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Archive for January, 2010

(500) Days of Summer

In the last few years I have gotten bored by romantic comedies. The ones currently being made often seem assembled by cookie cutter with little thrill or meaning left in them. There was more snappy banter in one episode of The Gilmore Girls than in half a dozen of Hollywood’s most recent rom com’s. Interest in witty lines got revived with Juno, and now Marc Webb has created a movie that is romantic and funny and honest. It’s about time.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom Hansen, a young man who writes greeting cards for a living. We are warned up-front that this is not a love story. By that, the creators want you to understand that this is not a typical boy meets girl, boy wins girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back scenario. From the beginning, we learn that Tom believes in true love and soul mates and the girl he falls in love with, Summer (Zooey Deschanel) does not. We see Summer break up with Tom within the first five minutes, and the rest of the film is about the 500 days that Summer dominates Tom’s life even when they’re not together.

It’s a fact that most romances don’t last; unfortunately, that includes many marriages as well. The question is do we take Summer’s position that there is no such thing as true love, or do we side with Tom and keep looking for “the one?” I think many people can relate to both sides of this story. As the song goes, “Everybody plays the fool sometime.” Life usually balances itself. You get your heart broken; you (often unintentionally) break someone else’s heart. The great pleasure of this movie is that it recognizes this fact and presents it in a manner that is refreshing and lively. This movie has some poignant moments, but it is not depressing.

Part of this can be attributed to the performances and chemistry of the two leads who bring substance to their roles. The script is based on a similar experience in real life, but it’s ultimately more uplifting than navel-gazing. Another contributor to the success of the film is the fantasy elements that are occasionally thrown in, like Tom and Summer reenacting various foreign films.

Essentially, though, what I liked so much about this film is the fact that Summer truly likes Tom. She keeps warning him not to fall in love with her, and she cares about what happens to him after they break up. At first, he is confused by this, seeing in her behavior mixed messages, but it hits at a core truth: sometimes we really wish we could love someone the way that they love us, but if we don’t…you can’t force it. It doesn’t mean that Summer is heartless; in fact, in my favorite scene we find out that Tom’s love and friendship actually had a profound effect on her in a positive way. I think many years down the road when he has perspective, that thought might bring a small glow to his heart. It did to mine.

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Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarentino has learned a lot about the art of suspense and he applies it all to his latest film, Inglourious Basterds. The opening sequence in particular was a masterpiece of stretching out a moment until our nerves nearly snap. I believe this is one of Tarentino’s best works rivaling Pulp Fiction, and like the director’s earlier film I believe I will have to view it several times before I have a firm opinion about it.

As is usual for a Tarentino picture the acting is strong as is the dialogue. Christoph Waltz nearly steals the picture as Col. Hans Lansda, a.k.a. The Jew Hunter. His performance is seamless and riveting. His character is utterly despicable and yet you can’t take your eyes off of him or completely smother a feeling of admiration for the flawless logic of his brain. Watching him is like watching a chess master in action…a chess master with a personality like a spider or a cat.

Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, the leader of a special force of American soldiers undercover in Germany, the Inglourious Basterds of the title. Pitt loves character parts and this gives him quite the role to sink his chops into. I alternated between cringing at Aldo because of his “hillbillyish” nature (As a native of the Appalachian Mountains, and someone who lived for two years in the mountains of Tennessee, I can assure you that we do not go around scalping people!) and laughing at him. Despite the negative qualities, it’s hard not to like Aldo. I gave up on cringing over him when I realized that this film makes no attempt to portray reality. This is not a World War II film; it’s a film about films made about World War II. It is sheer revenge fantasy and thus the audience has to suspend quite a bit of disbelief.

