Life in dark rooms

Old (or old-ish) films – a two-and-a-half-month update

April 12, 2010
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A few random old* films that I saw in the past couple of months:

At some point in the dim and distant past (well, December) I saw David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999) – gentle if slow road movie in which the elderly Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, who was nominated for an Oscar in what was to be his last screen role) takes a trip across the US to visit his ailing brother by the only means available to him: a ride-on lawnmower. Not a lot happens on the way (but that could be because I was nodding off – not bored, just tired) but it’s beautiful and heart-warming, if a little slight. (4/5)

Due to particularly bad weather (yes, the snow back in January), I was unable to fly from Guernsey to the UK so I ended up taking an overnight ferry which wasn’t a very comfortable experience. Still on this ferry they showed Pixar’s Cars (2006), albeit with the sound down to almost nothing so as not to disturb my fellow sleeping passengers. It was the only Pixar film I’d not seen so I tried to make out what was going on and I seem to recall I quite enjoyed it. This probably doesn’t count as a proper review and had it been They Will Be Blood or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford then Mark Kermode wouldn’t even consider it watching a film at all. But even I’m not that anal – from what I could make out it was a fairly decent film. (3/5)

I’ve never been a huge fan of Westerns but I seem to recall Kevin Costner getting lots of pats on the back a few years ago for Open Range (2003) and quite right too as it is pretty good. It does seem like the kind of Western they used to make – a troubled gunslinger, a tentative romance, a town under siege, that kind of thing. But this is the noughties (or it used to be) so all this was done with big explosions and lots of bloodshed. (3/5)

Imagine Ocean’s Eleven but with a less starry cast and you have Confidence (2003) – a not exactly groundbreaking heist thriller with its tongue in its cheek that benefits from a great director in the shape of James Foley, who made David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross the taut drama that it is. Edward Burns, Rachel Weisz, Andy Garcia and the ever-excellent Paul Giamatti give it their all, but with Dustin Hoffman as the baddie, they all look like their phoning it in, even if he’s only on screen for a few scenes. (4/5)

David Cronenberg isn’t the body horror maestro he used to be but he still makes good films and Eastern Promises (2007) is no exception. When a Russian teenager living in London dies during childbirth, midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) uses the young woman’s diary to discover her story and finds herself enter London’s creepy Russian underworld. Slower than it sounds, it still has an underlying sense of dread and a great performance by Viggo Mortensen as mysterious driver Nikolai, and is worth a look if you’ve ever wanted to learn about one of the many seedy underbellies of London. (3/5)

* For the record, the reason this category is called Old (or old-ish films) is that I consider anything released earlier than the previous year to be old. So now in 2010, any film released in 2008 is considered old. It’s not particularly accurate but it does appeal to my sense of order.


DVD reviews – a two-and-a-half-month update

April 12, 2010
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So the last film I reviewed on these pages was over two months ago. Since then I’ve caught up on many of 2009’s finest (and not so finest) DVD releases. Here’s what I thought of them in a nutshell. By which I don’t mean that I thought of them while I was in a nutshell, but rather…oh, you know what I mean.

I thought Zack Snyder’s Watchmen was pretty overrated. Not ‘the Citizen Kane of comic book movies’ like Empire magazine would have had us believe on theatrical release, it is a decent detective story that’s complicated by too many characters and ideas. It does look great but it’s an overblown mess and not as weighty as it thinks it is. But then I’m not a fanboy so I’m not exactly the target audience. (3/5)

I don’t care what people say, Funny People is not Adam Sandler’s best performance (try Punch-drunk Love instead) and the film only serves to prove that writer-director Judd Apatow is not the genius everyone thinks he is. The film is about legendary stand-up comedian George Simmons (Sandler) who is told he has a serious medical condition. Now terminally grumpy and philosophical he hires a newbie (Seth Rogen) to write jokes for him. They become friends then George goes off to make amends with his ex-wife. That’s pretty much it. For two and a half hours. Unfortunately, it’s hard to hate because it’s a decent enough story with enough laughs to keep you giggling along, even if it is dumb ass humour about penises and flatulence. (3/5)

