Once Upon A Time In Candyland

Django Unchained

As much as I’ve been a fan of writer/director Quentin Tarantino throughout the years, it’s always been apparent to me that the violence in his films has always been my least favorite thing about his work.  His latest film Django Unchained, sees him turning the subject of slavery in to a bloody revenge fantasy much in the same way that he did with the Holocaust and World War II with Inglourious Basterds.  However, with Basterds there was a superb amount of craft that went into the writing and staging of each scene that I found thrilling.  Django, on the other hand just feels like an unrelentingly violent piece of pulp sensationalism, which though entertaining, just felt a little to mired in it’s own bloodlust for me to really grab on to anything really interesting except for the sheer brutality of the violence.  Which again, is not the reason I go to Tarantino’s films, or really anyone’s films for that matter.

Django Unchained begins two years before the Civil War, as we see the film’s title character, the enslaved Django (Jamie Foxx) being freed by a resourceful bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  Schultz ends up teaching Django the ways of the bounty hunter as they travel across the American South, tracking down and killing criminals, as bounty hunters tend to do.  Eventually this leads them to Candyland, a Mississippi Plantation owned by the ornery Calvin Candie (Leo DiCaprio) who is in possession of Django’s wife.  King and Django intend on buying back Django’s wife peacefully, but the lack of humanity and sense of entitlement on Candie’s part becomes too much for the two men to handle.

I suppose if there’s anything that this film does more vividly than any other, it’s the way in which it presents slavery as a brutal, inhumane atrocity that our country probably will never be able to truly wash it’s hands of.  And whether it’s a completely faithful depiction of slavery is probably beside the point, since this is a film that’s really interested in using historical knowledge to cause a visceral reaction rather than be an insightful document of troubled times.  There’s always this sense of Django Unchained being in many ways a trashy b-movie, with it’s 70’s inspired camera work and equally 70’s inspired soundtrack.  But ultimately the film’s mix of historical realities and a gleeful pension for letting bullets and bodies fly through the air so casually, just felt a bit off to me and left me a bit cold.

Most of all, Django is a film that truly displays Tarantio’s strengths as provocateur, and throughout the film he seems to be provoking this almost tangible tension that plays out between DiCaprio in opposition of Waltz and Foxx’s characters.  I will say that DiCaprio gives an enormously charismatic performance, that while big and brash at times, also leaves room for some nuance as well.  Waltz on the other hand, gives another meticulous performance that I think stands alongside his memorable turn in Inglourious Basterds, only this time we get to root for the guy, since he often serves as the film’s moral backbone.

Besides the film’s have your cake and eat it too mentallity, another thing that bothered me was the length of this film.  I know Tarantino’s kind of made it his thing to craft these long sprawling epics, but Django‘s plot for me didn’t quite warrant a 165 minute running time.  Movies like Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds are filled with so many characters and are told with such imaginative narrative styles, that in my mind they earn their lengthy running times.  Django on the other hand is told in a pretty straight-forward style and there’s really only a few important characters at the heart of this thing, so by the time we get to the third climactic shoot-out, I had kind of lost interest in seeing another racist hillbilly get his head blown off.

It’s weird, when I first started writing this review I was pretty set on giving it the rating I’m giving it now, but as I delved in to the things that make the film such a lightning rod, I keep thinking maybe I’m being a little too dismissive of Django Unchained.  Either way, I can’t get away from the fact that this film is too long, too indulgent in its depictions of violence, and kind of feels like it’s exploiting its subject.  And for that I can’t entirely get behind Mr. Tarantino’s latest endeavor.

Draggin’ the Line

Spec Ops: The Line

This has been a pretty great year for video games that challenge the term “video game.” After all, what does that mean, really? Doesn’t the term “game” indicate there must be winners and losers? That an experience must be fun? That it can’t be taken seriously? Spec Ops: The Line seems, at least at first, to be a typical macho shootfest, a third-person Call of Duty clone. But it quickly grows into something much more interesting than that, to the point where you might consider it a deconstruction of the genre and the medium.

Dubai has been hit by an enormous sandstorm, one that straight up destroyed the city. The U.S. Army’s 33rd Battalion, led by decorated hero Colonel John Konrad, volunteered to help evacuate all the city’s civillians who were abandoned by the United Arab Emirates government. They haven’t been heard from in months, so three delta operators are sent in to recon the situation. The deltas are led by Captain Martin Walker, who has a deep respect for Konrad since he saved his life. But when they get to the city, they find that the 33rd has defected and declared martial law, and things only get more FUBAR from there.

As Walker, you’ll have a few tough decisions to make. All the results are shitty. While this game plays like a typical cover-based, modern military third-person shooter, I would never really call what you have to do as fun. Almost every enemy in the game is someone you don’t want to kill, and the game makes you very aware of how ridiculous your kill count becomes. Remember that moment in Uncharted 2, the “we’re not so different” scene? This is almost like an entire game of that, especially since the Walker is also played by Nolan North. As the game progresses, the loadscreen tips shift from gameplay tips to questions like, “Do you feel like a hero yet” and “How many people have you killed today?”

