Monday, August 31, 2009

Movie Review: The Final Destination 3-D

The Final Destination 3-D **
Directed By:
David R. Ellis.
Written By: Eric Bress.
Starring: Bobby Campo (Nick O'Bannon), Shantel VanSanten (Lori Milligan), Nick Zano (Hunt Wynorski), Haley Webb (Janet Cunningham), Mykelti Williamson (George Lanter), Krista Allen (MILF / Samantha), Andrew Fiscella (Charlie 'Gearhead' Kewzer), Justin Welborn (Racist).

No one would ever accuse the Final Destination series of being high art, but the three films that came before this one in the series were at least entertaining diversions. They followed the same basic plot outline – right before a major accident, someone gets a vision of what will happen, causes a scene and then they, and a few other people who would have otherwise died, escape with their lives. But instead of just being able to go back to their normal lives, they are once again fearful for their lives, when one after another dies in a series of increasing bizarre “accidents”. Eventually, the group figures out what the old group knew – that they were supposed to die in the accident, and death is not happy that they didn’t, so it comes after them. The only way to break the cycle is to intervene in the death of one of the people in the chain before death gets to you. You die in the same order you should have died in the accident.

Sure, it’s a gimmicky premise, especially when you get done to the fourth movie in the franchise (this one), but then again sometimes gimmicks work. Deciding to shoot this movie in 3-D was a stroke of genius – now instead of just really bizarre deaths, you get to see really bizarre deaths in 3-D. Who doesn’t want to see that?

This movie does in fact deliver what it promises. The opening accident, set at a racetrack, is grisly in a cartoon like way, and the accidental deaths that follow are the same way. Director David R. Ellis takes joy in staging these events – especially in 3-D – and he really enjoys screwing with the audiences head, setting up one accident that build the tension, then revealing it to be a fake. Before the audience has a chance to breath, death then comes out of nowhere. In one death scene in particular – in a beauty salon – in pretty ingenious.

The problems with the movie all occur when people are not dying. Then we are stuck watching a bunch of really bad actors delivering a bunch of really bad lines. I can honestly say that I have never seen any of the four main actors before this movie, and I doubt I will see much of them after this one. I don’t think any of these four will become a Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ali Larter, AJ Cook or Seann William Scott to name three of the more successful actors who appeared in previous installments (hell, none of them are even as good as Devon Sawa). The presence of Myketlti Williamson just serves as a reminder of how good he used to be. And the rest of the cast are so nameless and faceless that even the credits list them with such character names as MILF, Gearhead and Racist. They are just in the movie to provide more death sequences.

Now, even if after this review, you still think you may want to see the film, I would encourage you to see it in the theaters where the 3-D is actually quite good. I wouldn’t want to see a series film done in 3-D, but something like this – that has no aspirations beyond being just escapist fun – it works. In this case however, it is not enough to recommend the movie. It simply is not very good. Take away the 3-D and the creative deaths, and you would have an utterly awful film.

Movie Review: Taking Woodstock

Taking Woodstock **
Directed By: Ang Lee.
Written By: James Schamus based on the book by Elliot Tiber & Tom Monte.
Starring: Demetri Martin (Elliot Teichberg), Henry Goodman (Jake Teichberg), Imelda Staunton (Sonia Teichberg), Emile Hirsch (Billy), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Dan), Eugene Levy (Max Yasgur), Dan Fogler (Devon), Jonathan Groff (Michael Lang), Mamie Gummer (Tisha), Liev Schreiber (Vilma), Paul Dano (VW Guy), Kelli Garner (VW Girl).

There is a good story lurking somewhere beanth the surface of Taking Woodstock, and it’s a shame that neither the movie, nor the book it is based on, does a very good job of telling it. When we think about Woodstock, we think about the music, the rain, the mud, the drugs and the hippies. But Taking Woodstock tells the story for a different perspective. Elliot Tiber (Demetri Martin) was a closeted gay man who was helping his parents Jake and Sonia (Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton) run their old motel in the Catskills in upstate New York. The bank is about ready to call in their mortage, and things look hopeless. That is until Elliot finds out that a huge concert has just lost its permit in nearby Watkill. They need another outdoor venue and fast. And Elliot has just what they need. Soon the town of White Lake is flooded with workers setting up a new stage, and hippies from around the country show up in town. The town is outraged, but there is nothing they can do about it. The experience of being around so many people who are comfortable in their own skin, makes Elliot accept who he is, and in a strange way, accept who his parents - who have always driven him crazy - are as well.

This probably sounds like an interesting story, and admittedly it is. It’s too bad that the movie never really settles down to tell its story. The first hour of the film is actually quite entertaining, if flawed, in telling the story of the leadup to the concert itself. The second hour however goes wildly off the rails, as director Ang Lee and his screenwriter James Schamus appear to be more interested in creating a headtrip of the movie (and not even a good one at that). Whatever interesting insights the movie had to offer about Elliot, his parents and the townspeople of White Lake, are lost in their attempt to be “trippy”.

Perhaps it was not really their fault. I just finished Tiber’s book that is the basis of this movie, and he does not seem all that interested in the people of White Lake either. To him, they were little more than uptight, pathetic, anti-semetic, homophobic jerks. And for much of the book, Tiber does not even appear that interested in telling us the story of what happened, and instead he likes to ramble on about the “truth and beauty” of the people he met at Woodstock, and how wonderful it all was. Sometimes, the person at the center of the story - in this case Elliot - is not the right person to tell it.

What keeps the movie as interesting as it is, are the performances. Demetri Martin, best known for his terrific standup, and his work on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, here slides effortlessly into the role of Elliot. His hopeless optimism and seemingly never ending naivete is somewhat entertaining, and funny throughout. He is is practically every scene in the film, and he carries the film quite well during that first hour. During the second hour, where he has to spend more time stoned and screaming, he is not as effective, but I wonder anyone could have competed with Lee’s constant shifting color palette, and his lackadaisal pace. We keep watching this part of the film - the part that actually takes place during the concert itself - waiting for the music to start - and it never does. While I’m all for taking an original view of Woodstock, it seems kind of a ripoff that we never get to see any performances at the greatest concert of all time.

The rest of the cast is in a similar boat. We cannot help but like Goodman as Elliot’s father, long beaten down by life and a domineering wife, who finally feels alive again when he’s given a purpose. Staunton is given a one note role as the stereotypical shrill Jewish mother, hording money and an expert at giving guilt trips to her son. We do not like her character, and to be honest, whenever she is onscreen, I wished she would go away as soon as possible. Jonathan Groff fares much better as Michael Lang, the concert promoter. No matter what is going on, he seems completely at ease and calm. “Relax”, he keeps telling Elliot, “Everything is going to be fine”. Somehow when he says it, we believe him. I do wish the filmmakers had done more with Liev Schreiber than simply put him in a dress. He plays a former Army Sergeant, and grandfather (he married young), who shows up and offers his help as a security guard. Why when you have such an interesting character is he shunted to the background? Worse yet is Emile Hirsch as Billy, a Vietnam vet prone to flashbacks and drug abuse. They do nothing original with this character, and although Hirsch plays the role to the hilt, he cannot save it. We keep expecting Jeffrey Dean Morgan to do something as one of the townspeople who is not happy with the concert, but the film seems to forget that he - and the rest of the town for that matter - is there at all.

Ang Lee is one of the best filmmakers in the world, but here I don’t think he ever really thought through the material. Here is a filmmaker whose films include such great ones as The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution - complex films that concentrated on their characters. Here, Lee does not seem as interested in his characters. They are all one note and fairly uninteresting. It’s too bad, because I have a feeling that if the filmmakers had spent more time fleshing out the characters, and less time trying to be trippy, then they could have a had a great film. As it stands, Taking Woodstock is not even a good one.

Movie Review: Halloween II

Halloween II ***
Directed By:
Rob Zombie.
Written By: Rob Zombie.
Starring: Scout Taylor-Compton (Laurie Strode), Brad Dourif (Sheriff Lee Brackett), Malcolm McDowell (Dr. Samuel Loomis), Tyler Mane (Michael Myers), Sheri Moon Zombie (Deborah Myers), Chase Wright Vanek (Young Michael), Danielle Harris (Annie Brackett), Margot Kidder (Barbara Collier), Mary Birdsong (Nancy McDonald), Brea Grant (Mya Rockwell).

