Archive for June, 2010

The Gory Glory of “Inglourious Basterds”

Posted in Action, Comedy, Drama, Oscar winner, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , on June 14, 2010 by ericstraus

Quentin Tarantino is certainly known as a director who pushes the limits of filmmaking, with particular regard to violence.  “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs” are gritty, intense movies that force us as viewers to toe the line between story-driven violence and gratuitous violence.  With his latest film “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino again pushes the boundaries of what kind of violence is acceptable to see, but this time there’s a twist.  The majority of the victims in the film are Nazis, and as loathsome and evil as many of them were, how much gory, bloody brutality are we allowed to watch them endure?  At what point can we stop laughing at Nazis getting their vicious comeuppance?  Combined with some great acting and a good story, Tarantino really sticks this question to us throughout a very good movie.

Set in German-occupied France toward the end of World War II, “Inglourious Basterds” tells the tale of two storylines that merge near the film’s end.  Storyline number one is about an elite group of Jewish-American soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt).  Raine makes it clear to his cadre what their purpose is: to not only hunt and kill Nazis, but to make an example of them, to drive fear into the German’s hearts.  Raine explains that he expects his soldiers to literally scalp at least 100 Nazis per person.  “The Basterds,” as they become known throughout France, quickly garner the reputation that Raine desires.  They always leave one survivor to report back to the higher-ups, and they carve a swastika in that survivor’s forehead.  Raine’s group quickly becomes the thorn in Hitler’s side.  When an opportunity comes along to eliminate every high-ranking Nazi in one location, The Basterds make a plan and prepare for battle.

The other storyline is a tale of revenge, centered around a clever Nazi colonel named Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz).  Dubbed the “Jew Hunter,” he is charged with rounding up (or killing) Jewish families hiding in France.  After her family is murdered while hiding in a farmhouse, young Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) escapes as Landa watches.  Years later, Shosanna has gained ownership of a movie theater in Paris.  When Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller takes an interest in her, she develops a plan for revenge.  Both her plan and Raine’s plan involve killing all the Nazis attending a German propaganda film premiere at Shosanna’s theater, and the film goes back and forth between storylines until the film’s climax.

There is a good amount of laughter for such dramatic subject matter – Raine and his group have some great lines, and even while we see them scalping Nazis, jokes are batted about.  But the real charm and humor of the film comes from Waltz’s performance, for which he won an Oscar.  He presents himself as a man of class and intelligence, and during his interrogations he so subtly condescends and lets us know he already knows the answers to the questions he is asking.  The opening scene of the film where Landa gradually breaks down the farmer’s guard and makes him admit he’s hiding the family beneath the floorboards, is simply amazing to watch.  The dialogue Tarantino wrote for him certainly helped his performance, but Waltz’s eyes could have won Oscars themselves – we see his thoughts and know his intent simply by looking into his eyes. 

The other actors do terrific jobs as well.  Laurent is wonderful, hiding her seething emotions while she uses Zoller’s infatuation to her advantage as she plans her revenge.  She does get to meet Landa in another scene, and we can see the intensity building up in her as she fights to keep her identity secret from Landa.  Pitt is a great actor, and while this was not his best role, he brings a good amount of levity.  The most amusing scene with Pitt’s Raine is near the end, as he has infiltrated the movie premiere by posing as an Italian stuntman.  When Landa, who is fluent in many languages, begins to speak with him in Italian, Raine answers using his Tennessee accent, creating an unheard of linguistic juxtaposition. 

It’s a fun story, seeing how the two plans mesh at the end of the film.  But as I mentioned, at what point do we stop laughing at seeing Nazi heads exploding?  Tarantino does what countless filmmakers have done in the past: make the Nazis seem inhuman, and therefore it’s acceptable to laugh when their limbs are hacked off, especially when it’s Jewish soldiers doing the killing.  But how much is too much?  Is there a limit?  I’ll admit I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think Tarantino does either.  But I believe he was trying to find it with this film – and maybe it’s not just about Nazis, maybe he was asking a broader question about violence in general.  The German film premiering at Shosanna’s theater is the story of Zoller’s miraculous victory over an allied assault; he gunned down over 300 soldiers while trapped in a bell tower.  With every American death on screen, the Nazis cheer with delight, including Hitler himself.  It’s an ironic sentiment because that’s exactly what the audience of “Inglourious Basterds” is doing with each humor-infused Nazi death in the film.  So at what point do we, as human beings, stop cheering for death? 

