Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Margaret Qualley, Mike Moh, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Julia Butters, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis
As the self-taught filmmaker whose primary education was famously five years working behind the counter at a video store, a deep love of the movies has always been a central part of the Quentin Tarantino mythology. While that love of cinema of all kinds has always been evident in his movies through their eclectic references and homages, with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, this great lover of the movies finally gets to make his film about the movies. Taking us back to the late 1960s, he captures Hollywood at a moment of seismic generational change and in typically Tarantino fashion, demonstrates a simultaneous fascination with history and an unwillingness to be beholden to it. Continue reading
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Will Poulter, Domhnall Gleeson, Forrest Goodluck
Upon receiving the Golden Globe for Best Director for The Revenant, Alejandro G. Iñárritu said, “Pain is temporary, but a film is forever.” It is a mantra that he has obviously willed himself to believe because the stories from set in Canada suggest this ambitious frontier epic will earn its place alongside Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo as one of film history’s most arduous and challenging shoots. The film is an endurance test, for its crew, for its characters and even, in the best possible way, for its audience.
A revenge Western – though Iñárritu insists that it isn’t a Western – based in part on the 2002 novel by Michael Punke, The Revenant tells the incredible “true” survival story of frontiersman Hugh Glass. In 1823, Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) leads a group of fur trappers through the Rocky Mountains on a quest for pelts. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is charged with navigating them safely through this dangerous territory Continue reading
Director: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujarden
In recent years, with films like The Departed, Shutter Island and Hugo, Martin Scorsese has ventured into the world of narrative-driven filmmaking. However the films upon which his lofty reputation is based – films like Mean Streets, Goodfellas and Casino – were never so concerned with narrative. They were films that created a world and dropped us into it, introducing us to the people, the language and the rituals of that place and time. They had an almost anthropological feel to them. Scorsese’s latest film, The Wolf of Wall Street, is a return to this type of storytelling. It has that old-fashioned Scorsese flavour to it with one additional ingredient, humour.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a biting satire of a culture that values personal gratification above all else and gives little thought to the consequences. The film explores the rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort. We meet Jordan on his first day working at L.F. Rothschild where he starts at the bottom of the ladder. On the very day that he gains his trading license, 19th October 1987, the stock market crashes and he finds himself out of a job. He starts to rebuild by selling “penny stocks,” hustling suckers who can’t afford it into buying worthless stocks at huge margins. Things really take off when he founds his own firm, the evocative but meaninglessly named Stratton Oakmont, and employs the same tactics with blue chip stocks to land much bigger fish. The film doesn’t require you to understand how their operation works, it doesn’t even try and explain it, just to know that it was all quite illegal. With Jordan and his team of hucksters making a lot of money very quickly it was only a matter of time before they caught the eye of the FBI.
Based on the confessional memoir of the real-life Jordan Belfort, The Wolf of Wall Street is told entirely from Jordan’s point of view. It is DiCaprio’s voiceover narration that guides us through the film and he regularly turns to the camera to directly address the viewer. It is in this subjectivity that the root of much of the film’s controversy lies. As in the past, when sections of the audience have accused Scorsese’s film of celebrating gangsters, The Wolf of Wall Street has been attacked for the way in which it indulges in the extravagant excess of these characters lives, an excess which is funded by illegal practices. Despite being a cautionary tale, it is not a didactic or judgemental one. With Belfort himself showing no genuine remorse or contrition for the effects of his actions, the subjectivity of the film likewise does not judge him or apologise for him. The victims of Jordan’s crimes are as invisible to us as they are to him. Instead, the character of Jordan Belfort, through telling his own story, tries to charm, schmooze and woo us as viewers into siding with him despite our understanding of the despicable selfishness of his lifestyle.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a confronting film in its examination of a completely amoral life of excess. Much has been said about the over the top sex, drugs and in particular language of this film – it was well documented that it had set a new record with 506 variations of the F-word – but arguably the more confronting aspect of the lifestyle on display is its misogyny. Whether The Wolf of Wall Street is a misogynistic film, a film about a misogynistic world, or a bit of both is open to discussion. Regardless, it is an intensely male film in which women, regardless of their relationship or role, are regarded primarily as commodities and sexual objects. There is only one female character, Joanna Lumley’s Aunt Emma, who has a level of authority equal to that of the male characters.
Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the finest actors going around at the moment, but this fifth collaboration with Martin Scorsese has afforded him the opportunity to display his versatility. Much of his success in the past has come from playing tortured loners, but Jordan is the ultimate people person. He thrives on the energy of having people around him and being the centre of attention. So DiCaprio is called upon to play the extravert in a way we don’t regularly see. The bigger surprise though is the ease with which he handles the film’s comic material. DiCaprio has always radiated seriousness as an actor, but here he gets to have some fun. In doing so he shows a surprising talent for physical comedy, bordering on slapstick, which very few would have imagined was in his repertoire.
DiCaprio is ably supported by a strong cast. Jonah Hill continues to show he has serious acting chops, while his background in improvisational comedy adds to the spontaneity of some exhanges. The relatively unknown Australian Margot Robbie turns heads as Belfort’s trophy wife more than holds her own in a number of scenes with DiCaprio. Rob Reiner threatens to steal the movie at times as Belfort’s short-tempered father, and cameos from the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujarden and Jon Favreau add colour to intricately constructed world.
While The Wolf of Wall Street is undoubtedly Scorsese’s funniest movie, it is by no means a comedy. It is a drama with humour – there are plenty of laughs while Jordan is living the high life, but when things turn bad its gets serious. While it won’t be to everyone’s’ liking, it is arguably Scorsese’s best film in two decades.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Jack Thompson
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, often referred to as ‘the great American novel,’ is arguably the sacred text of American literature. The tale of the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby who returns to reclaim his long lost love, provides a snapshot of the opulence and extravagance of the roaring Twenties, and an insight into the darker side of the great American Dream of the self-made man. Multiple attempts have been made over the years to bring Fitzgerald’s story to the screen, but none have really satisfied. The level of reverence towards the source material means that any film adaptation is going to encounter a certain amount of pushback from an audience with a strong idea in their head of what the story is supposed to look like.
Australian director Baz Luhrmann is not the type to shy away from the challenge of taking on a literary giant. After all, this is the man who made his name with his non-traditional approach to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and literary figures don’t come much bigger than William Shakespeare. With The Great Gatsby, what we get from the director is his interpretation rather than merely an adaptation. While he retains a high level of respect for the source material and sticks very closely to Fitzgerald’s narrative – with the exception of adding a framing device which sees our narrator Carraway recounting the events to his therapist – Luhrmann is not content to simply provide the images for Fitzgerald’s words. He gives us “Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby,” the Gatsby that only he could make. He takes a chance in that regard, but he needed to. The 1974 version of the film – directed by Jack Clayton and starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow – is a very conservative adaptation of the story and the result is an incredibly boring film. Love him or hate him, Baz brings something to the fold.
Luhrmann is, of course, a specialist in artifice, and with his production designer wife Catherine Martin, he provides a visual and aural extravaganza. The Great Gatsby is a period drama unlike any other you’ve seen. It is a feast of art deco style, with design and costume coming straight out of the 1920s – as an aside, you are looking at the early Oscar frontrunner in the Best Costume Design category. This period design is then contrasted with an overt digital element, used both to enhance the set design and geography, as well as in the cinematography. Luhrmann and cinematographer Simon Duggan employ a style of digital cinematography we are more used to seeing in action blockbusters like The Avengers, employing a number of impossible, artificial camera angles and swooping cinematography.
While the film’s visual style sets it apart from most period dramas, by far its most controversial element is its soundtrack. While the films diegetic music (music whose source is within the world of the film, like a radio or record player) is all in keeping with the era, the non-diegetic music (the soundtrack laid over the onscreen action) draws primarily from contemporary music, particularly RnB. The soundtrack includes the likes of Jay Z (also an executive producer on the film), Beyonce, Jack White, SIA, NEYO, will.i.am and Lana Del Rey. Much like the 3D photography, the use of contemporary music on the soundtrack is a device that is meant to draw you into the film. Hearing contemporary RnB music at Gatsby’s parties gives them a certain familiarity, making them a more relatable and as a result more immersive and overwhelming experience. But while it is an interesting device, I can’t help but feel the music is one element of the films which is not going to date well. There will come a time, and it won’t be too far into the future, when the film’s soundtrack feels neither of the period nor contemporary and as such just seems strange.
