The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

2017 #56
David Yates | 110 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Canada / English* | 12 / PG-13

The Legend of Tarzan

Reviving or continuing well-known IPs as action-packed summer extravaganzas is the order of the day in modern blockbuster cinema — witness the likes of the 2009 Sherlock Holmes and 2013 Lone Ranger — so I suppose it was inevitable that someone would eventually attempt the same with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lord of the Apes. As with the other films of its ilk, The Legend of Tarzan® (as its multiple title cards insist on calling it) is a mixed success.

Eschewing the “tell the origins (again)” form of most reboots, the film finds Tarzan long retired to England as Lord John Clayton III (Alexander Skarsgård) when he is invited back to Africa by the King of Belgium to observe the wonderful work being done there. Initially reluctant, John is persuaded to go by his now-wife Jane (Margot Robbie), who’s keen to revisit their old friends, and American agent George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), who suspects the Belgians of enslaving the Congolese people. Indeed, the whole invitation is actually a ruse, as Belgian envoy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) intends to deliver John to tribal chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou), who has an axe to grind against Tarzan, in return for the diamonds that a near-bankrupt Belgium requires. Naturally, fighting and vine-swinging and sundry acts of derring-do ensue.

When it works, The Legend of Tarzan® is a straight-up old-fashioned adventure movie, albeit with slicker action sequences and created with lashings of CGI. When it doesn’t, it comes across as oddly muddled. As with so many blockbusters last year (Suicide Squad and Rogue One spring immediately to mind), it feels like it was chopped and changed a lot in the edit. It’s hard to pin down how exactly, but it’s something in the way it flows (or doesn’t) between scenes, or sometimes even within sequences. Considering that (just as with the other two examples I mentioned) there were reshoots, you think they’d’ve smoothed some of that out.

Me Tarzan, you jealous

Similarly, the effects are a distractingly mixed bag. A lot of the CGI is incredible — the animals look magnificent, for example; especially the gorillas, who are required to offer some kind of character as well as feature in action scenes. But the filmmakers have been overambitious in other areas. The film was mostly shot on soundstages, and the added-in backgrounds for outside stuff are painfully obvious much of the time. However, the worst bit is a sequence where Tarzan and friends swing on to a CG train that looks like it’s been borrowed from a 15-year-old computer game.

Fortunately the performances show a greater consistency. A tough training regime has left Skarsgård with the muscles required to look the part of a muscly jungle-man, but he also displays an adeptness for comedy — or, at least, a lightness of touch — that makes him an appealing hero. There’s a clear attempt to make Jane more than just a damsel in distress, albeit while still conforming to good ol’ Boys’ Own entertainment to some extent, and leading lady du jour Robbie helps give her character. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson brings easy confidence to his American agent, who serves as a kind of sidekick to Tarzan for most of the movie, acting as comic relief and action scene back-up. If anyone’s underserved it’s the villains, with Waltz solid but giving the performance he always gives (surely he’s capable of more?) and Hounsou being somewhat underused — his character has a highly emotional reason for wanting Tarzan dead, but there’s little time to feel that when there are bigger villainous plans afoot.

He does look cool, though

Tonally the film reminded me a little of something like Superman Returns — a movie made a long time after a forebear and with a whole new cast, but intended as a sequel nonetheless. Only, where Superman Returns was a sequel to the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies, The Legend of Tarzan® is a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist. Its fictitious forerunner is some kind of Tarzan ur-film, a non-specific version of the Tarzan and Jane story that ends with them moving to England and adopting his familial title. This film assumes we’re all familiar with that broad narrative, or familiar with enough to subsist on a few choice flashbacks anyway. And, actually, that’s fine if you do know the story — it certainly feels like we don’t need it going over again… even if, personally, the only version I’ve actually seen is the Disney one. But I do wonder what younger people made of it all, because it seems to me that Tarzan may have slipped somewhat from the general consciousness, so perhaps they’re less familiar with said backstory. Or maybe they’ve all seen the Disney film too.

Also like Superman Returns, The Legend of Tarzan® ends up as something of a well-intentioned muddle. Some viewers will lose patience with it for that, but I at least enjoyed the movie it wanted to be.

