Director: Sam Mendes
Starring: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw, Naomi Harris, Andrew Scott, Dave Bautista, Jesper Christensen, Monica Bellucci, Rory Kinnear
SPECTRE, the Special Executive for Counter-Intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, has an iconic place in the James Bond series, with the evil organisation having been 007’s nemesis in six of the first seven films. But in the 1960s, Kevin McClory, the co-author of Thunderball, launched legal action against Ian Fleming after Fleming failed to give him appropriate credit for the novel, and was awarded sole rights to the SPECTRE name. For this reason, despite its iconic status, SPECTRE has not been mentioned in a Bond film since Diamonds are Forever in 1971. In 2013, four decades and sixteen Bond films later, a deal was struck between the McClory estate and MGM to return the rights, and the studio wasted no time in reintroducing SPECTRE into the fold, placing it front and centre in Bond 24, called, unsurprisingly, Spectre.
After receiving a secret message from an old ally, James Bond (Daniel Craig) goes rogue on what starts out as an assassination mission in Mexico City and ends up in Rome with the discovery of a secret organisation that has been behind many of the villains he has faced in the recent past. Continue reading
This year the most thankless job in Hollywood went to Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane, in a move which was obviously supposed to give the ceremony a bit of edginess and youth appeal (and on that front it was a success with the viewer numbers in the US up 20% from last year). The reviews of McFarlane’s performance have ranged from lightly positive to downright scathing. It’s a tough job at the best of times, but it was made all the tougher, as he alluded to, by the fact that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler had been so universally praised for the job they did at the Golden Globes a few weeks ago.
McFarlane was a bit hit and miss, as most hosts are, but was largely exactly what anyone who is familiar with him expected him to be. His opening bit, in which he conversed with William Shatner as Captain Kirk who was contacting him from the future to warn him against all the mistakes he was going to make as a host, came in at 19 minutes and was just way too long. There was a good idea there, but it was just stretched too far.
The humour in McFarlane’s television and film work comes from two sources: crossing the line of good taste and being inappropriate, and very specific pop-culture referencing. Both were on display on Oscar night. While it was apparent that he was reining himself in to some extent, McFarlane was always going to try and push things a little bit. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it crossed the line. The joke about no actor being able to get inside the head of Abraham Lincoln quite like John Wilkes Booth, was in typically poor taste but it got a good laugh. The “We Saw Your Boobs” song in his opening number didn’t go down so well, being just one of a number of incidents which led feminist commentators to accuse the host of misogyny (though as Family Guy co-writer Alec Sulkin pointed out on twitter, it seems slightly ironic to accuse the host of misogyny on a night that was also celebrating fifty years of James Bond).
McFarlane may have been better served to more heavily favour the pop-culture referencing, given he was in a room full of people who live and breathe movies and would therefore understand that kind of referencing and in-joking. His introduction of Christopher Plummer, in which he pointed to a side door to usher in the Von Trapp family singers only to have a young Nazi run in and exclaim “They’re gone!” went down a treat. A bit more of that sort of stuff and a bit less of jokes about nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis being a potential future girlfriend for George Clooney, and he may have got a more generally positive response.
This year it was really pleasing to see a bit of class return to the Academy Awards on the presenter front. The Oscars are an institution and an important part of maintaining that sense of grandeur is having big names presenting awards. In recent years the really big names have been notably absent, but this time around the presenters included screen legends such as Christopher Plummer, Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep (because she wasn’t actually up for an award this year) and Jack Nicholson. Their presence brought a bit of prestige to the event. That being said, I want to have one whinge. Jack Nicholson was brought out to present the Best Picture award, but had to hand over to Michelle Obama who appeared via a live video cross from the White House. Michelle Obama is a good get for the Academy, however, in this situation I don’t think she trumps Jack Nicholson (especially not on video). Jack is one of Hollywood’s absolute living legends, and being in the twilight of his career and not doing a lot of publicity means we don’t really see much of him. Michelle Obama tends to appear on the nightly news just about every day, so I felt that her presence was a waste of valuable Jack time.
As always, the presenters were a bit hit and miss in their attempts at pre-announcement banter. Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy take the cake for least funny seemingly adlibbed jokes, and Kristen Stewart and Daniel Radcliffe have no business being on stage at an Academy Award ceremony at this point in their careers (Stewart was her usual grumpy self but at least this time had the excuse of an injured foot).
Moment of the night from a presenters point of view was Mark Wahlberg who had to present the Best Sound Editing category in which there was a tie. Clearly taken aback by what he was reading, Wahlberg felt he needed to convince the crowd that he wasn’t having them on, so in classic Boston fashion stated “No BS. We have a tie.” When I was saying before that the presenters brought back a bit of class to the event, I wasn’t so much thinking about Marky Mark.
