Django Unchained


Smoking the competition.

Smoking the competition.

(2012) Western (Weinstein) Jamie Foxx, Leonardo di Caprio, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayoutte, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, RZA, Anthony LaPaglia, James Remar, Jonah Hill, James Russo, Walton Goggins, David Steen, Nichole Galicia, Franco Nero, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino is one of the most iconic film directors of our time. When all is said and done I truly believe he’ll occupy a spot in the pantheon among the best ever. He has a love and respect for genre films that places him squarely in fanboy territory, yet he understands what’s great about them and how to turn them into something more than just basic entertainment. He elevates them – which is why I sit waiting with baited breath for his first horror/sci-fi film.

Until that day, you get to deal with his latest which takes on the spaghetti western, although this is set in the antebellum South so you might join Tarantino in referring to this as a “Southern.” In it a German dentist turned bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) liberates a slave named Django (Foxx) from a group of slave traders delivering their property to the market. It seems that Django once worked on a plantation where a trio of wanted men – the Brittle Brothers – had worked as overseers. Dr. Schultz has paper on them but doesn’t know what they look like. Django does. A partnership is born.

They travel to the plantation of Big Daddy (Johnson) where Django spots the brothers, two of whom are getting ready to whip a slave. Oh, no you didn’t. Django shoots ’em dead, and then guns down the third as he tries to ride away. Big Daddy doesn’t take kindly to it  so he organizes a posse of bag-wearing rednecks (including Hill in a cameo role) which is among the movie’s funniest scenes – the riders can’t see very well in the improperly cut bags. However Dr. Schultz devises a plan that outfoxes the rednecks, which Django implements.

Django has earned his freedom and $75 in his share of the bounty and is eager to track down his wife, who was sold separately from him to a different plantation.

She has in fact been sold to Candyland, the fourth-largest cotton plantation in Mississippi and the home of young Calvin Candie, whose hobby is Mandingo wrestling – pitting slaves from different owners in battles to the death. Candie who isn’t above having his dogs tear slaves to pieces, is a seemingly diffident yet genteel sort on the surface but he has all sorts of bad seething below that surface. He is supported by his house slave Stephen (Jackson), a crotchety sort who jealously hordes his position and authority in the house; Leonide Moguy (Christopher), an oily lawyer and Mr. Pootch (Remar), a debonair but deadly bodyguard.

Django first must hone his  skills as a bounty hunter before taking on that bunch, and when he is finally ready in the spring he is quite the killer but he is up against some of the most ruthless, sadistic men in the South. Is Django more than a man?

Of course he is. This is a Quentin Tarantino mash-up and he is not only targeting Spaghetti Westerns but also Blaxploitation and B-movie revenge flicks from the 80s. Django harkens back to classic heroes from all of those genres (but particularly John Shaft whom Tarantino has said is his descendent; in fact, his wife’s slave name is Broomhilda von Schaft).

Foxx imbues Django with a quiet dignity, which is about what you’d expect. Django isn’t worldly but he’s bright; he learns quickly and while his voice rarely gets raised he carries himself with such self-assurance that it’s easy for him to convince white folks that he’s a free man. It’s not a flashy performance, but it’s a confident one and illustrates the growth that Foxx has made as an actor in just a few short years. In many ways this is an even better performance than his Oscar-winning turn in Ray but might not attract the attention in that regard not only because it’s so low-key but because the competition for Best Actor this year is so bloody fierce.

He has plenty of support though. Waltz, who achieved his breakout role in Inglourious Basterds for Tarantino, switches gears and is a good guy this time out, although he’s got a bit of a dark side. Here as Dr. Schultz, he is urbane, witty and erudite. He uses a lot of five dollar words that most of the people he deals with have not a clue what they mean. He smiles a lot, is a bit of a charmer and a flirt but is at his core a decent fellow who is repulsed from slavery and the vicious things that are done to the slaves.

