Like: World’s Greatest Dad

August 27, 2009

I’ll keep this short.

World’s Greatest Dad is a funny movie. Perhaps more surprisingly, it is also a very good movie.  You can’t say this is a total surprise, as the film’s director, Bobcat Goldthwait (yup, the Police Academy guy), already established a nice little foundation of indie/tv work: the profoundly messed-up Shakes the Clown, the great ruse Windy City Heat, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Chapelle’s Show, but most most of all his 2006 feature Stay, later retitled Sleeping Dogs Lie. Admittedly I have yet to see that last one, but all reports indicate it was surprisnigly nice little film about honesty and (in his words) “a tasteful amount of beastiality.” So WGD seems to be a nice little evolution in his career. (For example, it looks pretty good. Sleeping Dogs Lie was shot on some pretty low quality video, so Bobcat seems to make the leap to 35 with a surprising amount of guile. It’s not flashy or anything, but it’s got real steady feel to it).

Robin Williams gives easily my favorite performance of his since “The Genie” in Aladdin (yes this includes Good Will Hunting) . Even if the situation around him gets a little crazy, he plays it straight. His down to earth, good-natured-but-understandably-frustrated dad just rings very true. Even when things get very crazy and he takes his inner desires to some pretty extreme places. But it works.

But most of all Bobcat has crafted a wholly focused movie; all it’s trying to do is say one true thing (even hinting at this goal by quoting the famous Hemingway axiom of “one true sentance”). It’s an underrated and under-attempted quality in a movie and I found it admirable.

There’s actually a nice little moment that encapsulates this aforementioned one true thing. That moment is when Krist Novoselic shows up. The name Krist Novoselic is an intersting one, because he’s one of those unrecognized yet incredibly influential people. How do you know him? He’s “the other guy” from Nirvana. And his appearence in the movie is completely appropriate. He’s friends with Bobcat and when the director asked Krist to be in said scene, Krist asked “Just what is this movie about anyway?”

(WARNING THEMATIC/KINDA PLOT SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE BLURP SO TURN AWAY NOW) Bobcat answered: “You ever know that situation where someone dies and a bunch of people who didn’t know him talk about him, and turn him into something else that has to do with their own wants and needs, and push the people who actually knew him and cared about him off to the side?” Krist apparently smiled “Yeah I think know something about that.”

So yeah. The movie is basically about that. And it leads to Bobcat’s “one true sentance” (which is wonderfully enough the first sentance he wrote down and the starting point for a movie… thematically working backwards is also a wonderfully under-represented thing in movies). Here’s the paraphrased quote: [People think the most terrifying thing in the world is being alone, when really the most terrifying thing in the world is being only with people who make you feel alone.] And the movie earns the right to say it.

I’m looking forward to more Bobcat movies.


Like: Inglourious Basterds

August 25, 2009

Yikes. Inglorious Basterds might be my favorite movie of the year (for the record, I’m still deciding between Up, Drag Me To Hell, District 9, and Tetro in some fashion). It is also probably my favorite Tarantino movie since Pulp Fiction.

The revenge picture seems to be making some sort of cinematic comeback. It’s an odd little genre and unlike say Kill Bill, where the revenge is kind of a literal plot level thing, the revenge picture is kind of like a revenge surrogate for the audience in a larger social text. There’s some of the old blaxploitation movies that skewed that direction (eg. Sweet Sweetback’s Badaaass Song) and the rape-revenge movies (like I Spit On Your Grave). The goal of these movies is simple: catharsis. Show the revenge and the audience feels a sense of elation that often don’t get to feel in the reality of those situations. This is not an insidious practice. These movies aren’t advocating revenge in real life or anything (those who say they do, psssh… nonsense), but what does seem to matter is what exactly you’re justifying in revenge.  Racial injustice and sexual assault sure make a whole lot of sense , which is why the aforementioned movies relatively embraced by some critical communities. Meanwhile movies with bad revenge desires, like sayyy Death Wish (paraphrasing: “I’m going to go shoot up random minorities cause I’m sick of their shit!”) are much more problematic. Even something like Crash or Glory which are merely made to appease White Guilt I find kind of distressing. So either way it’s kinda murky territory but the point is there are revenge pictures and they serve a function.

