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.

How Ridiculous Marketing Strategies Can Sometimes Advertise Amazing Things

What is it with the whole “XX” thing that seems to be in fashion right now? Other than the pretty stellar band The xx, there’s been a rash of other artists using the whole XX marketing shtick as a way to, I guess, make their 20th anniversary of some product seem cool again. There’s Rage Against the Machine – XX, there’s The Breeders LSXX, and now there’s Tarantino XX.

Tarantino XX celebrates 20 years of Quentin Tarantino’s filmmaking, and while that’s certainly fine by me, I’m not sure I get the whole XX part. Is it supposed to indicate the number 20? I guess XX looks and sounds cooler than the number 20. I digress.

On December 4 there was Tarantino XX: Reservoir Dogs and on December 6, Pulp Fiction. These are equally stellar films in Tarantino’s oeuvre and getting to see them on the big screen again is a great case for spending $12.50. Not to mention, in pure QT fashion, they come prefaced with a couple new interviews with actors and others who worked on the films, and they also come prefaced with “hand-picked” trailers of movies that inspired him, from Tarantino’s own collection.

pulp-fiction

Watching Pulp Fiction again in a theater was a great experience. After seeing it at home alone or with a couple friends over at a time for the better part of 18 years, having the opportunity to see it on the big screen with a full audience in attendance who were actively engaged throughout, was exhilarating. It almost makes you want to go out and make films. Even though it’s easy (especially after multiple viewings over a long time) to find the problems in the production or the craft behind the film, it’s such an incredibly fresh and twisted narrative, with such incredibly rich and twisted (yet realistic) characters, that you can’t really look away.

Pulp Fiction prides itself on shock value and its ability to make you unregrettably look at bad people as cool or comical. Literally almost every movie that has ever tried to imitate or take inspiration from Pulp Fiction has failed in being effortless for the audience. They are always either too heavy handed, or too melodramatic, but there never seems to be just the right consistency to the mixture.

The audience in the screening I was at, found themselves inadvertently taking part in the movie. Unlike like watching a Rocky Horror screening where you prepare for what’s coming next so you can sing along, dance or throw rice at the screen, with Pulp Fiction, it creeps up on you – the guy behind me found himself muttering many of the famous lines of dialogue before they even appeared in the scene. This is beauty of Pulp Fiction: it’s fun, it’s grown-up, it’s down to earth, and it’s just plain cool. This is a movie that will go down in history like the Breathless of the ’60s or the Easy Rider of the ’70s – a game changer.

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.

Akira Kurosawa is Open for Business: A Look at the Rape of Cinema by Hollywood’s New Remake Code

Remakes bother me terribly, no matter how great they are. I’m all for putting a fresh coat of paint on something that’s the original (thank you, Criterion), but without originality in filmmaking where is this business going to ever find its way back to becoming the Golden Age of movies? Sadly, the last decade has almost felt like Hollywood doesn’t care or have the creative know-how to blossom into a Golden Age of movies again. Hollywood has gobs of talent to go around, but no one wants to do anything original or outside the box anymore. I understand the concern to make money on your product; it’s not the just the artistry of the whole thing, in today’s tough film-going market, and for the price it cost to make big budget now, you have to ensure you’re audience will give you a return on it.

So maybe that explains why a large percentage of everything that comes out now are remakes. Simple, outlined story to work from, cost-effective, and “kicked up a notch” by today’s standards, you may even get someone who saw the original to say, “yeah, I’m curious to see what they did to it.” Some terrible films maybe would benefit from a remake now, but really what’s the point even then? The problem is though, it’s never the poor films that get the remakes, it’s the ones that were great, and many times the ones that have collected a sort of following or classic status. Take for example the Kate Bosworth-Americanized version of Peckinpah’s 70s triumph, Straw Dogs. This is a film that should never have been touched by another director or reflected a different cast. The original is truly a slice of the times it was made in, and is close to perfect. Remaking this movie is just blatant exploitation and a simple way to cash-in with sex, violence and pretty girls.

Taking inspiration from other filmmakers and building off that inspiration, that’s the beauty of great filmmaking. No art is truly original, everything has to come from somewhere – some catalyst. Most filmmakers, I’d wager, are consumed by media around them; saturated with it. So it’s fair to say not everything they come up with in their work is going to be original. It’s just human nature.

