Monday, December 31, 2012

Django Unchained (2012) Movie Review

Somewhere in Texas..

Two years before the Civil War, a group of chained slaves en route between masters is interrupted by a strange horse and carriage driven by strangely curious dentist, Dr. King Schultz. Apparently looking for a man who may lend him clues to the whereabouts of several violent criminals, it is abruptly (and quite brutally) revealed that the well-worded doctor is in fact a more dangerous sort than expected. Upon discovering that long-suffering slave, Django (Jamie Foxx, in prime form) is very familiar with his  potential bounty, Schultz promptly releases him, brings him up to speed, and offers him a percentage of his upcoming earnings should the duo succeed. Upon discovery that his new partner is surprisingly sure-footed, and a natural marksman, Schultz soon finds himself willing to take their partnership one step further by asking Django to remain his partner over the winter. In return, the good doctor will honor him not only in payment, but by assisting him in the search and rescue of his wife. Matters only exacerbate when the duo discover that she is in the hands of one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Mississippi plantation owner with a yen for Mandingo wrestling, and bottomless cruelty. Take this potentially explosive revenge & honor premise, and give it the vision of the ever irreverent Quentin Tarantino, and Django Unchained is both a bloody fun blaxploitation/spaghetti western mash-up, and greatest hits compilation, with a dash of a little extra.

One of the first things that came across my mind upon reading about the premise several years back, there was a moment of panic to be honest. Having been as much a devotee to QT's films as any other admirer, it both felt like an all too historically delicate wire to walk , and a patently obvious spiritual follow-up to his WWII fantasy, Inglourious Basterds (2009). And yet somehow, this tribute to two darling shelves of exploitation cinema of the past works in spite of its intense subject matter. As we become ever more acquainted by the relationship between our two leads, we are offered an interesting kaleidoscope of views shared by those less understanding, and those who cling to established pecking orders. While the film remains by all accounts a QT cartoon, there's a surprising amount of satire and complexity to the proceedings that don't hit all their respective targets, but have merit all the same.

The relationship between Django, and Schultz makes for a bulk of the film's most memorable scenes as they not only make efficient, and deadly bounty hunters, but also unexpectedly effective counterbalance toward each other. While Waltz's Schultz is an upstanding man with revolutionary ideals, they are tainted with the blood of others, and Django is able & willing to call him on it. Respectively, the doctor plays the role of mentor with the character of a man who has suddenly found himself a means to make his viewpoint a greater one in the world. By great, almost supernatural fortune, Django's wife is named Brunhilde(Kerry Washington), and speaks German. There is an almost Wangerian calling between the two men that harkens to legends of old. And even if both should not make it in a less understanding world, it is by their acts that perhaps new stories could be whispered of throughout the old south.

When QT takes on elements of the unfamiliar, it's fascinating to see how he and crew work Django into a remix that seems strangely recognizable. The first half of the film borders on episodic, until they run across clues to the whereabouts of Brunhilde, and it is once we are within the well-tended fields of CandieLand, it is vintage Tarantino through and through. Once the characters are allowed the chance to sit down, and either play along with Candie in hopes of tricking him out of possessing Hildy, the interplay settles into an interesting mixture of the familiar, and even unfamiliar as this is the first film in Tarantino's career, where the characters are completely unaware of future technology such as film. It is here, combined with the absence of late, great editor, Sally Menke, that Django takes on a curious new flavor with dashes of the past to keep up with tradition. This time making very obvious echoes of past films, most clearly Kill Bill & Basterds. Once within Candyland, it's all about the build of the plan, obstacles, and the unexpected that is bound to occur throughout the remainder of running time. When all is said and done, the entire piece is similar in structure to Basterds, yet without the ambition or polish of it. It is much more rough around the edges, again very much in keeping with both the surreal nature of Django films of the past, along with the best of 1970s Black Power action cinema.

