Monthly Archives: January 2013

Django Unchained (2013)

Featuring electric performances from Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio, Tarantino’s Django Unchained is an explosive and fearless 21st Century Western. Combining bold visuals with a sharp script full of biting wit and drama, the film is pure indulgence. It succeeds where so many others fail, balancing both comedy and tragedy, and blending the two in a daring and delicious fashion.

Django (Foxx) is a slave in Southern America who is unexpectedly freed by Dr. King Schultz (Waltz), a German dentist and bounty hunter who requires help with his next hits. The two form a bond and Schultz later agrees to assist Django in tracking down his slave wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who has been bought by Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), a plantation owner. The first half of the film sees the two men going about their Bounty Hunting business in an amusing manner, with shots and music drawing on a long tradition of Spaghetti Westerns. An especially funny scene sees a group of masked clansman arguing over the size of their eye-holes right before they attempt an act of mob justice.

It is when the characters arrive at Candyland (Candie’s plantation) that the film begins to explore the sordid nature of a Southern hospitality built on the slave trade. DiCaprio’s character oozes sliminess, creeping about in a maroon jacket and beige bowler hat, offering his friendliness on the condition that everyone submit to his dark and twisted desires. Even his most jovial speech is tinged with hostility, making him the epitome of a smooth-talking villain. It’s here that most of the action takes place, and there is a lot of it. Pairing bloody scenes with dialogue so sensational it’ll have you on the edge of your seat, the latter half of the film is an exercise in tension, and a homage to the shootout.

Foxx, Waltz, DiCaprio and Washington are joined by a supporting cast that includes the likes of Samuel L Jackson (his role as Stephen, Calvin’s loyal house slave, is played with fantastic bitterness), Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, James Remar, and Don Johnson, and together they form one of the best line-ups in recent years. Even bit parts are acted with liveliness and vigour meaning every scene is filled to the brim with personality. Foxx exudes cool level-headedness as the main protagonist on a journey of self-discovery; reserved yet commanding, he remains a powerful presence right up until the end, and his deadpan delivery of sarcastic lines lends the film most of its playfulness. The chemistry between himself and Waltz is what makes their conversations one of the highlights of the movie. Waltz is extremely likeable as the Bounty Hunter with a moral conscience whose beliefs are neither sentimentalised nor forced, meaning that his integrity is refreshing. His speech is like that of a riddler or a poet, posing eloquent questions and providing longwinded introductions that are often met with vacant looks. The word “parley” rolls off his tongue with a delightful German twang that contrasts well with the deep Southern drawl of the locals. It was also nice to see Zoe Bell, Jonah Hill, and Franco Nero make guest appearances, their presence only adding to the quality of the picture.

With an exhilarating soundtrack that includes music taken from old Westerns (Ennio Morricone’s “The Braying Mule”, and the theme from the 1966 Django) as well as original songs by Rick Ross and John Legend, Django Unchained matches its brilliantly choreographed scenes with booming sounds that send the heart racing. The crisp whites of snowy mountains, the blacks and reds of dark forests, and the acidic yellows and greens of hot and sweaty plantations, are rendered more intoxicating by the brilliant sounds that accompany them. Never taking itself too seriously, my favourite scene in the film is the one where Django rides bareback across the plains to the sound of “Who Did That To You”. I’ll never fully understand how Tarantino manages to make concepts that are so tacky, so fiercely epic.

Pulling together threads from numerous sources and eras, this is a film that looks back as much as it steps forward. Making continual nods to other directors and actors, Django Unchained is born of an admiration for a genre that up until now was dead and buried. And yet it never feels stale or repetitive in its act of tribute. Fresh and lively, it flits between seriousness and pastiche with effortless ease, eliciting both laughter and shock. Entertaining from start to finish, it is a brash and forthright film that some viewers will undoubtedly be offended by. But criticise its comic-book violence all you like, its solid-gold entertainment value is undeniable.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★★

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Jojo in the Stars (2003)

A dark and expressive animation from director and animator Marc Craste, Jojo in the Stars explores love in the face of loathsome evil. In a somber world populated by strange and robotic creatures, winged girl Jojo finds herself an admirer who takes it upon himself to free her from the freak show that she is a part of. In this black and white universe, horrors abound, and sadness looms around every corner. The lovers are met with many obstacles in their quest for happiness, and in the end it finally comes, but at a high price.

