I once had a teacher in college who told me filmmakers keep making the same movie over again and again without even realizing it, and Baz Luhrmann is a prime example of this. His “Romeo & Juliet” and “Moulin Rouge” dealt with characters looking back at a past they can never return to and of love affairs which ended tragically. His adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel “The Great Gatsby” is not any different from those two films, and it is filled with extravagant scenes that dazzle us with amazing choreography and beautiful images. But while it is a beautiful movie to look at, this film lacks the heart and soul I usually expect Luhrmann’s works to have in an infinite degree.
This “Gatsby” adaptation starts with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), a writer and bond broker, telling us about his time in New York during the 1920s (better known in the history books as the “Roaring 20s”). Right there I knew the movie was in trouble as Luhrmann started “Moulin Rouge” off with Ewan McGregor reflecting on an exhilarating past and a great love which has long since passed him by, and Maguire is a very similar character in that respect. From there, it is clear that this movie will not have a happy ending, and the characters we see enjoying themselves will soon experience a suffering which will be endless. We’re not even five minutes into this cinematic adaptation, and already I can tell this will be familiar territory for Luhrmann, way too familiar.
The 1920s were a time of great wealth and endless partying which came to a crashing halt the following decade when the stock market crashed and Americans found themselves out of a job (sound familiar?). Carraway finds himself caught up in all the hoopla which came with those times, and it’s at an especially over the top party where he meets Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man as rich as he is mysterious. From there they become inseparable friends as Gatsby shows Carraway around town and introduces him to the most influential people one could ever hope to meet. But it’s when Gatsby takes a strong interest in Carraway’s cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), that things start changing and not for the better. It turns out Gatsby knew Daisy in the past, and now Gatsby will do everything in his power to win Daisy back from her suspicious husband, polo player Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton).
“The Great Gatsby” has the same problem Luhrmann’s “Romeo & Juliet” had during its first half; it thrust a lot of style and flash cuts at us at an alarming rate to where I was desperate for things to slow down so I could breathe and actually everything in on a deeper level. Now Luhrmann did slow things down in “Romeo & Juliet” to where we connected emotionally with the story and its characters, and he successfully reinvigorated one of William Shakespeare’s most overdone plays to where it felt fresh and exciting again. But this time he gets so caught up in the spectacle he is putting up for us all to see to where it became impossible for me to connect with anything or anybody here. The sensory overload I got in his previous films was exhilarating, but here everything feels so exhausting and artificial to where it doesn’t matter if you watch this film in 2D or 3D (I watched it in 2D because I refused to spend the extra money). The characters may be starving for emotion, but it’s the audience that needs it even more.
Whether or not you have read Fitzgerald’s classic novel, it’s easy to see the direction this movie was going to take. As a result, I found myself getting very bored and impatient as I knew Gatsby would eventually stumble over his own ambitions, and I just wanted see him get his ass kicked sooner rather than later. Heck, I even got up and went to the bathroom at one point, and that should you give you an idea of how frustrating this movie was for me. I was able to sit through “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” despite needing to pee really bad, but this one I could not hold it in. Yes, that’s too much information for you readers, but anyway…
On the upside, the actors acquit themselves very nicely. You can’t really go wrong with DiCaprio, and he does make quite the dashing Gatsby, but there should be a drinking game based on how many times he calls people “old sport” throughout, and I seriously got sick of him saying that. His good friend Tobey Maguire has his back as Nick Carraway, and he does a lovely job of reading Fitzgerald’s words to where I’d like to hear him do a reading of the novel as he brings us a lot closer to the author’s dialogue than Luhrmann does.
Carey Mulligan, however, is seriously miscast as Daisy Buchanan. She still gets to do her whole woefully vulnerable lady act which she played to perfection in “An Education,” but Mulligan is not able to nail the other complexities this role has to offer. Yes, she is a lovely presence to watch in this or in any other movie, but this is not enough to save her performance here.
Clearly a tremendous amount of effort was put forth by the cast and crew on “The Great Gatsby,” but it doesn’t change the fact that the movie is a profound disappointment. Fitzgerald’s novel has been adapted several times with limited success, and many say it is an exceedingly hard book to translate to the silver screen. Luhrmann looked like he was the man who could do it justice, but he doesn’t come close. What a shame. We can always count on him to give us spectacle as well as substance, but this movie is all spectacle and not enough substance.
Alejandro Inarritu pushed cinematic boundaries in 2014 with “Birdman,” and now he did it again in 2015 with “The Revenant.” Based on the novel by Michael Punke, the movie transports us back to 1823 when frontiersmen and fur trappers traveled the states of Montana and South Dakota, and some of them soon came to discover just how unforgiving nature could be.
Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Hugh Glass, a member of a hunting party searching the land for animal pelts. In a seriously intense scene, Hugh ends up getting mauled by a bear to where he looks to be on the verge of breathing his last breath. One party member, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), becomes insistent on killing Hugh as dragging his seriously wounded body through the elements threatens to slow everyone down and put them all in the crosshairs of Indian tribes looking for revenge.
Fitzgerald ends up trying to smother Hugh to death, but he is interrupted by Hugh’s Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) who calls out for help. But Fitzgerald, overwhelmed by a fear of dying, ends up stabbing Hawk to death and gets the rest of the group to leave Hugh for dead and move on to safer grounds. But despite being so mortally wounded, Hugh rises up and pursues Fitzgerald over thousands of miles as he is driven by an unshakable force known as vengeance.
Inarritu, along with the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, puts us right in the middle of the action to where we, like the characters, never feel safe for a second. Arrows are flying everywhere and we are in an environment which we are not as familiar with as we would like to think, so the specter of death is always just around the corner.
What’s especially brilliant about “The Revenant” is how it captures both the beauty and unforgiving nature of the wilderness. The vistas captured are incredible to take in but this is also a movie you will want to put on a heavy coat while watching what Inarritu has caught on camera. The weather is so fierce here to where you can’t help but wonder how anyone could possibly survive it. Heck, I cannot help but wonder what watching it would be like in a 4DX theater. Could theater owners bring the temperature to subzero levels and provide audience members with parkas?
