Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Jane Campion's Bright Star

With her new film, Bright Star, Jane Campion offers a sensitively performed, visually artistic portrayal of the last years of John Keats and his love affair with Fanny Brawne that evokes the sweet agony of first love while at the same time paying tribute to the famous Romantic poet’s immortal poetry.

Ben Whishaw (Perfume: The Story of a Murderer) as poet John Keats and Abbie Cornish (Stop-Loss), as Fanny Brawne, a genteel woman accomplished at designing and sewing her own clothes, earnestly portray the joys and heartbreaks of first love. You can see it in their eyes. You can see it in the way they touch each other and walk together.

After a beginning fraught with friction, their relationship becomes a youthful, playful one. They write each other romantic letters and do romantic things with folded bits of paper. In my favorite scene, they stroll hand-in-hand behind Fanny’s little sister. When the little girl is not looking, they kiss; but when she turns around, they freeze in comical positions. Like love-sick teenagers, they kiss the love letters they send and receive; they place their heads against a wall that separates their rooms. As a dreamy poet with no money, Keats is portrayed as a romantic innocent who spends his time on writing poetry and wooing Fanny. Fanny is the more practical one, and at first she resists Keats’s overtures of love, but when she gives her love to him, she gauges her happiness by the letters she receives from him, and she pines when he is gone.

Meanwhile, Paul Schneider (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) gives a compelling supporting performance as Charles Brown, Keats’s friend, a wastrel and wannabe poet who is possessive of his friend’s attention and antagonistic toward Fanny’s intrusion into Keats’s avocation as a writer. Schneider invests himself admirably in his role as a self-centered cad who is cruel toward Fanny, seeing her as a threat to Keats’s success as a writer.

Jane Campion’s camera frames Malickesque images of nature that suggest the natural beauty that pervades Romantic poetry, along with images of simple interiors, contrasting the austerity of a white, sparsely furnished room with depictions of luxuriously verdant English countryside on a sunny day. Campion lets the camera linger on images such as Keats sprawled out on a pruned treetop or Fanny and her siblings in a field of flowers. Some shots, accompanied by a hypnotic pastoral silence, convince us that we are living a moment in the early 1800s, and it is a shame Campion doesn't allow the camera to linger there a little longer. In one shot, Fanny’s little sister stops on a wooden boardwalk to touch the stiff stalks in a dense thicket of rushes – the horizontal lines of the boards contrasting with the vertical lines of the reeds. In another shot, Fanny’s bare legs lie out from under the laced hem of a white shift. A white curtain billows out from a breeze coming through the window.

There is a lot of whiteness in this film. Along with the image of the white fabrics Fanny uses for her creations, a pervading image is paper: the crisp leaves of one of Keats’s freshly printed books; scraps of paper scrawled with drafts of a poem; folded letters sealed with wax; a Valentine sent by Charles Brown in the shape of a box with a lid that opens. There are many, many letters in this story, and it made me want to go out and buy some fine, white paper, turn off my computer, and write on it with pen and black ink.

In a sense, Campion’s film tries to become one of Keats's poems. Bright Star is a cinematic tribute to Keats’s poetry and the mystery of writing as an art form. We see his words on paper. We see copies of his new volumes. Keats recites poetry. Fanny recites poetry; and, for the most part, Cornish has a knack for reciting Keats’s words with more meaning than Whishaw. Unfortunately, the film is so full of Keats’s words that it stuffs you with language but doesn't bring you in touch with it. The most touching use of Keats's poetry is brief. Keats recites a few lines of "When I have fears that I may cease to be," and then he can't finish - for obvious reasons.

Bright Star is a beautiful, well-acted, interesting, instructive film, but I often felt it wasn’t a very compelling film. Like an educational documentary, it depicts the poetry, the man, and the woman he loved, but it doesn’t necessarily make us feel close to them. There is absolutely no denying that Campion’s film is a meticulously rendered period film, but like one of Keats’s longer odes, it is full of beautiful words and images that don’t necessarily grab you and make you feel.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Jane and Katie see Fame

My daughter, Jane, loves movies and goes frequently, so the plan for her twenty-second birthday was to see a movie with Katie, her best friend from Special Olympics, and then have dinner at the Olive Garden. Jane chose Fame, a good choice.

Fame, the updated remake of the 1980 hit, is one big montage that cuts together scenes of young people singing, dancing, acting, and playing instruments during their four years at a performing arts high school in New York City. With very little dialogue or story, here are all the clichés – the bitter rapper-wannabe from the inner city; the hard-driven dancer who’s going to be the best; the classical pianist who goes against her father’s stringent control to become a hip-hop vocalist. We follow the hopes, the dreams, the ups, the downs, the successes, the failures, but it comes out all right for everyone, and the film ends with the students’ extravagant graduation performance that is a thrilling display of music and movement highlighted by some stunning slow-motion shots of perfect bodies flying across the stage.

