Tag: Quentin Tarantino

The Informant!

by on Sep.20, 2009, under Movies

To many, Steven Soderbergh’s is the face that launched a thousand indies, but he’s much more impressive as the redemption of old, big, star-struck Hollywood.  I’m glad he takes the time between his major motion pictures for his experimental confections; I suspect that the linguistic investigations of Schizopolis or the cruddy longeurs of Bubble expand the palette that he brings to blockbuster cinema.

I think he shares with Tarantino an enormous wellspring of inspiration, but while Tarantino’s is his mind’s own Video Hut of Alexandria, Soderbergh’s is more of a living cinema sketchbook or laboratory. I simply no longer want to see those experiments. Full Frontal was the last straw, and its unfortunate fascination with the slippage between the lives led and lives played by Hollywood types, not all that clever a riff on Pirandello to begin with, ruined Ocean’s 12 when it was imported into that movie.

(Schizopolis underwhelmed me because I’d seen its famous “Generic greeting” scene done before — but I could never remember where. The blog While Seated jogged my memory: I’d gone to see Chicago’s Neo-Futurists perform Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind in 1991 in Chicago.)

But when he’s on, he’s on. Ocean’s 11 is, for me, the purest cinematic pleasure, drum-tight in the action and just loose enough to be sexy or funny without dropping the plot. Out of Sight is a slow and sexy crime story that maximizes the given resources of Elmore Leonard and George Clooney and even draws a shapely performance out of Jennifer Lopez. The Limey is probably the best evidence for my hypothesis about Soderbergh’s experiments informing his genre treatments: ruthlessly edited down, it’s a no-frills, sharp-angled story that relies much more upon the play between Terrence Stamp’s quiet anger and Luis Gúzman’s chatter than Lem Dobbs’ much-abused script.

Like no other director, Soderbergh has made the use of stars part of his art. That’s what makes the characterization of The Informant!‘s Mark Whitacre and his giddy, high-wire performance by Matt Damon so surprising and so much fun. Soderbergh’s great at exploiting star power — viz. Clooney — and to the extent that that’s been coaxed out of Damon previously, it’s been either his headstrong youthfulness in Ocean’s 11 or the reticent hawk of the Bourne movies. (Parker and Stone drew what is perhaps the canonical take.)

There’s seemingly no reticence at all in Mark Whitacre, the title character who moves from a “white hat” at the beginning of the movie, exposing himself to great risk in order to bring ADM to hell for its price-fixing scheme, to something altogether more complicated by the movie’s end.  Not only does he run off at the mouth to anyone within earshot, often with compromising information, his internal live-encyclopedia monologue comes up as a voice-over:


When polar bears hunt, they crouch down by a hole in the ice and wait for a seal to pop up. They keep one paw over their nose so that they blend in. Cuz’ they’ve got those black noses. They’d blend in perfectly if not for the nose...


Whitacre descends the steps of the jet followed by Andreas and some other SUITS. Whitacre peels off the group.


I’m just gonna hit the head here.


So the question is. How do they know their noses are black? From looking at other polar bears? Do they see their reflections in the water? And think, “I’d be invisible if not for that.” That seems like a lot of thinking for a bear.

Whitacre’s ever-interjecting consciousness adds a note of frenzy–of monkey mind–to an already-frenetic performance. Marvin Hamlisch’s loopy and anachronistic score reinforces the mania of Whitacre’s personality. The movie is serious enough about the ADM scheme and the various powers that conspire to refocus the investigation on the whistleblower instead of the crime. But Whitacre’s characterization, ranging from chipper and corn-fed to not sane, shapes the work and gives it its real artistic stretch.

The most impressive feat of The Informant! is that it takes us up this close to its protagonist but manages to hold back critical information about his actions and intentions. We get inside his mind without getting inside his plan. (Significantly, his first voice-over, presented originally to the audience but revealed to be a speech to his young son, clues us in that his mental monologue is very much a performance.) Done poorly, this could come off as unfair or selective on the part of the director. Instead, it’s exciting, allowing us intimacy with Whitacre from the beginning yet still leaving plenty of room for suspense and revelation. The storytelling gives us an unreliable narrator verging on a kind of first-person free indirect style.

The polar bear anecdote isn’t the only Whitacre ramble about deception and perception in the animal kingdom. Whitacre tells us how the colors of poisonous butterflies are adopted by their benign cousins to scare away birds. And he tells us (talking to his son, in the first monologue) that our breakfast orange juice and maple syrup conceal good old corn. Every act of looking is looking at a lie.

Link to screenplay by Scott Z. Burns

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Hebrew School (Inglourious Basterds)

by on Aug.24, 2009, under Movies

This is steaming me:

But these bad guys were real, this history was real, and the feelings we have about them and what they did are real and have real-world consequences and implications. Do you really want audiences cheering for a revenge that turns Jews into carboncopies of Nazis, that makes Jews into “sickening” perpetrators? I’m not so sure. An alternative, and morally superior, form of “revenge” for Jews would be to do precisely what Jews have been doing since World War II ended: that is, to preserve and perpetuate the memory of the destruction that was visited upon them, precisely in order to help prevent the recurrence of such mass horrors in the future. Never again, the refrain goes. The emotions that Tarantino’s new film evokes are precisely what lurk beneath the possibility that “again” will happen.

