Wednesday, December 28, 2011

War Horse (2011)

When this movie was over, I wept. It was nothing for me to be ashamed of. Steven Spielberg’s War Horse is a painterly masterpiece, woven together with beauty and sadness, strength and heartbreak, triumph and love. It tells the story of a horse that is plunged headfirst into the cauldron of World War I, and the teenage boy who descends into the hells of the trenches to find it and bring it home. But it is more, too. It invited me, like a warm blanket, into its world of green pastures and smoky battlefields, and introduced me to characters—both human and animal—that I began to love and adore with great emotion, as if they were real presences in my own life. It would not be enough for me to say that this is my favorite movie of the year. This is one of the best movies I've ever seen.

All great filmmakers have one thing in common: they expand on ideas that worked for them in the past. From there, they create new and unexpected works of art. Steven Spielberg is no exception: he is our finest poet of communication breakdowns. We remember, from his films, Elliot, Gertie and Michael teaching E.T. how to talk; Nettie teaching Celie how to read; Adams, Joadson and Baldwin teaching Cinque about American customs; Viktor Navorski teaching himself how to speak English. But War Horse is a horse of a different color, and in more ways than one. Spielberg has always had a penchant for challenging his audiences to invest their care in the narratives of unusual protagonists. This time, he has mounted his most compelling narrative challenge for us since A.I., by centering his latest film around a teenage boy learning to communicate—intimately—with a creature that doesn’t talk at all.

Jeremy Irvine plays Albert Narracott, a young English lad growing up on his family’s farm in Devon in 1913. In the opening passages of War Horse, Spielberg and his world treasure of a cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, soar over the lime-green fields of England, in a merrily nostalgic evocation of John Ford’s The Quiet Man, before settling down to a starry-eyed Albert watching, through a fence, while a pregnant mother horse gives birth to a baby fawn. The boy can hardly hold back his excitement. This could very well be the first time he has ever born witness to an event of profound, natural beauty.

The newborn horse is not as amused with its own surroundings, which Spielberg makes palpably felt in a harrowing little scene where it is taken, kicking and screaming, away from its mother, whom it will never see again. It has been purchased by Albert’s father, Ted (Peter Mullan), who snagged it at an auction for no good reason other than to smite his bourgeoisie landlord, Lyons (David Thewlis), while they were both flexing their muscles in a futile game of prewar class warfare. Spielberg, indeed, bookends War Horse with two sequences set at auctions: the first one, a bet for the horse’s ownership, and the second, a bet for its life. His basic point is that horses, no matter if they’re impressive or unimpressive creatures, will always be at the mercy of us. We are the ones who determine whether they are destined for happy lives or as fodder for the meat grinder, and sometimes, he argues, we do it in the names of greed and masculine pride. In war and in life, just because horses are beings of a lesser intelligence, they are not afforded the luxury of choice.

What Albert Narracott does want to establish, between himself and the new horse, is a system of trust. Remember Elliot having to bait E.T., with Reese’s Pieces, in order to lead him into his house? Spielberg replicates some of that magic here, when Albert realizes he’s going to need to bait the new horse, somehow, in order to earn its friendship. Why not turn his back, and allow the bucket to resonate more like a breakfast waiting patiently for its customer, instead of like an intimidating instrument of force-feeding and torture? Albert tries this out, and it works. The horse quietly steps up, eases its snout into the bucket and chows down, and remains admirably calm while Albert pets it and bestows upon it a name: “I’m gonna call you Joey.”

Albert’s family, the Narracotts, is one of the most lovable movie families in recent memory. Albert is an idealistic young lad; Ted is alternately a drunken fool and an observant farmer who knows what to do in a time of economic panic; and Rose (Emily Watson) is a headstrong wife and mother (the most fully-realized heroine in Spielberg’s career since, well, ever) who maintains the family’s sanity even while struggling to maintain her own. In one of the funniest and, at the same time, most touching shots composed by Spielberg in the film, the director places Rose in the foreground, allowing her to have a private moment all to herself while the farm goose waddles in the lower right-hand corner of the frame, minding its own business. This goose likes to act as man of the house in Ted and Albert’s place, and has the freedom to do what they are in no position to do—that is, chase away unwanted authorities, like Lyons, whenever they descend on the Narracott homestead and give the family a hard time.

The first hour of War Horse is a joyous one, allowing the audience to get to know the Narracotts, and the rest of the village, as they slowly but surely rally behind Albert’s efforts to raise Joey as a farm horse that can plough through even the hardest of stone and mud. But this barely even begins to describe the range of Spielberg’s film, which reaches a turning point after Ted realizes what must be done to save the family farm: sell Joey to the English cavalry. Over the course of the film, Joey will fall into the custody of a host of different characters, all of whom are impressed by the power and strength of this horse, and many of whom, no doubt, would like to take it home with them after the war is over. We follow Joey and, later, Albert—when he enlists in the war in hopes that Joey will be recovered—as their adventures carry them from forests to hillsides, windmills to No Man’s Land, against a nightmarish depiction of trench warfare that invites comparison to Kubrick and Paths of Glory.

The film remains true to the 1982 children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, which I have already read and covered, and also, presumably, to the recent London stage play by Nick Stafford, which I haven’t yet seen. To adapt Morpurgo’s complicated story, Spielberg has hired two of England’s most talented screenwriters, Lee Hall and Richard Curtis, whose resumes look almost tailor-made for a project of this emotional magnitude. Hall was the one who located the human story in Billy Elliot, making that film one of the surprise indie hits of the late 1990’s. Curtis is more well-known in the industry, perhaps because of his enjoyable romantic comedies (Notting Hill, Love Actually, The Girl in the Café), although it wasn’t until 2009’s Pirate Radio when I thought he finally managed to reach a kind of cinematic brilliance. Spielberg may have also hired Curtis because of his involvement with the 80's television show Blackadder Goes Forth, which I haven’t watched, but which, evidently, was the work of a filmmaker who already knew a thing or two about the first world war.

Together, Hall and Curtis lay the ground plan for Spielberg’s vision: to make a film about the war in which all sides are granted their dignity. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) and Major Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) are gentle, commanding officers of the British cavalry who treat Joey and his eventual horse companion—a black beauty named Topthorn—as fellow soldiers deserving of their respect, while the young, sickly Emilie (Celine Buckens) and her doting grandfather (Niels Arestrup) represent the spirit of France, welcoming Joey and Topthorn into their windmill home with open arms. But there is a sympathetic portrait of Germany here, too; Spielberg does not fall into the same trap Howard Hawks and John Huston fell into, in Sergeant York, when they inadvertently reduced Kaiser helmet-wearing Germans to a nameless, anonymous enemy. Gunther (David Kross) and his 14-year old brother Michael (Leonhard Carow) attempt to free Joey and Topthorn from the madness of the war, while risking their own lives in the process. And it is the jolly, bearded gunman Friedrich (Nicolas Bro) who remains by Topthorn’s side at a crucial moment, and screams for Joey to run for his life just when a Panzer is about to unleash all hell on No Man’s Land.

There are no villains in this film. Why would there be? World War I was a superfluous, pointless war, and it would have been a mistake to demonize any of the world powers because none of them were guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors; the war was fought not for world freedom, but for class and politics. As Lyons, David Thewlis plays an antagonist who, despite being an upper-class bully, allows the Narracotts their chance to raise Joey, even while he remains somewhat justifiably skeptical of the horse’s skills. Lyons has a son, David (Robert Emms), who intimidates Albert with his cars and hot babes until he finds himself being rescued—by Albert—in the heat of battle, later on in the film. Brandt (Rainer Bock), the cigar-smoking German major who makes life difficult for Joey and Topthorn, is really just a hardened soldier who has taught himself to adhere by a commonly-accepted rule: don’t ever dote on horses and give them names, or else you’ll get too carried away with grief once you've seen them die on the battlefield.

Spielberg has cast every actor in this movie to perfection. I am tempted to describe how much I admired the performances by all of them, but that way madness lies. I’ll limit to myself to the Narracotts. Jeremy Irvine is quite a refreshing new discovery as Albert; he’s the kind of younger actor that directors like David Lean loved to work with, so I guess it’s not a surprise to learn that Mike Newell has cast him in an upcoming Great Expectations remake. Peter Mullan is an actor who’s never made a great impression on me until now. I don’t seem to recall his role in Braveheart, although I well remember him as the corrupt cop in Children of Men. Here, he bravely takes upon the role of a father who has kept his own memories of war heavily-guarded, and finds himself sometimes having to go against the wishes of his wife and son in order to protect the family. And Emily Watson, perhaps my favorite living actress, is a true blessing in the canvas. In one of the film’s most quietly moving moments, when her husband asks her how she will react if he does the unthinkable, she pointedly replies, “I may hate you more… but I will never love you less.” Even she is prepared to condone that decision which she fears the most.

In the past, Spielberg and his usual team of technical collaborators (Janusz Kaminski, Michael Kahn, John Williams) have managed to tackle extraordinary narratives of an awesome variety, but here they face a considerable challenge: how do you mount an epic in which the main protagonist is an animal? The original Morpurgo book relied on narration from Joey’s inner thoughts, but Spielberg has resisted that approach here, perhaps because the last time DreamWorks distributed a film narrated by a horse (2002’s Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron), it was a resounding box office flop. Spielberg has taken a wiser approach, I believe, by trusting his audience enough to let us figure out, for ourselves, what Joey is thinking in key sequences. When Albert, for example, teaches Joey, through clever visual expression, that there’s nothing dangerous about putting on a harness, Joey is able to silently pass this knowledge onto Topthorn later on, in a wonderfully understated moment. Or consider the climactic scene in which Joey finds himself cornered by the approaching Panzer (in a startling quotation of Saving Private Ryan’s finale), and his frightened neighing conveys to us what narration wouldn’t have needed to. In fact, Spielberg enlisted no less than 15 different horses to play Joey, but you wouldn’t know it from the finished film. By the end, Joey has emerged as the most three-dimensional character in the story.

