Tuesday, September 1, 2009

August 2009

Quentin Tarantino’s films----all seven of them---are energized, in large part, by his willingness to toss aside traditional movie storytelling methods, substituting a style that resembles a collage of vaguely connected ideas. Every finished picture looks to me as if the eccentric writer-director has taken three or four or more scenarios, some that could have been developed into separate films, and found a way to force them together. Sometimes the pieces barely fit together (“Jackie Brown,” “Death Proof” and both parts of “Kill Bill”), sometimes they fit well enough (“Reservoir Dogs”) and sometimes the parts are so fascinating that not fitting is barely an issue (“Pulp Fiction”).

In his latest cinematic extravaganza, Tarantino has tied three leisurely paced, superbly written and directed set pieces together with an honest to God theme: Jews kill Nazis in World War II. But please don’t bring the kids for a history lesson; this is World War II as a fantasy revenge story, a brazenly comical and bloody reimagining of how the war turned out, filled with first-rate performances (something you don’t expect in a Tarantino film) and intense, savage action, not to mention a primer on Nazi propaganda filmmaking.

The roguish title (taken from a correctly spelled 1978 Italian film) refers to a ragtag band of soldiers----dressed as civilians----recruited to act on their own to kill as many Nazis as they can behind the front lines in occupied France. Most are Jewish, one is a renegade German solider and all are chomping at the bit to not just kill but brutalize and intimidate the Nazi army. Their commander is Lt. Aldo Raine (sounds like Aldo Ray, one of many movie reference), a quick-witted Southerner who demands, owing to his Native American background, every dead Nazi be scalped. That’s just one of the many ways the film humiliates and terrorizes the Nazis----defeat and death wasn’t nearly good enough for those bastards, Tarantino is saying, we need to revisit this stage and really put the hammer to them.

The Nazi-killing Basterds slip into the background during the second half of the film, as a young Jewish woman (superbly portrayed by Mélanie Laurent), who escaped while her family was murdered and now runs a Paris movie theater, plots her revenge against the hierarchy of the Nazi command. In the end, it’s all about the power of the cinema to make a difference. (Heck, even a film critic turned soldier gets into the act.)

Smirking and squinting through the entire operation is the fearless Aldo, played to near perfection by Brad Pitt. He’s crazy, impulsive and having the time of his life killing Nazis. As much as I’ve been bored by the recent dramatic acting of Pitt (“Babel,” “Benjamin Button”), his comedy chops are better than ever (here and his spasmodic health club worker in “Burn After Reading”).

Yet the performance you won’t forget is given by little-known Austrian actor Christoph Waltz as the ever-smiling, talkative, cunning and ruthless SS officer Col. Hans Landa. In the mesmerizing opening sequence, Waltz’s Landa visits a dairy farmer who he suspects is hiding Jewish neighbors. The well-mannered Landa calmly discusses the farmer’s milk, his family, his recollections of the Jewish family he’s pursuing, all as a psychological battle to squeeze out the information he’s sure the farmer has. If only for that scene, Waltz’s performance would be amazing, but he keeps turning up and adding layers to this toxic mix of amused superiority and pure evil. It is far and away the best performance I’ve seen so far this year.

“Inglourious Basterds” isn’t for everyone. Beyond the usual Tarantino indulgences----cartoonish characters (truly weird are Mike Myers as an English general and Rod Taylor as a spooky Winston Churchill), long discussions about trivial subjects, glacier-like pacing and, of course, plenty of spurting blood---you have to accept the fact that he’s rewritten the story of World War II to accommodate his scenario. Yet seen simply as an action adventure war film, it’s a thoroughly entertaining movie and easily Tarantino’s best film since “Pulp Fiction.”

While I’m not a huge admirer of Michael Chabon’s novel---it’s a good debut but with all the shortcomings you’d expect from a writer just out of college----I was taken aback by the wholesale changes to “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” made by director-screenwriter Rawson Marshall Thurber (“Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”). In an interview on the DVD, Chabon says he gave his blessing to Thurber’s rewrite, but he also admits this was the fourth or fifth attempt to bring the book to the screen since it was published in 1988. He was probably just relieved to get it over with.

