Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Movie: Inglourious Basterds
Writer(s): Quentin Tarantino
Director(s): Quentin Tarantino

This movie was not what I expected. That is a good thing as it is better than it would have been. The basic story is simple enough: two groups of people plot to kill Hitler during WWII. But Tarantino does two unusual things that give this film it's unique voice and style. Both of these things seem in conflict with commercial success and other filmmakers wouldn't have been allowed to do them, but he's got clout. The first thing he does is that most of the film is not in English! About half the film is subtitled as the conversations are in French or German. This is not only realistic and historically more accurate, but gives the film an unusual air. The language barriers are even incorporated into the plot, as a British spy tries to pretend to be German and Jewish-Americans attempt to be Italian. In some scenes there's even a translator involved, which theoretically slows down the action even more as we get to hear every line twice. That relates to the second thing Tarantino does, which is to write long, scenes of dialog in which nothing happens. Most action films today are all about non-stop explosions and violence, but Quentin keeps you on the edge of your seat by not showing any violence! The opening chapter is so brilliantly simple: a German SS commander arrives at the home of a French citizen and chats with him and drinks milk and is so charming he's terrifying, and though this small-talk conversation goes on for a long time, every word is charged with explosives and you just know something awful is about to happen but you don't know why or when or how. The climax, when it comes, is suitably outrageously violent. The film repeats this technique throughout: practically telling us something bad is about to happen and then teasing us and making us wait for it. The effect is brilliant -- rather Hitchcockian -- in that the slightest thing in every scene is magnified. A sip of a coffee or a close-up of a dessert dish has your mind racing: Is it poisoned? Is the cup going to be shot out of his hand? Will a smiling face suddenly dissolved into sadness as blood trickles from the mouth after being mysteriously and unexpectedly killed? You don't know and the tension is marvelous. Tarantino makes this work via brilliant casting: Brad Pitt gets the headlines and he's okay but really a minor character. It is the work of the amazing Christoph Waltz as the evil Nazi Colonel and French actress Melanie Laurent as a Jew pretending to be French that really stand out. Scenes with them crackle and spark with mystery with every eye-blink holding the potential of a nuclear explosion. Everyone is good, but those two are standouts, and the result is that even in slow, seemingly meaningless scenes, the tension is unparalleled. The greatest compliment I can make about this film -- which is slow and long, with action only in a few quick, ultra-violent scenes -- is that though it is 2.5 hours long I never looked at my watch or wanted it to end. The ending is also excellent, and extremely satisfying (I was worried there for a while), and the most I can say about it without giving away details is that it is the right ending for this movie. Overall the film does not have a great deal of depth or philosophical message -- but Tarantino's films rarely do and survive, like this one, on style and the delivery of just the right sort of outrageous fun we want. Excellent. I wouldn't give it a perfect ten, but it's definitely a solid eight or nine.


Monday, August 17, 2009


Book: Wyrms
Writer(s): Orson Scott Card

What a fantastic book! I thought this was a newer novel of Card's because I hadn't heard of it, but apparently it's older, from the late 1980s, and got lost amongst his more popular works. However, this is one of his best. It is set thousands of years in the future on a planet colonized by humans 7,000 years earlier. The humans and local species have interbred and evolved into several new species, each of which are interesting. A key part of the novel is that the indigenous species can communicate through telepathy while humans cannot (though humans are susceptible to its influence). The main human character is a young girl, the seventh seventh seventh daughter (basically 300 generations down) who has been prophesied to be either the savior or destroyer of the world, so various groups want her dead or alive. Her mission is to kill the Unwyrm, the original indigenous creature of the planet, who is calling her telepathically to mate with her: he has waited 7,000 years for the human DNA to reach a point where perfect merging is possible. She does not want this and wants to kill him, for he seeks the end of humanity, but she is powerless to resist his telepathic call. That is the core conflict, and it sets up a fascinating world of humans, creatures, politics, and religion, and Card brilliantly allows amazing discussions on the nature of good and evil, why a good person who does bad things can still be good, and so on. The novel is action-adventure -- the girl has been trained as an assassin by her father -- and thus it's a wonderful blend of philosophical discussion and action. I listened to the audiobook version but this is one I will probably buy in book form to reread and have on my shelf. It's that good.


