Tag: christoph waltz

Epic


Epic (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Just as the queen of the forest (voiced by Beyoncé Knowles) has chosen a bud that will ensure the survival of all, she is attacked by Boggans, led by Mandrake (Christoph Waltz), a group of warriors who wish to create a desolate wasteland. MK (Amanda Seyfriend), a human visiting her father (Jason Sudeikis), happens to walk in the middle of the action and she is magically turned into pint-sized being. She is instructed to take care of the bud and deliver it to Nim Galuu, a caterpillar with access to sacred scrolls. Though MK gets help from some of the queen’s loyal friends, Mandrake and his army move ever closer.

Based on “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs” by William Joyce, “Epic” is disappointing but passable, energetic but not thoroughly enjoyable. It is likely to entertain really young children but there is not much for adults who need something more than pretty colors and a few chuckle-inducing one-liners. The picture gets by most of the time but the deeper it gets into the conflict between good and evil, one cannot help but wonder who cares and how long until it is all over.

The main characters are not interesting. Initially, MK has an interesting backstory because her mother has just passed away and so a part of her hopes to reconnect with her father. However, she is not surprised that he is more into his work—proving that little people in the forest do exist—than forging a real relationship with his daughter. Meanwhile, Nod (Josh Hutcherson) is a Leaf Man who is having second thoughts about being one. His mentor, Ronin (Colin Farrel), thinks he lacks the drive and discipline to become an effective protector.

It is most awkward that the material forces MK and Nod to share a romantic connection. It simply does not make any sense—she being human and he being a creature of the forest. Taking a friendship route, helping each other recognize what they need to be able to flourish in their own worlds, might have been more effective. And given that the two of them being together is not off-putting, what they have is far from convincing. The dialogue between them is so cloying and trying too hard to be cute that I felt like I was watching a television show for pre-teens. Is their flirtation supposed to be appealing to kids?

The villains are bland as chalk. Their motivation does not make sense. They are a part of the forest as much as the good guys but they supposedly want to kill the environment. It is illogical because if they so happen to succeed, how will they be able to survive? Where will they get food, clean water, and proper shelter? Surely the screenwriters could have chosen a better motivation for the bad guys rather than just giving them a nonsensical reason to stir trouble. Even if the intention is to remain loyal to the source material, translating the work into film requires a level of complexity.

The animation is quite easy on the eyes but there is only two or three scenes that are impressive. Because the little forest creatures move so much faster than humans, the former perceive the latter in slow motion. A standout scene involves MK, Nod, and Ronin breaking into MK’s house and being found out by the three-legged dog and the enthusiastic researcher. The sequence is more visually stimulating than any of the action scenes between the Leaf Men and the Boggans combined.

Directed by Chris Wedge, “Epic” is not imaginative enough to live up to its title. Children deserve to experience something with more weight than good guys and bad guys running around. For instance, if Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff’s “The Lion King” were only about an evil lion who killed his younger brother to get the throne, it would not have been a classic. It is not too much to expect a bit more thought and meaning from the story being told.

Downsizing


Downsizing (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Alexander Payne is known for his deeply humanist films (“The Descendants,” “Nebraska,” “Sideways”) and even when his work contains characters with extreme personalities (“About Schmidt,” “Election”), there is almost always a warm and realistic center that is defined and deeply fascinating. It goes without saying that “Downsizing” is the filmmaker’s weakest film to date, but it cannot be denied that it contains many interesting ideas—so many, in fact, that the screenplay by Payne and Jim Taylor does not spend enough time to explore every one of them despite a hefty running time of one hundred thirty minutes. It’s a mixed bag.

Those expecting a riotous fantasy-comedy are likely to be disappointed. Worthy of small chuckles throughout, the material is more inclined to establish a certain laidback mood, to give us time to ponder and ask ourselves questions like whether we would decide to downsize ourselves, a procedure in which a person’s body is reduced to less than a tenth of a percent of its original size, given the technology is available. The first half is strong because it is involved with details such as what the procedure entails before and after the fact, the sorts of questionnaires given to volunteers, how their assets would be translated, down to who made the discovery and under which circumstances.

