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11 out of 22 people found the following review useful:
Words as weaponry, 26 August 2009

Note: this comment was edited to meet IMDb length guidelines.

I first saw "Inglourious Basterds" in late July and concluded that it would flop and Tarantino would never again be relevant. Needless to say, I didn't like it and didn't even expect to see it again. Late August and Tarantino certainly seems relevant again. His biggest opening at the box office, rapturous media reviews, and a surprising amount of hype. Word of mouth is excellent. It remains to be seen how steady the movie's box office performance will be, but after the tepid reception at Cannes, the movie proved an unlikely hit. Two viewings later and "Inglourious Basterds" is probably my favorite movie of the year.

Why I initially reacted the way I did is increasingly mysterious to me, was it expectations of a men-on-a-mission film unfulfilled, the then seemingly tedious and over-written verbal jousts? Consciously or subconsciously, I didn't want to like the movie. I tutted at the glee with which the movie portrayed the violence the basterds inflicted. I resisted the charm of the film's construct, acknowledging that it was more than I expected it to be while at the same time lamenting Tarantino's juvenile and silly handling of such serious subject matter.

The truth, which has been revealed to me by two further viewings of the film, is that "Inglourious Basterds" might very well be Tarantino's greatest film, eclipsing even his most mature work to date "Jackie Brown". This is a glorious subversion of the dreary holocaust drama, a Spaghetti Western with WWII iconography, a love letter to the movies, and it is, every step of the way, aware of exactly what it's doing. In the end it basically comes down to personal opinion on whether this was a success or not, but what seems plainly obvious to me is that there is absolutely nothing about this film that is clumsy. The time and care taken with the screenplay is obvious, as is the time taken to edit the film. The Cannes cut wasn't longer, but it was apparently different in construct and differently-woven. When we're talking about a movie which depends entirely on: a) tension built through dialogue and character interaction, and b) the pacing of those scenes and how the scenes fit together, this could explain the significant difference between the reception at Cannes and the critical reception upon actual release.

The performance of the cast collectively is probably the most obviously praise-worthy aspect of the film. The Basterds are lovable and humorous, but also portray just the right amount of savagery to make it clear that what they're doing isn't child's play, and Brad Pitt is a standout as Aldo Raine, giving a fun comic performance but also creating perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film outside Melanie Laurent, whose Shosanna Dreyfus is the emotional core of the film. She also feels more like a film character than a real person, something Tarantino is aware of, as she is written as a classical tragic hero, complete with a deliberately clichéd romance and a climax to her story which really sums up everything this movie is about in its self-aware artifice and theatrical grandeur. Diane Kruger impresses as Bridget von Hammersmark, despite being given the tricky job of playing an actress. Undoubtedly the performance of the film, of the year, is Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa. It's perfect. It's exactly what it needed to be, and the wrong actor in that role would have destroyed the film.

In Tarantino's own words, "Inglourious Basterds" is about the power of cinema bringing down the Third Reich. An even better description would be the power of words challenging the power of violence. Intentionally or not, that is one of the most interesting parallels drawn in "Inglourious Basterds". In more than one scene verbal battles turn into violence, but in as many scenes the threat of violence is kept at bay by the power of words and acting, a major component of cinema. Tarantino's wordplay here isn't just characters saying cool stuff to one another, it's the entire language of the movie, the weapon of choice for his characters. Many say Tarantino should write plays if he's just going to have characters talk to each other for ages, but that wouldn't make sense because he delights as much in the conversation and his actors' performance as he does in their context in his film, and his films always feature the cinematic, except for "Reservoir Dogs".

"Inglourious Basterds" is all about the cinema, and where the movie references in "Kill Bill" were part of a pastiche of B-movie cinema, "Inglourious Basterds" works the references seamlessly into a genuinely involving story, albeit one with a healthy dose of silliness and dark humor. Where I initially thought Tarantino failed most significantly was where he succeeded most greatly: in his attempt to create a grand love letter to the power of cinema. Tarantino proves literate in more than just junk film here- for all the allusions to macaroni combat films and spaghetti westerns, it's ultimately a gonzo celebration of high art. The entire film is burlesque in nature, best seen as a deliberately artificial cinematic recreation of WWII rather than straightforwardly as a WWII war film of any nature.

