Tag Archives: Star Wars

Star Trek Beyond – The phaser, the furious

1468615568157.cached

Insert captain here: Chris Pine as Captain James T. Kirk, with Anton Yelchin as Pavel Chekov

The rebooted Star Trek universe has become a curious success story. The first entry, 2009’s minimalist-titled Star Trek, gave the franchise new vigour, while breaking the series’ longstanding ‘odds are bad, evens are great’ rule, being the eleventh adventure, and one of the betters. The less said about the 2013 ‘Rehash of Khan’ Star Trek Into Darkness, a cine-cesspool I have already emptied into at length, the better, but it’s fair to say that both films played a major role in giving their director J. J. Abrams the impetus to resurrect the flatlining Star Wars saga with last year’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Star Trek Beyond, the first of the series without Abrams in the captain’s seat, was likely to prove a challenge to succeed, and yet, here we are. It’s a fun ’un!

Originally set to be the directorial debut of Star Trek and STID (and, ugh, Transformers 2) co-writer Roberto Orci, that idea was thankfully jettisoned into space early on, like so much dead Spock. Justin Lin, whose revitalisation of the Fast & Furious franchise (entries 3 thru 6) will no doubt result in statues being built to his memory some day, was brought in to take the wheel. He’s suitably made it the most high-octane entry in the franchise’s history, no matter how much that jars with the legacy of a show about space diplomacy and thinly veiled arguments against racial prejudice. (Actually, come to think of it, given how racially progressive the Fast & Furious franchise became under Lin’s watch, maybe there’s a direct connection there…)

Lin directs from a script by Doug Jung and ensemble member Simon Pegg, which finds the crew of the Enterprise crash-landing on an uncharted planet, with an angry alien warlord hunting them. Our heroes Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) are facing nicely paralleled mortality issues: Kirk has just passed the age his father was when he was killed in film 1; whereas Spock has just learned that his time-travelling alt-future self has died (allowing the film to delicately mourn Leonard Nimoy) – an intriguing metaphysical ball of angst that the film never dares dig into, but deserves much credit for addressing. The idea of the fear of death trickles in and out of the film, but it’s all just basic emotional dressing for the grander set pieces.

The first of these sees the Enterprise grounded as a fleet of compact armoured alien ships tears through its hull, whipping about in a swarm of black darts. It’s frightening stuff, although the speed of the ships (and their being black on black of space) does make it all a tad hard to see. That the starship’s fall to earth is with a crunching thud and not an enormous Bayhemic explosion is a rare but admirable show of restraint. The death toll unclear (thousands?), the villains seize most of the survivors, barring a few of our principles, of course. Scotty, absent for a sizeable chunk of STID, gets the most to do here; perhaps Simon Pegg taking advantage of his new status. He teams up with orphaned alien scavenger/engineer Jaylah (think Newt from Aliens mixed with, um, that guy Laurence Fishburne played in Predators) to help rescue the team and find their way off the planet. Jaylah, played by Kingsman henchman Sofia Boutella, is the film’s crowning glory – impish, stubborn, and extremely competent, never overly sexualised; she sits comfortably amongst the leading ladies of the recent feminist action hero wave.

PHdoAPyntcKVhe_2_l

You’ve got me on my knees, Jaylah: Sofia Boutella as alien newcomer Jaylah, with Spock (Zachary Quinto) and ‘Bones’ McCoy (Karl Urban)

When the crew finally reunites, it’s a few skirmishes to take down the villain (although thankfully there’s room between them to breathe, which was the undoing of STID). Lin determinedly inserts a motorbike for Kirk to ride both fast and moderately furiously. The Enterprise crew then goes up against the swarm again in a delightful over-the-top (and LOUD) space battle that is one of the most joyous in recent memory. It’s dumb fun made by smart people.

Like too many recent blockbusters, the villain is the weakest element. Played by Idris Elba in alien Nosferatu makeup so thick you’d never know it was him, Krall is another angry-with-the-system rebel, whose rants against the Federation sound more BREXIT than ISIS. As cool as his army of hive-minded spaceships is, his sinister plan to kill lots of people with a bio-weapon is so old-hat you’d imagine it was outlawed in the future along with anti-gay prejudice.

The design is solid, especially the space station Yorktown, which is all crisp white futurism and glass, but toys with gravity like Norman Foster playing Super Mario Galaxy. Lighting is all too dark in some sequences, and the edits during the action can be a little sharp, but mostly it’s a pleasantly bright and thrilling adventure, a strong blockbuster in a summer of flops and stillbirths. Even the acting has gotten better. Pegg no longer grates as Scotty, and Pine finally begins to feel right for the role of captain. Once again, Karl Urban steals the show as Dr. McCoy, given the best of the bantery dialogue to snarl in Spock’s face. Sadly, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura is largely sidelined, as is, more tragically, the late Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, a glorified extra in his last space adventure.

tumblr_o7mvm0a6do1qa8jfto1_1280

The old and the new: An iconic reference

It’s curious that the marketing for the film chose so strongly to reference the original 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the film in this series this latest least resembles. Beyond is a hyperactive adventure, contrasting sharply with the unjustly disliked but criminally overlong TMP, with its true-sci-fi mystery plot. But there are fleeting references, such as the villains in Beyond using old Starfleet probes for reconnaissance, while the “villain” of TMP was the Voyager probe made sentient. One shot, sped up to rapidly circle the entirety of the Enterprise in all its glory, seems to josh TMP’s notorious three-minute ogling of its famous model. Indeed, while Star Trek Beyond opens with Kirk suffering the malaise of his mission, and considering relinquishing the captaincy to become an admiral, TMP saw Kirk’s frustration with the admiralty return him to his rightful place. With Nimoy, and thus Spock-Prime, now gone, the original adventure is truly brought to a close. Star Trek Beyond is just another bump on the new road, but it’s one that offers one hell of a thrill.

3/5

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

2015 in review – You had us worried there for a bit

2015 best of

There was a moment when it looked like 2015 would be a pretty miserable year for cinema. A good few moments, to be honest. Battling through my final semester of college, my film viewing was restricted, and it wasn’t until May that I saw the first of the films to make my Top 20 of the year (Mad Max: Fury Road, if you’re asking).

Highly rated horrors It Follows and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night proved to be effective diversions that thoroughly failed to live up to the hyperbolic heights of the Film Twitter opinion machine. Furious 7 was a delightful (and dumb, but delightful) way to spend my birthday and a night away from my thesis, but that franchise continues to move away from the success of Fast Five. After Mad Max summer descended into a farce of blockbusters: the paint-by-nostalgia monstrosity that was Jurassic World, the lopsidedly bloated Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Roland Emmerich-lite San Andreas.