3 out of 5

The Legend of Tarzan is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* English isn’t the only language spoken but, from what I can ascertain (by which I mean “I read this”), during the subtitled bits they’re speaking Generic Semi-Fictional African Language. ^

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Big Eyes (2014)

2016 #39
Tim Burton | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Canada / English | 12 / PG-13

Big EyesAfter a smidgen of early awards buzz that pegged it as a dark-horse major contender (which obviously never materialised into anything), everyone seemed to stop talking about Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s latest, and the first thing he’s made in over a decade that doesn’t instantly strike you as an obvious Burton-esque choice.

It’s the true story of Margaret (Amy Adams), an amateur artist who ends up marrying Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), who also dabbles in painting. He manages to get their art publicly displayed, but while people don’t care about his French scenes, they love her huge-eyed waifs. For various reasons Keane claims them as his own, and before the couple know it the paintings are a pop culture phenomenon du jour, loved by the masses but despised by the critical establishment. Nonetheless, Keane reaps the fame and fortune of ‘his’ art — which Margaret is stuck at home churning out for her increasingly demanding and abusive husband…

It’s certainly a bizarre tale, and given even more of an otherworldly edge in Burton’s hands. He’s reined in here compared to his more fantastical leaps, but even when he does the real world it’s not quite our world (see also: Ed Wood). Nonetheless, it makes what could have been a slight tale more interesting than it would’ve been as a straight-up clean-cut biopic, even though it still runs a little long in the middle — the most interesting parts are the “how did that come about?!” setup and the famed denouement, where a court case culminates in a paint-off.

There’s thematic meat that could’ve filled the sandwich between those establishing and climactic, er, pieces of bread(?) — the tastes of critics versus the general public, and the disparity that exists there and what it means; or the inbuilt sexism of the era (though maybe everyone thought Mad Men had that covered) — but I’m not sure Burton was interested in such matters, at least not as much as he is in the kooky tale of some unusual characters and the odd turns of events that shape their lives.

It makes Big Eyes a very watchable and often diverting film, but not one to linger long in a viewer’s affections. A bit like the transitory impact of an artistic fad, then, which is at least apt.

4 out of 5

Spectre (2015)

2015 #168
Sam Mendes | 148 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Regular readers will remember I shared my spoiler-free thoughts on Spectre when it came out. Consequently, this review contains major spoilers, of the “if you read this you will know every twist that happens in the movie” variety.

The 24th official James Bond movie had a funny old ride on its cinema release a few months ago. It started well, with near-universal praise from UK critics; audience reaction was more mixed but erred towards the positive; then US critics tore into it, and US audiences (as usual) followed suit. The latter seems to have become the more accepted view, with the consensus seemingly that it’s decent enough, but a definite step down from the high of Skyfall and a middle-of-the-road instalment in the context of the entire series.

Spectre sees Bond (Daniel Craig) charged by dead-M (a Judi Dench cameo) with tracking down an assassin, as a way in to a secretive organisation that Bond’s other recent nemeses seem to have been a part of. While new-M (Ralph Fiennes) is distracted in London dealing with MI5 upstart Denbigh (Andrew Scott) and his dubious information-sharing plan that will make MI6 obsolete, Bond follows a trail of breadcrumbs to Rome, Austria, and Africa as he attempts to track down the organisation’s leader (Christoph Waltz).

That’s the foreshortened version of the plot, because much of Spectre plays like a detective movie: Bond uncovers clues that send him in new directions moving closer and closer to his goal. Where this falls down is there’s no mystery for him to unearth, at least not to the audience. We (and he) know this secret organisation exists, and we also know who’s in charge — it’s pretty hard to have not heard that Christoph Waltz is playing a Bond villain. So what twist does the film wheel out to keep this worthwhile? Is Waltz actually a front for the real villain? No. Perhaps there will be an incredible reveal about who Waltz’s character really is? Well…

