Django Unchained

The D is silent, hillbilly

Foxx and WaltzDjango Unchained is what I’d consider Quentin Tarantino’s 10th movie (do the math yourself).  This is the “southern” Quentin talked about in 2007, and it’s worlds better, in many ways, than 2009’s Inglourious Basterds – to date, the only Tarantino film I haven’t watched more than once.  My main issue, maybe, besides the “How many times can we kill Hitler on film?” conundrum, was the fact that Melanie Laurent’s and Diane Kruger’s characters were pointlessly killed off after providing a strong female presence, and their Surprise Demises left a sour taste in my mouth at the end of the film.  Quentin has a history of creating genuinely strong and sympathetic female characters – take Kill Bill’s Bride or Jackie Brown‘s Jackie Brown – Bridget and especially Shoshanna were no exception, but their treatment in their film’s third act turned me off.  Here, in Django Unchained, the women don’t do much of anything – Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), the only female member of the core cast, is basically a walking MacGuffin who waits around to be rescued.  At least she isn’t strangled by Christoph Waltz, though.

The story begins in the 1850s during the height of the American Old West.  Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a former dentist and German bounty hunter, rescues Django (Jamie Foxx) from a couple of slavers on the road.  Schultz, a non-racist non-bigot in a world where the “N word” is essentially used as the technical term for African-American people, hopes that Django will help him identify a group of outlaws called the Brittle Brothers, as Django once worked on a plantation overseen by them.  In return, Schultz will give Django his freedom and 225 dollars.  Django turns out to be a natural shot with all types of guns, and after slaughtering the Brittles on a plantation owned by the foppish Big Daddy Bennett (Don Johnson, being a good sport as usual), Django enters into an arrangement with Schultz: the two will become bounty hunting partners through the winter, and once the snow melts, they will team up to rescue Django’s wife, Broomhilda, from Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio), an unfeeling Francophile who forces slaves into death matches and prostitution on his plantation (hilariously known as Candieland).

The film’s first act follows Schultz and Django as they travel from plantation to plantation, gathering bounties and battling many of the film’s amazing cast of characters, most of whom carry names only Quentin Tarantino could/would come up with (there are so many good ones in Django, in fact, that a character named Crazy Craig Koonz isn’t even shown).  In this first act, Waltz is the dominant actor, and it’s hard not to see Schultz as the main protagonist.  His charisma and eloquence are a force all their own.  Django essentially plays Schultz’s sidekick until the second act, when finally, it is he who must come up with the plans, who must allow horrible things to happen in order to reach his goal, who must stomach the unstomachable.  Up until this point, the film doesn’t feature most of what aficionados might consider “vintage Tarantino”: the long shots, infinite conversations, and invented language give way to more traditional cinematics, but consider the fact that Quentin is working in an established genre this time: the Western.  Once Candie appears, however, the film’s central scene is constructed: a dinner in Candie’s manor, during which Schultz and Django will attempt to trick Candie into selling Broomhilda to them after pretending to be interested in Candie’s “Mandingo fighting” enterprise.  Also at dinner are Leonide Moguy (Dennis Christopher), Candie’s sycophantic lawyer, Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly (Laura Cayouette), Candie’s widowed sister, Butch Pooch (James Remar), Candie’s head enforcer, and most importantly, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson), Candie’s head house slave, a race-traitor who immediately suspects Django and Schultz of foul play and eventually reveals their deception to Candie.  The scene harbors as much suspense and potential combustion as anything Quentin has filmed.  Jamie Foxx’s performance resembles the glass lid on a pot of water about to boil.  We know that if he ever goes through with lifting his gun out of its holster, this whole thing is over.

The third act is not what most will expect, mostly because a third act isn’t totally necessary.  It does not contain Dicaprio or Waltz, and introduces new characters in the form of Australian slave drivers played by Michael Parks and Quentin Tarantino (yep).  Additionally, Billy Crash (Walton Goggins), Candie’s right-hand man, arrives front and center after being a background character for most of the story, which seems a bit “off” only because the role was originally meant for Kevin Costner, who dropped out due to scheduling conflicts (i.e. the absence of Dicaprio wouldn’t have formed quite so large an empty hole if someone equally/more famous took the lead villain role, though Goggins is great).  This brings us, eventually, to a second “final shootout” at Candieland, which leaves only two characters standing and ends the film with the flair we expect from something so charmingly self-conscious.

As usual, Quentin uses his characters well, and knows the genres in which he works better than anyone.  The film isn’t as indulgent as it could be, though the uber-violence (exaggerated blood and extended gunfights) will turn some away.  The pairing of Waltz and Foxx is inspired, fun, and tense, and the against-type casting of Dicaprio and Jackson as villainous characters brings forth performances so strong that you’ll never once consciously think you’re watching Leo and Sam.  Don Johnson’s character gets an extended scene in which he forms a posse (which includes Jonah Hill) to hunt down Django and Schultz, and he never quite gets his plan out because everyone complains about the makeshift masks they must wear (“I can’t see fuckin’ shit in this,” says Johnson in a gut-busting southern accent).  The scene humorously foresees the creation of the Ku Klux Klan.  Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, Tom Savini, and Zoë Bell pop up here and there, and there’s even an appearance by Franco Nero, who played the title character of 1966’s Django, a violent and ill-tempered western with over 100 unofficial sequels.

Finally, there is the topic of slavery.  Quentin claimed awhile back that he wanted to do “big issue” films in the form of spaghetti westerns and other genre films, and he wanted to do them because everyone else was afraid to.  As much as this may seem like he’s “spoofing” slavery or other serious tragedies from our country’s history, this isn’t the comical revisionist Hitler-death we saw in 2009.  Ethically, this film takes its subject matter very seriously, and the scenes of slave abuse are never exploitative nor meant for ironic humor.  Quentin handles the material responsibly, and certainly does not glorify or rewrite the struggles of laborers any more than last year’s The Help did.  It’s gutsy, transgressive, and not only about slavery, but about the way slavery is portrayed in the movies.

Django Unchained (2012); written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Kerry Washington, and Leonardo Dicaprio.

The Fastest Gun Alive

The day finally came

In the second scene of The Fastest Gun Alive, a child with a wooden gun mock-threatens Glenn Ford as the latter rides into town.  My immediate thought: where did this kid come from?  There aren’t any women around here!

I know, I know.  It was 1956.  Cinema was approaching an age akin to what the Golden Age was to piracy, and as such, conventions were abound. The Western film was no exception.  This is your conventional Western: there’s a [nameless man or retired gunslinger], and he’s [visiting a little town for the first time or attempting to live peacefully], when he is [hired to pursue a villain or called back to arms by an outlaw threatening the town], which is eventually okay with his [wife/girlfriend/prostitute friend] because [she “always knew this day would come” or she’s out of the picture].  Usually there’s a little kid, probably obsessed with guns (whether obsessively for or obsessively against them), who roots for/helps the hero.  The only true exceptions to these rules might be the John Wayne Westerns (and not all of them), which were often based on books with slightly varied plot structures (usually involving a motley batch of protagonists) or simply dictated by Wayne, whom, with his barely-rivaled fame and pull, could pretty much do what he wanted in his films – examples include always using the same horse; always carrying that same silly hand-cannon (even in films like True Grit, where the character was written to have a different gun); and telling a director he refused to do the final shootout as it was written because he’d “never shot a man in the back.”

Glenn Ford doesn’t seem quite as detached from reality as Wayne was (in addition to being a control freak, Wayne was a resolute conservative and a monster of a human being, but that’s another story).  Ford also makes you want to go to Hollywood and have lunch with him whenever you see him on screen, which is also another story.  Regardless, Ford appears in this film as George Temple, a retired gunslinger who now lives with his wife, Dora (Jeanne Crain) and runs a little shop.  He has given up alcohol, which means he will undoubtedly lose his cool and get drunk at some point.  Outlaw Vinnie Harold (Broderick Crawford), obsessed with becoming the fastest draw in the West, shoots down the man who apparently holds that designation, and stories begin to travel.  George gets tired of listening to the local yokels endlessly retell the story of Vinnie Harold, and he finally loses his cool and gets drunk (told you), revealing himself as the true fastest gun in the West when he bull’s-eyes two airborne silver dollars.  Harold’s bank-robbing rampage brings him to George’s town (the outlaws need fresh horses to outrun the posse trailing them), and the little kid blurts out that the town houses a man faster than Harold himself, and Harold threatens to burn the town to the ground (yes, with three people) if the townsfolk don’t send George out to face him.