It was well into autumn before things picked up for me. Some early triumphs from the year made their ways to Netflix, and by then I was working on a project at the Museum of Modern Art, where keeping up to date with the better film releases became little more than a matter of staying late after work. In so many ways 2015 ended a lot better than it began.

It was Star Wars that sealed the deal. Not my favourite film of the year (in fact you’ll see it absent from the list below – but it was a close cut), The Force Awakens proved to have that little bit of magic that has been missing for all too long, a film the world can absorb the hype of that then manages to live up to expectations and be a genuinely terrific film. I saw a late screening opening night, and regardless of reservations, I left the cinema more charged than I can remember being in years.

There were, as always, dabbles in film history to charge me also. Painfully overdue, I finally viewed Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy, which lived up to the expectations of that teenager who caught three minutes of White on the TV so many years ago. At the cinema, I caught some real masterpieces for the first time: The Naked Spur, A Star Is Born (1954), The Masque of the Red Death, Fires on the Plain, the five-hour cut of Until the End of the World, Touki Bouki, Lonesome, and a 3D screening of the delirious Kiss Me Kate. Nothing compared to Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which stole my heart and exhausted my mind at MoMA in November, and instantly catapulted itself into the list of very greatest films I have ever seen.

Knowing 2015 would be a busy year, my annual movie challenge was intentionally a light one. Spying an obvious blind spot in my film knowledge – Bollywood – I took to forcing myself to watch one (long) feature a month. I only scraped the surface of course, but I’ve developed an understanding of and passion for this major branch of Indian cinema, its flamboyance, its love of twists and hatred of subtext. I watched essential classics including Zanjeer, Mother India, and Mughal-e-Azam, as well as recent hits like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and 3 Idiots, and even contemporary madness like Dhoom, Dhoom 2, and Enthiran. I’ll be watching more in future, and I can’t recommend enough that film fans who have yet to dip their toes in Bollywood streams take care of that, and see what a sixth of people on earth considers mainstream cinema.

So on to the films of the year. As always I missed a few things. Beasts of No Nation, despite being right there on Netflix, never got seen. Clouds of Sils Maria, Bridge of Spides, Magic Mike XXL, and Creed similarly got missed. Some lauded films were appreciated, but fell short for me, like Straight Outta Compton, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, The Hateful Eight, and The Revenant. Films that narrowly didn’t make my Top 20 include Mistress America, Tangerine, Taxi, James White, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Song of the Sea, and The Big Short. The terrific farce 7 Days of Hell was considered, but rejected for the same reason A Very Murray Christmas, the worst thing I saw all year, doesn’t feature in my worst-of list – they’re both productions designed for home viewing and barely of a length to qualify as features.

 

Now, who enjoys a good list?

 

20. Queen of Earth

Alex Ross Perry’s psychological drama about the breakdown of friendship between two millenial yuppies is peppered with nightmarish oddities that keep the viewer on their toes. It’s violently negative in its lack of faith in people supporting one another in need, but not unjustifiably so. Shot in bright airy spaces, but the focus is on intense close-ups that further alienate the characters from each other. Elisabeth Moss gave one of the year’s most committed performances.

 

19. Youth

Still struggling to recreate his earlier successes in The Consequences of Love and (the near-perfect) Il Divo, Paolo Sorrentino has made his best film in seven years. It focuses on two elderly artist friends hiding from the world in a Swiss spa. Michael Caine is the retired classical composer who peaked too soon, Harvey Keitel is the Scorsese-like filmmaker who keeps pumping out films that cannot compare to the works of his youth. Finely acted and sublimely scored, and featuring a deluge of Sorrentino’s delicious, unexplained eccentricities, it is hampered only by its dialogue, which feels all too scabrously translated from Italian.

 

18. Ex Machina

As sci-fi continues to recapture the public imagination (2015 was quite a good year for it overall), this unexpected gem, a sexy Asimovian tale of A.I. versus real en-souled intelligence, became a surprise favourite for many. Written and directed by Alex Garland, known best for writing Danny Boyle’s sci-fi ventures, this was a slickly produced psychological thriller that brought together demi-perspex android Alicia Vikander and 2015 MVP Domhnall Gleeson’s computer expert for the ultimate Voight-Kampff test. Oscar Isaac’s untrustworthy tech billionaire, all creatine and superego, stole the show, along with the lush visuals. A mishandled finale was the only sour note.

 

17. Phoenix

Christian Petzold, the emerging master of German historical melodrama, weaves a strangely original yarn in Phoenix, in which a Holocaust survivor attempts to uncover if her husband served her up to the Nazis. Unrecognisable after reconsructive surgery, she is hired by her husband to impersonate his supposedly dead wife to claim an inheritance. The greater mystery is therefore known to us, creating a scintilating game of cat and mouse. Impressive period detail, Nina Hoss’s restrained performance and a jawdropping conclusion make it one to remember.

 

16. Sicario

What should feel overly familiar, another tale of cynical cops and murderous cartels, is given new life and energy in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. The descent of Emily Blunt’s FBI agent from go-getting SWAT member, to toughened special forces volunteer, to exhausted, disillusioned survivor, stands as a superb metaphor for the bewildering War on Drugs. Smart dialogue and incredible cinematography by Roger Deakins (the night vision sequence was one of the year’s finest) saw it through clunkier moments; it leaves a lasting impression.

 

15. Goodnight Mommy

The old dark house of classic horror is here replaced with a soulless, polished modernist monolith, a bright white country house full of dark terrors. A pair of twins – spritely, Aryan-looking – begin to suspect that their mother is no longer who she claims to be. A nasty game of powerplay ensues, with the story cleverly shifting the viewer’s allegience. Keenly cut and often blackly comic, it’s a skin-crawling horror that reinvents torture porn as Oedipal nightmare.

 

14. The Assassin

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s stunning wuxia fable was one of 2015’s most beautiful and most frustrating films. With an intentionally obtuse storyline and an editing style that cuts away from the main action on a whim, it is not a film that satisfies a hunger for solid storytelling. What it does have however are exquisitely lush production values and, in its star Shu Qi, a remarkable feminine intensity. Many of the year’s most arresting images were imbedded in this work, in particular a dramatic cliffside confrontation slowly enwrapped in mist.

 

13. Inside Out

Pixar rarely let us down, but lately their hits have numbered their misses. But their hits remain some of the smartest, most charming and most universally appealing films to come out of Hollywood today. Pete Docter, responsible for Monsters, Inc. and Up, here takes us inside the mind of a young preteen, demonstrating her emotional turmoil through anthropomorphised emotions that dwell in a sci-fi wonderland; part playground, part bureaucratic stampede. The characters both inside and out carry the film’s hefty emotional punch, and the designs are handsome and witty. Only its repetitive, stop-and-start adventure narrative prevents it from being listed with the very top of the Pixar pantheon.

