Monday, February 25, 2013

No, no, Herr Waltz, here's to YOU!

That'll be two-for-two on the Tarantino-Waltz partnership, then.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Django Unchained

Where the hell do you start with a review of ‘Django Unchained’?

Do you outright ’fess up that it’s not perfect, that there are some flaws, then shrug your shoulders during a paragraph break and spend the rest of the review blathering on about how much you enjoyed it anyway?

Do you start out by enthusing about the many things that Tarantino gets right, then slowly peel back a few critical layers, saving the nit-picking for last?

Do you mourn the untimely loss of Sally Menke, whose contribution to the cinema of Tarantino is thrown into acute context by the occasionally indecisive editing rhythms of ‘Django Unchained’ that you just know wouldn’t have been there if she’d been in the editing room?

What you don’t do is start throwing around words like “self-indulgent”, “homage” and “no original ideas”, because – damn it! – Tarantino’s is the cinema of the cineaste, a synthesis of all the movies that most of us will never get round to seeing, and there are plenty of us who wouldn’t have it any other way. Complaining about self-indulgence in a Tarantino film is like tutting over the horror in James Herbert novel. It’s kind of the fucking point.

And it’s for this reason that any and every Tarantino film births itself across the screen in the amniotic fluids of movie lore. Thus ‘Inglourious Basterds’ emerges as more than just a revisionist “bunch of guys on a mission” movie if you approach it with, say, some foreknowledge of the UFA protégés who fled Germany during the rise of Nazism. And ‘Django Unchained’ ticks a lot more boxes if you know your Sergio Leone from your Sergio Corbucci. The very title, and a cameo by Franco Nero, riff on Corbucci’s most celebrate spaghetti western.

While ‘Django Unchained’ is most firmly rooted in the spaghetti western tradition – it’s OTT, often nihilistically violent, and utterly divorced from the moral cadences of the more traditional American western – it has to be noted that whereas Tarantino adheres to the iconography of the genre, he doesn’t necessarily hold to its conventions. Granted, I’m all in favour of artists being unconventional, but the western is one of those genres that benefits from a more conventional aesthetic.

To use a sweeping – but, I hope, justified – generalisation, westerns tell essentially simple stories. Even films as thematically deep as Peckinpah’s ‘Ride the High Country’ and ‘The Wild Bunch’ or Eastwood’s ‘Unforgiven’ have simple narratives. The greatest westerns are distillations of theme and character: haiku in widescreen and with six-shooters. ‘Django Unchained’ is anything but narratively simple; anything but a distillation. The script is a circuitous affair that rambles into ever greater contrivances in order to thread a veritable posse of genre touchstones into something resembling an actual story.

These range from aforementioned spaghetti western maestros Leone and Corbucci to the blaxploitation ‘Nigger Charley’ films by way of Mel Brooks’s ‘Blazing Saddles’ and, uh, Richard Fleischer’s ‘Mandingo’. It’s this latter – a slice of overboiled Suth’un melodrama – that informs the second half of Tarantino’s film and calls for the largest quota of narrative convolutions. ‘Mandingo’ is a curious touchstone for Tarantino, since the film trades on the sweaty physical violence of bare-knuckle fighting correlated with the sweaty forbidden lure of interracial sex.

Central to ‘Mandingo’ is sex. Central to Tarantino’s ‘Mandingo’ homage is fighting. ‘Django Unchained’ is typical of all of Tarantino’s work in that it is a sexless work of cinema. For all that Django (Jamie Foxx)’s quest is to free his enslaved wife (Kerry Washington) from an outwardly charming but cruel and hypocritical plantation owner, every frame suggests the mindset of a director who is a hopeless (possibly unrequited) romantic – nowhere more explicitly than in the already divisive final scene – rather than the interactions of two characters who enjoy sexual intimacy.

