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Fantastic Fest 2015 – The Frustrating

Part 3 of my Fantastic Fest movie reviews. Spoilers abound, so be warned. Sadly there’s a lot of movies in this category this year. Most of them had promise and aren’t all bad, but took a wrong turn – one of several common wrong turns, interestingly enough, so rather than just skip over them I’m going to call them out in an attempt to correct some of the common cinematic sins I’m seeing.

I get it, struggling filmmakers.  You managed to get some footage out of a couple thousand dollars and you’re putting it together into a film. You can’t bring yourself to cut out that 20 minutes of pointless noodling in your third act because that footage was so hard won. But you need to. In edit, build your movie together out of what you have and then stop when it’s complete, don’t just have more for more’s sake. I wanted to fall asleep in the third act of a full 1/3 of the movies at the fest this year and that’s just plain ridiculous.

Few films at Fantastic Fest are ever just plain bad (well, except for those intended to be that way). Except for “Balada Triste,” which I hold a grudge against to this day. All of these had something good going for them, but managed to squander it somehow.

Artsiness Does Not Prevent Your Movie From Getting Boring

RUINED-HEART-1500x816Ruined Heart – a Filipino movie about a street level gangster and his girlfriend. It was ambitious – virtually no dialogue, very impressionistic. But I’m afraid its reach exceeded its grasp;  it was interesting but then as it drug on the approach started to come apart at its seams and become tiresome. It went from “impressionist” to “what’s going on now?” to “I don’t really care any more” as act 1 moved into 2 into 3.

La-GranjaLa Granja – A similar issue was to be had with La Granja, a movie about the slums of Puerto Rico and the crazy degenerate stuff its inhabitants are subjected to. It was fine and interesting, but used the technique that this Fantastic Fest taught me to dread, the “we’ll show you the movie as one series of events from 3-5 different persepectives!” technique. Apparently everyone decided this was the artsy thing to do this year, but in this case the additional tellings didn’t really add much new in terms of texture or information to the story, so once you were past a couple of them it became boring to see the same stuff retreaded. It could have had a couple perspectives removed without hurting (and therefore subsequently improving) the film. Also, the nurse’s baby-stealing seemed like it was outside of the core arc of the movie.

darlingDarling – A movie about a chick who moves in to be caretaker of a big ol’ New York mansion/apartment and then some combination of it’s haunted or she’s crazy or whatever. In black and white for artsiness.  But just not that much happened over the course of this movie. It is a short in feature length clothing. I don’t mind some moodiness but the ratio of moodiness to anything freaking happening was very poor.

Laura Ashley Carter doesn’t do a bad job, but the combination of writing and direction is not sufficient to the intended result of being a study of a descent into madness, and the hints at supernatural agency are hamhanded. Another third act sleeper (to be fair, we spend a lot of time watching her sleep, so it may be intending to make you drowsy for some reason).

Pacing, Please Learn It And Use It

baskinBaskin – a Turkish movie about a minivan full of roving Turkish cops that get called to a spooky-type village and a spooky-type house with mutated cultists in it. It starts out very interesting, with some weird experiences and dream(?) or flashback (?) sequences, to the point that I was trying to figure out if this was all really happening or if the young cop was just in Purgatory or what. And then they all just get caught, strapped to pillars, and tortured to death by mutants for the entire third act.

I was very disappointed in this – I mean, if you want to do torture porn, fine, but the pacing of a heretofore decent movie was just completely blown out by this.  Simple fix – capture one, torture him to death, have the others still running around, grab another one of them… But slamming to a stop and just doing 45 minutes of grotesque sitting in place is tiring to the point of being nap-inducing. I would love to see the first 2/3 of this movie with a completely, totally rewritten end 1/3 on it.

LUDO-620x400Ludo – an Indian (Bengali) movie about four roving Indian teens looking for a safe place to drink and screw, who after zooming around the city on their two mopeds and being turned away from every fleabag motel in town (apparently they’re serious about their morality laws there) hide out in a shopping mall till after hours. I liked all four characters and the actors, even though the montage of trying to find hotels could have had 10 minutes cut out of it. Then they meet two spooky old people also in the  mall after hours and then they all get Parcheesied to death.

