Tarantino the Un-Cool: How Basterds and Django Let Us Down

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A semblance of cool

The Vancouver-based counter-cultural magazine, Adbusters, who prompted, called for, and pre-named the Occupy Wall Street movement, frequently point out the “co-opting of cool” – a process where a destructive or otherwise undesirable corporation or government hijacks something counter-cultural / local / grassroots / for its own purposes.  Examples range from takeovers like Nike buying out Converse, the original rebel’s shoe-of-choice, to Facebook being co-opted by marketing and information gathering agencies, including the FBI.

Quentin Tarantino is one such example of a co-opting of cool.  Garnering his initial success with fast, witty dialogue and the anti-establishment feel of films like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s films have since kept a semblance of the cool and rebelliousness while ideologically becoming co-opted by mainstream political and cultural thought.  In Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino plays upon and deepens the sense of Jewish victimhood.  This victimhood is the never-ending Ace for the state of Israel, justifying the gruesome brutality of the Nazi killers in Basterds just as it justifies its crimes against the Palestinians and its threat of a pre-emptive strike on Iran.  This is a tool of public manipulation that we are continually subjected to, and it is truly a core belief of the American / Western establishment.

Alex Jones, the explosive political and cultural commentator and talkshow host at infowars.com, adds another interesting way films like Tarantino’s latest pair manipulate public feelings: by presenting crimes of exploitation and other insidious employments of power so severely and in the past, films like Basterds and Django Unchained create the impression that such abuses are absent in the present.  After all, we do not appear to have any holocausts happening nor do we appear to have chained slaves marching in the snow.  The perceptual effect is to teach the viewer that exploitation and abuse exists only in this bluntest and immediate (fast-acting) form.  It would follow that the standard of violence in such films would always have to increase in order to maintain the impression that the ever more violent present is peaceful against the outrageously violent past.  The resulting social effect is complacency.  To clarify how this functions, we only need to remember the response to Avatar, an opposite scenario.  Its peaceful and beautiful world depressed viewers as they compared it to their own world, one filled with estrangement from nature, increasing illness and poverty, and permanent war.

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“Jewish Porn” according to Eli Roth

Whatever ideological effects Basterds and Django may create, artistically we must also admit that Basterds and Django are clichéd – the worst insult to any artistic creation.  Supporting Jewish violence by way of their victimhood or playing on racial division (especially evil whites or evil Germans, hero Jews or hero Americans) is a fully fatigued story that we have heard over and over again.   For their cartoonish histories, their pro-establishment ideologies, for impressing that exploitation is a thing of the past, or for the sheer artistic boredom of playing on the most worn-out motifs, Tarantino’s Basterds and Django are decidedly uncool.

Seven Psychopaths: A Departure from Violence, in Violence

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Postmodern writing is one of those contentious arenas that tends to find itself with educated artists and which has a poor record of literary success.  Writer/director Martin McDonagh’s latest effort, Seven Psychopaths, starring Colin Farrell and Sam Rockwell, however, is one of those rare postmodern films that managed to make it into the mainstream and that manages to survive the traps a genre that by its convention disrupts the more traditional sense of storytelling.  The film’s defining postmodern characteristic is its continual demonstration to the audience that they are indeed watching a movie; but, not stopping there, the film also has its mix of self-referencing, layers of imitation, and the placement of narrative (story, language) as the centre of everything.

What makes Seven Psychopaths relevant is its desire to break away from the typical violent story.  Marty, the screenwriter whose words the movie builds up around, repeatedly criticizes the overdone shoot-‘em-up film all while being trapped in that very kind of violence.

This last point is key to McDonagh’s script: there is a big difference in meaning between having a film that from the outset is an introspective “French” film (as Billy calls Marty’s idea of a movie without violence) compared to a violent film in which the main character yearns for an escape from violent stories.  In the latter case, we have a person or society that is embedded in an ideological framework and cannot quite know what an alternative would be like; he or it can only desire something else poorly defined, something nascent and unarticulated.  And this new kind of story is precisely what Marty cannot find the words for.  In contrast, Billy the psychopath does have words and attempts to write Marty’s story for him, offering a ridiculous story of ultra-violence.