 

12. Brooklyn

Old-fashioned in the best possible way, director John Crowley’s take on Colm Tóibín’s novel, adapted by Nick Hornby, puts its money where its heart is. Saoirse Ronan beams as Eilis, a shy parochial Irish girl who moves to New York to better herself, and soon emerges from her shell, only to be torn between her new home and the one she left behind. Plus there’s an ideal romantic match on both sides of the Atlantic. Excellent period detail and finely paced, simple human drama create something traditional yet timely. Earnest, genuine, and unironic storytelling.

 

11. Spotlight 

Telling the story of how The Boston Globe broke the news of massive cover-ups of paedophilia within the Catholic Church, Spotlight repeatedly evokes the champion of the investigative news genre, All the President’s Men. While never quite reaching its forebear’s heights, it recaptures much of its energy, making the gathering of information or the biting of a new lead as thrilling as a gun battle or foot chase. It is functionally, unshowily shot, with some choice montage work, but it’s the slowly building story and the great performances, most notably Mark Ruffalo, that made this one of the year’s most surprisingly powerful dramas.

 

10. Anomalisa

Resurrecting a 10-year-old stage play, the unique surrealist Charlie Kaufman chose to visualise this tale of depression and isolation in stop-motion animation form. The antihero of the film, Michael, is so cut-off, introspective and self-obsessive, that he perceives every stranger as sharing the same, expressionless face, each bearing actor Tom Noonan’s barely shifting tones. A chance encounter with Lisa, wearing her own 3D-printed face and wielding Jennifer Jason Leigh’s sweet voice, evolves into a simple love affair with complex repercussions. At times hilarious, tragic, or nightmarish, it sculpts two incredible character studies as rich as the miniature universe built to house them. The shower scene alone guarantees this one immortality.

9. The Duke of Burgundy

Peter Strickland has emerged as a late British Lynch, an artist who understands the film camera as a literal dream machine, producing deep truth from the illogical. In this, his third dramatic feature, he explores female sexuality through a series of twisting sexual games of cat-and-mouse, as a lesbian couple indulge in sado-masochistic role-play in opulent fashion. The lavish English country estate décor, sensuous lingerie and extensive all-female cast create a gratifying otherworldliness, while the rich cinematography, sharp cutting and unexpected insect imagery add to Strickland’s ethereal scenario an extra sexy pinch.

 

8. The Look of Silence

The companion piece to 2012’s untouchable The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence sees Joshua Oppenheimer turn away from the perpetrators of Indonesia’s anti-communist genocide to look at its victims, and the survivors. In a metaphor too perfect for fiction, clear sight is given to us through an optician (or supposed optician), a man whose brother was savagely slain by government-backed gangsters. He visits these older gangsters, now local big wigs, and while performing eye exams, has them probe their despicable pasts for reasonings and methods. Mixing gut-wrenching old video testament with brightly shot contemporary footage, Oppenheimer hints that an emotional cleansing is possible, but all too late for our protagonist and his withering parents.

 

7. Mad Max: Fury Road 

Just when reboots and remakes and all-too-late sequels were becoming old-hat, George Miller undid more than a decade’s worth of talking animal abuse to bring back Max Rockatansky from his shallow, sandy, post-apocalyptic grave. An adrenaline-pumping extended chase sequence of a movie, Fury Road has all the thump and energy of the finest post-’90s action cinema with the dedicated, unpatronising world-building of ’80s fantasy. Tom Hardy grunts as Max, while Charlize Theron stands a one-armed feminist archangel as Imperator Furiosa, a second-tier thug in a cultish tribe who decides enough is enough in the face of crippling misogyny and rape. With exquisite stunts and mind-boggling costume and vehicle design, Fury Road is that rare art film in blockbuster’s clothing. Indulgences in the thrill of the chase undermine the broader themes at times, but this is still exceptional filmmaking from start to finish.

 

6. The Tribe

Part gangster movie, part coming-of-age tale, part pitch-black parody of high school dramas, The Tribe is a monstrous and brilliant work. Set at a Ukrainian school for the deaf, the dialogue is entirely in sign language, without accompanying translation of any kind. The audience is thus forced to engage doubly with the material, to absorb what story it can while the thunderous, angered performances confront them head on. Extended shots without cuts for interruption draw you further in, only to be assaulted by a McDonagh-ian propensity for sudden, horrifying violence. Other sequences our ears pick up the important sounds that could mean life-or-death for the characters on screen. It is a hopeless look at an isolated, noiseless world, that milks the potential of cinema to both reveal and conceal for everything it’s got.

 

5. The Martian

Another story of survival in space – so what makes this one different? Well for starters, Matt Damon gives his finest performance in a decade in one of his greatest roles, as astronaut Mark Watney, a cocksure scientist whose wit and ego are enough to just about sustain him after he is abandoned on Mars in a dust storm. His quest to stay alive with limited resources is created with real (or at least believable) science and exceptional wit, through Drew Goddard’s bouncy screenplay and Damon’s sardonic delivery. The momentum jumps along at a solid pace, while sequences on Mars, Earth, and in space sustain the drama without an ounce of fat. Ridley Scott, working as a director for hire, commits to a great project, tying together excellent location shooting (in Jordan) and expertly deployed special effects. A testament to human perseverance, a uniquely smart blockbuster, and just a really good time at the movies.

 

4. Son of Saul

Shot on 35mm with needle-point-shallow focus, Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes’s debut feature redefines ‘harrowing’, by bringing you into the whirling hell of a Nazi death camp and refusing to let you out. The sensational Géza Röhrig is Saul, a Jewish prisoner fit enough to be part of the team who assist in the mass murder of their own people, and thus an enforced collaborator. His impossible last chance for redemption is to save the corpse of a young man (his son, perhaps?) from the furnace, but escalating events in the camp block his way at every hurdle. An exhausting, frustrating and beautiful work, that dares to reveal the darkest, unwhispered barbarities of the Holocaust.

 

3. 45 Years

The year’s simplest, meatiest tragedy, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years feels like the untold not-so-happy ending to many of the greatest love stories. An older couple is about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary when he receives a letter regarding a lost love from his past. The nostalgia and sadness bred in him stirs regret and paranoia in his wife, threatening not just the occasion, but the legacy of their relationship. Capturing beautiful moments of human interaction and shot from a permanently respectful distance, 45 Years is a remarkable story that triumphs through its two stars, the resurrected ’60s heartthrob Tom Courtenay, and the irrepressible Charlotte Rampling, at her very finest.