On the plus side, though, ‘Django Unchained’ represents as well as anything in Tarantino’s filmography the two reasons I will always have time for him as a filmmaker: he cares – cares deeply – about dialogue and performance. The dialogue might not have the crackle and immediate quotability of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ or ‘Pulp Fiction’, but that’s only because Tarantino is writing in a different idiom. And when he’s writing for his big villain, Calvin Candie (Leonardo di Caprio), Tarantino fashions dialogue that captures the character’s suavity, venality and egoism and wraps it into a simultaneously seductive and repellent package. Di Caprio’s performance rises to the occasion. Elsewhere, Samuel L Jackson essays a complex and dangerous character in a turn that’s his best in years, while Christoph Waltz, as German dentist-turned-bounty-hunter Dr King Schulz, makes it two-for-two following his star-making turn in ‘Inglourious Basterds’. Foxx meanwhile is all moody cool, iconography in motion, his vengeful anti-hero growing in stature as the film progresses.

Best of all, the whole cast – including some left-of-field cameos (when was the last time you saw ‘Dukes of Hazard’ regular Tom Wopat in anything?) – are obviously in on the joke. Sure, ‘Django Unchained’ is wincingly violent in places, and Tarantino makes no bones that slavery was a fucking awful business, but there’s nothing to say that the heaviest and headiest subjects can’t be tackled provocatively and/or satirically. No pun intended, but I really can’t think of another way to put it: ‘Django Unchained’ works best as a black comedy.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

A tale of two controversies

Public service announcement: this piece isn’t a review. It’s an attempt to address the controversies surrounding ‘Django Unchained’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, and I’m writing it for no other reason than to get it out of my system so I can then write reviews of these two movies that assess them as movies rather than going tit-for-tat with some of their harsher critics.

In other words, if the next few paragraphs don’t seem like a fun night out at The Agitation of the Mind, please feel free to skip this entry and I’ll see you back here next week for the ‘Django Unchained’ review proper.

Spike Lee doesn’t like ‘Django Unchained’. Spike Lee doesn’t much like any Tarantino film, certainly since ‘Jackie Brown’. In fact, it’s pretty fair to say that Spike Lee doesn’t like Quentin Tarantino period. What riled Lee about ‘Jackie Brown’ was Tarantino’s wholesale use of what our PC and touchy-feely society dictates we should only refer to as “the N-word”. Lee felt that the degree to which it was used in a film written and directed by a white man was inappropriate. This argument is not without credence, but unfortunately it opens up a can of words as regards entitlement.

The rational let’s-all-be-grown-up-about-this approach should be that any artist should be able to tackle in subject in any manner which best serves the aesthetic imperative of the work. A film’s aesthetic can range from the utterly unrealistic flight of fantasy of, say, Powell and Pressburger’s ‘The Red Shoes’ to the unapologetically grim realism of Ken Loach’s ‘Ladybird Ladybird’. Both of these films use their aesthetic to make a statement; both succeed. ‘Jackie Brown’ is a crime film whose characters inhabit an economically depressed milieu with a specific ethic demographic. These characters are not going to address each other as if they’d just stepped out of a P.G. Wodehouse novel; they’re going to use the language of the street. 

Tarantino attempted to address this element of his screenplay at the time ‘Jackie Brown’ was released, noting that he had used the n-i-g-g-a spelling and not n-i-g-g-e-r. This was perhaps a tad disingenuous given that the variant in spelling makes not one iota of difference to the pronunciation. This might have been the point at which his name got scratched from Spike Lee’s Christmas card list. It was par for the course, then, that Lee wouldn’t be appreciative of Tarantino making a film with about slavery. And not the kind of hand-wringing film that most white directors would turn in, full of liberal sentiments marinated in several gallons of white man’s guilt, but the kind of film that only Tarantino could make, full of gleefully over the top iconography, swathes of non-PC humour and the unique brand of day-glo anti-realism that has been his stock-in-trade since the comparative subtleties of ‘Jackie Brown’ went unrewarded at the box office. Which is to say, ‘Django Unchained’ is a movie movie.

