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Film Review: Inglourious Basterds

April 14, 2011 3 comments

Note: Random Dangling Mystery delves into the archives today for a older movie review. An oldie, but a goodie.)

Inglourious Basterds (2009; Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

Inglourious Basterds is not a movie about killin’ Nazis. Or, rather, it’s not only about killin’ Nazis. Many Nazis do dutifully get killed, though not nearly as many as the ad  campaigns may have lead you to believe. Anyone going into this movie expecting 152 minutes of unabashed brutalization of villainous Nazis is going to be sorely disappointed, and will be left wondering why they just spent a dozen bucks to sit and watch a movie about people sitting around and talking about movies.inglourious_basterds_poster

Inglourious Basterds is above all a movie about the movies. All of Quentin Tarantino’s movies are about the movies, but none quite as overtly and potently so as this one. This is a film about the way that films pull us together and how they tear us apart, how they seem to evaporate away as we watch them and yet far outlive us all. It’s about the utility and the futility of film, the hope and the fear of film, the way it repulses us and moves us, embraces us and betrays us, the way we need film but it can quite happily exist without us.

Tarantino’s particular interest in Nazis here is entirely mediated through film, and perhaps ours is, too. Six decades as film’s ultimate villains have knocked our historical memory of Nazism askew. It’s secular blasphemy to even suggest this, but fiction has perhaps made Nazi Germany’s evils more grand and symbolic than they initially were (and they were quite terribly grand to begin with). Certainly, the spectre of one of history’s worst genocides hangs always behind every Nazi movie character, a malignant shadow that darkens their every gesture; the Holocaust need not be mentioned (and Tarantino wisely leaves it so) to invest our jack-booted villains with inherent menace.

But what makes Nazis so eerily adept as film villains is that Nazism was constantly inventing itself through its own symbolism, a symbolism purpose-built for the filmic form. Joseph Goebbels well understood the power of film, but he may not have fathomed the way that the post-war cinema of Germany’s vanquishers would undo many times over what the cinema of the Third Reich was created to do. The propagandistic iconography of the Nazis, the cruel and precise geometry of power that animates Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and many of the other products of the Nazi-run UFA, were all too easily turned against them and their repellent, murderous ideology after their defeat. True-life details of the Reich’s horrors may fade, become muddied, be lost in historical distance, but generations on, filmgoers can still understand the dark import of a swastika armband or the sneering symmetry of a SS officer, Luger in hand. We see this, and we know what to think: “These people are Nazis; these people suck. Time to boo.”

With the most linear and direct narrative of his career, Tarantino destroys the Nazis with cinema one more time, all the while musing almost aloud about the very act he’s portraying. The plot that consumes the final two “chapters” (the use of chapter titles is one Tarantino mainstay that has grown a bit stale) is to lock 350 Nazis (including enough important party brass to end the war) in a theatre and burn it to the ground by igniting the joint’s whole supply of film stock (which, in the ’40s, was highly flammable). That’s symbolism even a junior-high English student couldn’t miss. But even before this apocalyptic climax, the movies inject themselves repeatedly into the narrative, often changing its course as they do so. Everyone seems to have some stake in the cinema: the characters we meet are projectionists, producers, film critics, movie stars, cinema fans; even when they aren’t involved in film, circumstances require them to pretend that they are. And in the end, with a scant few exceptions, the cinema kills them all off.

Am I… a stop-motion puppet? A man in a monkey suit? Andy Serkis?

As intimated, this film is chocked full of people sitting around talking to each other. As if we needed any further proof of Tarantino’s skill with dialogue, Inglourious Basterds provides ample further justification. We are never bored, even when the discussion veers into German film history (and it often does). It helps to have such a strong mix of actors doing the talking, too, although all other performers in the film pale in comparison to the amazing Christoph Waltz. He owns every scene he’s in as self-described SS “detective” Colonel Hans Landa, a multilingual charmer who sniffs out deceit like a bloodhound and takes an absurd amount of delight in the whole effort, in himself, or in both. In his first brief scene with the Southern-accented Brad Pitt near the end of the film, the movie star (who is no slouch at the craft himself) can do little but stare at his eloquent German opponent, mouth agape, stupefied. Of course, Landa gets his final comeuppance (though it perhaps isn’t what we expect). But up to that point, the day is repeatedly, deliciously his.

