FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #30 – “Promised Land” (dir. Gus Van Sant), “Django Unchained” (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Poster for "Django Unchained"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel take on a surprising double-header. First comes Promised Land, a reunion between Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), along with newcomer John Krasinski (from “The Office”), featuring salesmen trying to convince a small town to let them drill for natural gas in their backyards (a process known as fracking). Then comes Django Unchained, an escaped-slave revenge romp from Quentin Tarantino starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio. The biggest surprise? After declaring Inglourious Basterds the FilmWonk favorite of 2009, we had a very different experience with Tarantino’s latest (1:09:22).

May contain some NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Promised Land): 7.5/10
FilmWonk rating (Django Unchained): 4/10

Show notes:

  • (0:00) Review: Promised Land
  • (13:06) Spoilers: Promised Land
  • (26:00) Review: Django Unchained
  • (46:01) Spoilers: Django Unchained
  • Music for this episode comes from Luis Bacalov‘s original theme song to the 1966 Sergio Corbucci film Django, which also appears in Tarantino’s film.
  • While we certainly don’t attempt to settle the fracking issue on this podcast, you can read more about it here.
  • CORRECTION (from Glenn): Upon reflection, I must retract my comment about Spike Lee. While he did attack Django Unchained for depicting slavery in the context of a spaghetti western, and has criticized Tarantino about his use of racial epithets previously (NSFW), he has not (to our knowledge) ever stated that Tarantino’s race is a factor in his ability to make a film about slavery. Read his exact position (in brief) on Twitter. We apologize for the error.
  • While Glenn adored Inglourious Basterds, Daniel was definitely not a fan. Revise history in his presence at your own peril!

Listen above, or download: Promised Land/Django Unchained (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser).

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Michel Gondry’s “The Green Hornet” – The hero L.A. deserves?

Seth Rogen might just have found his niche playing detestable heroes. He gave a thoroughly entertaining performance as a psychopathic mall cop in Jody Hill’s pitch-black 2008 comedy Observe and Report, and indeed, his performance in Michel Gondry’s The Green Hornet bears some similarity. Both would-be heroes are infantile, petty, helpless around women, and prone to occasional bouts of alarmingly skillful violence. But while Observe was an unapologetic celebration of terrible people doing terrible things, The Green Hornet is ostensibly a light-hearted comic tale about a self-styled hero that’s meant to be worthy of our admiration.

Tonally, the film falls somewhere between Kick-Ass and Iron Man. Like the former, Britt Reid (Rogen) is delusional and borderline incompetent, but like the latter, he has all the physics-defying gadgetry he needs to keep himself alive for longer than 30 seconds. In the place of a mellifluous holographic A.I. to build his gadgets, Reid has a Q-ish tech wizard, kung-fu master, and expert barista named Kato (Jay Chou). Kato’s relationship with Reid fluctuates wildly between buddy comedy and guardian for a special needs child – a scene in which Kato explains to Reid why he might need a gas-slinging sidearm is one of the most painfully funny in the film. The audience is left wondering why Kato puts up with his boss’ constant abuse and mockery, but it might have something to do with his seemingly unlimited budget for high-tech toys. In any case, this is not a film for believable (or even comprehensible) relationships.

If The Green Hornet is about anything, it’s narcissistic image-obsession. Over and over again, the characters speak at length about how they look, how they are perceived by others in the story, and what the characters in a violent comic farce should do. Nearly all of the scenes featuring the villainous Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) play like cringe-inducing, metafictional peeks into the writers’ room. “Do I look scary? Is my gun scary? What do you think of my costume? Do you know how many different suits I’ve tried?” Chudnofsky may come with Waltz’s adeptly intimidating presence, but he has no real identity of his own, and feels almost like he is trying to conceive one in front of the cameras. But he’s not half as self-conscious and directionless as our heroes. In a line seemingly tailor-made for the film’s trailer, Reid explains to Kato, “Here’s what will make us different!”

Their grand plan is essentially to start a gang war and kill every criminal in the city. Brilliant in its simplicity, I suppose. But while Black Beauty, the tank-like super car, may allow the Hornet and Kato to viciously slaughter any evildoers with all the subtlety of Depression-era gangsters, it basically just feels like an old-timey and borderline magical version of the Batmobile. What’s more, their grand plan seems as likely to ensnare police and innocent bystanders as rival gangsters. This is Iron Man without a conscience. And strangely, that’s where the film started to appeal to me.

If there is one attribute that has defined nearly all modern superhero films, it’s self-importance. Even in the most schlocky and unwatchable incarnations of the genre (I’m looking at you, Fantastic Four), there are always ponderous questions about what it means to be a hero and how much is at stake if the hero fails. The Green Hornet has no such lofty ambitions, and I was surprised to find its sadistic playfulness and dark humor to be a refreshing change of pace. Nearly every scene in this film is simultaneously exhilarating and painful to watch on some level, from its farcical attempts at romance (for which I give a great deal of credit to Cameron Diaz) to its utterly balls-out action sequences, which are at least impressive on a technical level. They don’t all land perfectly, but I’m happy to see that director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) remains as skillful as ever, even with a blockbuster budget. What’s more, he even managed to shoehorn in a dream sequence chock full of practical effects and camera trickery – a skillful display which felt mostly out of place, but by the time it appeared, I was past caring about the film’s lack of consistency.

