Monday, August 24, 2009

A Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Director - Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 153 min; R

Lt. Aldo Raine - Brad Pitt
Shosanna Dreyfuss - Mélanie Laurent
Col. Hans Landa - Christoph Waltz

As the credits rolled for the new Quentin Tarantino film, Inglourious Basterds, my initial gut-reaction was to give it 4 stars out of 5. I mean, it was very entertaining on a simple measurement of ‘was it good?’ and there was a fantastic performance by Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa (The Jew hunter) that just obviously deserves an Oscar nod, and then there was the compelling story line of an alternate WWII ending set among some wonderfully shot scenes of countryside and an old, romantic cinema-house.

After taking some time to review the film in my mind, I’m more inclined to give this one more notch on the rating scale. This film falls just short of a 5 but is definitely above a 4, especially when you mix in the drollness of Waltz and the scenes of dialogue that command your attention. I recently gave The Hurt Locker a 5 star rating and, though I am not opposed to giving out multiple high ratings, I just don’t see this film quite fitting into a full-blown 5.

I’m not going to delve into the plot details (they are readily found if you want to search, and yes, quintessential Tarantino gore is to be found) but needless to say the entire movie is an interesting premise that is in many ways two separate films fused by a common enemy (The Basterds and the story of Shosanna are independently film-worthy.)

Though it is Waltz who steals the movie, I am more than happy to admit this film gives us a decent performance by Pitt who, though his character calls for an over-acted part, doesn’t over-do it, and instead finds a nice balance of caricature. The women in the film are well cast as are the secondary characters.

Is this QT’s finest film? I don’t know. I think a strong case can be made for a few of his other works (works which we all know) and I find it difficult to vault this film into the stratosphere so quickly (I look forward to a second viewing of this film.) Tarantino does have a special way with creating scenes you will never forget, doesn’t he? (Baseball bats and swastikas will not be soon forgotten.)

**** and a ½ out of 5

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Movie Review ((500) Days of Summer)

(500) Days of Summer (2009)
Director - Marc Webb
Runtime - 95 min; PG-13

Tom Hansen - Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Summer Finn - Zooey Deschanel

It took me almost the entire movie, but I finally placed the actress who was playing Summer Finn in the feel good (sort of) flick (500) Days of Summer; Zooey Deschanel was Jovie in Elf (2003) along side Will Farrell, where she played a sort of cynical department store clerk who falls for, well, an elf. That realization is not all that important to my thoughts on this film, but it is worth noting because it sort of distracted me. As for her role here, she is much more defined and much more believable.

The title of the film refers to the 500 days that Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets, obsesses, falls in love with, and loses Summer, the new assistant at the greeting card office he has called home for 3 or 4 years. He was once an aspiring architect, but life just sort of got in the way.

After 5 minutes I found myself squirming in my seat, wondering if this would in fact end up like just another in a long line of formulaic, unoriginal, romantic comedies. We are greeted with a narrator giving us some background and we see images of Tom with his friends in situations that lead us to understand he is a sappy, star-struck kind of guy. Tom believes in Fate. Enter Summer, and the story takes off. She is the opposite of Tom in all ways involving love, and so we have our two heroes of the story at odds over a pretty typical life scenario: dating.

Throughout the 95 minutes (the perfect runtime for this film) I found myself thinking of what to compare this to, and here is what I came up with: This is a feature length film with vignettes of the television show Scrubs, the narrator of the Woody Allen movie Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), and most recognizable, multiple aspects of Juno (2007). In any event, I felt like this film was original in parts (nice use of different screen techniques) and formulaic in parts (skipping back and forth in time over the course of a relationship), making for a breezy but frustrating viewing. On the one hand, I cared about this relationship between two young people and I was interested in how it would turn out, but on the other hand, I never really cared for Tom at all, it was all about Summer.

There was one brief scene that almost had me spit up my drink, and I’m not giving anything away by retelling it:

A very intoxicated Tom is on a blind date after one of his numerous, extended fights with Summer, and they end up at a frequently used karaoke bar. As he sings along to the tune and blubberingly falters around the stage, his date gets up and leaves the bar.

Tom (into the microphone, slurring): “Go then! Waste of time, you don’t look anything like Summer”

So I say “Go then”, it’s not a waste of time.

*** ½ out of 5

A Movie Review: District 9 (2009)

District 9 (2009)
Director - Neill Blomkamp
Runtime - 112 min; R
Wikus Van De Merwe - Sharlto Copley

It doesn’t take long for us to actually see the aliens in District 9, and that is very refreshing compared to so many films that make you wait in anticipation for more than half the film to get a glimpse of what the hubbub is all about. These aliens are not Close Encounters of the Third Kind-like, rather they are surprisingly similar to the alien in Predator, only not so much on a mission to kill as a mission to eat cat-food.

The plot can actually be summed up quite simply: In 1982 a spacecraft hovered over Johannesburg, South Africa, for reasons unknown. 3 months later humans entered the craft and found several aliens cramped and mal-nourished. Fearing a global backlash at anything inhumane, District 9 was set up as a shanty city in which the aliens would live and be loosely governed. Now, 28 years later, the people are fed up with it and want them out. MNU (Multi-National-United) is the corporation that is going to move all 1.8 million aliens several hundred miles away to a new tent-city. This is the main job for Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a corporate man who needs to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. Of course, it doesn’t all go smoothly.

