Friday, August 28, 2009

Taking Woodstock

Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lust, Caution, The Ice Storm) has crafted some moving films over the years. He’s also responsible for a few which have missed the mark (Hulk, Ride With the Devil). Sadly, his latest is the later. In terms of recreating the scope and magnitude of Woodstock, the film succeeds, but in almost every other way it fails to impress.

In Taking Woodstock, Lee takes on a subject which has been done to death in film and television over the years. Not surprisingly, the director finds it hard to bring anything new to the table.

The story centers around the creation of the event and how it transforms a small community into the lovefest for the ages. The Daily Show alum Demetri Martin stars as the bright skittish young man (was this role originally pitched to Michael Cera?) who uses the event to help save his parent’s failing hotel by finagling a deal with the organizers of the event to hold it on the farmland of a neighbor (Eugene Levy).

If the movie has one major failing, it’s a lack of understanding as to what story it wants to tell and who it wants to tell it to. Those looking for a Woodstock movie are in for disappointment. The event itself and the music are barely footnotes. It’s odd that Ang Lee would be responsible for such a directionless film. Although the performances across the board are pretty good, nothing can save the film as it meanders its way through events, somewhat lost – just like the film’s main character.

There is a ton of good acting talent wasted in this movie. Imelda Staunton is nothing more than the prototypical bossy mother. Liev Schreiber is wasted in the role of a transvestite who befriends Elliot (Martin) and his father for no reason except the script tells him (her?) to. Emile Hirsch is wasted as the cliched troubled Vietnam vet. Even Levy is wasted as the kindly neighbor who immediately turns profiteer when the opportunity presents itself, and then becomes the kindly neighbor again. Are you sensing a pattern here?

The film’s coverage of drug use is also a problem. In one scene Vilma (Schreiber) jokes about giving Elliot’s parents hash brownies. Thankfully, Elliot puts an end to the zaniness immediately and we think we’re saved from the obligatory parents-on-drugs-scene. Sadly, no.

Only minutes later we get Elliot bonding with his trippy whacked-out parents in a scene not far removed from that in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. I just compared Ang Lee to Michael Bay… yeah, this movie is that disappointing. The only other “drug” moment is also your stereotypical acid trip which only Elliot fails to see coming.

I’m still not sure what the point of the film is. I’m only sure what it is not. It’s not a look at how the event changed Elliot or his family (it doesn’t, except superficially), it’s not a film about how the event changed the town or the country (that isn’t addressed), and it’s not a film about the transforming or lasting impact of the event itself (which is barely glimpsed).

From a director who has given us films built on strong stories and engaging characters, Taking Woodstock can be seen as nothing more or less than a mistake. In many ways it doesn’t even feel like an Ang Lee film (except his careful, almost loving, presentation of gay characters).

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker. Love him or hate him, the man has a passion and reverence for cinema as well as a definite style in crafting his own projects.

"Inglourious Basterds", the writer/director's latest, took more than a decade to come to the screen. The film is many things; one that it is not is boring. Insane and glorious, Tarantino has finally succeeded in crafting a film I can't help but love.

Although I've always respected Tarantino as a director (less so as a producer), and will easily admit to the quality of "Pulp Fiction", at times his career has taken him down paths I wasn't keen on following.

I had a mixed reaction to "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" and I've forgotten nearly everything associated with part two (except my disappointment).

I give him full credit in making strong choices with his stories and jumping in with both feet. Kill Bill just wasn't my type of crazy; Inglourious Basterds is. And, oh boy, is it crazy! What can you say about a movie where a man beats another to death with a baseball bat and American soldier (Brad Pitt) with a strong southern accent, and little knowledge of any foreign language, tries to pass himself off as an Italian to the Nazi brass?

If you're like me, you just smile, shake your head, and enjoy the ride. Although I was an appreciator of his work, until this point I wasn't really a fan of Tarantino. Inglourious Basterds won me over, both early and often, and now I can no longer make that claim.

I have a suspicion that, had he lived to see it, Frank Capra would have enjoyed this movie. Had the film been made sixty-years ago it would have been a perfect propaganda piece. It includes some intensely dramatic moments and short, but shockingly violent, scenes, but at its heart it's a comedy - and a damn funny one.

And while I will argue the film is a comedy, and the best the director has delivered, it's the dramatic scenes which are the most memorable, even haunting. Two in particular come to mind, both featuring Tarantino's trademark of long dialogues.

The first opens the film and involves Nazi officer (Christoph Waltz) discussing a missing Jewish family with one of their neighbors (Denis Menochet). I refuse to give away anything about the scene other than to say by its conclusion I was hooked.