With “The Revenant,” DiCaprio finally nabbed the Best Actor Oscar which had eluded him. While I wished he had gotten his first one for his go-for-broke performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it seems very fitting he got it for a performance which has him suffering through the worst a human being could ever be forced to experience. In movies like “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed” and even “The Basketball Diaries,” he has shown a fearlessness in delving into a character’s dark side or a part of them which can never be easily controlled.
DiCaprio makes you feel every ache, pain and broken bone Hugh experiences in his infinitely long journey. Much has been said about how incredibly difficult it was to make “The Revenant,” and it looks like few had it harder than this actor did. We watch DiCaprio traverse a viciously cold landscape while lacking the ability to talk, and he even resorts to an “Empire Strikes Back” form of survival by keeping warm in a dead animal’s carcass. DiCaprio has never been an actor to fake an emotion or deliver a moment less than truthfully, and he certainly doesn’t do that here.
Also excellent in “The Revenant” is Tom Hardy who, just like he did in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” portrays a character forced to survive in the harshest and most unforgiving of environments. Fitzgerald could have been just another one-dimensional villain in this movie, but Hardy imbues him with a wounded humanity that makes him far more lethal and frightening. Just watch the scene in which Hardy faces down the barrel of a gun and just try to think of another actor who could be as convincing as him in a moment like this.
Tremendous performances, amazing cinematography, the most vicious bear attack in recent cinematic history along with a haunting music score by Ryuichi Sakamoto, Bryce Dessner and Alva Noto help to make “The Revenant” one of the best and most unforgettable movies of 2015. Inarritu remains unwavering in his directorial vision and he has given us a movie that grabs you and never lets you go until the credits start rolling. While some motion pictures get overshadowed by their behind the scenes struggles, this one does not. Of course, this will not stop people from talking about the making of “The Revenant” for years to come.
Oh by the way, this movie is “inspired by true events.” This is much more honest and fitting than saying it is “based on a true story.”
* * * * out of * * * *
WRITER’S NOTE: When this movie was released, some were under the mistaken impression that Leonardo DiCaprio’s character got raped by a bear in one scene. This rumor ended up spreading like a wildfire, but anyone who has seen “The Revenant” can attest this is not what happened at all. DiCaprio gets attacked because he accidentally comes across some bear cubs, and this shows that you never ever mess with the mama bear.
“Once in a lifetime comes a motion picture that makes you feel like falling in love all over again. This is not that movie.”
– Tagline for “War of The Roses.”
“Revolutionary Road” feels more like a horror movie than a romantic drama. It is brutally honest in the way it depicts the terrible disintegration of a marriage, the kind none of us ever want to get trapped in. Those of you who still think gay marriage is a threat to the sanctity of marriage should take a look at this movie, for it is a much more astute examination of what can really destroy such a prized institution. When the movie starts, we know we are in for a fateful journey of two people who at first look like they belong together, but we know they will eventually tear each other apart limb from limb.
But as tough as “Revolutionary Road” is to watch, it is also an utterly brilliant film which serves as further proof of how Sam Mendes’ Oscar win for his directorial debut of “American Beauty” was no fluke. There is not a single false note to be found here, and it feels practically flawless in its making and design. It has great visuals, a great screenplay and amazing performances from the entire cast. Mendes makes “Revolutionary Road” an enthralling experience into the horrors of conformity, the very thing we all try to fight against.
The movie starts with its two main characters, Frank and April (Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet), when they first meet at a party where they are instantly attracted to each other. The story then moves forward to years later when April is taking a curtain call for a play she is acting in, and she ends up bowing to a very unenthusiastic response from an indifferent audience. It is clear their relationship has gotten cold, and the utter frustration constantly simmering under the surface seem to be the only thing left for them to deal with. This leads to April to come up with what she sees as the perfect plan: They can sell their house and car and move to Paris where she can support Frank through secretarial work while he figures out what he really wants to do with his life. They both see it as their great chance to escape the confines of normalcy which has been eating away at their fragile little souls. However, reality threatens to take away from their dream one piece at a time.
This was Mendes’ fourth film as a director, and you can see a common thread through all his movies. Mendes seems endlessly fascinated with characters whose lives are at a standstill, and who hope for something incredible to happen to them. They are waiting for that moment where they can change into what they always hoped to be, and yet it never quite arrives. In “American Beauty,” it was the characters’ desire to wake up from their dead and dysfunctional lives. In “Road to Perdition,” it was the desire of Tom Hanks’ character to get his son away from the devious life he was leading as a mob enforcer, and to redeem himself in the eyes of his son. In “Jarhead,” it was the desire of the soldiers to enter a war and fight like men, and to take down their enemies by lethal force.
All of this comes around full circle in “Revolutionary Road” as this film deals with characters eager to escape their suffocatingly conformist suburb to live a life of sheer excitement. But they soon come to find they are not as special as they thought they were, and the desires of Frank and April seem to work in opposition to one another. The characters are complex in their creation, and we see what fuels their individual needs, desires, fears and anxieties which serve to define them and their actions. It’s almost like Frank and April are like George and Lenny from “Of Mice and Men;” they are two people hoping to get something they can never truly have, and they constantly delude themselves into thinking all is within their grasp and that their dreams will soon become a reality. But reality comes to rear its ugly head at them, and you know that it ain’t gonna pretty.
In a sense, “Revolutionary Road” can be seen as kind of a distant cousin to “American Beauty” in how it details the suffocating environment of suburban living, but each film approaches this differently. While “American Beauty” dealt with its characters with a dark sense of humor, the environment in “Revolutionary Road” is much bleaker and more consuming. In fact, “American Beauty” seems like a delightful walk in the park compared to this one.