More than any of his other movies, "Inglourious Basterds" is about cinema. It's not just subtext, it's the reality of the film which is so tied to the world of cinema. The film may be total fantasy, and it has no qualms about depicting the cathartic power of violence, but it's ultimately taut, tense, entertaining, funny, and most importantly sort of beautiful in its own grandiose, bizarre manner. As Aldo declares his final act of brutality in the film his masterpiece, Tarantino seems to be declaring this film his own. Call it kosher porn, call it whatever you like, what I ultimately see this as is a tribute to cinephilia made with far more heart than I expected.

Reservoir Dogs, 26 August 2009

Was that as good for you as it was for me? Not really, Quentin. It launched your career and earned you a lot of fans well before "Pulp Fiction" came along, but it's not really all that great. Re-watching a film I'd seen once before in high school should prove interesting, but the movie was basically exactly what I remembered it as. Decent story, good characters, some superb dialogue, but nothing much to recommend as a film. This might have made a great theater production, but Tarantino doesn't create a lively atmosphere with his camera, he doesn't do enough to make this feel cinematic. He's no Mike Nichols on "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", that's for sure, but sadly I don't think he even does an okay job with it. The movie is dead, dull to look at. Cheap-looking even. But yeah, some great conversations, but that's pretty much it. I'm not a big fan, and certainly don't understand this one's rep.

Moon (2009)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Impressive, intimate science fiction, 16 August 2009

"Moon", for all the comparisons to cerebral SF films of the past, boils down to essential human drama, albeit with a neat twist. The feature debuts of director Duncan Jones and cinematographer Gary Shaw aren't always impressive, as what initially seems to be a deliberately grungy look is proved by awful use of slow-motion and some very clumsy transitions to be the result of inexperienced direction, while Shaw's work is consistently dull and plain. The effects work (model miniatures used) is not too impressive either, even considering the low budget for the film. However, the screenplay by Nathan Parker is absolutely excellent, with superb story development, dialogue, and characterization, and some very good ideas which are, contrary to what many critical reviews say, pretty well-explored (and subtly, too). Sam Rockwell's performance is sublime, and while the aesthetic does let the screenplay and performance down a bit, Jones does succeed at creating a great, suspenseful atmosphere and deserves credit for Rockwell's performance as well, surely, and the film is very nicely-paced. Very good score by Clint Mansell and voice work by Kevin Spacey help the film succeed. A minor gem.

District 9 (2009)
1 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
The power of the unexpected, 16 August 2009

I'm getting to be really sick of reading review after review of "District 9" praising it as a revelatory masterwork of great depth with superb social commentary to boot. It's not, and if this is what cerebral science fiction now is, that's very sad news for those of us who have devoted hours and hours and hours of our life to that great genre. "District 9", however, is an example of what action SF should aspire to. The content is substantial enough for the film to earn its desired emotional weight, the satire clever and incisive, the action very well-executed, the story fairly well though-out, and the delivery and construction of the film clever and powerful.

In short, this is what you'd want from an expensive genre production. It's a smart crowd-pleaser but also a fairly smart narrative in its own right. Criticisms of the movie's action-packed final act make little sense, as the entire film is paced as a thriller, and while there's no question the first two thirds are less chaotic and probably a great deal more focused than the last third, the transition is quite seamless and fits in perfectly. It's enough to sell the movie as 'cool' to sell tickets, but also part of the story and if not totally necessary that the scenes drag on for as long as they do (and that's really the movie's only major fault, there are too many contrivances leading up to explosions and badass weaponry), then at least they fit somewhat organically into the narrative. Sharlto Copley plays the lead extremely well, and he's apparently never acted in a movie before! Not bad, not bad.

The characters are pretty well-drawn overall, which is important in selling this sort of film. For once praising the effects is praising character, as the 'prawns' here become very sympathetic and convincing, convincing enough that in the crucial scenes you're not really always thinking 'that's fake' in the back of your head. The story is simple (Aliens come to earth. Aliens are forced into slums and camps and an apartheid system. The rest of the narrative isn't really worth spoiling), but is delivered in an interesting style which mixes faux-documentary and fiction narrative.

Neill Blomkamp's debut as feature film director is extremely impressive. His handling of tone is remarkable, the ugly, bleak, and totally miserable mixes seamlessly with vicious satire and even some sillier comedic moments, and exciting, coherent action. He is destined for a great future in the film industry, and based on the overwhelming reaction to this film over the weekend, this might come to be known as one of the great mainstream debut features. It's not totally flawless, not at all, and one gets the nagging feeling that concessions to the mainstream derail the film a bit, but overall it's just a great roller-coaster ride, and a damned good effort from everyone involved from the director to the actors to the effects folk. It also possibly makes more of its relatively small budget than any other film I can think of. Very impressive film.

