Smile Politely

Two weeks’ worth of The Box: Princes, Enemies, and Basterds

While sitting down to write this article, a trailer for the webisode series/eventual-DVD-movie of Circle of Ei8ht came on television, which inspired two thoughts: (1) I hate it when films replace letters with numbers in their titles, especially when the shapes don’t even fit. Replacing “o” with “0” is one thing, but Se7en doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Neither does 6ixty9ine. And (2) mass producers of food products should not make films.

Those of us with far too much interest in cinematic disasters of the 1980s remember Mac and Me, the abortive E.T. ripoff that was more or less produced entirely by McDonald’s and its corporate partners. Then there was Akeelah and the Bee, a dull and politically maladroit film about an economically disadvantaged black girl triumphing over upper-middle-class Asian robot-children in a spelling bee, produced by coffee giant Starbucks. (The coffee shop everyone loves to hate soon gave up producing films, though because they seem to own Paul McCartney’s soul, we can be sure they’ll be in the music business for a few years yet.)

Circle 8f Ei8ht is produced by, of all brands, Mountain Dew. Surprisingly, it is not the totally rad story of a rebellious Xtreme athlete whose vision of a sick stunt that combines air surfing, snowboarding, moto-crossing, and roller-shoeing inspires an entire nation to Do the Dew, but a banal horror film. In Circl8 8f Ei8h8, the creepily thin guy from Road Trip and The New Guy, whose existence you had blissfully forgotten since your adolescence, plays a creepily thin guy who…videotapes things. Which somehow leads to scary situations involving some mirrors and a green substance not unlike in hue to a certain Pepsi product. C8rc88 8f 8i8h8 looks to be one of the best horror almost-films released on the internet in the latter quarter of 2009.

New Releases From the Box

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Dec 8)

Harry Potter 5 was more or less a superhero film, with clearly defined hierarchies of heroes and villains (I frequently refer to it as Harry Potter Assembles the Justice League) and lots of badass action. On top of this, it was one of the more cohesive Harry Potter films, which have all too frequently felt oddly bloated and incoherent, seeming more like loosely assembled scenes from the book than complete, narrative popcorn films. I hoped that the fifth Harry Potter film was indicative that the series, the films in which I always end up seeing despite my acute lack of interest, was tending toward scripts and forms that would actually appeal to and entertain me.

Harry Potter 6 has proved my hope after the fifth film to be ill-founded, as it again left me with the feeling that I was missing something. By the time the eponymous Prince reveals his true identity at the end of the film, in a laughably anticlimactic pronouncement (“Harry Potter, I am the Half-Blood Prince” [character walks away]), the film had either forgotten to fully explain why the Prince was so important, or I had just lost interest. I do remember that one of Harry’s textbooks had been previously owned by the Half-Blood Prince, but I couldn’t tell if this had any more significance than when real-life, non-wizard people find out that one of their parents’ friends used the same textbook as them.

Also, Dumbledore dies.

Public Enemies (Dec 8)
It speaks to the paucity of decent films this summer that this was one of the best of the season. It wasn’t a bad film, it was just a Michael Mann film: sporadically visually interesting, exciting in spurts, well-acted, but questionably scripted and narratively unadventurous. Public Enemies has some great action scenes–including one of the best shootouts in recent memory–but the real issue with the film is that you can see where it’s going at every step. Yes, this is based on a true story, but embellishments are inevitable and even welcome, and the ones they choose fail to challenge any gangster movie stereotypes.

Maybe this is part of Mann’s point: clearly, with his identifiably HD hand-held cameras, he’s trying to change the look of the period-gangster piece. I get the feeling he wanted to film a classic gangster movie in a way we’d never seen it filmed before, but one wonders if he and his co-writers couldn’t have found a more original approach to the source material. I’d recommend the film, but don’t expect anything spectacular.

The Hangover (Dec 15)
The “funniest movie of the year” was no better, smarter, or funnier than the biggest comedy flop of the year, Funny People. A lot of the jokes are predicated on fundamentally sexist and racist philosophies (see: The Shrew; the stripper with a heart of gold; the effeminate, perverse, screaming, inscrutable Asian man; the men vs. women sexual promiscuity double standard, etc.), but it occasionally made me laugh, so…yeah.

Inglourious Basterds (Dec 15)
Is appropriating the worst thing that humans have ever done to humans (i.e., the Holocaust) in order to make a self-conscious, ahistorical, self-indulgent, stylized, gory revenge film irresponsible? Of course. But I’m not convinced that Tarantino’s particular re-writing of history is any more irresponsible than, say The Dirty Dozen‘s. By being such a blatant lie (I’m going to go ahead and give away that Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, and Bormann all die in the film’s less-gory-than-elsewhere-reported climax), Tarantino’s film implicitly challenges the notion that any film can represent to us the truth.

Instead of the truth, Tarantino offers us absolutes. The film’s maxim: it’s okay to torture Nazis indiscriminately for what they’ve done. While in the real world, I vehemently oppose this philosophy, Tarantino is not at all concerned with the real world: you get the sense that Inglorious Basterds wishes that its main characters’ philosophy was the truth, rather than thinks it so. A dangerous wish, perhaps, but the cinema often constructs worlds of absolutes; here as in many other places it intersects with one of the most absolute events in world history, World War II/the Holocaust. Tarantino manages to make the film more a clever comment on cinema, World War II, and the dozens of times the two have met, than an actual endorsement of the terrible acts committed by the Basterds.

So unlike other Tarantino films, the strength of Inglourious Basterds is the thought behind the images, not the stylized, gory events themselves. And the best moments of the film come not from the story of the Basterds, but from the film’s concurrent story, that of the young French Jew Shosanna Dreyfus, who, after escaping the Nazis in the film’s opening scene, ends up owning Parisian theater under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux. The collision of art and the real world is played out as Shosanna decides to borrow a Nazi tactic, using film as an incendiary, to take out the high command. With films like Jud Suss, of course, the Nazi’s use of film as an “incendiary” is, in a sense, figurative. In the explosive and surprisingly emotional (yes, a Tarantino film with emotion!) climax, Shosanna’s use is anything but.

Reports of hours of unused footage of the Basterds themselves suggest that Tarantino also realized at some point that the Dreyfus storyline was much smarter, less exploitative, and much more affective. I believe truly that this half of the film is the best bit of filmmaking with which Tarantino’s ever been involved, and if his future products are more like this and less like the first decade and a half of his career, he may very well have re-earned in me a fan who had been somewhat disillusioned since leaving adolescence.

G Force (Dec 15)
Sorry, man. I’m not willing to find out.

Next Week on From the Box
District 9 is definitely the best social-commentary-sci-fi film that came out in August, but maybe only because G.I. Joe was July. In other news, (500) Days of Summer has the market cornered on unnecessary and confounding parentheses, and the first sentence of this paragraph might have been a joke. But in what regard? Find out next week.

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