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Monday
Aug242009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Oscar's List

I hate it when people applaud at the end of movies. Maybe it’s because I often find myself screaming at them on the inside, wondering what it was about, for example, District 9 that said, “Yes! This is such a revolutionary motion picture that I must show not only appreciation, but gratitude!” Audiences will clap for the most surface-level bullshit (Dark Knight, I’m looking at you) that the gesture has become meaningless. As you can probably tell from most of the reviews here, I barely even like many of the movies I endure, so the idea of joyous clapping when the lights come up is pretty much a foreign concept to me. I applauded at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

What a fantastic film! For Tarantino die-hards, this is the one you’ve been waiting for: a return to his violent, dialogue-driven crime drama roots; yes, it’s a war picture, but at heart it’s also an elaborate caper movie, with as lively and varied a cast as you’re likely to see this decade. Though I’ve been a fan of QT’s work for the last decade (yes, even Death Proof), his last few efforts have seemed strained; Jackie Brown felt like Pulp Fiction via Mallrats, and Kill Bill was a wholly different beast than the writer/director had tackled before (I loved the result, by the way, but it beat with a different heart than his other forays into the criminal underworld). Leaving the theatre, I felt a mind-bent exuberance that I hadn’t felt since I was sixteen, after having seen Pulp Fiction for the first time; my wife asked about the dopey look on my face and—crude, but true—I told her that I’d cum in my soul.

Speaking of which, I’ll quit jerking off Tarantino and get down to the business of why the movie deserves such high praise. Simply put, this is the tightest script delivered by the best ensemble cast that I’ve seen in years. Inglorious Basterds is a mad, bloody piece of revisionist history that imagines a band of American soldiers—all Jewish, save for their Southern Lieutenant, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt)—dropped into Nazi-occupied France in 1944; their mission: to strike terror into Nazi soldiers by committing unthinkable acts of violence against them. The opportunity of a lifetime presents itself when Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) decides to hold the premiere of his new propaganda film in a French theatre, with the entire Nazi high command in attendance. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen Pitt’s Raine recruiting his men, establishing the basic setup, as well as a crazed Hitler (Martin Wuttke) pounding his fist on a table; you may think this is a battle movie, full of raids and bravado, and you’d be wrong. The genius of the film and the incredibly reserved marketing campaign is that they tease the prospective audience with about a quarter of the film’s plot, which is so full of characters and developments that it fills 159 minutes to bursting.

I won’t go much further into the story details because you deserve to see this film fresh; there are a handful of jaw-dropping moments that should not be spoiled. Instead, I’d like to give a shout-out to some of the cast members who made me wish their characters had been real historical figures. First, of course, is Christoph Waltz, who plays Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter”. His Nazi officer is the stuff of cinema legend, combining menace and joviality in a sinister performance that is effortlessly delivered in four languages (three in a single scene!). He won the top acting prize at Cannes this year, and if he doesn’t walk away with the Oscar—well, I’ll still watch the show, ‘cause I’m obsessed, but I’ll be very pissed off.

Next is Michael Fassbender, as British spy Archie Hicox. He’s a James Bond prototype who, once introduced, takes over the film and convinces the audience that he’s going to save the day; he also gets one of the weirdest character intros I’ve seen in awhile: he’s called into a secret meeting with a practically nonverbal Winston Churchill and a top commander played by Mike Myers in a performance that’s utterly ridiculous in its seriousness—imagine Austin Powers masquerading as Basil Exposition. The great thing about the Hicox character is that he’s a film critic in civilian life, which gives him a particular advantage in a British plot to foil the Nazis. Tarantino writes Hicox as a literate, passionate man, rather than the clueless snob that many filmgoers have in mind when they think of critics.

