Movie Review: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained

Django-Unchained-Poster-JacksonArguably, one cannot make a film about slavery without making a comment on it, and neither can one star a black man in a white-directed, white-produced movie without commenting on race. While many may not see Tarantino as a serious director (and for excellent reasons: I refer you to my esteemed blogger-comrade Rémy) I do feel that his movies make a comment on the subject matter, even if it doesn’t seem that way at the time.

Django Unchained is, at heart, a vengeance tale set within the Western style of movie-making with a big, fat budget of $100 million. It riffs on blaxploitation movies, slavery, violence against women, black-on-black crime, ownership, love and revenge. It has time to segue into phrenology, that terrible pseudo-science, as well as German folklore. Don’t get me wrong: the plot of Django is very straightforward. Man loses his wife under terrible circumstances, and makes deals to get her back. Like Inglorious Basterds, like Kill Bill, it is revenge. Glorious, varied and endless revenge. And don’t get me wrong: the vengeance is as gratifying as it is visceral. We want to see Django’s enemies destroyed, for they are very, very bad men. At no point in this movie are white slavers ever given an ounce of sympathy. They are given only our scorn, and our glee at their punishment. Like Inglorious Basterds, we like to see the bad guys punished, as so few were at the time.

Is Django Unchained controversial? Yes. Should it be? No. In my opinion, Tarantino says some fascinating things about slavery, but none of them are pro-slavery. He shows the violence visited upon black bodies without hesitation. It was a terrible, horrific time to be black. That anyone should be shocked by violence in a slavery setting is ludicrous. Women were whipped on the smallest pretense.

Django-Unchained-character-postersRaped to pass the time, or produce more slaves. The hot box, the horsewhipping by the preacher – these are not fantastical scenes. Anyone with even a cursory understanding of American slave history will recognise the bit, the collar, the whips, the terrible items of imprisonment and torture. If Tarantino really wanted to make a movie about just vengeance, he could have done it without the background information that was seeded throughout. Bills of sale, forced marches, familial separations, the induction of black slaves into liking/loving their masters through incessant torture and grooming. Why go to all that effort to not make a movie about slavery, in some way?

Toni Morrison’s epigraph for Beloved reads:  ‘the sixty million and more’ who had no monument, no museum, not even a bench to mark their loss and pain in America when the book was published in 1987. While the number is still not certain, it still runs into the millions. America, who had nothing to do with the Holocaust, has numerous museums dedicated to those who died in the Holocaust, but almost for the slaves who died on their land, building their country. It has been left up to authors and directors to make some kind of memorial for them. Which brings me back round to my point: Tarantino might be a bit insufferable at times, but at no point did Django Unchained pretend to be anything other than an unforgiving look at an unforgivable time. After all, there were enough scenes of horror that could only have been enabled by slavery: tearing a black man apart with dogs, whipping a woman for dropping eggs, threatening to shoot a black man for riding a horse, branding women with hot pokers. The scene with the proto-KKK (the Regulators) was hilarious, pointing out the cowardice and childishness of that movement, which continues to be ridiculous today. The evangelical overseer with his whip and corpulence was a point of ridicule rather than awe.

DjangoUnchainedOfficialPosterPTI want to look at Django himself. Hollywood still has ridiculous hang-ups about avengers and ass-kicking, and who should get to star in such movies. There’s Die Hard numbers 1-10, and Crank, any movie with Liam Neeson in it, the Bourne series and about 70 James Bond films (ugh). There’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude van Damme, Chuck Norris (UGH), Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hardy, Jeremy Renner, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jnr, Jude Law, Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, Chris Evans. All men as white as the driven snow in movies by Tippex-white directors. Hollywood doesn’t mind when black directors choose black actors, but it has been a very long time since we’ve seen a black man take his own vengeance in a big, serious movie that wasn’t being sold as something like Bad Boys. Look at the number of the movies with white heroes with black sidekicks. (I won’t even talk about horror movies.) The movies starring black men as action heroes nearly all star Will Smith. And more Will Smith. Even Morgan Freeman is always in a supporting role as a magical negro. Now with Django, we have a black hero who is unrepentant in his role, who can be as brilliant and heroic and sexy as the next action hero. At no point is he ever made fun of, and when people try they end up coming off worse (“The D is silent.”). If you think this is an exaggeration, try come up with a serious, big-budget movie with a famous white director starring a black action hero that isn’t Will Smith or Samuel L Jackson. (Oh, wait, and Eddie Murphy, who went on to be The Nutty Professor.)

Right, moving on to production values (see, I know when to tone it down!), the soundtrack is outstanding, and very fairly priced on iTunes – particularly worth noting is Rick Ross’ 100 Black Coffins and Too Old to Die Young by Brother Dege. And there’s some extra dialogue that didn’t make it into the movie for your consideration. The settings were luscious, showcasing  the American South in all its natural glory and slavery-built opulence. Add to this incredible prop detail (notably the different slave collars that popped up in the background and on Django twice) makes this a stunning movie just to look at and listen to.

Two performances stand out in particular for me: Leonardo Di Caprio’s portray of Monsieur Calvin Candie, and Samuel L Jackson as Christopher. While Jamie Fox was outstanding and Christoph Waltz can do no wrong, Candie and Stephen took over the movie on

samuel-l-jackson-django-unchained-wallpaper

their terms, with commanding performances. Stephen interests me as a skewed portrayal of the male equivalent of the Mammy character, a character which appears so often without interrogation (like in The Help, that awful movie that pretends to be more important than it actually is). It is difficult to determine how much of it is happiness in slavery, but we are left with questions: can someone can beaten into loving someone? Is this Stockholm Syndrome? Is this what happens when one raises someone else’s children because they aren’t allowed to raise their own? Why does he seem to genuinely care about Candie? Does he hate all black people, or is it just in front of Candie? Or just Django? Again, why have such a complex character if this is just a shoot-em-up?

