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5 thoughts on District 9 and Inglourious Basterds

I’m never really sure what to say here about widely-seen and discussed movies. You’re a mouse-click away from more professionally-written articles than you could ever want to read about both these films. And while they’re both terrific films, I don’t really need to tell you to see them. I’d rather tell you to go see The Hurt Locker or (should your tastes go that way) Blood Freak. But here are some thoughts.

  1. The fact that both films are turning out to be very successful financially is, I think, a satisfying rejoinder to the arrogant, elitist view that mainstream audiences are too unsophisticated to want anything challenging in their summer movies. You have here an apartheid-themed movie set entirely in South Africa and a long, talky movie where most of the dialogue is in German and French. Neither will do Transformers 2 box office, but these movies are both going to make a lot of people a lot of money, and entertain people, to boot. And unlike Transformers, people are going to be talking about these movies ten years from now. The lesson is that with the right marketing, you can get away with all that as long as you aren’t boring.
  2. Inglourious Basterds is the work of a master at the peak of his abilities, and District 9, the work of an emerging talent, but both have a scrappy sureness and a mix of the cerebral and the visceral that I really enjoy. Though maybe it’s more accurate to say neither Tarantino or Blomkamp have any interest in distinguishing between the head and the gut in their filmmaking.
  3. Nazis and South African racists both make excellent villains, and both films give us a kind of alternate, fantasy take on events where historical evil can actually be appropriately punished. I’m not at all a bloodthirsty person, but I’ve been reading a lot of World War II history the past few years, and I could watch the climactic theatre scene of Basterds ten times in a row. The more I read about history the less sympathy I feel for the people who willingly stepped onto the wrong side of it.
  4. That said, Landa the Jew Hunter may be the single greatest character to ever appear in a Tarantino movie.
  5. SPOILERS. I had been looking forward to both movies for a while, and trying not to learn too many details going in. This worked better for Basterds than District 9. I was actually a bit disappointed that the latter turned into such a typical action movie — maybe if I’d known, I’d have kept my expectations more modest. But Basterds continually went in new and unexpected directions. Tarantino has gone from a talented stylist and dialogue writer to the master of letting scenes unfold at their own pace, and without his crutch of pop-culture references (or the English language), you can see what a great storyteller he has become. I’ve not decided yet where Basterds fits into the Tarantino pantheon, but I look forward to watching it several more times to try to decide. District 9 mostly makes me eager to see what Neill Blomkamp does next.


Blood Freak (1972)

bfreak6Looking for something to wash out the bad taste of the Avatar trailer (it made Hitler sad)? Well, step right up and take a good, long gawk at Blood Freak. Most old exploitation flicks are pretty tedious, but every once in a great while, the psychotronic film geek’s prayers are answered with a film made with utter straight-faced earnestness while piling on layer after layer of WTF. My last such gift from the gods of greatbadfilmdom was the incredible Death Bed, and while the X-rated, grade-Z drive-in anti-classic Blood Freak isn’t quite the insane masterpiece that was, it’s pretty goddamn mindblowing in its own right.

The “plot” involves a biker Elvis lookalike with a vague European accent, who befriends a kindly Christian lady who takes him to a drug party (!). He gets seduced by her skanky sister, who is also Christian and also into drugs and who turns him onto the devil weed, which he becomes addicted to in about 17 seconds flat. Through a series of events that probably made sense to the director while he was coming down a spectacularly bad trip of his own, Euroelvis ends up eating some experimental turkey meat (!!) which turns him into a man with the head of a turkey!! Well, actually, it turns his head into a vaguely turkeyish lump of papier mache, but we know it’s supposed to be a turkey because he now can speak only in turkey gobbling (!!), and also, he now has an insatiable thirst for the blood of junkies (!!). You know, just like a real turkey. I’d try to describe more of the plot, but I think I’m running out of parenthesized exclamation points.

I know it sounds like this movie a spoof, but I swear, it is totally for-real. How do I know? Because it’s soooo fucking incompetent! Actors flub their lines and look at the camera, entire scenes are too dark or out of focus, and every 20 minutes, the leathery director himself shows up to chain smoke and explain whatever the hell his turkey-loathing brain has decided was going on in the scene we just saw. You can practically smell the bourbon and listerine on his breath.

All this, and I haven’t even touched on the turkeyman/skank love scene (she has a monologue about what their unfortunate children would look like), the ridiculous gore effects complete with looped stock screaming, or the heavy-handed Christian message, where everything works out all right in the end thanks to a whole lot of praying to Jesus. I have no idea how this movie got made, or who it was made for, but damn, am I glad it was. So I guess maybe it was made for me.


Thirst (2009)

thirst-nimg2On the surface, Thirst, the latest film from Park Chan-Wook (who did the brilliant Oldboy, the pretty great Sympathy for Lady Vengeance and the okay Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), is the story of a Korean priest who becomes a vampire. But what it’s really about is Park’s ongoing analysis of the corrosive effect sin has on the soul. Initially a bottomless well of compassion and morality in a world that needs it, the infected priest is soon drinking the blood of a bitter fellow priest and having hot vampire sex with an unhappily married woman. This leads to a cycle of increasingly immoral behaviour, with each step coming faster, steeper and easier.