With brilliant character design, the bright eyes of the audience light up luminously against the darkness. Jojo’s wings are gorgeous and incandescent, and the other residents of Madame Pica’s “circus” are reminiscent of Lock, Shock and Barrel from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. The music is also amazing, and lends the film a lot of its emotional power. Harlem in Brünn works fantastically when set to Jojo’s routine.

Reading about this film, which won a BAFTA for Best Animated Short Film, I discovered that it was inspired by both the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds song “The Carny”, and the film Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders (in which the song appears). I have the film on DVD, and I have to say that Jojo did remind me of Marion the trapeze artist. Both women are beautiful but alone, and are admired and protected by a guardian of sorts. And the wounds that our unnamed hero suffers after his fall are similar to when Damiel sheds his immortality and bleeds for the first time after becoming human. It’s lovely to see such amazing animation inspired by a range of material.

An absorbing if slightly depressing tale, Marc Craste succeeds in capturing the angelic melancholy of keeping beauty behind bars.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★

Varmints (2008)

Would like to say before I start that I haven’t read the book Varmints by Helen Ward and Marc Craste, so I can’t compare the film to it in any way. These thoughts are just from my viewing of the animation.

The story follows a small creature who finds himself in the midst of monstrous urbanization as he strolls quietly and peacefully through the countryside. Having to change his lifestyle to suit a smoggy, dirty city filled with sickness and sadness, he falls in love with another of his kind who has also found herself sucked into this new metropolitan landscape. Dealing with themes of ecology and germination, Varmints proves the awesome power of nature in the face of its eradication.

Exquisitely animated, the contrasting colour palettes work wonderfully as the story moves suddenly from green open fields to brown and grey skyscrapers. The buildings tower over our main character menacingly, their cold stone walls and box windows the epitome of desolation. Genuinely distressing at parts, you find yourself willing the plants to take over, and restore this foul environment to its former glory.

Without words this film manages to convey astonishing feeling. It is a gorgeous and emotional little gem of a tale. I highly recommend that anyone who hasn’t watched it give it a go, even if they don’t particularly enjoy animated movies. At 24 minutes long, its not exactly a challenge to get through.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★1/2

Glassy Ocean (1998)

Watching Glassy Ocean is like being made privy to somebody’s dream, the kind of dream that’s so surreal it’s hard to put in to words. Taking place in a parallel universe of sorts where people roam an ocean made of glass, this 23 minute animation from Shigeru Tamura is beautifully odd. Time has slowed in this alternate universe, and so waves and sea creatures are able to be observed with careful consideration and attention. The main character taps the glass of the frozen waters in order to pluck fishes from the depths for him and his pet cat, who we are introduced to at the beginning. They encounter a painter, a whale, and various other lone rangers who all seem to congregate when something of interest begins to stir in their otherwise motionless landscape. Interspersed throughout are the man’s strange memories of another world, one that resembles a Dali painting with clocks melting into the sea.

A strange but captivating animated tale, this film is highly imaginative and original. Bordering on the absurd, its story takes unpredictable turns that will leave you dazed and confused, but enraptured by its stunning visuals and beautiful music nonetheless.

Watch it here

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★

The Secret of Kells (2009)

Kaleidoscopic colours and geometric shapes abound in this dazzling and absorbing 2D animation from director Tomm Moore. Based on the real-life Book of Kells, the film tells a fictional story of its creation and preservation during the Viking invasion of Ireland. Young Brendan lives within the walls of The Abbey of Kells under the protection of his uncle, Abbot Cellach (voiced by Brendan Gleeson). After the famed illuminator Aidan of Iona seeks refuge at the abbey, Brendan becomes entranced with the unfinished “Book of Iona” that he has brought with him. Impressed by his enthusiasm, Aidan asks Brendan for his help on the book, requesting that the boy to venture out in to the woods beyond the walls in search of berries to make ink. On his search, Brendan befriends woodland waif Aisling, and what follows is a beautifully told and visually stunning tale of friendship, faith and the power of art.