Lastly, there’s the utterly lovely, heartbreaking Melanie Laurent, who plays Shosanna Dreyfus. Inglorious Basterds is really her film. Shosanna owns the theatre that is selected to host Goebbels’ premiere, and her complicated relationship to the Nazis—to one in particular—drives the movie’s plot forward and makes a fascinating mess of the climax; I say “mess” flatteringly, because a series of accidents, double-crosses and good old fashioned fate combine to stamp Shosanna’s face firmly into the soul of the film and into our minds. Not once did I believe I was watching a performance by a gifted actress, so convinced was I that Melanie Laurent was a cunning, vulnerable woman. She puts the stars of conventional Hollywood rom-coms and “dramas” to shame with the film’s second Oscar-worthy portrayal.

There’s not a rotten actor in the bunch, and that includes Brad Pitt. His is definitely the lightest character in the film, in terms of depth, but his Southern-gentlemanly, hard-ass soldier bit anchors and mesmerizes with a voice and persona that’s like a living Sgt. Rock comic book crossed with Brando’s Don Corleone. It is in his scenes that Tarantino seems to ape the Cohen Brothers, constructing absurd situations that end horrifically, all with a reassuring wink.

There may be criticisms to level at Inglorious Basterds, but at present I can’t think of any. Certainly, the film leaves some lingering questions, but Tarantino keeps us swept up in the moment so well that we’re effectively distracted until after we've left the theatre. His love of filmmaking and film viewing needs to be more contagious than it is. I would rather have six movies like this come out in a year—ones dreamt of, pondered, and crafted—than the three hundred mediocre pieces of garbage that pass as entertainment (ironically, Basterds was shot on a very tight schedule). The point being that people tend to give a pass to lazy direction and writing (especially) because they’re so starved for spectacle that the quality bar is set lower and lower every month.

Quentin Tarantino thinks better of his audience. He knows that one doesn’t need to sacrifice intelligence for action; that not every scene has to be a plot marker on a pitch board; he allows his movies to breathe and in turn invites the audience to get restless, to get nervous, to feel they’ve got as much at stake in the characters’ decisions as the characters themselves. Inglorious Basterds is as smart a film as you’re likely to see, and not just because it has sub-titles for seventy-five percent of the running time. It’s the kind of movie that will make you stand up and demand better entertainment. It might even make you applaud.

Sunday
Aug232009

Post Grad, 2009

A Minor in Film

I really do see everything; at least, I make an effort to see as many movies as I can, preferably in a theatre. When people ask me why I sit through movies like Bratz or Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector, I answer that every film deserves a chance. By writing off pictures without having seen them, moviegoers can deprive themselves the joy (and terror) of being surprised. This is not to say that every movie is worthwhile, but that kind of judgment can only be rendered once a film has been seen in its entirety (people who walk out of movies do not deserve to comment on them). With that out of the way, I’d like to talk about Post Grad.

From the trailers, Post Grad appears to be a workplace/wacky-family comedy for teenagers. Though the story centers around a just-graduated English Major named Ryden Malby (Gilmore GirlsAlexis Bledel), the film is not meant to appeal to anyone with an actual degree: it paints as accurate a picture of college grads as Saved By the Bell did of high school students. Ryden is an utterly bland, overly cheerful girl who dreams of being a book editor for a major publishing house. She and her lifelong, strictly platonic best friend, Adam (Zach Gilford), trek to Los Angeles for a big interview at said publisher. Along the way, Ryden puts down a $3500 security deposit (including first and last month’s rent) on a spacious, brand-new apartment with a great view of L.A. If you read that last sentence without raising an incredulous eyebrow, congratulations: you’re Post Grad’s target audience.

Though it clearly does not take place in our reality, Post Grad tries to pass itself off as a whimsical comedy about finding oneself in the real world. The problem lies in the movie’s tonal inconsistency; it is at once cute and semi-semi-plausible, and also a thud-landing farce full of misfit characters who seem to have wandered in from a sitcom block party. For instance, Ryden’s family includes a little brother whose hobby is licking people, a get-rich-quick-scheme-obsessed dad, and an allegedly on-the-verge-of-death crazy grandmother, played by Carol Burnett’s hipflask. These people are so bizarre, their neuroses so out of place and unwelcome, that they derail the entire picture just by being in it. The problem is that screenwriter Kelly Fremon takes the focus off of Ryden’s drive to get into publishing and spends the rest of the picture creating bogus scenarios for her family to stumble through. Dad runs over a neighbor’s cat; Dad gets arrested for selling stolen belt buckles; little Hunter wants to build a boxcar for the big race on Saturday. Isn’t this movie called Post Grad?

