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.

THE AVENGERS


The Avengers is a very entertaining movie and gets the adrenaline going, which isn’t quite the same thing as saying it’s totally successful or rises that far above what it is.  Written by Joss Whedon and Zak Penn and directed by Whedon, it’s an oddly schizoid movie.  On one side are wonderfully witty lines with often hysterically snarky dialog while on the other side are serious, earnest and highly dramatic tete a tetes that fall flat on their face.  On one side are the vibrant actors and Oscar nominees (Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Samuel L. Jackson and Jeremy Renner) and on the other are film personalities with pretty faces (Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Chris Evans)–and no matter how equal the writers may try to make the various superheroes when it comes to their powers, Evans will never be able to Eve Harrington Downey when it comes to Stanislavksy.  (For those keeping score, Scarlett Johansson falls somewhere in the middle, which in many ways reflects her role in the movie, a character trying to bridge the gap between all the antagonistic good guys.)  And finally on one side you have large scale action sequences filled with massive set pieces of uninhibited, glorious destruction (Manhattan now seems to be the new Tokyo, destined to be destroyed on a regular basis due to the specter of 9/11 in the way Japan is haunted by the atomic bomb) and on the other side is very little death (see Battle for LA in contrast—for The Avengers the studio apparently wanted to challenge the audience, but in a very non-challenging way).  As was noted, Whedon and Penn have a way with a snarky line (the best written scene is when all the heroes are in one room and due to the influence of Loki, get under each other’s skins saying all the mean things everyone in the audience is thinking).  But when it comes to heavy scenes, the authors can do little but immediately make fun of them once they’re over (Whedon had the same issue in Cabin in the Woods—the unbearable scenes of overage teenagers in distress were only made palatable, if that, by the more comic scenes of Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford).  These more serious sequences might have had a better chance if all the actors were of equal caliber (there’s actually a very nice one between Ruffalo and Downey that suggests this); but this was ultimately a battle, unlike the one against Loki, the superheroes simply could not win (for an example, take the scene between Thor and Loki that Iron Man aptly described as Shakespeare in the Park).  The whole thing culminates with a knock down, drag out for the Big Apple when some aliens resembling the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz make their way through some sort of space time continuum and unleash their blitzkrieg upon an unsuspecting metropolis.  The battle itself is not exactly boring, but it also isn’t that imaginative and all in all, pretty derivative (again, it’s the snarky wit and two hysterically funny bits by the Hulk that really made this work as well as it does).  The special effects are, of course, first rate, though none may quite equal the SFX of Gwyneth Paltrow in Daisy Dukes (though one does shudder at the idea of this fashion style making a comeback since very few people can get away with short shorts—I know, I’ve tried).  The ending is resolved through a deux ex machina provided by Stellan Skarsgard (let’s face it, the plot is a bit clunky—c’mon, be honest with yourselves and give the devil his due) as well as an inconsistency with how much control Bruce Banner has over his green (ho, ho, ho) alter ego (apparently, it corresponds to the needs of the script at any given time).  But in the end, The Avengers is a perfectly fine time waster.  It’s no Iron Man or The Dark Knight, but, hey, it could have been worse.  It’s also no Spiderman III, Superman or Fantastic Four.