Movie Reviews - 2009 postsMonday September 21, 2009
Review: “The Informant!” (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS LACED WITH LYSINE AND GLUCONATE
“The Informant!” is a movie set in the 1990s but designed for the 2000s—with title graphics from the late 1960s and a soundtrack from...the 1950s? When were kazoos popular? It has, in other words, a real chance to be a cult hit. It’s probably too quirky to be popular. It’s too original.
Matt Damon, looking as horribly ordinary as movie stars are allowed to look, plays Mark Whitacre, a vice-president at Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), a conglomerate based in Decatur, Ill., and, if memory serves, a company that perennially supports PBS public affairs programming. But its main business is taking cereal grains and oilseeds and putting them into food and feed.
As the film opens, there’s a virus eating both the lysine in the ADM plants and the profits that the conglomerate demands, and Whitacre’s getting the blame from the son of the boss, Mick Andreas (Tom Papa), for not solving the problem. It’s amusing but unfair—in the way that sons-of-bosses always seem amusing but unfair. Then Whitacre gets a call from a Japanese colleague who says an ADM mole is responsible for the virus and he’ll reveal the name for $10 million. Rather than pay off, though, the higher-ups at ADM bring in the FBI, who tap Whitacre’s personal line to find out more. This bothers Whitacre—first a little, then a lot—and, with his wife’s prodding, he reveals to FBI agent Brian Shepard (Scott Bakula), that ADM and the Japanese are involved in price-fixing the international lysine market. Which is how Whitacre turns informant. “Mark, why are you doing this?" Shepard asks at one point. “Because things are going on that I don’t approve of,” he says. “They’re making me lie to people.”
Hold that thought.
Whitacre is obviously a bit of a joke. He's dumpy with an out-of-date moustache, yet “secret agent” music plays as he drives up to his house or to his office, as if that's how he sees himself. When he’s wired he provides a running commentary on his day, and greets everyone by full name and occupation: “Good morning Liz Taylor, secretary.” At one point he calls himself 0014 because “I’m twice as smart as James Bond.” He ain’t dumb—at one point, a Japanese businessman blocks the FBI’s hidden camera, and Whitacre deftly gets him to move, and then deftly gets everyone in the room, the price fixers, to say the magic word: “agree”—but there’s something off about him.
He’s our narrator, too, providing a running commentary on...what exactly? He gives us asides, trivia, tidbits of information. Initially these asides have something to do with the action—all the corn, for example, that ADM puts into its products, our products, and how they use corn and chemicals to bring chickens to maturity in a fraction of the time that nature intended—but soon he’s talking about Central American butterflies, and how he likes an indoor swimming pool for its “year-round usage,” and how he thinks his hands are his best feature. I could see the movie again just for these asides.
He also keeps shifting his position. After his initial confession to the FBI he avoids its agents, insisting that the virus is gone and the price-fixing is over and can't they just leave him alone? Then he has delusions about what will happen after the big reveal. “How can you possibly stay [at ADM] when you’ve just taken down the company?” his wife, faithful to a fault, asks. “Because they need me to run the company,” he insists. There’s a logic there that manages to ignore the entirety of human nature. It’s a void so large one doesn’t know what to make of it.
Throughout we think we’re in on it but we're not. That's the true beauty of the film. After the big reveal, we get a lot of little reveals, and Whitacre, who has kept his secrets for so long, can’t shut up. Everyone tells him not to say anything and he says everything. He tells other ADM employees about the FBI raid before it happens. Once it happens he talks to lawyer 1, lawyer 2, The Wall Street Journal. He’s been outed as a rat and merely says, “Did you see my stipple portrait? Pretty good.”