With a director like Michael Mann and a cast that includes Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard, Public Enemies could only ever be great. Telling the story of John Dillinger (Depp) and his gang of outlaws, and FBI agent Melvin Purvis’ (Bale) attempts to catch him, it plays like Mann’s earlier work Heat with a younger generation of superstar. 1930s America is handsomely evoked and the cast is great, with Brit actor Stephen Graham standing out as the terrifying Baby Face Nelson. (4/5)

As a fan of both Jack Black and Harold Ramis (Groundhog Day being my second favourite film), I was always going to watch Year One despite hearing bad things about it. It wasn’t as bad as I was expecting – it’s probably nowhere near historically or biblically accurate but what do I care? Put all that to one side and it is entertaining – Christian education with a slight satirical bent (but don’t expect Life of Brian) interspersed with dumb ass comedy. (3/5)

Fourth films are seldom a good idea especially when it’s obvious that it’s a barely considered afterthought (I’m looking at you, Indy), but Terminator Salvation was a pleasant surprise. With none of that pesky convoluted time travel to worry about, McG (yes, the cretin that brought us both Charlie’s Angels films) can have a ball with a variety of terminators in all shapes and sizes in a barren, sun-blasted post-apocalyptic wasteland. Permanently gravel-throated professional tantrum-thrower Christian Bale may make a laughable John Connor (come on, you’re already Batman – put the iconic screen characters down and back away) but Sam Worthington makes up for it. A fairly solid actioner. (4/5)

In a slow week in which there was nothing on the telly and we were after a comedy, there were nowt out so we settled for Hamlet 2, an odd little film about a failed actor turned drama teacher (Steve Coogan with a dodgy American accent) who inspires his loser students by writing and staging an ill-advised but surprisingly popular play: a blasphemous, politically incorrect musical sequel to Hamlet, which features such songs as Rock Me Sexy Jesus. As mad as it sounds, but worth a look, especially if you’re a Steve Coogan fan. (3/5)

‘Based on the true story’ purports an introductory title card to The Haunting in Connecticut. As with many horrors that state such a claim, it should be followed by ‘If you believe that kind of thing’. Even if you do, however, this is still far-fetched nonsense full of creaking doors, shuffling silhouettes and someone-behind-you-in-the-mirror fake outs. A few good scares but mostly derivative and dull. (2/5)

The first 20 minutes of Joe Wright’s US debut feature The Soloist sees LA Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr) scrabbling around for a story. Unfortunately, despite the quite remarkable subject matter, Wright is doing the same thing over the space of almost two hours. Jamie Foxx gives an impressive performance as Nathaniel Ayers, the homeless, mentally ill cello prodigy, but underneath all the Oscar baiting (it wasn’t even nominated for anything) lies a strangely unsatisfying real life drama that doesn’t know what it wants to say. (3/5)

In Harry Brown, Michael Caine does to Jack Carter what Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino did for Harry Callahan: take a notorious bad ass, give him a bus pass, a shooter and a grumpy old temper, and let him loose. But whereas Gran Torino was a gritty drama, director Daniel Barber takes a slow character piece and grows it into a blood-soaked thriller in which Caine’s titular retired Royal Marine avenges the death of his best friend at the hands of a gang of local hoodies. At times wince-inducing, at others air-punchingly-satisfying, it would perhaps make a good companion piece to Eden Lake. (4/5)

There were a few other great films I saw over the space of the last couple of months but so good were they that I think they might deserve entries all of their own. A couple of other recent viewings will be reviewed separately. Nearly up to date.

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The shame list – a two-and-a-half-month update

April 12, 2010
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OK, OK, so I’ve been away for a while but the time I should have spent writing about films, I’ve spent watching them instead which means I have a bit backlog of films to review which due to time and space, I thought it was easier to do as a series of round-ups. First up – here are a number of films I can now proudly say I’ve seen.

