Archive for July, 2009

Basterds Of All Kinds

Posted in Uncategorized on July 21, 2009 by alexlarman

basterdsI don’t know whether anyone still actively looks forward to a Quentin Tarantino film. It seems a long, long time ago that the likes of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction single-handedly made him the coolest film director in the world, an auteur whose work simultaneously delighted Cannes jurors, Oscar voters, critics and the general public. After the middling success of Jackie Brown, the l-o-n-g hiatus before the respectable but self-indulgent Kill Bill duo and the dreadful Death Proof, it seems fairer to place him in the category of directors whose work is still anticipated by the few, but regarded with a kind of benign indifference by the many.

The oddly-titled Inglourious Basterds (no, no idea why it’s spelt like that) was heavily hyped as representing a return to obviously commercial form for Tarantino, who has long talked of his ‘men on a mission’ film, implying that it would be a homage to the great Sixties classics such as Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen. The casting of Brad Pitt, probably the world’s most famous actor, did not hurt speculation that this would turn out to be Tarantino’s last shot at a straight down the line blockbuster, again returning to the hip cachet that made his name in the first place.  And the plot – a group of fearless soldiers, the Basterds of the title, are sent to France in an attempt to cause as much havoc by killing as many Nazis as possible – seemed to radiate Boys’ Own excitement.

The result is not exactly what anyone was expecting, least of all the Cannes audience who first saw the film back in May. Far from being a rip-roaring action film, it’s equal parts a meditation on cinema’s relationship with violence, passively and actively, an ironic revisitation of the caper/war films that inspired him in the first place and the blackest of black comedies. There are countless reversals of expectations and twists – for instance, the Pitt character is in the film less than the villain, Hans Landa, ‘the Jew Hunter’, played, in a gloriously nuanced and clever performance, by hitherto unknown Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who does just that away with the picture, and the vengeance-seeking heroine’s only meeting with Landa is almost inconsequential – and a working knowledge of 30s and 40s German cinema is all but essential to get many of the references. (Who on earth is going to know who Emil Jannings is? Or why his presence in the final scene is significant?) The fact that it’s two and a half hours long, with large portions in German and French, are similarly going to limit the audience. I can’t see this one being a box office smash.

Like Kill Bill, the film is divided into chapters, which, like the earlier film, are connected to one another but don’t flow together in strict chronological order, at least not until the end. The first section (concerning Landa’s interrogation of a farmer) and the fourth (a doomed bar rendezvous outside Paris) are heavily dialogue-based but utterly gripping, almost worthy of great theatre in the way that they slowly use dialogue and character interaction to move the scenes towards their violent climaxes. The grand finale, which gaily rewrites history to amusing effect, has some extremely clever and unexpected reversals, and the send-off is all too apt.

I didn’t think that the film was flawless; it’s too long, disposes of one of its most interesting characters rather abruptly and is perhaps often too clever-clever for its own good, as well as lacking the action scenes that might have made it more palatable. But it’s certainly the most interesting film Tarantino’s done since Pulp Fiction and raises the possibility of a career, somewhat akin to Woody Allen’s later work, emerging for him as a European auteur, unafraid to make intelligent, genre-redefining cinema, with a wittily subversive twist.

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Round-up and update – Public Enemies, Pet Shop Boys, Tindersticks

Posted in Uncategorized on July 5, 2009 by alexlarman

Father, forgive me, it has been *aeons* since my last blogpost. So, in no particular order,a few short reviews of things I’ve been to over the past few weeks.

Pet Shop Boys @ the 02. As the new album grows on me, the live show at the 02 should have been unbelievably, eye-poppingly impressive, given the Boys’ increasingly theatrical scope in live performance, aided by the designer Es Devlin. As it was, it was ‘merely’ impressive. It took a few songs to really get going, which occurred with a vibrant performance of ‘Go West’, but there was something vaguely disappointing about the production – no extra musicians, only four dancers and a slightly hackneyed ‘building a wall’ theme that seemed borrowed from Pink Floyd. Setlist veered between esoteric, crowdpleasing and superb. I think that everyone welcomes the idea of Neil Tennant delivering an impassioned version of ‘Jealousy’ in full black tie, although I was less enamoured of ‘Heart’ being sung with boxes over the singers’ heads. I dashed back from France to go to this gig, making it with literally minutes to spare, and it was, on balance, just about worth it.

Camille O’Sullivan @ Queen Elizabeth Hall – see my earlier blog for comments/details, as it was effectively the same set. Still superb, and she’s still a fabulous live performer, but I think that she’s probably best seen again when she has a fresh set of new material. ‘Hurt’ was again the highlight (see below), closely followed by Bowie’s Five Years.

Tindersticks @ Serpentine Sessions – a band who I am a big aficionado of, although they’re increasingly a niche taste, and I am pleased that every time I’ve seen them to date (at the Barbican, RFH and now in a tent in Hyde Park) they’ve played solemn, gloomy, intense sets of string-soaked melancholia, which the audience listen to in rapt silence. I’m amazed that they have much of a commercial following, to be honest (in fact, they probably don’t) but they were warmly received, and the fabulously moving and sweeping Tiny Tears, the final encore, was a really highlight.

Public Enemies – the new Michael Mann film, about John Dillinger and the FBI’s hunt to stop his serial bank robberies, has been given some of the most mixed reviews I can ever recall. (That said, Mann has always been something of a Marmite director – his grim, violent, beautiful and male-centric films are hardly Star Trek for audience-pleasers.) I liked it very much, though not without reservations, mainly to do with Mann’s use of hi-def video, which occasionally looks horrendously ugly and amateurish and takes the viewer out of the film completely. Johnny Depp as Dillinger is superb, toning down the charisma but making him a magnetic protagonist, and I liked Marion Cotillard as his mistress Billie. Christian Bale, as his FBI nemesis, has little to do other than glower stoically, but does that well enough. After a slightly unfocused first half it comes together with a vengeance in the second, serving up memorable set piece after memorable set piece – a horrendously violent night-time shoot-out at a woodland cabin which recalls Heat (as does much of the film), Dillinger wandering round a semi-deserted police station looking at the photographs of the search for him, as if he were his own sceptre, and the devastating finale. I can’t see it being a big hit – it’s too moody and esoteric for that – but it will be thought of fondly in years to come.

That brings me up to date, I think.