Tarantino’s World – “Inglourious Basterds”

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Click to check out the trailer.

Bryan Singer’s 2008 World War II film Valkyrie demanded a great deal from its audience. It told the tale of a group of plotters who were willing to risk their lives and commit treason against their fatherland to bring about the end of an unrepentantly evil regime. It told their story in the guise of a thriller, despite the film’s ending being a matter of historical record. And it asked us to root for this company of heroes even knowing that their plot would fail.

Quentin Tarantino’s latest outing, Inglourious Basterds, makes no such demands on the audience. He doesn’t strain or even test your historical knowledge. He simply asks you to live in his world for a while. And apart from the uniforms, World War II iconography, and an encyclopedic knowledge of 30s and 40s cinema, this film takes place largely in a fantasy world.

Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is the leader of the Basterds, a group of Jewish-American soldiers who will sneak behind enemy lines to kill (and scalp) as many Nazis as they can. The title and trailer would have us believe this is what the film is about, but this is not an origin story. The Basterds are merely a backdrop to a broader tale of revenge. As the Basterds plot to destroy the Nazi leadership, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a French Jewish girl, bides her time incognito as the owner of a Parisian cinema, and plots revenge for the murder of her family at the hands of the SS. Also in the mix is Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a beautiful turncoat German film starlet, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German sniper and war hero-cum-actor, and SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), known colloquially as “The Jew Hunter”.

This is easily Tarantino’s most ambitious film. More than half of the dialogue is in subtitled French or German, and the labyrinthine plot is scarcely contained in the film’s 2 1/2 hour runtime. The film feels like a teaser for a much larger story, and yet we are still privy to enough brilliantly crafted character moments that it feels complete.

The finest acting in the film is that of Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Landa. He somehow manages to combine an outwardly cheerful demeanor with such simmering, underlying menace that each of his scenes will have you on the edge of your seat. Tarantino’s strength has always been in crafting lengthy scenes of gradually increasing tension amid seemingly innocuous dialogue, in which the question is not whether the scene will end badly; the question is “how badly” and “for whom?”. Waltz’s performance works masterfully within this framework; whether interrogating a dairy farmer under suspicion for harboring Jews, or conversing over Parisian strudel with a potential enemy, Waltz’ every facial tic gradually reveals his true intentions, as he leads the conversation exactly where he wants it to go. He is one of Tarantino’s most complex and well-crafted characters, and Waltz plays the part immaculately.

Also noteworthy is Mélanie Laurent. Shosanna is a familiar character, seemingly drawn from the same well as The Bride from Kill Bill. Nonetheless, Laurent ably combines a quietly sorrowful demeanor with an unflinching desire for revenge. Denis Menochet gives a strong performance in an early interrogation scene, and Diane Kruger does a fine job as the fictitious German film starlet. If there’s one thing Cate Blanchett taught me as Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator , it’s that I’m seldom disappointed by actresses playing actresses.

Which brings me…to Brad Pitt. When I first saw the trailer for this film, I thought that Pitt could ruin this film for me. He seemed woefully miscast as the Dirty Dozen-esque leader of the Basterds. And if Lt. Raine and the Basterds had more screen-time, that may well have been the case. But somehow, Pitt pulls it off.

He plays the character so brazenly over-the-top that it quickly becomes evident that this is not a character that is looking for anyone’s approval. Lt. Raine has come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass have fun and kill Nazis, and maybe speak some unapologetically bad Italian along the way. He is essentially a cartoon character. He has a scar across his neck from having his throat slit at some point in the past, which is never explained, but one can assume he has Chuck Norris-like longevity.

Many of the other Basterds are similarly cartoonish, although I don’t have much to say about their performances, given that they have so little screentime. Tarantino brings in such unassuming young actors as B.J. Novak (“The Office”) and Samm Levine (“Freaks and Geeks”) and invites us to watch as they graphically scalp dead Germans.

inglourious_basterds_eli_roth_mHe also brings in Eli Roth, and I must confess, I’m having a hard time figuring out why Roth is in this film. He plays Sgt. Donny Donowitz, known to the Germans as “The Bear Jew”, owing presumably to his appeal to a very specific subset of the gay community, and his propensity for beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat. The part was originally conceived for Adam Sandler, but rather than lament what might have been, I’ll simply speak to Roth’s performance. His delivery of dialogue, most of which he simply screams at the camera, is easily the worst in the film. He might well have ruined his scenes if not for the fact that he so looks the part of the Bear Jew. Roth may not be a strong actor, but he certainly can pull off a terrifying “bloodlust face”. And what’s more, he looks like he could kill me even without the bat. So with that in mind, I’ll simply say that Roth is a talented horror director, and he should probably stick to that from now on.

