Saturday, August 29, 2009

District 9

"Prawns" have a strange affinity for cat food and rubber. An odd diet for an alien species that resemble their seafood moniker both in appearance as well as reputation (as bottom feeders). Their spaceship first appeared in the skies above Johannesburg, South Africa two decades ago. After months of waiting, contact was finally made. The aliens were in a sad state of malnutrition and severely disoriented. After relocating the colony to a ghetto located beneath the ship, their numbers quickly multiplied to nearly two million. Their idea of fun is our idea of havoc. They quickly wore out their welcome.

So what do you do with a colony of aliens that seem to be worker drones who are easily duped into anything? Other than their ability to create weapons, which are biologically engineered (meaning they can only be fired by fingers that contain alien DNA...they really have no purpose than breeding, scavenging and causing problems. Of course you have the Nigerians who exploit their ingenuity for weapons they cannot use...and the government, who conducts endless experiments...but life is pretty drab. That is, until a relocation effort gets under way, spoiling the plans of the one mastermind hidden among the race.

Throw in a do-gooder (Wikus Van De Merwe, played by Sharlto Copley) who works for the government and is tasked with creating the legal mechanism for the relocation. Through a series of mishaps, Van De Merwe ends ups up needing the assistance of the conniving prawn mastermind. The two team up to take on both the government and the Nigerian posse who all have an intense interest in our lowly G-Man, Wikus. The action-packed sequences the two engage in end in an anti-climatic final act that left me scratching my head.

It is hard for me to complain about the writing in a film when it includes concepts that haven't played out a hundred times elsewhere. Although this film borrows from others before it, the look was fresh and felt original. But there were huge problems with the plot, the most glaring being the fact that I felt cheated. The abrupt ending seemed to point toward a sequel and failed to tie up loose ends. But, if you accept the film as the beginning of a trilogy, then the sudden ending might not be so bad. But there were other problems. You have weapons that are useless to anyone but an alien. The warlord collecting the alien weaponry seems to be a bit consumed by the creatures which could explain his exploitation of the aliens for weapons that are junk to him. But that plot line often felt contrived and stretched to its limits. The idea that the prawns were capable of creating such intricate weaponry, as well as the immense intellect of the main alien character seemed contradictory to me. I had a hard time accepting the major elements of the plot.

The dialogue was interesting, largely because of the excellent locale chosen for the backdrop. The rich dialects were showcased at times, in a documentary type narrative that sometimes included sub-titles for the odd inflection and cadence of the actors (as well as the alien clicking...which reminded me of the dialect featured in The Gods Must Be Crazy). Although the dialogue was rich, the characters were rather flat and predictable. Wikus was quirky and interesting, but beyond his part, the rest were boring.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds appealed to me from the very first trailer I viewed. The limited scenes of Brad Pitt cast as a gritty countrified team leader of a band of Jewish Americans chosen to hunt and kill gnat-zees piqued my interest immediately. Often, trailers are a tease, often giving viewers the best two minutes in the movie, but falling far short of the hype. I am happy to report that Inglourious Basterds manages to maintain the sharp dialogue and exceptional acting visible in the trailers for the entire 153 minute duration of the film. It really did not fell like a two and a half hour movie.

Inglourious Basterds takes certain liberties with the real history of World War II to bring us the story of a misfit part-Apache Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). Al-do is tasked with training a team to drop behind enemy lines in France, where they ruthlessly kill and maim German soldiers. Their reputation as vicious killers quickly spreads amongst the German soldiers. When a twist of fate has Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) holding his film premiere at a French Theater, several plot lines head toward a collision course. The theater owner, Shoshonna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) had escaped four years earlier from the brutal "Jew Hunter" Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz). Colonel Landa ends up running security for the premiere. The star of the premiere, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) is smitten with the beautiful Shoshonna, whose attempts to rebuff him are futile. A famous German actress, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who works as a double-agent, has agreed to get the Basterds into the premiere so they can kill the Nazis...while Shoshonna has developed her own plan. The elements are carefully constructed culminating in a climax with an interesting but enjoyable twist at the end. So, Tarantino took liberties with history to devlier an action-packed and incredibly fun (and violent) was worth it.