On the basis of his first three films - House of 1,000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects and Halloween - I have said to anyone who would listen that Rob Zombie is the best, most original director working in the horror genre in America today - even going as far as comparing him to Quentin Tarantino in the way he mashes up all the previous movies in his chosen genre and comes out with something completely different and unique. If it turns out (and I have a strong suspicion that it will) that I am one of the only critics who sees something worthwhile in Zombie’s new film, Halloween II, I can live with that. Once again, Zombie’s film seems to follow the standard horror sequel plot, but it really does do something wholly unique. Is the premise ridiculous? Yes. But was I drawn in and captivated by every moment of this film? Yes, I was.

In Zombie’s original remake of Halloween, he took the daring step to give the killer - the famed Michael Myers - the full biopic treatment. He looked in Myers past, his childhood, and comes out with a portrait of a confused, messed up, violent kid with a horrible homelife that eventually drives him to murder. While the second half of the film was standard slashed movie fare, Zombie directed it with a rare visual flair, making it truly frightening. When I heard that he was going to make a sequel - something he swore he would not do - that he had run out of original things to do, and that all the sequel would be was yet another slasher movie. I should have more faith in Zombie.

If the original film was about the psychology of Myers himself, the sequel is about what it feels like to be a victim of Myers who actually escaped. Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) was the original target of Myers, and the girl who apparently killed Myers, although his body disappeared and was never found. Now, a year later, Laurie is stricken with guilt and fear about what happened. She now lives with her best friend Annie (Danielle Harris), another victim, and her father the Sheriff (Brad Dourif). She wants to leave the past behind her, but in a small town like Haddonfield, that is just not possible. She is spiraling downward towards her own form of psychosis.

There two other plot threads running through the movie. The first involves Dr. Sam Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), who in the original series was always the voice of reason, but here is an opportunistic monster, who simply out to make money and cash in on the horror show that others lives have become. The other thread is about Michael slowly making his way back to Haddonfield, killing everyone he comes across along the way. He is egged on my his mother, and his former child self, who he sees explaining to him what has to be done. These scenes verge on the ridiculous, but somehow Zombie keeps control of them. For one thing, Sherri Moon Zombie who plays the mother is at her demented best. She is not as wildly over the top as she was in House of 1,000 Corpses or The Devil’s Rejects, but she is just as messed up, telling Michael what he wants to know - he has to Laurie in order for them all to be a family again.

The murder scenes in Halloween are definitely overkill, yet Zombie does not linger on them as much as many recent horror directors do. He favors longshots, that are haunting in their own way, of Michael stabbing, stomping or hacking people to death. When he stabs people, it’s not in the recent Friday the 13th remake, where one strike does it. Myers pulverizes them into a bloody pulp. It is disturbing in the extreme, but it does not feel exploitive.

Halloween II is not quite the triumph that Zombie’s original remake was. For one thing, having backed himself into a corner with the first film by making Myers into a three dimensional character, he has to now bring it farther. And although I admired the scenes with Myers and his hallucinations, I am not really sure they fit into the rest of the movie. I did like McDowell as the egomanical Loomis a lot more this time around then the first time, but I’m not sure he would do what he does at the end of the film. The real star of the movie is Scout Taylor Compton, who actually does deliver a great performance as “the girl”. If someone had survived an attack by Michael Myers, I kind of think that this is what they would end up like. It is a fascinating, great little performance.

And despite my reservations about the film, I have to say that there is not a moment in it that is not interesting to watch. One thing that is undeniable is that Zombie is a gifted visual filmmaker, making us wallow in the mud, dirt and blood in the film. The characters never seem to be able to get clean in this film. His demented vision in this film keeps things moving along at a brisk pace.

Zombie is still the best horror director working in America today. I cannot wait to see what he does next. In Halloween II, Zombie plays with the audience masterfully. That the film is a little over the top in some aspects, is to be expected. Even with the flaws, I doubt you’ll see a better American horror film this year than this one.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: The Best Puppet Movies

While most of the response to my top ten lists has been good, there have been comments by others that at times they are ridiculous. To that I say, you have not seen ridiculous yet, so I set about making a list of the best puppet movies ever. Take that! I liken it to when South Park got criticized for being the worst animated show ever, with nothing but fart jokes, so they created Terrance and Phillip to show people just what that show would look like. Having said that, I was surprised by just how good this list is. There is not a film here I would not gladly watch again, even if only the top two films are legitimately great movies. Now if only someone had the guts to turn Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater into a movie, we could have our puppet masterpiece!

10. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (Jim Mallon, 1996)
Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a cult TV show made especially with people like me in mind. For reasons that I will not explain, poor Joel has been shot into outer space and is forced to watch the worst movies of all time by his boss. To cope with it, he has created wisecracking robots, and most of the episodes were made up of the Joel, his robots – Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot – sitting in silhouette in the bottom corner of the screen making fun of the movie they were watching. The movie was simply an extension of the TV show, where they are forced to watch the sci-fi This Island Earth. While this is not the best the show was every at (my personal favorites were Manos the Hands of Fate, Eegah and Mitchell), it is still hilarious. Yes, the puppetry on the robots is rudimentary, but still, the movie is hilarious, and you cannot say that the robots were not memorable.

9. A Muppet Christmas Carol (Brian Hensen, 1992)
How can I do a list about movie puppets and not include one of the Muppet movies? Sure, none of them are what you would call great films, but A Muppet Christmas Carol is obviously the best one. I am sure I will catch some flak for saying this, but out of all the versions of A Christmas Carol I have seen over the years, this one is my favorite. Michael Caine is wonderful as Scrooge, and with the Muppets along for the ride, this is easily the most fun cinematic version of their tale. I love Kermit the Frog as Bob Crachett, Gonzo and Rizzo as our narrators, and Statler and Waldorf (always favorites of mine) as the Marley Brothers. The songs are catchy and fun, and the whole movie is enjoyable from beginning to end. My wife makes me watch this every Christmas, and I have to admit, I enjoy it every damn time.

8. Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Nicholas Stoller, 2008)
Okay, so the puppet part of the movie comes very late in the proceedings, so we can hardly call this a puppet movie. But everything leading up to the puppets is downright hilarious, with Jason Segal trying to get away from his ex, and ending up in the same resort as her and her crazed new boyfriend. The film is much more honest about relationships than most films of this kind, and while some (including, once again my wife, getting her second shoot out in this list) complained that there was too much Jason Segal penis in the film, I thought it was used in a clever and hilarious way. Now, onto the puppets. Segal’s character is a composer, who has been slumming it writing the theme music for a crappy CSI like TV show, all the while thinking about his opus – a puppet musical about Dracula. We catch a glimpse of this musical at the end of the film, with Segal hilariously singing the Dracula part as he slowly dies (I was really hoping the song Dracula’s Lament would be nominated for an Oscar last year so that we could see Segal perform the song live with a puppet, but alas it was not to be). I love Segal’s comment after the show, which was well received by the audience who couldn’t stop laughing. “Well, it wasn’t meant to be a comedy, but whatever”. Dude, pretty much whenever you put a puppet in the show, it’s a comedy.


7. The Dark Crystal (Jim Hensen & Frank Oz, 1982)
The Dark Crystal is another one of those freaky puppet movies from the 1980s that scared the crap out of me as a child. For a movie about puppets, this is one dark family film. I will not delve into the plot here, because honestly, I’m not sure I understood the damn thing at the time, and I’m still not sure I do. But the film is a freaky little film about Jen (who is a dude by the way) who believes that he is the last of the Gelfings, and that his destiny is to restore harmony to the universe, by “healing” the crystal that has been damaged, and cast the world into darkness. Jen has one freaky encounter after another during the course of the movie, and the film goes to some rather dark places (after all, there is a Gelfing genocide referred to in the film). The puppetry in the movie is quite literally amazing, and broke new ground in the field (which unfortunately is all but non-existent since CGI is deemed to be better than puppets these days). But The Dark Crystal remains a classic family film – just don’t show it to your kids too young.

6. Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)
As a kid, Gremlins scared the crap out of me. Unlike the much more lighthearted sequel (released in 1990, and also, I dare say, wonderful), Gremlins is a comedy, but a black comedy. Gizmo, the little “mogwai” in the film is one of the most adorable, and lovable puppets in film history. Howie Mandel is perhaps the only one who could have done his voice correctly. The puppetry here is wonderful, as Gizmo is an expressive little guy. The other puppets in the movie, of course, are the gremlins themselves – mogwais who have either been exposed to water or fed after midnight. These creatures are much scarier than the adorable Gizmo. When the Gremlins escape, all hell breaks loose. Watching the film again today would probably not scare me very much at all, but the movie retains a special place in my childhood memories – especially Gizmo.

