Django Unbrained

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED is disappointing, enjoyable, tedious, wonderful, and naive all at the same time.

No movie is judged on its own merit. Like any artistic work, it is compared to everything that has come before it, and depending on when you encounter it, you pit it against what has come after it as well. Tarantino loves pastiche, homage, reference and remix, so his work seeks these judgments. And his latest falls short from what we’ve come to expect. It is overlong and indulgent, it is too alike his last film in some ways, and it lacks tension in its big mushy middle, but some scenes are magical, especially to fans of garish exploitation films and spaghetti westerns like myself. It will remind his detractors of the interminable bar scene in Death Proof at its worst, and the clipped action will tease us until the very end.

Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is the prisoner of slave traders when Dr. King Schultz–a German dentist turned bounty hunter, played by Christoph Waltz–frees him because he can identify three fugitives Schultz wants to collect. Yes, he is named Dr. King. He plays the Samaritan, most often played by an older black man or person of color in other films, the “magical Caucasian,” if you will, to Foxx’s hero. If you’re unfamiliar with the “magical negro” character, think Scatman Crothers in The Shining. He helps our hero for no good reason, against his own self-interest, and is usually killed for his trouble, often sacrificing himself for the protagonist’s cause. Waltz plays that character, drawing deep from the well he used to create the memorable “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.

And while it is great fun watching Foxx become a bad-ass bounty hunter under Schultz’s tutelage, Waltz and his long-winded, fifty-cent word monologues lack the tension of Landa’s, because despite his crack marksmanship and disregard for the lives of vicious slavers, he is too good. We know exactly how he will react in a given situation, after we are introduced to how he collects his bounties. Which is to shoot first, then pull out his badge and papers, and say hey I’m working for the Federal government and if you shoot me, you’ll be in trouble. It was funny the first time, but seemed very unlikely, two years before the country was torn apart by secession and civil war, that anyone would give a tinker’s damn. And it gets less believable when Django plays his valet in full Lord Fauntleroy regalia, and later fakes being an Uncle Tom slaver assisting Schultz in purchasing a “Mandingo fighter,” or black bare-knuckle pit fighter, in their overly complicated and most likely unnecessary ruse to free Django’s wife.

christopher waltz jamie foxx django unchained

I love Blazing Saddles, and I’ve seen and enjoyed Fred Williamson‘s film about a bad-ass black sheriff leading a frontier town, Boss Nigger. Fred Williamson always had such screen presence that you never questioned how he became a sheriff in the west, or a commando in World War 2, as in the original The Inglorious Bastards. Foxx manages the same, but the plot keeps making excuses for him to be there. And the thing is, there was at least one black Federal marshal in the 1800’s, Bass Reeves (thanks to David Cranmer and his Cash Laramie tales for introducing me to this oft-forgot hero). It is not until the very end that Jamie Foxx gets to be a bad-ass, and by then, in a two hour and 45 minute movie, we’ve endured the longest dinner scene I’ve ever encountered, all so Leonardo DiCaprio can chew the scenery as supposedly, the most evil plantation owner ever. And he doesn’t even scratch the surface of the reality of chattel slavery, which is what bothered me. He makes men fight to the death, he has one torn apart by dogs. Brutal scenes, but “slavery” remains a word in this movie, not the horror that it was. This letter evokes more than Django Unchained managed.

Fred Williamson in Boss, an obvious reference
Fred Williamson in Boss, an obvious reference

Much has been said about the permissive use of the n-word in this film, and Tarantino has said before that “shouting words like this from the rooftops” rob them of their power, so I won’t go into it. It was repeated to a tiresome degree for me. I find it lazy when a villain uses racial slurs to make us hate him. DiCaprio’s Mr. Candie is revolting enough without it. For me, seeing this at a dinner theater staffed by African-American ushers and waiters, it was particularly uncomfortable, especially when it was not once used with any power. Blazing Saddles did more damage to the power of the word “nigger” than Tarantino has. Should he have censored himself? No, but he should have used his n-words more wisely. He uses “fuck” like a poet, but this word he stumbled with.

