I first remember watching the trailer for Brian De Palma’s “Blow Out” years ago before a double feature at New Beverly Cinema. While I don’t remember which double feature I was seeing that evening, I do remember the trailer itself and in becoming excited about checking out this underappreciated De Palma classic. Roger Ebert gave it four out of four stars and proclaimed it to be one of those “hidden treasures” at your local video store, and Quentin Tarantino, who bought the building New Beverly Cinema is housed in, has declared this to be one of three motion pictures he would love to take with him to a deserted island.
That little needle bouncing up when a certain sound is detected instantly reminded me of when I recorded my favorite records to audio tape when I was a boy. You had to make sure the levels did not go into the red area as the sound could become distorted and easily lay waste to your expensive stereo system. But when Jack Terry (played by John Travolta) ends up recording a loud sound no one was ever supposed to hear, and which ended up on the red side of the sound mix, we immediately know this was no mere accident.
I love how this trailer shows Travolta, Nancy Allen and John Lithgow giving the performances of their lives here. Seeing them shows how committed they are to the material, and I love the ever so cold look on Lithgow’s face as he is about to take the life of an innocent victim who is completely unsuspecting of someone about to strangle them. They way this trailer builds to a fever pitch made me want to check it out sooner rather than later.
“Blow Out” was a box office disappointment when released back in 1981 despite positive reviews, but thanks to Ebert and Tarantino among others, it has since gained a cult following it richly deserves. I finally got to check it out at the New Beverly Cinema where it played as a double feature with a movie said to have inspired it, Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up.” This proved to be quite the cinematic evening for yours truly.
WRITER’S NOTE: As the opening paragraph indicates, this article was written back in 2011.
On August 19, 2011, Kevin Smith began a one-week run of “Red State” at New Beverly Cinema making it eligible for Academy Awards consideration. Smith also came to just about every showing there to do a Q&A afterwards as he came to love “sitting back and loudly appreciating the movie.” Of course, this led one audience member to confront him at a local Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and say, “You were yelling ‘genius’ at your own movie?”
“Red State” is astonishingly different from any movie Smith has previously helmed including the Bruce Willis starring “Cop Out.” This is largely the result of him and his longtime director of photography Dave Klein, who also shot “Clerks,” making use of the Red One digital camera. Smith said he loved chasing around the set with it, and he remarked how the camera looked like something out of “The Bourne Identity.” Smith, however, was aiming for “Red State” to look more like “Half Nelson” and less like “NYPD Blue,” and he told Klein him he wanted it to look unlike any movie they had made before. To this, Klein said, “Thank God!”
Smith felt he improved as a filmmaker with the Red One, and he figured the company which made them would give him one for free. However, it turned out getting a free camera was as likely as getting anything for free from Apple.
When it came to the actors, Smith saw himself as more of a cheerleader than a director. He made this blunt in saying, “You don’t direct mother fuckers like these! Who am I to tell John Goodman or Melissa Leo about acting?!”
The actor he talked about most was Michael Parks who played Abin Cooper, Pastor of the Five Points Trinity Church, a highly fanatical and conservative church which makes the Westboro Baptist Church look tame by comparison. Smith, like many of us, first saw him as Texas Ranger Earl McGraw in “From Dusk Till Dawn,” and he declared that Parks “owned the first ten minutes” of it. Parks, however, told Smith he didn’t want impersonate Fred Phelps as he described him as being “boring.” Instead, Parks wanted Cooper to be “charismatic,” and his brilliant performance has Phelps only wishing he could be as such.
Speaking of the Phelps family, five of them came to a midnight screening of the movie. Or at least, five of them planned to until Megan Phelps contacted Smith and asked for 15 more tickets. Smith couldn’t resist having a laugh at the inescapable contradiction:
“God may hate fags, but the Lord loves a bargain!”
Megan described “Red State” as being “filthy” even though she kept watching it for ten minutes as a gift to Smith before walking out. She did, however, send him a couple of signs with the sayings “God Hates Fag Enablers” and “Red State Fags” on them. Smith’s wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, ordered him to throw them out, but he pointed out they were signed by all the WBC church members. Their daughter Harley ended up coming across the “Red State Fags” sign by accident. While he and his wife were looking at each other, Harley asked them, “Is this the sequel?”
Kevin Smith said “Red State” exists because of Quentin Tarantino. The Madonna speech at the beginning of “Reservoir Dogs” was such a big thing to him, and it made filmmaking seem all the more fun and possible to do. He sees “Red State” as the “true spiritual sequel” to “Clerks,” and he has had a joyous experience taking it out on the road. It’s very easy to believe to him when he said no one has had a bad experience with a premium ticket they bought for it.
WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2011.
