Sunday, August 30, 2009

It Might Get Loud

Tonight I saw the documentary It Might Get Loud.

What an incredible rush of music storytelling.

Three guitar Gods from three different generations (and really, three different genres of music), come together to talk about their favorite topic: guitar playing.

The elder statesman of the bunch is a white-haired Jimmy Page of the legendary Led Zeppelin; the in-the-middle genius is U2's The Edge; the new kid on the block is Jack White of The White Stripes. All complement one another in style and technique like time-traveling puzzle pieces that happen to have landed in the same era.

I thought it would be incredibly difficult for me not to favor The Edge, as I'm an unapologetic U2 fanatic, but really the movie is so painstakingly equal, it would be hard call anyone the star.

White is easily the most nervous, looking anxiously out the car window as he arrives for the summit. In footage with his own band or alone he is confident—even cocky; with the two other subjects he is humble and respectful. If only his styling wasn't so distracting (he looks like Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka), I may even declare him physically attractive.

The Edge, who I've watched on a regular basis since I was six, seemed like...well...The Edge. In other words, maybe the only rock star on the planet to appear more interested in the musical method than all of the fame/women/money that come with it.

Jimmy Page was almost unbearably sweet. The man who developed Stairway to Heaven now seems like a classy Grandpa who could tell you stories that would spin your head.

Thankfully, the stories all three musicians share in this film are sincere, honest and loaded with details that will send geeks salivating for their Gibsons. They give enough background about their entries into the music world without telling their life stories in the process. Why? Because this is a film about guitar playing.

The moments of spontaneity are the most delightful to watch—Page playing air guitar to one of the songs that inspired him; Edge realizing he was playing the wrong chord during a jam; White grinning as the older two enlighten him.

Director Davis Guggenheim achieves a brilliant balance between the summit and archival footage of each guest. The men seem at ease telling their stories to the camera and to each other, and take us on informal modern day tours of their past (a special treat for me was seeing the school where U2 met).

Perhaps the chemistry and the kindness of the subjects is why the outcome is so satisfying or maybe the director just had ways of getting them relaxed before filming so it appeared very natural. Whatever the reason, it was a genius idea that worked.

Now if only Guggenheim would make a series out of it and focus on drummers next. I'd like to place my order for Ringo Starr, Stuart Copeland and Dave Grohl.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Tonight I saw Inglourious Basterds, starring Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz.

I was the perfect age to fall for Quentin Tarantino's magic when his first films hit the big screen. Reservoir Dogs happened in high school and Pulp Fiction defined college. I distinctly remember all of the "men" in my circle going to see Pulp Fiction opening night; then my polite boyfriend at the time taking me alone the following night, worried for my reaction. I apparently laughed harder than any of them had.

We could quote the 'Madonna' scene from Dogs in our sleep and the soundtracks of both films played constantly for the next four years throughout our apartments in Columbia, Missouri.

Now the most famous Missourian—Brad Pitt—is the star of QT's new flick about a Jewish-American group of soldiers (nicknamed the 'basterds') who, of course fictionally, terrorize Nazis who are occupying France (did I mention it's 1941?), scalping and killing them as savagely as they did their victims.

Pitt is intentionally funny as southern Lieutenant Aldo Raine. With a mustache like Hitler's and an accent that sounds as if Sling Blade and Dolly Parton had a child, he mugs throughout the movie pausing for laughs as often as we'll offer them (which I'll admit, is sort of frequently). Christoph Waltz who plays the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, however, steals the show. His balance of slime, refined politeness and revolting evil comes out in a charming way that's somewhat difficult to explain, so I'll just say this: when the camera is near him, your focus is nowhere else. Not even on the former Sexiest Man Alive.

And of course, there is a damsel in distress by way of Shoshana (Melanie Laurent), the young Jewish girl who escaped the Colonel's wrath only to encounter him years later at her cinema in Paris. Her expressions and mannerisms play the role perfectly with minimal words and maximum intention. An especially great scene takes place over dessert with the Colonel.

Truthfully, there is a lot to like about this movie. With Ennio Morricone and David Bowie both appearing on the soundtrack, there is a distinctive flavor that accompanies each scene and beat almost perfectly, and the bold reds and blacks that paint the canvas of most Tarantino films are also present and effective.

But while his earlier hits and even the more recent Death Proof had a palpable pace, Basterds drags in many places that are intended to infuse tension.

There are also many 'shocking' violent scenes, but once you've gasped through the first bloody few, the remaining 15 or 20 seem glib. I dare say...they're gratuitous.

All in all, it's not really a war film or a crime caper or a black comedy. True to Tarantino's style, it's a wondersalad of all of the above without the major elements that make any of the genres work.

Clever dialog, superb actors and bad guys everyone wants to see 'get theirs' will go a long way, but unfortunately don't add up to a victorious directorial return to form.

Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9

Today I saw District 9 starring Sharlto Copley.

It was the topic of Cinebanter #77, which you can download here.