One thing I enjoy about Quentin Tarantino films is the dialogue. It is easy to get hung up on expressions or langauge that are comfortable. Tarantino doesn't find comfort zones, he challenges them. That gives Tarantino an open palate upon which to create his characters and dialogue. The characters are unique and intersting (although maybe a bit one-dimensional). But the dialogue is rich with intersting expressions and exceptional one-liners. The film had elements of graphic novel and spaghetti western thrown in to create a very unique look and feel that had Tarantino written all over it. Even the plot managed to catch me looking the other way. I guessed the ending about one minute before it happened.

Growing up, my favorite actor was Clint Eastwood (I was happy to see his Gran Torino earlier this year...likely his last film). I have never adjusted my icon for another Hollywood hero. I finally find myself seriously considering replacing Eastwood with Brad Pitt. I know the girls like Pitt simply because he's Brad Pitt. I have been a fan of Pitt's work, but his latest films have shown an incredible adaptability and range. In Inglourious Basterds, Pitt has outdone himself. I would never have read the script for this film and thought...that sounds like an excellent role for Brad Pitt. I would have looked for an older, grittier actor like the guys from the Dirty Dozen. Someone cast in the mold of Charles Bronson. Brad Pitt hit this one out of the park. He was unbelievably credible as the tough-as-nails ruthlessly violent Lieutenant. Bravo, Brad.

After slathering on that kind of praise for Pitt's performance, would it be fair for me to claim that Pitt was, at times, upstaged by the exceptionally deviant performance of Waltz as Colonel Landa? Where Pitt showed broad appeal, Landa brought scheming trickery layered with a heavy dose of self-preservation. The vile back-stabbing brand of preservation. Waltz was uncanny at times, combining cunning and violence to create a character that was the eseence of dishonor. Waltz was equally superb in this film. I was surprised to Mike Meyers in the film, in a cameo as British OSS or Military Intelligence. I thought Meyers might bring some comedy to the role, but his part was rather small and knock on his performance. Sgt Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) gets his own "back story" in this film. Schweiger was a credibly ruthless Nazi killer. The cast was superb top to bottom.

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Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Last Mistress

Steamy sex scenes are always a good least towards those audiences who appreciate a little bit of tastefully revealed skin. Okay, maybe not even tasteful...tawdry sex scenes in a credible setting make you feel better about the voyeuristic nature of watching the deed on film. Even if you know that the scene is can be, well...titillating. By setting The Last Mistress in the 19th Century, I guess it makes the sex scenes art. And I guess that makes me a connoisseur.

The sex scenes were really the highlight for me in this otherwise drab film. The concept held promise but was poorly executed. A young stud, Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou), carries on an affair for nearly a decade before marrying a rich heiress (Hermangarde, played by Roxane Mesquida), to whom he professes his true love. The relationships between the trio are explored ad naseum through first-hand experiences and rumor-mongering and manipulation of other aristocrats too familiar with the trio.

The plot was okay...sort of a star-crossed love story with some tragedy thrown in. The use of flashbacks kept the pacing of the story moving when it was prone to become sluggish, but the overall story lacked relevance. There was nothing in the characters that captivated me or caused me connect with the film. The story was rather average, the characters bland and predictable and the attention to detail a bit flawed. I will give the film a nod for dialogue that was often interesting or at least unique. I did not find the overall theme of the film to have credibility. The major theme of the movie seemed contradictory to me. I have not read the book (Une Vieille Maîtresse written in 1851 by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly) upon which this film was based. I think that this may definitely be one of those situations where the novel was better than the film.