The second scene takes place further into the film in a bar when the plans of the Basterds begin to go awry. Although it occurs much later, and focuses on an entirely different group of characters, it is no less powerful. Each scene not only gives us a slow build-up to an immediate payoff, but each outcome is woven into the larger storyline of the film.

I've gotten this far and not discussed the title characters, shame on me. The Basterds are a feared group of Jewish American soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt), whose very mention brings terror to the Nazis and throws Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) into a tizzy. Known for their scalping of dead Nazis, and their even more notorious marking of those they let live, their exploits have become the stuff of legend.

The rest of the nefarious team includes "The Bear Jew" (Eli Roth, in a surprisingly good performance), Samm Levine, Omar Ulmer, Gedeon Burkhard, B. J. Novak, and Til Schweiger as Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (who earns his own 70's style opening sequence). At points in the film the team is also helped by German actress turned Allied spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and the roguishly charming Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender).

I'm a big fan of Kruger, who I'll admit carrying a small torch for. I mention this because as good as she is in the film she's overshadowed by an actress I hadn't even heard of before. The marvelous French actress Mélanie Laurent plays a theater owner mooned over by a Nazi war hero (Daniel Brühl) with her own plans for bringing the curtain down on the war. She's so good she nearly steals the film from Pitt (whose plays the Southern dry humor for all its worth) and Waltz (who owns the screen every time the "Jew Hunter" appears). There's one scene between Waltz and Laurent in a restaurant that which contains more tension than several full-length films I've seen this year.

And they are not alone as the film is filled from top to bottom with great performances. Even Michael Meyers, who shows up in a cameo as a British general in a piece of stunt casting, doesn't seem out of place.

I've also got to mention cinematographer Robert Richardson ("The Aviator," "Kill Bill," "The Good Shepherd"). As a period piece, even a comedic one, the look and feel is perfect. There are several small choices including the placement of camera and use of shadow which Richardson and Tarantino use to help tell their tale. And it's simply gorgeous. Everything, from the humorous to the more violent moments, is lovingly captured on film. The entire enterprise embraces a brutal gleeful absurdity that builds to an explosive conclusion.

My only real complaint with the film (other than the over-the-top Hitler) is the climax when the level of madness boils so far over that for a moment I was taken aback. However, by that point in the narrative I had long bought into the story and the moments following more make up for this short derailment.

I can't recommend the film highly enough and it easily falls into the category of one of the best films I have seen this year. You'll need a strong stomach to take some of the more violent moments, and a bit of whimsy to enjoy the more crazy elements. If you think you can manage that then this is a must-see. Fans of film, and not just those of Tarantino, should give "Inglourious Basterds" a good long look. I think you'll be glad you did.

Friday, August 14, 2009


Bandslam is a clichéd, hackneyed, overdone, montage-filled paint-by-numbers tale of teenage angst, love, lessons about life, and triumph.

And yet it's still better than G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. As unoriginal, and at times truly awful, this film is, it's also got a little spark which provides moments better than they have any right to be. In no uncertain terms Bandslam is a trainwreck, but it's a trainwreck with cute young girls, some spirit, and passable music.

It's exactly what you expect a teen musical, made in part by Walden Media, to be.

The story centers on your typical geeky-loser-teen Will Burton (Gaelan Connell). Will's an all-around good guy, if only someone would stop and notice. Without describing anything else about the film, I bet you can see where this is going. So could I.

Will and his over-attentive mother (Lisa Kudrow) move to a new town to start anew. At his new school, Will uses his encyclopedic music knowledge and good-guy qualities to earn the attention of two young hotties: the former head cheerleader Charlotte (Alyson Michalka) who wants Will to manage her band, and cute loner Sa5m (Vanessa Hudgens), who needs Will's help with a school assignment.

Of course Will falls immediately for the older Charlotte, but (and I trust I'm not giving away too much here) soon finds he has more in common with Sa5m (the 5 is silent). As love triangles go, this one is pretty damn tame, though the friendship that develops between Charlotte and Will comes off well. That is, until that part of the plot is derailed by a late plot-twist (which itself is smoothed over in record time for the big finale).

Using his musical acumen, Will transforms the three-man garage band of Charlotte, Bug (Charlie Saxton), and Omar (Tim Jo) into a title contender for Bandslam, a national band competition, by adding elements from around the school such as a pianist (Lisa Chung), cellist (Elvy Yost), and horn section. All of this is done, as you'd expect, through the magic of musical montage. The new improved band - re-branded as I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On - can now stand toe-to-toe with the school's other entry into the contest, which just happens to be led by Charlotte's former beau (Scott Porter).

