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Column Fri Aug 21 2009
Inglourious Basterds, Cold Souls, Post Grad, Shorts, Fifty Dead Men Walking, Flame & Citron, Art & Copy, Weather Girl and X Games 3D: The Movie
My greatest regret going into writing this review is that I've only seen this film once so far, at Comic-Con about three weeks ago. While writer-director Quentin Tarantino has certainly crafted films that almost demand that you see them two, three, four times before you really soak in all of their nuances, his latest, Inglourious Basterds, is a beast of an entirely different nature. And seeing twice before even legally being allowed to discuss it seems necessary. So I guess I'm breaking the law, but here goes.
Basterds feels like the film that Tarantino has been building steam toward his entire career, which I guess goes without saying since it is his latest work. But I'm talking about something different. I don't think Tarantino could have made a film with this scope and level of sophistication without having gone through some of the finest trail-and-error exercises a filmmaker in the modern age has ever gone through. There's a patience and elegance to Basterds that I simply wasn't prepared for. Sure, the blood flows like a geyser at times, but not nearly as much as I thought it would, which makes the film infinitely better. You are actually able to settle down with the movie's many American, German and British characters, and get comfortable in their presence by simply listening to them chat and interact with each other. Then, when the violence begins, it breaks the serenity and lets Hell rush out until it consumes you. Not to be overly dramatic or anything, but that's really what it felt like.
The thing I've always noticed about Tarantino films is that they can either make you feel really smart or mildly stupid, depending on your ability to recognize all of the thematic, dialogue, music, costume and other cues from films and TV shows that clearly meant a lot to him during his formative years. It's like a geek scavenger hunt, and I'll admit, I get lost searching for clues on occasion. But Inglourious Basterds might have been the easiest for me to spot such reference points — from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly lift that serves as Basterds' opening shot to the spirit-lifting use of the least/most likely David Bowie songs ever used in a film to the thoroughly engaging discussions of wartime German cinema.
I'm managed to go three paragraphs deep into this review without mentioning a single performance. Tarantino knows who his secret weapons are as far as actors go, and he gives them to us right off the bat. No, they aren't Brad Pitt or Mike Meyers or Eli Roth (although this is Roth's best work as an actor) or Diane Kruger or any other names you might know. Instead, two of the first faces we see are those of Christoph Waltz as Nazi Col. Hans Landa, known in occupied France as the Jew Hunter. The man almost always has a smile on his face, and when he doesn't, your blood freezes. It's simply one of the greatest performances 2009 has seen, and when Waltz appears on screen, you know that something quite awesome and brilliant is about to occur. The other face for the ages is Melanie Laurent, who plays Shosanna Dreyfus, a young Jewish woman who witnesses her entire family get murdered at the hands of Landa's men. She manages to escape to the city and open up a cinema, where, as fate would have it, the Nazis are planning a big premiere of a major film whose guest list will include the highest-ranking officers in the Nazi party, perhaps even Hitler himself.
What you have to realize going into Basterds is that Tarantino has taken to heart the idea that the winners get to write/rewrite the history books. And while the film does include many real-life historical figures, Tarantino sees them as characters whose lives are solely in his hands. Which brings us to the Basterds themselves, a group of Jewish-American soldiers recruited by Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt), whose purpose is to plan missions that will result in the most Nazi deaths. They also collect the scalps of their victims (an act Tarantino relishes in showing us more than once), and soon the group becomes the most feared figures among German soldiers. The group also includes a former Nazi or two who have turned on their kind and become some of the most ferocious of the group. But few are as ferocious as the Bear Jew (Roth, juiced up by a healthy Boston accent), whose preferred weapon of killing is a baseball bat.
The Basterds team up with the English army and an extremely famous and desired German actress (played by the wonderful Diane Kruger), who has been given word about the film premiere. All agree this would be an excellent opportunity to deal a heavy blow to the leadership of the Third Reich. The plan is perfect, but of course the Basterds have no idea about Shosanna, who discovers the murderer of her family will be one of the event's primary organizers, and sets about setting up her own plan for vengeance. The entire film is one, long, perfectly paced and executed build up to one of the most spectacular cinematic climaxes in recent memory.
