An audacious and inventive amalgamation of spaghetti westerns and WWII exploitation films, Quentin Tarantino´s Inglourious Basterds is a real pleasure to watch. Tarantino is a contentious director whose inspiration from other movies is often debated, and while I don´t think Basterds will win him any converts, his love of film really shines through here, whether it´s references to German cinema icons G.W. Pabst and Leni Riefenstahl (and Emil Jannings, who actually features in the proceedings) or a direct homage to Sergio Leone.
Like in the first scene, which takes its cue from the opening of Leone´s Once Upon a Time in the West, and makes wonderful use of music by Ennio Morricone. Instead of Henry Fonda, it´s Col. Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz), who shows up at a French farmhouse in 1941 looking for Jews in hiding. He finds them, and massacres them, though one escapes: Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who we´ll get back to later in the film. Nevertheless, we haven´t seen scenes like this since Leone departed, but here is an immaculate reproduction, faithfully and lovingly recreated.
And who are the Inglourious Basterds? They´re a squad of Jewish-American Nazi hunters operating under the command of Lt. Aldo ‘The Apache´ Raine (Brad Pitt) – a nod to Aldo Ray? – who explains their mission in his opening monologue: to find and kill and strike fear in the hearts of Nazis. They´ll do so, in part, by scalping their victims.
The moral ambiguity in the film is beautiful: during one scene, Aldo and his men have captured a Nazi sergeant. Aldo asks him to point out the location of a nearby regiment, to which to sergeant “respectfully declines”. Donny ‘The Bear Jew´ Donowitz (Eli Roth) comes out and points a baseball bat at a medal on his uniform: “You get that for killin´ Jews?” “Bravery.” Donowitz bashes his skull in, cheered on by his compatriots. The Americans as presented here are brutish and by all measures unsympathetic, the Nazi general honorable. But representative of a greater evil. It´s powerful, provocative stuff.
I´ve barely touched on the plot of the film. In 1944 Shosanna finds herself running a cinema in Paris. She catches the eye of Nazi war hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who is starring in the new film produced by Joseph Goebbels. He´s smitten with her and wants to hold the premiere of the film at her cinema; she begins plotting her revenge.
Meanwhile, British Lt. Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbender) is briefed on Operation Kino, which involves meeting up with the Basterds in a small French village and making contact with a German double-agent, actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). Eventually, paths cross with Col. Landa and Shosanna, and an outrageous and highly memorable climax wonderfully rewrites history.
The thrust of the Inglourious Basterds seems to be a riff on Leone´s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, with Shosanna as the good, Landa the bad, and Aldo the Ugly. The use of cultural stereotypes to reinforce these – and other – characters is nothing short of brilliant.
Acting is, as it is in most Tarantino films, uniformly excellent. Pitt, with his thick Tennessee drawl, has never been better, and Waltz steals the film as Landa, as he dances beautifully through four different languages. Stunt casting, like Hostel director Eli Roth as Donowitz and Mike Myers as a British general, or uncredited voice work by Samuel Jackson or Harvey Keitel, is never distracting as feared.
Inglourious Basterds is an impeccably crafted film with superb costume and set design and cinematography (by Robert Richardson) and an excellent use of music, including a number of Morricone tracks. It is, for better or worse and despite the period setting, a Tarantino film through and through; your appreciation of the movie may hinge on your feelings towards the director. He has his share of detractors; I think he´s one of the most important directors in contemporary cinema, and he continues to prove it with each successive film.
The title of the film – misspellings taking from the term etched by a soldier into the butt of a rifle – is a reference to Enzo G. Castellari´s 1977 Inglorious Bastards, an Italian version (or, ripoff) of The Dirty Dozen. Castellari´s film wasn´t much good, and thankfully, Tarantino´s film shares almost no similarities with it other than the title (though Castelleri and Bastards star Bo Svenson have cameo roles).
Please note: more than half of the film is in French and German (and a little Italian), which is subtitled only in Czech on Prague screens. I originally watched the Czech-subtitled version of the film, and while my Czech is usually decent enough to get me through foreign-language films, this is a dialogue-heavy film (even by Tarantino standards) and I felt I was missing something; I´ve since seen the English-subtitled version of the film (in the US), and my appreciation for it has heightened.
There´s a fascinating story in the behind-the-scenes of the Woodstock music festival, but Ang Lee´s Taking Woodstock only tells about half of it. Maybe less. It´s a confused film that doesn´t quite know if it wants to tell the story of Woodstock or the story of its leading man, Eliot Tiber, who wrote the book on which the film is based. It ends up telling neither effectively, but there is a wealth of excellent material on hand.
