Zero Dark Thirty(1/12/2012)

1-12-2013ZeroDarkThirty

Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is one of the most controversial films of the year for a variety of political reasons, but what it’s done to really piss me off is take a goddamn eternity to finally come out.  While the cities of New York and Los Angeles were deemed worthy of seeing the film as early as December 19th, those of us who live in “flyover” areas have had to wait through the most infuriating platform release plan in recent memory.  That would be tolerable if this were some kind of obscure foreign film, but it’s not, it’s the most talked about film of the year.  In the month since the movie opened in all of two cities I’ve had to all but plug my ears and go “lalalala” while every critic, politician, and commentator discussed the film at length.  To add insult to injury Sony has gone ahead and advertised the film extensively (I feel like I’ve heard Cris Pratt say “you really believe this story, Osama bin Laden?” upwards of ten thousand times at this point) all while I’ve been anxiously averting my eyes from reviews and columns and news pieces in the mainstream media.  I seriously considered pirating the movie, which is something I never do under normal circumstances, partly because I wanted to be “in the loop” and partly because I wanted to financially punish the stupid cocksucker at Sony who thought this was an acceptable way to distribute a major motion picture.  However, my cooler instincts prevailed and I patiently waited for the film’s January 11th release.  And now, after all that waiting and anxiety I’ve seen the film and unfortunately all I can really say is “meh.”

As anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock already knows, Zero Dark Thirty, is about the decade long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden which begins with the assignment of a young CIA analyst named “Maya” (Jessica Chastain) to a “black site” and ends with the fateful raid in Abbottabad which ended with the terrorist leader getting a bullet in the head.  What many people might not be overly familiar with is what happens in between.  The film is largely a step by step look at how the CIA slowly began to realize that they had stumbled upon a clue which, upon further investigation, would literally lead them to Osama Bin Laden’s doorstep.  As the film opens its central character (for whom we’re never given a real name and who may essentially be a composite character) is an inexperienced but not necessarily naïve young wunderkind who watches all her superiors like “Dan” (Jason Clarke), “Jessica” (Jennifer Ehle), “George” (Mark Strong), and station chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) leave for various reasons while she climbs in stature, all the while chasing an elusive lead which her superiors are increasingly losing faith in.

I would call this a character study, but we really don’t learn a whole lot about the film’s central character.  We don’t know where Maya comes from or what she does in her free time or what led her to want to be in the CIA.  That’s not to say she doesn’t have an arc of sorts in the film as we do get to watch her grow increasingly comfortable and determined in her role as a spy, but for the most part she remains elusive.  Instead this film is very much a procedural.  It uses a lot of jargon and is very interested in the realistic minutia of the day to day activities of CIA analysts in all of its complexity.  Clearly director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal have done a lot of research and talked to a lot of people, because they seem to have very intimate knowledge of the inner workings of intelligence work.  That said, the film’s uncompromising authentic can be pretty rough going, especially in the film’s first half which is kind of slow.  It isn’t really until about an hour into the film when Maya truly picks up the trail which leads to Bin Laden when the film really starts to pick up steam.

Of course it’s in the film’s first hour where the film’s most controversial scenes are.  It’s been argued back and forth whether Zero Dark Thirty endorses torture: critics call the film irresponsible and dangerous while its defenders have circled their wagons and insist that this simply isn’t what the film is about.  I for one see valid points on both sides.  Where a lot of the film’s critics seem to error is in assuming that the film has a very different tone about all of this than it actually does.  Some of them seem to think that this is some kind of flag-waving action movie akin to Act of Valor, and it certainly isn’t that.  The film revels in ambiguity, and presents everything in a way that’s very matter of fact, including the tortures scenes which are quite brutal and hard to watch.  At no point does the act of torturing a terrorist made to look like some kind of enjoyable activity, so the idea that the film actively glamorizes the practice is incorrect.

However, the film does seem to argue that intelligence gathered through the use of torture was an effective means to an end. The film’s protagonist (who is never really depicted as an anti-hero) takes part in these Bush-era Gestapo tactics, and while she doesn’t revel in them, she doesn’t seem to regret her participation either.  Everyone who’s seen tortured in the film is presented as unquestionably guilty and all of them seem to provide useful intelligence.  We don’t see the people who were almost certainly rounded up unjustly and tortured fruitlessly in an attempt to extract information that they were unable to provide.  In short, we only see the upside of torture so while the film might ostensibly seem more thoughtful than an episode of “24” the message really isn’t all that different.

