The Departed


You talkin' to me?

You talkin’ to me?

(2006) Drama (Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Anthony Anderson, Alec Baldwin, Kevin Corrigan, James Badge Dale, David Patrick O’Hara, Mark Rolston, Robert Wahlberg, Kristen Dalton, Thomas B. Duffy, J.C. MacKenzie, Mary Klug, Peg Saurman Holzemer. Directed by Martin Scorsese

Our identity is often complicated. There’s the person we allow ourselves to be perceived to be, then there’s the person we really are. Often the two are entirely different people.

In Boston, Frank Costello (Nicholson) is king – the king of hoods. He is the most powerful mob boss in the city and he has his corrupting fingers in just about every civic institution. One of his most important pieces is the mole he has in the police department, Colin Sullivan (Damon). Recruited as a youngster, the squeaky-clean choirboy type Sullivan went through the police academy with flying colors and serves under Captain Ellerby (Baldwin) and using his intimate knowledge of ongoing investigations of Costello is able to move Costello’s assets around the city so that the crusty old mob boss doesn’t get caught with his pants down.

Captain Queenan (Sheen) of the BPD wants to catch Costello in the worst way and he knows he needs to send someone deep inside to do it. Billy Costigan (di Caprio) is the perfect undercover; a Southie with a history, and family ties to the Mob, Corrigan turns out to be a perfect fit. However, before long both Queenan and Costello begin to realize that their organizations have been infiltrated. Now begins a cat and mouse game to find the moles; the stakes are life and death for Costigan and Sulliva, as well as for those around them.

The Departed is a fairly faithful remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs and will be remembered if for nothing else but as the movie that won Martin Scorsese his first Oscar for Best Director. There are those that grouse that it is not his best movie (it isn’t) but it was deserving nonetheless; the movie is certainly one of Scorsese’s best works.

Part of what makes it work is that this movie is as tense as any I have ever seen. From the moment that the two opposing forces discover that they have a rat in their midst the race is on to discover who it is and the fact that we end up rooting for both Sullivan and Costigan makes the tension all the more intense.

Another factor in the movie’s success is that the film is chock full of memorable characters, cast with stellar actors who deliver incredible performances. Both Damon and di Caprio are at the top of their game, and Nicholson delivers his best performance since he snarled at Tom Cruise that he couldn’t handle the truth in A Few Good Men.

The supporting cast is just as amazing. I think Mark Wahlberg came into his own with his portrayal of the foul-mouthed Lt. Dignam, Queenan’s right hand man. Ray Winstone is menacing and unforgettable as Costello’s enforcer, Mr. French. Vera Farmiga showed her star power in her role as Madolyn, the police psychologist who enters into relationships with both Costello and Corrigan as well.

There is a ton of violence here (which is a Scorsese trademark), perhaps too much for some. There is also a whole lot of profanity – there are more F bombs (or variations thereof) for any Best Picture winner in Oscar history. Those who are sensitive to such matters, take heed.

Good as this is, the source movie from Hong Kong is just as good. While it can be seen with subtitles, an effective translation program can be helpful as well – if you choose to go that route, I’d recommend Smartling, which is primarily a business translation software. You can find out more about it at the link above.

What makes The Departed so compelling is that Costigan and .Sullivan are so obviously two sides of the same coin, and the cops and the mobs more alike than unalike which is an unsettling thought in and of itself. While the profanity and violence may put some off, they are utilized so beautifully that they become a kind of poetry within the confines of the movie. Given the top-notch performances throughout the movie, this is, like so many of Scorsese’s other films, a must-see for any film buff and it remains to this point my favorite American remake of a foreign film.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing cast. The tension in this movie is delightfully unbearable. One of Scorsese’s best.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too violent for some.
FAMILY VALUES: As is par for the course with Scorsese films, the violence is strong and often brutal and the foul language pervasive. There’s also some sexual content and drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scorsese wanted to shoot the film in Boston where it is set, but due to political concerns and cost concerns he was only able to shoot a few weeks in the city. For most of the film, New York City – where Scorsese was able to get tax benefits for filming – doubled for Beantown. After the success of the film, Massachusetts enacted a 25% tax break for movies filming in the state.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition and  2-Disc Special DVD edition have a featurette on real-life gangster Whitey Bulger (who Frank Costello was based on and who is getting a movie of his own this fall) as well as the TCM documentary Scorsese on Scorsese.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $289.9M on a $90M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, Flixster, iTunes, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boondock Saints
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Catch .44

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The Wolf of Wall Street


Leonardo di Caprio knows he's getting an Oscar nomination.

