Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Tarantino's new film is breathtakingly good. Ultimately, it's a movie about movies as wish-fulfillment and fantasy, but along the way, what looked like an action-adventure story turns out to be mostly suspense.

Basterds is not an easy movie, overly bloody with violence in some sections, seemingly overly talky in others. But Tarantino's clever pacing often defies expectations in a film that is not exactly what it seems. The movie shifts gears, drops occasional pieces of throwaway humor, and offers surprises: supposedly the story of a group of Jewish American soldiers wreaking vengenance in occupied France, it is more a long shaggy dog story setting up a climax defying viewer expectations and genre conventions.

The central conceit of the story is telling. In a movie theater in occupied Paris, characters watch a German war movie. So we find ourselves watching a war movie about people watching a war movie, based on an actual -- within the reality of the film -- historic event. Characters discuss the event, how they felt about it and how they feel about the film version.

Along the way, there are numerous nods to other films, including Chaplin's The Kid, The Time Machine, Battleship Potemkin, and The Last Metro. There is a truly quirky cameo by Mike Myers, some very nice work by many actors in supporting roles large and small and a oddly-mannered but strong performance by Brad Pitt as the apparently bloodthirsty Apache hillbilly who leads the Jewish soldiers. But the best work is by young French actress Mélanie Laurent, who plays a Jewish girl hiding in plain sight, and a great performance by Christoph Waltz as a truly diabolical Nazi detective.

There are no great philosophical revelations: Nazism was evil, and in war, even good people have to do terrible things. But Tarantino tells us a fascinating story, with suspense and heart, about how we feel about the stories we tell ourselves.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9: another country heard from

This is a unique film: a South African science fiction mockumentary, resembling a gritty B-movie, but with excellent special effects, using Hitchcockian tropes to grab the viewer and confound expectations. And that's just the form.

The content is a reflection not only on South Africa's heritage of apartheid, but on current problems dealing with immigration issues. The story revolves around an employee of a multi-national corporation, contracted by the South African government to relocate a settlement of cryptic, unattactive aliens from a camp near Johannesburg, and take them somewhere out of sight and mind.

As the protagonist of the film takes a hero's journey, beginning as an unwitting bureaucratic tool, so the story and the film grow right before the viewer. Part action-adventure and part humanistic plea for tolerance, District 9 confronts a lot of issues in the new world order.

Like much quality science fiction, the movie holds up a distorted magic mirror. It's uncomfortable to see ourselves there, but hard to turn away, and ultimately worthwhile. Highly recommended.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Jane Eyre

I'm attempting to rectify some longstanding gaps in my literary education. This year's reading list includes Crime and Punishment, Tale of Two Cities, and Three Men in a Boat. And I've just finished Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

As a modern librarian, I "read" Jane Eyre in multimedia fashion. Most of it I either read in the free Kindle app on my iPod or listened to via a recording from Librivox, which produces free downloadable audiobooks of public domain literature. When I actually had time to sit in my living room, I read a hardcover copy from the library. Although I found the Victorian prose slow going at first, I warmed to the story and the character of Jane, particularly as voiced in Elizabeth Klett's wonderful reading for Librivox. Klett's Librivox works have a lot of fans.

I was ready for the prototypical gothic romance, the brooding Rochester, the star-crossed love. I wasn't expecting the proto-feminism, accompanied by deft attacks on religious hypocrisy and rigid ideas of predestination. Jane is a fascinating character with a terrific story, told by a skilled and insightful writer.

Having finished the book, I had to check out the screen treatments, and there are quite a few -- IMDB lists 21 different versions, including feature films and mini-series. So far, I've watched the 1944 Joan Fontaine & Orson Welles version, which was interesting, but at 97 minutes glossed over or elided some significant aspects of the plot and was not altogether satisfactory. Better was the 1983 BBC mini-series with Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton, which included sufficient detail and was well played by the leads.

I'm looking forward to seeing some other adaptations, and reading more by Charlotte Bronte. I'll probably re-read Jasper Fforde's wonderful Eyre Affair, the first Thursday Next novel, now that I'll understand more of the allusions.