Saturday, August 29, 2009

Inglourious Basterds ***

Inglourious Basterds
*** out of ****

When you go to see a Quentin Tarantino movie, you know you're in for something unusual. Inglourious Basterds is an unusual film even for him.
Tarantino takes his usual violent dialogue-filled formula- divided into chapters like literature- and sets it during World War II, in Nazi-occupied France. The plot of the film is far too complicated to explain here, but here is a brief overview: There is a vicious Nazi colonel, Hans Landa, looking for Jews in hiding throughout France. There is an 8-man squadron of Jewish-American soldiers who are dropped into France behind enemy lines and brutally kill all the Nazis they find. There is a violent Tennessee hick, Lt. Aldo Raine, who collects scalps leading this squadron. There is a young Jewish woman in Paris who escaped from Col. Landa four years earlier when he killed her entire family. She runs a movie theatre and is being romantically pursued by a young Nazi soldier who just happens to be a war hero to the Third Reich. There is a plan to kill Hitler and all his top officers that involves the American squadron, Landa, a French actress/British double agent, the young Jewish woman, and the theatre she owns. And that's not even half of the whole plot.
The film is extremely talky for a war film, but luckily, it's all patented Tarantino dialogue, which makes it almost addictive to listen to. (The film is heavily subtitled, but even this doesn't dull the words' flavor.) It is, of course, extremely violent, but much of the violence is done in a quick, comical, almost fantastical fashion. Because the film has only select moments of a musical score, Tarantino uses it quite effectively to bring the tension level up to almost unbearable heights at many points in the movie. But the thing that surprised me most was how funny the film was, the fact that all the violence is meant to be hilarious, a kind of guilty pleasure in watching men in Nazi uniforms get the crap beaten out of them. The bloody massacre climax is reminiscent of the prom scene in Carrie, although the rest of the film feels like a bizarre kind of Western.
While promotions for the film would have you believe Brad Pitt (as Raine, in a wonderful Southern drawl) is the lead, the film is truly an ensemble with many leads, several of them unknown foreign actors. Christoph Waltz is already getting Oscar buzz as Landa, full of polite chatter and a wide grin, embedded with the kind of calm that makes people uneasy. French actress Melanie Laurent is impressive as the revenge-driven Jewish woman. Eli Roth and The Office's B. J. Novak are member's of Pitt's battalion (the German army gives them each nicknames, with the group being dubbed the Bastards). In the film's strangest and most superfluous scene, Mike Myers appears as a British general laying out the plan to a soldier he's sending to the Bastards. His outrageous accent makes the whole scene seem like an old Saturday Night Live skit without any jokes. Fans of Tarantino will love the appearance of both Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel in uncredited voice cameos. As is usual with casts assembled by Tarantino, there are no slackers and everyone is brilliant in their roles, no matter how small. (Why didn't he cast himself in a small role, as usual?)
Ultimately, I could say that the film is too long, but it really isn't. Even though the film is infused with long periods of just people talking, the audience never seems to get bored. And these quiet periods make the violence that erupts all that more shocking and funny. The film- and Tarantino himself- is an odd sort of genius, a sick war thriller/comedy that fully delivers for those who have the stomach for it. It's natural to say that the film is not for every taste- all of his films are that way- but this one actually opens up to skeptics a lot more than his previous films do, making it one of his best works. (Pulp Fiction is the obvious exception.)
I would recommend this film to anyone who likes violent war films, black comedies, and- it goes without saying- fans of Quentin Tarantino. And Brad Pitt.

You can watch the trailer here:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

