Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012) – Generously aping original Django filmmaker Sergio Corbucci right from the outset, Quentin Tarantino expropriates the opening of the Italian Spaghetti Westerner’s most iconic production to set the stage for a brazen, bold, and brilliantly violent look at slavery, race relations, and cold blooded revenge where reparations should have come due in his exemplary spin off/knock-off/homage Django Unchained. It’s an intriguing, if admittedly lower stakes, narrative unlike anything the director has attempted before, and while the results might not have the game changing punch of Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds, the movie feels stronger without grander overtures beyond the obvious.
Taking the iconic lovelorn theme song from Corbucci’s film (as well as the opening title font and the director’s love of fast moving, zooming shots that seem out of place anywhere else), Tarantino applies the lyrics to tell the story of a black slave in the antebellum Southern US two years before the start of the Civil War shackled in leg irons trekking across barren and sometimes bloody wasteland. Our hero and new Django, played by Jamie Foxx, doesn’t need a coffin to drag around. He’s already dead inside, anyway.
Django gets rescued from his indentured servitude by Shultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist turned ruthless bounty hunter who needs his help in identifying a trio of bandits that used to be his owners. A hater of slavery himself, Shultz takes Django under his wing as a free man and bounty hunter in training for the winter. In exchange for helping him make a ton of money, Shultz agrees to help the married Django make his way back to the wife (Kerry Washington) that he was forced to abandon and the two create a con to buy her back from her current master: a boy prince of the old money south named Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who cares more about status, refinery, and Mandingo fighting than he does about actually operating his palatial plantation.
It’s very easy to be critical of any film talking about slavery told from a white perspective, especially when the director in question has been accused of being a bit too lax with his own racial sensitivities at times. But the satire here that undercuts the incredibly gruesome geysers of blood that erupt throughout the film from various gunshots, whippings, and other bits of extreme nastiness, comes straight from the heart of someone openly pissed off at what happened. There’s no guile or white guilt gloss. It’s gritty, grimy, bleak, and yet still only steps away from what Mel Brooks did with Blazing Saddles minus any sort of apologetic tone. It’s mournful and brimming with gallows humour and straight up parody of former American idiocy and reprehensibility. Best of all (or perhaps worst for those with weaker constitutions) is that it isn’t shy about it.
Foxx doesn’t really even enter into his own film very much until the duo actually reaches Candie’s plantation an hour into the nearly three hour film. The opening hour involves Waltz’s savvy German foreigner showing his charge the ropes and how to manipulate the system. In this opening hour, Waltz establishes himself as the best actor to ever read Tarantino’s particular brand of rambling and off colour dialogue. As much as anyone else can laud the performances of DiCaprio or Samuel L. Jackson (both of whom we’ll get to in a second), Waltz runs off with the film in much the same way he did when he won the Academy Award for Basterds. Only here instead of playing a violent man doing heinous things for love of country, he’s playing a supposedly noble man committing violent acts for money by delivering the corpses of the wicked. He’s just as loquacious and thoughtful as his sneering iconic villain, but Shultz acts as the exact mirror opposite of his previous fascist character, making for an interesting bridge between Tarantino’s two most recent projects. He can also dress people down with logic like it’s nobody’s business.
When it comes time for Foxx to take centre stage, he doesn’t go for a flashy action movie portrait of the character. He’s taking a fair dose of Franco Nero’s take on the lone gunslinger with a lost love crossed with a 70s blaxploitation anti-hero. Django does his dirt out in the open in service of his lady love, and he gets the lion’s share of dramatic heavy lifting here especially when he’s placed in opposition to DiCaprio’s character.
Django’s German named wife Broomhilda has been suffering at the idyllic and cheekily named Candyland plantation as a “comfort girl” thanks to her whip mark scored back and “R” that was burned into her face for trying to run off to freedom with her husband. Shultz’s grand plan to get her back involves the two of them working their way into Calvin’s world and posing as a pair of Mandingo fighting enthusiasts looking to purchase one of the young man’s brawlers, seeking to offer an outrageous sum of money to take one of them with him and make a smaller offer for Django’s wife on the side. Shultz will play the novice with the money, and Foxx, a “one eyed Charlie.” Asked to play a black slaver, and play him lower than dirt, Foxx excels at showing forced menace and very subtly how that same act can cause his rage to build before making his way to the ultimate final payback. Foxx openly berates the slaves on Calvin’s plantation to raise his interest in making a sale, but he never convinces hired hand Billy Crash (Walt Scoggins) who always looks for an excuse to bring harm to Django at the first sign of the act slipping.
The false Francophile and budding phrenologist Calvin as played by DiCaprio solidifies the second half shift from one type of Italian film to another. The southern dandy rules the roost with blood and fear, but he never gives a damn about using the land. In fact, in a novel twist, none of the film that takes place on a plantation ever once sees the slaves really working, and only getting punished for insolence or forced into degrading/dangerous acts. In Tarantino’s worldview these slaves aren’t even a means to an end, and simply property that people like Candie and Don Johnson’s all too briefly used comedic aside Big Daddy use to make their already vast expanses of land seem all the more bigger. They rule over their own miniature countries like the American Roman Empire with all the imagery to match from Tarantino’s end.
Calvin does a great job of talking and posturing, but he wouldn’t be much of anything without his head slave Stephen, played by a fright wig wearing, never blinking, and even darker skinned Jackson in another true live wire of a performance. It’s a daring role that equates his own Uncle Tom leanings as a black man playing literally in blackface, and it’s far more menacing any threats DiCaprio can come up with. Alternately the biggest source of problems for Django and Broomhilda and the parrot on Calvin’s shoulder, Jackson plays Stephen as a shuck and jive politician who will do a theatrical styled dance in front of a crowd, but he intimidates and becomes fearsome anytime he confronts someone one on one.
Tarantino still shows off his love for films with dozens of asides that never seem to go anywhere in the sake of adding some of his own personality into the movie, and these asides are typically strong even if the film doesn’t need to be three hours in length and it feels like pieces have oddly gone missing. His dialogue is there, but at times it’s more sprawling than it needs to be. A sequence involving Johnson organizing a raid early on in the film turns into exactly the kind of Mel Brooks comedy act that Tarantino should be avoiding no matter how funny it ultimately is and despite the participation of Jonah Hill as a fellow confused klansman.