5. Meet the Feebles (Peter Jackson, 1989)
Before Peter Jackson became a respected filmmaker and Oscar winner, he directed this movie. Inspired by the Muppet Show, Jackson’s film is about the sordid lives of showbiz puppets. During the course of the film scenes of graphic violence, graphic puppet sex, drug dealing, back stabbing, date rape, porno movies (where one poor guy killed when a cow sits on him, and is replaced by Dennis the Anteater, who is hired to perform nasal sex on the cow, because of course, his nose looks like a penis) and even a snuff film come across the screen. The rabbit MC thinks he has contracted AIDS, and is later relived to discover it is only bunny pox, but his triumph is short-lived, as Heidi the Hippo on a rampage blows his head off with her machine gun (giving rise to the film’s tag line “Hell hath no fury like a Hippo with a Machine Gun”). Jackson’s film is sick, twisted, disgusting and absolutely hilarious. If you decide to track this film down even after this write-up, you cannot say that you were not warned.

4. Team America: World Police (Trey Parker, 2004)
From the creators of South Park comes this elaborate marionette action film, full of violence and weird sex and lots and lots of vomit. The film takes aim at pretty much everyone – actors who believe in a social cause, America’s military that goes in and destroys everything in the name of doing good, terrorists who like to blow shit up, and of course poor Kim Jong Il, who is just so utterly lonely. By using puppets, the whole movie looks utterly ridiculous, even when the puppets are trying to “act serious”. Apparently, they had a miserable time making this making, so we may never see another marionette movie. That’s a pity, because this one was great.

3. Labyrinth (Jim Hensen, 1986)
Out of all the freaky puppet movies of the 1980s, Labyrinth is clearly the best. Starting with the genius casting of David Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King, who is twisted and creepy, to the puppets and the maze itself, Labyrinth is a marvel of weirdness. Jennifer Connelly gets her first big role as Sarah, the fed up teenager who wishes the goblins to take her baby brother away, but regrets it when they actually do show up and take him. Now, with only 13 hours to solve the elaborate labyrinth, before he brother is forever lost, she has to rely upon a grumpy dwarf, a gallant fox, and his trusty sheep dog to figure out the immense maze. The climax, in Jareth’s vast castle is wonderful, and actually quite touching. Even if Labyrinth is ultimately about how you have to put childish things away if you are ever going to grow up, it is still a treasured part of my childhood memories. All the puppetry work by Hensen, on Sarah’s companions and her tormenters, is top notch. A wonderful little movie.

2. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
I thought of putting the entire Star Wars original trilogy here, because there is great puppetry on display in all three films, but decided I’d stick with Empire – as it is the best of the three movies, and introduces us to the best puppet in movie history – Yoda. Yoda has always been one of my favorite characters in the Star Wars films, and even though I loved seeing him kick ass in the prequel trilogy, something about him in those movies always seemed off – he wasn’t a puppet! Performed by the great Frank Oz, both as a puppet and with his voice, Yoda is the most expressive puppet I have ever seen on film. It’s a shame that CGI has replaced him.

1. Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999)
Really, was there another choice I could possibly make for the best puppet movie of all time? Here is a movie that essentially turns the crazy John Malkovich into a giant puppet himself, as marionette “artist” John Cusack inhabits his body, and uses his celebrity to bring puppetry to the masses. The scenes in the movie with puppets in them are quite interesting and well done. Being John Malkovich is twisted and funny, but when you get right down to it, it addresses some rather serious issues about identity. Being John Malkovich is more than just a puppet movie. It is a legitimately great film, written by the great Charlie Kaufman, and directed by Spike Jonze, it is one of the most original modern films.

Toronto Film Festival Preview

Every year, I spend the week at the Toronto Film Festival, watching somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 films. I take the week off of work, and essentially run from one screening to the next all day. I absolutely love it. This year, it will be a little harder, since I’m coming from Brantford – but I’m not going to let that slow me down. I’ll just be a little more tired each day.

So this week, I picked up my advance order booklet for the two 10 passes I ordered. Because three other people are joining me on Saturday for two movies, that “only” gives me 14 films to select. I will fill out the rest of my schedule later when single tickets go on sale. But I must say, I am pretty excited about the 14 films I have selected. I hope that I get all 14, but even if I get my backups picks, I’ll be happy. The only two films that I am really upset that I will have to miss are An Education and Antichrist – both have their premiere screenings on the first Thursday or Friday (which I most likely cannot attend) and their daytime screenings far too early on the first Saturday to make it feasible to make it. But I have already planned out my (hopeful) festival schedule including the films that I will have to buy additional tickets for next week. I should have this all finalized by next Friday, when I will provide a final list of what I'm going to see, but until then, this is my dream line-up of 22 films. For the record, I saw the last two best picture Oscar winners (No Country for Old Men and Slumdog Millionaire) at the festival, so look closely, as one of these 22 may just win this year.

1. Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama) – From Diablo Cody, the writer of Juno, comes her twisted take on the horror film with this story of a high school hottie with a lust for human flesh (Megan Fox) and her goody two shoes best friend (Amanda Seyfried). Getting JK Simmons and Amy Sedaris for supporting roles was also genius. While I am not convinced that Megan Fox can actually act, I love horror films, especially ones with a sense of humor, so I am looking forward to this one.

2. Up In the Air (Jason Reitman) – The Oscar buzz on this one is already deafening. George Clooney stars as a man who works as a consultant – for firing people, who starts to have doubts about the morality of his profession. With a cast that includes Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick and Jason Bateman, and Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking and Juno) directing, I am sure this one will be at the very least entertaining.

3. A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen) – I saw both of the Coen’s latest films – No Country for Old Men and Burn After Reading – at the festival and loved them both, so I figure I cannot go wrong going for three in a row. The trailer does look hilarious, and I will follow the Coen brothers anywhere. Even after the preview, I still do not have a clue what the movie is about, but I don’t care.

4. Survival of the Dead (George A. Romero) – George A. Romero returns with his sixth zombie film, and really that is all I need to know. I am still bitter that when he was filming this one around my wife’s school, and there was a call for extras to be painted as zombies, she did not let me know until the day of the shooting. I could be a zombie for Christ's sake!

5. The Road (John Hillcoat) – This is my most anticipated film of the festival. John Hillcoat directed the wonderful Western The Proposition a few years ago, which felt like a Cormac McCarthy adaptation, although it wasn’t. Here, he returns with an adaptation of McCarthy’s best book – a post apocalyptic tale of a father and son just trying to survive day to day. McCarthy’s novel was incredibly dark and violent, but Hillcoat can handle both of these things easily. With Viggo Mortenson in the lead role, and a supporting cast including Robert Duvall, Charlize Theron and newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee this is one I have been waiting for a long time to see.

6. The Hole (Joe Dante) – A 3-D, family oriented thriller about a bottomless hole in the new house the basement of two kids. I like Dante enough as a filmmaker – even when he’s doing weird movies like Looney Tunes: Back in Action, to give this one a go. Besides, there was nothing else playing at this showtime I wanted to see.

7. Wild Grass (Alain Resnais) – Resnais is the only surviving French New Wave director still doing great work (take that Godard!). His new film, which was raved about at the Cannes film festival stars the great Mathieu Almaric, and has something to do with a lost wallet. But really, I’d see anything done by this master filmmaker.

8. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe) – Noe is known for his extreme violence and unsettling material in his films, and his latest one appears to be no exception. It sparked wild debate at Cannes this year, for it’s story, entirely told from the point of view of a dead drug dealer in Tokyo coming back to protect his sister. Apparently at some point there is a bloody fetus. Not sure what to make of this one, but it is something I have to see at the festival – I may never get another chance!

9. The Loved Ones (Sean Bryne) – If I have learned anything by watching Australian horror movies, it’s that the Aussies are pretty screwed up. As a fan of horror films, I always try and check out at least one Midnight Madness movie (just not at midnight, that would be madness) and so this is the one that caught by attention. This is a high school horror movie set at the prom, where things go insanely wrong. Looking forward to it.

10. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog) – Herzog is a mad genius of the cinema, and so I was not as concerned as I otherwise would have been when it was announced that he was remaking Abel Ferrara’s brilliant Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage in the Harvey Keitel role. Apparently, the films share little other than a title, and the fact they are about drug addicted cops in moral crisis. The chance to see Herzog in a Q&A was too much to pass up.

11. Leslie, My Name is Evil (Reginald Harkema) – Harkema, who directed the good little Canadian film Monkey Warfare a few years ago, returns with his twisted take on the Manson family with this film. I like the idea of a buttoned down guy whose girlfriend tells him they must wait for marriage to have sex (“I love you, but I love Jesus more”) becoming obsessed with the Manson family ideal of free love, and possibly murder. Sounds at least interesting.

12. Youth in Revolt (Miguel Arteta) – After his horrible first film, Star Maps, Arteta has come along quite nicely with films like the weird Chuck & Buck and the good indie romance The Good Girl. He has spent much of his time recently directing great TV (The Office), but it’s good to have him making a movie again. The film stars Michael Cera, but oddly the character (at least in the book) is not quite like the normal comic persona that Cera embraces. The book was weird – really weird – but also quite funny and touching. So, I’m in.

13. Life During Wartime (Todd Solondz) – One of my most highly anticipated films at this year’s festival. Although much of the film community has seemingly ignored Solondz’s last two films – Storytelling and Palindromes – I found both to be amazing, thought provoking moral puzzles. Even if Storytelling got a plant thrown at my head, I still loved it. I know little about this movie, and honestly I don’t want to know. I just want to see Solondz work his magic.

14. The Unloved (Samantha Morton) – Morton is one of the best actresses in the world, and she has always struck me as a very intelligent woman. As such, I cannot help myself of checking out her debut film as a director, even if it does not really sound like a Dave movie. It is the story of a little girl, taken out of her home by social workers, who has to endure the terror of group and foster homes. Sounds cheery, eh?

15. High Life (Gary Yates) – I cannot go to the film festival and not see at least one Canadian film - two years ago, I made the mistake of making that film All Hat, a terrible conman movie, so you do have to be careful. But High Life, starring Timothy Olyphant, who I love, about a drug addict planning on robbing an ATM sounds entertaining. I’ll give it a go anyway.

16. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (Rebecca Miller) – Miller, daughter of Arthur and wife of Daniel Day Lewis, has proven herself to be a gifted writer (her novels are quite good) and filmmaker with her first two films – Personal Velocity and The Ballad of Jack and Rose. Although I have not read this book (yet, I may try before the festival starts), anything that gives Robin Wright Penn a good role, I’m there for. Miller is one of the best writers of female characters in the world, and since she has filled her cast with talented women – Winona Ryder, Julianne Moore among them – I am looking forward to a good one here.

17. Mother (Bong Joon Ho) – Bong is my favorite of the new Korean filmmakers. The two films of his I have seen – the police procedural Memories of Murder and the monster movie The Host – were both brilliant. This psychological thriller got some great reviews at Cannes, but honestly, I’d see this one no matter what they said. Bong is one of the best young filmmakers in the world.

18. My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (Werner Herzog) – Apparently, this is the exact opposite film as Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant, which I also plan to see at this year’s festival, as it focuses on a good cop (the brilliant Michael Shannon). The film co-stars Chloe Sevigny, so you know at least the acting will be good. Like with Bad Lieutenant, I am really hoping for a crazy Q&A with the director after this one.

19. The Ape (Jespar Genslandt) – Never heard of this filmmaker before, and when you go with the Vanguard program, you are taking your chances as you may end up watching a completely pretentious piece of crap. But the festival booklet, that says it would unfair to give any of the plot away, had me intrigued enough to go for it. I hope it works out.

20. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke) – Along with The Road and Life During Wartime, this is my most anticipated film of the festival. Haneke is one of my favorite filmmakers in the world right now – a man who makes complex, moral studies in his films. After winning pretty much every other prize at the Cannes Film Festival over the years, this one finally won him the big one – the Palme D’Or. The film, about a group of children who taught to believe in fascism in 1914 Germany, will hopefully be another masterpiece.

21. Leaves of Grass (Tim Blake Nelson)
Tim Blake Nelson is a wonderful actor, but he is also quite a good filmmaker, with the underrated films Eye of God, O and The Grey Zone under his belt. Edward Norton, who I have often thought needs to take on some roles that match his talent, stars as two polar opposite identical twins. The rest of the cast is filled out by Susan Sarandon and Keri Russell, so I’m really looking forward to this one.

22. Ondine (Neil Jordan) – Normally I have a rule about watching films about mermaids – I don’t. But director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Mona Lisa, The Butcher Boy) has rarely made a bad film, and always tries something a little bit different, so this time I am willing to make an exception. Starring Colin Farrell, who has got much better in the last few years, and shot by Christopher Doyle – perhaps the most original cinematographer in the world right now, that was enough for me to break my own rule.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Political Satires

So this week, after watching the wonderful In the Loop, I decided to make a list about my ten favorite political satires ever made. I love politics, and these are the best films that point out just how absurd the whole process really is.

10. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009)
The film that inspired this list, deserves a place on it. Armando Iannucci’s film about an ineffectual politician (Tom Hollander) who is as weak willed and easily intimidated as a child and keeps saying the wrong thing in public is hilarious from start to finish. Peter Capaldi’s profane performance as the British PM’s mad dog communications director is a work of comedic genius, and the rest of the cast equal these two great performances. At the heart of the movie is the message that politicians care more about winning than anything else (just like Bulworth in its way). It does not matter if it is right or wrong to invade the Middle Eastern country they are talking about in the film, decisions have already been made, and to back out now would simply make them look weak. In the Loop is a hilarious, brilliant little poison pill of a movie.

9. Burn After Reading (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2008)
The Coen brothers misanthropic little black comedy is a movie that states, in no uncertain terms, that we are all idiots. The lone smart person in the Coen’s movie is a CIA agent played by John Malkovich, who is tired of the idiocy he sees all around him, and has become an alcoholic, leading to him being fired from his job (in the film’s hilarious opening scene). He then sets about writing his memoirs, which somehow falls into the hands of two clueless gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt), who think they have some top secret shit, and decide to sell it to the Russians, so McDormand can get all the plastic surgeries she wants. Somehow a Treasury agent (George Clooney) becomes involved, and is spooked that people seem to be following him. Everyone in the movie is an idiot – no one more so than Pitt who is hilariously clueless – even the CIA bosses (brilliantly played by David Rasche and JK Simmons) who even at the end of the movie have no clue what happened (“I just wish I knew what the fuck we did?”). It’s not hard to figure out why the government is so clueless, when this is their intelligence community.

8. Bulworth (Warren Beatty, 1998)
Warren Beatty plays the title character in this wickedly funny satire about a Senator who is tired of playing the regular political games. Fed up with his life, he hires a hit man to kill him, and then goes out and starts telling people what is exactly on his mind- which essentially consists of him insulting people. In the film’s best scene, he tells a group of African Americans that no one in Washington is ever going to listen to them, until they put down the chicken wings, and get behind something other than a running back who stabs his wife. But when Bulworth, who had been losing in the polls because his old fashioned liberalism was outdated, starts to speak his mind, he becomes a media sensation, and the public start to love him again. Bulworth is an extremely cynical look at politics, one that says all politicians are liars who do not really care about anything except being elected and will take money and sell themselves to the highest bidder. It is also one of the best performances of Beatty’s career, as well as one of his best films as a director.

7. Ninotchka (Ernst Lubistch, 1939)
Three Russian men come to Paris in order to sell the jewelry confiscated in the Revolution of 1917, in order to fund their Communist Empire. They are met in Paris by Melvyn Douglas, who takes them around town, and shows them the joy of capitalism and freedom. Worried, Russia sends another diplomat, Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) to complete the sale and bring home the three men. When Ninotchka arrives, she is all business – stern and strict. She steps off the train in Paris and updates her countrymen with the wonderful quote “The last mass trials were a success. There will be fewer, but better, Russians”. But Ninotchka too is slowly won over by Douglas, and seduced in the Western ways. Ninotchka was daring in its time – it was pretty much the first American film to deal with the Soviet Union in any real way, and does so by making fun of them for being bland, generic and dull. Ninotchka is also just about the funniest film ever directed by the master Ernst Lubitsch – and considering his track record, that is saying a lot.

