Django Unchained Movie Review 1 138

Love him or hate him, a new film by writer-director Quentin Tarantino is always an event. Whether he ticks all the right boxes of violence, deliberate characters and too-cool-for-school dialogue or annoys you with his homages and in-jokes, he always makes a film ripe for debate.

As a massive fan of Tarantino (his style really opened my eyes to what cinema could be when I saw Pulp Fiction way back) and all the things that makes his films truly his own, I can’t deny I loved Django Unchained. This sprawling yet meticulous tale of blood-soaked revenge is supremely entertaining in a way only Tarantino can achieve. And while it may not be his best film it adds to an instantly rewatchable body of work and continues his inimitable style.

The plot follows the titular Django (Jamie Foxx) – the D is silent – a slave who after being freed by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) is tasked by his rescuer to help him carry out a bounty in exchange for being taken to rescue his wife, who is being held by the vicious slave-owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

With a runtime that’s well on its way to being three hours long, there’s no denying Django Unchained is indulgent. Did it need to be that long? Absolutely not. But are there any specific glaring moments or scenes that could have been shortened or cut? If there are they are very few and far between. It earns its stay by never being boring, propelled by a sense of purpose inherit in the plot, another set of fascinating characters and, of course, Tarantino’s trademark dialogue that can make a simple meal at a table palpable with tension and grotesque humour.

Originally meant for Will Smith, Foxx takes the title role by the horns and gives it his all, inhabiting this black hero with conviction. Waltz, who came out of nowhere and blew us away in Tarantino’s previous film Inglourious Basterds, is once again a highlight as the smart-talking, determined Dr. Schultz. He ultimately walks away with the film (and has already won a Golden Globe for the performance) but let’s not forget the plethora of excellent supporting performances from the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Walton Goggins and particularly Leonardo DiCaprio, the latter of which is playing spectacularly against-type as the vile and compellingly unpredictable Calvin Candie. Once more it’s the marriage of great dialogue and gripping performances playing diverse characters that make Tarantino’s film so entertaining.

Django Unchained movie review - Leonardo DiCaprio

It wouldn’t be a Tarantino film without the eclectic soundtrack, which on paper is at odds with the events unfolding on-screen but as ever works like magic in context. A mix of existing songs and some original stuff (something not often seen in his movies) proves he is one of the masters of the film soundtrack.

Accusations of treating the subject matter too flippantly I think are unfounded. It’s true that the film’s slavery-themed plot is automatically going to beget controversy but Tarantino is merely shining a light on a period of history not much tackled on film and, in the same way as he did with WWII in Inglourious Basterds, putting his spin on events in a way that can both stir up discussion and entertain in equal measure.

It doesn’t pull any punches as far as showing the brutality of violence, with as much attention paid to the cathartic revenge sort as there is to the cruel violence that undoubtedly took place at the hands of slave owners in the 19th century. Gone are the days of only implying the violence (such as the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs) as bloody shootouts are shown in all their gory glory. Even by Tarantino’s standards this is violent but it’s all pulled off so elegant that it has a cinematic quality rather than feeling excessive or exploitative. It’s not exactly subtle but that’s not really what you should go into a Tarantino film wanting and expecting.

Fans of Tarantino’s work will not be disappointed by his latest offering as it offers the same sort of zeal, outlandishness and memorable dialogue that’s become associated with the man. Is it his finest film yet? Quite probably not but it’s another film of crackling dialogue, compelling characters and terrific music from a filmmaker with a unique and enduring cinematic voice.

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Django Unchained is released in UK cinemas on January 18th.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 537

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 562

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10

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