Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Inglourious Basterds / **** (R)

Lt. Aldo Raines: Brad Pitt
Shosanna Dreyfus: Mélanie Laurent
Col. Hans Landa: Christoph Waltz
Sgt. Donny Donowitz: Eli Roth
Lt. Archie Hicox: Michael Fassbender
Bridget von Hammersmark: Diane Kruger
Fredrick Zoller: Daniel Brühl
Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz: Til Schweiger
Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki: Gedeon Burkhard
Marcel: Jacky Ido
Pfc. Smithson Utivich: B.J. Novak
Pfc. Omar Ulmer: Omar Doom
Josef Goebbels: Sylvester Groth
Adolf Hitler: Martin Wuttke
General Ed Fenech: Mike Myers

The Weinstein Co. presents a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Running time 153 min. Rated R (for strong graphic violence, language, and brief sexuality).

Chapter One
Once upon a time… in German Occupied France

In May 1940, the German Army occupied France. They discriminated against Jews by recording all of their whereabouts and banning them from many public places. Starting in 1942, all Jews were required to wear a yellow star designating them as lesser citizens. Jews were rounded up to live in ghettos where the living conditions were unbearable, and eventually the Germans developed their plans for the Final Solution—a more efficient way to eliminate “undesirables”. The Final Solution involved the mass execution of Jews and other social and religious groups felt to be inferior by the leaders of the Nazi Party. By the end of World War II, in May 1945, some 6 million Jews and “inferiors” had been “eliminated” throughout Europe by the Nazi regime. It is said that only about 200,000 Jews survived the Holocaust. This is one of humanity’s darkest chapters.

Chapter Two

A couple of weeks ago, I played a role in a professional production of the play “The Diary of Anne Frank”. It was a small role. Mr. Kraler was a character made up by Frank to represent two men, Johannes Kleiman and Victor Kugler, employees of her father’s business, Opekta. They helped hide the Frank family and four other Jews in the company’s secret annex building for two years during the German occupation of Holland. It was a difficult play for all the actors, many of whom suffered headaches and other signs of stress while dealing with replicating the emotions of these real people who went through this terrible ordeal. My role was relatively easy in comparison to the others, but there was still the obligation to do these brave people justice. Their sacrifice was more heroic and noble than anything an actor could do in representing them. What was going on around them was unthinkable, and yet they rose above it. To see people you knew and worked with and cared for carted off simply for being Jewish, never to be heard from again. It must have been like living a nightmare.

Chapter Three

Back in the eighties, there was a young man who loved movies. He worked in a video store and consumed them by the genre. Exploitation, horror, noir, crime, western, sci-fi, war movies; he loved them all. He loved movies so much he aspired to make them himself and soon sold some screenplays to Hollywood and proceeded to direct his first movie starting from a workshop at the famed Sundance Institute. “Reservoir Dogs”, released in 1992, was certainly an accomplished first effort; but it was with his second film in 1994, “Pulp Fiction”, that Quentin Tarantino’s unique gift for film was realized and accepted by the masses. QT revolutionized a cinema that had become stagnant since the ‘70s, and he did it with a retro flare visually and on the soundtrack, but with a fresh new dialogue-heavy take and layered plot lines. A QT character doesn’t talk like real people, he talks like a movie character in love with the way people talk in movies. His movies also seem to relish in their cinematic looks and atmosphere.

Chapter Four

Some have asked me whether this movie is based on a true story. If you’ve seen the movie, you know beyond any doubt that it is most certainly not. Some have asked if it is a remake. No, although it almost borrows its named from “Inglorious Bastards”, an Italian made 1978 movie about a band of American commandos on a special mission behind Nazi lines. Some say the idea of the commando unit in this “Basterds” is taken from the German unit portrayed in Sam Peckinpah’s 1977 German Army point of view WWII film “Cross of Iron”, but I don’t really see it. QT’s Basterds are an American unit made up of Jewish soldiers commissioned to work undercover behind enemy lines killing and scalping Nazis for the express purpose of spreading fear and doubt throughout the Nazi ranks. While that set up certainly suggests an interesting World War II movie, what develops from that initial idea is something purely Tarantino, and most-likely only QT himself could pull it off.