The acting was tolerable, but not exceptional. I thought Aattou was okay in the lead role or Ryno, but not stellar. I really did not care for Asia Argento as Vellini, the mistress. Mesquida was nearly invisible as Hermangarde, really only around to pout here and there. It was almost as if her part were an afterthought at times. Ryno spends far more time in dialogue with her grandmother. The supporting cast were solid, but the bulk of the film concentrated on the ebb and flow relationship between Aattou and Argento. I did not feel that their chemistry was convincing.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I'm Through With White Girls

I'm Through With White Girls, on the surface, seems to be a story filled with characters with racial identities that break stereotypes or fail to find a pigeon hole in any particular niche. Although this film is as much comedy as it is drama, the underlying story seems to be about finding your own identity and not changing yourself to fit somebody else's definition. The racial identity crises in this film provide the platform for interesting antics and fun word play.

Courtney Lilly has done some writing for television sitcoms, with I'm Through With White Girls standing as the only screenplay contribution. Lilly must have had fun preparing this script, which contains an interesting and eclectic array of characters with endless quirks. Although the dialogue is serious when it needs to be, Lilly maximizes the characters and situations to have fun with the dialogue. The exchanges were funny but still believable within the context that Lilly creates. Director Jennifer Sharp did an excellent job of bringing together Lilly's script with an excellent cast of characters to deliver a polished enjoyable film.

I'm Through With White Girls tells the story of a black bachelor, Jay Brooks (Anthony Montgomery), who has tastes that stereo-typically run white. Jay likes super heroes, indie rock and white girls. His string of bad luck with white girls (who he never really seems to be able to break up with...instead he sort of avoids them) leads to a mission known as "Operation Brown Sugar." Jay is convinced that he needs to meet a black woman in order to end his unlucky streak. An awkward beginning with an aspiring writer, Catherine Williamson (Lia Johnson) leads to the development of a promising relationship.

Jay seems unsure how to progress in his relationship with Catherine, who has her own race-defying quirks. Catherine is afraid of public speaking, due in large part to her valley girl accent. Jay acts supportive, but over analyzes his relationships, choosing not to read Catherine's book, in spite of his outward support for her. Jay's underlying problem stems from what seems to be a fear of commitment. As things take a serious turn it becomes too much for him and he tries to bail on the relationship before having a change of heart. However, Catherine discovers some things that Jay has been hiding and the cover up leads the two to part ways. Can Jay undo the damage? You'll just have to rent the movie to find out.

Lia Johnson was phenomenal. Her acting was credible, bringing broad dimensions to her unique character. Johnson completely sold her part. Montgomery had a "Raj" from "What's Happenin'" thing going on. It was a little distracting at first, because I kept expecting "Rerun" to show up and steal the scene. After getting past the "Raj" thing, I had to applaud Montgomery for his role as well. It has to be difficult to balance racial identity quirks with reality to deliver a character that does not become too cartoonish. Both actors sold their parts, creating balanced, deep individuals that had unique but credible traits. The two also had excellent chemistry. Jay's fried in the movie (Matt) was played by Ryan Alosio. His character also experienced some racial issues, but came across to me as a bit contrived. He was very "Vanilla Ice" in this film. Maybe it was intentional, but it seemed cheesy to me. The rest of the cast contained some well known actors and actresses (it took me a minute to place Johnny Brown, who played Bookman on "Good Times.") The supporting cast was superb.

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Monday, August 17, 2009

Music Within (2007)

I'm not sure why Articulus Entertainment settled on Music Within to be the title of this moving story revolving around the work of one man to change the way people perceive disabled Americans. Although the soundtrack for Music Within was exceptional, that was the only music correlation I found. The expression bottled up inside Richard Pimentel (Ron Livingston) was a desire to change people's perceptions. This emerged first as a book, then as speaking engagements, primarily geared towards government agencies. It was Pimentel's goal to make the U.S. Government the largest employer of disabled veterans. A goal that is still evidenced today in the bonus points received by veterans and veterans with disabilities.

Pimentel struggled for many reasons. He returned from Viet Nam with acute hearing loss. He learned to read lips from a distance, but often had trouble hearing conversations close up. Oddly enough, he meets Art (Michael Sheen), a man with cerebral palsy who is struggling to drink a can of soda. Pimentel assists Art in opening the can and placing a straw in it. When Art attempts to communicate with Pimentel, his contorted lips are impossible for Pimentel to read. Then a strange thing happens. Pimentel is actually able to hear Art. This makes for some interesting three-way conversations where the two have to interpret for each other (and take some shots at each other at the same time). This match made in heaven begins the start of a lifetime friendship. Pimentel has immense respect for Art's intelligence, seeing past his disability to the man.

Pimentel experiences great success while failing in his personal relationships on many levels. He tricks an insurance company into hiring him without revealing that he is deaf. He refuses to wear hearing aids (for years). He reluctantly leaves his job in insurance to assist disabled veterans with job placement. Pimentel's reputation for finding jobs for the disabled spreads. He is eventually asked to develop training that will assist employers in hiring the disabled. This task leads Pimentel to write a book. Pimentel comes to the realization that disabled people make others "feel," it makes them comfront their own comfort levels. It is this sensibility that Pimentel decides to take on. Pimentel drives forward on his anger while his personal life dissolves around him. The dichotomy of his personal and professional lives creates some intense drama.

Writers Bret McKinney, Mark Andrew Olsen and Kelly Kennemer expertly weave together the true story of Richard Pimentel. The story was gripping and interesting, with characters that were colorful and fun with a shocking dose of realism. The dialogue was rich and unique. The interpersonal relationships were explored on different levels with believable language and strong dramatic elements. An excellent story delivered in convincing fashion.

The acting in Music Within was on par with the writing. I really enjoyed the chemistry between Ron Livingston and Michael Sheen. Although the story revolved around Livingston's character, Sheen's complete immersion into his character was exceptional. There were a couple of times that it seemed that Sheen drifted a little, but that had to be a really difficult character to portray one take after another. Rebbecca DeMornay was also excellent as Pimentel's mother, providing insight into his personal demons.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

When my son told me he wanted to see GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, I attempted to influence his movie decision away from this film. We looked at the other movies that were currently showing and decided on Ice Age Dawn of the Dinosaurs. I figured I had safely dodged a big budget, huge special effects Hollywood template movie. Ah, but the last laugh was on me. Upon arriving at the theater, I was advised that Ice Age was no longer playing and that the information on the website was erroneously displayed. As compensation, I was offered a choice of two movies at a discount. The first was G-Force, which I have already seen, and GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Okay…half price…I can live with that.

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra lived up to the expectations that I had for it. Not a spectacular film…lots of special effects, contrived plot…yet surprisingly entertaining. I did not set the bar high for this movie, so it easily achieved what I expected. Based on the Hasbro G.I. Joe action figure (no, I did not play with dolls as a youngster), GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra tells the story of an International team of Special Forces soldiers, known as “Joes.” Based on my recollection, G.I. Joe was a guy, not a unit…and he was an American. I guess worldwide appeal might have been considered in approaching the theme from a United Nations kind of perspective. Probably not a bad idea…the 100 Million dollar opening weekend box office was due, in large part, to international box office (which accounted for nearly half the box office).

GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra takes place in the “near future,” where the descendant of a 17th Century Scottish arms dealer has cornered the market on international arms. Selling to both sides, James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), has managed to secure seventy percent of the world market in arms (and defensive products). True to his history, McCullen decides to control the world with the development of nano-technology in the form of small robots that eat metal at lightning quick speed. Although it would make more sense for McCullen to simply tell the world that he is taking over (or else), McCullen engages in a more sinister game of cat-and-mouse to covertly take over. The former would be more plausible, the latter allows for more plot twists and a plot that can fill two hours. So, McCullen must steal back his own weapons in order to use them against the world in order to supplant the existing order. We are never really privileged to learn what replacement he has in mind…unless it entails a whistling master-of-disguise…which would beg another question. If that was the end-game…it did not require all the flash and bang…a simple switch would have sufficed (and eliminated a lot of shooting and action sequences)…oh yeah…that’s the idea…lot’s of big Hollywood action.