Now that I’ve torn the movie a new hole, let me say that the references to the original Django and the westerns and “blaxploitation” films of the ’70s are enjoyable, Jamie Foxx should make a black western and play it completely straight, like Fred Williamson did, and I’d go see it in a heartbeat. I’ll watch Django Unchained again on cable and let it simmer. I didn’t like Inglourious Basterds that much on my first viewing, but love it now. I don’t think any number of viewings will make the dinner between Foxx, Waltz, DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson playing an evil, Uncle Tom majordomo will ever be enjoyable. It’s the little things, like taking your guns to the dinner table, that don’t make sense, especially when you have a Taxi Driver-style derringer up your sleeve. And that Kerry Washington as Broomhilda gets very little to do. Django calls his love “troublemaker,” but we never see her raise any hell. In a 3 hour movie, there was plenty of time.

3/5 stars.

Other movies I’ve seen recently that are more fun than Django are:

The Grey, with Liam Neeson. A grisly meditation on icy death, this may be Joe Carnahan’s best.

Headhunters, based on Jo Nesbo’s thriller. Lots of fun, even if no one gets beheaded.

Savages, by Oliver Stone, adapted from Don Winslow’s excellent novel. Stop watching after the first ending. The second one is a not-so-subtle middle finger from Stone to the studio and focus groups, and changes the book’s finale.

And two to avoid: Sushi Girl, a horrible, boring, torture movie with a great cast, and Les Miserables, which might be fun for fans of the musical, but was awful for someone who’s read the unabridged book and had to listen to Russel Crowe destroy Javert while mimicking a statue. It had moments, but was so static and lifeless in so many places that I didn’t feel a thing. That, and whatever lives in Tim Burton’s hair seems to have bitten Helena Bonham Carter.

when Marshmalloween was every day

In the ’70s, not only was TV a vast wasteland but it extended onto the kitchen table at breakfast time. It was okay for kids to get scared then, and we embraced it. We even saluted the classic Universal monsters with our choice of cereal, such as Count Chocula, Frankenberry, Boo Berry, and the lesser known Fruit Brute and Fruity Yummy Mummy. Eating Count Chocula is like vampirically sucking at the neck of a chocolate Easter bunny full of Nestle Quik and marshmallows. It is the only cereal of the bunch available year-round.
Facebook pal Phil Casale reminded me that General Mills is releasing Boo Berry and Frankenberry during the Halloween season, so if you miss getting you berry infused sugar bombs, now is the time to raid the cereal aisle. I wish they’d also release Fruit Brute, the werewolf themed cereal most of us forgot until Quentin Tarantino stuck a box on Lance’s table in Pulp Fiction when he was getting that inopportune phone call from Vincent about the “OD’ing bitch” Mia Wallace in his car.
It was the 15th anniversary of Pulp Fiction this year, can you imagine that? I hope for the 20th, General Mills issues a special edition box of Fruit Brute with a needle full of candy adrenaline we can shoot into our mouths. Thanks to he Retroist blog for the full box photo of Fruit Brute!

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in the Waste Land of WW2

Saw Inglourious Basterds the other night with Firecracker. We both enjoyed it. There, done.