Inglourious Basterds is, like many of Tarantino’s films, an unrelenting depiction of brutality. Both the Basterds’ and Shosanna are unforgiving in their determination to wipe out the Nazis (“a Nat-see ain’t got no humanity!” barks Lt. Raine), and the parallels to the Nazis’ own brutality are almost certainly deliberate. The film does not seek to pardon anyone, but it does seem determined to simultaneously reveal both the humanity and brutality of all participants in war – and how the desire for revenge can lead people to commit previously unconscionable atrocities. And how in the end, no matter which side you’re on, all you want to do is go home, take off your uniform, and try to forget it ever happened.

“But that doesn’t sit well with me”, says Lt. Raine, as he gleefully carves a swastika into a German soldier’s forehead. “You know,” he says, turning to Private Utivich, who has just finished scalping yet another Nazi, “This might just be my masterpiece.”

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

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(unused poster for the film – click to read more about it)

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Week in Brief: “World’s Greatest Dad”, “A Perfect Getaway”

“Is that not the perfect visual image of life and death? A fish flapping on the carpet, and a fish not flapping on the carpet.”
-David Carradine, Kill Bill

Bobcat Goldthwait is not exactly known for conventional comedy. His last film, Sleeping Dogs Lie, told the tail tale of a girl whose subsequent relationships are ruined when she reveals that she once had a minor indiscretion with engaged in an inappropriate relationship with blew her dog.

While that film explored the nature of truth and honesty by way of dark comedy, World’s Greatest Dad is even more ambitious. It explores the nature and rise of celebrity, the nonsensical side of public grief, and the ways in which fathers view their children, and it does so in a way that is almost certain to offend everyone who sees it.

The film tells the story of Lance Clayton (Robin Williams), a struggling [read: failed] writer who works as a high school poetry teacher. The story centers around Lance, in his struggles as a writer, father, and boyfriend. His sociopathically ribald son Kyle (Daryl Sabara, of Spy Kids fame) also attends the school, which complicates their already-strained relationship.

I can’t say much more without revealing major spoilers, but suffice to say, certain events occur that complicate Lance’s experience as a father, and cause his writing career to take an unexpectedly positive turn.

Robin Williams gives a noteworthy performance, and really hits his stride in the second act as he starts to see the direction his writing career is going. The image of Williams standing at a newsstand on a Seattle street corner and openly weeping into the adult magazines is certainly one for the ages, and this will unquestionably be remembered as one of his best performances. Daryl Sabara performs ably as the son, although in truth, he’s not fleshed out too much as a character. The same goes for most of the secondary characters, who degenerate a bit as the film goes on.

But this film accomplishes something remarkable. It takes some of the darkest material ever put to screen and manages to present it in a sympathetic way. This is a jet-black comedy, and I can’t count on both hands the number of times I twisted uncomfortably in my chair while watching it. But it has heart. And while it veers off the rails a bit in the third act, particularly with regard to the secondary characters, this is definitely a film worth checking out for those with flexible standards of decency.

But this is not a film for everyone. World’s Greatest Dad is out in limited release now, and be prepared to walk out horrified, whether at the end of the film or somewhere in the middle.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

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Click to check out the trailer.

A Perfect Getaway was not a film I was terribly interested in seeing. Despite the presence of my perennial guilty pleasure, the lovely Milla Jovovich, this looked like a generic thriller with some impressive scenery.

The film is set on the island of Kauai, along the gorgeous Kalalau Trail, a strenuous 11-mile hike past Hanakāpīʻai Beach, one of the most beautiful and treacherous beaches in the world. While normally, the danger of this beach is due to the high surf and strong rip tides, in this film, there’s the added complication of a pair of murderers who’ve just escaped capture after butchering a pair of newlyweds in Honolulu. Are they here? Who could they be? What are they up to? These are the film’s central questions, and the end result is a very competent thriller. Steve Zahn and Timothy Olyphant clearly had a wonderful time chewing the scenery, and they give easily the most entertaining performances. Milla Jovovich also does a fine job, although I must admit I almost didn’t recognize her with the goth haircut and Valley Girl accent. Nonetheless, she does plenty to justify her presence before the film’s end.

