Inglourious Basterds(8/21/2009)

            Right now, Quentin Tarentino is operating on a level which few filmmakers can come close to.  For almost two decades he’s been a leading figure in the world of cinema and in all that time he’s never quit refining his unique style, every film he’s put out has only served to prove just how much of a natural eye for cinema he has.  His first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, are undisputed classics of the crime genre.  His 1997 film Jackie Brown may not have pleased those looking for carnage, but it revealed a degree of maturity that may not have been readily apparent in his earlier work.  After a relatively long hiatus he reemerged in 2004 to deliver Kill Bill, a film of the utmost craftsmanship whose first half proved Tarentino’s proficiency at action filmmaking and whose second half revealed layers of pathos which may not have been apparent at first. Then there’s Death Proof, the film featured as the second half of the Grindhouse double feature he put together with friend Robert Rodriguez.  This film was not widely loved upon its release, but I stand by it.  It certainly will never be looked at as one of Tarentino’s major works, but I think its unique narrative structure and razor sharp dialogue will be better appreciated by those who give it a second look.  But amidst all of this activity there was always the prospect of his legendary World War 2 project, a film which he had been working on as far back as that post-Jackie Brown hiatus.  The script he’d been working on began to take on legendary proportions and after more than a decade the movie has finally emerged complete with its deliberately misspelled title: Inglourious Basterds.

            Set in a World War 2 that would be more recognizable to an Id Software designer than a historian, this film tells a pair of stories that are fated to collide in its final sequence.  The first story is that of a French Jew named Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) whose family is killed by a ruthless Nazi tasked with hunting down Jews hiding out in occupied territory.  After four years she has adopted the name Emmanuelle Mimieux and begun managing a movie theater in the middle of Paris.  After meeting a German war hero named Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), her theater is chosen as the new venue for the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film about Zoller’s exploits.  The other storyline is that of the titular commando unit which is composed entirely of revenge seeking Jewish American soldiers but led by the southern born and supposedly part Apache Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who claims that he is “in the killin’ Nazi bidness, and… bidness is a-boomin’.”  This premiere is quickly revealed to be a hotspot for high ranking Nazi officers.  So the “Basterds,” aided by an SAS agent played by Michael Fassbender, decide to target the place for an attack; but Shosanna has plans of her own.

            You may not have noticed it amidst all the trouble Lars Von Trier was causing, but when Inglourious Basterds debuted at the Cannes Film Festival it was pretty divisive.  I think that’s going to be the case for a lot of Tarentino’s films for a while, possibly for the rest of his career.  In the directors own words in a GQ profile by Alex Pappademas “I’m not a nice-guy artist.  When my movies come out, they draw a line in the sand.”  Tarentino’s style has basically become its own monster and those who don’t like it will probably not like his films; he stopped making movies for “everyone” a long time ago.  Those who do appreciate his artistry however will be rewarded in droves by his recent work and especially what he does with this latest film. 

            I found myself oddly excited by this film’s opening credit sequence, I say oddly because those credits are just large white letters over a black background.  That may not seem like much but I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen such simple opening credits projected onto a big screen.  This is the kind of credit sequence that people seem to have lost patience for a long time ago.  Today, if there even is an opening credit sequence in a mainstream film it’s almost always either on top of the opening scene or at least accompanied by some other kind of added stimuli.  These minimalist credits pretty perfectly establish the kind of courage and patience that Tarentino will use throughout the film and the scene that follows theme, a tense conversation between a vicious Nazi (Christoph Waltz) and a French farmer (Denis Menochet), embodies the attitude.  In the hands of any other filmmaker this scene would have been a five minute throwaway, in Tarentino’s hands the conversation is a fifteen minute epic that builds upon itself until it finally pays off to heartbreaking effect.  One suspects that the influence of Sergio Leone is at play in this, and many other long scenes like it, which build up for longer than one would expect only to be resolved through fast bursts of action. 

