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Inglourious Basterds (2009)
A Tainted Triumph
Look, by now nobody needs one more plot synopsis of INGLOURIOUS - you all know the drill. Ditto on Christoph Waltz, who's very good (though I have a sneaking suspicion the level of hosannas he's receiving from critics are due to their never having heard of the guy before). For Tarantino and the Weinsteins, this represents a desperately-needed critical/b.o. rebound from the debacle that was DEATH PROOF, which is why it got a late-August release after all the other big summer movies have already come & gone. Add in the now-obligatory Tarantino-fanboy choir drowning out the relatively few naysayers and the result is QT's biggest-ever hit. But will you respect INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS in the morning?
Pros? Well, let's start with "hurray for Steadicam!" Finally, a movie that doesn't require taking two Dramamine in the lobby beforehand - hallelujah. Next, I'm happy to report that Waltz isn't the only heretofore-unknown (to Yanks, at least) European find the movie offers: Daniel Bruhl, Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender and Denis Menochet all turn in first-rate work. Fassbender's entire performance is a film-geek inside joke (he's Trevor Howard in THE THIRD MAN brought out of retirement, kinda), but it's a satisfying inside joke; Laurent and Bruhl provide the film with both heart and moral complexity; and Menochet - who resembles a younger, handsomer Jean Reno - is the unheralded component in that celebrated first scene, whose superb straight-man work sets up/off Waltz beautifully. The Bowie song works exactly as Tarantino intended it to (though he needs to lay off the Morricone swipes for a while - once is an homage; twice, a ripoff). The pacing, which has drawn criticism, is leisurely throughout, but that's okay: Tarantino is a storyteller who's as much about the asides as the plot - probably more so. He takes his time, sure, but we want him to linger in this world. (If your beef with IB is the glacial rhythm of the setpieces, wait a few weeks/months and watch it again - you'll probably discover you've changed your mind about the 'pacing' issue.) As for his long suit - the dialogue - he's mostly on form. And at least for once we get to listen to 40s hipsters, instead of the more tiresome contemporary kind (and I do mean tiresome: David Carradine's KILL BILL 2 monologue pretty much took the air out of that movie's tires, while DEATH PROOF clattered along, riding on its rims, interminably.)
Now for the cons. The marketing campaign for the film is just that, a con, and a huge one, right down to the "kosher porn" and "as a Jew, I thank you" quotes attached to the production; primarily designed to separate suckers from their scratch. (Somehow, I doubt Lawrence Bender and Harvey Weinstein would be very enthusiastic at the number of likable and even heroic Nazis in the movie had IB tanked that all-important First Weekend of Release.) This might be the first commando picture with hardly any commandoes in it! Secondly, there are so many logical and historical gaffes in the film they turn, inevitably, into potholes - you're willing to endure the first few w/o complaint, growing more and more ticked off as they just keep coming. (And please, no cries of "duh! - it's a MOVIE, Einstein!" We're not talking about a few holes here, but a block of Swiss cheese.) Third, the casting of Hitler and Goebbels is disastrous - a little levity is one thing, but this is CARRY ON FUEHRER!
And last (though hardly least) is the most troubling of all: at some deeper level, Tarantino movies are always about the cruelly kinetic joy of sadism and murder....and IB proudly continues this odious 'tradition'. The 'feminist' - and now, 'anti-fascist' - subtext of his films are just cynical window dressing, there to provide convenient but utterly bogus moral cover for the atrocities that make QT's wee-wee twitch to attention. Which isn't to say they're not effective: the image of Laurent's face superimposed on smoke in the film's gotterdammerung finale is real nightmare material, with a phantasmagoric eerieness that's hard to shake. But the crux of this sequence is watching screaming people trapped by design in a fiery inferno, and it's presented as popcorn-munching entertainment for the masses (we're meant to applaud in delight); given the hideous parallels to everything from the Triangle Factory to the Station nightclub (and to the poor souls who tossed themselves from the top of the WTC on 9/11 rather than burn to cinders), it's an evil scene. Depicting such a horror is one thing - CELEBRATING it as catharsis is something else entirely...... entirely too much, in my view. (The legion of Tarantino fanboys will no doubt insist that it's meant not to feed an audience's bloodlust, but instead to provoke thought and discussion. Well in that case, I'll be waiting for the Museum of Modern Art to book a HOSTEL II/MAN BEHIND THE SUN double-feature any day now.)
So there you have it. A well-made, fairly riveting Tootsie Pop, with a cancerous center lying in wait under the candy coating. I liked it for what it did well, though obviously with some deep misgivings; your own mileage may vary.
