About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Film Review: "Django Unchained" (2012) by Quentin Tarantino 3.5/5

     The tenants of classic spaghetti westerns are found within all of Tarantino's work leading up to his latest film Django Unchained (2012) - his first actual western.  Prior to this pre-Civil War flick, Inglourious Basterds (2009) was essentially a western set "once upon a time in Nazi occupied France".  Basterds featured music by the legendary western composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly etc), a classic story of revenge, Mexican stand-offs, scalping, war-paint, dynamite, and bad Italian.  What made Inglourious Basterds even more special was that it was a movie about the power of film (physically and metaphorically), and it is that below the surface layer that made Basterds not only entertaining but something greater than just an action comedy (these elements were also hallmarks of Tarantino's most famous film from 1994, Pulp Fiction).  With Tarantino's love for cinema and infatuation with the western genre, Django Unchained feels like the film Tarantino was always bound to make yet something feels off.
     Django Unchained follows a newly-freed slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) and a German bounty hunter by the name of King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) as they travel together through the antebellum south in search of the Brittle brothers who are wanted dead or alive for stagecoach robbery and murder.  Along the way, Django reveals to Schultz that he intends upon saving his wife from the roughest plantation in the south: Candyland.  Coincidentally, Django's wife is named "Broomhilda" (Kerry Washington) which captures Dr. Schultz' attention since there is, as Schultz recounts, a German tale of a damsel in distress named Brynhildr (pronounced "Broomhilda") who was in need of a hero and was saved by the brave Siegfried.  Schultz, admiring Django for being a "real-life Siegfried", decides that he will help his new bounty hunting accomplice in his quest.  Thus begins the classic hero complex: a hero with a want, a damsel in distress, and a dragon that must be defeated.  The dragon is a young and wild man (comparable to the unruly George Minafer in Orson Welles' 1942 film The Magnificent Ambersons) in the form of plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), hence the name of his plantation "Candyland".  
     Upon arriving at Candyland, the film takes a vicious turn as the true relationship between slave owner and slave is depicted with shockingly real brutality.  The merciless torture and unflinching murder of slaves in cruel and unusual ways is incredibly off-putting (as it should be).  It is nothing about Calvin Candie's stature or demeanor that is frightening, but rather it is within his appetite for cruelty and violence that Candie becomes a menacing phantom of the everyman plantation owner (or every-plantation owner).  The character of Candie makes slavery and slave owners despicable, but he also makes the people who stood idly by watching him commit his acts of hatred against his property for years just as guilty.  The lukewarm are just as guilty, and are treated as such in this film as Django strikes vengeance upon the oppressors of African Americans with furious anger.
     Dr. King Schultz becomes the white conscience of the film as he witnesses the gruesome murder of a slave who was too afraid to continue being forced to participate in "mandingo" fighting (a gladiator-esque fight to the death between one slave and another), and throughout the film he is haunted by the images of that murder.  Like Travis Bickle in Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver, Schultz feels empowered to "clean the streets" after witnessing all the horrible atrocities that take place on the plantation.  Armed with a spring-extending gun in his sleeve, just like in Taxi Driver, he takes his own violent stand surprising his fellow white-man with a bullet to the chest.
     The vicious turn that the narrative in Django takes is a twist that never occurs in Inglourious Basterds - a film about a squad of Jewish-American-soldiers on a mission to end WW2 early by scalping and beating all the Nazis in their path to death (including Hitler and his cronies), but we never see our protagonists get harmed.  Had we seen images of the holocaust in the film, it would have been a much darker film and would have had a similar feel as Django Unchained in regards to the depiction of slavery.  Django at times feels like a rehash of Basterds.  It's racial revenge by the victims of oppression.  Another key difference would be the degree of victimization that the protagonists experience in their respective films.  In Basterds, the protagonists are indirectly affected by the evil of the Nazis as they have never experienced the cruelty of a concentration camp.  However, In Django our protagonist is beaten and abused numerous times in the film (and so are his peers).
     It's interesting that filmmaker Spike Lee is so opposed to Django Unchained, claiming that "I can't speak on it 'cause I'm not gonna see it.  The only thing I can say is that it's disrespectful to my ancestors to see that film."  In all reality, Django Unchained feels like a companion piece to Spike Lee's breakthrough film Do The Right Thing (1989).  In Do The Right Thing, the temperature and racial tensions are high in modern day Brooklyn as everyone gets fed up with each others' differences.  At the end of the film, Mookie (Spike Lee) chooses to lead an angry mob of African Americans to burn down the Italian antagonist's pizzeria instead of killing the owner, and in which by burning the pizzeria down they are destroying the establishment that embodied the ideals of their opposition.  Sure, Mookie chose the lesser of two evils (property destruction over murder), but these actions are reflected in Django Unchained as racial tensions escalate to a violent boiling point concluding in the destruction of the plantation.
     This film is a major platform for discussion concerning the ethics of the characters and the history of our nation, but it didn't leave a nice taste in my mouth.  The first half of the film is so rich in character and feels like a true western, but the second half (which begins with a mandingo fight) is marred with hip-hop music, brutality, and poor decisions.  Characters choose to act violently, like their slave owners, instead of making peace - a conscious decision that Quentin Tarantino explained while on Charlie Rose on the 21st of December.  It makes for great entertainment, but it brings to mind an interesting plot device that justifies brutality in Inglourious Basterds: it's an alternate reality.  Basterds defies history by changing the way the second world war ended, where as Django stays within the bounds and confines of history (within a fictional narrative), but it makes the violence feel unnecessary.  Revenge was not his mission: Django only wanted to save his wife from the dragon of slavery, but instead he stays around and kills everyone (all the lukewarm observers of cruelty and the remaining white plantation work hands). Sure, violence is a "trademark" of a Tarantino film, but it fails to serve the logic of the character of Django.  Had Inglourious Basterds been a metaphor for American slavery hidden within the veils of a cinematically charged depiction of WW2, perhaps it would have been a greater vessel for this story, but it would have spoiled the charm of Basterds.  
     Frankly, Django Unchained isn't very enjoyable, and with all the issues within the film, Tarantino's predictable wit and humor can't save it.  Lots of western imagery (not enough though), blood and guts (too much), and laughs - but it's a hesitant laugh.


