Monday, 24 August 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Trust Quentin Tarantino to upend convention. For all its faults (indulgence, overlength, an infantile delight in its own excesses), his new WWII parody Inglourious Basterds is likely the most audacious mainstream movie experiment of the year.

Here, finally, QT seems to have fused his own lurid mania with the populist desires of his audience. There are flaws, many of them - but, far from the misfiring Kill Bill series, as a movie, it's cohesive and entertaining, not made simply so the director can get his jollies at the expense of others.

It opens with what is arguably the stand out sequence, chapter one entitled 'Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France'. To the symphonic soaring sounds of Ennio Morricone, a nervous French farmer anticipates the arrival of the German SS, represented by the impeccably polite yet menacing Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Landa is a classic Tarantino creation and Waltz gives the film's break-out peformance, carefully picking away at the farmer's reserve (and indeed that of all the other characters he meets) to discover the location of a Jewish family hiding beneath the floorboards.

Here Tarantino is on top of his game, alternating music with silence, every line of dialogue encoded with a darkly funny double meaning, every subtle camera movement building to the inevitable crescendo of violence. He lays all his thematic and aesthetic cards on the table in this witty opening, holding his own distorted mirror up to history. The scene ends with the escape of Shoshanna, the character who turns out to be the crux of the narrative.

Say again? Yes that's right, those seduced by the film's advertising could be forgiven for thinking that the movie does indeed belong to the Basterds (introduced separately in the following chapter), an elite unit of Jewish fighters committed to scalping Nazis, headed by a scenery chewing Brad Pitt as Lt Aldo Raine (imagine a Gable, Brando and Wayne cocktail). But they'd be wrong. Audiences may be blindsided as to where the main revenge is launched from.

Continuing in this episodic fashion, we are gradually introduced to Melanie Laurent (another excellent performance) as an older Shoshanna, running her own cinema and fending off the attentions of Daniel Bruhl's Nazi sharpshooting champion Frederick Zoller. When she faces a proposal to screen Zoller's latest propaganda film to the entire Nazi High Command, her plans for vengeance begin to take shape, as does the narrative and the audience's focus. Heck, it's only taken an hour to see where the film is coming from but Basterds is nothing if not lugubrious.

Thankfully the film is never less than compelling and really hits its stride in the second half when the Brits, working with the Basterds and Diane Kruger's tough talking actress turned informant Bridget von Hammersmarck, draw up their own scheme for getting even with the Third Reich. Almost a self-contained movie on its own (in fact the same could be said of each sub-divided section), Tarantino's parody of stiff upper lipped Tommy's is truly hilarious, with a delightfully sly performance from Michael Fassbender as Lt Archie Hicox. This segment culminates in that classic Tarantino trope: the Mexican stand-off, only this time with the skillfully managed criss crossing language barriers.

As expected this kind of episodic narrative is incredibly difficult to sum up on its own terms, despite the above highlights, and there's little doubt a stronger two hour film is aching to get out (Tarantino acolyte director Eli Roth as 'The Bear' also smacks of stunt casting). But Tarantino clearly has faith in his scenario, outrageous and gratuitous as it is, building to a climatic conflagration that has to be seen to be believed, one that gives full rise to the term 'Jewish Revenge Fantasy'. Let it also be said that he is probably the only director around at the moment who would make a Nazi the most likeable character (Waltz' terrific performance does its bit there): Landa's needling of the Basterds' attempts at an Italian disguise is the funniest scene in the film. As the Colonel himself might say: That's a bingo!

Sunday, 9 August 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123

Stop when you've heard this before. There's a hijacked New York city subway train; the criminal leader is a deranged yet charismatic psycho forming a bond with an everyman rail co-ordinator over the mike; the mayor is self-serving and incompetent; there's a ransom deadline to be met before the hostages are capped. And it's directed by Tony Scott so it begins with an irritating RnB scored fast motion city montage as commuters buzz about their daily concerns.

Doesn't sound too promising does it? But there's no breeding of contempt here as Scott's remake of 1974's The Taking of Pelham 123 is a surprisingly gripping affair, transcending the surface gloss, at least for its first three quarters, to become a plausible portrayal of two desperate men screwed over by 'the system'. Hardly Shakespeare but far more adequate than your normal functional blockbuster.

Assaying a real scumbag (perhaps his first genuine psycho) is a scary John Travolta (replacing Robert Shaw) as Ryder, cropped of hair and tatooed of skin who demands a multi million dollar ransom in exchange for the communters of the Pelham 123 train. The everyman with whom he shares more in common than it appears is dispatch officer Garber (Denzel Washington, replacing Walter Matthau), recently embroiled in scandal and demoted in his job. The two men are set to intersect, much like, yes, the railways Garber is charged at managing...

