Monday, 28 January 2013

Slaves, Death, And Other Happy Topics

Westerns. The word that makes most people think of grainy movies made in the sixties and seventies somewhere in Europe and dubbed in American; probably starring John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, or Henry Fonda. We think ponchos, ten gallon hats, Native Americans, saloons, bank robberies, Mexican stand offs, the quick draw. We rarely think Germans and shiny blue suits. Well today’s film might change that. This is Django Unchained.

German bounty hunter, Dr Schultz (Christolph Waltz), frees young slave Django (Jamie Foxx) to help him be his temporary partner in order to track down the Brittle brothers, three men who had previously been in charge if Django and his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). The two bounty hunters form a bond as Schultz teaches Django how to present himself in public and be a master with a gun. Django, with only natural talent for the job to offer in return, becomes Schultz full time partner over winter, and they plan how to free Broomhilda from plantation owner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Candie is famous for breeding 'Mandingos', slaves who fight one another to the death with just their hands for the owner's amusement and betting purposes. Schultz and Django pose as traders of Mandingos looking for a slave to take back and fight in Europe. Their plan is to purchase one of Candie's best Mandingos and also Broomhilda, seeing as she is just a meaningless slave, so that she may be reunited with Django again. But Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie's loyal house slave and foreman trustee, does not trust Django for one second; something about a black man on a horse tickles him the wrong way and he is determined to find the bounty hunters' plot.

Candie was such a successful plantation owner
because he was always ahead of the competition.
There is a possibility that Tarantino has a supernatural gift in terms of his ability to perfectly cast a film, except  one character - but we will come to that. Despite Django being specifically written for Will Smith, Jamie Foxx adapts to the role without even a shadow of a doubt. He is effortlessly cool and he portrays Django's range of emotions, sometimes without saying a word. In his eyes you see the pain, the sadness, occasionally the happiness that Django would feel. DiCaprio's first outing as the antagonist is one of his most succesful to date. How he did not get nominated for an Oscar is beyond me. Acting so well to the extent that when he actually cuts his hand in a scene, he carries on to the horror of his cast mates. Incredible. Tarantino describes it as 'mesmerizing.' Christoph Waltz, needless to say, is outstanding. Nominated, rightly, for an Oscar, his second one under the direction of Tarantino. This is a team that works together. The comic relief of the film, but also the plot driving centre, along with Django. His character is complex but Waltz makes it seem effortless. Another brilliant performance. But the real stand out is Samuel L. Jackson. Not an Oscar performance, but the character that induced the most reaction from the audience. The reaction of hatred. Stephen is such a slimy character with a superiority complex that just makes him detestable. Superbly portrayed by Jackson. Horridly enjoyable.

The newest Django meets the oldest Django in a quick cameo.
On to the man behind the camera. Quentin Tarantino. This is a man who turns out hit after hit and Django is no different. Incredible shot, as all westerns are, with a soundtrack to die for. Funny and heartbreaking. Fitting action that suits all adrenalin needs. It is clever, it is strong, it is slightly controversial. It is simply all encompassing. That being said, the film is not flawless. It is just a tiny bit too long. Only minor cuts need to be made, just to take out the smallest sensation of, 'we have aaagggeesss left,' or, 'this film is soooo long.' It's only a slight feeling of 'too long' but it's there all the same. Not a huge issue, but an issue nonetheless. Secondly, and more irritatingly, is Tarantino's own appearance in the film. Normally a welcome addition to his films, but here, in his peculiar attempt at an Australian accent, something just is not right. He is next to impossible to understand and it completely jars with the rest of the film entirely, considering the rest is so well acted. Again, a small mistake that just takes something away from the film. But apart from these two small, irritating issues, Tarantino is in full stride.

A great film. Pretty much exactly what you would expect from Tarantino, Django Unchained is hilarious, action packed, touching, and down right cool. Some fantastic performances and a killer soundtrack, combined with some amazing cinematography pushes Django above the competition. Not Tarantino's best, but it is up there.

Best Bit? The scene with the early KKK complaining about their bag-masks will keep you laughing for ages after the film has finished. Plus, a great little cameo from Jonah Hill.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

The Miserable

With a couple of Golden Globes and Oscar nominations under its belt, today’s film already seems to be one that the higher powers in film seem to be enjoying. Why? Why not? It is a film about miserable people singing. What more could one want? It has been a while since a musical was so successful in the awards season so what makes this one so different? This is Les Misérables.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) has been imprisoned, a slave to the law, for nineteen years; five years because he stole a loaf of bread, the rest because he tried to run. He has been under the watchful eye of Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) but finally, he gets his parole. Javert insists he is a dangerous man but Valjean soon finds a bishop who makes him an honest man. Jump forward 8 years. Valjean is now Monsieur Madeleine and is the mayor of a small town. One of his workers, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), gets fired and becomes a prostitute after selling her hair and some teeth. After attacking a man, Javert demands for his arrest but Valjean insists she goes to a hospital. He swears to take care of her child, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), who is being cared for by the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter), a couple who run an inn with their daughter Éponine (Natalya Wallace). Valjean takes Cosette away. Jump forward nine years. Students, Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), along with street urchin Gavroche (Daniel Huddlestone), plan for revolution. Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) and Éponine (Samantha Barks) are now young ladies and have eyes for Marius, Javert is still completely law driven, Valjean – with Cosette – still lives in hiding, and France is on the verge of civil war. All the characters’ lives start intertwining as they get closer and closer to the day when battle starts, but how will things turn out.

