‘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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‘Predators’ Rescues This Franchise From its PG-13 Depths

Predators movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2010.

After those two god-awful “Alien vs. Predator” movies which brought each franchise down to an unforgivably cartoonish level, at least one franchise gets back on track with the Robert Rodriguez produced “Predators.” It puts, as Arnold Schwarzenegger described them, the ugly motherfuckers back into the action-packed R-rated territory where they belong, and we are provided with a cast of characters who are mostly complex and a bit cliched, but they are never bland like the standard bunch of fools which inhabit every other summer blockbuster movie in existence. It also completely disregards the groan-inducing existence of the aforementioned “AVP” movies and acts as a direct sequel to “Predator” and “Predator 2.” Still, it is clear from the get go how this one owes much of its inspiration to the 1987 original.

Schwarzenegger continues to evade each sequel made to “Predator,” so we instead have Adrien Brody starring as Royce, an ex-military soldier who has long since become a mercenary. In light of movies like “The A-Team” and “Green Zone” which were clearly anti-mercenary, now we have one we can root for without too much cynicism. “Predators” commences with Royce waking up as he is free falling in a way Tom Petty never sang about through the atmosphere to a planet’s surface where his parachute opens just in the nick of time. Once there, he comes into contact with others who have arrived in the same manner. They are all from different ethnic backgrounds but have one thing in common; they are the worst of the worst and are the best at what they do which is eliminating their respective enemies. Not all of them make it safely though as one slams to the ground when his parachute fails to open. This reminded me of Michael Rooker’s line from “Cliffhanger” when he said, “Gravity’s a bitch, isn’t it?”

They believe they are still on earth as the jungle looks all too familiar in their eyes, but it is soon revealed they are actually on some distant unnamed planet and have been dropped into a game preserve. Upon realizing they are in foreign territory, Royce correctly surmises they are the game. The predators are out there in their camouflage disguises, ready to dismember their prey in the most lethal way possible. I’m sure many you have seen the first two “Predator” movies and have gloried in their gloriously gory kills, and you can expect many good ones in this sequel.

The one thing I really liked about “Predators” is how it surrounds us with characters that are not the least bit watered over. Their lives have descended into the dark spaces we live to avoid, and their actions over time have branded them as criminals who are among the most wanted by their governments. Regardless, we still root for them to defeat the Predators on their turf which resembles an Amazonian rain forest. None of them are easily likable, but they are also not the same boring stereotypical schmucks which overpopulated the “AVP” movies. Like the characters from the original “Predator,” many whom have since become politicians, each one has their own set of quirks and crimes to run away from.

In addition to Adrien Brody, Alice Braga co-stars as Isabelle, a sniper from the Israel Defense Force and a CIA black operations assassin. Braga’s role continues the genre’s popular usage of strong female characters who can never ever be defeated easily, if at all. You also have Danny Trejo as the ruthless enforcer for a Mexican drug cartel named Cuchillo, Oleg Taktarov as a Russian commando Nikolai (a lot of Russian characters get named Nikolai in movies), Louis Ozawa Changchien as Yakuza enforcer Hanzo, Mahershala Ali as Sierra Leone RUF death squad soldier Mombasa, Topher Grace as a doctor named Edwin who seems misplaced among the group but has his own dark secrets, and Walton Goggins as San Quentin death row inmate Stans. They have their own specific weapons which act as an extension of what they are capable of doing, and despite their differences and varying levels of corruption, they need each other to survive. The writers did a good job of individualizing each character to where they stand out memorably, and each of them show how predators are equal opportunity decapitators. But therein lies the meaning behind the title of the movie; the humans are predators as well, and it’s kill or be killed.

By destroying the predators before they get murdered in a most vicious manner, the humans see this as their shot at redemption for all their bad deeds. Stans, on the other hand, who was on the verge of being executed, sees this as an opportunity to do the same things he got sent him to death row for. Its proof once again that crime makes you stupid.

While Rodriguez’s name has been plastered all over the promotional materials for “Predators,” the movie was directed by Nimród Antal who previously made “Vacancy” and “Armored.” Nimród gets a good dose of suspense and tension going, and he shows no interest in giving us a PG-13 movie we did not ask for. He does, however, let the pace drag towards the middle and gives us a little more exposition than we need. Things do pick up towards the end though, so he certainly did not forget the kind of movie fans expected to see.

The Predators themselves still look very threatening after all these years, and the filmmakers also bring us different versions of them throughout the carnage, just like at the end of “Predator 2.” We even get some Predator-like dogs which speed off after the protagonists like they are cougars coming out of nowhere. They look like the most vicious German shepherds you could ever come across. I know people think Doberman pinchers are the most dangerous dogs, but German shepherds freak me out more.

At first, it feels odd to see Brody cast as an action hero, but he pulls it off and makes Royce one of the more authentic antiheroes I have seen recently. Yes, he does have that moment where he takes his shirt off to show us how often he goes to the gym, but that is indeed an authentic six pack you see on him. Once again, Brody proves to be an actor who deserves a little more credit than he often gets.

I also really liked Braga as Isabelle as the actress sells you completely on her character of a female soldier who is tough as nails and not to be trifled or flirted with. She’s also the one who convinces the group how they are better off sticking together in the midst of odds which threaten to be as harsh as those of winning the California Lottery.

There’s also an inspired supporting performance by Laurence Fishburne as Roland Noland, a soldier who has managed to survive for “ten seasons” without having been slaughtered. The price for his survival though is the loss of his sanity as he has been on this planet for much longer than anyone should. Morpheus he ain’t, and Roland threatens to be every bit as lethal as the Predators. Granted, it’s kind of hard to make friends when many of them get sliced in half before you get to know their middle name, and it’s easy to develop invisible friends and talk to yourself as these aliens prove to be lacking in conversational skills. Fishburne is a kick, and it would have been cool to have seen more of him here.

But let’s not forget one of the most pivotal characters in this franchise which is the music of Alan Silvestri. The score for “Predators” was actually composed by John Debney, but Silvestri’s unforgettable themes are on full display here. All the heavy horn blasts, staccato string rhythms, and undulating timpani rolls are on display, and they continue to highlight all the action and tense proceedings throughout. While Debney does make the score his own, even he can’t ignore the themes Silvestri made famous.

Still, there is really no way to fully capture the menace these cinematic creatures had to the same level of the original. One of the great things about “Predator” was that, as with “Alien” or even “Jaws,” you didn’t get to see the full creature until the movie’s last act. As a result, they were scarier to where the thought of them alone left you deeply unnerved. These creatures have been around for so long now, and we have become all too familiar with how they look and attack which does take from this finished product.

But for what it’s worth, “Predators” does provide some slam bang entertainment which helps to make up for those horrifically bad “Alien vs. Predator” movies, and it brings this particular franchise back to its roots, something that was long overdue. My only other complaint is there is not enough of Danny Trejo to see here, but we’ll be catching up with that badass soon when “Machete” gets released, and I can’t wait for that one.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ Provides Marvel Fans with a Much-Needed Lightweight Adventure

Ant Man and the Wasp movie poster

After the one-two punch of “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” I figured the masterminds behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe would give themselves a break for the rest of 2018. Even “Deadpool 2,” which features a Marvel Comics character  not a part of the MCU (not yet anyway), showed how dominant these comic book/superhero movies are no matter which studio puts them out. Surely, Marvel Studios and Disney would want to keep themselves from oversaturating the market, right?

Well, now we have “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” a sequel which proves to be one of the MCU’s more lightweight adventures. Whereas “Avengers: Infinity War” was the “Empire Strikes Back” of this infinitely popular franchise, this one has a simple aim which is to entertain you and leave you laughing hysterically. It could not have come at a better time as us movie buffs are still recovering from the damage Thanos wrought on our heroes, and this one is removed from his wrath as it is keen to pick up things following the events of “Captain America: Civil War.”

After helping out Captain America to where he violated the Sokovia Accords, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has been placed under house arrest, and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) have cut ties with him and gone into hiding. With only the occasional visit from his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) to keep to keep him company, his days are marked by loneliness and desperate attempts to keep himself entertained with various activities like drumming, karaoke and business meetings with his former cellmate and business partner Luis (Michael Pena).

As with any superhero movie, these characters have to deal with mommy and daddy issues because heaven forbid any superhero experiences a trauma-free childhood. It turns out Hope’s mother, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) had partnered with Hank’s Ant-Man as the Wasp in the past, and she was later presumed dead after becoming trapped in the microscopic quantum realm after disabling a nuclear missile. Scott, however, receives a message from Janet who is still alive and, like Kevin Flynn in “Tron: Legacy” has long since been imprisoned in a realm which offers no easy escape. This forces him to team up with Hank and Hope, who is now the new Wasp, in an effort to rescue her, and it comes with the usual obstacles of bad guys and inescapable scientific facts.

