Monday, September 6, 2010

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

It's not spoiling anything to reveal that Quentin Tarantino's most recent film, Inglourious Basterds [sic], closes with one character remarking to another, "I think this just might be my masterpiece." The film is punctuated with moments like this, when one character says to another (as Hitler to Goebbels, for another example), that the other has just achieved his crowning glory. While I'm not convinced that Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino's magnum opus (it's tough to top Pulp Fiction, for my money), it does represent a return to form after indulgent experiments like Kill Bill and Death Proof.

Inglourious Basterds is, per Tarantino's description, a spaghetti western with World War II imagery, with the story divided into five semi-standalone chapters, each revolving around one set of character interactions. The film follows, separately, a ragtag team of Jewish-American soldiers scalping Nazis on the orders of their quirky Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, channelling Foghorn Leghorn); Jewish fugitive Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who plans to use her movie theater to kill Nazis during the premiere of war hero Fredrick Zoller's (Daniel Brühl) biopic; British Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), commissioned by Winston Churchill to aid German actress-turned-secret-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) in an attempt to blow up the Nazi premiere, ignorant of Shosanna's plot; and SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, in a performance well-deserving of its Supporting Actor Oscar), the ranking Nazi official standing between Hitler himself and all these plots, which converge in a stellar finale that's as fun as it is fantastic.

I've voiced my discomfort with labeling Inglourious Basterds Tarantino's masterpiece, but if it's not Number One it's certainly Number Two (although I may change my tune once I rewatch Reservoir Dogs). The screenplay is one of Tarantino's best, in the "interconnected disconnect" tradition of Pulp Fiction and, to a lesser extent, Kill Bill, in which vignettes are tied together as part of a narrative thread but are easily (re)watchable outside the context of the film as a whole. The script is a taut exercise in dramatic tension, deceptively composed of long scenes of dialogue (often subtitled from German or French) but which bring to a simmer intense anxiety about if and when each character's deception will be revealed and cause events to boil over into a brutally gory yet classically Tarantino shoot-'em-up sequence (which, don't worry, happens more often than not).

Perhaps, then, we can ascribe a masterpiece to Tarantino, but with the caveat that it isn't his only one. If we're hellbent on labeling Inglourious Basterds the masterpiece, we can always excuse Pulp Fiction for being partially co-authored by Roger Avery. But Basterds is all Tarantino, showing a maturity level that heretofore has been absent (but, in retrospect, showed signs of nascency in Death Proof); rather than clutter his work with blatant homages and showy stylization, Tarantino wisely pulls back on both, creating a work that's more subtle than I think most of us knew Tarantino could produce. It's not for nothing the film nabbed a Best Picture nomination, you see. It stands as the perfect intersection of a first-rate screenplay and a more-than-capable cast.

The true star of the film is Tarantino's dialogue, which manages to transcend the drudgery of subtitles by leaping off the screen without calling attention to its own built-in flair (from what I've been told, the translation work isn't bad, either). But the members of the cast are all so good that it's difficult to find a star made of flesh and blood. Is it Pitt, who takes first billing bcause of his name recognition but whose star power is dwarfed by the comparatively small role he plays? Is it Laurent, a protagonist in the tradition of The Bride who does a solid job portraying all her character's fears and determination? Is it Waltz, who obviously dominated the public imagination about the film with a delightfully nuanced and delectably wicked performance as the Nazi with as many cards up his sleeve as held close to his chest? Or should we merely throw our hands up in uncertainty by saying it's an ensemble cast? Well, it is. But they're all so good that you won't notice, for example, that Pitt is absent for the first, third, and most of the fourth acts; actors like Fassbender and especially Waltz take control of their screen time such that you'll forget that it isn't entirely their movie.

It's a movie that isn't really about anything. It's about World War II, sure, but it's more the story of a group of very radical figures fighting it on different terms, on different fronts, and for different reasons. One of the most significant features for me is the way in which the film brilliantly cheats itself; it contains the single most creative way I've ever seen for dealing with a film in which the objective is to assassinate Hitler - even though we know Hitler was never assassinated (Bryan Singer did an equally solid but different job with Valkyrie, though it's nothing on the scale of audaciousness that Basterds brings to the table). Hint: the first major clue comes before the first scene of the film; pay attention.

