REVIEW – Django Unchained

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In a way, Django Unchained is the ultimate culmination of Quentin Tarantino’s career: a gory blaxploitation western. Tarantino has long flaunted his love of 70s era grindhouse cinema as well as Sergio Leone westerns. Jackie Brown was his most overt ode to blaxploitation, but many of his films contain nods to the badass films of Pam Grier and Melvin Van Peebles. His love for spaghetti westerns is also blatantly worn on his sleeve. The Kill Bill films and Inglorious Basterds were basically westerns in disguise. Django Unchained finds Tarantino finally working in the era of the western, and, therefore, it’s his most straightforward exploration of the western genre. It is also his most genuine exploration of the blaxploitation genre, despite Jackie Brown‘s cast and subject matter. To cut to the chase: this film is not racist and, in fact, presents a pretty powerful message about slavery.

The story revolves around the eponymous Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and their quest to find Django’s wife as well as collect bounty on no-good white criminals along the way. Dr. Schultz frees Django and introduces him to the bounty hunting game, while also agreeing to help Django track down his beautiful wife (Kerry Washington) who is owned by the vicious slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The first half of the film follows Django and Dr. Shultz as they bond and kill evil white men. DiCaprio doesn’t pop up until the second half, when the heroes finally track down Django’s wife to DiCaprio’s plantation. Despite the film’s length – and length of time before a real antagonist pops up – the film never drags. This is a credit to Tarantino’s writing as well as his eye for staging a scene. The man presents scene after entertaining scene, and none of them feel superfluous. Tarantino walks a tight rope through most of the film, showcasing the horror of slavery (very bluntly and brutally, at that), while also being the funniest film Tarantino has made.

This is where the controversy comes in. Many critics and a few other filmmakers (Spike Lee, who else?) have criticized Tarantino for gleefully using the n-word and for inserting comedy into a film about slavery. Spike Lee’s criticism deserves to be out rightly dismissed because he hasn’t seen the film, but comedy can be a powerful tool in social commentary. One of the funniest scenes in the film showcases the Klan as a bunch of idiots who can’t see properly through the bags on their heads. Tarantino ridicules them, and ridicule takes away their power. And as for the use of the n-word, this film takes place in a time when the word was used all the time, and to pretend it wasn’t is to white wash history. And has everyone forgot about Blazing Saddles? Mel Brooks was doing this stuff in the 70s! No one’s talking about what a bad influence he is on American audiences.

Now, despite all the controversy, this is a really good film. Is it Tarantino’s best? Definitely not. But it is one of his best, and surely one of the best films of the year. Say what you will about Tarantino as a person or the subject matter of his films, no one can deny his firm grasp on the medium. The craft behind this film is top notch. And Tarantino’s love for film can be felt behind every shot. In a time when many films can feel cynical and calculated, Tarantino’s enthusiasm is such a breath of fresh air. It also helps that Tarantino has a brilliant cast working at the top of their game. Foxx, Waltz, DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson, as the nefarious Stephen, all give award worthy performances.

If you’re squeamish about violence and language, stay away from this film – and from any Tarantino film, for that matter. For everyone else, however, this is a must see.

Grade: A-

 

 

REVIEW – The Comedy

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The Comedy isn’t exactly a comedy film – and it’s not exactly a ‘film’ in the traditional sense either. It’s an art film with a capital ‘a’, and it’s also an exercise in irony with a capital ‘i’. From the title on down, The Comedy is incredibly self-aware, meta, modern, post-modern, and any other adjective that could be bandied about by trendy hipsters. However, it’s also an indictment of that same hipster crowd. The Comedy is a film for hipsters, by hipsters, criticizing hipsters. In other words, it’s pretty damn hip.

Tim Heidecker, of Tim and Eric fame, stars as Swanson, an aging trust fund hipster who’s father is on his death bed. Swanson spends his time drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and riding around on vintage bicycles with his other hipster friends (Tim and Eric cohort Eric Wareheim, and LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy). Together, they do inappropriate things, make offensive jokes, and do their best to generally disrupt people’s lives. Basically they are spoiled brats being dicks to people. These characters, coupled with a virtually non-existent storyline, will make this film a tough slog for the majority of audiences. However, for those who can get on board, the film has its merits and works as a meta-critique of rich, white, New York hipsters.

The Comedy is a character study of an unlikeable, but oddly sympathetic person. Heidecker is surprisingly good in a dramatic role – and I’d like to see him do more drama in the future. Heidecker plays Swanson with such a painful underlying sadness that it almost makes you forgive his awful behaviour. Swanson likes to provoke people purely out of boredom – and, it seems, in a vague attempt to feel something. Here is a man so bored and detached from the world that he is willing to put his own safety at risk in order to feel something.