Chapter Five

QT’s movie isn’t really about The Basterds, however. It is about a plot to take down most of the higher ranking officials in Hitler’s Third Reich during the premiere of a Nazi propaganda movie that the Führer himself may be attending. Of course, the long and winding road QT takes to get to that plot and the intertwining storylines that cross and parallel each other in order to get there are also purely Tarantino. The Basterds are merely a cog in the wheel of that plot.

Like many a Tarantino plot, there are some major players—the Americans (i.e. The Basterds), the British, the Nazi SS—hard at some big time plans, who will come to see those plans teeter on the quibbles of some fairly minor players. The Basterds have spent a good deal of the war building up a reputation as the Nazi headhunters they were commissioned to be, letting only a few live to tell the tale, never taking prisoners. The Nazis have been building their reputations hunting Jews, Colonel Hans Landa in particular has risen through the Nazi ranks from one of their best Jew hunters to head of security for the special screening of the propaganda film “Nation’s Pride”, about a sniper named Zoller who held off hundreds of American troops single handedly and starring Zoller himself. The British have developed Operation: Kino, a plot to kill most of the top ranking Nazi inner circle by sending The Basterds in with one of their own to blow the screening up. Unbeknownst to the British, Americans, or Germans is the fact that Zoller has developed a crush on a young woman who is the proprietor of a small but beautiful movie house. When Zoller convinces Goebbels to move the venue to his crush’s cinema, he sets into motion events that neither side will be able to predict, for his crush is none other than Shosanna Dreyfus the sole survivor of one of Landa’s hunting parties. She will now have her revenge.

Of course, this synopsis cannot suggest the style and skill with which Tarantino executes his strange tale of vengeance. Like all of his films, he laces his heavy storyline with moments of lacerating humor, mostly along the more morbid lines here, as when he has a German soldier recount the tale of how he came to live through one of The Basterds raids, or the pomposity with which he depicts the British High Command’s attitude toward what will basically be a suicide mission for The Basterds, or the boyish charm he infuses into Landa, easily the film’s most evil character. The violence—when it comes—is graphic and gory.

Tarantino once again displays his exquisite use of music in the soundtrack, as when he opens the film and introduces The Basterds with the spaghetti western music of Ennio Morricone, or his use of David Bowie’s song from the early ‘80’s horror movie “Cat People” as Shosanna prepares for her final revenge. Not only does the out of period music fit incredibly well, but the French actress, Mélanie Laurent, looks remarkably like the young Nastassja Kinski from “Cat People”. And then there are all the twists and unexpected developments Tarantino throws in throughout the story.

Chapter Six

QT has established his knack for redefining actors’ careers with his casting, often resurrecting fallen stars. There are no career revolutions for American stars in this one, unless you count Mike Myers (“Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery), who shows up in an unusual cameo as the British general in charge of Operation: Kino. While I don’t think this brief appearance will do much for his career, Myers is spot on in his presentation of how the British SIS Command is historically depicted in WWII movies.

As for the primary cast, QT gives Brad Pitt (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) yet another whack at one of his fun oddball roles with The Basterds’ commander, Lt. Aldo Raines. He delivers a speech to his troops that only a very select few actors could even hope to pull off. Mélanie Laurent (“Indigènes”) displays an amazing skill to tell a story with her eyes, as she must hide her intensions and true identity to the SS as they rearrange their screening plans to fit her theater. And Christoph Waltz has already deservedly won Best Actor at Cannes International Film Festival with his quite comical performance as the delightfully evil Landa. Let’s hope the Academy remembers him in February.

There are some wonderful supporting performances as well. Til Schweiger (“King Arthur”) is intimidatingly funny as a German officer who joins The Basterds because he enjoys killing his countrymen even more than they do. Michael Fassbender (“Hunger”) carries the British pomposity established by Myers into The Basterds’ realm. German-born Diane Kruger, probably the second most recognizable star to American audiences due to her role in the “National Treasure” films, provides the beauty for the film as a German actress spying for the British. Eli Roth (“Death Proof”) is adequately deranged as the deadliest of the Basterds, known to the Germans as The Bear Jew. As with most of Tarantino’s endeavors, the fates of all his characters are totally unpredictable.

