Monday, August 31, 2009

These Basterds Are Glorious

This will be my last review for a few weeks as I get ready for the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (tiff.). I will post the list of films I will be seeing within the next few days. Look for a full recap of tiff. on this site in the coming weeks.

Inglourious Bastards

Quentin Tarantino is one of the few directors working today that evokes such a strong love/hate response from even the most casual moviegoer. Regardless of whether you think Tarantino is a true auteur or simply an over-hyped plagiarist; his films have greatly impacted the world of cinema or the last two decades. Although I am a big fan of Tarantino’s work his more recent films, while good, have not matched the high standards set by his first three films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and the vastly underrated Jackie Brown). Fortunately Tarantino seems to be back on track as his new film, Inglourious Basterds, is one of the best films he has made yet.

Set during World War II in Nazi occupied France, Inglourious Basterds follows three separate stories whose characters will ultimately intertwine with violent consequences. The most dangerous character is by far Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz), who is more famously known as the “Jew Hunter”. Working for the Nazi regime Hans has a talent for tracking down Jews and the folks hiding them. Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) has seen the terror that Hans brings first hand as she escaped his grasp as a teen. Now an adult, Shosanna runs a local movie theatre while keeping her Jewish background a secret. Things get complicated when Shosanna inadvertently catches the eye of a young Nazi war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Smitten with Shosanna, Zoller convinces his superiors to hold a major Nazi gala at her theater. Little does Zoller know that the infamous “Basterds”, a group of Jewish-American soldiers, are planning to make an surprise appearance at the event as well. Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the Basterds sole purpose is to kill as many Nazis as possible, collecting the Nazi scalps like a badge of honor. With such a volatile group as the Basterds running around, the gala will truly be a night that no one in France shall ever forget.

It is no secret that Tarantino is a human sponge when it comes to film. His films are filled with various genre elements and references. Yet his earlier works still manage to keep the characters as the main focus. His latter films such as Kill Bill: Volumes 1 & 2 and Death Proof were more about the genres the characters were in rather than the characters themselves. With Inglourious Basterd Tarantino has found the perfect blend between storyteller and avid film geek. All the Tarantino quirks, such as the blaxploitation title sequence to introduce a character, actually help to enhance the film oppose to overpowering it. Even the over-the-top violent moments are rarely distracting; in fact they actually aides the subtler moments quiet well.

The interesting thing about Inglourious Basterds is that, for the numerous movie references and over-the-top moments, the quieter characters moments are what truly make this film great. There are several wonderful moments, such as the opening with Hans Landa and Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menchot), where characters are having the verbal equivalent of game of chess. Characters are constantly trying to outsmart each other within the film. Tarantino routinely shows that in war the mental battle is far more difficult and disturbing than the physical one. The two best examples of this are clearly Hans Landa and Shosanna.

Hans is by far one of the best villains to hit the screen in recent years. What makes him so terrifying is the fact that, behind his relatively calm demeanor, he is always thinking three steps ahead of his victims. Rarely do you see him actually do any physical harm in the film, yet you instantly feel uneasy whenever he appears on screen. Hans is so menacing even Shosanna has trouble keeping her composure when they run into each other years later. Similar to Hans, Shosanna strength is her mental prowess. As a result she ends up being more important to the film than The Basterds themselves. It is Shosanna’s actions that will ultimately impact the main players in the film.

Both Christopher Waltz and Mélanie Laurent provide exceptional performances. They steal the film from Brad Pitt and the rest of actors who make up the Basterds team. This is not to say that Pitt and the rest do not hold their own. In fact the majority of the cast is note perfect in their given roles. The weakest link, in my opinion, is Eli Roth as the “Bear Jew.” There are times when Roth overacting becomes a distraction but Tarantino wisely limits his screen time in comparison to the others actors. Still, this is a minor blip in an otherwise stellar film. I would even argue that Inglourious Basterds is equally as strong as Jackie Brown or Reservoir Dogs. I know some may consider that a bold and possibly blasphemous, statement but I think this film is just that good.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Yo Joe! You Are Barely So-So

The full list of films for this year’s tiff. are now available. Individual tickets will be available for purchase online on September 4, 2009 at 7 am.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

Okay let me get this out of the way right off the bat; G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was not the kick in the groin I was expecting it to be. In fact, I was actually entertained in certain segments. Having said that, should you pay to see this movie? No. If you happen to come across a free movie pass, such as I did for sitting through Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince in a theatre with a broken air condition machine, then you may want to take a chance on G.I. Joe. Still, I can think of at least 20 other films released this year that you should see before G.I.Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

While on a mission transport nanotechnology-based warheads, a platoon of soldiers lead by Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are ambushed by a mysterious terrorist group with highly advanced weaponry. Lead by Baroness (Sienna Miller), a woman who is linked to Duke’s past, and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) the terrorist takeout most of Duke’s platoon. Just when it looks like Duke and Ripcord’s days are numbered a special ops team, known as G.I. Joe, swoops in and saves the duo last minute.

