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.

Big Bald Black Dudes I admire- 2009 update

As you know (or you should) every Black History Month, I take a moment to reflect on the Big Bald Black Dudes I admire. Perhaps it was growing up in the ’70s with Gordon on Sesame Street, or my favorite movies including The Thing with Keith David, but big bald black dudes are just the baddest asses in cinema, in my not so humble opinion.

Last year I dubbed Keith David, Ving Rhames, Scatman Crothers, Delroy Lindo, Michael Clarke Duncan, and Tommy “Tiny” Lister Jr. in my annual post, where I also made the audacious claim that Stephen King has never met a black person, so this year I came up with a few new nominees for the halls of badassery.

1. Bill Duke
Best known as Mac from Predator, Bill’s been a bad-ass for ages. I first remember him as a bad guy in Commando, where he tells Matrix he’s a Green Beret. Unfortunately, John Matrix eats Green Berets for breakfast and shits toy soldiers, so he gets impaled on a table leg. But not before he trashes the hotel room with Arnie in such a brutal fashion that Rae Dawn Chong is made to exclaim, “you guys eat too much red meat!”

Of course, there’s no such thing as too much red meat, and Bill Duke can probably eat the ass off a brontosaur and ask for seconds. Even though the Predator freaks him out so bad that he sings “Long Tall Sally” in a falsetto, Mac is one of the classic movie bad-asses. My cousin Lou Taylor Pucci got the honor of starring with him in a movie called The Go-Getter, and for that I’m more envious than when he got to touch Kelli Garner’s tit in Thumbsucker. Bill Duke’s given us memorable performances in Menace II Society “you know you done fucked up right?” and The Limey, and I’m hoping someday he’ll get to play a frog.

2. Charles Dutton
Best known as the star of “Roc” in the early ’90s, Charles Dutton has clobbered xenomorphs in Alien3, and gigantic mutant flying cockroaches in Mimic. He’s one of the few redeemable qualities of the “scripted by comittee” shitfest that is the second Alien sequel, that even David Fincher could barely save. Seeing him swing Sigurney Weaver around by the neck, you wonder why they bother trying to trap the alien, when it’s obvious that Dutton could just grab it by it’s li’l mouth and force it to perform oral sex on him, after which it would just kill itself in shame.

3. Samuel L. (the L. stands for le motherfuckin’) Jackson
Last time I disqualified Mr. Jackson because his best bad-ass role- Jules from Pulp Fiction – was performed with the assistance of hair. However, since then Sam has been shorn, and given us the baddest, baldest motherfuckin’ Jedi (despite the festive purple lightsaber), a bald Son of Shaft, a bald Nick Fury, and a mostly bald bad-ass bluesman in Black Snake Moan. So I’m going to induct him into the Big Bald Black Men Hall of Fame. He’s earned his due.

4. Isaac Hayes
(pre-Adventure Club)
Before he got suckered into thinking our souls were H-bombed in volcanoes billions of years ago, Isaac Hayes was a groundbreaking musician and one of the biggest bald black bad-asses around. to mourn the passing of his reason that happened so many years prior to his death, I would like to posthumously induct him in. The evidence: The Duke of New York, A number One, from Escape from New York. He gave super bad-ass Snake Plissken a run for his money, and that’s saying a lot. He was also the star of Truck Turner. This was after writing the amazing score to Shaft and composing great soul albums like Hot Buttered Soul and Black Moses. He also served as Chef for many years before his handlers got to him, obviously in a time of weakness, since he passed on not long after. We forgive you Isaac. Rest in peace.

Note: Tony “Candyman” Todd
Last year I got flack for not including Tony Todd. Well, I finally watched Candyman, and I will concur that Tony Todd is a fucking bad-ass. However, it must be noted that he is not bald. He would be even more bad-ass if he’d been bald, with some crazy facial hair, maybe shaped like a hook. Todd’s also been in the Final Destination movies, Platoon, and The Crow, so he’s a shoo-in for badassery. If only he’d take a Wahl clipper and polish up his noggin, he could join the club.

That’s all until next year, where it will get even harder to find nominees for this post. I might even have to include Elmo:

Coming to America

This is one of my favorite Eddie Murphy movies, and one of both his and John Landis’s last good ones. Trading Places is better, but this simple story of an African prince looking for his queen- in Queens of all places- is a rightful late 80s classic. It showcases outer borough New York like The Blues Brothers did Chicago, is delightfully quotable, and shows Eddie and Arsenio Hall back when they were both very funny and knew that dressing up as multiple characters is better as a quick gag than an entire movie. It also has bit parts with then-unknown Cuba Gooding Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson, John Amos in one of his best roles, James Earl Jones fresh from retirement as Vader playing another king with a stentorian voice, and a cute rom-com story that never gets too sappy. What’s not to like?