In the midst of this swirling visual and aural experience are four strong performances. Gatsby is, after all, a story built about relationships. Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway provides the film’s centre and the audience’s eyes and ears, with Luhrmann sticking to Fitzgerald’s device of telling the story from Carraway’s point of view. Luhrmann once described Carey Mulligan as “the actress of her generation,” and while Daisy is not really a meaty enough part to allow her to live up to that hype, she does bring an innocence to the role. DiCaprio, as the mysterious Gatsby, does not appear until half an hour into the film. But in the moment of his entrance, to the soaring tones of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ he shows that despite not having really done it since Titanic, Leo can still play Hollywood heartthrob. The most eye-catching performance of the picture though is from Joel Edgerton. Playing Daisy’s brutish husband, Tom Buchanan, Edgerton is at times an almost hulking presence. Yet despite being ostensibly the villain of the film, and despite treating Daisy horribly, Edgerton brings just enough nuance to Buchanan that you feel something for him as he watches his wife being stolen away by Gatsby.
Luhrmann’s Gatsby has polarised critics, as Luhrmann’s films are want to do. But coming on the back of numerous other failed attempts at adapting Fitzgerald’s novel – at least four others by my count – I can’t help but wonder does the question needs to be asked, are the elements which make Fitzgerald’s novel great not ones which can easily be translated to the screen? Does the brilliance of Fitzgerald’s novel come from something other than simply its narrative or its characters? Or is it simply the case that the right filmmaker hasn’t attempted it yet?
In the meantime, Baz Luhrmann has given us a characteristically glitzy and visually extravagant take on the classic story which is sure to please audiences and make a pile of money, even if it does leave the literary purists slightly dissatisfied.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review 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
At 5:30am Los Angeles time, Oscars host Seth MacFarlane and Emma Stone announced the nominees for the 85th Academy Awards. While there were a few categories which panned out exactly as expected, the nominations did throw up more than the usual number of surprises. Here are five of the biggest…
1) Only 9 in the Best Picture
There were a few notable omissions in the Best Picture category. Moonrise Kingdom, The Master, The Sessions and, to a lesser extent, Skyfall had all been talked about as Best Picture contenders but all were notably absent from the nominees announced. What makes that even more surprising is the Academy chose only to give out nine of a possible ten nominations. So it wasn’t even that these films were simply squeezed out by other worthy pictures, rather they were deemed not worthy of a nomination.
2) Amour gets some love
It is not often that a foreign language film gets Academy recognition outside of the Best Foreign Language Film category. So it was somewhat of a surprise to see Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner, Amour, pick up five nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. If nothing else it means that Amour will be the shortest of short priced favourites to win the Best Foreign Language Film category.
3) Big names missing in the Best Director field
It was the Best Director nominations which contained the biggest surprises, primarily as a result of who wasn’t there. Ben Affleck, Quentin Tarantino and Kathryn Bigelow had all been talked about as serious contenders to take the award home, yet none of them managed to get a nomination. The most obvious beneficiaries of these ‘snubbings’ are the surprise – unexpected but not undeserved – nominations of Michael Haneke and Behn Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild).
4) Silver Lining Support
The surprise nominations in both the Supporting Actor and Actress categories both came from Silver Linings Playbook. Robert De Niro had only received a handful of lead up nominations, none of them major, for his role as Pat Sr. His surprise nomination means that there wasn’t room for some more fancied possible nominees, particularly Django Unchained’s Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. Australian Jackie Weaver came from right out of left field to score a nomination in the Supporting Actress category having not received any lead up nominations, other than as part of an ensemble cast. The Golden Globes and SAG nominations had opted for Nicole Kidman (The Paperboy) or Maggie Smith (Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) to round of their fields, but neither seem any more deserving than Weaver.
5) The Dark Knight does not rise
While I don’t think anyone was realistically expecting The Dark Knight Rises to earn a best picture nomination, most would have expected it to figure somewhere (maybe in visual effect?), but instead it became the highest profile film to be completely overlooked by the Academy this year.