Cult Classic: Django

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review:  Attempting to review ‘Django’ seriously is the equivalent of giving a restaurant style review to McDonald’s: I’d just be criticizing something that was never intended to be quality, and that misses the point entirely.

This spaghetti western never wanted to be “good” in the traditional sense.  We aren’t watching it for any lavish production value — the set is one of the filthiest, muddiest and bleakest ever constructed.  We aren’t watching it to enjoy normal spaghetti-western-grade music — it’s pretty forgettable with the exception of a completely out of place pop song detailing the main character’s plight.  We aren’t here for the actors, who are all foreign and obscure, or for the plot, which is a rip-off of ‘Fistful of Dollars’ (and yes, I am aware that ‘Fistful’ stole its plot as well).

We are watching ‘Django’ for the sole reason that the main character’s weapon of choice is not a standard six-shooter, but a machine gun (yes, a machine gun) that he carries inside a coffin (yes, a coffin) that he drags around for no real reason.  And when he uses it, oh boy, does all hell break loose.

It’s ridiculous, anachronistic, shocking, completely out of place, and, for 1966, absolutely awesome.

‘Django’ is pop-cinema at its rawest; it’s a movie that relies on a gimmick to sell, and it works.  It works so well that it’s still talked about, lampooned, and paid tribute almost fifty years after it’s release.  If you want proof, a little filmmaker by the name of Quentin Tarantino is currently shooting a film titled ‘Django Unchained’.  Considering that it was a cheap, obscure Italian film, that is quite an achievement.

I understand why critics and film buffs readily pass up this film, not granting it a serious examination.  ‘Django’ just isn’t a film of great depth.  Heck, even I said at the beginning of this review that it never wanted to be a good movie.  But what it does have, and why this film is ultimately worth checking out, is attitude.  Even in the days of the modern action picture, when something like a machine gun is no longer quite so shocking, you can still watch ‘Django’ and get a sense of edginess.  You can still feel a twinge of amusement at the thought of some cheap 60’s Italian film studio, making a movie about a place they’d never been in a thousand miles of, and just saying (in Italian of course) “Screw it, give ‘em a machine gun.  It’ll be fun.”  No worries about history, or film codes, or critical panning; just a desire to give audiences something they hadn’t seen before.

It’s the willingness of B-movies to do gimmicks like that, to take chances on something new, to shake up a formula ever so slightly just so it can be a little different, to put real attitude into their films, that I admire so much.  Even if ‘Django’ is objectively pure trash in all other ways, it at least had the attitude, the audacity, to go somewhere others hadn’t.  It’s an attitude that inspired the likes of Lucas, Spielberg, and, of course, Tarantino, and frankly, we could use a lot more of it in the film industry.  So, despite its flaws, I have no choice but to recommend ‘Django’ to the world.  For once, it might do us all some good to take off our critical hats, grab a bag of popcorn, and just enjoy some machine-gun-induced spectacle.

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Moneyball

Review: Whatever terrible implications the following confession may have for my masculinity, I feel it must be made.  Let the record show that I do not enjoy sports.  I do not enjoy watching them, playing them, or thinking about how much time other people spend following them.  Pretty much the only sport I could ever get excited about is (legitimately magical) Quidditch.  I only care about them in sympathy with friends, making for a very temporary affinity.  Given this predilection, sports movies tend to leave me cold.  The culture simply does not resonate with me.  If I am to appreciate a sports film, I have to connect with it in some way beyond the outcome of the games, as these formulaic confrontations can thrill in the moment but seem, frankly, pathetically overblown in hindsight.  As with any genre, for a sports film to succeed it must first do so as art rather than dramatization.  There’s a key difference; dramatization inherently lacks authenticity, working from the surface down, while art builds from human nature up.  When a film is sufficiently artistic, whatever genre it grows into is the inevitable result of its underlying human truths.

‘Moneyball’s underlying truth is that people fall short of their dreams, and some fall harder than others.  Brad Pitt, an actor I’m praising more and more often, plays the real-life General Manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, a man who survived a crushing blow to his dream of baseball stardom on the field by changing the game’s behind-the-scenes mechanics for the better.  The two screenwriters, Aaron Sorkin (‘The Social Network’) and Steve Zaillian (‘Schindler’s List’) refuse to baldly state Beane’s subconscious motivations.  Such obvious dialog often appears in sports films, as “I just wanna do X so I can be Y”, or any number of variations thereof, and this sort of thing sucks the suspense right out of every subsequent scene.  In a principle going back to Aristotle’s Poetics, the emotional revelation should only occur in tandem with the climax of the story, and it should do so in a way that it occurs to the audience and the characters at the same moment.  And so it goes in ‘Moneyball’, as the truth that Beane is actually struggling for redemption hounds us and him through every scene, only bubbling up to the surface — but still without a direct statement — at the climax.

