Baby Driver


Baby and Debora want their Big Mac meals right NOW!!!

(2017) Action Comedy (TriStar) Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm, Lily James, Elza Gonzalez, Micah Howard, Morgan Brown, Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, Morse Diggs, Flea, CJ Jones, Paul Williams, Big Boi, Killer Mike, Lance Palmer, Sky Ferreira, Lanny Joon, Hudson Meek, Brogan Hall, Richard Marcos Taylor, Viviana Chavez, Hal Whiteside, Brigitte Kali. Directed by Edgar Wright

 

This has been a really good year for quirky action movies and this one is one of the best of the year. British director Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) channels Tarantino through a Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack filter and turns in an absolute gem.

Baby (Elgort) is a getaway driver par excellence. Due to a childhood accident, he suffers from tinnitus – a ringing of the ear that can sometimes be distracting. To combat this, he wears an iPod and ear buds to drown out the white noise with classic rock and roll from such diverse groups as The Damned, Golden Earring, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and T-Rex.

He works for a criminal named Doc (Spacey) who robs banks, although he doesn’t actually do the robbing himself; he puts together the master pan and assembles the crews. The only common denominator is Baby who he considers his “good luck charm” and who besides owes Doc a debt which he pays for with each job. Baby has one more job to go before the debt is paid but Doc doesn’t really want to let him go.

The trouble is from Doc’s standpoint is that Baby has found himself a girlfriend, Debora (James) who waitresses at the diner he frequents. The two are eager to get the heck out of Dodge (or at least Atlanta) and drive west and never stop but Doc has Baby sucked in. Still, Baby has his own plans and he might just be able to outthink the brilliant Doc if he gets a few breaks going his way.

The action sequences which were done practically and without CGI are flat-out amazing. Some of the best car chase sequences since Bullitt populate this film. The backstory and mythology of the piece is riveting and Wright populates this world with a cast of characters that would do the aforementioned Tarantino proud. The dialogue as you would expect from an Edgar Wright film is smart and occasionally brilliant.

Elgort who has not impressed me particularly to this point does so here. He’s done a lot of teen heartthrob films and he is completely wasted in them; this is the kind of movie he was born to do and he makes the most of it. The rest of the cast is uniformly at the top of their games, with Hamm and Foxx particularly noteworthy.

Since allegations of sexual misconduct came out against Spacey a few weeks ago, there are likely many who will want to boycott the film because of his presence in it and yes, he plays a very critical role and takes up a good deal of screen time. I won’t begin to excuse his performance or advise for or against boycotting this film because of it but I will say that while he shows off the best of his abilities here, I can understand why people will want to give this film a miss because of his presence. Again, I won’t judge anyone’s moral compass other than to say that the rest of the cast and crew who made this one of the year’s best movies may deserve your support in this case but again, it is understandable if you choose to withhold it. Nevertheless this is one of the year’s best films.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are second to none. Elgort gives the best performance of his career to date and has real chemistry with James. The backstory is not only credible but entertaining. The soundtrack is spot on.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s quite possible that the film is too hip for its own good. The presence of the disgraced Spacey may make it a moral choice whether to support this film or not.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: CJ Jones, who plays Joseph (a deaf character) is himself deaf.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan Lucky
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Mr. Roosevelt

The Hateful Eight


A blizzard can be hateful.

A blizzard can be hateful.

(2015) Western (Weinstein) Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Demián Bichir, James Parks, Dana Gourrier, Lee Horsley, Gene Jones, Quentin Tarantino (voice), Channing Tatum, Keith Jefferson, Craig Stark, Belinda Owina, Zoë Bell. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

Quentin Tarantino is one of the greatest filmmakers of our generation. Quentin Tarantino is a no-talent hack. Quentin Tarantino is the arbiter of style and cool. Quentin Tarantino is a racist and misogynist asshole. Whatever you believe Quentin Tarantino is, chances are it isn’t somewhere in the middle. Most people tend to have extreme view of his work.

His eighth film has gotten polarizing responses from critics and fans alike, not just for the occasionally brutal violence (which to be fair should be pretty much expected in a Tarantino film) to the gratuitous use of the “N” word and the occasionally over-the-top violence against a particular female character. I’ll be honest with you; I wasn’t particularly offended by any of it, but I’m neither African-American nor a woman so my perspective might be different if I were. However, I think your sensitivity to such things should determine whether you go out and see this film, or even read on in this review.

