Thursday, May 12, 2016

Civilly Disobedient (a contrarian review of “Captain America: Civil War”)


This spring, a disappointing action movie in which alleged superheroes with parental issues tried to violently kill each other really let me down. No, I’m not talking about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – I’m referring to Captain America: Civil War.

No, not this Civil War

I know, the DC Cinematic Murderverse is grim, cynical and full of characters acting wildly differently from how they act in comic books – so it’s bad, bad, bad. I agree. However, I’m trying to understand why the Marvel Cinematic Emoverse – only slightly less grim, just as cynical, and full of characters acting wildly differently from how they act in other movies in the series – is considered so superior by contrast.

To be clear, I was much more entertained by the latest in-name-only Captain America movie than I was by BvS, and even, for that matter, Avengers: Age of Ultron. CA:CW has witty banter, cleverly staged action sequences, and introduces some very welcome “new” (and nearly new) characters to the Avengers milieu, which makes it an improvement over the hard-to-watch, beige-and-gray murk of the Zak Snyder killfest that was BvS as well as the poorly motivated, plot-hole-filled destructo-thon of A:AoU.

This Civil War

However, CA:CW lacks the coherence of the previous Captain America movies, the inspiration of the first Avengers, or the fun of the more recent Ant-Man. CA:CW is a train designed to get us from one Avengers movie to the next – with the direct route requiring that the filmmakers throw out all of the characterization established since Iron Man was released eight years ago. From the start, the heroes never feel like the same people seen in previous movies. Their motivations make little sense – not only based on what’s been established before, but also based on common sense and normal human behavior.

DC heroes beating each other up is much more offensive
than Marvel heroes beating each other up.
No one’s effectively explained to me why Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) would be suddenly gung ho about submitting to governmental control when six years ago he was telling the US government (in the form of the late Garry Shandling) to go f**k itself because it sought oversight of his privately owned weapon of mass destruction (a request that I thought was reasonable at the time). The fact that, since then, governments in that world were revealed to be infiltrated by an ancient conspiracy of sort-of-Nazis (one of whom was, yes, Garry Shandling) makes Stark’s sudden change of heart even more unbelievable. Sure, you can explain it as a consequence of Sokovia’s destruction in A:AoUbut that was entirely Stark’s fault. Shouldn’t he be the one getting locked up? Couldn’t all of this have been solved if he'd kept his promise from lord-knows-how-many movies ago and retired? But then, we wouldn’t have a reason for ostensible good guys to kick the s**t out of each other.

(Nor would we have an explanation for why probably-too-expensive Gwyneth Paltrow sat this one out. Boyfriend gives you a company and you dump him – I get it, GOOP-girl.)

Suddenly Tony's down with oversight

Why would Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), a soldier who, from his own perspective, was letting the US government pump him full of chemicals and radiation in the name of patriotism a few years prior, decide that basic checks and balances are a threat to freedom?

Why would several folks (Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Falcon, played by Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Anthony Mackie, respectively), who are literally government employees, suddenly act like vigilantes threatened by registration? Why, in fact, would any heroes care about the government having their numbers when hardly anyone has a secret identity? And why would the only superhero with a secret identity (Spider-Man, played by Tom Holland this time) be on the side of registration? Why? Why? Why?

Aren't these guys, like, government agents?

Again, the answer seems to be, “Because we need superheroes fighting and we need to make sure the teams are reasonably balanced out.”

In the movie's world – where Earth's governments acknowledge that there was an alien invasion and yet decide it was the people who saved the world from total destruction who should pay – far too many characters act like idiots entirely out of plot necessity.

The last-minute introduction of a “major” plot twist (yes, involving Stark’s mommy, who is mercifully not named Martha) does nothing to rationalize the previous two hours. By the time we find out that Bucky (Sebastian Stan) killed Roger Sterling – sorry, Howard Stark –and his wife (John Slattery and Hope Davis) we’ve seen the following:

  • Steve being sure Bucky didn’t commit a terrorist act despite knowing his pal will kill on behalf of anyone who gets hold of his conveniently Commie-branded phrasebook
  • Tony being just as sure that Bucky did commit said terrorist act despite knowing of multiple recent governmental conspiracies and the fact that the only evidence is a bad photo of someone in a bad wig
  • Alfre Woodard being sure an easy paycheck is worth playing an angry Jiminy Cricket for five minutes and then disappearing entirely
  • Everyone else being so sure of whatever it is they believe that they have no problem attempting to maim, kill, or imprison people they used to work with

Not really Alfre Woodard
Oh, yeah, about that last bullet-point: War Machine (Don Cheadle) gets paralyzed during all the fighting. He’s still paralyzed at the end of the movie. I know the whole “superheroes get into a big fight” trope is something very familiar to comic book readers, but when you see it on-screen, with actual human beings doing the fighting, it just doesn’t work the same way.

They'll work it out before Thanos
comes, probably.

In the real world, friendships end over gossip, or disagreements about who makes a better Democratic presidential candidate. If you can suspend disbelief enough to think these folks can resolve things and be pals again in the next Avengers movie, you are much better at disbelief-suspension than I am. Sorry, there are some things a friendship can’t rebound from, and on the list are both paraplegia and imprisonment.

What’s even more disappointing is that the actors are uniformly great. At this point, Evans and Downey are their characters; in a few minutes, Holland establishes himself as the most appealing Spider-Man yet; Chadwick Boseman is intriguing as Black Panther; Paul Rudd is … well, he’s Paul Rudd, which is fine. I walked out of the theater thinking, “I bet the next few movies will be great. It’s a shame Captain America doesn’t rate his own movie.”

When you get to know him, he's a real pussycat.
As a kind-of Avengers 2½, CA:CW lets down its cast, who all deserve to shine in movies where they play heroes, rather than a bunch of douchebags who don’t know how to use their words to settle interpersonal conflicts. It’s hard for me to guess how their characters will be restored to normal by the time Avengers: Infinity War rolls around, but it can’t happen soon enough. Maybe they need to take anger-management tips from Bruce Banner – or maybe they should stop modeling their behavior off of Zak Snyder characters.
 But this was totally cool, right?!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Apparently, firefighters (and 311) do NOT care about cats in trees

Despite having seen the old “cat stuck in a tree” bit in numerous films and TV shows over the years, I was completely stopped in my tracks when I heard a piercing meow coming from a roughly 30-foot-tall tree in a housing complex on Myrtle Avenue, where I was in the process of schlepping a disassembled bookcase to the M train. I would soon find myself even more paralyzed by the knowledge that there was not a single New York governmental employee who was willing to do anything to help.

It’s not as if the residents, themselves, didn’t care. Standing not far from the tree was a middle-aged lady holding a box of Meow Mix and shaking it to get the crying kitten’s attention. “The cat has been up there for over two days,” she told me. “We tried to get it, but the ladder wasn’t tall enough.”

As a crowd gathered around us, variously saying “here, kitty, kitty,” or taking cellphone pictures, I asked, “Has the city been called?”