I think the problem might be rooted in screenwriter Mark Boal’s background in journalism.  I’m sure that his defense for the torture scenes is that he’s simply presenting “the facts” in a matter of fact way and allowing the audience to make up their minds for themselves.  Frankly, I think that is at best a “cop-out.”  Journalists are indeed supposed to remain neutral, but narrative cinema is not journalism; it’s supposed to have a point of view and it’s supposed to make a statement, especially when it’s dealing with material that’s as loaded as this.  I was similarly frustrated by the dry “neutrality” of the last Boal/Bigelow collaboration, The Hurt Locker, but at least that film was presenting a fictional story about common people and it was ultimately more about those people than it was about any specific events in Iraq.  This film is more like an oddly dry recitation of facts, facts which incidentally are far from being “settled history,” and to simply recite this version of events like this seems kind of pointless.

Perhaps the real problem is simply that the film was made “too soon.”  We don’t know what Boal’s sources are and we likely won’t know how accurate any of this is for decades to come.  More importantly the film lacks any kind of perspective on what any of these events are really going to mean in the grand scheme of things.  We know that the events in the film Lincoln really mattered because we know the thirteenth amendment ultimately ended a shameful chapter in our history and would pave the way to a more fair and equal society in the future, and consequently we’re more willing to forgive some of the dirty tactics that were required to pass that legislation.  Similarly, we know in retrospect that the all the blood that was shed by the assassination squad in Spielberg’s last Tony Kushner penned historical drama, Munich, did nothing to end the violence between Israel and Palestine and that paints the way we view the events of that film.  Were the same film released in 1975 instead of 2005 it would have seemed less like a rumination on an endless cycle of violence and more like a revenge film about a nation doing what it has to do in order to retaliate for its recent injury.

What Boal should have done is taken his research and used it to write a book and then had a more conventional screenwriter adapt it into a screenplay.  I feel like a film that would have produced a much more insightful film that likely would have worked better as a narrative.  As it is it feels like what we’re just watching is just the first draft of history.  Fortunately for Boal, he’s chosen to work with Kathryn Bigelow, who has grown greatly as a filmmaker in her last two films.  From a filmmaking perspective Zero Dark Thirty is far removed from the schlock that Bigelow was making in the 80s and 90s and it’s what she brings to the film that makes the film as watchable as it is.  I feel like Bigelow could have made a truly great film out of this story with the right screenplay, but instead what she’s made seems like a rather dry film that doesn’t really have much of anything to say about the events that it chronicles.  Zero Dark Thirty does works as a thriller and as an action-movie of sorts and it does provide some facts to chew on, and that combined with its technical merits and performances make it a film that should be watched, but I expected a whole lot more.

*** out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 1/25/2013 (The “Year of McConaughey” Edition)

One of the stories circulating through the film world in 2012 was the notion that Matthew McConaughey was finally leaving behind the dopey romantic comedies he’d been relying on in recent years and had become a prolific presence in more challenging fare.  In this edition of the DVD round up we’ll look at three of the films he was in during that year and also take a look at a pair of unrelated docs.

Killer Joe (1/17/2013)

I wasn’t a huge fan of the last William Friedkin/Tracy Letts collaboration, 2007’s Bug, but their follow-up makes it look a whole lot better by comparison. Killer Joe has one big asset in its favor: it has Matthew McConaughey doing everything in his power to create a memorably sadistic villain in the form of the film’s titular character.  Beyond that though we are left with an exceptionally un-noteworthy story about a bunch of morons who accomplish nothing in the process of an idiotic crime scheme.  Little is done to expand the story beyond its stage origins and I found the film to be downright juvenile in the way that it tried to shock and offend its audience.  I wasn’t offended by anything here, but I did roll my eyes at a bunch of it.  The film is watchable, but this does not feel like it was made by the masterful auteur behind The French Connection and The Exorcist, nor does it feel like it was made by capable craftsman who made To Live and Die in L.A., The Hunted, and the aforementioned Bug.  Rather, it’s made by the goofy provocateur that made Cruising and Jade.
** out of Four

