Friday, August 28, 2009

REVIEW: Inglourious Basterds

There are some films that I struggle with, that I so ache over trying to form some sort of reaction. Throughout the day we saw it, my girlfriend kept bugging me to tell her what I thought of Inglourious Basterds, and I just had no god damn idea. I mean, I know it’s a masterpiece, but why? I mean, aside from Tarantino’s nigh-immaculate construction of the film – not quite on the level of Kill Bill in aesthetic terms, but there are shots and sequences that are the best thing Tarantino’s ever done - I struggled with what was really at the heart of this film. I still do. I believe this is one of the key components in great art.

And make no mistake…this is the best thing Tarantino’s ever done. Hands down. While it may not feel as immediately fresh or revolutionary as Pulp Fiction (a film which doesn’t seem nearly as fresh once you’ve seen some Jean-Luc Godard, nor as revolutionary when you consider how many shitty films that revolution spawned, or that it ushered in this awful era of irony we’ve been living under for fifteen years now), there is far more going on in Inglourious Basterds in its very essence than anything Tarantino has crafted, or in any film I’ve seen so far this year. I put up a Facebook note fairly quickly after seeing the film noting this as the most important, artistically satisfying American film of the year, but at this point I’m ready, willing, and able to take away the “American” qualification, for this film is an absolute masterpiece, the most fully-formed, artistically satisfying film since Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Not the best film of the year quite, but a tremendous accomplishment on every conceivable level.

One could look at the absolutely delightful array of characters Tarantino and his actors created, which run the gamut from the rather annoying (thankfully confined to Eli Roth’s compensation of a performance) to the one-dimensionally hilarious (Brad Pitt doing work with as little depth and as much entertainment value as Burn After Reading) to the downright classic. Malanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, and Christoph Waltz star in roles so unique and so absolutely imbued with life they seem to have been destined for these people.

While a great many people rightfully champion Waltz’s gentlemen detective, one of the most fascinating characters in cinematic history, it’s Laurent who had me absolutely enthralled. Waltz has the most to do, and does the most with it, but when one considers that nearly everything Laurent says is a lie, while consistently conveying the truth within those lies, and the full character crafted on this canvas…her work is nothing short of a defining screen performance, far and away the best female performance of the year.

One could look at the aesthetics, though there is where I have the greatest quibbles. Tarantino’s eye remains as fine as ever in terms of set-ups, but there are far too many unnecessary cuts, some that appear to be cutting around a problematic shot rather than committing to getting it right.

But I am absolutely fascinated, riveted, and stunned with this film in terms of structure and subversion of genre. Here is a two-hour, forty-minute film with sixteen proper scenes. SIXTEEN. A few years ago I was told that a typical studio script reader would throw out a screenplay if the location doesn’t change every page and a half. The first scene of the film takes place in one location for twenty minutes, and those twenty minutes are better, and more exciting, in and of themselves, than any twenty-minute section of any other film this year. And you know what, there’s another twenty-minute scene in one location later in the film that’s just as good as the first.

This is because in spite of repeatedly having scenes that go on for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, Tarantino has crafted a film in which every second counts. Characters may be hanging out and shooting the shit as he’s had them do for nearly two decades now, but this time there’s something at stake in every moment – even before the audience knows why tension exists, tension is a quite tangible presence. Every word has been crafted not just to a poetic end, but to the benefit of the story and its narrative might. Inglourious Basterds matters in its every breath in a way that contemporary cinema almost never does in its whole.

It’s strange to think that in spite of creating a fictional landscape around a historic event (another critic, I can’t remember who, noted that World War II here is about as real as the Cold War was in Red Dawn), Inglourious Basterds is one of the most important films about the nature of the Second World War. Past films have looked at it with admiration for the soldiers and intention of retaliation (Savign Private Ryan, Peal Harbor, and Flags of Our Fathers, to different ends), as existential human struggle (The Thin Red Line), and righteousness in the face of tremendous evil (Schindler's List).

Inglourious Basterds, without once showing a battlefield or creating more than a few ounces of emotional attachment to its characters, cuts to the core of World War II – the revenge fantasy from the American side, a quest for world domination from the Germans, a royal pain in the ass to the French during Nazi occupation, an absolute insane horror to the Jews, and all around, as Mick LaSalle noted, maybe the worst thing that has ever happened. Oh, and Tarantino manages to speak to the role films played as propaganda, whilst creating some of his own. Consider the Germans’ reaction to the climactic screening of a pro-Nazi war film alongside the audience’s reaction to the titular Basterds absolutely decimating every Nazi they come into contact with. Moreover, consider that the film’s success at the box office was due to an ad campaign that promised hours of American soldiers slaughtering German soldiers. In a way he never did before, Tarantino makes the violence matter, and a discerning audience member will recognize that. The rest will wonder why the hell we’re spending so much time with this French chick.

