DJANGO UNCHAINED



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I’m not sure I know what to make of writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s new spaghetti western/slavery pastiche, Django (as in jango with a hard “j”—the “D” is most pronouncedly silent) Unchained.  However, I strongly suspect it may be genius.
Django… is in many ways a mirror image of Tarantino’s last film Inglourious Basterds, which was a giallo take on World War II films (there were times when I jokingly wondered whether Tarantino should consider suing himself for plagiarism).  Neither is about what they are about.  I mean, really, …Basterds is no more about Nazism and the Holocaust than Django… is about slavery.  What they are both about is movies, and how many movies can Tarantino quote and pay homage to, and how brilliant a director Tarantino is, and how he can out post-modern any post-modern filmmaker. 
At the same time, as in …Basterds, Tarantino takes his subject matter with a deathly seriousness.  He doesn’t turn a blind, aesthetic eye to either Nazism or slavery.  In fact, he, in many ways, proves the truth of that phrase, “more Catholic than the Catholics”.  His view of slavery is probably the most gruesome, revolting and honest in any movie I may have seen.  Though I do think his comments on the landmark TV miniseries Roots a bit too cavalier, in one way he has a point: his view of that institution is far more devastating and much harder to watch. 
And I think it’s this approach that may be causing some people discomfort.  In one way he trivializes his subject matter by making it subservient to his aesthetic approach: this is a post-modern spaghetti western before it is anything else.  At the same time, he treats his subject matter with much more seriousness than people who treat it seriously.  And it’s this aesthetic conflict that gives his movies their power: he makes highly entertaining movies about subjects that should not be entertaining.  And what is worse, from his distracters’ viewpoints, he gets away with it.  He not only gets away with it, he’s managed to make himself perhaps the most important and influential American director of his generation.  It’s one thing to do something your rivals dislike; it’s another thing to do it better than your rivals.  Failure is forgivable, success is not.
There are only two other filmmakers who I can think of who can also get away with what Tarantino does.  The first are the Cohen Brothers who have also embraced the post modern approach creating movies which are often more a comment on the genre they are seriously parodying (in the true sense of the word) rather than using a purely straight approach in making their films.  The second is Roberto Begnini who, I think I can safely say, is not post modern in any shape, form or matter.  But he takes subject matter like organized crime, serial killers, the Holocaust and the American invasion of Iraq and sets them against the backdrop of a romance, usually a rom com.
So first and foremost Django… is a spaghetti western.   It may be set against the U.S. south whereas a large number of the Italian ones are set against the Mexican revolution (with an anti-capitalist, pro-communist bent to them), but if it looks like a spaghetti western, sounds like a spaghetti western, and if it was in smellovision, would probably have the odor of a spaghetti western—well, draw your own conclusions.  The sets and costumes are not what one would find in the fake West of a John Ford/Howard Hawks, but the fake West of a Sergio Leone/Sergio Corbucci.  The music is often overloud and thunderous with a slight tinny sound to it here and there.  The opening titles are tackily period.  The cinematography betrays a certain cheap look to it at times (tres 1970’s).  The only thing missing is the very bad dubbing no Italian film would be complete without.
Django… stars Christoph Waltz as a dentist/bounty hunter; Leonardo Di Caprio as a slow on the uptake slave owner; and Jamie Foxx in the title role, a freed slave who can understandably see the pleasure in killing white people and getting paid for it.  Here again we sort of have …Basterds redux with Waltz playing the Brad Pitt role; Di Caprio playing the Waltz role; and Jamie Fox playing the Melanie Laurent role.  The cast is filled out with what my friend called “the usual suspects” and I described as Tarantino phoning his casting director and telling him to call up every 1960’s and ‘70’s icon from small and large screen who no longer have a career to speak of and hire them (Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Russ Tamblyn, Dennis  Christopher, Don Stroud, Michael Parks-not quite the approach Spielberg used for Lincoln).  There are also some nice turns by Samuel L. Jackson, James Remar, Jonah Hill and Walton, he with the Cheshire Cat smile, Goggins.   In addition, keep a look out for the in-joke Franco Nero appearance.
Waltz and Di Caprio give turns that are often called bravura.  Waltz savors every moment he has.  It’s as if he told Tarantino, I don’t care how many pretentious lines and words you give me to say, I’m going to say each one of them as if I was eating an oyster.  Di Caprio relishes his villain role as if to the plantation born.  And Foxx does well in a role that is far less showy.  The structure is a bit of catch as catch can.  There’s an improv feel to it and Tarantino certainly doesn’t push the events as if a meteor was plummeting to earth.  This is especially noticeable in an ending that has two climaxes a bit too close together.  This same ending also suffers a bit because certain characters are conspicuously missing.  But, as in …Basterds, it revels in an ahistoric revisionist revenge fantasy that is dynamite (pun intended).   And more important, it’s never boring.
When the movie is over, one wonders what film genre, style, or aesthetic is left for Tarantino to appropriate for his own purposes.  Where does he go from here?  I believe even he wonders what is left for him and whether he has finally reached the end of his aesthetic sensibility.  Personally, I’d love to see what he could do with a Bollywood musical.   But only time will tell if post modernism is, in the end, a matter of diminishing returns for him.
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WAR IS HECK: Reviews of Flame and Citron and Inglourious Basterds


