Monday, August 24, 2009

Tarantino, The Glourious Basterd Himself

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is truly Quentin Tarantino's movie. Not as self-indulgent as Death Proof, but utilizing all of his ability like he did in Kill Bill, it's certainly the biggest movie he's ever made and after being ten years in the making and starring the biggest movie star in the world, it will probably be the biggest hit of his career. But, is it his best film?

Like the boys in Swingers, I subscribe to the theory that Tarantino bites everything from Scorsese. And Hawks. And Leone, Bava, Kubrick and so many others. Which isn't to say I don't enjoy Tarantino's movies, I probably enjoy them more because I am aware of all the films that are being stolen, I mean, 'referenced'. When he is on his game, films like Jackie Brown are wonderful. He writes fantastically for his characters and his own world and the film is very darkly funny if you think Nazis were evil and killing them by any means necessary is a good thing. Twisting three story lines together from Jewish refugees to secret Allied operations and the Basterds themselves, the movie follows a typically QT non-linear structure that jumps back and forth between the three but gives equal time to all. You can tell he has spent almost a decade on the script and while it shows a lot of growth and development, he still relies on his older methods to make it through certain parts of the script. Basterds feels almost like he has tired of the criticisms and decides to steal mostly from himself. The film is mostly scenes of people sitting around, talking to each other with an occasional bloody killing to break them up. Divided in chapters a la, Kill Bill, each one involves at least one tension filled scene of terrific dialogue and great acting across drinks and a table. After strudel with the Jew Hunter in a Parisian cafe, you basically know how the rest of these are going to end up and they become redundant. The rest of the Tarantino hallmarks are here from close ups of Diane Kruger's feet, to voice over narration and other B-movies tricks.

Foot fetishes aside, what I enjoyed most about the movie was how much of it centered around cinema. For those moviegoers without a general knowledge of pre-WWII film, and specifically, early German cinema, there won't be anything that will be taken away from the enjoyment of the movie by missing these references, but for cinephiles like Tarantino himself, you can smile and nod at the discussions of Pabst, film nitrate stock and Riefenstahl, as well as Chaplin, King Kong and Dietrich.

The performances all around are terrific, particularly when one considers most of the movie is spoken in languages that Tarantino himself doesn't speak. He shows tremendous faith in his European actors and they do not disappoint. Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbinder as German and British soldiers, respectively are terrific and shine in their scenes. But, Melanie Laurent, as a Jewish woman living in occupied France, is mesmerizing on screen. Her mere presence gives us a sense of tension and fear at her true identity being discovered, but Tarantino ratchets it up whenever he gets the chance. I would have liked to see more resolution between her character and Waltz' 'Jew Hunter', but that was not to be.

PS - Brad Pitt is awesome in the film. But he's also awesome in real life.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Difficult, Difficult, Lemon Difficult

In The Loop is a new comedy from the UK that fictionalizes the lead up to the US invasion of Iraq from both the view of the British and the American government. Starring a mostly British cast and James Gandolfini, the script has more curse words than anything more clever that I can think of. The story follows Ministers and their handlers and staff as they try to talk down rumors of an US-led invasion in the Middle East, as they meet with their US counterparts, deal with trans-Atlantic miscommunications, leaks to the media and finally, scurry to get behind the invasion and lend support to the Americans. For a British film, it is remarkably restrained in taking shots at Americans as war mongering buffoons and spreads the criticism around. There are American generals intent on peace and Minister who misspeak every other word out of their mouth. Far from being a political indictment of the war, the movie does a great job of showing how hard people worked on both sides of the issue from fighting the invasion and supporting it. Great performance all around and a terrific script that effortlessly bounces from one nation to another, from Downing Street to the UN and from their professional and personal mishaps, if the movie is playing near you, you owe it to yourself to be in the loop. (Pun!)

Tom Hollander (best known to American audiences from the Pirates trilogy) as Minister Simon Foster is the heart of the movie as the bumbling, nervous Minister who inadvertently begins to fuel talks of an invasion and spends the rest of the film frantically trying to correct his statement by making more ridiculous, ill-advised statements on both sides of the pond. At his finest, he channels the essence of Steve Carell and gives a performance better than any episode of The Office.

PS - The title of this post alludes to one of the many clever pieces of dialogue when one characters contends that things will NOT be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

He's Got The Goods, For America!!!

Is there anything more to say about The Goods, a comedy about car salesmen starring Jeremy Piven and featuring Ed 'The NardDog' Helms, Tony 'Buster Bluth' Hale and Will 'I'm in Every Movie' Ferrell, than it's laugh out loud funny, pretty vulgar and just as quotable as SuperBad, Anchorman or even Stripes? Well, there may actually be a little more to it.

Directed by Neal Brennan of 'Chappelle's Show', I found the movie actually has some nice social commentary on the current American economic state. From Don Ready's patriotic speech on board an airplane in which he invokes the Apollo moon missions and 9/11 in an attempt to convince a stewardess to allow him a cigarette, the film is deeply rooted in a sense of pride and can-do eagerness that can only be defined as American spirit. Don loves all things that are comically American like used cars, karaoke, breakfast at a strip club and having a catch with your son who is not really your son. But in between the jokes, there is a tale of redemption for Ready. The story focuses around a car dealership about to go under and while it is never specifically stated that it is due to the recession, most audiences will quickly identify and empathize with a failing family owned business. When nothing seems to work, Ready and his crew of cutthroat salesmen are called in to help sell the metal. And move the cars they do, using a variety of unethical schemes from airing television ads in which the dealer himself claims to be dying, booking a relative of a D-list celebrity to appear and turning a full scale riot into free air time on the local news. It's no accident that the three day sale takes place over the Fourth of July weekend as Ready motivates and inspires his melting pot staff of grizzled veterans, Koreans and strippers to appeal to the customer's hopes and dreams. While the thrill of the sell is a pure adrenaline rush for him, he also understands that selling the cars gives each customer a little bit of hope and is a small dream come true for each of them. Sales may be his first priority but getting someone in the car they want is a close second. Personally, Ready struggles with the death of his colleague who was killed, appropriately enough, plummeting to his death in an effort to promote a huge sale in Qurque. His irresponsible lifestyle catches up with him and he finds himself wanting something so simple that he takes it for granted he could ever know a normal life again. When it seems that he has lost his way and everything he knows and loves is taken from him, he finds his closure from the pain by getting back into the game and intent on going down swinging. In the storybook end, he gets a rag tag bunch of losers to believe in themselves and reach their goal of selling all the cars off the lot. It is because of his tenacious, take-no-prisoners attitude that Ready and the other salesmen can overcome the huge obstacles in front of them and jump start the dying dealership.

Don Ready is the kind of man that America needs right now to recover from its slow economy. With the willingness to fight, a little creativity and genuine pride on one's job, we too can get the country back on track, sell every single car off the lot and smoke this one for America!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Summer & I Are Over

Let's get this out of the way straight off of the bat. (500) Days of Summer is a fantastic movie, very cleverly written and directed with two great performances from both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel. Along with Away We Go, it has easily become the most personal movie I've seen all year. And if that film gave me a glimpse of my own future, then this movie has shown me my own past, with all its successes and shortcomings.

I've been in this exact shot.

Not since Rushmore have I watched a movie and seen reflections of my life so closely mirrored in it. From Joy Division t-shirts, dreams about teeth falling out and fancying yourself as Han Solo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tom perfects the everyman role that he has dodged for most of his career. His thoughts of love and his imagination fueled by films had me nodding my head and laughing in agreement with him, then grimacing and feeling his pain and frustrations with Summer. He loves her as simply and purely as he can express and seems to get everything from her but those three words. His love is like the love we experience in real life, not the type that happens in Sandra Bullock movies (which is also helped by being shot in Los Angeles, not New York/Toronto). Whether Summer is inspiring him to do some of his best work or crushing his heart to the point of becoming a shut in, everything is motivated by something as simple as going to a movie or getting something to eat and not a wacky fishing trip or a dinner party with a colorful grandparent. I challenge you to watch the scene where Tom goes to Summer's party and the screen splits into his expectations and his reality without recognizing that the same thought process has run through your own head at some time in your life. Even if you've never been in love, the insecurity and awkwardness that it captures is a uniquely human emotion.

