Monday, August 24, 2009

Tarantino, that glourious basterd!

World War II has been covered so extensively on film by so many gifted directors — and some hacks — that any true originality in the genre was mined long ago. Quentin Tarantino found a way around all the worn plots with this audacious strategy in his intentionally misspelled Inglourious Basterds: he wrote his own version of the war.

That’s right, he just made stuff up. That should be sacrilege to history, especially since WWII is hallowed ground even 60-plus years after its end. But Tarantino gets away with it — he gets away with everything — because his film provides a catharsis that the war itself could not provide. In his version of events, the war ends after a rag-tag group of Jewish Americans stage a mass execution of German high command in a little French movie theater. Film buffs should have fun with that movie theater part. Only Tarantino, a noted film buff, could stage a gunfight in a projection booth. Only Tarantino could kill Hitler with in an inferno fueled by nitrate film stock. Only Tarantino would have a movie critic parachute into Nazi-occupied Europe to help end the war.

Full of likeable every-guy heroes, menacing German villains, seductive femme fatales, fully-dressed locations and sets, exquisite costumes of square-shouldered Gestapo overcoats and tatty American tank tops and fatigues, and a variety of languages (German, French, Italian, English), Inglourious Basterds is, for the most part, your run-of-the-mill World War II movie. But Tarantino filters the story through his movie-loving brain to produce this mish-mash of cocaine-induced hyper-stylized film homages. The title may refer to its heroes, a troop of vigilante soldiers who have no higher command to answer to, but it also refers to the bastardization of other film genres to tell its story.

It’s been widely reported that Tarantino wanted to merge a classic war movie with an epic Spaghetti Western. At one point the film was going to be called Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France, an allusion to the famous cowboy opera by Sergio Leone, an obvious influence here. Remarkably, almost inexplicably, QT accomplishes this Frankenstein-like assembly and then gives it the juice it needs to stomp through Kraut-occupied France in one of the most daring films of the year. Daring because you must adopt a new WWII history and also because impatient Tarantino fans will likely be challenged as the dialogue proves to be painstakingly, yet pleasantly, prosperous and the violence is shortlived, albeit quite gory when it does finally turn up in a head-smashing homerun derby.

The first scene could easily be right from a Leone film: a French farmer hosts an unannounced SS officer during his search for Jews in the countryside. They talk slowly, carefully. The Nazi is given milk. They smoke from pipes. The tension builds. They’re playing chess with their dialogue. A couple minutes stretches into a dozen. The officer is smart. The farmer is trapped. By the time the Nazi asks, “Are you hiding Jews in this house?” the man has tears streaming down his face. Like Leone, Tarantino allows dialogue to serve as suspense.

Not all of the dialogue is as flowery, though. Consider Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the leader of the Basterds, a group of American troopers sent into France to scalp Nazis first and ask questions … well, never. Raine talks like he learned English from a drill instructor: “You probably heard we ain’t in the prisoner-takin’ business. We in the killin’ Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin’.” Each word is nearly grunted, but he grunts to an unheard rhythm, and Pitt grins from behind the character, a stone-cold killer reduced to lovable miscreant if only because history has allowed us to hate Nazis as much as him.

Raine’s patrol includes a bat-wielding slugger nicknamed the Bear Jew, and German defector Hugo Stiglitz, who’s introduced in a Blaxploitation style so bold his name should include exclamation marks. The Basterds roam the countryside, tallying up notches on the butts of their Garands, Thompsons and, in the case of the Bear Jew, his bloody Louisville Slugger. A British general eventually concocts a plan to assassinate a number of high-value German officials — we know their names: Goebbels, Bormann, Hitler — as they debut a new propaganda film showing the Third Reich flourishing.
The movie, of course, is some kind of Leni Riefenstahl parody involving a German sharpshooter who single-handedly kills upwards of 300 GIs.

I will let you discover where it goes from there, and trust me when I say that Tarantino will not hesitate doing anything. His movies are exciting in that way: they can go in any direction, and they’re bound by no formula. Tarantino movies are also hilarious, and this one is no exception. I will say that there are some wonderful performances by Diane Kruger, as a German double agent Bridget von Hammersmark, and French actress Mélanie Laurent, who has a wonderful scene set to the anachronistic music of David Bowie’s “Cat People.”

