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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace firstname.lastname@example.org
Guarantee: all reviews contain spoilers
“Strange Cargo” (1940), directed by Frank Borzage, is an interesting little whatsit. (One of these days, I should write a book on “Whatsit Cinema”, from “Sherlock Jr. “ to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”.) Probably its peculiar and unclassifiable nature has caused it to be so little known, despite a stellar cast including Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and Peter Lorre.
Gable is an inmate on a Devil’s Island-like French prison encampment, Crawford is a prostitute and Lorre a police informer. Gable and some others escape by boat and must trek through the jungle to reach another boat and the mainland; they are accompanied by a Christ-like figure, Carabeau, who has sown up out of nowhere and who leads the men to redemption one by one as they die of snakebite, thirst and other causes. The film is a religious parable, but the faith is natural, unforced and not kitschy, so it is tolerable even for an agnostic. Carabeau is a catalyst, the kind of human around whom others naturally want to be better. At the end, Gable throws him overboard, then rescues him, and has, for the first time, a vision of a possible conventional yet utterly rewarding life with Crawford.
Partly situated in the honorable genre of jungle and outpost movies along with “Outcast of the Islands”, “Papillon”, “Farewell to the King” et al—people discovering their true nature outside civilization—“Strange Cargo”’s unusual religious aspect does not overload the film or make it preachy. The fact that the Catholic Church condemned it only adds to the interest.
“Funny People” (2009), directed by Judd Apatow, proves that there are still people working in Hollywood who can breathe life into the formulas and make entertaining comedies about real people. Not that there isn’t a large element of wish fulfillment: Seth Rogen’s humble, aspiring stand-up comic, working in a delicatessen, is adopted by Adam Sandler’s character, a famous movie comedian. The scene at the end, where Sandler ends an estrangement by coming into the deli with jokes he has written for Rogen, is especially a Hollywood movie, yet Apatow has earned so much good faith and trust in the course of the story, that we buy into it.
What I learned from “Funny People” more than anything is that most Hollywood movies don’t work, not because they follow kitschy formulas, but because they are empty and dishonest, executed by people with no belief in the stories they are telling. After all, “Gone With the Wind” and “Casablanca” are bopth completely formulaic, but compelling because of the enthusiasm with which they were delivered. Most of us are smart enough to know when a story-teller is conning us. Apatow isn’t; he loves these people, so we do too.
A summary of the plot makes “Funny People” sound more mechanical than it is. Sandler’s character has leukemia. He hooks up with Rogen. They transform each other. Sandler goes into remission. Along the way, Apatow avoids standard happy endings; the love of Sandler’s life is a confused actress who winds up deciding to stay with her present husband; in the crunch, Sandler has proved unequal to the task of taking her on with her two daughters.
Apatow, along the way, keeps it funny, but the comedy is unforced, emerging from the characters and situations. There is a scene where Rogen starts crying in a restaurant while Sandler gets exasperated that is priceless; while Sandler through tight lips points out that the people around will assume they are lovers having a spat, Rogen goes through various stages of crying until he is actually slobbering into his plate.
There is one throw-away plot point which is fascinating because under-examined. After meeting Rogen and his roommate at a comedy club, Sandler calls to invite them both to work for him. Rogen, otherwise presented as a good-hearted if rather hapless guy, without a second thought screws his friend by telling Sandler he’s not interested in the gig. This comes out and results in an equally understated confrontation. The implication is that this kind of behavior is normal among friends, if irritating.
The movie runs almost three hours, including extended stand up routines and excerpts from ridiculous movies in which Sandler’s character has starred (he plays a merman and a baby with an adult head). But it never feels self indulgent or overlong. You like these characters, care about what happens and are sorry to leave them.
“Road Dogs” (2008) by Elmore Leonard left me in awe. I don’t know how an 83 year old man keeps his writing so fresh, and dialog so lively or has kept touch with what much younger people would think and feel. I guess this sounds age-ist, but the world is full of novelists who become repetitive and trite after a certain point; people really do lose their talent, but Leonard hasn’t, after more than forty novels. (Is it awful to wonder if he has help? So many genre novelists these days run novel factories where they are assisted by other people.)