As a thesis, that’s pretty interesting. Unfortunately, the movie jumps from idea to idea until it’s tonally all over the place. And while some of those tones are clear and sharp, a lot of them are pretty fucking leaden, with plot points added and abandoned and characters undergoing sudden unexplained personality changes.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987) and The Fall (2008)

I know I’m a philistine, but some movies just work best chopped up into bite-sized pieces. They might not work great as a whole, but watched in 20-40 minute chunks over the space of a few evenings, they go down a lot easier.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On is a Japanese documentary about Kenzo Okuzaki, who was a soldier in New Guinea in World War II, where he was one of only 30 survivors of his 1000-man unit. The events seem to have left him a little unhinged, and after 40 years in and out of prison, filled with a burning desire to extract the truth, he sets out to interview the other survivors. The doc unfolds as a series of long interviews with each of the survivors, as Kenzo uses a combination of imploring, cajoling, rudeness and direct accusations. When that doesn’t work, he starts (literally) beating it out of them, leading to the bizarre sight of two old men wrestling around while cops in Mickey Mouse gloves ask polite questions. Piece by piece a story comes out, of illegal executions, starvation and cannibalism, and the very strange Kenzo Okuzaki starts to make sense. In fact, the more you learn about what happened, the more it seems odd how well-adjusted the other survivors are. I think watching the whole thing at one time would be gruelling, but watching one or two interviews at a time, it’s fascinating. It’s not just the story of Kenzo Okuzaki, it’s also a proxy for the story of how Japan itself came to deal with its imperial wartime adventures, and neither story is a happy one.

If TENAMO is too much medicine to take all at once, The Fall is too much sugar. It’s the labour of love of the uni-named commercial and video director Tarsem, made largely with his own money, between paid work. It’s a fantasy emerging from a story told by an injured stuntman to an immigrant girl in a hospital in 1915 California. He tells her the simple story of a group of heroes on a quest for revenge, but filtered through her imagination, it becomes something strange and exotic — an aside about native American Indians becomes confused with the culture of a friend from India, for example. The story owes a lot to films like The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Baron Muchausen and The Princess Bride, with a bit of El Topo and Prospero’s Books thrown in. But it also contains some jaw-dropping visuals, incredibly, achieved without the use of CGI. Instead, Tarsem uses art direction, landscapes from around the world, and brilliant cinematography to create some of the most stunningly beautiful images I’ve ever seen.

The only problem is, stunning beauty pretty quickly turns tedious. I don’t know if it’s that you need the contrast of beauty and the everyday, or that it’s just the inability of my imagination to absorb something so rich, but I soon started to feel the guilty aesthetic boredom I feel at art galleries. What I did find, though, was that by breaking it up over several days, and stopping when my interest was flagging, The Fall became a really unique and rewarding movie experience. Actually, I wish I could do that with art galleries — I’d probably appreciate art a whole lot more if I could. Philistine I may be, but if that’s the cost of maximizing utility, I’m happy to pay it.


Funny People (2009), The Hurt Locker (2009)

Premiere Funny People LASo far this year, a lot of my most anticipated films have been a little underwhelming. I liked Coraline, Watchmen, Public Enemies, Star Trek and Bruno to various degrees, but I didn’t fall in film-geek love with any of them. I did have an intense fling with Crank 2 — and oh, man, it was awesome — but it was purely physical. But in the past week, I’ve seen the two best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

Funny People is a bloated, beautiful mess of a film by your hero and mine, Judd Apatow (40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up). It’s about a dying Adam Sandler — woah, let me finish, that’s not even the best part! — who takes on struggling young stand-up comic Seth Rogan as a personal assistant, in an impulsive attempt to both avoid and embrace his loneliness and self-loathing. Hilarious, I know, but trust me, this is a very, very funny movie. It’s mostly set in the world of competitive, ambitious young comedians who consider nothing off-limits in their mission to entertain and out-funny each other, and the dialogue is brilliant. Characters make cutting comments, just grazing a buried truth, and then undermining it with a punchline. Sandler is actually really solid — Punch-Drunk Love solid — and I know we were all getting tired of Seth Rogan doing his Seth Rogan thing, but he manages to give a performance more nuanced and heartfelt than anything I’ve seen form him before. Not to mention a (mostly) great supporting cast of comedians, rivals, girlfriends, girlfriend-comedians and comedian-rivals. The only problem is, Apatow seems to love these characters so much, he wanted to make about three movies with them. And then he did. And then he edited them all into this one. And one of those movies, the one which takes over the last 40 minutes, is actually not a very good movie. But I’ll take a lopsided, ambitious mess over safe and predictable any day.

The Hurt Locker, Kathryn “Point Break” Bigelow’s film about bomb-disposal experts in Iraq, is basically the complete opposite of Funny People: tightly focused, visual rather than verbal, and humourless. It’s also wired as tight as a spring about to snap. The Iraq of this movie is a place where any discarded plastic bag could contain an IED, and any cell phone could be a detonator. Also, another difference: Judd Apatow is going from great flick to great flick. If you had told me last year that the washed-up action director who would make the first great Iraq War movie would be Kathryn Bigelow, I would never have believed you. But great it is. I was shocked when the credits rolled — I couldn’t believe 131 minutes could go by so fast. It could have been another hour long and I wouldn’t have minded.

Actually, though, there is something the two films have is common — they are both about process. In Funny People we see how comedians work, trying material, bouncing it off each other, refining it. In The Hurt Locker, we see how someone goes about disabling hundreds of bombs in a one-year tour, how the insurgents and occupation forces constantly learn and adapt to each other’s technique and style. Of course, in one movie, bombing has a very different meaning than the other.