Di Caprio is a serviceable villain; he doesn’t play villains often but when he does he can be as over-the-top as any and that’s what the role calls for; at one point in the movie Candie pounds a table in emphasis. Di Caprio hit the table so hard he cut his hand open. Tarantino refused to yell cut and the scene proceeded with Di Caprio’s hand bleeding and that’s the take that’s used in the movie. The intensity, as it always is with Di Caprio, is there.

Jackson also plays villains less often than heroes and like Di Caprio, is no stranger to over the top. This is a part tailor made for Jackson and he inhabits it. It’s not the part you’d think he’d play – Yessuh Massuh isn’t exactly his style – but when you think about it, who else would you cast in the role? As good as the talent is among African-American actors right now, none spring to mind when you think “who could play Steven properly?” Just SLJ and like the trooper that he is, he does it note-perfect. Of course, I’m not sure that Jackson would have taken a part like this for anybody other than Quentin Tarantino.

One of the plot elements is that the story of the movie is supposed to parallel that of the legend of Siegfried which it kind of does. Like the legend, the movie’s story is told really in three parts. Each part has certain parallels with the legend – and no, I’m not going to explain it to you here. Just be reassured that Waltz tells you what the story is at the beginning and by the end you think back and say to yourself “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh yeah!” Far be it for me to remove the thrill of connecting the dots from you.

Now, the elephant in the room when it comes to this picture is the use of what has come to be called the “N” word. A lot of people are uncomfortable with that and I can understand it – it’s a word I don’t personally use and normally I don’t encourage its use. However, in this instance, Tarantino’s intent is to portray not only the physical degradation of the slaves but the mental and spiritual humiliation as well. The word was in wide use at the time for one thing and it wouldn’t be realistic to ignore it. I found that the first couple of times I heard it that it was kind of a shock, but after that I grew numb to it. Maybe that’s a point Tarantino is trying to make, but be warned that the word is used a lot and if it offends you, you might want to take that into consideration.

All of these things are fine by me but there are a few things that I do have to say that aren’t as positive. The movie is nearly three hours long; I’m guessing that about 20-30 minutes of it could have been cut without ruining the flow or continuity of the movie or disrupting the story. For example, there’s a scene near the end where Django is being transported to a brutal mine where he will be worked to death. How he escapes takes a good five to ten minutes; it’s a scene that under a more economical director could have been easily accomplished in under a minute. Of course, Tarantino is not known for his frugality (being kind of a gregarious sort of guy, that figures) but that kind of thing happens several times during the course of the film.

More unforgivably, the movie drags in places. Few if any write better dialogue than Tarantino but there are times when things just…drag. Too much talking. Not enough action. The directors of those movies Tarantino loves so much could let 15 minutes go by without so much as a word being spoken. Actions do speak louder than words and rarely is that so apparent as at the movies.

I was hoping that this would be one of the year’s ten best but it won’t make that list sadly. This isn’t one of Tarantino’s best. Plainly. And I’m sure that disappointment has probably brought down his rating a tad; if anyone else had directed this, I might well have given it more stars. At the end of the day though, it doesn’t measure up to his best works and that is part of your moviegoing experience – are your expectations being met. It’s not terribly fair that my expectations of a Tarantino film are so high but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. It’s a very good film. It’s just not a great one.

REASONS TO GO: Foxx, Waltz, di Caprio and Jackson are all at the top of their games. If you love Tarantino you’ll love this!

REASONS TO STAY: Way too long. Those who don’t like Tarantino will hate this. Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Extremely graphic violence (i.e. when people get shot they get shredded with blood going everywhere), plenty of bad language and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foxx rides his own horse, Cheetah, in the film during the bareback sequence.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch

SHOT IN THE NUTS LOVERS: Hopefully there aren’t a lot of you out there but if there are, there’s a whole lot of it going on in this movie.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Young @ Heart

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127 Hours


127 Hours

James Franco might just be looking at Oscar gold.