Inglourious Basterds is as much Tarantino's greatest fantasy film as it is his take on the war epic. The story exists in its own reality, and that's all I'm saying about that. When I think back on the complexities, coincidences and crossed paths, I can't help but smile at how ludicrous it all is. But it doesn't feel that way while you're watching. It all makes perfect, logical sense. You almost can't believe your good fortune the way everything seems to be lining up so perfectly... before it doesn't.
I haven't said much about the American performers in this movie. Pitt's stylized Southern accent is a little hard to place, but I think that's intentional. He is simply a cold-blooded red neck, who has an unexplained lynching scar around his neck and a wily smile on his lips when he talks about killing. He and the Basterds don't take up nearly as much screen time as you might presuppose, but I didn't mind that. There are so many wildly interesting stories being told that you don't miss one when it's absent from the screen for a half an hour. And that brings up another point that some of you might hear about and get scared learning: there is a shitload of talking in this movie. And I don't mean talking leading up to killing (there's that too, don't get me wrong). There are entire scenes that go on for what seemed like 20 minutes, and all everyone in the scene is doing is chatting or negotiating or explaining — you know, talking. If it were any other writer, this would be suicide. But Tarantino knows exactly what he's doing, and he shows a well-founded confidence in his exceptional screenplay to let as much of it get on the screen as possible.
The nuances are many and they are spectacular, the performances will be remembered when the year is closing out, even the look of the film pops more than any previous Tarantino work to date (cinematographer Robert Richardson's work in making Basterds look like a period film made in the 1960s is flawless). It's really tough for me to wrap my brain around the thought that there are people in the world who won't like this movie. I guess that's true for just about every movie I like, but for this film, it seems especially unfortunate. There are no dead pockets; every second is crucial. If anything, the film's 2.5-hour running time seems not nearly long enough. If Tarantino doesn't expand this movie on DVD, I'll be royalty pissed. I respect the sanctity of the theatrical release of any movie, but this film cries out for more details without lacking a thing. Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino's wholly satisfying symphony, with each instrument carefully moving in and out of the work to perfection. It goes without saying that I'll be one of the first in line Friday morning to check this film out one more time, and my body aches with anticipation.
In a tour de force acting performance that will likely go all but unnoticed, Paul Giamatti plays a version of himself going through a spiritual crisis involving acting, an overall heavy burden on his soul, and the Russian mafia. I think we can all identify. In writer-director Sophie Barthes' first feature Cold Souls, Giamatti plays an actor named Paul Giamatti who is in rehearsals for a stage production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and no one involved is particularly pleased with his anxiety-laced performance. Feeling particularly weighed down by the state of the world and his own life, Giamatti reads an article in the New Yorker about a facility in town (run by David Strathairn) that extracts and stores your soul, resulting in a much freer and lightweight existence. Giamatti is shown a few other stored souls that are contained in small, glass vessels and often take on some pretty elaborate forms. His is the exact size and shape of a chickpea, but hey, we aren't all winners. Still, the process is successful, and he is able live a much more light-hearted life...a little too light hearted, he decides, so he returns to the facility only to find his soul has gone missing.
In a connected story running parallel to Giamatti's, a beautiful Russian woman (Dina Korzun from Forty Shades of Blue) is seen coming in and out of the States from Russia, seemingly with nothing to declare. But we find out she is illegally transporting stolen souls, a process that is actually leaving trace elements of multiple souls inside her that will soon make it impossible for her to possess a full soul for lack of room. And yes, the Russian woman has managed to get a hold of Giamatti's soul to bring it to a rising actress who just happens to be her boss's girlfriend; the actress believes she's getting Al Pacino's soul. The story goes on from there as Giamatti struggles to locate his missing soul, while renting other souls to somehow complete him enough to complete his search.
