It’s difficult to compare the retro-inspired Quentin Tarantino to any standard but the one he sets for himself with his own filmography. His latest film, Django Unchained, stands up well as a modern mash up of the Spaghetti Western and Blaxploitation cinema. It mines the past of cinema history while bringing something new to the mix through Tarantino’s indulgence in meandering but purposeful and always entertaining dialogue. That said, already the inclination arises to consider this film against the many iconic movies the director has produced in his 20-year career. This latest entry probably falls most into the quality of Kill Bill for its sheer indulgence of length and its theme of vengeance. There lies both its faults and merits.
It’s a well-constructed, if extra-long, film building up toward an over-indulgent climax with a push-pull tension between humor and violence. Tarantino’s retro winks begin immediately with a vintage Columbia Pictures logo leader, and then the title track from the original Django film (Sergio Corbucci, 1966) that influenced the film only in name and style. As usual, Tarantino’s soundtrack throughout is well-inspired when it sticks to the era influences of the spaghetti western (Ennio Morricone appears more than once) and the 70s era that film genre flourished in (a sly choice in Jim Croce’s tune “I Got a Name”). When it diverts to modern hip-hop it feels like a stretch, however, and disturbs the film’s vintage quality, even if a track samples James Brown.
During the romantic, dreamy swing of guitars and strings and the soaring cool vocals of the Roberto Fia-sung title track, a chain gang of slaves cross hostile lands of blazing sun and drizzling snow in meager clothing. The group shuffles behind a pair of slave traders on horses. It’s almost a sick sort of dance sequence, and brilliantly establishes Tarantino’s notion to exploit the horrific elements of the end of the slave-era in the United States. The irony of this delightful song, which oozes 1960s-kitsch, comes across in the juxtaposition of the suffering of these men.
The film follows a freed slave, the titular Django (Jamie Foxx), and Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) the bounty hunter who emancipates him and takes him under his wing. The action unfolds in 1858 (“two years before the Civil War,” as an intertitle in the film points out) as the pair travels from Texas to Mississippi. Their relationship begins as something practical and blossoms into something far more idealistic. Django wants to find his wife Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) and Schultz cannot help but fall enraptured by the parallels to the ancient German myth from the Nibelung Saga in Django’s quest (Broomhilde was the name of a princess in the tale in need of rescue from a dragon).
As demonstrated by the film’s own comparison to a myth dating back to Norse lore, the hero venturing to rescue the damsel is nothing new. But for the slavery-hating German character of Schultz, the opportunity to watch the definitive fairy tale of his beloved nation acted out by black slaves, one of which actually learned German during her servitude, seems irresistible. His drive to help Django just to experience the myth by proxy comes from a far more romantic place than even Django’s drive. Django wants his wife back, Schultz helps him for the sake of myth! Schultz is the film’s poetry and soul and when he falls out of the story, the film seems to sag as far as stakes go. Tarantino appearing in a cameo with a bad Australian accent adds an exclamation point to just how weak and uninvestable the rest of the film is, as it charges toward a literally explosive finale.
Of course, as the title reveals, this is not a film about the good Dr. King. However, Waltz steals the show, delighting in every inflection of the Tarantino script. His erudite delivery of Tarantino’s mannered language in his crisp German accent makes him appear as not only the smartest of the bunch but the most noble. It’s a wonderful turn away from Waltz’s Oscar-winning performance as the equally mannered though greedy, “Jew-hunting” Nazi in Tarantino’s amazing prior film Inglourious Basterds. The fundamental difference between Schultz and everyone else in Django Unchained is how far he goes to act on principle, always staying true to his romantic reasoning while acting like a psychopath— a lethal bounty hunter with a heart of gold. It’s a brilliant character and Waltz embraces his role, dialogue and all, with effortless panache.
The irony in watching this character chew up the scenery is that he upstages the title character who Foxx can only seem to play as cool and distant … and sometimes befuddled. Often, Django seems in over his head during his adventures with his mentor. Whether it’s making the most of his freedom to pick his own wardrobe or fighting for respect from other men as a freed man. It would have been nice to have a more fleshed out character in Django, but this was an oppressed man in oppressive times. That he must lay waste to everything in sight to be a hero becomes a bit of a cop-out, for the battle for true freedom looms as a long road that to this day has not reached its endpoint.
