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From award season contenders to genre re-inventions, big-budget blockbusters to equally big-budget adaptations of classic literature, last year was yet again an eventful one for cinema. Now, as we’re into 2014, I thought I’d take a look back at some of last year’s biggest, best, and most under-appreciated flicks.
Django Unchained certainly is a hard film to categorise, although it’s perhaps best, as the director himself described it, to call it ‘a Southern’. Christopher Frayling, in his superb commentary for A Fistful of Dollars, reiterates Sergio Leone’s belief that, at their heart, Westerns are ‘fairytales for grown-ups’. That belief also lies at the heart of this film. Yet, despite its numerous allusions to myth and its constant mash-up of genres, Django Unchained doesn’t attempt to evade slavery and isn’t shy to depict it in all its repulsiveness.
As the titular slave turned bounty hunter, Jamie Foxx gives a characteristically charismatic performance, whilst Christoph Waltz, as Dr. King Shultz, is excellent as a noble man in a world where all sense of morality has been turned on its head. The chief representative of this skewed morality is Calvin Candie, played with aplomb by Leonardo DiCaprio. A truly repellent character, Candie, a near pantomime villain, oscillates between loquacious and psychopathic, Southern pseudo-Renaissance man and sadistic tyrant. Alongside this, Samuel L. Jackson see-saws between pitiful and terrifying as Candie’s loyal house servant, Stephen, the embodiment and perpetuator of slavery and racism at its worst. Finally, Kerry Washington is captivating as Django’s wife, Broomhilda.
In many ways a throwback as much as it is a genre reinvention: shot in 35mm and not containing a hint of CGI, Tarantino retains the cleft to make the film he wants to make. Robert Richardson’s trademark lighting style and vibrant colour palette craft a cartoon-esque aesthetic welded to tight compositions and dynamic camera movement across locations that vary from dusty saloons to snow covered mountain ranges, sprawling plantations to decadent lounge rooms. The film’s soundtrack features the usual, instantly catchy Morricone tracks, alongside Luis Bacalov’s strained, Hermann-esque strings on tracks such as ‘La Corsa’, as well as an Elvis-esque theme song that starts the film off in grand style. At the film’s half-way mark, Jim Croce’s ‘I’ve Got a Name’ accompanies a montage and feels like it was made just for the film, whilst Jerry Goldsmith’s ‘Nicaragua’ is employed mesmerisingly to the Candieland arrival sequence.
Unafraid to take on a controversial subject, Django Unchained is an immediate, inventive, and ingenious cinematic concoction. Engrossing right from the start and all the way up to the final stirring scene of Django strutting out through the fire and smoke and into cinematic legend.
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity partakes in a spectacle cinematic tradition that stems all the way back to George Méliès’s 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, and makes it its mission to bring the audience back to the big screen and the communal activity of watching a film. The insistence on conveying a sense of scope and sensation is perhaps a retort to the challenge posed by the recent growing migration to television and on-demand content, as well as the appeal of bigger and better home cinema systems.
The film frequently delivers a succession of ‘How did they do that?’ moments. By employing long takes and a gliding camera, with the inclusion of only a few cuts, Cuarón crafts a visual experience that is not too conscious that it’s a film, successfully managing to blend the real with the unreal. With a narrative dictated by brevity, and escalating tension, latching on from one cliff-hanger to the next, and at just over 90 minutes, Gravity is a rare occasion of all thriller, no filler. However, amidst the tense spectacle, Sandra Bullock, as Dr Ryan Stone, gives a performance that adds a human weight and emotional core to the film, and one that will surely have her tipped for an Oscar nomination.
Ultimately, Gravity is a film that seeks to remind us of the fundamental appeal of cinema: spectacle, immersion, and escapism.
THE GREAT GATSBY
One of the more unusual releases of the summer season, a big budget adaptation of a literary classic, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby has been derided by some critics as a grade A* in style and an F in substance. Despite my nerves about this adaptation of one of my favourite books, I was pleasantly astonished by this spectacular film. For certain, this is a film that has style, indeed, it is style, but the critical focus on the film as a pure exercise in visual splendour, at least for me, has overlooked this daring and thoroughly modern example of adaptation.
Luhrmann reinforces that this was the ‘Roaring Twenties’. The film takes Fitzgerald’s words and transforms them into striking cinematic visuals, drawing upon contemporary cinema and Old Hollywood grandeur. Luhrmann’s ambition: to make us experience what the 1920s felt like to those living at that time. The overall result is a film that’s alive with its own kaleidoscopic form, style, and mood.