Most egregious to me is the elimination of the book’s most colorful character, Arthur Lecomte, an unstoppable party animal who’s in love with the book’s narrator, Art Bechstein. Elements of the character are incorporated into another friend of Art’s, Cleveland, but all that does is make Cleveland less believable; he ends up carrying too much of the thematic and symbolic load. Art’s girlfriend (needless to say, the recent University of Pittsburgh grad struggles with his sexual identity), the quirky, devoted Phlox, for no good reason, has been rewritten for the film into a shrew and very annoying minor character (played by Mena Suvari).

Yet even putting the book aside, the film doesn’t offer much of interest; the story is softened by the passage of time and the actors seem uncertain about what to do with their flat, predictable characters.

Twenty years ago, tales of binge drinking, gay sex and a bi-sexual protagonist was edgy and controversial. Now it seems like an indie film cliché. Amazingly, as filmed, the story feels so wholesome and ordinary that I can’t believe Chabon didn’t engage in some binge drinking over the results.

Art (Jon Foster, who played a similar type in “The Door in the Floor”) decides to have fun during the summer (of 1983) after graduation and finds it when he meets a gregarious couple, Cleveland (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jane (Sienna Miller). Art falls for both of them, but the film turns the homosexual angle into something of a lark and puts the emphasis on the bland Art and the blander Jane. The liveliest scenes in the movie involve Art’s mobster father, played by a very scary, very convincing Nick Nolte.

The film makes some use of the old neighborhoods of Pittsburgh, but most of the film could have taken place anywhere, despite the title.

Director Curtis Hanson’s take on Chabon’s “Wonder Boys” is a funnier, more insightful picture, populated with interesting, believable characters. When I saw the film during its theatrical run in 2000, I disliked it, finding both the socially backward, emotionally immature college student (Tobey Maguire) and the indulgent, dope-smoking professor-novelist (Michael Douglas) nothing more than literary devices. They still are, but seeing it again recently, I appreciated the literate, witty script (by Steve Kloves, who went on to do most of the “Harry Potter” films) and the wonderful supporting players. Robert Downey Jr. is a hoot as the professor’s gay book editor who brings a transvestite to the book fare being held at Pitt. Also memorable are Rip Torn as an egotistical novelist, Frances McDormand as the dean of the English department and Prof. Tripp’s mistress, Richard Thomas as her husband and president of the school who’s obsessed with Marilyn Monroe and Katie Holmes as a student who keeps trying to seduce her professor.

I must admit that when I saw the film nine years ago, Douglas’ Tripp came off like a pitiful jackass----an old guy trying to be cool. Now that I’m older than the character, I find him more believable, entertaining and even sympathetic. What that means, I don’t think I want to know.

This entertaining, but forgettable movie intermingles a sweetly amusing valentine to the iconic cooking writer and TV personality Julia Child with an equally lightweight story of an unfulfilled 30-year-old woman who uses Child’s cookbook to regain a sense of herself.

Child, as impersonated by Meryl Streep, comes off exactly as she did in her popular cooking show: an unabashed, uninhibited eccentric who above all else loved food. Unfortunately, she seems about as real as an animated character. Writer-director Nora Ephron efforts to make Streep tower over others in the film (Child was 6 foot 2), shooting from odd angles and placing her in scaled-down sets, adds to the fairy-tale feeling of the film and the one-dimensional portrait of Child. Too often, Streep’s Child reminded me of Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings.”

Stanley Tucci, who, in a juicier role, was Streep’s able assistant in “The Devil Wears Prada,” here plays Child’s husband Paul, an American diplomat. He’s given little to do, but in an odd aside, his character is recalled to Washington at the height of McCarthyism and his loyalty questioned. The whole episode seems completely out of place in this story.

But for all its faults, Child’s part of the film----mostly set in Paris in the 1940s and ‘50s as she and a pair of friends toil away at the French cookbook that would make her famous----shines compared to the dreary, clichéd world of Julie Powell. This discontent New Yorker, circa 2004, working in a tedious government job, decides to cook through Child’s recipes in 365 days. And, of course, blog about it. The crazy project results in frustration and domestic problems, but mostly great food and an improved self worth. Amy Adams as Julie pulls out all her charm and pluckiness to win us over, but her tale is so predictable and artificially feel-good that I never could build up much interest in her.

At one point, Julie and husband Eric (Chris Messina) are seen enjoying Dan Aykroyd’s hilarious imitation of Child from “Saturday Night Live.” If only this film had gone beyond the insight of that comic moment and told us something about this famous and influential woman. At least, I wish Ephron had found a better way to explain Child’s importance in the world of food.