I went into War Horse expecting Spielberg to mount a war odyssey on the scale of Empire of the Sun. I did not anticipate a film that would both remain true to the source material and surprise me with scenes that came out of left field; the pivotal sequence in which an English and German soldier (Toby Kebbell and Hinnerck Schonemman) must put aside their differences to rescue Joey from a web of barbed wire in No Man’s Land has already been much discussed in other reviews. I went in already familiar with Morpurgo’s story, but was amazed at how captivated I finally was with the way Spielberg had reimagined it. He closes the film, fittingly, with a visual reference to Gone with the Wind (his first tribute to Victor Fleming since Always in ’89) that, I believe, will be remembered as a classic movie ending in itself: one that asks us what Joey and Albert have finally accomplished, even as we are already cheering them on for their accomplishments.

War Horse is Spielberg’s Christmas gift to us. More appropriately, it’s his reward to us—a reward for our natural wisdom as moviegoers. To fully appreciate Spielberg's achievement, however, there is catch: you must see this film with a mass audience. Watch how everybody in your theater falls under its spell, one by one. I know I did. I saw it with an audience that broke into applause after it was over, and I never wanted the applause to end; movies like this deserve all the applause in the world. After the past decade, with the failures of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, what a relief it is to have this film, which states that most wars are not a question of good guys and bad guys. More often, they are a clash of human beings, unsure of why they fight each other and unaware of the common universal ideals which could ultimately unite them. Joey the horse is a represention of that ideal, and it doesn't matter that this story is set during another period in our world's history. War Horse is a movie for our time.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: Red Rackham's Treasure (1945)

A man named Bill walks into a bar, The Anchor, and tells a friend named George that he's sailing aboard the SIRIUS in a few days with Tintin and Captain Haddock. George is familiar with them because they cracked the Bird brothers case, and Bill tells him he's going treasure-hunting with them. They are overheard by a Daily Reporter, who publishes the story in the news the next day (Haddock bumps into a pole while reading the paper, alarmed that an ad on the pole descripes the Daily Reporter as "news which hits you").

A man claiming to go by the name "Red Rackham" drops by Tintin's place and claims he's entitled to half a share; others claiming to go by that name drop by as well (one carrying a "family tree" with him). Haddock scares them off when he reveals himself as Sir Francis' descendant. By the time Thomson and Thompson have dropped by, another man -- Cuthbert Calculus -- has dropped by. He is hard of hearing, and when Haddock demands that he give "YOUR NAME!", Calculus replies, "Gone away?... What a pity! Never mind. I'll come again. I particularly wanted to speak to Mr. Tintin himself..."

Calculus tells Tintin (with some difficulty) that he's invented an underwater sub that could help Tintin avoid sharks during his journey. Much to his annoyance, he practically invites himself along for the ride (assuming Tintin has invited him, even though Tintin has tried to yell to him that he doesn't need him).  After a bit of slapstick at Calculus' place, and accidentally breaking his own sub machine in half, Tintin and Haddock leave, with Calculus assuming (wrongly) that they want him to build a two-seater sub for them.

Some days later, Tintin and Haddock buy a diving suit from a merchant who warns them, "Beware, young fellow, beware! Money is the root of all evil!" and "I see that you intend to go treasure hunting... I read it in your face." Haddock accidentally breaks a mirror in the shop, which makes him paranoid the next day about the voyage. Thomson & Thompson come to inform them that Max Bird has escaped. Haddock receives a latter from his doctor stating that he has a bad liver condition and should avoid alcohol. Just then, Calculus appears and says his ship is ready, but Haddock draws a message on a wall for him: WE ARE NOT INTERESTED IN YOUR MACHINE! Haddock is still resistant about going on the voyage before the Thomsons suggest he is afraid, and he explodes, declaring they'll lay anchors tomorrow.

When they set out the next day, the Thomsons catch up with Tintin/Haddock on motorboat insisting they come with them to make sure Max Bird isn't stalking them during the voyage. "Now that we are aboard you will be able to feel that you are perfectly safe," says Thomson. "To be precise," adds Thompson, "perfectly safe."

There is trouble onboard when Bill accuses Snowy of stealing biscuits and chicken. Meanwhile, Haddock thinks there's a bomb onboard in some crates, when actually it's just steel plates. Haddock also suspects Snowy of stealing whiskey, and although they find Snowy clearly drunk, it's only because Snowy has been licking smashed whiskey from the deck. Up top, they find Calculus sleeping in a lifeboat with a box of biscuits. It turns out Calculus removed the bottles of whiskey from the crates and replaced it with the parts of his sub machine. 

No islands are sighted. The Thomsons insist the Captain may have made a mistake on his calculations, and point to where they think he is on the map. Haddock takes off his hat and "prays", then explains, "I mean, gentlemen, that according to your calculations we are now standing inside Westminster Abbey!" Tintin and Haddock privately try to figure out what they're doing wrong with the calculations, and Tintin realizes that Sir Francis probably used a French chart -- which may mean that they're too far west. 

They finally find an island, but they wait until morning to explore. In the morning, they find the remains of Sir Franc's old jollyboat, which may mean that they're near their goal. In the jungle, Snowy finds a bone and leads them to the remains of jungle natives beside an "idol" of Sir Francis. When Tintin impersonates how Sir Francis might have talked to the natives long ago ("Ration my rum!"), he is replied to by some parrots saying the same thing on the trees above. They also have trouble with some monkeys that temporarily steal Haddock's gun. They decide to take the Francis idol back to the ship.

On the way back, a shark attacks their boat, and others follow suit. Haddock shoots at them, but Calculus appears in his shark-proof sub and scares the sharks off. This persuades Tintin to try operating the sub himself; Calculus tells him a red button can be used to release smoke in the water when he's found the treasure. Tintin descends the sub with Snowy, only for the sub's propeller to get caught in some seaweed. Believing he's found treasure, Haddock and Calculus now out, but are bemused when Tintin fails to rise to the surface. Haddock decides to use the anchor to hook onto the sub and, after some struggling, frees the sub to the surface. Snowy thinks to himself, "Weeds or not, I don't set foot in that thing again!", to which Tintin replies, "Snowy and I are setting out again immediately!"

With his pendulum, Calculus tries to tell Haddock that the Unicorn wreck is not in the area they're searching. However, Tintin does manage to find the wreck, and dives down to it in his diving suit. The air temporarily stops working when the Thomsons stop pumping, which incites Haddock's wrath. When Calculus asks what's going on, Haddock snarks Tintin is "picking daisies down below", which Calculus reads as "having a row." So when Tintin emerges to the surface with a gold cross, encrusted with precious stones and a cutlass, Calculus is rather angry, believing Haddock lied to him.

When Haddock himself dives, he comes up with a bottle of rum, gets drunk, dives back down without his helmet and is prepared to rage at the Thomsons because they "forgot to pump again!" But of course, his suit is now full of water, which Tintin and the Thomsons demonstrate by tipping him over. Having a drink of rum that evening, Tintin expresses disappointment over having not found the treasure, but Haddock says, "Oh, we'll find that tomorrow, won't we Professor Calculus?" To which Calculus, still hard-of-hearing, replies, "Perhaps, but I'm inclined to think it is rum." They then realize the Thomsons are still pumping air outside, and order them off to bed.

The next morning, Tintin finds a casket and wonders if it's treasure when, suddenly, he is attacked by a shark that swallows it. Using a rum bottle as a weapon somehow makes the shark drunk, and Tintin uses the opportunity to tie the ship's rope to the shark and have it dragged up to the deck. When the shark is cut open,  they find the casket in its stomach, and Haddock tries to use a case opener to open it. Inside, all they find are old documents "half eaten away by damp!" More treasure-hunting down below proves useless.

Calculus spots a cross on the island, and they row back to dig under it, which confuses Calculus: what on Earth are they digging for? They find no treasure. Calculus says the pendulum points westwards, but Haddock, in a fury, grabs it and stomps on it (Snowy then treats the pendulum like a fetch ball and brings it back to Calculus). The Thomsons, curiously, stay behind to fill in the hole ("people never look where they're going..."). By the 15th, they are at least able to raise the Unicorn figurehead, which surprises Calculus -- whose pendulum, apparently, was wrong all along. By the time they return on the 22nd, a reporter, Ken Rogers of the Daily Reporter, is desperate for an interview, and Haddock turns his "secretary" Calculus over to him for any questions. The Thomsons, meanwhile, confident that Max Bird never appeared because they were onboard during the voyage, decide to "spend a few days in the country with a farmer friend of ours."

Some days later, Calculus pays a visit to Tintin with the documents from the casket, believing he's been able to figure them out. Indeed, the documents reveal that King Charles II bestowed Marlinspike Hall to Sir Francis. This delights Calculus, who says he has enough government money (for the patent on his sub) to buy the estate back. They buy it, and in the storeroom they find a statue of St. John the Evangelist ("the Eagle of Patmos"), which is equipped with a stone globe that -- when Tintin points to the island they journeyed to - pops out a lid to reveal Red Rackham's treasure. Hearing footsteps, they run and hide, only to realize it's just Caulcus following his pendulum. This allows Haddock to set up a Maritime Gallery, where relics of the Unicorn ship will be on display in Marlinspike Hall.

HADDOCK: Well, what do you say now, my friends? All's well that ends well, eh?

CALCULUS: Just as I always said: more to the west!

HADDOCK: Yes, yes. But I said: all's well that ends well. Don't you agree?

CALCULUS: Your maritime gallery? ... I think it is very successful!

HADDOCK: Thanks. But I was just saying that our adventures had a happy ending. They've ended, and happily!...

CALCULUS: No thank you. Never between meals.

HADDOCK: No, no! Blistering barnacles! All's well that ends well! ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL!

CALCULUS: Without any doubt!

CALCULUS: ...and this is just the moment to quote that old saying: All's well that ends well!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (1946)

Pickpockets are about! Thomson and Thompson are keeping their eyes peeled for the "well-organized gang" believed to be stealing wallets in Old Street Market. There, they run into Tintin, and are about to buy some walking sticks before they realized both their wallets have been stolen. Tintin pays for the sticks himself. When Thomson and Thompson start harassing others in the crowd to see if they are thieves, they are arrested.