Actually it is quite entertaining for a 2 1/2 hour movie filled with long stretches of dialogue, and that in itself is an accomplishment these days. It’s not an action movie; it’s a Quentin Tarantino movie. Like his idols Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock and Sergio Leone, he’s learned that we glean more suspense from the measured anticipation of violence than from the explosive act itself. The movie opens on the French countryside, as SS Colonel Hans Landa speaks with a farmer he suspects of hiding Jews. For fifteen minutes, we are rapt listening to the two men quietly converse over smoked pipes, and a glass of milk. No music. Much like the beginning to Once Upon a Time in the West, he forgoes the assistance of the soundtrack. You can hear the creaking of the floorboards, the soft wind outside. It’s a brilliant introduction and showcase for actor Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of the film’s psychopathic villain, the cold-eyed, relentless Jew Hunter, drained of all colorful excess. The final solution, was after all, enacted by bean counters. Landa is more of an Inspector Javert, all the more terrifying because he lacks the insane zeal of the Nazis, but has all the compassion of a laser-guided missile.
One girl does escape his clutches in this scene, Shoshanna. As she flees, he calls to her, “au revoir.” See you again. From this scene onward, I felt that the characters knew they were in a movie; it’s a Tarantino trait, and it isn’t meant as a slight or dismissal. One of my favorite films, Casablanca, has its characters practically winking at the camera in every scene. In the next chapter, we meet the Bastards, the infamous Nazi hunting squad of Jews recruited by Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine, a Tennessee moonshiner’s son with a hanging scar, that the Germans have nicknamed The Apache. In a shot recalling George C. Scott’s opening speech in Patton, he tells his men they owe him a debt of 100 Nazi scalps. Sure, it’s fantastical, and recalls classics as The Dirty Dozen. But there were real groups like The Filthy Thirteen, and psy-ops meant to break enemy resolve. The story has only the flimsiest grip on reality, and lives in the mythology built upon the foundation of hundreds of movies and television shows about the Second World War. And it rewrites history, like many of those films do- but in the biggest way imaginable.
Much has been said about whether Eli Roth’s cameo role as Donny Donnowitz, “the Bear Jew,” who likes to club Nazis to death with a Louisville Slugger, and how horrible his acting was. Personally, I thought he was fine as the ubiquitous “Brooklyn” character every WW2 movie has. And for a director, he acted quite well. No, he’s no Cronenberg or even Scorsese directing himself in Taxi Driver, but I’ll take him over another Tarantino cameo (though admittedly, his line ‘because he’s a stuntman’ was one of the funnier bits of Death Proof). The other standout Bastard is Hugo Stiglitz, a German deserter who killed a bunch of Nazi officers. Named after a Mexican grindhouse star and played by Til Schweiger- who was hilarious in SLC Punk!– he gets a lot of mileage out of playing the strong, silent type and gets as nearly as many laughs as Pitt’s ridiculous hillbilly accent. “I want mah Gnatzi scalps!”
And so does Shoshanna. Now running a cinema in occupied Paris, she’s met by Franz Zoller, a war hero starring in a propaganda film that Goebbels wants to premiere at the Ritz. She doesn’t know this when she meets him, just as he has no idea she’s anything but an alluring, smart cinephile. Played by Mélanie Laurent and Daniel Brühl (Goodbye Lenin!) this odd romance is captivating, as Tarantino gives us the romance of Paris with the backdrop of the terror of occupation. Shoshanna just wants to survive, but through Zoller’s romantic inclinations, she has her revenge plunked into her lap- the film will premiere at her theater, with the Nazi high command attending. She intends to burn down the house, not knowing that Allied saboteurs have the same idea. The saboteurs are led by a British infiltrator named Hickox played perfectly by Michael Fassbender of “Band of Brothers.” He’s stepped right out of a Pressburger & Powell picture, with the energy of a young Kevin Kline and the wit of a young David Niven. He and a few Bastards are meeting with the German actress Bridget von Hammersmark in a rathskeller to synchronize plans, when they unexpectedly find themselves in a Quentin Tarantino film.
This is the longest dialogue-driven scene in the story and the only one that feels a bit overlong, and too familiar. Hammersmark (played by Diane Kruger of National Treasure) isn’t a caricature of Marlene Dietrich, who recorded propaganda records for the OSS and entertained troops in France, Algeria and marched with Patton into Germany. The Germans hated Marlene for it, but as she said, it was “aus Anstand”- the decent thing to do. Bridget is one better, by contriving to have the Nazi high command blown to bits in a daring suicide mission. She and the Bastards decide to keep their rendezvous in the basement pub even though a soldier is celebrating fatherhood there, and it ends up in one of Quentin’s Mexican standoffs. Instead of feeling like a trademark, it felt overused; much like the standoff over the pregnancy tests in Kill Bill Vol.2.

