Saturday, August 23, 2014

4th ANNIVERSARY!!!

       Has it been four years?  Time flies.  I went back to my first post and did not know whether to laugh or cry.  My plan was to review one of the 100 Greatest per week and be done with my project in two years.  Well, it has now been four years and I am still not done yet!   In my defense, I did not originally plan to review other war movies as well.  I certainly do not regret that decision.  I like the variety I have managed on this blog.  And truthfully, I think subconsciously I am reluctant for this amazing journey to end.  However, one more to go.  Then all I'll have left is all the war movies I have not reviewed yet and the compilation of my own 100 Best War Movies list.  That should keep me occupied for another four years.  I would like to thank all the people who have come along for the ride and I hope you will continue to frequent this site.


#2 -  Paths of Glory  (1957)
 
 
BACK-STORY:   “Paths of Glory” was Stanley Kubrick’s first great film.  The fact that he also directed several other movies on the 100 Greatest list (“Spartacus”, “Dr. Strangelove”, “Full Metal Jacket”) makes a case for his being the greatest war movie director.  The movie was based on the novel by Howard Cobb which was published in 1935.  The teenage Kubrick had read the book in his father’s study.  Kubrick had trouble getting funding because of the depressing nature of the plot.  This problem was solved when Kirk Douglas was brought on board.  His production company took on the task and Douglas was paid 1/3 of the approximately $1 million budget.  He was not in it for the money as Douglas was committed to the project in principle.  The movie was a critical smash, but only a modest success at the box office and as predicted did not do well in Europe.  In fact, it was banned in France for two decades.  Incredibly, the movie received zero Academy Award nominations and is not on AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies list!

OPENING:  The movie is set on the Western Front in France in 1916.  A narrator summarizes the futility of the war up to that point.  It is a stalemate.  French Army Chief of Staff Gen. Broulard (Adolphe Menjou) visits Gen. Mireau (George MacReady) at his chateau.  Broulard orders an attack on an impregnable German position called the “Ant Hill”.  Mireau is at first against the insane, suicidal assault, but Broulard uses flattery and promotion bribery to bring him around.  He does not have to remind MacReady that he will be safely witnessing the attack from a bunker.

SUMMARY:  Mireau visits the trenches to get some face-time with his beloved cannon fodder.  In an amazingly long tracking shot with no cuts, he buddies up to his men by repetitively asking them “Hello, soldier, ready to kill more Germans?”  When he encounters an obviously shell-shocked soldier, MacReady huffs that there is “no such thing as shell-shocked” and he slaps him ala Patton.  Mireau meets the regimental commander Col. Dax (Douglas) in his bunker.  (Douglas gets his obligatory shirtless scene.)  He informs the skeptical Dax of the attack.  Mireau is optimistic that the casualties will only be around 60%!  That figure is arrived at by adding 5% from their own barrage + 10% in no man’s land + 20% through the German wire + 25% taking the position.  The men will “absorb bullets and shrapnel and by doing so make it possible for others to get through”.  Dax explodes and quotes Samuel Johnson:  “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”  When Mireau suggests that Dax take a furlough, Dax backs down and promises to take the “Ant Hill”.

the toadie, the troublemaker, and the tool
                A night patrol is ordered to reconnoiter the position.  Lt. Roget (Wayne Morris) takes two men with him and then proceeds to panic and kill one in a friendly fire incident.  The steaming dead body of Lejuene is the only graphic shot in the movie.  Afterwards, Cpl. Paris (Ralph Meeker) confronts the drunken Roget, but is apprised of the fact that officers hold all the cards.  Roget:  “ Who’s word do you think they are going to believe- or accept?”

