Doodad Kind of Town

Random, Rambling Thoughts on "Inglourious Basterds"
August 24, 2009, 12:37 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Warning: there are spoilers!

I don’t see many summer blockbusters; I’m just not that kind of moviegoer. One the rare occasion that I do haul my weary behind to the multiplex for a big, wildly anticipated film event, it’s likely to be several weeks after the initial box office brouhaha has simmered down.

So it was a unusual – and surprisingly exhilarating- experience for me to be in a nearly-sold-out audience in the largest auditorium at my local multiplex on the opening weekend of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” A frisson of excitement ran through the crowd from the time my fellow audience members took their seats that didn’t subside until the closing credits began to roll, accompanied by their wild, spontaneous applause. They laughed at the ridiculous moments, they cheered for the deaths of particularly specious Nazi characters, they groaned or hollered “Whoa!” in exclamations of “oh-no-they-didn’t!” disbelief at bursts of graphic violence. Whatever my personal opinions of “Inglourious Basterds” may be, the almost pale in comparison with my rediscovered joy in the power and pleasure of communal movie love.

“Inglourious Basterds” is the first and only Quentin Tarantino film I’ve seen in its entirety since “Pulp Fiction.” Having admitted that, you are welcome to take the rest of this post with a very large grain of salt. But trust me, I have my reasons.

First of all, most of Tarantino’s film references are not mine. I have little experience of or interest in martial arts films,’70s blaxploitation flicks, spaghetti westerns, or action films in general. (Which is not meant to suggest I consider my tastes in film superior to or more sophisticated than Tarantino’s – if anything, I think my film tastes are a bit too narrow.) Secondly, I’m hypersensitive to violence and tend to avoid anything that threatens to be graphic or bloody.

Finally, I liked “Pulp Fiction” well enough, but if felt to me like the work of an immature filmmaker. Tarantino could obviously create quirky characters and dialogue and toss together an entertaining pop culture pastiche, but he seemed like a show-offy, smart ass kid cruising on his hipster cred who hadn’t quite grown into his potential directorial chops. (In other words, I viewed Tarantino the way many critics now view Diablo Cody.) Nothing he’s produced since has sounded to me like the grown-up’s film I was waiting for.

And “Inglourious Basterds” isn’t quite it either. It’s big and gorgeous and ambitious, but it also feels very much like an overgrown adolescent’s totally way cool World War II revenge fantasy/adventure film. The distancing, show-offy crap is still there (“Hey look, I have a soldier character named Hugo Stiglitz! And when I introduce him, I’m going to superimpose this totally retro title right over his face and play some cheesy music!”) From the outbursts of graphic violence to the incongruous use of spaghetti western theme music, from the obscure, tossed-off movie references (the more you know about Third Reich cinema, the better off you’ll be) to the long, long stretches of exquisitely turned – but sometimes wearying – dialogue, Tarantino never lets you forget that the film is his personal, souped-up, pimped-out vehicle, baby, and he’s taking you on the ride of your life.

That’s the weird thing about “Inglorious Basterds”: at various points, it disgusted me, sickened me or just plain pissed me off. And yet, it was the best time I’ve had in a movie theatre all year and then some. Even now, two days after seeing it, I’m still jazzed by its audacity and nerve, while at the same time harboring more than a few reservations about just how good it really is.

Here’s the question I haven’t yet been able to answer for myself: how reverential does a film about World War II and the Holocaust have to be? Or, more to the point, how truthful? Because “Inglourious Basterds” isn’t even remotely rooted in reality. It’s not so much to do with the cartoon-villain nature of the Nazis (Mel Brooks, Charlie Chaplin, and the aforementioned “Hogan’s Heroes” have all gone there before). It’s Tarantino’s completely ‘new and improved’ ending to the War that bugs me most, but then that’s of a piece with the “Fuck history, I’m making a movie here!” mentality that permeates the entire film. Where does that kind of attitude lead? Well, Hitler is machine-gunned to death by a Jewish-American soldier, while the entire Nazi high command – including Goebbels, Goering and Borman – perish inside a burning movie theatre. Cause of the fire? A match thrown into a pile of nitrate film prints. Only in Tarantino’s cartoony cinephile fantasy world can movies actually save the world. The New York times reviewer bemoaned the scene’s parallels to the concentration camp crematoriums; I highly doubt that association ever crossed Tarantino’s movie-crazed mind.