And people wondered why Valjean had a damp personality. 
There is really only one negative casting choice so we will start by looking at that. Amanda Seyfried’s voice is terribly irritating. When she sings, for some reason, she cannot hold a note without trilling and wavering. It might not be such an issue if she was not a high soprano, which, with the wavering, makes her sound like an alarm bell. As irritating as Cosette is as a character, it does not mean she has to sound annoying. Apart from this, the cast was nigh to perfect. Hugh Jackman, nominated for Best Leading Actor at the Oscars, is a powerful protagonist and gives a really touching performance that shows his care and love for the people around him. A truly reformed man after nineteen years in prison. Crowe, as Javert, has possibly been had the most divided reviews. Why? It is unclear. He was fantastic as Javert. He nails the internal conflict that Javert struggles from; there is only good and bad in his mind, anything in between causes serious issues. He makes an ideal opposite to Jackman’s Valjean – see the Confrontation song for proof of this. Hathaway, nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, is on screen for only a short period of time but she dominates every scene she is in. ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ will send shivers town your spine and tingle your soul. A hauntingly beautiful song. *Breathes for a moment. Lot of cast to get through here.*

When English students rioted, there was a lot of damage.
When French Students rioted, there was singing. 
Eddie Redmayne has a beautiful voice. Whilst his love may never seem genuine, his heartbreak certainly is. ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’ will rip at your heart; get the tissues ready. Despite his slightly odd singing face, the voice that accompanies it is stunning and most of Marius’ emotions are echoed in song rather than his physical actions. Aaron Tveit as Enjolras is the strongest of the students. He’s driven by revolution and his tough persona, arguably, is the main thing that keeps the men’s spirits up. Again, his voice is spot on for the character; it is strong and powerful. He just emits swag. Samantha Barks, the beautiful Éponine, having played the part on stage, is simply incredible. Her voice is so captivating, ‘On My Own,’ becomes so engaging even though it is just a girl standing in the rain. Hopefully, she will push further for a career in film so we will see more of her.Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen are the comedy relief in the film and thank God for them. The film is so soul destroying, some comedy is completely needed. ‘Master of the House’ sums them up completely as you watch them smoothly steal from people’s pockets, heads, and even eye sockets. They are a treat in the sad times. Finally, the child actors are wonderful, particularly Daniel Huddlestone. Gavroche is possibly the strongest willed character in the French revolution and is so cool you just wish you could hang around with him. Maybe give him a couple of years to grow up first though. Phew.

Look out for Éponine's book:Friendzoning - A First Hand Experience. 
So now to the man who brought it all together. A man who already holds an Oscar for his direction of The Kings Speech two years ago, Tom Hooper. Despite having a face that never fails to seem smug (Google image his name), he has done wonders here. His decision to sing live on set is not much short of genius. You can see how it affects the performance of every single actor and actress. One cannot help but think that perhaps the film would be completely different if it had been done like a conventional musical, with the soundtrack filmed before the shooting starts. Obviously, the music is incredible. What else would one expect from a world renown musical? The set, too, is so visually astounding. From giant elephant sculptures to giant barricades, the whole film captures your eye and your interest. It makes it hard to look away. And there's something very interesting in the way certain bits are shot. They are particularly noticable in Javert's moments. For example, when singing 'Stars', we see him on a roof singing out to France with possible the most open shot of the film, but rarely does the film feel more intimate. There are often moments like this which are hard to explain how they work, but they just do.

A simply brilliant piece of cinema. The only really negative, as already stated, is Amanda Seyfried's singing. The rest of the songs will be stuck in your head for days, maybe weeks. There is something about it that just makes you want to watch it again and again. This humble blogger has seen it four times already (three times to indulge other people who wanted to see it, admittedly). A great watch, but do not forget the tissues. It is a weepy one.

Best Bit? The choreography in 'Confrontation' between Javert and Valjean is simply incredibly captivating and, along with what is one of the best songs in the musical, it just is an unforgettable moment.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Oscar Time!

It's that time again. The Oscars. I'll have my first couple of reviews up soon but first, let's have a look at the nominations. (You can find a break down of them over at Empire)

Firstly, I want to address the elephant that will be in the Kodak Theatre next month, only nine Best Picture nominations. This is two years in a row that this has been the case and the question is raised, why not use that final slot? There are plenty of films that fit the category. Here's but a few:

  • The Dark Knight Rises
  • Skyfall
  • The Hobbit
  • Seven Psychopaths
  • Looper
  • Brave (nominated for best ANIMATED picture, but it's as good, if not better, than some Best Picture nominees)
So why not use that slot? Even if it won't win, might as well give it the chance. My vote would be for Skyfall-nominated for five other Oscars- but really worthy of a place on the Best Picture list. 