Fame is a heart-warming, well-intended entertainment. It presents a Disney Channel-like fantasy world that shows teenagers who are beautiful or handsome, bright and talented, and if they are troubled, their troubles are solved by the end of the story. For Jane, a young woman with Down syndrome, this is exactly the kind of movie she wants to see, a perfect world that offers pure happiness, a world in which she can imagine what it might be like to be unencumbered by disability, a world she wants to revisit repeatedly.

There’s definitely a place in the world of cinema for a movie that’s a string of very familiar tropes embellished with great singing and dancing. For someone else, that special movie is a well-written, character-driven drama with intelligence and depth. For me, lately, it’s been Inglourious Basterds, a well-acted, meticulously orchestrated, suspenseful film that is a bold example of fine filmmaking.

Meanwhile, for Jane and Katie it was this free-spirited celebration of sound and motion. As the credits rolled, they impressed me with their knowledge of Disney Channel filmography, linking star Kay Panabaker with Phil of the Future and Anna Maria Perez de Tagle with Hannah Montana, and they turned to each other and said simultaneously, “I’m so seeing that again.” If a simple movie like this can bring such joy to two people, I thought, well, there’s good reason I have this passion for an artistic form of entertainment that holds a special power to delight the soul.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Grungy, Grimy Sci-Fi - Pandorum

German director Christian Alvart’s Pandorum borrows visual elements from Alien, Resident Evil, and The Descent to create the creepy carnivorous mutants and the grungy, greasy setting of the vast interior of the spacecraft Elysium (irony here) that drive this satisfyingly interesting sci-fi thriller about a Noah’s ark mission fleeing a doomed Earth for an Earth-like planet called Tannis, humanity’s last desperate hope.

Dennis Quaid, masking his minimal acting talents by glowering and barking his lines gruffly, and Ben Foster, brave but effectively scared out of his wits, play crew members who wake up from hyper-sleep nonplussed in regards to the location of the ship and the condition of the thousands of other members of the ship’s Earthling cargo. Meanwhile, German actress Antje Traue and kickass martial artist Cung Lee play two crew members who have survived in the bowels of the ship, eluding the predations of ugly, slimy carnivorous warriors who look like the cave things in The Descent but come armed like the Urakai in The Lord of the Rings. Amazing makeup in this film as characters are smeared with just about every kind of disgusting effluvium.

Although the mystery about what pandorum is disappoints in some respects, the film delivers entertaining action, suspense, and surprises, along with interesting and sometimes bizarre characters. Just the word – pandorum – suggests Pandora’s Box; unfortunately, the film does not incorporate the moral dilemma and the dark meanings of that myth. Instead, pandorum seems to suggest pandemonium – and the hellish conditions suffered by humanity aboard the Elysium certainly fit that implication.

The dark, claustrophobic atmosphere, along with the tension generated by greasy passages and hatchways, opening to who-knows-what, is enough to generate some good suspense. Unfortunately, the film has the bad habit of accompanying these scenes with overloud sound effects that turn the impacts of punches and bodies falling to lower decks into rather head-aching explosions. Yeah, he’s been punched! Yeah, he’s fallen. I get it! And here’s another gripe about an element that, in fact, weakens the suspense. Jeez, those carnivorous warrior mutants move way too fast for me! There are some chase scenes, combats, and literal cliffhangers that look suspenseful; but they certainly don’t feel as suspenseful as they could be when things move so fast in some shots that the shots look wasted and in need of being cut out. Slow it down, Herr Alvart, mein Freund; let me see what’s going on! The film’s major strength is visual; the art direction effectively depicts a nether region of black tubes, dripping passageways, and oozing bulkheads. Some of the shots of the swarming mutants border on the artistic. Alas, there’s little time to fully absorb them.

Now take a look at the poster above. What does it depict? It’s a masterful teaser. Look at it quickly and it sure seems to depict some sort of alien creature with a small head and a long, muscular leg ending in a hoof-like foot. That’s not what it is.

A side note here. Move over, Milla Jovovich. Sorry. Antje Traue is my new favorite ass-kicking female survivor! It’s amazing how sexy she is with her hair matted into dried strands, her face and cleavage smeared with grime and blood. Ah, cinema! Call it the grungy, grimy sci-fi look.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Au Revoir, Shosanna

I saw Inglourious Basterds on Sunday night with my wife. It was my fourth viewing, her first. I had no idea what she would think of it. I was happy to be seeing it again, but it was kind of sad walking down the long hallway past all the larger-screened theaters and turning the corner to Cinema 5, the small theater that can’t have more than twelve rows in it, where movies are banished when they are nearing the end of their run and will soon disappear from circulation.

So, it was au revoir to the touchingly elegiac opening rendition of “Green Leaves of Summer” followed by – “Chapter One – Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France” – and the cut to that stunningly simple shot of the farm house, the farmer chopping wood, the girl hanging wash, the cows. Au revoir to that long scene inside the farm house, beautifully acted by Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa and Denis Menochet as Perrier. Au revoir to the meticulously orchestrated mounting tension of this scene and the farmer’s final surrender to emotion (watch the space under his eye quiver). The tragic climax comes inexorably. Shosanna runs. Landa lowers his pistol, Au revoir, Shosanna.