Anyway, in this one he unites characters from at least three other novels: Jack Foley, the bank robber; Cundo Rey, the Cuban exile gangster; and Dawn Navarro, the psychic. There is a love triangle (which becomes a rectangle and pentangle); various cliques and factions form as the characters discuss which two or three of them will rip off or con which other one. Not a lot actually happens until the end, but the ride along the way is very delightful, particularly because of the attention given to the quirky supporting characters, such as the FBI agent who is pursuing Foley on his own time, in pursuit of an ending for the 500 page book he has written about him. There is a priceless discussion near the end, when Foley, contrite for having failed to provide a denouement, makes some suggestions about endings the agent can fabricate.
Another reason I admire Leonard: he comes up with such great titles. Come to think of it, its very rare for a bad book to have a great title.
A few weeks later, I read Leonard's “Rum Punch” (1993), the book on which Tarantino's “Jackie Brown” was based. It is another success, made in large part by the extremely detailed and sympathetic secondary characters, some of whom appear for just a page or two: Renee, estranged wife of bail bondsman Max Cherry, who slipped away from him for no particular reason after 27 years of a marriage in which they never had much to talk about, and who is now running an art gallery where she presents the works of a much younger Cuban man who Cherry bonded out on a burglary charge five years before; and several “pistolocos”, young men so wild that it is useless to teach them to pick locks, when they enjoy breaking doors, or driving pick up trucks through plate glass, so much.
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson (2008) is a wonderful entry in another honorable genre, the extremely dead-pan, fatalistic Scandinavian procedural. The title character, while not actually the protagonist of the novel, is an extremely engaging character, a brilliant young Goth woman with Asperger’s who works as a researcher for a private investigation agency. She has severe problems of her own; due to her social issues, she has been placed in the care of a legal guardian. The honorable lawyer who looked after her for many years has died, and been replaced by one who expects sexual favors in return for allowing her access to her own money.
The main story of the novel involves a disgraced journalist who is hired to investigate a forty year old disappearance and is aided by the Goth girl. The procedural details are intricate and satisfying, as are the relationships. My only complaint is that it was evident to me that the girl who vanished in the 1960’s was still alive. This didn’t ruin the story, but the novelist could easily have elided the detail, revealed on the first page, which makes this obvious.
Larrson died at age 50 of a heart attack after completing three novels of this series, so the chances are that we will leave these characters wanting much more of them, and before they are drawn out impossibly thin. I haven’t enjoyed a Scandinavian procedural this much since the books which created the genre, or at least introduced it to American audiences: the great Inspector Martin Beck series, “The Laughing Policeman” and others.
“Big Deal on Madonna Street” (1958)_, directed by Mario Monicetti, is a delightful heist movie about a group of hapless criminals who plot an assault on a pawn shop safe. Arguing, falling in love with inappropriate women, visiting their moms, they stumble towards the big day, when they break into the apartment next door and drill a hole in the wrong wall. They realize they have run out of time to drill the correct one, before the pawnshop opens in the morning. So they eat some pasta and beans, blow up the stove by accident, and stumble back home. This movie is the anti=”Rififi”, and a corrective to the whole genre of films about steely, competent thieves plotting impeccably timed and executed jobs.
“Gladiators” (1970), directed by Peter Watkins, is high 60’s nonsense, but still watchable. In the near future, in place of war, the world’s nations meet once a year to play lethal war games, overseen by a super-computer. It’s the kind of movie in which someone presses a button marked “snow” on a computer console and it begins snowing on an otherwise realistic battlefield. The allied squad breaks into a room in which hippie chicks in bikinis place garlands around their necks. A young French anarchist races to get to the control room to destroy it—and is engaged in endless conversations by guards and soldiers about his desire to destroy the System and what he wishes to put in its place. Finally, when a British soldier and a female Chinese soldier run off together, the other forces declare a truce and pursue them to destroy them as the greatest threat yet presented to the games. In the end, its an interesting artifact, but too simplistic, too didactic, and too hippy-dippy to be good cinema.