                The attack the next day is one of the great combat scenes in war movie history.  It begins with another long tracking shot as Dax moves through the trench like Mireau did, but without the faux bravado.  The assault is a tour de force in battle cinematography as a camera on a dolly tracks Dax and the cannon fodder through a hellish landscape.  It is obvious to everyone, except the spectating Mireau, that the attack has no chance of success.  Dax leads the men across no man’s land.  (It took 60 men, eight cranes, and three weeks to turn a German farm into the scarred landscape of trench warfare.)  That 60% figure is looking optimistic as men go down left and right.  It is futile like many an attack in the war.  Roget’s unit does not even leave the trench.  Mireau orders the French artillery to open fire on them, but the battery commander refuses without a written order.  The incensed general vows revenge for the failed assault.  “If those little sweethearts won’t face German bullets, they’ll face French ones!”
Follow this whistle, dogs
                At the chateau, Broulard, Mireau, and Dax negotiate how many men need to be court-martialed for cowardice pour encourager les autres.  Broulard:  “There are few things more stimulating than seeing someone else die.”  Mireau is talked into being reasonable and accepting only three sacrificial lambs - one from each company.  Broulard is in a jocular mood throughout and Dax is aghast.  The scene foreshadows “Catch-22” and “MASH”. 

                Roget tabs Paris to get rid of the eyewitness to his cowardice.  Arnaud (Joe Turkel) is chosen by lottery.  Ferol (Timothy Carey) is chosen because he is a social misfit.  Dax volunteers to be their defense attorney.  The trial is held in the chateau.  A no-nonsense general serves as judge and it is apparent he is set on the end result with as little court room theatrics as possible.  Each patsy gets his time on the stand, not that it will make any difference. Ironically, none was a coward and even Paris (whose unit did not leave the trench) had wanted to attack, but was knocked unconscious by a corpse falling on him.  Dax gives an impassioned closing argument which includes the line “miscarriage of justice”.  Guess what the verdict is.


Hello, soldiers, how would you like to sacrifice your lives
in a fruitless attack that will get me promoted?
                The trio now have doom hanging over them like a muddy trench coat.  Paris ruminates about how a cockroach has a better future than him, resulting in Ferol smashing it and deadpanning:  “Now you have the edge on him.”  When a priest comes to visit, Arnaud attacks him. Paris intervenes and punches him, resulting in a skull fracture.  A doctor repairs Arnaud enough for him to be executed.  After Dax is informed about Mireau’s attempt to bombard his own men, he confronts Gen. Bourland to attempt blackmail.  It is unclear whether this ploy will work.  Surely they won’t execute these innocent men.


the deginerate and the idealist
                 Sorry, happy ending insisters, for the good of the war effort and to avoid future mutinies (mission not accomplished!), these dudes must die.  The men are led to the posts.  Actually, the unconscious Arnaud is carried on a stretcher.  If you ever have to stage an execution by firing squad, this movie acts as a good tutorial.

                In the afterglow of the spectacle, Broulard and Mireau eat heartily in the chateau.  Bourlard:  “This one had a certain splendor to it.”  Dax arrives.  On cue, Broulard brings up the bombardment order.  There will have to be an inquiry.  Mireau realizes he’s not heading for promotion after all.  He insists that he is “the only completely innocent man in this affair.”  OMG  someone please slap that man!  When Mireau stomps off, Broulard offers the promotion to Dax.  Dax fumes and calls him a “degenerate.”  Broulard’s riposte is that Dax is an “idealist”.  Oh, snap!


the worst cruelty of it all:  pinch Arnaud's cheeks
so he'll be awake to see the firing squad
CLOSING:  Dax gets word that the battered unit is heading up to the front again.  He passes by a cantina where a German girl (the future Mrs. Kubrick) sings “The Faithful Hussar” to a crowd of soldiers.  The hoots and catcalls are transformed to tears as the men hum along.  There is still some humanity in this inhumane war.

WOULD CHICKS DIG IT?  Yes.  It is not your typical war movie.  There is only the one graphic corpse and there is no blood.  The acting is stellar and Kirk Douglas takes off his shirt.  There is only one female character, but she is significant and closes out the film.  If your significant other enjoys bravura movie-making, she will enjoy the visual treats the movie.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Howard Cobb was inspired by a newspaper story about an incident in the war where four French poilu were executed for unit cowardice.  After the war, their families sued and two families were rewarded one franc each and the other two got nothing.  It was not uncommon in the French army and others (not including the A.E.F.) to execute men to strengthen the will of others.  The scenario in the movie is only indirectly related to the famous mutinies by French soldiers in the war.  The refusal to follow orders to continue wasteful attacks occurred wholesale in the army in 1917 after Nivelle's Chemins des Dames offensive to win the war came far short of the optimistic palaver fed to the troops.  There were some executions initiated by Petain as part of his otherwise empathetic diffusing of the situation.  It is safe to assume that among the 10% of men who were court-martialed and executed, there were undoubtedly some who did not deserve death.  The French government would have agreed with Mireau that the tonic might be harsh for a few, but effective for the masses. 


