Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Django Unchained

Just when I was tiring of Tarantino he puts a bullet through my heart, a hammer through my skull, and then blows me away with dynamite for good measure. Django Unchained is a film we’ve never seen the likes of before. It has everything: thrills, spills, highs, lows, horror, romance, spectacle, melodrama, and tenderness. (And of course - this being Tarantino - plenty of outrageous violence.) It also provides some big (unexpected) belly laughs I’d not experienced in the director’s ouevre since Marvin got his head blown off in the car.

It is 1858 and Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave. A fortuitous turn of events “somewhere in Texas” brings him to Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German bounty hunter. They form a lucrative partnership killing “white folks for money”. Schultz agrees to help Django locate and rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from whom he was forcibly separated. Their search takes them to a Mississippi plantation, owned by the despicable Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

This is a spaghetti western steeped in the mores of the genre. It is bombastic, overtly-stylised, and a little bit trashy. The kicker being that it is set against a very realistic backdrop of ugly and brutal slave trading in the South. I never expected to be so moved by this. Obviously, QT is to thank for such bravura film-making but slavery is a subject I am relatively unfamiliar with on-screen. This sudden and intense exposure had a very profound effect. The horrors of slavery, as they should be, make for a deeply uncomfortable watch. This genre flick hits home the truths far more effectively than any 'message film' could.

For me, personally, Inglourious Basterds didn’t hang together sufficiently. Almost every scene of that film can be judged on its own merits as ingenious. But it lacked continuity. With a similar hip-hop sensibility - mixing a plethora of contrasting elements to create an original commodity – here, the director creates something sublime. Tarantino's soundtrack decisions have helped. Shirking his normal insistence on using only previously-commissioned material he mixes the new (like a stunning John Legend track and a blistering James Brown/Tupac mash-up) with the old to spectacular effect. Unlike some, the length didn’t bother me. The only critic I really trust on these matters is my bony behind. When it starts to ache that’s an unmistakable sign that a film is too long. But there were no complaints for the 2hr 45 min duration.

Jamie Foxx’s nuanced performance marks a beautiful transition from proud slave to iceberg-cool badass. Waltz is a joy to watch and, perhaps more notably, to hear – with his enunciated patter – navigating a path through a sea of unintelligible hicks. Foxx and Waltz are a comedic double act and an awe-inspiring team of gun-slingers. Their relationship is also very touching. QT displays a tenderness I’d never experienced in any of his films previously. In this, his first role as a villain, Leonardo DiCaprio is staggeringly vile. While each performance from this distinguished cast is impeccable the real star of the show is Tarantino himself.

Don't miss it on the big screen.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Gangster Squad

Gangster Squad is a sad waste of talent. With its red-hot cast and gifted director (not to mention the money spent on it) one would expect something better that this.

The year is 1949 and Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) terrorises Los Angeles. Sergeant John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) heads a covert police operation to take him down by any means necessary. He recruits a crack team with a diverse skill set; that’s Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick. Together they play dirty as the gangsters in order to get Cohen.

Heading the cast Brolin does his best. (As do most of this ensemble.) Brolin looks tough enough and believably post-war but the hokey script is limiting. Some people, however, just shouldn’t be cast in period films. Ryan Gosling is an unquestionable talent but he is, without doubt, a man from the third millennium. He affects another weedy voice (not dissimilar to his nasal whine in Drive). It’s totally inappropriate for his drinking, gambling, war veteran now doing battle in “the new Wild West” that is LA. As a result he comes across as a bit of a drip. Emma Stone phones it in. Sean Penn is so caked in makeup he would look more at home in Warren Beatty’s prosthetics-heavy Dick Tracy. To be seen underneath all of this he overcompensates by over-acting. The resulting performance is plain ridiculous – he’s like a confused patient, zonked-out on some incorrectly prescribed medication.

The film has little authentic sense of period. The cartoonish gore doesn’t help and neither does the way it’s bathed in CGI. It’s not just explosions etc that are computer-generated, the so-called ‘invisible’ effects are not so invisible and they are rife. Word of advice to the director: don’t try to computer-generate magic hour. (There’s a reason it’s called magic hour.) Unable to shake his modern sensibilities director Ruben Fleischer was the wrong guy for the job. Any of his attempts at visual flourish bring us crashing back into the present day.

Hugely derivative, there is not a lot of originality here. The obvious sources from which the filmmakers draw are LA Confidential and The Untouchables but they achieve nowhere near the quality of either. It gallops along with scenes given no room to breathe. The choppiness makes it all very two-dimensional. The underwritten characterisation adds to this, and there are some really bad lines. There were a few unintentional laughs at these from the audience I saw it with.