“(500) Days of Summer” (2009) directed by Marc Webb, is a delightful, deadpan anti-romance, in which boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds out that girl has shockingly married someone else during the aftermath, where, stunned and in a trance, he still thought he could get her back. Tom falls in love with Summer, who is classically cool, verging on Asperger’s. The movie fractures chronology, jumping back and forth from the wonderfully fuzzy days of infatuation without knowledge, to the brutal endgame in which Summer’s eyes keep flicking to the door. The movie, using a numerical title almost as old fashioned conceit, always lets us know what day we are in. There is a crucial argument in which Summer denies they are a couple, and Tom insists she is wrong, one of the most poignant and useless arguments ever to spoil anyone’s twenties. Later, he will go out on a humiliating blind date where he cannot stop talking about Summer to the rather attractive, interesting and available woman who starts by reasoning with him, then sits in list;less resignation, then leaves when he bawls while performing sad karaoke. She first asks him: Did she lie to you? Did she manipulate you? Was she always clear she didn’t want a boyfriend? He knows the answers, but it doesn’t change anything. The movie’s only concession to the normal Hollywood story structure is to let Tom off the hook by introducing him to Miss Right in the closing moments: her name is Autumn, of course. And she is prettier, sexier, smarter and makes more money than Summer.
This film will resonate for anyone who has ever looked at a date and realized she is desperately wondering what she is doing there and how she can get out of it., In other words, most of us.
“In a Lonely Place” (1950), directed by Nicholas Ray, is one of the best little known Humphrey Bogart movies, along with “Dark Passage”. I heard about this movie from my brother Joe in our twenties, and spent almost a decade waiting for it to become available on an affordable VHS before I first saw it.
Bogart plays Dix Steele, a screenwriter with a sociopathic personality under a veneer of charm. He brings a hat check girl home to tell him the story of a trashy novel he is being hired to adapt but can’t bear to read. When he is told she was murdered on the way home from his house, he seems mildly amused. With a history of violent bar fights and road rages, Steele ultimately gets in trouble, like Camus’ “L’Etranger”, not so much for what he has done, but for his lack of affect. He falls in love with the girl next door, played by Gloria Grahame, who has also provided his alibi for the night in question. A mutually protective and loving future seems assured, until under the pressure of the police investigation, Dix gets in more fights and road rage incidents. Finally, Grahame’s character is looking at him fearfully, wondering if he in fact could have killed the girl. By the time the real killer emerges—her boyfriend—it is too late for the couple, sundered by rage and paranoia, to put things back together.
To me, Bogart has always been the most interesting of the men working in Hoillywood from the thirties through the fifties. Never classically good looking, he was (unlike Clark Gable or Cary Grant) an actor with range and who didn’t care how he looked on screen—he could be shabby and crazy as in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, the greatest American movie ever made, or small and weaselly, as in “The African Queen”. Of actors working today, probably only Brad Pitt routinely gets as skitzy and dirty as Bogart did. Oh, and Sean Penn, whose turn as a skinny, nasal, fearful Jewish lawyer in “Carlito’s Way” proved his genius.
Nicholas Ray is one of the great second rank of Hollywood directors, after John Huston and Martin Scorsese, who managed to preserve an original voice while working in the studio system. Almost every movie he ever made is worth seeing, including the strange little noir, “On Dangerous Ground”, an over-the-top Freudian western with a memorable gunfight between women, “Johnny Guitar”, and of course “Rebel Without a Cause”. His movies are tied together by shadows and fractured narratives that never go exactly where you expect.
“In a Lonely Place” is also an example of a Hollywood adaptation which is better than the novel it is based on. Dorothy Hughes’ thriller of the same name suffers from purple prose. Also, Dix is actually guilty of the hat check girl’s murder and several others. By making him innocent in the movie, Ray told a more interesting story than the novel did.