This movie takes place in 1950’s Connecticut, and yet it feels quite contemporary which shows how frighteningly timeless story is. This is what will make the movie hard for many people to watch as they may end up seeing themselves in these two people; the longing for a more exciting existence, for an escape from the suburban way of living which has drained them almost completely of feeling, and to get another chance to get what they truly want out of life.
Along with cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men“) and production designer Kristi Zea (“The Silence of The Lambs”), Mendes perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1950’s to where you feel like you are right in it. He also captures the routine of the life in suburbs and manages to capture some unforgettable moments like when April takes the garbage out to the front of the driveway, and she sees everyone else has placed theirs out in front as well. In this moment, he captures April’s realization of how she and Frank have bought into the resigned way of living they both thought they would somehow avoid. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, but the ugliness of its characters’ frazzled emotions come through to make this seem like anything other than a Norman Rockwell portrait.
In addition, Mendes is served very well by his frequent film composing collaborator, Thomas Newman. While his music score may sound like many of his others, Newman captures the longings of both Frank and April as they tumble through their seemingly mundane existence, and soon end up being driven crazy by it and each other. Throughout all his work, Newman seems to work with music so subtle in how it is performed, and yet so powerful in what it ends up conveying. It’s no accident that Newman also scored Mendes’ “American Beauty” and Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom.” Like Mendes, Newman has a strong feel for life in the suburbs no matter what decade a movie takes place in.
“Revolutionary Road” is really a tremendous acting showcase more than anything else, and I don’t just mean from the two main actors. You have the always wonderful Kathy Bates who plays Mrs. Helen Givings, the endlessly talkative real estate agent who sells Frank and April the home they end up living in. The smile on her bright face serves to hide the pain that we see later as we are introduced to her son who has just been released from a mental institution. You also have the terrific Dylan Baker as Frank’s co-worker, Jack Ordway, a man who endlessly waxes philosophically over the craziness of our existence. David Harbour and Kathryn Hahn are also excellent as the next-door neighbors, Shep and Milly Campbell. The excitement April and Frank have over their plan to go to Paris both enthralls and depresses Shep and Milly, and the way they react to it implies how April and Frank are not the only ones leading lives of quiet desperation.
But one of the true standout performances from the supporting cast comes from Michael Shannon as Helen Giving’s mentally unhinged son, John. In an atmosphere where the truth is felt but never verbalized, John finds himself completely incapable of telling a lie. Essentially, he is a Vulcan like Mr. Spock, but with an overabundance of raw emotion. Through his thoughtlessly cruel remarks to everyone around him, he exposes the seemingly perfect couple and their marriage for the sham it has become, and you can clearly feel his betrayal by these two people who had promised to escape the lifestyle they found themselves so hopelessly trapped in. Shannon’s performance is astonishing in its uninhibited nature as he becomes the voice of reason in a world so full of lies.
This of course brings me to the two main actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. This is the first film they have appeared in together since “Titanic,” but one is very different. It could almost be seen as a story of what happened to Jack and Rose after the big ship sank, assuming Jack survived the freezing waters. Both DiCaprio and Winslet have an incredible chemistry with onscreen, and it seems crazy it took them over 10 years to do another movie together.
DiCaprio continues to prove why he is one of the best film actors of his generation. Throughout the movie, he lets us look past the egotistical nature of Frank Wheeler which allows him to seduce a naïve young secretary (played by the wonderful Zoe Kazan), and to see the pain and fear which threatens to steer him further in a direction he never planned to go in. The relationship he had with his father always seems to be surrounding him in ways which are never fully explained, but we can see how it enforces the decisions he ends up making. Frank clearly cannot stand the job he has as a salesman, but he is also equally terrified of leaving it as he feels he may let down his family in the process. DiCaprio brilliantly captures the complexity of this character whose needs and desires constantly tangle with one other, and whose anger and frustration with life eventually boils over to the only person he can take it out on, his wife.
But as raw and complex as DiCaprio’s role is, he is almost completely blown away by Winslet’s performance. Watching her here, you might think she was in a Lars Von Trier movie. Whereas Frank may have been desperate to escape his mundane existence, April is ten times as desperate to do the same. Her desire to escape the boring life she sold herself out to is never ending, and she can never hide her pain and feelings of hopelessness from those around her. You have to wonder where she gets the energy to do this emotionally exhausting work, and she has more than earned her place in the ever-growing pantheon of great actresses.
“Revolutionary Road” is not the most enjoyable of movies to sit through, but not all movies are meant to be, and this one is not without purpose. We empathize with Frank and April in spite of the way they treat each other because we know all they go through could easily happen to us.
Sam Mendes is one of the best directors working today, and he created another masterpiece of suburban isolation which stands proudly alongside “American Beauty” and “In the Bedroom” among others. It also shows how the term “civil marriage” can seem like the ultimate oxymoron. It goes back to people saying how love is a four-letter word, or that it is a sentence. Frank and April’s story is a tragic one, and probably not a movie to be watched by those who just got engaged.
Quentin Tarantino once said he did not have an “Age of Innocence” in him like Martin Scorsese did, but after watching his 9th film “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood,” I think he may be mistaken. Yes, it does have an R-rating like and features some truly brutal moments of violence where faces are literally pounded in, but this is largely a loving tribute to the Hollywood of the 1960’s and of the actors and filmmakers which inhabited it. Considering Tarantino’s attention to detail and his fetish for any kind of artifact from this era, I have no doubt he would have loved to have been a filmmaker back then if he could.
Tarantino and his longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson transport us back to the Hollywood of 1969 where we meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor and former star of a “Wanted Dead or Alive”-like television series called “Bounty Law.” After having a conversation with his agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino, more restrained than usual), he comes to see how washed up his career has become as he is reduced to doing guest spots as the villain on various television shows. The only person he can talk to about his troubles is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who is always around to have a drink with and drive him around town as Rick has had one DUI too many.
“Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” is kind of like a Robert Altman film in that it doesn’t have a straightforward plot. Instead, it acts as a day in the life story as we watch Rick Dalton try to move on with his acting career as an important decision hangs over him, whether or not to move to Italy where he can star in low budget spaghetti westerns. When the story isn’t focused on him, it focuses on Cliff who seems content to live in a trailer out in Van Nuys with his dog who is a bit annoyed at him for serving him the kind of dog food which slides out of its steel can as if it were pure slime.
The only thing Rick seems fairly excited about these days is the fact Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate now live next door to him in the Hollywood Hills. But looming in the background is Charlie Manson and his cult of followers who look at first to be harmless hippies, but they later reveal themselves to be devoted to him in a most unhealthy way. Those of us who are familiar with history, and who have a deep respect for historical facts, know Sharon Tate and others were murdered by Manson’s followers, and that this shocking act all but ended the era of love and peace irreparably. But as I watched this film, I began to wonder if Tarantino would stay true to history, or if he would play around with it as he did in “Inglourious Basterds.” Whatever the case, the presence of Manson and his cult cast an ominous shadow over the proceedings, so we know the end of this story will not be the least bit pretty.
Watching “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” reminded me of how much I love it when a filmmaker sucks us right into another time and place to where we don’t doubt the accuracy and attention to detail. Cameron Crowe did this with “Almost Famous,” Paul Thomas Anderson did wonders with the 70’s and 80’s in “Boogie Nights,” and Tarantino does the same as he brings us right back to 1969 with wonderful abandon. All the famous landmarks of Hollywood are here including the Cinerama Dome, Musso & Frank Grill, El Coyote Restaurant and the classic movie theaters located in Westwood. New Beverly Cinema can be seen from a distance as it is shown having a premiere for an adult film, and this was back when it was a porno theater.
This attention to detail also includes the kind of beer these characters drank, the type of books they read, television antennas and cars. This was back in a time when people smoked an endless number of cigarettes, drove and sat in cars without having to wear seatbelts, and when love and peace was in the air even as wars were being waged overseas.
It is great fun to see DiCaprio in this kind of role after seeing him be so serious in “The Revenant,” a movie which earned him the Oscar he should have received for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He’s a gas here as he makes Rick Dalton into a study of desperation as he struggles to maintain what’s left of his image and berate himself while alone in his trailer. The scene he has with a child actress played by the wonderful Julia Butters is a special highlight as she shows him the kind of innocence and love of acting he once had before life, alcohol and a corrupted world view clouded his perception.
As I have said in the past, I love it when Pitt gets down and dirty in a role, and he does just this as Cliff Booth. In addition to being Rick’s stunt double, he is also a Vietnam veteran, and the violence he inflicts on others who wrong him can be described at the very least as punishing. Pitt also proves to be as funny as DiCaprio from scene to scene, and he has a classic scene opposite Mike Moh who is pitch perfect as Bruce Lee in which I saw something I never thought I would see or believe, someone getting the best of Bruce Lee.
But one performance I really need to single out here is Margot Robbie’s as Sharon Tate. While at the Cannes Film Festival, someone asked Tarantino why he didn’t give Robbie the same amount of dialogue he gave DiCaprio and Pitt. I don’t remember who asked this question, but whoever it was, they completely missed the point. It’s not always dialogue which aids a performance. Sometimes it’s just a look or an attitude, and Robbie gives off a look or two which is more than enough to capture the essence of Sharon Tate as well as her beguiling innocence.
Tate has long been relegated to history as one of the Manson family’s murder victims, but she deserves to be known for much more. As Robbie sits in a Westwood movie theater watching a movie Tate co-starred in, we are reminded of a talent which was taken away from this world far too soon, and it makes me want to check out everything Tate ever appeared in. Robie does a fantastic job of reminding us how fun it is to see ourselves, let alone our name, on the silver screen as others look on, unaware of who is sitting next to them in the audience, and she is as radiant as Tate was in her far too brief lifetime.
There are so many familiar actors worth singling out here, but some of them you may not see coming and I am not about to spoil any surprises this film has to offer. I will say it’s always a delight to see Kurt Russell in anything and everything, and he is great as a stunt coordinator who is not quick to warm up to Cliff. Margaret Qualley is a memorable presence as Pussycat, a member of the Manson family who does warm up to Cliff. Bruce Dern, in a role originally meant for the late Burt Reynolds, is fun to watch as George Spahn, a man whose ranch was used for many westerns and which later got used by Charlie Manson and his demented followers. And it is quite bittersweet to see the late Luke Perry as it is the last feature film he will ever appear in.
Seriously, as rough and tumble as “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” gets, it really is a love letter to a Hollywood which time will never forget. As Tarantino nears the end of his long filmmaking career (or so he says), he continues to give us one enthralling motion picture experience after another. Even if his works threaten to be undone by self-indulgence, I am glad people are thoughtful enough to give him the freedom to make what he wants to make. If Tarantino ever had it in him to give us a fairy tale, this would be it. Even as its main characters threaten to be forever swallowed up by bitterness and cynicism, there is a light of innocence which helps lead them to the next stage in their lives. And if this film is any indication, this is time in Hollywood which Tarantino wishes lasted longer than it did.
Now, as with any Tarantino film, I have to go out and buy the soundtrack and then watch it again. And one other thing, I almost didn’t recognize Timothy Olyphant. Did you? Oh yeah, and sauerkraut will never be the same.
WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2012.
Every time Quentin Tarantino releases a new movie, a celebration should be in order. The man loves movies like many filmmakers do, but he always succeeds in manipulating genre conventions to where he can freely make them his own, and this makes his works all the more thrilling. There’s also no beating his dialogue which exhilarates us in the same way a play by David Mamet can, and words in a Tarantino movie usually prove to be every bit as exciting as the action scenes. His latest movie “Django Unchained” is no exception, but it does suffer from some of his excesses which have taken away (if only slightly) from the films he has given us in the past. But if you can get past its flaws, you are still in for a very entertaining time.