Then, of course, there are those titular (and winkingly misspelled) Inglourious Basterds. They’re a squadron of Jewish-American soldiers under the command of a Tennessean named Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, his character name yet another of Taratntino’s “in” references to character actor Aldo Ray.) Ordered to bring back “one hunnert Gnatzi scalps” each, they carry out their mission in horrifically violent scenes that I was frankly unable to watch. It’s not just the scalpings. One Nazi gets his skull bashed in with a Louisville slugger by the infamous “Bear Jew,” a Jewish American soldier stolidly played by torture porn director Eli Roth. Two have Swastikas mercilessly carved into their foreheads. To be honest, I believe all these assaults are depicted graphically in the film, but I couldn’t really tell you for sure. I endured those scenes by burying my face in my hands and waiting in agony for the baseball-bat-whacking or knife-cutting-through-skin sounds to stop before peeking out tentatively between my latticed fingers.

Pitt did little to impress me here, though God knows he’s gotten enough publicity. Putting on a funny Tennessee accent doesn’t constitute creating a character to me, and that’s about as much as Pitt commits to. The actor who should be getting all the attention is Christophe Waltz, an Austrian whose portrayal of “Jew hunter” Colonel Hans Landa is the smoothest, smartest, and most ingeniously unnerving thing in the entire film.

I’d normally come up with a conclusion here that ties up all my thoughts about “Inglourious Basterds” but I can’t. I’m still not entirely sure what they are. Most likely, I’ll need to see it again, and I’m dying to know what I’ll think of out the second time around.

Counting Down the Naughties: 2004 – "Sideways"
August 17, 2009, 3:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

(I’m back baby!!! After a few weeks of much-needed hiatus, I’ve returned with this submission to Ric Burke’s “Counting Down the Naughties” series at Film for the Soul . The year is 2004; the film is “Sideways.”)

There are some films you love the first time you see them; you come back to revisit them a few years later and are delighted to find fresh nuances, deeper insights, moments that touch your heart or your funny bone more deeply than you’d been able to appreciate in the first viewing.

There are some films you love the first time you see them; you revisit them a few years later and are dismayed to find that they don’t live up to your happy memories. The moments you cherished on the first viewing seem curiously flat and disappointing the second time through.

And then there are movies like “Sideways.”

I loved this film to pieces when I first saw it in 2004. After re-watching it for the first time in five years, I still enjoyed it tremendously, but can’t say I found anything new or surprising within. It remains a solidly entertaining, well-acted, character-driven comedy that strikes all the right notes from pathos to raunchy humor. But it’s not a classic for the ages.

All of which is not intended as damnation by faint praise. There’s something immensely joyful and comforting in revisiting characters you’ve enjoyed spending time with before and finding them just as maddening and interesting and lovable when you re-encounter them again years later. “Sideways” achieved that for me, and that’s not an achievement to be dismissed lightly.

For the uninitiated, “Sideways” is the tale of two longtime friends. Miles and Jack, making a last “bachelor’s” trip together to California’s wine country before Jack’s wedding. In standard fashion, that trip will ultimately test their friendship and push them both to become a little better men by the time the closing credits roll. It’s also a whole lot of fun to be along for that ride, not least because what constitutes a successful trip varies so wildly according to the two men’s points of view.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a perpetually morose and miserable would-be writer and oenophile, still pining for his ex-wife. His agenda for the trip is to “drink some good wines, play some golf and relax” while teaching his buddy the finer points of wine appreciation. Jack (Thomas Hayden Church) on the other hand, is an affable, nearly washed-up actor and unrepentant ladies man who can’t tell a pinot from a zinfandel and wants little more from the trip to get both Miles and himself laid.

There’s an undeniably by-the-numbers yin and yang to these characters. (Miles is the pessimist, Jack is the optimist. Miles is the intellectual whose idea of good time is doing the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink, Jack is incapable of thought deeper than “Let’s party!” Miles is the moralistic buzzkill, Jack is just wants everybody to have good time and deal with the consequences later.) It’s to the credit of both Giamatti and Hayden Church (as well as writer/director Alexander Payne) then that these characters and their story arc never get stale or entirely predictable; their friendship feels real and lived-in. I like that we aren’t given much back story on how these two became and remained friends, other than that they were freshman-year roommates at San Diego State. The actors, under Payne’s skillful direction, fill in those blanks for us through the nuances of their performances.

