Saturday, August 29, 2009

Halloween II

It has been well established that John Carpenter's Halloween was not what today's movie-goers would consider a typical slasher film. Although Halloween inspired many of those horrible Friday the 13th type films that horror fans like these days, at its time, Halloween was considered a very smart thriller with a highly suspenseful build-up that included memorable characters. In 2007, director Rob Zombie attempted a remake of the film, which didn't measure up to not only the original, but it wasn't even an enjoyable film. I still refuse to write Zombie off as a director even if House of 1000 Corpses and Halloween were poorly conceived gore-fests. I actually really enjoyed The Devil's Rejects. Yes it was bloody, disgusting, and perhaps certain moments were done in poor taste, but Zombie had such a handle on his characters. I know I'm in the silent minority (the only other mainstream "critic" who I've seen agree with me on Rejects would be Stephen King) but those Firefly clan characters had a very interesting arc that all made sense in the messed up world that Zombie created. When I heard that for a sequel to his Halloween film, Zombie would create his own original story-line and not follow the sequels to Carpenter's outing, I became enthused by the prospect. However, once again, Zombie not only failed but he further disappointed me because of the potential that actually exists with this film.

Halloween II picks up immediately after the first Zombie film, with Michael Myers (Tyler Mane), who was shot in the face, being loaded into an ambulance. Of course the ambulance crashes and Michael lives. Oh yeah, remember the girl Annie (Danielle Harris) who was left for dead? She is alive. Oh and Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) had his head squished/imploded and he somehow lived as well. So with those extremely unreasonable returns aside, the film once again focuses on Michael readying to go after his sister while Laurie (Scout-Taylor Compton) worries about the return of her brother. Both characters are experiencing these dreams that often revolve around their birth mother (Sheri-Moon Zombie) and a horse (?). Michael dreams about reuniting with his surviving family while Laurie slowly begins to realize her connection to Michael. All the while, the character of Loomis does an about-face and writes an exploitive book on Myers, making himself come off as a total sleaze-ball (which is hard to believe since he was a moral character in the first film, but apparently surviving a killing spree makes you a dirtbag).

Zombie demonstrates his understanding of using "evil" as a character as so many other horror filmmakers have done. Craven and Carpenter understood that good didn't always exist in everyone and would use this to add to the themes of their films. Zombie also seems to notice and understand the deep twisted connections between the members of the Myers family (I could only imagine if a truly skilled, high-class filmmaker got a hold of these characters). Yet, as Myers gets ready to go after Laurie, he runs into some teens or police or whoever and he of course has to kill them for most of the film. This is where the film turns into your typical nonsensical gore-filled slasher and it's a damn shame. Like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Kruger, Myers has a deep history that can make for some damn good characterization but that is all sacrificed for the blood and guts. Horror really only tends to work when he can care about either the predator or the prey but everyone here is so one-dimensional. Zombie films this all in a very close (almost claustrophobic) manner with his camera peeking around corners or through windows while his characters all lurk in conveniently placed shadows. There really isn't anything worth watching to be found in this film, at all.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Why is Inglorious Bastards misspelled as Inglourious Basterds? That may be the first question I'd like to pose to Quentin Tarantino if I ever meet him. Is it because of the slight difference in pronunciation, or is just another idiosyncrasy of the highly prolific writer/director? Not that it matters, but as with all auteurs, I'd like to see how it fits with Tarantino's usual modus operandi. 

Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's fifth solo film project and just like his other movies, Basterds is a deconstruction of a genre. Reservoir Dogs was a heist movie without the heist, Pulp Fiction was a gangster movie where we just followed the gangsters around all day, and Jackie Brown (a blaxploitation movie) and Kill Bill (a two-part kung-fu movie) came across as modern "badass" interpretations of their respective genres. Inglourious Basterds is a war movie... without much war. Instead we are treated to the players and their quirks but we don't really see the German-killing sprees that the misleading ad campaign would lead one to expect. Harvey Weinstein does need his money, but then again, one never knows what to expect from Mr. Tarantino.

The film takes place primarily in Nazi-occupied France and tells of two separate tales that converge towards the end of the story. The first story is about the Basterds, a special-ops team of Nazi hunting Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine (Brad Pitt). Aldo is a fast-talking, thick-accented, mountain-man from Tennessee with a smooth mustache and rope burns around his neck (they are never explained). Interesting personalities under his command include the loud, obnoxious, baseball-bat swinging Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz (Eli Roth) and the psychopathic, yet surprisingly calm, intolerant Nazi traitor Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schwieger). Other allies include the suave British Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and the German film star turned spy Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).