Detropia (1/20/2013)

This documentary is about Detroit… all of it.  The film builds no particular narrative and tells no specific story.  Instead it gives its audience a variety of vignettes about various aspects of the city and presents them without a whole lot of connective tissue.  Some of these vignettes are indeed interesting and the filmmakers do capture a handful of fascinating moments, but overall I found this documentary to be a very unsatisfying mess.  Pretty much the first thing that they teach you in High School composition classes is that you need to start out with a thesis that is limited enough to support, and there’s no way in hell any documentary is going to be able to support a goal as wide as the painting of an entire city’s economic and cultural status.
** out of Four

Bernie (1/21/2013)

It’s so easy to take him for granted, but there are few American indie-directors who are even close to being as consistent as Richard Linklater.  When his latest film, the black comedy Bernie, came out earlier this year I more or less ignored it but now that I’ve seen it I certainly regret the decision because in its own modest way this is a real gem.  Jack Black (in a role that stretches his persona in interesting ways) plays a well liked East Texas man who forms a strange relationship with an older widow who is viewed as a royal terror by the rest of the town.  The film takes the Citizen Kane approach of viewing its subject from the point of view of everybody but its title character.  The whole thing is based on a true story, which gives Linklater the opportunity to utilize various people who knew the participants as interview subjects in pseudo-documentary interludes throughout the film.  This paints a very interesting portrait of the town, but it’s not just an enjoyable quirk; its essential to the film’s third act which really explores a sort of cult of personality that was built around Bernie that really affects his destiny in certain ways.
***1/2 out of Four

Head Games (1/22/2013)

As someone who listens to a lot of sports talk radio in the morning, I’ve heard more than a little bit about the controversy surrounding head injuries in sports.  This documentary, which features interviews from a number of the figures at the forefront of research into the topic, is a pretty good overview of the issue even if it doesn’t necessarily uncover anything new or particularly juicy.  The film is at its most interesting in its first half-hour to forty-five minutes when it gives a good overview of how the issue was first uncovered and how it came to prominence as a major issue in athletics.  After that though, it begins to drag as it begins to re-iterate itself.  In general this is a pretty conventional and unnoteworthy documentary, which is surprising coming from the director of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters and I’m not surprised that it never really caught on as a theatrical feature.  Instead I’m surprised that it wasn’t cut down and presented as an entry in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, because it definitely feels more like a TV production.
**1/2 out of Four

Magic Mike (1/25/2013)

One of the strangest stories in the world of cinema in 2012 was the pop culture ascendance of the film Magic Mike.  Its subject matter (male strippers) made the film a surprise box office hit as female audiences flocked to the film as a sort of “girls night out” aid.  Normally I’d stay far away from such a film, but this one was made by a respected director and I heard a lot of good things about the film (even if it wasn’t entirely clear if these recommendations were sincere or ironic).  Those familiar with Steven Soderbergh’s career will quickly recognize this as part of a string of low budget experimental films he’s made including Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, and Haywire.  I wasn’t much of a fan of any of those films and I wasn’t a fan of this one either, but it is indeed a more respectable effort than it looks.  There are a number of stripping scenes that the movie forces the audience to sit through (or allows the audience to enjoy depending on your perspective), but this is in service of a very realistic and detailed look at the less than glamorous lives that these guys live and it’s not at all dissimilar to the life lived by the female prostitute in The Girlfriend Experience.
**1/2 out of Four

Les Misérables(1/5/2012)

I can’t say that I’ve ever found time in my schedule to read all 1500 pages of Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Misérables” and I’ve also never seen a performance of the musical “Les Misérables,” or any other Broadway musical for that matter.  That said, Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical has held a strange place on the periphery of pop culture that few stage productions have ever held.  All my life I’ve seen cartoon parodies of the play which almost certainly went straight over the heads of every kid who watched them, I’ve laughed as George Costanza stumbled through an entire episode of Seinfeld with “Master of the House” stuck in his head, and I’ve read Patrick Bateman psychotically musing about its apparently obnoxious publicity campaign that saturated New York in the 80s. I’ve also heard innumerable people refer to the play by the obnoxious nick-name “Les Miz” because they want to sound sophisticated without going through the trouble of learning the pronunciation of a single French word.  That Hollywood finally got in on this brand name and made an all-star, huge budget adaptation of the musical kind of feels like the finale to a very long pop culture sensation that grew way bigger than its creators possibly could have dreamed.

