Wednesday, December 30, 2009

District 9

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, Robert Hobbs
Running Time: 112 min.
Rating: R

★★★ 1/2 (out of ★★★★)

District 9 takes a very different approach to your typical alien invasion film, if you could classify this as such at all. The most successful stories dealing with extraterrestial life arriving on Earth are enriched with the knowledge that the primary focus shouldn't be on what the aliens look like, why they're here or even what they'll do. It should be what their arrival says about us and what it'll mean. First time writer/director Neill Blomkamp knows this and because he does we're taken on a journey that mirrors that of the film's protagonist, moving from a position of ignorance to understanding. We think we know what we're getting in the opening minutes until the movie changes the rules and becomes something else entirely.

Besides featuring the best lead performance in a film of its type since Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it's the kind of spirited production we wish Spielberg would put his name to again, evoking the rare mix of intelligence and excitement that should be a prerequisite for all summer event movies. That producing credit instead goes to The Lord of the Rings' Peter Jackson, who apparently knows talent when he sees it. There are actually issues to think about and real conversations that can take place long after the dazzling action sequences conclude. It's everything Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen didn't even attempt to be.

The film opens with the aliens (demeaningly referred to as "prawns") having already arrived and parked their mothership above Johannesburg, South Africa. Upon their arrival they were confined to a secure government camp known as District 9, which has since deteriorated into a segregated slum that's now a breeding ground for crime and rioting. Assigned the unenviable task of evicting the aliens and relocating them to the newly formed District 10 is inexperienced beurocrat Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley). We follow him mock documentary style from house to house, while simultaneously being given video testimonials from his colleagues looking back on his actions, which undergo a dramatic shift when his own life hangs in the balance. His first day as a field operative ends disastrously, infecting him with an alien fluid that sends him to the hospital. Now his only hope for survival rests with the aliens he so callously treated.

District 9 is all about reversing expectations and shifting viewer allegiances. The opening half hour is presented in such a straightforward manner that we're forced to read what's happening as a gritty, bares bones documentary account of what would happen if aliens were absorbed into our society, then subsequently shunned from it. The shaky, hand-held camera work memorably employed in films like United 93 and Cloverfield categorizes the early action. Naturally, we're predisposed to support the government in their attempts to contain the extraterrestrials because we've been trained to do so based on every film, television series or novel on the subject. Further bolstering that is the presentation of the aliens themselves, who resemble ugly crustaceans and differ in no way from the menacing image of life from another planet we've come to expect.

While the field agent Wikus is initially presented as an insensitive jerk, his behavior comes more out of clueless ignorance than anything else and it isn't until he's infected with the alien virus that Blomkamp exploits all our preconcieved notions about the direction the story will take. The hunter becomes the hunted as Wilkus finds out just how quickly and willingly his own government will turn on even him to "protect" the country from this supposed threat. He must depend on an alien hilariously named "Christopher Johnson" whose very different mission is to return to his home planet safely with son C.J.

With all these great performances stacking up from previously unseen talents, 2009 just might be remembered as "The Year of the Unknown Actor." Sharlto Copley (who amazingly has never acted in a feature before) carries this entire film on his back for every scene and sells us completely on Wilkus' transformation, which feels constantly evolving rather than sudden. It never seems like he just becomes an action hero overnight because Copley presents a man in a desperate situation forced to summon up all the courage and integrity he has in order to survive. In the early scenes he so eerily recalls Peter Sellers in both manner and appearance with his bumbling demeanor that you could more easily envision him in the Pink Panther remake instead of Steve Martin. That's part of why the turn the character takes is so physically and emotionally shocking, and as equally shocking is how Copley can pull it off as believably as he does. A meek, mild-mannered nerd emerges as someone else as the film progresses and it's almost impossible to believe the same man who was stumbling door-to-door serving eviction notices becomes the monumentally important historical figure described in the film's closing video testimonials. The performance is just as strong and challenging as, say, Jeremy Renner's in The Hurt Locker, but the latter turn is destined to receive more acclaim if only due to the genre this film belongs to.

