Sunday, 16 June 2013

Why the World Doesn't Need Zach Snyder: Man of Steel Review

In 2006, Bryan Singer's Superman Returns was released in cinemas. Halfway between a franchise reboot and sequel to Richards Donner and Lester's Superman: The Movie and Superman II, Returns garnered largely positive reviews yet failed to find popularity amongst audiences, and fared poorly at the box office. A sequel was said to be in the works, and if the law of superhero sequels, exemplified by X-Men 2, Spiderman 2, and The Dark Knight holds any water, Singer's sequel could have been something special. Sadly, Superman Returns' failure at the box-office ultimately led to its follow up being axed. One rumoured title for that film was Man of Steel: now, seven years on, a new film directed by Zach Snyder, unconnected to both Superman Returns and its predecessors, but bearing that title, is released. And, oh, won't it make you yearn for what could have been, as 2013's Man of Steel is not only one of the most bloated, muddled and boring superhero films in recent memory, but also one of the worst films of the year. Yes, Zach Snyder has once again demonstrated that character, dialogue and tension are secondary concerns in favour of empty spectacle, dreary cinematography and obnoxious stylisation.

Coming from the director of the risible Sucker Punch, it comes as little surprise that Man of Steel fails to match the verisimilitude and the emotional nuance of either Richard Donner and Bryan Singer's iterations of the character. However, what disappoints the most is the broken promise of the excellent marketing campaign. Man of Steel's trailers were suggestive of a reflective, toned-down character piece: an examination of what it means to be a man of steel, a companion, if you will, to Christopher Nolan's analysis of Batman in The Dark Knight. Snyder's title invites comparisons to Nolan's film, and indeed, much of the reticence over Snyder's hiring as director was assuaged by Nolan's dual role as producer and story supervisor. Because of this, Man of Steel's abject failure as a weighty, grown-up comic adaptation is felt all the more acutely.

Steel-jawed: Cavill is undoubtedly the right fit for Kal-El.
Snyder's heavy stylisation of his films, his insistent use of slow motion, over-use of pop music, washed-out colour schemes and odd (to be generous) sense of framing are often laid out as his failings as a director. With the exceptions of slow-motion and pop music, Man of Steel finds all of these idiosyncrasies present and correct. However, Snyder's fundamental inadequacy as a storyteller does not come from his overwrought style, but rather, his complete lack of a sense of character depth and narrative pacing. Let me give an example: the first act of Man of Steel broadly mirrors that of the 1978 Superman: The Movie - the Kryptonian General Zod attempts to lead a military coup and is imprisoned in the Phantom Zone; Jor-El sends his infant son, Kal, to Earth to survive Krypton's imminent destruction. Kal, raised as Clark Kent, grows up, struggling to come to terms with his emerging powers in a world that will not accept them. Clark travels to the Arctic to discover his Fortress of Solitude where he learns about Krypton. Clark puts on the suit, becomes Superman, and hey presto, journeys back to civilisation to save the world. The difference between the 1978 and 2013 versions of this story is that one is invested with depth, clarity and wonderful moments of characterisation, and the other shows Superman crashing into a mountain. Let's focus on the sequence where Clark finally puts on the suit. This is one of the most important moments in the story, the turning point where Clark finally accepts his destiny, reconciling his dual identities of Clark Kent and Kal-El into that of Superman. In the Donner version, we travel north with Clark, discover the Fortress of Solitude, and witness him learn about his Kryptonian heritage. In a sequence that lasts no more than a few minutes, we feel the years that Clark spends in the fortress, learning about Krypton and coming to terms with his identity. Spending almost a decade alone, Clark grows from a boy into a man, and when he finally emerges, clothed in the suit that he has carried with him his entire life, he stands in the distance, barely visible, motionless. The famous John Williams score begins, and, almost imperceptibly, Superman lifts off the ground. He flies towards the camera, swoops off frame to the right, and in a mere second is gone. It's our first glimpse of what is to come. It's tense, controlled and thrilling: the perfect mixture of character and narrative development. In the 2013 version, through almost sheer coincidence Clark travels to the Arctic and meets Jor-El as a hologram, who shows him the suit rotating in a glass box. Jor-El tells him he has to be a symbol of hope (or something), and in the very next scene, with zero sense of time passing (does Clark put on the suit immediately, or some time after?), Clark emerges wearing the suit. Illuminated from behind, Clark walks slowly as his cape billows majestically in the arctic wind. In many ways it is a beautiful shot, but for the fact that it is completely lacking in any tension or sense of payoff. Even though both sequences last roughly the same amount of time, and both appear at roughly the same point in their respective films, Snyder's version comes of as hollow, anticlimactic and devoid of purpose. The suit reveal at this point, and in this way, tells us nothing of the character, or the reasons why Clark has so readily accepted the mantle of Superman. The audience reaction should be of exhilaration, eliciting a sense of catharsis, but here, at best, it is closer to leaning over to the person next to you and whispering, 'oooh, that looks cool'.

That mentality, of 'it's good because it looks cool', is at the heart of everything that is wrong with Man of Steel, and more broadly, Snyder's approach as a director. As Mark Kermode rightly pointed out in his review of Watchmen, Snyder is clearly in thrall with the source material, approaching Superman with reverence and passion. He understands that when Superman dons the suit it must feel momentous, and that when he meets Lois Lane it must lead to romance. But he fundamentally does not understand why Superman wears the suit, or why he and Lois can and do fall in love. For all Man of Steel's navel-gazing ponderous tone, Snyder is incapable of exploring the reasons behind character motivation or narrative theme. This works when you are making a visceral exploitation film like his remake of Dawn of the Dead, but it does not work here, especially when the film constantly tells us how important this story is. Superman is arguably the most iconic character in Western pop culture, and indeed, Snyder recognises that iconography, but he categorically does not understand it. He sees Superman's 'S', but he cannot see the man behind it.

One of Adams' few scenes with Cavill.
Richard Donner knew that his Superman had to feel relatable: heroic yes, but also flawed: when Superman reverses time and saves Lois, he does so at the expense of his promise not to interfere with Earth's history, as well as being motivated by his past failure to save his father's life. Bryan Singer, too, knew that drama is more than smashing into buildings and melting things with heat-vision: his Superman suffered the consequences of leaving Lois behind for 6 years to get on with her life without him. Singer and Donner are directors that understand that the essentials of storytelling - drama, tension, character - come from internal conflict, and that action, however spectacular, is merely the external manifestation of that conflict. Zach Snyder simply does not understand this, seeing only the surface and mistaking that for the story. His response to a scene not working on an emotional level is to drain the colour, turn up the bass and crudely zoom in the camera, as if to force us to look harder for that elusive drama. You can look as hard as you like: in Snyder's cinema there are images but no imagery; things happen but there is no story. The result of this profound shallowness is that in this vision of Superman, every box that we expect to be ticked is done so blankly and without interrogation - the suit, Jonathan Kent, Jor-El, Lois, the Daily Planet are all here - but none of them have the slightest depth or meaning beyond the audience cooing over their presence on the screen.

This lack of depth could (maybe) be forgiven if, as with last year's marvelous Avengers, Man of Steel contained any sense of levity, humour or fun. Even the brooding Dark Knight trilogy had moments of all three, ably offered by supporting characters Alfred and Lucius Fox. Man of Steel, however, has none of this balance, seemingly worried that any injection of lightness may detract from its ponderous tone. Snyder is apparently unaware that it is the flashes of light that make the darkness that much more effective: it's devastating when Lois dies in Donner's Superman, but in Man of Steel, when literally tens of thousands of Metropolis' citizens are killed in a spectacular yet vacuous showdown between Superman and Zod, we barely bat an eyelid.

