Django Unchained (12/25/12)

Django UnchainedMovie Two Hundred Ninety Seven

A slave becomes a bounty hunter and seeks to free his wife from a brutal plantation owner in Django Unchained.

A pair of slave traders traveling through Texas with a handful of slaves is stopped by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Schultz is looking for Django (Jamie Foxx) regarding the identities of the Brittle brothers for a bounty he is after. After a scuffle that leaves one slave trader dead, Django is bought by Schultz, who despises slavery and trains a newly free man, Django, as a fellow bounty hunter. After dealing with the Brittle brothers, Django tells Schultz about his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), and Schultz vows to help Django track her down and free her from slavery. They discover she is working at a plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) but they have a plan to ensure Broomhilda’s freedom.

Quentin Tarantino has made quite a name for himself in the last twenty years and his films are widely praised for good reason. He makes films that are amalgamations of all the best parts of various genre films but instead of feeling cobbled together or copied, they feel fresh and raw. His craft has certainly been refined as of late, and Django Unchained may be his most refined film to date. The production feels immense and maybe even more polished than any of Tarantino’s previous works. That is, if you aren’t afraid of erupting wounds, unflinching violence, and lots of course language, it’s one of his finest films.

Django Unchained is one of the better movies to come out of 2012 and it’s one of my favorites of the year. The only thing that really held it back is its length; at 165 minutes it feels long and it drags a bit near the middle. Had the film been closer to two hours I think it would have been lean and mean, without losing much of its charm. Django Unchained constantly tries to keep things interesting, but it’s tough when a film is approaching three hours. After a while, I just wanted less talking and more shooting.

The length of Django Unchained is really my only complaint against the film. I think Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his best performances of his career, something I was kind of surprised by. Christoph Waltz is, of course, fantastic, as is Jamie Foxx. Kerry Washington doesn’t really do much for me, but she does a good job as well. Unsurprisingly, Samuel L. Jackson gives a great performance that truly only he could give.

I’m concerned that Tarantino’s visions are getting larger and larger and the Weinstein’s are willing to let him run free. Normally this would be a good thing, but I think Tarantino’s movies are technically getting more refined, but there is also a trend of them getting long. If his next film is even longer than Django Unchained, it’s going to need to be something incredibly special, which it likely will be. Django Unchained has been dubbed a Spaghetti Southern, a riff on the Spaghetti Western genre, and I kind of wish more filmmakers took up and made films for this new genre to match Django Unchained.

I give it 5 Samuel Jacksons out of 5.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (12/21/12)

The HobbitMovie Two Hundred Ninety One

A young hobbit accompanies a group of dwarves to reclaim their mountain home from a dragon in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

On his 111th birthday, Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) decides to write his memoirs for his young nephew, Frodo (Elijah Wood). He describes how the dwarves lost their home in Lonely Mountain to a fearsome dragon named Smaug. A younger Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is tricked by wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to hosting dinner for thirteen dwarves, led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). Bilbo is enlisted for his role as the ‘thief’ although he has never stolen anything in his life. After a change in heart, Bilbo decides to make the journey to help the dwarves and the group sets out for Lonely Mountain.

There are a few things that I need to get out of the way about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – the 3D 48 frames per second treatment, the need for three movies, and how it compares to Lord of the Rings.

First, the native 3D 48 frames per second filming of The Hobbit is a first in the industry. Doubling the rate of a standard film at 24 fps, the initial reaction to The Hobbit is a bit jarring of an effect. I suspect that a few of the scenes were not actually shot in 48 fps and were sped up to this speed. I say this because early on, there are some camera pans that seem incredibly, almost comically, fast. A few of Ian Holm’s movements seem jagged and weird too. I’m not sure if my reaction is simply because I hadn’t adjusted to the speed or if I’m correct and they were artificially increase in post-production, but I will say that I was quite pleased with 48 fps about 90% of the time and it is likely the future of cinema. The use of 3D is absolutely splendid as well.

Since Peter Jackson is interjecting backstory from other Tolkien works, apparently namely from The Silmarillion, in The Hobbit. While this doesn’t bog down the story for An Unexpected Journey, it does beg the question why The Hobbit, a relatively short book, needs three movies. In my opinion so far, it doesn’t. There are a few parts that slow down the pacing and there are some scenes that seem entirely superfluous. Yes, the extensive Tolkien mythology is bolstered, but keep that stuff in special features on a blu-ray set or something. This first film alone is close to three hours long and knowing there are two more, likely equally long films coming is kind of off-putting.

