AMERICAN VIOLENCE (2017)

February 4, 2017

american-violence Greetings again from the darkness. Making a political statement is nothing new for movies; however, if a filmmaker takes a stance on a controversial issue, the final product needs to be insightful and compelling in order to make a difference. Seemingly intent on making a mockery of the death penalty, director Timothy Woodward Jr delivers little more than a B-movie with a hyper-serious tone, but a script that is at times laughably off the mark.

Even before the opening credits roll, we get our first brutal murder … just moments after persnickety Bruce Dern belittles his wife over the sandwich she made for him. Next up, Dr. Amanda Tyler (Denise Richards) is being asked by the Assistant District Attorney to consult on the case of a death row inmate, to determine if a stay of execution should be granted. See, Dr. Tyler is a criminal psychologist. Yes, she’s played by Denise Richards. If this causes you frightening flashbacks to Ms. Richards’ role as a physicist in The World is Not Enough, then you begin to have some idea what this movie is like.

The inmate is Jackson Shea (a formidable Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau) and as he tells his life story, we are provided scenes that explain how he got to this point. It’s a pretty interesting backstory starting with sleazy Uncle Mike, an alcoholic mother, and a seemingly endless array of circumstance that might have formed the basis of a better movie.

You will note many familiar faces along the way: Michael Pare as Shea’s partner, Patrick Kilpatrick as a criminal kingpin, Johnny Messner as a fellow criminal, and Emma Rigby as Shea’s love interest. For you football fans, you’ll likely reminisce about Brian Boswell when you witness Rob Gronkowski as a gun-toting bodyguard.

All of this could have been good criminal fun if we weren’t being incessantly slapped upside the head with the anti-Death Penalty message … how trading death for death isn’t appropriate, and for tilting the scales to show how criminals are basically good guys who accidentally end up in a bad spot thanks to a broken system and culture of violence. It’s all a bit too heavy-handed and self-righteous, taking away some of the joy in chuckling at Ms. Richards playing it straight as an intellectual idealist.

watch the trailer:

 

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THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015)

December 27, 2015

hateful 8 Greetings again from the darkness. If one is to believe Quentin Tarantino, the leaked script scandal nearly turned this into a novel, rather than what it clearly needed to be … a Quentin Tarantino movie (his 8th).  It could even be considered a companion piece to Django Unchained (though this takes place in snowy Wyoming, as opposed to the balmy Deep South). It’s set soon after the Civil War and there still exists a palpable uneasiness between Confederate and Union types, creating a constantly teetering milieu between violence and progress.

Tarantino’s obsession with classic film led him to utilize the same Ultra Panavision 70 lenses used for Ben-Hur (1959), which required the retrofitting of 50 theaters across the country for the “road show”. This presentation includes an opening musical Overture, a midpoint Intermission, approximately 6 minutes of footage that highlight this rarely used format … stunning snow-filled vistas and wide shots of the frontier, and zero previews for upcoming releases.  When the film opens nationwide, the digital version will be straight-forward (though still nearly 3 hours in run time). The “road show” features are bonuses for us film geeks, and will have no impact on whether one enjoys the film or not.

Rather than follow in John Ford’s majestic Western footsteps, QT has the vast majority of the story take place within a one-room set called Minnie’s Haberdashery. Thanks to a record blizzard, the general store/saloon turns into a human snake pit filled with nefarious types who are quick with a quip and a trigger. The diabolical assemblage is made up of John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell, featuring world class whiskers), a bounty hunter who is handcuffed to his latest prize Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter (Union) Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L Jackson); British fancy boy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth) who says he’s the hangman for Red Rock; the self-professed new Sheriff of Red Rock Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins); General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), a former Confederate officer; quiet cowpoke Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); and Senor Bob (Demian Bichir), whom Minnie left tending the store in her absence.

Now as you might expect, some of the above descriptions may be true, while others could be considered “conveniences”. What you also might expect is a steady rain of Tarantino dialogue delivered by the perfectly chosen cast. Each of these players grasps the cadence required to make this work … they have the rhythm of a stage play – a new direction that Tarantino has hinted at. And have no fear, over-the-top violence fills the second half of the story as the confined space and contradictory missions begin to clash.

No more need be said about the characters or the story. Russell, Jackson, Goggins and Ms. Leigh are especially effective at enlivening their scenes, and they are joined by supporting actors such as Dave Parks (son of the great Michael Parks), Gene Jones (who didn’t wish to call the coin flip in No Country for Old Men), Dana Gourrier (as Minnie), QT favorite Zoe Bell (as Six-horse Judy), and even Channing Tatum.

Legendary composer Ennio Morricone delivers his first western score in about 40 years, which is important since he’s the man behind the iconic music of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. On the topic of music, Morricone’s score is complimented by only a smattering of other songs (including a Roy Orbison gem and a solo from Jennifer Jason Leigh), which is unusual in the Tarantino canon. Three-time Oscar winner Robert Richardson re-teams with Tarantino and seems to have a blast with the challenges presented by the one-room set … he plays with focus and depth to create some fantastic shots. It should also be noted that the Sound is spectacular – everything from gunshots, to swirling wind, to boots and spurs, to galloping stage coach horses, and even the pouring out of coffee.

All of the above results in a stunning movie experience with the anticipated QT humor, violence, and anti-racism sentiment (though the N-word usage is once again tough to take) … yet somehow the final product doesn’t equal the individual moments of genius. It comes across as a blend of Agatha Christie, (Tarantino’s own) Reservoir Dogs, and John Carpenter’s The Thing minus the cohesiveness required for a great movie. So enjoy the characters, the technical achievements, and the terrific dialogue, but know that it’s unlikely to be one of those that cause you to stop down while surfing cable channels in a couple years.

watch the trailer:

 


NEBRASKA (2013)

November 24, 2013

nebraska1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Alexander Payne has proved yet again that he has a remarkable eye for characters, and no need to bury those characters deep in plot. About Schmidt, Sideways, and The Descendants provided us with characters we could laugh with, cry with and feel with. His latest is his first film which he did not write, but it’s clear that he and screenwriter Bob Nelson are similar type people watchers.

What you notice immediately is that this film and its characters move at their own pace. There is no rushing or urgency. They do nebraska2things and say things in due time. Or not. What you also notice is that the camera does the same thing. Filmed in stark black and white, the camera is exceedingly quiet and still … just like the characters and landscape. We can thank Director of Photography Phedon Papamichael, who also worked with Payne on Sideways and The Descendants. Even the score is a bit offbeat. The blending of trumpet and guitar is rare, yet seems to fit just right.

Bruce Dern is 77 years old and in his sixth decade of acting. While I have liked him quite often – and really liked him in The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) – this may be his best performance and best role yet. Dern’s Woody Grant is an alcoholic, nebraska4and hard of hearing, and crotchety, and isolated. More seriously, he seems to be in the early stages of dementia given his insistence on walking to Nebraska to collect his “winnings” from a mass marketing mailing similar to Publishers Clearing House. With minimal dialogue, we “get” Woody. That’s thanks to Dern’s physical performance and ability to emote through simple gestures. We feel his quiet desperation in the search for meaning in a life that is slipping away. He just wants to be somebody before the end.

The delivery mechanism is a road trip shared by Woody and his very patient son David (Will Forte). We sense David looks at the trip as an opportunity to connect for the first time with his dad, and maybe even get some life questions answered along the way. On the trip, other family members join in, including Woody’s other son Ross (Bob Odenkirk), and Woody’s colorful wife Kate (June Squibb). The trip takes them to Woody’s hometown where they cross paths with other family and old friends.

nebraska3 Woody’s insistence that he is about to be a millionaire brings out the “true self” in those whose paths they cross. Many of his old friends are truly happy for him and wish him nothing but the best. Others aren’t so kind. True colors can be hard to watch, especially as shown by Woody’s old partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), and other family members who are just after “their fair share” of the loot. The movie excels in these moments … watching a fiery Kate put these vultures in their place, while defending the husband she has spent the whole time badgering is priceless.

Ms. Squibb delivers the film’s funniest lines, but she also gives a depth to Kate that adds the level of realism. Will Forte is surprisingly effective given his “Saturday Night Live” background, but we never lose sight of Bruce Dern (and his hair). The characters we see are grounded rural midwesterners who live their life from day to day, depending heavily on family and friends. Their interpersonal skills are quite different than what is found in metropolitan areas, and those born and raised in heavily populated areas may struggle to relate.

The film should garner Oscar nomination consideration in multiple categories, and Mr. Dern is probably a shoe-in for a Best Actor nom. So slow down and share this trip from Montana to Nebraska … while I can’t promise a prize of one million dollars, you will definitely be rewarded.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy character driven dramatic comedies based on people you might know (if you know people in the rural midwest)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your sense of humor is more likely to parallel that of Adam Sandler or Will Ferrell than Sideways or About Schmidt.

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UT5tqPojMtg


DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

January 2, 2013

django Greetings again from the darkness. Well, after two viewings and endless analyzing, it’s time to commit thoughts to the page. Over the years, it has become very clear that a Tarantino movie generates a first reaction, and then proceeds to slither through your mind and morph into something else entirely. It would be very easy to accept this latest as an outrageous peek at slavery disguised as a spaghetti western. For most filmmakers, that would be plenty. The “whole” here is exceedingly impressive, but the real joy for cinephiles is in the bits and pieces.

One need not be a Quentin Tarantino expert to enjoy his movies, but there are a couple of things that help. First, he is at heart, a true lover of cinema and quite the film historian, showing sincere respect to the pioneers of this art form. Second, he loves to bring visibility to issues (large and small) by poking a bit of fun at the evil doers who wield unnecessary influence and control over weaker parties. Morality, vengeance, revenge and come-uppance invariably play a role in django4his story-telling … a bonus this time is the inclusion of the Brunhilde/Siegfried legend from Norse mythology and the Wagner operas.

In his two most recent films, QT has been on a kick for creative revisionist history. Inglourious Basterds made a strong statement against the Nazi’s, while this latest goes hard after slave owners. As you might expect, historical accuracy is less important to him than are the characters involved and the tales they weave. And to that point, it seems quite obvious that where in the past, Tarantino would center his attention on crackling dialogue and searing one-liners, he now offers up much more complete characterizations … these are people we understand, even if we don’t much like them.

The obvious love he has for Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Leone, the driving forces behind spaghetti westerns, is plastered on the screen. We even get the beautiful camera work through the snow as a tribute to Corbucci’s The Great Silence (1968). While this is not a remake or sequel or prequel, Franco Nero’s “I know” response to “The D is silent” generates a laugh and memories django2of a 25 year old Nero in the titular role of Django (1966). The Blaxploitation genre plays a significant role here as well since Jamie Foxx plays Django, a freed slave who buddies up with a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter, so that Django can get revenge on those responsible for the torture and mistreatment of his wife.

The details of the stories will not be exposed here, however, I would encourage you to pay close attention to the moments of film brilliance. There is a running gag with townspeople and slaves alike struggling to accept the sight of Django on a horse. You’ll laugh again when Django is offered the opportunity to pick out his own clothes and we next see Foxx in a velvet Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit straight out of The Blue Boy painting from Gainsborough. There is hilarious banter django5between Big Daddy (Don Johnson) and Betina as he tries to give guidance on how to give Django a tour of the plantation.  The phrenology sequence is not just unusual, but an incredibly tense scene and fun to watch.  Watching the final shootout reminds me of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch … only ten times as violent!

Some of the best moments occur when we recognize the actors in the vital foundation scenes. Don’t miss: bad guy Bruce Dern, Don Stroud (the drummer in The Buddy Holly Story) as the ill fated sheriff, Tom Wopat as a patient Marshal (“Dukes of Hazzard”), father and daughter Russ and Amber Tamblyn, Jonah Hill who struggles with the eye holes in his “bag”, the eyes of Zoe Bell, Ted Neeley (Jesus Christ Superstar), “Dexter” dad James Remar in two roles, Walton Goggins as a gunslinger, Michael Parks (multiple roles in Kill Bill and Grindhouse), and of course, Mr Tarantino himself (as an explosive cowpoke from down under).

django3 While each of these provide wonderful moments, the real bingo occurs courtesy of the main performances of Jamie Foxx (Django), Christoph Waltz (Dr King Schultz, bounty hunter), Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin Candie, plantation owner), and Samuel L Jackson (Stephen, Candyland house slave). Any combination of these characters in any scene could be considered a highlight. It’s especially enjoyable to see DiCaprio cut loose after so many uptight characters recently. Samuel L Jackson has long been a Tarantino favorite, and his delivery as the diabolical Uncle Tom house slave who has some secrets of his own, will bring the house down when he first sees Django and, in a much darker way, when his suspicions are confirmed. Power is a big player in the story, and even as a slave, Stephen knows what to do with power when he has it. Mr. Waltz won an Oscar for his Inglourious Basterds performance, and his dialogue here is every bit as rich. It’s obvious how much Tarantino enjoys hearing his words spoken by Waltz. Foxx’ performance could be easily overlooked, but it’s actually the guts of the film. He is quiet when necessary and bold when required.

django - dj We must also discuss the soundtrack. Franco Migiacci‘s original “Django” theme is featured, as are classics and a new song from the great Ennio Morricone. If you doubt the originality of the soundtrack, try naming another western that utilizes a mash-up of James Brown and Tupac Shakur. How about a spot-on use of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name”? The film is beautifully shot by Robert Richardson, and Fred Riskin takes over for Tarantino’s long-time editor Sally Menke, who sadly passed away in 2010.

It should also be noted that the script puts hip-hop to shame by using the “N-word” more than 100 times. It is a bit disconcerting, and you can google Spike Lee’s comments if you care to read more on the topic. Otherwise, dig in to the latest gem from Tarantino and appreciate his approach and genius … either that, or stay away!

**NOTE: I have purposefully avoided the scandal associated with the film.  If you are interested in reactions from the African-American community, there is no shortage of published reports on those who support the film and those who are outraged.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rC8VJ9aeB_g