In this way the film harmonizes with our present situation in the Western world in which a groundswell of people crave peace while being trapped in a narrative – a broader political, corporate structure – of violence and exploitation.  The symbolism of Billy the psychopath having burned and wrecked the American flag is not lost, either.  For this, Seven Psychopaths is a culturally relevant film that manages to speak of and to the zeitgeist: that is, we want a different story.

For this, an excellent cast, plenty of chuckles, and Abbie Cornish in a wet t-shirt in slow motion, Seven Psychopaths is worth the watch.

4/5

FOX’s Touch – Skimming the Surface of Intellect

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“Your purpose is to follow it for him.  It’s your fate, Mr. Bohm.  It’s your destiny.” 

For those who tend against shows like Penn and Teller’s Bullshit! and prefer to dabble in the mystical, Fox’s new drama Touch will likely pull some heartstrings.  Kiefer Sutherland takes the lead as Martin Bohm, a widower whose wife died in the 9/11 attacks and whose son Jake (David Mazouz) has autism and the rare ability to trace complex patterns in numbers.  Like most kids with autism, Jake does not respond well to physical touch.  Nor does he even talk – a choice he consciously makes, the opening credits would suggest.  Instead, he uses numbers to lead his father on a journey where he meets other conflicted individuals, all so that lives can be changed.

Among the characters appearing in the pilot are a man desperate to find a cell phone containing his late daughter’s picture, a young Iraqi looking to buy an oven and help his family out of poverty, a man who strikes big in the lottery and a couple of video-ready Japanese girls.  Danny Glover makes an appearance as Martin’s oracle, the aptly named Arthur Teller, and the go-to love interest for Martin is a social worker named Clea Hopkins (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who dutifully demands Jake be held in Child Services until she too starts to see his preternatural abilities.  The acting of the recurring cast is unquestionably solid, with Kiefer channeling a likable if not ever-exasperated hero whose primary concern is the well-being of his son.  But some scenes in the second episode, specifically the few between a flight attendant and a man travelling from India to take his deceased father’s ashes to a baseball stadium, are cringe-worthy at best.

“Your son sees everything – the past, the future.  He sees how it’s all connected.”

And it’s not like the subject matter hasn’t been tackled before.  Babel, The Number 23 and the recent Extremely Loud Incredibly Close all come to mind as predecessors.  But at least Babel was humble in its worldview.  Written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, it allots equal time to all its plot threads, showing deeply human qualities in characters struggling to survive in a complex world.  Though Touch seems to pull this off, the depth simply isn’t there.  How could it be when characters have their emotional needs satisfied by fate and then disappear faster than suspects in a CSI:Miami episode?

Despite an attempt to be worldly, the writers seem to think of America as the centre of the universe; foreigners are all depicted wanting to go there to bask in the glory of Yankee culture.  When a Russian girl likens her friend’s mafioso father to a well-known criminal, who else would it be than Tony Soprano?  Not that this is necessarily problematic, but it’s a thin layer of self-congratulation that hampers the spirited theme of the show.  At times, we might as well be watching Fourth of July fireworks.

In the end, Touch fails to be intellectual fodder for skeptics.  Some of the metaphysical elements are thought-provoking – what would it be like to look at the lives of everyone who read the same newspaper?  Have we ever been heartbeats away from meeting a person who might change our lives?  How might our lives be different if that proverbial butterfly didn’t flap its wings?  The deeper question of fate, however, is assumed rather than explored, and the coincidences that guide the plot are too ridiculous to comfortably suspend disbelief.  Audiences, the writers reason, are likely thankful enough that the show keeps its themes spiritual and all-inclusive.  That seems to be a winning strategy for scripts in modern times.