German actor Christopher Waltz should be a shoe-in for an acting nomination this year for his role as Col. Hans Landa, the officer from the first scene and many others like it. His dialogue is prepared so meticulously, with reverence to the needs of the movie and of the character, yet he explodes from the pressed Nazi uniform. He’s one of the most demented characters created this year, and somehow also one of the most electric and captivating.

Pipe-smoking Landa, the Basterds, the exploding cinema … the imagery, almost iconic in stature, will likely remind people of Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, another original WWII film. In one of the more perversely metaphorical scenes from that film, a woman gives birth inside a bombed-out tank, bullet belts serving as stirrups. Basterds attempts another coup on the genre with potent images, punchy dialogue and this punk energy that only Tarantino can produce.

Inglourious Basterds is the most originally entertaining film of the year, and it earns it with every scene.

Friday, August 14, 2009

"What came first: the music or the misery?"

This is the first in a series of essays about great films from the first decade of the 21st Century. I'll pick a new movie each week leading right up to my final list in December 2009.

High Fidelity
is a brutal examination on men’s various failures, namely in one department — women. The fact that it speaks so eloquently to both sexes, though, is one of its strongest points.

It’s shot as one man’s testimonial to his own shortcomings. He speaks to us right from the screen in a way that’s so conversational we’d respond back if listening weren’t so enjoyable. He begins the film pointing blame and he ends it accepting responsibility. Between the two points we can plot how he learns of, and course-corrects, his many deficiencies, and how he slowly backs away from the vast precipice that leads to the loneliness of middle age.

The man in the film is Rob Gordon, a hopeless neurotic covered in flannel and corduroy played by the only man capable of making him real, John Cusack, who is so instantly likeable that we cringe a little when we find out he cheated on his girlfriend when she was pregnant and that his affair directly led to her getting an abortion. “You fucking asshole!” his sister screams at him while we sadly nod in agreement. But Rob’s not all bad, and we spend much of the early part of the film getting to know him and his path through life, which plays like a worn spot on a piece of carpet.

Rob owns a record store, Championship Vinyl, in a tucked-away corner of Chicago where foot traffic is at a minimum. In one of many breaking-the-fourth-wall moments, Rob tells us: “I get by because of the people who make a special effort to shop here — mostly young men — who spend all their time looking for deleted Smiths singles and original, not re-released, Frank Zappa albums. Fetish properties are not unlike porn. I’d feel guilty taking their money, if I wasn’t … well … kinda one of them.” He employs two record store snobs, Dick and Berry, who dissect customers’ musical tastes like parade commentators, but with the viciousness of wolves. When business is slow they create hypothetical Top 5 lists of things like Best Track-One Songs or Great Songs About Death, to which Barry (Jack Black) opines about “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot and “Leader of the Pack” (“The guy beefs it on his motorcycle”).

The Top 5 motif is the theme for the film as Rob takes us through his Top 5 All-Time Breakups after his girlfriend of several years, Laura, leaves him in the first scene. Maybe to make her mad, or just to dilute the love he truly feels for her, Rob leaves Laura off the list: “There’s just no room for you in the top five. Sorry, those places are reserved for the kind of humiliation and heartbreak you’re just not capable of delivering.” Slowly, across the framework of the rest of the film, Rob narrates the five breakups. First there was the six-hour relationship with Allison in junior high, followed by virginal Penny in high school. Extrovert Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones) was in college, and that breakup wrecked Rob — “Some people never got over Vietnam or the night their band opened for Nirvana. I guess I never got over Charlie.” Then there was Sarah, whose self-medication included lonely, broken men.

Your math is correct and that’s only four women; the fifth is eventually deleted to make room for Laura, who Rob determines he will never forgive and then in the same breath admits he loves for eternity. Rob can be every man in the world with his post-breakup flaws — the hurt, the regret, the selfish anger, the reckless stalking, the obsessive analysis and deep introspection — and yet he can also be completely unique in this intelligently penned script, based on a Nick Hornby novel of the same name but originally set in Britain.

