Movies

Paul McCartney – Maybe I’m Amazed

imagesStockholm, Tele 2 Arena 9 July 2015

This bloke Paul McCartney has got talent! An understatement of course, but such is Macca’s familiarity that it is perhaps easy to forget just how good he is. And the penultimate show of his latest two-year long tour showed off everything in his arsenal over a mostly brilliant two and half hour set.

I was actually a little hesitant about whether to go see Paul McCartney. In recent TV appearances his voice seemed too weak for his material. And I was concerned about the show being too much of an oldies goldies trip down memory lane. And at times it was.

But when debating whether to go see Macca, there was also the feeling that this man is the Mozart of the popular song era. Even if past his prime, he is one of the greats – I mean really up there with Elvis, Dylan and that other guy, what’s his name – Lennon. And as a friend pointed out to me – “He is a Beatle for fucks sake!” And any music fan really needs to see a Beatle live – at least once!

This was also a show of epic proportions worthy of the magnitude of the man. The vast airport hangar like Tele 2 Arena meant that even those seated near the front required binoculars to see much. But McCartney has clearly honed his arena performances since the days when the Beatles  could not be seen nor heard during their concerts.

Although at times, the light show and video screen content was pointless and a distraction from the music, at times it was innovative and exciting, particularly when lasers danced round the roof on Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite. And surprisingly, the sound was excellent, with the harmony vocals and piano flourishes so often lost to the gaping spaces of stadiums clearly audible.

McCartney can play too, darting around the stage from the front microphone stand to a grand piano mounted at the back and then back to the front with acoustic, bass or electric guitar. And then he played once or twice a psychedelic painted upright piano that appeared out of nowhere at the front of stage.

McCartney’s voice was also very much on song. Sounding tired just occasionally (he is 73), he sounded at times as good as ever, with his mighty rock voice screaming the “yeahs” very well, supported competently by the superb backing singing from his tight four piece band.

And what a band – supreme musicianship that mimicked to a T the famous guitar solos and string or brass arrangements (through synths) from all those classic songs, yet somehow never sounding like a copy or pastiche. Of course many of the great songs of yesteryear have had their first live performances by this band, which has been with McCartney in the same format since 2002 – a period longer in duration than the lifespan of the Beatles or Wings.download

And then there are the songs. And while clearly comfortable in front of tens of thousands of people, speaking Swedish from notes plastered around the stage quite amusingly and proficiently and telling the odd interesting and funny anecdote, McCartney, for the most part, let the songs do the talking.

If anything, the 40 song set list was a little Beatle heavy – with 27 Beatles tracks performed from the very beginning of the Fab Four’s career through to the closing glory of the Abbey Road album – literally. This left little room for Wings material (just four songs) or some of Macca’s fine solo songs (just nine played – half of which were weaker new songs).

The opening Eight days a Week, incredibly like many of the songs in the set played live for the first time on this tour, was the first of many earlier Beatles songs whose classic rock n roll bare bones structure sounded a little weak in the enormous stadium.

Coming after the bizarre pre show entertainment of awful records of Beatles’ covers being broadcast, followed by half an hour of decent McCartney records being aired (but who airs their own songs before their own gig?) while the video walls presented a montage of McCartney photos – for almost an hour – the fears of a journey through sentimental nostalgia began to grow.

The second song, Save Me, from latest album, 2013’s New, was bang up to date but left me very underwhelmed.

images (1)Things now however started to pick up with the gigantic Got to Get You Into My Life from arguably the best Beatles album, Revolver. This motown-like song’s brass section was also incredibly recreated en large and high up in the mix by the versatile keyboard player.

The next song, One After 909, was worthy of note only in that Paul introduced it as one of the first songs he and John wrote together. More interestingly sounding was the crazy synthesizer fuelled Temporary Secretary from 1980s McCartney II album, which was only performed live for the first time two months ago. McCartney’s hard rock brilliance was up next, with the crunchy duel guitar riff of the Wings’ Let Me Roll It – brilliant stop starting pummelling guitar rock that sounded almost brand new. There was no video screen entertainment during this number either. It didn’t need it. Does rock get any better?