It is the climactic action sequences that have drawn the film's biggest approbations, with Devin Faraci of Badass Digest claiming that Man of Steel has 'the best superhero action ever put to film'. With respect, it seems 'best' has become confused with 'loudest'. The scale of destruction in the film's final act has a bizarre disconnect between a body count (people caught between the Kryptonian smackdown are obliterated with a giddy abandon yet unseen in a Superman movie), and any sense of consequence whatsoever. How do you make a fight between two indestructible beings exciting? It's a difficult trick to pull off, but Snyder's answer is to smash buildings, and if that doesn't work, smash some more. Then smash more, and more and more. The sheer scale and length of these scenes is so extreme that they very quickly become boring, with no sense of peril or tension, despite the scores of innocent people supposedly perishing in the chaos. Most odd, however, is how difficult it is to tell what is going on, with crash zooms, shaky cameras and irritating close-ups proving just as obnoxious as Snyder's usual propensity for slow motion.
Michael Shannon is reliably intense as General Zod.
You may be somewhat surprised to hear, then, that there were things I liked about the film: the casting was perfect, with Henry Cavill proving a great choice for the eponymous hero, and Michael Shannon a perfect fit for the maniacal and passionate Zod. Moreover, the performances were uniformly good, hampered only by a dreadful script by David Goyer, who, without Christopher Nolan's directorial talent for turning clunky exposition into compelling dialogue, delivers line after line that would embarrass a fourteen year old. I liked that Lois Lane knows who Superman is from the start - it sets up a nice future dynamic between Lois and Clark at The Daily Planet, and elegantly sidesteps the inherent silliness of Clark wearing glasses as a disguise. It's a shame then, that Amy Adams and Cavill have absolutely zero chemistry, hampered by a plot that only gives them a handful of scenes together. Moreover, in those few scenes, they are laden with passionless exposition. Kevin Costner invests his Jonathan Kent with a degree of depth, conflicted by the desire to protect his son from an ignorant world, and the understanding that Clark will one day have to confront his place in the world, but this is undermined by the senseless and frustrating manner of his untimely death.

There are potentially many things to like about Man of Steel, but almost all of them are buried by the film's numerous and inescapable flaws. Lacking depth, subtlety, real tension or even peril, Snyder's re-imagining of Superman is profoundly shallow. But more than that, as I watched Man of Steel, it occured to me that I was watching the death of the superhero film as a major genre. This year we've had Superman, Iron Man, and we are due another Wolverine film (did anyone even want one?). Next year we get to team up with the X-Men again, Spiderman has another crack at amazing us, and in 2015 the Avengers will assemble once more. This is not to mention the host of auxillary features, such as Thor 2 and Captain America 2 that will support these tentpoles. But with production problems on Thor, rumours that Robert Downey Jr. may be recast for Avengers 2, and the endless false-starts for the Justice League movie, I can't help but think that Man of Steel is signalling the superhero cycle's decline: I mean, how many more variations on this story can be written for the big screen? At their best, I love superhero films, and talented writers and directors will always find new stories to tell, and new ways to tell them. But if the superhero genre must go the way of the Western, the Hammer Horror and the Film Noir, I just hope that we can end on something better than this.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Oscar 2013 Predictions

On 24 February, the winners of the 85th annual Academy Awards will be announced. With every everyone and their uncle getting in on the action, I've decided to throw my own predictions into the ring for the major categories (Best Picture, Director, Actor / Actress, Supporting Actor / Actress, and Original and Adapted Screenplay), and a few of the minor categories. There are probably a dozen methods to predict the outcomes, so for my soothsaying, I'm going to use a highly sophisticated combination of history, Academy voting patterns, gut instinct and very subjective reasoning to determine without question this year's winners. Feel free to add your own predictions in the comments section.

Best Picture
The most important category at the Oscars, this year sees nine films nominated for Best Picture. These are:
  • Amour
  • Argo
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Django Unchained
  • Les Miserables
  • Lincoln
  • Life of Pi
  • Silver Linings Playbook
  • Zero Dark Thirty
There are some very strong contenders this year, especially with heavyweights Lincoln, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty in the running. Personally I would love to see Michael Haneke's tender yet uncompromising Amour win, but, given that only nine non-English language films have ever been nominated for Best Picture in the Academy's history, and that Oscars rarely go to films with such dark subject matter, it's very unlikely that Haneke's film will win in this category. ArgoLincoln, or Les Mis are my favourites. Argo and Les Mis have been critically and commercially successful, with Lincoln promising the same, and all three tick the boxes of big, sweeping stories, historical settings and scenery chewing, big name actors, all of which are favoured by the Academy. Silver Linings Playback has been tipped by some, but comedies are rarely, if ever, given the gong, so I think SLB will have to be content with a nod. The rest are too controversial (Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained) or strange (Beasts of the Southern Wild), to win. Then again, neither Argo nor Les Miserables has been nominated for Best Director, which almost always means a no-win for Best Picture, and Les Mis' director Tom Hooper, already won the Director and Picture Oscars for his last film, The King's Speech. With its recent BAFTA win, Argo is now tipped in favour of Lincoln to win, with the received wisdom that one win usually follows the other. However, this isn't always the case: in fact in the last ten years, BAFTA and Oscar awarded different films best picture in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008.
To Win: Lincoln. Second choice: Argo. Outside chance: Les Miserables

Best Director
My favourite category, in that Best Director often produces interesting winners, such as Kathryn Bigelow 2009's The Hurt Locker, and the opportunity for the Academy to put right what once went wrong, as with Martin Scorsese for The Departed, in a win clearly awarded for his overall body of work rather than the film that won. The nominees are:
  • Michael Haneke - Amour
  • Ang Lee - Life of Pi
  • David O Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
  • Steven Spielberg - Lincoln
  • Behn Zeitlin - Beasts of the Southern Wild
This has been by far the hardest category for me to call, with five very strong contenders this year. Most pundits are backing Steven Spielberg as this year's winner, with The Huffington Post giving him an 88.7% of winning. According to the HP, Ang Lee is in very distant second place with only an 8% chance of beating Spielberg. Indiewire and Rope of Silicon make similar predictions. It seems like a no-brainer, but the Academy have a history of of dangling a win in front of Spielberg before giving it to someone else, with six nominations (excluding this year) and only two wins. In contrast, Lee's ratio is much better one win out of two nominations. Complicating things further, Lee's Brokeback Mountain and Spielberg's Munich were both nominated for Best Picture in 2005, but lost out to Paul Haggis' Crash, a retrospectively baffling decision, and one which might make the Academy want to appease both Spielberg and Lee. To wit: if Lincoln wins best picture, which it will, Lee could win Best Director. That said, last time the directors were in contention, Lee beat Spielberg with Brokeback Mountain. Despite the HP's odds in favour of Lincoln, I think this is a close call, and until this time I've been saying Lee would get it, but dammit, I can't deny it any longer: Spielberg will get it this year.

To Win: Steven SpielbergSecond choice: Ang Lee. Outside chance: David O Russell.