The second story is about a French Jewish girl, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent, who is often photographed in a never-ending sexual manner), who witnessed her family killed by Nazi General Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa (Christoph Waltz). She then goes to ground as the patron owner of a French theater in Paris. She catches the eye of Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a war hero who is the star of a new propaganda film called The Nation's Pride (a nod to the German female filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's work such as Triumph of the Will). Zoller proposes to Shosanna that she use her venue to host the premiere of the propaganda film and allow the attendance of the entire Nazi high command. Both Shosanna and the Basterds plan to burn the theater to the ground because if Hitler and his commanders die, the war will end early (or at least earlier in Tarantino's timeline of WWII).

Like most Tarantino films, the cast is perfect. Each character gives these iconographic performances that have only one downside, which is that they sometimes lean toward the stereotypical and therefore cartoonish side. And yet my simple defense for that is... "this is Tarantino." He creates these fantasies (in this case a war fantasy) where everything amounts to the audience's enjoyment of off-kilter entertainment. I always have to view Tarantino's films twice because of how different and odd he makes these little universes that he places his characters in. We have both a film that is serious at times when it deals with the atrocities of history, but then the film will showcase the Basterds playing their war games (all the while laughing hysterically at their own atrocities against the Nazi infantry). There is a level of indulgence here, and I could understand why someone might view certain elements of these kind of films as disrespectful or immature, but once again, "this is Tarantino." 

In my mind, the only other modern prolific director that can match Tarantino's status under Truffuat's "Auteur Theory" would be David Lynch and he tends to stay a lot further out of the spotlight than Quentin. And just as a reminder, audiences and film critics alike have come to know Tarantino as a man who never delivers what'd you expect, realistic conversational (and character building) dialogue, and interlocking stories all set to a retro soundtrack.

Enjoying Basterds is not so much a question of whether one "gets it" or not but whether one is delighted or entertained by Tarantino's bold style of filmmaking. The one thing that I hope audiences do walk away with is the genius of Christoph Waltz's performance as Hans Landa (he took home the Best Actor award at Cannes for the portrayal). The character has such a magnetic entrance that I've already read cinephiles comparing it to Orson Welles in The Third Man. He is also one of the few characters that isn't stereotyped to the point that one questions the character's purpose. I could go on, but it is something to experience for oneself and I should just leave everyone with the thought of how deep and thematic Waltz's take on Landa is in the context of the film at large. Finally, some extra quirks that Tarantino adds to this film (and I'm only scratching the surface of this deconstruction) would be the constant references to a majority of other films such as Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, John Ford's The Searchers, and especially Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen.

The first big attraction of Inglourious Basterds would be that Tarantino's WWII was partly won because of the power of film. As something of a film-nut, I do kind of get excited about the prospect of film having that large of an impact on [fictitious] history. The second big attraction-... the 'Natsi' killing, of course. Even if it doesn't happen as often as an action fan such as myself would like.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Julie and Julia

After having told my friends that I sat down to watch this movie on my computer, based on their reactions, I feel the need to perhaps explain and/or defend myself for viewing this movie. I'm very much a writer/director kind of person, as in whoever wrote or directed the film will tend to take precedence in my decision to see the movie. In this case both the writer and director of Julie and Julia is Nora Ephron. She is responsible for films that range from the dramatic (Silkwood) to the comedic (When Harry Met Sally) and is capable of telling very appealing stories about adults that audiences connect with the more they grow older. The second factor would be the concept. I heard that Meryl Streep would be doing a Julia Child biopic with Ephron and that it would be told parallel to the story of a modern-day woman who attempted to also cook Child's recipes. I had no idea if it would be a drama or a comedy but I was still into that initial outline. The third aspect would be the actors/actresses involved. Now I consider Meryl Streep to be some sort of alien because that is the only way to explain this almost other-worldly effect she has had on cinema. I predict that years from now there will be film analysts/historians and thespians that study her large body of work like it's some sort of holy grail (The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie's Choice, Silkwood, A Cry In The Dark, The River Wild, Adaptation, The Hours, Lions For Lambs, Doubt, etc.). The fourth and last factor would be how the film was advertised. Unfortunately Julie and Julia seemed slightly more feminine than I initially gave it credit but after several shining reviews from respectable critics came in, I decided to sit down and see what I thought of the film. One can rarely ever go by advertising, take Inglorious Bastards (which looks mainstream but is supposed to be more art-house) and Where The Wild Things Are (which initially looked childish but I'd be a moron to doubt Spike Jonze's sensibilities) as recent examples of films with misdirecting advertising campaigns. Apologies for the brief aside, but I just wanted to clear that up.

Now when I was young, my grandmother always used to watch the cooking shows that were either on PBS or Food Network. I remember my mom taking me to my grandmother's house before she went off to work and my grandma would always be watching this overly tall French woman on PBS. She looked like a football player as she buttered everything up and she would often squawk or coo with excitement. This was Julia Child (as mentioned above, she is portrayed by Meryl Streep in the film), the woman who wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a book that consists of 524 popular recipes. From my memories of watching Child on PBS, Meryl Streep once again disappears into her role as a high-society sounding woman that really just wants to have fun. Streep captures that good-hearted, happy-go-lucky nature of Julia so well that by the end of the film, one realizes Child looked at her cookbook-writing as a way to share her knowledge (and to feed) the world. Julia Child, the character, has a full and complete character arc.

The same cannot be said for Julie Powell (Amy Adams). Julie is a cubicle worker who becomes so bored with her doll-drum life that she decides to start a blog that will follow her escapades of trying to complete Julia Child's 524 recipes in 365 days. Now this may be the first major film to be nearly centered on the experiencing of blogging and yet the premise of Julie waking up at night to check her replies... is not that convincing. Instead, I'd much rather see her remain obsessive about her quest to learn more about cooking. This is the second time Adams has played an apprentice of sorts to Streep (the first being 2008's Doubt) so Adams does a great job of being the protege but Julia's story is so much more exciting because we witness her discovery of cooking while Julie just attempts to copy what her "predecessor" accomplished. Julie is also highly single-minded about her quest, leading the character to be classified with the title of a "bitchy" person when she is sidelined, but Julie still has some similarities with Julia.

Both women are ambitious and iron-willed with somewhat strong husbands. Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) is an OSS officer who loves his wife and supports her while Eric Powell (Chris Messina) puts up with Julie's quest but he eventually walks out on her after he feels that her project is costing them their marriage (on a side note, Jane Lynch makes a great appearance as Julia's sister). The problem with the male characters is that they are completely regulated to supporting roles as opposed to co-headlining each segment. Not that Streep and Adams can't carry the film, but a male presence would've been interesting to experiment with. Nora Ephron normally work well with romance, the love is just no longer between the "husband and wife" but the love is instead translated toward the "cook and her food." And that is where I have to take note of Ephron's skill as a director, the camera is always showcasing the food making it as much of a character as the cooks themselves. The only other movie that somehow worked food into a meaningful part of the story would be Stanley Tucci's Big Night (1996). The film passes by on a slideshow or a montage several times as we go between the food and the book, the kitchen and work, and Julie and Julia. I for one could just live on rice.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

G.I. Joe

Well... what was I expecting? As if the corny subtitle wasn't a hint, this movie has about the intellectual depth of a flat surface (and yet it's sadly still better than Transformers 2). Based on the Hasbro toy-line, G.I. Joe is an international special peace-keeping task force led by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid). When a young U.S. soldier known as Duke (Channing Tatum) gets caught up in a scheme involving a weapons designer named Cullen (Christopher Eccleston) who plans to blow up the world using some missiles that can melt stuff, we get... a lot of special effects. The special effects aren't artful nor do they look particularly real and aren't even worth a 'wow, that's cool.' The acting is also surprisingly bad. I was at least hoping for their to be a redeeming quality in the ensemble cast (the talented names include Channing Tatum, Dennis Quaid, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Said Taghmaoui, Christopher Eccleston, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sienna Miller, Arnold Vosloo, and Jonathan Pryce while the not so talented list of names includes... Marlon Wayans). Even some of the worst movies nowadays have at least one admirable performance but nothing can be found here. What else is wrong with the movie? It's too long for something so simple, the humor is corny, and it comes off like the producers had a military fetish but decided to look at war as escapist with no realm of seriousness to be found. Nothing is developed with the whole movie coming across as a bunch of sound. The characters are throwaways, I mean Cullen hates the world because his Scottish ancestors were embarrassed years ago and the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) sits around and waits to get briefed by the Joes... a sign that he "must" be doing his job correctly. At least the girls (Rachel Nichols as Scarlett and Sienna Miller as the Baroness) are sexy giving this film one more extra-set-of-on-screen-cleavage than Transformers 2.

