"Mind-blowing" is a term that's been overused when describing a movie, particular one in the action or science-fiction genre. When you're a fan of these types of movies, it's easy to get swept up by the grand ideas and/or the serious displays of special effects. And it's easy to walk out of the theater, seriously jazzed, and over-state how one feels about a particular effort. But with District 9 (A+), I feel that even the highest amounts of hyperbole aren't enough -- the film marks the arrival of major talent (writer/director Neill Blomkamp) and serves as one of the current benchmarks in the science fiction genre. Blending a mockumentary style format with Black Hawk Down style military realism, District 9 tells the exciting tale of a government employee sucked into a political conspiracy involving a race of aliens who are being segregated from normal society in South Africa where their ship stalled out above the city. All hells breaks loose when our hero (anti-hero, really) gets infected with an alien-disease and must enlist the help of a reluctant alien refugee (the film is a race-relations parable beneath all of the explosions) to get him cured. Produced by Peter Jackson, the film has a seamless visual design, with all of the CGI alien characters effortlessly blended into the frame with real humans on real sets. It's special effects work that would make Michael Bay proud. But Blomkamp does Bay one better -- he gives us an organically occurring story weight and depth with large ideas and relevant political issues, while also kicking us in the teeth with violent combat and incredible visions of science-fiction destruction. This isn't Independence Day. This isn't Men In Black. This is a full-on combat film, shot like a documentary, and given real detail by everyone involved. It's also the best film of 2009 so far.
Michael Mann never fucks up. Even The Keep was interesting. The man is just too smart, too creative, and too stylish to ever make a film that was less than great. He's one of my absolute favorite filmmakers, and with Public Enemies (A+), he's given us a remarkable, different gangster epic that sits alongside the best. Shooting in vivid HD with his extremely gifted cinematographer Dante Spinotti (Heat, The Insider, L.A. Confidential), Mann crafts an engrossing crime saga around John Dillinger's daring run of bank robberies and the federal government's pursuit of Dillinger and his crew. Johnny Depp is electric as Dillinger and Christian Bale is all stolid machismo as the g-man nipping at his heels. The romance angle is handled deftly by Mann once again (echoing the romantic longing of the romance subplot of his masterpiece Miami Vice), and Marion Cotillard generates some serious heat with Depp in their love scenes. But what gangster movie would be complete without a show-stopping shoot-out? Well, in Public Enemies, you get about five, with one of them (set at night in the Wisconsin woods) coming close to equaling that sprawling downtown L.A. set-piece in Heat. Public Enemies is the sort of smart, adult piece of filmmaking that generally gets saved for Oscar time. I like that we got it during the summer so that along with the purebred blockbusters there was something meaty to chew on as well.
Kathryn Bigelow is a filmmaker who lives for the kinetic. Strange Days. Blue Steel. Point Break. Near Dark. K-19. She knows her action. But with The Hurt Locker (A+), which happens to be the best film of her career, she's potentially made one of the defining war movies of the decade, a film of extreme focus and precision, a film of haunting beauty and power. It's also a white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat, ticking-time-bomb posing as a movie; those jolts of nervous energy you feel while watching it are real and honest. The Hurt Locker centers on a team of Marines in Iraq who have the job of disarming IED's along the side of the road and wherever they are spotted. Yes, the film is a "cut this wire! don't cut that wire!" affair, but it's more than that. It's a study of determination, of fortitude, of manliness, of valor. The film sits alongside Black Hawk Down and Full Metal Jacket as one of the most piercing looks at war-time combat ever captured on celluloid. It's also the film that might finally land Bigelow some Oscar consideration, and finally get her a big studio job after years of playing on the fringes because of some pricey flops. I think she'd be a PERFECT choice to direct the next Bourne movie if Paul Greengrass is too busy.
I've spoken at length on this site (and others) about my undying love for all things Michael Bay and all things Tranformers. Simply put, the gargantuan sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (A) is the best special-effects blockbuster ever crafted. The composition, visual intensity, and overall complexity of Bay's magisterial mise en scene is second to none in this realm. I could care less about the story, the dialogue, the performances (all of which, by the way, are perfectly adequate). Those aren't the reasons I pay to see 50 foot robots from outer space smashing each other into the Pyramids. This is a colossal film. It's got the best, most complicated special effects that have ever been woven into a movie. And it all looks totally real, completely organic, and almost always head-scratchingly impossible. It's a movie that DeMille or Griffith would have applauded. Bay is P.T. Barnum for this generation. He's a showman of the highest order. Bow to Bay. End of rant.
