Saturday, August 22, 2009

In Theaters: "Inglourious Basterds"

One of the problems with being a genius, and being recognized and branded as such, is that there isn’t anyone around to question your judgment anymore. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is a giddily enjoyable, thrillingly excessive pop confection with a genuine kick and undeniable snap. But somewhere along the line, a producer or studio head or someone in power needed to sit Tarantino down and explain, very gently, that his movie is a good twenty minutes too long, and the excesses present within that twenty minutes are what prevents his new film from achieving the dizzying heights of his previous ones.

As with Kill Bill, Tarantino uses a chapter format to structure his multi-faceted tale, which takes place “once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France.” We’re first introduced to Col. Hans Landa (Chrisoph Waltz, terrific), an SS officer who has been nicknamed “The Jew Hunter” (everyone in this movie has a nickname). The lengthy, occasionally stilted opening sequence finds Landa slowly but surely coaxing a confession out of a French farmer (Denis Menochet) who is hiding a Jewish family. I see what Tarantino is going for in this scene; he’s doing a slow wind-up for a brutal first pitch. But the effect is overdone—the sequence drags, on and on, and when the payoff comes, it’s not worth the wait. What’s more, we’re not exactly sure why one member of that family, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), is allowed to escape, except that she’s needed in the rest of the film.

However, as quickly as we’re tested, Tarantino plunges us into Chapter Two, which introduces us to the title “basterds”—a crew of tough Jewish foot soldiers on the hunt for Nazi scalps, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a tough-talking hillbilly badass with an undeniable skill at turning a colorful phrase. Thanks partially to the writing and partially to Pitt’s bound-to-be iconic performance, the movie bounces back from its languid open and comes out swinging; the dialogue is terrific, the shooting and cutting is first-rate, and the entire enterprise is deliciously, deliriously over the top. Within that chapter, and the best scenes of the film, Tarantino is doing what he does best—pulling from the full spectrum of his influences (from Leone westerns to 60s American action cinema to—unexpectedly—blaxpoitation to the Italian exploitation movie that lent this one its name) and smashing them together into a sticky clay that he reshapes for his own purposes with his unique, particular voice.

There’s also a lovely touch of French New Wave to Chapter Three, in which Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a German-soldier-turned-movie-star tries to court Shosanna, who is masquerading as a French woman and running a cinema. In an ultimately ill-advised attempt to get into her good graces, Zoller convinces Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) to hold the gala premiere at her theater—with much of the high-ranking Nazi brass in attendance. The remainder of the film concerns the simultaneous preparations of Shosanna’s simple plan for revenge, and the more elaborate “Operation: Kino,” a collaboration between British intelligence and the Basterds to take out the theater and all the Nazis in it.

That pairing leads to the film’s least successful sequence, a momentum-killing meeting between a British agent, two of Ray’s men, and double agent Bridget von Hammsersmark (Diane Kruger) in a French tavern, in which the Brit is in danger of being made by Nazi soldiers having some schnapps. Again, you can see what Tarantino is trying to do here—a long, slow buildup to a big confrontation, with tension and dread bubbling underneath. But he drags it out for so long that the sequence goes slack; the scene is endless (it runs at least twenty minutes and feels twice as long), spent away from any of our primary characters of interest, and in retrospect, it doesn’t really forward the narrative all that much.

What seems to be happening here, as in a couple of the weaker scenes in Death Proof, Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse, is that he’s become self-indulgent with his dialogue—he’s in love with the sound of his own words (even more so, his own words translated into foreign tongues). There is no question that he established himself, and quickly, as the preeminent dialogue writer of his generation. But the genius of the conversations in Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown was not mere loquacity. It was in his keen ability to drive characterization with dialogue, to tell us about who people were predominately through the subtext of the things they said. In his more recent work, people are just talking to hear themselves talk—or, more accurately, talking for their creator to hear them talk.

If this assessment seems harsh, it should be noted that even the film’s transgressions don’t sink it—it’s too big and bold and intoxicated with itself for that. Performances are sharp from top to bottom (Laurent is a real find, and her moment of release after a terrifyingly dangerous conversation is a wonderful little touch), Tarantino’s macabre sense of humor shines through beautifully, and the final forty minutes or so—the big premiere, with all of its subplots and subterfuge—is flat-out virtuoso filmmaking. What it does, it does so well (and with such a snazzy bang) that one is tempted to overlook its flaws. But they are there, and at a couple of points, they stop the movie cold.

It appears that the only thing preventing Inglourious Basterds from the greatness it is so clearly striving for (and that we go into it rooting for) is its own deficit of restraint. In its best set pieces, the picture is tight, lean, mean, and cool as a cucumber. But Tarantino didn’t have the discipline to dig the best stuff out. As a director, the first thing you do in post-production is assemble everything you shot into your first cut. Then, the old saw goes, you have to go in and cut out all the little things you’re in love with, because they’re slowing down the movie. Tarantino seems to have released his first cut.