 

2. Carol

Todd Haynes’s sumptuous, delicious film of forbidden love in 1950s New York hits with an emotional wallop, as wide-eyed salesgirl Therese (Rooney Mara) meets older divorcee-to-be Carol (Cate Blanchett), and embarks upon a seemingly doomed lesbian romance. Made up of perfectly framed glances and erotically charged conversations, Carol highlights the cruelty of the attitudes of the time without preaching or descending into melodrama. The period detail and lighting astonish, while the score by Carter Burwell captures and holds the energy of the drama. But it’s the performances by the film’s two female leads that make this one for the ages. Heartfelt and empathetic, they carry their flawed characters with immense pride right through to the heart-stopping finale.

 

1. Hard to Be a God

One of the defining qualities of a great movie is that it either shows you something that has never been seen before, or tells a story that is unlike any you have ever seen. It has been too long since a film did both. Aleksei German’s final film (it was completed in post after his death), shot over six years, originates in a novel by Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who wrote the work on which Tarkovsky’s Stalker was based. It is about a group of human scientists observing a world almost identical to Earth, but still in, and seemingly stuck in, the Middle Ages. In an explosive performance, Leonid Yarmolnik plays Don Rumata, a human observer succumbed to extraordinary hubris, encouraging the peasants of this backwards planet to treat him as a god. The themes of madness and decline are handled with the gravitas they deserve, but the film retains a casual cheekiness throughout, defiantly grotesque and dirty. The lengthy takes with roving handheld cameras get you right up in the thick of it; you can almost smell the sweat and mud. German has done the near impossible, rigidly blocking his scenes despite the wild camera movements, so that his frame is perpetually full, busy, and yet with no action obscured. It is monumental filmmaking, beautiful and hideous and deep.

hardtobeagod

Good god, man!

 

—————————————————————–

So as for the worst films of 2015, well, for a year that never seemed like it was going to be a good year for cinema until the last minute, it never looked much like a bad year either. I never saw Mortdecai or Rock the Kasbah or Pan or Terminator: Typo. End-of-the-world examples of cynical capitalist cinema in the guise of Jurassic World or Minions were so blandly efficient as to escape this list. Here’s what utterly disappointed or downright infuriated this past year.

 

5. The Good Dinosaur

One step forward and one step back is Pixar’s game right now. This mindlessly banal tripe is only a patch above Cars 2 in that studio’s canon. It’s utterly unbelievable, uncrafted world, with barely a dozen dinosaur inhabitants implying rampant inbreeding, its rehashed boy-and-his-dog plot that goes nowhere new, its lazy voicework and godawful twangy score, all add up to bad family entertainment. The backgrounds are, admittedly, extraordinarily illustrated, but that’s no use when the characters in front of them look like Aardman characters crafted from nasal drippings. The magic mushrooms scene was the most socially and ethically misjudged moment in an American movie all year, and I’m including Entourage in that.

 

4. Taken 3

Climbing its way up from the very bottom a few years back, the Taken franchise now no longer feels like an advertising campaign for ISIS, at least. But this remains truly exhausted action garbage, with growling and exhausted Liam Neeson killing all the Russians in America after his ex-wife is murdered in a desperate attempt to raise the stakes. The action sequences barely thrill (as they barely thrilled when seen in the trailers), and Forest Whitaker only serves to depress with his role-slumming. The dramatic ending is gloriously, unintentionally laughable.

 

3. The Editor 

Genre spoofs are not easy, and this attempt to lampoon giallo and B-movie horror manages to bungle everything from the get-go. The look, the rhythms, the acting styles are all wrong, as if no one involved actually bothered to watch a giallo beforehand, or thought a movie all about analogue film editing might wanna look like it’s being shown on old film. The murder mystery isn’t intriguing, the horror isn’t frightening and the gags just aren’t funny – desperate as it is to find comedy in old-timey Italian misogyny, it comes off as disinterested in appearing at all respectful to women. At least it tried, but it failed utterly.

 

2. Fantastic Four

The superhero reboot no one asked for became the film no one wanted, including, it would seem, the actors or filmmakers involved. Every step is so blatantly miscalculated, from the casting (Jamie Bell as tough guy Ben, Michael B. Jordan as lovable fop Johnny, Toby Kebbell as someone with an accent) to the overly realistic look, to the epic score played over characters crossing the street or typing things into computers. Supposedly plagued by production issues, its bipolar switch in the second act reveals that no one could quite agree what kind of movie they were making. For once with a messy major Marvel-based project, the box office reflected this.

1. The Loft

Erik Van Looy’s remake of his own modestly successful Belgian thriller Loft, this is an uncompromising study in bad filmmaking. An unengaging murder mystery, that doubles as a deeply unsexy erotic thriller, The Loft starts off on the most wrong foot by having its five male stars buy an apartment together in which to cheat on their wives. By the time a dead body turns up, we already want all these men locked away for it regardless of their role in the murder. Painful miscasting and excruciating dialogue build up to a pathetic series of convoluted twists. Men’s rights activist cinema, with all the talent you imagine goes with that.

 

 

And with that, onward into 2016…

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

After Earth – Where there’s a Will, there’s a Jaden

Smith hits the fan: Jaden takes a knee before facing the Volcano Zone level of After Earth

Smith hits the fan: Jaden takes a knee before facing the Volcano Zone level of After Earth

The original teaser trailer for After Earth felt like an M. Night Shyamalan movie. In deep space, in the future, super-soldier Will Smith and his would-be hero son Jaden crash land on an unpopulated, savage world. But twist! It’s Earth!

But much like Shyamalan’s last disastrous venture, The Last Airbender, After Earth isn’t one of the director’s traditional twist-based thrillers, rather a sci-fi action adventure film. And once more the director is considerably out of his element.

Based on a story idea by Smith the elder, and written by Shyamalan and Book of Eli writer Gary Whitta, After Earth is a father/son bonding tale set within a clumsily considered (and more clumsily realised) science fiction universe. The whole venture feels like an excuse for Will to show off his son; Shyamalan certainly has no chance to show off anything here.

Set some 1,000 years after Earth is abandoned for environmental reasons, mankind has settled on a sunny, Grand Canyon-esque planet called Nova Prime (‘new one’ – not even the most embarrassing use of Latin this film demonstrates). Ranger Corps general Cypher Raige (Will Smith, overcompensating for how ordinary his real name is) has become the hero of humanity after defeating an alien invasion; in what would probably have been a much more entertaining movie to watch. He has perfected the art of “ghosting”, suppressing all fear so that the alien beasties can’t see him. But the death of his daughter at the claws of one of the creatures has scarred his relationship with his son Kitai (Jaden Smith), who has sort of been blamed for her demise despite being only about six at the time it happened.