My ranking: 3.5/5

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Film Review: "Argo" (2012) directed by Ben Affleck 3.6/5

     Directed by Ben Affleck, Argo (2012) chronicles the CIA's 1979 rescue operation to recover six American diplomats who were unable to leave Iran during the hostage crisis.  Written by Chris Terrio, the film is enjoyable, thrilling, and gripping, but it's not as daring, intelligent, or bold as past political thrillers like Frost/Nixon (2007) or All The President's Men (1973).  The film features an ensemble cast of stars and actors that resemble the historical figures they are depicting including Ben Affleck as the protagonist Tony Mendez, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman.  It should be noted that Ben Affleck least resembles his character within the cast.
     The film begins with a digital recreation of storyboards as voice-over depicts the history of unrest within Iranian society leading up to the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.  Instantly, we are teleported from these cheap looking storyboards to jarring handheld cinematography within a crowd of Iranian protestors outside of the US Embassy.  The opening scene transitions between cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's camera and 8mm shots from protestors within the crowd which expands the perspective of the film.  This scene feels like everything we've seen on television within the past two years as the Arab spring has sprung, and yet it's "1979".  Within the Embassy, the six soon-to-be hiding American diplomats are watching the protesters outside as they break through the gate and invade the Embassy.  Files are getting destroyed, people are panicking, and the six diplomats escape out a back door and manage to find refuge at the Canadian ambassador's home.
     The news of these events hit the headlines in the states and the young CIA specialist Tony Mendez is called in to assist in coming up with a rescue plan.  Everyone's ideas are too logical, but there are typically factual flaws that Mendez can point out ruining every idea presented.  That night, while on the phone with his son, he gets the idea to make a fake movie when his son says he's watching Battle For The Planet of The Apes (1973) on TV.  The desert landscapes and exotic elements of those films resemble Iran, so he runs with the idea.  In order to get approval, all of the fake pre-production pieces of the film need to be completed so that the film will be a convincing real movie, so Tony Mendez approaches makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) who connects him with Alan Arkin's character, film producer Lester Siegel.  The plan: pretend to be a Canadian film crew shooting a science fiction film entitled "Argo" and leave Iran with the six diplomats who will pretend to be the film's crew.
     It's a fantastic film premise, and so rarely do historical events actually make great Hollywood hits without finessing, but Ben Affleck and Chris Terrio finessed a bit in areas that didn't need finessing but instead needed more realism.  Alan Arkin's character, Lester Siegel, didn't actually exist – and that's the way his character feels on the screen.  All of his interactions with John Goodman are simply there for Hollywood laughs (which all of the jokes were shown in the trailer... not that it really matters).  Additionally, the perspective of the film is constantly changing (sure, it's mostly Tony Mendez's perspective, but sometimes it's the six diplomats', Iranian soldiers', Bryan Cranston's CIA team, and most baffling is the Canadian ambassador's maid who gets her own awkward ending at the conclusion of the film).  On the topic of the ending, the finale of the film becomes every cliché "we did it" moment in films.  The bad guys are right on there tail, but they're just too slow and incapable so the protagonists get away – cue emotional music and people applauding and hugging.  It's like the Ron Howard film Apollo 13, but unnecessary.  One final thing: those digital storyboards at the beginning of the movie were awful.  Why not have a series of actual storyboards sitting on a desk that could arbitrarily tell the story of Iran?  The narrator's voice was distracting as well – Ben Affleck could have easily read aloud the history of unrest in Iran (or maybe even President Carter).
     It's easy to pick at the flaws, but this is still a pretty strong film.  The thrills are wildly intense at times, and Affleck's direction feels authentic within this '70s period piece.  The flaws that I mentioned above don't take away from the film, but they are severely problematic.  Had Steve McQueen directed this, it might've felt more like his 2008 debut film Hunger primarily following the six diplomats, and if Ron Howard had made Argo it would have been more of a character study following Tony Mendez, but these are all speculative what-ifs.  Ben Affleck made the film, and this is what it is – and it's not that great, but it's not too bad either