The second big reveal comes from an internal ADM investigation into Whitacre. While he’s been informing for the FBI he’s also been taking kickbacks—leaving his agents open-mouthed and the agency shifting its focus to him. First he denies everything. Then he blames the corporate culture. Then he says, “I only took a million and a half dollars.” This figure keeps rising. Seven million, nine million, eleven million. “But Mick knew about that!” he insists, as if that makes it OK. He blames a bipolar disorder—but doesn’t suffer from it. He takes refuge as an orphan—but isn’t one. He wears a toupee. Nothing about this guy is true. He may have been responsible for planting the lysine virus in the first place. And yet there’s no mea culpa. Even as he goes to prison, he’s still prevaricating. He’s still off. You get the feeling he doesn’t get what he's done wrong. He still sees himself the hero, the white hat, of his own movie, which is why he’s the perfect hero for this one.
Damon, by the way, is blissfully obtuse as Whitacre, and there’s a supporting cast to die for. At one point I wondered, “Is that the guy who played Biff Tanen in ‘Back to the Future’?” Later I realized, “No, it’s the guy who played the guard in ‘Shawshank.’” Later still I realized it was both actors, they’re both in it. Tom Smothers shows up as ADM’s CEO, Dick as a judge. Giants’ fan Patton Oswalt is in there, plus a Cusack sister, plus Candy Clark. Scott Bakula, as the main FBI agent on the case, is needy, dismissive, impressed and ultimately betrayed—the most ordinary FBI agent ever filmed.
Whitacre did his deeds in the nineties but he’s obviously a protagonist for our time. He lies and prevaricates and lies some more. One can’t even keep up with it all. One wonders, as with so many of our public figures, if he even knows who he is. There’s no there there. There’s not even there enough to care that there’s no there. It’s a tragedy, filmed as a comedy, and the tone is exactly right. Welcome back, Steven Soderbergh. Break out the kazoos.
Review: “The Cove” (2009)
WARNING: WHISTLING, CLICKING AND SCREECHING SPOILERS
Movies aren’t known for their great first sentences the way books are—for obvious reasons— but “The Cove” gives us a great first sentence. I forget if anything’s on the screen, or if it’s black, but you hear director Louie Psihoyos in voiceover:
“I do want to say that we tried to do the story legally.”
That story is relatively simple. Every year in Taiji, Japan, fishermen drive thousands of dolphins toward shore and into a cove, where the best are chosen for “Sea World” type shows around the world, and the rest are driven to a secret cove, where they are secretly slaughtered.
The hero of the story is Ric O’Barry, whom we get piecemeal. Each piece is fascinating. He was supposed to be the featured speaker at a conference on dolphins that Psihoyos was attending but got pulled because the sponsor of the conference, SeaWorld, wanted nothing to do with him. O’Barry’s an activist. He frees dolphins, including SeaWorld dolphins, in captivity. “How many times have you been arrested?” Psihoyos asks him. “This year?” O’Barry answers.
Eyebrows go up—mine did anyway—when you find out that O’Barry’s not just any activist; he was the original trainer on “Flipper,” the 1960s TV series that’s responsible, in part, for the popularity of dolphin shows at places like SeaWorld. The family’s house on “Flipper” was his house, and he guest-starred in one episode. In fact, he captured the five female dolphins who played Flipper.
Near the end of the series, though, one of the dolphins playing Flipper, Cathy, swam into his arms and killed herself. She just stopped breathing. The next day O’Barry was arrested trying to free a dolphin. He hasn’t stopped since.
He says their acoustic sense is so well-developed that the finest sonar in the world is nothing in comparison. Thus loud noises and enclosed areas—like at a Sea World show—are stressful. They get ulcers. They die. We capture them because we love them, then we give them what kills them. “The dolphin smile is nature’s greatest deception,” he says. “It creates the illusion they’re always happy.”
After they meet, O’Barry takes Psihoyos to Taiji, where O’Barry’s as known—and as wanted—as he is at SeaWorld. Authorities stake him out, watch him, question him through the fog of a foreign language. The brunt of the story’s here. The goal of the two men is to film the killing that goes on in the secret cove—to let the world know that it goes on—but it’s not easy. Local authorities harass them. Local fishermen harass them, including a particularly annoying and bespectacled man whom they dub “Private Space,” because that’s what he’s always yelling. The cove is surrounded on all three sides by high, private cliffs. There is no public vantage point from which to film. And they are harassed.
