Thursday, February 25, 2010

Inglourious Basterds

2009, US, directed by Quentin Tarantino

Beyond all of its glorious cinematic flourishes, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is ultimately about the power of film to construct new worlds - even worlds that seem to deny the reality from which they emerge, rewriting history as casually as they introduce new characters or move from scene to scene. That Tarantino reworks the Second World War for his own dramatic ends isn't evidence in any sense of a failure on his part to grasp the reality of the war: for instance, he's absolutely clear on the pernicious, person-by-person nature of the Holocaust for many of its victims.

Rather, it's an indication of his belief in the power of storytelling to rework, redeem and grant catharsis even while acknowledging that this is ultimately a fable, an attempt to make sense of the world by moving the pieces around. While we can take exception with whether presenting the story of a band of murderous Jews is an appropriate table-turning catharsis, I don't think that Tarantino is in any sense unaware of the import of what he's trying to do (it seems equally obvious to me that your view of his moral standing in this regard is liable to impact any assessment of his film's artistic merits).

Perhaps in keeping with the film's more ambitious themes, Inglourious Basterds is also Tarantino's most assured bit of filmmaking: he seems most acutely aware here of what he wants to achieve, and is able to deploy his skills in the service of those aims. This, rather that the subject matter, marks Inglourious Basterds as a mature film: the director is aware of his strengths - among other things, an ability to create rhythm across often very lengthy scenes, a tremendous skill with words - and constructs his film with those in mind. As others have commented, the overall architecture and individual scene composition are very carefully considered, the pieces clicking together for an immensely satisfying structural payoff, while Tarantino has a sense of filmed space so clear that even when a character is offscreen we're aware of exactly where he or she is; it's an awareness he exploits to very tense effect.

It's also a film that revels in the spoken word: virtually every scene is either an extended conversation or a kind of performance: Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) are in many ways mirror images of each other, the one a smooth polyglot, the other an unapologetically brutal man, but they are both supremely confident in their abilities to talk their way into and out of situations. The difference, ultimately, may be that Raine is aware that words are just words, and not a substitute for action - something Landa is distraught to discover.

As in all of his previous films, Tarantino's casting is exemplary. He's acutely aware of the need to find the right person to savour and speak his words, and he's assembled an extraordinarily eclectic cast here, with pitch-perfect and frequently multilingual performances from actors like the remarkable Landa, Mélanie Laurent (as the Jewish heroine), Daniel Brühl, Michael Fassbender (who has had a pretty remarkable run in the last year or so), and, in a cameo, Mike Myers.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Shutter Island

2010, US, directed by Martin Scorsese

While The Departed veered perilously close to self-parody, Scorsese demonstrates an ability to harness melodrama to surprising subtle ends here: it's easy to miss the details of the dense psychological portrait that emerges from the broad strokes of a pleasurably overheated film. Similarly, it's easy to overlook Leonardo DiCaprio's fine work in the central role, given that he's competing with Robert Richardson's stunning visuals, a welter of filmic reference points, and a score that occasionally threatens to overbalance the enterprise (an early scene where DiCaprio arrives at the Shutter Island asylum lays on the musical emphasis especially thickly).

Shutter Island is also a picture that's very much about the artifice of film itself, signalled very deliberately in the opening scene on a boat, with back projection that evokes 1950s Hollywood, perhaps most obviously Vertigo, another film about a man lost in the web of his own memories. The atmosphere on the asylum itself channels any number of old dark house films, although The Haunting is referenced both in terms of plot - the constant interplay between imagination and reality - and in a sequence involving a precipitous climb up a wrought iron spiral staircase. Those homages, though, are very much in service of Scorsese's overall aim of penetrating the mind of one man, through a structure that only retrospectively comes to seem an immense puzzle, ready to be worked through again on re-viewing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Action in the North Atlantic

1943, US, directed by Lloyd Bacon

A fascinating bit of wartime propaganda, Action in the North Atlantic was apparently authentic enough in its sailing and battle sequences that it served as a training film for the merchant marine, whose work it celebrates. Even if it hadn't been technically accurate, though, it would surely have provided something of a morale boost to any sailor about to ship out.

Although the narrative zips along fairly briskly, with most of the running time on the high seas, the construction is a little awkward, flipping between tense, violent confrontations with German submarines and scenes of banter over cards or dinner that seem drawn from a rather looser film. The shifts in tone aren't as jarring as in Bogart's earlier wartime flick All Through the Night, although those more lighthearted sequences could certainly have been tightened.

As propaganda, the film is most successful in depicting the scale of the war effort and its international character: the script by future-blacklistee John Howard Lawson emphasises particularly the cooperation between Americans and Russians. The sequence of a truly multinational fleet in port in Canada is genuinely moving, capturing the sense that many individuals had of participating in something far bigger than both themselves and the flags to which they generally paid allegiance.

