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Django Unchained — 8/10

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012, Quentin Tarantino): 8/10

It’s end-of-year catchup time, and I’ve been watching a ton of movies, as the 11 of you reading this know if you’ve kept up with my flurry of posts lately. And I’ve started watching even more than I’ve written about because I didn’t finish a few (e.g. THE TURIN HORSE, the first 30 minutes of which I found beautiful and potentially devastating, but plodding and depressing and grueling to endure). Furthermore, Michael Haneke’s AMOUR tops my list as the best of the bunch — and it’s a slow, relentless march towards decay, death, and nothingness.

Well, there’s only so many more AMOURs and TURIN HORSEs a man can take before he blows his brains out, and my antidote came just in time — and who better to bring the medicine than Quentin Fucking Tarantino. Here’s a guy who’s never made anything close to a bad film, and two of them (KILL BILL & PULP FICTION) are singular, timeless masterpieces. So why am I not surprised that DJANGO UNCHAINED came as an adrenaline surge of entertainment — rip-roaring, howlingly funny, seductively visual, and primally satisfying.

Critics of the film will say, okay yeah — but it’s all surface pleasure, and there’s no “there” there. First of all, you can probably say that about a few other QT films (even the best ones like KILL BILL) but even still, superficial does not mean disposable. Secondly, I would disagree regardless — there is some “there” there, it’s just broad and jagged, much like the whip-scarred shoulders of the opening image: a slave marching in step, something that can boil our blood with moral outrage instantly.

So what’s the “there?” Take the progression of the two leads in this film and follow the shift in focus, shift in power, and ultimate importance. In the first act, the white guy is the protagonist — Schultz teaches Django this and that and is the instrument of the quiet, subservient Django’s every move. In the second act, Django picks up steam and confidence, and soon becomes Schultz’s equal — both in screen time and story dominance, and almost in dialogue as well. In the third act, Django the protege surpasses Schultz the master, and becomes the archetypal hero, reducing Schultz to a mere bystander (or worse) in his mythical journey through hellfire to rescue his princess.

Tarantino has used the progression of Django’s power to mirror the black man in American culture, as overt racism has dissipated and allowed blacks to achieve every bit the importance whitey has. Take the NFL — in the ’50s and ’60s, blacks were predominantly defenders and rare skill position players. In the ’80s, black QBs like Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham were anomalies. Now, the likes of Brady, Brees, and Rodgers have met their equals in Vick, RG III, and Wilson. This is thanks to the end of anti-black-QB prejudice by owners and coaches. (Speaking of which, the black head coach has also become less and less of a rarity). Should we get into the fact that the leader of our country, the most powerful political position in the free world, is black? Didn’t think so. I’m not saying QT is comparing Django to Obama; I’m saying by showing us the huge arc of power-grabbing this lead character occupies, he’s able to cause the audience to consider the sheer horror that slavery (in not too distant a past in this country) really was, and how far we can come when people are allowed the freedom to pursue. This is something Kushner and Spielberg’s LINCOLN was telling us (over and over again), but it’s something Tarantino is showing us.

(Added: wanted to say something about the over-the-top repeated use of the N-word here; something tells me QT is of the mind that if you repeat a word often enough it loses its meaning — and I think he wants to de-thorn the slur. But I can’t be sure, really).

Record scratch. On to the filmmaking.

There’s a reason Tarantino has used so many cover songs on his soundtracks (think of the Blue Swede version of “Hooked On a Feelin'” or the Bedlam version of “Magic Carpet Ride” in RESERVOIR DOGS, or the Urge Overkill version of “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” in PULP FICTION); he likes when some newer artist does a take on older, established classics. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Well, Tarantino makes cover movies. Whether he’s overtly remaking CITY ON FIRE like with DOGS, or paying homage to stuff like SEX & FURY and comic books with KILL BILL and VANISHING POINT with DEATH PROOF, Tarantino takes cinema’s past and reinvents it with his unique, wildly original eye and ear. (Yes, an artist can be original even when they’re covering something). Here, he’s covering Spaghetti Westerns, blaxploitation films, and even his own INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. So I don’t mind the familiarity (he uses just the right amount of snap-zooms and Leone cues; enough to remind us what he’s doing, but not so often we’re sick of it). As long as it works, and holy shit does it.

