Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Into the Wild

It’s taken me a little while to process my thoughts on “Into the Wild,” which (I suppose) is another way of saying that it’s a complex movie about complex characters without any single clear message. The very best literature avoids easy answers, opting instead for questions, and “Into the Wild” definitely fits this mold. It also covers a wide spectrum of emotions, making us both love and hate the protagonist, making us (depending on the scene) hope that he fails, and hope that he succeeds.

And there are moments of real beauty in the film, also, shots of incredible simplicity that also carry incredible power. There’s never a dull moment in the imagery of the film, and director Sean Penn knows this, milking the scenery and the long shots for all they’re worth.

But there’s also an uneven quality to “Into the Wild,” a sense that perhaps Penn didn’t really have a clear mission in mind as he set out to adapt this book into a film. Much like the protagonist at the center of the story, Christopher McCandless, he was intoxicated by the romance of the wild, the romance of life away from evil evil society, and so he just went at it. And though I am certain that he loved every minute of the filmmaking process (there’s definitely a true passion on display in every shot), I’m just not sure what to make of it all because I don’t think Penn was quite sure what to do with it all.

When Jon Krakauer decided to write a book about McCandless, it seems to have been for the same reason that he decided to write about Pat Tillman, or the extremist Mormon murders in Utah…the same reason that Truman Capote wrote about the unexplained murders in Kansas that became “In Cold Blood.” Krakauer was curious. Krakauer wanted to figure out how a boy with such potential, such a future, such means and education, could simply leave it all behind, tell no one, elude all family for over a year, and then wind up dead in an abandoned bus in the wild of Alaska. How does such a thing happen? What is the story behind this? That seems to have been Krakauer’s motivation as a journalist and writer: to piece together the mystery of McCandless.

But Penn’s motivation must have been entirely different. After all, this isn’t a brand-new documentary which exposes new facts about the story. This is just a visual depiction of the book. And as Penn adapted the book, he transformed McCandless from a subject of inquiry into a protagonist. After all, we watch nonfiction in a completely different way than we watch fiction, and this movie utilizes the techniques of fiction, not nonfiction. Now as we are viewing, we aren’t watching out of simple curiosity (the way we might if this were nonfiction), but we are watching in order to sympathize with a protagonist…and that’s really tough to do with this particular character. There are moments when he is interesting, sure, and moments when we care about him, but also quite a few moments where he is absolutely unlikable (the way he abandons his family and his sister is mean-spirited, and actually represents all that he claims to hate about “society” and how people treat one another). His philosophies about truth and fairness and life and other abstract concepts are about as intriguing as a high schooler’s poetry.

As a protagonist, McCandless is less compelling than he is as a subject of nonfiction inquiry, and this is the real mistake behind Penn’s focus. He doesn’t realize the difference. And so the movie sometimes seems as if it is celebrating McCandless’ decision, and other times seems as if it is condemning it, because nonfiction generally takes a side. Nonfiction (and documentaries), by its very nature, is an argument. Society is evil, and we should all live in the wild. Or family is good and pure, and should not be abandoned. Etc. But fiction doesn’t need to take a side. Or, rather, fiction should only take the side of its protagonist, making us care as much as possible about that protagonist, even when this character does some really stupid stuff. But, as great as Emile Hirsch was in this film, “Into the Wild” seemed more about statements than about truly getting to know Christopher McCandless: that’s why the camera falls in love with the scenery, and that’s why some moments in the film try to make social/ political statements. It’s not about McCandless; it’s about putting the book onto the screen, taking a fiction approach with nonfiction.

And while there are moments that are engaging, and while it’s all very pretty, it sort of reminds me of a specialty pizza (BBQ chicken and cheddar, or “The Caesar Salad Pizza”). Interesting for a slice, but not something you can really stand behind. A gimmick, not as honest as the mozzarella and pepperoni that we’ve come to love.

