Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglorious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino takes his time making films but his results never disappoint."Basterds" is his latest triumph. This is a revenge fantasy farce, clear from the start, whereby Mr. Tarantino rewrites history in a most entertaining fashion. The films works on every level and if there is anything I can find fault with, it's probably some minor editing in a couple of scenes.

The trailer doesn't even begin to reveal the complexity of the story. It misleads you into thinking this is just a film about a squad of Jewish soldiers killing Nazi's during World War Two in occupied France. It is that but so much more. In fact, there are actually just a few scenes of the "Basterds" actually carrying out their missions. While some of these scenes are violently graphic, most of the violence is implied and off screen. The film really concentrates on it's characters and they are all fascinating to watch.

Brad Pitt is obviously enjoying himself as Col. Aldo Raine, the leader of the "Basterds", but the film completely belongs to Christoph Waltz as the charming but very evil Col. Hans Landa. Whenever he is on screen, the tension is unbearable. It is a remarkable performance that should easily be nominated at Oscar time. Melanie Laurent shows great range as Shosanna Dreyfus, especially in a restaurant scene with Col. Landa.

Mr. Tarantino's writing and direction is terrific. It is clear that he loves film, referencing cinema past and treating his actors with much generosity. The film is comical and yet, deadly serious with terrific tension induced scenes. The opening chapter, in particular, is spectacular from the first shot to the last.

All of the dialog is spoken in native languages so there is much use of subtitles but don't let that stop you from enjoying one of the best films of the year.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

District 9

Writer/director Neil Blomkamp has created a fantastic morality play about discrimination and prejudice using alien creatures nicknamed "prawns" as his metaphor for the minority populace.

The film is set in South Africa, which in itself is a blatant statement but also a refreshing location, rather than New York, Washington D.C. or Los Angeles. It is set twenty years after a huge alien population is stranded on earth and forced to live in a confined shanty town on the outskirts of Johannesburg. When the government decides to relocate the aliens, the plot is really set in motion and it is fascinating to watch.

This very easily could have turned into a comedy of sorts but Mr. Blomkamp writes and directs with a serious eye and very quickly you are caught up in the drama of the alien plight. Using hand held cameras and shooting documentary style, makes "District 9" very plausible. The Aliens themselves appear to be a combination of CGI, costumes, makeup, and puppetry and they blend in perfectly with the human actors.

The cast does a fine job but the standout performance is by Sharlto Coply as Wikus Van De Merwe, the government official put in charge of the relocation. Wikus becomes the central figure in the story when his world is shattered and a new reality becomes all too apparent.

The action is turned up to eleven in the last act of the film, along with the tension but it also sets up a poignant ending with a haunting final image. "District 9" gets high marks for a low budget Sc-fi film.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, a Japanese director well known for great animation, "Ponyo" will not disappoint. The "G" rated film is beautiful to look with vibrant colors and fluid motion. The story itself is a variation on "The Little Mermaid", except this time it's a fish who wants to become human.

What's very trippy about this film is the little fish has a human face, turns part chicken before becoming human and falls in love with a five year old boy, wise beyond his years. While it's a simple tale at the core, it's also very weird and that gives it some extra appeal for older kids and adults.

The film takes place in a coastal Japanese village but all the dialog is in English by an A-list of actors including Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey, and Liam Neeson as well as Betty White and Cloris Leachman. For the kids in the audience, they will recognize Noah Cyrus as Ponyo and Frankie Jonas as SoSuke, the little boy who finds her on the beach.

There is some sub text about saving the planet and restoring the balance of nature but it gets so strange, that you shouldn't try to figure it out. Keep it simple and enjoy the heartwarming story of Ponyo's adventure.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Funny People

"Funny People" is the new film from Judd Apatow. If you go expecting another "40 Year Old Virgin" or "Knocked Up", you will be disappointed. Let me be clear, "Funny People" is not a comedy. It is a serious film about comedians. Now having said that, there are funny moments in the film but for the most part, this is Adam Sandler in "Punch Drunk Love" mode, angry and morose for most of the film.

I was happy to see a new maturity in the writing and the acting. In particular, Seth Rogan does a fine job as an struggling comic who ends up as Mr. Sandler's assistant and confidant. While the story is more serious, the humor is still juvenile and vulgar. Mr. Apatow wants it both ways, to up his game but not lose the fans that got him here in the first place.

The strangest thing is that halfway through "Funny People", there is a plot twist that spins it into a completely different movie that now puts the emphasis on Mr. Sandler's relationship with his lost love, played by Leslie Mann and her husband, played by Eric Bana. I sympathized with Mr. Rogan's character at this point, who just wants to go home rather than be stuck in a bad sitcom subplot.

Jason Schwartzman and Jonah Hill play Mr. Rogan's roommates and I honestly don't see the appeal of Mr. Hill. While Mr. Schwartzman brings some depth to his character, Mr. Hill brings nothing to the table. Of course, that may be attributed to the underwritten character but so far in his career, he's a one trick pony.

Ultimately, "Funny People" left me depressed.

In The Loop

This new film is a hilarious biting satire of government officials and the inner sanctums they inhabit. The film is a BBC production that takes place in England, Washington and The United Nations. The beauty of this film is in the razor sharp dialog and you must pay attention or you'll quickly be lost.

This is a very funny film following hapless British officials back and forth across the Atlantic to either help start a war or avert one (at some point I don't think they are even sure). The film will demand multiple viewings as much of the dialog is drowned out by audience laughter.

Many of the stars are not familiar to US audiences but you will be sure to remember Peter Capaldi as the senior official with the most foul and funny language. Tom Hollander is also brilliant as Simon Foster, another hapless diplomat. There are some familiar American names in the cast. James Gandolfini plays a very funny General (who would have been right at home in Dr. Strangelove), Mimi Kennedy and David Rasche play the American Government counterparts and they are both excellent as well. And rounding out the great cast is Anna Chlumsky as Ms. Kennedy's assistant. I don't think Ms. Chlumsky has been in a feature film since she co-starred as the title character in "My Girl" with Macaulay Culkin.

The screenplay is by Jesse Armstrong and it is Oscar worthy. It is smart, cutting and just plain hysterical. In a summer laden with CGI effects and animation, "In The Loop" is an original breath of fresh (and funny) air.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Julie & Julia

Based on the book by Julie Powell, this new film juxtaposes two stories about the art of cooking. The film alternates between 1949 Paris featuring a wonderful Meryl Streep as Julia Child and 2002 Queens, New York featuring an always reliable Amy Adams as Julie Powell.

Julia Child's story in 1949 is very much the stronger of the two. With Stanley Tucci playing Paul Child to Ms. Streep's Julia, they recreate the years when Ms. Child learned the art of French cooking that led to her world wide fame. Ms. Streep and Mr. Tucci are terrific together and we get to see a very human side of a woman many of us only remember as a TV chef and author.

In 2002, we watch as Ms. Powell decides to recreate every recipe in Ms. Child's book over the course of a year. Amy Adams is always fun to watch even when her character becomes whiny and annoying. Many critics didn't find these sequences well done but it's a rare actress that can still make annoying tolerable.

The film is light as a soufflé and fun to watch as Ms. Child goes to cooking school and Ms. Powell has meltdowns cooking every recipe. I would have enjoyed watching an entire film just about Julia Child and sometimes found it intrusive bouncing back and forth but the modern story holds together on the strength of the captivating Ms. Adams and ultimately the two stories work their culinary magic.