Saturday, 10 October 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)



Plot Summary: In Nazi-occupied France during World War II, a group of Jewish-American soldiers known as ‘The Basterds’ are chosen specifically to spread fear throughout the Third Reich by scalping and brutally killing Nazis. The Basterds soon cross paths with a French-Jewish teenage girl who runs a movie theatre in Paris which is targeted by the soldiers.

The story goes that Quentin Tarantino has been working on the script for his new film, Inglourious Basterds, for over ten years. He was originally meant to shoot it in 2004 but Kill Bill got in the way, Michael Madsen was meant to star at one point and he even toyed with the idea of making a TV series out of the material. As such, anticipation for the film rose and rose until earlier this year the film was finally released to an eager fan-base. The question is, was it all worth the wait? As unsatisfying as it sounds, the resounding answer is merely sort-of. With his sixth film as director Tarantino has managed to make two wildly different, but both extremely captivating films. However, by condensing them both into one feature his synthesis yields a regretfully average film.

The film is essentially split into two storylines; one about a group of American soldiers dropped behind enemy lines and another about a cinema owner who plans to kill most of the Nazi elite at a movie premier. The former is a gloriously over-the-top Jewish revenge fantasy that recalls the directors previously forays into exploitation cinema such as Grindhouse, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill while the latter is a suspenseful, dialogue intense and thoughtful exploration into the power of cinema. The acting throughout both plotlines is almost faultless with almost every character giving a performance typical of Tarantino’s gift for characterisation. Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa is the obvious standout as the equally charming and terrifying ‘Jew Hunter’ and it comes as no surprise that he won the best actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Waltz takes over every scene he appears in and makes for some of the films funniest yet tense moments. Brad Pitt also makes a very entertaining Southern hick and even Eli Roth is convincing as the hugely overdramatic ‘Bear Jew’.

The Basterds section of the film is fun from start to finish, dripping with Tarantino cool, excessive violence and unforgettable characters. The finest scene has to be the basement bar rendezvous with Bridget von Hammersmark and the ensuing shoot-out and eventual Mexican stand-off. This part of the Basterds’s journey really is Tarantino at his finest; lengthy but captivating dialogue, extremely tense atmosphere and of course, more-than satisfying bloodshed. The scene is so well paced and choreographed that it more than stands up to the briefcase scene in Pulp Fiction and the final scene from Reservoir Dogs. However, it is really Shosanna’s half of the film that triumphs as it contains far more substance and intrigue for the audience to chew on long after the credits have rolled.

Mélanie Laurent’s character is a vulnerable yet fierce personality that is far more relatable and sympathetic than all of the Basterds put together. Her final plan to destroy the Nazi elite, combined with inclusion of the fictional Nazi propaganda film ‘Nation’s Pride’, is a brilliant literal and metaphorical portrayal of the power of cinema to influence popular opinion, settle personal vendettas and ultimately; to change history itself (be it an alternative end to World War II or simply Tarantino’s hard and fast approach to historical accuracy). The first scene, in which Shosanna’s entire family are slain at the hands of Landa, is one of the most suspenseful I’ve seen in a long time while the montage of Shosanna getting ready for the film premier set to David Bowie’s ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ is simply superb.

Regardless of the narrative oversight previously mentioned Inglourious Basterds is also host to a number of other drawbacks. Violence is a Tarantino trademark, granted, but it was always most effective when suggested, rather than explicitly shown to the audience. With his latest film this technique seems to have been thrown out of the window in favour of an in-your-face approach which adds very little to the film. Another element Tarantino is praised for is his soundtracking ability, which, while not entirely absent from the film, most definitely lacks in comparison to his earlier work. The soundtrack is compiled mostly of original pieces of music taken from old Westerns and war films of the 60s and 70s which work sometimes but are often jarring and deinterpolating. Drawing again from the exploitation films of old the director also uses on-screen titles to introduce certain characters (Hugo Stiglitz and most of the Nazi elite later in the film) which worked well in his previous films but seemed out-of-place in the wider context of the film. These problems, combined with the decision to combine two stories which could both have easily been their own films, make for an enjoyable yet frustrating outing.

Final verdict: 7/10

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Watchmen (2009)



Plot Summary: In an alternate 1985 where former superheroes exist, the murder of a colleague sends active vigilante Rorschach into his own sprawling investigation, uncovering something that could completely change the course of history as we know it.

The great ‘un-filmable’ graphic novel has now finally been released in 2009, twenty three years after it was initially optioned to film studios. Writers, stars and directors have come and gone in that time and the film has ultimately been handed over to new kid on the block; Zack Snyder. Wait, what? Zack Snyder, the guy that directed the half-decent remake of Dawn of the Dead and the visually arresting but utterly shallow 300? Sure, he’s the man to adapt a four hundred plus page, multi-themed, adult comic book with a multitude of complex characters and plot-strands to the screen. Not that the film is an utter disaster, in fact it’s a minor miracle that it turned out as half-decent as it has done, but Snyder was a poor choice for director and is most-likely behind most of the films continuous pitfalls.

The first two scenes of the film stand out as the films finest as one showcases a taut action sequence so beautifully shot that you feel every blow and the other illuminating the alternative 1985 of the ‘Watchmen’ in a montage fittingly set to Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They are a-Changin’’. These two scenes really capture the atmosphere and tone of the comic and if this level of craftsmanship had been kept up the film could have even given The Dark Knight a run for its money. Nevertheless the film does stick very closely to the comic throughout with a high attention to detail with many frames matching their comic counterparts. The cinematography in Watchmen also matches the intensity of the source material’s visual style well, combining bright costumes and iconography with a dark and dank landscape which immerses the audience into the world of the comic further still. The special effects used throughout are a marvel to look at and really bring the screen to life while rarely distracting the viewer from the story or characters. Visual touches such as Rorschach’s shape-shifting mask or the incredible motion capture work utilised for Dr Manhattan’s otherworldly image are a testament to modern technique and remind the audience why a film adaptation was worth doing in the first place.

For a superhero film the acting is mostly top-notch; the actors take their roles as disillusioned crime fighters seriously and it shows. Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach stands out as the films most accomplished character, seemingly channelling Travis Bickle by way of Batman in a ruthless yet emotionally layered performance. Patrick Wilson does a surprisingly good Daniel Dreiberg, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Jeffrey Dean Morgan playing The Comedian and Billy Crudup also shines as the cold hearted Dr Manhattan. The cast is, however, let down by thoroughly unconvincing and cheesy turns by both Matthew Goode and Malin Åkerman (playing Adrian Veidt and Laurie Juspeczyk respectively).

The screenwriters have also, amazingly, managed to trim down the weighty graphic novel into a convincingly digestible two hours and a half with most of the main themes intact. The film is edited well enough via multiple flashbacks so that almost all of the main narrative from the source material is present with few notable exceptions (The Black Freighter and newsstand sections are regrettably neglected). Yes, the ending has been changed, but perhaps for the better. A sub-plot about a giant squid wouldn’t have fit the films tone, or been so readily accepted by audiences for that matter. The thematic concerns about 1980s Cold-war politics, the questionable stance of the vigilante in modern society and the deconstruction of the superhero are all well dealt with, and help elevate the film to something more than a bunch of middle aged costumed heroes punching each other to death.

However, the aforementioned faithful nature of Snyder’s adaptation is also one of the films biggest failings. The simple fact is that some things work in comics but don’t work in cinema. In attempting to stay loyal to the fans, Snyder ends up deconstructing the serious tone which he has worked so hard to maintain throughout the film. Several key scenes spring to mind such as Laurie walking in on Daniel standing naked, staring at his costume or the inclusion of Adrian’s frankly ridiculous looking mutated pet tiger. These and other moments such as the apartment block fire rescue simply do not ring true when placed in a film and if anything were simply laughable. Conversely some moments (Nite Owl II’s Revenge of the Sith Darth Vader impression) or interpretations of sequences (that sex scene) that were not present in the original comic were so cringe-worthy I felt embarrassed for even recommending the film to people.

Other, unrelated, problems are also present in the film. Snyder’s over-reliance on ‘racking’ is often distracting, repetitive and in some cases, downright inappropriate (the attempted rape scene). The film-makers also seem so keen to remind you that it’s the 1980s that several pieces of popular music from the era are implemented at often odd or jarring times throughout the film when it’s already abundantly clear to any cinemagoer which decade it’s set in. These faults and others previously mentioned severely hurt the film as a whole. In the end, watching Watchmen ultimately becomes a frustrating experience as these faults prevent it from obtaining the level of artistry it comes so close to achieving.

Final Verdict: 6/10

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Wrestler (2009)



Plot Summary: A drama centred on retired professional wrestler Randy "The Ram" Robinson as he makes his way through the independent circuit, trying to get back in the game for one final showdown with his former rival.

Until its surprising win at the Venice Film Festival relatively little was given away about The Wrestler. The premise was vague and there had only been a few amateur YouTube clips and set pictures floating around. Rumours started to circulate that Aronofsky had ditched his trademark stylistic approach and worry began to grow amongst fans as promotional material failed to surface. Having now been released worldwide it becomes clear that although the film restrains itself from the use of such striking film techniques which typified his previous work, the film nevertheless constitutes a considerable and memorable triumph in cinematic storytelling.

Far more than a vehicle for Mickey Rourke to merely flex his acting muscles the film turns out to be a sombre and slow chronicle of a desperate and lonely man in which I found myself entirely captivated with from start to finish. Rourke does do an incredible job, seemingly reliving past experiences as much as he is acting fictional ones. Much talk has been made of the parable one can read between Randy’s story arc and that of Rourke’s life, while making the role even more believable for fans does not detract anything for audiences unfamiliar with the actor also. He pours every inch of himself physically and mentally into the character and it shows. Rourke manages to make a potentially detestable man (letting his family down, lying to friends and thoroughly self-destructive behaviour) a utterly loveable one due to his honest and often amusing portrayal of a man trying to better himself.