As stated, there really isn’t much of a story to The Comedy. The film is mostly a series of vignettes filled with sadness, awkward humour, and static shots. Any time a character or a situation pops up that seems to introduce an obstacle or goal for Swanson, it quickly disappears. This movie is like Swanson: adrift in melancholy and irony. This is not a film for everyone – and not even for most Tim and Eric fans. The Comedy is difficult. It feels like a John Cassavetes film made by self absorbed hipsters. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s definitely not something for the masses.

Grade: B

REVIEW – Skyfall

Skyfall is the twenty-third Bond film and marks the 50th Anniversary of the Bond franchise. To mark this milestone, the filmmakers tried to showcase a modern Bond while also weaving together classic elements from past films. To their credit, they pretty much succeed.

The story is seemingly routine, yet it adds some interesting elements into the mix. A super villian, Silva (played by a deliciously evil Javier Bardem), is targeting MI6 – hacking into their files, blowing up their building, and seeking to kill the head of the agency, M (Judi Dench). Bond resurfaces from an apparent death to save the day.

On the surface it seems like a standard Bond film, but what sets it a part is its emphasis on age and the changing of the times. Gone are the gadgets and girls with innuendo laden names. Bond seems to walk through the film a half step behind Silva. He seems almost lost, chasing someone he doesn’t quite understand. This is the first Bond film I can think of where Bond feels vulnerable. He’s out of shape, a rusty shot, and clearly suffering from a bit of mental trauma. These are elements virtually missing from any other Bond film – and they make Skyfall that more interesting.

This is, like many suggest, a post-Bourne Bond film. It’s gritty and rough around the edges. However, I would contend that Skyfall is just as much a post-Dark Knight film. There are shades of the Joker in Bardem’s Silva. Even Silva’s plans are very reminiscent of the Joker (not to spoil anything, but Silva is almost always one step ahead). Bond’s crumbling physical and mental state also echo Batman’s. This is not to say that Skyfall is a ripoff. It’s still a Bond film, filled with exotic locations and sweet cars. It’s just that Bond is far more grounded in reality.

Director Sam Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan have created a very modern Bond film, while also perfectly setting up a new generation of Bond characters that retain the essence of the 60s films. It’s a tricky feat, and there are a few implausible moments (as with any Bond film), but it’s handled rather adeptly. The last act of the movie is particularly bold for a Bond film – but it works and it’s great. And with the addition of cinematographer extraordinaire, Roger Deakins, it’s certainly the most beautifully looking Bond film ever put to screen (a sequence in a Shanghai hotel seemingly made entirely out of glass is particularly stunning).

Is this a work of art that will sweep all the awards? No, it’s still a Bond film after all. But it’s certainly entertaining, and it’s definitely one of the better Bond films of the entire series.

GRADE: B+

REVIEW – Terrence Malick’s ‘To The Wonder’

Terrence Malick’s films are a little tricky to review. People are either on board with his oblique, beautiful style or they’re not. Therefore, opinions are usually very polarized. Tree of Life was booed at Cannes, but went on to win the Palm D’or. Similarly, his new film, To the Wonder, was booed at Venice but still garnered a few rave reviews. I tend to fall into the Malick fanboy camp, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand his detractors – his films can be extremely pretentious and meandering. And To the Wonder is a prime example of Malick’s tediousness.

Following his first two stunning films in the 70s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, Malick famously took about twenty years before he made his next film, The Thin Red Line. With that film, Malick began drifting further and further from conventional narrative films into more abstract and poetic ones. Last year’s Tree of Life saw Malick reach the zenith of this style. It was bold, adventurous, flawed, but overall an amazing experience. To the Wonder plays more like Tree of Life’s outtake reel. It has all the trademark Malick-isms: beautiful cinematography, nature, voice over, themes of love and spirituality. But where Tree of Life used these conventions in unique and, above all, interesting ways, To the Wonder offers nothing beyond surface level beauty.

The way in which the story is told is interesting, but, unfortunately, the story itself is not. Ben Affleck plays an American man who brings his French girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko) and her daughter to live with him in the States. Kurylenko tries her best to keep the magic of their relationship alive, but Affleck gradually becomes aloof and the couple drift apart. Enter Rachel McAdams, Affleck’s childhood friend, who becomes another love interest. Meanwhile, a priest played by Javier Bardem struggles with his faith in the face of the miserable and sick members of his congregation. The story is mostly wordless, save for cryptic, ‘poetic’ voice overs, and the odd line or two. Instead, Malick uses gorgeous shots to get across all we need to know about the characters and the story. The problem is we’ve seen this before from Malick – and done in a much better way.

