Category Archives: Historical

“There Will Be Blood” Movie Review

So recently, actor Daniel Day-Lewis announced that he was done with the film industry and will spend the rest of his life in private with his family. I absolutely respect this decision of his, but please don’t actually give up acting. You’re amazing at it. This epic historical drama was released during the height of award season in 2007, garnering more critical and commercial success than most independent films. Paul Thomas Anderson’s modern classic also earned 8 Academy Award nominations and is considered by many critics film scholars to be one of the best films from the 2000’s. Based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair, we follow Daniel Plainview, a man in the San Fernando Valley who begins exploiting the rich amount of oil beneath the surface of the land. As the R-rated narrative moves from the late 19th into the early 20th century, his lust for more of this resource grows and grows, even when some meager competition gets in the way. But he won’t let them compromise anything for him. Many of Anderson’s trademark filmmaking styles are present here, as well as some differentiations. He directs the drama beautifully and confidently, as most of the cast seems to be made up of actors or actresses who know what they’re doing. And as good as Boogie Nights and Magnolia were, I would say that not only is this his most accessible film to date, but also his best. And this is coming from someone who enjoyed both Magnolia and Boogie Nights immensely. At the forefront of everything in this film is Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance, which may just be one of the best ever put to celluloid. Masterful and wholesome in every sense, his character is an interesting one. Plainview is someone you should normally hate but can’t help understand and want to see him succeed in his endeavors. When remarking on his ruthlessness and cunning intellect, he remarks to a comrade, “I see the worst in people. I don’t need to look past seeing them to get all I need.” It’s no surprise that P.T. Anderson had written the part specifically with him in mind. In a duel role, the underrated but versatile Paul Dano plays two brothers both seeking a profit off the main protagonist’s petroleum ventures. One’s a carful-minded pragmatist wishing to benefit just for the sake of it, another is a devout pastor desperate to keep preaching his beliefs by acquiring the funds necessary to do so. Even as far as religious fanatics go, this guy was borderline unlikable. Note: The fact that Eli was this awful possibly made Daniel Plainview even more of a likable character than he had any right to be. But there are some that believe that without Day-Lewis’ phenomenal performance, the rest of the movie isn’t that good. I respectfully disagree, as there is enough brilliance behind the camera to match what is happening onscreen. Very few movies of the 21st century have attained the amount of technical mastery that Paul Thomas Anderson assembles here. One of the most notable attributes of There Will Be Blood is that of the cinematography by Robert Elswitt, which also nabbed an Academy Award. Many intimate conversations are characterized by focused close-up shots of the character most pivotal in that scenario. Even when someone else is talking, the camera refuses to cut or pan away from the primary subject, allowing us to get a better sense of closeness to these individuals. These harsh close-ups are contrasted by anamorphic wide shots of the gorgeous and vast frontier waiting to be dried up of oil. One of the most memorable sequences occurs near the end of the first act when Plainview discovers a whole ocean worth of oil beneath one of his large mines. As it continues to erupt from the late afternoon into the dark evening, a fire is lit near the top of it all. You see him as well as all of his employees drenched in black oil and soot as well as a beautiful coloring of orange firelight. Meanwhile, former Radiohead lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood composes the musical score for this film, making this the first in five movies he has collaborated with Paul Thomas Anderson. Although it uses a lot of preexisting material, there is still quite a bit of new stuff to gouge down on. Often it’s just little bits of ambient strings that heighten the tension of a scene or when various percussion instruments are banged together in a cacophonic manner that is as raucous as it is poetic. In the vein of all his other work, though, There Will Be Blood is much more than just an excuse for Anderson to direct someone in a way that might earn them an Oscar. Much like a strip of barren land in Southern California, there is a lot of precious stuff to appreciate and dig for underneath the surface. In this case, we see the ideas of American capitalism and natural greed deconstructed to their very cores. During this period, some Americans had idolized Titans in this industry such as John D. Rockefeller. But this film does its very best to illustrate that these “heroes” at the turn of the century were anything but considerate, let alone worth idolizing. With Daniel Plainview’s ambitions and lust for wealth growing ever so much, he becomes more disconnected from everyone around him, thus making him more ruthless and dangerous. Similarly, Eli is so dead-set on acquiring this oil that he uses any justification, including and especially religion, to get it. There Will Be Blood is a believable meditation on greed with one stunning performance at the center of it all. It’s a damn shame that Daniel Day-Lewis has retired from acting because there really is no other thespian like him in the industry. May he enjoy his days in peace.

