FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #30 – “Promised Land” (dir. Gus Van Sant), “Django Unchained” (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Poster for "Django Unchained"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel take on a surprising double-header. First comes Promised Land, a reunion between Matt Damon and Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), along with newcomer John Krasinski (from “The Office”), featuring salesmen trying to convince a small town to let them drill for natural gas in their backyards (a process known as fracking). Then comes Django Unchained, an escaped-slave revenge romp from Quentin Tarantino starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, and Leonardo DiCaprio. The biggest surprise? After declaring Inglourious Basterds the FilmWonk favorite of 2009, we had a very different experience with Tarantino’s latest (1:09:22).

May contain some NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Promised Land): 7.5/10
FilmWonk rating (Django Unchained): 4/10

Show notes:

  • (0:00) Review: Promised Land
  • (13:06) Spoilers: Promised Land
  • (26:00) Review: Django Unchained
  • (46:01) Spoilers: Django Unchained
  • Music for this episode comes from Luis Bacalov‘s original theme song to the 1966 Sergio Corbucci film Django, which also appears in Tarantino’s film.
  • While we certainly don’t attempt to settle the fracking issue on this podcast, you can read more about it here.
  • CORRECTION (from Glenn): Upon reflection, I must retract my comment about Spike Lee. While he did attack Django Unchained for depicting slavery in the context of a spaghetti western, and has criticized Tarantino about his use of racial epithets previously (NSFW), he has not (to our knowledge) ever stated that Tarantino’s race is a factor in his ability to make a film about slavery. Read his exact position (in brief) on Twitter. We apologize for the error.
  • While Glenn adored Inglourious Basterds, Daniel was definitely not a fan. Revise history in his presence at your own peril!

Listen above, or download: Promised Land/Django Unchained (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser).

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SIFF Review: Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” – A triumphant, romantic caper

Poster for "Moonrise Kingdom"

If I were to categorize Wes Anderson, I would place him in a similar camp to Tim Burton. They both have a distinct and instantly recognizable vision for the bizarre worlds in which their films take place, and they both tend to work with an abundance of the same actors. But while Burton’s recent contributions have been marked by a nearly linear decline in quality and coherence, Anderson’s films have taken a far more regrettable route… They have become utterly forgettable. While I have seen [and modestly enjoyed] every one of Wes Anderson’s films since Rushmore, I can scarcely recall a single moment from any of them since 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums. While Anderson’s quirk and theatricality has remained as distinctive as ever, his overall vision has somehow become completely unremarkable.

Until now.

Moonrise Kingdom is a triumphant return to form for Anderson (along with co-writer Roman Coppola), meticulously crafting a rich and memorable world in the fictitious island of New Penzance off the Atlantic Coast. The story kicks right into gear as a young Khaki Scout, Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) leaves a hand-scrawled letter of resignation in his jamboree tent and strikes off into the wilderness in a purloined canoe. At the very same moment, his preteen sweetheart Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) runs away from home on the other end of the island, leaving her parents, Walt (Bill Murray) and Laura (Frances McDormand), at a loss to explain her disappearance. An immediate search begins as both the local police Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) and Khaki Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton) both rally their respective posses to search for the wayward couple.

The film takes a bit of time to find its footing, owing to the bizarrely precocious dialogue of its young, first-time leads. Their initial line readings have an almost wooden theatricality, with drawn-out banter so improbably delivered that it seems like Shakespeare in the Park as read from a teleprompter. But as their chaste and cordial romp gets into full swing, the two actors somehow find an accord. They become a fascinating romantic screen presence, even as the overall plot starts to take on a flavor none-too-dissimilar from the first Rambo film. An early “showdown” ensues between the young couple atop a hillside and some unrelenting Scouts who have happened upon them. Without grownup supervision, the Scouts are tenacious in their pursuit, armed with absurdly dangerous homemade melee weapons, an archery kit, and a lead Scout primed to charge the young lovers on his dirt bike. It’s all a great deal of fun, but the romance starts to make a bit more sense when viewed through this adversarial lens. These kids are determined to skip ahead to grownup life, bidding farewell to their erstwhile families and making a life for themselves in the wilderness. They are the embodiment of “us against the world”, even if their oppressive world is like something from the mind of Roald Dahl or J.K. Rowling.

Still from "Moonrise Kingdom"

In fact, the entire cast plays the film remarkably straight, even as the stakes continue to ramp absurdly upward. An on-screen narrator (Bob Balaban) informs us that a hurricane will strike in three days’ time. In fact, he tells us that this has already happened. By playing the entire film as a historical document, the various perils that befall the characters take on a tense fatalism. As the film goes on, any time a character steps onto a boat or seaplane feels like it might be the last time they’ll ever been seen alive. In this way, Moonrise evokes another much more adult film – Shutter Island. While Suzy will simply be returned to her parents if caught, Sam faces potentially greater peril, as it is revealed early on that he lives in a foster home that will not be welcoming him back, due to his unspecified “emotional problems”. The specter of Social Services (embodied by a hilariously dry Tilda Swinton) hangs over the proceedings at all times, along with all the potential horror of 1960s psychiatric practices. If Sam manages to survive his adventure, his life will get irrevocably worse.

Slightly less interesting are the marital problems of Suzy’s parents. Murray and McDormand are amusing together – a pair of attorneys who sleep in separate beds and speak of little else but their cases – but Murray and Willis, both rivals for the lady’s affections, are the real standouts. They each give their best comedic performances in years, engaging in a relentless duel of nonchalance and quiet resignation. Edward Norton is also brilliantly straight-laced, although the film seems to run out of practical use for him by the final act (not counting a bizarre stunt with Harvey Keitel). Given that Willis’ arc is probably the most underdeveloped in the film, it almost seems like the ending of Norton’s storyline was chopped and given to Willis instead. It was an odd choice, but it did feel just barely earned, as the film gives each character just enough setup to justify their final choices. Except, perhaps, for Jason Schwartzmann, who shows up just long enough to be awesome and underused as Cousin Ben, the obligatory helpful rogue. As an Anderson vet, Schwartzmann is so well-equipped to handle this material that I couldn’t help but want a bit more of him.

This would seem to be as far down the quirky path as Wes Anderson can delve without diminishing returns. Not everything in this film worked – as much as I was enjoying the meticulous opening cinematography of the Bishop home, I found myself rolling my eyes at its more superfluous elements, including Frances McDormand’s rather grating use of a megaphone to call for her children. But once the story got started, I was completely swept up in it. There is so much in this film that I’ll fondly recall, from the ridiculously tall treehouse to the Terabithian splendor of the titular Kingdom. This film is a sweet and nostalgic chronicle of the wondrous worlds that we create in childhood, and even manages to delve into the dire consequences of growing up, without ever losing a bit of its charm.

FilmWonk rating: 8 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #12: Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”

Poster for "Transformers: Dark of the Moon"

This week, Glenn and Daniel short-circuit their brains to review Transformers: Dark of the Moon (32:21).

[may contain some NSFW language]

FilmWonk rating: 5/10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is from Steve Jablonsky’s original score for the film (track: “Dark Side of the Moon”).

Listen above, or download: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (right-click, save as).

2008 Glennies, Part 3: Best Actress

Top 5 Lead Actresses:

#5: Frances McDormand – Linda Litzke, Burn After Reading


mcdormand
A fun and fluffy performance in a fun and fluffy movie. This film has no grand statement to make (the last scene all but confirms this), but the actors and filmmakers clearly had a great time making it. Litzke may turn over-the-top and cartoonish about halfway through the film, but McDormand completely sells it.

#4: Rebecca Hall – Vicky, Vicky Cristina Barcelona


hall
Rebecca Hall first got on my radar from a delightful British comedy called Starter for 10, and this film is her strongest performance yet. It never fails to impress me when an actor manages to emote convincingly and fake an accent. Vicky, the down-to-earth American girl, is, by a slim margin, the more sympathetic character, and she could not have been given a more nuanced, emotional performance.

#3: Lina Leandersson – Eli, Let the Right One In


leandersson
Boy meets girl, girl turns out to be a vampire. This Swedish pre-adolescent romance and coming-of-age tale was easily one of the best and most effectively creepy films of 2008, and Leandersson’s understated performance is the strongest of the film. If you have any desire whatsoever to see a vampire film this year, stay far, far away from Twilight, and see this film instead.

#2: Cate Blanchett – Daisy, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


blanchett
I hate to digress, but it must be said… Cate Blanchett is just gorgeous in this film. And the sheer range of ages that they manage to convincingly make her convey is a testament to the makeup and digital artists that made this film happen. That said, Daisy is far more than a mere technical feat… She is the emotional center of this film, and despite Brad Pitt’s genuinely good turn as a hollowly written character, it is Blanchett that makes the film’s central romance seem believable. Daisy is a breathtaking testament to life in an otherwise bleak and lifeless film.

#1: Meryl Streep – Sister Aloysius, Doubt


streep
I once heard someone call Meryl Streep “the female Al Pacino”, who had made her recent career through over-the-top roles in films like The Devil Wears Prada, Mamma Mia!, and Adaptation. This film has proven that Streep still knows how to give a brilliant performance of a more realistic character. The four central performances are essential to this film’s effectiveness, and Streep’s is easily the strongest. She never wavers in her certainty of Father Flynn’s guilt, and her unforgettable scene with Viola Davis adeptly conveys this (see Part 2: Best Supporting Actresses). The final confrontation between the two leads is well worth the wait, and Streep’s pained delivery of the final line of the film will leave you haunted as you wonder what you really believe about what has taken place.

Honorable Mentions:


Jess Weixler – Teeth (yes, really)