Paperback Writer sounded more dated, but was delivered with outstanding harmonies.

McCartney then leaped to his grand piano for a newer song, My Valentine, written for his current wife (later he played Maybe I’m Amazed, which he said was “written for Linda”). My Valentine was unfortunately a bit dull and backed up with an out-of-place music video featuring Johnny Depp and Natalie Portman.

Next came the great rock n roll piano riff of much underrated Band on the Run closer 1985 “This one is for the Wings’ fans” shouted Paul. The tenth song of the evening was the Beatles’ Long and Winding Road.

And so the evening went for the next 20 songs, with lowlights coming in the form of the awful 2014 Hope for the Future  written for video game destiny and the Beatles kids’ song All Together Now.

Highlights during this middle period came from numerous Beatles’ favourites such as We Can Work It Out, And I Love Her, Lady Madonna, Lovely Rita and Eleanor Rigby.

McCartney sang Blackbird solo on a stage riser, along with Here Today, his song about John. George Harrison’s Something was brilliantly done with a ukulele opening “George was a great ukulele player” exploding into the full golden hued guitar licks.

This began a tremendous run down to the end of the main set with a fun Ob La Di, Band on the Run (with great guitar work), Back in the USSR, Let It Be and then a thunderous Live and Let Die  with tremendously timed blasts of fire and a histrionic fire works display that looked dangerous for the musicians and was a mix of sublime and ridiculous. Things calmed down only mildly for the pitch perfect, crowd sing along na, na, na …. of Hey Jude.

The first encore consisted of an anti climatic trio of Beatles’ standards (ha – is there such a thing as a Beatle standard), Another Girl, Birthday and Can’t Buy Me Love.

But still no Yesterday. Well it came of course at the opening of the final encore. And what I expected to be the end.

But no, the best was incredibly still to come. And did so at first with one of the greatest rock songs of all time – Helter Skelter, with its wild punk like guitar that sounded as exciting as anything ever! YEAH YEAH YEAH.images (2)

And then came the ten-minute closing medley from the Abbey Road album, Golden Slumbers, Carry That Weight and the End. Wow!

Yes, at times this was a nostalgic oldies goldies show, with a constant barrage of photos of Paul and the Beatles on the video walls adding to this sentimentality. But at other times the songs sounded as fresh as the day they were recorded. And for the most part this was rock n roll at its best by one its greatest practitioners – with many of his skills still intact. So, if you have never seen a Beatle go, and see this one. Even if you have, go again, I think I will!

Gigs, Movies

Ryan Adams – something good

imagesAt Cirkus, Stockholm 10 March 2015.

Ryan Adams is a hugely talented musician, songwriter and performer. He is perhaps one of the best artists, in the very broad alternative country genre at least, around today.

This is evidenced by a prolificacy in album releases over the last 15 years which resembles days of old, when artists released albums yearly as opposed to the one new release every few years that we see from most contemporary acts.

Adams releases on average one new album every year, some of which are doubles, and though never breaking new ground, all are packed with solid well crafted and performed songs. His latest album, titled Ryan Adams, is not one of his best. But even a lesser Ryan Adams album is a solid listen.

His performing talent is also impressive as was evidenced at last night’s concert in Stockholm, which opened with the brilliant opener from the new album, Gimme Something Good, a catchy rocky number with swirling organ and crunchy guitars that set the tone of much of last night’s gig.

Touring this latest album, the setlist featured five tracks from it, but this was also very much a “greatest hits” collection. The 21 tracks played featured songs from across his healthy back-catalogue, albeit played for the most part in his current 1970s Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) style, with a four piece backing band of drums, bass, guitar and organ.

This current style is perhaps best compared to early Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, with third track in last night, Stay With Me, sounding even more Petty like than the studio version, with a clipped vocal delivery, high guitar riffs, plodding bass and organ back up.

