Category Archives: Reviews

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s latest is another film indebted to earlier pulp fictions, this time the spaghetti western.  As with much of his work, it has moments of brilliance, is very entertaining in large parts, but is too long and let down by its creator’s self-indulgence.

The film would be vastly improved by cropping its running time by a good twenty minutes or so.  There are only a couple of scenes I’d dump completely (which I’ll come to in a minute) but almost every one could easily be trimmed.  Unfortunately Tarantino seems to have difficulty in killing his babies (Inglourious Basterds suffered from the same problem), and at this point, nobody is going to make him.

Django has been controversial for its copious use of what is referred to, in respectable company, as the n-word; I had no objections to it in context, but then being white and British I suppose it doesn’t carry the same kind of baggage for me.  Nor was I concerned about the violence, of which there are two kinds: the violence perpetrated on slaves by sadistic whites, and the OTT blood bath of the climax.  To be fair to Tarantino, scenes showing the first variety are played straight; one could argue they are exploitative, in that they engage our sympathies and set us up to relish the cathartic slaughter at the end, but I think the director was honestly trying to be responsible in their depiction – and may have been deliberately using the film to educate his audience (through, for example, the lecture on phrenology given by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character).  This could conceivably be the first time some viewers will have seen this period of history depicted in such a manner; if that leads them to investigate this particular noxious facet of America’s past, then that’s surely a good thing.

Tarantino’s determination to be seen to be on the side of the angels is also, I suspect, the motivation for one of the scenes I’d happily cut; a comedy sequence showing an inept troupe of Ku Klux Klansmen struggling to see out of their hoods.  It’s funny, and mocking the KKK is generally worth doing, but it adds nothing to the story and would work better as a DVD extra.

The other scene that needs particular trimming comes late in the movie, and features Tarantino himself in an extended cameo.  Nobody really sees Tarantino as a great actor, and while it’s not his worst performance, it’s a major distraction that takes you out of the film – which was starting to try my patience at that point anyway.  He’s also doing an accent (get you, Meryl Streep, I thought).  Possibly this has allowed him to cross ‘work with John Jarrett’ off his bucket list, but I’m afraid that’s not justification enough.  Let’s give credit where it’s due, though: Eli Roth isn’t in it.

What’s great about the film is Christoph Waltz as Dr King Schultz, the German bounty hunter who frees, then befriends the slave Django (Jamie Foxx).  In fact, I found Waltz’s character arc more interesting than that of Django himself.  The title character, initially barely literate, is introduced to the idea of role playing by Schultz, and takes to it with surprising ease; he is also the one who pushes Schultz to face the fact that his own profession has uncomfortable similarities to the slave trade he despises.  The film suffers when Waltz is off screen for too long, another reason why the last half hour drags.  I also enjoyed Leonardo DiCaprio as the repellent plantation owner Calvin Candie, though it’s a big performance that threatens to smother some of the more serious elements.

But the man who by rights would be collecting an Oscar is Samuel L Jackson, whose work as Stephen, Calvin’s house nigger, is simply extraordinary.  Stephen is a vile character, the worst kind of collaborator, who shifts from obsequious slave to paternal mentor to DiCaprio. He made my skin crawl like few other characters in recent cinema.

Is the film it worth seeing?  Well, for all its flaws, it has vividly stayed with me, so I would have to say yes.  As a movie about slavery, many may find it exploitative and tasteless – but I’d far rather see Tarantino’s slavery movie than another asinine tale of nice white folk curing America of racism (yes, The Help, I mean you).  You can’t think of any other American director who could have made this film – you’d struggle to think of any who would dare even try.

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You’re nicked! The Sweeney review

