August 29, 2009

Taking Woodstock (08/29/09)

Lettergrade: D

We saw this one because my wife and I often love Ang Lee movies, but for a number of reasons I cannot really recommend Taking Woodstock. It wasn't that bad to start with: I really like Demetri Martin's stand-up comedy as well as his TV show, but had never really seen him in a dramatic acting role like this. Here he plays Elliot Teichberg, a very likable but sad aspiring artist who moved back to upstate New York in order to help his Russian Jewish immigrant parents manage their ratty motel in the country. For one reason or another, he never left. Ultimately, he uses his position in local government and his connection to nearby dairy farmer Max Yasgur (played by Eugene Levy) in order to allow the August 1969 event known as Woodstock to come together.

In spite of my admiration for Lee and his cast, I'm not really into Woodstock era music, I can't claim to really have a strong connection to hippie culture and what it might have been about in 1969, and I've never taken an hallucinogenic drug nor do I have any interest in doing so. Above all else, I hate crowds. All these things kind of conspired to create a great indifference within me over what happened during much of the picture's painfully sluggish running time.

But wait, there's more: I felt that the very winning characters who appear on-screen are woefully under-developed. Demetri in particular appears to be gay, but it's unclear how "out" he his to his friends and family in addition to how at peace he might be with his own sexuality. We see him kiss women and men in the movie... but is this the first time he has done the latter? Call me simple minded, but I kinda need a little more substance. And I sort of want details and clear internal struggles like this to go somewhere.

The movie was rushed a little in order to get to Cannes in May, and then rushed again to get into theaters around the 40th anniversary of Woodstock in mid-August. Maybe a little more time could have made this movie more meaningful? Maybe not. In any case, it's sort of a waste of time.

August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (08/22/09)

Lettergrade: B+

There are several really good sequences in Inglourious Basterds, but it didn't quite sizzle for me like some of Quentin Taratino's other movies have. In particular, I guess I'm unfairly comparing this picture to the wildly entertaining Kill Bill movies, which seemed to somewhat set the template for this phase of his career. By that, I mean that Bill was very self-conscious, stylized cinema that switched film stocks furiously, and liberally borrowed from the wide spectrum of pop-culture and classic genré movies on a ridiculously grand scale, right down to cannibalizing its entire film score from old Spaghetti westerns and obscure action / horror flicks.

The thing with Kill Bill is that it was able to do all this with a great deal of joy and heart -- something that was largely absent from Deathproof, his almost stogy half of 2007's Grindhouse double-bill that he shared with Robert Rodriguez. In that one, there was a lot of amusing chatter, but precious few moments that took your breath away. Somewhere among all the bulky dialogue and the kitschy cinema tricks, the heart of the picture got lost.

Basterds is considerably more subtle than those movies in terms of style, but lands somewhere between the two when it comes to emotional beats that really connect. The strong character moments and the trademark Tarantino kitch that he does inject work beautifully, but I found myself wanting much more of each. I'm in the rare minority of people I know who was really impressed that after Pulp Fiction, a brassy one-of-a-kind, in-your-face masterpiece with a ton of youth appeal, he chose to make Jackie Brown, a more traditional heist picture based on an Elmore Leonard novel with two obscure b-movie actors from the 70s in the lead roles. I admired that instead of hitting the same buttons that people responded to in his last picture, he chose to do something mature and thoughtful that his new audience might not necessarily like. Perhaps at long last, I can somewhat understand why fans of Pulp felt a bit let down by Jackie: Because he's recently struck a few chords that I really like, I guess I was left a little frustrated that he decided to slow things down a bit and try something new.

Among the elements that really work in this picture is much of the wonderful supporting cast, including, in particular, Austrian-born actor Christoph Waltz who steals every scene he's in as the charmingly vile Nazi Col. Hans Landa, otherly known as the "Jew Hunter." Another exceptional standout is Mélanie Laurent, who plays an escaped Jewish girl hiding in Paris after Landa murders her family early in the picture.

The Basterds themselves, a team of Jewish American soldiers who have been dropped into Nazi occupied France in order to savagely murder as many Germans as they can, are led by Brad Pitt. Although I generally like him as an actor, this felt like a rare role in which he was miscast. His accent is hysterical, but he's also one of the few characters on screen who never fully disappears into his role. Tarantino is so good at casting exceptional actors for key parts in his films, sometimes out of complete obscurity and/or career purgatory. Landing Pitt for one of the leads might have been enough to get the movie green-lit, but something tells me they might have been better off had someone else gotten the part.

But a lot of this is just minor bitching. It's a Tarantino movie: They're usually interesting and worth going out of your way to see, and this one is too. Many groups started complaining about this one already: Jewish commentators about the anti-Semitic undertones, historians about Tarantino's, um, liberal interpretation of the end of the war, and audiences in general about the horrific scalping scenes and overall violence. But like most Taratino movies, at it's best it's really remarkable cinema, and at worst... well, it's still a hell of a lot of fun.

My review of Grindhouse

August 8, 2009

Julie & Julia (08/08/09)

Lettergrade: B-

I probably wouldn't see Julie & Julia on my own, but my wife who, like the first half of the film's title, keeps a very entertaining food blog, wouldn't miss it. I've only attended Nora Ephron movies occasionally, and usually don't think much of them. Her filmography includes such instant classics as You've Got Mail, Michael, and most horrifically, that shitty Bewitched remake that Will Ferrell was in. Nevertheless I was quite surprised to find that there was a lot about this movie that I quite liked.

I've been a life-long plain eater, and as such I cannot say that all the French cuisine that Julia Child prepares throughout the flick had my mouth watering, but the real pleasure for me here, aside from the stellar acting from Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, was that I found a connection with the parallel stories of the two women in different time periods who arrived at points in their lives where they simply wanted something more than what was in front of them. Julia Child does it by learning how to become a master chef in 1950s Paris, where her diplomat husband is stationed, and then spending years attempting to get her future-landmark cookbook, Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, picked up. Julie Powell, living in Brooklyn around 2003 or so, attempts to cook every single recipe from that same book within the span of a year while keeping a very detailed, entertaining blog about it. If you really love to do something, why not go after it? If you're lucky, you'll figure out how to make a living along the way.

Perhaps it's just where I'm at in my life at the moment, but another poignant element for me was Julie's feeling that her friends have run circles around her, both in career and in adult life. A lot of the criticism directed at the movie faults the "Julie" half for being considerably less interesting than the Julia Child material. That may be valid, but somehow I feel like this is a good marriage of subjects. I'm not sure I'd have a lot of interest in seeing a straight Julia Child picture by itself, and I don't believe Julie's story would hold up well if divorced from that of her beloved cookbook's author. The intercutting between the two story-lines evokes The Godfather Part II, but certainly I can think of lesser movies to borrow a device from.

The movie feels a bit longer than its runtime, but what the hell? It's an entertaining picture with great acting that's witty and meaningful without being saccharine or cloy. Do you think anyone's going to walk out of G.I. Joe this weekend saying that?