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The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019)

It’s a beguiling little buddy movie about a wrestling fan with Down syndrome (Zack Gottsagen) escaping his care facility, joining forces with a runaway screw-up (Shia LaBeouf) in over his head, and the nursing home assistant (Dakota Fanning) looking to find her charge so they can all sail down the river and meet an old wrestling coach (Thomas Haden Church) who may or may not exist. It’s an episodic journey that hearkens to Mark Twain and 90s indie cinema with its unorthodox family dynamics. The real pleasure of the movie is watching LaBeouf and newcomer Gottsagen bond, whether it be building a raft, channeling larger-than-life wrestling personas, running away from a vengeful criminal (John Hawkes), getting baptized by a blind man, and simply finding time to become friends. It’s one of those “journey, not the destination” films because by the end The Peanut Butter Falcon is nice but rather unremarkable. It’s amusing and sweet but the advertising was filled with heightened exclamations such as, “The sweetest damn film of the decade.” As I sat in my theater, I was wondering if there was something wrong with my ticker; it wasn’t exactly feeling too full from the onscreen proceedings. It felt like there were core elements here that could have been further built upon, further developed, to turn The Peanut Butter Falcon from a relatively good movie into a great one. It’s well acted and the photography of the South can be gorgeous. LaBeouf (American Honey) is genuinely terrific and carries the movie on his back as a beleaguered soul still wounded from personal tragedy. The way he becomes the biggest supporter and advocate for his new friend is heartening without feeling overly trite or saccharine. However, by the end, I didn’t feel too uplifted or moved by the accumulative adventures. I enjoyed myself, but much like a Twain story, it’s more the teller than the tale, and by its winding conclusion I felt like there was too much left behind unexplored.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino has been playing in the realm of genre filmmaking for much of the last twenty years. He’s made highly artful, Oscar-winning variations on B-movies and grindhouse exploitation pictures. There are some film fans that wished he would return to the time of the 90s where he was telling more personal, grounded stories. His ninth movie, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, is Tarantino returning to the landscape of his youth, the Hollywood back lots and television serials that gave birth to his budding imagination. Tarantino has said this is his most personal film and it’s easy to see as a love letter to his influences. It’s going to be a divisive movie with likely as many moviegoers finding it boring as others find it spellbinding.

In February 1969, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is struggling to recapture his past glory as a popular TV star from a decade prior. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is Rick’s longtime stuntman, personal driver, and possibly only real friend. Rick’s next-door neighbor happens to be Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising star and the wife to famed director Roman Polanski. All three are on a collision course with the Manson family.

The thing you must know before embarking into a theater to see all of the 160 minutes of Tarantino’s latest opus is that it’s the least plot-driven of all his movies, and it’s also in the least hurry. This feels like a hang-out movie through Tarantino’s memories of an older Hollywood that he grew up relishing. It’s very much a loving homage to the people who filled his head with dreams, with specific affection given to the life of an actor. Tarantino is exploring three different points of an actor’s journey through fame; Sharon Tate is the in-bloom star highly in demand, Rick Dalton is the one who has tasted fame but is hanging on as tightly as he can to his past image and wondering if he’s hit has-been status, and then there’s Cliff Booth who was a never-was, a replaceable man happy to be behind the scenes and who has met his lot in life with a Zen-like acceptance. Each character is at a different stage of the rise-and-fall trajectory of Hollywood fame and yet they remain there. This isn’t a movie where Rick starts in the dumps and turns his life around, or even where it goes from worse to worse. Each character kind of remains in a stasis, which will likely drive many people mad. It will feel like nothing of import is happening and that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is more a collection of scenes than a whole.

What elevated the film was how much I enjoyed hanging out with these characters. Tarantino is such a strong storyteller that even when he’s just noodling around there are pleasures to be had. Tarantino movies have always favored a vignette approach, unwieldy scenes that serve as little mini movies with their own beginnings, middles, and often violently climactic ends. An excellent example of this is 2009’s Inglourious Basterds where the moments are brilliantly staged and developed while also serving to push the larger narrative forward. That’s missing with Hollywood, the sense of momentum with the characters. We’re spending time and getting to know them, watching them through various tasks and adventures over the course of two days on sets, at home, and on a former film set-turned-ranch for a strange commune. If you’re not enjoying the characters, there won’t be as much for you as a viewer, and I accept that. None of the central trio will crack Tarantino’s list for top characters, but each provides a different viewpoint in a different facet of the industry, though Sharon Tate is underutilized (more on that below). It’s a bit of glorified navel-gazing for Tarantino’s ode to Hollywood nostalgia. There are several inserts that simply exist to serve as silly inclusions that seem to be scratching a personal itch for the director, less the story. I was smiling at most and enjoyed the time because it felt like Tarantino’s affection translated from the screen. I enjoyed hanging out with these people as they explored the Hollywood of yesteryear.

DiCaprio hasn’t been in a movie since winning an Oscar for 2015’s The Revenant and he has been missed. His character is in a very vulnerable place as he’s slipping from the radars of producers and casting agents, filling a string of TV guest appearances as heavies to be bested by the new hero. He’s self-loathing, insecure, boastful, and struggling to reconcile what he may have permanently lost. Has he missed his moment? Is his time in the spotlight eclipsed? There’s a new breed of actors emerging, typified by a little girl who chooses to stay in character in between filming. Everything is about status, gaining it or losing it, and Rick is desperate. There’s a terrific stretch where he’s playing another heavy on another TV Western and you get the highs and lows, from him struggling to remember his lines and being ashamed by the embarrassment of his shaky professionalism, to showing off the talent he still has, if only given the right opportunity. DiCaprio is highly entertaining as he sputters and soars.