This is expectation, NOT reality.

The movie's brilliance lies in perfectly capturing the highs and lows of the relationship and contrasting each with the other. But, the scene that brings it home and hit me right in the chest was when Summer brought Tom back to his apartment and the narrator tells us everything that he's thinking. I have walked into that apartment, had those same thoughts and I was comforted not by any physical connection but by the knowledge that I was the one who was being let into her world, I was the one who earned these stories. I felt her scars, saw her pictures and mementos and heard things that she had never told anyone before.

However, as the movie is quick to disclaim, it is NOT a love story. But, as it moved toward the last twenty days of Summer, I sat there hoping for some kind of closure. And not for Tom, but for myself. By that point, I had completely internalized the story and I had to know how things could end up for me. Perhaps I missed the message of the film and it was really about Tom's speech at work about how greetings cards and movies perpetuate lies and love and relationships. But, I think maybe the message was that things happen by chance and thought they don't work out how you might imagine, they work out the way they're supposed to. And if she's reading this, (she's probably not) I hope you're truly happy, even if it's not with me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why Are the Best Judd Apatow Movies NOT Judd Apatow Movies?

Funny People is a movie that, like it's main characters, is in search of itself. It's not outright hilarious or as vulgar as previous Apatow releases to be an outright comedy, but there are plenty of poignant moments and a lot of brutal honesty in it as well. Basically, there is not enough of either one to overwhelm the movie, which leaves is slightly underwhelming, a fine performance from Rogen aside. Of course, going into the film, I did not hold any high expectations because over the past few weeks leading up to the release, I've developed a theory that the best Apatow movies are NOT the movies that Apatow directs.

Funny People, they are not.

Let's review some quick facts. Yes, he did write for the brilliant Larry Sanders Show, as well as creating both Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. But, he also has credits for Celtic Pride, Fun with Dick and Jane and You Don't Mess with the Zohan. He has produced Anchorman, SuperBad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Pineapple Express while also producing Drillbit Taylor, Talladega Nights and Walk Hard. Some of those movies are flat out brilliant and some of them are flat out shit. But, the films directed by Apatow himself, 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People strike the line somewhere in between. Never mind that each one of them runs about thirty minutes too long, but for me, they never seem to find the balance that some of the other movies (or even Freaks and Geeks) can. Apatow's instinct for what is funny is razor sharp, but what fails him in features is how to make people care once they stop laughing.

Taste in comics aside, Andy is a tool.

For a prime example, 40 Year Old Virgin and SuperBad are both movies about male sexual awakenings (as is Adventureland, but more on that later.) While the protagonists of SuperBad are adolescents and in Virgin, merely adults acting like teenagers, they all fall into the classic male stereotypes of objectifying women and minimizing their selves in order to become more likable. But, lessons can be learned from the trio in SuperBad and they are valuable life lessons. The boys learn that you don't have to get a girl drunk for her to like you (Seth), you don't have to take advantage of a girl (Evan) and simple confidence can get you over with the fairer sex (McLovin). Those lessons are painted in much broader strokes in Virgin and to more comical effect than in SuperBad. But, they are learned by all the characters in SuperBad and just generally addressed at the climax (pun unaviodable) of Virgin.

Which one were you?