The other great character in ‘Moneyball’ is portrayed by, of all people, Jonah Hill, the portly, geeky comedic actor of ‘Superbad’ fame.  He’s the film’s pleasantest surprise, crafting a legitimate spin on his usual archetype that feels stunningly true to life.  Pitt and Hill have a distinct chemistry that recalls Redford and Hoffman in ‘All The President’s Men’, a perfect one-two punch of complimentary personalities.  There’s Billy Beane, athletic, lanky, drawl and confident, and beside him is Peter Brandt, chubby, short, nervous and exploratory.  Beane acts as Brandt’s natural mentor in most ways, but Brandt is actually Beane’s in the most critical areas.  Hill shows incredible range here, and I hope he keeps taking up disparate roles and avoids the comedy pigeonhole that has trapped so many of his cinematic antecedents.

The book on which this film is based bears the title because it is mainly concerned with the economic implications of the story.  The film, on the other hand, is a proper adaptation because it finds something cinematic in the book and expounds on it.  An improper adaptation tries to match, content-for-content, the source material.  This is a common and easily avoidable mistake.  To adapt anything, one must not ask what was said, but rather what was not said or not said enough.  These are the things that lend themselves to extensive permutation and therefore proper adaptation.  Sometimes, a story’s innate greatness is such that it can naturally cross mediums without harm, but this is extraordinarily rare, and even in such cases the adaptors must find a way to channel this greatness in a manner specific to the medium.  A natural adaptation is not necessarily the best adaptation.

Also working in ‘Moneyball’s favor is Wally Pfister’s cinematography.  Cinephiles may recognize him as Christopher Nolan’s most frequent collaborator.  His work here with director Bennett Miller is up to the usual par.  His fragmented, psuedo-documentarian style lends the baseball montages a memorable dreamlike quality.  There’s typically a lot of depth in the compositions as well.  Take my favorite sequence, for example: Beane and Brandt face off in a battle of wills with the Oakland A’s scouts, the confrontation being framed in a conference room at a long table.  Pfister tightens the focus so that each change in speaker — and, due to the strong writing, each dramatic turnabout — is highlighted, and the room’s depth is retained.  It recalls Lumet’s technique in ‘Twelve Angry Men’.  In this way Miller, Pfister and editor Christopher Tellefsen avoid the usual method of cutting from speaker to speaker, only making such cuts to isolate characters or illustrate their relationships to one another when the story calls for it.

‘Moneyball’ just works beautifully.  Its immediate impact may be diminished, depending on the individual, because of how well the story’s emotional core is sublimated, but it is a film that makes you think, and I couldn’t help returning to it and discovering that it continues to pay dividends long after it is over.  The term “forgettable” is often thrown about in critical circles, but what is it that makes a film stick in or slip from the memory?  I would say that a memorable film is one that works powerfully on the subconscious, giving shape to emotions and concepts that otherwise lack definition.  A forgettable film exists only the surface.  ‘Moneyball’ is terrifically memorable, and highly recommended.

For further reading on ‘Moneyball’, I recommend Once Upon A Time In The Cinema’s take.

Real Steel

Review: The first thing we hear in director Shawn Levy’s ‘Real Steel’ is an acoustic guitar being plucked sentimentally, the kind of music that tells you, before the first lyrics are sung, that it is about a man down on his luck, probably on the road, desperate for a second chance.  Which is, of course, exactly what we get.  Hugh Jackman is a former boxer eclipsed by the robot fighting craze, but he’s trying to stay in the game with his own machines.  He’s not doing particularly well.  He also has an eleven-year-old son he’s never met… and you can probably guess where this is going.  The boy doesn’t want him, he doesn’t want the boy, and the story is about bringing them together — while they take a unique fighting machine to international stardom.

With its diverse team of producers, a couple story-by credits and a usually terrifying partially-inspired-by credit, it’s clear that this is a movie that was made by committee.  It’s cheese, fluff, and big CGI robots beating the crud out of each other.  A story this thoroughly soaked in sentimentalism and the mush of recycled pop culture should be so rote and manufactured that it fails to achieve a modicum of emotional impact.

But that’s not the case; just because it is an exercise in efficient Hollywood money-making does not mean it is fundamentally wrong or, for that matter, ineffective.  Levy and company employ an army of clichés that prove their familiar power; there will be slow-motion, there will be last stands, there will be unlikely heroes, and somehow there will still be tears in the audience.  Hell, I cried, and I knew exactly what they were doing in a cool, objective way.  This is a film that blatantly mashes up giant robots with ‘Rocky’ and dares you to sneer at it.  It’s like a cinematic staring contest; whose eyes will get watery first?  Let this serve as an important reminder: originality is not King — truth is.  Well-worn clichés persist because of their inherent value, and when communicated through good performances and rousing sequences, they can reach the most cynical of viewers.