The real star of the film is Pitt (The Big Short) playing a man who seems at supernatural ease no matter the circumstance. He’s got that unforced swagger of a man content with his life. He enjoys driving Rick around and providing support to his longtime friend and collaborator. He has a shady past where he may or may not have killed his wife on purpose, but regardless apparently he “got away with it.” This sinister back-story doesn’t seem to jibe with the persona we see onscreen, and maybe that’s the point, or maybe it’s merely a means to rouse suspicion whether he may become persuaded by the Manson family he visits later in the movie dropping off a hitchhiker he’s encountered all day long. The role of Cliff seems to coast on movie star cool. There is supreme enjoyment just watching Pitt be. Watch him feed his dog to a trained routine, watch him fix a broken TV antenna and show off his ageless abs, and watch him navigate trepidatious new territory even as others are trying to intimidate him. It’s Pitt’s movie as far as I’m concerned. He was the only character I felt nervous about when minimal danger presented itself. There’s something to be said that the best character is the unsung one meant to take the falls for others, the kind of back-breaking work that often goes unnoticed and unheralded to keep the movie illusion alive.

There aren’t that many surprises with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as it moseys at its own loping pace. It reminded me of a Robert Altman movie or even a Richard Linklater film. It’s definitely different from Tarantino’s more genre-fed excursions of the twenty-first century. It’s a softer movie without the undercurrent of malice and looming violence. There is the Manson family and Tarantino knows our knowledge of the Manson family so we’re waiting for their return and that fateful night in August, 1969 like a ticking clock. It wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without an explosion of bloody violence as its climax, and he delivers again, but I was shocked how uproariously funny I found the ending. I laughed throughout but as the movie reached its conclusion I was doubled over with laughter and clapping along. There’s a flashback where Cliff and a young Bruce Lee challenge each other to a fight, and it’s so richly entertaining. The phony film clips are also a consistent hoot, especially when Rick goes to Italy. It’s a funnier movie than advertised and, despite its ending, a far less violent movie than his reputation.

As Tarantino’s memory collection, the level of loving homage can start to eat the narrative, and this is most noticeable with the handling of Sharon Tate. The initial worries that Tarantino would exploit the horrendous Manson murders for his own neo-pop pulp was unfounded. Tate is portrayed with empathy and compassion, and as played by Robbie she nearly glides through the film as if she were an angel gracing the rest of us unfortunate specimens. She has a great moment where she enters a movie theater playing a comedy she is a supporting player in. The camera focuses on Robbie’s (I,Tonya) face as an array of micro expressions flash as she takes in the approving laughter of the crowd. It’s a heartwarming moment. But all of that doesn’t make Tate a character. She’s more a symbol of promise, a young starlet with the world at her fingertips, the beginning phase of fame. Even the Manson clan doesn’t play much significance until the final act. Charles Manson is only witnessed in one fleeting scene. I thought Tarantino was including Tate in order to right a historical wrong and empower a victim into a champion, and that doesn’t quite happen. I won’t say further than that though her narrative significance is anticlimactic. You could have easily cut Sharon Tate completely out of this movie and not affected it much at all. In fact, given the 160-minute running time, that might have been a good idea. The movie never really comes to much of something, whether it’s a statement, whether it’s a definitive end, it just feels like we’ve run out of stories rather than crafted an ending that was fated to arrive given the preceding events.

The Tarantino foot fetish joke has long been an obvious and hacky criticism that I find too many people reach for to seem edgy or clever, so I haven’t mentioned it in other reviews. He does feature feet in his films but they’ve had purpose before, from arguing over the exact implications of a foot rub in Pulp Fiction to Uma Thurman commanding her big toe to wiggle and break years of entropy in Kill Bill. However, with Hollywood, it feels like Tarantino is now trolling his detractors. There are three separate sequences featuring women’s feet, two of which just casually place them right in the camera lens. At this point in his career, I know he knows this lame critique, and I feel like this is his response. It’s facetious feet displays.

When it comes to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, if you’re not digging the vibe, man, then there’s less to latch onto as an audience member. It’s a definite hang-out movie reminiscent of Altman or Linklater where we watch characters go about their lives, providing peaks into a different world. It’s a movie about meandering but I always found it interesting or had faith that was rewarded by Tarantino. It doesn’t just feel like empty nostalgia masquerading as a movie. It’s funnier and more appealing than I thought it would be, and even though it’s 160 minutes it didn’t feel long. The acting by DiCaprio and Pitt is great, as is the general large ensemble featuring lots of familiar faces from Tarantino’s catalogue. I do think the inclusion of Sharon Tate serves more of a symbolic purpose than a narrative purpose and wish the movie had given her more to do or even illuminated her more as a character. However, the buddy film we get between DiCaprio and Pitt is plenty entertaining. It might not be as narratively ambitious or intricate or even as satisfying as Tarantino’s other works, but Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a fable for a Hollywood that may have only existed in Tarantino’s mind, but he’s recreated it with uncompromising affection.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Hateful Eight (2015)

the-hateful-eight-posterThe Hateful Eight almost didn’t happen thanks to our modern-day views on copyright and privacy. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino sent the first draft of his newest script to three trusted actors, and within days it had spread to the outer reaches of the Internet. Tarantino was so incensed that he swore to shelve Hateful Eight and never film it. After a staged reading in L.A. with many of the eventual actors for the film, he changed his mind, to the relief of his sizable fanbase and actors everywhere. The Hateful Eight is a drawing room mystery with plenty of Tarantino’s signature propulsive language and bloody violence, but it’s also the director’s least substantial film to date.