The obvious comparisons to Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy are not entirely appropriate since The Hobbit is a much different source material than its successors. However, in practice, The Hobbit on film feels far too close to Lord of the Rings for its own good. The Hobbit is serious but it does have a bit of a sense of humor to it, which may rub some folks the wrong way. It’s a shame The Hobbit film(s) weren’t made first because it would set the stage for Lord of the Rings without relying on it instead of the other way around.

In the end, I quite liked The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. It’s far from a perfect film on its own and I always struggle to judge a film like this as a part or as a whole. Technically, this is 1/3 of a single film and it remains to be seen if the whole thing is worthy of your time. For now, I’d recommend The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey to be seen in 3D and 48 frames per second, but be warned that it’s no Lord of the Rings.

I give it 4 animated Hobbits out of 5.

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Life of Pi (11/25/12)

Life of PiMovie Two Hundred Seventy One

In Life of Pi, a boy must survive on a small life boat with a tiger and discovers a sea of wonders.

A novelist (Rafe Spall) visits an adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to hear a story that will supposedly make a great book and make him believe in God. Young Pi, originally named Piscine Molitor after a French swimming pool, has a strong fascination with all religions. His family owns a zoo but his father decides to sell the animals and take his family to Canada. Now a teenager, Pi (Suraj Sharma), travels on a ship with a full crew, many animals in the cargo area, and his family. During a violent storm, Pi is able to get on a life boat along with a frantic zebra. The zebra breaks its leg in a fall, but the life boat is drifting away while the ship sinks. An orangutan finds its way to the boat and is brought on board, but a hyena makes trouble for two animals. Then the Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker, emerges from beneath a tarp on the boat and Pi must survive the open seas alongside the beast.

If you want to read my Life of Pi preview, you can find that here. I still have not yet read the novel Life of Pi, but seeing the film certainly increased my interest in doing so. Life of Pi is one of the most visually stunning movies I’ve seen and while the plot is low on action, I would struggle faulting it too much. To think that Richard Parker, the tiger, is almost entirely animated is simply staggering. Most of the imagery is fantastical and at times even surreal but that all pales in comparison to how amazingly realistic that tiger looks.

We saw Life of Pi in 3D and it would be hard to recommend seeing it in any other format. The use of 3D is mostly subdued, though at times things do fly at the screen. I don’t think it’s too late to see this in theaters and I strongly urge everyone to try to see it in 3D before it’s too late. It’s weird to think that an existential film about a teenager and a tiger trapped on a small boat would be a special effects powerhouse, but it truly is a wonder and it also happens to be a beautiful story.

If I had to choose a downside to Life of Pi it’s that the ending is far too swift. If you aren’t paying close attention to the dialogue in the final scene you will miss out on what Life of Pi is really about. I’m not sure how closely this mimics the book, but there could have been some floating at sea trimmed to beef up the finale. I’m not sure if you will have your faith in God affirmed by the end of Life of Pi like Pi proclaims, but the story will likely stay with you regardless of your faith.

I give it 5 amazing CGI tigers out of 5.

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Planes, Trains & Automobiles (11/18/12 & 12/28/12)

Planes, Trains & AutomobilesMovie Two Hundred Sixty Five and Two Hundred Ninety Nine

An ad executive desperately tries to get home to Chicago from New York in time for Thanksgiving in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Two days before Thanksgiving, Neal Page (Steve Martin),an ad executive, is in New York on a business meeting trying to catch his plane back to Chicago to be with his family. While trying to snatch a cab from a sleazy lawyer, someone else gets in and Neal chases after it, startling the passenger. At the airport, Neal arrives at the gate just in time but the flight is delayed. While waiting, he sees the man that stole his cab and finds out his name is Del Griffith (John Candy), a shower ring salesman. Neal is annoyed by Del but after a string of bad luck and misfortunes, the two stick together trying to get back to Chicago.

I skipped ahead to make sure this one got published in time for Thanksgiving. I hate summarizing comedies because it’s impossible to make a movie sound funny in a paragraph talking about the plot. Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a film that is funny regardless of the season, but there aren’t a ton of Thanksgiving movies out there so why not watch it around this time of year? The ‘everything that can go wrong, will go wrong’ series of events always has me in stitches and individually, Martin and Candy are two of my favorite comedic actors, so naturally, together they are a riot.

