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The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino Part Two

Tarantino is offering a peculiar form of thrills, for the most part; it’s not always exciting in quite the way one expects a Tarantino film to be exciting.

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The Conversations: Quentin Tarantino Part Two

JASON BELLAMY: Well, Ed, after a few days off we’re ready to move into decidedly fresh territory, because now Inglourious Basterds has entered the conversation, and it has done so with a bullet, or a baseball bat, or something. I have seen the film twice now and I’m ready to proclaim it the most thrilling picture of the year thus far (and, just so you know, that’s a carefully chosen adjective). But what does that really mean? Pretty much nothing. So, with another tip of the cap to My Tarantino Problem, and Yours, the April 2007 give-and-take between Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlich, let’s dive into the deep end once more.

At the end of Tarantino’s World War II (revenge) fantasy, Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine looks straight into the camera and says: “I think this might just be my masterpiece.” He’s referring, of course, to a freshly carved swastika, but I wonder if—like so many characters before—Aldo might just be speaking for the filmmaker behind the camera and behind that carefully chosen line. And so, Ed, I ask you: Is Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece?

ED HOWARD: If you’d asked me beforehand, I never would’ve expected to be saying this, but like you I’ve seen the film twice now, and yes, I’d declare it to be Tarantino’s masterpiece. Why wasn’t I expecting this? Well, the trailers, which made the film look like an unrelenting farce, probably had something to do with that; I know you managed to avoid those, and I envy you for that. And then there’s the World War II material, which to say the least did not seem like a natural fit for Tarantino; it was hard to know what to expect from this movie. So I went in with somewhat mixed expectations. Did I expect to be entertained and, as you so delicately put it, thrilled? Of course; I’d never expect any less from Tarantino. But did I expect something so tonally varied, so rich, so sprawling and intense? Did I expect to be stunned into silence at various points, or to feel so many conflicting emotions and ideas fighting for my attention? I can’t say that I did. Shame on me.

So what does it mean for a film to be Tarantino’s masterpiece? Well, for one thing it’s everything that his past films have been, only more so. It’s about other movies, of course, but more than that it’s about The Movies, about the cinema and its power. It’s cartoony and wild and over-the-top, sometimes awkward (hello, Eli Roth), often deeply moving, funny, heartbreaking, irreverent, silly, brutal and sensitive. It represents Tarantino really embracing his contradictions, making a movie that encompasses the totality of his cinematic range: from the bracing, patient building of suspense through dialogue in the film’s major set pieces, to the caricatured treatment of Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and the “Nat-zi”-scalping Aldo “the Apache” Raine, to the melodramatic conflagration of the film’s cathartic climax. I wondered before how Tarantino would approach a World War II movie, and the answer, as it turns out, is that he has made a World War II movie that isn’t even really set in World War II, at least not as we know it. In other words, Tarantino has retreated fully into the Tarantinoverse and has made a movie that could only be set in his own unique cinematic world—and a film that, indeed, revels in the limitless possibilities of the cinema for creating these kinds of imaginative alternate realities.

Now you know where I stand, generally speaking. I have a feeling I know where you stand, too, based on your judicious selection of the word “thrilling” (with the implied “and nothing more”), but I’ll ask anyway. You concluded our discussion of Tarantino’s earlier films by saying that you haven’t ever seen the light, that you’re not one of the director’s true believers. So has Inglourious Basterds changed your mind? Do you fully believe now?

JB: Inglourious Basterds has done nothing to substantially alter my opinion of Tarantino’s previous films or his talent. I still believe he is a sometimes brilliant writer and an even better visualist whose biggest weakness is using film as a device to take masturbatory pleasure in his own genius, which, while considerable, isn’t as infallible as he believes. However, there’s no doubt in my mind: Inglourious Basterds is indeed Tarantino’s masterpiece.

I say that a bit uncomfortably, I admit, because one of the many things that astounds me about this picture is how distinctly different it feels from its predecessors, even for all the ways it is utterly familiar. The last thing I want to do is give the impression that I regard this as Tarantino’s finest picture because he has “grown up,” or some such nonsense. This isn’t me playing “I told you so” while delighting in watching Tarantino toe the line. Not at all. Tarantino wouldn’t consider this film to be a condemnation of his earlier works, and I don’t either. When I call Inglourious Basterds Tarantino’s masterpiece, it’s because of what it does, not because of anything that its predecessors might fail to do.

Like you, I appreciate Inglourious Basterds for its tremendous range, and I’m awed by its ability to play with contradictory genres, emotions and themes, not just in a single movie or a single scene but sometimes in a single shot. This is the same Tarantino we’ve come to revere and at times just barely tolerate (yep, that’s an Eli Roth reference), but it’s Tarantino at his most challenging and even most vulnerable. When I said that I was careful in calling Inglourious Basterds the most thrilling movie of the year, that’s because, for all of the picture’s successes, it is both exasperatingly and endearingly flawed. (Thrilling? Yes! And occasionally boring.) In proclaiming this Tarantino’s masterpiece, I don’t think I need to consider it the year’s most affecting movie on all fronts, because it isn’t.

Likewise, Inglourious Basterds is by no means universally superior to Tarantino’s predecessors. Yet for me there is one way in which this effort stands alone. Inglourious Basterds is the first Tarantino picture that made me feel like an insider. It is the first Tarantino movie that, at least during its running time, made me feel as if I might be enjoying it as much as QT himself. That isn’t the only reason I consider Inglourious Basterds to be Tarantino’s masterpiece, let’s be clear, but it goes a long way toward describing how it affected me.

Inglourious Basterds

EH: Certainly enjoyment is a big part of it. There’s no shortage of thrills here. But Tarantino is offering a peculiar form of thrills, for the most part; it’s not always exciting in quite the way one expects a Tarantino film to be exciting. Yes, there are outbursts of violence, much of it enacted by the titular Basterds, who despite their top billing actually thread through the film at intervals rather than remaining at the center of the narrative. These bursts of violence are quick and bracing, often preceded by a lengthy and nail-biting build-up that lasts much longer than the violence itself. Think of the seemingly endless series of shots before “the Bear Jew” (Roth) beats a Nazi colonel with a baseball bat: long, slow tracks in on the opaque black of the tunnel from which the hollow thunk of the baseball bat on the wall emerges, cut together with equally slow tracks into the impassive eyes of the doomed man, thinking about his impending death. Then the violence itself is abrupt and brutal and kind of silly and capped with Roth’s utterly ridiculous ranting about baseball, and the slow-building tension has erupted into something ugly and uncomfortable. The violent climax to the lengthy tavern scene is even swifter, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it frenzy of one-second shots set up by at least a half-hour of patient, probing dialogue.

In fact, the film’s three most tense and exciting sequences—the opening chapter, the interrogation of Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) by SS colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), and the tavern rendezvous—are driven by the dialogue, by conversations that dance around hidden subtexts and dangerous topics with that typically Tarantinoesque (or Rohmeresque) patience. The opening scene, a half-hour masterpiece in itself, sets the dominant tone for the film, even if that tone is frequently disrupted and warped by the intrusions of the Basterds or the Hitler caricature. This opening chapter, titled “Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France,” is sublime, suspenseful and emotionally devastating. It unfolds slowly, as Landa toys with a dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) who’s been sheltering a Jewish family beneath his floorboards. The scene develops so patiently that its stakes aren’t clear for quite some time—the conversation is polite and formal, almost ceremonial in the exchange of pleasantries and compliments. All the while, Tarantino’s camera wheels around the two, capturing the unspoken tension in the scene, finally panning down to the men’s feet and then down even further, into the crawl space beneath the house where a Jewish family is hiding, terrified. Then, from a shot of the family’s eyes peering up through the floorboards, the camera inches back up to the pattering conversation above, which has suddenly acquired a new intensity and urgency. The scene’s denouement is harrowing, particularly the grief-stricken, shamed expression on the face of the farmer as he betrays his charges, a few tears streaking his cheeks.

There’s so much going on in this scene that it’s frankly stunning, and even if Inglourious Basterds had ended right there, with Landa yelling goodbye to the fleeing Shosanna, the sole survivor of her family’s massacre, I think I would’ve left the theater satisfied. It just feels so complete, so self-contained, like a perfect short story. Landa is sinister and charming in roughly equal measure, with a preening, superior manner that shows through in his tight-lipped smile and occasional moments of goofy theatricality. His moment of triumph within the scene, when he reveals that he knows about the hidden family, is undercut when, just at that moment, he whips out a ludicrously big pipe, dwarfing the farmer’s own pipe. It’s both a self-conscious assertion of his authority over the farmer, and a hilarious sight gag whose impact, both times I saw it, was tremendous: the audience was still giggling when Tarantino cuts in for a close-up of Landa as the SS officer chillingly reveals his endgame to the farmer. Tarantino does this kind of stuff throughout the film, nakedly manipulating his audience, letting the film’s multiple tones clash against one another, creating storm fronts where queasy humor and dead-serious suspense crash together. Tarantino also nods to the audience when, after the opening pleasantries have been exchanged, he has Landa make a big show of switching to English for the remainder of the conversation, an acknowledgement of the blockbuster audience’s limited patience for subtitles—and, it turns out, also a component of Landa’s forward-thinking plotting, since the family beneath the floorboards can’t understand English. This opening sequence and the other tense conversations like it throughout the film masterfully control the audience’s emotions and reactions: there are long stretches where everyone seems to be collectively holding their breath, waiting for a release that seldom plays out quite as expected.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: I wholeheartedly agree that the opening scene with Landa and the dairy farmer is the film’s artistic high point. You’ve already touched on some of the brilliant contradictions in the scene, like the pipe gag and the clumsy excuse to use English that at first seems like an eye-rolling Tarantino indulgence (too cute by half) but then turns out to be diabolically brilliant. But let me back up for a moment to take an even broader view. To me, part of what’s so fascinating about that scene is how Landa is such an archetypical oversized cinema villain, even in the moments when he stimulates thoughts of real-world horror, while the farmer, LaPadite, is straight out of a more historically considerate drama. These are two genres playing out side by side, so different that Tarantino could have used his De Palma-inspired split-screen trick to present them. On one side, in Landa, we have the Tarantino film his previous works suggested Inglourious Basterds would be. On the other side, in LaPadite, we have the reverent World War II film that some Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan devotees feel the historical subject demands. It would be entirely misleading to suggest that Tarantino’s film is a marriage of both of these genres, because from start to finish Inglourious Basterds is pure fantasy with only allusions to textbook history. Nevertheless, it is true that both of these seemingly opposed genre sensibilities share the screen beautifully in this scene. Both sides feel equally invested in, equally realized, equally significant. I’d call it a balancing act, but Tarantino isn’t tiptoeing on any fine lines here. He isn’t interested in such things. He’s simply showing us his cinematic world from his own unique diagonal perspective.

Meantime, the dialogue in that scene is as subtly loaded as that superheroes analysis in Kill Bill without ever seeming indulgently arbitrary. Evoking memories of Mr. Pink’s rant against tipping in Reservoir Dogs or Jules and Vincent’s debate about eating pork in Pulp Fiction, Landa uses a hawk/rat/squirrel analogy that establishes his skill for deductive reasoning while also raising the thematically significant issue of ethical double standards. We can talk in greater detail later about the climactic “Revenge of the Giant Face” chapter, where those double standards come into play. For now, though, it’s merely important to note that Tarantino’s opening scene stirs the audience to reconsider our engrained ideas about predator and prey.

