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Django Unchained

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    lawless

    We saw Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained last night, and while spaghetti westerns were clearly a big influence, I wouldn’t exactly call it a spaghetti western. It’s more of a slave revenge narrative. For excerpts from an interview with Tarantino, see this.

    At first it doesn’t look that way because the slave Django (Jamie Foxx) is subordinate to bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Cristoph Waltz), who “rescues” him from a chain gang. While Waltz doesn’t like slavery, he’s still the teacher and Django the student. But toward the end of the movie, Django acts for himself.

    It’s violent, unsubtle (in contrast, Inglorious Basterds has moments of subtlety), and subversive. The subversion makes this a movie that doesn’t feel condescending coming from a white filmmaker — he takes the institution of slavery seriously and both makes fun of it and shows its brutality — although there’s been something of a flap about the constant usage of the word “nigger” in the movie by nearly everyone, black and white when it would have been period-appropriate. Not surprisingly, Spike Lee has used that as a reason to badmouth Tarantino and the movie. Of course, Tarantino is also using it to shock, and the one criticism that can be made is that by the end, the listener is inured to hearing it.

    In most cases, the acting isn’t the point; it’s broadbrush, although Samuel L. Jackson is terrific in a role as a house slave who is smarter than his master and even more committed to slavery as an institution than he is. Even more than with Inglorious Basterds, do not expect complete historical accuracy in anything — weapons, costuming, etc. It’s a costume drama, not a period piece. In fact, this movie is pretty clearly a dialogue between the time when it’s set (1858) and the current day. In that respect, it vaguely reminded me of Moulin Rouge, although Moulin Rouge is period-accurate. I wonder what Tarantino would do with a musical?

    At 2 hours 45 minutes, the movie is long, but it doesn’t feel long; unlike Inglorious Basterds, it doesn’t have scenes that I felt he loved so much that he couldn’t bear to shorten them. However, there are scenes that are fun and pay off but aren’t narratively necessary and could have been cut. It is a little less cohesive in style and narrative than Inglorious Basterds (my only yardstick, since it’s the only other Tarantino movie I’ve seen), but it’s good-looking and great fun. My biggest qualm about it? Not so much the violence itself — I’m more disturbed by the CGI sword fights and blood spurts in things in The Hobbit (of all things) and the TV series Spartacus — but the way it gets the viewer to buy in to the idea that violence and revenge are the answer to weighty problems like slavery. But perhaps from that standpoint the movie is like a video game: it’s cathartic.

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    lawless

    Forgot to add that Tarantino takes great joy in blowing himself up. (He plays a bit part.) I hope that’s not too much of a spoiler. And he reportedly screened spaghetti westerns and samurai flicks from his own collection for crew and cast during shooting. I can make a guess at what some of the spaghetti westerns were, but the mention of samurai films intrigues me. Kurosawa may not be a direct influence, but he’s definitely an indirect influence.

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    andsoitgoes

    I’m very excited to see Django. I’ve been a QT fan since my teens, Pulp Fiction is my favorite, with Kill Bill being a very close second. I think you need, at the very least, to watch Pulp Fiction and primarily Kill Bill. Anyone who likes the samurai world that Kurosawa so lovingly created would love the insanity that QT has created out of that universe.

    And while he references some of the classic Samurai films (Samurai III for example), they mostly sit in the hyper violent films of the 70’s.

    The comments about the scenes running a little long, you’re not alone. Sadly it seems to be due to his editor, Sally Menke, passing away and not being a part of the editing here. She was the primary editor of QT’s films from his first major film. Having her gone has been a hit to the tightness of his films. It just goes to show you just how important a GREAT editor is.

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    Vili Maunula

    Thanks for the review, lawless! I’m even more interested to see it now. Alas, at least two more weeks to go before it’s shown here!

    lawless: Kurosawa may not be a direct influence, but he’s definitely an indirect influence.

    I do hope so, as my main reason for wanting to see the film is the whole intertextual madness behind it! As I wrote earlier this year for a quick introduction of a local screening of Yojimbo:

    “One more film worth mentioning in connection with Yojimbo is Django, another spaghetti western (from 1966), which features a fairly similar storyline and over-the-top violence. It had a number of sequels and remakes, and influenced the 2007 Japanese film Sukiyaki Western Django by Takashi Miike (whose works often embrace the kind of violence portrayed in Yojimbo). Miike’s film featured Quentin Tarantino in a narrative role, and he himself is now later this year releasing Django Unchained, another permutation of the themes and styles originating in Yojimbo. This is an excellent example of a postmodern cross-cultural cycle of influence, as we move from the west (John Ford and Dashiel Hammett) to the east (Yojimbo) back to west (Django) then again east (Sukiyaki Western Django) and now once again to the west (Django Unchained). I am personally already looking forward to the next Asian permutation of the cycle!”

    andsoitgoes: Anyone who likes the samurai world that Kurosawa so lovingly created would love the insanity that QT has created out of that universe.