The themes in this film – love, nature, religion – are present in pretty much all of Malick’s films, but never have they felt so shallow and obvious. He has nothing new to say here, and you have to wonder why he bothered making this film at all. The characters are thinly drawn and lack the depth of Brad Pitt or Jessica Chastain’s characters in Tree of Life – despite basically being the same types. Affleck is grim and aloof, Kurylenko is full of life and constantly dancing around. Kurylenko does her best, and, at times, is able to get you to feel for her. Affleck, however, seems a little lost. Perhaps a more magnetic actor would’ve made his scenes a little more interesting to watch. Javier Bardem is the strongest actor here, but his story ultimately doesn’t lead to much. The voice over, usually fairly strong in Malick films, feels almost like a parody (“Your love lifts me, but I am being constantly dragged to Earth.” “God is everywhere, yet I can’t see him.”, etc). However, the film is beautiful to behold (courtesy Emmanuel Lubezki) , and it almost makes you forgive the weak subject matter – almost.

Malick seems to be aiming for an emotional love story, but presents it in such an oblique and distant way that you can’t connect to the characters (odd, since he has succeeded in doing this before). There’s nothing wrong with being unemotional, but there’s nothing intellectual to the film (beyond “love is good but fleeting”) to warrant that approach. Instead, To the Wonder sits awkwardly in an odd middle zone – neither emotional nor intellectual. But damn is it pretty to look at.

Grade: B-

Dark Knight Rises is Amazing/Crap: No Room for Nuance in the Internet Age

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The Dark Knight Rises has been out for a while now, so this post might seem a little late, but people are still debating Christopher Nolan’s third installment of the Batman trilogy – and quite vigorously. Before I get to said vigorous debate, here’s my opinion on the film.

It was fine. It’s certainly better than most super hero films, but it also certainly doesn’t live up to The Dark Knight, the previous film in Nolan’s trilogy. DKR suffers from a clunky first act, a lack of character development (or too many characters to fully develop them properly), and a few plot holes. That being said, once Bane’s plan gets going, it’s quite the entertaining film.

Tom Hardy’s Bane, while no where near as entertaining as Heath Ledger’s Joker, is a capable, and at times, terrifying villain. To the movie’s credit, it’s the first time in any Batman film where Batman feels totally vulnerable. You get the sense that Bane could squash him at any moment. The one problem people seem to have with Bane is his voice – and it is a little bizarre. He talks in a muffled, upper class British voice that seems to be front and center no matter how far away he is from the camera. At first the voice is a little off putting, but I was able to get used to it. It actually kind of adds a creepy quality to Bane.

The problems really have to do with the script. The first act is far too long (it seemed like it was a good 40-45min) and it mostly consists of scenes either introducing characters or getting us up to speed on old characters. There doesn’t feel to be much of a narrative drive during the first act. It’s merely a collection of scenes. And, frankly, it’s a little boring. Nolan really could’ve cut out a character or two and streamlined the first act. Matthew Modine’s dickish police officer seems to be the most unnecessary character. He really doesn’t do much at all except to stand in opposition to Gary Oldman’s Commissioner Gordon (which makes little sense given Gordon’s heroic status on the force).

If Modine’s character is the most unnecessary, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s is the second most unnecessary (I know a lot of JGL fanboys/girls won’t like to hear that). JGL’s Blake only seems to exist to (spoiler!) set up future Batman films. To be fair, he does get Batman to return from retirement – sorta. However, that scene is so improbable (he knows Bruce Wayne is Batman based on his fake smile? Really?) that it’s ridiculous. Blake’s subplot during Bane’s siege of Gotham might have been gripping (though a little clichéd – saving orphans?) had we been given more time with Blake to care about him. Despite the lengthy first act, not enough time is given to these many characters to really care about them. Does anyone really believe the romance between Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle and Bruce Wayne? Does anyone even care about Marion Cotillard’s character? It’s not any of the actors’ faults. They all do fine. It’s the script. Nolan doesn’t give enough time to these new characters for them to feel like real, three-dimensional people. They are all reduced to cardboard characters who bluntly state their goals, back story, etc in awkward, expositional scenes.

