Inglorious Basterds (Tarantino, 2009)

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For better or worse, Quentin Tarantino consistently manipulates cinematic time, deconstructing conventional story outlines in order to change temporal and aesthetic meaning. Tarantino’s been branded a thief, a genius, a mad man, and an arrogant bastard. He might be all these things and more, making him one of the few stand alone necessities of American Cinema. Like many have said, a Tarantino movie is an event, but probably for different reasons than it should be. We get hypnotized by his brilliant flair for dialogue and his constant onslaught of film history references. But Tarantino has evolved into a different monster altogether. He’s not trying to be Scorsese, or Wong, or Leone, or Di Leo, or Aldrich, but simply a filmmaker consumed, obsessed, and haunted by these directors and more, able to communicate a personal combustible nightmare on the screen with an unmatched sense of tonal frequencies.

Tarantino’s latest but not quite greatest (I’d still give that honor to Jackie Brown), a film he’s been writing/and or making for over a decade, is a WWII mosaic aptly entitled Inglorious Basterds. It’s a grandiose lesson in historiography, revising the fall of the Third Reich to produce a moral certainty about savagery, brutalization, and role reversals, a collection of bravura set-pieces adding up to what might be Tarantino’s most angry and perplexing work. Inglorious Basterds takes the reign from Kill Bill and other Tarantino films by dividing it’s narrative into Five Chapters, automatically assuming gaps and fissures will litter the work like a minefield of trauma. The period-piece setting makes these narrative breaks feel all the more harrowing, since so much water passes under the bridge yet the core memories remain keenly imprinted.

Inglorious Basterds begins with SS Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) in an opening crescendo of menacing prose and inevitable violence, diabolically stretching out movie time to introduce a descending apocalypse of unmatched cunning, a hawk eyeing a field mouse from afar. Then we get the titular Basterds, a group of American Jews led by Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine, promising atrocities then making good on that promise in a series of bloody, wrenching flashbacks. The other key to this puzzle is Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the lone survivor of Tarantino’s opening mass murder, now four years in hiding as a Parisian Cinema owner. Many other fantastic characters emerge, including Michael Fassbender as a British movie critic turned Special Operations Officer and Til Schweiger as an ex-Nazi officer keen on dispatching Nazi officers. Every character gets a shining moment of verbiage and action, but what’s less expected is how each converges like a racing locomotive, quickly becoming both avenger and victim, full of rage and hope and precision one moment, deader than a doornail the next.

Tarantino paints the walls red, but also uses other vibrant hues – blacks, whites, greys, and greens – to hint at the many stories left hidden beneath the surface of a brilliant WWII era reconstruction. This is where Tarantino’s fracturing of time transcends his other films. The sly use of quick flashbacks, voice-over narration, and sound bridges first seems gimmicky, an inconsistent stylistic thrown in to reveal backstory. But as the film progresses, these sudden bursts of style become more complex and intrinsic to Tarantino’s vision of an alternate reality, a fantasy world where the movies can dissect history and alleviate guilt, lesson fear, and proclaim victory over the Nazi’s. The great critic Glenn Kenny has already referenced the best of these, an audio/visual flashback during Chapter 4/Operation Kino that acts as a centerpiece for what turns out to be the most dynamic set-piece of Tarantino’s career, a thirty minute vice of tension played out in a basement tavern. In this scene, time devilishly subverts our expectations.

Furthermore, Tarantino’s vision of time turns into a bendable, evolving beast directly related to the power of the Cinema, accelerating meaning by juxtaposing contrasting images of history together, forcing an outcome that is uncomfortable and revealing. Yet his endgame destroys all remnants of feeling, replacing humility and compassion with a collective vengeance. The many characters of Inglorious Basterds share a desire to rectify traumatic memories, driving them to kill, maim, butcher, and slaughter to justify their ideologies. In the end, time and memory merge together to form a destructive recognition – the numbing of morality to destroy massive evil. Like Aldo’s neck scar stretching from ear to ear, Inglorious Basterds constantly reminds why the past inevitably overlaps onto the present, marking both the guilty and innocent with haunting artistic prowess.

Cinema Repeated: Films I Return To, Over and Over Again

In the three years since Match Cuts came online, I’ve found myself returning to certain recent films time and time again, trying to endlessly wrap my mind around them. It’s as if these select few works continue to challenge my understanding about filmmaking, writing, and the world around me, even after becoming incredibly familiar.  They’re often incomplete, mysterious, and confounding pieces, seemingly evolving over the course of time, and my repeat viewings are a direct confrontation with their shifting parts. Yet others resonate so perfectly despite their many flaws that the entertainment value actually increases with each viewing. These might not be masterpieces, or even the best films of their respective years, but they might just be some of my favorites since they continue to fascinate me no matter how many viewings. A small list follows, with thoughts for discussion in anticipation of further evolutions.

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Miami Vice (Mann, 2006) –  Michael Mann’s enigmatic cop film functions as a brilliant and cynical sign of the times, where subversive law enforcement factions fail to nab the big fish in the face of grave social danger, settling for a victorious return to the status quo. The strange digital artifice feels absolutely connected to the cold, blue hues of Mann’s stylized vision of moral ambiguity.

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Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Tarantino, 2003) – The best modern action film, not simply because the fight scenes are exquisite, but because the entire narrative boils with cinematic intensity. Music, visuals, and dialogue fuse together forming a calculated, masochistic, and breathtaking postmodern mish-mash. The film is a striking first half of a twin genre juggernaut constantly at odds with itself.

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Just Friends (Kimble, 2005) – Makes me laugh like no other recent film. Maybe it’s Ryan Reynolds’ inspired performance, or Anna Faris’ nut-job pop princess, or the vintage slap stick wackiness, but it all adds up to something unique – a modern comedy devoted to character and smarts over gross out set pieces.

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Gangs of New York (Scorsese, 2002) – Brash, brutal, and abrasive, but undeniably compelling. A disturbing vision of our nation beginning from spoils of blood, sweat, and revenge. Scorsese’s strange slice of historiography changes with each viewing, equal parts epic, war film, and melodrama. It’s these shifty tones that force the viewer to re-address the work with different eyes.

Death Proof: Unrated and Extented Cut (Tarantino, 2007)

The additional 24 minutes of footage add little depth to Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. More talking, inserts, and development might seem like a blessing but the extended scenes merely fill in the gaps which made the shorter version mysterious and scary in the first place. The longer cut is more coherent from a plot standpoint, yet less successful in conveying the horror of Stuntman Mike’s tirades and breaking psychosis. Death Proof remains a film of two distinct and contrasting halves – the first a devastatingly potent horror film building to a dynamic and disturbing crescendo and the second a diva’s action picture with plenty of passion and little humanity. Basically, the long and short of it stays the same either way.

Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino, 1992)

A landmark film, and for better or worse influencing more young filmmakers than any other recent film. Reservoir Dogs contains moments of genius (the commode anecdote wonderfully parallels Tim Roth’s split personality), but like most debuts by major filmmakers only hinting at the potential so wonderfully on display in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill Vol. 1. Reservoir Dogs maintains a brilliant sense of containment, both in character and purpose, and achieves a certain sharp brutality unmatched in Tarantino’s other work. It’s hard to watch this film again since so many have ripped it off, ironically depriving it of some originality and impact. Tarantino’s evolvution as a filmmaker has been fascinating to watch and remembering where it all began remains important, even when his work becomes a parody of itself.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (Tarantino, 2004)

