‘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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Kirk Douglas Looks Back at ‘Lonely Are The Brave’

lonely-are-the-brave-poster

The Ultimate Rabbit would like to wish Kirk Douglas a very happy 100th birthday. It is an age few people ever reach, and this is a man who has survived so much in his lifetime: Hollywood, anti-Semitism, a stroke, a helicopter crash and, tragically, the loss of a son. Still, Douglas persevered in spite of many obstacles thrown in his path, and in his 90’s he continued to work as an actor and a writer. The man who was Spartacus has reached a milestone which needs to be celebrated, but it should be no surprise he has lasted as long as he has. Happy Birthday Kirk!

The following article is of an appearance he made in Hollywood a few years ago in which he talked about one of his most enduring motion pictures.

“The best actors disappear into their roles, but icons always keep part of themselves onscreen. Every one of his characters makes hard choices as a figure of integrity. Not always a good guy, not always a bad guy, but a real guy.”

Those were the words writer Geoff Boucher used to introduce legendary actor Kirk Douglas who made a special appearance at the Egyptian Theatre on September 19, 2012. American Cinematheque was screening “Lonely are the Brave” in honor of the movie’s 50th anniversary, and Douglas was greeted with a thunderous and deserved standing ovation. Douglas thanked the audience for coming to see this movie which he made fifty years ago. He also added, “Don’t ask for your money back!”

Boucher pointed out how Douglas has made so many great movies, but this one in particular really stands out. In the movie, Douglas portrays John W. “Jack” Burns, a cowboy from the Old West who refuses to become a part of modern society. “Lonely are the Brave” is based on the book “The Brave Cowboy” written by Edward Abbey, and Douglas recalled being so intrigued by the character and his horse (Whiskey) and how the book spoke strongly about the difficulty of being an individual today. Douglas did, however, say his major problem was by the end of the movie the audience was “rooting for the horse instead of me!”

There was also talk about Dalton Trumbo who wrote the screenplay for “Lonely are the Brave” and whom Douglas had previously worked with on “Spartacus.” Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten who refused to answer questions from the House Committee on Un-American Activities regarding their alleged involvement with the Communist Party, and he ended up spending 11 months in prison for contempt as a result. It was Douglas who helped Trumbo get a screenwriting credit on “Spartacus,” and he said he hated the injustice of what Trumbo was put through. Douglas’ latest book “I am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist” deals with this extensively.

Douglas made it clear how after reading Abbey’s book, he felt there was no one who could do a better job of adapting it than Trumbo, and it is said he found Trumbo’s screenplay for “Lonely are the Brave” to be perfect to where he didn’t change a single word of it.

Boucher also brought up that Douglas had some problems with “Lonely are the Brave” when it came out, and this was especially the case with the movie’s title:

“The book was called ‘The Brave Cowboy’ and I didn’t want that title,” Douglas said. “I wanted to call it ‘The Last Cowboy,’ but the studio which had the money insisted on ‘Lonely are the Brave.’ And I said, what the hell does that mean?”

Douglas has more than earned his status as an acting legend in Hollywood. Old age has not slowed him down one bit as he just finished a one-man show, released a new book, and took the time to appear at the Egyptian Theatre to talk about “Lonely are the Brave” which really is one of his very best movies. He finished his talk that evening by expressing his respect for actors who help other people, and of how he finds it sad that the media prefers instead to concentrate on the more “racy” things they do.

Boucher remarked at the amazing journey that Douglas has made from being “The Ragman’s Son” to going to all the places he has been and of having worked with all the great people he has worked with, and he commended the actor’s career for being guided not just by talent but integrity. That sentiment was shared by everyone in the audience in attendance as we were all very happy to see Douglas there, and he told them he was “glad and happy” they all came to see him and “Lonely are the Brave” which came out fifty years ago.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: The Searchers

The Searchers poster

Continuing my education in the westerns of John Wayne, for those of you who read my review of “Rio Bravo,” we come to an even greater one called “The Searchers.” It is a beautifully filmed movie directed by the great John Ford, and it stars John Wayne in what may very well have been his greatest onscreen performance ever as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War soldier coming home to a tenuous welcome. When his brother Aaron (Walter Coy) and his family are massacred by Comanche Indians, he sets off on a mission of both revenge and rescue as he discovers one of his nieces may still be alive. Along with him on this journey are the Texas Rangers led by the Reverend Captain Samuel Clayton (Ward Bond) and a step-nephew named Marty (Jeffrey Hunter) whom Ethan wants nothing to do with.

Like I said, this is a beautifully filmed western by Ford, and it is the first of his films I have watched. I can see why it is one of Steven Spielberg’s all-time favorite films, and I wonder if Ford’s other films are as beautifully shot as this one was. We get to see wide shots of barren fields which are soon covered by snowfall. Ford makes the passing of time seem all the more evident as we go from one season to another, and we feel the years passing these characters by as they refuse to give up on their quest. It gets to where we are as desperate as them to find those innocent souls who were kidnapped.

Wayne said of all the roles he played, he considered Ethan Edwards to be his best. As a result, he later named a son of his Ethan in a respectful homage to this film. Wayne is simply amazing here as a Confederate soldier who does not feel the need to swear an oath to Texas since his work as a soldier is far more important. Ethan is not an entirely likable person, and neither Wayne nor Ford hide the fact that he is pretty racist. But you cannot help but stay with Ethan on this journey because there’s little doubt he is justified in his pursuits.

Wayne has many amazing moments in “The Searchers,” and the strongest ones are when he doesn’t say a word. He may appear tough and resolute one moment, but in the next shot his eyes betray the worry and hurt that tear away at Ethan’s soul. Ethan’s life was torn apart when his young after the Comanche Indians attacked his family, and it has filled him with an unapologetically raw hatred towards them. There’s a powerful moment where we see Wayne coming in from someplace he was searching, and he looks like he is about to collapse in horror. We find out later why he was acting the way he did, but what he shows without saying anything leaves a lasting impression that you cannot get out of your head.

The main relationship Wayne’s character has throughout “The Searchers” is with Marty, and he is played by Jeffrey Hunter who is best remembered as Captain Christopher Pike from the original pilot of “Star Trek.” Marty sticks with Ethan despite Ethan’s cold dismissal of him throughout due to his biracial heritage, but Ethan needs Marty to keep him in check. Ethan’s racism is so deeply rooted to where it could force him to take actions he may spend the rest of his life regretting. Marty soon comes to understand why Ethan would rather see a family member dead than have them be defiled by a Comanche.

Watching “The Searchers” today might seem odd because the movie at times threatens to be as racist as Wayne’s character. It was made back in the days of cowboys and indians, but the main villains here are only one tribe of indians as well as double-crossing white men who should have known better. Not every Indian in this movie is presented as a bad guy. In fact, one of the best moments comes when Marty finds he has inadvertently married an Indian woman when he thought he was just buying a sweater. When we later see the fate of that Indian woman, we learn more about why Indians end up attacking each other over territory.

The movie is filled with incredible vistas Ford captures in all their glory, and I’m convinced that viewing it today is as exciting as when it first came out. I wonder if any other filmmaker today can accomplish what Ford did. We see characters grow from the start all the way to the finish, and Ethan comes to see he has gained a lot of respect for Marty to where he is prepared to give everything he has to him should he be killed. They never really become friends, but they rely on each other more than they would ever admit out loud. There is a lot of heart in this movie behind all that bravado which never covers up the fierce insecurity of its characters.

The Searchers doorway

The final shot of Wayne standing in the doorway while the sun and wind bear down on him is one of the greatest moments in cinematic history, and it stays with you long after the movie is over. It says everything you need to know about Ethan as he is a man destined to walk this earth alone, but who will always be doing his job as a soldier till the day he drops dead.

I’m not sure what else I can say about “The Searchers” that has not already been said. I have absolutely no doubt that this is one of the greatest westerns ever made, and it is clearly one of the defining movies of Wayne’s career. Although some may find the Ethan’s racist attitudes too much to bear, there is still so much to enjoy and be enthralled by. I was never in a hurry to see “The Searchers,” but I’m really glad I finally did.

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: ‘Rio Bravo’

Rio Bravo movie poster

I have a confession to make; for years I had never seen a John Wayne western before. I was certainly aware of who he was and of how he is seen as an American hero to many. There is an airport in Orange County named after him, and it houses an enormous statue of him in his western gear that towers over all those taking a flight out of there. Wayne is as conservative as an actor can get in Hollywood, and there are certain people I know personally who don’t want to watch his movies because of that. But come one, we’re here to watch a movie, not debate politics! If I can sit through a Chuck Norris movie, there’s no reason why I can’t see a John Wayne movie.

Rio Bravo” was directed by Howard Hawks and it is widely regarded as one of the greatest westerns ever made. It was made by Hawks and Wayne as a “right wing response” to “High Noon” in which Gary Cooper played a sheriff who urged the townspeople to join him in defending the town they live in. In “Rio Bravo” Wayne plays Sheriff John T. Chance, a man who has no time at for amateurs and will deal only with professionals who know what they are doing. That should give you a good idea of how pissed off Wayne was at Cooper.

