Saturday, August 22, 2009

Camera Obscura: (Part 2) "Inglourious Basterds" and "District 9" Reviews

As Lt. Aldo Raine, Brad Pitt southern-drawls his commands, telling his squad he ain't very happy he had to leave his home in the Smoky Mountains to fight these dirty Nazis - and when directly questioned about where his home is , he proudly declares "Maynardville". As in East Tennessee. I'm certain this is the first ever film reference to the town of Maynardville - and it was director Quentin Tarantino's movie "Inglourious Basterds" that made it happen.

Tarantino's take on World War II is also part of his continuing love story with film itself - reels and reels of 35mm film burn up the screen in the movie and they sure burn up Tarantino's heart, and I just love how he tells his love of filmmaking and storytelling. There's likely far more film references here than actual scenes of violence, but you don't have to be a consummate film buff to like "Inglourious Basterds" -- you'll just like it even more if you are.

This is not a summer movie big blow-up crapfest tied into a toy line - see "G.I. Joe" for that, and note that any one of Lt. Raine's squad would beat the living daylights out of every character in "Joe". It's not a CGI Digital 3-D crapfest either -- this is a movie, dammit, for people who love movies and great storytelling. He even made sure the audience sees those so-called "cigarette burns", marks in the upper right corner of the screen which tell the projectionist to change reels. Yes, Tarantino re-writes the history of World War II here, and his version is spectacular, funny and startling - there are no giant military battles here. This is a battle between hearts that burn at 24 frames per second.

When most of Hollywood's mainstream efforts have nearly all turned into rapid-fire cuts and edits and flying cameras, all meant to imply action and violence, Tarantino plants his camera, carefully composes shots akin to John Ford or Jean Renoir, and his characters talk to each other. Some filmmakers would have taken the opening of "Inglourious Basterds" and made it a blitzkrieg of camera angles and rapid editing - but Tarantino's opening scene is about 15 minutes which are incredibly suspenseful, brilliantly acted and written, and sets up the riveting characters of Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, aka The Jew Hunter, and a young Jewish girl in hiding, named Shosanna, who barely escapes that first scene alive. As Landa, actor Christoph Waltz certainly earned this year's Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

That first scene shows why Tarantino deserves the high praise he has received for the last 17 years: on the surface, it is a simple conversation between a French dairy farmer and a Nazi officer, but it has many more layers, right down to the life and death consequences fill every word and every gesture. Similar scenes of one-on-one conversation occur often in the movie, each one more suspenseful than the last.

Tarantino says in this interview with The Village Voice that Landa is best character he's ever written, and that's quite true. I was constantly fascinated and immensely entertained by the character and how vividly Waltz brought him to life. Shosanna, played by actress Melanie Laurent, also turns in a spectacular performance -- just as so many in this movie do, like Pitt and actor Michael Fassbender, as a British commando brought in to special mission to attack the Nazi high command officials -- what's more, he is recruited because he is a film critic, an expert in German cinema.

Music choices for the movie, as usual with Tarantino, are always unique, and his choices here are bold and brash - he repeats his usage of several Ennio Morricone soundtracks, and they underscore the scenes with wit and with pathos. He even works in one of my favorite songs ever created for a movie, David Bowie's blistering song "Putting Out Fire" from the remake of "Cat People" as Shoshna plots her ultimate revenge against the Nazis.

On a side note, in the VV interview mentioned above, Tarantino is asked again to name his favorite films, and he says that over the years, the movie that he likes best is Sergio Leone's "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" and I have to agree with him. Leone took one of American cinema's central genres, the Western, and turned it into something brand new. And Tarantino blends the Western and the War Film into something new, too, destined to be a masterpiece. Just like Lt. Raine wanted his work to be remembered.


I asked my friend Matt McClane to write up a review of "District 9", a sci-fi tale from producer Peter Jackson and director Neill Blomkamp. I just didn't have time to see it for this weekend's post but Matt has the skinny on how just good this one is at his blog, The McClane Tirade --
"This week I took a trip through District 9 and somehow made it out of there unscathed.

You guys have heard of that place, right? For my non-African readers and friends, District 9 is a cozy little spot in Johannesburg, South Africa, where this relentless and carnivorous evil corporation, Multinational United (or MNU) is keeping more than 1 million homeless alien creatures in a busted slum.

Apparently these poor guys basically crash landed on Earth about 28 years ago and the kind people of Johannesburg have been cool enough to let them hang out in the neighborhood until they fix their ship (or pretty much indefinitely).

I wish it was as nice as it sounds, but it's not. These super tall, super intimidating and super scary bug-looking aliens—called "Prawns" as a bad derogatory racial slur—have been shoved into the most horrifying ghetto in the history of busted ghettos. MNU was assigned to govern the district, but now it's evolved into a rich white guy's worst nightmare.

Now you've got the happiest place on the planet: malnourished, ravenous and very pissed off ostracized aliens piled on top of endless garbage, dead animals, thousands of cat food cans and an entire mob of black-market-dealing Nigerian maniacs with stockpiles upon stockpiles of deadly weapons.

I say that I've been there because I feel that I've actually been there. What makes the film, District 9, so unbelievably original is the complete and absolute realism in every single frame. Director Neill Blomkamp (an actual native of Johannesburg) uses some of the most interesting film techniques that I've ever seen. Using a methodical combination of "mockumentary style" hand-held camera footage with the most realistic computer generated special effects ever, he pulls you straight into these slums, even when you're absolutely terrified of going in there.