An early highlight was Dirty Rain from Ashes and Fire, a great song that showcased Adam’s versatile vocals with a deep slow verse breaking out into a soaring high pitched and uplifting chorus. And like many of his songs, conjuring up images of lonely small town American nights.

This was followed by one of Adam’s greatest songs, Dear Chicago, though while it’s light, almost reggae band backed groove last night offered something a bit different, this was perhaps to the song’s detriment. However who can resist lines like “I been thinking some of suicide, but there’s bars out here for miles.”

Other great familiar Adams’ songs also suffered a little bit from slightly new, which is to bedownload applauded, but detrimental arrangements. New York, New York, still retained its compulsive rhythmic acoustic guitar foundation but was a little too restrained musically. And La Cienga Just Smiled, which I once heard the legendary British radio DJ Bob Harris say was his second favourite song of all time (after Stand By Me), suffered from slightly intrusive drumming.

Magnolia Mountain however, from the ridiculously listenable alt-country Cold Roses album, broke out from its swirling spidery guitar riffs into a Doors like bluesy rock middle part jam, before returning again to the familiar arrangement with an added hint of early 70s Topanga Canyon singer-songwriter harmonies and Crosby Stills Nash and Young electric groove. The song’s lyrics, “there ain’t nothing but the truth up on the Magnolia Mountain,” also evoke the sentiments of the late 60s early 70s LA generation and offer a change from Adam’s usual lovelorn heavy content.

Adam’s competence in the genres he works in is immense. His songs, though never sounding like rip-offs, sound steeped in Americana musical knowledge.

And as well an impressive voice, Adams can really play guitar, with his musical talents seeming to get better and better with age. Be it with superb guitar playing on country soaked acoustic ballads, grungy AOR electric rhythm or high note riffs and solos. Or on his expressive harmonica playing which featured on the ever popular closer Come Pick Me Up and Winding Wheel, one of just two songs delivered solo, the other being a cover of his support act Natalie Prass’s song My Baby don’t Understand Me, which could almost have been one of Adam’s own songs.

He also looks like he is managing all this great playing and singing with little effort. Hunched over his guitars, which he holds quite high, dressed in denims, his leg occasionally bends and now and then the guitar is held aloft, but he looks in total control. He even indicated with his hands level changes to the sound guys while playing and singing at the same time.

As he has aged, he has also become a highly professional performer. Gone are the nervous shuffles, fiddling with instruments, complaints about the sound, and often quite highly charged audience berating from his earlier concerts. Or the wild abandon of his Rock n Roll tour which saw him swigging from wine bottles on stage and culminating in a tumbling of a stage and breaking his wrist.

While this is probably much better for him, it is a bit of a shame for the audience. Adams’ gigs used to be thrillingly exciting, with a raw but unstable talent baring his all with a wild recklessness. With concerts in general long having become fairly predictable, rehearsed events, you always felt with Adams anything could happen. He is also extremely funny and in a nervy way very chatty with the audience, telling funny stories and introducing songs with hilariously surreal explanations as to their meaning.

Last night, and at the last Adams concert I saw two years ago, he barely spoke to the crowd and whizzed through the setlist with total professionalism, packing in a very decent amount of songs in just under two hours. On paper, everything was great, including the playing, song selection and incredibly good sound levels, where every note could be heard and every phrase, no matter how softy sung understood.

But it was almost too good. Too perfect, too rehearsed (the setlist has barely changed over this tour which didn’t used to be the case) and too slick and professional.

The most playful aspect was the stage set-up, with a couple of old video arcade games flashing away and Neil Young Live Rust style giant decorative amplifiers that surely went up to 11.