In post-Civil War Wyoming, famous bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) is taking the outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to hang for her crimes. Along the way, he meets up with Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter who served in the North and carries a letter written to him from none other than Abraham Lincoln. They’re both heading to Red Rock to extract their bounty earnings. Due to an oncoming blizzard, they’re forced to make a stay at Minnie’s haberdashery, except Minnie isn’t anywhere to be found. There’s Bob the Mexican (Demian Bichir) who says Minnie left him in charge, a foppish hangman Oswaldo Moblay (Tim Roth), a quiet cattle driver Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a Confederate general, Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the son of a Confederate rebel who claims to be the newly designated sheriff of Red Rock. Over the course of one long night, everyone’s true identity will be learned, because someone is not who they seem to be and is secretly waiting to free Daisy and kill the rest.

Even as lesser Tarantino, The Hateful Eight is still an entertaining and talky stage play put to film. The setup is strong and invites the audience to play along, to scrutinize the assorted characters and determine who is telling the truth. There are plenty of twists and turns and some violent surprises to keep things interesting. The conversations of the characters are such a pleasure to listen to; I want to luxuriate in Tarantino’s language. His wordsmith abilities are unparalleled in Hollywood. There’s a reason every star is dying to snag a part in a Tarantino movie, especially now that they’ve caught Oscar fire as of late. That’s somewhat crazy to think about. Cinema’s ultimate indie voice with his encyclopedic knowledge of the medium, high and low art, has become an institution within the system and his violent period films are now looked at as year-end prestige pictures. Tarantino’s M.O. has been to take B-movies and to transform them into A-movie level talent and intelligence. Never has a Tarantino flick felt more B-movie than The Hateful Eight. It was inspired from episodes of TV and it’s easy to see that genesis in its execution. It’s a self-contained mystery that comes to a head. It’s a limited story that’s likely taken as far as it could possible go, pushing three hours. I’m a tad befuddled why this was the movie Tarantino insisted on filming in “glorious Panavision 70 millimeter.” It’s almost entirely set in that one-room interior location. The extra depth that 70 millimeter affords would appear to be wasted, unless you enjoy looking at general store items on shelves in the background. Still, The Hateful Eight is a movie that doesn’t feel like three hours and harbors enough intrigue and payoffs to hook.

I tried to diagnose why this felt like lesser Tarantino, and it’s because over the course of almost three hours we don’t have much at stake because the people inhabiting the movie aren’t really characters but tough-talking facades. Tarantino is often cited for his uniquely florid dialogue, and nobody writes dialogue like Tarantino and his naturally stylized cadences, but another of the man’s skills is how great he can write a coterie of colorful characters that pop from the big screen. You might not be able to remember many lines from Hans Landa or Vincent Vega or Django, but you remember the vivid characters. Tarantino is preternaturally skilled at building characters that feel fully realized with their own viewpoints and flaws and prior experiences. He can make characters stand out but he also has the great ability to make the larger-than-life characters feel real, which is truly genius screenwriting for characters so flamboyant. The older romance in Jackie Brown is perfectly captured and felt. It’s downright mature. This is the first time I would say Tarantino has disappointed when it comes to his characters.

There are broadly drawn folk aplenty onscreen and they still talk in that wonderfully florid language of Tarantino’s that actors must savor like a fine steak, something they can sink themselves in for and enjoy every morsel. However, the characters onscreen have never felt this empty before. They are what they are and the only real change that occurs is that many will be dead before the end credits. They don’t have arcs per se but end points. It’s all about unmasking and identifying the rogues in a room full of rogues. Beyond Warren and Mannix, we’re left with precious little for characterization beyond bravado and nihilism. The effect of how empty they are would be felt less if we weren’t stranded with them for near three hours. Trapped in a room with a group of suspicious characters can only go so far, and ultimately it’s a parlor game that cannot sustain longer staying power. I doubt I’ll ever watch this with the frequency of other Tarantino flicks.

“You keep talkin’. You’re gonna talk yourself to death,” says one of those hateful numbers to another member. I’d pay to listen to Tarantino rewrite the phone book, that’s how excellent the man is with his dialogue. The man likes to hear his words and I like listening to them too. The problem is that The Hateful Eight has no reason for its gargantuan running time. As stated above, the characters we’re getting are nowhere near as complex or interesting as previous Tarantino escapades, so the talking can grow weary. Tarantino has patented a new formula from 2009’s Inglorious Basterds that involves characters playing a game of I-know-you-know-I-know while they suss out the truth, all the while the tension finely simmers until it blows. It’s a long fuse of suspense that can pay off rich rewards, like the near-perfect tavern scene in Basterds. The dinner table scene with Candie and the skull of his favorite house slave is another good example. Once our titular eight have gathered at Minnie’s, the entire movie is this sort of scene. It may be broken up into chapters and flashbacks but it feels like one long scene.

