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Traratino's "Inglourious Basterds" Draws Guilty Laughs and Massive Praise

Inglourious Basterds
directed by Quentin Tarantino
starring Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Daniel Bruhl, Diane Kruger
Oscar Nominee Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa
Like a lot of baby boomers, director/writer Quentin Tarantino grew up watching such World War II action flicks as Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen as well as lighter (and these days politically incorrect) fare about the great war on TV, such as McHale’s Navy and Hogan’s Heroes.

Tarantino has always enjoyed mixing over-the-top violence and guilty laughs and done so in the form of acts from a play. He gets to do all that in his latest screenwriting and directorial effort, Inglourious Basterds -- a movie whose title will drive those who write about it nuts because of the deliberate misspelling. (There's a '70s Italian war film with a name translated to The Inglorious Bastards which inspired this film but didn't serve as the source material).

Tarantino doesn’t hide the fact that his tale is complete fiction -- a total fantasy not based in any WWII facts. Inglorious Basterds is the nickname for a band of American guerrillas who kill Nazis in occupied France just before the D-Day invasion. Most of the “basterds” are American Jewish soldiers, who have a deeply emotional stake and are led by a suave, wisecracking commissioned officer from Tennessee, Aldo Raine (Pitt).

Pitt plays Aldo much the way the late Bob Crane played Col. Hogan, except that his character has an exaggerated “good ol’ boy” accent and a thirst for grisly violence and retribution which befits a Tarantino protagonist. When a Nazi is captured we watch Raine’s joy as he either cuts his scalp off, supposedly like an Apache warrior (the Germans refer to him as Aldo the Apache), or carves a swastika into the scalp of the few prisoners he lets survive.

As with other Tarantino films, there are several storylines in addition to the main one. The key secondary plot involves a Parisian movie theater owner, Emmanuelle Mimieux (Laurent) whose real name is Shosanna Dreyfus. Shosanna managed a miraculous escape from the French countryside years earlier when her family was massacred by a Gestapo unit led by the heinous Col. Hans Landa (Waltz). She wants to live in Paris without drawing needless attention to herself, but circumstances intervene when a dashing German war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Bruhl), falls in love with her.

Then there is Bridget von Hammersmark, a British spy modeled on Hitler’s love interest Marlene Dietrich and played by rising star Kruger. Her character obviously brings a bit of sex appeal to this war film, and it turns out that she is the glue that holds the disparate plot threads together.

The cast of Inglourious Basterds is superb, and Pitt reminds us why he is the top leading man in Hollywood today. Nonetheless, the best performance is turned in by Waltz, who puts you on the edge of your seat as the SS chief in France. Waltz’s Landa is sophisticated — he can speak five languages — urbane, charming and icily diabolical. He does for Inglourious Basterds what Ralph Fiennes did for Schindler’s List when he portrayed SS concentration camp commandant Amon Goethe.

It would have been an injustice if Waltz hadn't been nominated for a supporting actor Oscar, and even though the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are not usually Tarantino fans, he's likely to win and there are bets that this film -- nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture and Directing -- may be a spoiler in this year's race.

Return to "Memphis," Musically

Book and Lyrics by Joe DiPietro
Music and Lyrics by David Bryan
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Starring Chad Kimball, Montego Glover, J. Bernard Calloway, Michael McGrath

Although the city of Memphis was located in the heart of the Deep South where segregation was the order of the day, many white Memphians had a deep appreciation of rhythm & blues music. Sun Records' head Sam Phillips knew that there was a market for a hybridization of country music and rhythm and blues that would soon come to be known as rock & roll. Phillips would go onto sign such rock legends as Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and, yes, Elvis Presley.

It would have been great had the play Memphis been a Broadway musical recounting of the Sun Records story. Alas, it is not. Instead, Memphis is a fictionalized version of how rock & roll grew out of what white Southerners called “race music” back in the late '40s and early '50s. As a result, we have to endure two hours watching the doomed interracial romance between Huey (Kimball) and Felicia (Glover).

