Archive for September, 2009

Dirty Dancing

Sunday, September 27th, 2009—Film

Dirty Dancing (USA 1987, Drama/Romance), Writer: Eleanor Bergstein; Director: Emile Ardolino

I don’t think I can really write a review of Dirty Dancing; it would be like writing a critique of my mom’s cooking. Dirty Dancing is less a movie to me and more a childhood experience. Like the summers I spent at music camp, or the years we lived on a farm.

There is no other movie in my life that’s on par with Dirty Dancing. I can’t think of another film I’ve seen more than a few times, but I’ve literally lost track of the number of times I’ve seen Dirty Dancing. It’s in the dozens. For a while in grade school, my sister and I used to watch the movie every afternoon with the sisters who lived next door. It was a ritual, and much better than doing our homework.

I’m writing my non-review of Dirty Dancing now as a tribute to Patrick Swayze. I haven’t seen many of his movies, although I’m going to try to watch Road House today because my sister’s eyes light up every time someone mentions it. She loves how unabashedly hokey it is. I saw enough of the film’s opening to know it’s not a movie I’m likely to recommend to anyone else. But I’m looking forward to seeing Swayze play Dalton the tough-as-nails bouncer with a soul, and really looking forward to watching the special features to find out how real life bouncers answer the question: “What would Dalton do?” So, family antics and inside jokes about Road House aside, the tie my sisters and I have to Patrick Swayze is through Dirty Dancing, and the television miniseries North and South which utterly swept me away—we even named our fluffy white cats Orry and George after the two main characters (Swayze was Orry).

But back to Dirty Dancing. I’m not going to review it, per se, but I will say that it’s a special movie that stands out among other films of its ilk. It’s set one summer in the 60s when Baby (Jennifer Grey) and her family stay at Kellerman’s resort in the Catskills. The movie is Baby’s coming of age story, as she falls for dance instructor Johnny Castle (Swayze), and learns to dance and to question everything she thought she knew before arriving at Kellerman’s. There’s more to the story than you’ll find in most dance movies, and, as my sister pointed out, the casting is exceptionally good. Swayze and Grey are perfect and the supporting performances are very strong (especially Jerry Orbach as Baby’s father and Cynthia Rhodes as Johnny’s dance partner).

I don’t know much about Patrick Swayze “The Person.” And I don’t want to go there. To me, he was just Johnny (when he wasn’t Orry). Lines from the movie evolved into a secret language between me and my sisters and countless friends. I spent so many nights dancing around my apartments to candlelight and music from the soundtrack, when the floors become the log or the stairs or the stage in the movie, and the doorframes became Johnny himself. (The lifts didn’t go so well.) And in those ways, Swayze is still as much alive to me as he ever was.

Several years ago, a dear family friend died of cancer. He used to work at the National Gallery of Canada and most of my memories of him are in or around that building. So to me, he’s still alive there, striding through the hallways with his purposeful but boyish gait, his eternal smile lighting up the rooms. (I always say a quiet “Hello” when I pass by the Gallery.) In that same way, Patrick Swayze will always be alive to me. I guess that’s how it is with people who touch you greatly but who aren’t a part of your daily life; their impact doesn’t have to lessen with their passing. In the back of my mind, I still think I can pop into the Gallery any time I want to visit my friend. And I know I can always pop Dirty Dancing into the DVD player when I feel like catching up with Johnny.

I was genuinely sad when I read that Swayze was ill. I’ve thought about him off and on over the last year or so since he announced that he had pancreatic cancer, and was struck by a surprising amount of grief when he died on September 14. Two weeks ago tomorrow. I won’t think of him every day, and his death won’t change my life in any significant way. But it is a loss for so many people, and truly sad that someone with such a life force should have it extinguished so early.

Swayze has left behind a legacy of films and television shows. From the little I know of him, he was a good actor and a great dancer, and he’ll be remembered through his work and the countless websites devoted to him. I guess this post is the virtual bouquet I’m leaving at the collective monument his fans have created. Dirty Dancing will forever be enmeshed with my childhood and adolescence. I think everyone should see it. It’s awesome. And it’s what Dalton would do.

PS, I don’t hope you rest in peace. I hope you’re still dancing your ass off.

Inglourious Basterds

Sunday, September 20th, 2009—Film

Inglourious Basterds (USA/Germany 2009, Drama/War/Satire), Writer/Director: Quentin Tarantino

If you’d told me a month ago that I would be writing about Inglourious Basterds (on an absolutely glorious September day, as it happens, and by the water, basking in what is probably the farthest I could get from the movie’s frequently tense, frenzied mood), I wouldn’t have believed you. Although Tarantino fascinates me and usually puts out movies that catch my interest, I just couldn’t stomach the gruesome scalpings and beatings I knew were in his latest flick.