“Would you believe,” Ms. Meow Mix said, “that there was a gas leak and the police and fire departments were here and they just ignored the cat?”

Unfortunately, I did believe her, but, realizing that I was wearing my Superman T-shirt, I felt that surely there was something I could do. Naturally, I called that great lifeline of New York City, 311. Reaching the automated directory system, which asked me what I was calling about, I said, “Cat stuck in a tree.” Soon I got an actual human being, who asked, “How exactly can a cat be stuck in a street?”

“Oh, no, I said it’s stuck in a tree.”

“Oh, that makes more sense. Is it sick?”

“I honestly don’t know...I don’t think so, it’s just extremely scared and about 30 or 40 feet off the ground. Apparently it’s been there a couple of days.”

“Yes, I understand. Let me see what I can find for you.”

After a few minutes of pleasant hold music, the operator came back on the line. Unfortunately, I can’t find anything about cats stuck in trees. I don’t know what to say.” Looking down at my shirt, I responded, “Well, I don’t really have any experience with this, myself, but isn’t this usually something a fireman does? Or Superman? But obviously we aren’t going to get Superman here.”

“Oh, that’s funny. Well, let me put you through to the fire department, would that be okay?”

“Sure, I’d appreciate that.”

The phone rings. And rings. Finally, “Fire Department, what’s your emergency?”’

“Well, I’m not sure this qualifies as an emergency, but 311 transferred me to you. There’s a cat stuck in a tree on Myrtle Avenue and it’s been there a few days.”

The fireman laughs. “We don’t handle cats in trees.”

“Oh. Do you know who does?”

“I can look up Animal Control for you.”
“Cool, could you transfer me?”

“Here’s the number. 212-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah.” Click.

I dial the number. “We’re sorry, the number you have dialed is not in service. No further information is available for this number.”

Ms. Meow Mix calls over to me, “Who did they put you in touch with?”

“Nobody,” I say. “I’m getting passed from person to person and was just given a non-working number.”

“Typical.” She gives up and goes away. So does everyone else. A man comes with a ladder! Finally! We’re saved! But no, he just is there to casually hang a sign. The kitten continues to meow.

I dial 311 again. What am I calling about? “Animal control.”

“Hello, this is 311, how can I help you with animal control?”

“Could you just transfer me or give me a phone number? I was given a wrong number.”

“Well, what do you want them for?” she asks. 

“There’s a cat stuck in a tree,” I reply.

“We don’t handle cats stuck in trees.”

Record scratch. Um.....what? 

I try a companionable tack: “Well, yes, I understand you wouldn’t know what to do about a cat stuck in a tree, I just want the number of animal control.”

“Sorry, no. That’s not in our jurisdiction,” she says, firmly.

“Wait, what isn’t under your jurisdiction?”

“Cats stuck in trees.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that 311 was the clearinghouse for city agencies. I am asking for the number of a city agency. Is that not in your jurisdiction?”

“We are the number for city agencies. But we don’t handle cats in trees.”

“And you won’t connect me with animal control.”


“A city agency.” Silence.

“Is the cat sick? Is the cat yours?” Wait? Is she about to actually help me?

“No, the cat is not mine. I have no idea whether it’s sick, but it’s been up there two days so I assume it’s hungry.”

“I’m sorry, we can’t help you.”

“Can you tell me who can?”


“Even though this is the number that’s supposed to direct me to the right people.”


“I am going to go back to my office at the Post and see if someone has some idea of who handles animals stuck in city property. I’m sure we’ll work something out.”

So here I am, at my desk. A colleague has given me the number for a shelter (because, guess what, Animal Control does not appear to have any kind of public phone number that anyone can find.) The very helpful, caring person on the other end has promised to find out what to do about this. Which is a lot more than anyone at 311 has done. The cat is, as far as I know, still in a tree.

More to follow.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Goodbye, Obi.

In 1999, my sister Trish and I had been roommates for about three years when she learned of an opportunity to adopt a kitten, so we decided to go see the two cats that remained in the litter — an orange tabby and a black-and-white cat with big ears, prominent fangs, and a white mustache. Both kittens were adorable, of course (what kitten isn’t?), but there was something about the kitten in the tuxedo. We’d already had experience with pretty, kind of haughty, cats. Tuxedo-cat wasn’t pretty — he was, frankly, kind of goofy looking. Naturally, we fell in love with him. We took him home and named him Obi, partly to match the awards-show-themed names of my mother’s two cats, Emmy and Clio, and partly because Star Wars:Episode I came out that month. Obi would turn out to be much more entertaining than The Phantom Menace.

Obi very quickly established himself as different from any other cat we’d had. We’d had lap-cats and high-energy playful kittens who eventually settled down, but Obi was both a playful goofball and a cuddly stuffed animal from the beginning. And he was loyal and clever enough that we began to think that he thought he was a dog. Without any reinforcement he instinctively figured out how to fetch things (usually those rings around the caps on milk bottles) and drop them right at our feet (or sometimes, when he got really ambitious, right in my lap or my hand). He was talkative and expressive, and he liked being around people. I soon got used to waking up with leg cramps from not wanting to disturb him while he lay between my thighs, or on my back, or on my stomach. He divided his time almost evenly between my sister and me, and instinctively knew which one of us needed him more, when we were bored, sad, or in pain.

Because my sister was paranoid that he would not know how to find his way back to the apartment if he ever got out, we got a harness and leash for him. That didn’t exactly go as hoped — once the harness went on, he refused to move. But oddly, he had no problem riding on my shoulder like some demented parody of a pirate and parrot as I walked him up and down the street, greeting pedestrians. I once took him to my then-regular hangout, Cleo’s Saloon, where he got a lot of loving attention from the other patrons until one elderly regular shamed me: “He’s not a dog. He’s probably scared out of his mind. What a terrible thing to do to him.” I didn’t take him out as much after that. Eventually he got too heavy for my shoulder, anyway.

Obi was the sort of cat who made people reevaluate how they felt about cats. I was told this by no fewer than four non-cat-people who met him. He was just ... likable. A good little boy. It’s really hard to convey what it was about him that made him so idiosyncratic and clever and special. The fact that he learned and responded to his name faster than any other cat I’ve known. How you could make a small gesture and he’d know you wanted him to come sit with you. How loudly he purred and how he sometimes was so relaxed and happy that he drooled a little (which was gross and funny and sweet all at once). His terrible, terrible breath, the origin of which we never figured out and the remedy for which we never discovered. How “Little Fang’s” overbite made his face so much more expressive and how his wide-ranging vocabulary of whines and gurgles and meows made it so easy for him to communicate exactly what he wanted from you, whether it be food, or for you to chase him, or for you to move over so that he could demand a belly-rub.

I think you could probably put 10 people in a room together to talk about their pets and nobody would be able to truly convey to the others what was special about their relationship.