OK so I get the Parcheesi thing, it can come across as a little silly here where Parcheesi is more of a kid’s game, but over there it’s the “game of kings” so one can mentally substitute playing chess or something. But again, in this movie the pace comes to a dead stop, since the game board just hypnotizes everyone into sitting around it like zombies playing till they get eaten.

They try to compensate for this, I guess, by having a long long long long long flashback to when the two old folks originally found the magic Parcheesi set back in long ago India (like, rocks and clubs level long ago). Yes, the two characters who we don’t give a shit about, unlike the four characters we’ve spent the last hour growing to know and care about. Like, it goes beyond flashback to full fledged subplot about them and some witch and other stuff it was hard to follow and/or care about.

Just like Baskin, I’d like someone to take the first 1/2 of this movie and then write an ending that a) involves the original damn characters and b) maintains some kind of momentum.

Sometimes Retro Is Just Bad

dangerousmenDangerous Men – A single guy, John S. Rad, made this movie over like 26 years. He’s director, writer, songwriter, and about everything else. It’s hilariously retro, with a bunch of “interesting” (read: psychotic) plot and casting and set and music and everything else choices. It starts out being about a chick whose boyfriend gets murdered by bikers and she gets carried off and then she kills them and goes on a serial killer spree focused on male predators. Then a cop shows up and goes on a completely unrelated biker-shooting romp (apparently the actress got fired 2/3 of the way through) and then he gets beaten into a coma and then a third character, the police chief (I guess?) tracks down the ’80’s wrestler looking bad guy Black Pepper (NB: not black) and arrests him.

So the cluelessness and bad ’80’s stuff is entertaining for about a half hour. But then it turns the corner to just “hey this is pretty bad.” Especially when the plot completely changed. I get it, Kung Fury etc. and retro making-fun are all big right now, but this is an incarnation of it only someone in full hipster mode can stand behind. Not every single-person retro junk movie is “so bad it’s good” – sometimes it is just bad. The audacity of its badness is good for a while but then it wears off.

Goddamn Germans

germanangstGerman Angst – Three nearly unrelated German shorts. Short 1 – a girl has her dad (?) strapped to a bed and castrates and kills and mutilates him.  She owns guinea pigs. Then she leaves. Maybe it didn’t happen. The end.

Short 2 – Some deaf-mute hiker lovebirds get death-stomped by a mostly German gang. But they have a necklace that might do soul-swapping in bodies, as a tale the man signs to the woman indicates, he got it from his… mom? Grandma? Who used it to get away from the Nazis in wartime Poland. (Or did she…) This is kinda interesting as a setup but it gets super annoying with just the yelling and carrying on and stuff for so long. Whoever the blond screamy gang chick is I wanted her to die of leukemia, I got so sick of hearing it. Then this winds up with the head skinhead giving a lengthy looking-at-the-camera apologia for their behavior, blaming their Polack-killing on the “granite weight of guilt” of still being identified with Nazis. This is done in such a way that it’s pretty transparently A Message To You From The Filmmakers. My response to that is “Fuck you.” You get to not get Nazi stigma once everyone who got stuck in one of those camps has passed away, and everyone that had to fight in that war has passed away.  Act right for one human lifetime (and you’re doing great so far) and then we’ll all stop using the N-word.  I think that’s fair payment in kind for millions of lives.  Till then STFU and take it. (N.B. I am of German descent myself so see no reason to beat around the bush here.)

Short 3 was better but I was still pissed off from shorts 1 and 2. A guy joins some kind of sex club but then it starts to become clear they are probably mating with some weird mandrake-based plant creature, but woot the orgasms are great, so it’s quite the dilemma of what to do. Would make a good “Twilight Zone” episode for a HBO-type Twilight Zone kind of program.

