Wednesday, August 26, 2009

You Killed Quentin, You Basterd

Inglourious Basterds is my least favorite Tarantino film.

That being said, it might not be the worst QT project (but it might be that too). There are quite a few redeeming qualities to be found...and you don't even need to look that hard. The opening scene where Landa subtly interrogates the dairy farmer sets the film up to be a masterpiece. These two relatively unknown actors sliding well-crafted dialogue across the table to one another filled twenty of the most enjoyable minutes I've had this summer.

The introduction the titular characters, our Nazi-killing hero squad, was exactly what fans were waiting for. Head bashing, scalpings, and bright yellow Superfly graphics lead us to believe that the Tarantino roller coaster is right on track. What more exciting than watching the scalps come off, the skulls get cracked, and the swastikas get carved. By the end of the misleading scene, you're ready to be wowed in the usual Tarantino way. Unfortunately, that's pretty much where the fun stops.

Basterd's scenes take their time to develop, which helps the interrogation opening scene but serves as a detriment for others. For example, when Soshanna
is ordered to a luncheon with Fredrick Zoller and Nazi Propagandist Joseph Goebbells, the scene serves to move the plot along and then plays on and on until eventually the director's merciful enough to yell "cut!" The weak attempt to build suspense was fallible to anyone who'd ever seen a movie before. Follow that with the underwhelming "tavern scene," which was about twenty minutes too long, and you've created the perfect formula for an uninteresting second act.

The third act was definitely interesting but lacked the "coolness" flair that pushes Tarantino movies past their competitors. Bridget's plan to blow up Hitler and Co. was interesting enough but it have been better served as it's own movie and directed by a more subtle director. What happened here was that an interesting storyline (Jewish girl debates whether or not to blow up her beloved cinema to avenge her slaughtered family) battled it out with a captivating concept: (Jewish soldiers form a hit squad and they're promising 100 Nazi scalps a piece) and the first party won. Each plot could have been the basis of a great film but the combination of the two resulted in a...lackluster film.

Here are some other thoughts I've had since my opening weekend viewing:

* There were too many characters. The Basterds get lost amongst the rest of the cast and none of them, Brad Pitt included, are given nearly enough screen time.

* Too many long, drawn out scenes. Some of them try to build suspense (the luncheon scene, for example) but fail. Others just serve little to no purpose. "The other book was called '24 Frame DaVinci' and it was about...blah blah blah"

* Brad Pitt's character was a complete caricature. And I liked it. Some writers speculated that any shortcomings of the film would come from Pitt's performance but that's the least of Basterds' problems.

* Mike Myers' awful performance might have been the worst part of the entire movie. Did anyone else get that the fat guy was supposed to be Winston Churchill? Even the British film critic was completely unneeded. The scene was a shameful excuse for Tarantino to convince us that he knows about film pre-Vanishing Point. Bleh...

* Christoph Waltz (Landa) is the best part of Basterds. He acts his ass off and deserves a spot on any Top 5 Tarantino-Directed Performances list ever to be written. He refuses to let his character appear layerless at any point. Landa is the most developed character, partially because he gets so much screen time, but also because the script left room for the actor to flesh out the human behind the words.

* Overall, the biggest problem with the film is that it didn't know what it wanted to be. Was it trying to be a stylistic violent satire complete with Samuel L. Jackson voiceovers and Blaxploitation logos for introducing characters? A Coen Bros.-inspired dark comedy? An ultrapatriotic World War II fairy tale? My Dinner with Hitler? Even at 2 1/2 hours, the narrative spreads itself too thin and instead of getting one or two plots that we really care about, we get three or four that we don't.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Surprisingly Beautiful Monster

I've been working to watch every film on the AFI Top 100 list for a couple years now. The latest film knocked off my To See list was James Whale's Frankenstein. James Whale had built his career from making war films and when Universal offered him the chance to make a monster picture, he jumped at the chance. As pre-production began, the adaptation of Mary Shelly's novel proved to differ quite a bit from the source material. The quintessential image of the Frankenstein monster derives from the make-up design of Jack P. Pierce. Pierce was the one who came up with the electrodes sticking out of the monster's neck, the flat head, and even the small suit he wears.

