Starring: Jaime Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”)
Written by: Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”)
Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (“Inglourious Basterds”) takes a no-holds-barred approach to the topic of slavery in “Django Unchained,” a sharply-written, ultra-violent spectacle masked as a spaghetti western. Sergio Leone would be both proud and traumatized.
As a film about racism in America, it’s a welcomed punch to the gut unlike the seriously overrated Oscar-winning 2004 drama “Crash,” which also bashes you over the head with the subject matter, but with far less blood and entertainment value. When conveying slavery on the big screen, not many directors would have the backbone to present it as a savagely dark comedy and gun-blazing action flick. These topics are serious issues about our nation’s dark past. But what Tarantino is able to do here is monumental. By taking something as revolting as slavery and turning it on its head, he uncovers the ugliness of the era in a way we can all appreciate. It’s cynical, cartoonish and shocking at times, but Tarnantino knows how to get our attention and keep it till the last body is riddled with its fair share of bullets.
In “Django Unchained,” Academy Award-winning actor Jaime Foxx (“Ray”), in a title role that was actually written for Will Smith (who wussed out of the movie), stars as Django, a pre-Civil War slave who is given his freedom by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) in exchange for helping him track down a trio of murderers. Once the job is complete and Django and Dr. Schultz have developed a kindly partnership, Django teams up with him to go on more bounties so he can make enough money to go buy back his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from whatever slave owner has acquired her.
Upon their journey, Django and Dr. Schultz learn that Broomhilda has been purchased by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio in a terrific supporting role that should garner him an Oscar nom), one of the most well-known slave owners in the American South who gets his kicks in watching able-bodied male slaves brutally fight each other to the death. Once infiltrated onto the plantation of Candieland by pretending to have an interest in buying one of Calvin’s fighters, Django and Dr. Schultz scheme a plan to save Broomhilda before Calvin’s house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) figures out what’s really happening.
While the film loses steam in the last half hour (and includes a ridiculously unfunny cameo by the always arrogant Tarantino), the exaggerated elements of the filmmaker’s narrative, dialogue and style remain much like they have been over the last 20 years. Sure, it’s not in the top tier of what he’s done in the past (“Kill Bill” is a lot more fun and “Pulp Fiction” will forever be his masterpiece), but Tarantino’s films are imaginative and unique. Until he stops serving that up – even if it is the form of a moronic group of Kl Klux Klan members – I’ll have a few scoops.
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo
Directed by: Joss Whedon (“Serenity”)
Written by: Joss Whedon (“The Cabin in the Woods”)
It happens in the second half of the highly-anticipated Marvel comic-book movie “The Avengers,” a precisely planned superhero assemblage that has been culminating since 2008′s release of both “Iron Man” and “The Incredible Hulk” reboot (most über-nerds unfairly ignore director Ang Lee’s fascinating “Hulk” of 2003 as art-house nonsense). As “The Avengers” ensemble cast, including Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Chris Hemsworth as Thor, contemplate how to stop the supervillain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) from destroying the earth with his barrage of alien soldiers and machines, Captain America (Chris Evans) takes it upon himself to assign his comrades to do what each one of them does best.
“Hulk … smash,” he says, directing his bulging, green, gamma ray-infused super teammate who swiftly carries out his instructions by ripping apart serpent-like battleships running amok in NYC. It’s a phrase fanboys will be pleased to hear, especially since Marvel seemed to agree with their assessment of Lee’s aforementioned attempt, which prompted the studio to hit the reset button by plugging Edward Norton into Eric Bana’s transforming role as Bruce Banner (the role now belongs to Mark Ruffalo after creative differences arose between Marvel and Norton). From that point on, the comic-book conglomerate knew exactly what they needed their Universe to become.
“The Avengers” isn’t trying to reinvent the comic-book movie like Lee or Christopher Nolan with his “Dark Knight” trilogy. It’s evident that the studio’s main objective is mass commercial appeal and not to clutter things up with complex ideas and themes. That’s exactly what they’ve been doing over the last four years. With releases like “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” they wanted to give fans already invested in these characters concrete evidence no one was going to wax philosophical. They wanted big, blaring scenes capable of melting eyeballs in 3D. In the simplest of terms, they wanted to see Hulk, well, smash.