            We live in a time when screenplays are all too often written to exacting formulas and rules.  The scene I described above is most definitely not within these rules and if someone with less clout had tried to submit it he would have quickly been shot down by a Hollywood reader unable to process such creativity.  As the boldly two-act Death Proof proves, Tarentino has never been one to follow rules, and he breaks them with joyous abandon throughout Inglourious Basterds.  I’m sure there are going to be a lot of short sighted reviews complaining about the film’s length, and I’ve got news for them: this movie is a minute shorter than both Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown and I didn’t hear anyone bitching about their run times back in the day.  Granted, I’m sure most of these critics will claim that they are complaining about pacing rather than the actual running time, but frankly I’m getting more than a little sick of this lazy shorthand that has gotten out of control among critics as of late.  Roger Ebert’s adage that “no good movie can be too long, and no bad movie is short enough” comes to mind.  To me, if the material on hand is all gold I can watch it for hours on end.  Nine out of ten times, if a movie is “too long” one should probably answer why it isn’t worth watching for as long as it runs rather than why it runs as long as it does.

            I can understand why this pacing may come as a bit of a surprise to those who had their expectations shaped by Harvey Weinstein’s deceptive advertising campaign which makes this look like some kind of hyper-violent movie that mainly consists of Brad Pitt murdering Nazis.  First of all, Brad Pitt is not the main star of the film; he’s just one part of a larger ensemble.  In fact I’d be willing to bet that he has less screen time than some of the less known actors.  This also isn’t an action film, there are no scenes of open warfare and the violence that is here is graphic but brief.  Of course this kind of false advertising has been a staple of Tarentino’s career.  Despite their blood soaked reputations, neither Pulp Fiction nor Reservoir Dogs really had much onscreen violence at all.  People were similarly disappointed when Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 2, and Death Proof weren’t the action-packed blood baths they had been lead to expect.  In general, Tarentino is not the carnage-meister that the public seems to think he is, and this film is no exception.  Those looking for savage pleasures will probably leave disappointed, but hopefully there will be others who leave happy they witnessed something much grander than the low brow thrills they were promised.

            As I just mentioned, Brad Pitt is not this film’s star, but when he is onscreen he makes for a very enjoyable presence.  He goes all out in his depiction of a violent redneck hell-bent to kill Nazis.  Those disappointed that Pitt isn’t a bigger part of the film can take solace in the fact that the rest of this ensemble more than matches his work.  Perhaps the performance that most surprised me was that of Mélanie Laurent, a French actress whose previous work was unknown to me.  Laurent has the always tricky role of a character forced to conform to a society they inwardly despise.  Throughout the film she has a lot of banter with Daniel Brühl, a Nazi who’s clearly attracted to her.  Brühl has perhaps an even trickier role because, while he’s a loyal Nazi, he seems like a genuinely nice guy and you suspect that in another life these two might have made a good couple.  Both of these actors must perform in both French and German (more on that later), and another actor forced to contend with the language barrier is Michael Fassbender who plays a stiff upper lip Brit who must speak German in order to infiltrate Nazi circles.  As for the titular “Basterds,” not many of them were given enough screen time to stand out.  I’m sure that many will pick on the performance of Hostel director Eli Roth and Tarentino’s decision to cast him.  My answer to this criticism is the same response I have to those who complained about Tarentino’s own cameos in previous movies (and the various M. Night Shyamalan cameos for that matter): that the only reason they are so bothered by their performance is that you know them as a director, if Eli Roth had just been some dude from central casting no one would have even bothered to comment on his performance, because either way he had very little screen time.

            The performance that really deserves special attention is that of Christoph Waltz, who has created one of the greatest villains of recent memory.  Like many characters here, Waltz must perform in multiple languages (English, French, and German), and no matter what tongue he’s using he comes off like a snake.  Making a Nazi come off as evil is easy, too easy, which is why Tarentino does more with the character.  This is a character that starts out interesting and only reveals himself to be even more of a devious enigma the more you get to know him.  Tarentino could have given Waltz some sort of sadistic weapon or some kind of eye patch or something stupid like that, but instead he simply makes this man a dangerously intelligent and unpredictable opponent with a very strange interpretation of Nazi ideology.  At one point he gives a dark speech comparing Germans to hawks and Jews to rats which is right up there with other famous Tarentino speeches like Samuel L. Jackson’s Ezekiel rant, Christopher Walken’s watch speech and Dennis Hopper’s True Romance speech about the Italian lineage.  Waltz has already won a well deserved award from the Cannes Film Festival for this award and he also deserves Oscar consideration.

