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Archive for September, 2009

So, picture this:   It’s a day in mid-September and I’m happily typing away at my computer, totally ignoring some stuff I need to get done and…

Blue screen of death.  

Except it wasn’t just that because when I rebooted I had what could be termed a “half-working” computer, one without internet, word processing or any sort of, you know, decent functionality.

And lo, did I have a meltdown.  Garments were rendered, teeth were gnashed.   It was an ugly sight.   And I bought a new computer!   I did!   But the allure of the internet was too great, and it’s taken me until now to climb out of the pit of Holy Shit, What Did I Miss On The Great Internets While I Was Gone?

But I’m back now.  And we’re about to start Reader’s Choice, guys.

(Also, to the people that keep up with the internets:  Is it just me or is the whole Eli Roth/ONTD slightly squicky?    I’m half squicked, half amazed at the man’s…forthrightness.)

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#1555: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

If you’re expecting some sort of resolution or answers to the problems Woody Allen gives his characters, don’t hold your breath.

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Vicky and Cristina are two Americans headed to Barcelona for a two month vacation.   Impulsive, romantic Cristina and level-headed pragmatist Vicky are hosted by some distant family members cooped up in town.   Vicky has a nice if rote life in front of her:  she’s close to finishing a masters degree, engaged to be married to a boring yuppie and looking at that whole boring upper-middle class lifestyle.   Cristina is searching for something different and new but can’t articulate what she does want, only what she doesn’t.

The two run into Juan Antonio, a brooding yet charming local painter who offers to take them to a remote area.  After much resistance from Vicky and almost none from Cristina, the two head out with Juan Antonio, beginning a strange entanglements of romance and love.   Juan Antonio is saddled with a  volatile and slightly deranged ex-wife by the name of Maria Elena.   As both Vicky and Cristina sleep with Juan Antonio, they come to have very different experiences.

Spoiler:  Neither of them learns anything.   Both question the nature of their lives, their hopes, their ideas about love and life, but it winds up having no greater effect on their lives.   Cristina at one point even shacks up with Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, searching for something different but finds nothing to satisfy her.  Vicky aggressively obsesses over the fact that her life with boring Doug may not be everything she ever hoped and dreamed of, only to face that she cannot stomach the rollercoaster life that Juan Antonio and Maria Elena lead.

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We end the movie as we began:  Juan Antonio has nearly been killed by Maria Elena, Vicky is on the same path she always has set herself on, and Cristina is still the carefree searcher.   In many ways, Allen’s movie seems to contemplate the idea that life is pointless; that we make the same mistakes over and over again, that we never find the answers that make sense (or maybe we don’t ask the right questions).  It’s beautiful and slightly sad, set to the sounds of Spanish guitars.   Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a wonderful film that gives you a lot of mental cud to chew.

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James Spader

JAMES SPADER

AND I SHALL NOT HEAR ANYTHING TO THE CONTRARY.

(For reals!   He’s awesome!   He delivers insane closing arguments on Boston Legal!  …He was Blaine in Pretty in Pink.  OKAY?)

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#1554: Inglourious Basterds

I SAY, WELL PLAYED.

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It took me a long time to sit down and write this for two reasons:  1)  I had to see Inglourious Basterds more than once; 2) I needed some time to digest the movie and let it roll around in my head for a while.

In Nazi-occupied France, Hans Landa is hunting Jews in the countryside.   He stumbles across a farmer hiding a family beneath his floorboards; his men shoot and kill all but one member of the Jewish family, Shosanna, who escapes and makes her way to Paris.   A few years later, a mostly Jewish unit(the Basterds)  sneaks into France, killing and maiming Nazi soldiers  to exact vengeance upon them.   Shosanna manages to operate a cinema in Paris which causes Frederick Zoller, a Nazi war hero, to notice her.   Through Zoller’s influence, Shosanna’s cinema is selected to host a new German propaganda film starring Zoller.   The Basterds, who are aided by double agent Bridget Von Hammersmark, make their way to Paris to blow up the premiere.   But Shosanna has plans of her own for the Nazi high command.

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Inglourious Basterds is a long, lengthy work of beauty and horrible things.   It is a comment on cinema the likes of which Tarantino has never approached before.   Some of the scenes, like Landa’s pleasant interrogation of a French farmer and Shosanna preparing to burn down her cinema with Hitler and the Nazi High Command inside will be long, long remembered.

Shosanna splices in to Nation’s Pride, the Nazi propaganda film, a film of her laughing at the Nazis and explaining what’s going to happen to them.  Likewise, Tarantino has essentially spliced in his own movie to the great cinematic reel of World War II movies, allowing for a tale of Jewish vengeance and retribution to play out in a grossly historically inaccurate way.

It should be noted that the Basterds actually are not the focal point of the story, but rather Shosanna.   It is she who actually succeeds in burning the theater down (the Basterds, unknown to her, supply some explosives).  A Jewish woman is who takes down the high command of the Third Reich, who offers up her own cinematic spectacle to counter their own self-congratulating nonsense.    And Melanie Laurent does a remarkable job as Shosanna every step of the way.