The film was shot in winter and as such the film is full of grey skies and strong winds which perfectly compliment the contemplative atmosphere of the film. As mentioned the film is far less stylistic than say Requiem for a Dream or The Fountain and instead attempts to capture a more realistic, almost documentary feel with its numerous long takes and hand-held tracking shots. This held back approach arguably draws the audience in even further to the world of the film and showcases Aronofsky’s ability to connote emotion without relying on fancy camera work or visuals. There are, however, one or two stylistic flourishes such as the first entrance to the deli in which the sound of cheers can be heard, echoing the previous wrestling entrance scenes, enhancing our understanding of the character and his motivation (or lack of).

The soundtrack is half diagetic 1980s metal songs and half Clint Mansell’s touching score which at once demonstrates Randy’s image and taste but also portrayes his emotional plight extremely effectively. It is also worth mentioning that the fight scenes, although not the focus of the plot do feature often and are very well choreographed. The ensuing wounds the wrestlers suffer are also very authentic thanks to some impressive prophetic effects and really had me feeling their pain. The cliff-hanger ending and unresolved plot strands were particularly brave and much more realistic than seen in similar films. We don’t get closure; everything does not get better and everyone does not make-up in the end. The film leaves these questions open and for the audience to interpret themselves which is at once frustrating but also highly intellectually rewarding. The Wrestler is one of the lesser known films in the ongoing Oscar race but I urge everyone to not let the wrestling context put them off and to watch this extremely emotionally engaging piece of filmmaking as soon as they get the chance.

Final Verdict: 9/10

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)



Plot Summary: The story of the life of an impoverished Indian teen Jamal Malik, who becomes a contestant on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" wins, and is then suspected of cheating.

Danny Boyle is responsible for one of my favourite films of all time; Trainspotting. Since its release in 1996 he has had a respectable career including several genre pieces such as 28 Days Later and Sunshine combined with the occasional quieter piece such as the enjoyable but severely overlooked Millions. However he has never since reached the dizzying heights of Scottish heroin addicts diving into toilet bowls in search for the next hit. Despite the slew of accolades and rave reviews being thrown at it Slumdog Millionaire is no different and is perhaps the director’s worst picture since the mind-numbingly awful farce that was The Beach.

That’s not to the say that this is a bad film because that simply isn’t true. When focusing on Jamal and his brother growing up in an impoverished Mumbai the film works as India’s answer to City of God. It’s gripping, realistically harsh and occasionally humorous depiction of orphans fending for themselves in a city that is as much of a character as anyone in the cast is as satisfying as any other film released in 2008. The films central love story is also hard not to embrace and endures enough twists and turns to warrant its upbeat conclusion. Meanwhile the soundtrack pulses along with a convincing blend of old and new Indian sounds with the occasional track by female artist MIA standing out particularly well.

Unfortunately when the film chooses to focus on the Who Wants to be a Millionaire plot-strand it commits every Hollywood cliché under the sun and suffers heavily for it. The logic to explain Jamal’s considerable intellect is thus; all the questions in the quiz somehow recall his most painful memories growing up as an orphan and as such the answers are forever ingrained in his memory. How is it that these questions are the one’s to be asked of him? The films answer is simple; fate. This plot device is at once a cop-out in order for Jamal to be reunited with his love interest (and the eventual, crowd pleasing happy ending) but also illustrates the films cheesy message; even though people are subjected to horrible events throughout their lives it only serves to better them and in the end, they’ll be rewarded.

This Hollywood melodrama gets worse as the film goes along. During the final moments of the film as we’ve subjected to hoards of the public huddled around electronics shops cheering for Jamal, gangster siblings staging shoot-outs in baths of money and an over-the-top Bollywood inspired dance sequence which runs over the credits. Another problem I had with the film was its use of over-stylised camera work and editing. Boyle insists on using a jerky slow-motion technique during some of the flashback scenes and instead of creating a gritty or realistic atmosphere just looked cheap and awkward. The way the film was edited was also questionable as flashbacks and forwards were blended together in an altogether unconvincing and confusing manner, not to mention several needless jump-cuts utilised.

Melodrama and sentimentalism are things to be appreciated, but they have their place (and indeed limits). Likewise unique and stylised cinema work is something to be praised but in this instance felt cheap and without worth. Perhaps the reason for the film’s success is the current economic climate and maybe people need this type of feel-good film at the moment. Slumdog Millionaire is far from the worst film of the year (that award probably goes to The Hottie & the Nottie) but is also far from the best of year and is somewhat of a missed opportunity from director Danny Boyle.

Final Verdict: 6/10