REVIEW: “Spectre”

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In a way I owe Daniel Craig a debt of gratitude. His tenure as James Bond is what lured me into the hugely popular franchise. Purists will likely scoff, but Craig’s iteration of the British super spy has featured less cheese and more humanity and vulnerability. An argument could be made that the high-energy cheese is what made those earlier films great. I believe that to a degree. But ultimately it has been Craig’s Bond run than has drawn me and given me an greater appreciation for the franchise as a whole.

This is Craig’s fourth turn as the dapper 007 and his second Bond film with director Sam Mendes. Their previous installment “Skyfall” was a global juggernaut at the box office becoming the 14th film to earn over $1 billion dollars. It was also well received by critics many of whom called it Craig’s best Bond picture. So now comes the next film and the unenviable task of matching the success of its predecessor. To do that the film was given a budget that has made it one of the most expensive movies ever created. But throwing money at a project doesn’t automatically equal good results.

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“Spectre” starts off firing with Bond in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead. He’s on a deeply personal mission which leads him to a terrorist named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona). Sciarra is connected to a sinister secret criminal organization called Spectre which is led by the shadowy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). At the same time M (Ralph Fiennes) is battling to protect MI6 from the aggressive head of the Joint Intelligence Service who wants to do away with the 00 program.

Bond tracks Spectre to Rome, the first leg of his globetrotting search for answers. He discovers that he may have a deeper connection to Ernst and his organization. As 007 hunts to unearth the truth, Spectre is out to stop him at all costs. They go head-to-head in a number of exotic locales including Rome, Morocco, Austria, and London. One of the film’s strong points is how well it captures all of the fun and varied locations.

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In fact all of “Spectre” looks good. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography lives up to the franchise expectations and at times it absolutely shines. The Mexico City opening is exciting and energetic featuring several visual highlights. The same goes for a fun car chase through the streets of Rome and a thrilling plane vs. Land Rover chase down a snowy Austrian mountain. The film definitely has its moments.

Unfortunately “Spectre” also has its flaws and no amount of visual splendor can cover them up. While I liked “Spectre” as a whole, I was expecting more action, more energy, more drama, more character development, and more signature Bond moments. Compared to Craig’s three previous Bond movies “Spectre” feels hollow, inert, and terribly inconsistent. After the phenomenal Mexico City start, the movie is constantly fluctuating between excitement and slow stretches of vapidity.

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You simply don’t expect this considering how well these movies have worked in the past. But as I sat in the theater I kept waiting for the film to gain its footing. I kept waiting for it to kick into gear. But there is a frustrating sluggishness to the screenplay – the collaborative work of four different writers. It wastes so much time that could’ve been better spent developing some of the characters namely the story’s villain.

Christoph Waltz is a superb actor but the amount of screen time he is given never allows him to flesh out a compelling villain. His villainy is mainly referred to more than shown and we never see that big Bond vs. Villain moment. The closest we get is an absurd torture scene that features one head scratching moment after another. I was so excited to see him as a Bond villain but this was a tremendous waste. As was Dave Bautista as Spectre’s hitman. He’s a stereotypical henchman who shows as much emotion as a house plant.

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Craig gives another good performance but he isn’t offered any material to stretch his character. All of the supporting Bond cast members are here including Q (Ben Whishaw) who gets more screen time than before. He’s a lot of fun. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) has a few good lines and Fiennes is good when wrangling back and forth for the 00 program’s survival. Unfortunately both feel underused. Lea Seydoux is the main ‘Bond girl’ this time around and her performance is solid. But her character is a bit flimsy and uneven.

That could be the best way to describe “Spectre” – uneven. It’s a film undoubtedly approached with mile-high expectations from many. Perhaps too high. But truthfully expectations aren’t the problem. This is a film that features some fine action sequences. It has a good story at its core and there are moments where it comes together in really interesting ways. But there are also moments where it makes practically no sense and other moments where it sputters and spins its wheels. Still I liked the movie and I’m anxious to give it another look, but with this cast and this pedigree I can’t help but be disappointed with what we get.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

REVIEW: “Big Eyes”

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At one time director Tim Burton was on top of the world and his ghoulishly gothic style seemed fresh and unique. But recently his career has been marred by several flops and people seem to be growing tired of his darker approach and constant Johnny Depp collaborations. Personally I had been off the Burton bandwagon for a while, but his 2012 animated gem “Frankenweenie” won me back a bit. His latest film is “Big Eyes” and Burton is one step closer to having me back in his corner.

“Big Eyes” is a biographical drama that tells the story of American artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter. Margaret (played by Amy Adams) was a talented sketcher and painter whose work came to prominence during the 1950s through the 1960s. It was a time when little thought or consideration was given to “lady art” (as her husband so insensitively puts it in one scene). Her art style was uniquely her own and featured children with big, wide eyes.

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The film begins with Margaret leaving her first husband and moving to San Francisco with her young daughter Jane. We see Margaret as timid and unsure of herself. She finds her one true emotional release in her art. Enter Walter played by the always fascinating Christoph Waltz. He too is an artist and he woos Margaret with his charisma and exotic tales of his time spent in Paris. The vulnerable Margaret, needing a whole filled in her life, marries Walter.

At first their life together is fun and free, but we see the first ripple when Walter sells one of Margaret’s paintings as his own work. What followed was a 10 year ruse that saw Walter taking the credit for the paintings while a guilt-ridden Margaret did all of the work behind closed doors. Her naïve and timid personality was no match for Walter’s manipulative and shameless character. In essence he was a snake oil salesman both as an art dealer and a husband. The popularity of the art grew and grew, but behind the scenes a much more personal struggle was taking place.

This is truly a strange and compelling story and I love the way Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski tell it. It’s written in a way that allows its two top-tier stars to form these characters through their performances. Interestingly enough Adams and Waltz have two very different approaches. Adams is quiet, serious, and reserved. Waltz is big, energetic, and hyper-charismatic. It may sound like the performances clash, but that’s not the case because they are perfectly in tune with the characters. Margaret is subdued and unassuming. Walter is a showman and a salesman.

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And I tip my hat to Tim Burton for stepping outside of his routine and showing nuance in his filmmaking. A sensibility and thoughtfulness takes the place of his normal macabre style. It’s a much lighter touch yet there are still a number of subtle Burton signatures. Quirky bits a humor shake the tone up a bit and Burton does several things with his camera that hearkens back to some of his earlier films. But overall it’s a refreshing turn from a filmmaker who a short time ago had found himself in a rut.

I can see people having problems with “Big Eyes”. I can see people bothered by the shifts in tone and what they perceive as clashes between the two lead performances. Not me. I was locked into the story from the start, I appreciated the visual representation of the 1950s and 1960s, and I loved the performances. Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds were first attached to the film, but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing better than Adams and Waltz. Add in a much different Tim Burton approach and you have a very entertaining film that tells a truly surreal story.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Django Unchained”

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My initial reaction after first viewing Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was incredibly mixed. So many critics and movie viewers loved the film while I struggled to get a true sense of my feelings towards it. In fact, my confliction was such that I never wrote a review for it. Now I have wrestled with this critical darling and I ask myself if my reservations still feel justified and is the film worthy of the massive amounts of accolades and praise heaped upon it?

One thing you have to give Tarantino is that he is a filmmaker with a definite style. But personally speaking it’s often his style that is both a strength and weakness of his films. I think that’s the case here as well. “Django Unchained” has a smart and instantly engaging blueprint. But there are stylistic choices, all signatures of Tarantino’s filmmaking, that are distracting and do more to promote his brand than actually strengthen the narrative. Many people love that about his pictures. I think it sometimes works against him and takes away his focus.

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The story begins two years prior to the Civil War. A man named Django (Jamie Foxx) along with four male slaves is being driven like cattle by two slave handlers. They run into a German dentist named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who ‘acquires’ Django and hires him to help find a group of outlaws known as the Brittle brothers. Django reveals to Schultz that he was married but was separated from his wife by a wicked slave owner. Schultz offers to help him find his wife in exchange for Django working for him through the winter. While together they run into a wild assortment of people, none more heterogeneous that a plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

“Django Unchained” has been called Tarantino’s spaghetti western but we only occasionally see the similarities between his film and those Italian westerns that became popular in the late 1960s. This is really just a revenge tale with plenty of fancy dressing. The story starts up nicely and the opening 30 minutes or so sets a very interesting table. But then the film slows down a bit which begins drawing attention to its 165 minute running time. It picks back up once Candie appears and then falls into a stew of truly great scenes, uncomfortable but hilarious humor, goofy and outlandish graphic violence, and jarring injections of that Tarantino “style”. It makes the last third of the film range from fascinating and intense to messy and indulgent.

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When Tarantino’s focus is on the right thing he can create some of the most mesmerizing scenes ever put to film. The opening sequence in “Inglourious Basterds” is a prime example. We get several instances of that in “Django Unchained”. There are moments when the dialogue is sharp and flowing which in turn creates scenes that turn out amazing. A long dinner table sequence at Candie’s plantation is one of my favorites. It’s crisp and fluid while also soaked in perfectly developed tension. There are a few other scenes where the humor hits with perfect timing and I found myself laughing out loud. QT is also always impressive with his camera. He can get a tad carried away at times but this film, like many of his others, looks great and there are several unforgettable shots.

But there are flipsides to almost all of these positives. While some scenes are brilliant and the dialogue strong, others drag out too long and some of the dialogue is annoying. For example, Tarantino has a fascination with certain language and we see it here. There are times where certain characters sound like they belong in “Reservoir Dogs” instead of a spaghetti western. Then there are the aforementioned style choices. Take the music. QT has always liked to incorporate unique music into his films which I appreciate. But here he goes from a musical homage to the theme from “Two Mules for Sister Sara” to bass-pounding rap music. For me it did more to take me out of the setting than enhance the film. And then there is the much talked about graphic violence. Tarantino definitely soaks the audience in copious amounts of blood, but it’s hard to take it serious. I was neither turned off by it or impressed with it. It was so ridiculously over the top that it was neither humorous nor did it add any intensity to the action. Any impact it had quickly wore off.

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I do have to give props to the cast. I’ve never been a big fan of Jaime Foxx but he does a nice job here. He does stumble over the occasional bits of poorly written dialogue but as a whole this was an impressive performance. Christoph Waltz is just a tremendous actor and he always seems to fit nicely into Tarantino’s weird worlds. Leo DiCaprio has an absolute blast playing this twisted francophile wannabe slaver with bad teeth and a deceptive charm. He steals several scenes by going all in and you can’t take your eyes off of him. Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot playing possibly the most despicable character in the movie. He’s also undeniable funny at times and more than once I caught myself in uncomfortable laughter. And Kerry Washington is very convincing in one of the film’s few emotionally steady roles.

So what to make of “Django Unchained”? I understand that many absolutely adore the movie. For me it is another Tarantino project that shows bits of greatness that it never can sustain. The good moments are really good but each of them are bookended by one questionable narrative choice or a blast of QT style that doesn’t always help the film as a whole. To call “Django Unchained” uneven would be an understatement. It has its share of problems. But it also features fabulous performances, a wonderful visual flare, and a handful of purely brilliant sequences. Those things save it from completely drowning in Tarantino’s indulgence.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

“DJANGO UNCHAINED” – Breaking down the trailer…

Everyone has probably seen the new “Django Unchained” trailer that is supposed to hit big screens in front of tomorrow’s “Prometheus”. It’s the new film from Quentin Tarantino that’s set to be released this Christmas. This is a highly anticipated trailer from a highly anticipated film. In fact it’s #8 on my “Most Anticipated Films of 2012” list. But I have to admit, I have mixed feelings when it comes to Tarantino and I also had mixed feelings after seeing the trailer.

Some view Tarantino as a visionary and a filmmaking genius. For me, he has an undeniable style. His visual presentation is very impressive and the way he crafts his stories show off a slick and unique flare for storytelling. But while I think Tarantino is a solid director in terms of style, I’ve never seen him as the writing genius that others have. I think he is a case of style over substance. Now don’t misunderstand me. Not ever movie has to be thick with complexity. There’s nothing wrong with making simple but stylish films. Some have made the case for the underlying themes found in many of Tarantino’s pictures. Some I can see while others are a bit of a stretch. If their were more deeper meaning to his films, they didn’t connect with me. I tend to see his movies as hyper-violent exercises broken down by clever and unique forms of storytelling. In other words, a simple story told with a slick visual style.

This brings me to “Django Unchained”. I was really anxious to see this trailer for several reasons. First, I was interested to see how Tarantino would present the “old west”. Say what you will about him, but Tarantino is a film lover first so the fact that he would invest in creating a modern-day spaghetti western really appealed to me. That brings me to the second reason I was excited about this trailer (and film). I love the spaghetti western genre. Sergio Leone remains one of my favorite directors of all time and his spaghetti westerns remain my favorite westerns of all time. “A Fistful of Dollars”, “For a Few Dollars More”, “The Good, the Bad, the Ugly”, and “Once Upon a Time in the West” are wonderful films and seeing Tarantino tip his hat to them is great.

That being said, the trailer left me feeling mixed. Now let me preface this by saying that I know you don’t judge a movie by a trailer. Just look at the first trailer for “The Avengers”. It was slow and pretty lifeless yet the movie was a fun action romp that I loved. But there were things with the “Django Unchained” trailer that really left me scratching my head. One key issue I had was the jarring shift in tone after Django is, well, unchained. The James Brown music kicks in which I thought was a little self-indulgent. The movie seemed to be flaunting it’s cleverness and style at the cost of setting the mood and tone. I was also surprised at some of the cheesy lines that, again, seems more aimed at a comedy that a spaghetti western. On the flip side, the production value looks fantastic and it doesn’t look as if Tarantino is going to shy away from the grit you’ll find in many of the great spaghetti westerns. Then there’s the fun assortment of characters. Let’s take a look at the big three:

DJANGO – (Jaime Foxx)

My biggest question mark for this entire production was the casting of Jaime Foxx. It’s said that originally Will Smith was sought after for the part but I’m not sure he would be a big step-up from Foxx for this type of role. Foxx is a decent enough actor. I liked him in “Ray” but not as much as most people. I actually thought he was better in “Collateral Damage” and in his sketch comedy work on the TV show “In Living Color”. There are elements to each of these past performances in the “Django Unchained” trailer. But the trailer did nothing to really sell me on Foxx as a genuine western buttkicker. At times it seemed like he was doing straight parody and it didn’t really work for me. Can Foxx handle this role remains the biggest question for me moving ahead.

 DR. KING SCHULTZ – (Christoph Waltz)

I love Christoph Waltz. He was the very best thing about Tarantino’s last film “Inglourious Basterds”. So naturally I was drawn to the idea of him playing a German bounty hunter in the wild west. Waltz seems to have a wide range and I have no doubt he will be able to handle this material. He looks right at home with the Schultz character and even with his exposition-heavy contribution to the trailer, I found myself drawn to him. Unfortunately he looks to be softer and friendlier than I hope he turns out to be and he features a gun draw so slow that he would never live through a Sergio Leone duel. But Schultz looks to be an intriguing character and it’s still unclear whether he’s to be trusted or not.

CALVIN CANDIE – (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Talk about an actor that has really shown a range. DiCaprio has proven to be more than capable of handling a wide assortment of roles and he certainly was an interesting choice to play the evil plantation owner Calvin Candie. The first thing we quickly notice is that DiCaprio is having tons of fun with this role. He clearly has a ruthless side but there is a suave and sophisticated charm about him as well. In the trailer DiCaprio shows us a character that seems completely self-absorbed but yet mesmerizing. Plus he has the best line of the entire trailer: “Gentlemen, you had my curiosity, but now you have my attention”. Of all that I saw in this trailer, DiCaprio’s character and performance excited me the most.

So there’s a few thought’s on the trailer so many are talking about. Have you seen the “Django Unchained” trailer yet? What were your thoughts?

THIS WEEK IN MOVIES (May 11th)

“DJANGO UNCHAINED”

“Django Unchained” is the highly anticipated next movie from director Quentin Tarantino. The director has had the ability to line up all sorts of acting talent to star in his films….at least until now. The movie has been plagued with cast members dropping out of the project. Early it was reported that both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Kevin Costner had to drop out of the film due to conflicts. This week we found out that Sacha Baron Cohen has left the film. It turns out his role was fairly small but the other bit of news is a bigger problem. Kurt Russell (who has signed on to replace Costner) has now bowed out of the movie. No reasons were given but his role was much more important than Cohen’s. This is pretty unusual since Tarantino is known for his great casts. I’m anxious to see how this affects the film and it’s release.

“THE AVENGERS”

Well, I can’t help it. I have to throw in another bit of Avengers news. “The Avengers” shattered the record for biggest opening weekend previously held by the last Harry Potter picture. It brought in a domestic total of $200.3 million shattering the previous record. Those are monster numbers but that doesn’t even consider the money it’s brought in overseas. The movie has made almost $750 million worldwide easily justifying it’s $220 million budget. Is it any surprise that news also came out of the planned sequel?

NEW IN THEATERS (May 11th)

  • “DARK SHADOWS” (PG-13) – Comedy
  • “FOOTNOTE” (PG) – Drama/Foreign

It’s a light week at the theaters as everyone is scared to take on “The Avengers” even in it’s second weekend.

“THIS WEEK IN MOVIES” (APRIL 13th)

 The Weinstein Company has released what’s being called the first “teaser poster” for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming western film “Django Unchained”. Other than a brief and vague synopsis, little is known about the film and we’ve yet to see the first trailer. As you can see below, the “teaser” poster doesn’t offer much more information but it does looks pretty cool. “Django Unchained” stars Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, and Kurt Russell and, of course, it’s directed by Quentin Tarantino. Look for it in theaters this December.

Director Christopher Nolan and Warner Brothers have released several new images from July’s almost guaranteed blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises”. Nolan’s final installment in his brilliant Batman trilogy has a lot of promise but also a lot of questions. In one of the images we get to see Bane seemingly in control of a stock exchange and in another Selina Kyle in full Catwoman garb checking out an empty safe. “The Dark Knight” will be a tough act to follow but with Nolan leading the way, it’s bound to be good. 

Tom Hardy as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises

 

Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle (Catwoman) in “The Dark Knight Rises”

What are you thoughts on “Django Unchained” and “The Dark Knight Rises”? Both are attention getters in movie circles and both promise to have a lot of people talking about them.

 

NEW IN THEATERS (April 13th):

  • “THE CABIN IN THE WOODS” (R) – Horror
  • “LOCKOUT” (PG-13) – Sci-Fi Action
  • “3 STOOGES” (PG) – Comedy
  • “THE RAID: REDEMPTION” (R) – Foreign Action
  • “IN DARKNESS” – Limited Release  (R) – Historical Drama