Movie Review ~ Annie (2014)

1

annie_ver3

The Facts:

Synopsis: A foster kid, who lives with her mean foster mom, sees her life change when business tycoon and New York mayoral candidate Will Stacks makes a thinly-veiled campaign move and takes her in.

Stars:  Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale,Rose Byrne, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Zayas, Stephanie Kurtzuba

Director: Will Gluck

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I think it’s part of the job of a movie critic to do their best to remove any personal bias before entering into any film, trying to take what they are seeing for face value and reporting back how that experience felt to them.  I have to admit that going into this re-imagined take on the Broadway musical Annie I carried with me some baggage I’ve been dragging around since the project was first announced several years ago.

So OK, perhaps the 1982 film version wasn’t the box office success studios had hoped.  At the time, it was critically drubbed, mostly due to the ghastly amount of money spent on it which, to be fair, helped give the film an old-school big Big BIG feel with more orphans than you could shake a shtick at, huge city scapes that brought audiences convincingly back to the Great Depression, and a massive mansion with a singing and dancing staff ready to step-ball-change with every downbeat.

Full disclosure, Annie was the first film I ever saw in the theater and even as a two year old I cast a critical side eye at the musical tale of a scrappy orphan that evades crooks, rescues a dog, and wins the heart of the richest man in America in 127 minutes.  I actually didn’t make it through the whole film, opting to high-tail it out when my movie treats had disappeared.  Subsequent viewings over the years has endeared the film to me, particularly with Carol Burnett’s dynamite turn as the boozy Miss Hannigan and Ann Reinking as the leggy secretary to Albert Finney’s Oliver Warbucks.

An early preview of the film made the reboot (produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) look positively frightful and subsequent clips gave me a bad taste in my mouth.  I waited with a mixture of glee and dread for the screening to arrive and was prepared to revel in my disdain for what modern spins were put on Annie and trounce those involved for their association with it all.

Consider it a minor Christmas miracle that I left the screening with very little venom for the retooling and a sizable lump in my throat.  Though it’s far from perfect and misses the mark more often than it should, this 2014 Annie is neither the embarrassment I had feared nor the train wreck I had secretly hoped for.

Let’s start with the bad and that would be Cameron Diaz.  Though Sandra Bullock was the first choice for Miss Hannigan (now fashioned as a foster mom…the words “orphan” and “orphanage” are tantamount to four letter expletives here) when she declined Diaz (Sex Tape, The Other Woman) signed on and the results are less than successful.  Admittedly, I got a nice chuckle out of this Hannigan being a faded star former member of C+C Music Factory but would have loved to see the part cast with someone that can sing without the extensive use of auto-tune.

Speaking of auto-tune, I’m shocked that the vocal sweetening tool wasn’t given its own production credit because it comes to the aid of everyone that sings a note here.  Some need it more than others (Diaz and Rose Byrne) but its use is so extensive it sounds like your iPhone’s Siri is singing one of the tunes from composers Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.  Some Strouse/Charnin songs remain intact but most have been modernized to varying degrees of success.  Three new tunes are all over the map, with only one solo for Annie having a modicum of overall value.

The film is so heavy on modern technology and product placement that it will be dated two hours after it’s released in much the same way we look back at early 90s films sporting technology that looks like it was created in the Dark Ages.  While the 1982 film was a period piece and could get away with having a timeless feel, this new millennium Annie will be out of date the moment the next Apple product is released.

On the good side, we have Quvenzhané Wallis (the youngest Best Actress nominee in history for her breathtaking turn in Beasts of the Southern Wild) as our spunky heroine.  In recent appearances, Wallis has been low energy and in an Adderall daze for her lyp-synched performances but it’s nice to report that in the actual film her spirit is infectious and her singing more than admirable.  The aforementioned new song written for her is a delight, performed with sweet honesty.  Her chemistry with businessman turned mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained) is a chief saving grace of the film and the reason why you may find yourself wishing you’d brought a tissue with you by the time the finale rolls around.  Wallis actually makes Foxx tolerable, no small feat for an actor that never met a role he couldn’t preen and preside over.  Though saddled with a loser of a song and a lame humble beginnings history, Foxx looks like he’s having fun here.

