After sitting with District 9 for too long, and subsequently writing a lot about it, I realized I wouldn’t have room for all the reviews I needed to get done. Especially with Inglorious Basterds thrown in the mix (I could write pages on Tarantino. I have, before) So 3 mini-reviews, and the 2 full reviews.
The Time Travelers Wife: 2 stars – competent love story, well acted by the leads (Rachel McAdams and Eric Bana). But falls apart with the application of time travel. Creates too many unresolved paradoxes (paradoxi?).
The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard: 2.5 stars – Oh, sure, it’s got it’s funny moments, beyond what’s in the trailer. But it takes a shotgun approach to the humour. Hope something, anything, will stick. Ed Helms shines.
Post Grad: 3 stars – Full of charm. Very topical. Carol Burnett was great, Michael Keaton steals every scene he’s in. Alexis Bledel needs to shake “Gilmore Girls”.
What do you get when you cross a compelling character study, race relation politics, and visitors from another world? The perfect sci-fi film. Neill Blomkamp’s District 9.
30 years after an alien ship mysteriously appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa, the E.T.s have been quarantined to District 9, a slum area. MNU official Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) has been charged with informing the Prawns (slang term for the aliens) of their forced relocation to District 10, only to unfortunately come in contact with a bio-weapon in the process. So as to not give away any spoilers on the film, I’ll just say that this sets off an chain of events that leads to Wikus aiding a Prawn in his attempt to get back to his home world.
I’ve long lamented that a problem with mainstream science fiction is that it’s too much on the comedy/action, not enough on the science or deeper, more probing issues that it could be. And don’t get me wrong, I love those kind, too. But the think piece sci-fi’s are much more compelling. And unfortunately they’re few and far between. This is one of those few times.
While several (good) films do tend to view alien visitors through rose coloured lenses, District 9 takes a much bleaker, more pragmatic view of the visitors. We, humans, round up the aliens, put them in slums, and treat them like second, nay, third class citizens. And it very rightly raises the question of, given today’s society and global political spectrum… is that not what we would do? And it’s disheartening to think that the answer could very well be yes.
History is littered with this sort of thing. Americans and the blacks. Americans and the Indians. Pretty much WASPs and non-WASPs in America. Apartheid in South Africa. Serbian ethnic cleansing. And of course the Holocaust, the extreme side. Turning this dark side of our history on it’s head, and forcing us to look at how we act, which is out of fear, and how we would treat these visitors. And it’s scathingly brilliant.
All due credit must go to star Sharlto Copley. The star of the film could have been the script, could have been the effects, could have been the action sequences. But Copley, who astonishingly is starring in his first full length feature, carries the film on his shoulders, and pulls you into his character and you get a connection the likes of which are rarely seen these days. Especially in sci-fi. His transformation from goofy bureaucrat with magnified character flaws to reluctant and sympathetic hero. He plays Wikus straight, the whole way through. There’s no wink and nod that this is a sci-fi flick. And to his credit, you forget that there are aliens, due to his commitment to the story and to the character.
And of course, writer/director Neill Blomkamp. His unflinching and uncompromising daring in his desire to make his movie, and leave his stamp on the world. He disregarded the norm and and made this wonderful think piece that taps into the audience’s desire to be challenged with something new and fresh, as well as their comfortable familiarity with the conventions of sci-fi/action. He fuses the two together, and walks away with the film of the year.
If you see one film in theatres this year, make it District 9, you won’t be disappointed. I will be if it doesn’t garner the recognition it so rightly deserves come award season.
It’s slick. It’s engrossing. It’s comical. It’s got gratuitous action. It’s got engaging dialogue. You’re drawn to characters you shouldn’t like. And above all else, it’s over the top. Yes, Quentin Tarantino has a new film out. And yes, it’s every bit as good as one could hope for (though I am a QT fanboy, so there is that).