Problems with the story aside, Django Unchained feels like a comprehensive, albeit cartoonish, experience of the end of the slave-years in American history. Tarantino stays true to an era when a black man was never even allowed to ride horseback. Helpless violence is dealt unto black slaves with cruelty, from their position in shackles to whippings to even the abuse of the N-word, which has become verboten in today’s post-PC-age, but has long made liberal appearances in Tarantino movies. Never mind that people of Tarantino’s age grew up in the pre-PC age where elementary school teachers threw about the word during history lessons on the Underground Railroad. It was a part of history, and history’s lessons become useless if we forget them. Today, watching a film of violence populated by characters who hate the Other with such entitlement magnifies the potency of the word, and its violence is made apparent throughout this film.
Some of the most unapologetic abusers of the word in Django Unchained include the plantation owner Big Daddy (a suave, scene-stealing Don Johnson), Mandingo fighting connoisseur Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, playing high-strung and short-fused) and his bitter but sly (and there’s not soft-shoeing around this one) “house nigger” Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). But the crux of the film seems to be that those who do not know how to respect their fellow man, no matter the color of their skin, will ultimately get their comeuppance.
With Django Unchained Tarantino knows how to stay true to the era as well as the weight of its social inequalities on a character like Django, despite the film’s often over-the-top tone. The Spaghetti western and, even more so, Blaxploitation, were powerful bursts of sex and violence in an era when cinema rebelled against the oppressive rules of self-censoring imposed by the Hays Code. Tarantino is well known to delight in violence inspired by early 1970s cinema, but also has a strong ear for characters and even their subtleties, or— better put— details. It’s interesting to watch Tarantino work with both humor and horror to address things like the class system among not only slaves and their owners, but the levels of class within slavery, which brilliantly comes to light when Django and Schultz get to know Mr. Candie and his plantation. Despite the inevitable blood bath by the vengeful Django, the film has more than violence at its heart.
Django Unchained runs 165 min. and is Rated R for many good reasons. It opens Tuesday, Dec. 25, in most theaters. The Weinstein Company invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. A few indie cinemas in the Miami area are also getting in on the action. It will make a first-run appearance at the Tower Theater in Miami with Spanish subtitles. Later that week, the Miami Beach Cinematheque will host screenings of the digitally-restored original Django, starting Friday, Dec. 28. Here’s the trailer for that film:
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)
March 3, 2010
The acting nominations probably have less drama surrounding them than the filmmaker races and seem like an easier race to call. Here are my predictions and picks…
Actress in a supporting role
Mo’Nique in Precious
Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air
Penélope Cruz in Nine
Anna Kendrick in Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart
Who will win: There’s so much love for Mo’Nique and her humble approach to the nomination (not even campaigning for it) that she’s bound to win it. She did at the Golden Globes, she will do the same here.
Who I think should win: I never got around to seeing Precious. It looks like such a downer of a movie, but Mo’Nique’s turn from perky comedienne to abusive mother with no make-up has the most flash of all the roles nominated here. It’s an extreme shift, like Charlize Theron in Monster. It’s just such a no-brainer of a pick. As for Up in the Air, the only movie of these that I have seen, the performances are just too subtle. As for Cruz’s nomination, as much as I love her, and enjoyed her win for Vicky Christina Barcelona last year, the only reason I think she is in contention here is thanks to studio head Harvey Weinstein, who always finds a way into the Academy, even if the movie is poorly received (Nine bombed with critics and audiences). It just goes to show Weinstein’s clout in the business, which hints at why I am so half-heartedly posting this entry on the Oscars®. I think it’s a sham popularity contest, which is why you will see a big contrast in actual winners than those I would have voted for the win.
Actor in a supporting role
Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds
Christopher Plummer in The Last Station
Matt Damon in Invictus
Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones
Woody Harrelson in The Messenger
Who will win: I would not be surprised if Harrelson wins over the favored Waltz. He is more Hollywood than the foreigner Waltz, who really broke out for his portrayal as the stately by cruel “Jew hunter” in one of Quentin Tarantino’s greatest films of his career. The upset possibility is certainly there, but Waltz has already earned 27 of 29 award nominations for his work in Basterds, including the Golden Globe (see his imdb page).
