The Cynical Optimist – 20/8/09


Today I’m taking a look at two films – “Inglourious Basterds” and “District 9”.

Inglourious Basterds

You probably heard we ain’t in the prisoner-takin’ business; we in the killin’ Nazi business. And cousin, Business is a-boomin’.” – Lt. Aldo Raine

Quentin Tarantino. Movie-geek extraordinaire. Obsessive enthusiast of cinema’s most obscure works. If you’re reading this review, then you’re probably already aware of the ”Reservoir Dogs” and ”Pulp Fiction” auteur from Knoxville, Tennessee. Further more, you’ve seen those previews with Brad Pitt playing a redneck Nazi hunter in Mr. Tarantino’s latest film, entitled ”Inglourious Basterds”, which hits cinemas this Friday.

The film opens with “Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France…” and the idea is simple: this is a World War II fairytale where history can be rewritten at Tarantino’s command. Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, leader of a group of Jewish-American soldiers known as “The Basterds.” These soldiers are chosen specifically to spread fear throughout the Third Reich by scalping and brutally murdering Nazis.

But you already knew that, because you’ve been reading up on this flick and counting down the days until it hits the popcorn-covered halls of your local multiplex. Let’s move on to the stuff you might not know about Tarantino’s latest flick. First and foremost, the film’s antagonist, Col. Hans Landa, steals the show. Landa (Christoph Waltz) is known as “The Jew Hunter” and is essentially a Nazi detective who sniffs out hiding Jews and eradicates them like rats.

Christoph Waltz is mesmerizing in this role. The guy oozes with cruelty while wearing a delightful smile. He’s charming and yet, completely despicable. I see a nomination for Best Supporting Actor for Waltz’s work in Basterds – simply masterful.

While hunting down Nazis, the Basterds cross paths with a French-Jewish girl named Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), who runs a movie theater in Paris. Shoshanna’s theater is set to host the premiere of the Third Reich’s latest propaganda film, but the Basterds have other plans.

I thoroughly enjoyed ”Inglourious Basterds”, despite its flaws. The film isn’t as over-the-top as you might think, and while it has flourishes of Tarantino’s signature style, it isn’t as self-indulgent as ”Kill Bill” or even ”Jackie Brown”. A sequence involving an actress and several Nazi soldiers playing a drinking game in a tavern is essentially ”Reservoir Dogs” squeezed into a 20-minute scene. It’s brilliant. If only the entire film were as brilliant. During it’s 153-minute running time, the film drags in places and is rescued only by refreshing performances by Waltz, Laurent and Pitt.

Perhaps I fell victim to the anticipation – the hype surrounding Tarantino’s latest and greatest – but I wasn’t as impressed as I expected. Point blank, compared to ”District 9”, ”Inglourious Basterds” fell short of the mark. While it delivers on Nazi bashing blood lust, it skimps out on delivering a compelling plot that keeps you invested in the story and its characters.

Overall, Inglourious Basterds is a solid, entertaining film – but it’s a far cry from being Tarantino’s masterpiece. It’s certainly an improvement over this summer’s rather lackluster lineup, so if you’re tired of worthless fluff like Transformers and G.I. Joe, give the Basterds a try.

District 9

In the 1951 film, ”The Day the Earth Stood Still”, an alien visitor named Klaatu delivers a message to the human race: “The universe grows smaller every day, and the threat of aggression by any group, anywhere, can no longer be tolerated. There must be security for all, or no one is secure. Now, this does not mean giving up any freedom, except the freedom to act irresponsibly.”

Flying saucers suspended by fishing line, grown men in box-shaped rubber robot suits were top-of-the-line back in 1951, but science fiction is more than just special effects. Unfortunately, it seems most of Hollywood’s big-budget blockbusters have forgotten that. Science fiction is at its best when it serves as a social commentary. Films like ”The Day the Earth Stood” serve as parables – examining our society’s problems and addressing lessons to be learned.

In ”District 9”, Neill Blomkamp’s first full-length feature, an extraterrestrial race is forced to live in slum-like conditions on Earth after stumbling upon our world. 28 years ago, an alien spacecraft entered the planet’s atmosphere and settled over Johannesburg, South Africa.

These unwelcome visitors, known by the derogatory term “prawns,” were treated as refugees by the local government and forced to live in the slum known as District 9. The aliens, with their crustacean-like appearances have been met with hostility and contempt by humans. The result is a slew of agencies like the Department of Alien Affairs and Multi-National United, or MNU, which police the slums and try to maintain a peaceful coexistence.

An MNU field agent named Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), is tasked with moving 1.8 million aliens to a new District 10 camp located 240 km from Johannesburg. Politics, legalities, and tension between the two races make the forced eviction extremely difficult. Within District 9, Wikus is exposed to something inside that makes him invaluable to not only the MNU, but the aliens as well.

Neill Blomkamp’s film is pure brilliance. This has been a fantastic year for science fiction. J.J. Abrams’ rejuvenated ”Star Trek” franchise, Duncan Jones’ ”Moon”, and now Blomkamp’s impressive work in ”District 9”. Newcomer Sharlto Copley surely deserves an Academy Award nomination for his role as Wikus, and with 10 Best Picture nominees it would truly be amazing to see ”District 9” receive a nod.

One of the best science fiction films in years, a true genre masterpiece. ”District 9” is my second favorite film of 2009, behind Marc Webb’s ”(500) Days of Summer”. Any serious film fanatic will have a satisfying experience in watching Blomkamp’s engaging sci-fi parable.