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“Wonder Woman” Movie Review

Sometimes, movies can teach its audience a valuable lesson. The lesson I took away from this one? Never question a woman when she has an opinion in the war room. Ever. This historical superhero adventure released worldwide on June 2nd, 2017, grossing over $220 million in the opening weekend. It took years for the character to make her onscreen debut, with Joss Whedon making attempts at it in the late 1990’s. Under the reigns of Monster director Patty Jenkins, Warner Bros. finally gave her a solo film this year. The titular character from DC Comics, played by Gal Gadot, lives on her paradise island of Themiscyra with her fellow female Amazon warriors. When American pilot Steve Trevor lands on their doorstep, Princess Diana is swept up into the War to End All Wars. Now, she must find the God of War Ares, who she believes is causing the conflict, and save humanity from tearing itself apart. Going into Wonder Woman, there was a certain level of expectations I had set. In the past, I was probably way too forgiving to Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a massive disappointment. But listening to the initial critical reactions, I was wondering if it would truly be the first great movie of the DC Extended Universe. Well, I’m very happy to report that that is the case. The biggest thing at the forefront of this film is the character interactions, particularly between Steve Trevor and Diana. And that is arguably the strongest aspect of the entire movie. Gal Gadot is practically flawless as the main hero, showing off all the charisma and charm of any cinematic male superhero you could think of. Her gradual discovery of mankind’s capability for violence and compassion gives her a genuine arc, rather than some god who is perfect at everything. Chris Pine is a magnificently funny counterpart to her in both essence and philosophy. While Diana believes strongly in the inherent goodness of man, Trevor is more world-weary and idealistic. Their back-and-forth banter is written sharply. In fact, the biggest thing distinguishing this film from its predecessors is just how funny it is. Previously, both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were total gloom-fests and Suicide Squad has some trouble finding its identity with a lack of balance. But Wonder Woman emerges with zero shame in its protagonist, highlighting much of the absurdity in a comical light. Is it cheesy and cliched sometimes? Yes, it is. You’ll likely hear this in many other reviews, but this charm is reminiscent of Christopher Reeve’s Superman from 1978, the granddaddy of all modern superhero films, regardless of license. The period setting and “God-is-a-fish-out-of-water” premise are also familiar with 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor. To be clear, Wonder Woman is better and funnier than either of those two, but seeing that kind of influence is just so amusing. The funniest segment comes in the portion set in London when they come to visit higher-ups. Not only does Lucy Davis nail the role of Steve Trevor’s secretary, but there was a scene when Diana saved Trevor from thugs in an alleyway. Yet again, that reminded me of Richard Donner’s classic. The main villains were a mixed bag for me. Two of them were actually interesting and it was rather nice to watch their plans unfold. However, I felt that the reveal of Ares in the final act was ruined by a bit of miscasting and predictability. And like the previous installments of the DC Extended Universe, as well as arguably Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman‘s final battle is a CGI-heavy festival of explosions and fantasy elements. It wasn’t necessarily a mess, it was relatively easy to follow but felt drawn-out. Speaking of action scenes, when they do happen in the movie, they are absolutely riveting to behold. The greatest and by far most memorable sequence in the entire movie is when our heroes are trying to help their comrades survive a bit of trench warfare. Diana brings out her outfit, shield and God-Killer sword, and walks into No Man’s Land determined to bring down the Kaiser’s men. In some ways, this was the centerpiece of the film, elevated by Martin Walsh’s fast-paced editing and Rupert Gregson-Williams’ pulsating orchestral score. Mixing the titular character’s electric guitar-driven theme song from Batman v Superman with swelling strings and horns is an interesting play. Also worth noting, pop artists Sia and Labrinth wrote an original song for the soundtrack called “To Be Human,” which plays as the credits begin to role. Fans should hold out to listen to a rather inspirational song. Just don’t expect any post-credits scenes of any kind while you’re at it. Ultimately, this movie has a message. A very important and relevant message that all of mankind, let alone comic book fans, need to be reminded of. As most of the film is told through the eyes of Diana/Wonder Woman, we see the human world as she does: grimy, desperate, washed away, and on the brink of self-destruction. But she also sees that as deeply flawed as it may be, and as evil the atrocities it can commit throughout history, humanity is still worth saving from the darkness. Incredibly challenging and uplifting, this message is the kind of optimism and hope our world desperately needs right now. My faith in humanity has been what it’s always been, but movies like this remind me of something that seems impossible to conceive of, yet easy to grasp. That, or I have no idea what the hell I’m actually talking about. With thrilling action, tons of heart, great acting, and clever homages to the original films of the genre, Wonder Woman is a love letter to female empowerment and a celebration of man’s worth for salvation. Go see this movie and support it actively. And then buy it on Blu-Ray. That’s what I’m doing next.