Beneath all the bombast, this is indeed a retelling of Victor Hugo’s story of obsession and revolution in early 19th century Paris.  The central storyline is a duel of wills between an ex-con named Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and a soldier/police-inspector named Javert (Russell Crowe).  Javert spends much of the story trying to track down Valjean for having broken his parole, even after Valjean has cleaned up his life and become a successful businessman under a different name.  Javert finally catches up to Valjean only after Valjean has sworn to protect Cosette (Isabelle Allen), the daughter of a fallen woman named Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who has been adopted by a pair of cruel and unscrupulous innkeepers called the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter).  Valjean eventually escapes with Cosette, but all of these character’s lives will eventually come to a head years later during the failed June Rebellion.

You can tell why someone looking to make an epic musical would look to a story which is as big and operatic as “Les Misérables,” but the film does occasionally struggle to bring all of Hugo’s elaborate story into a commercially viable running time while still having time for all the music.  For one thing, all the characters seem to coincidentally bump into each other way too often.  That might have seemed more reasonable within the confines of a stage production or within the context of a long novel in which the passage of time seems more slow, but in a film it kind of feels like a cheat to have everyone in the cast cross paths this many times as if the city of Paris were some kind of tiny village.  The film also doesn’t really do a great job of explain why Javert is so fixated on catching this one particular convict.  I get that he’s a man who sees things in black and white and would never forgive a criminal, but surely there have been convicts in the French prison system more deserving of all this trouble.  A scene or two explaining why he’s made such a personal vendetta out of his pursuit would have been helpful.

Those who hear “musical” and think of giddy light-hearted vaudeville-inspired sequences filled with smiling people dancing may be either disappointed or pleasantly surprised by what they get out of Les Misérables.  The music in this film is loud and omnipresent.  Very few lines of dialogue are spoken rather than sung and the music doesn’t really take the form of “numbers.”  There are some sequences that can be called full-on songs but there are also a number of moments where the characters sing lines that are clearly meant to be expository dialogue to each other rather than speak them, and it’s in these sequences that the film’s music is at its most awkward.  The main songs, to my layman ears, sound like they’re sung quite well.  There have been many critics who have put on their Simon Cowell hats and criticized some of the performer’s voices, but none of the singing I heard really affected my enjoyment at all so I’m not going to nit-pick any of that.  That said, I can’t say that the film’s much-publicized use of live recording made much of an impression on me at all and if you’d told me that this music was recorded in the sound-booth like any other musical I probably wouldn’t have known the difference.

This is of course director Tom Hooper’s follow-up to his undeservedly Academy Award winning The King’s Speech and it is kind of interesting to see what he can do when making a large scale period piece while armed with a substantial budget.  The main stylistic trick that Hooper featured in The King’s Speech was a tendency towards concise but deliberately off-center framing, and anyone who’s seen his work on the “John Adams” miniseries knows that the guy is kind of obsessed with Dutch angles, and he uses both of these tricks extensively in Les Misérables with mostly successful results.  He also employs a technique in which the actors sing while directly facing the camera while in extreme close-up, a trick which was perhaps meant to replicate the aesthetics of an actor facing his or her audience from the stage. The guy is clearly not a master, but he does have an eye for the occasional interesting shot and he also seems to have rallied his production crew pretty effectively here because the film’s set decoration, cinematography, editing, etc. are all very strong in the film.

Hooper’s cast is also pretty solid here, especially in the film’s first half.  Hugh Jackman’s affinity for musical theater is pretty well documented he works well here in part because, as fans of his work as Wolverine in the X-Men films will attest, he is also fully capable of being a badass.  This means he can sing effectively and also be believable as a former criminal.  Russell Crowe isn’t an effete thespian either and he brings a strong physical presence to his role as a police inspector.  Crowe has received a lot of criticism for his singing voice, but I (again, speaking as a layman) thought he did well enough and would also suggest that part of the problem is that Crowe’s character is given a lot of the musical’s clunkier moments of “exposition in song form.”  Anne Hathaway is also good in the film, but the film’s advertising has greatly exaggerated how big her role in the film is.  Her character has a big role in the film’s first act, but she’s written out of the film shortly thereafter.  Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (who are having something of a Sweeny Todd reunion) do good work as the film’s comic relief, but a little bit of them goes a long way and their presence in the film gets a little awhile as they keep on coming back over and over again in the film’s second half.

