Django Unchained (2012)

Django

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained, like Quentin Tarantino’s fantastic previous outing, 2009’s Inglouriuous Basterds, takes us back to a time of important historical significance. This time around, it’s the old west – a few years prior to the Civil War – 1858, to be exact. Tarantino’s chosen timeline sets the backdrop for controversy, questioning the social norms and pervasiveness of 19th century slavery in a very up front, in your face manner. What’s likable about most Tarantino movies is that, regardless of how you view the sub-genre themes he tends to sticks to, he’s not afraid to question social and political norms and to do it in the most over-the-top way. Tarantino is a master screenwriter, and the flow and genius of his dialogue helps create memorial characters and performances that really pop, which helps set the mood for most of the movie. Ever-present here is Tarantino’s quick wit, snappy banter, and interesting insights that not only makes his characters and overall story incredibly likable, but also innately human.

As I mentioned earlier, Django Unchained draws most of its inspiration from more obscure movie sub-genres that I doubt most folks have delved themselves into as much as Tarantino. There are two direct influences going on here: first, the Sergio Leone-style Spaghetti Westerns made so famous in the 60’s and 70’s — that is, movies along the lines of Sergio Corbucci’s, “Django,” made in 1968 and starring Franco Nero (who, by the way, makes a cameo here), rather than pictures like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (although this movie does have a fleeting reference to that Clint Eastwood-starring classic). Second, and perhaps more crucially, the even more obscure blaxploitation Western, of which some examples would be The Legend of N—er Charlie from 1972 and Boss N—er from 1975. (Don’t look at me; I didn’t title the movies, that’s what they’re called!) From these various inspirations, Tarantino is able to create a movie with outstanding dialogue, intriguing characters, an (extremely) varied score, and outlandishly violent action sequences that he has become so well-known for. It fits very well into his collection of excellent movies that push the envelope compared to what could be considered standard fare with most other American cinema outings.

All-in-all, it’s a fun and violent movie with a lot of use of the “N” word – but I didn’t feel that that detracted from the movie at all – quite the opposite, in fact. The use of the word helps to paint a mental image of what the general mindset of the pre-Civil War era Southerners must have thought at the time – that African Americans truly were viewed as sub-human. That aside, if there was anything keeping this movie from being a full-on 5-Star Movie in my opinion, it was two things:

  1. The death of Tarantino’s longtime editor, Sally Menke, who passed away in 2010, is sorely missed here. With a total running time that falls just short of 3-hours – I felt there were far too many “meh” scenes that could have easily been cut from the final product. Because of this oversight on Tarantino’s end, the pacing of the movie, at times, feels too sporadic and banal. Not only that, but there were numerous technical inaccuracies and plot holes that were never accounted for. I won’t go into all of them that I happened to catch while watching the film, but I’m still having a hard time deciding whether it was intentional or not. On the one hand, this is an homage to Spaghetti Westerns, and things like plots details and coherency was often (unfortunately), overlooked. But on the other hand, Tarantino is usually very precise in what he films and how he is going to use it in the editing room (again, we miss Sally Menke’s talent here) – but I felt that perhaps he bit off more than he could chew here, so he couldn’t possibly tie in all of plot holes together because the movie would end up being over 4 hours long! So for me, the jury is still out on whether or not the plot holes and technical lapses were intentional.
  2. Jamie Foxx’s stale, dead-pan acting job. Jamie Foxx is a great actor – he was phenomenal in Ray and The Soloist – but here he plays Django as a one-dimensional character – unable to adapt and change with the events of the movie that should affect his character the most profoundly – slowly transforming from a slave to a “fastest gun in the West” bounty hunter. He just didn’t sell me on his performance.

Besides Foxx, most of the other performances were not only solid, but in my humble opinion, quite outstanding. Samuel L. Jackson’s take on his character, Stephen, was poignant and reminiscent of what some might consider a stereotypical take on an empowered head-of-household type servant – but it really worked here. Two other standouts for me were Leonardo’s DiCaprio’s portrayal of the plantation owner, Calvin Candie, as the wild yet reserved lord of the manor, with a demeanor that truly was on the edge of insanity during the 19th century slave era; and Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of the quick-tongued Dr. Schultz. There’s something about Waltz’s performance here that makes him so damn likable and appealing – he has true charisma on screen. Same could be said for his Oscar-winning performance as the Jew-Hunter Nazi in Inglourious Basterds.

Recommendation

Overall – a well-made Tarantino flick. All of the classic elements of Tarantino are there, so if you’re a fan of his previous work, this is sure to please. Even if you aren’t a Tarantino fan, I still think you’d enjoy the movie, if for nothing more than the performances and set pieces (some of the locations and overall cinematography are just so visually stunning).

FOUR GOLD STARS

Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall

Skyfall (2012)

After the mediocre movie that was Daniel Craig’s second installment as James Bond (Quantum of Solace), I had somewhat lost hope for the future of the franchise. That the folks in charge of the Bond movies were going South, in terms of quality and storytelling, pretty quickly. Casino Royale had its good merits, but to me, it still lacked that classic James Bond look and feel.