I came in to the film fretting about the possibility of another Tarantino revenge fantasy, all cool badassery shot with style but without much underlying insight. But I came away realizing that, for this film at least, QT is really less interested in the revenge side of that term than he is in the fantasy. I’ve long struggled with the inside-joke nature of Tarantino’s oeuvre, the referential code that sparks knowing grins from viewers but never flicks on a lightbulb. But perhaps all of the hip excesses of his career to this point have been building to this, to the moment when Tarantino finally locates the light switch. Some might call Inglourious Basterds a love letter to the power of the cinema, and it certainly is that. But it’s a warning about that power as well, as cautionary as it is celebratory. The movies can fulfill our fantasies (even the dark and violent ones), but they will always exact a price. And before they are slaughtered in a moviehouse, maybe even the Nazis realized this.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

April 11, 2011 2 comments

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010; Directed by Banksy)

 

And don't forget to pick up a copy of "Wall and Piece" on your way out!

There is so much more to Banksy’s layered, surprising satire of the culture of modern art than that wearisome query: Is it real, or is it a hoax? The very glorification of “authenticity” implied by that question is, and always has been, the target of the Bristol street-artist-cum-post-millenial-aesthetic-prankster’s iconoclastic “art”. What is it about a hoax, this film asks, that isn’t real? And what is it about reality that isn’t a hoax?

This is the fundamental paradox illuminated by Exit Through the Gift Shop‘s closing act, namely Thierry Guetta’s reinvention of himself as “Mister Brainwash”, an instant modern art celebrity who arrives, fully formed, without the supposedly requisite period of artistic growth and refinement. As Banksy himself (his face dark and hidden under a hood and his voice subtly altered to obscure identification) muses, Guetta doesn’t “follow the rules, but then there aren’t supposed to be any rules”, a fact which Banksy himself is living proof of (and the extent to which MBW is a send-up of Banksy himself is left up to us). Mister Brainwash’s art is referential to the point of absurdity; one observer notes that while Warhol’s repetition turned familiar icons into something more meaningful, MBW’s repetition of that repetition renders them meaningless. What better description of post-millenial alternative culture could you ask for?

Make no mistake, the sacred tenets of alternative culture are Banksy’s targets here. He has repeatedly eviscerated the tenets of consumer capitalism with his street art and unorthodox exhibitions, and many of those pieces appear here, along with the inferior street art of figures like Space Invader and Shepard Fairey. But alternative culture is more difficult to target on the side of a building, so Banksy swoops in and vandalizes a cutting message on one of the counter-culture’s prefered modes of communication: the independent documentary.

Believe what you will about Banksy’s art and about MBW’s “authenticity” as an artist, but I think the hat is well and truly tipped early in the film when Thierry is introduced as owning a vintage clothing shop that regularly inflates the prices of its cheaply-obtained items by claiming they are unique or “designer” garments. Art, the film suggests, is no different. MBW never seems to “make” “art” himself in the traditional imagined way; he pays a team of designers to craft his pieces in Photoshop then print them out. When it comes to actually installing the pieces in advance of his exhibition, other people do all the work too. This is contrasted to Banksy’s studio, in which everything seems in symbolic, artful chaos, just as it (apparently) should be.

What's the monkey looking at?

So what’s the joke (if there even is one, as one of Banksy’s associates wonders doubtfully)? The joke, I suppose, is on the idealized narrative of the artist as the solitary creative figure standing between the madness of civilization and the abyss of eternity, crafting art that saves society’s mortal denizens from plunging into one or the other. That’s all bollocks, says Banksy. It’s all commerce now, as if it was ever anything else. In this way, Banksy’s entrance into mainstream consciousness doesn’t diminish his commentary, it only amplifies it. If the artist is a capitalist machine like any other labourer, then art is just another product. Alternative culture is fine with believing this about corporate mass culture but not about its sacred subversive content. The key achievement of Exit Through the Gift Shop is the subversion of the subversive. In a culture that puts air quotes around everything, what else is left to us?

Categories: Culture, Film, Reviews

The Last Place

April 11, 2011 5 comments

Another NHL regular-season campaign has ended, and who’s lagging hopelessly at the bottom of the league for the second year running? Yup. My beloved Oilers are seriously taxing my continued use of that adjective. Certainly, circumstances are extenuating. Endemic injuries to basically irreplaceable pieces (Hemsky, Horcoff, Ryan Whitney), sub-standard options at many positions (especially the once-robust defense, where regulars Kurtis Foster, Jim Vandermeer, and Jason Strudwick were overmatched on a consistent basis), and reliance on enthusiastic but unrefined rookie talent eroded what could have been a slightly more respectable year-end point total. Playoffs, though? Not even with all of the various stars aligning, I doubt.

