Quentin Tarantino returns with a “Southern” take on the Western genre with Django Unchained. Following on from the successful Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino re-teams with the charismatic Christoph Waltz, who plays bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz. Under the guise of weary travelling dentist he tracks down the currently enslaved Django, played by Jamie Foxx, who can help him identify his next bounty. The two of them then set off to hunt down the Brittle brothers, and along the way discover Django’s goal to free his enslaved wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), who is held by plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz and Django then agree to pair up and hunt down the rest of his bounties for the winter, then venture off to rescue Broomhilda shortly after.
Waltz effortlessly delivers each line oozing with charisma; he’s the perfect choice for a character that can talk his way out of a room with no doors, such as Schultz. Also a perfect pairing with a writer/director like Tarantino, who’s signature lengthy and grandiose dialogue style can’t really be replicated by anyone else. It’s a nice complimentary character to have alongside Jamie Foxx, who plays Django as the strong and silent dead-shot gunslinger who’s restrained swagger does most of the talking.
Tarantino has proved that his love and knowledge of world cinema history is ridiculously expansive, and is most visible throughout the dialogue of Inglourious Basterds. Juxtaposing conversations points about the films of German director G.W. Pabst have replaced that of commodities such as hamburgers and cigarettes. It can be seen as a sign of an artist maturing and fine-tuning his craft, whilst tackling a pastiche of different genres in the same film. As always there’s some dark humour that often suddenly appears and it’s used to great effect. The execution of it in Tarantino’s films has almost a British theatricality and ‘toing and froing’ to it. Note the dialogue exchange between Django and Schultz before taking out the final Brittle brother hightalin’ it horseback (“Are you positive?”), and the diner stand-off at the climax of Pulp Fiction. Also, the unexpected and sudden nature of it adds to its edginess. Samuel L. Jackson’s first scene in Django Unchained, when the two protagonists arrive on horseback to Candyland, is full of absolute hilarity at his reaction. Jackson really steals the show with the character he has put together, as I didn’t expect his role to be as major as it was. Given the subject matter of the film, there was a lot of awkward and restrained laughter across the audience. It’s in interesting stigma to analyse, as a comedy element in a film that’s set against the backdrop of slavery shouldn’t work. But then again Blazing Saddles divided its critics too, and its humour is actually taking aim at the ignorance and absurdity of the slavers.
The loosely-connected universe that Tarantino has created is a stroke of filmmaking genius, personally. Whilst not completely shunning the real world, it allows him to break the constraints (amid all of the pop-culture references) and instead create his own rules. Take Kill Bill as an example; where else would you see lead character wearing a yellow jump suit blend in, whilst carrying a samurai sword, and then take out an entire Yakuza unit? Certainly not in a Martin Scorsese film. The commodities created within the universe, such as Red Apple cigarettes, create subtle nods of acknowledgement to his previous works. This is something small for the fans to follow without alienating any newcomers. We don’t actually discover, a) what happened to the diamonds in Reservoir Dogs, or b) what’s in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. It’s a conversation piece that has caused divided opinions for years, and will for years to come unless Tarantino firmly states his opinion. Even characters cross over briefly; Donny Donowitz (Inglourious Basterds) could be seen as Lee Donowitz’s father (True Romance), Captain Koons’ (Christopher Walken’s character in Pulp Fiction) ancestor appears on a ‘wanted’ poster in Django Unchained, Vincent Vega (Pulp Fiction) is Vic Vega’s (Reservoir Dogs) brother. Also, ‘Fox Force Five’ from Mia Wallace’s failed TV pilot is essentially the ‘Deadly Viper Assassination Squad’ in Kill Bill (and same actress too, clever!).
