Review: Django Unchained (2012)

Quentin Tarantino digs in to the darker side of American history with Django Unchained, a vitriolic attack on the slave trade masquerading as a homage to the spaghetti western genre. In the same way that Inglourious Basterds rewrote history to provide bloody retribution for the persecuted and right a hideous injustice, so Django does the same for slavery. It marks an interesting new phase in Tarantino’s work, one where content is of equal, if not greater, importance than style. That’s not to say this is any more accomplished than his best works – there’s a good argument to be made for it being a little too long – but it’s as nerve-jangling and violently OTT as anything the writer-director has delivered before.

Full review: Django Unchained | Cinema Review | Film @ The Digital Fix

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Blast from the Past: reviewing David Cronenberg’s Spider

I’ve enjoyed writing film reviews for quite some time now, though only in the last couple of years or so have I tried to do this in any sort of organised way. Whilst trawling through Harry Knowles’ marvellously insane Ain’t It Cool News site recently, I rediscovered one of the first reviews I ever had published on a popular website.

The movie in question was David Cronenberg’s rather fine Spider, starring Ralph Fiennes. The reason I chose to review this film was simple: it received its UK premiere at the Cambridge Film Festival in July 2002, long before its nationwide release and indeed its arrival Stateside. A perfect opportunity to review a film ahead of the pack for once. (I’m quite pleased to note that this means I have been a visitor to the Festival for at least ten years now.)

As both my brother and I went to the screening and were regular readers of Ain’t It Cool, we both submitted reviews (I forget who decided to review it first; I have an inkling it wasn’t me). And happily, both got published. You can read the original article here, but for posterity I have reprinted it below. Not that I’m particularly proud of it, you understand, but occasionally it’s nice to see how far you’ve come. And yes, we both got to shake Richard Harris’ hand at the festival that year – not long before he passed away. Cheers, bro.

So here you are; I went under the codename of Deep Red, and my brother Thin Red. Cool, huh?

***

Thin Red & Deep Red attend the UK Premiere of Cronenberg’s SPIDERS!!!
Published at: Jul 22, 2002 10:30:10 AM CDT

Hey folks, Harry here…. The word that came from Cannes was a bit mixed on Cronenberg’s latest, but then word is usually mixed on David’s films and that doesn’t stop me from admiring and enjoying each and every new film he makes. They succeed at different levels and consistencies, but they are never like anybody else’s films… They are always David Cronenberg movies, and that should be enough for any film geek to chance it. Here’s a pair of brothers in the Argento vein…. Deep Red and lil bro Thin Red….

 

Hey Harry,

Deep Red here in Cambridge, U.K. with a review of David Cronenberg’s latest
film, Spider. I believe my younger sibling (Thin Red _______) has already
sent you a quite ecstatic review of it. Here are my thoughts:

After some sombre opening credits we meet Clegg (Ralph Fiennes), stepping
off a train in London, on his way to a house that offers accomodation for
‘mentally unbalanced’ people who are either making a recovery or seemingly
less dangerous than their more unhinged breathren. We’ve all seen people
like Clegg at stations or cities around the world: shabby, smelly,
unsightly, not quite with it. Fiennes delivers an amazing performance: he
smokes endlessly, scrawls unintelligible words in a notebook, and mutters
words to himself as he remembers his childhood.

At this house (located opposite an enormous gasworks, the significance of
which becomes apparent later), he begins to remember his childhood from the
1950s, and the events that led to his current situation. Fienne’s Clegg
watches on as he sees his younger self (Bradley Hall) in these times.
Apparently friendless, he stays at home after school with his loving mother
(Miranda Richardson). His father (Gabriel Byrne) is becoming bored with his
family, preferring to go down the pub with his wife. When he starts having
an affair with a local slut (also played by Miranda Richardson), tragedy
lurks around the corner for mother, father and child…

It’s a simple tale, but told in an intelligent, thought-provoking, low-key
way that one does not expect from Cronenberg. A dark, absorbing drama with
absolutely no showiness at all. Although actors playing different roles
invites natural wariness on the part of many movie-goers (particularly those
who barely survived David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive), this film employs the
tactic for all the right reasons: the viewer is not required to make some
ridiculous leap of logic in order to “get it”. The performances are great –
Fiennes and Richardson do great work, ably supported by Bynre and Lynn
Redgrave as the woman running the house. But where next for Cronenberg? Here
is a director who is maturing as a filmmaker, looking for a new direction
for his career. If he continues down this road, I can’t wait to see what’s
next.