Yes, I am angry and curse in this film.

We begin in Zamunda, where Prince Akeem (Murphy) wakes on his 21st birthday. He is pampered beyond belief, and we get to see the absurd reality of being so rich that you don’t have to wipe your own backside, and have three gorgeous women bathe you every morning. But like anything, too much is too much- and Akeem wants to experience life- real life- something he has been denied for far too long. When he meets the bride who’s been picked for him and raised her entire life to serve him, he asks his father- King Jaffe Joffer, played with bombastic relish by James Earl Jones- for a respite. How can he choose a wife when he has never even tied his own shoes?

Is that real velvet?

Before he can protest, the King assumes he wants to “sow his royal oats,” and postpones the wedding for 40 days, so he can travel the world and sate his every erotic desire. His servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) is delighted, and soon they are off to search for a bride worthy of Zamunda’s only prince. And when looking at a map of New York, they find the perfect place- Queens. It’s to John Landis’s credit that he actually films in Queens instead of Toronto, or Jersey, or even Manhattan. ’80s New York wasn’t the Disneyfied place it is today, and we see it warts and all. But we get a portrait of the city at the time, and like the late ’70s Chicago that served as the perfect backdrop for The Blues Brothers, the setting is as important a character as the stars.


Cuba gets a cut

Once Akeem and Semmi get settled in “the most common part” of Queens, they find a shitty apartment run by a gruff landlord above a barbershop, and jobs at “McDowell’s” restaurant, run by Mr. McDowell (John Amos), at odds with the more famous and similar-sounding fast food joint we all know. From here on, the plot is classic screwball rom-com, with a rich but sleazy suitor, the father who knows best, and the prince masquerading as a pauper, or at least, an African student. We know Akeem will end up with Lisa- McDowell’s beautiful and independent daughter- but the story uses subtle distractions to keep the tension up.

Tell that Juno girl I want my phone back.

Landis gives us plenty of “cute cuts” like reaction shots of a poodle, bums, and little children; Eddie breaking the fourth wall; and corny one-off background gags on New York City to keep the comic energy lively. It’s probably the last time Eddie was really funny for a long while. Part of the reason is that he has no muzzle on- the cursing is loud and wide. From the moment Akeem stands on his balcony and declares, “Good morning my neighbors!” and they reply “Hey, fuck you!” we know that Landis is capitalizing on the raw reputation Murphy’s stand-up act. They spend their cussin’ coin wisely and don’t overdo it, except perhaps in the barbershop scenes, where Murphy and Arsenio play cranky old men telling tall tales.

This is some of Murphy’s best multiple-role work, and Arsenio almost tops him. Here Murphy plays the cranky old barber and a cranky old Jewish patron, and even argues with himself. And it’s funny even when we don’t recognize he’s talking to himself. The final joke he tells at the end credits is so good that it works even on its own. Another scene where Semmi & Akeem go to a club and listen to crazy women talk about what they want is even better. When Arsenio is in drag, Murphy can barely keep a straight face, that’s how funny it is.

“I wanna tear you apart.”

It’s one of those rare comedies that relies on character, and rolls toward a pre-ordained and satisfying ending without insulting our intellect. There are no long scenes where someone gets offended, because the other person doesn’t say one thing. Akeem keeps up his ruse as a poor student a bit too long, but there’s not one scene where he could just admit it, and everything would be okay. Landis knows better than that. And everything is solved perfectly when Akeem’s mom, Queen Aoleon (Madge Sinclair), shows how wives of powerful men get their way by making the kings think they’re getting their way.

The bathers- it’s good to be the king

The movie was originally conceived by columnist Art Buchwald, whose idea got stolen by the studio. Because if you believe something this good was written by the guys who did Police Academy 2, you’re crazy. It’s got Landis all over it. I’m glad Buchwald finally got a settlement from the studio, meager as it might be. And it doesn’t tarnish this great comedy. Even better, Landis manages to give us another look at what happened to the Dukes from Trading Places before it’s over. And I haven’t even mentioned Louie Anderson, the family who sells Soul-Glo hair tonic, Arsenio’s hilarious preacher character, or Eddie as the lead singer of Sexual Chocolate. Put it all together and you have an unforgettable comedy you can go back to again and again.

