Monday, August 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Glib yet deeply felt, absurd yet surprisingly reasoned, Inglourious Basterds might be the most confounding movie Quentin Tarantino has made yet. Through the sheer power of cinema, Tarantino attempts to overthrow the Third Reich. And regardless of whether or not he succeeds in this mad endeavor, we can be certain of one thing: insanity on that level can’t help but be entertaining to watch.

Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, a jocose Tennessee soldier who leads the titular Basterds, a Jewish squad engaging in guerrilla warfare against the Germans, their sole purpose being to instill terror in Nazi hearts. Raine is nicknamed Aldo the Apache due to his demand that each of his soldiers bring him one hundred Nazi scalps—and if you think that line merely a joke brace yourself for a bit of gruesome corpse mutilation. But lest you cringe at the thought of two and a half hours of gore porn, note that the action in this film is actually scarcer than you would think. Tarantino builds the story around a series of tense life-or-death conversations as characters attempt to call the bluffs of their opponents, but when the violence comes it is in sudden bursts of lavish grisliness.

Even though he gets top billing—and the movie trailers get a lot of mileage out of his Nazi killing speeches—Pitt is really more comic relief than lead player in this tale (a typical highlight of this role comes when he pretends to be an Italian stuntman in order to sneak into a Nazi film premiere, wearing a look of dyspeptic agony while speaking bad Italian with an undisguised Appalachian accent). More central to Tarantino’s intentions is Shoshanna Dreyfus (played by French actress Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman who narrowly escapes when the Nazis gun down her family in a farmhouse. Four years after her escape, she hides in plain sight in Vichy France as the proprietress of a Parisian film theatre passed on to her by her deceased aunt and uncle.

A German war hero becomes infatuated with Shoshanna and convinces Joseph Goebbels to premiere an important propaganda film at her theatre, unwittingly offering Shoshanna an opportunity for revenge on the Nazis. She schemes to lock all the officials in the Third Reich in her theatre—even Hitler will be in attendance—and set fire to the highly flammable nitrate film stock, using the power of film quite literally to end Nazi tyranny. At the same time, the Basterds are involved in something called “Operation Kino”—led by a handsome, swashbuckling film critic, which is how you know this is fiction, ha-ha—where they intend to sneak explosives into the movie premiere and assassinate the attendant Nazi officials.

But stealing the show from Laurent and Pitt is Christoph Waltz’s performance as Colonel Landa, or “the Jew Hunter,” as he is otherwise known. For a film riddled with farcically over-the-top Nazis—Hitler is a red-faced, ranting loon, more clownish than fearsome—Landa is a surprisingly chilling character, performed with grace and intelligent by Waltz. Eerily calm even in the middle of murder, he is more frightening than all the other Nazis combined because he is actually portrayed as a sensible man aware of his actions, as opposed to a delirious, hate-filled lunatic. As he observes at one point, he is simply a detective, and given the nature of his society, this means he looks for Jews. He is not only devoid of morality, but conscious of this lack and unapologetic for his self-serving cruelty.

Despite the occasional Landa-induced shudder of dread, Inglourious Basterds is quite obviously a comical, often absurd film, engaged in an act of creative hubris that begs for scolding. What are you thinking, Tarantino, by trying to rewrite history using nothing more than your own all-consuming love of cinema? But I can’t really deny this film. It sticks in the gut. It refuses to go away. Tarantino’s films tend to offer ephemeral pleasures at best, his plot digressions and convolutions easily reduced to a series of slick, ain’t-it-cool moments that rarely linger in the mind after the film is finished. Everything dissipates under the harsh light of the theatre lobby, and Tarantino’s precariously constructed movie-mad fantasies are blasted apart once the real world begins to barge its way back in to our lives.

By contrast, this knowingly ridiculous and cartoonish assault on the very idea of the Second World War is too outrageous to ignore or dismiss. Hitler doesn’t die in the bunker here, you see—he is gunned down by two Jewish soldiers while the leaders of the Third Reich burn to death in a movie theatre. Understandably, the film’s replacement of historical fact with revenge fantasies can provoke some agonized audience responses, particularly among some Jewish critics who are rightly queasy about the risks inherent in Tarantino’s approach. Do we really need images of Jews carving swastikas into Nazi foreheads, just as Nazis would have carved the Star of David onto their Jewish victims? By pursuing this revenge fantasy to such extreme limits, doesn’t Tarantino risk turning the victim into another victimizer?

Valid concerns, I believe, and ones that should not be taken lightly, even though some people will simply sigh wearily at the prospect of such moralizing ruining our good and bloody fun. It’s just a movie, they cry out, pouting at the prospect of someone questioning their right to enjoy watching a person having his face smashed in with a baseball bat. And yet, in this case, I think the “it’s just a movie” defense might actually be correctly applied.

