Archive for January, 2013

Django Unchained

Posted: January 21, 2013 in Film reviews

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson.

And so my cinema viewing in 2013 starts with Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, this time an epic western.

It’s 1858, two years before the Civil War will start, and Django (Foxxe) is a slave who’s been torn from the arms of his wife and sold to the highest bidder. Whilst being marched across Texas to his new owners, he encounters Dr King Schultz (Waltz) a travelling dentist, although it quickly becomes apparent that he hasn’t practiced in a while and now has a new vocation, that of Bounty Hunter, and he needs Django, because he’s the only man who can identify three wanted men who Schultz wants to kill.

What begins as mere mutual interest (Schultz will free Django once he’d identified the three men) soon becomes something more when Schultz realises Django has a natural talent with guns, and though their immediate mission is a success, Schultz convinces Django to spend the winter hunting bounties with him, in return he agrees to help Django rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the plantation known as Candie Land, owned by Calvin Candie (DiCaprio). Suffice to say things do not go smoothly.

I’ve had an interesting cinematic relationship with Tarantino for some time now, in fact maybe even from his beginnings with Reservoir Dogs. I was never a huge fan of his first film, but Pulp Fiction is a triumph, and would probably be in, or just outside of, my top ten films of all time. Jackie Brown was good, though I’ve never felt the urge to see it again, and since then I’ve probably enjoyed/hated his films in equal measure. I loved Kill Bill volume 1, yet hated volume 2, and Tarantino’s increasing desire to jam multiple genres together into one film is often jarring. Taken separately the two halves of Death Proof aren’t bad, but they don’t sit well together as Stunt Man Mike goes from terrifying, malevolent force to comedy idiot. And then of course there’s Inglorious Basterds, a film I found myself hating, despite some quite phenomenally directed/acted scenes. Probably the film that most showed Tarantino’s greatest strengths and biggest weaknesses, and a film it was kinda hard to root for anyone in.

So I was interested to see what I made of Django Unchained, interested to see what Quentin would do with a western (although as has been remarked elsewhere, it might be fairer to call it a southern).

The first thing to stress is its length. My précis above might seem short, but it really doesn’t do justice to an epic of a film that’s close to three hours long, and though the film never quite reaches the point where you just wish it’d end already, it’s still a flaw of the director that he can’t/won’t edit his work down—although let’s be fair he isn’t alone in this, see also Jackson, Nolan etc.

On the whole I found Django highly enjoyable. Maybe it’s just me, but it seemed Tarantino has scaled back his ego, not a lot, but enough to make this a more pleasant watch. It is violent, and the violence swings from the comedic to the wince inducing (the Mandingo wrestling match literally had me squirming in my seat) but on the whole it never quite plumbs the depths Inglorious did, and though neither Schultz or Django are completely whiter than white (if you’ll pardon the pun in a film so heavily about slavery) they are clearly the good guys by a wide margin, so I had little problem in seeing the bad guys get what was coming to them.

The issues around slavery are not shied away from, however, though probably historically accurate, for people of our generation the excessive use of the N word in this film does feel a trifle uncomfortable, and at times the flip between light/comedic and dark/hateful doesn’t quite work, though for the most part the film walks a surefooted fine line between the two.

Cast wise the film is a treat. For starters there’s Waltz, imbuing his German dentist-come-bounty-hunter with true nobility, and for vast swathes of the film it is he who acts as the focus for the audience, and it’s a clever trick of Tarantino’s to introduce an outsider who can view the horrors of slavery as we would. Even Django can’t do that because however much he hates slavery, he is at least inured against it by being part of that world, whereas Shultz has no such armour, and Waltz makes you feel it every time he sees some new torment.

He’s almost upstaged by Samuel L Jackson, whose turn as the elderly houseboy Stephen is, to a point, a revelation. A malevolent, vile character, stooped and deferential to his white master in a way that almost makes you hate him more than Candie, he is, for the most part, almost unrecognizable. It’s curious to remember there was a time when Jackson actually acted, rather than just trotted out another riff on his cool bad ass persona. Unfortunately the mask slips too often, and the Jackson we know all too well peeks out a bit too much. It’s a shame because if he’d kept the performance consistent I see no reason he shouldn’t have been in with an Oscar shout.

Leonardo DiCaprio was actually more subdued than I’d expected, although when the volcano finally blows, boy does it blow! He’s a seething, nasty little man clothed in civility and fine clothes which almost makes you imagine he’s human, until he shows you that he’s far from it.

If anything the weak link is oddly Django himself. It’s not that Foxx is bad, he’d a decent enough actor and a decent enough screen presence, but all too often he kind of fades into the background, Tonto to Watlz’s Lone Ranger, which would be fine except that the film is called Django. He’s also a little too well spoken, not rough enough around the edges. He’s a likable character you can empathise with, and he does get his moments, and maybe I’m being a little hard on him, after all he is playing the strong silent gunslinger for most of the film.

Add to this the usual plethora of cameos one would expect from a Tarantino film (Don Johnson is especially good) and Washington does her best with limited screen time, and it’s all good…almost. There is one awful performance in the film, but luckily Quentin Tarantino’s cameo is brief!

As I (pretty much) always say, the film does have flaws. It’s longer and more epic than it needs to be, and the truth is Tarantino could have trimmed some of the running time and the film would have been just as enjoyable. The film suffers from the same kind of schizophrenia as other recent Tarantino  films, but luckily the join between knockabout western and deadly serious commentary on slavery is nowhere near as obvious or jarring as the similar join between the two radically different parts of, say, Inglorious Basterds. The film does leave a few questions, such as what Zoe Bell’s masked gunslinger is all about and what’s she doing looking at old photos, and for a film that doesn’t shy away from the horrors inflicted on slaves, the nature of Broomhilda’s role at Candie Land is glossed over.

All in all a good film, if a little long. It lacks the stand out moments that Inglorious had (the conversation at the farm and the bier Keller scene) but overall is far more enjoyable and consistent, and as such is probably the best Tarantino film in a long time. Dexcellent (The D is silent…)

 

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2012: A year in film…

Posted: January 11, 2013 in Film reviews

Ok, so technically it is 2013 now, but until I get around to actually going to the cinema this year here’s a quick review of all the films I saw at the cinema in 2012 (all 22 of them, though I did see Skyfall three times and Dredd twice…) in a rough order of merit. It isn’t fixed, and it may be that once I see certain films again they climb a few places (or even drop a bit) and it is only my opinion, so please don’t be too upset if a film you loved features near the bottom of my list, and don’t be too angry if a film you hated made my top five.

As Mark Kermode says, other views are available

1              Avengers Assemble

2              The Artist

3              Skyfall

4              Dredd

5              Looper

6              The Dark Knight Rises

7              The Woman in Black

8              Killing Them Softly

9              The Amazing Spiderman

10           The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey

11           Seven Psychopaths

12           The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

13           The Expendables 2

14           Dark Shadows

15           Lockout

16           Total Recall

17           The Hunger Games

18           Prometheus

19           The Cabin in the Woods

20           Rock of Ages

21           Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

22           Haywire

 

 

I’ve just published a small anthology via Amazon/Kindle which can be purchased via the below link for a very reasonable price…

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Devils-Amber-Street-ebook/dp/B00AY55WY0/ref=sr_1_13?ie=UTF8&qid=1357679042&sr=8-13#_

 amber

When a young couple buy their first home they expect to have to do a bit of DIY, they don’t expect fiery demons in their spare room…

The Devils of Amber Street is a novella that defies expectations. Also included within this book are the following short stories

The Bonaventure Jane: In Elizabethan England self-styled detector of innocence George Tellant strives to clear a young man charged with murder…

Megg: On another Earth, in another time, a kingdom is threatened by dark forces, and a young girl seeks help from a mysterious old sorceress known only as Megg…

The Wolf: In 14th Century England wolves were a constant danger, but as two brothers go out one morning to hunt a particular white wolf, there may be something even more dangerous abroad…

 

 

Ok I know it’s 2013 but technically this is my final review of 2012 as I saw the Hobbit on New Year’s Eve…

***

Directed by Peter Jackson. Starring Sir Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage.

It’s hard to believe that it’s almost ten years since The Lord of the Rings trilogy ended with The Return of the King, and though there was talk of adapting The Hobbit, for a long time it appeared that three films was all Middle Earth was going to get. Eventually though it was announced that two Hobbit films were to be made, and they’d be directed by Guillermo del Toro. Due to the ever shifting sands of Hollywood production del Toro dropped out, and Peter Jackson stepped in to direct. The next surprise was that there were no longer going to be two films there were going to be three…and they were going to be filmed in 48 frames per minute (usually films are filmed in 24 frames per minute) and in 3D.

It is 60 years before Frodo and Sam will head off with Aragorn and co to dispose of the One Ring at Mordor, and in this film the much younger Bilbo Baggins, played by Martin Freeman (though Ian Holm does pop up in a little prologue), is co-opted by McKellen’s Gandalf to join a party of Dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Armitage) on a quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain, where the Dwarves once lived until the dragon Smaug laid waste to their mighty city, captured the Dwarves’ treasure and turned them into a race of itinerant refugees. There are many challenges to face before they can get anywhere near the Lonely Mountain however…including an encounter with the creature known as Gollum…

I’ll be honest here. I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings films a lot, but I wouldn’t call myself a huge fan. I’ve seen each of them more than once, and in their extended form, but I don’t own them on DVD, and couldn’t tell you the last time I watched one (to be honest the length as much as anything puts me off) but I was still looking forward to the Hobbit, especially given that I have read the book (I never read The Lord of the Rings) although to be honest my memory of it was so hazy I can’t say this had much impact on my viewing pleasure.