And smash he does in “The Avengers” alongside the mightiest of heroes, which first appeared together in comic books written by industry savant Stan Lee in the early ’60s. Back then, the squad was created to compete with the ever-growing popularity of DC Comics’ Justice League. While the roster has changed over the years, the modern film adaptations have chosen to follow the characters best able to sidestep their natural comic-book kitsch (sorry Ant-Man, your protruding shoulder pads are just too silly to overcome). With approximately $1.8 billion in box-office revenue worldwide, geekdom has spoken. Despite its flaws, “The Avengers” is solid entertainment.
What better way to appease the geeks than with one of their own? Directed by cult favorite Joss Whedon (TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”), “The Avengers” is pumped with exciting action sequences and razor-sharp special effects that can compete with anything Marvel has ever put out. Known for his clever writing ability (screw Buffy, the dude wrote Darlene’s “To Whom it Concerns” poem during a Season 2 episode of “Roseanne!”), Whedon’s dialogue is perfect for more charismatic characters like industrialist playboy Tony Stark — though far less so for characters like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and the always doltish Thor, who unfortunately doesn’t provide much oomph to the already ordinary storyline. It starts with Thor’s evil brother Loki, a flimsily written antagonist who is able to get his hands on a powerful cube known as the Tesseract, which holds the key to unlimited sustainable energy. With the planet on the brink of destruction, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) rallies his all-star team together to (trumpet fanfare) save the human race. Before they can do that, however, the Avengers must experience some growing pains as a diverse superhero unit and quibble like kids on the playground. It’s during these fight scenes that fanboy fantasies come true. Watching Thor’s hammer slam down onto Captain America’s shield is the stuff of epic wonder. Other amazing feats of action bliss include the Hulk intercepting a fighter pilot as he ejects from a damaged jet, and Stark changing into his Iron Man suit in midair.
While the narrative itself leaves much to be desired, Whedon, who also has the overrated meta horror movie “The Cabin in the Woods” out at theaters, does have a knack for hilarious pop-culture references, snappy one-liners that get every character involved, and some physical comedy. It all keeps the story from falling into too many past superhero pitfalls. “The Avengers” may not divert much from the typical superhero blueprint, but what hardcore Marvel enthusiast would really want that anyway?
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson (narrator)
Directed by: Alastair Fothergill (“Earth”) and Keith Scholey (debut)
“Who would win in a fight — a gorilla covered in armor or a cobra that spits acid from its fangs?” These were the type of brain-busters my poor parents would have to answer when I was in elementary school; my oversized head filled with useless questions about hypothetical battles between vicious animals I conjured up in my imagination.
It didn’t matter how much time my mom and dad actually wasted making educated guesses just to shut me up. Any answer they gave was the wrong one. Answer gorilla, and I’d ask how that was possible since the venomous acid would easily disintegrate the ape’s iron suit. Answer snake, and I’d wonder why they didn’t consider the limited distance the projectile poison could actually travel airborne, especially if the gorilla climbed a tree or something. Grown-ups.
Flash forward 25 years and I’m sitting on the edge of my seat watching the wildlife documentary “African Cats” as a majestic alpha lion stands at the edge of a river in Kenya staring into the nostrils of a hissing crocodile. My boyhood sense of wonder rushes back as the predators refuse to give way to one another. The visceral scene is so captivating, I’m not the least bit interested why neither of them reaches for their nunchakus.
But this isn’t make-believe like so many other family movies that play for entertainment value alone. There are some important lessons to be learned here; this is a story about an animal’s fight to survive in its natural environment. And while it does get the Disney gloss-over that keeps it sitting safely on a G-rated level, kids will still get the idea of just how the circle of life works without seeing the more savage parts of nature (translation: the big cats roar and bite, but they also mind their manners while ripping apart a gazelle with the help of some kid-friendly editing).
As the third theatrical U.S. release from the Disney offshoot known as Disneynature (“Earth” and “Oceans” debuted on Earth Day in 2009 and 2010 respectively), “African Cats” is in good hands with directors Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill capturing breathtaking footage while combing the African savanna. The narrative, which divides its time between a pride of lions and a coalition of cheetahs, is not unlike what you may find on the Discovery Channel or inside the pages of National Geographic. Once magnified for the big screen, however, the film takes on a whole new dynamic.
In “African Cats,” Scholey and Fothergill, both of whom have spent their lives working in some capacity in wilderness TV and film, set up shop on the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya. Here they follow Sita, a lone female cheetah and her five helpless cubs, and Layla, an aging lioness and her single cub who are both protected by her pride. Also at the center of the lion’s story is the pride’s defender Fang, identified by the dangling tooth he earned in a lion vs. lion scuffle. To the north, another dominant beast named Kali and his four intimidating sons wait for their opportunity to journey south and invade new territory.
“African Cats” comes on the heels of the IMAX film “Born to be Wild 3D,” which features playful baby elephants and orangutans, and “The Last Lions,” a much darker and overall fulfilling nature documentary set in Botswana that explores more complex themes including grief and abandonment. But it doesn’t break new ground in its recently industrious genre. Instead, it manages to be relevant by photography alone. Without the sweeping aerial shots and the rest of the , the documentary doesn’t add up to more than standard, harmless wilderness fare for the kiddos.
Even with narration by Mr. Badass himself, Samuel L. Jackson (“Pulp Fiction,” “The Incredibles”), “African Cats” refuses to let its claws out to take advantage of his smooth voiceover. I jest, but imagine how hilarious it would have been to have Jackson deliver the line, “I have had it with these mother******* lions and their mother******* manes!” At least parents could’ve use the “Snakes on a Plane” reference next time one of their kids asks if a lion with a laser beam really is king of the jungle.
Starring: Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington
Directed by: Rodrigo Garcia (“Nine Lives”)
Written by: Rodrigo Garcia (“Nine Lives”)
It’s never been more evident how well director/writer Rodrigo Garcia knows his female characters than with his most recent work “Mother and Child.” The film tells the story of three women who have all been affected differently by the adoption process. Through an intelligent and multilayered narrative, Garcia, who is the son of Colombian novelist and Nobel Prize in Literature recipient Gabriel Garcia Marquez (“One Hundred Years of Solitude”), takes the often-sensitive subject and instills some realism into a series of poignant moments that will easily break your heart.
Forced to place her baby for adoption at the age of 14, Karen (Annette Bening), who is now a grown woman, has spent her entire life regretting the choice her mother made for her years ago. The decision has left a gaping hole inside Karen and shaped the bitter relationship she has always shared with her elderly mother. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is a cynical, hard-working lawyer who was adopted as a child and knows little about the woman who gave her up. Filling the constant void in her life through empty sexual affairs, including one with her new boss (Samuel L. Jackson), Elizabeth reaches a crossing point where she decides she wants to know where she comes from. Finally, Lucy (Kerry Washington) is a hopeful mother currently seeking out a child to adopt with her husband after being unable to conceive on her own.
As the stories weave together, Garcia is able to avoid most of the melodramatic pitfalls until the final act. By then, these women have exposed their souls to the audience. Their unhappiness and resentment toward the fate that has been handed to them is a compelling look at the significance motherhood has in each of their lives. As the always-off-putting Karen, Bening (the first real Oscar-worthy performance of the year) is fantastic as is the rest of the cast, which includes Jimmy Smits as her soft-hearted love interest who can’t seem to find a way to break through Karen’s callous personality.
More than a story about adoption, “Mother and Child” is about loss and surviving those disappointing and life-altering moments that define who you are. Garcia may not be very subtle in exhibiting the pain these women are experiencing, but you have to respect the way he boldly confronts the issue with a unique blend of passion, empathy, and intimacy.
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell
Directed by: Jon Favreau (“Iron Man”)
Written by: Justin Theroux (“Tropic Thunder”)
If personality makes up the majority of a superhero’s likability, Iron Man should be considered the Marvel comic book character you’d love to hate.
That’s not to say two-time Academy Award-nominated actor Robert Downey Jr. has lost all the charisma that made the 2008 original blockbuster film so downright entertaining and original. Even when Downey Jr. isn’t donning the maroon and gold mechanical suit that transforms him into a weapon of mass destruction, he has another captivating persona he can fall back on.
Meet Tony Stark. While you might know him from the first “Iron Man,” the sequel, aptly called “Iron Man 2,” allows us to meet the man inside the machine on a more personal level. In the film, Tony seems to be running on fumes. As Iron Man, he can still hold his own against anyone that comes his way, but as a mortal, the genius billionaire industrialist has a serious problem.
The power source embedded in his chest, which is keeping him alive, is also slowly poisoning him. Along with his health issues, Tony is butting heads with the U.S. Senate, who wants him to turn over his Iron Man machinery. The Senate says his invention is a threat to national security especially if a country decides to copy the technology and use it against the U.S.
Tony refuses to relinquish his work stating that it would take years for someone to duplicate what he has done. He is oblivious to the fact that Russian physicist Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) has already engineered his own version of the suit and fastened it to himself to transform into the electromagnetic super villain known as Whiplash. When he teams up with Tony’s major weapons competitor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), the two set out to develop an army of drones that would take the arms race by storm.
Replacing Terrance Howard from the original, Don Cheadle plays Lt. Col. James Rhodes, who later attempts to put a stop to Tony’s destructive ways caused by his alcohol problem. Although he manages to spiral downward fairly quickly, love interest Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) doesn’t give up on him that easy. Neither does S.H.I.E.L.D. front man Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who makes sure Tony’s talents aren’t wasted. His stubbornness to join the secret agency known as the Avengers will be short-lived since all these Marvel movies are linking together for one giant superhero reunion in the next few years.
No matter what is being planned for the future, “Iron Man 2” is able to stand on its own. It works well with enough action sequences, fight scenes and some interesting characters, none of which match the humor and charm of Downey Jr. who again makes the movie his own personal and egotistical show.
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Bernie Mac, Sean Hayes
Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee (“Roll Bounce”)
Written by: Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (“Man of the House”)
With “Soul Men,” fans of the late Bernie Mac will get a familiarly amusing dose from one of the Original Kings of Comedy in one of his last feature-film appearances. While Mac’s on track, the script runs off the rails in its musical journey to the 1970s, when polyester leisure suits were the height of funky, and Don Cornelius said goodbye to his audience every week with a wish for “love, peace, and soul.”
In “Soul Men,” Mac and Samuel L. Jackson play a couple of washed-up backup singers who reunite for a farewell performance after their former bandleader passes away. The trio, Marcus Hooks and the Real Deal, was once considered one of the biggest R&B acts in the world (You’ll recognize their hit “I’m Your Puppet,” which was actually first recorded by Bobby and James Purify in 1966), but when Hooks (John Legend) decided to start a solo career, Floyd Henderson (Mac) and Louis Hinds (Jackson) were left to harmonize as a duo.
After releasing one record, the Real Deal split up, citing creative differences, and slowly began to slip into musical obsurity. When a VH1 executive calls up Floyd, who has supplemented his royalty checks as the owner of a bikini car wash, to see if he’d like to participate in the reunion at the Apollo Theater, he sees an opportunity for a comeback. Louis, however, is comfortable living like a slob and isn’t interested in reliving the glory days. He can’t remember anything in the period from “Watergate to when the space shuttle blew up,” anyway. But when Floyd mentions getting a paycheck for their performance, Louis isn’t in a position to reject the offer, especially since he lost the rights to his music years ago in a poker game.
From here, “Soul Men” becomes a typical road-trip movie, taking the grouchy odd couple from Memphis to New York City in a lime-green El Dorado. Mac and Jackson do have great chemistry together onstage (offstage, “motherfucker,” the insult most readily tossed between them, loses its bluster after numerous repeats), but screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (their last collaboration was on the horrendous 2005 Tommy Lee Jones comedy “Man of the House”) aim for cheap laughs instead of effectively using the strongest of their assets: the soul-music genre. Hardly anything culturally relevant to the era is even mentioned. Even Black Moses himself, the late Isaac Hayes, doesn’t make his cameo until the film’s waning moments.
Instead, Ramsey and Stone rely on jokes about rectal exams, Viagra, and toothless oral sex, and fail to build on subplots featuring characters that seem to be yanked right out of “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids.” Still, it’s not a far stretch from Mac’s normal film offerings, which were never as funny as his raw stand-up or his five memorable seasons on television.
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington
Directed by: Neil LaBute (“The Shape of Things”)
Written by: David Lougher (“Money Train”) and Howard Korder (“The Passion of Ayn Rand”)
When you’re as sought after as an actor like Samuel L. Jackson (he has six feature films out in 2008), it’s only natural to spread yourself a bit thin. It’s unfortunate in “Lakeview Terrace” that Jackson, who could possibly be at his most diluted of the year, connects with a director on a steady decline.
Neil LaBute, who looked like he could be the next big filmmaker back in the late 90s with his dark comedies “In the Company of Men” and “Your Friends and Neighbors,” seems to have slipped into a cinematic coma. If 2006’s “Wicker Man” wasn’t enough evidence that LaBute had lost his way, “Lakeview Terrace” is a sad reminder that he is captain of a sinking ship.
In “Lakeview,” interracial husband and wife Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa (Kerry Washington) Mattson move into a new neighborhood and are dumbfounded when they find out their next door neighbor, Abel Turner, an LAPD officer and overprotective father of two, lets them know that he doesn’t want them living there.
The script might have us believe that it’s not known whether Abel is turned off by an interracial couple living next door to him or if he just misses his deceased wife and can’t stand the idea of a happy couple making love in their swimming pool in plain sight. Either way, Abel is chock full of politically incorrect opinions that make his run ins with his new neighbors very awkward.
Soon, mere uncomfortable moments evolve into attempts by Abel to do anything he can (including using his influence as a cop) to get Chris and Lisa to pack up and leave. It starts off as annoyances with floodlights and sarcastic comments, but Abel has a nasty side and, with a badge protecting him, he’s not afraid to show it.
Where the screenplay lacks terribly is in rhyme and reason. Are we supposed to believe that Abel is so inundated with hatred for his neighbors he can act out in these threatening manners? The motivation behind his actions is not as clear and Jackson’s character is left floating around with nothing more than a scowl on his disapproving face.
Screenwriters David Lougher and Howard Korder hint to us that Abel’s not actually a bigot. He has an Asian neighbor he talks to and a Hispanic LAPD partner (Jay Hernandez) that keeps him company on the streets. So, why does he lose his cool? Who knows, but the intensity of the neighborhood rivalry never reaches a boiling point like Ray Liotta did in 1992′s “Unlawful Entry,” which is basically the same story without the racist angle.
Here, LaBute plays it safe and turns racial tension into a sort of name calling-game on the playground. While we should loathe a character like Abel – or at least what he stands for – there’s nothing in the film’s arsenal to make us feel he’s anything more than a petty nuisance.
Starring: Matt Lanter, James Arnold Taylor, Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by: David Filoni (TV’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender”)
Written by: Henry Gilroy (TV’s “The Clone Wars”), Steven Melching (TV’s “The Batman”), Scott Murphy (TV’s “The Clone Wars”)
It’s going to be really interesting to see how much more George Lucas can milk out of his two biggest franchises, “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones,” before things start looking too desperate.
Truthfully, it might never happen, especially with the former. Although it’s highly unlikely that Harrison Ford could pull off another archeology adventure as Indy, “Star Wars” has proven that its larger-than-life fan base will always be at bay. Add to that new generations of Jedi kids getting reeled in by parents who loved the original films, new additions to the saga, and efforts in other genres to keep the idea fresh, and “Star Wars” isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
It’s unfortunate, however, that merely having the influence and manpower to create anything you want from your “best-of” filmography can last you a lifetime even when the final product isn’t nearly as impressive as it was in its early years. This is the tier where “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” stands. As the series’ first-ever animated feature film, “Clone Wars” lacks breathtaking moments as its dull cartoon characters are slapped on screen with little reverence for its predecessors.
There is so much back story in “Clone Wars,” it’s sometimes hard to keep it all straight unless you are ore of the millions of diehard followers. But even when the sci-fi soap-opera story line becomes clear and we realize which alliances have been broken and why Jabba the Hutt’s infant son has been kidnapped by Count Dooku (voiced by Christopher Lee, one of the only original actors who returns for this computer generated letdown), it’s not much better than some of the “Star Wars” parodies that can be found online. Anyone up for some lightsaber battles Lego-style?
Either way, “The Clone Wars” feels like a stage-managed mistake, tossed awkwardly between two live action films and featuring mediocre storytelling and inadequate battle sequences. Now, we’re not talking Jar Jar Binks/Jake Lloyd scale here, but we’ve definitely swayed away from what made “Star Wars” gripping adventure in the first place. Until Lucas can figure that out, or hire someone to do it, anticipate more sci-fi filler to keep fans in Chewbacca costumes from having serious withdrawals.