The dialogue in this initial scene has a rhythm that’s atypical to Tarantino’s norm, and in that respect Inglourious Basterds announces itself as something new from the very start. (What an entirely different mood we’d have at the end of the first chapter if the film introduced the Basterds straightaway.) One thing is familiar, though: For as oft-quoted as Landa’s introduction is sure to be, it’s Tarantino’s filmmaking, not his screenwriting, that makes this scene special. In a scene that is seemingly all words, ignore the dialogue and focus instead on the mooing cows, the ticking clock, the slow zoom (interrupted by cuts) toward Landa and LaPadite’s faces at that critical moment and, finally, the outstanding repurposing of John Ford’s famous doorway shot. These are tried and true tools for creating suspense and drama that Tarantino uses so effectively that they feel like new.

Inglourious Basterds

EH: What’s especially brilliant about this opening chapter, which you hint at in mentioning Landa’s use of the rat analogy, is that Tarantino is forcing us not only to reconsider ideas about predator and prey but to confront the mentality of prejudice head-on. Landa’s tone is so reasonable, his point-to-point argumentation so strictly logical, that by the time he’s come to his conclusion we actually understand why he considers the Jews to be vermin. It’s disturbing, and Landa’s offhand equation of Jews and rats earns the same nervous gasps that a Nazi major later gets by suggesting the unexpected resonances between African slaves and King Kong. But we get what he’s saying, and we sense that the farmer perhaps grudgingly understands as well: as even he has to admit, he’d never greet a rat with a saucer of milk, and no amount of logic about the similarities between rats and the more respected squirrels will convince him otherwise, just as Landa and his Nazi colleagues cannot be convinced of the essential humanity of the Jews. It’s a horrifying scene because it presents Landa as such a logical monster and, as Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) will later say about his protégé Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a “strangely persuasive monster.” This scene doesn’t present prejudice as an aberration or something unknowable and distant; prejudice here is the end result of a scrupulously logical mind reasoning from a foundation of certain hateful constants.

You’re also right that the two main characters here represent Tarantino playing with varying tonalities, even within the same scene: the brooding, emotionally real farmer and the cartoonish villain Landa. On a broader scale, this is the kind of thing going on throughout the film. There is an astonishing variety of performances on display here, many of them broad and deliberately overplayed: the backwoods kitsch of Pitt’s Aldo Raine, the Austin Powers pastiche of Mike Myers’ cameo as a high-ranking British officer, the Looney Tunes-esque Hitler, Julie Dreyfuss evoking her appearance in Kill Bill as Goebbels’ showy translator/escort Francesca. Tarantino sets these cartoonish performances off against more subtle and realistic ones, like Laurent’s reserved Shosanna, who barely says a word throughout the entire lunch with Goebbels, Landa and Zoller, conveying her bemusement, fear and confusion through her expressive face. Tarantino seems to revel in the friction generated by placing believable, realistic characters up against vibrant, oversized caricatures—it’s like Who Framed Roger Rabbit achieved entirely with human actors.

This film is also replete with the kind of structural mirroring that we’ve noted in earlier Tarantino films. The zooms you note into close-ups of Landa and LaPadite, increasing the tension of their confrontation, are repeated in Chapter 2 when the Nazi colonel is awaiting his death by baseball bat. More significantly, Landa’s attitude towards his nickname, “the Jew hunter,” changes over the course of the film from the barely restrained childish glee of the opening chapter to the visceral disgust with which he pronounces it when talking to Aldo in the fifth and final chapter, when he wants to be thought of as merely an employee of the Nazis rather than an eager participant in their agenda. This cynical reversal resonates with one of the key themes of the Basterds sequences, the idea of what happens to the Nazi soldiers after the war, whether they’re able to simply slip back into ordinary society and ignore their Nazi past.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: Speaking of the Nazis and cartoonish characters, that’s yet another surprising thing about Inglourious Basterds. Oh, sure, Tarantino’s Hitler is a screaming maniac and Goebbels is a clown (that he likes to bang his interpreter tells us what, exactly?), but otherwise Tarantino’s Nazis are something that Nazis are almost never allowed to be in American movies: intelligent. Landa is an opportunistic devil without a conscience, to be sure, but will we see a smarter character this year? I doubt it. Fucker is almost clairvoyant, and beyond that he’s ballsy. Presented with an opportunity to write his own endgame, he makes a bold all-in play that involves collaborating with the Americans without their knowledge. Then there’s Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) who displays his intelligence three ways: first by sniffing out a curious German accent, then by deducing his identity in the questions game based on scant information and finally by spotting Lieutenant Hicox’s (Michael Fassbender) fatal tell. (Heck, throw on top of that what might seem like a small detail: Hellstrom knows immediately that there’s no way he’s walking out of that tavern alive.) Also not to be overlooked is Fredrick Zoller, who isn’t the mindless killing machine his war heroics have us conditioned to believe he must be. In the movies the opposition sometimes gets one smart character, but the rest of the force is usually a collection of shortsighted morons. Here, instead, it’s the Americans who are cartoons who blunder into their good fortune.

If you think this is me on my way to arguing that Tarantino is making some bold political statement, guess again. Tarantino just likes bad guys. Always has. I never thought there was any deep messaging in his idolization of Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction, and the same rule applies here. Again, and this point can’t be underlined enough, this isn’t a historically minded film; of course all those makers of “serious” war movies might want to look in the mirror and ask themselves why it took Tarantino, of all people, to create Nazi enemies who seem like a force to be reckoned with.

Before we leave this subject, I feel we do have an obligation to talk about Eli Roth’s participation, which in my mind stands as Tarantino’s only entirely indefensible decision in this film. Is Roth’s grand entrance as the Bear Jew, after all that bat slamming anticipation, meant to inspire laughs? Perhaps we need to consider that. All I know is that “satisfying” the suspense of that scene by having Roth emerge from the shadows is the cinematic polar opposite of Orson Welles’ unveiling in The Third Man. The only praiseworthy thing I can say about Roth’s involvement is that at least it isn’t Tarantino himself in the role, nor is it Adam Sandler, who was originally considered for the part. (Obvious question: Why do I prefer Roth to Sandler? Because whatever power the bat-bashing scene has would be obliterated if I felt Tarantino had gone from making allusions to Sergio Leone to paying tribute to Happy Gilmore. Just saying.) Roth’s involvement doesn’t ruin the film, but it marks one of those moments when my thoughts left the action on the screen and I found myself thinking, “Why, Quentin? Why?” But maybe that’s just an intrinsic part of the Tarantino experience.

Inglourious Basterds

EH: I’m in total agreement that the few scattered appearances by Roth are embarrassingly bad and thankfully brief—although I do wish that Sandler had actually gotten to play the part, as was originally intended. Don’t think of Happy Gilmore, think of the way Sandler channels his signature man-boy persona into much darker, psychologically unstable, violent territory in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love. The Sandler glimpsed in that film would’ve been a perfect fit for the Bear Jew’s stunted, amoral ridiculousness, though I wonder if he could have been as scary as Roth’s face is when he gets a deranged-looking close-up during the climactic conflagration.

Anyway, while Tarantino is perhaps not making a “bold political statement” with this film, I do think it’s a very politically, historically and morally engaged film. Tarantino is never going to be about sending a message, but by the same token he’s never been blind to the moral ramifications of people’s actions, or the unspoken politics behind everything his characters say and do, and that’s the case here more than ever. The finale’s destruction of a Nazi-packed movie theater suggests that all revenge and brutality are ugly and cruel, even when the motives are good and even when the victims are deserving. This baroque, flaming finale is frantically edited, with shots of Shosanna’s warped, cackling visage looming above the panicking crowd as Roth and fellow Basterd Omar Doom machine-gun the fleeing cinemagoers with that sadistic, gleeful look on their faces, monstrous and psychopathic. This scene represents a rewriting of history for the better—WWII ends early, and the worst of the monsters responsible for the war all die in flames and a hail of bullets—and yet watching it happen is unpleasant rather than celebratory, suggesting that all victories come at a price. The film’s morality is complex and twisted, depicting Aldo and his Basterds as violence-loving sociopaths who seem to enjoy their work a little too much—and who can blame them, because even 60-plus years removed from WWII, there’s still a visceral pleasure to be had in watching Aldo and his boys “killing Nat-zis,” and little guilt about it. Tarantino seems to know this and his multilayered, intelligent Nazis are continual reminders of the humanity present even in those who do terrible things. Even Goebbels gets a moment of genuine emotion when Hitler tells him that Nation’s Pride is his best film ever.

The Nazi officer who’s killed in the film’s second chapter says that he won a medal for bravery, while the Bear Jew asks him if he got it for “killing Jews,” an attempt to simplify this guy before beating him to death. But he is brave and loyal, even though he’s also hateful scum who dies after spitting out epitaphs against Jews. These traits are not contradictions: he is a brave, honorable man who has committed himself to, and seems to believe totally in, a reprehensible cause dedicated to extinguishing other human lives. On the other side, Aldo and his men are not honorable in the least, they are deceitful and sadistic and merciless, and yet they are committed to a noble cause, motivated at least in part by the desire to defeat a truly evil world power. There are, obviously, no easy answers here.

This is even truer in the scene with Wilhelm (Alexander Fehling), the new father out celebrating his baby’s birth. His showdown with Aldo over the tradeoff of the actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is heartbreaking precisely because it’s obvious that no matter what Aldo says to bargain with Wilhelm, the Basterds could never allow a witness to leave the bar knowing that Bridget is a double agent for the Allies. This had already been established explicitly in the Basterds’ pre-meeting planning. So as Aldo and Wilhelm negotiate, the audience knows that Aldo doesn’t really intend to live up to his bargain, though he never actually gets the chance to betray the German since Bridget finishes him off first. It’s an odd scene, one where the Nazi suddenly becomes the sympathetic protagonist, the guy we’re rooting for even though we know he’s pretty much doomed. When he puts down the gun and agrees to deal with Aldo, I actually found myself groaning at his stupid choice the way you’d yell “don’t go in there” at a horror movie character.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: I suspect that many people would disagree with your characterization of this film’s political, historical and moral engagement, and not necessarily those who feel offended by its anti-historical bloodlust (of which I’m sure there are many). For QT fans it might in fact be easier to enjoy this film by concluding that “it’s only a movie,” explaining away any moments of possible commentary as the unintentional byproduct of Tarantino’s cinematic allusions. But I agree with you, it’s not that simple. This isn’t a “message movie,” no, but I have no doubt that Tarantino intends to provoke the audience by preying upon our established World War II sensibilities.

For me, the proof in the pudding is the scene in which Marcel (Jacky Ido) goes around locking the theater doors: He doesn’t just turn the locks near the handles, he also flips locks at the top and bottom of the doors, and then he threads steel bars through the handles to barricade the doors for good measure. Marcel does all of this after first opening one of the doors to peek at the unsuspecting audience that is about to be burned alive. Only the most ignorant viewer could watch this unfold and not think about unsuspecting Jews being terminated in gas chambers, and, likewise, only the most ignorant (and dumb-lucky) filmmaker could make these cinematic choices without knowing he is making an overt historical reference to the very era in which his story takes place. Tarantino might not be as brilliant as he thinks he is, but he’s certainly not that unaware.

And so it was that on my most recent viewing of Inglourious Basterds, as the schemes of Shosanna and the Basterds come to fruition in tandem, with the screen catching fire and the Basterds unloading ammunition into the mosh pit of Germans below, I had two thoughts: First, what would cinema be without the Nazis, the only historical villains so unequivocally evil that (even despite Tarantino’s efforts) we can watch hundreds being helplessly slaughtered and still feel ultimately OK about it? Second, I wonder what Laughing Guy is thinking right now?

That latter thought needs clarification. “Laughing Guy” would be the dude near the front of the theater who’d been yucking up all the action from the moment the movie began. If you think Tarantino’s Hitler is over the top when Zoller’s on-screen exploits turn him into a cackling buffoon, well, you should have seen Laughing Guy, who during the Bear Jew’s bat-bashing scene rocked in his chair screaming in delight, stomping his feet and slapping both of his knees. I won’t go so far as to say that Tarantino condemns that sort of reaction, as there’s too much evidence to the contrary; Tarantino thinks violence can be fun. Nevertheless, I do think the “Revenge of the Giant Face” chapter is meant to give us pause, to make us question those previous impulses. In a moment we go from loathing the Nazis in the theater for cheering the deaths of anti-German soldiers on the field of battle to feeling compelled to embrace, at least in some way, the slaughter of an unarmed crowd. That shouldn’t sit well, and it doesn’t. If this is a revenge fantasy, revenge comes at a price, as you suggested, and Tarantino’s film is frank about that.

In a previous conversation I expressed my endless frustration with Fight Club, which I think preaches out of both sides of its mouth. Here I saw a different result. Is there ambiguity and contradiction to Inglourious Basterds? Of course! That’s part of what makes it a masterpiece. But while I still contend that Fight Club’s lasting impression is that Tyler Durden is super-cool, even though by the end of the film he’s unveiled to be everything he preaches against, here I believe that the violence of Tarantino’s film, while sometimes romanticized, is ultimately made to appear, well, inglorious. To miss that is to miss the obvious.

Inglourious Basterds

EH: The crucial difference between Fight Club and Inglourious Basterds, in the sense that you’re comparing them, is that Fight Club starts as one thing and then becomes something else altogether, a reversal of its earlier meanings, while Tarantino’s film is instead ambiguous throughout its length, vacillating between two poles in regard to violence just as it does between cartoony exaggeration and stolid realism. Sometimes the violence in the film is horrifying and deeply felt, as in the murder of Shosanna’s family and the movie theater fire. Sometimes it seems meant to provoke shocked laughter, as in the baseball bat sequence or the quick insert of the Basterds strafing a Nazi patrol with machine guns. I think this is part of what Tarantino’s after, getting his audience to a point where they’re not sure what to feel: both times I saw the film, the audience laughed uproariously when the Bear Jew beats that Nazi colonel, but once the killer’s extended, celebratory rant begins, the laughter died into more of an uncomfortable silence, punctuated by a few nervous titters. How much of that is just Roth’s off-key performance, and how much Tarantino’s deliberate effort to make the laughs choke in one’s throat? Either way, I don’t think anyone leaves this movie feeling completely comfortable. Maybe the Laughing Guys are able to shrug off the more unsettling moments and simply enjoy the thrill ride, but Tarantino seems to want us to at least think about violence, to think about its effects and its cost. He’s too much of an entertainer to assume a Michael Haneke-style moralist position and castigate his audience for enjoying the film, but certainly he wants to bring up these issues.

As you say, this is especially clear in the build-up to the big fire, as Marcel goes around locking the doors while, inside, Tarantino shows us the Nazis laughing as soldiers are killed. But Zoller, the soldier whose exploits are being depicted, is not comfortable with what he sees. What Tarantino’s engaging with here is the essence of his movie, the difference between reality and fantasy, and how they come together in the cinema. For Zoller, Nation’s Pride is simply too real, too close-to-home, and he can’t be entertained by watching the reenactment of all the men he really killed. For everyone else in the room, they’re not thinking about what they’re seeing as human lives being ended, just as Landa doesn’t think of his own job as exterminating other humans, but rather tracking down vermin. If the door-locking montage was the pivotal moment of this sequence for you, Zoller’s confession that he can’t watch his own movie is it for me. At this moment, reality and fantasy have come together for the young German war hero, and he is totally out of step with both the Nazis cartoonishly cackling and the Inglourious Basterds audience who had not so long ago been cheering on the sadistic Bear Jew.

Personally, I can’t see how anyone could emerge from this climax thinking that Tarantino is engaged in the straightforward glorification of violence. The whole scene is horrific and bracing, with the closeups of the murderous Basterds accompanied by Shosanna’s echoing laughter. Then the sounds of explosions abruptly give way to that quiet shot of the military truck pulling through a sparse forest, a possible reference to the climax of The Conformist, another movie about violence and morality. It’s a startling moment, and Tarantino obviously lets the silence linger for contemplation, for processing what’s just happened. I guarantee you, at that moment, no one’s laughing.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: To jump back just a bit, the Zoller moment you mention is another crucial example of how Tarantino explores some of these moral issues head-on. It could be interpreted at least two ways. On the one hand Zoller’s reaction seems to underline that Tarantino’s film, in contrast to Nation’s Pride or, by extension, even Spielberg’s aforementioned World War II films, is pure entertainment—decidedly not an accurate depiction of actual events, and thus not something to get too concerned over. On the other hand, one could contrast Zoller’s reaction with that of the on-screen crowd and use it as evidence of how myopic we can be as moviegoers when faced with entertainment that appeals to our sensibilities, thus coming to the conclusion that the impact of movies must not be dismissed.

Which of these two opposed interpretations is correct? Both of them are, because within this pure entertainment is a tale in which film stock is used to bring down the Third Reich. In that regard, Inglourious Basterds is a propaganda film promoting the importance of cinema itself. And who better to make that film than Tarantino, whose entire oeuvre is a long love letter to the movies that shaped him as an artist and as a man.

EH: In his “love letter to the movies,” Tarantino especially privileges the cinema of the past, peppering the film with cinephile-friendly references to G.W. Pabst, Leni Riefenstahl, Henri-Georges Clouzot (one of the few French directors to continue making films during the Occupation, including Le Corbeau, one of the films Shosanna screens at her theater) and actor Emil Jannings. Most of all, though, Inglourious Basterds is about the power of the cinema: its power as propaganda, as entertainment, and of course as art. Much has been made of the denouement’s grand metaphor, the cinema literally changing the world, but I don’t think Tarantino really sees cinema as a social tool, as a way of changing history, which is the obvious interpretation. Inglourious Basterds isn’t about a reel of film changing the world so much as it is about the movies as gateways into different ways of imagining and thinking about the world. The film belongs to the same lineage of speculative fiction as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle or Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, both of which imagine alternate realities where Nazism and fascism were victorious in the WWII era.

That’s why the readings of this film as “Holocaust denial” are so dramatically offbase (even beyond the fact that the opening chapter is an especially potent acknowledgment of the Holocaust’s personal horror). Tarantino’s film doesn’t erase the memory of the Holocaust. Rather, he’s actually relying on our knowledge of real events; the film would be all but meaningless to someone who didn’t already know at least the barebones basics about the real history of World War II. Tarantino’s vision of a fiery end to the Third Reich is only powerful when it plays off of the knowledge that this isn’t what really happened, that this is a “what if” scenario. Tarantino knows he can’t rewrite history, but he can create a cinematic alternate history that resonates in various ways with the real world, with real ideas. The power of cinema is its freedom, its virtually limitless capacity for imagination and creativity, and, as you suggest, the powerful grip of the movies on the imaginations of audiences.

Goebbels certainly understood this power, treating the cinema as a vital ideological tool, taking personal control of UFA in order to turn the German film industry into a way of spreading Nazi ideas and rallying enthusiasm. The British officers in the film compare Goebbels to Hollywood producers like David O. Selznick and Louis B. Mayer, and Goebbels, while placing himself in opposition to these Jewish moguls, also borrowed from their playbook, trying to create popular entertainments and massive hits. When Zoller is described as “a German Sergeant York,” it’s not a shallow comparison: both men are somewhat reluctant heroes whose gory exploits, consisting mainly of killing a whole lot of men, are turned into films to stir up patriotic sentiment in their home countries. Just as Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (like his later Pearl Harbor revenge flick Air Force and countless other Hollywood propaganda films of the era) stirred and moved audiences, Goebbels’ films were intended to awaken similar emotions in his own German audiences. The hammering brutality of Nation’s Pride echoes the relentless climax of the otherwise admirable Air Force, in which Hawks presents an orgy of anti-Japanese violence for audiences to wallow in. Tarantino’s point seems to be that this is what all films do, that the propagandistic and manipulative aspects of the cinema are unavoidable. Thus he both embraces them and, to some extent, exposes their workings.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: Those are good points, and the comparison to The Plot Against America is particularly apt. (Probably the comparison to The Man in the High Castle, too, I just haven’t read that.) Obviously the “what if” scenario of Tarantino’s film is narrower than that of Roth’s novel, which examines the long-term effects of its historical rearrangement, which Inglourious Basterds never gets to, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.

If there’s a sentiment that Tarantino does anything here to confuse the historical record, well, I just don’t see it. The only thing I can see to get offended by (beyond Eli Roth’s acting) is the rough equation between the gassing of Jews in the real-world Holocaust and the burning of Nazis—including the architects of the Holocaust—in this historical fantasy. One group of victims did nothing to deserve their fate. The other group had it coming. In that respect, I understand how someone might react to the sight of the Basterds emptying their machine guns into the helpless crowd by becoming miffed at Tarantino for making this mass execution of Nazis seem horrific in any respect, turning the Nazis into victims if only for a moment.

The trouble with that reading is that it only works when looking at the theater massacre by itself. As we said earlier, the underlying message of the scene is that revenge comes at a price. Indeed, in the manner by which the Basterds choose to enact their vengeance on the Nazis—both in the theater scene and in their previous bat-swinging escapades—they are forced to become dangerously close to the evil they are trying to defeat, regardless of any moral justification. Patriotic violence is just as bloody as criminal violence, this movie reminds us. Offhand, we might think that no amount of suffering inflicted on a Nazi could ever be too great. But if you’re disturbed watching Nazis being slaughtered in the theater, maybe you don’t really believe that. My point is, if you watch the theater scene and come away confused, conflicted or distressed, I think that speaks more to your ethics than to Tarantino’s. Atypically for a QT picture, the climactic chapter of Inglourious Basterds seems designed not to unveil Tarantino’s feelings but to put us in touch with our own. Or am I giving Tarantino too much credit?

Inglourious Basterds

EH: No, I think you’re right. Tarantino is deliberately pushing buttons, he wants to provoke reactions and force his audience to think about the consequences of violence and the ethics of vengeance. I’ve been arguing right along that Tarantino’s films don’t merely present outlandish violence for simple delectation; his attitude towards the violence in his movies is much more complex than he’s given credit for, and probably much more complex than the blithe attitude he cops in interviews. Inglourious Basterds is his most potent movie in this respect.