Who I think should win: Of course Waltz. He played such a dynamic, fierce bad guy who you just loved to watch. Supporting role is an understatement, as he practically carried the film, driving the suspense in many scenes of the movie. I must admit to missing The Last Station (it has yet to play in Miami!) and Invictus, but the roles sound too low key to stand out above Waltz’s work in Inglourious Basterds. Tucci was strong in Lovely Bones, but that film never had the same critical support as Basterds. His performance also might just be too creepy, compared to the comic elements of Waltz’s Hans Landa.
Actress in a leading role
Meryl Streep in Julie & Julia
Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side
Helen Mirren in The Last Station
Gabourey Sidibe in Precious
Carey Mulligan in An Education
Who will win: None of these other actresses stand a chance against the buzz surrounding the competition between Bullock and Streep. Seeing as this is Hollywood voting for themselves here, this will go to a deeply entrenched Hollywood personality, and Bullock could be the favorite, seeing as Streep’s nomination for her work is beginning to get cliché; she already has two wins, and this would be her 14th nomination.
Who I think should win: The only role here I have seen on the screen was Streep’s. I can’t really say who deserves to win here. I really wanted to catch An Education in theaters, but I missed it, though I heard amazing things about Mulligan’s performance. Based on all the attention she has received for her work in the movie, it probably would not have received the attention it has so far garnered. Still, Streep really does disappear in the role of Julia Child, and I would be happy to see her win over Bullock’s work in what has always sounded like a formulaic flick, which I cannot find any interest in watching.
Actor in a leading role
Morgan Freeman in Invictus
Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart
George Clooney in Up in the Air
Colin Firth in A Single Man
Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker
Who will win: George Clooney just might, though Bridges is favored, but since the Oscars is a popularity contest among the industry’s peers, I’m going with the more popular of the two. Bridges has always been difficult and anti-establishment. His Golden Globe win could help him, though. But you also can’t count out Firth, who has been given a lot of love for his work in a Single Man.
Who I think should win: Though, I’m behind in my movie-going in this category as well, my vote is for Bridges. Clooney was low key but solid in Up in the Air, but even he has said he was playing himself in that movie. I prefer to appreciate a guy who cane disappear into a character, as Bridges does in Crazy Heart, and that may just seal the deal for him.
March 2, 2010
Since I have been asked, I shall use this blog entry offer my Oscar® picks and predictions. Though I have hardly ever given them any credit for furthering my appreciation of cinema, it’s been a fun game to predict, which goes way beyond the quality of filmmaking and into the art of politicking.
Last week, we had the BAFTAs (the British equivalent to the Academy awards). It was nice to see Duncan Jones, David Bowie’s son, win an award for Outstanding Debut By A British Writer, Director Or Producer. I happened to have recommended his short film “Whistle” for programming at the Miami Film Festival a few years ago. I am very happy to see him get that award. Moon was an amazing addition to the thinking man’s science fiction cannon, plus he is a real down-to-Earth guy for a guy with his head snuggly in the sci-fi world.
But more revealing was how the Hurt Locker swept up so many major awards at the BAFTAs, beating out Avatar in several categories, including Best Film and Best Director, and casting a shadow over the awards it lost to Avatar at the Golden Globes. That said, I think it portends good things for Hurt Locker at the Oscars this weekend, but, for my tastes, Inglorious Basterds is the stronger film.
Well, here is the first half at my look of the picks, mainly the competition trying to beat the favored Hurt Locker. The second half of this post will appear tomorrow and focus on the acting categories.
Avatar (James Cameron)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)
Precious (Lee Daniels)
Who will win: It’s about time a woman director won an Oscar ®, and Bigelow has ironically produced a strong testosterone-fueled movie that also offers some deep insight into the kind of person war creates. This film could win it for her. Plus, our society has increasingly grown concerned about equating injustices against those in groups whose rights have been historically tread upon for centuries, which adds to her chances.
Who I think should win: Tarantino. If this category were not so overshadowed by the battle of the exes (Cameron and Bigelow were once married) and was truly about the craftiness of the director, Tarantino should get it.
Writing (adapted screenplay)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell)
An Education (Nick Hornby)
Precious (Geoffrey Fletcher)
Up in the Air (Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner)
In the Loop (Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci and Tony Roche)
Who will win: These are some real nice, varied nominees, though, again, I’m too behind in my movie viewing to fairly guess. If I had to go on the politics that drives this awards show, I’d say the only contenders here are Up in the Air and Precious. Both are the serious movies here. Up in the Air has something to say about the state of today’s day and age thanks to the messed up economy. But Precious is also a powerful comment on the constant of society, those people typically ignored as damaged goods in today’s day and age.
