Rated: R (Seriously, don't take your kids)
I fully expected Quentin Tarantino’s latest gory, hyper-violent historical revision to be a rollicking yarn in the tradition of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly or Unforgiven with a familiar Tarantino spin. What he has provided, as is Tarantino’s tradition, is an amalgamation of genres and whip-smart, anachronistic dialogue that comes together to be something familiar and truly unique. But is it good? Therein lies the rub.
Django Unchained is ostensibly the story of a freed slave on a mission to find his wife, taken from him, and punish the people who did him wrong. Aided (and liberated) by a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz, Inglorious Basterds), Django (Jamie Foxx) is a complex and nuanced character who has a fine narrative arc without betraying his stoic edge. The pair are featured in a series of vignettes teaching Django the craft of killing to take on the evil men who took his wife.
Django Unchained is beautifully shot and appropriately acted, and the story movies along (though it is a bit long) at a fair clip. The substance of the film, however, is inconsistent and at times disturbingly challenging. Tarantino never sticks to one genre, for example: The movie is at times a tense drama, an absurd comedy, and a road picture with wacky situations and dialogue. While this breakup keeps the movie from being monotonous it also frustrates the viewer who is interested purely in plot.
The film’s leads are pitch-perfect: Both Foxx and Waltz bring their A-game and spit out Tarantino’s dialogue with appropriate gravitas. Samuel L. Jackson owns a small supporting role as a servant and Leo DiCaprio is suitably evil as a plantation-owning sociopath.
Where the movie stumbles is in its social commentary. In an effort to call attention to the “n-word” (which shall not be printed here because I don’t care for people protesting outside my office) characters use it aplenty, spitting it with incredible bile. Aplenty is not a suitable description. It’s used well over 100 times (I didn’t count), to the point of obnoxiousness. So too does the violence go so far over-the-top that the audience becomes numb. In an effort to normalize and take power away from racism and violence Tarantino creates a film where offensiveness is the norm but is still incredibly uncomfortable.
Django’s clever moments are overshadowed (or blood-cloaked) by its excesses—a product of the director’s full control of the project. In his push to make Django an epic story, Tarantino instead leaves us with a film that needs a trim and some focus but gives the audience about what they expect. A strange mash-up of Blazing Saddles and Death Wish, Django Unchained isn’t Tarantino’s finest but is still a solid entry for his fans. If you weren’t fazed by the gore of Kill Bill or the language of Inglorious Basterds, you will likely enjoy the latest entry in Tarantino’s oeuvre.
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Parental Guidance isn’t a particularly good movie but it is nowhere near as atrocious as it should have been. Bette Middler and Billy Crystal team up as out-of-their-depth grandparents who want to get back into the lives of their children and grandchildren. Loaded with bad jokes and forced situational comedy the movie comes together in the end with a surprising amount of heart without seeming overly schmaltzy.
Billy Crystal takes the lead as Artie Decker, a small-market baseball announcer who had great ambition but never made it to the bigs. His wife Diane (Middler) is the ever-present, ever-supportive housewife. And that, for all intents and purposes, is it. The movie doesn’t provide much depth to the characters; rather they are merely present for plot advancement and jokes. When Artie is unceremoniously fired after 20 years with the club, he finds himself at a crossroads: Retire or try to find a new gig. The decision is put on hold when his estranged daughter (Marisa Tomei) needs a last-minute babysitter when her husband wins a major award. And that’s where the pratfalls begin.
The story is there to serve the jokes and that it does. A fully-automated house provides a good deal of the family-friendly humor, but the breakout stars of this picture are the three rambunctious children played ably by Bailee Madison, Joshua Rush, and Kyle Harrison Breitkopf. The trio combine to torture their grandfather in a variety of ways the keep the movie, on the rails toward a predictable conclusion, moderately interesting.
There’s plenty of Billy Crystal’s trademark over-your-head jokes and mugging for the camera until you laugh, but on the whole Parental Guidance is little more than a big screen sitcom pilot. Fortunately the movie provides enough entertainment to justify your holiday entertainment dollar.
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I’m fully prepared to be strung up by my you-know-whats for saying that the big screen adaptation of Les Miserables is worse than a disappointment: it’s an outright bad movie. The epic story of a career criminal who starts a new life, kidnaps a child and finds himself in the middle of the French revolution—watching over his shoulder for a dogged policeman who could expose his secret and throw him back in the clink—Les Mis is much beloved. A handful of good performances are unable to help this film find traction, thanks in no small part to odd stylistic and casting choices by director Tom Hooper (The Kings Speech). The story gets lost in the cacophony of sing-talking and over-the-top acting.
A simple story is complicated by a varity of subplots, some being more interesting than the protagonist’s redemption, the most notable being the tragic story of a working woman who falls on hard times and, eventually, prostitution to help feed her child. Anne Hathaway brings dynamic range and powerful emotion to her performance, giving the audience a hope—if only for a moment—that the movie has finally found its footing. Her operatic performance of the film’s signature tune, “I Dreamed a Dream” is deep and profound. And then she dies.
Les Mis’ primary flaw comes from the casting of great actors instead of singers. While star Hugh Jackman is a musical veteran, costar and rival Russel Crowe is not, and his pitchy, breathy sing-talking grates on your ears.
