The Rocketeer (1991)

2015 #46
Joe Johnston | 104 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The RocketeerBased on an ’80s-created superhero modelled on the matinee serials of the ’30s and ’40s, The Rocketeer sets its scene in 1938, when stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) winds up in possession of an experimental rocket pack. Initially donning it as part of the stunt show, when Cliff uses it to rescue another pilot he, a) attracts the attention of the hoods who originally stole it, and b) discovers his true calling as a hero, etc. Throw in a love interest (Jennifer Connelly) who’s a Hollywood extra with connections to the swashbuckling film star (Timothy Dalton) who’s really behind the theft, and you’ve got yourself an adventure!

After years stuck in development — including, variously, attempts to make it in black & white with an unknown cast (I guess someone realised that would never make money), having to persuade studios of the possibilities of a comic book movie (this being before Burton’s Batman, even), neutering the source material to make it kid-friendly (in the comic Connelly’s character was a Bettie Page-inspired nude model), and attempts to set it in the present day (until someone pointed out the success of Indiana Jones) — the version that finally emerged on screen is a bit of a mishmash.

The real problem is the first act. It drags and unbalances the film, which picks up considerably (though gradually) after the Rocketeer himself finally turns up. It would feel a much better film, and perhaps be better regarded, if it didn’t dilly-dally for so long before getting to the meat of the plot and action. It doesn’t help that it has ambition ahead of its era when it comes to special effects. The limitations of the time mean there’s not that much action of the hero actually flying, his raison d’être. He mostly jets around a room, along the ground, or via a handful of very brief green-screen shots that are mostly confined to one sequence. Jennifer Connelly is in this movie, what else do you need to know?We all know effects alone do not make a good movie, but equally trying to make an effects-y movie when you can’t achieve said effects is a fool’s errand. Fortunately there’s some other derring-do to make up for it, and the climax atop a zeppelin isn’t at all bad.

Campbell is a nondescript lead, but there are some excellent scenes involving Jennifer Connelly and/or Timothy Dalton — in particular, the bit where he’s trying to seduce her and she keeps identifying the movies he’s stealing lines from. Connelly’s role certainly isn’t your standard “damsel in distress”, a plus side of that long development period, where it was noted they needed to strengthen her character. She very much holds her own, with a nice line in bashing people over the head. Elsewhere, Dalton’s Errol Flynn-inspired movie star is a great villain — well, us Brits always do that best, don’t we?

A lot of people seem to love The Rocketeer; I think it has a bit of a cult following, even. I wanted to like it that much, and as it goes on it plays more into such territory, but it wastes too much time early on and is somewhat hamstrung by the production limitations of its era.

3 out of 5

Fury (2014)

2015 #89
David Ayer | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, UK & China / English & German | 15 / R

FuryI don’t believe there are very many movies about tanks — there’s Kelly’s Heroes (which, I must admit, I only know of thanks to ghostof82’s review of the film currently under discussion), and I’ve heard Lebanon’s very good, but no others spring readily to mind. I suppose there are sound production reasons for this, to do with getting bulky movie cameras into tiny spaces and the logistics of choreographing tank battles. The dearth of other films on the same topic automatically gives Fury, about an American tank crew in the closing months of World War 2, something of a leg up in the memorableness stakes.

Specifically, we follow the crew of a tank nicknamed ‘Fury’, commanded by ‘Wardaddy’ (Brad Pitt), driven by ‘Gordo’ (Michael Peña), the cannon manned by ‘Bible’ (Shia LaBeouf), and Grady (Jon Bernthal) is the mechanic or something (I’m not really au fait with what jobs there were in a tank, this is just what I managed to glean from the film itself). After the co-driver is killed, this team who have been together for years are forced to accept a new member, Norman (Logan Lerman), who was trained to type 60-words-per-minute and, apparently, not much else. What follows is a mix of exciting action, men-at-war character drama, war-is-hell imagery, and something of a battle for the soul of the innocent new kid.

