Thursday, August 27, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

The opening scene of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is so tense, so disquieting, so rife with real human drama that I almost assumed that Tarantino would try something different with this latest film. In this scene and a handful of others scattered across the film, Tarantino's trademark dialogue sounds more subdued and realistic than usual, and he demonstrates his skill at orchestrating tension followed by sudden releases of violence. But the film soon dissolves into an overlong, self-indulgent, violence-glorifying mess, filled with so many film references that one wonders if there is an original thought in the whole film. In short, Inglourious Basterds is just like every other movie Tarantino has made.

The titular Basterds are led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, in an amusing turn), a soldier from Tennessee whose squad is intent on "doing one thing, and one thing only - killing Nazis." The Basterds eventually get involved with a plot by the British army to blow up a Parisian cinema during the premiere of Joseph Goebbel's new film, which Hitler and the top-ranking Nazis will be attending. The cinema is run by Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew who escaped death at the hands of SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Unbeknowst to the Basterds, Shoshanna has her own plot to kill the Nazis.

Inglourious Basterds is a perfect example of a film that is less than the sum of its parts. The ensemble cast - assembled from America, France, and Germany - is terrific. Christoph Waltz in particular is a standout, delivering an alternately funny and terrifying performance as Landa, "the Jew Hunter." The period production design and costuming is exquisite, and Tarantino's eye for composition is undeniable. I keep returning to one inventive shot late in the film, when a shot of a laughing woman's face projected onto a burning movie screen becomes like a ghostly apparition.

But in the end, Inglourious Basterds falls apart due to Tarantino's excesses. The script is unwieldy, with several scenes dragging on far too long. More importantly, Tarantino never establishes a tone, and the film bizarrely shifts from war drama to farce to action movie to parody. There seems to be no unifying vision behind the film, unless it's another opportunity for Tarantino to throw together a bunch of disparate genres and loosely attach them to a storyline. Francois Truffaut once said that a movie must simultaneously express an idea about cinema and an idea about life. Tarantino's films have never bothered with real life, and indeed his movies can often be reduced to a list of their influences, ranging from Jean-Luc Godard to Sergio Leone.

More than anything, Inglourious Basterds reveals what an immature filmmaker Tarantino is. It seems to me that the film possesses no higher artistic goal than to watch Jews beat up Nazis real good. By the final scenes, in which we are treated to close-ups of Nazis being pelleted in the face with machine guns, I felt sickened and numb. Tarantino's films, I think, are essentially escapist entertainment, but his violence is often so graphic that you feel repulsed rather than entertained.

There may have been a time when Tarantino's combination of violence and humor, and his mishmashing of various genres, seemed original. Now it is tired and stale, the product of a director who refuses to grow up. It remains to be seen whether Tarantino will ever put aside his B movies, stop wallowing in his own cleverness, and make a movie that actually means something.

Verdict: **/****

DVD Recommendation: If you want a refreshing antidote to Tarantino, check out Martin McDonagh's In Bruges. That film is as violent, funny, and profane as anything Tarantino has done, but its characters are real people and not broad caricatures. It features a twisty, unpredictable script and the surprisingly effective comic duo of Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. Also check out my brother Matt's excellent blog post about the movie and the differences between McDonagh and Tarantino.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Quick update

Followers of this blog have probably noticed by now that my output has been much smaller lately, having only written three posts this summer. I suppose I could attribute this to my time commitments - at my internship, camp, and driver's ed among other things. But that would not be entirely truthful; general laziness is more to blame. I have been so caught up with watching as many movies as possible that writing about them has taken a backseat. In an effort to remedy that, I am setting a goal of one post a week. I hope this will help me to be more consistent!

Stay tuned later this week for a review of Truffaut's The Adventures of Antoine Doinel. I also intend to broaden this blog, including director retrospectives and other articles in addition to the regular movie reviews. And since I have never been entirely happy with the A-F rating scale, I might adopt a new one or simply not use any rating system. In the meantime, feel free to comment on my posts as it is encouraging to know that someone is reading. I welcome any comments, criticisms, and suggestions.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Network (1976)

Sidney Lumet's Network, like The Graduate, is a genre-bender of such generational importance and undeniable power that it is at first easy to overlook its flaws. Most of these trace back to Paddy Chayefsky's script, one of the most acclaimed in American film. It is an astute and prescient satire of American culture, yes, but it also has the unfortunate tendency to devolve into caricature and a lot of speechifying.

Network focuses on the fictional, lowly-rated television network UBS. When longtime, washed-up news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is fired, he announces on the air that he will kill himself. The controversy attracts much attention, so Beale is exploited and reinvented as "the mad prophet of the airwaves." Max Schumacher (William Holden), Beale's longtime friend and colleague, is fired and replaced by programmers Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) and Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), who will stop at nothing to get high ratings.

What is admirable about Network is the prophetic nature of its satire. Many things about Network are unbelievable, but the trashy Howard Beale Show looks more and more familiar every year. Years ahead of his time, Chayefsky seems to have predicted today's profusion of tawdry talk shows and mindless reality TV. And yet he is not so naive as to assume that things were ever entirely different. The film's moral center is Max Schumacher, Holden's character, who fancies himself an emblem of respectable journalism. Yet even he goes along with the Beale hysteria at first, only protesting when he is fired. No one is let off the hook in Network - least of all the TV viewers themselves, who are portrayed as passive, complacent players in the whole machine. An extremely cynical view, yes, but one the film expresses quite cleverly. In the movie's most famous scene, young people from all across the country, prompted by Beale's mad ramblings, yell out the window that they're "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore," a line regurgitated by an eager audience before each taping of the show. It is a frightening scene, and one that perfectly expresses how the masses can get behind a mindless catchphrase while thinking they are saying something meaningful.*

That is a skillful device, but much of Chayefsky's script suffers from a lack of such invention. Rather, he resorts to characters dishing out carefully worded monologues. Mind you, they sound great - until you realize that no one speaks that way in person. Chayefsky's script also suffers from tonal inconsistency, bouncing somewhat incongruously from satire to farce to drama. And many of his supporting characters are goofy caricatures; actors like Peter Finch, Ned Beatty, and Robert Duvall have little to do but rant and rave. The only actors who manage to give fully rounded performances are Faye Dunaway, William Holden, and Beatrice Straight in a small role as Holden's wife. Holden, especially, is terrific, injecting his role with sarcastic bite while remaining a likable, flawed character who is fully aware of his faults and limitations.

If there is one person who elevates Network to something greater than the sum of its parts, I am convinced it is Sidney Lumet. The director lacks any obvious auteurist touches, but as with 12 Angry Men, he does a superb job of building dramatic tension. Network also reveals that Lumet has a talent for comedy, and he never lets the film become too self-important. Finally, Lumet and his cinematographer Owen Roizman create a series of memorable images, from the famous "mad as hell" scene to the final, indicting shot.

In the end, the overall effect of Network is so powerful that its many imperfections almost seem not to matter. In one of the film's most affecting scenes, Holden asks Dunaway to love him, "primal doubts and all." She cannot accept him that way, but I embrace Network, inherent flaws and all.

Verdict: B+

*I don't mean to get political, but I keep thinking of this video.