(2010) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Clemence Posey, Kate Burton, Treat Williams, Sean Bott, John Lawrence, Rebecca Olson, Lizzy Caplan, Pieter Jan Brugge, Jeffrey Wood. Directed by Danny Boyle

Being capable can sometimes be confused with being arrogant. However, being capable can sometimes cause one to become arrogant. Arrogance can then lead to hubris and that can lead to the kind of disaster that can change a life completely.

Aron Ralston (Franco) is the prototypical Type A personality. He never met a physical activity he didn’t like, a challenge he couldn’t face. He’s at his happiest when he’s alone in the canyons of Utah’s Canyonland National Park, even though it’s a bit of a hike from his Colorado home. Sure, he has friends like Brian (Lawrence) whom he works with and even Rana (Olson), an ex-girlfriend who sees through the cocky bravado and pronounces that he will end up alone.

Still, Aron is naturally charming as he proves when he meets a couple of pretty young women (Mara, Tamblyn) out hiking. They’re lost, he knows his way around and soon they’re frolicking around in an underground pond. When they separate, one leans into the other and says “You know, I don’t think we even figured into his day.” And they’re right, although he will eventually look back on their encounter with some regret.

He’s going to have the opportunity to dwell on that, and other aspects of his life. While crossing a cut canyon, he steps on a boulder he thought was stable and goes plummeting, downwards-like. When he lands, he discovers the rather inconvenient fact that his arm is pinned to the canyon wall by a boulder the size of a home AC unit. He tries to move the boulder, but no good. He tries pounding the boulder, unsuccessfully. He takes a deep breath, lays out all the contents of his backpack and tries to think. The sinking realization is that nobody knows where he is. Nobody can hear his cries for help. His water supply is limited as is his food. He has no real tools that can extricate him from the situation apart from a multi-purpose tool with a dull knife blade.

After freaking out a little bit, Aron realizes the grim situation he is in. He has only enough water to last him a few days. Nothing short of a jackhammer is going to get that rock off of him. He is going to die. 

Dying is a funny thing, particularly when you have time to wait for it. You are given a chance to reflect back on your life, see the road not traveled and figure out who you are and what didn’t work. And, as his water begins to run out, the lack of sleep and the exposure to the elements begins to play with his mind. And as his time runs out, he is faced with a devastating choice between the will to survive and a horror that thee and me could never contemplate.

Most of you know by now that Aron Ralston is an actual person who went through this, and that devastating choice was whether to saw off his own arm with the dull knife or else wait to die. Obviously he chose the former, and stumbled out of that canyon to be rescued by a pair of hikers who alerted authorities.

You wonder how a film set in a cramped space for 127 hours – a little over five days – can be a riveting experience but Oscar-winning director Boyle makes it so. Even though for the most part you know what everything is leading to, you get to see inside the person that Ralston is. During his ordeal, he made several entries on a digital video camera that essentially detailed what he was going through but also served as a goodbye and apology to his family for the times he put his own needs ahead of theirs. In the end, he realizes that he had insulated himself from the things in life that were most important.

Franco is an expressive and often physical actor who is perfectly cast here. This might be the defining performance of his career; it is as sure a bet to be nominated for the Best Actor Oscar in a few months as any performance this year is. He is onscreen for the entire movie and spends much of it alone. He has to capture the attention and imagination of the audience without interacting with anybody other than himself, and he does it in a way that is both natural and unforced.

The amputation scene is not as graphic as you might think, although there are reports of people fainting during it. It certainly is disturbing and I would think long and hard if I were the sensitive sort about putting myself through it. If you have someone who is affected by such, you might want to take it under advisement that they might not do well at this movie although the scene isn’t gratuitous in the least.

The cinematography here is breathtaking, utilizing the majestic desolation of the Utah landscape as a character in the movie. It is this that Aron disrespects and winds up paying a heavy price.

REASONS TO GO: A career-making performance by Franco and another great movie by Boyle. This is the kind of movie that stays with you long after its over.