Oh, what the heck. High tension, tight scripting, fantastic performances - maybe it is his masterpiece, after all.
Inglourious Basterds is, like every Quentin Tarantino movie, rated "R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality." Obviously, the language and the violence are pretty extreme, with F-bombs and scalpings all over the place, as well as the sporadic bloody shoot-out. There's an implied sexual liasion between Goebbels and his translator, and Fredrick flirts heavily with Shosanna, but it's pretty tame compared to other Tarantino films in this regard.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

This review has probably been a long time coming. Edgar Wright's first filmic collaboration with Simon Pegg, Shaun of the Dead has been referred to more times on this blog, I would estimate, than any other non-reviewed film herein. Well, no more. Here below, for your reading pleasure, is a treatise on why I love Shaun of the Dead.

In a film that calls itself "the first rom-zom-com" (romantic zombie comedy), Pegg stars as the titular Shaun, who's grappling with a lackluster job as an electronics salesman and a precarious relationship with girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), who wants more out of life than nights out at local pub The Winchester with Shaun's coarse roommate Ed (Nick Frost). Then zombies attack, and Shaun is forced to deal with his possibly-infected stepfather Phil (Bill Nighy) while attempting to win Liz back amid a mob scene of bite-happy undead.

It's no secret to loyal readers of this blog that I'm absolutely mad about Shaun of the Dead - in an all-encompassing delirious love sense of the word (appropriately, the British definition). The film remains Edgar Wright's finest hour (or hour-forty, to be precise), rambunctiously entertaining and unflinchingly satirical without ever becoming distractingly parodical (I'm looking at you, "Reference Movie" crowd). Blame the airtight screenplay by Wright and Pegg, which teases zombie film conventions while foreshadowing its own plot growth. The script's greatest virtue, though, is its repetition of memorable dialogue and eye-popping (sometimes literally) visual gags that get funnier each time they're executed.

The performances are also credible, with the players doing their parts without relying on comedy crutches like mugging or pandering. Because the cast takes itself seriously while simultaneously recognizing the absurdity of their situation (the epitome of this being Shaun's heated exclamation, "Oh, give us a f---ing break!" as a second wave of zombies encroaches on his position), the comedy is played for more than just a knowing chuckle. Instead, we're treated to great rolling-in-the-aisles fits of laughter which comes not in small doses but in almost every scene. Pegg leads the cast, but it's Frost who will elicit the most laughs from filmgoers, with his gruff yet endearing portrayal of the unpolished Ed; if nothing else, his impression of "Clyde" (it'd be spoiling to tell who Clyde is) will get a few giddy giggles. Even Bill Nighy takes his droll self and drags it out into a plausible caricature of the unlikeable survivor with a heart of gold.

Where the film really succeeds, though, is in its childlike enthusiasm for its subject matter and the gleefully chaotic way in which it plays out, non sequitur humor amplifying the already farcically absurd nature of the film. Who else would think that Queen fits perfectly with a zombie invasion? (Spoiler: it does.) Where else would ice cream and smoking be priorities while surviving a zombie attack? (Spoiler: only in Ed's mind.) And where else would you find a zombie invasion film where the invasion itself happens off-screen and is only a MacGuffin around which the characters can chase each other?

I'm inclined to say that Shaun of the Dead is my favorite zombie movie ever (sorry, Zombieland, but it takes more than a Twinkie to win my heart), and I'm even more ready to claim that it's one of the better films overall made in the last ten years. It's certainly one of the most entertaining.
Shaun of the Dead is rated "R for zombie violence/gore and language." The zombies themselves are grotesque enough, but there are bludgeonings and arterial sprays all over the film, prompting the unforgettable one-liner, "You've got red on you." F-bombs and C-words abound, all played for laughs but nonetheless fantastically inappropriate.