But this great scene is not the only masterful set piece. I almost prefer the scene in the tavern basement where a drunken celebration and an identity game turn into threatening suspicions and an abrupt bloodbath. And the lengthy Cinema Gamaar conflagration sequence, a sequence that includes the riveting confrontation between Landa and Frau Hammersmark, followed by parallel cuts to Landa’s deal to get all four and end the war, is amazingly conceived and edited.

I’ll miss a great cast of memorable characters so wonderfully portrayed by their performers: Shosanna Dreyfus and Bridget von Hammersmark, Major Archie Hicox and Herr Stürmbahnführer Hellstrom, Aldo Raine and Hugo Stiglitz, Private Fredrick Zoller and Corporal Wilhelm Wicki.

Au Revoir to stunning cinematography: the opening shot of the farm; the overhead shot following Shosanna, all in red, rising from her makeup table and going down the hallway; the shot of Shosanna and the Nazi flag reflected in the window; the shot of the pile of nitrate film behind the screen filled with a shot of a pile of empty rifle shells.

And I dig some of those memorable foreign language lines: Au revoir, Shosanna; Attendre le crème; Dann muss ich King Kong sein!.

So long for now to bold filmmaking that knits together sharp writing, superb acting, intelligent editing, and striking cinematography that fills the screen.

Au revoir, that is, to Inglourious Basterd’s time on the big screen. That’s the only place where a film has full life. We can look forward to it on DVD, but a DVD is the ghost of a movie, albeit a friendly ghost, a ghost that keeps you company and haunts you with the thrill of first viewing, but an insubstantial ghost nonetheless.

To me, it’s a big loss when a movie I love leaves the theater and disappears into the digital world. I am so thrilled by the big-screen experience that I try to see favorite movies as often as possible in the theater before they are sent off to DVD. I saw Inglourious Basterds four times at the movies. I saw There Will Be Blood only twice completely, but I slipped into the theater a couple of times to watch major chunks a third time. I saw War of the Worlds four times; The Thin Red Line three times.

The record-breaking run of Titanic took me back to the days when a movie like The Graduate or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid could be found playing in a theater for years. I saw Titanic twice in Cape Cod theaters in December, 1997, and then once a month for four more months, for a total of six times, and it was still playing on the Cape in June. Yes, I know, Titanic has its shortcomings, but I wanted to experience the big-screen depiction of the sinking ship as often as possible before its full visual impact would be lost forever on video.

Of all the movies you’ve seen in theaters in the past twenty years, which ones have you seen the most frequently?

Oh, I forgot to tell you what my wife thought of Inglourious Basterds. “What did you think?” I asked tritely as we left the theater. “I enjoyed every minute of it,” she said.

(And a confession – I can’t wait to get my hands on the DVD!)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Two To Forget - Whiteout and Jennifer’s Body

Well, here are two to forget. Spoilers here – because these films have already been spoiled.

In Whiteout Kate Beckinsale stars as Carrie Stetko, a Federal marshal investigating a murder in an Antarctic research station threatened by an approaching whiteout blizzard and six months of darkness. The story starts out promisingly in 1957 with the crash of a Russian cargo plane carrying a coveted box full of diamonds. But this standard investigation/mystery peters out in the end, and the raw whiteout conditions and threatening darkness are only slimly used to build suspense even though the film takes some time to show us a number of splendidly framed widescreen shots of awesome expanses of ice and snow.

Worst writing: When Dr. John Fury, played by a withered Tom Skerritt, explains that he went after the diamonds because he had grown tired of his mediocre pay and being ignored in the hierarchy of assignment locations, we are witness to an example of the laziest kind of screenwriting in screenwriting history – the old I-can’t-live-on-my-pension bit.

Most enjoyable but most needless scene: When we first meet Kate’s character, she has returned to the research base from doing something on the ice. She goes to her apartment and takes off her coat. We see her bulletproof vest and her badge and we knows she’s a Federal marshal. Okay. Enough shown. Then she takes off her vest and her undershirt. Lingering shot on her shapely body in bra and panties. She strolls around the apartment. She turns the shower on. She takes off her bra and panties. She gets in the shower. Lingering shot of her naked in the steam. Is this showing the contrast between how cold she felt outside and how warm she feels now? I think not. We never saw her outside, and when she comes in, she looks warm and cozy enough – not even a frosty eyebrow. Oh, I know why this scene is in the movie!

Meanwhile, Jennifer’s Body is a shoddily made, laughably poor movie that looks like it's going to be a sardonic examination of how a high school sex bomb traps lusting jocks and eats them (not in the sexual sense) but turns into a skimpy occult shocker, when Jennifer (Megan Fox) is turned into a human flesh-eating ghoul after a sacrificial death ceremony is botched by punk rock band members lusting for fame. What ensues doesn’t even amount to standard chills and gore; what follows is a poorly directed tale of retribution.