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
No, not the movie...the comments! My favorite was the guy who chided naysayers by pointing out that MULHOLLAND requires a modicum of intelligence to figure out - then added it took him 12 viewings to make sense of this! (ONLY twelve?)
Lynch made THE ELEPHANT MAN & the spare, lovely STRAIGHT STORY, so it's not as if he's a fraud, without any talent. But these Rorschach puzzle nonsense-films he's known for are the equivalent of monkeys throwing fruit at a canvas, complete with the subsequent onrush of posturing phonies who ooh and ahh over the results. "Exegesis" my ass. If not for a memorable performance clip of "Llorando", this mess would be every bit as snoozeworthy as - as - as practically every other Lynch movie!
LOST HIGHWAY fans (yes, both of you) will be pleased to note that Lynch continues his questionable tradition of bamboozling an out-of-circulation ex-star into embarrassing themselves with a supporting role (here, it's Ann Miller). Otherwise, the 'mystery' here is the eternal David Lynch mystery: how does he talk people into financing these things?
Cheez & Crackers!
A must for fans of mondo movies...they oughta retitle this MONDO MORONIC. Dork after dork after dork is paraded before your eyes; the uninitiated will walk away from this having no clue that there is any musical validity to metal whatsoever. (And it's the 80s, so there isn't!) Too bad, as heavy music of the 70s, the 90s and the NWOBHM era of 79-82 has a lot to offer. Tellingly, the first rocker you see in DECLINE PART 2 is metal's very own AntiChrist Gene Simmons, who can't disguise his contempt for the fans or the music no matter how hard he tries. (He doesn't try very hard....you can almost hear the cash register in his head going ka-CHING!) The other names on display (Ozzy, Tyler & Perry, Alice, Lemmy, etc) at least have genuine affection for the scene and the music - you can tell there's still a fan's heart beating in their chests.
Let's hope the Odins and Jaded Ladys on view here didn't end up doing time later on, as these boys are jailhouse date-bait to the nth power. Besides, being captured on film for all time in those ridiculous poodle-mullets is surely punishment enough.
This is unlike any other Anderson movie; really, it's unlike any other MOVIE out there, period, and a necessary antidote for those of us who feel more and more alienated by modern movies, modern culture, modern life. Since there are already a kazillion reviews of this I won't rehash the plot except to say that it's about one "ordinary" day when all the buried/masked/diverted/denied pain of the world comes welling up, like a dam bursting, refusing to remain unacknowledged any longer. The apocalyptic finale may not make a lick of "sense", but it feels inevitable and right and it plays perfectly. The ensemble cast is so uniformly inspired that it only underscores the stupidity of Oscars and Golden Globes....singling out an outstanding performance here is akin to taking apart a perfectly-calibrated Swiss watch to praise one particular gear.
One further point: you hear a lot about Anderson's "audacity" and "ambition" in discussions of MAGNOLIA. It's true but that ambition has less to do with juggling interlocking subplots, and everything to do with the core of this movie: that forgiveness is hard but living without it is impossible, and that even pain has beauty in it because it is authentically FELT. The final image - Claudia's uncertain, frazzled, vulnerable but hopeful smile - is one of the most haunting in movie history, one I hope to carry with me forever. God willing.
Why are people so very, very stupid?
Not even going to discuss the movie at length - it's brilliantly funny; see it. I'll admit I DID have an additional comment or two to make, but then I read these IMDb reviews and sank into depression.
Do the people who "critique" 30, 40, 50-year-old movies by pointing out that "duhh, it's DATED!" imagine they're applying some kind of rigorous critical standard? Why not simply save valuable time, and pixels, by submitting a "review" stating, "This film cannot overcome the handicap of not taking place in 2003. Where are the SUVs? Where are the cell phones? And why wasn't it shot on the street where I live?"
And I'm fairly sure the guy who complained of the "snotty English accents" that ruined his BEDAZZLED viewing experience is the same fellow who lives in the White House and coined "strategery".