Clearly following a story premise and arc that would make Charlie Kaufman proud, Barthes has, in act, crafted a genuinely interesting film in Cold Souls that is aided by Giamatti's ability to show subtle differences in a person's behavior and demeanor when they are under the influence of no soul, very little soul, or another soul. These aren't drastic personality changes or identity switches; it's the same guy inside Giamatti's body with the same memories. Yet, he is different people. Paul with no soul is a terrible actor but is too free a spirit to realize it. Paul with a Russian poet's soul inside is a brilliant performer. Giamatti's wife (played by Emily Watson, who is barely on screen in her thankless role) just wants her angsty husband back.
At its core, Cold Souls is a dark, dark comedy, punctuated by some insightful thoughts on what it is that makes us human. I've often heard that the heart of any artist is suffering, but if you remove the suffering, do you remove the artist? Barthes clearly believes you do. So feel free to suspend disbelief as much as you enjoyed doing for Being John Malkovich, and you should have a richly satisfying experience watching Giamatti be brilliant once again in Cold Souls, which opens today at the Century Center Cinema.
So when is a film not about the leads in that film? Welcome to Post Grad, a surprisingly funny and enjoyable affair that works especially well when stars Alexis Bledel and Zach Gilford resign themselves to being background players as the supporting cast steps to the foreground and makes with the funny. Bledel ("Gilmore Girls") and Gilford ("Friday Night Lights") are certainly attractive enough and have nice teeth and hair, but they are beyond dull and astoundingly without personality in this tale of two long-time friends of the opposite sex who drift a little after graduating from college.
Bledel's Ryden thinks she knows exactly how her life will go after graduation, including the exact job she'll get (of course, she doesn't get it). Gilford's Adam might become a musician or go to law school — it's like they were reading my diary. Or the two could fall into each other's formerly platonic arms and admit how much they love each other. And you know what? I could not have given a shit. Whenever the film focuses on these two — or the slightly older, dreamy neighbor (Rodrigo Santoro) who has eyes for Ryden — the movie drags and slides dangerously down into overly familiar territory where every bold declaration of feelings sounds like it took weeks to write. I know you guys in Hollywood think these carefully crafted speeches are adorable, but they aren't. They rip your audience right out of the film because no one talks like that and human behavior isn't built to give us moments like that in life.
But here's the thing: director Vicky Jenson (a director of animated films like Shrek and Shark's Tale) and new writer Kelly Fremon are doing this film the smart way, for the most part. They've absolutely loaded Post Grad with some of the best comic actors around (past and present). Watching Michael Keaton work this movie makes me really eager to see him make a full-blown, name-above-the-title comeback. The guy is fucking hilarious in this movie as Ryden's father, and pairing him with Jane Lynch as mom was almost more than my system could take. Alone or together, these two are golden. And even Carol Burnett's freaky, overly altered face can't take away from the fact that the woman is still at the top of her game. She's fantastic as Keaton's live-in mother, who only seems to need her oxygen tank when she wants someone to feel sorry for her. She's not just in the movie for the comedy vibe; she holds her own. One of the best scenes in the movie takes place at a funeral parlor, where Burnett is searching for the right coffin. Craig Robinson is priceless as the funeral director. "What do I have to do to get you into one of my coffins today?" he whispers in Burnett's ear. Other very funny people — like J.K. Simmons, Dimitri Martin and Fred Armisen -- pop up in a scene or two, but they make the most of their scenes.
This mash-up of great comedy bits and something attempting to be a story of young love owes a huge debt of gratitude to the late John Hughes, who used to bang out stories like this in his sleep. Kelly Fremon is no Hughes, but she creates an admirable likeness. There's a great deal to like in Post Grad; and two or three scenes and characters I truly could not stomach, more for their intense blandness than anything else. When the comedy flows, this is a film well worth your time; when the romance kicks in, run for the hills. That's the best advice I can offer you. Fortunately, the film's solid moments outnumber the lame ones, so consider this is a mild recommendation.
I've grown to loathe Robert Rodriguez when he's in child-pleasing mode. While I had a certain affection for the first two Spy Kids movies, the third 3-D offering was junk, and Shark Boy and Lava Girl was unwatchable in any number of Ds. So you can imagine my excitement at the prospect of Shorts, the story of a magic Rainbow Rock that grants the wish of anyone holding it and happens to land in the quaint town of Black Falls, Texas. And while Rodriguez clearly has won the race at making fast, inexpensive, special effects films in Texas, the resulting family offerings are often filled with child characters who don't act anything like children, and adults who are usually even bigger idiots than the kids. Shorts feels like the entire screenplay was written in ALL CAPS, with every line of dialogue bellowed out and every opportunity for subtle behavior (or human behavior, for that matter) ignored in favor of people acting like idiots.
