Review: Inglourious Basterds

Do I even need to qualify “Inglourious Basterds?” Do I even need to review it? Look, there’s only three ways about it: you love Quentin Tarentino, you like him or you don’t. I’m the first category and, out of fear of lapsing into another onanistic film geek session about how wonderful this director and his new film is, I’m keeping my thoughts short on this one because, for another reason, there will be plenty of time for that at the end of the year (if you know what I mean) and, for yet another reason, after some considerable thought and enjoyment this is a film that demands a second viewing.

In short, this film defies expectations while at the same time fulfilling a whole new set of ones. It’s not the buddie, “Dirty Dozen” war movie the ads made it out to be, it’s a SPY movie… a revisionist spy movie…. a revisionist spy movie fairy tale (the film begins “once upon a time… in Nazi occupied France”)… about MOVIES (the film is set in a movie theater owned by a jew in hiding played by Melanie Laurent)… a revisionist spy movie fairy tale about the history changing power cinema itself that isn’t even directly about the scalp huntin Basterds! Wow, just wow. Didn’t see that coming but if I did I guess I wouldn’t be such a fan of the director.

Do I love Tarentino’s films because I’m a blind fanboy or because he’s that good? All I know for sure is that I’ve bought into every single thing Tarentino ever made (even the underrated “Death Proof”). The reason is simple: his exuberance is matched by his skill as a filmmaker and storyteller. This film is no exception. What proved to be most enjoyable is that “Inglourious Basterds”  is as much of a B-movie as it is a thoughtfully executed period drama. I’ve always said that what puts Tarentino down a few degrees is his inability (or perhaps unwillingness) to not make a Tarentino movie, to tell a story without winking or laughing or shooting. This is as close as he’s gotten to that and, stupid me, he’s gotten there without compromising who he is. In fact there are more riveting scenes set at a dinner table than the battlefield! Bravo. The film ends with this line from the top Basterd Brad Pitt, speaking to the best character of the year, a high ranking SS Nazi played Christopher Waltz and known affectionately as “The Jew Hunter”:  “I’ve made my masterpiece.” Yup.

Grade: A

Review: District 9

  • What’s Good: Breakthrough lead performance. The way effects are used is near perfect. Flaws or not, this is a landmark science fiction film.
  • What’s Not: Mindless at the end. Unambigous moralizing all the way through. The film wants realism but takes a lot of shortcuts in the story department. Supporiting characters are lame and totally out-acted by the aliens.
  • Faux Peter Traverse Review: “This baby has the stuff to end the movie summer on a note of dazzle and distinction.” Not made up this time. The tard actually wrote that!
  • More than being well made, “District 9” is incredibly well conceived. Like the alien protagonist and his pint sized larva of a son the ambitious film shoot for the stars and almost get there! This is a deliberately made and didactic told polemical sci-fi tale in the vein of “Alien Nation,” “Enemy Mine” (both underrated) and TV’s “Battlestar Galatica” that examines and reworks the notion the subaltern (aliens) and imperialist tendencies where, in a nice update, humans both black and white take on the role of the oppressor. By the end I found myself cheering for the death of us awful human creatures, then cheering at a film that has the nerve to have me cheering for the defeat of my side. There’s a lot to grab on to as “District 9” is also an intense handheld or mock documentary thriller on par with “Rec”/”Quarantine” and “Cloverfield,” a B-movie, a monster movie, an edgy political comedy, a sci-fi adventuer that Spielberg would get off on (little boy alien = Spielberg smiling), a messy and sadistic horror film that Peter Jackson would get off on and, by the end, a mech robot action movie that Michael Bay would get off on. A lot of getting off in other words.