Attempting to reconnect, Cypher takes Kitai on a mission with him, but soon enough an asteroid collision leaves them the only survivors of the starship once it crashes down to Earth. With Cypher’s leg broken, and the only working distress beacon in the tail section of the starship some miles away (alternative title: ‘Lost in space’), Kitai must venture into the sort-of-unknown to save the day and earn top-billing on the movie posters.

Daddy's issues: Will Smith begins to regret relinquishing top billing to his son

Daddy’s issues: Will Smith begins to regret relinquishing top-billing to his son

The lush landscape of Earth is now dotted with plenty of predators and poisonous nasties, mostly mild evolutions of creatures we already have – slightly bigger eagles, slightly bigger cougars, slightly bigger monkeys, slightly bigger leeches, ordinary-sized boars. But, due to science and why-the-hell-not-ery, the temperature plummets to below freezing after nightfall, meaning Kitai must race to reach a series of hot spots – thermal safe zones, assumedly where he can save his game and regenerate in case he is killed in his mission.

In a plot mechanic worryingly borrowed from space Viking movie Outlander, an alien monster being transported by the ship has also survived, and is after Kitai, who must prove himself a fearless hero like his father. The alien, a feral xenomorph thing that shoots needles, is called an ‘ursa’, from the Latin for ‘bear’, because screw education that’s why. There is nothing remotely bear-ish about these things.

There is almost a decent story in the pre-Earth sequences of this film, although Will Smith’s robotic delivery and 14-year-old Jaden’s slightly awkward performance don’t capture the militant father/struggling son dynamic as well as maybe it appeared behind the scenes. Smith Sr., reduced to Morgan Freeman impressions in Jaden’s ear for much of the film, gives his son as much room as he can to act the star, but the young performer is just not up to carrying a movie – especially with only CGI animals to perform against for much of the time.

The locations are lush but the CGI is poor, and when swarms of computerised monkeys rumble through the ferns it looks almost laughable. The action scenes in general are disastrous, with all but one of them cut short after only a minute – an aerial showdown with an eagle ends almost as soon as it begins.

While the architecture of Nova Prime is briefly interesting, the story leaves it so quickly that we never have a chance to be wowed by the $130m production values. The inside of Cypher’s ship looks like something out of Blake’s 7, all cardboard walls and hangar netting. They were going for a look, clearly, but they forgot to finish it. The one piece of design truly worth commending is in the Ranger Corps’ weaponry – they wield ‘cutlasses’, blade handles with control panels on them allowing the wielder to select the blade of their choosing to shoot out from it. It’s a nice idea, and gets a few brief clever uses; but if you’ll remember the last time a sword was the best thing about a film you were watching The Phantom Menace.

It’s impossible to know what anyone saw in this project. What is the moral? Certainly not environmentalism – mankind has only been gone a millennium and Earth looks gorgeous again! The father/son bond is central but never really pushed, and climaxes on a remarkably awkward joke that suggests not so much an understanding has been reached but that neither man is up to their line of work. Wedged in the middle is the most preposterous re-enactment of Androcles and the Lion you could ever hope to witness. The running theme of overcoming fear allows for a lot of The Secret-meets-FDR nonsense talk from Smith, suggesting fear is something we choose to have, even when watching our sisters get impaled by colossal lizard bug monsters, called bears.

Ursa, minor: Kitai (Jaden Smith) faces off against whatever the hell that thing is supposed to be

Ursa, minor: Kitai (Jaden Smith) faces off against whatever the hell that thing is supposed to be

Shyamalan’s failure is most of all not knowing how to control an action sequence, and he seems to have no sense of what audiences want from their thrill rides. Lacking pacing, drama, emotion, action and even a truly unique vision, After Earth is about as big a dud as Hollywood can hope to churn out these days. Not even the combined starpower of Mr. and Mr. Smith can save this one.

1/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

1 Comment

Filed under Film

Star Trek Into Darkness – A failing Enterprise

Heart of Darkness: Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) interrogate John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Heart of Darkness: Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) interrogate John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch)

There is a scene early on in J.J. Abrams’s 2009 sci-fi reboot Star Trek where the young cadet James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) has a titillating roll around in bed with a beautiful, voluptuous and green-skinned woman who is also the roommate of another romantic interest. The scene more or less sums up the whole film: it’s flippant, sexy, fast-paced, raises the character drama and makes cute reference to the original Star Trek TV series, in which William Shatner’s Kirk once had a similar inter-species dalliance.

Suffering from a brutal case of sequelitis, that caustic condition whereby a follow-up film tries to up the game by doubling-up on what went right the first time, Abrams’s second Enterprise adventure, the grammatically topsy-turvy-titled Star Trek Into Darkness, features a similar scene early on in its duration. We cut to Captain Kirk’s bed-chambers to the double-screech of a scratched record which heralds some contemporary (for us) hip hop music, before the camera pans to reveal Kirk in bed with not one but two sexy aliens. As in the predecessor, this scene neatly sums up Into Darkness, but says very different things: it’s plotless, intellectually vacuous and desperate (and failing) to be cool. It’s also wildly inappropriate for a film that parents will no doubt bring young children to, but that isn’t exactly the case with the rest of the film. Thank heaven for small mercies.

We pick up a few years after the events of Star Trek, where the overly headstrong young Kirk is still captain of the Enterprise, seconded by the emotionally retentive half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto). Opening with a sequence as fun as anything the first film produced, in which the crew of the Enterprise stage an intervention on a savage planet to save its primitive lifeforms from a bubbling volcano, despite their code of ethics being opposed to such activities. Spock is nearly lost in the process and gets his pointy ears boxed by Kirk and girlfriend Uhura (Zoe Saldana) for not caring about the feelings of others. Thus begins a barely scripted piece of soul-searching for Spock that is somehow drawn out across this film’s 133-minute running-time.

Back on Earth, Kirk is given a dressing down of his own for disobeying orders, and is relieved of his command – this happens to three major characters in this film, and all are back at their posts by the story’s end; hitting the reset button and putting everyone back to where they were last film round is so much easier for writers than to come up with genuine obstacles the characters might face. But just as Kirk is getting used to being first officer again, disgruntled Starfleet officer John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins a wave of terrorist attacks that puts the Federation on high alert. Enraged at the assault, Kirk is spurred towards taking a fiery vengeance on Harrison by militarist admiral Alexander Marcus (Peter Weller). Several increasingly superfluous action sequences follow.

The first 40 minutes or so of Star Trek Into Darkness zips along at a solid pace with some amusing scenes. Banter between Kirk and Spock about the latter’s failure to grasp basic concepts of human emotion provides some easy laughs, while a three-way argument on the same, drawing in Uhura, displays the finest dialogue the film has – a witty, Whedonesque scene of sniping back-and-forths.