That’s pretty much the size of it.  It’s a classic Western with nothing all-too-remarkable about it, yet there’s something so…I don’t know…fifties Hollywood about it.  It’s an engaging anti-epic with good acting, interesting(ish) characters and a narrative that focuses on personal relationships and consequences rather than constant gunfighting – in fact, only a few shots are fired in the entirety of the film.  This isn’t to say that The Fastest Gun Alive subverts or even attempts to subvert the genre, but director Russell Rouse allows the folk of Cross Creek to occupy the main voices of the film.  By the end, we know who they all are, and a few even make attempts at heroism.  Jeanne Crain is the tender and understanding wife who (wait for it) “always knew this day would come,” but she still doesn’t want George to face Harold, even when he’s called out.  She isn’t given any more to do than the traditional Western female stock character, but at least she doesn’t let George boss her around, nor does she allow him to get away with not opening up to her.  Crain plays Dora as a strong, loving wife whose determination to protect her husband (and their joint business) influences the fate of an entire town – a bit of a tall order considering the script she was handed.  Bravo, Jeanne.

What makes Ford’s character different from the conventional retired gunslinger is that he really is just a normal guy, frightened to death of facing down a dangerous outlaw.  A good portion of the film is spent on George’s psychological conflict, in which he mostly stonewalls but eventually explains to the town, his wife (who already knows) and the audience why he’s hesitant to step out and face Harold.  In a very good pre-climax sequence, George walks into church during the Sunday service (the entire population of the town, with the inexplicable exception of the little kid, is in attendance), and places his gun belt, holster and pistol on the Father’s podium, swearing he will never pick it up again.  The townsfolk, one by one, swear before God that they will never breathe a word about George’s performance with the silver dollars the day before, for the sake of the town’s safety: if everyone hears about George’s skill, they’ll want to come face, him, blah blah blah, we already know Harold is outside.  John Dehner appears as one of Harold’s lackeys, who intermittently interrupts the sermon to warn the townsfolk they only have five minutes to send George out.  George, who has been wearing a pure white button-down shirt throughout the film, now wears a dark jacket over it, but sheds the jacket to reveal the white shirt again when he finally comes clean with his friends and decides to go out to meet Harold.  Does the white shirt indicate more than the old “white = good guy” in Westerns?  Has George become a warrior of God?  He’s never killed a man, he’s got the entire town on his back, and he decides to sacrifice himself for the good of everyone else.  After all, if Harold kills him, the town will be spared.

Rouse then cheats us by not allowing us to see what happens in the shootout itself.  All Harold wants to know is George’s name.  Once he gives it, there’s a draw, we hear gunshots, and we see Dora’s tear-drenched face.  Cut to a funeral procession, during which the posse following Harold finally rolls through town and asks why, if George was the fastest gun alive, is he now dead.  “He wanted it that way,” Harvey (Allyn Joslyn) says.  When the posse leaves, we see two graves marked, one for George and one for Harold.  George, however, is alive and well, once again ready to live his peaceful life with Dora.  The only things buried in his coffin are rocks and his gun.  Dora takes his arm and everyone walks off with satisfied smiles plastered across their black n’ white faces.  The end.

It just seems too easy, doesn’t it?  He never killed a guy before, now he has.  He’s not traumatized.  Dora was in tears before at the mere thought of George drawing against another man, now she’s perfectly happy with him.  Is this fantasy?  Were both men actually killed?  The film gives no indication that this isn’t reality; it’s just an old-fashioned case of the conventional film “resolution is resolution” epidemic – the idea that the slightest coming-to-terms is an all-encompassing cure for a film’s multiple conflicts simply because 90 minutes is up – a downside, perhaps, of my “fifties Hollywood” nostalgia, but this particular issue hasn’t disappeared completely in today’s cinema either.

The warrior of god cheats death, avoids martyrdom, and gets to keep not only his white shirt, but his amazing wife and the favor of an entire town.  Not a bad deal, though it raises question for us, not least of which is “Did he quit drinking again?”

The most noteworthy scene in the film is one in which Russ Tamblyn, one of the only (if not the only) still-living people in this film, performs an extraordinary dance sequence involving shovels, in nearly all one shot and with no wirework.  If we ever see anything like this in a film again, let it be known that I was the first to say “I always knew this day would come.”

P.S. “Gun,” as used in the film’s title, is short for “Gunfighter.”  Making a statement such as “I didn’t know guns were alive!” makes you sound like a moron.

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956); written by Frank D. Gilroy and Russell Rouse; directed by Russell Rouse; starring Glenn Ford, Jeanne Crain and Broderick Crawford.

Rango

We form a possum! ….

It’s rare that I find myself at a loss about where to start these things, but I suppose what bears underscoring at the outset of a Rango review is that it’s not so much a “kids’ movie” as it is an interesting animated film for people who love movies.

