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.

Mother and Child

June 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

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.

Lakeview Terrace

September 7, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

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.