Yeah, that's a reference to the one narrative device that everyone who's seen WIZARDS retains. Saw this on its original release, well-toasted (as was the entire audience, come to think of it), but it's that years-later second viewing that really hammers home how awful WIZARDS truly is. A long narrated still-frame introduction prepares you for one sort of movie - as soon as the animation begins, we get another one entirely. It appears to be a crude retelling of WW2 recast in a ridiculous standoff of "magic vs technology" - of course the good guys, led by a lame wizard who might've resulted had Robert Crumb storyboarded the COLUMBO series, represent "magic". The Secret Weapon of the bad guys which provides all the dramatic conflict (by paralyzing the forces of Niceness into immobility during battle) turns out to be Super-8 movies of Hitler; these mixed-media segments play more like mixed-up media. By the time the ridiculously overdramatic narrator returns to wrap it up with, "At last, Hitler was dead, again...", only the very very dim could fail to Get It (and a note here to all elf-lovin' fantasy nerds: I know you hate having to face up to this, bu-u-ut....Hitler's "technology" was defeated not by "magic" and "nature" but by our own "technology": mellow-harshing buzz-killers like bullets, tanks, planes, incendiaries, the splitting of the atom, etc. Weren't very many giggling lapdancers in dental-floss lingerie at Normandy Beach, to say nothing of stogie-chewing elves, Churchill notwithstanding.) This puerility of vision - ZAP Comics trying but never actually meeting Tolkien - is dreary enough, but the animation makes it more painful still. The rotoscoping is inferior to what the Fleischers had achieved a generation earlier, and its willy-nilly insertion into the 'regular' animated segments, which resemble Nelvana on a bad day, is jarringly amateurish. There are a few saving moments of humor here ("They killed Fritz!"), but they too seem out of place. MEAN STREETS fans might want to check it out, though, as two of the voices are provided by that movie's Richard Romanus & David Proval. Too bad y'can't mute the PICTURE in this case, though. All in all, WIZARDS is a landmark in moronic, substandard jiggle animation for dopers.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
A Great Novel Becomes A Good Movie
That's not a knock. Well, not much of one, anyway. Curtis Hanson was handed a near-impossible task: translate the best crime novel in a generation - one that requires a six or seven-hour running time to render faithfully - into a two-hour film. Give him credit for doing a good job of it, but let's not get so dewy-eyed that we ignore what was lost here: not just vital subplots but depth, layering, richness of detail. Gone are not only the Inez Soto/Dieterling-cum-Disney angle (and the piercing social commentary threaded into this sub-narrative) but the entire background/motivating force to the Ed Exley character, now reduced to a by-the-book, son-of-a-dead-patrolman tightass. Further, the concluding half-hour piles the climaxes together, one after another, straining and finally shredding credulity. The decision-making involved (likely forced down Hansen, Ellroy and screenwriter Helgeland's throats by the moneymen holding the pursestrings to the entire project) has also robbed us of any chance of seeing the entire LA Quartet brought to the screen, at least in any recognizable form, now that the Dudley Smith cat's out of the bag & dispensed with.
So, then...what's on the PLUS side of the ledger here? Pacing and performances. While the characters of Bud White, Ed Exley & Jack Vincennes have been pre-softened for your viewing convenience, Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce & Kevin Spacey pour everything they have into their roles, and...for the duration of the film...you believe in these characters. Crowe may be the current flavor-of-the-month, but DAMN he's good, smoldering like the burning tip of a Chesterfield. Spacey works vocal inflections and raised eyebrows like a virtuoso musician (he patterned his interpretation after Hanson's suggestion of Dean Martin as the ideal Vincennes, were this film actually made in '53) and Pearce, in the most thankless of the three roles, overcomes both the scenario's short-shrifting of the character's motivations and his own too-youthful appearance, managing to turn both to his advantage. The female lead, Ms Basinger, while overpraised, does fine, heartfelt work; and Danny DeVito is dependably Danny DeVito. All the secondary roles are both beautifully-cast and expertly-played as well, which helps the production immeasurably. James Cromwell is physically wrong for Dudley Smith, yet makes the role his own, emanating a bottomless pool of menace; Tomas Arana makes a wonderfully slimy Bruening, and David Straithairn and John Mahan both seem plucked from the 40s - they are uncanny physical matches to both their characters and the era being evoked. And Curtis Hansen keeps the action hurtling forward, a series of snowballs rolling downhill, picking up speed & force as they coalesce into one single storyline. Anyone not familiar with the novel is going to have damned little to complain about, and even Ellroy fans will grudgingly admit that the film being as good as it is constitutes a minor miracle. Still, those viewers who know only the film should make tracks to Ellroy's novel. Their pleasure will only be intensified by that small sting of regret at What Might Have Been.