But when it begins to tackle the subject of global warming and how it affects the sustainability of the planet, therefore impacting the human population negatively, it is neither that intriguing nor focused. It does not do or say anything that we have not heard of or read about before, assuming, of course, that the viewer is convinced of the fact that global warming is real. A strange juxtaposition is created between light comedy and a subject that is serious, increasingly relevant, and urgent. The contrast can work but it requires writing so sharp that the comedy is not at all safe.

Matt Damon’s ordinary Joe character named Paul is bland. I go as far as to say he is a bore. While it is possible that this is intentional because he is supposed to be a common man’s conduit into an alternate universe which contains technology capable of cellular reduction, the writers fail to give a great reason, or several good reasons, why he is worth following when he is akin to a leaf being blown by the wind. I think a more interesting avenue might have been to follow a character with a strong personality, like the party-loving neighbor (Christoph Waltz) or the Vietnamese dissident (Hong Chau), because then we would have a compass by which to find ourselves in the constantly changing story.

A viewer might be wise or adjust his or her expectations because “Downsizing” is certainly not within the vicinity of quirkiness or bravado as Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich” or Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.” Perhaps this is the kind of story that might have translated better had it been pushed to such extremes as the aforementioned movies. With its original premise alone, it could have been a modern classic because the rift between the 1% and 99% is greater than ever. Perhaps on an alternate universe.

Big Eyes


Big Eyes (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) leaves her husband, daughter in tow (Delaney Raye), in the late 1950s to live in San Francisco with the intention of making it as an artist. As a woman in the art world and a divorcée, luck is not on her side. But when she meets a fellow artist named Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), it appears as though her life is about to experience a change for the better. After all, it seems like he believes in her talent in a genuine way, very encouraging and supportive. Walter has not yet revealed that he is in fact a charlatan—a man who will eventually claim credit for her beloved paintings of waifs with eyes as big as saucers.

Directed by Tim Burton, “Big Eyes” offers an interesting story, almost too wild to be believed, but the execution lacks a special quality, specifically a sense of urgency. As events unfold, the experience is rather zen-like, quite soporific in spots, only to be rescued by Adams’ expressive but unsubtle performance. Overall, I liked the idea of telling this story but the movie itself fails to deliver anything that stands out.

The picture is not without a sense of humor. Waltz’ approach, as expected, is overacting and trying to milk every line he is given just to get a chuckle or a laugh. Although he is able to portray his character like a buffoon, not once are we convinced that what we are seeing is a real person with real insecurities. Walter is a cartoon in a live action film about artistic integrity. The contradiction does not work because the supporting character is not fleshed out in such a way that makes us think about the turmoils in his mind.

Nor do we get this quality with the protagonist. We understand why Margaret chooses to play along with the sham for a while because she is desperate to provide for her daughter. The problem lies in Adams’ portrayal—there is no middle-ground between meekness and being outspoken. The fluctuations are so abrupt at times that I was distracted rather than being invested in the drama. Although Adams is solid in embodying both states, the magic in dramatic films are usually found in the transition—the journey from A to B.

The lack of complexity of both the protagonist and antagonist makes the movie quite dull. The paintings shown are interesting, odd, dark, and there is willingness to take some risks. This picture is almost the exact opposite which is very curious because Burton is usually about hyperbolizing the bizarre to make us not want to look away. One can argue that it is a misstep for the director to step away from what he knows best in a story that calls out for such qualifications.

“Big Eyes,” written by Scott Alexander and Larry Kraszewski, does have some good moments. For instance, when Walter is asked by a potential customer about his inspirations, how long it usually takes him to finish a painting, and the sorts of techniques he employs to create his work, it is most revealing how out of depth he is. It is funny on the surface but at the same time there is a sadness to it deep down because one must wonder how desperate he is, how empty he must feel inside, just so he can stand in the spotlight that much longer, knowing all the time that he hasn’t done anything to earn it.

Spectre


Spectre (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

After an unsanctioned mission in Mexico which resulted in a catastrophe during a crowded national holiday celebration, M (Ralph Fiennes) orders Agent 007 (Daniel Craig) from participating in any future assignments—active indefinitely. Unbeknownst to his superior, however, Bond is partaking on a different mission altogether—a more personal mission—out of respect for his former handler (Judi Dench) which involves an international organization believed to be involved in recent targeted terror attacks.

“Spectre,” directed by Sam Mendes, is a less polished Bond picture, certainly less emotionally involving, and more interested in tying together the three films that came before it. Thus, at times it comes across as though it is suffering from an identity crisis. And yet despite this shortcoming, it remains a solid action picture since it commands highly watchable, thrilling, and occasionally creative sequences.

The pre-opening credits sequence is an obvious standout. Notice the control from behind the camera as it sashays between celebratory crowds while remaining focus on Bond and his partner, through a posh hotel, up a lift, and along the rooftop. Tension is slowly generated as we wait for the movement to stop. Even though we have little idea in regards to Bond’s mission, the entire sequence demands full attention. The tight editing ensures that we blink—and flinch—as few times as possible.

Equally strong is the night car chase in the streets of Rome. This chase serves as the catharsis after a mysterious business meeting that concludes in a brutal murder. Complaints are surely going to be made because the expensive and stunning cars appear to not go very fast. But the suspense and thrills do not go hand-in-hand with speed. Instead, these are correlated with the sudden turns and the unexpected hindrances along the way. It shows our protagonist’s ability to think quickly—and the sheer luck critical to propel him forward.

One feels the heft of the film’s one hundred fifty minutes. Part of the issue is the dialogue. There is often a lack of complexity in the exchanges. We already know that the characters are highly intelligent and yet there are a handful of scenes, particularly those that involve Bond and Dr. Swann (Léa Seydoux), that sound too expository. Problematic, too, are the exchanges between Bond and the leader of the Spectre organization (Christoph Waltz). We expect every look and every word given to one another to be incendiary given the supposedly profound history that ties them together. I found the charade to be pedestrian.

Slightly better are the exchanges between M and C (Andrew Scott), the latter working to close down the MI6’s 00 program. The seething anger and annoyance between the two men of power is quite entertaining. It is a small but welcome surprise that there are a number of moments where office politics outshine what goes on in the field. However, although they are given their moments, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw), M’s secretary and the head of MI6’s research and development, respectively, are not used enough. Harris and Whishaw are so charming but the screenplay fails to make the audience love their characters even more.

Unspectacular but still solid, there are a handful of sequences to recommend in “Spectre.” The mano a mano aboard a moving train quickly comes to mind. If the screenplay had undergone more alterations such as eliminating the expository chunks in the middle (and one or two monologues) or changing them in order to amp up the intrigue—especially when it comes to the shadowy organization of interest—it would have been a level above more satisfying.

Water for Elephants


Water for Elephants (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jacob (Robert Pattinson) has a promising future despite the claws of The Great Depression running deep. But on the day of his final exam, critical to his certification as a veterinarian in Cornell University, his parents perish in a car accident. After finding out that his family’s house is to be taken by the bank, Jacob, an only child, hits the road and ends up aboard a train which houses Benzini Brothers performers. Camel (Jim Norton) decides to take Jacob under his wing and introduces him to the boss, August (Christoph Waltz), in hopes of getting him a job. August reluctantly hires Jacob as the circus vet but it is not long until the seventeen-year-old orphan notices August’s wife, blonde-haired Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the star attraction of the circus.

Based on a novel by Sara Gruen, “Water for Elephants,” directed by Francis Lawrence, is most engaging when Jacob and August play tug o’ war over Marlena. Even though they are husband and wife, August treats Marlena as his plaything, as something that he can brag about indirectly, shamelessly as they sit next to each other in front of company.

August is a smart but cruel man, especially to animals because he sees them as less than, simply a way of making money. When consumed with rage, he does not think twice about picking up a sharp object and stabbing the animals with it until the anger has been drained out of him and blood has been drained out of the animals. His cruelty to them causes a rift between he and his wife, who genuinely loves animals and appreciates their innate beauty and intelligence.

This is where Jacob comes in. Marlena sees a kindness in him and thinks it is refreshing. Over time, though reluctantly at first, their feelings for each other reach a peak and they realize that they need to get out of the circus before one or both of them ends up dead.

The dark romance, or ownership, between husband and wife and the dreamy romance between wife and younger man is handled with clarity and respect without sacrificing necessary implications for complexity. It is important that we do not see Jacob as someone who is out to destroy someone’s marriage. This is why it is necessary that the exposition be given ample time to be presented and unfold elegantly. We learn to see him as a man–not necessarily a physically strong man but a man with strong convictions–who might hold the key to Marlene’s cage. Pattinson holds his own against Waltz and Witherspoon.

The weakness of the film is not spending more time on Rosie the elephant. Aside from the important scene near the end, what exactly is the elephant’s relationship toward Marlena and Jacob? There is something about the animal, capable of understanding language, that is purposefully magical, almost human-like in its ability to understand emotions and intentions. More scenes are required to strengthen the connection between the elephant and the lovers.

“Water for Elephants,” based on the screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, is beautifully made. I liked the techniques it employs during the circus performances like muffling the sounds just a little bit to emphasize the images and how they are accomplished without CGI. It does not forget that magic is found in what is real.

The Green Hornet


The Green Hornet (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Ever since he was a child, Britt (Seth Rogen) always felt that his father, James Reid (Tom Wilkinson), editor-in-chief of the influential newspaper called the “Daily Sentinel,” prioritized his job over his son. When the media mogul passes away due to an allergic reaction from a bee sting, Britt, along with Kato (Jay Chou), the Reid household’s brilliant mechanic and martial arts expert, decide to decapitate the statue of the deceased.

The duo come across a girl being terrorized by a neighborhood gang. They rescue her before things get really bad. Britt and Kato feel good about saving the girl and beating up some hoodlums, so they put on the shoes of atypical superheroes. In order to really make a difference in the Los Angeles crime scene, they pretend to be criminals in order to get close to the city’s crime lords.

“The Green Hornet,” based on the radio series by George W. Trendle and directed Michel Gondry, manages to pull off a rather entertaining and funny story of regular folks wanting to become something more than they are, something extraordinary. The events that lead up to why the characters believe that superhero-ism is the answer to their problems has a lot of implications in relation to their difficult childhood and how they are perceived by society as adults. Unfortunately, once Kato and Britt finish preparing their masks, weapons, and impressive black car, the story fails to go anywhere remotely interesting.

It settles on being cartoonish. For instance, Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz) is a crime boss who is deeply offended when people tell him that he is not scary. In order to be “scary,” he kills those who do not approve of his designer suits. While somewhat amusing on the surface, the character might have worked as a villain–menacing but tragic, narcissistic but exudes cool–if there had been something more to him beyond his conceit. The most interesting superhero movies consist of a hero and a villain complementing each other. They may lie on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of their morality–or lack thereof–but their similarities are not easy to overlook. Chudnofsky is not given a proper backstory so he comes off silly and foolish.

The filmmakers, accidental or otherwise, pull off something a bit unexpected. They make the sidekick more interesting than his counterpart. Kato’s more dramatic scenes hold some weight. When he worked for Britt’s father, he was often reminded that he was less than. Working for Britt, since they are similar in age, Kato hopes that he will finally be treated as an equal. But some things never change. He remains to be perceived as an orphan. That stigma he carries around like a grudge made me want to get to know him more. Meanwhile, I watched Britt in disbelief as he lugs himself around as if he were drunk 24/7.

“The Green Hornet” delivers good, sometimes choppy but consistently energetic, action sequences. What it needs is a focused exploration of the characters’ motivations after they put on their masks. As a result, when the funny gags are thrown at us, we can laugh with our heroes rather than at them.

Django Unchained


Django Unchained (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist, approaches a group of slave traders and expresses his intention of possibly purchasing one of the chained men in line. Since he is greeted with animosity, what could have been a peaceful transaction turns deadly. But Dr. Schultz, a man of his word, does not neglect to pay the seller, on the ground and under excruciating pain for being shot in the leg, for the black man he just bought. Later, he tells Django (Jamie Foxx) that he is a bounty hunter. They make a deal: if Django helps Dr. Schultz track down three men, believed to be hiding in one of the plantations in the south, and help to kill them, Dr. Schultz will not only give Django his freedom, he will also earn twenty-five dollars for each corpse.