That said, I’m going to keep the story description to a bare minimum because much of what works about the movie is that you don’t see what’s coming all the time. Essentially, in post-Civil War Wyoming, a stagecoach carrying bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Russell) and his bounty, accused killer Daisy Domergue (Leigh) and their driver O.B. Jackson (Parks) are trying to outrun an approaching blizzard to safety in a mountaintop stage stop known as Minnie’s Haberdashery. However, along the way they pick up two additional passengers; fellow bounty hunter and former Northern colored regiment commander Maj. Marquis Warren (Jackson) and former irregular Chris Mannix (Goggins) who claims to be the new sheriff in Red Rock, the town that Ruth is taking Daisy to hang in.

Already at the Haberdashery are Bob (Bichir), a Mexican who is taking care of the horses; Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), an English dandy who is the local hangman; Joe Gage (Madsen) a taciturn cowboy writing a journal and General Sanford “Sandy” Smithers, a Confederate general (in uniform) who doesn’t seem much disposed to talk about anything to anybody, despite Mannix’ hero-worship.

In a sense, this is a typical Tarantino set-up; a lot of bad men put in a situation where they are enclosed and sort of trapped – a lot like his early film Reservoir Dogs although very different in execution. Bad men trapped in a confining space with each other is a formula for bad things happening, and they do in rather graphic fashion.

Russell, who was magnificent in Bone Tomahawk continues to personally revitalize the Western genre all by himself with another excellent performance here. John Ruth isn’t above giving a woman an elbow in the face to shut her up; he’s known for bringing his bounties in alive to be hung which isn’t what anyone would call merciful. He’s paranoid, testy and a bit of a loudmouth.

Jackson, a veteran of six of Tarantino’s eight films (including this one) is all Samuel L. Jackson here and all that it entails. He has a particularly nasty scene involving the relative of one of those in the Haberdashery that may or may not be true (everything all of the characters say should be taken with a grain of salt) that might be the most over-the-top thing he’s ever done cinematically and that’s saying something.

Goggins has been a supporting character actor for some time, and he steps up to the plate and delivers here. I’ve always liked him as an actor but he serves notice he’s ready for meatier roles and this one might just get him some. Dern, Madsen and Roth all give performances commensurate with their skills. Channing Tatum also shows up in a small but pivotal role.

Regular Tarantino DP Robert Richardson, already a multiple Oscar winner, outdoes himself here with the snow-covered Wyoming landscapes and the dark Haberdashery. Richardson may well be the greatest cinematographer working today but he rarely gets the respect he deserves other than from his peers. A lot of film buffs don’t know his name, but they should.

The legendary Ennio Morricone supplies the score, his first for a Western in 40 years (he is best known for his work for Sergio Leone and the Italian spaghetti western genre, among others) and it is a terrific score indeed. This is in every way a well crafted motion picture in every aspect.

Not everyone is going to love this. Some folks are going to focus on the racial slurs, the violence against Daisy and the sequence with Major Warren I referred to earlier and call this movie disgraceful, mean-spirited and racist, sexist, whatever else you can imagine. I will confess to being a huge fan of QT’s movies and so I might not be as objective here as perhaps I should, but I do think that this is one of the greatest cinematic achievements of his career and that’s saying something.

For the moment, the movie is available in a 70mm format at selected theaters around the country on a special roadshow edition. This is the first movie in 50 years to be filmed in 70mm Ultra Panavision, so it is highly recommended that if you can get to a theater presenting it this way that you take advantage of it. Otherwise it is just starting to hit regular 35mm theaters starting today. The roadshow will be available only until January 7, 2016 (unless extended) so don’t wait too long to go see it that way, the way it should be seen.

REASONS TO GO: Tremendous story. Well-acted and well-executed throughout. Gorgeous cinematography and soundtrack. The characters are well-developed for the most part.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence and racism may be too much for the sensitive.
FAMILY VALUES: A lot of graphic violence, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was nearly never made when the script was leaked online during pre-production and Tarantino elected to shelve it and rewrite it as a novel; however after Jackson advocated that the film be made anyway, Tarantino eventually relented.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wild Bunch
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Concussion

Catch .44


Now, that's what I call a catch!

Now, that’s what I call a catch!

(2011) Action/Suspense (Anchor Bay) Malin Akerman, Nikki Reed, Deborah Ann Woll, Forest Whitaker, Bruce Willis, Shea Whigham, Jimmy Lee Jr., Brad Dourif, Jill Stokesberry, P.J. Marshall, Dan Silver, Michael Rosenbaum, Edrick Browne, Christopher Alan Weaver, Amanda Bosley, Ivory Dortch, Kevin Beard, Shelby Schneider, Nikita Kahn. Directed by Aaron Harvey

Some movies look like a good idea on paper. However, once the finished product gets out there, it doesn’t quite measure up. I suspect Catch .44 was something like that.

How else do you explain the outstanding cast for what turned out to be a direct-to-video turkey? The premise, which might have caught Quentin Tarantino’s eye once upon a time before he decided to reinvent the Western involves three gorgeous girls straight out of a Russ Meyers grindhouse movie, three badass chicks in a diner who have a mission for the man they’re employed by – Mel (Willis), an utter irredeemable lowlife drug dealer.

Things go South in a hurry, bullets fly and bodies drop. Whitaker shows up as a hit man to turn the Mexican standoff into a three-way. Who will walk out of the diner alive? Will anybody care which one does? The answer to the latter is likely “no.”

The oddball thing is that the main action of the movie occurs in the first five or ten minutes, then the rest of the movie is essentially a flashback to tell you how all the characters got there which, half an hour in, you’ll slowly begin to realize that rather than using the flashback as a means of giving the characters depth, there’s just a lot of pointless meandering going on and by that time you’ll likely want to switch the DVD player off. Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs utilized much the same kind of format but was much more successful at utilizing it than Catch .44 did.

Harvey has a pretty decent visual sense – the movie looks good and he clearly was able to line up a top of the line cast. What he didn’t do was motivate them to perform up to their level of stardom. Whitaker is an Oscar winner and Willis one of the most charismatic stars of the last 20 years, but both of them seem to be sleepwalking. Whitaker affects a nearly indecipherable Spanish/Cajun accent and Willis essentially plays the standard Bruce Willis character, although there’s a surreal moment when someone plays “Respect” from his 80s attempt at rock and roll stardom, The Return of Bruno.

I did like Akerman in the lead role, and to a lesser extent Reed and Woll; Reed’s turn is a bit more sexual than the other two but frankly the script gives us little hint as to who these women are. That doesn’t give us a whole lot of incentive to identify with any of them.

I like the idea of three badass girls in a diner dealing with a deal gone wrong. We need movies like that, but we need good movies like that. Tarantino could have made a masterpiece out of this, as could a number of like-minded directors; Robert Rodriguez, for example. Sadly, this is just a forgettable bit of action fluff that starts out promising, goes nowhere and ends up in the dollar bin at Wal*Mart quicker than you can say “Is that all there is?”

WHY RENT THIS: Three beautiful girls. Nice premise. Great-looking, cinematically speaking..
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit clumsy in its execution. Most of the cast looks like they’re just there for the paycheck. Confusing storytelling.
FAMILY VALUES: A goodly amount of violence and foul language as well as a bit of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Mara and Lizzy Caplan were both originally cast but both dropped out of the movie, to be replaced by Reed and Woll, respectively.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Unknown box office on a $12M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Killing Jar
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: In Bruges

Pulp Fiction


Someone is going to get a cap in their ass.

Someone is going to get a cap in their ass.

(1994) B-Movie Noir (Miramax) John Travolta, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, Ving Rhames, Tim Roth, Eric Stoltz, Amanda Plummer, Harvey Keitel, Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Quentin Tarantino, Julia Sweeney, Phil LaMarr, Frank Whaley, Burr Steers, Rosanna Arquette, Bronagh Gallagher, Duane Whitaker, Peter Greene, Stephen Hibbert, Kathy Griffin, Maria de Madeiros. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Some movies become classics because they define an entire genre; others because they define a region. Many become classics because they define the person who made it – and Pulp Fiction does. But what sets it apart from other movies is that Pulp Fiction has come to define cool.

Pulp Fiction is ranked high on a lot of people’s lists of all-time favorite or significant (or both) films, critics and film buffs alike. Tarantino had already been receiving notice for his previous films True Romance and Reservoir Dogs but to most people, this is his artistic nadir. It would provide a serious career renaissance for Travolta and a boost for Willis, while Jackson would really hit the public radar with his incendiary performance here.

Tarantino skillfully weaves three stories – one of two career killers, Vincent Vega (Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Jackson) having a particularly bad day, a second about a prize fighter named Butch Coolidge (Willis) who fails to throw a prize fight and runs afoul of gangster Marcellus Wallace (Rhames) who also happens to be the employer of Messrs. Vega and Winnfield. Finally a third story involves Vincent’s ill-advised assignment to take out Marcellus’ wife Mia (Thurman) out for dinner and dancing. He takes her out to Jack Rabbit Slim’s, a restaurant that never existed but OMG it should have. There, waiters dressed like Hollywood stars of the 50s and 60s serve burgers, shakes and steaks to customers seated in classic cars. Slot car racers ring the room and periodic twist contests and other entertainment keep the joint hopping.

My personal favorite sequence is when Vincent and Jules head to a suburban home of mutual friend Jimmie Dimmick (Tarantino) after one of the messiest accidents you’ll ever see on film. They are forced to call The Wolf (Keitel), a fixer who specializes in clean-ups. There is a whole lot of dark humor in the scene and I always look forward to it whenever I view the movie which is pretty regularly.

Tarantino has always been a skillful writer of dialogue and he writes some of the best I’ve ever heard here. Much of it has become classic; Vincent’s laconic assertion that in France, a Quarter Pounder with cheese is called a Royale with cheese, or Jules’ Biblical oration when he’s about to shoot someone in the face and who can forget Marcellus Wallace promising that he is “going to get medieval on yo ass” to a  It is also the kind of film where bad things happen to just about everyone.

The movie combines all sorts of different genres, from black comedies to thrillers, from mob movies to fight flicks. Pulp Fiction is B-Movie noir, a tribute to the movies that weren’t so respectable but are the movies that we tend to remember even more than the high-falluting Oscar winners. These are the movies that we are raised on, the movies that make us feel just a little bit like badasses. These are the movies that appeal to the devils of our better nature, and Pulp Fiction is everything about these movies that makes them great.

WHY RENT THIS: A true classic with some of the best dialogue ever written. Terrific performances by Travolta, Jackson, Thurman and Keitel.  Awesome soundtrack.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be filled with a few too many pop culture references.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence and drug use as well as a ton of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Travolta and Thurman copied their twist sequence at Jack Rabbit Slim’s virtually move for move from a similar dance sequence in Fellini’s 8 1/2 by Barbara Steele and Mario Pisu.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Collector’s Edition DVD includes a feature from Siskel & Ebert At the Movies on Tarantino and his generation of filmmakers, Tarantino’s acceptance speech when the film won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, an interview of Tarantino by Charlie Rose and a menu from Jack Rabbit Slim’s. The Blu-Ray has all of these other than the menu.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $213.9M on an $8M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Reservoir Dogs

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: The World is Not Enough

Florida Film Festival 2013


Florida Film Festival 2013

The Florida Film Festival will be returning from April 5 through April 14. As in years past, Cinema365 is proud to cover our local film festival and this year will be bigger and better than any year before, with 173 features and short films taking up screen time. Voted one of the 50 best film festivals in the world, it’s different than the industry shmoozefests that are Sundance, Tribeca and TIFF. Those are places where filmmakers go to make a deal. FFF is where they go to mingle with the audience. There is an intimate feel that is missing from some film festivals where there is so much going on that you’re exhausted from day one. There is a more leisurely pace here but even so by the 14th you may well be reaching your limit.

The guest of honor this year is legendary Hollywood actress Tippi Hedren who will be honored with a screening of her classic film The Birds. She’ll be on hand to answer qustions, some of which hopefully will be about her new film Free Samples which will also be playing at the festival. These events always sell out so you won’t want to wait too long before getting your ticket. Also attending the festival will be renowned stuntwoman/actress Zoe Bell who will be on hand for a screening of Deathproof, the Quentin Tarantino-directed half of Grindhouse.  She’s done some of the most amazing stunts of the past decade so you won’t want to miss that either. Finally for those of a more romantic bent, the Festival will have Sunday brunch on the 14th with a screening of one of my all-time favorites The Princess Bride with star Cary Elwes in attendence. This promises to be an unforgettable event and, like the other celebrity appearances, is likely to sell out early.

But a film festival is all about, well, films and as usual there are a plethora of exciting entries at this year’s festival. While I’m not going to preview them all here, I will give you some films that I think are worth looking out for. The opening night slot is always a big deal at any film festival and the FFF is no different. This year the honor goes to Twenty Feet from Stardom, an acclaimed documentary that drew raves at Sundance earlier this year. For those who love classic rock and roll, the film focuses on the backup singers who share the stage and recording studio with some of the biggest stars and on the biggest hits of all time. It’s an amazing get up and dance kind of movie that is bound to have opening nighters boogaloo-ing in the aisles. Opening night is another event that sells out early so you’ll want to order your ticets as soon as you can.

Unfinished Song stars Terrence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave in a film that reminds me a little bit of Young @ Heart, about a grumpy senior whose life is transformed by singing in a chorus. Lore takes place at the end of World War II in occupied Germany when a group of children whose parents were arrested as Nazis try to make their way across the country to their grandmother’s. Renoir is the story of the love triangle between the great Impressionist, his son and his model slash muse. It looks achingly beautiful. Mud stars Matthew McConaughey , Reese Witherspoon and Sam Shepard in a thriller about a couple of kids who befriend a man on the run from the law, who is haunted by the woman who may have inspired him to do wrong.

V/H/S 2 is the sequel to the hit indie horror anthology and should be packing them in at midnight showings. So too should Cockneys vs. Zombies, a East End-set zombie flick that looks to be a worthy successor to Shaun of the Dead with a wicked sense of humor that had preview audiences laughing til they screamed. Starbuck is a French-Canadian film about a man who is ready to be a father of his girlfriend’s child although she is none too certain about his paternal skills. Matters aren’t helped when it is discovered that as a repeated sperm donor back in the day he had wound up fathering over 500 children. I’m sure his tie collection will be legendary.

SOMM is a food documentary chronicling the difficult process of becoming certified as a master sommelier. In the music realm Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me and AKA Doc Pomus look back at legendary figures in classic rock and roll while Bad Brains: A Band in DC looks at one of the most influential punk bands of all time.

The narrative competition films have some real promising entries this year, with The Forgotten Kingdom following a young man’s journey to reconnect with his family in Leostho, Putzel which is a different kind of romantic comedy (I know a lot of rom-coms claim that but this one really looks like the real deal), The History of Future Folk which has the daft premise of an alien invasion which goes awry when the aliens decide to become folksingers, All the Light in the Sky in the meantime follows an aging actress who is watching her indie career dwindle as younger actresses nab the roles that once went to her. Nancy, Please is a terrifying thriller about the roommate from Hell who goes to extreme lengths to reclaim the book she left behind and Be Good which observes new parents adopting to their changing roles.

The documentary competition is equally impressive with Year of the Living Dead which looks back on the lasting impact of George A. Romero’s legendary Night of the Living Dead while Magical Universe explores the bizaare world of artist Al Carbee’s Barbie-centric art. Shepard and Dark explores the unique and moving friendship (mostly expressed through correspondence) between actor/playwright Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark who was at one time married to the mother of Shepard’s wife. Informant traces the path of Brandon Darby from respected activist to FBI informant while Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story traces the career of revolutionary children’s book illustrator Tomi Ungerer.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Films like 8 1/2, Sleeper, The Sting and Pulp Fiction will also be screened as well as a plethora of foreign films, short films, documentaries, narrative features, family films and animated shorts. Individual tickets will go on sale on March 17th (this Sunday) although you can still buy passes and packages of five, ten and twenty vouchers which can be redeemed for individual films right now. For more details on the festival, ticket purchase information and directions to the festival venues, click on the logo above which will take you right to the Festival website. That same logo will appear on all festival film reviews even after the festival is over.

It should be noted that nearly every year since I started attending this event my number one movie on the year-end countdown has played at the Festival. Some of the films that have played here have gone on to commercial success (The Blair Witch Project) or Oscar nominations (Winter’s Bone). While there are no guarantees, I can tell you that this is one of the best-curated festivals that I’m aware of and the overall quality of the films that play it are nothing short of spectacular.

Enzian president Henry Maldonado liked the Festival to a gathering of friends, not unlike a reunion and he’s right. The atmosphere at the Festival is like none other I’ve experienced. Part of that is due to the bucolic scenery at the Enzian itself (although the atmosphere at the neighboring Regal multiplex in Winter Park Village where many of the screenings take place is no less idyllic) but most of the credit goes to the staff, volunteers and the attendees themselves. This is the kind of thing that loses something in the translation but once experienced for yourself will hook you for life. Even if I were to move out of the Orlando area, I’d come back every year for the FFF. I hope I’ll see some of my Orlando-area readers at the Festival; those who can travel to come see it should make the effort to do so. This is no theme park but if you’re a movie buff, this is so much better.

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)

Kill Bill: Vol. 2


Kill Bill: Vol. 2

Uma Thurman is astonished to find a white-haired Chinese master growing out of the end of her stick.

(2004) Action (Miramax) Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen, Daryl Hannah, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Bo Svenson, Samuel L. Jackson, Sid Haig, Perla Haney-Jardine, Caitlin Keats, Jeannie Epper, Vivica A. Fox, Lucy Liu, Stephanie L. Moore, Shana Stein. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

The first Kill Bill was an action-heavy revenge flick that sent the Bride (Thurman) after her fellow members of an elite assassination squad who had participated in murdering her groom at the altar, massacring everyone in attendance at the wedding and leaving her for dead. She is working her way up to Bill (Carradine), the leader of the squad and her former lover.

First she’s going after Budd (Madsen), aka Sidewinder, Bill’s brother and a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad. However, after the demises of the various members in the first film, Budd is waiting for her with a double barreled shotgun packed with rock salt. The force of the blast knocks out the Bride, whom Budd proceeds to bury alive. He offers to sell the Hattori Hanzo sword she had made in the first film to Elle Driver (Hannah) aka California Mountain Snake for a million bucks. However, Elle double crosses him and leads a deadly Black Mamba viper in the satchel with the cash, which bites Budd and finishes him off.

However, the Bride during her training with Pai Mei (G. Liu) – told in flashbacks – learned how to break wooden planks with her bare hands from short distances away (most martial artists use the full extension of their arms to break boards) and she does so, allowing her to break the planks and claw through the dirt to freedom.

More than a little hacked off she returns to the double wide where Budd shot her and finds him dead there with Elle still there gathering up her cash and the sword. The Bride gets in an epic battle with the one-eyed Elle and eventually beats her, plucking out her remaining eye and leaving her for the Mamba which is loose in the trailer.

Now it is time for her to take on her nemesis, her former lover and former employer. When she finally meets up with Bill, things won’t go as expected; she’ll be forced to confront some truths about herself and about her life and make peace with who she is before she can Kill Bill.

If anything, this is even better than the first film which was a non-stop action funfest that paid homage to nearly every genre of modern grindhouse movie imaginable, from samurai films, wu shu epics,  blaxploitation to anime. This one has a few more homages but to be honest, this is where the meat and potatoes of the storytelling lies. It is here where you get the emotional payoff that the first movie was leading up to.

Thurman is less robotic here and while she isn’t the most expressive actress ever, this is one of her better performances. Carradine, the “Kung Fu” veteran who had largely been forgotten in the 90s showing up in cameo appearances in cheesy exploitation films, gives the performance of his career here. Mainly an off-screen presence in the first film, he shows both the tender and murderous sides of his character, and demonstrates the cunning that  a hunter of human beings would have. The conversation between him and his former lover that makes up most of the end of the film is really one of the most compelling confrontations in cinematic history – and there really isn’t a whole lot of action going for it, but what action there is pays off big time.

The two films do stand alone pretty well individually, but really to get the maximum effectiveness from Vol. 2 you have to at least have some knowledge from Vol. 1. Those who haven’t seen the first film at all may be a little bit lost throughout the film and certainly the emotional wallop of the last scenes won’t be as intense.

Although Tarantino has gone on to direct some amazing films both before this and after it, to my way of thinking this remains his magnum opus and maybe the masterpiece that will always define his career. What distinguishes him here is that while he has always been a fan of movies first and foremost, he never loses sight of the power of good storytelling. In other words, he doesn’t just mimic a few genres for film geek cred; he understands what makes those genres work and links them together with a story of epic grandeur, one that shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that a woman wronged is nobody you want to mess with.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the most amazing action films of all time. Carradine gives a career-reviving performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: You really need to at least be familiar with Vol. 1 in order to appreciate this.

FAMILY VALUES:  As with the first volume, there is a whole lot of violence and a whole lot of bad language; there’s also a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The two volumes were always meant to be seen as one film. However, it has only been screened as such just twice – at Cannes and then in 2010

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a performance from the movie’s premiere by Chingon, the band fronted by director Robert Rodriguez (who contributed some music for the film).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $152.2M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill Bill: Vol. 1

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Kill Bill: Vol. 1


Kill Bill Vol. 1

Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!

