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tough war for years, who are accustomed to its brutality, with someone fresh to the fight, whose ideals haven’t yet been replaced by the practicalities of conflict.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.

Empire of the Sun (1987)

2015 #44
Steven Spielberg | 146 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

Empire of the SunSteven Spielberg’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel stars a 13-year-old Christian Bale as Jim, the son of British ex-pats in China when the Japanese invade during World War II. Separated from his family as they try to flee, Jim encounters born survivor Basie (John Malkovich) and, when they wind up in an internment camp for the rest of the war, a cross-section of the rest of the left-behind. To Jim, a somewhat naïve but capable, confident and determined endurer, the whole thing is a big adventure; we can see the truth, though: that it’s a grim slog of life and death, and most succumb to the latter. The reality of the situation gets to Jim in the end, too… but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

At two-and-a-half hours and with a plot that spans a good chunk of the war, Spielberg crafted a certifiable epic here — not his first, and most certainly not his last. Even then, swathes of material reportedly ended up on the cutting room floor, with top-billed cast members like Miranda Richardson reduced to extended cameos. Paul McGann got an early taster of how he’d be treated on Alien³ a few years later: his part is reduced to literally a single shot.

Nonetheless, some still consider the film to be overlong. It’s a criticism not without basis, even if the material included — and the intrigue of what was lost — remains fruitful. In truth, perhaps the scope and scale of the story leave it better suited to a TV miniseries, where the distinct sections of the narrative (life before the invasion; Jim alone after occupation; life in the internment camp; the free-for-all at the end of the war) could be parcelled off into individual episodes, rather than having to coexist in a single sitting.

Born survivorsAs it stands, the film is a fascinating insight into a less-often-covered aspect of the war. Even in small roles, the quality cast keep it watchable and relatable. Bale’s performance comes in just the right side of annoying — quite an achievement for a character who seems inherently brattish and prone to irritate.

On balance, Empire of the Sun isn’t among Spielberg’s finest achievements. There’s an element of je ne sais quoi in trying to work out why that’s the case — it’s not that there’s anything particularly wrong with it, but at no point does it fully come together in the way his greatest movies do. Still, my theory that there’s no such thing as a bad Spielberg movie is upheld.

4 out of 5

Alois Nebel (2011)

2015 #30
Tomás Lunák | 81 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | Czech Republic & Germany / Czech | 15

Alois NebelA Czech noir animation, set around Christmas 1989 to the backdrop of the country’s Velvet Revolution. Eponymous character Alois Nebel is a train station guard whose flashbacks to an event at the end of World War 2 see him sectioned, though possibly for other nefarious purposes. Having lost his job, he travels to head office in Prague to try to reclaim it, where he meets a ragtag gang of social misfits. Finally returning home, the mystery of what happened 44 years earlier may be resolved…

If that covers most of the film, it’s because Alois Nebel seems to very much occur in three distinct sequences, most probably the legacy of being adapted from a three-volume graphic novel. They’re linked by the mystery of what happened in World War 2… sort of. I mean, there is a mystery, but what that mystery is isn’t fully elucidated, it goes AWOL during the middle segment of the film, and it remains pretty easy to guess the outcome. Plus, the titular character seems entirely incidental to it — he only witnesses something in the past, and then is accidentally, unknowingly involved in its resolution four decades later. Perhaps that’s part of the point…

Although the events of the past may find a resolution, the film leaves us with many questions. How and why do Nebel’s colleagues get him locked up in the mental hospital? Ok, there’s an element of corruption in the ‘how’ — but how did they know about his flashbacks? And the ‘why’ is certainly never made clear. Then, what is all the Prague stuff about? It seems a complete aside in the middle of the narrative. Is it a “state of the nation at that time” piece, maybe? There’s a revolution playing out in the background afterall, but it’s very much an aside.

Deeply thematicPerhaps the whole film is Deeply Thematic, then? It may be to do with the country moving on and making peace with its past, seen in a microcosm in the actions of Nebel (moving past the flashbacks, having new experiences, finding love, etc) and the people around him (finally getting revenge for something that happened nearly half a century ago). Maybe that’s all more clear if you know the Czech mindset, or the history of the Velvet Revolution. The second post in this thread on IMDb gives an idea of some of the stuff you need to know, and how some of the nuance is lost in English — for instance, there are actually multiple languages spoken in the film*, but it all comes out as English in the subtitles.

