INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS – A Reflecting Pool

Written by William C. Benker

The survival of the auteur in today’s synthetic assembly line of blockbusters keeps Hollywood’s integrity afloat. It is in these few select films that come around every few years from some of cinema’s greatest American visionaries that we see their luminescent glow shimmer above the rest. So quickly can one fall victim to conventional archetypes, predictable sub-plots and meandering character development, that it makes the survival of these writers/directors so much more integral to the continuing art of storytelling. It is Quentin Tarantino, in his most self-reflexive film to date, who fanatically bombards his audience with Inglourious Basterds. Using the backdrop of Nazi-occupied France, the film-fanatic/director graciously tears away the expectations of a tale so many times told with such clearly defined lines. Because Tarantino knows what to expect, (no doubt from his years as a movie-store clerk) and reaffirms the fact that all great films are held together entirely by one type of glue: character. Inglourious Basterds not only does away with the conventional robotic façade of the Third Reich’s top men, but also reveals its director’s most beloved passion of all: the cinema itself. Tarantino’s sixth film not only reveals his maturity as an artist, but also clearly reflects his ever-evolving passion for the significance of the cinema itself.

Let’s begin with the “Jew Hunter,” also known as Colonel Hans Landa (played by German actor Christoph Waltz, who until recently lay hidden in the international film circuit). His remarkable delivery channels the complexity of his director’s script. The opening scene carefully extinguishes all possible expectations at first glance, casually revealing the all too likable personality of Hitler’s most capable detective (complete with Sherlock Holmes pipe.) Perhaps his most effective quality is his charismatic clarity and table manners. In a declarative reiteration of German propaganda, Landa uses pure logic to illustrate his effective method of detecting his “prey,” so that it becomes nearly impossible to believe the man is really that evil. Instead, through the most becoming character dialogue, does the audience find itself trapped in the auteur’s grasp. Our fascination with the character takes over and the plot is able to reveal itself organically. Our love for the story evolves from sheer interest in the people involved in the situation. By the time the opening scene is finished, all the audience is on edge, anxiously awaiting the return of their now favorite Nazi detective.

The home team, that which garners the title of the film itself, serves primarily as a catalyst for the action (already set in motion by the Colonel). For all intents and purposes, the Basterds are Tarantino’s usual band of outsiders (Orange and White, Jules and Vincent) sent on the righteous crusade of “Nazi killin’.” While the entire brigade embodies an even flow of humor, characteristically, Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt) and Hugo Stiglitz capture the spotlight. A couple more Basterds serve a good hand in the film’s climax, with some truly comic translations as they pose as Italian filmmakers. Again, just to be clear: actors, directors, poor translations and premieres – Tarantino hasn’t just written a near Shakespearian turn around of comedic-drama, but skillfully weaves his own personal frame of reference into the mix. The humor that comes with the business of cinema, as integral to the plot as it is, is supposed to be fun; Tarantino doesn’t ever appear to forget this.

As in any Tarantino film, the story is broken up into periodic segments, with the first two chapters serving as an prologue to the final three. The film’s focus is revenge, but instead of the would-be-warriors under Aldo’s wing taking the center stage, the true protagonist is the orphaned Jewish girl Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), who escaped her family’s massacre all the way back in chapter one. And what does Shosanna now own through untold means? That’s right, her very own movie theater. What comes of this is a concentration of film-related roles. For example, there is Archie Hicox, former film-critic now turned British Operative sent to help the Basterds. Notice the intricacies within his introductory scene (and the humorous cameo by Mike Myers) as they discuss Goebbels’s cinematic exploits within the context of American Cinema. Tarantino’s almost superfluous film-theory is carefully imbedded in the text, making Hicox (Michael Fassbender) the perfect man for the job. We also have German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who works undercover for the British Secret Service; Operation Kino is considered her “brain-child.” The film takes an unexpected turn during the long (but insatiably tense) basement barroom sequence, building towards the film’s climax. Stumbling through the attempted rendezvous with von Hammersmark, we see the sheer capability Tarantino has for taking his favorite across-the-table banter and polishing it into a stream of expositional genius. The deceit that comes to fruition at Shosanna’s theater is a story of novel eloquence. With his complexity of disguise – whether it’s from the German actress, the sharp detective, or the Nazi war hero turned actor – Tarantino has conjured up one intricate set of characters.

