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!

Monday, 14 January 2013

Project Tyneside: The Hobbit, Midnight's Children and Quartet

And so, my first week of Project Tyneside, my attempt to see every new film at Newcastle's Tyneside Cinema, began this week, with a varied four films, shown from Thursday 3rd - Monday 7th. In order, here are my thoughts on all four.

Thursday 3 January, 11:10 Midnight's Children
Adapted for the screen by Salman Rushdie from his novel of the same name, Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children tells the story of two baby boys, one the son of a rich family and the other the child of paupers, switched at birth on the eve of India's liberation from Britain. The scope of the film is impressive, spanning almost thirty years as it charts the rise of an independent India, the creation of Pakistan and the civil war that led to Bangladesh. Much of the film is, as you might expect, very beautiful and full of colour, but suffers from a sprawling, at times directionless narrative, symptomatic of a novel adaptation. Moreover, the film often dispenses with its characters very casually, rarely giving them their due as they abruptly met their fates. The script, too, sometimes lacks polish, and there are some true clangers to be had; one line about people being like flavours in food particularly sticks in the mind, and the ending, with the themes of rebirth and family, felt somewhat glib and shallow, given the intense traumas Saleem has suffered throughout his life. Midnight's Children is an enjoyable watch, but fails at the profundity to which it aspires.

Friday 4 January, 14:15 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
I tried to like The Hobbit. I really did. It's no secret that I'm not a fan of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I do try (not always successfully) to go in to new cinema experiences with an open mind. But there's no getting around it: The Hobbit bored the shit out of me. Its main problem is that it is simply far too long: at nearly three hours, and two more films to go, this heavily-embellished adaptation of Tolkien's brisk children's book often feels like more of an endurance test than a well-crafted story. This problem is at its greatest with the interminable and unnecessary padding scenes, such as a subplot about the Necromancer, and po-faced discussions between Gandalf and Sarumon about the possible return of Sauron, all attempts to frame The Hobbit as a prequel trilogy to Lord of the Rings. But as an audience, we know already where things are going, and so these sequences simply clog up what should be a pacy, exciting story, where our characters leap from one perilous escapade to the next. Instead, what we get is endless, endless exposition, occasional and laughable heroic poses struck by Richard Armitage doing what he can in a one-note role as dwarfish prince, Thorin Oakenshield. More positively, Martin Freeman is very good as Bilbo, bringing believability and humanity to the role, and offering a far more compelling protagonist than the whiny little squirt we got in Lord of the Rings' Frodo. Ian McKellen, is predictably, on form as Gandalf, very comfortable in the role and bring warmth to a character that acts alternately as exposition generator and regular deus ex machina. The best part in the film is undoubtedly the Riddles in the Dark sequence, with Andy Serkis returning terrifically to his Gollum. It's simple, creepy and effective, with none of the self-important, portentous bollocks that dogs the exposition scenes, nor the distracting, overcrammed frame that Jackson has become fond of in his action scenes. Compared with the rest of the film, the Gollum scene is oddly well paced, feeling neither rushed nor overlong, and there is a clear and engaging narrative thread to it. Serkis, predictably, gives a fantastic, and scary performance, and the scene, for me at least, was realised just as I imagined it when I read the novel as a child. If only the rest of the film could have been like this.

Sunday 6 January, 20:00 Letters to Sofija
Robert Mullan's Letters to Sofija tells the true story of Mikalojus Konstantinas Ciurlionis, an early twentieth-century Lithuanian painter and composer who married Sofija Kymantaite, an art critic and political dissident. This is a British production, but filmed entirely in Russian, Polish and Lithuanian, utilising very well Ciurlionis' own extensive catalogue of musical compositions. Lead actors Rokas Zubovas and Marija Korenkaite as Ciurlionis and the eponymous Sofija give understated but terrific performances, with Korenkaite particularly excellent, bringing dimension and pathos in a role that could otherwise have been simply a cipher for the film's central subject to bounce off. The cinematography by Odd-Geir Saether is crisp, and the colours often muted, evoking both a sense of place and time, whilst also complementing Ciurlionis' legacy as a painter. On the negatives, the narrative often lacks a sense of drive, and several plot twists either fizzle out, or at best make little sense, although the movement of the characters through their lives, swept up by chance and circumstance, often works well, and defies our demands as an audience for a structured drama. Here, the film seems to be saying, life rarely plays out it three or five neat little acts. More unforgivable, however, is the piece's villain, the jealous Captain Rostov, who, falling for Sofija, dogs her and her husband's lives as he vies for her affections. It feels as if there should be a more complex character here, with confused motivations and loyalties, but, frustratingly, the script rarely allows Rostov to rise above being a one-note pantomime baddie, appearing genuinely to care for Sofija's well being in one scene, before threatening to rape her in another. Overall, however, this is a passionate, lovingly-crafted account of an artist's life with whom many here will be unfamiliar, and if for no other reason, it is worth tracking down.

