Inglourious Basterds

In theaters.

The amusingly paradoxical thing about Quentin Tarantino is that his movies constantly reference other ones—a blizzard of allusions and homages and old-fashioned knock-offs—and yet a Tarantino movie is instantly recognizable as a Tarantino movie. He’s a magpie but somehow a unique magpie—distinct even from those whose work he has appropriated.

And what is that—the ability to take something old and transmute it into something new—if not art? As aggravating as Tarantino can be, there is true virtuosity about his work that I always enjoy, sometimes despite myself. I might be in two minds about Inglourious Basterds, but in my gut, I love it in all its messy, bloody, problematic glory. No one makes movies like Quentin Tarantino.

Excuses, excuses

I was going to write another summertime-sucks-and-I-have-nothing-to-write-about post, but I had to admit that doing so would be disingenuous at best.

The Bacchae

Shakespeare in the Park, presented by the Public Theater, on Sunday, August 16.

People asked me whether I enjoyed The Bacchae, and I could only answer, “Well, it was interesting.” I don’t mean that as criticism or a non-recommendation (well, not exactly). I doubt that you could create a production of Euripides’s play, more than thousand years old, that I would enjoy, per se. Despite the program notes’ insistence otherwise, I don’t find much of contemporary relevance in the ancient Greek work. But it’s interesting, I’ll grant you without hesitation, and the performances are intriguing, and the production is striking and well done, so I couldn’t ask for more. The Bacchae is what it is. It couldn’t be otherwise.

A Flowering Tree

At the Mostly Mozart Festival on Thursday, August 13.

This is the hardest thing to write about: the thing that surprises you, envelops you. You sit rapt with a straight back and clasped hands, and afterward you sigh with mingled happiness and regret, because it is so beautiful and because it is over and because you will never experience it new again.

When I went home after the performance, I babbled happily to Sean (who had to work late and couldn’t join me) about John Adams’s new opera, and when I paused to draw breath, he smiled and said, “You’re using lovely again.” I felt somewhat abashed. Lovely is my gushiest word, and I often overuse it, but it was appropriate in this case. To me, lovely goes beyond beautiful. It has a goodness about it, a special quality that draws me out at my most earnest. If I use lovely, it is only because, well, I love it.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

In theaters.

Charles Dickens’s books have been made into movies, but the most successful adaptations, I think, are miniseries. The intricate stories and enormous casts need time to flower into the lavish gardens they are on the page. One can compress the novels, of course, but in doing so, one loses a great deal of what makes Dickens Dickens.

I think of the Harry Potter books in much the same way. Author J. K. Rowling owes much to Dickens, from her unapologetically sprawling plotlines to her numerous tellingly named characters. As with her predecessor, the charm of her writing is in the imaginative little details, the emotional beats, the vivid sketches of minor players, the immersive world she creates—exactly the sort of elements that tend to be squeezed out in film adaptations. And frankly, that’s why I’ve never had much interest in the Harry Potter movies. I’ve seen the first (I’ll never forgive director Chris Columbus for the flat, inert portrayal of the death of the unicorn, a scene that resonates with loss and foreboding in the novel) and the third (I’ll happily watch virtually any film directed by Alfonso Cuarón), but only once each. Even Cuarón’s effort disappoints me as much as it delights.

So I didn’t have any plans to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but then Sean wanted to go and I wanted to go with Sean, and here I am writing about it. I have to admit it was better than I expected—quite good in some spots—but still, ultimately, not good enough. Movies simply aren’t the best medium in this case.

In the Loop

In theaters.

True satire spares no one, and In the Loop is as true as it comes: mercilessly sharp, brutally unsentimental, and absolutely hilarious. The movie targets (albeit with fictional characters) the transatlantic political machinations that lead to the invasion of Iraq, but it never actually names that country or makes any more than the vaguest references to the Middle East. For all the high stakes we know to be there, most of the characters are too wrapped up in bureaucratic infighting to pay them much heed. That breathtakingly cynical vision of an already dark chapter in the history of both the United Kingdom and the United States leaves me with mixed feelings. Despite the precision and brilliance of its barbs, In the Loop doesn’t always ring true to me, and I can’t figure out whether that’s because I’m too cynical, not cynical enough, or simply cynical in a different way.