The mere presence of the above actors would not have been sufficient to rope me into this film; it was ultimately the presence of writer/director David Twohy that made me curious. Twohy had previously impressed me with the Chronicles of Riddick films, which proved his expert hand at thoroughly cheesy sci-fi with a darkly comedic twinge. I saw this film in the hopes that he would prove as adept with a more conventional thriller, and by and large, I was not disappointed. There are far worse ways to spend an evening, and you would do well to catch this film before it disappears from theaters (as it likely will very soon).

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

Glenn’s Indie Movie-Wank – Part 3: Marc Webb’s “(500) Days of Summer”

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This is a story of boy meets girl, a stern, wry narrator informs us before the credits of Marc Webb’s self-styled “anti-romantic comedy”, (500) Days of Summer. The narrator goes on to warn us (not in so may words) that if we’re expecting a love story, we’ll be sobbing as hard as Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) after he gets dumped by Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). This film doesn’t bury the lead; after a brief sequence on day 1 (when the two first meet), we jump forward to more than a year later (somewhere in the 380s), as Summer declares her love for pancakes and the relationship’s imminent demise. It makes sense in the scene.

This film revels in quirk and hipster sensibility almost as much as Juno (albeit less annoyingly so), and spins its relationship tale with as disjointed a timeline as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 500 Days makes a suitable companion piece to the latter film; both come from music video directors bringing some of their usual stylistic flourishes, and both use unconventional storytelling and a nonlinear timeline to offer their perspectives on love via exploration of a failed relationship.

But that’s where the similarities end… For a film in which the male romantic lead spends the majority of the time brooding and sobbing, 500 Days is remarkably uplifting and funny. The film takes place largely from Tom’s perspective, and at times, inside his head. It is a film about expectations. Summer, whose parents split up when she was a child, doesn’t expect anything from a relationship, and doesn’t really even want one. Tom, having internalized the lessons of a childhood of romantic songs and movies (and a total misread of the ending of The Graduate), doesn’t think he’ll be truly happy until he finds “the one”. Unfortunately, he only has the vaguest idea of what “the one” will be.

In the opening sequence of Eternal Sunshine, Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) ponders why he falls in love with any woman who shows him the slightest bit of attention (in that case, the enigmatic Clementine, played by Kate Winslet). Tom is a character that could easily end up in the same boat as Joel, even after the emotional smackdown that he experiences in 500 Days. While neither Kate Winslet nor Zooey Deschanel are true examples of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in their respective films, their men seem bent on regarding them as such. They are each warned to manage their expectations as they begin the relationship, and they each pay a steep emotional price for failing to do so.

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The performances are quite adept. Joseph Gordon-Levitt once again proves his two central characteristics… He’s one of the finest young actors working today, and he hasn’t aged a day since “3rd Rock from the Sun”.

But even as Gordon-Levitt continues to prove as capable at reckless, romantic zeal as sullen, intractable brooding, it is Zooey Deschanel that steals this film. To put it bluntly, this is a character that the audience could easily have ended up despising. And while the character of Summer is mostly well-written, the characterization and non-linear progression of the story demand a great deal from Deschanel. And it is her performance that just manages to make the character sympathetic.

As Tom reflects on his relationship, many of his scenes with Summer are cast in a different light through subsequent flashbacks. On the second run through, the film’s editing calls attention to the slightest glance of the eyes, or twinge of the cheek muscles, or the most minor apathetic tone of voice… In each of these microexpressions, Deschanel’s performance is masterfully subtle. And throughout the film, she brings all the mystery, likeability, and sensuality that the character demands, but couples it with a subtle undertone of cold, mature pragmatism. She manages to force the audience through nearly the same process as Tom, despite our advantages of an outside perspective and sardonic narrator to keep us objective.

It is a lot easier to hate Chloe Moretz, a 12-year-old actress who may inadvertantly end up typecasting herself. In Matthew Vaughn’s upcoming adaptation of the graphic novel “Kick-Ass”, Moretz will play Hit Girl, a precocious, sword-wielding assassin. Here, she plays an equally unrealistic youngster in the form of Tom’s sister Rachel, who spends the entire film feeding him uncannily adept relationship advice in-between soccer matches. Despite Moretz’s solid performance, this character is the film’s biggest misfire. She could easily have been written out of the film without losing anything but doddering exposition. Perhaps I could have tolerated either an unrealistically savvy child or prolific movie trailer narration, but the inclusion of both nearly causes the film to collapse under the weight of its own cleverness.

