Monday, December 31, 2012

Revenge – a dish best served bloody with a side of bullets

        Few directors working today have developed as distinctive a style as Tarantino. When you walk into one of his movies or pop one into the ol’ DVD player, you pretty much know what you’re going to get: genre riffs, an endless amount of pop culture references, elaborate dialogue sequences, a meticulously curated soundtrack, plenty of blood and violence and…well, just take a look at this handy slideshow. The point is that you probably have already decided what you think of Tarantino as a director, and whether you think he’s a modern visionary or a self-indulgent hack, Django Unchained, his latest cinematic pop art confection, is unlikely to change your opinion. Though some of his stylistic tendencies don’t surface here (gone is the usual segmented format, and his foot fetish is thankfully kept to a minimum), the spaghetti western homage is signature Tarantino.

          The theme of revenge has been one of the biggest constants throughout Tarantino’s career. This time around, he sets his sights on slavery in the American antebellum South with a tale of a freed-slave-turned-bounty-hunter intent on rescuing his wife from a sadistic plantation owner. It’s a thorny topic, though one not tackled nearly often enough in film, and the question of whether Tarantino is being disrespectful in using this ugly, still-painful time in American history as the basis for a revenge fantasy is certainly valid (in fact, director Spike Lee has already voiced his opposition to the movie and vowed to boycott it). Still, there’s something refreshing about Tarantino’s unflinching, in-your-face approach to the subject, his refusal to soften the blow for fear of offending audiences, and at least he’s open about the element of exploitation that inherently comes with depicting something like this onscreen (what exactly makes Django any more exploitative than, say, The Help?). To be sure, this is not exactly the most comfortable experience you’ll have at the theater this year; some scenes, like ones involving a pack of dogs and Mandingo fighting, are downright excruciating to watch. If you can stomach the brutality, however, it is a giddy, visceral and ultimately rewarding ride.  

Honestly, if you’re relying on this man to teach you about slavery, I think we have some other problems to worry about.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Les Miserables review: Nothing but a Dream


                “There was a time when men were kind…”

                So begins the most celebrated song from Les Miserables, the blockbuster musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name. Originally written and produced by songwriter Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg in France, it has since inspired numerous productions both in the U.S. and around the world, blossoming into one of the most popular musicals of all time. It’s hard to believe that, although the story of Les Mis has been translated into film many times, including, most recently, a version starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean and Geoffrey Rush as Inspector Javert, no one has managed to bring the stage musical to the silver screen – until now, that is. After twenty years of failed attempts, Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper has finally turned the international sensation into a work of cinema.

                Lovers of the musical should not be disappointed. Hooper’s adaptation keeps the sung-through style of the stage version intact; if I’d bothered keeping track, I could probably have counted the number of lines of spoken dialogue on two hands. And the grand scope certainly befits the inherent theatricality of a stage musical. The movie opens with a sweeping overhead shot of the harbor, where an army of convicts bound in chain gangs struggles to right a capsized ship, their faces drenched in water and mud. It’s a jaw-dropping sight, plunging viewers straight into the grit and grime of 19th century France, and for the most part, the movie works best in scenes like this: epic, grandiose and bursting with Big Emotions. As with many plays (musicals in particular), subtlety is not in the vocabulary of Les Mis. The symbolism is blatant (when Jean Valjean is forced to carry the fallen French flag, he’s a personification of the working class that supports the country through its typically unrewarded hard work); the characters openly state their thoughts and feelings, more often than not through song; and the themes of class, redemption and spirituality are broad. None of this is necessarily bad. In fact, at times, Les Miserables is quite moving.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Apatow still going strong at “40”


         Over the past couple of decades, Judd Apatow has built quite the resume. His name has been attached to everything from cult favorite TV shows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared to Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Bridesmaids and seemingly every other comedy to come out of Hollywood since 2004. He boosted the careers of such stars as Seth Rogen, James Franco, Kristen Wiig and indie-breakout-turned-HBO-darling Lena Dunham. Considering the man’s ubiquity, it’s rather stunning that This Is 40, his latest work, is only his fourth directorial effort. Coming three years after the cancer comedy Funny People, This is 40 marks a fitting next step in Apatow’s career-long exploration of sex, love and relationships in modern America.

          You might not have guessed it from this blog, but I’m a huge Apatow fan, at least as far as his directorial works are concerned. Though I didn’t watch the show when it first aired, I adore Freaks and Geeks (why, NBC, why???), which is still the most accurate and relatable portrayal of high school life I’ve ever seen, and The 40 Year Old Virgin ranks among my all-time favorite comedies. I find Funny People, which received mixed reviews in part due to its much more serious material, to be supremely underrated, and even Knocked Up, my least favorite of the movies he’s directed, was an interesting take on the centuries-old battle of the sexes trope. This Is 40 continues Apatow’s tradition of blending raunchy, R-rated humor with heart. Anchored by two charming performances from Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann, it paints a funny yet frank portrait of that oh-so-fascinating phenomenon known as the midlife crisis in all its histrionic, messy glory.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey review: Eh, Good Enough


               Where to begin?

               Ah, yes. The Hobbit is now in theaters, available for public viewing. I still haven’t quite grasped the fact that I have finally seen Peter Jackson’s highly anticipated follow-up to his beloved (and some, including myself, would say untouchable) fantasy trilogy The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, if I could use one word to describe The Hobbit, both the product itself and the experience of watching it, it would be “surreal”: after all this time spent waiting and agonizing, I couldn’t do much during the film other than sit there in dazed silence. This is both a good thing and a bad thing, the movie’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness, and even now, I’m not sure which one comes out on top.

               Let’s start with the good. It feels nice to be back in Middle-Earth, this magical world of stubborn dwarves, nimble elves and hole-dwelling hobbits first dreamed up by J.R.R. Tolkien, that lover of language and mythology, in the 1950s and brought to vivid, awe-inspiring life by Jackson and his team of technical wizards at the start of the century. Even ten years later, the sight of the cozy hills of Hobbiton and the ethereal valley of Rivendell, the sweeping New Zealand vistas, still evoke a sense of child-like wonder and delight. The Middle-Earth of The Hobbit isn’t exactly the same as the Middle-Earth from The Lord of the Rings – it feels more familiar yet also slightly more fanciful – but the shots of lofty mountains and cavernous halls never fail to amaze me. Here, Jackson expands on the mythology established by The Lord of the Rings; dwarves, who were largely absent from the original trilogy, have a bigger presence here (there apparently are dwarf women, though we only see a glimpse of them), and we’re introduced to a few new creatures, such as mountain trolls and thunder giants. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Lucky Him: Why the King of Queens Principle Needs to Die

           Let me paint a picture for you. Once upon a time, there lived a schlubby guy with low self-esteem. He toiled away day after day at a menial job, receiving no recognition for his hard work and generally getting nowhere in life. His friends and coworkers agree that he is an all-around loser and make fun of him when he’s not in the room and, on occasion, when he is; perhaps they only hang out with him because he makes them feel better about themselves. Then, one day, they get the opportunity to finally meet the wife he keeps talking about (some of them had even questioned whether she really existed, because who’d want to marry a guy like that?). The time comes to meet her, and they can’t believe their eyes! The woman standing before them isn’t the homely embarrassment they were expecting: in fact, she’s downright hot. Like, Playboy bunny hot. Suddenly, they’re in awe of him. They can’t stop giving each other looks, wondering how that sucker scored such a babe of a wife. What’s his secret?

           Does this scenario sound familiar to you? If it doesn’t, you must not have watched a single movie or TV show in, I don’t know, your life (in which case, I’m not sure why you’re reading this blog, but you’re certainly welcome to stay). The average-looking dude/bombshell gal dynamic, which I am hereby dubbing the King of Queens Principle for this article, has been a pop culture staple for decades, appearing in everything from Annie Hall and The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Adam Sandler movies and pretty much anything about high school and teenagers ever.

            In case you can’t already tell, this particular cliché is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Most recently, it was brought to my attention by a subplot in the latest episode of Parks & Rec. For those who don’t watch the show, or haven’t seen the latest episode, Jerry, who is essentially the loser described in the hypothetical situation above, throws a Christmas party, and to the amazement of some of the other characters, this party is actually really popular and awesome. At the party, they see his wife, Gayle, for the first time, and what do you know, she’s incomprehensibly hot. Tall and blonde with an hourglass-ish figure, she looks like a model; as a matter of fact, she’s played by real-life model Christie Brinkley. What’s more, she’s so attractive that she looks the same age as her and Jerry’s three daughters, who are also very pretty. Adam Scott’s Ben essentially spends the entire episode gaping at the sight this man, hapless, square-as-a-box Jerry, with that woman.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

One Trilogy to Rule Them All


***There are major spoilers ahead. So, if you haven’t seen The Lord of the Rings yet, what the hell is taking you so long? Just watch it, already!***

               Omgomgomg. There are two days left until The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is released for the world to see and judge. Throughout the past year, I’ve alternated between delirious excitement and curl-up-in-a-ball-and-cry apprehension. On one hand, The Lord of the Rings is (cliché alert!) the movie that made me fall in love with movies, and why would I not want to revisit Middle-Earth? Just watching the teaser trailer made my eyes misty with nostalgia. On the other hand, though, I’ve been more or less opposed to the idea of any kind of prequel/sequel/spin-off to The Lord of the Rings since Guillermero Del Toro was still attached to direct The Hobbit, and frankly, the full-length theatrical trailer hasn’t exactly allayed my fears with its corny humor and suspicious-looking make-up. Also, regardless of what the filmmakers say, there is absolutely no artistic reason to stretch a single 300-page children’s book into three movies.

If this movie fails, things could get ugly.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

My Love-Hate Relationship with Christmas


              Thanksgiving has come and gone, little more than a blink of the eye in another year of our lives. It seems like only yesterday I was bubbling with excitement at the thought of a five-day vacation and a dining room table overflowing with food (full disclosure: I don’t even like turkey that much, but for some reason, every year I find myself salivating over the mental image of a plump, dead bird glistening with fat and oil). Now, that’s over. We can breathe a sigh of relief that we’re finally free of our exasperating, idiosyncratic and otherwise unbearable relatives and heave a sigh of dejection that this brief escape from work, school and stress has come to an end.

              Welcome to the holiday season. To borrow a cliché, it’s a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Even now, I haven’t quite figured out how to feel about this last month of the year. The romantic part of me swoons at the sight of city streets draped in bright, multi-colored lights and the opportunity to reminisce about the past year – the good, the bad, the bizarre and everything in between. But the more disillusioned part of me dreads the tedious – not to mention expensive – ritual of buying presents that will most likely be admired for a week, tops, and the continuous merry-go-round of bland, self-indulgent Christmas carol covers that inevitably make the rounds on every radio station from Top 40s to Classical. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind going the rest of my life without hearing “O Holy Night” ever again. And can we please stop pretending “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is anything but creepy?

I can’t believe this is on my YouTube search history, but what the actual hell.