Daniel Bruhl as Zoller and Christoph Waltz as Landa are the main Nazi baddies; Waltz in particular has received an outpouring of adoration over his well played role.  Indeed, he plays Landa as an urbane, polished man who’s an opportunist at heart.   Landa is slickly conniving and politely questioning with his own set of eccentricities.   However, Daniel Bruhl also does remarkably well as Frederick Zoller, the Nazi private who won’t give up on wooing Shosanna.   He seems affable and unthreatening at the outset, gradually growing more and more persistent the more Shosanna rebuffs him, finally showing his true colors at the end.

It is Eli Roth who is the one weak link in the chain, for as much as I like Eli, he’s good in parts but when he’s bad, he’s really quite bad.   He can’t seem to commit to the Boston accent (strange, considering he’s from Boston) and waffles in between cold eyed rage and an over-the-top Boston stereotype.  He redeems himself mostly in scenes at the end with Omar Doom, the both of them pretending to be Italian cameramen with some hilarious consequences.    Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz upstages them both with far less dialogue.

There’s two voiceover sequences which is odd for Tarantino, considering both feel jarring in the movie.   Aside from that, Tarantino maintains a steady building tension throughout the movie that leads up to a literally explosive ending.

It is not perfect, but it is one of Tarantino’s better films.  The end in particular deals a lot in irony, but it is World War II set in an area of the world — cinema — that Tarantino can relate and tell a story through best.

If we were grading on the star system?   3.875 out of four.   (Blame the Russian judge for the few tenths deduction.)

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QT Week: Death Proof

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Death Proof is an often criticized film.  While I don’t disagree that it’s not Tarantino’s best work, I think there’s a lot more to like about it than a lot of people give it credit for.

In Austin, Texas, a group of girlfriends roam about town and end up in a bar on their way to a friend’s house on Lake LBJ.   This particular bar scene involves the usual:  sleazy guys scheming to get into the girls’ pants, lots of booze and beer and tunes playing on the jukebox.   Enter Stuntman Mike, a seemingly affable but dated fellow who shows up to hang out at the bar.   What starts out as a fun night degrades into horror for the group of girls and their acquaintance Pam, as Stuntman Mike commits some vehicular homicide.

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Mostly unbeknownst to the girls, Mike’s been stalking them and taking photos.   Pam dies a grisly death, begging for her life to be let out of Mike’s car after she asked for a ride.    Mike informs her that his death proof car, which he had crowed over earlier, is in fact proof.   “…But to get the benefit of it, honey, you really need to be sitting in my seat”, he tells her.

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Stuntman Mike then causes a head-on collision with the other car full of girls, ripping off limbs and driving over faces.   It’s not a pretty scene and it pisses the local law enforcement off.   They suspect Mike is guilty of killing all six girls, but have no way to prove it.

Fourteen months later in Lebanon, Tenneessee, four friends are reunited for a vacation.   They’re working on a film set that’s shooting in the area and one of them is a stuntwoman with a dream to play a dangerous game called Ship’s Mast on the hood of a 1970 white Dodge Challenger – the car driven in Vanishing Point. Of course, there happens to be a 1970 Challenger in the area, so after sweet talking the owner to let them drive it on their own and leaving a friend for collateral, three of them head off to play Ship’s Mast.

It’s basically a game of holding on to the car with belts while you ride around free-wheeling on the hood.

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It’s not long before Stuntman Mike shows up; he’s been stalking these girls, too.   After scaring the shit out of them, one shoots at him and injures him.   He takes off running, but the girls give chase and hunt him down.   It is the proverbial end of the road for Stuntman Mike.

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Death Proof does suffer from one massive, almost fatal flaw:   it is not actually one movie.   It’s really two movies with Stuntman Mike as the connectivity between the two.

The first half is the girls in the bar (Arlene and friends) and the second half is the girls in the car (Abernathy and friends).   Mike is the common thread here, but the sudden and jarring switch between the two is somewhat bizarre.   Tarantino goes from a color-saturated environment right into black and white.   It’s like watching a whole different movie.

In a lot of ways, it is.   The girls in the bar have similar conversations in a lot of ways to Abernathy and her friends; small talk about boys and other things is involved.    But Abernathy and her friends fight back against Mike’s brutality but Arlene and company are never given a chance to fight back as such.

Abernathy and friends are the victims changing the balance of power and Stuntman Mike, who for all his crowing and creepiness, is really just a wussed-out jerk who hides in his car.   He spends the end of the movie sobbing in his car, begging for mercy from girls who have none for him.

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Death Proof is a weird amalgamation of slasher movie and car chase movie.   Indeed, the car chase parts are perhaps the best bits of the movie.   There are none of the annoying, more modern multiple quick cuts to be found here, thank God in heaven, whether it’s Zoe Bell hanging on the hood or Abernathy and Kim screaming their heads off in the car as Mike terrorizes them.

(more…)

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