Invaders from Mars (1986)

Invaders from Mars (1986) movie poster

director Tobe Hooper
viewed: 02/03/2018

Invaders from Mars, in which Tobe Hooper directs a 1986 B-movie remake of a 1956 B-movie. I give it a B minus.

Invaders from Mars may not be Hooper’s finest moment, though it captures him in a very conscious homage to Atomic Age science fiction. In fact, it draws some visual elements directly from the 1956 flick by William Cameron Menzies. In fact, the whole film is very in keeping with the original’s perspective, a space loving kid (Hunter Carson, here in 1986.)

Carson stars alongside his mother, Karen Black, who in the film is actually his school’s nurse. But when Carson’s parents (Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman) get taken over by aliens, Black surrogates him in what otherwise seems a vaguely odd and cozy fashion.

Even with Stan Winston and John Dykstra designing critters and Dan O’Bannon helping with the script, it’s hard not to feel somewhat cynical as the film devolves into truly child-like (child-ish?) fantasy towards the end.

Best scene: Louise Fletcher swallowing a bullfrog.

 

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) movie poster

director Bryan Singer
viewed: 06/04/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The X-Men movies keep surprising me.  Rising from the ashes of The Last Stand (2006), the re-booted franchise that kicked off with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011) and renewed yet again by Bryan Singer’s surprising return to the franchise that he first brought to the screen in 2000, in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), this (currently) 2nd trilogy has managed despite odds and levels of narrative complexity, turned out some really decent movies.

Not great movies, mind you, but good movies.  Entertainment.

This series took on the added challenge of a reworked timeline, setting the films in the past:  First Class in the 1960’s, Days of Future Past in the 1970’s (as well as in the present?), and now Apocaplypse in 1983.  Frankly, even trying to get my head around the whole timeline thing is more than I care to strain for myself.

But I think I know why this works, at least to some extent.  The X-Men were always a more interesting crew than Marvel stablemates, The Avengers.  The Avengers were always sort of Marvel’s mainstream, while the X-men were sort of their “alternative culture”.  And ultimately are a more interesting gang of characters.

It’s 144 minutes of mind and butt-numbing action, so incredibly much packed in to this sprawling cataclysmic story.  An almost all-powerful villain Apocalypse (a heavily CGI & make-up-buried Oscar Isaac) rises from nearly 6,000 years of slumber to re-boot the Earth.  It takes all of the X-men to come together to take him and his associates down.

I often think that one shortcoming of the modern superhero story is that every villain is an existential one, every one is bringing an apocalypse to Earth (or even the universe) and the heroes have to “save the world”.  Old school comics had heroes and villains on smaller scale stories that were still compelling.

This story isn’t quite so complicated unless you’re trying to tie it into the prior movie’s narrative (which was complicated and is essentially extended here with the action taking place a decade later — almost 20 years since First Class).

For its broad spectrum of response (seriously “mixed” reviews), Apocalypse hardly seemed like a sure thing.  When I told my superhero-loving 12 year old daughter we were going to it, she said, “Yusss!”  And when I found myself walking out of the movie thinking, “Gee, I really kind of liked that…”   I started realizing that despite the fact that I stopped reading superhero comics around 1983, that I guess the X-men were the ones I liked, far more than a lot of the others.

Lastly, quite as in Days of Future Past, the film’s singular best sequence features Evan Peters as Quicksilver, saving the day in a prolonged time-stretched action scene, here saving the whole Xavier school’s populace from an explosion.  Talk about a character crying out for his own movie.  It’s kind of clear that Singer has made the case for him, perhaps made the case that Singer should make it himself.

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The Hateful Eight (2015) movie poster

director Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 12/31/2015 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA

The latest film from pop auteur Quentin Tarantino, shot and notably projected in special occasions in 70mm, is his second Western in a row.  After his slave revenge film, Django Unchained (2012), something about the genre must have stuck with him, long as his films gestate, and he turns out a very different film, but as very typical of Tarantino, a very entertaining one as well.

In many ways, The Hateful Eight is the writer-director at the top of his game, weaving a story of eight (or more) villains stuck in an isolated cabin in a blizzard in the nowheres of Wyoming, each with their own set of backstories (or lies, but stories nonetheless), giving them ample reason to suspect that everyone else wants to kill them.

