It's always been popular to categorize stock movie villains by their ethnic and political affiliations, and the pulse of the zeitgeist is usually most easily measured by trends in genre villain archetypes. During the cold war, the Ruskies were easy targets as evildoers. In the '90s, Middle Eastern jihadists were all the rage. Indians, Communists, politicians, religious zealots, corporate CEOs, bankers, the Bush administration, terrorists domestic and foreign, religious and secular... A garden variety of unique groups of people have had the dubious honor of villain-of-the-moment, but increased awareness and understanding, a shrinking world, and more vehement outcries from said groups have whittled down the politically correct gene pool of go-to villains considerably. Filmmakers have had to pull from the fringe and find the real crazies that even the ACLU avoids like the plague.
(The last Bond bad guy's big scheme was to privatize water distribution. Really?)
While this may make for more interesting baddies, sometimes you've gotta go with the instantly recognizable, universally acclaimed good-for-nothings. The purveyors of pain and suffering that everyone knows and despises equally. As of this moment that group is comprised of Wall Street-types and... the weather.
Unfortunately, the moneygrubber hatred will only be en vogue for so long, and you can't really film Clive Owen vengefully slitting the throat of a hurricane.
Thank god for Nazis. They are perhaps the last remaining indisputable bastion of crazy-as-fuck, humanity-gone-off-the-deep-end pure, undiluted, un-sympathetic Evil with a capital "E."
And this week we have two very different movies--both steeped in the history of film and greatly influenced by the movie nerdery of their respective makers--that fully exploit the idea of Nazis as the last faceless villain not worthy of sympathy or human colors.
The film is exactly the kind of World War II movie you'd expect from Quentin Tarantino. It's long on violence and gore, short on historical accuracy and steeped in "oh man, I shot Marvin" gallows humor that should cause offense and outrage the more prudish patrons lured in by the presence of Brad Pitt.
Co-star Eli Roth (a controversial filmmaker in his own right, with Cabin Fever and the Hostel movies to his credit) has referred to Basterds as "kosher porn", and he's not far off the mark.
It's the kind of Jewish revenge fantasy that could only be made by a brash American such as Tarantino. Jewish filmmakers like Edward Zwick make timid, ponderous "triumph of the Jew" stories like Defiance that bask in self-righteousness and in the process offend more than empower, but Tarantino has come along and filmed what everyone really wants to see: an angry Jew beating a helpless German officer to death with a baseball bat.
Holocaust films have long focused on the horrors and atrocities inflicted by the Germans, but never has a film depicted characters who retaliate in such equal measure. Basterds may be a fantasy (most probably know by now that the ending of the film is a tad different than history's), but it fills a void in the German-Jew conflict sub-genre as the first movie that aims for primitive emotional catharsis, rather than rise-above pretension.
Nature of the subject matter aside, Basterds is also Tarantino's most accomplished film since Pulp Fiction. During the last 10 years, the director has been lost in movie nerd land, with outlandish genre odes like Kill Bill and Death Proof defining the concept of style without substance (though the psycho-sexual subtext of Death Proof can be argued as the definitive comment on the slasher genre) and making the king of the geeks easy to write off as simply an uncommonly intelligent and talented rip-off artist.
Here, Tarantino once again pays tribute to the films of his youth with subtle and not-so-subtle homage, but he also grounds the story with moments of levity and, for once, romance. A plot digression that involves a Jewish girl in Paris re-introduces the filmmaker as a romantic at heart, and for the first time we see his love of old-Hollywood melodrama and French New Wave on full display. There's the usual exploitation nods--the brutal movie theater climax is basically a re-interpretation of the Carrie prom massacre, and the title of the film itself is a misspelled wink to '70s B-pic Inglorious Bastards--but the film in its entirety represents the eternal kid-as-artist finally starting to grow up.
It's so obvious, it's kind of shocking no one thought of it before now. Who are the most iconic villains in the history of movies? Nazis have already been established. Who else though? Maybe zombies?
So, why not Nazi zombies?
Leave it to a German filmmaker to make the connection. Director Tommy Wirkola takes the cabin-in-the-woods horror scenario of Evil Dead, Friday the 13th and Cabin Fever and marries it with the Romero zombie concept to create Dead Snow, a new horror movie that, while wearing its influences on its sleeve (characters explicitly reference both Evil Dead and Friday the 13th), manages to retain an identity of its own, mostly thanks to the gleefully perverse, brilliant idea of creating an Undead of the SS story involving greedy Nazi zombies who just want their stolen gold back.
The initial premise is familiar: a handful of college students retreat to a cabin for Easter weekend, with plans to imbibe and copulate their debauched little hearts out before returning to school. Instead of the very American locale of a forest, the cabin is located amidst the mountainous, snow-capped winter wilderness of rural Germany.