Perhaps the most notable quality of “Django Unchained,” written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is its generosity when it comes to weaving subplots into its bones. This creates a narrative that inspires us to wonder how they will unspool and reconnect.

There are many elements in the screenplay that may be worth a second look in order to further appreciate its craft, like hybridizing the western and blaxploitation genres to create a farce out of the racism in mid-nineteenth century America, but what I am sure about is that the film would have been better if it had been shorter. This is because not all of the subplots unwind in consistently interesting or surprising ways. Most start off exciting but almost all eventually lose vigor. For instance, the scenes that comprise about half the picture often have one premise: the stupidity of a white person who ardently supports slavery. The scene with the Klu Klux Klan quickly comes to mind. Although the humor underneath the punches, some blood-soaked in irony, is present, I could not help but wonder when or if the material would change gears. I grew increasingly tired of the setup and as the film went on, some of the jokes that have been used are recycled.

I enjoyed that the dialogue is not as ostentatious as one would come to expect from Tarantino. Instead of the sentences demanding us to pay attention to a carefully chosen word and how it is used as, say, a double entendre, the actors’ performances outshine the script. If this had not been the case, the exchanges between Dr. Schultz and Django might not have communicated a friendship that we could believe and invest in despite the most unlikely circumstances that surround them. Times when the two main characters–a white man and a black man–are quiet or making a real connection by telling each other more about themselves are, surprisingly, the most memorable moments because the material taps into the simmering sadness and outrage of the scar that continues to define America.

The hyper-stylized violence also works but maybe not in a way one would come to expect. Sadly, a lot of people have the tendency to relate to violence on screen more than scenes of two people connecting to one another through simple conversations. The gun battles are dispersed and I think the writer-director is very smart to have employed such a technique to get people to care more deeply about what is happening. While I would have preferred that the violence be saved at end of the picture to serve as a catharsis, it is understandable why the bloodshed may feel to occur very randomly at times.

I did not find “Django Unchained” especially entertaining but I appreciated its visual artistry and carefully measured yet outwardly wild performances. Although it can be interpreted as a straight arrow revenge story, we can look at it another way and think about issues it wishes to address underneath the amalgamation of anachronisms.

Carnage


Carnage (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

In the opening sequence of “Carnage,” directed by Roman Polanski, we observed a group of kids interacting at a park. As one kid walked away from a group, obviously upset, the leader of the group followed. The former kid turned around suddenly and smacked the latter in the face with a long stick. The one who used the weapon was Zachary and the one who ended up on the ground was Ethan. Penelope (Jodie Foster) and Michael (John C. Reilly), Ethan’s parents, invited Nancy (Kate Winslet) and Alan (Christoph Waltz), Zachary’s parents, in their home to discuss, in a calm and friendly way, the issue and what should be done next. Initially, everyone was as serene as a kettle of full of water recently put on a stove to boil. But as the parents spent more time together, they began to turn against one another until the issues they began to discuss were no longer related to the conflict between their children. Based on a play called “Le Dieu du carnage” by Yasmina Reza, for a film packed with four excellent and versatile comedic and dramatic actors, it ended up only slightly comedic and barely dramatic. While nuance in the acting was present, I felt as though there was nothing underneath the surface emotions. Having an experience with working with kids and dealing with equally difficult parents, I can vouch that these people were caricatures. Perhaps they were supposed to be, fine, but it seemed as though Polanski neglected to provide his audience multiple angles of each character so that we would be forced to recognize our parents, or even ourselves, in them. While parents may be as self-centered and sensitive as their children, not for one second did I believe that an adult, after being insulted several times, directly and indirectly, would decide not to flee the situation as quickly as possible. Penelope delivered sententious speeches about how much she loved the history of Africa and how she claimed to understand Africa’s suffering. Nancy felt very ill. Michael kept making jokes in order to palliate the increasing unhappiness. Alan was programmed to pick up his cell phone every time it rang. Didn’t it occur to any of them that it just wasn’t worth it? If I’m talking to someone and it’s obvious that my words are going in one ear and out the other, I’ll feel compelled to no longer speak. I’m not going to waste my time trying to get through to someone who’s too stubborn to consider what I have to say. Deep down, Penelope and Michael felt like Nancy and Alan just didn’t care that their child picked up a weapon and struck another person. The very act had a lot of social, emotional, and psychological implications yet none of them were explored. I argue that if they had been explored, the last shot would have been more powerful. Because the screenplay was adamant in remaining loyal the source material, the movie became asphyxiated by contrivances; I found it difficult to engage with it in a meaningful way. Most plays, like movies, are successful because they make the audiences feel something. Since my emotions remained rather neutral, except for a few snickers here and there, I felt the material did not translate to the big screen. What special quality did this picture have that the play did not? The yelling, screaming, and bickering were aimed, I think, to distract us from its insipidity.

Inglourious Basterds


Inglourious Basterds (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Those who believe that Quentin Tarantino (“Resevoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill,” “Death Proof”) is slowly losing his touch when it comes to filmmaking and storytelling should watch this film. “Inglourious Basterds” essentially covers three groups of characters: Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his men’s (Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, B.J. Novak, Omar Doom) quest to hunt, scalp, and kill Nazis; the intimidating Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, a Nazi hunter who prefers to be categorized as a detective more than anything else and who happens to speak English, French, Italian, and German which proves to be quite useful; and Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus, who survived Waltz’ massacre three years ago and had plans of her own, along with her trusted friend Marcel (Jacky Ido), to avenge her family. Divided into five sublime chapters, at first the characters had nothing to do with each other. But as the picture went on they all collided, had very entertaining conversations and bloody violence, just as one could expect from a Tarantino motion picture.

I was surprised with how quickly the movie paced itself, considering that I needed to use the bathroom during the first thirty minutes. (I gulped down a lot of soda during the previews.) I couldn’t help but get so engaged with the dialogue because in some lines, the characters attach some sort of threat into their words or tone to the point where it made me feel like I was in the same room with them. Although this was a World War II picture to begin with, it became so much more than that. In the second half, it became about a project about the love for the cinema and using that as a template to put these very intense characters under one roof. What I noticed about this movie was that with each major character, Tarantino moved the camera to match the person’s idiosyncracies and intentions. Therefore, it became more than just a World War II picture with necessary violence. It became a personal character study where the characters became tangled in the intricacies of politics, bureaucracies, and their own morals (sometimes lack thereof). The way Tarantino played with the movie’s tone greatly impressed me (as I was in his other films). One minute I just feel like hiding behind my hands because either something very violent was about to happen or a character knew something the other character did not know and was about to get caught; the next minute I found myself laughing so hard (due to the comedy or relief, it was often difficult to tell) because a character did or said something hilarious.

I can definitely understand why the American mainstream could be disappointed with this movie. For one, pretty much half of the movie had subtitles. (I love subtitled films. Sometimes, I even watch movies spoken in English with subtitles.) They could find it challenging to read and pay attention to the images at the same time. Second, with its 153-minute running time, the audiences were asked to sit through extended dialogues with (from some blogger reviews I’ve read) “very little payoffs that only happened toward the end of each chapter”). As a person who loves long movies, I cannot disagree more because the payoffs happen as the lines were being said. It was the subtleties in each intonation and movement that really made this film that much better than typical summer movie flicks. It was intelligent, had great sense of build-up, very tense, and brutal. So, for me, those kinds of arguments that people brought up were simply a matter of acquired taste. Hey, I didn’t start off loving foreign films and long movies either. It took some time and when it finally clicked, my moviegoing experience became that much more rewarding.

I strongly believe that “Inglourious Basterds” is one of the best movies of summer 2009 (if not the best). The performances are top-notch, especially from Christoph Waltz who is already getting Oscar buzz (and deservedly so), the pacing was done skillfully, and best of all, it knew how and when to have fun. If it had taken itself too seriously, it probably would not have been as enjoyable, it would have simply been violent and heartless. I’m already looking forward to Tarantino’s next project.