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.”

LADY FROM SHANGHAI – Mirrors & Greed

By William Benker

Lady From Shanghai – 1947 – dir. Orson Welles

Orson Welles’ Lady From Shanghai bridges the cinematic landscape from drama to adventure and mystery.  Led by its director (and protagonist) himself, alongside heroine Rosalie Bannister (Rita Hayworth), each character reveals layer after layer of insecurities, deception and greed throughout the story.  However, the fascination lies within the depth that Welles is able to explore.  Both tough guy and damsel reveal their true colors gradually, methodically, touching upon the most intimate conundrums of life, reflecting a harrowing character piece that shows the demons within oneself.  The magic lies in Welles’ delivery, exposing the depths and revealing their own façade to be but a mere image they have create to shelter their true selves.

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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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JULIE & JULIA: Life, Better with Butter

novdec-julie2By Peg Aloi

Julie & Julia – 2009 – dir. Nora Ephron

Julie & Julia, the popular and well-loved film about a young New Yorker’s attempt to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year, would be far less entrancing if writer-director Nora Ephron had not decided to include a witty and rollicking chronicle of Child’s adventures in Paris and her slow journey towards becoming one of the world’s most recognizable chefs.

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By Peggy Nelson

Casablanca – 1942 – dir. Michael Curtiz

So.  Here you are, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), a young woman in your twenties, newly hatched and out and about in the world, meeting the usual suspects.  Among them is Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinreid); he’s handsome, passionate, committed to a good cause, the only cause: liberté, égalité, fraternité.  In fact, he’s actually the leader of the resistance!  And single.  And he singles you out.  You cannot believe your luck.  There are many late nights in the café, and then later nights at his apartment.  Your relationship is secret, this is for your protection he says, but that just adds to the aura.  There’s a lot of travel, too; it isn’t safe to stay too long in one place, especially for him.  There seems to be one “it” city every half-century, Paris is currently “it,” and you’ve arrived.

Then the Nazis pick him up.  Then you fall in love.  But not with him.

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By Leo Racicot

The Masque of the Red Death – 1964 – dir. Roger Corman

Before he was crowned the all-time campy Master of horror schlock, the incomparable Vincent Price had already carved out for himself a distinguished career in Hollywood that would have been the envy of any actor of his time.  Such film classics as Laura, The House of the Seven Gables, The Keys of the Kingdom, The Ten Commandments, Leave Her to Heaven and many more were graced with his formidable skill and presence.

Director Roger Corman, christened “the King of the Bs” due to the slew of low-budget, some might even say ‘corny’ movies he cranked out beginning in the 1950s, mans The Masque of the Red Death with as sure a hand as he brought to all his projects, creating springboards for such stellar artists-to-be as Jack Nicholson, James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese, and turning out what has become a body of films many of which are today considered true masterpieces of the genre.

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By Peggy Nelson

Moon – 2009 – dir. Duncan Jones

In Moon (dir. Duncan Jones, 2009), Sam Rockwell plays the scruffy hipster-next-door on the moon, who turns out to be both more and less than what he seems.  With impressive set design, constructed with tiny models instead of CGI, Moon inhabits not the 1960s techno-future of visible progress, but the 1970s paranoid present of hidden ulterior motives.  In a way, Moon recalls not so much the actual space race, but the aftermath of plastic modules on the kitchen table, with an excess of glue and tiny pieces that don’t seem to fit anymore.
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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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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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Nick and Nora’s Infinite Guest List: THE THIN MAN

By Christine and Robert Bamberger

The Thin Man – 1934 – dir. W.S. Van Dyke

Most people get a terrific kick out of the interplay between William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies, especially in the original, made just before the Production Code in Hollywood went into full force. But the film’s convoluted plot and numerous characters make it necessary to keep notes just to follow along. In getting a handle on the many personalities in the movie, it becomes increasingly apparent that this large cast of characters, spread all over the periphery of the plot, is not peripheral at all. Indeed, this bunch serves to draw our attention even more to Nick and Nora Charles.

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