Tintin and Snowy come across a ship being sold. "I say, Snowy, isn't that a fine ship!" Tintin remarks. He wants to buy it for Captain Haddock (price is a quid), and is told "it's a very old... er... very old type of galliard." Tintin bids seventeen and six for it and it is sold to him, but then a bearded man comes on the scene and asks to buy it from Tintin, who refuses to sell it. Then a chubby mustached man tries to buy it from Tintin, and he, too, is rejected. Tintin leaves.

A few minutes later, the bearded man appears at Tintin's place again, still asking to buy the ship, claiming to be a collector of models. The man gives Tintin his card and leaves. Snowy accidentally knocks the ship over, and Tintin fixes it just in time for Haddock's arrival. Haddock is alarmed, asks where Tintin bought the ship, and rushes with Tintin back to his own flat, showing him a portrait of his ancestor Sir Francis Haddock... with a similar-looking ship in the background. In tiny letters it reads: UNICORN. This prompts Tintin to rush back to his place to take another look at the model... only to find it gone.

Looking at the card the bearded man gave him (IVAN IVANOVITCH SAKHARINE; Collector; 21, Eucalyptus Avenue), Tintin visits Sakharine's place, where the man claims he's been "expecting" Tintin. Tintin spots a similkar model on the man's table, but Sakharine claims this is a different model that he's had for 10 years. Tintin checks to see if it has a broken mast like his own model, and, lo and behold, it doesn't.

Leaving Sakharine's place, Tintin tries to phone Haddock (annoyed that a fat lady is in the booth already, but only so she and her dog "Fifi" can stay out of the rain for a quarter of an hour), but Haddock doesn't answer. Tintin returns to find his flat ransacked; did the other man from the market do this? "Burgled twice in one day... Not bad at all!" Tintin complains. Nothing, however, was actually stolen.

The next morning, Thomson and Thompson visit Tintin to pay him back for the sticks, only to realized they've been mugged again. Tintin knows it couldn't have been the burly man from the market because he couldn't have stolen their *new* wallets (which they only bought that morning). Meanwhile, Snowy finds a scroll of parchment under the drawers. It reads:

Three brothers joynes. Three Unicorns in company sailing in the noonday Sunne will speak.

For 'tis from the Light that Light will dawn. And then shines forth.
42                                                     A             o                  1   ?

                                        the Eagle's t

"But it's all gibberish!" complains Tintin. "And where on earth did this parchment come from, anyway?" Then he realizes it must have fallen under the ship and rolled underneath the drawers when Snowy knocked it over. Tintin deduces that whoever stole the ship must have been after the parchment. Snowy thinks, "Tintin, you're a real Sherlock Holmes!"

Tintin and his landlady are unable to get into Haddock's room, but after some struggle, Haddock comes bursting out dressed like a ship captain, complete with a hat and sword. He seems to be, in Tintin's words, "play-acting", when in fact he's enacting the journeys of his ancestor, Francis Haddock. It seems Haddock has found his ancestor's old manuscripts from the year 1676 (the Unicorn was a vessel of King Charles II's fleet). He goes on to tell a story of Francis' ship being attacked by the pirate ship of Red Rackham. The ship was hijacked, and Francis was tied to the mast while Rackham and his pirates transfer their cargo to the Unicorn (their own ship is sinking). "Regard me well, dog: I am Red Rackham!"

Haddock continues to tell the story to Tintin while Snowy gets drunk on rum ("That's funny! Now there are two glasses!"). In the story, Francis breaks free, fights Rackham down below (while Haddock tells of Francis extinguishing the fuse on some powder kegs, he steps on Snowy's tail, causing Snowy to yelp, "WOOOAH!"). And then Francis kills Rackham -- "That's that! May heaven forgive your wicked soul!" -- before lighting the power kegs again, fleeing to an island and watching the ship blow up.

According to Haddock, Francis lived w/the island natives for the next 2 years and then was carried home by a ship, but left a Will on the last page of his manuscript bequeathing a model to each of his three sons. His manuscript instructs the sons to move the mainmasts on each model: "'Thus,' he concludes, 'the truth will come out.'" To which Tintin exclaims, "That's it, Captain! ...Red Rackham's Treasure will be ours!"

Unfortunately, Tintin's wallet has been stolen, so he has lost his parchment, but he does remember the message. He knows they will need to acquire all three scrolls. They find Sakharine "murdered" at his place, according to a hysterical old lady, when in fact he's only been chloroformed. But his parchment has been stolen, too. Thomson and Thompson arrive and anger Haddock by accusing him of commiting the crime (they claim it's an "experiment" of theirs). While Sakharine wakes up, Thompson is burned by his own magnifying glass, much to Thomson's amusement. Thomson reveals he's developed a system of keeping an "elastic" wallet in his pocket from now on.

Sakharine claims the burly man from the market came to visit him. Tintin and Haddock go back to Tintin's place, where the burly man is awaiting them and tries to go inside w/them before he is shot in a drive-by, croaking to Tintin, "Take care! ...They... they will kill you... too..." Befofre passing out, he points to some sparrows eating crumbs on the sidewalk. It is made to look like murder in the papers, when in fact he is still alive in the hospital and the press has been lied to in order to fool the crooks. That night in the market, the Thomsons are nearly mugged again, but the elastic trap works. However, the thief escapes when Thomson crashes into a street pole. But they do manage to retrieve his coat as well as Tintin's wallet from him. Tintin reminds them they can identify the thief by which cleaners the coat has been to.

At Tintin's place, Tintin encounters some "dinner service" men who chloroform him and stuff him in their crate. Snowy barks at them from the window, falls and lands in Haddock's arms (he just arrived onto the scene), then chases the thieves' van. The landlady is confused, since Snowy is known never to leave his master.

Held prisoner in their hideout and tormented by an unseen voice claiming to be "the ghost of the captain of the Unicorn," Tintin is confused when the voice accuses him of stealing the other two parchments. Tintin never did have more than one. Wanting to get out, Tintin uses a long beam as a battering ram tied to a ceiling ring with blanket sheets (his handkerchief is stuffed in the voicebox to prevent the thieves from hearing), while Snowy meanwhile treks across the road in the rain and mud, bathing in a creek but still getting splashed by more mud along the way.

The battering ram successfully punctures a hole through the brick wall (this is weirdly similar to that Well of Souls scene in Raiders, isn't it? No wonder critics thought Spielberg was a Herge fan at the time -- even though he wasn't!), and hears music on the other side, coming from a music box. On the other side is a bunch of memorabilia. The thieves play cat and mouse with him, but he staves them off by breaking an abacus that spills some balls which they trip over. Locking them in, Tintin finds out from an envelope in the house parlor that it's the estate of one "G. Bird", explaining the meaning of the burly man pointing to the sparrows earlier. It was his way of identifying his attackers, the Bird brothers, a pair of antique dealers.

From the voice box, the thieves alert their butler Nestor to what Tintin is doing, claiming he's "a young ruffian" trespassing. Nestor wrestles with Tintin while he's on the phone w/Haddock informing him he's atMarlinspike Hall. Tintin escapes to the woods, where the thieves release a dog after Tintin that is caught by the leash in some branches. Tripping the thieves, Tintin takes their gun and makes them go back to the house, but Nestor knocks Tintin out from the window with a bat, and the thieves take him hostage. But Snowy appears, bites one of them, and Tintin punches them out. Haddock and the Thomsons arrive, and Tintin tells them to let Nestor go because he is innocent and was lied to by his bosses.

The more dangerous of the two Bird brothers, however, gets away. But they learn from the one they have captive (who decides to talk when they reveal that the burly man, Barnaby, is still alive) that they had found the Unicorn model in the attic of their house 2 years ago. Barnaby was one of their spies, and was the one who ransacked Tintin's place and chloroformed Sakharine, but broke from the Bird brothers after he demanded more money, which provoked the more dangerous brother, Max, to decide to try to have him whacked. Tintin is then told that Max still has Tintin's scroll.

The next morning, Tintin and the Thomsons visit the home of Aristides Silk, the suspected pickpocket, who claims to be a "kleptomaniac" who takes wallets in order to sort them out in alphabetical order. One of them is  Max Bird's wallet, which already has two scrolls in it. When the Thomsons finally find Max Bird and arrest him (he had been caught trying to leave the country), it is discovered he has the last scroll in his possession.

When Tintin puts the three parchments together, he discovers that they form a latitude and longitude:

20  37  42  N.  70  52  15  W.

With that, they realize that Rackham's treasure is within their grasp. Haddock says they can charter the SIRIUS, which belongs to his friend Captain Chester.

"But of course it won't be easy," Tintin reminds his readers, "and we shall certainly have plenty of adventures on our treasure-hunt... you can read about them in RED RACKHAM'S TREASURE!"

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin: The Crab With The Golden Claws (1953)

Tintin and Snowy are walking around one day when Snowy starts digging in a garbage can, finds a can with a crab painted on it inside and digs it out. Tintin scolds Snowy for this, since the can could have cut him, and throws it away. They meet up at a cafe with Thomson and Thompson, who are investigating a case of counterfeit coins. When Tintin follows them back to their office, he notices that they have half a picture of a crab on their table. According to Thomson and Thompson, it came from police headquarters--from a man who drowned at sea and had five counterfeit coins in his pocket.

Tintin rushes out to find the picture, and Thomson & Thompson follow him. They rummage through some garbage cans but are unsuccessful; the garbage man tells a random Asian man notices they are searching for a crab tin and the Asian remarks to himself, "A crab tin! Are they indeed!"

Tintin takes the crab picture back to his house. He tries to examine it with a magnifying glass but initially confuses the glass with Snowy's bone. When he does manage to examine, the picture, it reads: Karaboudjan. Tintin thinks it's an Armenian name. Later, Tintin's landlady is attacked, and she says an Asian man tried to reach Tintin earlier and give him a letter before being kidnapped by some gangsters.

Thomson & Thompson call, saying that the drowned body has been identified as Herbert Dawes; he was a sailor on the merchant-ship Karaboudjan. Tintin and Snowy rush to the docks to find the ship and are nearly killed by a falling crate (which Tintin manages to avoid after being distratced by seagulls). Thomson & Thompson follow Tintin up to the ship to investigate, and while they are busy Tintin is knocked out and imprisoned; Thomson & Thompson leave the ship.

