Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Tarantino lays it on pretty thick with "Django Unchained"

Ah... the Antebellum South.  What a fairy-tale land, awash in mint juleps, and excellent manners.  What a grand time of ladies in hoop skirts, nattily-dressed gentlemen, and children who actually understood that they were meant to be seen and not heard.  What a more genteel world it must have been back then!  Even the indentured servants were happy with their lot in life (or so we were always told…).  If this is your notion of the Antebellum South, dear reader, then Quentin Tarantino spits great, big, fat loogies on it, and with Django Unchained, paints a two-hour and forty-five minute picture of him doing it.

Django Unchained is Tarantino’s Western, or his “Southern,” as he himself calls it, which is perhaps a more appropriate term.  It’s his homage to the Spaghetti Westerns he so loves, which suits me fine, as I’m rather fond of the few of them I’ve seen, too.  Borrowing his title character’s name from the 1966 Italian-made Western Django, Tarantino crafts a story of Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist/bounty hunter (played by the baddie from Inglourious Basterds, Christoph Waltz) who obtains a slave (Jamie Foxx) who can identify some certain wanted men Schultz is seeking.  Django has been separated from his wife as a result of their being sold to separate buyers, but Schultz offers Django a partnership of sorts – if Django helps him find his quarry, then he’ll grant Django his freedom and help him find his wife.  They eventually find her in the ownership of plantation owner Calvin Candie, played repulsively by Leonardo DiCaprio, and being supervised by Candie’s chief House slave Stephen, played almost-even-more repulsively by Samuel L. Jackson. 

As a general rule, those of us who are Tarantino fans like his work, and those of us who aren’t his fans don’t like his work.  I count myself among his fans, and I find that there’s usually not much to be gained by trying to convert a non-fan – either you is a fan or you ain’t.  First and foremost, I love his dialogue.  Sure, some folks grouse about the gratuitous profanity his characters spew, but I've never found it to be outside of the logic of whatever story he's telling. Tarantino has consistently created characters and situations full of interesting and/or hilarious conversation, and the number of pop culture reference-worthy quotes we all find familiar is proof of how good at it he is

Secondly, it’s hard to deny that Tarantino has a great eye.  He shows us yet again how wonderfully he can frame shots, with Schultz and Django traversing snowy mountains, muddy frontier towns and sprawling cotton plantations.  Some great locations in Wyoming and Northern California, and Louisiana substituting for Texas and Mississippi, help him compose images that we might expect to see in some Sergio Leone picture from years ago. 

The first two acts of the movie progress quickly through Django and Schultz’s forming their partnership and hunting the owners of Django’s wife.  It seems that Django is a “natural” with a gun, and takes to the bounty-hunting business like the proverbial fish to water.  He makes Schultz a great partner, as well as a good friend.  These two characters are alike in so many ways, yet so different in their societal place, that the way they interact and deal with the situations in which they find themselves is fun to watch. 

It’s the final third of the film, however, where the story starts to lose me.  Django has a final showdown with his wife’s owners and their lackeys, which any good Western would be remiss to not include, and of course, that showdown must be a shootout.   Everyone understands that violence exaggerated to ludicrous levels is a Tarantino trademark, and is most often used by him for comedic effect, but I don’t recall the splatter and spray from his earlier films being anything near what he utilizes here.  Sure, sure, I should probably expect a tad more crimson in a Western (Southern) shootout than I would from films like Jackie Brown, or even Inglourious Basterds, but geez, Louise!  Even the two Kill Bill chapters, which are basically revenge movies, don’t have the geysers of blood flowing like is flowing here.  I don’t mind gore one bit when it’s logical, but it seems to me that, for the first time in his career, Tarantino has shoveled it on to the point it’s a distraction from the story he’s trying to tell, and no good movie should ever take the audience out of a story’s flow. 

Tarantino has publicly said that he intended to tackle the horrible subject of slavery with this film because no one else has had the nerve or the right to do so, but I don’t think he recalls numerous other works (Spielberg’s The Color Purple, or Alex Haley’s books, to name just two) that have addressed the subject, and done so with a bit more level-headedness.  For example, I certainly hope his inclusion of “Mandingo fighting,” gladiator-like fights to the death between slaves, is merely an exercise in artistic license, as there is no historical evidence that any such practice ever took place.  Quint may have been born in Knoxville, Tennessee, but it seems his living in California since the age of two has purged him of any allegiance to the Land of the old Confederacy he might have had. 

Django Unchained is a pretty good film on the whole, but not Tarantino’s best.  As a fan of his work, I’m glad I saw it, but I hope the subject of his next movie is one about which he might be able to exercise a bit more artistic restraint.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

At least "Premium Rush" gets the "rush" part right.

If you’ve ever wondered if there was a way to make a bicycle chase exciting onscreen (and Lord knows I have…), then your wondering should be put to an end after seeing Premium Rush, as this movie finds a way to make at least three of them pretty darn effective.  While browsing the iTunes store last night on the Apple TV looking for something/anything that I might have missed in the theater earlier this year, I stumbled across this little action-thriller from writer/director David Koepp, the screenwriter of such flicks as Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible and the first Spider-Man movie, among others.

It stars Joseph Gordon-Leavitt, who has been one of my favorite actors of the last several years, starting when I saw him in the little-seen Brick several years ago (sorry for being behind the curve, folks, but I never watched “Third Rock from the Sun”), and his more recent roles in this year’s Looper and The Dark Knight Rises has kept me following his work with great interest.  In this flick, he’s Wiley, a former bicycle trick-rider who, after graduating law school, found the prospect of life stuck at a desk so unattractive that he didn’t bother taking the Bar exam and continued his student job as a bicycle courier.  He tells us early on that his bike doesn’t have brakes or gears because hesitating and stopping is always more dangerous than just going all-out, a philosophy that makes him a good courier, but also makes hanging on to his fellow-courier girlfriend pretty difficult.

Desperate for some extra work late one afternoon, Wiley accepts an envelope from his girlfriend’s roommate and is assigned the task of delivering it halfway across New York to an address in Chinatown within three hours.  Wiley doesn’t know he’s holding the claim-check for several thousand bucks in the hands of Chinese mobsters, but crooked cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) sure does, and has every intention of getting his hands on that moolah.  Almost immediately, he’s accosted by Monday, who demands the envelope, but of course, Wiley isn’t about to compromise a job by failing to deliver to the proper recipient (or get pushed around by some “douchebag”), so the chase begins. 

We jump about via flashbacks to different points of the 8-hour day, seeing how all of the characters come to be at the points we find them in Wiley’s adventure.  Koepp’s mix-and-mash chronology is very interesting and does a fairly-good job of fleshing out the characters and their motivations without dragging the narrative to a stop.  The camera stays low to the ground, in a sort of riders’-eye view, showing us Wiley looking several blocks ahead and mentally mapping out how to avoid the perils of opening cab doors and lane-changing delivery trucks.  It seems that all those honking horns we hear whenever we see a movie or a TV show set in New York are ALL meant for bicycle couriers.  These guys might all have a death wish, weaving in and out of insane traffic, dodging pedestrians or piggybacking on school buses and other municipal vehicles when they need an extra mile-per-hour or two, but that very daredevil quality might just be what makes them sorta useful.  They’re paid for speedy delivery, after all.

Some of the other characters might not be as developed as much as you might like (a poor put-upon bicycle traffic cop factors into the story early on, but is sort of dumped from the plot unceremoniously near the end, and without much fanfare), but Michael Shannon deserves some extra mention in that regard.  His portrayal of Detective Monday is yet another entry on his list of roles that make good use of that natural creepiness that always seems to be right behind his eyes.  Monday is so sociopathic that it’s almost comical, and his simmering/steaming/bubbling-over whenever Wiley escapes his grasp gives the movie the combination of smirk and tension that a good action movie just has to have.

Good action movies should take you for a ride, so to speak, and this one does.  Sure, it’s pretty much a “formula” movie, but it’s a well-made one, and would definitely make a great mid-weeknight Netflix or iTunes rental.