With his birthday falling on March 27th, actor, writer and director Quentin Tarantino plans to celebrate the month of his birth at New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, the same theater he saved from becoming just another Supercuts. The theater’s calendar for March includes a number of exploitation classics, some animated movies that Walt Disney would never have even thought of making, and several other films which are not currently available on DVD. Many of these cinematic experiences are very rare, and it is highly unlikely you will see them anywhere else.
Tarantino ended up making a surprise appearance at the New Beverly on March 1st, 2011 to introduce the first double feature of his month of programming: “Crack House” and “Redneck Miller.” Now “Crack House” was one of the myriad releases from Cannon Films during the 1980’s, and it follows young lovers Rick and Melissa whose relationship gets torn apart when Rick’s brother gets shot to death by a rival gang, and Rick quickly rejoins the gang he left for a better life to avenge his brother’s senseless murder. Of course, this all goes awry when Rick gets sent to prison while Melissa falls in with a drug dealer and gets hooked on crack cocaine.
Tarantino described “Crack House” as being very, very special to him as it came out in 1989, the very last year in which exploitation movies played in movie houses. From when he was young, he talked about making a list each year of the ten best exploitation movies that came out, and among his top picks was George A. Romero’s “Day of The Dead.” “Crack House” got the very last exploitation movie of the year award from Tarantino before these lists were rendered obsolete.
With exploitation movies, Tarantino said we were all attracted to them through their “50’s-ness of juvenile delinquentness.” Basically, these films were the bad boys of cinema, the ones which didn’t follow the rules nor did they ever apologize for being trashy entertainment. From the 1950’s onward, exploitation cinema succeeded in reflecting the juvenile delinquents of each passing decade. But when it came to the 1980’s, these same movies suddenly became unwatchable because, as Tarantino correctly pointed out:
“The 80’s were one fucked up decade!”
But “Crack House” is one of those rare 80’s exploitation flicks which does get better as it goes along. Even Tarantino admitted how shocked he was to find he actually “gave a fuck” about these characters who might seem like stereotypical bad boys to everyone else. The “Pulp Fiction” director also acknowledged the terrific “guest star” cast which included Richard Roundtree (the original Shaft) as a no-nonsense cop, and all-time football great Jim Brown as a vicious drug kingpin.
Tarantino’s brand of March Madness at the New Beverly will culminate in a week long showing of “Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair.” This is the combined version of both films into one single movie which screened at the Cannes Film Festival and has never been seen before in the United States. At four hours long, there was no way New Beverly was just going to show it two nights of the week! However, as I write this, all advance tickets for each night are now sold out (NOOOOO!!!). Your best bet is to get to the theater really early in the hopes you can get in through the standby line.
In any event, here’s to a month of great, unabashed entertainment at the New Beverly Cinema!
WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally back in 2012.
I was lucky enough to check out Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie “Django Unchained” at New Beverly Cinema, the same movie theater he bought and kept from going out of business. It was being shown in 35mm instead of a digital print at other theaters because Tarantino is still a big fan of film, and the New Beverly is known for showing movies in 35mm because that’s exactly what the owners and patrons like best.
One of the real treats of seeing “Django Unchained” at New Beverly Cinema is instead of getting coming attractions for 2013 movies, we instead get to watch movie trailers from the past. These ones were especially campy and represent the kind of movies Hollywood no longer makes, and I wondered if the trailers being shown before “Django Unchained” inspired this particular Tarantino film in some way. Many of the prints of movies and trailers shown at the New Beverly tend to come from Tarantino’s own personal collection, so even if they didn’t inspire this movie of his, then they must have been ones he loves watching over and over.
Let’s take a look.
This exploitation film from 1974, one which clearly was inspired by “Spartacus,” stars Pam Grier and Margaret Markov as female gladiators who have been enslaved in Rome and are forced to fight for their freedom. The trailer proved to be hilarious as the acting is over the top, and the narrator embellishes the more explicit elements of this movie by saying how the Romans “enslaved the most sensuous women to titillate the perverted pleasures of the Roman public” and how the main characters are “beautiful unchained women” whose bodies are “shaped into superb fighting equipment.” There’s also a bit of nudity and blood on display, the kinds of things you almost never see in a movie trailer today unless it is a red band trailer being shown for restricted audiences only.
Still, it’s great to see Grier here whom Tarantino cast in his movie “Jackie Brown,” and it is said she and Markov did all their own fights and stunts in “The Arena.” We should all known by now that Grier is as tough as the characters she has played in dozens of movies, and seeing her take on the Romans makes this one worth a look.
The trailer for this 1969 Italian Spaghetti Western runs four minutes long, much longer than the average movie trailer we see in theaters today. It stars Terence Hill as Cat Stevens, but the trailer’s narrator refers to him as “the man with no name.” It also stars football great Woody Strode as Thomas, a man who is quick with a gun and out for revenge over the death of his son. Together, these two help the inhabitants of a gold mining community which is being oppressed by a criminal organization.
