Sunday, January 3, 2010

2009 movies: Inglourious Basterds and Synecdoche, New York

I've started the annual catch up on movies before the awards season starts.

I finally saw Inglourious Basterds, or however you spell it. I thought it was great. I had already convinced myself that Quentin Tarantino would never come close to Pulp Fiction. I liked Jackie Brown and Kill Bill, very much, but it seemed like he was trying to recreate PF every time. I did not see any of his ultra-violent-for-the-sake-of-being-ultra-violent-isnt-that-fun films. (Apologies to QT & fans if those films were considered good, it's just not my cup of tea.) Inglourious Basterds was a step in a new direction, which is a good thing. A director needs range, just like an actor needs range. Not every character in every film should talk like Jules & Vincent. I wish QT hadn't felt the need to resort to some QT devices like "chapters" and PF-esque title font. The movie was terrific without those things. It wasn't even that violent, other than the baseball bat to the head scene. But if you're gonna bash someone's head in with a baseball bat, it should definitely be a justified Jew smashing in the head of an unremorseful Nazi. Contrary to what I thought from the ubiquitous clip of Brad Pitt saying Na-tzi with a short a, the film is mostly about the French and German characters, speaking French and German. The scene at the beginning where the French farmer is interrogated by the politely evil Nazi officer about where the Jews are hiding is one of the most painful scenes of that nature I've seen in years. Both actors were understated and powerful. If you haven't seen this film yet, put it on your Netflix queue!

Now, Synecdoche, New York. Not Schenectady, New York, a real city, but SYNECDOCHE, a real, if obscure, word meaning "a play on words in which a part may be used for the whole or the whole for a part." You can see where this is going. The beginning was good and somewhat realistic in its depiction of a married couple whose relationship has lost its luster. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a genius, and so is Katherine Keener. Keener is always realistic in her characters, which is why her character leaves after about the first third of the movie. Then it's just a descent into the tortured mind of the Hoffman character, which is a descent into the tortured mind of Charlie Kaufman, the writer-director. Kaufman is the disturbed genius behind the screenplays for Adaptation, Being John Malkovich, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It must suck to be Charlie. During the excruciating latter 2/3rds of the film, I thought, "My God, Vincent Van Gogh must have suffered terribly." Mental illness is something no one can understand who is not going through it. If this film had any value to me, it was to increase my empathy for the mentally ill. One of the several things I admired about the film was that the actresses had "real" bodies, a euphemism for being heavier than a bikini model. Samantha Morton has gained a lot of weight and it has kept her out of a number of roles, so it's good to see her back on film again.

These reviews explain Synecdoche and its "navel-gazing" better than I can:

I like self-absorbed artsy fartsy independent films about artists making art as much as the next hippie liberal. But too much is too much. I trudged through the film waiting for it to end and when it finally did, I felt relief for the characters and for myself. But mostly for myself.


  1. P.S. My favorite person, Roger Ebert, said you have to see the movie (S, NY) 2 or 3 times to understand its layers of meaning. Perhaps that's true. But perhaps it's also true that Roger is smarter than I am and I have other stuff to do.

  2. I agree with you about the opening sequence, pure genius. I still feel that there was something missing in the storyline. As for his use of the chapters and font style, I can't decide if he was trying to remind people of Pulp Fiction and thus increase the likelyhood they'd like the movie or if he is trying to establish his style/branding and we will see more of it in future QT movies.

    As a historian of sorts, I didn't like the ending, as much as I wish that things had ended in such a manner for the Thrid Reich. I think that the Jackie Brown plot/storyline was better.

  3. You're right, Curtis, the ending of Inglourious Basterds was historical fantasy. Younger or poorly educated viewers need to know that this was NOT how the war in Europe ended or how Hitler met his demise.