A few years after Obi joined my sister and me, my parents moved from Philly to California and Trish headed west, as well. I don’t remember any lengthy discussion of custody, but since I was now the last of our little clan on the East Coast, and alone, it seemed natural that Obi stay my companion. The two of us lived a bachelor existence, two buddies, for about a year. And thank goodness for that, because it was a hard adjustment for me and he brought a little light into a not-especially-bright time of my life.

And then Obi moved, too.

It was at least partly my own decision, of course. I won a not-insignificant amount of money on a television game show and thought the best use of it would be to see the world. I planned a months-long backpacking trip through Europe and decided the best thing to do with Obi was to temporarily leave him with my family (including Emmy and Clio) in California.

I never made my trip to Europe. The reason why is a very long story itself, and not worth going into here, but the bottom line is that Obi never moved back to NYC. My family argued that he was enjoying the big house and the outdoors and tormenting the other two (older) cats too much for it to be fair for him to go back to living in two rooms with two windows, and, besides, I couldn’t afford it. I argued, they wore me down, and eventually I agreed with them. And of course it was a better life there. But he was still my little guy, and every time I visited I got a pang that maybe he would have been better off with me. Or at least I would have been better off. I sometimes missed him more than I did my parents and sister, to be honest. At least I could talk to them on the phone.

But remember when I talked about his doglike loyalty? Well it is a fact that for years, every time I visited, he would move right back into the guest room I used a few times a year. And I was told that every time I left again he would spend the next day looking for me or sitting at the door. And it is true that, when my family insisted I talk to him on the phone, I would say it was ridiculous when they said he would start purring when he heard my voice, but secretly I was thrilled by the thought.

Eventually Emmy and Clio died, and we were devastated. But then my parents’ household was joined by three other cats, and Obi finally got to be an older, crankier alpha cat the way Clio had been to him. And, right up until last week, as he passed 13, then 14, then 15, and 16, he continued to be a runner and a jumper and a scrapper, even as he started becoming bowlegged from old age.

It’s hard to explain how I can so much miss a cat that hasn’t lived with me for over a decade. But even after growing up with our first cat, Whisper, and then picking out Emmy and Clio for my parents when Whisper passed away, Obi was the first cat who chose me. He was my little guy no matter who he lived with, just as he was my sister’s. And as long as he was there, I never got another cat, out of loyalty to him. No other cat would have been quite like him, anyway.

Obi, I am so sorry I couldn’t be there with you yesterday when your time suddenly came. I am having a hard time even imagining what it will be like to go to LA and, for the first time, not immediately go find you to give you a hug once I walk through the front door. The thought that the things you do won’t be the first things my mother and sister share with me when we talk on the phone feels so strange. I’ve always missed you, but now missing you is too painful, and every time I think about you I get teary, so I’m trying not to think about you. But I love you, Obi-Wan, and you will always be my best boy.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Bowie and Me

“Something happened on the day he died. Spirit rose a meter, and then stepped aside.”

1. TODAY. Several of my friends and family have left me messages asking me for my thoughts on the death of David Bowie or just intending to commiserate, which feels a little odd to me. They know (as does anyone who I’m close with or who follows me on social media) that Bowie was the closest thing to an idol I have in my life, but the thought of eulogizing him…? We didn’t know each other. I never met the man.

“We passed upon the stair. We spoke of was and when. Although I wasn’t there, he said I was his friend. Which came as some surprise.”

2. I always thought that I would eventually meet David Bowie. Maybe that sounds odd, but especially in recent years it hasn’t seemed that hard to meet him. My sister has met him. My boss has met him. Several of my friends have met him. I always figured I’d get my shot. That maybe the reason I hadn’t yet was because it would happen only when I had something, anything, I could say to him without losing my cool or seeming like a pretentious asshole or just being “a fan.” From an early age I had a fantasy that maybe we would be...not pals, but...colleagues? I always hoped he’d like me and secretly believed he wouldn’t. I’m so conventional. So boring.

“I feel tragic like I’m Marlon Brando.”

3. 1983. I first discovered David Bowie when I was a small child. It was the '80s, the peak of his career and the beginning of what is universally derided as his nadir (though honestly, in my opinion, the nadir lasted less than a decade. Not so bad). My sister got the LP of “Let’s Dance.” She played it a lot. Then I played it a lot. Bowie and Tina Turner in a Diet Pepsi commercial. Live Aid. Dancing with Mick Jagger and Dennis Miller making fun of it on SNL.

Then, not too long after that, I visited a cousin and found a cassette of “Ziggy Stardust.” I played it so much on the trip that he said, “You can keep it.” I did.

“When all your faith is failing, call my name. When you've got nothing coming call my name. I'll be strong for all it takes. I'll cover your head till the bad stuff breaks. Dance my little dance till it makes you smile.”

4. I started asking for his new albums for Christmas. Cassette tapes of “Tonight” and “Never Let Me Down” (Mom and Dad didn’t know any better and neither did I. I loved Bowie’s version of “God Only Knows.” I was a kid).

“Life can be easy. It's not always swell. Don't tell me truth hurts, little girl, cause it hurts like hell.”

5. 1986. Then Labyrinth happened. I got my quarterly issue of “Bantha Tracks,” the “Star Wars” Fan Club newsletter, and there was a big picture of Bowie and George Lucas and Jim Henson. I liked “Star Wars” and Muppets and David Bowie, not necessarily in that order, and I guess Bowie liked Jim Henson and George Lucas, too, right? I swear I never noticed the bulge in his tights until years later.

“Though nothing will drive them away, we can beat them, just for one day.”

6. The ‘90s. The back catalog, in random order, whatever my parents decided to buy me. “Scary Monsters” came before “Hunky Dory” which came before “Space Oddity” which came before “‘Heroes.’” In junior high school I met another fan, Dan Walinsky (shockingly, he came out of the closet in college). We would trump each other by pointing out obscurities that the other didn’t know about. He introduced me to “Absolute Beginners.” I amazed him by producing a rare cassette of “David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal.” 

I read Angie Bowie’s smutty memoir when I'm 15. I adored it. “The Lance of Love.” Later that year I became a junior reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. When my “class” “graduated” from the teen section they gave us a present: Go through the Daily News’ pile of free shit and take one thing you want. “Bowie: The Singles” is right there. I grabbed it. Another teen reporter cursed me out. I was first. Suck it.

“I bought you a pair of shoes, a trumpet you can blow, and a book of rules on what to say to people when they pick on you.”

7. I was not popular as a teenager. The opposite of popular. I was a chubby musical theater performer with a high, over-articulate voice and a funny walk and I went to a jock high school with fewer than 100 students in my grade, who assessed you when you first arrived and that was IT for seven years, until you graduated. No, I was not “out.” But I listened to David Bowie and felt like it was okay to be weird.

“Walls have got you cornered. You’ve got the blues, my friend. And people don’t like you! But you will leave without a sound, without an end.”