Way back in December I caught up with one of those ultra-hip ‘90s films that I never saw first time around because I was too busy doing much less cool stuff like maths homework and listening to Def Leppard. Of course, I was only 14 at the time, but apparently many of my contemporaries were much more inquisitive teenagers than I was. Anyhoo, the film was the decade-defining satire Natural Born Killers (1994) in which Oliver Stone pulled every kooky trick in the book to make the despicable acts of a couple of psychos (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis, the Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway of the MTV generation) look both sickeningly fun and nauseatingly uninviting. Hallucinatory, nightmarish and gaudy, but also a true cultural event – no other film from 1994 looks quite as 1994 as this. (4/5)

Back in the summer of 2009 I saw Moon which reminded me how much I loved science fiction so I decided to watch a bunch of old sci-fi flicks. First up (randomly chosen by the lovefilm people) was Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris (1972) – long and perplexing, but, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s a study in space exploration as philosophy that just couldn’t have fit into 90 minutes. Plus it’s better than Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake and benefits from a great ending. (4/5)

Next up was John Carpenter’s debut feature Dark Star (1974) in which the four crew members of the titular spaceship try to alleviate the boredom between destroying unstable planets. It’s kooky, low budget stuff (a slapstick sequence involving a mischievous sub-Doctor Who ‘mascot’ alien is a highlight) with a nice slapdash approach. (4/5)

Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running (1971) was one of the primary influences for Duncan Jones when he was making Moon. Echoes of its eco-friendly message can also be clearly seen in WALL•E, and Mark Kermode calls it his absolute favourite science fiction film. It’s certainly a good story, but there’s no nostalgia there for me so there’s little to mark it out as particularly special save for an earnest performance by Bruce Dern and some wobbly pre-R2D2 robots, their metal shells controlled by amazing multiple-amputee actors. (4/5)

David Bowie made for a believable alien in Nicolas Roeg’s demented The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) but his acting skills had yet to develop at this point. Although there are social messages about the dangers of the vices of man (Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton gets distracted from his mission to find water for his dying planet by booze and sex), it’s played out in such an off-kilter fashion that it doesn’t really back up its argument. The message seems to be: ‘Don’t do drugs or you’ll have a wonderful life of debauchery and look like a young David Bowie.’ Pass the gin. (3/5)

Despite being the lead in one of my favourite films (Planet of the Apes), Charlton Heston’s constantly-looking-livid-while-talking-through-gritted-teeth style was actually quite wearisome. However, it did give him a nice line in defiance for his Detective Thorn in Soylent Green (1973) the twist to which I had already known for many years, which made the final act only so-so. A decent enough thriller though with yet another eco-message. (3/5)

However, the best of the lot was the ultimate B-movie – Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). An efficient thriller, perfectly paced with some great performances (especially from an increasingly manic Kevin McCarthy) and more than a little social commentary. (5/5)

Although it wasn’t on my list, I also saw Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) in which the original’s plot moves from 1950s small town California to 1970s San Francisco. The transition means that a lot of the original’s claustrophobia and everyman panic is lost, and Donald Sutherland never strikes the levels of jerky agitation that McCarthy brought to his counterpart 20 years previously. But it’s still an effective thriller and benefits from a great ending. (4/5)

From science fiction to suspense, I finally got around to watching one of the films in the Alfred Hitchcock box set I was given for Christmas in 2008. Although I am nowhere near the authority on Hitchcock that I’d like to be having seen only his greatest hits and a handful of others, every time I discover one of his films it turns out to be a masterpiece. And so it is with Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Hitchcock’s favourite of all his films because in it he brought a threat into a regular family in a small town, and he dealt with concepts of twinning and light and dark. Joseph Cotten is particularly devilish Charlie, with Teresa Wright as his namesake niece who uncovers the murderous truth behind her beloved uncle. (5/5)

