Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

What I liked most about Quentin Tarantino's new film, Inglourious Basterds (2009), is also what I liked about Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), and to a lesser extent, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004): the slow, patient storytelling; the amount of time he spends on every sequence, milking it for all it's worth--the most obvious legacy on Tarantino's work of his hero, Sergio Leone. Consider the film's long opening sequence, in which a Nazi officer, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), arrives unexpectedly at a French dairy farm. Landa doesn't come immediately to the point of his visit, but first ingratiates himself with his manners, and then over a glass of milk, talks at length about himself--his nickname, "The Hunter," and what he believes makes him such a good one. It's a terrific sequence, brimming with tension, and the film is full of scenes like it. This approach can backfire, as in Boulevard de la mort (2006), where the characters are all idiots, whose conversations are no more exciting than those you might overhear at a junior high school cafeteria; but when Tarantino is on, he can be very good.

However, I don't think Inglourious Basterds is as satisfying as Pulp Fiction. In that film, the pay-off for each vignette is that almost all the important characters get a second chance at life: Mia (Uma Thurman) is literally resurrected after overdosing on cocaine; Butch (Bruce Willis) squares himself with Marsellus (Ving Rhames) by literally saving the latter's ass; and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) succeeds in changing his life. In this film, the ultimate pay-off (spoiler alert!) is getting to see an American soldier, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), carve a swastika in Landa's forehead, after which Raine chuckles to the camera, in a thick Tennessee brogue, "I think this ma-ight be my massturpiece." End of film, roll credits.

The films has been criticized because it shows Jews acting like Nazis, but Tarantino doesn't stop there; he apparently thinks no better of his audience. The film's climatic sequence is set at a film premiere, and the film within the film is a Nazi propaganda piece about a German soldier who single-handedly picked off about one hundred fifty Allied soldiers. Watching the carnage onscreen, the German audience laughs and cheers with delight--exactly how the crowd that I saw Inglourious Basterds with responded to the scene mentioned in the second paragraph of this blog entry.

Of course, I can already hear one of Tarantino's defenders saying, "But Nazis are evil," period. Indeed, at one point late in the film, when a Jewish movie theatre owner, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), takes pity on a private in the German army (after shooting him several times in the torso), the film equates her empathy with weakness, and it effectively seals her death. The private in question, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who's both the subject and star of the film within the film, is initially made to seem sympathetic (he spends most of the film politely, if insistently, trying to court Shosanna, and at one point leaves the premiere because he doesn't like to be reminded of killing all those men), but in the blink of an eye, he turn into a total psycho when the plot requires it. As Raine puts it near the beginning of the film, "A Nat-zee ain't got no humanity," so presumably it's okay for the audience of this movie to lap it up when, for instance, one of its Jewish-American heroes bashes a Nazi officer's brains out with a baseball bat. I enjoyed Inglourious Basterds, and then I felt like a goon for liking it so much.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Year of the Dragon

After the disastrous reception of Heaven's Gate (1980), Michael Cimino had to wait five years to direct another picture, and like Spike Lee's recent Inside Man (2006), Year of the Dragon (1985) seems intended to show that Cimino could still deliver the goods--that is, make a perfectly conventional cop movie. Ironically, it was only once Cimino abandoned the languorous pacing and Visconti-like spectacle of The Deer Hunter (1978) and Heaven's Gate that he became a mannerist. The plot, with Mickey Rourke as an honest cop taking on corruption in Chinatown, is so threadbare that it's hard to think of anything else besides style as you're watching it. I don't mean to imply that the project is impersonal; in fact, all of Cimino's usual thematic hang-ups have been inelegantly ladled onto the standard genre script, so that the hero, a war veteran of Eastern European descent, keeps saying, "This is just like Vietnam!" Cimino also sets some scenes in Thailand, where parts of The Deer Hunter were shot, and he even manages to work in some mandolin music. It's the sort of film where you can talk about Cimino putting his stamp on the material because all of his auteurist flourishes feel so inorganic.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