But things shift for the worse when the Enterprise arrives at the Klingon homeworld, where Harrison is hiding out, safe from the Federation’s reach. But Admiral Marcus doesn’t care about the dangers of starting a war, and Kirk doesn’t care about rules. After a thrilling shuttle craft scene, a diplomatic incident on the Klingon planet turns into one of the messiest gun battles ever shown on screen – with Hunger Games levels of camera shaking and awkward cutting. In the aftermath, Harrison surrenders; anyone who’s seen a blockbuster in the last five years will know well what this means.

Courage under fire: Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in action

Courage under fire: Uhura (Zoe Saldana) in action

Long before its midpoint Star Trek Into Darkness descends into cliché, with the crew facing two antagonists and learning all too late which is the greater evil. Neither villain is properly defined, and much of the threat is based around knowledge of events that happened in the TV series and original films, which were set in a different universe to begin with. It’s like making a version of A Christmas Carol and forgetting to tell us why Scrooge is a miser (or for that matter, that he’s a miser). The film’s writers, returning duo Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and Prometheus-defiler Damon Liondelof, have taken almost no effort to recreate these characters, copying and pasting from earlier works. A late scene is a direct re-enactment of one of the finest scenes from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, with none of the emotional or dramatic weight of its predecessor. Two famous lines are recycled from that film; the first cleverly, the second showing a failure on behalf of the writers to grasp basic concepts of drama, language or time. All this is is regurgitation; swallowing a feast of adventurous sci-fi and ejaculating it in a flurry of bile back onto the screen – then flaring the lens with enough lights so you can’t see the gooey chunks.

Sure, the crew are all fine, but they’re very much on auto-pilot following their first outing together. John Cho’s Sulu gets one great scene, but it is stolen from him by Karl Urban’s Dr. McCoy, which continues to be the stand-out performance in this series. Simon Pegg’s Scotty has more direction this time, and more to do, but the character is still played far too much for laughs.

As for Cumberbatch, one of the finest actors of his generation, he does good work here. His downcast, beady eyes inspire a menace that the script cannot back up. When Harrison weeps, we see Cumberbatch acting so well at weeping, but cannot believe in the character despite the performer’s great work. Hopefully this will not be the villain role for which Cumberbatch is remembered. There are many out there better for him; indeed his dual villainous roles in The Hobbit may yet inspire the right level of dread.

Star Trek Into Darkness looks divine, for the most part, and it’s hard to fault the production design. The futuristic updates of London and San Francisco look superb, the former putting the future London of last year’s Total Recall to shame. The design of the Klingon ships is some of the best spacecraft design seen since Return of the Jedi. The most dazzling moments come whenever the Enterprise enters into warp speed, leaving behind it a luminous blue vapour trail that lingers in the vacuum of space before dissolving – it’s a superb image that captures the grandeur of the Star Trek universe.

Sinking into the clouds: The Enterprise in peril

Sinking into the clouds: The Enterprise in peril

But despite all the gloss (there are thankfully fewer lens flares this go-around, though still too many), the stylish design and Michael Giacchino’s enthusiastic score can’t save the pacing. The final half hour is given over to an endless tirade of action sequences that call to mind the seemingly never-ending finale of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Beginning with an excellent sequence in which Kirk torpedoes himself through space from one ship to another, this moment is rapidly followed by a fist fight, a shootout, a photon bombardment, a ship crash, a foot chase and another fist fight. To add insult to injury, this rigmarole of energy culminates in a deus ex machina so ridiculous it would cause J.K. Rowling to spit up blood.

What grates the most is the story, which laboriously draws on recent memories of the War on Terror for inspiration. A vicious terrorist is tracked into hostile territory, but the militant wing of a force for good in the universe decides to hunt him there no matter the cost. It’s all 10 years too late – not to mention how ridiculous the idea of a military junta seizing power in San Francisco is. Star Trek Into Darkness displays the political knowhow of a civics paper written by a 15-year-old whose abiding memory of 9/11 is of the news-coverage cutting into his favourite cartoons. Hiccoughs in the first Star Trek screenplay could be blamed on the Writers’ Strike of 2007/’08. Here there is simply no excuse for this inane refuse.

Plodding, under-written, over-produced, with exhaustingly endless action scenes and “clever” references to previous film properties, Into Darkness is the Van Helsing of Star Trek films, a beautiful misery that will excite as many as it will disappoint.

2/5

5 Comments

Filed under Film

Oblivion – Ob-li-vi, Ob-li-va, Earth goes on, bra!

Last Man Standing: Tom Cruise in Oblivion

Last Man Standing: Tom Cruise in Oblivion

Torturing us all for the shock success of Battle: Los Angeles back in early 2011, Hollywood has begun its own alien onslaught, flinging some half dozen end-of-the-world science fiction films at us this year.

The first up is Oblivion, Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up to the flashy and distracting, if slightly moronic and empty, Tron: Legacy. An eye-wateringly glossy post-apocalyptic mystery adventure, it is a finely assembled work, that has been finely assembled from other, better films.

Seventy years after a war with alien scavengers, the Scavs, Earth has seen better days. The destruction of the Moon has caused geographical discombobulation on an Emmerichian scale, and the plundering of the resources of what used to be the blue planet has meant that mankind has had to relocate to one of the moons of Saturn. The Scavs, defeated, have scurried in fragmented numbers underground.

Tom Cruise plays Jack Harper, one of the last humans remaining on Earth, as part of a clean-up detail. A high-tech mechanic, he repairs the drones and devices that keep the Scavs at bay and recoup the last of Earth’s energy for the new human homeworld. His only contact is with his communications officer Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who keeps him advised on every move he makes. They live together in a Big Brother house in the sky, and, at the slightly creepy encouragement of their mission commander, Sally (Melissa Leo), who directs them in fractured messages from beyond the stratosphere, to engage in carnal discourse, because that’s what makes “an effective team”.

But not everything is as it seems. Jack has incomprehensible flashbacks to a time before the war, despite his memory having been wiped for mission security reasons. He collects trinkets from the once great civilisation of New York, now flooded in silt and rubble: toys, records, books, a Yankees cap. Soon the Scavs begin to take a personal interest in Jack’s movement, and then the woman of his dreams literally comes crashing back into his life. What, exactly, is Jack and Victoria’s mission?

Date with destiny: Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise recall better times

Date with destiny: Olga Kurylenko and Tom Cruise recall better times

If any of this sounds familiar, you shouldn’t be surprised; it should. “Derivative” is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and in relation to science fiction it’s as commonly used as “darker” is in superhero movie reviews. But Oblivion might just be the most derivative film ever made. Like, class action lawsuit derivative. Its central ideas and themes are fused from a number of recent and classic science fiction films. Visually, its space pods and structures hearken back to countless other sci-fi designs. Even its action scenes seem overly familiar in pace and choreography.