This is another trailer which has a male narrator emphasizing the movie’s violence, and it’s fun to hear him say how “Boot Hill” is a town “where death comes quick,” “where death comes hard,” and where “death comes in two colors.” Seeing Hill and Strode walk into town all serious and without a smile on their faces brings to mind how Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz roll into town in “Django Unchained.”
“Boot Hill” was actually the last film in a trilogy of movies directed by Giuseppe Colizzi, and it was preceded by “God Forgives… I Don’t!” and “Aces High.”
This 1975 film was based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Kyle Onstott, and it stars James Mason, Susan George, Perry King, Lillian Hayman, former boxer Ken Norton and pro-wrestler Earl Maynard. It takes place in the 1840’s where a plantation owner trains one of his slaves to be a bare-knuckle fighter, and there are some brutal scenes of bare-knuckle fighting to be found in “Django Unchained.” It makes me wonder if Tarantino based the character of Calvin Candie (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) on the ones played by Mason or King in “Mandingo.”
The narrator of this trailer describes “Mandingo” as being “the first true motion picture epic of the Old South,” but it’s a little hard to believe this as certain scenes appear to be very overwrought. The audience couldn’t help but laugh at the actress who told her lover “don’t kiss me yet, unless it’s just a cousin kiss” because the kiss which followed seems to be anything but a cousin kiss.
The movie version of “Mandingo” received a severe bashing from film critics like Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin and Richard Schickel, all of whom gave it their lowest rating. Tarantino, however, said it represents one of only two instances in the last few decades where “a major studio made a full-on, gigantic, big-budget exploitation movie” (the other being Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”).
Ralph Nelson’s 1970 movie stars another football great, Jim Brown, as Jimmy Price, a black police officer who has just been elected sheriff of a racially divided town in the American South. The fact he beat out the former Sheriff, a white man named John Little (George Kennedy), does not sit well with some of the townspeople. As the movie’s title and the endless ticking in the trailer indicates, the racial tensions will continue to rise until they boil over into a possibly fatal conflict.
“…tick…tick…tick…” has long since become a cult classic for its cutting-edge portrayal of racial tensions and its tense narrative, and of all the trailers shown before “Django Unchained” at New Beverly Cinema, this was the one the audience laughed at the least, if at all. It looks like it still holds up to this day regardless of the passing of time, and the way the white characters treat Jimmy doesn’t seem much different from the way Django is treated in “Django Unchained.” It’s especially cool to see Brown as a Sheriff because he has always had the appearance of someone who can clean up a town single-handedly.
“Take a Hard Ride”
This Western from 1975 also stars Jim Brown as Pike, a rugged trail boss and former criminal who promises Bob Morgan (Dana Andrews) he will successfully transport $86,000 across the border to a ranch in Sonora, Mexico. Pike is forced to team up with a dishonest gambler named Tyree (Fred Williamson) for this mission, and they are soon being pursued by the ruthless bounty hunter Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef) and the corrupt sheriff Kane (Barry Sullivan).
The trailer for “Take a Hard Ride” made it look like a movie I really want to check out. Like “Django Unchained,” it is a mix up of the Blaxploitation and western genres and features one of the best casts a movie like this could ever hope to have. Brown and Williamson have always proven to be ultimate bad asses in whatever movies they appear in, and I love how the trailer’s narrator describes Cleef’s character as being “as sly as a rattlesnake and twice as deadly.” It was also great watching the scene where the cowboys and their horses crash down a hill because now I know where the filmmakers of “Young Guns II” got the idea for a similar scene.
After watching all these trailers and “Django Unchained,” it becomes clearer to see where Tarantino took his cues from as a writer and director. It also shows how brilliant he is at taking all the elements and turning them into a movie which is uniquely his own and not just an uninspired homage that pales in comparison to the films it inspired. “Django Unchained” proved to be a lot of fun, and the trailers which preceded it are for movies which look to be just as entertaining.
It was a role originally meant for Will Smith, but after watching “Django Unchained” it will be hard to think of any actor who could have played Django better than Jamie Foxx. The Oscar-winning actor came from the world of comedy where he has done hilarious work, but he continues to impress us with one terrific dramatic performance after another in films like “Collateral,” “Ali” and “Any Given Sunday.” The role of Django is one of the biggest and most challenging Foxx has taken on, and he convincingly takes this character from being a helpless slave to becoming a slick bounty hunter in splendid fashion.
When it comes to working with Quentin Tarantino, he’s always ready to show his actors movies they can base their characters on. Foxx was no exception to this, and Tarantino got him to watch Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 Spaghetti Western “Django,” a movie which serves as one of “Django Unchained’s” biggest inspirations. It starred Franco Nero as a coffin-dragging gunslinger who comes into town and gets caught up in a feud between the KKK and a bunch of Mexican bandits. While talking with Rebecca Murray of About.com, Foxx explained what impact watching “Django” had on him as well working with Nero who has a cameo in “Django Unchained.”