Visually, Tarantino aims straight for Corbucci’s territory with muddy Earth and dust cropping up in the most pristinely kept places. He’s also still using his soundtracks like a DJ trying to start a party, which acts well here since this isn’t Tarantino at his most “on point” but at his most playful. A particular montage involving Shultz training Django set to the strains of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name” adds the biggest bit of pop iconography and turns the duo into a more proactive version of Butch and Sundance.
What makes the film interesting and ultimately the most rewarding is the structure, which Tarantino hasn’t over thought into making it into something more than it is. This is a straightforward film that follows a single timeline and sticks to it rigidly. It’s not a time shifting narrative told out of order or from multiple different perspectives at the same time. This is Django and Shultz’s journey; nothing more and nothing less. The very looseness and Tarantino’s desire to make an epic oater elevates the material into feeling like something special rather than replicating the formula he’s made most of his career on. The story isn’t dumbed down, and if anything it’s even more potentially incendiary and open for discussion than anything he’s attempted, but the fact that he’s worked himself into a structure where that argument could even be had by a majority of the people who view the film, makes it a special case in the filmmaker’s 20 year career.
It’s far from Tarantino’s best film, it’s assuredly too long, and the finale drags longer than it should despite giving viewers the visceral gore and vengeance they desire from Django’s catharsis, but it’s definitely big budget filmmaking done very well and by someone who wants to take his genre trappings to talk about something that’s been bothering him. What he’s trying to say about modern society, on the other hand, is anyone’s guess.
The Blu-Ray looks and sounds just fine, but the extras package hints at a lot of stuff being saved up for a bigger special release somewhere down the line. A look at the film’s costume design and a farewell to late production designer J. Michael Riva are the centrepieces. There’s also a kinda tossed off look at the history of spaghetti westerns featuring Tarantino that adds very little. (Andrew Parker)
Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell, 2012) – If there’s one thing that we can all take from David O. Russell’s delightfully public recent breakdown, it’s that the guy probably knows a thing or two about mental illness. That theory is confirmed in Russell’s latest feature Silver Lining’s Playbook. As the title suggests, this is still Russell in “let’s play nice so that I can get my career back” mode much like The Fighter. But just like that bit of surprisingly decent awards bait fodder, David O. Russell with his subversion tied behind his back is still better than the usual crop of Oscar-begging filmmakers bringing their A game (I’m looking at you Stephen Daldry). Along with Flirting with Disaster or I Heart Huckabees the film falls into Russell’s career long quest to revive and reinvent the classic screwball comedy structure for contemporary audiences. While Silver Linings Playbook isn’t as tightly wound as Disaster or as experimental as Huckabees, it’s a satisfying crowd pleaser that actually feels like vintage O. Russell for the first hour. Granted, the final third slides slightly into the land of rom-com cliché, but like I said, the man is playing nice these days.
Bradley Cooper stars as a teacher who was recently confined to a mental institution following a violent outburst after discovering his wife in the midst of an affair with a colleague. He’s signed out of the hospital by his mother (Jacki Weaver) and handed a collection of colorful pills to take home with him, but he isn’t too into the medication thing. Instead he’s learned the powers of positive thinking and is convinced that a good attitude and a quick read through her English class syllabus will be enough to get back his wife. Given the restraining order and regular police surveillance, Cooper’s mother and father (Robert De Niro) aren’t so convinced. But he ends up meeting an attractive and equally mentally unbalanced young lady (Jennifer Lawrence) through friends and starts to see her during his regular garbage bag covered jogs (don’t ask). She offers to take a letter to Cooper’s ex-wife in exchange for him agreeing to be her partner in a dance competition. He agrees and the bumping and grinding seems to help stabilize Cooper’s issues and bring the two mentally ill lost souls together. Of course, things get complicated when Cooper’s dance commitments start to conflict with De Niro’s OCD Sunday football rituals. There’s plenty of crazy to go around in this family.
Ok, so maybe crazy is a bit harsh of a word to use for this film. If Silver Linings Playbook is about anything, it’s mental illness and (until the ending) Russell crafts one of the most honest representations of that condition ever seen in a Hollywood film. In Russell’s new comedy, everyone is mentally ill in their own unique way, some are just better at coping with their issues than others. It’s not a terrible representation of the world and for the first hour or so Russell’s wonderfully erratic, neurotic, and broken characters are a joy to watch. The film can be just as wild and unpredictable as the characters during this section and it can be deliriously entertaining. Those are the rhythms of a screwball comedy and the writer/director applies them to the story well. It’s as painfully funny, awkward, and volatile as his earlier work, but Russell gets away with it in a glossy studio product thanks to perfect casting and a sincere love for the characters. Their illness might make the characters behave in funny ways, but Russell and the cast are careful to never tip the balance and make the audience laugh at their misfortunes. We understand where all the characters and their problems come from and sympathize with them fully.
It’s clear watching the film that Russell is still using his fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants improv shooting style and as always the actors bring their A game to survive. Cooper delivers easily his most nuanced work to date. The confident swagger of his Hangover persona isn’t anywhere to be seen in a character driven by pain and irrational goals. Far from a sadsack, Cooper takes on everything from mundane tasks to major life challenges with boundless energy and irrational confidence in a performance in some ways feels like an impression of his director. Jennifer Lawrence matches him in a dead on portrait of that broken bi-polar girl with too much eye-shadow and insatiable appetites that everyone has met at some point in their lives. Apparently Sarah Silverman was the runner up for the role and while it would have been fantastic (and age appropriate) for her to play the part, Lawrence’s presence probably helped secure financing and she drops one of her best performances to date.