Except for a very very slight effort at relating the three stories in any way, they really are completely separate and very inconsistent in tone and nature. This is less a movie and more of a sampler pitch. And, the granite weight of guilt, my balls.

Fantastic Fest 2015 – The Decent

Here’s the Fantastic Fest 2015 midfield. There were a pretty decent batch of movies I enjoyed, though with some issues. Spoilers abound. In somewhat order from ones I liked more to ones I had more issues with.

SchneiderVSBax450x270Schneider vs. Bax – a Dutch movie by the director of Borgman, Alex van Warmerdam, this was an assassin vs assassin movie that wanted to be a Coen Brothers type fiasco story. It was well done technically, with some funny bits (mainly drunk/druggie old assassin #2 failing to jump a drainage ditch, mixing his speed up with his hallucinogens, etc.). It had a nice visual style as well, and some good characters. I liked it and wanted to like it a lot more.

But it didn’t make Coen Brothers or Guy Richie level mainly because though there were a bunch of characters, they weren’t really quirky at that kind of level and more importantly did not have strong agendas of their own bringing them into conflict. Why were the assassins being pitted against each other? No reason given. What were the motivations of the daughter, the girlfriend, the girlfriend’s boyfriend? Nothing besides the super bare bones of “they were there.” So much happens without any later consequence or payoff (the pimp he KOs and leaves in a construction yard, the park ranger…). In the end it wasn’t sufficiently quirky or actiony or macabre or gritty or twisty or anything, leaving it feeling pretty but hollow.

Here’s how this movie would have been more interesting.  The middleman wants one assassin to take out the other because… He’s dating his daughter!  The girlfriend comes back with her new boyfriend to get stuff because… She needs $30,000 to… Start a new life in Amsterdam or pay off her drug dealer or something, so assassin#1 can bribe her to turn on assassin#2. Give them *reasons* to fuck with each other.  When they send away three of the characters in a car it’s as if they’re saying “Whoops, we introduced all of you but then realized you’re contributing nothing to the story, get outta here.” On the positive side, I really liked Maria Kraakman’s performance as the daughter, going from annoying basket case to pretty competent planner to coming up with an ingenious solution to the problem. I’d like to see her in more things going forward.

SvB wasn’t bad, I don’t feel like the time watching it was wasted, but it was a shame that this well made movie could have been about 200% more interesting with some story workshopping. At least it’s not “Ecks vs. Sever“.

GridlockedGridlocked – Basically Assault on Precinct 13 remade, with some Die Hard, S.W.A.T., etc. mixed in. Dominic Purcell is the hard-bitten cop and Cody Hackman is the feckless actor he’s bringing along on his work (as part of a community service type sentence for being an ass), Danny Glover is the ‘too old for this shit’ desk sergeant, Stephen Lang (Avatar baddie) is the bad guy leader, etc. Fun and serviceable, seems like it’d make standard action movie bank at your local Cineplex.

The majority of the movie is the protagonists trapped in a secure SWAT type facility with the numerically superior bad guys trying to get in. Violence ensues – the defensive posture gives them an advantage but they don’t (usually) mow the baddies down like mooks, they’re all super tactical too and there’s a mole… NOW SHOOT HIM!

derbunkerDer Bunker – A super weird German movie about a student on the search for the Grand Unified Theory who goes and rents a room from a family that lives in a bunker, and gets drawn into their bizarre life (the wife talks to a possessed (?) lesion on her leg, they dress their home-schooled kid who is allegedly 8 but looks 35 as Little Lord Fauntleroy, the dad tells lame jokes from a book and explains at painful length why they are funny). Everyone’s weird agendas unfold in the cult-like family’s shadow. A little slow in the third act but otherwise a good experience. I’d write more but a) it’s hard to explain really and b) I don’t want to give too much away. Worth watching.

deathless_devilThe Deathless Devil – a Turkish remake of The Mysterious Dr. Satan. OK, so movies from 1973 in a festival lineup are padding, pure and simple. But it was better than a lot of other things I saw at the fest. Masked wrestler Copperhead tries to protect his girlfriend and her scientist dad from the depredations of the moustachioed Dr. Satan and his robot and henchmen, aided only by a twisted little cavorting pervert dressed in a Sherlock Holmes outfit. Well, and the cops. Parts of this were mystifying – like when they find out the secretary is a mole, Copperhead just up and bangs her (what about your girlfriend man, this is gonna come out sooner or later!) and they all talk to each other like they’re part of some kind of military or something even though as best as I can tell the scientist and Copperhead have no direct relation to either the cops or military, both of whom show up separately.

