A Most Wanted Man (2014)

2015 #186
Anton Corbijn | 122 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, USA & Germany / English | 15 / R

John le Carré adaptation starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a German secret intelligence operative who must battle internal politicking while tracking a political refugee who may actually be a terrorist.

A typically complex plot requires the viewer to keep their attention level high. Some find the story a plod, but (one languorous interrogation sequence aside) I thought it relatively brisk, aided by accent-defying performances from Hoffman, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, and Grigoriy Dobrygin as the refugee. Though beware: its level of realism, with real-life levels of compromise and betrayal, doesn’t make for an ultimately cheery or triumphant conclusion.

4 out of 5

The Fifth Estate (2013)

2015 #144
Bill Condon | 128 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Belgium / English | 15 / R

It’s The Julian Assange Movie, in which Benedict Cumberbatch dons a lanky white wig and an Australian accent to portray one of the most significant figures of our times, whether you like it or not.

The story is told from the perspective of Daniel Berg, played by Daniel Brühl, who first encounters Assange in Germany and is somewhat captivated by him. Daniel helps Assange to really launch WikiLeaks, and is by his side through their early fame-garnering exposés. He functions a little as Assange’s moral compass, too, especially when they receive some stolen US military files relating to their controversial Middle Eastern exploits…

Cumberbatch’s performance is the showstopper here, and it’s been justly praised. It can seem a little over the top and affected, but then people who actually knew Assange say it’s bang on, so I think we have to take it that’s what he’s like rather than it being Cumberbatch overplaying. I largely rate him as an actor anyway, so he earns the benefit of the doubt. Brühl excels in the less showy role, however — much like he did in Rush, in fact, though even that role had its share of affectations to work with, which this part does not.

Daniel is torn between ‘saving the world’ and a love interest, played by Alicia Vikander, who is everywhere right now but I think this is the first time I’ve actually seen her in something. There’s nothing remarkable about her part, so I can’t really judge her. The same goes for the rest of the cast, where a wide array of starry and/or acclaimed names (Peter Capaldi, Laura Linney, Anthony Mackie, Alexander Siddig, Dan Stevens, David Thewlis, Stanley Tucci, Carice van Houten (who’s big in Belgium, it would seem)) don’t falter, but nonetheless struggle to make a mark when none are awarded anything meaty to do.

The rest of the film is unfortunately hit or miss. It begins with an absolutely fantastic two-and-a-half-minute title sequence that covers the whole history of human mass communication, from hieroglyphs to the internet and everything in between. It’s succinct, thorough, and excellent, probably the best thing about the entire movie. Elsewise, Bill Condon’s direction is a little rote. At times he seems to want to be clever and cutting edge, with on-screen tech and the visual representation of WikiLeak’s virtual office space, but it’s inconsistent, a grab-bag of tricks without a guiding principle. The rest of the movie is shot plainly. Not badly, just plainly; normally; almost old-fashioned-ly. Its directorial style doesn’t match the material. For contrast, look to David Fincher’s The Social Network, which also told the story of cutting-edge ever-so-now tech developments, but did so with filmmaking that could be described in similar terms.

Every once in a while the film interjects a US-set subplot that seems to go nowhere. The posters and trailers imply these American officials were people hunting Assange; instead, they’re relatively minor cogs in the political wheel who get caught out by what he does. They don’t seem to have any particular significance in themselves — they’re not famous, nor more wronged than anyone else — so maybe they’re just meant to be emblematic? As in, Laura Linney’s character is there to be representative of Assange’s effect, not the only person it happened to. Or was she the only person fired, and that’s the point? The film doesn’t make it clear.

In terms of understanding, it’s also very much a movie of Now. It assumes you know an awful lot of real-world context — essentially, the history of the last decade or two. Before too long, it’ll be a tough film for new viewers to follow or engage with without some kind of degree. Not everything should be made with an eye to its longevity, but one wonders how successful The Fifth Estate is in and of itself. It’s almost fiction-filmmaking as journalism: it’s about something that just happened — in some respects, is still happening — rather than an attempt to look back and explain those happenings in a historical context.

Indeed, one wonders how enlightening the film is in any respect. Assange is clearly a difficult person to get to know, by turns crusading hero and egotistical wannabe. That’s how the film depicts him, and if that’s accurate to life, well, that’s not the film’s fault — what’s wrong with having a primary character who isn’t a hero? Anyway, that’s the role Daniel is there to fulfil — he’s the honourable one; the one who’s actually invested in the site’s supposed values. But then the film is partly based on his book, so he would be the good guy.

In the end, this is an immensely complex story, with many different and contradictory sides to tell, and the film isn’t up to the task of covering them all. Great performances, though.