Megan Fox as Jennifer is miscast simply because she can’t act. Amanda Seyfried fares better. She plays “Needy,” Jennifer’s supposedly less attractive (dorky glasses can’t hide those beautiful eyes from me) and less socially adroit (she has a steady boyfriend) buddy since childhood who endeavors to stop Jennifer from being such a ghoul. Sadly, the film attains its best drama in its anti-climax depicted during the closing credits by means of some artfully staged still shots showing how Needy exacts payback on the members of the rock band.

Worst editing: Jennifer and Needy are in a bar watching a punk rock band perform. Cut to flames starting up from a power cord. Cut to audience members oblivious to the starting fire. Cut to the growing flames. Cut to audience members, including Jennifer and Needy, totally not seeing the fire starting. Cut to the fire licking up the cords. Cut to the oblivious audience again! In fact, the people in the bar don't see the fire until a flaming banner lands in the middle of a table between two drinkers.

Worst direction and writing (that would be Diablo Cody's department): What follows is a fire that looks like it’s supposed to be serious and a big tragedy: bodies burst into flame and run into the parking lot. But Jennifer and Needy don’t seem to be affected. Jennifer is laughing. I almost expected the fire scene to cut back to the bar – and all this was just in someone’s mind. But it’s a real fire and you don’t know whether to laugh or take it seriously. What’s the point here? How are we supposed to take this fire?

In an example of incomprehensible direction and bad writing, Jennifer prepares to eviscerate and gnaw on her first victim, a hapless beefed-up football player who can’t believe Jennifer has revealed her breasts to him, and they’re in the woods, and they get surrounded by bunnies and raccoons and deer and foxes. It’s so weird that we don’t know whether or not it’s supposed to be funny, especially since it would have been more appropriate for Jennifer the ghoul to be scaring all the animals away.

Throw in J. K. Simmons as a science teacher with a hook in place of an amputated hand who seems to be on the verge of guffaws when he delivers his speech about the horrible loss of the students in the fire, and you have a film so poorly directed you don’t know how to react to it. The campy Ravenous (1999) is much better than this trash.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Quentin Tarantino’s Favorite “Hangout Movie”

Back in 2003 I was sitting in a dentist’s or a doctor’s waiting room and I was attracted to a copy of The New Yorker by its cover illustration showing a film shoot of a woman in a sports car driving in front of a backdrop of the Hollywood sign even though the real Hollywood sign stood on a brown ridge above the brightly painted backdrop. Ah, what clever commentary about the illusion of cinema!

Opening the magazine I was pleased to see that it was an entire issue devoted to the American film industry, and I immediately latched onto an article about Quentin Tarantino called The Movie Lover, by Larissa MacFarquhar.

At that time, I was not much of a Tarantino fan. In fact, it’s taken Inglourious Basterds to do so. But what I liked about the article was that it gave me an appreciation for Tarantino the filmmaker even though I wasn’t crazy about his films. I immediately identified with Tarantino’s cinematic obsession. When I read, Tarantino as a child was preoccupied with movies, and he was always writing, it reminded me of me! Similarly, like Tarantino, I had always been an avid viewer of films of any genre, and just like Tarantino, I loved obscure B-movies not many people had seen.

Shortly after reading the whole article (the magazine went with me when I left the dentist’s or doctor’s office), I saw Kill Bill: Vol. 1, and even though I wasn’t wild about the film, I could still be enthusiastic about Tarantino the filmmaker because the article helped me understand where he was coming from with his use of tropes adapted from other genres and his allusions to countless other films.

Anyway, the point of this post comes from this passage from the article: One of the many genres that Tarantino has made up is “hangout movies” – movies whose plot and camerawork you may admire but whose primary attraction is the characters. A hangout movie is one that you watch over and over again, just to spend time with them. Rio Bravo, one of Tarantino’s three favorite movies of all time (the two others are Taxi Driver and Blow Out) is a hangout movie.

Indeed, Rio Bravo is very much a hangout movie. Howard Hawks allows Wayne, Martin, Nelson, Brennan, and Dickinson extensive scenes in which they sit around and chat, rib each other, and bicker, thus giving the viewer time to get to know them. In my opinion, Rio Bravo spends a little too much time with character chitchat, to the detriment of the film’s tension, so it’s not one of my favorite Westerns, but if I have to hang out with characters, it’s a big plus for me if John Wayne is playing one of those characters. Thus, it’s not surprising when I say that my favorite hangout movie, according to Quentin’s definition, is John Wayne’s The Alamo - alluded to in Inglourious Basterds, coincidentally enough.