Giamatti, with his sloping shoulders and basset hound eyes, is a perfect embodiment of the sad and beaten down Miles. He finds the subtle layers in Miles’ arrogance, desperation and emotional pain and plays them so nakedly and honestly that his misery is sometimes painful to witness. (As in the scenes where Miles wrestles with his own self-loathing before getting up the nerve to kiss the woman of his dreams or drunk-dials his ex-wife. Or especially in the late scene where Miles, having learned that his ex-wife is not only happily remarried but pregnant, grabs his prized bottle of 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc and sneaks it into a fast-food restaurant, swigging it between bites of a burger and onion rings; it’s heartbreaking and squirm-inducing at the same time, and Giamatti doesn’t back off from awfulness of it at all.)

For his part, Hayden Church brings to Jack both a breezy spontaneity and a lovable dufus quality that keeps you laughing out loud. Jack is loathsome and lovable in equal measures; he can charms the pants off you, but he’s not to be trusted. And at the same time, we can’t help but like him because -whatever deceptions he tries to pull over on the women in his life – he never gives up on Miles. It’s the only evidence of depth and a capacity for commitment that the character evinces; thankfully, Hayden Church plays this unflagging loyalty lightly and unself-consciously.

The flaws in Jack, however, point to what could be considered the flaw in “Sideways”: the female characters are a tad one-dimensional, and to my mind, not nearly as well-served by the film’s script as as the travelling buddies. Virginia’s Madsen’s Maya, the waitress/graduate student with whom Miles briefly and tentatively finds affection, has a nice warmth and wariness. Yet for all the sweet soulfulness Madsen brings to it, Maya still feels like an undercooked Dream Girl role. It’s never really clear why someone as beautiful and seemingly well-balanced as Maya would be drawn to such an unquestionably complicated and unhappy man such as Miles, although there’s never a question as to what Miles sees in Maya.

The two characters connect most memorably in the scene where they share what they most love about good wine. Miles has an affinity for pinots, as he explains to Maya, because the grapes are so sensitive, requiring special, tender care and cultivation in order to produce good flavor (not unlike Miles himself). Maya talks glowingly about how when she drinks wine, she imagines all the people who have been involved in making it, and concludes by declaring “And it tastes so fucking good.” Madsen, the blond curls framing her face subtly backlit as if a halo, is radiant as she delivers this monologue in a hushed and honeyed tone of voice, and we can see why Miles falls in love with her at that moment. And there’s enough intelligence in Madsen’s performance that we get a hint of why Miles erudition and articulateness might interest her. But even in this scene, the purported mutual attraction feels unbalanced.

Sandra Oh, the sassy wine pourer for whom Jack very nearly derails his engagement has a nice, peppery screen presence – but her character is even less dimensional than Madsen’s. She’s little more than a standard-issue Sexy Spitfire, an excellent foil for Jack but not around enough for us to see beyond that. I’d have loved for her to have more to do than just beat Hayden Church’s face to a pulp with her motorcycle helmet after she learns he’s getting married, bracing as that beatdown is to watch.

Beyond my affection for these characters, “Sideways” is a treat from me – someone who knows little about wine – just to be drawn into the esoteric, slightly exotic world of wine appreciation. There’s an early scene in while Miles teaches Jack how to taste wine: how to swirl it in the glass to “open it up,” how to sniff the bouquet. Miles finds all sorts of notes in his glass of pinot: “citrus, strawberries, oak, a soupcon of a nutty Edam cheese,” where Jack just looks confused and keeps sniffing earnestly until he can at least detect “Strawberries, yeah.” This scene and others like it tickle me silly. Many have tried to educate me about wine, but I have no nose whatsoever. I’m just as likely to be satisfied with a bottle of Three Buck Chuck as a fine pinot, but I’m always fascinated by the people who can make the distinction. Thankfully, you don’t need an appreciation of wine to have an appreciation of “Sideways;” its tart humor and bruised heart are accessible to all.

There Used to be a Blog Here….
August 1, 2009, 1:43 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

… and there will be again, someday, soon.

The day job has gone from just plain stressful to completely overwhelming. I’m working lots of extra hours right now and have a little trouble unscrambling my brains to write in the evenings.

I expect this to let up in a few weeks, and when it does, I’ll be back to regular reviewing. In the meantime, I will be be contributing a couple of posts to Ric Burke’s continuing “Counting Down the Naughties” series for 2004.

Meantime, I’ll be popping up on my friends’ comments threads as time permits.