The fights are the heart and soul of this film, even more so than the dramatic beats in between.  They are tense, exciting, well-photographed, and always character driven.  There are no superfluous action sequences.  I will call them good, certainly, but I will not call them great.  Like so many other postmodern films, ‘Real Steel’ succumbs to an excess of cuts and angles, which results in frequent disorientation and intermittent suspense.  The cinematography and editing outshine most other contemporary action films, but are still hamstrung by an underlining impatience.  Quick editing is powerful in small doses, while in large amounts it is simply wearying.  Slow motion is not an acceptable respite, either, as in effect the pace only slows about two to four seconds per shot, and while it highlights emotion, it does not balance out the marathon tempo of a given scene.  Here’s a simple slice of cinematic theory: The longer the take, the longer the characters live and breathe in the frame, the suspense persists, and the action plays.  In short, more bang for your buck, all because you didn’t cut to camera B until another five to ten seconds had passed.  Say you’ve got your robot hero enduring punches thrown by his opponent, and you want to emphasize the assault’s punishing duration.  Don’t cut to a “more intense” angle or return to a reaction shot more than once or twice, the bare minimum necessary to set up an emotional relationship between your characters in the moment.  Stay focused.  We should endure the assault along with our hero, as long as it takes.  Therefore, when he finally ducks a blow and hits his opponent square in the jaw, the reversal’s impact is substantially heightened.  Save the quick cuts for the quick changes.  For example, say the robot combatants are tangling back and forth, only keeping the upper hand for split second intervals.  Use quick cuts to mirror the choppy nature of the battle.  A filmmaker who perfectly fits their visual progression to the story’s events (i.e., cause and effect from moment to moment) is a perfect filmmaker.

Lastly, I’d like to consider the ideas the exist in the film’s text and subtext.  I think, if ‘Real Steel’ is successful (and it deserves to be), there is room to explore these notions in a respectable sequel.  Centrally, the robots serve as avatars, helping humans achieve emotional catharsis through violence.  Both Jackman’s character, and his son, express themselves through the robot called Atom, who can learn any movement he sees performed by a human being.  This relationship is what makes the finale so powerful, and ultimately justifies ‘Real Steel’ to me.  Indeed, the last shot is of the machine mimicking the boy and his father simultaneously — he’s the synergistic bridge between the two, where their souls meet and act as one.  He may also be a self-aware A.I.; if he is, then that has terrific implications for the robot boxing enterprise.  If a boxing robot’s nature is that of an avatar, could it choose what person to represent?  What if a boxing robot wished only to represent itself?  I won’t suggest that the filmmakers should tread down the familiar path of the robot uprising.  ‘Real Steel’ should be limited to explorations of its peculiar territory, nothing more or less.

In conclusion, I can say that ‘Real Steel’ is a solid work of genre filmmaking for a wide audience.  It’s a movie that young boys will drag their parents to see, but I don’t think that anyone in attendance — provided they are not hopelessly jaded — will remain unaffected.  It’s not a film geared toward (snobbish) cinephiles such as myself, but I recognize that good, comfortable narratives like this are why many people go to the movies at all.  In IMAX, ‘Real Steel’ has all the rumble of a roller coaster, and it is in that spectacular format that I would recommend you to experience this sentimental, rousing, bubblegum, two-fisted, populist dreck.

I liked it.

Contagion

Review:  This is a film about an oft-sensationalized subject — pandemics — that is justifiably sensational in more than one sense of the word.  It’s a highly tactile narrative, with the camera focusing tight and swooping down low to bring our attention to the moment when a virus transfers from person to surface and back again, reminding us how often we touch our faces and each other without a second thought, and making human existence seem fraught with peril.  There are no jump scares or unbearable scenes of gore and violence — not that it is without a bit of the latter two — but it’s terrifying in its implications, because it makes you believe.  ‘Contagion’ wants to convince you of two things: 1) A very nasty pandemic (probably) will happen, and 2) We will survive it.  Fear not; the story is actually quite buoyant, with nobility and self-sacrifice informing the characters’ actions more often than not, and it ends up being as heartwarming as it is frightening.  Each plotline has a subdued but worthy arc, fueled by straightforward performances that capture the human element and eschew traditional Hollywood posing.  There’s only one character that comes off like a caricature — Jude Law’s blogger stereotype that deliberately spreads misinformation about the plague.  It irritated me, and it’s arguably unfair to New Media in general.  Even the blogger threads, however, have some value in the greater tapestry of the film, and by no means do they spoil it.

Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns manage to render layer upon layer of significance that may not be clear on first viewing.  The overall theme is about what it means to be a fragile physical being in a world teeming with hostile invaders that exploit the most fundamental of human instincts — touch.  The first lines of the film are about sex, the ultimate manifestation of human physicality, and in this instance it is transgressive.  Here the screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, implants the idea that drives the film: touch is sacred.  The first scenes also echo Alfred Hitchcock’s classic ‘Psycho’, where a woman’s sexual misdeeds are punished by its own titular evil — unlike Marion Crane, however, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character is a wife and mother, held up, again, as something central and sacred.  Her death means the death of humanity.  Arguably, the dramatic spindle of the film is her step-daughter, as she sweetly and desperately attempts to romance a neighborhood boy in the midst of the outbreak.  In this way, sex is restored to innocence, and there is hope.  Her father, played by Matt Damon, exists to support this symbol and represent the general human response to the pandemic.  He’s the straight-laced middle class American guy who’s in over his head, just trying to handle the fear and the grief brought on by a situation over which he can exercise no control.  He’s also the chief symbol of the masculine instinct in the story — the desire to fight for and secure one’s loves and property — and how it is so easily undermined by the invisible enemy, one that can’t be stopped by brawn or bullets.

The real glory of ‘Contagion’ is how the government scientists — U.N. and American — are spared the usual suspicion reserved for authority figures.  They make their mistakes and have their conflicts, but ultimately they manifest, in spades, all the heroic instincts that have enabled humans to survive thus far.  Science isn’t presented as esoteric, but as an intricate puzzle, and the filmmakers have enough respect for their audience to actually give us a few of the pieces — not enough to solve it, but to give us a reasonable idea of the challenges that face real scientists.  This is also an example of narrative innovation; meaning, the filmmakers find conflicts in reality that translate well into fiction.  Procedural stories are popular because we expect them to represent sequences of cause and effect that could easily occur in the real world — often, however, procedurals merely copy each other and don’t reflect the truth, but in ‘Contagion’s case, the nitty-gritty is exceptionally well-researched and feels fresh even when it evokes familiar imagery.  The fair portrayal of authority figures and the legitimately plausible challenges they face add up to a high level of believability.  It’s the filmmakers’ appeal to our common sense, and it works.

Not everything is effective, however. One could argue that Jude Law’s character (the Nasty Blogger) is the antagonist; he is, after all, the most despicable human being on display.  It’s better to identify him as the scapegoat, which is why he weakens the narrative.  ‘Contagion’s true antagonist (the virus, obviously) is effective precisely because it is beyond the audience’s thirst for justice.  It is essentially Death incarnate, and all the raging in the world won’t undo it.  ‘Contagion’ requires a reasoned response from its characters and its audience, and the scapegoat character undermines that.  I would not say that the Nasty Blogger is unnecessary or wrong in narrative principal, merely that the filmmakers overplay their hand.  I understand the point they’re trying to make about the viral (get it?) spread of misinformation; but it would have been far more prudent, in my view, to create a sympathetic character that serves this purpose, emphasizing the simple truth that lies are most often spread by people who believe in them.

Every great antagonist deserves a great presentation. The electronic score by Cliff Martinez (who, incidentally, also scored this year’s ‘Drive’) gives the viral menace a dreadful life — invisible, pulsing, insidious and ever-present.  It makes for an intriguing relationship between the visual touchstones that mark the virus’ presence and the sonic atmosphere that communicates its character.  Like the shark in ‘Jaws’, the antagonist floats through our mental space, heralded by music, but is still able to act independently of its herald, a technique that preserves surprise.

I’ve already mentioned the tactile nature of the cinematography, but what makes it so memorable is how well Soderbergh manages the relationship between color, editing, locations and story beats.  When you’re talking cinema, color is of supreme importance — it is not merely the surface sheen, it is where the story happens in cinematic terms.  I’m using the word “color” very broadly, mind, and of course the other elements of visual storytelling — lines, space, contrast, etc. — are equally important, but ‘Contagion’s use of color is particularly striking.  I would like to do a frame-by-frame analysis at some point, but for now suffice it to say that the way the filmmakers use color to indicate mood, place, and story progression is masterful.  It is one thing to use a warm color to mean, for instance, “Home”; it is another to expand that use across all sorts of spaces, times, and moments, constantly riffing on familiar emotions.

In summary, ‘Contagion’ is a crowd-pleaser that’s suspenseful enough for general audiences, smart enough for the high-minded, and deep enough for the most discerning of cinephiles.  I recommend it.

For more on ‘Contagion’, I would suggest a smattering of articles.  For instance, this take on the science behind it that appeared in Slate; this wonderfully academic look at the film from Discours du Cinema; and a slightly more in-depth look from Mr. Gilmore at Once Upon A Time In The Cinema.