Inglorious Basterds

Director: Quentin Tarantino

2009

Inglorious Basterds is a wholly unnerving masterwork from director Quentin Tarantino. Unique, engaging, and outrageous, it fits within Tarantino’s oeuvre while standing out as quite possibly his greatest film. (912, Cooper Penner, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Now Tarantino seems to be one of those Marmite people, really dividing people. You either love him or you  hate him – I’ve yet to meet somebody who is just indifferent to him. My dad is very much in the dislike camp while I am just the opposite – I love Tarantino and pretty much everything he has done. That isn’t to say that I fully agree with Cooper Penner. Yes it is unique, engaging and outrageous and yes it definitely fits his oeuvre. However I wouldn’t say that this is his greatest film. It is a move back towards the things that made his earlier work as memorable and interesting as it remains to this day. For me Pulp Fiction (1994) remains the standout Tarantino film.

I seem to have something of a road block in my mind when it comes to creating an alternate history during World War II. I read Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In High Castle (1962) and really struggled with it because I just couldn’t shut off. I kept saying to myself ‘Well that didn’t happen!’ and it became something of a mantra. I mention this because Inglorious Basterds is an alternate history surrounding the Nazis and I came to it with slight trepidation that I wouldn’t be able to accept this re-imagining. I’m glad to say that wasn’t the case. Somehow Tarantino managed to create a new outlook on World War II that was believable enough that I was able to enjoy the film without having the real history constantly intruding, trying to make its presence known.

“Hundreds of well controlled details […] really define the movie and make it a work of art that anyone will enjoy.” (912) The film is gloriously shot with the wealth of little details that is so indicative of Tarantino’s work. It’s a wonderfully rich film in all aspects. The music is, as always, a standout soundtrack with all numbers being hand-picked by Tarantino. The colors are vivid with red being extremely dominant for obvious reasons what with it being the color of the Nazi party. There is something extremely rich about the Nazi uniforms, and an elite air to those of the SS. And despite the association with the atrocities carried out by men wearing those uniforms there is something attractive about them.Inglorious Basterds Quentin Tarantino

Inglorious Basterds is very much a multilingual film with a number of the cast speaking fluently in at least two languages. Most commonly these languages are French and German, the two prominent languages of the time and area. Michael Fassbender switches effortlessly between a very British accent and his German cover story while on operation. Indeed it isn’t his speech that ultimately blows his cover but rather his gestures. While a number of the cast switch between languages in the blink of an eye the stand out here is, as Penner says “[…] a truly genius, multilingual performance by Christoph Waltz.” (912) It really was an incredible performance that rightly earned him his first Oscar. Waltz clearly does his best work with Tarantino as both his Oscars have been the result of his collaboration with the director, firstly in Inglorious Basterds and then most recently in Django Unchained (2012). He is a charismatic character even when he is carrying out the massacre of a Jewish family in hiding. There was something magnetic about him, making him almost likable, which can at times lead to uncomfortable viewing.

Inglorious Basterds, however is not just a never-ending gore-fest; it has a relatively slow buildup, which just makes those scenes full of intense brutality that much more potent.” (912) I found it much less violent and bloody then some of Tarantino’s previous work which I found surprising given the era the film is situated in. There is a much slower pace to it than his other films which in some ways I found refreshing. The violence that is portrayed is brutal but honestly would you expect anything else from Tarantino? The most uncomfortable moment for me is the excruciating scene where Brad Pitt‘s Aldo Raine carves a swastika into Waltz’s forehead. I had an entire bodily reaction to it with everything tensing up. Yes Raine has been doing it throughout the film – it became something of his signature – but this is the first time you actually saw the entire process. Pitt was his usual charming self as Nazi hunter and leader of the Basterds, Aldo Raine.Inglorious Basterds Brad Pitt

I see Inglorious Basterds as a return to what made Tarantino’s early work great. But then like I said from the start I’m a Tarantino fan.