“I was like, wow, it was amazing. And then to actually have the original Django in the movie. I don’t know if you’ve ever met him but he was the biggest star on the set,” Foxx told Murray. “For him to give his blessing, and I think it really follows true to it and I think that’s what’s going to be the pleasant surprise to people, that it’s a Western and that it stays along the lines of a Western that happens to be in the backdrop of slavery. Slavery almost becomes secondary at a certain point because at the beginning it’s traditional, slave. Then once he becomes this bounty hunter, that’s the backdrop. Now it’s about revenge and about getting this girl, so he stayed true to that and that’s cinematic.”
While at the “Django Unchained” press conference, Foxx made it clear he was ever so eager to work with Tarantino on it. He had no qualms about playing a slave, and what attracted him to the role was Django’s uprising. Movies have always been an outlet for the artists who make them and the audiences that watch them, and Foxx explained what makes this one particularly cathartic.
“When you see movies about slavery…we never get a chance to see the slave actually fight back, actually do for himself, and in this movie there are a lot of firsts,” Foxx said.
Despite the fact it is a genre movie and a revenge fantasy of sorts, “Django Unchained” does deal with America’s dark history of slavery. Tarantino never sugar coats it for mass audience consumption, but then again, why should anyone? It’s an ugly part of the past we’d like to ignore, but it needs to be acknowledged so we can learn from it in the hopes of never repeating it again. As a result, the movie has been greeted with controversy over its subject matter and the frequent use of the n-word with many people (and not just Spike Lee) complaining loudly about it. But Foxx, in an interview with Keith Staskiewicz of Entertainment Weekly, said he is not surprised at the strong response “Django Unchained” has been getting and doesn’t think anyone else should be either.
“You know it’s going to be controversial!” Foxx told Staskiewicz. “That’s what’s been blowing my mind, people saying, did you know this was going to be controversial? It’s like, come on man! Did you read the script? Why would Quentin Tarantino do anything that wasn’t controversial? What movie of his have you seen where you went, oh, this is a Hallmark Movie and rated G? That’s not what you sign up for. You don’t sign up for that.”
Still, Foxx admitted it was a tough movie to make considering part of it was shot at the Evergreen Plantation in Louisiana. It was at this same plantation where slaves were made to work, and they suffered and toiled under brutal conditions. Being there must have been deeply unsettling for everyone involved in the movie’s making, and it certainly had a strong impact on Foxx which he wasn’t about to ignore.
“It’s tough shooting when you’re in plantation row and that’s where your ancestors were persecuted and killed, and we were respectful of that,” Foxx told Staskiewicz.
Regardless of the controversy, “Django Unchained” proved to be one of the most entertaining movies of 2012 thanks to Tarantino’s clever screenplay and direction, and also because of the sensational performances from the cast. Jamie Foxx can add Django to his roster of great screen roles in a career which still has many more to be revealed. Foxx also made a very good point about the film’s subject matter to Adam Edelman of the New York Daily News which people really need to think about.
“Every two, three years there is a movie about the Holocaust because they want you to remember and they want you to be reminded of what it was,” Foxx said. “When was the last time you seen a movie about slavery?”
Quentin Tarantino once said he did not have an “Age of Innocence” in him like Martin Scorsese did, but after watching his 9th film “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood,” I think he may be mistaken. Yes, it does have an R-rating like and features some truly brutal moments of violence where faces are literally pounded in, but this is largely a loving tribute to the Hollywood of the 1960’s and of the actors and filmmakers which inhabited it. Considering Tarantino’s attention to detail and his fetish for any kind of artifact from this era, I have no doubt he would have loved to have been a filmmaker back then if he could.
Tarantino and his longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson transport us back to the Hollywood of 1969 where we meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor and former star of a “Wanted Dead or Alive”-like television series called “Bounty Law.” After having a conversation with his agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino, more restrained than usual), he comes to see how washed up his career has become as he is reduced to doing guest spots as the villain on various television shows. The only person he can talk to about his troubles is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who is always around to have a drink with and drive him around town as Rick has had one DUI too many.
“Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” is kind of like a Robert Altman film in that it doesn’t have a straightforward plot. Instead, it acts as a day in the life story as we watch Rick Dalton try to move on with his acting career as an important decision hangs over him, whether or not to move to Italy where he can star in low budget spaghetti westerns. When the story isn’t focused on him, it focuses on Cliff who seems content to live in a trailer out in Van Nuys with his dog who is a bit annoyed at him for serving him the kind of dog food which slides out of its steel can as if it were pure slime.