 Best Actress
  • Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
  • Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
  • Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
  • Quvenzhane Wallis - Beasts of the Southern Wild
  • Naomi Watts - The Impossible
If there was any justice in the world, Quvenzhane Wallis would win Best Actress for a performance that was by turns natural, affecting and strange in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but rarely do child actors win Oscars; True Grit's Hailie Steinfield lost out to Melissa Leo in The Fighter as Supporting Actress in 2010, which was doubly surprising, given that Steinfield was the lead character in her film, and had she been nominated in that category, deserved to win over Natalie Portman in Black SwanQue sera. This year, Best Actress will undoubtedly go to Jennifer Lawrence, a remarkably talented and attractive young actor in the ascendant. Lawrence has the golden quality of having success in smaller arthouse fare such as Winter's Bone, which also earned her an Oscar nod, as well as proven commercial bankability, first with a supporting role in the well-received X Men: First Class, and to a much greater extent in last year's The Hunger Games. It's possible that Jessica Chastain, another bankable, talented actor on her way up, could snatch a win, but really, Lawrence is a shoo-in.

To Win: Jennifer Lawrence. Second choice: Jessica Chastain. Outside chance: Quvenzhane Wallis.

Best Actor
  • Daniel Day Lewis - Lincoln
  • Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
  • Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
  • Joaquin Phoenix - The Master
  • Denzel Washington - Flight
Daniel Day Lewis will win. Hugh Jackman could have won were it not for the milkshake-drinking juggernaut of Lewis, and Joaquin Phoenix deserves a gong for his dark turn in The Master, which regrettably looks set to win nothing this year. Denzel Washington is a solid actor but doesn't stand a cat in hell's chance, Bradley Cooper even less so.

To Win: Daniel Day Lewis. Second choice: Hugh Jackman. Outside chance: Joaquin Phoenix

Best Supporting Actress
  • Amy Adams - The Master
  • Sally Field - Lincoln
  • Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
  • Helen Hunt - The Sessions
  • Jacki Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook
There are three very strong contenders amongst this year's nominees - Amy Adams, Anne Hathaway and Helen Hunt - but there is little doubt that Hathaway will be the one to walk away with Best Supporting Actress. Hunt gave a fantastic performance in The Sessions, and Adams was indispensable in The Master, but in less than fifteen minutes of screentime, Hathaway completely stole Les Miserables from under the noses of stars Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe. Hathaway deserves to win, and she will.

To Win: Anne Hathaway. Second choice: Amy Adams. Outside chance: Helen Hunt.

Best Supporting Actor
  • Alan Arkin - Argo
  • Robert De Niro - Silver Linings Playbook
  • Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln
  • Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained
  • Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
Philip Seymour Hoffman really should win this one, but it's Tommy Lee Jones that's tipped for the win. If he gets it, and Spielberg does get Best Director in the end, Lincoln could sweep the major categories, a grand gesture that the Academy are increasingly fond of granting. But despite others' predictions, I'm not convinced that Spielberg is guaranteed to win Best Director, so here is what I think will happen: if Spielberg wins, so will Jones for Best Supporting Actor. But if Ang Lee wins for Best Director, the floor will be open for Hofffman to take home his second statuette. I'm betting against the odds here, but it'll be interesting to see how the dominoes fall.

To Win: Phillip Seymour Hoffman (only if Lee wins Best Director). Second choice: Tommy Lee Jones. Outside chance: Alan Arkin.

Best Original Screenplay
  • Amour  - Michael Haneke
  • Django Unchained - Quentin Tarantino
  • Flight - John Gatins
  • Moonrise Kingdom - Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola
  • Zero Dark Thirty  - Mark Boal
This one's potentially tricky, as there is a diverse nominee list here. We can eliminate Amour and Zero Dark Thirty for the same reasons that they won't win in their other nominated categories. That leaves Flight, which few people have seen yet and has received good, but not great, reviews, and Moonrise Kingdom, which came out very early in 2012, which usually kills any hopes of a win dead in the water. Plus neither of these really feel like Oscar winners. So I'm going to go with Django Unchained, which despite controversy, has achieved critical and commercial success, and has for many been seen as a return to form by Quentin Tarantino. Most importantly, it won at the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs.

To Win: Django Unchained. Second choice: Zero Dark Thirty. Outside chance: Moonrise Kingdom.

Best Adapted Screenplay
  • Argo - Chris Terrio
  • Beasts of the Southern Wild - Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin
  • Life of Pi - David Magge
  • Lincoln - Tony Kushner
  • Silver Linings Playbook - David O Russell
It would be nice to see Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin win for Beasts of the Southern Wild, but that's never going to happen. Life of Pi might seem an easy win in this category, and Lincoln is a strong contender, but it will be Argo that wins Best Adapted Screenplay on the bases that it will lose to Lincoln for Best Picture, and that Affleck was snubbed for Best Director. Plus, like big winner Lincoln, Argo's period wartime setting, 'based on true events' story, and emotive subject matter are all natural Academy bedfellows, and so Chris Terrio will take away Argo's only statuette.

To Win: Argo. Second choice: Life of Pi. Outside chance: Lincoln

Best Foreign Language Film
  • Amour
  • No
  • War witch
  • A Royal Affair
  • Kon-Tiki
Given that out of these I've only seen Amour, I'm going to have to go on gut instinct on this one, but it does seem to me that Michael Haneke's film is the only one that can win this, given that most US and British audiences will have only been able to catch Amour before the nominations were announced. More importantly, Amour has been nominated but will lose in the Best Picture and Best Director categories, the Academy will have to give it Best Foreign Film so they don't look like complete jackasses.

To Win: Amour. Second Choice: No. Outside Chance: A Royal Affair.

 Best Animated Film
  • Brave
  • Frankenweenie
  • Paranorman
  • Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists
  • Wreck-it Ralph
The two serious contenders in this race are Pixar's Brave and Tim Burton's Frankenweenie. Given that I've only seen Brave on this list, it's a tricky one to call. That said, it's difficult to see any other film than Pixar's taking away Best Animated Film, even it it wasn't received quite as well as some of its other masterpieces. I'd really hate to see Burton get the award, given that he hasn't made anything approaching interesting or original in about fifteen years.
To Win: Brave. Second Choice: Frankenweenie. Outside Chance: Pirates!

Music (Original Song)

  • 'Before My Time', By J. Ralph, Chasing Ice
  • 'Everybody Needs a Best Friend', by Walter Murphy and Seth MacFarlane, Ted
  • 'Pi's Lullaby', by Mychael Danne and Bombay Jayashri, Life of Pi
  • 'Skyfall', by Adele Adkins and Paul Epworth, Skyfall
  • 'Suddenly', by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer and Alain Boulbill, Les Miserables
With her win at the BAFTAs for the superb 'Skyfall', this one's in the bag for Adele. 'Suddenly' is a terrific song, and in any other year could probably win, but there really isn't any other competition for Adele.

To Win: 'Skyfall'. Second Choice: 'Suddenly'. Outside Chance: 'Pi's Lullaby'.

Music (Original Score)

  • Dario Marianelli, Anna Karenina
  • Alexandre Desplat, Argo
  • Mychael Dann, Life of Pi
  • John Williams, Lincoln
  • Thomas Newman, Skyfall
It's a pretty uninspiring list this year, leaving out Johnny Greenwood's fantastic score for The Master, amongst others. This one could really be anyone's game, so I'm going to take a punt and say:

To Win: Mychael Danna. Second Choice: Alexandre Desplat. Outside Chance: Thomas Newman.


  • Seamus McGarvey, Anna Karenina
  • Robert Richardson, Django Unchained
  • Claudio Miranda, Life of Pi
  • Janusz Kaminski, Lincoln
  • Roger Deakins, Skyfall
This year's cinematography category has thrown up some very strong contenders, with Miranda, Kaminski and Deakins particularly deserving to win. Personally, I would like to see Deakins get the award for his beautifully crisp, neon-infused work on Skyfall, but the sepia tones of Lincoln just drip with Academy bait, as does the admittedly very pretty colour palette of Miranda's work on Life of Pi. I think what will clinch it is  whether the Academy are ready to accept the 3D presentation of Life of Pi. With recent cinematography wins for Hugo and Avatar, it's clear that they are, and so:

To Win: Claudio Miranda. Second Choice: Janusz Kaminski. Outside Chance: Roger Deakins. 

Visual Effects

  • Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton and R. Christopher White, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
  • Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer and Donald R. Elliot, Life of Pi
  • Janek Sirrs, Jeff White, Guy Williams and Dan Sudick, The Avengers
  • Richard Stammers, Trevor Wood, Charley Henley and Martin Hill, Prometheus
  • Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, Philip Brennan, Neil Corbould and Michael Dawson, Snow White and the Huntsman

One of the few things that the disappointing and altogether baffling Prometheus had going for it was its beautiful visual effects, both in techinal craftsmanship and artistic vision. Indeed, the rather trite and sentimental Life of Pi offered some of the most accomplished and fitfully beautiful 3D visuals yet, and managed that rare feat of allowing the special effects work to service the story, and not the other way around. Plus, the tiger Richard Parker must surely rank as a landmark in photorealism. On the other hand, the Academy love a good Peter Jackson CGI romp, even if that CGI seems to have hardly advanced since 2003's Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Also worth mentioning is the special effects work on the terrific Avengers, which seamlessly blended in real actors with computer-generated spectacle.

To Win: Life of Pi. Second Choice: Prometheus. Outside Chance: Avengers.

So there you have it: my predictions for the 85th Annual Oscars. I've left out the Documentary category, as not only have I seen none of the nominated films, but I really don't know enough about documentaries to make any kind of intelligent prediction. The same goes for the handful of technical categories I've missed. The award ceremony takes place on Sunday 24th February, so be sure to check in and see how many I've got right.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Special Guest Post: Django Unravelled

So you thought we were done with Django Unchained? You thought wrong, dude. It's fair to say that Quentin Tarantino's new film has provoked some mighty debate since its release, and so in a first for the Magnificent Tramp, I've offered the floor to my friend and colleage, Joe Barton, for a special guest post on his response to the film. Enjoy!
Firstly, many thanks to the Magnificent Tramp for giving me this opportunity to clumsily deconstruct a film that he has already succinctly praised on this very blog; I’m aware it’s no way to repay such hospitality. Secondly, this shouldn’t be seen as a counter review to the Tramp’s, but more an exploration of why I found Django Unchained problematic. Actually, ‘problematic’ isn’t quite the word. ‘Unpleasant’ would be more like it. This is odd for two reasons. Firstly, because I don’t necessarily disagree with much of what the Tramp has said about the quality of the performances, or Tarantino’s obvious talents as a filmmaker. Secondly, because it shares many narrative parallels with Inglourious Basterds (2009), a film that I didn’t have the same misgivings about, upon first or one of many subsequent viewings. Both are ‘historical’ revenge narratives with many similarities (an individual victim of systemic persecution seeking violent retribution; a psychopath antagonist with a taste for racial theories, be it comparing Jews to rats or phrenology; tense, undercover missions that are scuppered by a sleuth antagonist; a climax in which a significant building is blown with smuggled dynamite; a protagonist miraculously reversing their capture and subjecting the aforementioned sleuth antagonist to a cruel punishment, and so on). While there are also many important differences, the two films share a fundamental similarity in their postmodern filtering of sensitive historical moments through self-congratulatory genre parody.
Of course, I’m not against playing with history. The question is: why is Tarantino playing with history? And why this history? Given that Django is a disturbing watch, surely these are worthwhile questions to ask. Tarantino has claimed, ex post facto, that Django has been responsible for nurturing a more ‘honest’ debate about slavery in the US, and even edged towards suggesting that it’s an allegory of the War on Drugs and racial politics of the US prison system. I don’t find those explanations persuasive. Irreverence is one thing, with its own set of ideological assumptions. Gratuity is something else altogether.

‘I’m doing to make this slave malarkey work for my benefit’
-Dr King Schultz
So Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained share many similarities due to the presence of a revenge narrative. As David Denby suggests, this is troubling. Denby argues that Tarantino’s use of the revenge narrative reveals that the director is ‘indignant over the submissiveness of history’s victims, so he gives them a second shot’, and I agree. In fact, the director as much as admits this when he says his goal is to ‘make the victims the victors, and victimise the victimisers’. There are two points to extrapolate from this. Firstly, that this presents history as an individualist fantasy. Moreover, a romantic individualist fantasy, rendering slavery a ‘compelling’ backdrop to a guy getting his gal - as Samuel L. Jackson mentions in one press package interview, the institution of slavery in the Antebellum South are, ultimately, just ‘the odds that Django had to go up against to get the woman that he loves’. Django may look like Frederick Douglass, as The Tramp points out, but this being a Tarantino revenge flick, the lone ranger/mass murderer Django ironically ends up as far from Douglass’s model of egalitarian collective struggle as you could imagine. As Ishmael Reed puts it, ‘Tarantino, despite the history of black resistance, apparently believes that progress for blacks has been guided by an elite, which doesn’t explain the hundreds of revolts throughout this hemisphere which weren’t guided by German bounty hunters nor Abraham Lincoln, nor a Talented Tenth Negro’. Reed’s evocation of the Talented Tenth, W.E.B. Dubois’s model for nurturing an elite leadership class to guide the civil rights movement, is imperative, I feel. As Reed notes, Django’s exceptional nature is frequently commented on in the film, by Calvin J. Candie and many others (the final scene in the movie, shown after the credits fall, finds another slave asking ‘who was that n---a?’, which tellingly also makes the ‘n-word’ the final word of the film), but it is the anti-realist thrust of the revenge narrative that truly emphasises this – Django ‘the fastest shot in the South’, the ace horse rider, prodigious actor, the man able to skip around in an early scene despite having been marched hundreds of miles in shackles, merrily ride towards the horizon despite being a wanted man, and so on. 
Civil rights leadership is also evoked through Dr King Schultz’s name, the MLK reference revealing the politics of Schultz’s narrative function as secondary protagonist (see schema). Whereas the freedom of Douglass, to perhaps stretch the comparison, was bought via funds raised by a collective of British supporters gained during his lecture travels, nearly a decade after his escape from slavery (itself the result of self-education and help from his lover and free black woman Anna Murray), Django is bought first, benevolently freed second, all as a pawn in Scultz’s bounty hunting scheme. Of all of the parallels between Django and Basterds, the similarities of the narrative function of Schultz and Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is perhaps the most revealing. Both are charismatic, homicidal agents of the American state that directly (Django) or indirectly (Basterds) uses their relative privilege in relation to the primary protagonist in order to assist them with their violent revenge mission. Their own background is referenced (‘I am the direct descendant of the mountain man Jim Bridger…’/’Every German knows that story’) in order to firmly establish their difference from the persecuted group which they protect, while also distancing themselves from the society of the persecutors (‘Nazis…are the foot soliders of a Jew-hatin’, mass-murderin’ maniac and they need to be destroyed’/’I detest slavery‘). As such, they function as a kind of surrogate for the present day privileged audience member, with their violent support of the primary protagonist allowing the viewer to cathartically expunge any sense of complicity or culpability. 
Schultz, then, reads like an amalgamation of those rose-tinted Unionist views of Lincoln, plus Spielberg’s precious version of abolitionist Lewis Tappan in Amistad (1997), and the Man with No Name. The ridiculous contrivance of this, of course, is pure Tarantino, indicative of what Armond White calls ‘a white hipster’s voyeuristic pleasure in black vengeance…a form of Liberal porn’. Having Schultz be a German immigrant not only allows Tarantino to cast Basterds-show stealer Christoph Waltz, an Austrian, in a less plausible fairy tale scenario than ‘Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France’, but also send a contemporary ‘progressive’ sensibility back through time into 1858 (which is three years before the Civil War, not two, as the caption oh-so ironically gets wrong).
But there’s something else about Django, beyond its problematic hollowing of collective struggle into one charismatic, photogenic, gun-slinging man. After all, Inglourious Basterds suffers from these same problems, but my experience of these two films wasn’t the same. Is it simply that, as cinema goer, I have one set of expectations for a film that irreverently plays with the Holocaust, and another for those that use slavery? I’d like to think not, although I’m open to that charge of double standards. Anti-Semitism, while referenced to from the start, does not feature particularly heavily in the dialogue or action of Basterds, even if its claims to be a Jewish revenge movie are undermined by the fact that Shoshanna never survives to see the deaths of the Nazi high command, and that WWII and, as a consequence, the Holocaust, are brought to a close by the negotiations between a Nazi ‘Jew Hunter’ and an American OSS officer. Nevertheless, anti-Semitic language is hardly ubiquitous. The equivalent cannot be said for Django. Instead, I would argue that is what marks Django as different. Indeed, it is the subject matter of slavery in the Antebellum South that allows Tarantino to luxuriate in a subject that has always lingered in his movies: racism. In Django, despite its superficial ‘get paid for killing white people’ self-deprecating ‘anti-racism’, Tarantino’s preoccupation with prejudice proves toxic.