Even if Byrne (This is Where I Leave You) receives some help in the singing department, she’s a nicely modern Grace…although I did miss the flair Reinking brought to the role in the 1982 version.  Special mention must also be made to Stephanie Kurtzuba (The Wolf of Wall Street) who steals scenes (and then promptly disappears) as a rough around the edges pencil pusher more excited than Annie is when both tour the awesome penthouse belonging to Stacks.  Too bad the role couldn’t have been packaged with Miss Hannigan and given over to Kurtzuba…I’ve a feeling it could have been a true star-making turn.

Director Will Gluck comes dangerously close to making a Stomp! film that happens to feature Annie tunes thanks to an opening sequence heavy on percussive elements found in the city leading into two songs featuring lots of clapping, foot stomping, and bucket pounding.  Eventually Gluck calms down and lets the actors and the script from Aline Brosh McKenna (We Bought a Zoo) do most of the work.

At the end of the day, did we need yet another version of Annie?  Probably not.  Even so, the masses of children at the screening I attended didn’t seem to mind any technical shortcomings or vocally assisted performances because they understood the message of a can-do attitude and family at the heart of the story.  Turns out maybe I was the one that needed to get that message more than anyone.

Movie Review ~ The Amazing Spider-Man 2

1

amazing_spiderman_two_ver14

The Facts:

Synopsis: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him, impacting on his life.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field, B.J. Novak

Director: Marc Webb

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 142 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: With the arrival of this sequel to a 2012 reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I’m still not at all sold that the world needed a re-imagining of the series so soon after the Sam Raimi trilogy of films released between 2002 and 2007. That being said, with a more forward moving plot and a collection of interesting characters, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows a marked improvement over the moody and overly emo blockbuster that arrived two years ago.

I find that the first entries in most superhero series are always tricky because it’s necessary to tell an origin story detailing how the central character (or characters) became the caped crusaders or men of steel we know them to be. Very few films have been successful in that regard, with 1978’s Superman being the gold standard of origin story films in my book.

The Amazing Spider-Man faced an uphill battle because in my mind it had to provide some rationale for why we needed to go back to square one with Peter Parker and his arachnid powers. It couldn’t make the case and though it made a truckload of cash for Sony/Marvel and had some impressive special effects, it was slow and housed an uninteresting villain that provided more yawns of boredom than gasps of excitement.

The sequel sets to out to right some of those wrongs but winds up overcompensating for its lackluster predecessor by stuffing so much into its first hour that audiences should buckle up for tonal whiplash. Returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, People Like Us), Roberto Orci (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Jeff Pinkner have great difficulty finding their bearings in the further adventures of Peter Parker and it’s not until well into the second act of their film that they get into the groove.

Opening with a whiz-bang flashback prologue that shows what really happened to Peter Parker’s parents (Campbell Scott & Embeth Davidtz) after they mysteriously left him with Aunt May (Sally Field, Lincoln) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) we jump right into a present that finds Peter (Andrew Garfield, less troubled here but still a tad whiny) and Gwen (Emma Stone, bringing valuable sparkle to her role) trying to navigate their relationship. Haunted by a promise he made to her dying father, Peter struggles with honoring his word and the love he feels for Gwen.

At the same time and in true sequel fashion, more time is spent on introducing several new villains to the mix than with our hero. The first foe Spidey has to deal with is Electro (Jamie Foxx, Annie) who starts the film as a dopey nerd desperate for attention that finds himself at the business end of a tub of electric eels. Foxx plays these early scenes as such a simpleton it borders on insulting stereotype though he does manage to find good but hardly electrifying moments when he gains his evil powers.

Also appearing is Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, Lawless, Chronicle) who, after the death of his father (Chris Cooper, August: Osage County) returns to manage Oscorp, the mega company that employs Gwen and seems to be the breeding ground for villains out to take over the world. Dying due to a genetic disease, Harry needs Spider-Man’s blood to save himself…a problem made more difficult when he discovers that Spidey is really his childhood friend Peter Parker. DeHaan and Garfield are both talented young actors, so it’s guffaw inducing to watch scenes that have them spouting douche-y dialogue with numerous “bro” and “dude” interjections.

There’s something to be said when the most interesting character has no superpowers at all. Showing once again why she’s such a value add to any film, Field makes the most of her limited screen time by creating a character designed to be the voice of reason but delivering her material with an honesty that seems out of place in a film otherwise populated with some fairly generic dialogue and plot developments.

Composer Hans Zimmer replaced James Horner and the resulting score creates an excitement the original was lacking. Aided by super producer Pharrell, Zimmer’s score is just as impressive as the special effects which are deployed in a spectacular fashion whether it’s in Spidey’s high flying opening pursuit of a gang of thugs or a final showdown with Electro at a power plant. T

he final third of the film is pure action, leading to a series of endings (there are at least three) that signal change is ahead for Parker and company. With a third entry on its way in 2016, there’s little doubt Spidey will spin his web for years to come and if this sequel is any indication, the series will continue to improve.

Movie Review ~ Rio 2

rio_two_ver6

The Facts:

Synopsis: It’s a jungle out there for Blu, Jewel and their three kids after they’re hurtled Rio de Janeiro to the wilds of the Amazon.

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, will.i.am, Jemaine Clement, Tracy Morgan, George Lopez, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Jamie Foxx, Andy Garcia, Rita Moreno, Bruno Mars, Kristin Chenoweth

Director: Carlos Saldanha

Rated: G

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m fighting against the grain and resisting the urge to heed the old adage that there comes a time to put away childish things. For me, that means not seeing every single animated film released in theaters. For a time, the market was on an even keel of producing one stellar film after another…until lesser studios took it upon themselves to insert themselves into the market, sullying it with cheap looking entries that shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as something coming from Pixar or Dreamworks Animation. See The Nut Job if you don’t believe me…or better yet, don’t.

I think we’re nudging into a new standard of animation and audiences are starting to convey that message with their money if you look at the diminishing returns on lackluster sequels (Monsters University) and the popularity of new specimens like The LEGO Movie. Also, you can’t just tack “in 3D” on to any old film because people don’t want to pay for something that won’t give them their money’s worth.

So where does that leave a sequel like Rio 2? A continuation of the story that started in 2011 right as the animation horizon was starting to shift, this is an overall workmanlike second chapter of a novel that wasn’t that original to begin with. It is, however, better than the first film and works a kind of magic that turns an entire cast of usually obnoxious performers into an appealing band of colorful characters by letting us only hear them, not see them.

It helped me in some small way to have watched the first Rio in the wee hours of the Saturday I caught an early morning screening of Rio 2. Picking up shortly after the first film ended, Blu (Jesse Eisenberg, Now You See Me) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables) are still in Rio with their three growing chirpers living the laid-back life that only animated birds could make acceptable. Originally thought to be the last group of blue macaws, when Blu’s owner (Leslie Mann, This is 40) finds a flock of macaws on an Amazon research trip the family packs up for a vacation to meet more of their kind.

Meanwhile, the now flightless Shakespearian bad bird from the first film (Jemaine Clement, Men in Black III) toils away the day as a pier side show attraction. A chance glimpse of Blu and Co. on the wing to the Amazon boils his bad blood and before you can say “extraneous subplot #1” he breaks free of the chains that bind him, taking a mute anteater and operatic poisonous frog (Kristin Chenoweth, Hit and Run) in his pursuit of revenge.

What Blu and Jewel find in the depths of the Amazon will feel mighty familiar and truth be told the entire film suffers from the same lack of originality that plagued the first one. Still, something about the earnestness of the performances, the tuneful music (I enjoyed Chenoweth’s goofy aria about Poisonous Love), and the eye-popping visuals won me over more than I thought it ever would.

Though the film does delve into more blatant themes of conservationism (ala Ferngully: The Last Rainforest), the message isn’t delivered with any real agenda so it remains benign. Returning director Carlos Saldanha keeps things moving even though the film stretches past 100 minutes, further making my point that no animated film should keep you in the theater for over an hour and a half. If there is to be a Rio 3, let’s hope the filmmakers push things forward so this pleasant series doesn’t turn into a turkey.

Down From the Shelf ~ Rio

rio_ver3

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Blu, a domesticated macaw from small-town Minnesota, meets the fiercely independent Jewel, he takes off on an adventure to Rio de Janeiro with this bird of his dreams.