Newcomer Samantha Barks is the biggest revelation in the film and serves as a guide for how the movie could be made. Reprising her role as Eponine from the stage the young actress provides a breathtaking vocal and physical performance that centers the movie. Her role as a third-leg in an unbelievable love triangle and weepy, angst-filled character came to the fore at the exact moment I had enough of the film’s melodrama so it was too late. If only Hooper had more people like her, however, to keep the movie tolerable.
The sets look like sets; limited and overly adorned to seem real, instead coming off as busy. For a movie that uses Paris as its playground the visuals are limited in scope and we never get a true sense of the world the film inhabits.
A few shining moments did not prevent me from becoming utterly bored with this melodramatic, self-important musical. While people who love the stage show will no doubt enjoy seeing it translated to the big screen I will be glad when I’ve forgotten ever seeing it.
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This Is 40 is a pseudo-sequel to Knocked Up, the movie that made Seth Rogen a star and fooled America into thinking that Katherine Heigl was, maybe, a leading lady. The most interesting characters in the movie were, however, the bickering married couple with the precocious kids. Paul Rudd brought his earnest charm to discuss how difficult is marriage and parenting, while Leslie Mann overshared in the way a real couple does. That small bit is expanded in This Is 40, Judd Apatow’s rumination on the nature of aging, an amusing, overlong, and unfocused story of a couple hitting middle age.
I sat through This is 40 mildly amused but there are no breakout characters or particularly memorable scenes. Instead what Apatow and crew have provided is a dramedy that takes seriously the challenges faced by couples who have changed since they got together. Toward the end of the film I asked, “what is the point of this movie?” It feels like Apatow’s attempt to work through his issues in the only way he knows how, through a multimillion dollar production. That’s not a bad thing, per se, as he is an affable writer but the movie is in desperate need of an editor. There are a dozen tangents, from an estranged father trying to reconnect with his daughter (John Lithgow) to one of the little girl’s tirade about how she was disappointed by the ending of the TV show LOST. While the movie resonates on an emotional level it fails to connect with the audience because of its wandering structure.
There’s nothing bad nor particularly great about This Is 40. It goes through the comedic motions and hits you with some drama when you expect it, but is never terribly funny and is, at times, a bit of a slog to get through. Entertaining, sure, but not enough to justify a trip to the theater.
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Imagine sitting in an economy car with your mother for a weeklong road trip across the nation.
Now imagine that your mother is Barbara Streisand who is the embodiment of the cloying, stereotypical Jewish mother. She means well but acts without thinking of the consequences of her actions.
I watched Guilt Trip, a cringe-inducing comedy from the director responsible for generic romantic comedies like 27 Dresses and The Proposal, wincing through my fingers in the same way I would watch some of Steve Carrell’s more epic moments on The Office. The problem is that Guilt Trip never really comes through with the funny or the character moments that the TV show provided. Fortunately Guilt Trip is a straightforward (and short) ride so that you don’t linger with this incredibly odd couple.
I saw a great deal of my own mother (though she’ll cut me from her will when she reads this) in Streisand’s performance, and she brings out a recognizable figure of a woman who wants the best for her son though doesn’t exactly know how to express it. Likewise Rogen puts some effort into playing a scientist who doesn’t understand anything about marketing what is, by all accounts, a revolutionary cleaning product he has created. Rather than seeking help from anyone with a modicum of experience in marketing, public relations or sales, Rogen’s Andy forges ahead with the most inept pitch ever crafted.
A film rife with comedic possibilities that squanders them in the most predictable manner possible, Guilt Trip does its best to be a generic film: its biggest success. The odd-couple dynamic is routine and this movie doesn’t break any new ground. A few moments of levity don’t help it escape the uncomfortable morass. Annoying, largely unfunny, and completely predictable, Guilt Trip would disappoint had I any expectations above mediocrity.
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Jack Reacher should not be released right now. Not because it’s a bad movie (it is) but because it begins by putting a child in the crosshairs of a sniper rifle and ends with a glorification of high-powered assault weapons. If ever there was a movie that screamed, “too soon,” it is Jack Reacher.
Tom Cruise stars as the titular Reacher, an ex-military policeman who is as brilliant as he is lethal. And he lets you know both at every chance he gets. Also, that he wants to be left alone (and you only find him if he wants you to). If these action beats feel familiar, you’ve already met Jack Reacher. While the mystery he’s brought in to investigate—a sniper kills 5 people but something just doesn’t smell right—is mildly interesting, the characters who populate the narrative are broad and stock.
The problem is that the protagonist is just too good at everything. He’s an expert marksman, brilliant investigator, wonderful lover, genius driver, master of espionage and intrigue, and topped off with a rapier wit. We need our heroes to have some foibles or failings. Reacher has none.
A prototypical action flick that entertains but reinforces every cliché of the genre, Jack Reacher is about as interesting as its protagonist. Serviceably acted by Tom Cruise, it doesn’t give nearly enough time to the fascinating antagonist, played with malicious brilliance by Werner Herzog. But rather than treat him as a perpetual villain, Reacher goes the Bond route and sets up the next adventure but tying up all loose ends.
Jack Reacher is something of an American version of James Bond. Mix in some Dirty Harry and you have an idea of who is Jack Reacher. And while the character might be interesting in the hands of a more deft filmmaker, Christopher McQuarrie (writer of The Ususal Suspects) is not that man, turning in a decent but unspectacular action thriller.
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