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Sunday, 17 February 2013

THIS WEEK: Django Unchained / Wreck-It Ralph

0 - No Redeeming Feature

1 - Poor

2 - Passable

3 - Good.  Rent it.

4 - Excellent!

5 - Must See!!

DJANGO UNCHAINED  (2013 - UK Certificate 18)

Quentin Tarantino's best films are his debut Reservior Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown.  It's not that everything since is bad, but there was a notable change in the type of film he wanted to make from that point.  Having admired many technical aspects of Kill Bill, the deliciously sinister nature of his grind house homage Death Proof, and the fantastic set pieces of Inglorious Basterds, I can say that Django Unchained, his story of a slave-turned-bounty hunter fighting to rescue his wife from a plantation, is his most focused and solid delivery since that change.

By now anybody reading will know the basics of the synopsis, so I won't go into much detail.  Jamie Foxx is Django, in which the D is silent.  He explains this in a simple but splendid "wink wink" exchange with Franco Nero in a cameo spot, typical of the cinema encyclopedia that is Tarantino; Nero was Django at a time, and that knowledge makes their exchange a fun tidbit.  For those of my generation, he may be more easily identified as the bad guy being sprung free in Die Hard 2.  Foxx is perfectly fine as the central character, although there is an irony in the fact that, by the nature of the story, he is given little to do for a fair clump of the running time, so falls into the shadow of other cast members, somewhat.  Those other members are uniformly impressive:  Christoph Waltz is the bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (cheekily clever name); he is dangerous, charming and witty, much like his character in Inglorious Basters; the difference here is that he is the good guy, setting Django free and proceeding to help him perform the daring rescue of his woman.

Leonardo Dicaprio is nothing short of perfect as the young, petulant Calvin Candie, proud owner of a plantation, sickeningly enthralled by man-din-go fighting to the death, and in the most surprising turn, we have Samuel L. Jackson as the twisted Uncle Tom character Stephen.  This latter performance is truly phenomenal, by turns humorous and sincerely scary.

Tarantino's handling of the sensitive backdrop for the story is impressive; with all the hooting and hollering about political insensitivity, the fact is he tackles the traits of the time, two years before the American Civil War, with a sure-handedness that I must say might surprise many.  The film does not shirk away from some nasty modes of thought and activities deemed acceptable at the time, but as far as what the director would call the "real violence" is concerned, he doesn't rub our face in it more than is necessary; rather, just enough that it balances with the stylized "cartoon violence" and makes it all the more cathartic.  In terms of style, all the typical trademarks we now expect of the man are here: the no-holds-barred approach to making it an in-your-face experience, great source music, real in-camera effects work that really drives home the violent elements, and fantastic dialogue that is a joy just to behold, particularly when Jackson and Waltz get to open their mouths, because as Tarantino says, they were born to say his words.

Just a few particularly good examples can be found in the extended bar sequence where Dr. Schultz explains to Django what it is he does, a brief but fantastic exchange between the two as Schultz takes aim at a  soon-to-be corpse, Stephen's reaction when he first meets Django, which only Jackson could make as funny as he does, and a very funny scene everybody is talking about, which ridicules the Klan.

Now, the film is not without problems.  For all the tension and drama successfully created elsewhere, the love connection between Django and Broomhilda is one I never really buy, and so that which is effectively the heart of the film runs close to flat-line.  The sense of connection, and the stakes at risk, are well generated between other characters, but there is no true sense that Django and Broomhilda ever truly lost anything.  This is not to say they didn't, but we don't get a convincing sense of it; this follows through with a lack of chemistry between them in the final scene of the film.

Speaking of that final scene, the tone Tarantino goes with, taking his foot off the pedal and going out on a note that plays more like an episode of Zorro, feels out of step.  In fact, whilst the juggling of different tones is something the director appears to have a generally good handle on, it is also a frustrating element of his film making.  As was most evident in Inglorious Basterds, his desire to embrace and mesh various genre conventions sometimes gets in the way of what could be a terrific genre piece; this is evidenced by the darker, more gripping, nasty scenes, moments that make me think, "I want to see what that movie is like".  Instead of that, we meander through a film that defies genre and on one hand deals very reverently with slavery through a love and revenge story, but on the other feels like it is little more than playing dress-up.  It bugs me, because he is such a great cinematic mind, I do not doubt that if he removed himself from his work a little, he could create something monumental.

