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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 Revenant (2015)

revenant-leoWhich do you value more, verisimilitude or narrative? If you’re looking for an intense, immersive filmgoing experience that’s just as harrowing as it is beautiful, then perhaps The Revenant is your movie. If you are looking for characters and a story to engage with, then maybe it won’t be. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the real-life frontiersman Hugh Glass who was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his companions. He miraculously survives and tracks down those who betrayed him for some frontier justice Under the unyielding vision of director Alejandro Gonzalez Innarito (Birdman), the movie opens up its scary world with an exhilarating sense of detail. Inarritu favors lots of natural light and long, gorgeous tracking shots, which creates a spellbinding sense of realism. The attacks and escapes and moment-to-moment survival communicate the remarkable dangers of this natural world. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is flawless, using light and camera placement to stunning effect. However, The Revenant (meaning a person who has come back from the dead) is a series of beautifully rendered moments delicately stretched over a ponderous running time of 157 minutes. There’s just not enough plot events to fill that running time, so to compensate Inarritu gives way to some Terrence Malick (Tree of Life) impulses that try for philosophical poetry but miss. DiCaprio is getting plenty of plaudits for his demanding role, and he’s quite good and visceral (and no, he does not get raped by a bear). I was more impressed with Tom Hardy, who plays the target of Glass’ fury. Hardy imbues depth into his antagonist, and while you won’t exactly be rooting for him to get away you can see the guy as more pragmatist than mustache-twirling rogue. He even has an interesting back-story surviving being scalped that informs his decision-making. Much of the film is watching Glass endure physical hardship after physical hardship, which may grow wearying for many audience members, especially those most squeamish. When it’s firing, The Revenant is a magnificent and stunningly realized survival thriller with sprinkles of engaging human drama. The problem is that there isn’t enough to go around for its running time.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

wolf-of-wall-street-poster2-610x903Martin Scorsese. The greatest living filmmaker on the planet. Enough said. When his latest, The Wolf of Wall Street, was pushed back due to an editing crunch, the rumor mill started as it normally does. Are there problems? Is it any good? Will it be forgotten this late into the awards season? While I can’t speak for the Academy, but for me The Wolf of Wall Street just about blows every competing movie out of the water this season. It’s brash, exhilarating, uproarious, mesmerizing, and just about every other adjective you can fetch from a dictionary. This is first-class filmmaking from a master, and consider Wolf of Wall Street the white-collar companion piece to Scorsese’s gangster masterpiece, Goodfellas. It’s that good, folks.

Based on his memoirs, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) rises on Wall Street from a rookie stock trader to the king of his own empire. From the late 80s to the 90s, Jordan assembles a cutthroat team that knowingly sells lousy stocks to gullible investors and stuffing their pockets with hefty commissions. “Better there money was with me. I knew how to spend it better,” he admits. His closest friend and business partner, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), literally quits his job to work for Jordan after spying one of his pay stubs. The guys start their own firm, specializing in high-pressure sales and on penny stock commissions. From there, they expand and expand until they’re making their own noise on Wall Street. The trading floor more closely resembles a frathouse party, complete with chimp, strippers, marching bands in their underwear, midget tossing, and other objectionable behavior. Jordan easily succumbs to the sex and drugs of the high-finance world of money, leaving his plain wife for Naomi (Margot Robbie), a gorgeous underwear model. He’s got a giant estate, a huge yacht, his own helicopter, and more money than he can spend. He’s also got the attention of the FBI and Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler). With the feds circling in, Jordan has to take extra steps to keep the good times rolling.

wolf-of-wall-street-trailer-10292013-195607With a running time exactly one minute shy of three hours, it’s easy to call The Wolf of Wall Street self-indulgent and excessive, except that’s exactly the point. The movie is an orgy of unchecked male ego, a perverse bacchanal of Earthly pleasures that Caligula might blushingly admire. They are literally two orgies depicted in the movie and plenty of thrust-heavy sexual congress (I counted eight walkouts in my theater, most of them the little old lady variety). Here is a tilt-o-wheel of madness. These people were living like there was no tomorrow, had more money than they knew what to possibly do with, and would figuratively dance while Rome burns (in this instance, the stability of the U.S. economy). What’s important is to communicate that these individuals were having the time of their lives. It wasn’t just the hedonistic pleasures and the mountains of drugs; it was the power, the uninhibited embrace of a life available via poorly regulated capitalism. Many of those brokers in Jordan’s company were people from ordinary backgrounds. Their self-made success (that wasn’t so much earned as swindled) is a point of pride that fills them with purpose. They are seizing their full potential. There is no doubt in my mind that every broker in this movie would do it all again in a heartbeat. There is no remorse on display anywhere. The only remorse is having the ride unceremoniously end. “Was it obscene? Yeah it was obscene. In the normal world,” Jordan narrates. “And who wants to live there?”

I won’t say that there aren’t scenes and moments that could have been trimmed, but I was enjoying myself way too much to care about the bloat. This is the fastest three hours you’ll ever experience in your life. There’s some fat, yes, but man does this picture just move along like a freight train. The screenplay by Terence Winter (creator of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) is impeccably drawn. The movie just courses with energy and watching it is often an exhilarating rush, communicating the highs the characters are undergoing. The supporting players are used to great effect to punctuate the comedy moment to moment. I loved Rob Reiner’s exasperated and profane performance as Jordan’s father. Naturally the bad behavior is entertaining in how absurd and over-the-top it can get, but one key sequence ranks up there with the finest sequences Scorsese has ever put to film. It’s the “Lemon” sequence, named after a legendarily potent batch of Quaaludes. It is a sequence of pure movie bliss, brilliantly edited and staged, as Jordan is placed in a precarious position when the drugs kick in, and his comic floundering is riotous. Winter and Scorsese have taken what, in other hands, could have been a modern American tragedy and decided to portray it as a darkly comic fantasia. I laughed long and hard throughout the movie. There are numerous scenes I can think back on and start laughing again. The ridiculous nature of moments, like discussing the logistics of tossing midgets at a dart board (“This is their gift”) is to be expected, but it’s the overall degenerate lifestyle these clowns chase after with impunity that kept me laughing.

