Tag Archives: movies

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…

Fantastic Fest 2011 Day Five

Whew, only halfway done and it’s already fading into the past, I need to pick up the pace.

Fantastic Fest 2011! Day five! Monday! Most of the filmmakers bail out, and it’s second screening time for the hot tickets.

Two Eyes Staring (8/10) – A little Dutch film about a little Dutch girl in a little Dutch house! (Well, Belgian, but that’s where we’d go to the grocery when we lived in Holland). Two Eyes Staring is a horror thriller, in which nine-year-old Lisa and her mom and dad move back to the ancestral home, and odd secrets start coming out… Like about her mom’s twin – did she kill her? Is she haunting the cellar? Does the mom not want Lisa? Are bad things about to happen? Yep!

I probably can’t give this movie a “fair” review. I lived in Holland for three years when I was young, I have a nine-year-old girl, and her mom, my ex, was a little on the haunted past/self centered side. So this movie landed right in my wheelhouse. It has a very slow build, but the twists are effective. I liked the interaction between the mom, dad, and kid – of course things don’t just go from zero to blow-up immediately, that’s how families work – and when weird/mildly bad things happen, you usually just have to live with it.

It’s not Paranormal Activity and doesn’t try to be; the horror elements are there but definitely made subsidiary to the family drama. To be fair, this is probably a 6/10 to those who haven’t lived in Holland and don’t have a little girl this age. But I do, so I guess I’m the target market!  Woot!

The Squad (2/10) – Okay, the previous movie proves that I don’t mind a slow pace. But The Squad totally sucked.

I was ready for some military horror.  I like me some military horror. After 10 minutes of film council logos, we open on a Columbian commando squad.

In fact, let me stop there.  A couple of the South American movies did this, but I’m going to complain about it here because this was the worst one.  What is up with the fricking logofest at the start of the movie?   OK, in some American movies you get a couple – Lionsgate!  Brought to you by Whoever! Produciton company! OK, fine, up to three I will tolerate. But these South Americans just run screen of logo after screen of logo.  Audience members started laughing after the same goddamn film council’s logo came up for the third time (no, seriously)!  Note to Columbia, Argentina, etc. – that shit has to stop. It’s like how your military strongmen have chests full of 200 bizarre medals – it makes you come across as corny, not cool.  FYI.

Now back to the sucking. This squad clearly has the military discipline of your average Boy Scout troop; they’re all violating orders and running out where they can get wounded within two minutes. They take over an empty abandoned base (apparently sending a squad of guys in by foot is the only way anyone gets in or out of this giant installation that clearly took heavy equipment to build) and they start to think oh maybe it’s witches or something, then they turn on each other. None of the actors are charismatic and the narrative doesn’t settle on any as a main character you can latch onto.The setting is awful, it’s mud + fog 90% of the time and the other 10% it’s unremarkable prefab buildings. The cinematography is dark and muddy and jerky. The characters are all goons; you’d think a Columbian death squad would have one intact pair of cojones amongst the lot of them, but it’s not to be. There’s just nothing good I could grab a hold of and say “Yes, but at least the.. characters, scenery, military tactics, cinematography, sound work… was good…”  In the end there is no tension, no release, no twist.  The ten minute MRE distribution scene was the most memorable, in retrospect. And it wasn’t good.

This movie is kinda like The Thing, without a Thing, and without Kurt Russell, and without John Carpenter directing. So it sucked is what I’m saying.

A Boy And His Samurai (9/10) – I was demoralized after The Squad, lucky I was about to be rescued by Yoshihiro Nakamura!  Nakamura-san’s movie Fish Story was my favorite of Fantastic Fest 2009, and I really liked Golden Slumber from Fantastic Fest 2010. So I couldn’t help but go see his latest at FF2011.It’s based on a manga, apparently.

A Boy And His Samurai is a family comedy. A kid and his barely-coping single mom run across a samurai who got zapped into modern day by praying at a Buddhist shrine. Now he has no idea what to do.  They take him in and he becomes a domestic ninja, so to speak. It’s funny and tender, and there’s conflict stemming from expected gender roles (without stupid Mr. Mom kinds of jokes). Even near the end, when the “young punks” scene jumps the shark a little bit, it’s a fun movie. And they’re not afraid to use the little kid to tug your heartstrings.