The most immediately striking aspect of Rango is that it’s in 2D.  It respects the conventions of not only hand-drawn animated films, but also the long-standing rules of classic Westerns.  Yes, you heard correctly: you don’t have to pay an extra five bucks for silly glasses, dim colors, and a headache.

The story involves a nameless chameleon (Johnny Depp) who takes on the moniker of “Rango” after being dumped from the back of his owner’s truck in the middle of the Nevada freeway.  We’ve already got our first Western box checked: he’s a man with no name.  Make that two: there’s a Greek chorus of avian mariachis.  He meets an armadillo (Alfred Molina), who acts as a sort of guiding hand in the early going.  Rango ends up in the town of Dirt, run by Mayor Tortoise John (Ned Beatty), quickly coming up with tall tales about himself, which the local yokels eat up.  He also meets Beans (Isla Fisher), apparently the only woman in town.  Also appearing are the legendary Bill Nighy as Rattlesnake Jake, who takes on the Jack Wilson role – the ruthless, black-hatted gun for hire – and Ray Winstone as Bad Bill, a cockney-talking gila monster.  Once Rango becomes the de facto sheriff of Dirt, he finds himself in a crisis: how to bring back the town’s lost water supply, a task made even worse due to his phony stories about himself, which have caused the residents to believe in him.

The writing in this movie is leaps above most animated features, including last year’s diamonds-in-the-rough, Despicable Me and Toy Story 3, if not only for the fact that it takes risks.  The opening involves Rango doing an exorbitant performance piece with a toy fish, a dead cricket, and the naked torso of a Barbie doll.  Throughout the rest of the film, the dialogue is clever, packed with relevant references to culture that will soar over children’s heads like the hawk that chases Rango in the post-opening sequence.  Screenwriter John Logan outdoes himself in this respect – the writing is much better than it has to be in a movie of this nature.  His knowledge (and more so his love of) classic Westerns is evident, but the screenplay always keeps in mind that the characters are talking animals (with guns and scaled-down bullets, yes, but talking animals nonetheless).  As I said, it’s a good animated film, period, not just a children’s movie.  In fact, children will likely dive under their seats every time Rattlesnake Jake slithers onscreen.

One of the film’s best sequences (and there are a lot of great ones) comes when Rango meets the fabled “Spirit of the West,” played by Timothy Olyphant.  I won’t spoil who the Spirit is, but I’ll say that it will confound anyone who hasn’t seen Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy,” and will cause those who love Leone’s films (as well as other classics such as Shane, Once Upon the Time in the West, and True Grit) to stifle the urge to stand and cheer.  I’ll also say that Olyphant, who barely alters his voice for this role, sounds just like the guy he’s portraying.  It’s absolutely stunning.

The film, of course, requires suspension of disbelief.  Why are the animals living next to modern Las Vegas living in a makeshift Old West?  How did they get those tiny guns and tiny bullets?  Stuff like that.  The thing that still stands out here, though, more than talking animals fatally shooting and crushing one another, is the one-woman-cast that pervades so many films now.  Even movies aimed at the young ones prevent female heroes from taking center stage.  Fisher’s character in this acts only as the damsel, and Breslin’s acts as the little kid who appears in so many Westerns to cheer the hero on.

Misogyny aside, we have a good film with bright colors and creative use of animated space.  It has good writing, conscious attention to film conventions (particularly the films that influence it), and it abandons (nay, ignores) the 3D nonsense sure to ruin countless upcoming films before the American movie-going public realizes 3D doesn’t work with our brains.  Above all, Gore Verbinski finally made a good movie with Johnny Depp.  There hasn’t been one of those in awhile.

Rango (2011); written by John Logan; directed by Gore Verbinski; starring Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy and Alfred Molina.

True Grit (2010)

Fill your hand!

When writing an allegedly impartial piece, one should refrain from making such claims as “The Brothers Coen are the most prolific filmmakers working today.”  Omitting any cliche’ I could dig up to justify this sort of claim, I’ll avoid stating it altogether and simply take a look at the recent record.  Joel and Ethan Coen have released a film every year since winning Best Picture for 2007’s No Country For Old Men, and even prior to the McCarthy adaptation, they were turning out films of great variety and substance near-annually.  From dark, violent, atmospheric breath-stealers (Fargo; Blood Simple; Miller’s Crossing) to screwball comedies (Burn After Reading; The Hudsucker Proxy) to thoughtful, dialogue-laden adventures with colorful characters (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to cult favorites with no defining label (The Big Lebowski), the Coens have tried their four respective hands in plenty of territory.

