Archive for August, 2009

Review: “Inglourious Basterds”

Leave it up to Quentin Tarantino to get the American public flocking to see a foreign film.  Yep, that’s right . . . foreign.  Although produced by Hollywood, it sports a largely European cast with only maybe 20% of the dialogue in English.

Inglourious Basterds is the fictitious tale of Jewish-American soldiers dropped into Nazi-occupied France, with orders to wreak as much havoc as they can upon the German military.  It’s also the story of a young Jewish woman who survived the slaughter of her family by the Nazis in the French countryside.  The two intertwine and meet when the stories’ objectives fall on the premiere of a much-hyped pro-Nazi film.

I won’t go into the details of the plot or the characters, since that’s most of the fun of watching a Tarantino film.  What I want to put down in this blog post is why I think this was Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown and why his dialogue no longer annoys me.

It could be argued that Quentin Tarantino makes satires.  Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction might be satires of gangster pictures.  Jackie Brown is a satire of the Blaxploitation movement of the 1960’s and ’70’s.  Kill Bill Vol. 1 is a 70’s chop-socky flick, while Vol. 2 was a spaghetti western.  And Death Proof was a horror/thriller.  Here, we have Tarantino’s satire/spoof/re-imagining of not only the WWII film, but the spy movie as well.  And he pulls it off brilliantly.

While I don’t share Brad Pitt’s sentiment that this is the be-all-end-all of WWII movies, Inglourious Basterds seems to be a refinement of everything Tarantino has done so far.  Every scene, every word uttered moves the story forward.  In Death Proof, one of the things that annoyed me was the dialogue.  Half the time I wanted to yell “Move on!” to the characters when someone’s speech was rambling too much.  Here, you’ll find the trademark dialogue-heavy scenes, but there’s a purpose to each word.  Tarantino is able to build tension easily with the characters and their speech.  Again, in Death Proof, I didn’t feel any tension at all, with the exception of the well-done chase scene.  Here, the opening scene (or opening chapter, as the film groups scenes together by chapter), builds the tension and the drama from the beginning, with the interrogation of a Frenchman suspected of hiding Jews.

Later on the film, a group of undercover Basterds are trying to make contact with an informant, only to be interrupted by a German officer.  Although some I talked to said the scene played on too long, I felt it was just the right length, only straying on the ‘too long’ timeframe.  It slowly escalated the quiet conflict as the question of ‘Will they be discovered?’ played over every line.

The acting is also very good, with an exceptional performance by Christoph Waltz as the Nazi colonel Hans Landa and  and a funny turn by Brad Pitt as the film’s posterboy, American Lt. Aldo Raine.  What I like about the performances, and this could also be applied to Tarantino, is that the actors seem to be given free reign over their characters.  I’m sure Quentin had something in mind when he created Lt. Raine, but I feel as though Pitt came in and was allowed to make the character as over-the-top and ridiculous as he wanted.  Considering the context of this particular film, being ridiculous is hardly out of place.  Waltz’s Landa, to me, is probably one of the best performances of the year.  He’s friendly, personable, cold, calculating, arrogant; you name it, he’s probably got that trait or something like it.  Landa is like the perfect neighbor and your worst nightmare rolled into one.

If there’s one thing glaringly missing from the film is that  the story seems to forget about the rest of the Basterds.  We spend time with maybe only half of them.  The others we don’t really even see except for one scene.  Also, at the end of the movie, BJ Novak’s Pvt. Utivich gets some considerable screen time, but I hardly remember him at all in the previous 2-and-a-half hours.  Someone mentioned to me that there’s probably a longer cut in the works that is able to fit in contributions from the other Basterds.  I’m inclined to agree, since I’d love to see more of Til Schweiger’s Nazi-killing German, Stiglitz

Inglourious Basterds is a return to form, of sorts, for Quentin Tarantino.  It’s sharp, funny, the plot is superbly paced, and all the technical details (cinematography, sound, editing, etc) are spot on.  One of the purest forms of ‘cinema’ I’ve seen so far this year.