Great movies have been made about the assembling of a team—think “Asphalt Jungle,” “Dirty Dozen,” the first season of “The Wire”—and “The Cove” simply gives us the real-life version. Friends at George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic use their expertise to fashion faux-rocks around hidden cameras. Two of the world’s great freedivers join the team, along with a couple of dudes up for a good cause and an adrenaline rush. It's “Mission: Impossible.”
The question arises: Why are they killing the dolphins anyway? Not even the Japanese eat dolphin meat. Ah, but the Japanese are eating dolphin meat, unknowingly, because it’s often packaged as something else. The Taiji city council even proposes adding dolphin meat to the diet of all Japanese schoolchildren. This, too, is secret, but two councilmembers who have school-age children and know the dangers of eating such meat—with its high concentration of mercury—come forward and tell the tale. Most of the doc is like this. It’s about revealing what is secret and hidden. To do so, our heroes hide what reveals. At night, they trespass, swim into the cove at night, position the cameras (disguised as rocks) and leave. Then they wait for the killing to begin.
At its high point, in early August, “The Cove” played at 56 theaters in the U.S., but quickly fell off. It’s barely made over half a million dollars. Jeff Wells, a big proponent, suggests that part of the problem with this low turnout is that women who care about dolphins can’t bear to see a doc in which dolphins are slaughtered. That was exactly my experience. It opened in early August at the Egyptian, a mile from my home, but when I suggested it to Patricia—thinking she would leap at the chance—she turned it down cold. Said she couldn’t bear to see dolphins killed. Which is why I didn’t see it until a late weekday September afternoon, in a small theater at the Metro—about five miles from my home—with about four other people. Two days before it skipped town. It even skipped The Crest, the second-run theater in north Seattle that is currently showing the year’s big hit: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” At one point in “The Cove,” it's suggested that dolphins are not only smart, they’re actually smarter than us. Doesn’t seem that difficult.
A mammal that always smiles, with Ric O'Barry, who rarely does
So how bad is the killing? Most of it takes place underwater, so you don’t really see it. You hear the dolphins’ screeches—which, to my ears, doesn’t sound much different than their “happy” screeches—and you see the water turn red. And I’m not talking a little red. It’s like the scene in “The Ten Commandments” when Moses changes the Nile to blood. It’s Technicolor red.
Still, the most memorable scene to me, the one I took away, is footage of Mandy-Rae Cruikshank, the world class freediver, swimming with dolphins, and rubbing one on its belly, like it’s a dog or a cat, and the dolphin staying close, and luxuriating in the touch. In the wild. It’s remarkable.
Bottom line: “The Cove” is a good doc that’s doing good work. Apparently the dolphin killing in Taiji has stopped. At least for this year.
Review: “Tyson” (2009)
WARNING: HEAVYWEIGHT SPOILERS
The most surprising admission in “Tyson,” James Toback’s documentary about former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, isn’t that Tyson was scared heading into the ring, nor that he wanted women to protect him—him, the baddest man on the planet. It’s this: When he was young, Mike Tyson was Woody Allen.
The revelation comes early in the doc, which consists almost exclusively of old fight footage and present-day Tyson interviews. Tyson, bald now, Maori warrior tattoo sweeping one side of his face, and dressed in a pressed, button-down shirt and slacks in a Hollywood mansion, tries to explain who he is by explaning where he came from: the Brownesville section of Brooklyn, where, he says, it was “kill or be killed.” He talks about getting picked on. He talks about getting money stolen from him—quarters and change—by neighborhood gangs. Then he talks about how someone once took his glasses and broke them. The image that comes to mind is Virgil Starkwell forever having his glasses stomped on by bullies in “Take the Money and Run.” Mike Tyson was Woody Allen? Who knew?
A second later you narrow your eyes. Wait a minute. Glasses? Did Tyson need them as a kid? Did he stop needing them as an adult? You believe Tyson when he says, of the man who lived with his mother: “He might have been my father... I believe he was my father... I was told he was my father”— a sequence that Toback splices together to great echoing effect. But the glasses thing?
Or was he talking about sunglasses?