The only thing Rick seems fairly excited about these days is the fact Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate now live next door to him in the Hollywood Hills. But looming in the background is Charlie Manson and his cult of followers who look at first to be harmless hippies, but they later reveal themselves to be devoted to him in a most unhealthy way. Those of us who are familiar with history, and who have a deep respect for historical facts, know Sharon Tate and others were murdered by Manson’s followers, and that this shocking act all but ended the era of love and peace irreparably. But as I watched this film, I began to wonder if Tarantino would stay true to history, or if he would play around with it as he did in “Inglourious Basterds.” Whatever the case, the presence of Manson and his cult cast an ominous shadow over the proceedings, so we know the end of this story will not be the least bit pretty.
Watching “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” reminded me of how much I love it when a filmmaker sucks us right into another time and place to where we don’t doubt the accuracy and attention to detail. Cameron Crowe did this with “Almost Famous,” Paul Thomas Anderson did wonders with the 70’s and 80’s in “Boogie Nights,” and Tarantino does the same as he brings us right back to 1969 with wonderful abandon. All the famous landmarks of Hollywood are here including the Cinerama Dome, Musso & Frank Grill, El Coyote Restaurant and the classic movie theaters located in Westwood. New Beverly Cinema can be seen from a distance as it is shown having a premiere for an adult film, and this was back when it was a porno theater.
This attention to detail also includes the kind of beer these characters drank, the type of books they read, television antennas and cars. This was back in a time when people smoked an endless number of cigarettes, drove and sat in cars without having to wear seatbelts, and when love and peace was in the air even as wars were being waged overseas.
It is great fun to see DiCaprio in this kind of role after seeing him be so serious in “The Revenant,” a movie which earned him the Oscar he should have received for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He’s a gas here as he makes Rick Dalton into a study of desperation as he struggles to maintain what’s left of his image and berate himself while alone in his trailer. The scene he has with a child actress played by the wonderful Julia Butters is a special highlight as she shows him the kind of innocence and love of acting he once had before life, alcohol and a corrupted world view clouded his perception.
As I have said in the past, I love it when Pitt gets down and dirty in a role, and he does just this as Cliff Booth. In addition to being Rick’s stunt double, he is also a Vietnam veteran, and the violence he inflicts on others who wrong him can be described at the very least as punishing. Pitt also proves to be as funny as DiCaprio from scene to scene, and he has a classic scene opposite Mike Moh who is pitch perfect as Bruce Lee in which I saw something I never thought I would see or believe, someone getting the best of Bruce Lee.
But one performance I really need to single out here is Margot Robbie’s as Sharon Tate. While at the Cannes Film Festival, someone asked Tarantino why he didn’t give Robbie the same amount of dialogue he gave DiCaprio and Pitt. I don’t remember who asked this question, but whoever it was, they completely missed the point. It’s not always dialogue which aids a performance. Sometimes it’s just a look or an attitude, and Robbie gives off a look or two which is more than enough to capture the essence of Sharon Tate as well as her beguiling innocence.
Tate has long been relegated to history as one of the Manson family’s murder victims, but she deserves to be known for much more. As Robbie sits in a Westwood movie theater watching a movie Tate co-starred in, we are reminded of a talent which was taken away from this world far too soon, and it makes me want to check out everything Tate ever appeared in. Robie does a fantastic job of reminding us how fun it is to see ourselves, let alone our name, on the silver screen as others look on, unaware of who is sitting next to them in the audience, and she is as radiant as Tate was in her far too brief lifetime.
There are so many familiar actors worth singling out here, but some of them you may not see coming and I am not about to spoil any surprises this film has to offer. I will say it’s always a delight to see Kurt Russell in anything and everything, and he is great as a stunt coordinator who is not quick to warm up to Cliff. Margaret Qualley is a memorable presence as Pussycat, a member of the Manson family who does warm up to Cliff. Bruce Dern, in a role originally meant for the late Burt Reynolds, is fun to watch as George Spahn, a man whose ranch was used for many westerns and which later got used by Charlie Manson and his demented followers. And it is quite bittersweet to see the late Luke Perry as it is the last feature film he will ever appear in.
Seriously, as rough and tumble as “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” gets, it really is a love letter to a Hollywood which time will never forget. As Tarantino nears the end of his long filmmaking career (or so he says), he continues to give us one enthralling motion picture experience after another. Even if his works threaten to be undone by self-indulgence, I am glad people are thoughtful enough to give him the freedom to make what he wants to make. If Tarantino ever had it in him to give us a fairy tale, this would be it. Even as its main characters threaten to be forever swallowed up by bitterness and cynicism, there is a light of innocence which helps lead them to the next stage in their lives. And if this film is any indication, this is time in Hollywood which Tarantino wishes lasted longer than it did.
Now, as with any Tarantino film, I have to go out and buy the soundtrack and then watch it again. And one other thing, I almost didn’t recognize Timothy Olyphant. Did you? Oh yeah, and sauerkraut will never be the same.
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.
WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2009.
“Nazis, I hate these guys!”
-Harrison Ford from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”
“You know somethin’, Utivich? I think this might just be my masterpiece.”
-Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine
Could this truly be Tarantino’s masterpiece? Hard to say, but it is indeed his most ambitious movie to date. “Inglourious Basterds” is another brilliant love letter to all things cinema from Quentin Tarantino, and it ends the rather crappy 2009 summer movie season on a high note. With this film, Tarantino has created his own version of World War II and has given it an ending many of us would have preferred to have seen happen. It is also his tribute to movies like “The Dirty Dozen” and other war movies of its ilk. It is not a remake of the film of the same name, but it uses the same title out of respect.
“Inglourious Basterds” is told in a series of chapters, and it features several different threads of story which eventually intersect at the film’s fiery climax. We meet our chief Nazi villain, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) as he questions a family as to whether or not they are hiding any Jews, but we soon realize he is asking questions he already knows the answers to. Then we are introduced to the Basterds themselves, and they are led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) who announces that they are being dropped into Nazi occupied France to do one thing and one thing only, kill Nazis. Not only that, they plan to take souvenirs to show the Nazis they mean business. Then we meet Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the only Jew to escape Col. Landa’s deadly grasp, and she has since found a safe hiding place as the owner of a German cinema which will soon host the most powerful members of the Nazi party for a film opening gala. Little do they know of the act of brutal vengeance which will eventually greet them…
At a running time of 153 minutes, “Inglourious Basterds” is one of those rare movies which really takes its time. There’s no big rush to get from one big action set piece to the next which is usually case with just about every summer movie released from one year to the next. Even while The Weinstein Company had to work with Universal Pictures to get this film made, Tarantino still gets full creative control which is a blessing for those of us who love his films. We also get the great dialogue we have come to expect from him, and there are moments where words speak louder than actions. There are many verbal duels between characters as each one tries to outdo the other, and what is implied by them ends up generating an amazing amount of tension.
Tarantino also retains a keen eye for casting, and he has said one of the actors he chose did in fact give him back his movie. That actor would be Christoph Waltz who plays the intelligent but deadly Col. Hans Landa. Waltz won the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the way I see it, they should just hand him the Oscar come next March. Brilliant seems too subtle a description to describe his performance. His role is an extremely difficult one to pull off because he has to come off a certain way while allowing us to see in his eyes what he already knows. Waltz comes off with simple gestures which leave us deeply unnerved, and there is a key moment where he deals with a character that serves as a great cat and mouse moment as he tries to figure out the person he sees before him while she tries to remain calm and hide who she really is from him. Waltz’s opening scene with the French farmer is remarkable in how he psychologically tears him down to where he finally admits he has no choice and reveals what Landa already knows.
I’m not sure if I have seen Waltz in other movies before this one, but I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future. Seriously, his character is to “Inglourious Basterds” as Heath Ledger’s Joker was to “The Dark Knight.”
Then we have Brad Pitt who I am glad to see get down and dirty after being all cute and cuddly in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” As Lt. Aldo Raine, he starts off by giving a speech to his men which makes him come off like George C. Scott in “Patton.” It is clear Pitt is having a ball playing this character and saying the dialogue Tarantino has written, and he looks to have saved some of the manic energy he had in “Burn After Reading” for this role. While performance at times comes close to caricature, he has us rooting for Aldo throughout.
Tarantino also continues to be great at writing strong roles for women. Mélanie Laurent does great work here as Shosanna Dreyfus, the Jewish woman who is the only survivor of Landa’s murderous rampage. Throughout the movie, she goes from playing it cool around the Nazis to being terrified as she comes under close examination from them. She has managed to maintain her cover as a German while running her own cinema, and she also has to fend off the advances of Pvt. Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) who is something of a pop star in the Nazi party when he meets her. She also has a strong relationship with her boyfriend projectionist, Marcel (Jacky Ido), which allows her to show compassion she would otherwise have to keep hidden from the prying eyes of those out to eliminate Jews. Laurent gets to portray many different facets of her character throughout the movie’s running time, and her performance is every bit as memorable to me as Waltz’s was.
I also got a big kick out of Diane Kruger’s highly entertaining performance as film star Bridget von Hammersmark, a Marlene Dietrich type. Kruger is a wonderful presence as she goes from being an outgoing actress who always seems to enjoy the company of others to a tough woman who shares in the Basterds passion of doing in the Nazis, most especially Hitler. Best known for her work in “National Treasure” and “Troy,” she really comes into her own here.
“Inglourious Basterds” has a great cast overall with other memorable turns from actors like Michael Fassbender as a British spy posing as a German officer, and Sylvester Groth who portrays the irrepressibly snooty Joseph Goebbels. It’s also a hoot to see Mike Meyers here in a “guest starring” role as a British general, and it almost fully makes up for the mess he inflicted on us with “The Love Guru.” Eli Roth, the so-called “torture porn” director, is also on board as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, aka “The Bear Jew.” Although this role was originally intended for Adam Sandler, it almost makes sense the “Hostel” director would play a soldier who beats Nazis to death with a baseball bat.
