‘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 * * * *

 

Advertisements

‘Tusk’ Should Not Be Mistaken for a Mainstream Film

Tusk movie poster

To be honest, I’m glad Kevin Smith hasn’t retired from filmmaking (or at least, not yet). I’ve enjoyed all his movies except for “Cop Out,” which I’m sure he doesn’t care for either. When it comes to “Red State,” I found it to be a major leap out of Smith’s safety zone which resulted in his best directorial effort yet. Now we have “Tusk,” his second visit to the horror genre and one of the more original and bizarre movies to come out in a long time. It has its moments of comedy, but it is mostly a serious film dealing with one American’s journey into Canada and of the horrific fate awaiting him there.

Justin Long stars as Wallace Bryton, one of the hosts of a popular podcast called “The Not-See Party” (get it?), and he and his good friend Teddy Craft (Haley Joel Osment) live to have fun at the expense of others. Their latest target is the “Kill Bill Kid” who accidentally sliced off one of his legs with a sword while attempting to perform one of that movie’s famous moves, and Wallace decides he and Teddy should travel to Canada to interview him. Teddy, however, doesn’t like to fly, so Wallace goes over there all by his lonesome.

When Wallace gets to Canada, he discovers the “Kill Bill Kid” has died which leaves him without an interview. Despondent, he stops by a bar where he discovers a handbill from a man who claims to have a lifetime of stories to tell, and he is offering free room and board to those interested in hearing him out. Wallace jumps at the chance to listen to what he has to say and travels out to the man’s house which, like in any other horror movie, is located in the middle of nowhere. It is there he meets Howard Howe (Michael Parks), a wheelchair-bound old man who regales Wallace with tales of his life at sea. One of those tales involves a ship he was on which sank and led to him meeting a walrus who saved him from drowning. Howard came to name the walrus Mr. Tusk, and he still considers Mr. Tusk to be the best companion he ever had.

As Howard continues to talk, Wallace begins to lose consciousness as, like those horny teenagers in “Red State,” he has been drugged and eventually passes out. When Wallace wakes up, he finds himself in the hands of a man intent on turning him into a walrus. We all know what curiosity did to the cat, but Wallace looks to be heading towards a fate far worse than death here.

I don’t think it’s any secret of what happens to Wallace in “Tusk,” and perhaps it is best for those who haven’t seen the movie yet to stop reading this review now. The inspiration for this movie came from “SModcast,” a weekly podcast Smith does with Scott Mosier. On one episode they talked about an ad from a British website where a man was offering free room and board for anyone willing to dress up in a walrus suit and make walrus noises while he throws them fish and crabs to eat. We get to hear some of this episode during “Tusk’s” end credits, and Smith and Mosier are laughing their asses off as they discuss how the movie would play out. Seriously, it got to where I was kind of amazed at how the story evolved from the podcast to this finished movie.

Like “Red State,” “Tusk” is not the kind of horror movie designed to make you jump out of your seat every five minutes. Instead, it is more about people confronted with a terrifying situation which proves to be way beyond their control, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. Robert Kurtzman was the effects artist, so that should give you an idea of just how horrific Wallace’s transformation is. It may not quite equal what Jeff Goldblum went through in “The Fly,” but it does provide the audience with a very unsettling visual.

Long has a tricky role to play as Wallace is a very obnoxious dude who almost doesn’t yet realize just how rude he is to others. His interactions with Canadian residents provide “Tusk” with some of its most amusing moments, and that’s especially the case when he meets a border agent played by Harley Morenstein who doesn’t hesitate to explain the differences between the United States and Canada. You can’t help but feel bad for Wallace even though he’s a bit of a jerk. I like to think this gave Long an interesting arc to play as he goes from being an egotistical prick to a helpless victim who is not exactly deserving of the fate which awaits him.

We do get a few flashbacks which show Wallace hanging out with his girlfriend Allison (Genesis Rodriguez) who is starting to accuse him of being a sellout, and she admits to missing the old Wallace as a result. Wallace, however, is more smitten with the new version of himself and doesn’t want to go back to the way he was. To say that this comes back to haunt Wallace is the understatement of the year.

Rodriguez, I have to say, has some really strong close-ups here where she holds the audience at bay with her emotional conflicts. As much as she loves Wallace, she is not blind to his misdeeds which eventually come to reflect her own. Rodriguez previously appeared in “Identity Thief” and “Casa de mi Padre,” and she looks almost completely unrecognizable here. Gloria Swanson may have told Mr. DeMille in “Sunset Boulevard” that she was ready for her close-up, but she wasn’t as ready as Rodriguez is here.

It’s also great to see Osment here whom we all remember from “The Sixth Sense.” He’s grown up now (deal with it) and gives a multilayered performance here as Teddy. Explaining why is tough because it would be giving away one too many things, but it shows that Osment has entered into an adult acting career with confidence, and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future.

But let’s be honest, the real reason to see “Tusk” is Michael Parks. His performance as Howard Howe is truly a master class in acting, and he takes what could have been an utterly ridiculous character and turns him into a pitiful and truly haunted soul, not to mention an utterly terrifying one. Seeing him dive right into this role with such a giddy exuberance and spout off classic lines of literature is invigorating, and it quickly reminded me of how annoyed I was that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for his work in “Red State.”

“Tusk” does, however, fall apart a bit during the second half when we get introduced to a French-Canadian detective named Guy LaPointe. His appearance comes out of nowhere, and it leads to a cameo which goes on for far too long. Now you may or may not know the identity of the actor playing LaPointe, but I’m not going to reveal it here because it honestly took me a minute or two to realize who it was. There is something to be said for an actor who disappears into their part, and this one succeeded in doing so thanks to a nice nose job. Still, the character feels out of place.

It’s best to go into “Tusk” with an open mind, and this especially goes for Kevin Smith fans. Some may say he is traveling through familiar territory here, but I don’t think he is. True, it does have a couple of convenience store clerks (both of whom will be appearing in Smith’s next movie, “Yoga Hosers”) and there are a lot of in-jokes throughout, but here he is exploring the possibility of a man’s humanity surviving a cruel and life altering event.

I also got to say, looking at this movie’s title, that I kept wondering if the Fleetwood Mac song “Tusk” would be featured here. Is it? Well, see the movie to find out.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Red State’ is the Best and Most Unlikely Film from Kevin Smith

Red State movie poster

Red State” is to Kevin Smith as “Unforgiven” was to Clint Eastwood; a game changer in the way we perceive him as an artist. Any shred of Jay and Silent Bob is completely absent here as he probes the horror of an ultra-fundamentalist church whose fear of God prompts a siege of destruction which tests its members as well as those ordered to bring them down. Nothing Smith has done previously will prepare you for what he comes up with in “Red State.” We know he’s been looking to do something other than “Clerks” or those formulaic comedies he has spent far too long apologizing for. With this one, his creativity and passion for moviemaking are completely reinvigorated.

The movie starts off innocently enough with one of Smith’s favorite subjects: young men talking about sex. Three teens named Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray drive out to a remote area and meet up with a woman named Sarah (Melissa Leo) who has promised to make out with each of them. But after a couple of beers, they pass out and wake up to find themselves prisoners of the Five Points Church, a fundamentalist cult led by God-fearing pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) who seeks to punish those who have morally corrupted America whether they be homosexuals or adulterers among other sinners. But when things get out of hand, as they always do, the church is forced to make a last stand as the police and FBI intervene in a showdown destined to have a bad ending.

The Five Points Church is Smith’s not so subtle representation of that church which is known for protesting funerals of homosexuals and dead soldiers. You probably know the church he’s referring to. For those of you who don’t, you can just figure it out on your own. While we see them for the fascist hate mongers they are, you have to wonder what draws anyone to a church with such unrealistic and obscene views. Some are just looking for an answer, and any answer after a while will do to give their life meaning. Whether or not you believe in the beliefs of the Five Points Church or that church is beside the point; what should concern you is there are people out there who do believe in the ridiculously hateful things they have been taught, and they will do anything to defend those values at any cost.

The leader of that church can only dream of being as charismatic as Abin Cooper. Michael Parks performance is nothing short of brilliant as he makes you believe that people can fall under the spell of a religious pervert. Parks was introduced to a whole new generation of fans when he played Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in “From Dusk till Dawn,” “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” and “Grindhouse.” After watching him in “Red State,” you come out wondering why he is not a bigger star. Parks doesn’t just give us a mere impersonation of some maniac preacher. Instead, he gives us an infinitely charismatic portrayal of a deeply religious man who is as seductive as he is dangerous.

With the actors, Smith just lets them loose to do their own thing, and the results are enthralling. Melissa Leo, who deservedly won an Oscar for her performance in “The Fighter,” gives it her all as Cooper’s daughter Sarah. Her emotional conviction in this role is proof of how far Cooper’s influence as a preacher goes, and Leo remains one of the best actresses working today.

Another big standout is John Goodman who plays ATF Special Agent Keenan. Goodman has always been a great actor, but you get the sense after so many years that most people don’t recognize him as such. His work in “Barton Fink” and “The Big Lebowski” should be more than enough to convince you of his greatness. Anyway, he gives some of the film’s best speeches as his character is forced into a situation which goes against his moral values, but it is a situation he cannot simply override. Goodman inhabits this character perfectly, giving him the emotional turmoil and confusion etched all over his face.

Other great performances come from Kerry Bishé as Sarah’s daughter, Cheyenne, and she is ever so intense in her desperation to save the women and children whom she feels will fall victim to the government’s actions for the wrong reasons. Kevin Pollak provides memorable support as Keenan’s right-hand man, Special Agent Brooks. You also have to give credit to the three young actors playing the teens: Michael Angarano, Kyle Gallner, and Nicholas Braun. The roles they are given appear one-dimensional, but they bring more to the material than what is on the page, and they give you a reason to care about what happens to them.

Smith’s movies in the past have dealt with conversations about pop culture, but there’s none of this in “Red State.” He instead exploits certain movie conventions which have us believing we’ve figured the whole story out, and then he pulls out the rug from under us. The violence is truly shocking as characters meet their fates in a way we don’t see coming. This is not your typical good guys versus bad guys story as everyone here is morally flawed in one way or another. The events of David Koresh’s demise in Waco, Texas hang heavily over the proceedings, and no one looks to come out of this a hero.

This movie could have been a simple look at the damage caused by religious perversion, but there are different levels at work here. We see how the church, the government, and the local police react to the violent situation they are all immersed in. Look closely at the end credits; the cast is divided by religion, police, and politics. It becomes about containment by any means necessary. So, when all is said and done, no one’s coming out of this battle in one piece.

Working with his longtime director of photography Dave Klein, Smith finds a unique look for this movie thanks to the RED digital camera. Both are able to get shots which give the material a visceral feel you wouldn’t expect from the director of “Jersey Girl.” The flexibility they find with this device feels inspirational as it allows them to do things they couldn’t do previously.

Smith still seems determined to retire from making movies, and that’s a shame. “Red State” represents a new chapter in his long career which has me begging him to keep on going. It’s not a horror movie in the usual sense of things jumping out at you to give you an easy scare. Instead, it shows horror we find in everyday life. Who knew he would capture it to such powerful effect? In a time when the voices of independent movies appear to be gasping their last breath, Smith shows himself to be the last man standing and gives us a reason why we can’t let movies like his simply fade away.

* * * * out of * * * *