In some respects, then, Fury is a bit “seen it all before”. The desaturated photography, muddy landscape and slightly-ramshackle military campaign are all very post-Saving Private Ryan, though writer-director David Ayer lends enough of his own directorial flair that it feels more visually distinctive than most Ryan rip-offs. The “battle for the soul” story dates back at least as far as Platoon, but the thing is, it’s fertile ground. Here you’re contrasting men who’ve been fighting this tough war for years, who are accustomed to its brutality, with someone fresh to the fight, whose ideals haven’t yet been replaced by the practicalities of conflict.

Battle for the soulMost of the characters exist in a moral grey area, something which some reviewers seem to struggle with. From the off, our ostensible heroes are not shown in a particularly pleasant light, committing or encouraging acts we would view as unconscionable. As the film goes on, it seems like we’re being invited to bond with them, to respect or admire them. I’m not sure that’s a wholly accurate reading of it, though. I think we’re being shown different sides to them — much as Norman is, in fact. At first you see the depths they have reached; then, as you get to know them, you see a little more of their true (or at least their pre-corrupted-by-war) characters. Does this redeem them or excuse their actions? Well, that’s your decision. I don’t think the film is predicated on you coming round to their way of thinking. Without meaning to spoil anything, it’s not as if the meta/karmic world of plot construction lets them off scot-free by the end. Of course, whether we need our focus characters to be clean-cut heroes or whether complex morally-grey/black characters are preferable is another debate.

One of the advantages is that you can never be sure what the characters are going to do. Arguably the film’s strongest sequence comes after the tank column Fury leads has captured a town. The men are given some time off before they advance, which naturally means drinking, destroying German property, and whoring. While Bible reads and Gordo and Grady persuade a woman back to the tank to ‘share’, Wardaddy spies a woman (Anamaria Marinca) hiding at an upstairs window and drags Norman up with him. Inside, they find the woman and her pretty younger cousin (Alicia von Rittberg). As Wardaddy settles in, you have no idea what he’s going to do. He’s being nice, but does he mean it? Where is this going? No spoilers, but the unfolding scenes are among the film’s strongest; and as Wardaddy, Norman and the two women sit down to a meal, the rest of Fury’s crew arrive, kicking off one of the most uncomfortable mealtime scenes outside of a Tarantino movie. Tarantino mealThis is a scene most reviews seem to single out, I’ve since realised, but that’s for good reason: even watching it cold, the powerful writing, direction and performances mark it out as a sequence that transcends the movie it’s in. Again, it’s the unpredictability of what these men might do; the grey area of the guys we’re meant to think are the heroes not always being heroic.

For the viscerally inclined, Fury has much to commend it also. The aforementioned scarcity of tank battles on screen means almost every action sequence feels fresh and unpredictable, and Ayer stages them with requisite excitement and tension, too. The highlight is probably a three-on-one tanks-vs-tank fight that shows the might of the German opposition. The climax, in which the five men hole up in their mine-scuttled tank to take on literally a whole battalion of SS troops, is possibly too over-the-top for a movie that’s otherwise pretty realist in its aims, though even this is reportedly inspired by a real incident. Ayer again makes a fair fist of it seeming plausible, at least.

Beyond that, this is a very brutal depiction of war, to an almost horror movie level at times. Instructed to clean the tank on his arrival, Norman finds half the previous driver’s face lying inside; a man burning alive chooses to shoot himself in the head; various other limbs and faces explode as the movie goes on. Do we need to see such graphic detail? The old fashioned “get hit and fall over” style of being shot has clearly had its day, but do we need more than, say, a spurt of blood? Some would argue not. Some would argue part of the point is this ugliness, this inhumanity — it happens, or happened, and so it should be there; we shouldn’t be glorifying it by sanitising it. Nonetheless, at times Fury is a particularly extreme example of depicting the realism of violence, and some won’t feel up to stomaching it.