I’ve talked a lot about Rob, but Laura is a key factor here, even if she’s put on a pedestal for Rob and his audience to admire and pick apart. Actress Iben Hjejle plays her to absolute perfection. In her subtle and underplayed performance you can see what Rob fell in love with, and you can see why she feels beyond him and his adolescent, emo-tinged moping. Laura’s choices — the tantric-schooled pony-tailed Ian (Tim Robbins), the abortion, the inevitable forgiveness of Rob’s quirks — are not merely plot points for the film to slalom through during a race to the finish, but real events with real consequences. These are authentic people, dominated by realistic dreams and goals that you and I and 98 percent of the country has. Life is pulsing from these characters.

In fact, life’s pulsing from the whole movie. It all feels alive, every frame, which is nice since it’s all shot in Chicago, a city pulsing with eclectic energy. Not since John Hughes, or maybe The Dark Knight, has the city been given a kiss this sloppy-wet. And if there’s another non-human character to acknowledge it has to be the music, which is embedded in the DNA of High Fidelity. The film opens with a great first line and monologue: “What came first: the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, as if some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands — literally thousands — of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

The music provides not only the backdrop for Rob’s self-inflicted suffering, but the setting that's cascading out from behind Championship Vinyl, where Dick and Barry agonize over Green Day comparisons and Beta Band EPs, where Barry decides to start a band called Sonic Death Monkey, where Rob offers to make someone a mix tape and then realizes that mix tapes are so sacred they’re like a notch or two below actual sex, equal to at least foreplay. At every step, music is pulsing from either the soundtrack or the character’s thoughts. At one point Bruce Springsteen, half-heartedly plucking at a guitar, turns up in a dream, and it hardly seems surprising. This film is in love with music and, best of all, it understands music, especially good music.

Few movies have answers for everything, yet I think High Fidelity gets pretty damn close. From every crevice wisdom spills onto the screen, creating a tapestry of bizarre life lessons. Like, for example, how do you make a mix tape? “First of all, you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel; this is a delicate thing.” Can Peter Frampton ever sound amazing? The movie says yes, when sung by a woman, or just Marie De Salle (“Is that … Peter. Fucking. Frampton?”). And I’m convinced the meaning of the universe can be deciphered in the sentence, “I haven’t seen Evil Dead II yet.” Oh and there’s more:

• Rob describes how he tried to round second base with his make-out partner, failed, then tried to steal third out of desperation: “It was like trying to borrow a dollar, getting turned down and asking for 50 grand instead.”
• Describing a one-night-stand: “She’s kinda Sheryl Crowish crossed with a post-Partridge Family, pre-LA Law Susan Dey kinda thing, but you know … uh, black.”
• Rob on lonely people: “I could’ve wound up having sex back there. And what better way to exorcise rejection demons than to screw the person who rejected you, right? But you wouldn’t be sleeping with a person; you’d be sleeping with the whole sad, single-person culture. It’d be like sleeping with Talia Shire in Rocky if you weren’t Rocky.”
• Rob on bravery: “Should I bolt every time I get that feeling in my gut when I meet someone new? Well, I’ve been listening to my gut since I was 14 years old, and frankly speaking, I’ve come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains.”

Not since The Godfather has a movie been so instantly quotable.

High Fidelity is such a potent break-up movie that it will throw salt in all the wounds left by those you’ve loved and lost. If your thoughts don’t wander to your most recent breakup then I implore you to turn the film off until you find that state of mind. I’ve seen it many times and my mind always drifts back to one girl. When things were perfect they were perfect. Then it all fell apart. Hindsight being what it is I can see now that it would have never worked out — we were all wrong for each other from the very beginning. But the love is still there (even though she’s with an Ian). And if Rob teaches us anything, it’s this: Some relationships are born perfect, some just hold that form in our minds. Sometimes this movie is a laugh-out-loud riot, and other times it can be brutally, agonizingly poignant, the kind of movie you wrestle through because you see yourself or people you know in Rob’s shoes.

The movie also suggests that most women fall into five personality types: Allisons, Pennys, Charlies, Sarahs and Lauras. And most men are Dicks, Barrys, Ians or Robs. They represent each of us, and all of us at the same time. For a movie to define not only itself, but everyone else, is a rare thing indeed.