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: 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.

Super 8

Summary: A perfect remix of classic Spielberg, rising auteur J.J. Abrams crafts a truly effective film for the next generation.

The Return of the Great Adventure

Review: There’s no time more important to a filmmaker than childhood. Most great filmmakers discover their passion early in life, and they often spend that time trying to emulate their favorite works, looking for that elusive magic, that feeling, that means “cinema” in their hearts. Some give up, and go on to craft stories wholly different from their initial inspiration, but some stick to it, and succeed in making a spiritual autobiography, sometimes over the course of several films.

For Steven Spielberg, many of his greatest films pay direct homage to inspirations from his youth: ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ for the matinée serials, ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ for both the French New Wave and Cecil B. Demille, ‘Jurassic Park’ for the creature features blessed by Ray Harryhausen.  It is only natural that an auteur like Spielberg should provoke a kindred spirit of the next generation to emulate his films, and here the homage has the rare benefit of the inspiration’s creative involvement.  With ‘Super 8’, J.J. Abrams does far better than imitate his idol; he makes an entry worthy of the Spielberg canon.

Some have reacted negatively to the iconographic and stylistic tributes J.J. makes to Spielberg, as if it is cheap or creatively bankrupt to so effectively capture this magical tone.  The trouble is, as usual, a lack of perspective.  At the time of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’s release, it suffered some undue resentment from critics who felt that it was too much like the serials of yore, that it was a hollow, soulless exercise in something like “nostalgia porn”.  As the serials have dimmed in popular memory, ‘Raiders’ has only grown as a premier action-adventure, revealing the trouble with the criticism.  Such critics, then and now, are resisting the artist’s right to remix.  Nothing is truly original, after all — it is important that artists, critics, and audiences understand that what matters is an effective remix, a work that is simultaneously familiar and fresh.  Other auteurs, such as Quentin Tarantino or the brothers Coen, do works suspiciously similar to their inspirations with remarkable frequency, but they do not incur the critical penalties Spielberg and Abrams have had to endure, simply because the homage is more often obscure to the public.  Both Spielberg and Abrams remix the greater weight of popular imagination, but in truth all these artists are doing the same kind of work.

When a viewer rejects the homage, he or she will find it difficult, or perhaps impossible, to appreciate the uniqueness of films like ‘Super 8’, the qualities that ultimately set them apart as worthy, standalone stories.  ‘Super 8’, much like ‘Raiders’, is the return of the great adventure.  It isn’t meant for the pessimistic adult mind.  It’s meant, in the best possible way, for kids, or rather for the child in all of us.  I was privileged to meet a grandmother and her two preteen grandchildren at the theater of my employ as they were about to see ‘Super 8’.  When I praised the film and referenced Spielberg, the kids admitted they had no idea who he was, or if they had seen his movies.  The grandmother was rather taken aback, but I was strangely pleased.  It occurred to me, then, why Abrams made ‘Super 8’ at all — because Spielberg’s magic touch hadn’t transformed the minds of these kids, Abrams extended it to them.  He’s taken what was old and made it new again.  So in this way, it is simultaneously familiar and fresh, and some folks who grew up with Spielberg may never understand why.  More power to those who do.

I love this film. It’s addictive. It thrills me, makes me laugh, makes me cry, makes me contemplate the past and future with great clarity. Just as ‘Raiders’ and ‘Close Encounters’ changed my life, from now on I’ll be seeing the world through the lens of ‘Super 8’.

MMM: How I Learned To Stop Full Metal Odysseys

James here with Movie Music Monday!

Three from the films of Stanley Kubrick.  If you’re a filmmaker, you’re required by law to appreciate Kubrick.  If you don’t, you get dropped out of a bomber over Russia.  Bring your cowboy hats, ye condemned.


The ending to ‘Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb’ is one of Kubrick’s finest moments.   This song plays over a truly lovely montage of giant mushrooms growing all over the globe.  What is ‘We’ll Meet Again’? Soundtrack Dissonance for 500, Alex.


Among the similarities between Kubrick and Tarantino are their use of long takes and iconic, violent sequences set to surf rock, such as this Trashmen hit in ‘Full Metal Jacket’.  What is ‘Surfin’ Bird’?  I’ll take Classical Film for 200, please.


In ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, Stanley Kubrick famously used classical music to frame sequences of silent space flight, such as this piece used over a docking sequence.  What is ‘Blue Danube’?

And just like that, I take the lead, but lose next round to the spectacled gentlemen who knows all the math questions. I do, however, avoid a very explosive fate on a Serbian mountain range.  Kubrick, love him or hate him, sure knew how to weave music into his works.   I think the Tarantino comparison is kinda neat, too.

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.

James’ Top Ten Directors (Without An Order)

Sorry about the long hiatus, folks, but I kind of lost my drive to write.  The good news is, I did regain my drive to screenwrite, and I’ve got a solid idea progressing nicely.

