I knew before Seth MacFarlane was announced as the host of this year’s Academy Awards that I would not be watching the ceremony. If Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, two incredibly talented women whose shows 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation rank among my favorite of all time, couldn’t convince me to watch the Golden Globes, there’s no way MacFarlane, the creator of several shows I hate almost instinctually, could get me to tune in for the Globes’ stuffier, more overbearing sibling. But then a curious thing happened: a grinning, self-satisfied MacFarlane took to the stage and started singing about how great it was to be in a crowd with so many women whose breasts he’s seen, and the Academy Awards became more noticeably sexist than ever before. There’s been so much talk about these Academy Awards that one could be intimate with them without having watched, but, like a good cultural critic, I did. The end results were, to be kind, less than impressive. Read more
In A Good Day to Die Hard, John McClane emerges from a taxi cab in Moscow as a man finally transformed into an action movie caricature. Sure, the three installments standing between this film and the 1988 original have done their part to dehumanize their hero, but even Live Free or Die Hard, where the boozing, troubled detective launches a cop car into a helicopter like a kid seeking an achievement trophy on the X-Box 360, knows its protagonist well enough to put something of his—a daughter—up as stakes against the megalomaniacal villain of the moment. Not here. As soon as McClane lands in Russia, he’s running and jumping and shooting through a procession of grey, vaguely Russian sets with his son, who has grown up to be a CIA superspy. John McClane in 1988 winces as he walks barefoot across a sea of broken glass. John McClane in 2013 leaps from a tall building and pinballs through chutes and girders, miraculously dodging machine gun fire from a helicopter before landing on the ground, where he pulls a hunk of rusted metal from his son’s abdomen without so much as a hint of concern. Read more
The only explanation for a movie like A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III is that America loves a good rehabilitation story, and few in that vein have been juicier than Charlie Sheen’s. For all the attention garnered by his very public firing from Two and a Half Men and the meltdown that followed, Sheen’s path back to respectability—whatever that means to him—is very different from that which has been encouraged by reality television. Instead of signing up for a session with Dr. Drew and engaging in public bloodletting, Sheen returned to work. He created and produced a one man show and toured around the country. He signed on to a new sitcom, Anger Management, and went on a marathon binge of filming, creating 90 episodes where once there was but a whisper of a show about a Charlie Sheen like character attending anger management courses. And now, with Charles Swan III, Sheen has made his long-promised return to film. He should have stayed away.
Sheen’s career over the past few years has been deeply rooted in his belief that people like him. This isn’t an unfair assumption. To tour as Charlie Sheen and to play Charlie Sheen on television is to court a certain audience—fans, mostly—who are willing to put up with a performer’s foibles in order to enjoy his vibe; his Charlie Sheenness, if you will. These are designed to be disposable units of entertainment, each installment as forgettable and vaguely pleasing as the last. Films, however, are different. They’re longer, obviously, but movies—especially art movies, which is what Charles Swan III desperately wants to be considered as—tend to be indelible, a side effect of being projected on gigantic screens. Even from a balcony, there is no mistaking the Charlie Sheen of Charles Swan III with a mere mortal. He’s a being of pure ego, a puppy demanding your love and affection with the force of a hurricane.
Director and screenwriter Roman Coppola caters to Sheen’s sensibility, casting him as a successful artist whose commercial prospects have made him a rockstar. His friends love him, women can’t get enough of him, and when life gets him down, the world stands still waiting for him to roar back to life. Charles Swan III spends a considerable amount of time in a funk. His girlfriend (Katheryn Winnick), enraged that he keeps a drawer full of candid nude Polaroids of ex-flings, dumps him. Depressed, he gathers her shoes into a garbage bag and attempts to throw them over a cliff. When he fails, his frustration leads him to crash his car in a record producer’s swimming pool, where he has a mild heart attack. Over the course of conversations with his sister (Patricia Arquette) and friends (Jason Schwartzman as comedian Kirby Star, Bill Murray as his accountant, Saul), and Charles’s elaborate fantasies about death, sex, and persecution, Coppola tries his damnedest to paint Swan—and Sheen—as a figure deserving of sympathy, but he fails his man at every turn.