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“The Prestige” Movie Review

Thought it would make sense to review some of Christopher Nolan’s best films in preparation for Dunkirk this July. I’ve already done Interstellar, though, I’m tempted to do an update. You can expect the Dark Knight Trilogy to show up soon, as well as Inception, but let’s begin with one of his more overlooked projects. This magic-based mystery thriller was able to triple its $40 million budget after its premiere October of 2006. Released just after Batman Begins, it also marks a rare time when Nolan adapted a pre-existing material, as it was based on the novel by Christopher Priest. Set in 1890’s London, the incredibly complex story follows two magicians, Robert Angier and Alfred Borden, who compete with each other to create the greatest stage illusion imaginable. Their game of one-upmanship turns into a series of tragedies. Of course, this being a film by Christopher Nolan, the PG-13 rated plot is much more involved and layered than that, and some really mind-bending stuff happens. Hugh Jackman is the real star of this film as Robert Angier, with all the charisma and showmanship that most real-life magicians lack. The things that happen to him are very sad and damaging. And as he goes down the path of competition, he begins to lose sight of what got him on that path to start. Continuing their relationship with the director, Michael Caine and Christian Bale are fabulous in their roles. Unlike many of his other films, Bale is actually allowed to retain his British accent, which added more heft to his emotional punch. Caine, meanwhile, plays a disconnected mentor who essentially works as a mediator between the two magicians. His wisdom is reminiscent of Alfred Pennyworth from the Dark Knight Trilogy, as he seems to be the one person who wants both of these men to settle their feud. The strong supporting cast includes Scarlett Johannson, Piper Perabo, Rebecca Hall, Ricky Jay, a rare live-action stint from Andy Serkis, and the late musician David Bowie. Bowie is particularly enigmatic as a man with many secrets on how to make a show even more dazzling than it already is. But he doesn’t use magic, he uses science. To go any further into any of these actors’ characters would spoil the plot. One of the things Nolan is known for is how all of his films are not what they initially appear to be. For example, his first directorial outing Following looked like a cheap student film, (And it kind of was) but turned out to be a focused and engaging mystery thriller. With The Prestige, he crafts a compelling narrative out of a subject that shouldn’t be that interesting; stage magicians. Through his trademark storytelling techniques, the story doesn’t initially progress in chronological order and jumps around in time. This makes the film even more intriguing and keeps the audience guessing from start to finish. Another trademark of Nolan’s is how practical and technically brilliant his films are. The production and costume designs are all top-notch and help it feel like a gritty and lived-in 1890’s London. When Borden or Angiers are on-stage, it feels as if we are actually watching a magic show unfold before our eyes. And the visuals are nice as well. In one scene, Angiers is standing in the middle of a snowy ridge when all of a sudden, these fluorescent lights come out. It added more beauty, atmosphere, and mystique to the 130 minute-long picture, topped by Wally Pfister’s surreal camera work. As pretty much the last film before Nolan’s long-term collaboration with Hans Zimmer, the musical score in The Prestige is provided by David Julyan. It is often consisting of eery synthesizers building up in a crescendo, punctuated by a shocking set of strings in revealing moments. And there are many. Holy mother of God, there are revealing moments. Like a traditional magic show, the film is broken up into three intertwined acts. The first two are impressive feats of visual flair and emotionally engaging performances. But in the final act, a jaw-dropping plot twist is thrown in to pull the rug from underneath the audience in a way that is both shocking and brilliantly believable. Were you watching closely? I was, and it worked. Without giving away anything, the twist also brought to light the philosophical themes hidden just beneath the crust. Because these two characters are neck-and-neck, they often give in to their inner ambitions and obsession. That obession to become the greatest at their profession leads to many bad outcomes and ultimately makes them less humane. To put it in the words of David Bowie’s character, “You’re familiar with the phrase ‘man’s reach exceeds his grasp?’ It’s a lie; man’s grasp exceeds his nerve.” If you love the type of movies that make you think about the story and maybe even tempt you to watch it again to make sure you didn’t miss anything, you need not look any further than The Prestige. It blends seamless production and technical merits and fantastic performance with breathtaking precision. This is a very underrated piece of humanistic filmmaking that deserves all the recognition as Christopher Nolan’s other endeavors have endured.