Spectre, to put it bluntly, pulls a Star Trek Into Darkness — and considering writer Damon Lindelof recently admitted they’d messed up the reveal that (spoiler!) Benedict Cumberbatch was actually Khan (and J.J. Abrams admitted they’d messed up the film more generally, but that’s another issue), it’s a shame Spectre tried to repeat the same trick. So yes, as everyone predicted since the day he was cast, Waltz is playing Blofeld. The problem is, the film plays this as a twist/reveal, but it’s not a revelation to the characters, only to the viewer. In this interview with Empire magazine, director Sam Mendes says that not revealing Blofeld’s identity to the viewing public in advance was important because it’s a detective story and Bond doesn’t know the identity of the ‘murderer’, and we shouldn’t know before Bond. Which is poppycock, frankly, because the name Blofeld means nothing to Bond — the revelation for him is that his deceased childhood acquaintance is, a) alive, b) has become a super-villain, and c) has spent the last few years deliberately toying with Bond because of some childhood grudge. That’s why it’s just like the Khan ‘twist’: it means absolutely bugger all to the characters, but it does mean something to the audience. I’m certain there were ways to handle it in-film to make it work both ways — to make it a twist that Oberhauser is also Blofeld — but they don’t pursue that option even a little bit. And of course we all knew anyway, so it feels even sillier. If they’d played the “someone else we’re keeping secret might be Blofeld” game — if there’d been some misdirection to make us thing Denbigh would be unmasked as the big man behind it all — maybe it would’ve worked. But they didn’t.

For me, this is the point where the whole film went off the boil. It occurs at the start of a torture scene, which I thought was an over-complicated wannabe-Casino Royale sequence that consequently doesn’t work, and provides the gateway to an underwhelming final section in London. It seems the film’s third act was always a problem — if you read about what was revealed by the Sony leaks (in this coverage, for example), it’s clear the film entered production with the climax still not nailed down, because no one could quite agree on it. From that article, it indeed sounds like most of the film remained the same (or at least near enough), but the third act has definitely been re-worked, albeit retaining the same general thrust. I still don’t think it works. There’s too much of M, Q and Moneypenny sat in an office trying to stop a man typing something into a computer (more on this in a minute), while Bond is busy running around a building and shooting at a helicopter. Personally, I’d’ve thrown it out and started again, but I guess they’d run out of time, and maybe it was better than the alternative.

The leaked draft also ended with Bond executing Blofeld, shooting him in the head at point blank range. The studio thought this callous. In the finished film, he spares him, the movie justifying this as Bond rejecting his former life as a government assassin to go off and be with the woman he’s fallen completely in love with in the last three days. Was it Sony’s note that changed Blofeld’s fate, or a desire to keep Bond’s Moriarty in play for future instalments? I guess we’ll find out once Bond 25 starts ramping up. I wouldn’t mind seeing a good deal more of Waltz in the role. In Spectre he’s almost entirely constrained to the third act, thanks to that attempt at a twist; now he’s been established, surely next time they can let him loose across the entire movie? Reports indicate the return or otherwise of Waltz will hinge on Craig’s decision about returning (despite ‘news’ to the contrary last week, this seems to still be up in the air), so we’ll have to wait and see on both fronts.

Back to the issue of M, Q and Moneypenny. I’ve seen critics of the film assert that it was a mistake to cast actors of the calibre of Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, and Ben Whishaw only to give them so little to do. This tickles me a little, because if anything I thought they played too large a role. All three have their place within a Bond narrative, and that place may have changed somewhat over the years (particularly with regards to Moneypenny), but it feels like we spend as much time with them saving the day as with Bond. This isn’t Mission: Impossible — it isn’t a team effort. Is it realistic that a lone agent goes around saving the world? No, of course it isn’t, and it never was; but the point of Bond has never been realism. And besides, the reason you cast quality actors in minor roles is so they can pop in for a day or two and make their one scene exceptionally good. Bulk their part up if you’ve got a story to tell, by all means, but don’t shoehorn them in just because you’ve got them. For my money, Spectre is too much doing the latter.