Rarely did the band get up to 11 though. The intensity of earlier Adams’ gigs was most evident on the solo acoustic numbers. With total silence in the hall and every move on the guitar string heard.

images (1)The one time Adams’ actually got animated was during the solo delivery of Winding Wheel. He stopped playing after the first verse to shout at the crowd, in scenes reminiscent of the old Adams, for using flash photography, which he said, aggravates his Meniere’s disease by making him feel sick and dizzy. Apparently requests to not use flash photography had been widely made, though I hadn’t noticed myself. Cleary it is understandable for Adams to get annoyed by this. And his annoyance is not something to enjoy. It was enjoyable however to hear his rant move on to phone usage at concerts generally. “You are at a concert, put your fucking phone down and engage! Get a life!” he hollered. He then restarted the intimate softly song sung as if nothing had happened.

The final song of the main set, I See Monsters, was introduced as “a real slow jam.” Half way through it burst into life in an explosion of punk rock frenzied guitar solos. Brilliant. And a wild change of pace that was a real surprise.

Despite the polishing up of the edges, Adams is still brilliant. Last night’s gig was evidence of a musician on top of his game. While not as wild as days of old, his professionalism is to be admired and he remains a formidable live act.

Movies

To The Wonder – Beautiful

wonder1To the Wonder is more like a painting than a film.

If you want the usual things you might expect in a film like a story or dialogue then forget about it. You’ll probably end up walking out half way through like two of the five people did from the grossly under patronised auditorium where I saw the film.

I strongly suspect the two quitters hadn’t seen the Tree of Life, director Terrence Malick’s most recent film before this. Because To The Wonder really follows on from where that left of. Not in terms of narrative because of course there isn’t really one. But in terms of tone and style.

For a maverick director who has only made six films in five decades, all of which have been strikingly original and varied in subject matter if not theme, it is a surprise that he has made two films so close together in terms of time (rather than the 20 year wait between films we are used to from him) and in terms of look and feel.

What I am trying to say is that if you hated the Tree of Life you are gonna hate To the Wonder. If you loved Tree of Life though you are gonna like this.

Although To The Wonder is not as ambitious. There are no half hour sections about the birth of the universe, and the spirituality is laid on less thick too.

In fact Malick’s previous five films (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, New World and the Tree of Life) have undoubtedly been on a clear trajectory from relative convention to extreme experimentation with the medium of film, albeit it big budgeted and kinda mainstream film. To The Wonder takes almost a step back from the Tree of Life. Well half a step maybe.

It is a tight film, set uniquely for Malick in the present day. There is less to chew on than in the Tree of Life too. With the exception of Javier Bardem’s priest popping up every now and then and questioning his faith among the down trodden and poor of society, this is purely a portrait of a relationship. From the ups to the downs.To the Wonder - Javier

But this is a film to look at and admire like you would a painting in a gallery. The relationship is shown via snatched images and poetic whispered voiceovers in the vein of Hiroshima Mon Amour.

There is no narrative drive. Conversations and dialogue are heard in fractured splinters, and barely audible. Indeed the camera follows this idea, slowly but constantly moving around, over and under the actors, as if the artist is looking for his angle. In fact the film is almost cubist in its presentation of the characters.

And Malick’s landscape work is just as powerful as ever. Like the Impressionists he uses natural light and the outdoors to paint his canvas.

From the most impressionist of cities Paris, his camera drools over the beauty of the Tuileries Gardens and the Lady and the Unicorn Tapestries in the  Musée national du Moyen Âge. And a trip to Mont St Michel is wondrous in its beauty.

wonderThe America of Oklahoma and Malick’s more familiar territory of wheat fields and grassy expanses of flat featureless horizons are shown with his usual deference to nature. Yet he mixes in images of suburban America in all its ugly blandness too while focussing on the beauty of a sunset amid this man-made mess.

There are obvious flaws though, such as the rather randomness of the Javier Bardem character whose story seems to have little connection to the main one. And there is also little to get a grip on. It feels a bit lacking in substance and a bit lacking in emotion.

It is however a daringly beautiful film, even when looking at ugly suburbia. It is a film to look at. And a rather original and wonderfully presented portrait of a man and a woman.

Movies

Lincoln – predictably good

imagesThe opening scene in Steven Spielberg’s latest history lesson has the camera sweep over a civil war battlefield and close in on bloody hand to hand fighting, shown in graphic gruesome detail.

