Thursday, August 20, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

DAN - I've respected Quentin Tarantino's films in the past, but I've never considered myself a "fan." My personal DVD collection includes Reservoir Dogs and both Kill Bill volumes, each of which I've only watched a couple of times. Inglourious Basterds, however, lifted my appreciation for this filmmaker to a new level.

The word "visionary" is often associated with Tarantino. It might be ironic that he's often accused of ripping off other filmmakers, though he refers to his throwbacks as "homages." Either way, part of my newfound admiration for Tarantino comes from the niche he's created for himself. He made a name for himself in the early '90s with a string of innovative movies, and he's now known for his ability to write engaging dialogue - many consider him to be the best. Much of what I love about his newest film rests in what the characters say and how they say it.

Inglourious Basterds is more than just a showcase for violence. The bloody scenes are actually pretty scarce, though they can get pretty heavy handed. It's the dialogue in Basterds that stood out most to me. Tarantino knows how to craft multi-layered characters and put them in heart-pounding situations. It's like a fuse has been lit, and we're just waiting for the dynamite to explode. Several scenes in Basterds are works of art, thanks to both Tarantino's dialogue and the actors who deliver it.

Basterds features a slew of actors I've never heard of, and they're all fascinating to watch in their roles. Mélanie Laurent, Daniel Brühl, and especially Christoph Waltz are a pleasure to watch in this film. Waltz won the Best Actor award at Cannes this year for his turn as Colonel Hans Landa, who might be the most captivating character I've seen on the big screen this year.

I don't often notice the sound design in movies, but whoever worked on Basterds did a bang-up job. The sound in this film complimented the visuals in a way that provided a level of energy, adding to the tense nature of certain scenes. The sound design and cinematography worked together to create beautiful, startling, and terrifying moments throughout the film, all of which were welcome surprises.

I can't say Tarantino's films are for everyone. If you've seen any of his work, you already know this. If you're looking for an intense ride with an experienced, trailblazing director at the helm, this might be it. Tarantino is at the top of his game here, and for the first time this year, I feel like I need to see a movie twice in the theatre.

Friday, August 7, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

DAN - Director Marc Webb enters the public eye with (500) Days of Summer, an unorthodox story about love. The promotional material for this film made a point of avoiding the term “love story,” and rightfully so. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a man scorned by the woman he loved (played by Zooey Deschanel). The film recounts the course of our protagonist’s relationship as he attempts to understand what went wrong.

When I first saw the teaser trailer for this movie, I fell in love. The cast, the cinematography, the locations, the narration, and especially the music plucked my heartstrings in just the right way. I even visited the Civic Center fountain in downtown Los Angeles because of its appearance in the trailer. I was looking forward to this movie.

The final product barely met my expectations, which were decidedly high. I wasn’t emotionally involved in the story at any point, but I was thoroughly entertained. Webb and his writers (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) have made a satisfyingly original movie, but I can’t say it had a lasting impact on me.

Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel provide decent performances, though their vacant expressions seem to suggest a lack of commitment to the roles. As I said, this film left me for the most part emotionally untouched.

I fear I might be harping too much on the negative side of a film that I actually enjoyed. Webb uses a variety of refreshing metaphorical lenses to project his vision onto the screen. Perhaps the best part of this film is Webb’s innovative use of the medium as he explores the worlds of architecture, music, cinema, and true-to-life drama. There are a number of sequences that capture the energy of that initial trailer, and they lift this movie high above any thoughtless blockbuster.

In a somewhat unrelated note, it may be worth mentioning that I saw this movie in the same theater as Roger Ebert, whose review can be found here. Unlike him, I chose to keep the title’s punctuation intact.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


DAN - Brüno is Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest vehicle, a follow-up to his 2006 crowd pleaser of the same genre, Borat. The film is presented in a pseudo documentary manner, following the character of Bruno as he travels the world, seeking to overcome his recent troubles and find worldwide fame. Hilarity ensues... with a vengeance.

This is without a doubt the most raucous, awkward, sometimes frightening comedy I’ve seen since I can remember. I can’t help but be amazed by Cohen after seeing this movie - the man has guts. He repeatedly puts himself in horrible situations for the sake of comedy, and he makes the best of it.

Brüno is the most flamboyantly gay character I’ve ever seen committed to film, yet he somehow manages to be unoffensive toward homosexuals. It’s the reactions of other people (non-actors) in the movie that provide the film’s best moments, and Brüno is the instigator. Like Borat, this film features unsuspecting victims from around the world (but mostly in the United States).

Brüno encounters professional gay converters, macho huntsmen, a stadium full of angry, drunk rioters, and a sadist with a penchant for whipping the hell out of her cohorts. That’s barely the tip of the iceberg. Cohen was literally at risk of losing his life several times in the making of this film, but we can all laugh about it now because (spoiler alert!) he survived.

I wish I could keep going. There’s so much to love about this movie, but I wouldn’t want to ruin it by saying too much too soon. I’ll say one more thing: if you plan on buying a ticket for Brüno in the coming weeks, be prepared to witness personification through mind-bending male frontal nudity.

Admit it. Now you’re curious.

Cohen has cemented his place as one of the world’s top entertainers, and it hasn’t come easy for him. It’s the chances he takes that make Borat and Brüno so captivating and worthwhile. As much as I enjoyed this movie, I can’t necessarily recommend it for everyone. If you haven’t caught on yet, this is a pretty twisted movie. But for the right sense of humor, this is a gold mine. Just be careful - you might laugh your “auschwitz” off.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


DAN - Pixar has released a total of ten movies since the debut of Toy Story in 1995, and not one of them has been disappointing. The studio has stated numerous times that their primary concern is strong storytelling, which has worked well in their favor. Up is a character-driven story about an elderly widower who, along with an accidental stowaway boy scout, makes a long-awaited journey to South America.