So all in all, a very, very good film – well worth anyone’s time.

Deep Red

 

Here’s the little brother of doom…

 

Morning, Knowles. Thin Red here…

My brother (Deep Red) and I went to the UK premiere of Cronenberg’s latest

SPIDER, last night – at the Cambridge Film Festival; and it was rather
spiffing, I must say. I doubt this’ll get on to your site, I’m sure a few
early reviews got in after Cannes. Anyway – i keep my fingers crossed and
anything else i’ve got going, crossed, to hope i manage to climb to the
dizzy heights of a review on your jolly website.

My (brief, because i’m at work) review of SPIDER.

I havent had too many encounters with Cronenberg, but with the few I have
had, i was suitably intrigued and impressed. Videodrome was creepy and
brilliant, while eXistenZ was scary and poignant. I could see a theme
running in his work: identity, and the loss or discovery of it (having read
through reviews of his other movies too). I wanted more of his work, and
just havent got round to it, until i found that his new movie was being
premiered right on my back doorstep 4months before its even going to be
released across the UK. Bargain!! I asked my brother to buy tickets as soon
as possible (2weeks before it was shown) and satisfied my cravings by
watching other premieres such as “Amadeus: Directors Cut” (3hrs long). and
Richard Harris(Gladiator, Harry Potter)’s latest “My Kingdom” (modern
adaptation of King Lear in Liverpool – dont let it put you off, its good!),
at which he attended! i shook his hand!

Anyway – when Spider came along on sunday night, i sat on my seat (front
row… on the left side, grrr), and 1h 40mins later, got on my feet and
walked away. I wasn’t sure how i felt. I knew i’d liked the film, but…
where was my reaction? I realised i was in a slight shock. I’d given my
brother a thumbs up, as i passed him and his g/f, but i still wasnt sure.
Then it hit me, the reaction i yearn for after a film i look forward to.
“Wow”. If i get a “wow”. i know i’m voting 10/10 on IMDB. And this wow was
involuntary.

Cronenberg’s direction and his cinematographer have created a mood piece
more than anything. His lead character, Ralph Fiennes’ “Clegg” barely talks:
he rambles and mutters under his breath. So if the lead performer is not
too vocal Cronenberg must compensate and compliment him. He does this
marvellously.

I won’t go too detailed into the story, because i hate it when people give
spoilers. But suffice to say, Clegg is a loner and somewhat unstable man,
who arrives at a house in London, where a few similarly unwell people go to
be catered for, and looked after. Here he starts having flashbacks of his
youth as a 10yr old, looked after by his loving mother (Miranda Richardson)
and not-so-loving father (Gabriel Byrne). and thats all you’re getting –
lets just say, his flashbacks dont help him get over his instability, but
make it worse.

Cronenberg compensates for the lack of insight into Fiennes character, by
investing into his history, and having him as an onlooker into his past, and
his parents, tremendously performed, especially by Miranda Richardson, who
will more than likely be up for several awards come March. Her
multi-charcter yet same-character performances are wonderous… so
different, i thought it was another actress, until half way through. Byrne
does a fine job, as does Lynn Redgrave. However, for this movie to be
successful, Clegg needed to be a sympathetic, mysterious man, with a suspect
past. Fiennes manages this very well. It takes a while to get used to his
mannerisms, but when you do, you get to see how this man works, and by the
end, why he is the way he is. Fiennes gives a cracking, understated
performance.

I hope you come out with the reaction i did about 3mins after you’ve walked
out the cinema…

………………………………………………………………….
……………………………………”wow”

Chin-chin

***Thin Red

From the Cambridge Film Festival

Cambridge Film Festival

I’ve spent the last seven days at the 31st Cambridge Film Festival, the one time in the year when it feels like film really matters close to home. Thanks to festival director Tony Jones and his dedicated and seemingly tireless team, we in the Cambridge area get to (briefly) feel like the centre of the cinema world; all sorts of anticipated releases and undiscovered nuggets get shown to crowds both large and small. There’s also a steady stream of guests (usually directors or cast) who take part in post-film Q&As and interviews, and screenings of films in unusual venues, like university colleges or outdoor locations around the region.