Oh. There's also a ninja in the movie.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Funny People

Thanks to folk like Perez Hilton and even websites like Twitter, even celebrities can be stereotyped nowadays. You watch a Youtube clip of an interview with the latest "it" person and you'll sometimes see how conceited they can be. Lately I've seen this with comedians (mostly ones not even worthy of being called B-listers) where they can be so damn opinionated and full of themselves that they come across like the biggest dicks ever. One could surmise that that if celebrities/comedians behave like dicks most of the time then they have no friends, will be somewhat happy on the outside, and be nothing but bitter and cold on the inside. Whether it is because of this stereotype or just the general sense that someone so forward with the public must be darker than we think, we've come to expect a certain complexity from characters like this when they are put on film (see Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy or Dustin Hoffman in Bob Fosse's Lenny or Roy Scheider in Fosse's semi-autobiographical All That Jazz). Writer/director Judd Apatow tries to introduce us to one of these types of characters through George Simmons (Adam Sandler) in his third directorial effort- Funny People.

The story follows comedy movie-star Simmons as he learns that he is about to die from an incurable disease so in his last months on Earth he decides to return to doing stand-up (something that we see that he did when he was younger and that brought him much joy). At the same time, wannabe comedian Ira Wright (a newly trimmed down Seth Rogen) is working hard at... just trying to succeed in general. He lives with a superior joke-writer (Jonah Hill) and a crappy sitcom star (Jason Schwartzman), pines after a female fellow comedian (Aubrey Plaza), and is even ignored by his co-workers (RZA, yes as in the Wu-Tang Clan badass). George sees Ira perform and then asks for Ira to come write jokes for him because he either sees some promise in the guy or he just wants to keep him around as a personal assistant who he can tells his secrets to while remaining emotionally unattached (it really isn't clear at first). When George suddenly finds out that there is a possible chance to beat the disease, he drives to San Francisco to do something he always wanted to do, win back his ex-fiancee (Leslie Mann) from her seemingly cheating husband (Eric Bana).

A problem I've had with several movies lately comes from a lack of character development and Funny People does suffer from that in a more unique way when compared to recent films like Public Enemies and Shrink. It's not I feel there is no character development, I just expect more. The characters don't exactly need a backstory but there seems to be a lack of explaining the motivation behind why George, and even Ira and the supporting cast, act the way they do. Is it the comedy that justifies why George acts like a jerk or is there something else about him? We get vague hints that he is used to a life of fame but like I just said, the hints are too vague to draw a supported conclusion about why we never go deeper into George's psyche. Since Apatow himself comes from the world of comedians, one would think that he would be able to work further into explaining the complex emotion but perhaps it is because his first two features dealt with pop-culture references and the anxiety faced by boys, men, or maybe both. And it's not like the film is over-indulgent or self-conscious, it just seems that Apatow was very careful with how he paced each moment and placed each line of dialogue to the point where we only see the surface of how George Simmons has responded to death. The story is set up for Simmons to learn a lesson or two about cheating death and yet he doesn't learn shit. Not that I have a problem with that personally but the story nearly dictated that Simmons would finally see the error of his ways.

Now despite my issues with the content of the story, that is not to say that the cast didn't perform well with what was available to them (and I don't mean that as an underhanded statement). The movie is after all, surprisingly fifty percent comedy and fifty percent drama (a surprise for audience members who only know about the film from its marketing campaign). For anyone who doubts Sandler's acting I'd like to remind them of Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, and (as much as it pains me to admit it) James L. Brooks' Spanglish. He can act. We normally see him play that childish-man hybrid that I mentioned above but he still knows how to bring an audience likability to him through his performance. If there is any doubt about Rogen, well since he was the writer behind Superbad and Pineapple Express, we know that there is a high-minded individual to be found and all he had to do was apply the same level of understanding of a character to how he performs. The rest of the supporting cast performances are all well timed and handled with the right amount of care (with kudos to Bana, Schwartzman, and Plaza to playing their roles to a tee).

Once again, I don't mean to sound like I disliked Funny People, but I just expected more. Apatow is capable of mastering the same balance of characterization and laughs as James L. Brooks was (and I truly mean that as the highest of all possible compliments I can think of at the moment). So like I said, it is not a completely failed effort thanks to those performances and the humor (and Saving Private Ryan's cinematographer Janusz Kasminski giving everything a well deserved flair) but perhaps with a second viewing I'll be able to stop looking to put this movie on a pedestal and be able to appreciate some form of complexity that Apatow has laced into the plot.