            I just mentioned that a number of the characters here perform in German or French, and indeed a good two thirds of this film plays out in foreign languages with subtitles.  Ninety nine percent of the time I’d unequivocally support such authenticity in linguistics, but here I’m a bit more on the fence.  The only problem I have with the scenes in French and German is that I can’t help but feel like they’re robbing us of precious minutes of dialogue written by one of the English language’s greatest word smiths.  Make no mistake, the subtitled dialogue is damn good; one can definitely tell that those scenes have been written with flare, but it just isn’t quite the same as hearing Tarentino lines spoken in the language they were written in.  Then again, even the English material is relatively restrained stylistically and adheres more to the work he did on Kill Bill than Death Proof or Pulp Fiction; this probably isn’t going to be the goldmine of quotable lines that other Tarentino movies have been and I think that’s deliberate.  In general I do think that having these lines subtitled rather than spoken in English is made necessary both thematically and by the plotline.  As the film goes on, communication amongst people speaking foreign languages becomes very important to the film.

            Oh, and as for historical accuracy, forget about it.  Tarentino claimed to have spent much of his post Jackie Brown hiatus doing historical research for this movie, which had led me to fear he had finally grown up and was planning to make a “normal” movie.  Thankfully that wasn’t the case, in fact I suspect that most of this research consisted of watching The Dirty Dozen a thousand times.  This movie is set in World War 2 but is not about it, it’s really about something that Tarentino knows significantly more about than history: Film.   Let me backtrack on that just a little, I’m sure there is a certain degree to accuracy to the minutia of the movie.  The uniforms, weapons, and locations are probably authentic and a certain understanding of history does enhance a lot of the details in the movie, but ultimately the war here represents cinematic imagination rather than reality every bit as much as the criminal underworld of Pulp Fiction was a figment of Tarentio’s imagination rather than a document of any real crime syndicate.

            When dealing with Nazis, most films rightfully examine the massive damage they did both during the Holocaust and on the battlefields of the war.  But Tarentino seems significantly more concerned with what the Nazis did to the German film industry.  It’s mentioned in the film that Hitler’s Germany was largely responsible for the demise of the unmatched Weimar era film industry.  The filmmakers that weren’t driven out for being “decadent Jew Intellectuals” would only stay to find their talents wasted on idiotic propaganda films.  Is this the greatest sin of the Third Reich?  Probably not, and to most of the world it wasn’t worth punishing.  So, who better than Tarentino to give cinema its much deserved revenge, something he does with the utmost skill during the films finale which can only be described as “wild.”  To Tarentino cinema (and by extension art) is a significantly stronger force than Nazis, than Hitler, than history itself, and nowhere has he so vividly (and literally) expressed this than with Inglourious Basterds.

**** out of Four

District 9(8/14/2009)

            For the last decade I’ve heard people talk a lot about how technologies like inexpensive digital cameras, Final Cut Pro, and Youtube are going to lead to a surge of underground creativity.  Frankly I’ve never been too excited by the prospect, most of the stuff getting made by these amateurs are either unambitious crap that’s likely to be enjoyed only by those in the immediate family of the makers, or they’ve been boring bits of pretension made by people more obsessed with being “indie” than in making a movie that are actually worth watching.  Still the law of averages suggests that something decent would eventually come out of the whirlpool of content floating around the internet, and it looks like South African/Canadian filmmaker Neill Blomkamp may be the first person of this “revolution” to make good, thanks in no small part to his discovery by Peter Jackson.  Blomkamp was hand selected by Jackson to direct a film based on the “Halo” video game series, largely because of a short film he made called “Alive in Joburg.” The big wigs weren’t so willing to put that much money in the hands of someone who came into the business in such an unconventional way, consequently that film was indefinitely shelved.  To make up for that disappointment Peter Jackson has chipped in to produce District 9, a feature length adaptation of the aforementioned “Alive in Joburg” short.  The results produced some very unconventional trailers, and the support of an expansive viral campaign that has resulted in a lot of buzz.

            The film doesn’t make a big deal about it, but this is basically a work of alternate history.  In this timeline the world was changed when a flying saucer entered the Earth’s atmosphere in 1982 and eventually stopped in the skies over Johannesburg, South Africa and stayed in place for months.  When a team cut through the side of the ship they found a group of mal-nourished insectoid aliens, which would not be able to live on the ship much longer (which apparently stopped out of technical difficulties).  The solution that the South African government came to was to allow the aliens onto the surface, but segregate them into a large hellish camp called District 9.  The film picks up twenty years later and the slums that these aliens have been forced to live in have become even more dilapidated than it was before.  Still, this widespread segregation has done nothing to quell public fears, so the government now wants to move all the aliens into a new camp, which promises to be even worse than the old one.  Tasked with evicting all these people is Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), who they want to gather eviction signatures from all the aliens in District 9.  Of course the signing of these notices is not optional; it’s just one of the many dumb rubber stamps that governments often use to disguise blatant oppression.  While doing this task Merwe is exposed to an alien substance which begins to transform him into one of these aliens, his hybrid nature could be very valuable because it could give humanity insights into alien weaponry, but these insights would mean dissecting him alive.   As such, Merwe must break out of the complex and become a fugitive, in order to track down the only aliens that can help him.