Those who complain the movie degenerates into standard action fare toward the final act do have a point, albeit a mostly irrelevant one. My question: What did you expect? There was no other way to resolve this story and at least the action we're getting is easy to follow, not marred by bad CGI, and most importantly, features characters we care about and have a rooting interest in seeing overcome the odds. This isn't mindless action because there's a story and real ideas to support it. The script earns the right to indulge itself with the end result providing just enough closure for satisfaction, but not too much. Given its settings and themes its impossible to overlook the obvious correlation to the apartheid-era events in South Africa (or even this country's own ugly history of racism and segregation), but that connection is there for us to either look deep into or ignore. It's never thrown in our faces in a heavy-handed way.

As it becomes glaringly apparent that the way the aliens are treated is unfair, Blomkamp cleverly gets you to care not only about the bond that forms between the rogue government employee and these aliens, but the even more important one between the alien and his son. As a result we're given a science fiction movie that works as both an allegory about human nature and an indispensable action event. If you can buy into the idea of an arrival of any kind taking place, it's plausible it could go down like this and our reaction would be just as harsh as it's depicted here. While it may be unfortunate that history supports this theory, it's fortunate that District 9 proves science fiction movies can still show signs of intelligent life extending way beyond just impressive visual effects.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Favorite Performances of the Decade (Actors)

I'm definitely not above taking great ideas just so long as the the proper credit is given. This past week I discovered THIS LIST over at Jeremy Richey's Moon in the Gutter blog and was inspired to compile my own photo tribute of my favorite acting performances over the past ten years (and help kill time while I continue to work on my best films of the decade list). I agreed with a lot of his picks, added some, and you'll find a few big surprises (though not as many as you'll see on the upcoming actress list) While naming thirty may seem excessive, it really isn't when you consider all the fine acting work done over the past decade. Whittling it down was tough and inevitably some of my favorites had to be cut.

I wasn't brave enough to even attempt ranking these in order of preference since my respect for all of these would just make that impossible. My only rule was to not include an actor twice. So if they gave more than one performance I felt was worthy, I picked the overlooked one to draw needed attention to it. But that's not to say some of these have already been showered with massive accolades and praise for good reason. Going in I told myself I wouldn't include anything from 2009 so, go figure, I put one on anyway and it's a real testament to his work that I didn't hesitate breaking my own rules to single him out. It'll be interesting to see whether I cave in again and deem '09 eligible when compiling the best films of the decade. You wouldn't be wrong to assume some clues to the contents of that could be found here. I'm sure this won't be the last mention of at least a few of these.

George Clooney (Michael Clayton)

Brad Pitt (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)

Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler)

Jeff Daniels (The Squid & the Whale)

Jeff Bridges (The Door in the Floor)

Michael Douglas (Wonder Boys)

Ben Foster (Alpha Dog)

Daniel Day Lewis (There Will Be Blood)

Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)

Emile Hirsch (Into The Wild)

Ed Norton (25th Hour)

Haley Joel Osment (A.I.)

Tobin Bell (Saw II)

Nicolas Cage (Adaptation)

Noah Emmerich (Little Children)

Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brick)

Adam Sandler (Punch Drunk Love)

Gene Hackman (The Royal Tenenbaums)

Sean Penn (The Assassination of Richard Nixon)

Bill Murray (Lost in Translation)

Patrick Wilson (Hard Candy)

Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men)

Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds)

Steve Carell (The 40-Year-Old Virgin)

Luke Wilson (The Royal Tenenbaums)

Ryan Gosling
(Lars and the Real Girl)

Paul Giamatti (Sideways)

Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino)

Colin Farrell (In Bruges)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl

Running Time: 152 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's usually a section in any bookstore where you can find those speculative fiction novels dealing with various alternate history scenarios. The victory of the South in the Civil War. The survival of the Byzantine Empire. Nazi Germany's victory in World War II. Quentin Tarantino uses the pages of those books as toilet paper in Inglourious Basterds, the alternate history to end all alternate histories, and easily his best film since Pulp Fiction. What everyone expected to be another one of his fun  B-movie tributes (this time to Spaghetti Westerns) over-performs considerably to become something far more, representing a giant leap forward for a director who was written off as peaking a while ago. It stands as his least indulgent, most assured effort, playing on all the strengths that were evident in his best work and finding a way to incorporate his cinematic influences and fanboy instincts into a film that's uniquely his. A substantial, focused work from a filmmaker who for the past decade has mostly been prone to taking crazy detours and marching to the beat of his own drum.

It wasn't until it ended that I realized most of the picture is in subtitles, not as if it matters because I was too enraptured in the story to even notice, hanging on every word in each tension filled scene. Tarantino milks every moment for all its worth but as impressive as it is, it's his ability for discovering and fostering underseen talent that reaches unthinkable heights. There's a brilliantly understated performance in this that even eclipses the film containing it, which is saying a lot considering the film itself is a near-masterpiece. This is the rare motion picture that will likely invite many repeated viewings to fully grasp all its crazy complexities and its ending, backdropped against an unforgettable final image, is as controversially cathartic a release as you hope a movie could deliver.

The film opens in German occupied France in 1941 with a visit to a dairy farm from "The Jew Hunter," Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). He suspects the farmer (Denis Menochet) is hiding Jews and after initiating a bizarre conversation about squirrels and rats, he kills the Dreyfus family, found hiding under the floorboards. All except one. Daughter Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) escapes and we catch up with her four years later when under an alias she now operates a small Paris cinema. All is fine until she encounters war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), who's interested in her theater (and actually a lot more than that) for the premiere of the new Nazi propaganda picture, Nation's Pride, in which he stars and will be attended by Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. She agrees, plotting the ultimate revenge against the Nazis who murdered her family, provided her cover isn't blown first. Revenge is also on the minds of "The Basterds," a gang of Jews who kill and scalp Nazis. Led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), they have a dangerous plan of their own for the premiere involving infiltration from undercover former film critic Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and a famous German film actress turned Allied double agent named Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).

What's always been the long-running joke with Tarantino as a filmmaker, even amongst his most loyal supporters, is that he's a far better writer than director and that the guy just loves movies. That former criticism is called into question for the first time with this film while the latter isn't so much a criticism as it is the God's honest truth. But they've manifested themselves as criticisms mainly because he's spent the years following the enormous success of Pulp Fiction applying them to exciting diversions and genre tributes. That's not to say his day at the playground with a Jackie Brown, a Kill Bill or a Death Proof wouldn't be the equivalent of any other director's career best, but this one is more than that. Here he's really channeled and harnessed his self-indulgent tendencies and cinema obsession in the best possible way, applying them for more than just a good time (although this certainly delivers that in spades).

The love for movies does not only factor into the screenplay, for the first time it seems fully ingrained into the entire picture. Like Pulp Fiction, this is divided into chapters (five of them) but what's so curious about that is how each of them is so tightly constructed as to feel like five huge scenes. There are two or three huge ones while the rest wrap around it perfectly. Christoph Waltz is in most of them and his Landa is a Nazi unlike any we've seen depicted on film before. Rather than project him as pure evil personified, Waltz plays him as charming, intelligent and slick. His chief motivation really is simply doing his job and doing it well and it's that approach that makes the character so much more chillingly terrifying than it could possibly be otherwise. What Waltz does in the opening interrogation scene to get to the point he needs to with this character and jump start the story has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. Had he only appeared in those first ten minutes and nothing else he'd still have the Supporting Actor Oscar in the bag.

All the praise and awards attention for Waltz is justified but on equal ground, if not higher, is the work of newcomer Melanie Laurent as Shosanna. Part of why I'm so partial to it is that there are just so few strong starring roles available for women and it's something Tarantino has always excelled at writing, but takes to a new level here. Laurent doesn't have a lot of lines. Most of them are in foreign tongue. Yet she expresses all she needs to without words and just her eyes. A scene where Shosanna sits and eats with Landa, the man who murdered her family. As he questions her about the movie premiere the tension and suspense becomes unbearable. Just watch Laurent's face the entire time and when the scene ends witness her let it all out. She also expertly sells the most difficult part of the story--Shosanna's complicated, seemingly one-sided relationship with war hero Zoller, which we're not quite sure what to make of even right up until its tragic end.

At risk of overstating the case, Laurent gives the kind of iconic performance you can see being looked back on years from now as a landmark. The final image we get of her is so memorable it could very well be burned (literally) into our psyches. Considering this is an ensemble film I'm not sure which Oscar acting category she'd fit into but here's hoping they figure it out soon. And that's no knock on Diane Kruger as a separate review could be written exploring how Tarantino somehow managed to get such a thrilling performance out of an unproven actress barely memorable in the National Treasure movies. She's a surprise but Laurent's the heart and soul, so much so that movie actually suffers a little when she or Waltz aren't onscreen.

