Posted: August 28th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! Due to time constraints and the fact that Halloween II wasn’t screened for critics, there is no new release I’m reviewing this week. Don’t worry, dear readers – I still have material with which you can angrily disagree. Last Monday I watched Julia, a thriller starring Tilda Swinton. The movie was never shown in DC-area theaters (the DVD released on the 18th)*. In many ways, Julia is the antithesis toJulie & Julia. According to Svetlana, the stories of Julia Child and her modern counterpart will leave you “as satisf[ied] as that lemon chiffon pie you’ve been craving all summer.” The story of Julia Harris, on the other hand, will uproot your nerves like a nihilistic bender. Both movies satisfy, only the latter leaves your head ringing.
Director/co-writer Erick Zonca deftly manipulates the audience in three clearly-defined acts. The first introduces Julia’s universe. She’s a miserable drunken cooze, the kind who verbally abuses her only friend (Saul Rubinek). Until Elena (Kate del Castillo) introduces herself at an AA meeting, Julia has no ambition beyond booze and anonymous sex. Elena wants Julia to help kidnap her estranged son. Anyone else would ignore Elena’s crazed rants, but once the would-be kidnapper mentions money, Julia cannot (or will not) disregard her mania. The second act is the kidnapping itself. She steals the kid from Elena, and negotiates a $2 million ransom with his grandfather. Meanwhile she ties the kid to a radiator, and thinks nothing of abandoning him in the desert. The final act is a descent into hell. Stuck in Tijuana with little money, Julia makes the mistake of chatting with the locals. When the kid disappears, bold lies becomes her only hope.
Without Tilda Swinton, the entire premise would absolutely collapse. Not even Meryl Streep has the balls make a character so unlikeable. From the first scene at an alcohol-soaked party, Swinton defines Julia with chaotic body language and obnoxious behavior. Her treatment of the kid is abhorrent, yet it’s impossible not to admire the force of will required to keep him alive. A bond between the two is inevitable, but don’t think Zonca treats the relationship like just every other case of Stockholm Syndrome. The pair stays true to their nature, and depend one another out of necessity. The Tijuana scenes are a terrific climax – Julia tells numerous sets of lies, each catered to a specific audience. Her capacity for invention is thrilling, especially as the situation gets increasingly nightmarish. The irony, of course, is her skillful manipulation is precisely what makes her so reprehensible for the first two acts. With a cinema verite approach, Zonca and channels John Cassavetes. Scenes develop organically, and never strain for affect. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux crucially films with abundant light that’s never warm. Everyone looks wrung out, and the locations are wrought with plausible danger.
I can understand why Julia never caught on. With a French production and limited exposure, it toured the festival circuit. A Variety critic called the movie exploitative, hurting its chances for wide distribution. It’s a shame audiences rely so much on likable protagonists. No decent person would ever get caught in Julia’s situation, which is why it’s easy quick to accept the ludicrous plot developments. After such brutal realism, a final redemptive scene is welcome and completely earned by Swinton’s tour-de-force performance. Even good thrillers are sometimes on autopilot, with little room for risk. Julia is alive and daring, with authentic characters in terrifying situations. Add it to your queue now, trust me.
* Julia will also be available for instant streaming on September 18. Cale, take note.
Posted: August 21st, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! This week two bold movies, both featuring international ensemble casts, make their debut. The first is Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s eagerly anticipated World War 2 epic. The other is Cold Souls, Sophie Barthes cerebral Being John Malkovich rip-off. The former is a dazzling success, the latter a modest one. Though varying in quality, you should pay little attention to the trailers. They’re somewhat misleading.
Inglourious Basterds is an audaciously entertaining yarn that’ll disappoint those who yearn for nonstop action and historical accuracy. Easily the director’s best since Jackie Brown, Tarantino borrows from multiple genres, and builds considerable suspense through nuanced dialogue. Its tone careens between humor and shock, empathy and bloodlust, civility and savagery. Yes, Brad Pitt gets top billing, though he does not dominate the screen. Tarantino has the patience to develop multiple plotlines, and half dozen characters (mostly speaking French and German) refreshingly update war movie archetypes. Ultimately audiences will best remember Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, the year’s great villain.