Whether or not the ratings will be high enough to warrant a second season – or even the remainder of the first – has yet to be seen.  Fox will just have to cross their fingers, and like Jake, pay scrutinizing attention to the numbers.
Touch – Season 1 Episodes 1 and 2 – 3/5

MN

Apollo 18’s Lunar Truth

The impeccably real – and terrifying – moonscape

If you’ve searched for www.lunartruth.com like many of us have, it is a testimony to how realistically director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego has managed to put together Apollo 18.  In large part, Gallego achieves this through the home movie filming style strongly reminiscent of movies like the Blair Witch Project.  The biggest challenge to our suspension of disbelief is the mere existence of a complex life form on the moon, although a devil’s advocate will point out that extremophiles do manage to exist in places above boiling point, for example, in conditions of extreme acidity or under extreme pressure such as at the bottom of ocean trenches, and they do suspect life on one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa.  Regardless, Gallego makes no gaffs that yank us from our willful suspension of disbelief.  We are led slowly towards the reality of the creatures in a well-paced unfolding of discovery and crisis.  If you haven’t seen it yet, the setup is that NASA has sent two astronauts to the moon on a secret mission and has outfitted them with cameras that they set up around and inside their spacecraft in addition to having one with them at all times.  On top of the filming, the rendering of the moonscape and other environmental features (like 1/6th the gravity) are impeccable.

The real villain of the movie, however, is the American government (and the Department of Defense) that has used these two astronauts as expendable test subjects to gather information about the deadly life form on the moon.  Nixon lied plainly and directly to the entire American populace, we’re reminded, so why wouldn’t the government lie to us now?  And, like the astronauts, we’re troubled by this question now more than ever with so many debacles, censorships, and conspiracies facing the western world – from a state of perpetual war and alarm to oil spills to a president that has increased military spending, reduced domestic spending and, while being commander-in-chief of multiple war theatres, wins the Nobel Peace prize.  The list of absurdities is long, and Apollo 18 taps into our political disillusionment quietly, in the background, as most good dramas do while a much more tangible opponent fills the screen.

If all this needs one concrete symbol in the film, it is the uprooting and shredding of the American flag by the creatures.

On top of being culturally relevant, Apollo 18 is scary, well-acted science fiction that provides a fresh counterpoint to the big and heartless sci-fi films we so often end up enduring.

4.5 / 5
JF

Our Idiot Brother (or Our Idiotic Script?)

Along with Paul Rudd's Ned, the film's humour at this moment gets arrested

It’s hard not to like Paul Rudd’s character in his latest film, Our Idiot Brother.  Ned is laid back, sweet and unassuming, and we all sense that his presence in our lives would benefit us some way or another – if not by helping us to see the bigger picture, then by giving us that odd laugh and making us thankful that we didn’t turn out as simple as he did.  Unfortunately, it takes a lot more than a likeable protagonist to make a movie watchable.  Our Idiot Brother is a perfect example of this.

The film follows Ned, a naïve and quixotic organic farmer, as he boomerangs from relative to relative trying to make ends meet.  After being released from prison for selling pot to a uniformed police officer, he returns to his farm to learn his girlfriend has a new guy and no longer wants him working there.  Adding insult to injury, she appropriates his beloved canine, Willie Nelson (giving the film a catalyst that it for the most part decides to abandon).  His other sisters (played by the coldly feminine Zooey Deschanel and the stunning Elizabeth Banks) do their best to help him scrape by, but find their own lives marred by his presence, particularly his penchant to disclose sensitive details of their lives to others.  The eldest sister, Liz, appears to be going through a mid-life crisis, and though she welcomes Ned into her family, her two-timing husband (the typecast yet brilliant Steve Coogan) shows him nothing but condescension and disdain.  Ned forms a bond with their son and helps foment his interest in martial arts, which Ned’s sister and brother-in-law will not accept.  This is where the film is its strongest – showcasing healthy relationships that must for whatever reason be severed.