I could go on and on about a Bond movie (as anyone who’s read my 5,000 words on Skyfall will know), and obviously there are whole swathes of the film I’ve not touched on (the girls, the gadgets, the titles, that bloody song, the action sequences, the emptiness of Rome’s streets), but for now I’ll finish off with some more thoughts on that Mendes interview. (If you’re interested in “why we did that” behind-the-scenes stuff, do read the whole thing — there’s more interesting stuff there than I’m going to mention.) For starters, he reveals that the memorable opening “single take” is actually four shots stitched together, and challenges you to spot the cuts. It’s a fantastic opener, but, to be frank, I don’t think the transitions are that hard to ascertain. (From memory: there’s definitely one as they enter the building, another before they enter the hotel room, and the third is somewhere around when Bond climbs out the window onto the rooftops).

Despite the Sony leaks, Mendes thinks Bond killing Blofeld was never an option. He says it’s “sewn into the fabric of the film” that the story takes a man who kills for a living (and states as much at one point) to a position where he chooses not to kill. See too: M saying a licence to kill is also a licence not to kill; and the idea that, to Blofeld, being exposed and incarcerated is worse than being killed. This is a thematic thread the film arguably gets right, though sending Bond off to a “happy ending” seems a risky strategy when it comes to luring back a leading man they hope to retain but who may prefer to leave. Or perhaps they’re just planning to go On Her Majesty’s Secret Service on us. Mendes also says the ending was deliberately written as a way for Craig to leave, intending it to be an in-film conclusion that would serve as an exit if he chose not to come back, but which was also open enough that he could return without it being implausible. Time will tell which it will be.

As I mentioned in my ‘initial thoughts’ piece, it takes time and repeated viewings to settle a film into a ranking among the Bond pantheon… but it’s no fun just waiting, so let’s have a crack now. The broadest way of categorising that is, “is Spectre top ten material?” As a widely divisive Bond film, everyone’s going to have a very different opinion (when don’t they?), but when I tried to list my top ten Bond films for the sake of comparison, I got easily into double digits before I began to consider Spectre. Maybe I’m being too harsh now — I did fundamentally like it for most of the running time, but there are niggles throughout and the last couple of reels left a sour taste. For a film that should build on the excellence of Casino Royale and Skyfall, as well as finally fulfil a decade-long promise to restore more “classic Bond” elements to the franchise, it wasn’t all it could’ve been.

4 out of 5

Spectre is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday.

I saw Spectre days after the eager-beavers but still before some people, so here are my spoiler-free thoughts

It’s been quite the year for spies on the big screen: mega-success for Kingsman, high praise for Mission: Impossible 5, comedy from Spy, the TV-ish thrills of Spooks, and you may’ve missed The Man from U.N.C.L.E. — based on its box office, most people did. But now we come to the biggest of them all: Bond. James Bond.

Chances are, if you’re interested in a review of the 24th Bond movie you’ve already read one. Several, probably. Nonetheless, as both a blogger and a Bond fan who saw the series’ latest instalment this afternoon, I’m compelled to throw some of my initial spoiler-free thoughts out there. Plus, in places, commentary on those other reviews.

For starters, if you have read any other reviews, you’ll know it begins with a helluva pre-titles sequence; perhaps the only part of the film to have attracted unqualified universal praise. A big opening action scene has become one of the series’ most iconic elements, and Spectre contends (against stiff competition) to be considered the best yet. Too stiff, in my view. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic opener, with one of the entire series’ best shots, but the very best of them all? That’s just hyperbole because it’s the newest.

It leads into the title sequence — another of the series’ most famed elements, of course. No details, because I know that I wouldn’t want anyone to spoil it for me, but I thought it had some strong imagery without being amongst Daniel Kleinman’s very best work (GoldenEye, Casino Royale, Skyfall). Sam Smith’s insipid song is slightly less irritating in context.

