Django Unchained: Historically Fictional, Cinematically Magical

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If there is any movie this year that beat my personal expectations this year, it’s going to be Django Unchained. I came into the movie uncertain that I’d enjoy it; the trailers did nothing for me and the plot seemed questionable, but brother convinced me to go and thank god he did, because I loved this fucking movie. The plot was decent enough, if not completely unrealistic given that it’s the 1850s and that there was a black guy going around insulting people left and right, but it worked. What really blew me away though was the fantastic performances from the cast.

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They say that, when making an argument, you’re supposed to start off with your strongest argument, so I’ve got to start with Christopher Waltz’s performance as Dr. King Schultz. Holy shit he was great, and probably stole the entire movie, or at least up until Stephen’s appearance. I fell in love with Christopher Waltz as an actor after his last venture with Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, and he did not disappoint here. He gives his character so much wit and intelligence, not to mention that character had an intriguing sense of morality. Take the scene, for instance, when he gives Django his first official kill. The man they are meant to obtain is farming the land with his child, and Django feels it’s morally wrong to shoot down the man in front of his child. First Schultz teases Django a bit for taking too long, then hits him with two points from his own moral reasoning: that at least the kid will have a chance to say goodbye to his father, which he wouldn’t if they killed him while he was alone, and that this is a man who murdered numerous people, and the last few moments that he would get are more than he deserves. Waltz brings such greatness to this scene that he really does get the audience on his side, and I suspect most of the audience probably started on Django’s side. The entire film is full of instances of Waltz’s great acting prowess, and I don’t want to ruin the rest of the movie, so just trust me that Waltz is truly fantastic in this.

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If we’re to say that Waltz stole the first two-thirds of the movie, then there is no question that Samuel L. Jackson stole the last third, as the house slave Stephen. Stephen’s loyalty to his master, and hatred for black people is so insane, that he probably goes beyond the description of an Uncle Tom and borders on being Uncle Ruckus (No Relation). I don’t even want to go into specific scenes that involve Stephen because they’re all too good to spoil, but Sam Jackson did an amazing job making you truly hate a character you would normally have sympathy for. From the instant change in tone he has when speaking in front of white people than when he’s in front of slaves, to the slight shake he has, Sam Jackson truly created a character that is truly unredeemable by any standard; a vile creature who turns on his own in an instant to appease his superiors.

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In terms of acting, the last one I want to talk about is Leonardo DiCaprio. This isn’t because he was something truly outstanding to the level that Waltz and Jackson performed at, but that he performed so far above the usual level that I’ve come to expect from him. I’m not the biggest Leo fan, I like the movies he’s in, but I always find that the movies he finds himself in are good, not because of him, but because they were already well written when he joined on. I’ve never seen him bring anything special or unique to his characters, his acting always seems stiff and procedural. The script says to say something and behave a certain way, so that’s what he does. He doesn’t do it badly, he just doesn’t give you anything unique, he doesn’t present you with something that another actor couldn’t do. For instance, Waltz has a certain whimsy quality that he gives his characters, to the point that even villainous characters that we’re supposed to hate can have moments of likability when we forget for a moment that we hate them: Exhibit A. Jackson provides us with the fire and the fury that we’ve all come to love; a rage that can be truly terrifying, and a stare that pierces you: Exhibit B.  With Leo, there isn’t really any unique quality that he brings to his characters, but in this film he definitely went above his usually acting ability. He didn’t reach the level of true greatness, but he was very good, to the point that he was able to act right through an accidental injury (possible spoilers in link) and not break character.

The music was another wonderful part of the film. From the very intro we get a song that perfectly sets the mood of the film, a bit silly, a bit western, and a lot of fun. One of the smartest things that Tarantino has made in his career is when he took the advice of his friend, Robert Rodriguez, and started making original scores for his films, instead of just playing popular music all the time. In this movie however, Tarantino struck a nice balance between providing the audience with an original score, and songs that weren’t written for the movie, but fit the scene beautifully. Again we find ourselves in a moment where I can’t give the example I want because it’s such a fun moment that I don’t want to spoil it for you, but trust me when I say the music really helps make the movie.

So yes, the movie isn’t historically accurate by any means, but after Inglourious Basterds I think we can all agree that historical accuracy isn’t at the top of Tarantino’s list of concerns when making a film. The action is great, there is some true comedy gold in it (the white bag scene) and the acting is incredible, hope you all enjoy it as much as I did.

The Hobbit: Unexpected Laughs on the Unexpected Journey

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Actually, the title to this one is a bit of a lie. Anyone who read the book already knows that The Hobbit is a more light hearted and funny work than LOTR, not that there weren’t some funny moments in LOTR, just that those few moments get completely drowned out by the almost constant dread and sorrow that fills every other part of the story. So to that extent, The Hobbit was a great change of pace for the audience, though I did hear a few complaints from people that The Hobbit was a poor film because it lacked the seriousness of LOTR; those people are idiots.