It makes you think that we are about to be immersed in the battles of the American civil war in the same way Spielberg threw us viscerally onto the D Day beaches in the mind-blowing opening 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan.

But the opening battle scene of Lincoln, though epic in scale, lasts little more than a minute or two. The rest of the movie is a very talky affair set almost entirely in the corridors of power in Washington.

The political battles that take place here however are shown to be as critical, if not more so, as those actual battles waged in the American south. And especially if you like history and American history in particular (which I do), Lincoln is a fascinating look at the political machinations that brought about the abolition of slavery in the US.

The movie is bravely framed over a tight two-week period beginning with Abraham Lincoln’s second term a President. And the nods to President Obama, just beginning his own second term, are palpable. Foremost among these are perhaps the inference that the current occupation of the Presidency by Barack Obama, a black man, is the ultimate achievement of the events Lincoln depicts.

Lincoln is not a subtle film. It is an extremely American one too which, despite the fact that most of the world had already abolished slavery by 1865, suggests the US’s abolition as a world-changing act.

Its pomposity is underlined by a score of solemn military trumpets and sentimental strings. And some scenes, for instance the dissolve at the end of the movie from a flickering flame by the President’s death-bed to an earlier speech, are saccharine, clichéd and old-fashioned.Lincoln8]

In fact, and especially in comparison to Lincoln’s contemporary releases such as the Life of Pi, Django Unchained and Zero Dark 30, which all tread new ground, Lincoln does feel like an old-fashioned movie.

It is perhaps because of this that it is a slightly underwhelming film. Because despite some of the above criticisms, Lincoln is actually a very good, extremely well made movie.

It is also an intelligent one, with a very detailed focus on the politics at play in passing what is undoubtedly one of the most significant pieces of American legislation.

This is a superb history lesson in fact, which shows us the compromises that were made (by white politicians), the swallowing of pride by very public figures and the priorities that the President was weighing up in terms of finishing the civil war or getting the abolition act passed.

lincoln102

All this and the shady political practices of the day are very clearly communicated, which is no mean feat. But the film also has moments of real drama, notably the anticlimactic sounding climax, which is the vote itself.

And despite some rather corny camera work there are moments of real cinematographic beauty too such as Lincoln being watched by his black servant as he walks out the White House in the final stages, and where the film would have been better to have ended.

That there is only a minimal presence of black people in a movie about the abolition of slavery and that they are mostly servants of the white elite feels patronising and unfortunate. Though as the film is set almost entirely among the political class of Washington this is probably an accurate reflection of how things were. It is strange that despite the seriousness of Lincoln, it is Tarantino’s playful Django Unchained that really shows the horrors of slavery.

The most moving moments of Lincoln though are undoubtedly the reactions of the few black characters to the abolition act being passed, including a lovely scene involving Tommy Lee Jones’s character.

Of course part of the film’s strength is the acting; Daniel Day Lewis is predictably brilliant. His portrait of America’s most revered historic icon is thoroughly endearing.

121102Lincoln_6858033

Yet unlike some other Day Lewis films, such as There will be Blood, this is not a dominant performance from him. Yes some actors are wasted (David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but Tommy Lee Jones is as powerful a presence as ever, playing one of the movie’s most interesting characters. And Sally Field too is very strong, portraying Lincoln’s wife as a complex and sympathetic person.

If anything Lincoln himself is presented as just too saint like to be credible. He seems charming, wise and pretty much faultless, even when dealing with his fragile wife and past demons. Yet  it is this strength of character, depicted both softly and commandingly by Day Lewis that helps make the film such an enjoyable watch.

An American history professor’s dream come true perhaps, but Lincoln is much more than that. It is a really good film with clever story telling and great performances. It is hard to say why it feels slightly underwhelming. Perhaps because it is just so predictably good.

