Sunday, August 30, 2009

District 9

In the opening moments of District 9, an enormous alien spacecraft hovers above a populated city. Now, I know what you’re thinking: I’ve seen this movie before. For the first sixty seconds, I thought the same thing. I applaud writer/director Neill Blomkamp for taking a tired premise and delivering something new. The aliens aren’t out to get us like in War of the Worlds or Independence Day, nor have they come to help us like in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Contact. They’re just stuck on Earth, and they don’t like it any more than we do.

Twenty years ago, a giant alien mothership ran out of fuel and has hovered over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa ever since. Humans quickly removed the aliens from their ship and forced them to live in the slums of District 9, a run-down camp of government-subsidized housing. Nicknamed “Prawns” because of their appearance, the aliens are essentially prisoners in a world that doesn’t want them. Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) heads up the effort to evict the aliens from their homes and move them to District 10, but after an accident occurs with unexpected side effects, Van De Merwe suddenly becomes the aliens’ strongest ally.

District 9 feels fresh on so many levels. It uses a documentary-style approach and was shot almost exclusively with hand-held cameras. The cast doesn’t have any big names, which adds believability to the documentary style, but all the actors are fantastic. Sharlto Copley gives a strong character arc to Wikus Van De Merwe; he starts off being ignorantly optimistic about alien/human relations, then becomes concerned only with self-preservation, and finally comes to treat the aliens as equals. It’s a good character journey, and the motivations behind it are fascinating; I applaud the marketing department for not giving any of the secrets away in the trailers.

Most alien films slowly reveal the aliens themselves, building suspense around what they look like (Signs, Alien, etc.). In District 9 you see dozens of aliens up close in the first five minutes. After all, they’ve been on Earth for twenty years already, so the secret is out. The Prawns look like the eight-foot offspring of grasshoppers and sea creatures. Emotionally, however, they’re a lot like we are. Some of them are kind to humans and others aren’t. It seems simple, but it’s amazing just how many alien films treat extra-terrestrials as though they all have the exact same agenda, if not the exact same brain. Of course they would be individuals with unique motives. District 9 respects its characters, human and alien alike.

The film deserves the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for its seamless integration of grainy footage and cutting-edge imagery. Every time the camera shakes or the image blurs, the CG effects adapt accordingly, giving the impression that they were actually captured by some documentarian with a camcorder. The Prawns are realized through a combination of puppetry and CG, and they look fantastic on the big screen. It’s a wonderfully believable and immersive experience.

It’s worth pointing out that District 9, while a first-rate film, isn’t a particularly enjoyable experience depending on your tolerance for violence. There’s a good deal of bloody mayhem, as the alien weapons cause humans to explode from within (think of dynamite in a watermelon). There’s also a character who undergoes a rather gross physical transformation, including teeth and finger nails that fall off. It could definitely be nightmare material for young viewers, and may gross you out regardless of your age. The film does usually give fair warning before showing something icky, providing ample ‘look away’ time.

The last half hour has some video game-ish, shoot-em-up violence that feels a little out of place, but all in all, District 9 marches into new territory and tames it brilliantly. Sci-fi fans will appreciate this creative film, and as good word of mouth spreads, I predict more and more casual viewers will fall for it as well. Neill Blomkomp leaves the door wide open for a sequel or even two sequels, but still provides enough closure for the film to stand alone. Personally, I hope to see some more. If Blomkomp can maintain the same level of quality storytelling, bring on District 10.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for bloody violence and pervasive language.

The violence in District 9 would give a lot of sleepless nights to a lot of children (see the review’s next to last paragraph for specifics), and even some teens would be bothered by it. Strong language pops up throughout.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino brings his elegant street dialogue to World War II, and it works splendidly. Leave it to the writer/director of Pulp Fiction to put his own unique spins on a genre that’s been done to death. Of all the great WWII movies, you’ve probably never seen one so dialogue-centric. The trademark style that placed Quentin Tarantino at the forefront of American filmmaking is back, and it’s still as witty, shocking, funny, violent, and just plain cool as it ever was.