One of the more compelling new wrinkles to the structure is where Django and Schultz find themselves at odds with the powerful, and those well-settled and unwilling to change. Just as much as our protagonists come to importance with each other in their quest, the malevolent Candie and family have with them an ever loyal head servant in Stephen (Samuel L Jackson), a crabby elder with more perceptiveness than meets the eye. It is this piece of duality that helps drive the second half with a little unexpected thematic heft. As the film plays within one of the more questionable chapters in American history, it also plays with the origins of certain adopted cultural attitudes. Often it is used to comedic effect as Django flexes his newfound freedom in strange and funny ways. It does also take on a more pointed, and potentially sinister turn as he intends to mimic the behavior of a "slave owning black man". His demeanor is strangely juxtaposed with certain observable attitudes in our contemporary lives. This is made that much more potent once in Candyland, as Django & Schulz meet Stevens, a man who seems eager to become the genuine article. While this could come off as a bit forced, and unnecessary, it's also very much in line with what the entire piece is playing with from the getgo. Where our heroes stick out like a splinter in the side of the establishment, the establishment itself has not only the muscle and firepower to protect itself, it also has converts, ready to protect the current system to the point of absurdity, no matter how masochistic. Candie relies on Stephen to be his eyes in places where he cannot see, just as Schulz is able to stay the course due to Django's perceptive nature.

Which perhaps leads straight into what will likely be one of the more talked about elements of Unchained, how it shares certain views of not only the slavery days of the American south, but of what led to our current array of mindsets in regards to race. While this is clearly a wild spin on the exploitation movies QT loves so dearly, there is just enough going on in the periphery to make it welt. As mentioned, the role of Stephens remains one of the most central ideas, but to a lesser degree, there is another character in the film who's constant sneer at Django later reveals a certain sadism, dressed in almost fetishistic threads. It's not enough that Billy Crash come off as a sadist, and a bit of a shadow villain-type, he engenders the role of poorly repressed homosexuality, turned demented. Not egregiously out of place as many spaghetti westerns often employed this for different reasons in the 1960s, but this time, it carries another purpose; repression breeds suppression. Not unlike the Candie house's decorum, much of the world in which these villains inhabit imply both a sense of the erotic, and of the flighty (check out Candie's maid's outfit during their first meeting). Django's bad guys are just as self-destructive as they are cruel to others. So it comes as no surprise when the wrath comes near the end of the second act, all the clues were laid out for us prior.

Which isn't to say that all goes smooth for the film. As mentioned, with a new editor, and perhaps a lack of script focus, Django Unchained is takes a little extra time to find its groove. While it has much in common with QT pictures of the past, it also does feel like it's winging matters a little more than usual. Also kind of strange considering how long it had been in the development. It's referential nature might not be as clear to viewers as they had been in the past. Lest there are more out there familiar with the works of italian western favorite, Sergio Corbucci (most notably, Django & The Great Silence). For what it's worth, the film's running time is only justified by the performances, and not so much by storytelling. There are indeed some great highs to be experienced, but as a Django film, it is missing something, even when the blood quotient is ridiculous and the camera is gleefully zooming. But as a Tarantino film, it succeeds in being rowdy, dangerous fun. It also works as a blood-spattered marker of where we are culturally with America's past tinted in oh-so grimy grindhouse colors.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Concerning The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Without going through all the normal writing steps I normally take when considering a review, I can go ahead and wonder on these pages if anything could have truly made Peter Jackson's much awaited return to Middle Earth something more to crow about. Arrived home mere moments ago, and still feeling like the proposed first chapter "An Unexpected Journey" came off little more than expected by that trailer footage I first set eyes on one year ago. For a story that was so well contained within a mere one-hundred-plus pages, there is an almost excessive amount of meat added to this particular bone, and yet matters feel so much less full than they did merely a decade ago when Jackson and his intrepid team unleashed the first two chapters of The Lord Of The Rings trilogy unto the world. And perhaps that's just it; we all knew this time around didn't have a great deal to offer outside of a means to flesh out the world's myriad of cultures and histories. All the while charting the first Hobbit adventure as unlikely hero, Bilbo Baggins joins Gandalf The Grey, and a cadre of dwarves, as they embark on a mission to reclaim their lost home from the clutches of a greedy fire breathing dragon. On one hand, it functions as part prequel, part victory parade, and that's perhaps my biggest disappointment.

