‘Django Unchained’ – Tarantino’s Down and Dirty Western

Django Unchained movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2012.

Every time Quentin Tarantino releases a new movie, a celebration should be in order. The man loves movies like many filmmakers do, but he always succeeds in manipulating genre conventions to where he can freely make them his own, and this makes his works all the more thrilling. There’s also no beating his dialogue which exhilarates us in the same way a play by David Mamet can, and words in a Tarantino movie usually prove to be every bit as exciting as the action scenes. His latest movie “Django Unchained” is no exception, but it does suffer from some of his excesses which have taken away (if only slightly) from the films he has given us in the past. But if you can get past its flaws, you are still in for a very entertaining time.

Jamie Foxx stars as the Django of the movie’s title, and it takes place in the year 1858 which was just two years before the start of the Civil War. Django is being led through the freezing cold wilderness along with other slaves when he is freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a dentist who has since become a bounty hunter. King needs Django’s help in finding the Brittle brothers, ruthless killers who have a sizable price on their heads. In return for Django’s help, King promises him he will help rescue his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from slavery. She is currently in the hands of the charismatic but viciously brutal plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), and you know this will lead to a conclusion which will be anything but peaceful.

Tarantino always loves to mix genres, and he does this brilliantly with “Django Unchained.” On the surface it is clearly a western, but the “Pulp Fiction” auteur also combines it with the Blaxploitation genre which we all know is one of his favorites. Heck, we even get to meet the ancestors of John Shaft, the black private detective made famous by Richard Roundtree in the movie “Shaft.” Just as he did with “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino gleefully throws caution to the wind as he subverts both genres to create an exhilarating motion picture experience few other people can give us. He’s not out to make a historically accurate movie, but we’re having too much fun to really care.

Now many people including Spike Lee have complained about Tarantino’s overuse of the n- word in this movie as they have of other films he’s made in the past. In their eyes it’s like they’re saying Tarantino revels in the racist behavior of his characters, but I don’t think that’s even remotely true. All the insanely racist characters in “Django Unchained” end up getting their asses handed to them in the most painful way possible, and while Tarantino’s love of black culture might differ a little from others, the love is there all the same.

And again, Tarantino gives us a terrific soundtrack filled with many songs which are not from the time period this movie takes place in. I love how he complements scenes of Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz riding on their horses with songs by James Brown, John Legend and Brother Dege (AKA Dege Legg) among others. He also includes pieces of film scores by Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith for good measure, and there are even original songs to be found here as well, something exceedingly rare for a Tarantino movie.

Having said all this, the length of “Django Unchained” did drive me up the wall a bit. At a time where filmmakers push the limit and have their movies run longer than two hours, Tarantino proves to be one of 2012’s biggest sinners as this one clocks in at almost three hours and threatens to have as many endings as “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” Suffice to say, this movie could have been shorter. Perhaps it’s the absence of his longtime editor, the late Sally Menke, who was always good at reigning Tarantino in. Fred Raskin, who has edited the last three “Fast & Furious” movies, was the editor on this one.

Still, there is a lot to appreciate and enjoy about “Django Unchained,” especially the acting. Jamie Foxx has proven to be a terrific actor ever since he held his own opposite Al Pacino in Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday,” and his talent doesn’t waiver in the slightest here. As Django, he gives us a western hero who has earned the right to seek vengeance for what has been done to him, and he is thrilling to watch as he makes this character a shockingly bad ass bounty hunter by the movie’s conclusion.

Christoph Waltz brings a wonderful mirth and a unique liveliness to the exceedingly violent characters he plays, and his role as dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz is further proof. It’s fun to see him be so charming to others only to watch him blow them away when the occasion calls for him to do so. Waltz more than earned the Oscar he received for his brilliant performance in “Inglourious Basterds,” and his work in “Django Unchained” proves he is a gifted actor who is here to stay.

Leonardo DiCaprio clearly relishes the opportunity to shed his heartthrob persona to play the charming yet undeniably evil plantation owner Calvin Candie. In a year which has had a large number of unforgettable villains, Calvin is one of the most vicious as his power and wealth has turned him into a raving sociopath who has little hope of finding redemption in his lifetime. DiCaprio is enthralling to watch as he taunts everyone around him with a twisted glee, and he looks to be having loads of fun in playing a character few others would have chosen him to play.

One standout performance which really needs to be acknowledged, however, comes from Samuel L. Jackson, an actor who has played parts both big and small in Tarantino’s movies. Jackson plays Calvin’s head slave Stephen who is the Uncle Tom of “Django Unchained,” and he makes you want to hate his racist, backstabbing character with a passion. Jackson gives a spirited performance as a man who freely betrays the principles he should be standing up for in order to benefit his own desires and keep himself safe in a time where he is anything but.