Anyway, I feel like we’ve spent a lot of time thus far talking about the first two chapters (the farmhouse scene and the Basterds’ titular second chapter) and the final chapter (“Revenge of the Giant Face”), and have perhaps neglected the equally important Chapter 3 (“German Night in Paris”) and Chapter 4 (“Operation Kino”). I mentioned earlier that there are three key suspense/dialogue scenes in the film, lengthy set pieces where the tension is slowly ratcheted up even as the dialogue explores and reveals layers of character. Chapter 4 is almost entirely taken up by the tavern scene where a few members of the Basterds rendezvous with Bridget von Hammersmark and unexpectedly find themselves in a nest of Nazis. In Chapter 3, the climax is Landa’s ambiguous interrogation of Shosanna, where even when the scene is over we’re left in nearly the same place as Shosanna, unsure of what this guy is after—we’re only slightly up on her because we have the information necessary to recognize the glass of milk as a veiled threat, a reference to the opening scene. (The other callback to the first chapter is that here Landa speaks fluent French with no need to switch to English. The linguistic games of Landa/Tarantino run through the whole film, extending even I think to some playfulness with the subtitles. My fiancée pointed out that common words like “merci” were sometimes translated into English in subtitles and sometimes left in French, but while she thought it was a mistake, I wonder if Tarantino wasn’t having some more fun with the film’s Tower of Babel approach to language. He’s continually poking fun at Americans for not speaking any language besides English.)

The film is packed with internal references, discrete echoes of previous events. Even Landa’s pointed gesture of putting out his cigarette in a strudel could be read in relation to his use of a comically large pipe as a threat in the opening scene. Likewise, during the tavern scene, the game the soldiers are playing, trying to guess the names written on the back of playing cards, references Shosanna’s movie theater by namechecking, yet again, Leni Riefenstahl and G.W. Pabst. These echoes reflect Tarantino’s continuing interest in structural storytelling. Inglourious Basterds is structured more like a series of short stories than a straightforward narrative. Other than these subtle connections, each chapter is positioned as a standalone segment, except perhaps the final one, which finally knots together the various threads of the earlier chapters.

The echoes built into the film create the structure necessary for the finale, when the separate narratives of Shosanna, the Basterds and Landa finally come together. One of my favorite scenes in this respect is Shosanna’s preparation for the movie premiere, which opens Chapter 5. Tarantino films her putting on her makeup in intimate close-ups, and when she streaks rouge across her cheeks, it becomes apparent that she’s donning war paint—another echo, this time of Aldo’s nickname “the Apache,” linking the film’s two primary instruments of anti-Nazi vengeance. The whole sequence is gorgeous and multilayered, scored by a Giorgio Moroder/David Bowie song originally from Paul Schrader’s Cat People remake. The visuals, meanwhile, are seeped in the baroque pre-war/post-war aesthetic of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s late films, particularly the chapter-opening shot of Shosanna framed in a circular window, her reflection fragmented and multiplied by the glass—Sirk by way of Fassbinder. There’s also the very Fassbinderian close-up of the heroine pulling a black veil across her face, which is both pure style and a gesture of mourning for her murdered family as she prepares to walk out into a room filled with their murderers. This opening with its layered cinematic pastiche signals the final chapter’s turn to melodrama as a source of inspiration, suggesting a very different set of references from spaghetti Westerns and The Searchers, even as the subtext connects this scene with events earlier in the film.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: There’s a lot to reply to there, so I’ll go in chronological order according to the film, which will allow me to quickly address three lesser issues at the jump: First, I noticed the irregular non-translation of French in the English subtitles in that opening scene, and I agree with you that it’s not a mistake, but I don’t think the purpose is any deeper than typical Tarantino cuteness. Second, I disagree that we’re at all ahead of Shosanna when Landa orders her a glass of milk, because the expression on her face shows that she indeed takes it to be a veiled threat. (If she remembers Landa from four years ago, she certainly also remembers that he consumed two glasses of milk before his henchmen blasted away at the floorboards under which she and her family were hiding.) Third, while Shosanna views the glass of milk as a threat, I don’t think it is one. Landa no doubt thinks Shosanna’s current identity is fraudulent, but there’s no way he knows that she’s the lone survivor of one of his stings. As the director of security for the premiere, Landa would never allow the event to occur at Shosanna’s theater if he knew her true identity. His whole manner of questioning—including the cigarette in the strudel—is certainly designed to intimidate her, however. But Landa uses that approach with everyone. It’s effective. He rattles people.

As for the scene in which Shosanna dons her war paint and readies herself for the premiere, I’m not a fan. Over time, I’ll warm to the sequence; I love the rest of the movie too much not to. But at best I’ll only learn to ignore it. Through seven films now, Tarantino has demonstrated an uncanny ability to score his films with repurposed musical selections that would often seem ill-fitting on paper. Beginning a World War II movie with music from John Wayne’s The Alamo, for example? I wouldn’t have thought of it. But, darn it, it works, regardless of whether you can spot the allusion. The use of the Bowie song, however, is the first time in Tarantino’s career that one of his musical selections flops around awkwardly like a dying fish in the bottom of a boat. The problem isn’t that the tune is anachronistic. The problem is that the song—like just about everything from the 1980s—doesn’t feel classic, universal, eternal. Tarantino seems to be guiding his film toward the song, instead of the other way around. Perhaps that’s why his nod to melodrama didn’t remind me of Fassbinder but of ‘80s music videos, something from the archive of Duran Duran. There’s part of me that respects and even applauds the boldness of Tarantino’s anachronistic leap (though I’m not surprised by his courage), but it does play like a stunt to me.

EH: Interesting interpretation of that scene with Shosanna and Landa. Now that I think about it, during the opening chapter, Landa did ask for his first glass of milk before the switch to English, so Shosanna probably would have heard and understood that. But if Landa didn’t mean it as a threat when he orders the milk for her, why did he do it? Considering what happens at the premiere itself, and how easily Landa betrays his masters, I think he knew exactly who the theater’s owner really was all along, and deliberately did nothing about it because, in some way, he was already thinking about his eventual bid for that island retreat in Nantucket. But then, that’s the wonderful thing about this scene: it’s so ambiguous that Landa’s words and actions can mean practically anything, and the audience is left, like Shosanna, collectively raising their eyebrows, wondering what’s going to happen next.

That scene with the Bowie song seems to be as divisive as the treatment of violence; a lot of reviews thus far have picked that out as an example of Tarantino’s self-indulgence, while others have praised it as I have. I thought it worked, although to some extent I liked it because it felt so different from the sound palette used in the rest of the film—maybe I’m getting a little sick of Tarantino’s heavy recycling of Ennio Morricone, seamless as it usually is, and maybe I also thought the film’s pivotal moment, the lead-in to its explosive climax, deserved something big and grandiose and melodramatic. And as dated as ‘80s music usually is, it’s Bowie! I actually think that’s a damn good song.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: Yeah, I’m not trying to diss Bowie. In and of itself it’s a fine little montage, but its arrival is jarring and made Inglourious Basterds feel a little like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, a movie in which the songs seem a little too desperate to be profound. (And I say that as one of the few people to actually like the melodramatic sex scene set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Go figure.) Maybe the best way of framing my dissatisfaction is to put it this way: Usually when Tarantino inserts music into a film I find myself thinking, “That’s perfect! Nothing could be better!” More traditional, sure, but not better. In this case, the use of Bowie satisfies Tarantino’s unpredictability, but the end result certainly didn’t leave me feeling like it was the natural choice.

As for the Shosanna and Landa scene, it could be that his milk order is a pure coincidence. Or perhaps he does recognize her and leaves their meeting satisfied that she’s too intimidated to cause trouble. The idea that he saw Shosanna as a threat and let it go doesn’t really hold water, though, because if she kills Hitler and ends the war Landa has nothing to gain. Only the U.S. government can offer him Nantucket. Regardless, I agree with you that the scene is intentionally and deliciously ambiguous. Even if we leave the scene concluding that Shosanna is safe, we spend every second up to that clenched in fear on her behalf. Dramatically speaking, that’s all that matters.

Now that we’re into the weeds a bit on Inglourious Basterds, there’s a very minor detail I’m curious to ask you about. The question goes like this: Mike Myers…why?

EH: I’m tempted just to say: Why not? That does seem to be Tarantino’s general philosophy here. The film is constructed around detours and diversions. The two Samuel L. Jackson-narrated segments—a faux-documentary explanation of the flammability of nitrate film stock and a kind of origin story for the Basterd Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger)—are perfect examples. The casting is full of little nudges like this, like recognizing Jackson’s voice, or recognizing Harvey Keitel as the American general who makes a deal with Landa. Or seeing Rod Taylor (of The Birds, coming out of semi-retirement for a film littered with Hitchcock references) as Winston Churchill, in a cameo that strikes me as somehow Lynchian in its randomness—maybe it’s just the red curtains behind him, though. Frankly, with all this going on, Myers’ appearance, doing a very dry pseudo-Austin Powers routine as a British officer named Ed Fenech (ha!), barely even stands out. It’s one more jokey little meta-reference in a film teeming with them. I’m guessing it nagged at you somehow, though, or you wouldn’t ask.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: The Mike Myers thing irks me only because it prompts the audience to laugh before he does anything funny, thus increasing the likelihood that people miss what I think is the scene’s true humor. But I admit that’s a pretty pretentious reaction. Both times I saw the movie, the audience started to snicker just in recognizing Myers, as if to say, “Oh, goody, another Austin Powers character!” That’s a fair reaction, I suppose, but it doesn’t make the laughter very well earned. (I’d prefer to be laughing at this movie, not in memory of Myers’ other films.)

To me what’s truly hilarious about that scene is how it’s the epitome of a war movie cliché that I didn’t quite realize the ubiquity of until I saw it parodied here: the nerdy Englishman (Myers) who in his diminutiveness and ordinariness makes the hero (Fassbender’s Lieutenant Hicox, in this case) look all the more rugged and dashing; the conspicuously enormous room which seems to have been built solely for the purpose of being under-furnished and under-populated save for the enormous war map hanging on the wall; the casual mood in which major operations are discussed as if war is a parlor game. That’s what Tarantino (with Myers) conjures here, and that’s what is truly clever. The rest is just distraction.

Then again, I do agree with you: Why not? If Tarantino did everything conventionally, he’d cease to be Tarantino. I admit that Myers’ appearance here reminds me of an especially snobby argument I used to make with regularity in college: “Pity the man who tells you his favorite Seinfeld character is Kramer,” I would say, “because that man doesn’t know why Seinfeld is funny.”

EH: That scene between Myers and Hicox is a spot-on parody of “stiff upper lip” British dramas, and of the kind of “gentleman’s war” stuffiness that Powell and Pressburger had already so effectively skewered and documented in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. “Down with Hitler?” “All the way down.” Throughout the film, one of Tarantino’s primary targets is the idea that there’s any such thing as noble violence, so it makes sense that he’d include this swipe at the gentlemanly war planners who make assassination sound like a tea party: “We blow up the basket.”