Okay, GI Joe is an action-figure. I get it. Lots of action tied to a convoluted and contrived plot that maximizes the use of pyrotechnics, CGI and maybe an opportunity to show a bit of cleavage here and there. The characters in GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra are less than one-dimensional. Although back-stories are incorporated throughout the film, the effort to add dimension to the characters falls woefully short. The characters are so flat, that the flashback sequences are predictable. The plot attempts to twist and turn, but you can see the twists coming from a mile away. The dialogue does not fare much better. The interaction between characters (especially the romantic interludes) is laughable. If you assume that the purpose of the plot were to maximize the opportunity to create dazzling effects at the expense of meaningful dialogue or character development, then this plot hit the mark. The writing was not impressive, but the special effects were fantastic.

The budget for GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra is sickening. The 100 Million dollar box doesn’t begin to cover the cost of producing this film, which was in the neighborhood of 170 million dollars. For that kind of money, maybe they could have bought a better script. They did not waste that money on big name talent. The cast was solid, but the money may have been heavily invested in the special effects, which seemed to be the underlying purpose of this film. There were chase scenes in GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra that were unlike anything I have seen before. There were exceptional action sequences that were simply mind-numbingly fun to watch. Okay…if you light firecrackers for fun, then you get it. It can be simple and still be fun. That is exactly what this film achieves. Some excellent CGI animation layered with interesting battle choreography, a dash of martial arts and plenty of fireworks.

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Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Hurt Locker

The war movies I grew up on were mostly Viet Nam films along with a few World War II movies. The Iraq War seems to have spawned an entire new venue for war movies, covering everything from the PTSD experienced by returning soldiers, to politically charged documentaries. The Hurt Locker is more like the war films I enjoyed when I was younger like Platoon or Hamburger Hill. The Hurt Locker does not inject politics into the story, relying instead on heart-pumping suspense and exceptional special effects to give viewers a taste of war.

I don't want to sound sexist in saying that I was surprised to see that The Hurt Locker was directed by a woman (Kathryn Bigelow). But the fact is, I was surprised by that factor. It is not that I feel a woman is incapable of creating a war movie masterpiece, but more the testosterone-laden elements of this film seemed so incredibly fraternal. Bigelow's attention to detail throughout the film lent a superb precision to the war-time backdrop that it felt convincingly masculine. That is a testament to outstanding Direction. I tip my hat to Bigelow for creating an incredible feel in this film.

A great deal of the plausibility in The Hurt Locker can also be attributed to writer Mark Boal. Boal created a set of flawed semi-complex characters that overcome their own demons when called into action, and exorcise those demons at other times. The characters are soundly developed. The dialogue has a slight military tinge without going overboard. Bits of native language is thrown in to add further plausibility to the script. The interaction of the characters includes a range of emotions that are expertly explored without turning sappy. The plot explores the thoughts and fears of a demolish team at war, while connecting the main characters tightly with the audience. All of the characters mattered. An important element for a film of this nature. The writing was spectacular and valid.

The Hurt Locker introduces us to a bomb tech (Sgt Thompson, played by Guy Pearce) whose fears are expressed in his strange desire for a he prepares to remotely detonate an IED (Improvised Explosive Device). Sgt Thompson is soon replaced by a new bomb tech with a sharper edge (Sgt James, played by Jeremy Renner). Sgt James inherits a broken EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Team comprised of Sgt Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). The trio have just over a month before they rotate back stateside. A lot of IED's lay in the pathway between the EOD Team and their Freedom Bird.

In the process of feeling each other out, Sanborn and Eldridge learn that their new team leader, Sgt Thompson, has a reckless abandon at times that is unsettling. Thompson takes a brash approach to his mission, which is the most dangerous of the three. Thompson is the guy that actually dismantles live bombs. His expertise is apparent, in spite of his seeming disregard for his own safety. The three experience a variety of situations that test their courage, emotional fortitude and value system. The tough breaks they brave together explains much about their personal values, strengths and weaknesses. Yet even their weaknesses fail to seem negative. It only exposes their humanity...bringing a very fleshy feel to the genre.

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