That’s part of the challenge of “Tyson.” How much do you buy into what he’s saying? When is he bullshitting us? When is he bullshitting himself? And when is James Toback putting too personal a stamp on Tyson’s story? Half the film is rise and half is sad fall, and Toback ends the first part with Tyson saying, “Once I’m in the ring, I’m a god. No one can beat me.” Then we get a slow fade and a slow open on Robin Givens. The implication is that everything began to go wrong with her, but, truly everything began to go wrong with the “god” comment and the hubris it represents. Pride, as always, goeth.
Tyson was trained by Cus D’Amato—who deserves his own doc, and who died in November 1985, a year before Tyson knocked out Trevor Berbick in the second round to become heavyweight champion of the world. Then he was trained by Kevin Rooney, but Tyson fired him in late 1988. He was managed by Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton. But Jacobs died in March 1988 and Don King suddenly insinuated himself into the picture, fighting and apparently beating Cayton over Tyson’s contract. Why did Tyson go along with this? What part did racial politics play? And why doesn’t the doc focus on it more? Toback blames the lack of training, the partying, the women, but all of this is related to a larger issue: Tyson stopped dancing with those who brung him.
Tyson is surprisingly kind to Givens. He calls her “this young lady.” He says “everyone was in our business.” He says “We were just kids, just kids, just kids.” He doesn’t know why she lied to Barbara Walters on national television—Givens, with Tyson hanging over her shoulder, tells Barbara, and the country, that Mike, the heavyweight champion of the world, is a manic depressive, that their marriage has been pure hell, that “it’s been worse than anyone could imagine”—but in this doc he more or less gives her a bye.
Not so with others. “When I was falsely accused of raping that wretched swine of a woman, Desiree Washington, it was the most horrible moment in my life,” he says. He calls Don King “just a slimy, reptilian motherfucker” who would “kills his own mother for a dollar.”
He’s also hard on himself. He owns up to a lot. That he likes strong women whom he can sexually dominate. That when Cus D’Amato first takes him to his mansion, he’s thinking of robbing him: “I could rob this white guy,” he thinks.
He breaks down on camera talking about Cus. It seems the most important relationship in his life. At the same time he says, “I was like his dog. He broke me down. He broke me down and rebuilt me.” Cus also gave him speed, power, confidence. The doc is separated between those who built up Tyson’s confidence (D’Amato, mostly) and those who tore it down (Givens, Washington, King).
Remember how fierce he was? He had 15 fights in 1985 and won all of them by KO or TKO, 11 of them in the first round. He was built like a bullet and seemed just as unstoppable. He was so tough he inspired the toady in other men. Hell, I even felt it from afar, joking about his prowess in the ring, luxuriating in his power as if it were in any way related to my own (lack thereof). Or maybe I simply liked how much of a unifying concept he was in an increasingly fragmented world. He unified all the heavyweight belts that had been scattered to the four winds. For years no one argued over who the best boxer was. The only question was the question the announcer asked after Tyson destroyed Michael Spinks at 1:31 in the first round in a heavyweight bout in 1988: “Who in this world has any chance against this man?”
Himself. He was not a god. Gods don’t have to train, but he did, and he lost to Buster Douglas in 1990 in one of the greatest upsets in boxing history. We kept waiting for him to unify things again but he kept stumbling. First the rape charge, then the conviction. He lost three years. When he came out of prison, he was a Muslim. This too seemed sad, like it was part of someone else’s story, as it was. It was Malcolm’s and Muhammed Ali’s. Tyson was clinging to cliches.
I’d forgotten that he won the heavyweight championship again in the mid-1990s. I didn’t know, in the infamous ear-biting match with Evander Holyfied, that Tyson claimed Holyfield headbutted him first. I’m not a boxing fan so I didn’t know. But I knew so much else because Tyson seeped through to the general culture in a way no boxer has since. Who’s even the heavyweight champ now? I had to look it up. A Russian and two Ukranian brothers. Three Great White Hopes. Scattered to the four winds.