the three men held reponsible for
not taking the untakeable
CRITIQUE:  This was only Kubrick’s fourth film, but you can clearly see the style that made him one of the great directors.  The cinematography by Georg Krause is magnificent.  “Bridge on the River Kwai” took that Oscar, but you could argue that “Paths to Glory” is superior and certainly deserved a nomination.  Speaking of which, although it could be argued that “Bridge” is the overall better film, no one in their right mind would say today that the nominees “Peyton Place”, “Sayanora”, “Witness for the Prosecution”, and “Twelve Angry Men” were more deserving than “Paths”.  Especially those first two!  The movie is famous among film buffs for the long tracking shots (especially the battle scene) and Kubrick’s abrupt cuts.  He is not big on fades in this movie.  The interior scenes with their baroque mise en scenes and the deep focusing are a clinic.  We also get a lot of off centered shots.  Disconcertingly to modern war movie lovers, the film lacks the frenetic cutting used to add to the fog of war.  In “Paths of Glory”, you know what is going on during a battle.  You are not lost or confused.


I should never have taken this case pro bono
 The musical score is sparse, but Gerald Fried (who went on to score “Gilligan’s Island”!) encouraged the use of snare drums in war movies.  The closing song was of Napoleonic vintage and ends with the lines:  “Oh please Mother, bring a light /  My sweetheart is going to die”.  Coincidentally, Louis Armstrong had a hit with a version of it one year before the movie was released.

The acting is outstanding.  Douglas is his usual charismatic self, even more so because he was passionate about the project.  His Dax is one of the great anti-authority figures in war movie history and ahead of his time in the genre.  He runs the gamut of that stereotype.  Sarcasm, slow-burns, seething, and finally snapping.  The supporting cast is not intimidated.  MacReady and Menjou are all-time slimy.  Morris (who was a highly decorated ace in WWII) creates one of the great cowards in war movie history.  Ralph Meeker does his best work in an underrated career.  The most fascinating character is Ferol.  The eccentric Carey plays him to the hilt and his scene stealing aggravated the rest of the cast.  For instance, when he is being led by the Father to the execution and he bites into his arm - that was unscripted and almost got him punched in the face by the bemused Emile Meyer.  Carey was fired towards the end of the 64 day shoot and a double had to be used for the confession scene. 


Steal one more scene and maybe those won't be blanks

The movie is not subtle in its themes.  It has been described as an anti-war movie, but it is more appropriately labeled as an anti-command movie.  The battle scene is certainly horrific, but it is only seven minutes and no major character is killed.  The real focus of the plot is the machinations of the generals.  Broulard and Mireau are loathsome, but fairly representative of high command in the war.  Obviously, French high command in particular (Broulard resembles Joffre), but all of the belligerents in general.  It is no secret that the tactics used in the war were pigheaded, but the script enlightens about the use of court-martials to “motivate” the common soldiers.  A related theme is the dominance of the officer class over the enlisted.  Not only are most officers motivated by promotion (as opposed to the grunts just trying to survive), they use their position to wriggle out of culpability.  The only caveat I have with the themes is the ending cantina scene tends to dilute them.  The movie would have been better served ending with the executions.  However, considering the rumors that Douglas had to prevent Kubrick from giving the men a reprieve, it could have been much worse.  Having a tearful singalong by the cannon fodder signals that war goes on.  By the way, contrast the females at the end of “Paths of Glory” and “Full Metal Jacket”.  ‘Nuff said.  The songs have a similar vibe, though.