Rodriguez is clearly going for the art house children's crowd by telling his story slightly out of order using short vignettes about different people who possess the rock for short periods. I didn't recognize any of the child actors, but I suppose it was some small comfort seeing such players as James Spader, Leslie Mann, Jon Cryer, William H. Macy and Kat Dennings thrown in the mix. Much like
The film concerns Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett) whose parents both work for the notorious corporation headquartered in Black Falls. The company makes something called the Black Box, which can be transformed into pretty much any utensil, electronic device or other useful device (not always with optimal functionality). The magic rock falls from the sky, and Toe and his friends start making bizarre, but not really earth-shattering wishes, as you might suspect they would. The rock bounces from person to person, and yet nothing really obscenely cool happens until the evil Mr. Black (Spader) grabs it and uses it to turn himself into the most indestructible thing on the planet. But even the resulting object Spader becomes reminded me of a Transformer, so there's nothing really to get excited about.
Rodriguez is certainly one of the most inventive and driven directors working today, and I will always respect him for that. I can't wait to see Machete or Red Sonja or Predators or Sin City 2 or whatever he does next. The guy is a true talent, but I feel like the time he spends on these sub-par kids films is wasted months he could have been working on something more substantial... or at least something I'd rather see. Shorts is depth-free entertainment that I'm guessing most kids won't even care that much about. The youngsters I saw this film with initially were pretty transfixed on the action, until they weren't. The notion that this film will make more money than something like Miyazaki's Ponyo is appalling to me. So all of your responsible adults: please take your kids to Ponyo this week. If you are unfamiliar with Miyasaki, this weekend would be a perfect opportunity to introduce yourself to the greatest living animation director, instead of going to contributing of the downfall of society by attending Shorts. The fate of the world rests in your hands. (See? I've already created my own adventure story more interesting that Shorts.) The choice is yours.
Fifty Dead Men Walking
I've seen more films about the troubles in Ireland, the IRA, and the disdainful treatment the people of Ireland endured during British military occupation, but I can't remember a film quite like Fifty Dead Men Walking. The movie tells the true story of Martin McGartland (played deftly by Jim Sturgess of Across the Universe and 21 fame), a small-time thief who was recruited in the late 1980s by the British police (embodied here by Ben Kingsley) to infiltrate the IRA, which he did with pretty astonishing results. The experience also turned McGartland into a paranoid mess as he attempted to balance his life as a new father, faithful boyfriend to Lara (Natalie Press), rising star in the IRA and police spy.
What I admired about the film is that it takes a fairly neutral stance on whether the IRA are the heroes or the villains. It's rare in cinema to see the IRA portrayed as criminals, but in Fifty Dead Men Walking, we see some of the absolutely horrific torture methods they employed to extract information out of suspected traitors. Of course, there is also a great deal presented about the shameful tactics used by the British police and military. What's also fascinating about McGartland's story is that as the stakes got higher for him, it seems less likely that he'd ever make it out of this situation alive, a fact that could not have escaped him. Putting aside the fact that the film is inspired by a book written by McGartland (it is made clear that the film is not endorsed by McGartland nor an official adaptation of his book), which means we know he at least lived long enough to write it. The film deals with this potential suspense killer by opening with a scene in more modern-day Canada showing us McGartland getting shot six times in his car. His fate is not revealed until the end of the movie.