However, this leads to its one reference to the movie it gets its title from, The Inglorious Bastards (full review) where a group of bad boys have to take over a suicide mission, and that’s what happens here. The Bear Jew will get to massacre Nazis and their wives with burp guns while Shoshanna’s face is projected on the firestorm of the burning theater like the visage of a vengeful Old Testament God, as we’re delivered a brutal, fiery finale unlike any ending Tarantino’s written before. Their uppance has cometh, and it’s wonderful to watch, as gruesome as it may be.
Most of the criticisms seem unfair. Sure, it knows it’s a movie. So did Casablanca. Like most of QT’s films it is a palimpsest of his influences that came before it, and the characters are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discussing philosophy behind the curtains. That’s my description of Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction, and those seem to be the kind of characters Tarantino is most interested in. Like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and James Joyce’s Ulysses, it certainly references and pastiches the works that he considers influences; he may not have the sense of humor with it that Joyce does, nor is it meant as an encapsulation of all that came before, as Eliot, but being a construct of references doesn’t dilute its artistry. He does play with the very concept of cinema changing history, as the accelerant that ignites Shoshanna’s vengeance is the nitrate film stock collected in the theater. The very films Hitler would burn as affronts to Aryan supremacy are the instrument of the Reich’s undoing. Now that’s all very clever, but coupled with his talent, it makes for quite an enjoyable film for cinephiles and moviegoers alike.

Armond White, that gadfly of film criticism, made the valid point that the Nazis are dehumanized de facto in this story, and Tarantino isn’t interested in telling us of the horrors of war. But I’ll take a wild fantasy like this one, which wears its heart on its sleeve, than one that buys into the mythology that America strutted in, made the biggest sacrifices, and blew Hitler away once our Allies failed. That’s essentially what happens here, a parody of so many American WW2 stories that ignore or belittle the great sacrifices of the British (namby pamby as in Patton) , the French (cheese-eating surrender monkeys, in practically everything) and Russians, who we were ordered to forget as allies, because they were dirty commie pinkos. I love that this movie pokes fun at that without moralizing to us about it. Because really, what war film truly shows us the horrors of war? Even Saving Private Ryan, after its bloody opening, falls into the same cliches. Night and Fog, and perhaps Army of Shadows show the pure dread of actually living through such a nightmare. Grave of the Fireflies, Gallipoli, Paths of Glory, A Midnight Clear. Does that mean every film has to deconstruct the war film, like Les Carabiniers? I should hope not.

I’ve enjoyed Tarantino’s films since I first saw Reservoir Dogs at the Angelika Film Center with my friend Jack Chan. I didn’t know what the hell we saw, but I loved it. The ironic soundtrack recalling my beloved Harold and Maude; how it was set in the present, but felt distilled from the ’70s crime films I loved. The long stretches of dialogue out of a Pinter play or the French new wave. But most of all, the bloody sense of humor that pervaded throughout. Then Pulp Fiction came and changed everything. Sure, we had to tolerate a lot of copycats, but it was like À bout de souffle (Breathless) all over again. Nothing was the same. I don’t think Tarantino can ever top that, and I’m not sure he should try too hard. To go back to Leone, if Dogs is Fistful of Dollars and Fiction is The Good, the Bad & the Ugly– has he made Once Upon a Time in the West yet? I’m not sure, but I’ll be eager to watch his movies until he does.

