The Legend of Tarzan

TarzanDirector: David Yates

Screenwriters: Adam Cozad, Craig Brewer

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, and Margot Robbie

Ahhhh AhAhAhAhAhAh Ahhhhhhhh! Tarzan is swinging back into theaters for like the 60th time in the last 100 years.  In the scheme of things with James Bond and superheroes, that’s not such a frequent appearance! Still, the problem with most Tarzan appearances is that they are all basically a retelling of Edgar Rice Burrough’s first Tarzan novel:  Parents are marooned, child is orphaned, child is raised by gorillas, scientist discovers Tarzan, Tarzan rescues scientist’s daughter, and they fall in love. So is David Yates’s new film, The Legend of Tarzan a “different story?” The answer is yes…and no.

In this film, we are introduced to an already grown Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård). Home in England during the mid 19th century, famous world-round, and married to his love, Jane (Margot Robbie).  Tarzan (AKA John Clayton) has adjusted to life as an heir to his parents’ fortune and lives a most civilized existence, far removed from the one he knew in the jungle. When he is summoned by the Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) to sit in on a matter regarding King Leopold’s hold of a mining encampment in the African Congo, Tarzan is encouraged to use his celebrity and act as an ambassador. The Prime Minister’s hopes are that by traveling to the site, Clayton’s  presence will calm some rumors circling around Leopold’s interests and practices in the Congo.  American Historian George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) volunteers to accompany Clayton and Jane, but his true intention is to investigate his theory that indigenous Africans are being used as slaves to mine the Congo.  When that theory pans out, Williams easily persuades Clayton to join him in exposing Leopold’s private slave state, but they are thwarted by Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz), a Belgian soldier sent by King Leopold to act as administrator of one of the major stations in the Congo.  Rom is devious and maniacal, and when he captures Jane, Tarzan will stop at nothing to get her back and bring Rom down.

So like I said, is this film’s narrative a different story than we’re used to? Yes, we are not dragged through a 60-minute plotline about a boy growing up as an ape man.  But no, we are not treading much new ground as Tarzan still spends most of the movie trying to rescue Jane. Fortunately, director David Yates tips the scales in favor of freshness as the story unfolds.  The filmmaking is vibrant, alive, and exciting. Yates takes that smooth, “Peter Jacksony” style he honed with his four Harry Potter films and transfers it beautifully to The Legend of Tarzan.  The visuals are sweeping and the film benefits tremendously from Yates’s touch.

The actors are equally enjoyable. Margot Robbie gives Jane real dimension; she even has a line where she mocks even the idea of being a “damsel in distress.” Skarsgård does well as the stoic Tarzan.  He looks the part and shows that he may be able to carry a big-budget action film.  However, as is the case in many films, the supporting cast is where Legend of Tarzan shines.  Waltz and Jackson are together again for the first time since Django Unchained.  This time, however, the roles are reversed and Waltz is the unabashed, racist tyrant, while Jackson gets to play the charismatic hero!  Mostly though, Jackson steals the show, and if you’re looking for that one extra reason to persuade you go see this film, Jackson firing off countless rounds from a machine gun turret is that reason.

The Legend of Tarzan is fun, summer blockbuster fare, and it’s better than the average film in that category. It clips along at a nice pace, and it doesn’t pander or feel false or ironic.  If you’re looking for something to see this summer that is (mostly) not animated, The Legend of Tarzan is a worthy option. B

The Legend of Tarzan is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes.

Spectre

Spectre Movie PosterDirector: Sam Mendes

Screenwriters: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Naomie Harris, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Whishaw

The end may be near for James Bond…at least the one that looks like Daniel Craig.  In a recent interview, Craig made it wildly clear that he is not into doing another Bond movie.  While that may change, it means that Spectre, the 24th official Bond film, may be one that passes the torch to a new Bond, a distinction that only five of the films really have (although it gets kind of messy with Lazenby and Connery).  Craig’s four Bond films have been received rather tremendously.  His unconventional approach and downplaying of Bond’s silly side has seemingly revitalized the franchise and brought an air of respect back to the character.  Still, Spectre makes nearly all of the same mistakes that caused me to knock Skyfall last time and Quantum of Solace before that.   Fool me once shame on you, fool me 24 times, shame on me.

****Warning, minor spoilers regarding Christoph Waltz follow.  Do not read any further if you do not want to know about his character.****

Like Skyfall, Spectre starts in classic Bond style with a strong, action-packed opening as 007 sleeks through Mexico City during the Day of the Dead festival to track down and kill a man who plans to blow up a packed stadium on behalf of a mysterious organization.  These opening scenes are certainly the crown jewel in the Bond film formula and have been elevated to a new level in the Mendes/Craig era.  The rest of the film revolves around this mysterious organization, later revealed to be SPECTRE, and the hunting down of its leader, Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).  Unlike many previous Bond installments, the Craig films capping with Spectre are actually a much more woven series of sequels than their predecessors.  Director Sam Mendes, who made the two most recent Bond films, used Skyfall to introduce a thematic thread about chastising the egoism of youth and praising the wisdom of age. The film delved deeper into the inner workings of James Bond and by the end, casual throwbacks to earlier “older” Bond trappings were scattered throughout including vintage Aston Martins and the introduction of a Miss Eve Moneypenny.  Now with Spectre, even casual Bond fans are aware of what director Mendes and his screenwriters are doing here.  Fifty years of films are coming full circle as the supervillain that sought to destroy Sean Connery in From Russia with Love is rebooted and reloaded to strike again!