This quintessential image is actually one of the reasons I never watched Frankenstein. Like The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars, anyone even remotely familiar with popular culture knows at least the basics of the story and the film. It became a Why Bother film. If I've basically seen the whole movie, what's the point in watching it from beginning to end? The important scenes were played in courses I'd taken or shown in documentaries or parodied in other films to the point where I felt familiar with every one of Whale's frames. Had it not been for the AFI Top 100, I might not have ever watched this incredible classic.

Old monster movies aren't usually my favorites. They're enjoyable but not usually much to write home about. Frankenstein is different. The writing is remarkably strong as are the film's performances. Boris Karloff, as the titular character, gives a much deeper performance than I assummed he would. Instead of a monotone beast and killer, this film's protagonist is pushed to kill, tortured whenever humans get the chance, and treated like a sadistic evil instead of a misunderstood creation. From the very beginning, the creature is labeled as evil, as his brain used to belong to a criminal. This logic serves as the justification for a number of terrible acts against the non-verbal science experiment. What's interesting about Frankenstein is that the most horrific acts are committed by humans. That being said, while the audience is supposed to sympathize with the creature, the motivation of the townspeople is understandable and even the last scene seems somewhat justified.

One of the film's best scenes follows Maria's father as he carries his daughter's limp body through the festival. The sounds of the cheerful crowd plays against the speechless father's desperation as he approaches town hall. As he moves through the festivities, the joy around him quickly turns into outrage. In moments, those jovial Swiss turn into an angry mob. This scene clearly depicts the development of "mob mentality" and how quickly it can spiral out of control.

Frankenstein is surprisingly beautiful film. The cinematography is exquisite and somehow the film quality looks just as crisp and clean as Young Frankenstein (1974). The look of the film mirrors the German Expressionism movement. Dr. Frankenstein's castle is made to look giantic, not unlike the sets of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Metropolis (1927). This great style, along with the other positive attributes, make Frankenstein a must-see, even if you think you've seen it all before.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Paddy Cake Paddy Cake, Sexy Man

Paddy Considine is one of the world's most underrated actors. This man can carry a project on his back without breaking a sweat. Up until a few months ago, I only knew him as the dad in In America. Now that I've seen him in a few more films, I'm convinced that he's the man. The man.

Sometimes I watch movies at random. I'll pick one out, sometimes based on the cover art, sometimes just by reaching my hand out and grabbing a case, and go into the film blind. What are the odds that twice, in the last three months, the movies I chose starred My Man Paddy?

The first film was called Pu-239. A father finds out that he's going to die. That's what happens when you work at a decrepit Romanian nuclear power plant. Not wanting to admit any fault, the company puts as much distance as possible between themselves and their sick employee. What happens when you screw over someone that you've given access to nuclear technology? He steals that technology and heads on over to the black market to wheel and deal.

The second film was called Dead Man's Shoes. One pissed off guy takes on a violent gang who brutalized his mentally challenged brother. Donning a sweet looking gas mask and a slew of weapons, the ex-soldier begins picking of gangsters one-by-one. He stalks them, finds interesting ways to mess with their minds, and eventually exacts revenge. If you saw This is England, you already know how talented director Shane Meadows is. Paddy's good too, really good. This is one of those films I bought immediately after watching.

Paddy's also in Hot Fuzz, Cinderella Man, and The Bourne Ultimatium which is great because an actor this impressive deserves to get paid. But right now, his career is in that interesting place where he'll get medium-sized roles in big films and leading roles in smaller pictures. What's amazing is that both his mainstream and indie movies are really good. There's no sign of Paddy selling out yet.

This post is pretty much just a salespitch for the oeuvre of one man named Paddy.
Go check out Pu-239 and Dead Man's Shoes.
Then, if you see him on the street, shake his hand and say
"Thank you, Paddy Considine. Thank you."

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


What film are you most ashamed you've never seen?
2001: A Space Odyssey

When I was younger, I swore off "Slow Walking on Spaceships" movies forever. That Solaris remake burned me...burned me bad. But the trouble with sci-fi is that you never know which movies feature slow walking, with Darth Vader-like breathing sounds, and hours of monotony and which ones are Blade Runner. So I didn't see any of them. Through the years, I've started lifting the ban and watching more science-fiction. Now, movies like Sunshine and  Aliens are among my favorites.