Then there’s the subject of violence. There’s no doubt that even before you’ve finished saying, “the new film by Quentin Tarantino,” it will already have been handed an 18-rating (or R-rating, for North American audiences). Reservoir Dogs’ infamous ear-slicing torture scene now seems budget-restrained since the release of Kill Bill. Tarantino practically decorates his sets in a cartoon-ish blood red that both shocks and amazes the audience. It’s a relief to see a director be fearless of box office performance, and not restrict their film to a 15-certificate. Death Proof, the almost forgotten Tarantino film which was one half of the Grindhouse feature, is cortex-searingly brutal in places. It’s not his best writing when held against the rest of his works, but technically it nails the look and feel of the grindhouse B-movies.
Amongst the violence and Big Kahuna Burgers, there’s Jackie Brown. I’ve not found an appropriate place to mention it, as seems to veer off on it’s own tangent in the Tarantino World. Not in a bad way by any means, it’s a great film. It’s timing in the filmography is when an artist is trying to broaden their palette; break the mould of that best-selling “second album” and not just churn out stylish crime films. Jackie Brown may be misunderstood by some if they were expecting another Pulp Fiction, but in this he takes more time to focus on his characters. Which is unquestionably one of the very few ways that directors can demand 145 minute-plus running times.
I thoroughly enjoyed Django Unchained, and even more so on the second viewing. The eccentricities of its characters, the beautiful cinematography and sharp editing are just some of it’s positives. Let’s hope Tarantino spectacularly rounds off his “alternate history” trilogy with another five-star entry.
Hopefully this will become more of a regular category on my blog, as I currently write more about new releases than those in retrospect. The Town, adapted from the novel Prince Of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, went on general release in 2010 and was directed by and starred Ben Affleck. Set in Charlestown, Boston (a blue-collared neighbourhood that claims to have produced more bank and armoured car robbers than anywhere in the world) it focuses on Doug MacRay (Affleck) and his crew following the after effects of their recent bank heist in the film’s opening.
The first film that springs to mind when thinking of this is Michael Mann’s 1995 film Heat. It’s difficult not to make any comparisons with this genre of crime film, especially with the action. Thankfully, The Town stands up on its own two feet. Whereas Heat blurred the line between cop & crook, The Town keeps the two sides of the law polarised and concentrates more on the latter. While it may seem strange to be rooting for a criminal who begins dating the very woman his crew took hostage in the film’s opening, it actually somehow works!
Ben Affleck’s initial cut was reported to be around 4 hours long, staying true to the source material. Then it was submitted to the studios at 170 mins, which was still deemed too long. As a result, some of the action was cut as was some subplots that allowed more character development. I’ve still yet to watch this extended version on blu-ray. The theatrical version is Doug’s story. He’s battling to get out and put Charlestown in his rear-view mirror, whilst walking an extremely tight line between the FBI and his own crew. This is where Jeremy Renner is the hidden “gem” of The Town; he plays Doug’s childhood friend and psychopathic crew partner. Renner’s unpredictable performance is outstanding and Oscar-worthy, you really fear what this guy will do next. Rebecca Hall delivers some great scenes too and has great on-screen chemistry with Affleck. Blake Lively is very surprising good in this film and literally transforms in comparison to other roles that you typically see her in, such as Gossip Girl. John Hamm isn’t quite the obsessed FBI Marshall as the plot’s premise insinuated. I feel there must have been some key character development scenes dropped in lieu of the film’s run time. Pete Postlethwaite is the local crime boss pulling the strings, and really pulls out a menacing performance as the man you certainly don’t want to say the wrong thing to.
The Town’s heist scenes are hard-hitting and the build up to the superb finale heist at Fenway Park is well paced. Ben Affleck really captures Boston in a way that makes the city a character in itself. Typically it’s New York or Chicago for the gritty visuals, but Boston provides something fresh to this new sub-genre of crime film, along with Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. My favourite scene has to be the one between Doug and Gem after Doug says he’s escaping Boston to head down south to Florida. The Town is a wonderfully crafted crime thriller with likeable characters and a great setting. By far Ben Affleck’s finest film to date (the latest being Argo), and I highly recommend picking it up if you haven’t seen it already. My next viewing of this will be the extended version, and I’ll be sure to add something to the end of this article when I do.