    The plot, consisting of mysteriously sick aliens landing on Earth and hovering above South African for months only to become intergalactic illegal alien refugees in need of government assistance and affirmative action, is loaded with with gooey allegorical meanings. That’s  noble and all but the political reading you may, make that must, apply is never far from the surface and, beyond that, not really necessary to explore or debate with other viewers because there is nodebate about it. What you see is what you get. Same goes for the plot reversal where alien and human DNA are joined into a vessel as the human side begins to loose out to the dominant Otherness of the alien inside–hum, what could that symbolise? And why shouldn’t this stuff be overtly stated… to a point of intellectual bludgeoning. Why not just call it “Alien Apartheid is EVIL BAD BAD STUFF NO GOOD BE NICE: The Movie!” Whether this preachy approach is good or bad remains to be seen (I’m on the fence–no pun intended) but, either way, while the message at hand (or claw, or tentacle) is cool if not subtle, the way the message is handled within this genre piece is what’s cooler. Neill Blomkamp’s slumdog special effects are handled with technical ease (he is an FX guy after all) and unassuming integration and they are more visually interesting than the entirety of, say, “Transformers 2?” The difference is that one cost over $200 million and the other only $30. There’s a lesson there.

    As they are reduced to sifting through rubbish and clicking at each other while wearing earthly rags (one has a pink bra on, hehe) and being handed eviction notices because, after all, “they have no concept of ownership” (::rolls eyes::), the alien threat moochers are, in a word, masterful creations that work both visually and within the story world. This is one of those rare instances where freaky looking aliens are not here to destroy us but dependon us and the film is about how humans, through their mistreatment, have lost their humanity. The aliens are very pratical creations, believable in some strange way, and given a full set of cultural values and native quirks but at the same time they are always elusive and distant. They are more advanced than us but also kinda dumb in their inability to tell humans “look, help us get off your planet and we’ll be outta your hair,” and, oh yeah, they love catfood: we don’t know why, they just do. On one hand I like that the film lets mystery surround these strange and unknowable cultures (reminds me of “The Host”), on the other I felt the deliberate deferment of explanation at certain times (especially when it comes to the logic and motivation of the alien species and most importantly the reason behind the all important hybrid) is a bit of cheating, narratively speaking. I guess its easier to say “oh, we don’t know why that happens, they’re aliens, you see, erm, and technology does stuff, okay!” than to actually provide a payoff.

    The humans of “D9” are a lot more uncomplicated and as such nowhere near as memorable. Nearly all supporting performances are down right crappy truth be told (especially the Stone Cold Steven Austen looking bad guy), rarely amounting to anything more than one dimensional figures who have little to say (“I will get you!” is a line that is repeated in one hammy way or another) but a lot to do–the bad corporate guy, the bad army guy, the bad drug guy, the weeping wife, etc. Thankfully, one human –the one that counts– is anything but routine. Newly appointed UKNR (a gov organization responsible for “handling” the alien “problem”) Chief Correspondent, a worm of a character played by first time actor Sharlto Copley (picture a creepier version of Spike Jonez), is the unlikely star of the film. He goes from retarded to renegade, from racist to remorsful in a pretty kick ass (if not logical) plot turn. In fact, I don’t even want to explain the character away too much because seeing his fate play out it’s such a treat. Now, this is more of a feat on the performance side of things than the writing but I’ll take what I can. Copley turns in a breakthrough performance on par with Sigourney Weaver in “Alien” because he starts off so unassuming, cliched (i.e. the nerd put in charge when everything goes wrong), and, well, un star-like. For the first twenty minutes I was waiting for this creepy suit to get eaten or blown up in a funny manner (a la “Tropic Thunder”) so that the real hero could emerge. That doesn’t happen. Actually, it does: Copley is the hero and his transformation (in more ways than one) is one for the books.

    If there’s a flaw its that the film has so many good ideas and so many interesting ways of implementing those ideas that, two thirds of the way through, everything seems to stall and it shifts into just an action movie where the clear cut good guys are racing against the clock while clear cut bad guys chase them with big guns, bellowing out lines like “you’re going to pay!” Honestly, it feels like a video game (fittingly, this was producer Peter Jackson’s make-up prize to Blomkamp when his “Halo” project fell apart) which I mean as both a compliment and a put down. A compliment because I believe that video games are vastly superior to cinema these days but a slight diss because, well, this isn’t a game, this is a film that is trying oh so hard to be profound and not always succeeding. Still, integrity has a way of hanging on through the mindless action, unambiguous moralizing, humans being out-acted by CGI characters and wonky dialogue.