To be sure, Ryden’s identity crisis gets some screen time. We hear plenty of “If I’m not a book editor, who am I?” whining, along with plenty of clueless dissing of her best friend’s romantic advances—she opts instead to carry on a creepy flirtation with a Brazillian infomercial director (Rodrigo Santoro)—all with Alexis Bledel’s poorly acted robo-theatrics. Yeah, I said it. Alexis Bledel can’t act. Sorry for the tangent here, but if you subtract Gilmore Girls and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants—which provided strong ensemble performers to mask the stench—you’re left with Sin City and this movie, in which she has the delivery of a Gap model reading a teleprompter with a two-inch-wide screen. It’s a hard thing to say, honestly, because Bledel seems earnest enough, and she’s button-cute, but in the end, she didn’t have the charisma to make me overlook the by-the-numbers screenplay (SPOILER: Ryden and Adam end up together) or the ever-shifting point of her film.

Post Grad reminded me a lot of Better Off Dead, one of my favorite movies. The key difference is that Better Off Dead is a farce, but it is also a keenly observant comedy about teenage alienation—imagine John Hughes writing a MAD Magazine parody of one of his own films. Post Grad seems to want the same thing out of its story, but neither the writer nor director Vicky Jenson have the deft touch necessary to establish the movie as ridiculous and then gradually surprise their audience with heart. They instead have chosen to begin with plausibility and then hastily devolve into a story that no one can relate to on an intellectual or emotional level—which is important for both comedy and farce.

If the film has one thing to offer audiences, it’s Michael Keaton, who plays Ryden’s father, Walter Malby. When he’s not dreaming up novelty belt buckles or building boxcars out of coffins, Keaton is quite endearing and believable as a loving, suburban dad. Unfortunately, the minutes he’s given to actually act in Post Grad are probably equal to those you’ve spent reading this review; which encapsulates the movie's central flaw: it has real things to say to an audience that might actually want to hear them, but the filmmakers, apparently, don’t believe that. Perhaps someone should educate them.

Thursday
Aug202009

The Collector (2009)

Sue Me, I Liked It

Here’s the review that will likely determine how you feel about this blog. It doesn’t matter if you agreed or disagreed with me about Julie & Julia or District 9. No, the real test will come when you try to wrap your brain around the fact that I think The Collector is a better film. Unlike those trumped-up blockbusters, this movie contains actual surprises and fleshed-out ideas.

The first surprise happens almost instantly, when the Lionsgate Films logo doesn’t open the picture. From the few TV spots I’d seen, The Collector looked to be a Saw knock-off manufactured by the same studio that birthed that franchise. This is an independent horror film that somehow managed a small theatrical release, so right away I was intrigued. Often, I walk into a movie knowing something about the plot, but with this one, all I had was an inkling that The Collector would be a nail in the coffin of the torture-porn genre (okay, not counting Saw VI).

I was also pleased with the movie’s leisurely first half-hour. For a film that barely runs seventy-five minutes, The Collector takes its time establishing characters and mood rather than dousing the screen in bloody money shots. The story involves a handyman named Arkin (Josh Stewart) who hatches a plan to steal a large jewel from the safe of a wealthy family who’s going out of town for an extended vacation; his ex-wife, it seems, has run afoul of some lowlifes, and he agrees to exchange the gem for her safety. Director Marcus Dunstan effectively uses the slow burn in telling Arkin’s story, letting us feel the tedium and jealousy at play in having to take care of the family’s nice house, and the simple joy of being able to spend nearly a whole paycheck on a special doll for his daughter. The Collector plays as more of a crime film than a horror movie until Arkin returns to the house for the burglary.