Looking to avenge his fallen soldiers, and knowing that the Baroness will stop at nothing to get the warheads, Duke requests that he and Ripcord be allowed to join G.I. Joe. Lead by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid), G.I. Joe is comprised of the top military specialist from around the world. While the team is expansive the top operatives are clearly Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), Snake Eyes (Ray Park), Breaker (Saïd Taghmaoui) and Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Yet can the addition of Duke and Ripcord, help G.I. Joe defeat an enemy that they know little about? Why is this villainous group so determined on getting the warheads? Also what role does MARS chairman James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), whose company is responsible for making the warheads, play in all of this?

The Rise of Cobra continues the recent Hollywood trend of sullying many of my fond childhood memories. Yet, unlike the Transformers movie franchise, G.I. Joe at least attempts to maintain many of the elements that made the original 80’s cartoon fun to begin with. The cast does a good job bringing many of G.I. Joe’s beloved characters to life. Most notable performance surprisingly being Sienne Miller’s Baroness. Miller not only nailed Baroness perfectly, but actually seemed best suited for the over-the-top nature of the movie. It would be foolish to go into G.I. Joe expecting any real substance in relation to plot, as the television show was never that deep to begin with. Similar to the cartoon, Cobra is by far the most interesting aspect of the movie. The Joes, on the other hand, somehow manage to be even blander here than they were in the 80’s. This is partly due to both the script and some of director Stephen Sommers’ choices.

The dialogue in this movie is awful. Granted G.I. Joe has never been in the ranks of Anton Chekov but it is still tough watching skilled actors, such as Eccleston, Taghmaoui and Akinnuoye-Agbaje, spew some truly tacky lines. Instead of masking this flaw, Sommers inadvertently displays it even further through his unwise use of flashbacks throughout the film. Many of the flashbacks are inserted at the oddest moments. For example, after the events in Paris, Baroness and Duke are on a plane talking about guilt and regrets. While the conversation is suppose to be a sly way of shedding further light into their relationship, Sommers’ decides to insert a random Storm Shadow/Snake Eyes flashback. The scene does little to enhance neither the plot nor the characters. Frankly they could have cut the flashbacks completely and conveyed the same point in a few simple lines. Surprisingly this is not even the most glaring flaw about the movie.

The most shocking thing about G.I. Joe: The Rise Cobra is how awful the special effects are in many scenes. Moments such as planes flying over desserts, buildings being destroyed, random Cobra and Joe vehicles, etc., look like they were created using one of those free internet downloadable flash programs. Now I understand that special effects are complicated things that usually take up lots of time and money. Yet, for a big budget film such as G.I. Joe, there is no excuse for such pedestrian effects. Especially after what District 9 was able to achieve with a mere fraction of the Joe’s cost. If it was a case of the crew not having enough time to finish the effects properly, then the film should have been held back for another year.

Despite a decent cast and a few genuinely entertaining moments there is very little to warrant seeing G.I. Joe in theatres. Even the nostalgic factor can only last for so long. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is a rental at best and even that is being rather generous.

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Friday, August 14, 2009

District 9’s Low-Rent Housing Offers Great Value

District 9

Normally once the midway point of August hits I usually set my sights on both the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF.) and the fall movie season in general. This is the time when studios release a bunch of movies, that should have gone straight to video in the first place, in a last ditch attempt for our summer dollars. Luckily that has all changed this year as August finally brought a film, District 9, worth getting excited about.

Twenty-eight years ago an alien ship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa. After three months of watching the spacecraft just hover in the sky, the government decides to take it upon themself to initiate first contact. Once inside the ship, they are surprised to find millions of malnourished aliens who seem to be without a leader. Adhering to the philosophy of keeping your friends close and your enemy’s closer, the government sets up a small ghetto, known as District 9, where the aliens will be able to live peacefully segregated from the human race. While the notion of respecting the aliens “creature rights” seems like a good idea at first, District 9 soon becomes a riddled with poverty and criminal activates.

Eventually the people of Johannesburg get fed up with the Prawns, as the aliens are degradingly referred to as, and demand that the government gets the aliens out of their city. Unfortunately the government is not quite ready to see the Prawns leave just yet; instead they decided to move them to an even smaller concentration camp style site just outside of the city. The government enlist the Multi-National United corporation, who also happen to be the worlds second largest weapons manufacturer, to go into District 9 and get the Prawns to sign off on the transfer papers. As this will be a massive undertaking, it will require the right person to oversee it. Which is why it comes as a shock to everyone when Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is selected. While well liked by his peers, Wikus’s personality does not scream authoritative in the least. His only interesting quality is the fact that he is fortunate enough to be married to the boss’s daughter. As the MNU begin to make their way through District 9, Wikus realizes that the Prawns are hiding both weapons and secrets. One secret seems to involve a canister whose contents will ultimately change Wikus’s life forever.