Django-Unchained-29And then there’s classy, greasy, sister-kissing Candie, who has the manners and heart of a Southern gentleman: he has harps playing while he signs over the life of another and uses phrenology to explain the supposedly inherent servitude of slaves with the skull of the black man who raised him, Ben. (It is deeply disturbing that they had the flesh melted off so that they could keep the skull, denying him dignity even in death.) Did he get Christopher to believe in phrenology? He has Lolita-dressed maids flitting about, a detail that plays in nicely to his understanding of the purpose of black women. But to see Leonardo play a very, very bad man was such a pleasure. He took what could have been a cringe-worthy, two-bit cartoon villain and filled him with charming, terrifying menace. That little hammer was given all the weight of a sledgehammer, all the threat of a cannon. An excellent change from his usual roles (not that he has ever turned in a poor performance.)

If you’re a Tarantino fan, you’ll enjoy this, even if it isn’t his best work. It is a bit overwrought at times, and Tarantino really, really needs to stop appearing in his own movies. I don’t know if its a Stan Lee kind of attempt to seem relevant but it smashes the fourth wall to pieces for those of us who knows what he looks like (and really wish we didn’t.) I wish Kerry Washington had had a bigger role – she is talented, and deserved more lines (though she does screaming well). She is a bit wasted here in this ultra-manly movie, but if we’re lucky she’ll appear in Kill Bill 3.

But for Django’s properly bad-ass reckoning, for Candie as the worst man you’ll see on screen this year, for Christopher and his classic “you’ll have to burn the sheets!” monologue,  this movie is still very much worth your time. And go see it on the big screen – you’ll be glad you did.

Film review of The Immortals (and all its tropes)

Now that I’ve had some time to reflect upon this movie, and align my thoughts through writing about it, I have to admit that the charm has worn off. Basically, the film is a mostly garbled account of Theseus finding the Epurian Bow, becoming a believer of the gods and eventually one of them after defeating the very evil Betty. Hyperion. Whatever. He had all the depth of a teaspoon. (I won’t even go near how this as far removed from actual Greek mythology as possible.)

The 300 influence is made very clear in the highly stylised settings, colour and fight choreograpy. Visually, the film is astounding, all credit being due where it is. The fabrics were lucious and the sets hugely detailed. I thought the gods were slightly pornographic in the Xerxes sense, what with gold being the pimp’s metal, but they were awesomely strong. For once, there was the sense of unbridled power that gods should have. Athena’s fighting style was especially sharp and fluid and the final fight between the gods and Titans was superbly handled. (It was also stomach-churning, like the rest of the movie.)

But its not enough to save a movie. Personally, I was annoyed by the whole “he was an unbeliever, but now look how awesome he is now that he believes in the gods, Chosen One, weeoo-weeoo”. Yes, I know, that stems from my own personal ideology rather than the movie itself, but it does grate a bit. It looks like easy evangelism. Now, I’ve said before that I love action movies but this one was just a bit much. Of course, no one expects action movies to be art, and I wasn’t expecting much. And yet, there are some fundamental problems with this movie that made it taste a little bitter. Let’s go through the tropes here.

There’s the typical woman stuffed in the fridge; the main character’s mother is slain before him, and all we know about her is that she was religious and was raped once by villagers. (I don’t think she was even given a name.) Later on, she becomes a Lost Lenore, in which her corpse proves useful. Its never really made clear what happened to disappeared Dad. This gives him the Orphan Power-up as well as turning him into a Convenient Orphan. He is also the dutiful son, as well as being the last of his kind AND the sole survivor. There’s the gross sidekick/follow-along guy, the Wannabe Casanova who says the kind of shit that suggests a punch is not enough, making him a straw misogynist. There’s the Noble Virgin (as you can imagine, that doesn’t last long because Nature abhors a virgin) who is also the champion and living MacGuffin. And, of course, the fake virgins just weren’t as pretty.

And its almost like the producers (who made 300) thought no one would notice if they recycled a few things. Gratuitous torture (amped up to 11 in this movie), virgins in lovely flowing dresses, action scenes shot like a scrolling platform game, gods dressed in gold, soldiers with ridiculously impractical cloaks and rousing speeches from underdogs, all done in the same copper tones. Isn’t it directors who should stamp their style like that?

Sometimes, a movie is worth it for the visuals alone. But the writing is so bad and the plot is so thin that it couldn’t be seen without Sherlock’s microscope, that its better just to watch the action scenes on Youtube. Even some of the fights were a bit stilted; I don’t know why the running looked like a sped-up shuffle.

And I so badly wanted this movie to be better. Greek mythology is rich and all that effort spent on visuals should have given me something less trite. But there’s always going to be the Ultra White Masculine Hero, the women basically stepping stones to his glory. Even Athena gets her ass handed to her. At least in 300 Queen Gorgo was given a beautiful speech and got to kick some ass by stabbing the disgusting rapist. Its something. It is sad that we have to reach so hard for a female protagonist these days. I think Salt is one of the few movies where the female protagonist fights on her own the entire way without a man stepping in (a la Kick Ass.) And at least Kill Bill offered up some decent female fighters without the ultra sexing up that usually attends such characters, like Sucker Punch did. I mean, are panty shots necessary in an action sequence?

So, I guess Immortals is great for those who enjoy gratuitous torture. Like Saw, really. But if Se7en was your pace, then this is just going prove that violence for its own sake will always be tacky.