And indeed, all of the characters occasionally feel overwritten. Summer intones with uncanny frequency how much she “loves” a particular band or food or [anything but Tom], and Tom’s job as a greeting card writer often seems like merely a clever setpiece for unrealistic emotional dialogue (consult your local Hallmark dealer for further examples). But somehow, the result is immensely enjoyable. This film is equal parts fable and reality, but it has a lot of insight to offer about love and relationships. (500) Days of Summer has earned its place alongside Eternal Sunshine and Forgetting Sarah Marshall in the “broken hearts” section of my pantheon of cinematic romances.

If you see this film, it will almost certainly speak to you on some level. If you don’t see yourself in one of these characters, then you might just see someone you know.

Or knew.

Or loved.

Glenn’s Indie Movie-Wank – Part 2: Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker”

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I would say that Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is the best film yet about the Iraq war, but it’s not as if it’s had much competition.The closest thing yet to a “good” Iraq war film was Paul Haggis’ small 2007 offering, In the Valley of Elah, which combined a heady realism and some strong performances with Haggis’ typically heavy-handed political message. The Hurt Locker has been described as “forcibly apolitical”. I’m not sure if I buy this sentiment, but more on this later.

The Hurt Locker tells the story of three members of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team – the army’s bomb squad. When soldiers discover one of the many IEDs hidden in trashpiles and animal carcasses around the streets, EOD is the team they bring in to disarm it. The film is ostensibly about adrenaline addiction (a pre-credits title screen informs us that war is, indeed, a drug), coupled with a portrayal of intense (and only slightly homoerotic) male friendship that Bigelow has previously depicted so effectively (Point Break), amidst a backdrop of intense action and violence.

The bomb diffusion sequences in this film are immensely entertaining and suspenseful, but it’s really the action where Bigelow distinguishes herself as a director. Ever since Paul Greengrass decided to start using shaky-cam in close-quarters (the Bourne series), it has been a problem endemic to modern action films that much of the action is incomprehensible. The physical environment, the characters, and where they are in relation to each other ends up being at least partially unclear. This has happened in good films (The Dark Knight), bad films (Transformers 2), and middling, mediocre films (Quantum of Solace), and I think it’s fair to say that Bigelow’s direction leaves many modern action films in its dust.

Every scene in this film is well established, and the audience always has an excellent sense of what’s going on. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) dons his protective suit (a relative misnomer) and marches through the blazing sun toward his objective. Civilians watch from every surrounding building, and bustle through the adjacent streets and alleys. The soldiers behind him take cover behind a Humvee and survey the crowd. Anyone with a cell phone could be trying to detonate the bomb. And all the while, the audience understands exactly where everything is in relation to everything else. And when all hell breaks loose, they can still understand what’s going on.

This commitment to well-directed and comprehensible action is one of the film’s persistent strengths, and it works immensely well against the backdrop of the Iraq War (in particular during a pitch-perfect long-distance sniper battle midway through the film).

Joining an appropriately intense performance by Jeremy Renner (28 Weeks Later, ABC’s “The Unusuals”) are strong supporters Anthony Mackie (We Are Marshall, 8 Mile) and Brian Geraghty (The Guardian, Jarhead). I can’t single out any of these performances as the superlative one; but as an ensemble, these three work immensely well. The film has Bigelow’s typically strong portrayal of male friendship in intense circumstances, when the characters aren’t sure if they want to embrace or murder each other. The dialogue feels authentic, and the characterization is solid. These men may be considered heroes, but as far as they’re concerned, they’re just doing what they have to do. They’re here, and they’re going to keep doing the job until they go home or get killed.