It fails, however, in a number of places.  The star-studded cast is so plentiful that we never get the chance to cozy up to any of them.  They are all extensions of our hero, Ned, and as the titular “our,” you’d expect them to be sympathetic too.  After all, we are to see Ned through their lens.  But not only are they unpleasant, they are so absorbed in their own metropolitan hipster lives that we end up cringing as the film rotates through the build-up their trifling concerns.  Yes, it’s mildly upsetting to witness Deschanel’s character cheat on her more joyous and fun-loving girlfriend (played by Rashida Jones), but the distance between audience and character prevents us from ever truly caring.  And while we may have liked Jones’s character in the first half of the film, she ends up being just another person who betrays Ned when he needs her the most.  The film ends up a mess of two extremes:  Ned, the sympathetic push-over whose family takes care of him only out of a sense of duty, and the wholly unsympathetic secondary characters, all of whom are thinly painted and more or less contemptible.

The star-studded cast sets out to make us as bored as they are

The script falters, hardly providing any satisfaction for Ned in his journey.  Instead, he fumbles with even the most menial responsibilities, and we grimace as we watch time and time again where his patheticness will lead him.  There is some minor relief at the conclusion, but it comes much too late to negate the tedious jibber-jabber that constitutes the bulk of the film.

Despite the producers’ attempts to pitch the film as a comedy, the biggest laughs are shown in the trailer, chief among them the scene where Ned earnestly sells a cop a bag of weed.  Watch that clip on youtube sixty times in a row and not only will you save yourself 11 bucks, you’ll leave the room no less clueless about what makes a good story.

Verdict:  Despite Paul Rudd’s apt portrayal of a painfully naïve hippie, the script proves humourless, and the secondary characters are too uninspired to elicit anything more than a resentful yawn.

1.5/5

MN

The Debt

The Dr. of Birkenau, the real-life Nazi soldier that The Debt revolves around, is alleged to have been the father of the abortion and to have performed a rainbow of horrid medical experiments on prisoners such as testing tolerances to the point of death and killing and inspecting twins, a particular interest of his.  On one occasion, he is reported to have overseen a sewing-together of Romani twin children, leading to their death by gangrene (and this is likely the inspiration of the movie The Human Centipede, a horror in which an evil German doctor sews together humans, anus to mouth); and, in conspiracy theories, it is this man who pioneered slaving and mind control methods by way of tortuous methods (see the Monarch Project) .  Meet Dr. Josef Mengele, the “angel of death,” or, Dr. Dieter Vogel in The Debt.

Dr. Josef Mengele while head physician at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The story of The Debt steps between the present day and the mid 60s, slowly bringing together the two and dispelling the mystery of why their reportedly successful mission to capture Dr. Vogel has led to, many years later, David’s gruesome suicide and a guilt-ridden Rachel.  The team’s mission is to snag the evil Dr. Vogel from East Berlin to stand trial in Israel, and the audience is held in stressful suspense at every stage of this attempt.  An early sample of such tension is when Dr. Vogel hovers over the spread legs of Rachel (Jessica Chastain) for a gynecological examination, with which your skin crawls knowing this killer has his fingers inside the young (and beautiful) protagonist’s vagina.  This same feeling of invasion is then continued later when Dr. Vogel invades and unravels Rachel’s mind.

The important question for The Debt, however, is how – if at all – does it contribute to that hackneyed narrative of revenge against the evil Nazi(s)?  There is now a cartoonish development of the Nazi character in movies, and is this one any different?  Whatever the movie loses by being built on such an overdone theme, it does save ground by providing many talking points and some subtleties: one such subtlety is the question of how does one avoid becoming the kind of monster that one sets out to stop?  In other words, Rachel and David confront the terror that they too want to kill this man just as this man wanted to, and did, kill many at the Birkenau concentration camp.  In one captivating scene, Dr. Vogel chides Rachel, pointing out that should she bring him to a farcical court in Israel that will decide on his death, isn’t his blood on her hands?  She may as well kill him now, he says, as she holds a shaving switch-blade to his throat.  She wants to, but can’t, and is morally torn.  This moral anxiety wracks Dr. Vogel’s captors.