The Green Hornet is an oddity, to be sure. I didn’t emerge from it without a laundry list of complaints, but I still found the sum of the experience enjoyable. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script feels like it’s trying to be the buddy-comedy spiritual successor to Superbad, and it at least partially succeeds. The writing is very jokey and surprisingly dark, but exhibits a clear understanding of comic book tropes. In a genre that’s gradually starting to wear out its welcome, this bizarre spectacle of a film feels far more like a labor of love than a cynical cashgrab, and that might just be what makes it watchable.

FilmWonk rating: 5.5 out of 10

2009 Glennies, Part 1: Best Supporting Actor

#5: Ryan Reynolds – Mike Connell, Adventureland

Ryan Reynolds in "Adventureland"

From my original review:
I must also give praise to Ryan Reynolds. Here is an actor whose work is consistently entertaining, but offers the same one-note, sociopathic, likeable douchebag performance in every film he’s in…

Reynolds returns in this film as that character, aged 10 years, saddled with a dead-end job and an unhappy marriage. And yet he manages to convey the truly pitiable nature of such a character. His antics and doubletalk no longer seem charming here. His underhanded and lecherous conduct comes off as sad, creepy, and immature for a man of his age. Reynolds does a fine job of portraying all the ugliness and truth of this character without any of the signature likeability that he brings to his other roles.

#4: Jackie Earle Haley – Walter Kovacs/Rorschach, Watchmen

Jackie Earle Haley in "Watchmen"

I am quite fascinated by geekdom and alternate history, but I must admit, I was not too excited by this film. Zack Snyder delivered a long, grueling, mixed bag of a film that seemed to split even the most die-hard fans of the graphic novel (and I do not count myself among them) right down the middle. But if there’s one thing it effectively conveyed, it’s that the only people who would voluntarily become superheroes are those with severe social or mental issues.

And so we meet Rorschach, the unrepentant, masked psychopath played to absolute perfection by Jackie Earle Haley. Like I said last year, there’s just something great about a well-played psychopath. Haley took what could have been a one-note, gruff-talking slasher and imbued him with some fascinating personality, giving the finest comic performance I’ve seen since Heath Ledger’s Joker.

#3: Denis Menochet – Perrier LaPadite, Inglourious Basterds

Denis Menochet in "Inglourious Basterds"

Denis Menochet only appears in one scene of this film, but it was a doozy (see Viola Davis from last year). He plays the French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite, who is suspected by the SS of harboring a Jewish family. What ensues is a masterful interrogation scene between LaPadite and the SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). As with many other scenes in this film, the tension gradually increases as the scene goes on. LaPadite is a physically imposing man, but he has everything to lose, and Menochet lays all of his vulnerability bare as Landa closes in on the truth. Menochet deserves every bit as much credit as Waltz for how well this scene played, and it is certainly one of the most memorable in the film.

#2: Jim Broadbent – Prof. Horace Slughorn, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Jim Broadbent in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"

David Yates brings another strong entry to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise, and Jim Broadbent is the finest example yet of the franchise’s reliably strong casting. Like so many of Rowling’s characters, Horace Slughorn is a well-written blend of familiar tropes – a grand old wizard, a collector of the ambitious and famous, a well-meaning man with a terrible secret – but also greater than the sum of his parts. Broadbent’s performance is absolutely delightful in many scenes, and downright somber in others. When his secret is inevitably revealed (as cinematic secrets must be), we are treated to a heartbreaking soliloquy in which Slughorn reminisces about Harry Potter’s dead mother, who was one of his favorite students. This scene features some of the best acting in the film by both Broadbent and Daniel Radcliffe, and is almost certainly the film’s emotional climax.

#1: Christoph Waltz – SS Col. Hans Landa, Inglourious Basterds

Christoph Waltz in "Inglourious Basterds"

From my original review:

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. [Quentin] 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.

In addition to a fantastic performance of a complex character, Waltz seemlessly flitted back and forth between onscreen languages. We’ve seen plenty of cinematic polyglots before, but what separates Waltz from, say, Jennifer Garner, is that he sounds as much at home in one language as another. Without him, this film could not have been the same… Indeed, it might not have even been made. Tarantino has praised Waltz publicly for making this film possible, and he will quite deservedly be remembered for playing one of the finest villains of all time.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Martin Starr as Joel in Adventureland
  • Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright in Terminator Salvation
  • Michael Fassbender as Lt. Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds
  • Matt Damon as Francois Pienaar in Invictus

Click here to see the rest of the 2009 Glennies.

Tarantino’s World – “Inglourious Basterds”

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