There’s also far less at stake than there was with Basterds or Django Unchained, even Reservoir Dogs, and that’s because the protagonists had goals and we had built up far more allegiance and time with them. When they were in danger, it mattered. The danger doesn’t feel as immediate because so little else is happening. There are plenty of comparisons to Dogs, which also utilized a hidden identity and a confined location. I think the difference was that, besides it being Tarantino’s first foray as a director, the tension was felt more because the danger was immediate from the start and we cared about character relationships. I cared about Mr. Orange and Mr. White and their bond. I can’t say I cared about any of the characters in Hateful Eight. I found them interesting at points, sure, but they were all a bunch of rotten bastards with little variation short of a burgeoning understanding between Mannix and Warren. The wait at Minnie’s feels like the Basterds tavern scene on steroids, pushed to the breaking point, and yet absent the urgency.

The acting is yet another tasty dish served up by Tarantino, and it feels like the actors are having the time of their lives playing their lively scoundrels. Jackson (Kingsmen: the Secret Service) settles in nicely and always seems to elevate his game when he’s reciting Tarantino’s words. He’s icy cool in scenes where the other characters are trying to do whatever they can to fire him up. He’s less bombastic than we’ve come to expect from Jackson. For bombast, there’s Russell (Furious 7) who cranks his performance to the broad heights of his bellicose lawman. Goggins gives a sly and extra caffeinated performance that answered the question of what it would sound like if you dropped his character from TV’s Justified into a Tarantino movie. Roth (Selma) feels like he’s doing his best manic Christoph Waltz impression. Dern (Nebraska) is a racist codger with a soft spot for his kin. Madsen (Kill Bill vol. 2) seems somewhat wasted as a taciturn “cow puncher.” Bichir (The Heat) gets some laughs as a seemingly aloof caretaker. It’s Leigh (Anomalisa) who steals the show, especially in the film’s second half. Daisy is a character that relishes being bad, and Leigh takes every opportunity to enjoy the fun. Her character plays a bit of possum during the first half but it’s the second half where she lets loose and becomes unhinged, and her exasperated and grotesque responses are often played for great sputtering comic effect. It’s a boys movie but it’s the lone woman who will prove most memorable. Tarantino’s last two movies have won acting awards and Leigh just might make it three-in-a-row.

20150511105106982878uThere are also some uncomfortable elements that can deter your viewing enjoyment, which isn’t exactly a foreign charge against Tarantino’s career. At this point you can probably repeat the oft-cited accusations: flagrant use of the N-word and exploitative violence. At least the historical background provides a context for the other characters unleashing the N-word, and I’d argue it tells us something about the characters as well. The characters that use the N-word when referring to Warren are the ones with allegiances to the Confederacy and those viewpoints don’t vanish even after you lost a war. They’re dismissive and intolerant and view Warren as sub-human. It also doesn’t approach Django Unchained-levels of excess, so I let it slide (I know my perspective as a white male makes my opinion on this effectively meaningless). It was the violence that got to me, specifically the violence directed at Daisy. Tarantino’s penchant for violence goes all the way back to his ear-slicing debut, so it’s nothing unexpected. He often tells stories about violent men and women fighting their way in a world governed by violence. I accept that these characters are bad to their core. That doesn’t excuse behavior. Violence on screen can be tempered with authorial commentary, but it’s the association that bothered me with Hateful Eight. For the entire movie, Daisy is put through the physical wringer. Our very first image of her is with a black eye. She’s a nasty woman and Ruth often expresses his distaste of her by punching her in the face, which is played as dark comedy. This happens repeatedly. We’re meant to recoil from much of the bloody violence on screen but repeatedly we’re meant to laugh at the violent suffering of Daisy. Tarantino has often used over-the-top violence as dark humor, and I’ve laughed along with it. This was one instance though where I stopped laughing and starting shifting uncomfortably in my seat.

Even lesser Tarantino can still be plenty entertaining and superior to most of what Hollywood usually cranks out as product. The Hateful Eight can be exciting, funny, surprising, and plenty of things, but what it can’t be is more than a lark. Tarantino has taken stories that would seem like larks, particularly the Kill Bill series, and infused them with pathos and meditation and soul to go along with all that snazzy genre stuff. It’s disappointing that Hateful Eight isn’t more than what’s on screen, but what’s on screen is still worth watching, though I don’t know whether it’s worth watching a second time.

Nate’s Grade: B

Nebraska (2013)

nebraska_xlgNebraska is a slow burn, wryly-funny character study of understated proportions, highlighting Midwestern culture rarely given its big screen due. So, in essence, it’s an Alexander Payne movie.

Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is an elderly man convinced he has won a million dollars and all he needs to do is travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his loot. It’s one of those mass mailings really meant to get people to buy magazine subscriptions, but Woody will not be stopped, sneaking out to walk all the way to Nebraska from his home in Billings, Montana. David (Will Forte) is in a rut himself. He’s recently been dumped, his job is going nowhere, and his father refuses to accept his million dollars isn’t real. There’s a question of how lucid Woody is, and so to placate his old man, David decides to drive his father to pick up his winnings, to humor him before his mind may be gone for good.