Beers Required to Enjoy: none!
Could it be remade today? don’t even think about it
Quotability Rating: ludicrously high
Cheese Factor: Zamunda cheese
High Points: too many to count
Low Point: it’s over?
Gratuitous Boobies: 3 naked girls in a hot tub. Yay.

12 Angry Menses

I’ve been an angry panda lately. Work hasn’t “moved my cheese” to use that idiotic analogy, but they swapped gruyere for a particularly stinky brand of fromunda. I had to get my car repaired and it got delayed, I just got a traffic ticket- first in 15 years. So I’m trying to get like Peter from Office Space and let it all go, before I turn into Gollum and start raving about how I hate the tricksy Bagginses.

But there’s a place in the world for the angry young man, according to Mr. Joel. Here are my favorite dozen who make anger into an art form.

12. Michael Bolton in Office Space
We all like to think we’re righteous when we’re angry, but most of the time we’re just stressed out doofuses like Mike. Maybe we need to smash a printer with a baseball bat? Whatever it takes. No point in being miserable when you can take it out on inanimate objects. Just don’t play any music by that long-haired balladeer around him, or you might find your checking account drained.

11. Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda

Don’t call him stupid. Otto may be a true vulgarian, and if you got the hots for Jamie Lee Curtis he’ll tell you to “pork away, pal!” but insulting his intellect will get you hung out of a window. Sure, he may think the central tenet of Buddhism is “every man for himself,” and Plato is that colorful clay you get in the toy section, but he’s a crack shot with both an insult and a silenced 9mm. Just don’t let him near your fish tank. Asshoooole!

10. Howard Beale in Network
He was mad as hell and he wasn’t gonna take it anymore! Don’t we all want to say that? Well, remember that at the end of the movie he gets shot to boost ratings. Everyone forgets that part. But he had a good run there, and he got his message across.

9. Samuel L. Jackson in anything
Admittedly I have a soft spot for Jules in Pulp Fiction, because he’s trying to deal with his anger. He’s tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd, and not the tyranny of evil men who shoot whiny little white boys. Dave Chapelle made a side business in goofing on how Jackson was always angry in his movies, and even in some of the really good and lesser known ones like The Caveman’s Valentine and The Red Violin, he’s got the angry face going on. Someday he’ll be as typecast as Pacino. Actually wouldn’t it be awesome if they switched parts, and Pacino had to get motherfuckin’ snakes off a motherfuckin’ plane, and Jackson got to be the Devil, or yell in court a lot?

8. Bobby De Niro in Midnight Run
“And I’ve got two words for you, shut the fuck up!” Jack Walsh is an angry bounty hunter. He’s an impatient man whose family doesn’t want to put up with him. Charles Grodin, whose shtick is being a grump, gives the best role of his career by letting Bobby be the angry guy, and drive him crazy. The only guy angrier in this is Dennis Farina, and…

7. Dennis Farina in Snatch.
Dennis Farina was so angry in Midnight Run that they brought him back as the angry mobster for Get Shorty, and then Snatch. He has a true gift at channeling rage from someplace in his bowels that no one should contemplate. Whether he’s threatening to stab someone in the heart with a fuckin’ pencil, or beating the shit out of Gene Hackman with a phone, or guzzling Alka-Seltzer while chasing a stolen diamond, he’s one of cinema’s best angry men. And take his advice, don’t go to England.

6. Momma from Throw Momma from the Train
Anne Ramsey was a classic, and there’ll never be another one like her. Whether she was putting Chuck’s hand in a blender in The Goonies or tormenting Billy Crystal and Danny De Vito here, her gravelly voice was an unforgettable part of the ’80s. Here she’s the grumpiest old woman alive, and you’d better not bring her the unsalted peanuts. They make her choke.

5. Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Steve Martin used to be funny too, and this is one of his funniest movies. The scene at the car rental desk is a classic, and his apoplectic rage at John Candy never fails to make me smile. Just watch the video, he looks like he’s about to explode into a fireball and destroy the rental lot..

4. Jack Nicholson in The Shining
This has entered the national consicousness for the crazy “Here’s Johnny!” scene, but the rise up to it is so much better. “Wendy… love of my life… I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just gonna bash your brains in. Bash ’em right-the-fuck-in.” Scatman Crothers didn’t have a chance, and he was Hong Kong Phooey, number one superdog. Nicholson’s been angry before, as a pissy pianist in Five Easy Pieces who carves a waitress a new asshole, and since, as the Colonel in A Few Good Men, when he told us we can’t handle the truth. But Jack Torrance will always be what he’s remembered for most. He axed his way into our hearts.

