to see this again. In fact, I should stop typing what has become the longest review I’ve written for the blog thus far, and just go see it right now. It’s the best, most interesting, most entertaining film of 2009 so far, a film well worth discussing and dissecting. At the very end of the film, a character smirks into the camera and says “this might just be my masterpiece.” It’d be a cocky flourish of a finish to the film if it weren’t totally earned.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

Nothing inspires maudlin cliché as feverishly as the romantic comedy, but director Marc Webb, in his debut film, working from a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, makes (500) Days of Summer a compulsively enjoyable, exceedingly clever, and all-around refreshing movie, a pure summer breeze of fun and whimsy. It stars indie darlings Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel as the nice young couple (Tom and Summer) who fall in and out of love through the course of a jumbled chronology. At the outset, the narrator politely intones a warning that “this is not a love story.” But of course it is, despite being a deconstructionist genre scramble. It could have gone so wrong, veering easily into precious or precocious territory, but it never does. The movie is sweet and charming in tone and construction, even though it feels a little empty at times. It’s touching without hitting hard with emotion, but it’s dazzling all the same. Only in the days following my viewing did I find the movie ingratiating and memorable, more than just a nifty trick.

This isn’t just a clever rom-com that is nonetheless repeating well-worn paths. This is a film with a unique point of view, told persuasively from a male perspective. The audience is firmly placed in Tom’s head. Nothing we see is outside of Tom’s take on the events. Summer remains an enigma. We don’t always know her motivation; we remain unaware of her true feelings. The film gives us a purely subjective experience and it’s both exhilarating and exasperating. Levitt and Deschanel do a fine job inhabiting characters that are at once characters and archetypes, products both of imagination and intellectualization on the part of the screenwriters. They know the rules of the rom-com so thoroughly that they can tweak them or cast them aside at any given moment.

The movie’s plot is scrambled but, oddly, I find myself remembering the events in roughly chronological order. The flow of the piece is natural, placing scenes of thematic or emotional coherence against one another. We see a scene towards the end of the relationship set in an Ikea, followed immediately by a scene from early in the relationship which is also set in Ikea. We see a montage early in the film where Tom describes all the little things he loves about Summer. Later, we will see the exact same images in the exact same order, only this time the little things are driving him crazy. Webb spins all kinds of delightful webs with the visual wit of his mise-en-scéne, throwing all kinds of tricks and embellishments into getting at the film’s emotional center: dance numbers, animation, and split screens (once with the left labeled “expectations” and the other “reality” start as duplicates and slowly drift apart) are all used to splendid effect. The pain and swooning of this man’s emotions are vivid and genuine.

The movie’s not exactly groundbreaking – and can’t touch the meta-textual loop-de-loops, not to mention the humorous and emotional wallop of, say, Annie Hall – and yet, for all of its sense of being nothing more than a cleverly told series of anecdotes, it’s incredibly entertaining, continually driven forward by its sheer momentum, carried along by its fine soundtrack. (500) Days of Summer is as effortlessly enjoyable as a well-crafted pop song, in the repetition and rhythm of themes, moods, feelings, and locations that build into a cleverly satisfying portrait of a relationship gone wrong.
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