Excessive, Escapist Excellence — Django Unchained

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

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Over the years, acclaimed filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has exhibited the influence of 60s/70s Italian-made “spaghetti” westerns through the narratives, dialogue, cinematography, and music of his movies, but never before has he directly taken on the genre itself. Until now.

Well, almost, anyway. Given that ‘Django Unchained’ takes place more in the Old South than the Old West and centers on the issue of slavery, Tarantino himself has branded the film a Southern (as opposed to a Western). Still, ‘Django Unchained’ thoroughly captures the spirit of the spaghetti westerns from which it draws inspiration. That wonderful, raw, purposefully violent and over-the-top escapism is present in full force, laid beautifully with the corner stones of Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking—deep and witty dialogue, extravagant characters, unorthodox plots, and striking cinematography.

It’s fun, pulp cinema at its finest, which may be why some have failed to understand it. Various critics as well as noted African American director Spike Lee have derided the film. The story—centering on a former slave who becomes a bounty hunter and kills slaveholders—has been criticized as insensitive to the historical reality of slavery, an ignorant insult to those unfortunate victims of inhumanity and racism.

Such criticism would be valid if Tarantino had actually intended for ‘Django Unchained’ to be at all serious or historically accurate. But he didn’t.

‘Django Unchained’ doesn’t try to say anything particularly insightful about racism and slavery, only that they’re bad; and he almost purposefully seems to throw anachronisms into the film, as if to dissuade anyone from thinking that this was real history. The film is purposefully indulgent in a good way—it allows us to suspend the trappings of reality and (to some extent) real morality and then lets us explore our more base feelings. We want to see evil slave holders being blown away by a former slave; we want the satisfaction of seeing blatant evil destroyed, regardless of the actual historical conditions of slavery in America. That the title character, Django, is himself hardly a banner of morality is irrelevant. He takes down the embodiments of true evil, and that is what we love to see. It’s the same thing the old spaghetti westerns depended on, and it’s a small part of why filmmaking in general is so special. More so than books or plays, film gives us a uniquely powerful way to explore ideas and moralities different than our own. It lets us be excessive, to white wash experiences not for the sake of ignorance, but for emotion. Few of us, hopefully, would ever solve the world’s problems by shooting at them, and yet there is something amazingly cathartic about seeing it done on screen, if only so that we can vicariously live out thoughts and feelings we otherwise keep hidden. In that sense ‘Django Unchained’ is strikingly potent, a well executed celebration of the medium of film.

All that being the case, if you aren’t prepared for graphic shootings, beatings, nudity, explosions, and frequent racial slurs, this probably isn’t the film for you.

What else can be said about this film? The characters are all brilliantly cast. Jamie Foxx plays Django with much the same striking presence that Clint Eastwood had as the Man With No Name; Christoph Waltz (thankfully) plays the antithesis of his character in ‘Inglourious Basterds’ as a German bounty hunter with a heart-of-gold. I hope he gets more heroic roles after this. Leonardo di Caprio steals the show as Calvin Candy, a wonderfully over the top slaveholder and a really fun bad guy with a hilarious accent to boot. Finally, Samuel Jackson, as the head slave of Candy’s plantation, gives an odd yet incredibly effective performance as the film’s true villain. They even get the original Django from the 60’s spaghetti western (which I reviewed on this site), Franco Nero, for a small cameo, which is a nice touch.

Tarantino inserts his usual lengthy dialogue into the film, but unlike the somewhat unjustified excesses of ‘Inglourious Basterds’, it’s more restrained here, and that’s a definite plus. Admittedly, at nearly three hours, the film’s length caught me off guard the first time I saw it, and I initially felt that it dragged by about a half hour. After seeing it a second time, though, I’m now convinced that the film, while not as short as it perhaps could have been, is paced the way it needs to be, and its length is not the hindrance I originally thought.

Lastly, the soundtrack to this film is truly exceptional. Tarantino incorporates a diverse pallet of artists, from Johnny Cash to hip-hop, from the 1960’s to present day, into the film in striking sequences that are a lot of fun to watch. Famed spaghetti western composer Ennio Morricone, one of the greatest composers of all time, even wrote some original music for the film, which is just awesome. I highly recommend purchasing the soundtrack on its own merits.

It seems obvious at this point and a little redundant to say, but I enjoyed ‘Django Unchained’ a great deal, as much any film I’ve ever seen in theatres. As long as people approach this movie with a proper understanding of spaghetti westerns and the purposefully surreal nature of the plot, I think they too will enjoy it for thrill ride it is.