Many of Tarantino’s favorite movie devices are on display here including the “Mexican standoff” and endless talk about movies, but here they feel much fresher and exhilarating to watch. The scene in the German bar where a Nazi soldier is celebrating the birth of his son may seem a bit too long, but Tarantino builds the scene to a fever pitch of tension as everyone has their gun on the other, and you watch in terrifying anticipation as to who will shoot first. With the character of Shosanna, he takes the time to express his love of foreign cinema. In his other movies, especially the “Death Proof” portion of “Grindhouse,” he mostly speaks of his affection for American movies and pop culture, but his love of cinema never stops there.
Tarantino also gives us another great soundtrack which is a collection of film scores from other movies, and of songs capturing the essence of his characters to the letter. Interestingly enough, much of the music is not from the WWII period, and he even uses David Bowie’s theme song from Paul Schrader’s 1980’s “Cat People” remake to perfectly capture Shosanna in her final preparations for her much deserved revenge. As with the “Kill Bill” movies, he makes effective use of the film scores of Ennio Morricone who remains a big influence on his own work. It didn’t take me long after seeing the movie to buy the soundtrack, but I do wish it was on sale.
Many will complain of how inaccurate this film is to the historical facts of WWII, but they are just wasting their time. We should all know by the time we head into the theater that Tarantino is not out to be anymore as historically accurate as Michael Mann was with “Public Enemies.” Every once in a while, you need a movie which breaks the rules, and it is such infectious fun to see “Inglourious Basterds” break down the normal conventions of the typical WWII movie. So many of them over the past couple of years tend to be depressing affairs which deal with the humanity lost, but Tarantino is out to do the exact opposite. “Inglorious Basterds” is a fantastic genre movie which borrows from many movies, and he is still genius at taking elements from them all and making them his own.
2009 has been a bad year for movies thus far, but “Inglourious Basterds” is one of the best and is yet another cinematic triumph for Tarantino as it shows he is no one trick pony. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 6 years for his next film.
“Human Zoo” is one of the most astonishing directorial debuts ever as it exhilarates and shocks the audience in a way few movies do these days. Its director is Rie Rasmussen who also wrote the screenplay and stars in the film as Adria Shala, an illegal immigrant who is traumatized by a past she is still trying to escape. The fact she performed all these duties on one movie makes her accomplishment all the more profound as it would drive most people in the same position crazy.
Made in 2009, “Human Zoo” finally got its American theatrical premiere in November 2011 courtesy of Quentin Tarantino who screened it for a week-long engagement at New Beverly Cinema. Rasmussen has been at every screening to do a Q&A after the film, and on November 13, 2001, she talked with Julie Marchese who asked the question which needed to be asked most:
Rasmussen said “Human Zoo” was inspired by her adopted sister who came out of Vietnam and lost her mother who was sold into slavery in Moscow. Rasmussen’s family spent six years trying to adopt her, and it led her to wonder why our borders and nationalities end up “being our bars.” She talked of how we as a whole “trap ourselves with notions of insecurity” which eventually lead to senseless violence in society. This all fed into the script she wrote which uses the horrific war in Serbia as one of its backdrops.
Born in Denmark, Rasmussen described living in Northern Europe as being “not that fuckin’ fun,” and she even said Inglewood is nice in comparison to it. She got drawn to movies as it provided a much-needed escape from her environment, and because there wasn’t much else to do. The interest of what life had to offer fascinated her, and she found herself looking outside the norm and inspired by what she called the “not so obvious.” She also talked of being attracted to the black and destructive energy in the world and had discovered “Jackass” long before the show made its debut on MTV.
Speaking of that black and destructive energy, it is personified in the character of Srdjan who is an unbalanced psychopath who acts in the wrong ways. In talking about venturing through what she called the “darker alleys of life,” Rasmussen talked about how “the guy who can’t see right from wrong is really interesting.” This is made infinitely clear through Nikola Djuricko’s brilliant performance as Srdjan who gleefully plans to rob houses while the city is being bombed and everyone is hiding in the shelters. We see Shala drawn into this life to where no moral sense is applied to anything, and she gets more deeply involved to where she ends up “going to the dark side.”
Marchese remarked at how “Human Zoo” was sold at movie festivals as a woman’s picture, but she was correct in saying to reduce it to a certain label doesn’t do it justice. Rasmussen’s first movie as a director is so incredible in its accomplishment that it deserves to reach a wider audience than people realize. Boiling it down to a woman’s picture is unfairly misleading, and Rasmussen said it best:
“I have tits, but I’m a person, and that doesn’t take my humanity away.”
“Human Zoo” is one of the most exhilarating directorial debuts I’ve seen in some time. It’s even more astonishing to learn its director, Rie Rasmussen, also wrote the screenplay, co-produced the movie and stars in it as well. This got me to thinking about what Robin Williams said when he was presenting at the Oscars:
“There’s the writer, producer, director; one of the few people in the world who can blow smoke up their own ass!”