Huey Calhoun is a junior high school dropout and a functional illiterate who has a love of gospel music and the fast-paced music that comes out of Delray’s Underground club on Beale Street every evening. After weeks of listening to these magical melodies outside the club, Huey works up the courage to enter. While the club owner, Delray (Calloway) appreciates this white man’s love of his music, he is somewhat incredulous at Huey’s pledge to make hit records out of it. He is also less than sanguine over Huey’s romantic interest in his sister, Felicia, who is an engaging chanteuse.

Huey eventually talks his way into a tryout a major Memphis radio station where Perry Como is considered cutting edge. As soon as he closes the studio door, Huey ditches anything considered clean-cut in favor of the music that he hears at Delray’s, including that of his infatuation, Felicia. The station manager, Mr. Simmons (McGrath), of course wants to fire him on the spot, but reconsiders when the phones start ringing off the hook, requesting more of the music that he is playing. Simmons can’t understand why teens like it but he does appreciate the fact that high ratings mean big bucks for his station.

Kimball plays Huey as a cross between such folksy populist commentators as Will Rogers and John Henry Faulk and that paragon of simplistic southern virtue, Gomer Pyle. It is funny for about 20 minutes but starts grating after that. Kimball’s happy-go-lucky simpleton act also detracts from the plausibility that Felicia, a beautiful, bright lady, would ever fall for this country bumpkin. Aside from their different backgrounds, Felicia can’t wait to get out of Memphis and go to New York while Huey enjoys being a big fish in his little pond.

Memphis is far more enjoyable when the dialog stops and the singing and dancing starts. Thankfully there are plenty of terrific original numbers, all of which were composed by Bon Jovi founding member and keyboardist, David Bryan. Among the memorable toe-tapping tunes here are “The Music of My Soul,” “Scratch My Itch,” “Everybody Wants To Black on a Saturday Night,” “Change Don’t Come Easy,” and “Steal Your Rock ’n’ Roll.”

It seems ludicrous that Presley’s name is not mentioned once during this show. It didn't seem coincidental that Memphis opened on Broadway just a few months before what would have been the 75th birthday of Memphis’s most famous resident. Incidentally, Legacy Records -- which controls Elvis’s RCA catalog -- is planning a four-disc, 100-song box set to mark the occasion.

Shubert Theater

225 West 44th Street
Between Broadway and 8th Ave.
New York, NY

opened Oct. 19th, 2009

It's Hammer Time for Neo-Gothic "The Wolfman"

Directed by: Joe Johnston
Written by: Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, based on the 1941 screenplay by Curt Siodmak
Starring: Benecio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Bunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Anthony Sher, Michael Cronin, Roger Frost

