Film review – Django Unchained

In Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino has created a new take on the epic hero myth and couched it in a western, set in the civil war-era US of plantation owners and Ku Klux Klansmen.

Django (Jamie Foxx), is a man enslaved during an inhuman time, exhausted by brutality, then reformed in the image of a German, but, universal myth; that of Siegfried, who walks through hellfire and breaks into a fortress to rescue his lover, Brynhild from imprisonment. The latter is also the namesake of Django’s wife, the malapropped, Broomhilda, played in a heart-rending performance by Kerry Washington.

We find Django exhausted and fearful, stumbling through a purgatory, rocky terrain as part of a chain gang, marshalled by two mounted slave traders. In a Grimm, dark woodland they run into a genial, well-dressed gentlemen with horse and cart, who is not all he seems. He is a “travelling dentist” who speaks with a German accent in a manner of flourishes – intellectual fencing that hides an unexpected and deadly skill. This is Dr King Schultz (Christophe Waltz), the man who will become Django’s guide on his quest to rescue Broomhilda from the possession of the cruel plantation owner, Calvin Candie (played with exuberance by LeonardoDiCaprio) and his menacing, power-corrupted, social-climbing butler, Stephen (the ever-fantastic Samuel L Jackson).

I like that Tarantino plays the film straight with only a few of his trademark flashbacks, and that Django has his own resolve from the start. It does not need to be given to him, he only needs someone to mould and refine what is already there. So the man who was once a slave is always his own man, just one in a voluntary submission to a “master” of knowledge, instead of forced submission to a master of slaves. Schultz frees Django physically, but in choosing his own way, Django frees himself psychologically.

The film is violent, but stylistically so with comic fountains of red, corn syrup blood in the shoot-outs. The violence that has the greatest psychological effect – that of the whippings – Tarantino respectfully leaves free of gore, letting sound and the actor’s facial expressions work at our emotions for a more sobering effect. For these and similar scenes, much of the audience had their hands held to their face in a rictus of disbelief. It’s a skilled director who can make an audience laugh as well as veil them in a stony silence within concurrent scenes. However, there are also a few comic moments as Django fumbles towards his new identity. Indeed, Austin Powers may wonder if one of his suits is missing.

The near three-hour running time wasn’t an issue for me. The film is completely arresting as the story urges Django onward on his quest, the mythological structure means the audience can empathise with his struggle – the shared experience of suffering, love and a lust for retribution. When the payback comes, I defy anyone not to urge Django on and breathe the liberation of his controlled rage and self-determination, his reconstructed self exemplified by a proud show of horsemanship showing skill and discipline (from Foxx, who grew up on a ranch Texas).

This is a man who, having become his own master, will now answer to none.

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Film review – The Sessions

So, this is a film about a disabled guy getting laid. Well, yes and no.
Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes – Martha Marcy May Marlene and Winter’s Bone) is a journalist and poet living in 80s California, who suffers such muscle weakness after childhood polio that he spends most of his life at home on a gurney inside an iron lung. There’s just something that he wants and he feels is still within his reach – to lose his virginity and experience sex with a woman before he dies.
After getting “a free pass” from his kindly and hip Catholic priest (William H Macy), O’Brien is unsuccessful in conventional romantic approaches. The next step is to find a sex surrogate (Helen Hunt) to give him the experience he desires, breaking through his virginal anxiety with none of the romantic hang ups. But in Hollywoodland, you can’t have sex without love, right?
There’s something to be said for the strength of personality trumping physical attributes in the game of attraction, and The Sessions looks opaquely at the places where sex and love overlap. But, Ben Lewin directs in such broad brushstrokes that it’s not clear if he wants us to look at disability and sex, or the larger dating game that we all play. There are suggestions of both and it’s not clear what conclusion he wants us to take from this film.

Film review – McCullin

The high-contrast black and white photos of war photographer, Don McCullin, are familiar to many who read The Observer and The Sunday Times of the 70s and 80s. Stark, high-contrast black and white images of conflict from across the world, always imbued with his sense of questioning humanity.
McCullin appears throughout the film in excerpts from an interview by film makers David and Jacqui – mostly in voiceover, narrating his infamous reportage, sometimes seen in his cottage, or roaming the snow-covered hills of the Somerset countryside. It’s a glimpse of a reclusive soul who admits to a guilty addiction of war.
There are magazine interviews which cover his experiences in much greater detail, but this is a good film to introduce those unfamiliar with his work – and I’ll never tire of hearing from his understatement and modesty. I just wish the interior footage of him rifling through his favourite prints was shot more professionally – weaving handhold medium-shots with focus rocking back and forward are just a little sloppy. Stick it on a tripod.