With True Grit, the brothers continue to surprise.  This film is their first true genre exercise: an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 Western novel.  While the film is a second adaptation of the book and not a remake of the 1969 film with John Wayne, it does share plenty of similarities, right down to some scenes being carbon copies dialogue-wise.  What sets this film apart, among other things, is the cinematography.   Not only do we have a vintage Coen Brothers film that manages to be dark, serious and (I guess I have to use the word) gritty, but also a story that remembers its origins: where James Mangold’s 3:10 To Yuma and Ed Harris’ Appaloosa began to pave the way and both almost succeeded, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit has restored the true spirit of the Western to modern American cinema.

For those who have been asleep since the late sixties, the story follows Mattie Ross (formerly played by the spunky Kim Darby, now played by Hailee Steinfeld, a young newcomer) a fourteen year-old girl looking for revenge against a drifter who killed her father.  She seeks the help of a rough, homely old U.S. Marshal, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in the role John Wayne played in the original), who is seldom caught sober and who apparently doesn’t take many prisoners.  Joining them out of personal interest is a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (a moustached Matt Damon in the role formerly occupied by Glenn Campbell).  The adventure centers largely around these characters, and the antagonists are only talked about, never seen, until the final fourth of the movie.  However short a time they are given on screen, they are played to full effectiveness by Josh Brolin (as Tom Chaney, the object of the quest) and Barry Pepper ( as Lucky Ned, the leader of a dangerous gang with whom Chaney has fallen in).

The cast works together as a dysfunctional machine.  This film is Steinfeld’s first shot at a leading role, yet we never get the sense that she is being buffered by the grizzled Bridges and the experienced Damon – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.  As Mattie is the main protagonist, she narrates the story, controls the main action, and commands every scene in which she appears.  She is a strong presence and an incredible gift to young actresses (it’s okay to have an unknown thirteen year-old girl as the lead character in a movie that has Bridges, Damon and Brolin!).  Bridges is wonderful as Cogburn, making the role his own and never looking back at John Wayne, yet paying as great a homage to the rugged Duke as anyone ever has.  The Coens wisely keep the iconic buildup to the four-on-one gunfight, and when Cogburn shouts his famous lines at Lucky Ned, it’s difficult to not only suppress a cheer, but to avoid seeing John Wayne on that horse for just a moment.  In addition to being a weathered old anti-hero, however, Bridges’ Cogburn has his lovable moments, particularly when traveling alone with Mattie and relating the events of his life.  On the other end, Damon is great as La Boeuf, the character whose alignment is constantly in question (the “problem character,” if you will), and you’ll never once think “that’s Matt Damon” when watching him.  Brolin plays a pure villain with whom even the toughest gang in the West wants nothing to do, and Pepper plays Ned as a woolly-chapped gang boss who, while completely sure of himself, knows he’s an outlaw and a ruffian, and avoids being a blowhard Western baddie.  Domhnall Gleeson also appears as the ill-fated Moon, in a role once played by a young, pony-tailed Dennis Hopper.  The “Your partner’s killed ya” exchange is preserved and wonderful.

The Coens make good decisions with the supporting cast as well.  The characters we liked from the novel and the old movie return and are given a bit more to do, such as Harold Parmalee (Bruce Green), the “simple-minded” member of Ned’s gang who communicates only by making farm-animal noises.  They eliminate the character of Mexican Bob altogether, and they severely reduce the appearance of Mr. Lee (Peter Leung), the Chinese grocer with whom Cogburn lives.

I am concerned about a certain scene, however.  During the hanging at Fort Smith, the prisoners are given last words before taking the plunge.  But as the Native American prisoner begins to speak, a bag is shoved over his head immediately.  This drew laughter from the audience.  It isn’t supposed to.  This is a person being treated as a second-class citizen on his own land.  The land belonging to the “injuns” is called “unsettled territory.”  It isn’t a joke.  It’s a small gripe, but I haven’t decided whether it’s a gripe against the filmmakers or the rabble.

The film has beautiful locations and ambient music by Carter Burwell that knows when to take center stage and when to back up.  There are a few editing errors here and there, but having worked on a film myself recently, I know they happen and I know why they happen, especially when deadlines come into play.

The Coens continue to push their own limits with film.  Did True Grit need to be remade?  No.  The original is an adventure that has held up to this day.  However, the Coens’ version stands apart as its own film, and has the most likable trio of protagonists in recent memory.  By the end of the film, I wished I could have spent more time with the young Mattie and old Cogburn before the epilogue.  But hey, maybe in fifty years, someone will remake Rio Bravo…again.

True Grit (2010); written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen; starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.