The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Inglourious Basterds: Les Neiges d’Antan en Feu

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds features a couple of good acting performances, stylish cinematic flourishes, carnage on a grand scale, shameless amounts of directorial self-reference, and enough German, French, and Italian dialogue to tickle the ear of the starchiest Swiss film critic. Neutrality is not an option. Inglourious Basterds is essentially a rich and archly cross-eyed WWII farce, and if the reviews are an indication, it has a foot in two battling critical camps. Good camp or bad camp? Welcome to the Alsace and Lorraine of films.

Basterds relies on Tarantino’s most shop-worn storytelling conceit, the revenge fantasy. A group of Jewish American commandos parachutes into Nazi-occupied France to slaughter every German soldier they can lay their hands on. The leader of the Basterds, as they are known, is Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), known as Aldo the Apache because he demands that his men scalp each Nazi they kill. In a film populated by caricatures, Pitt’s jut-jawed, southern-fried Aldo could be the best. A scar on his neck hints at a close shave sometime in his past. Also a Basterd is Eli Roth’s baseball bat-wielding, Boston southy-bleating Sgt. Donny Donowitz, known as The Bear Jew, get it? The Basterds, the ostensible heroes of this black fairy tale, are pretty flat characters, flat as the screen on which the audience witnesses them carry out a humorously sadistic campaign of cosmic vengeance.

The real hero is the young Frenchwoman Shosanna Dreyfus, played by Melanie Laurent, a pretty, fresh face. Hard not to notice that only the two star Jewish characters are portrayed by fairer-haired, lighter-eyed actors – Pitt and Laurent. Anyway, Shosanna owns a movie theater in Paris, where she hides in plain sight from the Nazi occupation forces (a circumstance never completely explained in the story.) When the Nazi brass decides to hold the Reich-studded premiere of a propaganda film produced by Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) about the exploits of a young German sniper (Daniel Bruel) at her theater, Shosanna sees an opportunity to enact her own revenge fantasy. Meanwhile the Basterds get wind of the event, too.

Standing in the way of the Nazi’s annihilation is a perfidious SS commander, Col. Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa, played by Christoph Waltz. In Landa, Tarantino delivers the captivating character of the film, a man whose fiendish cruelty writhes beneath a comically solicitous veneer. Waltz gets the best the script has to offer – including dialogue in no less than four languages – and he delivers in kind, a mandibular grin clawing across his face even as he verbally stalks his quarry. Never on film has the simple act of eating strudel been enough to make your flesh crawl.

The other memorable performance is by Denis Menochet, who plays a French dairy farmer, a man on whom Col. Landa works his distinctive brand of coercion in the film’s opening chapter. The man’s half-lidded eyes convey more genuine soul than anything else in the two hours that follow.

In typical Tarantino fashion, the five chapters that comprise the film practically stand alone as vignettes. Each has a distinctive setting and feel. Tarantino’s wide-angle to hard close-up shots of the dairy man’s face a la Sergio Leone, plus his generous use of Ennio Morricone’s distinctive Spanish-style arpeggio guitar themes (Morricone wrote the score for Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), these are reasons some (including Tarantino) have called Inglourious Basterds a spaghetti western, but that’s hardly the case. Tarantino uses those obvious devices most liberally in chapter one. The techniques are referential, but more importantly, they work. Indeed, chapter one probably works the best. The drama is real – the director lays it on thick, but we haven’t descended into full-on farce yet. The story becomes overly theatrical and disjointed thereafter as it bumps along. Visually, the film is richly styled, and Tarantino’s ear – for dialogue, for music (in addition to the Morricone, there’s some obscure David Bowie on the soundtrack) – keeps us in it. But the movie never really adds up to much more than Tarantino constructing his most provocative trope yet, Kill Bill hiding inside a film about a gang of Nazi-exterminating Jews. Even as two entirely separate movies, Kill Bill is a more cohesive and compelling whole than Basterds.

