Movie reviews: Django Unchained

Opening in Texas in 1858, Django Unchained (18s) begins with bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) liberating Django (Jamie Foxx) from slavery, so that Django can identify a trio of brothers Schultz is tracking down.

The pair bond, and Schultz makes a proposition: if Django joins forces with Schultz in bounty-hunting, Schultz will help Django locate and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is a slave on the plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the film is presented as an homage to that most mythic of the American film staples, the Western. Tarantino does not stint on the filth and muck and the commonplace brutalities of the Old West — Schultz’s ‘bounty hunter’ is in effect a legally sanctioned assassin of lawbreakers and outlaws — but while the opening section suggests that we’re in for a grittily realistic portrayal of how the West was won, Tarantino has other plans for us. Django Unchained is a flight of fancy, a grim but superficially enjoyable fairytale about the potential for mayhem had a freed slave been given a gun and encouraged to shoot down his oppressors. It’s an agreeably subversive notion, but Tarantino includes too many elements of broad comedy and farce — Django dressed as a dandy, Schultz’s hi-falutin’ speeches, Tarantino making a cameo as a highly improbable cowboy — for the audience to take the film or its concepts seriously. Foxx, DiCaprio and Samuel L Jackson deliver compelling performances, but their dramatic power is at odds with the film’s curiously offbeat, jaunty tone.

The Sessions (15A) is based on the real-life experiences of Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes), who was struck down with polio as a child and lived most of his life in an iron lung. Despite his physical handicap, Mark is a working journalist as the film opens in 1988. Commissioned to write a feature about ‘sex and the disabled’, Mark is inspired to explore his own sexuality with sex therapist Cheryl (Helen Hunt). Their relationship, Cheryl cautions as they begin, is limited to six sessions; otherwise they run the danger of becoming emotionally involved. On the face of it a heartwarming tale of a man learning to become as fully human as his physical limits allow, Ben Lewin’s film is in a tender and thoughtful exploration of Mark’s emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. Mark’s biggest problem when it comes to sex is in believing that he deserves to be happy. Meanwhile, Mark’s full and frank friendship with his parish priest, Fr Brendan (William H Macy), gives the story an unexpected depth while also providing the story with many of its blackly comic moments. Macy is in terrific form as Mark’s spiritual foil, while Hunt is superb as the conflicted therapist who finds herself falling for her client. Hawkes eclipses both with a performance of startling maturity.

Everyday (15A) is director Michael Winterbottom’s latest offering, a subtly affecting story of how the incarceration of a father (John Simm) for drugs offences impacts on his young family and their mother (Shirley Henderson). Shot over a period of five years, a few weeks at a time, the film is particularly strong in exploring the emotional responses of the children, all of whom are played by four real-life siblings, the Kirk family. That gambit might well have played out as a quirky conceit, but in fact it goes to the heart of the story: comfortable with one another, the siblings are understandably distant with Simm when they go to visit him in prison. Winterbottom eschews heightened drama in favour of nuance and everyday occurrences, although this muted kind of storytelling only emphasises the tragedy of the prisoner’s self-inflicted isolation. Everyday packs a very powerful emotional punch.

Re-released in 3D, Monsters, Inc (G, 2001) stars the voice talent of John Goodman and Billy Crystal as Sulley and Mikey, respectively, monsters who make a living from scaring young children. The story of how the monsters come to bond with little Boo (Mary Gibbs) is a touching tale given the usual Pixar quality of brilliant animation.

Django Unchained ***

The Sessions ****

Everyday ****

Monsters, Inc 3D ****

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