Skyfall, Bond’s 23rd Eon film and 50th anniversary outing, delivers on all levels. This is a Bond film, but not a Bond film, if you get my meaning? It’s still a part of the stripped back feel of the series since Casino Royale but certain key elements, such as the humour, are brought back very carefully. This is a personal Bond film. Without giving too much away, there’s no plot for world domination. Javier Bardem’s sinister villain Silva is out for MI6 blood; and his bullet has M’s name on it.
Craig’s 007 is washed up and injured to the point of being a has-been in the field. We’re all aware of how much dedication and effort Daniel Craig has put into the role, but Skyfall is his best yet. It’s different and more personal side to the iron exterior the character is known for. Sam Mendes does an excellent job of developing Bond as a character on screen. Bardem excels as the film’s villain with a paralleled sadistic unpredictability of The Joker. He’s secured his place next to Blofeld and Goldfinger in the Bond villain elite, rather than the Gustav Graves’. “Bond girls” (is that an archaic Cold War-era term?) Naomie Harris and Bérénice Marlohe provide both enough glamour and bravura to break the stereotypical Bond girl mould, although I felt Marlohe was underused in her short screen time. Other newcomers such as Ralph Fiennes and Ben Whishaw weigh-in a solid performances as the sceptical Government chief and Quartermaster, respectively. Then there’s M; Judi Dench continues to shine, as the humorous parental love-hate fight between Bond and her continue. There’s not a single bad piece of acting or casting in Skyfall, everyone is on top form. [**SPOILERS**] Even though it was sad to see Judi Dench leave the films, it was great to see Ralph Fiennes join as the new M. Plus with the superb return of Moneypenny, it was a fantastic closing scene to the film.
The real star of the film for me is Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography. Stark contrasts, glowing skylines and rich sets dominate the screen. The core values of producing Dr. No have been restated here in the aim to make the colours of the exotic locations jump off of the screen. It’s back to the pure escapism of a Bond film for the audience. The film looks as cool as Sean Connery does in Goldfinger, and packs the punch the more harder films like Timothy Dalton’s License To Kill. Aside from the opening sequence the action doesn’t really hit the big highs of Casino Royale, this is a much more scruffier type of action with a lot of close-quarter battles. But in the 143 minute run time this was never an issue, there’s plenty to make up for it. I did spend quite a bit of time after the film thinking of all the very subtle references to the 50 year run of the series. They’re not in-your-face obvious like Die Another Day’s Q-branch archives, but nods such as a 1962 (the year Dr. No was released) bottle of Macallan whiskey and the Komodo Dragon encounter (echoing the alligators from Live And Let Die). Something for the die-hard 007 fans without alienating a new audience. The script, by 007 regulars Robert Wade and Neal Purvis along with John Logan, has its mishaps like any film but is central in it’s motivation. You know exactly what the villain’s aiming for and what is at stake for the good guys.
Overall, Skyfall makes you leave the cinema with the same back-to-business feeling Casino Royale did. Bond is back, and he’s still a top of his game.
The James Bond films are a part of any boy’s life growing up. For me, I grew up in the Pierce Brosnan era and Goldeneye was the first 007 film I watched. It wasn’t until Tomorrow Never Dies, my first cinema experience of the MI6 agent (which I had to sneak in to, as I was underage at 11!), that I started to realise the cultural importance of Bond. Every screening is full to the brim of every age group, and for those 2 hours it feels like Great Britain is united for an event. I can always remember vividly where I was when I saw each film at the cinema. These aren’t just movies; they’re a British institution.
Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan…..and Craig. Notice anything out of place? Daniel Craig was publicly and unfairly criticised by some as the “blonde Bond”, and I was initially surprised at his casting, but not dismissive before actually seeing a finished article. Sitting in Canterbury Odeon on opening night with some uni friends in November 2006, my expectations were completely shattered and built back up higher than I could have ever imagined. Shivers pulsated down my spinal chord at key moments such as the return of the opening barrel sequence; everything was done perfectly and the whole cinema knew this was an excellent film. Daniel Craig put so much work into psyche of Bond to play it true to Ian Fleming’s character of the novels, whilst simultaneously adding in some contemporary elements of his own. He physically looked like he could kill, and he wasn’t known by every hotel owner wherever he went across the globe (defeating the whole idea of a spy, surely?). Whereas Brosnan had that perfect mix of Connery and Moore, he made this character his own and proved his haters wrong with a glorious smile back at them. It was for this which I find most inspiring about him. There was a hell of a lot of nasty words circulating on a simple Google search, but he gave Bond more depth and swagger than the previous (official) 5 combined. That, is impressive.
Casino Royale is a fantastic film in its own right. Martin Campbell delivered some of the best action of the series (that parkour crane chase still amazes) and a solid story line with deeper look into the character of Bond. He’s a blunt instrument and is not as invincible as you’ve previously seen. With this and Goldeneye under Campbell’s belt that’s not bad going. The colour literally leaps off the screen from every location; be it Monaco, the Caribbean or Italy. The idea driving the film was to reset the franchise, almost like Christopher Nolan did with Batman, and free the filmmakers from the CGI-heavy debacle that Lee Tamahori unfortunately created for Die Another Day. A contemporary, grittier and more vulnerable Bond that can be hurt. Q Branch and the gadgets have been sidelined to focus on character rather than special effects, and I have to say they’re not really missed in this film. The references to the aspects we all know and love about 007 over it’s (then) 44 year run, such as his “affection” for a vodka Martini (“Do I look like I give a damn?”) and his first encounter with Felix Leiter, all help us understand Bond more without detracting from the actual story. People who know the series in and out will get them, while people fresh to it will not feel alienated. It was exciting to try and guess what elements the producers would keep in or adapt.
Bond and Vesper’s turbulent relationship is a highlight of the film. It makes this character who has previously only had 1-film meaningless “flings” with countless women, and given him more depth and purpose. He’s initially a closed book and a cold-hearted assassin, but he lets Vesper in and pays a hefty emotional price. Time for just one more thing before the closing titles; the immortal line, “The name’s Bond…James Bond.” It was almost an overly extroverted-american-patriotic-punch-in-the-air moment in the cinema that sent shivers down my spine. After the 2 hour roller-coaster, it was now time to breath.
Before, it was From Russia With Love, but now Casino Royale stands as my favourite Bond film and Daniel Craig as my favourite incarnation of 007. However, that could all well change with the upcoming release of Skyfall!
I’ve got a strange fascination with movie trailers; I get excited in the anticipation of the online release of them to see the tone of the film. With certain summer blockbusters such as The Dark Knight and James Bond, I could watch them over and over again to experience that first time thrill of finally seeing something I’ve read development articles about for over 18 months or so. However, trailers are something in themselves, and purely made to get rear-ends into cinema seats. They’ve been harshly criticised as being the film industry’s false salesman, as well as spoiling the entire plot or funniest moments in some cases, and Killing Them Softly falls victim to this “yes man”. But damn, that Johnny Cash song was made for this film. (more…)
Shock Alert: I’m probably one of a microscopic few that enjoyed Sylvester Stallone’s 1995 outing as Judge Dredd. That was, however, likely due to the fact that I was 7 years old and thought it was cool as hell that I was watching a 15 certificate film. On reflection, this film was god awful. Then in 2012 a trailer landed for the updated “low” budget version starring Karl Urban. I have to admit that it was a disappointing trailer after seeing it marketed as a 3D film, which I’m not a fan of in the slightest, and it also having a similar plot line to The Raid. After warming to it amongst the hype when it was finally released, I went to my cinema to catch a viewing but they didn’t have a “normal” 2D screening at all! So I took the plunge, on my first 3D cinema film since Avatar and Toy Story 3. In all honesty, I was surprisingly impressed. (more…)
Plot details for the latest 007 outing, Skyfall, have remained a tightly kept secret, with the basic synopsis being, “Bond’s loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her.” Now the theatrical trailer has been released, without giving too much away before you watch it, it is a break from the norm with all of the classic Bond elements still included. We also get the first look and insight into Javier Bardem’s villain. Coupled with Sam Mendes calling the shots and Roger Deakins’ cinematography, we are in for a thrilling return. (more…)
The Dark Knight Begins, Falls & Rises.