So imagine if you will, a World-War 2 revenge picture.

We forget that we kinda used to make them all the time (Dirty Dozen, etc.), but the last decade or more has featured a lot of sobering, serious World War 2 movies. Don’t get me wrong, these films have varying degrees of  importance and immersion that I greatly admire, but they also made us forget that we can make audacious non-historical WW2 movies too. It’s OK. Not everything has to be Saving Private Ryan. This bears mentioning because I think I saw about 10 films that felt as if they simply had to be SPR, even with having no reason to be.

Enter Quentin Tarantino, who seems to have come at just a perfect time.

Inglourious Basterds is brash, audacious, tense, vibrant, list of great adjectives with wholly cinematic allure. 95% of it’s running time is rich with the highest quality Tarantino dialogue (not what I felt was sometimes a lame imitation in Death Proof) and those moments are punctuated by brief but intensely violent moments; the kind of moments that are well-served and often built up to brilliantly.  The film starts simply “Once upon a time in Nazi Occupied France”, which couldn’t be more perfect because although the settings are often startlingly intimate, the ultimate version of the Third Reich we get here is not all that different from the version we get in Indiana Jones movies; which is to say, the complete encapsulation of movie-time villainy. It’s like we’ve forgotten that you can portray the Nazis that way without turning into an Us vs. Them fascistic dick.  You can. It’s okay. It’s part of an accepted movie and cultural language and in our desire to be thoughtful rounded people we have somehow come into the belief that our villians have to be just as thoughtful or rounded. Nonsense. It’s knee jerk liberalism (and this from a hardcore liberal). God, they’re the NAZIS. They were the most hateful and evil group of dicks in the recent history of western civilization. It’s okay to make them the embodiment of evil. BECAUSE THEY WERE.

Now, that is not to say Quentin Tarantino would EVER make the mistake of hollowing out his characters to the point of simplistic archetypes and cutouts. Quite the contrary. For starters Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine knows EXACTLY how to march right up to the line of ridiculousness and keep it… well not grounded, but just grounded enough not to lose the audience. Sure Pitt’s chewing scenery, but he’s doing that infamous tight rope walk where it’s all balanced in perfect movie reality. Ebert talked in his review about Tarantino’s uncanny ability for doing this. He can make a line or moment utterly ridiculous and yet finds this unmistakable way to ground it and give it emotion.  Pitt gets to give a tongue thrashing assault and does so with such utter committment I usually find missing in most of his “serious” roles. As a result, it’s probably my favorite Pitt performance. He’s having a ball and so are we; taking absolute delight in every little verbal tick and inversion of his oh-so-balls-out Tennessee diction. It wholly showcase’s Tarantino’s world famous ear for dialogue as it reverberates through and through. He’s a perfect vehicle for the basterd’s grim and unflinching philosophy/behavior as most of them don’t say a word; they’re just an outright presence, scalping their way across the countryside.

As counterpoints, there are the two central females of the film: Melanie Laurant’s Shoshana and Diane Kruger’s Bridget von Hammersmark. I kind of think it’s better to keep their involvement in the plot a secret, not because it’s twisty or anything, but because it’s just no necessary. Suffice to say they are two completely realized characters with vibrant personality, layers, and depth. This bears mentioning because Tarantino is unfairly thought of as a kind of guy’s guys director and instead, looking over his filmography, he’s litered his films with about a dozen+ fascinating female figures.  They get to espouse rich dialogue. They get to perform their butts off. They get to be heroes. He never asks them to get naked. They are more or less treated on an acting level with complete respect. They’re simple characters in other films (ie “the girl”) and here they are something so much more. Let’s stop and think about not only how rare this is, but how incredibly refreshing it is.

