Django Unchained

December 29, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

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.

The Soloist

April 22, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Jaime Foxx, Robert Downey Jr., Catherine Keener
Directed by: Joe Wright (“Atonement”)
Written by: Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”)

Based on a series of articles by Los Angeles Times writer Steve Lopez, the story of a Julliard- music-virtuoso-turned-street-vagabond is simply fascinating on so many levels. There are, however, limitations as to how deep a story like this can run before its momentum staggers into a standard biopic. In the case of “The Soloist,” the narrative should have stayed inside its original newspaper columns.

Leading the way in this inspirational story is Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx (“Ray”) as Nathaniel Ayers, the aforementioned homeless musician, whose mental illness forces him to quit his dream to play the cello and leads him to a life of meager means.

With no family to turn to, Nathaniel finds friendship and emotional comfort from reporter Steve Lopez (Downey Jr.), who becomes intrigued with his latest subject after watching him perform on a two-stringed violin under a statue of Beethoven in L.A.’s Pershing Square. While Steve plays the observer for their first meetings for his piece, he soon becomes much more to Nathaniel as the everyday challenges he faces as a homeless schizophrenic become more and more life threatening.

While screenwriter Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) has some great material about the passion for music one individual feels, most of that sentiment comes from Foxx himself as he falls into a tranquil daze every time a bow hits a stringed instrument. While this aspect of Nathaniel’s life is essential in completing his character arch, Grant fails to complete her end of the bargain when intertwining a message of mental illness and homelessness. Both topics are placed on the same pedestal as Nathaniel’s natural music ability, which poses a problem.

By the film’s third act Nathaniel doesn’t seem like a musician without a home who has mental issues. Instead, he is projected as a crazy homeless guy who knows a thing or two about classical music. More time needed to be devoted to the musical side of the story although in Lopez’s written word the other issues are just as significant. In “The Soloist,” however, they’re stylized more than they need to be and ultimately skimmed over. The way these views are presented also clash with the idea that Nathanial has been blessed with an effortless gift.

While Foxx does his best to keep Nathaniel from becoming a caricature, Downey Jr. has more of a challenge when he attempts mold his character into someone other than a crutch. It’s a very one-dimensional take that doesn’t quite lift off past his newsroom desk. Even when Grant introduces more for Downey Jr. to grasp (Catherine Keener is sort of in the background as his ex-wife), the story line goes dissonant and nothing else is said about Steve’s own parallels to the film’s focus.

Director Joe Wright (“Atonement”) doesn’t seem to get his mind around the noteworthiness of the story. “The Soloist” might be soothing at times, but that’s what also makes it all the more aggravating once the music dies.