The film's success of failure rests squarely on the shoulders of Jim Sturgess, an actor I frankly have never really liked much prior to watching this movie. He's a good-looking enough bloke, but he always looked to me like the guy who got kicked out of the band, and I've never been convinced he was much of an actor...until now. There's no getting around the fact that Fifty Dead Men Walking gives us a version of Sturgess that we've never seen before. The material is far more challenging, and Sturgess rises to the occasion giving us not only the best performance of his career, but also work that's worthy of repeat viewing. Sturgess plays McGartland as a bundle of complexities — nervous, bold, lovable, intelligent, loyal, disloyal, terrified and so many more. And all of these are there in an exceptional performance. Watch the scenes where McGartland interacts with some of the highest-ranking members of the IRA, especially someone like the beautiful and very dangerous security officer Grace (an almost unrecognizable Rose McGowan), who puts the moves on Martin to test his loyalty to Lara, which in turn is a test of his loyalty to the cause. He's a stronger man than I in those situations.
Now, I'm not here to argue the historical merits and accuracy taken by Canadian writer-director Kari Skogland, who has done largely TV work up to this point. The story presented on the screen feels real and is compelling enough that I forgive it whatever facts it may be condensing or changing for dramatic effect. I was truly impressed with Fifty Dead Men Walking, both for Sturgess' performance and for finding another way to tell a story I thought I knew. The film opens today at the AMC Pipers Alley Theaters.
Flame & Citron
You may not realize it, but there are actually two most excellent World War II-era films floating around cinemas in certain areas of this fine nation. One is the slightly higher-profile, kick-ass fable Inglourious Basterds, and the other is the more based in reality Flame & Citron, which tells the story of the Nazi resistance in Denmark. This phenomenal work from director Ole Christian Madsen (maker of the stunning Dogme film Kira's Reason: A Love Story) centers on two resistance fighters — the brains of the operations, nicknamed Flame (Thure Lindhart), and the brooding Citron (played by the greatest Danish actor in the universe, Mads Mikkelsen, the villain in Casino Royale), whose piercing eyes turn an enemy's blood cold. Although they despise the occupying German forces, their missions have always been about assassinating Danish citizens who are collaborating with the Nazis. The year is 1944, and the end of the war is in sight, but some people are determined to get away with some pretty heinous shit that can be blamed on the Nazis before all is said and done.
Most of their victims make a degree of sense to Flame and Citron, but one day, they receive orders to kill three unusual people, whose connections to the Nazi Party are unclear. And this fact makes the carrying out of their mission a little more difficult in their minds. The two men begin a secret investigation into exactly who these targets are, and discover that those in command of the resistance are not all looking out for the best interests of Copenhagen and its people. Flame & Citron is shot and paced like a great noir film, complete with a femme fatale (Stine Stengade), double-crossing countrymen, and Nazis lurking around every corner. In real life, these men were two of the great heroes of the war, and Madsen's film shows exactly why. Their missions and uncanny ability not to die earned them their reputations as unstoppable protectors of their nation, and simply watching them carry out the most dangerous mission or uncover the most shocking detail is a delight. This may not have the pure gall and shock value of Basterds, but Flame & Citron is still packs a wallop and exits in a very nerve-wracking place in my heart. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.Art & Copy
This documentary deals with a subject I simply never contemplated before. The idea that a kind of creative revolution happened in 1960s advertising, when the those at the copy desk and art directors were put in creative meeting together for the first time in the history of the business. Director Doug Pary (Surfwise, Hype!) does an admirable job — with help from some of the great ad men and women the nation has ever known — at explaining just how significant a change it was to simply break down the walls between creative and standard marketing of products. Campaigns became more abstract, slogans for products became more like mottos for living (Got Milk?, Just Do It, Think Different).
The advertising firms in Art & Copy all seem to be competing to see which has the most relaxing, cooperative spirit around the office to foster the great amount of creativity, and some of the icons in advertising maybe get a bit too philosophical about their work. Still, it's fascinating to hear the ad agency that came up with the 1984 ad campaign for the Apple Macintosh launch (directed by Ridley Scott fresh off Blade Runner and Alien) explain the radical idea of producing a multi-million dollar commercial that doesn't even show the product. Still another radical thought makes the convincing case that some of these campaigns are about putting forth a message about how to live our lives in general, and simply using the clients products to get the message out there. The "Just Do It" Nike campaign promoted living healthier, more active lives; it just happened to use shoes to get that message across.