Kurt Russell is “The Hangman”, a bounty hunter with a filthy, mouthy Daisy Domergue in tow (a spectacular Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman with a $10,000 bounty on her head.  And Russell’s Hangman is known to “bring ’em back alive” even if that is not necessary, because he likes to see ’em hung.  Their stagecoach encounters Major Marquis Warren (Tarantino go-to Samuel L. Jackson) with a pile of dead bodies he’s bountied up, followed by running into another feller, Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) who claims to be the newly hired Sheriff of the town of Red Rock, to which they are heading.

Jackson and Tarantino were made for one another.  He delivers Tarantino’s dialog better than anyone, and Tarantino gives Jackson the roles and opportunities that have turned him into such a major star over the past 20 years.

At 3 hours in epic length, the film if anything, seems to be quite simply about “storytelling”.  It’s a complex set of events and backstories that sets the characters on the stage of the cabin, unfolding in six titled chapters, zipping back and forth at times in unfolding, populated with many a dialog of reveal of a character’s past, true or untrue, uncovering motivations, acted upon or not.

And so, when suddenly in Chapter Four: “Domergue’s Got a Secret,” a voice-over narrator pops in to tell the audience something that Tarantino has chosen not to “show” us, it’s of course Tarantino himself.  Hey, it’s his movie, of course he’s going to be the narrator if there is a narrator.  He’s got to insinuate himself in there somehow.

Tarantino’s idea, which he told Deadline.com was to put “‘a bunch of nefarious guys… together in a room with a blizzard outside, give them guns, and see what happens’ ” is constructed tightly and cleverly.  It may be 3 hours long but he snares the viewer early on and his storytelling prowess is flowing freely.  But in a Tarantino picture, you put a “bunch of guys in a room and see what happens” you know what is going to happen: everybody is going to get shot.

As much as I looked for deeper meanings in the text, the only things that stood out was one when Jackson says, as he takes a gun from somebody that “a black man only feels safe when white men are disarmed,” followed perhaps by the title of the sixth and final chapter “Black Man, White Hell”.  I considered if there was some underlying meaning being laid out here, especially with Tarantino’s recent involvement in police protests, but I’m not sure that it’s the biggest point of the film at all.

I keep coming back to Tarantino as narrator, Tarantino as storyteller, and really, that’s where the film sings.  Now, that said, Tarantino loves his own storytelling voice so much that his voice comes through in many of the stories being told, through many of the voices telling the stories, even Jackson’s.  And that is perhaps Tarantino’s great weakness: his admiration for his own skills as a writer and director (and at times actor).

The Hateful Eight is very good entertainment, a great time at the cinema.  If you’re lucky enough to see it on 70mm, I hear that is the way to go.  Unfortunately, I wound up seeing it digitally projected (whatever).  It has its flaws and short-comings, some of them perhaps deeper than others.  But I enjoyed it.  And I’ll look forward to his next film, whatever he does.

Seventh Son (2014)

Seventh Son (2014) movie poster

director Sergei Bodrov
viewed: 02/08/2015

A stormy Sunday had us venturing downtown to see a movie.  Problem being that there really isn’t much worth venturing for out of the house right now.  Sure there are some lingering movies up for Oscars, but those are due on DVD in weeks or days, for the most part.  If it had been up to me, I would have taken us to see the Wachowski siblings’ Jupiter Ascending (2015) because even though it looks bad and has gotten bad reviews, it seems sort of interestingly bad.

Seventh Son, however, interested Felix and Clara more than Jupiter Ascending.  And I let them make the call.

Starring Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore, Seventh Son is an adaptation of a teen fantasy novel by Joseph Delaney called The Spook’s Apprentice, which I guess Felix had read and enjoyed.  In fact, Felix had been kind of looking forward to this movie — at least until the reviews came in.

Now despite the fact that I am essentially writing a “review” myself here, I try not to put too much into the reviews I read.  I mean, I like to gauge how in general critics and moviegoers esteem a movie’s qualities, but I also try to trust my own interest in a movie.  In this case, I wasn’t particularly sold by the trailer or anything.  But anyways, we went to see it.

And it’s not very good.  It’s not dire or anything, but it’s extremely unremarkable.

Bridges is this “Spook”, a hunter of evil creatures from ghasts to witches (ghasts being level 6, witches being the top of evil – a very post D&D world).  And Bridges loses his apprentice and needs another one, a “seventh son of a seventh son” whose significance matters exactly why?  And he finds it in Tom (Ben Barnes), who he enlists to fight Moore, the witch who is attempting to take over everything under a blood moon.

Strangely, all the villains of this film are either women or non-white or both.  What is up with that?