Kudos also goes to Kerry Washington who plays Django’s kidnapped wife, Broomhilda. Her character suffers many indignities, and Washington makes her pain and fear so vivid to where she leaves you on edge every time she appears onscreen. The moments where she has no dialogue are among her most powerful as her eyes threaten to give away the secrets she is desperate to keep hidden.

Seriously, this movie is filled with actors we know very well, and they keep popping up here when you least expect them to. You have Don Johnson playing plantation owner Spencer ‘Big Daddy’ Bennett, you have Jonah Hill as Randy, a bone-headed KKK member who can’t seem to fix his hood properly, you have Walton Goggins playing an unapologetically vicious cowboy who enjoys the torture he inflicts upon others, and you have Dennis Christopher as the flamboyant Leonide Moguy. If you watch real closely you can also see Zoë Bell, Robert Carradine, Franco Nero, M. C. Gainey, Bruce Dern, Tom Savini, Michael Parks and John Jarratt pop up in roles which would seem small if they were played by anybody else. It’s all proof of how there are no small roles in a Tarantino movie, and all these people are clearly thrilled to be in his company.

Tarantino also has a small role as a mining company employee. While I have no problem defending him as an actor in some movies, his Australian accent could use a bit of work, and that’s being generous.

I’m not sure where I would rate “Django Unchained” in comparison to Tarantino’s other films, but I have to say I enjoyed “Inglourious Basterds” more. This movie’s nearly three-hour length took away from my overall experience, but I can only complain about it so much. When it comes to movies, Tarantino still provides audiences with the kind of enthralling entertainment which never plays it safe.

While it’s far from perfect, “Django Unchained” is a thrillingly alive movie filled with great acting, terrific dialogue and incredibly bloody gunfights Sam Peckinpah would have gotten a kick out of. If you can withstand its excesses and know what you are in for when it comes to a Tarantino movie, you are still bound to have a great time watching it.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

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Exclusive Interview with Greg McLean on ‘Wolf Creek 2’

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Australian film director Greg McLean returns to the scene of the crime with “Wolf Creek 2,” a movie which, supposedly anyway, is based on actual events. The original “Wolf Creek” came out in 2005 and introduced us to the relentless serial killer Mick Taylor (played by John Jarratt) who captures a group of backpackers and tortures them without any remorse. Now Mick is back to take on another group of tourists who make the mistake of crossing his path and have the serious misfortune of not being from his home country. If you are not a proud Australian and are not fully aware of the country’s rich history, pray you don’t run into Mick.

McLean also directed the killer crocodile horror film “Rogue,” and he is said to be a member of the unofficial “Splat Pack.” This term, which was created by film historian Alan Jones, refers to the modern wave of directors who make brutally violent horror films, and other members include Alexandre Aja, Neil Marshall, Eli Roth, James Wan and Rob Zombie. I spoke with McLean about “Wolf Creek 2” and he talked about how a sadistic psychopath like Mick Taylor can be strangely appealing, how this sequel differs from the original, and he pointed out the differences between making a film in Australia and the United States.

Ben Kenber: This was a terrific sequel, and it was great to see John Jarratt return as Mick Taylor. Mick is one of the most sadistic psychopaths ever put in a movie, and yet there is something about him which is undeniably appealing. Why is he so memorable and why are we drawn to characters like him?

Greg McLean: I think that people are generally fascinated with evil and true crime. A character like Mick Taylor represents a very interesting way of peering into a very, very dark psyche. People are fascinated with the nature of evil, and I think the appeal of a character like Mick Taylor is to really get a chance to examine someone who is completely devoid of any sign of humanity. He’s really incredibly dark and twisted, and he’s very terrifying. I think people who like horror films and thrillers and like being scared enjoy coming face-to-face with really disturbing personalities. There is a long history of really fascinating, evil characters and I think people are intrigued at how their personalities work.

BK: When it came to doing a sequel to “Wolf Creek,” was it something you had planned on doing all along, or did you consider doing it after the original movie was finished?

GM: My plan was always to see if the movie worked and people liked it. If people embraced the character (of Mick Taylor), then there will be a chance for another film. So it was always in my mind to do it, it just took a lot longer to get around to it than I thought it ever would (laughs).

BK: Regarding John Jarratt’s portrayal, did you develop the character with him or was it largely his creation?

GM: Well we obviously did the first film together so we had a background to how to approach the character and a discussion on what the character is about. We had been talking about this particular draft of the screenplay (for “Wolf Creek 2”) for a couple of years, so there were certain things we wanted to explore and certain aspects of the character we wanted to bring up, and we kept evolving it on set. Obviously John makes choices as an actor, and then some of those things are in the script and some are developed in the moment. When we got together, we just kind of jammed and came up with cool things to do.

BK: Since the script was in the development stage for a couple of years, did that make it easier for you to return to the character of Mick Taylor and the original movie’s setting?

