[Editor's Note: the post below appears today at The Huffington Post.]
By Jason Apuzzo & Govindini Murty. Freedom must thrive for the arts to flourish. It’s therefore an encouraging sign that so many of 2012’s most acclaimed films – such as Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Les Misérables, or Skyfall – should explore the centrality of freedom to our civilization. As we celebrate 2012 in film, it’s fitting that we honor movies that affirm the very liberty that makes our art, our traditions of free speech, and our democratic form of government possible.
Whether depicting historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, or pop-culture icons like James Bond and Katniss Everdeen, or contemporary dissidents like China’s Ai Weiwei and Russia’s Masha Drokova, the movies below illustrate how freedom only survives when brave individuals are willing to risk their lives fighting for it. These films also depict the virtues that accompany such bravery: a strong individual conscience and empathetic feelings of responsibility toward one’s fellow human beings.
Many of this year’s best pro-freedom films also portray the bravery of women. In a refreshing development, movies like Zero Dark Thirty, Barbara, The Hunger Games, and Putin’s Kiss all feature complex, independent women as their leads – while Skyfall, in the character of “M” (Judi Dench), features a strong woman in a pivotal leadership role. This is another way in which these movies powerfully affirm the democratic spirit.
Here then are our ten best pro-freedom films of 2012:
1. Zero Dark Thirty
A taut and intense account of the almost ten year hunt for Osama bin Laden, director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty captures the emotional and ethical complexity of the War on Terror – while unfolding a vast, investigative mystery that takes audiences from secret CIA bases in Afghanistan, to the corridors of power in Washington D.C., to the urban mazes of Pakistan. Leading this historic manhunt is an indomitable young CIA analyst named Maya, played with steely resolve by Jessica Chastain, who for nearly a decade tracks down bin Laden’s courier on the way to locating the terrorist mastermind. Scrupulously non-partisan, Zero Dark Thirty gives primary credit for bin Laden’s demise not to any politician – but to sober career intelligence professionals as well as military personnel, a tragic number of whom gave their lives in pursuit of Al Qaeda’s leader. Telling their story with a refreshingly understated realism, Zero Dark Thirty honors these largely anonymous men and women who protect our freedom in an increasingly dangerous and chaotic world.
Germany’s official Oscar entry and winner of the Silver Bear for Best Director (Christian Petzold) at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, Barbara is the most compelling depiction since The Lives of Others of day-to-day life in a modern surveillance state – in this case the communist East Germany of the early 1980s. Nina Hoss gives a complex, Oscar-worthy performance as a pediatric surgeon whose desire to leave East Germany puts her under the watchful eye of the Stasi (the secret police), and of a conflicted, would-be lover played by Ronald Zehrfeld. Austere and suspenseful, Barbara is one Germany’s best dramas since the 1970s, and an indictment of any society in which allegiance to a political system overwhelms common humanity.
Director Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln brings the story of The Great Emancipator to life in a way that is both respectful of our 16th President’s achievements and alive to his humanity. In perhaps the richest depiction of Abraham Lincoln since Henry Fonda’s in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Daniel Day-Lewis brings warmth, interiority and conviction to a man charged with the weightiest responsibilities in American history – as both slavery and the fate of the Union hang in the balance. Lincoln also highlights the value of eloquence in free societies; in recounting the sometimes baroque political backstory behind passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Spielberg suggests that it was Lincoln’s poetic oratory as much as any other factor that ended slavery in America for good.
4. The Other Dream Team
One of the best sports documentaries in recent years, and a highlight of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, director Marius A. Markevičius’ The Other Dream Team tells the emotional story of the 1992 Lithuanian Olympic basketball team – a symbol of freedom and Lithuanian national pride after decades of Soviet rule. The film tells the improbable tale of how Lithuanian basketball talents like future NBA stars Arvydas Sabonis and Šarūnas Marčiulionis came to dominate Soviet basketball in the 1980s (even defeating Team USA in the 1988 Olympics) – only to face off against Russia in the ‘92 Barcelona Games, wearing tie dyed uniforms provided by The Grateful Dead (!), after Lithuania had just won its hard-fought independence. A moving and uplifting piece of Cold War history, The Other Dream Team is as much a tribute to the courage of the Lithuanian people in the face of communist tyranny as it is to the inspirational power of sports.
One of the best James Bond thrillers since the 1970s, director Sam Mendes’ Skyfall reinvents 007 as a hero for the War on Terror era – and thoughtfully affirms the value of our intelligence agencies in the post-9/11 world. In Skyfall, information pertaining to NATO penetration of worldwide Islamic terror cells has been stolen in Istanbul, and Bond must retrieve the data before Western agents are exposed and killed – the opening act of an elaborate revenge plot orchestrated by the sociopathic Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). In a film rife with references to Winston Churchill and his legacy, Bond and his colleagues are depicted as reflexively selfless in the cause of freedom – and Dame Judi Dench’s quotation of Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” as both she and Britain come under attack, packs an unusually stirring punch for a Bond film.