Finally, I got the chance to watch Al Pacino get his gangster face on again one Friday night when I caught Brian de Palma’s Carlito’s Way (1993) on TV. As the Puerto Rican ex-con trying to go straight despite everything standing in his way, Pacino is on fine form, but it’s Sean Penn as lawyer best friend-turned-criminal David Kleinfeld who steals the show, which is no mean feat against Pacino’s ubiquitous shouting. The final chase sequence through Grand Central station is a highlight but there’s plenty of other stuff going on throughout, not least of which is Sean Penn’s hair. (4/5)

On a final note, when I was a student I worked part time as a cinema usher. One night, a customer asked me whether anybody had ever told me I looked like Sean Penn. I said no, to which he replied: ‘Well, you do. You look just like Sean Penn in Carlito’s Way.’ Ah, I thought. A specific film which I have not seen. Well, now I’ve seen it and I can see what he means. While nowadays I bear a remarkable resemblance to Moby, at the time I was cursed with stupid frizzy hair and crappy glasses. I now can’t look at my graduation photo without thinking I’m going to get shot in a hospital bed.

Shame list total: 1,189 (I think – I might have to do some recalculations)

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Synecdoche, New York

January 27, 2010
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Charlie Kaufman is a unique talent. Few other screenwriters have their films attributed to them rather than the directors who channel their words. But what Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all proved was that it requires a skilled director to wrestle Kaufman’s off-the-wall hare-brained narratives into coherence. So when Kaufman’s directorial debut sees him grappling with his own script, it’s a quite frightening insight into the mind of a disturbed man.

Theatre director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is given a genius grant and uses it to create the most audacious play the world has ever seen – one that recreates his hometown of New York in a giant warehouse and has actors his life as it is happening. Soon enough actors play actors who are playing real people, and the gaps between fiction and reality become blurred.

As interesting as it sounds, it’s just a great big mess. Kaufman never really has a handle on the material (which, amazingly, is his own) and so the quirks that normally populate his scripts are lost. Elements like Caden’s girlfriend Hazel (Samantha Morton) buying a burning house that is constantly smouldering in the background may have seemed absurd in a good way on paper but on screen, they look like a desperate attempt to baffle.

It’s a shame because the cast is terrific. Hoffman is typically awesome while Catherine Keener, Tom Noonan, Michelle Williams and Hope Davis also make a solid impact in otherwise duff nonsense. When Caden walks around the warehouse giving people obscure stage directions, you can imagine the actual actors losing their patience with Kaufman doing the same.

Maddeningly unintelligible, frustratingly long, annoyingly unfocused, relentlessly incoherent, infuriatingly impenetrable and upsettingly pretentious. (2/5)

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Fermat’s Room

January 27, 2010
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Inexplicably, maths seems to be an increasingly popular backdrop to the thriller genre what with the likes of Cube and Pi. Perhaps it has to do with the admittedly cinematic possibilities of puzzle solving which is what Spanish mystery-thriller Fermat’s Room is all about.

Four gifted mathematicians are invited by a mysterious host to an evening of puzzle solving in a deserted factory. But when they get there they are sealed in a room with a mobile phone. If they don’t correctly answer each problem sent by text message within one minute, the walls literally start closing in.

A film that appears to be a cross between Saw and The Crystal Maze is an interesting idea so it’s a shame that it’s all premise and no promise. The puzzles and closing-walls gimmick are just a backdrop, so once the set-up is over, it becomes a depressingly humdrum race-against-time whodunit in which the strangers reveal the complicated ways in which they are connected. Still it’s suitably claustrophobic, has pace and looks good – an aerial scene in which the quartet tries to stop the walls by frantically stuffing books into two laid down bookcases is particularly effective. Plus, it’s more unique than many of the other bog-standard thrillers out there. At the very least, you can learn some fun logic puzzles from it. (3/5)

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New Moon

January 26, 2010
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At the risk of sounding sexist, the reason that Twilight worked so well was probably that its director was a woman. Catherine Hardwicke (who had previously dealt with teenage girls’ issues in Thirteen) could draw on memories of childhood.