GM: It certainly enabled us to mine the thematic ideas that we wouldn’t have had if we didn’t have such a long gestation period. We had a script a couple of years ago and it was good, but it just wasn’t amazing. I realized that there was an element to it that was missing and which was making me not want to pull the trigger on it, and what it didn’t have was a kind of somatic investigation into the character that I thought we needed to have. Then once I locked into that concept, then there was enough new information we revealed about his character that I thought it be worth making the film. We also wanted to make a different genre film. The first film is very much a first-person, true crime, real terror film whereas this one I wanted very much to explore the thriller film, and it’s more of an action film. It has horror elements, but it certainly is a different structure in terms of what kind of film that is.

BK: I agree, it does have a different structure and feels more like a road movie. Speaking of that, how did you manage to pull off the sequence where Mick Taylor launches the big rig truck into Paul Hammersmith’s (played by Ryan Corr) car?

GM: We just found a big hill and dropped the truck off it (laughs). It’s much easier to do stuff like that in Australia than it is in the (United) States. Doing things over there is still a bit of the Wild West. It’s interesting because I’m doing a film right now in Los Angeles and I showed that scene to some people and they were just like going, “Wow! How did you do that?” And there’s a shot after the actual truck hits where the fire is just actually continuing to burn the hillside, and everybody was freaking out about that. I said, “Why is that so weird?” They were just going, “Oh my god, how did you let the hill keep burning?” The restrictions are very intense. Obviously there are rules and regulations here and there are in Australia as well, but they were just fascinated by the idea of just literally destroying a truck and letting it burn a hole in the hill. We had fire brigades in the back, and we were able to just do some really crazy stuff. We also wanted to do it in a very practical way. I love doing CG stuff and we used a lot of CG for the kangaroo sequence, but some things I feel are just better to get onscreen practically because you see the texture of things and the physics of moving in a particular way that’s kind of cool.

BK: Yeah, I think that’s what I liked most about that sequence because it really did look real. In most American films, filmmakers would more likely film a sequence like that with CG.

GM: Yeah, I think that part of that is kind of a budgetary thing as well. When you have a low budget you have to find more practical ways of doing things. Digital effects, if you want them to, can be ultra-photorealistic and necessarily expensive. The other way to do it is to find a location you can do something like that and ask to just do it. For all the driving stuff in that sequence, we just closed down highways and did crazy driving on them for two weeks and got all the shots. It was great fun doing a sequence like that.

BK: Looking at those empty highways reminded me of “The Hitcher” with Rutger Hauer and C. Thomas Howell. You have this great open space, but still there’s something about it which is quite claustrophobic.

GM: Well I think the first movie had a very particular primary feed that it was drawing on, and this film to me was really about the fear of isolation in a desolate place. What most of the fear comes from is the primary idea of that which is quite different from the first film. The first film had a different emphasis which was more about the randomness of violence in the real terror that comes from believing someone is something and then suddenly seeing them transform. This one is really much more about exposing the audience to the real terror which comes from extreme isolation and being pursued by a character that is just relentless.

BK: What elements do you believe a horror movie should have in order for it to be successful?

GM: Two things. One, it needs to be based on a primary universal human fear that touches the psychic pressure point. Number two, the film has to have three, if not more, unique and believably memorable set pieces or things that people will talk about when they leave the cinema for hopefully weeks if not years, and that’s it.

I want to thank Greg McLean for taking the time to talk with me about “Wolf Creek 2.” The movie is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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Exclusive Interview with John Jarratt on ‘Wolf Creek 2’

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It’s been a long time coming, but Australian actor John Jarratt finally returns to his famous role of serial killer Mick Taylor in “Wolf Creek 2.” When Jarratt first played this role back in the 2005 original, he succeeded in giving us one of the most terrifying psychopaths the world of cinema has ever seen. But at the same time, he also made Mick into one of the most amusing as well, and while watching him in this sequel you can’t help but laugh with him even as he becomes increasingly sadistic. Now he’s back to terrorize a new group of backpackers from other countries who don’t quite share his love for Australia.

I got to talk with Jarratt while he was doing press for “Wolf Creek 2,” and it was a real pleasure chatting with him. The sequel isn’t so much a horror movie as it is a thriller and a road movie, and Jarratt talked about the change in tone between the two movies. In addition, he also discussed how he based Mick Taylor on his father, how method he was in his approach to playing him, and of whether or not movies like this will affect tourism to Australia.

Ben Kenber: Thanks for another great performance as Mick Taylor. It was a lot of fun watching you play him once again.

John Jarratt: Thank you very much.

BK: You’re welcome. There was a long break between “Wolf Creek” and “Wolf Creek 2” (about eight years). Were there any changes for you in the way you portrayed Mick Taylor between the two movies?

JJ: No, not a bit. It was exactly the same. He’s not the kind of guy who has growth.