Take the drones – almost identical to the pods from 2001: A Space Odyssey, they are similarly controlled by a red electric eye. Instead of claw arms, they have cannons which fold out from their sides like EVE from WALL•E (and they share her iPod veneer). But reacting to Cruise’s raising of his weapon, and failing to react to his lowering of it, the drones show an identical programming to ED209 from RoboCop. When a drone is summoned for termination purposes, a drone without a minty white coating appears, revealing a black skeletal series of patterns across it in the vein of a T-800. At a moment of supposed high tension the Terminator allusion is simply guffawable. That’s four films unmistakably sampled in one brilliantly realised prop.

Other films blatantly referenced or “borrowed from” in Oblivion include (in alphabetical order to avoid spoilers): Aliens, I Am Legend, Independence Day, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Matrix Revolutions, Moon, Planet of the Apes, Predator, The Road Warrior, Silent Running, Solaris, Star Wars, Stargate, Total Recall, Transformers: The Movie, War of the Worlds. It’s actually a fun game to count them, although repeatedly it forces you out of the film, as Oblivion makes you think of beloved classics instead of, well, the story in progress. Kosinski, directing from a script polished by Toy Story 3’s Michael Arndt and The Departed’s William Monahan but based on an unpublished graphic novel he had written himself some years back, is all too unsubtle in his inspirations, and they cloud the fact that at many levels Oblivion is quite a strong film.

Cruise takes a role that only a select few actors could have made work and, despite limited characterisation, holds the movie together when it is at its weakest, most ramshackle points. Riseborough plays the increasingly Pod Peopled Victoria with some admirable restraint. Olga Kurylenko does her best in a role the film’s four writers all managed to overlook, while Morgan Freeman shows up to take the most relish he has in any role since Wanted.

On a technical side, the movie looks sublime, and not much of that can be handed to its… influences. Kosinski has a great feel for the visual, and refusing to shoot in 3D to keep the whites dazzling and the blacks standing out  was a great decision that shows a huge amount of confidence in the director on behalf of production studio Universal. Life of Pi’s D.P. Claudio Miranda brings every image sharply to life, while the soundtrack by French electronic outfit M83 pulses with an energy that drives much of the film forward and escalates some of the weaker drama.

In the end, Oblivion falls on its own laser sword*. It looks and sounds great throughout, but assembled like a Frankenstein’s monster from so many superior films not only dilutes the enjoyment but dilutes its own sincerity. “Earth is a memory worth fighting for” runs the tagline, but the memories on display here are all film memories, scavenged from the sci-fi greats of the ’50s to the present. They are worth fighting for, and remembering their origins and not the film that dared to harvest them all is what matters.

Oblivion is a superbly crafted film, but its memory will not be long for this world.

3/5

 

 

*Laser swords are one of the only clichés of the genre Oblivion skipped, thankfully.

2 Comments

Filed under Film

Side By Side – Evolution or revolution?

Let's get digital, digital: Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese

Let’s get digital, digital: Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese

The revolution will not be televised, it will be projected. That’s the message of Christopher Kenneally’s documentary Side By Side, which shows in great detail the effect digital filmmaking has had on the industry, beginning life as a budget-friendly side-show, before becoming the medium of choice for almost all the big players in the film business.

Briefly sketching the early history of filmmaking, Side By Side goes on to chart the rapid rise of digital cinematography since the release of the first feature-length movies shot on digital in 1997.

Hosted by actor Keanu Reeves, in conversation with a massive who’s who of contemporary filmmakers, Side By Side certainly covers most of the bases, but never quite qualifies its comparisons.

Amongst the interviewees are digital devotees such as James Cameron, George Lucas and Danny Boyle, while new converts include David Lynch and Martin Scorsese, who until only a few short years ago seemed steadfast in his support for traditional film stock. Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, both major digital converts (although Spielberg shot 2011’s War Horse on film), are noteworthy in their absence from the doc.

Only Christopher Nolan is steadfastly opposed to shooting on digital, with even his cinematographer Wally Pfister unwilling to rule it out entirely in future. Elsewhere actor John Malkovich praises how digital allows you to continue shooting, and acting, without breaks for changing the magazine every 10 minutes, allowing continuous performance like in theatre. Actress Greta Gerwig counteracts that by saying how exhausting the non-stop-ness of digital filmmaking is, which David Fincher backs up with an unfortunate anecdote about Robert Downey Jr. on the set of Zodiac.

Aside from film directors and actors, a large number of cinematographers are interviewed, including Pfister (The Dark Knight, Inception), Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Apocalypse Now), Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and Anthony Dod Mantle (Festen, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire), offering some fascinating insights. Side By Side also investigates the effect of the digital era on other aspects of the production process, from visual effects to editing and colour grading, providing an outlet for some less-sung heroes of the cinema to have their say. Recent developments such as Higher Frame Rate technology, 3D and 4K+ resolution are briefly touched upon.

Darth Innovator: George Lucas discusses digital in front of a scene from the best film he never made

Darth Innovator: George Lucas discusses the digital revolution in front of a scene from the best film he never made

While the interviews are Anglophone-centric, with only a brief trip to Denmark to interview the Dogme 95 pioneers of digital filmmaking, Kenneally and Reeves have gone out of their way to track down a far more representative selection of female filmmakers (including cinematography Ellen Kuras and director Lena Dunham) than similar documentaries have done in the past. The documentary should be lauded for these efforts.

The use of footage from representative films is mostly exceptional, although there are some poor choices along the way. When Steven Soderbergh mentions the “revolution” in filmmaking, Side By Side shows us a clip from Che, his digitally shot biopic set in revolutionary Latin America. It’s one of the few times this film patronises.

Where Side By Side fails is in giving film a fair hearing, other than defending it with a “it worked for 100 years, so why change now?” No one discusses the crispness of photochemical film imagery with any of the passion of your average muso down the local record shop defending vinyl over CDs. Keanu can’t quite get anyone to explain to him why film would be preferable to HD. When Soderbergh attacks the dirt that appears on traditionally projected film, no defence of it is offered up. Side By Side works brilliantly as a history of the digital revolution, but in terms of laying film and digital side-by-side, it is found wanting in regards the former.

The film leaves no doubt in the end that the death knell has been rung for film, and digital cinema is most definitely ruling the roost now, but does not manage to answer whether or not this is a good thing. To quote Orson Welles: “It’s pretty, but is it art?”