Kubrick:  Okay, if I can't have a happy ending, at least
I want to end with  a scene featuring this chick I want to go to bed with.
How realistic is it in military matters?  The trenches are a little too wide, but that was to facilitate those awesome tracking shots so all is forgiven on that score.  The night patrol seems typical, although fratricide by a cowardly leader was uncommon.  The main battle sequence is so well done that I show it in my American History class to prepare my students for their letter from a soldier at the front assignment.  (The other clips are from “All Quiet”, “Sergeant York”, and “The Lost Battalion”.) Special kudos to the German police officers who were the extras and did some of the better dying in a war movie. The sound effects bear mentioning.  The whining of the artillery shells and the resulting explosions add to the impression of Hell on Earth.

CONCLUSION:  “Paths of Glory” is one of the great war movies and definitely belongs in the top twenty.  I think #2 is a bit high, but I do not have a major problem with it.  It sets out to make an impression and it succeeds perfectly.  Kubrick plus Douglas is a winning combination, as seen in “Spartacus”.  It is more court room and behind the scenes oriented than most war movies, but it does have one of the great combat scenes to balance that.  Considering some of the laughable inclusions on the list, “Paths” is comfortably placed.  I can see where it would be a movie that the eclectic panel of military experts and cinema experts could agree on.

RATINGS:

Acting -  A+
Action -  6/10
Accuracy -  B
Realism -  B
Plot – A

GRADE  =  A 
the trailer
 
 
the battle scene
 
            

Monday, August 18, 2014

400th POST!



CRACKER?  Tropic Thunder  (2008)

               This is my 400th post.  It sort of snuck up on me so I had to think quick about what special movie I wanted to do.  It seems not that long ago I chose “300” for my 300th.  Unfortunately, there was no movie with the number 400 in its title.  So I decided to go with my favorite war comedy. 

“Tropic Thunder” is an action comedy produced, directed, co-written, and co-starring Ben Stiller.  Stiller was inspired by his bit role in “Empire of the Sun” and spent many years developing the script.  Originally the idea was to spoof actors who attend the actor boot camps to prepare for roles as soldiers.  The idea was to have the actors suffer from PTSD after their experience.  That is a funny idea.  As it turns out, the original idea evolved into a satire of war movies, prima donna actors, and movie productions. Stiller and co-writers Justin Theroux and Eton Cohen decided to construct the script around a movie within a movie concept.  The movie was a big box office success and was similar to Stiller’s “Dodge Ball” in its unexpected success.  It was well-reviewed, but there was some offense taken with the “Simple Jack” retard subplot and the casting of a white man as a black soldier.  The movie was also daringly R-rated for a summer comedy.  This was solely for language which can be quite raunchy,  although a gratuitous shot of nudie pictures was thrown in apparently to seal the deal.  The violence is cartoonish – just like most recent war movies.

                The movie famously begins with fake trailers to introduce the four main actors.  Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) is a fading action star like an Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) is an Eddie Murphyesque physical comedian who is making millions off fart jokes.  Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) is an Oscar winning method actor who really gets into his characters.  Alpa Cino (Brandon Jackson) is a rapper turned movie star who is mainly interested in product placement for his energy drink called "Bootie Sweat".  They are filming the story of American hero “Four Leaf” Taylor (Nick Nolte) who was rescued from a prison camp in Vietnam and wrote a book called “Tropic Thunder”.  The movie opens with a gonzo battle scene that would be awesome in a real war movie.  Midway through the mayhem a soldier takes a bullet in the head and the geyser of blood is the first hint that this is going to be a no holds barred spoof of war films.  This scene includes the first of the Vietnam War movie parodies.  I’ll list those in a bit.  It is, in my opinion, the funniest scene in war movie comedy history. 

Brooklyn, Motown, Four Leaf, Osiris, Fats, and the director
                So we now know the movie is going to make fun of war movies, but it also becomes apparent it will make fun of actors and movie-making as well.  The movie within the movie is being directed by a novice Brit named Cockburn (Steve Coogan).  This movie is not subtle.  He is freaking out in having to deal with his flaky cast and the production is way behind schedule and way over budget.  The producer Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) threatens to shut down the production, so Cockburn decides to take Tayback’s advice to make a guerrilla movie by dropping the cast into “the shit” and getting them to improv the scenes while moving through the jungle.  The five leads are dropped into the Golden Triangle of the heroin trade and quickly get the attention of a drug gang called Flaming Dragon.  The actors (except Lazurus) assume this is part of the movie.  When Speedman gets captured and taken to the gang’s camp, the others attempt a rescue.


