Saturday, August 22, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds

Most World War II movies feel as though they're fossilized in amber like a "Jurassic Par" mosquito. There's always a bit of distance and "sit up in your seat there, boy, pay attention"-ness to them.

With "Inglourious Basterds," Quentin Tarantino takes a baseball bat to the amber. He gives us a WWII flick that feels like a dirty story your grandpa would have told you if he got drunk enough. It's officially the most historically accurate film about the war ever made, because it shows how Adolf Hilter actually died in a movie theater, Mike Myers spent his pre-"Wayne's World" career a mugging British officer and everything anybody ever said sounded as zippy as though it had been written by Tarantino.

One of Tarantino's goals in the film seems to be to surpass the grotesqueness of his "Reservoir Dogs" ear-slicing scene. You see Louisville sluggers splatter Nazi brains, knives carve swastikas into foreheads, and let's not even get into all the scalping. It's disgusting, repulsive, and Tarantino through and through. The violence isn't symbolic or profound, it's just there for its own sake. Tarantino just tosses it in there because he can, much the same way he dutifully misspells both words in his title and includes a gratuitous scene to indulge his foot fetish. He's built a mythos on redefining the cinematic world through his own willfully immature, defiantly silly point of view, and Lord bless him for it, because I'd take authoritative voice over talent any day of the week, and Tarantino has both.

Every minute of the film seethes with enthusiasm. Is Tarantino is exposing the moral vacancy of war by swapping the Jewish and Nazi roles as unfeeling slaughterers and meek victims? Maybe, but I doubt such thoughts even crossed his mind as he pounded away at this script over the years. This is revisionist history of the highest order, a Sparks Notes version of trivia culled from drug-addled notes scribbled in the margins.

One of the biggest knocks on the movie from the naysayers, other than the usual gripes about Tarantino's vengeance obsession and self-awareness, is that the characters are among his flattest and his dialogue doesn't sing with the jot-it-down-and-repeat it catch-phrasiness of some of his past work. I think I agree, although it hardly wiped the grin off my face. If this is cardboard cutout puppet theater on a street corner, it's good enough to get me to empty my pocket change into the hat. The performances are all excellently tuned for exactly what the story calls for, particularly Brad Pitt's southern-fried Patton-by-way-of-Knute Rockne motivatinal speeches. Eli Roth is no actor, but his stunned oblivion is exactly what loopy Sgt. Donny Donowitz needs. If mustache-twirling Cristoph Waltz doesn't give a best supporting actor worthy performance as Nazi Jew-hunter Hans Landa is, then I'm incapable of identifying such a turn.

But the real star of the movie is Melanie Laurent, undoubtedly Tarantino's new Uma Thurman, as Shoshanna, the wings-plucked manic pixie dream girl who runs her own theater and concocts a masterplan that changes the course of history.

The movie is perfect for what it is, and a hell of a rebound after it seemed the auteur lost a little off the fastball with "Death Proof." I rank "Inglourious Basterds" behind most of his other films, ahead of only "Death Proof" and "Jackie Brown," but it's in the same ballpark as his ingenious classics and by far the best World War II film I've ever seen.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review: Ponyo

"Ponyo" makes no sense at all, which is just how it should be for a Hayao Miyazaki movie. His ethereal films move with the sensible illogic of childhood dreams, and are powerful enough to revert you to the state of a 7-year-old as you watch.

That said, I'm not heads over heels in love with any of his stuff save for "Howl's Moving Castle." His movies tend to enrapture me in the beginning and lose me somewhere in the middle as they follow their hyperactive arcs. At that point I start hanging on for dear life, appreciating what I can and checking my cell phone clock more often than I should.

"Ponyo" was par for the Miyazaki course - loopy, silly and funny in points while still able to knock you over the head with deep human truths. His twisted version of "Finding Nemo" meets "Splash," the movie won't go down as one of his best, but it's still better than 90 percent of animation out there.

Ponyo is a Teletubby-like fish with a human baby face who gets stuck in a piece of trash - as Miyazaki ages he leans more and more environmentalist - and washes ashore, where a 5-year-old boy picks her up and keeps her as a pet. His adoring, supportive mother isn't quite sure whether it's wise to keep Ponyo around, but the boy is in instant love and values Ponyo more than just about everything in his life. The mother probably senses that if she were to take Ponyo away, she'd sever a part of her son's soul.

The kid does all he can to protect Ponyo from an uncaring world, dashing away from kindergarten so he can check on her (he places her in bushes widely just outside school property, subverting the school rule that pets aren't allowed on campus) and fending off interested classmates. But there's no defending against elemental water monsters that crawl out of the ocean, engulf your island in a mini-tsunami and take human-faced magic fishies back home. The boy and Ponyo are parted, heartbreakingly just after Ponyo has finally learned to talk, using her first words to declare her eternal love for the boy.

To explain any more of the plot would only make me sound like a rambling idiot while robbing the movie of its joyfully perilous meanderings, but know that the separation doesn't last long, and soon Ponyo, who proves to have magical powers to transform into a human, make things bigger and heal wounds by licking them, joins the boy on a dangerous journey to find someone both of them love.

Spoiler alert - at the end of the movie, the boy has to vow to always love Ponyo, pretty much agreeing to marry her. I love the way Miyazaki handles this. The boy is understandably a little non-committal about the whole thing, perhaps second-guessing himself after he agrees to the setup by not exactly leaping to symbolically cement the love with a kiss, but Ponyo just sort of steals it from him anyway, and you could swear the boy is suppressing some doubt in the back of his mind. Maybe he's thinking, "Hold up, dude. What if I ever meet another hotter, younger fish-chick? What then?" But by then he's already bought the cow. Such is life in the world of Miyazaki.