9/10

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August 23, 2009 at 12:46 pm Leave a comment

Review: “District 9”

What do you get when you toss in trigger-happy mercenary soldiers, lowly government office workers, and marooned aliens?  Why, Halo Disctrict 9, the first wide-release feature film from South African director Neill Blomkamp and  producer Peter Jackson.

Somewhat born from the ashes that was Universal Pictures’ Halo film project (now possibly resurrected), District 9 is the feature-length film of Blomkamp’s short Alive in JoburgD9 follows a momentous event in human history: first contact with extra-terrestrial life, which happens to occur over Johannesburg in South Africa.  Problem is, these aliens, called ‘prawns’ due to their looks, are stuck on Earth.  The prawns and the humans must now learn to co-exist on this planet.  If this sounds like the plot to Alien Nation, it isn’t.  Due to the prawns’ starkly different physiology and culture, and human nature’s tendency to fear anything it doesn’t understand, the South African government decides to separate the two, creating District 9, basically a ghetto, for the aliens.  When the nearby human citizens start to feel threatened by the close proximity of D9, the government employs Multi-National United (MNU), a megacorporation, to carry out the relocation of the prawns to the newly built District 10.

One of the top desk jockeys promoted to execute the evictions is Wikus (Sharlto Copley), an everyman office worker who is on-hand in D9 to ensure the evictions are carried out properly.  Things go wrong when he becomes exposed to some never-before-seen alien technology and must run for his life while trying to solve the mysteries surround District 9.  What follows is a sci-fi movie packed with action, great CG effects, and a compelling story.

The film is shot in a pseudo-documentary style, with a camera crew following Wikus during the opening 20 minutes or so.  In some scenes, the camera perspective will change from the usual handheld to the perspective of a security camera.  This technique serves the story well; it really puts the audience right in the middle of things.  The computer-generated imagery was also well-done.  Unlike last week’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, where the CG really stood out in parts (in a bad way), the effects in D9 felt like they were part of the story’s world.  The massive alien ship hovering over Johannesburg really looked and felt like it was there, the aliens wandering the slums of D9 looked real, and the crazy weaponry they wield also made me feel like I was watching a documentary.

District 9‘s story also helps draw you in.  It’s a social commentary on segregation and immigration wrapped up in a tale of adventure and corporate intrigue with a sprinkle of action-movie car chases and explosions.  This is quite possibly the ‘smartest’ movie of the summer; something that entertains as well as questions and informs.

However, it’s not without its problems.  While the cinema verite style helps the film overall, it does leave some questions.  For example, there’s a camera crew following the characters for the first 20 or so minutes.  It’s obvious because Wikus and others address the cameras and their crew directly.  Once that day is over, it becomes a regular narrative just told almost entirely in Steadicam fashion, much like an episode of Southland or Battlestar Galactica.  Who were these camera operators?  Why were they there?  What happened to them?  It would’ve been interested to see if the whole film could’ve been told from that perspective.

It also loses some of the social commentary once the action-movie cliches kick in.  Toward the end, it becomes a bit of a buddy-movie, with Wikus teaming up with one of the aliens, Christopher, who claims to be able to help Wikus if he can only help the aliens.  However, this doesn’t ruin the picture, or turn it into some kind of Jerry Bruckheimer film (not that I have anything against Bruckheimer pictures), as it does give the film some really good scenes toward the end.

Also, some of the characters could’ve been a little more fleshed out.  I totally bought into Wikus plight and was with him during his journey, but everyone else felt like a stereotype.  There’s the psychotic mercenary hired to track down Wikus, the evil corporate executives, the scared wife.  If Blomkamp wanted the film to return to a ‘traditional narrative’, at least try and give us some backstory to some of these supporting characters.

It’s hard to say whether District 9 will be considered a classic one day.  It does have all the elements: a smart story, lessons to be learned, great visual and special effects, and an underdog hero.  The things that get in the way, mainly the direction of the story during the second act, keep it from being among the greatest.  Still, it’s a memorable film that will please audiences and will probably open up discussions on modern society’s social woes.

9/10

(images from Yahoo!)