BAD GIRL (1931)
This simple story of a young couple who meet cute and then struggle to hold on to their love oozes with the bleak, sorrowful mood of the country during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, it’s more interesting as a time capsule than it is as a film.

Frank Borzage, who won the best director Oscar for this movie, starts out making an ahead-of-its-time statement about the mistreatment of women, as Dorothy insults every man who tries to make time with her. We see various men, including her supervisor, attempt to “date” her, but she’s not interested in guys who are just after “one thing.” But just when you think you’re about to watch the story of a liberated, Depression-era woman, she falls for Eddie and “Bad Girl” becomes a sentimental love story.

It takes an interesting turn when Dorothy’s brother throws her out of the house because she was at Eddie’s until 4 a.m., assuming she has ruined the family name. But moral issues are quickly dispensed with and the picture becomes a contrived melodrama. In a drawn-out, silly plotline, both Eddie and Dorothy believe the other doesn’t really want the baby they are about to have.

James Dunn, who 17 years later would win an Oscar as the alcoholic father in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” plays Eddie as a diffident, inexplicably bitter man, while Sally Eilers supplies the real energy to the proceedings as Dorothy. Both actors were career supporting players, but in “Bad Girls” they work well as sincere, sympathetic stars.

Not only did Borzage win an Oscar (over far superior work by King Vidor in “The Champ” and Josef von Sternberg in “Shanghai Express”) but the film was a best picture nominee (losing to “Grand Hotel”) and screenwriter Edwin Burke won for his adaptation.

This Belgian film doesn’t make for a pleasant evening at the cinema. But sometimes, believe it or not, movies are worth seeing because they illuminate a part of the world we don’t know much about. That remains the overriding concern of the best filmmakers of Europe, which includes brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, writer-directors best known for “Rosetta (1999) and “The Child” (2004). Their latest may be their most impressive, offering a look at the sleazy, dangerous world involving the buying and selling of residency papers. The film received the best screenplay award at the 2008 Cannes film festival.

Lorna (Arta Dobroshi) is an Albanian immigrant barely tolerating her drug-addicted Belgium husband (Jérémie Renier), who was paid to marry her so she could secure legal status in the country. Her taxi-driving partner has already arranged for her to marry a Russian man, so he can become eligible for residency and is anxious for a quick ending to her current marriage. This plan starts to fall apart when Lorna develops sympathy for her temporary husband after he shows determination to break his habit.

The characters of “Lorna’s Silence” aren’t very sympathetic, but their plights as they grind out joyless livings with one foot in the crime world, has become a universal problem that can’t be ignored. As Lorna, Dobroshi, an inexperienced Albanian actress, gives a tough, unsettling performance revealing the humanity beneath her criminal, callous surface. Nearly as impressive is Renier, who also played a druggie in “In Bruges,” as the razor-thin heroin addict who desperately wants a new life.

I’m unaware of the politics of the Dardenne brothers, but one of the strengths of this film is that it doesn’t ask you to feel one way or another on the immigration policies that have created this underworld. Without any adornment, it offers a glimpse at the desperate lives millions across Europe are living.

Writer-director, and former journalist, Rod Lurie has taken the basic outline of the Judith Miller-Valerie Plame imbroglio----turning up the melodramatic volume a bit----and fashioned an uncompromising study of the on-going threat to the First Amendment.

This being a Hollywood film, the issues become less subtle than their real life counterparts, especially when it comes to the picture’s hero, political journalist Rachel Armstrong (Kate Beckinsale). Unlike the New York Times’ Miller, Rachel is presented as a writer without an agenda or questionable connections to the administration. And unlike the real-life controversy, the film’s reporter actually writes the story that lands her in jail. In the movie, Rachel reports that an uncover CIA agent’s report on Venezuela was ignored before the president ordered air strikes and, citing an unnamed source, names the agent.

Beckinsale, the slight British actress who has become an unlikely sci-fi action star (the “Underworld” series), convincingly portrays this ambitious newspaper reporter who finds herself in the middle of a political power play, and pays a high price to maintain her journalistic integrity. By refusing to reveal her source she’s doing the right thing, but archaic laws are utilized to punish her.

Alan Alda plays her attorney, an upscale First Amendment specialist who at first seems more concerned with her wardrobe than the case but ends up becoming her staunchest ally.