Perhaps Tarantino’s vision was not as deep as I’m making it out to be.  Regardless, his film can be enjoyed for what it is – an original fictional storyline about WWII with great characters, entertaining dialogue and good action sequences…pretty glorious, actually.

Final Grade for Inglourious Basterds: A-

“Fantastic Mr. Fox” Lives Up to its Name

Posted in Action, Comedy, Family/Kids, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , , on June 8, 2010 by ericstraus

There are always certain elements you can expect from director Wes Anderson’s films, such as “Rushmore,” “The Royal Tennenbaums” and “Life Aquatic”:  oddball characters that have emotional issues, writing that seems both realistic and unnatural, and an overall commentary on family dynamics.  All of these hold true in “The Fantastic Mr. Fox,” a stop-motion animation film based on Roald Dahl’s book.  But the one aspect of this film not usually found in Anderson’s work is slapstick comedy/physical humor; while the film is not dominated by this, it’s a welcome addition to compliment the entertaining story, great vocal acting, and a fun adaptation of the original novel.

In Dahl’s world, animal society mirrors human society – the animals have jobs, decorated homes, clothes, etc.  Most of them have embraced civility in place of their wild animal instincts.  George Clooney voices the title character, whose main vocation is stealing farm animals to feed his family.  His wife Mrs. Fox (Meryl Streep) accompanies him on these raids, but after nearly getting caught and announcing that she is pregnant, she convinces Mr. Fox that it’s time to settle down and focus on family, not midnight mischief.  We then fast-forward 12 years later, and find Mr. and Mrs. Fox have a son Ash (Jason Schwartzman).  The arrival of Ash’s cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson) creates some discord – Kristofferson is a quiet, Zen-like character who becomes the object of Ash’s envy as he endears himself to Mr. Fox.  Mr. Fox has a job writing a column for an animal magazine, but we can tell he is not comfortable with his button-down, 9 to 5 life.  He seems to have more trouble suppressing his natural urges than the other animals, and when an opportunity arises to create some adventure, he seizes it.  On the pretense of wanting a home to be proud of, he buys a new house underground beneath a large tree.  He does this against the advice of his attorney Badger (Bill Murray), who warns him that the tree is near the farms of three of the meanest farmers around – Boggis, Bunce and Bean.  Boggis owns a chicken farm, Bunce has ducks and geese, and Bean has turkeys, apples and alcoholic cider.  But being near these farms is precisely why Mr. Fox wants this property.

He soon enlists the help of an opossum named Kylie, a local handyman of sorts, to raid the three farms.  Mr. Fox uses his cunning to create elaborate plans, and Kristofferson also joins the mischief.  Soon the Fox’s cupboard is stocked with pilfered goods, arousing the suspicion of Mrs. Fox that her husband is back to his old ways.  The three farmers become aware of their nemesis and band together to capture him.

The film is fraught with humor, both physical and via dialogue.  The animation, though seemingly low-tech, is very entertaining and charming.  The writing toes the line between clever and dramatic, which is ultimately similar to the balancing act that Mr. Fox must face – he has to balance who he is instinctively with his familial responsibilities; he steals food to feed his family, but the ire he creates in the farmers ends up putting his family and other animals’ lives in danger.  Kristofferson becomes the son-I-never-had character for Mr. Fox, forcing Ash to do his best to win his father’s love by trying to steal back his tail, which Mr. Fox lost while being shot at by the farmers.  Like with other Anderson films, we see elements of our own family dynamics in the Fox family, harmonized with both absurdity and realism.  The action is quick, and the film flies by at a scant 87 minutes.  But it’s a fun ride.

Final Grade for The Fantastic Mr. Fox: B+

“Daybreakers” Sheds Some Light on Vampires

Posted in Action, Horror with tags , , , , , , on June 7, 2010 by ericstraus

With the prevalence of vampire film and television shows these days, it’s hard to find any originality in the genre.  HBO’s series “True Blood” has taken an interesting angle, creating a world where vampires are integrated into human society, and the backlash that accompanies such inclusion.  The film “Daybreakers” takes the concept one step further, positing a futuristic world where vampires are not the minority – they are the overwhelming majority, and it’s the humans who are outcasts and must struggle to survive.  Combining elements of “The Matrix” and “28 Days Later,” it’s a decent vampire movie with solid acting, gory blood special effects, and a thought-provoking take on what’s becoming a stale genre.