It’s that second half where the film really started to lose me.  (Spoiler alert here, I guess).  At a certain point the film flashes forward and swaps generations.  Here the film turns into a teenage love triangle between a now older Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), a young revolutionary named Marius Pontmercy (Eddie Redmayne), and one of Cosette’s childhood friends named Éponine (Samantha Barks) which leads into a largish battle scene.  It’s kind of like Titanic in miniature but with characters you don’t care about and unfamiliar actors who don’t make you care.  To say that this is a weak second half is an understatement, this is more like a nosedive, and it’s also where the film’s generally long length really started to make itself known.  It also has the most false endings since Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and by the time it finally reaches its lengthy and mostly needless coda I was very ready to finally leave the theater.

That’s a shame, because this is definitely a film that “has its moments.”  There’s a solid 70-80 minutes of the movie that really had me interested, but the other 78 minutes really killed the movie for me.  It’s tempting to give the film a pass for the moments that work and out of a certain respect for the film’s production elements, but I can’t really recommend something in good conscience when it had me looking at my watch for its last forty-five minutes.  Fans of the original musical or of musicals in general will likely be more impressed, but I don’t think this is really one for the cross-over audience when all is said and done.

**1/2 out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 1/16/2013

Ted (1/11/2013)

When I saw the trailer for Seth MacFarlane’s directorial debut, Ted, I expected it to be a film that would please audiences but I never thought it would end up being the ninth highest grossing film of the year.  The film is essentially trying to take the idea of a “man-child” to its absolute extreme by pairing a stoned slacker with a child’s toy is kind of a clever idea and I can see why that concept would draw a lot of curious people to theaters, however, I’m not sure how it turned into a sustained success because the film itself is mediocre at best.  In short, this movie isn’t funny.  There are some amusing moments (many of them revealed by the trailer) and I found the film to be mostly watchable, but I didn’t really laugh at all while watching the film.  To be fair, I feel like these movies are meant to be seen in theaters where contagious laughter makes a lot of the humor pop more than it probably should.  That’s a problem I’ve had when catching up to comedies like this and Bridesmaids and Get Him to the Greek at home before.
** out of Four

China Heavyweight (1/13/2013)

This documentary takes a look at the world of boxing in the People’s Republic of China by following a coach named Qi Moxiang as he tries to find and develop talent for the nation’s Olympic boxing team.  The film takes a vérité approach and seems to aspire to be a sort of Hoop Dreams in the different sport and location but few of the characters in the doc really stood out and too little is done to explain and contextualize what we’re watching.  There are some interesting moments like when Qi Moxiang tries to justify the sport to a Buddhist monk, but for the most part I found the film rather dull.  People who are exceptionally interested in China or in Boxing might get more out of it, but those looking for a more accessible documentary about China will be better served by the film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.
** out of Four

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (1/15/2013)

I’ll say upfront that Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is not for everyone, and even if it is “for you,” your enjoyment of the film may be highly dependent on the mood you’re in the day you watch it.  This is a deliberately paced and contemplative art film which builds an almost hypnotizing mood through its use of location, the length of its shots, and its eye for human interaction.  It could easily be dismissed as pretentious nonsense or it could just baffle viewers who watch it on the wrong day and don’t connect with it.  I was certainly baffled like that when I tried to watch Ceylan’s 2006 film, Climates, but maybe I wasn’t at the right state of mind that day.  Truth be told, I don’t know that I can really explain this film’s appeal, but I can say that it had me rather enthralled and interested for two and a half hours when I watched it.
***1/2 out of Four