6. Wag the Dog (Barry Levinson, 1997)
What do you do if you are the President of the United States running for re-election and suddenly you become embroiled in a sex scandal? You go to your political fixer Conrad Breen (Robert DeNiro) to get a distraction for you. Breen goes to Hollywood producer Stanley Mottss (Dustin Hoffman) and asks him to produce a war for him. All they need is some images that look real to put on the TV and distract the public. The country they are going to attack? Albania. Why? Because no one knows anything about Albania, so it’s easy to make them into bad guys. In Wag the Dog, there is no difference between Hollywood and Washington – both are empty, superficial towns that depend on buzz to survive. The film is hilarious, especially Hoffman’s wonderful performance as the producer who keeps yelling “This is nothing”, every time another catastrophe derails their plans temporarily.

5. The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940)
Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was really the first American film to deal with Hitler and the Nazis in any directly critical way. Chaplin plays two roles in the film – one as a Jewish WWI hero for Tomania (read, Germany), who gets out of the hospital after 20 years, and is horrified by the changes that have happened in his country. The barber looks exactly like Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again), the new anti-Semitic, fascist leader of Tomania. In what is undoubtedly the funniest sequence in all of Chaplin’s sound films, Hynkel makes an speech in gibberish (the words lager beer, cheese n’ crackers, and liverwurst are repeated throughout) then translated by a calm English man – the best moment coming when Hynkel goes on a long, angry tirade, and the narrator simply says “The fuehrer has just referred to the Jewish people”. Hynkel becomes obsessed with world domination, and in the film’s most famous sequence, even dances with a giant inflatable globe. The film ends with the barber, who has been mistaken for Hynkel, making an impassioned speech, reversing all of Hynkel’s terrible policies. While this speech maybe a little too on the nose and cheesy, it was also necessary at the time – when both America and England still had a policy of neutralism regarding the Nazis. In later years, Chaplin said that if he had known about the full extent of the Nazis crimes, he could never have made the film, but I think it was important to do so. Portraying Hitler (not to mention Goebbels, Goring and worst of all Mussolini, played as a giant oaf by Jack Oakie) are petulant children- making them look utterly ridiculous – was a necessary thing to do in 1940. While Chaplin’s best work is inarguably in his silent period. The Great Dictator is still one of his masterpieces.

4. Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933)
Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is appointed the new leader of the small country of Freedonia because Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) insists on it, or else she’ll pull her financial support. This upsets the leader of the neighboring country of Sylvania (Louis Calhern), who sends in two spies (Chico and Harpo Marx) to get information on the new President. Firefly’s assistant (Zeppo Marx) figures out the plan, and convinces Firefly to get rid of them. What ensues is a slapping fight that brings the two nations to the brink of war. The war scenes that end the film (and featuring Grouch in a series of costumes, each stranger than the last) are hilarious, as is the entire movie. The final production number, comparing nationalism to a minstrel show, was daring at the time, and remain so today. The Marx brothers were probably the first movie comedians I ever fell in love with (even poor Zeppo, who let’s face facts, was nowhere near as talented as the rest of them), and Duck Soup is their crowning accomplishment – a brilliant movie that looks at the ridiculousness of politics, war and nationalism, and turns it all into one big joke.

3. Election (Alexander Payne, 1999)
It does not matter that the people running for office in Alexander Payne’s Election are high school kids. In fact, it is oddly appropriate as what is politics other than a popularity contest straight out of the high school halls. The obvious choice for Student Council President in Election in Tracey Flick (Reese Witherspoon), an incredibly smart, incredibly driven young woman who is really the only person who wants the job in the first place. But for Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick), the faculty adviser for Student Council, that would be a nightmare. He hates Tracey because she is a know-it-all, brown noser, and because her affair with his best friend on staff, got him fired (McAllister, of course, does not blame the grown man who slept with the 16 year girl, he blames the girl). Also, there is some pent up sexual desire he feels for Tracey himself, signified in the scene where he’s having sex with his wife, and cannot finish, until he imagines Tracey’s head barking orders at him. So McAllister decides to go a little Karl Rove, and handpicks his own candidate – the dim bulb jock (Chris Klein) who cannot play football next year because he broke his leg. Klein is not the smartest guy in the world, but he is genuinely nice and well liked, so McAllister thinks that he can beat Flick, who doesn’t have any real friends. Fed up with all the assemblies and crap that go into student council elections, Klien’s younger sister also decides to run – and becomes an immediate favorite when she announces as her platform shutting down the student council, so they never have to participate again. She is immediately banned from the race. Election is about the superficiality of politics, where the best candidates not only not win, but they are hardly ever even in the running. Flick is annoying as hell (and Witherspoon is terrific in her best role ever), and isn’t in the race for the right reasons – she wants to include it on her college applications. Klien starts to genuinely care about the race, but he has no idea what he’s doing. And what does it say about our political culture that the most popular candidate is the one who wants to abolish the whole damn system? Election is a masterwork – probably the best film Payne has made so far.

2. Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979)
Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers) has spent his entire life in the townhouse of a wealthy man in Washington, DC, tending to his garden. He is incredibly simple minded, having had no contact with the outside world other than what he sees on TV. When his benefactor dies, Chance is forced to leave the house he has spent his entire life in, and while wondering the streets of Washington, he is struck by a car driven by a wealthy businessman (Melvyn Douglas) and his wife (Shirley Maclaine) who insists that Chance come and stay with them. Because Chance was dressed in the high fashion threads of his former benefactor, everyone mistakes him for a wealthy man (they mistakenly think his name is Chauncey Gardener, not Chance the Gardener), and his simple wisdom about tending to the garden is mistaken for deep insight into the economy and current political affairs. Douglas is friends with the President, and introduces Chance to him, the President is also taken with him. Soon, Chance has become a media darling, and his “simple, homespun wisdom” resonates with the voters. It is eventually agreed upon that Chance will run for President next term. Being There is hilarious (perhaps my favorite scene in when Maclaine tries to seduce Chance while he’s watching TV, and he simply says “I like to watch”, referring to the TV, but Maclaine misinterupts and starts to masturbate in front of him). Like many films on this list, it views the voting public as idiots, willing to accept just about anyone who they perceive is being honest with them. And Chance is that. He has no ability to lie whatsoever – everyone just interprets what he says to mean whatever they want it to mean. Chance has the ability that is needed for ever politician – to talk in vague sound bites, promising nothing, meaning nothing, but sounding good. What does the last image of the film mean – where Chance literally walks on water? I’m not sure – or better yet there are too many implications and interpretations of this image to go into all of them. But it is haunting, much like the film. We are programmed to respond to people based on their appearances, so because Chance looks likes a wealthy gentleman’s, talks with a distinguished accent, and is completely direct (which looks like confidence), everyone just assumes he knows what the hell he is talking about. He doesn’t, but that’s not his fault. After all, the only thing he thinks he’s talking about is his garden.

1. Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Dr. Strangelove is without a doubt the only film I ever considered for the top spot on this list. It is the political satire to end all political satires. The film is about a wayward General (Sterling Hayden) who decides, all on his own, to send American bomber planes to nuke Russia, because the communists have a plot to sap him of his “precious bodily fluids”, which he realized when he couldn’t get it up during sex. The President (Peter Sellers) tries to call all the planes back, and succeeds, with the exception of one, which he cannot. He calls the Russian Premier to tell him the bad news (and of course, since the Premier is Russian, he is also completely drunk), who informs him that they have just completed a Doomsday device, that will trigger a full scale nuclear war should the Americans attack first. This is when another General (the great George C. Scott) says that they should just go in full bore and kill the Russians before they have a chance to launch a full scale attack (“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed a bit”). The film is just about the funniest film in American history, full of spot on one liners, delivered by Sellers (who also plays the title character, a Nazi scientist, and a British Officer trying to talk some sense into Hayden), Scott and the rest of the cast. The one sided phone conversation between Sellers and the Russian premier is just about the funniest scene you will ever see in a movie. Kubrick’s movie is one that gleefully embraces the end of the world with all of its absurdities. It is one of the very best films ever made.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Video Views: August 25, 2009

After a few weeks of not very much coming out, this week offers six new titles that I have seen in theatres. The obviously best one is the Canadian film Polytechnique, but with the exception of Fighting, the rest of the films are actually worth a look this week. And in other good news, Criterion has released another wonderful Whit Stillman movie in The Last Days of Disco – which I think is probably his best one.

