Thursday, June 30, 2011

A New Tarantino Film, You Say?

Yes, news of Tarantino's next film being Django Unchained has been around for what seems like a million years now, and I am sorry that it's taken me, a huge fan of Quentin's, this long to get around to saying anything about it. But I really kind of wanted to wait and see if it actually was happening. As in, no joke, this is the concept that he's going to develop into his next film. And now that we know this will, indeed, be his next film, let's discuss it.

Here's what we know: it's a spaghetti-Western set in the antebellum South, or as Tarantino calls it, a "Southern." It's a tale of Django, an escaped slave who teams up with a German to take down his former master. With the whole race thing, it's going to be unnecessarily controversial. Why unnecessarily? Because even though we like to be politically correct nowadays and pretend that a lot of travesties never happened, therefore making us feel better about ourselves, the antebellum South was a very racist place. That should be pretty obvious, considering the whole slavery thing, and if Tarantino is going to make a movie that is set in that location at that time with that story, well, race issues should be expected. That's just history, people.

So far, in terms of who we'll be seeing here, the role of Django was originally rumored to be offered to Will Smith, which would have been a terrible mistake because, well, this just isn't the sort of thing Smith would want to do. Now it's being offered to Jamie Foxx, which could be interesting, but man, wouldn't it be great if it was offered to some lesser-known or even unknown talent? Perhaps someone who briefly flirted with fame once long ago, only to be brought back thanks to Tarantino (see: John Travolta, Pam Grier). Just please, don't give it to Chris Tucker, as was briefly mentioned.

Christoph Waltz has already signed on to play the German, which, come on, how can we not be excited about that? Waltz has proven to be the best part of some less-than-stellar films since his breakout role as Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, and his reunion with Tarantino certainly is tantalizing. Also joining the reunion: Samuel L. Jackson, who has had a part of some sort in almost all of Tarantino's film. Jackson is an actor who really needs a good director for him to shine, and Tarantino usually brings out the best in him, and his role as Django's former slaveowner's right-hand man sounds exciting. That part of the slaveowner, by the way, is being offered to Leonardo DiCaprio, which...well, we'll see how that works out. Leo could probably do something interesting in it, but he's really going to have do something special to succeed here. Sure, Brad Pitt worked Tarantino's trademark dialogue well, but can Leo do it? If he's confirmed, I suppose we'll find out.

Am I excited about this film? Of course; it sounds like another great revenge flick from a man who's made that his calling card for the past decade to almost perfect returns (we'll forgive Death Proof, right?). Controversy be damned, if he can turn in something on par with Kill Bill or Inglourious Basterds, this is going to be a whole lot of fun.

Cars 2 (2011)

I'll be blunt: Cars 2 is not the Death Of Pixar that everyone is proclaiming it to be. Nor is it the Sin Against Nature that it's been claimed to be as well. It's not necessarily great, but it's still more charming and all-around better than a lot of other movies this year.

In this film, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) leaves Radiator Springs to participate in the World Grand Prix, an international race featuring the fastest cars in the world (including an Italian voiced by John Turturro). The race was founded to support Allinol, a new alternative fuel developed by eccentric billionaire Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard). Meanwhile, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is brought along much to McQueen's reluctance, and soon finds himself embroiled in a spy adventure, as he's recruited by Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) to bring down the nefarious Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) before he succeeds in a nefarious plot.

Cars 2 is, honestly, a necessary film in the Pixar filmography. Let's suppose, for a second, that Pixar is the studio-as-auteur, an argument that can be backed up with the studio's films' emotional tone and simple, universal stories, with a lack of pop culture references (or at least not a dominance of them). If this is true, then, as with all auteurs, a failure was inevitable. In Pixar's case, not only was it inevitable, it's already happened with the original Cars.

Yes, that's right, world, Pixar has made a less-than-stellar film before. The big problem here is that the sequel was unnecessary, and made the mistake that most make when doing a sequel: it's bloated by excess, the need to make everything bigger and leaving behind what made the original work to begin with. Cars didn't have the emotional heart, delightful characters, or complex relationships that have become Pixar's trademark, but it did succeed in a nostalgia for off-the-highway America, where small towns are still worth checking out and are still essential to the fabric of our country. Even that sort of thematic idea is missing from Cars 2, which doesn't seem to have too many ideas of its own. It's almost paint-by-numbers, with every new plot turn easily visible as the film, much like a NASCAR race, simply goes in circles hoping that we're entertained.