(2003) Action (Miramax) Uma Thurman, Michael Madsen, Darryl Hannah, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, Sonny Chiba, David Carradine, Julie Dreyfus, Chiaki Kuriyama, Gordon Liu, Michael Parks, Michael Bowen, Jun Kunimura, Kenji Oba, Yuki Kazamatsuri. Directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

Quentin Tarantino is hipper than just about everybody, and he knows it. That’s OK, though; the guy knows movies. He understands the art that is the “B” movie, the kind of stuff at which most critics turn up their noses, or use to play the trash hip.

Kill Bill is Tarantino’s magnum opus, a loving tribute to movies he loves and admires, from Japanese samurai flicks to film noir to anime to blaxploitation to Hong Kong martial arts movies. And he delivers it with impeachable visual sense and a crafty sense of humor. The movie is so long and complex that it was divided into two separate movies and released a year apart. While that can be absolutely fatal for certain films that have tried much the same thing (I’m looking at you, last two movies of the Matrix trilogy), the two Kill Bill films each stand on their own.

The story: The Bride (Thurman) used to be Black Mamba, a lethal assassin and a member of the Deadly Vipers Assassination Squad, but has decided to leave the business and get married. Bill (Carradine, whose face is never seen in the first film), her former employer, disagrees and appoints her former cohorts Copperhead (Fox), Cottonmouth (Liu), California Mountain Snake (Hannah) and Sidewinder (Madsen) to send his regards. After a savage beating of the Bride and her Groom, Bill delivers the coup de grace – a bullet to her head – personally.

Fast forward four years. The Bride awakens to find everyone she loves murdered and her life over. Having been an assassin, she decides to put her talents to use against those who wronged her, leading up to her former employer. As she goes after each member of the squad, she is aided by a retired Japanese sword maker, Hattori Hanzo (Chiba), who makes her a special weapon to use in her quest.

The story is not told sequentially; it begins at the second name on her death list and goes from there. Tarantino’s jumping around in time makes sense; the first name on the list, Cottonmouth – otherwise known as O-Ren Ishii, is the more spectacular and difficult “hit” of the two presented here, and makes a far more fitting finale for this volume than would the second, which is almost anti-climactic.

Tarantino also divides the movie into chapters, with each in a different genre; from the Samurai style (the sword making sequence) to anime (the Cottonmouth backstory), blaxploitation (the Copperhead sequence) and a good, old-fashioned Hong Kong swordfight (The House of the Blue Leaves sequence that closes the film).

At each turn, Tarantino pays tribute to heroes and genres of the ’60s and ’70s, from the casting of Carradine, Liu and Chiba to the use of Bruce Lee’s yellow tracksuit (from his final film Game of Death) in the House of Blue Leaves chapter (of course, it’s not the actual tracksuit).

Part of the mandate for Tarrantino here is to inspire people to see the second portion of the movie, and he does that. There are interesting twists, and the fight sequences are nothing short of astonishing, particularly the House of Blue Leaves portion, and the one-on-one dual between Liu and Thurman that follows immediately thereafter. There is some wire work, yes, but it’s kept to a minimum.

The violence is gratuitous and often graphic, although sometimes almost cartoonish in nature. There are a few moments that will make squeamish sorts squirm (particularly the aftermath of the Blue Leaves portion) but the blood that fountains out of the Bride’s victims is thinner than water, for what may be a subtle joke by the filmmaker.

Thurman is almost wooden, which I think is purposeful. Her beauty and glamour are stripped away in favor of a soulless killing machine, for whom revenge has become the single point of life. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the actors either join Thurman in emotion-free fashion (Liu) or are so over the top you’d think they were making an assault on Everest (Hannah, Fox). Veterans Chiba and Carradine give restrained performances. Chiba shows why many consider him to be a gem of cinematic history. Liu, who often shows up as the old wise man with flowing white eyebrows in chop sockey films, plays much the same part.

This is a movie I admire more than I like, although I like it a lot more now than I did when I first saw it. Da Queen said that she felt like she was in a room full of master painters — Matisse, Gaugin, Monet, Rembrandt — and she had only crayons. Tarantino’s massive knowledge of film is put to good use here.

This isn’t so much a tribute, or homage as an attempt to wrap all these diverse styles into one coherent story to make a new art form, and it works most of the time. One of the calculated risks Tarantino took when he agreed to splice his film in two is that some may wind up liking the first volume only after seeing the second, and some may wind up confused or overwhelmed enough by the first to completely skip the second. That would be a shame. There will be more on the second volume in a future edition of Cinema365 but let’s just say that both movies work best in tandem with one another and while each stands alone on their own, it’s like having peanut butter without jam on your sandwich. Good, but could be better.