Charles Swan III is a fairly detestable human being, and the world he lives in is a male fantasia where women are either sex objects, ball busters, or savages. Murray, Schwartzman, and the rest of the cast play down to Sheen’s level, presenting caricatures of the personae they’ve developed in the films of Wes Anderson, which is appropriate given that Coppola—who co-wrote Moonrise Kingdom and The Darjeeling Limited—has chosen to make a cardboard Wes Anderson picture. Beyond the early notion that Swan has an overactive imagination, there’s no reason for him to have a couch that looks like a fully-dressed hot dog or for his car to have gigantic decals of bacon and eggs applied to the doors other than that it looks cool and whimsical in some modest, unexplained way. The production design of Charles Swan III is the only element of the film worth praising, but even that must be within reason. However dollhouse-like Anderson’s films often end up looking, at least his houses, schools, and trains feel lived-in. Coppola’s, on the other hand, tend to feel like a warehouse filled with kitschy “vintage” stuff he found on Etsy, like Juno’s hamburger phone if the point of making Juno was the hamburger phone.
Before accepting that he’s a likable, misguided, goofball lothario, Charles Swan III spends a lot of time fending off accusations of selfishness and laziness. Coppola’s film strikes this apathetic tone early, which may be proper of any movie where Charlie Sheen tap dances on his own grave. Though Coppola has said otherwise, positing his decision to cast Sheen as an opportunity for the talented actor of Wall Street and Platoon to once again make something of himself, the resulting movie looks, sounds, and feels like a too-late cash-in on the Year of Charlie Sheen, nudging his 60 Minutes interview and his Comedy Central roast into decidedly pretentious waters. A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III is excruciating, like watching a 90-minute press junket interview where Sheen pretends, albeit not very hard, to be a more likable version of himself. He’s already done that across several forms of media, many considerate enough to allow one to change the channel.
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III. With Charlie Sheen (Charles Swan III), Jason Schwartzman (Kirby Star), Bill Murray (Saul), Katheryn Winnick (Ivana), Patricia Arquette (Izzy), Aubrey Plaza (Marnie), Dermot Mulroney (Doctor), and Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Victoria). Directed by Roman Coppola and produced by Coppola and Youree Henley. Screenplay by Coppola.
Django Unchained, the latest in a string of violent revenge fantasies from director Quentin Tarantino, never quite feels like a finished film. According to Tarantino and Samuel L. Jackson, there exists a much longer cut of the movie that fills in crucial information on a number of characters, and given that its soundtrack is punctuated with bits of dialog not heard in the film, that longer cut is also a few shades more sadistic than what made theaters. Much has been said and written about the way Tarantino peppered Django Unchained with racial epithets unbecoming of a white director or a politically correct society, but it’s the violence I keep coming back to. Not the cartoonish shootouts pitting skillful bounty hunting duo Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) against any number of hickish gunslingers, but the violence of slavery itself, particularly as it is visited upon Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), who is whipped, branded, raped, scolded, and locked in an iron box under the hot sun as punishment for trying to run away.
At this point in his career, it’s easy to accuse Tarantino of fetishizing violence against and the traumatization of women. Though the perpetrators often get what’s coming to them, Tarantino has been pedaling in this kind of sick thrill since Kill Bill Vol. 1, wherein The Bride is awoken from a coma mid-rape by a mosquito bite. Her rapist has his tongue bitten out and her pimp is beaten to death, but Tarantino luxuriates on the possibility of her rape, just as he does Stuntman Mike’s pursuit of his “girlfriends” in Death Proof and Col. Hans Landa’s psychological torture and eventual murder of double agent Bridget von Hammersmark in Inglourious Basterds. With poor Broomhilda, Tarantino turns up the heat. Looking beyond the director’s pedantic argument that his use of language and human misery is “period accurate,” the constant terror and abuse suffered by the largely agentless Broomhilda von Shaft serves two purposes: fulfilling the obligations of the exploitation genre, and sweetening Django’s revenge.
In transplanting the spaghetti western to the antebellum South, Quentin Tarantino has succeeded in creating both his largest, most beautiful film to date, and his most narrow in scope. Having moved far beyond the nihilism that marked early efforts like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, Django Unchained is exploitation filmmaking at its most agitating, using slavery and racism to titillate, humor, and enrage the audience. It works very well: the white slavers of Django Unchained are cruel, horrible men whose deaths elicit something close to joy. Unlike in Basterds, where the cruelties of Nazi Germany took place off screen and out of sight, men in endless number are shackled and marched through deserts, forests, and mud-caked auction towns. Black men beat each other for their white owners’ entertainment, black women are treated as objects of lust, and those who disobey are fed to the dogs.
The two halves of Django Unchained, joined though they are by a brief training montage, play as a film and its sequel. In the first half, Django is set free by Dr. Schultz, a bounty hunter looking for three cattle rustlers by the name of Brittle. Schultz has never seen these men, but Django has: they were the overseers at his old plantation, three sons of bitches whose idea of punishment was pure Old Testament—Broomhilda still has lash marks on her back proving that. During their travels, the naïve Dr. Schultz learns that Django has a wife, and that he plans to buy her freedom with the money he’s been promised for identifying the Brittle brothers. This is a risky gambit: to find his wife, Django will have to find records of her sale in a Mississippi auction city. Even with papers stating that he is free, the odds of him walking out of that city with his freedom intact are quite low. So Dr. Schultz offers Django a deal: partner up for the winter and learn the business of bounty hunting, and gain a partner in the rescue of Broomhilda.
If one looks at the two halves of Django Unchained as origin story and follow-up, then the film becomes a tale of two plantation owners. In the first half, Django and Dr. Schultz travel from Texas to Tennessee to The Big House, which is owned by a repellant man who is referred to as Big Daddy (Don Johnson). Big Daddy’s plantation functions as a brothel, where he sells his attractive young slaves to anybody with a big enough pocketbook. Later, the two discover that Broomhilda has been sold to a bloodsport named Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who inherited the fourth largest plantation in Mississippi. Though his plantation is known as Candie Land, he, too, calls the house that stands on its grounds The Big House. Candie is a major player in mandingo fighting, a Tarantino invention that pits burly slaves in brutal death matches before a private audience. In both cases, Dr. Schultz and Django’s play is the same: in offering a ridiculous sum of money for the particular kind of human flesh Big Daddy and Calvin J. Candie deal in, they gain access to their marks’ plantations and carry out a search for their true prize. Finding the Brittle brothers and Broomhilda, however, is not the hardest aspect of this plan: it’s getting out of those plantations alive, treasure in tow, that matters.
That Big Daddy and Calvin J. Candie bear as many similarities as they do is intentional: these are vain, horrible men, and it is to our great satisfaction to see them executed by our heroes as such. The difference between the two is that Candie’s second—the head house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson)—sees right through the bounty hunters’ charade. When discussing the characters they’re set to play, Django tells Dr. Schultz that being a black slaver is a lower calling than being the head house slave. If that’s true, Stephen certainly tries to make up for it by being every bit as snide and underhanded as he is old and hobbled by his age. In this role, Jackson is at his most engaging in years; though his character is one whose time on screen was whittled down, he is a man of extremes: before guests and the white workers on the plantation, he is a bumbling, ornery old coot; in private with his master and Django, he is as cold and cunning as they come, as bitter and vengeful as Shylock.
There is a lot about Django Unchained that doesn’t quite add up; like many of Tarantino’s films over the second half of his twenty year career, his ambition to present a sprawling, grandiose epic of five or six hours was compromised by the need for a Christmas Day release to make money. Working with editor Fred Raskin—Tarantino’s regular editor, Sally Menke, died in 2010—Django Unchained’s seams show more than what’s typical of a Tarantino film. The jokes aren’t as crisp, the characters aren’t as well developed, and the film’s six-shooting bloodbaths eventually blur together, distinguished mostly by what song is playing to pass the time. And yet, Django Unchained is one of the more wildly entertaining films of 2012. Beyond Stephen—the film’s best creation—Jamie Foxx’s Django is as solid a spaghetti western hero as there is, and Christoph Waltz once again establishes himself as the Tarantino actor, the director and screenwriter’s dialog never seeming like words on a page. If the plight of Broomhilda von Shaft is cause for squeamishness—and it should be—and the reward for enduring her pain is pleasing—and, for me, it was—then Tarantino is doing his part as an exploitation filmmaker, and that, really, is the only shield he’s ever held up in defense of his work. As beautiful—the sweeping parries, manicured plantations, and torch-bearing lynch mobs are unprecedented compositions in a Tarantino movie—and exciting as Django Unchained often is, after twenty years, it would be nice to see the director’s raison d’être evolve with his skill.
Django Unchained. With Jamie Foxx (Django), Christoph Waltz (Dr. King Schultz), Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin J. Candie), Samuel L. Jackson (Stephen), Kerry Washington (Broomhilda von Shaft), Don Johnson (Big Daddy), Walton Goggins (Billy Crash), and Jonah Hill (Bag Head #2). Directed by Quentin Tarantino and produced by Stacey Sher, Reginald Hudlin, and Pilar Savone. Screenplay by Tarantino.
The Fear of a Ghost Planet Guide to Film: 2012 Edition is now available for purchase on the Amazon Kindle. It will be available on the Barnes and Noble Nook in due time. For 99 cents, you get all of my film reviews from the past two years, a slew of articles from the inception of this blog to my personal Best of 2012 list, and more. In keeping with the rest of the book being free to read on this blog, I am posting the introduction in this space. A great deal of thanks to Jason Teal of Heavy Feather Review for coding the book, and Alex Kittle of Film Forager for her tremendous cover.To purchase the book for the Kindle, click HERE.
My favorite experience at the movies took place during a film I still haven’t finished. It was 1997; I was nine-years-old and my sister eight. Our dad decided one weekend to take the two of us to The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Being a nine-year-old boy, I couldn’t wait to see the dinosaurs. Being an eight-year-old girl, the prospect of flesh-eating lizards larger even than the theater screen was enough to get my sister screaming as soon as the lights dimmed. Before either of us saw a dinosaur, our father hustled the us out of the theater, his head bowed low to avoid the eyes of other moviegoers. Those fifteen minutes in the theater, to me, have always stood as a symbol of film’s power to excite, to awe, to inspire, and to terrify. Living in a city like Detroit for most of my life, I’ve had the benefit of dollar theaters, drive-ins, arthouses, and movie palaces with still-functioning organs, but none of the films played at these venues have inspired within me the genuine terror my sister experienced that afternoon at the long gone Showcase Cinemas about a mile from our home. I fell in love with movies that afternoon, and have been chasing after something like my sister’s emotional response to The Lost World ever since.
That’s why I write about movies. Fear of a Ghost Planet was officially launched on September 5, 2011, but its roots extend back to 2007, when I wrote my first “review” on Careful With that Blog, Eugene, a personal blog that mostly documented how I used my free time. While the contents of this e-book only date back to 2011, Fear of a Ghost Planet’s origins in the world of personal blogging are evident even in the last posts I wrote that year, reviews of The Sitter and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Still, were you to visit the site and pull up one of those early essays, you’d not only see a clear progression in my ability to write a review—my earliest can charitably be described as “not very good”—but in how I respond to movies on a personal level.
Lest you think I have lived my moviegoing life in constant envy of my sister, I’ve cried unrelentingly during films before. During a showing of the Academy Award winning Japanese film Departures at Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, I cried so hard my eyes stung. What I’ve found is that it is hard to synthesize that kind of emotional response in a thousand words. Often, I find myself using my small corner of the Internet to defend my positive response to one corporate product or another. The Amazing Spider-Man, The Hobbit, The Avengers—compared to unpacking the experience of sitting in a packed room of well-informed, blubbering cineastes, defending my decision to give three-and-a-half or four stars to some bloodless CGI spectacle is easy.
For the first time, Fear of a Ghost Planet published over fifty movie reviews in a calendar year. The fifty that I wrote are collected here, from 21 Jump Street to Wrath of the Titans. Between them are reviews where I believe I’ve managed the process of unpacking whatever genuine response I had to a given film. 2012 was a year of difficult movies: The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Zero Dark Thirty—even the latest installments of Batman and James Bond were able to balance pop dynamism with the bleakness of an uncertain world. The result is a more rewarding cinema, but one that’s increasingly difficult to write about.
If you purchased this e-book or have visited the website, thank you. There are hundreds of movie blogs and dozens of established film critics online, and each of them bring something different to the table. As newspapers shed their critics and anonymous comment forms enable an often unflattering form of populist rabble rousing, the voices of those asking why film criticism matters have grown louder. Yes, the reviews here serve as a recommendation, but what lies beyond the up or downturned thumb is something closer to memoir. Fear of a Ghost Planet continues to grow, but my reviews will remain reports of what happened to me in the dark.