Inglourious Basterds is as intense, quick and comical as the rest of Tarantino’s repertoire. This time, however, with a steady maturity to his craft, he has easily constructed a film much more self-reflexive than his earlier pictures. A common allowance of any director who has come as far as he, Tarantino’s World War II backdrop has given him an already defined atmosphere from which to extrapolate the fine art of character development. What resonates so well is his ability to individualize each archetype, when historical context has defined each one already. Beneath his torn conventions lay the sheer power and all-inspiring nature of movies in general. Aldo couldn’t be more clear in the final shot of the film, staring proud into the camera, “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”

HIGH AND LOW: Or Heaven And Hell

By Melvin Cartagena

High & Low – 1963 – dir. Akira Kurosawa

The film has such assertive direction that it slips without effort from power play drama to suspense thriller to police procedural/manhunt chase to high drama. In spite of this blend of genres that for a lesser director would take three or four films to fully unravel in its complexity, this film is all Kurosawa, an assured and heady blend of action, drama and objective humanity.

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STAR TREK

By Jared M. Gordon

Star Trek – 2009 – dir. JJ Abrams

Before I went to see J. J. Abrams’ version of the classic franchise, I was treated to dark whispers and quiet warnings such as, “If you’re a big-time Trekkie, you’re not going to like it.”

Being a moderate-time Trekkie, as opposed to a big-time one, I hotly anticipated the release through two years of promotional posters, mysterious trailers, and vague, origin-story allusions.  I have to confess that along with Pixar’s Up, Star Trek is likely one of the best movies of the year.  It’s not just a good sci-fi movie.  It’s a good movie.
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CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON

By Jared M. Gordon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – 2000 – dir. Ang Lee

“When in comes to the affairs of the heart, even the greatest warriors can be consummate idiots.”

Ang Lee’s homage to Du Lu Wang’s kung-fu novel, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, I must confess, did not make an instant impression upon me the first time that I saw it.  The film soars with Lee’s breathtaking direction and cinematography by Academy award-winner Peter Pau, but I found the story meandering and simple.

Of course, I missed the point, discovered only after a re-watch.  The story is indeed simple.  It is the characters who are complex.  This is an ironic movie about opposites: finding through loss.  Gaining through sacrifice.  Joy through despair.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a simple story about masculinity, femininity, and life.
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EASY RIDER

By Peggy Nelson

Easy Rider – 1969 – dir. Dennis Hopper

Easy Rider (dir. Dennis Hopper, 1969), like it’s lesser-known sibling, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), poses the question, where are you going when all the roads are mapped?  In their constant motion, Wyatt/Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are seeking unmapped territory, but the only unmapped territory is within.  By refusing to settle in one place, by being nomads, they are refusing the predetermined categories of social role and occupation.

Freedom has been synonymous with freedom of the open road since before this country was founded: freedom to wander around in space, to break free of the boundaries of town, city, job, habits, and self, and simply go, to wander in space and see what and who you might find.  The hippies in Easy Rider are icons now, and were icons then.  But they’re on a journey much older than hippies – the Beats, too, had their road, the hobos theirs, the frontiersmen and pioneers their roads, stolen from and grafted on top of the Native Americans’ trajectories in space.
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THE WILD BUNCH: Of Myth and Men

By Melvin Cartagena 

The Wild Bunch – 1969 – dir. Sam Peckinpah

It doesn’t matter that the credits state that it’s a screenplay written by Sam Peckinpah and Walon Green, a fiction developed from a story by Walon Green and Roy N. Sickner. It doesn’t matter that Pike Bishop’s (William Holden’s) command to his men in the robbery that opens the film is “If they move, kill ‘em.” And that this is followed by DIRECTED BY SAM PECKINPAH, simultaneously a bold statement and a way to defuse Pike’s order. It doesn’t matter that the fight sequences are entirely subjective in their staging and editing, we want to believe that there were once guys like these running around loose. We want to believe that these weary, battle-scarred men are the cowboys that made the west wild, as their name implies.  They are not above shooting civilians (as they do, when we see the parade marchers mowed down in the crossfire between the Bunch and Harrigan’s bounty hunters), but they’d rather not. They stand by each other against the world, and in their circumscribed universe (which is shrinking with the paving over of the west) that is the loftiest ideal they can hope for. It’s this commitment to each other that drives Pike and company to forsake their retirement score and engage in a suicidal shootout with Mapache’s men after Mapache slits Angel’s throat.

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FIGHT CLUB

mayjun-fightBy Peggy Nelson

Fight Club – 1999 – dir. David Fincher

So will you be at the meeting on Tuesday?  The first rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club.  The second rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club.  The third rule of Fight Club is . . .
I’m going to talk about Fight Club.  Based on the Chuck Palahniuk book by the same name, the film concerns a disaffected white-collar worker who can sum up his life with the three C’s: Catalogs, Condo, Condiments.  Not surprisingly, for his efforts he’s got insomnia, ennui, and anhedonia.  He starts going to support groups for diseases he does not have, to jump-start his atrophied connection to life.  But then he meets a woman doing the same thing; recognizing her as a fellow “tourist,” all his ennui and insomnia come racing back.  Then his house explodes.  Then the movie starts.

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Sand and Blood: THE MUMMY

By Jared M. Gordon

The Mummy – 1999 – dir. Stephen Sommers

Whether it’s action, romance, or angry, angry beetles, Stephen Sommers’s 1999 hit The Mummy has what you’re looking for.  Marketed as a next-generation’s Indiana Jones, The Mummy succeeds as a film by delivering exactly what it promises – and a little bit more.

With an ensemble cast including Brendan Fraser, pre-Oscar Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, and Arnold Vosloo, there are enough contrasting, zany characters for any “Which character are you” Internet quiz.  But what keeps The Mummy from being just another visual-effects-laden Hollywood song and dance?
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White Suburban Punk: REPO MAN and Real Rebellion

By: Victoria Large

Repo Man – 1983 – dir. Alex Cox

I don’t remember how I first heard of Repo Man, only that its reputation preceded it. As a teenager I actually picked up a used cassette of the film’s famous punk rock soundtrack at my local record store long before I was able to hunt down a copy of the movie itself, which for me only heightened its grungy cult flick allure. (For you youngsters, this was back when there were audiocassette tapes. And record stores. And suburban video stores with unpredictable inventories.) When I did finally see Repo Man, it lived up to my expectations simply by defying them. “…[T]he only real response to it is the perception of brilliance or the belief that it’s an utter piece of garbage,” writes Film Threat’s Brad Laidman. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of a cult classic.

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KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL

By Jared M. Gordon

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – 2008 – dir. Steven Spielberg

It was only a matter of time, I suppose, until aliens would show up in an Indiana Jones film.  After countless screenwriters and even more countless drafts, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull finally saw the light of cinemas nearly twenty years after the release of Last Crusade. The actual legend of the crystal skull concerns a series of artifacts discovered in Central and South America in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Explorers purportedly unearthed several carved quartz skulls, and it was claimed that these skulls possessed not only unimaginable powers but that they could not have been crafted by modern means.  A 1996 BBC documentary investigation revealed that several crystal skulls that had been displayed in museums and held by collectors throughout the world were forgeries.  However, there did indeed exist a few specimens whose construction defied conventional explanation.

Speaking of defying convention, Indiana’s fourth outing has been tossed about as one of the weakest (if not THE weakest) of the series.  As an action film, it delivers, and Harrison Ford himself presents a terrific performance.  So what’s the problem with Crystal Skull?

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