Sunday, August 23, 2009

What's Black and White and Dead All Over? - A Review of Inglourious Basterds

As I sit down to write my review of Inglourious Basterds, I realize that everything I write will be colored by the fact that I'm a devoted Tarantino fan. So regardless of what I say, if you find his previous films ridiculous or his violence gratuitous, you're probably going to feel the same way about this one. It's not a departure for him. Of course, for a fan, that's hardly a bad thing.

Pesky disclaimer aside, I will get down to the business of telling you everything you need to know about Tarantino's latest offering, Inglourious Basterds. The film follows an elite group of eight American soldiers as they enter Nazi-occupied France with the single goal of killing as many Nazis as they can. This hardcore killing team eventually becomes embroiled in a plot to assasinate Hitler and his top men. Brad Pitt stars as Lt. Aldo Raine, leader of the band of misfit American soldiers, and Diane Krueger plays Bridget von Hammersmark, a German actress turned American informant. To say more about the plot would give too much away, and let's face it, Tarantino's films aren't that plot driven anyway. He keeps it simple. Maybe that's why I like him (or at least his movies.)

As soon as the film opens, you are immediately aware that you are watching a Tarantino creation. The opening credits are in his usual throwback style, and the opening music is similar to that of his other movies. Immediately following the credits is the title for "Chapter 1." I have to admit that in the past I have found Tarantino's use (or overuse) of the chapter delineation to be a bit pretentious. I mean, we get it, Mr. Tarantino. You're different. You break all the rules. Whatever. For some reason, however, I found the use of chapters to be more effective in this movie. Maybe it was the fact that for once he used a chronological arrangment. Maybe it was the historical setting of the film. Whatever it was, I felt that the divisions were far more organic than some of his previously different-for-different's-sake chop jobs.

Once you get to the movie, there is no time to get bored or check your watch. There is action from Chapter 1, and it doesn't stop. While the opening scene is a bit slower than the rest of the movie, it still far from static and is absolutely necessary for set-up. With Chapter 2, we are introduced to the Basterds and their charasmatic, mountain-man leader, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt.) As in his performance in Burn After Reading, Pitt shows us that he is not about being the Hollywood glamor boy. He's flat out funny (and funny looking) from his first scene, and his performance never loses momentum. His accent, which might have sounded ridiculous in any other film, only served to add to his understated comedy.

Of course, I am talking about very dark humor. This film is not for the squeamish. The Basterds harvest the scalps from their Nazi conquests and have no qualms with torture to reach their ends. Inglourious Basterds does manage to avoid the cartoonish violence of Tarantino's previous offering, Kill Bill, where everyone was a bleeder. It is still extremely violent, however, the violence is tempered by the film's demonstration of the Nazi's evil deeds. There is no Valkyrie-esque gray area here. Nazis = bad, Everyone else = good. One of the things that makes this film different from some of the recent WWII movies is the satisfying revenge angle. The viewer doesn't have to deal with any annoying, conflicted, emotionally tortured Nazis. Every Nazi in the film is pure evil, and you can't help but cheer on the Basterds as they slaughter their way across France.

Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the film is the clever, caricature-like portrayal of historical characters, both good and bad. Hitler rants and raves in a flamboyant cape, Goebbels preens in front of his mistress and her poodle, and Winston Churchill puffs his giant cigar. The people who are most real are not the ones pulling the strings; they are the people down in the trenches getting dirty. Brad Pitt may insist that Tarantino has defined, or perhaps redefined the WWII genre, but I submit that he pokes big funny holes in all the WWII movies that have gone before. It's apparently not enough for him to do it "his way." He has to point out the "ridiculous" (Pitt's word) in the old way.

While I did love this film, there was one aspect of which I was less than fond. The music. I know Tarantino prefers a very specific style of music that has become an easily recognizable characteristic of his films. In this historical flick, however, the soundtrack was anachronistic and, frankly, at times, distracting. It was as if Tarantino felt the need to keep reminding the viewer that they were watching one of his films.

Another curious inconsistency was the one character bio inserted partway into the film. If he had done this throughout, then it might have worked, but instead, I only saw one instance of his taking the viewer completely out of the film to give a comic book hero style introduction complete with massive font graphics of his name flashed across the screen.

