Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inglorious Basterds: Delicious Indulgence

The reign of the summer blockbusters seems to have come to an end, and it has been a marvelous few weeks to be a movie lover!

Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) In the opening scenes of Inglorious Basterds, Col. Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz), the notorious German "Jew Hunter," arrives at a small French farmhouse to "investigate" the possible presence of Jews in hiding. Banishing the farmer's three buxom daughters from the house, the two sit down, switch to English, and begin a delightful verbal game of cat and mouse. Landa is a pleasure to listen to, with words seeming to sparkle as they pass his lips, and is equally satisfying to watch, as he visibly takes great pleasure in the dialog Tarantino has furnished him with.

What Landa wants, Landa gets, and with a first blazing flourish of violence capped with one sweet but moment of release, Inglorious Basterds has begun.

Cut to England. Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is giving his boys - his ten basterds - a pep talk ahead of their deployment deep behind enemy lines on a mission with a sole purpose: to kill Nazis and collect their scalps. And in this film, that is synonymous with killing Germans - cause save one honorary basterd, Tarantino's script allows for only one kind of German: a dyed in the wool, Jew-hating, Hitler-lover Nazi. You will not find an Oscar Schindler (Schindler's List) or a Claus Von Stauffenberg (Valkyrie) in this film...

Game on
From this point on we follow twin stories that slowly converge: that of a mild-mannered young Jewish woman who improbably operates a cinema in Nazi-occupied Paris with the soul help of her African lover, and that of the swaggering basterds. These stories slowly converge towards a delightfully indulgent conflagration that encompasses the ultimate revenge fantasy of the twentieth century - one worthy of the pages of the Sgt. Rock or Sgt. Fury comics of my childhood.

Along the way the audience cringes at the sight of almost unimaginable violence, but always ends up laughing uproarously in a coup of black humor that few save Tarantino and perhaps the Coen Brothers are capable of pulling off . I think back to Pulp Fiction, and the audience roaring with shocked laughter after Jules (John Travolta) accidentally blows Marvin's (Phil LaMarr) head all over the back seat of the car.

And the Award for Best Actor Goes to...
Basterd's is an ambitious, big-budget, Hollywood movie, and there is no doubt that Brad Pitt is the big gun of the cast. His name is emblazoned on the poster and his cocky, redneck American swagger is all over the preview for Basterds. So when it comes to the best actor award for this film, it is seemingly his to give away - and he does.

I like Brad Pitt, I like many of his movies, and I like his character in this film. However, the bottom line is that I found his character pretty one-dimensional in Basterds. Sure he is supposed to be a caricature, but if this is the case he could surely have a little more fun with the role. He could knead it and punch it up into something as gloriously indulgent as the film it inhabits. But no, much as was the case in Burn After Reading, Pitt plays a delightful stereotype perfectly straight - faithfully rendering the typecast to the millimeter without seems to understand that its all in good fun.

So the award goes to ... Christopher Waltz as Col. Landa.

No, I'm not kidding. Waltz gets the fact that he is playing a stereotype, and he is out to have fun with it. He enunciates every word with glee, adds extra flourish to every motion, and drips Dr. Evil-level eeee-vil with every word he utters. Bravo! Tarantino's words become art when Waltz utters them...

Love it or hate it, as you will...
Aside from my measured disappointment with Brad Pitt, which in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the film as a whole, there is little to criticize in Basterds - you either love it or you hate it, period. I hinted before that I was less than pleased to see every German in the film save one portrayed as pure evil, but that is the type of film we are watching - it wouldn't work if you made the evil in Basterds in any way ambiguous or open to interpretation.

My last bit of praise for Basterds will be to commend Tarantino for making a WWII film in which Germans for the most part speak German, the French for the most part speak French, and the English speak English, red neck, a bit of German, and spaghetti Italian. Again, bravo.

Once Upon a Time
Basterds lays it all on the table within five seconds of the beginning, when those five magic words are painted across the screen in medieval script: Once upon a time.... Keep this in mind if you ever find yourself shaking your head (something I never thought to do even when some scenes got a little laborious): this film is indulgence, pure and simple. Roll with it...

Friday, August 14, 2009

Food, Inc.