It takes about twenty minutes for Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) and his Basterds to appear onscreen. First Tarantino treats audiences to a masterful scene between Handa (nicknamed the “Jew Hunter”) and humble French farmer (Denis Menochet). The Jew Hunter exudes menace and authority through an unexpected way. His manner is disarmingly civil, and the farmer correctly observes Handa’s skill eclipses the need for verbal intimidation. Meanwhile, as the trailer promised, the Basterds scalp Nazis in France, achieving their desired effect. Nazis fear the elite squad, and respond with a propaganda campaign. Goebbels himself directed “Nations Pride,” a movie-within-a-movie detailing the exploits of a real-life German sniper (Daniel Brühl). When England discovers top Nazi brass will attend the Paris premier, they dispatch Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) on a spy mission, codenamed Operation Kino. As the escort of double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), Hicox and the Basterds hope to infiltrate the premiere with explosives in tow. Little do they know Jewish theater owner Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) has plans of her own. Lacking explosives, Shosanna nonetheless knows just how quickly celluloid can burn.
Perhaps you’re familiar with a quote often attributed to Hitchcock (I’m paraphrasing): “Two sit at a table with a bomb underneath. The bomb goes off – that’s action. The bomb doesn’t go off – that’s suspense.” Tarantino has definitely taken this quote to heart. In addition to actual explosives, there are roughly five suspenseful scenes where characters sit at a table, and the “bomb” is whether Nazis will uncover Allied deception. Aside from the opening scene described above, the best table scene occurs in a basement bar, where Hicox (dressed in Nazi uniform) plays a game with von Hammersmark and other Nazi officers. Only the Good Guys realize the stakes, and the Bad Guys always seem like they’re on the verge of discovery. The director has admirable patience here – terse close-ups and subtle panic heightens the suspense. The scene culminates with brutality, and unrelenting build-up makes the payoff cathartic. Dialogue may dominate the movie, but Inglourious Basterds’ relatively brief action will sate audience’s bloodlust. It is swift and brutal, particularly when the Basterds have methods less creative than scalping. Tarantino wisely does not dwell on the Basterds’ cruelty. His skillful direction negates the need to linger, especially since the violence (while infrequent) peppers the screen right until the final shot.
The varied dialogue distinguishes Inglourious Basterds from Tarantino’s earlier efforts. In Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the characters had similar attitudes, and spoke with the same rhythm. Here the characters come from varied backgrounds, so Raine’s Patton-esque syntax is wildly different than Hicox’s posh condescension. The actors embody their characters comfortably, and easily veer from comedy to pathos. Pitt in particular is the most resolutely badass, and his near-parody twang is the source the movie’s biggest laughs. As the theater owner, Mélanie Laurent is a believable heroine, and her profession gives Tarantino the chance to unleash his film nerdery (there are numerous references to early German filmmakers). Curiously, Laurent and Pitt’s characters provide the movie with a moral center, one that is resolutely vengeful and deceptively simple-minded. I could go on – Inglourious Basterds is so rich with ideas and entertainment, and I have barely touched upon the movie’s numerous successes. Let’s just say the movie delivers its promised Nazi murder porn, and oh so much more. This is one of the year’s best.
