Sunday, January 6, 2013
I don't think there are many people alive who love movies as deeply as Quentin Tarantino. Of course, all film directors should love the craft their in, and I'm sure with very few exceptions, nearly every film director loves movies. But everything Tarantino does is a pastiche of 60s and 70s exploitation genres, but in such a way that you never feel like he's a hipster rubbing your face in with all the references you don't understand. You can watch "Kill Bill" without knowing where this song came from, why Uma Thurmon is dressed in a yellow jumpsuit, or any of the other six trillion call-backs that ooze through Tarantino's entire body of work. Every movie he makes is a love affair to the entire history of film, but even if you had never stepped foot in a movie theater before you'd be endlessly entertained by pretty much every one of his movies... except "Death Proof" because that one sucked. If Quentin Tarantino wasn't unbelievably talented as writing, directing, and shooting his movies, he'd probably be right here where I am, sitting on the Internet writing about movies. And he'd probably write these reviews with far more flair, love, and cleverness than I could ever dream of doing.
"Django Unchained" is Quentin Tarantino's second historical drama. Previously he adapted the Second World War into an war exploitation movie with "Inglourious Basterds"*, and now he's turned the terrible history of Southern Slavery into a Spaghetti Western epic with of course, the slave owners being the bad guys. It appears that Tarantino is moving through the entire history of Politically Correct villains he can slaughter, as nobody is going to shed a tear for Nazis or Southern Slaveowners except for massive pricks. Maybe his next movie will take place in Stalin's Russia and his heroes will murder lots of NKVD agents. Translating the real historical drama of slavery into a Spaghetti Western seems to have massively pissed off Spike Lee, a man whose chip on his shoulder has found its way up his ass, since he seems to think that belittles the "Holocaust" that befell Black Africans as they were brought to this country. To that argument I'd say: Spik Lee is belitting the emotional power and proud history of the Spaghetti Western, which were mostly damn good movies. I don't think "Django Unchained" is going to teach anybody how bad slavery actually was, by now I think we understand that much. But can we set compelling entertaining movies in the period without coming off as preachy? Yes we can. And Tarantino succeeded there.
I won't say "Django Unchained" is Tarantino's best, or even among the best Spaghetti Westerns. But this was still a very good movie, and a loving tribute to the Western genre, which 2012 really needed.
The original film "Django" came out in 1966 and starred Franco Nero, who makes a sizable cameo in this new movie. It came out right after the explosive impact of Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars" which may not have been the first Italian Western, but was certainly the first to have a major cultural impact. "Django" is not nearly as good of a movie as anything by Sergio Leone, but Leone was easily the best director of the Western genre to ever live. Its the story of Django, a ruthless drifter who wanders around the old west dragging a coffin behind him. The film is notable for having an awesome main theme, a dark mood, and some great action scenes. Dozens of knockoff movies were made cashing-in on the title "Django", including three made in 1966 alone. Just like other Western characters like Sartana or Trinity, Django wound up becoming for a brief time a name you would see in dozens of movies, almost none of them actually involving Franco Nero or any of the creative time behind the original "Django". "Django Unchained"'s title is Tarantino's love letter to this weird micro-genre of Django-sploitation, and its title is something of a joke. Personally I think Tarantino only named his film after the 1966 classic in order to use that rocking Django theme.
By the way, if you want to get into the Spaghetti Western genre, you'd find a rich heritage of grandiose epics that remain some of the most beautiful films ever shot to weird B-movies. You simply have to love some of the titles of these movies: "Death Rides a Horse", "If You Meet Sartana, Pray for Your Death", and "God Forgives... I Don't" being some of the most awesome. I have to see more of these movies myself, they were an impressive moment in film history.
Tarantino describes his movie as a "Southern", which a pun saying "its a Western that takes place in the South". The main plot involves the German bounty hunter Dr. Schultz, in a role that Tarantino went out of his way to write to for Christoph Waltz, best known for his brilliant performance as Colonel Landa in "Inglourious Basterds", teaming up with Jamie Foxx, a slave by the rather inexplicable name of "Django". Schultz needs Django in order to find three minor horse thieves by the name of the Brittle Brothers, who have a large bounty on their head. Eventually Schultz makes Django his partner, and decides to help him find his still-enslaved wife, Broomhilde, who is owned by Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. In order to get close to Broomhilde, Schultz and Django have to play a large con on Candie, which inevitably leads to a massive bloodbath and plenty of White Blood spilled upon the lovely soft cotton.