Most reviews will also contain a version of one of these two comments: either, “they’ve finally brought back the classic Bond formula, but integrated into the Craig-era style — how wonderful”; or, “they’ve merely brought back the classic Bond formula, albeit in the Craig-era style — what a regression”. You only have to look at the Rotten Tomatoes pull quotes (at the time of writing — these will surely change once US critics oust UK ones from the front page) to see this played out. It’s true that Spectre is much more like one’s idea of a “classic Bond film” than any of Craig’s previous films were, but it didn’t strike me quite so much as it clearly struck others. As to whether that’s a deliberate filmmaking choice which has succeeded beautifully, or a case of lazily falling back on (or being unable to escape) the series’ tropes… well, your mileage — and appreciation — will vary. Considering both Craig and Mendes have mentioned in multiple interviews that they were deliberately bringing back more of the familiar Bond elements (something Craig had been hoping to do gradually ever since Casino Royale jettisoned most of them; indeed, I believe he’s mentioned it regularly since that time, too), I think we must conclude it was a deliberate decision. So the question becomes: do you approve of that decision? If you didn’t like Bond pre-Craig, or think the time for such things has passed, then probably not; if you’re a fan of the series as a whole, however, it may be a welcome return for some recently-absent familiarities.

For all its modernism, there’s one aspect which the Craig era has always had in keeping with earlier Bonds: the casting of the villain. After the Brosnan era gave us Brit Sean Bean, Brit Jonathan Pryce, Brit Robert Carlyle, and Brit Toby Stephens (even if some of them were playing foreigners), Craig’s films have stuck to the older formula of casting a respected/famous European: Dane Mads Mikkelsen, Frenchman Mathieu Amalric, Spaniard Javier Bardem, and now German “European actor du jour” Christoph Waltz. The double Oscar winner is on fine form at times, but there aren’t quite enough of those times. Again, without aiming to spoil anything, I’d say he’s not so much underused as misused.

Action sequences are naturally fantastic, the best coming in the alps. Thomas Newman’s score is as bland and unmemorable as his work last time, while Hoyte Van Hoytema’s cinematography is strong, but not quite as striking as Roger Deakins’ in Skyfall. According to most reviews, M has the best line and biggest laugh. I have to say, I’m forced to guess which that line is, because neither of the two contenders I’d put forward provoked much response in my screening.

The real downside comes in a muddled third act, which suggests the Sony leaks were right: either this is the one they criticised for not being good enough, or it’s the written-during-production replacement. Either way, it feels off the ball. Further discussion next time…

I must also mention that Madeleine Swann’s name is a reference to Proust, because I believe it’s beholden on every reviewer to point this out to make sure you know they got the reference. Well, I did too. Now I want a cake. And if you’d like to watch someone eat a Madeleine, check out Blue is the Warmest Colour. (Too far?)

Oh, and I must get in a pun along the lines of, “what were you exSpectreing?”, or “we’ve been exSpectreing you, Mr Bond”. I guess mine should be, “I exSpectred something more.”

My spoilersome full review of Spectre is available here.

The Green Hornet (2011)

2014 #117
Michel Gondry | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The Green HornetBased on a radio serial that spawned film serials, a famous TV series, and, eventually, comic books, The Green Hornet is a ‘superhero’ saga with a difference. For one thing, technically he’s just a vigilante — no superpowers here — and for another, as noted, it didn’t originate as a comic book. But that’s the milieu the character slots into these days, and so this attempted revival plays in that ballpark.

In this version, rich-kid playboy Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) used to want to be a hero, until his domineering newspaper-magnate father (Tom Wilkinson) crushed his spirit. After daddy dearest drops dead, Britt and chaffeur/coffeemaker Kato (Jay Chou) accidentally save a couple from a mugging and decide to fight crime, using Britt’s newly-inherited newspaper, in particular the research skills of secretary Lenore (Cameron Diaz), to help their cause. But LA crime kingpin Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) is not impressed with this new threat…

Produced, co-written by and starring Rogen, and directed by quirky Frenchman Michel Gondry, anyone familiar with their CVs will find “a superhero movie made by Seth Rogen and Michel Gondry” to be a pretty adequate summation of The Green Hornet. To clarify, it’s pretty comical, sometimes in that man-child frat-boy way, sometimes with a leftfield quirkiness. The combination makes it unique in the world of superhero movies, but hasn’t gone down well with critics or many viewers.

Run away!Well, screw them — The Green Hornet is brilliant. If you’re after the po-faced angsty worthiness of Christopher Nolan’s Bat-trilogy or the Spider-Man reboot, or even the X-Men films, then you need not apply. This has more in common, tonally, with Kick-Ass, or even Iron Man with the comedy bits dialled up further. That said, those two films were quite popular, so why isn’t this one?