Uma Thurman’s turn as The Bride might go down as one of the greatest incarnations of revenge ever put to screen, but not because of any wordy diatribes or dangerous action sequences. The Bride’s anguish stems from a blatant and beautiful disavowal of her past Bill and his cohorts cannot accept, nor even begin to understand. While this cycle of revenge begins with a devastating barrage of sword play and kung fu, Vol 2. stresses a more emotional and spiritual reckoning with the past. The Bride becomes a person in Tarantino’s second half of Kill Bill, and it’s a striking achievement due to Thurman’s combination of tenacious renegade and motherly saint. I still prefer Vol. 1 over it’s wordier sibling, mainly because it offers a tighter, riveting origin story for a heroine seeped in moral ambiguity. Vol. 2 gives The Bride reconciliation, due process toward ending a life of torture and heartache. Also, Tarantino shows an increased amount of indulgent flab in Vol. 2, which finds supporting characters mouthing off and story turns existing outside the realm of The Bride. It’s not that interesting seeing Budd (Michael Madsen) be a sad sack, or listen to Michael Parks’ sheriff riff on a bunch of dead bodies. But as Tarantino shifts back to the final showdown, pitting The Bride against Bill in a grueling psychological standoff, he finds the true grit of revenge found so often and with such lasting affects in Vol. 1. The Bride’s final moments with Bill remain relatively short on screen-time, but effectively define her as a person attempting to put the demons to rest, if only after one more heinous murder. So much suffering has occurred, yet The Bride has found her way, her child, and her true calling in life – to be a parent. This ending doesn’t stick like the serial sendoff of Vol. 1, but then again both are meant to be different chapters in the life of one complex shogun assassin.

Kill Bill: Vol. I (Tarantino, 2003)

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A superb action picture, chalk full of blood splatter, samurai swords, and Uma Thurman getting her revenge on. For the first time Tarantino holds back his extremely stylish dialogue scenes in favor of story driven moments backed by varying music cues. Each character takes on a life of their own within the grander world being explored (the O-Ren Ishii anime sequence brilliantly conveys the personal within the stylistic), leaving Tarantino little room to mess around with his usual antics.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 rewards with repeat viewings, not just because of the memorable and bloody sword fight at the end but because it’s the origin of an iconic character, The Bride, who Uma Thurman gives increasing levels of humanity throughout. This unflinching and sadistic revenge hero has no business being this complex, especially considering Tarantino’s insistence on character posturing in past works. But The Bride is a work of art, and Uma’s the main reason why, her yellow jump suit blatantly tainted with the blood of her enemies and the unseen guilt of a hidden past. While a precursor to the wordier and more jumbled Vol. 2, this initial Kill Bill remains the standout of the pair, a film which never gets overwhelmed by its director’s childish nature nor it’s own genre history. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is a beast of story questions and foreshadowings, which ironically offers greater pleasures than the answers themselves.

Jackie Brown (Tarantino, 1997)

Quentin Tarantino references John Woo’s The Killer in the opening moments of Jackie Brown and this connection makes perfect sense. Both Woo and Tarantino’s films represent the most humanistic and sincere works by either director, something remarkable considering how these autuers overly relish in their respective styles. Jackie Brown opens with a wonderful tracking shot of it’s protagonist floating forward on an airport escalator. The credits roll in front of Pam Grier’s imposing presence, except the title card, which consumes the frame and Tarantino’s heroine. It’s as if he’s telling us, the name means more than the representation you see here, it’s legendary and iconic.

While watching Jackie Brown so many years after my only theatrical experience, I understand why it initially fell flat with me. Having been born into independent film with the more visceral Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, I felt Jackie Brown lacked action and didn’t warrant the same attention of those earlier works, that Tarantino phoned it in with a boring character study. Boy how the times have changed. Jackie Brown, both the film and the woman, are forces to be reckoned with, and constitute Tarantino’s most controlled and best directed film. He gets stellar, down right pitch perfect performances from Grier, Michael Keaton as the pursuing ATF agent, Sam Jackson toning it down a bit, and finally Jackie’s perfect male parallel, bail-bondsmen Max Cherry (Robert Forester). For the first time, Tarantino delves into relationships between people outside the realm of contrived story patterns and flashy situational dialogue.

Jackie Brown shows a moment in time for these low level players and their actions reveal how deceiving first impressions can be. The final image – Robert Forester watching Pam Grier walk away after what will be their first and last kiss – enlightens the heart behind Tarantino’s often frustrating masochism and pop culture windfall. Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s love letter to Blaxspolitation, but for once, the humanity of his female protagonist shines through, leaving the patented dialogue, the mish-mash story, and the visual suffering at the door. Along with The Bride, Jackie Brown is Tarantino’s finest achievement, one I never knew he had in him.