I’ve read cantankerous critiques of the film, chastising Scorsese for celebrating the lavish lifestyle and excessive hedonism of his characters. I could not disagree with this appraisal more. The error is assuming that witnessing Jordan behaving badly is akin to celebrating it, as if adopting the perspective of our lead is the same as excusing his actions. Scorsese makes it clear early, and often, that Jordan Belfort is not a good person. Hopefully you don’t need him hitting his wife for this point to stick. This guy is fleecing people out of their life savings, living high off the fat of the land, and openly admitting to the camera how deeply illegal his activities are. But you’re under his spell, much like his brokers that worship him with unflinching zeal. Jordan, especially as portrayed by DiCaprio, is a volcano of energy and single-minded determination. He whips his troops up like a religious revival, manipulating you with every tactic in his employ. Early on, he’s defrauding ordinary middle-class and low-income clients, but because we’re all addicted to the adrenaline rush of the sale, of the con, we push this troubling reality from our minds. When he moves onto wealthier clients, we adopt a similar attitude of Teresa, Jordan’s first wife, mainly that these people can afford the losses and therefore get what they deserve from a silver-tongued shyster. It’s the audience that proves to have a selective memory because we’re drawn to Jordan’s charisma, expertise, and talent, so we ignore the pesky details of who gets stuck with the bill. Don’t pin that on Scorsese. He makes it abundantly clear that Jordan is a bad man, and the depths of his greed is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Wall Street. Jordan’s firm was a tiny player. Think of what horror stories Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers would offer if ever exposed.

Wolf-of-Wall-Street-Jonah-Hill-CockroachThis is my favorite Scorsese film since Goodfellas, and they have plenty of similarities. It makes sense because these men of finance take their cues from movie gangsters, styling themselves as tough guys. At one point, brokers hold a guy over a building to intimidate him. There’s also certainly as much cocaine as there may have been in Scarface. But like that classic of the gangster cinema, Scorsese propels us into the hidden world of the financial institution run amok, allowing us a backstage pass to the people profiting from wrecking the economy. It’s a fascinating perspective that confirms some of our worst fears about stockbrokers. It’s a misogynistic boys club and the few women that do participate have to play by their hyper masculine, juvenile rules. These are people that find any number of ways to skirt the law, rip off their clients, and live in luxury until they can find another sucker. It’s a system built for the entertainment of the few on the backs of the many, and it’s just as relevant today as it was in the 90s. With Jordan’s inside knowledge, we’re educated on the many corrupt ways of Wall Street.

Marking the fifth collaboration with Scorsese, this may be the finest DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby) performance yet. The man sheds his vanity, easily fitting into the shark that is Jordan Belfort. He’s ruthless in one moment and completely inept in another, at the whim of his vices. DiCaprio taps into Jordan’s leadership qualities with the dynamite sales speeches, but he also shows what an insecure man he is at heart. He’s got a taste for the good life and is reinventing himself, including trading up in wives to attain that proverbial American Dream. He’s living empty pleasure to empty pleasure and he doesn’t care. DiCaprio acts as our ringmaster through his own circus, and you’ll be delighted and horrified by his actions (and also his peculiar, bird-like dance moves). There’s not a bad performance in the whole cast, and this is one huge cast. Hill (This is the End) is a becoming more and more credible as a dramatic actor, though he excels at the blustery outrageousness as Jordan’s number two. He’s a treat. Robbie (About Time) nails her New Yawk accent but more importantly nails the portrayal of a trophy wife who recognizes and eventually resents her lifestyle. And oh does she just exude sexual heat.

I want to focus on the very end of the film, so there will be some mild spoilers in this paragraph but nothing I feel that would ruin the viewing experience. You have been warned, spoiler phobes. As expected, Jordan eventually winds up in jail for his felonious misdeeds. Ordinarily this would be the end of our traditional law-and-order morality tales; the bad guys are locked away to pay for their crimes. Jordan tells us how nervous he was on his first day of prison, that is, until he remembered one very important fact: he’s rich. White-collar prison is not the same as other penitentiaries, and we see Jordan loftily playing tennis. His sentence is only three years as well, which seems like an insult given the thousands of lives he may have instrumentally ruined. But that’s the ultimate condemnation in the end: the system is rigged for people like Jordan, people with money. In the end, he wins. He goes to prison, his family life is torn asunder, and his personal relationships are strained, but the guy wins. He continues his speaking engagements motivating everyday saps how, with his cherished expertise, they too can rake in wealth. The final shot of the movie tells me everything I need to know. It’s a slight pan out to the crowd in attendance of Jordan’s speaking session. We see the collection of faces, each person hanging onto Jordan’s every word, each filled with idolatry. They want to be him. Despite everything, the bad behavior, the crimes, the waste, they all want to be him, and that’s why people like Jordan will always succeed, will always prevail, will always have the last laugh. There will always be a healthy supply of suckers that want to believe whatever nonsense he’s peddling. That’s the point. He won.

wolf_wall_street3Recently I watched the very good crime caper American Hustle and noted that its director looked to be fashioning a loving Martin Scorsese homage. Well, after watching The Wolf of Wall Street twice (not back to back, mind you; I’m not nuts) I can say that there is no Scorsese like the source. This is vintage Scorsese. This is brilliant filmmaking, a bold movie that practically sings, it flies by with exhilarating force and acumen, daring you to keep watching. The fact that 71-year-old Scorsese could make a movie this highly energetic, this debased, this brash, this borderline indecent, and this awesomely entertaining is encouraging. It’s even more hilarious to me that older Academy members at a recent screening of the film accosted Scorsese, essentially being termed a “debauched scoundrel.” That’s got to count as some badge of honor. Yes, at three hours the movie can get long but it’s never dull or taxing. The propulsive narrative, the hilarious humor, the shrewd characterization, the wanton excess, the filmmaking bravado that hums, it all coalesces into a disturbing and disturbingly enjoyable condemnation of greed and our inherent celebration of this lifestyle. There is not one aspect of this movie that falls flat. The Wolf of Wall Street is an invigorating piece of cinema. The choice of music, the swinging cinematography, the wide ensemble of actors, the feverish editing, it all comes beautifully together to form a whole that surpasses everything else in cinema this year. Dig in.

Nate’s Grade: A

The Great Gatsby (2013)

the-great-gatsby-poster1It seemed like some sort of educational mandate that every child in the United States was forced to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, when they were in high school. In my highly unscientific number crunching, it appears that those who actually enjoyed the book are in the minority. I recall loathing it, but then again, when you’re fifteen, you sort of loath everything. Enter Australian director Baz Luhrmann, the showman who exploded the screen in razzle-dazzle run amok with Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge!. Not exactly the kind of filmmaker one would fathom helming an adaptation of a classic of American literature, but the man’s style of excess seems like a suitable match for Fitzgerald’s tale of high-class overindulgence.

