Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Tarantino's World War II Fever Dream

Quentin Tarantino always manages to deliver astonishing setpieces in his films, and Inglourious Basterds opens with one of his most masterful--an excruciating cat-and-mouse game between a French farmer and the movie's principal heavy, SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz).

The wonder of the sequence lies not in its Swiss-watch precision (we've come to expect as much from the motor-mouthed auteur), but in its subtle artistry. It begins in the most pastoral of south-of-France countrysides, and escalates with ambling leisure: Neither man raises his voice above the most gently-civil of conversational tones, and Tarantino avoids manipulation with music cues until the scene's climactic payoff. It is, in short, twelve minutes of pure, undiluted genius.

That opening promises a work of unparalleled maturity that, put bluntly, Tarantino doesn't quite follow up on. But if this World War II opus is just a typical Quentin Tarantino joint, that still renders it more ambitious, distinctive, and electrifying than 99.9% of the faceless product clogging multiplexes in these devalued times. And that's more than good enough for me.

Tarantino's detractors will surely find grist for their mill here. The director still hurtles ultraviolence at the screen with the childish enthusiasm of a grade-schooler jamming baby carrots up his nose in the lunchroom for laughs; and incorporating this approach into the very real horrors of Naziism and World War II Jewish persecution feels a little irresponsible.

The guy also takes a Molotov cocktail to historic accuracy. In the interest of making this a spoiler-free zone, let's just say that Quentin Tarantino may be the only director alive with the hubris to make up his own end to World War II (get ready for some ridiculous answers on the next World War II History quiz you give, high school teachers of America).

But it's hard to give a rat's ass about those nitpicky points. Tarantino crafts rare cinematic birds--his movies sport a distinctive and idiosynchratic sensibility that still connects with large audiences. In non-nerd-speak, that means he makes exactly the kinds of movies he wants to make, while still managing to get lots of butts into theater seats. Nice trick.

Damn, there's a lot to love here. Visually, it's far and away the most sumptuous thing Tarantino's committed to film, all period lushness filtered through vivid pop-art colors. And the soundtrack (largely borrowed Ennio Morricone pieces, peppered with anachronistic detours by David Bowie and others) puts the director's great taste in tunes front and center once again.

The director's trademark layering of disparate subplots, all tying together in the closing reel, continues to flourish. So in addition to the Jewish-American Nazi killers of the title, Tarantino throws in an engaging almost-romance, a plot to assassinate several key Third Reich players, one of the most entertaining (and brutal) Mexican Standoffs in movie history, a vendetta-fueled conflagration, and a smorgasbord of cinematic references. His scripted dialogue still sings, too (no one but no one today writes characters' voices with such a perfect combination of pulp showiness, humor, and emotional honesty).

Tarantino directs with such stylistic verve that it's easy to forget his Midas touch with his actors. Brad Pitt actually mines some comic gold as the cracker leader of the Basterds (talk about crafting a silk purse out of a thespian sow's ear), and I love Melanie Laurent's vulnerable avenging angel of a French jew. But the breakout character of the movie (Basterds' Jules Winnfield, if you will) has gotta be Waltz's alternately cultured and menacing Colonel Landa. He's the kind of quotable, charming, and deeply scary villain most mainstream movies (and more than a few Oscar voters) would kill for.

Basterds' pockets are so overstuffed that it's almost too much sometimes. Tarantino creates incidental characters so interesting and fun that it damn near stings when they disappear or die after just a few minutes of screen time (might I suggest a whole movie built around Til Schweiger's badassed Hugo Stiglitz, pretty please?). And the director's so enraptured in letting his characters talk (and talk...and talk...) that the verbal theatrics occasionally take their toll on the pacing.

That's where seeing it again pays off. And yes, I saw it twice in as many days.

Knowing exactly when the movie's going to slow down for character-based chitchat allows you to savor the music of Tarantino's dialogue. The brutality's a bit easier to swallow (or at least to turn away from) with hindsight. The uneven tone (It's over-the-top comic/bloody action junk food! No, wait...It's the moving story of a Jewish girl on the run...No, wait...) doesn't jerk you out of the moment. And dyed-in-the-wool nerds can relish the references more thoroughly. Just like any overstuffed banquet table, you get the most out of Inglourious Basterds by going back for seconds.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dirty Not-Quite Dozen: The Inglorious Bastards (1978 edition)

I'm such a Quentin Tarantino loyalist that I fully intend to plunk down my sawbucks for opening weekend of Inglourious Basterds--this despite the presence of one of the least skilled A-list actors in history, and a deliberate misspelling that just drives me nuts (I'm far from anal about grammatical flouting, except when it comes to cuss words. Cuss words should never be writ with anything but the most pinpoint precision).

But Tarantino's mega-budget event flick'll have to go a long way to be as entertaining as the first movie (sort of) bearing the title.

The original Inglorious Bastards (now THAT'S how you spell 'bastards'!) hit international screens in 1978 with little fanfare. At its modest core lives a classic Dirty Dozen set-up: A group of condemned military miscreants--deserters, thieves, murderers--are accidentally sprung free when their convoy gets massacred by German fighter planes in France; then they spend the rest of the movie on the run from German and Allied Forces until a twist of fate offers them redemption.