Adventureland ***
Jessie Eisenberg stars as a kid just out of University, who cannot find a job for the summer, so he ends up working at Adventureland, the seediest theme park in the world. There he connects with new friends, and falls for Kristen Stewart, who is not really available because she’s sleeping with Ryan Reynolds – the maintenance man. The film is from the director of Superbad, and while both films are coming of age comedies, Adventureland aims to be a more mature film, mixing comedy and drama, while Superbad was straight out funny. While Superbad is the better film, Adventureland is a very good little coming of age film from director Greg Mottolla. For my original review please see: http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/04/movie-review-adventureland.html

Duplicity ***
Clive Owen and Julia Roberts play rival spies, who have clashed in the past before falling in love, who team up to try and steal an industrial secret from a mega corporation, and sell it to another mega corporation. The film is full of plot twists and turns, that are next to impossible to keep up with, but the plot really is not the point here. The joy in the movie is watching Owen and Roberts – two charming actors in the extreme – playing off each other brilliantly well. The supporting cast – especially Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson – are also excellent. While I was hoping that writer/director Tony Gilroy would have made another film as good as his debut – Michael Clayton – it’s hard to complain when he’s made a film that is this much fun. For my original review please see: http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/03/movie-review-duplicity.html

Fighting **
Channing Tatum stars as a kid who is running from his past, and ends up in New York in the underground fighting scene. He is “managed” by Terence Howard, a sort of all purpose con man, who will do just about anything to get money. Howard is wonderfully weird in the film – at times I thought he was trying to do a Truman Capote impression – but the film itself is as clichéd as it comes. You would be better off sticking to Tatum’s initial collaboration with writer/director Ditto Montel – the underrated A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. For my original review please see: http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/04/movie-review-fighting.html

Polytechnique ***
Denis Villenueve’s Polytechnique is the controversial film about December 6th, 1989, when a gunman walked into Montreal’s Polytechnique institute and killed 14 female students, injured fourteen more, and then killed himself. The film is not about the killer though – who is glanced at only briefly at the beginning of the film, where he reveals his vile motive. Instead it is about the students inside the school, their life before the massacre, and the effect it had on their lives afterward. As a recreation of the horror of that day, Polytechnique is horrifying, brutal and unforgettable. Villenueve handles it all very well. It’s only in his closing scenes, where he tries to explain too much, pull too hard on your heartstrings where he steps wrong. Polytechnique is a very good film that could have been a great one. For my original review please see: http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/03/movie-review-polytechnique.html

Rudo Y Cursi ***
Rudo and Cursi are two poor brothers living in Mexico, who get the opportunity to live out their dreams when a soccer scout comes to their town and recruits them. Cursi (Gael Garcia Bernal), a talented forward with a knack for scoring goals, is a hotdog, and while he loves soccer, what he really wants to do is sing. When he becomes star, he gets that opportunity, but fame goes to his head. Rudo (Diego Luna) is the seemingly responsible family man, who is really mired in his gambling debts. He plays goalie, and is no one can score on him – except perhaps Cursi. Their story is the classic rise and fall tale, but it handled with humor and some real emotions. Bernal and Luna are wonderful together, effortlessly picking up their chemistry from the brilliant Y Tu Mama Tambien. The film was written and directed by Carlos Cuaron, brother of Alfonso, and while it is not quite as good as the latter’s work, it is quite entertaining. For my original review please see: http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/06/movie-review-rudo-y-cursi.html

Sunshine Cleaning ** ½
I love Amy Adams and Emily Blunt so much, that I can almost forgive the fact that Sunshine Cleaning – where the two play sisters who start a business cleaning up crime scenes – is such a clichéd indie movie. The fact that every in the film is so eccentrically, yet adorable nutty (especially their father played by Alan Arkin), to the tired rivalry been one sister is a responsible single mother trying to keep their head above water, and the other is a irresponsible mess, to the presence of Steve Zahn, there is hardly an indie movie cliché that this movie does not hit repeatedly. But Adams and Blunt are both wonderful in the film, so while I was a little disappointed in the film, it is still worth a look. For my original review please see: http://davesmoviesite.blogspot.com/2009/04/movie-review-sunshine-cleaning.html

Older Movies
The Last Days of Disco *** ½

Whit Stillman wrote and directed three great comedies in the 1990s, The Last Days of Disco (1998) being the last and best of the bunch (why has he not made a film in the last 11 years? Please Whit, get on it!) Set in the early 1980s, the film centers on some rich kids (just like his previous film, of which this was the final in his Doomed-Bourgeois-in-Love series as he liked to call it), who have just graduated from college, and have nothing to do. They live in Manhattan, and frequent a disco and are all searching for something in their lives – whether that be a lasting relationship, or just sex and drugs to fill the void, they do not seem quite sure. This was the movie that brought Kate Beckinsale to my attention, and is still probably my favorite performance of hers. Indie darling Chloe Sevigny is also wonderful – and the talented supporting cast includes Chris Eigeman (a Stillman regular) and Robert Sean Leonard. The Last Days of Disco is certainly better than most films of its kind. It is funny and insightful. We need more films like it.

Historical Inaccuracy in the Movies: or Why It’s OK for Quentin Tarantino to Kill Hitler

So this weekend I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds with a group of people – among who was my wife (who is a history major, who now teaches religion) as well as a friend of ours that is a history teacher at the same school. So of course, after the movie the conversation centered on the historical inaccuracy of Tarantino’s film. Of course it was inaccurate. After all, the war does not come to a nice, peaceful conclusion in the film, with a bunch of old men sitting around and making a deal, but instead ends with fire, explosions and two Jewish-American soldiers filling Hitler’s body with bullets from their machine guns. So yeah, the film is historically inaccurate in the extreme. My question is this though: who cares? You are an idiot if you expect to get accurate historical information from a movie in the first place and an even bigger idiot if you expect Tarantino to be the filmmaker to give it to you. If you are stupid enough to walk out of Inglorious Basterds believing that the war ended when Eli Roth burst into a cinema balcony and blew Hitler away, then you should probably consider suing your old school for letting you out into the real world being that big of a moron.

The issue in Inglorious Basterds is not whether Tarantino’s film is accurate – it isn’t and makes no apologies for being so – but whether or not Tarantino was right to change history for the sake of his movie. Personally, I don’t have a problem with it, as filmmakers have been doing this forever, and at least in Tarantino’s case no one but complete idiots would believe his version of the truth. But we’ll get back to Tarantino is a second, after we visit some other notoriously inaccurate movies.

From the earliest days of cinema, there have been movies made about history that got the facts all wrong. D.W. Griffth’s Birth of a Nation (1915) is one of cinema’s first feature length masterpieces, but it’s version of history is grossly inaccurate – and extremely racist. The film depicts the lead up to the Civil War, the war itself and finally its aftermath. Its basic premise in the aftermath is that Reconstruction was a disaster, blacks could never be integrated into white society as equals, and the violent actions of the Ku Klux Klan were justified to reestablish honest government. The film even ends with Jesus looking down from heaven and blessing the KKK.

So yes, Birth of a Nation is a rather evil little film, yet it will forever be historically significant because of the massive leaps forward in moviemaking that Griffith popularized in the film (many had been done before, but Griffith perfected it). Among those innovations are such basic film grammar as cross cutting and camera movement. Watched today, I’m sure Birth of a Nation feels rather stale and old fashioned, but in 1915, these were exciting, complex new innovations. Griffth’s storytelling is meticulous and his scope breathtaking. Yes, the movie is evil. But it is still a great film, one that must be seen by anyone who has an interest in film history. Go on Rotten Tomatoes today, and the film still has a 100% fresh rating. Here is an evil film that had real world implications (it helped to resurrect the KKK which was pretty much dormant at the time and the organization continued to use the film as a recruiting tool until the 1970s, when undoubtedly all of their followers became too fucking stupid to watch a silent movie).

Now let’s flash forward many decades to 1984’s Amadeus, which won the best picture, director, actor and adapted screenplay Oscars among many others that year, and remains for me one of my favorite films. The film depicts the bitter rivalry between Mozart (Tom Hulce) a brilliant composer, who is also a complete goof off, who spends most of his time drinking, partying and fucking, and in between somehow produces masterful music and Saleri (F. Murrary Abraham), his bitter rival, who labors away at his rather simplistic music and is resentful that Mozart has it all so easy. The movie even goes as far as to suggest that Saleri kills Mozart in order to take credit for his final masterwork. But of course, none of that actually happened. Yes, Mozart was a drinker and a womanizer, but he was not the giggling idiot you see in this movie – and he did work long and hard at his musical. His relationship with Saleri was one of mutual respect and friendship, and yes because they were contemporaries that were a rivalry between them, but it was a friendly one. Saleri certainly had nothing to do with Mozart dying – as he quite literally drank himself to death.