In Hayao Miyazaki's delightful and wondrous new film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008), the very balance of nature is upset by the onset of mermaid puberty. Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus in the English-language version), like many Miyazaki characters, inhabits an enchanted state of in-betweeness. The daughter of an ocean goddess (Cate Blanchett) and a magician (Liam Neeson), who renounced his human citizenship to live under the sea and who buys his clothes at the same place as the David Bowie character in Labyrinth (1986), Ponyo spends most of the movie vacillating between being a fish and being a girl--much to the dismay of her father, who wishes she could remain "innocent and pure forever"--and in her in-between state, has feet with three toes that look like a duck's. (I'm reminded of the protagonist of Virginia Woolf's great novel Orlando: A Biography [1928], who lives for two hundred years as a man, and then another two hundred as a woman, but never as a duck.) Given this fluidity of identity, it's hardly surprising that Miyazaki would choose to set this story by the ocean.

In Asia, Miyazaki is a populist figure roughly equivalent to Walt Disney (except that the political bent of his work is more environmentalist than southern confederate), and when I was in Busan last year, Ponyo was playing everywhere. But when I finally caught up with this film, which has been following me around the world (a French version was playing in Geneva in April), in Halifax there were hardly any children in the theatre. Nor were there many children in the theatre when I went to see Miyazaki's previous film, Howl's Moving Castle (2005), a few years ago. My point isn't that his films are inappropriate for children, but that they are appropriate for grownups. Miyazaki's nuanced empathy for all of his characters displays a lot more maturity than most films intended exclusively for grownups, like No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood (both 2007), and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which all have clear-cut good guys and bad guys. That the closest thing to a purely unsympathetic character in Ponyo is a distrustful old woman (Lily Tomlin) is itself almost an indictment of the misanthropy of a film like No Country for Old Men. Miyazaki is not only the world's greatest maker of children's films, but one of the world's greatest living filmmakers, period.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Breaking the Waves

Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996) takes place in a remote village on the northern coast of Scotland in the early 1970s. Although this was an era of social change, the townspeople might as well be living in the Middle Ages. In this village, only the men are allowed to speak in church or attend funerals, and a typical funeral sermon consists of the priest (Jonathan Hackett) sternly stating that the deceased is a sinner who deserves their place in hell. Most viewers are likely to identify with the progressive attitudes embodied by the heroine's empathetic sister-in-law and a young doctor at a nearby hospital. Reconciling and confounding both sides is Bess (Emily Watson), whose behavior poses a challenge not only to the unbending church elders but the more enlightened characters as well.

Bess, it has to be said, is retarded. In an early scene, her new husband, Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), takes her to a children's movie, and she stares at the screen with her big, round eyes, utterly transfixed by it. Jan is an oil rig worker who spends weeks at a time offshore, but Bess, who loves him with an intensity bordering on madness, cannot bear to be parted with him a single second. (She counts down the days till his return on a calendar with childish drawings scribbled in the margins.) Her sister-in-law, Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), doesn't like that Jan has so much power over Bess, and before he leaves for the rig, Dodo tells Jan that she doesn't trust him, articulating our own ambivalent feelings about him as viewers: His benign smile tells us he really loves Bess, but that doesn't mean he's good for her.

Bess has a simple, childlike belief in god. When she prays, she does both her voice and god's, like a child with an imaginary friend. However, her conception of god is as harsh and rigid as the church elders. (Accordingly, she uses a deep, stern voice when speaking for god.) Early in the film, one of Jan's buddies gets sent home with a sprained wrist, and Bess prays for god to send Jan home early. God asks her if she's sure that's what she wants, like a sinister genie in an Arabian Nights tale. And in a plot twist worthy of Fassbinder, Jan has an accident on the rig that paralyzes him from the neck down. Inevitably, Bess blames herself, although Dodo tries to explain to her it was just an accident--again, as if speaking for the viewer, or at least suggesting an alternative way of interpreting the world.