No, the wheel ain't reinvented here. But does it really need to be? Director Enzo Castellari delivers vivid pulp characters and thrills aplenty on a shoestring budget, the action scenes fly fast and furious, and two of the most entertaining tough guys of the 1970's--Bo Svenson and Fred 'The Hammer' Williamson--stand at the forefront of this cinematic pissing contest. It's the kind of movie that my curmudgeony ex-army sergeant dad would've eaten up back when he still went to the movies: No-bull characterizations; lotsa stuff blowing up; no kung fu or fussy pretentions to art; and ten skinny-dipping machine-gun-packing Nazi women. The enclosed trailer summarizes things nicely:

Tarantino's revisionist opus, incidentally, has nothing to do with the original, but the auteur's influence encouraged Severin Films to put out an impressive '3-Disc Explosive Edition' of The Inglorious Bastards. Included: a pretty terrific transfer of the movie; an amusing conversation between Castellari and Tarantino in which the latter allots the former maybe six sentences edgewise; A making-of documentary almost as long as the movie itself; A CD of the original soundtrack; and most importantly, a tour with Castellari of the movie's scenic European locations...Just in case you were wondering what the river with all those skinny-dipping machine-gun-packing Nazi women looks like today.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Oko Yono, Treetarantula, Arbitron, and AFCGT: The Joy of Bleeding Eardrums at the Comet Tavern

I heart Capitol Hill.

It's one of the few parts of Seattle that's largely resisted homogenization and maintained its off-kilter and funky vibe. A surging mass of hipsters, summer-vacationing college kids, and vagrants pepper its streets and alleyways this time of year: Neighborhood streets practically hop with all the energy, and the Comet Tavern couldn't be plopped into a more ideal area.

Graffiti-encrusted and beer-spattered, the Comet's the antithesis of the blandly-fancy-pants watering holes that inundate most Emerald City neighborhoods. It also merits Northwest institution status, having hosted dozens of bands at its current location for over twenty years. It's a great, sweaty, wonderfully distinctive place to see bands you've never heard of, playing their guts out. Which is what I did on Thursday, August 6.

Oko Yono, Treetarantula, Arbitron, and AFCGT played the Comet that night, none of whom I'd heard of prior to stumbling into the dilapidated tavern and all of whom made me really damned happy. All four bands were cut from the same general sonic cloth, pounding out some ungodly, largely instrumental guitar/bass/drum-anchored noise that referenced Northwest instrumental combos like Earth and Kinski, thickly layered with avant-garde noise along the lines of Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth in their less-accessible moments. It’s a defiantly uncommercial sound born from a serious love of Loud; Not the kind of assault I’d plug into every day of the year, but as immensely satisfying as a slug of homebrewed moonshine if you’re in the right mood.

Oko Yono served up early Sabbath as part of their sludge soup; Treetarantula worked a more psychedelic side of the street; Arbitron kicked up an industrial punk-tinged variation; and AFCGT ladled elements of prog-rock and thick funk in. But for every outfit maximum volume, caveman drum pounding, and guitars yowling like packs of grizzlies presided.
Seeing these guys do exactly what they wanted to do—despite its current un-hipness, to a small-but-totally stoked crowd on a proverbial school day—inspired this jaded old warhorse beyond measure. The joy of being there rubbed off on some of the other patronage, too: In one wonderfully surreal moment, a pool-playing customer threw down a rambling stream-of-consciousness rap during AFCGT's set, straight out of nowhere and much to the band's amusement.

My earplugs did bupkis to shield my ears from the din, and despite my best efforts a lot of the photos I shot looked, well, nuts; as though the heavy volume and thundering energy had my camera crying uncle, too. Somehow, it all fit. Thanks for making my Thursday, gents.

Passings: John Hughes, director

John Hughes would've laughed off the notion, but in his own populist and unpretentious way he was the voice of a generation.

You'll likely hear variations of that statement echoed ad nauseum in the coming days and weeks, largely because like me so many writers, bloggers, and sitemasters grew up as part of that generation. But the endless repetition of that sentiment doesn't make it any less true.

I was gonna go all academic and analyze Hughes's work with typical Petri Dish microscope scrutiny, but such fussing almost seems to diminish it. The most moving tribute I've read thusfar, and the one that taps into the director's soul most deeply, comes from Alison Byrne Fields' excellent blog detailing her very personal connection with the director (Go read it now. But please come back, pretty please? Thanks. And thank you, Dean Saling). John Hughes largely made movies for kids, and none of them were what film cognoscenti would call masterpieces. But he captured the layers of adolescence--the unrequited crushes, the alternate rebellion against and obsession with fitting in, the inherent absurdist comedy that is high school life--like no filmmaker before or since.

Whether he was amusingly chronicling the days preceding winsome Molly Ringwald's sweet sixteen in Sixteen Candles, locking five high-school archetypes in detention 'til they bared their souls in The Breakfast Club, or injecting teen wish fulfillment with a hefty dose of surreal Marx Brothers hilarity in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Hughes always found a core of relatable truth in even the most broadly-drawn teenage stereotypes. And his sure-handed use of music in his soundtracks merits an essay in its own right (provided nicely by the LA Times' Todd Martens here. And thank you, Bob Suh).

Hughes's movies brim with memorable setpieces, but for me the most sublime of them lives at the end of Sixteen Candles. Molly Ringwald's crestfallen Samantha Baker looks up from the steps of her sister's wedding chapel to see her dream boy Jake (Michael Schoeffling) waiting for her; moments later there's a fade-in to the two of them bathed in lambent yellow light, talking above her birthday cake before they slowly kiss to the haunting strains of The Thompson Twins' "If You Were Here." If you're lucky you've been on one or both sides of that cake at least once in your life. And no one knew that better--or felt it more deeply--than John Hughes.