Sunday, 10 November 2019

Inglorious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino's latest movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood divided opinion — to say the least. But I really loved it. In fact, I loved it so much that it set me off on something of a Tarantino retrospective.

And this was my first stop. I saw Inglorious Basterds (yes, that is how it's spelled) on the big screen when it first appeared in 2009.

This was Quentin Tarantino's excursion into World War Two. Or his "guys on a mission" movie as he put it. And in my memory I had retained four things from the film... 

The excruciatingly suspenseful opening sequence in which a Nazi officer (Christopher Waltz) interviews a French farmer (Denis Ménochet) in his kitchen.

The wildly outrageous ending in which history is flagrantly — and rather hilariously — rewritten. (Something Tarantino would do again, to great and welcome effect in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.)

And two episodes of truly unsettling violence. One involving a finger probing a wound and the other featuring a baseball bat.

In fact the baseball bat sequence was so brutal that it sort of turned me off this whole film and had caused me to downgrade it in my memory.

So it was very odd to watch the movie again and see how brief and fleeting that scene actually is. It had swollen to enormous proportions in my mind, but really it is hardly there at all... yet it had huge impact.

A disproportionate impact, since it caused me to underestimate this terrific, ferociously entertaining film which I now view as one of Tarantino's best. 

Among Inglorious Basterds' many virtues is the sheer speed and economy with which things are set up. 

We see Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) telling a bunch of special recruits that they are going to be parachuted behind the lines in occupied France on a guerrilla mission to harass the Nazis.

And in the very next scene they are already there, well established, and their mission has been underway for some time.

Similarly, Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is being briefed by top British brass (including Churchill) about his own espionage mission. And then, bang, we see him already linked up with Brad Pitt and his men in France and about to embark on a perilous rendezvous.

There then ensues another staggeringly suspenseful setpiece which culminates in tremendous violence. All admirably done and highly characteristic of Tarantino.

But in other ways Inglorious Basterds is distinctly different in his oeuvre, and indeed it's often overlooked when people are discussing his work. 

I recently heard a radio program where people were slagging Tarantino off for his supposedly stereotypical depiction of women — they're all hotpants-wearing bimbos, was the thrust of their commentary.

Which just isn't true. Or, rather, to build that case you need to ignore Inglorious Basterds for a start, which features a couple of powerful and unforgettable women, in the shape of Shosanna Dreyfus and Brigdet von Hammersmark

Classy and sophisticated heroines both, beautifully played by Mélanie Laurent and Diane Kruger, as a Jewish resistance fighter and a German film star respectively.

And they are balanced by a staggeringly evil villain in the twistedly charming Colonel Landa
perfectly brought to life by the great Christopher Waltz, who would go on to be tremendous again in another Tarantino movie, Django Unchained

Then there's the fantastic character of Fredrick Zoller, an engaging young German soldier who modulates from charming to monstrous, thanks to the considerable talent of Daniel Bruhl.

This is the first film I saw Bruhl in, and he's gone on to make his mark many times, notably in the fabulous Entebbe.

Inglorious Basterds is also a film which glories in film itself. It's no coincidence that much of the action, and the incendiary climax of this movie, takes place in a cinema.

It's also interesting to note how the film fits into Tarantino's body of work, looking ahead to Once upon a Time in Hollywood: one of the marketing slogans for Basterds was "Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France."

And at one point in the movie Pitt goes undercover by pretending to be a stuntman. Of course, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood he is a stuntman.

What's more, both films feature villains who are so monstrous that fantastically vicious punishment can be meted out to them and the audience can watch with guilt-free pleasure.

Inglorious Basterds is a wonderful entertainment. In fact, it's a great war movie. Of course, it is utterly unrealistic — a complete fantasy — but that doesn't stop it being stupendously enjoyable. 

I have overcome my reservations about the brutality, but I do regret the body count, in the sense that the film is full of memorable characters and I wish more of them could have survived to the end credits.

You may think you don't like war films, or the work of Quentin Tarantino, but I would urge you to put your preconceptions on hold and give Inglorious Basterds a try.

You may want to look away when that baseball bat comes out, however.

(Image credits: a wealth of posters at the indispensable Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 3 November 2019

A Visit to Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap

 The Mousetrap is of course a murder mystery written for the stage by Agatha Christie. You knew that. And it is the most successful play in history (or stage production of any kind, I believe), having run continuously since 1952.

To illustrate this point in the foyer of the theatre there is a large sign with changeable numerals recording the number of performances of The Mousetrap that have taken place (well over 28,000).

I know all this because I went to see the play a couple of days ago. It was at the St Martin's Theatre, The Mousetrap's home for decades, but it wasn't the normal St. Martin's production that I saw, but rather a unique and different version.

Because, you see, I've been writing stage plays myself for years now, and as a result I've met a lot of very talented people, including an actor called Jamie Hutchins.