“The Hurt Locker” (2009), directed by Kathryn Bigelow, is one of the best war movies I have ever seen, and by far the best about either Iraq war. We follow a three man squad of bomb experts through a series of dangerous jobs. Their new leader is a hot dog, a man the other two expect will get them killed. There is an amazing scene where he drives a Humvee down a hill, practically on top of a charge they have planted, in order to retrieve a pair of gloves. The other two look at each other and think about blowing him up. They seem very pained and worried by their decision not to. Eventually, they bond with him, without ever losing their fear of him; and there is a scene late in the movie where his reckless decisions result in one of his protégés being shot, not fatally. At the end, there is a poignant scene in which he cannot explain to his remaining colleague why he takes the risks he does. He asks, “Do you know why I’m like this?” but the other doesn’t, either.
Along the way, there is another remarkable set piece in which they fail to defuse a bomb attached to the torso of a man who never consented to be a suicide bomber and desperately wants to live. The bomb has a digital watch attached which is counting down from two minutes as the hot dog attempts to clip titanium locks attaching the harness to the man’s body. Finally, he realizes there isn’t enough time, apologizes to the man, and runs away as the victim explodes.
Kathryn Bigelow is the best action director working in Hollywood. “Point Break”, despite some inane characterizations and plotting, was viscerally exciting, and proved that a chase scene involving two men running through houses and backyards can be more compelling than one with lots of cars and gunfire. “Near Dark” , a small, early vampire movie, had much of the same flair, also overcoming a silly plot. Some of her later movies, such as “K-19: The Widowmaker”, suffer from enforced Hollywood genericness. I hope that with “The Hurt Locker” she has finally attained the status which will permit her to do any project she wants.
One of the things which elevate “Hurt Locker” over genre films is its avoidance of all of the clichés and tropes almost universal in bomb-defusion movies. There are no huge timers with glowing green numbers which serve no possible purpose except to tell the audience how much time is left. No shrieking music as we see the timer. And no one ever says, “Clip the blue wire, not the green wire.” While the editing is appropriately frenetic for this kind of story, Bigelow also avoids the shaky, grainy hand cam and split second takes which have become so tiresome in every other Hollywood action film.
Bigelow also avoids another problem which plagues other quite good war movies with larger casts. In “Hamburger Hill”, “Hanoi Hilton” and “The Thin Red Line”, for example, I just can’t tell one dirty, uniformed actor from another. I went to see “Thin Red Line” a second time and still could not differentiate the story lines of three actors who resemble one another. In “Hurt Locker”, by keeping the characters we care about to only three, Bigelow allows them to become vivid to us. We are never confused about who is doing what, who wants what.
Norman Green is a suspense writer who deserves a much larger reputation. He writes about hard characters living in recognizable parts of Brooklyn, people who grew up among gangsters but aspire to something better. His “Angel of Montague Street”, set in the ‘80’s, was particularly fascinating reading for someone who lived in the neighborhood.
His “Way Past Legal” (2004), is another solid entry in the genre, as we follow an accomplished thief and hold up man as he escapes to northern Maine woods with his small son whom he has kidnapped from foster care, after a two million dollar heist. Green, like Elmore Leonard but without satire, has the skill to make us care about marginal characters who are only a little better than they should be.
However, Green’s latest, “The Last Gig”, (2009), was disappointingly hollow. For the first time, he creates a female protagonist, Al Martillo, who comes from the same mean streets and broken family background as his others. The problem was, I just did not believe her, much as I wanted to, and the result was that even the secondary characters Green is so skilled at creating seemed to wither when not supported by a believable heroine. For the first time in reading his work, I felt I was watching cardboard cut-outs being clumsily pushed across the scene, and not real people acting from necessity. Not every male can write convincing female characters. Martillo, who at one point stops a car full of hit men by throwing a trash can through the window, seemed too solidly planted in a superficial tradition of Hollywood super-women. Genuinely tough women, the kind who actually live in our cities and neighborhoods, are more interesting.