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Cult Classic: Reservoir Dogs

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A realistic, gut-punch of a movie.

Reservoir Dogs

Review: ‘Reservoir Dogs’ is filmmaking wizard Quentin Tarantino’s first (completed) film. It’s a compelling and shocking re-imagining of the typical cops & robbers heist film. It’s the kind of story where everything goes wrong. This time around, we are set up to empathize with the bad guys, a team of hired men assigned by their ring leader, Joe, to steal some diamonds.  They all go by color-coded monikers, and keep their true names to themselves.  When the robbery hits the fan, the survivors immediately suspect that they’ve been set up by the police, and it’s only a matter of time until they discover the traitor.

‘Dogs’ wields an aggressively realistic tone.  The dialog, already well-written, is enhanced by frantic, vulgar, and sometimes funny ad-libbing from the ensemble cast.  The violence, in contrast to the extended, pattering dialog, is short, brutal, and too the point, except for one scene: an infamous torture scene that’s ridiculously hard to sit through.  Tarantino faced (and faces still) great criticism of this scene, but he defends it by acknowledging that the typically horrified reaction of the viewer is exactly what he hoped for.  As good as the film is on the large part, I really can’t justify the sheer brutality of the scene (although, it must be noted, it’s mostly psychological in nature), but the upside is that it leads to a fantastic and cathartic reveal of the traitor.

Like most of Tarantino’s filmography, there appears to be a philosophical bent to the film’s action and conclusions.  This is a window into the world of the cinematic villains that we usually want dead or jailed.  It’s an exercise in empathy.  It’s an acknowledgment of universal humanity and, as Ronnie James Dio would suggest, that we all have “Heaven and Hell” in us.  There’s some major, usually unspoken debate in Christianity as to the moral value of humanity: Are we basically evil, or basically good?  The answer, of course, is both.

‘Reservoir Dogs’ is smart, shocking, uncomfortable, funny, and sobering art.  It has my recommendation to guys and dolls with a strong stomach.

Classic Review: Pulp Fiction

Stars:  **** out of 4

Summary:  An awful trip into the dark side of life that’s too much for the morally conscientious, but also a terrifically clever and redemptive narrative that shows that light shines brightest in the darkest places.

"Don't judge a book by its cover" is almost too cliche for words, but it kind of fits here.  Groovy.

"Don't judge a book by its cover" is almost too cliche for words, but it kind of fits here. Groovy.

Review:  You know what? I’m tired of something.  I’m tired of folks focusing too much on the dark side of life.  I’m tired of self-imposed moral guardians not having the wit to see the good in the world around them.  Gag me with a spoon.  But there is evil in the world.  You bet your sweet bippy.  Sooner or later, you’re going to have to deal with it.  Art when used properly is a roundhouse kick to the face of those sneaky bastards who think they can catch you off guard.  In other words, it’s a way of exorcising our demons, exposing the villain within.  Strange genius Quentin Tarantino, whether he admits or not, has a definite talent for that sort of thing.  Exhibit A.  “Pulp Fiction”.

This is a movie about the criminal underworld.  It’s about the things we keep secret.  About family.  About sexuality.  About conversations about God and pigs in an old diner.  Yet, for all the myriad qualities, those influenced by the film seem to have taken to the incidentals of the setting rather than the brilliance of the substance.  So, Tarantino’s cinematic offspring have drug use, bloody violence, bad sexual jokes and the overuse of the F-word.  Those things are present in ‘Pulp Fiction’, but they’re a part of something much more intelligent.  It’s not just shocking.  It’s better than that.  It’s honest.  It’s not a movie you’d want your grandmother to see, and if you think you would, either you’re messed up or I don’t want to meet your grandmother.

There’s a classic proverb that says, ‘Great artists steal’.  Tarantino doesn’t just steal tropes or scenes or characters like any old filmmaker would do, instead he soaks up the very essence of a cultural mindset and wrings it out onto the page and the screen.  The result is always both uncomfortable and extremely engaging.  Wholesomeness and perversion exist side by side.  There’s good sex and bad sex, God and gangsters, redemption and revenge.  Perhaps a reason why the self-imposed protectors of the moral status quo can’t get a movie like ‘Pulp Fiction’ is that they just don’t want to see people naked — metaphorically, I mean.  The film is extremely redemptive and the good guys win.  The nastiness of their on-screen world is our very own nastiness.  As unnecessary as seeing it could be, maybe those of us who live in this dark world need to be reminded of our own uncomfortable secrets, and that by sifting through them we can find our own redemption.