REASONS TO STAY: Sensitive sorts will be disturbed by the amputation scene, and claustrophobics might be made uncomfortable with the surroundings in the film.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of bad language (hey, you’d curse if you had a boulder on your arm) and some pretty disturbing scenes of self-amputation that are definitely not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The camcorder that James Franco uses in the film is the same one used by Ralston on his ill-fated trek. The video he shot had only previously been shown to family and close friends, but Boyle and Franco were allowed to watch it for accuracy sake. The video is kept in a vault for safekeeping.

HOME OR THEATER: Much of the film takes place in a cut canyon, a very narrow environment, but some of the shots of Canyonlands National Park are just breathtaking and should be seen on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Police, Adjective

New Releases for the Week of November 26, 2010


November 26, 2010

Rider is having a bad hair day.

 

TANGLED

(Disney) Starring the voices of Zachary Levi, Mandy Moore, Donna Murphy, Ron Perlman, Jeffrey Tambor, M.C. Gainey, Brad Garrett, Paul F. Tompkins. Directed by Byron Howard and Nathan Greno

Rapunzel gets the Disney feature treatment in this updated and somewhat irreverent version of the Fairy Tale. Flynn Rider is a cocksure but capable thief who has gone a little bit too far and has the entire kingdom looking for him – half to imprison him, the other half to kill him. He decides to hole up in an isolated tower in the middle of nowhere until the heat blows over, never realizing that the girl who lives in the tower is far more dangerous than all the king’s men put together.

See the trailer, featurettes, clips and interviews here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Animated Fantasy

Rating: PG (for brief mild violence)

127 Hours

(Fox Searchlight) James Franco, Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, Kate Burton. The Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire returns with this astonishing true story of Aron Ralston, a type-A personality who gets trapped by a boulder pinning his arm to a mountain while climbing and has to go to astonishing lengths in order to survive and escape. Franco is considered a lock for an Oscar nomination and the movie may well be one of the big contenders for a number of different Oscars in February, including Best Picture.

See the trailer, interviews, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and some disturbing violent content/bloody images)

Break Ke Baad

(Reliance Big Pictures) Deepika Padukone, Imran Khan, Sharmila Tagore, Navin Nischol. Two childhood friends are drawn together by their passions which also threaten to separate them forever – her dreams of becoming an actress and his love for her. Polar opposites in their lives, they will either find the strength to carry on together, or be without each other forever.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Drama

Rating: NR

Burlesque

 (Screen Gems) Cher, Christina Aguilera, Stanley Tucci, Eric Dane. A starry-eyed young girl from a small town goes to L.A. to become a star. She goes to one of the last burlesque-style nightclubs in the city, only to be told she doesn’t have what it takes. She believes in herself and her talent and eventually gets the opportunity, and uses it to become a star. Stardom, sadly, isn’t everything she thought it would be…say, didn’t Judy Garland make a movie like this a few years back?

See the trailer, clips, interviews and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Musical Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content including several suggestive dance routines, partial nudity, language and some thematic material)

Faster

 (CBS) Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace. After ten years in prison, Driver looks to avenge the death of his brother, which came during a botched heist that led to him getting pinched in the first place. Now, with a dogged cop on his tail and a demented hit man not far behind, Driver’s to-do list is getting shorter by the day, but it might just get him killed.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action Thriller

Rating: R (for strong violence, some drug use and language)

Love and Other Drugs

 (20th Century Fox) Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria. A young pharmaceutical salesman has everything going for him – women, career success, and great friends. When he hooks up with the one woman he can’t have, he becomes enmeshed in the folds of heartbreak just as his greatest opportunity for wealth materializes – a new wonder drug called Viagra.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for strong sexual content, nudity, pervasive language and some drug material)

Spiral


Spiral

Joel David Moore is getting tired of all the wedgies.