You can see the change in atmosphere even in the way battles are conducted. The escape from the goblins scene illustrates this perfectly. We don’t have the standard clash of giant armies that we had in LOTR, instead of have a ragtag group of misfits running around, doing whatever they can to make distance between them and the enemy, which includes things like seeing a fat dwarf carrying half a dozen goblins on him. Not to mention the leader of these goblins is a fat, ugly thing with a huge flabby chin that wiggles disgustingly around while he speaks. Watching this scene, you just know it would not have been directed like this if it were part of LOTR, it was so much more light hearted, and it was for the best.

Having said that, casting Martin Freeman as the young Bilbo Baggins is probably the best, most spot on casting that I’ve seen recently, and anyone who’s seen BBC’s Sherlock will know how good the casting was for this. This isn’t to say that Freeman’s previous work in things like The Office (UK), HGTTG (not a good movie, but a great performance from him), and Hot Fuzz weren’t good, because they were great, but that his portrayal of Watson is the closest to what a young Bilbo Baggins is like. Martin perfectly portrays his character, by nicely balancing Bilbo’s desire to be safe, at home where things are orderly, and never bothered, and his desire to go out into the world and have a real adventure for once in his life. Bilbo becomes the reluctant hero, who is in the end more courageous than the others, for the others are fighting to reclaim their home, a partially selfish desire, whereas Bilbo is fighting, as he explains at the end, because he has a home, and they do not.

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We also have the return of everyone’s favorite wizard, Gandalf The Grey. Personally, I have to agree with what McKellen said in his interview with Colbert, Gandalf the Gray is a much more entertaining character than Gandalf the White; He drinks, he smokes, he makes jokes, whereas Gandalf the White is just a giant prude.  We already knew from LOTR that Sir Ian McKellen is a powerhouse in this role, but we definitely get new sides to Gandalf’s character that we didn’t see in LOTR. We get a Gandalf who is more uncertain of himself, who doesn’t obey authority, who admits his lack of power compared to other wizards, and who’s seen being one of the guys a lot more than he was in LOTR.

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Two see why I loved this movie, one really only needs to look at two scenes in particular: the thunder battle and the riddle game scenes. By no means do I want to lessen the greatness of other scenes, I of course love the introduction of the dwarves in the Shire and the gang’s escape from the goblins, but these two scenes really stick out after seeing the movie. The thunder battle is just masterpiece in direction and CGI. The giants looked beautiful and the portrayal of the action was excellent and did not detract from understanding the series of events during the scene. The riddle game scene was pure brilliance. Andy Serkis portrayed Gollum amazingly once again, but Gollum’s interaction with Bilbo is really something to see. Here, you really get to see a wide range of Freeman’s acting ability, giving his character wit, fear, courage, and sympathy. This was a scene that would have proven difficult to any actor, and Freeman pulled it off beautifully.

The one complaint I have with the movie is a lack of editing. If there is one thing that Peter Jackson deserves criticism for it’s his inability to edit his works. How many sweeping, landscape shots do you really need? And how many scenes do you really need of the characters walking where nothing else happens? We get it, they’re traveling, we know they’re traveling because they told us where they’re going. We don’t need a dozen scenes showing us that they’re traveling. Every time one of these “just walking” scenes is shown, I can’t help but think of Randal’s description of LOTR in Clerks 2.

Aside from my complaint about the lack of editing, I loved the movie. I saw it in the HFR format, expecting not to be able to tell the difference, that this was just another gimmick. But I was so very wrong. Definitely go see the movie, and if you can see it in HFR, I highly recommend it. The HFR makes everything look… well better, crisper, it’s hard to describe it except to say that you can definitely tell the difference.

Flight: Sex, Drugs, Rock n’ Roll, and Oscar Baiting

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It’s that time of year again (actually it started a couple months ago but, as stated in my previous post, I’ve been busy) when studios start releasing their Oscar contenders. It’s also that time of year, when the movies released are stuffed to the brink with movie elements that they think the Academy will be looking for when they choose their Oscar nominations. This is where Flight comes in, because as good a movie as it is, it sometimes goes way over the top with things that it thinks will guarantee it an Oscar nod.

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I don’t want to spend the whole time bashing this movie, because I did like it, so we can start with what was the best part of the movie, Denzel Washington. Let’s face it, the guy’s a stud. Even when he’s doing a shit movie like Remember the Titans, you can always count on him to bring his A-game. He played his character beautifully. When his character was sober, Denzel was sharp. When his character was drunk, Denzel’s acting reached a hilarious level of excess that would only be matched by how excessively his character could drink before passing out (I’ve never seen so many bottles emptied by one man in one sitting, ever).