The Basterds are entertaining as hell, which is all they need to be and Brad Pitt (in a less pivotal role than you might expect) delivers a turn as broadly comic as his work in Burn After Reading. Of course, the most controversial casting decision is non-actor Eli Roth in the role of Staff Sergeant Donnie Donowitz (aka "The Bear Jew"), who takes a baseball bat to Nazis' heads. Roth really isn't asked to do a whole lot and this isn't a challenging part but he's adequate enough in it. The irony isn't lost that the "torture porn" director of Hostel brutally hands out the most controversial killing at the end of the film. There's a message in that somewhere. Make of it what you will.

The biggest accomplishment is that Tarantino takes the most sensitive, shameful subject imaginable and makes it fun. Barrels of fun. It's almost horrible to say, but true. And by having the Jews mimic the atrocities that were done to them by the Nazis and reversing the balance, he also forces to look at history in a way that goes beyond the normal black and white textbook depiction found in so many dry war epics, as uncomfortable as that may make us feel. It's a fascinating experiment because they become real people rather than labels or footnotes in history. As a result, this movie feels alive with an energy and importance. It's really a complete subversion of all genres and though its title may be inspired from Enzo Castellari's little seen 1978 war film The Inglorious Bastards, there's no mistaking this as a wholly original work. It's all Tarantino, who's back with a vengeance, and now has us wondering again if all the massive hype surrounding him was true.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Hangover

Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Heather Graham, Justin Bartha, Jeffrey Tambor, Ken Jeong

Running Time: 100 min.

Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The Hangover takes a great premise that many will undoubtedly relate to and does the most it can with it. Asking the intriguing question of "What happened last night?" the film becomes an engaging comic mystery that avoids cliches, works in some clever little touches and features a few memorable performances. If my reaction seems a bit more lukewarm than the general glowing consensus that's probably just a symptom of having seen way too many comedies. If nothing else, it's at least far more pleasing than director Todd Phillips' own overrated cult comedy Old School, which I thought lazily phoned in a great idea. This is more in line with Road Trip.

If there's a fatal flaw, it would be that the big payoff seems pat and inconsequential considering how good a job is done building toward it. But it isn't trying to reinvent mainstream comedy, just be flat out hilarious, which it is all the way through. I can't say I cared greatly what happened the characters and the plot kind of flies off the rails toward the final act, but I laughed a lot, which is really all that counts. Plus, how often do you get to see Mike Tyson and Heather Graham in the same movie? Or any movie? Much less one of actual quality.

On the eve of his impending wedding, Doug (Justin Bartha) is being taken to Vegas for a bachelor party by best friends Phil (Bradley Cooper) and Stu (Ed Helms) and future brother-in-law, Alan (Zach Galifianakis). The plan is to give Doug one last night of hedonism before heading back the following day to tie the knot. Instead they wake up the next morning with no memory of the previous night and a lot of confounding questions. How did their $4200 suite get wrecked? Why is there a tiger in the bathroom? Whose baby is this? Where's Stu's tooth? Why is he now married to a stripper? Who knew Mike Tyson was such a huge Phil Collins fan? Most importantly, where's Doug? It's that last question that drives the action and send them on a frantic quest to piece together all the clues necessary to find their friend and get him to the altar on time.

The first hour of the film is the strongest, when we know about as much about the crazy scenario as the characters do: Nothing. The excitement of seeing them start to figure things out and the hilarious and unexpected detours that mission takes them on is the big draw here. It's filled with bizarre and uncomfortable moments, made all the more bizarre by the three very distinct personalities of the major players, especially eccentric, bearded slob Alan, who's the type of character you'd imagine being (over) played by Jack Black in a lesser movie. Instead, Galifianakis, long underrated as both an actor and a comedian, suggests a whole history for this guy in a handful of scenes with his off putting comments and creepy behavior, supplying most of the biggest laughs. There's enough reality in the portrayal to make us squirm yet it never crosses that line to the point we can't see the absurd humor in it.