The ship sails, and the gangsters receive a telegram asking to "send T to the bottom". A gangster, "Pedro", has already gone down to Tintin with food, and when Tintin asks to be untied to eat with his hands, he uses the opportunity to tie Pedro up and escape. Tintin and Snowy break into a room filled w/crates of crab tins filled w/opium and bottles of champagne. When night falls, Tintin and Snowy rope they way up to the window on the floor above them, where they run into a drunken Captain Haddock -- who professes innocence to the opium charges. Haddock suspects his first-mate, Allan, is guilty.

The gangsters come upstairs, but Tintin is hiding under the bed, while the gangsters are "shot at" by the champagne bottles downstairs. Meanwhile, Tintin, Snowy and Haddock have escaped via rowboat. While Tintin sleeps, Haddock, drunk, builds a fire in the middle of the boat to keep warm, causing a struggle between him and Tintin that sends the boat toppling over. A seaplane then appears and shoots at them. With Pedro's gun, Tintin shoots the plane down, dives under the water, appears from the surface to take the pilots by surprise and takes control of the plane.

Up in the air, the gangsters refuse to talk, and Tintin tries to steer towards Spain. Haddock, who gets drunk on another bottle of whiskey, throws a fit to seize the controls from Tintin, smashing the bottle against his head. The plane crashes into some sand dunes, but Tintin rescues the pilots from the burning wreck. The pilots  then disappear, Tintin and Haddock suffer hallucinations and fall out cold before being rescued by Muslim riders in the serve of Lieutenant Delcourt, who is in command of the outpost at Afghar. He offers them some spirits, but Tintin says, "No thank you. I never drink spirits." To which Haddock adds, " thank you, Lieutenant, I... I don't either. I... I never touch spirits." On the radio, they hear a report that the Karaboudjan is lost at sea and may have sunken, but they are skeptical. 

They leave that day with two guides, but are shot at by 20 Arab riders. Haddock rushes at them and apparently scares them away, when in fact the Lieutenant's army is the one repelling them. Several days later, they reach Bagghar, a large Moroccan port, hoping to hear news of the Karaboudjan from the harbor master. Tintin thinks he sees one of the gangsters and runs after him, accidentally losing Haddock but also losing the person he's chasing after. Haddock apparently spots the Karaboudjan disguised as the "Djebel Amilah", but gets in trouble with the police during a drunken disturbance at a cafe and is arrested. Then he's released -- only to be captured by the kidnappers, which Tintin witnesses. Tintin's attempt to chase at their car in a cab (while he scares a passenger out of the cab with the "rabid" Snowy) proves unsuccessful.

In the marketplace, Tintin runs into Thomson and Thompson, and together they spot a shop selling crab tins. These tins do, in fact, contain crab, and the merchant says he got them fro Mohammed Ben Ali, who in turn says he got them from Omar Ben Salaad, "the biggest trader in Bagghar." Tintin, dressed as a beggar, manages to locate Salaad's headquarters (Snowy sneaks in through the ventilator shaft), and they find a secret entrance in a barrel that takes them down to where Haddock is being held.

A struggle ensues, and Tintin and Haddock and Snowy barricade themselves in a wine room, where the fumes of spilled wine intoxicate them (and puts Haddock in a drunken rage that sends the gangsters running out screaming). Thomson and Thompson, meanwhile, interrogate Salaad, who is outraged when they accuse him, but the Captain appears from behind a bookcase and Salaad's secret entrance his leg and he accidentally shoots a chandelier that lands on his head, knocking him out. The police take Salaad into custody while Tintin goes on a boat chase after the escaped mate, "the most dangerous of the lot", finally managing to capture him in a fishing net. 

Afterwards, Tintin is approached by Bunji Kuraki of the Yokohama police force, aka the Asian man. He apparently was imprisoned in the hold of the Karaboudjan the whole time. He tells Tintin that the dead man Herbert Dawes had alerted him to the drugs in the Karaboudjan and that Dawes, before getting whacked, had had the label with "Karaboudjan" written on it in his pocket in order to tell Kuraki the name of the ship (but he had never actually given Kuraki the paper itself). 

Some days later, on the Home Service radio show, Captain Haddock is supposed to read a broadcast about "drink, the sailor's worst enemy." At the same time, Snowy receives a package containing an oversized bone ("from an admirer"). On the show, however, Haddock is "taken ill", and when Tintin calls to inquire, he is told that the Captain "was taken ill after drinking a glass of water."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Tribute to Robert Mulligan (YouTube video)

Every critic has a director -- recently deceased-- whom they wish to God was still alive. For me, it's Robert Mulligan.

This is a 10-minute montage I've created in honor of Mulligan that includes pics from each and every one of his films. It also includes the music from To Kill A Mockingbird, The Stalking Moon, Summer of '42, The Other and Same Time, Next Year.

The clip from 8 Simple Rules at the very beginning is the one I'm most proudest to include here, since Ritter's little homage to Mulligan (who cast him in a minor role in The Other) would have been all-too-easily missed by viewers who normally watched that show.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

War Horse (1982): Chapters 16-21 (The Last Chapters of the Book)

Before I conclude my summaries of War Horse, I'd like to show everyone the new trailer that was posted today:

This trailer is a huge improvement over the last one, in my opinion. It's more visceral and tragic.

But without further to do...

Chapter 16

As Joey walks around the battlefield, he is cheered on and beckoned by both sides. Eventually, a German in a gray uniform and a Welshman in a khaki uniform both advance towards Joey before regarding each other with silence for some moments. They decide to determine Joey's fate over a coin toss, and the Welshman wins. Proud that they have been able to resolve the matter peacefully, the Welshman remarks that if more people were like this, the war would be over faster. To which the German replies, "If we did it that way, then it would be our turn to win. And maybe your Lloyd George would not like that."

Chapter 17

Due to his wounded leg, Joey enters the Welsh army gravely ill. When he is greeted by a group of excited soldiers in a stable, a large, mustached sergeant tells them to mind their own business and get back to work. Then, when the sergeant orders one soldier to get Joey cleaned up for "Major Martin", to the point where "you could use him as a shaving mirror," the unseen soldier replies, "Yes, Sergeant" -- and Joey recognizes the voice. 

It is Albert. Although Albert begins talking to Joey about the horse he lost in the war, he does not seem to recognize Joey. Then Albert's friend David enters the scene and helps clean Joey up; he is all too familiar with Albert's horse stories. But when David takes a close look at Joey for himself, he realizes it may be him. Though Albert thinks it's a joke, David declares, "Berty... I'm not teasing, honest I'm not. Not now."

Once David describes Joey's features, Albert circles around Joey and looks into his eyes. "Joey?" To make sure it is really him, Albert walks to the gateway and whistles in his familiar owl whistle, somehow freeing the pain in Joey's leg for an instant. And Joey trots toward him and buries his nose in his shoulder.

"It's him, David," Albert said, putting his arms around my neck and hanging on to my mane. "It's my Joey. I've found him. He's come back to me just like I said he would."

"See?" said David wryly. "What did I tell you? See? Not often wrong, am I?"

"Not often," Albert said. "Not often, and not this time."

Chapter 18

Despite the constant monitoring of Albert, Major Martin and Sergeant "Thunder", Joey does not get better. He has bad forelegs and loses his appetite. Even the sight of Albert makes him flinch. Major Martin suspects that shrapnel wounds have affected Joey terminally and that nothing can be done for him. For it seems as though Joey has been stricken with tetanus, or "lockjaw".

Though the major and sergeant suggest Joey be euthanized, David reminds them that a horse is just important as any soldier in the cavalry. The sergeant orders David not to talk back to them, though the major knows he means well. But Albert and David vow to help Joey in any way they can, and their wish is granted.

To save Joey, they have to put his legs in a sling, keep in a whisper around him, make him a bed of straw, keep him in the dark and feed him only oatmeal and milk. As the days pass, Joe's pain spreads, but he is kept alive by Albert's presence. 

Finally, on a winter night, Joey's pain in his throat loosens, and he is able to neigh again, waking up Albert. "Was that you, Joey?"

The entire regiment is amazed, and soon Joey is walking again. The pain in his back is gone. 

"You've done it, Joey. You've done it. Everyone says the war's going to be over soon -- I know we've been saying that for a long time, but I feel it in my bones this time. It'll be finished before long, and then we'll both be going home, back to the farm. I can't wait to see the look on Father's face when I bring you back up the road. I just can't wait."

Chapter 19

Joey may be healed, but the war is not over yet. Albert and Major Martin go back into the battlefields with him, and he is used as the lead horse in the tandem team. David predicts that the war could be over by Christmas as long as the "Yankees" do a little more to help.

Albert likes to talk to Joey about his sweetheart up in the village, Maisie Brown, who "bakes bread like you've never tasted before," and who has "eyes as blue as cornflowers, hair as  gold as ripe corn, and her skin smells like honeysuckle -- except when she first comes out of the dairy. I keep away from her then." He says that although Maisie Brown cried for Albert when he volunteered to go to war, she was the only one who believed he was right to want to go find Joey.

They receive news one evening that David has been killed by a stray shell. According to Albert, David was once a manager of a fruit cart in London, outside Covent Garden. "There's just you and me left now, Joey," mourns Albert, "and I tell you we're going to get home, both of us.* I'm going to ring that tenor bell again in the church, I'm going to eat my Maisie's bread and pastries, and I'm going to ride you down by the river again. David always said he was somehow sure that I'd get home, and he was right. I'm going to make him right."

There is not much celebration when the war finally does end. People seem more relieved than overjoyed that it is over. Albert still appears to be unhappy over David's death. Major Martin announces that everyone might be home by Christmas, but Sergeant Thunder asks whether the horses will go home on the same boat as them. To which the major replies, "No, Sergeant... I'm afraid the horses won't be coming with us at all." Instead, the horses will stay in France. Because most of the horses are sick and can't really be looked after, they are to be sold at a courtyard auction, which can only mean one thing: they will be sold off to butchers and chopped up into meat.

Albert's voice rang out across the yard. "What, all of them, sir? Every one of them? Even Joey that we brought back from the dead? Even him?"

Major Martin said nothing, but turned on his heel and walked away.