No rank in a tankI think Fury is a rather rewarding movie for those that can, though. The fact it provokes debate is no bad thing — I think it’s a misinterpretation to read the film, as some online commenters clearly have, as “these guys do horrible things, but they’re the main characters and the not-Nazis, so I must be meant to like them, so the film is bad”. Well, I suppose it’s not news that some people struggle with cognitive dissonance. On the flipside, I don’t think you’re meant to outright hate them — there’s an element of “the Allies did bad things too, y’know” about the film, but that’s not its sole aim. I think it’s more complicated than that, and, naturally, all the better for it. Even on a more surface level, though, there’s adrenaline-pumping excitement to be had from the well-realised action scenes. It’s a combination that worked very well indeed for me, and if my score errs on the side of generosity then, well, consider it redressing the balance.

5 out of 5

Fury debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:45pm and 8pm.

Valkyrie (2008)

2015 #41
Bryan Singer | 108 mins* | TV | 16:9 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

On the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death, the true story of some people who tried to kill him…

ValkyrieAfter abandoning the X-Men franchise for a Superman reboot/continuation that was retrospectively branded a commercial and critical flop (it actually grossed $391 million worldwide (more than Batman Begins, for example) and has a fairly strong Rotten Tomatoes score of 76%), director Bryan Singer returned to more traditionally dramatic fare — and Nazis — with this true-story war movie about a German plot to assassinate Hitler.

Tom Cruise is Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an army officer who believes Hitler needs to be removed for the sake of Germany’s future. Invalided home after an RAF raid, he discovers he’s far from alone in his beliefs when he’s recruited into a conspiratorial group who have already failed to assassinate Hitler several times. There he concocts a plan to take out Hitler with a bomb during his weekly briefing at the Wolf’s Lair, blame it on the SS, and use the Führer’s own Operation Valkyrie contingency plan to seize control before any of his cronies can do it first.

There’s no point beating about the bush: they don’t succeed. We all know that. The film’s marvel, really, is in making us believe they might. Well, not believe it — we’re not stupid, are we? — but invest in it. It’s also a revelation how far they got. No, Hitler isn’t killed, but the associated confusion engineered by the plan (they cut off communications from the remote Wolf’s Lair, meaning the news that Hitler survived takes a long time to come out) means an awful lot of Valkyrie is enacted. In the end, they’re done for by bad luck — some people make some decisions which undermine the plan, whereas if they’d gone the other way it might have succeeded even with the Fuhrer still alive. What might have been…

Edge-of-your-seat tensionOne of the stated aims of the conspiracy is to show the rest of the world that not everyone in Germany believed in what Hitler and his inner circle were doing. It may have taken us a long time to realise that, for fairly understandable reasons, but quality films like this help get the message out. Singer has crafted a proper thriller here, replete with scenes of edge-of-your-seat tension. Many a filmmaker can’t manage that with a fictional storyline, never mind one where we know exactly how it turns out.

A top-drawer cast help keep the drama ticking over too. Complaints that accompanied the theatrical release, about the German characters all speaking English, feel thoroughly bizarre. How many movies in history have foreigners all speaking English? I mean, what about Schindler’s List, for just one broadly-related broadly-recent example. Have we really reached a point where everyone is so accepting of subtitles? No, of course we haven’t. I think it’s a baseless criticism to latch on to; one that misses the point so severely it’s difficult to think how to rationally argue against. It’s just wrong. Anyway, most of the cast are British thesps — Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin McNally, David Schofield, Tom Hollander, even Eddie Izzard — so you’re guaranteed quality. Even Terence Stamp proves that he can act, in spite of what some other performances would have me believe. Cruise is a suitable leading man. This isn’t one of his greater acting performances, Brave men who tried to do the right thingbut nor is he in simplistic action hero mode.

Elucidating a sometimes-overlooked aspect of an over-covered era of history, managing to tell its story with all the thrills and tension of a narrative where we don’t know the outcome, Valkyrie is a film to be commended. It’s also a fitting tribute to very brave men on the ‘other side’ who tried to do the right thing.