Jamie Foxx stars as the Django of the movie’s title, and it takes place in the year 1858 which was just two years before the start of the Civil War. Django is being led through the freezing cold wilderness along with other slaves when he is freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist who has since become a bounty hunter. King needs Django’s help in finding the Brittle brothers, ruthless killers who have a sizable price on their heads. In return for Django’s help, King promises him he will help rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from slavery. She is currently in the hands of the charismatic but viciously brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and you know this will lead to a conclusion which will be anything but peaceful.
Tarantino always loves to mix genres, and he does this brilliantly with “Django Unchained.” On the surface it is clearly a western, but the “Pulp Fiction” auteur also combines it with the Blaxploitation genre which we all know is one of his favorites. Heck, we even get to meet the ancestors of John Shaft, the black private detective made famous by Richard Roundtree in the movie “Shaft.” Just as he did with “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino gleefully throws caution to the wind as he subverts both genres to create an exhilarating motion picture experience few other people can give us. He’s not out to make a historically accurate movie, but we’re having too much fun to really care.
Now many people including Spike Lee have complained about Tarantino’s overuse of the n- word in this movie as they have of other films he’s made in the past. In their eyes it’s like they’re saying Tarantino revels in the racist behavior of his characters, but I don’t think that’s even remotely true. All the insanely racist characters in “Django Unchained” end up getting their asses handed to them in the most painful way possible, and while Tarantino’s love of black culture might differ a little from others, the love is there all the same.
And again, Tarantino gives us a terrific soundtrack filled with many songs which are not from the time period this movie takes place in. I love how he complements scenes of Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz riding on their horses with songs by James Brown, John Legend and Brother Dege (AKA Dege Legg) among others. He also includes pieces of film scores by Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith for good measure, and there are even original songs to be found here as well, something exceedingly rare for a Tarantino movie.
Having said all this, the length of “Django Unchained” did drive me up the wall a bit. At a time where filmmakers push the limit and have their movies run longer than two hours, Tarantino proves to be one of 2012’s biggest sinners as this one clocks in at almost three hours and threatens to have as many endings as “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Suffice to say, this movie could have been shorter. Perhaps it’s the absence of his longtime editor, the late Sally Menke, who was always good at reigning Tarantino in. Fred Raskin, who has edited the last three “Fast & Furious” movies, was the editor on this one.
Still, there is a lot to appreciate and enjoy about “Django Unchained,” especially the acting. Jamie Foxx has proven to be a terrific actor ever since he held his own opposite Al Pacino in Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday,” and his talent doesn’t waiver in the slightest here. As Django, he gives us a western hero who has earned the right to seek vengeance for what has been done to him, and he is thrilling to watch as he makes this character a shockingly bad ass bounty hunter by the movie’s conclusion.
Christoph Waltz brings a wonderful mirth and a unique liveliness to the exceedingly violent characters he plays, and his role as dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz is further proof. It’s fun to see him be so charming to others only to watch him blow them away when the occasion calls for him to do so. Waltz more than earned the Oscar he received for his brilliant performance in “Inglourious Basterds,” and his work in “Django Unchained” proves he is a gifted actor who is here to stay.
Leonardo DiCaprio clearly relishes the opportunity to shed his heartthrob persona to play the charming yet undeniably evil plantation owner Calvin Candie. In a year which has had a large number of unforgettable villains, Calvin is one of the most vicious as his power and wealth has turned him into a raving sociopath who has little hope of finding redemption in his lifetime. DiCaprio is enthralling to watch as he taunts everyone around him with a twisted glee, and he looks to be having loads of fun in playing a character few others would have chosen him to play.
One standout performance which really needs to be acknowledged, however, comes from Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who has played parts both big and small in Tarantino’s movies. Jackson plays Calvin’s head slave Stephen who is the Uncle Tom of “Django Unchained,” and he makes you want to hate his racist, backstabbing character with a passion. Jackson gives a spirited performance as a man who freely betrays the principles he should be standing up for in order to benefit his own desires and keep himself safe in a time where he is anything but.
Kudos also goes to Kerry Washington who plays Django’s kidnapped wife, Broomhilda. Her character suffers many indignities, and Washington makes her pain and fear so vivid to where she leaves you on edge every time she appears onscreen. The moments where she has no dialogue are among her most powerful as her eyes threaten to give away the secrets she is desperate to keep hidden.
Seriously, this movie is filled with actors we know very well, and they keep popping up here when you least expect them to. You have Don Johnson playing plantation owner Spencer ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett, you have Jonah Hill as Randy, a bone-headed KKK member who can’t seem to fix his hood properly, you have Walton Goggins playing an unapologetically vicious cowboy who enjoys the torture he inflicts upon others, and you have Dennis Christopher as the flamboyant Leonide Moguy. If you watch real closely you can also see Zoë Bell, Robert Carradine, Franco Nero, M. C. Gainey, Bruce Dern, Tom Savini, Michael Parks and John Jarratt pop up in roles which would seem small if they were played by anybody else. It’s all proof of how there are no small roles in a Tarantino movie, and all these people are clearly thrilled to be in his company.
Tarantino also has a small role as a mining company employee. While I have no problem defending him as an actor in some movies, his Australian accent could use a bit of work, and that’s being generous.
I’m not sure where I would rate “Django Unchained” in comparison to Tarantino’s other films, but I have to say I enjoyed “Inglourious Basterds” more. This movie’s nearly three-hour length took away from my overall experience, but I can only complain about it so much. When it comes to movies, Tarantino still provides audiences with the kind of enthralling entertainment which never plays it safe.
While it’s far from perfect, “Django Unchained” is a thrillingly alive movie filled with great acting, terrific dialogue and incredibly bloody gunfights Sam Peckinpah would have gotten a kick out of. If you can withstand its excesses and know what you are in for when it comes to a Tarantino movie, you are still bound to have a great time watching it.