“Inception”: is it good to be the most “talked-about” movie of the summer?

I always think it’s fun to try to understand why certain critics would make certain comments in their reviews. “Toy Story 3,” for instance, has a 99% fresh rating on, which means that there were just 1-2 critics who gave it negative reviews (full disclosure: I haven’t seen it…but if you’re the only one in the world who doesn’t like a film, doesn’t that say more about you than it does about the movie?).

“Inception” has also received a pretty favorable response from the movie critic community, and as I was scanning the reviews, I remember several of them mentioning that this was destined to be the most “talked-about” movie of the summer, and that people were going to immediately want to see it again, etc. (One critic’s negative review, however, stated that this movie “was trying to be ‘too’ smart,” a review I immediately discounted because she quoted the word “too.” Um. Why? For emphasis? Ever heard of italics?)

But I’m often skeptical when I hear that a movie will make me want to see it again. Is that a good thing? Like, I loved the movie so much that I want to keep watching it until I’m sick of it (the “Anchorman” syndrome)? Or, maybe there was some crazy twist that the filmmakers pulled off, which makes me curious as to how they were able to do it (see “The Sixth Sense” or “The Usual Suspects”)? Or, perhaps, I didn’t understand what the hell I was watching, and so I’ve got to see it again to try to figure it out (for me, this happened with “Syriana”)? If the movie is great, then “you’ll want to see it again!” is a compliment, right? But if the movie is convoluted or confusing, then “you’ll want to see it again!” is a bad, bad thing; a movie steeped in obscurity, for the sole purpose of making us think we’ve watched something smart, just so we’ll “talk about it” and then “see it again?” Smart marketing concept, but bad movie.

I know, I know. A very long lead-in, right? What did I actually think of “Inception,” with all of these different ideas swirling in my head?

I thought it was good. And for a summer action film, I thought it was great. Yes, it was a very smart movie, and Christopher Nolan certainly understands how to structure an action-adventure narrative, how to structure a mystery, and how to sustain a visually interesting world. The characters were all great, unique, and it was the rare action film where the plot was dictated by specific character personalities and decisions (in other words, I could drop any human characters into “Transformers,” and nothing would change…but if I changed the characters at the core of “Inception,” the entire plot changes).

“Inception,” in a way, reminds me of a poor man’s version of Mark Danielewski’s “House of Leaves.” There are several spheres of narration here: the waking world, the dream world into which the characters descend, and then level after level of different dream worlds within the initial dream world, each of which progresses in real time (but occurs at a speed of 1/12 the waking world above it, meaning that you can spend a full hour in a dream but will have only aged by five minutes…got that?).  It’s a great concept, and the cuts between various levels of narration are often seamless, easy to understand, and add to the overall drama.

“House of Leaves,” as a sidenote, utilizes a first-person narrator (Sphere One) who finds a literary analysis manuscript written by a blind man (Sphere Two) which focuses upon a film created by a man who moves into a haunted house (Sphere Three) and the subsequent investigations (hundreds of them) into the true circumstances of the haunting. Extremely clever, and much more complex than “Inception.”

But while there are a lot of things to love about “Inception,” there were also quite a few moments when the filmmakers were either (a) needlessly clever, or (b) deliberately and annoyingly vague.

(a) When I say “needlessly clever,” my undergraduate students usually rail against me. If it’s clever, it must be good! But that’s not always true. Sometimes, when you’re clever for the sole purpose of *being clever* and *out-smarting your audience*, you’re actually hurting the story that you’re trying to tell. After all, any storyteller SHOULD be smarter than his/her audience (he/she created this thing), so why shove it in our faces? “Inception” opens with a scene in which Leo is crawling through some mountains or something, and is brought to an old man in a mansion/castle/whatever. The scene lasts for only a minute, and then we cut away to some entirely unrelated scene. By the end of the movie, we’re back in the castle with Leo and the old man, and it’s clear that the filmmakers included the quick scene at the film’s opening as a sort of framing device. Um. Did you really need to do that, Christopher Nolan? It’s bad enough that we’re dealing with six different spheres of narrative, but now we have to worry about whether you’ll disrupt the chronology of the story? Doubtless, there will be many viewers who see the scene at the end and say “Oh cool! We’re back where we started!” but for me, it just made no sense for the story. This was the author’s hand interfering with the story, just to prove how smart and clever he was. (And I can guarantee that there will be legions of fans who defend this storytelling device because it is part of the experience of the “mind fuck” that is “Inception,” but…well…the movie’s fine/better without it, which is–I think–the ultimate test of whether a scene or device works in a story)