    They say an exception proves the rule, and I must be the exception here! 🙂 Although I highly respect Tarantino, I haven’t seen a film by him that I really liked. Not that I have watched a full film by him for over a decade. More of my Tarantino musings can be found here.

    Then again, I do prefer Kurosawa contemporary pieces over his samurai/period ones, so there is that as well!

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    lawless

    You’re welcome, Vili! And welcome, andsoitgoes. I definitely intend to watch Kill Bill, which my husband had on the DVR a little while ago but watched and deleted before I could tell him I was interested in it, Pulp Fiction, and possibly Jackie Brown. We just recorded Reservoir Dogs, but I haven’t been particularly taken with the half-hour or so of it I’ve seen so far.

    I’ve seen similar comments about Sally Menke. Maybe her absence has something to do with the somewhat inconsistent look and feel of Django Unchained, but she was the editor for Inglorious Basterds, and that had scenes that ran too long and a mismatch in mood and acting style between the buffoonery of some scenes and the emotional intensity of others.

    I’m not sure how much of a direct influence Django is on this movie. From its description, the original Django sounds like a lower budget version of Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, which itself was a version of Yojimbo. However, the star of Django has a cameo role in this film.

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    Vili Maunula

    I finally saw Django Unchained last night, and was generally entertained. I absolutely agree with you lawless that it doesn’t really feel like a 2h 45min film — it went by quite quickly, even if the story never really picked up.

    For me, the film had some great performances and several moments of brilliance, although I must say that it still wasn’t able to convert me into the Tarantino flock. My main disappointment with Django Unchained was its script, which just ultimately didn’t seem to go anywhere. Stuff happened, but either I missed something or it just lacked any real tension and never truly amounted to much. While, as lawless pointed out, there definitely was a commentary that could be applied to not just the 19th century but also the present day, it didn’t seem particularly strong or deep.

    For me, Tarantino’s style has always been something of a hit or miss affair, and this one wasn’t any different. It is always nice to see a director who tries, of course, even if he doesn’t always hit the mark.

    After hearing much about its violence, I was a little surprised how tame the film actually was. I felt that the violence was for the most part quite cartoony, rendering it ineffective, and mainly evoking some laughs from me.

    In general, I would still recommend the film. I was entertained, if not particularly challenged.

    My favourite scene was probably the one where Franco Nero (who played the original Django) has a short conversation with Jamie Fox’s Django, and asks how his name is spelled (with a “silent D”, of course!). I was left wondering if this was perhaps meant to echo the scene from Yojimbo where the fencing master played by Susumu Fujita (Kurosawa’s first leading man) waves goodbye to the Yojimbo (played, of course, by Kurosawa’s then leading man Toshiro Mifune) after having been sidelined by him.

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    Ugetsu

    I went to see it last night – I think it might be Tarantino’s most out and out entertaining film. I think the first hour or so is maybe one of the best things he’s ever done, although I think it lost a little momentum in the second half, especially the part with QT himself ‘acting’. I suppose you are allowed do that when you write and direct a film, although why he used that bizarre Australian accent I have no idea.

    My favourite scene was probably the one where Franco Nero (who played the original Django) has a short conversation with Jamie Fox’s Django, and asks how his name is spelled (with a “silent D”, of course!). I was left wondering if this was perhaps meant to echo the scene from Yojimbo where the fencing master played by Susumu Fujita (Kurosawa’s first leading man) waves goodbye to the Yojimbo (played, of course, by Kurosawa’s then leading man Toshiro Mifune) after having been sidelined by him.

    Good call! I wonder if any other film has had this type of scene?

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Good call! I wonder if any other film has had this type of scene?

    I actually think that there are quite a number of cameos in remakes, where an actor from the original film appears in the remake in some manner meaningful to the fact that it is a remake. Kurosawa’s scene in Yojimbo was, of course, even a little bit more meaningful than that.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    I actually think that there are quite a number of cameos in remakes, where an actor from the original film appears in the remake in some manner meaningful to the fact that it is a remake. Kurosawa’s scene in Yojimbo was, of course, even a little bit more meaningful than that.

    Yes, I could think of quite a few cameos, such as those in the recent Star Trek reboot, but most of those are like a little in-joke. I can’t think of any that have a specific ‘meaning’ in the way Kurosawa (and Tarantino) intended.

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    lawless

    Vili – No, the movie’s not especially deep, but it’s visceral, and in that respect I’d characterize it as a strong movie (not as in strongly made, but as in making its points forcefully), at least for American audiences.

    I have an affinity for visual motifs in movies that are graphically interesting on a frame-by-frame basis and are powerful as edited, like the repetition of red and black in V for Vendetta and Inglorious Basterds and the way scenes of a family watching events unfold on TV are intercut with the events themselves. There isn’t as much of that in this movie, but he still shows off his prowess with shot-making and editing in the sense of cutting for visual sense (as opposed to story sense) and juxtaposing shots.

    I agree, though, that the story is somewhat unfocused and meandering, especially once Waltz’s character dies. It largely more like a succession of vignettes than a completely cohesive narrative. Or maybe a theme and variation. The violence against those supporting slavery is deliberately cartoony so it doesn’t come across as the equivalent of the brutality they show the slaves, but the body count is still high.

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    Ugetsu

    One of my current favourite film reviewers, Tara Brady in the Irish Times, rather cheekily suggested that Django Unchained is a more sophisticated view of mid-20th Century US society than Lincoln. Her point (which she only made half seriously), is that the Samuel L. Jackson character turned what might have been a didactic ‘good guys against bad guys’ film (as Lincoln ultimately turned into), into something more psychologically sophisticated and historically real. I think she does have a point. I must admit that I’m gradually coming around to the idea that Tarantino is a far more sophisticated writer than many credit.

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    lawless

    Ugetsu – I assume you mean mid-19th century US? Yes, there’s a lot of fairly sophisticated sociological metaanalysis in the Tarantino films I’ve seen, even Reservoir Dogs, which I did not especially like or enjoy. So much of what happened or was said in it was so random, especially at the beginning!

    Even though the movie is a pastiche, Tarantino’s portrayal of the effects of slavery in Django, Unchained is spot-on and historically accurate, down to the “house [racial slur]” being an even more ardent defender of the institution that gives him his power and status than his white master is.

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    Ugetsu

    Lawless

    I assume you mean mid-19th century US?

    Yes, sorry about that!

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: One of my current favourite film reviewers, Tara Brady in the Irish Times, rather cheekily suggested that Django Unchained is a more sophisticated view of mid-20th Century US society than Lincoln.

    Well, to be honest, while I thought that Django Unchained wasn’t particularly well written, I personally think that Tarantino actually did a better job than the Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner. Or it might be because of Spielberg, whose films I tend to dislike for some reason, but the whole film, and especially its dialogue, felt very forced and artificial to me.

    I’m still not convinced about the sophistication of Tarantino, though!

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    I personally think that Tarantino actually did a better job than the Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner.

    A couple of days ago at coffee break the conversation went something like:

    ‘I went to Lincoln last might, wow, what a bore!’

    ‘I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought that!’

    ‘Me too!’

    In fact everyone I know who saw it seems to think its an over rated over-talky borefest. I did too, I really don’t know why it got such glowing reviews.

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    Vili Maunula

    Glad to hear that I’m not alone. 🙂

    But maybe the film is more powerful for someone who has grown up with Lincoln as a role model or a father of the nation or whatever it is that his place is in the US.

    Yet there could, perhaps, have been more imaginative ways of handling the subject. Take for instance the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation who pretty much trolled the whole country last year with their Kenyan production based on the life of Carl Gustav Mannerheim, titled The Marshal of Finland. Mannerheim is something of a father figure in Finland, and the fact that he was played by a black actor generated quite some heated discussion.

    Unfortunately, the film itself is reportedly not very good.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Yet there could, perhaps, have been more imaginative ways of handling the subject. Take for instance the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation who pretty much trolled the whole country last year with their Kenyan production based on the life of Carl Gustav Mannerheim, titled The Marshal of Finland. Mannerheim is something of a father figure in Finland, and the fact that he was played by a black actor generated quite some heated discussion.

    Sounds amazing! I think its the sign of a mature country that it can take criticism of its heroes.

    The huge problem with Lincoln (and so many American biopics of ‘great men’) is that you can almost smell the fear among the filmmakers at doing anything but hagiography. I sensed Spielberg wanted to examine the paradox of a peacemaker who refused to negotiate an end to war, but the whole issue was so slanted in Lincolns direction that the notion that he may have been wrong was never entertained. Lipservice was given to those who argued that a sudden end to slavery might result in all sorts of unintended consequences, and advocated gradualism. I think the film would have been much more interesting had the script not been so loaded in Lincolns favour.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I think its the sign of a mature country that it can take criticism of its heroes.

    Well that’s the thing really, the low-budget film got plenty of fairly negative press already before it was released, wasn’t ultimately very good, and in the end seemed to have been conceived as little more than a marketing trick for the channel’s documentary about the making of the film, and/or as some kind of a meta-joke about the public broadcaster’s current lack of funding for any proper projects.

    The idea was still interesting though, and they did manage to generate discussion about how some national myths and mythic figures are or should be portrayed. Which I think is good.

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