"Inglourious Basterds" is currently playing in wide release.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Today's New in Theaters- 8/21/09

Inglourious Basterds: I'm quietly hopeful that Quentin's new movie is as great as he certainly seems to want it to be. I've been a little worried about him, as of late; while I flat-out loved Kill Bill and Grindhouse, there seemed to be a lot of self-indulgent wheel-spinning happening in those pictures. We'll see on the new one; it's getting great reviews from a lot of people I trust (Ebert, Jamie S. Rich, Brian Orndorf); Movieline is more reserved with their praise.

There's a couple of other things coming out this weekend (Alexis "Rory" Bledel in Post-Grad, still-falling star Renee Zellweger in a movie I've never heard of called My One and Only), and a couple of small movies going wider (like Paul Giamatti in Cold Souls, a film that the fates continue to conspire to keep me from seeing). But it's a Basterds weekend, and it'll be interesting to see what kind of box office greets QT's latest (especially following the surprising--and underserved--financial thud of Grindhouse).

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On DVD: "Fighting"

Channing Tatum is an actor who has appeared in his fair share of turkeys, and appears to be attracting an inordinate amount of the vitriol directed at G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra; that’s a film thankfully unseen by these eyes (seriously, a gun to my head and wild dogs nipping at my heels wouldn’t get me into that theater), but I get the drift of their argument. He’s a bulky, good-looking actor who doesn’t seem blessed with much in the way of craft or on-screen magnetism, but whenever I hear someone claim that he can’t act, I go back to Dito Montiel’s 2006 film A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, in which Tatum played a supporting role. As Antonio, the neighborhood tough guy, Tatum was outstanding; he may not be blessed with much in the way of range (I can’t imagine him playing very far outside the lines of the sensitive, damaged meathead of that film and his other performance of note, in Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss), but he can play a certain type of role very well.

Fighting reunites Tatum with Saints writer/director Dito Montiel, a musician-turned-novelist whose first film was based on his memoir of growing up in Astoria, Queens. His New York roots shine through again in Fighting, which takes place among the hustlers and street salesman and truly seems to capture the look and feel of modern New York City—not the romanticized “movie” version, nor the urban hell of the 1970s and 1980s cinema. Fighting’s New York is loose and lived-in, and that vibe gives the picture a boost.

Channing stars as Shawn MacArthur, an out-of-towner who hawks bootleg books and DVDs on the streets of Manhattan and is always on the lookout for a small score. When Harvey (Terrence Howard), a more seasoned hustler, sees Shawn impressively fight a trio of youths in Harvey’s employ, he offers him the chance to make some real money—as an bare-knuckle brawler in the underground fight scene.

The story, and all of its peaks and valleys, is as old as the hills, but Montiel’s screenplay (written with Robert Munic) is intriguing; they hit all of the expected plot points, but go about it in a roundabout way. Montiel is interested in the subtext, the character moments, the people on the periphery (like the grandmother of the girl Shawn likes), the look and the feel of this world. In many ways, it’s a film that doesn’t feel as formulaic as it is. Montiel and Munic don’t subvert our expectations, not exactly—it’s more like they do their best to work around them and slip through them, deal with them, and move on. In the lead-up to the big climactic fight, for example, Montiel gives us a wonderfully tight montage of story threads coming together, then trots out some stark, effective imagery of Tatum warming up on an empty subway car. Those kind of stylistic touches help divert us from thinking too much about the predictable climax we’re working towards—to at least some degree, they drown out the sounds of the formula gears grinding into place.

Tatum doesn’t exactly blow you away, but he does the job; I’m still not sure if he’s a mediocre actor, or just prone to underplaying, and if it’s the latter, it works in a film like this one. Howard is somewhat underwhelming—he seems to be playing a lot of the same notes in his performances, and in some scenes, he and Tatum appear to be competing in a mumble-off. I wouldn’t call it a bad performance, but it’s not a very interesting one either. Zulay Henao is more interesting as the romantic opposite; she’s got a nice spark and there’s a shambling sweetness to her scenes with nervous, shy Shawn, even if their sex scene ends with that most cliché of images, the tightly clinched hands.

The fight scenes, which will be the primary interest for some audiences, are well-executed, tightly choreographed and shot while retaining the messiness of real scraps. Montiel’s use of strong character actors like Luis Guzman and Roger Guenveur Smith is wise; it helps put a spin on their roles, which are inherently well-worn types. And credit is due to the sparse writing—the subtle, slow reveals of Shawn and Harvey’s backgrounds are well constructed, sparing us the usual up-front exposition and allowing them to retain some mystery on their way to a satisfying final scene, which strike an interesting and perhaps unexpected note.

Fighting is occasionally clumsy, and some of the acting is a bit undercooked. But its primary problem is one of familiarity; as ingeniously as Montiel negotiates the hurdles of the underground sport/hustler-mentor construct, we still know exactly where it’s going, pretty much every step of the way. Montiel’s inventive direction and intelligent writing go a long way, but one wishes they were at the service of a story that hadn’t been quite so frequently told.

"Fighting" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, August 25th. For full A/V details, read this review at DVD Talk.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Today's New DVDs- 8/18/09

Tyson: James Toback's documentary portrait of the former champ's long, hard fall is a riveting, fascinating long-form confession; Toback's stylistic choices are sometimes questionable, but it's still awfully good.