The biggest miracle that Russell pulled off in Silver Linings Playbook was probably getting Robert De Niro to awaken from his decade-long acting slumber to actually deliver a genuine performance as Cooper’s father. De Niro plays it straight at first, but as the film wears on he painfully/hilariously reveals that he might be responsible for Cooper’s mental state both through heredity and a less-then-ideal upbringing. I could go on like this about everyone in the cast because Russell provided strong roles and a creative enough environment for everyone to thrive, but the two big stand outs are Jacki Weaver heartbreakingly mousey, quietly depressed turn as Cooper’s mother and Chris Tucker’s unexpected comeback performance as Cooper’s institutionalized buddy that serves as a reminder that Tucker can be a compellingly unpredictable screen presence when he puts in the effort
Unfortunately once the dance competition takes over the movie, things barrel towards a conventional ending. It fits with Russell’s screwball romantic comedy structure of choice, but also feels like a disappointing way to wrap up an unpredictable movie that cheapens the depiction of mental illness by suggesting that love is the most stabilizing med of all. Of course, that’s exactly what will make the film a success at the box office and it’s probably the main reason why he was able to make the flick at all. Russell might be curbing to the mainstream again, but at least he’s gradually moving back to where he was and Silver Linings Playbook feels more reminiscent of his style than The Fighter. Hopefully the director will be able to use the success of the two movies to go back to his more unconventional work, but there is a chance that we may never see the Three Kings version of the writer/director again. He has found a comfortable mix between his obsessions and the demands of mainstream audiences and with rumors of him taking on blockbuster franchises like Uncharted, it seems like Russell will be sticking to this tone for the time being. At least it’s better than Gary Marshall making a comedy about mental illness.
The Blu-Ray comes with some great deleted scenes that must have been hard to let go of, a Q&A with De Niro, Cooper, Lawrence, and Russell, a 30 minute behind the scenes featurette, brief snippets of Cooper goofing off in dance rehearsal and with a camera, and perhaps most distressingly, dance lessons. (Phil Brown)
John Dies At The End (Don Coscarelli, 2013) – Director Don Coscarelli is considered one of the great horror directors for his almost indescribably odd Phantasm series and the instant cult classic that was 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep. Unfortunately because his sensibility tends to lend itself to uncommercial adjectives like surreal, metaphysical, self-conscious, and campy, he sadly doesn’t tend to make many movies. Aside from an episode of Masters Of Horror, John Dies At The End represents the first time that Coscarelli has stepped behind the camera since Bubba Ho-Tep, despite the fact that Elvis/Mummy battle raised his profile higher than it had ever been. After watching his latest feature, it’s not that hard to guess why. Coscarelli isn’t exactly a filmmaker comfortable with compromise. This is easily one of the strangest horror movies to emerge in years, a wild combination of hallucinations, cross-dimensional travel, sentient drugs, monsters made of meat, penis doorknobs, and Paul Giamatti. It’s also worth noting all of that material hits the screen in the first 15-20 minutes and things just get weirder from there.
Based on a cult novel initially published online by David Wong (aka Cracked.com editor Jason Pargin), the film is a series of digressions and anecdotes that somehow come together to form a horror/sci-fi/comedy adventure of sorts. The framing device sees the confused n’ terrified (much like the audience) protagonist David Wong (Chase Williams) explaining his story to Paul Giamatti’s dependably scruffy reporter. It seems that Williams sampled a new drug known as Soy Sauce that is actually a living creature and gives the user a variety of supernatural powers. Wong and his buddy John (Rob Mayes) take to the substance’s side effects extraordinarily well and soon they are battling psychotic cops, crossing time/dimensions, and saving the world from an inter-dimensional invasion. The whole thing is about as hard to follow as it sounds, but much like Coscarelli’s Phantasm series that’s never really a huge problem.
The tone is a sort of pitched somewhere between a long lost Bill And Ted sequel and HP Lovecraft, with a little hallucinatory William S. Burroughs thrown in for good measure. The images are often ripped from horrific nightmares and drug trips, while the characters cynically and sarcastically dismiss it all to hilarious effect. Chances are you’ll frequently be confused, but that’s probably what Coscarelli wants. Confusion and mystery part of the fun and the filmmaker has enough giddily twisted ideas and images to throw at the audience that you’ll certainly never be bored. The budget was clearly low, but the director keeps production values as slick as possible (including some spectacular rubber meat monsters from KNB). The performances are all knowingly eccentric with special points awarded to Clancy Brown for going nuts and Giamatti for showing up in something so unexpectedly oddball (and even attaching himself as producer just to get it made). In the end, the film’s great strength is also it’s major weakness. There are too many inspired ideas here for a single film and at times it can be overwhelming. Still, given how dreary studio horror movies have gotten, too many ideas is certainly preferable to not nearly enough.
John Dies At The End arrives on Blu-ray with a stacked disc made for a future cult classic. The transfer is incredible, with Coscarelli’s visual style undiluted by years on the bench or his first foray into digital filmmaking. From the stunning opening shot creeping across a snow-covered landscape, the images pop off the screen and while HD also shows off the limitations of cheap digital effects, fortunately Coscarelli used practical effects as much as possible so it’s never too distracting. Special features kick off with a jovial commentary with the director, the two lead actors, and a producer that’s filled with information and deserved praise. Coscarelli is a veteran of commentaries and knows how to keep thinks flowing smoothly with dollops of humor, evening teasing at the possibility of a sequel which damn well better happen. After that there’s a ten minute EPK making of that’s far better than most promotional docs of it’s kind (if only because this movie is damn near impossible to discuss in conventional terms), a look at KNB’s rubber monster-making factory, a handful of casting tapes, an amusing interview with Giamatti who is clearly a secret genre movie nut, the usual trailers, and a handful of delighted scenes just as hilariously obtuse as anything in the movie. It’s a great disc for a film that should be pulling together an adoring cult audience soon enough.