Only one week after seeing Cockneys vs Zombies, I found myself watching Cockneys vs Robbers.  Honestly, you wait years for a film with Alan Ford in, then two come along at once.
The original TV series of The Sweeney managed to provide a mix of exciting (and fairly explicit, for the time) violence with relatively gritty plots.  The new film, directed by Nick Love, aims for a similar blend.  In other respects, though, similarities with the original are largely coincidental. Where the TV series dealt in miserable looking backlots and warehouses (it was, let’s remember, the principal source text for Life on Mars) the film treats us to repeated shots of London’s glittering skyline, international banking names prominent on the skyscrapers.
Ray Winstone and Ben Drew step into the shoes of John Thaw and Dennis Waterman as Regan and Carter, the aging maverick hard man and his acolyte.  In the film, their partnership is augmented by a team of flying squaddies – Sweeney Toddlers? – who are carefully cast to ensure gender and ethnic diversity.  This allows the viewer to have fun trying to guess which one will die three quarters of the way through the film.  Among them is Hayley Atwell, who is having an affair with Regan; not his smartest move, as she’s married to the internal affairs cop (Steven Mackintosh) currently investigating the Sweeney.
The plot?  Well, there’s a particularly nasty bunch of villains knocking over banks and jewellers; during one such robbery, a customer is shot in the back of the head.  Regan isn’t having that – not on his patch, not while he’s Sweeney – which is the cue for lots of shooting and running around.
Though the TV show was produced in the 1970s, the screenplay feels born of the 1980s.  The generous quantity of macho posturing seems to stem from that decade (Regan’s constant banging on about he’s doing what has to be done might lead the uninitiated to assume he was originally played by Kurt Russell rather than John Thaw), as does the enormous number of bullets strewn around London’s streets.  A foot chase that takes in some very familiar landmarks inevitably brings Heat to mind.   It’s slightly odd seeing an avowedly American-style thriller that incorporates the likes of Trafalgar Square.
The 80s mentality is also manifest in the film’s concern with visual gloss – you certainly can’t imagine the 70s police occupying the vast, gleaming office space enjoyed by the movie Sweeney.  The handheld camera and frenetic chases are more resonant of the Bourne movies (as are the Big Dramatic Strings on the soundtrack), while never, of course, being anywhere near as good.
It’s a slicked-up version of the source material aimed principally at a generation who won’t have heard of, let alone seen, the original series.  (Weirdly, it does quote the series’ best-remembered line, though in a peculiar context – there are clearly no trousers readily available for the arrestee to put on.)  Taken on those terms, The Sweeney certainly delivers the goods.  Whether their evident hope for sequels comes to anything remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Take This Waltz

Actress turned director Sarah Polley’s first feature, Away From Her, surprised many people by focussing on the relationship between two elderly people rather than, as one might expect, characters closer to Polley’s own age.  It earned Julie Christie an Oscar nomination for her work as the Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife, and my only quibble with that is that Gordon Pinsent, as her husband, should have been equally recognised.
In Take this Waltz, which she both wrote and directed (Away from Her was based on a story by Alice Munro) Polley focusses on younger characters, but the subject is again a marriage that appears to be in its final stages.  Michelle Williams stars as Margot, who has been married to Lou (Seth Rogen) for five years.  Lou is a nice man, their marriage is comfortable, but perhaps too much so; for when Margot meets Daniel (Luke Kirby) on a work trip, they are immediately attracted to each other.  And when it turns out they are actually neighbours, temptation starts to seem irresistible.
In an early scene between Margot and Daniel on a plane, Margot talks about her paralysing fear of airport connections: she hates being between places, apparently, so much so that she needs to be ferried between planes in a wheelchair.  I was slightly distracted by the big neon sign that said “Metaphor!” flashing persistently in the corner of the screen throughout the exchange… or did I just imagine that?  Anyway, it’s a ham-fisted bit of writing, and thankfully the film does not descend to anything quite so clumsy again, though a few moments come close.  Several of the best scenes play out without dialogue, including a scene of Margot and Lou swimming, a visit to a funfair, and a montage near the end (to Leonard Cohen’s title song) which includes a couple of bits that widened my eyes for a moment.
The best thing about the film is Michelle Williams.  It’s hardly a surprise by now how good she is, but she does a terrific job at making Margot likeable – no mean feat, given some of the character’s behaviour and apparent difficulty with self-awareness.  Rogen is also very good.  The film looks pretty as well, though you wonder how the characters can afford to live in the large houses and apartments they do.
It’s unfortunate that the script sometimes feels the need to spell things out, as the film is far more eloquent when things are left unspoken.  Indeed, the ending is nicely ambiguous – is Margot actually any happier, or has she just managed to distract herself from her underlying problems? While it suffers slightly in comparison to Polley’s previous film as writer/director, this is a romantic drama that pleasingly tries to avoid the pat answers usually found in plots of this nature.