 

 

Movies

Zero Dark Thirty – intelligent

imagesIt’s a little on the right-wing side of the war on terror argument but Zero Dark Thirty is an intelligent thriller which is at times engrossing and exciting.

It is quite an achievement of the film that while the decade long hunt for Osama Bin Laden is told in almost documentary like meticulous detail, and we know the ending, it is still a very dramatic piece of film making. Albeit it takes time for the tension and excitement to fully engage.

The story traces CIA agent Maya’s obsessive hunt for Osama Bin Laden over ten years, starting with her arrival at a detainee camp in the Middle East and the torture by fellow CIA agent Dan of Ammar, an Al Qaeda money man.

A fairly convoluted series of twists and turns in the hunt then follows, with Maya believing throughout, often a belief she alone holds, that a lead revealed by this first torture victim is the key to finding Osama.

This section of the film drags a bit at first with the various plot strands a little too out of reach to be fully comprehensible but they are close enough to get the gist. And punctuated amongst a lot of interrogations and CIA meetings are some genuinely exciting set pieces, most notably “the meeting” with a potential Al Qaeda informant at a base in Afghanistan.

The tension really begins to ramp up in the second half, as Maya’s frustration at her boss’s inaction starts to boil and the net around her lead – Osama’s courier, gets tighter and tighter.  A scene in the crowded streets of Rawalpindii as a CIA surveillance crew try to spot the courier is another thrilling set piece.

Indeed the location work is excellent with the streets of Pakistan (filmed mostly in India) brought very realistically to life.images (1)

Finally of course is the Navy Seal’s nigh time attack on the compound and the elimination of Bin Laden which is a thrilling 25 minute sequence of film.

However the sum of its parts do feel greater than the whole of the film. And perhaps the greatest hindrance to its total success is its rather piecemeal style in which different characters seem to come to the forefront of the drama. This prevents us getting involved with key characters at key times.

Jessica Chastain’s Maya is undoubtedly the lead player and is played very well. But in almost all the key action scenes she is watching from an office and not involved (realistically so no doubt), while those at the forefront are recently introduced characters we are not engaged with – though the scenes are often very engaging.

There is no real character development at all in fact. And there is ironically, no real bad guy either. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda are almost abstract ideas (which I guess in some ways they are in reality).

images (2)Maya’s obsession with finding Bin Laden, who even her boss at one point suggests is old news, is in fact rather inexplicable. And such is the presentation of the Americans as self-righteous and arrogant “defenders of their homeland,” it is hard to find anyone with whom to really sympathise with or root for.

Though I am not sure this is the intended message. While accusations that the film shows a tolerance towards torture have been defended by director Kathryn Bigelow who says she finds torture “reprehensible,” and many critics say the torture scenes are so horrendous they are clearly anti-torture, I am not so sure.

Though not in a major way, the film for me did feel slanted towards support for the war on terror and the results that torture brings. Indeed when Obama becomes President and the detainee programme is halted, CIA agents Maya and Dan, who are the closest we have to heroes, are critical of how this impedes their work.

The effect of torture on the CIA agents inflicting it is touched upon, but only just. And the relationship between Dan and his victim is presented as so matter of fact business is business like, that it almost waters down the horror of the violence and brutality.

And the structure of the film itself – opening with the torture scenes which result in the lead that finally gets Bin Laden – suggests torture works.

But this is a rich and deep film which, while seeming to take a stance, and one I don’t like, does offer up opposing views.

Indeed one of the fascinating aspects of the film, is how the practices of CIA changes over a 10 year period, as, in the background, the attitude in Washington shifts with the replacement by President Obama of Bush. There is a great scene in the corridors of the White House involving an altercation between Mark Strong’s old school tough CIA agent and an Obama adviser, with the later pointing out that he was in the room when “your man” (i.e. Bush) sold us WMD.

And the final scenes are not ones of triumph either. In the thrilling raid on Bin Laden’s compound, it is the innocent children with whom our sympathies rest as this horrific, almost alien invasion is executed with sci-fi like gadgetry and cold precision.images (3)

And finally Maya’s emotions are pleasingly ambiguous. What has been solved?