6 out of 11 people found the following review useful:
A few complaints..., 14 August 2009

-the tonality is a bit awkward. The comedy, even the 'highbrow' stuff, is really, really silly, and while that's not a problem at all, that the next scene is supposed to have a strong dramatic impact on the audience comes across as jarring and not in a good way because the transition is so clumsily handled much of the time.

-the movie thinks it has more gravity than it does. The Henry Miller quote ("the best way to get over a woman is to turn her into literature") explains this to me. Clearly that's what the screenwriters have done with their past relationships, but as a result, as I suspect such an attempt by most writers including myself would, the movie attaches a little too much gravity to what is really another office-born half-romance. The movie treats the subject matter with a sense of irony and there are scenes which plainly show the reality of the matter, but I really found it hard to care that much when watching it again. They never seemed all that compatible. They had just met and had some fun times. Tom got too attached. Why Tom's obsession should make for earth-shattering drama I don't understand. I couldn't help but think about the relationship I'm in and think how trivial this 500 days of events seemed next to the years invested mutually in a friendship then romance, the incredibly tumultuous events we've weathered together. Then I think back to "Annie Hall" and recognize that relative to my experience, that relationship can be seen as trivial as well. That I can, for the length of "Annie Hall", feel like that relationship is the summation of humanity's history of existence, says something about the quality of execution in that movie relative to this. The awkward dramatics (I RLY HOPE U R HAPPY SUMMAR, and the godawful Big Speech about how bad greeting cards are, wow, writers, feel good about writing what millions of bitter anti-mainstream sorts are talking about at this very moment... I've never heard that before!) and cheesy narration don't really help much at all, and betray at times the superb performances from basically all the actors in the film, but especially Gordon-Levitt. Even "Adventureland" from earlier this year, with its summer fling at an amusement park, feels more important somehow than this portrayal of half a billion corporate office 'romances' going on right now, maybe because it's predicated on the smoldering sexual energy of the leads instead of attempting to deal (and clumsily) with stuff like fate and true love and that.

-the characters really, really are lacking in depth. Summer can be read as an interesting subversion of the manic pixie dream girl character, but Tom is a cultured version of a sitcom character and everyone else in the movie a caricature. The screenwriters appear to be cultured themselves, but only manage to loan this characteristic to their characters on a temporary basis, turning them right back into regular, plain, dull corporate annoyances who shop at IKEA (but go to cool-looking record stores and to see The Graduate!) in a matter of seconds. They're all too reminiscent of people I meet every day with the pretense of cultural interest and all the snobbery attached to it (including instant dismissal of sports culture, to my great annoyance), but very little actual knowledge of anything beyond the absolute mainstream of the underground (Smiths and Bergman references galore, but try talking to them about The Trash Can Sinatras or Jacques Rivette).

-that final scene. Oh god, that final scene. Oh god, that final scene.

All that said, I still liked it, just because it's a tremendous, very quotable comedy and genuinely clever at times, unlike Juno and such, and has some great movie scenes like the split-screen one and the musical montage and what follows, the art movie/Bergman parody/homage etc. etc. The comedy's great, too bad the drama's so clumsy.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
The Half-Blood Prince, 30 July 2009

The latest installment in the Harry Potter series left me quite optimistic for the upcoming two-part ending to the film adaptation, but left me cold in its own right. My reasons for being hopeful for the future are mostly to do with the fact that Steve Kloves seems to have finally understood that the Harry Potter stories are hugely character-driven, and that adaptations should have that in mind instead of just rushing through the Major Plot Points (and his previous adaptations, which essentially crippled the film series and kept it from reaching its full potential, don't even cover the Small Plot Points which become Major Plot Points in later installments of Rowling's tightly-plotted fantasy saga).

Indeed, those bits really work here, it translates much of the charm of the sixth book, rooted in the characters dealing with their hormones, to film very well. David Yates and his editors prove excellent at capturing the comedic aspects of the film, which are plentiful, and the actors delight in performing them. The main three actors haven't just grown out of their young awkwardness, but have truly become their characters, so much so that everything they do here seems to be second nature. The presence of seemingly natural comedians and comediennes in the main and supporting cast really helps the film's teen comedy, which is genuinely sweet and good-natured and fun.

