More thoughts on Inglourious Basterds

December 11, 2009

Inglourious Basterds was among the many movies I missed during my time away from the daily reviewing grind. I finally caught up with it on DVD (review here), but as usual I’ve got a few more thoughts to share.

1. Eli Roth may be the absolute worst screen actor I’ve ever seen. I Know QT likes casting his buddies, some of whom can actually deliver. And yet: wow. All Roth really had to do here was bash a dude’s skull with a baseball bat and not make us cringe. Mission half accomplished.

2. Basterds is QT’s talkiest effort outside of Kill Bill 2. But in between films he seems to have learned how to pace the yakking. The opening scene with Waltz is a keeper, but I actually prefer the tavern sequence in the middle of the film. The tension comes from multiple directions and ends up being far more complex. Great stuff.

3. Oddly enough enough I would have enjoyed Basterds more without the actual Basterds. So you get a bunch of rogue Jews who like to scalp Nazis (and one who swings a mean Louisville Slugger). Kind of a funny idea. And that’s about all it is. Is there supposed to be something righteous about gruesomely annihilating faceless Nazis? Nazis are bad. I get it. But I can’t remember a recent film with such hollow sadism. Then again, Eli Roth is in it.


Things I learned from watching Dumbo

December 8, 2009

Just watched Dumbo for a Disney story I’m working on.

I learned a lot:

The stork delivers babies to all the good animal boys and girls

Crows talk a little like Amos and Andy

The right kind of booze will make you hallucinate psychedelic patterns and pink elephants (Disney animators must have been into some serious ish back in the day)

Female elephants are horrible gossips

Clowns are evil

Back in business

December 8, 2009

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – or at least about a year ago in Cambridge, MA – I decided I needed a mental scratch pad to keep me writing while I was away on fellowship.

That was then. This is now. I’m a working drone again, which means no more fantasy life of auditing classes at Harvard and getting paid to not work for a year. (Seriously. They didn’t want us to work. At all). It was damn nice while it lasted.

The job? I can’t complain. I get to write about film and books. Sure newspapers are dying but hey, it’s taking a while. In Ticket parlance, I like my gig. The question is whether I’ll still want to blog while I’m back to writing for a living and trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Please join me as I find out. Now let’s see if I still remember how to save a post…

Just another case of that PTA

June 3, 2009

I haven’t taught in a few years but I’m looking forward to it. Doing a Harvard Summer School class starting in a few weeks (basic journalism) and hammering away at my syllabus. Not sure what to tell them about job prospects. Not sure what to tell me about job prospects. Sigh. 

Recent movie thumbnails:

T4 (or whatever they’re calling it) – Missing the magic of storytelling, but not so bad.

Days of Heaven (just caught up with the Criterion edition) – Not sure if a better- looking movie has ever been made.

The Hangover – The studio minions will hunt me down and do evil things if I say too much, but I love me some Todd Phillips. If you can see his first doc, Frat House, do so. Then drop and give me twenty.   

Goodbye from the Harvard Faculty Club.

Crazy up in here

June 1, 2009

Phew. Fellowship over. I start teaching Harvard Summer School in 3 weeks. Back to work for The Dallas Morning News. Just got from Book Expo America.

And now I remember what work is like. Darn, I missed it so.

Joe and the great generation gap

March 6, 2009

As previously reported I am obsessed with the Nixon era (probably because I was born in its midst). It was a period of wholesale division along lines of class, race, gender and, perhaps mot important, generation. For my money, no movie nails these rifts and anxieties more viscerally than Joe.

It came out in 1970 (the same year I came out). On one level it can be seen as a mere hippiesploitation movie, with some classically cliched scenes of groovy youngsters ecstatically indulging in sex, drugs and flashing lights. But at its core the film is fiendishly smart social satire that chills the blood when it gets serious. 

The title character is played by Peter Boyle as the ultimate Nixon-era hardhat, a blue collar reactionary who rants and raves against the youngsters bringing his great country down. He’s Archie Bunker with the sitcom charm rubbed raw. Joe ends up  befriending an emasculated businessman who happens to have just killed his daughter’s drug dealer boyfriend. (The daughter is played by a very young Susan Sarandon). Joe thinks this is cool. Really cool. Thus we have a wicked and bloody commentary about how Nixon melded the establishment and the working class into a powerful political and social mechanism. 

Joe came out the same year as the infamous Hardhat riot, in which New York construction workers beat down anti-war protesters in the wake of Kent State. Anyone know if art imitated life? The realities of movie production schedules suggest not, but I’d be curious if anyone knows for sure. In any case the synchronicity is impressive. A final note: Joe was directed by John G. Avildsen, who made his name a few years later with a slightly more uplifting film called Rocky.