‘Racist Anti-Racist’
-David Denby
Even though Spike Lee has publically refused to watch Django, his oft-cited criticism of Tarantino’s use of the ‘n-word’ would be just as appropriate here, given that the word is reputedly uttered 110 times in the film. At the risk of revisiting a rather hoary debate, Tarantino’s continuing use of the word does indeed epitomise his perennial, disturbing preoccupation with race and racism. Publically, Tarantino is keen to stress his love for black American popular culture (evinced in this instance by Django’s indebtedness to Blaxploitation-go-Southern shoot ‘em ups Boss N----r and Brotherhood of Death, and the casting of Django and Broomhilda von Shaft as the ancestors of John Shaft) making such comments like ‘I always thought it would be the coolest thing to be the white person on Soul Train’ (an odd admission in itself, again telling in its preoccupation with race, rather than the pop culture artefact itself). On the other hand, as Amy Taubin notes, his films suggest an individual ‘deeply disturbed by barely repressed, ambivalent feelings about race in general, black masculinity in particular…black male delinquents, while hip and alluring in Tarantino screenplays, wind up eliminated, raped, or murdered, with black male-white female miscegenation always punished. Conversely, black women are the exotic trophies of white male desire’. (‘Men’s Room, Tarantino: the Film Geek Files) Django and Jules maybe cool, but they’re also killers. What makes them cool, what makes them killers, and how these two qualities are meant to relate to their race, is left revealingly ambiguous.
As for representations of racists, think of the anal rape–by a white supremacist police officer- of the black Marsellus Wallace (subject to an unconvincing, Lacanian theory-laden defence by Fred Botting and Scott Wilson in Tarantinian Ethics) in Pulp Fiction, and Tarantino’s own ‘dead n----r storage’ routine; the invisible blackface of Gary Oldman’s Drexl, and Dennis Hopper’s ‘Sicilians were spawned by n-----s’ monologue in True Romance. Even when his films feature few or no black characters, discussions of race and racist dialogue abounds. Shoshanna’s boyfriend in Basterds is black, allowing Tarantino’s Goebbels to engage in some white supremacism, while another Nazi officer compares the fate of King Kong to African slaves that crossed the Middle Passage. Even in Reservoir Dogs, as Amy Taubin notes, people of colour get zero [screen time], yet not a minute goes by without a reference to coons and jungle bunnies’.
Beyond the ubiquitous racism depicted as part of its supposed representation of the Antebellum South, Tarantino’s historic unhealthy relationship with notions of blackness reaches its grotesque conclusion in the form of Stephen, the uber-Uncle Tom portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, in a performance that White calls ‘prototypical–even atavistic’ in its deliverance of shuck ‘n’ jive caricature. Comparing it with Jackson’s previous roles in Tarantino films, White argues that, ‘in Django Unchained Jackson…personifies his director’s sense of the Other…roles like Jules in Pulp Fiction, Ordell in Jackie Brown and now Stephen the ultimate Uncle Tom display Jackson’s patented shamelessness–his N----r Jim flair. Jackson reverses the anger that 70s black militants felt toward the Uncle Tom figure into an actorly endorsement.’ I would argue that Stephen’s characterisation goes beyond this. Not only is he presented as pathetic, but animalistic; as it was pointed out to me by a fellow cinema goer, Jackson, with his black waistcoat, tufts of white hair, flaring nostrils, bent over gait and slow limp, is framed by Tarantino’s direction to look like a silverback gorilla. As with Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), referenced via Schultz’ Bicklesque quick-draw sleeve gun (‘you talkin’ to me?’/’are you pointing that weapon at me with lethal intention?’), Django exhibits an uncomfortable ambiguity between representing racists and racism, and recycling their own grotesquery for a cheap, [assumed to be] knowing laugh. Tarantino’s oeuvre, then, has always been marked by an unsettling preoccupation with racism. In Django it proves overwhelming, inescapable, and exhausting.

Mendacious Mandingos

Mandingo: Expect the truth?
This is not the same to call Tarantino a racist, however, or any other such libellous label. As White argues, to dismiss or condemn Tarantino or Django as racist is far too simplistic and unconstructive. To dismiss criticism of Django as taking the film ‘too seriously’, on the other hand, is complacent. To draw this post to a close, I want to discuss one final scene in order to reiterate this point. It has been pointed out, by Tarantino as well as others, that there are two codes of cinematic violence operating within the film. One of these is the standard Tarantino spectacle of choreographed bloodletting (compare the final Candie Land shootout with the barroom massacre in Inglourious Basterds, or indeed the black and white scene from Kill Bill, Vol. 1). The other is something new to Tarantino’s oeuvre- a noticeably more ‘reverent’ form of violence, which appears to unsettle, rather than titillate, implying a greater degree of respect for the political status of the fictional construct being subjected to abuse. In Django, the former form of violence is mostly (but not entirely) done to white characters. The latter, mostly to black characters. This suggests a degree of self-awareness of how screen violence continues is never simply spectacle. Indeed, in an ostensibly throwaway scene in which one of Candie’s overseers looks at a stereoscopic photograph (see below) –a precursor to contemporary stereoscopic entertainment like 3D cinema- suggests that Tarantino is acutely aware of the voyeurism and spectacle at work in his cinema, which, as much as it defers to a postmodern, intextual fantasy world of other movies, can be never truly politically unproblematic. Is Tarantino implying that, in indulging ourselves in his film, we too are playing the role of a modern day overseer? Are we just like Candie, watching violence done to black bodies for our own entertainment? If so, then the apparent gratuity of violence in Django is particularly problematic. That is to say, as much as he likes to present himself as a na├»ve Fangoria reader, it remains that Tarantino is a very intelligent man- he has written a subtextual criticism of Spaghetti Westerns. He knows Sergio Leone is not just surface level cool, and yet he feels comfortable exploiting historical violence in order to exude a similar tone. The Mandingo scene is pivotal in this regard. Fighting mandingos have been another preoccupation of Tarantino for some time. In Jackie Brown, Ordell asks Max ‘Who's that big, Mandingo-looking n----r you got up there on that picture with you?’. In print, Tarantino has acknowledged the influence of Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975), itself based on Kyle Onstott’s 1957 novel of the same name, itself based on…well, legend and conjecture. Intrigued by the film, some bloggers have even contacted expert academics on the period to enquire as to the plausibility of such arrangements, whereby plantation owner demand for fatal bloodletting is met by the supply of gladiator slaves. There are compelling arguments for both sides (slavers gambling away their property because they can, versus an inefficient use of capital), but the point is that the existence of Mandingo fighting has not been proven. Again, this is something of which we have to assume that Tarantino is aware.

Who is the overseer?: Stereoscopy, voyeurism, spectacle.
So, in the scene in which Candie watches a slave smash in the skull of another with a hammer, this is potentially, as Denby notes, an ‘Old South cruelt[y] Tarantino invented for himself’. This isn’t just a knowing parody of exploitation cinema – it is exploitation cinema. Thus, my problem with Django isn’t simply that it mangles history for revenge kicks, the product being an insensitive farce that isn’t really about slavery at all (and the problems that this in itself entails). And it’s not just that Tarantino’s unhealthy preoccupation with, and regurgitation of, ‘blackness’ and black masculinity, as defined via long-standing racist tropes, reach new levels of toxicity. It’s a combination of these two things, but it’s also a question of gratuity and irreverence, of how this relates to public demand, and what this says about the history [and future] of racism and representation. It’s a question of why such an end product is deemed acceptable, let alone endearing or ‘brave’. What’s clear is that Tarantino is fully aware of the implications of the way in which he deals with historical subject matter, and yet seemingly doesn’t care. As a consequence, Django Unchained¸ to borrow a pseudo-scientific analogy from the film, feels like a 165 minute reading of the dimples on Tarantino’s skull. As a result, Django may be stylish, slick, and at points hilarious. But it’s also the most involved mapping of the director’s pathologies to date. 

Friday, 8 February 2013

BFI Friday: The Battle of Algiers

For this BFI Friday, we'll be looking at The Battle of Algiers, in at number 48 on the BFI's all time greatest movies, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo and released in 1966. Pontecorvo's film is based on the uprisings and bombings in the 1950s and 60s, during the French occupation of Algeria. The Battle of Algiers was banned in France until 1974 and only then was released with cuts. Pauline Kael in 1973 said of it that it is 'Probably the only film that has ever made middle-class audiences believe in the necessity of bombing innocent people', and indeed, the The Battle of Algiers' great controversy, that it is told from the perspective of the Algerian insurgents, still resonates in the year that Zero Dark Thirty is released in cinemas. Its contemporary relevance as a portrayal of terrorism is perhaps no better demonstrated than by the fact that in 2003 the Pentagon screened the film to demonstrate 'How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas'. The Battle of Algiers, is terrific, thrilling cinema, with wonderfully drawn characters and a tension that few modern thrillers can match. Indeed, Paul Greengrass, director of two of The Bourne films and of the superb  Green Zonehas spoken of its influence on him as a filmmaker, explaining that, 

The reason that I think [The Battle of Algiers] will endure and continue to speak to future generations is because it's essentially about change, and the way that change can be accomplished, whether through violence or through protest [...] It's got all the elements of our contemporary landscape: political violence, military intervention [...] and a common humanity.

'Not one foot' of newsreel was used in the film,
but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
One of the triumphs of The Battle of Algiers is its use of a documentary style, shot in black and white, with many scenes resembling news footage. Thirty years before 'found footage' and shaky-cam got in on the act, Pontecorvo brings an immediacy and reality to the narrative that few other directors in the 1960s were doing. If further evidence of the film's enduring relevance were needed, take a look at this article on Zero Dark Thirty, written by my colleague Alex Adams, who briefly compares Bigelow's film with The Battle of Algiers. As Adams points out, The Battle of Algiers exhibits a balance that is often lacking in modern films that deal with similar material. Indeed, to draw another comparison, Ben Affleck's Argo, a strong contender for this year's Best Picture Oscar and an otherwise excellent thriller, deals with issues of insurgency and terrorism. But just as with Zero Dark Thirty, Argo's story is told doggedly from the perspective of the the occupying force, which in that case is the Americans. In so doing, both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty invent a manichean world of goodies and baddies, despite the lip service Bigelow and Affleck pay to notions of 'balance' and self-proclaimed objectivity. In contrast, The Battle of Algiers, while clearly sympathising with the insurgent Algerians, does not demonise the French occupiers, but rather, represents both sides of the conflict in a way that is almost entirely absent from its modern counterparts.

In The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo crafts a nuanced, emotive and technically brilliant film, one that is as thrilling and compelling on a purely cinematic level as it is vital and important on the political. The Battle of Algiers is proof that cinema can be a powerful tool in political discourse, especially for something as sensitive, and as it was, urgent, as the Algerian War. Our own historical distance from the subject matter notwithstanding, the impact of Pontecorvo's film is as strong as ever, perhaps stronger, given its relevance in the face of modern Western occupations in the Middle East, and the contrast between Pontecorvo's masterpiece and contemporary political and war cinema. The Battle of Algiers is, in many ways, cinema at its best: vital, immediate, technically flawless and both emotionally and politically challenging. 

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Project Tyneside: West of Memphis, Django Unchained, McCullin, Zero Dark Thirty

With four more films notched up on the proverbial bedpost, it's time for another update on Project Tyneside. This batch was as unusual as it was varied, featuring two documentaries, the new Tarantino film, and an Oscar-nominated picture that's sure to become one of the most controversial of the year. Let's get to it!

Sunday 20th January, 14:55 West of Memphis
Amy Berg's meticulous documentary on the Memphis Three is one of the most frightening and disturbing accounts of a miscarriage of justice I have seen. Berg's film follows the story of Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley, three teenagers who were convicted of the brutal murders of three eight year-old boys in 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas. Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley maintained their innocence throughout their trials and subsequent incarcerations. West of Memphis is not the first documentary on the Memphis Three, but rather, builds on and refers to the numerous other films about the case, such as the Paradise Lost documentaries. What Berg's film offers is a painstaking presentation of the case's particulars, only to retread them over and over with increasing rigour and scepticism. What initially is presented as a strong verdict of guilty quickly becomes a saga of police incompetence, investigative negligence, unreliable witnesses and a disregard for forensic evidence and the advice of properly qualified experts. While Berg's film, co-written with Billy McMillin, has a clear agenda - that the Memphis 3 were innocent, pointing towards one of the boys' step-fathers as the real killer - West of Memphis presents an incredibly strong case for that perspective. A persuasively-constructed, haunting, and vital documentary.