So while it does seem to offer an opinion, it also leaves a lot up to the viewer to decide. The camera does seem to, most of the time, be observing, which along with its very realistic style adds to the film’s documentary like feel.

Yet it is also an exciting thriller, which despite being a little too cold and aloof in its detail and characterisation is a thought-provoking, fascinating and intelligent piece of film making.

 

Movies

Django Unchained – wild

Django UnchainedQuentin Tarantino doing a western! As a western nut and a Tarantino fan what could be better. Though Django Unchained is not the Wild West so much as the Deep South, but it’s a hell of wild ride there none the less.

The film is firmly in Tarantino over the top territory with his trademark violence, tense dialogue and sheer fun.

Who knows though why critics are hailing this as a return to form or the director’s best work since Pulp Fiction because it is not significantly better than 2009’s excellent Inglorious Basterds.

It is also a sprawling unfocused film lacking the tight perfection of Tarantino’s best work Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. Although arguably Django Unchained’s lack of focus is half the fun.

Yet while fun, its focus on the horrors of slavery in the American south might make this the director’s film with the most to say, his most political almost.

The first third of the film is a sheer joy for a western fan with Tarantino again showing his sheer love of film. The opening red rustic title sequence imposed over scenes from the Alabama Hills (in California) where hundreds of westerns were filmed in the 40s and 50s is a wonderful Western homage.

This had me grinning for a good 45 minutes as it continued with a spaghetti western style entrance into a mud strewn town to the great western composer Ennio Morricone’s music from the Clint Eastwood movie Two Mules for Sister Sara.

The opening also saw a similar scene to the opening of Inglorious Basterds with Christopher Waltz again dominating a tense scene with just dialogue alone. Like in Basterds this is a bravely long, funny, uncomfortable and brilliant scene.

The film’s plot is pretty straight forward. It involves Waltz’s sophisticated German bounty hunter Dr Shultz (who travels as a dentist in a cart with a hilarious giant tooth on top) freeing Jamie Foxx’s slave Django in order to help him track down some wanted men that Django can help identify.

This is swiftly achieved with the film’s first visit to a plantation and a hilarious piss take of a proto klu klux klan raid led by Don Johnson’s Big Daddy.

Some camp fire therapy about Django’s German speaking wife Broomhilda who has been sold and Shultz’s explanation of the German folk tale that is the origin of her name (that will come into play later on), leads the pair to team up over the winter and kill white men before seeking to buy Broomhilda out of slavery.

A montage scene (even Rocky had a montage) swiftly gets us through the winter with some more Western homage in the form of the country and western music and snowy Wyoming mountain scenery.

From here the film goes in a completely different direction and the next act is set largely on the Mississippi Candy Land plantation owned by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie.django-unchained-leonardo-dicaprio

This large section of film is brutal. And not fun at all. It is extremely well done though and its exposition of the sheer brutality of the plantation system and the treatment of slaves is somewhat similar to Schindler’s List close up look at a concentration camp.

Leo is pure racist evil, and convincingly so. The word nigger is used constantly and torture and death scenes are graphic and disturbing. Has a film treated the horrors of American slavery with such graphic honesty?

Amongst all this is a convoluted plan by Shultz and Django to buy Broomhilda from Leo’s Candy.

A dinner table conversation is another virtuoso piece of scriptwriting by Tarantino which while not containing the memorable lines or phrases from his earlier films is excruciatingly menacing and a masterwork.

But after around two hours of relatively few action scenes, and you think Tarantino is actually really making a conscience film, the director talks directly to his audience through Shultz who says “I just couldn’t resist,” before all hell breaks loose.

The final act is a rather flawed series of climaxes following a completely over the top shoot out with blood and bodies splattering with almost comical exaggeration – as well as an exploding Tarantino himself.

Although such has been the brutality and racism on-screen for all this time, you can’t help but want Django to kill everyone and revel in his “black revenge fantasy” as the film has been dubbed.