The film takes place 10 years in the future, and we learn that a vampire virus of sorts infected 90% of the earth’s population in the present day; the virus either killed its victims or turned them into vampires.  This new majority gave the human race a choice – become a vampire, or become food.  So for the last 10 years, humans have been on the run, hiding from the rest of the world.  The vampires have continued living as a civilized society; they all have jobs, apartments, homes, families, etc.  The only changes, major as they are, are that they cannot go out in daylight, and must feed on human blood.  But technology has evolved enough to make vampire life easier – underground tunnels allow vampires to go from place to place during the day, and their cars are equipped with “daylight mode,” where the windows darken and the driver uses several monitors to see outside.  Their food source is at the heart of the matter – major corporations now harvest human blood in mass quantities for distribution.  Vampires line up at Starbucks to get a shot of blood or two in their coffee. 

Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is a hematologist for one of these corporations, working to find a blood substitute so that vampires won’t have to rely on humans for their sustenance.  Dalton is one of a minority of vampires who believe that hunting humans for their blood is wrong – he looks with disdain at the horrific machines that slowly drain naked humans of their blood.  Under the direction of Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), he works hard trying to synthesize a blood substitute because the human population is dwindling, and therefore so is the vampires’ food.  Some vampires have begun transformation due to their starvation, becoming evil, vile creatures with wings and tails, living in the tunnels underground.  Dalton comes across a band of humans on the run, and as he is sympathetic to their cause, he joins them and meets Lionel “Elvis” Cormac (Willem Dafoe), who we learn was turned into a vampire but then changed back through controlled exposure to ultraviolet rays.  Dalton makes it his mission to harness that power so that vampirism can be cured.

The gore is not gratuitous, but we are dealing with blood as a main character of the film, so there is plenty of it to be splattered around.  The film does pose an intriguing societal situation – if Dalton finds a cure, would vampires want to become human again?  Dalton’s brother Frankie (Michael Dorman) disagrees – he tells us he never “fit in” as a human.  But as a hunter of humans for the military, he feels like he belongs, and he rejects Edward’s compassion for the human species.  In reality, this question is true for anyone who has a disability or is not considered to be “normal” – if there was a cure, would you want it?  Or should people embrace who they are, regardless of what they are? 

The vampires do not have the luxury of pondering that choice for long, because in the film, if they kill all the humans, they kill themselves, hence the corporations’ need for a blood substitute.  The dialogue is well-written, the action sequences are fun, and overall, it’s an enjoyable vampire movie that manages to maintain some originality.  The only thing missing was Barry Manilow’s song “Daybreak” somewhere in the film.

Final Grade for Daybreakers: B

Picking “The Lovely Bones” Clean

Posted in Drama, Oscar-nominated, Thriller with tags , , , , on June 3, 2010 by ericstraus

You probably remember the old Jerry Seinfeld joke about Grape-Nuts:  “You open the box, no grapes, no nuts…what’s the deal?”  This film’s title immediately brought that joke to mind, because you watch the film, no lovely, no bones…what’s the deal?  Apart from a spectacularly creepy performance by Stanley Tucci, “The Lovely Bones” is a fairly non-compelling story that lacks suspense, utilizes no original special effects, and offers no catharsis or relevant message whatsoever.

We find out in the first couple of minutes that young Susie Salmon (played by Saoirse Ronan, who also narrates the film) has been murdered by a neighbor.  The story details what led up to her capture and death, and then follows the aftermath in both reality and Susie’s experience in some form of purgatory.  The family and community are shattered by her disappearance, and as time goes on they begin to accept that she will not be coming back.  A police investigation turns up her hat, but no other evidence or answers.  Her friends and family try to move on with their lives, but after a while, Susie’s younger sister Lindsey begins to suspect that their neighbor George (Tucci) is hiding something.  Susie’s father Jack (Mark Wahlberg) also begins to sense something amiss with George, and eventually George has to dispose of Susie’s body.

During all this, Susie drifts aimlessly through a strange world, where landscapes change instantly, weather and sky fluctuate constantly, and she meets another girl named Holly who helps her understand what’s happened to her.  Susie tries hard to communicate with her family, as she is able to see things that are happening in the “real world.”  But she also spends time cavorting through rolling hillsides and rainbows; she is told that she is not in heaven…yet.  But the world around her seems to change in stride with her mind set.