One of the reasons District 9 works so well is that it completely turns the conventional alien invasion story upside down. There have been several “aliens walk among us” style films in the past, yet I cannot recall any in which the creatures looked like aliens and still had this much human personality. Often the alien must take on a human form before they can safely interact with us. In District 9, the Prawns are giving so much personality that at times you forget that you are watching two different species conversing. By giving the Prawns so many human characteristics, writer/director Neill Blomkamp allows us to see the various forms of the Prawns evolutions.

Prawns such as Christopher Johnson, and his son, display their intelligence through the knowledge of science, being able to articulate their rights under law, learning to read English, etc. There are Prawns who live simple lives and raise families; others have gotten caught up in alcoholism and the world of organized crime. All of this is a far cry from the typical aliens coming to earth to destroy mankind ideology which science fiction movies have fed us over the years. In fact, the film never really delves into why the Prawns came in the first place. It is just not that important. The film is more concerned with looking at how society treats “the other”; the inherent prejudices we have in regards to race, or in this case species, social and economical status, etc.

Although District 9 has a rather weighty subtext, this film is far from a downer. In fact the action sequences and special effects in this film were far more exhilarating than anything in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Which is saying a lot when you consider that the budget for this film, estimated at 30 million, is rather minuscule in comparison to the blockbuster style films released this summer. Yet it must be noted that District 9 is surprisingly gory flick at times. Not that this is a bad thing per say, especially when dealing with content such as this, but the gore does catch you off guard nonetheless.

Come to think of it, the entire film catches you off guard as you are never quiet know what is going to happen at any given moment. While producer Peter Jackson’s name helped get District 9 released in theatres, the majority of the accolades must go to both Neill Blomkamp and Shartlo Copey. Blomkamp skillfully manages to make a film that is refreshingly unique in a genre that had, until now, become rather mundane. As for newcomer Copey, he is wonderful in the role of Wikus. Shartlo does a great job of conveying a simple man whose must survive on his own under extraordinary circumstances. It is fascinating to see how Wikus’s relationship with Christopher Johnson evolves through the film. There interaction runs the gambit in regards to emotions, and motive, yet it never once seems dull or formulaic. In a summer, and to a certain extent a year, in which originality in cinema seems to be relegated to only the independent theatres, it is refreshing to see a film like District 9 receive a wide release. District 9 not only provides a refreshingly unique tale, but a fun journey as well.

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Sunday, August 02, 2009

500 Days Makes For A Great Summer

(500) Days of Summer

In a summer filled with big budget explosions, talking robots, generic romantic comedies, and talking animals you may be craving a break from the norm. Maybe you are longing for something that reminds you why you enjoy going to the cinema in the first place. Well if it refreshment is what you crave this summer, then Marc Webb’s film, (500) Days of Summer, might just be for you.

(500) Days of Summer is a boy meets girl tale about love but is not a love story. One day at work, greeting card writer Tom Henson (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) comes across Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). Instantly Tom knows that it was destiny that brought them together. Summer on the other is not convinced that fate, or love for that matter, even exists. As their relationship begins to blossom, it slowly becomes apparent to Tom that this love story may not quite have the happy ending he hoped for.

I thought that (500) Days of Summer worked on many different levels. I loved how director Marc Webb incorporated various film styles, and techniques, throughout the film. Whether it was the black and white documentary moments or the artistic French film within a film scene; they never felt distracting or gimmicky. The overall hybrid style of the film fit the tone of their relationship perfectly. For example, the random dance sequence was hilarious because most of us guys have been in Tom’s shoes at one point or another. You are on cloud nine, after getting the girl you want, and you feel like Han Solo...or whichever icon/celebrity personifies cool for you. The scene is as not as much about love as it was about sex. If Summer had been a part of the sequence then it would have taken on a different meaning completely. It would still be effective, but it would have come much later into the relationship and focused on the love aspect more.

While comparisons can be made to other recent romantic comedies, such as The Break Up, this film definitely has its own unique voice. Frankly I did not see the big appeal with The Break Up, the first half was amusing but the rest of the movie was awful. Sure, at times, it showed how men and women view the same things differently, but Vince Vaughn's character was a jerk for most of it anyways. I found this film to be a far more realistic portrayal of how men view relationships. It actually reminded me more of the film Swingers than anything else. While Swingers was all about struggling to get a girl; (500) Days of Summer focused more on what the guy goes through when he has the girl but things are not working out as envisioned.

The interesting thing about the film is that you see more of the earlier stages of the relationship than the latter. The relationship is a bit of a roller coaster from the start yet it never gets as bad as you would expect. Sure they make a passing remark to Sid and Nancy relationship but that is nothing more than a one off joke. Tom and Summer’s relationship ultimately boils down to one side being unable to figure out why the other does not feel the same way about them. Which is often what happens in most relationships.

The performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are note perfect in their respective roles. You can easily identify with them especially since chances are you know a Tom or Summer type in your own life. Heck, if you are a guy you were probably Tom at one point or another. It is too often that you get a film that accurately shows relationships from the guy’s perspective; especially on as entertaining as this. If you have not had a chance too see this summer gem yet, make sure you see (500) Days of Summer before it leaves theatres as it is one of the better films so far to be release this year.

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