“Tyson” is an untraditional doc in that there are no other talking heads. Would it have been better with other voices? Maybe. Would it have been better without Tyson walking along a Malibu beach? Yes. That Hollywood home, it turns out, was rented by Toback. So where does Tyson live? Why didn’t they film there? Why this fake Hollywood backdrop?
It’s still effective. The former champ seems lost in the way of former champs. “Old too soon, smart too late,” he says. “”What I’ve done in the past is a history, what I’ll do in the future is a mystery,” he says. The final shot is a freezeframe on his battered, confused face. He once thought himself a god. Now he’s just another man who can’t make sense of his life.
Review: “District 9” (2009)
WARNING: OBVIOUS METAPHORIC SPOILERS
“District 9” is as stupid from the left as “Transformers 2” is from the right.
“Transformers 2” is about sleek, metallic aliens who ally themselves with the U.S. military, and, despite the meddling of a petty bureaucrat, help protect the planet. The aliens stand tall, talk bland, ring hollow. They’re glossy and soulless. They’re basically metaphors for weaponry. That’s why the film feels of the right.
“District 9” is about slimy, crustacean-like aliens who ally themselves with a petty bureaucrat to protect themselves from the military. They scavenge, disregard property rights, spray gang graffiti. They’re soulful but gritty. They’re obviously metaphors for an oppressed minority. That’s why the film feels of the left.
These metaphors don’t reveal each film’s stupidity, just its politics. The stupidity comes, particularly for “District 9,” from adherence to the metaphor.
We quickly learn, for example, that 20 years ago an alien ship appeared over, not New York or D.C. or Paris or Beijing, but Johannesburg, South Africa. My thought: Cool! Plays off our movie assumptions. For three months nothing happened, the ship just hovered, and when we finally cut our way in we found the aliens malnourished and afraid. Interesting. They’ve traveled the galaxy but seem to have contracted a disease or something. So we transport the remainder of these aliens, over a million strong, into a neighborhood below, District 9, where they quickly become just another despised minority in just another slum on our planet. Um... Wait a minute.
Here’s where the metaphor overtakes logic. Writer-director Neill Blomkamp wants the aliens to be a despised minority so that’s what they become. And that’s all they become. Despite the fact that they’re aliens and—I can’t stress this enough—the existence of aliens changes everything. It’s a Copernicus moment.
So the craft hovers over Joburg. I like it. But the U.S. government, not to mention the E.U. and Russia and China, leave everything to petty South African bureaucrats and private military contractors? Please. Blomkamp and I are both cynical, we’re just cynical about different things.
Do we learn anything from these aliens—about their galaxy and home planet and technology? Apparently not. Does the aliens’ existence change the religions of the world, or our various views of God, in whose image we are supposedly made? Apparently no. Does it alter the U.N.? Foreign relations? Our planetary defense systems? Nope. The only thing that happens, apparently, is the ho-hum, the paperwork, the disgusted shake of the head that these creatures live in our midst.
In this way the film is in line with Blomkamp’s short films, including “Tempbot,” in which functioning robots become metaphors for office drones. Our big, modern problem, in other words, is our tendency to reduce the extraordinary (aliens, robots) to the mundane and subservient. That’s Blotkamp’s calling card and it’s a good calling card. It feels true because it’s what we’ve done with ourselves. The fact that we exist at all, in the forms we exist, is itself extraordinary, and we should be humbled and grateful for the opportunity no matter how we view this opportunity: as a fluke, a temporary aberration in a gigantic void, or as something central and eternal to existence. Instead we reduce it in the ways we reduce it. Life is big and we make everything small.
So I agree with the calling card. But Blotkamp mangles it in order to make it fit this longer format.
Again: It’s 20 years after the arrival of aliens—now disparaged as “Prawns”—and they’re about to be relocated from District 9 to a newer ghetto: District 10. The man put in charge of this relocation, Wikus Van Der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is the son-in-law of one of the higher-ups. He’s gloriously unsuited for the task but takes to it with the enthusiasm of the obtuse functionary he is.