The mention of Hicox also reminds me of my favorite moment with that character, who like many in this film is sometimes a walking cliché (“jolly good!”) and sometimes much more nuanced. His greatest moment—and Fassbender’s as an actor—comes at the climax of the tavern showdown in Chapter 4, when he realizes that the game is over and he’s slipped up somehow, so he might as well face his fate as himself rather than continuing to hide behind a shoddy disguise: “I hope you don’t mind if I go out speaking the King’s.” His switch from German to English of course mirrors the similar switch in the opening scene, which is also preceded by a formal question to an adversary, but in the first chapter the switch is a devious tactical move while here it’s an admission of defeat. It’s also another indication of Tarantino’s fascination with masks and role-playing. And it allows Hicox, who was mostly a target of gentle mockery before this, a moment of real nobility and honor, bravely facing death with wit and serenity. The same quality that made him so funny in the earlier scene, his unflappable understatement, now seems like a virtue, like bravery and dignity.

Inglourious Basterds

JB: That’s true. Indeed, the Hicox character feels like he stumbled into Inglourious Basterds by making a wrong turn somewhere on the cinema backlot. That’s a compliment. A big one, actually. Earlier I criticized Tarantino for writing characters who serve as puppets for his own interests, characters who embody QT’s own manner of speaking, both in word choice, sentence structure and cadence. Well, Hicox doesn’t belong to that group at all. And, after this film, what used to be a lonely crowd of non-QT talkers (I’m suddenly envisioning Jackie Brown’s Max Cherry leading support group meetings) now has several new recruits: Hicox, Shosanna, Bridget von Hammersmark, Frederick Zoller and General Fenech being the most consistent examples. Landa qualifies, too, as his few linguistic eccentricities (“That’s a bingo!”) deliver a welcome dose of Tarantino’s screenwriting wit without making it seem like he’s delivering outtakes from Pulp Fiction.

Inglourious Basterds is very self-contained in that respect, and I admire that greatly. Though Tarantino’s sprawling efforts can be exhilaratingly epic in their own right (Kill Bill being the prime example), Inglourious Basterds and Jackie Brown suggest to me that the best way to appreciate Tarantino’s screenwriting and filmmaking is to see what he does when slightly boxed in. That, for me, is part of the joy of Inglourious Basterds: that it feels both restrained and fearlessly unhinged. It is Tarantino operating one-inch out of control. It’s not his “comfort zone,” because that would be Death Proof, a film that for all its genuine thrills feels like something Tarantino could put together effortlessly in an alcohol-induced slumber. But does Inglourious Basterds feel in any way cautious or unsure of itself? Heavens no! This is as confident a Tarantino picture as he has ever made. In fact, I’m tempted to argue that it’s his most confident picture, precisely because he proves willing to distance himself from the kind of colorful, pop culture obsessed banter that, though frequently witty, was turning into something of a crutch.

Inglourious Basterds

EH: I agree about the appealing confidence of this film; Tarantino pushed himself out of his comfort zone but it never seems like he’s flailing around. (Though I think the lack of pop culture banter can be overstated. It’s not so much that Tarantino has stopped namedropping the things that he likes, it’s just that he’s decided to stick to some period-appropriate pop culture, like The White Hell of Pitz Palu and Le Corbeau, rather than peppering the dialogue with references to Kung Fu and Vanishing Point.) In any event, maybe because the film took so long to develop—he reportedly worked on the script for something like a decade—it’s self-assured and affecting, and its disparate parts fit together in interesting ways. For all its excesses, there’s a lot of nuance here, a lot of subtlety in the themes and emotions Tarantino is exploring. Two of my favorite shots in the film are as quiet and romantic as anything in Jackie Brown, previously the Tarantino film I found most emotionally affecting.

The first is the affectionate goodbye between Shosanna and Marcel, which with one tender kiss and with Shosanna’s gesture afterwards, touching her hand to her mouth as she tearfully watches her lover go, establishes the depth of this relationship. And of course this romantic image takes place in the reddish glow of the movie projection booth: their romance is explicitly cinematic, just as the film’s vision of vengeance is cinematic. The second image that really sticks with me is the shot from behind Marcel as he’s standing at the back of the screen, waiting for his cue to ignite the fire. He’s smoking a cigarette, and a halo of white smoke wafts around his head as, on the screen towering above him, spent shells fall into piles, mirroring the pile of film stock just below.

It’s at moments like this that Tarantino is at his most spiritual, where I can really see what Keith is talking about when he compares the director to a fire-and-brimstone preacher. These haunting images, and many more like them in Inglourious Basterds, have the power of myth, of great fantasy. It’s the power of the cinema, of course, and also the power of the imagination—the power to imagine a world, not only where things turn out better than they do in real life, but where everything’s more romantic, more exciting, more vibrant in its colors and sounds.

JB: Right. Tarantino creates movies that exist in a vibrant cinema universe. Going from one QT flick to the next can be like wandering through the smaller “lands” of Disneyland—we are aware all the time that this is make-believe, but we are overwhelmed by the sense of total immersion. At his best, Tarantino creates fantastical realities.

Having watched Inglourious Basterds twice now, and seeing it again in my mind as you described those two beautiful images, it strikes me that Tarantino’s films are precious because—in spite of all their adult interests—they are filled with a childlike awe for cinema that’s amazingly timeless. In his conversation with Matt, Keith copped to the fact that his initial jaw-dropping reaction to the chronological leaps of Reservoir Dogs was enhanced by his relative naïveté at the time: “I can hear the cinephiles now,” Keith said, “saying, ’Oh, what a sad child, to have experienced Tarantino before Godard.’” That’s always been one of the knocks on Tarantino: that he’s some kind of pirate, plundering cinema history and repackaging the goods under his own flag in order to profit from the ignorance of the audience. But here’s the thing: Tarantino’s films are infused with the spirit of discovery even when we can spot their influences. Inglourious Basterds, for one, seems to increase in power in tandem with one’s appreciation of cinematic history. Ignorance lessens its impact.

So while Tarantino has unquestionably received too much credit in some areas over the years, in others he’s been tragically undersold. To well-seasoned film fans, he offers nostalgic time warps. Keith is probably correct that Reservoir Dogs would have had a different effect on him in 1992 if he’d been familiar with Godard. But that doesn’t mean that Reservoir Dogs would have been without the thrill of discovery. Just like watching a romantic movie can stir memories of what it feels like to fall in love in the real world, Tarantino’s love letters to cinema make us remember what it felt like to fall in love with the movies. Touched as if for the very first time.

Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.

Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.

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Review: Child’s Play Is Cheeky Before It Becomes More of the Same

By the end, it becomes what it initially parodies: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.

2

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Child's Play
Photo: United Artists Releasing

Much to the very public chagrin of Don Mancini, creator of the knife-wielding Chucky doll, Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play unceremoniously wipes the slate clean by more or less pretending that the seven prior films (all written by Mancini) in the franchise never happened. On paper, the film certainly looks like another shameless Hollywood cash grab, an unnecessary reboot of a series that its creator had still planned on continuing. Its winks and nods to the 1988 original will certainly only serve to twist the knife even deeper into Mancini’s back. Yet, despite all signs pointing to a dearth of imagination, Klevberg’s film finds a new avenue from which to approach the Chucky mythos and does so with an initially gleeful cheekiness in its approach to the inherently absurd concept of a slasher toy run amok.

The voodoo-based origin story of the original Chucky, in which a serial killer is transported into the doll’s body, is here replaced with one of artificial intelligence gone bad. One of thousands in a line of technologically enhanced “Buddi” dolls, the new Chucky’s (voiced by Mark Hamill) lack of restraint when it comes to both speech and its capacity for violence stems from a disgruntled sweatshop employee who reprogrammed it before killing himself. In a clever twist, Chucky isn’t evil right out of the box. In fact, he uses a laser scan to immediately bond with the young Andy (Gabriel Bateman), who he will go to great—and eventually very unnecessary—lengths to protect. Chucky genuinely just wants to play with Andy, and simply learns that it sometimes takes a bit of bloodletting to achieve that goal.

It’s one thing for Chucky to wake Andy up in the middle of the night to sing with him, but when Chucky strangles a cat after it scratches Andy, the boy senses something might be off with his new toy. Pity that the boy’s mother, Karen (Aubrey Plaza), won’t heed his warnings. The subsequent escalation of Chucky’s psychosis makes for the film’s most unexpectedly amusing stretches, effectively playing the doll’s deadpan penchant for violence off of Andy’s horror at Chucky’s extreme reactions to his complaints about things that bother him. Whether it’s Chucky’s stalking of Karen’s asshole boyfriend (David Lewis) or his learning how to kill while Andy and his friends are watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, a much-needed levity accompanies Chucky’s growing fatal attraction to Andy, especially as his friends Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio) come into the fold.

Once Chucky turns into a full-on psycho, though, Child’s Play starts taking the tongue-in-cheek bite out of its approach to horror, with the unconventional interplay between a boy and his toy sidelined by an abundance of mindless gore and jump scares. Although this final act allows the filmmakers to take more advantage of Chucky’s technological prowess, particularly the doll’s ability to record video and connect to nearly any electronic device, the humorlessness of Child’s Play by this point effectively transforms the film into the very thing it initially poked fun at: a dime-a-dozen slasher film with a silly-looking doll as the villain.

Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Hamill, Gabriel Bateman, Brian Tyree Henry, Tim Matheson, David Lewis, Beatrice Kitsos, Trent Redekop, Amber Taylor, Kristin York, Ty Consiglio Director: Lars Klevberg Screenwriter: Tyler Burton Smith Distributor: United Artists Releasing Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Nightmare Cinema Offers a Mishmash of Horror Mischief

The anthology justifies Mick Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.

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Nightmare Cinema
Photo: Good Dead Entertainment

As he proved with the anthology shows Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, Mick Garris has no problem recruiting once-great filmmakers and getting them to enthusiastically recycle horror cinema’s most obvious tropes. With only a few exceptions, such as episodes directed by Takashi Miike and Dario Argento, both of these productions often suggest the horror equivalent of an aging rock band at a stadium, playing music that’s leeched of its former danger. With Nightmare Cinema, Garris semi-successfully brings this act to the increasingly figurative big screen, assembling directors Joe Dante, David Slade, Alejandro Brugués, Ryûhei Kitamura, and himself for more genre mischief.

Nightmare Cinema is generally of a higher caliber than Masters of Horror, and particularly of Fear Itself. The film starts almost in medias res, with Brugués’s “The Thing in the Woods” approximating the third act of a slasher movie. It’s a relief to skip the expositional throat clearing that usually gluts the opening of such a narrative, and Brugués stages the stalk-and-slash set pieces with style, energy, and a flair for macabre humor. There’s also a twist that leads to a wonderfully irrational image. The murderer who stalks the requisitely attractive young people, called The Welder for his choice of mask and killing instruments, is revealed to be a sort of hero, having discovered that alien spiders are nesting in the skulls of his friends.