Chapter Seven

Nothing can make up for the horrors that befell the Jewish people during World War II. The nobility of the many people like Kleiman and Kugler, who tried to help Jews during the Holocaust could never be replaced by acts of vengeance. Vengeance isn’t noble and makes us as bad as them. As with all of his heroes, Tarantino requires some sort of penance or sacrifice from his characters for the moral liberties they take. But, without diminishing the trials and struggles of all who suffered and fought during World War II, I am compelled to say about this fantasy of vengeance against the German Army, “It’s about time those fucking Nazis got what they deserve.” True, it’s only a movie; and no matter how Tarantino reimagines history in “Inglourious Basterds”, it will never change 6 million civilian exterminations. But isn’t it great to see Hitler and his cronies finally getting it really stuck to them?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra / *½ (PG-13)

Duke: Channing Tatum
Ana/Baroness: Sienna Miller
Ripcord: Marlon Wayans
McCullen/Destro: Christopher Eccleston
Storm Shadow: Byung-hun Lee
Shana ‘Scarlett’ O’Hara: Rachel Nichols
Breaker: Saïd Taghmaoui
Snake Eyes: Ray Park
Heavy Duty: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaji
Zartan: Arnold Vosloo
Rex: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
General Hawk: Dennis Quaid
U.S. President: Jonathan Pryce

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Stephen Sommers. Written by Stuart Beattie and David Elliot & Paul Lovett and Michael B. Gordon and Sommers. Based on characters created by Hasbro. Running time: 118 min. Rated PG-13 (for strong sequences of action violence and mayhem throughout).

Now, I’m sure all you G.I. Joe fans took one look at my poor star rating and decided that like the legions of critics who have panned the new live action movie, I have no understanding of the G.I. Joe universe and what it is all about. I can hear you saying, “It’s supposed to be an action movie, not some thought provoking treatise.” I understand this very well.

I was a great Joe fan as a youth. I watched the cartoon every day with cookies and a glass of milk after school—it immediately followed “Inspector Gadget”. I collected the comic books. I loved the combination of combat war action with the melodramatic soap opera-like leanings of the plot. Who was attracted to whom on the Joe team? How were they secretly connected to the Cobras (the bad guys)? I delighted in the bickering and inner turmoil that plagued the Cobras, often thwarting their own plans of world domination. So, I didn’t go into my screening of “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” with the typical film snob trepidation of some critics. But oh, how the gems of our youth can lose their luster.

“The Rise of Cobra” tells the story of how Cobra begins and becomes the ultimate enemy power the G.I. Joes will ever face. Taking place in the near future, we meet key members of the Cobra team before they’ve taken on their moniker. The Baroness (Sienna Miller, “Stardust”) is a leather clad dominatrix who seems to be the secret Cobra Commander’s go to henchman for getting things done. When she fails to obtain a new weapon from a NATO convoy, the second in command, a weapons manufacturer named McCullen (Christopher Eccleston, “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising”), puts the assassin Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee, “Hero”) on her case to make sure she gets the job done. Meanwhile an almost peripheral Cobra operative named Zartan (Arnold Vosloo, “The Mummy”) seems to be on a mission of his own. And, the mysterious Doctor develops a serum to control people and make them nearly indestructible using nanotechnology.

We discover the existence of the secret G.I. Joe unit along with the movie’s hero, Duke (Channing Tatum, “Fighting”), and his best friend, nicknamed Ripcord (Marlon Wayans, “Little Man”). As the only survivors of the convoy attacked by Baroness, and because of Duke’s intimate knowledge of the woman underneath the leather, the two are asked to join the elite military unit by its leader, General Hawk (Dennis Quaid, “The Express”). They meet other key players in the G.I. Joe operation—communications expert, Breaker (Saïd Taghmaoui, “Traitor”), physical training expert and all around big muscle, Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaji, ABC’s “Lost”), the sexy and brainy Scarlett (Rachel Nichols, “P2”), and the mute ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park, “X-Men”).

To go any further into the plot of this film would be a waste of time. All that must be known is that the Commander has a plot to take over the world involving the destruction of well-known world monuments, and it’s up to the Joes to stop him.