 

 

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Edinburgh Film Festival: Berberian Sound Studio

Finally, a Powell nominee that looks, feels and, most of all, sounds like an award winner.  Berberian Sound Studio, from Katalin Varga director Peter Strickland, stars Toby Jones as a sound technician recruited to work on a Suspiria-esque Italian horror film in the early 70s. More at home with gentle documentaries about the English countryside than graphic tales of undead witches, Jones soon finds his grip on reality loosening.

It’s difficult to describe the plot in any more detail: it’s essentially a journey into the protagonist’s fracturing psyche.  So while those seeking a traditional narrative may be left frustrated, anyone who wants to see the tools of cinema used to surprising and creative effect can expect a treat.  I was reminded of The Artist by the way sound is used to play with and confound audience expectations, while the sense of menace and disorientation has much in common with David Lynch (I was particularly put in mind of Inland Empire).

Spaghetti horrror buffs may well also be intrigued (it did cross my mind that the film might also turn up at FrightFest); it’s clear Strickland knows his Argento, and while some genre fans might be baffled by the closing scenes, I’ve seen Lucio Fulci films that made a lot less sense.

It’s one of the best films at the Festival, and one which clearly loves film – both as an artform and a physical object.  Highly recommended.

The Dictator

The Dictator, the new film from Sacha Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles, is both similar and fundamentally different to their previous collaborations, Borat and Bruno. Once again, Baron Cohen is playing a foreigner in America, an outrageous figure whose behaviour and attitudes challenge the westerners he encounters. The difference is that the people he meets are not unwitting members of the public, but actors delivering scripted dialogue. The change has some advantages, but something is lost along the way.

Baron Cohen plays General Aladeen, Dictator of Wadiya. While visiting America (a land “built by the blacks, and owned by the Chinese”) to assure the UN that his nuclear programme is entirely peaceful, an attempted coup by General Tamir (Ben Kingsley) leaves Aladeen penniless and beardless on the streets, with a slow-witted double in his place in the palace. He is taken in by Zooey (Anna Faris), a left-wing manager of a fair trade grocery, who loathes Aladeen and all he stands for; and soon, the dictator’s plans to retake his country are distracted by his growing affection for Zooey.

You might think that having an actual script (I’m sure plenty of improvisation went on, but still) might result in a more focussed plot than Baron Cohen’s previous films. That’s not really the case, though. The Dictator is still essentially a vehicle for another larger-than-life character; Aladeen dominates the film, with virtually all the characters being reduced to foils for him – the exception being his reluctant sidekick, Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas). You can’t help but wonder on occasion whether more comic mileage could have been made from including a least a few unsuspecting members of the public. The plot is serviceable but thin (it is claimed to be based on Zabibah and The King, a novel by Saddam Hussein; I would love to how closely). A number of scenes feel more like sketches rather than integral parts of the film. Some are very funny, but some (the funeral in particular) serve no obvious purpose other than beefing out the running time.

Some of the toilet humour gags had me rolling my eyes wearily (honestly, has there ever been a man in all of human history who couldn’t work out how to masturbate without help?). But there are plenty more that hit the spot. The laughs start straight away (the film is lovingly dedicated to Kim Jong-il). There’s a great scene in a helicopter which I won’t spoil, and Aladeen’s climactic address to the UN and the representatives of western democracy is hilariously caustic. I would have preferred to have more moments like this, and less defecating on passers-by from a great height (yes, that happens). Overall though, the film hits more than it misses, and is certainly better than Bruno.

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The Cabin in the Woods

Some facts about The Cabin in the Woods are known by pretty much everyone who might care. Everyone knows it’s written by Joss Whedon. Most people know it’s co-written and directed by Drew Goddard. A fair few know its release has been delayed for several years due to financial issues; it was made before star Chris Hemsworth got to be Thor. (It’s been so long, you may even wonder if it was made before Bradley Whitford got The West Wing.) But the main thing people know is not to read too much about it before seeing it.

And they are quite right. This is certainly a film where anything more than a minimal plot synopsis leads to major spoilers. I avoided most of these, but I did see the trailer, and with hindsight would rather I hadn’t; granted, it’s impossible to create an entirely spoiler-free trail without making the film look like a piece of generic hack work, but it still meant I was alert to some plot twists. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, even though it’s probably too late now.