(b) When I say “deliberately and annoyingly vague,” what I’m really saying is that Christopher Nolan loves to polish lazy storytelling with slick visuals and dialogue so that we don’t notice when he’s being lazy. This was the case in “The Dark Knight” (and the reason I disliked that movie), when the Joker was everywhere at once, able to do whatever he wanted, but viewers didn’t seem to care because so much stuff was getting blowed up real good in such artistic and interesting ways. In “Inception,” characters also seem to have unlimited access to funds and equipment, but worse, the science and rules of “idea extraction” is explained at such a break-neck pace that we are not meant to really understand it…we pick out a word here and there (ahh, “dream sharing.” or ahhh, “inception”) so that we can move through the narrative with the understanding that the characters are doing stuff that adheres to the rules that were set (“Oh, I see, if you are killed in the dream world, you wake up!”), but we cannot question the ideas because the science was kept so vague. In other words, the filmmakers don’t want us to know how the “architect” builds the fake dream worlds. It would take too long to explain, maybe, or perhaps it’s unimportant…it’s a “macguffin,” a detail that doesn’t really matter to the plot. But wait: here’s why I object to the vague or confusing or fast-talking science of “Inception.” Several times in the movie, the filmmakers completely change the rules on us. (“Wait. Now they can actually die if they are killed in the dream?”) The characters explain why the rules have changed, but again, it’s quick and confusing and we–the audience–is just supposed to take away the basic idea without questioning it.

Sigh….again, a lot of viewers (and legions of fans) might not have a problem with this, but I do. Christopher Nolan is a smart filmmaker (we know this because he shoves it in our faces), so I know that he’s better than this. Set up your world. Set up your rules. And if the rules suddenly change, and you can’t explain it logically and clearly, then…chances are…you shouldn’t have changed the rules.

“Inception” no doubt, will be the most “talked-about movie of the summer.” Look at the length of this review, and I’ve just scratched the surface of what I enjoyed, and what I disliked, in what was the most ambitious action film (from a storytelling standpoint, not necessarily a visual effects standpoint) that I’ve seen since “The Matrix.” Everyone will leave the theater with questions, and many will talk and talk and talk for the duration of the night, the next full week at work…and that can be a very good thing. In fact, it’s an amazing and powerful thing when a book or movie can make you think, and when you literally cannot stop thinking about the world that the authors have crafted. But remember the difference between the way we talked about “The Matrix” and its sequels? When we talked about “The Matrix,”  we were talking about the possibilities of the world that the authors crafted, and when we talked about “The Matrix Reloaded,” we were talking about how confused we were, how many questions we had, why this happened, why that happened, if any of it really added up and if the filmmakers had out-clevered themselves. Our discussions were mired in frustration. “Inception” is both “The Matrix” and “The Matrix Reloaded,” a great film and a frustrating film.

Can the Mockumentary Truly Work as Good Fiction?

From a technical standpoint, “Death of a President” is a remarkable little film, the “mockumentary” of what might have happened had the anti-war and anti-America movements in the U.S. and abroad led to actual assassination attempts. The film commands a modest budget, but is still able to manipulate real footage of key political figures in ways far more striking than those at-the-time revolutionary clips from “Forrest Gump” fifteen years ago. Kudos to the technical crew on this movie.