We’re back to the whole “as long as the aesthetic serves the work” caveat, and I’m throwing open the comments section for that to get debated in. The main question is whether Tarantino, as a white director, had any right making a film about slavery. At which point, the question of logical extremes rears its exaggerated head. Where do you draw the line if you disallow Tarantino that right as an artist? Can only Jewish directors make films about the Holocaust? Do we call time on male novelists creating female protagonists? Should a documentarist making a feature about a musician desist if he or she cannot read music or play an instrument? Herzog’s ‘Into the Abyss’ – should the dude have gone out and whacked somebody before he sat down to talk to a convicted murderer?

The question leads ultimately to absurdity. Absurd, too, is the idea of Tarantino as a racist. What racist would repeatedly write iconic roles for black actors (Samuel L Jackson in ‘Pulp Fiction’, Pam Grier in ‘Jackie Brown’, Jamie Foxx in ‘Django Unchained’)? What racist would, in his choice of subject matter, his choice of soundtrack music and his pop culture references, continually demonstrate such a passion for black culture that, had he been alive during the period that his latest movie is set, he’d no doubt have been lynched as a “nigger lover”.

Naomi Wolf doesn’t like ‘Zero Dark Thirty’. In a piece in The Guardian, Wolf castigates Kathryn Bigelow for peddling propaganda in suggesting that “what your script blithely calls ‘the detainee programme’” (i.e. the wholesale torture, post-9/11 of anyone suspected of Al Qaeda involvement) yielded information that led directly to the location – and by extension the execution – of Osama bin Laden.

The most damning paragraph of Wolf’s article is worth quoting in full: “In a time of darkness in America, you are being feted by Hollywood, and hailed by major media. But to me, the path your career has now taken reminds of no one so much as that other female film pioneer who became, eventually, an apologist for evil: Leni Riefenstahl. Riefenstahl's 1935 ‘Triumph of the Will’, which glorified Nazi military power, was a massive hit in Germany. Riefenstahl was the first female film director to be hailed worldwide.”

Up to this point, it’s difficult to argue with Wolf’s article. She pulls apart the “based on eyewitness accounts” tag which opens the film, and draws comparison with Alex Gibney’s ‘Taxi to the Dark Side’ and Rory Kennedy’s ‘Ghosts of Abu Ghraib’ – both documentary films with sourced and verifiable content – as well as citing academically sound studies which demonstrate that torture is ineffective as a method of sourcing military/political intelligence, studies which “rebut the very premise of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’.”

But it’s with the Riefenstahl comparison that the article loses focus. It paints a picture of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ as a film about crusading American intel operatives, God and morality on their side, doing whatever they have to do to get information. I was expecting something akin to Inspector Regan knocking a suspect about in your average episode of ‘The Sweeney’: we know the lairy little nonce has done it, we despise him for giving Jack Regan some lip, and if our favourite hard-boiled Flying Squad ’tec has to give him a slapping to get a confession, well the little bastard deserved it. Instead, the torture scenes in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ – which commence almost immediately – are fucking awful to watch: a succession of beatings and humiliations that are squalid and inhuman.

Riefenstahl made Nazism look Wagnerian, depicting the architects of the Third Reich as almost god-like. Bigelow portrays the purveyors of the US response to terrorism as, essentially, a bunch of low-achievers harangued by their boss to “bring me people to kill”. The scene in question, all of them cowering as the bollocking is handed out, is reminiscent of Alec Baldwin’s “always be closing” speech in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ – it simultaneously communicates the pointlessness and the banal intensity of a bunch of small people being forced to up their game to secure a worthless result.

Oh, and the film makes no bones about how basically fucking illegal the whole bin Laden thing was. If ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ was intended, as Wolf implies, as a work of propaganda, it’s a total failure. Leni Riefenstahl would have laughed it out of the cinema. Goebbels would probably have had somebody shot.