Dante’s “Mirari,” written by Richard Christian Matheson, is even more deranged. Anna (Zarah Mahler) is about to marry a handsome man (Mark Grossman) who manipulates her into undergoing plastic surgery so that she may live up to the ideal set by his mother. The joke, a good one that recalls a famous episode of The Twilight Zone, is that Anna is already quite beautiful, though tormented by a scar running down her face. The plastic surgeon is Mirari (Richard Chamberlain), who turns out to be the orchestrator of a surreal asylum of horrors. Chamberlain is pitched perfectly over the top, lampooning his own past as a pretty boy, and Dante’s direction is loose and spry—authentically channeling the spirit of his best work.

Nightmare Cinema hits a significant speed bump with Kitamura’s “Mashit,” a tedious and nonsensical gothic in which a demon terrorizes a Catholic church, but rebounds beautifully with Slade’s nightmarish “This Way to Egress,” in which Elizabeth Reaser plays Helen, a woman who’s either losing her mind or slipping into another realm of reality. Slade has directed some of the most formally accomplished hours of recent television, particularly Hannibal, and he brings to Nightmare Cinema a similarly sophisticated palette. “This Way to Egress” is filmed in stark black and white, and the clinic treating Helen suddenly becomes a setting of apparent mass murder, with blood-splattered walls that come to resemble a series of abstract paintings. Meanwhile, the people in the clinic become deformed monsters, talking in gurgles and plunging unseen masses out of sinks. (Giving Nightmare Cinema’s best performance, Reaser ties all of this inspired insanity together with an emotional vibrancy.)

Garris directs “The Projectionist,” Nightmare Cinema’s framing episode, in which a theater portends doom for the film’s various characters while Mickey Rourke saunters around, lending the production his usual found-object weirdness. Garris also concludes the anthology with “Dead,” a grab bag of clichés in which a young piano student (Faly Rakotohavana) grapples with a near-death experience in a hospital while evading pursuit by a psychopath (Orson Chaplin). Characteristically, Garris over-telegraphs the scares with cheesy music and evinces no sense of specificity or reality even for a story that’s set on such a heightened plane. (One may wonder how a boy recovering from a gunshot wound to the chest can defend himself against a much larger madman.) “Dead” also bears an unfortunate structural resemblance to the vastly superior “This Way to Egress,” which is also a surreal journey of a character within an institution. There are notable, surprising highpoints in Nightmare Cinema that justify Garris’s passion for horror, though he ironically proves to be one of his project’s liabilities.

Cast: Mickey Rourke, Richard Chamberlain, Adam Godley, Orson Chaplin, Elizabeth Reaser, Maurice Benard, Kevin Fonteyne, Belinda Balaski, Lucas Barker, Reid Cox, Ezra Buzzington, Pablo Guisa Koestinger, Dan Martin, Zarah Mahler, Lexy Panterra, Faly Rakotohavana, Patrick Wilson, Sarah Elizabeth Withers Director: Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, David Slade Screenwriter: Sandra Becerril, Alejandro Brugués, Lawrence C. Connolly, Mick Garris, Richard Christian Matheson, David Slade Distributor: Good Dead Entertainment Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am Is an Engaging Tribute to a Legend

In verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am is rather literal-minded, opening as it does with an overhead shot of hands re-assembling black-and-white photographs of Toni Morrison that have been snipped into pieces. The documentary continues in a similar vein, reconstructing Morrison’s life and work out of interviews, news clippings, and archival images that, like the reassembled photographs, comprise a structured and fairly straightforward whole. The meticulously organized film alternates between narrating Morrison’s background and her writing career, jumping between her family history and her life and legacy to compile a nonlinear but coherent portrait of the author.

The Morrison work that emblematizes the film’s approach, then, isn’t so much one of her acclaimed novels, but The Black Book, a 1974 anthology Morrison edited in her role as a senior editor at Random House. As described by Morrison and other interviewees in the documentary, the book collects written and graphic work from the history of black life in America, seeking to fill in the gaps in the master narrative of American history. The purpose of The Black Book was to capture the good and the bad of the amorphous assemblage often referred to as “the” black experience, and similarly, The Pieces I Am aims to craft a portrait of the most significant black author of the last half-century without reducing her to “the” black author, the sole voice for African-Americans in an overwhelmingly white canon.

As such, Greenfield-Sanders and his interviewer, Sandra Guzman, call upon a range of significant black writers and intellectuals—Oprah Winfrey, poet Sonia Sanchez, and activist and author Angela Davis, among many others—to discuss Morrison’s career and its significance in the context of black America. Even before she achieved fame as a novelist, Morrison was a crucial part of post-civil rights black literature as an editor at Random House, where she published Davis’s widely read autobiography and Muhammad Ali’s The Greatest: My Own Story. When they began appearing in the early 1970s, Morrison’s novels articulated aspects of black life that had long been suppressed, ignored, or softened to tailor to white audiences, forcing into the view of the official culture a distinctly black, female voice.

Interviews with the writer herself, now a lively 88 years old, make up the better portion of this filmic collage. As Morrison emphasizes, one aim of her novels has been to escape the white gaze, which Greenfield-Sanders’s documentary succinctly defines as cultural presumption that white approval is needed to sanction black cultural production. Novels like The Bluest Eye and Beloved humanize black people without relying on white characters to validate their personhood. They also cover a wide range of black life, spanning various historical periods and taking the perspective of both men and women, children and adults.

The film roots Morrison’s ability to imagine and inhabit such an expanse of feelings and experiences not only in her sharp mind and democratic sensibility, but also in the way her life story itself is woven from the contradictory strands of 20th-century black life: from the Jim Crow South to an integrated town in the industrial North, from a historically black university to the overwhelmingly white and male environs of Random House. Aesthetically, The Pieces I Am tends to be a bit flavorless—there’s no shortage of photographs presented via the “Ken Burns” tracking effect, and the interviews are conducted against monochromatic backdrops that sometimes make them resemble high school photos—but in verbally recounting her history, Morrison proves almost as engaging as she in print, a wise and sensitive voice.

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: A Bigger Splash Finds Intimacy in the Space Between Life and Art

Jack Hazan’s portrait of David Hockney stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy.

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A Bigger Splash
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash stands between documentary and fictional film, reality and fantasy. Following influential pop artist David Hockney in a particularly uncreative period in the early 1970s as his relationship with muse Peter Schlesinger deteriorates, the film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. But Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become de rigueur in years to come. Instead of having, say, talking heads discuss his subject’s life and art, Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings.

A Bigger Splash, whose title is borrowed from one Hockney’s seminal pieces, offers up a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. And in its fixations, the film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. Indeed, as Hazan’s observational camera is drawn to the coterie of gay men who flit about Hockney’s world—one notably protracted sequence captures two men stripping naked and intensely making out—it’s easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.

Even though he appears by turns vapid and seemingly indifferent to the feelings of those around him, Hockney unmistakably displays an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan begins A Bigger Splash with a flash-forward of Hockney describing the subtextual richness of a male friend’s actions, with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, eagerly attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of their body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.

Notably, Hockney is seen in the film working on Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the pensive visage of a friend. It’s here that the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. And throughout these and other mostly dialogue-free sequences, it’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, forcing us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might end up in one of the artist’s masterworks.

Toward the end of A Bigger Splash, surreal dream scenes sandwiched between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings show the accumulation of people and details the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film. An expression of the totality of Hockney’s dedication to drawing inspiration from the world around him, these passages also evince Hazan’s refusal to be bound to documentary convention. In these moments, it’s as if the filmmaker is trying to tell us that no talking head can make us understand Hockney’s genius the way living and dreaming like him can.

Director: Jack Hazan Screenwriter: Jack Hazan, David Mingay Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1973

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Review: The Quiet One Conspicuously Doesn’t Say Enough About Bill Wyman

In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.

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The Quiet One
Photo: Sundance Selects

Detailing the life of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, writer-director Oliver Murray’s documentary The Quiet One offers an appealing stream of photographs and footage, quite a bit of which are culled from the musician’s own formidable archives. Particularly notable are beautiful black-and-white photos that gradually dramatize the Rolling Stones’s ascension from a shaggy blues band to an iconic rock n’ roll act, as well as haunting home footage of Wyman’s father, William Perks, sitting on his lawn with his dog.

Born William Perks Jr. in Lewisham, South London, Wyman was distant with his father, and the aforementioned footage of the elder Perks distills years of alienation and miscommunication into a few singular images. The Quiet One includes other such resonant emotional information, and interviews with various collaborators offer telling encapsulations on the cultural effect of the Rolling Stones. One person, for instance, remarks that the Beatles made it in America, while America truly made the Rolling Stones, allowing them to connect with the land that nourished their treasured R&B heroes, such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

Throughout, The Quiet One’s stream of information flows too smoothly, often allowing factoids to drift by unexamined, denying the narrative a dramatic center. Most curiously, Murray imparts virtually no impressions as to what it was like for Wyman to collaborate with the other Stones. For one, the band’s decision to stop touring for seven years in the 1980s is summed up with a few words to the effect of “Mick and Keith got into an argument.”

Elsewhere, the fascinating story behind the creation of 1972’s Exile on Main Street is reduced to a few seconds of footage—though Murray does include, in an inspired touch, a handful of detailed pictures of the band sweating their asses off in the basement of Keith Richards’s French home, where much of the album was recorded. Generally, Wyman’s personal life is given even shorter shrift: The beginning, middle, and end of his first two marriages each comprise a few moments of screen time, with elusive remarks that demand elaboration, such as the implication that Wyman’s first wife was unfit to raise their son.

The present-day Wyman is a poignant, commandingly humble presence—he contrasts starkly against the enormous presences, and egos, of Mick Jagger and Richards—yet he’s kept largely off screen until the film’s third and strongest act. At this point, the slideshow slickness of The Quiet One gives way to a bracing study of faces, especially when Wyman begins to cry when recollecting that Ray Charles once invited him to play on an album. Wyman declined, saying that he wasn’t “good enough,” and this willingness to so directly face this insecurity is brave. At this juncture, The Quiet One comes to vibrant life, however briefly.

Perhaps the most egregious of The Quiet One’s missed opportunities is the way that Murray takes much of Wyman’s memorabilia for granted, incorporating it into the film as aural-visual flutter. Early images, of Wyman in his artistic man-cave, recall Errol Morris’s more personal and eccentric The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman’s Portrait Photography, which offered a prolonged and rapturous survey of an artist in her environment. Morris captured an artist’s interaction with her materials as a source of inspiration, while Murray reduces Wyman’s cultivation to fodder for pillow shots. In the end, the film feels like a sketch that’s been offered in place of a portrait.

Director: Oliver Murray Screenwriter: Oliver Murray Distributor: Sundance Selects Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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Review: Wild Rose Both Honors and Upends the Beats of the Star-Is-Born Story

Tom Harper’s film empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement.

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Wild Rose
Photo: Neon

At the start of director Tom Harper’s Wild Rose, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) puts on her white leather fringe jacket and matching cowboy boots before strutting out of the Glasgow prison where she’s just finished serving a one-year stint on a drug-related charge. The 23-year-old hits the ground running upon her release, immediately resuming the pursuit of her lifelong dream of crossing the Atlantic to become a country singer in Nashville. In no small part due to Buckley’s dynamic voice and emotionally charged performance, it’s obvious that Rose-Lynn has all the charisma, spunk, and talent it takes to become a star. Pity, then, that the young woman’s pursuit of fame is always at risk of being stymied by her impulsiveness. As her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), is quick to remind her, she also has two young children for whom, whether she likes it or not, she’s still responsible.

As soon as Rose-Lynn starts invigorating local crowds with her performances, Wild Rose seems ripe for setting her on a predictable trajectory toward fame. Instead, the film turns its focus to the tensions that arise from Rose-Lynn’s attempts to balance the hefty demands of the two seemingly incompatible worlds of a professional singer and a single mother—not to mention the incongruousness of being a country musician in Glasgow. In the end, Wild Rose is less concerned with whether or not Rose-Lynn will “make it” than it is with discreetly observing how this gifted spitfire tackles the moral and emotional challenges she faces.

As Rose-Lynn fights to gain traction in her career, Wild Rose empathetically probes the growing pains of self-improvement. In a scene where Rose-Lynn, who’s supposedly just re-established her commitment to being a present mother, pawns her kids off on various friends and family over the course of a week so she can practice for an important gig, one is given a sense not just of the children’s anger and disappointment, but of the emotional toll that Rose-Lynn’s virtual double life is taking on her. In portraying such conundrums, the filmmakers resist the temptation to moralize or presuppose that she must choose between music and her kids and, instead, merely examine the harsh realities that come from her desiring both.

Wild Rose moves beyond the struggles of Rose-Lynn’s daily grind with an array of captivating musical numbers that illustrate her incredible stage presence and joy she experiences whenever she’s performing. After she takes up a job as a housekeeper for an upper-middle class family to help pay the bills, a cleverly shot sequence captures the all-consuming nature of her love for singing. Thinking she’s alone in the house, Rose-Lynn begins to sing along to the music wafting through her headphones, and while she carelessly vacuums, the camera pans around the room in a simple but expressive shot that reveals various musicians from an imaginary backing band tucked away in the background, playing alongside her.

Ironically, it’s through this performance, rather than any that she gives in clubs around town, that Rose-Lynn finds a true believer in her talent, in the form of her kind-hearted boss, Susannah (Sophie Okonedo). In an all-too-tidy bit of wish fulfillment, Susannah almost immediately becomes Rose-Lynn’s benefactor, going out of her way to jump start the musician’s career and provide the unqualified support and encouragement she craves from her mother. But this dash of sunshine isn’t quite the panacea it first appears to be, and similar to Rose-Lynn’s relationship with Marion, this newfound friendship eventually develops into something more conflicted and complicated than its simplistic origin initially might suggest.

The same could be said of much of Wild Rose, which takes on certain clichés of the traditional star-is-born story but often uses them to upend audience expectations. The skeleton of Nicole Taylor’s screenplay may be quite familiar, but the additional elements of single motherhood, class disparity, and geographical dislocation (Rose-Lynn firmly believes she was meant to be born in America) lend the proceedings a certain unpredictability that’s very much in tune with the gutsy woman at the film’s center. As its title suggests, Harper’s film has a bit of outlaw in its blood, and it allows Rose-Lynn’s myriad imperfections to shine just as brightly as her talent. And that certainly makes her a more textured, authentic character, defined not by a clear-cut transformative arc but her constant state of flux.

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okenodo, Maureen Carr, James Harkness, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, Jamie Sives, Craig Parkinson, Bob Harris, Doreen McGillivray Director: Tom Harper Screenwriter: Nicole Taylor Distributor: Neon Running Time: 101 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Review: Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese

The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage.

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Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
Photo: Netflix

Early in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan reflects on the rotating tour he embarked on in 1975 with Joan Baez, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ronnie Hawkins, Allen Ginsberg, and other legends. The tour was ostensibly intended to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States, but one may assume after watching this quasi-documentary that it was really about recharging Dylan’s creative battery a few years after his tour with the Band, which Scorsese filmed for 1978’s The Last Waltz. When asked about the tour here, Dylan looks away from the camera, uttering the cryptic pseudo-profundities that have been his brand for decades, his voice as mythically raspy as ever. Then, breaking character, he says the tour meant nothing and that he barely remembers it. Dylan insists that the Rolling Thunder Revue was so long ago that it was before he was born.

Anyone familiar with Dylan will recognize that last sentiment as only partially figurative, as this is an artist who has been born again many times, who arguably initiated the now routine ritual of superstar reinvention. The ultimate concept of “Bob Dylan,” after all, is that there’s no ultimate concept, as he has morphed, throughout his career, from folk icon to electric rocker to social justice crusader to burn-out to settled elder statesmen. Nevertheless, Dylan’s violation here of the reverential tone that’s expected of this sort of autumnal documentary comes as something of a gleeful shock to the system, while affirming the legend’s propensity for self-conscious pranks. And this moment lingers over Rolling Thunder Revue, which is informed with a low-thrumming snideness that’s uncharacteristic of Scorsese’s work.

The film appears to be split between awe and contempt. The former perspective innately belongs to Scorsese, our poet laureate of cinematic rock n’ roll, who’s rendered the rockers of his generation with the same conflicted adulation that he’s extended to gangsters. Meanwhile, the latter attitude belongs to Dylan, who seems ready to admit that the countercultural revolution didn’t amount to much beyond various statements of aesthetic. This war of temperaments yields a fascinating mixed bag. Much of Rolling Thunder Revue is composed of footage shot at the tour by cinematographers David Myers, Howard Alk, Paul Goldsmith, and Michael Levine, who have a collective eye that’s uncannily in sync with Scorsese’s own feverishly expressionistic sensibility. Watching this film, it’s easy to forget that Scorsese wasn’t involved in the production of this footage, as he was with other concert films.

The footage of the Rolling Thunder Revue has a wandering, druggy intensity, with explosively lurid colors and smoky jam sessions that are occasionally punctuated with a sharp close-up that allows an icon to reveal an unexpected element of their persona. Initially, we see Dylan, Ginsberg, and Baez hanging out in clubs, seemingly patching the Rolling Thunder idea together in between beer and joints and poetry. In a hypnotic image, Dylan and Patti Smith, framed through bars that suggest a prison, discuss the mythology of Superman, with Smith suggesting that the character could crush coal into a diamond. The two artists are clearly playing the role of flake pop-cultural shamans, but they’re also revealing the obsession with power and influence that drives performers of all kinds, including flower-child liberals.

Contextualized by Scorsese as a kind of narrator and presiding god, Ginsberg speaks near the end of the documentary of the fragments we’ve just seen and which we should assemble to make sense of them—a process that mirrors Dylan’s obsession with reinvention and ownership of his audience’s perception of him. Ginsberg’s preoccupation with fragments is reflected in his style of prose, with the beat style of reading poems in a way that emphasizes the isolation of each word, and Rolling Thunder Revue is assembled in such a way as to underscore the similarity between Ginsberg’s style and that of Dylan, Baez, and the other musicians.

These artists are all occupied with totems, with iconography that suggests found art, which they assemble into new arts. When Dylan describes the gorgeous and intimidating violinist Scarlett Rivera, who played with him on this tour and is prominently featured on his brilliant 1976 album Desire, he speaks of the objects he remembers her having, such as trunks and swords. (She’s billed in the film’s credits as the Queen of Swords.) Of course, Dylan is obsessed with bric-a-brac, painting himself in white makeup and wearing a kind of outlaw wardrobe, which is playfully linked here to both kabuki and the band KISS.

Even the title of the tour suggests a kind of multi-purposed phrasing as found art. Operation Rolling Thunder, we’re reminded, is the code name for Richard Nixon’s bombing campaign in North Vietnam, though it’s also the name of a Native American chief whom Dylan honors while on the tour. This duality is almost too neat, reflecting America’s genocidal tendencies as well as its appropriation of its native cultures. But one is intentionally inclined, by Dylan as well as by Scorsese, to wonder: So what? Aren’t these musicians just more earnest and self-righteous kinds of appropriators? After all, they live in their own world, going from one cavernous town hall to the next, enjoying drugs, sex and adulation, while America is consumed with Nixon’s resignation and the end of the war in Vietnam.

Scorsese culls various images together to offer a startlingly intense vision of America as place that, to paraphrase Dylan, essentially believes in nothing, following one demoralizing crisis after another. Rolling Thunder Revue gradually collapses, mutating from a freeform document of the concert into a series of essays and anecdotes, such as on the origin of Dylan’s Rubin Carter tribute “Hurricane.” The film attains a shaggy shapelessness that suggests the haze of travel, as Dylan and his cohorts push on, delving deeper into their micro worlds.

The true shock of Rolling Thunder Revue, however, is in how good, how alive, Dylan is on stage. All of the make-up and masks he wears—other allusions to reinvention, to the essential, simultaneously nourishing and damaging textures of pop culture—seem to liberate him. On this tour, Dylan performs quite a bit of material from Desire, and his singing is clear and urgent and stunningly divorced of his ironic parlor games; he’s connecting with these songs, using the revue concept to channel his canniest and most sincere instincts as an actor and storyteller. And Scorsese frequently contrasts this full-throttle Dylan with the aloof sex symbol who lingers at backstage parties—a pose that’s startled by Joni Mitchell and Baez, two of the rare people who appear to be capable of humbling the maestro.

There’s enough poetry here, in the music and in the artists’ descriptions of one another, to fill 10 movies. (Dylan on Ronnie Hawkins: “He looked like a shitkicker, but he spoke with the wisdom of a sage.”) So it’s a shame that the film gets bogged down in fictional gimmickry. There’s a tone-deaf cameo by Sharon Stone, who pretends to be a young Rolling Thunder groupie, and by Michael Murphy, who reprises his politician role from Robert Altman’s Tanner series, which is perhaps intended to complement another Altman cross-pollination: the presence of Ronee Blakely, who sang back-up on this tour and appeared in Nashville. Worst of all, Martin von Haselberg appears as the filmmaker who supposedly shot the footage we’re seeing, pointlessly obscuring the efforts of real people with a Euro-snob stereotype.

These sorts of satirical interludes are probably meant to further embody Dylan’s own discomfort with the import associated with his legacy (an import he never fails to profit from), and further muddy the film’s already ambiguous and diaphanous grasp of “reality.” But these themes have already been wrestled by Scorsese and the original cinematographers onto the screen. Dylan’s pranks can be tedious, as his astonishing Rolling Thunder performances require no window dressing. On stage, Dylan accesses the brutal, beautiful heart of America.

Director: Martin Scorsese Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 142 min Rating: TV-MA Year: 2019

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Review: Tim Story’s Shaft Reboot Is a Weirdly Regressive Family Affair

Ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.

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Shaft
Photo: Warner Bros.

Director Tim Story’s Shaft certainly makes no effort to disguise its ignorance and prejudice, as it’s chockablock with racist stereotypes, sexist pseudo-wisdom, and tone-deaf jokes picking on gay and trans people. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow even features a plot that bizarrely and nonsensically treats legitimate concerns about the F.B.I.’s Islamophobic practices as some ginned-up media sideshow. Where both Gordon Parks’s gritty 1971 original and John Singleton’s slick 2000 sequel injected a measure of social conscience into their respective tales of swaggering black men dishing out vigilante justice, this film is nothing more than a tired buddy-cop comedy in blaxploitation drag.

Samuel L. Jackson revives his role as the tough-talking ex-cop John Shaft from Singleton’s film, only now he’s teamed up with his estranged son, JJ (Jessie T. Usher), an M.I.T.-trained cybersecurity analyst for the F.B.I. who, after not having seen his father in nearly 25 years, suddenly reaches out to him for help in investigating the mysterious death of a childhood best friend, Karim (Avan Jogia). The two eventually join forces with JJ’s great uncle, the O.G. John Shaft Sr. (Richard Roundtree), completing a multi-generational family reunion.

Shaft likes guns and confrontation, while JJ prefers spycams and hacking, but despite their differences in approach, they work together effortlessly in torturing Mexican drug lords, prying into the nefarious dealings of a Muslim organization, and engaging in some indifferently directed shootouts that are scored to waka-chicka funk music in a desperate attempt to lend the film’s textureless visuals a semblance of ‘70s-ish stylistic vision. As for the jokes about the lothario Shaft and his nebbish offspring, they practically write themselves. Shaft thinks JJ’s Gap-slacks-and-coconut-water lifestyle means he’s gay, and so he interrogates his son about his love for the ladies, while JJ is offended by his dad’s regressive views, such as “Women want a man to be a man.” But as every joke is targeted at JJ’s awkwardness and effeminacy, the film simply gives license to Shaft’s anachronistic foibles.

The film is strangely committed to proving Shaft right about everything. His use of violence and intimidation to get what he wants always works, as does his advice on women no matter how piggish it may be. Shaft avoids ever having to answer for the fact that he abandoned JJ as a baby, and, in a ridiculous narrative sleight of hand, the film even tries to absolve Jackson’s rogue-ish P.I. of any parental guilt by suggesting the man was always deeply motivated by the urge to protect his son. How? Because he sent condoms and porno mags to JJ on his birthdays.

Unsurprisingly, JJ eventually adopts the trappings of his forebears, walking around with a newfound swagger in in his family’s trademark turtleneck-and-leather-trench-coat combo. Story seems to think this transformation into a Shaft represents the ultimate in retro cool, but ultimately, the only truly retro thing about this weirdly reactionary potboiler is its politics.

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie Usher, Richard Roundtree, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Avan Jogia, Method Man, Matt Lauria, Robbie Jones, Lauren Vélez Director: Tim Story Screenwriter: Kenya Barris, Alex Barnow Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 111 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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All 21 Pixar Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best

Upon the release of Pixar’s Toy Story 4, we’re counting down the animation studio’s 21 films, from worst to best.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on June 21, 2013.

Among the familiar elements on display throughout Josh Cooley’s Toy Story 4 is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best. Pat Brown


Cars 2

21. Cars 2 (2011)

The effect of the Toy Story films is practically primal. They appeal to anyone who’s ever cared about a toy—one they outgrew, gave away, or painfully left behind somewhere. These films, with scant manipulation and much visual and comic invention, thrive on giving toys a conscience and imagining what adventures they have when we turn our backs to them. Conversely, the effect of Cars and its infinitely worse sequel, toons about dudes-as-cars not quite coping with their enormous egos and their contentious bromances, is entirely craven in the way it humorlessly, unimaginatively, and uncritically enshrines the sort of capitalist-driven desires Pixar’s youngest target audience is unable to relate to. Unless, that is, they had a douchebag older brother in the family who spent most of his childhood speaking in funny accents and hoarding his piggy-bank money to buy his first hot rod. Ed Gonzalez


Cars

20. Cars (2006)

Maybe it’s my general aversion to Nascar, or anything chiefly targeted at below-the-line states. Maybe it’s that Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater is the Jar Jar Binks of animated film. Or maybe it’s just that a routinely plotted movie about talking cars is miles beneath Pixar’s proven level of ingenuity, not to mention artistry (okay, we’ll give those handsome heartland vistas a pass). Whatever the coffin nail, Cars, if not its utterly needless sequel, is thus far the tepid, petroleum-burning nadir of the Pixar brand, the first of the studio’s films to feel like it’s not just catering, but kowtowing, to a specific demographic. Having undeservedly spawned more merchandising than a movie that’s literally about toys, Cars’s cold commercialism can still be felt today, with a just-launched theme park at Disneyland. And while CG people are hardly needed to give a Pixar film humanity, it’s perhaps telling that this, one of the animation house’s few fully anthropomorphic efforts, is also its least humane. R. Kurt Osenlund


The good Dinosaur

19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

The Good Dinosaur has poignant moments, particularly when a human boy teaches Arlo, the titular protagonist, how to swim in a river, and there are funny allusions to how pitiless animals in the wild can be. But the film abounds in routine, featherweight episodes that allow the hero to predictably prove his salt to his family, resembling a cross between City Slickers and Finding Nemo. There’s barely a villain, little ambiguity, and essentially no stakes. There isn’t much of a hero either. Arlo is a collection of insecurities that have been calculatedly assembled so as to teach children the usual lessons about bravery, loyalty, and self-sufficiency. The Good Dinosaur is the sort of bland holiday time-killer that exhausted parents might describe as “cute” as a way of evading their indifference to it. Children might not settle for it either, and one shouldn’t encourage them to. Chuck Bowen


Monsters University

18. Monsters University (2013)

It’s perfectly fair to walk into Monsters University with a wince, wondering what Toy Story 3 hath wrought, and lamenting the fact that even Pixar has fallen into Hollywood’s post-recession safe zone of sequel mania and brand identification. What’s ostensibly worse, Monsters University jumps on the prequel, origin-story bandwagon, suggesting our sacred CGI dream machine has even been touched by—gulp—the superhero phenomenon. But, while admittedly low on the Pixar totem pole, Monsters University proves a vibrant and compassionate precursor to Monsters, Inc., the kid-friendly film that, to boot, helped to quell bedroom fears. Tracing Mike and Sulley’s paths from ill-matched peers to super scarers, MU boasts Pixar’s trademark attention to detail (right down to abstract modern sculptures on the quad), and it manages to bring freshness to the underdog tale, which is next to impossible these days. Osenlund


Cars 3

17. Cars 3 (2017)

Cars 3 is content to explore the end of Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle. Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is a welcome addition, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking franchise, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing. Watson

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Review: Toy Story 4, Though Moving, Sees a Series Resting on Its Plastic Laurels

The film seamlessly interweaves fun escapades and earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of its predecessor.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

It’s probably uncontroversial to claim that Toy Story’s Woody (Tom Hanks), a flawed leader whose genuine concern for his compatriots intermingles with a narcissistic streak that can get him and his fellow toys into trouble, is one of the great characters in the history of cinema. That this animate, outdated cowboy toy continues to feel just as compelling and just as layered and relatable four entries into this series is a major achievement, and speaks not only to the dedication of his creators, but also to the strength of his original conceptualization. While other Pixar sequels have run their concepts and characters into the ground, or cheapened them for laughs, the Toy Story sequels have remained true to Woody, even deepening his character by finding new existential crises to throw him into.

Toy Story 4, though, finds the series suffering from brand fatigue. While prior entries put new spins on the fear of obsolescence that drove Woody in the original Toy Story, this film is a compendium of elements from its predecessors. We’ve already witnessed Woody desperately try to regain the love of a child, intentionally become a “lost toy” in order to chase down a missing friend, escape from monstrous (but probably just misunderstood) toys, and face the temptation of a new life outside of a child’s toy box. That all of these moments recur in Toy Story 4 is one reason the film doesn’t quite pack the emotional weight of its precursors.

Gifted to a new, preschool-age child, Bonnie, at the end of the last film, Woody opens Toy Story 4 having fallen from his treasured position as the favorite toy. Your typical preschool girl, after all, has little interest in a cowboy toy from “the late ‘50s, I think,” as Woody recounts his own vague origins. Wistful for his days with Andy, his previous owner, Woody tries to insert himself into Bonnie’s (now voiced by Madeleine McGraw) life by sneaking into her backpack on the first day of kindergarten. And it’s there that he witnesses her crafting her new beloved toy: a spork with googly eyes and pipe-cleaner arms she calls Forky (Tony Hale).

Forky is a terrible toy insofar as he has no desire to be a toy at all; a very funny recurring gag early in Josh Cooley’s film sees the toy repeatedly trying to throw himself in the trash, where he feels that he belongs. Woody gloms onto Forky, partially out of genuine concern for his and Bonnie’s well-being, and partially as a way of maintaining a connection to the little girl. And when Forky goes missing during a family vacation, Woody ventures out on his own to retrieve the haphazardly assembled toy and return him to the family RV.

Forky is as familiar as the other toys that populate the Toy Story universe: Many children have made small avatars of themselves out of popsicle sticks and plastic bits and invested far too much emotion in it. As a character, Forky doesn’t hold much all that much water, his development from trash to toy more a gimmick than a fully textured character arc. Wisely, though, Toy Story 4 damsels Forky, so to speak, as Woody must engineer a way to rescue him from the clutches of a malicious talking baby doll named Gaby (Christina Hendricks).

Gaby and her army of unsettling, limp-limbed ventriloquist dummies rule over an antique shop that Woody and Forky pass through on their way back to the RV park. A lonely toy discarded decades earlier because of a defective voicebox, Gaby kidnaps Forky to extort from Woody a part of his drawstring-powered sound mechanism. To break into the cabinet where Gaby is holding the sentient spork, Woody must assemble a team of allies that includes Bo Peep (Annie Potts), whom he finds living on her own in the RV park as a lost toy, and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Woody and Bo Peep rekindle their (G-rated) feelings for each other as they recruit the daredevil action figure Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves) and the plush carnival-prize dolls Bunny and Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) to help retrieve Forky.

Among the familiar elements here is the abandoned and resentful toy as a villain who holds the heroes hostage, which easily invites comparison to Lee Unkrich’s brilliant Toy Story 3. It’s a comparison that doesn’t favor the new film, which isn’t as impactful in terms of story or image. Cooley’s direction is fluid, seamlessly interweaving the fun escapades and the earnest emotions, but it lacks the visual power of the prior film. There’s no equivalent to the moment in Toy Story 3 when, headed into a blazing incinerator, Woody and his friends silently grasp hands, taking comfort in one another as they face their ends head-on.

So, as well-told and emotionally effective as Toy Story 4 is, it’s difficult not to believe the third film would have functioned better as a send-off to these beloved characters. In fact, Toy Story 3 might as well have been a send-off for everybody but Woody, as the new and potentially final entry relegates the traditional supporting cast of the Toy Story films—Rex (Wallace Shawn), Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Jesse (Joan Cusack), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark)—to the background. Even Buzz is reduced to dopey comic relief, pressing the buttons on his chest to activate the pre-recorded messages he now misunderstands as his “inner voice.” Toy Story 4 is very much a Woody story. His gradual acceptance of his new position in life and his reconnection with Bo Peep are moving, and it’s still remarkable how much Pixar can make us identify with a toy. But for the first time, a Toy Story film feels a bit like it’s resting on its plastic laurels.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Tony Hale, Christina Hendricks, Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Annie Potts, Keanu Reeves, Jay Hernandez, Wallace Shawn, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Jeff Garlin, Laurie Metcalf, John Ratzenberger Director: Josh Cooley Screenwriter: Andrew Stanton, Stephany Folsom Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 100 min Rating: G Year: 2019

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