Tarantino takes his unique vision and style all the way back to World War II, where the Basterds, a small military unit comprised of American Jews led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) are embedded in Nazi occupied France, and they do what they do best: Kill Nazis. They get a shot at the big dog himself, Adolf Hitler, when he decides to attend a movie premiere (several high ranking Nazi officials will also be in attendance). Little known fact to all involved, the theatre where the premiere is being held is owned and operated by a French Jew who saw her family slaughtered at the hands of a cold-hearted SS Colonel.
They say history is written by the winners. I’d rather it be written by Tarantino. His revisionist history is way more entertaining and satisfying than what actually happened. No other group of people represent the embodiment of evil more so than the Nazi’s. And pop culture pot shots at them are a guilty pleasure of most, whether they’re willing to admit it or not. And seeing them get their sweet, bloody, gory, gratuitous comeuppance satisfies the deep, internal, hidden bloodlust we all have.
The Basterds are so cavalier, so nonchalant that what they do, you can’t help but laugh, and get a sick glee out of watching them do what they do. Raine comments that they enjoy watching Donny (Eli Roth) beat Nazi’s, and there is a pleasure, a satisfaction in watching Lt. Donowitz go to town on a Nazi with a baseball bat.
Tarantino pulls no less than three amazing performances from his actors. First off, Brad Pitt. I’ve been touting the merits of Pitt for years. He really is quite good. And this exemplifies not only his ability to take on a character, but his comedic timing. While he doesn’t have the chameleon-like talents of some of his contemporaries, he does get into his character, and doesn’t let himself take over the character. He is a man who understands the craft. And he gives one of his career defining performances.
Melanie Laurent, virtually unknown to American audiences (myself included, I won’t be one of those snobs who pretends to be 100% versed in foreign cinema and holds nothing but feigned disdain for American works) gives a heartfelt yet brutal performance as the vengeance seeking Shosanna Dreyfus, a young French-Jewish girl hiding in plain sight who orchestrates a mass killing of the high ranking Nazi’s and the societal elite at her theatre. She takes the character template laid down by Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, a woman with laser-like focus on revenge, amplifies it, and pulls you into her own personal struggle.
But the most intriguing character, and the truly most brilliant performance of the year, hands down belongs to German actor Christoph Waltz as SS Col. Hans Landa. Waltz never plays him as over the top evil. Instead, he’s cold, calculating, and there’s a hint of sarcasm to him. To the character, not the portrayal. Waltz made the right choice in playing it straight. In a film filled with outlandish characters, someone has to be the straight man. And why can’t it be a Nazi. You don’t like him. You’re not sympathetic to him. But you are oddly drawn to him. There hasn’t been such an effective villain on film since that other famous Hans. Gruber, of course, from Die Hard. Waltz took the time to understand this character, and gave the performance of the year (up there with the previously mentioned Sharlto Copley in District 9).
No one writes dialogue like Tarantino. It’s almost lyrical. You’re fully engaged in every scene he writes. Every sentence. Every word. He’s not there to waste anyone’s time. In WWII revenge flick, you’ll go 20-30 minutes in between scenes of action, and that’s not really a problem. I sat enraptured by it.
That said, this leads to the one gripe that I had with this film, and it is similar to my frustration with Tarantino’s previous cinematic effort, Death Proof. If you remember, in cinemas, Death Proof was one half of the Grindhouse double feature, alongside his figurative brother Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. DP showed second, and it really killed the flow. You had all this action with PT, then BAM 30 minutes of dialogue. It messed with the pacing. But I looked over it, knowing that they were two separate films, and I could watch them in whatever order I wanted at home on DVD. But with Inglourious Basterds, he’s suffering from pacing problems. He’ll hit you with a burst of fun action, then slam the brakes for dialogue. Rise up to the action, and hit the brakes again. It was frustrating. Tarantino, you didn’t used to have these problems. Maybe you’re slipping in your old age. Who knows?
But this is definitely one of the top films of the year. Thank you August for reaffirming my faith in ’09 cinema, after a pretty dismal year, thus far.