Although there's little distinctive in most of Lloyd Bacon's filmography, save perhaps the ability to keep the action moving swiftly along, he handles the scenes of combat extremely well. There's real nervous energy in the nighttime scenes as the freighters move through dangerous waters, while he emphasizes the often horrific character of war at sea. The cutting back and forth from freighter to U-Boot is especially effective, while the extended chase sequence by a German "wolf pack" ratchets up the tension. Despite the propagandistic tone, the Germans in that sequence are surprisingly human, depicted as a highly professional crew whose suffering is both real and distressing, as if implicitly trying to distinguish between "Germans" and "Nazis" (interestingly, the film has all of the German characters speak their native language, and does not translate their words). Bacon does a good job, too, of capturing the claustrophobia of life both above and below the waves, with several striking shots, particularly one of Bogart moving through a shipboard corridor that Bacon holds an extra second or two.

On land, the greatest interest is an appearance by Ruth Gordon, then in the second, very brief, phase of her screen career: after Action in the North Atlantic she disappeared from movie screens until her late-1960s/early-1970s renaissance. The real-life daughter of a sea captain herself, she's quite good in her brief appearance as a captain's wife, a sequence that emphasizes the comfort and stability of home in quick, subtle strokes.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Film Preservation Blogathon

Bar Harbor Movie Queen (1936)

The camera is unsteady, and the editing is brusque, but the face of Vera Sleeper, a newlywed from Bar Harbor, Maine, still has the capacity to light up the screen when she flashes a smile at the audience. She's the star of Bar Harbor Movie Queen, one in a series of films made by the elusive Margaret Cram (Showalter) in the 1930s. Cram would take her camera to a New England town, find a local beauty and film the same plot every time: the lovely lead actress, ostensibly a Hollywood star returning to her humble roots, would admire the town's stores before being "kidnapped" by a gang of heavies played by the town bigwigs, and then rescued by a handsome local hero. As soon as the reels were in the can, Cram would return to Boston for processing and the following week she'd project the unedited film to an eager local audience, many of whom were there to see their own performances.

Free Radicals (1957)

At the opposite end of the scale of cinematic accomplishment, perhaps, are the brief films of Len Lye. Painstakingly constructed over many months and often involving laborious drawing or scratching on individual frames of film, Lye's films are just one facet of an extraordinarily diverse artistic output across three continents, with a tremendous sense of space and rhythm - the relationship between sound/music and image is critical in most of his work - and a constant experimentation with colour or, later in his career, its absence.

Road Bowling

In another category again, there's something like Pathé's brief report on a road bowling meet in Cork in the late 1950s, a bit of ephemera fascinating both for its subject matter - even though I grew up in Ireland, I've never seen road bowling - and for the way in which the British filmmakers present the material, with (bad) imitations of the Irish accent or a throwaway reference to the Irish and gambling.

There are dozens of other examples, all of which underline the richness and diversity of film culture. What's important about these three is in many ways the simple fact that they have, happily, survived. The preservation of Margaret Cram's films is an ongoing labour of love for Northeast Historic Film, an organization that has received grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation, among many others, and which focuses on work from and about New England. On the other side of the world Weta Digital, part of the Peter Jackson empire, was responsible for repairing and transferring Lye's Free Radicals, one of his most challenging works, to digital form to ensure its long-term survival, part of an important project of reclamation of an artist who generally worked far from New Zealand (David Bordwell has a great piece on the special challenges of preserving certain avant-garde or experimental films). British Pathé has worked, rather admirably, to ensure the preservation of its own archival materials, recognizing the value in the vaults.

That, to me, is only the first part of the story, however. If such films survive but are invisible to a wider audience the preservation effort seems to serve little purpose, except perhaps for the academic researcher (Kristin Thompson has a lovely anecdote about watching a Len Lye film in a refrigerated room at the British Film Institute, but unfortunately few of us can enjoy that experience). People have worked hard to ensure that these films, once preserved, are made available to as many people as possible, whether through organization of exhibitions - the way I saw the beguiling Bar Harbor Movie Queen - or transfer to DVD (a new book on Len Lye will include a DVD of his films), or the creation of an Internet archive, as Pathé has elected to do (with preview copies of every clip available free of charge).

That impulse, to preserve and present, is of a piece in many ways with the vast explosion of material on a site like Youtube - making available what is hidden or what doesn't exist in any other format. That and other sites indicate to me that we have an enormous desire to see and share images, to tell a friend, to understand our world through what we see - whether it's a clip from an acknowledged classic or a brief moment of more local interest.

It's an extraordinary way to spread the word, although it comes with the problem that watching someone's upload of a Len Lye film, for instance, doesn't contribute much in a direct fashion to the preservation of Lye's films. Like virtually everyone else, I've watched dozens of clips, and entire short films, on Youtube because it's easy and often the only place to find something unusual, and I worry that I've started to accept the blurred images and the seventeenth-generation copies. I'm hopeful that those in the film preservation community can somehow harness our enthusiasm for online watching as they seek to resuscitate and distribute our filmed heritage, perhaps especially because many of the most-ignored films - the avant-garde experiments, the newsreel clips, the local histories - are so well-suited to archiving and distribution online given their brevity.