This leaves “the bad guy” as a matter of discussion. It has been said many times already but Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa of the S.S., is without a doubt one of the best performances of the year. Probably the best. Landa is such a all encomapassing figure: an authority, a mannered gentlemen, a seething detective, a fucked-up sociopath, a delighted nave, a touch fay, all-together menacing, and yet completely and totally coherent. How can you even do that? It’s a mystery for sure, but it is such a great combination of writing, direction, and performance to be sure. I can’t speak highly enough of it. But it’s one of those performances that EVERYONE gets, like Ledger’s Joker or Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview; no one misses what’s going on from the visceral forefront to the many subtlties at play. It’s a remarkable achievement.

So as for what this whole freaking movie is actually about (and it is about something given my opening bit about Revenge films). Let’s get into what actually happens in this sucker.

WARNING HUGE FUCKING SPOILERS AHEAD BUT ITS WHAT I WANT TO TALK ABOUT SO TURN AWAY NOW IF YOU HAVEN”T SEEN IT. REALLY… AND IF YOU REALLY DON’T CARE THEN FINE I SUPPOSE… OKAY… Getting back to the Revenge film bit… Basterds is wholly cathartic because you get to see the war you want to happen and not the war that did. We get to see Nazis utterly shot, scalped, beaten to death, scarred, and blown up. And it’s not like some parade of violent delights either. I mentioned the matter of buildup and punctuated violence which gives all of this said violence some hefty weight. The idea is catharsis in every possible form. And if you’re doing Jewish revenge, if you’re going to go ALL THE WAY with that logic. Then your ending is simple (again spoiler, here’s the ending), why not have your jewish ww2 revenge picture end with  Hitler, Goebbles, and all the high ranking nazi officials getting gunned down and burned alive in movie theater? Why not have your more humane Nazis get forever branded with the nazi symbol on the forehead so they “can never take off the uniform.” What the heck is more cathartic than that?

Nothing. It’s the ending we never got. Sure WW2 was born out of revenge for WW1 (more debatable than is commonly accepted by the way), but that’s not a concern. In reality, Hitler was the true to form and cowardly shot himself in a bunker (we’re pretty sure about this). So, in the interest of catharsis, why not shoot him over and over again in the head?

Some critics seem to have a problem with this. Particularly David Denby of the New Yorker (not even going to bother to link to his knee-jerk nonsense). But to label this kind of revenge film as stupid or insensitive is just as stupid or insensitive. That’s because doing so means you’re mistaking Tarantino for an amateurish idiot who indulges in violence or revenge for revenge’s sake. Sure he’s a brash persona, but he’s no dummy. That kind of indulgent simplicity is what many of his imitators do, but not he. Tarantino is a master of both wholly exploiting a genre for all it’s worth and then subverting or transcending it in the most interesting ways. DFW once wrote a great piece on how his lynchian tendencies are played for “coolness” rather than discomfort and therefore lose effect, but I think his work from Pulp Fiction on works beautifully in terms of transcending that surface coolness. He simply cuts above garrishness. It’s not because he has lengthy dialogue scenes or simple tricks like that, which people often mistake for being smart, it’s because of a much more nebulous tone of intellect and emotional gravity. It’s beyond simple irony or dissaffect. It’s genuine care and love for these, the depraved archetypes and conventions at play.

It’s a wholesale acceptance of the human condition, IE understanding that the desire for revenge (in cinematic form) is cathartic even for the most liberal, a-fascist personalities in the world, which once again I am. I’m practically a freakin pacifist, but I can wholly understand and engross myself in the Tarantino ww2 reality. Yet for some reason it seem to urk other critics, colleagues, and friends who find this kind of treatment of a “serious subject” to be offensive. The same people who find Dirty Harry to be some kind of fascistic guide to life.  I don’t understand that. It’s like they’ve never seen a movie before. Movies don’t have to espouse your sense of politics or life philosophy (hell, we kind of perfer if they don’t). And I don’t say that in a “it’s just a movie don’t take it seriously” kind of way. I say that in the sense that there’s this cinematic social contract that what you’re seeing is a representation of a kind of dream or inner will.  The best directors know what’s happening, acknowledge it, and go past it. But so many people get trapped in Tarantino’s acknoledgement of base tropes, they can’t get past it. Come on! You’re not falling victim to a movie, it’s falling victim to you, ultimately. It’s a such a freaking shame too because they’re missing out on the best kinds of movies. The kind where you get to subvert your own freaking pretentions of what is proper and ride your own id. And unlike most trash, Tarantino guides your id with such utter care and poignancy. God… You’re missing out on those movies.

And missing out on the genius of Inglourious Basterds, probably the best movie of the year.

Like: District 9

August 24, 2009

So I’ve missed the last few weekends of movies and am going back to furiously catch up.

Starting with District 9, which is astoundingly good.

I’m not sure I can add anything to discussion, people seem to love the serious sci-fi angle on this this (relatively) low budget and rather unlikely blockbuster.

But I just found it to be doing so many interesting things so let’s go to bullet form:

-This is the best CGI I’ve ever seen. Hands down. The close ups of the bugs are photoreal. You’d swear they were prosthetic or practical effects, but nope. CGI. James Cameron should be ashamed of himself, spending 450 million to make “photoreal” cgi and instead his Na’vi from Avatar look like damn cartoons. He was utterly bested by a south african filmmaker with 30 millions dollars and hell of a lot more smarts. So how did this guy do it? Care, mostly. Rely on less CGI shots, spend more time on them, opt for a non-glamorous shooting style, go for an alien design that caters much better to CGI (ie bugs), and it helps to have WETA on your side, who in my mind is easily the best effects studio working today.

-Lots of great tone jumping. You don’t really notice it like you would in other films, but by keeping the docu-like form and cinematography the filmmakers afford themselves the ability to jump tones, and even narrative to a degree, all while keeping a cohesive singular movie. It’s just so exceptionally well done and I don’t really think people realize how vibrant and stark the sense of humor is in some of the scenes (the prawns living habits, the main prawn father/son interactions). Like I said the whole docu vibe affords them a lot of leeway. Just a brilliant move.

-Speaking of the “Shaky” cinematography, THIS is how you do it (Booooo Cloverfield). They know just exactly how to hold the camera with a slightly wider shot and focus in when focusing is important (it only gets real shaky with intentional bumps). Just lights out work, and believe me they worked on this over and over again until they got it right. Loved it.

-Lots of great violence. I’m not some guy who just sees movies like this for it’s action, but boy oh boy can a appreciate a film when it does it well. Blowing people up doesn’t have to be some mindless actioneering, but instead can be a cinematic, visceral and even cathartic film experience.  Like a pro, Blomkamp holds off most of this til the end and unleashes such a great last few acts.

-This movie has a lot in common with Starship Troopers (also just a great movie. I’m not kidding, the cartoony stuff just plays perfectly in that film. Verhoeven’s no dummy). D-9’s not going for the same satire angle, but there’s a lot of the same kinds of things being said about war mentalities, the “other”, etc.

-The movie somehow has just the right amount of sweetness too.

-Particularly loved the opening detail on their malnourishment as explanation, does so much explaining in a simple detail.

-Having Sharlto Copely, who plays the main guy Wikus, just absolutely NAIL the role has to help you out. It seriously wasn’t until this exact moment that I realized he was acting against nothing and completely sold his relationship with the main bug. It blows my mind. I seriously didn’t even think about it til right now… whoa… I had been thinking about his character arc and how he sold his development. Which is what you really should be thinking about and not the CGI. Just brilliant.

-As a historical lover of first person shooters, I could appreciate all the great inventive weapons in this. Fun stuff.