Friday, August 14, 2009

A Perfect Getaway

Tonight I saw A Perfect Getaway, starring Steve Zahn and Timothy Olyphant.

A sickening sweet, somewhat nerdy couple, Cliff (Zahn) and Sydney (Milla Jovovich) set out on their Hawaiian honeymoon armed with camping equipment, hiking permits and a video camera.

When we're first alone with them, they're arguing over picking up hitchhikers. Cliff stops the car and the eager couple on the side of the road climb in. The newlyweds get a funny feeling about them and backpeddle their offer, which greatly angers the man. They continue on the road alone, only to encounter the odd couple later in their journey.

Soon they find out that there are killers on the loose and the murderers may be on their island.

Somewhat inexperienced at hiking the complicated cliffs of Hawaii, they join up with Nick (Olyphant) and his girlfriend Gina (Kiele Sanchez) who seem to know how to navigate the area. They display unique behavior (killing animals, revealing weaponry, etc.), which unnerves Cliff and Sydney. Both couples joke about suspecting the other as the killers, but see the hitchhikers arrested for the crimes in a dramatic police helicopter search.

All's well that ends well? Not so much. But unfortunately, this spoiler-free review can't say anything more.

Is there blood? Yes. Will the killers be revealed? Yes. Is the way the film reveals the murderers clever? Somewhat (but a key sequence almost goes too fast to be effective).

The screenplay-come-to-life storytelling device that they use in the last third of the movie is a nice touch, and the performances keep you entertained throughout.

It was just a little too easy to solve the mystery.


Monday, August 10, 2009


Tonight I saw Cheri, starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Rupert Friend.

Prostitution never looked so good.

Lea (Pfeiffer) is an escort-to-the-stars in turn-of-the-century France. Her friend Charlotte (Kathy Bates) is past her prime and concerned more with the upbringing of her teenage son Chéri (Friend) than with establishing more clients. The only women they mingle with are those in their shared profession and competition seems absent from their tangles, as there are plenty of men to go around.

But Lea only wants one man—or boy, really. She wants Chéri, who has seduced her into letting him stay at her Normandy estate for a greedy length of time. She shows him the proper way around a bedroom, buys him lavish gifts, feeds him, clothes him, and probably bathes him. She is his lover, but she is also his surrogate mother.

When his real mother returns to collect him and marry him off to another teenager, Lea is devastated but retains her dignity. As the new young couple heads to Italy for a honeymoon, Lea escapes to a new home and leaves no forwarding address.

Both parties are miserable apart—Chéri's marriage, though faithful, is completely loveless, and Lea seems to take on another lover only to pass the time.

When they finally realize they can't happily live apart, it may be too late to do anything about it. Oh, the perils of true love.

As a fan of the book, I knew what the outcome would be and I dare say the film is much lighter and funnier than the original text. The lead couple is convincing and well-matched with Pfeiffer's sharp, mature features directly contrasting the feminine curves of Friend's. But the real scene-stealer is the always-phenomenal Kathy Bates, who lights up the screen for better or for worse with her spunky energy.

To break this film down to one word, I'd call it a "romp."

And a pleasurable one, for what it's worth.


Sunday, August 09, 2009

Betty Blue: The Director's Cut

Today I saw Betty Blue: The Director's Cut, starring Béatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade. [note: this film has one more hour of footage than its original theatrical release contained in 1986.]

185 minutes is a long time to spend with anyone—especially fictional characters who are as unlikeable as they are abundant. Unfortunately, that was the case today when I sat through this soft-core porn, which masquerades as pretentious art.

Zorg (Anglade) is a novelist who is making a living as a caretaker at a desolate beach resort. We assume his life is relatively peaceful before he meets Betty (but since the first scene is him making love to her, I suppose we'll never know), a passionate, sexy woman who doesn't have much of a purpose except "loving" him.

In bed, their relationship is as strong as can be. They are inhibition-free during their sexual escapades and seem to be genuinely fond of each other's bodies. So fond that for over half the movie one or both of them are naked.

Anyway, Zorg is mezmerized by Betty's vibrant (though imperfect) smile and her undying attention to him, so he risks his caretaking job by allowing her to live with him against the owner's wishes. In return, she helps him paint bungalows and all seems to work out well until...said boss shows up and she gets so angry she throws all of Zorg's belongings out the window. Literally.

Normal men would take pause at this development and expel the crazy bitch from their life, but not Zorg. He passively accepts her rage and even allows her to begin typing up a novel he's scripted by hand in several volumes of journals. Then they set the place on fire.

Next up is a new life in a (presumably) new town, where they become great friends with their landlady and her eventual partner. They trade work for rent, have amazing sex, and all is well until... Betty is working as a server at their restaurant and stabs a lippy patron with a fork.

Think the red flags are waving high enough for Zorg to notice? Not so much. He must really like having sex. With her. Because not only does he keep her around (staying faithful to her as well), but he starts over with her again in a new locale managing a piano store. They sell a piano on their first day, have amazing sex, and well, you get the idea.