“The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet” (20090, by Reif Larsen, is an ambitious novel—“Cloud Atlas” ambitious—which fails to coalesce. Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is a twelve year old genius who draws maps and charts which are published by various scientific journals which are under the misapprehension he is an adult. And the book is copiously illustrated with these graphics.
Cool protagonist and set up. The problem is that the rest of the novel is fragmented and even, in places, rather trite. None of the secondary characters are as fully elucidated and believable, which eventually undermines our appreciation of T.S.
Writing in a somewhat magical realist vein—at one point, a train which Tecumseh has hopped to travel east passes through a wormhole in space—Larsen forgets that it in this overworked literary mine, the realism supports the magic. The basic plot of “Selected Works” is completely untenable— a twelve year old runs away, finds his way east, and survives at the Smithsonian for several days with no-one checking his story that his parents are dead. None of the magical touches can overcome the problem that the story itself is dead on arrival.
T.S. has a taciturn cowboy father and an entomologist mother, whom we are told has somehow given up her career, not for domesticity, but to study a possibly nonexistent beetle in a professional vacuum. We assume, but are never quite told, that this means that she has no professional affiliation in her field, does not publish, etc. This is a potentially interesting story, but is wholly unresolved at the end—in fact, she never even appears again in person after T.S. runs away, though he thinks about her a lot. We never find out any more about her motivations, or even about her supposedly misguided intentions regarding her son, which are hinted at but never explained. The novel ends with an exclamation by the father which suggests that mom is actually the villain of the piece—but Larsen hasn’t given us enough data to make anything of this assertion.
On his way out the door, T.S. stole one of her notebooks, and reading it on the train he discovers that it is a draft of a novel about a young woman scientist of the nineteenth century who joined a mapping expedition to the west, then similarly gave up her career upon marrying. Not only is the novel within written in very generic, rather trite language, but it also comes to a sudden end without giving us any greater insight into its subject than we have into its author.
By the time of its unsatisfactory resolution, it is clear that “Selected Works” is a cabinet of fragmentary curiosities, like a disorderly back room at the Smithsonian where the objects have never been sorted or classified.
“District 9” (2009), directed by Neil Blomkamp, is a neat, successful little science fiction suspense film, which in addition to telling a rather gripping story, leaves us thinking about apartheid, the Holocaust and man’s inhumanity. The fact that it serves both as an entertainment and a parable makes it one of the best science fiction films in years.
“District 9” is greater than its plot elements, which include some standard and not very interesting science fiction tropes. The setting, reminiscent of the “Alien Nation” movies and TV series, is a camp in which 1.8 million aliens live outside Johannesberg; they showed up, hungry and disoriented, on a malfunctioning space ship, which continues to hang in the sky above the city, eerie and immobile. They now constitute a disgusting, animalistic underclass, seen scavenging in the garbage, wearing fragments of incongruous human clothing on their scrawny frames.
One thing which sells the movie is the convincing look of these aliens, a throwback to a type I first saw described almost fifty years ago in Heinlein’s “Have Space Suit Will Travel”, clicking mandibles and all. Not that long ago, they would have been played by humans in laughable rubber suits. Now that everything can be computer-generated, we can put previously unimaginable worlds on screen, with some loss of warmth and heart.
A mid-level human bureaucrat, a sort of Eichmann really, becomes infected by an alien goo which starts transforming him, right hand first, into an alien. He then becomes the macguffin of the movie, chased by the military and a gang of superstitious, violent Nigerians for his supposed capabilities. An interesting element is that alien weapons can only be fired by aliens; now that he has alien DNA, he can use them. It is not explained why the humans, desperate to enlist him to help with this newly available firepower, never signed up alien mercenaries for that purpose—especially as they can be had for cans of cat-food.
The movie makes this Eichmann somewhat sympathetic, without making him any the less a collaborator in a horrifying enterprise which involves the murder of aliens and their use in Nazi-style fatal medical experiments. The protagonist meets, and ultimately becomes partners with, an alien Einstein intent on re-activating the mother ship—a being whose compassion, whose underlying humanity if we can use the term, far exceeds any of the actual humans in the film.
The transformation from human to alien has been overdone, and is never that believable to begin with (I can suspend belief for many unlikely things far more easily than I can for the idea of a compound which can transform a human hand into a claw in mere hours). Still, the movie grips you in its first minute and never stops going, so you forgive the fact that every effective moment seems to be borrowed from somewhere else. By the denouement, you are unabashedly rooting for Eichmann and Einstein, longing for them to fly into the sunset together, bring back the alien cavalry and kick Earth’s ass.
“Defying Gravity” is a lame title for an interesting new science fiction series, which will probably not survive long into the fall. Like “Virtuality” (reviewed in July), it is set largely among the crew of a ship on a multi-year mission, an essentially static setting that risks losing audience interest as you cannot introduce the old “alien or native culture of the week” trope familiar since the first “Star Trek” series boldly went. However, the show creates interesting characters and relationships, including two officers who were present when astronauts were abandoned on Mars in a notorious incident some years before. There are the usual evil bureaucrats in charge, some supernatural elements (one of the commander’s vasectomy mysteriously undoes itself), and the suggestion that the mission is being run, and manipulated, by a mysterious alien presence called “Beta”. Like some later “Star Trek” series and “Firefly”, we spend some time observing our characters in bars and the rec room, without being interrupted by constant firefights. Problems with the science and physics, such as the fact that communications between earth and the ship have no time delay, don’t much bother me. The effects are good, the ship has that edgy, strange appeal of the revelatory vehicles from “2001” which haven’t been imitated much since, and the scenes when the astronauts go outside are rather beautiful. The show has already picked up where “Galactica” left off in exploring the trope of the evil airlock (also first introduced in “2001”). Its nice to see a relatively mainstream SF show without ridged foreheads, in which characters worry about pregnancy, airsickness and relationships.
“The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” is rather lifeless. The movie hews faithfully to its source, usually a good thing but in this case too closely echoing moments in “Lord of the Rings”: the besieged Narnians are rescued at various moments by ambulatory trees and by a river-creature. Lewis’ Christian theme, subtle enough that I completely missed it during multiple readings of the entire series as a (Jewish) child, is elided just enough that Aslan, rather than being a shining metaphor, seems to be a somewhat negligent deus ex machina. Some of the children (who stay youthful for the short duration of this story) are simply not good enough actors to carry the film, a problem shared by the youngsters in the “Harry Potter” series. The talking animals, particularly the badger and mouse, are engaging enough. Its hard to imagine where the series will go in the installments where the Pevensey children do not even appear.
“The Hitch-hiker” (1953, directed by Ida Lupino) is a well enough executed suspense B-movie which fascinates me because of its director. I would like to understand why, io all the actresses who ever worked opposite John Garfield and Humphrey Bogart in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, Lupino was the only one with the fortitude to become the first female film director in Hollywood. It’s a shame she wasn’t trusted with better fare than this, but the movie has the virtue of being harder and leaner than most of the films she appeared in; it has no frills, no uncertainties, no hesitation, and it really works. A hitchhiking sociopath, who has already killed three motorists, takes over the vehicle of two men who lied to their wives about their destination. In 70 minutes, they appease him, are abused by him, plot against him and consider betraying one another. It’s the kind of film that relatively few women besides Kathryn Bigelow would take on today. It makes you wonder why no other actress of apparently similar intelligence—Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford—tried to do what Lupino did, especially after she had shown the way.
“Inglourious Basterds” (2009), written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is lighter but very satisfying fare from the successor to Hitchcock. While traditional film-making involves an accretion of one minute scenes, Tarantino writes like a playwright: his characters talk to each other, interestingly, in five to seven minute increments: in the first chapter, a Nazi “Jew hunter” gets a farmer to confess there are Jewish neighbors hidden under the floorboards, without ever raising his voice or uttering a threat. Later, in a bar in a basement, waiting for a bloodbath we know will occur any moment, we watch Nazis and undercover Allied soldiers play not one but two rounds of a German parlor game in which one must guess the identity of a famous person or character written on a card pasted to one’s forehead. People who wondered how Tarantino would make out, deprived of modern cultural references, should know he has done just fine. His characters chatter about Leni Riefenstahl and G.W. Pabst. It has been said, accurately I think, that the single rule of playwriting is “never bore the audience”, and I was certainly never bored by the detailed and funny digressions in this two and a half hour movie.
