Thursday, August 27, 2009

Z At the Movies – Errol Morris Week– August 27, 2009

Give this man an Oscar.

I apologize for my absence the last two weeks, but my friends Nik, Jeff, and Lauren were all in town for Jeff’s wedding (well, Lauren wasn’t, she just happened to be back from Nicaragua at the same time Jeff and Kelly chose to get married). So I’ve seen more movies than this, but I’m going to stick with the format of just writing about what I’ve watched in the last week.

(500) Days of Summer, 2009 / ***½

Doing cutesy romance these days can be difficult, because it’s been done to death over the last couple of years. But writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber manage to make something wholly enjoyable and mostly original. Joseph Gordon-Levitt anchors the movie with a solid performance, and the luminous Zooey Deschanel is always a pleasure to watch. As a guy I found certain parts of this movie very frustrating because it felt so real, and that’s always a high compliment to give a movie like this.

Inglorious Basterds, 2009 / ****

Quentin Tarantino is still one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, 17 years after bursting onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs. This is Tarantino’s first period piece, but it’s clear from the early going that this movie wasn’t going to adhere to any prior rules set by the bevy of World War II films that have been made. The dialogue is so deliberate and tenaciously builds suspense to sudden outbursts of violence. The performances are all remarkable. Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine is pitch-perfect; watching him speak Italian may be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a Tarantino movie. Melanie Laurent is outstanding as Shosanna, the emotional core of the movie. The rest of the supporting cast is great, of course. But no one gets more screen time, and does more with it, than Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, the world’s foremost “Jew Hunter.” The finishing sequence is visually stunning and thrilling on a purely visceral level. This is one of the best movies of the year.

I Love You, Man, 2009 / ***½

Paul Rudd and Jason Segal are both undeniably likable in this affable comedy about the awkwardness of making guy friends. Outside of one projectile vomit joke the movie stays pretty close to realistic and just genuinely funny. I don’t remember too many “lines” from the movie per se, and that in this case is a positive. The supporting cast, with Rashida Jones, Jane Curtin, J.K. Simmons, Lou Ferigno, Andy Samberg, and a host of other recognizable faces are all very funny, but Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressly stand out the most as the constantly bickering married couple.

Race to Witch Mountain, 2009 / ***

I’ve never seen the original version of this movie, but I’ll pretty much watch anything Dwayne Johnson stars in. This was a pretty entertaining family-oriented action movie that zipped right by. Johnson is always entertaining, and Carlo Gugino, AnnaSophia Robb, and Alexander Ludwig do a fine job.

Gran Torino, 2008 / ***½

Just for full disclosure, Clint Eastwood is one of my favorite directors and actors of all-time. He says this is the last time he’s appearing on camera, and it was a fitting swan song. His Walt Kowalski is a bitter old racist who has no peace in his life until he starts to bond with his Hmong neighbors, Sue (Ahney Her) and Thao (Bee Vang). The movie is very good, but both Her and Vang have never acted before. While I admire the casting, and sometimes they have their charms, other scenes come off as awkward and clunky. The movie is also more emotionally straightforward than some of Eastwood’s more recent complex drams like Letters from Iwo Jima, Million Dollar Baby, or Mystic River. Many like this movie even more than I do, and it was Eastwood’s most financially successful film ever, so there’s certainly something to it.

Gates of Heaven, 1978 / ****

Errol Morris is in a class of his own when it comes to documentary filmmakers. This is his first film, a chronicle of a California pet cemetery and people who have their pets buried there. It’s absolutely fascinating from start to finish, as Morris’s unobtrusive style allows the story to tell itself. This is absolutely one of the best documentaries ever made, and a sign of things to come from the Morris.

Vernon, Florida, 1982 / ***½

This is Morris’s second documentary feature, a 52-minute piece originally made for PBS. It’s another fascinating look at the eccentric residents of this small Florida town. Morris talks with the one policeman, the preacher, a group of turkey hunters, and other townspeople to paint an intimate portrait of the Vernon residents.

Ponyo, 2009 / ****

Director Hayao Miyazaki simply does not miss, and this is another amazing entry in his filmography. The story follows Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), a five-year-old boy with a fascination for the ocean. One day he finds a goldfish and names it Ponyo (Noah Cyrus). Ponyo is no ordinary goldfish, which must be why her father Fujimoto (Liam Neeson) wants her back. To try and explain Miyazaki’s films in words do them a disservice. The images he conjures up are nothing short of amazing. If not for Up this would have to be the frontrunner for Best Animated Feature, an award Miyazaki won previously for Spirited Away. This is a beautiful film.

The Thin Blue Line, 1988 / ****

I closed out the week with another of the greatest documentaries of all-time, and another from Errol Morris (thanks Christopher). This one looks back at the legal fallout from a November 1976 murder of a police officer in Dallas. Morris innovatively uses recreations to show the various stories people are telling. This film was so revealing that the man originally convicted of the killing, Randall Dale Adams, was released from prison. Perhaps more than any other, The Thin Blue Line truly displays the power of documentary filmmaking.

Coming up this week: District 9, Departures, and who knows what else?

That’s all for this week – see you in September!

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