Monday 21st January, 14:35 Django Unchained
I've already reviewed Quentin Tarantino's latest here, but for those of you that have yet to see the film, Django Unchained is one of the year's most provocative, and arguably, best films of the year. Very much a companion piece to Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained tells the story of Django, a slave freed by Dr King Schultz, on his quest to save his wife and exact bloody revenge on her masters. Reigning in the self-indulgence that badly hampered Death Proof, Django is amongst Tarantino's best, using the tropes and motifs of the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and 70s to craft a wildly entertaining, occasionally grand, and thrilling adventure.

Wednesday 30th January, 21:00 McCullin
The second of two documentaries on this round of Project Tyneside, David and Jacqui Morris' documentary on photo-journalist Don McCullin, best known for his technically astonishing and often disturbing war photography. The Morris siblings do a tremendous job of teasing out the internal conflicts of a man whose job it was to document the absolute worst of human misery and atrocity, with one of the great ironies of McCullin's life suggested when he describes his early successes at The Observer newspaper. He explains that this was the moment that he realised that he could escape his violent home of London's deprived Finsbury Park, only to find himself in the poorest and most violent places in the world. Structurally, the film is conventional, sticking to a linear narrative of talking heads and stills from McCullin's portfolio, but this lessens neither the remarkable - and terrible - images presented, nor the impact of the anecdotes and commentaries that accompany them. Fascinating, disturbing, at times even sickening, McCullin is a terrific portrait of an astonishing career, and for the merit of the photographer's work alone, this deserves to be seen.


Thursday 31st January, 14:05 Zero Dark Thirty
In what has already become one of the most controversial films of the year, Kathryn Bigelow's follow up to her brilliant The Hurt Locker is a superbly well-crafted, intelligent and complex thriller, with an excellent central performance from Jessica Chastain as CIA agent Maya. Having gone in aware of criticisms that Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture or implies that torture led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I was wary of the early scenes that depict waterboarding and other forms of interrogation. But although there's room for debate here, I came down on the side that Bigelow shows torture - albeit relentlessly from the torturer's point of view - without telling us what to think of it. Rather, the film is more concerned with what effect these interrogations have on investigator Maya, as we witness her develop from a reluctant, cautious rookie in 2003, to an obsessive and tenacious operative determined to capture her quarry. This, for me, is the key to Zero Dark Thirty, and equal credit goes to Chastain and Bigelow for crafting a nuanced, compelling bildungsroman, particularly given that there are no grandstanding scenes for Chastain to chew scenery, as one might expect if Michael Mann and Al Pacino had made the film. There are conflicts with colleagues, yes, but there is no courtroom scene, no rhetorical battle to win that suddenly changes the tide of events; just a gradual development of story and character that leads to the discovery of America's most vilified boogeyman. The climax of that discovery - the scene where a crack team secretly infiltrate Bin Laden's occupants and kill (some of) its occupants, is done with a skill that manages to be thrilling and tense without feeling exploitative. And what of the comedown after that climax? Bigelow saves her most poignant moment for last, hinting at a post Bin-Laden identity crisis that befalls both her main character, and by extension, the country that she represents.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Tramp Reviews: Django Unchained

Django Unchained, directed and written by Quentin Tarantino, starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington.


The 'D' is silent, but payback most certainly isn't, in Quentin Tarantino's audacious, explosive and hugely entertaining follow up to 2009's Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained. After two decades of film-making, Tarantino has finally delivered what Reservoir DogsPulp Fiction, and, most transparently, Kill Bill Volume 2 hinted at with in-jokes, oblique references and allusions: his own fully fledged tribute to the European 'Spaghetti' Westerns of the mid 1960s and 70s. Much like Inglourious Basterds stealing the title of the 1978 exploitation WWII film The Inglorious Bastards, this film's title is taken from the 1966 Django, and from a raft of similar westerns, filmed mainly in Spain and Italy, which used the name 'Django' for their morally questionable heroes. The 'Unchained' in Tarantino's film refers not only to Django's freedom, but also, to the no-holds-barred audacity that you would expect from the film-maker who gleefully concluded his last effort with the blowing up of the entire Nazi high command, history be damned, and to the extreme violence that defined the Spaghetti Western sub-genre. But make no mistake: Django Unchained is far removed from the self-indulgent, misguided tribute to grindhouse exploitation cinema that was Death Proof, proving very much a companion piece to the aforementioned return to form, Inglourious Basterds. And while Django Unchained feels very much like the Leone and Corbucci films to which it pays tribute, it's not beholden to their formulas, giving Tarantino free reign to make a modern, and dare I say it, politically complex Western. 

I like the way you dress, boy: Foxx as a very stylish Django 
Returning from his role as Hans Landa in Basterds, Christoph Waltz delivers a terrific performance as the hirsute and eloquent Schultz, stealing the show right from under the nose of Django's star, Jamie Foxx. Indeed, in a story ostensibly about a freed slave, the first act of the script seems resolutely more interested in the slave's white liberator, which, early on, points towards some of the problematic racial politics that detractors such as Spike Lee have vociferously decried. 

Ah yes, Spike Lee, Django's most outspoken critic, who in a futile gesture has called on cinema goers to boycott the film because of extensive use of the word 'nigger'. Of every expletive in English, nothing really comes close to the 'N' word as a truly offensive and incendiary term.. And you can forgive people for their reticence over a director like Tarantino attempting to tackle an issue so completely sensitive as slavery, but to echo Samuel L. Jackson's recent defence of the film, context is everything. People in America in the nineteenth century used that word, and to omit its use would be more conspicuous, more absurd, and more offensive than having overtly racist characters using racist language. Of course, there's no question that the highly aesthetisised violence that runs throughout Django is potentially jarring given the subject, but the director neither shies away from the unspeakable brutality of slavery, nor does he, despite the humour with which he peppers his film, make light of the terrible realities of the pre-civil war Deep South. 

More than that, where Inglourious Basterds' climax revelled in its own historical revisionism, a Jewish revenge fantasy to beat all revenge fantasies, Django Unchained is cinematic revisionism, rewriting the Western formula, by Tarantino's own admission, for a folkloric black hero; a fictional, ass-kicking Frederick Douglass  (check out Django's unruly mop before his makeover and tell me it doesn't look familiar). Undoubtedly Django Unchained's greatest strength is its gradually shift of narrative agency from Schultz, who liberates an  almost mute and passive Django on the condition he assist him in his bounty hunting, to Django himself, who must make the final ascent to self-realisation alone, after Schultz is killed is a faux-climax. In retrospect, then, Waltz's early scene-stealing underlines Django's marginalisation: had the film  ended with Schultz and Django riding into the sunset, the film's narrative direction would have remained in Schultz's hands. In other words, his death is absolutely necessary for Django to take centre stage - the scene where Leonardo DiCaprio's revolting Calvin Candi forces Schultz to shake his hand is key to the narrative power structures in the film - and provides one of the smartest and thematically poignant moments in any of Tarantino's films to date. This is Django's true unchaining, liberated not just from physical slavery, but also from Schultz's symbolically binding myth-making. And when Django returns to Candiland cast in a silhouette that is equal parts Ethan Edwards and Indiana Jones, we are witness to his final transformation as a self-made legend of the West. The master's tools may never dismantle the master's house, but for Django, a bag of dynamite should do just fine. 