tastes like blood flavored corn syrup
                “Tropic Thunder” won my March Madness 2012 tournament to determine the best war comedy so obviously I like this movie.  It is the perfect war comedy in my opinion because it makes fun of war movies and the making of war movies.  It is funny on its own, but if you are a war movie buff (especially Vietnam War movies), it is hilarious.  It is clear that the writers have seen some key Vietnam War movies and have lovingly poked fun at them.  Here are the references that I picked up:

1.        The opening chopper ingress is similar to that of “We Were Soldiers”, but choppers navigating through dense jungle foliage and hilly terrain is pretty standard.

2.       The combat scene has Speedman reenacting the Elias death scene from “Platoon”.

3.       In that scene, Sgt. Lincoln Osiris (Downey) uses the line “Ain’t nothin’ but a thang”.  This is an obvious reference to “It don't mean nothing, man. Not a thing” from "Hamburger Hill".
 
4.     The opening combat scene closes with a napalming nod to "Apocalypse Now"
 
5.       At the party to celebrate one week of filming, there are dancers like the Playboy bunnies of “Apocalypse Now”

6.       When they land in the jungle for the guerrilla filming, there is the tail of a downed plane like in AN   

7.       The panda scene is a take-off of the tiger scene from AN

8.       Osiris is a saucier in an homage to Chef in AN

9.       Speedman gets tortured similar to Rambo is “First Blood II”

10.       The water buffalo from AN has a cameo

11.    Motown (Brandon Jackson) and Sandusky (Jay Barachel) infiltrate the camp like Willard in AN

12.    Speedman channels Brando’s Kurtz

13.    Tayback does his version of flame-throwing like DeNiro in “The Deer Hunter”

14.    The aftermath of the RPG targeting of the truck has a “Saving Private Ryan” sensory deprivation homage

15.    The bridge explosion is reminiscent of “Bridge on the River Kwai”
 
        Did I miss anything?

The movie does more than mock famous scenes.  Some of it is more subtle, like the inclusion of a character named Brooklyn (Sandusky) to poke fun at the presense of someone from Brooklyn in virtually every small unit movie and another named Motown (“Hamburger Hill” has a character by that name).  There are some funny references to the fact that only Sandusky went to the boot camp.  The movie also makes fun of the faux soldier lingo that is put in clueless actors’ mouths in most war movies.  Speedman says “load and lock”, for instance.  Here are my two favorites from “Fats” (Black):

                “If our asses don’t get fragged in this valley, first thing I’m doing is paying my two bucks so I can watch Brooklyn bust his cherry on a sweet little mama-san’s dinky down poon-tang”.

                        “Listen, you cherry fuck, you call in that snake n’ nape and get us some boom-boom now!”

        The acting is very strong.  It shows you what kind of director Stiller is to see how he allows his cast to outshine him.  I guess this balanced his tough directing style.  Downey is absolutely brilliant and deserved his Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (he lost to Heath Ledger).  His character Kirk Lazarus undergoes a “pigmentation alteration” to play a black man.  This was slightly controversial, but the ultimate way to lampoon method actors like Russell Crowe.  He also stays in character throughout (in fact all the way through the DVD commentary – which is hilarious, by the way).  One reason the movie rewards repeat viewings is to catch his facial expressions.  The real revelation is Tom Cruise.  He earned back a lot of good will due to his very game performance.  He even developed the character, including the look and the dancing.  Nick Nolte also deserves special mention.  He is perfect as the real Tayback.  I haven’t even mentioned Matthew McConaughey as Speedman’s agent.  There are no false notes from any of the performers.


Stiller as Hercules
        The movie is well-made as it should be for a $90 million comedy.  Kudos for the studio putting that amount of money in a risky project.  The Hawaiian locations are lush and appropriately jungley.  The cinematography by John Toll is excellent.  The sound-track has some great choices to remind of Vietnam and push the story.  Any movie with “Sympathy for the Devil” is on the right track.  The score joins in the mocking of action films.  The special effects are noteworthy with the opening scene coming off as a modern war combat film.  There is the massive napalm explosion and assorted other explosions courtesy of the pyrotechnical Cody Underwood (Danny McBride).  Obviously aimed at pleasing the people who are unaware that they have wandered into a comedy.  Speaking of which, the movie does a great job blending comedy and action.  Keep in mind that only one character dies in the movie (and it is one of the most unexpected deaths that you will see).