The point is moot, anyhow. 30th place in a 30-team league shouldn’t really require laboured explanations, though we in Oil Country (and its continental diaspora) are being offered them nonetheless. The team is young, we are told. Growing pains, but aren’t Hall and Eberle and Paajarvi and Omark exciting? Anyway, Edmonton is a cold and remote third-rate urban centre and it’s tough to attract top-flight talent. Just wait until we get taxpayers to foot the bill for a multi-million-dollar downtown arena! Then those good times will get around to rolling!

This spring will mark the five-year anniversary of the Oil’s last playoff appearance, that fabled, magical 2006 run to the Stanley Cup finals that is the one shining moment for a generation of Oilers fans that has had too few of them. That team has now been completely dismantled by Kevin Lowe and his oft-maligned successor, Steve Tambellini, in an ineptly delayed rebuild that shows few signs of being close to over. And what has replaced it? A grasping billionaire owner. Young, poorly-utilized offensive talent. Wasted millions on Sheldon Souray, a power-play specialist who pissed off management and now can barely keep up in the minors. A broken-down, haunted funhouse of a million-dollar veteran starting goaltender. Irresponsible firewagon last-place hockey.

And hope? Maybe a bit. Taylor Hall shows ever sign of being an evolved scorer, Jordan Eberle potted some highlight reel goals, Magnus Paajarvi can flat-out fly. Whitney and Hemsky were genuine stars (albeit on a mediocre team) before they went down. Devan Dubnyk looks like a legitimate NHL goalie, and should be expected to make another step forward next year, assuming Nikolai Khabibulin’s frustrating mercurial saga doesn’t drown him out and cause regression. Theo Peckham and Ladi Smid can finally nearly almost be relied upon, maybe. Sam Gagner always gets left out of the discussion somehow, but he’s turning into a fine player without much notice.

The guy in the back led the team in points. No foolin'.

But for all the positive arrows, a certain beaten-down cynicism persists. It is kind of ridiculous to transpose that striving, marginal feeling of shaken community confidence that underlies Edmonton as a place onto the on-ice results of its city-defining pro hockey club, even if it invariably happens. That eternal E-town sense of not quite being as fill-in-the-blank as Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Bilbao, or wherever, despite major growth in every sphere of civic importance, is in danger of being hitched firmly to the Oilers wagon. A hockey team that was once ascendant despite being based in an underdog city now risks becoming an underdog hockey team based in an ascendant city that still thinks of itself as an underdog. We’re already seeing this in the new arena debate, where a potential cash cow for Daryl Katz and the Oilers organization is being sold to a needlessly jittery populace as a cure-all for their litany of perceived civic ills (and a cure-all that they must pay for, too!). And it’s creeping into the on-ice product, too, where back-to-back last place finishes are, apparently, reason for optimism.

If there’s one player in the organization that seems to typify the ideological state apparatus of the Edmonton Oilers, it’s got to be Linus Omark. Sublime puck-handler and passer, YouTube shootout sensation, cheeky bastard, and all-around notable hockey figure, Omark, like the team whose jersey he wears (for now), is constructed by both his supporters and doubters as a plucky outsider who will never quite make it, despite his obvious talent and drive. Opponents huff about classiness and the Code when he shows them up in a shootout or even in regular play, and management shuffles him into lesser roles in the minors even as it elevates less experienced and proven players like the Young Trio. And his supporters? They love him all the more for his marginalization. Though I have plenty of respect for Tyler Dellow as a blogger, he has a consistent weakness for the position of the maverick-y truth-teller, the kicker against the pricks, and he invariably sees Omark in that light. His on-ice actions surely play into such fondness, but then they’re really just an extension of this image; Omark seems to delight in bettering his opponents, to play with a cocky edge that makes him irresistible but also makes him a target in the endlessly conformist hockey world (see Subban, P.K.). Even if he has ample statistical substance as a hockey player, his style, his feeling, his panache… they take the spotlight.

Does Edmonton want their Oilers to be Omark writ large? Does Edmonton itself want to be Omark writ large? To be noticed, but not respected? To impress, but not to achieve? To overlook the present for the future, to be potential energy personified? Or will Edmonton and its legions of hockey die-hards demand a bit more accountability from the management of its beloved Oilers, who have allowed the youth procurement staff to do all the work of improving the roster while half-heartedly tossing out middling bums to fill out the lines? Can this city and its team stop wishing it could be more and just BE more? Between the arena debate and the desultory youth-movement optimism, this Oiler fan, for one, hopes that this summer is the time for some tougher decisions with regards to the outliers and role players on this roster, and maybe with some key pieces as well. The future is all well and good, but it’s about time to start reeling in that horizon.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports

Film Review: Jane Eyre (2011)

April 10, 2011 1 comment

Jane Eyre (2011; Directed by Cary Fukunaga)


Soooo... about those noises in the attic...