In 1922, young Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to the hustle and bustle of New York City, living close to his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her rich husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). He’s also the neighbor to the mysterious and newly rich Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a reclusive man who opens his mansion up to prolific bacchanals. Rumors persist in who he is and how he accrued his enormous fortune. He’s an old flame of Daisy’s and is secretly hoping she’ll attend one of his raucous soirees. He enlists Nick to help arrange a reunion for them, and soon enough Gatsby is already planning their happy future together again. Trouble is, Tom isn’t willing to lose his wife without a fight.

101900_galLuhrmann’s helming of The Great Gatsby gave me exactly what I desired and expected. The movie is convulsing with energy and the first hour just moves; be it the camerawork or people onscreen, for long stretches there always seems to be some degree of onscreen movement. Luhrmann’s signature theatrical visual atmosphere is vibrant, joyous, and a perfect translator of the lavish lifestyles of the noveau rich in the Roaring ‘20s. The man brings to startling life the sensations of being young, privileged, and carefree, and the use of anachronistic music, while not nearly as textured and thematically relevant as Moulin Rouge!, adds to the fun. I quite enjoyed a low-key, jazzy rendition of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” Luhrmann’s style treks in excess but it’s a much more pleasant, dreamy, and altogether beguiling form of artistic indulgence than, say, Michael Bay or Tony Scott and their respective macho visual fetishes. Luhrmann’s campy sense of style doesn’t come across as overly suffocating or distracting, at least to my eyes, and instead the man injects his movies with tremendous energy, immersing you into a new world of old and modern. This is what Luhrmann was meant for. While other canonical classics of American literature may not survive a glitzy Lurhmann treatment, it’s a good match for the extravagant excess of Fitzgerald’s setting. Lurhmann’s visuals are glorious, and the 1920s era is brought to glamorous life. You get the sense it was one giant party without any lasting consequences (if you were rich enough).

The second half of the movie slows down considerably after the amped-up introduction. We’re caught up in the characters at this point, as we should be, and the Gatsby/Daisy reunion dominates the plot. I suppose there are only so many Busby Berkeley numbers and confetti explosions one can encounter before the plot has to set in. Lurhmann and company stick pretty faithfully to Fitzgerald’s plot (rest easy, lazy high school students of today and tomorrow). Interestingly, they are far more explicit about Gatsby’s securities fraud, knowingly making a fortune off junk bonds, all in the name to impress Daisy. There’s a genuine sense of respect for the source material even with Luhrmann’s visual flourishes; at several points, Fitzgerald’s text floats onscreen. The problem is that Luhrmann’s Gatsby is almost entirely focused on the romantic coupling of its title figure and Daisy. Gone is the class criticism, the indictment of the follies of the rich, the examination of the dark side of the American Dream, and the subtext. You’ll get plenty of shots of that famous green light, 20th century literature’s most famous and unsophisticated symbol (pay attention kids: green means go), but there’s little time for complexity. It’s not a screen romance worth this much attention, which is kind of the point, but when the movie clocks at over 2 hours and 20 minutes, drawing out a lackluster romance can become rather grating.

101940_galIf I were top cite one major fault in Luhrmann’s incarnation, it’s that it adopts Nick’s fawning perspective and treats Gatsby as this tragic romantic figure. I acknowledge with every adaption there is a degree of interpretation, and romantic hero is certainly one facet of Gatsby, certainly how he sees himself, but by the end of Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby is really more a naïve man who really only sees Daisy as trophy, a prize for his reinvention and jumping up to the storied moneyed class. Daisy herself is certainly weak-willed but her emptiness (she says there’s nothing better than for a girl to be a “beautiful, young fool”) is part of the appeal to Gatsby because he can remake her however he wants. He’s not interested insomuch as her as a person. I don’t think that the Gatsby/Daisy escapades fall into the ranks of Great Tragic Couples of Literature, but that’s how Luhrmann interprets the novel, transforming Gatsby into a revered, honorable, and heartbreaking romantic we’re meant to shed a tear for. I suppose since we’re reliving the story through Nick’s perspective that events could be colored differently. Beyond just a simplistic analysis, it also misses the greater and more futile tragedy of a man trying to escape his past by obsessively recreating it.

The acting is fairly good all around, though the standout is certainly not whom you’d expect. DiCaprio (Django Unchained) is a good fit for the handsome social-climber, but the movie only asks him to play a limited range of emotions, rarely breaking free to show glimpses of the darker, less polished side of Gatsby’s carefully crafted image. He doesn’t exactly exude the charisma you would think necessary for the man, plus his use of “old sport” is so overly abundant it approaches farce. Maguire (Brothers) is a bit too earnest even for his role. It becomes readily clear within minutes that Maguire does not possess a voice for narration. The man is also a bit too old, at 37, to play the naïve, stars-in-his-eyes Nick Carraway. Mulligan (Shame) is given the least to work with since Daisy is meant to be rather opaque but she brings an extra amount of sympathy for a character trapped by her indecision and the demands of men. Easily the best actor in the bunch is Edgerton (Warrior). It would be easy for the guy to simply be the brutish heavy, the angry husband and easy to hate antagonist. Edgerton showcases a surprising depth, and you may find yourself feeling some smidge of sympathy for the lout.

Much like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, it’s an easy prediction that his Great Gatsby will be equally divisive. There will probably be as many critics decrying Luhrmann’s blitzkrieg of confetti and style as a campy cannibalization of an American classic as there will be celebrating the mad energy and obsequious reverence exhibited in a handsomely mounted, big-budget adaptation. The movie is even being presented in 3D, and did you ever think you’d hear the phrase “The Great Gatsby in 3D” in your life? I enjoyed Luhrmann’s gaudiness and indulgences, painting the screen with his vivid imagination. The impressive production design, costumes, visual effects, and overall visual aesthetic of the movie are a feast for the eyes. Now there are plenty of indulgences and excesses in the movie, particularly the emphasis on grand romance, but Gatsby entertains with few lags. Having read the book once and disliked it heartily in my youth, I can readily say that here is an example of where the movie is better than the book. Now if someone could go about making an improved version of The Lord of the Flies and A Tale of Two Cities, whatever you have to do, my teenage self will thank you kindly.

Nate’s Grade: B

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

J. Edgar (2011)

J. Edgar has all the qualities you’d want in a high profile, awards-friendly movie. It charts the life of legendary FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio in its title role, and it has Oscar-winner attached as screenwriter (Dustin Lance Black) and director (Clint Eastwood). The only way this movie could be bigger awards bait was if Hoover personally challenged Adolf Hitler to a duel. At a running time of 137 minutes, J. Edgar misses out on explaining why this complex man was who he was, a difficult prospect but I would have at least appreciated some effort.

J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) was, at his height, said to be the second most powerful man in the United States. The first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations served under eight presidents and for over 50 years. The man rose to power fighting against radicals and Bolshevik terrorists in 1919. Hoover successfully arranged for America to deport foreigners with “suspected radical leanings.” He was appointed to head the, then, Bureau of Investigations, where Hoover remade the agency in the image he desired. His agents were going to be clean-cut, college-educated, physically fit, and God help you if you had facial hair. Hoover also fought to bring modern forensic science into investigations and trials, proposing a centralized catalogue of fingerprints, which at the time was dismissed by many as a “speculative science.” Hoover also amassed an extensive system of confidential files on thousands of American citizens he felt were potential threats or if he just didn’t like them. Hoover wasn’t afraid to bully presidents with this secret catalogue. On a personal level, Hoover was admittedly without any friends or interests outside the agency he felt responsible for. His life was defined by three close personal relationships: his mother (Judi Dench), whom Hoover lived with until the day she died; Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his loyal secretary and confidant of 40 years; and Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer), an FBI agent that Hoover shared a decades-long unrequited romance with. Upon Hoover’s death in 1972, Tolson was given Hoover’s burial flag, and Tolson’s own grave is a mere couple plots away from J. Edgar’s.

The movie feels trapped in a closet alongside Hoover. The guy was rather enigmatic and hard to nail down, but I would have appreciated Eastwood and Black at least trying to figure the guy out. They treat the subject with such fragility, such sympathetic stateliness about his more salient personality points. It feels like Eastwood doesn’t want to get his hands too dirty, so the provocative material, like the gay stuff, is kept to very period appropriate acts of discretion. A handholding in the backseat of a car is practically scandalous given the treatment on the gay material. The oft rumored cross-dressing aspect is hinted at but explained, in context of the scene, as Hoover’s way of mourning the loss of his mother. With Hoover, there was only his public persona of a moral crusader, a face that he never removed even in his private moments. The guy could never embrace happiness, only duty. It feels like Eastwood couldn’t decide on what stance to take, and thus the film settles on a bloodless examination that won’t upset any of the, presumably, delicate sensibilities of the older audience members. A towering figure of moral certainty, extreme paranoia, righteous conviction, a vindictive streak against his mounting collection of enemies, and a shaky hold on the truth, all in the name of protection against America’s many real and imagined enemies – I feel like the blueprint has been established for the eventual Dick Cheney biopic. It’ll just be slightly less gay.

Let’s talk more about the gay factor. It feels like this area is where Eastwood definitely could have pushed much further, but the old school director seems to be of the opinion that a biopic need not pry nor speculate. Excuse me, but you’re telling me about a man’s life, the least you could do is dig deeper. A domineering mother, who said she’d rather have a dead son than one of those “daffodils,” and the moral restraints of the time, are easy enough to identify why Hoover was a repressed homosexual. That doesn’t separate him from probably a far majority of homosexual men in the first half of the twenty-first century. What makes Hoover, a repressed homosexual, tick? This is no Brokeback Mountain style whirlwind of untamable emotion. Eastwood keeps things chaste, choosing to view Hoover as a celibate man. Hoover and Clyde becomes inseparable “companions,” eating every dinner together, going away on trips, and enjoying the pleasure of one another’s company – the life of the lifelong “bachelor.” But that’s as far as the movie is willing to go (remember the scandalous handholding?). There are hints about how socially awkward Hoover can be, a guy who seems downright asexual at times. He proposed to Helen on a first date where his attempts to charm included showing off his card catalogue system at the Library of Congress (“I bet you show this to all the girls…”). You get the impression he’s not comfortable with this necessary area of human biology. That’s fine room to start, but J. Edgar doesn’t do anything but start its characterization ideas. It gives you ideas to toy with and then moves along. The relationship with Clyde hits a breaking point when Hoover discusses, during one of their weekend getaways, the prospect of finally choosing a “Mrs. Hoover.” Naturally Clyde does not react well to this development, and the two engage in a brawl that ends in a shared bloody kiss. This is about as passionate as Eastwood’s movie ever dares to get.

I expected more from the Oscar-winning writer of Milk. Black’s lumpy script can often be confusing, lacking a direct narrative through line. Some leaps in time can just be confusing, like when J. Edgar is asking his junior agent typist what figure was most important in the 20th century thus far. The agent answers, “Joe McCarthy,” and then we have a new agent sitting there, and Hoover asks again. Finally we have another agent who responds with Hoover’s desired answer, “Charles Lindbergh.” I suppose we’re left to assume that Hoover fired his typists until he found one who mirrored his own thoughts. There is also far too much time spent over the Lindbergh baby case. I understand it’s the so-called Crime of the Century and, as Black sets up, a situation for Hoover to prove his bureau’s value when it comes to modern criminal science. It just goes on for so long and rarely offers insight into Hoover. Sans Clyde, the majority of the supporting characters offer little insight as well. Hoover’s mother never goes beyond the domineering matrimonial figure. Helen seems like a cipher, rarely giving any explanation for her decades of loyalty despite clear objections to certain choices. She’s too often just a “secretary” there to move the plot along by introducing more characters of minimal impact. With Hoover being such an enigmatic and closeted figure, the supporting characters could have been the areas we found the most insight into the man. Nope.