For one, apparently Seth Rogen is doing his usual Seth Rogen schtick. That may be the case, but I’ve never actually seen a Rogen film, so I’m not over-familiar with his MO. His style isn’t top of my list of “how to do good comedy”, but it’s diluted enough here that it largely didn’t bother me. A couple of sections indulge it a little too much, but c’est la vie — it doesn’t ruin the whole film.

Another may be the film’s irreverence. That’s not to say something like Kick-Ass doesn’t have its share of genre disrespect, but while it allows its heroes to be comical it takes its villain seriously (so too Iron Man, actually). In The Green Hornet, everyone’s somewhere on the comic spectrum: Waltz’s villain is obsessed with being perceived as scary, in the end re-christening himself “Bloodnofsky”, dressing in red leather and coming up with an elaborate catchphrase to reel off before killing people. Waltz is, depending on your point of view, subtly ridiculous or phoning it in. It’s not as memorable a creation as his Inglourious Basterds Nazi, but you can rely on Waltz for a quality comic adversary.

The car's the starThen there’s Gondry’s direction, which is often as idiosyncratic as you’d expect. He’s at his peak during the action sequences, which explode in an array of effects and slow-motion to create multiple memorably unique fights and chases. Highlights are the first time Kato unveils his martial arts prowess, and the crazy car-driven climax. Chou and the tricked-out car, Black Beauty, are undoubtedly the stars of these bits — indeed, the film has an overall good line in making Kato the brains behind the operation. I imagine this is subverting the depiction of the Asian sidekick from previous versions, considering when they were made, but as I’ve never seen any I can’t comment fairly.

I imagine those who are enamoured of previous versions were also less keen on this one. There’s probably too much Rogen-esque comedy and Gondry-esque oddness for anyone used to a classic character from a previous era. I can’t blame them for being less-than-pleased by someone trampling all over something they love. For those of us without a previous attachment to the characters, however — and, crucially, with an open enough mind to accept a ‘superhero’ movie that brings a different perspective and style to an arguably-overworked sub-genre — this incarnation of The Green Hornet is a fine piece of entertainment. In fact, I’m tempted to say it’s one of the best superhero movies of the current generation.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of The Green Hornet is on Channel 5 tonight at 9pm.

It merited an honourable mention on my list of The Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

2009 #82
Quentin Tarantino | 153 mins | Blu-ray | 18 / R

Inglourious BasterdsWatching almost any film a second time can affect your opinion of it. It could reveal deeper levels of character or theme; it could allow you to see how the writer(s) subtly foreshadowed events, or built up to the big twist; it could be you spot jokes you were too busy laughing during last time; it could let you look at the imagery now you don’t have to concentrate so hard on the subtitles. Or it could reveal shallowness, that there’s nothing to be gleaned that you didn’t get the first time; or highlight the holes in a plot that seemed so well constructed before; or jokes that were hilarious fall flat when heard more than once; or the action sequences aren’t exciting when robbed of their freshness. A second viewing can reveal that you were too young to get it the first time, or that you’re now too grown up to enjoy it; it can reveal a bad movie isn’t so bad, or that without the hype it’s actually quite good; it can raise a favourite even higher in your estimations, or it can tear it down. And even if a second viewing just reaffirms exactly what you felt the first time, well, when there’s such a chance for change and it doesn’t occur, that’s an effect in itself.

This is why I try to post all my reviews after only seeing a film once. There’s nothing wrong with appraising a film after many viewings — far from it — but that’s not the point of this particular blog, focusing as it does on films I’ve never previously seen. (Whether a newcomer’s perspective is still worth anything once a film is months, years, or decades old is another matter, perhaps for another time.) Unfortunately, though rarely, a film slips through the cracks. As you’ve likely guessed, Inglourious Basterds is such a film: though I named it my favourite film I saw in 2009, I didn’t make any notes or write a review promptly. And so here I find myself, over eight months since I first watched itEli Roth and Brad Pitt are basterds — and, today, a year since its UK release —, having watched it a second time to refresh my memory. But has it changed my opinion?