Like so many movies at this fest, it needed a lot of editing and a huge amount cut out of the third act – I get it was a serial, but so when you turn it into a movie please cut some of the repetition out, I could have dealt with one fewer chick-and-her-scientist-dad-get-captured-again cycles.

LovemillaLovemilla – A super weird Finnish comedy with superheroes and cyborgs and aliens and baristas in love.  And “zombies”, which apparently drinking booze turns you into. Protagonist Milla and her puddin-faced beau Aimo have issues, getting advice of varying quality from their friends “rich girl,” “feminist superhero,” and “gay guy.” It’s super silly and designed to be.

The anecdote that will stay with me forever, however, is the question at the end from a hipster chick to the director. In the movie the gay guy falls for a girl and insists he can’t be bi because “bisexuals are just perverts” – a funny and on-target sendup of many gay groups’ reaction to a member of the tribe “defecting” for various reasons. But her question was along the lines of “Oh do you have problems with that in Finland because here in America we are all completely comfortable with gender fluidity…”  Chris and I looked askance at each other and figured she must have never in her life left a 5 mile radius of downtown Austin to be able to say that with a straight face. Yes, I’m sure the Nordic countries have worse problems with tolerance than we do here.  Try driving out to Killeen and see how “comfortable they are” with your “gender fluidity.” Good Lord.

highriseHigh-Rise – An interesting movie about people living in a high-rise apartment segregated along class lines and how it goes all Lord of the Flies. Chris liked this one a lot and would have me put it in The Best, but for an otherwise realistically filmed movie the isolation of the inhabitants and why they stayed when things went to crap is completely unexplainable. Maybe put this on an island with a ferry to the mainland or something… Anyway, Naked Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is our protagonist and Shrieking Villain From Dungeons & Dragons (Jeremy Irons) is the Architect (yes, like from the Matrix).  The evil rich class are represented by Bard from the Hobbit (Luke Evans) and Solomon Kane (James Purefoy). It went pretty medieval but with a cast like this I kept expecting someone to break out into a swordfight.

Anyway Loki is a doctor and he moves into this high rise and it has rich snoots and rough lower class folks and then utilities shut down and the in-house supermarket doesn’t get any more stock and soon rape and pillage are the rule of the day. Two cops show up once but the Architect gets them to go away with a vague “we’re all OK here” and hints at a bribe. You’d think after there were cars on fire and dead bodies strewn around the tower that wouldn’t work any more, but it’s the UK so who knows.

los_parecidosThe Similars (aka Los Parecidos) – They say Isaac Ezban is the only Mexican director doing science fiction nowadays. The Similars is basically a mashup of a bunch of old Twilight Zone episodes. Which is fine, and probably good for a market where there’s no science fiction – to me, I was like “oh look the twilight zone episodes I already saw again.” The omnipotent psychic kid, the people all turning into the same person, etc. It was well made, though had a bit of third-act lag and could have stood to have 10 minutes or so cut around then.

But, they did give us all a little Caballero porn booklet where all the women had a bearded Mexican face on them. I will keep that until my dying day so the people going through my effects have to try to figure out what the fuck my problem was.

sensoria-6Sensoria – a Swedish movie that, while better than Darling (in the Frustrating section), had a lot of the same issues just to a lesser degree.  A lady, freshly broken up from her husband, moves into a new flat. It’s creepy and the neighbors are weird.  She meets pretty obvious ghosts quickly and then snap she gets ghosted. The end. Muted color palette. Lots of sound work. It was decent but basically very, very straightforward plot wise and there weren’t any meaningful decisions made by our protagonist so there wasn’t really any dramatic tension besides “eek a spook” from time to time.  I wrestled with putting this one here or in the “Frustrating” section because the moodiness with little backing plot left it feelign empty, but the characters (especially the creepy upstairs neighbor who could make out with another chick without his eyes ever leaving the protagonist) were good. -1 for starting out with a Lovecraft quote when Lovecraftian horror had nothing to do with this film.

Fantastic Fest 2015 – The Best

There were four movies that I unreservedly enjoyed this festival. They are the best of the ones I saw (of course one person can only see a minority of the films at Fantastic Fest). Spoilers are included, so be warned (though not too many, since these are good I am leaving most twists and endings unstated).

jeremy-saulniers-green-roomGreen Room is a movie about a punk band playing at a skinhead-infested venue who accidentally witnesses the aftermath of a murder and things go bad. It’s written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier who also brought us the recent Blue Ruin. It’s got a great cast, including Anton Yelchin (Chekov from the Star Trek reboot and the main kid from the Fright Night reboot) and Sir Patrick Stewart as the skinhead group’s leader! Along with a bunch of other experienced folks (including Macon Blair, the lead from Blue Ruin).

It was taut and well-paced; the writing was really good and the kills were brutal. It was done in a very realistic manner – you really buy the ensemble as a punk band teetering on the edge of viability (“I wanted to buy them all a sandwich and a glass of milk,” said Chris.) All the characters were solid and well-defined and made good, realistic decisions – not overly stupid in the face of danger but also not cranked up to Maximum Riddick, you felt the danger and appreciated the protagonists’ attempts to get out of their situation. And it was definitely gory, the several women to my right were covering their eyes during several scenes – but it’s not torture porn, and the suddenness of the brutality kept the audience electrified. Little bursts of humor were well received as tension releasers. And there was an extensive punk/metal soundtrack with everything included from Dead Kennedys to Slayer. (They kick off their set in the skinhead club with the former’s punk anthem “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” just to tweak them.)

The first showing was mobbed and the buzz off it was hot; at the second showing they expanded to two screens and it was still full to capacity with folks in standby lines hoping to get in. This is the kind of movie that when I see it at FF I ask “why is this not in normal theaters?” I guess maybe Hollywood will only show us horror movies that are either super-supernatural Sinister/Insidious/etc. or torture porn like Saw 29, and any thriller or action movie has to be PG-13 related to make all the tasty money.  Anyway, this is a great movie and I strongly urge you to go see it (assuming you can deal with some bloody deaths).

februaryFebruary is a smart horror film that managed to keep me guessing what the heck was going on, no mean feat nowadays with all my horror movie experience.  Starring Emma Roberts (from America Horror Story and various movies) and Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper from Mad Men, et al.) it features two girls at an all-girl’s Catholic school who are left there over a break. Very suspenseful, it moves at a steady pace and reveals events from three perspectives, gradually unfolding the total story. This was done skillfully – I have to say, some of the other films at the festival did this in a more hamhanded way, either wasting your time extensively with scenes you’ve already seen, or just messing with the timeline to confuse you, or other poor handling of their attempt to be “artsy.” They should all watch this movie and then go back and re-edit their own movies with what they’ve learned.

I kept trying to guess what the heck was going on. “She’s a ghost!  No that other chick is a ghost!  No the parents are!  No, they all are!  The priest is a molester!” They didn’t use misdirection gimmicks, it was just using enough genre tropes but presenting them somewhat flatly and letting you run with supposition. I really liked the evolution of your understanding of the plot and thought the ending was a pleasant twist.

The acting of both of the girls was great, a lot was conveyed just through silence and micro-movements of facial features. Very different from the old school stage acting, it made me reflect on the subtlety of the newer form of HD close-up acting. And the cold, bleak mood was handled very well. In the end it wasn’t innovative, using tried and true plot and mechanisms, but it was very skillfully executed.

