Monthly Archives: February 2013

Getting a grip on ‘Django’

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This is Django when he’s happy.

I tend to see movies or read something, and I don’t want to write about it immediately. I like to let it settle a bit, mull it over, slow cook it. Django Unchained is the latest to get that treatment. And I’m glad I was patient.

Because I don’t love Django. That’s a pretty big deal for me. Right now there are only two directors who – no matter what the title, genre, stars, reviews, etc. – automatically move me to pay theater prices. One is Christopher Nolan. The other is Quentin Tarantino.

Prior to this, the only Tarantino I’d say I didn’t really get into was the second Kill Bill. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Death Proof, Kill Bill the first, Inglorious Basterds (as well as the episodes of ER and CSI that he was behind). Even movies he’s written but not directed: From Dusk ‘Til Dawn, True Romance, Natural Born Killers. I love what Quentin does with language and his ability to re-imagine B-movie trash as arthouse fare. He’s earned my loyalty.

And Django does have a lot to love. The scene where Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who I’d love to see as a Bond villain some day) and Django (Jamie Foxx), a freed slave, go out to meet the marshal and his deputized townspeople after Schultz has killed the town sheriff is masterful. Schultz’s running monologue is humorous and telling of what to expect from the dentist-turned-bounty hunter. Django’s reaction to a white man chasing away another white man so he can have a drink with a black man is hilarious. And the Tom Wopat cameo, classic Tarantino. The building of tension as Schultz states his case and turns the situation around on the townsfolk is the sort of thing Tarantino does best, and is why he received such acclaim for Inglorious Basterds.

The problem is that Django is at least 20 minutes too long. The scenes where Django helps Schultz find and kill a trio of brothers for the bounty is unnecessary. We don’t learn anything about Schultz or Django, and when Schultz confronts the plantation owner and his crew about the bounties, it’s a watered-down version of what happened just minutes before in the scene I described in the last paragraph. Unlike the sneaky Wopat cameo, Don Johnson’s appearance as a slave-owning, Southern gentleman is so over the top I caught myself wondering if he was trying to channel Yosemite Sam. That incident could have been summed up in a couple of sentences, much like most of Django’s winter training was. It isn’t the only example of indulgence. Factor in the ripped-from-O-Brother-Where-Art-Thou? klan scene and Django’s escape from Australian slave traders, and you have a lot of fat. A leaner Django would have been a better Django.

I was also initially disappointed in what Tarantino had to say in Django. It has been said on several occasions that Bill Clinton was the first “black” president. Well, Tarantino is the first “black” arthouse director. From the not-so-good – his incessant use of the word “nigger” – to the good – the classic soul and hip-hop that dot the aural landscape of his films – Tarantino has always been fearless when it comes to adapting African-American culture to what he does.

So, naturally, in a film about slavery, I was ready for some real commentary from Tarantino about one of America’s darkest historical hours. He has deftly handled themes from the price of revenge (the Kill Bills) to just how important it is to choose the proper karmic path (Pulp Fiction). It was a big deal for me going in.

And then Tarantino … didn’t. I mean, I think it was an honest portrayal of just how disturbing slavery was, not just the enslavement but of the attitude actions of American caucasians toward blacks. But Quentin left it there. He presented it for the viewers to see and didn’t do anything to really put his stamp on it. It left me feeling a bit disappointed and empty.

But, well, that’s what the post-viewing cooling-off period is all about. The more I thought about Django, the more I realized Tarantino really did have something to say, it just wasn’t what I was hoping to hear. Django is a spaghetti western, set in the deep south during pre-Civil War America. But what it is about is the American attitude toward violence.

For example, the mandingo fighting scene where Django and the doc meet Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Yes, the fight between the two men is brutal, the desperation, fear and will to survive coming in waves off the two combatants. But it’s really no more brutal than, say, some of the rougher scenes from Fight Club. What is appalling is the attitude of everyone else in the room. Save Django and a couple of the slaves in the room, everyone else treats the bloody pummeling as if they were watching UFC on the big screen over the fireplace.

Extend that to the way being shot is portrayed through Django. Not much in the way of neat, clean holes except when tiny pistols are being used. Blood, tissue and bone explode, covering Django as he hides behind a dead body during a shootout. Every gunfight is brutal and incredibly destructive.¬†Then you add in the beatings, the hot box, the near-neutering¬†of Django, whipping and more. It’s all very naked and truthful.

For years, Quentin has been a target of the violence-in-media crowd. They say he’s made a living from glorifying violence. And I don’t know that he would argue against that. Few writers or directors understand exploitation better than he. However, in Django, Quentin chose the appropriate time and place in American history as a setting to get real. And for that, I think he should be applauded.

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Doers of dirty deeds

“A hero is a hero, but everybody loves a great villain.” – Ferb, Phineas & Ferb

I wrote previously about a conversation with a young film enthusiast and how it led to a discussion of heroes. We also talked about villains. “What makes a great villain?” At that point, we parted paths, so that just kind of hung out there, in the air and in the corner of my mind, nagging at me.

Heroes tend to be a bit easier because, no matter how messy they are, at the core they just want what’s right, what’s fair, what’s just. A villain is more of a balancing act: they have to be menacing to the point you think they might prevail (and in some cases, evil does prevail), but they also can’t turn into a gasbag who can’t cash the check his ass is writing. For example, Bond villains. They tend to lack any true menace, and I’ve always been pretty sure that – given a baseball bat and a couple of minutes to go to work with it – that I could have absolutely wrecked Goldfinger, Le Chiffre, Sir Hugo Drax, etc., weeks before their ludicrous plans every came to fruition.

One of my favorite examples of how this menace-follow through balancing act can work is a character from both literature and film: Anton Chigurh of No Country for Old Men. Chigurh is a contract killer for pay, although destiny has selected him to be an agent of chaos, a coin flip determining who will live and who will die as the poor unknowing wander into his path.

What interests me is the difference in Chigurh’s impact when you compare Cormack McCarthy’s gritty novel to the faithful screen adaptation by the Coen brothers. In the novel, I feel like the impact comes from the reaction by Chirgurh’s victims, particularly the effect on Sheriff Bell. Make no mistake, Tommy Lee Jones does a terrific job in the movie, slowly weakening at the knees as he realizes the evil he is facing. That said, I’m more shaken by just how much Bell is shaken in McCarthy’s novel. The depth to which Chigurh’s killing spree shakes Bell’s faith and perception of the world as it is and was comes across clearer, harder in print.

In the movie, Chigurh is brought to life by Javier Bardem’s performance. Bardem’s Chigurh is magnetic. The viewer is sucked in by Chigurh’s dark-eyed intensity in all manners, his obedience to the randomness of fate. Whenever Chigurh is on screen, there is a pit in the viewer’s stomach, that queasy feeling that something is going to happen and it will not be good, it will not end well. The scene where Chigurh flips a coin for the life of a gas station attendant is chilling and sickening. When Carla Jean Moss (in a brief but awesome piece of acting by Kelly Macdonald) refuses to play Chigurh’s game near the end of the movie, the fear and anticipation mount further. Plus the effect Moss’s refusal to play Chigurh’s game really throws a curve to the killer. Well played, well written and well directed.

The same character, the same story, the same menace … but done in a slightly different way to slightly different effect. It’s a perfect mesh of long-form written fiction and the screen portrayal of the same story.

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