Yet at the exact same hour—in one of the film’s many fantastic coincidences—two aliens, apparent leaders or captains, have finally developed the fuel necessary to get their ship going and return them to their planet. Until, that is, Wikus stumbles upon the fuel and gets sprayed in the face with it. Then it does what fuel often does when it’s sprayed in someone’s face. It begins to mutate him into an alien.
Once Wikus’ secret is out, the military-industrial complex he works for, MNU, carts him to a secret lab, where their scientists have been dissecting and experimenting on aliens, and where they learn that his Prawn-hand can fire advanced alien weaponry, which human hands can’t. They figure this information is worth billions. Believing, I suppose, that the melding of human and alien DNA gives them an “in” they didn’t have with their previous experiments, the scientists plan on dissecting Wikus. But he breaks free. Because they never sedated him. Why sedate someone you’re about to cut open?
There’s tons of this stuff. Nobody’s smart in this movie. Wikus, a bore from the start, keeps his cellphone, not realizing that MNU can track him with it; but then MNU doesn’t do a particularly good job of tracking him with it.
In another fantastic coincidence, Wikus flees back to the same shack where he got sprayed in the face, and the alien there, “Chris Johnson,” lets him know what happened. The only way the metamorphosis can be reversed, he says, is with more fuel, but alas it’s gone. But wait! Wikus knows where it is! He’s seen it—back in the lab—and the two of them, like in a mismatched buddy movie, grab some alien weaponry and storm the lab.
In any film this cynical it’s almost required that one of the heroes be monumentally naive. As if the only way to be good in such a world is to just not know. And the one who doesn’t know here is “Chris Johnson.” Who should know. For 20 years he’s seen how humans have treated him and his family and his friends. And yet, in the lab, when he finds the carcasses of fellow aliens who have been experimented on, he slows and stares. And stares. And stares. We’ve seen this before, in movies with human characters, so, though he’s a CGI alien, we know what he’s going through. He’s shocked, shocked that human beings do this, and even when the military barges in and engages in a firefight with Wikus, he stands in the crossfire, just staring. So dumb. That’s naive moment no. 1.
Here’s naive moment no. 2. Back at his shack, Chris decides that, rather than converting Wikus to a human, he’s going to use the fuel to immediately leave the planet and return in three years. He’s seen what humans do and can’t let them continue to experiment on his fellow aliens. Fine. The problem? He tells this to Wikus. Who promptly knocks him out and takes his ship. Unfamiliar with alien technology, attacked by his own military, and not very bright to begin with, he crashes the thing.
More fighting. In the end Wikus backs the Prawns against the humans, allowing Chris to escape, and the chief military villain is torn apart by Prawns.
A few years ago I wrote a piece for MSNBC on the history of alien invasion movies, and “District 9,” fits with a particular subgenre: the crashlanders: “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “E.T.,” “Starman.” Aliens who are essentially lost children, pursued by government forces, and trying to find their way back home. But, watching, I was reminded less of these (good) movies and more of absurd b-pictures from the ‘70s, such as “The Thing with Two Heads,” starring Rosie Grier and poor Ray Milland. A white bigot’s head on a soul brother’s body! This one's “The Thing with the Alien Arm”: A bigoted bureaucrat sprouts an alien arm! It’s integrationist literature: “Prawn Like Me.”
The faux-documentary style of the film, generally used for exposition, wearied me, too. What does it mean that we frame more and more of our stories through this extra media lens? And what kind of awful documentary are they making in the future anyway? Who, in that world, needs to be told all the details of when aliens arrived on earth? Oh right, I forgot. That moment wasn’t extraordinary, it was a nuisance. My bad.
Blomkamp leaves the ending open. Will the aliens return? Will they return angry? If so, none of the talking heads seem worried. The final shot is Wikus, completely transformed into an alien, thinking of his wife. It’s supposed to be poignant but it made me feel like a crashlander. I just wanted to go home.
Review: “Inglourious Basterds” (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS ARE A-BOOMIN’
Here are the problems with Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” It distorts history to a degree no filmmaker has ever done with World War II. It makes the Allies as morally repugnant as the Nazis. It introduces fascinating characters only to kill them off, and, in doing so, doesn’t give us near enough of the Basterds themselves. George Will once dismissed football as nothing more than “committee meetings punctuated by violence,” and one could say that “Basterds” is nothing more than tableside meetings (over milk, over strudel, over scotch) punctuated by violence.