This year I volunteered my services as a general helper-outer to see how a festival operates from the inside. So far it’s been an utter pleasure. For the first time in my life I’ve been an actual usher in an actual cinema, actually taking people’s tickets and directing them to the correct screen (hopefully). I imagine the novelty wears off pretty quickly but it’s still one thing ticked off my bucket list. I’ve helped to tidy up screens (the Cambridge crowd aren’t a particularly messy lot), do some washing up and hand out leaflets on the street. Yet it never feels like a chore; everyone really is there because they want to be. For us volunteers the only tangible reward is the occasional free coffee (as well as taking in the odd film or two, of course).

Being among a group of fellow enthusiasts in the lively bubble of a festival where schedules sometimes change at the last minute makes for an expectedly buzzing atmosphere, perceptible throughout the festival’s main venue, the Arts Picturehouse. Yet if panic ever does take hold, it never reveals itself. It was almost a disappointment to discover that the festival operation was as smoothly-running on the inside as it appeared from the out (some core staff may wish to dispute that statement, but I maintain that I have yet to witness anything that even remotely approaches the wild-eyed terror one might expect upon hearing news of eleventh hour ‘problems’).

As for the films themselves, you certainly get to see a nice old mixture. The opening night gala screening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), with guests Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Peter Straughan and Tomas Alfredson, was a packed affair and enthusiastically received. The following day I caught the French film Tomboy (2011), a low-key drama that expertly captures the anguish of growing up, and a screening of Sweet Smell of Success (1957), which I had not seen before and absolutely loved.

Since then I’ve also seen the first half of Red State (2011), which I would like to finish at some point; Drive (2011), a pleasingly mean and moody neo-noir; and Gibraltar (2011), a fascinating documentary about the rock’s recent history about which I knew precisely nothing.

Now there’s only four days left until I have to go back to the day job. There’s still the UK premiere of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) to come, as well as the traditional Surprise Movie on Sunday (only Jones knows what it is and it really could be anything). I will certainly miss the atmosphere, meeting other film addicts like myself and rubbing shoulders with the well-known and the dogged unknowns. But then perhaps it’s best to leave before the novelty of clearing up after customers really does wear off.

Back to the Planet of the Apes

As a follow up to my review of the film, here are a few more personal thoughts about Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the series that inspired it.

Pota_go_ape
Like many a nerd, I grew up a big fan of the Planet of the Apes movies. I was far too young to catch either the TV series or the comics, but after my dad introduced me to the original film I was pretty much hooked. There is of course the infamous ending; a brilliant Twilight Zone-esque twist which gives new meaning to everything that has gone before. There are the layers of allegory within a razor-sharp script; the great action sequences; the superb make-up, costumes, photography and sets; and the iconic performances of Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall et al. It is, in a word, a classic.

The sequels couldn’t quite match their illustrious predecessor, but most of them do at least offer a new angle on the same concept, pushing the story forward in intriguingly daring directions. The apocalyptic nihilism of Beneath, the satire and romantic tragedy of Escape, and the social upheaval of Conquest all brought something new to the table; only Battle, with its minuscule budget and compromised script, failed to say much of interest (though it does boast an ambiguous ending). 

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first three sequels shared the same screenwriter, Paul Dehn; he also worked on the final film, but his original draft was rejected for being too dark and it ended up being rewritten for the family market. It would have been fascinating to see how it might have turned out as originally conceived. Even so, the fact that the sequels aren’t simply dull retreads of the original story has given the POTA franchise a quality and longevity that is quite unusual for the period.  

Since the late 80s a new Apes project was in development at Fox. It would have been amazing if, as was rumoured, it emerged as a genuine sequel, one that would fit in with the original series’ timeline. Alas, in 2001 we ended up with Tim Burton’s version of the saga: not without interest but a disappointment nonetheless, hamstrung by a wooden lead performance from Mark Wahlberg.

Now, ten years later, Rise of the Planet of the Apes honours the heritage of its forebears far better than Burton’s misfire by refusing to be satisfied with mimicking past glories; instead it views the familiar scenario with fresh eyes. Some fans may quibble it doesn’t fit in with the existing series, but then why should it? It’s been too long to hope that a real sequel might one day come along. And what worked for one generation doesn’t necessarily work for another. The filmmakers have delivered a prequel that cherishes the ideas behind the original films, and comes up with one or two new ones of their own. It might look and sound different on the surface, but I for one am glad that the apes have taken over the planet once more.