Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Inglorious District

I saw a couple of movies recently, and since my girlfriend told me that my reviews are way too long and impossible to read, I'm going to give my brief thoughts on both of them. Let's see if I can stick to it.

Possible, but minor, spoilers follow:

District 9

I didn't really care for this movie. As a film, it was a pretty neat, great looking action film, but as a work of science fiction, it fell flat. What can you say about a science fiction film where the humans act more alien than the beings from another planet?

It began with a wonderful premise: A ship full of aliens lands appears over South Africa and the humans have to figure out how to house, feed, and take care of these extraterrestrial refugees. A great premise that, unfortunately, just wasn't thought through to any satisfying extent. It simply wasn't believable that the greatest scientific event in the history of humanity would be considered as this kind of after thought, with the ship all but ignored and the aliens abandoned to live in shacks with all but no supervision, scientific study, or any attempt at quarantine.

And then the "plot" reveals itself with one of the worst "macguffins" in he history of science fiction: A fluid that -- for no explained reason -- is able to both power the alien spacecraft and rearrange a human's DNA so he turns into one of the aliens. Huh? When the main character got infected with this fluid and began to change, I assumed that this was the intended use of what was probably some kind of alien bioweapon. But, as it turned out, the entire plot of the film was just an unexplained, unintended byproduct of the fluid's actual use as a fuel source. I'm sorry, but that's just bad storytelling.

And then the rest of the film just never clicked. Everything just felt rushed and glossed over in order to make events unfold and characters act in the way that the screenwriter -- and not logic -- intended. One of the worst examples of this was the terrible assault on the MNU headquarters, an operation the characters said would be so impossible that it was virtually a suicide mission. But all of a sudden the two characters were there, in the vault, and then back to District 9 in the span of about five minutes. Why was it so easy for the most wanted man in the country to continually sneak into and escape from what should be the most heavily studied and fortified "district" on the planet?

But the special effects were fantastic and the main actor was quite good. It's just too bad his character was given no depth, personality, or heroic qualities. Don't believe this hype. This movie kind of sucked.

Inglorious Basterds

Now this one I liked, even though it was even weirder and more impossible to believe than District 9. It was awkwardly structured, incredibly drawn out, and had as much historical accuracy as a pot head's history 101 final exam, but at least it was ridiculously entertaining. It's definitely a Quentin Tarantino film.

To begin with, this wasn't a film about the "Basterds" at all, but really three or four short films all strung together with little to no connection until maybe the very end. In fact, the Basterds are in this film for maybe a half hour to 45 minutes tops, which is actually fine since they are the least compelling characters in the film. Brad Pitt is wonderful and quirky and compelling and everything I hoped he would be in a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, but all of the other Basterds have maybe ten or so lines between them. Some of them are given names and one or two are even given a brief attempt at a personality trait, but that's about it. For the most part, they are just a bunch of gruff looking guys standing behind Brad Pitt as he recites hilarious dialogue. If I have any complaints about this film, that would be the biggest one: In a film that clearly tried to be epic in scope, there are really only two or three characters that are the least bit three dimensional or likable in any way, shape, or form.

But, again, it doesn't matter at the end of the day because it's all so much fun. Tarantino's talent for dialogue has reached a new high, in my opinion, since almost the entire film is told and unraveled through extended one on one conversations between the characters. This was an especially impressive piece of writing and direction considering how most of the dialogue is German or French. The decision to have every character speak in their own native language was a brilliant decision that lend some realism to a period piece that in no other way felt the least bit real or authentic. Nazis are so much more terrifying when they are actually speaking German, and not in some posh, effete British accent.

And speaking of Nazis, Austrian actor Christopher Waltz's Colonel Hans Landa is the best Nazi I've ever seen in any movie. And by that I mean, you know, the worst. This guy is so good at being creepy and evil and brilliant and charming that he completely stole the movie and will have you waiting on the edge of your seat for him to come back on screen. His opening scene in the farm house was one of the most exciting set pieces I've ever seen, even though it was just two men talking to one another across a table. The fact that Waltz was equally brilliant in German, French, Italian, and English was astounding. If he doesn't get an Oscar nomination, I'll be shocked.

At the end of the day, the film didn't really come together at the end as well as I would've hoped, with a big military operation that just rang hollow and false in too many ways, The heroes never really did anything remotely heroic, and weren't even vital to the overall story's flow or purpose. They existed just to be a cliched homage to war films like the Dirty Dozen. And that's fine, because the film they were in was so well done and fun, but think of how much more brilliant it would've been with a little more time and effort put in. But, I loved it. It wasn't Tarantino's best, but it was probably his most fun.


Justin Garrett Blum said...

I was sort of interested in District 9 until I read that it was supposed to be some sort of social commentary about South Africa. I'm not against that on principal, but it annoys me a little when sci-fi is used clumsily. Shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation were usually pretty good about framing contemporary social critique through the warped glass of science fiction, but what I read about District 9 made it seem a little ham-handed.

I still want to see Inglourious Basterds.

Donald said...

Everybody else in the world loved District 9 and called it a science fiction masterpiece, so don't take my word for it.

But, yeah, I thought it was hammy and completely lacking in any kind of subtly or real cleverness, once you get passed the original premise. It was just dumb.

But there's lots of cool shots of people being vaporized.