August 14, 2009 at 11:17 pm Leave a comment

The (racist?) things you’d find in Japantown

Came across these interesting items the other day while wandering around San Francisco’s Japantown. Most notably a strange little figurine on a keychain.
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August 13, 2009 at 3:08 pm Leave a comment

Review: “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra”

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is, for better or for worse, pretty much everything you thought the movie would be.  It’s loud, fast, stupid, and mindless.  But it’s also entertaining.

Following on the heels of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, this Stephen Sommers-helmed pic places the popular action figures on the big screen against the evil members of a shadowy organization bent on world domination.  It’s pretty much the plot of every children’s animated action/adventure show ever made.  To its credit, the script is ‘better’ than Transformers 2, with the characters being a little more fleshed out and the story, by comparison, doesn’t seem so rushed.

The flick follows Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), the two newest recruits of a secret multi-nation special ops group designed to combat terrorism anywhere in the world, without all the red tape.  Duke, however, has been romantically linked to one of the Joes’ enemies, the Baroness (Sienna Miller), who is now in league with the nefarious arms dealer McCullen (Christopher Eccleston) and his assistant known only as The Doctor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  The Joes, led by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), send a team consisting of mute martial arts expert Snake Eyes (Ray Park), gun nut Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), genius Breaker (Said Taghmauoi), and beautiful marksman Scarlett (Rachel Nichols) to stop McCullen from using a secret weapon that unleashes nanobots to eat everything.  Mixed in for good measure are some flashbacks that explain a bit of some of the characters’ backstories, massive and improbable underwater bases, and ninja fights.

Yeah.  Oscar-winning, this script isn’t.

But, just like Transformers, that isn’t the point.  Basically, these movies are supposed to put on the big screen all the crazy stuff you put the action figures through when you played with them as a kid.  And that’s pretty much what happens in The Rise of Cobra.  The Joes jump over (and through) buses, run up the sides of buildings, smash into cave walls, get shot at, blown up, thrown around, and slammed into.  Generally, all manner of abuse is dished out on these guys.  And it’s sure fun to watch.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a “perfect” action flick.  Just like other reviewers have commented, the CG effects sometimes look unfinished, as if they finalized the film before the effects were done rendering or something.  For example, some of the desert shots look terribly fake.  By comparison, the desert shots of the pyramids in Transformers 2 looked great; the pyramid shots in G.I. Joe look mediocre by comparison.  Also, no one can direct an action scene like Michael Bay.  Sommers tries, but there’s just a certain flow to a Bay movie that is lacking here.  There’s one sequence involving an attack on the Joes’ HQ.  Despite all the craziness going on, there still seems like there isn’t enough happening.  Even if dialogue is being spoken, the action shouldn’t stop.  I feel as if Sommers lets everything calm down for a second so that the actors can say their lines.  Sure, it might be good for the actors, but it slows down the action.

That being said, the flick still has some great moments.  The chase through Paris is great fun, and I had to restrain myself from squealing like a fanboy when I saw mortal enemies Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow (Brandon Soo Hoo) face off for the first time.  There’s also plenty of eye candy to go around; I know there were girls swooning at the very glimpse of Channing Tatum (despite is one note acting), and the guys have a lot to look at in Sienna Miller and Rachel Nichols.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra won’t exactly win over anyone who despises dumb fun summer flicks (ahem…Roger Ebert), but it will entertain those that grew up playing with the toys.  This movie was made for them, and it doesn’t have to be anything more than that.  Is it stupid?  Oh, yes.  But, will it please its target audience?  Most likely.

7.5/10

(images from Yahoo!)

August 12, 2009 at 2:18 am Leave a comment

Review: “Funny People”

The third feature film from writer/director/producer extraordinaire Judd Apatow, Funny People seems to have everything a comedy needs to have: funny actors, a funny script, and the word ‘funny’ in the title.

But it’s not really that funny.

Adam Sandler is  George Simmons, a successful comedian who’s done everything: stand-up, movies, television; you name it, he’s done it.  Now, past what Hollywood would term his ‘prime’, Simmons lives alone in his very large house (except for his small staff), regrets breaking off ties with his ex-girlfriend Laura (Leslie Mann), and generally living his life like a typical Hollywood has-been.  Until he discovers from his doctor that he has a rare form of leukemia and chances of recovery are slim-to-none.  Simmons then hits the stand-up circuit one last time, only the tone of his jokes have changed for the worst.  His jokes are darker, more cynical, and generally not something you’d want to hear at the comedy club.