Monday, February 04, 2013

The Grey

At the beginning of ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’, weary saddle-tramp Hogue (Jason Robards) finds himself betrayed and left to die in the blistering desert. He implores God, “Yesterday I told you I was thirsty and I thought you might turn up some water! Now if I’ve sinned, you just send me a drop or two and I won’t do it no more. Whatever in the hell it was I did. I mean that, Lord.”

Towards the end of ‘The Grey’, beleaguered company man Ottway (Liam Neeson), lost in the Alaskan wilderness and hunted by a pack of wolves, sends out this little homily to the Almighty: “Do something, you phony prick. Fraudulent motherfucker. Do something. Come on, prove it! Fuck faith – earn it! Show me something real. I need it now, not later. Now! Show me and I’ll believe in you until the day I die, I swear. I’m calling on you.”

In ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’, the vengeful but likeable Hogue finds water. In ‘The Grey’, the nothing-to-live-for Ottway is answered only by the tallness of the trees, the vastness of the sky and an overwhelmingly indifferent silence. “Fuck it,” he ruminates, forcing himself onwards, “I’ll do it myself.”

If ‘Hogue’ is the closest Sam Peckinpah ever came to a religious allegory, then Joe Carnahan’s ‘The Grey’ is a wintry blast of existentialism. Still, it shares some aesthetic territory with Peckinpah. There are explicit similarities, particularly when one character expires against the majesty of the age-old mountains in a shot that purposefully quotes the final scene of ‘Ride the High Country’.

And there are implicit parallels, most notably in that both filmmakers demonstrate a keen understanding of how men behave and interact; of the macho codes that simultaneously protect their sense of self-identity and threaten to tear them apart whilst under pressure.

Peckinpah’s film opens with Hogue stripped of his rifle and canteen of water by his so-called partners Bowen (Strother Martin) and Taggart (L.Q. Jones). The rifle’s immaterial except that he might have defended himself with it. The water delineates the difference between two of them living and three of them dying before they make it out of the desert. But Hogue survives and the next act of the film sees him become a property-owner, a businessman and a publican thanks to the discovery of water where there shouldn’t have been any, his success flourishing almost accidentally while he broods on the possibility of getting even with Bowen and Taggart. His sentiments thaw somewhat as he romances saloon girl Hildy (Stella Stevens), but he never fully commits and things sour between them.

Ottway, on the other hand, is introduced to us having lost love. His wife has died, he’s ended up a paid killer of wolves for a petroleum conglomerate, mired in a grim company town populated by braggarts, brawlers and bullshitters. He is, put it mildly, at the end of his tether. Five minutes in, having written (or rather orated, in voiceover) a letter to his beloved, he’s crouching over his rifle, the barrel in his mouth. A wolf howling in the distance makes him hesitate. Plus, it’d be an awfully short film if he went the “goodnight Vienna” route.

Instead he finds himself on a plane with a cluster of noisy stevedores and it’s a genuine surprise when the plane goes down because surely all of that testosterone should have kept it up indefinitely. But plummet from the sky it does and suddenly “cluster of noisy stevedores” thins out to “small band of survivors”. Masculine ciphers – the huntsman, the loquacious smart-ass, the myopic nerve-bag, the ex-con – are gradually revealed as actual people. There’s an astounding scene, very shortly after the crash, where Ottway tends to a badly injured co-worker, and unable to help him medically, basically talks him through the fact that he’s going to die and do so very shortly. It’s a scene that most of mainstream directors working today would have fucked up in any number of different ways – pitched just a tad either way it could have toppled into cloying sentiment or callous indifference – but Neeson’s gravitas and Carnahan’s unobtrusive, observational style of direction combine and hold the moment in perfect equilibrium.