4 out of 5

* I always try to list the running time of the version I watched, but I feel this one needs a quick explanation, because it’s a full 13 minutes less than the listed running time. Was it cut? Probably not. I watched it on TV, with PAL speed-up and end credits almost entirely shorn. PAL gets you down to 115 minutes; I can well believe there were seven minutes more to the full credits. So there you go. ^

It Happened Here (1966)

2010 #98
Kevin Brownlow & Andrew Mollo | 96 mins | DVD | PG

Alternate histories are always fun, and nothing seems to have provoked more than the Second World War. Which, as a defining event in modern history for a good chunk of the world, is understandable. It Happened Here is perhaps one of the earliest examples, depicting a 1940s Britain under Nazi occupation.

Co-directors Brownlow and Mollo use a dramatic narrative, as opposed to faux-documentary, to show off their vision of an occupied Britain. They shoot it in grainy, handheld black-and-white with a rough-round-the-edges feel that gives it the air of documentary even when it’s undoubtedly scripted and performed. How much this is deliberate and how much an accident of circumstance, I don’t know — they were both young, amateur filmmakers at the time, working on a small budget; United Artists spent more on the US trailer than was spent on the entire film. Whatever the cause, it works, because they’re also not trying and failing to convince us this is a documentary, simply employing the visual cues which help sell their history as real. Using a dramatic narrative also gives the viewer an identifiable character, nurse Pauline, which works nicely by drawing us into the story’s world, helping us feel and relate to the compromises and sacrifices that have to be made — and, as the film forces us to realise, would be made — under such circumstances.

Pauline is apolitical, which for the sake of the film means she can get buffeted around, seeing many facets of occupied life. She’s drawn into the regime without losing our sympathy, but when she legitimately disagrees with it she’s shoved out of the way to a country hospital — which allows us to see another aspect; namely, the quiet but methodical enacting of The Final Solution in an occupied territory. The whole film builds to this point, gradually showing the darker and deeper levels of cooperation — which starts out almost harmless and ends with organised mass murder — meaning it never feels like Brownlow and Mollo are pushing an agenda too hard, but still confront us with the reality: that we’d probably succumb too, and this is where we’d end up.

The film is distinctly anti-Nazi, then, though not without its controversies in spite of this. At one point, real fascists play themselves. I think you can tell, because I suspected as much before I looked it up to see: they’re not great actors, but they deliver their horrific polemics with a calm zeal. The argument that this merely gives some hateful people a platform for their views isn’t without merit — they’re certainly given a good chunk of time to discuss them — but it’s an ultimately effective sequence. Other characters ask questions — or perhaps other cast members do, because, knowing the fascists are real, it becomes hard to tell if it’s all scripted and in character or just a real-life Q&A that Brownlow & Mollo filmed. Either way, it works because any right-minded person is going to see the inherent ridiculousness of their views with ease.

Nazi EnglandAnother controversy arose over the villains being British collaborators — few German Nazis are seen — and the ease with which many agreed. But this is based in the facts of what occurred in other occupied territories; maybe Britain’s plucky spirit would’ve shown through, as many like to believe, or maybe many would have caved for the easier life — or, indeed, life at all. The film is examining several perspectives of occupation, and using the fictional context to good effect: this could have happened, the film says, however much we like to believe we wouldn’t have collaborated like (and/or resisted better than), say, the French.

Talking of the resistance, I presume the controversy didn’t stop with its depiction of collaborators: both sides are shown to be just as/almost as bad as the other. The film opens with occupying Nazis massacring women and children, including a hurried and confusing gunfight in which it’s unclear whether Pauline’s friends — all women and children — were slaughtered by the Nazis or a group of resistance fighters holed up nearby. Mirroring this, the film ends with a group of British resistance (and/or invading American and British troops) rounding up surrendered collaborators and gunning them down in cold blood. No one comes out of this well — and that is perhaps the most truthful part of all.