Chapter 20

Sergeant Thunder rallies up a conspiracy amongst his fellow soldiers to raise money to save Joey for Albert. Coins are collected in a small tin box. The sergeant reveals that this is actually the major's idea, but cautions the soldiers not to speak of it to anyone. Allegedly, the major has even "given us every penny of his pay that he had saved up -- every penny."

Albert realizes he can no longer promise Joey that he'll save him from certain death. He thinks only God can help them now. "I remember old Miss Wirtle telling me once in Sunday school back home: 'God helps those that helps themselves,'" Albert remembers. "Mean old devil she was, but she knew her scriptures well enough." The next day, Albert leads Joey into the courtyard auction. He is the last horse to be brought out.

When the price on Joey's head raises, the only two people left bidding are Sergeant Thunder and"a thin, wiry little man with weasel eyes who wore on his face a smile so full of greed and evil that I could hardly bear to look at him." The bid eventually rises to twenty-seven pounds, at which the sergeant realizes he cannot pay for Joey. The greedy man -- Monsieur Cirac, a butcher from Cambrai -- has been buying horses all morning, and it seems as though he will have Joey, too.

Then, "a white-haired old man leaning heavily on his stick", whom Joey recognizes after some hesitation, bids twenty-eight pounds. Declaring that Joey is "my Emilie's horse", the man declares he will bid 100 pounds if he needs to.

No one said a word. The butcher from Cambrai shook his head and turned away. Even the auctioneer had been stunned into silence, and there was some delay before he brought his hammer down on the table and I was sold.

Chapter 21

Although the major and the sergeant are speaking privately to the old Frenchman, Albert is not convinced that Joey is falling into a safe pair of hands. His friends try to console him, insisting that it could have been worse, but he is uncertain. According to the old man, Joey would stay peacefully on his farm and would never have to work again.

When they all come over, Albert thanks the major for at least trying to secure Joey's sale. The major and the sergeant act like they have no idea what he's talking about, the sergeant condescendingly remarking Albert might only be saying such a thing because farmboys are "raised on cider instead of milk." Puzzled by their levity, Albert asks what the old man means by saying Joey is "Emilie's horse." To which the major turns to the old man: "Maybe you would like to tell him yourself, monsieur?"

Emilie's grandfather looks stern at first, but then smiles, telling Albert he realizes that they both have a lot in common, despite having different nationalities. He recognizes that Albert must have been the one who trained Joey to be a farm horse. Then, he tells Albert the story of how Joey came to live with him and Emilie on their farm, revealing that after Joey and Topthorn were taken away, Emilie "lost the will to live" and "faded away and died last year" at the age of 15. But she had made her grandfather promise that he would find the horses somehow and take care of them. Although he never found Topthorn, he has now found Joey.

Referring to Albert as a "Tommy" (slang for a Brit?), Emilie's grandfather then says that he believes it was noble of the major and the sergeant to try to buy Joey for Albert, and that he recognizes how much Albert loves Joey. He doesn't believe that, being an old man, he could take care of him very well, and he believes Emilie would have liked that and "would want me to do what I will do now."

He proposes to sell Joey to Albert. Sell? Albert has very little money. But Emilie's grandfather chuckles, "You do not understand, my friend... you do not understand at all. I will sell you this horse for one English penny, and for a solemn promose -- that you will always love this horse as much as my Emilie did and that you will care for him until the end of his days. And more than this, I want you to tell everyone about my Emilie... that way she will live forever, and that is what I want. Is it a bargain between us?"

At first, Albert is silent. He holds out his hand, but the old man instead puts his hands on Albert's shoulders and kisses him on both cheeks. "Thank you," he says. He then says to Joey, "Goodbye, my friend," touches him lightly on the nose with his lips, and adds, "From Emilie." Before leaving, he cracks a joke about how English people are "meaner" than the French -- because the Sergeant has not yet paid him his English penny. The sergeant produces a penny and gives it to Albert, and when Albert runs over and hands it to Emilie's grandfather, he replies, "I shall treasure it... I shall treasure it always."

And so I came home from the war that Christmastime with my Albert riding me up into the village, and there to greet us was the silver band from the village and the rapturous pealing of the church bells. Both of us were received like conquering heroes, but we both knew that the real heroes had not come home, that they were lying out in France alongside Captain Nichols, Topthorn, Friedrich, David, and little Emilie.

My Albert married his Maisie Brown as he said he would. But I think she never took to me, nor I to her for that matter. Perhaps it was a feeling of mutual jealously. I went back to my work on the land with dear old Zoey, who seemed ageless and tireless, and Albert took over the farm again and went back to ringing his tenor bell. He talked to me of many things after that, of his aging father who doted on me now almost as much as on his own grandchildren, and of the vagaries of the weather and the markets, and of course about Maisie, whose crusty bread was every bit as good as he said. But try as I might, I never got to eat any of her pastries, and do you know, she never even offered me one.

Monday, October 3, 2011

War Horse (1982): Chapters 11-15

Chapter 11

Joey and Topthorn now have the ability to come to Emilie whenever she calls them. She is still sick, however, and sometimes has to heave herself onto Joey's back in order to ride him. Climbing Topthorn is harder, and sometimes she has to use Joey as a "stepping stone" in order to mount him.

One evening, Joey and Topthorn are greeted with good news from Emilie after she and her grandfather speak with a doctor. "They don't need you anymore to pull their cats," she tells them. The doctor, apparently, has agreed to let the horses stay with Emilie. She vows never to let the army take them away from her.

The grandfather sets Joey and Topthorn to work cutting and turning hay on the farm, insisting to Emilie that they "like to work. They need to work." But then an artillery troop enters the farm one evening, demanding that they need to take Joey and Topthorn because they're short 2 horses. Emilie cries that they can't, but the grandfather says there is nothing he can do and tells her to shape up and say goodbye to Joey and Topthorn.

She walked directly toward the officer and handed over the reins. "I want them back," she said, her voice strong now, almost fierce. "I'm just lending them to you. They are my horses. They belong here. Feed them well and look after them and make sure you bring them back." And she walked past her grandfather and into the house without even turning around.

Chapter 12

Back in the war, Joey and Topthorn are saddled alongside other horses, including the hulkish Heinie and the nasty Coco ("When Coco was eating," Joey recalls, "no one -- neither horse nor man -- ventured within biting or kicking distance"). Also with them are two ponies with blond manes and tails whom the soldiers dub "the two golden Haflingers." They have to ride in the winter, when the mud has begun to freeze. It is a cruel existence, full of hard work and lacking good food for the horses, and the only nice soldier in the bunch is "the kindly old gunner I had noticed that first day when we were taken from the farm," who likes to feed Joey and Topthorn black bread and talks to them more than he talks to the soldiers.

The horses begin deteriorating. Heinie is shot by the vets one morning and left in the mud ("a collapsed wreck of a horse"), and when Coco is hit in the neck with shrapnel, he is euthanized as well. "No matter how much I disliked him -- and he was a vicious beast -- it was a piteous and terrible sight to see a fellow creature, with whom I had pulled for so long, discarded and forgotten in a ditch."

Joey notices that Topthorn's health is failing when he starts having trouble pulling the gun, and when he starts lying in the mud having coughing fits. When he is inspected by a vet, the vet protests to the spectacled officer that Topthorn is too fine to pull a gun and that he needs rest.

"He will have to do what the others do, Herr Doctor," said the major in a steely voice. "No more and no less. I cannot make exceptions." If you pass him fit, he's fit and that's that."

He's fit to go on," said the vet reluctantly. "But I am warning you, Herr Major. You must take care."

Chapter 13

Although they survive into the spring, Joey notices that Topthorn's health is still deteriorating. Luckily, they are both so fat that they are never plunged into any battles due to being fattened up.

The old gunman, "Crazy Old Fredrich", tells Joey and Topthorn that he thinks himself "the only sane man in the regiment." He scoffs at the fact that so many men in the army don't know what they're going to war for. "You two are the only rational creatures I've met in this stupid war," he rails, "and like me, the only reason you're here is because you were brought here." Joey believes that Fredrich had more affection for Topthorn than for him.

"If I have to die out here away from my home," Fredrich confided to Topthorn one day, "I would rather die alongside you. But I'll do my best to see to it that we all get through and get back home -- that much I promise you."

Chapter 14

Tophorn is admired by two young soldiers, Rudi and Karl. But then tragedy strikes.

As Frederich takes the horses down to the river to drink, Topthorn drinks a lot of water, then begins stumbling as they make their way back up the hill. Suddenly, Topthorn stumbles to his knees, falls, breathes heavily and looks up at Joey. Joey narrates, "It was an appeal for help -- I could see it in his eyes. " Then Topthorn slumps over and dies, his tongue sticking out.

Fredrich is saddened and angry at Topthorn's death, but Rudi tells him there's nothing he can do. When the vet comes to inspect, he is just as upset. All the soldiers gather around, mournful.

Just then, there is an explosion. Several men bathing in the river are hit by shells. Fredrich tries to pull Joey away, yelling at him, but Joey is too transfixed by Topthorn's death, and upon trying to escape by himself, Fredrich is struck by a shell and dies beside Topthorn.

The last I saw of my troop were the bobbing blond manes of the two little Haflingers as they struggled to pull the gun up through the trees with the gunners hauling frantically on their reins and straining to push the gun from behind.

Chapter 15

The next day, tanks roar down the hill, and Joey runs away from them, crashing into the river. He runs through "deserted, ruined villages" before reaching a meadow. When he awakes, the night sky is alive with gunfire.

Falling into a crater, Joey is snagged by barbed wire that wounds his leg before he manages to break free. "This was to be the longest night of my life," he remembers, "a nightmare of agony, terror, and loneliness."

Eventually, Joey hears voices and stumbles into the mist towards them. He can hear soldiers bickering over whether they can see a cow or a horse in the distance.

Once the mist clears, Joey realizes that he's in a battlefield surrounded by barbed wire, much like the one he was in earlier.