Where the film fails is in maintaining the right tone, which was always going to be tricky for this particular book in the series. The Big Action Set-Pieces are messily woven into the bigger picture, a fault of the screenplay probably but Yates doesn't help keep the film's tonality from wavering constantly. Credit to Yates for staging the Big Action Set-Pieces quite nicely, though, particularly the washroom battle between Harry and Malfoy, which is spatially coherent despite being quite hectic. The actors perform earnestly during the Big Dramatic Scenes, but the film has several scenes towards the end which drag on far too long for their own good, and the film does feel its length.

Steve Kloves harmed his own film with the quality of his earlier adaptations, but this was a superior effort when compared to his previous attempts, but still inferior, I thought, to the well-paced and enjoyable adaptation of the fifth book, penned by someone else whose name I'm too lazy to look up right now. In terms of tone, structure, and the strength of the performances, "The Half-Blood Prince" is a step in the right direction, and the movie does a lot right only to fall apart in the final half hour. For now, I'm willing to write this movie's failures off as a misfire and hope for the best for the future. I can't say I'm sorry to see that cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel isn't coming back either.

Cashback (2006)
1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Cashback, 30 July 2009

One of the biggest movie surprises of my life. Aside from three scenes: a fart joke near the start of the film, a poorly-done montage of the characters getting ready for a party, and a striptease at the aforementioned party, Sean Ellis' debut feature "Cashback" is almost entirely excellent. A lot of the criticisms are totally off-base as accusations of pretension and half-assed college student philosophy don't make much sense when the movie is from the perspective of, and narrated by, a first year art college student obsessed with the female form.

Accusations of chauvinism or sexism make even less sense. In the film, Ben can 'freeze time', allowing him to literally undress women without their consent and gaze at their bodies, draw them. We see the origins of his obsession with naked women in his youth. Standard male fantasy stuff, yeah? True enough, I suppose, but I think the film is smarter than that. The film is a portrayal of the male tendency to objectify women, think of them as their bodies and not as personalities, if the person doesn't know them. I worried a while ago if this was sexism on my part, that I was undressing women in my head and involving them in my fantasies, and was assured by more than one person that nothing could be more natural (indeed, I agree now, and the suggestion that women don't shallowly look at guys without an iota of thought for their personality is absurd, not to mention sexist in a way). It doesn't surprise me that accusations of sexism against this movie seem to come mostly from extra-sensitive men.

The director here depicts that exact tendency in the most literal fashion possible, then subtly suggests that Ben literally doing so is a transgression. There's a great scene which is never touched on again where Ben is walking around in his frozen world and then sees a moving figure which runs away. He's been caught looking. It's a fleeting moment but it is also probably the most important in the whole film. Ben's words right after he sees the figure are "it never occurred to me that there might be others who could stop time", or something to that general effect. That figure being where Ben was at that moment seems like a striking coincidence, I'd like to think the idea there is to suggest that maybe the figure (which was attempting to hide itself) had its own voyeuristic obsession with the other inhabitants of the frozen world. We encroach on each others' privacy so often without even thinking about it, and without thinking of what others do with our image in their heads, if they're even looking.

Ellis does this throughout the movie- it's not a particularly sophisticated piece of writing in that it's crass more often than not and that most of it is terribly blunt and literal- largely on purpose- but what's nice about this film is that while the ideas are unsophisticated and unsubtle, the actual conveyance of them is frequently quite subtle, or at least subtle enough that a staggering number of politically correct chumps manage to miss the point of the whole thing. What does bother me just a little bit is that the women Ben is actually involved with are never seen undressed. That is accurate to a degree with regard to how a man's way of thinking about a woman can change with getting to know them, but also seems to suggest the idea of a disconnect between love and sex in terms of 'purity' and such, an idea I'm somewhat uncomfortable with.

While my fiancée was ever so slightly offended by the writer/director waxing poetic through the narration about the incredible beauty of the female body, the truth is that the film is a true portrayal of the mindset of most (if not all) straight guys around that age, and if the man is an artist, as history shows, they will often work their sexual obsessions into their art. The film is a subjective, not objective portrayal of the character, which makes me appreciate more the small, thoughtful ways in which the director conveys the character's flaws. Actually, come to think of it, one of the scenes I disliked, the farting fat nude guy in the art class at the start of the film, doesn't seem so much like just a cheap laugh anymore, but seems totally in sync with the film's attitude. We never see his face, just his fat. He is a literal portrayal of the sort of person nobody wants to look at or think about, and his presence in the film, and the presence of satisfied smirks on the attractive young female students' faces (the only part of the film where the shallowness of the female psyche is explicitly portrayed) as soon as they set their eyes on him, is probably for a reason. Or maybe it's just a dumb fart joke I'm reading too much into? At its heart "Cashback" is just another romance/workplace comedy hybrid, but what sets it apart is the pure unflinching honesty with which it looks at the male psyche, the human psyche really, the bravura visual execution of the ideas with stunning photography and some superbly-staged scenes (the football match stands out), and the general confidence with which the whole thing is carried out by the excellent cast and crew. I'm definitely not giving it too much credit, but I'm almost certainly making it sound like a more demanding viewing than it actually is. It's also just funny and enjoyable, with well-drawn and entertaining characters and a good story. Loses its way a bit towards the end, but remains tremendously worthwhile.