In a world of villains, Jackson shines as one bad motherfucker.
And so it's rather a shame to report that where Django Unchained contains some of Tarantino's smartest and most interesting characters (particularly Samuel Jackson's house-slave Stephen, as a shucking and jiving Uncle Tom figure, as conniving as he is in thrall to his white master), Django's female characters are amongst Tarantino's worst, fulfilling the one-dimensional roles of either Candi's 'comfort girls', or, in the case of Django's wife, a stock damsel-in-distress, existing only to be rescued. It's easy to argue that these stereotypes trickle down from the westerns from which Tarantino takes his cue, but in a film about shifting the marginalised to the centre, it would have been nice to see something more interesting from the writer of The Bride, Mia Wallace and Jackie Brown. 

Although neither possessing the debutant immediacy of Reservoir Dogs, nor being the game changer that was Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained confirms the return to form that Inglourious Basterds promised, with a bloody, compelling roaring rampage of revenge. As with its predecessor, it's not perfect, and with a running time of nearly three hours, will prove too long, and undisciplined, for some. Moreover, the racial politics have predictably courted controversy, and are sure to be the subject of post-colonial studies in years to come. But Django Unchained is pop-cinema at its best, an acidic splash in the eye to the mirthless, limp formulas and balance sheets under which so many other filmmakers labour. It may be early days yet, but put this down as a contender for one of the best films of the year.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Project Tyneside: Les Miserables, Safety Not Guaranteed, Amour, The Sessions

It's part two of Project Tyneside, so what have I seen since since Monday 7th? Scroll down to find out!

Sunday 13th January, 20:00 Amour
Okay, so I know Amour came out last year, but I didn't catch it so since it returned for one day to the Tyneside I thought I might as well give my thoughts on it here. Michael Haneke's film tells the story of an woman who suffers a series of debilitating strokes, and her husband who must care for her as she gradually but interminably declines. Coming from the director of Benny's Video and Funny Games, it's no surprise that Amour is an unvarnished, intense and uncompromising portrayal of illness and mortality. Set almost exclusively in the couple's apartment in France, we witness a lively and intelligent retired musician as she is reduced to a crying, speechless infant. With no score, aside from the music that is often played within the film, Haneke refuses to guide the audience when and how to feel. Moreover, by the film's close, it becomes apparent that Amour isn't simply a portrayal of a couple in old age; it's about the lengths and the depths that we take ourselves for those with whom we choose to spend our lives.

Monday 14th January, 12:05 Les Miserables
Coming from the success of 2010's (a little overrated, I thought) The King's Speech director Tom Hooper mounts an ambitious, original and finely crafted adaptation of the long-running stage musical, itself an adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel of the same name. Not having seen the stage production before, nor ever having read the novel, I came to Les Mis a complete newcomer, so unfamiliar with its story I was that I thought it was set during the 1789 French Revolution, rather than the thirty years after the revolution that it is. Going in cold like that allowed me to enjoy the film on its own terms, rather than as a stage adaptation, and enjoy it I did, a great deal. The most interesting element of Hooper's Les Mis is his choice to shoot  character scenes characters almost exclusively in close up, visually distancing those scenes from the stage production, and encouraging more personal, subtle performances from his actors, and recording them as they sing live brings a vital immediacy to proceedings. This works best with Anne Hathaway, who in her brief fifteen or so minutes of screen time, completely and undeniably walks away with the film as Fantine in a performance that both deserves the Golden Globe win, and surely demands the Supporting Actress Oscar for which Hathaway has been nominated. Elsewhere, Hugh Jackman is very good as the heroic Jean Valjean, but Russel Crowe struggles with his singing, generally looking uncomfortable as lawman Jauver. Amanda Seyfreid sure can carry a tune, but is stuck with a character that is merely a pretty, innocent object for the other players to act around. An imperfect, but impressive and often interesting production, deserving to be seen on the big screen.

Monday 14th January, 16:00 Safety Not Guaranteed
Another year, another quirky indie comedy. Washed out photography: check. Lo-fi ukulele-inflected soundtrack: check Pretty, middle-class girl in a hoodie, inexplicably sulky, who cultivates an unlikely romance with another outsider: check, check check. All of these cliches are very much present and correct, and with the first act of Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed, a film about a journalist doing a story on a wacko who claims he can time travel, playing out like just another (500) Days of Youth in Revolt, my hopes weren't high for the rest of the film. But right around the time Mark Duplass turns up as the above-mentioned wacko, Kenneth, things take a dramatic turn for the better. Kenneth makes for a preposterous, paranoid and likeable male lead in equal measure, and Aubrey Plaza is great as above-mentioned sulky girl Darius, refreshingly centre stage in a genre that so often casts females as foils for neurotic male protagonists. Darius and Kenneth's romance, while predictable, plays out with believability and a sweetness that is sadly lacking in the supporting cast, who, save for a few nice moments, feel superfluous against the compelling central plot. Meanwhile, Kenneth, while clearly a few gigawatts short of a flux capacitor, is compelling and likeable enough that both Darius and the audience begin to believe he might actually be able to construct his time machine. By the film's close, the answer to that question really doesn't matter (I'll not reveal it here; after all, no one should know too much about their own future), and so Safety Not Guaranteed rises above its quirky cliches to become something warm, sweet and genuine.

Friday 18th January, 15:30 The Sessions
Ben Lewin's The Sessions, with its story of triumph over adversity, theme disability, and explicit but very tasteful nudity, would seem a shoe-in for an Oscar nod, so it is perhaps surprising that it's not been nominated in any of this year's categories. Perhaps it's the dealing with religion (Catholicism, at that) and sexuality, or the tricky subject of a non-disabled actor playing a disabled part. The part is that of real-life Mark O'Brien, a man who was effectively paralysed from the neck down by childhood polio, spent most of his time in an iron-lung, and who at 38, dreamt of knowing a woman in the biblical sense. The actor is John Hawkes, who gives a tremendous, understated and affecting performance as O'Brien. There are undeniably problems with casting an able-bodied actor in such a role, but equally undeniable is the brilliance of Hawkes' portrayal of O'Brien. It's difficult, and I am still not sure what I think about it. Also difficult is the script's depiction of Hawkes, a naive and at times child-like protagonist, but one who is almost impossibly good, demonstrating no real human flaws or vices. He never seems to get angry, or jealous, or frustrated in any meaningful way, in a way that makes the character feel more of a cipher than a full human being, warts and all. Despite this, the film never patronises O'Brien, or makes light of his most fundamental of human desires: to share sexual, romantic and emotional gratification with someone. Helping in this regard is sex therapist Cheryl, played by a perfectly-cast Helen Hunt with conviction, and emotional honesty. The film's title refers to the six sessions they share together, culminating in them sleeping together, and in some rather predictable emotional consequences. It's true that elements of the story feel contrived for dramatic effect, and in otherhands, could have tipped the film into mawkish, Robin Williams-esque territory, but Lewin's direction ensures The Sessions is a tender, nuanced and dignified tribute to a man seeking his own self-fulfilment and realisation.

Next time for Project Tyneside: West of Memphis, Django Unchained, Zero Dark Thirty, and McCullin. See you then!