Still, something has kept me from watching 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Maybe it's the 160 -minute running time. Maybe it's because I know that Michael J. Fox doesn't star in the film even if he's displayed prominently on the front cover.  Whatever the reason, I'm still ashamed that I've never seen one of the most highly-praised films of all-time.  

What film brings you the most shame? 

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tarantino's Top 20 Movies

Battle Royale, Anything Else, Audition, The Blade, Boogie Nights, Dazed & Confused, Dogville, Fight Club, Friday, The Host, The Insider, Joint Security Area, Lost In Translation, The Matrix, Memories of Murder, Police Story 3, Shaun of the Dead, Speed, Team America, and Unbreakable

My Top 20 Since 1992

Battle Royale
For those who still haven't seen Kinji Fukasaku's violent masterpiece--you really ought to. You're lucky, now it's on Netflix.  When I first wanted to see it, I had to head into Chinatown and seek out a Region 9 disc.  It's the Clockwork Orange of our generation.  You owe it to yourself to watch this.  Side note: skip the sequel.   

The Boondock Saints

Alicia Silverstone was my childhood love.  Somehow, a very young Gringocito saw a couple Aerosmith music videos and his life was changed forever.  Then Clueless came out and any chance for my homosexuality was eradicated.   The hair, the clothes, the slang--the early 90s still hold a special place in my heart.  Anyone remember that "He-he-helloooo" line from Party Girl?  The point is that I do.  A recent home screening of Clueless proved that even though Silverstone's career didn't hold much staying power, her best film still does.  

Dazed and Confused

The Descent
I had no idea what The Descent was about when I stepped into the theater.  Didn't know I was walking into the the best horror film of the past decade.  From the claustrophobic sets to the frightening plot twists, there just aren't many movies that can touch its overall horror.  

El Crimen Del Padre Amaro
Just after high school, I worked at a one-screen art house theater in a mostly Latino part of town.  After the Catholic Church banned this film we had sold-out shows every night.  For those who've seen it, you know that there's an especially offensive scene about an hour in. Well, every night, about sixty minutes after the lighted dimmed, an angry mob would storm out of the theater--looking for whoever was responsible for the offensive content they had just been subjected to.  Apparently, that was me.  After a couple nights of being yelled at by angry Catholics, I decided that I'd actually watch the movie.  When I did, I was immediately blown away.  The narrative is entrancing, the acting is phenomenal, and the controversy is in full-effect.  It's definitely earned a spot in my Top 20 list.

The Fugitive

I know...I know...I know.  There's just something about Hackers that won't let me go.  The music, the outdated technology, the ultra-cool underground nerd society.  Would you believe that this movie pushed Barton Fink off the list?  I debated about whether or not it deserved to be on the Top 20 but, if I'm being honest, it does, and not at the bottom either.

He Got Game

High Fidelity
Any He Shot Cyrus reader knows how much I adore High Fidelity.  I want to be Rob but I'm so afraid that I'll become Dick that I live my life as Barry.  Something like that.  It's my #2 film of all-time (right after The Warriors) mostly because it accurately describes my post-high school life.

Jurassic Park

Kill Bill Vol. 1

I recently attended a screening of Matinee and got to meet Joe Dante, the man to thank for  Gremlins, Explorers, and The Howling.  We both agreed that Matinee hasn't received a fair shake since it's release.  This is a special film which honors a different age of filmgoing set against a tense time in American history.      

Old Boy

Reservoir Dogs
It's fitting that while filling out my own Top 20 list that two of QT's films have found slots on the order. Reservoir Dogs appeals to me for all the same reasons it appeals to everyone else.  The cast, the performances, the story (just as contained as I desire), the violence, and the music.  He's the only director to show up twice and as happy as that makes me, the fact that the Coen Bros. leaves me wishing for a 21st choice. 