Succeeds as a film adaptation with both dazzling visuals and (finally) good storytelling, 15 July 2009

The actual events in "The Order of the Phoenix" are generally speaking outside of the explosive finale, the least interesting of those in any of the bigger Potter books (3-7), but the film version stands as, a week or so away from the release of the sixth film in the series, the best Potter film to date. I am absolutely flabbergasted at the criticism aimed at the film, particularly at director David Yates, whose TV work I enjoyed a great deal and who has made a pretty film here, and one which employs many cinematic techniques both new and old-fashioned in telling its story. While the narrative is again rushed I found the omissions and changes from the book made much more sense here than in "Goblet of Fire", and the storytelling to be overall superior to "Prisoner of Azkaban" (where I think Cuaron chose dazzling visuals over solid storytelling at times). Good acting from most of the cast and really I found Yates' work to be quite exceptional. I trust he will do a bang-up job with the far better source material for the final three films in the series.

31 out of 59 people found the following review useful:
Impressively photographed, slow but involving and never a bore, 15 July 2009

Someone needs to tell Jarmusch and like-minded directors and writers that monotone conversations about the nature/meaning/origin of so-and-so are to art films what sweaty men walking away from explosions in slow motion are to big-budget post-Bruckheimer action flicks. For all of Jarmusch's talk in his interview with Gavin Smith in Film Comment about avoiding clichés he seemed to fall into that trap pretty easily. Much of the dialogue in the film is really quite horrible, shallow, miserable artsy nonsense. Then you have some conversations, particularly in the latter half of the film, which are absolutely wonderful. You also have to look at the fact that the 'horrible' dialogue in the previous conversations ultimately worked as they were necessary for the thematic aspects of the film to make sense in the beautifully confusing way they do. Glad to say I was wrong about Jarmusch being the emperor's new clothes and that "The Limits of Control" is a spectacular aesthetic achievement thanks to both Jarmusch and DP Chris Doyle's work. It's absolutely wonderful overall, leading up to an absolutely fantastic final thirty minutes. It has its flaws and certainly could've done without people approaching and leaving in slow motion which just seemed really cheesy but overall this is just a top-notch film, and the comparisons made to Rivette films like "Pont du nord", "Paris nous appartient", and "Out 1" in the aforementioned Film Comment interview by Gavin Smith and Jarmusch himself not only make sense, but are well-deserved. A cinematic enigma, and nothing is more attractive to me than that.

A solid film but nothing more, 9 July 2009

Unlike its gorgeous predecessor "Goblet of Fire" is quite an ugly movie, with a very dull, plastic look to it. Surprising, considering it was shot by "Twelve Monkeys" and "Brazil" cinematographer Roger Pratt, who seemed to have been in his "102 Dalmatians" mode while shooting this. Mike Newell does an okay job directing the film I guess, he gets the tone right and the film is not boring at a gargantuan 157 minutes. The screenplay by Steve Kloves is again a rushed narrative jumping through as many of the big setpieces as possible. I suppose it must have been hard to adapt this lengthy book (which is my favorite or second favorite of the series), but Kloves didn't do a very good job of it as far as I'm concerned. It's basically setpiece-humorous coming of age aside-setpiece on repeat. The performances vary in quality but most of them are good-very good. With a prettier aesthetic I may have been able to forgive some of the flaws, but the film still entertains, staying at the level of the previous installment albeit with very different strengths and weaknesses. The overwhelmingly positive critical reviews at the time aren't hard to understand, it was the most human and emotional of the Potter films at the time and I recall the set-pieces dazzling on a theater screen, but it's just okay on second viewing at home, failing to capitalize on the huge jump in quality in both the source material and films from the second to the third installment and continue in that vein, instead leveling out.

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