Friday, August 28, 2009

Happily, no 70s funk is featured

Given Inglourious Basterds's marketing (Brad Pitt-led ragtag crew of misfits goes on wacky, bloody Nazi hunt!), some may be disappointed by the new Quentin Tarantino movie's opening scene: a long, methodical conversation between two people in one room. For the many in the audience who bought tickets simply because it's a Tarantino film, though, it shouldn't be too shocking. Indeed, Basterds is different from what I was hoping for, as well - but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed what it turned out to be.

The film does, in fact, center on what might've happened, had such a cast of characters conspired to take down the Third Reich...but for a war movie, it doesn't feature much war. Instead, the picture plays out as a kind of exercise in tension building, via theatrical one-act-like scenes of backroom deals and espionage.

In that regard, among his body of work, Basterds may most closely resemble Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino's debut (and still my favorite). While the violent atmosphere is inescapable, much of the action takes place offscreen, and arises from characters talking about what has happened and is going to happen. I've heard complaints about just how talky the movie is, but the dialogue is truly a treat, allowing viewers to become enveloped in the unique world of characters the writer-director carefully creates. (If Christopher Waltz - leading a solid ensemble cast - doesn't receive a slew of award nominations for his role as the villainous Col. Hans Landa, it'd be a real shame.)

Of course, not uncharacteristically, this approach can translate a little episodically, but it's enjoyable to watch the story satisfyingly come together, in a way that doesn't suffer the bloat of Tarantino's last few entries. Basterds includes some classically Tarantinian qualities - filmic references, over-the-top monologues, clever editing - but it feels much more free of contrivances than most of his work, as if allowing his typically mile-a-minute style to breathe a bit more. It's his most serious, least trivial, film to date - though, at times, it's also very funny.

Visually striking, as always, Tarantino's revisionist history (which, refreshingly, may be his only pop culture "wink" this go-round) ends up hinging on the power of propaganda, storytelling, and cinema itself, to shape our collective trajectory. Pretty heady stuff for a movie that feels so fun.

Grade: B+

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Jackson good with aliens, hobbits

Neil Blomkamp's sleeper hit, District 9, succeeds where other blockbusters have failed this summer by delivering a kind of guerilla filmmaker's Independence Day: it hits all the exciting, intense, and funny beats of a big, sci-fi actioner, but does so through the lens of its wildly original premise and execution.

First time feature director Blomkamp expands on the elaborate world established in his 2005 short, Alive in Joburg, by further developing the story of aliens unexplainably arriving in South Africa, only to be set up in a government-enclosed refugee camp, among the shanty towns of Johannesburg. Naturally, the film's setting lends itself to themes of apartheid and racism - as well as war, and corporate and governmental bureaucracy and brutality - but isn't satisfied to be bogged down as a "message movie, " instead heading in directions you won't expect. While that's probably a good thing, District 9 sometimes goes so many strange ways that the story borders on silly, but nonetheless, is routinely brought back to its captivating, intense premise.

In focusing on the chaos of the slum the creatures inhabit, and the panic that ensues when military contractor MNU's "relocation" plan goes awry, the film calls to mind two of the most effective sci-fi entries in recent memory: Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (for its assaultive war zone depictions) and Cloverfield (for its minimalist, handheld approach to monster-fighting), both of which made effective use of their reasonably modest budgets. That District 9 - nearly every scene of which features effects shots, often heavily - doesn't look any cheaper than its summer movie competition, at a fraction of the cost, is a testament to Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson's ability to do more with less.

For better or for worse (usually, the former), this is a film that takes risks, starting not only with its inversion of the typical "Aliens Attack!" plotline, but with the fact that we don't much like the protagonist, MNU field operative Wikus van der Merwe - or the aliens, for that matter. Like many great science fiction tales, District 9's story is a pretty bleak one, centering on humankind's capacity for inhumanity and self interest - as well as brief glimpses of hope.

Grade: B+

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Friday, August 14, 2009

New Song Friday

A couple new tunes for you on this Friday afternoon, from two very different artists, whose featured songs navigate somewhat similar thematic terrain.