Despite his new cast, Tarantino did find a place for his favorites. Samuel L. Jackson didn't appear in the movie, but he did do periodic narration. I wasn't sure if I loved the narration, which seemed a little too sporadic to be effective (or consistent), but ultimately, I wouldn't wish it gone, if only for sentimental reasons. After all, what is a Tarantino film without Jackson? Harvey Keitel also lends his voice to a scene, though it's very brief.

All these little criticisms do not add up to very much in the scheme of things, however. The movie was fun, fast, and vintage Tarantino. I went into the theater wanting to like it, and I actually did. It doesn't usually work out that way. While the movie may break new ground in WWII movies, I don't think Tarantino did anything significantly different from his usual M.O. That's okay with me, though. I go to one of his films expecting certain things, and he certainly delivered. I left satisfied, not only with the movie but also with the justice of it all. The body count is high, but so is the level of revenge. But most importantly, nobody fell in love, felt regret, or found a deeper truth. Oh, and you get to see Brad Pitt speak Italian with a Tennessee accent. Now that's why I go to the movies.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Are You Excited?

I've been thinking about stupid questions today. We all get asked them, and, let's face it, we all ask them from time to time. Comedian Bill Engvall has even made a pretty good living from people's stupid questions. And while this blog entry will most certainly turn into a bit of rant, I must admit that I have asked more than my share of stupid questions over the years. I may have even asked the stupid questions in question. (How's that for writing skill? Don't ever tell my professors I wrote that sentence.)

I have decided that pregnancy is a time ripe for stupid questions. People rarely think before they ask expectant mothers questions. Like the unwritten rule that mommies-to-be no longer are entitled to personal space, there is apparently a rule that says you can ask a pregnant woman anything. It doesn't even have to make sense.

As soon as you spill the big news to a friend or acquaintance, there are always two questions that follow. One (usually the first) is perfectly logical. It's usually some variation of "When are you due?" or "How far along are you?" Makes sense. It's the next question that kills me. This lovely, well-meaning person looks you (and possibly your partner) in the eye and asks, "Are you excited?"

What kind of question is that? First of all, you've just shared your big announcement voluntarily. What about that smacks of indifference to the asker? Which leads me to my next question. What do they really expect you to say? Is this a rhetorical question? Either you're going to say "yes" and mean it, or lie and say "yes." Do they really think you might say no? I can see it now. "Actually, we're really bummed, but we wanted to track you down and tell you anyway." Now that would be a fun conversation.

Next dumb question? "Are you going to find out what you're having?" (Okay, I admit I'm pretty sure I've asked this one.) Isn't the answer always going to be yes? I know I'm talking semantics here, but I really am tempted the next time someone asks me to just say, "Eventually." After all, shouldn't I get some fun out of this?

I leave you with a quote from one of my favorite movies, Undercover Blues (we're not talking great cinema here, folks, just fun.)

Dennis Quaid is pushing his child's stroller down a New Orleans street when a policeman friend asks him a question.
"Oh, cute baby! Boy or girl?"
"Gosh, I hope so."


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dead Cows, Dead Nazis, and a (hopefully) Not-Dead Story

I'm feeling slightly less panicked today than I have been over the past few weeks. I have cranked out a VERY rough draft of my next story, and I don't completely hate everything about it. That's progress, right? It actually ended up taking a very different direction than what I had planned (which isn't saying much since I had very little planned.) But just going where the writing takes you usually leads to good things (or so I'm told.) I ended up doing something a little different and splitting up the narrative between a first person narrator and a limited third person. I'm not sure it works yet, but I like the idea anyway, so I guess that's something.

Because I'm working on what has come to be known as a "Laura" story, I had to call one of my technical advisors (my mom) today to get some advice on a somewhat grisly detail of my story. (Just exactly how long could a dying cow remain lying down before the end comes?) Who would have thought I'd ever be asking that question. Unfortunately, my TA couldn't give me a definitive answer and will have to refer to another of my TA staff, my grandmother. I guess if you're going to write about farming, it's handy to have some farming types on staff. Makes me sad that the real expert is no longer around to answer questions. There would be no inaccuracies in my farming stories if Granddaddy were my technical advisor.

Before I start sounding too celebratory about my writing progress, I should remember that I still have several hundred pages of Flannery O'Connor to wade through before my third deadline. I must say that while I love O'Connor, this complete and extended immersion into her writing has tempered my affection a little. I'm afraid there may indeed exist too much of a good thing. All my other books (that I really want to read) on my reading list are tantalizing me and making it harder to plow through yet another story of Southerners fallen on hard times. Was anybody sane or even nice in Georgia in the forties and fifties? Apparently not where Miss O'Connor hung out.

