“Django Unchained’’ is worth the price of admission. Normally, I find Tarantino’s style very cloying, but in this film he is in top form. If I had to sum up the plot, I’d start with calling it a revenge fairy tale set in the antebellum south. Sorry Tarantino, but the love of Django for Broomhilda does not make this blood-drenched film a love story. This film stirred up a lot of thoughts that have taken me a while to distill down. Two ideas have taken root: Django is a monster and this film at times condemns and at times glorifies violence, depending on the victims or rather the killer. While the sheer brutality is cringe-inducing and causes a knee-jerk response that this film cannot be glorifying violence, it is at times. And while Django is likened to the heroic Siegfried of legend, he is a monster or at the very least does monstrous deeds. (I’ll be discussing the whole plot, but you can’t spoil a work of art so read on anyway.)

Let’s start with Django’s  humanity. “Humanity’’ is questioned throughout this film as slaves are dehumanized and frequently referred to as property by their masters, and Dr. King Shulz sees his bounties as paydays. Django starts off being brutalized as a slave and finishes brutalizing as a monster. While the slave is merely perceived to be inhuman, a monster is truly inhuman. When we first meet Django, Tarantino makes sure that we see the scars crisscrossing his back. If it weren’t for Dr. King Shulz, Django’s life would be that of any other slave, perceived as inhuman but actually wholly human. Shulz acts as Mephistopheles and leads Django from being merely perceived as inhuman to actually being inhuman.

Django’s embraces his transformation, gleefully acknowledging the tar-baby principle, that to fight a corrupt system is to become corrupted, or as he puts it one must “get dirty’’. And Shulz is there to show him how to get dirty by always killing the bounty. Shulz begins this corruption by entreating Django into the bounty hunting business, which in Schulz’s words is like slave trading in that both are “cash for flesh’’ businesses.  At first, Django merely condones the killing by Shulz. But Django starts to get dirty when he recognizes the Brittle brothers about to whip a slave girls just as they whipped his wife. He kills one to save her from harm. That force is justifiable, but what is unjustifiable is the enjoyment Django has whipping the disarmed and fallen brother. Shulz and him cap that triple murder off with a mass murder of KKK members via dynamite. Again, was this necessary? Was Django’s sniping of the plantation owner necessary? The right choices here are murky at best.

Django likes the murk. He sadistically states that he loves killing white people for money. The one time he balks is when Shulz tells him to kill a father in front of his son. Shulz goads him into it saying that the father should never have committed stage coach robbery if he wanted to be a farmer. For me, this is a sad message that redemption is impossible in Tarantino’s world. Django does take the shot, and with that he further dirties himself. His transformation is completed when he escapes from the Aussie slavers. Usually, washing one’s self in water is a purifying act, but when Django dumps the water on himself he is consecrating himself to the dirtiest of tasks. To exact his revenge on Candie Land, he will become as monstrous as Calvin Candie.

When the funeral party enters the Big House, he greets them wearing Calvin Candie’s clothes. Candie was a monster who placed no value on human life and had a borderline incestuous relationship with his sister. That Django would wear his clothes and smoke his clove cigarettes as he gleefully maims and murders shows just how despicable Django has become. Wisely, he has Hildie wait outside. If she could see how much he enjoyed causing pain, she wouldn’t giggle at his caracoles. As it is, she smiles, and the two happily ride off. Happily ever after of course in this fairy tale land. But in this world without redemption is there a chance that Django can stop being a monster? Can you ever do something so inhumane without permanently compromising your humanity?

The second idea that has really bothered me is Tarantino’s use of violence in the film. I’m bothered by the realistic violence being mixed with cartoonish violence. Notably the victims of the realistic violence are always slaves, while it is the slavers who are cartoonishly murdered. We see brutal scenes that force you to watch through your fingers. A slave fed to the dogs. A man screaming with gouged-out eyes. We see violence designed to make you laugh. A man blown away by dynamite. A man repeatedly being shot in the knee by his comrades.

