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