And from a social commentary standpoint, “Death of a President” also has some interesting things to say about protest and violence. If war brings unintended and tragic consequences (no matter the motivation behind the war), think of the consequences for the death of a major leader (again, no matter the motivation behind the killing). If a president were truly to be assassinated in this day and age, I agree with one of this film’s primary theses: there would be no end to the legislation enacted, and there would be a remarkable loss of civil liberties for the average citizen. Not to mention the racial hatred, the racial profiling, etc.

But technical achievements aside, and commentary aside, “Death of a President” just isn’t a captivating film…not after the first thirty or forty minutes anyway. Once the immediate aftermath of the assassination is over, we lose interest, but yet the film keeps going for another forty minutes. We don’t really care about the manhunt because we don’t really care about all of the phony characters. This is really the problem with “mockumentaries”: we aren’t “learning” anything, as we might in a real documentary, so in order to hold our interest, we’ve got to have some solid character development, and we’ve got to really have someone to root for. Without that, we’re just sort of learning a history lesson for a history that never happened, and…well…who cares?

On a slightly different note, though, I’m astounded to read about all of the commentators and critics and news outlets who declared this film to be “dangerous” and “inappropriate,” etc, without ever having seen it. Well. Maybe not astounded. Because there’s always political capital in criticizing other political statements. But I’m disappointed. Especially by the film critics. No, it’s not a good movie. But it *is* an attempt at art, an attempt at creating meaningful commentary out of fictional events, and the use of a real president as the victim is necessary (not gratuitous or exploitative) for the storytellers’ purpose. Personally, I think that the destruction of the White House in “Independence Day” (as amazing as that was, from a technical standpoint) was far more gratuitous, created as it was for the simple shock-and-awe value of seeing a treasured symbol destroyed.

Apparently, the entire film is online, and you can access it here.

Superhero Movie Rules, Wolverine-Inspired

Some things we can learn from “X-Men Origins – Wolverine.”

(1) Most superhero franchises seem to die at their third installment, as the producers toss so many characters into a single film in some impatient and misguided effort to sell more toys and generate more interest, etc., and the script collapses under all of this weight. (See “Spider-Man 3,” “Batman Forever,” “Superman 3,” and obviously the third X-Men film) The studio must then find a way to re-invent the franchise and make us forget the disaster of that third film. Hence, “X-Men Origins.”

(2) The re-invented film franchise is going to be inherently uneven, because the writers/directors/producers can’t quite decide which characters they want to bring back, which actors can be jettisoned for new talent, and how “loyal” they want to be to the first four pictures. Do they want the film to truly feel as if it is part of the same world, or a new franchise entirely (i.e. “Batman Begins”). This was the main reason that “Superman Returns” was such a weird film. Yes, the actors were all new, but it wanted us to believe that Parts 1-3 actually happened, but part 4 did not, and…really? This Wolverine movie isn’t quite that disjointed in its adherence to the X-Men world created in the other films, but there are a lot of little things that give you pause and make you say: “Wait. They didn’t even try to make this guy look like he did in the other movies.” Or: “Wait. Why isn’t this guy around in…” Etc.

(3) If you know that your movie is a bit weak in execution, but you are still an ambitious filmmaker who really really wants to make a good adaptation of a character who has a tremendous following and thousands of stories already written about his adventures…well, just create a really cool big-budget montage at the start of your film. “Watchmen” did this, mostly because the filmmakers didn’t have time to adapt the entire graphic novel, and decided to use the opening credits as a place to get the audience caught up on fifty years of superhero history. Pretty clever. “Wolverine” does the same, and so we have an interesting montage of Wolverine fighting in the Civil War, WWI and WWII, and Vietnam, all the while growing disgusted by battle, and truth be told, it created an interesting history and mythology for the character…something that the rest of the script did not quite do.