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“The Lost City of Z” Movie Review

Sorry for the lateness. I just had to take a few showers after that war scene in the middle. Holy crap, that shook me. This biographical adventure drama from Amazon Studios made a splash at the New York Film Festival in 2016. After a run at a few more festivals, the film opened in the United States on April 17th, 2017, earning back rave reviews but less than half it’s $30 million. Written and directed by James Gray, and based on the nonfiction novel by David Grann, the PG-13 story follows the account of real-life explorer and British soldier Percy Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam. After getting sent to Bolivia in 1901, he makes many more expeditions later to try and find an ancient lost city in the middle of the Amazon simply called Z. Essentially, this is a story about obsession and the consequences impending from it. The main protagonist is so determined to find this piece of civilization that may not even exist that he will sacrifice anything, including his marriage and relationship with his children, to prove its existence. But how do you show your fellow scholars that the indigenous people of the New World are capable of building foundations and structures infinitely more complex than those in England? What will you do if they ridicule your ideas and call your thesis a fraud? These are questions that James Gray poses in The Lost City of Z, but they’re not always answered. Rather, they show you these concepts and then leave you to discuss them on your way out of the theater. That kind of filmmaking is rare these days, as many directors are eager to share their interpretations of what it all means. Charlie Hunnam is masterful as Percy Fawcett. Beating out three other bigger names that dropped, he former Sons of Anarchy star shows a remarkable range with the complex protagonist, shifting from being an apathetic opportunist to a genuine man who cares about his crew and family. It’s not an easy transition, let alone to occur consistently throughout the picture, but Hunnam does it very nicely. In fact, I would dare submit his performance under consideration for Best Actor next January. By his side for a majority of the film are Sienna Miller as his independent wife and Robert Pattinson as a drunkard-turned loyal expedition partner, who are both great and relevant players. Their dichotomous relationship with Fawcett provided an interesting contrast to his split love: the jungle or his family. While several European character actors such as Angus Macfayden, Franco Nero, John Sackville, and Star Wars‘ Ian McDiarmid in key roles, Tom Holland felt some conflicted. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great actor and gives a good performance in this film. But as far as his character goes, being Fawcett’s oldest son, his relationship often felt contradictory and somewhat superficial. On a technical level, The Lost City of Z is visually stunning and gorgeous. The atmospheric shots of the jungle by Darius Khondji are contrasted by the stuffy and condensed space of the English socialite buildings. The fact that most everything was captured on film on location in South America is impressive enough for this epic. Speaking of film, one of the formats available for showing is in 35 mm print. I urge you, if possible, to see it in this format, as it adds to the immersion and overall feel of adventure. And boy, doesn’t it ever truly feel like one? The running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes notwithstanding, it’s clear that Gray takes some inspiration from epics of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Specifically, it looks like he took cues from the dramas of filmmaker David Lean and epics of his such as the amazing Lawrence of Arabia or earlier films like The Bridge on the River Kwai. From the massive amounts of extras for big set pieces to contemplative verbal moments, everything about this film feels old-fashioned, and that’s not a bad thing. James Gray has been dealing with subject matter he’s not familiar with before, so why not again? Despite all of these homages, there’s still something about The Lost City of Z that feels modern. One of those factors comes in the soundtrack, composed by Christopher Spelman. Unlike classic films, this one doesn’t feature a sweeping orchestral symphony in large scenes. Rather, it’s mostly based on a feeling of ambiance and nature. It felt very natural to the environment presented and added even more to the atmosphere of the Amazon. In fact, the sound design is so immersive, you will actually feel as if you are with Percy Fawcett and his expedition team in the jungle. Although the less patient and those wanting an answer may not find satisfaction, The Lost City of Z is still a sprawling piece of contemporary epic filmmaking. I think James Gray has crafted something very special here and Charlie Hunnam gives easily his best performance to date.

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“Sophie’s Choice” Movie Review

And we all thought that there was no way Julie Andrews in Mary Poppins could be matched in performance. Released in the fall of 1982, this drama received both critical and commercial success just in time for awards season. After leaving his small-town home in the South, aspiring novelist Stingo moves into a shared boarding house in Brooklyn in 1947. Soon after settling in, he meets his upstairs neighbors, Polish immigrant Sophie Zawistowski and pharmaceutical worker Nathan Landau. While they immediately become the best of friends, Sophie and Stingo must brave Nathan’s emotionally tempestuous behavior and violent mood swings. It’s only a matter of time before Sophie trusts Stingo enough to share her harrowing experiences in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. As the synopsis suggests, Stingo acts as our primary point of view for much of the runtime. A young man in his 20’s, his inexperience in the large city of New York, and his desire to understand human love allows the audience to relate to him in his struggles. When he discovers new locations across the city, it’s as if we’re walking in his shoes, seeing what he sees, learning what he learns. The city is a massively scary place for someone of small town background like Stingo, almost as if it wants to suck you in and never let you leave. The desired effect worked well for the most part. That being said, it felt as though the scope was very restricted. Most of the turbulent scenes are told inside of the characters’ boarding house, only one floor apart from each other. In that, it sometimes felt more like a stage play on Broadway, with nondescript locations and a plot that mostly develops from various characters exchanging bits of dialogue. One notable exception to this occurs early on in the picture when the trio goes to Coney Island for a day. While they move through a variety of different rides and attractions, the whole sequence plays like a silent film with color without any verbal or background noise. We only see these three people have the best day of their life, backed by Marvin Hamlisch’s beautiful and subtle score. This is undeniably creative, but it sometimes felt unappealing. However, Alan Pakula makes up for this in the latter half of Sophie’s Choice, when we start getting glimpses and flashbacks of Sophie’s life in Auschwitz. Many colors are desaturated or muted, similar in style to Steven Spielberg’s later Holocaust film Schindler’s List. It is clear that as the situation becomes bleaker, the colors fade even more. To add further authenticity, a rather large portion of the film is spoken in either Polish or German, a choice that throws me into the admittedly conventional drama. This is contrasted by scenes of Sophie explaining her every action in the present day to Stingo. These cutaways to the modern setting are filmed in a first-person perspective, giving the impression that we are listening to her talk to us in person. This allows the audience to better relate to her and her story; especially in the final act when everything comes to a gut-wrenching head. All three leads are terrific in their respective roles. Peter MacNicol, in his second movie ever, does convincing work as Stingo. Right at home with his Texan accent, his naive demeanor and great ambitions make him a man of great compassion. While he may be better known for comedies such as A Fish Called Wanda, Kevin Kline is fantastic as Nathan Landau. An unpredictable paranoid schizophrenic, some scenes were just uncomfortable to watch. But he’s still an indelible figure to look up to and find some warmth in, like when he first met Sophie and they bonded over reading Emily Dickinson poems. Or later, when he declares in a touching monolog that Stingo is destined to become one of the great American writers, alongside Whitman and Wolfe. But the true standout, as you may already know, is Meryl Streep, who completely deserved her Academy Award for Best Actress. It really can’t be overstated how incredible she is. Aside from her near-perfect Polish accent, she manages to hit almost every single emotion imaginable. She bounces between joy, anger, confusion, and unspeakable sadness with ease. If anyone else was cast as the titular character, this performance (as well as the movie) would probably be forgettable. Aside from being an experiment in acting and emotions, there is a point and meaningful purpose in the story of Sophie’s Choice. Through the eyes of Stingo, we are subject to the capacity one man (or woman) has for both love and suffering. When Sophie first arrives at the concentration camp, she is forced by an SS Officer to choose: will her son or her daughter go to the gas chambers? This is nothing easy for anyone. While she has endured so much pain, she still finds the ability to love other people. No matter how many times Nathan hits her, they keep reconciling and rekindling their relationship. There are brief moments of humor, like Sophie incorrectly mistaking Stingo’s seersuckers for “cocksuckers.” But aside from small moments like that, this film is not uplifting, or even very enjoyable to watch. By the time the credits start to roll, you will be left either speechless in your seat or in ugly tears of sadness. Maybe even both. If you aren’t brought to either one of those states, then it’s questionable if you’re truly human. Although it may be too upsetting for some and a little too conventional for its own good, Sophie’s Choice is a fantastically written and beautifully poignant drama about the distinction between love and suffering. It features one of the greatest performances ever put to film and an ending that will haunt viewers for many weeks after.

