Friday, October 2, 2009

Week of Oct. 2 to Oct. 8 (Mann)

What’s on at the Tropic
by Phil Mann

Heading the bill this week is INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, a movie that renowned critic Roger Ebert calls the “best picture of the year.” Bad boy director Quentin Tarantino brings us his vision of World War II. It’s delightful in its way. The Jews are beating up on the Nazis, beautiful women are slinking around, and Hitler and Churchill make cameos.

But don’t think you’re in for any history, or even for a war movie. Basterds is rather a Tarantino fantasy, almost a fairy tale, and a bit of a hokey goof. It’s told through a series of set pieces, any one of which could stand on its own as a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Each “chapter,” as they are dubbed with on-screen cards, has its own tension and drama -- the Nazi SS questioning a French farmer suspected of hiding Jews, a confrontation between a Gestapo officer and some of the good guys masquerading as Germans. Each has a surprising conclusion, until we build to the final, most dramatic and most surprising final episode. The movie is long – 2 ½ hours – but Tarantino’s style of ratcheting us up chapter-by-chapter almost dares you to take your eyes off the screen.

There’s some buzz for an Oscar nomination for Basterds, and almost a sure one for the leading Nazi SS man, played as a sinister charmer by Christoph Waltz.

Following in the tradition of The Devil Wears Prada and Valentino comes THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE, a behind the scenes look at the making of the single largest magazine issue in history, the 840 page issue of Vogue for September, 2007. This is different from those other films, because it’s a straight documentary devoted to showing what goes into putting a magazine like this together. Full of fashion photo shoots and interviews with not only the Queen of the magazine, Anna Wintour, who rules it with an iron hand, but also her grumbling editors who roll their eyes at some of her decisions. My favorite shot is an interview with Ms. Wintour where she notes that her three siblings are all doing left wing things like working for union rights, and says that they are “amused” by what she does. I was, too.

I’m certainly not a fashionista. My idea of style is making sure my socks match… in color at least. But nonetheless I find movies about it fascinating, as I do movies about aborigines and Wall Street bankers. There’s no better, and safer, way to immerse yourself in a strange culture than to watch a good movie about it.

The other documentary opening this week, YOO HOO, MRS. GOLDBERG, is also about a powerful creative woman who controls her project totally. Back in the early fifties, when television was black and white and had screens about the size of a mini-laptop computer, there was a dynamo named Gertrude Berg who created the TV sitcom format. You know, a living room with the main characters center stage and various others popping in and out from the sides. The show based on a ordinary family, which happened to be Jewish, was probably the first time much of middle America learned about the “Jewish mother,” who has become such a staple of comedy. Ms. Berg wrote every episode, directed and produced them, and starred as well. The filmmaker Aviva Kempner who previously made The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg is a master documentarian who knows how to find archival material and combine it with contemporary interviews to tell an absorbing story.

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