It’s here that the movie becomes a "cat-and-mouse thriller", punctuated by occasional gore and mutilation. As he cracks the family’s safe, Arkin is interrupted by an intruder, a menacing masked man who has apparently taken much of the family hostage in the basement. He breaks the greatest horror movie convention by immediately kicking into self-preservation mode and trying to escape the house. Unfortunately, the entire place has been rigged with traps, from razor-blade-lined windows to a minefield of bear traps in the dining room. It seems the only safe place to walk is wherever the masked assailant happens to be, which makes moving between floors tricky at best.

I found The Collector to be a puzzling movie, as I wasn't sure who it was made for. It’s too languid, and not spectacularly flashy enough to capture the teen and horror-fan audience; though it's adult enough in its execution to warrant a viewing by people who are likely to never give it a chance. While it does succumb to several tropes of the genre, it also attempts to elevate them, mostly through Stewart’s performance. In the simplest of terms, a genre film should make the viewer feel something: comedies should make you laugh; science fiction should make you think; horror should make you cringe. And I cringed a lot during The Collector. By film’s end, I knew that I’d never watch it again—I’m long past the point where home-invasion fantasies pass as entertainment on their own merits—but I was glad that I saw it in the theatre. It’s nice to be surprised every once in awhile, to have expectations exceeded rather than deflated.

To those who’ve made up their mind about my opinions based on this review, I will qualify my endorsement by paraphrasing a wonderful cliché: you will probably like this movie if this is the kind of movie that you like. This is to say that I’d never stack it up next to A Clockwork Orange or The Americanization of Emily, but as a horror film it certainly fares better than a lot of the crap coming out of the major studios in recent years. And unlike District 9 and Julie & Julia, The Collector is consistent in its themes and it strives to be more than what it is purported to be.

Monday
Aug172009

District 9 (2009)

Nein!

There’s a great deal of laughable hype surrounding District 9, saucer-eyed hysteria that labels the film “thinking-person’s sci-fi.” On the contrary, this is the kind of experience where checking one’s brain at the concession stand is the only way to avoid a maddening two-hour slog through third-baked ideas and tiresome tough-guy clichés. I wasn’t so much disappointed by District 9 as frustrated by it. With all the critical acclaim and near-Twilight level of geek exuberance at Comic-Con last month, I expected some kind of originality or compelling story; instead, I felt like the victim of a multi-million-dollar practical joke.

The premise is fine. An alien spacecraft stalls over Johannesburg, South Africa in 1982 and sits dormant for two months. Upon cutting into the ship, government officials discover millions of malnourished squid-faced aliens, apparently the worker bees of some larger colonial empire. During the next two decades, the aliens are relocated to the slums below, where they adopt all the best traits of human beings, including prostitution and arms dealing. News footage and interviews show the downtrodden of South Africa rioting and complaining about the interlopers in a “we were an oppressed minority first” fashion, which leads a shady corporation called MNU to intercede and—working with the government—set about moving the aliens to a concentration camp outside of Johannesburg. District 9’s first ten minutes is compelling stuff, with documentary footage recounting the first encounter through the paramilitary raid on the alien ghetto; we’re treated to some spectacular ideas which—this being thinking-person’s sci-fi—promise a mind-bending story over the next couple of hours.

Then we meet Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley). He’s an MNU stooge whose recent promotion grants him the honor of presenting eviction notices to the aliens (or “prawns” as they’re dismissively called). Wikus is a good-natured bureaucrat with a lovely wife and a father-in-law with a cushy directorship at MNU. For the first twenty minutes, Copley’s performance reminded me of Michael Scott, the amiable idiot from NBC’s The Office—lovable but cringe-inducing in his lack of self-awareness. Wikus leads the armed convoy into the slums, knocking on tin shack doors to get prawns’ signatures on relocation notices. While investigating some sort of chop shop hidden in one of the houses, he is sprayed with goo from a black canister that gradually transforms him into one of the aliens, which of course makes him a target of MNU. It is important to note, however, that Wikus’ transformation begins much earlier, when his ineffective, smiling desk-jockey persona gives way to that of a bullying racist. If that last sentence seems inconsistent with the rest of the paragraph, welcome to District 9.

There have been so many great books and movies created around the idea of the disillusioned company man on the run from his evil former employer that to even try to get away with cutting corners in plot and character development is an unforgivable sin. Wikus alternates between self-interested coward and socially awakened good guy so often during the film that I wondered if he’d become the first genuinely schizophrenic super hero of the new century. With three floppy black fingers growing out of his arm, he escapes an MNU hospital and heads for the slums, where humans dare not go. He encounters Christopher, the only intelligent prawn in the film, who has perfected a fuel that will allow the mother ship to restart and return to his home world. The only complication is that the same canister that mutated Wikus is also the fuel source (?) and has been confiscated by MNU. Christopher assures Wikus that he can cure the mutation if he is allowed to return home, so the two stage a raid on MNU HQ, using weapons that only the aliens—and those with alien DNA—can fire. If this sounds confusing, it’s not, in the context of the film; the one thing District 9 has going for it, which is also one of it’s biggest flaws, is that it introduces a lot of plot points and ideas that almost cohere; it also takes zero time to flesh out these ideas, and instead mashes them together hurriedly, in an effort to show us how much stuff cool alien guns can vaporize.

This manifests early on in the way the story is told. As mentioned earlier, District 9 opens with documentary footage and interviews; it is here that we meet Wikus and learn of his assignment. But almost immediately come interviews with his family and friends that speak of him in the past-tense, meaning that before we even get to know this character, we’re already informed that something awful has happened to him, and that the movie is not unfolding in real time. In the far superior Cloverfield (no, obnoxious characters and a lack of glory shots of the monster do make a monster movie bad), the audience is told at the outset that the story they’re being told involves essentially doomed characters; it's like one of those drunk driving commercials depicting a five-year-old’s birthday party that ends with pop-up text saying everyone in the video was killed. This, however, is not nearly as jarring as the fact that the documentary style is abandoned a half-hour into the picture in favor of a conventional omniscient action-movie perspective. Coincidentally, this is also the point at which the ideas stop flowing and the bullets start flying.

Much has been made of co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s feature debut, and I definitely grant him points for style. The ship footage is handled convincingly; the aliens are more often than not seamlessly integrated with their human counterparts. But to sell a movie such as this, the ideas need to be consistent and solid. For example, much of the hype has been built on Distric 9’s Apartheid allegory. But aside from depictions of the slums and some early footage of whining locals, the story never delves into real issues of segregation and oppression. We’re told that the prawns are being relocated to concentration camps, but we’re never shown why or why that’s bad; which is to say that the movie does very little to prove that A) anyone would care if the prawns were simply exterminated or B) that the camps are actual death camps and not simply a new kind of slum that’s been removed from the middle of the human populace. This brings to mind several other questions: why were they put in the middle of Johannesburg in the first place? Is there only one reasoning prawn in the whole race? If so, why didn’t he act as a spokesperson? Do other countries recognize the prawn’s plight? Is the United States interested in their technology? Why do humans understand prawn language but at no time attempt to speak it? If the film is intended to be an Apartheid allegory, it is the only one I’ve seen in which the oppressed people are depicted exactly as the racists see them: simple-minded, violent, self-interested sub-humans. I’d wager this wasn’t Blomkamp’s intent, but he spent so much time disintegrating soldiers and crashing spaceships that he apparently set his story notes on fire in the process.

There’s really a lot more to say about the problems in District 9, but you’re either going to see it or not see it. If you choose to fork over your money, I implore you to not also surrender your mind. And if you do come out loving this picture, I recommend taking a few days to read George Orwell’s 1984 and watch Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. Neither is about aliens, but they deal with the same themes as District 9 (oppression, military-industrial secrecy, the tricky nature of the human condition), minus the pyro-porn, transforming robots and unreliable characters. I doubt you’ll be able to watch District 9 a second time with the same eyes.

