Sunday, February 07, 2010

View from the Tank: Multi-Pak Edition

It's been a while since I've done one of these, so I figured it was time.

LE SAMOURAI (1967). Wildly overrated, in my opinion. Alain Delon is comical (unintentionally so), not cool. The whole super-cool hitman schtick is ridiculous. The story is not nearly as clever or intriguing as the filmmakers appear to imagine it is. (Longtime readers may recall that I had a similar reaction to LE CERCLE ROUGE.) I think most people who profess to love this movie are into it because it is a French "gangster" movie, and that sounds cool. I guess some of the shots are interesting enough, but really, what is the big deal? B-

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) This was the best movie of last year. This may be Tarantino's best film -- or perhaps just behind PULP FICTION. The story is fantastically inventive. The writing is never lazy. I knew something special was going on during the first scene, when Hans Landa (the incredible Cristoph Waltz) is speaking to a French farmer about rats, eagles, and squirrels: the conversation seemed like an absurd tangent, but it was irresistible, deeply satisfying -- much like the opening discussion of Big Macs and Quarter Pounders in Europe in PULP FICTION. The French pub scene must be one of the greatest scenes in any of Tarantino's films.

The film works together the best qualities of Tarantino's earlier work, brings it into an alternate history, imports fantastic German, French, and English actors, and it all works. Diane Kruger (Bridget von Hammersmark), Mélanie Laurent (Shoshanna), Daniel Brühl (Frederick Zoller), and Michael Fassbender (Archie Hicox) all turn in astoundingly good performances -- Kruger and Fassbender in particular. Brad Pitt as Aldo Raines is fine, and not nearly as much of a distraction as I expected. (The one misfire on the casting, I thought, was Eli Roth, who was terrible and over the top as Donny Donowitz, Raines's right-hand man. I cringed every time Roth spoke.)

This is a rich movie experience. It's a movie in love with movies, paying homage to Spaghetti Westerns and the films of Weimar Germany, with sly nods to gangster films, earlier Tarantino films, etc. Writing, story, and acting are all crucially important here. This film is the anti-AVATAR. Whereas AVATAR represents the elevation of the visual and technological above all else -- INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS represents what is possible when filmmakers care very much about each word of dialogue, about the inventiveness and originality of their stories, and the quality of their actors' performances. A+

THIS IS IT (2009) The one thing I remember best about this movie was being shocked by how good Michael Jackson still was, just days before his death. His voice sounded strong, and his dancing, though slightly slowed, remained mesmerizing. There was a moment during the movie (perhaps during "Man in the Mirror") when I formed a Twitter update in my mind: "Put up a satellite. Aim it away from Earth. Play this soundtrack on repeat." Thinking about it now, that would have been a dumb tweet, but it says something about the emotional impact of this film, especially for Jackson fans. We won't see his like again anytime soon. Not a great movie, but a useful historical document. B-

THE HURT LOCKER (2009) I could have done without the little quote at the beginning of the movie, something to the effect of "War is a drug." That's not a particularly interesting or insightful message, but that's all THE HURT LOCKER appears to offer. A friend of mine put it best: "It's like a Fox television show about the war." That observation seemed exactly right to me. This movie looked and felt like the makers of FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS had done a show about the war, right down to the jerky, frenetic camera work. The tension inherent in the movie -- it is, after all, mostly a series of scenes about finding and defusing bombs -- works and is handled well, the acting is fine, the dialogue simple and believable, but, still, I left the movie thinking "So what?"

Part of this might have stemmed from my disappointment with the movie's studiously apolitical approach to the war. I can somewhat understand the choice not to delve into the justness or unjustness of the war -- not all movies have to be about politics or ideology -- but the robotically neutral point of view in this movie left it feeling soulless and empty. War is not a drug. War is a choice. And this movie offers no insight into why we made our choice. B-

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER (2009) Gimmicky and cloying, with flashes of interest, but mostly mass-produced "indie-friendly" pabulum. Relying on The Smiths and "wacky" Ringo Starr references to establish some kind of "indie" or "quirky" atmosphere is lazy. The random, mixed-up chronological order of the movie was occasionally effective, but mostly felt like a gimmick. In fact, most of the embellishments in this movie (with the exception of the excellent scene set to Hall and Oates' "You Make My Dreams Come True") felt like gimmicks.

It's my view that this movie felt the need to load up on gimmicks because what was under all those gimmicks was a standard romantic comedy -- something neither indie nor quirky. So swap out Meg Ryan, swap in Zooey Deschanel (who, by now, like Michael Cera, is permanently typecast as herself), throw in some cartoons, an annoying pseudo-ironic narrator, references to The Smiths, a hip soundtrack, a scene with a table Ms. Pac Man, and, Voila! You have tricked out your standard romantic comedy as something palatable for twenty- or thirty-somethings who see themselves as hip. Note that even the title of this film is pointlessly, ostentatiously gimmicky, to no effect. What is the point of putting parentheses around 500? None. There is no point to it (besides weakly gesturing toward stale pomo maneuvers, blah). The title tries to broadcast, loud and clear, that "THIS IS A HIP MOVIE -- NOT AT ALL A STANDARD-ISSUE ROMANTIC COMEDY". It's like putting thick black-rimmed "smart" glasses on Tom Hanks. Speaking of which, Josh Gordon-Levitt is okay here, but nothing special. C

AN EDUCATION (2009) A strong, finely crafted, finely acted film, with a disappointing ending. Carey Mulligan, Peter Saarsgard, and Alfred Molina are all excellent. There's nothing groundbreaking going on here; it's just a compelling, well put together coming-of-age period piece featuring some fine actors. The ending sucked away a little bit of my enthusiasm for the film. Still, a very fine film. B+


Stave said...

Of this list, I've only seen Inglorious Basterds and 500 Days, and I agree with you completely, so this is clearly an insightful and intelligent post!

Darren said...

This post was humming along nicely until the part when you gave 500 Days of Summer only a 'C'. That's when I stopped reading and had to jab myself in the eye.

Octopus Grigori said...

Darren: That is a hazard in reading these posts. There should be a more clearly posted warning somewhere. But, yes, it's true, I mostly hated (500) Days of Summer.

Stave said...

I often like movies about awkward love stories involving awkward guys who are way too into music (e.g., High Fidelity, Adventureland), but I have to concur with my esteemed former colleague that 500 Days was pretty lame. It had nothing new to say (yes, my job sucks too), it cropped downtown LA in highly misleading ways, and it offended me that meeting a new, super hot girl played such a large role in the dude getting over the doldrums.

margaret said...

re: 500 days of summer. the guy loses the girl not your average romantic comedy that's what made it better than most. I thought it was clever.