The Sandlot

If High Fidelity represents my post-high school life, then Superbad represents the four years before.  There won't ever be a character on-screen that more accurately portrays who I was during my teens than Seth (Jonah Hill).  We told the same jokes, wore the same awful clothes, and sported the same hairdo.  This kid was me, I was this kid.  It's a very cool experience to connect with a character like that.

The Truman Show


Waiting for Guffman
Choosing my favorite Christopher Guest film proved to be much more difficult than I imagined. Eventually, Parker Posey giving praise to the DQ pushed Guffman to the top.

What are your Top 20 Films since 1992?

District 9

Amidst the sea of positive reviews, a few lone vessels carry a different message: District 9 is undeserving of the praise it's receiving.  While it surely meets and exceeds the expectations for  a "summer blockbuster," the reviewers attempting to describe the film as anything but just that, a summer blockbuster, are painting an inaccurate picture.  Director Neil Blomkamp has constructed a flawed film that resorts to stereotypical undertones which seem out of place in such a state-of-the-art project.  

District 9's most serious problem comes with the film's portrayal of racial groups, specifically, the portrayal of all Nigerians as violent, cannibalistic savages.  Within the ninth district, the area of Johannesburg  where the government have placed the extraterrestrials, a gang of Nigerians (the only Nigerians represented in the film and who are only referred to as "Nigerians") extort the "prawns" through food scams and unfair trades.  

Besides their shady business deals, the entire Nigerian people are shown as voodoo/black magic practicing madmen.  A wild-maned woman dances around holding a bloody alien limb, encouraging the gang leader to feast upon the meat in order to gain supernatural powers.  The scene is reminiscent of the James Bond film Live and Let Die as well as countless older films and cartoons in which the dark man is depicted as savage.  

It's also not okay to subtitle the Nigerian characters when they speak English--especially when the equally incomprehensible white characters are not.

One reviewer who's been receiving much flack for his negative review of District 9 is New York Press' Armond White.  His review, entitled, "From Mothership to Bullship" has sparked a lot of controversy and name-calling.  The whole mess escalated as Roger Ebert stepped to White's defense only to renege shortly after.  Campaigns have been organized against White and hoards of online scribes have called for his job. 

What is it about D9  that's causing so many intelligent people to act so defensive/hostile against naysayers?  Is it because the film takes place outside of the U.S.?  Because it features arguably inaccurate allegories involving South African apartheid?  Or are bloggers just really happy to see a sci-fi flick a little different than the rest?  Whatever it is, the swarm of praise is getting ridiculous and what's disappointing about the whole situation is that films like Bigelow's The Hurt Locker will get pushed aside when it comes time to remember Summer '09.      

Saturday, August 15, 2009

I Found True Love at the Movie Theater

On a crisp winter morning, I trekked into a small town whose sidewalks were covered in snow and whose streets were jam-packed with out-of-towners all willing to crawl over their own neighbor in hopes of touching fame. Wrapped in their trendiest scarfs, these importants ruined fancy shoes and tarnished expensive pant cuffs as they trudged from event to event. Dinners, wine tastings, and concerts served as a distraction from the fact that it was nearly impossible to participate in the main draw: the films.

Armed with a black windbreaker and butter croissants, I entered the hotel lobby prepared to drink in cinema, take brilliant notes, and write a dazzling review. The lights dimmed, the crowd settled, and the projector flashed. It was then that I met her.

500 Days of Summer

We spent the next two hours laughing, dancing, and getting to know one another. She taught me about The Smiths, I offered her a butter croissant (she passed), and we enjoyed each other's company. At first, my pen jotted things down like, "the counter is great" and "how long until Zooey sings?" but after a few minutes in my pen was no longer needed. This review was going to write itself. Like the review for the Lil Wayne documentary I'd unfortunately been privy to earlier that week.

The way she ignored linear storytelling models
made my heart flutter.

And then, just like that, our time was up. The lights raised, the crowd dispursed, and the projector flickered off. And I was alone. The next six months found me desperately grasping on to anyone who merely mentioned her existence. "Have you seen her? Where did you see her? Do you know where she is now? How's she been?"

Now she's back.

I ran down to the theater. Ticket in hand. Lights low. Crowd larger.

Turns out...she just wanted me for my money.