By Patricia Ducey. You need to stop humming Hugh Jackman’s showstopping tunes and puddling up – especially in grocery lines. You’ve also just realized that Tehran isn’t Paris – and that no matter how glamorous foreign service looks, it’s probably a good thing you “forgot” to follow through on that State Department job app all those years ago. Plus, you’ve just run out of chocolate-covered candy canes and leftover champagne and have nothing for dinner.
Yes, the holiday parties, the fall movies – Life of Pi’s fantastical 3D journey to enlightenment, Ben Affleck’s paean to the unsung heroes at the CIA and State Department, and the glorious Les Misérables (triumphant over some febrile staging) – they have been rich and tasty this season, but humdrum January is approaching, real life, and you need something or someone to snap you out of it.
And Jack Reacher is just that guy.
Because Jack Reacher is a “ghost.” He’s a cool – as in, “ice-in-your-veins” cool – ghost, and he’s a loner. You don’t know how he got this way but it probably has something to do with his military service. You may find out if there are subsequent films. Or, if you’re a purist, you could read the books. But that might ruin the fun.
Adapted by writer/director Christopher McQuarrie from author Lee Child’s One Shot (from the Jack Reacher series, which I have not read), and produced by Tom Cruise, this old fashioned mystery thriller is fun — and delivers just enough mayhem and clever plotting to keep all but the most jaded critics on board. McQuarrie, who burst upon the Hollywood scene as the screenwriter of the witty, unconventional The Usual Suspects and is now a Cruise collaborator (2008’s Valkyrie, possibly the forthcoming Mission: Impossible 5), delivers another clever whodunit here with plenty of fresh twists and turns, humor, and even a mysterious super-arch fiend, a la Keyser Soze, to keep you interested.
The story is set in gritty, noirish Pittsburgh and opens with a mad sniper in a parking structure across the river from the Pirates’ baseball park picking off five random people. A SWAT team of cops, decked out in full military swag, arrive at his precise location quickly but futilely – the sniper is long gone. But Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) swiftly retrieves the cartridges and fingerprints and assorted evidence – and a mere 16 hours later sits, smirking, across from suspect James Barr along with the D.A. That was easy! The suspect listens in despair as they tick off the mountain of evidence against him. He reaches for the typed confession to sign; but as Emerson and DA Rodin (Richard Jenkins) smugly congratulate themselves on their slam dunk, Barr writes “Get Jack Reacher” on the dotted line instead of his signature. And off we go.
It’s been a busy year here at Libertas and we wanted to take a moment to thank all of our readers, contributors, and media colleagues for all their support. We hope you’ve all had a wonderful Christmas and Hanukkah, and that the New Year brings you all the very best!
We wanted to thank The Huffington Post and The Atlantic for featuring our work so frequently on their front pages. Jason and Govindini have had twenty-six pieces published at The Huffington Post and nine pieces at The Atlantic in a little over a year. Twenty-five of these pieces have been featured on the front page of these sites, bringing significant exposure to the pro-freedom, pro-democracy message of Libertas.
We also wanted to thank Indiewire for having Joe Bendel, Jason, and Govindini as part of their Criticwire community and for giving us the chance to contribute our reviews, letter grades, and critic’s picks to their critics’ polls.
We would like to give a very big thank you to Gretchen Brooks and her family for all of their friendship and support. Gretchen has made it possible for us to cover the Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, LA Film Festival, AFI Festival, and other major film events this year and we couldn’t be more grateful to her for her graciousness and kindness.
We would also like to thank Lars Larson for having Govindini on his nationally-syndicated radio show weekly to discuss movies. Lars and his whole team are always courteous and professional and we truly appreciate the exposure they have given to our ideas.
A very big thank you as well to Joe Bendel for his extraordinary contributions to Libertas this year. Joe’s knowledge of independent cinema is second to none, and his insightful and witty posts have been a tremendous asset to Libertas. Many thanks as well to Patricia Ducey, David Ross, and all our contributors, readers, and colleagues for everything they have added to Libertas! Best wishes to you all and here’s to a successful and productive 2013!
Posted on December 26th, 2012 at 5:16pm.
By Joe Bendel. Even viewers who have not read Victor Hugo’s novel or seen Cameron Mackintosh’s stage musical know Jean Valjean spent nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Such a fate is undeniably unjust, but it is important to keep in mind that it was a very nice sourdough. For years it has defied cinematic adaptation, but now Tom Hooper brings the musical Les Misérables to the big screen, with all its bombast. It opened yesterday nationwide, so Merry Christmas everyone.
Distilled from Hugo’s cinderblock sized novel, Les Mis follows Valjean after he is released from prison. He has been freed from the unyielding Javert’s lash, but the terms of his parole make him a desperate outcast. He finds temporary refuge with the truly pious Monsignor, but he abuses the kindly cleric’s trust. Yet much to his shock, his betrayal is met with forgiveness.