Leonardo di Caprio knows he’s getting an Oscar nomination.

(2013) True Life Drama (Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jean Dujardin, Kenneth Choi, PJ Byrne, Jon Bernthal, Joanna Lumley, Cristin Miloti, Christine Ebersole, Shea Whigham, Katarina Cas, Brian Sacca, Henry Zebrowski, Ethan Suplee, MacKenzie Meehan. Directed by Martin Scorsese

We are all aware that there is something broken on Wall Street; it is often depicted as a kind of testosterone-infused drug-fueled locker room in which over-stimulated men essentially rob America blind. While there are plenty of honest stockbrokers, there is some truth to the notion that the culture of greed exists.

Jordan Belfort (di Caprio) is the poster boy for that culture. He starts off as an ambitious stockbroker, taken under the wing of a successful broker (McConaughey) who initiates him in the cult of screw you – making the customer money is not the first order of business. Getting his fees are. And keeping those fees coming in even if that means selling some poor schmuck stocks he can’t afford or worse, stocks the broker knows are going to lose money.

Belfort quickly realizes that the real money is to be made in owning his own firm and that selling penny stocks were a vastly underserved market in which the brokers can make a huge amount of money in a short amount of time. With partner Donny Azoff (Hill) Belfort founds Stratton Oakmont, a literal boiler room where brokers make high-pressure sales of penny stocks.

Belfort found that defrauding his clientele was far more profitable for him personally than actually working for it and soon finds himself with more money than he knows what to do with. Of course, men with more money than they know what to do with usually find things to do with it – drugs, prostitutes, a luxury yacht, a trophy wife. In Belfort’s case, the latter turns out to be Naomi (Robbie), a Jersey shore princess and model.

As Belfort’s shenanigans grow more egregious he and his firm attracts the attention of the FBI in the person of dogged agent Patrick Denham (Chandler). Constantly in a drugged haze of cocaine and Quaaludes, Belfort and Azoff decide to launder their money and use drug dealer Brad (Bernthal) and a loathsome Swiss banker (Dujardin) to do it. But as those who ride too high will tell you, the fall is inevitable and not very pretty when it comes.

Scorsese has delivered another masterpiece in his storied career. Frequent collaborator (this is the fifth movie they’ve done together) di Caprio is at his best. His manic portrayal of Belfort is almost certain to get an Oscar nomination later this month and is at the moment the odds on favorite to win the gold.

He is mesmerizing every moment he’s on the screen and this with a character that is basically a douchebag. He basically thumbs his nose at everything decent and does everything to the point where you could charitably call him evil and yet di Caprio is so good that we can’t turn away. Belfort is a train wreck of a human being and di Caprio keeps our eyes glued on him.

Hill also delivers what might be a superior performance to his Oscar-nominated turn in Moneyball. His Azoff is smarmy, smart but not as smart as Belfort and a bit cowardly. He is the kind of guy who wants to live the high life but doesn’t have the brains or the charisma to get it himself so he rides on Belfort’s coattails. At the end of the day, Hill makes this guy less of a rat and more of a flawed human being whose mantra of every man for himself informs his every decision.

I’ve noticed that conservative viewers tend to look at this movie as a liberal Hollywood hatchet job on Wall Street so those who tend to get their information from Fox News might want to give this one a skip. While the excesses here seem over-the-top, they are all documented – by the real Jordan Belfort himself. I must also add that while Belfort bilked his customers out of more than a billion dollars, he did go to jail for it. Some of the Wall Street bigwigs from established firms stole far more from their clients and damn near bankrupted our economy yet none of them are in jail. I guess it’s all in who you know.

Part of the downfall for Belfort is his drug use and that is depicted pretty graphically here. If the sight of di Caprio snorting a line off of a naked woman’s breasts is uncomfortable for you, if the idea of seeing the results of Quaalude intoxication makes you queasy, this might not be the movie for you. I must admit that a scene late in the movie in which Belfort and Azoff take some powerful Quaaludes that don’t have a reaction in the normal amount of time turns into one of the funniest scenes of the year. I have to admit I felt a little guilty about laughing at it; watching a drug addict having a seizure after an overdose sounds cruel but I suppose if you can’t laugh at someone who has to roll their way down a staircase and only able to communicate in a kind of hooting grunt, who can you laugh at?

Like some of Scorsese’s best films, there’s a hint of controversy involved and the movie definitely isn’t for conservative Wall Street apologists. However for everyone else, there is something to be said for watching someone playing so fast and so loose without a care for the consequences of his actions get his which leads to my next point; if I have one gripe about the movie it’s that there isn’t anything about the very real human consequences to Belfort’s clients. That aspect might illustrate the real tragedy of the Jordan Belfort story in that the people who paid for his crimes and continue to do so never really get a face.

