8/18/09

For you the war is over and over and over...

Diane Kruger has very nice feet. Truly. They're petite and slender and the nails are painted red. She does not possess the long toes Uma Thurman wiggled full-screen in Kill Bill, and we are denied the full gam shot that Rosario Dawson provided by dangling her leg out the car window in Death Proof. Instead Inglorious Basterds features Diane's left foot in a high-heeled plaster cast and her right filmed and intercut with the grace of an expensive product advertisment. When her evening sandal is unbuckled and replaced with a shoe that cups her heel, it slides into place with a sucking sound. Quentin Tarantino must be casting his leading ladies feet first now. Can't hang a man for that.

The director's jokey prediliction for women's feet is well-known. Less discussed is how the fetish is a starting-gun for violence. The close-up of Uma's toes bracketed a rape and Rosario's leg was promptly torn off in Death Proof's looped slo-mo car crash. Sure enough, (spoilers ahead) the appearance of Diane's plates signals an interrogation that is about to turn nasty. I doubt modern audiences worry over the connection between sex and violence any more, much less fetishism, but they may be distracted by the bigger elephant in the room. To wit, if six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis in World War II, can an action comedy about a fictional band of Nazi-killing (American) Jews ever be enjoyed as a light-hearted piece of entertainment?

Tarantino solves this by reducing six million to a total of four. Colonal Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) kills a young family and the daughter escapes to seek revenge. The set-up is a staple of westerns and martial arts movies: we are invited to engage with the exploits of Nazis and Nazi killers as we would cowboys and Indians. Or Asians vs Asians. Or Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. All the characters in the movie are stereotyped, from Mike Myer's OSS officer to Brad Pitt's Aldo Ray. (We are reminded several times that the character is part-Indian.) I sensed no larger message in this. The subject of race and religion (let alone war and war crimes) seemed like merely another dart in the director's quiver. Like tracking shots and explosive squibs, race is used to heighten and release dramatic tension. If there's depth to it, it's only as a reference to other films.

Tarantino makes movies about movies, which his violent pastiche makes more comfortable viewing than say, Bryan Singer's orderly, putting-things-right Nazis in Valkyrie. (I assume Basterds intended as a Valkyrie parody.) Inglourious Basterds is fake and it's entertainment. Anyone who has watched the old World War II movies like The Eagle Has Landed and Cross of Iron will get a kick out of the Commando Comic lines and the "and now we must speak English" segues. I liked Basterds best when it was subtitled: the words running across the screen worked like post-post-modern quote marks, continually reminding us that what are seeing was never real.

My friend at the screening was less impressed: he thought Tarantino's unpredictably had become all-too predictable. Maybe, but like Death Proof, Basterds benefitted from being fixed firmly in a genre, and having sat through that 1970s crap the first time around I do enjoy seeing it so crisply recycled. Tarantino's dialogue still rambles but a foreign language improves it remarkably. The performances are punchier and the gags broader. Myers' character briefs a secret agent in a Pinewood Studio-sized "study" but Tarantino doesn't labour the joke as Myers did in Austin Powers.

The endings of QT's movies are becoming less cute, however. Basterds climaxes dramatically with an "alternative history" shoot out (Hitler and his staff riddled with machine gun bullets) but Col. Lander escapes with a pension and a special effects scar. Such a captivating character -- Christoph Waltz is scarier than Ralph Fiennes -- yet so little come-uppance for "the Jew hunter". Then again, he did only kill four...

8/5/09

On the edge: Up

The last 3-D film I saw was Jaws 3-D. It required painful eyewear and the sharks were stop-animated to preserve the effect of three dimensions. Fear alas was not one of these, nor was entertainment. For viewers who knew anything about the first Jaws or sharks (or films, for that matter) the experience was heavy going. Think aquarium ornaments wiggling muddily across a red lava lamp and you have the idea. As a result, despite James Cameron and Peter Jackson and Jeffrey Katzenberg loving the 3-D, I've been immune to the prospect of watching movies in stereo. If it's a story, it'll work on plasterboard. Since the cavemen and so on, blah blah.

Pixar may well have faced the same skepticism with their first digital animated features. How could a computer improve on the loveliness of hand-painted animation, let alone original pencils? Even so, I felt a flicker of hesitation (about 12 frames) when a friend invited me to a preview of Pixar's Up. Love to see it. Oh, in 3-D? Should I bring aspirin?

No fear. The new 3-D system works. The eyeglasses are tinted (Polaroid?) lenses. You can read through them like sunglasses. They are Ray Ban shaped and don't make you look like a dork. My host, already burdened by eye wear, simply popped the 3-D glasses over the top and remained completely presentable in the modern Joaquin Phoenix stylee. Everyone in the preview theater, in fact, looked pretty cool.

The film itself also functions. Visually and thematically, Up contrasts precipices with cosy internal spaces: the unknown with the known; flight with stability. The character design for Carl Fredrickson (Ed Asner) was my least favourite; his sidekick Russell (Jordan Nagai) was better. The winners were the animals - the bird and, oh boy oh boy, Dug the talking dog, voiced by Bob Peterson, who also wrote the screenplay. A skit on the talking ape in Michael Crichton's Congo (I am sure), Dug's dog-thoughts are enabled but not educated by a voice-making collar. Blank yet perfectly observed, he soon becomes the star of the film.

The story hangs in two halves: Fredrickson loses his wife, and then goes on an adventure. His loss is the story's premise and his motivation but it's a wobbly fit with the eccentricities of the second half: I couldn't quite reconcile the "reality" of his dilemma with the explorer, his zeppelin, the primate collection, the importance of the bird and the army of - oh, well, you will see. Such wilful fun-ness seemed like a deliberate compensation for the grimness of the first five or ten minutes.

I am wary of watching children's movies in public. I've seen most of Pixar's and tend to break into sniffles. Toy Story 2 was the worst, peaking with Jessie's heart-string lament but there are many other examples. A NYT critic recently noted that the modern trend of infantalising "adult" movies stands in contrast to children's animations which are embracing more substantial themes. I think that's always been the case with children's movies in general -- something dark runs through the Disney canon, often around the two-thirds mark, and there's always Old Yeller. When I realised Up was going to address the subjects of death and loss (hey kids!) I braced, but by the end the mood was very... ah, yes. Now I see.