It occurred to me, watching an interview with Tarantino on public television after seeing “Basterds”, that Tarantino’s best characters are reflections of himself, people who really love their work and talking about it. After all these years, Tarantino’s adoration of movies, and palpable amusement at his own experiences, scintillates in interviews; his Jew hunter in “Basterds”, driver in “Death Proof”, Bill in “Kill Bill” and Travolta’s thug in “Pulp Fiction” are all people who similarly adore what they do. By contrast, Bruce Willis’ boxer in “Pulp Fiction” is an exhausted man, dragging himself through the encounters and commitments of his life, doing the necessary with no pleasure whatever. He’s more of a traditional noir character. The closest equivalent of Tarantino’s happy sociopaths is the trite omnipotent supervillain, like Hannibal Lecter; but most of Tarantino’s happy characters have a surprising innocence and sweetness, which Tarantino himself seems to have in interviews.
“Basterds” is a different movie than the trailer promises; it is not principally the story of a troop of Jewish American commandos killing Nazis. The minute we see their faces, not until the movie’s second chapter, we know from their extremely ethnic, almost undifferentiated character actor look, that the movie will not be about the strong one, the coward and the intellectual interacting with one another. Tarantino specializes in fractured narratives and timelines; this movie fractures only the former, not the latter, as it takes its enjoyable time knitting a story which brings together the Jewish girl who escaped the hunter in chapter 1, the Basterds, the hunter, and a German film actress. Along the way, the film is studded with classic Tarantino set pieces, tropes and mysterious references. The hunter meets the Jewish escapee again, years later, in a Paris restaurant; we never know for sure if he recognizes her, but if not, why does he order her a glass of milk, an apparent reference to the dairy farm where he let her escape? A member of the Basterds, who specializes in beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat, is heard emerging from a tunnel, banging the bat on the stones, for excruciating long moments before he is seen, while a courageous doomed Nazi kneels, waiting calmly to be killed. Brad Pitt, leader of the Basterds, has a scar on his throat which is never explained. I thought it was a knife wound, but Tarantino in the interview explained that it is a rope burn, and that he wants the audience to provide its own back story. Pitt’s character is apparently the hanged man, a dead man walking.
There are two strong courageous women characters; the cowards in this film are all men. Both of them die, adding “Basterds” to a somewhat dishonorable subcategory of suspense and horror flicks in which only men survive, and inspiring a reviewer who suggested that Tarantino is simultaneously a feminist and misogynist. Neither of these women is ever frightened into loss of control nor humiliated, and they die in pursuit of a grand goal, the elimination of the entire German high command attending the premiere of a propaganda film.
“Basterds” is also, in high Tarantino tradition, a tribute to cinema, a movie about the love of movie-making. Shoshana, the refugee, now owns a movie theatre in Paris where the premier is being held; the soldier-star of a sniper flick based on his own experiences, introduces her to Goebbels; she plans to use her own extensive movie collection, with its nitrate stock, as the incendiary to kill the Nazis. Meanwhile, the Basterds plan an attack on the premiere, unaware of Shoshana’s intentions; the two story lines never actually connect with one another, but both attacks succeed simultaneously, as the theatre burns and the surviving Basterds machine gun and dynamite the attendees.
The most remarkable thing about this wish fulfillment story is that it is effectively set in an alternate universe: the attack on the movie theatre ends up, as we observe in the final moments, killing Hitler, Bormann, Goering and Goebbels and ending the war soon after the Normandy invasion.
Tarantino is one of the few directors working whose style one would likely recognize watching a few minutes of an unknown movie. I see everything he releases, something I can’t even say for Martin Scorsese.