Cary Fukunaga’s sleek and sumptuous adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel boasts considerable atmosphere, an accomplished visual pedigree, and soulful, nuanced central performances from its young stars. But it advances a truncated version of Bronte’s complex and rich narrative that privileges the love story (which my partner Liz calls “the stupid part”) while eliding the social commentary, the proto-feminism, and the freaky gothic weirdness at the core of the tale.

This is understandable for any film version, and Jane Eyre, stripped of everything else, is primarily a love story. But there are odd choices in the adaptation, in particular the decision not to reveal familial relations between Jane and the Riverses. Furthermore, opening with Jane’s flight from Thornfield (which is virtually repeated, shot-for-shot, when it arises later in the film) presages the whole plot in melodramatic terms that Fukunaga’s film, as expertly pitched as it is at times, never quite escapes. As always, the awful strangeness of Rochester locking his unhinged wife in a hidden room for years isn’t sufficiently imparted in all of its grand gothic grotesquerie. Jane’s traumatic youth at Lowood is also merely sketched, leaving us with vague Dickensian echoes as opposed to Bronte’s rigid moral outrage.

The Stupid Part

Indeed, Jane’s own principled independence suffers more than a little due to the amping up of the romantic plot. As formidable as Mia Wasikowska is in the role, her walls crumble at the merest affection from Rochester (Michael Fassbender, who is a bit too dashing and not nearly crotchety and bizarre enough), which does the Jane Eyre character a bit of a disservice. The early scenes between the leads are great stuff, of course, formed as terse, borderline-hostile exchanges of trenchant philosophical wit. But the later hand-clenching and oath-bandying on windswept stone bridges (someone might have been mixing up their Brontes) refigures these initial interactions as the bit of the romantic comedy where the leads start off hating each other, before the inevitable detente and rapprochement.

Amidst the various quibbles, I must give praiseful mention to the visual design of the film. Apart from the expected (and beautiful) wide shots of Romanticist isolation on the moors and the funereal interiors of Thornfield, Fukunaga and his Brazilian cinematographer Adriano Goldman do a remarkable job capturing the depth of darkness of pre-electric, non-gaslight English country house life. A guttering candle bravely resisting the inevitable darkness is a keen metaphor for the moral struggles of Jane and Rochester, and it’s an image that stays with you well after the romantically-heaving bosoms fade.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Never gonna run around and desert you…

As someone who follows the ups and downs of political culture as closely as I can stomach, I have no illusions about the basic smarmy toxicity of the whole sordid realm. If you pay close enough attention for long enough, it will eventually appear that practically everyone involved in politics will have said, done, or been associated with something dastardly, dishonest, or just plain awful. Moral hazard is the regular state of things. Unless you’re an active party operative entirely prepared to subject yourself to Manchurian-Candidate-level indoctrination and spectacular doublethink for a measly paycheck and a tiny draught of sweet, cold power, then you must ultimately choose the lesser of multiple evils when considering political loyalties, and you must do so with full and complete cynical awareness of the compromise. The political world is rife with leeching, grasping, dissembling troglodytes who praise Democracy’s wall hangings while they micturate on its living room rug; smug empty suits with all the spirit of a used Chevy and, vitally, the sense of humour of a bibulous accountant.

Which is why something like this is so refreshing:

This is indeed what it seems. A member of the Oregon State Legislature cleverly convinced fellow House members to slip lyrics from the Internet’s most infamous anthem into their recorded floor statements and then edited them together for a now-viral video. The full story is here. Only, it should be said, in Oregon. Although if anyone spots, say, a Washington State House member going on about how they’ve “gotta get down on Friday”, we should all know what to expect in good time.

Categories: Culture, Hilarity, Politics

Film Review: Shutter Island

April 8, 2011 3 comments

Note: One of my planned uses of Random Dangling Mystery will be to serve as the new home of the quick-thoughts reviews of films that I see. I had previously written and posted these on Facebook’s Movies application, but they’re more likely to reach an audience here. I will also intermittently post existing, notable reviews from my Facebook Movies profile at Random Dangling Mystery.

Shutter Island (2010; Directed by Martin Scorsese)

“Are we in a Scorsese movie, boss?”

Shutter Island is a bold, brassy, unintentionally goofy post-millenial mind-thriller genre piece that presents the choice between delusional psychosis and sinister conspiracy as “po-tae-to, po-tah-to” personal perspective toss-up. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a borderline-unhinged man haunted by his wife’s death, a trauma that inspires but also inhibits his job. The film’s key passages take place in the world of dreams. There are guns fired. Please stop me if this starts sounding familiar at any point.