The Expendables (2010)

"Getting the band back together" ought to be a genre in and of itself, with Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables standing as a good (but not quite great) example what a metafictional throwback film - and a late summer blockbuster - should do.

Writer and director Stallone also leads the cast of "Expendables" as Barney Ross, co-headlining with Jason Statham as Lee Christmas and Jet Li as Yin Yang. The Expendables, a team of mercenaries for hire, are contracted by the shadowy Mr. Church (a fun cameo by Bruce Willis, accompanied by an equally entertaining cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger, late of the governor's office) on an apparent suicide mission: take out the dictator (David Zayas, of Dexter fame) of jungle island Vilena and his American backer (Eric Roberts, slathered in smarm). What follows is a fairly typical action adventure, but its nostalgic nature is kind of the point, so it's a good thing The Expendables has its action sensibilities screwed on straight.

I realize that this review is a little long in the tooth, so the target audience for this film has probably already been to the theater and back by this point. Which is to say that The Expendables has a very clear immediate target audience who will lap this right up - this being an action movie with a eye waxing on the past, a bygone era of action stars whose movies were essentially interchangeable. But there's a second sense about the film, one of old vs. new in which the old generation can fight side-by-side with the new in tacit approval of the second coming of the action hero. Seeing Stallone and Statham bumping fists and riding into combat feels cool, and it's exactly that sensibility that will draw filmgoers. Fortunately, The Expendables delivers.

The biggest surprise isn't the who's-who roster of action stars, nor is it the explosive action sequence lineup (which is precisely explosive, thanks to a few warhead-equipped bullet rounds). What I found genuinely surprising precisely because it seemed so incongruous with a movie promising guys with guns. Mickey Rourke appears as Tool, a liasion of sorts who helps accrue gigs for The Expendables, and he has a long-take monologue about why he's not an active part of "the life" anymore. It's a strange moment, unsettling because of its seeming displacement in a shoot-'em-up smackdown. Here, the movie takes a little breather, offers up a moral compass, and gives Mickey Rourke a chance to put a little extra polish on his Best Actor Oscar in a way that Iron Man 2 never could. For this moment alone, the film is worth the cost of admission.

But there's plenty else to enjoy. The performances (Rourke aside) aren't restrained - Stallone hasn't lost any of his bulked-up hero factor, and Roberts is one of the more entertaining one-note action villains in recent memory - but neither is the action scaled back. There are plenty of viscerally appealing battle sequences, with exaggerated gunshots and high-speed knife fights aplenty. There's a plot in here somewhere and a few competing agendas at play, but the film is more like Once Upon a Time in Mexico in that the movie is a vessel for a healthy dose of action (notice that word recurring throughout this review?).

If there's a complaint about The Expendables, it's that the film seems to be holding back a little bit. Sure, there are fun nods to where the stars are now (Stallone remarks of Schwarzenegger, "He wants to be president") and metafictional references to the action flicks of the past (that Stallone/Lundgren rematch you've been waiting for plays out here), but it seems a little less quantitatively than one might expect. There are no memorable one-liners, as there ought to be in a "next installment" throwback picture, and the action is fun but not particularly groundbreaking. What's more, Willis and Schwarzenegger are bit players in only one scene - the scene depicted in the film's marketing - but there's untapped potential there. With rumblings of a sequel already following the movie like aftershocks, here's a tip for Stallone & Company: Next time, don't be afraid to turn it up to 11.
The Expendables is rated "R for strong action and bloody violence throughout, and for some language." The blood flies fast in the film but doesn't dominate it; F-bombs are sporadic but negigible. As far as inappropriate content goes, it's like a tamer version of Sin City but in color.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Machete (2010)

Attention Alexandre Aja and the rest of the crew who owe penance (or at least a partial refund) for Piranha 3D: Robert Rodriguez's Machete is how you do a B-movie.