But I loved it. Tarantino’s films open my mind—in a way that few films do—as to the possibilities of storytelling. You can do that? I think. That’s allowed?
The opening title card should’ve been a giveaway: “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France,” it read. Tarantino’s telling a story here. He’s not interested in history. Or the only kind of history he’s interested in is cinematic history. Everything else is a prop.
Watching, I kept wondering what he was up to. Why is he aping Sergio Leone in the opening scene? We’re in Nazi-occupied France not the Old West. Why the Mike Myers cameo and the David Bowie music and the Sam Jackson narration? Doesn’t he want to ground this thing in time and place?
No, he doesn’t want to ground this thing in time and place. That, it turns out, is the exact opposite of what he wants to do.
The opening scene give us the first of those dramatic tableside confrontations (over milk), while introducing both the villain, Col. Hans Landa of the S.S., known as the Jew Hunter (Christoph Walz), and the heroine, Shoshanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), who is last seen running across the countryside, the blood of her family splattered all over her body.
Then we get the Basterds and their raison d’etre: killing Nazis. The team consists of Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), known as Aldo the Apache, and 8-10 Jewish soldiers, most of whom are interchangeable. I thought we would get their exploits piecemeal but Tarantino takes us from introduction to legend in 30 seconds. These guys open heads with Louisville Sluggers and whoop it up. They carve swastikas into flesh. They scalp heads. The violence, oddly, is both felt and cartoonish. I can’t think of another filmmaker who can do both at the same time.
As a screenwriter, Tarantino is almost a playwright. He’s not interested in moving from place-to-place. He’s interested in getting us to a place, an enclosed place, and having his characters talk. And talk. And talk. And then shoot guns. Each scene begins like “My Dinner with Andre” and ends like “Taxi Driver.”
The rest of the movie is quickly set up. Shoshanna, passing as a gentile, runs a cinema in Paris, where she’s pursued by a young German private, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a cinephile who, it turns out, is his country’s Sgt. York: a sharpshooter who single-handedly killed over 200 enemy soldiers. “Nation’s Pride,” a film starring himself, has been made about the experience, and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, is setting up its premiere in Paris. But Zoller, trying to impress Shoshanna, gets them to change venues to her cinema, where, with her black lover, she plans on burning to death members of the German high command using old, explosive, 35mm film reels stored in the basement. This plan becomes even more important when she learns Adolf Hitler himself will be there. “Getting to whack ol’ Uncle Adolf,” as Raine says later in the film, “makes this a horse of a different color.” Indeed.
The Allies, learning of the premiere (sans the Hitler part), launch their own plan, “Operation Kino,” and dispatch film historian Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) behind enemy lines, where he’s to rendezvous with both the Basterds and Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German actress and double agent. But “Kino” goes awry during a dramatic tableside confrontation (over scotch), and some of our most memorable Basterds are killed. Meanwhile, von Hammersmark, Cinderella-ish, leaves a telltale shoe at the scene, alerting Col. Landa to her likely double-agent status.
But so what, right? We know the plan won’t work. Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Bormann are all at the premiere, and it’s June 1944, and this isn’t the way they go. Hitler and Goebbels kill themselves in their bunker in April 1945; Bormann, it’s assumed, died trying to escape the Red Army in May 1945; Goering killed himself with cyanide after being sentenced to death during the Nuremberg trials in 1946. We know they won’t die here. At the same time we wonder how Tarantino will handle it. How will he let the Nazis get away but still make it satisfying for us?
Here’s how he handles it: He kills them all. In June 1944. He changes history.
Watching, you think: OK, it’s a double of Hitler, right? It’s a stand-in whose face Sgt. Donny Donowtiz (Eli Roth) machine-guns into a bloody pulp. It’s not supposed to be the real Hitler.
But then the movie ends and you realize it wasn’t a double. In this movie, Hitler died, and World War II ended, in June 1944. What fun!