I remembered I had been in such a place once before, that day when I had charged across it with Topthorn beside me. This was what the soldiers called "no man's land."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

War Horse (1982): Chapters 6-10

Chapter 6

Joey and Topthorn have boarded the ship to France. By the time they arrive, "the wounded", remarks Joey, "were everywhere -- on stretchers, on crutches, in open ambulances, and etched on every man was the look of wretched misery and pain." Topthorn remains the greatest solace for Joey during this time, even going so far as to wake him up in the aftermaths of battles.

During the charge of a following battle, Captain Nicholls is killed, and Joey runs and runs until he reaches Captain Stewart and Tophorn on the other side. Horses lie dead everywhere.

"He'd have been proud of you, Joey," said Captain Stewart as he led me back to the horse lines with Topthorn. He'd have been proud of you, the way you kept going out there. He died leading that charge and you finished it for him. He'd have been proud of you."

Chapter 7

Joey is introduced to his new rider, Trooper Warren, "not a good horseman" according to Joey. Eventually, however, Warren starts talking to Joey, revealing that his previous horse had been shot out underneath him and that he had been scared to ever ride a horse again. Though Warren looks after Joey "with great devotion", Joey secretly wishes somebody else would ride him in the battles.

In the winter, Joey and Tophorn keep each other company. Warren receives letters from his mother but not from his girlfriend Sally, who can't write -- "well not very well, anyway." They are able to make it to the spring, ready to face the war again.

"Do me proud, Joey," said Trooper Warren, drawing his sword. "Do me proud."

Chapter 8

In the ensuing battle, Trooper Warren is horrified when he realizes that the field is surrounded by barbed wire.  Several horses run into the wire, and one trooper, just before dying on the wire himself, is forced to shoot his horse when the wire impales it. Joey follows Topthorn as he jumps over the lowest portion of the wire, and they all find themselves surrounded by the enemy.

"Throw down your sword, Trooper," says Captain Stewart to Warren. "There's been enough useless slaughter today. No sense in adding to it." They look back and watch as the Germans begin shooting the horses still impaled on the wire, one by one. Warren and Stewart are forced to give Joey and Topthorn to the enemy since, after all, they are POWs just like them.

There was no time for long farewells -- just a brief last stroke of the muzzle for each of us and they were gone. As they walked away, Captain Stewart had his arm around Trooper Warren's shoulder.

Chapter 9

"Two nervous soldiers" lead Joey and Topthorn away before they are tied up to a hospital tent, as several wounded soldiers "gawk" at them. A limping German officer in a gray coat with a bandage around his head orders the soldiers to stop staring at the horses, commanding them to find the horses some blankets. The man's name is Herr Hauptmann.

Hauptmann is outraged when a doctor in a bloody white coat reveals that the horses will be put to work pulling carts. The doctor understands, but reminds Hauptmann that the horses need to be put to work in order to help all the Germans and English who are already dying on the battlefield. Hauptmann is still annoyed: "When noble creatures such as these are forced to become beasts of burden, the world has gone mad. But I can see that you are right." The importance of this scene is that it shows the nobility between the Germans who fought in the war.

What the doctor does ask, however, is that Hauptmann volunteer to manage the two horses while they pull the carts. Hauptmann accepts. Noticing that Joey and Topthorn pulls the carts with ease (they've obviously done this sort of thing before), Hauptmann remarks, "I always knew the British were crazy."

Impressed, the doctor allows Joey and Topthorn  to have "the luxury of a stable." That night, while they are trying to sleep, Joey is frightened by the sight of somebody coming into the barn -- it reminds him of Albert's father -- but it is actually just "a bent old man in rough clothes and clogs, and beside him stood a young girl, her head and shoulders wrapped in a shawl."

"There you are, Grandpapa," she said. "I told you they put them in here. Have you ever seen anything so beautiful? Oh, can they be mine, Grandpapa? Please, can they be mine?"

Chapter 10

The German soldiers take a liking to Joey and Topthorn because they are helpful in pulling carts of those who are wounded. One soldier hangs an Iron Cross around Joey's neck in admiration. The Iron Cross is hung on a nail outside their stable door.

In the evenings of the summer, Joey and Topthorn are visited by the little girl and her grandfather. The little girl's name is Emilie. She dreams of riding them through the fields when the war is over. Come winter, however, she stops coming to see them, and the grandfather eventually reveals to them why. Emilie is only 13, but her parents were killed only a week after the war began and her brother was killed at 17. She prays for them all despite the fact that she is dying of pneumonia herself. Primarily, however, she prays for two things: that Joey and Tophorn survive the war and lived into old age, and that Emilie can grow up with them. "If you can understand anything of what I said," the grandfather says, "then pray for her to whatever horse god you pray to -- pray  for her like she does for you."

On Christmas night, the grandfather feeds them extra mash, telling them that Emilie has been trying to get out of bed to see them.

"The only way that German doctor could get her to stay in bed was to promise to go on with them as long as the cold weather lasted. So go inside, my beauties,  and eat your fill. We've all had a Christmas present today, haven't we? All's well, I tell you. All's well."

Monday, September 26, 2011

War Horse (1982): Chapters 1-5

Author's Note

The book begins with a notice by Michael Morpurgo describing a "dusty painting of a horse" he once saw in an English village schoolhouse. Across the bottom of the bronze frame at the bottom of the painting, according to Morpurgo, reads the inscription, "Joey. Painted by Captain James Nicholls, Autumn 1914."

Chapter 1

War Horse opens with a bit of narration by Joey the horse, at a time when he was barely six months old: "My earliest memories are a confusion of hilly fields and dark, damp stables, and rats that scampered along the beams above my head. But I remember well enough the day of the horse sale. The terror of it stayed with me all my life."

Joey remembers being separated from his mother at an auction ("I screamed for my mother and heard her reply echoing in the far distance") to a mean, alcoholic old "owner" who lumps him in with an older horse named Zoey. The owner's 13-year old son, Albert Narracott, takes a liking to Joey despite his mother's insistence that he leave him alone.

I knew then that I had found a friend for life, that there was an instinctive and imemdiate bond of trust and affection between us.

Chapter 2

Albert raises Joey over a period of winters and summers. "His whistle," claims Joey, "imitated the stuttering call of an owl -- it was a call I never refused and I would never forget." Albert's father is sometimes kind, but is often nasty, especially when drunk. Because of this, Albert begins putting Joey in the stables with Zoey to ensure that he is kept safe during his father's drunken rages.

One night, Albert's father makes a bet with some other farmers that he can have Joey "pulling a plow before the end of the week." Joey resists, kicking Albert's father and accidentally injuring him. He considers killing Joey for this, but Albert, now 15 and taller than his father, protests. His father than warns him that he'll sell Joey if he can't get him to pull a plow. Albert inists that he can train Joey to pull a plow as expected.

Eventually, Joey pulls through, and Albert's father wins his bet. Albert's mother tells him that a war is coming.

"If it comes to that, you'd make a good war horse yourself, wouldn't you you, if you ride as well as you pull, and I know you will. We'd make quite a pair. God help the Germans if they ever have to fight the two of us."

And then war is declared. Albert assumes that it will "be over in a few months", but quite the contrary.

Chapter 3

By now, there is "a growing tension on the farm", and Albert is getting in more and more arguments with his mother and father. The mother insists that his father only drinks so much because he worries about the farm mortgage, and because he's getting older. "Albert and his father scarcely spoke to each other on those days," narrates Joey, "and Albert's mother was used more and more by both as a go-between, as a negotiator."

Then, on a Wednsday morning, Albert is asked to return a saddleback boar to the valley. He agrees only if he's allowed to take Joey out in the evening to train him for hunting season, which his father responds to with silence. After Albert leaves, his father uses it as an opportunity to go behind Albert's back.

"You'll be all right, old son," he said softly. "You'll be all right. They'll look after you -- they promised they would. And I need the money, Joey; I need the money bad."

Chapter 4

Albert's father leads Joey into the village, baiting him by taking Zoey along, too. Albert's father then sells Joey to Captain Nicholls of the British army for 40 pounds.

Joey narrates, "I had just about give up all hope, when I saw Albert running toward me through the crowd, his face red with exertion. The band had stopped playing , and the entire village looked on as he came up to me and put his arms around my neck." Realizing he cannot stop his father from seeling Joey, Albert begs Captain Nicholls to let him ride Joey in the war, but the captain refuses. Joey is too young for the war -- to enlist, you have to be seventeen.

Captain Nicholls apologizes for not being able to help, reminding Albert that his father needs the money in order to run the family farm. But he also urges Albert to come and join the cavalry when he's older, saying he can use his name as a reference.

"Your horse belongs to the army now, and you're too young to join up. Don't you worry -- we'll take good care of him. I'll take personal care of him, and that's a promise."

Chapter 5

Joey is trained by the army to be a cavalry mount, and doesn't like it one bit. "Gone was the gentle snaffle bit that I was so used to," he complains, "and in its place was an uncomfortable, cumbersome barbed bit that pinched the corners of my mouth and infuriated me beyond belief."

He specially dislikes his rider, Corporal Samuel Perkins, sort of a macho show-off who is feared by the other soldiers; although he doesn't beat Joey or lose his temper with him, he is not above whipping him to keep him going. Joey claims that his only "consolation" during this period is Captain Nicholls, who has held to his promise to take good care of him, and has even started sketching Joey as a hobby.

He tells Joey that he's preparing a portrait of him: "I can't take it with me to France -- there would be no point, right? So I'm going to send it off to your friend Albert, just so that he'll know that I meant what I said when I promised I would look after you." At one point, the captain confesses to Joey that he's pessimistic about the outcome of the war, and that he and a person named Jamie are the only ones who think the Germans might actually win.

Corporal Perkins gets into a debate with the captain over the merits of Joey complaining that "he has to learn and obey instantly and instinctively. You don't want a prima donna under you when the bullets start flying." The captain encourages the corporal to treat Joey better, reminding him that "a horse may carry you through, Corporal, but he can't do your fighting for you." The captain also tells him to feed Joey more. From then on, the corporal is less harsh towards Joey. The first battle takes place on Salisbury Plain.

I remember mostly the heat and the flies that day because there were hours of standing about in the sun waiting for things to happen. Then, with the evening sun spreading and dying along the flat horizon, the entire regiment lined up in echelon for the charge, and the climax of our last maneuvers.