Felix tells me that the film strayed considerably from the book.  I don’t know.  I do know that none of us was impressed by the film.  I file it under the heading of “most likely to be forgotten”.

Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014) movie poster

director Gareth Edwards
viewed: 05/17/2014 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Call me old fashioned, but a Godzilla film features a man in a rubber monster suit duking it out with other guys in rubber monster suits.  Call me crazy but this new 2014 Godzilla would certainly have benefited from this approach.

The one good thing that director Gareth Edwards and the team behind Godzilla 2014 did was make the “King of the Monsters” the good guy as he has been in the majority of his cinematic work.  The movie will probably earn a fair amount of comparison to the 1998 Roland Emmerich flop of the same name.  And fair enough.  They are the American/Hollywood Godzillas and they are both pretty awful, though by quite different measures.

Gareth Edwards brings a human slant to the kaiju film, not unlike his first film, Monsters (2010).  Sadly, this is entirely beside the point.  This is a Godzilla movie.  We came to see Godzilla, not all the people fretting about the end of the world.  The characters and story development are supposed to be the dull stuff you muddle through to get to the monsters.  If you realized that you needed Godzilla to be a hero and for him to have evil monsters to fight, how could you screw this up?

The only interesting actor in the film, Bryan Cranston, dies early on.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson?  His name bores me.  I don’t care what happens to him.

Sure, I’ve seen worse films, but I was pretty disappointed with this.  I had hopes, however unfounded they were.

The kids, though, enjoyed the movie.  Only time will tell if that’s what they really think.  I think it’s been high time to revisit the classic Godzilla movies anyways.  They’re fun.  Heck, the original Gojira (1954) is actually a pretty great sci-fi horror film, no camp joy needed.

Actually, last comment.  This movie had some seriously goofy bad dialogue.  I wondered if it was meant to be some sort of homage to badly dubbed Godzilla movies of yore.  The goofiest that comes to mind is:

Admiral William Stenz: This alpha predator of yours, doctor, do you really think he has a chance?
Dr. Ichiro Serizawa: The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around. Let them fight.

It’s this cheesy weird bad science, dumb as a bag of hammers.  Maybe they should have gone further that way.  Maybe that could have worked out.

 

Lifeforce (1985)

Lifeforce (1985) movie poster

Tobe Hooper
viewed: 05/12/2014

I for one welcome of sexy naked space vampire overlords.

I wish I could tell you how many The Cannon Group/Golan-Globus production movies I saw back in the day.  It’s funny because “back in the day,” I was between 11-17 in the years that the Israeli cousin team of  Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus produced B-movies up the yin-yang, so I don’t know what I knew about movies that I didn’t learn from Sneak Previews with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, but I knew when I saw that logo and saw those names, the film would be of a particular ilk and quality

Back in 1985, though,  who knew that Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires would wind up a long-time personal favorite?

The movie poster, I’ve always thought, was pretty cool.  The open eyeball juxtaposed above the planet Earth.  I liked that.  But really, I don’t doubt, it came in large part from the glorious nakedness of French actress and space vampire Mathilda May.  She’s ravishing, just this side of perfect of Nastassja Kinski.  And she wears not a shred of clothing through most of the movie.  (I was 16. Gimmie a break.)

The film though offers a lot more than Miss May.  It’s co-written by Alien (1979) scribe Dan O’Bannon and really is a sort of a post-Alien sci-fi horror film, even with echoes of Planet of the Vampires (1965).

It starts with an Earth spaceship encountering a giant hidden ship within Haley’s Comet (timely! at the time).  Inside this H.R. Giger (R.I.P.)-knock-off alien ship, are three encased nude people (the important one being the girl, of course).  When these beings end up on Earth, they unleash a lifeforce-sucking vampirism that sets all of London in a doomed apocalyptic tizzy.

There are some excellent zombie creature/corpse effects.  Really, really cool stuff, I assume the work of notable John Dykstra.

I’m not as a-swoon over it as I was as a teen but I still think it’s great stuff.

It also features a pre-Picardian Patrick Stewart and some other notable turns by Aubrey Morris and Peter Firth.  And as for Tobe Hooper, he may never have re-achieved his visceral horror of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) but he did make some good movies.

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained (2012) movie poster

director Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 12/25/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Love him, hate him, feel ambivalence to him, Quentin Tarantino inspires a variety of responses, usually strong and pointed.  His revisionist Western about a freed slave turned bounty hunter, Django Unchained, will keep those emotions strong, though you might shift your position one way or another.

For me, it’s the most inspired big theatrical release of the year.