It’s a shame that John Dies At The End didn’t get the critical accolades of Bubba Ho-Tep, but the deeply strange movie does manage to make the tale of Bruce Campbell as Elvis fighting mummies in a retirement home feel mundane by comparison. But at the same time, if this was a first movie everyone would be praising the wild originality of a new directorial voice. Coscareli just never seems to get the attention he deserves outside of the horror movie faithful and that’s such a shame. He’s one of the most imaginative and unpredictable American filmmakers around full stop. Just because his movies include the odd decapitation doesn’t mean he should be considered anything less. (Phil Brown)
Gangster Squad (Ruben Fleischer, 2013) – More evocative of a feeling than an attempt to create something new and vibrant, Gangster Squad doesn’t seem to have a single aspiration beyond simply aping the pre-code hardboiled thrillers that helped to put Warner Brothers on the map in the 1920s and 30s. The fact that this film takes place in the late 40s and that it’s patently unbelievable despite its “based on a true story” leanings throws things off somewhat, but overall it’s a highly satisfying and over the top production designed to look, feel, and sound as tough as possible. It’s the kind of film studios don’t make anymore because the imagination needed to make them work is often in short supply, and while the results are slightly overlong, the results are just fine for a bleak, midwinter’s night.
In 1949 Los Angeles, Chicago mob boss and former prizefighter Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) has begun a reign of terror. With his hands already in the city coffers and with judges on the payroll, the city’s beleaguered chief of police (Nick Nolte) looks to the most honest cop in the city to put together a squad of gangster stoppers before things get worse. The square jawed, no bullshit Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) wants to clean up the city and make it a better place for his expecting wife and soon to be born child, and fear doesn’t seem to outweigh the good of putting Cohen away for life. He enlists the help of a gunslinger (Robert Patrick), the gunsliger’s valet (Michael Pena), a streetwise inner-city beat cop (Anthony Mackie), and the best wiretapper on the force (Giovanni Ribisi), the latter of whom has the only already established family. Also on board is a marginalized and half assed copper (Ryan Gosling) who seemingly wants to help out of revenge and to help cover the fact that he’s sleeping with Cohen’s “etiquette coach” (Emma Stone).
If it sounds vaguely like The Untouchables – or more appropriately a multi-episode arc of the famed Robert Stack TV series – that’s because the vibe is meant to follow almost directly in those footsteps with a bit more of a bloody, nasty streak. It’s cartoonish, but in the best possible ways. Gangster Squad is the kind of film where nothing at all feels real and almost designed to appeal to the kinds of kids and teenagers who would sneak out and catch this kind of eye-catching garbage down at the local multiplex. It’s simultaneously out of touch with both modern audiences and the one’s this same film would have been aimed at in the 1950s.
But the melding of modern digital slickness atop the old timey tough guy dialogue that no one in the right mind ever would have said works well most of the time. Despite some narrative hiccups and the film’s minority characters having almost nothing at all to do, there isn’t a moment of Fleischer’s film that isn’t devoid of at least visceral thrills. Following the wonky, but not unlikable Zombieland and the waste of talent that was 30 Minutes or Less, Fleischer has created his best rounded genre nerd fever dream to date (and one that has an actual discernable ending instead of a giant set piece and nothing at all, respectively). It’s overstuffed, and if any of his films could have benefited from an 80 minute running time instead of 113, it’s this one. But by that same token, it never drags as much as his previous efforts.
The cast also goes a long way, especially the presence of Brolin in what may very well be his most overly masculine role to date. While early reviews certainly wouldn’t be wrong to say that the villainous Penn is overacting beyond the rafters and into the stratosphere, it’s going unnoticed that Brolin more or less does the same thing as the stoic man of justice and kick ass hats. These are comic book characters inhabiting a vision of Los Angeles that’s way too glossy to ever be taken seriously as pure historic gospel. Gosling adds his two cents, albeit going for the wrong kind of comic book tone, with an oddly sing-song styled baby-like voice that makes him seem more like the shoe shine boy that keeps harassing his character than an actual copper, and his romance with the always dependable Stone doesn’t seem to go as far here. No one else really gets the chance to shine because they’re most incidental and there just to move the plot along when the script needs an out, but Patrick gets in some pretty choice moments in what’s likely the best big screen outing he’s had in quite some time.
No one would ever take Gangster Squad to be a serious look at how Mickey Cohen rose and fell from power. No one would even mistake L.A. Confidential for being a similarly “ripped from the headlines” tale, and I defy anyone to say that The Untouchables – show or film – was anything less than an utter fabrication. Fleischer’s film plays fast and loose with the same history, and while the narrative might not be up to those same standards, this is the kind of B-picture major studio moviemaking that should be celebrated rather than dismissed.
The Blu-Ray looks fine and sounds even better. It comes with both a commentary track and a picture-in-picture experience that brings the viewer to various special features and featurettes. There are some looks at the style and period era recreations in the film. Probably best of all is an episode of Rogue’s Gallery focusing on Mickey Cohen. (Andrew Parker)
Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie, 2012) – In one of the most bizarre studio and ego driven productions to be released from a major studio in recent memory, Jack Reacher manages to be too surreal to appeal to action fans and it’s too lunkheaded to appeal to proper cineastes. There’s a good reason why a great trailer for the film doesn’t exist, and that’s because the movie finds a way to be patently impossible to sell to mass audiences. There’s also a great reason why Werner Herzog shows up as a villain, and that’s because the entire movie is completely batshit. It’s entertaining at times, but quite often that entertainment isn’t in ways that writer and director Christopher McQuarrie would have originally intended unless the whole film really is just an elaborate piss take. It’s simultaneously a better version of Alex Cross and a worse reimagining of MacGruber. It’s equally as awesome and awful as that sounds.
After a former army sniper takes out several innocent people seemingly at random one afternoon in Pittsburgh, the accused man refuses to talk before beaten into a coma. The last thing tells the authorities is to contact Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise, for which the film is also A Tom Cruise Production), a former military police officer turned homeless/ladykiller/drifter with nothing to lose. Reacher knows there’s a 99.9% chance the sniper is guilty, but he agrees to help the shooter’s defence lawyer (Rosamund Pike) try to save him from the gas chamber. What the end up uncovering is a ludicrous conspiracy orchestrated by a shadowy Eastern European goon (Werner Herzog) that will lead them to the truth behind these senseless killings.