The El Mariachi Trilogy

While I enjoy the revisionist westerns Hollywood’s been pumping out, and even the more standard ones like the enjoyable but overrated 3:10 to Yuma remake, nothing beats a good spaghetti western for me. The Man With No Name. Django. Trinity. And no one’s making them like that anymore, not even Takashi Miike with Sukiyaki Western Django. The closest we’ve gotten is from Robert Rodriguez, when he sprang onto the scene with his $7,000 indie El Mariachi in 1992, and expanded it into a loose trilogy with the over the top Desperado and the more indulgent Once Upon a Time in Mexico. They tell the story of an innocent mariachi who gets caught in the crossfire between two warring drug cartels who mistake him for a killer with a guitar case full of guns, painting a bloody canvas of exuberant excess. He must have had a lot of fun making them, and it’s infectious.
Still one of the best low budget films of recent note, up there with Clerks and Primer, El Mariachi was infamously funded by Rodriguez signing up as a guinea pig for testing a cholesterol drug. Filmed on a budget of $7,000 using locals as actors, a broken wheelchair as a dolly, and guns borrowed from the police department, he still manages to craft an enjoyable and original take on the old tale of mistaken identity. The story begins with an out of work mariachi wandering into town, guitar case in hand; he looks for a job in a local cantina, but in an amusing, sped-up sequence, he finds that his musical tradition has been replaced by a cheap synthesizer. In the meanwhile, a drug lord puts a hit out on his partner Moco who’s running things from jail. The hitmen fail, and Moco is out for revenge, lugging a guitar case full of assorted weaponry.

It’s good fun, is paced well, and the amateur actors feel more natural thanks to subtitles. It wears its low budget as a badge of pride, and Rodriguez shows the buds of his comic, cartoonish style in several scenes. The mariachi has to survive mostly with his wits, sliding across a power line and narrowly missing being hit by a bus, running between two thugs with machine guns so they shoot each other. There’s comic relief too, such as when he sings for his life in the bathtub to an angry barmaid with a knife jabbed at his junk. Rodriguez’s school pal Carlos Gallardo plays the Mariachi, and really fits the part of the innocent but wily man caught up in things beyond his control.
It holds up 16 years later, and feels timeless. Sure, he uses too many gimmicks like a wide-angle lens, but until Primer came out, I couldn’t imagine a film this good made so cheaply. And this was on film, now digital cameras have made it easier for everybody. I saw it in theaters when it got picked up, and watching it again makes me wish more backyard film makers like Rodriguez got their chance.

Desperado is the story continued with a budget of $7 million, still miniscule for an action film, but more fun than most Hollywood blockbusters. With Antonio Banderas as the nameless Mariachi, we meet him again after everyone’s favorite rat-faced weasel Steve Buscemi walks into a bar and tells a tall tale of a mariachi shooting up the place. The cast is full of such cameos; Cheech Marin is the bartender, Quentin Tarantino plays a pickup man. The Mariachi is still seeking revenge, hunting down the thugs of the drug cartel, but now they strike back. Bucho is the new leader, played as a delicious parody of the angry villain by Joaquim de Almeida (Ramon Salazar from “24”). While the villain in the first movie just liked lighting matches on his henchman’s faces, Bucho gets so incensed that he’s almost as fun to watch as Banderas on a shooting spree.

Ridiculous gunplay is the norm here- with a sawed-off scattergun or a pair of pistols hidden up his sleeves, he shoots his way through cantinas and cars full of thugs, in one imaginative set piece after another. He’s not bulletproof though, and ends up being saved by a slinky book shop owner named Carolina played with gusto by Salma Hayek. She patches his wounds and of course gets into trouble with Bucho and his thugs. Another great cameo is by Danny Trejo as a silent, knife-throwing assassin sent to take out el Mariachi. He wears a vest covered with little cross-shaped throwing knives, and steals his scenes with his tattooed, hulking presence.

The final battle comes when Bucho sends his thugs in an armored limo. The Mariachi needs to call in his old buddies, one is Carlos Gallardo, the original Mariachi, with two guitar case gatling guns, and the other with a rocket launcher! Yeah, it’s silly but they have lots of fun playing on the gunslinging guitar hero theme. The sense of humor that pervades the movie is carried perfectly by Banderas, who can swing from being a bad-ass one moment, to a self-effacing comic hero the next. Hayek plays right along with her iconic tough yet sexy Latina, and the pair have great chemistry. Too bad they haven’t worked together that often.