What’s inspired about it is the entire concept.  A revenge film about a freed slave empowered to high gun-slinging cowboy hero, shot in a style heavily informed by the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s and 1970’s, it’s an anachronistic fantasy, absurd and yet profound, and more than anything, quite damn entertaining.

The Western genre represents a classic form of American drama and identity, defined from the end of the period itself in cheap magazines and novels and quickly taken up in cinema.  It’s a genre that started with the general heroism of European settlers taming the Wild West, fighting the brutal land and the native peoples who lived there, as well as the best and worst of human character in battles between the good, bad, and ugly.

And until the 1960’s, this was a white man’s version of America.  Even in films that were subversive or culturally critical, the fact of the matter stood that the heroes were white, no matter what color they wore.  Revisionist Westerns, which began in the 1960’s started to take up the mantle of the Native Americans, no longer purely posing them as savage villains but trying to begin to accept the reality of what was America’s first most atrocious defining reality: not simple mistreatment and misrepresentation, but the genocide that cleared the West for “American” settlers from sea to shining sea.

While it’s doubtful that the Western has ever come to full terms with that, revisionism to the classic and codified tropes of cinema for this genre opened doors for other angles as well.  But outside of Mel Brooks’ satire Blazing Saddles (1972), I can’t think of another important Western that really dealt with an African American protagonist in this largely historical genre.  Many films have been centered around pre- and post- and during the Civil War, but slavery as a key topic is most unusual.

Why I call Tarantino’s “Spaghetti Western” conceit inspired is that it gives license to the story to not have to hew to utter historical truths.  Adding in a musical score featuring funk and hip-hop, he rises above mere meta-commentary, film referencing and, much like he did in Inglourious Basterds (2009), with his fantasy revenge of Jews massacring Nazis in World War II, he sets a stage for a radical narrative in a world of mixed history and “truthiness”.

The criticism that has arisen about his use of the word “nigger” in Django Unchained seems incredibly off the mark.  The world depicted here, the pre-Civil War South is the place that such an epithet was defined, and as ugly as it is to hear it, it’s probably one of the more close to historical truth aspects of the film rather than unpleasant indulgence as it was in his contemporary film Jackie Brown (1997).  It’s far more fantastic, this whole concept of this German dentist turned pro-emancipation bounty hunter, than the commonality of that word in that period in that place.

It’s a radical concept, this film, and more than anything, it’s funny, brutal, clever, surprising, inventive, and exciting.

Jamie Foxx is great as Django, as Christopher Waltz is as Dr. King Schultz.  But Leonardo DiCaprio gets the best role as the juicy horrible slave owner Calvin Candide.  Samuel L. Jackson is also fantastic in his role as Candide’s head house slave, with his own virulent racism and complex relationship with the worst people in the film.

I have to say that this is probably the best new film that I’ve seen in 2012.  Tarantino is suggesting that he wants to step down from film-making before he starts to “get old” and start turning out lame films as many of his hero directors did.  But oddly enough, it seems that he’s actually at the top of his game at the moment, tapping into things that somehow touch on much more profundity than arguably his earlier films did.

This is a very good film, I think.  A clever, inventive, inspired concept, executed aptly and beautifully.  One of the best trips to the theater in a long while.

Star Wars

Star Wars (1977) movie poster

(1977) director George Lucas
viewed: 11/11/2011

The other day, I was stumbling among various childhood effluvia of mine and showed it to my kids.  When I showed Clara a picture of Darth Vader, she told me that she kind of knew who he was (from Lego Star Wars video games, various household items, and general culture) but had never actually seen the movie, Star Wars.  In fact, she’d never seen any of them.  I realized that while Felix had been introduced to these films at an early age, she was probably too young at the time to be interested.

I felt vaguely ashamed.  Of all of the films that we watch together, I was overlooking one of the most culturally significant film series of my generation, something that is a major cultural touchpoint for apparently all generations that have followed.  You can criticize it from here to kingdom come but by goodness, everyone has seen it, knows Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, R2D2, C2PO, Chewbacca, Yoda, and the rest.

I also saw this as a great opportunity.  At age 7, she is kind of an excellent age to introduce to the films without cynicism.   In many ways, she’s at an age to enjoy the films as much as any time in her life.

The funny thing was, she really had no clue about the film.  She couldn’t name or recognize any of the characters, Darth Vader included, with the exception of Yoda, who of course doesn’t show up until the second film.