While it’s hard to write about the film in a wholly spoiler-free manner, I shall do my best to minimise the damage (though you may wish to stop reading now). The Cabin in the Woods starts with a group of five college friends – good girl Dana (Kristen Connolly), not-so-good girl Jules (Anna Hutchison), beefcake Curt (Hemsworth), brain Holden (Jesse Williams) and stoner Marty (Fran Kranz) – heading off for a weekend in the titular holiday spot. The sort of things that always happen in these films duly happen; they encounter a creepy local at the run-down gas station, they nose around in the cellar where they find lots of weird stuff – sinister puzzle boxes, dead peoples’ diaries, old portraits of Jodelle Ferland looking scary, that kind of thing.

But while that sounds like the set-up of dozens of films you’ve seen before, Whedon and Goddard delight in surprising you at every turn. One big reveal just isn’t enough for them: Cabin has stacks of them, starting in the opening minutes, with the introduction of two characters played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jennings. Whitford and Jennings play very well together, and it’s a pleasure to watch them interact with several Whedon regulars (Amy Acker, among others). The younger cast members also make good work of deliberately archetypal characters; Kranz, who is lucky enough to deliver most of the characteristic Whedon gags, gets most of the laughs.

In its deconstruction of horror film storytelling, the films Cabin most reminded me of were Wes Craven’s po-mo classics Scream and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. One of those films was a massive hit on release, the other tanked; I wouldn’t like to guess which end of the scale Cabin will land at when it’s finally released in a couple of weeks. I don’t see it having anything like the effect of Scream, whose success led to the rebirth of the non-ironic slasher film. Certainly, I suspect not everyone will like the ending. I did, in large part because I suspected it was going to end rather differently.

It’s very much a film for and by people who love horror films, but get frustrated by their clichés. It’s funny, clever, and – though the knowing humour does work against any genuine sense of dread – it’s even reasonably scary in places. It’s absolutely worth seeing.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

The gripping Martha Marcy May Marlene is one of those films that makes you want to rush out and urge everyone in sight to see it as soon as possible. I felt the same way about Winter’s Bone in 2010, and MMMM ticks some of the same boxes: an American indie centred around an incredible performance by a young actress I’d never previously heard of, with a great supporting turn by John Hawkes. But the film is very much its own beast.

The film opens with Martha – aka Marcy May (Elizabeth Olsen) – slipping away from a small country farm where, we learn, she has been living for a couple of years. Apparently terrified, she calls her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) to collect her. Once back at the home Lucy shares with her husband (Hugh Dancy), Martha tries to settle in; refusing to discuss where she’s been or what has happened to her, it’s only gradually that they, and we, register how deeply traumatised she actually is.

This truth is revealed in part through a series of flashbacks to Martha’s time with the cult, which is presided over by the charismatic but evil Patrick (Hawkes). The situation so far is not unfamiliar if you’ve seen other films about Manson-inspired cult leaders (sure enough, the trailer reorders them into chronological order, making the film appear much more of a conventional thriller than it actually is). Plenty of horror films have taken the same basic premise, though the horror in MMMM is psychological rather than the more graphic horrors of, say, Kevin Smith’s Red State. Writer/director Sean Durkin constructs his film so that as the flashbacks become increasingly disturbing to watch, so Martha’s behaviour becomes more and more unpredictable. Starting out as merely odd – she sleeps curled on the edge of her bed, goes swimming naked and is surprised that anyone might be shocked – by the end she has become completely paranoid, barely able to tell what is real and what isn’t.

It’s a shame that Hugh Dancy’s character is a rather two dimensional yuppie, as it weakens some sections of the film. Martha critiques his materialistic lifestyle, pointing out that there are other ways to live. If the intention is to suggest that modern capitalistic enslaves people just as much as crazy cult leaders in the middle of nowhere, it doesn’t quite come off. But it’s a minor problem.

Olsen is superb in the lead role, and deserves award recognition. As her mental state deteriorates, we are ultimately sucked entirely into her fractured world view. The way the film ends will not be liked by all. I’ve heard it compared to the ending of the recent Take Shelter, which I felt was entirely different, and more accurately to John Sayles’ Limbo. All I can say is that it worked for me, and the final scenes had my stomach in knots. This riveting film is a triumph for both Durkin and Olsen.