It occurred to me that a major obstacle to the success of this blog is the lack of variety in articles.  Sure, we’ve got reviews and the ‘Elements’ series, but what about top-tens and other die hard blog tropes?  Ain’t nothing wrong with a good trope.  So, here we go.  My top ten favorite directors.  Minus the numbers one expects from such things.

Steven Spielberg

Spielberg shades his eyes because they're too bright for you.  Hence the hat, even without the glasses.

Spielberg shades his eyes because they're too bright for you. Hence the hat, even without the glasses.

Here’s the why. He made ‘Raiders’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Jaws’, and your mother’s amazing plasticine face.

Christopher Nolan

I think he's an accomplshed actor, too.  Didn't he play a James Bond villain at one point...?  No?

I think he's an accomplished actor, too. Didn't he play a James Bond villain at one point...? No?

Here’s the why.  He saved Batman’s batfilm batexistence batfrom bathell.  He’s really good at screwing with your mind, even in relatively straightforward movies like ‘The Dark Knight’.  On the extreme end of intentional mindscrews, of course, is ‘Memento’, which is referenced in way too many screenwriting books. C’mon, people, we’re novices, if we’re reading your book looking for advice, don’t mock us with a challenge to repaint the Mona Lisa.  Also, Christopher Nolan is the only fellow I would trust to remake ‘Blade Runner’.

Quentin Tarantino

That's the German three.

That's the German three.

Here’s the why. Quentin cares enough about his stories that he lets them gestate for ridiculous periods of time.  That way, he doesn’t rely on formula, but delivers a compelling and original story that breaks a lot of “rules” and yet somehow still works.

Peter Jackson

Before

Before

After.

After.

Here’s the why. He directed ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, which kicked everybody’s ass, except J.R.R. Tolkien himself, who was on the moon fighting vampires when it was released. Mr. Jackson has since lost a lot of girth and become a Hollywood heavyweight, shepherding up-and-coming directors and projects, like Neill Blomkamps’ ‘District 9’, which was like the ’80s sci-fi craze had come back to life with a blood transfusion from Jason Bourne. So he’s got that going for him.

J.J. Abrams

He is not clueless.  Merely geeked the heck out.

He is not clueless. Merely geeked the heck out.

Here’s the why. He’s great at fusing genre films with solid, emotional stories.  Sometimes too good.  I didn’t expect the opening of ‘Mission: Impossible III’ to be nearly as traumatizing as it was, but that’s okay.

Alfred Hitchcock

Nobody does it better...

Nobody does it better...

Here’s the why. Hitchcock represents the majority of exposure pretty much anyone has to the silent era and its powerful ‘show, don’t tell’ ethos. Thanks to this training as a silent film director, Hitch kicks lots of ass in the suspense department, and his stuff is really memorable.  Every suspense movie, ever, is compared to Hitch.  Not to his movies, no, to the man himself.  Why is he laughing in that photo?  Why?  Why!?

Brad Bird

Let's see... Bird pun... Bird pun...

Let's see... Bird pun... Bird pun...

Here’s the why. Brad Bird is another fellow who can blend genre with emotional, original story. So far, his works have been fantastic animated movies, such as ‘The Iron Giant’, and Pixar’s ‘The Incredibles’ and ‘Ratatouille’, but he may be making his first foray into live action soon. Whatever the case, Brad Bird’s imagination is sure to soar.  Ha.  Ha.

Sergio Leone

OVIEIf he looks fazed it's only because he spent all his energy making THE BEST MOVIES EVER.

If he looks fazed it's only because he spent all his energy making THE BEST MOVIES EVER

Here’s the why. Sergio Leone is the godfather of the Spaghetti Western subgenre.   Since he’s passed away, there’s no point in making Spaghetti Westerns anymore.  Unless you’re Quentin Tarantino or something.

Duncan Jones

This is what happens when you put out the fire with gasoline.

This is what happens when you put out the fire with gasoline.

Here’s the why. He directed ‘Moon’, the best sci-fi film of 2009.  Strangely, he’s David Bowie’s son.  Sure, this guy’s new, but he’s awesome and he looks to be building a sweet sci-fi series.

Tim Burton

How dare you, Tim.  I used to hate your movies.  Who do you think you are?  Get out.  You misfit, you.

How dare you, Tim. I used to hate your movies. Who do you think you are? Get out. You misfit, you.

Here’s the why. He’s quirky.   He’s got scissors for hands.  He was not permitted to eat sweets as a child — because his father was (not) Christopher Lee.  His movies are bizzare.   I don’t like the ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’.   I do love ‘Batman’.  Why, Tim?  Why do I admire you, so?

And, that’s my top ten.  Patrick should be coming out with his soon.  Very soon.  You hear that, Patrick?  WRITE THE DAMN LIST.

What?  Oh, okay.  Bye for now.