The graphic violence in Basterds is nothing new for Tarantino, though it does perhaps represent one of his many preoccupations as a filmmaker taken to the extreme. There’s nothing samurai about these guys. They’re blunt and brutal. But prize scalps are just another joke. The audience gets a kind of riotous send-up of all the things that make Tarantino Tarantino – gunplay, Mexican standoffs, and plans gone awry. Stilted dialogue heats the suspense to a boil. “Did you get that for killing Jews?” sneers Sgt. Donowitz to a captive German sergeant as he prods the black Germanic cross medallion on the man’s chest with the business end of a Louisville Slugger. The German sergeant fixes his executioner with a cold grey stare. I won’t divulge his one-word answer, but it’s badass.

Language, not violence, is at the heart of this movie. The dialogue alternates as much between French and German as English. The piles of subtitles are distracting and high-minded. Eyes want only to watch the characters on the screen.

But the extraordinary linguistic variation gives the film greater value, lending it dimension beyond farce, a classic cinematic feel to accompany the classic war-era look. If nothing else, the act of tuning the ear to a foreign language stretches the imagination. Suddenly Aldo the Apache’s florid down-home accent starts to sound exotic, as perhaps it was meant to all along.

Blood, Oil!, and the American Way

I guess it’s not giving much away to say that, in the new film by writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood, there is blood. Blood, oil, and baptismal water, symbolizing family, profit, and religion, are the humors that course through this story, inspired by Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel Oil!. There will be exclamation points!The movie follows the rise of a California oil prospector, Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis’s Plainview recalls his turn as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York – similar mustache, accent, and satanic intensity. In There Will Be Blood Day-Lewis does nothing to diminish his reputation as a captivating screen presence, arguably the finest feature film actor out there, and regarded by (at least) one female Millions contributor as one of the world’s handsomest men. Who am I to disagree?There is nothing attractive about the character of Daniel Plainview, however. The film opens with a wordless twenty or so minutes, maybe its most riveting sequence given the increasingly disjointed nature of what follows. It is 1898, and a solitary Plainview is shown cracking rocks in a pit surrounded by barren scrub desert. So the man’s fever for oil is immediately established. It is as though the earth itself is his enemy, like the impoverished family from whom he will, years later, swindle the land that becomes his prize oilfield. Force is what’s needed in both instances, be it that of the pickax or the pocketbook.Also established early on is the visual dexterity of Anderson’s direction. The contrast between desolate panoramas and tight close-ups of hard-bitten oilmen is reminiscent of Sergio Leone. I found it interesting that the music, composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, also seemed at times to echo Ennio Morricone’s unforgettable score for Leone’s classic spaghetti western, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Then too, that long opening sequence minus any dialogue seemed a direct reference to Leone’s masterpiece, which starts the same way.The story initially focuses on Plainview and his son, H.W., whose lack of a mother hints at a secret that Plainview keeps from the boy, ostensibly his “partner,” but more immediately a source of credibility for Plainview in his dealings with simpler folk. That’s the case in the deal that nets Plainview a parcel of land on which he hopes to make a big strike. Derricks soon dot the formerly pristine landscape.What Plainview doesn’t count on is competition for the loyalties of the townspeople and oil workers alike in the form of Eli Sunday, son of the poor goat rancher from whom Plainview buys the land. Eli Sunday, played by Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) leads the community’s fledgling church. Eli is something of a Holy Roller, a faith healer, an evangelist. In Eli, Plainview sees weakness: Eli is just a boy trading in manufactured faith – not like Plainview, who trades in something real, oil. Perhaps Plainview subconsciously recognizes that he and Eli are actually the same. Both pursue power and enrichment by selling a bill of goods. In Daniel Plainview’s case it is that the community as a whole will profit as he buys up its land and takes its oil. In Eli Sunday’s case it is that he can heal people’s bodies and cleanse their souls. False profit meets false prophet.It is a good setup, but the movie bogs down. Dano is cast