Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino gets away with a lot in Hollywood. It appears he’s even celebrated for what he can get away with – the latest of which being the Oscar nod to Django Unchained in the Best Picture category. While his latest film is in no uncertain terms great, I’m hesitant to say it’s the Best Picture of the year… yet.

If you know Tarantino’s schtick, you’ve seen all of his other films; Django Unchained shouldn’t be surprising in any ways. QT creates each of his “new” films by arduously selecting only the best bits and pieces of a cinema long-gone and tying it all together in a story that is ripe with exposition, dialogue and graphic imagery. In this case, one bit he’s carefully selected from the annals of cinema history is the title and title character.

Django Unchained

The original Django (from 1966, directed by Sergio Corbucci) had nothing to do with the Antebellum South or slavery, but it did have a man tortured by the loss of his woman who was also on a vengeful quest to get her back. One of my first disappointments with Tarantino’s film was the surprising lack of startling imagery as compared to many of his previous works. In this film, his usual cinematographer Robert Richardson and he, seemed to be a little less inspired with the visuals. For example, the opening imagery in Sergio Corbucci’s Django is of the titular character dragging behind him a coffin on a rope. Unchained opens with Django’s character walking in the woods tied to a group of other slaves – granted – also a powerful image you’d think, but not in the way it’s presented here, dark and expected, and even more, it’s an image that’s been burned into an American’s psyche forever. In this respect, I almost find myself having to agree with Spike Lee in his protestation at Unchained’s release, to leave this topic alone – almost.

That issue aside, the first three-quarters of the film had me pretty much hooked and under his spell. I commend Tarantino on what he’s succeeding to say with the story, but then by the end, when he goes for the simplistic, tie-up-every-loose-end-of-the-story-with-a-ridiculous-gunfight (very much akin to the final scene in True Romance or the Crazy 88’s scene in Kill Bill), my interest and appreciation quickly began to wane.

The thing about Tarantino’s films are they confidently take themselves very seriously. It’s why arguments are easy to make with Unchained about its use of the word “nigger” and its over-the-top violence. As for the word “nigger,” I’ll admit, I was a little taken aback by its gratuitous use from the first scenes forward in Unchained, but at the same time, I know that’s because I’ve been conditioned to be repelled by that word – a seemingly more disrespectful and distasteful slur now-a-days than, say, calling someone a “bitch” or a  “fuck.” It seems to me that if we’re going to be repelled by the use of one derogatory slur, we should be repelled by them all equally. Historically though, I know the use of the word “nigger” was a real and extremely prevalent thing (and to some extent, unfortunately still is), and therefore, even though QT uses it to his cultish, slightly perverse pleasure here, it’s not without point or reason. For much of the violence, however, I cannot say the same.

Django Unchained

Violence in the cinema has never been an issue to me; cinema is all fantasy no matter how you look at it, but it’s the new breed of violence in films (most of it re-invigorated by the torture-porn musings of films like Hostel, Saw and basically any “horror movie” from Asia in the past decade-and-a-half) that turns me off of filmmaking in general. Much of Tarantino’s brand of gun violence is point blank with plenty of maiming. When it works for the story, I can accept it and move on, but when it’s just random and unsubstantiated, I find myself getting bored. The final shootouts in Django Unchained are very over-the-top. Although someone will likely argue that I shouldn’t keep comparing them, the final shootout in Corbucci’s Django was equally over-the-top, but so much more acceptable (maybe not believable) – and just plain cool. Franco Nero, the actor who plays that original Django, after having his hands crushed to the point where he can’t hardly hold a gun, much less shoot it, musters the will and strength to bite through the trigger guard on his pistol and then by pressing the exposed trigger up against a gravestone, and using his gimp hand to hit the hammer back, he cleans out a cemetery full of bad guys all by himself.

Jamie Foxx’s Django has a far less impressive final shootout, although also equally unbelievable. Hardly even grazed by a bullet in a barrage of fire at him, he dives under a wooden wardrobe that is toppled over and despite it then being riddled with bullets – which indeed appear to be piercing the wood – he is not even showing a scratch once he emerges. It’s only that he runs out of ammo that he is even stopped and gives himself up. While I’ve always appreciated that Tarantino remains firmly planted in plausible territory with his action sequences in all his films, Unchained’s final shootouts seem a little haphazard and too “easy.”

As usual, the characters in Unchained are full, colorful and engaging. The highlights here are most certainly Leonardo DiCaprio as a young owner of one of the largest plantations in the South, his house slave, played by a well made-up Samuel L. Jackson and, of course, the always coolly hilarious and ebullient, Christoph Waltz as, quite literally, the only white man in the Antebellum time period to “abhor slavery,” aptly named Dr. King (Schultz). Upon just hearing the name for the first time in the movie, it brought a smile to my face.

Despite some of its drawbacks, Tarantino’s film is a much needed respite from the overwrought, striving-to-be-historically-accurate period pieces that normally tackle subjects as large, sensitive and America-centric as the Civil War and slavery, in that it allows audiences to actually enjoy a movie, while still also getting the gist of what was egregiously wrong about that time period in America’s history, and poking fun at how far (and in some cases, how not-so-far) we’ve come since then. Too bad Spielberg never had the balls to do that.

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The Man with the Iron Fists

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Quentin Tarantino should be sincerely flattered right now. Rapper and musician RZA (who also worked on the score for Tarantino’s Kill Bill), has just directed his own schlocky debut feature, The Man with the Iron Fists. Spoiler alert: the titular Man is RZA himself. While certainly not impressive, RZA’s debut film is relatively entertaining; equal parts good and bad.