Rebooting and remaking is definitely the name of the game in entertainment lately and while some are hits, I am not excited about seeing James Bond go back to square one.  This is especially a grim turn for female characters.  Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) does her best to keep this film from being too shallow, but it still may be the most sexist film since San Andreas. Still, the thing that makes Bond tick is the brazen confidence in the face of unspeakable danger, and Spectre has a good dose of that.  The action scenes in this film deliver.  Does it have as much as Skyfall?  No.  Is it miles above other recent tent pole action films in its genre like Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation?  No.  To me Spectre feels like a set-up film much like 2013’s Man of Steel felt like a set-up film.  Yes it’s another installment of something that’s been around a while.  Yes, all of the familiar things you expect to see are there, but at the end it feels stretched out, belabored, and even a little monotonous until the end where the hints at what’s to come make you wish you could skip this movie and go right to the next one.

Aside from its pacing, the other unfortunate letdown is Waltz as Blofeld.  What seemed like brilliantly ideal casting at first kind of fizzles out when implemented.  First of all, Waltz does not appear in the film for nearly an hour into the already overlong film.  Perhaps the original intent was to have Waltz’s casting and/or character be a surprise, but the marketing would have you believe otherwise.  Secondly, his introduction after the build-up is absurdly underwhelming, which is a shame when you ponder the potential of having Christoph Waltz play your hero/anti-hero supporting role…it’s kind of his thing!  Javier Bardem’s turn as Silva in Skyfall, while not perfect was far more satisfying than the missed opportunity that is Waltz in Spectre.

Spectre is in full nostalgia mode and not looking forward.  If this is a good thing, remains to be seen, but apparently everything old is new again in the world of Bond. C+

Spectre is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 28 minutes.

Django Unchained

ImageQuentin Tarantino has said publicly that he wants to retire after his tenth film. He is looking to leave behind a strong filmography that shows no weakness or slump at the end. His eighth entry (counting the Kill Bill volumes separately) into this abstract Decalogue is Django Unchained, and it may be his greatest achievement since Pulp Fiction.

Django Unchained is the finest American slavery period bounty hunter Western ever made, but clearly that doesn’t mean much. As preposterous as that description is, that’s what is so great about a Tarantino film; he digs deep into a traditional genre and develops it into something distinctive. The same can be said about his Holocaust revisionist historical war film, Inglorious Basterds. The title character, Django (Jamie Foxx), is a slave with a horrific past who through a chain of auspicious events becomes partnered with a slavery opposed ex-dentist and current bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). This partnership is sealed with an agreement that Schultz will help Django find and free his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from an infamous Southern plantation.

Django Unchained is void of any superfluous substance. From the opening scene of dialogue where Django and Schultz are introduced all the way to the final “showdown,” Django Unchained has momentum and remains in stride. Tarantino should win his second Original Screenplay Oscar since no other film that can be nominated for this category combines such compelling dialogue with such a spirited and ambitions story. The film unfolds in a series of distinct acts. Furthermore, Tarantino takes his flair for the irregular timeline to a more subtle place by interjecting small contextual flashbacks at key points to reveal critical or entertaining pieces of background that enhance an approaching scene. You may never look at the Ku Klux Klan, or Don Johnson for that matter, the same way again.

The cast is impeccable and is sprinkled with familiar faces beyond the leads, but the leads are all excellent. Christoph Waltz gives Tarantino another Oscar worthy performance as the film’s moral compass, Dr. Schultz. Schultz’s character also works to deepen and broaden Foxx’s turn as Django. Django has a goal, but lacks direction and Schultz literally provides that for him, which gives Foxx some real dimension and power. However, the film’s crown jewel is found in the film’s closing acts when Leonardo DiCaprio appears as Calvin Candie, owner of the massive and legendary plantation known as Candyland. DiCaprio’s performance is a sneaky one, and while initially campy, it becomes very real all too quickly. His character shows a severe authenticity as a symbol for the evils of supposed “gentlemen” during a deeply deranged time in American history. As fun as Django Unchained is to watch, it is still a Quentin Tarantino movie, which implies vulgarity and violence. It delivers on both of those qualities to excess, which is a good thing in this case. As part of the Western genre, a lot of justice is sought out against a lot of bad people, and a six-shooter is basically the only tool. The balance between good acting, strong writing, unpredictable circumstances, and sudden bursts of violence creates a suspenseful tone that could not otherwise be achieved. Django Unchained is a front-runner for one of the year’s best films as well as a front-runner for one of Tarantino’s best films. If this is any indication of what the nearly 50-year-old director has left in him, it is hard to imagine him walking away after stepping behind a camera only two more times. A