Quentin Tarantino has been keen to point out that Django Unchained, his latest mash-up of genre cliches, shouldn't be regarded as a western, but rather a 'southern' given that it's set in Texas and Mississippi two years before the outbreak of the Civil War. This is, of course, a typical Tarantino stunt given that the film is so clearly an homage to spaghetti westerns that it comes as something of a surprise to find that Dolmio aren't among the co-producers.
In essence the story boils down to a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx), who teams up with German bounty hunter Dr King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) to find and kill three wanted men, after which Django is given his freedom and the pair set off to rescue Django's wife, the improbably named Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) who's been sold to the sadistic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). This back-of-a-beermat job takes two-and-three-quarter hours to unfold and, by God, does it feel like it.
It's quite clear that no one in Tarantino's inner circle is prepared to tackle the boy emperor and suggest that maybe he might like to tighten things up a wee bit, with the result that Django Unchained, while not as atrocious as Inglourious Basterds, is equally indisciplined and ragged.
The problems are legion. Quite apart from the length, the violence is graphic and at times utterly gratuitous (some idiots at the screening laughed when Django murders an unarmed woman, but hey, she was white so that probably makes it okay) while the use of the 'N' word, 258 according to one count, becomes extremely wearing after, oh, about 10 minutes or so.
Amid all his cinematic in-jokes, which include having Franco Nero, who starred in the original Django, appearing alongside the curiously uncharismatic Foxx in one scene and referencing several spaghetti westerns on the soundtrack, Tarantino seems to have overlooked one of the basics of the genre. Anyone who knows the way these films worked came to expect stoic, borderline mute characters who did all the acting with their eyes whereas Tarantino's creations rarely shut up. In fairness, there's nothing here as dreadful as that bierkeller scene from Inglourious Basterds or the two extended all-girl gabfests which made Death Proof so unwatchable but there are a couple of talkathons which stretch the patience to near breaking point.
On the plus side, the opening titles create a buzz which he manages to sustain for around 15 minutes, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L Jackson deliver fine performances given the material and there's even a scene which is quite funny, until you realise that Tarantino is merely riffing on Blazing Saddles, and not for the first time here either.
One of these years Quentin Tarantino may write and make a coherent, tight film which doesn't pander to his movie fanboy geeks, I wouldn't hold my breath though.
THE SESSIONS Drama. Starring John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, William H Macy, Moon Bloodgood, Annika Marks, Adam Arkin. Directed by Ben Lewin. Cert 16
Based on the true story of poet and journalist Mark O'Brien, confined to an iron lung after contracting polio as a child, The Sessions could have been a mawkish 'disease of the week' movie, but instead offers a warm and human contrast to the week's other major release. John Hawkes (following his breakthrough screen roles in Winter's Bone and Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene) gives an Oscar-worthy performance as O'Brien who, at the age of 37, wants to experience sex before he dies and enlists the services of therapist/sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen (Helen Hunt).
The potential for this to have gone horribly wrong was certainly there but writer-director Ben Lewin, who himself suffered from polio as a child, balances all the elements perfectly, never allowing the material to become manipulative or mawkish. The element of humour is crucial to the success of The Sessions and this is there in the overall demeanour of the way Hawkes plays O'Brien and, particularly, in his relationship with his friend and confessor Father Brendan (William H Macy). How Macy didn't get a 'best supporting actor' nod for his work here is a mystery as he offers a perfect counterbalance to the awkwardness and seriousness of O'Brien's 'sessions' with Cheryl.
With three outstanding turns, and a lovely supporting slot from Moon Bloodgood as O'Brien's wryly humorous care assistant. The Sessions takes a tricky subject, treats it with respect and the result is an engaging and moving movie for grown-ups.
MONSTERS, INC -- 3D Animation. Featuring the voices of John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Mary Gibbs, Steve Buscemi, James Coburn, Jennifer Tilly, John Ratzenberger. Directed by Peter Docter. Cert General
With the much-anticipated prequel Monster University due in a couple of months time, here's another chance to remind yourself of the genius of Pixar, with the added bonus of 3D which won't make your eyes water. Billy Crystal and John Goodman are great as Mike and Sully, monsters who help fuel the city of Monsteropolis with the screams of children.
The twist here is that the monsters are scared of children and the pair have a major crisis on their hands when a young girl, Boo (Mary Gibbs), crosses over into Monsteropolis and creates chaos.
It's fast, funny and lovingly made and you also get to see the Oscar-winning animated short For the Birds before it. Family entertainment at its best. HHHHH
ALSO RELEASED THIS WEEK ... ..
You still have a week to catch Roman Polanski's masterful Chinatown (above) at the IFI, a truly magnificent thriller starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway and John Huston which deals with corruption as Los Angeles was about to expand into the sprawling metropolis it is today. A must-see on the big screen.