The Plame character, Erica Van Doren, played by Vera Farmiga (the girlfriend in “The Departed”) with her usual clenched intensity, also is very easy to hate at first but ultimately gains sympathy as she faces untenable choices.

Movie critic turned filmmaker Lurie has made some heavy-handed political movies (“The Contender” and the polemic “Deterrence”) but here he’s written sympathetic, believable characters and put them in very real, stressful circumstances. There’s no need to fabricate crazy scenarios (as in his previous films) to examine the corruption of American politics and government---just turn on the evening news.

While lacking both the thriller energy of “Body of Lies” and that film’s big-picture interest in the future of journalism, “Nothing But the Truth” offers a very personal and poignant look at the costs journalists often pay to stand up to a power-abusing government.

Don’t be fooled by the title or the fact that the movie stars Robin Williams: This is an unpleasant, irrational picture about a sexually perverted teen and his inept father who lies his way to fame. Not exactly the family film the title implies. And all attempts at dark humor or sarcasm fall victim to the jackhammer-like touch of writer-director Bobcat Goldthwait, longtime standup and friend of Williams.

A miscast Williams plays Lance Clayton, the single parent of a pornography-obsessed, hate-spewing, ignorant son who ends up accidentally killing himself (trust me, you really don’t want to know the details). His father, a high-school English teacher, attempts to give his son some dignity he never had when alive and composes a suicide note for him, painting a picture of a depressed, poetic, lost soul who was misunderstood by everyone. The rest of the film plays out accordingly: the vile boy becomes beloved by his former classmates and teachers as Lance fabricates a journal and encourages the fake image of his dead son he’s created.

Some critics have applauded the film as a comedic indictment of the culture of over-praising those who die young. But the son is depicted as so repulsive (Hitler was better liked than this kid) that Bobcat’s points are lost in the sheer ridiculousness of the situation.

Lance is a childish, scared rabbit of a man who struggles to carry on a conversation with fellow teachers. He’s such a sad excuse for an adult that it’s pretty clear why his son turned out to be such a social outcast. But it’s more than the character’s flaws that sink this film and performance. Half the time, Williams looks totally confused, expressing emotions that are out of place and unconnected to what the other characters are saying. Motivations change drastically from scene to scene and no one seems to be listening to what anyone else is saying.

“World’s Greatest Dad” makes most straight-to-DVD films, or even recent Williams bombs such as “Patch Adams,” “Bicentennial Man” and “Jakob the Liar,” play like Oscar contenders, so I have no idea how it rated a theatrical release. In fact, I can’t understand why Williams didn’t have all the prints destroyed. It’s really that bad.

Unlike Sofia Coppola, whose films bear little resemblance to her father’s, Jennifer Lynch is clearly a disciple of her strange, brilliant father.

Her second movie comes 16 years after her controversial debut “Boxing Helena,” which gained more fame in court than on the screen because of a legal battle between the studio and Kim Basinger, the film’s original star. The picture told the bizarre story of a surgeon who amputates the limbs of the woman he’s in love with. Considering the high-profile critical and box office failure of “Boxing Helena,” it’s not surprising that it took her this long to get a second chance behind the camera (though she also was hampered by physical problems after a car accident).

This bloody, amoral tale filled with psychotic policemen, spaced-out druggies, an irritating family on vacation and two very odd FBI agents unfolds as the survivors of a murder rampage are interrogated. The family’s quiet but intuitive young daughter, who notices details the adults around her are too distracted to see, offers the only respite from the picture’s parade of unpleasant people.

But this being a Lynch film, everything isn’t as it seems on the surface and when secrets are revealed, it makes everything that happened before more interesting. While the picture never achieves the nightmarish, disjoined hyper-reality of her father’s best works, it lives in that world, especially in the twisted performance of the cops and the federal agents played by Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond.

Both of these fine actors, who haven’t had good roles in years (Pullman in 1998’s “Zero Effect” as a wonderfully bizarre detective; Ormond since she burst on the scene as the title character of the 1995 remake of “Sabrina”) re-establish their acting chops with these puzzling, off-kilter characters and are the best reasons to see the film.

The seemingly pointless bloodletting can be hard to endure, but “Surveillance” has much more going on. While the film can’t be called a success, it certainly indicates that Lynch (who co-wrote the film with Kent Harper) has the potential to be more than just a famous filmmaker’s daughter.