More than dealing with just the ridiculousness of modern military shooters, Spec Ops also focuses on the mental damage of war. The characters deal with post-traumatic stress and insanity as the game goes on. There’s one sequence in which characters massacre civilians thinking they are enemy soldiers. In another, a character has such a horrific breakdown that the world appears to be on fire and the Burj Khalifa is shown silhouetted and as terrifying as Barad-dur in The Lord of the Rings movies.

All this is to say the game has a memorable, masterful campaign that challenges patriotism, the military-industrial complex, and the nature of modern video games. Which is why it’s weird that game included a multiplayer mode that feels exactly like the multiplayer in all the games Spec Ops is challenging. If you’re making me feel bad for shooting computer-controlled guys, why would you think I would enjoy shooting human-controlled guys? I guess it was a move to make the game sell better, but, looking at the sales numbers… Oops.

Spec Ops: The Line is on sale in Steam today, and I would recommend anyone interested in video games as an artform, or who generally plays a lot of games, pick it up. Especially while we have to deal with things like the media and the NRA blaming video games for a national tragedy, it’s important that people are exposed to games such as this one.

The Vault: Crazy Christmas

Santa’s Slay (2005)

This is how Santa’s Slay begins: The dysfunctional Mason family is sitting down to a pleasant Christmas dinner. The family includes such stars as; Fran Drescher? Chris Kattan? Rebecca Gayheart? And James Caan as the family patriarch. Suddenly, Santa (Bill Goldberg) bursts through the brick fireplace, slides across the dinner table and stabs two forks into James Caan’s hands, pinning him to the table. Next, Santa knocks a woman over and she is impaled by a chair leg. Santa continues with a candle lighter and a mouthful of alcohol that he uses to light Fran Drescher’s hair on fire. Santa then kicks Chris Kattan into a cabinet. Next, he hits some chick with a chair leg, smacks another one, drowns Fran Drescher in a punch bowl and finishes off the family by jamming a turkey leg down James Caan’s throat and then slamming his head into the table, forcing the turkey leg into his noggin. Christmas has come early.

At 78 minutes, Santa’s Slay doesn’t fuck around. Right off the bat, Santa is brutally slaying the citizens of Hell Township with no explanation, it’s great. We are then introduced to Nicholas Yuleson (Douglas Smith), a cynical teenager working alongside his girlfriend Mary (Emilie de Ravin from Lost) in a deli for Mr. Green (Saul Rubinek). Nicholas lives with his eccentric, inventor grandfather (Robert Culp) who has been preparing for these “slayings” for a long time. Nicholas learns from his grandpa’s book that Santa is the son of Satan. Many years ago, Christmas was “The Day of Slaying” until in 1005 AD, an angel defeated Santa in a curling match. As a result, Santa was sentenced to deliver presents on Christmas for 1000 years. Now that 1000 years is up and Santa Claus has come to town.

Rather than having Santa continue his reign of terror every year, Nicholas decides he must stop him, extreme violence ensues. It’s not entirely clear why Santa has picked Hell Township as his slaying grounds. Or why he decides to single out Nicholas later on, but I don’t care. This movie is absolutely hilarious. Santa Claus is portrayed as a ruthless, Viking warrior that has a sled drawn by a “Hell-Deer” (which looks like a buffalo) and murders anyone in his sight just because he can. My favorite sequence is when Santa enters a strip-club, proclaims “Ho! Ho! Ho’s!” (like whores) and kills people with a stripper pole. What really gets me about these kinds of scenes is that everyone always fights back. Now if a violent, hulking figure approached you would you fight him? No, you’d probably run away. Yet everyone always challenges him and usually ends up with a candy cane stuck in their eye.

The film goes for a comedic tone, but there are few jokes that rise above the level of underwhelming puns. The kills are what make this movie so much fun. Though I was surprised by the acting. Santa’s Slay does show some genuine talent from its various ensemble of mostly TV actors. Unfortunately, Bill Goldberg is not one of those talented individuals. Goldberg looks scary and handles the physicality of the role well but he can’t act. Every time Santa speaks it sounds like an incredibly melodramatic WWF bit. Though I’m not watching Santa’s Slay to see Bill Goldberg display his acting prowess.

Santa’s Slay is the most fun I had watching a Christmas movie this year. The movie is just as ridiculous and hilarious as you would want it to be. If you’re not sold yet, let me add one more thing… Santa can shoot fireballs out of his mouth. Happy Holidays!

P.S. This movie is “Presented by Brett Ratner”.

Zero Dark Forty

This Is 40

It seems like there are some writer-directors who’s sensibilities are so close to my own that I’m likely to enjoy their movies, even if it’s not their most critically lauded work.  One example would be To Rome With Love from earlier this year, which I’ll admit wasn’t one of Woody Allen’s best films or anything, but was still a really solid comedy that seemed to be instantly forgotten.  This also seems to be the case with This Is 40, the latest film from Judd Apatow, who for me has about as good a track record as any comedic mind of the last twenty years.  And yet as of this moment, This Is 40 finds itself certified rotten on Rotten Tomatoes (not that that means anything), and yet I found such a wealth of funny and insightful moments in this film, that I’m not really sure where all the hate is coming from.

Actually I have a pretty good idea where the hate is coming from, and it seems to mostly be the movie’s rambling plot and lengthy (for a comedy) running time.  This Is Forty centers on Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann), two characters from Apatow’s earlier film Knocked Up, and again finds their marriage mired in an unending series of arguments and misunderstandings.  Much of Pete’s story revolves around him trying to keep his record label in business by kickstarting a reunion between Graham Parker and The Rumour.  Meanwhile, Debbie’s own dilemma also centers on her trying to keep her business afloat, in this case a clothing boutique.  But really those are just one of the few overarching stories at the forefront of This Is 40, as the film has a fairly episodic feel to it, which makes sense considering Apatow’s background as a TV writer.

I honestly had no problem with the fact that the film has a fairly messy structure, and isn’t concerned with having some big crisis at the center of it, other than the question of whether or not Pete and Debbie will be able to stay together.  To me, the looseness of the plot felt like a breath of fresh air compared to all the big dumb high concept comedies we see over and over again, particularly ones where Jason Bateman switches places with somebody.  Also, I just think this kind of loosey-goosey storytelling added to the slice of life nature of the film, and made it feel more like an honest look at what it is to raise a family in this modern age, but with dick jokes.

Of course, coming into every Apatow movie, you know there are gonna be some laughs, but after the more serious Funny People, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from This Is Forty in the laughs department.  Fortunately, this is a really funny movie, and it’s not hard to see why when the film is filled with comedic wringers like Jason Segel, Melissa McCarthy, Robert Smigel, and Albert Brooks in a particularly memorable performance.  And I think one thing about a lot of the jokes in This Is Forty is that they seem much more reflective of their characters’ psyche in a way that for me was a lot more truthful and emotionally revealing than Apatow’s usual barrage of pop culture references, not there aren’t a bunch of great ones in This Is 40.

Now even though the length of This Is 40 didn’t really bother me, I can still admit there could’ve been one or two fewer scenes of Leslie Mann yelling at Paul Rudd, and there are a few gags that are a bit too broad, but honestly I could (and probably will when the DVD comes out) sit through an even longer cut of this movie.  As I said, Apatow’s just a guy who’s good at making the kind of comedy that resonates with me, and I think with This Is 40 he manages not only to deliver in the laughs department, but also to make something remarkably mature and ambitious for a mainstream comedy.

2012 Music Recap: Kill for Love

Chromatics – Kill for Love

I don’t know you guys. Kill for Love is a long electronic album that got a pretty “meh” review from the A.V. Club, but placed really well on Pitchfork’s best albums of the year list. Last time that happened, it was M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, one of my favorites from last year. The Chromatics did a song for Drive, the movie, and this album opens with a Neil Young cover. I think I’m destined to like this a lot, but not be able to share that with anyone else. It hasn’t quite hit me as hard as M83 did, but I bet it will. At the very least, I’m probably destined to listen to this on the bus going to class a whole lot.

Favorite Tracks: “into the Black,” “Kill for Love,” “These Streets Will Never Look the Same”

2012 Music Recap: Sun

Cat Power – Sun

I had never listened to a Cat Power album before, so I didn’t really know what to expect. What Sun turned out to be was an album somewhere between electronic and folk music, as awesome as that sounds. I can’t honestly say if this is a departure or par for the course, but I like it. Check it out, it’s really neat. Be sure to stick around for the long song, “Nothin But Time,” which features an appearance from Iggy Pop that fits even worse than Lou Reed did on that Metric song “Wanderlust.”

Favorite Tracks: “Cherokee,” “Manhattan,” “Nothin But Time”

2012 Music Recap: Celebration Rock

Japandroids – Celebration Rock

I think Colin thought I would review this and I thought Colin would review it, because somehow we never made an actual post about the great new Japandroids album. Unless someone did review it, in which case I simply could not find it with our search box and I’m sorry. We did talk about it on our best stuff of the first half of the year podcast and I’m pretty certain we’ll be talking about it again on our best music of the year podcast, but I figured I should probably throw out an official mention on the blog.

Japandroids are great because they throw it all into every song. They sound full of energy and huge, much bigger than you would think a two-man band could be. Like their first album, the lyrics are simple and earnest, and the songs are anthemic, the kind of stuff pretty much anyone could get behind. It rocks so much. Seriously, check out the song I embedded, “The House That Heaven Built,” it’s the one we played on the podcast and probably one of the best songs all year.

Favorite Tracks: “Younger Us,” “The House That Heaven Built,” “Continuous Thunder”