April and the Extraordinary WorldApril and the Extraordinary World (aka Avril et le monde truqué) was a cool animated movie that’s family appropriate, something almost unheard of with FF films. It’s based on a graphic novel by Jaqcues Tardi, set in an alternate steampunk France in 1941 where the world wars didn’t happen and oil etc. hasn’t been discovered so the entire earth has been denuded of first coal and then trees for charcoal. The government forces all scientists to work for them, and the movie starts with a raid on a scientist family where mom, dad, and grandpa all beat feet or are disappeared and the girl, April, escapes and then grows up in isolation, trying to reproduce their experiment, an elixir of health and immortality. And then there’s intelligent lizard cyborgs and a plot to save and/or destroy the earth!

The cat was a big hit as a character and the alternate timeline (double Eiffel Towers! A cowboy Statue of Liberty!) was interesting (if perhaps not bearing a lot of close inspection from a scientific realism point of view). The characters were interesting and the conflict between April’s parents was a nice touch. I do feel that a little should have been cut out in the third act – this is an animated film, you don’t have to reuse the sets, characters wandering back and forth to and from the laser-cages in the jungle got a little tiresome. So not perfect, but a fun movie.

thewaveThe Wave – a Norwegian version of a standard Hollywood big-budget action movie by Roar Uthag, though with more restraint than those usually have, making it more pleasant than 2012/The Freezening/One Or The Other Volcano Movie/etc. It’s about a geologist working to monitor a mountain near a fjord because when it drops the resultant tsunami will wipe a resort city off the map in 10 minutes. He’s a rebel and is the only one who believes it’s happening!  And his family is in danger! The usual fare, but I enjoyed the rest of the cast, especially the other geologists, not being dumbasses (including Fridtjov Såheim from Lilyhammer). And though there was a race away from the wave, it wasn’t the unrealistic “running 45 minutes with the disaster right behind you” crap they do in Hollywood. So like a Hollywood disaster movie but better. Not revolutionary but serviceable, and frankly just not actively pissing me off was enough to hit a high point with me by this point in the festival.

Fantastic Fest 2015 – Overview

I just happened upon Fantastic Fest on a lark back in 2009 – I had a bunch of vacation to use or lose, saw an ad for it, thought “a genre film festival here in Austin?  OK, done!” It was a great experience and while I haven’t been able to go every single year since, I try to get to most of them (you can find writeups from some of them on this blog). And as also sometimes happens, fellow gamer Chris attended as well.

At a high level – this was a decent Fantastic Fest.  They have finally gotten a ticket reservation procedure that’s a pleasure to use… I remember having to rack out early after being up till 2 AM to drive all the way across Austin to wait in a line to get tickets to shows you wanted to get into (while already having a festival badge), then having to go burn a couple hours before the movie starts… Now it’s a nice little Web app open the day before and it slots you in.  I’ve gotten into everything I registered for except for the specials. I went on a daytime badge (have to tend the kid in the evenings) but had a lot of success just waiting standby on evening shows on days I was free.

The volunteers always run a great event – I always like seeing Winnie at work, she makes things happen!  My one suggestion is that most movies are shown twice. But ones shown in the day tended to have both showings in the day, and those at night at night. As a daytime badge holder this sucks, because towards the end you’re looking at slots with a lot of movies you’ve already seen in them and no chance to see some.  I assume there are other people that can only come at night, and have the same problem. Need to swap second showings day<->night. The new South Lamar venue is nice though there’s heavy construction going on in the surrounding blockhouses of condos. There’s a lot of good food choices within walking or short driving distance, and parking is free if pretty full up.

The down side was – well, hate to say it, but the movies.  The programming was not at all strong this year. Some years there’s been a huge amount of great stuff. This year, while they’ve been some good ones, it’s been a lot more sparse. Big waves of Japanese and Nordic movies have come and gone, even Korea’s not making much good stuff any more – they’re farming Turkey for new blood this time and just in general it seems like a lull year for genre films.