An admittedly strong and wordless opening sequence that shamelessly apes the work of Brian De Palma to a T, expectations are set accordingly for something different from usual blockbuster fare as David Oyelowo’s primary investigator researches a crime scene through meticulous close ups. Then the second Cruise shows up, all of McQuarrie’s potential quiet tough guy bravado goes out the window since the first time we see him a woman is putting her bra on to leave our hero while Oyelowo and an utterly misused Richard Jenkins as the local DA who also happens to be the defence lawyer’s father narrate just how much of a bad ass ghost of an off the grid slick no bullshit proactive wheelin’ dealin’ limousine ridin’ …. WOOOOOO! …. kiss stealin’ champagne drinking … WOOOOOO! son of a gun! He’s also shirtless and since he has no sexual chemistry with anything in the film with a pulse I’m pretty sure he was just checking her for leeches.
McQuarrie – who won the Academy Award for writing The Usual Suspects – almost seems like he wants to make a thriller in the same vein that Lee Daniels made with The Paperboy this year. His source material (coming from a novel in a series from British writer Lee Child) and screenplay are as depressing and lurid as possible, with several campy winks to cut through the misogyny and a dreadfully inappropriate PG-13 rating that seems to sneak through the censors because it’s Tom Cruise and there’s only one well place F-bomb. But whereas Daniels goes whole hog with how sad and depressing the world around his characters truly are, McQuarrie pulls back and shoots himself in the foot because he’s only been hired to make Tom Cruise look good. It’s ice cold and sadistic, but it wants to also let you know it’s here to have a good time.
Cruise himself seems to be the biggest problem in the film. He’s so concerned with looking like a badass and looking cool (which, to be fair, McQuarrie is excellent at since the movie is if nothing interesting to look at) that he misses the dirty underbelly of his character entirely. Cruise can play down and dirty, with Magnolia and Collateral being prime examples, but he can’t play an antihero. He’s always posturing to the point where his threats to kick wholesale ass come off like lines from a late period Steven Segal film that’s been stretched to 130 overlong minutes.
It doesn’t help that none of the characters around Reacher are ever developed beyond the first seconds they are introduced. As soon as Cruise shows up to help with the case, Oyelowo, Jenkins, and Pike (who plays nothing more than a standard foil to make Reacher seem smarter by comparison) say exactly what they are before metatextually commenting on how awkward the whole experience was. As for the much coveted coup of casting Herzog as the villain, fans should cool their jets since he only appears in three or four scenes and only has a major speaking part in one of them. It’s a great scene and probably the best in the film, but it doesn’t quite save it. Making more of an impact is Cruise’s former Days of Thunder co-star Robert Duvall as a gun range owner and former crack shot that acts as his sidekick for the rest of the film.
McQuarrie at least handles the film’s brief flourishes of action nicely and allows for his characters to make stupid, costly mistakes that change their situation for the worse like dropping things, crack heads fighting each other when they should be going after someone else, and accidentally backing over large objects with their cars. It’s a nice little bit of attention to detail that helps give the feel a realistic grounding when Cruise’s movie star charm threatens to overpower everything. There’s also a pretty decent car chase that doesn’t try to tart things up to make it look like something out of a megabudget movie.
There’s some thrills to be had in Jack Reacher, but none that are really designed to be all that visceral because McQuarrie wants a quieter tone. Cruise doesn’t want the quieter tone and he wants to play a mysterious ass kicking hero when the role isn’t written that way. It’s a strange ride that offers up its share of intentional and unintentional laughs along the way. It does something to the viewer, but it probably won’t be what any of them will expect going in.
The DVD comes with no special features. Not a single one. The Blu-Ray has a more comprehensive package with a commentary track and some featurettes, but it wasn’t available for review on our end. (Andrew Parker)
Broken City (Allen Hughes, 2013) – Somewhere buried within the needlessly complicated and outlandishly unbelievable urban melodrama-slash-neo-noir Broken City lays a shred of a decent, pulpy piece of work that could function on its own as an entertaining matinee yarn. Unfortunately, the script isn’t up to the task because it somehow unwittingly sees itself as semi-serious award fodder for star and co-producer Mark Wahlberg. The choice of leading man is fine, but everything around him and the character he has to play are all pretty much unsalvageable.
Billy Taggart (Wahlberg) was forced out of the NYC police department for essentially murdering an acquitted rapist he knew committed the crimes and was freed on a technicality. Seven years later as a favour for not sending him to Sing-Sing and making him into, incumbent Mayor Hostetler calls in the newly sober private investigator to look into who his wife (Catherine Zeta Jones) has been sleeping around with mere weeks before election day and in the middle of a close re-election bid he’s in danger of losing to a younger city counsellor (Barry Pepper) whose become critical of a potential housing project sale.
Everything becomes connected in a pretty standard connect the dots fashion, with very few surprises outside of an icky, almost homophobic and sexist subtexts that rears their ugly heads every twenty minutes or so. There are plenty of twists to the story, but none of them all that shocking for the first hour or so of the film. That’s fine since director Allen Hughes (one half of the famous brotherly duo who made Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, two landmark films of the 90s) and first time screenwriter Brian Tucker appear to be building to some sort of payoff, but sadly it never comes.
Tucker’s screenplay is simply too unpolished to have really been filmable by anyone with any huge amount of talent. While the main character is purposefully unlikable and everyone around him has to be playing an angle, none of the motivations of anyone make a lick of sense. Things just happen for the sake of them happening regardless of what kind of logical sense it makes. To see obviously smart people like Billy and Hostetler make boneheaded mistakes that the audience can see coming miles away feels inexcusable when the solutions to all their problems – both right and wrong – are right in front of their faces the entire time.
The characters themselves are also a problem since they’re too basic and ill defined to even really register any emotion for them one way or the other. Wahlberg, to his credit, does what he can, but since we never see anything that led to his initial fall from grace we just have to take it on faith that he was a bad guy in the past that had a good heart. We’re told he used to drink, so his struggles to stay on the wagon don’t mean much because there’s no investment to care since none of it has built up to a point where it will matter when it becomes a problem down the road. His relationship with his girlfriend (Natalie Martinez) is even more dire to the point where it’s almost insultingly blown off halfway through the film, again with none of it really registering with the character. Wahlberg wisely plays the role as someone constantly being used as a blunt instrument and he hems and haws accordingly, but his performance gives the role more dignity than it deserves and it makes one wish the character itself were up to the work he’s putting in here.