Nebraska film stillDespite the overtly sitcom machinations of the inciting incident, which even the characters dismiss, the film is really a drama about the relationship between a father and son and the culmination of our life choices. Woody and David are not close by any conventional means but over the course of their road trip, David begins to see his father in a different light; the old wounds are not forgotten, but David is learning about who his father is through others. He’s been so mad at his father for so long that it was the only identity he had for the man. Now in his deteriorating mental state and physical fragility, his father has a sense of vulnerability that brings about decidedly mixed emotions. In his fragile state, is he the same man or at least the same man David remembers? Then there are all the family revelations springing out from the situation. With a genuine millionaire in their midst, the family is coming out of the woodwork clamoring for their own pieces for all the unpaid assistance they’ve given Woody over the years. Initially, it makes Woody look like he’s been stuck trying to find his footing his whole life, as we learn about the lingering post-traumatic stress effects from his war service. Was he lazy, undiagnosed PTSD, or, as another character surmises, too ashamed to say no when others asked for help, and so he was taken advantage of in the guise of assistance from unscrupulous friends and family. The question remains who is Woody?

This is one of those observational slice-of-life films, and your enjoyment of it will depend on your threshold for the taciturn types. These are the strong silent types who keep most of their feelings to themselves. There’s a very funny sequence where Woody and his aged brothers have gathered around a TV, and to listen to the dry mostly car-related conversation bounce back and forth like a dead, floating wiffle ball, is a great comic moment but also a nice insight into an older generation and their communication. Given the perspective of the film, it’s hard to deduce whether the plainspoken people are being satirized or whether it’s a loving send-up of a specific culture. With Payne’s involvement, I lean more on the affectionate tweaking rather than a mean-spirited ridiculing of small town folk and their small town ways. There are funny situations, like David and Ross teaming up for some misplaced justice, and there are characters more broadly drawn for laughs, particularly Woody’s wife (June Squibb), but the overall interaction of the characters, their speaking vernacular, and how they viewed themselves, that is what made me laugh the most and appreciate the script. You feel like you’re dropping in on these people’s lives; every character feels like they could be a real person, not a stereotype. And boy does money really bring out the worst in people.

With Woody and his son visiting his old haunts, the movie inevitably becomes a reflection of a man taking stock of his life, regarding the choices he made and did not make. The pit stop in town opens up the character and David learns far more about his father, with old girlfriends, old business partners, and old rivals. What I appreciated further is that Nebraska doesn’t try and soften Woody; he’s not going to be some old curmudgeon who over the course of 90 minutes has his icy heart thaw and comes to realize the errors of his ways. Nope. Our views on the old man may soften when we get a fuller picture of who he is ad the life he’s lead, but the man himself is the same. He’s readily belittled, insulted, looked down upon, even by his own family members, especially his sassy wife. It’s easy for him to retreat into alcohol and wonder what if. As the family picture broadens and becomes more clear, the film approaches simply yet touching revelations about the family and the nature of legacy. There’s a father/son examination, but there’s also the discussion of what to do when your parents become too ill to take care of themselves. It’s not exactly The Savages, but there’s a circling sense of burdensome decision-making that provides an extra level of pathos to the sitcom setup. By the end, Nebraska squeezes out some earned sentiment without losing its edge or sense of identity. There’s a lot more going on then just some send-up of rubes.

20131110-DERN-slide-KFYJ-articleLargePeople have been raving about Dern (TV’s Big Love, Django Unchained) ever since the film’s Cannes premier, where the man earned top acting honors. The man deserves every positive words penned. He’s simply fantastic. The character vacillates between outward hostility, spacing out, and general Midwestern emotional reserve, and Dern is able to sell you on every emotional beat without breaking character. He’s unrepentant and demands to be taken for who he is, and his matter-of-fact bluntness has a certain charm to it, like when he admits to David that he never had any plans for kids. He just liked to “screw” and their mother was a Catholic (“You do the math”). I even appreciate that Woody would use the term “screw,” which seems more appropriate. As a two-man show, it’s a shame that Forte (TV’s 30 Rock, The LEGO Movie) doesn’t exhibit the dramatic chops to keep up with his onscreen pop. It’s nice to see him attempt something so different but his limitations are too evident; it’s just another gear that’s not present. At no point would I call Forte’s performance bad but he’s just unable to keep up. Squibb (About Schmidt, Meet Joe Black) is a hoot though the character seems to be permanently stuck in “wacky” mode. She’ll crack you up with her unrestrained commentary, but you may wonder if there’s any more to this character than saying outrageous, curt comments.

