PICKS OF THE WEEK
Inglourious Basterds (A-)
U.S.; Quentin Tarantino, 2009, Universal
Quentin Tarantino shoots the works in Inglourious Basterds, a wild blend of World War II action film pyrotechnics, subtitled art cinema romance, inside-movie allusions of every type and description, grand spaghetti-operatic Sergio Leone stylistics, and a brash "Let's-rewrite-World War II-and make-it-a-De Palma flick" ending so crazy it keeps blowing emotional and technical gaskets as you watch it explode on screen.
That last demonically loony Tarantino set-piece is about a star-Nazi-studded movie premiere of a German patriotic blockbuster called "Nation's Pride" held at the last minute in a Paris theater run by vengeful Jewish femme fatale, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), with Hitler and Goebbels in the audience and two assassination/massacre schemes in operation inside. (One plot involves Shosanna and the other, the bloody and misspelled "Basterds" of the title: a Dirty Dozenish wild bunch of Jewish Nazi-scalpers ramrodded by the cheerfully sadistic Lt. Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt with Southern-fried tongue deeply in cheek.)
The show is certainly a lot of fun to watch, especially if you share Tarantino's madly eclectic movie tastes (I do, mostly), and it contains sequences of real brilliance and high cinematic gusto, and a crackerjack (mostly) cast. Everybody on the tech side is in high gear here, especially Natural Born Killers cinematographer Robert Richardson, and the score is assembled lovingly from Ennio Morricone music, a dash of Mike The Wild Angels Curb, and the somewhat mushy Brothers Four-cut theme song from John Wayne's The Alamo, Dimitri Tiomkin's "The Green Leaves of Summer."
Inglourious Basterds takes its title from Enzo Castellari's much different piece of World War II kitsch, the 1978 Inglorious Bastards. It's obviously a labor of both mad love and commerce for Tarantino. The cast seems to be having a ball, one and all, especially Pitt, Christoph Waltz as the viciously ingenious Jew-hunting Nazi Col. Hans Landa, Laurent as the Jewish vendetta bombshell, and Til Schweiger as macho-man Sgt. Stiglitz.
If Inglourious Basterds has a notable lack, it's that its own Dirty Dozen -- the head-ripping band run by Pitt's Aldo -- are not particularly distinctive or interesting characters. Or even very scary. Why do the Nazis here have all the good lines?
But at least there are good lines. Tarantino here displays his genius for spiky, punchy, clever genre dialogue, as we haven't heard it for a while, since the great gab of Pulp Fiction and "Jackie Brown." It's obvious he'd like be Leone, but its nice and nasty to hear his Elmore Leonard side again. And, crazy as Inglourious Basterds may seem, it's alive.
U.S.; Carol Reed, 1956, MGM
Burt Lancaster was an acrobat and circus performer before his acting career kicked in, and he paid tribute to his past in this moody, exciting, romantic melodrama about a love triangle among three European circus trapeze artists: Lancaster as the glum, tormented catcher, Tony Curtis as the brash young flier, and Gina Lollobrigida as the sexy trapeze girl they both love.
It was a huge hit back in 1956, and the movie's success was probably responsible for the next Lancaster-Curtis pairing, 1957's scalding New York classic, Sweet Smell of Success, in which the two take on the even more dangerous professions of star gossip column writer and tipster. A box office disappointment in its day, Success is now regarded as one of the great '60s noirs. But the relatively neglected big-screen-and-color Trapeze, which Carol Reed shoots with some of the moody, arty, decadent Europe air he lavished on his 1949 masterpiece The Third Man, is still a good movie, and the crackling Lancaster-Curtis competitive chemistry was already in evidence. So were Lollobrigida's Eurobusty va-va-voom credentials, which make her a suitably sultry flying femme fatale.
Somehow this movie, though not a classic, brings back the edgier moods of the era just as well as many other, better pictures. And it allows the sometimes amazingly athletic Lancaster to show off the skills he used when he and his acrobat partner (and later supporting actor) Nick Cravat wowed the crowds.