    We’ve seen all the components that make up this before but never quite in this way. “District 9” is an unusual film that breaks a lot of ground. Now, it does not break new ground so much as old ground but, again, that’s not a put down because at least somebody’s attempting breaking something in this dying cinematic genre that moved to, you guessed it, video games a long, long time ago in a galaxy far way.

    Grade: B

    Review: The Hurt Locker

    • What’s Good: Like the Iraq War genre, Kathryn Bigelow can’t be counted out after this film. “Hurt Locker” is a breakthrough effort and the only truly successful Iraq War 2 film ever made.
    • What’s Not: Some nagging loose ends. At times the film is a bit too ragged and unorganized. The film is tense but it’s not always as tight as it could be.

    Army Guy1: Pretty much, the bottom line is that if you’re in Iraq, you’re dead.

    Sergent: Would you shut the fuck up!

    I heard about, read about about and eventually saw Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.” This is a film that I saw, but saw under protest because, from where I’m standing, every Iraq War 2 film ever made –and even every Iraq War 1 film except for “Three Kings”– has failed in one epic way or another. So despite its seemingly tired yet scathingly topical subject matter, the word-of-mouth on this one could not be ignored even by me. So… I saw it and I’m so glad I let this one slip in because it’s not going to be slipping out anytime soon.

    “The Hurt Locker” is not a great film so much as it is a great force. This film takes such a virtuosic look into wartime maters that it cannot be ignored and even less can it be written off as “just another…” by people like me. The reason is that unlike all Iraq-set war dramatic films, “The Hurt Locker” –like any great story– exists as a film before it does a “war film.” I would not call it a political war film and yet would also not call it a apolitical war film; it’s action film and even a thriller before it’s those things. You watch and you forget where you are and who you are. When the smoke settles –and there’s a lot of smoke– there is just the content and the characters. It’s that good. The story, about Bravo Company, a bomb squad squadron (or whatever they call themselves) that, like Firemen, head into danger as everyone else, including soldiers, are fleeing it.  When the story opens the gang has 39 days left in their rotation, “38 if we survive today” is a great line uttered by one of the three primary characters and one that looms in the dry desert air throughout the film. War (and cop) films with that X-amount-of-days-left structure are contrived by nature but “Hurt” man’s up and survives any claims of narrative banality. In fact once you see the film the countdown to this notion of “the end” of their tour is totally absurd because what comes after “the end”? Certainly not the war. Perhaps only death. The intense action and emotional fallout is true to the material rather than overly polemical (“Stop-Gap”) or calculated (De Palma’s “Redacted”) or robotic (take your pick of the almost weekly Iraq war documentary).

    Jeremy Renner, and you will know that name soon, stars as Staff Sergeant William James, the new addition to Bravo. The last one (Guy Pierce) got blown to shit and Renner comes in at a particularly terse time for the squad, the army, and that damned country. James breaks protocol his first mission out involving an IED is nessled in some trash on the side of the road. To divert attention from all sides he sets off a smoke bomb and heads into the cloudy blast zone –slow motion of course– and I was instantly reminded of a man walking into purgatory. What gets me is how Renner walks in with a smile that is as devilish as it is hollow. He comes back alive but, in the process, rubs his company the wrong way. Probably because he cares about his job (we learn, perhaps tragically, it’s the one thing in life he loves) more than going home. Who can blame him? But who can blame his team! Each day finds the squad in a similar scenario and the film’s episodic narrative structure, while not for everyone, is a handy way to approach such a sprawling subject matter.   