Interestingly, Felix has his own take on the whole series.  Part of a generation who has all six films to work from, he sees the story as starting with Episode 1 and ending with Episode 6 (Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)).  For those of us of my generation, and perhaps other people trying to watch the films in the order of their production, you start with the original film, Star Wars, before it had a subtitle and work your way through the chronological productions, ending with Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005),

Apparently, this touched some sort of hidden nerd nerve within me.

Clara started by asking lots of questions (which she does a lot of on any occasion).  “Who is the baboon guy?”  “Where is the green guy with the big ears?”  “Why does she roll her hair up so weird?”  But as the story got going, she got into it.

This time through the film, what was I thinking?  So focused on Clara’s experience, I wasn’t pulling it all in quite the same way as I would on my own.  At first, I was struck by some of the dated design and the lesser moments.  But from the first striking notes of John Williams’ score, I was struck, the way that I was struck back when I was 8 years old, first experiencing the film, being as in love with a movie as much as I ever became.  Numerous scenes resonated similarly.  Lines of dialogue, echoed in my brain, nuance for nuance.

In some ways, perhaps many ways, I’ve been fighting the fact that I truly loved Star Wars myself.

My feeling has generally been that, yes, I did love Star Wars as a kid, as much as anybody.  My experience was personal, visceral, real, but as I grew up and realized how universal this experience was, it kind of cheapened it for me.  And as Star Wars has gone on to such weird extremes of cultural saturation that I’ve felt more alienated from it.  That other people had more intense relationships with the movie.  For all the times that I saw the film in the theater (before home video), many, many others had wound up seeing it many, many times more than I ever had and many, many others have been more obsessed with it than I ever was.

In some ways, it caused me to develop a distance with the film(s).  In this post-modern world, where it is very hard to experience anything with fresh, unjaundiced, not pre-influenced eyes and mind, I had been in some denial of my own genuine relationship with the movie and its sequels.

It’s hard to know how Clara ultimately felt about it.  She said she liked it and I believe she did.  Felix enjoyed it, but not overtly.  I think it’s likely that we’ll revisit (or in her case “visit”)  it’s sequels, at least the original sequels, in the coming weeks.

We shall see.

X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Matthew Vaughn
viewed: 06/17/2011 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

It’s kind of ridiculous, the pure quantity of superhero movies that have been rolling out for the past couple of years.  Marvel Comics in particular has amped up its production of movies, preparing for next summer’s Avengers movie, giving each of the characters their own solo film in the build-up.  While that run is quite unprecedented and a somewhat interesting, though also deplorable marketing beast that it is, the situation of The X-Men as well as other franchises, is the “re-boot”.

While re-boot or re-imagining is the common style of re-make these days, what’s even more unusual is how short the cycles are now between one run of movies and a whole new era of directing, producing, casting to attempt to re-invigorate a franchise when it’s hit its first commercial failure.

The first X-Men series of films (X-Men (2000), X2 (2003), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)), spanning 2000-2006 with its own one-off spin-off (so far) was a success story for Marvel and the comic book movie in general.  The X-Men have long been a fan favorite, but the characters’ designs and powers would have been very difficult to create without digital special effects.  And the casting of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, the comic’s most popular character, made him a star and probably helped pave the way for all comers since.  But the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand, which had the feel of a final installment to a trilogy of sorts, was also a bomb of a film.

For X-Men: First Class, the re-boot does something akin to the successful Star Trek (2009) re-boot, going back to a time before the other series came together, an origin story in which the main characters are younger and more vital.  Of course, the Star Trek re-boot had a clever angle of telling a story that hadn’t been told before.  X-Men: First Class goes back to paint the origin of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and others, perhaps re-tweaking tales that have been told in comic books before.

They set it in the early 1960’s, centered around the Cuban Missile Crisis, with a tweak on real world history.  It’s also interestingly close to the real world creation of the X-Men by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, so there is an uncanny sense of aptness in this setting.

The story is very much about how Magneto and Xavier started as colleagues and how they came to be on separate sides of a political spectrum, and eventually arch enemies.  The film gets a lot from McAvoy and Fassbender, who both have charm and give the film some of its striven for depth.

It’s directed by Matthew Vaughn, who only a year ago brought out the fun and ironic superhero movie Kick-As (2010).  Here he’s working with some heavy comic book lore, the origin story of one of comic-book-dom’s favorite gangs, and telling it alongside historical portents of WWII and what almost became WWIII.  And he does a pretty good job of it, considering the sprawling amount of narrative that the film has to pack in.