Those of us familiar with Peter Jackson’s epic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy have no trouble recognizing the special effects used in “Bones.”  It seems like Susie’s purgatory world was created solely for Jackson’s entertainment…so that he could run through his menu of special effects to his heart’s content.  But other than being a vehicle for CG effects, Susie’s limbo universe serves no purpose to the film.  Her father apparently can sense that she isn’t completely “gone,” but otherwise Susie’s experience is completely disconnected from the rest of the film.

Toward the end, we are offered a glimpse into the future to see George’s demise, which is completely unrelated to anything that has occurred during the rest of the film.  In essence, it was like watching two films simultaneously; the story of Susie’s family and their quest to cope, and the story of Susie in purgatory.  But as I mentioned, there is no clear connection between the two, leaving us wondering why we should be interested in either story.

Ronan definitely has a future in the movie business – she is a very good actor, and along with Tucci, it’s the only reason to pay any attention to this film.  But overall the film is little more than a docu-drama about Susie’s ordeal, and an effects-laden self-pleasuring by Jackson.

Final Grade for The Lovely Bones: C-

“A Serious Man” is Seriously Good

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , , , on June 1, 2010 by ericstraus

Dark comedy, or “quirky drama,” is where Joel and Ethan Coen have found their greatest successes over their illustrious career as filmmakers.  From “Raising Arizona” to “Barton Fink,” and from “Fargo” to “The Big Lebowski,” the Coens are masters at creating memorable characters, great dialogue and fascinating backdrops for their stories.  There have certainly been some disappointing moments along the way, but their latest offering, “A Serious Man,” is a triumph, blending comedy with oddball drama, bizarre characters and a truly skewed look at Jewish-American culture and 60’s suburbia.

The person referenced in the film’s title is Professor Larry Gopnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), who has a lot to deal with.  He is coming up for tenure where he teaches, which is threatened when he is offered a bribe by a Korean student; after a clean bill of health from his doctor, he is later ominously summoned back to discuss the results of his X-rays; his pot-head son Danny only talks to him when he needs the TV antenna fixed; his daughter Sarah is stealing money for a nose job; his gun-toting neighbor keeps infringing on his property line with his lawn mower; his brother Arthur is a mysterious house guest, locking himself in the bathroom for long periods of time while draining a cyst on his neck; and his wife Judith has fallen in love with another man, completely to Larry’s surprise.  Eventually Larry and Arthur are forced to move into a motel when Judy’s lover Sy moves into the house, and during all this Larry tries to find answers through his faith, getting counsel from various rabbis, but finding little help.

Despite the pitfalls that keep happening to Larry, his obliviousness to his family’s problems is quite entertaining, balancing our sympathy for him with laughter at his misfortunes.  His wife’s lover Sy calmly tries to console him and even befriend him, leaving Larry, and us, frustrated to no end.  Arthur, played by Richard Kind, is a prototypical Coen Brothers character – he’s a mathematical genius, creating probability equations at a super-human level, but uses his skills to gamble, for which he gets in trouble with the law.  He uses a 60’s medical technology device to drain his cyst, and comically answers “Just a minute!” every time he is asked to get out of the bathroom. 

The suburbia aspect is a key element of the film – the only true accomplishment Larry feels is in fixing the TV ariel on the roof, particularly when he catches his attractive neighbor sunbathing nude in her backyard.  The property dispute with his neighbor is steeped in truth.  And his son’s daily routine consists of running down the street from the school bully/pot dealer to whom he owes money.  Suburbia is supposed to be a haven; an oasis of “normalcy” in an evil, crazy world.  But Larry’s life is anything but normal and sane, despite how much he wants to believe that it is.

There is a moment near the end of the film that brings everyone together – Danny’s Bar Mitzvah.  Despite each family member’s failings, they all take their faith seriously, and seeing Danny “become a man” brings smiles to all their faces; even Judy and Larry share a proud parental moment.  But naturally things are not completely normal – Danny is stoned out of his mind as he tries to perform the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, and nearly blows it. 

Nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, it’s the Coen’s best comedic film in many years.  The film conveys the message that just when we think things are fine, something else arises to complicate everything, be it Larry’s tenure and his health, to his marriage and his kids, to the film’s ending – it seems like a happy ending, but the final shot shows more doom on the way, which justly sums up the movie. 

Final Grade for A Serious Man:  A-