Straight from the Grindhouse trailer, Danny Trejo leads one of the most eclectic casts in Hollywood history as federale-turned-day-laborer Machete Cortez, who immigrates illegally to the United States after his family is murdered by Mexican drug lord Torrez (Steven Seagal). Once stateside, Machete is hired by Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey) to kill border reformer Senator John McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro). Double-crossed, Machete allies himself with immigration officer Sartana (Jessica Alba), taco vendor Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), and his brother/priest Padre (Cheech Marin) to avenge himself on the men who betrayed him. The ensemble cast also includes wild child April (Lindsay Lohan), bounty hunter Osiris (Tom Savini), and minuteman vigilante Von Jackson (Don Johnson).

Like all of Rodriguez's best work, Machete is brutally violent and equally brutally fun, ignoring the laws of physics in favor of scenes that are so breathtakingly cool that you'll find it tough to swallow your popcorn for all the raucous guffawing you'll be issuing. Rodriguez finally turns the leading man reins over to Danny Trejo, who proves himself adroit at being more than meancing window dressing on the sidelines of films like Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Having cut his teeth in Rodriguez films, Trejo is a perfect fit for the off-the-wall sensibility that governs the film, delivering lines like "Machete don't text" with a deadpan humor that belies a recognition of the film's own campy nature. It's here that (and I'll try not to do this too frequently in the course of this review) Machete succeeds where Piranha 3D failed - by carrying itself off without mugging vigorously for camp appeal, Machete is a true homage to B-movies precisely because it keeps its tongue - and not its entire mouth - in cheek.

With Trejo as the star of the film, second billing really ought to go to the trademark Rodriguez style of relentlessly accelerated action, which comes out here in full force. There are moments when a plot about illegal immigration and a heavyhanded political statement (heavyhanded only because it's never given time to develop beyond a rapid boil), but these are mere placeholders to allow for a little downtime between high octane action pieces like Machete's escape from a hospital using only a bonesaw and an enemy's intestines. With characteristically improbable violence - such as one character, stabbed through the gut, delivering a nihilist monologue - surrounding delightfully hammy dialogue ("God has mercy; I don't"), Machete is a winner for knowing that delicate balance between entertainment value and legitimate dramatic style.

Machete is also remarkable in that it manages to assemble the strangest cast of actors and actresses - and make them all fit together like jigsaw pieces in a movie that shouldn't work but does. There's no question that some of these people can act - Robert DeNiro and Don Johnson have more than proven themselves, and Jeff Fahey is always a hoot (between this, Planet Terror, and his turn on Lost) - but Rodriguez finds a place for Jessica Alba and Lindsay Lohan, who are, shall we say, significantly less talented. The strangest thing is that Steven Seagal even manages to fit into the movie, despite being entirely one-note and bogged down with personal baggage and a history of parody as long as my grocery list. This is less a credit to the cast than it is to Rodriguez, although I must give a hearty handshake to the cast for not appearing too cool for the room; we know DeNiro is practically slumming to do a movie directed by the mind that brought us The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl, but at least he's a good sport about it and steps into the spirit of things (which is to say, larger than life in very broad strokes) fairly quickly.

Notice that I've not made claims to the film being a "great" film. That's because it's not. Nor does it pretend to be. What Machete professes to be is exactly what you'll find underneath the wrapper - another of Rodriguez's "Mexploitation" films, made on the cheap but with an earnestness that excuses the meager budget and dazzles the eye with a cast who's interested in having as much fun on this playground of a picture. If you're willing to leave your disbelief at home (merely suspending it probably won't do), Machete will be as much fun as you're looking for. If nothing else, it's far and away the B-movie of the year. (Nice try, Piranha 3D.)
Machete is rated a hard "R for strong bloody violence throughout, language, some sexual content and nudity." Blood flies everywhere and everywhen, with knife fights and a few spats of gunfire dominating the action of the movie. F-bombs pepper the dialogue like a tangy mole sauce, and Machete (spoiler warning?) lands in bed with pretty much every woman in the film, resulting in some toplessness and rear nudity in three scenes.