The first thing I have to say about “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is how much I enjoyed the opening which has Scott going on a make-believe adventure with Cassie in his house as they have constructed a simple yet imaginative maze which they travel through with great enthusiasm. This scene reminded me of the wonderful imaginary worlds we created for ourselves as children, and it gets this sequel off to a terrific start as the filmmakers look to indulge in the same childlike imagination which they thankfully never outgrew.

The second thing worth pointing out is how this sequel is the first in the MCU to feature a female superhero in the movie’s title. While the DC Extended Universe can only catch up with the MCU in terms of quality and box office success, they are certainly ahead in terms of battling superhero sexism thanks to the brilliant “Wonder Woman.” It is only now Marvel is getting up to speed with the Wasp, and this is long overdue. It also helps how the Wasp is inhabited a pair of terrific actresses, Evangeline Lilly and Michelle Pfeiffer. Both provide this film with strong heroic characters who overcome their internal and external conflicts to make the world a better place for everyone including immigrants, legal and illegal.

Paul Rudd is one of the most likable dudes in the public eye right now, so it is hard to think of another actor who could inhabit Scott Lang to where we are more than willing to forgive his criminal trespasses. His wonderful sense of humor infects every scene to where he sneaks in jokes we do not see coming. Rudd also has a terrific moment where Scott’s body is inhabited by another, and it is almost as inspired as when Lilly Tomlin invaded Steve Martin’s body in “All of Me.” More power to you Mr. Rudd.

However, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is almost stolen from Rudd by Michael Pena who returns as Luis. After suffering through the cinematic misfire which was “CHiPS,” Pena gets to use his comedic talents to much better effect here as he speeds through his dialogue with crazy energy while his character gets to experience what it is like to be a superhero with great glee. He is a riot here as he is forced to confess to a wide series of events under duress, and seeing him paint a vivid, if not entirely accurate account, of things past, provides this sequel with fantastic moments.

This time, Ant-Man and his companions have not one, but two antagonists to deal with. One is Ava Starr, a.k.a. Ghost, who has the power to phase through objects which was the result of being afflicted with molecular instability. Ava is played by Hannah John-Kamen who creates a complex portrait of a person whose affliction was not of her own doing, and as someone who acts out of desperation as her life, which has been filled with more pain than pleasure, looks to be cut short. While her goals conflict with those of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Kamen makes us see how Ava can be devilish as well as a victim of circumstances, and she gives a very strong performance as a result.

The other antagonist is Sonny Burch, a black market criminal eager to exploit Hank Pym’s technology for his own benefit. Sonny is played with great relish by Walton Goggins who has shown a flair for delivering dialogue with a special panache in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and “Inglorious Basterds.” Goggins brings this same flair to “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and it is fascinating to watch his portrayal throughout. Even as Sonny fumbles about in his attempts to steal what does not belong to him, I could not take my eyes off of Goggins as he makes this villain into more than what he must have seemed like on paper.

Peyton Reed, who directed “Ant-Man,” returns to the director’s chair for this sequel, and I got the feeling he had a little more fun here. No long burdened by having to portray this superhero’s origin story or the inescapable question of how the first movie would have turned out had Edgar Wright not walked away from it, Reed gets to indulge his inner child with “Ant-Man and the Wasp” to where this sequel could almost pass for a children’s movie. Having said that, there is plenty for adults to enjoy as we watch these characters battle the bad guys and change the size of things and themselves to an amazing degree. Are there lapses in logic? Sure, but who cares?

Many in Hollywood like to talk about counterprogramming as studios are always carefully looking at when they can release the smaller indie movies in the wake of all these big budget blockbusters. In a sense, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is Marvel’s way of counterprogramming against itself as it positions this sequel as an easy going alternative to “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther.” Whereas those two were among the biggest films in the MCU, this one is more like a nice rest stop where we can enjoy ourselves for a few hours and not worry too much about the other Avengers whose fates have yet to be permanently sealed. Some may consider this a disposable Marvel movie, but after ten years, it is clear how none of them can be the least bit disposable.

And yes, there are a couple of post-credit scenes, and if you are curious to see where this Marvel movie takes place in comparison to “Avengers: Infinity War,” one will answer this question in a way which will leave you with a great deal of anxiety. This anxiety ends up increasing with the movie’s coda which adds a question mark to the proceedings in the same way “Flash Gordon” did back in 1980. Yes, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is designed to be a fun time at the multiplex, but it is in no position to leave any of these Avengers off the hook.

* * * ½ out of * * * *