The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.
Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.
Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.
As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.
The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.
All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.
If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.
The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.
Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.
Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.
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The Disappearance of Alice Creed is the sort of film that it’s almost impossible to talk about or review without puncturing and spoiling the drama for those yet to experience it. And an experience is what the film provides; even if some berk lets slip a key plot detail there are more than enough twists, turns and unforeseen, sudden plunges on this tense rollercoaster ride to keep you entertained and constantly clueless. It’s the sort of film that has you on the edge of your seat, scanning every scene for minute details that might seem insignificant but will later prove to be vital hinges around which the hyper plot will pivot. Just when you reckon you’ve cracked where things are heading, something totally unexpected will grab you by the lapels and catapult you back to square one. Here you’ll lie briefly, dazed in the dust, before picking yourself up eager for more.
That’s not to say that every swerve woven into the script is a surprise, as in most films some will loom obviously in the distance, with the audience merely asking themselves “when” and “how” as opposed to “what” will happen next. This is a largely original thriller that also loses much of its unique edge at the end as all the indecipherable good work that has gone before must somehow be wrapped up. But on the whole this is an accomplished directorial debut from J.Blakeson, who also wrote the ambitious and resourcefully realised script. Not only is this a movie that delivers as a thriller but working with limited possibilities and an enclosed space it also develops fascinating characters that are for the most part captivating enigmas impossible to unravel.
The reason that the characters hold our attention so intensely and for so long is the steadily racked up tension, combined with only a meagre drip of information about who they might be. Crucially there are also only three characters in the entire film. The first five minutes are completely dialogue and mostly noise free, with only the soundtrack beginning to wind up the intrigue. We watch as two men methodically and meticulously transform a dilapidated flat into a prison, with some slow and beautifully shot scenes at a DIY store and car park contrasting impressively with more frenetic scenes later on. Then the near silence explodes into noise, with the Alice Creed of the title bundled into the back of a van, squirming and screaming. She is then stripped naked, still screaming, on a bed back at the newly fortified containment cell. The sound of her tearing clothes and panicked breathing dominates.
Gemma Arterton, as the title character, gets considerable opportunities to show off her acting chops, despite most of the dialogue going to her kidnappers, Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston. Marsan is often called upon for minor roles in big Hollywood productions, such as his recent Inspector Lestrade in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, and it’s refreshing to see his full impressive range on show here as the key kidnapper Vic. Arterton too has been confined to generic female roles in big budget movies, with a brief and comic turn in Bond movie Quantum of Solace perhaps her most famous appearance so far. In the BBC’s latest adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles she took the lead role and had the space to prove her ability but in many ways her performance here is more convincing, as we watch her do so much with so little. With only three characters for the complex story to work with none is really more important than the other, but if anything Compston’s Danny is the most central figure, and like his fellow cast members he produces a superb and powerful performance.
The Disappearance of Alice Creed is a reassuring tribute to the raw power of narrative when all the luxurious additions of blockbusters are peeled away, leaving the bare essentials of storytelling: character and plot. These are the only ingredients talented directors and writers like J.Blakeson really need.
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