A second subtlety is the movie’s attention to truth versus the accepted narrative.  In the present day, Rachel’s daughter has written a book on her mother’s heroic act that, we later find out, is untrue.  Literally, the written word, the book, is a false narrative made up by her mother for political reasons.  Still another source of anxiety in Rachel and David is their continued maintenance of their false story, their living a lie.  Rachel is torn between the truth and needing to maintain a beneficial lie for her daughter and for Israel.  Stephan, now a politician, tells Rachel that “truth is a luxury.”  Deepening this point even further is the fact that when Rachel does decide to tell the truth of what happened with the pursuit of Dr. Vogel, the truth changes (the pursuit unexpectedly continues).  So, there is never a time when the narrative and the truth are the same; they always differ.  This is “the debt” between the narrative and the real.

Dr. Vogel held captive. Played superbly by Jesper Christensen.

Ultimately, although the viewer knows what the true story in the movie is and what is made up, the point of narrative versus factuality points to the flexibility of history, or merely what we are told, say, in the news, versus what is actually happening.  This is found everywhere, including in how Israel readily cites its victimary history to justify its continuing crimes of aggression.  This is history used as a political tool.

With excellent performances from Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson, Marton Csokas, and especially Jesper Christensen (who plays Dr. Vogel chillingly) and for providing many talking points such as these, The Debt is worth the watch.

4/5
JF

The Rise (and Fall) of the Planet of the Apes

Caesar, the aptly named first leader of the Apes

It’s a strange wonder that Times’s Richard Corliss names The Rise of the Planet of the Apes “this year’s finest action movie.”  The movie has been marketed as an action movie, and would do best as an action movie, but writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (both credited for The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and The Relic) have instead struck an unsuccessful balance between an action and a drama and completely fail to deliver any relevant cultural commentary as did the original Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston.

If an action movie is defined by its action, then the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in the simplest test, fails significantly.  The trailer presents a captivating scene where a chimp rolls the smart-making chemical canisters along the primate cages, and we naturally assume that this comes from the early stages of the film – it is the catalyst, the beginning of the violent struggle – when it is in fact drawn from the final stages of the movie where the only notable action scenes await.

Dr Rodman (Franco) prepares to test his final drug

Instead of an action, we have a movie that feels more like a drama.   Dr. Rodman (James Franco) is driven to find a cure for his father’s Alzheimer’s disease and, in testing for this, creates Caesar, a highly intelligent, genetically augmented chimp.  Caesar is the central character of The Rise; and, after seeing the stages of his growth, it is his imprisonment, subjugation, and eventual abuse by humans that is meant to emotionally draw the audience in.  And, although we are drawn in enough to care for Caesar and understand his revenge, it’s difficult to be very captivated by a computer-generated, non-speaking primate.

This flatness of character infects the other characters of the film far worse – as odd as that is.  Dr. Rodman’s boss and girlfriend, the zookeepers, and other supporting characters are all markedly flat.  Only Dr. Rodman himself fairs better, and his father (John Lithgow) and the head zookeeper (Brian Cox) manage some more depth by virtue of their physicality and expressiveness, ie, their excellent acting abilities.  All in all, then, with cardboard characters the film doesn’t work as a drama, and without much conflict – especially the conflict we want to see between humans and primates – it fails to be very impactful as an action movie.

The most eerie silent point for The Rise is its absence of cultural commentary.  This is, after all, what made the biggest mark on the original film.  The final scene where Colonel George Taylor (Heston) falls onto his knees on the beach, seeing the statue of liberty and realizing that humans have destroyed themselves (“you blew it up!  damn you all to hell!”) has been replayed and parodied so much mainly because it struck a note with the world (North) Americans lived in.  On the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the terrifying awareness that the world was, and will continue to be, on the lip of a nuclear war electrified that final scene in The Planet of the Apes.

The final scene of Planet of the Apes

In The Rise, the demise of humans is essentially accidental, a virtuously motivated mistake, even.  In a time of alarm greater than the 60s – in the midst of ecological and economic collapse and regional upheaval – it seems almost harder to avoid touching upon a charged socio-cultural nerve than to touch upon one.  Or perhaps it touches on another strain for America and the West: it exemplifies the psychological truth that the closer one gets to disaster, especially if one is implicated in that demise and disaster, the greater the denial.

Though enjoyable enough if you enter with light expectations, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes is, unfortunately, a forgettable experience.

2.5/5

JF