With each progressive act of crazy that Betty commits, you wonder more what the hell is wrong with this man. Everyone knows someone who is in or has been in an abusive relationship, but this is ridiculous. The woman is beyond disturbed ("I hear voices") and her antics repeatedly threaten both of their lives.

By the time the final act played out (in which Betty does something so horrific the audience I was sitting with audibly gasped), I was planning my dinner menu, thinking about the music I'd program for my evening workout and wondering why I shelled out money for the ticket to see this in the first place.

Sure, there are some cool sex scenes, but without characters that one can truly invest in or care about, the 'love story' progression only feels predictable and weak.


Saturday, August 08, 2009

The Hangover

Tonight I saw The Hangover, starring Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis.

I never expected to laugh this hard at a guy buddy movie.

You see, a couple days before Doug (Justin Bartha) is scheduled to get married, his buddies Phil (Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and future brother-in-law Alan (Galifianakis) take him to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. Pretty normal scenario, yes? Sure, it is. Until everything goes horribly wrong.

First, Phil decides that the double rooms they've booked won't be good enough for their one-night party, so he talks the group into reserving the $4000+ suite, which the desk clerk refers to as "pretty awesome."

Then Alan, the obligatory "overweight guy" who desperately wants to fit in, pours everyone a shot of Jagermeister on the rooftop of Caesar's Palace and toasts the occasion. After that, no one remembers a thing until the men (minus Doug) wake up in their completely trashed environment amongst food, vomit, broken glass, live chickens, a baby and Mike Tyson's tiger. Yes, Mike Tyson's tiger.

In an attempt to find the missing groom, the men re-trace their forgotten steps using credit card receipts, eyewitness accounts—even a hospital wristband—only to encounter surly doctors, giddy wedding chapel owners, Chinese mobsters and (thankfully) the baby's mother.

To give away even one of the hilarious scenarios or jokes would screw up the fast-paced rhythm of this comedy, so I'll refrain. But I will say, with very little bathroom humor, screenwriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore manage to make scene after scene laugh-out-loud funny.

While most of the dialog is surely geared toward men, the majority of what happens to them is universally funny. Old-fashioned slapstick in some ways; cleverly sarcastic in others.

Overall, a very satisfying, silly romp leading up to perhaps the best end credits since Ferris Bueller's Day Off.


Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Magic of Netflix

I have to admit, as far as efficiency and great customer service go, Netflix puts most of the working world to shame.

Since a friend first gave me a subscription as a gift a few years back, I've been positively addicted to this most-pleasant constant in my life. With a queue that gets arranged and rearranged at my every whim, all I have to do to satisfy my cinematic craving at any given moment is click a button on my computer. A day or two later, as if my magic, that very disc appears in my mailbox. Or, for more immediate gratification, I can choose something from my list that has a "play" button next to it and watch it on my Mac.

The selection can't be beat, the titles are endless, and the recommendations are usually very accurate (if you're a freak like me and you rate nearly everything you watch). Furthermore, there are seldom issues with delivery speed or the quality of the DVD. And if there are, the call center has the most friendly voices in business that are all too happy to help.

Really, the should call it "NetFIX."

A writer for the Chicago Tribune recently marveled like the rest of us at their well-oiled machine, then went behind the scenes to see their secrets of success. His article about it is here.

From the sound of it, they have an organized factory that's not prone to outside distractions, allow their employees regular breaks for exercise and rest, and mix sophisticated technology with human hard work to achieve fast, accurate results.

What a curious recipe in this day and age.


Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Girl From Monaco

Today I saw The Girl From Monaco, starring Fabrice Luchini and Louise Bourgoin.

Bertrand (Luchini) is a fiftysomething high-powered defense attorney that comes to Monaco to represent a wealthy old woman accused of murder. Within days of his arrival, that woman's son has insisted upon and provided him with Zem (Christophe Abadi), a bodyguard who slightly resembles President Obama.

Zem's presence is professional if not intrusive, as Bertrand is powerful in the courtroom but never in the hands of a beautiful woman.

Enter Audrey the Weather Girl (Louise Bourgoin). A classic blond gold digger in her 20s with her sights set on Bertrand and his paycheck. She rapidly seduces him, though Zem warns his boss that she's trouble, and Audrey soon has her lover believing they are in love.

We see the murder case progress intermittently, but that's not the exciting part of the film. The thrill is watching the sexual exploits (only a few of which actually take place on screen) of Audrey and Bertrand, and the implied exploits of Audrey and whomever else in Monaco that's interested.

The unspoken friendship between Zem and Bertrand is also significant and plays out surprisingly in the last act, which takes the film from comedy to drama.

Aside from the mysterious nature of Zem and the motivation behind his actions, the film doesn't really leave you guessing much or even wanting more—but that's okay.

A little entertainment for the sake of entertainment is not always a bad thing in cinema.