Last House on the Left (2009): When I finally saw Wes Craven's original Last House last spring, in preparation for this remake, I was rather underwhelmed; so much of it doesn't work, I had to contextualize to understand why it had made such an impact. Dennis Illiadis's remake is slicker and frankly scarier, more even in its tone. But modernized and stacked against today's Hostel-infected horror environment, it's also immediately forgettable.

Husbands: This has been the long-time Cassavetes holdout on Region 1 DVD; it wasn't included in Criterion's box set a few years back (I had to watch it on VHS when I saw it for the first time a few months back). It's a distillation of the essense of his work-- it's rambling, self-indulgent, overlong--and it's honest, raw, and devestating.

Just For Laughs- Over The Edge: The good comics are up for sets that are too short, and some of the material hasn't aged well. But there's still plenty of funny stuff here, particularly from Lewis Black and the late Mitch Hedberg.

Go (Blu-ray): When it was released in 1999, most thought of Doug Liman's Swingers follow-up as a subpar Pulp Fiction knock-off. But it's got a tremendous energy to it, and foreshadows the slam-bang aesthetic that Liman would hone in later pictures like The Bourne Identity and Mr. & Mrs. Smith. That, and the first Timothy Olyphant performance that made you sit up and say, "Who the hell is that guy?"

On DVD: "State of Play"

Kevin McDonald's State of Play is, for most of its running time, a tight, tidy, efficient thriller that combines two of our most durable melodramatic subgenres (the newspaper mystery and the conspiracy thriller) as smoothly as they've comingled since All The President's Men. Utilizing a crisp screenplay from a team of blue chip scenarists (based on the BBC mini-series), McDonald navigates a deliberately byzantine narrative, frequently focused by a fine ensemble cast fully inhabiting their admittedly stock characters.

Russell Crowe (doing some of his sharpest and most lived-in work since The Insider) stars as Cal McAffrey, a Washington, D.C. newspaper reporter investigating a seemingly random double murder in a rough neighborhood (the bravura opening sequence, showing that ruthless execution, is the most memorably breathless handheld open this side of Narc). The next morning, in a seemingly unrelated turn of events, the chief researcher for rising young congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) ends up underneath a subway train; it may or may not have been a suicide, but it's clear fairly quickly that her relationship with the congressman was more than professional.

The dirty details of that story are of great interest to Della Frye (Rachel McAdams), who writes for the online version of Cal's paper, but she goes to the older reporter looking for help, as he and the congressman were college roommates and (we find out later) Cal and Mrs. Collins (Robin Wright Penn) are more than a little friendly as well. Cal blows Della off (the old-school print reporter's distaste for the young blogger is a detail that plays very believably), but before too long--you guessed it--their stories end up intertwined. Just once in my life, I will see a mystery movie where the two seemingly unrelated mysteries stay that way right up through the end credits.

So that's a convention that we could do without, and some of the characterizations--particularly Helen Mirren's impatient editor and Jeff Daniels' smarmy, corrupt politico--have been done to death. But the film's three crackerjack screenwriters--Matthew Michael Carnahan (The Kingdom), Billy Ray (Shattered Glass), and the great Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton and the Bourne series)--imbue even the smallest characters with depth and dimension; there are so many good lines, even the walk-ons get some.

Also worth noting is the script's refusal to throw Cal and Della into bed together; that kind of unnecessary action is less frequent these days, but the restraint is still worth singling out. Their relationship takes on a mentor/pupil air around the end of the first act, and the duo does right by it--and besides, the age difference would be too distracting. Speaking of distracting age differences, I'm not sure what kind of hard living we're to believe Cal has been doing since college; suffice it to say that that graying of the temples doesn't help sell us on the idea that baby-faced Affleck and gruff Crowe, eight years his senior, are the same age. Affleck is passable if not exceptional--I've never jumped on the Affleck-hating bandwagon (the unfortunate turns of his career circa 2003-2004 were the result of bad script choices, not bad acting), though he seems to be unsuccessfully reaching in his more emotional moments here.

McDonald (The Last King of Scotland) gets the atmosphere of the newsroom right (particularly in its final, late-night scene) and orchestrates the picture competently, though it drags a bit in the middle--you'll know things are picking up when Jason Bateman struts in (he's becoming a more and more valuable utility player). From there, the various story threads pull together into a nice, compact, satisfying ending--and then the film pulls the string one time too many, unraveling the whole damned thing.

I'm not sure who's to blame for the one-turn-too-many final beat (it may well have come from the source material), but it doesn't work; it feels like the writers are being clever purely for the sake of being clever. It's doesn't derail the entire picture, by any means--there's still plenty to recommend here, from the performances to the sharp dialogue to the brisk, rat-tat-tat action scenes. But it is the moment where you feel a great movie becoming a very good one.

State of Play is sharp and entertaining, and certainly solid enough to warrant a firm recommendation--and it is a film that holds up to repeat viewings thanks to its sturdy performances and skillful craftsmanship (and in spite of the viewer's knowledge of its outcome). But you may find yourself doing some re-edits of your own if you give it a second look.

"State of Play" hits DVD and Blu on Tuesday, September 1