Damn, that dude can act!
        For this review, I watched the director’s cut (which has 14 more minutes) and two commentary tracks.  I was still laughing the third go-around.  Incidentally, the extended cut is better than the theatrical version.  Most of the restored cuts were edited because of time constraints and the longer version fleshes out the characters and includes some funny stuff that did not deserve the cutting room floor.  This is worth mentioning because the theatrical version is the funniest war movie comedy ever.  Keep in mind that this is the opinion of a war movie lover who does not mind hearing a guy tied to a tree offer to perform oral sex to be set free. 
 Not everyone will find that sort of thing funny. 

Tom Cruise as Les Grossman
        Does it crack my 100 Best?  What do you think?

         Bonus line:  Osiris – “What would have happened in ‘The Great Escape’ if Steve McQueen and those dudes had turned tail and ran?”

 

GRADE  =  A+
 
the trailer
 
part of the opening

Thursday, August 14, 2014

FORGOTTEN GEM? The Inglorious Bastards (1978)


 

                Once upon a time in Western cinema, there was a little Italian movie that had been buried and forgotten.  Then along came a famous director who had fond memories of it and was inspired to make a movie of the same title (sort of).  This highly renowned director urged people to get their shovels out and enlighten themselves.  It turns out the shovels would serve double duty (dooty).   The undead movie is entitled “The Inglorious Bastards” and was directed by Enzo Castellan.  It is now probably the most famous example of a subgenre called “macaroni combat”.  Macaroni combat films first appeared in the mid-60s.  These movies were Italian made.  They were characterized by low budgets and over the top violence.  Many of them starred a has-been American actor.  Another characteristic is they all were greatly improved if viewed while ingesting copious quantities of alcohol and in the company of male friends who were not missing a Mensa meeting.

                The movie is set in France in 1944.  A group of misfits are being transferred to a military stockade when a fortuitous strafing allows them to escape.  One of them tells an MP “arrivederci” and the subtitle tells the target audience that this means “see you later”.  Here are our dirty five:

1.        Nick (Michael Pergolini) -  the Italian thief in charge of comic relief

2.       Berle (Jackie Basehart) -  the cowardly deserter in need of redemption

3.       Endfield (Fred Williamson)  -  the black justifiable murderer

4.       Tony (Peter Hooten) -  the wiseass mutineer who is a racist

5.       Yeager (Bo Svenson)  -  the fighter jock who refused to kill civilians

Yeager assumes leadership of the motley crew and they head for Switzerland.  On the way they add a
German deserter misfit.  Along the way they get to kill a bunch of Nazis with blazing machine guns (no rifles for these guys).  And we get to see an encounter with some German nurses who are bathing nude in a stream.  This movie has everything a macaroni movie male could ask for.  In one of their firefights they accidentally kill (no one gets wounded in this movie) an American commando team.  The team was on a mission to steal a gyroscope for the V-2 prototype from an armored train.  Col. Buckner (the vaguely recognizable Ian Bannen) needs a new team for his suicide mission.  Where can he find five guys willing to risk their lives in order to expend a lot of ordinance?  Buckner and Yeager disguise themselves as rocket scientists (ironic right?) to accomplish the mission and change the course of the war, naturally. 

