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.