2010 Oscars: 10 Best Picture Nominees

2010 Oscars: 10 Best Picture Nominees

Obviously by now this is old news. For those of you who haven't heard, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a couple of months ago that for next year's Academy Awards, there will be 10 nominees for Best Picture, instead of the usual five. Ten films was the norm back in the '30s and '40s; one year even had 12 nominees. This is massive news that has sparked a lot of controversy about the Academy's reasons for doing this. I wanted to throw my opinion out there, and some of you may be surprised: I think it's a good idea.
Let me start with my theory as to why the Academy did this. Clearly it was no easy decision to make: the Best Picture Oscar is a massive award that elevates the careers of everyone involved in the production and is remembered for decades afterward. Some would argue that a film with that award will never be forgotten. But viewership for the Academy Awards telecast has been steadily declining in the past few years, and ABC was giving them grief that they had to raise their ratings or they might pull the plug. They decided the best way to get people to watch was if popular films- that the average moviegoer has likely seen- are nominated. The Academy made some profound mistakes in the nominations last year, especially in the Best Picture category. The Dark Knight turned out to be the second-largest film of all time, and was universally hailed as the greatest comic book movie of all time. Despite Heath Ledger's eventual posthumous win for Best Supporting Actor, the film failed to get nominated for any other major award: namely, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director- Christopher Nolan, and the coveted Best Picture. WALL-E was also hailed as one of the best films of the year, was a huge hit, and is considered an instant classic, and not just among animated movies. But the Academy has a long bias against "cartoons" and naturally did not nominate it for the top prize. (It did win for Best Animated Feature and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay.) I think that if they had implemented the 10-nominee rule last year, both The Dark Knight and WALL-E would have been nominated for Best Picture. Sadly, they got viciously booted out by traditional (and lower-quality) fare like The Reader and Frost/Nixon.
I see the usual 5-nominee list as a basic formula: there are usually four dramas and one comedy, the latter usually an indie. The average moviegoer has heard of two or three of the nominees, and has seen one. Only one or two of the nominees are considered hits at the box office, but all are loved by critics. Doesn't exactly sound exciting, huh? Being nominated for Best Picture will usually boost the box office gross of the films, but not by much. People won't go see a film they don't want to see just because it's nominated.
The new 10-nominee rule will change this formula, and I think for the better. It's possible the old formula will stay true: that eight of the films will be dramas and two will be indie comedies, that the average moviegoer has only heard of four or five of the nominees, and only three or four didn't flop at the box office. I don't think this will happen, and I'll get back to this later. I think that the move to ten nominees is a serious push to get more commercial films nominated. The new formula will be something like this: five will be dramas, two will be indie comedies, two will be action films, and one will be animated. (I do not have an official prediction at this time. Ask me again in January.)
Already two films have come out this summer that I think will take the place of would-be nominees The Dark Knight and WALL-E: Star Trek and Up. Star Trek will surely be an uphill battle: it's an epic sci-fi film directed mainly to teenagers and young adults, but was almost universally hailed by critics as a superb action film with heart and humor in addition to its eye-popping special effects. Big-time director J.J. Abrams will propel the film through awards season, but first it has to jump through a lot of hurdles. Up, as expected, is being hailed as another Pixar masterpiece and will surely be campaigning heavily this awards season. Only one animated film has been nominated for Best Picture before (Beauty and the Beast), and giving another "cartoon" a shot at Hollywood's top prize would surely boost ratings.

Another potential long-shot is Avatar, another sci-fi epic coming out in December that is headlined by James Cameron and is already a shoo-in for the Best Visual Effects Oscar. The prescence of Cameron at the helm and the fact that the film is a surefire hit will help propel the film through awards season, but the Academy has a thing against genre films (basically, anything that's not clear-cut dramas).
Like I said before, I think having ten nominees is a good thing. I think it will give some worthy films a shot at the award that otherwise wouldn't even have been considered and will increase viewership astronomically. Now, I also think that this plan could backfire: that the Academy simply use the five extra slots to nominate more dramatic crap that no one cares about except for the all-powerful critics. This would be very unfortunate, but I think that this is unlikely because it would nullify the whole point of the new rule.
Finally, let me address one of the chief arguments against this move: that it is simply a publicity stunt to nominate movies that have made a lot of money. First of all, so what if it's a publicity stunt? The Academy is kind of dying; it needs a boost. These naysayers also don't seem to understand that hundreds of eligible films are submitted to the Academy every year, and they have to sift through all the muck to get to the best ones. Being in the top 10 is still a great achievement and nothing to be scoffed at. The Academy won't nominate Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen for Best Picture just because it made an obscene amount of money; it still needs to be a quality film.
And, the final argument that they seem to forget is the simple truth that the end result is still exactly the same: as usual, there will be only one winner for Best Picture. Whether that eventual winner is a popular film that many people have seen and love, or whether it's a piece of crap arthouse project is entirely in the Academy's hands and will be decided exactly as it always has been.
Nothing can change that.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