Paul Giamatti stars as himself in Cold Souls, a high-concept mindbender that strangely loses interest in its intriguing premise. Much like titular star of Being John Malkovich, Giamatti portrays a stereotype of himself, one that falls in line with his more popular characters. This Giamatti is neurotic and in the midst of a spiritual crisis. He’s starring in a theater production of Uncle Vanya, and the toll of portraying the lead proves too much. Through a New Yorker article, Paul learns of a clinic run that will extract a person’s soul. The clinic is run by Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), who calmly explains that a soulless person feels lighter and carefree. Of course Paul undergoes the procedure (the soul extractor looks like an MRI scanner), and much to his chagrin, his acting starts to suffer. He’s incapable of empathy, and his wife (Emily Watson) says he feels different. Unbeknownst to Paul, Dr. Flintstein is part of an international soul-smuggling operation. Russian mule Nina (Dina Korzun) steals Paul’s soul and transports it to St. Petersburg. Left with no recourse, Paul desperately follows the mule.
Writer/director Sophie Barthes casts her movie brilliantly. Paul Giamatti does a tricky thing with his role. Even in the universe of Cold Souls, the human soul is a difficult thing to understand*, and Giamatti’s subtle changes are instrumental to the movie’s success. Remember when Bart Simpson sells his soul to Millhouse? It’s like that, except with Giamatti’s trademark talent for self-deprecation. David Strathairn’s understated approach is appropriate for a character like Dr. Flintstein – a flat delivery is necessary for someone peddling such an outlandish service. Other actors, particularly Emily Watson and Flintstein’s assistant Lauren Ambrose, are criminally underused. Sadly, Cold Souls falls apart once Giamatti arrives in Russia. Up until that point, the movie cleverly explores philosophical questions, and even finds room for a joke or two (including one superb sight gag). It’s not as funny as trailer would have you believe, but it’s certainly amusing and cerebral. Once in Russia, Giamatti is single-minded in purpose, and a fish-out-of-water story is no substitute for existential intrigue. The story goes on autopilot and never recovers. It’s a shame, really – Barthes clearly is imaginative, and knows how elicit strong performances. Had she spent more time on an ending, her work could have easily rivaled Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece.
* Flintstein informs Giamatti that souls are solid objects. There’s little rhyme or reason governing what shape they take. Giamatti’s looks like a chickpea. If my soul also resembled a legume, I’d be similarly pissed.
Posted: August 17th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! Sometimes I use an opening paragraph to discuss the similarities between the movies I review. Therein lies a problem: I can’t think of anything District 9 and The Goods share other than their release date. In fact, the movies are so different I recommend for completely opposite reasons. Whereas the former drained me with its relentlessness, the latter is vulgarly affable.
District 9 marks the first time I’ve ever seriously considered walking out of a theater. That is not to say the movie is tedious, or its ideas offensive. Co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp knows how to manipulate an audience, and there is a 10-minute stretch of raw, nauseating horror that I could barely handle (dutiful readers will remember I don’t do well with deliberate gore). Much to my relief, Blomkamp relents from grotesqueries to tell an original sci-fi allegory, one with ample social commentary. Coupled with an exceptional lead performance, it does not take long for District 9 to accelerate into high gear. Yet for all its strengths, the movie falls apart during its climax, and devolves into a by-the-numbers action spectacle.
With a pseudo-documentary style, Blomkamp deftly defines his world. Twenty years ago, an alien mothership settles in Johannesburg, and millions of aliens are soon under quarantine. Corporation MNU controls the insect-like aliens (nicknamed Prawns), and seeks to exploit their technology. Unfortunately, humans cannot control Prawn weaponry, and the mothership is derelict. The aliens aren’t too pleasant either – nasty and unsophisticated, they’re treated like second-class citizens. Alien/human relations are at an all-time low. MNU decides to move the Prawns out of city, and appoints eager bureaucrat Wikus (Sharlto Copley) as their man-on-the-ground. When Wikus unwittingly discovers an alien secret, he soon is privy to deeply sinister motives, and there is no one he can trust. Not surprisingly, his only choice is to seek refuge in the alien ghetto.