Friday, August 07, 2009

How I became a lumberjack

It all started with an HOA letter several weeks ago telling me the tree was in violation because my giant palo verde tree, which resembles the plant-monster in Little Shop of Horrors although it grows much faster, loomed over the sidewalk.

Since then every garbage day I've been chipping away at it, using extending clippers to snip off branches, filling the garbage can with foliage twice a week.

Wednesday was particularly windy. I reached the clippers way up high and got the pull-string all tangled up in spikes and branches. It would not come out. I got a ladder out, and it nearly blew down and killed me. I had to get to the base of the colossal branch which was accessible if I unsafely stood on top of the handrail
so I got this dinky hacksaw out that looks like it's a Fisher-Price toy and went to work. It took me more than an hour and I sustained several injuries, but I triumphed over the tree.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Review: (500) Days of Summer

"I must warn you. This is not a love story," or something like that, is one of the first lines in (500) Days of Summer. It's said by the narrator, and he's so right. This is not a love story. It's so much better than that.

What the hilarious, genius-level drama is about is infatuation. It's about Tom, a poor lost soul played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt who's convinced himself that the love of a coworker on which he's fixated will solve all his ills. That it will be the opiate that helps him to forget the fact that he hates his job, his life, himself. He wants to orbit Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and draw closer and closer to her omnipotent incandescence and vanish into her, give up on himself and become a part of her.

It's pathetic, everyone around him, including his smartass little sister can see it, especially Summer, who tolerates him for a few months only because she thinks he's cute, likes some of the same music she does and is willing to play silly exhibitionist games in public that would embarrass 90 percent of a potential boyfriend pool she's deemed too small.

Of course I rooted for Tom to defy the narrator's declaration of fate, Summer's disinterest and the writers' precise designs themselves to find his bliss with Summer. Because first-time-filmmaker, long-time music videomaker Marc Webb and his fantastic screenwriters do such a great job of making you fall in love with her right along with Tom (Not that it takes a heck of a lot of convincing once they cast the incomparable Deschanel in the role). Also, we've all been there before, locked in an unrequited love, scanning the offending, oblivious angel for voodoo signs of longed-for interest that just aren't really there. Most of us get off easier than poor Tom because our crushes just ignore us. But Summer is bored enough to take a flier on him, pushing him into a semi-exclusive affair even when she confronts him and he's too sheepish to admit that he likes her as more than a friend.

This is one of those rare movies that lulls you in with laughter, longing and armrest-squeezing angst down a certain path before slyly slipping in a few revelations that turn the plot on its head and make you consider that maybe you've been watching the whole thing the wrong way, and that you'll need to give it a fresh look someday when you find it on DVD, or maybe next weekend. Or maybe in half an hour. I loved the movie so much I would have sat eagerly while they re-spooled it and gave it another go. The second time around you'd see things the right way. That's what Tom is thinking so the thought enters your head as well. He was in love not with Summer, but the idea of being in love. At the end of the film it's not that he hates her, but that she helped reveal to him his silly second-adolescence fantasy never really existed. Tom is unlovable because he gave up on himself.

It's no surprise that IMDB voters have already lifted it into the top 250 movies ever made, because it gives you so damned much to love!

The dialogue has the cleverness of Juno melded with the honesty of Once and Before Sunrise/Sunset. The characters don't quite talk the way real people do, nor do they seem like their words are test-tube babies cooked up in a screenwriting lab.

The sequence in which Tom and Summer play house inside an IKEA is just perfection. They shoul cut the sound from that clip and sell it as a single for iPods. It's iconic and everlasting, like Rocky sprinting up the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps with pumping arms raised. It's the Death Star blowing up. It's the characters in Band of Outsiders sprinting through the Louvre. And the IKEA moment is barely better than any other 5-minute stretch in the film.

The novel-like construction and time-skipping plays out perfectly, alternating from fleeting moments of bliss in the earlier days, onto the agony and despair of the latter days, then back again. There is rhyme and reason to the way the story is told. You're literally inside Tom's head, sulking unshaven, crying into your pillow, thinking back as to what convinced you this thing with Summer would work out, only to allow your cruel memory to jerk you back into reality -- it's a violent, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-like debate.

Look, here I am a million paragraphs into the review and I've made the movie sound so serious. The fact is it's incredibly funny, often inappropriately so, which makes it all the better. There are levels to the humor. At any given moment a third of the theater was laughing at one thing the others missed, only to have another third laugh at the next thing. You could read the entire film as a comedy, all the way up to the stinging final line, which is one of the rare universal howlers in the film.

The narrator -- can't find the guy's name -- is the one who pushes the movie from excellence to greatness. And the performances are pitch-perfect, because Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel don't so much act as play themselves, or at least the same characters both always play in every movie they're in. Deschanel, or maybe someone who sounds just like her, sings throughout soundtrack. At first I found the inclusion of the She & Him music to be a little too cute, but midway through the film I was fine with it. And by the end I think the choice to have Deschanel or a voice-clone sing the soundtrack was the only one possible. If the idealized Summer is haunting Tom's every thought, why not have someone who sings with her voice haunting his subconscious as he recollects his 500 wasted days?

Lord, do I love this movie. Walking out of the theater I felt just as staggered as after I watched Before Sunset and Once. It's a romantic anti-romance, a self-help video, 96 minutes of stand-up comedy and escapist bliss. It's a movie that makes me wish I were still a film critic so I could beg tens of thousands of readers to see it rather just the few who will read this post.