However, these are common problems in most super hero movies and DKR is, after all, a super hero movie. It’s not supposed to be a dramatic art house film. Super hero movies are about the spectacle, and DKR does a pretty decent job with that. From the opening scene to the scenes involving multiple explosions crippling all of Gotham, DKR does offer up some breathtaking scenes. Bane’s take over of Gotham is particularly great. He brings the entire city to its knees and it’s pretty awesome, dark stuff. Nolan also does a pretty good job tying together the two previous films into this one.

So overall, not a bad film. It just simply doesn’t live up to TDK – an almost flawless film – and that’s where the problem comes in. TDK was so great that DKR couldn’t possibly live up to it, but it also created so many die hard fanboys that any criticism, no matter how small, would be met with vicious backlash normally reserved for blasphemers. And, like any fanatic, you just can’t talk any sense into a righteous Batman fan.

And here’s where we get to the crux of the issue. Everyone either seems to love or hate the movie, with very few opinions falling in the middle. It’s either the best movie ever or a piece of crap. Before the film was even released, before any of the public had seen it, some diehard Nolan fans were issuing death threats to critics who had the audacity to give an unfavourable review to DKR. No doubt those issuing the threats would never follow through on their actions (and no doubt the majority of them are either naive teenagers who really don’t know anything about film or 35 year old virgins living in their parents’ basement). It’s still worrying to see that type of angry rhetoric being used over a movie, though. Does it really matter that that DKR doesn’t have 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes? And aren’t people entitled to their own opinion? Try telling that to some of the fanboys, though, and they’ll go off – “how could you say that?” “you just don’t get it?”. That last line is a favourite for the same diehard defenders of Nolan’s previous film, Inception (it’s not that hard of a film to get, dude). The fanboys are incapable of allowing any sort of conversation regarding DKR other than whether it’s the greatest film of all time or the second greatest.

Then there’s the other side of the coin: the haters. This I put down to two things: sky high expectations and just wanting to go against the grain. TDK, as I said, was an almost flawless execution of a super hero movie, and people rightly loved it. It set the bar insanely high and people had expectations for the next one – absurd expectations. Of course DKR wasn’t going to be as good as TDK. How could it? Anyone who expected DKR to equal or surpass TDK was deluding themselves. Walk into a theatre with those kind of expectations and you’re going to be disappointed. I get that DKR was a little disappointing, I do, but ‘terrible’ and ‘worst movie ever’? Really? Ever see Transformers (or any Michael Bay film for that matter)? DKR is still a decent film. To gloss over what Nolan achieved with this film in favour of indignant rage is unfair to Nolan and the film itself. Take it for what it is: an above average super hero blockbuster. DKR could have been a whole lot worse. Why people expect so much from Nolan is also a bit of a mystery to me. The guy’s an excellent technician who makes semi-intelligent action films. He’s no Orson Welles or Igmar Bergman. He’s not trying to make a profound, artistic film. He’s more like a hip, modern day Spielberg. He’s just trying to entertain you. Some people may claim that they didn’t expect anything from Nolan and that he and his films just suck, but those people just relish playing contrarian to popular opinion. I suspect they really don’t believe what they’re saying.

No one in either of these two camps seem capable of discussing the film intelligently and with nuance. You’re either on one side or the other. This is a troubling trend that is not only limited to movies either. It’s present in almost anything that involves developing an opinion about – television, music, politics, etc. Maybe the term ‘developing’ is the wrong word to use here. The problem seems to be that no one actually develops their own opinion. They simply latch on to one side of the issue and stand firm. It’s far more simple to stick to one belief or ideal rather than critically think about the issue – it’s easier to think in black and white than shades of grey. Look no further than the current state of US (and even Canadian, to an extent) politics for a prime example of this. People are more fiercely divided than ever along party lines. Part of the reason for this extreme divide can be blamed, paradoxically, on the Internet.

For a tool that gives us all such a wealth of information and resources, it seems strange that opinions are becoming increasingly black and white. It may have to do with the sheer amount of information out there –  that people would rather simplify than process it all. The Internet seems to have spawned it’s own version of A.D.D. Rather than think about things, or read in-depth articles, people condense their opinions to blurbs or 140 character tweets. They quickly come to a conclusion – ‘sucks’ or ‘awesome’, ‘left’ or ‘right’ – and move on to the next bit of stimuli. What does it say about a civilization that thinks (or doesn’t think) like this? It can’t be good.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Internet. I think it’s an amazing and important tool for humanity. I just wish it didn’t breed such simplistic thinking. Is there a remedy for this problem? I don’t know. But what I do know is that dumbing down our critical thinking skills only serves to dumb down our society.