But then AO, a good friend who’d already seen the movie, agreed to watch it with me and sweetly warned me before most of the gore could send me into post-traumatic stress. (By the way, contrary to what everyone else assured me, you can’t see all the violence coming; some of it appears as quick cut-aways, and some of it just takes you by surprise. And also by the way, I realize how lame it is that I needed an escort to see this film. But it got me into the theatre, and I’m really glad it did. You’re about to find out why.)

So let’s dive in, because I want to get out on the water. Inglourious Basterds is set during the Second World War. It begins in 1941 Nazi occupied France, when a group of SS officers storm a farmhouse to eliminate the Jewish family that is rumoured to be hiding there. Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) murders all but one member of the Jewish family—the young Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) whom he inexplicably allows to run free.

From that all-too-real horror, we jump ahead to 1944 where Tarantino has decided to take some outlandish liberties with history and have a little fun at the expense of the Nazis. Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) has gathered a group of Jewish-American soldiers—the Basterds, as they call themselves—to do a little housekeeping in Germany. He charges each man with the duty of bringing him 100 Nazi scalps, or die trying. As the Basterds set about their work with great fervour, we meet up with Shosanna in Paris where she now runs a cinema. As the Basterds and Shosanna seek their own brands of revenge, events conspire to bring them all together at her theatre on the night of a major Nazi film premiere.

The thing I find most enticing about Quentin Tarantino’s films is that his excitement and exuberance for filmmaking practically spills off the reels. He’s so obviously in love with what he does, both with moviemaking and with the movies that he makes. When he takes a break from the narrative to give the viewer backstory, or to jump into a character’s fantasy sequence, you can almost see him giddily at work in the editing room dreaming up the titles and effects. He ends Inglourious Basterds with one of the characters saying, “This might just be my masterpiece.” The character is referring to his work on one of the Nazis, but you get the feeling that Tarantino—the writer, the director—might just be talking about his own movie.

Tarantino is a self-taught film student. He reportedly schooled himself by watching countless movies from the annals of cinematic history, and it’s clear he did his homework. Inglourious Basterds is peppered with allusions to film history, including references to Hitler’s favourite filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, and Hollywood golden age producers like David O. Selznick. I’m sure there are many more references that are increasingly likely to elude me the farther I get from my film school days. But you get the point.

Even in a film about the Holocaust, Tarantino’s trademark energy and penchant for the absurd come across. The movie is divided into chapters, and some of them are funny and playful even in their extreme violence. One of the most obvious examples of the film’s levity comes in the form of Lt. Raine. As Pitt plays him, he’s a Tennessee hillbilly who brings an unshakeable confidence but also apparent disinterest to his task. He’s fully committed to following through on murdering Nazis, yet the entire mission always comes across as something of a game or an amusement to him.

I read an interesting article in The Atlantic, in which Tarantino says that all his Jewish friends have nothing but rave reviews for the film. Still, the reporter quotes Neal Gabler (author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood) as saying that “no Jew would ever make a film like Inglourious Basterds. It’s too brazen.” That’s the impression I got from the film as well. Only an outsider could have that detachment; a Jew would be too affected by history’s power to take Tarantino’s angle on the Holocaust. Lt. Raine isn’t Jewish. He hasn’t been personally attacked; he just happens to have a bone to pick. In many ways, Lt. Raine feels a bit like the film’s narrator, approaching his mission in much the same way the director approaches the film as a whole: with detachment, humour, violence and great authority.

Still, there are other chapters and dimensions to the film, which isn’t surprising given that Tarantino himself admits to going off on genre-bending tangents when he sits down to write. In addition to the fun, frolic and carnage, the director creates some incredible drama and tension. The opening scene in the farmhouse is so exquisitely made that it’s almost painful to watch. It’s timed perfectly, and the performances are astoundingly good—from the French farmer’s daughter who never says a word (Lena Friedrich), to Col. Landa whose depiction by Waltz is nothing short of sensational. He has his character fine-tuned to the smallest details in how he holds his utensils. It’s obvious from the attention Tarantino’s camera pays Waltz that the director adores and appreciates actors.

The other truly phenomenal performance comes from Mélanie Laurent. As Shosanna, she is powerful, nuanced, understated, and so mesmerizing that I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She shares a restaurant scene with Waltz later in the film, and it’s hard to decide which one to focus on. Just watch this scene and see how they each attack their food: Landa with almost violent gusto, taking exactly what he wants from the meal and thoroughly enjoying the process; Shosanna with the fierce determination and rage that has kept her alive, and the knowledge that her only defence is a strong offensive attack in front of the Nazi who massacred her family. At the end of the meal, when Landa finally takes his leave, Shosanna’s split-second breakdown is shattering. Either of these actors would make Inglourious Basterds worth seeing. Together, they pack a one-two punch that is unmissable.