I described the movie to my daughter and she asked me who the “bad guy” was. That took me aback. I realized there usually has to be some bad guy or at least opposing foil in similar American movies to create tension.  But not in this case, everyone’s pretty much of good heart, and it highlights how even normal people trying to do the right thing are brought into conflict by the nature of the world.

Anyway, this just solidifies Nakamura in my mind as being a god of movies. I’ve seen one a year and every time they leave me moved and thankful. I can’t wait to watch this one with my daughter, once it’s released in some form!

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (7/10) – This Brazilian movie reminded me of District B-13 in that you can’t miss that’s a sequel. I’ve never seen the original, and it became obvious that it would provide some more perspective on the plot and relation to the characters that they don’t bother to provide you with inside this one.  Once you get over that, it’s a reasonably engaging criminals vs police vs the system tale (again, very District B13-like). There’s some great scenery and music, since it’s set in Brazil.

Whew, only three more days to go, but plenty more good movies!

Fantastic Fest 2011 Day Four

Sunday! This was a light day for me, at least movie-wise – for the second  year, my company scheduled its employee appreciation day where they rent out Six Flags Fiesta Texas on a Fantastic Fest day. I have a nine-year-old so I took off the day to take her to the amusement park – but after a day of 105 degree heat, there are still two movie slots to go after her bedtime! Feeling woozy, I attended…

Penumbra (6/10) – In this Argentinian movie, lisping Spanish real estate executive Marga isn’t a nice person, and the promise of easy money keeps her hanging out in an apartment she’s trying to rent while one, then two, then four people are there acting more and more freaky. There is nothing surprising at all about how the story unfolds, but it’s well done and you get to enjoy seeing them uppity wimmen get their comeuppance!

Rabies (7.5/10) – The directors discussed their path towards this, the very first Israeli horror movie! The funny thing is, they don’t understand why it’s the first either. The dialogue goes like this: “We want to make a horror movie!” “Oh, with how bad we have it, who wants to see those bad things? We want escapism!” “But, all our country’s movies are about war and stuff, isn’t that even more depressingly like the horror of our lives than some slasher flick?” “I don’t understand your moon-man language.” I don’t get it, and luckily neither do Navot Pupushado and Aharon Keshales, because they decided “screw it we’re doing it.”

Anyway, man this is a smart and deconstructionist take on a horror movie for the very first horror movie out of a country! I mean, you’d think they’d try to just execute a couple tried and true formulas to prime the pump, but no, this excellent film mixes tense slasher/all-fall-down thrills with “OH SHIT NO YOU DIDN’T” kills as well as nearly Scream-level self referential deconstruction of the horror genre.  Want an example?  Even the film’s title, RABIES, has nothing to do with the film. There’s no zombies or outbreak disease or anything. “We called it that to fuck with people’s expectations,” say the directors. Anyway,this film is more clever and cutting (in all senses of the word!  Ha!  Get it?) than all our current stock of wide-release slasher movies. It is way, way better than “our first one!” has any right to be. Go scary Jew power.

So, a short but fulfilling day. It was impressive – Juan of the Dead was a stellar first Cuban horror movie, and now Rabies is a great first Israeli horror movie. Where’s next, Chad?

 

Fantastic Fest 2011 Day Three

Day Two was solid, so can it get better for Day Three?  Yes it can!

El Narco (8/10) – (aka El Infierno) This movie is about Mexican drug gangs and the way of life they have become south of the border. Being a Texan, this is a topic of interest (the rest of the country appears to pretend there isn’t a war going on a couple hundred feet away from U.S. soil…). It features the alternately hapless and charming Benny coming back to Mexico from the U.S., which turned out to not be the land of milk and honey he’d hoped, to his small home town. The only decent jobs there are basically working for the drug gang, El Reyes del Norte (the Kings of the North). He resists briefly and then goes all in and Scarfaces it up for a while. It’s a great mix of dark comedy and a grim look at the reality of political corruption and dominance of the drug gangs in Mexico. This movie blends the wiseguy movie genre – it owes more than a little to Goodfellas – with the narco movie genre. Did you know there’s a whole genre of movies, the “narcopeliculas,”  paid for by the Mexican drug gangs to basically laud themselves?  And a whole genre of “narcocorrido” music that does the same? That’s how fucked up it is in Mexico right now. It’s gone beyond the “Boyz N The Hood” kind of gang as mini-society within a larger society, the narco gangs have become the larger society. The movie is political at times, but not hamhandedly so. You should see this movie.

Melancholia (8/10) – Kirsten Dunst plays a depressed rich white member of a very rich white family. This was like the whitest movie ever, it reminds me very much of some friends who are from a rich ex-British family in Maine. Anyway, the movie is appropriately named – it is like taking a little bottle of concentrated depression and drinking it. The Earth is destroyed in the first five minutes, and it’s all downhill from there. Director Lars von Trier of Antichrist fame brings the story of the Earth’s last days to us from the perspectives of two sisters played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Dunst puts in an AWESOME performance. I’ve been with some depressed women before, and OMG she totally nails it. The family interaction is great too, with the frustration of people who have a loved one with depression.  “Can’t you be happy, or at least not self destructive, for like ten minutes? It’s your wedding!” Seriously, this movie is super depressing, don’t see it if you’re not emotionally OK with that. I recommended it to some friends from Louisiana at the fest and afterwards they staggered out, eyes red, uttering profanity-laced outbursts about how it was “SO SAD!!!!!”

You Said What? (6/10) – Ah, those wacky Norwegians.  They took the premise of Takashi Miike’s Audition (a fake audition for a nonexistent movie to find women) and then it goes all romantic comedy as Glenn, the lad in question, can’t come clean and so puts together a whole film production to woo his beloved. Funny and enjoyable, largely predictable.  Good but nothing to write home about. They use a lot of late 80s/early 90s “Say Anything” kind of songs, which was kinda fun.

Knuckle (9/10) – The only documentary of the fest, Knuckle is a gripping documentary about the Irish Travellers (the Irish equivalent of gypsies). Ian Palmer spent 10 years with them filming them to make this film. The crux of the film revolves around ongoing feuds between Traveller families – in this case the Quinn McDonaghs, the Joyces, and the Nevins – whose grievances are settled by bare knuckle fights between selected fighters from each side, with only KO or surrender deciding the matter. James Quinn McDonagh, the champion of his family and one of the main subjects of the documentary, was in attendance at the fest, and we got some great insights out of him (especially about the time he got shot, which is mentioned only parenthetically in the film). It was hard for Palmer because the Travellers are generally quite insular and distrustful of outsiders, but he got some great stuff. The whole thing was fascinating – the generations worth of grudge over nothing anyone can articulate, the insistence on fair play in the fights, the pooling of family money to bet on the outcome, the role of video (a lot of the bad feelings were stirred up by families sending taunting VHS tapes to each other back in the day), to the ubiquity of kids around participating in the violence. Some fights you see; others had no cameras allowed – you experience them by family members standing by on cell phones (members of the family aren’t allowed at the fights due to risk of riot; the matches are refereed by other third party families). They range from four minutes and one guy’s down to a more than two hour (!!) fight that James Quinn had. It started as a clever scheme to keep bloodshed between the groups to a minimum, to settle differences in a civilized way, but you see (and James remarks upon) how the culture of feud and “fair fighting” ended up feeding on itself and growing to be an obsession. Even the directory noted how he became addicted to the fights and had to pull himself away from it to finish the film. Everyone there was hungry for more on this fascinating topic when it ended. The Q&A with James and the director was packed and went till they kicked us all out.

I stayed for so long in the Knuckle Q&A that I ended up skipping my last show of the day, I had planned to see A Lonely Place To Die  but it was getting late and I wanted to ruminate more on Knuckle, frankly. If you have any opportunity to see it, do so! Looks like it should be available via various channels now/soon…

Fantastic Fest 2011 Day Two

Okay, a light first day got me in the mood for movies, and today I did the full grueling day of five.  Five movies, especially five subtitled and/or demented movies, gets your brain boiling it its own chum, and a week of it… Eek.  That’s why I have only now surfaced with reviews. Anyway, there was some great stuff today, let’s get to it!