3/5

(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

Django Unchained – Slave laboured storytelling

Hootenanny on the Bounty: Chistoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx

After a lifetime of slavery, Django (Jamie Foxx) has just been freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned Wild West bounty hunter. Planning to use Django to help identify three slavers with warrants on their heads, Schultz ponders that maybe he can “make this slavery malarkey work to my benefit”. Somewhere in the darkest recesses of Quentin Tarantino’s brain, the Hollywood outlaw appears to have been thinking much the same thing.

Ostensibly an anti-slavery rebuttal to Inglourious Basterds’ raucous Jewish revenge fable, Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a fusion of blaxploitation and spaghetti western, never manages to be either with much success. Sure, there’s plenty of sampling of Ennio Morricone and hints of African American badassery, but the film is so tepidly formulaic, watch-glancingly drawn-out and, criminally for a Tarantino film, eye-raisingly predictable, that it feels more like the film of a Tarantino impersonator than of the mastermind of Pulp Fiction himself.

Starting strong with richly shot desert landscapes punctuated by a marching chain gang of slaves and a witty introduction to Schultz as he frees Django and grants the other slaves a bloody vengeance on their owners, Django Unchained never lets its steam build. Waltz, the multilinguist character actor prone to delightful moments of wide-eyed madness, brings life to the underwritten Schultz. Often all he has to do is deliver some flowery English with an accent to shoot for cheap laughs – which he does with verbal marksmanship – but the dialogue is beneath him, which is all the more startling given the same writer/director gave him Hans Landa to run amuck with only a few years back. Waltz should be complimented furthermore for holding so much of the film up on his shoulders as he stars opposite Foxx, a man-shaped charisma-vaccuum whose constantly confused face and hopelessly delivered questions evoke less the heroes of the spaghetti westerns or Shaft, and more Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace.

Once Django has helped dispatch his former captors, he is trained by Schultz to be a bounty hunter as well, and the not-utterly-unlikely duo go on the hunt for more badguys. This is one of the film’s least disagreeable sequences, with truly impressive location shoots on wide brown hills and in snowy valleys, featuring some mildly thrilling shoot-outs.

Then everything goes pear-shaped. Schultz agrees out of the goodness of his barely defined heart to help Django rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), educated by a German family and now sold to vile plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Disguising themselves as “Mandingo trainers” (referencing another blaxploitation gem, Mandingo), who buy muscle-bound slaves to pit against each other in fights to the death, Schultz and Django blag their way into Candieland, Candie’s ironically titled homestead. The plan seems to be getting along without a hitch, until Candie’s purse-lipped house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), a militantly pro-white Uncle Tom, begins to suspect a ruse, spelling zip-a-dee-danger for our heroes.

The Candie man can’t: Leonardo DiCaprio

Dragging its heels at a merciless 165 minutes, Django Unchained relentlessly fails to cut to the chase, despite having only a light sprinkling of story. It does however look great, with bright colours cleverly contrasting the inherent nastiness of the era, and superb production design that never holds back on the excesses and inhumanity of slave-mistreatment. Flashbacks are amusingly shot in grainy, colour-bled Grindhouse style. The soundtrack makes some fine selections and new compositions team Morricone with contemporary rap. For these things Tarantino and his team can be applauded.

But really Django Unchained never feels as tight as a Tarantino film should. One scene in which a moronic masked lynch mob, a Special KKK if you will, surrounds the dynamite duo, spells it all out. A sketch begins in which the vigilantes complain that the eyeholes in their bag-hoods are in the wrong places; it extends to an eye-rolling five minutes. Once upon a time the scene would at best have been a lesser quality Gary Larson cartoon, but at least then it would have been just one frame, not 5x60x24. Jonah Hill cameos for no reason. Worse still, the scene is preceded by Schultz laying out explosives to greet the mob – disembowelling the scene of tension as its wit runs thin. This from the director of the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds!

When the film threatens to be clever, it shoots itself in the foot. Schultz draws parallels between Django’s quest for Broomhilda and the German hero Siegfried’s seemingly similar quest in the epic poem Nibelungenlied, but it is only paying lip-service and the comparison never properly pays off. Tarantino has always been so competent with his literary and movie references, but here he seems to be getting off on reading a Wikipedia entry.

The Siegfried comparison drags up one of Django’s biggest problems. While some have gone after the film for its overuse of the N-word, something which feels mostly in keeping with the time, the story is inherently racist in that this tale of a black man taking revenge is only possible because a much smarter and more talented white man is willing to help him.  Tarantino, who previously saw Jews pull off not one but two successful assassinations against their great enemy, here has a simple black man have his hand held while a brilliant white man does all the hard work. It’s as if Tarantino is saying a black hero isn’t really believable – and it’s certain that once Django goes out on his own the film takes on a far more cartoonish air. The less said about the fact that the film features a black slave liberated by a white “Dr. King”, the better.

Love shackled, baby love shackled: Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington

Kerry Washington is hardly used at all as Broomhilda, bringing to an end Tarantino’s near-20-year run as the best director of strong female characters in American cinema – Joss Whedon will be along to pick up the sash and crown shortly. DiCaprio should be lauded for going against type as the villainous Candie, but his boyish gurning does not make for a very strong performance of a weak character, who feels less like a Tarantino villain than like Peter Ustinov’s Prince John in the Disney Robin Hood. A pox on the phony king of the world. Samuel L. Jackson is the only actor keeping any kind of pace with Waltz, giving Stephen plenty of vitriol and uppity outrage, while milking the black-hating black man discrepancy for all it’s worth. However, the character feels like a milder version of the grotesque, black-despising Uncle Ruckus from the animated comedy series The Boondocks, a show Jackson is no doubt familiar with, given that he voices one of its characters. That character, for the record, is a white guy who likes to talk street, a far greater racial commentary than anything Django Unchained has managed.

As if the tension-free, extended dinner scene, with its repetitive dialogue and phrenology demonstration (we get it, slavery and Candie are evil and stupid), aren’t enough, Tarantino concludes with his greatest filmmaking sin ever. Just as the final action sequence – an entertaining, splatter-gored shoot-out that oddly borrows Austin Power’s repeatedly injured henchman gag – reaches its crescendo, Tarantino halts the action for 20 minutes of scrotum and director cameo, before returning to exactly the point where we left off. This outrageous act of self-indulgence is the director at his very worst. It does seem fitting that his appearance as an Australian slaver follows so quickly the inverted genitalia, given this dramatic cavity is Tarantino’s final descent into artistic auto-fellatio.

Whatever fun there is to be had in Django Unchained is undermined utterly by the excessive whims of its power-mad auteur. Condescending to black audiences, humourless and regularly just plain boring, Django Unchained is a white stain on the blouse of film history. Too stupid to be homage, too self-important to be parody, it is hopefully the worst film Tarantino will ever direct.

2/5

4 Comments

Filed under Film