8. I never “dressed up” in junior high school. Or in high school. I didn’t wear makeup or have New Wave haircuts. I would have liked to. There was really only one rule my parents had that had total primacy. “Do not embarrass us.” So I was preppy. I would have liked to have dressed up.

By the time I was old enough and confident enough to make my own decisions it felt too late to dress up. And I was never tall enough or thin enough or androgynous enough.

David Bowie probably would not have cared. I did.

See? Conventional. He probably wouldn’t have liked me.

“Don't talk of heartaches, I remember them all. When I'm checking you out one day to see if I'm faking it all. Can you hear me? Can you feel me inside?”

9. But I loved David Bowie. I loved his music, I loved the questionable choices (drum and bass? Tin Machine? “SpongeBob SquarePants”?) as much as the unquestioned ones. The first time I was mugged in Philadelphia, I was wearing a ski jacket and carrying a busted up Walkman with a cassette of “Young Americans” in it. The mugger made me give him the ski jacket. Then he took the Walkman, took a look at it and said, “I don’t want this piece of shit” and gave it back to me. I kept “Young Americans” and had it with me in the cop car. But the cassette case was still in the pocket of the ski jacket. Oh well.

“Love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.”

10. Eventually I have every Bowie cassette. Then I start replacing them with CDs. I love him. Even after he said he wasn’t actually bi. When he says he likes things that I like, I feel like we're connected. He shows up in the “Twin Peaks” movie. Of course he loves David Lynch, I love David Lynch. I stay on the phone for an hour desperately trying to request “Must Be Talking to an Angel” when Annie Lennox is on “A&E By Request.” I can't get through. But Bowie does. What does he request? Guess.

I wind up reading every bio of David Bowie I can get my hands on and EVERY TIME I thrill a little when I’m reminded that he was born on a street called “Stansfield Road.”

I see him in concert more than once. Wait, there’s a story:

Now. Not tomorrow. Yesterday. Not tomorrow. It happens today.

11. It’s the mid-’90s. In college, just moving on from cassettes to CDs. I’m reporting for the NYU newspaper and once again, I’m first to the free pile. This time it’s “1. Outside.” Love it. Review it. To this day I’m haunted by my lack of fact-checking, I refer to one of the characters on the album as “Baby Jane.” She's “Baby Grace.”

I now fact-check for a living. For a newspaper.

But back to the story. Bowie is treating this as a “comeback” (we wouldn’t know the true meaning of that until 2013) he’s performing in Jersey that week, and he’s at Virgin Megastore signing albums. I line up outside. The line’s around the block but I’m going to meet David Bowie! A DJ from some radio station or another asks if there’s anyone in the crowd willing to do “something stupid” for David Bowie concert tickets. I am. He asks me to jump up and down on one leg screaming, “I love David Bowie!” I thought it would be something more stupid, that was easy. I got off easy. I got tickets. My sister came with me. But then they said, “Mr. Bowie is tired now and done signing.” I was 10 feet from the door. No meeting.

They say that at the Outside concert Nine Inch Nails fans left in droves after NIN was done their set. I don’t recall that at all. The concert was amazing.

“I can’t read and I can’t write down.”

12. TODAY. A message from a friend at 9 AM, “I’m so sad.” I’m not ready to get up yet so I put off whatever bad news it is. I wake up and hear “As the World Falls Down” coming from my roommate’s room. Odd. I come out to take my shower and he stops me. “Did you hear the bad news?” “What?” “I don’t want to ruin your day.” It dawns on me. “David Bowie died, didn’t he?” “I’m sorry.”

“There’s something in the air.”

13. 2000s. They’d been predicting it so long I had stopped worrying about it. I am sure I will still eventually meet David Bowie. My sister meets David Bowie. She’s working background on SNL when he performs. She sees him casually leaning against a wall smoking. She couldn’t get me in to 30 Rock. I’ll get my chance.

After a long run of albums that include, in my opinion, some of the best work he’s ever done, (1. Outside,” “Heathen,” “Reality”) I see him in concert again. Again with my sister, this time in Los Angeles. Macy Gray opens. She’s great. But he’s better. Does an entire encore of “Ziggy Stardust” songs, which shocks me and thrills me. On the way to the car afterward we see Dave Foley from “Kids in the Hall” waiting for a bus, which amuses us. We wonder if he enjoyed the concert. Later in the tour Bowie has a heart attack and recedes from public life. The few times he makes an appearance he looks tired. Bloated. I start to worry that I’ll never even get to see him in concert again, let alone meet him. But then he starts showing up again. He’s slimmed back down. “The Next Day” comes out.

“I got seven days to live my life or seven ways to die.”

14. November 2014. I have never been to Chicago. It was never in my top 10 of places to visit. But I fly out to Chicago to see the “Bowie Is” exhibit. No photography allowed, but I sneak a shot of the street sign where he grew up. Stansfield Lane.

“You’re watching yourself, but you’re too unfair. You got your head all tangled up, but if I could only make you care. Oh no, love, you’re not alone. No matter what or who you’ve been. No matter when or where you’ve seen, all the knives seem to lacerate your brain. I’ve had my share, I’ll help you with the pain. YOU’RE NOT ALONE.”

15. TODAY. I read the CNN obituary. It ends with, “David Bowie’s music was a salve for the alienated and the misfits of the world.” I laughed out loud. FUCK YOU, CNN.

My boss texts me, "Let me know if you need to take the day off."

I keep my shit together at the shrink's office until he says, "Just because you didn't know him doesn't mean it wasn't real."

“They say, ‘Hey, that’s really something. They feel he should get some time. I say he should watch his ass, ‘My friend, don’t listen to the crowds.’ They say ‘Jump.’”

16. A digression. It's the 2000s. I’ve told people this and some people don’t believe it, but it’s true. I don’t have recurring dreams. But I used to have SERIALIZED dreams. I have dreams where I see people and they casually refer to events that only ever happened in other dreams. This happened through much of the Aughts and I became semi-convinced that when I was asleep I was actually astrally projecting to an alternate timeline. That's how strict the continuity of my dreams was. In those dreams, David Bowie often appeared. We weren’t best friends, but he knew who I was and that comforted me.

A sample conversation: “I should have known you'd be here, Chris.” “It was a great show.” “Well, thank you. How’s the work coming?” “I’m working on it.” “Well, let me know, I’ll do a backup track. You have to get moving.”

I was in a major depression for much of that decade. The dreams stopped somewhere around 2011, which is when I started getting serious about my mental health. I don’t know what that means.

“Chimes.Goddamn, you're looking old. You'll freeze and catch a cold. 'Cause you've left your coat behind. Take your time.”

17. A few days ago. My colleague at work sends me a link to a website: “What David Bowie was doing at your age.” I tell him, “I know damn well what he was doing at my age. More than I am.” At the “Bowie Is…” exhibit every item around every corner showed me how prolific and prodigious and YOUNG Bowie was for most of his career.

