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The Pleasures of Putting a Team Together

The Pleasures of Putting a Team Together (photo)

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It’s the first line of the last trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”: “I’m putting together a special team,” Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine says. Most of Tarantino’s movies pay homage to particular strains of genre cinema, from kung fu flicks to heist thrillers to grindhouse slashers, and with that pronouncement, Tarantino puts “Inglourious Basterds” in that cinematic tradition of pictures about the recruitment and implementation of a specialized squad of badasses.

“Putting a Team Together” is more a structural motif that crosses into different genres than a genre unto itself. There are musicals — “The Blues Brothers,” for instance, where Jake and Elwood Blues reassemble their former band in order to fulfill a “mission from God.” There are superhero films like “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” the adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel in which one famous literary figure drafts several other famous literary figures to help him defend the British Empire. Certain elements hold in every instance: a mission of danger or importance requiring the creation of a unique unit, with members possessing specialized skills useful in the achievement of the mission, and some sort of great reward at stake for the members. Some of the most successful films of all time follow the “Putting a Team Together” formula, from “Jaws” to “The Lord of the Rings.”

The archetypal film in this mold is Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” (1954), in which a village awaiting the return of looting bandits convinces a samurai to round up six of his compatriots to protect them. Over 200 minutes long in its uncut form, the movie dedicates a third of that runtime — nearly the full length of a typical feature — exclusively to the methodical process of selecting the samurai. In his audio commentary on the Criterion DVD, film scholar Michael Jeck notes that this aspect of the film “is another way in which this picture has been imitated over and over and over again… If you think about it, what pictures before this directly recruited a team for a mission?”

The only earlier example that comes to mind is 1950’s “The Asphalt Jungle,” directed by John Huston, a film Jeck disqualifies because, as he says, “the team was not directly recruited.” But either his memory is a little shoddy or I’m misinterpreting his statement because “Jungle” does indeed follow its team’s formation, which begins when “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is released from jail with foolproof plans for a major jewel heist. The job requires precision and professionalism, and he pays a bookie to use his connections in the underworld to find the specialists he needs: a safecracker, a driver, a financier and a hooligan. The process isn’t given as much deliberation or time as in “Seven Samurai,” but then nothing in “Asphalt Jungle” is given as much deliberation or time as it is in “Seven Samurai.” And Jeck concedes that it’s very possible that Kurosawa, a crime fiction devotee, might have seen the film or even read the novel upon which it’s based, before making his epochal jidaigeki.

08142009_AsphaltJungle.jpgIt’s true that “Asphalt Jungle” deviates from the archetypal formula that “Seven Samurai” would soon set forth, particularly in the way that its main character, played by Sterling Hayden, is merely a thug involved in the commission of the robbery rather than the man who develops the plan and assembles the players. Still, I’m inclined to give it an important early place in “Putting a Team Together” movie history because so many heist films that have come after it (not to mention borrowed liberally from it) have become crucial similar texts. Danny Ocean’s titular group in Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s 11,” for example, has its own safecracker, drivers and financier, and its own elaborate heist calling for specialization, precision and professionalism.

“Inglourious Basterds” shares some elements with another classic “Putting a Team Together” movie, 1967’s “The Dirty Dozen,” directed by Robert Aldrich. In that film, Lee Marvin gathers a squad of disgraced and convicted soldiers awaiting execution or lengthy jail sentences, and offers them a commutation in exchange for their participation in a secretive unit. Both the Basterds and the Dozen undertake “suicide missions” involving raids on gatherings of high-ranking Nazi officials in a single location.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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