Saturday, September 26, 2009

Inglourious Basterds, The Hurt Locker, 9

Tarantino's latest, Inglourious Basterds is an entertaining enough and harmless enough movie; what I don't get are all the hosannas proclaiming it (and Tarantino) as the Second Coming.

Tarantino may be comfortable in exploring "everything troubling and uncomfortable about the fact that a love of movies has no inherent virtue," but I don't see why that gives him power over us (who mostly knew it all along, if our heads were screwed on right).

"To claim that Tarantino's films are empty and self-referential is to ignore the obvious truth. Tarantino has already achieved relevance simply by being good at making something we like. Movies." But Meis attributes something to Tarantino I just don't see. He is, as I've said before, a middling director, a deft scriptwriter, a brilliant assembler of soundtracks, and arguably the greatest casting agent alive, in that order. I'll go see his pictures but I'm not expecting anything extraordinary--that way I'm neither blown away nor let down by what I see onscreen.

The opening was amusing, but nowhere near as "taut and sharp" as Meis claims (Spielberg's Schindler's List, much as I dislike the film, was better at generating suspense, or at least a sense of tension (I'm thinking of Amon Goth granting forgiveness to one camp inmate)). Meis praises a barroom scene and the way it "stretches the tension to a breaking point as masterfully as Hitchcock ever did." I don't know; Hitchcock I submit knew the difference between stretching "tension to a breaking point" and stretching one's sense of patience to the breaking point, plus he never had people talk as much as Tarantino does (when Hitchcock did allow for chatter it was usually for comic effect). Tarantino demonstrates a lousy sense of pace here, and rewards our patience with an incoherently edited gunfight; later you can't help but notice that his scenes peter out with either a cut or cute joke--it's as if he'd lost the knack of ending a scene, or at least of writing a proper ending for one (He still had that knack when he made Reservoir Dogs, if I remember rightly).

The movie has its moments--Melanie Laurent framed against a window, for example, while electric guitars roar a la Ennio Morricone in spaghetti western mode (Tarantino channels a lot of filmmakers but his favorite nowadays seems to be Sergio Leone). And Christoph Waltz as the Nazi officer smarter than anyone else is a funny recap of something Hitchcock did decades ago--only those weren't my favorite Hitchcock; my idea of a great Hitchcock villain combines evil and vulnerability in a complex, knotty little package (Claude Rains in Notorious, Raymond Burr in Rear Window, Anthony Perkins in Psycho).

The ending evokes Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen with a significant difference--Aldrich's film (shot matter-of-factly, in real time) emphasizes the dirty, difficult, dangerous business of murder; Tarantino's film slows the killings down for a more grandiose effect, inflating the rhetoric the same time he deflates any hope of adding meaning to his climactic massacre (I know, I know, movies have "no inherent virtue." Doesn't mean one can't try).

Critics seem to want to call the movie's ending a powerful act of re-imagination. It's not often done in movies (HBO's Fatherland), but the genre's common enough in science fiction (Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream is an excellent example, though my favorite is Philip K. Dick's great The Man in the High Castle). Tarantino cutting short World War 2 doesn't seem half as interesting as Dick's dark vision of a world dominated by a Japanese and Nazi empire--but that's probably just me.

I don't know, I think Meis needs to see a few more WW 2 and Holocaust movies and documentaries. If he's saying Inglourious is a better film than Night and Fog I think he needs to produce a helluva longer article, just to explain himself.

It's hard to take Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker any more seriously than Tarantino's pulpy war fantasy, but Bigelow at least demonstrates more than enough ability to be "good at making something we like." I don't mean the characters, who are basically cartoons (albeit deftly and economically sketched), or the central character's psychological predicament (an update on a premise as old as Hawks' His Girl Friday, given some heft and urgency (if not verisimilitude) in Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon). What makes this movie sing, or at least warble a few vivid notes, are the bomb defusing sequences, which are pretty damned good. The movie's basically Richard Lester's Juggernaut (1974) set on dry land, and without Lester's misanthropic wit--not as bracing, perhaps, but it'll do until something better comes along.

Shane Acker's 9 is a disappointment--the trailer led us to expect a miniature epic complete with rag-doll courage, improvised weaponry, and huge, shambling Rube Goldberg machinery. We get all that and in spades, but what I should have asked for is a storyline that resonates more with its audience instead of depending on the inherent pathos of discarded trash, the spell of which lasts for all of twenty minutes--then it's a long and dull slog through the world of the future as a historical junkyard.

Some of the action is imaginatively done. A snakelike creature swallowing our heroes whole has some of the skin-crawling horror of recent onscreen anacondas (though the creature being made of cloth reminds one that this textile-as-skin conceit has been done before, and much better, in Henry Selick's Coraline), and any action sequence that puts string, rusted metal and other knickknacks to good use can't be all bad. Overall, however, this is thin fare.


Jesús Cortés said...

I quite agree with your comments on "Inglorious basterds" (and Zach Campbell´s in Elusive Lucidity). I think the final segment is simply grotesque, with that ridiculous italian stuff and Tennessee´s Pitt acting like if there were cattle in front of him. But the opening is tense and interesting (the only moment where Tarantino seems to realize he is talking about a REAL war not a Frank Miller comic) and there are some good moments later, but the general impression is that Quentin reached his peak many tears ago with "Pulp fiction".

Noel Vera said...


P'raps he reached his peak with Jackie Brown, where he served a better writer, Elmore Leonard. Doesn't showcase much skill as a director except sometimes when the material is good, he knows enough not to do too much.

jayclops said...

The Hurt Locker is a 2009 favorite of mine, so far. I think Jeremy Renner was great. I would agree on the bomb sequences. It just stopped my heart beat, right there.

Noel Vera said...

I think Bigelow's biggest problem is she needs a script strong enough to hold together so she can show her stuff. This was a script strong enough--barely--so she showed her stuff, and she's great.

I agree, Renner is excellent, but I do think he brought a lot to the party--it's a seriously underwritten part.