Monday, 25 February 2013

"And the Academy Award goes to…"

Last night saw the 85th Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre (formerly Kodak Theatre) in Los Angeles. A night that most Oscar viewers would consider mixed, but there were a few surprises and a lot of winners that many will have predicted.





Anne Hathaway scooped Best Supporting Actress for her role as Fantine in the epic musical Les Misérables. In one of the few highlights of the evening, Anne was joined by the likes of Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried for a rousing live medley of songs from the musical.

Lincoln's Daniel Day-Lewis picked up the Best Actor gong, making Oscars history by winning the best actor prize for a third time. He previously won best actor for My Left Foot (1990) and There Will Be Blood (2008). It's also worth noting that he has starred in just six films over the past fifteen years.

Jennifer Lawrence won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role as a young widow in Silver Linings Playbook alongside fellow nominee Bradley Cooper.

Christoph Waltz took home another Best Supporting Actor trophy for his brilliant turn as Dr. King Schultz in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. A film that also saw Tarantino take home the award for Best Original Screenplay.

Michael Haneke was the predictable champ in the Foreign Film category.

More unexpectedly, Ang Lee won Best Director for The Life Of Pi. An award many considered would go to Steven Speilberg for Lincoln.

There was also a rare tie in the Sound Editing Category between Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall.

Brave gave Pixar yet another Oscar win in a year where the Best Animated Feature category was fairly wide open.

Adele struggled through tears to thank the Bond producers and her co-writer Paul Epworth who collected the Oscar for Best Original Song alongside her.

It was also great to see the award for Best Animated Short go to the fabulous Paperman, as feaured on this very blog last month.

Hollywood gave it's top honour to Ben Affleck's Tehran hostage thriller Argo, which took the prize for Best Film, presented by the First Lady Michelle Obama.

Backstage, Affleck described how surreal it was when he heard her say the word 'Argo'.

"I was sort of hallucinating when that was happening," he explained. "In the course of a hallucination it doesn't seem that odd. 'Oh look, a purple elephant. Oh look, Michelle Obama'."

The full list of nominees and winners are below.

Best Picture
Argo
Amour
Django Unchained
Les Misérables
Life Of Pi
Lincoln
Zero Dark Thirty
Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Silver Linings Playbook

Best Director
Life Of Pi - Ang Lee
Lincoln - Steven Spielberg
Amour - Michael Haneke
Silver Linings Playbook - David O. Russell
Beasts Of The Southern Wild - Benh Zeitlin

Best Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
Denzel Washington - Flight
Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
Hugh Jackman - Les Misérables
Joaquin Phoenix - The Master

Best Supporting Actor
Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained
Alan Arkin - Argo
Robert De Niro - Silver Linings Playbook
Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln

Best Actress
Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
Emmanuelle Riva – Amour
Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Quvenzhané Wallis - Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Naomi Watts - The Impossible

Best Supporting Actress
Anne Hathaway - Les Misérables
Amy Adams - The Master
Helen Hunt - The Sessions
Sally Field - Lincoln
Jacki Weaver - Silver Linings Playbook

Best Animated Film
Brave
Frankenweenie
ParaNorman
The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists
Wreck-it-Ralph

Best Adapted Screenplay
Chris Terrio - Argo
Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin - Beasts Of The Southern Wild
David Magee - Life Of Pi
Tony Kushner - Lincoln
David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook

Best Original Screenplay
Quentin Tarantino - Django Unchained
Michael Haneke - Amour
Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola - Moonrise Kingdom
Mark Boal - Zero Dark Thirty
John Gatins - Flight

Cinematography
Life Of Pi - Claudio Miranda
Anna Karenina - Seamus McGarvey
Django Unchained - Robert Richardson
Lincoln - Janusz Kaminski
Skyfall - Roger Deakins

Costume Design
Anna Karenina - Jacqueline Durran
Les Misérables - Paco Delgado
Lincoln - Joanna Johnston
Mirror Mirror - Eiko Ishioka
Snow White And The Huntsman - Colleen Atwood

Best Documentary Feature
Searching For Sugar Man
5 Broken Cameras
The Gatekeepers
How To Survive A Plague
The Invisible War

Best Documentary Short
Inocente
Kings Point
Mondays At Racine
Open Heart
Redemption

Best Film Editing
Argo - William Goldenberg
Life Of Pi - Tim Squyres
Zero Dark Thirty - Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg
Lincoln - Michael Kahn
Silver Linings Playbook - Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers

Best Foreign Language Film
Amour - Austria
Kon-Tiki - Norway
No - Chile
A Royal Affair - Denmark
War Witch - Canada

Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Les Misérables - Lisa Westcott, Julie Dartnell
Hitchcock - Julie Hewett, Martin Samuel, Howard Berger
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Peter Swords King, Richard Taylor, Rick Findlater

Best Original Score
Life Of Pi - Mychael Danna
Anna Karenina - Dario Marianelli
Argo - Alexandre Desplat
Lincoln - John Williams
Skyfall - Thomas Newman

Best Original Song
'Skyfall' from Skyfall
'Before My Time' from Chasing Ice
'Everybody Needs A Best Friend' from Ted
'Pi's Lullaby' from Life Of Pi
'Suddenly' from Les Miserables

Best Production Design
Lincoln
Anna Karenina
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Les Miserables
Life Of Pi

Best Animated Short
Paperman
Adam and Dog
Fresh Guacamole
Head Over Heels
Maggie Simpson In "The Longest Daycare"

Best Live Short Film
Curfew
Asad
Buzkashi Boys
Death Of A Shadow
Henry

Best Sound Editing
Zero Dark Thirty & Skyfall
Argo
Django Unchained
Life Of Pi

Best Sound Mixing
Les Misérables
Argo
Life Of Pi
Lincoln
Skyfall

Best Visual Effects
Life Of Pi
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Marvel Avengers Assemble
Prometheus
Snow White And The Huntsman


Sunday, 24 February 2013

"This is the best bad plan we have, sir!"

Tonight sees the movie world's biggest night of the year with the 85th Academy Awards taking place at the Dolby Theatre (formerly Kodak Theatre) in Los Angeles. As the red carpet is rolled out and the Oscars are polished, one film hoping to take away a well deserved gong is Ben Afflecks brilliant espionage thriller Argo.

Affleck's impressive directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone (2007), had already earned approving nods across press-screening rooms and multiplexes. But neither that nor his follow-up, The Town (2010) necessarily proved an aptitude for nailing international period dramas. Yet here we are. You can imagine a crooked smile springing on that square jaw of his as he pored over newcomer Chris Terrio's snappy script and clocked the zinger, "You could teach a rhesus monkey to be a director in a day."





Hollywood has always been partial to a good old spy yarn, especially since the post-Watergate 1970s heyday. It also enjoys taking sideways glances at its own lurid reflection. Robert Altman's The Player (1992), the Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro starrer Wag The Dog (1997) and satirical comedy State And Main (2000) are all prime examples. So, when the CIA declassified the relevant documents to this stranger then fiction case in 1997, revealing the real reason why a certain Star Wars rip-off never got the green light, a cinematic retelling was surely inevitable.

On November 4 1979, a mob of Ayatollah-supporting militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in retaliation for sheltering the recently deposed Shah. More than 50 of the embassy staff were taken hostage, but six managed to escape and hid in the home of the Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). With the escapees' situation being kept secret, the US State Department begins to explore options for their exfiltration from Iran. Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck), a CIA specialist brought in as consultant, criticises their proposals. At a loss for an alternative, he finds inspiration whilst watching Battle for the Planet of the Apes with his son, he plans to create a cover story where the escapees are Canadian filmmakers, scouting 'exotic' locations in Iran for a fictional science fiction movie.

Affleck's Mendez and his supervisor Jack O'Donnell (Bryan Cranston) contact John Chambers (John Goodman), the make-up artist who won an Oscar for his work on Planet of the Apes and who had previously crafted disguises for the CIA. Chambers in turn puts them in touch with the fictional film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin). Together they set up a fake film studio and successfully establish the pretence of developing Argo, a science fiction space opera in the style of Star Wars, providing credibility to their incredible cover story.

This Hollywood segment must have appealed to Affleck and George Clooney (Clooney had been attached as director before taking a back seat as Executive Producer), as much for its outcome as for its breezy, self-deprecatory tone. This was a rare occasion where a movie helped save the day for real, and where its success went entirely unnoticed.

Should Affleck have given himself the 'hero' role of Company man Tony Mendez? Arguably yes. Despite ethnic authenticity (the real Mendez is of Mexican ancestry) it's hard to begrudge him a roll that is mostly a thankless one. Hunched, unshaven and bleary-eyed, here is a man who wakes up in the morning fully clothed and surrounded by empty Chinese food cartons. He has no big bombastic speech moment, despite his earnest conviction that the 'Hollywood option' is the best he has on offer. He simply moves quietly around the story’s dramedic triangle.

At one corner are the Tinseltown antics of Arkin and Goodman. At the other, the CIA offices headed up by Bryan Cranston (Little Miss Sunshine, Malcolm in the Middle, Drive) as Mendez' boss, who gets all the best lines not spoken by Arkin. "This is the best bad plan we have, sir!" is one of the films finest. And then there is the sharpest vertex, involving the six American officials holed up at the Canadian diplomat's residence. Their journey takes them from narrowly escaping their embassy’s fall to having to swallow Mendez' outlandish plan. A plan which involves each of them pretending to be a the department head of a non-existent B movie, simply visiting Iran for a location recce.

It's here where we find possibly the film's strongest performance, delivered by Scoot McNairy (Monsters, Killing Them Softly), half-buried beneath bottle-glass specs and thick Ned Flanders moustache. The CIA had predicted that his older colleague Bob Anders (Tate Donovan) would assume leadership of the group, but in fact it's McNairy's previously unassuming Joe Stafford who exhibits the most mettle under these nerve-shredding circumstances. When Mendez lays out his crazy scheme, it is Stafford who balks at the idea. In any other hands this might have come off like the twitchy doubter of an Irwin Allen disaster movie. But McNairy and Affleck ensure that during their confrontations, it is with Stafford where the sympathies lie. After all, he's not wrong. The plan was nuts. He is certainly the clearest thinking and most emotionally honest character here.

Argo is really a deft series of balancing acts. One sequence begins with a ludicrous public casting call, attended by various Hollywood wannabes in an assortment of outrageous sparkly space wear. These low-budget Threepios and Barbarellas launch into a script reading while champagne flutes clink and cameras flash. Affleck intercuts this with a chilling scene of tied up American hostages being hustled into a dank basement with sacks over their heads, only to be treated to a mock execution by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Their knees buckling as the rifle hammers dully snap down. In essence, everyone is putting on a show. The CIA, in creating a fake movie junket. Hollywood, because ultimately that is its very business. And the Khomeini-supporting Iranians, proving to a decadent world that they are not to be taken lightly.

It's this theme that pulls the film neatly together and gives it thrilling impetus when it could so easily have stalled. The truth is, there wasn't a particularly dramatic conclusion to the real events, but writer Terrio and Affleck embellish the facts sensitively and effectively. Amongst these was giving McNairy his glory moment as he hastily tries to pitch Argo, complete with storyboards (in reality produced by comic book legend Jack Kirby), to a gun-toting Iranian guard. Elsewhere, the usual tension-ramping techniques are applied judiciously. For example, when the terrified six suffer a tour of Tehran's bazaar in their flimsy filmmaker guises (Rory Cochrane's faux-cinematographer looking through a viewfinder the wrong way) amid an increasingly volatile crowd. Or when the irritating stop-start of film production has potentially fatal consequences.

As Cranston's character notes, there will be no applause for Mendez if his Escape From Tehran is a success. But there will be for Affleck whose ovations will be thoroughly deserved. A man now shaping up to be one of America’s smartest mainstream dramatic directors.





Monday, 18 February 2013

Richard Briers: The Good Life star dies aged 79

Actor Richard Briers, best known for starring in the popular BBC sitcom The Good Life, has died at the age of 79 after a five-year struggle with emphysema. 

Briers had been battling the serious lung condition for several years and died peacefully at his London home on Sunday.

His agent Christopher Farrar said, "Richard was a wonderful man, a consummate professional and an absolute joy to work alongside. Following his recent discussion of his battle with emphysema, I know he was incredibly touched by the strength of support expressed by friends and the public. He has a unique and special place in the hearts of so many. He will be greatly missed. Our thoughts and deepest sympathy go to his family at this sad time."





Briers was born in London on 14 January, 1934 and was inspired to be an actor by his mother, a music and drama teacher.

He trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and won a scholarship to the Liverpool Playhouse in 1956. Two years later he made his first West End appearance in Gilt And Gingerbread.

His big screen career began with British features Bottoms Up (1960), Murder She Said (1961), The Girl On The Boat and A Matter of Who (both 1962) and the multi-national The VIPs (1963), followed by Raquel Welch's spy spoof Fathom (1967).

But it was for the 1970s BBC sitcom The Good Life that perhaps Briers will be best known. Despite his dislike for the character Tom Good. In the series, Briers and Felicity Kendal played a married suburban couple attempting a self-sufficient lifestyle.

Actress Penelope Keith, who played the snobbish neighbour Margo Leadbetter in The Good Life, said the actor's death was "an enormous loss".

"I look back with enormous affection and love for Dickie. He was the most talented of actors, always self-deprecating. I learnt an awful lot from him during our time on The Good Life," said Keith. "He was a wonderful mentor, tutor and teacher although that would suggest he imposed himself on you, which he didn't. He was always courteous and he would speak to the crew - which was not always that common. And he was always nervous. It was the most enjoyable time - when I think of The Good Life, I smile."

Briers had also starred in shows such as Marriage Lines, Ever Decreasing Circles, Monarch Of The Glen plus a role in Doctor Who and Torchwood.

He appeared in many films, most recently in British horror comedy Cockneys Versus Zombies, plus a cameo role in Run For Your Wife, based on Ray Cooney's 1980s stage farce.

Briers was also much loved for his narration of the 1970s children's cartoon series Roobarb And Custard, as well as lending his voice to the character of Fiver in the animated feature Watership Down (1978).

After a long career in popular television, Briers joined Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company in 1987 and his career moved on to major classical roles. After playing Malvolio, Briers took on the acting challenge of King Lear, followed by the title role in Uncle Vanya and Menenius in Coriolanus.

On film Branagh cast him as Bardolph in Henry V (1989), as Stephen Fry's father in the comedy Peter's Friends (1992), Don Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and the blind grandfather - playing opposite Robert De Niro's creature in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994).

Sir Kenneth said, "He was a national treasure, a great actor and a wonderful man. He was greatly loved and he will be deeply missed."

Stephen Fry tweeted: "How sad. He was the most adorable and funny man imaginable."

Our thoughts go out to his friends and family.

Monday, 11 February 2013

"And the BAFTA goes to..."

The beards were out in force last night as a fuzzy-faced Stephen Fry hosted the 2013 British Academy Film Awards at London's rain-drenched Royal Opera House. But even Mother Natures best efforts couldn't dampen the spirits of the equally hirsute Ben Affleck and the Argo team as they took Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing.

The biggest winner though was Les Miserables, which took four awards for Supporting Actress, Production Design, Sound and Make-Up & Hair. Skyfall took two awards with Outstanding British Film and Original Music, while Django Unchained took Best Supporting Actor for the excellent Christoph Waltz and for Quentin Tarantino's Original Screenplay.

Unsurprisingly, Daniel Day-Lewis took Best Actor for Lincoln with the night's most self-deprecating speech. Poking fun at his own reputation as a method actor saying, “Every time I rise from a chair it spontaneously unleashes a soundtrack of thunderous applause, with a few boos and some drunken hecklers.” While a more surprising result was Emmanuelle Riva who took Best Actress for Amour, a film which also took the gong for Film Not In The English Language.

Life Of Pi took the much deserved awards for Cinematography and Special Visual Effects, whilst David O. Russell took Adapted Screenplay for Silver Linings Playbook. The Animation award went to Pixar's Brave.

Searching For Sugar Man won the Documentary prize, but the Outstanding Debut award went to Bart Layton and Dimitri Doganis for the brilliant The Imposter. The Short Film prize went to Swimmer and Short Animation went to The Making Of Longbird.

So even though Argo won the biggest prizes, it by no means swept the board. This year saw BAFTA honour everything from European art house with Amour, to the high-tech dazzle of Life of Pi and the action of Bond in Skyfall. Considering a classy spy film won the prize, an American president took Leading Actor and an 85 year-old landed Leading Actress is surely testament to the scope of the BAFTAs this year. And that's got to be a good thing.

Highlight of the evening though must surely go to Billy Connolly who, during his presenting speech drawled, "I'm overwhelmed to be here, presenting an unsuspecting stranger with a death mask on a stick."

The full list of nominees and winners are below.

Best Film
Argo
Les Miserables
Life Of Pi
Lincoln
Zero Dark Thirty

Outstanding British Film
Skyfall
Anna Karenina
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Les Miserables
Seven Psychopaths

Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer
Bart Layton (Director), Dimitri Doganis (Producer) - The Imposter
David Morris (Director), Jacqui Morris (Director/Producer) - McCullin
Dexter Fletcher (Director/Writer), Danny King (Writer) - Wild Bill
James Bobin (Director) - The Muppets
Tina Gharavi (Director/Writer) - I Am Nasrine

Film not in the English Language
Amour
Headhunters
The Hunt
Rust And Bone
Untouchable

Documentary
Searching For Sugar Man
The Imposter
Marley
McCullin
West Of Memphis

Animated Film
Brave
Frankenweenie
Paranorman

Director
Ben Affleck - Argo
Michael Haneke - Amour
Quentin Tarantino - Django Unchained
Ang Lee - Life Of Pi
Kathryn Bigelow - Zero Dark Thirty

Original Screenplay
Quentin Tarantino - Django Unchained
Michael Haneke - Amour
Paul Thomas Anderson - The Master
Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola - Moonrise Kingdom
Mark Boal - Zero Dark Thirty

Adapted Screenplay
David O. Russell - Silver Linings Playbook
Chris Terrio - Argo
Lucy Alibar, Benh Zeitlin - Beasts Of The Southern Wild
David Magee - Life Of Pi
Tony Kushner - Lincoln

Leading Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis - Lincoln
Ben Affleck - Argo
Bradley Cooper - Silver Linings Playbook
Hugh Jackman - Les Miserables
Joaquin Phoenix - The Master

Leading Actress
Emmanuelle Riva - Amour
Helen Mirren - Hitchcock
Jennifer Lawrence - Silver Linings Playbook
Jessica Chastain - Zero Dark Thirty
Marion Cotillard - Rust and Bone

Supporting Actor
Christoph Waltz - Django Unchained
Alan Arkin - Argo
Javier Bardem - Skyfall
Philip Seymour Hoffman - The Master
Tommy Lee Jones - Lincoln

Supporting Actress
Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables
Amy Adams - The Master
Helen Hunt - The Sessions
Judi Dench - Skyfall
Sally Field - Lincoln

Original Music
Skyfall - Thomas Newman
Anna Karenina - Dario Marianelli
Argo - Alexandre Desplat
Life Of Pi - Mychael Danna
Lincoln - John Williams

Cinematography
Life Of Pi - Claudio Miranda
Anna Karenina - Seamus McGarvey
Les Miserables - Danny Cohen
Lincoln - Janusz Kaminski
Skyfall - Roger Deakins

Editing
Argo - William Goldenberg
Django Unchained - Fred Raskin
Life Of Pi - Tim Squyres
Skyfall - Stuart Baird
Zero Dark Thirty - Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg

Production Design
Les Miserables - Eve Stewart, Anna Lynch-Robinson
Anna Karenina - Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
Life Of Pi - David Gropman, Anna Pinnock
Lincoln - Rick Carter, Jim Erickson
Skyfall - Dennis Gassner, Anna Pinnock

Costume Design
Anna Karenina - Jacqueline Durran
Great Expectations - Beatrix Aruna Pasztor
Les Miserables - Paco Delgado
LIincoln - Joanna Johnston
Snow White And The Huntsman - Colleen Atwood

Make Up & Hair
Les Miserables - Lisa Westcott
Anna Karenina - Ivana Primorac
Hitchcock - Julie Hewett, Martin Samuel, Howard Berger
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Peter Swords King, Richard Taylor, Rick Findlater
Lincoln - Lois Burwell, Kay Georgiou

Sound
Les Miserables - Simon Hayes, Andy Nelson, Mark Paterson, Jonathan Allen, Lee Walpole, John Warhurst
Django Unchained - Mark Ulano, Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti, Wylie Stateman
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Tony Johnson, Christopher Boyes, Michael Hedges, Michael Semanick, Brent Burge, Chris Ward
Life Of Pi - Drew Kunin, Eugene Gearty, Philip Stockton, Ron Bartlett, D. M. Hemphill
Skyfall - Stuart Wilson, Scott Millan, Greg P. Russell, Per Hallberg, Karen Baker Landers

Special Visual Effects
Life Of Pi - Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan De Boer
The Dark Knight Rises - Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Peter Bebb, Andrew Lockley
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Joe Letteri, Eric Saindon, David Clayton, R. Christopher White
Marvel Avengers Assemble - Nominees TBC
Prometheus - Richard Stammers, Charley Henley, Trevor Wood, Paul Butterworth

Short Animation
The Making Of Longbird
Here To Fall
I’m Fine Thanks

Short Film
Swimmer
The Curse
Good Night
Tumult
The Voorman Problem

The EE Rising Star Award (public vote)
Juno Temple
Elizabeth Olsen
Andrea Riseborough
Suraj Sharma
Alicia Vikander

Sunday, 10 February 2013

"Gentlemen, you had my curiosity. But now you have my attention."

Back in 2007, Quentin Tarantino discussed the idea of creating a 'southern'. A spaghetti western set in the Deep South of the pre-Civil War United States, stating that he wanted to "do movies that deal with America's horrible past with slavery and stuff but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they're genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it's ashamed of it, and other countries don't really deal with because they don't feel they have the right to."

It was whilst writing a book about Sergio Corbucci that Tarantino came up with a way to tell his story.

Corbucci wrote and directed the original Django (whose star Franco Nero has a cameo in Django Unchained) in 1966. Initially unreleased in Britain because of its excessive violence, it is both an imitation of Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and an exaggerated extension of Leone’s spaghetti western style.

After Leone, Sergio Corbucci is considered the genius of the spaghetti western, following Django up with a run of gritty, political greats such as Companeros, A Professional Gun, The Hellbenders and Il Grande Silenzio (The Great Silence). Tarantino even included snow scenes in his Django update as a homage to The Great Silence. The original Django went on to become a box office sensation across Europe, inspiring dozens of official and unofficial sequels, including Django the Bastard and the surreal Django, Kill!. Nero himself returned to the role in 1987 for Django Strikes Again.

Other sources of inspiration include the 1975 film Mandingo (about a slave trained to fight other slaves) and 1973's Charley-One-Eye. At one point Taratino's Django takes Charley-One-Eye as his cover name. And the connections don't stop there. The film Charley-One-Eye starred Richard Roundtree, Richard Roundtree played Shaft and Shaft is the surname of Django's lost wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).

Not to mention the 'Unchained' of the title which comes from Hercules Unchained, the American title of the 1959 Italian epic fantasy film Ercole e la regina di Lidia, which deals with a mythical hero's escape from enslavement to a wicked master.

Much like his World War II flick Inglourious Basterds (2009), Django Unchained sees Tarantino pulling apart this genre iconography and gluing it back together as a postmodern Franken-western.





Tarantino, like his latest protagonist, is a filmmaker unchained. Never exhibiting any agenda beyond revelling in his boundless love of cult cinema and sharing it with an audience whom he never patronises by assuming they know less than he does. So for good (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds) or bad (Four Rooms and arguably Death Proof), his movies always come unhampered by studio fussiness or unvarnished by new trends. For a man credited with tearing up the rulebook, he is staunchly traditional.

So to see him tackle that most traditional of American cinematic genres, the western, makes Django Unchained somewhat an event. Inglourious Basterds was a riot, outrageously rewriting the history of the Second World War. But Django Unchained digs deeper into even more thematically fertile soil.

That said, the film isn't strictly speaking even a western. As Tarantino himself has already said, if anything it should be tagged a southern. Set in 1858, its events predate the Civil War by several years, whereas most Westerns sit between that devastating conflict’s conclusion and the start of the 20th century. Not coincidentally around the time cinema itself was born. The film trailer even featured a poster advertising a $2,000 reward for a train robber called Edwin Porter. Cinephiles among you may recognise the name as it was Porter who directed The Great Train Robbery in 1903, the first ever cinematic western.

So a 'southern' it is. Or rather a 'spaghetti southern'. For while Tarantino has skirted the western's customary historic home, he has still embraced the style of the two Sergios and their contemporary emulators, from the operatic grandeur of the score (Leone's musical collaborator Ennio Morricone also composed a piece for Django Unchained) to the gloriously outrageous scarlet fountains that cascade with every gunfight.

It is also very much a fairy tale. For the first time, Tarantino plays it linear and portrays a single character’s journey. Gone are the signature shifts in perspective, the chopping up of the chronology and pithy chapter separations. This is essentially a straightforward 'rescue the princess' quest. Far from the usual western mythology.

Taratino's script even spells it out. Having freed Django (Jamie Foxx) of his shackles, German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (the brilliant Christoph Waltz) is astonished to learn that, not only is his new partner married, but also his wife (Kerry Washington) is named Broomhilda von Shaft. In one scene Schultz tells Django of her namesake, the Broomhilda of German legend - how she is abducted by a dragon and taken to the top of a mountain where she is surrounded by hellfire. It is then up to the hero Siegfried to make the perilous journey to rescue her. Django, it would seem, is "a real, live Siegfried" with his own hellfire to contend with and a dragon to battle.

On the subject of which, one of Django Unchained's most exquisite pleasures is Leonardo DiCaprio's (Inception, Revolutionary Road, The Departed) deliciously villainous Calvin Candie, the owner of grand plantation Candie Land. He may not breathe fire so much as hot air. When considering DiCaprio for the role, Tarantino envisaged Candie as a "petulant boy emperor". It is a role DiCaprio plays to hateful perfection. A rapacious, spiteful bully, vain and prone to flattery, whose civility is merely the froth bobbing on top of darker, poisonous waters. There is always a lurking threat of violence when he is on screen, something Tarantino plays on during a dinner table sequence which comes close to matching the German bar scene in Inglourious Basterds.

DiCaprio forms a superbly evil double act with Samuel L. Jackson (Avengers Assemble, Black Snake Moan, Pulp Fiction) as Stephen, the head house-slave. White-haired and rickety, eyes bulging in disgust at the idea of a "nigger" (a word some commentators have criticised the film for it's heavy usage of) being allowed to "stay in the big house". Waltz is also excellent, as accomplished playing a hero for Tarantino as he was as the villainous Hans Landa in Basterds. Despite being at the opposite end of the moral spectrum, Dr. King is just as brilliantly verbose.

Sadly, Jamie Foxx (The Soloist, Jarhead, Ray) feels somewhat flat in contrast. As Django he certainly looks the part and carries the physical presence you would expect. Yet he never feels entirely right as the gritty, gunslinging hero. Tarantino had originally offered the role to Will Smith and you can't help thinking he would have been better suited to the swagger of Django’s terse deliveries. Instead "I like the way you die, boy," sounds more like a compliment and less a vengeful put-down.

There are other problems too. Tarantino's penchant for black comedy and hyperreal, often cartoonish violence goes against his bold decision to depict the horrors of slavery head on. Scenes of lashings and pugilistic Mandingo fights, despite being utterly relevant to Django's story, don't sit comfortably next to the more classic Tarantino elements.

This is clearly a film that's been played out over and over in its creator's head since inception – hence the cameos, the hat tips and the relaxed running time. Ultimately you get the sense that he's not trying to address anything in particular, so much as spend time in his own chapter of film history.

With a result this vivid though, who can blame him?