REASONS TO GO: Di Caprio and Scorsese hit another one out of the park. Hysterically funny in places, heartbreaking in others.

REASONS TO STAY: Belfort is such a scumbag it’s really hard to identify with him let alone root for him.

FAMILY VALUES:  More drug use than you thought humanly possible, graphic nudity and sex, enough profanity to make Lenny Bruce blush and even a little violence for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Footage of the actual beach party in the Hamptons depicted here with the real Jordan Belfort can be found on YouTube.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boiler Room

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Punk Singer

New Releases for the Week of December 27, 2013


The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY

(20th Century Fox) Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, Shirley MacLaine, Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, Patton Oswalt. Directed by Ben Stiller

Walter, a worker drone at Life Magazine as it gasps its last, is a dreamer who sometimes zones out as he imagines fantastic heroic scenarios starring himself. Yet he never acts on these impulses, never does anything memorable or notable. He yearns for love but does nothing to pursue it. When at last he is pushed into it, the greatest adventure he could imagine awaits.

See the trailer and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Adventure Comedy

Rating: PG (for some crude comments, language and action violence)

47 Ronin

(Universal) Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ko Shibasaki, Rinko Kikuchi. After a ruthless warlord betrays and murders their master, 47 now-leaderless samurai (known in Japan as Ronin) vow revenge. Standing in their way are wizards and demons who have their own plans.

See the trailer, clips  and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D (opens Tuesday)

Genre: Martial Arts Fantasy

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, some disturbing images, and thematic elements)

Grudge Match

(Warner Brothers) Robert De Niro, Sylvester Stallone, Kevin Hart, Alan Arkin. Two out of shape boxers retired for 30 years are pushed into resuming their bitter rivalry with a final match to determine the whole she-bang, but are these two old codgers ready?

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Sports Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sports action violence, sexual content and language)

Justin Bieber’s Believe

(Open Road) Justin Bieber, Scooter Braun, Usher Raymond, Ludacris. Unaware that his 15 minutes were done about an hour ago, here comes a concert video of Canada’s most shameful export.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Musical Documentary

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements including some unsettling images) 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

(Weinstein) Idris Elba, Naomie Harris, Tony Kgoroge, Riaad Moosa. The story of the late Nelson Mandela and his struggle to end South Africa’s repressive system of apartheid appears in theaters only a few weeks after the great leader finally passed away. Some studios have all the luck.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: Biographical Drama

Rating: PG=13 (for some intense sequences of violence and disturbing images, sexual content and brief strong language)

The Wolf of Wall Street

(Paramount) Leonardo di Caprio, Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Margot Robbie. A stockbroker goes from starry-eyed ambition to absolute corruption as he rides the wave that was Wall Street during the 80s. The rise and fall of Jordan Belfort mirrors Wall Street’s own in the eyes of the public. The latest from Martin Scorsese and a huge Oscar contender.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Wednesday)

Genre: True Life Drama

Rating: R (for sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence)  

The Great Gatsby (2013)


It's my party and I'll smirk if I want to.

It’s my party and I’ll smirk if I want to.

(2013) Drama (Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Adelaide Clemens, Jack Thompson, Amitabh Bachchan, Gus Murray, Kate Mulvany, Barry Otto, Daniel Gill, Iota, Eden Falk, Steve Bisley, Vince Colosimo, Max Cullen, Gemma Ward, Olga Miller. Directed by Baz Luhrmann   

The Jazz Age of the Roaring ’20s was known for conspicuous wealth and the wealthy who partied capriciously even as a stock market crash loomed ever closer. It was an age of the flapper, of gangsters and bootleggers, of old money sneering at the nouveau riche with all the venom of an aging viper whose territory is being taken over by a younger and deadlier snake.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote what is arguably his masterpiece in 1925 to tepid sales and lackluster reviews. When he passed away in 1940, he believed himself to be a failure although ironically his work would receive the acclaim and sales only a few years later. ‘Tis the melancholy truth about artists – most have to die in order for their work to matter.

So what’s so great about Gatsby? Well, a lot of things – it’s depiction of the lavish excesses and the empty morality of the very rich, but also the language. Few understood the American idiom quite as well as Fitzgerald and the words truly flow beautifully off the page. Read it aloud and you might think you’re delivering the words of an American Shakespeare into the ether. That is, perhaps, overpraising the work but many consider it to be the Great American Novel and if not that, at least the Great American Tragedy.