Crowe seems to understand his character and how threadbare and moustache twirlingly evil he is so well that he’s only putting in the bare minimum in an underwhelming turn. His rectangular glasses and alarmingly strange haircut seem to be putting in as much work as he does, and to his credit he seems to be reading everything as it’s written on the page. His character also suffers from the biggest logical flaw in the film since when his ultimate end game comes to light it makes no sense at all since someone this important could have set everything up for him and he never would have had to get his hands dirty in the first place. It’s maddening how labyrinthine the plotting here is for such a simple point A to point B construct.
Aside from the story not being able to come up with any sort of coherent timeline or meaningful dialogue beyond basic hardboiled posturing that seems confused as to what decade the story is taking place in, there are a few things to like. The supporting cast gets nice assists from Jeffrey Wright as the ambiguously aligned Chief of Police and the still always reliable Kyle Chandler as the head of Pepper’s campaign. Hughes occasionally saves the film by bringing a good amount of style and slickness to the production, and the film has a really solid and inventive musical score done in part by Atticus Ross.
Overall, Broken City doesn’t work thanks to a poor, half-baked screenplay that no one thought needed another rewrite or two, but there’s almost enough good here to recommend it as a decent time waster. If one were to go into the film with brains firmly in the off position, they might be amused, but if the thought ever crosses their mind about how ludicrous the whole thing is then the illusion would be, well, broken.
The Blu-Ray comes with some deleted scenes and a useless alternate ending that isn’t an improvement over the already abrupt ending in place. There is a pretty decent 30-plus minute behind the scenes look, though. (Andrew Parker)
Mama (Andres Muschetti, 2013) – There really haven’t been too many films featuring creepy and potentially deadly children in quite some time, or at least none that have been either creative or well made. In the wake of the rise of J-Horror around the turn of the century, creepy kids had become almost a form of horror movie shorthand on the level that science fiction films use time travel to explain away logical plot holes. Kids were simply used ad nauseum in scary movies because no one ever wants to think that a kid could ever bring harm to an adult, and along the way they became so clichéd that the trope only works for the most undiscerning audiences.
With that in mind it would be entirely unfair to dismiss the Guillermo del Toro produced thriller Mama, which rightfully uses just slightly left of centre and almost entirely feral children to tell a good old fashioned ghost story with some welcome modern twists. It’s not very deep thematically or even narratively, nor does there need to be because there’s definitely some interesting subtext being tossed around thanks to an incredibly game cast (including Golden Globe winner, Academy Award nominee, and star of the number one film at the box office, Jessica Chastain) and some clever genre writing.
Following the death of their somewhat evil father, Victoria (Megan Charpentier) and her younger sister Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) are raised by a spirit at a remote cabin the far off woods. After learning that the kids are no longer missing/presumed dead, their uncle (Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) takes them into his custody with hopes of giving them proper lives despite the fact that they like to jump on dressers, never speak, and have a tendency to eat each other’s hair. Compounding his stress to some degree is his child fearing, punk rocker partner (Chastain, with a giant squid tattoo, a penchant for Misfits shirts, and jet black hair) who would sooner never have a child in her life and be perfectly happy about it.
Naturally the titular spirit comes to call and reclaim the children as her own per a predestined backstory involving an injustice that she’s still sore about, but the things that happen around the admittedly well crafted scares are more interesting to think about in a lot of ways. Adapting their own Spanish short film to feature length, co-writer Barbara Muschietti and director Andres Muschetti (with an assist from Luther series creator Neil Cross) make a unique and timely parable within the confines of a fairly straight genre production. It makes economic and sociological points that shine through nicely amid the jump scares and special effects ghosts.
Opening with an economic metaphor that’s hard to academically ignore, Mama raises the question about the children forced into the middle of the worldwide economic crisis and what their survival really means. It spoils a lot to go into great detail the connection that’s made in this respect during the film’s lengthy prologue, but it becomes reinforced when the children are shown to be confused, aimless, and fearful beings rather than when the audience knew they were like at the start. In a way, it also makes an interesting point in a similar fashion that an entire generation could suffer a similar fate. It’s an intriguing touch that probably the most eagle eyed of viewers would pick up on, but it’s an automatic tip off that the film to follow won’t simple be baseless eye candy.
Offering even more support is the always excellent and now finally getting recognized for it Chastain, playing and creating a character that offers the layers of emotion and thought that the story needs to go beyond what scary movie audiences expect. As an unwanting motherly type, Chastain plays a character symbolic of the recent push among couples to simply forget about procreating all together, and she does it in a respectful manner. She isn’t a shrill, off-putting child hater or even someone who doesn’t know what she wants. Even when she watches over the kids it’s not necessarily that she doesn’t want the responsibility of having to care for children that aren’t hers, but that the idea never appealed to her. Once things start going awry and supernatural (and they do in quite a hurry), Chastain plays her role as someone with a strong sense of right and wrong and not necessarily as someone warming to her own motherly instincts. Much like the kids under her charge, she’s always fearful of the uncertain, and a character that could have easily become a selfish dunce in the hand of a lesser actor or filmmaker becomes a thoroughly interesting protagonist that’s easy to root for even if you might not necessarily agree with her on an ideological level.
Maybe I’m looking too deeply into a film that’s designed simply to scare and creep out the audience it’s aimed it, but there’s quite a bit more to this effort than meets the eye. Maybe I talk about it in that fashion because the actual horror elements of the film are pretty standard and about in line with what I was expecting. What was most surprising about Mama was how it was able to put a little bit extra on top to warrant a much stronger recommendation than the somewhat weak one it would have gotten without the extra effort. It’s a classical ghost story told in a classical sense with modern fears and neuroses at the heart of it, and that last part makes it an accomplishment when so many other films in its genre have been so wildly out of touch.
