Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Plot of Quentin Tarantino’s Next Movie

Two posts in one night? I must be crazy. No, this only happens when something truly newsworthy comes along.

The plot for Quentin Tarantino’s next film, entitled “Django Unchained,” has been released today. All that was known before was that it was a slave revenge film. Here is what that actually entails:
Django is a slave who’s liberated by a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter and taught the tricks of the trade by his mentor. Django’s major goal in life is to recover his wife, and to do it he needs to get past the villainous ranch owner Calvin Candie (DiCaprio), who runs Candyland, a despicable club and plantation in Mississippi where female slaves are exploited as sex objects and males are pitted against each other in “mandingo”-style death matches. Candie is a slave’s worst nightmare, and that [sic] is where Django’s wife Broomhilda is an abused slave. [Deadline]

Yes, whenever Quentin says he is making an historical epic, it is not just some historical epic. Earlier this week it was announced that Jamie Foxx would play the lead role. While he did win an Oscar for “Ray,” he also starred in “Booty Call.” Then again, this is from the same director who turned John Travolta into a hitman after starring in “Look Who’s Talking.”

The rest of the cast is enticing. Of course, Samuel L. Jackson will be fantastic, as long as he is given a Bible or some dialogue that he can shout unnecessarily loud. While I have never seen DiCaprio play a flat out villain, his acting has improved with each film he does, so I have a feeling he can do this. As for Christoph Waltz, I have a feeling the German bounty hunter role was written directly for him. And yes, he can act his way out of a paper bag.

For now, it seems too hard to tell what direction this plot will take the film in. Is Tarantino aiming for a classic Grindhouse experience like “Death Proof,” or a classier revenge fantasy like “Inglourious Basterds”?

Something that I wonder even more about, however is what Tarantino will do filming in a time period before movies even existed. In “Basterds,” he was able to find conversation in the films of G.W. Pabst, but what will the 19th century characters of “Django Unchained” discuss? Maybe the characters can sit around a southern manor and discuss the significance of “Moby Dick.”

Whatever he decides to do, I will be there on opening weekend.

Movie Review: Days of Heaven

Watching a Terrence Malick film is like taking a stroll through nature. Or in the case of “Days of Heaven,” harvesting it, burning it, and possibly getting killed by it.

“Days of Heaven,” Malick’s second feature, is yet another example of how he brings the natural world to life through film. “Days of Heaven” achieves this on an even grander scale than his previous feature, “Badlands.”
Like his other films, “Days of Heaven” moves at a slow and steady pace, with many often baffling moments. “Days of Heaven” begins in a place that can be described as the opposite of heaven, a steel-mill in early 20th century Chicago. The factory looks more like a third world country than the American Dream. After Bill (Richard Gere), a hard-working but hot-tempered worker at the mill accidentally kills his cruel boss, he flees the city with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his sister for the promise of a better life in the wheat fields of Texas.
No matter how beautiful the sky looks in Texas at sunset, life in the country proves to be difficult, as the wealthy, unnamed farm owner (Sam Shepard) treats his workers like slaves. Bill convinces Abby to marry their boss in order to get a claim to his fortune. Like any get-rich-quick scheme, it ends with more blood and tears than dollars and cents.
“Days of Heaven” is one cinematic story where the story barely matters as you watch it. On a first viewing, the story moves quickly and is hard to follow. That’s partly Malick’s way of telling a story and also because the story is told through the voiceover of a young girl, therefore giving the perspective of a confused child during some very dark events.
While watching “Days of Heaven,” I was convinced that I wasn’t watching a linear story, but instead a detailed tour of the Texas Panhandle. Nestor Almendros received what was probably the most deserving Best Cinematography Oscar ever for his work on this film. The film is shot mostly during the time of day that he describes as the “magic hour,” which is the period of time between sunset and nightfall. During this time, the sky is an almost magical shade of light red. Maybe it shows the false, magical hopefulness of the prosperity of living off of the land. It is also a heavenly presence in the film, something Malick brings into everything he makes.
Under Almendros’s photographic skills, the monotonous colors of the prairie look so vividly alive. As the stalks of wheat sway in the wind, almost in unison, it looks almost as if the fields are instead an ocean. In this film, the landscape is not the background, but rather the life that breaths through it. Some shots seem almost too good to be true. For example, how was a flower growing able to be shot in time lapse, without today’s digital technology? That question will just have to remain a part of the magical mysteries of cinema.
It is intentional, unsurprising, and ironic that the most humane living creatures in “Days of Heaven” are the natural elements of earth and the non-human creatures that inhabit it. The ducks, horses, bison, and many other animals that wander the ranch seem more in touch with the world than the humans there.
As for the people, they are all animalistic and motivated by greed. Bill, who is supposed to be the film’s hero, has none of the qualities of the typical hero. A hero is motivated by a desire to do good and protect those other than themselves. Bill, on the other hand, is just looking out for his own well being. Even the woman he loves is just a tool to make him more powerful.
Like most of the other men Malick portrays in his films, Bill has an underlying aggressive nature, one that usually leads to violence. Unlike Kit Kruthers from “Badlands,” this violent instinct is not a sadistic one but rather one of self-defense. Bill has more in common with the ill-tempered father from “The Tree of Life.”
Malick is purposely a very secretive director. He doesn’t want his personality getting in the way of the messages of his films. If a film is an auteur’s way of expressing himself, Malick does that through “Days of Heaven.” Malick studied philosophy at Harvard, and the actions of the characters in “Days of Heaven” probably don’t represent his moral compass but more a Hobbes like view on man: humans are violent by nature and only act in their best interest.