Despite the fact that this was one of the more open Academy Awards in recent history it ended up being a night almost entirely devoid of surprises on the awards front. Argo followed on from its dominance of the lead up awards to claim Best Picture. Daniel Day Lewis cemented his position as one of the all-time greats with his win for Lincoln making him the first man to win the Best Actor award on three occasions. Jennifer Lawrence tripped over on her way up to collect her Best Actress award. Christoph Waltz’s magic relationship with Quentin Tarantino continued as he claimed his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar from two collaborations. Anne Hathaway won the one award which was such an absolute lock you could have bet your house on it. In fact, the only major award in which the bookies’ favourite didn’t walk away with the statue was Best Director, in which Ang Lee pipped Steven Spielberg (but that category was a shambles from the moment Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow were left off the nominations list).
The speeches are always the least interesting part of an awards night. After the excitement of finding out who wins you then have to sit through a couple of minutes of them listing names of people you don’t know. In a nice, if not overly subtle, comic touch, the decision was made to replace the usual play-them-off music with the theme from Jaws, with John Williams’ ominous tones letting rambling recipients know that their time was up. As is always the case, there is a bit of a double standard when it comes to playing them off, with winners of lesser awards being cut while Quentin Tarantino was able to finish his speech, walk away from the microphone and then come back to say one more thing and have the music stop for him.
Christoph Waltz spoke beautifully, Adele spoke horribly (but that is more to do with the fact that her speaking voice is every bit as ghastly as her singing voice is wonderful). Daniel Day Lewis got big laughs for his revelation that he and presenter Streep had, after much thought, decided to switch roles, as he was originally meant to play Margaret Thatcher and she Abraham Lincoln. But for mine, best line of the night goes to Argo producer Grant Heslov who, standing between co-producers George Clooney and Ben Affleck, opened his acceptance speech with “I know what you’re thinking… three sexiest producers alive.”
The Musical Numbers
The “theme” for this year’s ceremony was a celebration of movie musicals, seemingly because Les Misérables had been nominated for Best Picture and because it was ten years since the last time a musical won Best Picture (Chicago). It was a bit of a shame, therefore, that a number of the musical numbers for the evening were a bit flat.
Both Shirley Bassey, singing ‘Goldfinger,’ and Adele, singing ‘Skyfall,’ appeared to be singing within themselves, not really punching the big notes, except for the last “Gold” which Dame Shirley hammered. The cast of Les Misérables came out to sing a number, an awkward mash-up of ‘Suddenly’ and ‘One Day More’ designed to give everyone a bit to sing, even if they are not in that scene, without going on too long, which just ended up sounding a bit messy.
While there was nothing spectacular about Barbara Streisand’s performance of ‘Memories’ as part of the In Memoriam section, it was still a reasonably big deal to see her on stage. But Jennifer Hudson was the absolute standout for the night and really brought the house down with her rendition of ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going’ from Dreamgirls, appropriately receiving a standing ovation.
As it turns out, after it was all said and done the moment of the night didn’t even happen as part of the ceremony, but in the interviews after. Jack Nicholson, obviously agreeing with me that Michelle Obama got in the way of valuable Jack time, decided that he would interrupt Jennifer Lawrence’s interview with ABC. Classic Jack…
by Duncan McLean
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Dicaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington
I’m a big fan of the Western genre. After an extended period of time in which it really went out of fashion in recent years we are starting to see a real re-emergence of the Western with quality productions like Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), James Mangold’s remake of 3:10 to Yuma (2007), the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit (2010) and, of course, the brilliant HBO series Deadwood (2004-2006). However, it is probably not since the 1950s that there has been a Western which has been greeted with as much popular anticipation as Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
Django Unchained again sees Tarantino doing what he does best, genre pastiche: taking past styles and forms of cinema that he loves and giving them the Tarantino twist. The result is kind of a Blaxploitation Spaghetti Western and it is ridiculously entertaining. Our setting is the deep south of the USA, in the years immediately preceding the Civil War. Our heroes are an unlikely duo, Django (Jamie Foxx) a slave, and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a onetime dentist now bounty hunter. The surprisingly conventional plot for a writer who made his name by tinkering with chronology and breaking his screenplays down into individual storylines and chapters, sees the two brought together when Schultz needs Django’s help to recognise a trio of wanted men. They stay together because Schultz feels compelled to help Django rescue his slave wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), from the horrible slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Tarantino has been very intentional in his promotional interviews for Django Unchained about labelling the film as a “Southern” rather than a Western, emphasising the difference in the core conflict at the heart of his movie. The Western genre has always been racially charged, but it is usually white men and Indians, or white men and Mexicans. In Django Unchained we are focused on the tension between white and black in the Deep South (which does allow the writer/director to continue his fetishistic relationship with the N-word). We’ve seen movies about slavery before, but not quite like this. Tarantino isn’t looking to make any overt political statements about the plight of the African-American. Rather he does what only he seems to be able to do, taking a seemingly taboo subject from one of the darker periods in modern history and using it as the basis for a ridiculously entertaining and quite funny film. It was the formula which worked so effectively with Inglourious Basterds in 2009. In that case it was Wold War II Europe providing the setting for a revenge tale about a small group of American Jewish soldiers taking vengeance on the Nazis on behalf of a downtrodden people. In Django Unchained Tarantino does for 19th century American slavery what he did for the Holocaust three years ago. Again we have a revenge tale, but this time our avenging angel is one man and the oppressed people are the black slaves.