Up till this point, Bess and Jan's relationship has been entirely carnal. After his injury, he tells her to wear loose clothing when she comes to see him so he won't have to look at her body. Later, he suggests that Bess take a lover, since the townspeople would never let her divorce him, but Bess doesn't like this idea. Eventually, Jan (who's at this point whacked out on drugs) tells Bess that if he forgets about love, he'll die, so the only way to keep him alive is for Bess to sleep with other men, and tell him about it. Neither the church nor Dodo approve of what Bess does in following his instructions, but the difference is that Dodo and the local doctor, Dr. Richardson (Adrian Rawlins), seem genuinely concerned for Bess' well being, while the church elders coldly expel her from the community for her "sins," as if to keep her from infecting the others. However, their empathy has its limits as well, and finally Dr. Richardson sees no other option but to put Bess in an institution, just as his predecessor did, which Jan agrees to, and Dodo, though clearly conflicted, tacitly goes along with.

I just finished reading Azar Nafisi's wonderful memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), in which she defines a villain as some one who lacks the capacity to truly see, and therefore empathize, with another person. (One of her favorite villains is an Iranian film censor who was literally blind.) The church elders are obviously villains in attempting to impose their rigid idea of morality on Bess, but Dodo doesn't completely see her, either. She tells Jan that she's feeble, to which Jan replies that she has more strength than any of them. (Later, Jan's line, "Love is a mighty force," finds its antithesis when Dodo tells Bess that, "Sickness is a mighty force.") Paradoxically, Bess' willingness to go to the absolute limit in following her love for Jan to its logical end is at once an indication of weakness, the power that Jan has over her, and as well as an indication of her strength.

Empathizing with a character like Bess is a real challenge for viewers. Her love for Jan is so intense that it kills her, yet in the end, Jan recovers completely. Can Bess' example be applied to real life? Only if you believe in miracles.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Funny People

The trailers for Judd Apatow's Funny People (2009) have been cut to emphasize the film's snappy zingers (including a few that didn't make it into the finished film) and its story of a stand-up comedian who gets a new lease on life after a near-death experience. But the film is uncommonly heavy and morose. It's kind of fascinating how the same scene can be edited to hit different notes in the trailer and the film. For instance, a scene in which the Adam Sandler character makes fun of his doctor's heavy Swedish accent looks funny in the trailers, but in the film, it's incredibly tense and awkward with Sandler using humor to express hostility, and the doctor becoming increasingly annoyed. This is not by any means a feel good comedy, so if you're one of those idiots who needs to feel good, you should see something else instead--like Woody Allen's Whatever Works (also 2009).

The film plays like Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972) with more penis jokes. The Sandler character, George Simmons, is a mega-rich comedian and film star who's bitter, self-loathing, and hostile. Here is a man who could've been happy, but pissed it all away, and maybe he deserves to be alone. I certainly wanted to get the hell away from him. Early in the film Simmons is diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia--apparently, the kind that doesn't make you sick. After he's miraculously cured, he has a curious conversation with Eminem (in one of the film's many celebrity cameos), in which Eminem tells him that he caught a bad break by surviving, and that death could've been his way out. Is this supposed to be funny?

The story takes on a surprising moral complexity in the second half when Simmons tries to win back an old girlfriend, Laura (Leslie Mann). She left Simmons for cheating on her, but is now married to Clarke (Eric Bana), an Australian businessman who also cheats on her. Is Simmons being selfish in trying to break apart her marriage? When Simmons goes to see her in San Francisco, he brings along Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a struggling comedian that Simmons has enlisted to write some jokes for him. He thinks what Simmons is doing is wrong, but is it any of his concern, or should he just mind his own business? And when he does get involved, he only makes things worse. This is a moral dilemma that might've appealed to Krzyzstof Kieslowski or Eric Rohmer.

