Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Two Hours of Great Cinema, 32 Minutes of Not-So-Great Cinema

Roundtable Pictures Solves the Mystery Behind the Spelling of the Movie

By Lars Trodson

I was thinking back on all of Quentin Tarantino's movies and wondering if he had ever filmed a big crowd scene like the one that ends his "Inglourious Basterds." It seems to me, looking back on everything from "Reservoir Dogs" to "Death Proof" that Tarantino pretty much keeps the number of people he puts in a scene down to a manageable few.

That could account for what happens at the conclusion of "Basterds." The ending takes place in a crowded theater lobby -- which in certain shots doesn't look so crowded at all -- and in the auditorium of the theater. But with so many people to suddenly account for in his film -- the Nazi high command, including Hitler, as well as the remaining "basterds" of the title -- Tarantino literally looks lost. He moves from person to person, scene to scene, set to set, but nothing fits together particularly well. And while a couple of moments may be a bit shocking, in the end it all seems so delirious you wonder what his point was.

It turns out that for all the violence and sinisterism in his movies, Tarantino is -- surprise! -- not an action director.

The other problem here is how Tarantino fashioned the end of his script. In terms of suspense, Tarantino makes a choice that is not so much quirky or unexpected, but simply odd.

The movie is called "Inglourious Basterds" and you are given to think that they are the heroes of the film. Their big job is to kill the members of the Nazi high command -- this is not only their purpose and their pleasure, but also the climax of the film. But this goes awry and the Basterds are pretty much taken out of the hunt at the very end. They're not only not the heroes, they're pretty much held captive during the explosive ending.

It's left to the beautiful Shosanna (Melanie Laurent, who has great range and is tough and touching) and her lover Marcel to actually pull off the plan. The funny thing is, we're probably more emotionally connected with Shosanna than any specific member of the Basterds crew that we probably care more about her success in killing Hitler (and Landa, who killed her family) than we do theirs, but Tarantino throws in this switch so late in the game it's tough to shift your emotional focus to her.

If I can make a comparison, it would be this: Let's say we spent two hours watching the members of "The Dirty Dozen" get trained and prepped for their big mission (the entire premise of "Basterds" is taken straight out of the "Dirty Dozen" playbook, right down to collecting members of the Nazi command at a swanky function), and just minutes before the big plan was to begin John Cassavetes and Telly Savalas and Jim Brown and Charlie Bronson all got captured and suddenly actors you had never really seen before had to carry out the plan. That's about (not quite, but about) what happens here.

The other thing is that the sets for the interior of the cinema where the ending takes place look really bad. If this was a conscious aesthetic choice I'm not sure what it means. But the balconies and the stairwell and the curving hallways of this place look cheap and badly painted. It looks like plaster of paris and balsa wood, and it feels like their set designer might have had to shove off to another project while these scenes were being filmed.

It seems like we had left off a Hollywood film with a high sheen and sense of design and landed in one of Tarantino's beloved grindhouse flicks. That may have been the point, but it felt jarring to me.

I think the first two hours of this film are wonderfully written and beautifully acted by the principals (except for Brad Pitt and "Hostel" director Eli Roth), and the scenes bring back the leisurely yet pleasurable pace often found in "Jackie Brown." And Tarantino brings off some great set pieces - the opening scene especially. In this scene the notorious Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) finds a Jewish family hiding out in a farmhouse. It's amazingly tense and moody, and beautifully shot and edited. This is really old school Hollywood filmmaking here -- you can just see that Tarantino really felt this one. Landa's scene with Shosanna eating strudel is also terrific, and so is the long scene in the basement bar where we meet the beautiful double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, smart and old school movie star gorgeous) and some of the Basterds who are trying to pass themselves off as German soldiers (how they get caught is a neat touch).

There's some real tension in all of those scenes, yet again they are all chamber pieces.

After the first scene introducing us to Landa, we meet the Basterds in what surely must be the most aborted "let's introduce the major characters of the movie" scene ever produced.

It's reminiscent of the yard scenes in "The Dirty Dozen", which I am sure is deliberate, but aside from Roth -- who is known as The Bear Jew, and some guy named Hugo Stiglitz (in another set taken right out of "The Dirty Dozen") -- you have absolutely no idea who the other Basterds are, or even what their names are. To shy away from characterizations, even of the smallest parts, is not the Tarantino we know.