This was the last Best Picture nominee I’d failed to catch up with, and while it’s entertaining, funny, and unexpectedly touching thanks to terrific acting and a sharp script, but it also might be the weakest Alexander Payne film yet. This is the first film that the Oscar-winning director hasn’t written himself. Bob Nelson’s screenplay may never have even been glanced over by Payne had it not been for the state of its title (Payne’s films general take place in Omaha). It’s got Payne’s stamp, as would any film he directs, but it also feels like it’s missing something ephemeral, not to get too pretentious. This is a quality study of a cracked group of characters that, upon further review, aren’t as cracked as we may think. They’re just flawed people trying to get along as best they can. Even amidst the snide and antagonistic conversations, there’s gentleness here about the value of family that resonates above the din of the shouting. By film’s end, what started as a cockeyed sitcom transforms into a film that has more meaning and emotion, never betraying its guarded sense of self. When I say the weakest Payne film, this is not an insult but merely an observation. Even the weakest Alexander Payne film is going to be so much better than just about everything out there.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Django Unchained (2012)

1904It’s an understatement that no one makes films like Quentin Tarantino, though after Pulp Fiction it seemed like everyone was trying. The famous writer/director is an audacious filmic DJ, taking samples from all genres and mixing and matching them into a new and elevated form of art; he takes low-grade B-movie concepts and genres and turns them into highly literate A-class films. My only quibble is that, while I heartily enjoy the man’s unique efforts, I don’t know if we’re ever going to see a different Tarantino anymore. Since 1997’s Jackie Brown, he seems intent on re-imagining exploitation films and B-movies and putting his articulate spin on them. I have yet to dislike a Tarantino film (I rate Jackie Brown the lowest but that’s still an A-) and I’ll be first in line for anything the man attaches himself to as writer/director. Django Unchained is Tarantino’s ode to spaghetti Westerns, and it’s every bit as violent and tense and entertaining as you’d hope it to be.

In 1858 Texas, an abolitionist bounty hunter, Dr. King Shultz (Christoph Waltz) frees a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and enlists his help in tracking down a team of outlaws. They strike up a mentorship, gunning down outlaws for money. “Kill white folk and they pay you for it? What’s not to like?” Django reasons. After a successful season nabbing bad guys and training Django in the ways of shooting, the men come to a crossroads. Django is looking for his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). She was torn away from him and sold off to wealthy Mississippi plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Schultz and Django cook up a scheme to rescue Broomhilda. Schultz will pose as a rich power player wanting to enter the “mandingo fighting” game (think savage gladiatorial combat). Django will play a black slaver, and expert when it comes to picking out prized fighters. With a generous offer, the two get invited to Candie’s family plantation, dubbed Candieland. Standing in the way of their plan is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s head of the house. Stephen is deeply suspicious of their guests and ready to expose them for who they truly are.

89366_galI’ve been dragging my feet writing a review of Django Unchained and I’m trying to determine why that is. Just after typing that sentence I spent 30 minutes checking my e-mail. I’m an avid Tarantino fan, so I’m left wondering what my hesitation is about. I certainly enjoyed the film, thoroughly, but perhaps my question is whether I should have enjoyed the film as much as I did given the historical reality of slavery. No movie will ever approach the true horrors of slavery; even the very act of owning another human is a detestable and crushing reality. Of course I’m coming at this movie from the perspective of a white male, so I feel like aspects of my commentary can only be minor. Is the backdrop of slavery too horrific for Tarantino to stage his spin on a revenge-filled Western? Spike Lee seems to think so via his critical public remarks. Tarantino has great glee in reveling in over-the-top movie violence, the kind that audiences (at least mine) cheer for. I guess the questionable angle is marrying the two realities and tones. You don’t want to take away from the brutality of slavery and at the same time you want to tell a compelling revenge-soaked thriller that satisfies with its buckets of blood. I’d say Django Unchained mostly finds the right balance to hit you in the gut one minute and the next have you clapping along.

It seems like the media is pressing every black celebrity for his or her personal thoughts on Django and especially Tarantino’s copious use of the N-word. Tarantino has gotten into hot water before with his penchant for the N-word, notably his own sequence in Pulp Fiction, but the N-word is entirely period appropriate for Django. Let’s face it, a majority of Americans, let alone Southerners, had really one word for slaves, and it wasn’t kind. This is the word that would have been uttered. However, after seeing the film a second time, I can see the complaints about the overwhelming use of the N-word. If you were to turn this into an awful and disrespectful drinking game, you’d probably pass out before DiCaprio even steps onscreen.

Like Inglourious Basterds, this movie is really a series of sit-downs that simmer with tension. The man has gotten so good with establishing the particulars of a scene, what the characters desire, and to push it to its breaking point when it comes to tension. While I don’t think anything approaches the highpoints of Basterds, this is still a movie that luxuriates in beautifully played tension and the danger lurking underneath Tarantino’s finely crafted words. And let’s talk about those wonderful words of Tarantino talk, the kind that seem so effortless to build sensationally interesting characters. The man sure enjoys writing his umpteenth variances on badasses engaging in verbal pissing contests (the literal kind are far less entertaining, at least for me). When you have character this sharply developed with such counter objectives, I could watch them duke it out all day. There are some pacing concerns with the movie, particularly once we get to Candieland, but when I’m engaged this much in a movie, I’d rather it go overboard than scrimp. Tarantino’s signature cool/funny/funny cool dialogue is alive and well. Every scene advances the plot, pushes it toward its bloody conclusion where bodies explode with sprays of red mist. It’s completely over-the-top in the Kill Bill vein, enough to draw snickers and laughter from a crowd, but Tarantino knows how to serve up a satisfying ending even with a body count to rival Hamlet.