And Jamie Hutchins is appearing in a new Mousetrap production which is going on a tour of India this month (November 2019).

His company have been using the St Martin's Theatre for rehearsals. And this Friday they had a full dress rehearsal there — virtually indistinguishable from a full scale, finished production.

They invited an audience along to watch them perform. And I was lucky enough to be part of that audience. 

Which meant not only did we get to see a beautifully polished performance of this classic thriller, in the best seats in the house — we also had the privilege of a backstage tour afterwards...

We saw the fly tower with its mechanism for sending down a steady cascade of styrofoam pellets, to simulate snow falling outside a window with startling accuracy.

We saw the small room where actors had more of these styrofoam pellets scattered on their costumes, so they could make an entrance as if racing into the sanctuary of Monkswell* Manor guest house from a fierce blizzard.

We saw the long table with painted squares for each vital prop to reside in, ready to be deployed, like the newspaper reporting the murder which sets the story in motion. 

(There is also a gun, which is an especially crucial prop, and that has a place all its own, ready to be grabbed by the killer before they come on stage for the climax.)

And there was also this big, odd looking apparatus consisting of a cylinder of canvas lying on its side with a handle on it. When you turn it, it creates the whooshing sound of the eerie wind that persists throughout the play.

One of our party (not me) reached out to crank that handle, causing a stage technician to come running and intervene. "If you turn it the wrong way, all the damned canvas unwinds."

But we didn't just go backstage but also on stage. It was an extraordinary feeling to be standing in the set where the drama had just taken place, looking out at the seats of the theatre, past the dazzle of the lights.

On the mantelpiece of the set there's a clock which, like that canvas wind machine, has been doing service in this play since the very first performance. Thinking about the history associated with these objects is almost dizzying.

It was an extraordinary privilege to see this great play so beautifully performed, and then to cross over from the audience's point of view to that of the actors'.

On my way home on a dark, damp autumn evening, walking down grey pavements strewn with yellow leaves, I paused by the statue of Agatha Christie on Cranbourn Street and silently thanked her.

(Thanks too to Jamie, for making this happen. He is seen here (in the leather jacket) with me and his charming girlfriend Meena Begum on the set. My gratitude also to the multifariously gifted Conrad Blakemore for taking these photos. The other images are scans of the St Martin's Theatre flyer and a photograph of the Agatha Christie memorial, sculpted by Ben Twiston-Davies, taken from Bronze Age London. *The misspelling on the guest house sign is deliberate, a bit of comic business in the play.)

Sunday, 27 October 2019

A Fistful of Dollars by Leone, Catena, Gil et al

There was a remarkably prescient review in the show business newspaper Variety when this Sergio Leone western came out.

The reviewer not only recognising that it was something special, but also drew some very perceptive parallels with the James Bond films, which were still new on the scene.

I've just watched a Blu-ray of A Fistful of Dollars, complete with an excellent documentary track and featurette by Leone scholar Christopher Frayling, which takes note of those parallels...

From the violent, colourful graphics of the title sequence, through the unforgettable electric-guitar based score to the hip and cynical central character.

A Fistful of Dollars arrived like an earthquake and was a milestone in the history of popular cinema.

It's also a very low budget film, shot on an existing set of a Western street in Spain. The environment depicted is virtually a ghost town — not just because there's been so much killing in the backstory, but because the producers couldn't afford any extras.

I first saw this movie when I was a kid and I thought I remembered nothing about it, but I was surprised by how much came back to me and how quickly — like Eastwood's remark to the coffin maker, "My mistake, four," after he guns down some bad guys.

What I definitely hadn't forgotten though, was how the film was based on Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest by way of Kurosawa's film Yojimbo.

In other words, A Fistful of Dollars rips off Yojimbo without credit and Yojimbo rips off Hammett without credit. (Maybe that's why there's no screenwriters named during the credit sequence on A Fistful of Dollars.)

Essentially this is a story about a smart, ruthless outsider who comes into a corrupt town and plays off the factions of bad guys against each other. In Hammett's original — and no one disputes that he originated the story — the outsider is a detective, the Continental Op.

In Kurosawa's film that figure is a samurai, in Leone's a gunfighter.

It's a testament to the strength of Hammett's concept that it works so well in these very different contexts.

It's also interesting to note that Dashiell Hammett never gave the Continental Op an actual name. Just like Eastwood's Man with No Name.

Despite its larcenous origins and its breadline budget, Fistful is a forceful and revolutionary film. Leone's direction, with its gigantic close ups and casual violence was something altogether new.

But the unsung hero of the movie is Carlo Simi, the production designer. His contribution to the film's visuals is considerable. (That dandelion fluff floating around in one scene was his idea. As were the windblown dead leaves in another.) Simi was also responsible for creating both the sets and the costumes — notably Eastwood's iconic poncho.