I remember seeing Batman Begins in 2005 and being completely stunned. “Did that just happen?” Batman was rebuilt, re-configured and we finally got a chance to know the man behind the mask; what drives him to don the cape and prowl the night-time rooftops of Gotham. He became just a man that we could relate to in not knowing his place and purpose in the world, and in the end becoming, “more than just a man.”
After the loss of his parents, Bruce was in search of a father figure, and in the end found 4 “foster fathers”. Jim Gordon was the nurturing and caring father-in-the-making, Ducard provided him with direction and the means to become Batman, Lucius Fox was the fun father with all the cool toys, and Alfred is the worldly-wise side with unconditional love for Bruce. It’s hard to find anyone unaware of the critical mauling the series took after Joel Schumacher’s films, and I was intrigued before going into the cinema to view Christopher Nolan’s reboot, merely going along because I remained a loyal fan and hadn’t given up on the Bat yet. During scenes such as the training on the ice lake, the Tumbler chase and, “Why do we fall?”, it was cementing the foundations of a change in the series and films in general, such as Casino Royale. The reconstruction of the south-east wing was under way, if you will.
[Oh yeah, SPOILERS!]
After the closing scene, The Dark Knight was inevitable, but no-one could have predicted the massive cultural impact that it had in 2008. Heath Ledger’s tragic and unfortunate death shortly before it’s release cast a big shadow over it’s release. Of course the sequel would be bigger, but this defined the superhero movie genre whilst simultaneously breaking all of the rules, finally, after becoming an industry itself since 2000 with Bryan Singer’s X-Men. The good guy got corrupted, the girl died, and the main hero became an outlaw. Some critics thought the Harvey Dent/Two-Face storyline bloated the film, but I found the character arc to be tragic, but also gripping at the same time. One of the fundamental questions it asked, was how far are you willing to go for justice in the state of adversity, and at what cost? Echoing Ducard’s words in Batman Begins, “Are you willing to do what is necessary?” Batman sticks to his guns and uses the symbol he has created to take the fall for Harvey “Two-Face” Dent’s crimes. Then, for me, the greatest cinematic sign-off ever, riding off into the night as an outlaw.
20th July 2012, The Dark Knight Rises is released. How does Nolan top his 2008 entry into his Bat trilogy? If “fear” was the theme of the first film and “chaos” of the second, the conclusion is ultimately about “pain”. Mentally, Bruce Wayne is still mourning the loss of Rachel, and physically suffers critical injuries from both his previous and current encounters with Gotham’s scum. Alfred cannot bear seeing the boy he has cared for all of his life destroy himself, Commissioner Gordon is injured by Bane’s thugs, and Bane himself is in constant pain which can only be suppressed by his mask. The film also deals with current themes in society as the great divide between the rich and the poor, in a very Dickensian “A Tale Of Two Cities” way (which happened to be a key influence on the film, according to Nolan).