The Alamo (1960) is a film that I watch over and over again even though, admittedly, it is a flawed, cumbersome film that takes too long to get to the action. Nevertheless, I enjoy watching John Wayne as Davy Crockett in every scene. This movie was Wayne’s passion, a project that soaked up his life’s savings, and you can clearly see him living his dream as he moves through his scenes, exchanging friendly banter with Richard Widmark as Jim Bowie and striking up an unlikely alliance with Laurence Harvey as the more polished William Barrett Travis. Wayne is especially talented at remaining silent and allowing the other characters to take center stage and say their say. Watch him as he sits there unobtrusively, hardly moving; watch him closely – he’s really listening, reacting to the other characters with his eyes.

Especially in the lengthy San Antonio cantina sequence that encompasses a single night and takes up the majority of the film’s first half, it is also clear that Wayne, as director, emulated Howard Hawks’s talent for allowing his characters time to move around and interact within the world of the film. Wayne also banked on his experiences with John Ford to interject comic relief although Wayne’s comic relief is often more delightful, as it eschews Fordian silliness that goes too far. The lengthy cantina sequence, as well as numerous quiet or comic scenes during the siege, affords perhaps too much time for us to get to know the characters, but it pays off at the end. The impressive final battle is suspenseful because we’ve had lots of time to care about these characters, and we don’t want them to die.

Now that Tarantino and I have shared our favorite hangout movies, it’s your turn. What’s your favorite hangout flick?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Magnificent 9

A magnificent experience visually – not so much emotionally or in regards to plot – 9 is set in a murky, brown and gray world destroyed by an H.G. Wellsian war between man and machines, and the only hope for the future of the planet rests in the scissorhands of 9 doll-beings concocted of bits of metal, burlap, fabric, thread, and zippers. Inspired and led by the idealist 9 (voice by Elijah Wood), a sharp thinker who holds the rather mystical key to salvation, the numbered dolls embark on a mission to defeat a massive machine called the Brain. Dolls 1, 2, and 5 through 8 (3 and 4 are mute twins), voiced by Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, Jennifer Connelly, and Fred Tatasciore, literally form a ragtag bunch of questing heroes who spend most of the film eluding a mechanical beast, saving a fellow numeral from being chomped, or going down fighting for the good of the mission.

Reminiscent visually as well as plotwise of The Terminator, Edward Scissorhands, Dark City, The City of Lost Children, and War of the Worlds, the movie is slim on story. The action is overabundant, often involving the dolls in Magnificent Seven-like acts of rescue and sacrifice, but unlike The Magnificent Seven, the Magnificent Nine never have a chance to sit around and engage in interactions that help us get to know them. Nevertheless, the frequent battle scenes often involve the destruction of a beast by means of a visually clever Rube Goldbergian chain reaction. Meanwhile, throughout all the action, the CGI-animated characters move deliberately, like they have real substance, and never too rapidly to follow.

In the end, we realize we’ve seen much of this story in bits and pieces elsewhere, but it is a film that can be enjoyed for its art direction alone. I especially like the flashbacks to the distinctly Wellsian war between human soldiers and war machines, like the Martian tripods in War of the Worlds, firing cannons and launching elaborate weapons of mass destruction. In fact, elements such as the rise of a fascist regime, the ruins of sculptures and palaces, and the production of the gigantic machines look like illustrations from an H. G. Wells novel. Whatever the inspiration, the post-apocalyptic world of the roving numbered dolls is a dark but richly evoked world of hulking ruins, thudding machinery, and metallic monsters under a brooding sky that scowls once again at humankind's hopelessness.

Monday, September 7, 2009

That Restless Feeling - The Time Traveler's Wife

I’ve always been fascinated by novels and movies about time travel. I love H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, and I’ve read it several times. I hadn’t heard good things about the recently released The Time Traveler’s Wife, the adaptation of the bestselling novel by Audrey Niffenegger, but being a sucker for any story with the time travel element, I went to see it.

The story is simple: Henry (Eric Bana) has a genetic anomaly that causes him to vanish unexpectedly and to appear at different points in his life. Through his travels, he falls in love with Clare (Rachel McAdams) at different points in her life, and they become soul mates despite Henry’s rather irritating condition, which means he could walk from one room to another in their apartment and, poof! He’s gone. Another problem for Henry is that his clothes can’t time travel with him. He always appears at different points in time, sans garments. This means he has to break into a store or a car, steal clothing, and get chased by security guards. Very clearly, the film is about Henry and Clare’s love for each other, a love impervious to the ravages of time … travel. It’s not really about time travel, a big disappointment for a sci-fi fan. What’s the point of a time travel story if it doesn’t take you to a crucial historical event in the past or a strange future world?

I’m guessing this story works better as a novel than a film. As a novel, the focus is more thematic and conceptual, and the writer can better manipulate elements depicted in the film that come off as nothing less than ridiculous. Eric Bana has to spend much of his time naked, embarrassed, looking around desperately for the nearest fig leaf. And his appearances at different points in Clare’s life are enough to make you squirm uncomfortably. When Clare is a little girl, Henry appears in a bush – naked – and she doesn’t seem to have any problem talking to a naked man in a bush. When Clare is eighteen, a much older Henry steals a kiss from her. But they’re married in the future! It’s all kind of confusing.