Of all of the films ever made about the American struggle for prosperity, this is one of the finest. “Days of Heaven” is about both our dependence on the land, and our subsequent betrayal of it. That’s why when the locusts come and black out the sky, it feels partly like nature’s revenge but more like Manifest Destiny biting back.
The downfall of most films is that their characters talk too much and have nothing good to say. Unless you’re as good of a writer as Quentin Tarantino or Woody Allen, embracing silence is a key to success. In “Days of Heaven,” Malick lets the images, along with the sweeping score by Ennio Morricone, do all of the talking. This is what makes “Days of Heaven” more than just a typical Hollywood epic. When you’re trying to tell the story of a country and its inhabitants, sometimes the best way to do so is to just observe. That way you see its beauty, and its horror, exactly as it was intended to be seen.
If You Liked This Movie, You’ll Also Like: Badlands, The Tree of Life, Barry Lyndon, There Will Be Blood, 2001: A Space Odyssey, No Country for Old Men, Once Upon a Time in the West

Movie Review: The Tree of Life

Unless you love, your life will flash by.

Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is the most highly ambitious film to come out of this year, many past years, and many years in the future. It comes from what must have been years of obsessive thought about both life and film. Only someone this in love with the craft, and with nature, could make this film, and somehow make it masterful.

“The Tree of Life” begins in a small Texas town in the 1950s, in what must be loosely based off of Malick’s own upbringing. Brad Pitt plays the tough patriarch of a family of three boys. Pitt, who is never given a first name, continually fights his wife (Jessica Chastain) over the best way to raise their family.

Throughout the film, they explore loss of innocence and the possible meaning of life. Usually, trying to find the meaning of life is a cheap storytelling technique. But if you’re as good of a filmmaker as Malick is, the answer doesn’t come in one sentence. The film takes us from Texas to the cosmos to the creation of the life, and back again. Somewhere in between, an older version of one of the sons (Sean Penn), comes back to explore it all. The sum of “The Tree of Life” is nearly impossible to explain. After one viewing, any interpretation could be right.

Malick’s latest is a reminder of his films from the past: it takes its precious time, and it is very quiet. “The Tree of Life” is reminiscent of a brief time when films told entire stories through images. Malick’s story, which covers basically the entirety of existence in just two and a half hours, manages to be the cinematic sequel to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Like “2001,” “The Tree of Life” is nothing short of a cinematic opera.

Malick, while echoing Kubrick, also does something that few filmmakers have done this well: capture the flawed beauty of nature. Light shining on a bed, tall grass being ruffled by human hands, and flies buzzing around a lake at dusk have never looked this stunning. He captures both the sights and sounds of the natural world to a perfectionist degree. This is naturalistic filmmaking at its finest. Through a camera lens, he encapsulates Thoreauvian philosophy.

As a critic, it is important to try and avoid overanalyzing. However, for a film like “The Tree of Life,” overanalyzing is crucial. Through his film, Malick is trying to find more than just the meaning of life, because life doesn’t have just one meaning. “The Tree of Life” is about what is out there, and what brings us all together.

Some might call Malick’s film a religious one. While religion seems to be a big factor, I would say that the film straddles the line between spirituality and atheism. It asks these essential questions: when it comes to dealing with the biggest questions in life, who (or what) do we turn to? Do we look to nature, the possibility of God, or our friends and family? No choice we make is a decent or right one, unless it is done out of some form of love.

“The Tree of Life” is not a film that offers easy answers. Within a half hour, many people in the audience had walked out, something I haven’t witnessed since “A Serious Man.” After “The Tree of Life” ended, one woman remarked that the film was reminiscent of a bunch of Windows screen savers. A friend of mine compared it to the greatest “South Park” episode ever.

While both of these interpretations are funny, they do not do Malick’s film justice. The cinematography is the result of years of careful work, not stealing. Meanwhile, overanalyzing is the act of finding meaning in the meaningless. Malick surely had some deeper purpose in trying to discover how life exists and thrives.

“The Tree of Life” is hard to be in love with the first time around, but I feel a need to recommend it. I can’t get over the brilliant way in which Malick speeds up, and then slows down, the story at just the right moments. Many films made nowadays try to think up and balance big ideas, but few are ever this meditative.

Movie Review: Midnight in Paris

“Midnight in Paris,” Woody Allen’s fantastic new film, begins with an overly long, yet beautifully crafted montage of Paris. The introduction gives off the impression that Allen doesn’t even want to make a movie, he just wants to sit back and see what the streets of Paris have to offer. And that is exactly what he does.

For over a decade, the Woody Allen we once knew has seemed pretty lost. He tried to find himself by leaving New York and exploring Europe. Even with the successes that has brought (“Match Point,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), he just hasn’t been able to equal the success of his early days. However, “Midnight in Paris” shows that everyone’s favorite neurotic Jew has not only rediscovered his voice, but figured out how to turn it into perfect comedic cinema.
“Midnight in Paris” details hack screenwriter Gil (Owen Wilson) and his fiancee Inez (Rachel McAdams) as they venture through Paris. While Inez focuses on their wedding and future, Gil focuses on his first novel, and his dream of living in Paris in the 1920s. While trying to find inspiration for his work, Gil finds something totally unexpected in Paris after midnight. What he finds is a mystery that would feel almost like a crime to reveal.
I wouldn’t call “Midnight in Paris” Allen’s big comeback, because he’s had so many comebacks over the years. When you make as many films as he does, there are bound to be misses. Yet, this is his first film in a long time that feels informative, free, and most importantly, fun. Sometimes, you don’t have to sell your soul and buy a ticket for “Fast Five” in order to have fun at the movies.
“Midnight in Paris” is a mixture of everything Allen is great at. In the film, he is given a chance to mock the pretentious intellectuals of the world as he slips subtle literary references into the story. Its combined slapstick and whimsical tone made me think of “Sleeper.” Its light and fast mood also evoked the great comedies of the era Gil wished he could have lived in.
Wilson, meanwhile, is the best Allen reincarnation there could possibly be. He perfectly takes on Allen’s wisecracking, neurotic New Yorker-type personality. He delivers every line with the right amount of anxiety. The rest of the ensemble is utilized well. It would be easy for someone who is writing about themselves to only focus on the character based off of themselves, yet Allen never forgets that there are many people involved in Gil’s life. Most notably is Michael Sheen as the way-too-sophisticated-for-his-own-good Paul and Kurt Fuller as Gil’s always furious father-in-law. McAdams is also an always enjoyable screen presence even when she’s being a cold and unsupportive girlfriend.
Oh yeah, and that writing. Comedy is one of the most intelligent forms of writing, yet few ever do it right. Only Allen can be so funny and so observant. After all, the greatest observations about life are the funniest ones.
Whether he be in New York, London, Barcelona, or Paris, setting is an essential part of every Allen story. Even with such strong characters, location is always key to the story. It usually sets the mood, whether that be uptight, mysterious, or free-spirited. In “Midnight in Paris,” Paris might as well be the center of the entire universe. It exudes both light and life, it is the center of creation. Just as he knows his beloved New York so much, Allen acts as if he’d lived in Paris for centuries, nailing the culture down right.
As I continue to write this review, I am debating going deeper into the plot. It would be great for further discussion, yet I feel like I’d be ruining something. In a world where it’s usually movies never keep their best parts unspoiled, “Midnight in Paris” offers plenty of surprises that are best to see for yourself. In one short film, the excitement of many years of culture, the beauty of a city, and the over-analyzing complexities of being a writer are captured. Most importantly, this film is just so full of joy. It is the very reason why escapism was created. And that is why it is my favorite film so far this year.

Movie Review: Super 8

Steven Spielberg has always said that as a child, he would make his model train crash and film it. Decades later, somebody decided to crash a train on film, and they did it just the way Spielberg would have done it.

“Super 8,” named after the film format, is a cinephile’s paradise. It’s a tribute to the great sci-fi, monster, and buddy movies of the past. Think “E.T.” meets “Jaws” meets “Stand by Me” and “The Goonies.” Only a director this in touch with films past could make this movie. Luckily, J.J. Abrams is that guy.
“Super 8″ is a little different than you might expect. For one, it’s not the explosion-a-minute summer blockbuster that has clogged American movie theaters for the past decade or so. It is first and foremost a story. It takes place in the late 1970s in a small Ohio town where a group of kids are trying to make a zombie film. While filming, they witness a terrible train crash. After the train crashes, a series of mysterious events sweep the town, likely prompted by something strange onboard that train.
“Super 8″ made me feel nostalgic for an era I didn’t even grow up in. Additionally, this is the first summer blockbuster I have seen in ages that actually had an enjoyable screenplay. Even “Inception” wasn’t this well written. It has snappy dialogue and endearing characters. The best part about it though, is that it has a heart. Rarely does a mainstream action movie come along that actually cares about what happens to its characters, rather than just what happens if they blown up.
The story of “Super 8″ goes into some very dark territory, exploring death’s effect on children, the effects of bad parenting, and the meaning of love and friendship at such a young age. Like Spielberg, family is an important bond between the characters of an Abrams film. The fact that this film focuses on these issues rather than just plot is something worth celebrating.
The special effects, action, and the monster itself are nothing revolutionary, but that’s not a bad thing. The train sequence is one of the best I’ve seen, just ranking somewhat below the train explosion from “Lawrence of Arabia.” Abrams films it the way he filmed the plane crash in the very first episode of “Lost”: it’s not the crash itself, but the aftermath that is so frightening and exhilarating. Watching how the characters deal with the wreckage is like an ultimate test of their will to survive.
While this film contains the many strong suits of a Spielberg film, it also contains some of his weaknesses. Like “War of the Worlds” and some other Spielberg pictures of recent years, “Super 8″ resorts to over-sentimentality in its ending. Worst of all though, its ending feels rushed, rather than earned. All of this buildup ultimately leads to something uninspiring and unoriginal. Based on how good the rest of the story was, I think Abrams was capable of something better than this. Even “Cloverfield” had a better ending.
The ending of “Super 8″ certainly has some effect on how I perceive the entire movie, yet the film as a whole is hard to hate. It is just so lovingly crafted, only someone who has ever devoted their entire life to film could ever have made a movie like this. It never treats its audience as if it is dumb; it challenges the viewer, and makes them wait for the action.
When the plot is boiled down, it is not about some awesome superhero trying to save the world from robots or aliens, it is simply about a bunch of kids trying to make a movie, and how their movie was disturbed by the presence of a monster. Sometimes, the problems of childhood are much more interesting than the issues of adults.