5 Broken Cameras (1/16/2013)

While few documentaries are what you’d call “big budget” affairs, it takes a film like 5 Broken Cameras to help you realize just how many resources most professional documentaries have to draw from.  This film tells the story of a Palestinian village’s non-violent resistance to the illegal expansion of a West Bank settlement onto Palestinian lands and was shot almost entirely by a single ordinary farmer on a series of commercial-grade video cameras.  These protesters are responded to violently by the Israeli military who continually shoot the protestors with tear gas almost every time they try to protest for a number of years.  As the filmmaker finds himself in the middle of these situations his cameras keep getting broken by angry Israeli soldiers (hence the title).  We end up with both a pretty good biographical portrait of the man with the camera and also a pretty concise and personal look at the situation that he’s protesting.  There are things in the film that I would have liked to see more of, but ultimately I think the movie’s pretty remarkable given the conditions under which it was made.
***1/2 out of Four

Compliance (1/16/2013)

Craig Zobel’s indie thriller Compliance begins with the message “this film is based on true events” scrawled across the screen in big block letters.  This is important information because if you didn’t know that this film was an accurate dramatization of a real event you’d never in a million years believe it.  The film begins with a man claiming to be a police detective calling the manager of a fast food restaurant and telling her that one of her female employees has stolen money from a customer.  The man on the phone instructs the manager to take the employee into the back and begin strip searching her, and the film only goes deeper into Milgram experiment territory from there.  I’d seen this story dramatized as a “ripped from the headlines” episode of the show Law and Order: SVU before, and that presentation didn’t come close to matching the level of horror and disgust that this film produces.  This film is not a fun time in the conventional sense of the word but it is more successful in making the audience tense, uncomfortable, and anxious than any horror film.  It’s not a perfect film, the actress playing the victim is a little weak and the film also doesn’t seem to know how to end, but I feel like it bravely examines a troubling part of the human psyche and in doing so it is quite successful.
***1/2 out of Four

Django Unchained(12/25/2012)

Being a fan of Quentin Tarentino can be a rewarding, but often frustrating experience.  It’s rewarding because Tarentino is one of the most consistent and perennially relevant filmmakers alive, it’s frustrating because the rest of the world frequently perceives Tarentino to be something he’s not.  Namely, people seem to be obsessed with the notion that Tarentino is some kind of gore-hound and that his films are among the most violent films ever made, which is almost categorically untrue.  It is true that Tarentino is unlikely to make a G-rated film any time soon, but his films aren’t any more graphic than the works of Martin Scorsese, The Coen Brothers, David Fincher, or any number of other auteurs whose names haven’t become synonymous with blood and guts.  Sure, some people get killed in Tarentino’s movies and violence is a theme throughout his work but his body counts are much lower than anything you’d see in the average Hollywood action movie and more of the blood is off screen than people seem to think.  His latest film is not going to do anything to dislodge Tarentino’s reputation for bloodlust and that’s a shame because, as usual, there’s a lot more going on in it.

Set two years before the Civil War, the film opens with a group of shackled slaves being transported on foot by two armed men on horseback.  After walking for days and nights they are approached by a man calling himself Dr. King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz) who claims to be a dentist.  After a brief altercation, Schultz shoots one of these men dead, disarms the other, and has the survivor sign a bill of sale for one of the slaves who goes by the name Django (Jamie Foxx).  As it turns out, Schultz is interested in Django because he’s a bounty hunter and he believes this slave will be able to help him track down a trio of people who are wanted dead or alive and have a large price on their heads.  The two of them are quickly able to track all of these men down and take them out with relative ease.  Schultz sees that Django has an aptitude for bounty hunting and offers to take him under his wing and train him in the trade.  Django agrees, but only under the condition that Schultz help him track down and free his wife (Kerry Washington), who turns out to owned by a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

I think a big part of why people seem to think Tarentino’s films are more violent than they really are is because he doesn’t present the violent scenes in his films within a moralistic framework and he also has a tendency to mix violence with comedy.  Django Unchained, which brings an irreverent eye to what is arguably the most disgusting aspect of America’s history, may be the apotheosis of this potentially uncomfortable blend.  One could argue that he did the same thing with the Holocaust in his last film, Inglourious Basterds, but that film primarily focused on other aspects of the Second World War than Hitler’s genocide.  Django Unchained on the other hand takes a very unflinching view of how African Americans were treated in the antebellum era.  And yet… it’s also hilarious.  It might be the closest that Tarentino has come to making an outright comedy.  It should be noted from the beginning that none of this comedy is directed at the victims of slavery.  All of the comedy here that isn’t the result of Tarentino’s usual wit is comedy directed directly at the stupidity of Southern racism.  No American film has been this unflinchingly interested in the absurdity of hate since Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles.  Beyond that, there is something cathartic about seeing a strong black man fight back against slave holders.