Nonetheless, It Happened Here is more anti-Nazi than pro-Nazi propaganda, in my opinion, though it’s easy to see why any material critical of the Allies could have outweighed the overall bias when the film was first released, just 20 years after victory in Europe. Generally, and viewed from a much more removed perspective, Brownlow and Mollo do a good job of offering conflicting perspectives with minimal comment, allowing the viewer to decide how ridiculous certain newsreels or opinions are, or how weak or misguided characters may or may not be — on both sides.

4 out of 5

Ministry of Fear (1944)

2010 #70
Fritz Lang | 83 mins | TV | PG

Ministry of FearI like cake. It’s all soft and sweet and tasty. But I don’t like cake as much as Stephen Neale, the protagonist of Ministry of Fear.

Neale (played by Ray Milland) likes cake so much that, as soon as he’s released from an asylum at the film’s start, he goes almost directly to a nearby fête to win a cake. And win it he does… though as he leaves with his prize, he’s told he didn’t win it after all. But Neale loves cake so much that he pays them off so he can keep it. Then he gets on a train to London — and he loves cake so much, he can’t resist tucking in straight away. At least he’s kind enough to give a piece to the blind man who shares the car with him. Except the blind man whacks Neale over the head, steals the cake and jumps off the (fortunately, stationary) train with it. Not because he loves cake too, but we’ll come to that.

But the blind man — who isn’t actually blind, as you may have guessed — hasn’t counted on just how much Neale loves cake. He jumps off the train too, giving chase. The not-blind blind man shoots at him, but that’s not enough to deter Neale from cake. It’s only when a Nazi bomb drops on the cake, destroying it (and the not-blind blind man) that Neale finally gives up. And even then he goes back to look for the cake later in the film.

I think he's about to cut the cake...Ministry of Fear isn’t really about cake, but the opening 20 minutes or so plays out more or less as above and it is rather amusing. Less amusing — and, in fact, part of the film’s biggest problem — is a ‘humorous’ epilogue that returns to the cake theme. I found it hilariously funny, but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. The other part of the problem is the abrupt ending that immediately precedes this brief coda. On the bright side, everything is resolved and you can imagine the post-climax resolution scene for yourself, but it still leaves the tale’s telling cut short.

To say too much about what Ministry of Fear is actually about would ruin it, which I don’t want to do because in fact it’s a great twisty little thriller, a rather Hitchcockian ‘wrong man’ tale with a baked MacGuffin. You might need a decent suspension of disbelief to get through it, as Neale races round London trying to find out the truth behind the activities of a wartime charity and its army of little old dears, but doing so rewards with a tale where you can never be sure who is on whose side and where any character will end up.

Director Fritz Lang brings his customary expertise to proceedings, with several shots and sequences worthy of appreciation in their own right. Nazi drone, perhapsThe train cake theft and chase, for instance, could be thoroughly laughable thanks to the cake element and what’s clearly a studio-built wood/wasteland, but it’s atmospherically shot and, in its main burst of genius, scored only by the drone of a Nazi air raid taking place overhead. It makes for a more tense and effective soundtrack than most musical scores manage.

In spite of the potentially laughable opening and the need to suspend one’s disbelief — or, perhaps, because of it — Ministry of Fear is a most enjoyable wartime film noir in a Hitchockian mould.

4 out of 5

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

The Great Dictator (1940)

2009 #31
Charles Chaplin | 120 mins | DVD | PG* / G

One of the great things about doing 100 Films in a Year has been the number of firsts it’s either led me to or just been there to document: my first time watching films on Blu-ray and via legal download; my first time seeing films from directors as diverse as Woody Allen, Akira Kurosawa, F.W. Murnau and Krzysztof Kieslowski; my first time viewing such notable works as Breathless, Brief Encounter, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, This is Spinal Tap, The Wizard of Oz, and many more — including my first time seeing Citizen Kane. And here’s another for the list: my first ever Charlie Chaplin film.