The DVD comes with a look behind the scenes, interviews, deleted scenes, a look at the film’s visual effects, audio commentary from the brother and sister duo who created the film, and the original short the film was based on. (Andrew Parker)
The Details (Jacob Aaron Estes, 2011) – After 10 years of marriage, Jeff and Nealy Lang (Tobey Maguire and Elizabeth Banks) have an idyllic suburban home but a relationship on the skids. However, when a family of hungry raccoons ransacks their perfectly manicured backyard, Jeff becomes obsessed with eradicating the new pests by any means necessary. Soon the relentless rodents give way to an eventual battle of wits with a meddlesome neighbour (Laura Linney) and before he knows it, Jeff finds himself hip-deep in an absurd mess of infidelity, extortion, organ donation and any assorted other kinds of mayhem.
A relatable morality tale that twists us around its fingers, The Details is the directorial follow from Jacob Aaron Estes who last gave us the crime drama Mean Creek. We get a passionate yet evenly balanced moral fable that’s so ridiculously impossible that it is actually kind of believable. Estes script winds us through the socially and morally ambiguous minefield that can be suburban life with all these people who are just innately horrible that it’s a twisted pleasure to see all this go down in an orgy of chaos. It takes a special kind of filmmaker to have us root for a cast of characters with nary a positive quality to divide amongst them, but this film evokes laughter, tenderness, passion and hatred as easily as we channel surf on our remotes. A complex story on multiple levels, it works thanks to a perfect cast ensemble that gets the material.
Tobey Maguire as our protagonist plays things with a cool and placid demeanor. It kind of works as we watch the universe around him unleash a variety of punishments on him. Highlights include Laura Linney as the wacky cat loving next door neighbour, bringing manic energy and walking the fine line between sympathetic and downright wacko. However despite this quality supporting performance there were also some that were wasted. Elizabeth Banks as Maguire’s wife basically has nothing to do in a horribly underwritten role, Ray Liotta and Dennis Haysbert only have to be scary and sympathetic, respectively. Kerry Washington only has to look sexy. If only some of the supporting roles been fleshed out a little better it could have been a really memorable film. Ultimately, The Details is more than worth a look with some fun execution and decent performances, but it’s also uneven enough to see why this film never really saw the light of day on the big screen either.
Special features on the DVD include an alternate beginning and ending for the film. (Dave Voigt)
Promised Land (Gus Van Sant, 2012) – Somewhere within the screenplay of the modern Middle American drama Promised Land from actor-writers Matt Damon and John Krasinski there’s a very well intentioned and surprisingly emotional piece of work that comes somewhat undone by the need to create a grandstanding tone that undermines an otherwise solid bit of post-Capra and post-economic downturn entertainment. It’s not that this film that marries the personal, the environmental, and the economic doesn’t know what it’s talking about. It’s that it wants to do it in only the most basic of terms, leading the whole endeavour to feel a bit dumbed down and blunted after an initially sharp set-up.
Natural Gas company shill Steve Butler (Damon) and his partner Sue (Frances McDormand) have been brought to the small Midwestern faming hamlet of McKinley to try and sweet talk landowners into letting them do some fracking on their property for the chance at multi-million dollar windfalls. Their previously successful ways run aground here thanks to a local science teacher (Hal Holbrook) whose smarter than he lets on and by the arrival of a young environmental idealist (Krasinski) that’s determined to make their lives a living hell.
Reteaming with Good Will Hunting director Gus Van Sant (who’s sadly not much of an entity here and more of a hired gun), Damon and Kransinski (working from a story by David Eggers) do a nice enough job of making Steve and Sue likable characters that work within a morally suspect world that cares more about the bottom line than the well being of others. Damon’s Steve especially has to keep reminding to himself that he isn’t evil by always premptively saying that he’s not a bad guy before people can even get mad at him. The screenplay doesn’t hide where its core beliefs truly lie, but it humanizes the fact that everyone needs a job they can excel at in this particularly rocky economic climate. These two might not believe entirely in the products and services they’re selling, but they genuinely believe that these people in a depressed area can turn their lives around.
While Damon’s typically great, the people around him elevate the material even more. Rosemary DeWitt gets a bit underused as a potential love interest, but as the wedge and pawn used by Steve’s rival to get his goat, she still delivers a strong performance in a somewhat thankless role. Ditto Holbrook who gets to be the token “voice of reason and all things good,” but even his speeches come with an appropriate amount of gravitas that serves the material well. And despite seeming a bit miscast in the “heavy” role, Krasinski holds his own as the character serving to make the somewhat disreputable leads likable in comparison despite thematically and subtextually on the side of what’s right.
But the biggest stand out here has to be the always capable McDormand, who has a role almost intriguingly similar in emotional weight to Damon’s despite having a bit less screen time. She too is searching for love and understanding like any average human being, while stuck in a business that allows little room for either. The only difference between Sue and Steve is that she has a couple of extra soul crushing years on him, and no matter how well they work together, she can cut ties with a community and the people around her far easier. When the film offers her character a chance at a better life away from her job, McDormand commands the film as someone with more to lose and someone more deeply frightened by the prospect of not landing the deal. She’s terrified of choosing the potentially wrong kind of happiness, and her performance holds the most welcome surprises in the film.
About two thirds of the way in, however, the film takes a somewhat unexpected twist that isn’t a bad direction to go in, but one that the film doesn’t know how to handle. Instead of keeping up with the moral ambiguity of what’s happening around these characters, it goes full on into Frank Capra “big speeches in front of obvious American flags” territory when it should actually be getting somewhat darker in tone. It’s hard to talk about how the film collapses without spoiling it, but since it avoids being schmaltzy for almost the entire running time up until that point, watching it turn into a different, faker sort of crowd pleaser feels like a genuine cheat. It’s an uneasy bait and switch that undermines not only the complex characters that Damon and Krasinski have come up with in the first place, but it undermines the political and environmental stances it was trying so hard to avoid being obvious about.
The Blu-Ray comes with one very brief behind the scenes featurette. (Andrew Parker)
Revenge for Jolly! (Chadd Harbold, 2012) – Sometimes you have to get a little dark in order to set things right. Revenge For Jolly! is a darkly comic tale of the lengths of revenge one will go to in order to avenge the loss of a loved one, especially when it is man’s best friend.