While Jamie Foxx is the first name billed and plays the title character, the real star of this film is Christoph Waltz. Tarantino is a lover of dialogue. There are few directors working in mainstream cinema who happily allow scenes of dialogue to extend for as long as Tarantino does. As an actor, Waltz manages to combine eloquence and a calm elegance with a genuine sense of menace which makes him the perfect vehicle for the director’s wordy but sharp dialogue. Waltz was a revelation in Inglourious Basterds. As a relative unknown his performance as Col. Hans Landa gave us one of the best screen villains of the decade and won him an Academy Award. His work in Django Unchained is every bit as good, and really blurs the line between a supporting and leading character. He has received an Oscar nomination in the supporting category, but I feel like he is the lead character, or at least the co-lead, for the first three quarters of the film. Either way, it is a tremendous performance, about as endearing as you can imagine a bounty hunter to be, and makes me hope for further collaboration between the Waltz and Tarantino in the future.
There are two other supporting roles which are worthy of comment, both due to the fact that they see highly regarded actors venturing outside of their usual character scope. Firstly we have Leonardo DiCaprio playing the villain, Calvin Candie. DiCaprio has always been known for his intensity of performance, but that intensity has never really been applied to a villainous role before. Outside of the things Candie does and says, there is so much about his character which just pushes your buttons. Whether it is the touch of boyishness in his face which makes you think of him as a spoilt child, the semi-incestuous relationship with his sister, or his rather uncivilised interests in blood sports and phrenology, there is just something that manages to make you uneasy in his presence.
The other is Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson, and it is he who makes the greatest departure. In the same year that we saw him playing Nick Fury in The Avengers, Jackson delivers one of the performances of his career as Candie’s most trusted slave, Stephen. What makes the role so interesting, and challenging for us as viewers, is where Stephen sits in the racial divide that is at the centre of the film. Effectively Stephen is Candie’s chief of staff. He runs the house, is well dressed and treated by Candie with a level of respect not afforded to anyone else but his sister (there is a scene in which Candie and Stephen sit together drinking brandy which is indicative of their relationship). Stephen is a classic Uncle Tom figure, aligning himself with the white characters, seeing the other black characters as subservient and being an agent in their oppression. He believes in the status quo. Add to the fact that Jackson is playing an elderly man, weathered by many years of service, and it is quite an impressive achievement and has garnered some serious critical attention (if not the Oscar nomination he so openly hoped for).
Coming in at 165 minutes, while not excessive by current standards, Django Unchained is Tarantino’s longest film yet. Its main fault, which relates a bit to the runtime, is that at times it gets a little self-indulgent. Self-indulgence is always going to be a part of Tarantino’s cinema. So much of his style openly comes from his desire to engage with and replicate the things that he finds cool, in other words, indulging himself. So self-indulgence is not a problem in itself, but when it gets to the point of interfering with the flow of the picture it does become an issue. One scene in particular is representative of this. Towards the back end of the film there is a scene in which Tarantino makes a cameo appearance as one of the LeQuint Dickey Mining Company employees charged with transporting Django and some other slaves to the mines. For mine it is the worst scene of the film, though I’m sure some will point to the dancing horse at the films finale. Ignoring the fact that Tarantino’s performances in front of the camera have never come close to his prowess behind the camera, it is not his appearance in itself which makes the scene excessively self-indulgent. It is the fact that he is playing an Australian. One of the other workers in the scene is played by Australian actor John Jarratt of Wolf Creek fame. The Australian accents are quite jarring, and really make the scene stick out in a way that it wouldn’t have if they were playing Americans. Tarantino is a great admirer of Australian exploitation cinema (you can see him espousing his love in the wonderful 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!) and it feels like the sole reason for the Australian characters, and much of the dialogue that flows from them, was that he wanted to have John Jarratt in his movie.
Django Unchained is the Western done Tarantino style, complete with a final bloody shootout to rival Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and despite moments of self-indulgence it has the all requisite laughs, violence, cameo appearances and intertextual references to see that his legions of devoted fans will not be disappointed.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean