#92 - tick...tick...tick...tick...
1922 - 2009
Hello, internet neighbor! I’m glad we’re together again. As you read this week’s Electric Theatre, please remember that all spelling errors are completely intentional and merely a reflection of the author’s style. Yeah, that’s the ticket…
NOW IN THEATRES
Since it seems to be impossible to discuss any Quentin Tarantino movie without being labeled either a hater or an apologist, I feel I should at least attempt to explain where I stand. I continue to believe that Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are great films. Jackie Brown is imperfect but is grossly underrated and, in many significant ways, superior to its predecessors. Kill Bill is one terrific movie that was unfortunately stretched out over two less-than-terrific but still pretty good ones. Death Proof is bad, just flat-out horrible. So that’s somewhere between five and six movies (depending on whether or not you count Kill Bill as one or two and if you consider Death Proof to be one or just half of Grindhouse) and I liked most but not all of them. Fair and balanced, right? Right.
Admittedly, I went into Inglourious Basterds prepared for the worst. The things I dislike about Tarantino’s movies (some of the forced, stagy dialogue and the outright theft of ideas and elements from other movies) seemed to be taking over his work recently. Instead of growing as a filmmaker, he appeared to be regressing into a lazy and somewhat misplaced worship of movies that are undeniably fun but, let’s face it, not really that great. Inglourious Basterds is considerably better than I was expecting. Not perfect by any means but definitely a good, solid movie.
Tarantino’s dialogue has never been naturalistic. It makes me wince when people say he writes the way people talk because that couldn’t be farther from the truth. But in his best films, it has a poppy rhythm that good actors can turn into a free-flowing give-and-take that sounds organic but is highly structured, just like a great jazz combo. Lately, that dialogue has come across as tinny and false. Tarantino mostly overcomes that hurdle in this movie. Part of that might have to do with the fact that much of the dialogue is subtitled. Granted, I don’t speak German and my French is rusty but I think it stems more from the fact that Tarantino had to rely on translators to get his point across. The English dialogue still has that Tarantino edge but it’s an improvement over the stilted conversations that dominated Death Proof and much of Kill Bill.
The predominance of subtitled dialogue points to another of the film’s strengths. Much of the movie isn’t about the titular Basterds at all. On the one hand, this is a problem. The team remains a bunch of thinly-drawn cartoon characters that we never get a chance to learn about. Brad Pitt is okay as Lt. Aldo Raine, once you get past his bizarre L’il Abner accent, but he doesn’t exude the confident leadership of Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen. You’re never really sure why the Basterds are so eager to follow his bloodthirsty lead. You’re just supposed to accept that he put this team together, they clicked and everybody bonded over the ensuing ass-kickery.
But that might be Tarantino’s point. This isn’t so much a movie about World War II as it is about World War II movies. We get hints of the hyperviolent revenge fantasy movie that Pitt and company are the stars of but Tarantino is more interested in characters that would have been peripheral in that more conventional film. Characters like Colonel Hans Landa and cinema owner Shoshanna Dreyfus are much more interesting, more fully developed and thankfully, given the screen time they deserve. Christoph Waltz is excellent as Col. Landa but I was even more impressed by Mélanie Laurent’s performance as Shoshanna. In many ways, she’s the driving force of the film. It’s her revenge we’re meant to enjoy, not the Basterds'.
Make no mistake, we are meant to enjoy the revenge aspect of Inglourious Basterds and that’s somewhat troubling. I didn’t really think the movie was much fun and I think Tarantino is being disingenuous when it comes to discussing the movie’s ending. He has openly said that WW2 movies about plots to kill Hitler have little suspense because you know the plot will fail in advance. But in talking about that aspect, he’s just told you how his movie ends, so apparently knowing how the movie ends has little to do with how much suspense there is. I’m perfectly capable of enjoying a good revenge movie but I never felt the catharsis Tarantino seemed to be aiming for. Perhaps if he had taken the Basterds as seriously as he took some of the other characters, I’d have felt differently. As it is, it’s almost as if Steven Spielberg had dropped Indiana Jones into the middle of Schindler’s List. Even so, Tarantino has made a movie worth watching with Inglourious Basterds and, more significantly, he’s made one worth watching more than once. I found the movie to be more interesting than enjoyable but it has stayed with me. I’m not sure if deeper consideration will make me think more or less of Inglourious Basterds but for now, at least it’s a movie worth thinking about. (* * *)
TALES FROM THE QUEUE
It’s kind of fascinating to watch Asian movie stars attempt to cross over into English-language films, albeit often grimly fascinating. It took Jackie Chan almost twenty years after his first attempts before he hit paydirt. Chow Yun-Fat still hasn’t quite pulled it off, better known even now for roles in movies like The Killer and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than his work in Anna And The King or Bulletproof Monk (which may be considered proof there is a god). Then there’s Jet Li. His English-language films have been relatively popular but sort of generic. The only thing that lends most of them any distinction is Jet himself, who remains a charismatic actor capable of breathtaking feats of physical agility. Unleashed, the 2005 movie that teamed him with the Transporter team of Luc Besson and Louis Leterrier, may be his best English-language movie.
Jet plays Danny, an orphan raised by his “uncle” Bart (Bob Hoskins) to essentially be his dog. Bart keeps a collar on Danny that, when it comes off, is his cue to kill. Danny manages to get away from Bart and is taken in by Sam, a blind piano tuner played by Morgan Freeman, and his stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon). They show Danny a kindness he never dreamed existed and his killer instinct is slowly tamed. Needless to say, when Bart re-enters the picture, he’s not pleased to see the new, domesticated Danny.
Unleashed has more than its share of the requisite martial arts mayhem you would expect from a Jet Li movie and it’s all extremely well done. But the story is considerably more engaging than in most of Jet’s English-language movies. Getting actors like Bob Hoskins and Morgan Freeman was also quite a coup. They elevate the material and inspire Jet to bring his A-game. It’s no surprise to see him in action but he’s also given the chance to demonstrate what an effective silent actor he can be. He makes Danny into a truly sympathetic character, usually with just a look or a timid gesture. His joy at discovering the world is infectious and it’s this aspect of the film that elevates Unleashed above the likes of Romeo Must Die.
Action movies are a dime a dozen and if all you care about is watching expertly staged fight scenes, there are plenty to fill the bill. Unleashed has more in common with Besson’s Léon (a.k.a. The Professional) and the recent Liam Neeson movie Taken than with cartoonier fare like the Transporter movies. Unleashed isn’t exactly a masterpiece but it’s an effective, consistently entertaining story told extremely well. It’s an action movie that doesn’t insult your intelligence and that is a rare thing indeed.
(* * *)
Thanks to Casey Cartmill for this week’s Tales From The Queue suggestion! As always, if you have an underappreciated gem that went under the radar, clue me in. Qualified applicants are considered without regard to age, race, color, religion, sex, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or veteran status.