Rough Cut Film Review – Zero Dark Thirty

Our second installment of the new web series is up! In this episode we talk about the Oscar worthiness of Zero Dark Thirty, the perceived political controversy surrounding the film’s content and discuss whether the film portrays America as bullies.

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Warm Bodies Leaves You Cold

Warm Bodies the number one movie in America last week? Am I dreaming?

First of all, with the ridiculous amount of Oscar Best Picture nominees again this year, you’d think the Academy’s plan to generate more interest in the movies would be working – at least in their favor – but instead, the top grossing movie is a pre-teen snoozer cashing in on both the lucrative zombie genre and the beastly, psuedo-horror/romance fad 13-year olds all seem to identify with these days. It’s so much cooler to be hot for vampires, werewolves, zombies and other one-off horror show freaks, than it is to fall for just a normal, run-of-the-mill kind of guy, isn’t it? Why don’t they ever make movies where the male characters are the ones falling in love with a physically flawed female character, by the way? I’ll tell you why, because Hollywood knows that in their already dwindling audience of males age 18- 35, none of that demographic wants to lust after a girl who looks like a zombie or the guy from Beastly. Not even if it was Bar Refaeli playing the part.

Lucio Fulci will likely rise from the dead as soon as he finds out about this comparison.

Lucio Fulci will likely rise from the dead to eat someone’s brains as soon as he finds out about this horrendous “inside joke” comparison.

Warm Bodies is a pathetic excuse for a zombie flick to begin with, falling way short of ever providing any sort of truly cinematic zombie movie goodness. Instead it just recycles the old zombie apocalypse theme with the people who haven’t yet been bitten hiding behind a makeshift wall somewhere in a city that looks vaguely like London or New York City and with zombies milling around outside. Warm Bodies even appears to borrow a little bit of the I Am Legend look with its laughably CGI “Boney’s.” What’s worse though is how the film expects its audience to reject every perfectly plausible zombie movie guideline they know and just blindly go with this stupid story which at one point even turns into Romeo and Juliet.

The film is void of any sincere laughs, and gets by – if on anything – on its ability to make the lead zombie boy look and act cute because he’s fallen in love with a un-zombified girl. There are too many plot holes and inconsistencies to even bother referencing them here, but suffice it to say, no one seemed to notice (or care) except me. Something about this movie spoke to people. I am baffled. Look, I’m a sucker for a good romance and I love horror films from all sub-genres, so the unique plot concept about zombies painfully being alive inside their bludgeoned heads even when their bodies are dead, and the idea that they can gradually come back to life when embraced with the feeling of love, was a huge selling point for me – but this movie completely missed both marks and gave up all its opportunities to exploit its unique storyline to the fullest.

Then there are the actors – they’re terrible. Yeah, the lead girl is cute in a rip-off Kristen Stewart kind of way, but she is ultimately and instantaneously forgettable. The boy is similarly bad – the worse zombie ever in fact – I’ve seen zombie extras play more believable and horrifying than him. The boy’s movements inconsistent, unrealistic and his moaning and groaning ability to communicate short sentences to the girl and other zombies is a real chore to sit through. Even the director Jonathan Levine clearly felt that way after he saw the footage edited together, because the amount of songs which they conveniently edit into the film to absolutely no added effect, is equally boring to sit through. I find better zombie music videos online at least once a week.

The director Jonathan Levine should be ashamed of himself. This is utterly and obviously a job he took for the money, as I can see no effort, interest or talent that was put into this – especially comparing it to previous stellar work he’s done when he’s motivated and inspired, such as the hilarious and poignant 50/50. Even The Wackness was better than this.

…As I think about it more now, maybe this is the best movie to see in theaters at this moment. At least half of the Best Picture noms are unjustified and obvious promotional tactics / pats-on-the-back, but at least filmmakers like Spielberg and David O. Russell care about their craft and what they bring to the screen and if they’re making a film for the paycheck, they put a little effort into it still. The writer, filmmakers and actors (including Malkovich) of Warm Bodies, should all be ashamed of themselves for letting such drivel cost $12.50 in pointless Cinema XD since there’s about as much XD worthy action in the movie as there is in Lincoln, and as little tangible romance as there is in Silver Linings Playbook. Go see something else.