But do you care? Would you rather see a movie about two guys who respect each other, or a movie about a bitter rivalry? Amadeus is a tragedy of the highest order, and absolutely brilliant as drama. Who gives a shit if it is historically inaccurate? It exposes more truth in different way.

One of my absolute favorite films of all time is Oliver Stone’s magnificent 1991 masterpiece JFK. The film was attacked even before Stone starting shooting the damn thing for being historically inaccurate. For one thing, it portrays New Orleans DA Jim Garrison as somewhat of a crusading hero, but in actual fact, Garrison was a little bit of a nutjob. Stone gives Garrison much more information than he actually had at the time when he charged businessman Clay Shaw with conspiracy to kill JFK. Also, much of what Stone depicts as happening in the film is mere myth or conjecture. Stone has absolutely no proof to back up much of what he says in this film. He was attacked by newscasters and reporters, as well as the MPAA, which took the odd step of condemning the film for being as harmful to film as Birth of a Nation (when JFK got nominated for 10 Oscars, and won several, it served as further proof that the MPAA was nothing but a bunch of idiots).

But does it really matter? Stone has described JFK as his counter myth to the myth created by the Warren Commission with their famed “magic bullet” theory that claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing JFK. Just as the Warren Commission concentrated on weird facts and suppressed evidence, Stone decides to blow the lid off of everything – real or fake it hardly matters – Stone simply sets out to make a film that says there was a conspiracy to kill JFK. Pure and simple.

And not only that, but JFK is a masterpiece of film construction. For more than three hours, Stone weaves his multiple plot threads, his amazing camera work and editing, and spins an elaborate tapestry of fact, fiction and conjecture. The film is a cry of rage directed at the people who took Kennedy away from the American people, as well as the people who Stone thinks have helped to cover the crime up. If he’s wrong, so be it. Stone’s film is a masterpiece like no other film in history.

There are many other examples. How about 1940’s They Died With Their Boots On with Errol Flynn, where it portrayed General Custer as sympathetic to the Natives? Or 1978’s Oscar winner The Deer Hunter where Americans taken prisoner during Vietnam are forced to play Russian Roulette (it’s true they were tortured, but no one has ever claimed that one)? Or Gladiator, that portrays Emperor Commodus, who in reality was highly respected by the Senate and ruled for 13 years before being killed by a wrestler in the bath, as an incestuous little coward, who was an ineffectual leader and killed by Russell Crowe in the Coliseum. Or Braveheart, which portrays the rather wealthy, knighted William Wallace as some sort of poor folk hero. Or The Patrior (sorry if it seems like I’m picking on Mel Gibson, but let’s face facts, the asshole deserves it) that depicted his character as a noble hero who single handedly killed a British infantry unit, when in reality he slaughtered dozens of unarmed Cherokee Indians, and raped his female slaves. Sofia Coppola’s Marie-Antoinette depicts her husband King Louis as an impotent man afraid of sex, when he really had a medical condition where his foreskin was not fully retracted, and once he had an operation to correct it, they did indeed have children (in this case, I will again defend the movie. Who the hell wants to see Jason Schwartzman get circumcised on screen? Not me.) What about 300 that depicted the Sparatans as fighting for freedom and democracy – and hated homosexuals, when in reality they were a fascist church state that really, really liked to have sex with young boys. How about Shakespeare in Love, who completely invents Shakespeare’s story, as little is actually known about the man? Or how about just about any movie set before the 20th Century in which women have spotless, shaved legs. In reality, they should be pretty fucking hairy down there. Not to mention that everything back then was also incredibly smelly. The only film that can I think of that addresses that specific accurately is Tom Tykwer’s underrated Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, but then again that films ends with the “hero” creating a perfume that causes an entire town to have an orgy, so maybe realism really wasn’t that film main goal after all. Some of these films are great, and some of them are horrible. But historical accuracy does not really play a role when I decide if the movie is good or not. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story is what I always say.

Which brings me back to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (where I will now add a spoiler warning, but really you’ve probably already heard about the ending of the film). According the movie, WWII ended when a Jewish woman sets her movie theater on fire in retaliation for all the evil done to her people and her family, while at the same time, a group of Jewish American soldiers plan to blow up the same theater, where Hitler, Goebbels, Goring and Bohrman will all be at the same time. When things do not go quite as planned, the two the American soldiers burst into the balcony holding Hitler and Goebells and blows them away with machine guns.

So yeah, the movie not only plays fast and loose with the facts, but in fact decides to completely and totally ignore them, giving the film, and the war, a more cathartic, satisfying ending. Admit it, would you rather have seen two Jews kills Hitler at a movie premiere, rather than the cowardly suicide that was Hitler’s real end. The end of the film fits perfectly with the rest of the film. In fact, by the time we reach the end, this really is the only way the movie could logically end.

Not only do I not have a problem with changing the history of the War to this major degree, I would actually argue that the history, in this case anyway, is irrelevant. With the rest of the films on this list - to a certain degree anyway - present the history in such a way that you may actually believe the history presented in them. But with Inglorious Basterds, it is clear from the start that this film is a work of imagination, not fact. Why do you think the film’s first chapter is entitled “Once Upon a Time, in Nazi Occupied France” (the words appear on the screen at about the same time most movies have the “Based on a True Story” line popping up on screen). Tarantino makes it clear from the start that his film is essentially a very violent fairy tale. It is in fact, an act of wish fulfillment.

In conclusion, the only thing I really have left to say is that movies and history really do not go together. If you want to learn about history, read a book. The movies have a responsibility to tell a good story that makes sense, emotionally and dramatically (and wrap everything up in two to three hours), so sorry, but they really do not have time to worry about getting the facts. To quote The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. All Tarantino is doing, much like Griffth, Forman, Stone and countless others before him, is printing his own legend.

NOTE: while doing research for this article, I found much of the information in this articled on Cracked.com. It is a humorous take on movies saved by historical inaccuracies, and I should give credit where credit is due. http://www.cracked.com/article_15014_p4.html

Monday, August 24, 2009

Movie Review: Inglorious Basterds

Inglorious Basterds ****
Directed By:
Quentin Tarantino.
Written By: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Lt. Aldo Raine), Christoph Waltz (Col. Hans Landa), Mélanie Laurent (Shosanna Dreyfus), Michael Fassbender (Lt. Archie Hicox), Diane Kruger (Bridget von Hammersmark), Daniel Brühl (Fredrick Zoller), Eli Roth (Sgt. Donny Donowitz),Til Schweiger (Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz), Gedeon Burkhard (Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki), Jacky Ido (Marcel), B.J. Novak (Pfc. Smithson Utivich), Omar Doom (Pfc. Omar Ulmer), August Diehl (Major Dieter Hellstrom), Denis Menochet (Perrier LaPadite), Sylvester Groth (Joseph Goebbels), Martin Wuttke (Adolf Hitler), Mike Myers (General Ed Fenech), Julie Dreyfus (Francesca Mondino), Richard Sammel (Sgt. Werner Rachtman), Alexander Fehling (Master Sgt. Wilhelm / Pola Negri), Rod Taylor (Winston Churchill), Soenke Möhring (Pvt. Butz / Walter Frazer), Samm Levine (PFC Gerold Hirschberg), Paul Rust (PFC Andy Kagan), Michael Bacall (PFC Michael Zimmerman), Hilmar Eichhorn (Emil Jannings).

The genius of Quentin Tarantino’s films has always lied in two areas. One, he is bar none the best writer of dialogue in the world right now. No, he dialogue is not realistic, but written in a high style, that requires great actors to deliver it in a very specific way. This is the type of thing we normally associate with playwrights, from Shakespeare to Mamet. His other level of genius is his ability to take all the thousands of movies he has seen in life, spin them in his own unique, warped little brain and come up with a result that is somehow just like every other movie you have ever seen before, and also completely different than any other movie you’ve ever seen. What makes his new film Inglorious Basterds his most mature work to date (I know, I never thought I would use the word mature to describe a Tarantino film either), is that for the first time, his obsessions with dialogue and movies is actually full integrated into the film itself. They become part of the fabric of the film that is much more important than what actually happens in the film.