Entertainment Weekly is streaming Mason Jennings's "The Field" - from the folky singer-songwriter's forthcoming Blood of Man (due September 15) - about a parent whose son goes off to war. Inspired by a desire to introduce his kids to electric guitar, as EW shares, Jennings's new LP is likely to be a bit harder-rocking than his most recent records.
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"The Field" doesn't exactly shred, but it sounds great, and is evocative of Birds Flying Away, Jennings's first (and best, IMO) full-length, which saw the singer at his most rocking. The song offers a nice fusion of his early-career protest songs and more personal, later material.

Elsewhere, BBC has Radiohead's "Harry Patch (In Memory Of)," about the British WWI vet who recently passed away. Its lyrics - Patch's own words - are the most Radiohead-y thing about the song (apocalyptic imagery abounds), which features only Yorke's vocals over guitarist Jonny Greenwood's lovely string arrangements. It's both pretty and pretty boring, especially for the first studio material we've heard from the band since In Rainbows.
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"These Are My Twisted Words," another apparent new track of the band's, is more typical Radiohead fare (and unfortunately, for my money, is also pretty boring). Unlike "Harry Patch," the song isn't currently available to download via their website - though you can get it for free at Stereogum - but it may be included on a new EP (reportedly titled Wall of Ice), which the band just might be releasing this Monday. Keep an eye out...

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Friday, August 7, 2009

Trailer Watch

Welcome to today's Trailer Watch, friends, in which we'll take a look at the new trailers for four hotly anticipated fall/winter releases...

First up is the second trailer for Where the Wild Things Are, which, if you've followed this blog at all, you know I'm superpumped about. Aside from a couple of minor quibbles (I'm still beyond glad that they used Jim Henson Co. instead of going 100% CGI for the Wild Things, but their animated faces might take some getting used to), it doesn't disappoint:


Next is another revered children's book adaptation, Wes Anderson's take on Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox. I've speculated that a change of pace might be just what the director needs to break out of his Andersonian box, and I love me some stop-motion animation, but I'm not sold yet...if this weren't a Wes Anderson movie, would we be thinking about it as something other than fairly typical looking kids' fare? Although, I gotta say, Jason Schwartzman is pretty hilarious:


Rounding out the book adaptations is the decidedly not-for-kids Lovely Bones. I'd say the jury's still out on this one for me; if it weren't helmed by Peter Jackson, or based on such an interesting novel, I wouldn't be very intrigued:


Finally, the first glimpse of the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man is a little surprising: it's a comedy set in the '60s midwest, but its edgy trailer (edited, Tom Waits-ishly, to various percussive sounds from the movie) seems to occupy the avant-garde territory of Barton Fink humor, rather than Burn After Reading screwballism. It's strange, tense, and funny - and thoroughly Coen Brothers:


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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

It's all part of the plan...

So, apparently, this poster of President Obama in Heath Ledger-Joker makeup started popping up around LA over the weekend, and has subsequently sparked plenty of interest. While not a remnant of some kind of ComicCon shenanigan from a couple weeks back, its creators' line of thinking is pretty transparent: "How can we get our right-wing ideas to go 'viral,' as teh internets kids say? I know! We'll inexplicably attach them to the king of viral marketing campaigns, The Dark Knight!"

Unfortunately for them, I fear their logic may have backfired: when I first saw the image, I just thought, "Hey, neat - Obama as the Joker!" The problem is that people like the Joker - they find him cool. In my mind, associating Obama with the character only enhances the president's "hip" factor. Then, there's the added, general inconherence of the whole thing: so, Obama's a joker, because he's lying to us, or something? He's a "socialist," and thus, like the Joker...who's an anarchist?

Turns out (surprise, surprise), the image was originally Photoshopped by some dude in Chicago who just thought it looked cool. It took the brilliance of these Los Angelino guerillas to add the word "socialism" - in a font that looks nothing like the "hope" text of the Shepard Fairey posters, which I presume they're referencing - and throw them up around the city. And yet, here I go giving them more viral attention, anyway...

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