Thanks to the Monsignor, Valjean reinvents himself under an assumed identity. He becomes a factory owner and the mayor of his hardscrabble community. Then Javert is transferred to his jurisdiction. For a while they circle each other warily, until Valjean confirms the copper’s suspicions to save an innocent man arrested in his place. Thus begins his life on the run (albeit a relatively well-heeled one) with Cosette, the daughter of a tragic former employee, in tow.
Yes, this is Les Mis, a rather odd combination of Christian fellowship and proletarian solidarity. Barricades will definitely be stormed, but at least the church is not part of the apparatus of oppression. As the film’s publicity campaign is quick to point out, Hooper returned to old school movie musical production techniques, recording the actors in performance live on the set – rather than have them lip-sync to pre-recorded tracks. This allows them more in-the-moment interpretive freedom. However, as your TV talent show judges might say: “it gets a little pitchy, dog.” Frankly, it is hard to understand why they did not clean some of that up with Pro-Tools or a similar program.
Critical reaction to Hooper’s Les Mis is also something of spectacle, ranging from adulation to castigation. Word that Russell Crowe was making a movie musical may have led some to fear the worst. When Les Mis did not completely bite, many evidently concluded it must therefore be awesome. In truth, it falls somewhere in the middle.
To be fair to Crowe, he has been unduly hammered as Javert (a small irony there), but in the story’s abbreviated stage form, his character’s actions during the third act are jarringly problematic. Also: likely Oscar contender Anne Hathaway knocks “I Dreamed a Dream” out of the park, completely reclaiming the signature tune from Susan Boyle, and then promptly exits the narrative. Hugh Jackman has the perfect presence for Valjean and his performances of “Who Am I” and “One Day More” are fairly stirring, but the show definitely peaks in the first act. Frankly, all the third act barricade songs and revolutionary anthems just blend into a faux Internationale blur.
While Jackman, Crowe, and Hathaway meet or exceed expectations, the rest of the supporting cast is a dramatically mixed bag. Eddie Redmayne sorely lacks romantic lead credibility as Marius, but his voice is not bad. The real standout though is British fan favorite Samantha Barks. She is the real deal as lovesick Éponine, probably boasting the finest voice of the ensemble.
In contrast, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter quickly become tiresome as the felonious innkeeper Thénardier and his wife, the show’s ostensive comic relief. A little of them goes a long, long, long way. You know the Nile River? That long. They must have assumed they were in a Tim Burton movie when they saw the period sets, and started hamming it up accordingly. In fact, the Nineteen Century Paris recreated by the design team often looks like it was the work of the same Neo-gothic architect responsible for The Dark Knight’s Gotham, particularly when Javert compulsively paces about on high ledges.
Nonetheless, Les Mis its moments, like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “One Day More,” which might be Hooper’s best staging, utilizing the cross-cutting toolkit of music videos more than traditional movie musical production numbers. Elements of the show, like the touching relationship between Valjean and Cosette, prove to be absolutely bullet-proof.
Hooper and screen-adapter William Nicholson also deserve a lot of credit for not watering down the themes of faith and redemption. Indeed, it is refreshing to see a senior man of the cloth depicted in an unambiguously virtuous manner. Oddly though, when everyone hits the barricades, it becomes something of a bore. Recommended primarily for Les Mis devotees and diehard movie musical fans, Les Misérables opened yesterday (12/25) across the country, including the AMC Empire in New York. Merry Christmas and to all a good night.
LFM GRADE: B-
Posted on December 26th, 2012 at 12:05pm.
By Joe Bendel. Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, largely self-financed his notorious 1960 classic, Psycho. He picked the right film to literally bet his home on. A spectacular success by any standard, the film that would introduce Norman Bates to the world looked like it might be his swan song during its rocky development and production stages. Dramatizing the behind-the-scenes story of arguably his most iconic work, Sacha Gervasi’s sympathetic but bitingly witty Hitchcock is now in award contention for at least one and possibly two of its accomplished leads.
Hitchcock is not a story Hitch would have made. Since we know Psycho was completed to his satisfaction and became a monster hit at the box office, there is not a lot of suspense to the tale. However, the getting from point A to point B is quite fascinating. As we meet Hitchcock and his patient wife Alma Reville, he is basking in the triumph of North by Northwest, which somewhat bores them both. As a distraction, Reville starts doctoring a new spec script written by Strangers on a Train screenwriter Whitfield Cook, who is hoping she will convince Hitchcock to attach himself to it. Of course, he has his mind set on very different property.