Though it sounds like a drink created by Absolut, Flame and Citron is really one of those new fangled movies in which the writers (Lars “Adam’s Apples” Andersen and Ole “Prague” Christian Madsen) and director (Madsen redux) want to complicate the myth that World War II was the good war and that all the Germans were bad and all the non-Germans (or at least those who worked with the resistance) were good. The U.S. did this sort of thing in the 1960’s and 70s with Westerns like Little Big Man. The problem is that often all that movies like this do is just reverse who the good guys and bad guys are without bringing any new insight into the situation. And to be honest, it’s a little unclear that movies like this one, as well as Blackbook and A Woman in Berlin, are any more successful at the remything thing than the U.S. was. But it was bound to happen sooner or later, so one might as well just bend over and take it like a man. Flame and Citron, though, is perhaps the best of the bunch. The characters are the most interesting so far, especially Mads Mikkelsen of Casino Royale, Prague and After the Wedding fame, as a sweaty resistance fighter (spritz girl, spritz girl, we need the spritz girl) who’s equally resistant to being a good father and husband—he’s one of those guys whose marriage is falling apart and he’s the only one in the world who doesn’t understand why. Also on hand is Christian Berkel, reprising his nasty bald headed German role (I can say that because I’m also follicley challenged) from Blackbook—he’s quickly becoming the new Otto Preminger, the German we all love to hate. As exciting and interesting as Flame and Citron is, it does suffer a bit in the storytelling department. It’s a little unclear whether these two assassins were always being manipulated into killing the wrong people, or were only tricked into it once their leader realized that the Germans were going to lose the war and he needed to cover his business dealings with the enemy. It also seems a little odd that the Germans can’t find any members of this underground group since they did little to hide it and even had a daily meeting of drinks and gossip at a local restaurant. But the film is lovely to look at and the period detail is strong and fortunately it lacks the over the top, often camp, melodrama of Blackbook.

Inglourious Basterds (written and directed by some guy called Quentin Tarantino) also has one of those Germans we all love to hate, this time played by Christoph Waltz (he’s one of those actors no one in the U.S. had ever heard of before now, but has made such a mark for himself, he’s now signed up to be in movies like The Green Hornet—lucky him). Waltz plays Col. Hans Landa. One might say he’s sort of a Karl Rove/Dick Cheney type character, someone who runs everything behind the scenes; from the way the script is written, one might even believe it was Landa who came up with the final solution, not Eichmann or any of those ilk. Landa plays a type of person who has become very popular in movies lately—the mid-level bureaucrat who actually is the real mover and shaker of world events (like Rove and Cheney). One can also find this character played by Sharlto Copley in District 9 (this actor is being rewarded for his success by being cast in The A-Team—I tell you, like no good deed, no good performance goes unpunished) and Peter Capaldi in Torchwood: Children of Earth. Such people are given the responsibility to take care of a situation, yet are often chosen so that if things go wrong, they can be the perfect fall guy. Waltz’s character is the cleverest and most powerful of them all: so powerful he can rewrite history. He’s the mid-level bureaucrat’s mid-level bureaucrat, the one that everyone hopes to be, but only a few can achieve. All that aside, there is little I can add to what everyone else has already said. From what I can tell, how much one likes this film depends on how well one likes Melanie Laurent as the Jewish movie theater owner: since I found her bland and unexciting, I found too many of her scenes the same. But the film is audacious and in your face and I loved the homages to Ernst Lubitsch’s film To Be or Not To Be (also a controversial film about World War II, though made during World War II) in which Hitler attends a theatrical performance. To be petty, I also found a couple of the scenes to go on too long and the final bloodbath at the theater to be too short. But no matter what one thinks of it, it’s hard not to come away in admiration of Tarantino for his insistence on doing what he wants (while also having something to do—not everyone who does what they want does).