Forgetting Sarah Marshall was one of my favorite films from last year, for the simple fact that the characters were so terrifically written that none of them turned out to be the villain of the piece. Both Sarah Marshall and Aldous Snow become real people who you can understand and relate to by the end, where even Peter thinks that Aldous is a cool guy. When Sarah puts Peter in his place and explains how hard she tried to make their relationship work, it brings an understanding and reconciliation to the relationship that you normally don't see in most movies, particularly Virgin or Knocked Up. It grounds the movie in reality and can force you to examine your own relationships as it did for both myself and my best friend when we went to see it. A movie like this one or SuperBad can make you sit back and say, "That's just like my life," but you would be hard pressed to say that for Virgin, Knocked Up or Funny People.

Peter Bretter, the everyman who writes puppet musicals and dates TV actresses.

I'll be honest and just say my main beef with Apatow's films is that they are never the movies I want to see. In Virgin, I want to see the movie about Rogen and Rudd and the crew at Smart Tech instead of watching Steve Carell date Catherine Keener. And when I got Knocked Up, it wasn't the movie about Rogen and Rudd or his friends, but the movie about Mann and Heigl and how they emasculate their men. It's a switch and bait move that gets more tired with every movie he makes, but that films like Pineapple Express (stoner action) or Walk Hard (biopic satire) never give into. I Love You, Man and Role Models (neither which were associated with Apatow) were the Rudd movies that I wanted to see, without any extraneous, wandering subplot to take away from the main characters. They delivered exactly what they promised you, a bromantic comedy and a raunchy movie with cursing kids and gratuitous nudity. With Funny People, I want to see the movie about Rogen and Sandler and Hill and the rest of the comedians, but that's not the movie we're given. It's a movie that's light on the funny and heavy on the drama and altogether depressing.

Yea, yea, he couldn't get her, but does SHE deserve HIM?

I said I would talk more about Adventureland (again not affiliated with Apatow, simply 'from the director of SuperBad') and all I can say is that it is probably the best films out of any of the ones mentioned above. With great performances and writing, it finds the fine line between the comedy and drama that the others seek, while delivering something rarely seen in cinema. I'm not referring to Ryan Reynolds actually acting, but realistically portrayed teenage characters in a heart felt drama without an abundance of raunchy humor or low brow jokes. Much has been made about how the current crop of teen movies were inspired or derived from the works of John Hughes and Adventureland comes furthest in pushing that special blend of humor and emotion to connect with an audience. Grossly unappreciated by audiences, Adventureland was a rare gem this spring upon it's release and I implore anyone who hasn't seen it to check it out. You'll find a film that plays with your expectations, then surpasses them.

I heard she was in some vampire movie too.

Monday, August 10, 2009

GI Joe: A Real American Movie

GI Joe was exactly what I had thought it would be; a live action version of the cartoon. What more could you want out of a movie based on a line of action figures? More tongue in cheek than Transformers, it's a summer action movie that does not take itself too seriously. With plenty of hot chicks in skin tight leather, Channing Tatum with a huge (insert your own phallic euphemism here) and in jokes for Joe fans, the movie plays to it's primary audience, kids and those of us who watched it as kids.

The world and we, as an audience have changed over the past twenty years, of course. Rather than the rather absurd plot of the Cobras releasing deadly spores capable of infecting and mutating people like the cartoon movie, the new film has the Joes fighting to stop the release of deadly nanomites capable of infecting and destroying metal objects. But, a ridiculous plot should not keep you form enjoying the movie and neither should the terrible dialouge or the disinterested acting. Indeed, the best performances come from the twin ninjas, Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, the latter of whom does not even speak. And special notice must be taken of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Cobra Commander, who, out of the entire cast, seemed to understand the tone of the film as hams it up perfectly.

Unfortunately, the movie falls into the same trappings as the Hasbro cartoons of the Eighties, in which the action is mostly deathless combat. Perhaps because I grew up as the son of a Marine and understood the serious consequences of war, I never fully enjoyed the cartoons where the Joes and Cobras would fight every week and nobody ever died and nothing was ever really won. At least one bad guy dies in this movie, I guess to send kids the message that international arms dealing doesn't pay.

PS- I was looking forward to this movie so I could finally find out who Sienna Miller is. Pretty hot.