What else has been horribly overlooked? Ah yes, Looper and Seven Psychopaths no where to be seen AT ALL. Both easily could be nominated for screenplay and Looper had some fairly impressive make up. (But then, see The Iron Lady's win over Harry Potter last year for how ridiculous that category is.)

On the bright side, most things that are nominated are worthy of their nods. More an issue of people NOT being nominated than the wrong people being nominated. I will update on this after watching more of the nominations. 

I have seven of the Best Picture nominations to get through and those don't include The Master and The Impossible so that's my aim for the month. See you in a bit.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Small People On A Quest

Almost ten years ago, a film was released that dominated the Oscars. It was the third instalment of an already extremely high profile film and won every Oscar it was nominated for; eleven separate Academy Awards. It is, of course, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Since then, fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy have been sitting around waiting for something interesting to happen. So when The Hobbit was announced, there was rejoicing around the world - though there was scepticism when it was reported that the book would be split into three films. However, the first part is now out: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a small creature called a Hobbit, is a quiet man who lives in the shire, content with his mundane existence. One day, Gandalf the Grey (Ian Mckellen), a wizard, turns up on his doorstep and invites him on an adventure. Bilbo rejects the offer and goes back to his boring life, whilst Gandalf invites thirteen dwarves to meet at Bilbo's anyway. The dwarves, led by warrior Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), want to reclaim the Dwarf Kingdom of Erebor, which is fiercely guarded by a dragon called Smaug. The dwarves set off on their adventure leaving a tingle of temptation on Bilbo who eventually runs off to join the dwarven mob and wizard guide on their quest. With plenty of obstacles along the way, including orcs, goblins, trolls, giant rock men, and Gollum (Andy Serkis) - only life threatening things - the group fight together with bravery, strength, and commonly, stupidity. Gandalf occasionally leaves them for other matters involving a necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his fellow wizards, but always finds his way back to count the dwarves like an exasperated teacher on a school trip. Will Bilbo find the adventure he longs for (and more than he planned) or will he realise it is not his scene and head back to his comfy Hobbit hole?

Bilbo surrounds himself with Dwarves to seem tall...
Sneaky Hobbit.

There is no way to avoid the obvious truth. Martin Freeman was a perfect choice to play the role of Bilbo Baggins. It is clear why he was Peter Jackson's first and foremost choice. Jackson even arranged the shooting schedule to fit around Freeman. He's perfectly sceptical of everything the dwarves and Gandalf do, and of the entire adventure, and it is balanced excellently with the temptation to do more and experience life. He is witty but so easy to relate to, he becomes an ideal protagonist for the film. Comic relief is provided, mostly, by all of the dwarves - too many to name individually - but especially Aidan Turner's Kili and Dean O'Gorman's Fili. Possibly the thickest of the dwarves but always deadly serious and trying to help, despite causing more problems than they stop. ('You don't want to eat them, they're infected!' 'We're not infected!') The more serious aspects are provided the dwarven leader, Thorin, who, through Armitage's portrayal, jumps around from being a harsh and tough leader to a character that will have you on the edge  as he faces death. Also, Sir Ian McKellen, reprising his role of Gandalf, takes a far lighter tone in The Hobbit. Constantly sighing and counting the dwarves as they get separated and forever being the optimist.

The first meeting of the Long Haired Club was a huge success

Technicality, as with the other Lord of the Rings films, is where this film prevails most. Not just in terms of technology, which is outstanding - just look at how even Gollum is of a higher standard - but also how incredibly shot the action is. Swirling cameras and long pans may not be to everyone's taste, but it really brings the audience into the film and convey's the chaos of fights. The soundtrack, of course, is fantastic and should be listened to whilst doing mundane activities to make everything seem awesome. The film only really suffers from one flaw, and unfortunately, it is a massive one. The pacing of the film is dreadful. The first half of the film drags and drags whereas the second half is incredible. Sure, the narrative in the first half is important, but the entire film could easily be cut down by an hour with no major loss. Even half an hour from the first half would make the majority of the film exciting and well paced rather than only half of it. Also, people in Middle Earth are made of something tough. The amount of deadly falls characters experience with a simple brushing off of the dust afterwards is ridiculous.

Apart from the pacing issues, The Hobbit is a well made film. Major fans of The Lord of the Rings will love it regardless as they get a fresh glimpse of Middle Earth and lesser fans will thoroughly enjoy the second half at least. Plus there's plenty of laughs for all the family. An enjoyable, if not long, watch. Bring on the trilogy.

Best Bit? Gollum and Bilbo's intense riddle battle. Not an action scene or anything similar, but an example of how the latter half of the film handles talking-based scenes with tension and dramatic suspense and makes it incredible watch-able, unlike the first half.