89365_galI don’t want to give the wrong impression that Django Unchained is deadly serious given the subject matter and historical context. I don’t think it disrespectfully sanitizes the horrors of slavery, but Tarantino’s brand of humor finds opportune moments to poke through. There’s a sequence with an early version of the KKK, a group of Southerners on horses arguing over whether they need to wear the ill-fitting bags on their head they prepared (plus Jonah Hill cameo). I was laughing so hard I thought people around me were going to shush me. It may well be the funniest thing Tarantino has ever written. There’s also natural humor to be had in the awkward handling of race relations, something that hasn’t exactly been perfectly ironed out to this day. A wealthy plantation owner (Don Johnson) struggles to explain how his slaves should treat Django, presented as a freeman by Schultz. “You want me to treat him like white people?” someone asks. This is followed promptly with a curt, “No.” There’s also plenty of gallows humor to be had with the over-the-top violence that pervades in the finale. It’s all key moments to blow off steam, so to speak, and make the film more bearable.

Django Unchained follows a traditional Western plot; in fact I’d say what we watch is essentially Tarantino’s whacked out spin on The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexander Dumas is even referenced in the film by name). Our lead character, Django, is in the Clint Eastwood mode of the strong and silent type. Schultz is the one who does all the talking while Django learns and glowers. They make a terrific buddy team and you almost wish that Tarantino had just diverged his story and allowed them to keep doing their bounty business. But Django’s wife needs some saving and that’s where the movie slows down. I wish Broomhilda had been given more character development. She’s pretty much the princess that needs saving, much like the German folk tale we learn is where Broomhilda gets her uncommon name. My sister described Django Unchained as a love story and I think that’s being a little generous (Tarantino did cut much of her torture, physical and sexual, from his script). We certainly feel Django’s desire to rescue her, and we worry about all the plot machinations and masks the characters must wear to accomplish this feat. With that said, the movie still has plenty of sucker punch surprises, much like Basterds, where violence erupts and despicable characters are given arias to illuminate the depths of their depraved worldviews.

I do wish that Tarantino had been a bit more judicious with his editing (the first without longtime editor Sally Menke who died in 2010) and curtailed all his self-indulgent meta film homage nods. We get stuff like Amber Tamblyn (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) in one shot. Why you ask? See her father also stars in the movie in a small role, and he once played a character titled “Son of a Gunfighter.” So in his own credits, Tarantino lists him as “Son of a Gunfighter” and his daughter as, what else, “Daughter of a Son of a Gunfighter.” When all of that contorting is for an end credits gag and one shot in the whole movie, you feel like it was strictly masturbatory. Then there’s the original Django, Franco Nero, asking Foxx how to spell his name. Old Django asking new Django how to spell his name. I guess it’s supposed to be like a cinematic passing of the torch but it’s another moment that feels superfluous in a 165-minute movie. The movie can get a tad exhausting. The final 15 minutes, while still smartly written and boasting some terrific bloody comeuppance, feels like an add-on that wasn’t needed. It does manage to tie some elements back together but at this point the audience is ready for Django to ride off into the sunset, not have another obstacle to overcome in improbable yet badass fashion. At my first viewing, the kid behind me kept complaining to his parents that the movie had failed to end (“This is still going? It’s already been two hours!”). I also understand the fruitless and ironic nature of asking Tarantino to reign in his self-indulgences; that is, after all, what makes him who he is.

As expected from Westerns, the movie is a boy’s show. Foxx (Ray) has a steely screen presence that works very effectively for the character. The man’s quiet confidence and growing insolence play well, as he burrows into a role that boosts his confidence and assertiveness. Foxx’s journey from beleaguered and shell-shocked slave to mighty walking vengeance is definitely a full performance and one that Foxx delivers without any winks to the camera. Waltz (Carnage) will be dinged for playing a character similar to his Oscar-winning role in Basterds, but he’s still joyously entertaining, with that strange speech pattern of his that he plays like a musical instrument. He has a lot to say with plenty of theatrical flourishes, but that’s what makes him so entrancing. Simply put, Waltz and Tarantino are a match made in heaven.

93034_galDiCaprio (Inception) doesn’t appear until over an hour into the film but he’s worth the wait. At my first screening, I thought DiCaprio was good but was unimpressed. Upon a second viewing, I must say my appreciation grew for the man’s performance. Calvin Candie is certainly a vile man and DiCaprio is able to give him such an intriguing brio; he’s not the magnetic source of evil that Waltz was in Basterds, a man able to stay two steps ahead of his prey. Candie is easily taken for a fool. He’s not the smartest guy in the room but he can work up a pretty sizable fury; DiCaprio actually cuts open his hand during a confrontation and remains in character, undeterred. But the best actor in the movie is Jackson (The Avengers). There are far more layers to his head house slave than meets the eyes. It sure seems like he’s really the fist behind the glove. He may put on an act for company, but the man is far more calculating and sinister than anyone else in the film. You know he’s a good villain when the audience cheers the loudest at his demise (don’t act surprised, spoiler-phobes). I wouldn’t be surprised if Waltz, DiCaprio, or even Jackson get nominated for supporting Oscars.

It seems like Tarantino has also stumbled into a hidden lucrative subgenre at the box-office, namely the historical revenge film. Who doesn’t want to see a group historically shafted get some sweet revenge, the bad guys punished, and all with sparkling dialogue? In 2009, Tarantino went on a Nazi scalping spree and got to shoot Hitler in the face. With Django, a brutalized slave becomes the hero of his own story and kills some vile slave owners and traders. It’s essentially a Nat Turner-style rebellion from history, albeit with some harebrained scams and colorful characters. Following this lucrative model, Tarantino could take other maligned minorities and give them cinematic justice. Sadly, there are too many examples to count where Tarantino can take inspiration.