With images inspired by illustrations from the Book of Kells itself, the film weaves in and out of settings with magical fluidity. Switching from birds’ eye views to close ups of faces, proportions and dimensions are played with to great effect. At times the animation appears flat, as though the characters are moving across a page with only lines to suggest walls, windows, or trees. Other times the screen will split into three, or layers of colour and line will leap over each other like waves, resembling a collage. The beauty of the film is that it knows when to take risks. Each second of action is presented with startling creativity. The scenes within the abbey are brilliantly coloured, with walls of deep blue offset by white shafts of light. Meticulous designs are scribbled on to the stones of the Abbot Cellach’s room, you can just about make out bolts, cogs and wheels, all drawn with obsessive intricacy.

Through well thought out characters and a solid plot, the film excels in both visuals and content. The friendship between Brendan and Aisling is sweet but never twee, and Abbot Cellach’s flaws and punishments never see him step in to the role of “baddie”, but instead only emphasise his insecurities. Aidan of Iona is delightfully eccentric; with white hair and an expressive face he is a beacon of goodwill. And his cat Pangur Ban is delightfully aloof in amongst all the raucous, beautifully drawn with a little crossed button nose and wide green eyes. One of the most magical segments of animation sees Aisling transforming the cat into spirit form, sending him off on a secret errand whilst singing a tune in Irish Gaelic.

Involving danger and death as well as happiness, The Secret of Kells is exceptional in its ability to balance heaviness and light-heartedness. Dealing with material steeped in tradition and freighted with religious resonances, it never preaches morals, but instead salvages simple truths for reflection. In the midst of chaos, there will always be companionship and loyalty, and love and sacrifice, and these qualities exist in all walks of life regardless of religious conviction.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★★

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is just pure craziness. Bright, fast-paced and absurd, it’s packed full of “blink and you’ll miss it” gags. The story follows Flint Lockwood, a spirited young inventor and resident of Swallow Falls, as he attempts to impress the town’s people with his new invention: the FLDSMDFR (yes I did type that correctly). It’s a machine that can turn water in to food, and after Flint loses control over it and sends it hurtling up in to the clouds, it begins sending down cheese burgers from the sky like rain. The mayor of Swallow Falls realises the potential of this phenomenon and decides to make it the town’s new ‘attraction’. Flint struggles to meet the greedy demands of the residents who ask him to make new foods fall with each passing day, and eventually the machine overheats and malfunctions. What ensues is complete and utter madness, with mutated hot dogs and monster meatballs threatening the destruction of the entire world.

Confused? That’s not even the half of it. Other characters include a kooky weather intern called Sam, Flint’s hairy father (who is literally a walking monobrow and moustache), his pet monkey Steve (who can talk via a ‘monkey-thought-translator’), Earl the over-enthusiastic police officer, Brent the man-baby, and Manny the Guatemalan camera man. With more energy than a child overdosing on candy, the film is non-stop action and laughs from start to finish. What separates this from your average children’s animation, though, is its surprisingly fresh sense of humour. At one point, Flint’s father stands in front of a clothes store, where in the windows are black and white adverts showing topless men wearing bibs in the style of Calvin Klein underwear. It’s little details such as this that save the film from being a bore. The script is intelligent, sharp witted, and quick to make fun of itself. Never too serious, but then again never too dangerous, the film can at times seem a little desperate to impress, but is entertaining nonetheless.

At points verging on the bizarre (there is a scene in which “Baby” Brent gets swallowed whole by a walking, man-size roast chicken, only to end up controlling it from the inside…), Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is as loony as its title suggests. And that is my only criticism, that it sacrifices depth in an attempt to appear postmodern and wacky. Whenever the main characters were in danger, I just couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to them, as the threat never seemed real or serious enough. A truly exceptional children’s animation can successfully involve happiness and sadness, and although this film was hilarious, it didn’t have the emotional range of some of the more impressive films from this genre.

FINAL VERDICT: ★★★1/2