"Can you believe this piece of crap is going to inspire a
future auteur?"
                If Quentin Tarantino ever invites you to an Italian restaurant and suggests you try some exotic dish, think twice.  Just because a hipster recommends something that he remembers fondly from his childhood does not mean it’s guaranteed to be good.  It should be noted that as much as Tarantino loved the movie, his “remake” has absolutely nothing in common with the original.  Thank God for that!  There are no redeeming features to Castellan’s movie.  Other than the naked ladies.  The acting is horrible, but Svenson (who appears in the “Nation’s Pride” movie within a movie in “Inglourious Basterds”) is suave and appears to be enjoying the pay check, but the rest of the cast is so bad that they make Svenson seem like Brad Pitt.  Williamson makes Jim Brown look like a thespian.  That, by the way, is a very appropriate analogy since the character was plagiarized from "The Dirty Dozen"..  His character's name is Fred which means they did not want to make things too confusing for the ex-football player.  (The movie was recut as a blaxploitation flick called “G.I. Bro” with Williamson’s character bumped up to leading man. The tag line became:  “If you’re a Kraut, he’ll take you out.”)   Two of the misfits (Tony and Nick) are grating and I hated them (partly because the actors are abysmal).  The loathsome Tony even gets a romantic subplot!  And Nick is put in Steve McQueen’s motorcycle-riding shoes with vomit-inducing results. 

                The movie is camp wannabe.  It does have some of the worst deaths of any war movie I have ever seen.  People don’t think about how important it is that the extras die competently.  I laughed out loud several times.  Just as movies sometimes have a boot camp to help the actors to realistically portray soldiers, there needs to be training on how to flop.  Otherwise your movie ends up looking like a low budget, badly dubbed Italian macaroni combat movie.  Speaking of deaths, quantity does not make up for quality although there certainly are a lot of them in this movie.  Needless to say the dialogue is trite and the plot is full of clich├ęs.  Believe it or not, it took five writers to work out the script (and rumor has it that Williamson helped!).  It still could have been a fun movie like “The Secret Invasion”, but it isn’t.  In fact, it is f'n terrible!  Hey Tarantino, remember that cool dead skunk you saw on the road when you were a teenager?  Keep it to yourself.

 

GRADE  =  F-

Saturday, August 9, 2014

CRACKER? Inglourious Basterds (2009)



                “Inglourious Basterds” is Quentin Tarantino’s addition to the suicide mission subgenre.  He specifically mentioned “Dirty Dozen”, “Where Eagles Dare”, and “Guns of Navarone” as examples of what he was shooting for.  However, he chose a movie on the opposite end of the subgenre for inspiration.  The original “Inglorious Bastards” was an Italian spaghetti war movie.  This was a creative process reminiscent of his “Django Unchained”.  One has to wonder about Tarantino’s self-esteem due to his choices to “remake” movies that the kids on “Super 8” could improve on.  Of course, he had to put a Tarantino spin on the subgenre.  Most critics liked the spin and the movie was nominated for eight Oscars including Picture, Director, Original Screenplay,  Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound.  It was a box office success which is quite an accomplishment for a war movie these days.  Maybe audiences need something different from the genre.  Compare this to the tepid response to the more traditional “Monuments Men”.  New School versus Old School.  One has to give Tarantino credit for perseverance as it took him ten year to get the film done.  It was the ending that was part of the holdup.  It looks like he got that right in the long run.

                The plot is from the alternative history arena.  It opens in occupied France in 1941.  A suave Gestapo agent named Landa (Christoph Waltz) and nicknamed “the Jew Hunter” makes a visit to a farm searching for a Jewish family in hiding.  In one of the great war movie scenes, Landa ferrets out the rats (his description of Jews).  At one point Landa pulls out a comically huge pipe ala Sherlock Holmes in a typical bit of Tarantino humor. The impact of the scene develops a tremendous amount of goodwill for the film and won Waltz a Best Supporting Actor award, among many other accolades.  One member of the family, Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), escapes and thus begins one of the primary threads of the movie.



Don't let the pipe fool you -
he's one malevolent dude

                The other thread involves a commando unit created by an OSS agent named Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt).  The unit consists of Jewish soldiers and the mission is to drop behind enemy lines and do as much damage to the Nazis as an R-rated Tarantino movie will allow.  This includes scalping their victims.  One of the members is the baseball bat-wielding Donowitz (Eli Roth) who becomes known even to Hitler as the “bear Jew”.  As though the plot is not defying reality enough already, the unit is joined by a Gestapo-killing psychotic German soldier.