Destry Rides Again (1939)
Western fans will enjoy this more than that year of release might indicate, but justplainmovie enthusiasts will dig DESTRY more than anyone. Throughout the latter 30s, Universal was making tentative steps toward competing with the Big Five's stable of A-pictures by essentially dressing up a series of surefire B-properties (such as SEVEN SINNERS, ARABIAN NIGHTS & THE SPOILERS) with deeper 'name' casts & costlier productions than had been their norm. It worked: late-30s/early-40s Universals were generally briskly paced, flavorfully acted, unpretentious entertainment - DESTRY was the first and one of the best, and it gave the studio the huge hit they'd been desperate for. Though most often cited for his brooding 50s work with Mann & Hitchcock, the young, darkhaired James Stewart - intense, soulful & sans his famous stammer - was already a great instinctive actor whose bone-deep rapport with audiences had catapulted him out of Metro's male-ingenue doghouse the year before. His Tom Destry is not a Boys' Life one-dimensional hero but a nicely shaded performance that communicates both the character's decency and his core of strength perfectly. His presence dominates the film, despite the powerhouse cast surrounding him (Dietrich, Winninger, Donlevy, Allen Jenkins, Mischa Auer & the lovely and underrated Una Merkel). Though the picture's purely moonshine (by '39, the milquetoast-with-a-steel-spine plot was wheezing already), its pleasures lie not in the exposition but the exuberant execution. DESTRY RIDES AGAIN plays like a movie made by people convinced they were going to live forever, and I don't know if you can pay a simple genre entertainment higher praise than that.
After Dark, My Sweet (1990)
It was easy not to notice this in theaters a decade ago, but time has been exceedingly kind to AFTER DARK & likely will continue to be. Already it stands as one of the 90s best films. Though its Southwestern locations (Indio, California was used) are both a bit too sparse and modern to suit the source material, in every other way this captures the ineffable aura of Jim Thompson's prose (and anyone who's actually READ "The Getaway" knows how utterly impossible a task translating his best effects to film really is). Director Foley has done a splendid job in setting a tone of dreamlike, sunburned melancholy and maintaining it throughout, aided immeasurably by fine performances by Rachel Ward & Bruce Dern and an absolutely riveting one by Jason Patric. I had faint hopes for this film before seeing it, due mostly to Patric in the lead; I was floored watching it, and all DUE to Patric's performance. Though a little young for the part, he captures perfectly the likable ambivalence and roiling inner pathology of the Jim Thompson Hero: you never stop feeling for the guy even as you know he will inevitably be compelled by his inner torments to do monstrous things before the story ends. Patric's complete immersion into "Kid Collins" steals a little thunder from one of Bruce Dern's most chillingly indelible portrayals of slime personified, "Uncle Bud". (Fans of Dennis Hopper's "Frank Booth" from BLUE VELVET would take to Uncle Bud immediately, I think.) More than any other film adaptation of Thompson, AFTER DARK -even more than THE GRIFTERS - embodies that peculiar cowtown existentialism of his that tells us we're each of us alone in a world where things start bad and only get worse, pretending we're sane the way kids pretend there's a Santa Claus. A film without an audience in 1990, but little by little, year by year, a growing and appreciative audience is building. See this movie.
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
The Summit Of PreCode Cinema
...and Ernst Lubitsch at his zenith. First things first: thank you to TCM for showing this recently. Of course I taped it, and of course I've practically worn the tape out by now, a month later.
Point #2: something is terribly wrong in Paradise if the peak era of his work, 29-33, remains in shadow today. Where are the VHS/DVD releases of these wonderful films? Nowhere that I can find them; hopefully the good folks at Turner will continue reviving the early sound Lubitsches. I waited 25 years to see this one again, and the wait was not in vain. Those 25 years put a bit of snow on my roof, but they also allowed me to drink in the ambrosia that is this film with a bit more appreciation than I had at 16. And what intoxicating ambrosia it is! Script, performances, directorial vision are all exquisite. The leads are inspired (oh, for a night with Kay Francis!); the supporting players, expertly calibrated farceurs. The utilization of music as ironic counterpoint to the visuals rivals Clair; the title song, sung over the opening credits, will make your heart race, and break, at the same time. And the look of the film (Art Deco, lovingly handrubbed to a burnished glow) will linger with you forever.
Again and again, Lubitsch pulls rabbits out of hats: scenes like the deepening of Herbert Marshall and Kay Francis' relationship from business to pleasure 'seen' in a clock face are emblematic of what makes this such a special film. Its story is slight, frothy, very nearly silly; yet Lubitsch's knowing observation of small, telling details makes it magical. TROUBLE is not a timeless film, anchored as it is to a very specific time (Long Ago) and place (Far Away), which only deepens its charm and its seductive tugging on the audience's sleeve. I've watched it three times in a night, and three times more the following night - not behavior I usually exhibit. But the siren call of its lively, civilized wit is such that I'm hitting 'rewind' the moment it ends - I don't want to break the spell and return to reality just yet. As fertile as the preCode era is, as many classics as that golden period continues to yield up to those willing to discover them...TROUBLE IN PARADISE is the most glorious of them all.