The entire plot structure feels like a mistake. Hoover is dictating his memoirs so we primarily flash from the 1930s, when Hoover was making a name for himself, to the 1960s, when Hoover is fighting a secret war against, of all things, the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. (he was convinced King was tied to communists). The back-and-forth nature of the story can lead to some confusion over facts and timelines, but the concept of Hoover dictating his memoirs means that the movie becomes a greatest hits compilation, a showcase of Hoover’s finest hours in an attempt to win public support back. He can explain his obsessions and justify his overreaches. That’s why Hoover’s entire catalogue of secret files on thousands of American citizens, including presidents, is given such short shrift. Why would he want to discuss his own subversive tactics hunting subversive elements? The only time the screenplay discusses this secret catalogue is when Hoover and Clyde want to have a good laugh over Eleanor Roosevelt’s lesbian paramour (irony?). Richard Nixon covets these files, so Helen swears that upon the death of her boss that she will shred every page before Tricky Dick can get his hands on them (J. Edgar is rated R for “brief strong language,” and they are all provided by potty-mouthed Nixon). Black attempts something of an Atonement-styled ending with an unreliable narrator, but the effects are slight and only superficial and too late.

At this point it’s probably going to be rare for DiCaprio (Inception, Revolutionary Road) to give a dud performance. The actor isn’t the first name you’d think of for a Hoover biography. Regardless, the guy does a great job especially with the emotional handicaps given to him by Black’s script and Eastwood’s direction. Given all the emotional reserve, it’s amazing that DiCaprio is able to make his character resonate as much as he can, finding small nuances to work with. Hoover’s clipped speaking style, likely the most readily recognizable feature of the man, is here but DiCaprio does not stoop to impression. He’s coated in what looks like 800 pounds of makeup to portray Hoover in the 1960s. The old age makeup looks good on DiCaprio, though the same cannot be said for his inner circle. Older Clyde looks like he is suffocating behind a gummy Halloween mask; the man looks like he is mummified in his own liver-spotted skin. Older Helen just looks like they powdered her face and added some gray to her hair.

The movie seems to take its emotional cues from its subject; far too much of J. Edgar is reserved, hands-off, and afraid to assert judgment on what was a highly judgmental man of history. What makes Hoover compelling is his array of contradictions. He’s defined by three personal relationships (mother, Clyde, Helen), all of whom he could never have. That’s got to mean something. Instead of exploring these contradictions in any meaningful psychological depth, Eastwood seems to take his hand off the wheel and the film just casually drifts along, steered by the self-aggrandizing of Hoover himself, given so much room to explain detestable behavior in the name of protecting America. J. Edgar is a handsomely mounted biopic with some strong acting, but from Eastwood’s impassive direction (his piano-trinkle score isn’t too good either) and Black’s lumpy script, the finished work feels too closed off and arid for such a controversial subject worthy of closer inspection.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Shutter Island (2010)

This was a pulpy B-movie put together with A-movie artistry. In a year that had some artistically polished genre movies, Shutter Island was Martin Scorsese’s return to genre filmmaking and he brought with him an entire team of experts and professionals. The movie is playful and intriguing, engaging the mind enough for a crime thriller that appears to be a straight-forward mystery but then shows flashes of being about something more, something darker. And when you’re dealing with a movie with Holocaust flashbacks, dead kids, Nazi doctors, mental asylums, well you know you’re not going to be reaching subtlety even with a stick. But the way Scorsese orchestrates all these foreboding elements, tying together various plotlines, and working at different levels to satisfy the informed and uninformed, right before delivering a dynamite twist that calls for further investigation and rewatching, well it’s nothing short of masterful. Shutter Island may not be anything more than a souped-up B-movie, but with this level of artistry, it’s also one of the most entertaining films of the year.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Inception (2010)

Without a doubt, no movie has piqued curiosity like Christopher Nolan’s Inception. After breaking all sorts of box-office records with The Dark Knight, Nolan earned some capital. He wanted to make an expensive, intellectually demanding, high-concept movie that takes place mostly in the realm of dreams. The studio said yes, anything to keep their golden goose happy before a third Batman can roll out. Nolan has been tinkering with the script for Inception for almost ten years, trying to scale it down but never being content. This is a story that called for the biggest stage, which required a heavy price tag, and could only be fulfilled once Nolan was an established hit-maker. Early images of shifting gravity and folding cityscapes got people buzzing but then the concern was whether Inception would be too smart for audiences to embrace. You know, the same public that made two Alvin and the Chipmunks films blockbusters. Two weeks running, Inception has made a sizeable portion of money and become the “must-see” movie of the summer. Score one for the public.

Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert extractor. He can sneak into your dreams and discover whatever secret you’re hiding from your self, your wife, even your shrink. All for a tidy sum, of course. He’s on the run from U.S. authorities because they believe he killed his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). A rich businessman, Seito (Ken Watanabe), promises to clear away the pending charges if Cobb can perform one important job. Instead of stealing an idea, Cobb will have to plant an idea, known as inception. A young upstart (Cillian Murphy) will inherit his dying father?s empire, and Seito wants the guy to break up that empire and sell it off. Cobb enlists the help of a skilled team to pull off what is believed to be impossible; Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as the point man, Ariadne (Ellen Page), as the architect of the dream world, Eames (Tom Hardy), a forger who can convince the mark he?s other identities, and Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist that creates a compound to put the team under a deep sleep. They’ll need it because Cobb plans to go three levels deep, a dream within a dream within a dream in order for inception to take root. The only way out is a “kick,” the sensation of falling that will awaken the dreamer. The team is under great risk not just from the dream world, but also from Cobb. He?s been secretly keeping memories of his dead wife alive and she keeps intruding into shared dreaming, causing havoc, relying on the same info that Cobb knows. The deeper they go into the dream the deeper they also go into Cobb’s memories.

Inception can be many things to many people, as is the nature of dreams. I found the movie to be a master class mousetrap. Watching Nolan and his origami-like script fold and bend and connect is a true pleasure. However, the movie is not a great character piece. Cobb is the only person on the entire team allowed any sort of back-story or inner lives or even personality traits. What do we know about Arthur, Ariadne, Eames? Nothing. They are all members of the team, but it is Cobb who is the only one allowed to have supporting details. Despite Cobb’s tragic past with his wife, emotionally the movie can best be described as a bit distant (not cold, distant). Nor does Inception deal with the psychology of dreams or the interpretation of the subconscious and its links to our own reality; this movie does not have Freudian psychoanalysis in mind. What Inception does deliver is a brilliantly staged heist that takes place in the realm of dreams, and if that doesn’t sound like a fun concept then I don?t know what does. To get to that heist, the audience must slosh through about 90 minutes of solid set-up and exposition (Pages character is essentially an exposition device). There are a lot of rules to digest in order for the final hour to have the impact that it does. If you nod off for a portion of that time, like my father, you will be lost as to why anything is exactly happening. Having seen the film a second time, I can say that once the hyperactive “Oh my gosh, this is awesome!” haze of newness wears off you do realize that the pre-heist portion of the movie can be a bit slow. I think that for future DVD-viewings I will skip to the start of the heist and sit back and relax (much like skipping the first hour of King Kong).

