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Rating History

Django Unchained
21 months ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

"It's pronounced 'Jango'. The 'D' is silent." Fortunately for us lovers of film art, director Quentin Tarantino certainly isn't. Stylistically, he's obnoxiously loud, jarringly violent, and arrogantly profane - and arguably the most exciting filmmaker working today. (But, can you give us a new film more frequently than every three years?!)

Tarantino's new film, "Django Unchained", is worth the wait. It's described tongue-in-cheek style by Tarantino himself in interviews leading up to its release as his 'Southern' - since its primary action takes place in Mississippi two years before the Civil War at the height of plantations, slave-trading, and a deep-rooted prejudice that was at the core of the bloodiest war in US history.

Dr. King Schultz, played with delicious relish by Christoph Waltz, is an eloquent dentist-turned bounty hunter who hires a slave named Django Freeman to work with him to find some wanted men on a Texas plantation. (Waltz is Tarantino's German find from his last film, "Inglourious Basterds", for which Waltz won a Best Supporting Oscar - deservedly so.) We know we are in a Tarantino film from the opening scene, as we see Schultz ride in on a carriage with a large tooth bouncing on a spring at the top of his carriage identifying him as a dentist (or so people who see it think), selling his cover in a whimsical way visually.

It turns out that Django is such a good help as assistant bounty hunter that Schultz brings him on full-time. In return, Django asks that the good doctor help him find his wife, Broomhilda, a German black slave who was sold to a rich plantation owner named Candie (played marvelously by Leonardo DeCaprio). Working with Candie are many unsavory characters (for which Tarantino casts several older actors as he loves to do - such as Bruce Dern, John Carradine, and Ted Neeley) who do Candie's bidding. DeCaprio is especially vile in this evil turn of a Southern "gentleman", and may well get a nomination out of it.

Tarantino does a great job showing us the pecking order of slaves on a plantation. There are the outside, harder-working ones, and the prettier inside ones, particularly the ladies who are offered to rich passers-by like a madame running a brothel. The head male slave, Stephen, who is about as racist as his white counterparts, is played with hilarious meanness by his mainstay actor, Samuel L. Jackson - my personal favorite of the smaller supporting performances in this movie.

True to form, "Django Unchained", similar to his early films "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction", is violent, funny, and dialogue-driven. The blood flies and so do the n- and f- words. We are fascinated by all of these characters as much as we hate what they do. At the same time, he is able to makes us care about the love story that is at the heart of this film - between Django (excellently played by Jamie Fox) and Broomhilda (Kerry Washington, who has just the right pluck, beauty, and emotional fortitude to be convincing).

What this film doesn't share with some of his early films is its straight-forward narrative with - dare I say - traditional flashbacks, something Taratino doesn't use in any of his other films. The action takes place in the order it occurs, and he uses the flashback technique to good effect, providing the right amount of backstory to sell the horrible treatment Django and Broomhilda experience at the hand of their previous slave masters. It's by far his easiest-to-follow film, which works to its advantage here and drives home the striking visuals and no-nonsense, yet quippy dialogue that he writes, especially for Waltz, whose bounty hunter is as quick with his wit and his negotiating skill as he is with his shooting hand.

Though not known for making political statements, Tarantino pulls no punches about where he stands on this era of American history. Slavery is deplorable, and his depiction of it on film is compelling and in-your-face. The over-the-top language and blood-spurting violence, coupled with his biting satire, shows the outrageous ridicuolousness of treating humans like property, while also making the point that indeed slaves on some plantations were treated horrendously - literally lower than even the dogs who they sic on them for being "disobedient". They are whipped, beaten, tortured, raped, thrown into metal "hot boxes" for days at a time as punishment for running away, and, most horrifically (if there is a measuring stick here), pitted against each other in a Mandingo fight-to-the-death for sport.