“The Time Traveler's Wife” (2009), directed by Robert Schwentke, was unexpectedly moving. (I haven't read the best-selling novel on which it is based.) It verges on one of those movies which make me cry and get angry at being manipulated at the same time; but it barely escapes this category by being an unusual parable of the transcendence of love over time. The protagonist is a man unstuck in time, who randomly travels to revisit important people and moments in his life; this means that after his premature and unavoidable death in his early 40's, he will still show up to see his wife and child from time to time, on visits he “made” before his death. This falls in powerfully with an irrational but very strong sense that I have always had that the dead are still alive, but in another country where it is hard (not impossible) to communicate with them.
The trope that you can't take your clothes with you, first introduced (so far as I know) as a relatively unimportant sidelight in “Terminator” (really more of a striking visual effect than anything else) is key to this story. It is a nonsensical plot point and rather tired; the screenwriter (and I presume the novelist) could have found a more original way of establishing that time travel is hard and dangerous. At the end, when the hero's ten year old daughter establishes herself as a time traveler, I feared for the safety of a young woman who shows up nude in crowds and deserted back alleys. But this issue is never addressed.
I dislike time travel stories in general (it was the central plot point in some of the worst “Star Trek” episodes and movies) but here the paradoxes are handled well, if in a somewhat pedestrian way. The protagonist, in his thirties, visits the child and teenage love of his life numerous times; but when she spots him in the library as a young adult, he has never seen her before; it is this introduction which will trigger the visits to her younger self. When he gets a vasectomy after she has had a series of miscarriages (he is frightened the fetuses are time traveling out of her womb), she “cheats” on him with a younger version of himself who shows up one night.
One of the rules of time travel in this film is that it isn't possible to change the past; he is never able to prevent his mother from dying in a car crash, nor can he avoid his own death by gunshot in his forties. This is respectable enough, but lowers the stakes. A better movie about the transcendence of love over time was “Frequency”, in which a father, communicating with his son thirty years in the future, finds ways to prolong his own life so that he can be there to save him on a fateful day he knows will eventually occur.
William Kennedy is a wonderful old fashioned American novelist; though his life has been salty enough—he was a political reporter, and friends with Saul Bellow and Hunter Thompson—he is among the last generation of novelists whose success (he won a Pulitzer in the '80's) was based on talent rather than packageability and how he would look and sound on Oprah. “Ironweed” (1983), the novel for which he won the award, stands as one of the great lesser known American novels, for its warmth, characterizations, and its unusual arc (reminiscent of the film “Tender Mercies”) in which the character rises almost from page 1. Francis Daugherty is a hobo and alcoholic, in the 1930's when we meet him, and constantly conversing with the spirits of the dead, particularly those he killed in his picaresque, unfortunate life: a strikebreaker, a hobo who attacked him first, and most poignantly, his newborn son who fell to the floor when Francis was changing his diaper. Right before the novel starts, Francis has discovered that his wife Annie, who never remarried, never told anyone, not even his surviving son and daughter, that Francis was responsible for the baby's death. This sets Francis on a path which will return him to the home he abandoned more than twenty years before. It is a novel of hope and redemption, which is told with strong touches of magic realism and without sentimentality. Francis is a killer—the one manslaughter, of a strikebreaker he hit with a rock, is inexcusable—but he is also loyal and compassionate. In the course of the novel, he moves through an entirely believable landscape of church missions, fleabag hotels, abandoned houses and vacant lots. His girlfriend of nine years, Helen, a former Vassar student who sank into madness and alcoholism when her mother cheated her out of her father's legacy, is another beautifully executed character. The film was made into a fine movie of the same name, directed by Hector Babenco, starring Jack Nicholson (of course) as Francis and Meryl Streep as Helen.
Kennedy's earlier “Legs” (1975) is a well written and gripping gangster tale, with less sympathetic characters. It has another problem, which is that the magical realist moments (such as a love scene in an abandoned peanut butter factory, which begins to operate as the lovers get more intense) are not well integrated to the story, but stand out like unprocessed peanuts studding the peanut butter.