Friday, August 14, 2009

District 9

Movie: District 9

I wasn't too excited about this based on what I'd heard -- it sounded too much like a remake of Alien Nation. But in that one the aliens were quite human-like and they were incorporated into our society. Here they look like vertical crabs (they are called "Prawns"). They are still too humanoid in my opinion (Why does almost every scifi film or TV show feature aliens as humanoids?) but at least this is an attempt to show creatures that look different from us. Because in this one the aliens are kept in a concentration camp (aka refuge camp) I expected -- and dreaded -- heavy political content, but to my surprise there's hardly any (a little bit about how ruthless corporations can be) and the film actually would have been better with more. That really is my main criticism -- the last third of the film is little more than a meaningless action flick, which is sad since the first two thirds are an amazing setup for more depth. The lead actor is fantastic -- he really carries the film, being flawless as a fawning bureaucrat who ends up as a fighter. I also really liked the special effects, especially the huge mother ship floating over Johanesburg in the background of many scenes (which is a wonderful, oppressive touch considering it has been there for over 20 years and become part of the city's life). The handheld camera technique or pseudo-documentary style was kept to a minimum, which was good, but it still was a poorly used gimmick: it should have simply been used as the introduction and conclusion, leaving the middle for real filming. That's almost what they did except they occasionally showed us grainy footage from a security camera or whatever to remind us this was still a documentary, which was in total contradiction with the film footage we were seeing. Despite some obvious flaws like these, though, the film's worth seeing. It touches on some new things that we haven't see before, and some of the action and alien stuff is quite good. Ultimately it doesn't really go anywhere but the journey there is interesting.


Monday, August 10, 2009

The Perfect Getaway

Movie: The Perfect Getaway

Another film that surpassed my low expectations. This actually not a horror film as marketed, but a suspense film. No one even gets killed until very late in the movie. I had expected a slasher-type film with honeymooners and vacationers getting violently killed throughout, but instead it's more of a psychological mystery of trying to identify which couple is the killer. (The plot is simply that honeymooners in a remote are of Hawaii know that one of the couples are murderers but aren't sure which couple.) I will point out that the film has an intriguing twist ending. I will try not to give it away with my comments. While I liked the twist a lot, it unfortunately has a severe flaw. That flaw is that the film lies to the viewer to get you to believe something that isn't true. Then later the truth comes as a surprise. Very poor idea as it weakens and cheapens the twist and turns it into a mere gimmick. There are other flaws with the story and film, but there's also a lot of good: impressive acting, some nice directorial touches, some good story beats. Unfortunately, because of the flaw the gimmick seems cheap and stands out too much (the film desperately needs a subplot to keep things interesting early on), and the whole film is weaker as a result. With a little more work this could have been a terrific thriller. As it is it is above average, but it doesn't extend to greatness.


Friday, August 7, 2009

GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra

Movie: GI Joe: The Rise of the Cobra

One of the most ridiculous films I have seen, and yet, you know what? I was not bored. The plot is ludicrous, especially the way so many of the main characters on both sides of the battle are interlinked. (A random soldier just happens to be the ex-fiance of the bad girl attacking his caravan? Come on.) The dialogue is pathetic, the special effects obviously digital and excessive, and the high tech battle equipment makes James Bond's gadget lab seem 17th century. And yet... I had fun. I am loath to admit it, actually, but despite all the flaws, this was somehow still entertaining. I doubt I'd want to waste two hours on a rewatch, nor can I actually recommend something so blatantly awful, and yet, if you're game, you might get some fun out of this. The film is so gleefully silly and slight, the actors all absurdly beautiful and buff, and some of the sights are definitely new and unique that it all somehow works (on a very limited level, yes, but it does work). Certainly not worth anything close to its reported $175 million budget, but surprisingly better than I expected.