Here’s what I liked about the movie. 1) Director Stephen Sommers (“The Mummy”) utilizes spectacular special effects to evoke that great summer blockbuster tradition of thrilling the audience with the impressive destruction of famous settings like the Eiffel Tower. He precedes this with a spectacular chase through Paris as the Joes try to prevent the disaster. 2) Hyung-hun’s Storm Shadow, when out of his combat costume, is a suave, sharply dressed, enigmatic character. 3) Although not the primary focus, the screenplay does keep the soap opera elements of the comic book, most notably in the relationship between Duke and Baroness and the flashback events that led to their emotional split involving her brother Rex (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “The Lookout”).

The drawbacks of the movie are so plentiful I probably won’t even get to them all. One very distressing element is the various flashbacks dealing with Storm Shadow’s past relationship with the Joe Snake Eyes. They encountered each other as children and shared the same sensei, but their entire relationship consists of fighting each other. There are no significant emotional moments for either of them. I think their connection would’ve been stronger had some sort of friendship been shared, but here it seems not only were they always enemies, but for no apparent reason.

Everything in this movie is dealt with in pure military efficiency, and generally with the same lack of imagination. There is no character development. Each character is given a name and job—sometimes one and the same—and their development is finished. There is no plot development. We are shown weapons and gadgets, the characters are given singular objectives and the play button is pushed to set the action in motion. The jokes are all one-liners of the ilk that even Schwarzenegger might feel uncomfortable uttering. I don’t think any character is required to string any more than two or three sentences together at any point in time. And, the dialogue is so atrocious it makes George Lucas’s dialogue for the “Star Wars” prequels sound like Shakespeare.

One fan of the movie pointed out to me that many critics were saying “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” made their I.Q.s drop. This is a ridiculous and uninventive statement for a critic to make. Had my I.Q. dropped, I most likely would’ve enjoyed the movie. But it isn’t really a matter of intelligence so much as one of maturity. I’m not twelve anymore and demand more competence in my entertainment. I require some quality filmmaking to go along with the dazzling explosions and sexy commandos. While the explosions, breasts and abs are all impressive here; it’s the storytelling that is in short supply.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

“No More Yankie My Wankie”: In Memory of John Hughes 1950-2009

As a film buff, I often dread the deaths of certain filmmakers. The thought of never seeing another movie by Eastwood, Scorsese, or Spielberg is a disheartening one. One filmmaker I had never thought of in that way was John Hughes. In fact, Hughes hadn’t directed a movie since 1991. But when his sudden death was announced, I found myself both nostalgic for his high school comedies that permeated my own high school experience and saddened that we had lost an artist who so accurately portrayed the psyche of a generation.

On Thursday, August 6, 2009, filmmaker John Hughes died from a heart attack suffered on his morning walk in Manhattan. He was 59. Hughes had been a staple of the Cineplex during the eighties and early nineties. He started out as a writer for National Lampoon magazine. The movies that sprung from the comedy publication gave Hughes his first screenplay success. While his debut screenplay for “Class Reunion” (1982) didn’t enjoy the success of the earlier National Lampoon film “Animal House” (1978), it got Hughes on his way toward building a reputation as one of Hollywood’s premiere comedy screenplay writers.

Hughes’ first big success came with the screenplay for the Michael Keaton vehicle “Mr. Mom” (1983). Once his third screenplay was filmed, Hughes shot into the stratosphere of ‘80s comedy. “National Lampoon’s Vacation”(1983) became a national phenomenon, coming at the beginning of both the public acceptance of paid cable channels and the birth of the home video market. Within a few years of its release the family vacation comedy became loved by audiences of all ages despite its ‘R’ rating.

Hughes made his directorial debut in 1984 with “Sixteen Candles”, another family-oriented movie that pushed the bounds of good taste while perfectly capturing the alienation of adolescence. Stamped with the an inexplicable ‘PG’ rating, which allowed for the profane humor to reach a larger audience, “Sixteen Candles” kicked off a quick succession of high school-based movies that would help to define a generation and usher in a whole new era of filmmaking. Hughes followed up with a teen comedy or drama in quick succession including, “The Breakfast Club”(1985), “Weird Science”(1985), “Pretty In Pink”(screenplay only 1986), “Ferris Beuller’s Day Off”(1986), and “Some Kind of Wonderful”(screenplay only 1987), often utilizing the stars of “Candles”, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, and always depicting awkward teenagers flying in the face of authority and defying the class-oriented structures of their environments.