And yet still, there is much enjoyment to be had as Mr. Baggins (Martin Freeman) is enlisted to leaving the safety of the Shire, to become the dwarves' much-needed burglar. And true to the original book, it's a brighter, happier affair with just that tiny hint of darkness for the days that lie years ahead. As expected by Jackson and his band of filmmakers, there is a definite feeling of home along certain stretches of the film; especially during the story's earliest sections as Bilbo's home becomes a meeting place for an unruly band of dwarves, and dwarf prince (played with brooding sincerity by Richard Armitage), and a wizard. It is here that much of the film's feeling of fun and comfort go on for almost too long before the adventure actually begins. This sequence, followed by perhaps the famous "riddles in the dark" sequence that carry with them not only familiarity, but a certain enthusiasm that only happens in fits and starts throughout. Andy Serkis's return performance as the lowly Gollum, while only a small section of matters, remains solid proof of how an actor can truly own a character, and continue to deliver us the same mixture of junkie's disgust and pathos that almost redefined creature performance with the previous films. Freeman makes for an effectively memorable Bilbo, and Ian McKellen slips back into his famous role like a favorite coat, albeit clearly feeling a little extra weathered. The return of Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett, and Hugo Weaving also contribute a healthy feeling of ease in a sequence that while pure fan service, also functions as thread creation for future films.

Which leads me to my overall feeling that the film is at best, adequate. While it does indeed have its charms, it may be important to keep in mind that as mentioned, as the film version had been in the filming stages, studio wishes eventually pushed toward this becoming another trilogy, when the original work was well beneath the length to necessitate it, creating more of a reason to pad the film with an almost insane amount of supplemental material often culled from other Tolkien works, such as the LOTR appendices, as well as his incomplete work, The Silmarillion. This leads to what could only be seen as less a narrative film, and more an overall celebration of the author's world, and the multitude of beings that inhabit it. Which plays so much more heavily into the reality that at one time, this was to be directed by fantasy/horror maestro, Guillermo Del Toro. And An Unexpected Journey is riddled with his fingerprints, even after court problems and additional production delays led to him leaving the filming duties to Jackson.

And despite much of Jackson's often affable work on display, this feels so much more like Del Toro film as it finds itself often more enamored with monsters, and action than the character work which was more present in Rings. And even if the original Hobbit book did little to flesh out but only a few of the main characters, we never truly get a proper essence of what hangs in the balance, most notably, the dwarves who have long lived without a true place to call home. The script by Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Del Toro, does what it can to create an emotional bridge regarding belonging, and in Bilbo's relationship to this band of unlikely heroes. And there are moments when it does feel like it's working, but often important character beats are either poorly conveyed, or aren't present at all. Often cutting away to more spectacle, and plenty of ""nudge-nudge" nods to the previous films to cover up what is often unaddressed, especially in regards to how Bilbo sees himself amongst people with an actual purpose. Freeman does the best he can with the material he's given, but we never really get a good footing into his arc. If this was indeed to be the first in a trio of films, it might have been important to make sure we find ourselves more invested in him, largely because a quest tale like this requires its own identity, and the beasts and dangers out there are merely there to bring this out of the cast. It becomes more a parade of things our characters are witnessing, rather than interacting with, something the previous films took that extra time to flesh out. Underneath all the trappings, a human story is at the core of even this simple tale, and at a near now-standard 3 hour length, it should spend a little more time making this more apparent.

And speaking of borderline superficial, another more minor grip lies in the film's visual composition. Filmed on the Red 3D camera, what once looked lived-in, and grungy, often looks overtly bright, clean and flat in places. For a few moments, I quickly was taken back to Jim Cameron's AVATAR, with it's overt details in soft light, and occasionally strange feeling aura. While this may seem to be fine and good, it does make me pine a little for the grimy, almost elegiac quality which were understandably present before. A little additional textural hint of that future would have been nice. There is a less of a sense of the lived-in this time, and it leaves less of a burning impression. I'm grateful to not have caught it in its now controversial 48 FPS format, as it likely would have driven me up a wall.