Then you think: Tarantino can’t do that, can he?
He can and did.
You could argue that Hitler’s merely a prop to him, a movie villain, the way that, say, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a movie villain. He can kill him any way he wants. And this is the way he wants. This is the way that suits his story rather than history.
Or you could argue on a deeper level. The greatest villain of the 20th century escaped our clutches. Yes, he took the coward’s way out in that bunker—and it was a coward’s way out—but we didn’t begin to get our revenge for all of the death and destruction he caused. The movies have recreated that moment, that horribly uncinematic moment in the bunker, time and time again, but they’ve always played by Hitler’s rules. They always gave him the end he chose. Until Tarantino. Who machine guns his face into oblivion in June 1944.
The audacity is almost breathtaking. That’s why all that other stuff helps—the oversized pipes and Mike Myers cameos and David Bowie music. The film is a 20th century hodgepodge. It’s not history. The only history Tarantino cares about is movie history. That’s the one he gets right: From the flammability of early film, to the great 1943 French film “Le Corbeau” that Shoshanna is advertising on her movie marquee, to having German actor Emil Jannings, who won the first best-actor Oscar, and who is best remembered today for his incredible performance in “The Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich, show up at the premiere of “Nation’s Pride.” Initially I thought this unfair to Jannings. But after the movie I did a little Internet research and discovered, big surprise, Tarantino was right: Jannings supported the Nazis. He made Nazi films. He actually died in 1950, but he gets it here too in that crowded Parisian theater in June 1944. Auf Wiedersehen.
Some are objecting to the moral equivalency of “Inglourious Basterds.” The greatest cruelties we see in the movie are the cruelties the Basterds visit upon the Germans. But Tarantino told us he was making a spaghetti western set during World War II, and he didn’t lie, and spaghetti westerns are all about moral equivalency. When I first saw “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” I thought, “OK, who is ‘the Good’ again?” Because no one in the movie seemed good to me. There was just cool and not cool. Same with Tarantino. He’s never been interested in the good, only the cool.
Still, since there are few wars less morally equivalent than World War II, it makes sense people are objecting. Americans, Jewish-Americans, lock Germans into movie theaters and machine gun them and burn them. The Germans claw at the doors, like Jews clawed at the doors in the gas chambers. The Germans in this movie are Jews, and the Jews are Germans. Some people in the audience want to feel morally superior but Tarantino doesn’t let them. He only wants to feel cool and victorious.
The question with Tarantino, as always, is: How much is he playing with us? The Jew Bear (Roth) knocks out a Nazi’s brains and the Basterds cheer like they’re watching a movie. The Germans watch a movie about Pvt. Zoller and they cheer at each Allied death. We watch this movie and cheer as each German is slaughtered. Or do we? I certainly had mixed feelings. At the mangling of history. At the moral equivalency. Once the Germans became Jews, how can you cheer for their deaths? Tarantino gives us nothing clean. Every gift he gives is smeared in blood.
It’s surprising how much of the movie is subtitled, isn’t it? An American movie? A Hollywood movie? “Any of you Americans speak another language?” von Hammersmark asks snidely at one point. Nope. Our language expertise is limited to catch phrases and hand gestures. To finger food. As in real life. Yet Tarantino casts international actors with international tongues and American moviegoers attend en masse: $38 million opening weekend. He gets away with what everyone says you can’t get away with. Why not? He’s the man who ended World War II in June 1944.
That cast, by the way, is wonderful. Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna plays it straight, Brad Pitt as Aldo Raine plays it for laughs, and Christoph Walz as Col. Landa, who won awards at Cannes and who will probably be up for an Oscar, plays it in-between. And it all works. It all meshes together. I was also impressed with Michael Fassbender as Archie Cox, who, particularly in his British duds, reminded me of a young Laurence Olivier, and the knee-weakeningly beautiful Diane Kruger, who, like Laurent, plays it straight.
Bottom line, “Inglourious Basterds” is a fun movie. It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to talk about afterwards. Getting to whack ol’ Uncle Adolf makes this a horse of a different color. Indeed.