There were aspects of this film that bothered me on a purely critical level, specifically some plot continuity and reasoning, and there are also the clear political aspects of apartheid and South African history in general, but I’m not even going to touch that here, because this film is just too much fun to take any shots at it.

Definitely see this film and prepare yourself for a good old-fashioned sci-fi ride. There is death and destruction and other-worldly notions along with laughter and deeper meanings, all of which add up to a well told story held completely together on the wonderful role of Wikus. Sharlto Copley deserves an award simply for making us care about him, and the range he delivers throughout is outstanding. He is able to take a standard corporate worker personality and, by the films startling ending, have us believing everything that has changed about him.

At just under 2 hours the film turns sort of conventional with 30 minutes to go, and I wish it could have held the originality of the first half throughout. With that said, I believe you will find enough interesting shots in this film to keep you engaged and guessing, and I think re-watch ability will be high.

**** out of 5

Saturday, August 8, 2009

A movie review: The Hurt Locker (2009)

The Hurt Locker (2009)
Director - Kathryn Bigelow
Runtime - 131 min; R

Jeremy Renner - Staff Sergeant William James
Anthony Mackie - Sergeant JT Sanborn
Brian Geraghty - Specialist Owen Eldridge

Normal people do not voluntarily approach bombs. They just don’t. They run away from them – quickly. They also don’t poke at them and cut wires and try to diffuse them. Again, they just don’t. War changes a lot of things about normal people.

I’m afraid that I lack too much in the ways of communication to accurately convey just how wonderful The Hurt Locker is from start to finish. I haven’t seen every ‘war’ movie ever made, so I can only draw on my knowledge of those films I have seen, those that have dealt with The Great Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and now, Iraq.

Staff Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) is a cocky but very self-assured US soldier who voluntarily diffuses bombs. He does so in an over-sized protective suit that, in all likely-hood, will do very little in the way of protection. He knows this. He still does his job. Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are there covering him as he does his job. These men are not friends, but they are a team, and though they are not perfect, they figure out ways to survive.

Films about the war in Iraq have had very little acclaim. Either they just haven’t been done well, or people just aren’t willing to give them a chance. In the Valley of Elah (2007) was a wonderful film and everyone should see it, but it tackles the subject of war from an onlookers perspective. What director Kathryn Bigelow (Blue Steel (1989)) gives us is the perspective of the soldier, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I was particularly gripped by the realistic feel of this movie. We don’t get all the information we need to always know what is happening, but we get enough to understand what is happening. We realize there are ‘good’ guys and ‘bad’ guys and ‘neutral’ guys, but we don’t really know a lot about whom is whom, and we don’t really need to know, because this film is not so concerned with any kind of cathartic conclusion, rather, it is dealing with a few specific soldiers in Iraq and the turmoil they go through (physically and emotionally) as they do their job in the desert.

This film works with changes in day and night beautifully, and leaves us filled with tension as we follow these men through a barren land in the harshest of circumstances. People are changed by war. The people in this film are changed by war. But they do their jobs and they count the days until they can leave.

***** out of 5

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Movie Review: Funny People (2009)

Funny People (2009)
Director - Judd Apatow
Release - 31 July 2009 (USA)
Runtime - 146 min; R

George Simmons - Adam Sandler
Ira Wright - Seth Rogen
Laura - Leslie Mann
Clarke - Eric Bana
Leo - Jonah Hill
Mark - Jason Schwartzman

As the title implies, Funny People is a movie that follows the lives of some funny people. They’re funny, all right, but they are also real people struggling with real life issues, and in a dramatic turn it is the humor of the movie that takes a back seat to more pressing concerns.

Director Judd Apatow (Knocked Up (2007); The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005)) does not give us the same type of laugh out loud antics of his previous films, but, like each of those films, the comedy of the actors and the way they choose to present it is the true driving force. Adam Sandler is reminiscent of a favorite role of mine as the main character in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), his first true attempt at a darker version of a human being. With his portrayal of superstar actor and comedian George Simmons Sandler has achieved something very special.

In just a few short days of release I have heard many people say they were somewhat disappointed that this film was not a more typical Sandler farce, which they couldn’t believe it was almost two and a half hours and had such a serious tone. I can’t really speak to those people because I don’t understand them; I honestly don’t understand that mind-set.

This film is wonderful. The first half is heartfelt and funny, and the second half, though not as strong as the first, brings home a lot of nuances in characters that leave you really thinking about people in general, their motives, and the ways in which they go about projecting themselves on others. This is a film about how people can deceive themselves, but with a message of potential redemption.

Seth Rogen doesn’t steal the movie from Sandler, but that is because he doesn’t have to – they are both excellent in their roles, and, in my opinion, both deserving of awards. As upstart and struggling comedian Ira Wright, a chance encounter with legend Simmons, fresh off the news that he may be terminally ill, leads to a working friendship that changes both of their lives. They form a loosely based team while Simmons works through his demons and struggles to come to terms with what his life has become, and what he has left behind.

This movie did not need to be so long, but it also didn’t need to cut anything out, if you follow. If only the second half of the film had not become a bit too fabricated for my tastes it would have been perfect. As it is, this film made me feel real emotion for these people, and I cared about what happened to them. No one here is perfect – all very far from it, but they each seem to understand that, and it works for them. Life is very unpredictable and like the characters in this film, it is filled with funny moments and very sad moments. How we work through those moments with the people around us is what this film ultimately becomes.

**** ½ out of 5