Inglourious Basterds is, in some respects, a law unto itself. That’s probably why it received such a mixed reaction at Cannes; one that, notably, settled down to generally praiseful by the time it was officially released a few months later. It wasn’t, as had been expected, the story of a group of American Jews dropped behind enemy lines to murder Nazis, thereby spreading terror through the enemy ranks. That’s part of the tale Tarantino eventually brought to the screen, but what you’d expect to make up the bulk of the movie — as Aldo Raine himself puts it, “killin’ Natzis” — is skipped over with a single cut. The film is divided up into five chapters; the second is the one most directly concerned with the Basterds, and it’s also the shortest.

And that’s not the only thing Tarantino does differently. The whole film is a grab-bag of filmmaking styles, techniques and modes, thrown together with a gleeful abandon. Tarantino uses what he wants when he wants it, sometimes for no reason at all, and with no eye to creating a stylistic whole. If he wants a character’s name to appear in huge letters over a freeze-frame of them, he will; that doesn’t mean he’ll use it for every character, or every major character, or for every other character on that one’s side — if he wants it just once, he’ll throw it in just once. It’s like that square Uma Thurman drew in Pulp Fiction,Milk? Oui. only instead of being one thing once he does it again and again, with any trick he fancies, throughout the film.

I’m tempted to list them, but that would remove some of the fun if you’re yet to see the film. My favourites, however, are the subtitles that don’t always translate things — e.g. when a French character says “oui”, so do the subtitles. It’s pointless really, but also kind of thought provoking too: if, as a non-French-speaker, we say “oui”, knowing what it means, then are we actually saying “yes” or are we saying “oui”? I’m certain, however, that Tarantino’s subtitling choices weren’t designed to elicit such thoughts and probably don’t stand up to the scrutiny they’d require (such as: if the rest of a Frenchman’s French is translated to English, why aren’t his “oui”s? (As it were.))

This is just one of the things that signals the truth of Inglourious Basterds: it’s not really about World War 2 — though you’d be forgiven for thinking it was, considering it’s all set during World War 2 and all the characters are soldiers, resistance fighters or politicians — but is in fact about film, or cinema, or the movies, or whichever name you want to use. It’s not just his mix and match of cinematic techniques that suggests this — though the much-heralded use of Spaghetti Western style on a World War 2 setting works as fabulously as you could hope — but it’s overt in the text too.

The ending. Sort of.The ending (and skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film) is the key to that, as I’m sure you either noticed or have read in other coverage. The power of cinema literally destroys the Nazis, changing the course of the war. Killing Hitler — and the rest — is one of those barmy notions that at first seems wrong, and then seems completely right. “If my characters had existed, this is what would have happened” is one of those genius notions that seems so inescapably obvious you wonder why no one’s done it sooner. Why do you necessarily need to obey history if the rest of your story is fiction anyway?

Back to other matters. It’s interesting just how long the scenes are, and in so few locations. Chapter One takes place solely in a small farmhouse (except for a few minutes outside it); Chapter Four is almost entirely in the La Louisiane bar; Chapter Five almost entirely in Shosanna’s cinema. And while the other two use more locations, their number isn’t great: Chapter Three features the aforementioned cinema, a cafe and a restaurant; Chapter Two a briefing ground, Hitler’s war room, some derelict location, and a prison. This isn’t a full list of locations and scenes, but it’s most of them. Tarantino hasn’t created some writerly exercise — “you are only allowed five locations, one long scene in each” — but he has nonetheless crafted most of his films in long scenes in few locations. I imagine this, along with “all that reading” La Louisiane(I believe more of the film is subtitled than in English), did little to endear it to the complaining masses who thought they were getting “Kill Bill in WW2”.

The chapter-ified structure and constant introduction of new characters suggests a Pulp Fiction-ish ‘short story collection’ at first, but it becomes clear as the film moves on into its fourth and, certainly, fifth chapters that it actually all builds together as one whole story. The chapter headings serve their purpose, denoting the various stages of the tale and allowing Tarantino to jump around, rather than having to find a way to move more seamlessly from segment to segment or somehow intercut them all. Indeed, unlike the other Tarantino films the use of chapters evokes — i.e. Pulp Fiction and Kill BillInglourious Basterds is quite solidly linear, at least as far as the progression through each chapter is concerned. (Chapter Two jumps about in time a bit, with a Nolan-esque stories-within-stories-within-stories structure, but even then does little to upset the linearity.)