The Time Traveler’s Wife reminds me of the kind of B movie I used to catch on television on weekdays when I was home sick from school. A bad movie could easily turn into a weird experience that’s kind of interesting as I drifted in and out of a delirious drowse. That’s how I felt about this movie. The deadpan acting, the plotline’s inexplicable logic, the offbeat music (that maudlin rock song played for their wedding dance is amazingly bizarre), the spookiness of it all when their fetal child inherits Henry’s genetic syndrome and starts time traveling from the womb! – all these elements sort of induce delirium even if you don’t have a fever.

Reading this story as a novel, you’re more inclined to follow it thematically. In that way, this is a touching story about the history of a relationship from youth through marriage and parenthood – until it is severed by Henry’s death, caused by the film’s most ridiculous plot point. I can’t tell you. Okay, you probably won’t see this movie, so I will. SPOILER ALERT! Get this – Clare’s gun-toting Republican of a father, opposed to the marriage from the beginning, mistakes Henry for an elk and pots him!

Thus, I found myself enjoying this movie only on a thematic level. Not only is The Time Traveler’s Wife about a relationship, but it’s about a man with a restless nature – and that kind of reminded me of myself. Henry is the kind of guy who has to come and go. He’s not content staying with secure sameness. He is called to time travel. Similarly, I find myself called to uproot and go, from time to time, and I can’t resist the call. My wife and I enjoy our family vacations, but I have to go off by myself as well. For many summers that meant a camping trip in the Sierra Nevada with my younger brother. This summer it was a solo road trip from Montana to South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Once I’m tied to my teaching job, that restless urge takes me to many movies (last year – eighty times), the moviegoing experience being the easiest way I can travel far, far away in more or less than two hours. I always come home to wife and kids – whether it’s a few hours or a week later – and what I get from camping or a road trip is probably close to what I get from going to the movies: a change of scenery, exposure to something new, an experience that promotes fresh perspectives and new inspirations. It’s unfortunate when that cinematic excursion is into a ridiculous film like The Time Traveler’s Wife, but a disappointment like this one never stifles that restless urge to go. After all, I could always go see Inglourious Basterds a third time tonight to replace that bad experience with an exhilarating one. I think I will.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Eloquent Talk at Tables – Inglourious Basterds

Chapter One: Quentin Tarantino and the Zulus

It tickles my fancy that Quentin Tarantino must have seen the critically unacclaimed and largely forgotten historical epic that depicts the Battle of Isandhlwana, Zulu Dawn (1979), a film I personally love for the accuracy of its historical detail and its use of literally thousands of real (non-CGI) Zulus in its massive battle sequence – and simply because it’s about Zulus fighting the British army. At one point, the thin red lines of British infantry face off against dense ranks of chanting Zulu warriors as Elmer Bernstein’s musical score escalates dramatically. This same musical excerpt heightens a magnificent moment in Tarantino’s masterful new film, Inglourious Basterds, as Shosanna’s lovingly filmed reel changeover signals the ignition of an apocalyptic holocaust to be set off by Marcel the projectionist who approaches a pile of highly flammable nitrate film. I loved this genuinely chilling moment that alludes to a specific film while at the same time paying tribute to the whole art of film.

But I have never been an enthusiastic fan of the films of Quentin Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs is clever. I like Tim Roth’s monologues and the breakfast scene. But it’s not a film I revisit passionately. All the convoluted, calculated, self-conscious cleverness of Pulp Fiction leaves me cold. Jackie Brown achieves dramatic moments amidst many forgettable moments. I like specific pieces of the Kill Bill two-volume entity, but neither its style nor its story rivets me. I like Death Proof for its gripping climactic car battle, but the film is slow to start and its barroom dialogues seem pointless and overlong. Inglourious Basterds, however, is a controlled, well-composed mosaic of World War II film genre tropes and a powerfully performed examination of revenge, cruelty, and shame. It is a film whose well-written dialogue and meticulously staged scenes constitute a joyful cinematic experience.

Chapter Two: Saving Private Zoller

Tarantino clearly loves the whole history of World War II war films from the propaganda action films released during the war to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, a movie that has forever changed the look, sound, and explicitness of that genre. Admittedly, from my point of view, this film’s genre is a factor in its favor. (I’ve never been that enthusiastic about what Tarantino’s other films are about.) I grew up on World War II action movies, so I found myself enjoying this smooth blend of elements from that genre. But from the beginning, Tarantino takes on those elements and gives them his own original twists. We see a German squad car cutting through brilliantly green countryside: an image of verdant bucolic tranquility juxtaposed with the graphic violence to follow. Aldo Raine (echoing Aldo Ray of Battle Cry, The Naked and the Dead, and The Green Berets) is the tough army officer, haranguing his recruits – the titular Basterds – and talking about the enemy dying for their country like George C. Scott in Patton. A parody of the tough-as-nails American officer, Pitt’s Aldo Raine is cut a couple of notches tougher: he’s a scalp-taking Apache and a descendant of Jim Bridger; he’s like something out of Davy Crockett Goes to Nazi-occupied France.