This film has gotten mixed reviews, but the film itself is mixed. The first two hours are great cinema, just pure examples of a talented writer and director finding a new color, but the end gets pretty well jumbled up.

A few critics have wondered what has happened to Tarantino, but that just seems silly. The guy has only made six feature films, and I think each one before this is great. It may be heresy for me to say I like "Jackie Brown" better than "Pulp Fiction", but that's really only because I don't care for the Bruce Willis section of that movie. It's still masterful stuff, but I didn't quite get that boxing part, and the revenge on the hillbillies part. "Jackie Brown" is joyous, though, and "Kill Bill" -- all of it -- is executed without a hitch. There's nothing wrong with that two-part picture. "Reservoir Dogs" is a heist classic. I liked "Death Proof" -- it wasn't trying to be anything more than what it was, which was a Saturday afternoon popcorn flick.

Part of the problem with "Basterds" may be this is another classic example of a director not able to pull off his lifelong dream project. Martin Scorsese spent years trying to make "Gangs of New York" and that was mixed. Richard Attenborough said he was born to direct the life of Charlie Chaplin and he turned it into a mess. Richard Pryor poured his life into "Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling." Maybe these dream projects are better left on the shelf.

I think what will come out of this experience for Tarantino is he will simply have more assurance as a director and writer. My guess -- my prediction -- is that his next film will be the best one he has ever done.

(P.S.: My take on the much-debated deliberately misspelled title is this. The words "inglourious basterds" are etched into the butt end of Lt. Aldo Raine's service rifle, which we see only partially and fleetingly in one scene. In fact, the typeface we see in the opening titles is the same script we see on the rifle. So it's Aldo Raine's name for his group, and his spelling of it. Lt Aldo Raine (an homage to the late actor Aldo Ray) - played by Pitt - is a part Apache hillbilly from Tennessee who, in the 1940s, might not have had the best education. His attempt to write those two words could reasonably come out like that.So that, we feel, is why the movie is spelled like it is.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Voice Of Ted Kennedy

By Lars Trodson

Later in my career as a reporter I didn’t like to cover political events for two reasons: one was that you usually had to wait around for long stretches of time, and two, usually there was very little news to be made.

I made a couple of exceptions when Ted Kennedy came to New Hampshire to campaign for Al Gore back in 2000. I didn’t really care what was said, I simply wanted to hear that voice. That Kennedy voice was like living history to me –- its cadence and stretched out vowels. I admit I was a little starstruck.

Every four years New Hampshire becomes the center of the universe, and local journalists get their little time in the sun with the Presidential candidates. It’s kind of a dance: the operatives from the national campaigns call you up and treat you like you’re a VIP, and you return the favor by believing it.

The minute the primary is over you can’t ever get any of these people on the phone again, but that’s OK. It’s fun while it lasts.

At the VFW Hall in downtown Portsmouth one cold night, Gore was campaigning with Kennedy, and we gathered in that old familiar place. Kennedy revved up the small crowd. I don’t recall too many people there, and maybe I remember more journalists than spectators.

Kennedy seemed old then. He was short and stout, and walked with an odd limp, as though he was favoring one side of his body. I remembered he was in a plane crash years and years ago, and maybe that was it. Or maybe it was just age and decades of triumph and struggle.

But then he started to speak. I remembered distinctly – and this was the comparison I made then, and one that I make now –- I remembered a documentary on the drug-ravaged jazz trumpeter Chet Baker. He was an absolute shell of a man, but when he started to play! It was a transformation.

Ted Kennedy had the flu that night. He was sweating –- you could see rivulets of sweat running down the side of his face. But when he started to speak it was though all that washed away and the voice was as clear and unwavering as it seemed to be when he was young. He had no written notes –- and there he was, sounding like he had always sounded, extolling the virtues of Al Gore, and yet even as I wrote down my notes I was careful to listen to the sound of his voice. That old Boston sound, sounds that dipped back into time when even rich people had to be brawlers and fighters. But it was more than that, too, because you knew that voice had been heard by John Kennedy, and Bobby, and brother Joe, before the war, and his sisters, and John Jr. and Caroline, and so many figures out of history.

I know there is another side of this story, and others can tell that one, and they will. I do think he spent decades trying to atone, which is all anyone can do, really. As far as the burdens of his life, all I know is that I wouldn’t have wanted to be Ted Kennedy for anything in the world. I do not want to bury any of my brothers or my sister -– let alone far sooner than they ought to be. I don’t want to do it.

For now, though, I can still hear that voice in the little Portmsouth VFW Hall speaking almost 10 years ago. It’s ringing in my ears, but like all of this around us, it’s fading fast.

Monday, August 17, 2009

A Motto To Live By

I came by this quote the other day, which has been attributed to a man named Frank Buckles, the last surviving American veteran of World War I:

"When you start to die, don't."

How can you beat that?

-- Lars Trodson

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lars and the Real Girl Returns

It only took a year, but in a posting about the movie "Lars and the Real Girl", in which the protagonist falls in love with a doll, I suggested that my co-workers would have some fun with the movie and its premise. Well, the movie came and went, and no such hijinks ensued, until this week.

When I came back from lunch, there she was, on my office door. Lars and his inflatable doll. It's causing a bit of comment, which mostly falls along the lines of: "I didn't know you made a movie."

Anyway, if you have a chance, check out this very sweet fable on DVD. Gosling is great in the lead role.

-- Lars Trodson

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Public And Private Battles Against Authority

Budd Schulberg and an anonymous family from California confront the same demons

By Lars Trodson

Budd Schulberg, who died last week at the age of 95, had a reputation as a kind of pugilistic writer. He wasn’t afraid to take on all comers, and he was quoted as saying that writing was a way to stand up and fight. He was right, I think, and the writing he was talking about encompassed fiction or non-fiction.

The arena in which Mr. Schulberg fought his battles, however, was a public arena, and not all the battles that Schulberg was associated with were fought in public, nor did they have the (somewhat ephemeral) cover of fame and money.

What I mean to say here is that we have an opportunity here, in light of the purpose Schulberg ascribed to his own life, to attach his noble fights to people who also fought those same battles anonymously and privately. And with the same courage, I might add. Maybe even more so.

I recently came across a letter, written by and sent to people who are lost to history, who were about to live through the nightmare that history has called “The Red Scare” -- the period in the late 1940s and early 1950s when people were rooted out and exposed for once having been a member of the Communist Party, despite the fact that such affiliations were perfectly legal.

The letter, dated Nov. 29, 1948, was found in a box of junk. How it survived is as much a mystery as to why any artifact manages to survive the ravages of time and indifference. But it did survive, and so we can be thankful for that because it is a remarkable document. It’s the same kind of small miracle as if you found a previously undiscovered page of a diary kept by Thomas Jefferson.

Before we get to the letter, we need to put it in perspective. The big fight of Schulberg’s life, one that encompassed both Hollywood and politics was, as The New York Times put it in his obituary last week, about the lopsided battle between those who had power and those who did not.

Here we quote the article on Mr. Schulberg’s death: “Mr. Schulberg wrote about the power of Hollywood moguls, mob bosses and political ideologues to run roughshod over ordinary people -- longshoremen, boxers, even writers. It was the System against the little guy, a fixed fight in a world where “the love of a lousy buck” and a “cushy job” were “more important than the love of man,” in the words of Father Barry, the crusading priest in “On the Waterfront” played by Karl Malden, who died on July 1. “It’s the writer’s responsibility to stand up against that power,” Mr. Schulberg said in an interview with The New York Times in 2006. “The writers are really almost the only ones, except for very honest politicians, who can make any dent on that system. I tried to do that. And that’s affected me my whole life.”

If it is the “writer’s responsibility to stand up against that power”, consider the contents of the following letter. It was written by someone named Sol, to a woman named Sarah. That the writers were Jewish is almost without question, which underscores the idea that the fight against communism was also a fight against Jews. This is all the more heartbreaking because it came just a few years, just a matter of months, if you think about it, after the monumental fight against Hitler and the other elements of totalitarianism that were circling the globe in the 1930s and 1940s.

The letter was sent from Los Angeles and was directed to the New York City borough of Brooklyn. You get a clear sense of how a mob mentality can take over and destroy things. And the writer of the letter is just as courageous in his fight against the “power” as Schulberg ever was.

The letter contains both despair and hope. Here it is in its entirety:

Nov. 29/48

My Dear Sarah,

I have all of your letters including one dated Sep. 29 and of course the most recent one that came several days ago. Thank you very much. I wish I could tell you how much I appreciate and admire your stand in this matter. What I am trying to say is that you are so utterly different than the vast majority of people are in similar situations. Most people write when they are written to. I don’t even do that much. Now I’ll not even try to excuse myself. At best it will seem somewhat phony, and transparent. You mix both tolerance and broadmindedness and the result is a rare brew that is highly satisfying and heartening.