Gremlins 25th Anniversary edition
U.S.; Joe Dante, 1983, Warner, Blu-ray
Still Joe Dante's best movie: the spiffy, smart, scary, visually witty horror/fantasy/comedy about the evil little monsters who come to town as the spawn of some cute Christmas pets, but then overrun and attack a once-halcyon Spielberg-cum-Norman Rockwell paradise. Demons in Capra-land. They're mean! With Phoebe Cates, Zach Galligan, Hoyt Axton and Dick Miller. Written by Chris Columbus, and it's still pretty much his best movie too. (Extras: commentaries; additional scenes; outtakes; featurette; trailer.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (D+)
U.S.; Neil Brennan, 2009, Paramount
Will Ferrell may be working too hard, selling too hard. This particular producer-chore for George Bush's walking nightmare and doppleganger, is awful, awful. The usually funny Jeremy Piven, trying misguidedly to follow in the footsteps of Used Cars' Kurt Russell, stars as a super car dealer gun-for-hire named Don Ready, nicknamed The Goods, and hired to save James Brolin's closeted, ailing dealership from the predatory clutches of the bank and his competitors.
A lot of good actors and comedians are sunk in this -- not only the miscast Piven, but Ving Rhames, Ed Helms, Jordana Spiro, Charles Napier (playing the kind of guy who might show up at a town hall political meeting with an Uzi) and Ferrell himself, who does a skydiving scene with a nonexistent parachute. That pretty much sums up the movie too, which is a clunker of clunkers. Trust me.
Paper Heart (D)
U.S.; Nicholas Jasenovic, 2009, Starz/Anchor Bay
A weird, silly sort of real-life/fake/romance/production in which teen indie/smart-throb Michael Cera gives a showcase to his cartoonist/interviewer girlfriend Charlyne Yi. Together they costar in a bad, corny mockumentary about media-disrupted love and how love should prevail. Maybe, but the movie shouldn't.
The Girl from Monaco (C+)
France; Anne Fontaine, 2008, Magnolia Home Entertainment
Another woman director who's very sharp at observing, and making dark drama of, male moods, foibles and eccentricities is French actress-writer-director Anne Fontaine (Nathalie). And she's very good at delineating modern femme fatales as well, as she definitely shows in The Girl from Monaco.
In Fontaine's catchy, engrossing contemporary neo-noir, a famous, repressed and rather prissy bourgeois defense lawyer, Bertrand Beauvois (Fabrice Luchini), takes a case in Monaco, defending an enigmatic murder trial defendant, Mme. Edith Lasalle (Stephane Audran, the icy belle of many a Claude Chabrol thriller).
For Bertrand, the case may be a snap, but life in Monaco -- especially life in the fast lane -- definitely causes problems: He and his preternaturally calm, sturdy, expert bodyguard Christophe (Roschdy Zem) are thrown into deeper and deeper mess-ups and mixes by a nymphomaniac TV weathergirl and blond, leggy femme fatale Audrey Varella (the very funny and enticing Louise Bourgion), who crashes into his life, pulls in a lot of sleazy, high-life compadres and seems destined to wreck the counselor -- despite Christophe's best efforts to protect him.
I liked Girl for about 90% of the way. It starts very well and gets you on the hook fast, especially when the cool Christophe and red-hot Audrey are dueling emotionally over the brainy yet susceptible celeb twit Bertrand (played, as only can play this type, by Luchini, whom we first met in Eric Rohmer's classic Claire's Knee). Despite its Monaco setting, the movie is not especially visually striking or attractive. But the actors are mostly super-fine and the show is engrossing, until the bizarre surprise ending, which I thought was ridiculous.
Brava Italia (C+)
U.K.; Sam Toperoff, 2008, Acorn
Three beautifully shot, but not very interestingly written or directed travelogue/documentaries about Italy, its social rituals, culture and history. The photography and the locations make it worthwhile. Narrated by Paul Sorvino -- and Francis Ford Coppola pops up early on.
Secondhand Lions (B)
U.S.; Tim McCanlies, 2003, New Line
Michael Caine and Robert Duvall spark up this somewhat corny tale as a pair of loveable old great-uncles, with adventurous pasts, and an awestruck young relative (Haley Joel Osment) -- whose imagination they set ablaze. With Kyra Sedgwick and Josh Lucas.