But so many of those old World War II movies include the dashing, sophisticated, spit-and-polish British commando officer daring to jump into enemy territory and blow up the bridge or whatever needs blowing up, so Tarantino gives us the wonderfully etched Major Archie Hicox, engagingly played by Michael Fassbinder, and the stereotypically rumpled and lisping C.O., General Ed Fenech, played by Mike Myers. What better allies to include in a World War II war movie than sexy resistance fighters who wear attractive 40s dresses and pert little shoes: the French-Jewish avenging angel Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) and the traitorous German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).

We expect inevitable Nazi villains, and we get the psychotic stereotypes in Sylvester Goth’s portrayal of Goebbels and Martin Wuttke’s version of Liebling Adolf. But Tarantino also includes a stalwart German officer who bravely faces death by baseball bat; an articulate and perceptive German major (August Diehl) who is clever at guessing games and is a discerning judge of accents; and the film’s best villain: Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the Jew Hunter, a detective whose rhetorical and linguistic skills are insidiously employed to force a French farmer to reveal hidden Jews while at the same time taunting those in hiding under the floorboards; to intimidate the Jewish owner of a Parisian cinema; and to talk his way out of his murderous career and into a conditional surrender and Nantucket real estate. And, contrary to most films of this genre, Tarantino includes the modest and remorseful Private Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German Audie Murphy, star of the film Stolz der Nation that depicts his amazing act of sharpshooting prowess: shooting down hundreds of American soldiers from a sniper’s nest. This film-within-the-film is Tarantino’s clever twist on the American World War II shoot-‘em-ups we have all seen, for here the skillful hero is a Kraut. Shot in black-and-white, cutting rapidly from hit to hit, the sniper scene in Stolz der Nation nicely mirrors the sniper action at the end of Saving Private Ryan. Zoller cuts down American soldiers just as easily as Private Daniel Jackson (Barry Pepper) cuts down Germans.

Chapter Three: Eloquent Talk at Tables

Right away I’m into this movie because of its genre, but from the very beginning I’m also taken in by the film’s thoughtful organization into five dramatic chapters and its cleverly written scenes in which characters simply talk at table. The first set-piece dialogue, the best one, starts after the mournful theme “Green Leaves of Summer,” written for John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960) by Francis Webster and Dimitri Tiomkin, takes us through the credits and introduces a French farmer chopping a tree stump, and a variation on Beethoven’s “Für Elise” follows that German squad car over the green countryside to the French farmer’s house. Here, farmer Perrier, sensitively and subtly played by Denis Menochet, sits across a wooden table from Jew Hunter Colonel Hans Landa, whose robust downing of a glass of milk and his calculated shift to English are elements employed to unnerve the farmer and the hidden refugees Landa knows are hiding in the cellar. We see Perrier’s fear in his glassy eyes. The tension is prolonged by the lighting and smoking of pipes, the pouring and drinking of yet another glass of milk. Landa’s huge pipe might be ridiculous, but we know there’s nothing ridiculous about his sinister intentions, so nothing distracts us as the camera remains on the two talkers. When the camera moves slowly down Perrier’s pant leg to the floor where the Jewish refugees are hidden under the floorboards, we know how this dialogue will end. The milk, the pipes, Landa’s argument about one’s inherent distaste for rats, Landa’s switch back to French so that he can raise the refugees’ hopes by letting them believe he is leaving – all of this leads to the climactic, choral-accompanied burst of violence.

The eloquent talk at tables continues in a restaurant in Paris where Landa intimidates a female cinema owner who turns out to be Shosanna Dreyfus, sole survivor of the farmhouse cellar massacre. Here Landa unnerves his victim by taking huge smacking bites of Apfelstrudel, and Tarantino tweaks the tension with close ups of pastry and dollops of whipped cream. Later, General Fenech briefs Archie Hicox on a daring mission as they sip whisky and water (not at a table, but it’s the same sort of thing); in the end, Landa explains an outrageous proposition intended to save his Nazi ass once the war is over – this over glasses of Chianti in keeping with Aldo Raine’s Italian disguise.

But equal in brilliant structure and writing to the farmhouse talk is the scene in which Major Hellstrom interrupts a meeting between Hicox along with two of Raine’s Basterds who are posing as Germans and the German traitor Bridget von Hammersmark, who is just about to divulge crucial information in a beer cellar. This tavern scene has started with a boisterous birthday party going on at another table, but it soon transforms into another tense predicament. At Hicox’s table, Hellstrom becomes suspicious of Hicox’s German accent and prolongs the Brit’s discomfort by insisting they play a round of “Who Am I?” Assigned the identity of King Kong, Hellstrom guesses he’s the giant ape only after teasing the strangers with a flip reference to America’s enslavement of “the Negro.” A very delicate Mexican standoff ensues and the result is a thrillingly swift shootout.