February 22, 2009

Why is it so easy to not blog? I mean this thing has been sitting here for three weeks, waiting to be fed. I keep doing things and thinking “Yep, gonna blog about this when I get home.” Then I do something like read a book. Or, more frequently, get drunk and watch SportsCenter.

The problem gets at the rough road traveled by the the print media practitioner en route to the second-nature Web world. You can hold a newspaper, book or magazine in your hands. It’s tangible. It’s there. It clutters up your apartment. But the blogged word floats into space. You can track your stats, you  can commune with other bloggers. But somehow it seems ethereal. So the nagging voice in your head says “Blog, damn it.” But, like Bartleby, you’d prefer not to.

So what have I been doing? I went to see the Lakers beat the Celtics, the fulfillment of an ’80s boyhood sporting obsession. I went to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo and left floating on vocal harmonies. I have fretted with my fellow fellows about heading back into the real world. Mostly I’ve checked out a lot of Hahvahd classes and tried to keep up with the reading. Southern Literature; Postmodern Literature (love me some White Noise); The American Novel (Sister Carrie makes me want to pull my hair out); history of documentary film; and R&B, Soul and Funk. I checked out a Civil War graduate seminar and came to the shocking conclusion that Harvard graduate students are really smart.

And then, I blogged.

Paul Schrader at Harvard Film Archive

February 1, 2009


Paul Schrader (pictured here with the ever-sartorial Harvard Film Archive director Haden Guest) was a young film critic when he first saw Robert Bresson’s classic minimalist crime film Pickpocket. His first thought: “This is great.” His second thought: “I could do this.” Thus a filmmaker was born.

Schrader, perhaps still best known for writing the quintessential film of American male loneliness (Taxi Driver), is at the Archive this week for a retrospective of his work. Saturday’s program included his directorial debut, Blue Collar (1978), and the moody 1991 drug-dealer-in-midlife-crisis drama Light Sleeper (1991), the third chapter of Schrader’s trilogy on, well, male loneliness (after Taxi Driver and American Gigolo).

Schrader, who will bring his new film Adam Resurrected to Berlin next week, has had a spotty directorial career, including some recent duds (stay away from Dominion: A Prequel to the Exorcist). But I was easily swept into the early-’90s pre-Rudy New York atmosphere of Light Sleeper, even if I share Schrader’s opinion (shared during the post-film Q&A) that the conclusion falls flat.

A subdued Willem Dafoe plays a middle-age narcotic delivery boy in the service of a high-end dealer (Susan Sarandon). The Schrader staples of alienation and redemption are in full effect, accompanied by the religious symbolism well known to fans of the filmmaker raised in a strict a Dutch Calvinist family (he didn’t see his first movie until he was 18).        

But it seems all religious symbolism is not created equal. Where Light Sleeper (which takes its title from the New Testament) suggests the sacred through scarves, anointing with cologne and the like, Schrader wasn’t shy on Saturday in his criticism of films and filmmakers that get too overt in their Christ imagery. Among the sinners according to Paul: Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, in which Mickey Rourke sports a Jesus tattoo and Marisa Tomei rhapsodizes over the Passion of the Christ; and Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, in which Clint’s bullet-ridden body assumes the position of a crucifixion.                 

The Schrader HFA docket concludes Sunday with American Gigolo, Patty Hearst and Hardcore. No, they’re not showing his Exorcist prequel, though William Friedkin will be here next month to show the original. May the power of Christ compel him.

John Updike, 1932-2009

January 27, 2009

I had the pleasure of seeing John Updike speak early last year. Here’s that story, in which I somehow managed to get his age wrong by a year. Nice one. Oddly enough I just started reading Rabbit, Run over the weekend, having no idea Updike was ill. One of my favorite novel openings ever: a Pennsylvania man fed up with his “dumb” wife and bleak prospects goes to pick up his son and his car, but instead hops into said car, drives all night through West Virginia with the intention of heading southwest, gobbles down a few hamburgers…and heads back home. Another recent obsession of mine (to go with Tricky Dick): post-World War II WASP spiritual malaise (hence my recent cruise down Revolutionary Road).

Last but not least, here’s the New York Times’ fine Updike obit. RIP.


January 26, 2009

So I’ve been on a bit of a Nixon bender of late, resulting in this piece I wrote for the Dallas Morning News’ Points section. (Peep the video appeal to his “silent majority” in 1969, a typically shrewd political gambit). I found Frost/Nixon pretty satisfying (as did, apparently, the Oscar folks), but  it was Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland that really got me going. An admitted narcissist, I’m fascinated by the idealism, backlash and violence of the years covered in the book (1965-1972), which happen to coincide with the time I was born. I’m also drawn to comparisons between the Nixon years and the Bush years that just ended (but whose legacy we’ll be feeling for  a long time to come).

I’ve got a cold so I’m packing it in. Look for more posts on my obsession with recent American history.