Headlining a stellar cast, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as Jay Gatsby is actually a set of multiple performance: from mysterious recluse to teller of tall tales; hopeless romantic to gangster; a dreamer to a man who has lost sight of who he is. His depiction of Gatsby is compelling, and, in Luhrmann’s interpretation, he is ultimately a sympathetic, fragmentary character. But despite the individually strong performances, the film’s pivotal Plaza Hotel scene is the real showcase for an all-round excellent cast. Here, Luhrmann cuts out the soundtrack and cinematic playfulness and gives us a scene akin to theatre.
Although the film’s exuberance may not be to everyone’s taste, Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is brave enough to be its own film. As much a return to old-school Hollywood glamour and matinee idols as it is a thoroughly modern (and postmodern) take on a canonical piece of American 20th century literature, The Great Gatsby is this year’s Citizen Kane. A film as bold and brilliant and Gatsby’s suitably grand entrance set to Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. This is simply pure cinema, old sport.
MAN OF STEEL
Whilst early trailers hinted that perhaps the once reclusive (now prolific) Terrence Malick had decided to turn his hand to the superhero genre, make no mistake, Man of Steel is a muscular sci-fi action epic. Comic book movie auteur and technical maestro Zack Snyder offers us a Superman movie that gives it all it’s got in making us believe a man can fly (and level cities).
Henry Cavill’s performance eschews with the usual depiction of Clark Kent. Lantern-jawed and stern looking, this is an altogether tougher take on the character. Meanwhile, Michael Shannon as General Zod bulldozes through the film as a genetically engineered military leader. However, Antje Traue’s Faora-Ul, granted few lines and relegated to a supporting villain role, is a far more menacing creation. Dispensing with dozens of troops in milliseconds, this is a Kryptonian who is not to be messed with. On the more human side, Amy Adams is excellent as Lois Lane and is set to return in the film’s sequel.
Snyder’s film departs significantly from previous colourful depictions of the comic book hero and instead opts for a grittier visual scheme. This realist depiction makes it appear as if Superman is right before us. In this respect, the fight sequences in particular are a stand-out. Fast and ferocious, Superman is thrown through buildings and trains fly through the air as Kryptonians wage all-out war in Smallville and Metropolis. Hans Zimmer’s score rises to the challenge set by John Williams. Although not as alarm clock worthy as Williams’s iconic theme, the film’s score is still pulsating and modern.
Man of Steel is a stand-out blockbuster film that sets out to establish its own take on the most iconic of all superheroes whilst constructing its own mythology. How Ben Affleck’s Batman will contend with this Superman following this film’s third act is anyone’s guess, but with Zack Snyder directing and the cast returning, I can’t wait to see a film starring a new take on the Dark Knight, and, of course, the Man of Steel.
THE LONE RANGER
Dismissed by critics and considered a box-office failure, The Lone Ranger has earned a reputation as this summer’s so-called ‘turkey’. Similar to the situation Disney faced with last year’s John Carter (a flawed, but by no means bad sci-fi adventure), The Lone Ranger, to paraphrase Django Unchained’s Calvin Candie, had my curiosity but it also had my attention. A return to adventure-serial heroics, this is a film that doesn’t feel the need to be serious or impose any grand ‘theme’ on the audience. Instead it seeks to entertain and provide a solid 150 minute piece of unashamed fun.
Gore Verbinski’s direction is akin to that of a live-action cartoon. The climatic train sequence is stupendous, and is enough to make any critic labelling this a bad film to think again. The quality and aptitude of filmmaking, particularly during the aforementioned sequence, is exemplary. Costing $250 million, every dollar is on the screen, as set piece after set piece is successively mounted, growing grander in scope, ambition, and gleeful spectacle. Johnny Depp as Tonto is another oddball but likeable performance from the chameleon actor. This isn’t a repeat of his roguish Captain Jack Sparrow routine, here Tonto is a character whose bizarre nature has a motive behind it and, as expected, also provides a lot of the film’s humour. Armie Hammer, as John Reid, is the stoic counterpoint to Depp’s wild man. The pairing between them is excellent as the miss-matched couple who nevertheless become a great team. Meanwhile, William Fichtner (the ultimate ‘I’ve seen that guy in…’ actor) and Helena Bonham Carter also give strong and eccentric performances.
Eschewing with CGI overload, this film, shot mainly on location and with practical live action special effects, should be commended for doing things the old-fashioned way. Hans Zimmer’s score also features some great motifs, riffing at numerous points on Morricone’s ‘Harmonica’s theme’ from Once Upon a Time in the West. The Lone Ranger is a film that deserves a chance. Although overlong and unwieldy in places, it is film that wants nothing more than to entertain its audience with strong storytelling and inventive filmmaking. This is nothing more and nothing less than a kinetic, exciting and energetic escapade.