But having worked with Brian De Palma on “Femme Fatale” and Luc Besson on “Angel-A,” Rasmussen has learned from some of the best and shows a confidence few others have exhibited on their first feature. Released in France back in 2009, “Human Zoo” made its American theatrical debut a few years later courtesy of Quentin Tarantino who screened it for a week at New Beverly Cinema.
Rasmussen stars as Adria Shala, a Serbian-Albanian illegal immigrant who, at the movie’s start, is living in Marseille. We soon learn how she is still deeply traumatized by her past, and the story shifts back and forth in time as we see her trying to survive in the war-torn Kosovo. Adria gets captured by soldiers and almost raped when one of them, Srdjan Vasiljevic (Nikola Djuricko), saves and takes her with him as he decides to desert the Serbian army. From there, the two of them move to Belgrade where Srdjan becomes a gangster and deals out dozens of weapons to the highest bidder. Adria soon learns the ropes of how he does things and stays with him even as things get increasingly nasty (emphasis on the word nasty). It’s this past which threatens to tear apart her present as she finds a new love while helping a friend of hers obtain the citizenship that will help her find a better life.
“Human Zoo” is at times a shockingly violent movie, but never in a flashy way. The violence is an integral part of the lives of these characters, and it is portrayed in all its foul ugliness. It is never glamorized as Rasmussen is reflecting the real-life tragedy of what happened in Kosovo during the war. There is also a rape scene which is one of the most realistic ever featured in movies as Rasmussen never ever tries to make it look the least bit arousing as other directors might have.
Watching this movie twice in the same week, I was blown away at how many long shots Rasmussen pulled off. We’re in a time where movies seem to be about quick cuts and shaking the camera all over the place more than anything else. But she makes each scene flow naturally even as they seem incredibly complicated to put together. There’s one sex scene which looks astonishingly realistic as it lasts two or three minutes, and it’s this kind of directing that sucks you completely into the story and its characters.
Rasmussen also succeeds in staging a brilliant overhead shot in a gunfight sequence which has her character going down a hall as we see what’s going on in the rooms surrounding it. DePalma, among other movie directors, have pulled off scenes like this many times, but Rasmussen makes it all her own to where it feels very fresh.
“Human Zoo” could have been utterly confusing as it constantly jumps back and forth in time, but Rasmussen manages to separate the timelines to where they are easily identifiable. She uses a cold blue color when presenting the past in the same way Steven Soderbergh used different colors in “Traffic.” The color suits this part of the story as it starts in war torn Kosovo and continues on into a world which looks every bit as cold it seems. Watching Adria’s journey into an abyss where the difference between right and wrong becomes seriously blurred is one we cannot turn away from. Her friendship with Srdjan keeps growing into something else even as he maintains a detached mindset on human nature in general.
Rasmussen also gets away with tackling different issues like immigration, slavery, war, and others, and yet this film never feels overstuffed. They are all issues very important to her, and she gives time to explore them without spelling everything out to the audience.
As an actress, Rasmussen gives a ballsy performance as Adria as she takes her character from a naïve young girl to a very self-sufficient one. It’s a great role for any actress because there are so many levels to play with, and she never misses a beat. In interviews, she has talked about seeing the darker side of life which taught her how to defend herself, and this life experience certainly bleeds through into her portrayal of Adria.
Another terrific performance comes from Nick Corey who plays Adria’s American boyfriend, Shawn Reagan. At first, it looks like Corey will coast on the surfer dude stereotype when Nick bumps into Adria by accident. But Corey imbues Nick with a love for life as we learn how he has traveled from one country to another, and he gets a great scene where he prepares to fight in a bar by stripping off all his clothes. Corey makes the scene believable and funny, and it also helps how Rasmussen said she saw a guy do this in real life.
But the best performance by far in “Human Zoo” comes from Nikola Djuricko who gives us one of cinema’s most enthralling and seductive sociopaths as Srdjan Vasiljevic. We should despise Srdjan for what he does, but Djuricko makes him too entertaining to be around. For the majority of this film, his eyes never tell us if he’s a good or bad guy. In watching the delight he takes in his bad deeds and his bleak perception of humanity in general, Djuricko pulls the audience in with a tight grasp to where we can’t take our eyes off him. It’s a fearless performance as he believably portrays a person with qualities we want to believe are not a part of us, and this actor makes an infinitely appealing character out of a certified monster.
I hope “Human Zoo” eventually finds a wider audience than it has already received. The movie more than succeeds in breaking through all borders in its path, and it deserves to be taken a chance on. We are still stuck in a cycle of endless (not to mention needless) remakes and movies “based on a true story,” but this movie has a life force about it which commands your attention and exhilarates you from start to finish. I can’t say that about many movies which come out these days.