This leads me to the next thing I liked about the film, they did a great job of showing the difficulties of being an addict. The first thing Whittaker did when he got to his farm, after leaving the hospital, was to throw away all his alcohol, and vowing never to drink again. A vow that lasted all of one day before he got some bad news and immediately started drinking again. And we feel his struggle, we see how hard he tries to not drink, and how strongly he denies his problems once he drinks again.

Having said that, here come my issues with the movie. First, there are, I believe, two scenes where nudity is used, maybe in an attempt to set the feel for the movie, yet both seemed pretty unnecessary. We get it first with the opening scene, Whittaker wakes up to a phone call from his wife, while the flight attendant he’s fooling around with walks around the room dressing up. And, as lovely as she looked in the scene, it just felt more like something that was put into the story as Oscar bait more than something that actually betters the film. The second time may have been slightly better, but if it was, it wasn’t by much. It was when Nicole came to her porn director friend to try to score some drugs. The director proceded to have one of the male actors disrobe in front of Nicole to convince her to join the porn film. Here at least the nudity was used to show the shady world that Nicole was in before she met Whitaker.

My second issue with the movie, was the soundtrack. The problem isn’t that they chose songs I dislike, but that the music was clearly picked to help lock up an Oscar nomination than as something that betters a scene. In Almost Famous, a similar 70s rock style soundtrack was used, but there it at least made sense. The movie took place in the 70s, the plot was about 70s music, and the characters included 70s musicians, so while there was an excess of it, it was appropriate.  Here we had Joe Cocker, Cowboy Junkies, two Rolling Stones songs, John Lee Hooker, Marvin Gaye, and so on. At times I kept forgetting that the movie takes place in present day, because the music chosen was chosen for its fame and its history of being in other critically acclaimed films. In particular, I can remember thinking how Sympathy for the Devil did not fit John Goodman’s character at all, which they made as the theme song for his character. There are dozens of songs that are less dated that could have done a much better job of fitting Goodman’s character, but the film went with the Stones because of the songs popularity and because they thought it would make the film seem more oscar worthy. It was a mistake, the movie would have probably gotten an Oscar nod even without its powerhouse choice of songs.

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(Spoilers Below)

My biggest issue with the movie, however, was its ending. From the moment Whitaker confesses everything to the start of the closing credits was completely forgettable. First, I don’t buy that Whitaker would have ever confessed in that moment. He was drunk, he was high, and he’s done much worse things in his life than having to lie in that moment. We’ve also been shown through the entire movie that he will defend himself against everything, and can’t fight against his addictions. A point that was made beautiful in the hotel room; he picked out a small vodka bottle, opened it, then put it on the fridge and walked away, only to grab it again three seconds later, because no matter how hard he tries, he’ll always find his way back to it. So at that point he doesn’t have a problem with his toxicology report being thrown away, he doesn’t have a problem with ruining his relationship with his ex-wife and son. But this was where he decided that enough was enough? Sorry, I just don’t buy it. So he goes to jail, and the last scene is him reuniting with his son to do an interview for a school paper, at which point the film brings back the smoking gun from a few scenes earlier. When we first meet the son, Whitaker says, “You don’t even know me,” and the son replies, “that’s right I don’t know you!” Pretty lame exchange, but fine. Fast forward to the last scene and the last thing we get from the movie is the son asking, “so, who are you?” Please, that’s some pretty terrible faux sappy writing; an ending that’s clearly trying to make the film worthy of and Oscar, but so out of character from what was depicted in the rest of the movie. The ending could have been so much darker, and so much better. It could have ended with him finishing his lie during his hearing, then going home and breaking down and crying at how much he’s ruined his own life. Then he recomposes himself, makes another drink and sits back down in front of the tv, to watch more home videos between him and his son, knowing that he’ll never have a good relationship with him again. The final shot would be of the profile of his face, dead eyes staring at the screen, and the screen slowly fades to black. For me, that would have been such a more realistic ending than the sap fest they gave us.

I don’t want any of you getting the wrong impression, I really did like this movie. It was definitely worth seeing, and I’ll probably see it a bunch more times once it shows up on the movie channels. It’s just a bit irksome how obvious they made it that they were working for an Oscar here; If they just let the movie speak for itself, they could have really pushed it from just being good to being great.