“All the days of my life. All the days I owe you.”

18. I thought I would meet him eventually. And I think now I didn’t meet him because I frittered away my time and my youth and did not make art. If I had made art I would almost have certainly run into David Bowie eventually.

“Down in space, it's always 1982.”

19. 18 months ago. David Bowie, apparently, is diagnosed with cancer. He turns around and records another album, writes music for the “SpongeBob” musical and collaborates on “Lazarus,” which, honestly, I enjoyed but did not love. Some of my friends HATED it. It’s a show about a man who lives forever and cannot die. I can’t possibly imagine what was in David Bowie’s head at the time.

He started young. He made history. He had a body of work spanning 50 years. He inspired me as a kid and now I definitely won’t see him again in concert. Two days ago was the last time I would unwrap a new David Bowie album.

“I know when to go out. I know when to stay in, get things done.”

20. I hurt like I knew David Bowie. I never got to meet him. But I have decades left before I’m 69. Time to get things done.

This way or no way. You know I'll be free. Just like that bluebird. Now, ain't that just like me?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

NY Comic-Con News: "Back in Time" set to take us back to "Back to the Future"

At New York Comic-Con on Thursday, Jason Aron, the director of “Back in Time,” a documentary celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Robert Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future,” was asked by an audience member, “Do you feel anything would have been different if Eric Stoltz had played Marty McFly?” (Stoltz  famously was replaced by Michael J. Fox as the lead of the film in the middle of shooting). Answered Aron: “We wouldn’t be sitting in this room.”

Touching on the enormous impact the “Back to the Future” and its two sequels had on pop culture, Aron said the documentary came about when, in the midst of working on a short film in 2013, strangers repeatedly would stop him to talk about the vintage DeLorean he was using. “It made me think we should make a documentary.” Two successful Kickstarter campaigns (raising $45,000 and over $140,000, respectively) and the assistance of “Back to the Future” co-writer Bob Gale and “Back in Time”’s co-executive producer Adam F. Goldberg (creator and show-runner of ABC’s “The Goldbergs”) later, Aron and Louis Krubich, executive producer, and Lee Leshen, producer, had interviewed cast members and crew of the original film including Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine McFly), Steven Spielberg (executive producer) and Zemeckis (director), as well as VIP fans such as television producer Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Terry and Oliver Holler, who created a screen-accurate DeLorean time machine and have traveled to all 50 states with it to raise money for Fox’s foundation, which supports research for Parkinson’s Disease.
Never underestimate the impact of the DeLorean: In a clip from the documentary, Gale mentions that Ford offered thousands of dollars for the use of their Mustang in the movie. Gale’s response: “Doc Brown doesn’t drive a f—king Mustang.” Gale was a touchstone for the production of the documentary: “[He] really helped us out,” says Krubich, “[We said] ‘We need Lea [Thompson], can you help?’ In three or 4 minutes we had an e-mail address and in 30 minutes we had a scheduled date for the[interview].” Gale also assisted in getting clearance from Universal for the use of clips from the films.
Were the cast and crewmembers difficult to work with? Though all had busy schedules, some of them were surprisingly low-maintenance. On preparing for an interview with Lloyd, Leshen says, “We went to the Ralph’s [supermarket]…we got three different kinds of coffee, we got every kind of pretzel and chip you could imagine….he had one pretzel and a half a bottle of water. [it cost us]  $400 dollars.”

The labor of love paid off by giving the crew access to some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. “Riding [a rweal, experimental] hoverboard and feeling frictionless movement under your feet” was the number one experience Leshen took away from making the movie. Meeting superfans like Bill Shea, owner of one of the original DeLoreans used in the movies (valued at over $500,000) was another. Fans who were present at the panel discussion got an experience of their own to take home with them: Each attendee was given a special limited edition bottle of “Pepsi Perfect,” a soda featured in the 2015 scenes of “Back to the Future II.”

More importantly, “Back in Time” will impact lives in the present day. A 13-city tour of the movie, with music by the “BTTF” tribute band the Flux Capacitors and appearances by the famous car, will raise money for the Michael J. Fox foundation. The tour comes to NYC on November 2.

When asked what the most amazing thing the filmmakers have taken from the experience their journey, Krubich instead mentioned the chance of an event that seemed impossible when “Back to the Future II” came out that, if the movie got it right, was supposed to happen this year: “The cubs winning the world series this year…if [the “Back to the Future” creators] got that right, that will be the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen.”

“Back in Time” premieres on Netflix streaming on Oct. 21. The “88MPH” theatrical tour comes to NYC’s Mason Hall on Nov. 22 and the Sharp Theater on Nov. 23.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TV Review: "The Muppets" gets a shaky start, but has potential

The Muppets
Tuesdays, 8 p.m. (7 p.m. CST)

I had high hopes. I really did. While others clutched their Miss Piggy-endorsed pearls over the thought of a naughtier, “adult” take on the Muppets, I didn’t bat an eye. Having been a fan of the gang of misfits since their heyday during my childhood, and having familiarized myself with Jim Henson’s work over the years, I didn’t buy the notion that the Muppets were “for kids” in the first place. In fact, I’ve often said that they lost their way following Henson’s death in 1990 precisely because they were being treated as kiddy entertainment — you can keep your Muppet Treasure Island and others of its ilk. Bring on the double entendres!

True, I was a little disappointed that The Muppets was not going to be a variety show like the classic Muppet Show and the less-classic-but-had-its-moments Muppets Tonight! I felt then, and now feel more than ever, that variety is the medium that the characters truly thrive in. With Neil Patrick Harris singlehandedly attempting to bring back the genre with Best Time Ever, and 2011’s The Muppets and 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted’s focus on that aspect of their history, this could have been their moment to resurrect the form. But I kept an open mind about the single-camera mockumentary format, even if it’s long past being “new” post-The Office, Parks and Recreation, Arrested Development, Modern Family, and on and on and on. After all, the Muppets often thrive when you place them in situations you don’t expect to find them. So truly, I had high hopes.

Where did The Muppets go wrong? Simple. It just wasn’t very funny.

Like I said, I personally have no problem with the Muppets engaging in edgier humor. As an adult there are plenty of moments of their output during the Henson years that make you say, “How could I have missed that?” Henson had a wicked sensibility, and he and his writers imbued their work with a love of wordplay, innuendo, and even occasional insult humor. Look at the scene in The Muppets Take Manhattan, for example, where an amnesiac Kermit rips Miss Piggy apart for her insistence that she has a romantic relationship with him:
 “Maybe you expected me to go hog wild? Perhaps you could bring home the bacon! Ah, the sounds of love: ‘Soooooo-ey! Oink, oink!’ ”
But the problem with The Muppets is that apparently the entire joke of the show is to put wild, “adult” things in the mouths of the characters, as if to say, “OMG! The Muppets are now PG-13! That’s hysterical!” They just forgot actual jokes. Take for example, this dialogue among members of the band The Electric Mayhem early in the episode.

Floyd: “[He’s] not good on the road.” Animal: “So many women, so many towns.”

If this had been a scene featuring a human band in any TV show or movie made after, say, 1985, would it be funny? No, of course not. It would be trite. Cliché. At best it would be a shorthand character-defining moment, but certainly nothing that would make someone laugh out loud. It’s a stereotype that’s been done to death. But “the joke” here is that it’s Animal, a character with built-in recognition. “Wow! They’re implying that Animal, a puppet, has groupies! That’s amazing!” No, it’s not amazing. It’s not a joke. It doesn’t define the character because the character is already defined. This doesn’t even reach the level of sophistication of Meet the Feebles. And practically every joke is like this. Kermit “stress eats.” Wow! “Fozzie knows what ‘bear’ means in the gay community!” Wow! “Zoot is an addict.” That’s so, like, adult!

Compare this to these excerpts from when Kermit and Rowlf meet in The Muppet Movie: “I finish work, I go home, read a book, have a couple of beers, take myself for a walk and go to bed.” “I don’t mean to scare ya, my friend, but I betcha, come Father’s Day the litter bug’s gonna getcha.” Those lines are clever. They’re examples of wordplay that make you take a second and say, “He’s a dog, he goes to the bathroom by taking himself for a walk!” Or, “They’re talking about sex!” In other words, they’re jokes. They’re not for kids, they fit the characters that have already been established through years of familiarity, and they’re funny.

Aside from the ever-present feeling that the writers are trying to push buttons rather than craft punchlines, The Muppets also lacks an ingredient that has been present in almost every Muppets project for the last 50-plus years: Anarchy. Henson and his team (of which only two colleagues, Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire, remain active Muppeteers) loved randomness, non sequiturs, silly puns and sillier physical humor. A well-known quote from Henson regarding his comedic sensibility was, “It all ends in one of two ways: Either something gets eaten or something blows up.” Nothing gets eaten or blown up in The Muppets. Nor do we see ecstatic somersaulting penguins, weirdos getting shot out of cannons, incomprehensible chickens, dance numbers gone terribly wrong, inanimate objects coming to life. Despite ready access to guest stars and musical acts, the writers feel hemmed in by the Larry Sanders Show-like premise, even though there’s no reason this couldn’t have worked if it had been infused with Muppety energy. At no time do the Muppets sing, or dance, or really do much of anything that hasn’t been done much better by real people elsewhere. It feels like such a wasted opportunity.

So, you might ask, did The Muppets do anything well? Absolutely. What The Muppets gets right is an area that hasn’t consistently been done well in the Muppet world, post-Henson: The relationships among the characters are solid. Even “broken up” (we’ll see how long that lasts), there is genuine chemistry and pathos in Miss Piggy and Kermit’s relationship (and let’s not forget that their initial relationship over many years of The Muppet Show was as a “couple” that one of the members denied being a part of). Likewise, Piggy is familiar and well-defined, and the one character who is perfect for this setting. Fozzie Bear’s interactions with his girlfriend’s family also generate actual laughs. And though Gonzo has yet to have a moment to shine, Scooter’s resurgence (many years after the death of Richard Hunt in 1992 put the character on the back-burner for years) was welcome and character-appropriate, as was his relationship to Kermit. The characters feel like themselves even if they don’t feel especially funny. Gone is the angst of the last two Muppet movies, where the central conflict was about Kermit being abandoned by his friends. Here, he is back being the able leader of the team and the character that holds the ensemble together.

Another welcome aspect to the show is that it is, in fact, about the Muppets. The real ones. In their last few movies and television specials it began to feel like the Muppets were doomed to playing second-fiddle to whatever name was lined up to “star” in their films. Between that and the introduction of post-Disney Muppet Walter (blissfully not present in the pilot), I had begun to fear that the writers and puppeteers were afraid to actually focus on the characters Henson and Co. created. Here, the celebrity guests are just that: guests who look happy to let the Muppets shine.

So there is some hope going forward, and I haven’t given up on the show just yet. If the characters we’re tuning in to see could just be funny, occasionally, the Muppets — and their eponymous show — might just have a future.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Steven Spielberg and Matt Patches ought to get over themselves

So, a friend of mine recently posted an interview Steven Spielberg granted to Esquire, and I was...annoyed.  In it, Spielberg is quoted as saying:
"We were around when the Western died and there will be a time when the superhero movie goes the way of the Western. It doesn't mean there won't be another occasion where the Western comes back and the superhero movie someday returns. Of course, right now the superhero movie is alive and thriving. I'm only saying that these cycles have a finite time in popular culture. There will come a day when the mythological stories are supplanted by some other genre that possibly some young filmmaker is just thinking about discovering for all of us."
Now, to be fair, this is a mild statement in context. But Matt Patches' later commentary and the misleading headline blow this statement so far out of proportion in order to serve Patches' agenda that it rubbed me the wrong way. Enough that I think it's time for a good rant.

See, I don't really have a dog in this fight. I like superhero movies (at least some of them) just fine, while also acknowledging that there is currently an overabundance of them, and some are just plain bad (I won't say which, because someone will surely turn this into a fight over our respective taste in movies). If next year there are no superhero movies released, I'll be happy. If next year ten superhero movies are released, I'll see the ones I want to see.

However, what I can't stand is hypocrisy, disingenuousness, or pettiness, which is what I see reading this. Spielberg comes off in the article like a cranky old man who is worried his toys are being taken from him, which is far from the truth. At this point in his career, Spielberg should be secure enough in his legacy that he doesn't need to take potshots at others in his industry or start playing prognosticator. Patches, on the other hand, sounds like someone who is desperate to be seen as a champion of independent cinema while simultaneously coming off as a guy who is just repeating things that more thoughtful people have already said.

In fact there is so much wrong with this brief article that I need to break my objections to it down in pieces.

There are valid arguments to be made about the dominance of superhero movies on the current film calendar. There are also arguments that I find less valid (namely the ones that are breathlessly hysterical and forget that the movie industry, from its inception, has always been largely dominated by films that rely on the entertainment value of spectacle). However, any valid arguments are drowned out when they're made by the wrong person. Who is the wrong person? Steven Spielberg, of course. The man who is credited with inventing the blockbuster effects-driven movie as we know it, and who has continually, long after he began directing more "prestigious" projects, kept adding entries to the genre. In the past decade alone, Spielberg has been attached as director or producer to "War of the Worlds," "The Legend of Zorro," "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull," "Super 8," "Cowboys and Aliens," "Real Steel," "The Adventures of Tintin," "Men in Black 3," "Jurassic World," and no fewer than three "Transformers" movies. He is attached to direct "Ready Player One," coming out in 2017.

How hypocritical does a man have to be to knock blockbuster films when they have been the primary source of his income for decades? Sure, he hasn't made "superhero movies" (though I would argue that Zorro, Indiana Jones, the Men in Black and the Transformers are superheroes of a sort), but occasionally turning out something "Based on a True Story" or a "message" picture does not give one the right to get on a high horse about popcorn entertainment.