Monday
Aug102009

Julie & Julia (2009)

Imitation Crab

Julie & Julia is the reason I created this blog. It’s not that I was inspired by Julie Powell’s story of becoming an Internet culinary diarist; I was repelled by it. Walking out of the theatre, surrounded by happy, chattering faces, I realized that this pathetic, over-long mess is supposed to represent entertainment for adults (as opposed to “adult entertainment”). It’s made for people who don’t go to movies; who don’t appreciate art or intellect; who consider Friends to be hilarious, groundbreaking television.

On the surface, the film has a lot going for it. It’s not a romantic comedy, though it’s certainly being advertised with the same rote, gooey commercials. Rather, it’s half biopic, half journey-of-discovery-movie, and all “comedy”. Julie & Julia begins in the late 1940s with Julia Child (Meryl Streep) arriving in France at the end of some sort of government career; she’s bored by long days of waiting for her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), to return home from his embassy job, and so decides to become a professional chef. Cut to 2002 New York, where government employee Julie Powell (Amy Adams) struggles with the boredom and heartbreak of handling insurance claims after 9/11. Frustrated by being the only one in her circle of catty, well-to-do friends without ambition or prospects, she sets about becoming a blogger, with a goal of preparing all 541 recipes in Juila Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days.

If you’re a fan of romantic comedies—or just happen to watch a good deal of them—the rest of the picture will be utterly familiar and probably very entertaining. If you’re a fan of biopics, as am I, the rest of the picture will be like listening to a book report based on Cliff’s Notes presented by a cheerleader with short-term memory loss: it’s peppy and occasionally spunky, but all the really interesting, vital information is left out in favor of facile genre-defining plot points. Writer/Director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) has created a mash-up of Powell’s bestseller, Julie & Julia, and Julia Child’s book with Alex Prud’homme, My Life in France. The problem is that the Julie Powell story centers on an unpleasant, wholly uninteresting caricature of the New York woman, while the Julia Child story turns a very interesting, historic woman into a bird-voiced caricature of herself. Much has been made of Streep’s portrayal of Child, but watching the film, I couldn’t help but think it was much broader than it should’ve been; Ephron makes the fatal mistake of actually playing Dan Aykroyd’s Saturday Night Live skit—where he parodies Child—in the middle of the movie; keen observers may note very little difference between the quality of the two performances.

I understand that Julie & Julia is not a biopic, and that it is not meant to teach us anything about Julia Child; this is Julie Powell’s story—as such, I suppose it’s perfectly acceptable to treat the Child portions of the film as mere slice-of-life vignettes meant to mirror Powell’s own boring struggles. We never learn anything about Child, such as why someone raised in Pasadena, California sounds like a Dickensian schoolmarm on laughing gas; we never learn what compelled her to become a spy during World War II (in fairness, this information came out only last year); we don’t get anything substantive regarding her relationship with Paul, except that he’s much older and they apparently can’t—or won’t—have children (their relationship is so tender and yet so weird that it comes across as that of a sham marriage between two gay best friends). Instead, we get more Julie than Julia. We see her cry again and again about not having made anything of herself; she whines about her anxiety over boning a duck; we watch her type lame entries on her blog that have as much insight and humor as the average Carrie Bradshaw column—which is to say, none; one scene involving Julie falling victim to a pot of boiling lobsters reminded me of a Swedish Chef skit on The Muppet Show. It’s the filmmaker’s prerogative to ditch facts for whimsy, but, honestly, does it have to be this dumb?

Never mind that we never see Julia Child make the leap to television, where the majority of Americans grew to know and love her (which is akin to doing a Michael Phelps biopic without mentioning the Olympics). The last straw was the movie’s utter failure to develop a sub-plot involving Julia Child’s apparent snubbing of Julie’s blog. This fascinating nugget promised to bridge the two parallel arcs by bringing Streep and Adams face to face, but it was never expounded upon. Instead, the slight was mentioned and dropped, acting as nothing more than an excuse to watch Adams cry again.

There’s a fascinating Julia Child biopic waiting to be made by a writer and director with a real story to tell, and an actress who understands nuance. Julie & Julia is nothing like that film; it’s a fragrant, gorgeously presented quiche stuffed with rat poison.