The first thing to say is that the film looks amazing, how much of this was down to the higher frame rate I’m not sure. To be honest I wasn’t sure it made that much difference, although at times movement seemed a trifle over exaggerated. Contrary to what certain people may say (I’m looking at you Mark Kermode) it definitely has some impact on the colour loss caused by 3D, or maybe it just fooled me into thinking it did, and I have to say the 3D was probably the least annoying I’ve ever seen. I’m still nowhere near a convert when it comes to 3D, but if it is going to be used this is how it should be employed.

Jackson is helped once again by nature, and the sweeping vistas of New Zealand make for a hugely impressive backdrop, as they did in the earlier (er later?) trilogy. There’s a comfortable sense of familiarity in seeing Middle Earth again, further enhanced by the use of familiar music and the appearance of characters we know so well. Primarily this is Gandalf but he is by no means the only familiar face. This is something of a different beast to the previous films however, although it has been made a bit more grown up than Tolkien’s original story. In many respects Jackson appears to be making a prequel trilogy to his first three films, rather than just making The Hobbit.

So, is it any good? Well, perhaps in spite of my preconceptions, yes it is. I enjoyed it a lot, although it perhaps won’t go down in history in the same way The Lord of the Rings films did, frame rate aside this is more of the same rather than anything ground breaking. It will be interesting to see how the next two films play out, but this first one held my interest. It is a long film, and does go on a bit, but I was never bored. That said it would be nice if Jackson could edit his works down a bit, there’s a lot of stuff within An Unexpected Journey that could have been excised, and it’s a shame that every great director (Jackson, Nolan, Spielberg etc.) reaches a point where they become so powerful that they can basically make their films as stodgy as they like. Sometimes less really is more, and maybe this would have been better if a little of the fat had been trimmed off.

Like I say though, it’s impressive to look at, and action packed, and if it doesn’t quite boast the cast of characters that The Lord of the Rings did, that’s not to say it’s lacking in heroes to root for. The Dwarves themselves are amusing, although there are so many you might have trouble remembering more than half of them. Armitage does a great job as Thorin, imbuing the character with enough courage and nobility that you can see why the other dwarves would follow him into hell, whilst still allowing the character his flaws. Aside from Armitage and James Nesbitt the Dwarves are much of a muchness, and it doesn’t help than many of them have very similar names. That said by the end you should be able to tell them apart, even if it’s only by assigning them characteristics; that’s the deaf one, that’s the young one etc.

McKellen slips back into the role of Gandalf as easily as he might return to a pair of well-worn shoes, although he seems to be having more fun returning to Gandalf the Grey than he perhaps had as the stuffier White version he played for most of the previous Trilogy.

Martin Freeman does a good job as Bilbo. Freeman does the put upon everyman very well, and that characterisation suits Bilbo down to the ground. If I hadn’t seen Freeman produce a darker performance as Watson in Sherlock I might have been tempted to suggest he is perhaps a one note performer, and it will be interesting to see how the character changes now that he has the ring.

Which of course brings us to Gollum and another great performance by Serkis, who again returns effortlessly to the character. You have to wonder how many kids have had nightmares about Gollum, because he really is a terrifying, yet also pitiful, character, especially here as he skulks around underground caverns like one of the monsters out of The Descent. It’s a pity he won’t be seen again (at least as far as I recall from my reading of The Hobbit, I could be mistaken.)

An Unexpected Journey has its problems though. Familiarity does breed contempt, and the snippy little cameos do seem a little bit too trite and convenient at times. In the main though its flaws mirror those I had with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and if anything they’re magnified because there’s less other stuff going on here to distract the viewer.

The first of these is the linear nature of the quest. Characters go from A to B to C and face similar trials and tribulations. In particular the escape from the Goblins feels very much like the Mines of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Similarly there’s almost the sense that there’s a list to be ticked off; Trolls, check, goblins, check, orcs, check-maybe it’s the nature of the source material, but adding the characters at Rivendell in, plus Radagast and the Necromancer as well and it does feel a little like everything but the kitchen sink’s been thrown in.

My biggest issue though? The almost ever present get out of jail free card that is Gandalf. Seriously just count how many times, in this film alone, he saves the day with some convenient magic in the nick of time. It kinda dents the tension somewhat, and however great McKellen is, at times the film is better when he’s not around.

Overall though as I say I liked it a lot. It’s not going to be the game changing epic in the way The Lord of the Rings trilogy was, it’s overlong and a bit overly comfortable, but it’s also very enjoyable. I just don’t think it’ll ever be regarded as a true classic.