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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reel Madness: 'Inglourious Basterds' and 'Precious'

When I started jotting down my thoughts for these I knew I'd be getting some shit for what I'd be saying about 'Inglourious Basterds'. I'm sure I'll be getting shit about it for years to come. The truth, really, is that Tarantino's latest was hard to quantify because while I found it to be very entertaining the first time, I wasn't quite as engaged in my subsequent viewing.
We never got this poster.
 The first time I watched 'IB' I enjoyed it a lot and found that it clipped along despite my relative disinterest in the Basterds themselves. The second time, I found it interminable. I do realize emotional state can play a lot into enjoyment of a movie (for an example of that, look no further then my Brother. He's pissy all the time and therefore hates any movie that isn't a retro-kitsch pastiche fest or has no muskets being loaded) so I do need to see it again; in the meantime, all I can go on is the fact that the first time was the peak, the second the valley.

Maybe the minor flaws from the first time had become more glaring with hindsight. I never really cared for the titular Basterds as they seem very much like throwaway badasses with little to set them apart excusing their differing degrees of supposed badassery. I hadn't realized how much of the movie's tension is diffused by the fact that they ultimately don't really matter. The Basterds apparently really annoy Hitler but we never see why they'd happen to be more irksome then say, the German defeat at Stalingrad. These guys are a public relations nightmare, that's clear and we definitely see that the German soldiers live in absolute terror of the guys. But I don't know how that's a worse threat then being sent to the Eastern front where you could be eaten by a bear (this is a Tarantino movie so I'm not ruling it out). The possibility that the entire Russian campaign never happened in this universe is there though, since we never see or hear anything about it. But the fact that the Eastern Front was home to most aspects of the Holocaust would seem to give context to the Basterds remorseless torture of the Nazi's they meet, right?

I'm reading into this too deeply aren't I?

Anyway I'm going to say that the Basterds just hate Nazi's arbitrarily in reflection of the fact that they kind of don't matter so much to the movie. More than half of them are dispatched off-screen so I think around the time Tarantino was watching the dailies he realized the movie really only needed to be about one thing anyway: Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa.

Make no mistake; the movie wouldn't be half as interesting without Waltz. The first time I saw it, he was all I could talk about; the second, all I still liked. The performance is so strong and engaging I think that's the problem I had with the next viewing: I didn't care about anyone but him. There's an immense amount of time spent on the Basterds not really mattering. Sure they shoot up Hitler and the boys but that's ultimately pointless since Shoshanna blows up the theater anyway. Since it's obvious that Landa recognizes Shoshanna, it's apparent that he was going to have Hitler killed anyway. The fact that we never get any real insight into why is a testament to how entertaining the performance is: we find out very little about Landa other then he enjoys the nicknames he's earned. Maybe he wanted to be "The man who between two simultaneous plans, indirectly killed Hitler"?
We never got this one either. I liked Eli Roth in the movie; he should stick to stuff like this and not make any more 'Hostel' movies. I wonder if that funky gun got a big scene the way that bat did.

I don't know what was cut from the film as it was originally planned to be a lot longer. Maybe there was more about Landa's different motivations and how he became such an insidious puppet master. Perhaps there was more to make Private Zoller less sympathetic and therefore more deserving of his fate. I do know that a big deal in made out of introducing Hugo Stiglitz who ultimately doesn't end up doing much outside of the stylish montage that introduces him. I'm not sure if that's a function of German film star Til Schweiger needing face time for international appeal or if Tarantino just really liked the name 'Hugo Stiglitz'.

On that note, I have to say Shoshanna's story was less interesting during the second go-round. Her part of the movie has the most dramatic moments and it's sad because I think on its own, the events would be even more effective. As it is, a lot of their impact is softened by the fact that she doesn't realize the fact that she's in a comedy. I think Tarantino's a great filmmaker, but I also think he's trapped because at this point everyone expects him to make a 'Tarantino' movie and if he goes away from that he ends up with something like 'Jackie Brown'. The fact that 'JB' made over quadruple its budget doesn't seem to conceal the fact that it's the least liked of his movies by audiences (edging out 'Death Proof' by a hair, apparently). The moments we spend with Shoshanna are among the most realistic Tarantino's committed to film but those damn Basterds get in the way of it being taken too seriously. Then again, that could be the point: Quentin doesn't want to be taken seriously and he's secretly laughing at all the reviews claiming that 'IB' is about the destructive power of art.