And so the first part of a simpler, less world-shattering is at hand, and while I could say I enjoyed it, there was definitely a feeling of longing. Not so much for the next chapter, but for perhaps a more sensitive portrayal of the story, something less rushed, less..well business-driven. This time around, it seems that a certain spirit simply isn't there. Much like a certain urgency is not apparent in the source material, neither is the drive behind the scenes to push matters full throttle once again. An Unexpected Journey turned out rather as expected, and for that I guess it should be worth asking; Should they have bothered? Sure. Do I recommend this alongside the previous trilogy? Optional.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Karate Robo Zaborgar(2011) Movie Review

Fathered by a murdered Nobel Prize winning robot scientist, rides and fights alongside sweet transforming karate-wielding robot (who is also his brother), and wears sporty amounts of denim in the name of justice. What's not to love? J-cult nasty boy, Noboru Iguchi takes his Sushi Typhoon cred into the retro stratosphere with the shamelessly goofball Karate Robo Zaborgar, a big movie rendition of the classic 1974 tokusatsu TV series that pitts the hot-blooded special agent Yutaka Daimon (early on, played by Yasuhisa Furuhara) against the monster armies of the evil Sigma, an organization led by the bloodthirsty Doctor Akunomiya, and his cadre of cyborg megalomaniacs. Iguchi eschews a greater amount of his usual tendencies toward jiggle and intense gore to present what is more a cross between loving tribute, and almost bittersweet parody.

From the opening moments, we are introduced to a trio of dutiful Tokyo detectives sent to the Diet building to protect government officials targeted for abduction by Sigma, who's plans require their essence for an undisclosed plan. Led by sub-boss, the alluring, yet frowned upon at home, Miss Borg(Mami Yamasaki), Sigma's plans are quickly foiled by the appearance of the Flying Dragon Tri-Stage Kicking Daimon and Zaborgar, to the delight of the cops, and not so much by the clearly corrupt up and comer, Wakasugi. Easily the passionate youth with a grudge to bear, Daimon is approached by the police in their need for assistance in protecting the establishment, but with concern for the helmeted hero's instability. Matters become even more complicated when love unexpectedly comes into the picture, changing fortunes across the board. It isn't long before allegiances are questioned,  revelations pile up, and we are witness to some of the most delightfully bizarre sights ever displayed for a genre famous for being patently wacky.

Ever see a grown man breast feed his children in the absence of their dead mother? Ever witness the murder of a parent by way of lasers shot by a giant floating scrotum? Ever witness bizarre cyborg sex rituals?

Ever witness the manly tears of a robot of justice?

The film's TV episode-y format is taken full advantage of when our story flashes forward, boldly taking the entire premise into even further absurdity, but with a twist. A middle-aged Daimon (now played by comedian, Itsuji Itao) is now a virtually broken, penniless diabetic, having lived much of his life under the thumb of fate when destiny calls again, and Sigma's grand plans seem finally ready to be unleashed onto an unsuspecting recession-era Japan, and inevitably, the world!

Suddenly, the Iguchi of Machine Girl fame begins to kick in with some unexpected character, and much to say about the generations that have transpired since the salad days of tokusatsu heroes. The deeds of the past have far reaching consequences for all our characters, and it's up to all to save Japan. Rather than merely reveling in nostalgia, there is a mild attempt to bring a few grounded concerns to the fray. Elements such as the inability of the elder generation to gain a foothold in society as the corrupt on top collect, the enmity between children and their parents, and fears of youth gone absurd best illustrated by way of a giant schoolgirl waging a swath of destruction by way of casual mobile phone conversation. While not anywhere near as successful as it could have been, it's pretty fun to see these satirical dynamics flirted with within such a piece.

As with most J-throwbacks, it isn't all as functional as it likely could have been. While packed to the gears with such amazing imagery and action, the film's length does at times drag. And as previously mentioned, it is when Iguchi's instincts for parody go broad, the humor doesn't work very often. But when there are Iguchi-esque touches to popular Zaborgar tropes and characters. (Miss Ruggers - a group of American Football gear-sporting beauties comes ragingly to mind, exploding balls and all. There is also the matter of Dinosaur army..Ahem.) On the whole, Iguchi's large-scale retelling of Denjin Zaborgar is an unexpectedly sweet-natured, CG-heavy fun fest, sure to make many fans of Japanese genre TV smile one way or another.