It doesn't help that the film has hitched itself to it's two weakest elements: the spy plot and Larry the Cable Guy. Mater is a goofball, and is ok in small, carefully planned portions, but letting him run amok through the film only diminishes and annoys. That's to say nothing of Larry's very limited acting range; even vocally, he fails to convey the emotions that are clearly represented visually. Mater may want to be considered something more than foolish, but with Larry as his voice, that won't be happening anytime soon.

The spy plot doesn't come off well either. It was only a matter of time before Pixar introduced a spy element to one of its films, considering how many genres they've already covered. Unfortunately, this one is very boring, with very little truly exciting spy elements and not even very much action. That's to say nothing of the third act, which devolves from James Bond wannabe to bad episode of Scooby-Doo. Trust me, you'll see the Big Bad coming a mile away.

So what does work? Give Owen Wilson credit, he does give a certain laid-back, easy-to-love quality to McQueen, and even shows a bit of his malicious side in his fight with Mater. He's easily the best character in the group, and he does win you over. The racing scenes (though populated with "foreigners have funny accents!" humor) are well-shot (co-directors John Lasseter, who directed the original, and Brad Lewis show a visual flair for racing), and some are rather thrilling, such as the one in Porto Corsa. And, of course, there's the immaculate animation that Pixar has become known for, detailed to the point of the reflections in the cars' windows being properly distorted. It's certainly a pretty film, if nothing else.

If you're concerned about Pixar's reputation, don't worry too much: the film will still make bank, and even Spielberg made Hook. Many people, myself included, didn't think Cars 2 was the best idea for a film, but it'll hopefully serve as a lesson learned for the studio. We all have to fail sometimes, and if you really think about, it could have been a whole lot worse. B-

The Movie List: Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)

Film: Letters from Iwo Jima
Director: Clint Eastwood
Oscar nominations: 4 (Best Picture; Best Director, Clint Eastwood; Best Sound Editing, Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman*, Best Original Screenplay - screenplay by Iris Yamashita, story by Iris Yamashita & Paul Haggis)
*denotes win

Back in 2006, Clint Eastwood made a pair of movies about the Battle of Iwo Jima, the famed WWII battle that was considered a turning point in the war in the Pacific (Midway was arguably a more significant victory in terms of strategy, but Iwo Jima was a major morale boost). The first of these films to premiere was Flags of Our Fathers, detailing the group of American soldiers who hoisted the flag on top of Mount Suribachi in the now-famous photograph. The other, Letters from Iwo Jima, was a smaller film that told from the perspective of the Japanese, including commanding Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. One was intended to be a major Oscar contender, while the other would play the role of intriguing companion piece. However, the former wasn't supposed to be Letters from Iwo Jima; it ultimately makes sense, since Letters from Iwo Jima is the superior film and one of 2006's best.

The film, as stated above, comes from the point of view of the Japanese, who are on Iwo Jima preparing for the American invasion. As Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) lays out his unconventional strategy of building a network of tunnels around the island, Saigo (Japanese pop star Kazunari Ninomiya) and Shimizu (Ryo Kase) struggle with being soldiers, fates that they were reluctant to accept or understand. Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara) is suspected of having American sympathies, and finds himself having to make difficult choices once the Americans land and the fighting begins.

Give it to Eastwood for crafting such a powerful, eloquent film that is almost completely in Japanese and features "the enemy" as its heroes. The cinematography is gorgeous, with most of the colors washed out to give the film an old-fashioned look, while also serving as a statement on war: there's nothing lively about it, and ultimately it's not black-and-white, but a disturbing shade of grey. To me, Eastwood's direction is often hit-or-miss on a film-to-film basis, but here he shows a steady hand and a clear, strong vision. This is his paying respects to the Japanese who fell during the battle, and a reminder that war tears at both sides that fight, not just one.

Of course, the acting gives much of the film its power as well. Unlike many war films, Letters from Iwo Jima takes its time to create characters that you can genuinely care about. Watanabe is reliable for giving a great performance, and he does great work as the man who's great strategy for holding the island quickly falls apart, and must deal with the difficult decisions that such leadership requires, decisions that often go against Japanese military tradition. Kazunari does fabulous work as well, bringing a lot of heart and soul to his role. The real standout here, though, is Tsuyoshi, who steals all of his scenes as the humane Baron Nishi, a man who refuses to treat the enemy as inferiors. It's a terrific performance from an equally terrific ensemble.