Based on Robert Bloch’s novel, which in turn was inspired by Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, Psycho is the sort of film no respectable studio director would think of touching. That is exactly why Hitchcock is attracted to it. As the closing titles remind viewers, Hitchcock never won an Academy Award (a fact that could either help or hinder the film’s own Oscar campaign). Throughout Gervasi’s film, Hitchcock is clearly presented as a brilliant but ragingly insecure filmmaker. Resenting his lack of recognition, Psycho is convincingly framed as an effort to make an exploitation horror movie that is vastly superior to the prestige pictures the studios released. And so it was.
Yes, this Hitchcock is somewhat neurotic and there is no denying his eye for blondes. Yet John J. McLaughlin’s screen treatment is refreshingly forgiving of his foibles. He was indeed a man of expensive tastes (taste being the most apt word), but the audience also sees Hitch and Alma puttering about the kitchen in slippers, like relatively down to earth people.
Both Sir Anthony Hopkins and Dame Helen Mirren are terrific as the first couple of suspense. As the title auteur, Hopkins is Hitchy without getting kitschy or shticky. Likewise, Mirren is the picture of mature sophistication as Reville. Listening to them bantering like an old familiar couple is one of the film’s great pleasures.
Yet the supporting work of Toni Collette and Scarlett Johansson really fleshes out the film, as it were. Collette’s smart, surprisingly attractive turn elevates what could easily have been the thankless role of the Hitchcock’s thankless assistant Peggy Robertson. Beyond being a spooky dead-ringer for Janet Leigh, Johansson also has some wonderful scenes with both principles that really deepen their humanity. While an Oscar campaign on her behalf might be pushing it, Hitchcock should definitely be on the bill for any future Johansson retrospective.
Gervasi commits a few missteps along the way, such as overplaying Hitchcock’s interior dialogues with the convicted and committed Ed Gein, perhaps hoping to throw genre diehards a bone. Still, the film pays off handsomely, especially for Hitchcock fans. In fact, you could say it has a real Hollywood ending. Deserving award consideration for the work of both Hopkins and Mirren, Hitchcock is recommended for the director’s admirers and those who enjoy films about the cinema. It is now playing nationwide, including at the AMC Empire in New York.
LFM GRADE: B+
Posted on December 26th, 2012 at 12:02pm.
By Joe Bendel. Niall Ferguson would say “I told you so.” For centuries, Tibetan Buddhism was largely confined to the Himalayan region. Then China invaded Tibet, precipitating an exodus of refugees. A few decades later, Tibetan Buddhists have earned growing ranks of converts around the world. Arguably, a bit of competition and Westernization has been beneficial. Victress Hitchcock explores the positive implications of their exile in When the Iron Bird Flies: Tibetan Buddhism Arrives in the West, which appropriately screens before and after New Year’s at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York.
It is a rather eerie prophecy in retrospect. In the Eighth Century, Guru Padmasambhava wrote: “When the iron bird flies and horse run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants across the face of the earth.” Communist China realized the prediction with the 1959 invasion. In many ways, it was absolutely devastating to Tibetan culture, particularly during the madness of the Cultural Revolution. Yet Hitchcock suggests it forced one of the world’s most isolated religions into contact with entirely new nations and peoples during the 1960’s, a period when popular Western culture was widely receptive to Eastern thought.
In Iron, Hitchcock challenges our traditional thinking on the Tibetan exile experience, suggesting it has invigorated, modernized, and spread their religious practice. She has a real point. If one took a survey of most American college dorms and neighborhoods, one would be far more likely to find books about Tibetan Buddhism than Mao’s Little Red Book, even in Berkeley. That is a defendable standard of victory, but it has certainly been costly.
Iron revisits subjects of several documentaries that have played at the Rubin over the last two years, including one covering the late E. Gene Smith’s game-changing campaign to preserve and digitize ancient Tibetan texts (fully documented in Dafna Yachin’s Digital Dharma) and another dealing with Chogyam Trunpa, Rinpoche, a learned teacher who adopted a Western business suit and lifestyle to popularize Tibetan Buddhism with the Western counter-culture (profiled in Crazy Wisdom, directed by Johanna Demetrakas, who served as a consulting editor on Iron).
If the learned Rinpoches became evangelists out of necessity, Iron spreads the Tibetan Buddhist “gospel” with the zeal of a convert. Hitchcock clearly hopes to convince Western audiences this once exotic faith speaks directly to the times in which we live. A little of that is all well and good, but she risks alienating the sympathetic by coming on too strong.
Still, Iron offers a fresh perspective on Tibetan Buddhism, capturing its efforts to shed centuries of male chauvinism. It is very definitely the result of Western contact, but also a reflection of the fundamental humanism of the Tibetan Buddhist establishment in exile. Do not hold your breath waiting for similar soul searching from the Islamic world. The wit, erudition, and humility of many exiled Tibetan leaders also help enrich Hitchcock’s portrait. Educational and surprisingly optimistic, When the Iron Bird Flies is definitely worth checking out when visiting the Rubin, home to the world’s leading collection of Himalayan art. It screens again this Wednesday (12/26), Saturday (12/29), and Sunday (12/30), as well as the 2nd and 23rd of January 2013.
LFM GRADE: B
Posted on December 26th, 2012 at 12:02pm.
[Editor's note: the post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post.]
By Govindini Murty. As we celebrate the holidays, many of us are taking digital photos and videos of our loved ones, thinking that these digital files will be saved forever. The same thinking applies to our movies, books, songs, and stories – we save all of our creative works to the digital cloud, assuming they will be safely stored there. But between continual tech upgrades that make our digital files obsolete, and UN agencies that now seek to censor the internet, the question must be asked: are any of our cultural memories really safe in the digital age?
Recent developments are making it clear that control of digital information, and in particular of online artistic content, is the new front in the twenty-first century war of ideas. The UN’s International Telecommunications Union recently voted to allow individual nations to censor the free flow of the internet. This move was welcomed by authoritarian governments like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Russia – and condemned by democracies like the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Australia.
Combine this alarming development with the fact that many people now store their photos, videos, writing, and other creative works in online clouds, without ever creating hard copies or backing up their data – and the result is the potentially explosive ability of authoritarian forces to erase vast areas of our cultural memory at the push of a button. Without physical copies, no longer does a dictator have to go to the trouble of staging public burnings of art and books, as in 1930s Nazi Germany or 15th century Florence under Savonarola.
The freedom of the individual artist to speak out is more important now than ever, as today’s authoritarian nations seek to silence artists at every opportunity. Russia’s jailing of the women’s punk rock group Pussy Riot, China’s jailing of dissident artist Ai Weiwei, and Iran’s jailing of filmmaker Jafar Panahi are all examples of modern autocracies crushing citizens’ rights to creative expression. Apparently nothing is more threatening to today’s political fanatics than a free, creative individual.
And now the UN is going to give these authoritarian nations official sanction to censor the online work of artists, filmmakers, writers, and creative thinkers. This is a worldwide cultural catastrophe in the making.
Yet this isn’t the only danger that faces the preservation of our cultural memories; a new form of techno-utopianism poses a serious challenge to the preservation of our creative works. The problem in technologically advanced cultures like America is that we sometimes value technology for its own sake more than we do content. We equate advanced technology with greater value, so we rush to upgrade software, devices and formats without making any corresponding effort to ensure that prior digital files and formats can still be used.
Obviously it’s important that we progress technologically. As a filmmaker I embrace digital filmmaking tools for their ability to democratize the movies, and as a writer I wouldn’t even be writing this post if it weren’t for the freedom of speech enabled by the internet. But as the digital revolution matures, we must give thought to how we manage and protect the enormous new quantity of digitally-created works.
This holiday season we’re celebrating blockbuster movies like Les Misérables and The Hobbit, but the irony is that these films are based on classic novels by Victor Hugo and J.R.R. Tolkien that were written in the pre-digital age – and are still around today because they’ve been widely distributed in paper hard copies. But what about fresh artistic and literary works created today? Where will they be fifty or a hundred years from now if they only exist in digital form? Even if they are classics, who will have the chance to adapt them into tomorrow’s movies or other, future forms of storytelling if they are erased within a few years by government censors – or are unreadable because tech companies have upgraded tablets/e-readers to the point that they can’t read prior digital books?
By Joe Bendel. The real question is where’s the Gatling gun? The nineteenth century machine gun certainly found its way into Sukiyaki Western Django, Takeshi Miike’s homage to Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti western, Django. Considering the shtickiness of his supporting performance in Miike’s film, Quentin Tarantino has good reason to distinguish his Django pastiche from its predecessor. This he surely does, re-conceiving the gritty western as a blaxploitation revenge beatdown. Frontier justice gets a whole new look in Django Unchained, which opens Christmas Day nationwide.
Dr. King Schultz is no ordinary dentist. The German expat has taken up the more lucrative work of bounty hunting. He also finds slavery appalling, so he has no qualms about liberating a slave to help him track down the Brittle Brothers, three of his former overseers who are now wanted by the law. That slave is Django, and when he teams up with Schultz, the Brittles do not stand a chance.
As everyone knows from Unchained’s media campaign, Django embraces bounty hunting because he gets paid to kill white people. However, he and Schultz make good partners, even becoming friends. After a profitable winter of killing outlaws, Schultz agrees to help the freeman liberate his wife, Broomhilda, who was taught German by her homesick former owner. Unfortunately, she was recently purchased by Calvin Candie, the master of the notorious Candyland plantation. A bit of subterfuge will be required to buy Broomhilda’s freedom, but Shultz has a suitably dubious plan.
They will masquerade as a prospective slave fight promoter and his free “Mandingo” advisor looking to buy one of Candie’s brawlers. Of course, the white racists of Candyland have trouble dealing with Django on civil terms, but the promise of Schultz’s cash keeps them temporarily in check. Unfortunately, Stephen (as in Fetchit?), the head house slave is instantly suspicious of Django and his partner.
The weird racial undercurrents detectable in Tarantino’s previous films build into a tidal wave in Unchained. On the surface, it is a scathing indictment of the antebellum era Deep South. There will be retribution of Biblical proportions, carried out in some of the best choreographed shoot-outs since John Woo’s Hard Boiled. However, before justice is served, Tarantino will thoroughly objectify African Americans, both men and women, and unleash a blizzard of racial epithets. Yet he will largely get away with it because of the film’s ostensibly politically correct sense of moral outrage.
When watching Unchained, one gets a sense Schultz and Candie represent two sides of the auteur’s persona. Schultz is the white trickster he wants to be, finding acceptance from African Americans through social conscience and hipster sensibilities. Yet, if you peeked into the dark recesses of his subconscious, one might find fantasies of the master slinking off to the slave quarters late at night.
While he looks a bit like Christopher Guest, Christoph Waltz thoroughly dominates the film as Schultz. Conveying a charismatic sense of danger, he is the only character who consistently surprises viewers, while serving as the film’s figure of tolerance. Waltz also has the perfect flair for Tarantino’s dialogue, which is razor sharp as ever. In fact, the period setting is something of a blessing, forcing him to avoid ironic pop culture references.
Jamie Foxx is appropriately flinty when going toe-to-toe with his racist antagonists, but lacks Waltz’s dynamic screen presence. Cruel but disturbingly subservient, Samuel L. Jackson’s Stephen is one of the most distinctive villains of the year. Yet on some level, it is oddly problematic that Unchained invites the most scorn for an African American character. Conversely, Leonardo DiCaprio and his pasted on mustache are simply ridiculous as Candie. Completely lacking gravitas or menace, he looks like he should have a surf board under his arm rather than a whip.
Tarantino delivers some spectacular mayhem and some wickedly clever lines. Still, there is a leering tone to the film that feels wrong when the bullets are not flying. Regardless, there is enough attitude and inventive bloodshed to satisfy the filmmaker’s fans, as well as a cool cameo from the original Django, Franco Nero – but the running time of one hundred sixty-some minutes is just excessive. By comparison, Corbucci’s Django unleashes just as much mayhem in nearly half the time. Recommended strictly for connoisseurs of violent exploitation films and spaghetti westerns, Django Unchained opens wide this Christmas.
LFM GRADE: B-/C+
Posted on December 21st, 2012 at 10:29am.
By Joe Bendel. Italian spaghetti western maestro Sergio Corbucci only helmed one official sequel to his classic 1966 western gundown Django, but scores of scruffy bootleg Django follow-ups were produced. In fact, they keep on coming, don’t they? None of them, including the recent homages from Takeshi Miike and Quentin Tarantino can hold a cigarillo to Corbucci’s original Django, which opens today in New York at Film Forum.
A stone cold killer comes to town wearing Union Blue and dragging a coffin. Much mayhem ensues. Basically, that is what the film boils down to. Like A Fistful of Dollars, there is an element of Yojimbo in Django, turning the title character loose in a town embroiled in a war between Maj. Jackson’s ex-Confederate white supremacists and a band of Mexican revolutionaries (who all look more or less the same), but attitude and action are more important than plot, per se.
Temporarily Django throws in his lot with his old associate, “General” Hugo Rodriguez, but that is only because he needs a few men to stage a daring gold heist from the Mexican army depot just across the border. He also holds a mysterious grudge against Jackson, whom he saves killing for last. Along the way, he rescues a fallen woman who duly falls for Django, but he is not really at a place in his life where he is looking for a serious relationship.
Notoriously violent in its day, Corbucci’s Django does not seem so shocking at a time when the Weinsteins will release Tarantino’s pseudo-reboot on Christmas Day (regardless of the unforeseeable national tragedy). However, its body count is still impressive. Django’s action scenes are not really shootouts, they are massacres. After all, that casket holds a heck of an equalizer, courtesy of Mr. Richard Gatling.
In a career defining role, Franco Nero is all kinds of steely badness as Django. There is something deeply existential about his presence, yet he is strictly business when it counts. Eduardo Fajardo is also thoroughly despicable as Jackson, providing the anti-hero with a worthy antagonist.
Frankly, some of the details do not make a lot of sense, like the racist Klansman Jackson being buddy-buddy with the Mexican army. At times, extras literally walk into the line of Gatling gunfire, which is awfully convenient of them. Yet, the metaphorically muddy environment and gritty action more than compensate for any pedantic grousing. Plus, it is truly impossible to watch Django and not hum the iconic theme song in your head for several days afterward.
Alex Cox suggests Django’s name is indeed a reference to the great Roma jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, in a way that would be spoilerish to explain. If so, it adds another layer of cult weirdness to the film. Regardless, Django delivers enough unrepentant action to satisfy any genre fan. An essential Italian western, Corbucci’s 1966 original is the Django to see when it opens today (12/21) at Film Forum.