In 1969, interior designer Eliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) returns home from Greenwich Village to the small town of Bethel in the Catskills, to help out his mother (Imelda Staunton) and father (Henry Goodman) at their dilapidated motel, which the bank is about to foreclose on. Eliot is the president of the local chamber of commerce, which grants him a license for his annual music festival.
And then a funny thing happens: Eliot learns of the neighboring town of Wallkill´s rejection of a major music festival set to feature Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and others. So he calls the festival promoters – which include his onetime neighbor Michael Lang (Jonathon Groff) – and suggests they try Bethel. The swampland surrounding the family motel is no good, but the acres of farmland owned by Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) will do just fine.
And while one side of the story focuses on the behind-the-scenes setup – what will soon become Woodstock, three days of peace, love, and music – another side of the story splinters off to focus on Eliot and his relationship with his parents. The whole movie has a light air, and I wasn´t quite sure what to make of the drama that eventually unfolds; particularly surrounding Eliot´s mother, who had been used as comic relief throughout much of the early film. Given the screen time that Eliot´s personal story has during the film, it ultimately feels trite when stacked up against the surrounding events.
The film as a whole never quite gels, but in pieces it´s highly watchable and entirely enjoyable. During the second half, Lee and his crew recreate the madness surrounding Woodstock immaculately, making use of the same kind of split-screen effects used in Michael Wadleigh´s definitive 1970 documentary, Woodstock. Cinematography by Eric Gautier is exceptional, using the 1970 film as a springboard in recreating the time and place.
Most disappointing, however, is a total lack of concert footage, which could have either been reproduced or reused from Wadleigh´s documentary (they did one or the other with crowd footage, and they did it so effectively I´m not sure which). Yeah, it´s kind of the point that the actual concert is kept in the background, but it´s still a letdown to have such a lengthy build-up and then no payoff. On top of that, the music is mostly relegated to the background too – it´s there all right, but rarely front-and-center.
Previously, I´d only known Martin as a comedian (here´s one of my favorite routines), and I didn´t know what to expect from him in this role; he´s excellent, deadpanning his way through with an unusual and effective charm. Supporting cast is also a lot of fun, from Dan Fogler as the leader of a theater troupe, to Emile Hirsch as Eliot´s Vietnam veteran friend and Liev Schrieber as a transvestite guard.
Anne Fletcher´s The Proposal starts out dismally and props up such a well-worn story in the first ten minutes that every audience member will know precisely how it ends. But funnily enough, it greatly improves as it goes through the motions. There´s precious little comedy here and things are never taken seriously enough for the drama to work, but the slow-burn romance just about pays off.
Sandra Bullock plays Margaret Tate, a high-powered, no-nonsense editor at a publishing house feared by her colleagues. Ryan Reynolds is Andrew Paxton, her lowly assistant who buys himself the same Starbucks coffee she drinks so he´ll have a backup in case he spills hers. Early scenes at the office are downright awful; both stars are terribly unconvincing in roles that don´t suit them at all, the characters they play poorly written, unpleasant stereotypes.
And then they lay this strained plot upon us: Margaret is a Canadian, and her visa has just been denied. So she asks Andrew to marry her, to which he agrees, throwing in a promotion for himself to sweeten the pot. Unlikely that a woman in her position would have this happen, unlikely that she would propose this solution, unlikely that he would accept. But there you have it, and they´re off to Alaska to meet his family (you see, they have to convince the immigration agent (Denis O´Hare) that the marriage is really on the level).
You know exactly where this is going, right? So did I, and I wasn´t looking forward to spending an hour and a half with these characters. They´ll bicker and argue and have comic misadventures and eventually discover the true meaning of family and fall madly in love, a love that is only threatened by the revelation of what brought them together. Throw in some city-girl-in-the-Alaskan-wilderness fish-out-of-water comedy to pad things out.
But they get to Alaska and meet Andrew´s parents, played by Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson, and his grandmother, played by Betty White, and they´ll all kind and loving and pleasant (dad, not so much, but he´s just looking out for his son). And Reynolds and Bullock slowly shake their character types and return to their likable, natural personas. And they have some great chemistry together later on; you´d wish this was a more intimate romance than the plot allows for, but no, an hour into the film and there´s nary a spark between the two.
The performers, in fact, almost save the film. There are no surprises in the screenplay and every other aspect of the production is merely competent; your enjoyment of the film will ultimately boil down to your response to the leads.