Just six movies in the past 10 days, as I keep being interrupted by life and the world and stuff.
I can't handle this. At all.
Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen, 1941) - I didn't watch many films as a kid, but Dumbo was my favourite. It was also the third DVD I ever bought (if memory serves), after Once Upon a Time in China II and Three Colours Blue. But I hadn't seen it for perhaps seven or eight years before this evening. And I'd forgotten how desperately sad it is, drawing a lump to the throat around the 20-minute mark and holding it there until its climax. Only Capra has ever made you work as hard, or go through so much, for your happy ending, as Dumbo - a pure innocent, like Bresson's Bathazar - is tormented, patronised and brutalised, on his way to a climactic act of almighty catharsis.
It takes a little while to get going, with some extraneous, somewhat ill-conceived material about the circus and its sentient, breathing train, but every scene featuring the impossibly cute, stunningly expressive title character - a big-eyed little elephant with gargantuan ears - is pure magic, whether pairing him with his protective mother (wonderfully voiced by Disney regular Verna Felton), or the smart-talking Timothy Q. Mouse (veteran character comic Edward Brophy), a self-appointed guardian who takes her place after fate intervenes - and sets the life-changing finale in motion with an extraordinarily powerful plea for compassion.
After the failure of the matchlessly ambitious Pinocchio and Fantasia, Dumbo was intended by Disney as a back-to-basics affair along the lines of Snow White, on that smaller scale and with that slighter running time. The tremendous amount of love, care and attention to detail poured into it, though, remains staggering, from the incomparable opening with its formation of storks delivering newborn babies to be excitedly unwrapped by their parents, past the adorable sequence with Dumbo in the bath, through that terrifying set-piece that sits him atop a burning edifice, via the gobsmacking "pink elephants" set-piece and showstopping When I See an Elephant Fly number to a punch-the-air finale of uncommon brilliance (with a little tacked-on wish-fulfilment).
The film is simply conceived and unashamedly episodic, but hand-drawn with a rich and vivid flair, and capable of moving me more deeply than just about any movie I've ever seen. For all the surrealistic brilliance of those pink elephants - the most trippy, out-there and perhaps original thing Disney has ever done - my favourite passage (perhaps in all of cinema) is the breathtakingly beautiful, utterly sincere scene of Dumbo and his mum set to Baby Mine, which begins with them touching trunks through a cage window and ends with a wrenching farewell. It's the first thing that comes to mind whenever I think of the film: if the pink elephants wow me, then Baby Mine destroys me, and I think it's what makes this Disney's greatest - just pipping Bambi to the crown.
George Lucas once batted away criticisms of his movies' cold aloofness by saying that it's easy to make an audience feel something: you just choke a kitten in front of them. Dumbo's formula isn't complex, and you could argue that it follows that Lucas template - take an obviously adorable hero, make fully sure your audience is in love with him, then make him suffer - but its method of manipulation is so sublime and its story of redemption so timeless that it's very difficult to fault. Well, except for the train being alive - that's stupid. (4)
Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012)
I thought I was destined to dislike Django Unchained - or at least leave disappointed. I still remember the visceral thrill of seeing Kill Bill: Vol 1 on the opening night, being knocked sideways by this full-frontal assault on the senses, gazing up at the mammoth screen in rapt enthralment, perched on the edge of the only spare seat in the house, right on the end of the front row. I saw the film again a couple of weeks later, and thought: "Well, that didn't hold up particularly well", but the energy and invention of it all made one thing clear: a Tarantino movie is an event movie, more than any summer blockbuster is ever going to be. And whatever he does, for however long he does it, I'm going to watch it.
But that brings me to the first problem: Kill Bill: Vol 1 is the only good film that Tarantino has made since Pulp Fiction, and it isn't even that good. Jackie Brown was a messy, "mature" movie that looked and sounded suspiciously like its writer was just flailing around, with nothing left to say after whacking out two instant classics in three years. Kill Bill: Vol 2 had its moments, but felt more like a collection of interesting deleted scenes than a film. InjUriOUWs Ba$turdz was just completely pedestrian, aside from Waltz's exceptional performance and that one nerve-shredding sequence in a bar. And then there is Death Proof. The reason I haven't seen Django until now is because I go to the cinema with Mrs Rick, and she has refused to watch any Tarantino films since we saw Death Proof. This seems entirely reasonable, since Death Proof is probably the worst movie of the last 10 years.
As if to further ensure my hostility, Tarantino then started laying into John Ford, my favourite movie director, and the inventor of the modern Western, in his idiotic publicity interviews for Django. "I hate John Ford", he said, before going on to imply that Ford and his films were racist. Sorry, Quentin, but I'm shutting your butt down. You made a film condemning racism. In 2012. For hipsters. Ford did it in 1960. At the peak of the Civil Rights struggle. For an audience half-comprised or rednecks and racists. His film took their prejudices, threw them up on screen and shot them to pieces. That movie was Sergeant Rutledge, and it's one of the bravest and most progressive movies ever made by a mainstream American filmmaker. Admittedly Ford cast the black star, Woody Strode, as a Chinaman five years later, but really we're nitpicking.
So I suppose I approached Django with my enthusiasm severely compromised: that long-held fantasy of a Tarantino film that would pick me up and sling me at the wall tempered by the reality of his last few, and a lingering resentment that his tiresome posturing now involves telling his legions of fans to ignore The Great American Director. The thing is, though, that Django’s good. Like, really good. Midnight in Paris good. It’s a film that sees an artist awakening, rising from a long creative slump. It’s a movie that stands on its own two feet, without the need for post-modern pastiche that colours his worst films. The insertion of that “mandingo” fight sequence (sadly not a man fighting a dingo, though there is something similar to that elsewhere) seems cribbed from Jules Dassin’s Night and the City, but otherwise this is (mostly) all his own work. And it all feels so effortless, just as Tarantino’s recent films seemed so mannered and forced.
As you’ll probably be aware, as you saw it ages ago, the story deals with Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx), a slave-turned-bounty-hunter who travels with his German mentor (Christoph Waltz) to a Southern plantation run by a flamboyant, eye-linered slave owner (Leonardo DiCaprio) - the only man who takes handshakes more seriously than Mark Hughes - in the hope of freeing his wife (Kerry Washington). Just as Inquisitive Batmen was a Jewish revenge movie, so this is an African-American one – made by a man who appears to be under the mistaken impression that he is actually black. It reminds me a little of that line about Life Is Beautiful: "Clowning does not merely seem an inappropriate response to the realities of a concentration camp, but the wrong response". Levity and gunplay may be the wrong response to the realities of slavery, but Django's a hell of a lot of fun.
Though the film isn’t explicitly split into chapters like the first Kill Bill, it still comprises three distinct sections. The first, dealing with Django’s transformation, is light-hearted, surprising and dizzyingly fun. The second, taking place in and around the rather wonderfully-named “Candyland”, is hysterically intense, a fusion of Tarantino and Tennessee Williams: incredibly and brilliantly talky, full of ingenious ideas and colourful dialogue, densely plotted, polemical and hideous, enveloping you in its sickening, seductive world. Its masterstroke is dipping into phrenology, the intriguing and appallingly offensive "medical" basis for racism. And the final passage – power-hosing the remnants of that moral swamp from your body, and lasting barely 35 minutes – is pure, cartoonish Blaxploitation, aside from containing a couple of those beautiful quiet moments that QT can do so well, when he’s so inclined. The clichéd shot of the slave smiling at the departing figure of Django is nevertheless rousing, while the last scene between Foxx and Waltz is the most affecting in a Tarantino movie since Mr Orange said he was sorry. The dynamic of the characters is also refreshing - yes Django needs an in with "civilised" society in the context of the times, but Tarantino avoids the old Cry Freedom trap by a mile; there's no way the hero of his film is going to be the white guy, or that the only way we'll be asked to empathise with the plight of black people is through the eyes of a Caucasian protagonist.
All of Tarantino’s films have the same three basic ingredients: talking, violence and suspense. Here, the "N-word"-heavy dialogue is largely sensational (a little mention for the rather lovely: "On the off chance there are any astronomy aficionados amongst you, the North Star is that one"), the bloodletting is superbly choreographed and much of the drama is so taut that is seems to be fraying before your eyes. Tarantino is helped by a superb ensemble: Foxx is a persuasive hero and DiCaprio is better and more intriguing than he has been in years – he never quite became the actor he seemed destined to in the mid-‘90s – though the standout is Waltz, one of the director’s greatest discoveries. As the charming, erudite and brilliant Dr Schultz, a former dentist now in the corpses-for-cash business, he’s laid-back and playful, but also enigmatic, until that sense of rage at the injustices of the world begins to broil beneath his avuncular façade. There’s something exalting, enthralling, even hypnotic about his performance – and indeed about the giant, quivering “tooth” he keeps on the top of his van.
As usual, Tarantino has assembled a bizarre supporting cast, which this time includes Samuel L. Jackson as a virulent “Uncle Tom” figure, Jonah Hill as a Klansman, Don Johnson as a racist, and the likes of James Russo, Russ Tamblyn and Bruce Dern! The director’s weak spot in terms of casting (and in terms of general filmmaking) is that he always feel compelled – perhaps through pity – to include roles for this hopeless Quentin Tarantino guy, who’s the worst actor I’ve ever seen. Here he pitches up looking like Randy Quaid and attempting an Australian accent. It isn’t pretty. Or good.
As ever, the film comes with the soundtrack to your next two months – the one thing Tarantino never gets wrong – and includes Jim Croce’s I Got a Name, a rather wonderful song which I first came across in the 2005 film Invincible, and which accompanies the unveiling of Django and Schultz’s two-man dream team. Their adventures out West actually get little screen-time, a fascinating decision that recalls the absent robbery in Reservoir Dogs, and reminded me of an interview with Tarantino from the early 1990s in which he explained that what you didn’t see was often crucial – a lesson he’d learned from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
Tarantino’s direction has seemed to falter in recent years, being geared towards people with the world’s shortest attention span (Kill Bill: Vol 2), those with limitless patience who really like fire and blood (UpROARious P0th3ads), or sado-masochists (Death Proof). Here he’s absolutely on top form, delivering the requisite thrills through a fusion of pyrotechnics and restraint that he hasn’t had in check since Pulp Fiction. And this is, unquestionably, his best film since Pulp Fiction: a masterful, genre-bending movie that’s full of superb exchanges and exceptional individual scenes, but also works as a compelling and consummately confident whole. It loses half a star for some rare wrong moves (castration? Yawn, even if it leads to a fun Jackson monologue), Quentin's performance and the dancing horse. (3.5)
CINEMA: Despicable Me 2 3D (Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, 2013) - Retired supervillain Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) has settled down with his three adopted daughters and his legion of Minions, and is branching out into the exciting world of jams and jellies. Then, out of the blue, a secret organisation fighting the planet's greatest (and most ridiculous) criminals gets in touch - asking him to go deep undercover at a shopping mall, where he's joined by a feisty ginger agent (Kristen Wiig) who seems preferable to the women he's been trying not to date. This sequel to one of the best animated movies of the past few years - not in the same league as Up and Cloudy, but comfortably in that second tier - is one of those follow-ups that in dramatic terms has no real reason to exist, but in terms of entertainment is very welcome all the same. Perhaps as a result, the story is weaker and slighter - without the strong emotional hook we got last time around - the new characters are rather dull (well, except for that one absolute beauty of a scene in which the world's most macho villain rides a shark into a volcano) and there are a couple of fart gags that seem a little laboured. Thank goodness, then, that it's so uproariously, outrageously funny, thanks a little to Gru, but mostly to his Minions, whose exuberant silliness, blissful juvenility and endlessly inventive escapades - from magic shows to impressions of their mutant friends - lead to some of the funniest sight gags and sequences I've seen on screen in a long time. Despicable Me 2 doesn't compare to the first film, because its humour and action is serving a story that seems altogether more contrived within the boundaries of its preposterous universe, and the film does sag a little in the middle, but it made me laugh a lot - and that spirited comic imagination is something that shouldn't be underrated. (3)
*VERY MINOR SPOILERS*
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999) - All human life is here, in Jarmusch's existential hitman flick. At a prosaic level, this story of a lone, violent outsider (Forest Whitaker) turning the tables on his cartoonish mob bosses grew from Le Samourai and led to Drive. On a more timeless one, it's a movie about life itself, with a beautiful, humanistic hero who places common moral ground and an adherence to his rigid, rigorous samurai code over superficial ties like age, language and the constraints of late 20th century, inner-city America. Jarmusch's pet theme has always been the similarities that triumph over our differences - but has he ever done it more effectively or movingly than in the friendship between Whitaker and an ice-cream selling immigrant (Isaach De Bankole) who speaks only French? In a way, the movie seems almost unfinished - in need of one last script revision and a final cut - troubled as it is with a rough-and-ready visual and editing style, moments of disjointed storytelling, and some ironic villainy that at times just pushes too far (the Flavor Flav raps are weirdly broad and shallow by Jarmusch's standards). But it's also a startling and brilliant film: its belly laughs and bright, brief action sequences never serving to obscure an unforgettable undercurrent of wistful melancholia (those poor pigeons - I only just got over On the Waterfront), quiet humanism and tranquil nobility. And as the epitome of all three, the braided, sad-eyed Whitaker gives one of the finest performances of that or any other decade. (3.5)
Cube (Vincenzo Natali, 1998) - I don't watch many horror films, but Owen is a bit of a buff, so I asked him to recommend me four of the best - the only rule: no slasher movies. Cube was the first, and it's really good: a taut, tense fusion of horror, thriller and sci-fi that sees a cop, a doctor, a maths whizz, a cynic and a serial prison escapee trying to climb - and think - their way out of a series of cube-shaped rooms, many of them booby-trapped. The acting's pure B-movie standard, but that's part of its charm, while the originality of the concept, an atmosphere akin to Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 and a succession of stomach-churning, claustrophobic sequences - replete with nasty surprises - make it something of a minor classic. There's the odd lull, daft line or obvious revelation - and the maths whizz is pretty bad at maths - but also a heady combination of shifting sympathies, effective character drama and suspenseful action that makes it something of a spiritual successor to those chamber Westerns of the 1950s - just relocated from the sprawling outdoors to a series of dingy, dangerous cages, each 14ft by 14 by 14. (3)
Liar Liar (Tom Shadyac, 1997) - Well, it's not subtle... (2.5)