to stand in sharp physical contrast to Day-Lewis (he acted with Lewis in 2005’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose). But there’s just no room for his Eli Sunday next to Day-Lewis’s berserk, mercurial Daniel Plainview. If there is a knock on Day-Lewis’ performance it’s that he doesn’t give Dano’s character any breathing room. This problem can maybe be traced to the weakness of the screenplay, which never allows for a plausible rivalry between the two. Then there’s Daniel Plainview himself, who, we learn, is a hardcore misanthrope. But why? Because he says so; he hates people. And he only gets worse and worse, drunker and drunker, as the movie goes on and on, clocking in at 150 or so minutes. Is booze the mundane root of Plainview’s problems then, his actual antagonist in this Greek tragedy? Might have to add that to the humors.I thought this was a movie about oil. Instead, it becomes a movie about so many things that any cohesive narrative arc is lost. Anderson takes the audience in too many different directions. Scenes become disjointed and episodic. Plot twists, such as the appearance of Plainview’s long lost brother, feel contrived, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly meets Jean de Florette.Sinclair’s Oil! is the same way, starting out great and declining rapidly. It is interesting to note how different the original story is from the movie that it inspired. In Sinclair’s saga, Dad is a pretty reasonable guy, if prone to the capitalistic sympathies of a self-made oil tycoon. The story is told from the point of view of his son, Bunny, who, incidentally, does have a mother. And instead of evangelical religion, it is the workers movement, for which Bunny develops an unlikely affinity, that is the foil for the book’s central conflict. The rise of Bolshevism and the corresponding Red Menace hysteria that grips America in the wake of the Great War makes the oil magnates uneasy, and Sinclair strips bare the greed of men who have everything, but refuse to compromise.What I enjoyed most about Oil! were the occasional passages, echoing through many years of cultural change, that ring as true now as they must have back when the book was first published. The book opens with a description of Dad guiding their automobile through the hills of Southern California with an eye out for “speed-traps” – in 1912. I also enjoyed this little tangent concerning Bunny’s apprehensions as to the atmosphere surrounding sports at his college:…just as with the oil game… all the football and track and other athletic glory that had come to Southern Pacific had been stolen, and “Young Pete” O’Reilly was the thief! The oil king’s son had put up a fund of fifty thousand dollars every year, for the purpose of turning the game of college athletics into a swindle! The fund was administered by a secret committee of alumni and students, and used for the purpose of going out into the market and buying athletes, to come and enroll themselves under false pretenses and win victories for S.P.U…. and the pious Methodists who constituted the faculty were conniving at the procedure, to the extent of permitting these young huskies to pass farcical examinations – well knowing that any professor who presumed to flunk a promising quarterback would soon be looking for some other university to presume in.That passage was written no later than 1926 (note the exclamation points, like little oil derricks dipping down into a well). However, as true as it is, this sort of moral muckraking on the part of Bunny does not make for a breezy 548 page read, and that’s why this book is more instructive than good.The free-radical that resides in both There Will Be Blood and Oil! is a moral agenda that supersedes the story. Oil! is less a novel than a vehicle through which Sinclair seeks to make important points about the relationship of big business to labor, and the corruption that inevitably follows an unchecked grab for profit. Anderson’s agenda in There Will Be Blood is more subtle, but cloying to someone who wishes only to sit down and watch a good movie and not be preached to. Hard not to recognize dual indictments just beneath the surface of Anderson’s story: that of Big Oil companies, which, as we all know, trade in the destruction of the environment (and manipulate gas prices, making it more expensive for your average starlet to drive her Hummer half a block to Ralph’s – you’d think the price of cooking the planet would be cheaper), and the conservative right wing of the Republican party, dominated by the influence of Evangelical Christianity. Nuff said on that count, I think.Oh Hollywood, where would we be without your guiding hand to show us to the truth? It’s not that I don’t share some of the political sentiment. I just wish that hand wasn’t so darn heavy.

Surprise Me!

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