The Great Dictator is one of Chaplin’s most widely-known films thanks to setting its sights on the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler in particular. The general perception of silent comedians like Chaplin immediately suggests slapstick, but the real-world targets here make his work (on this film at least) satirical as well. I’m sure this made for great propaganda when it was released just a year into the war, but Chaplin’s skill and accuracy mean it works beyond that: like all good impersonations or spoofs it doesn’t make its objects silly for no reason, but instead takes what’s inherently laughable about them and exploits it. This would age some satirical humour, reliant as it can be on topicality, but the wide awareness even a modern audience has of Hitler means there are no comprehension problems today.

The style of humour can date nonetheless, but The Great Dictator remains funny — arguably the real test of a good comedy. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but that’s a problem comedy faces whenever it’s made. Chaplin loads the film with inventive and timeless routines, like the upside-down-plane, the coin-in-the-pudding, or the classic dance with an inflatable globe. Sometimes with comedy from decades previous, there’s the feeling you’re watching something that was funny at the time but no longer actually makes you laugh, thanks to changed conventions and expectations. For me, at least, there was no such problem here.

Surprisingly, there are some serious scenes too. While it doesn’t outweigh the comedy, there’s a degree of semi-factual drama in the plot that’s been well judged to help the humour cut deeper. The closing speech could come across as overly propagandistic but, again, it’s well pitched and therefore more galvanizing than inappropriately laughable. There are some bits, like this, that are sadly just as applicable to the modern world.

Chaplin allegedly said he wouldn’t have made The Great Dictator if he knew how bad things really were under Hitler, though some dispute this, arguing he knew and made it regardless. Some bits are slightly uncomfortable when one knows the reality, but whether Chaplin knew the truth or not these moments are fleeting. And, either way, Hitler and the Nazis were a worthwhile target: laughing at those who attempt to terrorise and dominate us is one of the most powerful weapons we have against them. That, certainly, is still true today.

5 out of 5

* For reasons known only unto the BBFC, The Great Dictator was classified U until 2003, when film and video reclassifications both made it a PG. ^

Anne Frank Remembered (1995)

2009 #4
Jon Blair | 117 mins | TV | E / PG

Anne Frank RememberedAnne Frank’s is arguably the best-known individual story of the Holocaust, perhaps because the diary of a 13-year-old girl in hiding from the Nazis — and, sadly, eventually captured by them — makes a perfect gateway for young people into learning about those atrocities.

In this Oscar-winning documentary, Jon Blair exposes the ‘untold story’ of Anne Frank. He adds to her words with the perspective of her friends, other people who knew her, and relatives of her companions in the annex. In covering these views the film presents alternate interpretations of many people Anne wrote about — for example, Fritz Pfeffer (renamed Albert Dussel in the published diary) is very disliked by Anne, but here is painted in a very different light by his son. The film also reflects on Anne herself, and what it uncovers is not always positive. Such an honest approach could be contentious, but its attempt to uncover the truth — rather than paint a false saintly picture — is admirable.

The film’s second half describes what happened after the diary ends, an often ignored part of the tale — even the BBC’s recent, excellent adaptation ended with the residents of the annex being escorted out, and I think many believe this is where the story ends. In reality there were seven months between the discovery of the annex and Anne’s death, and while only Otto Frank survived the concentration camps, many of the others came heartbreakingly close: Peter van Pels died just three days before his camp was liberated, while Pfeffer was marched away by the deserting SS as the Soviets neared, dying with so many others on that path. Here the film touches on much of what life was like in the camps, adding to its detail of how life was for those in hiding. There are undoubtedly other texts that do this more thoroughly, but by focusing on one family and using just a handful of interviewees, the events are made to feel incredibly personal in a way that some documentaries’ more factual approach fails to.

What happened to the diary after the war is also briefly covered: how the book came to light, the impact it had when published, allegations it was a hoax (due to differences between translations, and fictional events created for the 1955 play and subsequent film adaptation), as well as the positive effect it’s had beyond that, including comments from the likes of Nelson Mandela.

With its honest and extended investigation of the events covered in Anne Frank’s diary, plus its consideration of broader facts of the Holocaust, Anne Frank Remembered adds significantly to the original text. In doing so it becomes an essential companion piece to one of the most famous and important documents of the Second World War.

5 out of 5