Archive for Inglourious Basterds

Because of the Wonderful Things He Does

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2013 by dcairns

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL should be seen for the fab 3D — Sam Raimi has always been a 3D filmmaker anyway, punching at that screen with his little girlish fists, trying to smack the audience in the face as if it were one of his beloved Stooges, and now he can finally do it, if only virtually. There are some really gorgeous effects here, particularly the snowflakes, which had us all swiping at the air like babies encountering soap bubbles for the first time. And during the Academy Ratio b&w opening sequence, Raimi keeps breaking the frame by having things like a fire-breather’s blazing puff burst out of the edges of the shot and into the auditorium.

There are, admittedly, some problems with the drama. There isn’t a lot of what you might call thrilling action, the non-period dialogue is irksome, and the mechanics whereby James Franco’s Oz actually destroys a decent character are troubling — he can never really be redeemed from this, and certainly doesn’t deserve to get the girl. If you watch this and then watch the 1939 original, the bit where Oz sends Dorothy to kill his ex-girlfriend will strike you as tonally rather off.

And an early scene where Oz, a Kansan magician, is threatened by an audience because he is unable to cure a crippled girl, is just peculiar. These may be hicks, but it’s unlikely they would expect a stage magician to perform actual miracles of healing. The scene could only make sense if Oz were a snake-oil salesman or faith healer, and I can only presume somebody thought that was too unsympathetic. But the character is pretty hateful at this stage anyway. He’s just ineffectively hateful.

My thoughts on the film seem to be whirling around like uprooted picket fence posts in a cyclone: let’s just sit by the window and check them out as they drift past. However — the movie may be best experienced knowing nothing about the story, so be aware there are a few spoilers below, and maybe avoid reading until you’ve seen the movie, if you plan to.

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The movie is a remake of Raimi’s ARMY OF DARKNESS. It is. But the ending is swiped from INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. (“Revenge of the Big Face.”)

All along I had a problem with Franco, who can play a phony but can’t play calculation, insincerity and confidence-inspiring baloney. Fiona initially disagreed: “I liked him, I thought he was fine.” “They turned down Robert Downey Jnr.” “WHAAAAAAAT???!!!”

Michelle Williams is the best: the only character you always believe, for every line and look. There’s never any doubt with MW. And she’s playing the Billie Burke role, for God’s sake. It doesn’t exactly strike one as a gift to the actor. But she embraces the challenge of making Goodness and Strength interesting. Raimi has always had a touching faith in sweetness in women (and a corresponding fear of female sexuality).

Raimi’s connection to Oz goes back at least to the animate trees of EVIL DEAD, though his are considerably nastier than those Dorothy Gale tangled with.

Bruce Campbell gets hit with a stick, so that’s fine. By the dwarf from BAD SANTA: you get extra points for that.

Raimi’s still casting all his kids in crowd scenes, but he doesn’t shoehorn in irrelevant dialogue for them this time, as he did in SPIDER MAN III.

Fiona reckons Mila Kunis must look scary in real life, since her eyes are somehow bigger than the head that contains them. I was wondering how she would manage to the transformation from spherical to pointy head. Maybe she’d end up looking like a Sputnik. But the makeup is quite effective. Nobody can be Margaret Hamilton except Margaret Hamilton, though.

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The main reasons I liked this a lot better than Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND, which had the same producers and also a by-the-numbers Danny Elfman score:

1) You can’t turn Lewis Carroll into a parable of good versus evil, and only an idiot would try. It’s about sense versus nonsense, or ordinary logic versus strange and sublime logic.

2) Fewer curlicues in this one.

3) Burton had no ideas for 3D whatsoever, and seemed unable to focus pull or edit without throwing the viewers’ brain out of whack, since what your eye was led to by the 3D was never consistent with the other filmmaking choices.

4) Admittedly, nobody in OTGAP is as good as Anne Hathaway in AIW. But nothing is one tenth as bad as Johnny Depp’s dance.

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China Girl is a really great SFX creation. Too bad they couldn’t have left her sweet and sentimental: the more raucous humour spoils the character a bit.

The Munchkins attempt a song, making this the fulfillment of Raimi’s dream for the ill-fated CRIMEWAVE: “I wanted to make it the Ultimate Film of Entertainment.”

(Is this the modern cinema experience in a nutshell: a big, bloated, yet oddly uneventful event, miscast and indifferently written, yet winning a measure of our respect just by virtue of presenting a slight variation on the usual form of spectacle? But wasn’t it ever thus? But isn’t it more so now?)