Set in Nazi-occupied France, Inglourious Basterds follows a small team of Jewish-American soldiers, nicknamed, you guessed it, the Basterds. Led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), their mission is to strike fear into the Germans by “doin’ one thing and one thing only: killin’ Nazis.” Lt. Raine tells his soldiers early on, “Each man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps.” Unfortunately for our eyes, he’s not being figurative. A subplot involves Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a beautiful young woman who wants revenge on the Nazis for her parents’ deaths. She plans, along with the Basterds, to sabotage a Nazi movie premiere where several high-ranking officers will be in attendance, including the Führer himself, Adolf Hitler.

Like all of Tarantino’s films, Inglourious Basterds is a movie in love with movies, alluding not only to numerous other films, but even building on Tarantino’s previous works. The film utilizes on-screen chapter breaks with titles, the way Kill Bill did, and the film opens with, “Chapter One: Once Upon a Time ... in Nazi-occupied France ...” Chapter One of Inglourious Basterds should be shown to film school students as a lesson in suspense. The dialogue and performances are simply unforgettable, and the overall quality of the opening sequence proves that Quentin Tarantino is still at the top of his game.

The use of the opening phrase, “Once Upon a Time” is very appropriate, because in many ways, Inglourious Basterds is a fairy tale. Not only does it utilize heavily stylized dialogue and artistic visuals that give it a surreal quality, but without disclosing specifics, it deals in alternative history. Many historical figures appear, from Winston Churchill to Joseph Goebbels, but make no mistake that this is WWII as it could have been, not as it was. Along with this storytelling choice comes a new level of suspense; you’re never sure where certain scenes are going.

Violence doesn’t appear as frequently here as in Kill Bill, but when it does appear, it’s every bit as graphic. Inglourious Basterds shows some brutal, cold-blooded stuff: scalping, shooting, burning, beating, carving ... it’s not for the queasy, and you may need to/want to look away at certain moments. The audience I was in made plenty of noises that showed they were sufficiently grossed out, but in a fun, over-the-top action movie kind of way.

As is always the case with Tarantino’s films, the performances are top notch. Brad Pitt delivers all of his lines with a thick Southern accent, and his homespun country phrasing provides most of the laughs. I suspect that the intentional misspelling of both words in the title of the film alludes to his Southern drawl pronunciation. Mélanie Laurent is very memorable as the cold, gorgeous Shosanna, but the show-stopping performance comes from Christoph Waltz as the chief villain, Col. Hanz Landa. He brings a chilling friendliness to this vicious Nazi officer so that you’re never sure which of his “cordial” conversations will end in bloodshed. It’s still fairly early in the year, but when the Oscars roll around, a Best Supporting Actor nomination may be in order.

Inglourious Basterds isn’t as much of a masterpiece as Kill Bill (and I don’t expect him to ever make a better film than Pulp Fiction), but it does make for a worthy installment in Quentin Tarantino’s library. His films remain stylistically linked, but have grown quite diverse in subject matter. I greatly admire his post-Pulp Fiction achievements; he has followed-up one of the most important movies ever made, not by trying to duplicate his success, but the same way he made such a great film to begin with - by being his original self. Inglourious Basterds is a fun, violent, one-of-a-kind World War II romp.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong graphic violence, language, and brief sexuality.

The violence is very bloody, very brutal, and sure to bother just about everyone on some level. The language and brief sexuality aren’t really of consequence when compared to the gore. Don’t even think about taking your kids, and use discretion with teens. The violence in Pulp Fiction is often implied, but Inglourious Basterds is more like Kill Bill in that it’s completely shown to you, scalping and all.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Classic Series: L.A. Confidential

L.A. Confidential is a near-perfect masterpiece that has only improved since its 1997 release. It deserves to be named alongside Chinatown (1974) as one of the definitive explorations of the seedy underbelly of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but I actually prefer L.A. Confidential to Chinatown. While Chinatown ends with a wildly cynical and hopeless statement about human nature, L.A. Confidential travels through the darkness and into the light. It takes all the trademarks of the film noir genre and spins them into elegance, somehow making them seem fresh again. Detectives, booze, broads, murder, intrigue; it’s all here, and it’s never been better.

The film opens with Danny DeVito’s character praising Los Angeles as the perfect city: a magical 1950’s ideal, without any problems. After a minute or so, he reverses direction, saying, “At least that’s what they tell ya, ‘cause they’re selling an image.” The three main characters are cops working for the Los Angeles Police Department in the early 1950’s, and they’re all in it for different reasons. Edmund Exley (Guy Pierce) is a cold, clean-cut guy who adheres to the rules, Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) loves the spotlight, and Bud White (Russell Crowe) administers justice in his own way. After a brutal shooting takes place at the Nite Owl coffee shop, dubbed “The Nite Owl Massacre,” the three cops find themselves unraveling a mystery with shocking implications.