ShosannaAnd for all those constantly-introduced characters, the acting is top notch. Christoph Waltz easily deserved the huge pile of awards he garnered, his quirky persona following in a long tradition of calm psychopaths in movies. You always know his pleasantries hide something far nastier; every scene he appears in is instantly tense. Mélanie Laurent is an instant one-to-watch as the film’s real central character, Shosanna, though she seems to have been sadly sidelined by all the praise heaped on Waltz. It doesn’t hurt that she’s the kind of woman you’d happily decorate a whole review with pictures of (though you’ll note I resisted). Michael Fassbender is the very definition of Englishness, without quite slipping into an irritating stereotype. It’s difficult to imagine the originally-cast Simon Pegg in the role, though I’m sure he would’ve brought something… shall we say, different… to it. Brad Pitt’s much-criticised heavily-accented performance is fine. While not as memorable as the others mentioned, I don’t see why some have had such a problem with it.

Between Tarantino’s writing and more excellent performances, we’re also treated to a host of minor but memorable characters: Denis Menochet’s farmer, managing to equal Waltz in the long opening scene;Give me my Oscar now Til Schweiger’s vicious German basterd; Diane Kruger’s glamorous, calm actress-spy; Daniel Brühl’s apparently sweet accidental hero and movie star-to-be; Martin Wuttke’s raving loony Hitler; and others too. Perhaps the only duff note for me was Mike Myers as an English General. I liked the Wayne’s Worlds and Austin Powerses (and haven’t subjected myself to The Love Guru for this reason), and he’s not exactly bad here, but there’s a part of me that couldn’t escape wondering exactly why he was cast in such a small and uncomedic role. A real Brit would’ve been more appropriate, I feel. Perhaps Simon Pegg.

Myers was one of the things I noticed more on my second viewing. So was that “care-free deployment of an abundance of film-specific techniques” — while they’re undoubtedly there, when one expects them they don’t seem nearly so surprising or all-pervading as they did at first. Clearly it’s the shock value: in the same way a jump scare or joke dependent on a surprise twist might only work once, so Tarantino’s occasional and somewhat incongruous flourishes don’t stick out as firmly when you know they’re coming. But that’s not a bad thing. There’s no joyous discovery of something new and slightly different exploding across the screenRun Shosanna! every once in a while, but it also proves they work, that he was right to employ them.

Some people hated Inglourious Basterds (though not enough to keep it out of the IMDb Top 100), be it for the unexpected nature of its story or for the long talky scenes with lots of reading. But that’s just another reason I love it — not to be awkward or Different, but because by being so much its Own Thing it can provoke such strong feelings, in either direction. It’s common for Hollywood to produce films so bland they evoke bags of apathy from those with enough brainpower to realise the film doesn’t have any, so it’s quite nice to have a film that has a brain — and, more importantly, a personality (several, even) — that it isn’t afraid to show off, and isn’t afraid for you to dislike if you want. Love it or hate it, it demands to be seen and judged on its own merits.

To be frank, I’m not sure I liked Inglourious Basterds as much my second time. I may well like it more again on my third, when there’s less personal hype involved. I’d still give it the same star rating though, so at least there’s no conflict there.

You might argue that Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs are better films, but — with its long idiosyncratic speeches and scenes, relatively extreme violence, use and re-appropriation of generic convention, Shosanna on filmcare-free deployment of an abundance of film-specific techniques, and, both through this and also directly in its narrative, its love of film as a medium — Inglourious Basterds isn’t just “a Quentin Tarantino film”, it is Quentin Tarantino. His choice of final line — “You know something, Ultivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece” — is clearly about more than Aldo Raine’s swastika-carving abilities.

5 out of 5

Inglourious Basterds is on Film4 tonight, Friday 24th October 2014, at 9pm.

It placed 1st on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.

Don't forget the cream