In this humble garment, never before worn by a Western hero, Eastwood has tremendous screen presence from the very first shot. He looks young, but haggard. And his stubble is again something entirely new.

Before this, the bad guys had stubble and the good guys were clean shaven.

Enio Morricone's music deftly shapes and punctuates the anecdotes of the film, brutal or funny. It's terrific and the fact that Morricone's name is hidden under a ridiculous pseudonym on the Blu-ray print is, I think, disgraceful.

Like the score, Clint Eastwood has a tremendous impact. He says very little, apparently having requested extensive cuts in the dialogue, but he's charismatic — and entirely convincing in the scene where he's beaten to a pulp. (One of the few other bits of the movie that I remembered.)

Eastwood in his poncho and Morricone's music add up to a fantastic blend, especially in the final confrontation when he comes walking out of a wall of smoke. And in this scene the poncho actually becomes a plot point, concealing a primitive bulletproof vest.

This movie is by no means perfect. It occasionally drags. Some of the story is ridiculous (no one would be fooled by those dead soldiers in the cemetery), there are often silly sound effects and laughable dubbing. But...

A Fistful of Dollars is unquestionably a classic. It changed the rules of the game and began a remarkable sequence of Sergio Leone westerns which would culminate in Once Upon a Time in the West.

(Image credits: More wonderful posters from the excellent site Movie Poster Shop. If I had the wall space I would be buying crazy amounts of these.)

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Straight Life by Art Pepper & Laurie Pepper

Harrowing and engrossing in equal measure, Straight Life tells the life story of Art Pepper, accurately described by Freddie Hubbard in the last pages of the book as "the greatest alto saxophone player in the world."

It's Pepper's virtuosic gift for music — he plays like an angel — which makes Straight Life worth reading. It's his ineradicable tendency for self destruction which makes it so hard to read. 

Art Pepper was a junkie — primarily heroin, but he was so addictive that almost any substance would do. As a result, he spent a huge portion of his career behind bars instead of making the priceless music which would have uplifted us all.

If you want to see what that life did to Pepper physically (though, miraculously, it didn't affect the music), just compare the cover photos of the handsome young man with the exhumed-corpse of later years.

Probably the dominant feeling I had, reading this book, is anger at a legal system which destroys someone just because they use a chemical to make themselves feel good. Is that really a criminal act?

Incidentally, I channelled some of this anger into my novel Written in Dead Wax, where my descriptions of the way the LA narcotics cops persecute jazz musicians was based on my readings about Art Pepper, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan.

We have Art Pepper's third wife, Laurie, to thank for this classic book. She constructed it from taped interviews with Art and other important figures in his life. 

Laurie also writes really well herself, as when she describes her husband on tour as being "droopily unhappy and unhelpful as a small child."

She had no illusions about Art, but loved him all the same, and that is what makes this book so superb. It does require the occasional reality check, though, since it so powerfully replicates the tunnel vision of its subject.

For instance, Art is amusingly scathing about his second wife Diane, often for good reason. She got him sent to prison, for a start. 

And the way he talks about her is bitterly hilarious. Describing his struggle with drugs, and comparing her with his beloved first wife, he says   “When I was with Patti I was using, so I certainly wasn’t going to stop for Diane.”

And the reader completely buys into this — until we realise that without Diane, his greatest album Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section would never have been recorded.

If you read Straight Life, and I urge you to do so, make sure you get one of the later printings which features not just the original text but also a useful introduction by Gary Giddins, and an absolutely priceless afterword by Laurie.

The book is peppered (sorry) with fascinating observations about music, like Art's comparison of Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington (they both "wrote for the individuals in the band instead of writing charts just with an anonymous band in mind").

Or how, when he sold his saxophones to pay for drugs he would still retain the mouthpiece because “with your own mouthpiece you have half the battle won”.

But because of Pepper's tormented life, this book is as relevant to anyone who wants to know about the penal system in America as it is to music lovers.

(Image credits: book covers from Good Reads. The LP cover of Rhythm Section — the first British issue of the album — is from the magnificent blog of my friend the London Jazz Collector.)

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Joker by Phillips & Silver

Joker is definitely a divisive movie. 

Three friends got in touch with me out of the blue saying how impressed they were and asking if I'd seen it. 

Another friend told me in no uncertain terms that she would not be going near it because of its depiction of mental illness.

I decided to see it and find out what the fuss is about.

Joker is shot like an archetypal movie of the 1970s (the era many believe to be Hollywood's finest) — its first image is the vintage Warner Bros logo from that period, which then gives way to a vision of a grungy New York (okay, I know it's Gotham City) that might have come from a classic Sidney Lumet film.