Monday 7 January, 13:50 Quartet
Dustin Hoffman, the two time-Oscar winner and star of all time classics such as Marathon Man, The Graduate, and Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium, gives us his directorial debut with Quartet, the story of four ageing opera singers who must perform one more time to save their retirement home. Or something. The script never makes it clear why exactly the Quartet, played by Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay and the magnificent Maggie Smith, have to sing - a throwaway line about their home being closed does little to answer questions of exactly how much they're charging for tickets - but no matter, the focus in Quartet is not so much on nail-biting drama, or a serious, Haneke-esque exploration of age and decline, but rather, watching four experienced, well-loved and seasoned actors bounce off each other. And in that respect, Hoffman's film is a success. He directs surprisingly well, and for a subject that threatens to descend into ITV1 miniseries territory, Hoffman's direction, along with John de Borman's pleasing cinematography keeps proceedings just this side of cinematic. Also pleasing (and somewhat of a relief), is the scarcity of goofy, isn't-it-funny-that-they're-old style humour, and trite life lessons that the trailers threatened, instead offering some nice, albeit light, observations on regret, friendship and misunderstanding, though a go-nowhere scene involving some hip-hop kids proves one cliched observation too many. Finally, it's also good to see film makers finally waking up to the fact the older people have stories too, and shock of shocks, money to spend at the box office to see those stories realised. Whilst Quartet offers little in the realm of real drama, it does indicate a change in attitudes towards the older generation and the cinema, and for me, for now, that is most welcome.

Join me later next week for the next update on Project Tyneside, when I'll be looking at Les MiserablesSafety Not Guaranteed and The Sessions.

Friday, 4 January 2013

BFI Friday: Taxi Driver

The thing about Martin Scorsese's 1976 masterpiece is that despite the number of people that say it really is very good, it really is very good. So good, in fact, that almost every other scene has lodged itself in our collective cultural consciousness, not least of which is the infamous 'You talkin' to me?' monologue. But this iconography risks obscuring what is one of the rawest, and disturbingly beautiful films in American cinema, and alongside Raging Bull, is surely Scorsese's greatest work. At number 31 on the BFI's all time greatest films, it's Taxi Driver.

Written by Paul Schrader in a bout of severe depression, the film tells the story of Travis Bickle, a highly disturbed young man and resident of the notorious area of New York known as 'Hell's Kitchen', who is driven to react to his hellish surroundings with extreme violence, spurred on by his romantic obsession with a senator's electoral aide,  and his belief that he can rescue teenage prostitute Iris, played here by a never-better Jodie Foster. Harvey Keitel gives a brilliantly revolting performance as Iris' pimp, but the centrepiece of Taxi Driver is of course Robert De Niro, giving arguably the best performance of his career. Reuniting after 1973's Mean Streets De Niro and Scorsese are at the peak of their game, and with Schrader's script they create one of the most disturbing, yet violently seductive characters in cinema. Michael Chapman's cinematography depicts New York as a place of crime, misery, and profound corruption. Vice seems to seep through the brickwork of the buildings in this place, running down the street and into the gutter. Chapman's night-time photography in particular has the quality of being a dream (more precisely, a nightmare), soaked in neon and disorienting. That sense of disorientation is helped in no small part by Bernard Herrman's masterful, and final, score. A juxtaposition of bitterly ironic, romantically-tinged jazz, and harsh environmental sounds mixed with percussion, the latter of which gradually take over as Bickle descends further into insanity. Aside from perhaps John Schlesinger's 1969 Midnight Cowboy, New York has never more closely resembled Hell. At its centre is Travis Bickle.
Violence: An act of redemption, catharsis, or just plain psychosis?
The masterstroke in creating Bickle is that as we follow him on his journey, we ourselves are drawn into Bickle's psychosis, led down a path which culminates in mass slaughter. When the camera pans over the destruction in the final scene, fixing on Bickle as, mimicking a gun, he raises his fingers to his temple, we realise our own complicity in the film's violence. Roger Ebert interpreted the epilogue, where Bickle is hailed by the media as a hero for rescuing Iris, as a dream sequence, a fantasy playing out in Bickle's dying moments. This is an interesting reading, but what is important, regardless of whether Bickle really survives the shootout, is that his 'heroism' is predicated on violence and madness. The hero worship of Bickle, as has been pointed out, would have become vilification if he had gone through with assassinating Senator Palantine as he had originally planned. Taxi Driver forces us to look at the ways that we frame and react to violence, and reconsider our artificial constructions of heroism and villainy. 

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Happy New Year, and a Special Announcement!

Well, that was 2012, and what a year it was. I hope you all saw the new year in in style, and are geared up to enjoy the next twelve months. Writing 2012's top ten list, I realised that with only two exceptions I saw every film at the Tyneside Cinema. For those of you who don't live in or near Newcastle upon Tyne, the Tyneside is an independent cinema that screens mainstream and art films, hosts loads of interesting events, such as their annual cult film all nighter, which I went to the first time this year. It's a beautiful building, they show really interesting films you wouldn't get to see anywhere else in the North East, and they let you take beer into the screenings. In short, the Tyneside is fucking mint, and I spend a great deal of my time there. So for 2013, I've set myself a challenge. I want to see every new film screened at the Tyneside, from January to December. That doesn't mean every film with a cinematic release - I'm not a madman - just the ones that find their way to the Tyneside, but that's still a lot, working out at about 3 films a week on average. I won't be seeing re-releases, just sticking to brand new films on their first run. Alongside BFI Fridays, Re-views and Friday reviews and my other ephemera, I'm going to keep a running journal of my experience, and post mini-reviews of every film I see. Tomorrow marks the start of my adventure, and what better way to begin than with a film about an epic journey, namely, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, still on its first run from December. On Thursday morning, I'll be going to see Deep Metha's Midnight's Children, and on Friday it's Dustin Hoffman's OAP comedy, Quartet.

Wish me luck, Project Tyneside is a go!