With your average single superhero movie, one villain/one hero can make for a more balanced story, a little more time to invest in the good and the evil.  When films add more and more heroes and villains they often get off-track.  For a film about a team, each hero and villain needing some significant back-story to give them depth, not to mention the big build-up to when the hero(es) have to save the world in a big showdown…there is just a lot of exposition to contain in a two hour plus movie.

I took the kids, who were nonplussed about going to the movie, but they both enjoyed it.  I do have to give it to Clara who observed to me that “All the characters have superpowers but the women have to take their clothes off to use theirs’.”  Which is an astute feminist criticism from a 7 year old girl.

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 09/05/09 at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, SF, CA

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film is a bit of a surprise for me.  He’s the kind of guy that either evokes rabid appreciation or absolute disdain.  And after his last film, Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007), I was reaching more deeply into the latter camp.  What is surprising to me is not that Inglorious Basterds has also received either rapt appreciation or utter scorn, but rather that I find myself in between those two extremes, finding myself in the place of “liking”, not loving, not loathing.

The movie is an entertaining romp of sorts, following a group of “Nat-see” hunters, led by Brad Pitt, a group of Jewish soldiers who run an Apache-like murder spree of any and all Nazi soldiers they encounter.  But also it follows the story of a French Jewish girl, who escapes her family’s slaughter, moves to Paris and runs a cinema, and has a passionate desire for revenge.  It all culminates in a successfully catastrophic end to WWII, one that has nothing to do with history, other than it picks its characters from it to an extent.

It’s a fantasy version of WWII, a revision of history.  It’s a revenge film in the classic sense, revenge of the Jews against the Nazis, empowering the Jewish portion of the resistance to be the ones who take down Hitler, Goebbels, and the rest of the Nazi hierarchy who are all trapped in a cinema, watching a propaganda film about a German sniper who killed over 200 American soldiers in one day.

The film is also significantly focused on cinema.  Typical of a Tarantino script, with characters who all have a grand knowledge of directors, actors and movies, but this film includes the notable destruction of the Nazi party by burning them alive in a cinema.  A cinema burned down with highly flammable nitrate film, while a film of the proprietress projects ghostly onto the screen and the smoke, taunting them as the burn and are shot to death by two Jewish-American soldiers.  One member of the Basterds is a former British film critic.  The whole plot turns around the promotion of one propaganda film.  And the Mata Hari-like spy is a top German film actress.  And Goebbels himself, is a filmmaker.

So what does all this mean?  In cinema: revenge?  And why a revenge film focused so much on Jewish heroism, violence, and retribution?  What is the intent or meaning?

Tarantino, as well, cites himself.  Thankfully, his visage is never really onscreen, but his self-reference is powerful.  In the recognition of cinema, the French people’s appreciation for “directors”, but even in his own citing of his trademarks.  It’s well-known that Tarantino uses “the Mexican stand-off” as a recurring trope, something he confiscated from other movies he liked, in which a number of characters are caught in a scene pointing guns at one another, waiting for something to happen before the carnage ensues.  In this case, Pitt’s character actually uses the term in discussing the nature of the situation to a German soldier, citing in plain language the set-up of the scene and drawing attention to the director.

But ultimately, the very ending scene, after Pitt has carved a swastika onto the face of a Nazi villain, the camera, looking up at Pitt and another “basterd”, catches Pitt’s estimation of his work, looking down upon the cinema’s audience, and he says, “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”  Cut to “Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino” on the screen.  Um, that is one trope that I did understand.

The thing is sprawling and strange.  The whole set-up, an alternative universe version of World War II, set entirely for the possibility of the scenario of the film, this revenge destruction of the Nazis by the very people that they had sought to exterminate.  On a grand scale of course.  But what the heck is he trying to say?  It doesn’t feel like it makes a lot of sense, outright.

But it is entertaining, not grating or hateful as Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof.  And it had me thinking, spinning cogs and wheels in my brain, though not to any significant conclusions.  So, masterpiece or not, and I would lean toward the “not”, it’s hardly as atrocious or spectacular as one might hear or suspect.

And if anybody has a better handle on the “read” of the film (and not just saying that he doesn’t even know himself), please feel free to ping me and let me know.  And because of the intentionally mysterious re-spelling of “basterds”, in which he is quoted as saying that he’ll never reveal why he changed the spelling (the film at one time was intended to be a re-make of Enzo G. Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards (1978), though it’s not at all the same).  I don’t know.  It’s a perplexing wonder, though not necessarily profound.