Much delayed and dogged, if you will, by dark rumors of reshoots and escalating speculation that it was shaping up to be greater disaster than Van Helsing (2004), Universal Pictures' last high-profile attempt to leverage its legendary classic-horror library for the modern marketplace, The Wolfman is a pleasant surprise simply by virtue as awful as you might expect. It's a handsomely mounted throwback to Hammer's gothic frightfests — the action is even pushed back to fifty years before that of the iconic Lon Chaney Jr. film The Wolf Man (1941), which was set in the then-present day — that wears its R rating proudly and ignores current fashions in lovestruck monsters trapped in gloomy-doom romances with misunderstood teenagers. Say what you will about Benecio del Toro's Lawrence Talbot: He may be tormented, but he's no dreamy emo boy; when he broods, the sky darkens.
1891, Blackmoor, England: Estranged from his father and haunted by memories of his mother's brutal murder, acclaimed actor Lawrence Talbot hasn't been home since he was a child. But a letter from his younger brother Ben's fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), compels his return: Ben is missing and she fears the worst. Lawrence's father, larger-than-life big-game hunter Sir John  (Anthony Hopkins), greets him with practiced scorn — "the prodigal son returns," drawls Sir John, leaving no doubt that fatted calf is not on tonight's menu — and bad news: Ben's mutilated corpse has been pulled from a ditch somewhere on the rambling, half-wild Talbot estate.
The locals blame the gypsies, who set up camp with their dogs, ragged children and performing bear shortly before Ben disappeared. The gypsies murmur darkly amongst themselves and Scotland Yard's notorious Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving), the man who failed to catch Jack the Ripper, has been dispatched from London to investigate. Lawrence, driven by the inchoate conviction that Ben's death and his own inner demons are connected to dark Talbot-family secret, begins to make his own inquiries, which are met by the locals with a mix of obsequious courtesy and ill-concealed suspicion. He may be Blackmoor-born, but young Lawrence was sent to an insane asylum after his mother's death, then fobbed off on American relatives — he's as good as a stranger, and Backmoor isn't the kind of place that welcomes strangers.
And that's before Lawrence is viciously savaged by some  huge animal while poking around the gypsy encampment, sustaining injuries that should by all rights have killed him.  His miraculous — some might say unnatural — recovery smacks of devilishness.
Is The Wolfman scary? No. Does it acknowledge and respect classic werewolf-movie traditions? That would be a big yes, right down to special-effects makeup legend Rick Baker's decision to use as his inspiration Jack Pierce's two-legged, modestly-muzzled wolf man make-up as his inspiration — Rick Baker, the guy who almost single-handedly changed the face of cinematic lycanthropy with An American Werewolf in London (1981). It's sweet, in a geeky kind of way, a bow to a genre pioneer by a fanboy big enough to do whatever he damned well pleases. But the look is totally old-fashioned and unlikely to make horror fans under the age of 50 howl with delight… snotty derision, more like it.
Hopkins has his usually high old time playing the imperious Sir John, who sweeps around his gloomy manor house in a tiger-trimmed dressing gown, trailed by a Sikh retainer (Art Malik) and a snarling hound. The swarthy del Toro was born to play a wolfish man (if not Hopkins' son, raven-haired mother notwithstanding), and the supporting cast suitably colorful. The trouble is that there's really no point: Screenwriters Walker and Self are clever, but for all the new trappings — making Lawrence an actor, whom we first glimpse performing Hamlet; some hellish asylum scenes; and adding Abberline to the mix — this Wolfman is ultimately thin beer in a handsome glass.

For more by Maitland McDonagh:

Kevin's Digital Week 12: From L.A. to Russia with Love (and Death)

Blu-ray of the Week

To Live and Die in L.A.
After bombing with Sorcerer, Cruising and Deal of the Century, director William Friedkin made this straight-ahead 1985 cop thriller about a Secret Service agent (William Pedersen) after an artist-turned-counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe). Always a prime action director, Friedkin outdoes his famed French Connection car chase with one on a jammed freeway where the cars go the wrong way. That there’s no CGI involved—just top-notch stunt driving and filmmaking—still makes it exciting to watch 25 years later.

The movie—stuck in a time warp thanks to the inclusion of synth-pop one-hit wonders Wang Chung on the soundtrack—stars then-unknowns Petersen, Dafoe, and John Pankow. And throughout, Friedkin’s rhythmic sense keeps L.A. moving forward until its downer ending. On Blu-ray, the movie is encased in grain, giving it a real filmic look that also makes it look like a flat, 1980s production. Too bad that the solid extras (Friedkin commentary, making-of featurette, deleted scenes, alternate ending) are on the second, standard DVD—so you can’t watch the movie on Blu-ray and listen to the informed, entertaining commentary, which is a real shame.

DVD of the Week

You Cannot Start Without Me

(Bel Air Classiques)
Russian conductor Valery Gergiev’s whirlwind career encompasses three continents, several countries, and dozens of cities. In Allan Miller’s sympathetic portrait, Gergiev is a likable ball of energy who somehow finds the time to rehearse huge operatic and symphonic scores with various orchestras, globe-hop to many concert halls and opera houses to lead thrilling performances, and continue to oversee his beloved Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, which under his direction has grown into one of the world’s greatest musical organizations. 

Miller’s low-key approach is the opposite of Gergiev’s: the director manages to slow the Maestro down for occasional moments of insight when discussing his family or upbringing in the South Ossetia region of Russia. The 87-minute film is reinforced by an additional hour’s worth of deleted scenes and extended interviews with Gergiev, including an emotional return to his homeland in 2008 to promote peace after its bombing during the Russia-Georgia war: he and the Mariinsky Orchestra performed Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

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