Letters from Iwo Jima stands tall as one of the finest examples of a war film that doesn't glorify war. We're always quick to demonize the Axis Powers, but this film presents the Japanese just like the Americans: men putting their lives on the line for their country, and are just as scarred by the horrors they witness.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Oscars of the Aughts: Best Actor 2006

The rules of Oscar quality state that if there's one acting category that is out-and-out incredible, there must be a weaker category to balance it out (unofficial; I'm sure there's some sort of law in physics or chemistry that states this sort of thing has to happen, but science isn't my strong suit, as evidenced by my liberal arts major). For 2006, that weaker category was Best Actor, which only contains two genuinely great performances and is filled out with decent-to-pitiful fluff, missing out on some of the other great performances of the year (Clive Owen, Children of Men; Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat; Aaron Eckhart, Thank You For Smoking).

Winner marked with a (*).

Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond

If we're being honest, DiCaprio was more Oscar-worthy for his performance in The Departed, not in this film.  In Blood Diamond, he plays Danny Archer, a mercenary who agrees to help Djimon Hounsou's Solomon Vandy find his son, but has shady intentions of his own. DiCaprio lends a bit of his talent to the role, but the script really doesn't allow him to develop the character much, as he spends a hefty portion of the film either running or falling in contrived love with an American reporter. On top of it all, DiCaprio puts on a very dodgy accent that seems equal parts British, Afrikaans, and, for some reason, Australian. It's certainly not one of the best performances of his career, and it's not surprising that Oscar passed over him for this one.

Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson

You want to know what's really surprising? To date, this is still Gosling's only Oscar nomination. As burned-out, crack-addicted history teacher Dan, Gosling is a true marvel to behold, an actor who's preternaturally talented and finds a way to live in every character he plays. He turns Dan into a character that you can sympathize with but still demonizes his, well, demons; he's a man who can't break out of his failures, and instead of getting back up decides to wallow in those shortcomings. Gosling really turns it up in his interactions with Shareeka Epps, the student in which he takes a fatherly interest in. His greatest feat is how pathetic he looks as Dan tries to help her, not realizing that it's really himself who needs the most help. The Notebook made him a star, but it was this film that showed us how talented he truly is.

Peter O'Toole, Venus

At a certain age, veteran actors often stop receiving great roles and instead are given rote, bland roles that are both insulting to and wasting their talents. This trap unfortunately captured Peter O'Toole in 2006, when he took the role of Maurice, a retired thespian who falls in love with a much, much younger model. The film does O'Toole no favors, relying heavily on "you're old and horny!" humor and a romance that doesn't have very much chemistry. O'Toole, to his credit, does his best with the material, and at times manages to transcend it with merely a twinkle of his still-soulful blue eyes. But in the end, O'Toole deserved a much better movie to take him to his eighth Oscar nomination; he still sadly doesn't have a win, but at least it didn't come for this mess of a film.

Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness

Will Smith doesn't really get enough credit for his versatility as an actor. He's a great comedian, as evidenced by his run on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He's perfectly adept at being an action hero as well, as I, Robot proved (among others, of course). And then, when given the right role, he can shine as a dramatic actor. The Pursuit of Happyness doesn't make the best case for this point, but Smith does put forward admirable effort. His Chris Gardner is believably on edge, desperately trying to be a great father while making enough money to provide for his family while constantly facing, and sometimes succumbing to, poverty. Smith does good work at bringing the emotions behind the character to life, and he does put forward one of his better performances. The one downside to his performance, and it's a major one, is that he never disappears into the role; you never lose track of the fact that you're watching Will Smith. One day, we'll truly shine dramatically (maybe in 2001, when we reach Ali in this project); this will hopefully be remembered as one of his lesser dramatic roles in the future.

Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland*

As with Helen Mirren in the Best Actress category of this year, Whitaker ran away with the category, the clear frontrunner through much of the awards season. Like Mirren, he bears a striking resemblance to the figure he's playing, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. And like Mirren, it's a performance that cannot be denied. Though The Last King of Scotland is a mostly mediocre movie, Whitaker rises above it with his startling, convincing turn as Amin, a man who rules with an iron fist and is not afraid to murder anyone who opposes him. Whitaker plays him with chilling menace, his imposing figure looming in the frame who's always in control of every conversation and situation he's in. It's a magnificent performance, and a great showcase for the often-undervalued Whitaker.

My ballot:

1. Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland
2. Ryan Gosling, Half Nelson
3. Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness
4. Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond
5. Peter O'Toole, Venus