Arline was married about a month ago. Just married. No affair whatsoever. They are both of the same age. He goes to school, but I do not know what he is aiming for. And she lost her job with the City. She couldn’t pass the loyalty test. She and fifteen others were found to be “subversive.” You are no doubt aware how elastic that word can become when it is taken in the hands of the “Thomas Committee”, and they have a replica of that gang here. She belonged to one or two liberal organizations, and in their estimation that’s being plenty subversive. The sixteen are fighting the case but the chance of being reinstated is very dim. Only last week one of the higher courts sustained the lower court in its original decision.
They will try to appeal to the Supreme Court if they can get the money to do it.

Meanwhile it is not very promising.

Max has not been feeling well for the past few weeks. In fact he has not been feeling right for much longer than that. He was in the hospital for several days and now he is home. One of his lungs collapsed. He feels somewhat better now but is worried how it will effect him when at work.

We are glad to hear the news about Sol’s cousin. We are waiting to hear from them. And should we not hear from them by next week, we’ll try to get in touch with them.

You seem to be altogether too vague about the bet you made with Sol. You don’t mention anything about the amount involved, the odds, nothing. Dewey was a 10 to 1 shot on election day. Sol should have given you at least 5 to 1 even at the time you made the bet. If you bet him even money it only proves what little you know about betting, and, on the other hand, how lucky Sol came off. That was one time you had a chance to make a killing. But like all beginners you let it slip by.

Another opportunity like that will never come again, of that you can be sure, at least not in our lifetime. What an election! Great satisfaction for many; terrific disappointment for many others. It was wonderful to have experienced such an event. And don’t think I went to bed early. I was also up to till six o’clock in the morning. But I went to bed feeling the “impossible” cannot happen. But since there must be a first for everything -- for the first time the impossible became the possible. I too voted for Wallace, a well-meant mistake shared with a million others. What fills me with great satisfaction is to have witnessed the defeat of Dewey. My! how I dreaded to see that guy be President of the U.S.A. The first definite news of his defeat, not to speak of Truman’s victory -- brought great relief, together with real joy. Altogether it was a great experience.

Is Ida considering taking a trip out here? Natalie mentioned something about it in a letter received several weeks ago. I hope she can. She would enjoy it here.

With best wishes to you all.


The letter mixes the momentous with the mundane, and ends on a note of hope. “She would enjoy it here,” says Sol of the city that just fired Arline for her subversive activities.

As for Schulberg, he fought his way back to the top many times. He turned his experience of naming names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee -- names that included Ring Lardner Jr. and Herbert Biberman -- into an Oscar winning screenplay called “On the Waterfront.” And he outlived, fruitfully, just about all his contemporaries.

In the end, near the end, Schulberg publicly acknowledged what Sol in his letter already privately knew in 1948, which was that the fight against communism was senseless, damaging, and ultimately self-defeating.

In a 2006 interview, according to The New York Times, “Mr. Schulberg said that in hindsight he believed that the attacks against real and imagined Communists in the United States were a greater threat to the country than the Communist Party itself.”

Note: The reference to the Thomas Committee in the letter is to John Parnell Thomas who was appointed chairman of the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1948.

According to the internet site "HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. His activities while working as chairman of the House of Un-American Activities Committee had upset those with left-wing political views and some began investigating Thomas. His secretary, Helen Campbell, leaked information about his illegal activities to the journalist, Drew Pearson. On 4th August, 1948, Pearson published the story that Thomas had been putting friends on his congressional payroll. They did no work but in return shared their salaries with Thomas.

"Called before a grand jury, Thomas availed himself to the 1st Amendment, a strategy that he had been unwilling to accept when dealing with the Hollywood Ten. Indicted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the government, Thomas was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in prison and forced to pay a $10,000 fine. Two of his fellow inmates in Danbury Prison were Lester Cole and Ring Lardner Jr. who were serving terms as a result of refusing to testify in front of Thomas and the House of Un-American Activities Committee.

"Thomas was paroled after serving nine months in Danbury Prison. Attempts to return to Congress ended in failure and so in his final years he worked in publishing and real estate. John Parnell Thomas died in St. Petersburg, Florida, on 19th November, 1970."