In all, this wasn’t a great film. Some fun moments. Worth watching, sure, but a prime example of:

(4) If you’ve got a big-screen HDTV, just wait for most of these big-budget summer movies to come out on DVD. Much cheaper than paying to sit in a huge theater with a bunch of loud teenagers. Much more enjoyable, and you feel so much better that you didn’t drop twenty or thirty bucks on the experience.

What Makes a Great Adaptation?

It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a film adaptation of a novel that really engaged me. Usually, I’m bored out of my mind, no matter how technically “well made” the movie actually is. I know what’s going to happen, and I know how the characters are going to react, so why can’t we just get on with it already? (This is the same reason that I don’t generally re-watch movies or TV shows…I always need new experiences.) “House of Sand and Fog,” despite great performances and tight writing and faithful adaptation, bored me to tears. Same with “Wonder Boys.”

The only exception, I suppose, are those adaptations that truly do something new with the material, that offer some striking new vision. Obviously, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy falls into this category. And “The Mist,” which–despite its horrendous ending–gave us such a great visual depiction of the original story that I was actually frightened in a new and different way. And “There Will Be Blood,” which was such a completely different version of Upton Sinclair’s “Oil!” that it felt like a different chapter in these characters’ lives altogether.

“The Road” is one of these exceptions, as well, a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel that is worth seeing even if you’ve read the book. The visuals are just terrifying enough that we keep forgetting what we know will happen, that we think–perhaps–this world has assumed a life of its own and that it will break free and behave in a way entirely different than what we read in McCarthy’s version. That’s what I want in a film adaptation: to be continually surprised. I don’t want the remake of “Psycho,” which was a psychotic love letter to Hitchcock, a shot by shot refilming. No, sir. I want the director to have a vision all his own, one inspired by the writer, but one that feels free enough to allow our imagination to wander, so that the world feels fresh and the plot feels undecided.

The movie isn’t perfect, of course. I thought it became a tad melodramatic in the closing moments. But its portrait of post-apocalypse feels stark, haunting, and Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of the father brings something to the story that I had not envisioned while reading McCarthy’s novel. And that’s what makes a great adaptation.

“Iron Man 2” as Post-9/11 Literature

Back when I saw the original “Iron Man,” I called it the first major example of “Post-9/11 Literature,” the first book or movie that was not actively attempting to document our feelings about the fall of the World Trade Center and the War on Terrorism and the War in Iraq and the Quagmire in Afghanistan…but somehow, had managed to capture our feelings and attitudes better than any American film since “Spider-Man.” (And “Spider-Man” was *successful* because of 9/11–a hero saving New York!–but was not a *response* to 9/11)

“Iron Man,” quite simply, was the story of a single guy with limitless resources who flies to the Middle East and Asia and single-handedly destroys vast terrorist networks. No mercy. Shaking off the shackles of bureaucratic meddling. Yes, there have been a hundred books that try to capture the somber or paranoid mood of Post-9/11 America, but they are all too forced. “Iron Man” was effortless, and it made a gazillion dollars.

So what would “Iron Man 2” do, I wondered? The same exact thing? Would it feel like “Spider-Man 2,” a great action flick, but sapped of the same Zeitgeisty feeling of the first film? Excellent film, but no major cultural commentary or relevance?

“Iron Man 2” focuses not upon the terrorists this time around (an interesting turn), but upon the government’s attempts to get its hands on the Iron Man technology. And, while the national furor over government spending is nowhere near as volcanic as it was/is over terrorism, the film has indeed found a subject that resonates in the current climate. Here, we have a guy–Tony Stark–with an amazing technology that he owns and operates, but that he might be forced to give up. And the film does a great job of playing up the fears of both sides of this issue: do we want a single dude with all that power, especially one as volatile as Downey’s character? On the other hand, do we want an entity that can control what we own, that can force us to give up what we create? It’s a classic Patriot Act sort of argument; what civil rights are you willing to give up in order to feel safe?