The characters are familiar: the party animal, the drunk slut, the film geek, the earthy hippie girl, the thoughtful jock, the cowardly weasel. The first 30 minutes play out like typical American horror; it's clear that Wirkola grew up on the classics of our country's favorite genre, and the direct references can sometimes be grating.
Fortunately, when the Nazi zombies finally show up, the film becomes an exemplary addition to the genre. It seems the cabin rests on the old stomping ground a Nazi battalion, and the soldiers have survived and morphed over the years into creatures not living, but dead. When the kids find a stash of stolen Nazi gold, the Fuhrer's faithful emerge to reclaim what's not theirs, and a full-on gorefest begins.
The superb effects are (thankfully) mostly practical and the zombie designs are top-tier. The whole movie is light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek at the right moments but vicious and brutal in others. For horror fans, it's essential viewing.
Tulsans will have one opportunity to view Dead Snow, when it plays as the Circle's midnight movie this Friday. A theatrical experience for this is optimal, a midnight showing is even better. Zombie buffs and horror freaks are strongly urged to attend.
Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo
The Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo is a 70-plus year-old annual event that brings inmates from all over the state to compete in a brutal series of amateur rodeo competitions in front of upwards of 20,000 spectators. It's The Longest Yard meets Gladiator, but for real--prisoners are gashed, stomped and tossed for the benefit of a crowd watching to see, in the words of one audience member, "what people with nothing to lose will do."
From the outside, it may appear as a sort of guilt-free bloodsport, but for many of the prisoners the yearly rodeo is the closest thing to freedom they'll experience.
With Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, documentary filmmaker Bradley Beesley smartly avoids questioning the purpose of such a barbaric spectacle, and instead focuses his camera on the men and women on the inside of the fence as they prepare for 2007's big event. As the title suggests, the female competitors are given special consideration by the film; 2007 is only the second year that they've been invited to compete alongside the men, and Beesley takes the opportunity to explore not just the idea of female players, but the very notion of women's corrections in Oklahoma.
He presents shocking statistics and facts; one senator implies that per capita we have more people locked up in Oklahoma than anywhere else in the world. Even more alarming is that current female incarcerations in our state are nearly double the national average.
Most of the Sweethearts women come from the Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility, and most of them are in on charges related to drugs. We get to know a handful of the 13 competing women as they try out and train in the year leading up to the event, and Beesley allows their personal stories to leisurely unfold with empathy and compassion.
We also get time with the men, in particular Danny, a 47-year-old lifer who's been in McAlester for 25 years on first-degree murder charges. It's hard to believe that the gentle, thoughtful soul depicted in the film is the same person who killed a man by stabbing him in the chest seven times. He's obviously reformed, repentant, and anxious to get another shot as a free man, but the parole board has repeatedly denied him. The rodeo is his therapy, something he excels at, something that gives him hope for life on the outside.
One of the best things about Sweethearts is Beesley's humanization of the inmates. For all the lurid, hellish stories of life in the pen that we've all heard, these prisoners are presented as benign, introspective human beings who are paying the price for what they acknowledge as big mistakes. None of the prisoners on hand appear to be violent or unstable, and even during such a competitive, dangerous event--you'd think violent streaks and true colors would appear under such pressure--they faithfully support and cheer each other.
Conversely, the real shock of Sweethearts comes from just how bloody and unforgiving the rodeo itself appears to be. These are amateurs who in many cases have never sat on a real bull or bronco before the big day, and contests such as "Money the Hard Way" present nightmare scenarios wherein prisoners are asked to do things such as catch a $100 bill from a bull's horns, or sit at a small table in the middle of the arena and literally wait for a bull to trample through.
It's rough stuff that can lead to injuries and even death, but everyone involved--the crowd, the commentator, the guards, even the competing prisoners--takes the looming threat with a grain of salt. At one point, the emcee comments that, "You don't hope for injury or death, but if it happens, you sure don't wanna miss it." One wonders how long it will be before the government interferes and bans the sport.
With three films under his belt, Beesley has made a name for himself as a filmmaker who pulls back the curtain on the odd, fringe-y subcultures of our state without judgment or condescension. He covered our, uh, unorthodox fishing methods in Okie Noodling, and made the definitive comment on the life and career of The Flaming Lips with The Fearless Freaks. He's the Errol Morris of Oklahoma, an anthropologist whose idiosyncratic fascinations know no bounds. He's not a propagandist or a reality-TV poseur, he's a documentarian in the truest sense of the word, and Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo re-affirms him as the real deal.
The film opens Fri., Aug. 28 at the Circle Cinema. Beesley will be on hand to introduce the film and take questions afterwards; call 585-3456 for more info.
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