Still, a lot more has to be said about how the movie makes it fictional Nazi characters more interesting and sympathetic than the American battalion after which the movies named. I've not really looked into it yet, but I imagine that Aldo Raine's crew of roughnecks end up having less screen time in comparison as well.

I think this is the one that best reflects the movie's concept. As you can imagine, we never got it. I think part of why the Weinstein Co. is on the verge of bankruptcy is because they made about 20 different posters for this.

Maybe with the next viewing of 'Inglourious Basterds' everything will distill for me properly. The expectations I had for it going in the second time could have caused it to curdle in my mind prematurely or I might have just been in the wrong kind of mood for that kind of movie. Either way, I know Tarantino's capable of more precise films than this and I'd hate to see him descend into grotesque self-parody the way Sam Raimi is quickly doing. I think the fact that he's kept the tones of his movie's very consistent will help as there won't be quite as much of that 'sad old man trying to relive his past' feeling. 'Drag Me to Hell' was a master class in that, and I don't think QT could make a movie that bad if he tried.

I'll say that my Dad loves Tarantino to the point where anything that he worked on outside of a producing capacity was a theater-going must for us when I was younger; he really disliked 'Basterds' and it's the only thing Quentin's worked on that he didn't care for.

Then again he said Zach Snyder had officially become the Brian DePalma to Tarantino's Hitchcock when he saw the 'Sucker Punch' trailer so maybe we're both crazy.

This is a lot like 'Anatomy of a Murder'. We did get this poster and as far as I know it's the first one.

'Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire' was a surprising experience for me. I'd heard a lot of things about it beforehand but until I watched it, it just seemed to be this year's well-marketed tragedy of choice with only the fact that it was being distributed from Lionsgate, as opposed to Miramax in past years, setting it apart. They somehow pushed 'Crash' into the best picture slot and an eventual win so I was more than a little wary going in.

However, I was glad to see that Lee Daniels' took material that easily could have been given a pass for its dramatic power and turned out a truly engrossing film. True, the movie is relentless in heaping miseries upon its main character but none of it ever feels artificial. It's the complete opposite of 'A Serious Man' as the tragic elements bring us closer to the main character rather than pushing us away with their tonal inconsistency. Precious' reality is a cruel place, with little kindness or humor to be found so it's fitting that the movie doesn't have any one performance you can place above the others. A lot's been made of Mo'Nique's role as Precious' mother and I suppose that's the easiest one to reflect on since it's shocking how ugly they allow the character to be. Still, the comparisons to Lady Macbeth in reviews I've read seem truly bizarre in light of manipulation taking a backseat to abuse.

Either way, the film really is about the ensemble and how they all support the character of Precious, since her insights into them is what guides her towards a better life. The movie doesn't need to stand on any one performance to reach us and that is one of its greatest strengths. Really it only falters during one point: a strange scene that adopts a music video editing style that temporarily takes you out of what was happening around it. Everything around it is enough for that to be easily overlooked and I highly recommend 'Precious' as a whole. The fact that there's apparently a sequel in the works in disheartening as that seems very artificial; you want things to get better for Precious and by the end of the movie you're left with the hope that's what will eventually happen. Coming back for more seems less about being poignant and more about having arbitrary scenes of Precious’ Mother scream and throw appliances.

Of all the best picture nominees, this is the one that is the most arresting as far as drama goes. That may sound strange in a year when one of the nominees has a Robot fighting a Tiger, another lionizes a Nazi for his unsung manipulations towards killing his superiors and another is about a teenage girl finding out her older Beau is a total cad. It’s easy for something like ‘Precious’ to be ignored in light of it being a harsh experience and seeming like another drama generated to win awards (I’m looking at you ‘The Reader’, ‘Crash’, and ‘Babel’) but that works to its advantage. What it lacks in ‘nominee’ identity it makes up for with the excellence of its content. In the future, that will insure its impact rather than being forgotten the way something like 'Secrets and Lies' has been.

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