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Licking Hitler

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Radio with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 3, 2011 by dcairns

Tom Von Cruise.

I was always very curious to see Bryan Singer’s VALKYRIE. Just not curious enough to actually see it, at least until three years after it came out.

The film, whose true title is LET’S KILL HITLER TO DEATH, as my friend Randy rightly says (in the same way that the true title of Meryl Streep’s A CRY IN THE DARK is A DINGO ATE MY BABY, as my friends Colin and Morag rightly insist), got a lot of negative publicity early on when people saw what Tom Cruise looked like in a Nazi uniform and eye-patch. Cruise is still a big star, despite being a strange cult member, and so the studio must have felt his involvement bolstered what was already a compelling true story torn from the history books (if you visit a library in LA, all the newspapers and history books are incomplete, because of all the stories torn from them), but the problem is identical to that faced by MGM when they made PARNELL: for every great star, there is a role which is so alien to what the star’s public expects, that the combination of actor and role destroys whatever appeal each may have had. In the case of Tom Cruise, that role was a Nazi with an eye-patch.

I confess to mixed feelings about Bryan Singer. I liked THE USUAL SUSPECTS as much as most people seem to, and his first X-MEN movie seemed like the first superhero movie to capture the appeal of comic book superheroes — good guys and bad guys, broadly drawn, each with his/her own unique set of powers, fighting each other and having soap opera emotional crises. Since some powers are particularly effective against others (Magneto’s magnetism turns Wolverine’s metal skeleton from a strength to a liability), the result has some of the cleverness of a chess game, but with more violence and property damage, so everybody wins.

Of course, SUPERMAN RETURNS was a misfire, despite a convincing Christopher Reeve clone and an amusing Lex Luther and Miss Tessmacher and a convincing duplication of the original Donner and Lester movie’s feel — when it became clear that the plot centered around a scheme basically identical to the first Donner movie’s masterplan, the whole thing started to get arthritic.

Just what this movie needs — a Busby Berkeley water ballet.

VALKYRIE seems to follow an opposite course, actually acquiring greater conviction and force as it goes on. To begin with, the American and British actors mingle poorly, and no alibi is in force to explain why all these German characters have different ways of speaking English. (I hated INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, hated it, but I have to give Tarantino points for an uncompromising approach to language, with everybody speaking the tongue they would have spoken, in the situations they would have spoken it in.) Then Hitler turns up, and he has a GERMAN accent.

I don’t want to be too down on Jeremy Bamber, the non-lookalike cast as the fuhrer. I don’t know whose idea it was that he assume a phony accent, or play the role with similar infirmity to Bruno Ganz’s still-fresh-in-memory barnstorming triumph in DOWNFALL. I can only say, “Lousy idea.”

Then some actual German actors turn up, confusing things still further. And meanwhile, Singer’s directorial tropes are all either over-familiar to the point of distraction, or else stylistically inexplicable and counter-productive. So, much as one wants to be mature and NOT laugh at the spectacle of Tom Cruise in a Nazi uniform and eye-patch, the movie doesn’t exactly help one. Once Cruise was seen recruiting Eddie Izzard in a men’s room, and Kenneth Branagh compared Germany to Sodom, I started to wonder if the whole movie could be some kind of strange, sly metaphor concocted by the out gay Singer around the officially heterosexual Cruise. It was weird.

But, as we near the moment of detonation, suspense starts to kick in. Here, David Bordwell talks about the mystery of how movies generate suspense around stories where the outcome is already known to us. It’s a fascinating area. Singer is helped by the fact that, though one hopes most of his audience know the plot against Hitler failed (just as one hopes they know Tarantino’s version of events is not historically accurate), the precise outcome of the aftermath of the failed coup is less familiar to many of us. So, while John Ottman’s scoring and editing, the high-stakes, complicated operation put into action by Cruise, Izzard, Terence Stamp etc (was the whole casting process predicated on height? Cruise may be the tallest man in the film), and the inevitable “what if?” and “if only” thoughts inspired by the story, all do their part, in some ways the denouement’s predictability only adds to the clarity Hitchcock insisted was necessary for true suspense.

As an example of the “what if?” factor — the coup fails because, obviously, Hitler failed in his part of the plan and didn’t die. But, more crucially still, he proved he was still alive by communicating by telephone and radio. Which suggests that, even if he HAD died, the bad Nazis (as opposed to all those good Nazis we’ve all heard so much about) could still have convinced the world A.H. was in charge by enlisting the services of a decent Hitler impersonator. Who was the Third Reich’s equivalent of Rich Little, anyway? On questions like this, the fate of nations may be decided.

