The Legend of Tarzan

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2016

Village Roadshow Pictures/RatPac Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by David Yates

Produced by Jerry Wentraub/David Barron/Mike Richardson

Written by Adam Cozad/Craig Brewer

Based on the character “Tarzan” created by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Before I get into the review of THE LEGEND OF TARZAN, a bit of personal history. Some of you have heard this story before so bear with me a bit for the benefit of those who haven’t. I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs when I was in Junior High School but it wasn’t through his Tarzan books. I devoured his John Carter of Mars books, his Pellucidar and Venus series and historical novels such as “The Rider” “The Outlaw of Torn” “The Mucker.” I read his Tarzan much later on, mainly because they were reissued with gorgeous Neal Adams covers.

Once upon a time in the 1970s, I’m riding on the ‘G’ subway train home from school, reading a Tarzan novel. To this day I can’t recall which one it was even though every other detail of what happened on that train is still as fresh as if it happened today. Three grown men I didn’t know sat down next to me and demanded to know why I was reading a Tarzan book. They described it as “white man’s bullshit” and “racist garbage.” And that’s just about the only part of their descriptions I can relate to you and still keep this review clean. Just trust me when I say they were very colorful. One of the men was particularly vexed at me and loudly expressed his view that at the next stop he and his companions should bodily escort me off the train and give me the thrashing I so richly deserved. It was actually a lot more profane than that but again; I’m trying to keep it clean. I didn’t get thrashed but I will tell you this: it was a long time before I read a Tarzan book in public again.

But I did keep on reading Tarzan. Because I loved the way Burroughs told a story. Yes, I realized the racist elements in his Tarzan stories. But I also realized that if I cut myself off from his books I would be depriving myself of some truly excellent stories and characters. So I had to make a decision about how I would approach reading material (and movies and other works of art) that were created in a supposedly less enlightened time. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.

So what has all this to do with THE LEGEND OF TARZAN? Because it’s a Tarzan movie that is rightly set in period and it’s kinda hard to do a Tarzan movie without Tarzan being The Great White Savior. It’s just that simple. The very DNA of Tarzan has racial biases and assumptions that have to be dealt with and not simply ignored. But I think that by putting Tarzan in a story where he mainly has to save Jane sidesteps the awkwardness of having him save African warriors who most certainly don’t need a Tarzan to save them. But I also do realize the image of Tarzan as such is still a polarizing one so a lot of people have no use for a Tarzan movie. Believe me, I understand.

In fact, when we meet Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard), he doesn’t even want to be called Tarzan anymore. He’s fully embraced being John Clayton III aka Lord Greystoke and living in London with his wife Jane (Margot Robbie). He’s asked by The House of Lords to return to Africa on a diplomatic mission on the invitation of King Leopold of Belgium to inspect the development of The Congo. He’s got no interest until he’s informed by the U.S. envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) that there’s a strong possibility Belgian mercenaries are enslaving the Congolese. Williams persuades John to accept Leopold’s invitation and take Williams along so that Williams can find the evidence needed to stop Leopold. John agrees and of course, Jane goes along as well since unless we have her kidnapped by the bad guy Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) we don’t have a plot.

Rom is working with Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou) leader of a savage tribe guarding the location of the fabulous diamonds of Opar. Mbonga agrees to give Rom diamonds in exchange for Tarzan since Mbonga seeks revenge on Tarzan. So once Rom kidnaps Jane, we’re off and running since the movie’s taken a considerable amount of time setting up the situation and the relationship between the characters so we can get into the jungle action, right?

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Right. There’s a considerable lot of it that comes our way. With the kinda stuff we expect to see in a Tarzan movie: Tarzan swinging through the trees, hanging out with apes. I would have liked to see Tarzan fighting a lion or leopard, though. Or riding an elephant. And it’s unforgivable that not once does he let out with the classic Tarzan yell. Oh, we do hear a version of it, but c’mon. Tarzan’s yell is like Batman’s Batsignal or Superman’s ‘S’ symbol. It’s who he is.

Alexander Skarsgard is solid as Tarzan. He does interesting things with his body language and the way he holds his arms and uses his hands that I’ve never before seen an actor in a Tarzan movie do. And I like the way that as the movie goes on, John Clayton sheds more and more of his Western garb as he reclaims more and more of his savage heritage. In fact, the movie could easily be subtitled; “How Tarzan Gets His Groove Back” since it quickly becomes obvious to John Clayton that maybe he’s allowed himself to become too civilized and he’s got to get back to what he really is in order to save his wife.

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Margot Robbie is a lot of fun to watch as Jane and she and Samuel L. Jackson strike the right note with their characters and realize they’re in a jungle adventure movie so they should be having fun while doing so. Jackson’s character is based on the real-life soldier, lawyer, adventurer and journalist George Washington Williams and is an interesting enough character to deserve his own movie. Especially when you do your homework and find out that Williams actually did expose Belgium’s exploitations and slavery of Congolese natives and resources. It’s grating indeed to see him as the comedy relief when you know the background of the real-life Williams and Jackson’s performance takes a little getting used to as he’s pretty much playing a modern day black man in the 19th century but since he’s Sam Jackson, we forgive him. And in a movie that takes itself so seriously, a laugh here or there is badly needed.

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If there’s a major disappointment here acting wise, it’s Christoph Waltz. This is his second performance as a villain that has bored me. There’s nothing particularly memorable about Rom who doesn’t seem very interested in his own plans and schemes and if the villain can’t get excited about his own villainy then why should I?

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So should you see THE LEGEND OF TARZAN? Only if you’re going to see it purely as an action-adventure movie. Because the movie works it’s money-maker off to be just that. It does it’s best to give us a Tarzan that is true to the spirit of the character Edgar Rice Burroughs created while still being sensitive to modern day audiences. It’s a noble effort for what is just supposed to be a summer action movie. I enjoyed it but I fully realize that most people can’t say: ‘It’s just a movie,” and go with it. It has amazing locations, impressive action sequences, excellent special effects and plenty of Alexander Skarsgard’s truly impressive musculature that the ladies will no doubt enjoy.

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Rated PG-13

110 Minutes

 

 

 

 

Django Unchained

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2012

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Produced by Reginald Hudlin, Stacy Sher and Pilar Savone

At the end of the day after we’ve finally put to bed all the complaints about Quentin Tarantino’s use of the word ‘nigger’, the stylized ultra-violence and placing the story of DJANGO UNCHAINED in the pre-Civil War, slavery infested American South ultimately it comes down to one thing: is DJANGO UNCHAINED a movie worth your time and money seeing? I think it is. And I recommend it highly. But you have to keep in mind that I’m a confirmed Quentin Tarantino fan and so I tend to overlook a lot of the flaws in his movies. And they do have flaws, as do all movies as there’s no such thing as a perfect movie. It’s just that Tarantino gets so many things right in his movies I’m totally willing to cut him much slack on those flaws. And I just love his attitude about making movies. He just goes ahead and puts it all out there, manically throwing in so many influences from so many things that you can’t rightly point at a Tarantino movie and say that it’s strictly a crime story or a revenge drama or a war movie. And in the case of DJANGO UNCHAINED it’s a spaghetti western, a comedy, a romantic quest, a revenge saga and a surprisingly honest look at slavery as it existed in the period before the Civil War. That honesty comes with a whole lot of brutality and pain and Tarantino doesn’t turn away from it.

DJANGO UNCHAINED has nothing to do with the classic 1966 spaghetti western “Django” save that the protagonists share the name. There is a subtle passing of the torch in a nice little scene between Jamie Foxx and the original Django, Franco Nero himself but it’s not at all necessary to have seen the earlier movie. This new Django is a black man, a slave with no future save to work and die. But he’s given a new life when he is freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a dentist turned bounty hunter. Schultz is hunting three men who have sizeable bounties on their heads. He’s never seen them before but Django has. Schultz makes a deal with Django who is frankly bewildered by this loquacious, articulate white man who treats him with respect and speaks to him as an equal. If Django helps him find the three men, he’ll give Django his freedom and part of the bounty money.

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During the course of their hunt for the Brittle Brothers, Schultz teaches Django how to shoot and how to track men as he discovers that the ex-slave in his words is “born for this line of work” and shortly the two men are full partners in bounty hunting. Their friendship grows such a degree that Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife Brunhilde/Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who was separated from her husband and sold to Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) master of the fourth largest plantation in Mississippi, Candyland. Candyland is famous for the Mandingo fighters Candie trains and it’s by pretending that they are interested in buying one of his fighters that gets Django and Schultz inside Candyland. But due to the suspicious nature of Candyland’s majordomo Steven (Samuel L. Jackson) the partners may not make it out alive, much less accomplish their mission.

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I have to admit again that I’m a sucker for the reckless operatic nature of any Tarantino film and DJANGO UNCHAINED is no different. It looks and feels like a big movie should and it has the acting power to back it up. And in addition, Tarantino has put away his toolbox of his usual stylistic visual effects to just tell his story and trust the strength of that story and the performances to back it up. Christoph Waltz I fell in love with five minutes into the movie. At first I thought it was a little risky for Tarantino to put the beginning of this film on his shoulders the way he did in “Inglourious Basterds” but Waltz quickly establishes that this is a totally different character and does it very well with a quirky edge that is both very funny and very dangerous.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson appear to have some sort of private side bet to see who can out-ham the other in their scenes together and I mean that in the best possible way. They’re having fun with the material and their characters and it shows in their outstanding performances. I’ve never been much of a Jamie Foxx fan but I liked his performance a lot here. His transformation from raggedy slave to professional bounty hunter to avenging angel is thrilling to watch. And I thought it really refreshing to have as a protagonist an heroic black man who is motivated by the love he has for his wife and wants her back. It gives the movie an emotional core that puts it on a level above a simple revenge or hunt for gold plot.