For those who dismiss the film on moral or factual grounds, I insist they have little concept of what Tarantinos aims are with that uncertain morality, and that they still have not figured out that narrative films are a fictional art form. The extent to which history plays into them is only our knowledge of it, and our capacity to see the subversion within. Tarantino has proved himself as an artist at least once, and this, as a main character states in the film, is his masterpiece.

Monday, August 24, 2009


If you're releasing a small movie with almost no budget for an ad campaign, and are planning a slow release that starts in New York and LA and then expands from there, have a section on your website that outlines what dates it will be in what cities. I'm dying to know when Portland will get An Education, and if we'll get such films as Wild Grass and The White Ribbon, but Sony Pictures Classics is consistently bad at this. Everything is always "coming soon to a theater near you," but in reality that's not always the case.

I mean, we're talking about films that are hard enough to get people to see as it is. Why make it harder?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

What the What?

Over at USA Today, national enemy of thinking people, Scott Bowles, Film Editor and guy who believes that films suffer when their main character is unlikable, posted an article surveying the summer's least original movies (and, for no reason, Public Enemies...apparently someone's life is now a property) and how they fared with audiences and critics. Here's the section on Transformers 2:

Was it worth it?  Not for fans of art-house movies. But do they even watch summer flicks? "This is exactly the movie fans wanted to see, if not critics," says Paul Dergarabedian of "The Michael Bay formula works, especially for this kind of movie. You had the title and the toys for adults, and the action for the kids."

(click here to read the rest)

There you have it. Perhaps the leading figure in box office analysis (which requires about as much talent as being the leading figure in telling time) has announced outright that adults only saw the movie for the title and because they remember the toys. And his phrasing suggests that this is a good thing.

You know...I'm not that old, but I remember, as a kid, dying to see the movies my parents were seeing. Now adults want to see whatever their kids are watching, and not as a way of being involved in their kids' lives. This is where they find their entertainment.

Bill Maher is absolutely right.

For the Record...

The Avatar trailer is righteous. I really can't believe that of everything that's come out this year, and has yet to come out, a totally original, epic science fiction film from one of the masters of that form is the one people are choosing the hate on. Meanwhile, people couldn't stop posting to Facebook about how awesome Transformers 2 is. The times we live in, man...

Getting Back on Track

Martin Scorsese's new film Shutter Island has been pushed back from October 2nd, the heart of Oscar season and frequently my favorite month at the movies, to February 19th of next year, a dumping ground for low-rent horror flicks, Norbit-style comedies, and the occasional fun action flick.


Look, like all guys who got into film in their mid-to-late teens, I love Martin Scorsese. But after The Departed (a fun, pulpy crime flick), the promises of Shutter Island (a fun, pulpy, horror-shock flick), and the announced Frank Sinatra biopic (aside from watching Scorsese's direction, that film couldn't interest me less), I've found the Martin Scorsese of late to be exactly as interesting as the Steven Spielberg of late (Indiana Jones 4, Tintin, the announced Harvey remake). Granted, Spielberg made on of the best films of his career in 2005 with Munich, and Scorsese made one of the best films of his career in 2004 with The Aviator, but unlike Spielberg's, Scorsese's last great film didn't feel nearly as vital as the best of his work.

Vitality is, by its very definition (full of life, full of spirit), often the province of younger filmmakers, and while my knee-jerk reaction is to point to Francis Ford Coppola's last two films, which, as uneven as they may be, are clearly the work of a man who needs to make these films. There's something deep within Coppola screaming to get out. Now, granted, not everyone has this in them, especially after forty years and twenty-one narrative films. Fewer still are given the financing to unleash this. But I find it difficult to believe that Scorsese, one of the most thoughtful, creative, and inspired filmmakers in American history, really has this little left to express.

Especially since his real next film is, by all accounts, Silence, an adaptation of a novel by Shusaku Endo, about the persecution two Jesuit priests face trying to bring the gospel to 17th-century Japan. Also, he's been working on this for over a decade.

This could be the project that reinvigorates Scorsese, or at least our view of him, as Shutter Island's Oscar prospects go from "distant" to "almost impossible" and the film can play as it was meant to (and as The Departed should have) - a one-off, a clever genre film from a man capable of much more.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


So I'm working on expanding a piece I wrote about Howard Hawks' Red River, and it'd been awhile since I worked on the piece or saw the film, so I popped on over to Netflix to stream it. Naturally, the system worked fine, but for some reason it was...wait for it...colorized. Why? To what end? I've actually rented the film FROM Netflix, and since they get things basically right, it was in black and white, but for some reason, that didn't carry over to the online version.

More and more, though, I question the extent to which my Netflix subscription is worth it. It's impossible to tell what version of a film they'll send you, since the cover art presented doesn't always correspond to the disc you receive, and even if it does, that might not be the best transfer to home video the film has received. Being the cinephile that I am, how I see a movie is massively important to me. I don't just want to get a general idea - I want it to be the closest possible to seeing it on a quality print in a movie theater.

And so, obviously, Red River is WAY off base. Looking forward to getting back to Portland, home of Movie Madness, the finest video store in this great land.

Friday, August 14, 2009

REVIEW: District 9

I have some good news and some bad news – District 9 is at once a whole lot smarter and a whole lot dumber than just about everyone would have you believe.

Let’s start with the smart, since co-writer/director/creator Neill Blomkamp does. Yes, the film heavily invokes the apartheid that formally separated blacks from whites in South Africa for almost fifty years. But that’s not a particularly “smart” idea. It’s a clever idea, but it doesn’t take a lot of thought to come up with that (especially since it’s been done before). It is, however, an interesting way of expressing a lot of the thoughts and feelings Blomkamp must have from growing up under Apartheid, and (this is where the smart comes in) he goes all the way with his idea. Mild spoilers do follow, but I can’t think of a science fiction world this fully realized since Alfonso Cuaron’s shoulda-been-revolutionary Children of Men.

It’s easy to come up with the idea for aliens landing on Earth and humans shoving them into a ghetto. It’s another thing to make the first twenty-thirty minutes basically a documentary about that area. It’s on a whole other planet to come up with interspecies prostitution as a major problem within District 9, the slum the aliens are relegated to. It’s that level of detail that brings this world alive, makes it tick. And the first half an hour is brilliant. We’re introduced to Wikus van der Merwe (newcomer Sharlto Copley, in a tremendous performance), who, without explaining too much, is basically a government employee tasked with evicting the aliens from District 9 to a new, more restrictive camp.

Wikus, at least at the start, is the kind of character we could use more of in mainstream entertainment. Unlikable on nearly every level except for the fact that he’d probably be nice to you if he were your neighbor, Wikus is the sort of friendly bigot who believes he treats the aliens with basic respect, all the while exhilarated when he gets the chance to order the abortion of hundreds of alien fetuses. With a flamethrower. He’s the guy from the IRS who smiles when he comes to audit you. He might say he’s just doing his job, but you know otherwise.

And, you know, if it weren’t for the fact that, through the mix of documentary aesthetics and cinema vérité, the film so fervently announces itself as some new, exciting, different, fresh, and relevant, I probably wouldn’t have been nearly as disappointed with the turn in takes around the beginning of act two.

As I felt the film slowly shift from its docudrama to the same outline as Michael Bay’s The Island, I felt a profound disappointment. Suddenly, Wikus, a desk-jockey bureaucrat, becomes an action hero. Suddenly, the chase is on. Suddenly, there’s a villain, for god’s sake, and not a terribly good one – just a soldier leading an elite death squad (and not a terribly good death squad). You know, just like in The Island. And while execution always trumps conception, for a film that touted itself as not just different and fresh, but actively intelligent, the shift from political thriller to routine action movie is a really, really dumb move.

Now, don’t get me wrong…Neill Blomkamp isn’t just a clever man, but a damn good director. In a year that has given us everything from the purposefully abstract (Public Enemies) and the accidentally incoherent (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) in our action movies, a first-time director using a handheld aesthetic crafted a totally readable film full of genuinely thrilling action set pieces. That they’re trapped in a misfire of a screenplay is unfortunate, but I have high hopes for Blomkamp’s future. Just as long as he doesn’t buy into the hype that now surrounds him.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Infants and Their Formula

As is my habit on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, I rushed over to the movies section to see what their feature articles would be this week (a habit born from the days when my parents’ subscription to the Sunday New York Times coincided nicely with my burgeoning interest in film), and was thrilled to find the kind of well-written elitism I just absorb upon contact in the A.O. Scott feature, “Open Wide: Spoon-Fed at the Cineplex.” A selection:

“From Wolverine and Mr. Spock in May through the Decepticons and wizards of July it has been a triumph of the tried and true, occasionally revitalized or decked out with novelty, but mostly just what we expected. No surprises.