2008 was a year more memorable for those who died as opposed to the movies which were released. We lost Heath Ledger, Brad Renfro, George Carlin, and Paul Newman among many others, and their individual deaths spread through the news like an uncontrollable wildfire. Their passing left a big mark on us all. When we look back at this year, I think people will remember where they were upon learning of their deaths more than anything else. Many of us will remember where we were when we got the news that Ledger died, but they will not remember how much money they wasted on “Righteous Kill,” the second movie featuring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro sharing the screen at the same time.
2008 did pale in comparison to 2007 which saw a wealth of great movies released. Many said this was a horrible year for movies as high expectations ruined some of the big summer tent pole franchises, and that there were too many remakes being made. The way I see it, 2008 had a lot of really good movies, but not a lot of great ones. There was a big drought of good ones worth seeing at one point in this year, and I started to wonder if I would have enough of them to create a top ten list. If it were not for all those Oscar hopefuls released towards the year’s end, I am certain I would have come up short.
So, let us commence with this fine list, if I do say so myself, of the ten best movies of 2008:
I had to put these two together for various reasons. Of course, the most obvious being Kate Winslet starred in both movies and was brilliant and devastating in her separate roles. Also, these were movies with stories about relationships laden with secrets, unbearable pressures, and deeply wounded feelings. Both were devoid of happy endings and of stories which were designed to be neatly wrapped up. Each one also dealt with the passing of time and how it destroys the characters’ hopes and dreams.
“The Reader” looked at the secret relationship between Winslet’s character and a young man, and of the repercussions from it which end up lasting a lifetime. There is so much they want to say to one another but can’t, as it will doom them to punishments they cannot bear to endure.
Speaking of escape, it is what the characters in “Revolutionary Road” end up yearning for, and the movie is brilliant in how it shows us characters who think they know what they want but have no realistic way of getting it. Each movie deals with characters who are trapped in situations they want to be free from but can never be, and of feelings just beneath the surface but never verbalized until too late.
Both Stephen Daldry and Sam Mendes direct their films with great confidence, and they don’t just get great performances from their entire cast, but they also capture the look and setting of the era their stories take place in perfectly. All the elements come together so strongly to where we are completely drawn in to the emotional state of each film, and we cannot leave either of them without being totally shaken at what we just witnessed.
Looking back, I wondered if I was actually reviewing the play more than I was John Patrick Shanley’s movie of his Pulitzer Prize winning work. But the fact is Shanley brilliantly captures the mood and feel of the time this movie takes place in, and it contains one great performance after another. Meryl Streep personifies the teacher you hated so much in elementary school, Philip Seymour Hoffman perfectly captures the friendly priest we want to trust but are not sure we can, and Amy Adams illustrates the anxiety and confusion of the one person caught in the middle of everything. Don’t forget Viola Davis who, in less than 20 minutes, gives a galvanizing performance as a woman more worried about what her husband will do to their child more than the possibility of her child being molested by a priest who has been so kind to him. Long after its Broadway debut, “Doubt” still proves to be one of the most thought provoking plays ever, and it lost none of its power in its adaptation to the silver screen.
This is the best Woody Allen movie I have seen in a LONG time. Woody’s meditation on the ways of love could have gone over subjects he has long since pondered over to an exhausting extent, but this is not the case here. “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a lovely and wonderfully character driven piece filled with many great performances, the best being Penelope Cruz’s as Javier Bardem’s ex-wife. Cruz is a firecracker every time she appears on screen, and she gives one of the most unpredictable performances I have seen in a while. Just when I was ready to write Allen off completely, he comes back to surprise me with something funny, lovely and deeply moving.
One day, I will be as sexy as Javier Bardem. Just you wait!
Danny Boyle, one of the most versatile film directors working today, gave us a most exhilarating movie which dealt with lives rooted in crime, poverty and desperation, and yet he made it all so uplifting. It is a love story like many we have seen before, but this one is done with such freshness and vitality to where I felt like I was seeing something new and utterly original. Boyle also reminds us of how “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire” was so exciting before ABC pimped it out excessively on their prime-time schedule. “Slumdog Millionaire” was pure excitement from beginning to end, and it was a movie with a lot of heart.
Ron Howard turns in one of the best directorial efforts of his career with this adaptation of Peter Morgan’s acclaimed stage play, “Frost/Nixon,” which dealt with the infamous interview between former President Richard Nixon and TV personality David Frost. Despite us all knowing the outcome of this interview, Howard still sustains a genuine tension between these two personalities, one being larger than life. Howard also has the fortune of working with the same two actors from the original stage production, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. Langella’s performance is utterly riveting in how he gets to the heart of Nixon without descending into some form of mimicry or impersonation. You may think a movie dealing with two people having an interview would be anything but exciting, but when Langella and Sheen are staring each other down, they both give us one of the most exciting moments to be found in any film in 2008. Just as he did with “Apollo 13,” Howard amazes you in how he can make something so familiar seem so incredibly exciting and intense.
Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married” had a huge effect on me with its raw emotion, and I loved how he made us feel like we were in the same room with all these characters. When the movie ended, it felt like we had shared some time with great friends, and Demme, from a screenplay written by Jenny Lumet, gives us a wealth of characters who are anything but typical clichés. Anne Hathaway is a revelation here as Kym, the problem child of the family who is taking a break from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding. Kym is not the easiest person to like or trust, but Hathaway makes us completely empathize with her as she tries to move on from a tragic past which has long since defined her in the eyes of everyone. Great performances also come from Bill Irwin who is so wonderful as Kym’s father, Rosemarie DeWitt, and the seldom seen Debra Winger who shares a very intense scene with Hathaway towards the movie’s end. I really liked this one a lot, and it almost moved me to tears.
Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” has grown on me so much since I saw it. While it may be best known as the movie in which Mickey Rourke gave one hell of a comeback performance, this movie works brilliantly on so many levels. To limit its success to just Rourke’s performance would not be fair to what Aronofsky has accomplished as he surrounds all the characters in the bleakness of the urban environment they are stuck in, and he makes you feel their endless struggles to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. “The Wrestler” succeeds because Aronofsky’s vision in making it was so precise and focused, and he never sugarcoats the realities of its desperate characters. Rourke more than deserved the Oscar for Best Actor, which in the end went to Sean Penn for “Milk.” Furthermore, the movie has great performances from Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood as those closest to Rourke’s character, and who look past his faded fame to see the wounded man underneath. The more I look at “The Wrestler,” the more amazed and thrilled I am by it.