Django Unchained is a bloody, rollicking, talky, messy, exciting, surprising, uncomfortable yet satisfying movie and probably one of the oddest crowd-pleasers in recent memory. I saw it on Christmas day and my theater was a sell out. They loved it, soaking up every minute, laughing at the funny parts and wincing at the gruesome violence. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus. It doesn’t whitewash the evils and viciousness of slavery, but at the same time Tarantino knows how to serve an audience and their demands for big characters, big set pieces, and big vengeance. Django is a sturdy Western/blaxploitation film, and whatever other genres Tarantino feels like tossing into his cinematic blender. Whatever you classify it as, Django Unchained is another Tarantino original specialty and his tremendous talent comes through loud and clear, even with a few false endings and self-indulgences at play. It looks great, has a great soundtrack, and presents great acting talent reciting Tarantino’s great words like they were prized possessions. It’s a bit long and a bit overdone, but when you’re enjoying yourself, who wants to leave the party early?

Nate’s Grade: A

Monster (2003)

Monster follows the life of Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron, now nominated for a Best Actress Oscar), America’s only known female serial killer. In the late 1980s, Wueros was a roadside prostitute flexing her muscles with Florida motorists. She describes “hookin’’” as the only things she’s ever been good at. One day Wuornos has the full intention of taking her own life, but she meets 18-year-old Selby (Christina Ricci) at a lesbian bar and finds a companion. Driven by a growing hatred of men from sexual abuse, Wuorno’s starts killing her johns to try and establish a comfortable life for her and Selby.

Let’’s not mince words; Theron gives one of the best performances I have ever seen in my life. Yes, that’’s right. One of. The. Best. Performances. Ever. This is no exaggeration. I’’m not just throwing out niceties. Theron is completely unrecognizable under a mass of facial prosthetics, 30 extra pounds, fake teeth and a total lack of eyebrows. But this is more than a hollow ploy to attract serious attention to the acting of a pretty face. Theron does more than simple imitation; she fully inhabits the skin of Aileen Wuornos. The closest comparison I can think of is Val Kilmer playing Jim Morrison in The Doors.

Theron is commanding, brave, distressing, ferocious, terrifying, brutal, stirring, mesmerizing and always captivating. It may be a cliché, but you really cannot take your eyes off of her. Her performance is that amazing. To say that Theron in Monster is an acting revelation is perhaps the understatement of the year.

With previous acting roles in Reindeer Games and The Cider House Rules, Theron is usually delegated to “pretty girlfriend” roles (who occasionally shows her breasts). Who in the world thought she had this kind of acting capability? I certainly did not. If Nicole Kidman can win an Oscar for putting on a fake nose and a so-so performance, surely Theron should win an Oscar for her absolute transformation of character and giving the performance of a lifetime.

With this being said, and most likely over said, Monster is by no means a perfect film. Minus the terrific central performance, Monster is more of an everyday profile of a grotesque personality. The film weakly tries to portray Wuornos more as a victim, but by the end of the film, and six murdered men later, sympathy is eradicated as Wuornos transforms into the titular monster. Some supporting characters, like Ricci’’s narrow-minded Christian up bringers, are flat characters bordering on parody. The supporting characters are generally underwritten, especially the male roles that serve as mere cameos in a film dominated by Sapphic love.

Monster is proof positive that human beings will never be phased out by advancing machinery when it comes to acting. Monster boasts one of the greatest acting achievements in recent cinematic history, but it also coasts on sharp cinematography and a moody and ambient score by BT (Go). Monster is a haunting film that you won’t want to blink for fear of taking your eyes off of Theron. She gives an unforgettable tour de force performance that will become legendary.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Haunting (1999)

Is this what passes for horror these days? Get an Irish Jedi, a Spanish sword fighting hot tamale, an indie queen, and the co-writer of Rushmore and Bottle Rocket in a creepy home and have curtains blow in the shapes of faces? Is there anyone out there truly terrified of curtains?

From Jan de Bont, the director most known for making cows fly, comes possibly the weakest horror pic ever assembled on two legs. This is no different than the weekend drive-in where they showed all the wretchedly corny movies of people in giant plastic costumes slowly walking and terrorizing young teenagers in love. Except now the costumes are far more expensive. Beyond that nothing has changed.

The story is a bit of a mystery. It’s light when there needs to be more meat, and heavy when it needs to explain itself. It even goes a step further into fulfilling the dreams of many by making Catherine Zeta-Jones bisexual. And of course then there’s the contrived happy ending that seems like something they tacked on from the outcome of a test screening.

The best asset The Haunting has is the utterly beautiful and breath-taking house and sets. You’ll hear it’s name around Oscar time for set designs, and most likely on the winner’s ballot as well. I was wrapped up in the scenery and fell in love with it. Maybe this is a trick by the movie so you don’t notice how bad it really is, well it almost worked. But this isn’t an episode of This Old House, though that might have been scarier.

With the aid of some cheap jump scares and splashy effects, The Haunting registers nothing in the world of frights and fear. It’s really unintentionally funny at many many parts. In fact the audience I saw this with was laughing far more than they were screaming. So you could label The Haunting as the funniest movie of the summer if you wanted. Some movies are just born bad.

Nate’s Grade: D+

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