The Yellow Sea (7/10) – A Korean crime drama set in a region most of us don’t know exists – a Chinese region between North Korea and Russia where Joseonjok (Chinese citizens of Korean ancestry) live. Ha Jung-Woo plays a guy whose wife runs off to South Korea, and he languishes between gambling debts and alcoholism until a crime boss gives him a chance to pay his debts and go to South Korea as long as he whacks a guy while he’s there. He’s no hardened killer, though, and the people sending him there aren’t exactly being aboveboard with him, so it turns into a bit of a chase thriller as cops and various groups of criminals.  This movie is notable for good acting and for people not being afraid to fuck each other up with hatchets if it’s called for. It went on a little long, but that’s the Koreans for you. Hong-jin Na’s previous movie, Chaser, is available for streaming on Netflix.

Underwater Love (5/10) – When a high school crush comes back as a kappa years later to a decrepit old lady working at a fishery (she’s only 34, but apparently that’s old enough to be continually taunted for being old in Japan), wackiness ensues. The effects are bargain basement, but the movie has a certain charm. There are “musical numbers” that largely involve the cast capering around, however, they only sometimes make a token effort to actually sing the lyrics. Not “good” in the classic sense, but weird enough to be entertaining. The scene where a fishery co-worker seduces the kappa isn’t to be missed, if you ever wondered what a kappa’s junk looks like that is.

The Corridor (8/10) – I was surprised by this film. I expected a low budget Evil Dead or cabin slasher knockoff. But it was cleverly set up and the effects were startlingly good! Basically some childhood friends reunite in a cabin; one of them (Tyler) had a breakdown, attacked them, and was institutionalized years before, but he’s out and his mom, who was a surrogate mom to them all, has died and they’re gathering to spread her ashes, have a wake, and hang out. There’s a fun twist and interesting mythology. It has some personal relevance to me, we had a kid in our Boy Scout troop who went away to the funny farm for a while and then came back. We liked the guy, seemed like a gentle soul. He ended up chopping up a neighbor in Pennsylvania and hanging himself in the police van. Whaddya gonna do.

Juan of the Dead (9/10) – A Cuban indie zombie comedy.  I shit you not. Again I had low expectations, figuring it’d be a Shaun of the Dead knockoff in Spanish, but it was really, really good. It was filmed all over the place in Havana, a beautiful city most of us have never seen. It captured the Cuban way of life beautifully. Even more remarkable is how the director Alexander Brugues turned in such an amazing initial film – he described how there’s no movies like this in Cuba, and he learned about them and film-making in general from the hellishly slow monitored Internet connection out of Cuba. By all rights the movie shouldn’t be as good as it is, and it’s a lot of fun – really funny, but with some good zombie-killin’ action (ever seen 300 zombies decapitated at once?  Well now you have!). Brugues explained a lot of the (non-zombie related) shenanigans of the titular Juan are based directly on his brother, which made it even more funny. Even he is not sure how the Cuban film board approved his movie; his theory is that they read the script and decided he was a crackpot with no chance of ever finishing the movie, so why not play the good guy and say yes? Not just a zom-com, this skillfully done film provides a rare glimpse into modern Cuba – not just the settings but also the people. It’s as good as, but very different from, Shaun of the Dead – if you liked Shaun, however, you won’t be disappointed in Juan! I had a Cuban expat roommate in college and have a friend at work that goes to Cuba on relief trips regularly, I can’t wait for them to both see this.

Zombie (7/10) – Lucio Fulci’s best known classic. After seeing the restoration work on House By The Cemetery the previous day, I decided to see this – I’ve seen it a couple times and it’s a good zombie movie marred only by the darn muddiness, crap color, bad sound, etc. that the current print has. It didn’t disappoint, the movie is now beautiful, and the eyeball piercing has never been more vivid. Watching some of these old movies can be a chore in their current form and these kinds of re-masterings really breathe some unlife back into them. You can get the DVD of the old version on Netflix.

Day Two didn’t disappoint.  So far my biggest take-aways are the Korean thriller Haunters from day one and Juan of the Dead and The Corridor from today. But there’s much more movie goodness to come!