Tomas Alfredson’s film of a friendship between a lonely boy and a vampire was so absorbing on an atmospheric level, and it surprised me to no end. What looks like an average horror movie turns out to actually be a sweet love story with a good deal of blood in it. Widely described as the “anti-Twilight,” “Let the Right One In” gives a strong sense of freshness to the vampire genre which back in the early 2000’s was overflowing with too many movies. The performances given by Kåre Hedebrant as Oskar and Lina Leandersson as Eli are pitch perfect, and despite the circumstances surrounding their improbable relationship, I found myself not wanting to see them separated from one another.
Pixar does it once again and makes another cinematic masterpiece which puts so many other movies to shame. With “Wall-E,” director Andrew Stanton took some big risks by leaving a good portion of the movie free of dialogue, and this allowed us to take in the amazing visuals of planet Earth which has long since become completely inhospitable. Plus, it is also one of the best romantic movies to come out of Hollywood in ages. The relationship between Wall-E and his iPod-like crush Eve is so much fun to watch, and the two of them coming together gives the movie a strong sense of feeling which really draws us into the story. The fact these two are machines quickly becomes irrelevant, especially when you compare them to the humans they meet in a spaceship who have long since become imprisoned by their laziness and gluttony.
I gave the DVD of this movie to my mom as a Christmas present, and she said you could do an entire thesis on it. Nothing could be truer as it is such a brilliant achievement which dazzles us not just on a visual level, but also with its story which is the basis from which all Pixar movies originate. “Wall-E” is the kind of movie I want to see more often, a film which appeals equally to kids and adults as this is not always what Hollywood is quick to put out.
The biggest movie of 2008 was also its best. I was blown away with not just what Christopher Nolan accomplished, but of what he got away with in a big budget Hollywood blockbuster. “The Dark Knight” is not just an action movie, but a tragedy on such an epic scale. Many call it the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Batman series, and this is a very apt description. Many will point to this movie’s amazing success as the result of the untimely death of Heath Ledger whose performance as the Joker all but blows away what Jack Nicholson accomplished in Tim Burton’s “Batman,” but the sheer brilliance of the movie is not limited to the late actor’s insanely brilliant work. Each performance in the movie is excellent, and Christian Bale now effectively owns the role of the Caped Crusader in a way no one has before.
Aaron Eckhart also gives a great performance as Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, one which threatened to be the most underrated of 2008. The “white knight” becomes such a tragic figure of revenge, and we come to pity him more than we despise him. The movie is also aided greatly by the always reliable Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman. Everyone does excellent work here, and there is not a single weak performance to be found.
Whereas the other “Batman” movies, the Joel Schumacher ones in particular, were stories about the good guys against the bad guys, “The Dark Knight” is a fascinating look at how the line between right and wrong can be easily blurred. Harvey’s line of how you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain perfectly personifies the dilemmas for every character here. To capture the Joker, Bruce Wayne may end up becoming the very thing he is fighting against. I can’t think of many other summer blockbusters which would ask such questions or be as dark. “The Dark Knight” took a lot of risks, and it more than deserved its huge success. It set the bar very high for future comic book movies, and they will need all the luck they can get to top this one.
-from “All I Have To Do Is Dream” by the Everly Brothers
“It’s too bad that all these things
Can only happen in my dreams”
-from “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison
My reaction upon seeing “Inception” was pretty much the same one I had after I saw Christopher Nolan’s last movie “The Dark Knight:” BRILLIANT!!! In a summer movie season which has been largely bland and seriously lacking in excitement, Nolan once again stimulates the imagination by giving us a very well thought out story with complex characters. This is all in addition to the slam bang entertainment we expect from a summer blockbuster, and Nolan delivers on both fronts. Seriously, this movie feels like a godsend in a time where studio executives are way too risk adverse. Even if “Inception” borrows from movies like “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix,” Nolan still makes it all his own. I’ve already seen “Inception” twice in one week, and there is just as much to discover about it the second time around as much as the first.
Nolan has actually been working on this screenplay for over a decade, and it is an intricate puzzle of a flick which might seem difficult to follow, but not really. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Dominic Cobb, a highly experienced dream infiltrator who works at extracting precious information from his targets. Basically, he steals ideas from his clients before they even realize it, and they are very valuable ideas which will put him and his crew on easy street for a time. Working with him is his partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) whose job is to research the clients’ history and see if they have any mental defenses built up which could hinder their mission. As we first see them in “Inception,” they have seemingly failed a mission, but they soon find out it was actually an audition.
Their target, Saito (Ken Watanabe), a wealthy businessman, offers a job which will have them doing the opposite of their job description. This brings us to the movie’s title which means planting an idea in the mind of their target’s subconscious. Although thought to be impossible, Cobb says it can be done because he has succeeded in doing it before. “Inception” then takes Cobb and his team on an adventure which will go into a dream, and then into another dream within that dream. Just when you think they couldn’t go any deeper, they do. It sounds confusing, but it was easier to follow than I thought. You want a tough movie to follow? Check out the first “Mission Impossible” movie which Brian DePalma directed. After all these years, I still can’t figure out what it was about (the stunts were cool though).
The concept of entering a person’s dream is fascinating because it gives the story infinite possibilities to explore, and all sorts of directions to take it in. Dreams themselves still fascinate us as we still have no clear idea what generates them. They can be very unpredictable and go from one place to another before we know it. Dreams could be our subconscious minds trying unburden itself of all the baggage we bury down into its recesses in the hopes of forgetting the most painful things in life. Looking back at the dreams I have had which have stayed with me, be it good or bad, they continually astonish me with their vividness and how our brains and imaginations can conjure up such amazing images as we slumber away in beds which are hopefully kind to your back. You’d think after all these years we would be able to be consciously aware of when we are in a dream and control it to our advantage, but no such luck. When you’re deep into one, the difference between what is real and what is not becomes irrelevant.
That’s the other thing I loved about “Inception;” you are always questioning whether you’re in a dream or wide awake. Even if you already know how the movie ends, it couldn’t possibly spoil the experience for you when you witness it. As in “Total Recall,” reality is always in question and open to interpretation, and it’s unlikely everyone will come to the same conclusion. I was also reminded of David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ” which ended on a note of sheer ambiguity as the line between what’s real and what is not becomes permanently blurred. “Inception” all but starts out this way, and the theories behind the action and what’s really going on continue to abound. How cool it is to have a movie of this size and scope which really gets you to think!
For a moment, I thought DiCaprio was going to portray the same character he played in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” Teddy Williams. Both characters have inescapable similarities; they are tortured by memories and actions they cannot repair, they are married to beautiful women whose current state of mind is in question, and they are both really moody guys who are not a barrel of laughs to be around. Oh yeah, both are also struggling with the reality of everything happening around them. I guess what Cobb has over Teddy is his grip on reality is much firmer, but even Cobb’s sanity comes into question throughout “Inception.”
DiCaprio continues to prove he is not only one of the very best actors working, but also one of the few stars who genuinely take risks. Not content with being forever imprisoned as a movie star, he nails the complexities of Cobb to where we see the various dimensions of his character. In essence, Cobb is a thief after the big score, and he shuts himself off to other people. But DiCaprio really gets at what is beneath his character’s guilt and shame, and he makes us want to join him in his dream exploits. For him, it is never about just making the character a likable one.
It’s also great to see Levitt here as well. Having been the indie darling for a few years, turning in one great performance after another, and he more than holds his own here. When everyone else is in a state of uncontrollable panic, Arthur always keeps his focus clear which allows him to stay on top of things. His method of preparing his team members for “the kick” in one dream is ingenious. Watching Levitt here almost makes me forget he was on “3rd Rock from The Sun” all those years ago.
Then you have the beautiful Marion Cotillard, plays Cobb’s late wife, Mal. While Mal may be short for Mallorie, in Latin it means “evil,” and she exists only within Cobb’s dreamscape as he has buried her deep in his memories. However, his control over her continues to erode as Mal continues to intrude in different dreams he has as she gets the upper hand and continually threatens to ruin anything and everything. Cotillard plays Mal with a cold detachment as well as a deeply wounded person who feels betrayed by her husband. As the movie goes on, you begin to wonder if she is truly dead or alive.
At first, having Ellen Page in this movie might seem weird as we all still identify her with her character from “Juno.” It’s been easy to forget what a wide range she can have as an actress, but this is not the case here as she acts as the guide for the audience in the world of dreams. Her character of Ariadne is the architect, the one who constructs the world of the dream which the team will enter into. She also acts as the conscience Cobb needs as he continues to be drawn by Mal into a state of limbo which he may never return from. As a result, Ariadne is the strongest, most objective and levelheaded in the group because she sees what consumes Cobb and how it can endanger everyone. She becomes the voice of reason Cobb must listen to if he hopes not to drown in his own guilt. It feels like it has been too long since I have seen Page in anything, and she once again proves to be another fantastic actress of her generation.
Tom Hardy, who plays the forger Eames, is fun to watch here as he approaches the role with a touch of irresistible sarcasm as he gleefully plays around with the other team members and their self-consuming seriousness. Eames gets an especially big kick in getting a rise out of Arthur who takes his work perhaps more seriously than most. Throughout the movie, Hardy’s presence proves to be one of the film’s most entertaining, and his star continues to rise.
Nolan also brings some of his “Dark Knight” cast members along for the dream ride including Sir Michael Caine and Cillian Murphy. Both are terrific in any role given to them, and the performances they both give in “Inception” are no exception. Another supporting actor worth noting here is Dileep Rao who plays Yusuf, the chemist who formulates the sedatives which put the group and the target under so they can complete their mission. I think he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with all the other actors whose names appear on the posters.
But the big surprise in “Inception” is the appearance of Tom Berenger, a well-known actor who has for far too long been relegated to the realm of straight to DVD movies. It’s so nice to see him here in something other than a “Sniper” sequel (how many have there been anyway?), and he hasn’t missed a step as an actor after all these years.
With movies like “Inception,” we have come to expect directors will spend more time on the visual element to where they inadvertently forget the other important ones like dialogue and acting. Having made several movies already, Nolan proves to be one of the best directors working today as he handles each part of a movie with the same amount of attention, something increasingly rare among filmmakers.
Nolan fills the movies with such inventive images as Arthur fights off armed men while the dream he is in is thrown out of balance as it spins him from the floor to the ceiling. Levitt really sells the scene by showing his character struggling to maintain control as he is forced to crawl over the place when gravity no longer works in his favor. Then there is the final scene, which I won’t dare to give away, but taking in the audience’s strong reaction showed just how successful Nolan was in holding us firmly within his grasp. I loved the inescapable ambiguity of the film’s conclusion and how it drove some audience members crazy.
Plus, Nolan once again employs Hans Zimmer to do the score, and what he brings us is not another rehash of the Caped Crusader’s music. Zimmer gives a strong score dominated by electronics, drums, and brass instruments which are primed to blow out the speakers at a theater near you. Capturing the scope of the visuals in “Inception” which are quite immense, Zimmer once again gives great power to Nolan’s amazing concepts which Warner Brothers was smart enough to let the director run wild with instead of just containing his imagination in fear of releasing something which might seem “uncommercial.”
In a sea of endless remakes, questionable reboots, and half-assed concepts which somehow got a green light from studio executives, “Inception” is a rare breed of film which is as thought provoking as it is entertaining. It also makes clear Nolan is a genius filmmaker who has set the bar high for summer tent pole movies just like he did with “The Dark Knight.”