Considerable attention is paid to character design. The Prawns are repulsive creatures, but their characteristics soften once they take on virtuous human qualities. The biggest surprise comes from the unknown Sharlto Copley. As Wikus, his innocence and terror anchor the story, and ably invite the suspension of disbelief. As with similarly high-concept movies, it’s better not to overthink District 9. Blomkamp mixes “documentary” footage with a straight-up narrative, so the documentary’s perspective on Wikus is murky. In addition to the apartheid allusions, there are familiar jabs at corporations, racism, conformity, and soullessness of bureaucracy. Certainly the South African director has plenty to say about his homeland, and his tale made me more curious about the country’s history.
As a debut feature, District 9 shows considerable promise, especially when one considers the scope of the production. Thirty million is a small budget by Hollywood standards, yet Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson accomplish a great deal. They tell their story with ample economy – at one point they even gloss over an entire car chase. The final action sequence has plenty of blood splatter that’ll appease fans of Jackson’s early work. Due to budget constraints, this sequence lacks kinetic thrills, and pales in comparison to the panic of the preceding two acts. I cannot deny the intensity of the movie, even if scrutiny weakens its long-term impact.
The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard is an uneven comedy that succeeds on the strength of its one-liners. It tells the story of Don “The Goods” Ready (Jeremy Piven), a travelling salesman whose card reads, “I move cars, motherfucker!” With his trusty team, Don revitalizes fledgling auto dealerships. They are usual bunch of quirky, good-natured perverts who only exist in R-rated comedies. Now they must sell 200 cards for Selleck Motors in Temecula, California – a town “[full of] Indian casinos, wineries, and toxic wasteland,” according to my friend Bobby G. Temecula proves too much for Don and his team. Don cannot resist Selleck’s daughter, Babs (scene-stealer Kathryn Hahn) cannot resist Selleck’s man-child son (Rob Riggle), and Selleck himself cannot resist Don’s right-hand man (David Koechner). The local salesmen are equally hopeless, especially the old codger (Charles Napier) who is quick to assault customers. And the mysterious “Querque” incident looms over Don’s every move. Can Don deliver the titular Goods? Does it even matter?
You’ll be comforted to know director Neal Brennan cares little about his characters, or his story. The movie is simply a vehicle for dirty one-liners and outrageous behavior, and I mean it in the best way possible. Part PCU* and part Glengarry Glen Ross, Jeremy Piven excels as a man who invents/believes his legend. Still, the movie is not merely a vehicle for Piven (pun intended). Screenwriters Andy Stock and Rick Stempson give each car salesman a chance to realize their potential, both professionally and comically. Some members of the cast have taken dramatic roles, and it shows. They all play it straight, so only the audience is in on the joke. The long-form bits, however, rarely work. When Don finally explains “Querque,” there’s a bland cameo of an overexposed comedian. Featured as Don’s enemy, the sometimes funny Ed Helms has a Boy-Band sub-plot that always falls flat. Thankfully these moments do not eclipse the movie’s modest goals. Much like Ready himself, The Goods swoops in, does its job, and leaves before anyone has the chance to get bored. It won’t be a blockbuster, but thanks to its quotable script, I suspect The Goods will find a spot on many DVD shelves.
* Early in the movie, Piven has a monologue in which he advocates smoking on an airplane. It eerily resembles the anti-protest treatise of PCU’s climax. If you think about what might have happened to James ‘Droz’ Andrews, The Goods works as PCU’s unofficial sequel.
Posted: August 10th, 2009 | Filed under:Uncategorized | Comments Off
Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! As of late, the male heroes of romantic comedies veer between two extremes. On the one hand, there’s the chauvinism of Gerard Butler’s The Ugly Truth. And if Gawker’s found footage is any indication, the upcoming Tucker Max “romantic” “comedy” will be infinitely more loathsome. Then there is the other extreme. These guys aren’t chauvinistic, they’re sensitive and awkward. They don’t bellow broad generalizations about women, they’re capable of romance and the female leads are sometimes boorish. Sure, the awkwardness ofAdam and Paper Heart made me cringe in my seat. Nevertheless the characters are funny and even touching.