Tarantino really doesn’t care about World War Two as historical fact. Let’s be clear on that. But note that many of the more genteel, respectable war films—just roll that combination of terms on your tongue and see how you like the taste—are equally capable of pulling their own dodgy alterations to history, all of which can be forgiven as long as the film maintains an aura of self-serious piety. In other words, both Saving Private Ryan and Inglourious Basterds are bullshit, but at least Tarantino’s film is funny.

This may well prove to be the future of World War Two movies. As that era recedes further into history, the war becomes less a lived memory and more a cultural commodity. It’s a genre, complete with its own tropes and themes (and as Tarantino proves with his various allusions, it can be easily conflated with other genres like the western, which also referred to real history before becoming fodder for modern mythology). Tarantino’s primary experience with Nazis probably lies in the video store, not the library, and so it isn’t surprising that he does not treat them as a complex convergence of various social, political, and economic factors in German society. No, Nazis are just what you shoot when playing Call of Duty. Inglourious Basterds is really a World War Two movie for this generation.

Knowing the Second World War primarily through the cinema, Tarantino has quite naturally made a film that is more about war movies than the actual war itself. Inglourious Basterds is about the image of the Second World War in our imaginations, and images are something Tarantino sees no reason to tremble before. In his world, cinema is everything and vice versa, which allows him to pose this guileless, naïve, yet difficult question: if we are truly free in our imaginations, why persist in envisioning persecution?

Monday, August 17, 2009

District 9

With its lack of name stars and exotic pedigree, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 feels more like late-summer counter-programming than just another blockbuster epic. Certainly, the fact that it lacks a Burger King tie-in and doesn’t begin with the depressing note, “Based on the Hasbro toys,” is enough to make District 9 appear downright mature and thoughtful when compared with the rest of the movies crowding the multiplex at the moment.

The film’s premise is even a bit of a novelty. An alien ship appears above Johannesburg (that’s right, screw you, New York, Paris, London—it’s time for the rest of the world to get in on the alien invasion action), but instead of unleashing doom upon the puny Earthlings, it just floats like a heavy cloud until a search party enters and discovers a malnourished race of anthropomorphic bug-things henceforth known derogatorily as Prawns. The creatures are shipped to the planet’s surface and put into overcrowded slum camps, managed by a corporation with the laughably ominous name Multi-National United.

Yes, this is a different spin on the usual first-contact story, but it’s hard to give credit for cleverness when you consider the idea’s unimaginative execution. Perhaps the reason no one has attempted this idea before is because it actually doesn’t make a lot of sense—how could an alien race travel across the galaxy and yet find themselves enslaved by humanity’s inferior technology? Blomkamp throws in a vague explanation about how the alien leaders might have died due to some disease, leaving only the unorganized worker drones, but considering the aliens can still control their ship and use their weapons, this sounds suspiciously like a half-assed justification for the apartheid allegory which is really the film’s hook.

In that case, it’s a wonder that the film actually has so little to say about racism or apartheid. If there's a purpose to all of this, it lies in the transformation of the film’s protagonist, Wikus van der Merwe, a bumbling white bureaucrat cheerfully in denial over the suffering his actions are causing to these creatures. After being placed in charge of emptying out the titular slum of District 9 and transferring the aliens to District 10 (basically a concentration camp, he later admits), events force van der Merwe to sympathize with the Prawns as he is pushed closer to their plight.

Still, if Blomkamp is attempting some sort of homily on racial understanding, then he would have been wise to avoid dubious caricatures like the band of voodoo-loving tribal Nigerian gangsters—all overplayed with leering menace—who contribute a bit of stock villainy to the proceedings, collecting alien weaponry in the slums while dealing cat food to the Prawns (the substance is the equivalent of crack in these intergalactic ghettos). For that matter, there is hardly much more complexity in the portrayal of the alien creatures, most of whom are treated disdainfully as dim-witted, self-defeating savages. At one point, we even see a Prawn wearing a beanie, just so we don’t confuse him with Einstein, I suppose.

The film is sunk by this lack of insight and imagination. Surely a more rich and complicated world than what Blomkamp creates can be derived from such a loaded premise. Instead, we get a flat and underdeveloped protagonist surrounded by peripheral characters so generic as to be almost unnoticeable. A consortium of sinister scientists, soldiers, government agents, and businessmen all shuffle through the narrative like a listless line of bogeymen too familiar to be frightening anymore. And by the end, the film has settled into a monotonous pattern of chase-fight-chase-fight that could suck the life out of any half-decent concept. It’s hard to develop a vivid cinematic world when you have to stop everything intermittently for some hot and heavy robo-suit combat, you know?

Perhaps it’s because we’ve all been beaten down by the onslaught of recent summer blockbusters that this weak movie appears so promising at first glance. Maybe critics—who for the most part have been fairly generous in their praise of District 9—are just happy to see some a major summer movie that actually draws on reality, instead of a fifteen-year-old boy’s fantasies of same. But with a pack of clichés threatening to carry the whole story off into the ether, real history is ultimately the only thing tethering this film to the ground. Unfortunately, Blomkamp brings up these references to apartheid not necessarily because he wants to speak to this subject, but rather because they lend an aura of significance to a story that otherwise has none. Yes, acknowledging the real world is a good thing, but the more important part is actually living in it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Hurt Locker

You almost begin to pray for explosions. Not out of malice or sheer bloodlust—you just want an end to the maddening tension that permeates every moment. And once in a while, there is the release of an explosion or some gunfire or even a few punches to the gut exchanged in the midst of some drunken macho horseplay. But again and again you return to that same nerve-rattling tension, that same suspended moment. There’s always the knowledge that you’ll be dead the moment you hit the ground, but for every second you’re in the air, you might as well be immortal.

The Hurt Locker, a steely-eyed new film directed by Kathryn Bigelow from a well-observed script from Mark Boal, is all about the addiction of war as an experience, examining the heavy psychological toll exacted by continual exposure to your own imminent death. This is war as a state of mind. You carry it with you wherever you go.

Set during 2004 in Iraq, the film narrows its focus to a single Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. After losing their team leader during a mission, JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) find themselves saddled with Sergeant Will James (Jeremy Renner), an arrogant veteran EOD soldier who claims to have defused more than 800 bombs. Reckless in his confidence, James exposes his teammates to unnecessary risks without a second thought. He simply acts—effectively, as it typically turns out, but with little regard for safety.

Some of the conflicts that arise in the group as a result of James’ brash behaviour might seem familiar at first: Eldridge is a brittle, inexperienced soldier, crumbling under the constant strain, while Sanborn clings to regulations and rules as a bulwark against James’ more impulsive methods. But Sanborn’s by-the-book demeanor masks incredible anxiety and fear, and James’ cocksure attitude is similarly a façade of sorts. Even though initial appearances make it seem James is just an arrogant young twerp on a short march to the grave, it soon becomes evident that he is not only a good soldier, but also one who cares for his comrades, despite his recklessness.

In many ways, in fact, he is held up as an exemplary soldier (his superiors make much of his impressive record), and that is ultimately what makes his character so pitiable. As he excels at war, so he fails at domesticity. During one of the few scenes that occur outside of Iraq, we see him standing in a grocery store, staring at a daunting wall of cereal boxes, hesitating. Where is the bold confidence of the soldier who defuses a bomb in the still-smoldering wreckage of a car, unconcerned with the likelihood of his own death? When James tries to describe his relationship with the mother of his son, there is a helplessness and confusion that suggests war is, like any other drug, an escape from the bewildering problems of normal life.

Many of these concerns are more general and not tied to any specific conflict, but by limiting itself to this one group of soldiers the film provides some interesting insights into the Iraq war. For the EOD unit, everyone and everything is a potential threat. When they walk into a bomb scene, each scrap of litter potentially hides an IED, and each onlooker possibly holds the detonator. And if you have to treat all Iraqi citizens like enemies, is it any wonder when so many turn out to be exactly that? At one point, a standoff ensues when a taxi bursts through a military barricade onto a bomb scene. As Will points his gun at the head of the driver, the two stare in a sudden and inexplicable test of wills. Is this man really hoping to attack the American military? Or, merely frustrated by the sight of the army, did he choose to defy their presence and carry on with his normal route, only to find a gun aiming between his eyes? After he backs down, soldiers yank him out of his car and drag him away. “If he wasn’t an insurgent,” Will jokes, “he is now.”

The Hurt Locker represents something seemingly contradictory: an intelligent action film. We’re so used to seeing action filmmaking as purely mindless diversion that it’s startling to see a director of such intelligence committed to the cause. Yes, this film is visceral and exciting, but it’s also attentive to the consequences—both physical and psychological—of its violence. At this time of year, you could walk into any multiplex and stumble across countless imagined disaster scenarios, with buildings bursting into computer-generated rubble left and right while corpses fall like rain drops. Action is a dirty word in these cases, signifying films in which violence and carnage is envisioned as a child’s game. Bigelow prefers to describe her films as “experiential,” which only makes clear the divide between her and the mainstream of action filmmaking. In a film like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, you feel distanced from the action, but in The Hurt Locker, everything feels intensely immediate. You pray for that explosion to come and relieve the tension because this is happening not just to James, but also to you, and like that soldier, you can taste that same seductively self-annihilating adrenalin.

It’s tempting to see Bigelow’s film as a corrective to these mainstream action movies, even though that does a disservice to the complexity of her intentions and methods. When I think back to the first explosion in the film, I don’t think of the blast itself, but rather gravel rising in slow motion or rust shaking off of an abandoned car. Such images capture the brute force of the blast in a way that is not only more poetic, but also more tangible and meaningful, than the usual cliché of sending some debris flying at the camera. Who needs IMAX when you actually have a good director?