The cast actually looks stronger now than it did at the time. In a cast of veteran actors, the two fresh faces were Guy Pierce and Russell Crowe. Guy Pierce later starred in Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), and Russell Crowe went on to win an Oscar for Gladiator (2000). The cast also includes James Cromwell, David Strathairn, Danny DeVito, Kevin Spacey, and Kim Bassinger, who actually won her Oscar for her performance in L.A. Confidential. There were actually concerns at the time that the principal cast didn’t have enough big names, which now sounds like a joke. Casts sometimes suffocate under the weight of too many powerful cooks in the kitchen, but thanks to a great script, this kitchen was big enough for all of them.

L.A. Confidential’s Academy Award-winning screenplay is extraordinary. Adapted from an epic crime novel of the same name by James Ellroy, the script packs so many plot elements that it could have easily left its audience behind. Compared to the book, however, the film looks simple. In adapting the screenplay, Director Curtis Hanson had to boil the book down to its basic elements, cut some of those out, condense the characters, eliminate entire plot threads, and somehow have it all make sense. Most astounding of all, the labyrinthine plot unfolds logically while taking a backseat to character development. Few noir films care so much about their characters. I’ve probably seen this film a dozen times or so, and I still can’t fully grasp the brilliant tightness of the writing. To cut one line from the script would weaken it.

The 1950’s period is captured quietly through costumes and sets that are always present, but don’t stand out. Look around at any given moment during the picture and you’ll notice the splendid art direction, but the characters always hold the foreground. Rather than striving for nostalgic visuals, L.A. Confidential was shot using completely modern techniques, and while it was captured on color stock, the film uses shadows to achieve a classic film noir feel. The graphic violence far surpasses actual films from the Noir Era (1940’s-1950’s), feeling more like the pulp magazines from the period. In fact, such magazines even play an important role in the story, which explores how tabloids and the paparazzi were born. The soundtrack consists of original music by Jerry Goldsmith and plenty of tunes from the past, most memorably “Accentuate the Positive” during the opening credits.

The “cops and corruption” genre had been done to death by 1997, but L.A. Confidential breathed new life into the material. During an especially poignant scene two-thirds into the movie, Ed Exley tells Jack Vincennes about why he became a cop in the first place. “It was supposed to be about justice ... somewhere along the way, I lost sight of that.” It’s not only a scene that turns the plot in a significant direction, but it captivates me every time I see it. Many film noirs carry a sense of unstoppable fate, like Chinatown, but the characters in L.A. Confidential are offered chances for redemption. Some are saved, most aren’t, but all play their parts in one of the most entertaining films of recent years.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Proposal

The Proposal, I’m told, is a romantic comedy. The comedy stems largely from far-fetched situations and cheap gimmicks, and though I did sit through the entire credits, I failed to locate the romance. The film boasts an excellent cast and shows promise at various points, even improving as it unfolds, just never improving enough. During the last act, when I should have really cared about the central love story, I checked my watch more than once.

Sandra Bullock plays Margaret Tate, a cruel tyrant of the publishing world. Her assistant, Andrew Paxton (Ryan Reynolds), endures his job only in the hopes of an eventual promotion. When Margaret faces deportation to Canada because of an expired visa, she forces Andrew into a phony engagement. They plan to divorce after the wedding, but must first survive a weekend in Alaska with Andrew’s family. As Margaret and Andrew come to know each other better, their counterfeit emotions quickly turn genuine.

Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds play their characters with gusto, but as the two fell in love, I never believed it. What’s worse, I didn’t want to believe it. Ryan Reynolds lends his likability to Andrew, but Sandra Bullock’s Margaret is a mean, unpleasant person. Deep down, I hoped that the two would become friends, but that Andrew would end up with someone else. When the audience roots against the plot of a romantic comedy, something’s amiss. Even my wife, who is far more forgiving of chick-flicks, didn’t fall for this one.