RZA plays a cool-headed blacksmith living in China where he is paid rather royally to basically outfit all the rivaling clans with weapons they can use to kill each other. The blacksmith also narrates the film in that uniquely lispy urban poetry-like voice he has going for him. It’s frankly one of my favorite things about the whole movie, despite his less-than-remarkable acting.

The story starts off a little sloppy in its narrative, and keeping track of all the rival gangs is almost laughable in itself (maybe intentionally?), but by the middle of the film when things take a turn for the worst for the blacksmith, the story (which up until then was disposable), becomes a little more gripping. Unfortunately, storyline, directing style, set design, characters, nor props in many cases can be seen as anything original and it seems that inspiration for RZA seems to have quite obviously come from Tarantino’s Kill Bill, or the more widely seen martial arts cult classics such as Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon.

The problem with a movie like this is, it’s trying hard to imitate and be inspired by these types of grindhouse movies where it’s more about sensationalism than plot and filmmaking. But what we now look at as cult classics or grindhouse genre films are just movies that were doing what they could with what they had back when they were made, probably not even trying to fall into the trash cinema classification which they have since then (retroactively marketably) fallen into. RZA, however, has the assistance of Tarantino (a master in his craft of revitalizing the cult and trash cinema genres to critical acclaim), way more resources and budget than many of the films he’s trying to channel from the ’70s and ’80s, and yet Iron Fists still looks cheaper and is weaker than most of those predecessors.

Tarantino gives the film a lift with his name attached, of course, and maybe that will help with marketing it to QT devotees, and even smartly help increase the awareness and anticipation for Tarantino’s latest revitalization, Django Unchained. There’s even a special trailer for the film running prior to Iron Fists, where QT himself intros it (also giving props to “his man” RZA’s film you’re about to see).  So see, it really all comes down to advertising, and if I was just a tad more cynical, I’d even go so far as to suggest RZA only got the damn greenlight for this film because of the beautiful marketing opportunities it would present.

George Kuchar (1942-2011)

Underground / experimental filmmaker George Kuchar (one half of the Kuchar Brothers) passed away September 6th. If you like the work of Guy Maddin, Stan Brakhage, Andy Warhol, Jonas Mekas, and Kenneth Anger, you no doubt feel the ripples of this great loss to avant-garde cinema as much as I do. For the uninitiated, but cine-curious, this doc is a great starting point…

There is an awesome obituary from the New York Times on him here.

Liam Bachler

Filmmaker Liam Bachler’s videos are gloriously soft focus 70s throwbacks with pretty women doing mischievous things… What’s not to love!? Check out the best below and as soon as I can find his short film Time Machine I’ll be sure to put up a review and/or post it here.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra “Little Blu House”



Computers Want Me Dead “Letters and Numbers”

Still from Time Machine

Kung Fu Red

Quickie homage to kung fu films by indie filmmaker Michael Scott. Well performed and with a cute payoff to boot. Give it a watch:

Kiss Napoleon Goodbye

Kiss Napoleon Goodbye despite all its inane depravity is indeed hard to look away from – it’s like a punk rock car wreck. A short art film by artist and filmmaker Babeth (aka Babeth Mondini vanLoo), there’s not much substance to be had. Henry Rollins, (self-admittedly) not the greatest actor, basically fucks and fights his way through the film – and he’s not overly great at either act. In fact, for a ripped, Oak tree trunk of a guy his most menacing moment is the reveal of his now infamous “Search and Destroy” back tattoo.

The story is filmed and edited with an obvious and direct influence on the post-punk, spoken word craze that was happening in the late 80s/early 90s. For a great sampling of some of the spoken word art that Rollins, lead actress (and writer) Lydia Lunch and the other male lead, Don Bajema, put together around that same time, check out this link over at the Brunski Beats blog and download an entire out-of-print spoken word compilation from Lunch’s own Widowspeak label, crica 1990.

If you are convinced you want to take a chance on the super low-budget, poorly acted and edited, but impressively set designed and photographed slice of cinema, see it for the gloriously warped and creepy music by Jim G. (aka “JG”) Thirlwell. Digging up the soundtrack to this film on vinyl (if it even exists) would be a real prize. You get the impression this film was supported and saw the light of day probably because Babeth (a Warhol alum) was chummy with the veritable who’s who of underground angsty artists of the 80s, she inserts randomly placed scenes which seem to do nothing more that linger on their characters in (sometimes) ridiculous poses or scenarios. The only reason this film retains any cult stature is because of who’s in it. Pass.

Machete is Real

Robert Rodriguez has seriously done a 180 on us, the man responsible for starting in low-budget filmmaking and making an awesome first film as a result (El Mariachi), only to eventually get big enough that he could develop his own studio and go on to make summer blockbusting hits (Spy Kids, Sin City), has turned his three-minute fake trailer from Grindhouse into a real-live chop ’em up film.

Yep, if you’ve seen Grindhouse, you know how awesome Planet Terror was (in comparison to the crescendo of a film Quentin Tarantino offered – Death Proof). Don’t get me wrong, Death Proof is awesome too, but not when played after Planet Terror. Those two films should not be played back-to-back. But I digress, if you’ve seen Grindhouse, you no doubt recall the story of Machete and who the titular character is; it was quite memorable for its purpose. Well, Danny Trejo is back for the feature and so are some other familiar faces.*

Hopefully though, before this hits theaters on Labor Day, Rodriguez will spend a little more money on it than it looks like he has, and at least get the post department (wait, isn’t that him?) to apply some more “dust and scratches” filter to this thing, cause right now it’s not looking so grindhousey, it’s just looking poorly made.

*Not to mention: Michelle Rodriguez, Jessica Alba, Robert De Niro, Lindsay Lohan, Steven Segal, Don Johnson, Rose McGowan, Tom Savini and Cheech Marin!