My ranking: 3.6/5

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Film Review: "Prometheus" directed by Ridley Scott 2/5

     Ridley Scott, the man behind two of the most influential science-fiction films of all time (his 1979 film Alien, and 1982 film Blade Runner), made his return to science-fiction earlier this year with Prometheus (2012).  Set within the milieu of the Alien franchise that he started over thirty years ago, Prometheus is a loose prequel to the masterful science-fiction-horror film that established his reputation as a director with a vision.
     The elements that make Alien such an impressive film are found within the first twenty minutes: the film begins with the conflict, everyone is at odds with one another and yet there doesn't seem to be a main character, and the women are strong.  Alien defies every genre expectation found within science-fiction and horror.  Everything feels too real to be science "fiction" as people complain about getting paid for extra time on the job.  As far as horror goes, everyone's lives are essentially in turmoil from the beginning - in comparison to the usual grace-period that horror films donate to their protagonists.  Finally, Ridley Scott has been known throughout his career for featuring strong women in his films (and occasionally reinventing the "buddy film" as seen with Thelma & Louise), and this is particularly true within Alien as Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) sticks to her guns even though the men on the ship disagree with her often, she is nearly killed by a pornographic magazine as it is shoved down her throat, and at one point has to save a pussycat (you get the picture).  
     Sadly, all of these elements are completely absent in Prometheus.
     To Ridley Scott's credit, Prometheus isn't trying to be Alien (or necessarily be a true prequel), but that can't save the film from itself.  With the initial concept of Prometheus, we are – again – being presented a different take on the science-fiction film: existentialism.  Prometheus was pitched as a film that was going to show the "true" origins of life and would make everyone in the film question what they've always believed.  Enter Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), who is an archaeologist that has found a star map that should lead them to the planet where "The Engineers" originated.  She is a Christian girl, and these discoveries concerning an alien species that may have created humans are leading her to question her faith in God.  Deep stuff, but that's about as deep as the film gets.
     Once she and her crew of scientific misfits and rebels land on the designated planet, the film almost instantly goes down hill.  Any amount of subtlety that made Alien wonderful is completely absent in Prometheus (even with minuscule sound details, Ridley is spelling everything out to the audience IN ALL CAPS).  This character can't have kids, but this is a film about the origin of life, and this character isn't even human, but he'd like to be, and this character doesn't believe in God, but blah blah blah.  At the beginning of the film, characters snoop around Charlize Theron's office and find that she has a personal medical bay... guess what, it's gonna get used later in the movie.  At one point in the film, a main character gets infected with a disease that rapidly begins spreading through his entire body and he is rushed back to the space ship.  When they finally arrive back at the shuttle, he is greeted by Charlize Theron with a flamethrower and is torched to death.  Any time that a character's thoughts are being watched, the sound of chimes is ever present to highlight visual beats to ensure that the audience doesn't miss the obvious details.
     The end of the film is a complete travesty as characters act in ways that defy the audience's understanding of who they are and what they stand for (the key example being Captain Janek (Idris Elba) who hasn't cared about anything happening prior to this specific event).  It also falls into stereotypical horror territory: the bad guy is still alive and is going to sneak up on the protagonist.  Additionally, the final shot of the film is so unnecessary.  It feels as though it's trying to say, "this is a prequel to Alien, and there might be a Prometheus sequel in the works."
     It is easy to say that if the film were an hour longer that more of the characters could have been fleshed out and the concepts could have been expanded upon, but the fact of the matter is that it is not an hour longer.  I usually don't write reviews with such a negative and non-chalant demeanor, but this film treats its audience like such a bunch of idiots that I can't help but get angry.  Sure, the visuals are interesting, but it's nothing new: It's Alien meets the special effects of the 2000s (which is still not as stimulating as the special effects observed in 1977's Star Wars or the original Alien).


My ranking: 2/5