Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Michael C. Hall...

... is mesmerized by his own jazz hands.

Inglorious Basterds is Tarantino's Best Movie Yet

(But that isn't saying much)

There are a few directors out there who are overrated, and everybody knows it. I'm not talking about ones like Spielberg, Scorcese or Coppola who have made a few memorable films and a few more forgettable ones. I'm talking about ones like Sodeheim or Tarantino who make films that grab the public's attention, but are nowhere near as important as they'd like us to believe. Personally I don't think Quentin Tarantino deserves nearly as much hype as he gets, but I will admit that his new film Inglorious Basterds is at least deserving of some of its hype.

My problem with Tarantino's past efforts is that he's capable of being a good director, but doesn't follow through. His cinematography is good and his musical selection is impeccable, but he's best know for the pop culture savvy dialogue exchanges he writes. The problem is, he's rarely good at uniting all the music, the clever dialogue and the inspired shots to tell a good story. Instead, they just sit there as separate parts of a movie, waiting for somebody to come along and edit them into something nicer.

Maybe it took the complete failure of his last movie Death Proof, (his entry into the double feature Grindhouse,) for him to realize that just because he puts something on screen doesn't mean audiences will clamor for it. Or perhaps it was just by chance that all of his brilliant but disjointed movie making skills happened to work this time around.

Lets take his trademark dialogue for example. In all of his movies, the characters will ramble on for minutes at a time exchanging snappy lines, but its never in a way that moves the plot along. Hell in Death Proof, the whole first hour of the movie is nothing but dialogue exchanges before anything resembling plot development occurs.

In Basterds, this works to his advantage because it creates an almost intolerable level of tension as the heroes and villains toy with each other, waiting for their opponents to make the first move. In the opening scene Col. Landa, the film's main Nazi villain, stops by a French farmer's house. He engages in a friendly banter for a while, making the farmer feel at ease before making it clear he believes the farmer is hiding a Jewish family , and that there will be consequences if he does not reveal their location.

Later in the film, the Basterds, a group of Nazi-terrorizing Jewish American soldiers, masquerade as Nazi officers to rendezvous with a double agent at a bar. The problem is that at the bar they run into a real Nazi who wants to join them for a beer. On the surface they're playing a friendly drinking game together, but under the surface they know that each second they keep talking is another chance they might blow their cover.

Just because it's a period piece, don't think that Tarantino wouldn't work in his trademark music selection as well. For the most part he sticks with instrumental selections that I suspect were all borrowed from Sergio Leone movies, (it wouldn't be a Tarantino movie without an endless string of "homages" i guess). Yet, to build up the tension for the finale, he puts on a Davie Bowie song. Somehow it works.

Now Tarantino has always been good at picking a good cast, even if the movie they're in doesn't end up being all that great. With Basterds, most of the screen time is occupied by European actors for whom this marks their first performance in a major American movie, such as Good Bye Lenin!'s Daniel Bruhl. Others, like Diane Kruger, who has already been in major American releases such as Troy and the National Treasure movies, finally gets to do a role in her native tongue.

Strangely enough, the American actors give the most forgettable performances. Yes, Brad Pitt gets top billing, but he's actually a fairly minor character. When he emerges at the end of the rendezvous in the bar, he's actually off screen for so long I momentarily forgot he was in the movie. And as for Hostel director Eli Roth's performance? Well lets just say he seems as creepy in front of the camera as he is behind it.

So in short, Basterds is an alright movie. It's not really what I'd call an epic, and by no means is it the must see movie of the summer. However, it is a movie worth seeing on the big screen if you decide to see it at all.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

G.I. Joe Did Not Suck

Suprisingly enough, it was actually kind of good.

Don't get me wrong. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra isn't exactly high art. It's not Citizen Cane. It's not The Dark Knight and it sure as hell ain't Saving Private Ryan. At the same time, it never pretends to be, and that's what makes it good. The producers of G.I. Joe set out to make a light and fun summer action movie and that's exactly what they achieved.

I was wary about this movie from the get go. First of all, there was the director: Stephen Sommers. This is the guy responsible for Van Helsing, a mangled attempt at a movie so bad that it made me forget that his previous films, The Mummy and The Mummy Returns were actually enjoyable. (Not great, but enjoyable). Then there was the initial trailer, which showed soldiers in mech suits charging through Paris, and the character Snake Eyes flipping off of cars flying through the air. It looked a bit too Matrix-ish.

However, they picked a good cast. Sienna Miller, Christopher Eccleston and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were all unquestionably good actors beforehand. (All play bad guys incidentally). As for the Joes, Ray Park (a.k.a. The Phantom Menace's Darth Maul,) was a genius casting choice as the mute martial arts expert, Snake Eyes. Yes, Marlon Wayans may have given us White Chicks, Scary Movie and Little Man, but most people forget he was also in Requiem For a Dream and the Cohen Brothers movie The Ladykillers. As for Channing Tatum, I'd never seen one of his movies before, but he had the look about him of somebody who could play Duke without trying to be the archetypical "American Badass."

And believe me, the cast delivered. Joseph Gordon-Levitt clearly was having a ball as Cobra Commander, but more importantly, Byung-hun Lee gave a pretty standout performance as Storm Shadow. He just had a really commanding screen presence that suggests he might be one of those rare actors who can do kick-ass martial arts and act at the same time.

With such a large cast, they actually did a pretty good job of balancing out the characters. Unlike the Transformers movies which introduced a large cast of robots but left most of the action to Bumblebee, Optimus Prime and a pair of outdated black stereotypes, (it's fair to argue that the aliens in The Phantom Menace really aren't flimsy stereotypes, but Transformers was pretty cut and dry,) G.I. Joe seems to give all the characters the amount of screen time they deserve, good and bad guys alike. I didn't walk away thinking things like, "Okay, you introduce Storm Shadow, and he's awesome on screen for a whole five minutes, then he's gone." (If you saw Wolverine: Origins, and you like Deadpool, you know what I'm talking about.)

The special effects may have been a bit too CGI heavy, but I was genuinely surprised that they took the time to craft a decent plot. Come on, Van Helsing was clearly Stephen Sommers telling the crew he wanted to make a movie involving Dracula, Frankenstein and a werewolf, and that they'd figure out the details as they went along, and I was kind of expecting that sort of mentality with this one. Instead the story was one that I'd probably go see even if it didn't feature the G.I. Joe characters. It captures the fun of having cutting edge technology and massive strongholds in exotic locales without letting you dwell on the absurdity of it.

Also, unlike Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen it actually crossed the producers' minds that since this movie is based on a line of children's toys, it might make sense to make the movie family friendly. Yes, people get killed on screen, and yes there is swearing, but at least it's not littered with sex and drug references like those that plagued the Transformers movies.

Overall, I was pleased. It delivered pretty much all that it promised. Odds are I'll probably catch it again in theaters and maybe even buy it on DVD.

Oh and as for that scene in Paris where they're wearing the mech suits (seen in the trailer) it was actually pretty good. I was worried it might be the equivalent of nipples on the Batsuit or James Bond getting an invisible car. Instead it fit the plot well, and thankfully it's the only time in the movie they put those suits on. Also, at the end of the day it is based on a line of action figures, so if it doesn't distract from the plot then go ahead, let the producers throw in extra costumes so the kids will have to buy Accelerator Suit Duke and regular Duke.