Yes, Martin Scorsese’s engaging but limited potboiler (adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, the Bostonian who penned Mystic River) beat Christopher Nolan’s similarly-pitched but much more prominent Inception into the theatres by a few months (it would have been more if not for a studio-imposed delay). But it’s beaten by Nolan’s more spectacle-driven take on this sort of material in most (but not all) other ways.

DiCaprio continues to spend his 30s reeling through noirish roles requiring overwrought psychological suffering and excessive perspiration, this time as federal marshal Teddy Daniels, who comes to the forbidding titular island’s Ashecliffe Hospital for the criminally insane to investigate not only the escape of a dangerous patient, but also a shadowy government brainwashing conspiracy that may or may not be connected to the deep scars of his own tragic past.

Accompanied by Chuck, an aw-shucks agent from Seattle who may not be what he seems (Mark Ruffalo, who is much more physically convincing as both a g-man and a former G.I. than DiCaprio, with his fading, vestigial matinee idol features), Daniels meets with resistance and obfuscation from the psychiatrists running a modern talking-cure operation for the twisted murderers at the facility. Ben Kingsley is the most formidable of these, his smug British precision squeezed with vague menace through his high suit collar, but as if he isn’t enough, we also have the stentorian Max von Sydow as a former Nazi doctor. Not the most creative casting, to be sure, but still effective in the small doses he is applied in.

The byzantine plot grinds through the gears fairly mechanically up to and through its predictable course-change at the onset of the final act; as Andrew O’Hehir points out in his Salon review, storytelling has hardly ever been Scorsese’s strongest point as a filmmaker. But Scorsese and his longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson focus instead on the dank visual mood, laying it on thicker than the plot does (and this is a plot that includes a hurricane, a prison break, dead children, and a concentration camp flashback). Even incidental exposition scenes are shot with fearsome geometry; when Chuck lays out the rumours of psychological experiments at the facility to Daniels, he does so in a claustrophic crypt; later conversations between Daniels and characters who may be insane patients, silenced whistle-blowers, or something else entirely are foregrounded with images of firm separation like rusted bars or flickering flames.

But the saving visual graces of this overwrought, leaden narrative are surely the exquisitely-staged dream sequences that the unravelling Daniels experiences. These scenes, in particular the “fire and ash” dream sequence between Daniels and his deceased wife (an underused Michelle Williams) and the Dachau flashbacks featuring a pile of dead bodies frozen into a Pieta-like sculptural frieze and a seemingly unending dolly-shot of a massacre, embed suggestive visual details and also achieve the sort of trangression between conscious and subconscious reality that is key to the Freudian view of dreams (and is entirely absent from Chris Nolan’s spartan, rule-bound dreamworlds in Inception). The strongest indicators of Scorsese’s fabled visual bravado, they stand out from the generic muddle around them, elevating that muddle if only for fleeting seconds and forcing you to take imminent notice of what’s happening, even if (especially if) it’s not, strictly speaking, “real”.

Those sequences aside, Shutter Island is hardly a poorly-made film, and even has a worthwhile idea or two lurking beneath the ponderous weight of themes like mental illness, guilt, and genocide. Like Inception, it presents an either-or concluding dilemma summed up in its symbolically-charged final shot (a lighthouse as opposed to Nolan’s famous spinning top), both sides of which can boast plentiful textual support and neither side of which is morally ironclad. But on even less of a level than Inception, Shutter Island evokes little beyond its intensely atmospheric purview. It’s hard to really imagine any world existing for Teddy Daniels (or whatever his name is an anagram of) beyond Shutter Island, and that limits the interpretive wiggle-room we’re given by Scorsese. The shutters on this island are never really open, and that locks us into place as viewers, to an extent.

For more analysis and context on the film, watch the “fire and ash” dream sequence and read Matt Zoller Seitz’s analysis of it at Film Salon as part of their Best Scenes of 2010 feature here.

Categories: Film, Reviews

A Resurgence

Good day and welcome to the revived and reconstituted Random Dangling Mystery, a belated second take on a blog or two that petered out so long ago that even I barely remember it or them.

This will serve as an online home base for my every merest thought. Expect a potpourri of pretentious prose on myriad subjects, from sociology to sports to politics to culture to urban life to food to movie, television and music reviews to jokes at others’ expense. Expect regular updates. I certainly do. And to slap a cliche on this, expect the unexpected. More to come soon.

Categories: General