Beyond the subject matter, Django Unchained definitely has everything one would want from a Tarentino film, maybe too much.  The film is clearly a tribute to the Spaghetti Western genre from the typeface of the title cards to the look of the sets and of course the name of the protagonist (which is borrowed from a 1966 spaghetti western starring Franco Nero).  You can tell why Tarentino loves this genre so much.  The Corbuccis and Leones who made the original spaghetti westerns were Europeans with no connection to the actual American West.  Like Tarentino they were essentially making movies based on what they saw in other movies.  This affinity for the genre means that Django Unchained borrows many of the original genres idiosyncrasies like heroes with superhuman gunfighting skill and a general disinterest in historical accuracy, and this may be offputting to some audiences, but at the same time it serves as something of a reminder of how fun those films could be in the first place.

The film opens with Luis Bacalov’s theme from the original 1966 film Django and like previous films it features a lot of old selections from Sergio Leone scores.  Unlike previous Tarentino films, Django Unchained includes a number of original songs from contemporary artists like John Legend, Rick Ross, and Anthony Hamilton as well as a brand new song penned by Sergio Leone and sung by an Italian singer named Elisa.  Like the film itself, these songs incorporate sounds that are associated with Spaghetti westerns but which are made with modern sensibilities and tropes.  I think these songs are meant to play into the tradition of the original music that was often featured in Spaghetti westerns like the aforementioned Luis Bacalov song and they fit in pretty well with the older tracks on the soundtrack by artists like Jim Croce and Johnny Cash.  It’s not Tarentino’s best soundtrack, but it is nice to see him branching out after the somewhat conservative Inglourious Basterds soundtrack.

As usual, Tarentino has filled the film with interesting actors in pretty much every role from the stars to the minor bit parts.  Fans of exploitation films will recognize a number of faces like Don Johnson, Bruce Dern, Michael Parks, and Tom Wopat.  There are also some more contemporary character actors like Walton Goggins and a noteworthy cameo by Jonah Hill.  Of the actors in larger roles, the obvious scene stealers are Christoph Waltz (who speaks in a sort of formal dialect throughout the film to hilarious effect) and Samuel L Jackson (who shows up late in the film as a sort of Uncle Tom figure at a plantation the heroes are trying to infiltrate).  I was less fond of Leonardo DiCaprio’s work as a vicious plantation owner.  His work doesn’t necessarily hurt the film, but as far as villains in Tarentino movies go he doesn’t hold a candle to what Cristoph Waltz was able to do in a comparable role in Inglourious Basterds.  I also didn’t necessarily love Jamie Foxx in the lead role.  Foxx does alright in the film at times, but he’s never really able to turn himself into a real silent tough-guy in the vein of a Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson.  At his core, Foxx just seems like too much of nice guy to really take on the rage that is supposed to exist at the core of this character.

In short this has everything you’d want from a Tarentino film, and yet, I’m not sure that really adds up to one of his best efforts.  In many ways the film feels like something of a big middle finger from Tarentino to his critics.  Do you think Tarentino’s films are too long?  Well this one isn’t any shorter.  Do you think he borrows too heavily from the aesthetics of 60s and 70s exploitation films?  Well, this one borrows more heavily from them than any film he’s made since the Kill Bill movies.  Do you think that Tarentino has a bad habit of making ill-conceived cameos in his films?  Well he’s got one here, and it requires him to adopt an absolutely ludicrous Australian accent.  Do you think he’s a bit too eager to include racial epithets in his movies?  Well, there are probably more uses of the N-word in this one than in any other film to ever get a wide release.  And yes, if you think he’s way to glib with the violence in his films you’ll be “happy” to know that dozens of people are killed in this one and each one dies with a geyser of candy colored blood spurting from their arteries.