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Shortly after diffusing a car bomb at a UN building, Sergeant James is approached by a colonel (David Morse, in a completely wasted cameo). “You’re a wild man”, the colonel says several times, practically giddy with excitement. Ralph Fiennes and Guy Pearce also appear in minor, if slightly meatier roles. With all the celebrities joining the party, I half-wondered if there was some thinly veiled anti-war message I wasn’t picking up on. The film is only anti-war inasmuch as a hyper-realistic war film inexorably conveys the notion that hey, perhaps it’s not such a fun place to be. But while the film may set out to be apolitical, it simultaneously exhibits unapologetic contempt toward any attempt to analyze or understand these men. The audience’s perspective is best exhibited by a well-meaning armchair psychologist colonel (Christian Camargo), whose story is easily the most overwritten and predictable part of an otherwise solid and suspenseful film.

That’s about as close as the film comes to a political message. You’re not there. You don’t know. Now go home, and enjoy the streets that aren’t filled with potentially explosive trashpiles. But this message is merely the subtle underpinning of one of the best action films this year, and it is well worth seeing. It is absolutely gorgeous to behold, and if you can catch it before it leaves theaters (it’s out in limited release), see it on the largest screen you can.

Glenn’s Indie Movie-Wank – Part 1: Duncan Jones’ “Moon”

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If nothing else, Duncan Jones’ Moon is a film you’ll have to talk about afterward.

Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is the sole employee at a lunar mining facility, just a few weeks shy of finishing his three-year stint. He’s playing to familiar territory… bearded and slightly unhinged. His only company for the past three years has been GERTY, a super-intelligent computer, voiced by an eerily calm Kevin Spacey. Sam heads out in the rover one day to investigate a problem with one of the mining machines, and discovers he has company… Another man in a company-issue spacesuit. A man that looks and sounds exactly like him.

This “big spoiler” for the film is revealed in the first 15 minutes, but even as you’re patting yourself on the back and mouthing “CLOOOOOOOOONE” to anyone you came with (if you’re as obnoxious as me, at least), Moon just steps right on and continues to explore fresh and insightful territory. This film has two persistent strengths. The first is that it does a lot with very little. It flawlessly renders the surface of the moon and the base, despite an extremely modest budget. Clint Mansell’s (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) haunting and beautiful score spends a great deal of time on solo piano, a style that compliments the story masterfully.

But the second strength is simply the film’s respect for its audience. So much of modern sci-fi is merely elaborate, CG-infused setup with no payoff. Behold! A world in which robots are everywhere! And spaceships! And aliens! Now, let’s throw em all together and watch them beat the shit out of Will Smith or Shia LaBoeuf (or both)! Annnd…roll credits!

This film does what few sci-fi films have managed in recent years. It sets up its world, but then respects its audience enough to subtly raise the myriad of profound ethical and existential questions that naturally follow. The clone “twist” happens early, and the rest of the film is spent exploring the idea. How would you feel, as either the clone or clonee? How would the two of you interact? And oh, as long as you’re here, what does it mean to be human?

It is this last question that pervades the ending of this film, and in that grain, it owes a great deal to such works as Blade Runner or the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. And all the while, as we explore Sam’s relationship with GERTY, we see the trappings of 2001 as we wonder when the computer will go all HAL-homicidal. But that is the triumph of this film’s storytelling. It is aware of the works that have come before, and pays them the requisite service while simultaneously passing a dozen points when it could easily veer into an obvious and overwrought cliche. It plays with the audience’s expectations, but delivers some remarkable originality.

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Sam Rockwell’s performance may be the finest I’ve seen this year, imbuing each of the Sam Bells with a distinct, but related personality. One of them is strong, but struggles to make sense of what he is, as the other becomes increasingly erratic. Kevin Spacey gives a fine voice performance, although I suspect the intrigue of GERTY is as much due to his performance as it is to an clever visual that the computer uses to express its “emotions”. In an age when we’re used to communicating in the emotionally stifling media of texting and instant messaging, seeing a computer make use of the same cutesy little emoticons in the place of body language and empathy is surprisingly effective.

The relationship between Sam and the computer ends up being almost as fascinating as the one between Sam and his clone, and its exact meaning is one of the many things you’ll continue to think about after you leave this film.

Moon‘s dialogue is rich and concise, conveying exactly what it needs to and not a bit more. The film explores all of the questions I mentioned above (to name a few), but does so in a subtle way, and relies on its audience to answer them on their own time. Even the very last line of the film, a half-garbled radio transmission that plays as the credits begin to roll, conveys a fascinating idea. And that’s what you’ll get with this film. It’s for people who love big ideas. It is a welcome return to true sci-fi, and showcases one of the best performances of the year.