Los Lobos provides the great soundtrack to the rising body count and once again it’s amazing what Rodriguez does on such a small budget. It never has pretentions of grandeur and just wants to be a fun action film, and succeeds on all counts in that respect. Sure, it ends a little abruptly and the storytelling isn’t very polished, but I’d say this is the best of the trilogy. Following the Star Wars rule, the third entry should be a self-indulgent mess.

Thankfully Once Upon a Time in Mexico is not as bad as a Matrix sequel, but it is a sharp turn from the fun-loving light-heartedness of the second film, and that turned many people off. The title is a nod to Sergio Leone’s films; the Man With No Name was a loose trilogy with Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which were all straightforward westerns that reinvented their genre and have a coherent tone throughout. Afterward, Leone wrote his epitaph to the old west with Once Upon a Time in the West, with all new characters and a more artistic eye; Charles Bronson played a man named “Harmonica,” who also sought revenge for a past wrong and carried a musical instrument. The story of his vengeance is woven through a picture of the pioneer west getting shackled by greedy powers and the evil men they hire to do their work.
In Rodriguez’s epic climax, the Mariachi has settled alone in a remote village where old men make fine guitars, and he has retired from gunslinging. He is found by a CIA man named Sands, played by Johnny Depp with the usual quirky panache. He wants el Mariachi to take out a general who’s planning a coup- after he does it. He knows he’ll take the job… because General Marquez is the man who lusted after, and killed, his wife Carolina. So some time has passed since we left them; we get to see a wonderful tall tale of Mariachi & Carolina’s exploits as told by … Cheech Marin, this time as an eye patch wearing Mexican twin of Ben Franklin.

Therein lies the problem with the story; it begins as a downer, and doesn’t get much better. We get some exciting flashback scenes that recall Desperado‘s sense of fun, such as the gun-slinging couple escaping the General by swinging down a series of windows, fire escapes and flagpoles while shackled together by the wrist. But they are all too fleeting. The labyrinthine plot centers on many characters, not just Johnny Depp’s amusing if somewhat out of place wacky CIA guy. There’s also Willem Dafoe as Barillo, an immensely powerful drug lord; Eva Mendes as a sexy and tricky Mexican Federale, Ruben Blades as a retired FBI agent whose partner was murdered by Barillo, the new reformist President and his staff, and Mickey Rourke as a colorful chiahuahua-toting, purple-suited henchman who wants out. It’s an entire season of “24” jammed into 100 minutes, giving us little quality time with el Mariachi and his guns.

And yes, there are two more gunslinger mariachi pals this time, a drunk and Enrique Iglesias, both of whom are meant as comic relief but are ultimately forgettable. Rodriguez aimed for the stars with this one, and the ensemble cast makes for much of the enjoyment. Danny Trejo is back as a vicious enforcer, and there’s an amusing battle on motorbikes through a market and a cactus field, but this story is more about colorful characters and the peculiarities of Mexican politics than the free-spirited action of the first two. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, but it’s a definite twist on the story, and I think it may have needed epic length to better handle all the characters, plotlines, and betrayals it contains.

The movie has its share of fun and disturbing imagery, sometimes combined; Depp’s comeuppance is particularly memorable, and the mariachis have even more destructive goodies in their guitar cases this time. Part of it is a fantasy that has the people rising up against the evils of the drug cartels and corrupt military that have choked Mexico for centuries, but that’s something deserving of a longer storyline that isn’t as confusing as this one. I was never bored, but I didn’t care much about what happened, either. I wanted more of the Hayek-Banderas chemistry that the beginning teased us with, but it’s a fitting capper to the El Mariachi tale.

Rodriguez has since gone on to direct successful kid movies like the Spy Kids trilogy, gorefests like From Dusk Till Dawn and Planet Terror with pal Quentin Tarantino, and probably his biggest hit, the super-stylized adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Right now he has two sequels to Sin City in the pipe and another kid movie called Shorts; I hope someday he returns to making movies in his mythical spaghetti western-style Mexico, with guitar cases full of guns and other excesses. El Mariachi’s story may have been told, but there’s more tales in Mexico than his and the vampires at the Titty Twister!