Anne Hathaway practically steals the show as Selina Kyle, effortlessly switching from her “regular gal” persona to scheming cat burglar, really showcasing her fantastic acting ability. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a great addition as GC cop John Blake and, some fans may hate this aspect of the conclusion, earns his stripes as Batman’s potential successor. Tom Hardy is absolutely menacing as Bane, both physically and verbally. I dismissed all of the initial criticisms of his voice issues with the mask after seeing the 6 minute prologue earlier in the year; I could understand everything he said, and when I heard the petition to alter the voice I was a little disappointed. Even so, viewing this film with a good sound system is a must. During the confrontation between Bane and the Bat in the sewers, it really conveyed just how sinister and devoted this villain is to his destructive plan. How can we also forget the man of hour, Christian Bale. Ever since his American Psycho performance, he as continued to impress. He has been fantastic as Bruce Wayne and really steps it up several gears for TDKR; you can feel his emotional wounds that continue to haunt him day and night. More so in this film than the previous two. However for me, Michael Caine hits the emotional notes of the film. His turmoil of seeing Bruce destroy himself and failing to protect him really put a lump in my throat in the cinema! When he and Bruce go their separate ways, eventually leading to Alfred’s worst fear, it’s very rewarding right at the end to see Bruce find happiness and succeed in making the Batman a symbol, whilst hanging up the cape and passing the torch. During the closing scenes, I was a little scared that it would be an Inception-style cut away to the credits. Thankfully, Nolan finds closure and doesn’t leave any stone unturned.
The sheer scale of this film is unprecedented; Gotham City is locked down and at war. Whilst other summer blockbusters in the last year or so (such as The Avengers and Transformers 3) have bloated the destruction of a city at ransom with CGI, this felt somewhat fresh. Wally Pfister’s cinematography of Gotham in the winter snow is somewhat beautiful but harrowing at the same time. It feels like it actually could be your city. The set pieces are very impressive too and it was hard not be stunned by the Batman’s triumphant return in the Stock Exchange attack. Along with the parallels to the Knightfall story line from the comics, it was nice to see Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns be one of the key plot influences too in Batman’s eight year hiatus (“Son, you are in for a show tonight!”). Christopher Nolan and the writers clearly know their source material well, more so than previous directors, and it pays off immensely. The parallels to Batman Begins were well utilised; linking it back full circle with the League of Shadows and the resemblance of climbing the pit to climbing the well at Wayne Manor as a child.
As trilogies go, this sits at the top of the bill. Fantastic writing from Jonathan & Christopher Nolan and David S Goyer, stunning production design all captured by Wally Pfister’s beautifully natural cinematography. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard’s excellent soundtracks are a character as much as Gotham City itself. They continue to impress more and more with every viewing. The sequels may have been unplanned, but the film-makers have been uncompromising in creating fantastic characters that have gone on a thrilling journey with moments that have seared into our cortex’s as well as celluloid history. It’s a superhero trilogy with a soul, even if it is a tortured one. I feel privileged to have been able to see all three from beginning to end in the cinema and see the effect that they have had. The overall story arc focus of Bruce Wayne (as opposed to previous films where the focus was on the Bat) from mourning the loss of his parents, finding his purpose and creating the symbolic legend was pitch perfect. My only wish? That I can watch them all again in the cinema for the very first time. This bat trilogy was more than we deserved, and the one we needed.
The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight Rises
The Dark Knight Rises release date is creeping up on us fast, and the viral campaign is still in full swing. There have been a good amount of TV spots that have aired already, and now we’re being given the opportunity to create our own. The ‘Imported From Gotham City’ website (click the image for a link) provides a download pack of all clips, titles and music tracks to use, and the lucky winner could have their 25 second creation aired on national TV. The deadline is June 29th, but I don’t think I’ll can settle on just one! Below you can see all of my drafts, but I won’t be able to post my final submission until after the winner is announced, as that’ll be breaking the rules!
If you wouldn’t mind taking the time to cast me a vote here before July 3rd, that’d help me out 😀
“Are you alone?”
Episode 13 “The Phantom” marked the end of the much delayed 5th season of Mad Men. Following the tradition of being directed by the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, viewers were not disappointed in the episode’s stark imagery and memorable closing montage. (more…)