There are scenes in Planes, Trains and Automobiles that make me laugh uncontrollably every single time I see it. It’s not that the moments are a surprise, they are just completely hilarious to me. The series of events that befall Neal and Del is always a bit of a surprise to me since I never quite remember the exact order of everything, which helps keep Planes, Trains and Automobiles fresh regardless of how many times I’ve seen it. As with most other John Hughes movies, Planes, Trains and Automobiles has a heart to it between all the comedy and if you’ve never seen the film before, the ending may surprise you.

A while back, I wrote about another Hughes/Candy film, Uncle Buck, where I state that it’s my second favorite Candy film after this one and watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles again solidifies that point for me. Hughes had such a talent for writing and directing and he and Candy worked amazingly well together. Not only is Planes, Trains and Automobiles one of the finest films of both their careers, it’s one of my favorite comedies ever.

I give it 5 “those aren’t pillows!” out of 5.

Happy Thanksgiving!

PS – It kills me to write out the title of the film with an Oxford comma

[Update] I was lucky enough to get to see Planes, Trains and Automobiles at a midnight showing in a theater and it was better than I imagined. The owner of the theater even got dressed up as Del Griffith (check out my Facebook page for a picture). While my eyelids started getting heavy after their car burns, the whole movie was a joy to see in the theater. Candy and Martin’s expressions and movements were somehow exaggerated and I thought the film was even funnier than normal. We had a great time.

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Wreck-It Ralph (11/8/12)

Wreck-It RalphMovie Two Hundred Fifty Three

A video game villain wants to be treated like a hero and jumps into other games to win a medal in Wreck-It Ralph.

The game Fix-It Felix, Jr. is home to game villain Wreck-It Ralph aka Ralph (John C. Reilly) who, after 30 years of service in the same arcade, decides he is tired of always being the villain and wants the recognition of a hero. When the in-game building residents throw Fix-It Felix, Jr. (Jack McBrayer) a 30th anniversary party without inviting Ralph, Ralph crashes the party and smashes the cake. Ralph then decides he needs to win a medal to prove his worth as a good guy. Ralph learns that the new neighboring game called Hero’s Duty gives out medals to the winner so Ralph decides to leave his game in search of a medal. After taking a medal and accidentally launching a spacecraft, Ralph and the cy-bug enemy from Hero’s Duty are launched to a neighboring racing game called Sugar Rush where Ralph must retrieve his medal from Venellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman)by helping her win the race.

Wreck-It Ralph may very well be the perfect movie for me, a video game loving movie nerd. It combines my great love of video games, hits big on nostalgia for retro gaming and arcades, and also has that great Disney touch. There are so many sly nods to video games over the past three decades that it’s easy to miss most of them. Wreck-It Ralph is to video games as Toy Story is to toys and that is perhaps the best way I can describe the movie. While Wreck-It Ralph relies on knowledge of some video games, it is really only for the setup of the film, once Ralph leaves his game he is in the video game worlds created for the movie in Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush, though both of these games are heavily influenced by actual video games.

I do not usually defend 3D in movies as I find it superfluous in nearly all instances, but Disney treats 3D with a sense of care. There are no gags in Wreck-It Ralph with random stuff flying at the screen just for the sake of 3D, the 3D is mostly used just to give scenes a particular depth to them. While I still could do without 3D, I would rather have it benefit the movie rather than be obnoxious.

One comparison Wreck-It Ralph is destined for is how it fares against Pixar animated movies. While Wreck-It Ralph may lack that extreme level of polish, I would be surprised if people could really tell this wasn’t a Pixar movie. The story gets a bit bogged down towards the end, but the pacing never plods along. Even young kids with no real knowledge of older video games will not have the setup go over their heads. For example, there are several Q*Bert jokes that should work for all audiences, regardless of if you remember Q*Bert.

Disney has a winner with Wreck-It Ralph and I hope that its a movie that remains high on people’s favorites for the studio. I think it has the potential to be a classic, though once the video game references start getting old, they will either be the good type of nostalgic or archaic. Hopefully the former, but I’m already in love with Wreck-It Ralph and can’t wait to watch it again.

I give it 5 awesome official websites out of 5.

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Young Frankenstein (10/31/12)

Young FrankensteinMovie Two Hundred Forty Six

Young Frankenstein is the story of Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson as he lives down his surname and revisits his grandfather’s experiments.

Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) leaves his fiance, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) and travels back to the estate in Transylvania owned by his family. There he meets his new assistants, Igor (Marty Feldman) and Inga (Teri Garr), and housekeeper Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman). Frederick becomes interested in his grandfather’s experiments and decides to re-animate the dead and creates his own Monster (Peter Boyle). As the townspeople grow uneasy of Frederick’s experiments, the Monster goes out on his own before being captured again. Frederick transfers part of his personality to the Monster and then in an effort to calm people, the two put on a show.