Did I like the film? No, but a movie can be unlikeable and still be interesting. If the film isn't as much fun as Paul Schrader's Auto Focus (2002)--another film about a washed-up comedian who creates his own private hell--it's because Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) was upbeat, cheerful, and very shallow. Simmons knows his life is empty and meaningless, and is resigned to it. Rogen at least is appealing as the young ingenue, so it's all the more mysterious why his character chooses to spend his time in the company of this depressive, verbally abusive crank. The art direction abstains from bright colours, adding to the film's sombre mood, and the shadowy cinematography is by Janusz Kaminski, who won an Oscar for Schindler's List (1993). If you're ever feeling too elated, and need something to bring you down, here's the film to do the trick.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Deer Hunter

Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) is filmmaking with balls. The first thing one notices about this ambitious three-hour film is the time Cimino takes with the long opening scenes, set in a Pennsylvania steel town, and the breadth of his canvas. Favoring groups over individuals and long shots over close-ups, almost to the point where the individual characters become interchangeable, the film gives us a wedding banquet so well attended that one finds it hard to believe there are even that many people living in the town. And the languid pacing and accumulation of small details indicate that Cimino is in no hurry to get on with the plot. The film's style and content secrete masculine excess from every pore of their being.

The story is about a group of guys who work at the steel mill. As the film opens, Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage) are about to go into the army, giving Steven just enough time to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Angela (Rutanya Alda), before shipping off to Vietnam. Nick is in love with Linda (Meryl Streep), but at Steven's wedding, it becomes evident that she has feelings for Michael as well. There's a fourth friend, Stan (John Cazale, in his last performance), who doesn't go to war, but carries around a revolver, "just in case," hinting at sexual hang-ups involving impotence. In Vietnam, Michael, Nick, and Steven are captured by the North Vietnamese and made to play Russian roulette at gunpoint. Curiously, given the amount of time the film devotes to the wedding banquet (to name just one example), the film choses to skip over the characters' actual capture, cutting directly from a scene of Michael, Nick, and Steven on the battlefield to them in captivity.

In any event, Cimino's singular talents have less to do with storytelling than sounds and images. There's a joyous early sequence in which the guys go to a local bar after work and singalong to Frankie Valli's "Can't Keep My Eyes Off of You" on the jukebox. The day before they ship off to Vientam, after a hunting trip, the guys return to the same bar, where the bartender, John (George Dzundza), begins playing a plaintive number on the piano, which puts the guys in a thoughtful mood. This sequence, and the film's final scene in which the characters spontaneously sing "God Bless America," are both examples of pure feeling rather than an attempt to make a particular point.

As a response to America's involvement in Vietnam, the film is problematic. The horrors inflicted on the characters are blamed exclusively on the Vietnamese without any mention of the American government that sent them there. Meanwhile, the American soldiers don't participate in any atrocities themselves, like the massacre at My Lai, but are unambiguously heroic. At one point, we see a Viet Cong soldier throw a grenade into a cellar full of civilians; when a woman crawls out, badly burned and holding a child, the soldier finishes her off with his rifle. Thus, we're supposed to feel a sense of satisfaction when Michael burns him alive a few seconds later. The South Vietnamese don't come off much better, since we also see them taking bets on games of Russian roulette, as if it were the national sport. I've yet to see a film that represents the war in a satisfying manner.

The Deer Hunter was only Cimino's second feature after the Clint Eastwood vehicle Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). And its success emboldened him to make Heaven's Gate (1980), an even longer and more ambitious film, in which Cimino's limitations as a storyteller and the clunkiness of his dialogue are more of a serious flaw. (Conversely, in the early scenes of The Deer Hunter, the dialogue is so low in the sound mix, it's often difficult to make out what's being said.) Although he was able to continue making films until the mid-90s, Cimino hasn't been able to work on the same scale since Heaven's Gate, whose commercial failure hangs over his reputation like a shroud. This is a shame because, even if The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate aren't masterpieces, they feel like the work of some one who could've made one.