3 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Rush (2013)

2015 #83
Ron Howard | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK, USA & Germany / English & German | 15 / R

Screenwriter Peter Morgan (of The Queen and Frost/Nixon) and director Ron Howard (of Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind, as the trailer is keen to remind us, rather than, say, The Da Vinci Code) tell the story of the rivalry between racing drivers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) as they vie for the 1976 Formula 1 championship, a true story so full of twists and turns that (as Howard seems fond of saying in the special features) you wouldn’t accept it if it were fiction.

Appropriately, the racing sequences are the best part. Those were the days when F1 was a little wild and uncontrolled, which the film does a good job of conveying, and also of using to its advantage to create tense and exciting set pieces. Kudos to every element of production here, not only the brilliant camerawork and editing, and the array of special effects required to tie it together, but also the production design that makes the one or two tracks they filmed on look like circuits all around the world.

Unfortunately, the film stalls in the personal relationship scenes, an equally-weighted part of the narrative. They’re an undercooked mess of clunky dialogue and characters so sketchily drawn they barely resemble stick figures. Lauda’s story is the less objectionable of the two primary threads, because his lack of skill at social engagement at least makes it moderately unusual, and it goes somewhere when he has the accident. Hunt’s stuff is just noise. And he learns nothing from it — he doesn’t change — so there’s no arc. I presume the point of engaging with their personal lives away from the track was to add depth; to make sure it was a two-hander, rather than just about one or other of the drivers, and to ensure Hunt wasn’t just two-dimensional. However, without any growth on his part, or even some kind of active change, he’s just as flat, only now the star of some pointless scenes.

Considering the amount of unwarranted time spent on Hunt, it’s as if Morgan and Howard feel they have to lure us in by making the film about the English guy, then once they’ve got us it can transition to being about the real story, which is the Austrian fella. A “Lauda edit” would make for a better movie: strip out all the BS about Hunt’s personal life; focus right in on the 1976 season, including losing a good chunk of the first 45 minutes, which is so much preamble. The movie would focus more on what it’s really about, not have such a slow start, and feel all the better for it. Interestingly, of the ten-or-so minutes of deleted scenes on the Blu-ray, many are Lauda-focused and from early in the film. Would it have been more balanced to include them? However, a quick scan suggests they weren’t bad deletions, so maybe Hunt’s scenes should’ve been cut back in a similar fashion. Considering his general acclaim as a writer, it’s a little surprising that Morgan’s screenplay is so frequently the weak link.

Similarly, some have criticised Rush for being a bit of a rote, clichéd sports movie. That’s a slightly tricky one to address. I mean, it’s a true story; it happened. If that narrative fits snuggly into familiar plot beats, what are you meant to do? Change the truth to make it less like fiction? That’d be a first. Saying that, I’m taking it on faith (based on comments in the making-of) that the true story was so perfect you wouldn’t believe it if it had been fiction. Maybe they did streamline it. But assuming it’s real… well, it’s not the filmmakers’ fault if life imitates art.

One thing the film doesn’t do, to everyone’s credit, is fall into the stereotypical good guy/bad guy rivalry story. Each of the pair has his pros and his cons, and during the final race it’s genuinely hard to call who you want to win (I guess some will have their favourites regardless, but I know I’m not the only person who didn’t know who to root for). I’d argue that, when it comes to sports movies, you don’t get much less rote-genre-cliché than that.

The two leads give strong performances, particularly Brühl, because he has so much more to work with. Others are less well served. Olivia Wilde’s English accent is faultless, not glaringly over-egged like most yanks playing Brits, and that’s about the most I can say of her. Her mirror image, Alexandra Maria Lara, gets to inject some humanity into the Lauda story, and is pretty much the best supporting actor in a film full of roles but with few of significance. For example, for some reason Natalie Dormer has been shafted with a teeny tiny part. Were her scenes cut? Is it just because she’s mostly a TV actress? Surely she deserves better roles than this. And I didn’t even see Tom Wlaschiha, who is apparently in it too.

All in all, I’m a little surprised how well-liked Rush is. I mean, as of posting it’s at #162 on the IMDb Top 250. That’s a pretty solid placement for the kind of film I’d expect to have a score in the mid- to high 7s on IMDb, enjoyed by some but dismissed by others, not be an 8.2 Top 250er. It is a good film with much going for it, the action scenes in particular, but there also plenty of times when I felt it dropped the ball — I didn’t buy Hunt’s storyline as good moviemaking at all. One of the 250 best movies ever made? No, probably not. There’s a lot to like, but don’t get carried away by the hype.

4 out of 5

I’ve just noticed that three of my last four reviews have been sport-related true stories. Weird, random coincidence.

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

Ladies in Lavender (2004)

2007 #36
Charles Dance | 100 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

While You Were SleepingJudi Dench puts in her fourth appearance in this list (far and away the most represented actor, I should think) in Charles Dance’s first film as writer and director.

Dench and her long-time friend Maggie Smith play believable sisters in a beautiful Cornish setting who discover a young Pole washed up on their beach. The story progresses from there in a gentle but engrossing fashion, and the cast of experienced Brits are as excellent as ever.

4 out of 5