As far as “what Jews have being doing since World War II ended” and “the possibility that ‘again’ will happen”, I don’t think anyone’s put it better than Jenji Kohan’s Weeds:

It’s also worth pointing out that the Basterds’ gory vengeance–goods delivered, makeup and prosthetics people–takes up only slightly more time in the film than it does in the trailer. The story belongs to Shoshana Dreyfus and Hans Landa, the hunted and the hunter. The Basterds, amusingly, aren’t even particularly central to the film. In fact, (spoilers after the jump)…

(continue reading…)

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Do you speak my language? (Inglourious Basterds)

by on Aug.23, 2009, under Movies

I don’t think I’m going to wait to synthesize my thoughts on Inglourious Basterds into one review-like piece.  Lucky me, I don’t have anything else to write about. Forthwith, the trickle, to stop when the well runs dry or Big Josh calls the plumber. I’ll try to keep spoilers after the jump.

Impressively, IB features dialogue in multiple languages, instead of what Matthew Yglesias called “Hollywood’s more conventional ‘Nazis speaking to each other in German-accented English.'” Main characters speak English, French, and German; Nazi officer Hans Landa rotates effortlessly between all three and even dips into Italian in one scene.

The first “chapter” of the movie is one long scene, close to twenty minutes, almost entirely given over to conversation. Landa visits the home of a French farmer; his purpose, which he presents as mere formality, is to make sure that his predecessor didn’t overlook any details pertaining to the Jews who used to live in the district.

For the first three pages (in the draft hosted at cineobscure, the scene runs 17 pp; I’ll use the screenwriter shorthand of 1 page=1 minute of screentime), Landa converses in French, subtitled. Then abruptly, he says:


Monsieur LaPadite, I regret to inform you I’ve exhausted the extent of my French. To continue to speak it so inadequately, would only serve to embarrass me. However, I’ve been led to believe you speak English quite well?




Well, it just so happens, I do as well. This being your house, I ask your permission to switch to English, for the remainder of the conversation?

In the audience I sat in, we all laughed. No one wants to see a whole subtitled movie, so make use of a clunky pretext and be more “inclusive” to the audience.

However… (ahead there be spoilers)

(continue reading…)

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San Quentin

by on Aug.21, 2009, under Movies

I am very, very excited to see Inglourious Basterds very, very soon. Until I do, I’ll have relatively little to say about it–consider that reticence an exception, not a rule–but here are a few observations and links to kick off the inevitable Josh-vs-Josh Tarantino side-taking.

Kill Bill as Parable of Redemption in Zen Buddhism Kill Bill was developed by QT in partnership with his muse Uma Thurman. Thurman’s father Robert is one of the foremost exponents of Zen Buddhism in the West. Und so weiter.

I made the strategic decision to wait until I could see both Kill Bills on the same day. We rented the DVD of Part 1, and as the credits rolled we dashed to the Vista to make the late matinee. If you don’t think you can handle a marathon, I recommend Kill Bill Parts 1 & 2 in One Minute in One Take.

(There’s no sense in discussing them as two separate movies. They are not separable. If you’re constitutionally unable to take the oceans of blood in Part 1, you could still enjoy Part 2, but you’re coming in in the middle.)

Also at The House Next Door, Keith Uhlich (pro) and Matt Soller Zeitz (anti) debate My Tarantino Problem–And Yours. MSZ discusses his unease with Tarantino’s violence:

That’s what bothered me even the first time I saw Pulp Fiction, although at the time I discounted those misgivings, and I shouldn’t have. When Marvin gets shot in the car, by accident, it’s very much like the rest of Pulp Fiction, and the rest of Tarantino’s work, in that it’s comical, and the sense of humor is superficially very Scorsesean. It’s bloody, savage violence, and the callousness with which characters address — or just as often don’t address — the violence is the source of tension and excitement in the movie. […] But Tarantino’s missing something about Scorsese […].

Marvin’s shooting is the sourest note for me in Tarantino’s entire body of work, and it led to an informal rule: I won’t call any movie an all-time favorite in which someone is shot in the head for comic effect. Sorry, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, though you too have considerable charms.

It’s possible to explain away the violence in Tarantino’s work by saying “It’s not about violence, it’s about movies”. That’s true enough, but it only gets you so far down the path towards understanding his work. I think of Tarantino as both a humanist and a film pastichist. He’s working without a net in a number of modes at once, and they aren’t always possible to reconcile.

I think Death Proof may go the furthest towards doing so. There’s a way in which movie-ness solves problems in Tarantino’s work. The scene in which Uma Thurman’s gangster moll asks John Travolta’s thug to the dance floor was the first time I noticed this–was really the first time I thought about metafictional conceits in film at all (so it’s kinda 101, aight?). She goads him to get up there; he’s not eager. She takes her shoes off (revealing the feet that got Antwone thrown into a glass house). He slowly takes his shoes off, taking his time, delaying the beginning. Can he do it? Can he dance? … Of course he can. He’s John Travolta.

Death Proof doesn’t take the everything-and-more approach of Robert Rodriguez’s companion Grindhouse piece Planet Terror. Instead, it’s relatively serious-looking and slow, alternating between talky longeurs that introduce us to and weight the characters, and action sequences. It’s divided into two mirror parts. In one, a group of confident, seemingly intelligent attractive women are annihilated by Kurt Russell’s stunt driver. In the second, a group of confident, seemingly intelligent attractive women who are also stunt drivers give him a taste of his own medicine. It’s a vengeance flick, in which the avenged and avengers have no knowledge of one another, and the secret weapon against the badguy is matching him on his terrain of movieness.

As for Inglorious Basterds, I’ll say this in advance. Two different, both wildly point-missing takes on the Holocaust might be, first, a movie in which none of the Jewish characters die (that’s an excerpt, here’s a pdf of the whole thing), and second, a movie in which the Jews do the killing. I’m kinda into the second.

CONFIDENTIAL TO J.M.: Yes, Tears of the Black Tiger was very good. I’m glad I saw it. Doesn’t change my mind.

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