(Anchor Bay) Joel David Moore, Amber Tamblyn, Zachary Levi, Tricia Helfer, David Muller, Annie Neal, Amber Dahl, Kristin Luman, Ryan Chase. Directed by Adam Green and Joel David Moore

We are, all of us, victims of our past. The demons that are a result of past traumas often drive our present behavior. Some of us have demons that are more insistent and more deadly than others.

Mason (Moore) is a socially awkward cubicle dweller living in Portland, Oregon. Most of his fellow co-workers ignore him; Mason’s neuroses are many and notorious at work. That suits Mason just fine; he tends to be on the reclusive side in any case and prefers to spend most of his time listening to jazz records (we’re talking LPs here; Mason prefers the warmth of vinyl to the cold soullessness of CDs) and painting, and Mason is surprisingly talented at both.

At work his only friend (and we use the term loosely here) is Berkeley (Levi), who also happens to be his boss. Berkeley is not particularly a nice guy, but he seems to have a soft spot for Mason and kind of adopts him, which Mason seems to accept albeit not with great enthusiasm. Mason exists in the curious shadowland that is Portland in the fall, when the nights get darker and the rain falls incessantly in a cold curtain of camouflage.

His life turns around when he meets Amber (Tamblyn), a new co-worker who is as gregarious as Mason is shy. She is drawn to the shy young man, her curiosity piqued and for his part Mason is moved by her kindness and starts to come out of his shell. When Amber discovers Mason’s talent as an artist, she insists that he paint a portrait of her.

What Amber doesn’t know is that Mason is not at all well; he has been scarred by the murder of his mother by his father and is tormented by awful nightmares, nightmares that Mason thinks might possibly be real and if they are, Mason could very well be a mass murderer. Only Berkeley knows about the dreams and has dismissed them as just that, dreams. If he’s wrong, however, Amber is in mortal danger.

Moore’s name shows up all over this film as a co-writer, co-director and co-producer, as well as the lead actor so much of the blame or credit, depending on your opinion of the movie, will be directed his way. He certainly surrounded himself with able support; co-director Green went on to direct the much-acclaimed thriller Frozen, while Levi is best known for his work in “Chuck” (and he’s quite good here in a very different role). Tamblyn is one of the more underrated actresses working these days and she turns in a terrific performance as the lonely and insecure Amber who masks her insecurities with a kind of false sense of bonhomie.

Moore himself is best-known as being the gangly geek in Dodgeball and the scientific nebbish in Avatar. His own performance is not too shabby; he seems to be on the verge of tears often but there is a rage and tension just below the surface that makes you wonder if instead of tears we might not see homicidal mayhem instead. That’s the centerpiece of Spiral and the movie doesn’t work if you don’t believe it. Fortunately, I did.

I liked the sense of place and time in the movie; the environment of Portland becomes a big part of the mood and it is shot exceedingly well. There is almost the feel of an indie romantic drama here, and that also serves the movie well, making the jolts more effective when they come.

Like most movies, there is a twist to it and it’s not a bad one. One of the problems with psychological thrillers in general is that you’re expecting a twist so you spend most of the movie looking for one, and most veteran observers of the genre can usually spot them early on, but I didn’t so kudos on that account.

On the negative side, this feels a bit long and some of the scenes felt more like padding. It could have used a little more judicious editing to cut out some of the material that seemed to me to be extraneous, with certain scenes merely confirming what has already been established elsewhere in the movie. Still, this is a satisfying movie for its genre, a sandwich that could have used a bit more meat and a little less bread, but delicious even so.

WHY RENT THIS: The movie works because of its indie romantic drama feel that helps make the jolts more effective. Fine performances, particularly from Tamblyn and Levi, as well as Moore, characterize the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the scenes were unnecessary in terms of plot development and action and could easily have been snipped out.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly disturbing imagery here as well as partial nudity and a bit of violence. The language is a bit blue in places. Probably okay for mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amber Tamblyn’s dad Russ, he of West Side Story fame, shows up here as an extra.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: TiMER