3. Ed Norton in 25th Hour

This is more hate than anger, but he certainly hit a nerve because this scene is every white trash Brooklyn boy’s favorite. When you fuck up and there’s no one to blame but yourself, and the fury bubbles from your belly looking for someone to blame, this is the ultimate portrayal of what happens when you want to take it out on the world (or at least New York City).

2. Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada
Angry isn’t always about histrionics. Angry women in cinema are usually cold, seething pots of rage. (Maybe it’s dry ice in the pot, so it can be cold. So don’t fuck with my horrible metaphor). In this movie she’s a demanding boss from hell, but she knows what she wants. Whether it’s a Smith & Wollensky steak or an advance proof of a Harry Potter book, you’d better be shitting her Tiffany cufflinks or her eyes will bore holes through your abdomen and make your innards spill out onto your cheap shoes.

1. R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket

I don’t think a drill instructor is really that angry- it’s an act to break you down. But Gunnery Sergrant Hartmann has enough rage to power several large cities in this movie. The man is a nuclear power plant of fury, he’s like if you distilled Phil Silvers into a form of heroin, and R. Lee Ermey speedballs it with snorts of powdered Tony Montana from Scarface. Even as an old man, he’s terrifying onscreen. It’s worse now that he has eyebrows like angry badgers snarling from his brow.

Okay now you might have your own favorites but these are mine. Who’s your favorite angry person?

Sam Jackson to star in ‘The Last Dragon’ remake

Am I the baddest motherfucker in the room? Sho ’nuff!!!

Samuel L. Jackson vs. the ‘Dragon’
He’s set to star in the remake of the 1985 cult classic

By Leslie Simmons

It’s another heavy role for Samuel L. Jackson.

Having most recently played a dirty cop in “Lakeview Terrace,” Jackson is set to star as a bad guy again in Columbia Pictures’ remake of Berry Gordy’s 1985 cult classic “The Last Dragon.”

Jackson will play Sho’nuff, the Shogun of Harlem, a role played in the original by the late Julius Carry, whose spiel included asking ego-driven questions like “Am I the baddest mofo lowdown around this town?” Each time his gang of thugs answered, “Sho ’nuff!”

Davis Entertainment’s John Davis and Gordy’s son Kerry Gordy are producing.

Penning the screenplay as well as producing is Dallas Jackson, who heads up the urban family label DJ Classicz with Davis. Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA is co-producing.

The updated plot will be along the same lines of the original, centering on young martial arts student Leroy Green in his quest through the streets of New York to achieve the highest level of martial arts accomplishment, known as the Last Dragon. Those who achieve the high ranking possess the Glow, making them the greatest fighter alive.

The project, announced by Columbia presidents Doug Belgrad and Matt Tolmach, will take a new look at “Last Dragon” coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Motown next year.

“We’re thrilled to be working with Kerry Gordy as he continues his father’s legacy, and we’re confident that he along with John and Dallas are the perfect team to develop the project,” Belgrad said. “They will capture everything that people love about the original while also bringing a fresh edge to the remake.”

The original, which also starred one-namers Taimak and then-Prince protege Vanity, was released in March 1985 by TriStar Pictures and received lukewarm reviews by critics like Roger Ebert, who gave it 2 1/2 stars and said it was a “great near-miss.”

Despite the reviews, “Last Dragon” did well at the boxoffice, grossing nearly $26 million. It soon became a cult classic for scenes like Bruce Lee follower Green remaining so loyal to the martial arts star that he eats his popcorn in a movie theater with chopsticks.

“I’m a huge fan of the original and look forward to bringing Sho’Nuff into the 21st century,” Jackson said.

Jackson, repped by ICM and Anonymous Content, made a surprise cameo in the summer blockbuster “Iron Man” and the sci-fi action film “Jumper.” He also stars with the late Bernie Mac in “Soul Men,” which opens Christmas Day, and Frank Miller’s upcoming “The Spirit.”

As far as remakes go, making one of the kung-fu ’80s cheesefest The Last Dragon is a pointless exercise. The movie is perfection. And this week I will regale you with my full review of Berry Gordy’s masterpiece. With Vanity, and even William H. Macy in the gayest sweater imaginable. I myself only train in the Arts Martiale so that one day I can attain “the glow.”

Taimak was great as the fresh-faced Bruce Leroy, but I doubt he’ll return. He’d better eat popcorn with chopsticks, dammit!