This is my contribution to the Film Preservation Blogathon; you can follow all of the contributions here or here, and I would encourage you to also visit the National Film Preservation Foundation to contribute in very concrete terms to the aims of this blogathon. the Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.

Update (June 7, 2010): As the Siren has revealed, the funds raised through the Film Preservation Blogathon have had a very practical and happy impact - the preservation of an early silent film, The Sergeant (1910), shot on location in Yosemite. The National Film Preservation Foundation has a clip online.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


2009, US, directed by Greg Mottola
Despite its apparently loose construction, one carefully-honed sequence blending very casually into the next, there’s a striking narrative momentum to Greg Mottola’s film: in just a couple of deft set-up scenes, he paves the way for his central character, James (Jesse Eisenberg), to spend the summer in a slightly down-at-heel amusement park while also giving us a sense of his college past, his parents, and his burgeoning dreams. Those preliminaries dealt with, we cross into Adventureland, on which the outside world seems to barely intrude until very close to the conclusion of the film, in that way that youthful summers seem to have of creating their own sense of apparently endless time and self-discovery.

Mottola made use of a similarly episodic structure in his previous feature, Superbad, except that here he has a stronger sense of when to bring each vignette to a halt. As in Superbad, each member of the extraordinary gallery of actors has a moment or two in which to shine but the timing is considerably tighter. That’s underlined in a brilliantly funny sequence where the park manager (Bill Hader) intervenes when James is about to receive a beating: there’s not a wasted second as Hader stalks out, catching, mid-stride, a baseball bat thrown by his wife and flipping a hair-trigger switch to deal with the threat only to put away his game face with equally impressive speed.

Although that sequence is a little more in-you-face than the rest of the film – a change of pace that Mottola exploits very cannily – it’s typical of the care with which each of the vignettes is constructed, leaving you with the mood of the previous scene still lingering in the mind, and deftly moving between the film’s more serious and light-hearted moments.

The script is also acutely perceptive of the nuances of twentysomething speech and interactions. There’s a lovely scene, for instance, where James tells the object of his affections, Em (Kristen Stewart), his plans for the future. Mottola captures not only the oblivious pretension of James’s career ambitions seen from the perspective of an older-and-perhaps-wiser viewer but the sincerity of another twentysomething’s reaction. The conversations between James and Em, and James and his theme-park friend Joel (Martin Starr, excellent) have the consistent ring of truth about them; there’s an awkwardness about these interactions that underlines the way the three characters’ attempts to navigate their way to adulthood, and that gives the film a terrific warmth (underlined, particularly in the scenes between James and Em, with a lighting scheme that seems to make Kristen Stewart positively glow).

Thursday, February 11, 2010


2005, Hong Kong, directed by Johnnie To

Beautifully controlled and steering a wide berth around the standard tropes of Triad gunplay, Johnnie To’s film focuses on issues of loyalty and empire-building, and the constant tension between tradition and modernity in a world which pays lip service to the former while embracing the neon dollars of the latter. The narrative centres on a literal passing of the baton – an object that grants power to the Chairman of the Wo Sing organization for a two-year period – but also more symbolically on a progression from one generation to the next; the “Uncles” may be consulted but they are no longer in power, and they disappear from the screen as the new boss consolidates his power in increasingly brutal fashion. Where other Johnnie To films are filled with carefully staged gun violence, here he emphasizes hand-to-hand deaths that are both more personal and more violent, extending over several minutes and drained of any glamour. This is success at the price of humanity, with the multiple plotlines, so carefully interwoven earlier in the film, finally pared down to a revelatory tale of Shakespearean ambition and ruthlessness.

Monday, February 08, 2010

District 9

2009, US/New Zealand/South Africa, directed by Neill Blomkamp

Although Neill Blomkamp’s film is a rather confused apartheid analogy – black South Africans have become part of the system of oppression of an alien race, while Nigerians are characterized as primitive, superstitious, violent people in much the same way as South African blacks were and sometimes still are – it’s a terrific bit of visceral cinema that makes striking use of actual human settlements to make sharp points about the way we treat those different from ourselves. Blomkamp uses the trappings of documentary and news footage – often presented in “raw,” unedited form – to construct the background to a series of forced evictions from an alien settlement outside Johannesburg, with a shadowy private firm stepping in to take on the task of legalizing and enforcing the evictions in much the same way that apartheid governments insisted on a veneer of legality for their actions.

That’s the jumping-off point for a much more personal odyssey, following a previously bumbling bureaucrat, Wikus Van De Merwe (an extraordinarily physical performance from Sharlto Copley, in his first feature film), who finds himself forced to seek allies among the previously despised alien population. Notwithstanding the sometimes confused politics – particularly the uniformly negative depiction of Nigerians, although Afrikaners don’t get a great rap either – there’s still a jagged emotion to Blomkamp’s work that underlines how raw these themes remain in South Africa; it seems no accident that Johannesburg’s residents have been grappling with their “alien problem” as long as real-life South Africans have been trying to carve out a post-apartheid legacy.


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States