Directors: Anna Boden & Ryan Fletcher
Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Lashana Lynch, Clark Gregg, Akira Akbar, Gemma Chan, Rune Temte, Algenis Perez Soto, Djimon Honsou
Since the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe well and truly heralded in the era of the superhero movie, Marvel Studios have consistently shown themselves to be a step ahead of the competition. However, with the blockbuster success of Warner Brothers’ Wonder Woman in 2017 we saw, for the first time, Marvel Studios having missed a trick. While the MCU’s heroes had come from a variety of eras and planets and demonstrated a range of different powers and personalities, there was one key way in which they all remained the same: they were all male. While Hope Van Dyne had made it into the title of Ant-Man and the Wasp she remained clear second fiddle in the narrative, and characters like the Black Widow and Gomorah have been integral parts of the MCU without ever getting top billing. So it is with the 21st film in the franchise that Marvel gives us their first female led film, Captain Marvel. Continue reading
Director: Raoul Peck
Starring: James Baldwin, Samuel L. Jackson
In 1979, author, intellectual and activist James Baldwin wrote a thirty page treatment for a book to be called ‘Remember this House.’ It was going to be his personal account, describing his experience of the murders of his three friends and fellow civil rights champions, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. However Baldwin ultimately couldn’t bring himself to write the book and he passed away in 1987 having never returned to it. Using Baldwin’s own words, Raoul Peck’s Oscar nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro sets about trying to bring this unrealised work to life.
While Baldwin is the film’s principal character, I Am Not Your Negro is not a biography. Peck does not concern himself with delivering names, dates, milestones and achievements. If you come into this film without a great knowledge of who Baldwin was and what he did (and as a thirty-something Australian I confess to being far from an expert), you are not going to come out of the film with all of those questions answered. But you will come out with the desire to learn more, because what the film does emphatically show you of Baldwin was that he was a towering mind, a great thinker and powerful debater. Continue reading
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Tim Roth, Bruce Dern, Demian Bichir, Michael Madsen
At a time when the film industry has become almost uniformly digital, Quentin Tarantino remains a passionate supporter of the celluloid process. With his eighth film, The Hateful Eight, he has put his money (or rather, someone else’s money) where his mouth is and chosen to shoot the film in the long dormant Ultra Panavision 70mm format. The last film to be shot on this super wide screen format (2.76:1) was Khartoum in 1966. Yet while employing a film format which is associated with epic spectacle, with its minimal locations The Hateful Eight is probably Tarantino’s smallest scale film since Reservoir Dogs – though twice as long and with fifty five times the budget, indicative of the increasing excess of Tarantino’s work.
Bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is taking wanted murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to Red Rock to collect the $10,000 reward. While most bounty hunters prefer the ‘dead’ option in ‘dead or alive,’ when John “The Hangman” Ruth catches you, you hang. Continue reading
Directors: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan
Captain America: The First Avenger was the most divisive of the first phase of Marvel’s Avengers movies. While some people really liked its war-time narrative and the old-fashioned heroism the character represented, others, more drawn to the charismatic egotism of Favreau’s Iron Man or the brooding menace of Nolan’s The Dark Knight,struggled to get behind it.
After being frozen for half a century, thawed out in the modern day, and having played a key role in The Avengers, Cap is back for his second solo outing. Still trying to get his head around the changed world he now finds himself in, Steve Rogers carries around a notebook in which he lists things he needs to catch up on. This list is different for different cinematic markets, with Australian audiences seeing a list that includes ACDC, Tim Tams and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo. With no family and few friends, he immerses himself in his work, protecting his country as SHIELD’s most devastating soldier. But when it becomes apparent that SHIELD has been compromised, and it looks like Nick Fury is involved, Rogers finds himself on the outer, not knowing who he can trust. Alexander Pierce, the Secretary of SHIELD, employs the full force of the organisation to try and bring Captain America in. This includes the mysterious Winter Soldier, a super-soldier who for decades has been believed to be the stuff of legend.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an interesting blend of the new and the old. It is very much a film for the post-9/11, war on terror world. Its central thematic discussion concerns the appropriateness of forfeiting freedom in the name of security, and the morality of pre-emptive strike justice, eliminating threats before they become threats. Yet while dealing with these quite current themes, the movie has the feel of a 1970s paranoid conspiracy thriller like Three Days of the Condor (which also starred Robert Redford) thanks to its narrative about the criminal infiltration of government institutions.
This blend of the new and the old is also evident in the characters. Steve Rogers is a man of the 1940s, confronted by a world which is more complex than the one into which he was born. It is not just culture and technology which he has to catch up with. His sense of morality is also challenged. Rogers is a moral absolutist. For him there is a clear right and wrong, and this causes him to butt heads with moral relativists like Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff, for whom the ends tend to justify the means.
Where this film really stands out compared to some of the others in the franchise is in the chemistry between its stars. Evans, Johansson, Jackson and newcomer Anthony Mackie all play off each other quite well. The film also continues to develop those characters returning from previous adventures. In particular Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha ‘the Black Widow’ Romanoff, who has been a supporting character in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, is really made a focus of the film and is fleshed out into quite an interesting character and a great foil for Captain America.
As is to be expected from these movies, the action sequences are top notch. Evenly scattered through the film, they never drag and are different enough from each other that they capture your interest. The film contains the expected nods to the other characters from the Avengers franchise, but where once these moments were cause for excitement, since The Avengers they only serve to make you wonder why it is those heroes being alluded to are not choosing to get involved in this particular international disaster. More interesting are a couple of nods to other films. In particular there is a little something in there for the observant Pulp Fiction fan which is really top notch.
In all though, the combination of good action, strong characters and a decent storyline makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier one of the better Marvel movies and ensures the franchise will continue to motor along.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
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.