Despite the obvious differences between Adam Raki and Lloyd Dobler, the movie Adam most closely resembles is Say Anything. Lloyd is anything but neurotic, and Adam suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Yet there are fathers with dubious values, as well as young women who are sensitive and kind. The characters of Adam are older and more world-weary than the idealists of Cameron Crowe’s classic, so plot developments are comparatively realistic. Writer/director Max Mayer’s romantic comedy has unusually emotional scenes, and bravely sacrifices warmth for insight.
Since Adam (Hugh Dancy) has Asperger’s, everyday interaction is a struggle. His father dies, so his world becomes smaller. Adam is utterly incapable of irony or empathy, and fixates on astronomy to a fault. Now he can only depend on his father’s wartime buddy (Frankie Faison), since there’s even uncertainty in his job. Then Beth (Rose Byrne) moves across the hall. She’s perceptive and sweet, and after a no-good-ex, she’s ready to date someone neurologically incapable of guile. Of course her blossoming relationship with Adam has its share of hiccups. He cannot perceive her needs, and she must adhere to his. Amidst all this, Beth worries about her father’s (Peter Gallagher) ongoing legal dispute. Adam and Beth tentatively consider a future together, but things aren’t as simple as they are in most romantic comedies.
I can’t be sure whether Dancy and Mayer portray Asperger’s accurately. It’s a credit to both that the character feels plausible, and his conflicts unfold logically. Some scenes feel like instructions on how to interact with such a person, yet Mayer’s perceptive humor prevents any tedium. Beth must be at the emotional center of Adam, and Rose Byrne does stellar work with the role. When she’s upset and nonetheless follows Adam’s rigid routine, the acting and direction are unexpectedly moving. The couple has their inevitable big fight, and its aftermath veers into serious drama. Beth and Adam are two adults with real problems, and wisely consider their feelings before commitment. The final scenes feel accurate and hopeful. Mayer doggedly avoids cliché, so while Adam may not have an immediate payoff, its subtlety rewards on a deeper level than its peers.
Paper Heart is a mix of documentary and fiction that’s almost too cute for its own good. The fiction is sometimes rewarding whereas the documentary always rings true. Comedian Charlyne Yi and the perennially awkward Michael Cera play versions of themselves. Jake M. Johnson plays Nick, the faux-documentarian who follows Charlene on her quest to define love. She goes to across the country to interview regular folks about their romances. In a style reminiscent of Michel Gondry, Charlene animates the stories her interviewees offer. Later she “meets” Michael at a party, and a romance begins in spite of the omnipresent camera crew. Charlene and Michael routinely break the fourth wall, and fight for whatever privacy they can get. It gets to be all-too-much for Michael, and soon their relationship is in jeopardy.
A cursory glance on IMDb informs us that parts of Paper Heart are fabrication. Michael and Charlene, in fact, have been a couple for years (although perhaps they recently broke up). Their creative license, however, does not detract their scenes together. Chemistry is there, and the awkward interactions are sometimes funny. Charlene only speaks with a low deadpan – at first it’s annoying, yet she conveys enough vulnerability to win the audience. As Nick, Johnson is a good foil for Charlene. He has an Everyman quality that makes for hilarious clashes with Charlene’s odd demeanor. Ultimately the scripted scenes lack of the spontaneity of Charlene’s interactions with everyday people, and it is completely Michael Cera’s fault. He’s been playing the exact same character since 2003, and seemingly cannot stop. I’ve long persisted that to avoid typecasting, Michael Cera should play a bad guy or sexual deviant. It is all too obvious how his scenes with Charlene will play out. Thankfully director/co-writer Nicholas Jasenovec peppers his movie with plenty of fresh material. Amidst the comedy, Paper Heart has a nice message about love and its implied risk. The movie is always pleasant, and sporadically engrossing.
In summation, there are two good indie comedies opening on Friday. Paper Heart will go down easier, Adam will leave you more satisfied. Decide accordingly.