As you'd expect from a Quentin Tarantino movie, just about every performance is incredible. Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz together make an unlikely duo of heroes, with Foxx supplying increasing intensity and power as Waltz supplies most of the dialog and the comic relief. As the movie moves on, Django moves subtly but noticeably into the role of the hero, frightening even his partner by how aggressive he acts against the White slaveowners around him. Leonardo DiCaprio finally is able to get a role where he doesn't have to strain his dramatic muscle to the point where his skull is about to pop out of his head, though his Calvin Candie, despite seeming like a jolly-ole villain, is actually a far angrier and frighteningly realistic person than you'd expect. This is no Kenneth Branagh in "Wild Wild West". And yet, the best performance comes from none other than Samuel L. Jackson, a character who was underplayed in the trailers. Jackson plays Calvin Candie's secondary slave, Stephen Black**, a brilliantly subtle character who makes up Jackson's best performance ever. Black at first is playing up the 'Silly Old Coon' stereotype, sycophantically crooning over his master's back while leaning desperately on his cane, and speaking like a Minstrel Show character. But then Jackson sometimes breaks into his normal voice, gives up his act, and you can see who really is in charge of this plantation.
The only character who I feel was underdone was Broomhilde, who really didn't have much to add to the story other than being the McGuffin everybody was fighting over.
"Django Unchained" does a decent job of straddling the line between comedy and drama. Tarantino goes over the top with his finale gun battle, with so much fake blood splashing the walls of DiCaprio's house that it starts to remind me of the gorier scenes of "Dead Alive"***. A proto-KKK attempts to hunt down our heroes and spends about ten minutes arguing about how impossible it is to lead a cavalry charge with bags over their heads - probably a take-that to the infamous revisionist silent movie epic, "Birth of a Nation". I didn't find "Django Unchained" to be nearly as funny as Tarantino's older movies ("Pulp Fiction" is hysterical), but it still remains a mostly entertaining sit, if somewhat too long. At nearly three hours, "Django Unchained" just barely manages to keep its momentum up throughout the entire running time. Perhaps Tarantino spent too much time setting up the bounty hunting. Still, the movie never truly drags.
Much of Quentin Tarantino's brilliance comes from being able to make massive exploitation movies that in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, would come off as intensely stupid. I wonder what he could have done with "Abraham Stupid: Shiteating Dumbass", the worst movie of last year. Yet with movies like "Django Unchained" Tarantino gets away with it. There isn't much intelligent commentary on what slavery meant or how it affected people's lives, but the movie is so well done that I do not particularly miss it. He's easily the most talented director alive today, and "Django Unchained" is another quality feature in a long very successful career. Far from his best, but still very very good.
I couldn't have finished the 2012 movie season without seeing "Django Unchained", so the next post will be the Best Of 2012 thingy. And its going to be a long one.
* I actually decided that I needed to make a blog after seeing "Inglourious Basterds", a movie that most people seem to love but I really did not like. I suppose it says something about Tarantino when his movie failed because it had far too many good ideas and characters rather than too few. Its actually something similar to my thoughts on "The Man With the Iron Fists", where there were so many characters and so much going on that the movie seemed to lose all focus and frankly became a mess. The Basterds [sic] are barely in it, the only character to really get focused upon is Shoshanna, the French Jewish theater owner. Even when Colonel Landa manages to give a stellar, downright incredible performance, and the opening scene might just be Tarantino's best crafted dialog moment ever. Still it felt like half the movie was spent in a German bar as a British intelligence agent pretended to pass as a German. Originally "Inglourious Basterds" was meant to be a miniseries, and I'm sorry, Tarantino did not condense his material well enough. A few months later I found myself on this very site reviewing "Dissidia Final Fantasy" and the rest is... history, I guess.
** Stephen Black in another universe was a freeman living in early 19th century London, who lived with magicians and demons, and eventually became the King of Faerie. If you get this reference, you are a better person than all who do not.
*** AKA: "Brain Dead" for all those not in North America.