Inglourious Basterds

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Audacious, shocking, funny, brilliant, and challenging storytelling.  More than entertainment, Tarantino uses the guise of a war movie to shoot holes in our conceptions of onscreen violence.

Be not deceived, none of these people are heroes.

Be not deceived, none of these people are heroes.

Review:  Quentin Tarantino is an auteur if there ever was one.  His striking, consistent, and audacious style is unmistakable and unmatched.  His films are often condemned by the morally conscientious for being violent and sexually explicit, a charge I have issues with, but will not answer in this review.  His cinematic reputation is marked by blood, swearing, and crime.  One would think, from a popular conception, that his films are concerned with reveling in the dark side of life.  I would contest this openly.  And ‘Inglourious Basterds’ provides an excellent reason why.

The story is dark, to be sure.  “Once upon a time, in Nazi-occupied France”, after all, is the story’s setting.  Blood is bound to be spilled.  The film opens with a truly chilling conversation between a Nazi villain known as Colonel Hans Landa — who I would call one of the greatest screen villains of all time — and a French farmer.  Hans Landa, as an aside, is played by Christoph Waltz, an unbelievably good actor, but not well known in the states.  Hopefully this movie will change that.  Anyway, the farmer is hiding a Jewish family beneath his house, and Landa knows it.  Tarantino has always been noted for the strength of his characters and the writing in general, and this film is certainly no exception.  The tension builds and builds throughout the scene, a solid ten minutes of rising horror.  Only one Jewish girl escapes the ordeal alive, spared for the hell of it by Landa as she runs away from a sudden machine gun massacre.

This girl grows up to become a cinema owner, through a series of events that the theatergoer is not privy to.  I had the privilege of reading the original screenplay Tarantino typed out, and there is a solid hour of events missing from the final cut, scenes I believe were filmed and should end up on the DVD/Bluray with any luck.

Meanwhile, the Americans have organized an elite fighting team of Jewish soldiers, dubbed the ‘Basterds’ by the Germans.  They are literally terrorists, waging guerrilla warfare behind, around, and between enemy lines, killing Nazis without mercy.

Eventually, both stories converge at the cinema, and let’s just say it becomes hell on Earth as history is dismissed in a brilliant checkmate by Tarantino.  Seriously.

This is not a simple revenge fantasy, however.  Killing Nazis may be the Basterd’s goal, but in the end, if the audience is really paying attention, they may have second thoughts about such simple moral terms.  In the end, there is no “them”, no heartless enemy we can kill without blinking.  They are real human beings, and we are just as evil as they are.  Just about everybody in the story has the chance to be a, well, bastard, and to be a good guy — or at least a decent individual.  Tarantino brilliantly exposes the truth that war, and any violence for that matter, is hell for everybody involved.  The violence, though brief, is utterly devastating and quite realistic.  There are not really any improbable escapes or awesome firefights.  There is a Mexican Standoff where everybody involved, and even some that weren’t, is killed, except for one person.  The violence is played at real time, without any of the slow-motion, Matrix-inspired action gimmicks.  There aren’t any moments where we are called on to enjoy the violence, just to watch and to experience the emotional and sociological implications of seeing those sorts of things happening.  It’s both awful and necessary to the story Quentin’s telling.

The cinematography, unlike all the Michael Bay, rapid-fire bullshit that’s so popular these days, is nearly perfect.  Forget 3-D, this is immersion in the scene.  During the Mexican Standoff, we are placed at the table, and forced to watch the characters interact organically, patiently, as they — and thus, we — try to figure out how to get out of the situation.  The tension is palpable because we are really invested.  Going hand-in-hand with the sheer patience of the cinematography is the way the characters are fleshed out.  Tarantino has claimed more than once that he allows his characters to literally drive the story, rather than following the common practice of moving your principal players around like sprites in a video game world, and it’s extremely well evident.  These are people.  Thank God, then, that the violence is so sparse, or else we’d feel like the characters were being disrespected.  Instead, they react to violence like any real person would, and we find ourselves caught up in sympathy.

Part of the complete package of humanity, of course, is humor.  Tarantino breaks with convention and even laces the humor directly into his filmmaking style, with wacky captions and musical stingers.  It’s a style that must be seen to be believed, and it’s hysterical.  Even the villains get to be the comics.

After all was said and done, history had been changed, and the credits rolled in typical Tarantino fashion, I walked out the theater reminded why I fell in love with Tarantino’s work.  Not only is this one of the best movies of the year, it’s one of the best movies Tarantino has made, right behind the cult classic ‘Pulp Fiction’.  In the words of Quentin Tarantino through the character Lt. Aldo Raine, “You know, that right there just might be my masterpiece…”