                Fast forward to 1944.  Shoshanna is living in Paris under an assumed identity and is the proprietor of a movie theater.  She meets the German version of Audie Murphy.  Pvt. Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) wants to hook up with the very reluctant Shoshanna.  Zoller has preempted Murphy by starring in a film about his exploits before the war is even over.  Goebbels is using Zoller for propaganda purposes and Zoller schemes to have the film premiered at his potential girl friend’s theater.  The debut of “Nation’s Pride” will be attended by many Nazi bigwigs.  This gives British intelligence (represented by the distracting Mike Myers) the idea of using Raine’s unit to assassinate the moviegoers.  Churchill (Rod Taylor!) approves the plan.  A film expert/secret agent named Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is sent to link up with Raine and make contact with the German actress Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) who is an Allied spy.  With all these combined talents, the mission should be a piece of cake.  Right?


Shoshanna and Zoller do not live happily ever after
                Hicox makes contact with Bridget in a basement bar.  The ensuing scene is masterful if you suspend reality (drunken Germans certainly react quickly to totally unexpected danger).  It includes a Tarantinoesque orgy of violence and complicates the plan immensely.  Raines’ role in the assassination becomes a farce, but it is balanced by the earnest act of revenge Shoshanna has cooked up.  All of the surviving players converge on the cinema with the addition of der Fuhrer himself.  If you have not turned off your brain yet, do so now.  Embrace the implausibilities.  Revel in the feel good massacre.  Be aware that this is not a true story!


Never play games with drunken Germans
                “Inglourious Basterds” feels like the culmination of the suicide mission subgenre.  It is a war movie that could not have been made in the 20th Century.  I am not sure this is the direction I want war movies of this type to go in.  As you will see with my updated rankings of the subgenre, “Basterds” is not a pinnacle of these types.  It is a worthy addition and does take the subgenre into the 21st Century.  Although the movie is very entertaining even to a purist like myself, it has its flaws that make it a bit overrated.  First the strengthes.  The acting is outstanding (with the exception of the stunt casting of Mike Myers).  This is actually one reason why the film is overrated.  Waltz’ performance is so mesmerizing that it overshadows some of the movie’s flaws.  Without him the movie would have had a lot less buzz.  In fact, Tarantino would have been unlikely to have made the movie if he had not found the perfect actor to play Landa.  The rest of the cast is great with special kudos to the females.  Strong females are so rare in war movies, they really stand out.  Pitt appears to be the only actor that was told that the movie is a comedy.  He has a lot of fun with the part and you want to wink back at him. 

                The plot has some interesting twists and some shockers embedded.  Don’t get too attached to any of the characters.  Speaking of which, the characters are well drawn.  Particular mention should go to Zoller.  He is not the hissable villain you would expect from a sniper who killed a bunch of Americans.  He even comes off as charming in his pursuit of Shoshanna.  The music is typically eclectic for a Tarantino film.  Some of it reminds of a spaghetti Western which is obviously what Tarantino intended.  One long scene (the one in the bar) has no music.  The cinematography (although nominated for an Oscar) is not pretentious or showy.  The violence is not for the squeamish.  If you like scalpings and knife carvings, this is the movie for you.


It's not against the Geneva Convention if you win
                I am not a huge fan of the movie.  I am not interested in alternative history.  The actual events are interesting enough without people wondering “what if?”  This is the reason why I thought I would not like the movie when I first heard about it, but it is not the reason why I think the movie is overrated.  I actually enjoyed it once I suspended my rational nature.  The problem with the film is although it has some outstanding scenes, they tend to be overly long.  And this is after Tarantino had to do some substantial editing.  There are also some implausibilities that grate even in a movie of this subgenre.  On the other hand, I have to point out that the movie is so clearly a fantasy that you would have to be a complete moron to think any of it is true.  That does not mean I’m not a little concerned about asking my students how Hitler died.

                It is interesting to compare the two recent movies about assassinating Hitler.  “Valkyrie” (2008) was Old School and very historically accurate.  It cost around $75 million and made about $200 million.  “Inglourious Basterds” cost around $75 million and its box office was around $320 million.  It was New School and was about as historically inaccurate as you can get.  Based on these two films, it would appear obvious what the movie-going public wants from 21st Century war movies.  I like both movies and as long as the movie is well made and entertaining I can appreciate either school.

GRADE  =  B+ 
 
RANKINGS OF THE SUICIDE MISSION SUBGENRE: 
4.  Inglourious Basterds
 
the trailer