LFM GRADE: A
Posted on December 21st, 2012 at 10:29am.
By Joe Bendel. Yorkshire is known for its green hills and savory pudding. However, the region is also rife with supernatural activity, if one can judge from a Yorkshire produced anthology series that aired in 1995. While totaling only five episodes, it built up a cult following, so this should be a happy Christmas for fans now that Chiller—the Complete Television Series has just been released on DVD by Synapse.
ITV may not have done Chiller any scheduling favors, but the show maintained a surprisingly gritty, mature vibe. Indeed, one of the striking consistencies throughout each installment is the rather grim, depressed look of the characters’ environment. In fact, a bit of urban renewal kicks off a whole mess of trouble in the initial episode, Prophecy.
Francesca Monsanto’s family diner is about to face the wrecking ball, but not before some of her drunken hipster friends convince her to hold a séance in the basement. It always creeped her out down there—with good reason. It was loads of laughs at the time, but one by one they suffer grisly accidents that were in some way foretold by the Ouija board. Stranger still, the son of her fabulously wealthy new boyfriend seems to be involved somehow. Featuring Chariots of Fire’s Nigel Havers as the well-heeled Oliver Halkin, Prophecy is one of the best of the series, cleverly blending all kinds of genre elements, including ancient evils and exorcisms. It will also be of particular interest to teen horndogs for Sophie Ward’s fleeting nude scene as Monsanto.
In contrast, Toby, the second episode, is the weakest of the short-lived series. Miscarrying after an auto accident, Louise Knight and her husband naturally move into a spooky old house with a macabre history, hoping to start over. Before long, she appears to be pregnant again, but the ultrasound says otherwise. Essentially, Toby recycles elements of Bradbury’s story “The Small Assassin” and scores of subsequent demonic baby films.
Here Comes the Mirror Man represents a return to atmospheric form for the series, capitalizing on the eeriness of the abandoned church where a young social services case is squatting with his homicidal imaginary friend, Michael. Phyllis Logan (widely recognizable from Downton Abbey and Lovejoy) stars as Anna Spalinsky, the lucky caseworker who inherits Gary Kingston’s file when her predecessor dies an untimely death.
Beginning like the standard “skeptic learns the hard way” tale, The Man Who Didn’t Believe in Ghosts develops some interesting twists and ambiguities. Richard Cramer is an Amazing Randy style writer whose books discredit paranormal humbug. Suffering a stroke after a television appearance, he naturally relocates with his family to the big, spooky Windwhistle Hall, where the former owner’s wife died in a tragic “sleep-walking” accident. Why doesn’t anyone ever want to recuperate in the city, with plenty of people around? Nevertheless, the Cramers cannot resist the low asking price, only to be terrified by a series of mysterious accidents as soon as they move in. Of course, Cramer is not going anywhere, lest he commit professional suicide.
Just as it began, Chiller ends with one of its strongest episodes. Every full moon, a serial killer preys on the children of the aptly named burg of Helsby in Number Six, perhaps inspired by the ancient druid rituals once (and maybe still) practiced in the region. Indeed, there may be both human and supernatural agencies involved. Quite engaging as a police procedural, Number Six also boasts some of the series’ most sinister moments.
Arguably, Chiller makes perfect sense for Christmas viewing. There is a big turkey dinner at the Cramers (which becomes magically infested with maggots), a mass is held (as part of an exorcism), and kids chant nursery rhymes (derived from old Druidic rites). As a stocking stuffer for anyone who enjoys horror anthologies like Tales from the Crypt and Hammer House of Horror, Chiller is a solid bet. Recommended for fans of British genre television, the short but complete series is now available on DVD from Synapse Films.
Posted on December 21st, 2012 at 10:28am.
By Joe Bendel. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, many Korean-Japanese immigrated back to their homeland. Unfortunately, they chose the wrong one. With family at risk in the DPRK, active members of Japanese-North Korean friendship associations had no choice but to tow the party line. Yet, the implications of the basic foodstuff care packages they sent to loved ones spoke volumes. Granted a special three month visit for medical reasons, one such “repatriated” North Korean reconnects with his guilt-ridden family in Yang Yonghi’s devastating Our Homeland, which has been selected by Japan as their official foreign language Academy Award submission.
Yun Sung-ho most likely has a brain tumor. Given the woeful inadequacies of the North Korean medical system, he is allowed to briefly return to Japan—after a five year waiting period. He is fortunate his father is the president of the North Korean society, but he will still be monitored the entire time by his minder, Mr. Yang. Regardless, his family is grateful to see him again, especially his poor mother. Likewise, Rie is delighted to see her beloved brother again, but she cannot ignore certain ironies, like her brother developing malnutrition in the “Workers’ Paradise.” Yes, she is our kind of free-thinker and the unambiguous conscience of Our Homeland.
Based on writer-director Yang Yonghi’s own family experiences recorded in Dear Pyongyang and a subsequent documentary, Homeland is even more direct in addressing conditions in North Korea. Perhaps liberated by the fictional context, the film explicitly blames the DPRK for the misery of its citizens. There is no inclination towards moral equivalency. In fact, there is a clear affection for the Ozu-like quiet serenity of Japan.
While Yang’s script is unusually honest and challenging, her leads really make it hit home. Dynamic and vivacious but deep as a river, Sakura Andô is simply remarkable as Rie. It is an award caliber performance. Conversely, it takes a while for Iura Arata’s pitch-perfect portrayal to sink in, striking uncomfortable chords between bitterness and resignation. Boasting a top flight ensemble from top to bottom, Homeland is also distinguished and humanized by memorable supporting turns from Kotomi Kyôno as Yun’s ex Suni and Tarô Suwa as his loving blacksheep capitalist Uncle Tejo.
An assured narrative debut, Yang masterfully controls the mood and tone, despite the almost complete lack of soundtrack music. Her approach is intimate and not surprisingly documentary-like, but Homeland never feels overly talky or draggy. Indeed, the emotional drama never slacks.
Our Homeland is a deeply compassionate film, but it is also somewhat angry, plainly calling an older generation to account for sacrificing their children on ideological grounds. Its unmistakable critique of North Korean Communism might not sound like Academy fodder, but the foreign language division can be surprising – in a good way. After all, The Lives of Others won the Oscar and Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn was nominated before it even had American distribution. Regardless, Our Homeland would be a worthy nominee that deserves an international audience.
LFM GRADE: A
Posted on December 18th, 2012 at 11:59am.
[Editor's note: the post below appears today at The Huffington Post.]
By Jason Apuzzo. It’s by far the biggest, best and most surprising entertainment news of 2012, yet still no one knows quite what to make of it: starting in 2015 we’re getting a new Star Wars trilogy, beginning with Episode VII, supervised by George Lucas and produced by Disney.
As Darth Vader might say, there’s “a tremor in the Force.” The question is: what will this new Star Wars look like, now that we don’t have Emperor Palpatine to kick around any more?
There’s certainly been nothing like this news in Hollywood in years, with rumors swirling around about the new Star Wars films almost on a daily basis. What will the new storyline be? Who will direct the films? Will Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford make a cameo? Did Boba Fett survive the Sarlacc Pit?
And will SPECTRE or the Miami Heat be the new villains?
It seems incredible that overnight Star Wars has managed to reinvent itself – again – and become the biggest, most talked-about sci-fi franchise around. (Imagine what James Cameron must be thinking right now.) The question on everyone’s mind, though, is what exactly a new Star Wars trilogy will look like with limited involvement from George Lucas, the original cast having hit retirement age, many crucial characters gone, and having to pick up where 1983’s Return of the Jedi left off – i.e., with Ewoks playing victorious drum solos on Stormtrooper helmets.
In other words, what is the ‘essence’ of a Star Wars film now that the series can’t lean on standbys like Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi or exploding Death Stars anymore?
For clues to this mystery, it’s best to go back to the 1970s, the fabulous era – at least, for science fiction fans – when Star Wars was born.
Although the 1950s are justifiably regarded as science fiction’s Golden Age, the era of the 1970s easily rates a close second. It was the period when science fiction finally replaced the Western as the great American movie genre.
To be fair, what we’re calling ‘the ’70s’ here probably began around 1968 with the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, and didn’t end till around 1984, with the release of The Terminator. So maybe we should call this sci-fi’s ‘modern’ era – or simply ‘the Star Wars era.’ Science fiction had a distinctive flavor during this period – it was darker, more realistic, and also more emotional – and Star Wars set the tone for the time.
It was also during this era that science fiction became more popular than ever – more popular even than comic book movies are today – dominating both the box office and prime time television.
Of the top 15 highest grossing movies of all time adjusted for inflation, four are sci-fi films from this period: the original Star Wars trilogy, plus Steven Spielberg’s E.T. A host of other films from this time – Alien, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, just to name a few – are similarly regarded as classics. Plus, television series like The Six Million Dollar Man (and its spin-off, The Bionic Woman), Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century were huge hits – with the Galactica franchise still around with us today.
So how did they do it back then? What made sci-fi of this period so wildly popular?
The key thing to understand about ’70s or Star Wars-era sci-fi was how it revised and updated a genre that had gotten old and slightly creaky (think Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). It did so in three major ways:
1) Science fiction became more realistic.
The big leap forward in sci-fi ‘realism’ came in 1968 with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Kubrick made after consulting with scientists and engineers at NASA and MIT, and after devising new visual effects techniques like front projection. After 2001, which played out like a Cinerama documentary shot in space, sci-fi films couldn’t afford to look anymore like they were shot in your parents’ garage (even if they were).