            Any semi-educated person would quickly see that this story is deeply allegorical, both of South African Apartheid and of stories of human oppression the world over.  The aliens are the oppressed minority, the “other,” the poor, the social problem that the government would rather hide than solve.  The film’s best statement is the way it points out the absurdity of using segregation (both overt and subtle) as a means of dealing with people.  The aliens here live in the most god-awful hellhole one can imagine, the kind of place that guilt-tripping charities show children walking through in their advertisements.  To the shame of both South Africa and the world, these slums were not built for the movie; they were simply found and filmed in.  Of course it’s not the aliens fault that they live in shit, the government just put them there, and gave them no means to leave.  Since they are given no way to integrate into society they have no way to improve their condition, they are simply ignored and forced to fend for themselves with none of the resources the rest of us have.  Since society has ignored them, they’ve turned to the only ones willing to serve them, gangs of Nigerian criminals interested in acquiring their weapons.  What’s more, they need to contend with brutal cops who are pretty much their only exposure to “humanity,” and who give them no reason to respect or play by the rules of their neighbors.  The message here is simple but refreshing: if you treat others like dirt they WILL do the same unto you.

            I’d like to thank Peter Jackson, QED International, Tri-Star Pictures, and anyone else responsible for supporting this film and giving it such a confident wide release.  No matter how many problems I may have with this film (and I have many) the fact remains that this is significantly more creative than anything in theaters and I heartily recommend it over whatever market-tested bullshit its competing against this weekend.  However, I can’t help but think this is something of a missed opportunity on a number of levels.

            The film uses a vérité style and fits well in a recent trend in the style’s use in mainstream genre films like Cloverfield and Borat, as well as television shows like “The Office” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”  This film starts as a mock-documentary presumably for a fictional television station (whose logo can be seen in the corner during these sections).  This mockumentary element is not to be confused with the “found footage” format seen in movies like The Blair Witch Project and [REC], the difference being that those movies simply show footage shot by characters while this is meant to look like a fully produced documentary complete with talking heads.  But about a half an hour into the film they begin to cut to shots that this documentary crew would have no access to, the bug begins to disappear and eventually the talking heads stop talking, from here on the movie stops posing as a documentary, the handheld look remains but the film turns into a standard work of narrative fiction.  I can’t say I was a fan of the way this was accomplished, what was the point of posing as a documentary in the first place if the format was to be abandoned after about a half hour?  I suppose it could be said that this allowed for some needed exposition about the world of the film, but why the sneaky transition?  How did the fictional documentary end?  Did the producers seek to film a documentary that had a beginning, a coda, but no middle?  And if so, why so much exposition, wouldn’t the people of the film’s world already be acquainted with all this knowledge?  As for the film’s special effects; they were clearly not made with the kind of budget that Jackson himself would have wielded (the film was legitimately made independently and only distributed by a major studio) and are not top of the line, but they do work to tell the story and make up for their occasional crudeness with the creativity with which they are used.

            If you look at the marketing for this film you’ll get a pretty good sense of the film’s visual style, the film’s political overtones, and hints that there is action to be found in it.  What you will not see is any sign that the film has a main character in it, and for good reason.  Simply put, Wikus van der Merwe is a horrible character to put at the center of a film like this.  He is not a hero at all, he’s a bureaucratic pencil pusher and something of a nerd.  That could have made for a very interesting character, but they never really pull it off.   Sharlto Copley plays the guy a little too broadly comedic for my taste; I really wish they had chosen a character who is simply an average everyman to put at the center of this rather than someone who is this aggressively dopey.  But the bigger problem is that at the start of this film Merwe is a complete asshole who does hateful things that are in no way excused by the fact that he hides behind laws, red tape, and a smug dorky smile.  He’s just as bad as the killer mercenaries who do his bidding, and for most of the movie he operates entirely out of enlightened self-interest and does very little to redeem himself until he magically grows a conscious in the film’s eleventh hour.  In short, this guy is not someone the audience should sympathize with or find cool, which I could forgive if they explored the negative side of his personality more thoughtfully but they don’t, he just sort of turns into an action hero halfway through, and not a very good action hero at that. 