The plot synopsis of Young Frankenstein makes this seem like a continuation of the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein films from the 30s, but it’s a typical Mel Brooks spoof that is securely rooted in the original Frankenstein lore. It’s even shot in black and white and uses some of the original set pieces and props from the ’31 Karloff film. This lends Young Frankenstein an edge of seriousness that almost makes the dry wit of Wilder and Brooks strike like a bell at times or go completely unnoticed if you aren’t looking for it.

To fully understand Young Frankenstein, you almost need a firm grasp of Mel Brooks’ humor and how it works more than you need strong knowledge of the Frankenstein films. Young Frankenstein is one of the finest comedies ever in that it has an actual plot that is taken fairly seriously but is punctuated by lots of great gags to keep things interesting. This isn’t a spoof film like they make today, this was a funny take on a film where the source is clearly loved. The original films aren’t necessarily the butt of the joke, but comedic situations can be made from the source material.

Young Frankenstein is one of the finer comedies ever produced, for my money. It’s a fantastic blend of humor and the original Universal films in a way that only Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder could do. While I thought it took a while to really get going, once all the plot points are setup the film got more than a few “belly laughs” from me. Young Frankenstein is a film that I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, so most of the humor went right over my head. As an adult I can really appreciate the film for what it is, especially after having just seen Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but Young Frankenstein is just as timeless.

I give it 5 Puttin’ On the Ritz out of 5.

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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (10/25/12) – Nostalgiathon

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

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Movie Two Hundred Forty

A sailor, a professor, and his assistant climb aboard the Nautilus for adventure as they travel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

A mysterious sea monster is attacking ships in the Pacific Ocean and is halting sea trade. Professor Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant, Conseil (Peter Lorre) are commissioned by the U.S. government to travel and look for evidence of the monster. After having no luck on the sea, the ship is attacked by the monster and the professor and Conseil are thrown overboard along with cocky crewmember Ned Land (Kirk Douglas). After being adrift in the ocean, the men arrive upon a strange metal submersible and realizing that it is the monster they have been looking for climb aboard looking for answers. They look outside a large porthole window and see the crew of the vessel diving in large suits. The crew comes back aboard the Nautilus and their captain, Nemo (James Mason), takes the three men as captives. As Nemo reveals his intentions, the crew of the Nautilus travel the treacherous seas as Ned plots his escape.

Since this is the kickoff for Nostalgiathon, I will start by explaining why 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is my perfect choice. As a kid, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was one of my favorite movies but also the movie I found the most terrifying thing ever. The giant squid that attacks the Nautilus near the end of the film made young Andy have nightmares for weeks and still effects me today. Also, the Shedd Aquarium here in Chicago had a lifesize model of a giant squid on the ceiling in one of their exhibits that would make me cry every time we went there. But even though I was terrified, I was also incredibly intrigued by the creature.

To young me, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea WAS the giant squid attacking; the rest of the movie was filler for that scene. As an adult, the rest of the film is actually incredibly smart and mature considering this is a Disney film. Ned Land acts as most the film’s comic relief since he sings songs and acts crazy, and there is also a seal that seems tossed onscreen to appease kids, but the actual plot and Nemo’s motivations are quite adult. Even though I had watched this film many times as a kid, other than a few spotty things here and there, the only thing that was still burned in my brain was the giant squid attack and I’ll be honest…I still got chills from that scene as a 30 year old. Though no nightmares this time around, I’ve matured!

As mentioned, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a Disney film, the first sci-fi film from the studio. When Jules Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, submarines did not exist, which blows my mind. This was science fiction that turned non-fiction. The style of the film is also largely credited with popularity for the steampunk movement since the design of Nautilus is incredibly unique, even today.

As a kid, Kirk Douglas’ over the top sailor, Ned Land, always made me chuckle and he was the only character I really remember anything about. Now, Mason’s and Lorre’s performances stick out just as much, though they are a little more subtle. Mason as Nemo has such a dark hidden rage and Lorre is just a loveable assistant but gives a great performance.

Since I was lucky enough to see 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on the big screen this time, the giant squid was still huge and scary and amazing. It is still the highlight of the film for me, but now I am able to fully understand what is happening in the film. I think it has aged quite well both as a film and as a piece of nostalgia

I give it 4 (what else?) giant squid attacks out of 5.

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