Advertisements

Ring

Director: Hideo Nakata

1998

Ring Hideo Nakata“It’s a deceptively simple premise for a ghost story. A cursed videotape is being circulated. Anyone who watches it will die seven days afterwards.” (870, Adisakdi Tantimedh, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Ring singlehandedly revived the horror genre for the end of the twentieth century, spawning two sequels, a prequel, a Korean remake, and an overlooked but hugely successful Hollywood remake (directed by Gore Verbinski), not to mention influencing dozens of horror films from all over the world.” (870) I admit that while I am a bit of a chicken I absolutely love scaring myself so horror films are right up my alley. I vividly remember going to see Gore Verbinski’s Hollywood remake when it came out in 2002 when I was a teenager with a group of friends. We scared ourselves so much that we ended up having a bit of an impromptu sleepover – safety in numbers and all that! Watching it late it’s still jumpy but not nearly as terrifying as we initially found it to be. That cannot be said for Nakata’s original however which still manages to reduce me to a gibbering wreak.

Japanese horror just takes everything to a whole other level. They tell stories in such a different way and can be much more graphic in their visual media. They’re not lying when they put something in the Asian Extreme category. And there is just something so innately creepy about the way they use children in their horror films – Ring is certainly not an exception with the image of the little girl crawling out of the television remaining with me long after watching the film.

Ring is very dark and atmospheric – full of layers o shadows, perfect for creating an environment where any number of things could be lurking waiting to pounce. Music and sound are so important within the horror genre, more so than any other genre with the exception of musicals. As Tantimedh says “there are no cheap shock effects here. Instead, Nakata relies on sound and atmosphere to suggest the presence of the unquiet dead hovering over the living, poised to strike.” (870) and that’s certainly the case. The music is so intrinsically linked to the images that it loses some of its power or intensity when watched on mute. The choice of music and sounds used is chilling and really directs your emotions and expectations. A child laughing became inordinately terrifying within the context of Ring.

The film deals with a relatively short time frame – just over a week as it’s central to the entire plot. I think part of what makes the film so creepy is the low quality of the infamous video. Not the film itself, because despite being made almost 15 years ago it still holds up well, but the cursed video. I’m not sure if it would have the same impact if it were a DVD just due to the difference in quality and lack of degradation. And seriously who knew static could be such an object of fear? I still don’t understand the compulsion to watch the video. Everyone seems quite blasé about watching it, most likely refusing to believe it has any power but I would be steering well clear of it myself.

“Director Hideo Nakata achieves a steady sense of mounting disquiet throughout the film.” (870) For all Ring has moments that leap out at you it doesn’t become truly scary until the appearance of Sada. It’s a slow building menace that becomes more tangible the closer they get to solving the mystery behind the murderous video. And then just when you think it’s all over that’s when it jumps out and gets you, right in the last minutes of the film. Way to make an impression Nakata! Sada’s movements are disjointed and jarring and there is added terror in only ever seeing one of her eyes through the impenetrable curtain of her hair. After all the greatest tool in any horror director’s kit is the imagination of the audience itself.

 

Shame

Director: Steve McQueen

2011

Michael Fassbender is one of the most captivating actors currently working. Every performance commands your attention (and I should know having recently gone on a Fassbender film marathon) and amongst all those powerful performances his role as Brandon in Shame is one of the stand out roles – if not his best to date. “As Brandon he is physically and emotionally exposed, delivering an honest and brave performance of a man trying to find a lie from transitory and disparate parts.” (927, Simon Ward, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) There’s a quiet intensity to Brandon, well Fassbender too, that makes his character so intriguing … and yes attractive! Brandon Michael FassbenderHe’s not a big talker which actually makes his performance all the more mesmerizing. He conveys a wealth of emotion, admittedly with lust being the predominant emotion, with his eyes and facial expressions.

Brandon ShameMore than anything Brandon is a conflicted character. He’s trying to maintain the appearance of his outward life – a young man with a successful job in New York City – while at the same time trying to deal with his sexual addiction. Sissy’s unexpected appearance forces Brandon to begin to deal with, or confront, many of his issues, predominantly his sexual addiction. His home is not longer his own and his sanctuary, where he can be himself, has been removed.  As Simon Ward says “his cold but functional life is thrown into disorder with the arrival of his sister, Sissy, a superbly damaged Carey Mulligan” (927) And she is so very superbly damaged! I’ve said before I think that Carey Mulligan is one of the most talented rising stars to come out of cinema in recent years. She is the perfect foil for Fassbender’s Brandon. Where he has internalized everything, keeping it all under tight control, Sissy has become an extrovert. Their relationship is a strange one that has some underlying sexual tension to it.