Given the lavish excess of the book, Australian director Baz Luhrmann might well be the perfect choice to make the film version. Three others have preceded it – a 1926 silent version which sadly has been lost to the mists of time as no prints are known to exist, although a trailer for it does and if you look it up on YouTube, you can see it. Another version was filmed in 1949 starring Alan Ladd and Betty Field but has been held up for 60 years over mysterious copyright litigation which someone needs to sort out. The most famous version is the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version which famously flopped and has been disowned by nearly everyone involved (there was also a made for television version in 2000).

However, this one is the only one that I am aware of that is available in grand and glorious 3D. Why is it available in such a format, you might ask? So that the glitter and confetti from the various parties might seem to pop out of the screen at you. Otherwise there really is no particular necessity for it.

The film follows the book pretty faithfully – surprisingly so. Midwesterner Nick Carroway (Maguire) moves into a carriage house in the fictional Long Island community of West Egg on the grounds of the fabulous mansion of Jay Gatsby (di Caprio), a reclusive sort who throws lavish parties for which everyone who is anyone shows up at uninvited and about whom all sorts of rumors are floating about.

Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Mulligan) lives across the bay – in fact directly across from Gatsby’s mansion – with her philandering husband Tom (Edgerton), an old money sort who is a racist jerk who makes Daisy’s life miserable. Tom inexplicably bonds with Nick and takes him to visit his mistress Myrtle Wilson (Fisher), a clingy shrewish sort who is married to George (Clarke), an auto mechanic who is somewhat slavishly devoted to Myrtle and treats Tom, whose cars he repairs, as something like a potentate.

But Daisy has a secret of her own; prior to meeting Tom she was courted by Jay Gatsby, then an officer in the Army preparing to be deployed into the Great War. By the time he returned, she was married to Tom. Gatsby then set to amassing a fortune by as it turned out fairly nefarious means, utilizing underworld businessman Meyer Wolfsheim (Bachchan)  as a go-between.

Gatsby wants Nick to invite Daisy over for tea which he does; Nick genuinely likes Gatsby whose optimism appeals to Nick’s sensibilities. Once Daisy and Gatsby are together it’s like a flickering torch reignited. The two realize they are meant for each other. Gatsby urges Daisy to tell Tom that she doesn’t love him. Daisy is extremely reluctant, although it’s true. This will lead to a confrontation in the Plaza Hotel in New York that will have deadly consequences.

Luhrmann is known for visual spectacle and for thinking outside the box. He frames the story with Nick in his later years committed to a sanitarium for alcoholism, writing down the events of his youth as a means of therapy ordered by his doctor (Thompson). Fitzgerald’s words literally flow into the film as 3D graphics. It’s a nice conceit.

Luhrmann is also known for willful anachronisms – filming period films with a modern soundtrack (which includes songs by Lana del Rey, Jay Z – who supervised the soundtrack – and Andre 3000, among others) which as a personal note drives me entirely crazy. Why go to the trouble of meticulously re-creating an era which Luhrmann does and then immediately take his audience right out of it by having a jazz orchestra rapping? Methinks that Luhrmann doesn’t care if his audience is immersed in the film or not as long as they know who directed it.

Gatsby is one of the most enigmatic literary characters of the 20th century and is a notorious part to get down properly. He is a driven soul, passionate in his feelings for Daisy but absolutely amoral when it comes to money. He is a self-made man, largely willing his own image of himself into reality only to  come to understand too late that these things are illusions that are ultimately empty reflections in a mirror that we can’t see. Di Caprio once again reminds us that he is a powerful actor capable of mesmerizing performances at any given time. This is certainly one of his better works, capturing that enigma that is Gatsby and giving it flesh and soul.

Nick is our surrogate, floating in a world of wealth and privilege with eyes wide open. He joins in on the debauchery and recoils in horror as it turns savagely on itself. He watches the events unfold towards their inevitable conclusion and manages to retain his own humanity. He is a decent sort who is thoroughly capable of being corrupted – and to an extent he is – but in the end it’s his own decency that saves him. Maguire is particularly adept at radiating decency and does so here. He’s not particularly memorable – he was never going to be in this kind of role and opposite di Caprio – but he does everything you could ask of him here.

Mulligan, who burst onto the scene not long ago with an amazing performance in An Education has continued to blossom as an actress since then. This is not really a role she’s well-suited for; Daisy is a self-centered and vacuous soul who doesn’t have the courage of her own convictions. Mulligan is far too intelligent an actress to play vacuous and thus she isn’t terribly convincing in the role. Nicole Kidman might have been a better choice and she’s closer to di Caprio’s age range to boot.