The script gives us the greatest hits of teen comedy: the secret lie, the first kiss, disappointment, lessons learned, humiliation, and ultimately triumph in the face of adversity. Oh, and I forgot, it also gives us Judd Nelson's character from The Breakfast Club (or reasonable facsimile).There's nothing all that memorable, or sometimes even good, about how the film handles these themes. Even with a simple score, the movie still struggles to hit the beat(s) and too often, its chords fall flat.

Connell's Will is your average good teen who bad things keep happening to but he survives. Even his deep dark secret only makes him come off nobler in the end. Despite my problems with the character, I will give the film's producers credit for casting a nerdy-looking leading man in the role rather than simply throwing a pair of glasses on someone like Zac Efron.

Vanessa Hudgens, in the news again for her lack of clothing (not that there's anything wrong with that), works her natural cuteness here to give Sa5m some heart. (Note: she should always wear hats.) However, I was more impressed with Michalka, who proves she is up for both the dramatic and humorous scenes, and has a voice tailor-made for this type of film.

Other than a not-too-startling lack of originality, there's nothing objectionable about Bandslam. As a family film, you could do far better, but tweens should enjoy themselves and parents probably won't nod off. And it's the type of flick, given its PG rating, which will no doubt have a long life on cable (which is probably where it belongs).

Friday, August 7, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

Let's get this straight right from the get-go: I had no real expectations with this film except wanting to leave without getting too bored or having the film make my eyes bleed. One out of two isn't bad.

Even with the bar set so low G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra finds a way to slither underneath like champion limbo dancer Hermes Conrad.

Based on a toy line and 80's television show Rise of Cobra plays like one long Michael Bay action reel (think The Rock, if it were directed by Zack Snyder). It's got the brains of the old cartoon down cold (ridiculous premise, tons of vehicles and ammunition) but hardly any of its style.

It doesn't help the C.O.B.R.A. never really exists in this film. Instead we're given a well-funded unnamed group of terrorists. It is also problematic that the baddie chosen to put center stage isn't Cobra Commander (almost completely absent from the film), or even the unmasked Destro (Christopher Ecclestion), but the Baroness (Sienna Miller, because I guess Kate Beckinsale was too expensive).

No one comes off all that well here. Most of the characters from the Joe universe are pretty damn bland, and director Stephen Sommers does a good job casting actors which match that defining characteristic. The only ones who come out with any dignity are Rachel Nichols as Cover Girl and Marlon Wayans as Ripcord. As for the more interesting over-the-top C.O.B.R.A. characters, they are either completely absent or toned down to not overshadow their Joe counterparts.

Even Snake Eyes (played by Ray Park and Leo Howard), the most inherently cool character of the franchise, comes off more than a little half-assed. Yeah, he's good with his swords, but he never feels flesh and blood appearing more like a robotic sidekick Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still than a human soldier. It doesn't help that he's asked to do all measure of idiotic stunts (including outrunning the accelerator suits - don't get me started on those Iron Man knock-offs!) which just made me shake my head and check my watch.

After one of the stupidest intros in any film not directed by Uwe Bowl, the plot of the film kicks into high gear. An unknown terrorist group steals Nanotech warheads and it's up to the elite team of G.I. Joe and their newest members Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Wayans) to save the day. What follows in a near endless loop of non-stop action, only some of it interesting. Rather than attempting to be cool, or good, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra simply tries to be loud. On that point it succeeds.

I never cared if the Joes saved the day, and C.O.B.R.A., or the nameless organization substituting it, is far from cool enough for me to root for them. Though I'll admit the Nightraven was pretty damn sweet (a total rip-off of Firefox, but still cool). Honestly, after an hour or so of this, I just wanted out and didn't much care how the film ended. I wasn't alone.

While exiting the midnight showing full of fans I here's a few of the most positive snippets I overhead: "It's not the worst movie I ever saw." "I don't ever want to see that again." "Was Snake Eyes a robot in the cartoon?" "Boy that guy in the Condorman shirt listening to us is sexy." (Okay, maybe I made up the last one).

The plot is so ridiculous, filled with flashbacks of the Baroness and Duke's "relationship," a twist so late (and lame) it lacks any punch, Destro's masking (which comes off slightly worse than Doctor Doom's similar scene in Tim Story's Craptastic Four), the creation of (and everything involving) the C.O.B.R.A. terrorist soldiers, that even a slow nine-year-old, who I can only assume was the target for this film, would have trouble taking it seriously.

Had G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra been animated and around 22 minutes it might have been passable enough. At nearly two-hours it overstays its welcome. I expected the film to be dumb, but was hoping it was the kind of mindless dumb thrill-ride you can enjoy for a short time. Instead this is the dumb that puts you to sleep, or makes you want to punch everyone involved in the face. Pick any film at random playing at your local megaplex and odds are you'll see something better (or at least not worse) than this piece of crap.