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September 21, 2009

All's fair in love and gore

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has grossed just over $400 million domestically, proving that the mindless summer blockbuster is still alive and well. But that movie is boring to talk about, unless you are a marketing specialist.

However, this past summer featured many offbeat and well-crafted movies that mostly escaped mass attention, a feat that was all but impossible for the second coming of Optimus Prime. So if you are sick of watching CGI robots and G.I. Joe fly through explosion after explosion, you should check out these films that are still in theaters and actually worth your money.

(500) Days of Summer

» Like many moviegoers, the label romantic comedy has all kinds of negative connotations for me—I think poorly executed innuendo, painfully sappy make-out scenes, and completely unrealistic depictions of romantic relationships. ­(500) Days of Summer destroys these tired conventions and replaces them with a smart, touching, and genuinely funny story about the ups and downs of romance.

But, as the narrator warns at the very beginning, this movie is not a love story. Instead, the audience bears witness to the disintegration of the romance between Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). The plot unfolds in a non-linear fashion, jumping around the significant moments in their relationship. So, much like recalling an important memory, these individual events are visited and revisited with new knowledge and insight. The movie is situated squarely within Tom’s perspective and his all-consuming, yet crushingly futile, pursuit to win Summer back.

One of the movie’s greatest successes is its effective and poignant display of Tom’s convoluted thought processes. For example, during Tom’s long awaited reunion with Summer, the screen is divided in two, with each half displaying very different versions of the same scene. Reflecting the slow collapse of Tom’s delusions during this sequence, one half of the screen is labeled “expectations” and the other is labeled “reality.” It is this kind of innovation that elevates (500) Days of Summer beyond the typical romantic comedy.

Inglourious Basterds

» Taking Nazi-occupied France as his setting, Quentin Tarantino audaciously rewrites history to conform to his story. The Basterds are a squad of American soldiers with special orders to engender fear in the Nazi ranks using any means at their disposal. Specifically, they thoroughly enjoy, yes enjoy, scalping the enemy soldiers and smashing Nazi heads with a baseball bat. And the camera does not shy away from such violence. I found myself expecting the usual split-second cut just before the cut or impact, and was treated instead to exposed brain tissue.

Surprisingly, the movie actually has little to do with the Basterds themselves. They are an essential element of the story, but the real plot is one of revenge between a Jewish refugee, Shoshana Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), and the SS colonel (Christoph Waltz in an Oscar-worthy performance) who killed her family, Hans Landa. Years after she narrowly escapes death, Shoshana plans to avenge her family by blowing up a movie theater full of Nazi officers. Of course, the Basterds, along with a few accomplices, have their own plans to exploit this same opportunity.

Quentin Tarantino has long since established himself as a director with his own unmistakable style. Incredibly long dialogue sequences, gratuitous gore, and boatloads of pop culture references? Yep, this is a Tarantino movie, and those familiar with his work, especially Pulp Fiction, will be able to recognize it right away. In order to enjoy the movie, you will have to digest Tarantino’s bold mix of comedy and violence, but even if you cannot do that, you have to admire his skill in visual storytelling.

The Hurt Locker

» In stark contrast to Tarantino’s latest offering, The Hurt Locker looks at the consequences of modern warfare with a brutally realistic story about a bomb diffusion squad in Iraq. In my opinion, The Hurt Locker is the best film made about the Iraq War to date. Far from valorizing or demonizing any one side, it addresses the moral ambiguities of the conflict for both soldiers and civilians.

The movie begins with a simple but powerful statement: War is a drug. This opening declaration is the best way to understand the protagonist, Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner), a man who has both noble intentions and an addiction to the adrenaline rush of defusing deadly explosives. Although Inglorious Basterds and The Hurt Locker are very different films, they share a common fascination with the enjoyment of war. However, while the bloody spectacles of Basterds is meant to be pure entertainment, James’s obsession with his work is tied to the circumstances of war. Certainly, many of his actions are heroic, but whether he is actually a hero is much more difficult to decide.

One welcome trend that emerged in all three of these movies is the number of breakthrough performances from relatively unknown actors. Don’t pay any attention to Megan Fox, Shia LaBeouf, or even Johnny Depp in the forgettable Public Enemies; the best talent this summer came from people I had never heard of. While Brad Pitt is featured prominently in the trailer for Inglourious Basterds, the entire film is built around the harrowing Colonel Hans Landa and the exceptional performance of Christoph Waltz. He will likely be in a stiff competition with The Hurt Locker’s Jeremy Renner for the Oscar. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel are also excellent canidates for Oscar nominations. All in all, if you want something more than pornography of explosions and big-name actors making asses of themselves, look for movies toward the edges of the radar.

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