Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino has a thing for revenge. He's had it in his movies before (like Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown), he's built entire movies around it (Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill vol 1 and 2) and he's now added another to his list in the western revenge saga Django Unchained. The story of a slave, Django (Jamie Foxx) who's freed by a bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who won his second Oscar for working with QT again after Basterds) and subsequently fights to get his wife (Kerry Washington) from the plantation owning Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Throw in Candie's hateable house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) and a whole mess of violence and language and anachronistic music and you've got yourself a good old fashioned Tarantino flick. How you feel about Tarantino flicks in general will likely determine whether you like this movie or not.
While I've criticized QT in the past for being a filmmaker who can't get out of his own way, somehow it worked better for me here than it has recently. The overwritten dialog, unnecessary text overlays, cartoonish characters, and padded runtime. None of it bothered me this go round. I think a big reason for that is the actors we've got this time. Sam Jackson has proven himself before to be the one actor who truly makes QT's dialog sing like it should. But Waltz shows again (after being the brightest bright spot in Inglourious Basterds) that Tarantino has found himself another great singer. Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio acquit themselves very well, even if they don't quite take it up to the level Waltz and Jackson are operating on. Jackson, having by far the toughest role to play, somehow comes off as the least cartoonish of the bunch. His Stephen is hateful, insubordinate, whip smart, and has decided if he can't be anything more than a nigger to his white owner, he's gonna be the best nigger a white man could ever want. Looking out for that white man above anything or any other person, skin color be damned. Somehow Jackson makes Stephen proud, pathetic, dangerous, and occasionally hilarious. It may be the best work of this great actor's career.

So, I used "the N word" in that previous paragraph. Tarantino has been in hot water in the past for the use of the word in his movies (specifically in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown) but got in a whole other firestorm of controversy for its use in Django. People didn't seem to care quite as much about whether black people were locked in a hot box in the Mississippi summer heat, or have their heads bashed in with a hammer for the gladiatorial entertainment of aristocratic white folks, or whipped within an inch of their life because they broke an egg, just for God's sake why's he gotta use "nigger" so much? I'll say this about the subject: it was appropriate for the time in which the movie is set, and I guarantee you can put on a Jay-Z or Tupac or damn near any other rapper's album and hear the word as many times as you do here, in half the time. Tarantino doesn't use it flippantly, he uses it provocatively so that we have to confront the hateful word and its use against our fellow human beings. Even in this exploitative genre film, QT doesn't make it all style and no substance. There's some exploration of real stuff here, just wrapped up in a crowd pleasing revenge flick is all.

So anyway, Django is Tarantino's best movie since Jackie Brown, and I hope he stays in top form with his next one.

Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson's movies are so meticulously created, on a visual level, that sometimes live action actors feel almost out of place in his frame, to me. It's one of the reasons his The Fantastic Mr. Fox was such a good movie, because he didn't have actors bringing their warmth and humanity onto the screen with anything but their voices. Strangely, it is the warmth and humanity brought to this movie by the two young leads, at the time 13-year-old's Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, that make this movie so successful. That's not to say the all-star cast (Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman) don't also bring their A-game and add to the proceedings, but it's the kids who really make it work.

The story concerns Sam and Suzy, who run away together on a tiny island in New England somewhere in 1965. They've met over previous summers and now decide they can make it on their own as long as they have each other. Both are "problem children", he's an orphan, she's got anger issues, and are both outcasts who find solace in the other. It's an awkward and sweet and surprisingly frank look at just barely pubescent love. Anderson's stilted and peculiar dialog just seems right coming out of these kids mouths. The adults go looking for them and blah blah blah, it's a simple love story, told wonderfully. I love that Anderson continues to not make long movies, as seemingly everything coming from major filmmakers these days has a 2+ hour runtime, while Anderson keeps it here hovering around 90 minutes.

Like all of Anderson's movies, it's a visual marvel, no matter how unrealistic it is. Anderson doesn't care about realism in his world creation, so why should we? Just be happy he's given us these pretty pictures to look at, competent adult actors and wonderful child actors to add in the mix and off we go to happy land.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Heaven's Gate

Heaven's Gate is often referred to as the death of the 1960's and 70's Golden Age of American filmmaking. Its director, Michael Cimino, was coming off the back-to-back successes of 1974's Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and 1978's Oscar winner The Deer Hunter. Always known as a meticulous filmmaker who had no problems going over schedule and over budget, Cimino got even more carried away on Heaven's Gate, with shooting lasting around 6 months, and the budget nearly 4 times what it was supposed to be. Cimino continuously either missed editing deadlines or turned in cuts far off what the studio wanted (the first cut screened for executives was reportedly 5 1/2 hours long, two full hours longer than the very long cut we know best today), and the movie's production nightmare kept dragging on as the film and its maker got more and more infamous before anyone had publicly seen a frame. Similar production problems would later befall movies like Dances with Wolves, Waterworld, and Titanic. What differs Heaven's Gate from those pictures is that it was such a financial disaster that it nearly bankrupted United Artists (Waterworld eventually made back its money, and the other two had gigantic box office, and a bevy of Oscars to keep them warm at night). Critical opinion at the time was harsh and loud and plentiful. But over time the movie has gained admirers and through reevaluation is even thought of as a sort of misunderstood masterpiece by many. This was my first viewing...

The plot mostly concerns a love triangle between Jim (Kris Kristofferson), Ella (Isabelle Huppert), and Nate (Christopher Walken, coming off his Oscar win for The Deer Hunter), set against land squabbles, class warfare, and immigration difficulties leading to a "kill list" where 125 immigrants have bounties on their heads for any number of legal transgressions. The problem here is that it's an hour and a half before this love triangle ever starts developing, and the characters aren't sufficiently developed enough for us to care at the level we should at that point in the movie. And even with so many other great actors in the cast (Jeff Bridges, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, and even a tiny role for a VERY young Mickey Rourke), the movie doesn't have the novelic feel that it so easily could have with such a scope and runtime. I expected to really care about the characters, especially since Bridges and Kristofferson are two of the best actors in cinema history at giving us characters with a minimum of dialog or scripted character development. I feel they were hung out to dry by Cimino in this movie, from a storytelling point of view. I feel like I was hung out to dry by Cimino. The first time a scene came and went and I thought "damn, that was a great scene, it developed the story and told us something about these characters, etc." it was 45 minutes into the movie. That's just unacceptable storytelling if you ask me.

So, what kept me watching so long? It's pretty simple, really. This is the most beautiful movie ever made. Legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond had just won an Oscar for his work on Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and had already worked his sepia toned western genius on Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but this movie, this movie is his masterwork. I'm not kidding, it's the single most beautiful movie I've ever seen. That's why I kept watching for 45 minutes before I gave a shit about what was happening on screen. Normally, even with a beautiful movie, I would've turned it off long before that point, but not here. I really cannot express how masterful the partnership between Zsigmond and Cimino is on this movie. It's been said that Zsigmond went into a deep depression over the critical and commercial drubbing this movie took, because he was so proud of the work he'd done. This movie alone should get him a Lifetime Achievement Oscar or something while he's alive (still working at almost 84 years old). Sadly, the only competitive Oscar the movie was nominated for was for its production design. A deserved nomination, there was obviously no expense spared, and the movie is better off for it.

So this is among the hardest movies to rate that I've ever watched. As storytelling, it's an F. As visual filmmaking, it's a 10/10, but as a whole, I can't give it more than 2 stars.