Bradley Cooper is essentially the leading man for most of the picture, doing a good job making cocky jerk Phil (a teacher who hilariously collects cash from his students to fund this trip) somehow come off as likable. Ed Helms' Stu kind of reminded me of an adult version of McLuvin' from Superbad if he grew up to become a dentist (NOT A DOCTOR) whipped by a bitchy, controlling girlfriend (Rachael Harris). As the sweet, innocent stripper Jade, Heather Graham is given her best role in years, which may not being saying much, but it's a perfect fit for her. One of the script's best qualities is how it deftly handles the revelation Stu has awakened now married to this woman and it may not be the end of the world like he thinks it is. I'd even wager I found Stu's entire storyline more involving than anything having to do with the missing groom. Tyson is Tyson, but it works perfectly, and while his actual screen time amounts to slightly more than a cameo, it's a memorable one that delivers. His part is considerably funnier than even the trailers and commercials have teased.

The movie starts to run into trouble when it actually has to deliver on the mystery of what happened to Doug. Had the writers come up with something really inventive to explain what happened to him that matched the hilarity that unfolded up to that point it would have really taken the movie to the next level. Instead, things are wrapped up a little too tidily, even though we're given a classic supporting turn late in the game from Ken Jeong as an effeminate gangster that almost makes up for it. Also, since we're given so little time with Doug at the beginning of the picture and Justin Bartha is bland in just the few scenes he's given, it's difficult to care whether he makes it back for the wedding. In a way though, that's kind of a relief because it frees the movie up to just simply be crass and funny instead of delivering dopey life lessons, an unfortunate symptom that's befallen other testosterone driven comedies lately.

This doesn't seem like the kind of comedy that would hold up that well on a second viewing since it's built around a mystery and once you know how that turns out all that's left are the jokes. And those tend to never play as well the second time around, even for the very best efforts in the genre. You have to wonder if the exact same events of that night just unfolded as they happened without the big question at the center whether anyone would be talking about this movie at the level they are. When you put all the pieces together the whole endeavor does seem ordinary and by-the-numbers in retrospect. That was something that should have been avoided, but at least all the jokes hit and the comic timing clicks. These are characters you like spending time with in a movie you wouldn't mind actually living in for one night. Many probably already have. Where The Hangover really succeeds is in effectively capturing the hilarious uncertainty of that situation.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Best Movie Posters of the Decade

Since I'm nowhere near ready to post my list of the decade's best films (still lots of re-watching left to do) I figured I'd jump on the bandwagon and reveal my picks for the decade's ten best movie posters. As many readers know already, I reveal my choices for the year's best posters every December but this time the stakes have been raised considerably higher to encompass the entire '00's. It was tough narrowing it down to just ten but these are my absolute favorites, along with a runners-up list. Those interested in checking out two other recent best poster lists to compare and contrast can click on these:

Roger Ebert's Great Movie Poster's of the Decade
(No offense meant to Roger but I actually think many of his choices are underwhelming and a few, like Juno, would more likely appear on my worst list) Curry's Movie Posters of the Decade (I like this one a lot better and not just because we agree on the #1 pick)

I'm actually going to dispense with the commentaries this time since I've already weighed in on many of these already and nothing more needs to be spelled out or said about the great artwork below. All these images speak for themselves (click to enlarge).

10. The Dark Knight (2008)

9. Lord of War (2005)

8. Wonderland (2003)

7. Walk The Line (2005)

6. Moon (2009)

5. The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

4. Hard Candy (2006)

3. The Cooler (2003)

2. The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002)

1. Funny Games (2008)

Runners-Up (Alphabetically)

Adaptation (2002)

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)

The Bank Job (2008)

Bobby (2006)

Brick (2006)

The Brothers Bloom (2009)

The Brown Bunny (2004)

Captivity (2008)

Children of Men (2006)

Cloverfield (2008)

Control (2007)

The Dark Knight (2008)

The Descent (2006)

Die Another Day (2002)

Donnie Darko (2001)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

The Fountain (2006)


The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

The Good Shepherd (2006)

Gran Torino (2008)

Hell Ride (2008)

High Fidelity (2000)

Hot Rod (2007)

I'm Not There (2007)

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

In Bruges

Inland Empire (2006)

Little Children (2006)

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Michael Clayton (2007)

Moon (2009)

My Blueberry Nights (2008)

No Country For Old Men (2007)

Order of Chaos (2009)

Premonition (2007)

The Proposition (2006)

Rambo (2008)

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

Savages (2007)

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Thank You For Smoking (2006)

Taking Woodstock (2009)

V For Vendetta (2006)

We Own The Night

The Wrestler (2008)