Friday, September 18, 2009

Review: Big Fan

"I can't tell you how sick I am." That is the first line of Big Fan (2009), writer Robert Siegel's directing debut. The line is uttered by the lead character, Paul (Patton Oswalt), an obsessively devoted New York Giants fan, as he rehearses a tirade to be delivered later that evening on a sports talk radio call-in show. This is a nightly ritual, and it is one of the biggest, and only, parts of his small life. Over the course of the film, we come to learn just how apt that line really is.
Siegel is most recently known as the Onion editor turned screenwriter who penned the Mickey Rourke comeback vehicle The Wrestler, and Big Fan is very much in the same vein, in that the film follows it's lonely subject through an episode in his life that challenges everything that he feels is right.
One night, while out with his admiring and lone friend Sal (a Christopher Walken-esque Kevin Corrigan), Paul catches a glimpse of his favorite player, Quantrell Bishop. Without hesitation, the two follow Bishop from Staten Island to a strip club in Manhattan, where, due to a misunderstanding, the drunken athlete beats Paul to unconsciousness. He wakes three days later in a hospital bed, and the first thing he wants to know is the score of the latest Giants game. Horrified to learn that not only did they loose, but that Bishop, their star player, has been suspended as a result of the assault on Paul, he refuses to cooperate with the police investigation. What follows is a harrowing and fascinatingly original journey into the depths of guilt, loyalty, obsession, and revenge.
The writing is brilliant, the direction assured, the digital cinematography beautiful and dynamic, but the main attraction here is Patton Oswalt. Known to many as one of the great comedians of his generation, Oswalt has made appearances on the big and small screen in mostly supporting, character-actor roles, but with his stellar work in Big Fan, he soars to a higher echelon; he joins that rarefied fraternity of comedic actors who have proven they can blow the doors off serious drama. As Paul's dilemma unfolds, Oswalt takes us to a dark, dark place; the struggle and pain on display is frightening, heartbreaking, and unwaveringly honest.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: Der Baader Meinhof Komplex

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008) is a German movie, but it drips with American cinematic influences. This is ironic, as the central characters (the founders of the Red Army Faction [RAF]) carry out acts of terrorism in protest of what they call American imperialism which stretches from Vietnam to Israel to their native West Germany. It is directed by German TV director Uli Edel, but its operatic scope and gruesome yet cartoonish violence smack more of American masters of blood and guns such as Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.
Our anti-hero is Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), a well known liberal journalist who is attracted to the burgeoning RAF by their political message (the West German government is fascist) and free-spirituality. She is at first taken with the charismatic leaders of the group, lovers Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), but, as the RAF's actions become more violent and brazen, she begins to see them for who they are.
There is a key act of he film set in the secluded desert hills of Jordan, where the Baader-Meinhof gang goes to get trained by Palestinian freedom fighters in the ways of guerilla war far. During the classic crawl-rapidly-with-gun-under-barbed-wire-through-ditch-while-being-shot-at exercise, Baader gets bored, telling the perplexed Arab insurgents "we just want to rob banks". And in another scene, during target practice, the hot-headed Baader ceases firing one bullet at a time and opens up rapid fire, telling his frustrated instructors "its more fun". These scenes serve to reveal the RAF's true colors; they are not the righteous, oppressed freedom fighters they pretend to be, but simply bored, sociopathic brats taking advantage of the political unrest of the period (1967-1977) to kidnap and kill public officials and recruit disenfranchised youths to carry on the carnage; the good-hearted Meinhof realized this all too late, and it drives her insane.
While the people portrayed may not be admirable, the film itself is quite excellent. The action is artfully yet organically staged, the camera work is frenetic without causing nausea, and the direction is compelling. But this is really an actor's showcase. Bleibtreu is explosive and rakish as Baader; Gedeck's Meinhof is the moral center of the film, and she sells her heart breaking realization extremely well; and perhaps most impressive is Johanna Wokalek as Ensslin. Wokalek steals every scene she's in; she is a restless, dangerously beautiful force of nature who might shot you as soon as look at you.
Der Baader Meinhof Komplex might seem tedious to some, but it pays to stay with it, especially if you have even the slightest interest in post-war German history. But the film is not only informative, but also full of enthralling cinematic moments. However, the film is a contradiction; it uses cinema to canonize and mythologize people who killed and maimed, themselves fueled by some sort of fantastical notion of fighting the power. They claim to fight against so called American Imperialism, yet they drive around at night, wantonly shooting off their guns, listening to western rock music. The leaders of the RAF act as if they are playing parts in their own action film, so the whole endeavor has a kind of life-imitating-art-imitating-life quality to it.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009) is a strange and wonderful entry in the vast pantheon of World War II-based cinema. It is Quentin Tarantino's first film in five years, and it signals a new phase for the eccentric writer/director. His career so far is broken into these stages (including only films he has both written and directed): we've got the "Los Angeles Trilogy", consisting of Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997), which, aside from being set in the same city, are each populated by ensembles of obsessively foul-mouthed, shady characters who get themselves into violent situations mostly through stupidity. Next we have the "Homage Trilogy", which includes Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004), and Death Proof (2007). Each of these, as the name of their grouping suggests, is a naked tribute to the genre flicks that Quentin grew up with (kung-fu in the case of the former two; grindhouse car horror with the latter). Whether his newest film is the first in a new set, or simply an island, of coarse remains to be seen.
Basterds happens in 5 chapters, the first of which opens on a farm in Nazi-occupied France. We are reminded, intentionally no doubt, of those sweeping, Western landscapes, from the lone farm house, to the laundry hanging out to dry, to the Nazi patrol in the distance coming towards our idyllic scene like a marauding posse. Leading this band of Nazis is Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a brilliant, slitheringly charismatic, jew-hunting German officer who serves as the film's antagonist and main attraction. Waltz is an Austrian actor who has mostly appeared on German-language television over the course of his 30+ year career; it's mind-boggling that this is his first American film, or that no one is already familiar with him outside of Central Europe. Christoph Waltz gives not only the best performance in Basterds, but of the year. This previously unknown master thespians threatens to displace Daniel Day-Lewis as the greatest actor of his generation. 
Half the reason to see Tarantino's latest is Landa; the other half is everyone else in the film. Despite Brad Pitt's name standing alone on the poster, the picture is really an ensemble piece, with not just one protagonist. Pitt cartoons it up as sarcastic hillbilly Aldo Raine, the leader of the eponymous "Inglourious Basterds", a group of eight Jewish-American soldiers who tear through France killing, scalping, and generally terrorizing the Nazi's. 
Joining the male dominated cast are Melanie Laurent as Shosanna, a secretly Jewish young Frenchwoman who runs a movie theatre in Paris while planning her revenge against the Nazis for murdering her family; and an unusually good Diane Kruger as German movie star Bridget von Hammersmark. 
With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has essentially filmed a master thesis on what cinema means to him. The entire film is really not much more than a series of extended, loosely connected dialogue scenes which all threaten to explode at any moment. He brings filmmaking down to one of its most essential elements: tension. Yes, there is humor, but this is largely a product, or perhaps a reaction, to the razor-tight tension that tethers us breathlessly to the screen; we need to laugh so we don't cry. Yes, there is violence, but this trope must be established to keep things from going slack, to keep us suspended. 
See it, and witness not only the mainstream introduction of a future acting legend, but also a master class in sophisticated, boisterously entertaining cinema.