John Powers: Cannes Report, Part 2 Our critic at large returns with the second part of his report from this year's Cannes Film Festival, including his impressions of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and the South Korean vampire flick Thirst — both due out in the United States later this summer.
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John Powers: Cannes Report, Part 2

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John Powers: Cannes Report, Part 2

John Powers: Cannes Report, Part 2

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

Today we continue with Terry's conversation with our critic-at-large John Powers about this year's Cannes Film Festival that ended on Sunday. John is also film critic for Vogue.

TERRY GROSS: I want to start by asking you about Quentin Tarantino's new film. Tarantino's new film is a World War II film called "Inglorious Basterds." And for what I was reading, it kept seeming like it was really expensive and it kept being postponed and may be re-edited. And now I was thinking, oh it's probably a real problem film but it seemed to be really popular at Cannes. How did - tell us about the movie.

JOHN POWERS: "Inglorious Basterds" was probably the hottest ticket of the festival. In its first screening - you know, anywhere, was 8:30 in the morning and people were lining up at 7:00 in the morning to see a World War II film by Quentin Tarantino. And no one knew quite what to expect and there's much talk that it was insanely violent and all sorts of things. In fact, it's a very amusing film. What Tarantino has done, I think, is take us back to a different era. If you look at the history of World War II movies, you know, the ones during World War II were largely very serious because they were fighting World War II.

That switched a bit in the 60s where you actually had things like "The Great Escape" or "The Dirty Dozen" where World War II became a back-drop for sort of - for action and excitement. Now that might hit some sort of peak probably in that silly sitcom "Hogan's Heroes" where a prisoner of war camp in World War II is the place we have a sitcom. In the 80s, things got serious again. You know? And Steven Spielberg, in particular, was the person trying to take people back to the serious appreciation of World War II, both in "Schindler's List" and its handling of the Holocaust, and then later in his film "Saving Private Ryan," which was going to show us about what it was a really like to be, you know, at the D day invasion.

Tarantino takes us back to the 60s, with the films that are more or less romps or capers, set during the backdrop of World War II. And that story basically follows three major characters. One of them is a young Jewish woman whose family has been murdered, one is the evil Nazi, beautifully played by the guy who won best actor, a guy named Christoph Waltz, the evil Nazi, and the third one is Brad Pitt's character who leaves a group of guys called Inglorious Basterds who basically go around slaughtering Nazis. And these three people eventually come together at a movie theatre in Paris for a big climax.

The film, from the beginning, is extremely funny, very, very entertaining. Tarantino is a wonderful writer of scenes, and almost every scene is filled with sharp dialog and good acting and good jokes. I don't think the film adds up to very much. It's a bit of a romp in the way that something like "The Great Escape" is a romp. But in fact, as you're watching, it's a really, really good time. And it's so far away from being serious about World War II that you don't feel offended by the silliness and violence in the way that would have if Tarantino was trying to make a serious World War II movie like "Saving Private Ryan."

GROSS: Vampires are making a really big comeback in American popular culture. There's a South Korean film about vampires that showed at the Cannes Film Festival, tell us about that one.

POWERS: The film is called "Thirst." It's by a guy named Park Chan-wook, who you - people might know from a film called "Oldboy." The film is coming out later this summer and so it's very-seeable.

GROSS: Coming out in the States?

POWERS: It has - in the States, yes. It has one of the great - I think one of the great premises, I think, for a vampire film I've ever seen, which is that it's about a South Korean priest who, because he loves humanity, goes off to a special clinic where they're doing medical research and he gives his body up to medical research. The problem is that he gets a disease that turns him into a vampire. So you have a guy who goes from metaphorically drinking the blood of Christ to a creature who now must drink the blood of human beings. But although he is a vampire who must drink the blood of human beings, he still has the mentality of a priest who is trying to behave well in the world.

So - and the film is a once spooky and tender and very-very comic. It races out of control at the ending, I think gets too bloody and nuts from my taste -although a lot of people really loved. But the setup really is this brilliant setup of what happens when you get a vampire who knows he shouldn't be a vampire, who is morally opposed to killing people - all the ways in which he tries to keep going, the ways of keeping alive, the ways of doing the right and decent thing, while at the same knowing that you actually have to drink blood to survive.

GROSS: That sounds really interesting.