Make no mistake, though, your ass is going in whether you like it or not. The film grabs your eyeballs, carefully unscrews them from your sockets and yanks you straight into the most hostile environment possible. (He's also going to come back for your ears, just as a warning.)

He completely immerses you into a powder keg of dynamite, as the friction between MNU and the aliens has come to its boiling point.

The corporation and normal folks of Johannesburg have gotten pretty sick of these weird aliens eating all the rubber off their tires, ferociously devouring their pets and making life pretty rough for humans in general. It's not really a fault of the aliens, though. They don't have any leadership. All their superiors have gone to Prawn heaven, and now a million worker aliens have taken a permanent day off.

What do you do on your day off? Do you sell your super-high-tech & highly destructive alien weapons to Nigerian mob bosses for large payments of cat food? (Aliens LOVE cat food.)

If you do choose to sell these weapons, the joke is totally on the mob guys. Turns out, alien weapons can only be fired by aliens. (The guns, etc. are only activated with synced up with Prawn DNA.) In other words, if you're not a 8' tall alien bug, you're not going to be able to do a damn thing with that massive gun, other than brandish it at old people to give them heart attacks or have some nice pretend games of G.I. Joe in your back yard with your closest friends or family.

Anyway, with all this chaos, MNU has finally decided to kick the Prawns out of District 9 and move them over to a new and special place, which is basically an even more busted concentration camp. This just doesn't go over well at all.

This is the part where we meet our main man of the tale, Mr. Wikus van der Merwe. (I know, kickass name, right? I wish I was named that. Can you imagine visiting the "Van Der Merwe Triade" every day? I certainly can.)

Anyway, MNU agent Wikus has been given the wonderful task of heading up the Eviction Task Force, making him the most unpopular man in the District. This guy is absolutely awesome. He's basically a fantastic mix of Borat, Mr. Incredible's tiny insurance company boss from The Incredibles, and every mindless corporate-loving idiot you've ever met. The man doesn't care about these aliens, in fact, he pretty much hates 'em. In a few quick scenes, you really see how much disdain he has for these guys. Basically, the poor guy has no soul. And an awesome corporate hair cut.

So in we go with Wikus to the depths of District 9.

I know it seems like I've given most of the entire movie away, but I haven't. No really, I haven't, readers. I know, you guys are still mad at me for giving away too much about some ballet movie in Morristown, TN, but you're going to have to trust me on this one. We're just getting started. What I've told you is only the set-up.

To keep things nice and vague to not spoil anything for you, let me throw out some of my favorite points here. Also, I'll say this: if somebody spoils this movie for you and gives away any more of the plot than I have, you totally have my permission to donkey punch them in the bread basket.


1. The realism of this movie will shock you. It just feels so incredibly real. From the special effect work on the aliens, their ship, their weapons, etc., it's literally like you're really in the middle of this place, experiencing these things right beside our characters. While the run-of-the-mill viewers may think it's sloppy, shaky and extreme, us true movie fans know better. Every shot in this piece was skillfully set up for the most unsettling and realistic sequences we've seen since our uncles video taped us walking across the stage at high school graduation.

2. The aliens. Perfectly designed to be completely original, every single one of these guys has its own look, its own mannerisms and its own fashion sense. (Literally.) The way they sound will freak you out in a really good way. Their voices are fascinating.

3. Wikus van der Merwe, played by this new guy named Sharlto Copley. Let me tell you right now: this guy is my favorite actor of the year thus far. I have to really fight my brain like a deadly alligator to remember seeing a character go through such an amazing journey of change like this man does in this film. His character arc is unbelievable, and his charisma is just out-of-control captivating. You'll hate the guy, you'll laugh at the guy, you'll be disgusted by the guy, you'll feel for the guy, you'll believe in the guy, you'll root for the guy and you'll cry for the guy in the same movie. The transformation his character goes through is the most grueling, graphic and emotionally painful performance of the year, by far.

4. The social impact. The themes this movie throws around aren't fun and games. Just try to watch this film without having questionable thoughts about everything from our cultural identity and racism to our God-given rights as not only citizens... but as human beings.

5. The action. Make no mistake, this movie does not mess around. Seriously guys, this movie is seriously hard-to-the-core. This is not the Transformers or G.I. Joe. This movie isn't even Jean Claude Van Damme in Lionheart. No, this movie is jammed packed full of highly, HIGHLY realistic violence, terror and complete carnage. I literally felt like I was watching a Faces of Death movie at some points. The nature of the film and its visual presentation excels every scene from level 5 ("Oh man, that was crazy!") straight to level 11 ("HOLY MOTHER OF GOD, DID I JUST SEE THAT? THAT COULDN'T HAVE JUST HAPPENED; I THINK I'M NEARLY HAVING A HEART ATTACK RIGHT NOW"). It reaches this point by using extremely intelligent special effects mixed with amazing gore, astounding music and hard-hitting sound effects that will leave you completely exhausted (in a terrific way).

To end, I have to make one final, important point: this movie is highly original and startlingly intelligent. It really is, by far, one of the greatest science fiction movies I've ever seen in my entire life. While it's a vicious ride, it's definitely one worth taking.

Take it readers. Take it hard."


  1. I have been wanting to see D-9 all week! Thanks for the thumbs up. I want to see it at the IMax and you just convinced me it is worth the extra$

  2. Brad Pitt is an excellent actor. He always draws in the crowds.