Who I think should win: I think because of the latter’s perspective I just offered, I think not only will Precious win this category but also deserves it.
Writing (original screenplay)
The Hurt Locker (Mark Boal)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Up (Pete Docter and Bob Petersen)
The Messenger (Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman)
Who will win: Hurt Locker has not only won awards for Bigelow’s work but also for Boal, a journalist once imbedded with troops in Iraq. The momentum behind this movie will certainly see it through to the Oscars®.
Who I think should win: Yes, Tarantino, who has done some amazing ballet with words throughout his career. Basterds is no exception. The opening scene of the movie itself was an amazing exercise of suspense through dialogue.
Animated feature film
Up (Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)
The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker)
Coraline (Henry Selick)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore)
Who will win: Seriously, how many Academy members even heard of the Secret of Kells much less saw in its brief run designed to have it qualify for this category. Coraline is too far in voters’ memory (I thought it was released in 2008, when I tried to think back on my favorite movies of 2009). Fantastic Mr. Fox is probably to odd a film for most to swallow, often the predicament of Anderson’s movies. The Princess and the Frog is old Disney, and comes from a different era (hence its failure at the box office, proving audiences have moved on to 3-D computer-animated films). That means Up will undoubtedly win this category.
Who I think should win: Up deserves it. It is a strong, simple and emotional story, which happens to unfold in an animated 3D world. However, I do happen to think Fantastic Mr. Fox is a stronger film, due to its complex story and whimsical delivery, which does not lean on sentimentality for its emotional tug, unlike Up. Still, if either one wins, I’d be happy, but I’m secretly rooting for Fantastic Mr. Fox.
Foreign language film
Ajami (Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani, Israel)
A Prophet (Jacques Audiard, France)
The Secret of Her Eyes (Juan Jose Campanella, Argentina)
The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke, Germany)
The Milk of Sorrow (Claudia Llosa, Peru)
Who will win: Being stuck in Miami, foreign movies have to work hard to play at movie theaters here. None of these have even played our few art houses here. I can only guess Haneke will win for being overlooked so long by the Academy.
Who I think should win: I cannot fairly even guess. I have heard some great things about several of these films and look forward to checking them out, beyond the Oscars ® hype.
Avatar (James Cameron and Jon Landau, producers)
District 9 (Peter Jackson and Carolynne Cunningham, producers)
An Education (Finola Dwyer and Amanda Posey, producers)
The Hurt Locker (nominees to be determined)
Inglourious Basterds (Lawrence Bender, producer)
Precious (Lee Daniels, Sarah Siegel-Magness and Gary Magness, producers)
A Serious Man (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, producers)
Up in the Air (Daniel Dubiecki, Ivan Reitman and Jason Reitman, producers)
The Blind Side (nominees to be determined)
Up (Jonas Rivera, producer)
Who will win: OK, first off, let’s pretend this renewed idea of 10 nominees in this category never happened. If that were the case, the only films up here would look like this:
The Hurt Locker
The Blind Side
Up in the Air
Yeah, no Avatar. It’s just too much of a technical showpiece. It’s all about the technology used to make the movie, the 3-D aspect and the box office, superficial elements that do no make a classic film. That would also null the contest between the ex’s James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, and her movie would win, making her also the first female director to get the statuette for Best Picture, as she was during the BAFTAs, a tidbit helping to hype her movie, which has enjoyed buzz all year long.
Who I think should win: No doubt about it, in my opinion, Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino is a master filmmaker, and he has shown it again and again since his debut feature Reservoir Dogs, Bigelow’s catalog is much more suspect, filled with too many superficial action flicks like Point Break and Strange Days, which have not aged as well as Tarantino’s work. His latest work was relentless in its pace thanks to its camera work, writing, editing and the performance he elicited from his actors, an all around master work deserving attention on its own merits, not the hype that surrounds Hurt Locker, which was a strong movie, but not the masterwork of film craftsmanship that was Inglourious Basterds.
So what do you think? Am I wrong for loving Inglorious Basterds so much? Beyond the hype, does Bigelow deserve the awards, which I have no doubt she will win?