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino gets away with a lot in Hollywood. It appears he’s even celebrated for what he can get away with – the latest of which being the Oscar nod to Django Unchained in the Best Picture category. While his latest film is in no uncertain terms great, I’m hesitant to say it’s the Best Picture of the year… yet.

If you know Tarantino’s schtick, you’ve seen all of his other films; Django Unchained shouldn’t be surprising in any ways. QT creates each of his “new” films by arduously selecting only the best bits and pieces of a cinema long-gone and tying it all together in a story that is ripe with exposition, dialogue and graphic imagery. In this case, one bit he’s carefully selected from the annals of cinema history is the title and title character.

Django Unchained

The original Django (from 1966, directed by Sergio Corbucci) had nothing to do with the Antebellum South or slavery, but it did have a man tortured by the loss of his woman who was also on a vengeful quest to get her back. One of my first disappointments with Tarantino’s film was the surprising lack of startling imagery as compared to many of his previous works. In this film, his usual cinematographer Robert Richardson and he, seemed to be a little less inspired with the visuals. For example, the opening imagery in Sergio Corbucci’s Django is of the titular character dragging behind him a coffin on a rope. Unchained opens with Django’s character walking in the woods tied to a group of other slaves – granted – also a powerful image you’d think, but not in the way it’s presented here, dark and expected, and even more, it’s an image that’s been burned into an American’s psyche forever. In this respect, I almost find myself having to agree with Spike Lee in his protestation at Unchained’s release, to leave this topic alone – almost.

That issue aside, the first three-quarters of the film had me pretty much hooked and under his spell. I commend Tarantino on what he’s succeeding to say with the story, but then by the end, when he goes for the simplistic, tie-up-every-loose-end-of-the-story-with-a-ridiculous-gunfight (very much akin to the final scene in True Romance or the Crazy 88’s scene in Kill Bill), my interest and appreciation quickly began to wane.

The thing about Tarantino’s films are they confidently take themselves very seriously. It’s why arguments are easy to make with Unchained about its use of the word “nigger” and its over-the-top violence. As for the word “nigger,” I’ll admit, I was a little taken aback by its gratuitous use from the first scenes forward in Unchained, but at the same time, I know that’s because I’ve been conditioned to be repelled by that word – a seemingly more disrespectful and distasteful slur now-a-days than, say, calling someone a “bitch” or a  “fuck.” It seems to me that if we’re going to be repelled by the use of one derogatory slur, we should be repelled by them all equally. Historically though, I know the use of the word “nigger” was a real and extremely prevalent thing (and to some extent, unfortunately still is), and therefore, even though QT uses it to his cultish, slightly perverse pleasure here, it’s not without point or reason. For much of the violence, however, I cannot say the same.

Django Unchained

Violence in the cinema has never been an issue to me; cinema is all fantasy no matter how you look at it, but it’s the new breed of violence in films (most of it re-invigorated by the torture-porn musings of films like Hostel, Saw and basically any “horror movie” from Asia in the past decade-and-a-half) that turns me off of filmmaking in general. Much of Tarantino’s brand of gun violence is point blank with plenty of maiming. When it works for the story, I can accept it and move on, but when it’s just random and unsubstantiated, I find myself getting bored. The final shootouts in Django Unchained are very over-the-top. Although someone will likely argue that I shouldn’t keep comparing them, the final shootout in Corbucci’s Django was equally over-the-top, but so much more acceptable (maybe not believable) – and just plain cool. Franco Nero, the actor who plays that original Django, after having his hands crushed to the point where he can’t hardly hold a gun, much less shoot it, musters the will and strength to bite through the trigger guard on his pistol and then by pressing the exposed trigger up against a gravestone, and using his gimp hand to hit the hammer back, he cleans out a cemetery full of bad guys all by himself.

Jamie Foxx’s Django has a far less impressive final shootout, although also equally unbelievable. Hardly even grazed by a bullet in a barrage of fire at him, he dives under a wooden wardrobe that is toppled over and despite it then being riddled with bullets – which indeed appear to be piercing the wood – he is not even showing a scratch once he emerges. It’s only that he runs out of ammo that he is even stopped and gives himself up. While I’ve always appreciated that Tarantino remains firmly planted in plausible territory with his action sequences in all his films, Unchained’s final shootouts seem a little haphazard and too “easy.”

As usual, the characters in Unchained are full, colorful and engaging. The highlights here are most certainly Leonardo DiCaprio as a young owner of one of the largest plantations in the South, his house slave, played by a well made-up Samuel L. Jackson and, of course, the always coolly hilarious and ebullient, Christoph Waltz as, quite literally, the only white man in the Antebellum time period to “abhor slavery,” aptly named Dr. King (Schultz). Upon just hearing the name for the first time in the movie, it brought a smile to my face.

Despite some of its drawbacks, Tarantino’s film is a much needed respite from the overwrought, striving-to-be-historically-accurate period pieces that normally tackle subjects as large, sensitive and America-centric as the Civil War and slavery, in that it allows audiences to actually enjoy a movie, while still also getting the gist of what was egregiously wrong about that time period in America’s history, and poking fun at how far (and in some cases, how not-so-far) we’ve come since then. Too bad Spielberg never had the balls to do that.

The Place Beyond the Pines

It’s like Blue Valentine meets Drive on a motorbike. Only this time Ryan Gosling is lighting up the screen creating a tumultuous relationship with Eva Mendes instead of Michelle Williams. I’ll admit, my interest is super-peaked about this film, especially considering how quietly superb Blue Valentine was, but if this is anything more like Drive, I’m going to be forced to put Gosling in a new category of cinema called “pretentious drama.” Plus, you can already tell by the trailer, he’s probably gonna have to die at the end.

Life of Pi

Watching Life of Pi is like sitting through a pretty engaging seminar on religion, coupled with other existential matters, in a large auditorium. You just paid to have someone tell you a story that you’ll either want to believe or want to dismiss as good fiction. You’ll laugh at all the right humorous moments, feel sad when the bad things happen, and maybe be on the edge of your seat when the action gets intense. But you’ll ultimately walk out of the venue looking at life the exact same way as you did when you walked in…

LOP-068    Pi Patel takes in the bioluminescent wonders of the sea.

Or maybe I’m wrong. In one way I feel like maybe I gained something from the experience of viewing this movie, but there’s no changing my mind about the way I choose to believe. The whole premise which director Ang Lee is trying to exploit here is the idea that if I tell you a story and embellish it to the point of near non-belief, you’ll listen more intently, and ultimately gain more from it when it’s over. However, if I tell you the same story, as it actually happened, you’re likely to be far less interested and possibly even dismiss it. A good, possible argument you might make for the purpose/power/impact of the Bible.

Lee works outside the bounds of Yann Martel’s simple story, and uses his artistic license to basically create expositional scenes that help steer the viewer into the right frame of rational, questioning mind. That, in and of itself bothers me, because whether or not the story is made up, has little effect on how I will perceive the point it’s trying to make (or whether I will believe it). In fact, I walked out of the theater angry because the version of the story I wanted to believe, was indeed deemed to be false by the close of the film.

The film uses the cinematic formula of story-within-a-story, by literally having someone (in this case Pi, himself) tell the story. While Lee provides some much needed background, the bulk of the film takes place on the water after Pi’s family (and the rest of an entire Japanese cargo liner die when it sinks to the deepest trench in the Pacific Ocean). Pi, who had up to many years before as an adolescent found himself to be very in touch with nature and the world, finds that he is literally trapped and threatened by the world after the horrible event. As a young boy, he felt as close as counterparts, and so deeply trusting of the world that he would attempt to feed a tiger with his small bare hands. His father quickly excised this beautiful, innocent quality which Pi had, and cut-to many years later, Pi’s 16 and sharing a lifeboat with the same tiger, but now intensely afraid of him instead of able to coexist.

Now, you could look at this from the perspective that Pi should never have been trusting of a wild animal to begin with (coexistence with animals and nature for many humans simply means keeping them at bay so as not to disrupt their lives), and fortunately as a child Pi’s father taught him there is not only love and happiness in the world, there is also suffering and cruelty; but I think you’d be looking at it wrong. I think, if Pi hadn’t been taught to fear everything, he would have been able to coexist much sooner once he was trapped on the boat. The lifeboat in which Pi becomes (literally) tethered to, contains an interesting little circle of life. In hierarchical order, there’s the tiger, Pi, a hyena, an orangutan, a zebra, and a rat. Coexistence and harmony are not possible on the boat, because fear, hunger and self-preservation are all that either man or animal can possibly think of when faced with such an ordeal, but coexistence is still ultimately achieved as a simple method to staying alive.

life_of_pi_8Instead of happiness (or even mutual respect, really), the boy and the tiger end up in a sort of symbiotic relationship, each dependent on the other for existence. They are literally yin and yang. It’s only for the shift of power, that Pi finds himself interacting with the tiger and eventually doing what he considers to be training him. I’d argue that it’s much less an achievement in training the tiger, than it is the tiger actually resolving to his fate: which is the boy has a better ability to aid in the tiger’s self-preservation. The boy can (and does) catch fish for him. The boy can (and does) save him when he leaps overboard and cannot get back onto the boat. The boy can (and does) provide shelter for him and early warning of emanate danger. In reality, the tiger is using Pi.