But the sequel has been picked up by Chris Weitz, whose previous works include About a Boy, Down to Earth and American Pie. His films seem to be so full of childish machismo, that the only thing he’s worked on that he could draw on is the woeful adaptation of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Had he not ballsed that up, this might have been a better film. It’s also probably why sympathising with Bella is such a big ask this time.

New Moon picks up where Twilight left off. After saving Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) from a vampire attack, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) decides that life around him is too dangerous for her, so he leaves. In the meantime, she seeks solace in her friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) who turns out to be not all that he seems (that is, he’s a werewolf). In the meantime, psycho vampire Victoria seeks vengeance for her mate who Edward killed, she goes after Bella.

It’s not nearly as exciting as it sounds. In fact, it’s painfully long and even more targeted at a certain audience what with the presence of lots of buff men – sorry, werewolves – walking around in the rain with their tops off which, annoyingly, is necessary for the plot. Jacob is so scowlingly protective and Edward so darkly dashing that what is there for the goofy Bella to do but flit between them like the capricious teenager that she is.

So with all that brooding going on, there’s little room for the kind of excitement you’d expect from a film that features both vampires and werewolves. Even the sudden final reel appearance of the great Michael Sheen as the leader of ancient Italian coven the Volturi is forgettable.

Bring on the next one. It surely can’t get any worse. (2/5)

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January 26, 2010
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After releasing record-breaking cash magnet Titanic, James Cameron took a 12-year break to write and develop a film (and of course wait for the technology to catch up with his vision) that broke his own record just over a month after release. There’s surely a message in there somewhere.

In fact, Avatar is full of messages and lessons, many of which we already know. Paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) joins a mission on the distant planet of Pandora where he uses an avatar identity to become a member of the indigenous blue-skinned Na’vi beings. However, the real mission, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) is to mine for the precious Unobtanium (seriously) by way of destroying the Na’vi’s home. Sully’s avatar identity allows him to live with and learn from the Na’vi, but the more integrated he becomes in their culture and the closer he gets to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the more eager he is to thwart Quaritch’s plan.

There’s a lot to pack in, so its two-and-a-half hour running time is adequate rather than buttock-numbingly daunting. In that time, it covers everything from global terrorism and climate change to racism and the rape of the natural world. So it may resemble a whole bunch of other films (prompting jokes from Dances with Smurfs to Pocahontas in Blue) but what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in design.

Because make no mistake, Pandora is a rich, vivid world of retina-scorching colour and intricate detail. From the enormous tree in which the Na’vi live to the floating Hallelujah Mountains, Cameron portrays the planet with a staggering clarity of imagination. The depth with which the Na’vi’s culture and history is developed is also impressive – warriors bond with their ‘Direhorses’ with an ingenious electro-organic link in their ‘hair’. The Na’vi themselves are also wonderfully rendered using the now ubiquitous motion capture technique.

It’s a shame, then, that for such a uniquely stunning looking people, they say some brain-meltingly dumb things. Much of the dialogue is shameless in its service to the plot, thus reducing most of the characters into cardboard cut-outs.

Perhaps it’s churlish to criticise the film on this basis. After all, it is, by anyone’s standards, a highly accomplished film, but hardly ‘the future of cinema’ it has been purported. Is it a game changer? Only because it has put more bums on seats than any other film. It’s unlikely to change the cinematic landscape dramatically. When The Matrix came out, breathtaking it may have been but the effect it had on cinema was subtle if you don’t count the endless stream of spoofs. One thing’s for sure, not every film released in future is going to try to emulate or compete with it. There are really only a handful of directors who will choose to make their next film using motion capture and 3D technology, and, unfortunately, they will probably be all the poorer for it. After all, they can’t all be king of the world. (4/5)

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Night at the Museum 2

January 26, 2010
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This unnecessary sequel to what was a ho-hum family film sees Ben Stiller’s security guard-cum-entrepreneurial inventor Larry Daley go back to the museum where he used to work to see his old friends (you know, the exhibits that used to come alive at night because of something to do with an ancient Egyptian tablet) only to find that they’re about to be shipped off to the Smithsonian museum. For some reason they all come under threat when the tablet’s owner Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) shows up to literally unleash hell. Or something like that.