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Perfect Joke, By John Hughes

By Lars Trodson

Whenever I am in a situation where people are telling jokes, and I feel compelled to contribute, I have two stories in my back pocket that get a laugh. I have to have something, because I don't usually remember jokes.

One is a verbal version of a New Yorker cartoon that I tell like this: "There's a family standing in a yard with their backs to us and they are looking at a house burning down. The family is holding hands and the father says to his wife and kids: 'Thank God we were only house sitting.'"

The other is a scene from the movie "Mr. Mom", which was written by John Hughes. The setting is this: the stay-at-home dad played by Michael Keaton is trying to keep order in the house as his wife, played by Teri Garr, is about to leave on a business trip very early in the morning. Her boss, played by Martin Mull, arrives to pick Garr up. Keaton makes some small talk with Mull, and then asks, in his sardonic way, "Would you like a beer?"

"It's 7 o'clock in the morning," says Mull.

Keaton, looking both hurt and confused, retorts with, "Scotch?"

I've told that joke hundreds of times, I think, and it always gets a laugh.

The scene was beautifully played by Keaton and Mull, but then again it was a great vignette.

I think it is the best kind of tribute to any writer to say that, through their writing, they have kind of infiltrated your life. I can only say that I never pretended that joke was my own. That would have negated the guy who wrote it, and that didn't seem fair. John Hughes wrote it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Beauty Of The Opening Shot 1: Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone”

In which we irregularly take a look at the very first shot of films from around the globe.

By Lars Trodson

Years ago when I took a film class the instructor said the single most important shot in a movie is the very first one. I’ve always believed that, and to this day any movie I see I make a mental note of the first shot. Did the director make the most of it? Hardly ever is the answer yes, but I’d be hard-pressed to say whether that was any guide to how much I ended up liking the film.

But it struck a chord with me anyway. The first shot is the equivalent of the opening line of a novel, the first notes of a song. And so I thought I’d take a moment to recognize what may be the best opening shot in a film from the past five years, and that is the simple shot of the triple decker seen right at the beginning of Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone.”

This type of building is so iconic to the kind of New England neighborhood that this Dennis Lehane story takes place in it almost seems like it’s a no-brainer to use it to set a mood -- but to put it that way takes away credit where it is due. It’s really a perfect opening shot. Kane had his closed up Xanadu -- the McCready’s of “Gone Baby Gone” have their 3-decker.

It’s no surprise that a recent New York Times article (June 19) profiled this particular emblem of New England -- and that it has fallen on hard times:

“In Boston, three-family homes represent 14 percent of the housing stock, but made up 21 percent of foreclosed property in 2008, according to the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development,” according to the piece. “While extinction is unlikely, the blight could forever change some neighborhoods where the triple-deckers are tightly packed, strikingly uniform and vital to the sense of place.

"The boxy homes, which typically have flat roofs and tiers of porches, were built starting in the late 1800s to house the immigrant workers pouring into New England. They were a clear step up from tenement blocks, having private bathrooms and windows on every side."

In Affleck’s film, he and cinematographer John Toll (two time Academy Award winner) lovingly expand on the opening shot. The two apparently just set the camera up and let the film roll trying to capture the faces and the look of the neighborhoods of the story. The faces of the people found in those neighborhoods -- Affleck knew you couldn't fake those any more than you could fake that indelible accent. So he didn't try. The faces, and the houses they disappear into, with their porches, flat roofs and mini-societies inside, are perfect.

And he switched the narrative structure of the book by adding in a moody monologue by the film’s main character, a small time private eye by the name of Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck).

As we see the some of the sad, burnt out faces of Boston’s outer neighborhoods, and listen to Copland-esque score by Harry Gregson-Williams, Kenzie says this:

“I always believed it was the things you don’t choose that makes you who you are. Your city. Your neighborhood. Your family. People take pride in these things, like it was something they’d accomplished. The bodies around their souls. The cities wrapped around those.

“I lived on this block my whole life -- most of these people have. When your job is to find people who are missing, it helps to know where they started. I find the people who started in the cracks -- and then fell through. “This city can be hard. When I was young I asked my priest how you can get to heaven and still protect yourself from all the evil in the world. He told me what God said to his children: You’re a sheep among wolves. Be wise as serpents, yet innocent as doves.”

It's a beautiful opening, and then we softly segue into one of those triple-deckers, the scene of a crime that is about to unfold.

See the opening scene below: