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

REVIEW: “White House Down”

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Who would have thought that 2013 would be the year of the ‘terrorists take over the White House’ action movie? Well, that is if two movies about a White House terrorist takeover warrants such a title. The first of these films was “Olympus has Fallen”, a straightforward old school action picture that I liked due to its clear idea of what it wanted to be. Now we get “White House Down” – a mess of a film that lacks the focus and material to be memorable or even slightly worth watching.

“White House Down” is a bad movie. It’s filled with one contrivance after another and it hasn’t an original bone in its entire 130 life-draining minutes. I actually had to look up the running time because it felt like a 3 hour movie. It’s slow, laborious, and director Roland Emmerich never seems to know when to pull the plug. It would be fine if the story was engaging or the action was exhilarating. Unfortunately it isn’t either of those things, and an action movie that lacks excitement already has one strike against it.

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The story is pretty basic. Channing Tatum plays John Cale, A US Capitol police officer with aspirations of joining the President’s Secret Service team. He’s a divorced father on the outs with his daughter Emily (Joey King). So he tries to win her over by taking her to the White House where he is interviewing for a position. Unfortunately he picks a day when a group of politically correct terrorists take control of the White House, kill a bunch of people, unveil their master plan, yada yada yada. I think you get the drift. Jaime Foxx plays President James Sawyer and forms the film’s ‘buddy cop’ team with Tatum. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a Secret Service head. Jason Clarke, James Woods, Richard Jenkins, and Lance Reddick are also present.

For the most part the performances are terrible. Tatum is as unconvincing as ever and his attempts at being a cool macho-type don’t work. Jaimee Foxx probably gives the worst performance. At times he shows slight bits of believability but then he destroys it with some goofy line or ridiculous delivery. Jason Clarke runs around like a madman and seems wildly miscast. Reddick is laugh-out-loud bad as a stiff and grunting General. Gyllenhaal may give the best performance of the group but even she is eventually smothered by the weak material.

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As bad as the performances are it’s the script that is the biggest problem. It’s hard to believe that James Vanderbilt, the man who wrote “Zodiac” from 2007, penned this garbage. The jokes are hokey, the reveals are predictable, and the dialogue is sometimes painful to endure. And then there is Roland Emmerich who has a history with inflated underachieving action pictures. He misses nearly every target he aims for. He drags scenes out too long. He wallows in corny melodrama. And the action (his bread and butter) falls flat. With the exception of one sequence, which entertains despite its silliness, Emmerich’s action is repetitive, hackneyed, and not the least bit exciting.

I do get the argument that “White House Down” isn’t aspiring to new things and it’s just trying to be an old-school action romp. Heck I used that same defense with “Olympus Has Fallen”. But this movie stretches my tolerance level for dopey dialogue, dull action, and poor filmmaking in general. None of the characters have appeal and the movie is littered with poor performances. This was a $150 million mess and I have to believe Columbia Pictures could have gotten a better movie with that kind of money.

VERDICT – 1.5 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” (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