Looper: Paradoxes, Paradoxes Everywhere

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Well folks, I’m finally back. After a couple horrible months prepping for finals, the horror is finally over, and it’s time to get back to the serious business of ranting about stuff. We’ll start my posting marathon off with Looper, which I somehow found time to see during these last few weeks, don’t know how I did it, but I’m glad I did. This movie for all intents and purposes, is a fun movie, there’s no denying that. JGL and Willis give great performances, as is expected of them and the story, for what it is, is fine for entertainment purposes. But that’s not what I want to talk about, what I want to talk about is the very thing that Willis refused to let us talk about, because talking about it kind of destroys the plot’s logic for the entire movie. I’m talking about the ridiculous use of time travel in this story.

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So here’s the deal. There are three basic types of time travel stories, as you can see in the image above. First, there’s the fixed timeline, which Doctor Who fans should be quite familiar with by now. Here the future is already predetermined, and any actions taken by an individual to go into the past, in order to affect the future, are already taken into account. Traveling back to the past to change the future will inevitably cause the future to happen.

In the second type of story, changing the past can change the future, but can also create paradoxes. Basically, if you go back in time to fix a problem, and the problem disappears in the future, then your future self no longer needs a reason to go back in time to fix the problem, meaning your future self doesn’t ever go back in time to fix the problem, which means the problem happens, which means your future self goes back in time now to fix the problem, which means… well you get it, there’s an infinite loop here. Futurama played with this in the latest season where a politician came from the future to win the presidency and undue the future. Bender pointed out that nothing will change because if the politician changed the future, then he had no reason to go back in the past, and so the politician disappears and Nixon’s head wins the election by a “narrow landslide.”

The third type of story is probably the easiest to work with for purposes of being able to both change the future and not create paradoxes. Here, going back into the past to change events will create a new time stream, a parallel universe to the one the time traveler belongs to. In this new time line, the future will be different based on the changes to the past, but the time traveler’s own future will still be the same. We saw this in the last Star Trek movie. The Romulans came to the past to get revenge on Spock for the destruction of their planet. They destroy Spock’s home world and kill Kirk’s father. These events change the story for the current universe, but future Spock still remembers the events from his own universe as they should be and doesn’t disappear from the current universe when the time stream changes enough that the events that happened to him could no longer have possibly happened to have allowed him to remain in the current universe.

Looper Diner

Looper, like Doctor who, plays with all three of these storylines. The Doctor at least tries to explain away any possible paradoxes by telling us that time travel is “a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey…stuff,” and to an extent the Doctor Who universe does limit its paradoxes by explaining that some points in time are fixed and some aren’t. Looper refuses to make any explanation because nothing can explain the events that occur in the movie other than movie magic.

First let’s look at how Looper’s dealt with the first escapee, Old Seth. First, Seth had an address cut into his arm in order to send a message to future Seth of wear to go. Then Old Seth slowly starts losing body parts while driving, as the gang is cutting up current Seth’s body, and here is the first unexplainable paradox. If current Seth loses all his body parts, then Old Seth could have never gotten into a car and started driving in the first place, his entire future would have been undone. And if Old Seth’s entire future is undone, then why not just kill current Seth, either way you achieve the same result. Here we have the story playing with Time Travel storylines 2 and 3; changing the present affects one’s own future, but not enough to change the actions that one takes. So somehow Old Seth’s physical body is affected by changes to his own past, but he still somehow finds himself getting into a car, with no arms or legs, and successfully driving for a length of time before crashing in front of the address that he intended to reach. You have to imagine that if Old Seth’s body can be affected by changes in the past, and he still managed to stay alive up until his loop gets closed, then he would have just been sent back to the past with no arms or legs, never been able to get off the execution pad, and would have just died right then; it makes no sense.

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(Spoilers Below)

I’m not going to go into every single other paradox because the entire movie is full of them, but here’s something to consider. The entire ending doesn’t make sense. We’ve already established that changing your body in the present will change your body in the future, so why did Joe have to kill himself? Why couldn’t he just blow off his shooting hand? Old Joe would have dropped his gun instantly, giving current Joe enough time to get close enough to shoot Old Joe, or at least enough time to give the Rainmaker and his mom enough time to get away. Further, why would this end scene happen at all? Why couldn’t current Joe make the conscious decision to never leave the farm, or to vow never to try to get revenge on the Rainmaker by going into the past and killing the Rainmaker’s younger self? The answer is of course that if Joe chose to never leave the farm or to never seek revenge, then the movie never happens.

This is all basically why Looper gives us that awesome little diner scene. Current Joe tries to get Old Joe to talk about how time travel can actually work and Old Joe just yells at him that if they were to go into it they would spend all day drawing charts and shit. And, to an extent, Old Joe is right, it’s best to just ignore the paradox issues and enjoy the story for what it is. I just think it would be interesting to see how the movie would have panned out if it chose to stick to one type of time travel story line instead of the mishmash that we were presented with.