Another highlight of Pixar Animation is, well... Pixar animation. The animators at Pixar are somehow able to breathe life into the characters’ motions like no other modern animation studio. I can’t think of any other movies that employ nonverbal humor so well. The animal characters in Up (Dug the dog and Kevin the... bird thing) are shining examples of how Pixar animators inject personality into their work.

While Up’s story may not be Pixar’s strongest to date, it still packs some emotional punches. Specifically, there’s a beautiful montage in the film’s first reel that just might leave you in tears. All of the featured characters experience some sort of drastic change during the film, providing for some strong points of conflict.

Pixar is currently releasing one new film each year, and each film is followed by whispers of a Best Picture nod. I doubt Up will reach such status, as its not the best film in Pixar’s collection, but this film is still lightyears above most movies in theaters these days.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Away We Go

DAN - Away We Go is the newest film from acclaimed director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road). The film opens on an unmarried couple, played by John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, at the moment of discovering an unexpected pregnancy. The pair sets off on a cross-country trip with the hope of finding a place to start their new family.

I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by Mendes’ films. Road to Perdition has been one of my favorites since its release in 2002; I remember convincing my dad to let me see it, assuring him that I would be able to extract meaning beyond the violence. Mendes has a knack for examining relationships and the barriers that often tear them apart. Away We Go is a departure from the director's regular fare, and though it pains me to say so, I was disappointed.

This is Mendes’ least innovative film. It’s an amalgamation of the current trend of quirky indie movies that feel more hip than genuine. Mellow acoustic songs accompany people staring ahead with somber expressions hanging lazily over their eyes, as in any other film of the genre. I was sick of it before Juno, and I find it depressing to see an Oscar-caliber director follow suit.

Fortunately, a disappointment from Sam Mendes can still be a decent movie. Being a comedy, this film provides at least a few good laughs, including what might be the funniest line I’ve heard from a child.

Away We Go is ultimately a heartwarming film, but I’m personally tired of this style of filmmaking. Everything about this movie is so underplayed that I wonder how well it will be remembered in years to come. For now, this is a fun little film, but it could have (and should have) been something more.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Reader

STEVE - Director Stephen Daldry presents an emotional roller coaster of a movie in his Oscar nominated film The Reader.

The story is about Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes). The film begins in 1995 with a fifty-two-year-old Michael (Ralph Fiennes) coldly turning away his previous one night stand and then quickly flashes back to 1958.

As a fifteen-year-old Michael (David Kross) became entangled in a sexual affair with a mid-thirties Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) who has only one rule. Read first, sex after. And with this he returns day after day reading her Homer, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, and then sleeping with her.

Their relationship quickly develops from an erotic to love affair (for Michael at least), until one day he returns to find that Hanna has mysteriously disappeared. Crushed, Michael forever carries the pain Hanna has inflicted on him until 8 years later, when in law school, he attends a Nazi war crime trail with Hanna on the stand. Michael quickly discovers evidence that could possible save Hanna from a life in prison or worse, but can’t decide what to do with the information. His past still haunts him as much as Hanna’s past haunts her. It’s Michael’s ultimate decision that forever changes not only Hanna’s life, but his.

David Hare weaves multiple themes and subject matter into his adapted screenplay. On one level you have a deeply passionate (and somewhat disturbing) “love” affair. Here we see the joys and deep pains of intimacy, including life-lasting damage that can be inflicted in intimate moments.

On a separate level we see a young generation attempting to understand and process the sins of previous generations. Why their parents and grandparents sat idly by while millions were murdered. Why they live in such a dark shadow. It’s these complex ideas and more that pushes the film into the Oscar category of Best Picture.

However, it’s with the films many themes and implications that will hinder the movie from winning the category. The screenplay just becomes too weighted, and by the end of the film loses some of its zeal and vision in the background.

There are so many wonderful things to say about this movie, giving it plenty of reasons for it to have its well earned five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Yet, it sadly falls short of becoming a great cinematic classic. Here’s to next years Holocaust movie.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Synecdoche, New York

DAN - Charlie Kaufman has written some of the most innovative screenplays of the last decade, including Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His newest film marks his directorial debut.

Synecdoche, New York is about Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an ambitious director who undertakes the world’s largest live theatre production: recreating the daily lives of thousands of people in New York City. Cotard uses this world within a world to make sense of his personal troubles, all of which revolve around broken love.

This film is packed with hidden meanings, symbolism, and intense introspection. The narrative is non-linear to a point where the story might be overwhelmed by its own convolution. I can’t say that I fully understand this movie. In fact, I’m certain that a good portion of it flew right over my head. But I love this film. It’s one that demands repeat viewings.

Cotard is a character with whom I can easily relate, though his narcissism is much more apparent. He uses theatre as a means of analyzing his own life, hiring actors to give lifelike portrayals of himself and those around him. Cotard’s dedication to his art doesn’t make his personal life easy, but his faux reality provides him with an escape from such problems.

I can’t write enough about this movie. I haven’t even mentioned the cast, which consists of nothing but talented people. If you’re unfamiliar with Charlie Kaufman’s work, I strongly suggest you make an effort to change that.