Harry (Brian Petsos) is having a very, very bad day where nothing is going right. He returns home from an all night drinking binge with his cousin Cecil (Oscar Isaac) to discover that his little dog Jolly, Harry’s only source of light in his dark and solitary existence, has been brutally murdered. Broken-hearted and beyond consolation he vows to track down the dog’s murderer at any cost. Armed with a stockpile of firepower in the trunk of his car, the duo embark on a frenzied, alcohol fueled wild goose chase on their search for revenge leaving a bloody path of destruction in their wake.
If you’re reading synopsis and are wondering where the comedy is in a story like this, you’re not wrong because on paper this just seems like it is a dark and morbid tale. However considering how straight every person involved in this film plays their roles, it almost works on a satirical level…almost. Director Chadd Harbold crafts a dark and grimy world that these characters exist in, and we buy into the revenge fable aspect of the film fairly quickly without focusing on any logic holes or plot points. Through low light and grainy filters, Harbold assembles a universe that would look at home anywhere from a crime thriller to an episode of the Twilight Zone. Sadly, the script by star Brian Petsos just isn’t very funny at all. I’ll grant that there are some good deadpan moments that will generate an awkward smiles, but there are little to no genuinely laughs as the director plays his story far too darkly, and worse, seriously to generate anything approaching comedy.
Brian Petsos never really gets to the meat of some of the more comedic elements in the film as he plays Harry almost emotionless at a sociopathic level, and it’s odd because he wrote the screenplay. We never really like him, and when you have someone looking for revenge for their dog’s death you need to have at least some likable characters. Oscar Isaac comes the closest to matching the tone, trying to bleed whatever comedy he can out of the situation as. Petsos and Isaac are really the only two characters with any real work to do while the likes of Elijah Wood, Adam Brody, Ryan Phillippe, Kirsten Wiig, Gillian Jacobs, Garrett Dillahunt, Bobby Moynahan and Kevin Corrigan are simply there for the sake of being there, doing next nothing as people for them to encounter as they hunt down the man that killed his dog.
Revenge For Jolly! ultimately suffers from a lack of execution. The talent’s there, and you can feel the natural comedy in the situation while watching it but it never has the chance to come to the surface. (Dave Voigt)
The Oranges (Julian Farino, 2011) – So, let’s get this out of the way. The suburbs? They stink and the plastic smiles on everyone who lives there are thinly veiled disguises for the soul crushing unhappiness and routine that defines their lives. Also, being a young person is hard and their parents are morons even though they secretly find life just as difficult. And did I mention that old guys like to have sex with young women? I know it’s creepy, but there could possibly be love there too. Ok, sound familiar? Well, you’re going to learn all that again in The Oranges, a fairly limp comedy that trots out all these formerly edgy themes for one more round of big screen sitcom shenanigans. It’s not a particularly terrible movie, nor is it a good one. It’s just predictable and mediocre, which is trouble for a comedy since laughter tends to depend on some sort of surprise.
Alia Shawkat (she of Arrested Development fame) stars as a 24-year-old who moving back home to New Jersey after college and before setting out on an inevitably exciting career in the New York design world. She’s lost and listless like all folks her age and spends most of her time watching her parents (Hugh Laurie and Catherine Keener) go through their boring suburban routines while smiling away their tears until the sweet release of death. Their only real friends are the neighbors who live across the street who they’ve known their entire lives (Oliver Platt and Allison Janney) and are just as faux happy; maybe even actually happy. They also have a wayward daughter (Leighton Meester) who traveled the globe on a tour of various foreign men’s beds instead of attending college and has a sordid boy-stealing past with Shawkat. One thanksgiving Meester suddenly returns home after a fiancé dumps her. After an awkward dinner in which Janney tries to set her up with Shawkat’s brother (Adam Brody), Meester instead makes out with Laurie. The secret is revealed almost instantly and a family and friendship are destroyed. Shawcat is disgusted with the whole thing, but her parents somehow seem happier separate and maybe, just maybe this wacky May-December romance can work out. Or it’ll blow up and everyone will learn important lessons that will improve their lives. Either way the suburbs just got exciting!
Yeah…so, it’s American Beauty without all that satire and tragedy. Director Julian Farino (whose background is unsurprisingly in network television) shoots in bright colors and keeps things chugging along with a fast pace and gently comedic tone. The film never really treats the family meltdown that seriously, nor does the comedy or sexual subject matter ever stretch beyond the limits of primetime light entertainment. It’s never a mess or boring, nor does it lack laughs. The whole thing is just bland, which given the theoretically shocking subject matter is a bit of a mood killer. The main reason the film remains watchable amidst all the predictability is the cast. Shawkat, Laurie, Keener, Platt, and Janney can all do this brand of light comedy and drama in their sleep. Each actor is cast to type and does their job well. No one mugs for obvious comedy. The performances are kept within the realm of reality with the absurdity coming out of the situations, which is exactly what the film needs. It’s a pleasure just to watch these talents bat dialogue back and forth even when you know what’s going to come out of their mouths before the characters. The only weak link is Meester. She’s not a bad actress, she just takes her role a little too seriously when everyone else is being playful. She has no chemistry with Laurie and their relationship is credible only because she’s like super hot n’ stuff, which is a bit of a problem given that the audience is asked to accept them as a functional couple.
It’s not really worth the effort to come down too hard on The Oranges nor does the film deserve an avalanche of hate. It’s fine and for long passages you could even say it works. The trouble is just that we’ve all been here so many times before and even the cast have played pretty well these exact roles in the past. The appeal of the film will be limited entirely to how much you love seeing these actors. It’s entirely possible that there are die hard Alison Janney fans desperate out there who are to see her play a boring mom who doesn’t know what she’s saying or some people who haven’t quite worked out that the fantasy of the suburbs isn’t real. Those folks are about to discover a magical experience. As for everyone else…well, if you haven’t said “meh” in a while, go check out The Oranges and then try to express your feelings about the film in a single syllable when it’s done. (Phil Brown)