Django Unchained and other cinema reviews

Never trust the buzz. Weeks before seeing Django Unchained I was seized by a colleague with blazing eyes who had seen a preview. “Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction!” he raved. Wow. Last week the film hit the Oscars shortlist in multiple categories. Wow again. Finally, this week, I see it myself. Third but different wow. This my peers and the industry prize-givers think is prime Quentin? This piece of have-it-all-ways hokum? This off-world revisionist western with ideas a few light years above its mental space station?

Tarantino’s virtue, we know, is that he stops at nothing. His vice is the same. A 165-minute anti-slavery horse opera with Wagnerian references and Holocaust resonances: why not? With actor Christoph Waltz returning, the redeeming magus of Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained even prospers for 40-odd minutes. Waltz is very funny – sly and spry as he spins shapes from Tarantino’s polysyllabic po-mo dialogue – playing the Austro-American dentist cum bounty hunter who buys the freedom of slave Django (Jamie Foxx) so Django can help him track three high-reward killers.

Like all QT’s films since Pulp Fiction, this one is pulled from the bin marked “cult-trash recycling”. The 1960s Django spaghetti westerns were programme-fillers, lively but lower than Leone in the foodstuffs chain. Inevitable, perhaps, that Tarantino’s grindhouse chops would fasten on them; less inevitable that he would make a film this long, this pompous and – astonishingly – this PC.

Django Unchained is all about how Quentin so hates slavery, and white man’s inhumanity to black man, that he gives his only recently begotten star, Waltz, to lead the charge as an unlikely rogue emancipator, while Foxx’s Afro-American is the inertly iconic, grindingly goody-two-shoes hero. At the end Django gets to blast a few dozen whites off the screen, but by then this Siegfried’s halo and that of his rescued slave-wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) are secure. And plantation owner Leonardo DiCaprio, their persecutor, has gone the way of all chatterhead villains: into the final inferno, taking the best lines – or those not apportioned to Waltz – with him.

Does Tarantino really care about slavery? There are two kinds of white supremacism: the kind that lip service denounces and disowns – the historical actuality of racial persecution – and the kind that lip service subtly, even subconsciously, enthrones, the lavishing on white characters of the eloquence, charisma and brain power denied to the black characters. While Foxx and Washington woodenly spend much of the two-and-three-quarter hours incarnating the “dumb niggers” so often referenced in the dialogue, DiCaprio’s villain and Waltz’s bounty hunter run off giggling with the film’s treasures.

It is a little creepy too – or is it meant to be ironic? – that Waltz is an Austrian who in QT’s last film played a Nazi, while DiCaprio’s slave-master twice introduces Holocaust echoes: once slicing a dead slave’s skull with phrenological zeal to pinpoint putative racial characteristics, another time musing “Why don’t they kill us?”, as the world once mused on the Jews’ failure to rise up in the camps. Those wicked (but fun) Nazis who were so nasty (but fun) in Inglourious Basterds are, it seems, the ghost templates here too. Hitler is never at rest; even before he was born.

In the gospel of Django Unchained the white ruling classes still have all the questions, all the answers and the talent to doodle and brainstorm with both. The blacks dwell dumbly upon the earth, house martyrs of our home planet, humans who – in films like this – are as reproachful-eyed, as unevolved, as lovable (sometimes) and as dumbly, lambently virtuous as pet dogs.

The Sessions
is a plea for sympathy which becomes a no-plea-needed human drama. John Winter Kills Hawkes plays the polio victim and author Mark O’Brien, whose autobiographical magazine story inspired writer-director Ben Lewin (himself polio-stricken from childhood). The paralysed O’Brien told of his attempts – funny, poignant, embarrassing, intimate, heroic – to lose his virginity at age 38, aided by a kindly sex surrogate.

To say it “helps” that the woman is played by Helen Hunt is an understatement. Hunt is a prodigy. No other actress could have brought such easeful transparency, such a glow of givingness, such heedlessness of glamour each time she strips naked. In style The Sessions is no better than good teledrama. Lewin puts the camera wherever it gets in no one’s way, male-nursing the story through as comfortable a time as can be managed. It is Hawkes and Hunt who do the transcending, breathing life, humour and quiet passion into what could have been that most self-righteous and circumscribed of screen undertakings: a lesson in caring.

“Le style, c’est l’homme,” say the French. In which case director Michael Winterbottom is less a man than a multitasking movie mutant, with styles as plural as his projects. Everyday is Winterbottom the low-budget digital video realist, as distinct from the noir Expressionist of The Killer Inside Me or the jewelled miniaturist of Trishna.

“Everyday” pretty much sums up this evangelical hymn to the humdrum, painstakingly quotidian, even though shot over five years, in its diary-ish picture of a wife (Shirley Henderson) and four growing kids “doing time” in their own way – playing in woods, she having a brief affair, gran coming to stay – while husband/dad (John Simm) is banged up. Michael Nyman’s synthesised music gives us pastoral overload, the interludes of bucolic lyricism as if Delius is revisiting Earth on a conjugal visit, while Winterbottom’s script with Laurence Coriat (Genoa, Wonderland) stammers out the staccato of ordinary lives. It’s often affecting; sometimes gently luminous; finally ever so slightly “so what?”

The distribution company Dogwoof usually gives us political-agenda documentaries about shale gas, African civil war or evil capitalists dancing on our wallets. Ballroom Dancer is about a strictly come twirling Slav couple, Slavik Kryklyvyy and Anna Melnikova, trying to win world contests while coming apart at the emotional seams. It is totally riveting, like watching Torvill and Dean do Strindberg. It has no apparent political context or subtext. But who knows? Perhaps it is an allegory of the decline and fall of post-Soviet civilisation, set to airs by Tchaikovsky and Co.

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