16 August 2009

Love and War

How lucky y'all are- the third post in the space of a week. I've been to the cinema a lot more often recently after the general drought of new releases that followed Half-Blood Prince, and thusly I'm bringing you two films that couldn't be much further away from each other in terms of tone and content. One is a tribute to the "men-on-a-mission" exploitation war movie and the other is a sci-fi romance, but I like to keep all kinds of readers happy. As ever, mild spoilers may crop up here and there but not so far as to reveal any major plot developments.


Who's in it?
Brad Pitt and Diane Kruger are being touted as the leads in the advertising, but the real de facto leads are Mélanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz.

What's it all about? In Nazi-occupied France, young Jewish woman (Laurent) escapes a colonel known as the Jew Hunter (Waltz) as the rest of her family are slaughtered. Years later, she has an opportunity to get revenge on the German high command as Joseph Goebbels organises a film premiere at her cinema. Little does she realise that the American Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) and his "Basterds" are dishing out some vengeance of their own.

Any good? I don't quite put Quentin Tarantino on the same pedestal that most film buffs do. Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown are all excellent, but it's what he's done since then that's been off-putting to me. I didn't like Kill Bill that much, and I haven't bothered to see Death Proof yet. That is a track record that should overwhelmingly suggest that I enjoy his work, but I'm still yet to be convinced that he's the greatest director of our time. Inglourious Basterds is a continuation of the kind of slightly juvenile and gleeful homage to exploitation cinema that characterised Kill Bill, but on some level, I enjoyed this much more. Maybe it's the Nazi factor- two of my top five favourite films ever feature Nazis as the bad guys, so maybe they just make terrific villains.

On the other hand, I suspect it's more to do with the sheer scope of the film. Like Pulp Fiction, the film is made up of interweaving stories with different sets of characters on screen in each of the film's five chapters. This made me feel almost as if I were watching a stage play- the lengthy running time and the extended scenes filled with dialogue only heightened this, and that made me feel like there was something distinctly uncinematic about it. Which is odd really, as the film is a massive tribute to cinema. It's obviously not an angle explored in trailers, but a lot is made of Joseph Goebbels' propaganda films and efforts in the German film industry. And without spoiling too much, the general message is that cinema can save the world. The film is practically a love letter to the institution Tarantino adores so much. But that doesn't mean it's not a lot of fun to watch. The humour is broad and as dark as the subject matter demands- this isn't The Great Dictator, but the jokes definitely come thicker and faster as the film progresses. Tarantino's trademark dialogue is also one of the best parts, and he gives his sterling cast something to chew on.

Brad Pitt does make an impression as Aldo Raine whenever he appears, but the standout performances come from Mélanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz. Waltz in particular is marvellous as the Jew Hunter- he hams it up slightly, but you never feel there's any denigration to the menace he presents. Like all the best villains, he's a thoroughly sick human being, but the best of those long scenes I mentioned feature him playing with his food via interrogation and terror. Diane Kruger's tribute to the German cinema divas of the era and the assorted Basterds are also memorable, but neither Eli Roth or Til Schweiger are given enough screentime in the interweaving and diverse narrative. One of the more non-sequitous sub-plots brings to the forefront the always excellent Michael Fassbender as an English captain and, bizarrely, Mike Myers in Austin Powers mode as his superior. It's one of the standout scenes for its humour and gentle mocking of the British, but it feels slightly indulgent in a film that already runs for quite a long time. Tarantino is not a director who does restraint or subtlety much, but that works in the favour of this film.

Inglourious Basterds is a very confident film overall- Tarantino has enough confidence in his audience to sit through a long film, of which about 50% is in German or French with English subtitles. More than that, he resists what most other directors would do by tightening up those scenes with the Jew Hunter for the sake of building tension in the short-term, and creates a much more memorable film for this. Not flawless, but highly entertaining exploitation cinema.



Who's in it?
Rachel McAdams is the eponymous wife, with Eric Bana as the "chrono-impaired" love of her life. Ron Livingston and Stephen Tobolowsky admirably support them by looking confused at how time travel is possible.

What's it all about? Henry (Bana) has a freak genetic disorder that causes him to involuntarily travel through time. This causes complications with the love of his life Clare (McAdams), whom he meets for the first time when he's 28 and she's 20, even though she's known him since she was 6 and he was 34.

Any good? Audrey Niffenegger's book is the type of bestseller that sweeps the charts every so often when Richard and Judy, or some other influential personality, decrees it to be a good read. Loath though I am to discovering books in this way, The Time Traveler's Wife was an interesting story, and although by no means perfect, it was one of the better "Book Club" type recommendations. This film adaptation is thankfully not too reverent to the source material, and isn't afraid to give proper focus to both Henry and Clare by cutting some of the more unwieldy subplots and characters to place the focus on their relationship. There's been an overriding tendency in films recently to show too much backstory- when G.I. Joe has flashbacks, you know the problem has gone way too far. Director Robert Schwentke understands that we don't need to know every single detail of our protagonists' lives just to care about them- if anyone needs that, the book will enrich your knowledge- and instead moves forward with the slightly boggled narrative.

Time travel is a tricky proposition in films from time to time, as it either has to make complete sense with causality or lull the audience into suspending their disbelief by breaking the fourth wall and telling them not to worry about it. This film achieves a neat balance between the two by performing a sleight of hand. The romance is the operative part, and only the most detached people will be wondering why the universe isn't melting around Henry's ears as he cheats on the lottery and takes his wife's virginity before she's ever even met him. And for this purpose, Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams are pitch perfect casting. Bana needs more good work like this full stop, and McAdams is as endearing as she usually is in such roles. And because they're so good, you allow yourself to be taken in by it all. There were a couple of slightly mawkish scenes and one totally out of place bit of dialogue that jarred me for a moment or two, but the film drew me back in soon enough.

It's for reasons like this that I could imagine The Time Traveler's Wife being a rather excellent date movie, but please be aware that it depends on how sensitive your companion is- the ending had a lot of people crying in the screening I attended, and that might not be how you want to end a date. However, wading through the throngs of bereaved viewers on my way out of the cinema, I was very much possessed of the feeling that this is a film that deserves to do well. If you read the book, go and see the film.

Very much up to date now, so couldn't tell you what my next post on here will cover. Aliens in the Attic, if I can subject myself to such an exercise of endurance? I'm wanting to see A Perfect Getaway at some point too. If all else fails, I'll be back in a couple of weeks for Funny People and The Final Destination. Please don't forget to comment letting me know if you've seen Inglourious Basterds or The Time Traveler's Wife- it's always good to get feedback.

I'm Mark, the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

No comments: