Tuesday, September 01, 2009
The end of summer is notoriously the dumping ground for motion pictures that nobody knows quite what to do with, the Terry Gilliam projects of this world. Sometimes there are gems to be found in August – Vicky Cristina Barcelona, released August 15, 2008 because the name Woody Allen has itself been enough to keep some of his former fans from the theater, contained numerous fantastic performances. The Illusionist was technically a September release, coming out 9/1/2006, a film that depended on its complex plot & various twists, but didn’t spin them out as effectively as it needed to. But summer is really when the world tends to divide into boy films & chick flicks, as theaters (and film distributors) concentrate on younger demographics out of school with disposable income. Occasionally, there will be a great example of the genre – The Bourne Ultimatum was as well-executed action roller coaster as has ever been made. But generally, August is when you get the Hellboys of the world.
This year there are two films that noticeably want to achieve more, a lot more, within the traditional genres of the guy flick – The sci-fi film District 9, which gives you aliens, exploding humans & chase scenes that aren’t quite as athletic as a Bourne or Bond venture, but certainly more paraoid, & Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a “Dirty Dozen” fantasy on how WW2 should have ended. Both films are well worth the effort, unless you’re the squeamish sort. As I’m writing this, viewers are currently rating District 9 as no. 37 on IMBD’s roster of the top 250 films of all time, Inglourious Basterds as no. 35.
District 9 is well done & its premise – the fate of a bureaucrat, Wikus Van De Merwe, played by newcomer Sharlto Copley¹, placed in charge of a massive, coercive movement of a huge population, displacing the aliens for the benefit of the locals, in spite of the fact that he is entirely unqualified for the position. Not unlike, say, Michael D. Brown, the head of FEMA as it failed to cope with the population of New Orleans & Hurricane Katrina. Wikus is picked only because his father-in-law is the head of the mercenary/consulting firm, MNU, selected by the South African government to do the job. But Wikus is also picked because MNU & earthlings in general have no respect for the prawns, as they call the aliens. The aliens may have tremendous technology – their massive spaceship hovers like a dark cloud over Johannesburg for decades – but they’ve lost the command module that would enable them to escape earth’s atmosphere & they arrived so listless & sick that their superior weaponry proved useless. Humans can’t even use it because it requires “prawn dna” to operate the guns. Nonetheless, there is a speculative black market dealing in such weaponry, run by a parasitic group of Nigerians (who also supply prostitution services to the prawns). All of this is told in the seedy, handheld camera mode of a documentary, the sort you might find on MSNBC on the weekends, or on the History Channel in off hours.
District 9 does a lot with its unstated allusions – the word apartheid never is uttered, Katrina is never referenced & the role of the Nigerian gangs as a cipher for the fate of failed nations is never explored. There is a scene early on when the supercilious Wikus has a building housing alien eggs torched. He notes that it sounds like popcorn, literally giggling at the “abortions” taking place as eggs explode behind him. Yet he is the person, ultimately, with whom we are to identify as an accidental exposure to alien chemicals begins to turn into one of them. I don’t know how much the aliens are puppetry & how much pure CGI – none are listed in the credits, not even Christopher whom we get to know pretty well after he rescues and befriends Wikus. Once Wikus & Christopher realize where the container with the necessary chemicals to resurrect the buried command module are, the film rapidly focuses on their attempt to fetch it and Christopher’s attempt to get the ship going so that he can go back to his original world for help. Meanwhile, MNU steps up its efforts to get Wikus – the father-in-law has no hesitation in eliminating Wikus to achieve MNU’s goals, tho Wikus’ sudden ability to fire alien weaponry has them intrigued as all heck – and the film very quickly narrows into a chase film a la Bourne.
It will be interesting to see, three years hence, when presumably Christopher will return with his friends to rescue the prawns & turn Wikus back into a person, if director Neill Blomkamp (who has mostly been a 3D animator throughout his career), can sustain a film that doesn’t have a fundamental chase roller coaster dynamic to it.
Inglourious Basterds is by far the richer movie. It is, in fact, flat out a great film, the second I’ve seen this year (the first being Up). All of this has to do with Tarantino, who not only is smarter than his peers in the directing community by some order of magnitude, but who is capable of showing it off in ways that strengthen the film. Detail: Brad Pitt as Aldo Raine first addresses his volunteers. You notice that there is a scar on his neck from ear to ear, exactly what you would expect from someone who survived having his throat cut. It is never once referenced or explained, but it is totally “in character” with Pitt’s role, the best he has ever had. Detail: the “Bear Jew,” so called because he clubs Nazi’s to death, turns out to be baseball-obsessed (shades of Hank Greenberg). Detail: Col. Hans Landa, one of the creepiest villains ever, has film star Bridget van Hammersmark reach into his coat pocked to extract a shoe that he then places on her foot, thus proving to them both her role as a spy, not one mention of Cinderella ever having been made. Tarantino makes the flammability of old film stock a plot point, brings in both the director & star of the 1978 Quel Maledetto trendo Blindato – released in the U.S. as The Inglorious Bastards – for cameos &, to top everything off, gives us an apocalypse that echoes everything from the fires at numerous clubs & theaters where panicked patrons found the exit doors locked to gangster movie massacres right up until all that dynamite that’s around Hitler’s bullet-riddled body goes off in one Big Bang.
Told in a series of “chapters” – key characters never come together until the final one (“The Revenge of the Giant Face,” surely the best chapter title ever in the history of cinema, especially once we realize just how literal it is) – built around two parallel plots of different conspiracies to blow up &/or burn down the same theater on the same night, and focusing on four key players, only one of whom is Brad Pitt – Inglourious Basterds is one of those films that just makes you happy cinema exists. You will have to watch an inordinate number of scalpings, not to mention one scene in which Aldo Raine sticks his finger into the bullet hole in Bridget’s leg and just pokes around a bit to make her scream, but much of this occurs amidst the richest film dialog since the last good Tarantino flick.
Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa has been foregrounded in a lot of reviews as being Oscar worthy (he is), but really all four of the principals (Pitt, Waltz, Diane Krueger & Mélanie Laurent) are terrific here. Waltz’ creepiness as a villain is surprisingly close to Wikus’ role as a “hero” in District 9, especially once the plot twists toward the end cast him in a fuller (albeit even sleazier) light. The difference being that Wikus knows he’s a silly little doofus where Waltz takes enormous satisfaction in his sadistic games. Pitt’s general hokeyness is used, as it was in Burn Before Reading & even all the way back in Thelma & Louise by directors who got it that he was an offbeat figure who wouldn’t work in any role you might offer to Tom Cruise or Christian Bale, to enormous good effect by Tarantino. And the women, especially Laurent, are better than the men.
¹Copley’s most significant prior credit was producing the visual effects for the cult film What the #$*! Do We Know?