So it’s a madcap rehash of the first one with life lessons about friendship or whatever thrown in. Many of the original characters are back, including cowboy Jebediah (Owen Wilson), Roman centurion Octavius (Steve Coogan) and Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), and the familiarity is welcome, because some of the new characters don’t really work. While Hank Azaria gets good mileage out of what is essentially a rubbish villain, Larry is followed around by Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) for no discernable reason except to act as a clunking romantic interest, which is frankly a bit creepy. (3/5)

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January 26, 2010
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It’s almost impossible to make a time travel film without consider the problems of paradoxes and timeloops. What makes Spanish thriller Timecrimes so interesting is that these issues are built into the plot in such an intricate manner that no matter how hard you try, you can never second guess it.

When his wife pops out to the shops, Héctor (Karra Elejalde) sits down to chillax in the garden only to spot something odd in the distance. When he goes to investigate he finds himself in ever more bizarre situations that lead him to a research facility where he meets a young scientist (Nacho Vigalondo) and inadvertently climbs inside a time machine. Looping back on himself a number of times, he tries to stop a maniacal masked scissor-wielding man from killing his wife.

It may sound complicated but for a looping time travel narrative it’s surprisingly coherent and economical. Unlike many similar stories, it only covers a very short period of time making it almost unbearably claustrophobic. Watch it a second time (because like all good time travel films you will want to) and you realise that despite multiple Héctors, it follows the original version through time to give you the full and quite tragic impact of his character arc – from ordinary Joe to seasoned time traveller in the space of 90 minutes. Or an hour depending on how you look at it.

See it now, before America turds on it. (4/5)

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Inglourious Basterds

January 21, 2010
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It was only a matter of time until Quentin Tarantino, a self-confessed movie buff, made a film based largely around the cinema. But Cinema Paradiso this is not, rather a tense World War II thriller.

While a team of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) goes Nazi hunting, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) plots her revenge on the despicable ‘Jew Hunter’ Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) that tried to kill her. Of course, there’s much more to it than that and just like all of Tarantino’s films, it’s gripping and tightly plotted despite being made up of long scenes and lots of seemingly irrelevant chatting.

Also typical of Tarantino is the length – it’s a long film but not too long. The large-chinned one’s chatty dialogue has never been crisper and really makes the film. The first scene takes its time in introducing the slimy Landa by way of an unbearably tense conversation between him and a terrified farmer. It’s all careful direction, but never plodding – as ever, the film is split into chapters to break it into neat little chunks.

That’s not to say that Tarantino hasn’t changed. He’s toned down the oh-so-cool musical cues (although the ones he does use are defiantly anachronistic making it occasionally look like an anti-Nazi film directed by Sergio Leone) and the violence isn’t actually as visceral as you might think. A couple of by-the-by scalping shots, a brutal baseball bat scene and some nasty machine gunning make up a tiny fraction of the film.

But no matter what you think of Tarantino, he does make good ensemble pictures. Despite a decent, easy performance from one of the world’s biggest stars (Pitt hams it up beautifully as Aldo Raine with his Will Young underbite and Clark Gable-cool eyebrows) the performances are great throughout from a cast of largely unknowns. The performance of the film, though, is Christoph Waltz who has well and truly earned his Golden Globe and is likely to win an Oscar too.

So it’s still a Tarantino film through and through. A huge step-up from the over-indulgent Death Proof and better than anything he’s made in years. (4/5)

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