Ottway emerges as de facto leader almost immediately, though he’s challenged more than once. His first assertion of authority is when the bullish Diaz (Frank Grillo) starts rifling through his dead colleagues’ wallets and pocketing the cash. The following exchange occurs:

Ottway: Put that back. We’re not looting dead bodies for swag.
Diaz: You got lucky today, Ottway. You should be lying there with them. Don’t push it.
Ottway: I’m not going to say it again.
Diaz: Motherfucker, take a big step back.
Ottway: I’m going to start beating the shit out of you in the next five seconds. And you’re going to swallow a lot of blood for a fucking billfold.

Or how about Diaz’s assertion later, when the wolves appear and their continued existence starts looking less and less likely, that “I don’t walk through this world with fear in my heart” – Ottway’s response is a curt enquiry as to whether he learned that homily in prison: “Did someone write it on the dayroom wall?” Diaz is mouthy twat for so much of the film that the viewer could easily start rooting for the wolves. Yet he is gifted with – and, in the final analysis, deserves – one of the film’s most poignant scenes.

In addition to the Peckinpahesque examination of masculine codes and the jewel-like moments wherein Diaz and others find their humanity, ‘The Grey’ is also a bloody good thriller. A vertiginous rope crossing over an abyss is executed with Hitchcockian aplomb, the camera hanging back from the cliff edge until the one member of the party with a serious fear of heights takes his turn, at which point a dizzying POV shot demonstrates exactly what he has to be scared about.

Likewise, the wolves’ predatory behaviour is suspensefully developed. Their first appearance is almost ghostly: a pair of eyes emerging from the darkness around the crashed aircraft … joined by another … then another … then suddenly the screen is full of them. Later, bivouacked around campfire, human argument and animosity (Ottway and Diaz are at each others’ throats) is thrown into sudden and brutal relief as howling erupts from all around them.

At its best – in the way a horror film is often at its best when keeping the monster unseen – ‘The Grey’ wrings maximum chills from suggesting the wolves’ presence rather than launching across the screen. (A comment on the animatronics: it seems a lazy choice when even a low-budgeter like ‘Burning Bright’ can be bothered to harness the physical threat of a real tiger … but it’s preferable, at least in the opinion of an old fogey like me, to CGI.)

The horror movie comparison bears out in terms of structure. The second half of the film is marked by dwindling numbers, a stalk ‘n’ slash opus with wild animals and inhospitable terrain instead of a mad axeman and a dark cellar. And as the best horror movies essentially play on the fears we never managed to shake off from childhood, Ottway’s internal journey (its arc in ragged but emotionally persuasive juxtaposition to his journey through the wilderness) finds him back with memories not of his late wife but of his father. A drunk, as Ottway remembers him – moreover, a maudlin one with a taste for poetry. More than once Ottway quotes a poem of his father’s composition. It seems like a palimpsest, the Robert Frost-like repeated last lines suggesting a longer work. Maybe nobody’s life ever stretches to the completion of their endeavours, not Ottway’s, not his father’s, certainly not his wife’s.

Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I’ll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day

Thus the poem, thus the words Ottway arms himself with when the time comes to stand his ground. Another poem comes to mind, a stanza from Tennyson’s ‘In Memorial A.H.H.’:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

On so many levels, ‘The Grey’ is an upending, a subversion of the first two lines of that stanza (weigh up “who trusted God was love indeed” with Ottway’s bereavement and his imploration to the Almighty quoted at the beginning of this review) – and a visceral exercise in proving the last two. It’s a brutally existential thriller that debates Tennyson while getting in touch with its inner Peckinpah. I can’t think of many movies you can say that about.

Friday, February 01, 2013


I’d had it on good authority that ‘Haywire’ was one of two things: an attempt (director Steven Soderbergh re-teaming with screenwriter Lem Dobbs) to recapture the reconstructive brilliance of ‘The Limey’ but here drawing on the tropes of the espionage thriller; or Soderbergh basically taking the piss with a decent chunk of studio money. And, on various levels, ‘Haywire’ is both of these things. More besides? Let’s amble through the next few paragraphs, then come back to that one.