McQueen has said that he kept the film very open-ended which is true, it is. As such it throws up a multitude of questions like where do Brandon and Sissy go from here? Does Brandon every get a handle on his addiction? But it also made me wonder what had happened to Brandon and Sissy when they were younger. There are moments when you see through the cracks in Sissy’s cheerful facade to the damaged person underneath.Sissy Carey Mulligan

From the subject matter of the film there is a lot of nudity as you would expect. Both Fassbender and Mulligan seem perfectly at ease with it. There is a somewhat voyeuristic nature to McQueen’s choice of shots. Brandon and Sissy ShameA number of scenes are shot from behind the characters creating the feeling that we are overhearing a private conversation. It makes for an interesting visual tone.  “Shot in long takes, many scenes play out in real time.” (927) And his New York has a different feel to it too – striking a careful balance between being a seedy underworld and the bright over the top tourist traps. In essence he creates a realistic feel to a big city.

The subject matter of this film, sexual addiction, is one that is still very much in the shadows and could it could easily have become a sordid film. However that hasn’t been the case thanks to McQueen and Fassbender who handle a delicate subject with a directness that is refreshing. They maintain a sense of realness without passing any judgement on either the addiction or the sort of lifestyle it can lead to. Shame is a really interesting film with masterful performances from its two leads.Shame Steve McQueen

Spirited Away (Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

2001

“With every film that he makes, Hayao Miyazaki sets the standard for animated features higher and higher.” (894, Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Studio Ghibli has, in the past, been called the Japanese Disney. I guess because the films that set the studio apart are, for the large part, animation you could draw a comparison. And of course John Lassiter takes control of the American/English language versions. However I think that it’s too sweeping a statement. The films that come out of Studio Ghibli are as different to those that emerge from Disney as can be. Don’t get me wrong I love Disney – I have since I was tiny and probably will until I’m old and grey – and the films of Studio Ghibli, and Miyazaki in particular, are exquisite but there are moments when a creepiness, or maybe uneasiness is a better term, emerges. Joshua Klein says “[…] his unfailingly intelligent films appeal to both children and adults, simple enough for the former to enjoy yet complex enough for the latter to appreciate on a different level.” (894) and this is another similarity with the Disney films.

I have watched Spirited Away a couple of times recently, once in the dubbed English version and then again in the original Japanese with English subtitles. I definitely prefer the Japanese version. I understand the idea behind the English language versions – they make the films a whole lot more accessible to a much wider audience but to me it just makes more sense to watch them in Japanese as they were intended. I certainly found the English version of Chihiro extremely annoying and quite grating however this wasn’t the case in the Japanese version.

The artwork is incredible and has an etherial quality to it. The level of detail in the backgrounds is always beautifully rendered which is a contrast to the sometimes simplistic character presentation. “[And] he certainly isn’t a precursor of things to come, because it’s hard to imagine anybody but Miyazaki doing what he does.” (894) Miyazaki has unquestionably created the most intriguing and beautiful films made the prestigious Studio Ghibli and they now have an almost precious quality to them following the announcement of his retirement. Spirited Away is one of his best pieces of work.

Klein says “Spirited Away is in many ways Miyazaki’s Alice In Wonderland. The writer-director’s hand-drawn scenes burst with energy and invention, and Miyazaki takes full advantage of the fantastical story to devise dozens of unique spirits and creatures that roam this world of utterly inscrutable rules and impenetrable logic.” (894) and I can see the comparisons. Chihiro goes down a rabbit hole of sorts and finds herself in a world beyond her control and completely foreign to her, much like Alice does. She finds herself surrounded by a whole host of unusual creatures and characters. Disney are great at creating lovable anthropomorphic characters. Ghibli goes one better and brings fantastical creatures into being. I particularly love the strange chicks and the soot demons. And for the most part No Face is adorable except when in the bath house and then he becomes this disturbing non-stop eating machine.Spirited Away Miyazaki

Watching it as an adult I get the underlying morality to the story – one that is essentially about greed and gluttony. Chihiro’s parents literally turn into pigs as a result of their gluttony. Similarly the bath house falls under the destructive control of No Face due to their greed for the gold he materializes. Yubaba is one of my favorite characters. The level of detail that went into drawing her is superb. She is a fully texturized character unlike some of the other human (for lack of a better word) characters. I can see similarities between her and the Queen of Hearts – further strengthening the comparison Klein made that this is Miyazaki’s Alice. They’re both larger than life characters, literally so as Yubaba towers over Chihiro, in control of their own empire, complete with workers who are scared of them. And both are ever so slightly insane.