So there you have it. In a lot of ways, Tarantino still shows his silly, boyish, gleeful side in Inglourious Basterds. He’s a film geek out for some self-indulgent fun at the helm. But he’s also clearly put a lot of thought into what he does—a lot; I’d guess it’s probably all-consuming for him—and he delivers some refined, sophisticated scenes that showcase a growing wisdom and maturity as a filmmaker. From what I saw (basically everything minus most of the gore), Inglourious Basterds is one fine film. It’s outrageous, but excellently crafted and definitely worth seeing. All you need is a stronger stomach than mine, or a friend as good as AO.

District 9

Monday, September 7th, 2009—Film

District 9 (USA/New Zealand 2009, Action/Drama/Sci-Fi/Thriller), Writers: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell; Director: Neill Blomkamp

It’s interesting (encouraging, even?) that this review comes immediately after my review of Moon. Both District 9 and Moon are daring, inventive sci-fi films that are more focused on character development and exploration, and on social commentary, than simply blowing things up. District 9 also manages to fit in some pretty impressive visual effects, and is much more action-packed than Moon. But action or not, these are both definitely the kinds of sci-fi flicks that catch my attention. Hopefully they’re indicative of a more intelligent, thought-provoking breed of the genre, and not just a summer fluke!

District 9 opens with a documentary-style backgrounder on the past 20 years, starting in 1990 when an alien mothership arrived over Johannesburg. Unable to return to their home planet because of technological difficulties with the spacecraft, the aliens are forced to make Earth their new home. The people of Johannesburg react with fear, and it isn’t long before the government has the aliens fenced off and living like third class citizens—complete with tin roof shacks and heaps of trash littering their slums, and a pejorative nickname (“prawns”) that reinforces just how unwelcome they are by human society.

Now, in present day, the government has handed over control of the aliens to a private corporation called Multi-National United (MNU) that has decided the best course of action is to move the million+ aliens 200kms outside of Johannesburg. The evictions are being handled by Afrikaner Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley, in an outstanding performance). Wikus is an ignorant and racist bureaucrat who thinks it’s funny to listen to the popping sounds the alien pods make as he burns the babies alive. He has no sympathy for prawns, as he calls them, until he is exposed to an alien substance that alters his DNA and begins to turn him into one of the dreaded creatures.

At this point, the film—which brilliantly blends documentary-style news footage, corporate interviews and traditional narrative—focuses more on conventional storytelling and delves into the relationship between Wikus and an alien who goes by the name Christopher Johnson. Christopher is evidently the most intelligent of the aliens, and has been secretly building a means to escape beneath his shanty house. The eviction means he will have to give up his plans, which were nearly complete. And so he is forced to work with Wikus so that they may both have a chance at survival.

I recently had a conversation about District 9 with my favourite film critic, TS. He says he loved the film for the exact opposite reason he hated The Dark Knight. While the Batman installment features characters whose actions range from questionable to implausible, District 9 presents a totally believable version of how humanity would react in the presence of alien creatures who have something we want (in this case, superior technology).

I agree with TS (except for the part about hating The Dark Knight), but would go further and say that, of the sci-films I’ve seen, I’ve never been more convinced that what unfolds actually could happen, and that the aliens truly could exist, than I was by District 9. Blomkamp uses aliens from outerspace to reflect how unwelcoming—and fearful—humans tend to be of all aliens. Setting District 9 in South Africa draws immediate parallels to forced relocations and discrimination that have occurred throughout history—both recent and relatively distant. The fact that the director grew up in Johannesburg brings added weight, depth and sincerity to the story.

More than just painting a powerful and convincing depiction of what can—and does—go wrong when people give in to fear and greed, Blomkamp also manages to do a beautiful job of bringing the aliens to life. When Christopher Johnson explains to his young son how many moons they have on their planet, I utterly believed that their world was real and waiting for them somewhere else. Their history and backstory somehow comes alive throughout the course of District 9. The aliens are treated with respect by the filmmakers, if not by any of the other characters.

Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings, Heavenly Creatures) is one of the producers behind District 9. But the one truly visionary voice that rings throughout is Blomkamp’s. The film is an amazing feat in and of itself, but when you consider that this is the feature film debut from a 29-year-old, it’s all the more incredible. The South African born filmmaker has a background in animation, and first got noticed when he directed a series of live-action shorts promoting the video game Halo 3. (I’m not going to pretend to know anything about Halo… although I do kind of like the new Beyoncé song.) Based on the success of his shorts, Blomkamp was slated to direct the feature film version of Halo. But when it fell through, producer Jackson decided to help Blomkamp bring another of his shorts to life as a feature—the 2005 movie Alive in Joburg, on which District 9 is based.

I really liked this movie. Yes, some of the content is mildly derivative—there are echoes of The Fly, among other films. But it’s technically awesome, and is open-ended in a wonderful way that makes you question the consequences of our behaviour and wonder what’s in store for us all.