Comparison with ‘The Limey’ will forever be the elephant in the room for ‘Haywire’, the phrase “suffering by comparison” never more true than here. ‘The Limey’ has the cleverer script and the artier direction, not to mention a more genuinely emotional hook and a powerhouse central performance, Soderbergh proving himself the first director in a couple of decades capable to giving Terence Stamp something cool and edgy and iconic to do. ‘Haywire’ on the other hand is built around Gina Carano and while there is much to be said in her favour, she ain’t no Terence Stamp and Dobbs doesn’t give her even a fraction of the salty dialogue that the earlier script is seasoned with. True, ‘Haywire’ is packed full of talented actors in subsidiary roles – Michael Fassbender, Ewan MacGregor, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas (hell, even Channing Tatum manages not to be a sop-ass pretty-boy in this one!) – but talented actors in subsidiary roles is all they are. Which is part of the joke.

Carano had made tentative forays before the camera – the documentary series ‘Fight Girls’, a bit part in ‘Blood and Bone’ – but ‘Haywire’ represents her first lead role and the responsibility which goes with it: that of carrying a movie. And in this respect, surrounding a nascent talent with established performers – generally done with the aim of “buoying up” the lead performance – can often be the kiss of death. Soderbergh is wise enough to pitch the entire timbre of the film to Carano’s strengths. A reductive critic would probably add “i.e. looking good and kicking ass” parenthetically at this point, but Carano definitely has a presence and a certain degree of charisma onscreen. Although she’s admitted that Soderbergh manipulated some of her dialogue in post-production, there’s enough going on in ‘Haywire’ to suggest Carano could carve herself a deserved niche as an action heroine. 

Story-wise, what we have is some fairly generic characters – The CIA-Trained Operative Gone Renegade, The Handler, The Shady Politician Outsourcing To Private Operatives, The Latino Connection With His Own Agenda – playing out a fairly generic game of Second Guess The Next Double-Cross, the needlessly convoluted intricacies of which are glued together by a succession of fight scenes and chases, either vehicular or on foot. Soderbergh, it has to be said, shoots the action like a man determined to show up Michael Bay as a big phoney and never mind that he’s only got a micro-fraction of a Bay-style budget. The action is the primary reason for watching ‘Haywire’ and the film delivers.

It delivers while simultaneously being a knowing homage to its genre. I’m tempted to say satire rather than homage, but satire implies if not outright parody then at least a comedic overtone to the aesthetic. And ‘Haywire’ certainly isn’t a laugh-out-loud funny movie. It’s not meant to be. Although the last scene is almost guaranteed to prompt a wry smile. What ‘Haywire’ is, is a supremely intelligent director employing a playful approach to material that’s been done ad nauseum and abandoning innovation on a narrative or conceptual level in order to indulge himself in a sleight-of-hand display of technique.

Which brings us back to that first paragraph question. Is there anything more to ‘Haywire’? My personal feeling is yes: the sheer pleasure of watching Soderbergh indulge himself as described above. He has fun reducing McGregor, Douglas and Banderas’s dialogue to little more than jargon-heavy white noise: spy-speak overlayered with corporate vagary; and he has fun with structure and set-pieces. The main narrative of Carano’s character, Mallory, hightailing it across the USA in flight from (and later pursuit of) her betrayers is intercut with flashbacks to two missions – one in Barcelona, one in Dublin – which directly relate to her current predicament. Soderbergh stages the Barcelona job as a masterclass in dialogue-free exposition, and the Dublin escapade as an effortlessly effected segue from seductive Bondian elegance to Bourne-style smackdowns and rooftop chases.

‘Haywire’ is, in other words, extremely entertaining – and put together with a lot more élan than a film of this ilk would normally boast. And its leading lady is a knockout – in both senses of the word.