Film review – Safety Not Guaranteed

From a writer and director team who met while interning on US comedy show, Saturday Night Live, comes this light-hearted tale of pursuing happiness and idealised times past.
Darius (Aubrey Plaza) is a young woman and self-confessed social misfit who misses the enjoyable innocence of childhood, now newly graduated into a world of overqualified unemployment and demeaning “internships”, the latest for a generic lifestyle magazine that punts out unimaginative stories. In an editorial meeting, reporter and (kinda) office alpha male, Jeff (Jake Johnson) offers up a pitch to reply to a wanted ad asking for someone to join the advertiser to travel in time, with weapons training required and “safety not guaranteed”. One piece of obnoxious characterisation-building selection of interns later, Jeff has selected Darius and south-Asian computer nerd Arnau (Karan Soni) to join him in finding the person behind the ad and to write the story.
That person is Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a 30-something with the passion for his time-travel scheme that a kid has for organising make-believe games in the outdoors. Darius goes undercover, submitting to Kenneth’s child-like weapons training games in the forest and on the beach in scenes that conjure up the halcyon days of 80s action adventure movies – indeed, this is a gentle love letter to that era. Kenneth is in a universe divergent from other people, a loner living in his old family home in the forest, building his time machine from old laboratory junk so that he can go back and pursue the course of true love, setting right what once went wrong, so to speak.
Aside from this, a slightly weak sub-plot sees Jeff letching after a local ex-girlfriend from his teens, but he finds not all is what it was, stuck with an idealised memory from his youth that is preventing him from being happy. He resorts to teaching hedonism to the introverted Arnau, a character there to provide entertainment in the style of Raj from TVs The Big Bang Theory, representing any of us who may not yet have done “craaazzy” things in life.  What sounds like trite rediscoveries-of-self amongst the daily grind disappear under the charm of Darius’ burgeoning relationship with Kenneth as she warms to his earnest, innocent and pure belief in what he is doing – an antidote to the disappointment and apathy in her own life. It’s a credit to Plaza and Duplass that they conjure so well those feelings of an innocent teenage crush.
There are some beautiful moments  of cinematography on the beach, with romantic sunshine breaking across the camera lens, and misty, lush forest landscapes. However, there was one hiccup in an early indoor scene between Darius and her father – the skin tones appear blurred and pixellated , perhaps a camera problem or something in post-production. Regardless, this is an utterly charming tale and an indie film thankfully devoid of the mumblecore hipster chic that has dominated indie cinema of late. 

Film review – The Impossible

It hardly seems possible that it is eight years since the tsunami on Boxing Day of 2004 that ravaged the coastline of South-East Asia.

This film is based on the account of one family caught in the disaster when on holiday. Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) plays a soft line in suspense and, if it is seen in the cinema, a sonorous assault on the eardrums with some fine sound mixing.

The images are well-known to any who watched the news at the time; a swollen, muddy torrent of beach-front flotsam and jetsam swirling around first-floor balconies, trees and streetlamps. In wide shots the scene is convincingly recreated to make the unbelievable scale of the disaster believable once more. 

Bayona establishes a scattering of character traits in the opening scene as the family fly into Thailand. The father, Henry (Ewan McGregor), is a worrier 
plagued by the thought that he has not set the burglar alarm before leaving. His wife, Maria (Naomi Watts) is pragmatic in the face of his anxiety, but is terrified of the minor rumbles of turbulence as they come into land. The eldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland) in his early teens, is unsympathetic to this and the neediness of one of his much younger brothers.

It’s expected that what follows will challenge these aspects of their characters, but really, any character arc is dropped in a film in which we vicariously experience a purgatory state of raw emotion as the characters stagger through the wreckage in an attempt to find other family members and a source of help. As an exercise in “What would you have done?” a good job is made of what must be beyond true comprehension.

The younger actors should not go unnoticed. Samuel Joslin holds his brief scenes well as the middle brother Thomas, in charge of the youngest Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) when on their own, and evokes that sense of a child calmly imitating the mantle of an adult in the most unusual of times.

Holland guides the audience for a good deal of the film, though he is more action than revealing emotion. The many shots of him running errands through hospital corridors reminded me of another disaster film, of sorts, that featured a boy lost in the tumult of a Far-Eastern setting: Christian Bale in The Empire of the Sun. Holland didn’t get as much time as Bale to show his acting chops, but I’m curious to see what he does next.

The sound effects of muffled rushing water and muted underwater collisions is a great aid to the tension in the action sequences, but tinkling piano notes grate slightly in scenes where silence would have emoted well enough; given the circumstances and the naturalistic performances given by McGregor and Watts. As in The Orphanage, Bayona builds tension gradually then breaks it with such unexpected empathy that, at one point, I sat in silence as a tear rolled down my cheek. This is not a film of great character analyses, but is certainly one that gives thought for being alive.