The movies that Joker really draws on, though, are two by Martin Scorsese — Taxi Driver for its unstable time bomb of a protagonist, and its vigilantism, and King of Comedy for its squirm-inducing portrait of a talentless nerd with huge dreams, stalking a celebrity.

(The presence of Robert De Niro as a talk show host really emphasises the King of Comedy connection.)

Joker also strongly calls to mind another recent film starring Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here, a powerful and memorable movie which again was influenced by Taxi Driver.

And comparing Phoenix's performance in You Were Never Really Here to his depiction of Arthur Fleck in the Joker is really quite shocking. 

In the earlier movie he was burly, almost obese. In the new one he is scarily stick-thin.

Joker is unquestionably  a striking movie. 

The cinematography is by Lawrence Sher and it has a powerful visual style which both offers a glittering, polished beauty, as in the scene where the train snakes along beside the river, and carries a violent emotional impact, as when the single-word title fills the entire frame.
I was also very impressed by the music. The score is by Hildur Gudnadóttir who often worked with the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson — she played solo cello on Sicario and went on to compose Sicario 2.

The cast is strong and memorable, especially Zazie Beetz as Sophie, Fleck's single parent neighbour, a flower growing amongst the rubble.

But the bottom line is that I didn't walk out of the cinema after seeing the Joker with the feeling of exhilaration I get from a great movie. 
I explained this to myself by reflecting that Joker is so relentlessly bleak and dark — it's emotional tone is unvarying and deeply negative.

Yet you could say the same thing about Taxi Driver, which is a great movie and did leave me with just that feeling of exhilaration. 
I guess the answer is that Taxi Driver is touched with genius in a way that Joker, for all its power and virtues simply isn't. 

Returning to the controversy surrounding the Joker, apparently a lot of people object to the use on the soundtrack of a song by Gary Glitter, a convicted sex offender.

Personally, I wasn't troubled by that. But what did offend me was the scene where Fleck takes what I believe to be a six shot revolver and fires about ten rounds without reloading. 

It may seem trivial, but for me the movie quite never recovered from that gun gaffe.

Not least because, in a film so haunted by fantasies and hallucinations, I wondered if this was supposed to be a clue that the scene had never really taken place...

(Image credits: a healthy selection of posters at ImpAwards.)

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Ready or Not by Busick & Murphy

This is a terrific little horror movie with a sly sense of humour, and it's still in cinemas now so I'd urge you to check it out on the big screen.

Ready or Not is essentially a non-supernatural horror story, with a potential supernatural mechanism hovering in the background — but we'll get to that in a minute.

It's the tale of the wealthy Le Domas family whose fortune is founded on a line of board games — we see an amusing array of vintage boxes on display in the first shot. 

Ready or Not has an implicit line of commentary about what shits rich people really are, and it soon turns out that the Le Domas clan have an odd ritual whenever an outsider marries into the family.

The groom — or bride, in this case — is invited to play a game. Exactly which game is determined by drawing cards. And so long as the game isn't hide and seek, everything is fine.

If it is hide and seek, though, the newcomer is in trouble, because the family will arm themselves and hunt down their prey and kill them.

(All of this is established very early on in the movie so it isn't really a spoiler.)

And of course in our movie the bride Grace (an excellent Samara Weaving) draws the hide and seek card. If she survives until dawn she will be spared — not because the family will let her go, but because they will all be destroyed.

This is where the supernatural element comes in. Because the Le Domas family's fortune was founded on the historical beneficence of a certain Mr Le Bail — whom they believe to have been Satan.

Yes, they made a pact with the devil. (Le Bail is a clever name; it took me a while to realise it was an anagram of Belial!)

It doesn't much matter whether there really is a deal with the devil, what matters is that the Le Domas family believes there is. They are convinced that if the outsider isn't sacrificed they will all themselves be wiped out.

So, "The bride must die by dawn!" as Aunt Helene (the fabulous Nicky Guadagni) shrills.

And the hunt is on, with Grace only realising what is at stake when the coked up Emilie (Melanie Scrofano, another great performance) accidentally kills one of the family's — rather creepy — maids.

In fact, the death of the maids becomes a running gag with the reluctant young Le Domases asking if these collateral casualties might serve as the necessary sacrifice, leading to the memorable lines, "Does the help count?" and "Put the maids in the goat pit."

The script is by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy and besides being thrillingly and cheekily funny it also touches upon profundity: "You'll do pretty much anything if your family says its okay."

With its blend of bloodshed and sardonic wit, Ready or Not calls to mind Heathers and Happy Death Day. It's a quality piece of work and well worth your attention.
(Image credits: the three official posters are from Imp Awards. The red poster, apparently unofficial, is from Pinterest. The Wedding Nightmare poster and Samara with the shotgun are from from IMDB. The bloodspattered face and arrow in the mouth collage is from Mashable India. The Hong Kong poster is from CinemaHK.)