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It's Better Up Here. . .Or Is It?
It's more than obvious that when people go to their local movie house on rent/buy a DVD, they don't want to think about anything, aside from having a good time. Fair enough, but being voluntarily stupid doesn't exactly contribute to society. Message films today are kind of looked upon as "pro-Commie, bleeding heart propaganda" (thanks, Fox News), but they still have a place in the world. One of them is "Elysium", Neill Blomkamp's slam-bam yet thoughtful follow-up to his Oscar-nominated "District 9".
Like the song by the funk band, War, the world has become a ghetto by the year 2154, due to disease, pollution and overpopulation, and anyone big-pocketed has high-tailed it to a halo-shaped space station, its' name shared with the film's title, decked with Beverly Hills-like mansion, servant and security droids and rejuvenation chambers. Any "undesirables" are quickly shot down, under the command of Delacourt (Jodie Foster, "Taxi Driver", "Flightplan") the station's secretary of defense.
The fly is in the ointment happens to Max Dacosta (Matt Damon, the "Jason Bourne" saga, "Dogma"), an ex-thief turn robot factory worker, who's dying of radiation poisoning after a work-related accident. Refitted with an exo-suit by "smugglers", he's sent to capture and download financial intel from the brain of his apathetic ex-boss (William Fichtner, "Prison Break", "Drive Angry") as payment for his journey to the space station, but the intel's actually a reset program for said station as the ingredient for a coup, making Max a target for DelaCourt and her field soldier, the sociopathic Kruger (Sharlto Copley, "District 9", "The A-Team Movie").
Like "District 9", which allegorized apartheid in South Africa, "Elysium" brilliantly allegorizes illegal immigration, social division and healthcare. Did it have to take a South African-born filmsmith to make a sci-fi satire about the aforementioned topics? Guess so, else the film's wouldn't had a sharp edge, the space station being a pristine heaven while Earth's a garbage-encrusted, decaying hell. Production designer Phillip Ivey captures that division, especially in the look of the technology. No one here's in exactly good or bad, just opportunistic, noting how society can fall so low. Damon fits in a role Bruce Willis could have played to a T; Foster echoes Sigourney Weaver with pure coldness and Copley, the 21st Century's Bruce Campbell, is both bottle-cap sardonic and sinister. They're helped by Alice Braga ("Repo Men") as an old childhood love of Max; Diego Luna ("Rudo Y Cursi") as Max's old heist pal and Wagner Moura as an "tech coyote".
"Elysium" is one of those films that deserves to watch more than once because, like Blomkamp's first film, it tells the truth about the human condition in a sci-fi canvas.
Man of Steel (2013)
The Blue Boy Scout Grows Up...And Kicks Ass!
I find it interesting that I grew up reading comic books yet didn't like the granddaddy of superheroes, Superman. Why?
I found him silly, unrealistic, buffoonish. The four films starring the late Chris Reeve cemented my viewpoint. Leave him to the non-fanboys, I thought. They can have and keep him, I thought. What changed my mind?
His appearance on his solo late 90s animated series, "Justice League: The Animated Series" and "Smallville". He has feelings, doubts, real internal conflicts. He's relatable! The bottle cap of that revelation happens to be the sixth film featuring Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's iconic hero and the sixth film by madcap fanboy director Zack Snyder (the Dawn of the Dead remake, "300", "Watchmen", "Legend Of The Guardians", "Sucker Punch"). The less said about the 2006 misstep, the better...
The birth of the baby, named Kal-El, precedes the destruction of his home planet Krypton, forcing his parents, scientist Jor-El (impressive Russell Crowe of "American Gangster") and ex-astronaut Lara Lor-Van (elegant Ayelet Zurer of "Darling Companion") to send him to Earth via rocket ship with the genetic codes of many Kryptonians. Fanatical military leader General Zod (manic Michael Shannon of "Boardwalk Empire") tries to stop this during a coup d'etat, but fails and he and his loyalists are sentenced to the Phantom Zone.
Kal-El, meanwhile, is found and rechristened as Clark Joseph Kent by farmers Jonathan (Kevin Costner of "Silverado") and Martha Kent (Diane Lane of "Under The Tuscan Sun"), but his budding powers make him an outcast. So, as an adult (buff but noble Henry Cavill of "The Tudors" and "Whatever Works"), Clark leaves Smallville, Kansas, becoming a nomadic worker, until, as an Alaskan expedition grunt, he discovers a Kryptonian spacecraft that reveals his heritage and destiny. It's a good thing too as Zod and his group are freed from the Zone by their planet's end, and they see Earth as a new home. Uh-oh...
If you try to compare "Man Of Steel" with the older films, you'll be disappointed. With a powerful yet down-to-earth, sometimes non-linear script by David S. Goyer and Chris Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy) on his lap, Snyder throws away the camp and silliness of said films and, like the under-rated "Watchmen", matures the superhero archetype. Chris Reeve's Superman can't exist in the real, let alone post-Sept. 11 world; he looks dumb, phony, anachronistic. If you're the only powerful alien on a planet whose populace could fear and hate you, you're far from sociable, but you try to make a difference anyway. Mr. Cavill plays that role to total competence.
He's lucky to be surrounded by a strong supporting cast, composed of Oscar winners and nominees and Emmy winners and nominees. Crowe has an middle-aged Obi Wan Kenobi tone that outdoes Marlon Brando's Jor-El; Costner (hauntingly good) and Lane (warm & sweet) are baby boomers with Norman Rockwell hints; Laurence Fishburne (the Matrix saga) is dead-on caustic as Daily Planet chief editor Perry White and Chris Meloni (Law & Order: SVU) is valiant as an Air Force colonel.
Like Cavill, the next two actors have refashioned their characters. As Zod, Mr. Shannon gives an A-game performance, being a mad dog with an army unit, technology and a well-meaning but twisted goal to save his race, conflicting with Mr. Crowe's noble means. It's a Sam Peckinpah bromance on a galatical scale (the director was slated to direct the 1978 film but his rep went south).
The other thespian's button-cute Amy Adams ("Junebug", "Enchanted") as Daily Planet news hound Lois Lane, who befriends our hero. Sure, she's independent and gutsy, but, thanks to the lack of camp, she's also smart, likable, relatable and realistic, not the inane harpy who demeans milksops.
Someone to look out for is Antje Traue as Zod's icy, loyal right-hand lady, Faora-Ul. "For every human you save, we will kill a million more," she promises to Kal-El during a chaotic brawl in his hometown. Speaking of the battles, they are fast and destructive, echoing the "Dragon Ball" animated series. I think I lost a tooth or two...
Hans Zimmer's day-and-night score is Oscar worthy. D.P Amir Morki captures rural tranquilness and urban destruction capably. SFX wiz John Desjardin's work inspires, especially Krypton's magnetic nanotech.
Supposed fans will moan and bitch over this film, but maybe they really don't know Superman as they think they do as they dismiss his fellow heroes at DC Comics, let alone the whole comic book medium. The character's not Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker or Yogi Bear. Despite his powers, he's a person like the rest of us. That's what makes him a great hero, well deserving of a high quality summer blockbuster that's one of 2013's best.
Cold Turkey (1971)
Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em, Go Crazy If You Don't
Cigarette smoking, though legal, is looked upon as an ugly vice with ugly consequences (lung cancer, premature aging, second-hand smoke, etc.) To make a satire of it takes courage and adult sitcom savant Norman Lear ("All In The Family", its many spin-offs, "Sanford & Son", "One Day At A Time", "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman") did it in the form of the scatter shot, brilliantly cruel yet honest fable "Cold Turkey". If you know Mr. Lear's work, you know the battlefield. If not, hold on to your seat.
P.R. man Mervin Wren (an underhanded Bob Newhart, a bit away from his first sitcom) convinces his mute, feeble, wheelchair-bound employer, Hiram C. Grayson (comic character actor Edward Everett Horton, his last role here), the head of the Valiant Tobacco Company, to do a good things, despite being a producer of bad things, a la dynamite and Nobel Prize creator Alfred Nobel. The "capper", as Wren calls it, is to offer $25 million to any US town if its citizens can quit smoking for thirty days. This puts the company's board of directors in a ****-fit, but Wren calms them down with the fact that no group can go "cold turkey" and they approve of the deal.
However, they didn't count on the 4,006 citizens of the dying Iowa hamlet, Eagle Rock, taking the challenge. Led by the religiously ambitious yet vain Rev. Clayton Brooks (Dick Van Dyke, miles away from his titular sitcom and "Mary Poppins"), the people go through withdrawal syndrome. The results? Let's say whoever makes straight-jackets will be richer than the tobacco companies.
Based on "I'm Giving Them Up For Good", an unpublished novel by Margaret and Neil Rau, "Cold Turkey", like the animated sitcom "The Simpsons" (note the similarities, people), takes no prisoners in its narrative. Corporate greed; political, entertainment and news manipulation; the naiveté, self-exclusion and self-exploitation of small-town America and the military-industrial complex (a colonel promises the installation of a missile factory, after the town gets the money) are targets, and Mr. Lear, who wrote (shared story credit with William Price Fox Jr.) produced, directed this yarn, is an expert marksman (and a World War II vet to boot). With a misanthropic tone, it's understandable that United Artists, the film's distributor, shelved "Turkey" for two years, but it's a crime, due to Mr. Horton's passing.
Lear has a nimble cast; some players would later show up in his sitcoms. Mr. Van Dyke (who starred in the Lear-penned "Divorce, American Style") is righteous to save his town but careless with his wife (Pippa Scott) who's silenced by his pomposity while Mr. Newhart performs his signature buttoned-down mind routine with sly dog confidence and doe-eyed dopeyness. Other players include Tom Poston (Mr. Newhart's second sitcom) as a rich, die-hard lush; Barnard Hughes ("The Lost Boys", a recurring role on the aforementioned "Family") as a nicotine-loving sawbones; Jean Stapleton (also of "Family") as the mayor's neurotic wife; Paul Benedict ("The Jeffersons") as an anti-smoking zen Buddhist; Graham Jarvis (the aforementioned "Hartman") as an anti-"Big Government" wing-nut and (my favorite) Judith Lowry (also of "Hartman") as a foul-mouthed, Commie-hating crone. Vintage radio comics Bob Elliot (real and sitcom dad of Chris Elliot of "Get A Life") and Ray Goulding show up as walking parodies of famous newsmen ("Walter Chronic" and "David Chetley" may confuse young viewers, but there's the Internet!!!). Lear himself has a cameo as a crying man, going without a smoke.
On the technical side, there's d.p. Charles F. Wheeler, who captures the sweet rural look of Eagle Rock with some helicopter shots and wholesome, rural street shots (predating the opening sequences of Lear's sitcoms) while editor John C. Horger masterfully employs quick-cuts, like Lou Lombardo on "The Wild Bunch", when displaying the slapstick "withdrawl syndrome"gags (i.e. a husband slaps his wife while driving; a dog's kicked (!); a bowler throws himself onto a lane, crashing into some pins, etc). Award-winning composer Randy Newman (the ToyStory films, "Monk") makes his film debut here; the ironic tune that bookends the film, "He Gives Us All His Love" is dead-on funny, sweet and sad.
Bottom line (to borrow a line from Mr. Wren): "Cold Turkey" is about how society can be so dumb. The only heroes are the town's youth; "Eagle Rock, where's your head?" one young man chants in a circle of protest as the town becomes a tourist trap and enjoys being one. Like most of society, its' head is in a hole that's rank. The youth are ignored, but, by the end, they have the last laugh. So will you.
The Deadly Companions (1961)
Despite Setbacks, A Maverick Filmmaker's Maiden Voyage Remains Intriguing
When an artist starts out, their initial work is deemed ineffective and amateurish, a stepping stone to better things. However, time passes and people take a second look at the work and see what the artist was trying to accomplish, despite setbacks. That's the case with the flawed but intriguing "The Deadly Companions" the debut film from the master of modern day action cinema, Sam Peckinpah, who came from working on established Western TV dramas like "Gunsmoke" and "Broken Arrow" and creating "The Rifleman" and "The Westerner".
Five years after the American Civil War, world-weary Union vet Yellowleg (Brian Keith, who starred in Peckinpah's second albeit short-lived series) rescues puffy-faced, lowlife Confederate vet Turk (Chill Wills of "The Alamo" and the voice of Francis the Talking Mule) from being lynched, due to being to a card cheat. He enlists Turk and his partner, Fancy Dan lothario gunslinger Billy Kiplinger (Steve Cochran of "White Heat"), to rob a bank in Gila City, but another gang beats them to the punch. A gunfight ensues, ending in the death of the son of saloon gal Kit Tildon (fiery Maureen O'Hara of "The Quiet Man" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"), who's already fed up with being unfairly given a Hester Prynne reputation, courtesy of the townspeople. She decides to bury her son beside her husband in the town of Siringo, but it's desolated, due to it being in Apache territory. Feeling guilty for accidentally killing the boy, Yellowleg offers his help with the funeral procession and stirs his two companions along, but all three men have secret, different, dishonorable reasons beneath the surface.
What hurts the film slightly on the surface is the clash of Hollywood eras; Ms. O'Hara and her producing brother Charles B. Fitzsimmons representing the older one, Peckinpah representing the other. It's almost sadistic that Fitzsimmons refused the soon-to-be maverick to rewrite the simple screenplay by Albert Sidney Fleischman (adapted from his novel), locked him away from the editing room and forbade him on-set conversations with his sister (I would have told them off on day one!). It doesn't help that the production's no different from a TV show (how ironic) and the music by Marlin Skiles is best suited to an old-time carnival or a cathedral. The song Ms. O'Hara sings well, the less said, the better. All in all, it's a ham-and-cheese vehicle for an aging Golden Age Hollywood starlet.
But for Peckinpah, it was his training wheels and, due to the passage of time, his last laugh as he starts to deconstruct the romantic Hollywood western. There are the elements of individualistic honor, conflicts among lead characters, a religiously hypocritical society (Kit's son refuses to go to Heaven with townspeople who criticize her), delusion of grandeur (Turk pathetically hopes to start a new Confederacy with the bank money) and physically scarred protagonists (Yellowleg has a lousy shooting arm and was nearly scalped and it wasn't by any Indian) that would be present in the director's later work. There's no over-the-top violence, like in the future magnum opus "The Wild Bunch", due to the present yet slowly dying Production Code, but slight hints of sexuality (Ms. O'Hara bathing nude in the night time with her back turned to the camera).
The cast is competent. Keith's grimness and gruffness combats O'Hara's passionate independence (wonder if Peckinpah used him as a conduit to get his true feelings across to her). Cochran reps a phony, glossy Wild West while Wills (who would later be in the director's "Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid" ) reps a realistic, sleazy one while he's lost in unrealized dreams or glories of the past (a prophecy of PTSD among Vietnam veterans, perhaps?). Strother Martin has a straight-forward role as the town's parson; later roles in "Bunch" and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" contradict that first one.
If Peckinpah learned one thing from "Companions", it was to have script control and damn pampered actors. If any viewer can learn one thing, you can see something intriguing in the early mistreated work of a maverick artist when time goes by.
Strictly for the Found Footage Horror Fans
Directed by Michael Axelgaard and written by Matthew Holt, "Hollow" owes a lot to the likes of "Cloverfield", "The Blair Witch Project" and "Cannibal Holocaust" as it tell the tale four youngsters, having a holiday in the countryside of Suffolk, England, going about in an old monastery. Seems the place's haunted by an evil wraith that force anyone who visits to commit suicide. Will these four be next? I would love to tell you, but I can't. It's a found footage horror film! People die, but it's really cool knowing how.
Fill with jolts and shocks, "Hollow" will be great on a Saturday night with beer and pizza. I would also watch the other films I mentioned.
The Landlord (1970)
A Lost Satire That's Socially Honest and Ironically Prophetic
Time's a funny thing. It contains a lot of things, but doesn't always keep track of everything. Moments fall in the cracks. Some moments are forgettable; others shouldn't be. One of the moments is a movie called "The Landlord," an adept, racially-charged and thoughtful satire that makes "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" looks like "Enchanted April".
Wanting to leave his family's affluent Long Island abode, breezy, twenty-nine-year-old, blue blood Elgar Enders (Beau Bridges of "The Fabulous Baker Boys" and "Jerry Maguire") buys a tenement building in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn and hopes to convert into a rich hippie pad. However, the residents, all poor and African-American, won't (unsurprisingly) abide being relocated, using comical scare tactics or hermetic indifference. Elgar counters by becoming the film's title, taking on the edifice's welfare while earning admiration (Pearl Bailey's delightful as a fortune teller); seduction (Diana Sands's a frustrated housewife/ hairdresser; Marki Bey's a strong yet out of place mulatto artist and go-go dance at a nearby nightclub) and scorn (a pre-Oscar winning Louis Gossett Jr. as Sands's militant yet derelict husband; Mel Stewart of "All In The Family" is an unlicensed teacher, who guides the neighborhood children) in the ghetto while infuriating his parents (Walter Brooke and Lee Grant, who earned an Oscar nomination for this gig) to high hell and a half. This is what happens when you put too much cream in your coffee.
Armed with a smart, sharp, funny and poignant script by actor-scribe Bill Gunn (the avant-garde horror film, "Ganja & Hess") that was adapted from a now-scarce novel by Kristin Hunter, Hal Ashby ("Shampoo", "Being There", "Harold & Maude", "The Last Detail") made an impressive debut as a maverick director, after editing films for Norman Jewison, who supervised the film's production. With his skills and d.p.Gordon Willis (the Godfather saga, mentored Mike Chapman of "Taxi Driver"), Ashby gives "The Landlord" a funky, gritty, kaleidoscope narrative, complimenting the tale's consciousness. Soliloquies, flashbacks, visual thought balloons are here and cool. It's fascinating and ironic that a white director (despite being middle-age at the time, Ashby was quite the hippie) and a black screenwriter (Gunn was a writer of all trades) worked in sync to examine the racial, social and economical gaps between their ethic camps. There's a flashback scene of Elgar's all-white grade school class; "Children, how do we live?" the teacher asks. It cuts to a black man having the inability to hail a cab. How do we live? How indeed.
None of the cast makes a false step, no matter how big or small their roles. Bridges, obviously scarred by his father being blacklisted in the 1950s, is pitch-perfect as the title character, a naive, overgrown Little Lord Fauntleroy, thinking racial strife can be achieved by common courtesy without learning why there is in the first place. Ms. Sands, ("A Raisin In The Sun") who sadly passed away three years after the film's release, finds Elgar fascinating (and sexy!) as sassy but delicate Franny, who wallows in the memories of her beauty pageant days. Not because he's rich and white but "socially pure", unlike Gossett ("An Officer and A Gentleman", "Roots"), as Copee, a rightfully angry black man who wants to fight back against the system that broke him but neglects Franny and their son. No wonder the kid smokes and Franny well, cream and coffee Singer Pearl Bailey's a wise hoot as fortune teller Marge, who accepts Elgar's attempts to redeem the building's derelict conditions. Lee Grant (who worked again with Ashby on "Shampoo") is quite the hypocrite as Joyce Elders. She accepts black people but not too close. When she and Bailey get high and drunk, you'll know why. There's also Marki Bey (the black zombie grindhouse yarn "Sugar Hill") as Elgar's second girl, Lainie, the mixed daughter of divorced parents, who feels the "heat" when she's with Elgar. Unlike Gossett's Copee, Mr. Stewart's more subtle in his animosity toward his landlord. He lays the final blow that makes the rich kid grow up.
Straight-forward comical elements are handled by Mr. Brooke as Elgar's father; future sitcom director Will McKenzie as Elgar's brother; Robert Klein ("The Pursuit of Happiness") as Elgar's brother-in-law and Susan Anspach as Elgar's pot-head sister. Through it all, there are neither good nor bad people in the film, just victims of social prejudice and expectations .okay, Joe Madden as Elgar's grandfather, silent, senile and wheelchair-bound, is probably one, a relic of old, good white boy prestige gone to pot. Look out for future Garry Marshall figure Hector Elizondo.
Lively and funky is the music by Al Kooper, the co-founder of the white R&B group, Blood, Sweat & Tears, bookended by two hard, soulful tracks by the Staple Singers.
Ignored by the public upon its release, "The Landlord" has become a holy grail to filmmakers and movie fans. It's also a prophecy; once derelict Park Slope is now a haven for the high-pocketed crowd. Sadly, the social problems still exist, making the film, like the sitcoms of Norman Lear, timeless. It deserves a proper DVD release. Maybe a limited double-bill showing with the recent "Django Unchained"; they both deal with "how we live."
Django Unchained (2012)
Once Upon A Time In The South
When I was one of the lucky souls to read the lengthy, powerful script of Quentin Tarantino's eighth film, "Django Unchained", I came away from it with the query: "Why the **** this script wasn't produced earlier?" Maybe the notion of an African slave-cum-bounty hunter, pre-Civil War, was controversial. Alas, I waited, and I'm glad I did. Damn glad.
The year's 1858, and slavery's thriving in America like a virus. However, eccentric German dentist/manhunter King Schultz (delightful Oscar winner Christoph Waltz from Tarantino's previous work "Inglorious Basterds") decides to break the status quo by liberating African slave (grim but smooth Jamie Foxx of "Ray") during a transport. Django helps Schultz on pointing out a trio of wanted siblings and, in return, Schultz trains Django in the manhunting trade while assisting in the liberation of his wife, the German-literate Broomhilda Von Shaft (cherub-like Kerry Washington, also of "Ray" and lead in the political TV drama, "Scandal") from the clutches of lecherous and decadent plantation owner Calvin Candie (ambitiously vile Leonardo DiCaprio of "The Departed" and "Titanic"). However, Candie's vet "house negro" Stephen (Tarantino chum and Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson in ogrish-like makeup) gets wise to the heroic duo's mandigo-purchasing scam and, like in any Tarantino opus, hell and a half breaks loose.
But unlike his previous seven, Mr. Tarantino, who appears here as an Australian miner, who meets a literally explosive demise, approaches the hot-potato topic of African enslavement in the antebellum Southern United States with remarkable honesty. Flogging, iron restrains, face clamps and the maiming of runaway slaves by dogs are present; lynching is only hinted. Sure, with his exploitative fanboy rep, Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction, "Kill Bill") would be the last filmmaker to approach the subject in a perfect world. However, it's not a perfect world, and those who have green eyes (cough Spike Lee cough) towards the madcap auteur should have struck the iron while it was hot. Tarantino got quick on the draw, orchestrating a porno film where Mel Brooks's "Blazing Saddles" is the slut; the Westerns of Sam Peckinpah are the studs; the aura is by Sergio Leone and the script is by "Roots" author Alex Haley. At the end, Tarantino has out-done and out-foxed his cinematic ass with pride and a bag of dynamite (HINT! HINT!).
He's assisted by a brave cast. Oscar winner Foxx makes you forget his salad days on the sketch show "In Living Color" as the valiant, serious title hero as Oscar nominee DiCaprio finally buries his "cute-boy" rep as the debonair but volatile and misogynistic owner of "Candieland". Some have said Ms. Washington should have been given more to do, but she's sweetness incarnate; her appearance haunts Django before their reunion like a ghost. Waltz's Schultz is clever and sadly ironic; he's unaware that his descendants will take part in committing genocide in the following century as he's being noble. As for Mr. Jackson, his grotesque role, the polar opposite to his hit-man Jules in "Fiction" embodies the Orwellian idiom: "Freedom Is Slavery", to disgusting levels. It's hard to pick a favorite among the main quintet.
There's also stunt-casting, a Tarantino trademark: Bruce Dern ("Silent Running") and Don Johnson ("Miami Vice", "Nash Bridges") are nasty plantation owners; Tom Wopat ("The Dukes Of Hazzard") and Lee Horsley ("Matt Houston") are dutiful lawmen; Dennis Christopher ("Breaking Away") is Candie's lawyer; James Remar ("The Warriors", "Dexter") has a dual role as a slave transporter and Candie's shotgun-toting bodyguard; Michael Parks ("Grindhouse", "Red State") is one of Tarantino's fellow miners and Walton Goggins ("Justified"), makeup wizard Tom Savini (the original "Friday The 13th") and Tarantino stunt gal Zoe Bell are among Candie's grungy henchmen. Jonah Hill ("Moneyball", "Superbad") has a fun bit as a dim-wit Klansman (is there any other kind?).
There's also Tarantino's respect to film's past: Spaghetti Western icon Franco Nero, star of the original Django film from 1966, shows up as Candie's fellow fan of mandigo fighting. The film's co-distributor, Columbia Pictures, resurrects one of their vintage "Torch Lady" stamps before the film plays the "Django's Song" composed by Luis Bacalov. Tarantino has more funky tunes from his catalog, including Richie Havens's "Freedom", which is used ironically in a devastating scene.
D.P. Robert Richardson captures the beauty and ugliness as pre-Civil War America with John Ford-like landscape shots and quick close-ups that come from a 70s kung-fu film. The late production designer J. Michael Riva make the antebellum South authentic (Was that statue of two mandigo fighters in combat made or found?!). There's been criticism of the film's running time (2 hours and 45 minutes) since Tarantino's longtime editor, Sally Menke, passed away, but her substitute, Fred Raskin (the last three "Fast & Furious" films) understands that the tale's messy and compliments it.
Next to Zack Snyder's "Watchmen" (specifically the 215 minute cut), "Django Unchained" is a violent film that's socially and historically conscious (not historically accurate, mind you. It's not a somber epic!!!). Despite having two more films on his plate before voluntary retirement, Mr. Tarantino probably feels like Robert Redford at the end of "The Candidate". "Since this film's a masterstroke, what the hell am I going to do now?" he ponders. I could also imagine him secretly showing the film to the forty-fourth President of the United States...
Made in Jersey (2012)
A Nice Legal Drama That Got Pulled Too Soon
Normally I don't care for TV legal dramas. They're well written, but not all that interesting to me, unless it's an aspect on the "Law & Order" shows. However, I decided to give the fish-out-of-water "Made In Jersey" a chance. Besides, I was a background actor in the pilot and another episode.
However, neither the TV network nor audiences gave it a chance, having aired only two episodes.
By chance any new episodes air on Saturdays or the show ends up on a Made-On-Demand DVD box set, the premise involves former Trenton prosecutor Martina Garretti (Brit Janet Montgomery of "Our Idiot Brother" and "Human Target", nicely sporting a light urban American accent) helping average people as a defense attorney at a high-level law firm managed by blue blood Donovan Stark (Kyle MacLachan of "Twin Peaks"). Despite sneers from fellow lawyers, Garetti has paralegal Cyndi Vega (Toni Trucks) and shamus River Brody (Felix Solis of "NYC 22") on her side.
Created by Dana Calvo (wrote some episodes of "Studio 60"), "Made In Jersey" could have been interesting, having a blue-collar type working hard in the space of upper-class professionals while deconstructing the Jersey Girl stereotype. Instead, said stereotype rules on crappy reality shows. What a pity
21 Jump Street (2012)
Become a Narc, if you want to go back to school
Don't you wish you could go back to high school and get a second chance, if you didn't get the hot girl or weren't academically adept? I pretty much don't care for high school anymore, but shlubby nerd Morton Schimdt (Oscar nominee Jonah Hill of "Moneyball" and "Superbad") and hunky himbo Greg Jenko (Channing Tautm of "Fighting" and "Magic Mike") sure do. They're narcs (undercover cops) in the ribald but fun film version of the late 1980s Fox Network police drama, "21 Jump Street".
Once high school foes, Schimdt and Jenko end up as pals while attending police academy (like the show, the film's locale isn't specified). However, the two are total foul-ups on the field, thereby getting banished to the resurrected Jump Street program, supervised by the no-B.S. Captain Dickson (Ice Cube of the "Friday" films), who assigns them, as siblings, to a school where a new synthetic drug's giving its users crazy highs and morbid endings. Instead of getting a hold of the drug supplier, hilarity ensues: Jenko hangs with the geeks while Schmidt's with both the drama and track & field club, after an ID mix-up; a car chase sequence where nothing flammable explodes, except a truck filled with chickens, and the two throw a party, involving underage teens, alcohol and marijuana. Is anyone here a grown up? With a straight raunchy script by Hill and Michael Bacall ("Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, "Project X"), co- directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller ("Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs") delightful play around with high school conventions (geeks are cool while jocks are otherwise), getting far (but not too far) from the series, co-created by Patrick Hasburgh and the late Stephen J. Cannell (he served as one of the film's producers before his passing). The wacky drug imagery would have a no-no on the show (broadcast standards and practices, people), but is welcomed here with open arms.
Hill and Tatum are a reliable pair of Peter Pan (the former wears a Peter Pan costume for a school play even!) while Cube, recalling his gangster rap days with a permanent growl, verbally admonishes them. When he threatens to defecate on them while they're wearing snorkels, it's something that can't be erased out of the human mind because it's both crude and hysterical. As popular drug dealer Eric, Dave Franco (James's younger sib) is both sleazy and goofy; he does business while working on the high school's yearbook! As Molly, a drama club member, Brie Larson ("The United States of Tara") is an awkward lover interest for Schimdt, due to age difference and borderline pedophilia (jeez!!!), but she does well in her part. I wish there was more of P.E. teacher Mr. Walters (Rob Riggle of "The Hangover"), but he's relevant to the story. Ellie Kemper ("The Office", US Version) is squirrel-brain cute as a physics teach who geekily crushes on Jenko. Series regulars Johnny Depp, Peter DeLuise and Holly Robinson-Peete make eye-wink cameos as Tom Hanson, Doug Penhall and Judy Hoffs. D.P. Barry Peterson captures comedy bliss in the high school environment.
Though some hard-core fans of the show, which was basically a mash-up of "The Mod Squad" and the TV after school specials of the 1970s and 1980s, will cringe at the coarse humor (ex: a character gets his genitalia shot off and pathetically tries to retrieve it in his mouth while handcuffed), "21 Jump Street" does well with the off-idea of becoming an undercover cop, if you screwed up in high school. It's just like retaking a test!
Act of Valor (2012)
Good-natured but obvious armed forces recruitment video that's sadly exploitive
You can call me a dirty, stinking, Karl Marx-loving liberal for not having a lot of love for the counter-terrorist actioner "Act Of Valor". As a movie fan and a fledging screenwriter, I can't have any love out of sense that reality and fantasy are like fire and gasoline. They don't and shouldn't mix.
The film opens with the terrorist bombing of a school in the Philippines. An American ambassador, his son and other kids, lured by an ice cream truck, are killed, courtesy of Chechen-born, Islam-faithful terrorist Abu Shabal (Jason Cottle). Meanwhile, in Costa Rica, a CIA agent (Nestor Serrano) is killed and his partner (Roselyn Sanchez, "Without A Trace") is kidnapped by the henchmen of drug runner Mikhail "Christo" Troykovich (Alex Veadov). The members of Bandito Platoon, SEAL Team Seven are deployed to save the agent, who has intel that Shabal and Traykovich are the schemers to send a group of suicide bombers into the US. The SEALS are more than determined to stop them at all costs.
Granted, having active duty Navy Seals as the film's protagonists is the film's jewel but it's also its' weakest limb. Since they're non-actors and their identities must be somewhat clandestine, the script by Kurt Johnstad ("300") is infested with a lack of character development and second-grade school dialogue. I know this is an action film and I had no grand expectations, but you have a problem with your film when the actors playing the bad guys outshine the actors as the good guys. Directors/producers Scott Waugh and Mike "Mouse" McCoy, the men behind a seven-minute documentary focusing on the SEALS, may have had good intentions when making this film, but all they have accomplished is making a money-making, 111-minute, armed forces recruitment ad, filled with POV gunshot and video imagery to hook in the gamer crowd (YVAN ENT NIOJ). The action sequences are the only legitimate element within the film's fictional aura, and that's it.
This film maybe be dedicated to the every SEAL member, alive and deceased, who fought since the September 11 attacks (calling it 9/11 is pretty tasteless, in my humble opinion, reducing the tragedy to a fad catch phrase), but they deserved much better than this "act of exploitation". If you are or related to an solider, this isn't a jab against you. Only the filmmakers.