At its core, Art & Copy is about the age-old practice of mixing art and commerce, a trend that will never go away and isn't necessarily a bad thing when done using clever means and true creative spirit. The succession of talking heads may get a bit heavy handed at times, but the information is solid and extremely interesting. Art students of the world, in particular, should take notice. This is where 90 percent of you are going to end up if you want to keep making something that resembles art. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
This movie is a little bit depressing in between being obnoxious, poorly acted, stagnantly shot, and woefully underwritten by director Blayne Weaver. In fact, were it not for the always-entertaining presence of Jane Lynch in Weather Girl, I'd say there was absolutely nothing to recommend about it. Throw on top of the fact that it's opening "exclusively" at Pipers Alley today, and you've got yourself the perfect storm of shit.
"The New Adventures of Old Christine" regular Tricia O'Kelley is certainly easy on the eyes, even if her character of Sylvia, the "sassy weather girl" for a Seattle morning news show, is abrasive and not particularly likable. She flips out on the air the day after she catches her boyfriend — the anchor on her news show, played by Mark Harmon — in bed with his female co-anchor. After quitting the show, she is forced to move in with her slacker brother Walt (Ryan Devlin), whose across-the-hall neighbor, Byron (Patrick J. Adams), spends a lot of time in their place. While Sylvia tries to see if any other broadcast outlet in Seattle will hire her, she and Byron start to develop something more than a friendship. After being rejected by all of the local TV stations, Sylvia begins looking elsewhere for a job and ends up a waitress at a nice restaurant where the overbearing Lynch is her boss (in the film's only real laugh-out-loud scenes).
If Harmon and Lynch aren't enough to satisfy your random-cameos-in-an-indie-movie fix, let me toss in Jon Cryer as Sylvia's blind date and Blair Underwood as her boss at the TV station, who reconnects with her after her on-air rant continues to get rating in reruns and he attempts to get her back on the air. And it's in the third act that Weather Girl went from leaving me casually disinterested in the story to outright losing me because I simply didn't believe that human beings acted like any of the characters in this movie. It was nothing short of infuriating to watch the already thinly drawn human-like cutouts just flat out act and react like preprogrammed script-bots doing whatever the writer tells them to do whether it makes any sense or not. Other than Lynch's too-good-for-this-movie performance, no one here really stands out as someone worth checking out in this or any other film. You know what? I'm done talking about this crap. You can let this one rot at Pipers Alley this weekend.
X Games 3D: The Movie
If names like Shaun White, Danny Way, Ricky Carmichael, Kyle Loza or Travis Pastrana mean anything to you, you're probably going to be in a particular kind of heaven watching X Games 3D: The Movie from Disney and ESPN Films. The draw here is obviously the 3-D, which is nothing short of spectacular. And as much I like to think of myself as someone who enjoys a 3-D film that uses the process in more subtle ways, I can't help but get really revved up about dangerous sports being played out before my eyes. You still get that great depth of field experience, and what you're watching is death defying. Director Steve Lawrence, who has worked with ESPN before, has a great eye for setting his cameras in exactly the right spot to capture not only the action but give us the best perspective to show the enormity a massive stadium filled with people or the world's largest skateboard park. If I had one major complaint, it's that the film's final 30 minutes are devoted to a single event, and while it is truly one of the more dramatic sporting events I've seen played out, that's still a lot to ask of any audience.
Narrated by Emile Hisrch, the film gives a surface behind-the-scenes look at some of the athletes and their lives. But honestly, once you've heard one of these guys talking about "taking it to the next level," you've heard them all. Their reasons for doing what they do won't be any clearer to me the fifth or sixth time I hear them blather on about it than they were the first. I just know it looks good, especially in 3-D. From what I'm hearing, the film is only running for one week before it presumably hits ESPN or comes out on DVD soon. X Games 3D: The Movie is hardly essential viewing, but it is 90 minutes of some truly kick-ass footage projected in a way that really captures the enormity and scale of what these lunatics are doing. If you're a 3-D junkie like me, you'll eat this stuff up. If not, the pictures sure are pretty. The films is only playing for a one-week engagement, so if this sounds like the kind of subject matter you'd enjoy, get to it quick.