Inglourious Technicolor

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2009 by dcairns

inglourious-basterds-trailer

Well, I will say that Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is unusual, imaginative and often funny and suspenseful, if a bit long. On the other hand, it made me feel ill. Where does this bad feeling come from? I first felt it when I saw the teaser trailer of Brad Pitt briefing his men. I’d like to address this without spoilers, and without engaging too much with what Tarantino has said about the movie, since that stuff is really too dumb to get into.

First off, I might as well admit to being one of those extremists who regards THE DIRTY DOZEN and WHERE EAGLES DARE as somewhat crassly exploitative — I think if you’re going to tackle something as serious and unpleasant as war, you ought to have something worthwhile to express about it. I think SAVING PRIVATE RYAN was basically a crock, but you could argue that the Normandy landing sequence gave people a fresh sense of what that conflict was like, and that is a worthwhile goal. Of course, the whole aesthetic was swiftly subsumed into the video game industry, which is a little, er, questionable, and perhaps shows a basic flaw in the Spielberg approach.

So INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is an entertainment based in a fictional version of WWII which does not respect actual events. In style and music choices (plenty of spaghetti western samples, plus David Bowie’s theme from the Schrader CAT PEOPLE) Tarantino makes it clear that this film is intended to be taken the same way as his previous work, a genre-splicing nasty romp which might test the audience’s endurance with some gore or cruelty, but intends for them to basically have a good time. If you cringe at the scenes of mutilation, you should think of it as an emotional workout rather than a meditation on man’s inhumanity to man. This movie is not a meditation on anything.

So I already have a problem with that. I might be willing to allow that a “Jewish revenge fantasy” might have some cathartic value, but Tarantino isn’t Jewish, so he would be basically pandering to somebody else’s fantasy, which seems less legitimate. What, in fact, is he doing?

The presence of Eli Roth, director of the QT-produced HOSTEL, as actor and director of the film-within-a-film (which, apart from being in black and white and 1:1.33 ratio, is an incompetently inaccurate recreation of 1940s cinema, featuring jump cuts and what look like Steadicam shots — wouldn’t the point here be to make a decent, convincing pastiche of Nazi cinema?) is a pointer. HOSTEL and its sequels have been called “torture porn,” but that’s not really accurate. The victims are the POV characters, and the film seeks to give the audience a vicarious experience of being harmlessly “tortured” — another emotional workout, an exaggerated and simplified form of the horror movie’s pleasures, a crude take on what Hitchcock called “putting the audience through it” — why you would really want to have that experience is beyond me, but there it is.

The striking difference in what Tarantino is up to is that in his film, the torturers are mostly the heroes, and by making their victims Nazis, he wants to give us permission to enjoy the torture and mutilation without guilt. We might still experience squeamishness, we might even question whether the Basterds are “right” to behave as they do, but this is all part of the emotional workout. Pretty much any response is fine with Tarantino. This is why the trailer made me feel… unhappy.

I’m not keen on Nazis myself. But I think that unless you can answer the question, “What would you do if you were a German drafted in the late ’30s?” — which none of us actually CAN answer — you probably don’t have the right to judge people just for putting on that uniform. At any rate, if you’re going to make a film celebrating war crimes enacted against Nazi soldiers, it might be good to provide at least some evidence that you’ve thought about this stuff. Otherwise you’re on the slippery slope to Auschwitz, the video game.

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On the other hand — “It’s a film about cinema,” said Joe Dante, who was quite enthusiastic. Perhaps not a war film at all. Or a film about the victory of movies over war, somehow. Certainly, that’s literally what happens in the climax, which contains, all too briefly, the most beautiful image Tarantino has ever conceived or executed (no spoilers, but if I say “face in smoke” you will recognise it when you see it). The script drops some interesting names, which QT fans might check out and get a kick from, conceivably, which would be good (anything that leads audiences to Clouzot or Pabst would count as positive, for me), and is maybe the first to examine Goebbels (or “Gurble,” as Brad Pitt pronounces it in his hillbilly accent) as a movie exec, which he was, among other things. The movie stuff, which doesn’t really involve the Basterds themselves too much (it does seem a little like QT didn’t find his own creations interesting enough to sustain the film) gave me mainly a good feeling. And then there’d be another gross bit.