            Why am I picking on this guy?  Because he’s the only person in it that we really get to know and as such he has extra burdens to carry.  Few of the other humans involved get much more than a few minutes of screen time, but what’s even more criminal is how little we get to see of the non-humans.  By this I don’t mean that the aliens have little screen time, because they actually have screen time in abundance, just not meaty screen time.  In many ways this film is guilty of the same sin that the film’s fictional society is guilty of, it makes no attempt to get to know and understand the aliens.  For the most part these aliens are merely background scenery used to illustrate the titular slum; Blombkamp seems a lot more interested in the ant farm that is District 9 than in the ants that live in it.  There’s only one alien in the whole film we know by name and even he is given little personality.  Rarely do we ever see an extended conversation involving any of these aliens; I would have liked to know what makes them tick, if they do anything other than buy meat from vendors, what their culture is like, and if they have a leader. And are there any humans trying to advocate for the aliens?  What does the rest of the world think of this concentration camp?  All of these are questions the movie seems to be interested in, but it never thoughtfully explores them at all.  In many ways I wish there had been a way to explore this world outside the limited confines of a thriller storyline.  Eventually the film turns into a full on action movie, a very unique and well done action movie, but an action movie none the less.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with action films, but in many ways this just seemed a little too easy, are there not ways to deal with issues in science fiction films other than violence?

            District 9 probably does vindicate Peter Jackson’s faith in Neill Blomkamp, but only to a degree.  With this project Blomkamp has created an interesting universe; I just wish he had found something more interesting to do in it than a Hitchcockian wrong man thriller mixed with touches of Cronenbergian body horror (Merwe’s DNA predicament is straight out of the 1986 version of The Fly).  As an allegory this is interesting if not fully fleshed out, as an action film it entertains, but as a drama it leaves something to be desired.  The studios were perhaps right to make Blomkamp grow a little bit before he worked on something as big as a Halo movie.  Then again if it was going to be anything like the game that movie probably would have focused even more on action than this, but at least it wouldn’t have promised anything else.

*** out of Four

Funny People(8/12/2009)

                I think at this point Judd Apatow is a guy who really doesn’t need an introduction.  I’m a big fan of the movies he’s directed (The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up) and even the first string efforts he’s merely produced (Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Pineapple Express).  As one of the biggest Apatow apologists around it was a little painful to admit that the trailer to his newest film, Funny People, didn’t seem funny to me at all.  I’ve never been one to dismiss a movie over a trailer, but if the jokes in that trailer were the best the movie had to offer the movie seemed to have all the makings for two and a half hours of painful viewing.  I was particularly afraid to see the movie simply because I didn’t want to bear witness to the fall of God’s gift to comedy, Judd Apatow.  Eventually though, when facing a very long boring day, I decided that I needed to see a movie to fill my time and I was a lot more willing to roll the dice on a not so well received Apatow project than on some crap like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.  So, reluctantly, I decided to give this a chance. 

            The movie primarily involves George Simmons (Adam Sandler), a famous comedic actor who’s just been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.  He’s been told that, eventually, this disease will probably kill him; a revelation that results in a lot of soul searching.  He eventually decides to leave the bad, sell-out movies he’s been making in order to return to his stand-up roots.  In doing so he encounters a young aspiring comedian named Ira Wright (Seth Rogen) and decides to hire him as an assistant/joke writer.  Because Ira is currently living in a hovel with two other young comics (Jonah Hill and Jason Schwarzman), he’s eager to take the job.  A reluctant friendship forms between George and Ira, which proves to be beneficial for both of them.  But increasingly, George starts thinking about his ex-girlfriend Laura (Leslie Mann), who’s now married to a successful salesman named Clarke (Eric Bana). 

            I think the key to enjoying Funny People is to go in with the right expectations, and in this department I benefited from waiting a week and a half to see it.  The movie is not without chuckle inducing moments and clever lines, but if you go into this movie expecting it to be a laugh riot like The 40 Year Old Virgin or Superbad, you will leave very disappointed.  Still, part of the appeal of Apatow’s films has been that they tend to be genuinely compelling for reasons beyond their laugh-per-minute quotient, and this film is not an exception.  The movie I’d most readily compare it to is Kevin Smith’s film Chasing Amy, a movie that wasn’t nearly as funny as anything else Smith did but which nonetheless had an interesting story and compelling characters. 