Tarantino has stated in interviews that this film in no way glorifies violence, but this isn’t true. The penultimate confrontation of Django trying to shoot his way out of Candie Land is like a rock concert. The music kicks in. The star struts his stuff and strums out a rhythm of bullets. Instead of confetti cannons, there are blood squibs. And just like after a concert, everything is a mess. To emphasize, Tarantino literally paints the white walls red with blood and through camera placement and slowing the footage allows us to enjoy the geysers of blood spurting from corpses. He even injects some levity through friendly fire.

But the final confrontation is the most disturbing because it strives to be the most palatable. Django has sunk to the level of Calvin Candie, and now Django revels in sadism as he enjoys toying with his prey. Shooting a man in each of his limbs. Emasculating him. Kneecapping Steven. Twice. To make this the worst, you emphasize with Django throughout. While I was glad to see him triumph, the inhumane manner in which he exacted his revenge makes me doubt that he can recover his humanity. And so rather than giving us a film showing a slave’s heroic journey, Tarantino has led us on a journey of glorified violence to man at his most inhuman.

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I had the chance to rewatch Looper the other day. My first viewing was less than ideal as it was just on my small computer screen, and this viewing was at the dollar show so not much bigger of screen. Still, it’s a pleasure to pick apart what makes this film so enjoyable. Watching a film for a second time always gives you a few gems, and here the shiniest are: love, visions, and entitlement. Note that I’ll be referring to JGL’s character as Joe and Bruce Willis’ as the Loop.

This whole film hinges on love, as explained in the outro voiceover, “I saw a man willing to kill to protect the woman he loves. I saw a mother willing to die for the child she loved.” Starting with the loop’s love for his wife, we see that this is all that drives him. His desire to save her drives him to risk everything because he feels that he has nothing left to lose having lost her. So he goes back in time and murders children, a task that clearly disgusts him. This incredibly morally repellent act is motivated by love, which makes for a fitting paradox. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and we are led to believe that the loop’s murder of the mom is exactly what leads to the future hell.

More important is mother’s love, and the film offers Joe and his absent mom and Cid and Sara as our two examples. Young Joe was sold by his mother at such a young age that he cannot remember her face. To try to recapture lost love, he asks his favorite whore to run her fingers through his hair, as that is all he can remember of her. Interestingly, the closing shot shows Sara, Cid’s mom, running her fingers through his hair, as if Joe in death finally has found the closure he sought. Just moments earlier, we saw how Sara used the words, “Mommy loves you,” to calm Cid from his murderous rage. This calming effect coupled with Cid’s remorse at frightening Sara earlier leads us to believe that Sara’s love will be enough to prevent the horrible Rainmaker future.

However, how likely is that future to occur? Joe’s vision of Cid brooding over the murder of his mother while nursing his wound on the train is shown to us to convince us that that is exactly what will happen. It’s like when you watch a crime drama, and they reconstruct just how the crime occurred. However, as with all reconstructions, the interpretation of the reconstructor twists the truth. Joe’s vision is more of a projection than anything else. While hiding in the tunnel, Joe reveals to Cid that after his mother sold him, he rode the train and plotted his revenge. Joe’s foresight is more of a projection of his past self than a prophetic vision. Nevertheless, Joe’s certainty that his ‘vision’ will come to pass is what makes him turn his blunderbuss on himself.

Similarly, you have to wonder if this is the same quality of ‘vision’ that Abe had of Joe going down the bad road before Abe cleaned him up and put a gun in his hand. Did a future gangster save Abe just as he saved Joe? In the dialog where Joe is persuaded to give up Seth, we sense how Abe is a father figure. Joe gives Seth up partly to avoid disappointing Abe, but he more importantly to keep his silver.