Let's talk a little more about those prestige pictures. In between directing and producing good-old-fashioned popcorn entertainment like the "Indiana Jones" and "Jurassic Park" movies, Spielberg has racked up an impressive number of "serious" and non-genre films such as "Lincoln," "Schindler's List," "The Color Purple," "Saving Private Ryan," and "Catch Me If You Can." Nobody, including myself, can accuse him of being unable to tackle a variety of subjects. No filmmaker in history has a more diverse or successful body of work. 

But Spielberg's complaint about "Lincoln," of all movies, being tough to sell in Hollywood is pitiful. Why? Because "Lincoln" is a perfect example of the fact that, even when he isn't making popcorn entertainment, Spielberg is incapable of making "small" movies. "Lincoln," which has a story that certainly could have been told with a lower budget, had an ensemble cast with no fewer than 20 highly-regarded (and expensive), award-caliber leading and character actors,  plus a $65 million budget  — certainly not "Jurassic World"-size, but also hardly indy-film level. 

As for his style of direction, Spielberg is rarely capable of making a movie that is "quiet," "subtle" or "emotionally complex," all things we consider hallmarks of "small" filmmakers. Look up and down Spielberg's list of sweeping, emotive, panoramic films and one wonders why this man thinks he is the person to be championing personal film-making. Even Spielberg's "important" movies are filmed like they are blockbusters.

By the way, what would the issue have been if "Lincoln" had been picked up by *gasp* HBO? Spielberg still seems to be living in a world where television is for garbage and movies are the only "legitimate" way to present filmed drama. HBO, Showtime, Netflix, and numerous other networks have been the home of profound, well-written stories for years, now. Spielberg, stop clutching your pearls.

Again, no one can dispute that at this moment in time, superhero movies are in a dominant position in the marketplace, and only the most die-hard comic book geek would begrudge pruning the schedule a bit. But both Spielberg and Patches are presenting one or both of two equally ridiculous hypotheses: That the market can't support multiple examples of one genre, or that having multiple examples of one genre is bad for art. I can't comment on the latter premise  it seems like too subjective an opinion, though I personally tend to dispute the notion that making any one type of art somehow eliminates the possibility of another type. However, the other hypothesis is shown to be patently ridiculous when asserted by Spielberg, a man who has directed (or is scheduled to direct) 11 movies that have focused on one of two subjects: aliens and World War II. That's out of 34 movies total. 33 percent of his directorial output. Who is he to criticize any filmmakers for their lack of diversity?

Let's be very clear about the mythology of the superhero movie, which is currently having a resurgence in movie theaters and on television screens. Yes, the stunning success of these movies in recent years has led to an explosion, and many more in development. And yes, because of technological advances, the movies can get bigger and bigger and be budgeted for more and more money. But the idea that suddenly people are going to just "give up" on superheroes is absurd. Spielberg should know better  as a child he read comic books himself. Sure, the boom in superhero movies is a fairly new thing, but that ignores the fact that these movies are based on characters that have been around for decades  in some cases in excess of 70 years. Clearly there is something about the superhero that captures human (specifically American) imagination on a deep level. The prediction that they'll go away is about as ridiculous as predicting that Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, or Dracula will go away." It is more than a little late to dispute the role of these characters in our culture.

Beyond all of the raging hypocrisy and lack of basic scholarship of Spielberg's angst (which Patches is more than happy to embroider upon), what burns me up more than anything is that the basic premise is completely wrong. The Western did not die.  Here is where I'm willing to concede that Spielberg meant something valid that he didn't actually express well, which is that certain genres wax and wane over time. I have no doubt that there will come a time when there are fewer superhero movies. People will tire of them, grosses will go down, movie-makers and film companies will move on. But superheroes won't "die" any more than Westerns did. I don't believe Spielberg meant what he said, but Patches runs with his point and desperately attempts to prove it while only succeeding in doing the opposite. Yes, "the stampede [for Westerns] died down." But Patches' own examples prove that the Western has never "died out." As long as there are Tarantinos, Coens, Eastwoods or other good filmmakers making good Westerns, the Western survives. As long as television fans hold out hope for a "Deadwood" follow-up, the Western survives. Call it "tumbleweeds," but don't call it dead

People also have spoken of the "death of the musical," while conveniently ignoring blockbusters like "Mamma Mia," "Chicago," and "Into the Woods" and TV audiences flock to watch "The Sound of Music" and "Peter Pan" live. They're speaking now of the "death of the serious film" as gorgeous and important movies like "12 Years a Slave" and "Boyhood" continue to dominate the awards circuit and make back their budgets. But movie genres do not die, as long as talented movie-makers keep them alive. The same will be the case for the superhero film.

THERE IS ROOM FOR EVERYONE: The bottom line is, it doesn't matter what Spielberg or Patches or Christopher Stansfield think about superhero movies. Clearly, people enjoy them. People also liked "Lincoln." People liked "The Theory of Everything." There is room in the theaters, on television, on the Internet for narrative of all types. Hoping that superhero movies "go away" does nothing to help those other types of narrative. It's just a petty way to disparage the work of fillm-makers who may care just as much about making a good "Captain America" movie as Spielberg cares about making a good Tom Hanks tearjerker. And it's beneath both Spielberg and Mr. Patches. 

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Film Review: Django Unchained is a Slave's Hero's Journey

While across the hall in another theater Abraham Lincoln and his Team of Rivals debate about the possibility of emancipation and use the legal process and a bloody Civil War to achieve that end, the title character of Quentin Tarantino’s incredible Django Unchained has a different method. Kill slavers. Make it bloody. And make it painful. History and Steven Spielberg tell us that it was Lincoln’s method that eventually got the job done, but I’ll be damned if Django’s way isn’t a lot more cathartic.

It is an interesting fact that Lincoln and Django Unchained were released in the same year, within a matter of weeks, and it isn't wrong to wonder if this is a sign that America is finally willing to tackle the subject of slavery head-on. One can only hope that is the case. Cinematically, it is an equally wonderful thing that we get the chance to see so clearly that Big Issues can be tackled in many, many, big ways. Anyone who dismisses Tarantino’s film as just another pulp fiction revenge film (though if that is all it is, it is enough) is missing the very Big Way he approaches Django's story.

And what a story it is – the film opens with the title character as one of several nameless slaves in chains being forced on a long march on bare feet from one owner to the next in the dead of winter. That the star, Jamie Foxx, is barely recognizable or even noticeable among his company is most likely intentional, just as the de-personalization of slaves was the very intentional method by which a majority of whites managed to sleep at night for hundreds of years as they and their neighbors perpetrated unspeakable horrors on other humans. After an incongruous German in a tooth-festooned buggy shows up to “parlay” with the slave's captors (James Remar and James Russo), killing one and leaving the other to be dealt with by his former “property”, Django gets a horse, a winter coat, and most importantly, a name.

