Sunday, December 30, 2012

Tarantino Deconstructs Slavery in Django Unchained

     When a new Tarantino film is announced, it's like an unexpected and surprising gift. The first question is usually the same: what subject will be the focus of his signature and singular style? In 1997, Jackie Brown was his homage to the Pam Grier Blaxploitation flicks of the 1970's. Six years later, we got the wonderful Kill Bill, the ultra-bloody and winking nod to the Kung-Fu films of Asian cinema that he was infatuated with during his childhood.  Then just three years ago, Inglorious Basterds--the best film of 2009--was a World War II revenge fantasy that was as funny as it was exciting. Django Unchained, released on Christmas day, is his newest, a love-letter to the Spaghetti Westerns of yore with a slavery-focused plot that doesn't pretend to be politically correct: the N-word flows more freely than the brimming blood--and there is a lot of blood. What it all amounts to is a fun and simple film that doesn't rank among the director's best work but is still one of the more entertaining and stylistic films of the year.
     Jaime Foxx is the titular character, Django, and he and his wife are slaves that get split up in a trade. While he's being transported with a group of other chained slaves, we meet Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist/bounty hunter who needs Django to identify a trio of brothers that have large bounties on their heads. So he buys and frees him, and the two team up in buddy-comedy style fashion. The two work well of each other. Foxx plays Django as a quiet man on a mission. Will Smith was actually offered the role of Django, but Foxx is a better choice: his gruff stares and I've-been-through-everything confidence makes you hopeful for his inevitable revenge. Waltz, just as he chewed every scene in Inglorious Basterds, is the best aspect of Django. But that's just as much a testament to Tarantino's script, specifically his signature dialogue that allows for comical pauses and mannerisms that really suit Waltz's acting style.
     The first half of Django Unchained has some comical scenes that are hit-or-miss. It's great first meeting Dr. Schultz, with his horse carriage that has a large fake tooth on a spring on top, swinging back and forth signifying that he's a dentist. A less funny scene involves some Klanish men complaining on and on about how they can't see out of their white hood eye holes because the notches are not cut large enough. It's not unfunny because it's offensive--it's just repetitive. Though there is something to be said about how uncomfortable it is laughing at certain aspects of Django in a theater with a bunch of other white people. No punches are pulled: the N-word is used in all matter of scenes, joking or serious. But this is how these men and women would talk during this time period in this location. They wouldn't hesitate using this type of language without even thinking twice about it, just like we don't think twice about any normal word we use on a daily basis as Americans living in the year (almost) 2013. Spike Lee can cry all he wants--it's an honest and unflinching look at certain aspects of the horrors of slavery.
     Django really picks up when our heroic duo enters "Candy Land", a plantation where Django's wife is being held. It's called that because it's owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), a horrific person whose love for racism is only outmatched by his love for "Mandingo" fighting, a form of battling to the death between two black slaves for entertainment of white folk. Dicaprio's performance is definitely a highlight of Django, though playing a villain in a Tarantino film seems not too difficult given the screenwriter's eye for vicious and violent characters. Another high (and surprising) point is the performance of Samuel L. Jackson, who portrays Candie's so-called "House Ni**er", a man with tons of self pity, a black man who is disgusted by black people. When Django rides into Candy Land on a horse (since he is a free man due to Dr. Schultz), Jackson's reaction and performance (for the rest of the film, really) is funny and transfixing.
     Like in Kill Bill Vol. 1, Django Unchained builds inevitable Tarantino tension to a final showdown that involves over-the-top violence and hundreds of gallons of blood. The killings are not too serious or realistic: gunshot wounds spurt gobs of blood that would fill up a bathtub, almost like a bullet entering the body would shoot out every ounce of plasma out of the sizzling hole. It's cartoonish and eventually grows a bit tiresome, mainly because the shootouts are not quite as innovate as the large-scale combat in Kill Bill Vol 1. or the intimate basement bar scene in Inglorious Basterds. And that's a good sum up about how I feel about Django Unchained: it's got the typical moments of  fun brilliance that Tarantino is known for, but it never really matches the highs of his previous cinematic oeuvre, and at nearly three hours, it's a bit overlong too.
     Another problem with the film: for a movie called "Django Unchained", you would think the character of Django would become "unchained", become empowered, become something larger than himself. But that doesn't really happen. It's more of a white man's fantasy film: the white Dr. Schultz frees Django, he helps Django, and when an important moment of standing up to tyranny occurs, its the white Dr. Schultz that takes action instead of the former slave. Foxx's Django rarely does anything meaningful in regards to taking control of his situation. He's perfectly happy with Schultz leading the way. Ultimately, though, this is just a fun film about slavery (seems like an oxymoron) that is full of both horror and humor. I just wish Django had taken a more serious stand against that horror.     (B+)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

No Need to Find a Silver Lining in Silver Linings Playbook

      Bradley Cooper has gotten a bad wrap, but one that has been earned: with film choices like The Hangover, the dreadful Hangover 2, the nap-inducing action movie The A-Team, and the I-think-I-just-threw-up-in-my-mouth ensemble comedy Valentine's Day, Cooper has proven that he doesn't mind being in throwaway films that have no home on the cinematic landscape. It's surprising, then, that he shines so bright in Silver Linings Playbook--based on the book of the same name by Matthew Quick--a film directed by David O Russell that's real and emotional and full of moments that make you wish more films touched upon this type of exciting terrain.
     Pat (Cooper) is Bipolar, and when we first meet him he's being released from a mental institution (which he was attending for beating someone almost to death, though I won't get into specifics). Pat's changed significantly since he's been locked away: he's lost a bunch of weight, works out a lot, and tries to be much more positive about everything in life--tries to find the silver lining no matter the situation. He has one goal: do absolutely everything in his power to get his wife back; unfortunately, she has a restraining order against him. It's quickly clear that Pat still has some major issues to deal with, particularly when he moves back in with his parents, Pat Sr. (Robert Deniro, in one of his best roles in years) and Dolores (Jacki Weaver, who was so good in that little Australian crime drama, Animal Kingdom). When examining Deniro's character, it's certain that Pat Jr. has inherited some of his dad's traits: Pat Sr. is obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles (NFL football plays a major role in Silver Linings), and he has an OCD nature in regards to remote control placement and who is sitting where on the sofa when watching the game. He isn't allowed at the stadium anymore--he's beaten up too many fans. 
     In his journey to win back his wife, Pat happens upon Tiffany (the always-transfixing Jennifer Lawrence), a young widow who is dealing with some major emotional issues of her own. Tiffany's a great foil to Pat: she doesn't deal with any of his shit and calls him out when he's clearly in the wrong. Lawrence herself is awesome. If you're looking for her pivotal performance of 2012, put The Hunger Games back on the shelf and look no further than here. She (emotionally) bares all. As they start to build a friendship, it's obvious that Tiffany want's more than just a crazy guy to hang out with. But Pat doesn't want to cheat on his wife, even though he hasn't seen her for almost a year. This tension propels the film into a funny and nerve-wracking final third that involves a huge bet, a dance competition, and the finding of true love.
      But Cooper is the real star in Silver Linings Playbook. His portrayal of Pat is funny and dangerous: this is a man that speaks with "no filter", a man who could go off on a violent tangent at any given moment--a nostalgic song or an Ernest Hemingway book could set him off. He feels real, like a friend or a friend of a friend. David O Russell's direction keeps things moving, too. I remember watching the trailer for this film a few months back: I thought it looked like utter crap with dull jokes and a predictable story. But that couldn't be further from the truth. Like his work in 2010's The Fighter, everything melds together into a wonderful fast-paced story about a man trying to accomplish his goals, whether that be winning a boxing title or winning his wife back.
     There are so many things going on in Silver Linings, yet the sum of every aspect equals one of the best romantic films of the year, a movie that is truly of our time. Like Pat, the film itself is all over the place: at one moment you could be shocked by the things that it says, one moment can bring tears to your eyes and another moment can give you a wide smile from its humor. By the time we get to know these characters and the film is almost over, the outcome may seem like it's going to be predictable. It doesn't especially make a difference, because the journey of watching Silver Linings Playbook--a romantic drama that is one of the best films of the year--surely isn't.      (A-)


Sunday, December 23, 2012

An Unexpected Journey: 1/3 of The Hobbit Trilogy and 1/3 of a Great Movie

     The Lord of the Rings trilogy, arguably the most beloved group of fantasy novels this side of A Song of Ice and Fire, amassed over 1100 pages of written word by J. R. R. Tolkien throughout the years. Nine years ago, director Peter Jackson miraculously finished turning those 1100 dense pages into three films that were perfect in their emotional depiction of Frodo's epic journey with The Ring. Flash forward to this year and Peter Jackson is showing the world his first film in a new trilogy based on The Hobbit, Tolkien's more lighthearted story that weighs in at just over...300 pages. So, 1100 pages = 3 films for the first trilogy, and 300 pages = 3 films for the second trilogy. Something doesn't feel quite right, and it's not: Jackson's first film in the so-called Hobbit trilogy, subtitled An Unexpected Journey, has plenty of exciting action and incredible special effects, but with a run time of nearly three hours, they are few and far between. It's a small story that's going to be stretched into a long film series, and this first film suffers for it--it's mostly set-up instead of sensational.
     The story is set 60 years before the events of Lord of the Rings: Bilbo Baggins (now portrayed by a younger Martin Freeman instead of Ian Holm of the original Rings films) is living a nice quiet life on the hillside, with gorgeous sunlit views and scrumptious food. Wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen, who hasn't missed a beat since playing the The Grey in the original trilogy) shows up, smoking his peace pipe, and he convinces Bilbo to go on an adventure (an unexpected journey, if you will). So in walk 13 dwarfs, and the group sets out on dangerous mission...wait, no they don't. Jackson focuses on these new characters for as long as time will allow: they eat all of Bilbo's food, make fun of Bilbo, tell stories, sing songs, and put away dishes quicker than the forest animals in Snow White. They try to convince Bilbo to go, but he's reluctant. They try to convince him even more--a clear problem in trying to expand this story into three films.
     Inevitably, off they go on their adventure! The dwarfs are led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and they are questing across Middle Earth to attempt to reclaim their homeland, The Lonely Mountain, which is now the lair of a powerful Dragon named Smaug (we see barely a glimpse of the fire-breather in this installment). Bilbo and Gandalf tag along for moral support. Even the most devoted fans of the Rings universe will grow somewhat weary of the proceedings: there's a lot of walking and talking and orc-fighting, then more running and yelling and vacationing at an Elvish resort that almost put me to sleep. There's no real tension or danger: we know Bilbo lives because he's a character in Lord of the Rings, we know there are two more installments in this story, and every single time the group is super far up shit creek, Gandalf casts a spell or kisses a butterfly and enemies turn to stone or giant eagles swoop in to carry the group to safety.
     Martin Freeman does a fine job as Bilbo, showing off some of the same awkward nice-guy charm and sarcasm that he displayed so well in the British (definitive) version of The Office. The other performances are solid, too. The visuals are the other major problem with this first installment of The Hobbit. I'm hesitant to criticize a film because of its 3-D or frame rate. But Peter Jackson has made an interesting decision with An Unexpected Journey: he filmed it in 48 FPS instead of the standard 24 FPS. (You can only see this 48 FPS version at certain theaters, maybe only Westbrook in is sometimes referred to as "HFR"). This decision was made to reduce motion blur and flickering that can be found in fast-paced films that are filmed at 24 FPS (basically every film now produced). A few things can be said about the higher frame rate: it is incredibly realistic. You won't see a clearer image in film, and it causes some scenes to be strikingly beautiful. But it has the feel of a new television's settings, where everything is sped up a little and looks like it has been filmed with a video camera. A very non-cinematic feel. Consequently, I don't care to ever see a movie filmed in 48 frames per second ever again. The 3-D, in its typical atrocity, muddies the image in a dark tint and induces the normal rubbing of eyes.
     Late into the run time of An Unexpected Journey, Bilbo falls down into a cave that is patrolled by a Rings favorite, Gollum (portrayed brilliantly with motion capture by Andy Serkis, again). He adds an excitement and danger that had been lacking in the film until that point, especially when he loses his ring and suspects Bilbo of the thievery. But this feeling is really just nostalgia for the original Rings trilogy, when excitement, danger and tension lurked among every dark place like a ring wraith waiting for the kill. There was no filler, because there was no time for filler. The same can't be said for this first third of The Hobbit story, though Peter Jackson did do something correctly: he left plenty of room for improvement.     (C+) 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Life of Pi, a Feast for the Eyes

     When the news was announced a couple years ago that Yann Martel's 2001 book, Life of Pi, was going to be adapted into a feature film, most readers were curious and apprehensive. They were concerned that the set-up of the story--where a young boy named Pi spends hundreds of days at sea in a life boat with a zebra, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker--wouldn't translate to the world of film. The director certainly couldn't use real animals; it would be far too dangerous and much too difficult. Then the film adaptation gained two more curiosities: the director would be Ang Lee, a talent that fared well with small dramas (Brokeback Mountain) but produced mixed results with big budgets (The Hulk). And it would also be in 3-D, the fad that typically doesn't add anything to a film other than a couple extra dollars to the price of an already-expensive movie ticket.
     Dodging the difficulties of the source material like Pi dodges the tiger as they float in the same boat far out to sea, Ang Lee defies the large expectations and creates a really solid film that starts slow (like the book) but becomes an arresting and emotional experience that is an incredible visual eyegasm, using 3-D as part of the entire experience instead of a cheesy gimmick. Everything is gorgeous: the rolling ocean, the real and CGI animals, the hallucinogenic dream sequences. Not unlike last year's Hugo, Life of Pi is a story for every age group that has a wondrous quality that reaffirms the hope that cinema can make a viewer feel, and although some of the lessons--about the power of divinity and the importance of storytelling--are obvious and not too deep, Lee's poetic cameras sail the film almost into my list of the year's best.
     The Pi of the film's title is Piscine Patel, and he's played by three different actors during three different time periods. The film starts with the adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) telling his life story to a writer looking for inspiration. As a young boy, Pi was picked on for his name (the local child bullies called him "Pissing"). His family owned a zoo full of exotic and dangerous creatures. Ever curious about life and the reason for "being", he begins to fall in love with the curiosity of religion, adapting certain beliefs from Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. Eventually, Pi's father decides that the Zoo isn't profitable anymore: he's going to move his family and all of the animals across the ocean on a big ship, settling in Canada and selling the creatures for a profit.

     The film goes from slow to stupendous during this trip across the sea. Pi is now a teenager, and he's portrayed by Suraj Sharma. His performance is the second best part of Life of Pi after the technical aspects: Sharma showcases a curiosity and kindness that helps ground the overpowering beauty of the film. It's no secret that the large ship (during a very large storm) succumbs to the hungry ocean and Pi escapes to the lifeboat with a few furry friends (or foes...). Pi must brave every aspect of the sea to survive. He keeps his mind occupied by trying to tend to the tiger instead of trying to get rid of it (he even saves its life at one point instead of letting it drown in a particularly sad scene). Does Pi find God? Can religion save him from the deep depths of the ocean? Or will his hope and will to survive come from different means? 
     Who really cares? Just look at how gosh darn pretty that 3-D is! It really is maybe the best use ever. It doesn't smash you over the head with jumpy things flying at you. It really adds another dimension to the film, which is rare in 3-D in this day and age. Enough can't be said about how good Life of Pi looks: you're doing yourself a disservice if you're planning on viewing the film once it gets released on Blu-Ray (Jesus...don't tell me you were going to watch it on DVD quality). See it in the theater with the annoying 3-D glasses, preferably on the biggest screen possible. 
     I won't ruin it for non-book readers, but the ending of Life of Pi (the book and the film) gives the viewer/reader a disturbing choice. This choice becomes an open-ended question that a viewer could ponder for as long as they desired. It's too bad that some of Pi's curiosities about life and its lessons before that reveal are simple and are not cause for too much thought. Ultimately, Lee's version of Life of Pi is just as enjoyable as the very popular book, due to it's incredible beauty and poetic nature. But since the film's technical aspects are so impressive and its story a bit easy, I found it hard not to judge this book by its cover.     (B+)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Killing Them Softly, A Political Parable

     In 1982, a new form of research about upcoming films (other than reviews) was introduced into the media: it was called CinemaScore. CinemaScore surveys film audiences as they leave the theater and gauges their reactions to the films they just witnessed. The surveyors ask each member of the audience to give the film a letter grade, and the average letter grade of all of the polled data for a specific film becomes that film's CinemaScore. Letter grades in general are sort of arbitrary when it comes to rating and reviewing forms of art; words and the content of reviews clearly mean much more. So why am I mentioning this form of rating? Well, here are some examples of recent films and their CinemaScores:

Taken 2: B+
The newest Twilight: A
Alex Cross (starring Tyler Perry) A
Transformers: Dark of the Moon: A
Fast Five: A

What do these movies have in common? None of them are worthy of such high grades. It's all uninspired or unoriginal or unrealistic dreck. Consequently, when I heard that Killing Them Softly, the new film by Andrew Dominik (the director of 2007's wonderful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), received an "F"--one of only 8 films ever to receive that grade--on the notoriously inaccurate CinemaScore, I was even more interested to see it. And my excitement was certainly well-justified: Killing Them Softly is a really good American film, a story about how even gangsters were susceptible to the economic recession that is filled with unlucky criminals, hitmen, snappy-vulgar dialogue, and flashes of brutal, realistic violence.
     Within a few seconds after the lights in the theater dim and Killing Them Softly starts, two things are clear: Andrew Dominick is a director with an incredible visual flourish and this is a film that is very present in its political metaphors. Barack Obama's voice from an important speech is cut back and forth with eerie music and views of a criminal who is barely surviving. This man, an Australian drug addict named Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) and his friend, the nervous Frankie (Scoot McNairy), are two scum-suckers who get talked into a seemingly easy job by their sort-of boss: they are to rob a big-buy-in cash card game filled with gangster players. This game is run by Mark Trattman (Ray Liotta, in a different role than normal, playing off of his typical typecasting), a man who hired two other dudes to rob the first card game he arranged, pretending he was one of the victims and splitting the cash afterwards. The beauty of this job is simple: these dangerous men playing in the high-stakes game will think that Mark has pulled the same shit again, and he will get blamed for this card-game incident. Russell and Frankie will be able to ride off into the sunset as Markie gets whacked, even though he wasn't actually in on this robbery.
     Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a man who solves mob problems, generally with the barrel and bullet of a gun. One of his rules is he doesn't like to kill anyone that he knows...doesn't want to get close to them. When that happens, emotion tends to get in the way. He likes to "kill them softly", from a distance, so he doesn't have to feel guilt or smell the piss that dribbles down the soon-to-be-dead man's pants. Pitt displays much of the same calm ferocity that he showcased in Assassination of Jesse James. He is great, as usual. As things happen, and more people need to die, Cogan often meets with a higher-up, kind-of middle man executive to the decision-making CEO's of the crime syndicate named Driver (Richard Jenkins). These conversational scenes echo the same problems of normal civilian employees in America: the inability to give out more money and the carefulness that business owners feel when their revenue stream has taken a major hit.
     One surprise in Killing Them Softly was the great James Gandolfini (I hope I don't have to tell you of The Sopranos fame...), portraying a character named Mickey who is brought into town by Cogan to perform one of the violent hits. It's been a few years since Cogan has worked with Mickey, and the years haven't been kind: because of money and marital problems and a violent alcoholism, Mickey has become fat and angry, spewing vulgarities at the nice waiters who serve him his drinks and nice whores who service his sex drive. He paints a great picture of what men like this must end up as when the money runs out and they have no use anymore. The real star of Killing Them Softly, though, is director Andrew Dominik and his skillful use of the camera. The film--other than the occasional bangs of bloody violence--is mainly a bunch of conversations about who should and who shouldn't die as America's economy is crumbling. But even the most normally-boring conversations, like one between Russell and Frankie as Russell is in a semi-sleep state due to drugs and exhaustion, are inspired and beautiful to watch. Or take one scene of slow-mo killing (a technique that has become incredibly stale since The Matrix) that is transfixing, even though is uses Bullet-Time! Truly visionary stuff.
     Sure, sometimes the political underpinnings that show up during many scenes in Killing Them Softly are heavy-handed and a bit obvious: we don't need a radio soundbite of George Bush speaking at a convention or a news clip of Barack Obama on a bar television screen to draw similarities to the situations that the film's characters face. And sure, this also isn't new territory in regards to story: much of this has been done before on dozens of occasions throughout the last twenty years of film and television. But the combination of all the aspects--the great cast, the snappy script, and specifically Dominik's direction--adds up to a small and worthwhile film that depicts how violent men who make their money illegally deal with a collapsing economic system.     (B+)