As a reward for all my hard work (we'd be doing it regardless), Steve and I are going to see Inglourious Basterds on Friday. I can hardly wait. We haven't been to the theater since Public Enemies (yawn), and I could use a little cinematic therapy. Actually, it's more like Quentin Tarantino redeeming me from the cinematic sins of Michael Mann. Please, Mr. Tarantino, send me a little senseless violence with a simple plot and lots of dead NAZIs. Warning: If anyone cries, falls in love, or looks passionately into somebody else's eyes, I'm out.

My other reward for eeking out another story (rough though it may be)? I get to write a blog entry. Why is it that writing a blog entry is never intimidating? Nor does it hang over my head like some dreaded chore. Sometimes story first drafts do that. You'd think I didn't love writing the way I have to force myself to sit down and work on first drafts. Oh, well. Here's hoping another good movie will come out soon so I can "reward" myself after the next story. And the one after that. And the one after that.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tom Sawyer in the Limelight - A Review of I Love You, Man

Saturday night, we went to some friends' house for dinner and a movie. After some after some highly edible food, we headed into the living room for a viewing of I Love You, Man, featuring Paul Rudd, Rashida Jones (The Office), and Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall.)

While this film was not associated with Judd Apatow in any way (as far as I know), it had a similar feel to many of his movies. It had the same same crude humor and even many of the same Apatow go-to cast members. Another thing this film shared with other Apatow movies I've seen is the highly likable characters. Despite the flawed personalities, unimaginable insecurites, and crazy situations, the viewer is left feeling like they understand and care about the characters. No one is a completely bad guy (not even Jon Favreau's character with his hilarious and hideous perm.) These are basically good people just trying to get by in the best way they know how.

The film follows Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) as he gets engaged (to Rashida Jones' character) only to realize that he has no close male friends. What follows is a ridiculous, and yet somehow still charming, journey to finding a bosom pal. Klaven's new buddy, played by Jason Segel, is a little unorthodox, though certainly well-meaning. Together they bond over their shared love of all things Rush and their mutual feelings of loneliness.

Paul Rudd's performance, while entertaining, is not exactly a departure for him. While I certainly wouldn't deem him a one-trick pony, I will say that no new ground is trod by his portrayal of the clueless Klaven. Jason Segel, however, is truly funny and refreshing as the mostly honest and always on edge, Sydney Fife. The trailers might make Segel's character seem like the ultimate loose cannon, but upon viewing the whole film, he seems more well-intentioned and overzealous than overt troublemaker. Jon Favreau was also good for quite a few laughs, despite his small amount of screen time. His onscreen chemistry with Jamie Pressley (My Name is Earl) is palpable as they play the couple who loves to hate...or is it hates to love? each other.

Perhaps one of my favorite reasons for loving this film was that it was yet another new film that was obviously catering to the uncool crowd. Sure these people had insanely nice houses, cars, and clothes, but deep down they were also ubernerds. The viewer who thinks that crude humor means no clever humor will be surprised by this film. Yes, there's enough frat boy funny to go around, but there's also something there for the well-rounded geek. After all, it's about two guys who worship Rush. How cool could they be?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Stuck In The Middle With O'Connor

I hate that in-between feeling. One MFA packet in, the next one dangling over my head like some ominous literary cloud, and I keep floundering away at my next story. I worked hard last week on my next piece and ended up with 7 pages of meandering nothings. Then Wednesday I tried just writing with no exact goal in mind and ended up with several pages of creative non-fiction. Somebody needs to tell my brain that I'm getting my MFA in fiction. Oh well. At least I was writing something, right?

For various reasons, I haven't been able to sit down and write anything for a few days, and I think the hiatus has done me some good. Only time will tell, of course, but I may have come up with a solution to my problem with the story. Who am I kidding? One of the problems with my story. I guess the other hitches will have to work themselves out as I go along. Either way, I feel less panicked about getting to work on Monday. I have so much to write in the next 3 months that sometimes (mostly at night when I'm trying to go to sleep) I break out into a sweaty stress fest. That's when I have to remind myself who gives me these stories and the ability to write them, and I have to remember to trust Him. It sure it hard at 2 o'clock in the morning, though.