During the battle, Captain Nicholls rides Joey alongside his friend Captain Jamie Stewart on a black stallion. They easily overtake the "enemy" position ("enemy" is put in quotes by Joey himself, perhaps ironically), and Nicholls proudly tells Stewart that the conflict could not have been won without Joey's great agility. Stewart counters with insistence that his black stallion, Topthorn, "is the finest mount in this regiment or any other." If Joey is the faster horse, he says, then Topthorn has more stamina.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Currently Reading: War Horse (1982) by Michael Morpurgo

We won't be seeing Steven Spielberg's War Horse until December, so in order to prepare, I've decided I'm going to read Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's book of the same name in advance. This will be an interesting experience because, in the case of Spielberg's films, the only time I can ever recall reading the book before seeing the movie was when War of the Worlds came out in the summer of 2005; I had made sure to read the H.G. Wells book first. It's funny because Spielberg isn't particularly thought of as a "literary" director criticized for his adaptations of certain books. Unless, of course, your name is George Jonas.

One might ask, "Why spoil a perfectly good Spielberg movie for yourself? Don't you want to go into the movie without knowing what happens?" True. And after all, War Horse is a children's book; it's not like it's supposed to be high-class literature or anything. At the same time, I will always regret my not reading The Color Purple or Schindler's List before checking out Spielberg's adaptations of them. Don't get me wrong: they're both wonderful films (especially Schindler's List, which -- as everyone knows -- I'll defend to the death). But by the time I finally picked up the Alice Walker and Thomas Keneally paperbacks, respectively, the images from Spielberg's films had already colored my perceptions of the stories. I don't think that's exactly what Walker and Keneally had in mind. Like any other literary giant Spielberg has collaborated with (a list that includes Richard Matheson, Peter Benchley, J.G. Ballard, Michael Crichton, Phillip K. Dick and Frank Abagnale), they relied on their readers to visualize their stories in their imaginations, and could only hope that Spielberg would come close to those visions. That's why the mediums of movies and books have remained friendly with each other for so many generations now. It's, like... an understanding, you know?

Another reason why I'm reading Morpurgo's book in advance is because I won't be getting to see the Tony Award-winning play that's making the rounds on Broadway as we speak. For some reason, the play isn't coming to St. Louis, so... yeah. I'll be sticking to the book.

But I guess the most important reason why I want to read the book/know the story in advance is because I don't want to be the guy who sees the movie in December, then gets in debates with devotees of the story and can only muster up a defense of, "I didn't read the book or see the play, so who cares about either when the movie's so good?" It's a Spielberg release, after all. We don't get as many of those as we used to. I won't take it for granted.

To keep up with what I've read from the book, over the next coming weeks I'll be uploading one post for each chapter, summarizing what I liked about each one. Quotes from the text will be included.

In the meantime, feast your eyes on this luminous theatrical trailer...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Jurassic Park 300 Mash-Up Trailer

The idea for this mash-up video first came to me in the summer of 2008. At the time, I didn't possess the technology and equipment necessary to complete it. So, in a way, this video is a fulfilled dream of sorts.

I actually had to go through about four cuts of this before deciding on a cut that I could live with. My hope is that Spielberg would be proud. And Zack Snyder, too, although I could care less what he thinks.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Inglourious Basterds (2009): Two Years Later

So here I am, returning to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds exactly two years after its release. I have never written about the film before, but today I’m going to put my thoughts on Inglourious Basterds to rest with a definitive review, and then that will be that. To do this, I am going to have to be completely honest. And I will need to be clear on why I hated the film so much when it first opened on August 21, 2009.

Inglourious Basterds came out during a dark period in my life. My memories of the summer of 2009 are not fond. I had just graduated from high school, had found myself stuck in a demanding summer job and had watched all my friends venture off to faraway universities while I had to stay in town and attend the local community college. Our nation had elected a President I had faith in, but we were still facing the same political hardships every night: war in Iraq, torture at Guantanamo, a broken healthcare industry. I desperately wanted lasting peace—in my life and in my country—and it wasn’t happening. America was still wrapped in the blankets of political cynicism.

Now consider what happened when Inglourious Basterds came out. At the time, I was not yet sold on the concept of Quentin Tarantino being a great filmmaker, as I hadn’t yet responded strongly to any of his films. All I could see in his movies was the work of a filmmaker obsessed with violence, vengeance and buried right-wing fetishes. I was skeptical about the prospect of him directing a World War II epic. I had read an interview, conducted by Jeffrey Goldberg, in which Tarantino was asked his feelings about Holocaust films and had responded, “I hate that hand-wringing shit.” It sounded to me like he was quietly criticizing Schindler’s List (1993) with this comment. And I grew irritated after reading J. Hoberman’s early review of Inglourious Basterds in the Village Voice, in which he suggested that Tarantino was overturning the image of WWII as portrayed in Saving Private Ryan (1998). The more I read, the angrier I got.

So, you can imagine how angry I was when I finally saw Inglourious Basterds for myself on the night it opened. Oh, that was a bad night for me, indeed. I attended the film with a bloodthirsty audience that cheered at the onscreen images of Nazi soldiers being beaten to death with baseball bats and having swastikas carved into their foreheads. I could only interpret this as Tarantino’s apologia for torture and capital punishment; a crass attempt to appeal to the audience’s basest mob instincts. Was I supposed to feel guilty for not joining in the fun? I left the theater that night feeling miserable, furious and, above all, wounded. I saw Inglourious Basterds as a celebration of politics I despised and as an attack on movies I had loved. It was simply not a film I was ready for.

But then a funny thing happened. The movie wouldn't go away. People simply couldn't stop talking about it. How did I deal with this? Well, I began reading defenses of the film—one by Jim Emerson, another by Ryan Kelly—that helped me glance at Tarantino’s vision in a new light. I learned not only that Tarantino had, in fact, admired Schindler’s List, but that he had even cited Saving Private Ryan as an influence on his film. Fast-forward to Oscar season, and I was taking special notice of Tarantino’s unexpected appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show. He had suddenly acknowledged the credibility of the theory that his film was a partial response to Al-Quaeda terrorist attacks. And he reminded Maddow that his film was far from an infantile glorification of violence. “It would be easy,” he said, “to just set up a situation where we just go oh, kill the Nazis… rah, rah, rah in the audience. It would be like watching Rocky. But, you know, that‘s too easy for what I‘m trying to do.”

Now, it’s August 21, 2011. I’ve managed to see Inglourious Basterds two more times since then, and I like it much better now. It’s certainly a good film. But is it a great film? That, I don’t know. The movie is notorious for its violence; characters shoot each other, scalp each other and burn each other alive. How does Tarantino want us to respond to the material? One of the things I still find so maddening about Inglourious Basterds is how inconsistent the film’s tone is. In some scenes, Tarantino allows us to meditate thoroughly on the consequences of the violence depicted in the film. In other scenes, he seems to welcome our enjoyment of it—and our cheers. Is this simply because he felt like he had to adhere to the common rules of the WWII action movie genre? The film opens with a shot of a man burying an axe into a stump of dead wood, and ends with a shot of two men digging a knife into a living man’s forehead. It is, thus, a film in which matters of life and death are determined on the edge of a blade.

Take the film’s brilliant opening sequence, set in Nazi-occupied France, in which the dairy farm of LaPadite (Denis Menochet) is invaded by Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and his stormtroopers. Landa, nicknamed “the Jew Hunter,” has reason to believe LaPadite is sheltering a Jewish family under his kitchen floorboards. Watch how Tarantino builds suspense when LaPadite invites Landa into his home. They sit down. They smoke pipes. They switch off from French to English—an “acknowledgment of the blockbuster audience's limited patience for subtitles,” writes critic Ed Howard, “and, it turns out, also a component of Landa's forward-thinking plotting, since the family beneath the floorboards can't understand English.” A glass of milk gleams in the sunlight, illuminated by Robert Richardson’s eerie cinematography. Juxtaposed close-ups of Landa and LaPadite’s faces, edited by the late Sally Menke, indicate that the game is up. And Christoph Waltz, a Lambert Wilson lookalike, single-handedly steals the show from this point onwards; not since Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of Amon Goeth had we ever seen such a memorably deranged portrait of a Nazi in an American film. “I’m aware of the tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon human dignity,” Landa warns LaPadite. We know he is not kidding.

Another of the film’s stronger story threads involves the doomed relationship between Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) and Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Shosanna owns a French movie theater; her family was massacred by Landa’s troops, and she was the only one who escaped. Zoller is a war hero—the “German Sergeant York”—now starring in a movie, entitled Nation’s Pride, based on his own exploits. He is bored with his newfound fame. His true passion lies in film appreciation, and he delightedly makes conversation with Shoshanna outside her theater one night: “It’s been a pleasure chatting with a fellow cinema lover.” Shoshanna despises Germans and wants nothing to do with him: “If you are so desperate for a French girlfriend, I suggest you try Vichy.” Although Zoller tries to impress her by arranging to have Nation’s Pride screened at her theater, he mistakenly believes he will win her love in the process. Shosanna sees it, instead, as an opportunity for sweet revenge, and hatches a plan to burn the theater down on the night of the screening—and trap all of the attending Nazis inside. The subplot involving Shosanna and Zoller provides us with a most thought-provoking contrast: a woman, consumed with hatred, killing in the name of liberty; and a man, seeking love, who inadvertently serves evil.

The film’s third most successful story thread is unique in that it transforms a film critic, Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), as well as an actress, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), into action heroes. As Hicox, Fassbender sports a memorable Errol Flynn accent and generally serves as a mouthpiece for Tarantino’s infatuation with G.W. Pabst; at one point, Hicox’ impressive knowledge of German cinema even saves him, when his familiarity with the work of Leni Riefenstahl allows him to pass himself off as a native of the Piz-Palu. Kruger, far more convincing here than she was in Troy (2004), portrays Hammersmark as skilled in the art of handling people but inexperienced in the craft of setting up a rendezvous. The scene that follows, in which Hicox and Hammersmark find themselves pinned down in a basement bar by the leering Major Hellstrom (August Diehl), has been criticized by some as being overly-talky. Actually, it mirrors the film’s opening sequence quite well, especially if returned to on repeated viewings. Of particular interest is how both Hicox and Hammersmark accidentally give themselves away. Hammersmark leaves some important evidence behind. And when Hicox holds up his fingers to order three glasses of whiskey, watch how Tarantino is quick to catch Hellstrom’s reaction. Only an English man would up his fingers that way.