No, I don’t think “Iron Man 2” was as strong a film as the original, and the overall narrative was sometimes shaky (though the filmmakers did a great job of juggling several different storylines…in the hands of another writer or director, this could have become a “Spider-Man 3” or “Batman and Robin” style mess), but I love the franchise and the actors; everyone seems to “get it,” that this is escapist adventure, sure, but that–in order for us to truly escape–we need to know what we’re escaping from. They know, and the fears of our Real World compose the Villains of the Marvel World.

Middle-Class Guilt and “The Blind Side”

When I first saw the trailers for “The Blind Side,” I thought it was a joke. Sandra Bullock as a rich white lady who helps an under-privileged gigantic black boy to become a successful football player? After I realized it was serious, it just seemed like it would be a blatantly offensive story. Never mind that it’s true…but do we really need a movie about generous white people helping poor black folk to achieve all that they can? I mean, really…perhaps there should be a movie made about my generous donation to Haiti relief?

But I finally saw “The Blind Side” recently, not necessarily because I was waiting patiently for its DVD release, but instead because my wife has a woman-crush on Sandra Bullock, so it was time to test the theory: was this movie actually offensive and patronizing, or was it just a good story that a few filmmakers thought would make a good and emotional film? I’m actually happy to report that it wasn’t offensive, not really. And–because it’s true–it actually was a pretty good story. If “The Blind Side” was fiction, and the entire movie stayed exactly the same, the opposite would have been true: the choice of a white benefactor helping a black boy who couldn’t help himself would have pulsed with racist subtext. As a true story, it’s not offensive because the characters and the plot are not manufactured choices of a storyteller.

“The Blind Side,” in fact, represents a trend in literature that has been building and building over the last couple decades, and now seems to surface mostly in book clubs and award-season films: middle-class guilt. There is a motherly tone that drips from this film, and that drips from a large number of memoirs and novels that line the front tables at Borders and Barnes & Noble, a tone that can best be expressed by this line: “Oh my God! Look at what this person (whether he/she is from an under-developed nation, or a poor background, or the inner-city slums, etc.) has had to go through! I feel like I’ve just been educated about something awful, and during that educational experience I felt incredibly guilty, but now I feel a little bit better about my fortunate middle-class existence because I made the choice to watch that film or read that book instead of watching something more frivolous, like Jersey Shore.”

The characters in “The Blind Side” suffer from middle-class (actually, upper-class, but it’s Memphis, so…whatever) guilt, and this guilt drives the story. But more importantly, the viewer is made to feel this guilt, too, as we are saddened by the circumstances of young Michael. By the end, we are given a happy conclusion and the guilt lifts, and we feel better for having endured the tough circumstances, even though we’ve only watched a movie…we haven’t done volunteer work in the inner city or given money or done anything productive, really. We’ve just said, “Oh my God! Look at what this person…” Etc.

Does that make “The Blind Side” a bad movie, or does that make viewers evil? No. The trend of “middle-class guilt” does show that the filmmakers and the viewers are generous with their emotions, empathetic, caring. But the trend itself is a bit like clicking “like” on a dozen different charity pages on facebook; it educates, perhaps, but in many cases, it doesn’t really do much else unless the consumer is willing to take real action afterward. And often, in our current globalized and facebooked culture, we’re bombarded by so many online charities that we wind up supporting very few. We’re overwhelmed by choice. Same goes for “middle-class guilt” literature. There’s a whole lot of social and international problems posed by such literature, and in the end, we wind up overwhelmed by options and doing very little except patting ourselves on the back for watching/reading, and waiting for another opportunity to do it all over again.

Shopaholic: The Rise of the Chick Flick

I once read a Roger Ebert in which he made an interesting distinction between a “family movie” and a “children’s movie,” arguing that some films are great because they *do not* attempt to cater to an entire family, but instead speak solely to the children. Some family movies, he said, get so caught up in trying to produce sight gags and in-jokes for parents that they completely forget about the kids. On the flip side, some “children’s movies” are so geared toward children that the are downright unwatchable for adults.