After talking about what Inception is not, let’s focus on what Inception is. It is a massively entertaining, brain-tickling thriller with eye-popping visuals that verge toward the iconic. Nolan isn’t the greatest orchestrator of action (a foot chase in Mombassa is pretty lackluster short of a narrow alleyway) but the man knows how to put together tremendously memorable set pieces. From Paris folding upon itself to a fistfight in a revolving hallway, Inception is packed with stimuli to ignite the senses. It’s the first movie in years that I walked out and thought, “How did they do that?” It renewed my sense of mystery and wonder with the movies. And the last hour is ridiculously fraught with tension as the movie descends level after level of subconscious, juggling four separate action set pieces with mounting climaxes. The revolving hallway fight is perhaps my favorite action scene in years. I still got goose bumps the second time. Gordon-Levitt hops from ceiling to floor like he’s Spiderman, or Gene Kelly, all while the camera remains fixed. Gordon-Levitt gets a lot of zero gravity experience in this movie. He might have qualified for a free ride on the space shuttle.

Like the alternate reality of The Matrix, people can manipulate the world of dreams, which allows for some imaginative visuals. Aside from the dreams-within-dreams impacting one another, there aren’t really playful distortions of reality. There?s a few M. C. Escher-inspired staircases but nothing too out of bounds. Nolan devises a reason for this since the dreamers do not want to call attention to altering the dream. They want to hide among the subconscious projections; get in and get out without being noticed. You do wish that Nolan played to the potential of his flexible reality, but on the other hand, it’s still fairly mind-bending to reach inside a magician?s hat into another magician?s hat and so on. I wonder if there was another story that could have succeeded in this setting, namely competing thieves that have to race against time within the world of dreams. Think about it next time, Nolan. That one?s on me.

But the most exciting aspect of the movie is how intellectually stimulating it is. The movie is jam-packed with ideas like Nolan’s other works, so much that it’s hard to fully process everything the film offers in one sitting. The pieces do fit together and the movie follows its own internal logic, so if you didn’t skip out on any bathroom breaks, you should be able to follow along reasonably. On first viewing, Inception is bristling with intelligence and narrative complexity, and it rarely stops to pander to an audience. It expects you to keep up for the rewards that will follow, and they are indeed rewarding. The movie isn’t as complicated to follow but it can definitely get complicated when you try and explain action beyond a literal level. Nolan laces all sorts of narrative stops and peculiarities that can be targeted for an alternative thesis statement on the ending. The very ending shot is ambiguous perfection. It keeps the mystery of what constitutes reality while providing an out for people that want to formulate a happy ending. There’s plenty of room for interpretation and analysis but it doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story. Hollywood is pretty risk averse when it comes to anything that makes people think, let along anything expensive that requires active synapses. Nolan has long been a filmmaker of intellectual heft and non-linear narratives. His narratives are complex puzzles that snap together with airtight precision. The joy of a Nolan film is surrendering yourself to his narrative origami and waiting to see the Big Picture. There are new insights to discover with every viewing. Nolan may not be the second-coming of God, as those frothing at the mouth on Internet message boards proclaim, but I can think of no other director working today who harnesses Big Ideas on such a big stage.

Inception is a $160-million dollar studio film with substance, but it also looks like money well spent. The film looks amazing. The cinematography by Wall Pfister (Dark Knight) is gorgeous without being self-consciously arty, pleasing the senses without drawing too much attention away from the story. But with a screenplay that makes all kinds of leaps, you need the help of a good editor to guide the proceedings. Lee Smith (Truman Show, Master and Commander) is that man. While the repeated cutbacks to the van falling in slow motion can be giggle-inducing, Smith gamely holds everything together thanks to his skill in juggling all the parallel storylines/dreamscapes. Finally, the score by Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Gladiator) is full of ominous, blaring horns that send shivers and get your blood pumping. Johnny Marr (The Smiths, Modest Mouse) even added an assist by strumming the guitar licks on the score. Apparently Zimmer’s key score themes are actually the tune “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” the Edith Piaf signature song used to signal “kicks,” played at a slowed speed. At the risk of sounding like one of those frothing from the mouth on the Internet, that’s insanely cool.

The acting is uniformly good with a few bumps. DiCaprio (Shutter Island) might need to do something light after continuous roles where he inhabits mean weighed down by guilt and dead wives (three in a row for those counting). He’s a good emotional anchor. Watching the star of 500 Days of Summer and Brick as a suave, cool-as-can-be action star is improbably awesome. Hardy (Bronson) is a scene-stealer mostly because he?s the only member of the team that has a sense of humor. Cotillard (Nine, Public Enemies) who won an Oscar playing Edith Piaf in 2007’s La vie en Rose, gets her best part since then. She gets to do many things as Mal, a projection of a character. This means that she must be limited in how she fills out the character because she is defined by Cobb’s fading memory. Yet she can be malicious, playful, spiteful, loving, vulnerable, and more. Cotillard and her big, glassy eyes do a great service in selling a romance we only see after the fact. Page (Juno) just feels out of place. She seems like the kid among a group of adults. And while the elfin actress will always look youthful until she applies for an AARP card, Page just seems in over her head. Her performance is fine if a bit mealy-mouthed but she still feels miscast.

Inception. Expect it to become a fanboy religion in a matter of weeks. It wears its influences on its sleeve, from The Matrix to Abre Los Ojos (or the American remake, Vanilla Sky). Thrilling, stimulating on different levels, and supremely engrossing, Inception is just about everything you could wish for in a summer blockbuster, except when it can also feel mechanical, distant, and free of emotion and character development save DiCaprio (perhaps this is further evidence that it was all a dream?). Regardless, Inception is easily the brainiest movie of the year, and usually those don?t get packaged as big-budget Hollywood spectacle. Just make sure to bring your totem the second time you watch the movie.