District 9 **1/2

District 9
**1/2 out of ****

District 9 has the distinction of being one of the most unique alien invasion movies in history. It's produced by Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson and jump-starts the career of newbie director Neill Blomkamp, who was supposed to make the Halo movie. The film (not to be confused with 9, the animated postapocalyptic film about rag dolls coming to life, out next month; and definitely not with Nine, the musical with Daniel Day-Lewis, out in December) opens as a sort of very complex, very serious episode of The Office, as a fake documentary chronicling an alien ship coming to Earth and hovering over Johannesburg, South Africa. It combines interviews, amateur-style video from helicopters and on the ground, and even news footage (all fake, of course) to lay out the story of how humans made an inglorious First Contact with the aliens in the ship and were then forced to house and take care of them. The aliens, which humans call Prawns, did not come to destory humanity, but they're not friendly either. They riot, steal, and kill people, causing huge rallies to get them to leave. They are also strangely obsessed with cat food, one of the more inspired parts of the story. They are confined to a ghetto called District 9, which eventually turns into a slum, full of pollution and crime. The public says they're too close to the humans, so a corporation called MNU sets up District 10 and decides to evict all the aliens.
Enter our main character, Wikus Van De Merwe, played by newcomer Sharlto Copley, who looks sort of like a geeky Ethan Hawke. He is promoted in MNU and is in charge of evicting all the aliens. Lucky for him, he speaks their gargled, clicky language fluently. While pillaging the home of one alien, Wikus finds a cylinder with alien fluid inside and accidentally sprays himself with it. This makes him very sick and slowly turns him into a Prawn, making him very valuable to his company and the government. MNU has been studying the Prawns' weapons, which are much more advanced but only work for the Prawns themselves. After they try to kill him, he goes on the run and becomes a fugitive. He hides out in District 9 and befriends the alien that owned the cylinder. Together they hatch a plan to get it back and fix Wikus.
While the film does make good use of the fake-documentary style, it does not last. It switches back and forth between being a mockumentary and being just a sci-fi movie with handheld, shaky camerawork. The format is comparable to Cloverfield. While it all serves to make the story seem more real, you find yourself thinking to the cameraman, Can't you be still for one second? It can make one dizzy watching the film.
The film's big success lies in its visual effects, which are absolutely astounding and look incredibly real. This is specifically referring to the Prawns themselves, which interact with humans to great extent. The omnipresent mothership hovering over the city also looks very real, almost like a plane getting caught in the background of the shot. And the film is very lucky that the special effects are so good, because so many other elements fall short. There are several flaws in the writing. While the original concept of the story is ingenius, several plot points are cheesy and the film ultimately leaves the viewer with many questions. It's also pretty predictable once the conflict is established. The dialogue in particular is very poor in some scenes. The bad guys' lines when they're considering killing Wikus, which convey the film's humanitarian message, are about as subtle as a jackhammer.
The film is also incredibly gory, surprising given the documentary-style footage which dots much of the finished product. It's easy to see why Blomkamp was considered to make Halo; much of the film feels like a very detailed, very violent third-person video game. This will disgust many viewers, especially queasy audience members. (Fans of Jackson's early work know that he loves this kind of stuff.) The film also moves surprisingly slowly, even during its frenetic action scenes, which makes the film seem much longer than it actually is.
For all its faults, District 9 is a good summer film, entertaining and dazzling, and much more original than anything that's come out so far this year. One would only hope for a better story from a film so brilliantly conceived.
I would recommend this film to anyone who likes gory sci-fi and action films, and anyone looking for something unusual.

You can watch the trailer here:
You can also watch Alive in Joburg, the short film that was expanded into this feature-length production, here:

Friday, August 7, 2009

Funny People ***

Funny People
*** out of ****

Funny People marks the long-awaited return of Judd Apatow to the director's chair, for yet another outrageous and crude comedy for both sexes. For this one, Adam Sandler heads the impressive cast as what must be one of his most difficult and personal characters to date. Sandler plays George Simmons, clearly a fictional version of himself, a stand-up comedian who became very rich and famous doing a string of unfunny movies. In public he is constantly being recognized and having his picture taken. His house is filled with posters of fake films that look eerily real. The film also takes advantage of old home movies of Sandler, using them to represent George's past, blurring the line between reality and fiction. Early in the film he learns from his doctor that he has a rare inoperable blood disease and starts on a large dosage of experimental medications. Apatow regular Seth Rogen plays Ira, a young newly-fit comedian that happens to be performing in the same comedy club that Simmons is at one night. Simmons bombs, and Ira swoops in and steals the crowd by making fun of the defamed star. Simmons contacts Ira and asks him to be his assistant and write jokes for him. Ira says yes and is swept up into the life of stardom almost immediately. At first he is a starstruck yes man doing whatever odd job George tells him to do. But soon he recognizes Simmons as the lost soul he is, a man whose life has been ruined by celebrity, quick to anger and selfish. George tells Ira he is dying, placing this enormous burden on his back. After some pushing from Ira, he decides to tell some friends, including ex-flame Laura, played by Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann. Later in the movie, the doctors tell George the medication might have actually worked and he may not be dying after all, and he rekindles his love for Laura. Him and Ira drive up to her family's house for an extended stay, but it becomes complicated when her husband Clarke arrives home early.
The very funny Jonah Hill plays Ira's roommate Leo, a competitive comedian who is making more money than him. Jason Schwartzman (who also contributed to the dull musical score) plays the third roommate Mark who recently found fame by landing the lead in a television sitcom. Eric Bana is fearless as Clarke, bringing his native Australian accent to the role and ending up being one of the most memorable parts of the movie. Apatow's real-life daughters Maude and Iris charm the audience as Clarke and Laura's kids. Several famous people have cameos as themselves, including Andy Dick, Norm McDonald, Sarah Silverman, Eminem, and my personal favorite, Ray Romano.
The film is everything you'd expect from Apatow: filled with crude insights on modern issues, but with a heart underneath it all. And very, very funny. The film does have one near-fatal flaw, though: at two hours and twenty-six minutes, it is way too long, especially for a comedy. It definitely needed a trim. The film also switches tones quickly about midway through, when George and Ira go to Laura's house, and it feels almost like a different film. If it had been shorter, this effect would have been less severe. It's not as good as Apatow's previous hits The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up, which promotions for the movie would have you think are very similar, but they have the same amount of raunchy jokes and relevance.
I would recommend this film to all fans of comedy, and fans of Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen.

You can watch the trailer here (lots of the jokes in the trailer have changed or were simply dumped for the final film):