I will remark once more on the stellar cast. The names include Ryan Reynolds, Sandra Bullock, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Betty White, and even Oscar Nuñez (Oscar from The Office). Strong performances carry the film to a certain point, but too many ridiculous situations drag it down. An eagle flies out of the sky and steals Margaret’s cell phone. Margaret and Andrew literally run into each other whilst naked. Romantic comedies don’t have to be completely logical, but the best ones don’t resort to cheap gags. When unbelievable, unnecessary physical comedy takes over, it’s often a sign of weak writing.

There’s a moment when Sandra Bullock speaks at a wedding that immediately reminded me of While You Were Sleeping (1995). The two romantic comedies share more than just a lead actress: misunderstandings, family troubles, and even a spunky grandmother turn up in both. However, While You Were Sleeping stands a world apart from The Proposal, featuring a great script made greater by its performances, its pacing, and even its soundtrack. If you’re in the mood for a charming romantic comedy, save your money and watch While You Were Sleeping. As for The Proposal, go ahead and call the wedding off.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual content, nudity, and language.

Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock both appear naked, though all of their “bits” remain strategically covered. There aren’t any sex scenes, though there’s plenty of sexual humor. The language is on par with most PG-13 films nowadays; consistent, but never very strong.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Hurt Locker

Saving Private Ryan (1998) was the first film to honestly capture the horrific violence of war, and now we have a film that conveys the suspense and paranoia. The Hurt Locker is a quieter, more contained masterpiece: a film that makes us feel the constant tension of battle. When the gunfire ceases, the suspense doesn’t. The soldiers in this film are the walking dead, convinced that they could fall at any minute. As one character says early on, “The bottom line is, if you’re in Iraq, you’re dead.”

Set in Baghdad, 2004, The Hurt Locker follows three American soldiers in a bomb-diffusing EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) team. The team leader, Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), is a brilliant but reckless wire-cutter who seems truly prepared to die every time he starts a mission. His two teammates, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) provide cover fire while James disables explosives. The film explores the mental breakdown experienced by these men, as well as the addictive nature of the constant buzz of warfare.

The Hurt Locker plays by very different rules than other war movies, which is appropriate, because the War on Terrorism is different from other wars. Most war movies show soldiers from opposing sides locked in battle, but the horror and suspense in this war comes instead from not knowing who the enemy is. While Sgt. James carefully cuts wires, always a moment away from death, other soldiers keep their eyes on the crowd. Civilians line the streets and are visible behind every window. Most have cell phones, some have camcorders, and constant paranoia is the only option in light of the frightening, inescapable truth: amidst the crowd of innocent onlookers, one person may have a finger on the detonator.

Of the three main characters, Sgt. James functions best under the extreme stress, because he seems to have the least to lose. Sure, he has a wife and son back home, but in his own mind, he’s already let them go. While Sanborn and Eldridge worry about death, James goes looking for it. As the film gradually shows, he’s addicted to war. Even after James saves a soldier’s life, the soldier correctly states that he wouldn’t have needed saving if James hadn’t been so reckless to begin with. “I got shot because you had to have your adrenaline fix.” James doesn’t acknowledge this comment, but he doesn’t have to.

The filmmaking is superb all the way around. The Hurt Locker isn’t a documentary, but it feels like one. The performances are completely genuine, and the camerawork is intentionally gritty, consisting primarily of handheld shots. The soundtrack booms at times and softens at others, all for the purpose of building tension and believability. Director Kathryn Bigelow ratchets the suspense at all times, so that even during moments of safety, we’re never really at ease. In this action film, the audience doesn’t want to see much action. We hope the bombs don’t go off. It’s a side of war that cinema has never seen, and I hope this film receives recognition at the 2009 Academy Awards.

The Hurt Locker is one of the best films about the War on Terrorism, which feels strange to say, because war films usually have some distance on the events they depict and therefore bring some perspective. The Hurt Locker takes place in 2004, putting just five years between the setting and the release. The recent profusion of films set during a still-ongoing war mark a new phenomenon, but I won’t complain if we see more films as enlightening and well-made as this one. War films are an exhausted genre, but The Hurt Locker is one of the year’s best films, providing a new, suspenseful, insightful, and altogether memorable experience.

Click here to view the trailer

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for war violence and language.

The Hurt Locker should be off-limits for preteens, but some teenagers could handle it, and it will definitely be less intense on video than in the theater. The violence isn’t graphic or overly bloody, but it is suspenseful and very realistic. There’s also a steady stream of strong language.