Nate’s Grade: A

Reservation Road (2008)

This movie beguiles me. I watched it over a month ago and I am still turning it over in my brain, and not just for the fact that I get it confused with the similar sounding yet also disappointing Reservation Road. It’s another movie that presents the suburbs as a prison of bourgeoisie social moirés about how men and women are expected to live to be happy. The movie looks magnificent thanks to skilled cinematography by Roger Deakens, even if it falls back on redundant visual metaphors (look, the windows are shaped like prison bars!). The acting by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the unhappily 1950s married couple Frank and April Wheeler, is mostly impressive. Michael Shannon deservedly was nominated for an Oscar as an unhinged realtor’s son who cuts through all the troublesome and fake niceties. It is a terrific performance and jolts the movie with much-needed energy, somewhat like Renee Zellweger’s role in Cold Mountain. I think that’s where my biggest area of concern is: the movie is just kind of placidly dull. Watching people be miserable for most of a two-hour running time isn’t a deal-breaker, but the movie needs to have some life to it. Revolutionary Road feels just as morose and restrained as its assortment of doomed married couples eeking out an existence. Perhaps that is an achievement to be heralded for director Sam Mendes. Then again, perhaps it just means I felt purposely remote and directionless and just waited for the movie to expire.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Babel (2006)/ Blood Diamond (2006)

The world is a global community. It is increasingly difficult to shut out unpleasant news just because it happens to an unfortunate few we’ll never know. Hollywood has reminded us through the years that our actions do have sound repercussions, including our indifference. Babel is Mexican-director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s examination on the fragility of human relationships in the world. Blood Diamond wishes to shine the spotlight on America’s love of diamonds fanning the flames of genocide in Africa. Both movies wish to convince the public that they matter, and not just in box-office, though that would be appreciated. Both of these films have good intentions but the results are sloppy and leaden.

In typical Inarritu fashion, the different storylines of Babel converge, blend, criss-cross, and crash together. The timeline isn’t as disruptive as it was in 21 Grams, so that is a welcome relief. The storylines offer wide-eyed views into different worlds and cultures. A Morocco goat herder purchases a riffle for his sons to protect the herd. The two brothers turn sharp-shooting into a competition, with the one betting the other he cannot hit a bus far in the distance. On that bus is Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett), a married couple at odds with each other. Suddenly a shot whizzes through the window and into Susan’s neck. Richard panics and struggles with his options being far removed from advanced medical care and being unable to speak with the natives.

The incident becomes the shot heard round the world. The U.S. government is quick to suggest a terrorist link (who didn’t see that one coming?) but caught up in red tape to rescue the couple. Their nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), cannot find someone to watch the kids so she can attend her son’s wedding in Mexico. Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal) agrees to drive her and the kids south of the border where the blonde moffetts can learn things like how to kill a chicken. Things take a sour note when reentering the United States at a border crossing manned by suspicious patrolmen.

And half a world away, a deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl (Rinko Kikuchi) deals in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide by flashing her vagina at boys and throwing herself at older men. Therapy might also be a workable alternative.

The strong ensemble acting is what kept me watching. Babel is filled with many talented actors that each get a turn to look pained, incredulous, and helpless. This is a movie primarily built around sadness and misfortune, and actors jump at those chances. Exhibit A: Brad Pitt. I’ve always thought his serious acting credentials get cast aside because of his good looks (the man even played a Greek god), but he’s into his 40s now and weathering some grown-up gray and wrinkles that, I don’t know how, add a mature sexiness to the man, much like George Clooney. Pitt was serviceable in Babel but failed to impress. He gets to pace a lot and look haggard but he still seems like a distant character. The whole American tourist storyline cannot outrun the sense of pointlessness it seems to be circling. The greatest moments of acting come from the extreme anxiety of Barraza and the dissatisfied yearning of Kikuchi. I expect both women to get nominated for many awards.

The most frustrating aspect of Babel is how little it matters. It’s hard to connect with the characters. And in the end, nothing all that tragic happens to reach anything profound. Most characters leave their shadowy places and only a small number are changed for the worst, mostly the victims of some very bad decision making. But when the movie concludes there is only one dead body and one displaced person. That’s it, and Babel doesn’t even hang on to let us feel that pain. It just skips from story to story never settling in and never evoking any human emotion except for that of morbid curiosity. These people are victims of fate and not much else. Babel is a letdown of a letdown.

The Japanese schoolgirl storyline has no place in this film. The other three storylines all have a pertinent relationship, but the only thing that ties the schoolgirl into this web of international kerfuffle is that her father once owned the gun in question. Wow. It might have made better drama, and more sense, had this riffle had some significance, like it was the weapon of choice for her suicidal mother. Nope, it’s just another object with no more bearing to this family than a stapler. I think the deaf-mute Japanese schoolgirl is a terrific character and intensely intriguing, especially as she battles the trials of teenage life and feeling like even more of an outcast than usual, but this story needs its own separate movie. It has no business being here and, like much of Babel, adds little understanding or significance. So much of the movie isn’t even told to the audience, like character back-stories and written catharsis, so any distraction feels like a waste of time for a 140-minute movie.

The ending is symptomatic of the film in general; it just kind of peters out and thinks its message has been well-received. What message? What the hell is Babel saying? Stop, look, and listen? The world stage is at such a precarious time and is, for better or worse, unified; someone else’s problem has ripples that will become our problem. Isolationism is dead. But Babel squanders any attempts at a deeper message by playing it safe; never pushing further than the scene descriptions it has confined itself to. The title refers to the Biblical story where God punished man’s arrogance by creating multiple languages. Most of the conflicts revolve around communication issues, but they really only seem like a small portion of the story. When Amelia takes the kids to Mexico, there really aren’t any communication problems. When the car is stopped by the Border Patrol there aren’t any slip-ups in communication, but Santiago freaks out and bolts. The central idea of Babel, lost communication, never really feels properly executed except with the Japanese schoolgirl, who, like I said, doesn’t even belong here.

When Babel does have something political to dwell upon it is usually very lazy. Law enforcement treats illegal immigrants like crap. The U.S. government is more interested in punishing perceived threats than medically helping those in need. American tourists are boorish and see dusty places like Morocco as a place to be alone, despite all the impoverished people shuffling about. Give me a break. There’s nothing within Babel that makes it worth more than one viewing. Once you know the outcome for characters than the film ceases to have a point. This is a true surprise and disappointment from the team that had so much emotional vitality and open humanity with Amores Perros and 21 Grams. I guess a lot must have gotten lot in translation.

On the flip side, while Babel is a mildly interesting movie desperately needing a message, Blood Diamond is a message in desperate need of an interesting movie. The message rings loud and clear in the film?s opening moments: conflict diamonds are bad. They account for 15 percent of all diamond sales and help finance genocide, civil war, and child brainwashing in Africa. The diamond industry says they cannot decipher which diamonds are which, but come on, they know. They use their market share to control world prices, thus creating a windfall for African rebels. They come up with more diamonds, and the diamond industry purchases them to take them off the market. Got it. But now what?

The short answer is, “‘Just say no’ to conflict diamonds, that is.” The long answer is one very trite movie that wears its liberal idealism on its sleeve with a bit too much fondness. Africa has become the cause celebre of recent films, but have any of them really made a difference? Did The Constant Gardener make us think twice about why drugs are so cheap (because Africans are exploited)? Did Syriana make us think twice why oil was comparatively cheap for Americans (because Africans AND Middle Easterners are exploited)? I doubt it. I may sound a pinch too cynical but I believe that the Unites States of America just generally doesn’t care as long as prices stay nice and low. I applaud filmmakers for attempting to open eyes and change hearts and minds, especially for many thought-provoking and worthy causes. But if you’re going to sponsor a message movie than you need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

Blood Diamond will make you gag, that’s how heavy the message is. It displays a depressing showcase of Africa recycling violence, but it always manages to stay on point. The movie is supposed to be concerned with the well being of Africa, but yet it hangs its attention on a pair of white people. Danny (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a South African diamond smuggler who gets the classic Hollywood redemption arc, courtesy of Solomon (Djimon Hounsou) an enslaved mine-worker that has found a pink diamond the size of a bird egg. Danny and Solomon form a reluctant partnership to get recover the diamond, rescue Solomon’s lost son, and get everyone out of the raging gunfire. But the film is focused on Danny’s arc as he goes from scoundrel to savior, with all those black faces in the background just becoming that — background. The film’s climax involves Danny running through a mining camp looking to rescue Solomon’s lost son. However, Danny shoots and kills all the other kids holding weapons as he dances in between explosions. You cannot root for that as a moral audience member, can you? Danny may save one child but he’ll blow away all the rest, and to the pounding score of Hollywood glory. If this was meant to seem meditative than God help us all.

Jennifer Connelly plays a photo journalist that?s a self-described action junkie. She says she just can’t go through her day sipping lattes and reading Ziggy in the funny papers, not with knowing how cruel the world is to one another. Did she just become aware of this? The world has always had people getting treated poorly and will forever. Her character is an outlet to the Western world, a lens that can capture and broadcast the horrors of Africa which she flippantly predicts will be a minute on CNN “between sports and weather.” She’s your prototypical bleeding heart and the not-so-subtle outlet for the righteous indignation of the filmmakers. There’s nothing to her character except a camera for proof, an unyielding moral compass, and a pair of breasts for Danny to improbably snuggle up to.

The message of Blood Diamond is what we’re reminded of time and again, including tidbits to clue us in on how it all began (where did Africa learn some brutality? Why white colonists of course). The movie is built as an action vehicle, but it’s an action vehicle going in the wrong direction. The bursts of action are frequent but never anything well imagined or exciting. Usually the film follows two, or more, characters talking and then they’re interrupted by bouts of gunfire. Danny starts uttering “GO!” and “MOVE!” every other breath and they escape. This formula is repeated for the rest of the movie. It hampers getting to know and feel for the characters and sure as hell doesn’t amount to a lot of interesting action. There’s the main problem: we can’t feel for the characters because the movie doesn’t spend enough time with them, and yet we can’t get excited because the movie doesn’t spend enough time to build effective suspense. Blood Diamond finds its way into a balancing act it is hopelessly ill-prepared for.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) is used to fashioning mass-friendly entertainment with cultural issues bubbling to the surface. Perhaps, though, he should have taken a cue from Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War. That film had an easily identifiable message (guns can be bad) but found ways to engage an audience. It had a lot of political ire and troubling statistics to dish, but Niccol knew that an audience must be entertained first and foremost. He found inventive camera angles, stirring monologues, and fascinating true-life anecdotes about arms trading. The main character wasn’t likeable but you just wanted a longer peek into this world behind the curtain. Blood Diamond lacks the biting insights that made Lord of War powerful and enjoyable. Even Lord of War handled the subject of turning children into a blood-thirsty army better. Zwick seems adrift and too close to his message to care about sharpening a good movie.

The movie has a handful of odd moments. In our introduction to Danny he is negotiating a weapons deal. He speaks to the head of a militia in a highly accented speech and subtitles pop up on the screen. Naturally, you would assume the language currently being spoken is not English. Danny is actually just impersonating an African’s English speaking voice. If you listen to what they’re saying they speak English the entire time. And the line, “In America, it’s bling-bling, but over here it’s bling-bang?” No. A thousand times no.

DiCaprio is muscling his way into a riveting and meaty actor of prominence. His accent is near flawless, just like his Bah-stun accent was in The Departed. He gives more simmer to his role than deserved. Hounsou is a great actor but his most emotive scenes involve a lot of yelling that just seems like yelling. A lot of high-volume yelling doesn’t work when the character is so flimsy. Both of these actors are victims of playing characters with little else to them besides the title of Victim and Victimizer. Connelly and DiCaprio have no chemistry to them, not that the film’s neutered sensuality and agitated story help much. It’s as if Blood Diamond expects that by smashing the two characters together long enough their romance will be plausible. It isn’t. The romance is a distraction at best and eye-rolling at worst.

Babel and Blood Diamond are both pieces of misguided Oscar-bait. Innaritu and his writer for three films, Guillermo Arriaga, have said to have clashed since Babel‘s release and may no longer work again together in the near future. I welcome this trial separation because their film collaborations seem to be dulling. Babel has all the technical skills evident in 21 Grams and Amores Perros, but nothing substantial or contemplative. Conversely, Blood Diamond is a message movie posing as an action flick. It can’t succeed with poorly constructed action sequences and archetypal characters posing as openings for outrage and shameful finger-wagging. The movie is crushed to death by a message. Blood Diamond is a message movie that’s so weighted down it never gets very far. Both films are marginally interesting but nothing transcendent or demanding. Hollywood has its heart in the right place. They just need to make better movies.

Nate’s Grades:

Babel: B-

Blood Diamond: C

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