On the bright side, the language of visuals is universal, and some of the animation here is quite stunning. There are shots and camera moves you don’t typically see in 2D animation, and a greater variety of them too, presumably because it’s all been rotoscoped, so it’s all based on real-life filmed stuff rather than the one painted background someone did, etc. There’s always something moving in shot, too — trees blowing, rain streaming, snow drifting in… The landscape shots featuring that kind of thing are more beautiful than the character animation. The latter is always the oddest part of rotoscoping. Here, it sometimes lends a hyper-realistic style, with all the little shifts and tics you get from real people that you don’t from purely animated ones. The downside to that is you sometimes get a bit of an uncanny-valley effect, or parts of the body changing shape or floating around for no apparent reason.

attractive black-and-white animationWith some attractive black-and-white animation and a sporadically engaging mystery plot, Alois Nebel is far from meritless. However, its firm grounding in a wide spread of Czech history and attitudes suggests it may be best suited to those already well-versed in that country’s history and culture.

3 out of 5

* I realise I’ve put Czech as the only language at the top. That’s what IMDb and Wikipedia say and I’ve not found anything that verifies exactly what else is spoken. ^

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. ^

The Good German (2006)

2010 #103
Steven Soderbergh | 103 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

The film was shot as if it had been made in 1945. Only studio back lots, sets and local Los Angeles locations were used. No radio microphones were used, the film was lit with only incandescent lights and period lenses were used on the cameras. The actors were directed to perform in a presentational, stage style. The only allowance was the inclusion of nudity, violence and cursing which would have been forbidden by the Production Code.

So says the IMDb trivia page for The Good German, Steven Soderbergh’s delightfully thorough attempt to create a 1940s-style film noir in the ’00s. It’s even in 4:3, donchaknow.

But is this a case of style over substance? Some critics accuse it of just that, saying it concentrates more on the look & feel than the characters. They do have a point, but the style is, if not incidental, then still not the sole purpose. The tale is more about the mystery — indeed, mysteries — than the characters. Films like The Third Man and Casablanca spring readily to mind; tales where characters cross and double-cross, where you can’t be certain who’s on whose side, or why, or when, or for how long. Though, yes, The Good German does lack the depth of character found in either of those examples.

Still, this isn’t merely a pastiche — or at least not as much of one as it could have been in lesser hands — but instead is a work that conforms to the genre conventions and the filmmaking style of the era it’s both set in and sets out to emulate. It’s very believably done too, so much so that the very modern levels of violence, sex and swearing are uncomfortably incongruous. Perhaps this was Soderbergh’s intention, but you can’t help but think that it’s a misstep. If you’re going to all that trouble to recreate The Good Rainthe visual, audio, acting and plot styles of the era, why not ensure the dialogue and action follow suit? There’s no need for the violence, sex and swearing in this particular tale; at least, no need for it in a way that couldn’t be conveyed as effectively using Production Code-friendly methods. I’m uncertain if I like the film less for failing on this measure, but it does add to its inherent oddness.

Thematically the film is quite strong, though thanks to an assortment of almost red-herring-ish mysteries it might take more than one viewing to tease them all out. The setting, in both place and time, gives away the central issues: Berlin, after the war, as the Allies decide who will be prosecuted for the atrocities Germany committed and who will be allowed to escape without a trial. Who was responsible — the ringleaders, their underlings, ordinary people? Every character is connected to this somehow, every one has their morals tested or examined.

We’re certainly given a fair look at each of the three leads, as the film switches its focus between them around-about each act break, signalled by a brief voiceover from the new central character — one of which casually reveals the answer to what had, for a while, seemed to be the central mystery. The Good BlanchettBut how much do we get to know them, really? It’s easy to see why critics said “not very well”, because they’re too busy uncovering the conspiracies and revealing their part to actually show us much about themselves. But then why should that be a problem? It’s a noir thriller, not a character drama. Surely it’s about the mysteries and, if you like, the themes, rather than letting us understand the people caught up in them?

Indeed, the array of mysteries distracts from thematic pondering, or the wider conspiracies that the tale is ultimately concerned with. To list them would spoil plot twists, but each in turn seems to be the Main Story — until all is revealed and we have a chance to see the bigger game that’s been played all along. I suppose in that respect it’s like some of the best classic noirs — The Big Sleep springs to mind in this field, not that The Good German is quite as unknowably complex.