POWERS: It's a very interesting film, yeah.

DAVIES: We're listening Terry's conversation with our critic-at-large John Powers about this year's Cannes Film Festival. We will hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Let's get back to Terry's conversation with our critic-at-large John Powers. He has just returned from the Cannes Film Festival.

GROSS: John, what was your biggest disappointment at the Cannes Film Festival?

POWER: Oh, I think many people's biggest disappointment, including mine, was "Taking Woodstock," the Ang Lee film which is clearly designed to commemorate Woodstock, which happened 40 years ago. And it's a film that stars Demetri Martin as one of the guys who basically setup the Woodstock thing. And he is a more or less young man who's trapped with his parents who are running a dead-beat hotel in and around Woodstock. And the film is designed to offer this vision of that era. And instead what happens is it becomes something of a Neil Simon play with an overbearing greedy Jewish mom and a cliché Vietnam vet played by Emile Hirsch.

And it's a film that promised to give you so much texture of life in the '60s, and instead what happens is that it turns into a bit of parity of what Woodstock in that period was like. That said, it has incredibly great production design. I think anyone who watches the film and who lived through that period will think: Wow, boy the costumes are really perfect. Everything looks exactly right. You know, at that level it's a great film, but it's just a very, very wan film. You want a film about these great cultural events to have a real oomph, but instead it winds up being the small, even kind of dinky film that doesn't make you feel anything, when of course what you want from Woodstock is something that makes you feel something, even if it's disapproval or nostalgia or regret.

This film is so small that it doesn't do it. I mean, I think that almost everybody who saw it from America, didn't like it. I suspected, because it's not a very good film, that one reason why Cannes put it in the competition this year was that they had turned down "Brokeback Mountain" and got a lot of grief for it. So, I think this time they thought we are not going to make the same mistake twice and they put this one in, and this is probably one that shouldn't have been in the festival. Very amiable film, fun to watch, just not very good at all.

GROSS: So, one of the movies at Cannes is a movie from Romania that was masterminded by the same film-maker who made a film that was very popular in art houses in the United Houses a couple of years ago, called "4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days." And it was about a woman trying to get an abortion during a time that it was very illegal under the Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania. So, this film too is about life under Ceausescu, life under dictatorship. Tell us about the movie.

POWERS: Well, it's called "Tales from the Golden Age," ironically enough, and the film is five stories about life in the Ceausescu era and there are five very different tales, you know. And each one has this sort of ironic twist or a melancholy twist about life during that time. So the first one, it shows a bunch of people more or less preparing for Ceausescu's brief arrival in their village, where they are getting phone calls from Ceausescu's front people saying Ceausescu didn't like the animals lining the road in the last place he was, switch to sheep.

And so you basically watch them creating a reality for the dictator. And at the end of that particular episode, everybody in the town winds up on a whirly gig at the local thing, and they realize that even the guy who started the whirly gig is on the whirly gig. So they're all spinning around with no way of getting off, which becomes a metaphor for what life is like there. Over the next four episodes, you get different aspects of life in Ceausescu's Romania. You know, one of the stories is about a guy whose job it is to doctor photos in the paper so that Ceausescu looks taller than the foreign dignitaries who come to visit.

One of the stories is about a family in Bucharest who has a friend who is willing to give them a pig, but the problem is they have to slaughter the pig in their own apartment. And to make that even harder, they have to slaughter the pig in their own apartment without it being able to squeal because as soon as it squeals, all the neighbors will come and demand parts of the pig or they'll be turned into the police. So, it's a series of crazy episodes and vignettes that capture the absurdity and melancholy of a country that's completely under the control of one man, and that man makes life miserable and everybody is at once scared and hustling at every moment trying to keep alive.

It's a really, really good film and it's just the latest film from that most unlikely of film hotspots, Romania. I mean, if you told me 10 years ago that almost every year when I talk to you Terry, that I'd come back saying one of the very best things at Cannes was a film from Romania, I wouldn't have believed it. And now everyone knows it, you know, that Romanian films are hot, believe it or not.

GROSS: Well, John thanks for talking with us about the Cannes Film Festival. It's always good to talk with you.

POWERS: It was my pleasure, thanks.

DAVIES: John Powers is FRESH AIR'S critic-at-large and film critic for Vogue. You can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.

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