At the same time, Tarantino always manages to work in his brand of humor into the mix, such as the particularly Quentinesque scene of a group of hooded white supremacists on horseback who end up having a hilarious argument about the hoods themselves and the incorrect positioning of the eye-holes, causing them not to be able to see. It's also a commentary perhaps on them not "seeing" that their ideas are simply evil - and that they are just plain idiotic for thinking the way they do.

With "Django Unchained", Tarantino takes the Western genre and turns it on its head, giving us a look, though sometimes difficult to watch, at the pre-Civil War south in a way we've never seen before. It's the filmmaker at his genre-bending best, putting his own bloody, black-humored spin on the beloved Western genre, particularly those films of the 60's and early 70's directed by some of his filmmaking heroes, including the famous Italian director Sergio Leone, who single-handedly started a sub-genre called the "spaghetti western" with his Clint Eastwood-starring films "A Fistful of Dollars", "For A Few Dollars More", and "The Good The Bad and The Ugly" - the success of which inspired over 30 new Italian directors during the 1960's and 1970's to direct literally hundreds of other American westerns, trying to capitalize on Leone's initial box office bonanza.

The one misstep the film has is in a scene in which Django is released to be sold to another plantation, transported by a couple of Australian traders, one played humorously by Quentin Tarantino himself, who puts on a manageable but a bit silly Down Under accent. The film takes a little dip at that point, but then picks up brilliantly in the film's final 30 minutes to set up the spectacular ending.

"Django" may well owe more to such greats as Sam Peckinpah ("The Wild Bunch", "Straw Dogs") and George Roy Hill ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", "The Sting") who were some of the first Western directors to depict the kind of real-life violence we have come to expect from Tarantino, while at the same time breaking the action up with smart-alecky lines, cutting satire, anti-heros, morality plays, and the unexpected use of non-traditional pop and rock music. Tarantino's use of Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" in his new film is a perfect example, nicely capturing the newly acquired freedom and confidence of Django in one montage as he begins working with Schultz as the bounty hunter's sidekick.

These 60's and 70's films were a harsher, darker answer to the cleaner Westerns of the golden age of Hollywood. Respected directors of the 30's, 40's, and 50's such as John Ford and Howard Hawks (whom Tarantino also cites as influences) operated when the MPAA ratings system didn't exist because there were understood, built-in rules on the level of language and violence that could be shown and that the public could handle. In some cases, that also limited the art of film, particularly when the harsh realities of life were to be depicted. Directors such as Leone, Peckipah, and Hill opened the door wide for Tarantino, who liberally draws from those influences and not only walks into that doorway, but, with "Django Unchained", blows the doors off their hinges.

"Django Unchained" represents Tarantino unshackling the Western itself in a new level of artistic freedom, unleashing his style on the beloved genre to make a film that will be sure to garner Oscar support for its unbridaled artistic freedom. Controversial, violent, even disturbing - yes. But, is it a great film? You bet your f---ing a-- it is!

Super 8
Super 8 (2011)
3 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

"Super 8", a nostalgic sci-fi thriller, is aptly titled. About 8 minutes of the movie are super - the rest, not so much.

I was really looking forward to seeing this movie. I went with a group of friends from work, all about the same age, who could relate to the 70's setting, including the music and look, as we all grew up during that time. At the end of the movie, one of my friends turned to me and said: "That was probably the best alien movie I have ever seen". Really? He needs to get out more - at least to see more movies.

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, "Super 8" seems to have a lot going for it and has a nice - albeit not totally original - premise and one that I could connect to on a personal level. The year is 1979. A group of junior high kids spend their summer break making a movie with a Super 8 camera, a camera and film stock popular at that time - I know, because my brothers and I used to use our Dad's Super 8 camera in the 70's to make movies of our own. So, I could appreciate and identify with this group of kid's excitement about getting together and planning out, filming, and watching movies they make. There's nothing like creating your own art and enjoying it with a group of friends who are as passionate about it as you.

J.J. Abrams does do a good job capturing that passion - the first part of the movie is funny and exciting, as the kids, in the middle of their shoot, witness a horrible train wreck and nearly get killed by all the exploding debris and falling train parts. All for the love of the art. Fortunately, their dropped camera was still rolling and they capture something on film that helps solve a mystery later.

So as not to give anything away, I won't go into what the mystery is. But, it plays out like J.J. Abrams version of Spielberg's own 70's and 80's classics "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.", mixed with Abram's own "Cloverfield", without the sense of wonder, awe, and terror of those films. Halfway through, "Super 8" loses its way and basically grinds to a halt, trying desperately to make us care about the plight of the main character, Joe Lamb (played admirably by Joel Courtney), the make-up artist of the junior high film crew.

Prior to the beginning of the movie, Joe loses his mother in a tragic accident and is left with an until-then absent father (Kyle Chandler), a police deputy of a fictional Ohio town, who himself has his hands full trying to keep the small town's sanity while it is besieged by the military because of events related to the train wreck.

The problem is that the emotional scenes do not feel integrated into the story. Instead, they are directed heavy-handedly and stick out like a sore thumb, feeling like manipulative attempts by Abrams to make us care. Some are more successful than others.

For example, the scene of Courtney applying zombie make-up to Alice (Elle Fanning) is sweet and subtle, nicely underlining the attraction they have for each other. Elle Fanning, who is the real-life younger sister of actress Dakota Fanning, is the real find here - her performance is funny and touching throughout. She has a great early scene during their film rehearsal in which she really shows her motivation, drawing from the pain she now lives in with her drunken father.

Other scenes, like the one between Courtney and Fanning watching home movies of Joe and his Mom, feel obligatory, go on too long, or do not generate the sympathy for these characters needed for this kind of story. There is also a connection made late in the film between Joe and Alice's family that doesn't have the revelatory results Abrams is going for.

There is also an irritating red herring in the film, the mysterious cubes found at the train wreck, that aren't dealt with sufficiently enough for us to care about the mystery. Once it's clear what the mystery is, Abrams doesn't combine the horrific and sympathetic aspects of the film effectively. We're left with a bit of a jumbled mess and unsure which way to feel.

At various times, we're supposed to laugh, cry, and be scared, which works in films when those elements are combined well, such as Spielberg's earlier sci-fi work. In this movie, the combination feels awkward and forced. Though there are some very good scary moments (like the scene in a military bus, at a convenience store gas station, and with a power line man), I was never truly frightened or thrilled for any sustained length, nor did I care what happened to these characters - the biggest failure of all. The ending of the film seems thrown together and plays out as a cheap imitation of the final scene in "E.T.", but lacking any kind of emotional connection.

"Super 8" has its moments, but ultimately falls far short. I don't h8 the film, but it's not super gr8 either.

Jonah Hex
Jonah Hex (2010)
4 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

With "Jonah Hex", Jimmy Hayward makes his live-action directorial debut with a western genre picture with a twist - featuring a DC Comics anti-hero with some unique powers that also works fairly well in the tradition of classic westerns.

Hayward's background in animation (he directed "Horton Hears a Who" and was an animator for various Pixar films like "Toy Story", "Finding Nemo", and "Bug's Life") helps here, as he's able to bring Jonah Hex to the screen with comic book fantasy elements and unique animated sequences, combined with a shoot 'em up, post-Civil War frontier look-and-feel. You didn't think weapons of mass destruction existed in the old West? They do in this movie. it's an admirable, yet fluffy kind of entertaining summer movie -- well-paced, with some commentary on both the Civil War and the times we live in today - though not much. It's not a deep-thinking movie, by any means.

At only 83 minutes, the film almost plays like a very long movie trailer -- short on in-depth character and story development, long on unique-looking characters, tattoos, fighting, revenge, and lots of stuff blowing up. It's almost over before you are really getting settled into this movie and its characters. The movie keeps flashing back to the same scene at the beginning, which doesn't make a lot of sense given its short length. And they say dead men don't talk -- well, that's not true in this movie. Like Megan Fox's knife she always keeps handy, this one definitely isn't dull.

The three principal actors all do well. Josh Brolin wears that scar well, and his gruff mumble is likeable throughout the movie. John Malkovich is always a good villain and plays a terrorist bent on revenge here with some of the best chilling lines in the movie, though I don't feel like I really got to know him all that much. And, even Megan Fox plays her tongue-in-cheek part well. She is-- what else? -- a prostitute with a heart (or maybe a knife) of gold. Some throw-away lines between the characters keep the movie smart and funny.

It is what it is -- a mindless, summer movie. But, like Fox's character promises, still a good time.

Inglourious Basterds
5 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

Quentin Tarantino has put his World War 2 statement on film. If ?Pulp Fiction? was his magnum opus and ?Kill Bill" (Volumes I and II, which I think of as a 5 hour movie) was his genre-sweeping epic, ?Inglourious Basterds? is his cinematic manifesto. War isn?t simply hell in this movie, it?s hell-arious. But, at the same time, Tarantino is deadly serious about the subject.

Among other things, the film is about the power of cinema, especially when used as a propaganda tool, and the kind of emotions it can provoke in people. Tarantino shows once again that he understands film as an art form as to transcend the genre he is working in, making it his own. This film shows him as a master entertainer, making us laugh and pull back in horror throughout, sometimes in the same scene.

If you?re going to this movie for an accurate portrayal of history, you will be greatly disappointed. Very little of this movie is based on actual history. Imagine the Marx Brothers (and we could even throw Karl Marx in there, along with Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, and Harpo) armed with machine guns, knives, and a baseball bat running amuck within Spielberg?s ?Schindler?s List?, and you get a glimpse of Tarantino?s vision of Nazi-occupied France.

His mixture of sick humor and horrific violence, blending fantasy and reality all at once, has never been truer or more fiercely original in any war movie I can think of. It's as if Spielberg combined "1941" (if that movie was funnier, though) and "Saving Private Ryan" into the same movie, and throwing in the biting satire of Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove".

In this film, Tarantino puts his unique spin on what France may have felt like being overrun with those dang ?Nat-zees" (as Brad Pitt?s Tennessee-born character Aldo Raines pronounces it, in a manic, hilarious performance).

The gem performance, though, belongs to Christoph Waltz, who plays Colonel Hans Landa, the Nazi "detective" who scopes out the hiding Jews in France. He is brilliant from start to finish. A definite Oscar nod will be coming his way - you can count on that. The opening scene, in which he interrogates the French farmer about possible Jews hiding in the area, is tense, uncomfortably funny, and chilling.

This is Tarantino's most straightforward movie, in a narrative sense. There isn't a lot of jumping around, though there are a few flashbacks and quick inserts to make sure we understood what is going on. Some of those were unnecessary, but he felt he wanted to make sure we knew what was happening.

The Quentinssential dialog shows up as well, but it's more tightly integrated into the film. Unlike his other films, the pop-culture-laden and minute-details-of-life type dialog don't stand out so much on its own screaming at the audience to "notice me", which is a nice change.

The rat-and-squirrel comparison in the opening scene is so true - we have a cat that sometimes brings up a dead squirrel to our door, and, with its tail cut off, it looks like a big rat.

The exchange between Hans and Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent, playing the French Jewish theater owner) sharing a piece of strudel ("Wait for the cream!") is classic. Laurent plays Shoshanna with the right combination of strength and femininity, and she may be the first character in any Tarantino movie in which we feel true sympathy for.

Music always plays a big role in Tarantino's films, and this one is not an exception. The music was all over the place, which was cool ? traditional score music mixed with sound effects, acoustic bass, jazzy type stuff, and some heavy modern rock guitar music ? fitting the mood of the scene, sometimes in a jarring way.

I enjoyed all of the talk about movies and cinematic history in the film. Tarantino loves movies so much that many of his movies, especially this one, are about movies themselves ? the power of film and how it can provoke thought and stir emotion - and how certain filmmakers and styles compare and contrast. The discussion between Shoshanna and the young Nazi soldier Frederick Zoller (played with aplomb by Michael Bruhl) of German and French cinema was interesting, as well as the references to American producers and filmmakers such as Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznik, and Charlie Chaplin.

I think this film is different enough from his other five written-and-directed films that people who say they don't like Tarantino movies may be intrigued with this one.

Being a fan of his work, I think this is another progression in his art as a filmmaker. I do believe, though, as Tarantino is stll relatively young (only 46 years old), that his greatest films are still ahead.

The Dark Knight
5 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes
½

"Batman: The Dark Knight" is like watching a 2-hour 30 minute movie trailer, which is normally a terrible thing to say about a movie, except in this one, British director Christopher Nolan keeps his movie moving briskly, while still packing the right information in every scene - you get mostly everything you want about character, story, and theme in each sequence, with very little waste.

A scene, even an emotionally-charged dialogue exchange, rarely lasts more than a minute without jumping somewhere else. The 360 degree circling camera is used to great effect, adding tension and movement to multiple dialogue scenes. It's Nolan's film expressionism shining through, noticeable and with purpose, but not distracting.

The screenplay, which was written by Nolan with his brother Jonathon (the two also wrote 2001's "Memento" together, another great script), is a gem - tightly constructed, and weaving multiple, simultaneous dramatic sequences with their own twists - two of my favorites are the Joker's involvement in a funeral scene and a moral dilemma he poses involving two ferry boats.

"The Dark Knight" is thoroughly modern moviemaking in our quick-cutting attention-deficit disorder world, yet, as in classic film noir, is dark and sinister, with an emphasis on story and character. The look of the film in shadowy contrasts is stressed, with less emphasis on computerized visual effects as so-many empty-story films are today - which isn't to say Batman lacks CGI, which is ample and well-done.

The violence in the movie is exciting and necessary to the story without being gratuitous, but still leaves many things up to the imagination, despite the heinous acts committed by the Joker and others. The Joker kills face-to-face some of the time, yet the camera shoots the actual violence from behind. "I bet I can make this pencil disappear" he says in one scene, and you have a pretty good idea where that pencil goes without actually seeing the result.

The dichotomy of life, the two (or more) sides to everything. is explored fully in this movie - the good and bad, the two sides of a coin (or are there?), a woman caught between two men, the two men's own identity crisis within themselves and with each other, and the difficult choices we sometimes have to make, even when we are not in control of what to choose or the outcome.

Gotham City in this movie is a microcosm for America and its current war-time predicament, including commentary on ordinary citizens' rights to privacy and protecting themselves and their loved ones. The Joker in this movie is more than a comic-book villain - he's a nihilistic terrorist with no rhyme or reason for his despicable actions, except maybe one - to cause chaos for his own amusement. Yet, even the Joker is humanized when he explains that it was his torturing father who is the source of his disfigurement, and he is seeking sick revenge for that past.

Although Heath Ledger's hyped-up performance does live up to it, the movie is more about the writing and overall production than about the acting. Ledger is only in about 1/3 of the scenes, maybe less - though it seems like much more, because his presence makes such an impact every time he is on-screen. Ledger's make-up-laden portrayal is tragic and comic, crazy and controlled, intelligent and silly. He definitely left this world at the height of his career, which is simply tragic in real life. Christian Bale is consistent as Batman, but, incredible acting is not so much needed for this role, though the character's emotions are believable through Bale's performance.

A small criticism I have is that, with the highs and lows of the some of the set pieces (brilliant as they are), the movie seemed like it could have ended a few times in the last half hour, causing an over-long feeling to the movie. Also, the romantic side of the movie doesn't quite reach the emotional appeal that Chris Nolan was going for, although I think he may suffer from what Spielberg and Lucas and many other guy-film directors suffer from, which is the inability to write good male-female relationship movies or scenes.

Overall, this is an excellent film, and an improvement on Nolan's original Batman, also a very good film.