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“Django Unchained” Movie Review

Not only is it set in the Old West, but it’s the first official “southern.” Released worldwide on Christmas of 2012, this American revisionist Western soon became writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s highest-grossing movie, with a total intake of about $425 million at the box office. Continuing his streak of critically-acclaimed epics, the film also earned 5 Academy Award nominations and remains in the top 60 highest rated films of all time according to IMDb. A highly stylized tribute to Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s, the R-rated story follows a slave named Django, played by Jamie Foxx, in the Deep South during the Antebellum period. After being freed from captivity by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, he is shown the ropes of handling fights and taking down targets. They agree to free Django’s wife, Broomhilda, from a sadistic and selfish slave owner. Django Unchained marks a departure for Tarantino in a few different areas. Namely, this is his first attempt at a straightforward genre movie, when his previous works have combined many tones and genres into a single movie. Following the success of his 2009 war thriller Inglorious Basterds, much of the narrative is told in chronological order, with the exception of a couple flashbacks that illustrate what’s relevant about Django’s backstory. Jamie Foxx is an excellent choice for the titular protagonist. It’s very engaging to watch him grow from a really shy, timid slave to a gun-wielding badass. Like a scene where he’s told by Schultz that he can wear whatever he wants, followed by a smash-cut to him dressed in a bright blue French valet suit. Not to discredit him, but the fantastic supporting cast steals the spotlight from right under him. In particular, Christoph Waltz follows up his incredible breakout with another stellar performance that won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Almost the complete opposite from Col. Hans Landa, he bears all of the kind traits of mentorship and courage that you would want out of a hero. As the character with the most lines of dialogue, for all intents and purposes, he carried a large passage of the movie. Despite being entirely absent for the first hour and a half, Leonardo DiCaprio is simply stunning as the main antagonist. A major departure from his previous roles, Calvin J. Candie has no redeeming qualities; extremely racist, hot-tempered, and sees all other people as toys. DiCaprio was apparently so off-put by the character, that he hesitated to deliver some of the film’s many N-words. But he gave in, injuring his hand in the now-famous dinner scene and delivering one of the more impressive examples of on-screen improvisation. Continuing his nearly two-decade long relationship with the auteur, Samuel L. Jackson costars as an Uncle Tom-like, decrepit house slave, who is utterly indifferent to the suffering of his own people everywhere. Watching one of my favorite actors dropping F-bombs while hobbling around on a cane is nothing short of enjoyable, even if his character seemed to lack 3 dimensions. While it may sound that this is a completely dark experience, one of the most enjoyable aspects of a Quentin Tarantino film is that he never takes himself too seriously. His Oscar-winning screenplay is loaded with his trademarks of brilliantly written dialogue and highly stylized violence. One scene sees a group of Ku Klux Klan-like hate mongers arguing over bags that can’t fit their eyes, just before committing a raid on our protagonists. This is a moment we would normally be afraid of, but instead is nothing short of hilarious and unexpectedly quotable. And yes, like the rest of his filmography, Django Unchained is an extremely violent movie. The gun battles between slave owners and bounty hunters are exciting, with ridiculous amounts of blood gushing from the bullet wounds as men are getting wasted. It gets to be a bit indulgent at times, but watching men flying through the air from a gunshot to the chest does put a smile on my face. As much as I could go on about these individual scenes, it’s the technical side of everything that also impresses me. Robert Richardson’s excellent nominated cinematography contrasts static anamorphic shots with sudden close-ups and zoom-ins. It also brings out the beauty of many different colors, most notably bloody red and bright white cotton in fields. The film is also laced with a deliberately anachronistic soundtrack with songs that truly fit the moment. However, like many of Tarantino’s recent efforts, this film could have definitely been trimmed down, as the story begins to lose sight of itself at the beginning of the final act. It lasts about 2 hours and 45 minutes, which works for the most part. Except for a cameo from the director himself very late in the film, which felt like a completely shoehorned excuse for him to say N-words and get away with it. Thankfully, he’s taken care of quickly, and the pacing comes roaring back in the last 10 to 15 minutes of the movie. Despite those pacing issues, and some “black-and-white” characters, (no pun intended) Django Unchained is still a supremely entertaining and satisfying Western adventure. A damn fun time, it’s hard to think of a film from 2012, aside from The Avengers and Skyfall, that I enjoyed watching more. Easily one of Tarantino’s best films.

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“Blazing Saddles” Movie Review

In continuing my crusade of critiquing Westerns, I decided to see one that is much funnier than anything else I’ll talk about in this genre. This satirical Western comedy from legendary laughing man Mel Brooks premiered on February 6th, 1974, earning back over 50 times its small budget of $2.6 million. Co-written by Brooks and controversial comedian Richard Pryor, the story is a parody of any classic Western you can think of. Literally opening the film with the sound of a cracking whip, Cleavon Little stars as Bart, the newly appointed black sheriff in an all-white town. As part of a scheme to take over the surrounding land, a Governor and business mogul plot to use Bart as a means to pave the path. Here is a film that came at the tail-end of not one, but two pivotal periods of American history. In this case, it would be the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and the dominant era of Westerns before they faded away. It parodies the ideologies and concepts behind both of them, which, in a way, shows many similarities between the two periods. Cleavon Little is an excellent choice for the role of Bart. Charismatic and witty to a fault, he’s also apparently the smartest man in the town. The day he arrives, after a long silence from a stunned crowd, he holds his own gun to his head and pretends to take himself hostage. By his side, Gene Wilder plays the drunken, washed up gunslinger the Waco Kid. Despite keeping his dignity in check and providing memorable bits of dialogue, he doesn’t feel right in a supporting role. His immense energy and near-unpredictability gives the idea that he’s more fit for the role of a protagonist, a role which he later received yet again with Mel Brooks in 1974’s Young Frankenstein. The rest of the cast includes regular collaborators like Harvey Korman, Dom DeLuise, and Madeline Kahn, along with comedic/Western legends like Slim Pickens, John Hillerman, and even Brooks himself in a dual role as a Yiddish-speaking Indian chief and a dim-witted governor. Everyone turns in performances of exaggerated or goofy caricatures commonly seen in the genre. Perhaps the biggest drawback of the film is that it is simply too silly in most parts. It completely deconstructs the blatant racism of the time period, something that Hollywood has often obscured in its accounts of the mythic Old West. In fact, the N-word is said aloud so many times by so many characters, that Mel Brooks has publicly expressed doubt that the film could ever get remade in the modern era. I actually met someone who couldn’t finish Blazing Saddles because they said it was the most racist movie he’d ever seen. Not just that, the film also incorporates nearly a dozen or so deliberate anachronisms into a story that is supposed to be set almost 200 years ago. In one particular scene, when the bad guys are getting ready to enact their final move, they’re holding an open call for different types of evil doers from history. Biker gangs, Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, Confederate soldiers, you name it. And near the end, as the climax comes to a head, the cast of the movie literally breaks the fourth wall before crashing onto a separate housing on the Warner Bros. studio lot before finishing at the iconic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Joseph Biroc’s camera work also deserves some commentary. Mimicking the works of iconic Westerns, there are numerous wide anamorphic shots of the landscape that paint a vast and beautiful picture of the desert- at least the illusion of a desert. John Morris’ musical score is a nice, rousing bit of music that keeps the viewer in the mood. But it isn’t very memorable beyond the moment of viewing. Accompanying it are a series of original songs, most of which were penned by Mel Brooks himself. And thankfully, they are much more memorable than the score, and even scored one this film’s 3 Oscar nominations. Speaking of songs, another anachronism worth noting is earlier on when jazz icon Count Basie is playing a cover of the song, “April in Paris.” It should be noted that there not many action scenes present here. But for the few that are, they are enticing and fun. Rather, the focus of Blazing Saddles– and for that matter, the comedic content -is set on the character interactions and dialogue. So many comedies attempt to have their jokes rely on toilets and sexual activity, but Mel Brooks knows better. Granted, it does have a lowbrow joke now and again, and was actually the first comedy to be submitted to the American Film Institute for a fart joke. Go figure. It’s a miracle this film actually saw the light of day given the production problems. Casting almost went to Richard Pryor for the roll of Bart, and the filmmakers faced numerous complaints from white audiences for the racism parodied. In fact, studio executives almost decided to cancel its theatrical release entirely. But Brooks, with the help of Wilder and Little, managed to make the movie he wanted. Regarded as the grandfather of the modern-day comedy, Blazing Saddles is a highly influential and enjoyable Western for older audiences. It may be too silly and audacious for some of the more reserved audiences, but it keeps me coming back to watch and quote it.

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