It’s at one of these stand-up nights he meets Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), an up-and-coming comic who’s roommates also happen to be comics, albeit slightly more successful; Mark (Jason Schwartzman) has his own sitcom and Leo (Jonah Hill) gets more gigs than Ira does.  While Ira wasn’t the best comic performing that night, George takes a liking to him and hires Ira as his new personal assistant, a job that requires setting appointments, entertaining guests, and talking him to sleep at his bedside.  It’s a strange job, but provides Ira the opportunity to write jokes for the legendary comedian.

As the trailer for the movie gave away, we find out that George actually won’t die, that he’s beaten the odds and his disease has gone into remission.  While this should’ve been the happiest part of the movie, it somehow alters the tone of the film, and might work against it in the end.

Adam Sandler gives a strong performance as George Simmons.  While I don’t think this is Oscar-worthy, he definitely has a few scenes here that could count among his best dramatic work (although that’s a short list).  Simmons is basically going through a mid-life crisis on top of the life-threatening disease that’s slowly killing him.  Sandler plays this well; not allowing us to feel sorry for him, but rather except his inevitable death and be entertained as he struggles to put his life in order before he expires.

Seth Rogen is also good here.  I have nothing against him, and I find Rogen very funny in most of his roles, but I think I’m going through a Seth Rogen overdose.  He’s in a new movie every few months!  However, he manages to pull off some pretty good scenes and holds his own well against Sandler.  I actually felt bad for his Ira Wright.  It’s almost pathetic to watch him work behind a deli counter when his roommates are living the life he wants, and that basically means he wants to do what he loves and get paid for it.

Leslie Mann, Apatow’s real-life wife, actually has some good scenes here.  Usually relegated to supporting roles in many films, including her husband’s, she’s given a bigger role here, one that is tied closely with Sandler’s character.  It’s a nice change of pace for her, and I wish she’d get more roles like this.

My issue with the movie is not that it isn’t funny (because it is in some scenes), but that it might be a little too introspective for its own good.  For about 70% of the movie’s  2-hour-and-change runtime, it’s almost like this redemption tale of George Simmons, with Ira Wright as the sidekick.  Then, once he discovers he’s well again, it becomes a morality tale on how to screw up the one chance for a do-over.  Simmons basically turns into an unlikeable character.

It could be said that this was trying to break a formulaic structure (work backwards, essentially.  Have our hero go from bad to worse, instead of from bad to good).  But I feel like the final act was rushed and didn’t resolve much.  That being said, this was possibly Judd Apatow’s most heartfelt story since The 40-Year-Old-Virgin (despite its raunchy comedy, it’s a very sweet film).  Funny People really isn’t about people being funny, it’s really just about people.  Sure, they happen to be comedians and say and do funny things, but don’t ‘regular people’ say and do funny things?  YouTube is a perfectly example for that.

Something must be said of the cinematography.  Janusz Kaminski, Director of Photography on films like Saving Private Ryan and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, lensed this movie.  It’s interesting to see what a cinematographer like him, who’s done some incredible work on some unconventional films, can do on a more conventional movie.  There were a couple of times when I was distracted by his choice of visuals.  One scene featured some strange, old Hollywood-style close-ups and soft focuses on Leslie Mann’s Laura.  Another scene had those flashes of white that generally accompany parts of film being exposed to light, in quick succession while our two leads play with children (Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann’s real children, Maude and Iris).

Funny People may not have the audiences rolling in the aisles, but it’s an interesting movie to watch for its screenplay.  Fans of Adam Sandler may find this a nice medium between roles like Punch Drunk Love and his usual goofball fare.  It is one that I can recommend for the look it gives into the world of up-and-coming comics, and for the message it strives to tell at the end: don’t squander a moment in your life, especially if you’ve been given a second chance to live it.

7.5/10

(images from Yahoo!)

August 2, 2009 at 10:54 pm Leave a comment


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