            The film’s story is likely a very personal one for both Judd Apatow and even more so for star Adam Sandler.  We see a lot of George Simmons’ movie work like “Re-Do” (which features Simmons’ face imposed onto a baby) and “Mer-Man” (with Simmons as, you guessed it, a Mer-Man).  The movie ruthlessly parodies these kind of juvenile comedies that Sandler and similar comedians like Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy have whored themselves out to long after they needed the money.  In spite of all the money these movies make for Sandler’s character, with the specter of death in his midst they seem like a serious waste of life.  I can’t help but wonder if Sandler was reading this screenplay while he was on the set of last year’s Bedtime Stories and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.  This isn’t the only thing about the George Simmons’ character which pretty closely resembles that of the real Adam Sandler.  It must have taken a lot of courage for Sandler to really examine his real life on screen like this and the autobiographical nature of the role brings a lot of authenticity to his performance.  Sandler may not be the greatest actor in the world, but he is indisputably the perfect person for this role. 

            The other side of this story is that of comedians like Seth Rogen’s character who have not yet had the chance to sell out. I don’t know any stand-up comedians and I’ve never been backstage at a comedy club, but I can tell that the portrayal of that lifestyle here is authentic in the same way I can just feel that The Hurt Locker is an authentic portrayal of the military.  The comics can certainly be selfish, competitive, and sometimes greedy, but for the most part they are all well meaning people who ultimately just want to follow their dreams.  They make fun of each other, but it’s all in good fun, it’s really pretty refreshing just how positive a lot of these people are and in ways that are never corny.  This is one of the few movies in recent memory that seeks to have you laughing with the characters instead of at them. 

            There’s also a third aspect to the movie, that of a love triangle between Adam Sandler’s character, Leslie Mann’s character, and Eric Bana’s character.  Unlike the rich comedian/poor comedian stories which tend to overlap and switch off between each other, this one mostly plays out in one burst all the way through the film’s third act and it almost wears out its welcome.  Still, I found a lot of truth in these segments and they were also enjoyable in their own way.  Leslie Mann works as a believable object of Sandler’s affection and Eric Bana seems a lot more compelling here than he has been in a bunch of the blockbusters he’s been featured in recently. 

            Is this the Judd Apatow movie I wanted?  Not exactly, but I like a lot of what I got.  If only this movie had some more belly laughs I could whole heartedly recommend it, but that just isn’t what this is and recommending a comedy without very many laughs is not an easy thing to do.  Still I was never bored by the movie; I felt for the characters and wanted them to be happy by the end, that’s a rare thing that should be relished.  The movie deals with the kind of questions that successful comedians like Judd Apatow almost certainly ask themselves, and here he chose to explore those questions rather than making the movie that would be the most broadly comedic and I respect that a lot.  I’m sure that Apatow is proud of this movie and that he’ll get back to making hilarious work now that he’s gotten this out of his system.  If Apatow had delivered any movie other than the one he delivered he would have, in a way, been making the same mistake that George Simmons made when he chose to star in “Mer-Man” rather than follow his dreams. 

*** out of Four

In the Loop(8/7/2009)

            Television is a medium that has become increasingly important in the last ten years; shows like “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” and “The Shield” have lead to a great renaissance in the format of serialized storytelling.  However the world of television reaches beyond networks like HBO, AMC, and FX (and even beyond those over the air networks that people seem to like).  Like the cinema, material is produced for television all over the world, particularly in the UK whose domestic television industry has launched the careers of major talent like Ricky Gervais, Simon Pegg, Steve Coogan, and Hugh Laurie.  However, while the basic format for cinema is almost identical the world over, the norms of televised content seem to vary in ways that can be confounding.  Every time I’ve tried to get into a much buzzed British program I’m confounded by their cheap film stock, but even more so by their short season (excuse me, “series”) lengths and limited runs.  What they call a program I call a miniseries, what’s the point of getting into a show if it’s just going to end after six to twelve short episodes?  For those reasons I’ve mainly stuck to television shows that don’t use barbaric horizontal credit sequences, and it seems like the majority of my fellow vertical credit loving Americans do the same.  Perhaps that is why the new feature film In the Loop is currently playing in select American theaters even though the UK television series it’s based on, “The Thick of It,” is nowhere to be found in Region 1.

            Though the film is largely an ensemble piece, the lead character is probably Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the minister for international development.  This is a man who seems to mean well for the most part, but he has a Biden-esque habit of saying stupid things in public.  The gaffe that really gets him in trouble is when he’s asked about a possible Anglo-American incursion into the Middle East (the film never comes out and says it, but this is obviously meant to represent Iraq), the best answer he can come up with is that war is a “not unforeseeable” possibility.  This clumsy and ambiguous wording results in an angry tongue lashing from the Prime Minister’s Communications Director Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi), but the statement is picked up by American war hawks like Linton Barwick (David Rasche), a State Department crony who has little interest in “the facts” and who gives out friendly smiles while ruthlessly manipulating violent overseas events.  However, in spite of the way his statements sound Foster is not in favor of the war (at least in theory) and because of this he is seen as a potential ally to those trying to oppose the war at the highest levels like American Undersecretary Mimi Kennedy and a gruff Military General (James Gandolfini) who doesn’t feel the war is winnable.  After another embarrassing fumble of wording, Foster and a young advisor named Toby (Chris Addison) find themselves flying off to Washington D.C. to take part in the debate.

            In general, this movie is a little bit like “The West Wing,” but with less optimism and more swearing.  It shows the behind the scenes grind of politics, but does so on a much less appetizing level.  The President and the Prime Minister are never seen or named in the movie; this is about people in the middle-management of government in the midst of what is probably the most exciting thing that will ever happen in their careers.  They might have beliefs and ideas of their own, but they mostly just have to do what their bosses tell them to do in order to keep their jobs, all the real decisions are made by people well above their pay grades.  In this sense the film is a lot like Ricky Gervais’ famous Brit-sitcom “The Office,” except in a business with higher stakes than a paper company; it also shares that series’ vérité visual style.

            Probably the greatest pleasure of In the Loop is its dialogue, written by team who wrote for the TV series, and delivered with conviction by a talented cast.  Normally the sight of five writers in the credits should be a turn off, but in this case I suspect the team was there simply to fill the movie with great jokes and witty lines rather than to mess with the story.  The film rarely seems like it adds unnecessary scenes in order to accommodate a funny set-pieces, it sticks strictly to the story it wants to tell and finds humor in the proceedings rather than looking for it elsewhere.  The fact that they are able to turn this television comedy style into a real narrative arc is perhaps the scripts greatest triumph.  At first you feel like you’re just watching it for the satirical dialogue, but the tension does ramp up in the third act and you really do start to get excited about the outcome as people on both sides of the pond mobilize to decide whether or not this war happens.

The actor blessed with the most consistently funny character is Peter Capaldi whose character is a profane angry boss character who frequently throws out threats like “Just fucking do it! Otherwise you’ll find yourself in some medieval war zone in the Caucasus with your arse in the air, trying to persuade a group of men in balaclavas that sustained sexual violence is not the fucking way forward!”  He reminded me a lot of both of Ari Gould, the similarly quick speaking and dismissive agent played by Jeremy Piven on the HBO series “Entourage,” and of the curse spewing executive played by Tom Cruise in the film Tropic Thunder.  This is an endlessly amusing character type that might have originated with Kevin Spacey’s part in the Hollywood satire Swimming with Sharks. The similarities may have been unintentional, but I find it very funny that a government communications director would have the same personality type as these Hollywood types who avoid all pleasantries in order to get their way at all costs.  Most of the other characters are less over the top than Capaldi’s, but most of them are given some moment where they find themselves on top and are able to chew out one of their co-workers.  Even an idiot like Tom Hollander’s character finds and opportunity to do so when his advisor arrives late to a meeting and he milks the opportunity to its fullest. 

There’s a certain nihilistic streak to the whole film, no matter what the characters do there’s really no stopping this war from happening; the decision’s been made and the check has been cashed.  Those who try to stop the inevitable are only putting their livelihoods on the line in vain, though most of them cave before it comes to that.  Perhaps the best thing that can come from this is a certain empathy for the people who are in the middle of the insanity that politics can be at some time, after all they’re only human too and you should maybe cut them a little slack when they take a while to fix your wall.  