The plot revolves around Chance guarding a prisoner named Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) who murdered another man at a bar for no good reason. Working with Chance are an old cripple named Stumpy (Walter Brennan) who is always complaining about something, the town drunk Dude (Dean Martin) who spends the movie sobering up, and the new kid in town Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) who is quick on the draw. They are waiting for the marshal to arrive to take Burdette away, but his brother Nathan (John Russell) will not rest until he is freed. Nothing beats brotherly love when you want to keep your sibling from being someone’s best friend, in a manner of speaking, behind bars.

“Rio Bravo” is essentially a big buildup to a final a violent confrontation between the Sheriff and Nathan where bullets fly in all directions. We see these characters going about their normal lives and the Sheriff starting up a subtle romance with the new woman in town, Feathers (Angie Dickinson). Most action movies today would demand filmmakers cut out the character developments and simply go right to the action. It is rare to see a movie like “Rio Bravo” made today as filmmaking gets more faster paced to where we keep losing the art of subtlety.

I see why Wayne was such an incredibly strong presence in movies. He handles the dialogue well, but his best moments come when he doesn’t say a word. There is a moment where he glares at someone he doesn’t recognize as friendly, and he keeps staring at him until the nameless man walks away. Like Chance, Wayne had a face with a lot of history written all over it, and few others could pull off a scene like that so effectively.

You could tell that, like his characters, Wayne had been through a lot in life, and this added immeasurably to the “don’t mess with me” attitude he exhibited onscreen. He was never some pretty boy actor trying to get the ladies, but a seemingly down to earth guy doing his part to serve and protect others.

The other actor who impressed me here was Dean Martin who played Dude, the once famous gunslinger who has spent way too much time drinking to ease a broken heart. Maybe it’s because I have this view of Martin being a member of the Rat Pack to where I thought it completely overshadowed him as an actor. I figured he was more of a star than an actor, but his performance here proved me wrong. Martin takes his character from what seems like an eternally drunk state to a world of sobriety he struggles to keep up with. It’s a battle he can never fully win, but he tries to stay on the right track and Martin makes you root for him throughout.

I can also see why Ricky Nelson was cast here. A big rock star at the time, he was probably cast to help this movie appeal more to women who were crazy about him at the time. Nelson may never have been a truly great actor, but he is very good here as the new kid out to help the Sheriff in times of trouble. Nelson plays it cool here, maybe too cool at times, but you believe he is quick on the trigger.

But the big scene stealer here is Walter Brennan who plays Stumpy. All Stumpy can do is guard the jail with his shotgun and from behind closed doors, and he can be seriously trigger happy if you don’t let him know you’re right outside those jail doors. Every other line he said throughout the movie had the audience I saw it with at New Beverly Cinema in hysterics. The moment where he does that quick impression of Chance had me laughing my ass off.

This is also the first movie I have ever seen directed by Howard Hawks. He shoots with an economy of style and doesn’t overburden “Rio Bravo” with too much style and overlong shots a lot of show-off directors tend to employ. His focus here is on the characters and how they interact with one another. This makes the action more exciting as we come to care about these characters to where we don’t want them to get hurt.

Director John Carpenter pointed out how one of Hawks’ strongest attributes as a filmmaker is his inclusion of strong women. The example of that in Rio Bravo is in the form of Angie Dickinson’s character of Feathers who proves to be the only person in the entire movie who can tame Chance. You never doubt Feathers to be an independent woman who can get by on her own terms. She’s tough, and yet Dickinson manages to bring some vulnerability to Feathers where she doesn’t always appear trustworthy.

The scenes Dickinson has with Wayne are strong, and she succeeds in bringing out his vulnerabilities to the point where he can’t help but appear a little goofy. This is all despite the fact that Wayne was 51 and Dickinson was 26 when they made this movie. It turns out Wayne was very nervous about the love scenes in regards to the age difference. Then again, I don’t think I would have noticed their age difference unless someone pointed it out to me.

“Rio Bravo” is filled with many memorable moments not easily forgotten. The moment where Dude takes out a shooter in a bar is a brilliant one you never see coming. The shootouts are still exciting as hell, especially when good use is made of a flower pot being hurled through a window.

One of my favorite moments comes when the men come in harmony together as they sing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” It reminded me of one of my favorite moments from Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” when Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw sang “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” I love those moments in films when people find a way to come together despite whatever differences keep them apart.

I found “Rio Bravo” to be an excellent western, and it’s no surprise to me that it is one of the most influential westerns ever made. It certainly holds a strong place in the cinematic history of westerns, and it endures to this very day. Of course, Hollywood in its infinite wisdom will probably end up remaking it after they have pillaged all the horror franchises they can. That’ll be the day!

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.