Despite his typically lurid lensing and jittery editing, Scott generates real tension in the early going, no doubt benefiting from the cramped claustrophobic setting of the subway car itself, a place where Travolta's sneering villain certainly isn't afraid to end innocent lives to get his point across. Playing expertly off his co-stars more flashy exuberance, despite the lack of face to face contact, is Washington, always an expert at underplaying character decency in the face of desperation. Ryder and Garber's give and take tussling in fact serves to remind audiences of that between Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in Michael Mann's (superior) Collateral, from which scriber Brian Helgeland has clearly taken inspiration.

The supporting cast is also excellent, a pleasant surprise given their usual anonymity in the urban thriller genre. James Gandolfini's mayor (first seen demeaning himself riding the train to work) has crises of his own that come to enrage Ryder further in blackly comic fashion, while John Turturro's ineffectual hostage negotiator finds his qualifications count for nothing when dealing with a real nutjob. Together Scott's tapestry, inevitably dealt a sense of post-9/11 paranoia, feels wider, richer and more urgent than many contemporary thrillers. As the crisis goes city wide, it's also refreshing and funny to see the difficulty inherent in transporting money against the clock across a crowded metropolis.

Sadly it goes off the boil in the finale, forgoing the pent up tension and centering the remainder of the narrative above ground as Ryder and his crew put the finishing touches on their plans. Washington goes action man; the cops that have been closing in become redundant; and, in order to inject some contrived levity, the lead character's wife demands he return alive with milk in hand. It's a disappointing yet perhaps inevitable stoop to Hollywood convention in a thriller that has been exactly that all along - but at least it's one that shows initial panache.


Amid the blitzkreig of summer blockbuster season, there is often precious little imagination flying around. Indeed, as the bullets whizz and audiences fizz, one may be struggling to find excitement worthy of note either.

Moon is the ultimate example in counter-programming. A lean, spare sci-fi that hearkens back to that of the 60s and 70s (pre Star Wars, ie use your brain), directed by Zowie Bowie aka Duncan Jones himself, it promises a lot. But does it deliver?

Sadly, despite the ever seductive tag of 'high concept', Moon follows a disappointingly literal minded route, bottling out instead of bouncing ideas, less Solaris, more...well, it's perhaps not best to reveal much more in terms of tone, as it's so intimately conjoined with the narrative as to risk major spoilers.

What little of the plot that can and should be revealed is this. Astronaut Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell, finally getting a lead role worthy of his considerable skills) is coming to the end of a gruelling, monontonous three year routine on the moon harvesting helium. Supplies are sent back to Earth to solve its energy crisis; Sam meanwhile operates out of his base with only a computer, GERTY (voiced with suitable ambivalance by Kevin Spacey) for company.

Things are running smoothly and not long is left before Sam can return to his wife and child. However, on a routine investigation to sort a malfunction on the lunar surface, Sam comes across a person stranded in a harvester: himself. It's not long before his mind begins to unravel, as answers don't seem to be forthcoming from GERTY. Has he gone mad? Are his corporate employers somehow responsible? And what are the implications for his future?

All are juicy, enticing themes for director Jones to get his teeth into in his debut feature. Building up an eerie Kubrickian sense of unease in the first half, all leisurely pans, background hums and low tech but incredibly effective model-based effects, the stage is set for a terrific cerebral thriller...

Then we hit the midway point and the answers, somewhat surprisingly, start to roll forward in a banal and predictable fashion. It's as if Jones got cold feet about his enterprise and so the film wrongfoots us not in terms of narrative but in terms of tone, forgoing the more compelling battle of man versus himself that it initially looked to set up.

This isn't to undermine the terrific efforts by the cast and crew. Rockwell in particular grabs his difficult role with open arms, differentiating the aspects of his character with subtle audio and physical ticks while also generating immense sympathy for the weatherbeaten Bell's plight. Add Rockwell to the shortlist of actors who effectively act against themselves.

Tech wise, Jones clearly wears his influences on his sleeves, at times a little too openly, with his effort coming across as a cobbled together collage of earlier classics. The sleek white interiors of the moon base are very 2001; the lumbering space vehicles could be taken from Alien; and the HAL-like GERTY is...well, you get the picture. Clint Mansell's score makes the best case for originality, a pulsing, ambient heartbeat behind proceedings. If only the storyline dared to provoke, as well as engage, in such a careful, understated manner.