BK: That’s true. It was said you stayed in character during the making of “Wolf Creek.” Was this also the case on the sequel?

JJ: Not so much because I knew what worked, but you have to stay within the realms of it. You can’t be having a coffee and just fall back into John Jarratt and then some guy says, “Come over here and cut this person’s head off,” you know? So you’ve got to kind of stay in the zone if you know what I mean (laughs).

BK: But it’s not like Daniel Day-Lewis who stays in character 24 hours a day obviously.

JJ: No, I think that’s a bit of a wank, but anyway. With Mick Taylor, I tend to go a little bit method because he’s a psychopath and a serial killer, and it’s a long way from who I am, you know? So I have to work at that. People say you’re a method actor, and I just say I’m a professional actor.

BK: It was said that you based Mick Taylor on your father but that you filled in the evil bits because your father is clearly not evil. When it came to the evil bits, what exactly did you add?

JJ: Well if Mick Taylor wasn’t a psychopath and a serial killer, if he wasn’t bent, and if he was the guy you thought you knew at the hotel at the bar if you met Mick, that’s my dad. But like all serial killers he’s bent and everyone says, “He seems like such a nice guy and he’s a terrific fella. He’s quiet and he was a good neighbor and he’s mutilated 27 people, but…” The hard part for me was to find that part of Mick, that psychopath side, and find a way that he was comfortable with it, you know?

BK: Yeah. It reminds me of when Anthony Hopkins played Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” where he said he wasn’t so much interested in doing research on serial killers. Instead, he worked on finding the psychopath or the crazy person within himself.

JJ: Yeah.

BK: While the original was a full out horror movie, and one of the scariest and unnerving in recent memory, “Wolf Creek 2” is more of a thriller and a road movie. How did you feel about that shift in tone this time out?

JJ: In a way, sequels are lose, lose affair, you know? If we made it pretty much the same as the first one, you’d all be complaining about that we didn’t go anywhere with it. But if you change a little, then everyone says it’s not like the first one. To me, I thought it was a good movement on the first one. The first one you wait for the monster to come out of the cage which is about halfway through the movie, and it’s the set up that’s scary and then how he becomes (who he is) and everyone freaks out. With the second one we all know who he is, so it’s a waste of time doing that so you get them from the get-go. It’s not unlike the first one much when Mick turns up because, as you may remember in the first one, they (the unlucky tourists) drive my pick up over a cliff and then I chased them in a car and I blow the girl way, and that’s the end of the movie. So there’s a bit of chase in that one, but a hell of a lot more in this one because you get the Mick thing happening from the beginning rather than halfway through.

BK: The scene where Mick Taylor sends that big rig truck rolling down a hill where it crashes into Ryan Corr’s jeep gives “Wolf Creek 2” one of its best action sequences. Were you on the set when it was shot?

JJ: Yeah, I was there. It was fantastic (laughs). The funny thing was that the jeep came down the hill and landed like nothing had happened to it. We didn’t expect that, but it says a lot about the jeep I’ve got to say. Then the big truck comes down and creams it, and it was a great day. They were 20 cameras on it watching the truck come down the hill. In real life it was quite stunning.

BK: I imagine it was. If this was an American production, I bet they would’ve used CGI effects instead, but the fact that you did the real thing makes the sequence all the more thrilling to watch.

JJ: Yeah, it was great. It was like “Mad Max” days, you know? It’s what Aussies do really well.

BK: What would you say you added to this character that wasn’t in the script or which Greg McLean didn’t come up with?

JJ: I don’t think I added anything. He (McLean) was there for the entire film. There was more opportunity for a lot more humor I suppose, but I honestly didn’t add anything. I just knew a hell of a lot more, and I thought Mick was pretty funny in the first one. I think about 90% of this film is Mick as opposed to 50%. I think that’s the difference, I really do, so I didn’t do anything differently except you see even more of what he does. I suppose that’s different.

BK: The black humor in this movie is very clever.

JJ: Yeah, you’ve got to have a laugh. You got to remember that he (Mick) is having a ball and he’s got a great sense of humor. If you met him in a bar you’d think he was a lot of fun; he’s a big barrel of happy-go-lucky and a fun kind of guy. He’s having a ball playing games with these Pommy backpackers, so I think it lends itself to comedy.

BK: A lot of people might look at a movie like this as if it will decrease tourism to Australia, but I think it will increase it because people travel to different countries for a variety of reasons. What effect do you think “Wolf Creek 2” will have on tourism?

JJ: I tend to think that tourism improves with these kinds of films and “Crocodile Dundee” kind of films. If someone gets eaten by a crocodile in the northern territory in Australia, the tourist numbers go up from the publicity it gets. So I don’t think people will be frightened (from travelling there) really.

I want to thank John Jarratt for taking the time to talk with me. “Wolf Creek 2” is now available to own or rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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