Spirited Away always makes for interesting viewing for me, as does any of Miyazaki’s films. I love the artwork and the storytelling style is one that always intrigues me – I find it quite different to Western styles of storytelling. There’s a much more obvious and pervasive magical, otherworldly and mystical element to the Studio Ghibli films. I would say that it’s best to watch them in the original Japanese – it is worth it I promise.

“He is one of a kind, and as such his films hold a special place in the heart of movie lovers.” (894)

Black Swan

Director: Darren Aronofsky

2010

“Aronofsky’s unique vision implies that there can be no true greatness without touching the darkest parts of existence, and he makes this all too clear through highly subjective storytelling reminiscent of Roman Polanski‘s Rosemary’s Baby (1968)” (Steven Jay Schneider, 922, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Schneider is certainly right when he says “while lacking the honest inner dialogue of its predecessor and companion piece, The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan‘s mix of psychological torments and classic horror elements will be sure to haunt you long after the curtains close.”  (922) Darren Aronofsky’s films are always elegantly shot but really quite dark and disturbing and Black Swan is no different. Black Swan is in some ways much closer to a horror film than anything else, with some quite gruesome shots – Portman drawing a feather out from under her skin is particularly distressing.Black Swan Aronofsky Portman

Barbara Hershy as Nina’s mother takes pushy, overbearing parent to a whole new level. Nina is trapped within a bedroom that has not changed since she hit puberty which looks ridiculous now she is clearly an adult. Having her mother helping her dress and undress does little to maintain the image of capable young woman. It’s no wonder Nina is seen as innocent and stifled as she is when you consider her home life. She’s never really been allowed to actually grow up. I found the scenes between Nina and her mother disquieting which is saying something when the whole film has an unsettling tone to it.

“Lines of reality and hallucination blur as we follow Nina’s spiraling hysteria.” (922) Nina’s hallucinations, which are a recurring theme throughout Aronofsky’s body of work, are vivid and disorienting to watch. I’m still not entirely sure what happened during the final sequence.

Mila Kunis bounces off Natalie Portman perfectly. As the Black Swan she is the antithesis of Nina’s White Swan. She is everything Nina isn’t – confident, outgoing and very much aware of and comfortable in her sexuality.

Winona Ryder makes a brief but memorable appearance as the damaged aging star of the ballet company.

Natalie Portman is mesmerizing in her performance of the innocent and fragile Nina. You feel every single moment on her journey to perfectly embody both the roles of the White Swan and the Black Swan at the drastic cost of her health and sanity. “Her simple injuries (broken toenail, back rash) fester into debilitating conditions, and the manifestations of her subconscious threaten to overpower her completely as she risks her sanity and soul to access the darkness and danger that lurks beneath her innocent surface.” (922)

Black SwanBenjamin Millepied does a fantastic job of choreographing the film, particularly the opening and closing sequences, which pitch us headfirst into the fever and frenzy of Swan Lake.” (922) The choreography is arresting though I would expect nothing less from a film whose core theme is performing the famous Swan Lake ballet. Despite the insanity inducing aspects Black Swan tapped into my unfulfilled desire to be able to dance ballet. After all doesn’t every little girl go through a ballerina phase? It also left me wanting to go and see a ballet for the first time.

An American Werewolf In London

Director: John Landis

1981

“Filled with gruesome, blackly comic scenes (most memorably, the werewolf pursuit through an underground tube station, and Naughton meeting his decaying – and rather annoyed – victims in a cinema), and great performances (including ex-Railway Children [1970] star Jenny Agutter as the nurse and Brian Glover as the grumpiest of the Slaughtered Lamb‘s patrons), the movie also boasts extraordinary werewolf effects from Rick Baker” (Joanna Berry, 663, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

An American Werewolf In LondonI didn’t enjoy An American Werewolf In London – having now seen it I don’t think I would watch it again. It didn’t grab my attention enough to warrant multiple viewings on my part.

I also wouldn’t have classified it as a horror movie. Nor did I really find it that humorous although the indignation of his victims in the dirty cinema is rather amusing. The Slaughtered Lamb is a great example of one of the staples of horror films – an entire village full of crazy, almost backward, people. Their unwillingness to interact with, let alone accept, outsiders really is the catalyst for the entire narrative of An American Werewolf In London.