Being a life-long fan of the Bond movies, I have always held them in high esteem – even though I took them for what they were at face-value sometimes (let’s be honest, the likes of License to Kill and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service aren’t classics by any means!) But when the hype machine got rolling for Skyfall, I’ll admit I was curious simply because it was a Bond movie, but I honestly wasn’t expecting much.

And you know what? I was blown away. The cinematography alone in this movie deserves an Oscar. It is really one of the best looking Bond films I have ever seen. Bond movies have always been known for breathtaking scenery, scantily-clad women, fast cars and the like – but Skyfall takes it to a whole other level. The movie works great on so many levels – it has a few plot holes and inconsistencies – but it more than makes up for those with its visual spectacle, great action sequences and its phenomenal villian (Javier Bardem).

I would give Skyfall 5 out of 5 stars if not for one little thing – and even though I know most wouldn’t agree – I would argue Daniel Craig is one of the worst actors to play Bond. For me, it has nothing to do with the typecasting of the character (the fact that Craig is a blond-haired, blue-eyed Bond doesn’t bother me). What gets me about Craig’s Bond is that he is too stiff of an actor for the role. The essence of the Bond character has swagger, charisma, and charm. Craig lacks in these departments. I’ve heard the argument that these newer Bond movies are written to be grittier and more real, so the lack of the “charismatic Bond” is intentional. But even keeping that in mind, there are still moments in the script where I feel Daniel Craig could have timed the quips betters. Don’t get me wrong, he’s good when it comes to the action and handling fight scenes like a champ, but he has no real charm about him like the great Bond actors before him (i.e. Sean Connery, Pierce Brosnan, etc.).

Recommendation

Regardless of your stance on Daniel Craig as Bond, this is an exhilarating outing that will leave you appreciating cinematography as an art form, as well as having internal peace knowing that Bond is back and got it right this time – finally!

FOUR GOLD STARS

Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln

Lincoln (2012)

Steven Spielberg + Daniel Day Lewis – what more needs to be said!?! One of the greatest directors of our time with one of the greatest actors of our time… so to say the bar was set high is an understatement. Luckily, the bar that was set by the people involved in this project was easily met and, in some cases, exceeded.

Lincoln is not only a great period piece – the attention to detail and realism give the impression that you are actually witnessing history as it unfolded some 150+ years ago.  Spielberg’s direction is subtle yet brilliantly elegant. He is able to take the audience along for an incredible ride without injecting too many “artsy” directing techniques that take away from the picture. Daniel Day Lewis’ acting is outstanding here. As an actor, Lewis tends to come out from out of nowhere, rock the socks off of a role, garner a bunch of awards, then disappear for a few more years until his next epic portrayal onscreen. Lewis is Lincoln in this role – period. He’s so good that you never once think ‘I can tell he’s acting here.’ I also thought James Spader really stood out as somewhat stealing the show from some of the other great actors in this (and their are a lot of them)!

Since this is a big Oscar contender this year, lots can and has been said about it already, so I’ll just add that it’s not only a great movie, but a perfect history lesson and reminder of what makes this country great and also what can give us way too many headaches: politics.

Recommendation

Bottom Line: Great movie – rich in historical context and great performances all around, worth checking out!

FOUR GOLD STARS

Jack Reacher (2012)

The law has limits. He does not.
The law has limits. He does not.

Jack Reacher (2012)

There was a lot of speculation when this movie came out. Long-time fans of the character Jack Reacher, from the Lee Child novels, were skeptical (to say the least) that their beloved character – painted as a 6′ 5″ blond-haired, blue-eyed brut – was being portrayed by the charismatic and (relatively) vertically-challenged megastar, Tom Cruise.

I had no preconceived notions or expectations of what the character was supposed to be since I had never read a Lee Child novel – but after seeing this movie, I may just have to start.

I’d like to squash all of the speculations that Tom Cruise was a poor casting choice for this role – because after you see how well this movie works and how refreshingly real and raw it is – thanks in no small part to Tom Cruise’s and director Christopher McQuarrie’s (The Usual Suspects) great chemistry together. I think you too will end up being more than satisfied at the casting choice.

Love or hate Tom Cruise, he pulls in one of his better-acting jobs from recent memory here. Gone are his signature smile and lighthearted demeanor, which is replaced by cold, calculated, and menacing eyes that helps paint the character of Jack Reacher as a man with a troubled past, who doesn’t fall into the stereotypical Hollywood “good guy” protagonist.

What was so inspiring about this movie is that first off – the plot and script are written in such a way that, under less capable hands, this movie could have easily fallen prey to cliche thriller moments and stale dialogue. But every time you think this movie is going to take the easy way out, it totally changes directions and keeps you guessing. This is what movie making is all about! Secondly, the realistic sound effects and action scenes deserve so much kudos here. The mechanical sounds of the weaponry, the brash fight scenes, and the intense car chases were some of the best I’ve ever seen (or heard) in a long while. It’s so realistic that you genuinely feel uneasy watching the action, especially the opening scene or car chase scenes, because you feel you are right there in the thick of it all. This is a perfect movie to see in theaters for that reason alone!

Recommendation

Bottom line: GO SEE THIS MOVIE! This is a well-constructed mystery/thriller that has wonderful acting with a great pace that is energizing but still fresh.

FOUR GOLD STARS