Of course, it doesn't help that I'm currently reading Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and Manners, a collection of her essays on writing. The woman is merciless in her criticism of modern writers and literary fiction. Everything she says is so spot on, and her open disdain for inferior work leaves me in such a state, that when I sit down to write I'm paralyzed with fear. Maybe that fear is a good sign. If I could just blythely read her criticisms without feeling the burn, I would be the most clueless student writer in history. Maybe my panic shows an awareness of my inferiorities and serves as a reminder of what all writers aim for - perfection. I know that unattainable goal is thousands of miles off, and I'm still stuck at the starting gate. And after all, isn't knowing half the battle?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

"Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Thursday I was out running errands and such when I got a text message from my husband, Steve. It said, "John Hughes died today. What's going on this year?" I couldn't believe it. The man whose movies helped define 80's teen culture was gone. I know it all sounds a little dramatic on my part, but the more I thought about it, the moved I was. I mean, who else's films have become such an intrinsic part of my life and family traditions?

First, there's Thanksgiving. Every year since Steve and I got married, we have had a Thanksgiving Day tradition. Sometime during that day (or during that week if we have company), we watch Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. There's no Macy's parade on the Gray family TV. Just Steve Martin and John Candy bumbling their way across the US. Every year. And every year, I sit waiting for Steve Martin's profanity-laced meltdown at the rental car counter. Steve and I can recite it together. Sometimes he's Steve Martin and I'm Edie McClurg. Somtimes we switch it up. It's funny every time.

On the heels of Thanksgiving comes Christmas, and with it comes another John Hughes tradtion. National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. While we put up the tree and decorations we watch Christmas Vacation and A Christmas Story (not Hughes, but still great.) Actually, we put up our tree around Thansgiving, so this doubles as a Thanksgiving tradition, too. Then we rewatch Christmas Vacation several times as the merry holiday approaches.

Then there's the dreaded sick day. Feeling feverish? Got a stomach bug? Too sick to leave the house? That's when I pull out the greatest sick day movie. Ever. Ferris Bueller's Day Off. I've seen this movie probably hundreds of times, and it doesn't matter. It never gets old. I love Ferris. I want to be Ferris. Alas, I'm not even Sloane Petersen. I'm probably more Cameron Fry than anything. Oh, well.

There are sentimental favorites, too, that have no association with holidays, but are still a major part of my life. There's The Great Outdoors, National Lampoon's Vacation, and Weird Science. And dont' forget She's Having a Baby. These movies are like comfort food for my soul. I know what everyone's going to say before they say it, and that only makes the films better.

They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but I would have to least with regard to John Hughes' films. Steve and I are obsessed with movie quotes and trivia, but we both have a weakness for Hughes quotes. We can do whole blocks of dialogue from Ferris Bueller. It's like remembering the words of a friend. In honor of John Hughes, I have been posting quotes from his films on my Facebook status. When I used one of my favorites from Ferris Bueller, a friend immediately responded with another quote, and we went back and forth, amusing each other and wallowing in nostalgia. Do I feel guilty? Not a bit.

You may wonder at my leaving out some Hughes classics such as: Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles. These aren't as close to my heart as the ones I mentioned above, but if they speak to you, celebrate them. There's nothing wrong with a little Judd Nelson quote or a Molly Ringwald quip. Lay it on me. Or just turn up your boom box and pretend like you're dancing in the library.

I leave you with the words of a very wise individual:
"-Ism's in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, 'I don't believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.' Good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus. I'd still have to bum rides off people."

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Confessions of a Baby-Hater

I know I have 30 more weeks of this insanity to go, but I have to let a little of the crazy out or I'll never make it. After ten weeks of being pregnant, I have come to the comforting realization that pregnancy didn't magically turn me into that girl. (What a relief.) Wondering who that person is that I dread morphing into? Allow me to elaborate.

The other day, Steve and I were watching a Married With Children marathon. One of the episodes was from the season where Katey Sagal was pregnant. It began with the family gathered around the kitchen dinette set having a "baby meeting." Peg is massively pregnant, and the rest of the Bundys are less than thrilled with the prospect of competition for the scant nutrition of toaster leavin's. Each time their lack of enthusiasm leaks out, Peggy insists that they do penance with a chanted "Hail Baby." After a particularly anti-baby comment, Kelly is told that she must say multiple "hail baby's in the privacy of your own room."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the belly rubbers. I actually read today where some woman said that she enjoyed having people rub her pregnant stomach. I think she should have her head examined. I have to come to terms with the fact that friends and family are going to be coming at me soon, hands first. (Actually, it's already started.) What I refuse to accept as inevitable are the curious hands of strangers groping my mid-section. I have never in my life felt the compulsion to touch a total stranger's belly, and I am completely mystified by others' desire to do so. As I told a friend the other day, I'm never going to be that person.