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, George Lopez, Tracy Morgan, Jemaine Clement, Leslie Mann, will.i.am, Jamie Foxx

Director: Carlos Saldanha

Rated: G

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I had some homework to do where Rio was concerned. Though there was a time when I wouldn’t say no to the next animated film that came down the pike, back in 2011 when Rio was released I was at my limit for colorful films featuring talking animals going on grand adventures…in 3D no less. I took a (brief) stand against what I thought was the enemy…the cash grabbing studio machine that seemed to pick the central species by way of dart board.

With the sequel coming out and on my schedule of screenings I realized that I had to get cracking with watching the original adventure featuring a blue macaw that travels from chilly Minnesota to balmy Rio de Janeiro. Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg, Now You See Me) is the last male of his species and he’s escorted by his caring owner (Leslie Mann, This is 40) to be mated with feisty female Jewel (Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises). Originally earning a PG for its mating conceit, rest assured this eventually got knocked back to the family friendly G it deserves.

For all the colorful scenes and pleasant musical numbers, Rio never really soars thanks to an also-ran plot filled with the standard baddies that aren’t so much out to hurt the birds as make a buck off of their beaks. Pursued not only by oafish swindlers that want to sell the birds to exotic pet stores but a puffy blow-hard bird (Jermaine Clement, Muppets Most Wanted) that comes off a little too much like Scar from The Lion King, Blu and Jewel team up with a host of other feathered friends and one dog to reunite with Blu’s owner…all during Rio’s annual Carnaval.

I get the feeling the movie probably played better on the big screen and with the addition of 3D to give some depth to the overwhelming amount of color and tropical city lushness on display. Longer than it has to be (does any animated movie need to be longer than 80 minutes?), there are occasional fun moments mostly tied to Sergio Mendes’s musical score and non-obnoxious performances from normally obnoxious talent like George Lopez, Tracy Morgan, will.i.am, & Jamie Foxx.

All in all, Rio is a harmless flight of fancy that has enough going on to distract the kids while the adults sitting through it may find themselves tapping their toes to the bossa nova beats. Not a must see, but not a total waste of time or effort.

The Silver Bullet ~ Annie (2014)

annie


Synopsis
: Wealthy businessman Benjamin Stacks comes to the aid of a young girl living in an orphanage run by the tyrannical Miss Hannigan.

Release Date:  December 19, 2014

Thoughts:  I’m not totally opposed to remakes, reboots, reinventions, what have you…but I want them to have some sort of point of view.  I’ve been dreading seeing the first trailer for a modern day version of the Broadway musical that opened in 1977 and was already made into a film in 1982 and it turns out I wasn’t wrong to live in fear.  It looks absolutely dreadful, a wise-cracking and sassy version of a story that once had a lot of heart.  I never knew what was so bad about the original film which was raked over the coals by critics and considered a bit of a flop, so perhaps I’m holding that movie too close in my memory.  With new songs from Jay-Z, it was originally planned as a vehicle for Willow Smith (because, of course, her parents are producing it) with a script from Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks).  Thompson’s script looks to be a distant memory now that the new Annie is Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Oliver Warbucks, sorry, Benjamin Stacks (ugh) is none other than Jamie Foxx (White House Down) who chews scenery almost as bad as he chews food.  Though Rose Byrne (Insidious, The Place Beyond the Pines) seems like a nice choice for Grace, one look at Cameron Diaz (What to Expect When You’re Expecting) glammed up as the boozy Miss Hannigan and I knew it was all downhill from there.   I’m sure this will make a killing at the box office…but good golly…I hope it’s somewhat better than the trailer makes it look.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Amazing Spider-Man 2

amazing_spiderman_two_ver4

Synopsis: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends a slew of supervillains up against him.

Release Date:  May 2, 2014

Thoughts: While I wasn’t married to the idea of Tobey Maguire being the one and only Spider-Man forever and ever, I wasn’t convinced in 2012 that Sony needed to reboot our webbed hero with The Amazing Spider-Man.  The film, while impressive visually, was missing that special spark that all lasting superhero films need to stand the test of time.  History has shown that some franchise films need to work out some bugs at first so I’m going to put faith in director Marc Webb and the creative time that this second go ‘round with Spidey hits the bullseye.  Adding rising star Dane DeHaan (Lawless, Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines), Paul Giamatti (Saving Mr. Banks), and Jamie Foxx (White House Down, Django Unchained) to the mix, this special New Year’s Eve preview is shorter and more compact than the longer trailer released a month ago, truly teasing the audience with images of the nasty baddies that await them when the film is released in May.

 

Movie Review ~ White House Down

white_house_down_ver8

The Facts:

Synopsis: While on a tour of the White House with his young daughter, a Capitol policeman springs into action to save his child and protect the president from a heavily armed group of paramilitary invaders.

Stars: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods

Director: Roland Emmerich

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Hollywood’s quirky concept of rival studios producing dueling pictures with the same subject matter has been around for quite some time. There’s the battle of the lava flick with 1997’s Volcano and Dante’s Peak, dueling doomsday comet movies with 1998’s Armageddon and Deep Impact, and most recently two different takes on a fairy princess legend with 2012’s Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and The Huntsman.

One would think that being the first to the theater would signify a clear winner but it’s almost always the case that the second film edges out the competition.  That general rule is true again in 2013 which has provided your local cinema with two movies centered around the hostile takeover of 1600 Penn Avenue…better known as The White House.

March’s Olympus Has Fallen was a gratuitously violent and shabbily made film, feeling like it was shot in the same two hallways and offices with the furniture simply re-organized to suggest a new location.  It also boasted a forgettable villain and supporting performances that ranged from serviceable to hysterically awful (I’m looking at you Melissa Leo).  It felt like an extended version of the television series 24 without any of the surprise that that show seemed to have in spades.

So I was modestly hopeful that White House Down would be a better film…but as more television spots were released and a final too-long trailer was plopped before every summer movie thus far, I started wondering if I’d even make an effort to see the film at all.  It didn’t help that there’s something about the subject matter that doesn’t sit quite right with me – maybe it’s because I find The White House to be a true symbol of the United States of America and I’ve not taken any pleasure in seeing it destroyed in films over the years.

Well, I wound up seeing White House Down opening weekend and my first thought was that the movie was better than it had any right to be.    What you have here is a true blue crowd pleaser that wisely avoids the missteps of Olympus Has Fallen by keeping things moving at such a rapid pace that you barely have time to catch your breath or let your brain do any dissecting of the fairly ludicrous material.

Though I like a well thought out action flick as much as the next person, there’s something satisfying in just letting a movie like this wash over you without having to worry too much about dots being connected or lessons being learned.  This is a hard muscled thrill ride of a film and it’s thanks to the unusually focused efforts of director Roland Emmerich  (2012, Independence Day, Universal Soldier) and star Channing Tatum (Side Effects, The Vow, Magic Mike, Haywire, 21 Jump Street) that the movie comes off as pleasing as it does.

With a script from James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) that is really just a re-working of the original Die Hard, White House Down takes a good 40 minutes of its 131 minute length to set-up the characters and plot points that will be used throughout the film.  Foreshadowing is a lost art and while most movies have such obvious moments that will be referenced later in the film, there are a few sequences near the end of White House Down that you don’t even realize were set-up in a halfway decent way an hour or more earlier.  I respect films that can divert you like that without going for a cheap ploy and White House Down, while derivative, never feels overtly sly in its approach.

The synopsis above is pretty perfect in setting up the goings-on of the film and I’m going to refrain from saying any more, lest I give away some of the turns the movie takes on its journey.  There’s no super secret twist awaiting audiences but I did find it admirable Vanderbilt and Emmerich didn’t take the trail most traveled in the midst of all the gunfire and explosions.

A movie of this ilk could easily have recessed into R-rated territory and it’s notable that the PG-13 rating leaves the movie relatively bloodless but doesn’t totally cut itself off at the knees either.  People do die but it’s not nearly as excruciating to watch as the deaths in Olympus Has Fallen or even Air Force One, Harrison Ford’s 1997 president in peril film.

Try as I might, I can’t continue to deny that Channing Tatum isn’t coming into his own as a perfectly fine actor and proven action star.  Though the script lightly sketches his war veteran turned security detail muscle man, Tatum convincingly makes the character flesh and bone and not just because he’s put in charge of saving the president (Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained) but his estranged 11 year old daughter (Joey King, Oz the Great and Powerful).

Foxx is someone I can either take or leave but his President James Sawyer is a nice role for the Oscar winning actor.  There’s not a lot of room for Foxx to do anything but what’s asked of him and his Obama-lite take on the president is nothing to roll your eyes at.  This is a president that doesn’t suddenly learn how to use a gun and take on all forms of bad ass-ery…he evolves as the situation changes around him.  There’s some nice chemistry between Foxx and Tatum, something that helps the film along on more than one occasion.

Another actor that I sometimes have mixed feelings about is the lone female star, Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight, Won’t Back Down), and she wound up being one of the main reasons I liked the film so much.  As a confident Secret Service agent that isn’t butch-ed up or written as a doormat, Gyllenhaal is commanding and a solid presence in the war room that becomes the nerve center in helping Tatum and Foxx make it out of the attack alive.

Also turning in fine work as a villainous mercenary is Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, Lawless), Speaker of the House Richard Jenkins (Jack Reacher), and James Woods as the head of Secret Service detail assigned to protect the president.    Everyone else is merely filler comprised of character actors that probably bring their own military uniforms to the set with them.

Even with several well staged action sequences that take Tatum and Foxx on a tour of the White House grounds, the movie does start to feel the weight of its mission about 90 minutes in.  It’s yet another case of people making it out of danger but turning around and going back in to save someone the audience knows they shouldn’t.  The perfunctory ending is rushed…almost as if the last day of shooting arrived and the final ten pages were crammed into one.

For my money, the battle of the Presidential Palace has been won by White House Down thanks to some skilled work by players operating with a hefty budget and A-List talent.  It’s easy to see why the film could be written off quickly by audiences that didn’t care for Olympus Has Fallen but I’d suggest you give this one a go if you’re in the mood for something that goes down relatively easy with a nicely chiseled punch.

The Silver Bullet ~ White House Down

white_house_down_ver4

Synopsis: While on a tour of the White House with his young daughter, a Capitol policeman springs into action to save his child and protect the president from a heavily armed group of paramilitary invaders.

Release Date:  June 28, 2013

Thoughts: Hot on the heels of February’s Olympus Has Fallen is White House Down, another action-thriller involving the hostile take-over of the residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.  June’s White House Down is directed by Roland Emmerich who started off with the campy and enjoyable Universal Solider/Stargate one-two punch and has gradually gone the Michael Bay route of heading up pictures that were full of sound of fury and signifying nothing.  The presence of in-demand star Channing Tatum (Magic Mike, Side Effects, The Vow) can’t hurt the chances of this taking down the competition at the box office in its first weekend – but let’s see if the film has any substance to go along with the explosions.

Movie Review ~ Django Unchained

3

django_unchained_ver9

The Facts:

Synopsis: With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayouette, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Kerry Washington,

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  If you’re headed into a Tarantino film chances are you are expecting certain mainstays: coarse language, outrageous violence, non-linear storytelling, an eclectic soundtrack, and Samuel L. Jackson.  This holiday season, right in time for Christmas, Tarantino is releasing his latest epic yarn that thankfully gives his audiences/fans exactly what they’ve come for – amped up a few notches.  Django Unchained is one of Tarantino’s most enjoyable films, one that takes the standard spaghetti western and gives it a nice bristle brush scrubbing thanks to an assured bravado most filmmakers today wouldn’t dare to employ.

Beginning in 1858, Tarantino opens his film with slave Django (Foxx) trudging along in chains through a desolate landscape after being sold at auction.  A superlative theme song and the director’s trademark bold titles establish that the movie is operating in a slightly altered reality, though it is set in the heart of a country on the brink of civil war.  This was the age of slavery and the film pulls no punches in how black men and women were treated, painting a fairly revolting picture on the way. 

All hope seems lost for Django until a bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) waltzes into his life and changes his path from plantation to salvation.  Schultz needs Django to help identify a trio of wanted men…and in exchange he will give him his freedom and a split of the earnings.  When this initial bounty hunt show promise, the men decide to team up for a winter until Django can return to Mississippi and find his wife (Washington). 

The first half of the picture is really a breezy buddy film as Django and Schultz make a killing (har har) tracking down the men that are wanted dead or alive.  In between scenes of gruesome violence/vengeance there are some solid exchanges that Foxx and Waltz work wonders with.  Waltz still shines from his Oscar winning turn in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and returns in another memorable performance here in a role tailor-made for him.  I often find Foxx to be a little overrated but his work as Django is exciting and commendable – starting off as a man with spirit but without hope, you gradually see the life reentering his body as his friendship with Schultz thickens and a reunion with his wife draws nearer. 

It’s about halfway through the movie that things take a curious, but no less interesting, turn as Schultz and Django set their sights on finding the location of Django’s wife Broomhilda von Shaft (just one of the memorable character names  along with Jinglebells Cody, Tennessee Redfish, Chicken Charlie, and Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly).  Information comes to them that Broomhilda or “Hildy” is now the property of one Calvin Candie (DiCaprio)…a silver spoon fed plantation owner Django and Schultz must outsmart if they are to save the girl and make it out alive.

The final act of Django Unchained plays out in Candie Land, and it in and of itself could have been expanded into an entire film thanks to some fascinating dialogue from Tarantino, scenes of violence that are both hysterical and horrifying, and a troupe of actors doing some very brave work when you consider their previous film roles.  It’s touchy subject matter but instead of shying away from it, Tarantino encourages all involved (the audience included) to go with it and stay engaged. 

Some early reviews of the film criticized Django Unchained for being too talky and long but I found it to be easier to get through than Inglourious Basterds (which I also liked).  This is probably because the nearly three hour film is episodic in nature so it just has a natural flow from one adventure to another. 

In typical Tarantino fashion, the violence is surreal, stylish, and in your face.  Nearly everyone comes face to face with a bullet at some point and they do one of two things: go quietly or die in screaming agony as the blood drains from them.  It’s gory and grotesque but there’s something definitively cinematic about it that keeps it from feeling too exploitative. 

Though Tarantino packs his film with more recognizable character actors than I’ve seen in any film recently (including Ted Neely – the Jesus Christ Superstar of stage and screen), the leads carry the film with ease.  In addition to the strong work from Waltz and Foxx, you have Washington playing the physically and emotionally taxing role of Django’s wife with beautiful confidence and Johnson as a Colonel Sanders looking plantation owner resisting the urge to be a cartoon.  Johnson in particular has a riotous passage with would-be Klansmen that wind up fighting over the sacks they wear over their head.  It’s a wonderful scene courtesy of Tarantino that gets the audience laughing at the bigoted bickering.

DiCaprio finally figures out the formula to turning in an award-worthy performance: be a supporting player.  Though many have cried foul that DiCaprio hasn’t received the award recognition he deserves over the years, I’d say that he really hasn’t truly earned it in any picture up until this point.  Here, in a large supporting role, he does his best work in ages as a vicious southern brat that has the tables turned on him in royal fashion.

Though much of the pre-release Oscar buzz has been for DiCaprio, I’d argue that the best performance in the film belongs to Jackson as DiCaprio’s head slave.  As slyly evil a character as I’ve seen Jackson play, he goes all out in the vile department without tipping the scales to farce.  I actually didn’t recognize Jackson the first few frames of the film he’s in, but once it sunk in and the audience saw him…it truly was his picture to steal and that’s exactly what he does.  If DiCaprio is to receive an Oscar nomination (as he probably will) here’s hoping that Jackson gets one as well.

The movie has about four endings and as the third hour was approaching I do admit that I was ready for the film to end.  Tarantino just can’t leave well enough alone (or resist a personal and oddball cameo) and while the ending was satisfying and felt right, I also wouldn’t have minded if it had said its goodbye twenty minutes prior.  That may not have worked for some audiences that demand explanation or a true wrap-up…but it would have made the ending of the film feel as special as the proceeding two and a half hours.

Tarantino has done wonders with this genre…turning the Western picture into what he’s called a Southern.  It’s a fast, funny, ferocious affair and it’s either going to send you out of the theater dazed and amazed or dazed and confused.  I thought it was a splendid film for mature audiences and wouldn’t mind putting it on my end of the year Best of lists.