It is also almost a relief that the complete over the top nature of the climatic violence makes this section of film feel light-hearted and in the realms of comedy with Foxx hamming it up wonderfully.

So quite a ride then!

django-unchained-jamie-foxxThe film is undoubtedly flawed. It is too long with way too many false endings, the last of which is so hammy it makes it hard to think about the whole film seriously.

But it is also hugely entertaining, with wonderful acts from Waltz and Foxx, gripping scenes of long tense dialogue, great cinematography and an incredible and apt soundtrack mixing Johnny Cash, Richie Havens, James Brown, schmaltzy country and western crooners and hip hop!

Its uncomfortable honesty about slavery is profound and deeply shocking, yet an important statement too. While it’s humour and almost self mocking exaggeration are highly enjoyable.

Typically for Tarantino then a unique movie. Yet its mix of styles is at once its genius as well as its flaw.

 

Movies

Les Misereables – hear the people sing

Les%20MisIf you like the stage show, you are gonna like the film. It really is as simple as that. And likewise, if you didn’t like the musical you aren’t gonna like the film either.

I am an unashamed fan of the musical Les Miserables. I have seen it on the London stage three times! Therefore I liked the film. It is the exact same story with the exact same characters singing the exact same songs (and for those that don’t know, the entire stage show and film is sung – there is no spoken dialogue).

For the uninitiated and sceptical though, maybe the film offers a far cheaper way than the extortionate west end theatre prices of finding out what all the fuss is about. And I do know people who having said they hate musicals, on being dragged to the stage show of Les Miserables turned out to love it. Then again, I know others who turned out to hate it as much as they thought they would! 

If you are curious though, this new film version of Les Miserables really should be seen (and heard) on the big screen, because with its huge sets and rousing songs it is big.

But does the film add any value to the stage show? Actually, I think it detracts value.

The film uses CGI technology and the magic of cinema to recreate the look of 19th century France (just ignore it is really Greenwich Naval College) in ways no stage show could or would dream of doing.

But therein lies the problem. The theatre asks the audience to use its imagination to fill in the gaps and pretend it is real. If in a movie the gaps aren’t filled in properly, something seems wrong.

The opening half of this new film version did look gritty, grimy and realistic. But the second half, mostly set on the barricades, looked like the stage set built in a movie studio. In the theatre we accept that we are watching just a handful of the hundreds of revolutionaries fighting the French army. But this is not clear in the film and consequently the handful we are watching, and their stand, look a bit pathetic.LesMis_rables_2446250b 

There is the issue of melodrama too. And Les Miserables is very melodramatic. Now again, this is ok on the stage. The theatre lends itself to melodrama. With most of the audience sitting so far back from the stage, the performers almost have to be over the top in their vocal delivery and acting.   

The Director of the new Les Miserables movie Tom Hooper has however stuck his camera right in the faces of the actors. They sing straight into the camera. Therefore the melodrama is just too in your face. The lack of subtly in the story, acting and lyrics are just too exposed.

Indeed Anne Hathaway’s dramatic delivery of the tragic I Dreamed a Dream is filmed so close we just see her head and shoulders for the full duration of the song as she cries and wails and looks terribly upset.

As well as exposing the flaws, this style of framing also gets a bit repetitive, though Hathaway does sing and act very well. 

les-miserables-image02The other lead actors are somewhat uneven. All can sing passably, even Russell Crowe, just about. Hugh Jackman’s voice is pretty weak, but he acts the central part of Jean Valjean very well. Eddie Redmayne is all vein bulging intensity. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen are everything you’d expect of the pantomime villains. While the younger women, Amanda Seyfried as Cosette and Samantha Barks as Eponine, sing well enough, but have little to do except look sad.

Despite what therefore sounds like a very critical review of the film, I have been humming the songs ever since I saw it. The story is epic and bombastic but with its rags to riches themes set against doomed revolution and personal redemption, in the end, I was moved. But then, I love the stage show, so I was going to like the film.