The rest of the cast is also uniformly excellent, particularly Eli Roth, Diane Kruger and Melanie Laurent. I particularly enjoyed two scenes: the restaurant where Laurent’s Shoshanna meets with Nazis and Col. Lansda, and the bar scene with the people playing very tension filled games. The latter is a masterpiece sequence as the same game is played twice. The first time it is light hearted fun, but the second time the players have changed and so have the stakes. Before it winds down to its deadly outcome, the audience will need oxygen from holding its breath.

The only problem I have with Inglourious Basterds is the ending. I’ve heard the ending praised, and it certainly winds up all of the plot points with panache. I’m just not sure how I feel about it. I was enjoying the picture, but the ending felt a bit over the top for me. It was like Tarantino had been restraining himself throughout the earlier bits, and then in the last few minutes completely slipped the leash. One day, I’ll rewatch the movie and decide if I think that was a good thing or merely disappointing.

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Public Enemies

Roger Ebert commented on his review of Public Enemies that Johnny Depp seemed to have started from scratch in creating his performance as John Dillinger; his characterization of the famous gangster was refreshingly divorced from the Hollywood gangsters of all previous movies. I’d have to agree with this assessment, which makes a lot of sense. Depp has always liked making original acting choices. In interviews, though, he also hints at a deeper connection. I think this was a personal film for him, in some ways. Dillinger’s home was less than a hundred miles from where Depp was born in Owensboro, Kentucky. Depp went to the Dillinger museum and tried on his trousers and commented that the two of them were of similar size. In a different interview, he mentioned that during the Depression his grandfather was a moonshiner. All of these details help Depp create a Dillinger who feels much more human than many of the gangsters I’m accustomed to seeing on screen. He’s flesh and blood, charming and dangerous.

Marion Cotillard is an actress I’m keeping an eye on. I enjoyed her in Big Fish and plan to watch La Vie en Rose in the near future. She has several interesting projects in the works. She works well here with Depp. I liked how she struck a fine balance between toughness and vulnerability. While her chemistry with Depp is not incendiary, it still emitted a warm glow that was more in keeping with the highly Romantic view of their relationship that the movie portrays.

Christian Bale has the hardest role playing FBI Agent Melvin Purvis. Situated between two splashier characters, Dillinger and J. Edgar Hoover, he fades into the background a little. If one pays attention, however, it’s easier to see the subtle work that Bale does. Purvis is an idealist, a believer in the idea of a federal law enforcement agency run with modern scientific methods. The tactics that it took the FBI to get Dillinger and his cronies sickens Purvis. It’s no surprise to learn that he leaves the Bureau shortly after the events of the film.

Billy Crudup has a blast playing J. Edgar Hoover. He’s been widely praised for his portrayal, but something in the performance struck me as off somehow. I’m not sure why because Crudup was very good at getting across some of Hoover’s complexities: his ambitions, ambivalence and authority. I think it has something to do with the accent which just hit my ear as false. I loved Crudup’s work in films like Big Fish, Almost Famous and Stage Beauty, but, at least at initial viewing, I didn’t care for his Hoover.

Director, Michael Mann has always had an affinity for crime stories. Much of his best work (barring The Last of the Mohicans) has been in this genre and Public Enemies is similar in ways to Heat. The story is about the cop and the criminal and attempts to make both sides three dimensional realistic figures. Public Enemies does not hold up as well as Heat, though, in that respect. I recently rewatched Heat and was struck by how fleshed out all of the characters were. I didn’t feel that in Public Enemies. In fact, aside from Dillinger, Purvis, Hoover and Billie Frechette, I often had trouble trying to remember who the characters were. Pretty Boy Floyd could have been Baby Face Nelson. The supporting characters were practically interchangeable except for the notable exception of Stephen Lang’s Charles Winstead, the former Texas lawman.

Overall, though, Public Enemies is a good film. The leads were all solid, even if I had trouble with Hoover. Depp is appropriately magnetic. He has played other criminals in the past, but I think this was his most believable interpretation. His Dillinger comes across as sane, ambitious, charismatic and mythic. I think the real John Dillinger would have approved.

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