    Sergeant James is backed by Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackey) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty, also in “Jar Head”) the whole movie and, yes, they could also be called three kings. While the two are “normal” soldiers, skilled yet reasonably disturbed and depressed, Renner does not play James as the tortured Martin Sheen type (done to death) or theguy with a death death wish or a war dog but… something else. A combination perhaps but, more accurately, a complex character that war films rarely, if indeed ever, see. James is funny and sad but always pragmatic, that is when he’s not a headstrong “wild man.” When removing a shrapnel barrier that blocks his barracks window so that he can enjoy the sun, this man is totally in touch with the land and at the same time resigned to whatever fate he may meet. If he dies he dies and that’s all there is to it. He may not fear death like normal soldiers but this is not because he’s scared or stupid but, rather, because “I just don’t think about it.” Simple, yet, not. I have to mention that Renner is doing a similar thing here as he did in the underrated “28 Weeks Later” (he also played a ballsy American solider in that film) except instead of zombies it’s Arabs (big diff). I fully expect, or at least, hope Renner (along with the film and director) get major awards recognition.

    The casting really makes this film shine. Besides Renner and his crew four cameos kick (Sergeant Major) ass. Pierce as the first bomb guy opens the film and the scene where he attempts to diffuse a bomb sets a mood that the rest of the film picks up on–gravity over melodrama and not totally humorless. David Morse is also effective as a Colonel who sees Renner’s actions and mock the hell out of him, asking the hot shot bomb guy how many bombs he’s diffused with a wide, fuck you grin and a “oh, wow!” when he hears the astronomical answer. Next is Colonel Cambridge (Christian Camargo–the evil bro from “Dexter”) as the Army Psychiatrist who lives in an academic bubble until one day he decides to join Bravo on a mission. Interesting how this man’s humanity, as depicted by his treatment of the “locals” as people instead of enemies, ends up being, well, unwise. It’s also swell to see Kathryn Bigelow reunited with Ralph Finnes because, for one, it reminds me of “Strange Days” one of my favorite films and one of the best made films of the 90s. The two must be good luck for each other because they’ve done it again! In this film Finnes plays a British soldier of fortune who crosses paths with Bravo as they get caught up in a desert shoot out (because what other kind is there in Iraq?). They come under sniper fire and his prisoners flee. He shoots them right in the back because the reward money is earned dead or alive after all. Here, the film swiftly, and without warning, launches what may be the best sniper showdown ever or at least one rivaling the previous champ “Enemy at the Gates.” Bigelow captures the sniper-to-sniper action not with a sniper’s precision (the industry standard for that kind of scene) but through a fogged out, blurry and out of focus lens. The effect is disorienting–a shot will be fired followed by a few seconds of pregnant pause followed by a puff of smoke from a mile away. Intense stuff.

    Kathryn Bigelow is a fantastic director and its nice to finally see her output finally catch up with her talent. Here, she turns a perfectly fine but not earth shattering script (it kind of formless) into something of a dreamy experience. She has not made a condescending, violin playing political critique or some contrived wartime poem (the wretched “Waltz with Bashir”) because that would be too easy as we’ve seen before. She instead treats the film, as one of the hustling Iraqi children would tell Renner, “straight up, nigga.” Straight up is the best description! The feeling that anyone can die and in so many different ways gives the film permanent paranoia but also a permanent combat high. The drama is not manipulative but neither is the action, this is one of the more honest action movie’s I’ve ever seen. 

    Especially creepy is the way the director captures the Iraqi civilians who, when things go wrong, are seen watching the fumbling-in-the-dark U.S. like ghosts. From our point of view (not to mention the soldiers) that’s scary because we know that all it takes is one of those watchers and one button or call or nod to end everything in sight. Yet we also know they’re not all bad. The feeling of “we shouldn’t be here” is the perfect thematic emotion the film evokes time and time again because it applies to the situation at hand and as a whole. The result is something as exciting as any action movie that will be released this year. Yeah, I know how dare I, one must never write that about something as SERIOUS as America’s War in Iraq. But, really, how much sanctifying on one side and, um, whatever on the other can we endure before telling both sides to shut it. In its own way, this film does. By simply existing, it does.  

    “War,” we are told by the war junkie Sergeant James, “is a drug.” This country’s is high on it, the Middle East is all to happy to provide it and on we go. If you’re in Iraq, you’re dead.

    Grade: A