As a hardcore fan of the guy’s work I was more than willing to go along with all of the above, but this is not necessarily the film I’d use if I was going to try to defend his work to one of his detractors.  More to the point, the film generally feels like it’s a step backwards from what Tarentino was able to accomplish with Inglourious Basterds.  That film was almost certainly Tarentino’s most mature effort since Jackie Brown and in its own odd way managed to capture the magic of Sergio Leone’s style in tempo more successfully than this more direct homage ever does.  I certainly enjoyed the film, but I enjoyed it more as a surface level exploitation movie than I did as an auteur piece or as a drama.  In many ways it’s closer to being the film that Tarentino’s detractors accuse him of making rather than the film he’s truly capable of.

***1/2 out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 1/1/2013

 

Dark Shadows (1/1/2013)

I’m not sure what it is about this film and Tim Burton’s recent output in general which engenders such hostility.  I don’t think anyone will see Dark Shadows as some kind of new classic, but it’s hardly the disaster I’d been led to believe.  What Burton has made here is a dryly comic fish-out-of-water story that pretty effectively uses both its period trappings and a characteristically off-the-wall Johnny Depp performance.  When the film goes wrong it’s because it’s trying to be a Hollywood blockbuster with a budget becoming of its star’s fame.  Had this been made for about $50 million instead of $150 million it probably would have been a lot better managed and likely would have had some extra spontaneity and spunk.  I mostly enjoyed it for what it was, but my experience may have been influenced by the fact that I had very low expectations and that that I watched it well after the end of its advertising campaign which gave away most of the film’s best gags.

*** out of Four

How to Survive a Plague (1/1/2013)

As someone who was very young during the early 90s, I’ve never exactly understood that decade’s absolute fixation with the AIDS virus.  This documentary went a long way towards explaining just how devastating the crisis was to those in the midst of it and also how members of those communities were able to help bring the epidemic under control.  The focus here is on an activist group called ACT UP, which helped bring awareness to the problem and pressure the powers that be into doing something about it.  The documentary employs a couple of talking heads, but a majority of the storytelling is done through the use of some very well chosen and edited archival footage.  The film builds up a very clear and concise narrative with a very effective dramatic arc that had me riveted throughout.

**** out of Four

Sleepwalk With Me (1/5/2013)

As someone who’s been known to listen to Public radio occasionally, I was familiar with comedian Mike Birbiglia’s stories about his sleepwalking bouts and how they affected his career and relationships.  It’s a good story and Birbiglia has told it effectively over the years, but I’m not sure it was ever meant to be the source for a truly great movie.  That it has become a source of a film that’s “pretty good” may be a bigger accomplishment than it sounds.  Birbiglia’s life story is a little thin all told, and the film is ultimately kind of about nothing, but it does feel fairly true to life.  It also seems to offer a pretty solid look at what the life of a small-time standup comedian can be like.  I wouldn’t call it an overly funny movie, but I did giggle a few times at it.  I suppose it ultimately makes sense that this was produced by the people who make “This American Life” because it casually amuses in much the way that program does, but I maybe expect a little more than that out of a film that’s they’re charging money for.

*** out of Four

Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap (1/6/2013)

As a Hip Hop fan I’ve been interested in this documentary ever since I heard that it was being made and I was more than a little interested by the fact that it was being directed by Ice-T.  Seeing the film I admired the sheer number of interviews that were filmed for the project, but that’s also kind of the film’s weakness.  The film barely has time to scratch the surface with most of the interviewees and it also doesn’t really organize them into any kind of real narrative.  Also, for all the breadth of subjects on display here Ice-T barely touches on any artists from the South and very few artists who are under 30 years old.  The Dirty South is hardly my favorite regional variation on Hip-Hop but it seems like a serious omission just the same.  Ice-T may have been better served turning this project into a web-series or podcast or something that would have allowed for more in depth interviews with all the subjects.

**1/2 out of Four

Your Sister’s Sister (1/6/2013)

In my cinematic adventures I’ve largely ignored the “mumblecore” movement, which seems to consist of microbudget films made by and for hipsters who are in some kind of strange competition to see who can most moderately enjoyable movie about people who live uninteresting lives.  However, I was fairly impressed with how well this one came off.  Make no mistake, this is a movie which more or less takes place in a single location and is almost entirely consumed with the petty travails of three upper-middle class thirty-somethings, but it’s pretty well written and the film has come up with a somewhat original predicament for said thirty-somethings to be involved in.  It’s certainly a minor achievement, and I’m glad I waited until it was on home video to watch it, but it’s a solid little indie.

*** out of Four