What may be the film’s one problem is that it came way too late.  Imagine how awesome this would have been if it had come out in 2003, right when this kind of decision making was going on in Washington and London.  That’s probably a completely unreasonable expectation, after all one can only get a real look at what went into that fateful decision in retrospect, but then again this is a movie that people are comparing to the immortal Dr. Strangelove, and Stanley Kubrick didn’t wait until after a nuclear war started to make that film.  Still, no matter when this came out there’s no denying that this is a very funny, smart, and insightful film. They had me at funny. 

**** out of four

DVD Catch-Up: Taken(7/21/2009)

            The early part of a film year can be… interesting.  Everyone knows what to expect from the summer (blockbusters) and everyone knows what to expect from the late fall and early winter (prestige pictures), but what about the other seasons?  The later part of winter and early spring are often used as dumping grounds for the movies that studios didn’t think could compete during the more competitive parts of the year.  That means that there’s a lot of crap coming out, but it can also be an exciting time to watch from a distance.  Patterns established decades ago tend to play out during the summer and fall, but these dumping periods tend to be a lot less predictable.  Movies can come out of nowhere and be surprise successes and surprise hits.  One such effort is the journeyman action film Taken, an unpretentious thriller that had been released months earlier in Europe but which finally found a U.S. release late in the January of 2009.  The modest production ended up making almost a hundred and fifty million dollars at the box office, surprising analysts everywhere. 

            The party who has been “taken” is a seventeen year old named Kim (Maggie Grace), the daughter of an ex-CIA agent named Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson).  The kidnapping occurs shortly after she lands in Paris to go on a European vacation.  Mills had objected to this trip but reluctantly allowed it to happen in order to please Kim and look less over protective to his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen).  The moment he learns that his daughter has been kidnapped he immediately springs into action and runs off to Europe to save her.  There he must investigate the world of forced prostitution in order to save the one he loves.

            From that summery I bet you can tell what the movie’s biggest problem is: incredible unoriginality.  This “rescue the kidnapped daughter” scenario is the oldest action movie cliché in the book.  We can all probably name a million movies which have this exact same plot and what’s worse is that this movie doesn’t even do the smallest thing in order to give this some kind of original twist.  There are no surprise revelations, no twists you didn’t see coming, not even a remotely different interpretation of the situation, just the same tired revenge fantasy we’ve all seen a million times; this is formulaic filmmaking through and through. 

            Additionally the film has undertones that are not entirely savory.  Many have seen the fact that Kim is kidnapped immediately after she leaves the United States as evidence of Xenophobia.  This argument does not really hold much water with me, mainly because it was produced and co-written by Luc Besson and directed by Pierre Morel who are both residents of the country that the movie supposedly vilifies.  What really concerns me is not the film’s view of France, but rather the view it seems to have of the Eastern Europeans involved in the kidnapping.  The idea of a film using immigrants as its villain isn’t in and of itself offensive, but we all know the long sad history of the protection of white women being used as a means of vilifying a group of people and some of the way these foreign criminals are depicted seems a little leery to me.  Even more disturbing is that the Neeson character has a view of torture that would make Jack Bauer blush, the way the film uses the kidnapping to justify this kind of brutality is tenuous at best. 

            I’ll grant the film that its action scenes are fairly well shot and choreographed, but they’re not much more original or ambitious than the film’s story.  We’re given a run of the mill SUV chase, a decent car chase, some standard gunplay, and some fast paced fight scene that look a hell of a lot like the fights from the Bourne series.  Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these set pieces, they just do not innovate and they do not equal the best this genre has to offer. 

            Pretty much the only thing in this entire movie that rises above the level of average is the performance of Liam Neeson.  Action movies of this caliber usually star the likes of Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme, but Liam Neeson is a legitimate actor and his casting was a really smart way of elevating this material.  Neeson is the kind of actor who can avoid being the kind of stone faced steroid freak who personified 80s action while also not being the kind of whiney twenty-somethings that have been populating action flicks these days.

            There is mild enjoyment to be gained from Taken, but rather than spending your time with it I strongly recommend checking out a David Mamet movie called SpartanSpartan is also a movie about a determined agent trying to find a kidnapped teenager, but it is significantly smarter, more original, and better written; in general it puts Taken to shame.  If you rent Spartan you’ll be on the edge of your seat trying to guess where it will go next, if you rent Taken you’ll get a very strong sense of déjà vu.

**1/2 out of Four