Take for instance the films first scene, which may in fact represent the best single scene Tarantino has ever written and directed. It is 1941, in the France countryside. A Nazi, known as the Jew Hunter, Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz) shows up at a dairy farm to question it’s proprietor about the whereabouts of a local Jewish family that has mysteriously vanished. Landa uses language as a weapon against the dairy farmer, cordially speaking to him in French, complimenting his beautiful daughters, and when he is offered a drink, instead of taking alcohol, he requested a glass of their delicious milk. As Tarantino pans down and shows the Jewish family beneath the floorboards, Landa suddenly switches to English – apologizing, but not wanting to go on in his terrible French (which is, of course, impeccable), and he continues on with the dairy farmer, still all smiles. But he knows the family is hiding under the floorboards – the dairy farmer knows Landa knows. The scene takes on an air of suspense; much like Hitchcock loved to do. What’s under the table is not a bomb, but a family, but we wait with the same level of anticipation for the explosion that is sure to come.

From this first scene, language becomes one of the primary motifs in the film. Landa switches to English, not because his French is bad, like he says, but because he knows the Jewish family beneath the floor cannot speak English, which means he can tell the farmer precisely what he wants, and not spook them. This is repeated throughout the movie, like when a British officer (Michael Fassbender) under cover as a Nazi is discovered because even though his German is perfect, his accent is strange. Or when Lt. Aldo Rain (Brad Pitt) and two of his basterds try to pass themselves off as Italian filmmakers, even though they barely speak a word. In that scene again, watch how Landa teases them before the explosion of violence. He knows immediately that they are not Italian, but yet he strings them along for minutes on end – asking about the correct pronunciation of an Italian word (of, while speaking perfect Italian), and then getting them to repeat their names again and again, under the guise of how much he just loves hearing the poetry in them. At various times in the movie, Tarantino switches back and forth between German, French, English and Italian, but every time he does, he has a reason for doing so. This is not the typical WWII movie, where all the characters speak in accented English, but rather a movie in which language really does mean something. No matter what language is being spoken however, Tarantino continues to write dialogue with an almost musical tilt to it. This is probably the best written movie you will see this year.

The other major motif that runs throughout the movie is that of movies itself. From a scene with the Basterds, that the film gets its title from, movies are brought up throughout the film. In that scene, Aldo Rainn tries to get a Nazi officer to tell him where another Nazi patrol is, and when he refuses, he tells him that if he doesn’t tell them, then he’ll unleash the Bear Jew (Eli Roth, terrible as a director of such crap as Hostel, but pretty good here, as long as he does not have to speak – the wild and crazy look he gets in his eyes is truly frightening), who will beat him to death with a baseball bat “which is the closest we get to going to the movies out here”. Another set of characters, Shosanna (Melanie Larent), the lone survivor of the Jewish family caught in the first scenes of the film and Frederick (Daniel Bruhl), a German war hero who is having a movie made about him as he is Germany’s Sergeant York, meet cute while discussing Leni Riefenstahl, Max Linder and Chaplin. They both love film, but she has to be careful about what she says, as she could give herself away as a Jew. The English officer is selected for his undercover assignment, because before the war he was a movie critic, who published two books about German film (including one devoted to a personal favorite of mine, GW Pabst – who is brought up several times). Screen legend, an Oscar winner, Emil Jannings, shows up at one point as well. (One strange thing though, why is Fritz Lang never mentioned? Depending on what story you believe, after his masterpieces Metropolis, Spies and M, Goebbels approached the German-Jew filmmaker about becoming the lead filmmaker for the Nazi party, at which point he fled the country, and during the war made films like Hangmen Also Die and Man Hunt, which were essentially morality plays, or if you prefer propaganda against the Nazis. In many ways, I think Inglorious Basterds echoes these films far more than the “men on a mission” films like The Dirty Dozen and Von Ryan’s Express that Tarantino has talked about inspiring this film constantly).

Then of course, there is the movie’s climax. A new German propaganda film, A Nation’s Pride, is going to premiere at Shosanna’s movie theater. Realizing that she’ll have the Nazi brass – including the four big guns, Hitler, Goebbels, Goring and Boorman – in her theater, she hatches a plan (with the help of her black lover) to burn the theater down using the highly flammable 35mm nitrate films she has on hand. Not knowing her plan, the Basterds also plan to attack the theater the same night, blowing it up, and ending the war (with the help of a German film actress – Diane Kruger – who is a British spy). In effect, in Tarantino’s version of history, cinema is going to save the world from Hitler.

I am sure that many people will have a problem with Tarantino changing history as much as he does in this film. I’m not going to delve into this too deeply here (I do plan on doing a separate entry that addresses history on film, and all the historical inaccuracies in them), except to say that I do not consider what Tarantino does here to be at all wrong. He is not really trying to convince people that the war ends the way it does in this film. All one has to do is pick up a history book to find out what happened. But Tarantino’s ending keeps completely in line with the films he is borrowing from here – the propaganda films made in America, England and Germany at the time – and his ending is more cathartic and satisfying than history. Why not give a couple of machine gun touting Jews the opportunity to pump a seemingly never ending stream of bullets into Hitler and Goebbels? Like Paul Verhoeven’s recent Black Book (which was also a masterpiece, and also criticized for playing fast and loose with the facts, making a serious issue into a sexual thriller), Tarantino’s vision of the war is better, and I would argue more respectful than so called “prestige films” like Defiance, The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas or Roberto Benigni’s oddly beloved Life is Beautiful, which are manipulative in the extreme.

This review has already dragged on much longer than most of my reviews and I am realizing now that I have not even mentioned the performances in the movie. They are brilliant. Brad Pitt maybe one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, but he fits effortlessly in with this cast of mainly character actors. His demented Southern accent can be hilarious, and somewhat chilling at the same time. When his Basterds catch a Nazi, they usually scalp them (providing some of the films bloodiest, most disturbing moments – and providing a link between an American Holocaust – that of the Native Americans – with the European one), but if they let one live, they first carve a Swastika into their skulls, so that for the rest of their lives, everyone will know they were a Nazi. The demented glee on Pitt’s face when he carves them is sickening, yet we never lose our sympathy with him. After all, he is carving the skulls of Nazis, so they deserve what they get. The rest of the Basterds are all excellent – especially Til Schweiger- as an insane German who loves to kill Nazis himself. Diane Kruger is appropriately charming, sexy and tough as nails as the German film star. Michael Fassbender (amazingly good in last year’s Hunger), is perfect as the English officer (and in a short scene with Fassbender, Mike Myers redeems himself for last year’s horrid The Love Guru with a twisted, hilarious cameo performance). Melanie Laurent is brilliant as the Jewish Shosanna, just trying to avenge her family and her people with her final performance. In fact, every performance in the movie is just about perfect. Tarantino is probably better than just about anyone else right now at casting, figuring out what actors will best fit in his twisted movies.

But one performance stands above the rest. That is Christophe Waltz’s brilliant performance as the cordial, smiling, brutal Nazi Hans Landa. In what could well turn out to be the best performance of the year, Waltz makes Landa into one of cinema’s most memorable villains. He toys with his victims, giving them just enough rope to hang themselves with, and when he’s got what he needed out of them, be executes with speed and efficiency. Tarantino gives Waltz some of the best monologues of his career (and with Tarantino, that really is saying something), most notably in the film’s opening scene where he compares Jews to rats – and fully means it as a compliment. Waltz is not the true believer Nazi, nor is he simply “just following orders”, banal Nazi, but rather a smirking opportunist, who simply goes with whatever side offers him the best deal. This is truly one of the great performances you are likely to see this year – if he does not win the supporting actor Oscar, there will be hell to pay.

I sometimes forget just how good a director Quentin Tarantino is. His massive ego, and somewhat annoying public persona, sometimes gets the way for me when I discuss him. Yet, each of his films is brilliant in its own unique way. Is there another director alive who would even attempt something like Inglorious Basterds, let alone pull it off as brilliantly as he does? In five chapters, comprising maybe 12-15 scenes over the span of two and half hours, Tarantino weaves his magic in what maybe just be the WWII film to end all WWII films. After this film, is there really anything else to say about the most filmed war in cinematic history? I doubt it. Inglorious Basterds is an absolute masterpiece.