And a lot of the films weren’t that good. A large number suffered from the “third act problem” of putting me to fricking sleep in the third act. I imagine maybe if you’re an indie filmmaker that made your film on a $9000 budget that you don’t want to “throw away” any of your hard earned celluloid but I watched so many movies that needed 20 to, honestly, 45 minutes cut out of their runtime mostly in the third act and/or brought their pacing to a grinding halt 2/3 of the way through the movie this year that it was really frustrating.

Here’s a breakdown of the movies I saw at the fest. I do spoilers in these reviews as they are not just for you the curious moviegoer but also are feedback to the filmmakers and I think precision there is important.




Geek Movie Review: Django Unchained

Django_Unchained_PosterOn  my second attempt, I finally got to see Django Unchained at the lovely Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin.

I had mixed expectations.  In general, Quentin Tarantino has begun to wear on me. He’s big enough that his movies have become self-indulgent to the extreme. Oh, let’s wink a lot about that cameo, let’s drag out that murder or rape or torture scene about 5 minutes past where it needs to be, let’s toss up some labels on the screen with a whip-crack to be cute… Excess in place of storytelling. But Django was getting really high reviews (sitting at 88% on Rotten Tomatoes right now).

And I was pleasantly surprised.  Tarantino reins in his excess while still doing a bloody homage to westerns, and even delivers a coherent plot while doing so!

Jamie Foxx is Django, a slave in the antebellum South, who is freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in order to ID some criminals who need to be brought back dead-not-alive. Django decides he likes killing white folks and becomes a bounty hunter, and his new buddy helps him on his quest to find and free his wife, still a slave somewhere in the South. Basically “Ray” and “the Jew Hunter” in a spaghetti western quest to kill that kid from Titanic and Shane from The Shield.

It works! Oh sure, there’s screaming and blood. The brutality of slavery is shown. There’s cameos, including one of Tarantino.  You know, I saw his extended cameo in Sukiyaki Western Django, which is one of the worst 5 minutes of film you’ll ever sit through in  your life. He must have gotten the need to go totally hamhandedly over the top out in that, luckily, and he treats all of these elements as part of a coherent whole in Django. Worst cameo: Jonah Hill, given too much camera time for no good reason.  Well, maybe tied with the inexplicable “Zoe Bell with face always covered looking at a picture before dying unceremoniously.” Best cameo: Sex Machine! (You know, Tom Savini from From Dusk Till Dawn.  The guy with the crotch gun? Yeah, him.)

The story unfolds logically and at a realistic pace, without dwelling overlong on individual scenes – at the end of the movie, when we realized it had been nearly three hours, we were surprised because it had kept up a good but sustainable pace throughout.

Jamie Foxx puts in a good performance in a part that could easily have degenerated to “incoherent rage all the time” or “I’m too cool for all this.” The best performance is from Waltz, who we all know as the Jew Hunter from Inglorious Basterds. It’s a somewhat similar character, but he tones down the unctiousness from Basterds a lot here and is engaging without being distracting. Leonardo DiCaprio does a good job with the plantation owner.  The only weak performance is from Kerry Washington, Django’s wife Broomhilda. She didn’t have a lot to work with – maybe ten lines not counting screaming, sobbing, and other fun abused-woman noises – but was more a MacGuffin than a character.  And I always love it when Walton Goggins gets work, I’m always like “Oh look it’s Shane from The Shield, that makes me happy!” He even gets called a hillbilly.

The action was engaging, with one long shootout/bloodfest that was done in a pleasingly realistic way, and without being belabored into a half hour thing. There’s deaths by derringer, by pistol, by rifle, by dynamite…

The plot is good if not all that nuanced.  Some reviewers seem to think that the plot here is a brilliant dissection of white/black race relations or something; that must be their white guilt talking because it’s not more nuanced than Basterd’s “The Jews get to kill Nazis and Hitler woot!” It’s “ex slave gets to kill white slaveholders and an Uncle Tom woot!” Which is fun and viscerally satisfying, but not some complex thoughtful surprising statement or anything.