To these definitions, I also add a distinction between “romantic comedy” and “chick flick.” There are some films that seem to be made for couples; there’s a strong male lead (Steve Carrell in “Date Night,” for instance, or Will Smith in “Hutch”), jokes that appeal to both genders, an awareness that men are in the theater and that we don’t want to squirm too much. “Sex and the City” (the series) actually has quite a few episodes that fall under this category, focusing enough on the male mind/ego that we don’t mind listening to Carrie talk about shoes the rest of the time. But “Sex and the City” also has quite a few episodes where the sole focus is the shoes, where it’s all girls everywhere, pink and purple, Cosmos and martinis and screaming screaming girls, and–as a man–I can only watch this sort of thing with headphones on. This is a “chick flick,” not a “romantic comedy.” I am not the audience, not even remotely.

“Confessions of a Shopaholic” is a “chick flick.” It is a movie created solely for females, preferably large groups of females. The male characters are interchangeable, cardboard cut-outs, and the women seem to make all of the interesting decisions and remarks and jokes. There wasn’t a single moment in “Shopaholic” where I actually felt comfortable watching. Thus, I can only defer to my wife’s opinion on this thing and say, “She liked it.”

It’s important to note, though, that “Sex and the City” seemed to make the modern “chick flick” a possibility. There are tons of these types of movies now, films that cater to a female audience without ever pausing to look at or speak to the men in the audience. And while I don’t (and shouldn’t) enjoy this type of movie, I think their existence and their frequency are a much better indication of “gender progress” than a thousand female-empowerment movies/shows like “Catwoman” or “Dangerous Minds” or “Commander in Chief,” which just seem desperate and obvious in their social statements. There’s a huge female audience out there willing to spend a lot of cash to watch independent female characters; we don’t need the women to be presidents or superheroes. We just need them to be strong protagonists.

I don’t know if “Confessions of a Shopaholic” succeeded in any real way, here, but I do think that this represents a trend in Millennial Literature: chick flick as distinct from romantic comedy. Whether it will ultimately prove to be a profitable decision in the long-run…?

“Iron Man” as 9/11 Literature

I originally wrote this quick review on the night that I saw “Iron Man” (way back in 2008), but I figure I’ll see the sequel soon, so we’ll see if some theories on 9/11 Literature are furthered…

What’s great and interesting about “Iron Man” is that it marks a cultural turning point. We’ve snapped. For the last seven years, post 9/11, we’ve been creating action movies that are all about patriotism (Spider-Man), conquering adversity (World Trade Center), and nabbing terrorists as they sneak around the United States (name your film). We’ve also been flooded with movies that represent “Pure Good” vs. “Pure Evil,” most of them fantasy movies that serve as wishful thinking metaphors for our ongoing War on Terror (Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia). But until “Iron Man,” we’ve never made a movie that flat-out says, “Let’s just go kill a bunch of terrorists in their own country!” Sure, we’ve had a lot of Iraq-Afghanistan movies, but most of them have been super-political, and based completely in our real world (“Lions For Lambs,” “Stop-Loss,” “Over There,” etc.).

“Iron Man,” though, is like an American fantasy. A single guy, rich beyond belief, creates the ultimate weapon, and just flies over to Afghanistan and blows the shit out of some terrorists. No danger to the U.S. No negotiations. No innocents killed. In a cultural climate where our own Iraq war is stalemated, where gas prices are rising and recession is beginning, we’ve simply snapped, and we want to believe that all can be better, and the evil-doers will pay, and it can happen quickly, easily, all to a hard rock soundtrack.

I got no problem with this fantasy. Just like “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man” is the right superhero for the moment, and it’s a very cathartic experience to view while you’re frustrated and pissed off with the economy and the state of world affairs.

Inglorious Basterds, and Tortured Revision

I really wanted to like Inglorious Basterds, particularly because each of Tarantino’s movies before this (with the possible exception of the mind-numbingly slow Jackie Brown) surprised me in some new and exciting way. When you watch Kill Bill, you can feel the energy pulsing from every shot, every scene, and when you watch Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction (violent though they might be), you get a sense that this is a director who is absolutely in love with the filmmaking process, and that love is infectious, spreading to the viewers.

Inglorious Basterds, while enjoyable at times, and while consistently interesting, just didn’t seem to hold together in the same way as Tarantino’s other films. I think that Tarantino’s dialogue is now more successful than ever (if that’s possible), as there were scenes in Pulp Fiction that simply felt self-indulgent: the Quarter Pounder conversation, while funny, really had no relevance to the story, and just felt like Tarantino was trying to be clever. In this film, though, even the clever conversations are constructed in a way to build tension…instead of simply listening to the ramblings of a Nazi officer for ten minutes as he speaks with a French dairy farmer, Tarantino cuts away in mid-conversation to reveal the hiding Jewish family beneath the floor boards. Now, suddenly, every word carries extra weight; anything could give away their presence, and any moment could be their last.

Yes, this is a movie with many fine scenes, and Brad Pitt’s performance is a comic masterpiece. Mike Myers even makes a hilarious appearance as a British officer, and the homage to the war flicks of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s is brilliant and inspired.

But…Inglorious Basterds feels strained and labored in a way that none of Tarantino’s other films do. This is a project that took many years to produce, and we can see the hesitance on-screen; for once, there are moments that don’t feel like electric fun (i.e. Grindhouse, for all its silliness), but instead like…work. It’s like comparing black-haired Obama on the campaign trail, making energetic speeches and shaking hands, to suddenly gray-haired Obama, explaining yet again to the American public that there are no such things as death panels.

Perhaps the most telling flaw in this film, though, is in the Inglorious Basterds outfit themselves. Here, we have a movie built upon the premise of a group of Jewish soldiers who go behind enemy lines to terrorize the enemy. This is the title, after all: “Inglorious Basterds.” And yet the outfit collectively manages just ten minutes of screen time. Brad Pitt gets many of his own scenes, but the supposed focus of the film (the secret Jewish team) is clearly not the focus. In fact, we meet only three or four of these soldiers, and–by the end–they’ve really contributed very little to the story itself. The film opens with a scene in the French countryside (a Jewish girl escapes a massacre), cuts to a quick scene of the Basterds in training, and then the Basterds doin’ their thing in France, then spends much of its remaining run time with the Jewish girl, as she plots to lure the Nazi high officers to her theater, whereupon she will burn them all to a crisp. (Spoiler alert) By the end of the film, the girl is successful, with no real help from the Basterds, who are relegated to sub-plots that could have been omitted entirely from the film without affecting its outcome.

In other words, the film’s subject–the Inglorious Basterds–is not truly its subject. It’s a clear case of a writer “telling too many stories at once,” trying to make them all fit into one movie, even when certain sub-plots simply aren’t relevant. Had Tarantino made a movie simply about the Jewish girl (call it “Kill Hitler!”), this would have been a tighter film, but it wouldn’t have had the fun marketable angle of Brad-Pitt-led soldiers storming enemy lines to kill Nazis. Had Tarantino made a movie simply about the Basterds, omitting the Jewish girl’s story, this would not have been a story at all, so thin is the Basterds’ thread.

Inglorious Basterds, in the final evaluation, is a slick homage, and you might enjoy the overall experience (especially if you’ve watched a lot of old war movies), but it’s also one of those movies that–like Gangs of New York, which I loved, but which also seemed to suffer in the final act from an unraveling plot–feels like it was over-thought, over-produced for too many years, the original germ of an idea suffering under so much reconsideration, so many revisions.