Robert Richardson, one of the best DPs alive, almost outdoes himself here — capturing John Fordian vistas of the wide shots as well as the hot-lighted shootout reminiscent of the House of Blue Leaves bloodbath. The soundtrack is as lively as ever, and although QT must miss the exacting editorial touch of his late collaborator Sally Menke, the pacing of this thing — even at 165 minutes — is still sharp. Then there’s the performances — as sensational and revelatory as Christoph Waltz was in BASTERDS, he’s nearly as amazing here. Jamie Foxx is strong and fascinating when he’s quiet and observing, but heroic and likable when the guns blaze. It takes a while to adjust to what DiCaprio is doing as the heavy, but from the way he holds his cigarette holder (choking up on it like a pencil) to the way his voice cracks when he shouts, Calvin Candie is a juicy villain, cartoonish and one-dimensional, but perfectly detestable. It may be a limitation of the exploitation genre to refuse to draw shadings in characters like Candie, but it didn’t bother me because of DiCaprio’s extraordinary talent.

Finally, there’s Sam Jackson. A Tarantino regular, his appearance here is both unsettling in its anachronism and absolutely perfect in its depiction. In the character of Stephen, QT implies there’s something even more vicious and tragic about the blacks who kept slavery humming than the whites. And nobody relishes Tarantino dialogue like Jackson. It’s a treat for the ears. Unfortunately, Kerry Washington is supremely ineffective as the object of Django’s affections. In a nearly wordless role, she’s there to act as an object to be rescued, but doesn’t get to express the passion necessary to get invested. (Aside from a jokey bang-against-the-wall between DeNiro and Fonda in JACKIE BROWN and some uncomfortable rape scenes, Tarantino simply does not do sex scenes — the most chemistry and love to come from his pen was directed by Tony Scott in TRUE ROMANCE). I don’t mind the lack of a Beatrix (turning this 19th century slave revenge tale into one of feminist power would be fairly absurd), but he needed to either re-cast Broomhilda or give Washington something more identifiable to do.

And let’s just not speak about Tarantino’s own role as an Australian. Seriously.

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Lincoln — 4/10

LINCOLN (2012, Steven Spielberg): 4/10

LINCOLN is Spielberg at his worst and his most crassly manipulative, but I’m sure audiences are just going to lap this up. It cajoles, seduces, and congratulates all of us in the theater for understanding that slavery is bad, and that all men are created equal. (And gets in a few har-har jokes at how ridiculous it seemed to 19th century politicians that women would ever get to vote). If you need to be reminded that Lincoln passed the 13th Amendment, or that he ended the Civil War, or that he fought for the rights of black Americans, this is the film for you!

For the rest of us, this dry, pompous, pious, dusty shoebox of a movie is a thudding bore. Occasionally it takes a break from men drinking tea, smoking cigars, and measuring their mutton chops against each other to get in a few jolts of sopping wet humor — partly in the form of sick burns delivered by the heroes of the film (Lincoln gets several, Mary Todd gets a good one in, and the rest of the time in the form of Tommy Lee Jones’s lovable old scamp Thaddeus Stevens). Jones is terrific, but the script just serves up his opponents as softballs for him to swat away like Ty Cobb.

When the film isn’t letting its Good Guys oh-snap-no-he-didn’t verbally smackdown the evil racist Congressmen, it follows around Honest Abe as he leans against desks, unleashing one corny anecdote after another. I can see an SNL sketch forming already, where time is of the essence but Lincoln is around, so everyone has to wait while he spins an old yarn with a moralistic punchline. It’s a shame that the character is so absurd, because Daniel Day-Lewis plays him to perfection. He’s one of the world’s best actors and deserves all the praise he’ll get come awards season. But although he carries the weight of the world on his tall, lean shoulders, and knows how to calm nerves with a sly joke, this president is forced by Spielberg to serve as a Holy Savior with Human Struggles, a figure more than a man.

And all the while, Spielberg uses the hoariest of cinematic tools to hammer his points home. In one outrageously over-the-top scene, Abe and Mary argue over whether to allow their son to fight in the Civil War. Behind Abe is a window revealing a relentless lightning storm (because all arguments in movies happen during thunderstorms, while all romantic scenes happen in sunlight), the audio popping in thunder strikes with each fierce point — and behind Mary is a raging fire in the fireplace, its flames licking the screen to prop up Mom’s fury. It’s another example of Spielberg having so little faith in his audience that not only are we forced to listen to preachy lecture after preachy lecture on ideas that are already obvious, but he supports these messages with ham-fisted direction. He might as well have shot the film in black-and-white and left only Lincoln colored in red, white, and blue.

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