The thing is he has always been in love with everything he writes, himself even having said that upon completion of his screenplay, he feels he has the finished product, can happily publish it as a book and not bother making the movie.  This is a problem; he clearly struggles to understand that whilst he may be happy he has written War and Peace, not everyone will feel the same; ironically, he is also known for his snappy dialogue and genuinely smart direction within individual set pieces.  The final consequence of all this is that the film is not only crammed full of sequences that are stunningly written, funny, tense, dark and lavishly staged, but also with bits and pieces that simply run too long, don't quite fit, or aren't needed, and so it becomes too bloated for its own good.  Not far off three hours when two would have done perfectly fine to tell his story, it is as though with a lack of, or perhaps in spite of a strong editor (R.I.P Sally Menke), he insists on a sometimes unfocused and self-indulgent piece.  Evidence of this issue could not be clearer than in the casting of himself in a superfluous role, in an absolutely unnecessary act of the film; if his lack of presence doesn't take you out of the movie somewhat, the dreadfully unconvincing Australian accent only illuminates the bad decision for you.
With all I've said, my rating may surprise you.  This is because, despite all the issues, I do accept Tarantino as the director he is, and Django Unchained tackles a serious topic with verve, building from it a story that does enthrall, and makes for some exciting, unpredictable, if sometimes frustrating cinema. The writing is typically Tarantino, uncensored and wild, at its worst a bit too much, but at its best snappy and exciting.  The performances are terrific, his unique use of anachronistic music proves he has long-since perfected the art of meshing visual and sound in a fashion that is far from typical.  His flair for the fun and theatrical is very much on show throughout, and his penchant for a good shootout certainly hasn't worn thin.  The main action sequence before the final act of the movie brings to mind the standoff in True Romance, only it is significantly more insane, but unlike the Crazy 88 scenes in Kill Bill Vol 1. he does not provide the refuge to a shift to black and white; blood squibs go off left, right and centre, painting everything crimson...everything!

This is indeed thrilling, although I must say that it is also notable at this stage how good a shot Django has become.  Indeed the film gets a case of what I could call "the Commandos" (if you don't get that, you need to brush up on your Schwarzenegger filmography), with one man who, before being freed would never have touched a gun, having become the greatest gunslinger alive with apparently little struggle, whilst we watch the bad guys stumble about in packs, sometimes with a clear shot of Django, and failing miserably.  Are these guys really this bad, or is Django impervious to bullets?  I understand it's a revenge convention, and I'm not looking for a great deal of realism at this point, but a sense that Django might have failed would have been welcome. 

Django Unchained is very much a film only Tarantino could make, which means, even with the things I think are wrong with it, you could never accuse it of being boring.  Whether your reaction to the more over the top, incendiary elements is positive or not, it is an engaging thrill ride, and his most impressive work since Jackie Brown.  A flawed, but bold movie.


At cinemas now.
Catch if it you like:  Quentin Tarantino

WRECK-IT RALPH  (2013 - UK Certificate PG)

Wreck-It Ralph takes us into the imaginary "behind the scenes" world of arcade video games, in which we see that characters controlled by the game players by day have their own lives by night.  Ralph is the bad guy in a retro, 8-bit arcade game who is tired of not being liked for doing his job, namely wrecking a building while the good guy, Fix-It Felix Jr, repairs the damage.  He makes the decision to "go turbo", abandoning his own game and venturing into a new, shiny one called Bug Hunt; his aim is to get himself a medal, earn a bit of respect and, perhaps, even adoration.  Through an amusing set of circumstances Ralph finds himself in the company of a young girl named Venellope, a character in the ridiculously bright racing game Sugar Rush, who is not allowed to race due to a glitch in her programming.  Together they aim to get Venellope into a race, and Ralph his medal; this sets in motion a story that is typically and, at points, generically Disney.

When described it sounds a little too close to the Pixar classic Toy Story, from which it does take its cue, and so it is easy to assume it will automatically fall flat.  So what makes it not?  There is clearly a "geek factor" to this film, with numerous cheeky and amusing cameos by characters everybody who ever played games will recognize, with the games themselves clearly being based on known titles.  There is also a smart observation of the look of different eras of gaming; notice how wonderfully rendered the more up to date games characters look when compared to those of the 8-bit Wreck-It Ralph, with their jumpy animation summoning an immediate sense of nostalgia.  The most notable reason for it working, however, is its presentation of a completely engaging, well-written story, and its creation of tremendous central characters.  The voice acting is the best I have heard for some time; among the talent are John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, the latter, I suspect, winning over even those who do not like her.  We find ourselves really caring about these game characters, honestly charmed and sincerely moved by their adventure.

The theme and moral is nothing new for movies of this ilk, but it is excellently put together, feels fresh, and the plot itself even has an intelligent, mature progression that will engage the children and speak to the parents.  I had a couple of issues with some of the heavy handed product placement, one character coming across as rather unoriginal due to an obvious comparison with a previous, classic Disney character (you can't not notice it, it seems intentional), and I felt using an existing song by Rihanna in the middle of the film, rather than a track written specifically for it, to be misjudged, but overall these are little, personal complaints, about which not everybody will feel the same.

Rich Moore arrived as the director with an impressive set of credentials in TV; being attached to, among other things, The Simpsons and Futurama is no bad starting point.  Whilst it can be said it does not quite reach the heights of the Pixar classics, Moore has created a film that is charming, creative, moving, and a joy from which all ages can get pleasure.  As I walked out of the auditorium with the perfectly suited, up-beat, closing credit song by Own City buzzing through my head, I was already thinking Wreck-It Ralph is absolutely going to be one of the best releases of 2013!  I stand by this.

Gamer or no gamer, young or adult, you should see this movie!


In cinemas now
Catch it if you like:  Video games, Cars, Monsters Inc., Toy Story.

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