This is further exemplified by what turns out to be my favorite scene in the whole film: at the moment when they’re at their most vulnerable, the moment when they finally get what they’ve wanted for the entirety of the movie, the moment when they finally reach land; you’re waiting for the heartfelt goodbye, the overblown instant in time when the tiger shows that the relationship he formed with Pi was indeed meaningful to him, and not just a necessity; you’re waiting for the sign, but you get nothing. The tiger never even looks back at the boy as he wanders off onto the solid ground and into the forest. The tiger didn’t care. He just survived, and that was his only use and intent from the relationship to begin with.

I find that I can identify with this moment on so many levels, that it changes the whole meaning of the movie for me. Life is all about conditioning. Love and hate are merely emotions we decide to project based on the way we’ve been conditioned to handle the interaction we’re experiencing at that moment in time. This is exactly what’s exemplified in Life of Pi.

From a filmmaking standpoint, there are a lot of things about Life of Pi that I don’t like. First off, the handling of the passage of time is relatively unclear. If this is on purpose, it fails to add anything to the viewing experience. It’s actually frustrating to see a 16-year old boy at sea for months, only to see his hair grow a tad unruly and nothing else really ever change. The tiger gets thinner, but that’s easy, the tiger’s CGI.

The beauty of the film is that, even for a cynic/skeptic like myself, I wanted to believe the story so badly, that everything needed to be rationally explicable. There are a lot of seemingly inexplicable scenes in the film though, and the last quarter of the movie can actually be rather frustrating if you’re taking everything seriously up until that point. If you tell me something’s true, I’ll find ways to think about how to question or disprove it, but if you tell me something’s fiction, I’ll listen intently and let myself fall into the story.

Life-of-Pi-ShipwreckBasically, when Pi is finally rescued some investigators from the shipping company come to interview him in his hospital room and ask him for the story of how he survived. They don’t seem to believe (nor like) the story that he tells them (the one which we are told), and so they ask for another as plainly as that. In the space of a really long take, slowly closing in on the face of the disheveled Pi, Lee forces us to watch as he retells a concise version of his survival beginning from that fateful night on the ship. In his retelling, there are indeed no animals, and instead people which he’s substituted for the animals. His mother is one of them. I immediately lost interest during this scene of the film, and having only seen it the one time, I couldn’t tell you much of what this version of his story is like, but I promise you this: it doesn’t matter at all. Even if it’s the true story, no one will care.

I won’t say that I didn’t like Life of Pi, it certainly has a very Forest Gump-y quality to it which will no doubt endear some viewers, but I wasn’t appreciative of the way the discussion and depiction of evaluating religion, spirituality and the meaning of life was addressed. Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life had more to offer in this respect than many films on the topic which I’ve seen in a long time. Instead, I found Ang Lee’s Life of Pi to be more of discussion on why religion is embellished, presented and taught the way it is, and how that only serves to further help with the mass brainwashing of our individual cultures.

As Pi himself says at the end of the film, “If I told you two of the same stories, one as it happened, and one like this – which one would you believe?” Well, we all know the answer to that.

The Man with the Iron Fists

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Quentin Tarantino should be sincerely flattered right now. Rapper and musician RZA (who also worked on the score for Tarantino’s Kill Bill), has just directed his own schlocky debut feature, The Man with the Iron Fists. Spoiler alert: the titular Man is RZA himself. While certainly not impressive, RZA’s debut film is relatively entertaining; equal parts good and bad.

RZA plays a cool-headed blacksmith living in China where he is paid rather royally to basically outfit all the rivaling clans with weapons they can use to kill each other. The blacksmith also narrates the film in that uniquely lispy urban poetry-like voice he has going for him. It’s frankly one of my favorite things about the whole movie, despite his less-than-remarkable acting.

The story starts off a little sloppy in its narrative, and keeping track of all the rival gangs is almost laughable in itself (maybe intentionally?), but by the middle of the film when things take a turn for the worst for the blacksmith, the story (which up until then was disposable), becomes a little more gripping. Unfortunately, storyline, directing style, set design, characters, nor props in many cases can be seen as anything original and it seems that inspiration for RZA seems to have quite obviously come from Tarantino’s Kill Bill, or the more widely seen martial arts cult classics such as Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.

The problem with a movie like this is, it’s trying hard to imitate and be inspired by these types of grindhouse movies where it’s more about sensationalism than plot and filmmaking. But what we now look at as cult classics or grindhouse genre films are just movies that were doing what they could with what they had back when they were made, probably not even trying to fall into the trash cinema classification which they have since then (retroactively marketably) fallen into. RZA, however, has the assistance of Tarantino (a master in his craft of revitalizing the cult and trash cinema genres to critical acclaim), way more resources and budget than many of the films he’s trying to channel from the ’70s and ’80s, and yet Iron Fists still looks cheaper and is weaker than most of those predecessors.

Tarantino gives the film a lift with his name attached, of course, and maybe that will help with marketing it to QT devotees, and even smartly help increase the awareness and anticipation for Tarantino’s latest revitalization, Django Unchained. There’s even a special trailer for the film running prior to Iron Fists, where QT himself intros it (also giving props to “his man” RZA’s film you’re about to see).  So see, it really all comes down to advertising, and if I was just a tad more cynical, I’d even go so far as to suggest RZA only got the damn greenlight for this film because of the beautiful marketing opportunities it would present.

Looper

Looper is one of those films you want to watch a second time just to make sure you caught everything that should have revealed itself the first time around, but didn’t. It’s not a singularly perfect movie, but it’s well produced, scripted and acted. Joseph Gordon Levitt and director Rian Johnson work together well, and after such an awesome debut as Brick, there was little doubt in my mind that Looper would disappoint – and it doesn’t – it even further builds upon and establishes his directing style which Roger Ebert questioned a lot after his viewing of Brick.

Admittedly, I was hesitant about the science fiction aspect of the story and how Johnson would be able to handle the special effects in a first-time-out kind of film, but it’s all done with style and purpose (the latter of which is sometimes very hard to find in science fiction special effects-driven films). Johnson’s film is coolly cyclical and Levitt plays the part of a young Bruce Willis very well. Willis is, of course, Willis, but with a little less machismo and a lot more heart.

The story is dark and inevitably doomed from the start. I don’t normally do this, but it’s important to know the plot if you’re going to read this review. If you don’t here’s a really nice breakdown courtesy of ScreenRant. Once you learn the plot you can quickly pick up where it’s going, but the beauty of the filmmaking is the ending (even though in the back of our minds we know how it has to end) is still a surprise! I’d call that the touch of a budding directorial genius. Shades of Christopher Nolan are even in there, recalling back before Nolan was obsessed with overblown masterpieces.

Films akin to Looper can become easily convoluted and quickly weighed down (e.g. Source Code), but Looper seems carefully thought out, and even if there are flaws in the story, the film is so engaging overall that it will likely go unnoticed. Levitt is coming into his own in the action genre too; between this, Premium Rush (which, by the way, is not a bad film in terms of car chase sequences), Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, he’s cutting his action chops on some heavy-hitting and intense work.

Johnson’s film is a confident, science fiction / action / thriller, so much so, it even plays with the romance genre in a tasteful and purposeful way. There are two sort of oddly linked love stories in play: Willis’ love story is uniquely tied into the film (remember Willis is the the same character as Levitt – just older in the future); and, cagily, Johnson weaves in yet another love story with the young Willis (played by Levitt), as he takes refuge in a rural farmhouse with one ax-wielding Emily Blunt. Her character soon evolves to a central plot device and she is a good fit for the role sans her inconsistent American rough-and-tumble accent which she tries to produce.

Altogether, I find you won’t be disappointed by this film if you’re interested in a smart story, fraught with action, suspense, just the right touch of science fiction and a couple of old fashioned romantic sub-plots. The effects work won’t be seen on the same level for everyone, but more importantly, they’re appropriately used. Just wait… you may even find yourself coming back to film some day in the future.