If you love exploitation films of the 50s, 60s and 70s, or even if you don’t, this is one of the finest action movies to come out in the first decade of the 21st century. The more often I see it, the more I like it and that certainly marks it as a classic film.

WHY RENT THIS: House of Blue Leaves sequence one of the greatest action sequences ever filmed. Tarantino’s extensive knowlege of genre films is utilized perfectly. Seeing faded action stars like Chiba, Carradine and Gordon Liu does the heart good.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the acting is a bit wooden. The dizzying array of styles may be too much for most.

FAMILY VALUES: This is as graphically violent and bloody a movie as you’re likely to see. There are a few bad words and some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The start of production was delayed due to Uma Thurman’s pregnancy. Tarantino never considered recasting; the part of The Bride was intended for her and her alone.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are a couple of music videos by The 5s, 6s, 7s, 8s, the Japanese band that played during the House of Blue Leaves sequence.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $181M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster through and through.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Game of Death

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT:Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold


POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Morgan Spurlock shows his mettle at product placement.

(2011) Documentary (Sony Classics) Morgan Spurlock, Ben Silverman, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Donald Trump, Jimmy Kimmel, J.J. Abrams, Quentin Tarantino, Peter Berg, Brett Ratner, Antonio Reid, John Wells, Rick Kurnit, Paul Brennan, Mark Crispin Miller. Directed by Morgan Spurlock

 

It’s no secret that motion pictures have become a veritable cornucopia of product placement. Actors guzzle down Coke, wear Nike t-shirts and Ray-Ban sunglasses, chew on Beemer’s gum, escape the bad guys in Mini-Coopers and snack on Reese’s Pieces with their favorite aliens. It’s a means of subtle advertisement for a variety of products who pay big money to place their products in prospective hit movies.

Movies aren’t the only place that advertising reaches us. It surrounds us nearly 24-7; on billboards, television shows, pop-ups on websites, garments, taxis, busses, skywriting – even on menus. We can’t turn around without our eyes resting on some sort of advertisement. It permeates our lives so thoroughly we barely realize it’s there anymore.

Morgan Spurlock still notices though. He came up with the concept of doing a documentary on advertising – entirely financed by product placement. He goes into meetings with executives for a variety of products, from JetBlue airlines to Mane and Tail animal care products to POM Wonderful pomegranate juice. He winds up filming some commercials for a few of them,  and actually winds up achieving his goal.

He also talks to luminaries like social commentator Noam Chomsky, consumer advocate Ralph Nader, filmmakers Brett Ratner, J.J. Abrams and Peter Berg and billionaire Donald Trump about the incessant and invasive nature of modern advertising. The talking head sequences are some of the most entertaining in the film, particularly those of Nader and Trump.

He also visits Sao Paolo in Brazil, a city which has banned all outdoor advertising. It is a stark reminder of just how much ads are a daily reality for all of us. The city looks almost naked without the billboards, signs, posters and handbills that are everywhere in the modern city.

Spurlock is a lot like Michael Moore in that he is not a documentarian who is content to stay behind the camera and allow the story to tell itself. Like Moore, he is always part of the story as he was in Super Size Me which is notable in that it was instrumental in getting McDonalds to discontinue Super-sized combo meals.

I don’t think he’ll have the same kind of affect here – there is nothing here that indicates that advertising is anything other than annoying. However, one is given pause for thought when he talks to administrators at a cash-strapped Florida school that has allowed advertising on its school grounds to help raise badly needed operational funds. You have to think that this might well be the wave of the future.

Even if he is a bit intrusive in his own documentary, Morgan is charming and pleasant enough an on-camera personality. Did his idea merit a full-length documentary feature? Probably not. However, I will give you that it at least gives one food for thought, even if it is just a Happy Meal.

WHY RENT THIS: Spurlock is always clever and funny.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not sure this was a great idea for a full length documentary.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some bad language and a little bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As a means of promoting the film, the city of Altoona, Pennsylvania change its name to POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Pennsylvania for 60 days (beginning April 27, 2011). The town was paid $25,000 for doing the promotion.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: All of the commercials Spurlock made for the various products are here in their entirety. There is also a feature on the film’s appearance at Sundance on the Blu-Ray edition.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $638,476 on a $1.8M production budget; didn’t quite make its production budget back.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Lucky