Which brings us to selfishness. In the best dialog of the film, the Loop chews out his younger self for being so selfish and entitled. Playing Judas to his friend, having no qualms murdering men, and the alternate reality where Joe kills his loop show us just how shallow Joe is. Yet in the end, Joe decides to sacrifice himself. Why the sudden change of heart? We’re led to believe that Joe sees a way to prevent the horrible Rainmaker future, but Joe couldn’t care less about saving lives. Rather, it is Joe’s desire to prevent Cid from being deprived of his mother’s love that leads him to turn his gun on himself.

Other than those three thoughts, I had time to take apart how this movie improves on Rian Johnson’s first film Brick (2005). The dialog of Brick was far too stylized for me to ever get into the film. However, Johnson was good about embracing the premise and just rolling through with it, giving enough touches to make us accept the premise. Thus, in Brick we have the wonderful incongruity of a high school drug kingpin operating out of a dumpy suburban home. Here we have time travel with its thorny mechanics being dismissed by the characters to make us just focus on the big picture and accept that time travel happens.

One touch I found particularly effective is the introduction of TK early on and then exploiting it at the very end. Joe’s friend Seth floats the quarter and specifically talks about how chicks dig it, while Sara mentions that she would keep guy’s quarters down. It’s this confidence in the viewer’s ability to make this connection that makes this “intelligent sci-fi”, but really we should simply demand that our films expect us to watch them. I’m glad this director trusted his audience enough to not bore us with a flashback and similarly trusted that we wouldn’t get too bogged down in the problems of time travel to simply sit back and enjoy a story well told.

I love movies. My love for movies has always been there, and for a while I was seriously thinking of going into movie making. The first movie that I have a strong memory of is the color remake of “Night of the Living Dead”. I was probably only nine at the time I first saw it. I also remember the VHS tape wearing out because I watched it too much! I continued my steady diet of horror films, and so when a friend tasked me with picking out a scary movie for Halloween I felt up to the challenge. However, she posed the problem that it cannot be too scary. This is always a challenge. People want to jump a bit, but not be unable to sleep for days. (Too scary would be the time when I had friends over in my dorm room to watch “The Descent”, and my RA had to ask why there was so much screaming.)
I started combing IMDB, Wikipedia, and Amazon for scary but not so scary movies as well as funny horror flicks. This has been very frustrating, and I have decided that I must play it safe and pick something that I have already seen. Why? Because of lists like this that pair “Shaun of the Dead”, a hilarious send-up of the zombie genre, with “Man Bites Dog”, a brutal mockumentary featuring realistic murders of an old woman, a child, and then a gang rape of a man’s wife as the husband looks on. “It didn’t say anything about this,” I would say as everyone turned to glare at me. I always take it personally when my movie pick is reviled.

Before hitting the list, know that none of these films fall into the “so bad it’s good” or “so incredibly campy it’s good” categories. I’m also pandering to an audience with a very weak constitution, so you might not find these scary at all. If you want, I’ve got lists for you too.

So, without further ado I will give you my picks.

Scary but Humorous

  • Ginger Snaps—A very smart film that uses lycanthropy as a metaphor for a woman’s coming of age. An awkward, milquetoast teen tries to help her sister resist the werewolf’s bloodlust with the aid of a local pot dealer. A very smart movie with a scary ending, but all the rest of the scary moments are more suspenseful than jump. There is a fair amount of blood though. I love this movie so much I wrote the Wikipedia entry for it (which was subsequently ruined.) Bonus: It takes place during Halloween.
  • An American Werewolf in London—This has surprisingly good special effects for its time. A young American man tries to avoid becoming a werewolf with the aid of the nurse who loves him. There are some hilarious conversations between the protagonist and his deceased friend. There is some gore, but not much.
  • The Cabin in the Woods—A little campy, but still a very witty genre-bender of the whole horror genre. It is a bit meta, but this provides relief anytime the horror starts to get too intense. This could almost be in the other category, but for a couple of moments.
  • Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon—Similar to “The Cabin in the Woods”, yet focused on the evil man slasher subgenre carved out by such films as “Halloween” and the Friday the 13th series. It is a very funny mockumentary in the first two acts, but the third morphs into a legitimately scary film.
  • Delicatessen—A hilarious French film set after the apocalypse when food is scarce enough to resort to cannibalism. An ex-clown become the “handyman” for the local butcher, but there are complications when the butcher’s daughter falls for him. More of a dark comedy than a horror film.
  • Drag Me to Hell—Sam Raimi returns to his genre to tell the tale of a banker afflicted with a gypsy curse. More disgusting than scary as there is a fair amount of gross things (nose bleeds, vomit, hair pulling, etc).
  • Tremors—A nice creature feature set in a desert town. This movie is an extended version of the childhood game “The Floor is Made of Lava”.

Just Humorous

  • Shaun of the Dead—A great send-up of the zombie genre that mocks the typical survival horror group of friends. Features a fight for survival soundtracked to Queen.
  • Zombieland—Again, a funny take on zombie flicks featuring Jesse Eisenberg and a man in perpetual pursuit of a twinkie. Plus, it has a Bill Murray cameo.
  • Army of Darkness—Extremely campy, but still rather funny. I don’t know how scary it actually is as it has been a while.
  • Young Frankenstein—One of the best horror comedies ever made. Igor’s hump keeps shifting sides, and there is fantastically sly sexual innuendo.
  • Gremlins—Cute little creatures that become evil when sprayed with water. They remind me of evil Furbees, which are probably more scary than this.
  • Beetle Juice—An old Tim Burton film, but still well done. In fact, better than some of his current attempts (sigh, Frankenweenie).
  • The Abbot and Costello series—There are many of these movies where the comedic duo meet various creatures. They’re all funny.
  • Scary Movie—The sequels sucked, but the first one did a good job mocking “Scream.” It is a bit crude though.
  • Fido—A very quirky movie set in the suburbs where zombies are domestic servants.
  • Ghostbusters—A classic movie about four guys cleaning up New York City and battling an evil Marshmallow Man.

I’ve also got lists of suspenseful yet spooky and just downright horrifying if you would be interested in me posting those too. If you know of any good films that fall into either category above, please please let me know!

Sitting in the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, watching “Argo” next to a visiting scholar from Norway, the thought occurred to me that this film is about as American as you can get. From the subject matter to the actors to the editing style, you would be hard pressed to see a more American recent film (though “Lincoln” will soon give it a run for the money). “Argo” concerns itself with the exfiltration of six Americans who escaped from the Iranian embassy at the beginnings of the Iranian hostage crisis. CIA operative Tony Mendez (Affleck) goes to Iran to extract them using the ruse of being on a location scout for the Canadian sci-fi fantasy film “Argo”. In order to make the ruse pass Iranian scrutiny, Tony asks a Hollywood friend (Goodman) to help him. I don’t care to dwell on the plot anymore as you can read much more pithy summaries elsewhere; rather, I want to talk about the film’s editing, cinematography, and major shortcoming.

The editing is adroit, and makes the film goes down smoothly. It is well paced, and the cuts are as seamless as possible holding to Hollywood tradition. I had to keep reminding myself to cycle through my critical thinking questions because the film does such a nice job of sucking you. The only editing technique that stood out to me is the final chase montage. This montage harkens all the way back to D. W. Griffith who pioneered the chase sequence cutting technique. Shots of the quarry and the pursuer are intercut more and more rapidly to build tension, until it is resolved. It’s interesting how commonplace this ancient technique is, but it makes sense as it is so effective. And I guess that is what I am fumbling towards in this post. This film does nothing new, but what it chooses to do it does well. I’d be willing to watch it again to tease apart how it nicely interweaves the three plot lines of Tony, the six, and the home front.

While no technique used is novel, there are a couple that are worth mentioning. The first is the intercutting of documentary footage for the storming of the embassy. This is very powerful, and it’s place in the opening sequence makes you inclined to judge the rest of the movie as more true. A similar trick is done while the end credits role, where the actor is compared to file photos. By bookending the movie in this manner, you are more inclined to think that everything in between was also so true. The second is using exclusively medium shots to make you share the claustrophobia felt by the six in hiding. The whole time the six in the Canadian’s home, we rarely see a whole room. The continuity of space is totally destroyed, and so you are forced to make guesses about how large the home is. There’s the living room, and then twenty minutes later a dining table, and then a kitchen. It’s impossible to piece together, until Tony arrives. Then the shots start to take in the whole room, and we start to realize all the space available. This change in shots eases the tension, and we feel relief at Tony’s arrival just as the six did. When we finally see an exterior shot, we realize just how large the house is. Using these two techniques, the film has a much more visceral punch and keeps you engaged even though you know the six are bound to escape.

After all this praise, I have to point out the glaring shortcoming in character development. Sadly, this also makes the ending maudlin. We have all these characters: the six in hiding, Tony, his boss, the two Hollywood businessmen, the Canadian ambassador and his wife and their housekeeper. Oh, and don’t forget the Tony’s wife and kid! Understandably, there must be minor characters in a film of this scope, however those minor characters should not include the six. At the end of the film, the only characters I knew well were Tony and the two Hollywood men. The six never had much of a backstory, and so I never really cared for them. Ditto for the Canadian ambassador and his wife. To have all these essential characters and leave them inanimate is a shame. There was so much drama left unexplored. I asked myself what I would do if I were the ambassador. Would I hide the six Americans and risk my life and my wife’s? What if she was against it, would I overrule her? Then, you have to think of the more than a month spent in hiding. “The Diary of Anne Frank” as well as Sartre’s “No Exit” or the actual sci-fi Canadian film “Cube” do a good job exploiting the drama of group dynamics in a claustrophobic and stressful situation. In this film, there is only one indication of group friction, which I feel is not true to life. Lastly, the worst way these flat characters spoil the film is the ending. Obviously, I’m about to spoil the ending so I’d skip to the end here if I were not wanting it spoiled. In the end, (last chance) Tony goes home to his wife and kid. Awwww, isn’t that great! The wife and kid are mentioned just often enough to tug at your heart strings, and as we have absolutely no idea why Tony and his wife are separated, the ending feels like such a cop out.

In short, “Argo” is worth watching for telling a good story well, but it leaves many good opportunities for drama unexplored. It’ll be interesting to compare this historical drama to “Lincoln” when it comes out. If you agree or disagree with my take on this film, leave a comment below to let me know.

I love films. Just like I love reading. By love, I mean rarely do I get a chance to do them. However, I am working on doing both more (currently in the middle of Lady Vengeance and Borges on those fronts). Anyway, I went to visit some friends in Houston a few weeks ago, and we watched the movie Limitless. What a disappointment. They had such a great premise and then they frittered it away on trivial things. It’s like they couldn’t really follow through on their thoughts to a good conclusion. If only they had that damn pill.

For those of you who have not seen the movie, the premise is that this loser gets a magic pill that allows him to use all of his brain. I want to state that this guy really is a loser. He’s a slob who is a struggling writer, by which I mean drinker. He gets dumped by his girlfriend that he has been mooching off of in the first few minutes to show just what a shmuck he is. Anyway, he gets this magic pill, and he immediately changes. He cleans his pig sty apartment and writes his novel in two days. The novel is amazing and everything is totally rosy. Then there’s this whole intrigue about the drug maker and drug user and yadda-yadda-yadda.

The whole time we were watching the film my friends and I were yelling at the guy to take the drug to a chemist and get it synthesized. The film goes to great lengths to make the scarcity of the pills a big plot point, but using the pills our loser makes oodles of money. To their credit, he eventually gets a chemist to start making the pills. Anyway, I don’t want to keep summarizing the plot as it just fails miserably.

Let’s go back to their excellent premise. A pill that allows you to recall everything you have ever been exposed to and makes you super observant and able to instantly recall everything relevant. Imagine a Google search for your brain where everything you have every even glance at or overheard has been neatly tagged and indexed. Amazing! Absolutely incredible! And what does the director, Neil Burger who did The Illusionist, do with this? He churns out a lame action flick that raises so many questions that it fails to answer. I’ll point out the holes in the plot.

First off, why does this loser become the top dog? The pill enhances your innate ability, so why does this guy manage to outcompete everyone else on it? Furthermore, if all the users were so damn smart why didn’t they just do what our protagonist ends up doing and fix the pill? Why didn’t the pill makers (who are never identified despite our protagonist’s near omniscience) fix the pill themselves?

Second off, what does our loser decide to dedicate his life too? He junks writing and replaces his drinking with copious sex. He murders someone, and it is never addressed. Seriously, you kill a person for the first time and you have no worries about it aside from getting caught? It seems like the only logical explanation is that the pill does not just enhance innate ability, but it also alters what is inside of you. Our wannabe writer sets his sights on presidency, but we are never told why he wants to do that. The movie makes it a point that he has found a mission, and then totally fails to explore this. Wouldn’t you want to know what the world’s smartest man wants to do? I know I do, and this is why this movie so disappoints.

Avatar

December 26, 2009

The plot of James Cameron’s Avatar is not original. It is not even that clever. It’s downright predictable in fact. The “new” is usually overrated. There have been many great treatments of the same story, and Avatar is a masterfully told story. I would be amiss to not talk about the 3D technology, so I will discuss that first.

The new 3D technology is very well used. I caught myself from swatting a fly that was in the way of my view. The 3D is subtle and gorgeous. Simple scenes of actors in from with some action in the background are more realistic. The expansive landscapes of Pandora that define the movie are awe inspiring, just like seeing such landscapes in nature.

While the new views that 3D enables means that it will be here to stay, it is not as paradigm-shifting as the introduction of color or sound. Give it time to mature more, and I feel that it will become more common as it becomes cheaper and more cinemas have the projection technology in place.

While the cinematography is awe-inspiring at times, a film depends on its story. This film is about nature at its heart. The plot is humans are mining unobtanium from Pandora, a world inhabited by the Na’vi people, who are clearly modeled on the Native Americans. Just like the Native Americans, the Na’vi are not happy about their land being destroyed by the mining corporation.

*Possible Spoiler*

The corporation is trying diplomacy via the Avatar program, which enables humans to control manufactured Na’vi bodies. Jake Sully becomes a part of the program, and he slowly comes around to the Na’vi views. The Na’vi worship a nature mother goddess, who is embodied in every living thing.

*End Possible Spoiler*

The Na’vi view on nature is heart wrenching for me. It’s the year 2154, and there is “no green” left on Earth, where as Pandora is so lush with nature that it makes me want to go hiking. The Na’vi live in tune with their environment, and this life seems to be ideal.

There is a certain irony in this film holding up the native life style as an ideal, when this film could never have been realized in such a lifestyle. Similarly, the film is very anti-corporatism, when it is backed by one of the largest studios (Fox), which is in turn part of one of the largest media corporation (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation empire).

Nevertheless, this movie has made me sit an think about how we interact with nature. I visited my grandmother’s house in rural Missouri today to see what my relatives had done to it. I was taken aback. As a boy, grandma’s had been the most nature I had experienced. I remember seeing all of the stars for the first time there. I remember long walks in the woods and seeing wildlife.

The house was an old farmhouse, but it has been completely redone. It could be my suburban neighbor’s house. I really missed the old house and what it symbolized for me. It was a place without modern conveniences, and now there is internet and cable TV.

I started thinking about all of the features of modern life on the drive home. Obviously, so much of it is unsustainable, but no one will give up their conveniences. Nor would they want to give up the advance medical technology or computers and such. I tried to think of the ideal fabric of society, but I am not nearly smart enough to figure that out in one drive. I’ll have to talk many walks and talk to others about it.

I highly recommend Avatar. See if for the beauty of the nature of Pandora. See it to make you think about nature on Earth. See it for the awe-inspiring cinematographic technique of 3D. See it for a great story.