What follows is the most linear of Tarantino’s movies. This time around the director forgoes his usual time-shifts and digressions to focus on Django and his long journey to claim his life, identity, and wife (played by Kerry Washington). Naturally, being a Tarantino revenge movie (his third in a trilogy that began with Kill Bill and continued with the alternative-history Inglourious Basterds), this involves a great deal of violence and language that will certainly offend many people, as it is intended to do.

It is wrong, however, to think that violent catharsis is the only aim or method of Django Unchained. Instead, this is arguably Tarantino’s first attempt at making mythology. The sequence of events in Django are straight out of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. After Django receives his “call to adventure,” shedding his former passivity to go on a quest, his Merlin/Obi-Wan Kenobi, Dr. King Schultz, a German dentist-turned-bounty hunter (played with charisma and humanity by Christoph Waltz) in turn provides him with talismans in the form of guns and a horse. In Django’s hands these guns are supernatural – that a man who would never have been allowed near weaponry (or a horse) of any kind is such an exceptional marksman and natural rider proves this. Django is then able to "cross the threshold" by dispatching his former slave-masters, the Brittle Brothers (Cooper Huckabee, Doc Duhame, and M.C. Gainey), and rather than disappearing back into obscurity, goes on to a greater quest – the rescue of his wife, Broomhilda, from her current captors. Certainly the fact that “Hildy” is (phonetically) named after one of the daughters of Wotan, King of the Gods, is a clear tip-off that she is a princess in distress and the worthy object of any hero’s quest.

Likewise, it should come as no surprise that there are trials along the way. After his initial assistance in claiming the bounty of the Brittle Brothers, Django is taken on as apprentice and partner in bounty hunting by Schultz, and through a series of trials (including the attempted revenge of a group of wannabe Klansmen led by Don Johnson) and the collection of many more bounties, Django eventually learns that the villain he must defeat comes in the form of plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCarprio). Candie is not only the guardian of his own protected kingdom (“Candieland”) and damsel Broomhilda, but also the sadistic owner of “mandingo fighters” (slaves forced to fight to the death by their owners for sport), and the lord of his own dragon/Darth Vader in the form of self-proclaimed “house n----r” Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Naturally, Django succeeds. I suppose that's a spoiler, but you can’t make a good revenge movie without the hero getting his revenge, and you can’t make a Hero’s Journey without the mentor figure eventually dying, leaving the hero on his own to use the skills he acquired. The rescue of Broomhilda turns out not to be the ultimate goal of the quest – in truth, what both Django and Broomhilda are questing for is their own agency, which comes to them only after a literal trial by fire in the form of the ultimate destruction of Candieland and all of its evil.

Of course, this simple retelling of the plot can not possibly prepare the audience for the levels of gore, violence, and profanity contained within, though familiarity with Tarantino’s other work will probably suffice. It also does no justice to the uniformly excellent performances by the entire cast of actors. As usual, minor roles are filled by a parade of stars and former stars that give the audience the pleasure of saying, “Hey, wasn’t that-“ every few minutes. First there is the aforementioned Don Johnson, naturally called “Big Daddy” and making the most of every moment of his time dressed up like Colonel Sanders. Then there is Jonah Hill as a comically inept Klansman, and Lee Horsley(!) as a corrupt Sheriff, and Tom Wopat(!!) as a Marshall. And Russ Tamblyn! And Michael Parks! And Robert Carradine! And Bruce Dern! And on and on and on. There is even Walton Goggins, who is simultaneously appearing in that other movie about slavery across the way.

Every one of these actors has an absolute ball being as ugly or villainous as necessary, but the two A-List actors who feature as the main villains of the piece, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, reach new heights (or depths) in their acting careers playing completely against type. DiCaprio rarely has the opportunity to play an unabashed bad guy, and it is testament to his performance that he makes your skin crawl from the first moment he appears on screen to the time he is finally dispatched. Pay special attention to the scene where, in anger, he crushes a wine glass in his hand. That was unplanned, and the blood is real, but DiCaprio remains committed throughout and never breaks character.

Jackson, on the other hand, finally gets to play something other than his archetypal badass character, and his willingness to deglamorize himself as an evil version of the guy on your box of rice lets him prove that he actually does have more than one note to play. His is a quieter evil, and Jackson manages to portray that evil with nuance and menace even while shuffling along with a cane and white hair.

Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington as the Hero and his Princess both do an exceptional job of making you feel genuine emotion for them, and Foxx especially shouldn't be overlooked simply because he underplays his stoic-by-design character. It is in the scenes when he is most silent that you can see exactly what is going on behind his eyes as he must ingratiate himself into enemy territory and in some cases stand idly by while others are destroyed in front of him.

Naturally, the very frequent use of the “n word” has made a lot of people very uncomfortable, and it is worthwhile that it be discussed and argued as much as necessary. However, people should feel uncomfortable -- that is, in fact, the point. At no time did I feel it was being used in a way that was historically inaccurate. It’s worth noting that the few occasions we have seen slavery depicted on screen in all its brutality have been on television, where such language is not permitted. Like it or not, the word “nigger” is a fact of history, and if it makes some white audiences squirm then it is as it should be. (I should point out, strictly anecdotally, that the audience I saw Django Unchained with was majority black (I was one of only four white people in the audience, by my count), and though I didn't hear much reaction to the use of that particular word, I did hear quite a lot of cheering every time a white person got blown to bits. Which, again, is as it should be, I think.)

Another facet of the movie that I imagine people will take a great deal of offense to is just how funny it is in places. The scenes with the Klansmen, for example, or Jackson’s shuffling obsequiousness before he reveals how truly evil he is, provoke genuine laughter, as does Django's initial choice in clothing when he is finally allowed to dress himself for the first time. And then they make you uncomfortable for laughing. I am not sure that Tarantino should be condemned for making people feel uncomfortable about this period of history or for knowing how to deftly release the tension whenever it is necessary. At its best, some of his slapstick ranks with Mel Brooks’s work in The Producers and Blazing Saddles, which I imagine would be condemned today by the same people who think that there is no place for humor in Tarantino’s films.

It feels wrong to get through an entire review without going into detail about the excellent camera work, the great editing, the remarkable-as-usual anachronistic soundtrack, or the conscious sense of homage that Tarantino brings to every one of his idiosyncratic scenes. But we know what to expect from him, so there’s no real point in dissecting each camera angle. Needless to say, you can tell this is a Tarantino film, and each choice is deliberate and largely successful.

In conclusion, if you want to see history as it (basically) was, you will be well-served by seeing Spielberg’s excellent Lincoln. If you want to see history as perhaps it ought to have been, you owe it to yourself to see Django Unchained. Frankly, I think each film informs the other wonderfully, and also informs audiences – not just of useful facts, but also of important feelings, including a very justifiable rage and a pain that the country is only just now getting around to confronting.