Jenny Agutter does give a good performance but I found it to be a much more secondary one despite being the love interest. I think she is much underused.

The narrative is pretty standard fare for a werewolf movie although Landis does throw in a zombie element. I have to admit that the zombie element did kind of bug me – why did David’s victims become the undead after his attack?

The one saving grace of An American Werewolf In London is the makeup effects. They really are masterful. Yes they are quite dated now but somehow that improves them. The ability to instantly transform someone into a monster through the magic of computer generated wizardry has lessened the pain of transformation. That is the one thing that still comes through strongly. You can’t help but feel for Naughton as he undergoes his first transformation. I found myself cringing at the breaking bones and shying away from his agonized screams. It is a striking sence and probably the only one I will take away from the film.

Brazil

Director: Terry Gilliam

1984

I am finding it really difficult to actually form a review about Brazil which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the film (all 7 times I have watched it in the last 6 months in order to try to write this post!!) I just can’t really work out how to put what I want to say into words. I think part of this stems from the fact that Kim Newman wrote a really good piece on it in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and I agree with most of his points. In fact so much so that I can’t think of a better way to put it then he does. So below are the points I connect with the most from Newman.

Brazil“Made significantly in 1984, and in parallel with the Michael Radford film of George Orwell’s eponymous novel, Brazil is set “somewhere in the twentieth century,” in an imaginary but credible oppressive state that combines the worst features of 1940s British bureaucracy, 1950s American paranoia, Stalinist or fascist totalitarianism, and the ills of the 1980s (such as an obsession with plastic surgery).” (Kim Newman, 712-713, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) So it is very much a backward looking film despite being set in the future – a common theme in dystopian narratives. The color palette reflects the dystopic nature of the film with everything being very washed out, uniform and grey with the exception of Sam’s mother, Ida, and her friends lifestyle which is the complete opposite and embraces all of the technicolor excess of the 1980s.

“Whereas Orwell’s Airstrip one is built on an impossibly and horribly effective system of state surveillance, the worst aspect of Gilliam’s invented dystopia is that it doesn’t even work. The plot is kicked off by a farcical mistake as a squashed bug falls into a printer so that an arrest warrant intended for terrorist heating engineer Tuttle (Robert De Niro) is applied to an innocent Mr Buttle (Brian Miller), and the grimly utilitarian city is falling apart even without the possibly state-sponsored terrorist bombs that periodically wreak appalling carnage.” (712-713) The cast is made up of numerous notable actors with Robert De Niro, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Jim Broadbent, Michael Palin (a Monty Python alum) and Jonathan Pryce as the protagonist, Sam Lowry.

Brazil Sam Lowry Jonathan Pryce“Sam enjoys romantic flights of imagination (scored with the Latin-flavored title tune) in which he is an angelic superhero knight facing up to Gilliamesque creations […] in order to rescue a dream girl (Kim Greist), one whose waking-life doppelgänger is a truck driver intent on shaking things up to redress the wrongs done to the Buttle and his family.” (712-713) There seems to be a recurring theme in Gilliam’s work – one where a dream or a fantasy world exists side by side with reality (like in The Brothers Grimm, 2005, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, 2009, and to some extent Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, 1998) And Brazil certainly fits into that theme. The main thrust of Brazil is Sam’s increasingly frantic attempts to escape the grey drudgery of normality for the brightly colored dream world and his dream girl. Sounds simple enough although along the way these two worlds have a habit of merging resulting in the fantastical, if creepy, elements transporting themselves into the mediocre paperwork obsessed world Sam currently inhabits.

Brazil Ida Lowry Jim Broadbent“The gruesome black humor and bizarre visuals (embodied by Katherine Helmond as a surgery obsessed matron with a succession of shoe-shaped hats) exist alongside a credible – and horribly fact-based – depiction of a regime that charges its victims for the electricity and labor that goes into their own torture, as represented by the family man specialist from “Information Retrieval” (Michael Palin) and the desperate, middle-management paper-shuffler (Ian Holm).” (712-713)

Apologies for such a mediocre review but I really struggled with this one. Hopefully it won’t put any of you off watching Brazil if you haven’t seen it before because it really is a film worth watching. I would suggest going into it with an open mind and just letting the film take you where it will. It’s an unusual one but then would you expect anything less of Terry Gilliam?