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Say Yes! to No

Say Yes! to No

In 1973 General Augusto Pinochet led a coup to take power in Chile. While in power he was responsible for the murders of over 3,000 people and the torture of a further 29,000 (figures from Wikipedia). In 1988, under international pressure, he submitted to a national vote, asking the people of Chile to vote Yes if they wanted him to continue for another 8 years, or No if they wanted a democratic election to replace him.

While this might seem like an easy decision to make, the people feared both what he might do if they voted against him, and a return to the poverty and breadlines of the communist regimes in place before him. Each side was given 15 minutes of national television a day for 27 days (though the government controlled the TV networks so essentially had the other 23.5 hours too.

No tells the story of the No campaign.

There were 14 small political parties involved in the No campaign and one of the Government’s key hopes was that in-fighting would lead to a confused campaign that would fail to pull in votes. However, early on the No campaign calls in young advertising creative René Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), who slowly manages to steer them on the right course.

The political parties want a campaign based on highlighting the horrors of the Pinochet government but René realises that this might be more intimidating than an enticing reason to vote. He proposes a campaign based around selling to the people a vision of the happiness that Chile can experience if they are freed from Pinochet’s tyranny. The film charts the unfolding campaign and the intimidation tactics employed by the government to try to stop them, while paying due reverence to the atrocities that occurred.

It might not sound like a fun film and it certainly had the potential to be both dry and worthy (see Lincoln for an example), but there is a lightness of touch which mirrors the lightness in René’s work. The film is shot using 30-year-old cameras, with a squarer picture than traditionally used in cinema, and a lot of colour bleed – at times it almost looks like a stereotypical 80s telenovella – but it is all the richer for it. Every period detail is right and there are a few “Hey – it’s the 80s!” comic moments (my favourite being René bringing home his family’s first microwave) which could serve to take you out of the piece but actually draw you in further, adding a warmth to the characters.

This is a very good film indeed, and a good history lesson. The tone, which had the potential to be very dark indeed, is kept light enough while making sure we understand the gravity of the situation and the deeds undertaken in Pinochet’s name. It is a film which deserves to be seen by a much wider audience than it will be, and one that should be sought out on DVD/bluray if you missed it’s short cinematic run.



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A plane flying sideways, probably piloted by a drunk.

Flight tells the story of “Whip” Whitaker (Denzel Washington), a drunk and drug-abusing pilot (the cocaine sobers him up after an all-night bender) who becomes a hero after managing to crash-land the plane he was flying after a small (but clearly significant) piece of it sheers off mid-flight. The opening half-an-hour to 45 minutes are great. We get to see Whip in full partying flow and then see how he goes about recovery. The plane-crash is a thrillingly filmed piece of viscera and is a height the rest of the film can never even consider topping (even if aspects aren’t quite as accurate as they might be).

The rest of the film follows Whip as he first comes off the booze and drugs, then goes back on, bouncing between the two states again and again. There are two films that could have been made – a portrayal of a flawed man facing his demons (or not), or the consideration of the moral dilemna at the heart of the film, that a man illegally doing his job under the influence does something no one else could have done in saving 100 people onboard his plane, how should we deal with praising or condemning him? The film takes the former approach, studying the man and his relationship with alcohol and, unfortunately, is the poorer for it. The film is overlong at 2 hrs 18 minutes and wastes time with sub-plots which go nowhere and fail to add depth to the central character.

[Spoiler alert] Even at the end, where Whip has to make a decision about what direction his life will take, the reason he makes his choice is not really explained or justified. It’s a shame because the film had a great deal of promise, but ultimately underwhelms and, in places, bores.

Oh well.

5/10 (4 stars)

The Sessions

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So another swift(er) review. The Wreck-It Ralph one ran to 500 words in the end anyway. Blimey. Let’s see if we can do this a little quicker. I’ve wasted 27 already. That’s four more….

The Sessions might sound a bit of a tough ask on paper. It’s based on the real life story of Mark O’Brien, a writer and a poet who is also a polio survivor who has to spend around 20 hours a day in an iron lung in order to stay alive. He has no muscular control below the neck. Despite all of this, Mark (John Hawkes) is a charmer and a wit. Because of the results of his illness, Mark requires help with everything, and employs a number of carers to perform those roles. His life changes when he employs a new carer and falls in love with her. Unfortunately she doesn’t reciprocate, but it spurs Mark on to a journey of sexual discovery –something that may have been in the back of his mind but he never imagined he could dream of following through on. Eventually Mark employs a sexual surrogate, Cheryl (Helen Hunt, nominated for an Oscar for the role) to help him reach his desire of not dying a virgin.

The film. written and directed by polio survivor Ben Lewin (who is merely crutch-bound), is nigh on perfect. It’s life-affirming where it could have been mawkish. It’s laced with self-deprecating humour and charm where it could have been self-pitying. It’s paced beautifully and always leaves you wondering what direction it might go next. There’s no template for how this story might play out (and that’s not because it’s a true-life story – biopics have plenty of conventions and this doesn’t play up to them) which makes it all the more enthralling.

It hinges on three wonderful central performances – William H Macy as the priest who is asked plenty of awkward questions by Mark being the third – and I find it difficult to understand why John Hawkes has been overlooked at the Oscars when he puts in such a wonderfully nuanced, sympathetic (though not pathetic) and enriching performance. That said, I also find it difficult to understand why the film has been overlooked elsewhere. Granted the direction and editing do nothing flashy, but it’s not a story that demands that – what they do is allow the actors the chance to come alive on screen, to breathe and to exist – but it’s the writing that perhaps demands the greatest recognition.

Anyway, this is a great start to 2013, clocking in as better than anything in 2012 in my book. Track it down if you can, otherwise get the DVD when it comes out. Essential viewing.

10/10 (4 stars)

(I don’t think the trailer does a great job of selling the film, if only because the music is completely wrong for it – I hadn’t seen the trailer before I saw the film, and I think you would be wise to follow the same course, but, if you have to, the trailer is below)

Does Tarantino Re-Establish Himself at the Top Table with Django Unchained?

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Before we go anywhere else with this review, let me just say that I’m not going to wade in on any of the ‘controversy’ over the depiction of slavery in this film. As a white, middle-class Englishman I don’t really feel I can offer much in the way of a meaningful opinion on the depiction here. Just to say that, firstly, I didn’t have an issue with the depictions within the film and, secondly, that if Jamie Foxx and Samuel L Jackson don’t have an issue with the writing or screen portrayal of such a sensitive matter (and one which they clearly have a genuine investment in, where I don’t), then that’s good enough for me.

Right, now that’s out of the way, let’s talk film. Or, more specifically, story. Quentin Tarantino will always have a special place in film lore for me. His break-out debut, Reservoir Dogs, came out at a time when I was just beginning to get into film in a big way. He managed to energise a medium which, until then, had predominantly existed as a Hollywood-only product. He was outside the mainstream and doing something different. That and Clerks made me think that film-making wasn’t something done by other people but something that could be done by anyone.

I first got hold of a pirate copy of Reservoir Dogs on VHS. There was a buzz about the film but a release date was still months away. The copy was exceedingly fuzzy, but in a way that only increased its charm. When the film made it to the cinema I saw it 4 straight weekends at midnight showings. It really was like nothing I’d ever seen before (though, of course, it was actually recycling many other films to create something new – something that has become a feature of Tarantino’s work).

On the back of seeing it I was inspired to write my own screenplay. And it was terrible, obviously. Like many of the reviews at the time, I concentrated on the dialogue – the scenes referencing pop culture – and the violence without really appreciating the art that was present in the story telling. This was all too obvious in my script. I think that script is long gone now, and I am pretty thankful for that – I wouldn’t want to read it again – I cringe just thinking about some of the things I put in it.

As everyone knows, Reservoir Dogs was followed up by Pulp Fiction. Where Dogs was tight, taut and cheap, Fiction was sprawling and expensive. Dogs felt like a black & white movie, Fiction was glorious technicolor. That’s not to criticise Pulp Fiction, just to say that now Tarantino had a budget he could indulge himself a little more with character and dialogue. The set-up of interlocking stories was always going to produce a more sprawling narrative and Tarantino handled the transitions brilliantly.

Next came Jackie Brown, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch. Leonard had been frequently name-checked when Tarantino was doing the interview rounds with Pulp Fiction and here he took one of Leonard’s novels and turned in something of a masterpiece. It was a great time for Leonard adaptations, with Get Shorty and Out Of Sight also coming around the same time, all imagining the Leonard’s world brilliantly, yet differently. (More recently, the excellent TV series Justified was adapted from a Leonard short story, Fire In The Hole).

Jackie Brown is an example of brilliant and mature story-telling, sensitively examining the life of the title character, a downtrodden black woman working as an air hostess. It was a long film, clocking in at 154 minutes, but it is one of the rare films that deserves that time to fully explore the narrative on offer.

Then came Kill Bill, parts 1 and 2. Originally intended to be one film (and what a film that would have been, what with part 1 being 111 minutes and part 2 136 minutes), this took sprawling to a whole new dimension. There were a lot of ideas here and, in a sign of what was to follow, Tarantino wanted to make sure he explored them all. This is where, for me, the problems begin.

Tarantino tends to love his characters and love the scenes he creates for them. And with good reason – he has created some great characters and he has created some amazing, enthralling, interesting and diverse scenes. However, the more he has fallen in love with the characters and scenes, the more he seems to have taken his eye off the story at the centre of his projects. Kill Bill is a revenge story. The Bride has been wronged by Bill and must take out each of his assassination squad (to whom she used to belong) before finally facing off with Bill himself. With 6 to be killed in a little over 4 hours, this is a sprawling mess. That’s not to say there isn’t brilliance within it – the sequence at the hospital when The Bride wakes from her coma, and the sequence when she breaks out of the coffin buried in the desert are both brilliant – but overall too much time is spent just being in the presence of the characters rather than driving the story forward.

I have not seen Death Proof so will have to skip past that and on to Inglourious Basterds, which includes possibly the greatest scenes that Tarantino has created, along with some of the worst, and which is compiled into an admirable mess, but which could have been sheer brilliance throughout.

The film opens on a dizzying, soaring high, with the interview between the Nazi ‘Jew Hunter’ played by Christoph Waltz and a French dairy farmer, played by Denis Menochet. Waltz believes that Menochet is hiding Jews form the Nazis and is intent on finding them, while being, outwardly, charm personified. It is an incredible scene – something that probably couldn’t be written or directed by anyone else. It is filled with power and tension, and it is evocative of the kind of fear the Nazis may have spread.

Two other scenes stand out – one between Waltz and Melanie Laurent, playing a Jewish girl who escaped the opening sequence while her family were slaughtered, and the other a clandestine meeting in a basement bar between an undercover British operative (Michael Fassbender) and a German agent and film star (Diane Kruger) which dissolves into a shoot-out.

These scenes all display a mastery of both character and narrative tension and it is a shame they are surrounded by scenes which are so incongruous. It’s not that the rest is necessarily bad (though some of it definitely is), but that so much of it seems to exist in a completely different film to those three standout scenes. There is a comic and comic-book tone to much of the movie – not a bad thing in and of itself – which sits entirely at odds with these other scenes. There are character introductions done with voiceover and in a style which is not returned to. There are caricatures of high ranking British and Nazi offices. There are ‘amusing voices’, not least Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine. There’s the stylised violence we’ve come to expect. But none of it fits with what’s gone before or comes after. There are scenes which go nowhere and add nothing and can only have been included because Tarantino loved them so much. It is a proper mess.

The film sits at 153 minutes and what is most frustrating is that there is a potential 100 minute masterpiece in there, were the rest chopped away.

And all of that brings us to Django Unchained. Just as Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds were revenger fantasies, so is Django, and just as the former movies were bloated and stuffed with scenes which go nowhere and caricatures which offer nothing, so is Django. Which is a shame, because, again, there is some great stuff amongst all the chaff.

Again Waltz stars, though this time he is protagonist Dr King Schultz, rather than ant. He is a bounty hunter in what I suppose is the wild west, although its wildness is never really tested. We open on him meeting some slave traders from whom he (rather nonsensically) buys Django. I say nonsensically, as he has just killed one of the traders and leaves the other to be killed by the remaining slaves.

Schultz wants Django because Django can identify 3 men who have bounties on their heads – the Brittle brothers. Over the course of their time together, Schultz grows fond of Django and while he has promised Django his freedom he wants them to keep working together. Django says he wants to get his wife back, Broomhilda, who is owned by someone unknown. Schultz offers to help if they hunt bounties for the winter.

It turns out that Broomhilda is owned by the sadistic Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo Di Caprio, and so the revenge mission begins takes shape.

Ultimately it’s a pretty simple odd-couple story which somehow takes a full 165 minutes to tell, with the vast majority of the problems coming in the second half of the film. I shall try to dissect the film without going into too many spoilers, but you may wish to skip down to the final paragraph for a summary without any further plot details.

Firstly, let’s offer some praise: there are some great scenes, even if none of them can get close to the tension offered in the opening of Inglourious Basterds; Tarantino is just as good at drawing characters as he always has been; and there’s some good dialogue. There’s a fantastic little scene where Schultz offers to buy Django the clothing of his choice – Django can’t believe he gets to choose what he wears. We crash-cut to Django riding a horse in the most outlandish and foppish costume. Unfortunately, the film is not exactly brimming with these moments. That said, given the subject matter, that’s probably wise.

However, there are plenty of misjudgements and missteps.

There are little things which niggle, as when Schultz first outlines his requirements of Django, he says that he knows the area the Brittle brothers are working in but not the plantation so they will have to search far and wide for them. Their first stop, however, unearths their prey. It seems a little. Odd.

Early on in their partnership Django is called upon to fire a rifle. He is a perfect shot. We see him take a few more perfect shots. Then later we a sort-of-montage of him learning to be a sharp-shooter. Admittedly here he is shooting a pistol not a rifle, but even so, it feels like it’s out of order (and unnecessary, considering his first shot in the montage is a bullseye, as are all his others). In fact Django seems to have an uncanny and inherent ability with firearms, which seems odd and is never explained. Normally, even with a superhero, we need to see them fail and learn to master their skills, but Django is somehow above the ranks of superhero here.

There is a sequence where the pair are set upon by a prototype KKK which, amusing though it is, feels out of step tonally with the rest of the film and only serves to slow the narrative thrust. It serves no purpose in the grand scheme of the story – neither the sequence nor the KKK are mentioned again – it appears to only be there to acknowledge the influence of the KKK. That or because Tarantino had some jokes about the poor quality of the holes cut into the bags the members of the group wear over their heads.

These, however, are really minor quibbles. After around 80 minutes we meet Calvin Candie and get stuck in with the denouement. Which takes a further 80 minutes.

I’m going to go through every detail, but the problem again is that every idea has been put into the section. Tarantino (very proud of the authenticity of his portrayal of the horrors of slavery, as his interviews have shown) has made sure that he graphically shows all of the horrors and indignities heaped upon the slaves, from Mandingo fighting to forced servitude in the mines, but he has put all of this in at the expense of the narrative. It doesn’t serve a purpose in the story (except to double underline and highlight exactly how bad the slavers were). Tarantino might defend himself by talking about how this is the stuff that really went on and he is only being honest. That’s all well and good, but I don’t come to Tarantino for a history lecture. In fact, it could be argued that the nature of the film (especially given the laughs earned earlier in the film and the cartoon nature of much of the gun violence) is therefore exploiting these horrors for a certain degree of cheap thrills.

I don’t need Tarantino to explain all the ways in which slavery was bad, and I am sure you don’t either. After you accept that point you then have to ask whether the film needs to include all of the details it does, or whether they in fact hamper the story? The answer is very clearly the latter.

I was once told that every scene should either move the story forward or move a character forward, preferably both. There are plenty of scenes here which do neither. Now that is annoying in most films, but when you have something which, at its core, could be something really special, it’s very frustrating.

Earlier on I promised a summary paragraph for those who didn’t want spoilers, so here we go…. This is an interesting film. In parts it’s very enjoyable. It has magnetic lead actors. But there’s a lot of unnecessary scenes in there too, scenes which, on their own, might be amusing but ultimately serve to bog the film down and give it an uneven tone. If this was trimmed by an hour there could be a brilliant revenger-Western salvaged, but as it is, it’s a bit of a mess, just as Inglourious Basterds was. It fails to hit the highs of that film, but neither does it quite sink to its lows either. That said, Tarantino’s Aussie-accented cameo is truly awful.

6.5/10 (4 stars)