Django Unchained

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Another Oscar Best Picture nominee. And Christoph Waltz won for his supporting-actor performance. And Quentin Tarantino won for his screenplay. And (as I type), the IMDB raters have placed Django Unchained at position #44 on the Top 250 Movies Of All Time.

In addition, I liked it quite a bit. Mr. Tarantino, who (you may have heard) also directed, is a movie lover, and this is his own unique take on the Western genre. (Although most of it is set in Tennessee and Mississippi.)

It takes place in 1858, and slavery's still going strong. Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is a slave, freed in the opening scene by Dr. King Schultz, Waltz's Oscar-winning role. Schultz is a bounty hunter, and he enlists Django as his sidekick. Dishing out murderous violence to white criminals, it turns out, is something Django has an unusual talent for.

But Django's wife ("Broomhilda") is still in captivity, and Schultz agrees to help track her down and (hopefully) free her by fair means or … well, let's be honest here, the goal is to engage in a lot of violence and hope that the right people are left alive at the end.

Waltz's Oscar is richly deserved; he's a lot of fun to watch. Unlike Inglorious Basterds, he's pretty much a hero here.

It's also a lot of fun playing spot-the-actor. As in his other movies, Tarantino pulls in a lot of semi-forgotten TV and movie stars of yesteryear: Michael Parks, Lee Horsely, Franco Nero (the original Django), Dennis Christopher, Don Johnson, etc.

Sheer coincidence: the soundtrack contains a snippet of Richie Havens' classic song "Freedom", and I watched the movie the same day I heard of Havens' passing.


Last Modified 2013-06-19 10:10 AM EDT

Life of Pi

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Life of Pi won four Oscars (including Best Director), and was nominated for seven more (including Best Picture). The IMDB raters have (as I type) pegged it as #190 on the list of the Top 250 Movies Of All Time. I don't know about that, but it's pretty good.

It's the story of a young Indian kid, Pi Patel. His family runs a failing zoo in India, and they decide to pack up and move to Canada, taking the zoo beasts with them. They find themselves on a doomed ship, and pretty darn quickly Pi is drifting alone in a lifeboat with a few zoo animals. Most notably, a full-grown Bengal tiger that they've named "Richard Parker".

Or at least that's the story Pi tells. But it's a very good story, filled with danger and amazement. The moviemakers did an incredibly good job putting the story on screen. Even jaded me is amazed to learn that 86% of the Richard Parker shots are CGI, with no actual tiger content.

I read the best-selling novel back in 2004. Although my memory is kind of dim, I think the movie is rather faithful. And that's important, especially for the plot twist at the end. Spoiler alert coming: both movie and book offer a very different alternative look at Pi's travels. So, in its own way, Life of Pi is as bleak as Killing Them Softly. A gutsy choice to make for a big budget flick.

Killing Them Softly

[2.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A very bleak, bloody crime thriller marked by pretentiousness. Maybe it's Brad Pitt's least glamorous role? I'd hate to do the research. It is based on the George V. Higgins novel Cogan's Trade; although that book was written around forty years ago, set in and around Boston, the movie's was filmed in New Orleans and takes place in 2008.

I haven't read the book, but based on the Wikipedia entry, the movie is remarkably plot-faithful. A group of petty crooks conspire to knock over a mafia-protected card game. Their scheme rapidly falls apart, and Brad Pitt, playing hitman Jackie Cogan, is called in to punish the upstarts. He's directed by lawyer "Driver" (Richard Jenkins), whose strings are pulled by shadowy Mob higher-ups.

There's a darkly comic element revolving around Cogan's cynicism and efforts to behave professionally while all around him are relative screwups: Driver's bosses are criminals, fine, but they're also bureacratized and risk-averse, avoiding the decisions Cogan knows have to be made. Cogan hires an assistant, Mickey (James Gandolfini) to deal with one of the targets; Mickey has turned into a worthless drunken lecher.

I mentioned the movie was pretentious. Over many scenes of seedy criminality, we hear speeches given by Obama, Dubya, McCain, et.al., mostly on the topic of the financial crisis of 2008. I assume the point is the theft of billions by Wall Street bigwigs in their corporate jets, while normal criminal lowlife scum bicker, assault, and shoot each other in the gutters over relatively paltry sums. The movie's final scene has Brad Pitt haggling with Richard Jenkins over a $5K difference in his hitman fee, while Obama pontificates on a nearby TV, and Cogan makes a little speech about Thomas Jefferson being a wine-snob slaveholder.

Subtle and insightful? No, pretentious and tedious.