In 1987 Hughes directed his first grown up-themed movie “Planes, Trains & Automobiles”. Centered on a family holiday—Thanksgiving—the movie followed a man’s (Steve Martin) failing attempts to get home to his family during the busy travel holiday. He continued in the adult vein for his next project “She’s Having a Baby”(1988), about the loss of identity a man (Kevin Bacon) feels as he attempts to start his own family. He returned to family-based movies with his next two directorial efforts “Uncle Buck”(1989) and “Curly Sue”(1991), which focus on the unanticipated relationships adults can share with children.

“Curly Sue” would be Hughes’ final trip to the director’s chair, but he continued to pen a number of family films, including National Lampoon’s “European Vacation”(1985) and “Christmas Vacation”(1989), “The Great Outdoors”(1988), “Home Alone”(1990) and two sequels, “Dutch”(1991), “Career Opportunities”(1991), “Beethoven”(1992), “Dennis the Menace”(1993), the remake of “Miracle on 34th Street”(1994), “Baby’s Day Out”(1994), “101 Dalmatians”(1996), “Flubber”(1997), “Reach the Rock”(1998), and “Just Visiting”(2001).

Hughes was not a flashy director, but his writing skills helped him get into the mindset of the American high school teenager in a way that no other writer-director ever had before. Aside from a few contributions by a handful of other directors, Hughes essentially created the high school genre, one that to this day produces a new picture every couple of months. For the first time, Hughes ushered audiences inside the psyche of high school aged kids, and he took them seriously. Even in his most raucous comedies, his teenagers were intellectual and striving beyond the positions that had been predetermined for them.

He always had a great depth to his cast of characters. They were kids that really existed in American high schools. For the first time teenagers recognized themselves represented in film. As Hughes matured as a filmmaker, so did his characters. What were at first essentially plots constructed to provide shocking laughs provided by the imagination of his teens, eventually evolved into studies in how adults tried without success to control these kids as cattle, and then into examinations of the class systems that formed in high school society. His direction got more inventive as he moved into his adult fare, but he seemed most at home with his teenage characters.

Hughes also introduced the world to a new generation of actors. They became known as the Brat Pack; although, I imagine this categorization must have frustrated Hughes. He was trying to tell adults that these kids weren’t brats, but intelligent thinking people just trying to survive a period in their lives that most adults had lost touch with. Many of his stars never survived this inaccurate label. Molly Ringwald, Alley Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall, Andrew McCarthy, Judd Nelson, Lea Thompson, Eric Stoltz and others shared well over fifteen minutes of fame, but never seemed to outlive their ‘80s personas. Others, like John Cusack, Matthew Broderick, Emilio Estevez, Charlie Sheen, Joan Cusack, and Bill Paxton became major stars. Hughes also showed a knack for creating the perfect vehicles for well-established performers such as, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, John Candy, Walter Mathau, Glenn Close, Catherine O’Hara, Dan Aykroyd, Paul Dooley, and Charles Grodin.

A contribution that Hughes had a hand in was the development of the soundtrack album as a moneymaking enterprise of its own. While George Lucas and Martin Scosese blazed the trail of incorporating pop songs into the structure of a film, Hughes is in a small part responsible for making the soundtrack album more marketable. Although the studio executives probably would have driven the market on their own anyway, Hughes touched the ever-important teen market with his ability to include underground bands on his soundtrack that spoke to the counter culture leanings of teens. Hughes introduced audiences to the likes of The Smiths, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, The Psychedelic Furs, Simple Minds, Everything But the Girl, Kate Bush, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Suzanne Vega, Echo & the Bunnymen, New Order, and INXS. Suddenly teens were exploring music beyond the American Top 40 charts. Soon bands would be making more money by contributing tracks to a film soundtrack album than they might from their own album sales.

Following the announcement of Hughes’ death, my home page on Facebook was aflutter with quotes from his movies. High school friends and college friends all had their favorite quotations. Quoting “The Breakfast Club”, one friend in particular noted that nobody had ever summed up his high school experience better, “You see us as you want to see us - in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That's the way we saw each other at 7:00 this morning. We were brainwashed.” Thank you for opening our eyes. R.I.P. John Hughes.