Soderbergh’s exercise in era-recreation can be deemed a success: if you can ignore the famous modern cast and the pristine visual quality of a recently-produced film, it looks and sounds exactly like something from the ’40s. Is that enough to sustain a feature? No. But the accompanying story — which, as this is an adaptation, surely inspired Soderbergh’s The Good Referencesproduction intentions rather than being invented to slot into them — provides meat on the stylistic bones.

And yet, having seen it, I can’t help but feel that The Good German is little more than an interesting curio; one that deserves to be seen but, following that, viewers would be better off sticking to real noirs.

3 out of 5

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

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

1945-1998 (2003)

2010 #66a
Isao Hashimoto | 14 mins | streaming

1945-1998 title cardIs 1945-1998 actually a film? Or is it a piece of video Art? Or just another online video?

Its setup is quite simple: it charts every nuclear explosion between the titular years; the total, by-the-way, is 2,053. These explosions play out as flashing dots on a world map; different colours indicate which country was responsible for the explosion, accompanied by running totals. You might note at the end that the US are solely responsible for over half.

The film begins with close-ups: the first test by the US; then the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II. Then it zooms out, to a map of the whole world (arranged differently to how we’re used to seeing it here, with the UK and Europe off to the far left and America on the right. I suppose this is neither here nor there, but it took me a bit to get my bearings on where the explosions were happening). From then it progresses through time at a precise rate of one month equalling one second. If that sounds quite reasonable, the maths holds that it’s 636 seconds, aka ten-and-a-half minutes; or, quite a long time to look at a static map with flashing lights.

There are long gaps between explosions to begin with, but as it heads into the ’60s things pick up (so to speak). As time wears on further, the initially lifeless map transforms into an almost hypnotic array of multi-coloured flashes and variously toned bleeps (provided your 1945-1998: the first testattention didn’t already wander, that is). There are ultimately so many flashes and bleeps, and the effect is so lulling, that I had to force myself to remember these represented Big Nasty Bombs that were Not A Good Thing. Perhaps something more aurally grating would’ve been appropriate; the counter argument going that this would cause even more viewers to abandon the work.

Sadly, it’s become outdated: the bleeps all but stop after 1993 but, as the webpage you can view it on notes, North Korea have since tested nuclear weapons several times. Perhaps Hashimoto needs to add another 2 minutes and 24 seconds, just to ram home that the issue of nuclear weapons is still depressingly relevant.

So is it a film, or video Art, or just another online video? It’s all of the above (of course). 1945-1998 isn’t exactly fun viewing — really speaking, it’s a kind of moving graph — but, if one sticks with it, and despite its outdatedness, Hashimoto makes his point reasonably well.

3 out of 5

1945-1998 can be seen at CTBTO.org.

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

Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004)

2008 #4
Peter Richardson | 84 mins | TV | 15

Churchill: The Hollywood YearsWhat if the Americans made a movie of Winston Churchill’s life, prone as they are to re-write World War 2 history to show they won it all by themselves?

This is ostensibly the premise of this spoof from some of the team behind Channel 4’s The Comic Strip. I say ostensibly, because the film is bookended (for padding, I suspect) with scenes that suggest that the real Churchill was an American GI, and the British simply re-wrote history using a somewhat chubby actor called Roy Bubbles. Sadly, the joke was funnier when it was riffing on those US historical re-writes.

The problem with killing that joke is, it’s the best one the film’s got. It’s also just about suitable for a five-minute comedy sketch, or, at a stretch, a series of sketches. The strategy for drawing this out to movie-length seems to have involved those bookends, as well as bunging some outtakes at the end and including a bunch of ridiculous, irritating, and unfunny subplots with Hitler and his entourage. It’s a shame to see the talents of actors such as Antony Sher and Miranda Richardson frittered away on such material.

This is all being a tad harsh, because Churchill actually has its fair share of amusing moments. The supporting cast of British TV comedians are mostly very good, Neve Campbell’s posh English accent (usually such a stumbling block for Americans-as-Brits) is as good as anything a British actress could have delivered, and Christian Slater and Romany Malco make for a likeable pairing. But, again, most of the best bits are of sketch length, and so wind up spread out among the padding.

In that respect it’s quite a shame, because there’s a good idea, good potential, and some good laughs in here.

2 out of 5