The quirky and bittersweet romantic drama (500) Days of Summer (A) has caught on with moviegoers to become of the summer's sleeper hits, and I'm not surprised in the slightest. Hip soundtrack? Check. Offbeat but attractive leads? Check (Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt). A quick run time? Check (90 minutes). Great montages? Check (one of which is a musical number). The movie is all about a guy who falls in love with a girl who isn't exactly all there from an emotional standpoint; it's about how even when you're blindsided by love, the feeling always has to be mutual in order for the relationship to grow and survive. Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel give two of the best performances of the year and the honest, sometimes scarring screenplay clearly is coming from a true and real place. Marc Webber's spirited, stylish direction moves the narrative along at a brisk but never frantic clip, and again, that soundtrack really seals the deal. The narrative features only one annoying bit, a bowing to one of this genre's most annoying trends (the overly sophisticated 12 year old girl), but other than that, the film is a gem.
I was shocked by how much I enjoyed Julie and Julia (A-). Nora Ephron's movies tend to grate on my nerves. But this time her charm and sensibilities won me over. Based on a book which was at first a blog(!), Julie and Julia tells the parallel stories of Julia Child (Meryl Streep, great as always) as she rose through the cooking ranks and Julie Powell (the adorable Amy Adams, even if she's wearing a poorly chosen wig), a writer who decided to blog about her experiences as she embarked on a journey to cook all of Child's recipes from The Joy of French Cooking. The movie is food porn; it's a film that foodies (like me) will just love. You'll be hungry while watching so make sure you have plans to go out to a great restaurant afterwards. From the trailers, I suspected that I'd be more interested in the Streep stuff than the Adams stuff, but to my great surprise, it was the Adams stuff that really connected with me. Not that Streep's plot line with her adoring husband (brilliantly played by Stanley Tucci) didn't make me tear up (it did, sue me), but I found myself really drawn into the blogging and writing struggles that Powell was going through. The movie is a souffle -- light and sweet and very appetizing.
Like all of Quentin Tarantino's movies, Inglorious Basterds (B+) will need to be seen again in order to truly appreciate all that he's thrown together. On first glance, my reaction was won of satisfaction, if not outright elation. Yes, he still knows how to write great dialogue (which is good to know because his last effort, Death Proof, fucking sucked). Yes, he still knows how to craft impeccable scenes. Yes, he still has a way with dark, ultra-violence that somehow registers as comedy. Yes, he's still a fanboy, cinematic smart-ass who's movie-encyclopedia-for-a-brain still gets him into trouble every now and again. The core story of Inglorious Basterds, that of a young girl's escape at the hands of death by the Nazis and how she comes to run a French movie theater where the Nazis want to hold a movie premier, is extremely engaging and entertaining. The subplot with the "Basterds" (Brad Pitt's stuff) is asinine and extremely violent and very Tarantino -- it's cool and all that but the film's other plot lines are infinitely more interesting. I plan on seeing this one again and I suspect that I'll enjoy it even more. Now that I've had a few days to reflect on what I saw last Friday, I'll say that I've come to admire the film more and more as the days have gone by, and I'm looking forward to delving into it again. Major highlights are the opening sequence in the farm house, Melanie Laurent and Christopher Waltz's performances, and the eclectic score. After mixing the western with noir and samurai in Kill Bill, Tarantino has blended the WWII movie with a spaghetti western with a dash of the French New Wave and the results are wild, ambitious, and unique.
Great trash. David Thwoy's A Perfect Getaway (B+) is one of those disposable entertainments that works in the moment and doesn't hold up to serious scrutiny upon close examination. It's violent, it's silly, it's funny, it's twisty, it's twisted, and it's quick and to the point. Steve Zahn and Timothy Olyphant have great chemistry and the final 20 minutes pack some visceral thrills. It's nothing brilliant, it's not going to win awards, but it's the kind of movie that will find a great shelf-life on DVD and cable and will surprise anyone with low expectations for this sort of genre programmer.
The Time Traveler's Wife (B) defies critical assessment. It's so preposterous that it should never work. But it does, thanks in large part to the two central performances, some classy cinematography, a few nifty special effects, and a time travel conceit that's a lot of fun for people who enjoy this sort of thing. It's a chick flick through and through, and while I didn't really know what to think of the movie based on the trailers, I went in with an open mind and had a bit of fun. Eric Bana is good looking and capable as a leading man and his chemistry with the radiant (if a bit skinny) Rachel McAdams was palpable. Again, the idea is pure idiocy -- a man and woman fall in love at various points in their lives thanks to the guy having a genetic anomaly that allows him to time travel at any moment in the day. Adapted by Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) from a best selling novel and directed with glossy aplomb by German helmer Robert Schwentke (Flightplan), The Time Traveler's Wife is harmless and entertaining fluff.