Of course, I've been painted as a baby-hater in the past. After I wrote a short story about a woman who fakes a pregnancy and miscarriage to stop her co-workers from hassling her about not wanting children, people assumed that I was opposed to even the idea of babies. Apparently being inspired to write a story after years of harassment about my procreative plans made me an evil, neo-natal nazi.

I like to think I fall somewhere between the pie-eyed baby enthusiast and the hardcore DINK (that's Double Income No Kids.) I like the idea of babies. I've decided to have a child. Therefore, pregnancy is just kind of means to an end. I don't like baby shower games, and I'll never see the point of gruesomely detailed birthing stories relived over lunch. Does that make me a terrible person? I don't think so.

The worst is being judged by the pregnancy romantics. After my first doctor's visit, the nurse stopped me as I walked away from the lab station of the doctor's office. Didn't I want to keep my pregnancy test? Was she kidding? Why would I want to keep something soaked in...well, you know. Did she think I'd forget the result? I smiled and said no thank you, but I could feel her judgement all the way to the waiting room.

Then there was the ultrasound. I'll admit that it was pretty cool to see the baby's heartbeat. I still felt like my response was somehow less than what the technician expected, though. My one concession to the traditional prenatal excitement? I posted the ultrasound pictures on Facebook. Okay, so they were kind of amazing.

So to summarize? I feared that the day I got pregnant I would change into somebody completely different. I guess I'll have to save that experience for when the baby actually gets here (as everyone I meet likes to warn me.) As for all my other anti-baby rants? Well, I guess I'll just have to do a little prenatal penance. Hail Baby.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Dog Days of Summer

I've been MIA from blogland for over a week, so it feels like time to check in. I'd love to say that I've been off working away on some new story. Truth is, it's taken everything I have to finish my draft of my current one. Apparently, nausea and fatigue don't mix well with great writing. It's not easy to come up with new material when all you want to do is lie down (or barf.) I'm still plugging away, though.

While I haven't been as prolific with the writing as I would have liked, I have been reading, chipping away at my MFA reading list. Currently, I'm reading Flannery O'Connor's The Complete Stories and her collection of essays on writing, Mystery and Manners. Her short fiction is, as always, amazing, but what has been really been blowing me away is her writing about writing. She is so plain spoken and wise. Every time I read something that I think will be the most insightful thing ever, I go on to the next chapter and find something else. If my first 9-day residency wasn't enough to make me think twice about writing anything, Miss O'Connor's hold-nothing-back advice would make me tremble in my flip-flops all by itself.

On the lighter side, I've had some fun on the days when I don't feel like yuck personified. Last weekend, Steve and I went to the Greenville dog show. It was so much fun to see the breeders that we've befriended over the past year or two. I got to love on/hang out with Cash, the super-amazing Pointer with whom I am desperately in love. We got to hold a baby Min Pin, and we also got to see lots of gorgeous Komondors. After the show, all the Komondor people came over for a cookout at our house, and a Komondor came over, too! Ella, a beautiful little girl who's just starting to cord, stayed in her portable crate most of the visit, but when she came out, she was little-miss-friendly. She even jumped up on the couch and sat on Steve's lap! (Please keep in mind that is a huge dog,) It was the cutest thing EVER, and Steve was extremely pleased with himself. I just wish I had gotten a picture of Steve pinned to the couch by a giant ball of white fur, all while grinning like an idiot.

Unfortunately, this weekend hasn't been quite as fun-filled. I cleaned the house all by myself yesterday (a first in recent weeks), and I definitely paid for it today with lots of fatigue and nausea and loitering in a horizontal position. Big moment for the day? A trip to Bloom for groceries. Tomorrow is church, though I'm still not quite up to Sunday School yet. Seems I can't be separated from food for that long. Hopefully, I'll feel well enough tomorrow to be able to enjoy church.

On the update front, I have a couple of doctor's appointments coming up over the next two weeks. Maybe there will be new ultrasound photos forthcoming. I must admit that while I don't go in for a lot of this pregnancy stuff that other women seem to go nuts for, the ultrasound experience is pretty exciting. It certainly lends a reality to the whole affair that my puking hasn't quite given me. It's nice to have a tangible reminder of why I intentionally made myself feel this crappy.