There is a lot of spectacle here but sadly it is sabotaged by Luhrmann’s own imagination, which is kind of ironic. Spectacle for spectacle’s sake, as Jay Gatsby would surely have known, is an ultimately empty gesture. There is plenty here to like but one gets too distracted by the fluff. Brevity is the soul of wit and Fitzgerald was fully aware of how to use language economically. So too, simplicity is the soul of film and that is a lesson Luhrmann has yet to learn.

REASONS TO GO: Di Caprio delivers another bravura performance. Captures the era in many ways. Follows Fitzgerald’s story surprisingly closely.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too many instances of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing.” Afflicted with the Curse of the Deliberate Anachronism.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some violent images (although none especially shocking), some sensuality, partying and smoking within a historical context and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duesenbergs are the automobile of choice for Jay Gatsby but the real things are far too rare and valuable to be used as movie props. The one you see in the film is one of two replicas, each painted yellow and modified to match each other for filming.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100; critics were pretty much split right down the middle on this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Iceman

New Releases for the Week of May 10, 2013


The Great Gatsby

THE GREAT GATSBY

(Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan, Jack Thompson. Directed by Baz Luhrmann

A would-be writer comes to New York City from the Midwest in the Roaring ’20s to become neighbors with the notorious party boy from high society, Jay Gatsby and Gatsby’s cousin Daisy and her brutal husband Tom. As the writer is drawn into the world of the upper crust with all their deadly illusions and secrets he writes a story that reflects the world he has come to inhabit.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Drama

Rating: PG-13 (for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language)

From Up on Poppy Hill

(GKIDS) Starring the voices of Anton Yelchin, Gillian Anderson, Beau Bridges, Sarah Bolger. As Japan prepares to host the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo and show the world that they have returned to being a major power and fully recovered from the war, two young people join forces to save their high school’s ramshackle clubhouse from being torn down. While a budding romance develops between the two of them, they are forced to confront the changing times and attitudes that are warring with traditional values in Japan.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Anime

Rating: PG (for mild thematic elements, and some incidental smoking images)

Go Goa Gone

(Eros International) Saif Ali Khan, Kunal Khemu, Vir Das, Puja Gupta. A group of guys, tired of being smacked around by life, decide to take a vacation on a beautiful island off the coast of Goa. Unfortunately their revelry is cut short by an invasion of zombies.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood/Horror Comedy

Rating: R (for disturbing violent and sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some drug use) 

No One Lives

(Anchor Bay) Luke Evans, Adelaide Clemens, Lee Tergesen, Laura Ramsey. When a ruthless criminal gang takes a young couple hostage, things get bad. When they kill the girl, things get worse. There is a killer amongst them, one determined to make sure that nobody survives the night.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, pervasive language and some sexuality/nudity) 

Peeples

(Lionsgate) Craig Robinson, Kerry Washington, David Alan Grier, S. Epatha Merkerson. A working class guy who has fallen in love and been in a longstanding relationship with a girl from an upper class background decides to crash her family reunion so that he can ask her father for his daughter’s hand in marriage. As you can guess, things don’t go exactly as planned.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Urban Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content, drug material and language)  

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

New Releases for the Week of December 28, 2012


Les Miserables

LES MISERABLES

(Universal) Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Samantha Barks. Directed by Tom Hooper

Based on the hit Broadway musical which in turn was based on the Victor Hugo classic, it follows the epic tale of Jean Valjean, a man sent to prison for stealing bread to feed his family. When he breaks parole, he is chased by the obsessive and relentless Javert who hounds the basically decent Valjean over a time of great upheaval and change in France.

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

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, IMAX

Genre: Musical

Rating: PG-13 (for suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic material)

Django Unchained

(Weinstein) Jamie Foxx, Leonardo di Caprio, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson. A bounty hunter frees a slave to help him track down a pair of murderers whose identity only the slave – Django – knows. From there they become a formidable pair in the pre-Civil War South but Django has his own agenda; to rescue his wife from brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie but this rescue will have a much higher price than anyone could have imagined

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Western

Rating: R (for strong graphic violence throughout, a vicious fight, language and some nudity)

Parental Guidance

(20th Century Fox) Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Marisa Tomei, Tom Everett Scott. A pair of old-fashioned grandparents are enlisted to watch their grandchildren while the parents are forced to go away for work. 20th century old school meets 21st century new school in a cage match with the winner getting a shot at the main event at Parentmania. Let the parental smackdown begin!

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG (for some rude humor)