Most of Tarantino’s homage work seems to be “let’s take the most lurid elements of the source genre and TURN THEM UP TO ELEVEN and beat them to death in scenes twice as long as they need to be” and ends up generating something more parody than emulation. But in Django Unchained, he takes it to 8 instead of 11 and ends up turning in something that is actually honest-to-God like a good quality spaghetti western. Top flight acting and a good plot turn this into a solid and entertaining movie.

Geek Movie Review: Jack Reacher

Welcome to the first Geek Movie Review!  Each year I have done a spate of movie reviews tied into Fantastic Fest, the super cool Austin genre film festival, but I’m going to expand that into my unsolicited opinions on other movies too.

I was planning to see Django Unchained tonight, which has a Rotten Tomatoes score so high it’s hard to believe it, given Quentin Tarantino’s long slow slide into self-indulgence. But it was sold out, so instead a friend and I saw Jack Reacher. My parents had seen it and enjoyed it, which isn’t necessarily a recommendation, but I wasn’t going to go see Les Mis with another guy, so…

Jack ReacherJack Reacher is serviceable, with some decent action scenes.  Your parents will enjoy it; it’s like an episode of NCIS with a larger budget. I wish my first Geek Movie Review had a more stirring tagline to it, but I call them like I see them.

Tom Cruise plays Jack Reacher, a former US Army MP investigator now drifting around America playing a one-man A-Team. A sniper decides to perforate five people outside PNC Park in Pittsburgh. The local cops snatch up the obvious perpetrator based on a wealth of forensic information, and right before he is cornholed into a coma by the rest of the prison population he will only tell the cops “Get Jack Reacher.”

pikeNeedless to say, Jack shows up as if magically summoned, and wanders about like Colombo meets Jason Bourne to crack the case. Cruise does a decent job with the role, though sometimes he seems a little to smiley and upbeat for a role that might be better played down a bit more. He works with a juggy if not entirely convincing female defense attorney played by Rosamund Pike. She seems a bit lost in this movie, with “what am I supposed to be feeling here” written on her face in many scenes. “I’m being used as a human shield… Am I… Miffed? Mildly afraid? Slightly defiant? Not sure, I’ll just stare blankly.”

I don’t want to sound too negative, there’s some good bits in there – Robert Duvall as the gun range owner is great. Alexia Fast as the Pennsylvania Strumpet is fun… (What, IMDB tells me she’s the little girl from Fido?!?  No way!  OK, now I feel strangely conflicted about ogling her in her going-out-to-get-a-baby-daddy outfit.) And Cruise as Reacher has some pretty good lines; I like the scene where he escapes from a cop chase into a bunch of bystanders and they help hide him as a reflex.  Yeah, that’s Pennsylvania for you, my grandparents lived there for many years and the country’s nice but the cities are pretty rough. And the bad guy is sure freaky as heck; Warner Herzog does a turn as anything but your usual guy behind the convoluted organized crime scheme; heck he’s even a bit too lurid to be a Bond villain.

The movie is based on a series of novels by Lee Child. There’s a couple lines, and the end scene, that make a half-hearted attempt to set up Jack as a super badass and jonesing for a sequel; that’s clearly not going to happen. They try to talk like he’s Mack Bolan: The Executioner but the PG-13 execution and smilin’ Cruise means that it really doesn’t come off that way.

I enjoyed Jack Reacher enough that I certainly don’t regret going, it was fine for an evening’s entertainment.  Your parents, though, will love it.

Another Bad Dungeons & Dragons Movie

Why is the preeminent  fantasy franchise, Dungeons & Dragons, doomed to horrible movies?  The first one with the Wayans brother and Ewok village was godawful and I didn’t see the second.  This trailer for the third, which allegedly even Syfy won’t air because it’s unwatchable. Just the trailer makes my colon spasm. Awful dialogue, acting, CGI…