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If there’s anything in the movie I can point to and go, “say wha now?” it’s Kerry Washington’s performance in the movie. Not that it’s a bad one. Or even a good one as there simply isn’t enough there for me to say one way or another. Considering that it’s her character’s plight that gets the story going, Kerry Washington has surprisingly few lines and even fewer scenes. Oh, trust me when I say that she works with what she’s been given but it just struck me as odd that more wasn’t done with her character.

What else? There’s the parade of familiar and not so familiar faces in the movie. I didn’t recognize Lee Horsley, Tom Wopat, Robert Carradine, Tom Savini or James Remar. But I did recognize Dennis Christopher, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins and James Russo. And I most certainly did recognize Don Johnson and Jonah Hill in an absolutely side-splitting scene  involving The Klan and a discussion about the proper way to cut eyeholes in a hood that is hilarious enough to be worthy of Mel Brooks.

Two more things and I’ll let you get back to what you were doing. The language is extremely raw and graphic and ‘nigger’ is used freely, often and by every member of the cast. If you are offended by the word then I strongly urge you to give the movie a pass. However, if you can accept the usage of the word considering the period of American history the movie is set in as one where the word was used commonly, fine. Mind you, I’m not condoning or condemning the use of the word. But I do consider it my duty as a reviewer of the movie to inform you that the word is used and used a LOT.

The violence. I’d heard a lot about the violence in DJANGO UNCHAINED and maybe I’ve become desensitized due to all the violent movies I’ve seen but I actually didn’t see anything in DJANGO UNCHAINED I hadn’t seen before. The gunfights are obviously inspired by Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” and there are some grisly scenes of mayhem and torture that actually could have been worse if Tarantino had lingered on them. But he stays on the shot just long enough for you to get the idea and then he cuts away to let your imagination fill in the rest.

So should you see DJANGO UNCHAINED? Chances are that if you’re a Quentin Tarantino fan you’ll already made up your mind to see it and if you’re not then I doubt anything I’ve said here will change your mind. But for me, it’s another home run for him. Quentin Tarantino hasn’t yet made a movie I haven’t enjoyed and I immensely enjoyed DJANGO UNCHAINED.

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Rated R

165 minutes

Carnage

2012

Sony Film Classics

Directed by Roman Polanski

Produced by Said Ben Said

Screenplay by Roman Polanski and Yasmina Reza

Based on the play “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza 

When the end credits of CARNAGE scrolled on the screen I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from the animated movie “The Point” which is the lesson learned by the main character Oblio who is the only round-headed person in a land where everything and everyone has a point.  The lesson: You don’t have to have a point to have a point.

What has this got to do with CARNAGE?  Well, I just threw it out there so that if and when you decide to watch it you won’t be taken by surprise by the movie’s conclusion which isn’t really a conclusion.

Alan and Nancy Cowan (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) visit the Brooklyn condo of Michael and Penelope Longstreet (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster) to discuss a recent incident involving their sons.  During a playground dispute, the Cowan boy hit the Longstreet boy with a stick, knocking out two of his teeth.  The parents have decided to meet to avoid legal foofaraw and resolve the matter themselves.  Penelope insists they they can work this out in a civilized manner.  Turns out that she’s wrong.  As the discussion gets more involved as the two couples discuss marriage, parenthood, their jobs and their lives, civilized behavior begins to deteriorate.  And once the apple cobbler, 12 year old Scotch and cigars come out, things really begin to heat up.

Penelope is insistent that societal responsibility must be adhered to and blame assigned.  Michael strives to remain the genial and affable host, struggling to contain his short temper and naturally abrasive manner.  Nancy resents being in competition with Alan’s Blackberry which he seems to prefer talking to during the meeting rather than the Longstreets.  What starts out as a simple meeting soon turns into the four people dissecting each other verbally, cutting away the false faces they wear to get along in the world and getting at who they really are underneath.

Now, don’t worry that we’re getting into “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” territory here.  Although the movie could have easily gone that way, it doesn’t.  Instead, it’s surprisingly light and funny.  The characters don’t really go for each other’s jugular, instead we get them throwing solid jabs at each other but never going for a knockout punch.

What we have here are four really fine actors just…well, acting.  99% of the movie takes place inside of the Longstreet apartment with just the four actors.  And it is fun to watch them at work.  Especially John C. Reilly who stole the movie every chance he got, as far as I was concerned.  But everybody gets a chance to shine and they do.  For some, this movie may be too much like a filmed play but I didn’t have a problem with it.  Matter of fact, I prefer to watch my plays this way, especially when they are this well-acted.

Well, maybe just two problems.  It does get a little tiresome to have the Cowans continually attempt to leave the apartment only to have to return.  And I can’t see four people getting that drunk on one bottle of Scotch.  But at one point, Alan does say; “That’s some Scotch,” so maybe it is possible.

So should you see CARNAGE?  You should if you like the actors involved and want to see them throwing witty, sharp dialog at each other.  There’s really no plot here, no story, no stirring resolution or life-changing  epiphany.  Just four great actors doing what they do best.

80 minutes

Rated R for language as there is no violence or sex at all.