Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Django Unchained

In nineteenth century Texas, an eccentric German traveller buys a slave to assist in finding a band of outlaws. Django is amazed to find a mentor in Schultz, and the men continue as partners before setting out on a mission to rescue Django's wife from slavers in Mississippi.  I can't explain why I hadn't yet seen Django Unchained - any trepidation about Tarantino films always seems to melt away in enjoyment from about the second frame, and this is no exception.

The ultimate blaxploitation western thriller buddy movie, Django Unchained might be ridiculously long, but because it's equal parts sheer joy, comedic over-dramatisation, and schlock horror, it's hard to mind much.  In his usual mocking tone, Tarantino manages to censure the violence of slavery and the mindset of pro-slavers, even as his hero commits atrocities in the name of freedom.

It's not possible to separate Tarantino from the beautifully stylised gore which immerses his films - and perhaps now no one would want to - but it's worth noting he has also become a master of cinematic beauty, frequently collaborating with the same production designers and cinematographers to turn out increasingly incredible images.  The detailed mis-en-scène, matched with spot-on dialogue and enthusiastically motivated performances from all cast, makes for touches of absolute brilliance and ensures you always know whose film you're watching.

Django Unchained is another well-realised entertainment piece from one of America's greatest auteurs, who's obviously telling us we ain't seen nothin' yet.

Though a hard-core Tarantino fan may find it seriously lacking in violence, Blazing Saddles addresses serious issues of racism and corruption with a similar style of over-the-top silliness. This is an heroic tale of a newly appointed Sheriff encouraging townsfolk who'd be happy to lynch him to stand up against a corrupt railways mogul, instead.

Thursday, 27 February 2014


In the not-too-distant future, Theodore Twombley is an endearingly awkward office worker, still suffering the effects of his marriage breakup. An early adopter of a new operating system for his devices, he soon falls in love with Her - his personal Artificial Intelligence, which has named itself Samantha.

The concept may seem at first glance to walk a fine line between intriguing and off-putting - but it is brilliantly well executed in this examination of relationships, loyalty, and love between friends, confidants and lovers. From Spike Jonze's offbeat but somehow perfectly real script, to the careful, beautiful production design, Her is original to the nth degree.

By turns joyously funny, gauzily romantic and achingly lonely, the stellar performances and barely-there camera take us directly into the the heart of the story, in a world complete down to the last detail.

A meditation on communication and humanity in an advanced technological world, Her is a strange mixture of isolation and melancholic humour, yet it not only works, but somehow leaves you filled with hope for the future. A modern masterpiece.

Also featuring a future-Earth, themes of isolation and re-growth, and an unexpected but wonderful AI romance, is WALL-E, the tale of a broken Earth's deserted robot caretaker meeting an inter-galactic probe. If you haven't seen this breathtakingly beautiful, Oscar-winning animation, hie you to your nearest on-/offline video store!

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Directed by Kelly Reichardt 

Written by Jonathan Raymond

Stephen Meek is guiding three couples across wild, untamed and unmapped Oregon in 1845, the earliest days of westward expansion.  When we meet them, the disillusioned settlers are wondering whether Meek is lost, or if he lied to them in claiming his alternative route, Meek's Cutoff, would be more direct and safer from Indian attack than the valleys of the Oregon Trail.

Deliberately joining the wagons in the midst of their journey and leaving before they arrive at any destination, this isn't some Hollywood story of triumphant pioneers overcoming hardship.  Instead, Meek's Cutoff is a slow examination of trust and betrayal in people on the edge of reason, trapped in an inhospitable, alien landscape, filled with fear and doubtful as to whether they'll survive.

I imagine this was a film to have seen in the cinema, where the big screen and enforced stillness would have aided the subtle, low contrast, lingering shots and creeping feeling of isolation - despite the chosen 4:3 aspect ratio no longer being considered truly cinematic by most audiences.  Unfortunately in this case, translation to a smaller screen meant a loss of detail and immediacy, and for me, a tendency to fall out of the film too easily.

In a way, Meek's Cutoff is a brilliant behind the scenes B-roll of pioneer journeys - a realistic portrayal of the privations undergone on the incomprehensibly arduous wagon trains, but as a contemplative look at complex human emotions and loyalties, I felt a little under-directed, a little lost.  It's entirely possible that was the point.

Also based on a true story, Into the Wild examines a completely different pioneer spirit: an American college graduate in the early 1990s who removed himself from society and disappeared into the wilds of Alaska. His attempt to throw off modern societal constructs and live his own way are thought-provoking, the film (reviewed on this blog here,) is beautifully made, and still haunts me.