Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglorious Basterds

I had to see this film, not out of any affection for Quentin Tarantino (Death Proof sucked so hard, I ended up fast-forwarding the DVD to the end, something I almost never do), but due to childhood memories of the original Italian movie. I saw The Inglorious Bastards numerous times as a kid, since , besides being just the kind of cheap knockoff of WWII commando movies that I love, it also had a scene where the heroes nearly get killed by machine gun-wielding topless German maidens frolicking in a stream. Back in my day, we didn't have "bittorrents" or "Redtube" - we had Eurotrash titties, and they were pimply and pasty, and you only got to see a second of them, and WE LIKED IT!

So like any other right-headed American boy obsessed with floppy titties and dead Nazis, I loved The Inglorious Bastards, and had to see the Tarantino remake. Turns out though that Inglorious Basterds has absolutely nothing to do with the original, being an entirely new story consisting of two different plotlines - a French Jewish girl escaping an SS intelligence officer, and "The Basterds" a special American unit of Jews terrorizing the Nazis in occupied France - that converge upon the gala screening of a Nazi propaganda film that provides the opportunity for both the girl and the Basterds to take down the Nazi elite in a fiery Götterdämmerung. And it's all completely mediocre.

I mean that literally, not as a synonym for "bad" because this is a mostly well-acted and executed movie. Despite its 2.5 hour length, I felt it moved speedily along and was (mostly) interested in every scene. Of the performances, much has been made of Christoph Waltz as the "Jew Hunter", but just because an actor doesn't devolve into a Germanic Snidely Whiplash as soon as he puts on SS black, doesn't make him Oscar-quality. Brad Pitt tries well, but he ain't no Lee Marvin. Melanie Laurent gives the best performance of the film, which is not surprising as the most fully-realized and only human character amongst a cast of caricatures.

A movie about burning/blowing up a Parisian theater full of Nazis is not a bad idea, but it is not original nor is Inglorious Basterdds interesting enough to be elevated above its mediocre lineage. Tarantino's direction doesn't even try to elevate Inglorious Basterds above the spaghetti war-xploitation genre. It's not funny enough to be parody, and not biting enough to be satire - although the Nazi film-within-the-film, Nation's Pride, does a spot-on eviscerating of American war films like Black Hawk Down and even Saving Private Ryan, where faceless enemies are gunned down in exacting detail by amoral patriots:

But don't be fooled - this film isn't about the dangers of war as spectacle, or anything else deeper than how far one can bury a baseball bat through a Nazi's head. And even that is pretty tepid - while the violence sometimes goes over the top and there's lots of loving shots of scalping and carving swastikas into foreheads, Inglorious Basterds is surprisingly violence-free. So the gore-porners will be disappointed by all the talking, and the history nerds will have heart attacks over what may be the most ahistorical WWII film ever made, leaving this film only for douchebag hipsters who think Tarantino is still relevant. Or even still trying.

All this said, I can't fault Inglorious Basterds for not being more than it appears to be. It's a dumb over-the-top WWII spaghetti western with Nazis instead of bandits and Schmeissers instead of six-guns. It's also talky as hell, and not as full of action as represented. It's not really stimulating, either to the intellect or the testosterone, but if you really love watching Nazis get murdered in every manner imaginable, you might like this flick. I do, and I did, but even I could've done with it as a rental.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


I just finished running my BRP superheroes-in-prison one-shot game called SuperMax, which boils down to my take on The Authority meets OZ by way of The Boys. I went overboard creating a faux-Wikipedia as setting background and didn't put as much effort into constructing the plot, but it was refreshing to play it by ear, and the players seemed to have a really fun time. The best moments came from the Superhung character, from Fedayeen getting his leg caught in his urethra as Superhung created a "penis elevator" for everyone to ride down the ventilation shaft to freedom, to Superhung dealing the killing blow by stretching out his penis to launch himself through The Redeemer's chest, with the Jesus-Freak Superman sliding lifelessly down his member. About my only regret was that I didn't get a chance to work in my Wolverine/Punisher/alcoholic Boston sports fan character Boston Crab, because the PC's found a way to escape early on.

While the game was insane, BRP leaves much to be desired as a system. The way the effects of powers are handled requires a lot of math, stripping away the best quality of the BRP system (its quick simplicity) and leaving all its vices (too easy failure). I mitigated this by including "Luck Points", poker chips that could be spent to re-roll, flip rolls (turn an 81 into an 18), and other stuff that made the characters significantly more competent. Still, I had to fiddle with almost everyone's powers during chargen, and handwave a lot of effects to keep things moving. Spirit of the Century would've worked much better, but I wanted to go with a system I knew when running a setting I'd created wholly on my own.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City is an odd duck. Erik Larson's well-received "history" of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair seeks to tell the tale of "Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that changed America" through the parallel stories of Daniel Burnham, the architect that oversaw construction of the Exposition, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer that preyed upon young women attracted to Chicago and the "White City" of its Fair. Larson is a good writer, and the story of Burnham, Holmes, and the Fair are interesting enough; but, while the book is a decent read, it's not really satisfying.

For one thing, there's no real theme that unites Burnham and Holmes, whether in the similarity of their passions or the juxtaposition of their accomplishments. Larson's well-crafted pace, which uses a lot of foreboding to build suspense of the doom sure to strike at some point in the narrative, only makes the constant switching between the two plotlines aggravating. There were several times where I wished I was reading a single book on either Burnham or Holmes, but I held hope that Larson would tie it all together in the end. He doesn't, and that failure is compounded by the fact that Larson never really gets into how the Fair "changed America." The epilogue lists a number of new ideas and inventions that the Fair inaugurated, but that should have been the meat of the book rather than a paragraph (and sometimes just a sentence) at the tail-end of the story.

I was also unimpressed with Larson's approach to the subject as history. While I don't really have a problem with his "novelist" style of prose (Larson frequently writes of what his subjects were thinking), I think it failed him with the Holmes story. He creates a narrative of Holmes that portrays him more as a Hannibal Lector psychopathic god than the more banal portrait the evidence shows: a psychopath, but one ultimately motivated by greed, more fraudster than Jack the Ripper. And it feels as though Larson wrote Holmes like this simply because it makes for a more interesting story.

On the flip side, Larson's story of Burnham is a waste, as he becomes much more concerned with personality duels between board directors and the administrative challenges of building the Fair than what is the most interesting aspect of his story: how Burnham's vision of the Fair affected the course of American architecture for the next half-century. Although Larson finally brings the subject near the end, and while he obviously admits its importance as it becomes a central part of the book's climax, he only devotes a few paragraphs to what should have been more fully explored.

The Devil in the White City is an okay book and I enjoyed Larson's writing style; but, it doesn't achieve greatness in theme nor does it fully capture its own subjects. It probably makes a good starter for those interested in late nineteenth-century Chicago, American architecture, and serial killers of the period, but nothing more.