-That’s good for now I think. I really liked this well executed, and thoughtful movie. Sure the concepts at play aren’t exactly rocket science, but they sure aren’t banal and they used a valid sense of maturity and tact in dealing with them. Which is a HELL of a lot more you can say than most summer movies.

-Peter Jackson found a winner.

PS – A basterds blurb coming soon

Love: Paris

August 24, 2009

Paris is the most beautiful city in the world. There is no arguing this. I imagine there are more beautiful places; perhaps like Santorini, Tahiti, The Swiss Alps, or the green forests of China. But as far as an actual city, a major international one at that, in a hotbed of cultural shifts and living history, there is nothing more beautiful than Paris.

For aesthetic starters, virtually all the buildings in the central districts (called arrondissements) assemble a congruous harmony of neo-classical styled facades; all a kind of shade of white or ecru, dressed with beautiful adornments, flowers, shutters, drapes, and verandas. For more, let’s go to wiki!:

“For centuries, the city had been a labyrinth of narrow streets and half-timber houses, but, beginning in 1852, the Baron Haussmann‘s urbanisation program involved leveling entire quarters to make way for wide avenues lined with neo-classical stone buildings of bourgeoisie standing. Most of this ‘new’ Paris is the Paris we see today. The building code has seen few changes since, and the Second Empire plans are in many cases still followed. The “alignement” law is still in place, which regulates building facades of new constructions according to a pre-defined street width. A building’s height is limited according to the width of the streets it lines, and under the regulation, it is difficult to get an approval to build a taller building.

Many of Paris’s important institutions are located outside the city limit. The financial (La Défense) business district, the main food wholesale market (Rungis), schools (École Polytechnique, HEC, ESSEC, INSEAD), research laboratories (in Saclay or Évry), the largest stadium (the Stade de France), and government offices (Ministry of Transportation) are located in the city’s suburbs.”

Every street seems to be lined with beautiful trees and the layout of city couldn’t be more centralized and perfect. Transportation is a breeze (the most functional subway I’ve been on in my entire life too. You can get anywhere rather easily). The height of all the buildings too are kept in check lending even more significance to landmark filled skyline (eiffel, arc de triomph, notre dame, etc). And all the modern stuff is kept to the outskirts of the city, where it won’t disturb the mid-19th century vibe. It’s just all so jaw-droppingly beautiful. You can’t help but be swooned by the cityscape, I’m sure of this because it seems to be the only city which looks radiant in overcast conditions.

It bears mentioning that there is popular conception, both stateside and across the globe,  that the French/Parisians have a wide range of negative characteristics: rude, self-indulgent, self-involved, infantile, cowardly, whatever you want to say. And while some of these are complete nonsense (particularly the cowardly stuff), it is also possible to declare that none of these are fair conclusions. These classic perceptions of French society are based perhaps on an accurate outward tone or displayed visage, but are then completely misunderstood or misinterpreted. To me, the French are the perpetual adolescents of Western Civilization, complete with all the good and yes, sometimes, bad that comes with that. It’s not so much a rudeness as it is a mode of behavior. They’re simply into their own way of life and their own way of doing things (which can also be a rather American habit). They have a young, idealistic sense of politics. They take art, food, politics, and social life as seriously as one can take them. They’re kind of like that smart kid from your freshman year of college, who’s smartness is in fact adolescent because they think they know everything (and while they do in fact know a lot, the whole “thinking they know everything” spurs on anomosity).

But isn’t that a good thing to have in the world? Am I missing something? The French (and thus the French mentality) is responsible for some much wonder and great things we wouldn’t have otherwise. The food alone is the most amazing thing on the planet. How can we not a love a country that can give us the greatest food in the world? Or the most beautiful city and buildings? Am I missing something? Perhaps people just can’t get over the hangups of a culture just have a different social code. I dunno. But even the much ballyhooed rudeness is so easily disarmed with a repeated smile and kindness. It’s almost as if they’re testing you and if you keep being nice they instantly come around.

In case you haven’t figured it out, I just went to Paris and abosutely loved it.

And I can’t wait to go back.