Friday, 30 January 2015

Inglorious Basterds

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Starring Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

After the giant "Meh" of "Kill Bill" Volumes 1 and 2, and the almighty strike-out of the utterly execrable  "Grindhouse" segment "Death Proof", writer / director Quentin Tarantino, cinema's apparent 'enfant terrible' was in danger of becoming permanently known as 'réalisateur terrible'.  He needed something special to recapture the glory days of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction".  And whilst "Inglorious Basterds" is not quite that picture, it took huge strides towards fixing the damage.  It's a remake in almost-name only of the 1978 Italian film, bearing scant resemblance, and is a skewed fantasy set during the Second World War, yet one betraying no regard for historical accuracy.  One might argue that few and far between is the Hollywood war film which pays credence to historical accuracy, most just pretend to.  In the case of "Basterds" Tarantino doesn't even waste our time pretending.  This is invention pure and simple.  Sometimes it doesn't work, but mostly it does.  It's a revenge picture - obviously - as that's Tarantino's staple.

The plus points are many.  Primarily it's in the acting performances, and as one would expect, in the dialogue.  Storywise, the film opens with a 20 minute scene consisting primarily of two men sitting at a table talking to one another.  But it's gripping.  The speeches are fantastically written and brilliantly played, and it's one of the rare occasions on which one doesn't feel Tarantino has gone on too long - more of that later - even though the scene is long.  The scene in question concerns the visit in 1941 by SS Colonel Hans Landa, self-styled "Jew Hunter", to the dairy farm of M. LaPaditte, who is suspected of sheltering Jews.  Having manipulated the farmer into giving up his secret, Landa charmingly departs.  It's a fine example of Christoph Waltz's epic, Oscar and Golden Globe winning performance, that he can be so likable whilst being so chillingly evil.  Fast forward three years, and we find moustachioed US Army Lieutenant Aldo Raine, of Appalacian country (and accent), played by Brad Pitt, putting together a squad of Jewish GIs to drop behind German lines ahead of D-Day and wage a campaign of terror. In essence The Dirty Dirty Dozen. Raine also is charming and funny, but vicious - he insists his men scalp their Nazi victims, and happily has one of his squad beat captives to death with a baseball bat.  He's the flip side of Landa.  Pitt, too, although somewhat over the top, is excellent.

Two further storylines are thrown into the mix.  In Paris, Shosana, an escapee from the farmhouse in the opening scene, has changed her identity and is now the proprietress of a cinema.  She meets Frederick Zoller, a German war hero, about whose GI-killing exploits a propaganda film is being made.  He attempts to chat her up but she rebuffs him, until finding out who he is.  Together they hit upon a plan to convince Joseph Goebbles to hold the premiere of his propaganda film at Shosana / aka Emmanuelle's cinema.  The allies, on learning of the switch, hatch a plan (Operation Kino) to destroy the cinema thus taking out the entire German High Command and dispatch Lt. Archie Hicox to co-ordinate with undercover spy and glamourous actress Bridget Hammersmark to make the necessary arrangements.  Emmanuelle is thinking along the same lines, even if it means destroying her own movie palace.  Meanwhile the Basterds' killing spree continues, and everything builds towards a history re-writing climax.

What's good about all this is the sheer velocity, and the nerve of concocting such a story.  Aside from the two leads, the cast is superb; Melanie Laurent (Shosana), Diane Kruger (Bridget) Michael Fassbender (Archie), are all great, and even Eli Roth (Donny) is ok. There are neat cameos from Rod Taylor and a virtually unrecognisable Mike Myers.  Raine's "marking" of the hapless Nazis he comes across is genius.  The script crackles with wonderful scenes and some killer lines.  And the conclusion is quite simply delicious., something close to perfectly orchestrated farce. There are some killer speeches, and, impressively, much of the dialogue is spoken in French or German and in subtitles.  This in itself is really impressive, not something one often sees in "big" films. the downside, as with most Tarantino offerings since "Reservoir Dogs", it's way too long.  QT really needs to make friends with an editor - or rather, annoy his editor to make him or her more brutal.  The entire "Operation Kino" subplot is, frankly, superfluous and its excision would have brought the running time right down.  Having said that the "bar basement scene" is superb, although the "three fingers" thing is so annoying as it could easily be explained away.  Small point though.  The film is divided into "chapters" which is a bit annoying, and it's very much Tarantio's thing.  The biggest problem for me was the music.  The use of a David Bowie track in one scene is completely misjudged and jarring.  And the over-reliance on Ennio Morricone is just boring and possibly just lazy.

Overall, "Inglorious Basterds" is very entertaining, despite its flaws.  It's distinctively contemporary despite its period setting, and unmistakably the work of its director; the camera work, particularly in the first scene featuring the squad, is fantastic.  It is a bit flabby but doesn't significantly lose the viewer's attention at any point.  Its warped take on history is original and strangely fitting.  It boasts some mesmerising performances (excited to see Waltz on board for "Spectre").  Frustratingly, not all of the right characters are killed off - although maybe that's the point.  It's much better than "Django Unchained", which likewise ended up with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  Come to think of it, I'd say it's Tarantino's third best film after "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction".  There are a few gruesome moments but if you can stomach them these "Basterds" can be recommended.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Third Man

The Third Man (1949)

Starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles

Directed by Carol Reed

Set in Vienna, a city carved into pieces in the aftermath of the Second World War, director Carol Reed (who had previously made one of the definitive Second World war films, "The Way Ahead") adapts the novella by Graham Greene, who received screen credit for adapting his own piece, into one of the true classics of cinema.  It's a film (A London Film) to which I keep returning time and time again; it's just a nose behind "Lawrence of Arabia" as the best film ever made, in my opinion.  There's a lot in it; mystery, friendship, betrayal, morality and ethics, the threat of authority, resurrection, romance.  And zither music.  Lots of zither music.  Anton Karas' theme is one of the most recognizable film themes ever.  The opening credits even play over a close up of the strings of a zither being plucked.  Having set up the politics of the situation in Vienna with one of those quotey old-school chattily voiced-over montages one doesn't see in films these days ("Oh, I was going to tell you, wait, I was going to tell you about Holly Martins"), the film proper opens with an American, the aforesaid Martins (Cotten), writer of pulp Western novels, arriving by train in the Austrian capital to visit his old friend Harry Lime (Welles); Martins has hit upon hard times and Lime has offered him gainful employment.  But he soon finds out that Lime has been killed - hit by a truck outside his flat - but that he, Martins, is just in time to attend the funeral.  At the funeral Martins meets a British Army officer, Major Calloway (upon being mistakenly named Callaghan by Martins he snaps "Calloway.  I'm English, not Irish!").  Calloway reveals that Lime was a racketeer and murderer, suggesting Martins return home forthwith.  But Martins is faithful to his friend and insists the Major must be mistaken.  After one drink too many he attempts to punch him, and is restrained by Sergeant Paine - the great Bernard Lee (real first name John, for any trivia fans out there!)  It's amusing when Paine, escorting Martins to his hotel, admits to being a big fan of his Westerns.  The following day, Holly finds himself becoming embroiled in the mystery, regardless of his own intentions, as he meets Harry's brooding, dark-haired actress girlfriend Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), and those who were present at the scene of Lime's death.  Coincidentally, it seems they all knew him or were somehow connected to him.  Something is not quite right.

The porter in Harry's apartment building tells Holly and Anna that three men carried Lime's body, contrary to the official line heard at the inquest, that there were only two.  But he is reticent to become involved or say more.  Similar enquiries prove frustrating. So who was the Third Man?  Given that the film poster (the biggest spoiler since the Statue of Liberty showed up on the "Planet of the Apes" dvd cover - oops!) shows Welles, I think it's fairly safe now 65 years on to say that Lime isn't actually a corpse, but faked his death, for reasons which become apparent, and that the body was that of another person.  The very much alive Lime reveals himself to Martins in one of the most memorable and iconic scenes in  the whole history of cinema.  Welles' face, as he stands in the shadows of a recessed doorway, is suddenly illuminated by a light turning on across the street.  Lime grins at Holly before slipping away.  It's a first appearance over an hour into the film, but Lime's presence utterly dominates proceedings. 

As does Welles'.  He doesn't direct here, and indeed proceedings are a lot tighter and more disciplined than might have been the case had he done so, but his sensibility is all pervasive.  In fact, after that wordless doorway shot, he only really has two scenes - one in which he meets Martins to have a little chat on the Weiner Weisenrad, the big Ferris Wheel which dominates the Prater Park, and one at the film's climax in which he arrives for a pre-arranged rendezvous with Martins only to discover he has been betrayed; this leads to a memorably atmospheric chase through the stark shadows of the streets and eventually sewers.  It's wryly appropriate that the "rat" ends up {Spoiler alert, but we are talking 66 years ago) meeting his end in the sewers.  Welles perfectly embodies the "banality of evil" - the ability to be utterly charming but thoroughly rotten to the core.  Robert Krasker's visuals are striking, Martins' growing confusion reflected by an increasing number of "dutch angles", and menacing shots from below looking upwards.  The idealized good v bad ethic is sharply brought out in the light / shadow motif, but ultimately everything is grey, visually as well as morally.

This film is packed full of epic and memorable lines of dialogue.  Perhaps most famous is Lime's line on the Borgias versus the Swiss: " Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."  Apparently improvised by Welles (depending on which apocryphal stories you read) the words speak to the heart of Harry's character.  In other words, to borrow from the Joker, you can't make an omelette if you don't break some eggs.  Lime's means are to the ends. In the same scene, looking down on the people below, Lime defends his dubious actions comparing the little dots, ants, and asking Holly if he would really care if one of those dots was squashed.  Welles and Cotten play off each other brilliantly, not surprising given their extended association together in the Mercury Theater.  And I love Calloway's line "Death's at the bottom of everything Martins.  Leave death to the professionals."

Essentially, this is film noir, although it doesn't wear the traditionally perceived badges of that genre (Private Investigator, murder of individual, convoluted plot, the femme as fatale rather than victim), it is black film in its truest sense.  It reeks of the same bitterness found in much "traditional" film noir; bad things happen to good people.  The war is won but the aftermath makes Lime's crimes possible.  The film has lodged itself in the general popular consciousness by virtue of these iconic moments and endearing emotions and themes, it's psychological horror, almost.  It's as close as we have or probably will come in recent years to Shakespearean tragedy (of course Welles himself produced visionary adaptations of Shakespeare on screen - "Macbeth" in 1948, "Othello" in 1952 and "Chimes at Midnight" in 1965).  

The Third Man is utter brilliance.