Food, Inc. (Robert Kenner, 2008) (Park Lane) The basic premise of Food, Inc. is that the way that a society treats its food - plants and animals - mirrors the way that it treats its people. But that can't be true, because if it were, the film would be saying that North Americans are selfish, materialistic, gluttons who value instant gratification, a chemical high, and social isolation over true connection to and communication with each other and the world of wonders that we live in.

Oh. OK ... he may actually have something there.

The Food Factory
Food, Inc. is divided into chapters, each discussing one aspect of the highly mechanized path that food - corn, wheat, fruit, vegetable, chicken, red meat, etc - travels from the expansive factory farms of middle America to the warehouse grocery stores where Americans and Canadian shop. Kenner paints a picture of a food supply chain that has sacrificed nutrition, hygiene, and humane practices (towards workers and livestock) in favour of calories, shelf life, cost cutting, and market share.

Highly disturbing images are de rigeur as the film progresses, ranging from dark, high-density coops housing chickens that cannot even stand under the weight of their enormous breasts to the appalling conditions in which migrant workers risk their lives on slaughterhouse floors. These images do not stand alone, however, as facts and figures accompany at a frenzied rate - like many documentaries with one axe to grind, the facts come so fast and furiously that it is hard to actually "learn" anything specific. Among the scariest bits are the fact that:

  • One of every three children and one of every two minority children born after 2000 will develop type II diabetes;
  • Middle American farms portrayed on butter and pork chop packages that grace supermarket shelves have long given way to highly automated high-intensity feedlots, nation-state-sized corn fields, and genetically modified crops;
  • While five American slaughterhouses controlled 20% of the US market in the 80s, four control about 90% of that market today (not sure I remember the exact figures, that this is the idea).

Phew...and its almost lunch time.

Light on the Horizon
But Food, Inc. is not only about the lamentable state of America's current food supply. It also takes the time to visit and document the efforts of small-scale farmers and food producers who are working to counter these disturbing trends: a rootsy farmer in Virginia who is grass feeding cattle and letting chickens run free and eat worms; farmers that are engaged in life-or-death courtroom struggles to resist the advances of Monsanto and its frankencrops; and the multitude of smaller food processors that are driving and organic revolution, which even Walmart is acknowledging with its decision to provide organic produce in response to customer demand.

But for me, Walmart's shift to providing organic produce also undercuts the hope that Kenner sees in the organic revolution. The very companies that he portrays as having ripped the heart out of North America's food supply are even now co-opting the revolution: Walmart jumping on the organic bandwagon (he does not address the problematic issue of what USDA "organic" actually means) and the myriad of smaller-scale organic producers that are rapidly being bought up by the same conglomerates that he vilifies so thoroughly (Kashi, for example, is now owned by Kraft).

Unfortunately, this leads me to the point where I must note my exceptions to this overall laudable film. With the organic revolution not serving as a solidly positive note to end on, Kenner flails around a bit for a ray of light to end with. I take issue with the fact that he ultimately concludes with an inappropriate comparison between the tobacco companies and food suppliers: he argues that the "fact" that tobacco companies have been brought to heel proves that food producers can also be brought into line. In the first place, I would argue that the assumption that tobacco companies have been brought to heel is just plain mistaken (they remain highly profitable multi-national corporations peddling sickness and decay). I would further suggest that if they had been, it would still be irrelevant - when government "took on" the tobacco companies in the 80s and 90s, corporations were but a shadow of the multi-headed hydras they now are, and they were not nearly as deeply embedded into the fabric of society and the government itself (as Kenner himself points out, most government regulatory agencies are run by former executives of food conglomerates).

Not a "Fun" Film
Ultimately, Food, Inc. is a compelling film that is sure to spark debate among friends and family, but is not a film that you "enjoy" watching - however, as I have said before, respectable films usually raise issues that are pertinent and important but ultimately disturbing. In this sense, I greatly enjoyed Food, Inc. and recommend it highly - not much of what you hear will be new information, but the impact of hearing it together in a more-or-less coherent narrative is worthwhile experience.

That being said, this is not a film that needs to be seen in a theater. The full effect will be conveyed on your home theater system, and, as a bonus, you will be able to pause it and discuss individual points, and/or launch into discussion at the end instead of having to file out of the cinema and drive home while gesticulating and pontificating. Actually, I think that a student union building would be the natural setting in which to watch the film and then hold a panel discussion.