What kind of person constantly demands something new and yet always wants the same thing? A child of course. From toddlerhood we are fluent in the pop-cultural consumerist idiom: Again! More! Another one!...Children are ceaselessly demanding, it’s true; but they are also easily satisfied, and this combination of appetite and docility makes the child an ideal moviegoer. But since there are a finite number of literal children out there, with limited disposable income and short attention spans, Hollywood has to make or find new ones. And so the studios have, with increasing vigor and intensity, carried out a program of mass infantilization.”

It’s a great observation that people who choose to seriously consider their entertainment (or increasingly, culture itself) have been aware of for some time. It’s the next logical step from “the dumbing-down of America” (to paraphrase Roget Ebert, an unavoidable cliché), that many Americans, and, increasingly, the worldwide market as well (it’s important to export the dumb), have been and are continuing to be mentally reduced.

But this is an incomplete assessment. We’ve all known dumb people throughout our lives, but think for a second and consider the dumb. Sure, they may never advance terribly far in life, but being dumb does not automatically remove the excitement of gained knowledge. It just might take a few tries to get that knowledge working.

No, the infant idea is more compelling – young children may possess a certain curiosity for the world, but they’ll always be happiest when they feel comfortable and safe. So it is with the modern moviegoer. They may thrill at some deviation from formula (The Dark Knight) or artistic flourish (Wall-E), but those must be couched in the familiar, and instead of taking that thrill of the uncertain to its next logical step (i.e. seeking out films with more than a flourish of artistry), they immediately retreat into the familiar and the expected (Star Trek, Wolverine, Transformers 2, The Hangover, Monsters vs. Aliens).

My only gripe with Scott’s piece is that he doesn’t go all the way with his idea – maybe he’s unaware of this, but does he know that fully-grown adults aren’t only passively being reduced in mental capacity and curiosity, but actually actively yearning to reenter childhood?

In a comment on Roger Ebert’s Journal, a haven of required reading, “Khalid S.” said the following (in fairness to him, I included his disclaimer):

“Just to let you know I'm 30 years old, and very successful in my field of finance, to counter being labeled 'dumb'. But if I get a chance to relive my childhood by watching a live action movie about my childhood toys, comics, and cartoons, please don't call me 'dumb' and allow me this indulgence as a way of tuning out the problems of the real world for a while. Also, it would be interesting to see an audience profiling based on age and their opinion about Transformers 2.

It should be noted that he lists among his favorite movies Braveheart, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Dark Knight, the Spider-Man trilogy, and Iron Man. Not that there’s anything wrong with those films. Quite the contrary. But when you’re watching entertainment as finely wrought as Iron Man or Spider-Man 2, why settle for Transformers 2? Do they not offer the necessary escape from “the real world”? I understand that not everyone can find escape in Bergman, but if you’re only willing to watch what’s being marketed to you, can’t you still have SOME sort of filter? Just because the TV told you to watch it doesn’t mean you should.

All of this relates back, of course. I’m a young man of 23, but I’m sure (and, in fact, pop culture—A Christmas Story, for example—has taught me that this is true) that even someone of Ebert’s many years (or, say, someone of 30) can remember back to being a child and demanding something from their parents because the television, radio, or magazines told us we MUST have them. It’s just that many (increasingly fewer, I suppose) of us grow out of this and begin to want things because we feel they will enrich our lives.

And what’s even more troubling is that so many people seem to love this so much. It’s one thing for a film to make you feel like a kid again. Speed Racer and The Incredibles do this for me – one’s based on a cartoon I could never stand; the other is *gasp* a wholly original idea. It’s another to go see a film, and further, to actually enjoy it, apparently solely because it shares the brand name of something you played with when you were eight. I hear this CONSTANTLY, too, as justification for, as an adult, rewatching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers cartoon series (two things I devoured rapturously in my youth, for what it's worth), or listening to some shitty band, or yes, for seeing the live-action/animated (how quickly the lines blurred between the two) remake of any of the above, because “well, it was kind of a big deal when I was a kid, so, you know.”

Imagine if they did a sequel to A Christmas Story (crap, now the idea’s out there) and picked up with Peter Billingsley taking a few hours out of his day to fire his Red Ryder BB gun at a target in the backyard. You know, just to relive his childhood. To “tune out the problems of the real world.” That wouldn’t be considered sweet, a desirable activity, or even understandable. It would be considered pathetic.

Scott can be reached at, but really, posting in the comments is the way to go. Make your voice heard.