Chapter Four: Tarantino and the Movies

I would assume all filmmakers love movies, so it’s kind of dumb to go on about how Quentin Tarantino loves movies. It’s just that Quentin Tarantino loves movies, and he takes any opportunity to broadcast his appreciation for and knowledge of all sorts of movies from the classic to the very obscure by seeding his films with allusions. But this time around, the world of cinema is extolled by more than just allusions. The world of cinema is central to the plot. With more screen time than Pitt’s Aldo Raine, Laurent’s Shosanna escapes death at the hands of Colonel Landa by fleeing to France where she takes the name Emmanuelle Mimieux (French porn flick Emmanuelle? French-Mexican actress Yvette Mimieux?) and takes over the running of a cinema – so that when we first see her in her new identity, she is carefully removing letters from the marquee and soon to get into a conversation with soldier/film actor Zoller, who rhapsodizes over Charlie Chaplin and The Kid. But the movie theater is not merely an allusive backdrop. The theater is the setting for an Allied plot to snuff out the big cheeses of the Third Reich, along with Hitler himself: death by cinema – a mass execution set in motion by that reel changeover so lovingly filmed by Tarantino. But the film’s most brilliant tribute-to-cinema-that’s-an-integral-plot-device-too is the German propaganda film Stolz der Nation, starring war hero Private Zoller, that will be playing when the fiery deed is carried out. In this propaganda film’s black-and-white textures, its camera angles, its striking images of piled bodies and heaped rifle shells, we see careful filmmaking; meanwhile, the Germans cackle when Americans are shot down or cheer uproariously when Zoller carves a swastika in the boards in order to pass the time – just like American audiences cheer when our bad guys get cut down. When the flames consume the screen in the story, they seem to consume the screen we are watching. Here we see the film’s most stunning images: Shosanna’s angry face above the flames and the cloud of smoke that takes on the appearance of that scornful visage. Now Shosanna’s big cinematic face has become the merciless face of a vengeful Big Sister promising a literal holocaust for an audience of blood-thirsty Nazis, while the two Basterds fire their machine guns from the viewing box into the mass of writhing bodies like the outlaws mowing down Mexicans in the climactic battle in The Wild Bunch.

Chapter Five: Inglourious Basterds

And what of the Basterds? They hang in the film’s background – and I’d wager more German and French are spoken in this film than English. They are the rarely seen catalyst that spurs Hitler to appear at the premiere of Stolz der Nation in order to boost German morale, and when it comes to the big mission, only three Basterds attend the movie and the rest are forgotten.

Pitt’s portrayal of Aldo Raine suffers moments of awkwardness when he is dressed in a white tux, and he exaggerates his dreadful Italian impersonation, but when he’s in uniform or dressed in partisan’s garb, he’s a spot-on depiction of the American World War II movie hero who sounds like Davy Crockett spouting fearless defiance that is the stuff of folklore because Pitt masters the cadences superbly. But other than Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), who gets a violent origin backstory, Sergeant Donny Donnowitz (Eli Roth), the Bear Jew, who gets to bash a German’s head with a baseball bat, and Private First Class Omar Ulmer (Omar Doom), who gets to act Italian, dress in a black tux, and make a hit like something out of The Godfather, the Basterds don’t get to do much. We see more of the fear and anger in reaction to what they have done than we see what they have done. They instill Hitler with apoplectic rage and help change the course of Tarantino’s alternate version of World War II, but they are not what Inglourious Basterds is about.

Inglourious Basterds is about skillfully inventive filmmaking. It is about taking much-used elements of a genre and giving them the Tarantino twist: the German officer about to get his head bashed in triumphs over cruelty by remaining bravely loyal; the Mexican standoff kills the confident Archie Hicox and just about everyone else – unlike that ridiculous standoff in the supposedly realistic Saving Private Ryan when the Germans have just as many guns trained on the Americans but all the Germans get killed and none of the Americans; the movie that seems to be about a group like Lee Marvin’s recruits in The Dirty Dozen and turns out to be about a Jewish refugee, a cinema, and how she uses that cinema as a fiery weapon that puts an end to the War.

Inglourious Basterds is more about the story, less about Tarantino. Tarantino refrains from “acting” in a cameo role, and his adulation of cinema is central to the plot. His set piece dialogues are much more engaging than those in his previous films because Inglourious Basterds is about interesting characters talking at table, but in this case the words belong to the characters. We hear what we would expect from a dashing James Bond-like British commando, a French farmer who shows fear and helplessness in his eyes, a Jewish refugee forcing down pastry with the German officer who slaughtered her family, a modest German hero who shrinks from the cinematic depiction of what he has done, a glib and perceptive German major who is a master at guessing games, and a refined, milk-loving expert on Apfelstrudel who uses language as an insidious weapon.