Now we come to the most problematic story thread of the film: the Inglourious Basterds themselves. They are a Jewish-American commando ordered by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) to launch a campaign of terror against the Nazis—a campaign founded on scare tactics and threats of capital punishment. I have always held the opinion that the scenes with the Basterds are the most uninteresting and gratuitous scenes in the film. It’s a nice touch for Tarantino to name one of them, Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), after a B-movie actor, but did we really need that repugnant insert of Stiglitz shoving his fist down a Nazi’s throat? And why did Aldo Raine have to be reduced to such a ruthless, mean-spirited archetype? Pitt doesn’t have very many opportunities with the role, and the character is not likable.

Despite the Basterds’ similarities to Al-Quaeda, Tarantino doesn’t appear to show much disdain for anything they do in the film—in fact, he practically exonerates them. And he never establishes them as anything less than heroes we’re meant to root for. Take what I consider to be the weakest sequence in the film, in which Raine and the other Basterds play mind games with a German sergeant named Werner (Richard Sammel), threatening to have him executed if he doesn’t cooperate with them. “You can’t expect me to divulge information that would put German lives in danger?” Werner muses, respectfully declining to cooperate. This allows the Basterds the satisfaction of summoning the Bear Jew (Eli Roth) to beat Werner to death with a baseball bat, in what is perhaps the film’s most controversial moment of violence.

I was offended by this scene when I first saw it, and I still feel the same way today. On one hand, Tarantino instills some audience identification into Werner by having him stare up at the Bear Jew without blinking an eye, proudly insisting that he won his iron cross for bravery—not for murdering Jews. On the other hand, when the Basterds continue to harass Werner, he launches into a pathetic, anti-Semitic tirade, which exists for no other purpose except to relieve any lingering guilt the audience may have over their enjoyment of his death. The logic presented here is that he is an anti-Semite and, therefore, deserves to die. It’s like Tarantino is trying to have it both ways: to satisfy liberals who believe he is satirizing gung-ho American “justice” in war, and to satisfy conservatives who would cheer at the scene, happy to see a Nazi getting his brains bashed in.

The Basterds’ storyline doesn’t fit in very comfortably with the other three narratives, which begs the question: what kind of WWII action movie was Tarantino trying to make, exactly? Further research shows that Tarantino is particularly enamored with two films: The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). Certainly the Basterds have a lot in common with the superficial American criminals Robert Aldrich gave us in the latter. Like the Basterds, the Dozen enjoyed killing, had no regrets about their actions and appealed to the basest mob instincts of audiences. But in The Guns of Navarone, J. Lee Thompson and Carl Foreman gave us a band of heroes who were sick of the war and tired of fighting; at one point, they even despaired when faced with the task of having to kill a prisoner of war. Characters like Shosanna, Zoller, Hicox and Hammersmark certainly fit that description in Tarantino’s film. But this, then, is perhaps the biggest problem with Inglourious Basterds: Tarantino has tried to merge a pro-war perspective with a more complex, apolitical perspective, and the result is a film that doesn’t know what kind of WWII action movie it wants to be. It’s because of this defect that I’m still not sure if Inglourious Basterds is a great film.

And yet, the movie has so many pleasures to offer—for cinephiles and for common moviegoers alike—that one need not ponder for an eternity over such a question. Tarantino has always had a knack for wacky humor, and Inglourious Basterds offers plenty of laugh-out-loud moments: Colonel Landa’s insistence that Shosanna “wait for the cream!” before digging into her breakfast strudel; the outrage of Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) at the mention of “Lillian HARVEY!”; the Bear Jew’s endless pronunciation of “Margheriti!” at Landa’s request; or Landa’s boyish squeal of “Ooooh, that’s a bingo!” when he makes an offer Aldo Raine could never refuse. An appearance by Mike Meyers, as General Fenech, is more impressive than I had initially feared; and Rod Taylor, fondly remembered from Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), has a wonderful cameo as Churchill. As expected, Tarantino packs the film with references to films engineered for the Third Reich, but he doesn’t stop there: his range extends from Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong (1933) to Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982), the latter allowing for an amusing (if arbitrary) excuse to smuggle David Bowie onto the soundtrack.

I should mention, too, that despite the cruel images layered throughout the film here and there, Tarantino does not allow Inglourious Basterds to revert into a one-dimensional, anti-German horrorshow. “Tarantino's Nazis,” writes critic Jason Bellamy, “are something that Nazis are almost never allowed to be in American movies: intelligent.” And true to his word on Maddow’s show, Tarantino tries not to go for easy Nazi villain cliches. He goes to great pains to point out that Wilhelm (Gedeon Burkhard), a drunken corporal unfortunate enough to get stuck in the middle of the confrontation between Hicox and Hellstrom in the basement bar, is just a man providing for his wife and his newborn son. When he holds Hammersmark hostage and Raine comes down to negotiate, we hope that—as Raine claims—“you’ll go your way, we’ll go ours, and little Max gets to grow up playing catch with his daddy,” but it is no use. We know he is going to get shot. But Tarantino also finds other, subtler ways to humanize the film’s Nazis. Watch how moved Goebbels is, for example, when Hitler himself (Martin Wuttke) tells him that Nation’s Pride is his best work yet. We know that they’re both going to get sprayed with bullets in the film’s finale. But when that moment comes, we’re fully aware that we’re seeing humans, not cartoons, being slaughtered.

Let me explain what I mean by that. I must admit that despite my ugly experience with Inglourious Basterds the first time I saw it, I vividly remember how greedily I anticipated the film’s infamous final sequence, which attempts to revise history as we know it. I don’t know what it was, but I remember wanting to see what would result from barbecuing the Nazi high command in one giant auditorium. If I respond differently to this sequence than I do to Werner’s execution earlier in the film, it’s because I think the two scenes are dealing with two different issues. Werner’s execution is the result of pointless, vitriolic capital punishment—it’s unnecessary, it accomplishes nothing, and it saves no lives. On the contrary, the burning of the theater in the film’s finale arguably does save lives. No doubt humanity is capable of better, and wars are certainly never, ever won in such a crude fashion. But what if they were? Some of the most memorable movies show us things we may only get to witness once every millennium—or things we may never expect to see at all. “But,” as Colonel Landa explains, convincingly, “in the pages of history, every once in a while, fate reaches out and extends its hand.”

Of course, there’s a catch. In Tarantino’s alternate universe, villains usually don’t get off scot-free, and sometimes the heroes don’t, either. Hicox and Hammersmark both die because of their own carelessness. Both the Bear Jew and Ulmer (Omar Doom) die willingly, with dynamite attached to their legs. Marcel (Jacky Ido), Shosanna’s black projectionist, presumably dies in the explosion right along with them, but dies knowing that Shosanna has a place in her heart for him. Shosanna herself dies because she overreaches herself in her obsessive attempts to secure vengeance. Zoller dies because he cannot decide if he wants to embrace his own celebrity or disown it. “My exploits consisted of killing many men,” he confesses to Shosanna at the screening. “Consequently, the part of the film that’s playing right now… I don’t like watching this part.” In one of the purest moments in the film, Shoshanna and Zoller wind up shooting each other dead—but their faces are still up there on the screen, in Nation’s Pride. They will no longer be able to deliver “a message for Germany” in real life. But in cinema, they still can.

I have one more detail to gripe about. It concerns the film’s final scene, in which Colonel Landa strikes a deal with Aldo Raine to help accomplish “Operation Kino” and end the war. Landa is recognized by the U.S. government as a double agent and is rewarded with a Congressional Medal of Honor, American citizenship and a lush property on Nantucket Island. Then, Raine and the “Little Man” (B.J. Novak) have Landa’s driver, Hermann (Michael Kranz), shot and scalped—deliberately going against the terms in the deal Landa and the U.S. government made with them. One wonders: why does Raine have to murder Hermann at the end of the movie? What point is he trying to prove? Is it to show off to Landa? Is it so that he can get one last scalp to add to his collection? Or is it for a reason I suspect: that Tarantino is offering Hermann’s death as collateral for sparing Landa, so that the audience can have the pleasure of seeing just one more Nazi getting shot and scalped, for one last bit of catharsis to top off a film that already has more violence than it needs?

I could go on and on complaining, but it wouldn’t do any good. To be fair, it is undeniably brave of Tarantino not to kill off Landa, of all people, at the end of the film, despite all the atrocities we’ve seem him commit and condone. Part of the reason why I intensely disliked Tarantino’s previous feature, Death Proof (2007), was because he intended for the film’s highpoint to be a scene in which a suffering, screaming villain was kicked to death. Surprisingly—and thankfully—he doesn’t do that again in this film. While we do get a rather disturbing shot of Raine and the Little Man carving a swastika into Landa’s forehead while he screams in pain, we understand why they’re doing it; it is not, as I once believed, an apologia for torture. “He’s a Nazi,” Tarantino explained, in the interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. “They’re giving him a scar. I don’t know if I would even go so far as to call that torture. He’s scarring him. He’s not torturing him.” Interestingly—with the exception of the Little Man, of course—Landa and Raine are the only two major players to emerge all in one piece at the end. And they’re the two most ruthless people in the movie.

The night I left that initial screening of Inglourious Basterds, I wondered how the movie would age. And I wondered if I would ever start liking the film a little better than I did. Two years later, to my relief, I have. I still hesitate to proclaim the film a masterpiece—as several of my colleagues have already done—but that’s not what’s important. This is a good movie. It has ambitions—some of them dubious—but most of them exercised in an attempt to encompass all that has been said about World War II in cinema’s history. And all that has been said about the Allied efforts. And, yes, the Nazis, too. "I sure as hell didn’t come down from the goddamned Smokey Mountains, across 5,000-mile water, fight my way through half of Sicily and jump out of a fucking aeroplane to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity," barks Aldo Raine, in an early scene. "Nazi ain’t got no humanity." But Quentin Tarantino has made a film that believes otherwise, and Aldo Raine is wrong.