Take George Lucas for example, most film buffs know that Star Wars was inspired by (if not based upon) Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. But Star Wars is not The Hidden Fortress and is not trying to be, and that’s the beauty of falling in love with both films. When Gus Van Sant remade (shot-for-shot no less) Psycho, did it feel like an amazing, revelatory film experience? No. Yet when he made Elephant (inspired by Alan Clarke’s amazing film of the same name), it was critically acclaimed and made its mark in contemporary film history. Maybe most contentiously, there’s Quentin Tarantino, a filmmaker people sometimes blaspheme for his heavy-handed homages and wink-wink’s, but Tarantino again creates films using only inspiration from others, and at the very most, is only derivative of another filmmaker’s work in something he does, akin to a DJ sampling a beat from an obscure 1960s blues record. The best art is art that both builds on something familiar and at the same time seems amazing all on it’s own.

Variety reports that a company called Splendent Media is now selling remake rights to nearly every Akira Kurosawa film in existence, which I’ve identified below (sans the four ones crossed out, which ironically all already have remakes in the works). So, now you know, if you see one of these titles coming soon at a theater near you – it’s not new. The part of this story that leaves me sitting on the fence is, the fact that Splendent is also offering up the rights to make films from the 19* screenplays which Kurosawa never produced. I’m interested to check these out, if they ever get made, but I fear I’ll never look at them the same as I would if they were made by the master of emotional manipulation himself.

EDITORIAL: Weinstein Company is apparently remaking The Seven Samurai (much to my dismay, as well), and as of last reports it looks to be directed by upstart-action-rookie Scott Mann. Fantastic.

As Director:

1943    Sanshiro Sugata
1944    The Most Beautiful
1945    Sanshiro Sugata Part II
1945    The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail
1946    No Regrets for Our Youth
1947    One Wonderful Sunday
1948    Drunken Angel
1949    The Quiet Duel
1949    Stray Dog
1950    Scandal
1950    Rashomon
1951    The Idiot
1952    Ikiru
1954    The Seven Samurai
1955    I Live in Fear
1957    Throne of Blood
1957    The Lower Depths
1958    The Hidden Fortress
1960    The Bad Sleep Well
1961    Yojimbo
1962    Sanjuro
1963    High and Low
1965    Red Beard
1970    Dodesukaden
1975    Dersu Uzala
1980    Kagemusha
1985    Ran
1990    Dreams
1991    Rhapsody in August
1993    Madadayo

As Writer Only:

1941    Uma (Horse) [uncredited as writer]
1942    Seishun no kiryu (Wind Currents of Youth)
1942    Tsubasa no gaika (The Triumphant Song of the Wings)
1944    Dohyosai (Wrestling-Ring Festival)
1945    Tenbare Ishin tasuke (Bravo! Tenbare Ishin)
1947    Yotsu no koi no monogatari (Four Love Stories) [one segment]
1947    Ginrei no hate (To the End of the Snow-Capped Mountains; aka Snow Trail)
1948    Shozo (The Portrait)
1949    Jigoku no kifujin (The Lady from Hell)
1949    Jyakoman to Tetsu (Jakoman and Tetsu)
1950    Akatsuki no dasso (Escape at Dawn)
1950    Jiruba no Tetsu (Tetsu of Jilba)
1950    Tateshi danpei (Fencing Master)
1951    Ai to nikushimi no kanata e (Beyond Love and Hate)
1951    Kedamono no yado (The Den of Beasts)
1952    Araki Sauemon – Ketto kagiya no tsuji (Sauemon Araki – Duel at Key-Maker’s Corner; aka Vendetta for a Samurai)
1952    Sengoku burai (Vagabonds in a Country at War; aka Sword for Hire)
1953    Fukeyo harukaze (Blow! Spring Wind; aka My Wonderful Yellow Car)
1955    Kieta chutai (Vanished Enlisted Man)
1955    Asunaro monogatari (Hiba Arborvitae Story; aka Tomorrow I’ll Be a Fire Tree)
1957    Nichiro senso shori no hishi – Tekichu odan sanbyaku ri (Three Hundred Miles Through Enemy Lines; aka Advance Patrol)
1959    Sengoku gunto-den (The Story of Robbers of the Civil Wars; aka Saga of the Vagabonds)
1985    Runaway Train
2000    Ame Agaru (After the Rain)
2000    Dora-Heita (Alley Cat)
2002    Umi wa miteita (The Sea is Watching)

Unproduced Screenplays*

Deruma-dera no doitsujin (A German at Daruma Temple)
Shizukanari (All is Quiet)
Yuki (Snow)
Mori no senichia (A Thousand and One Nights in the Forest)
Jajuma monogatari (The Story of a Bad Horse)
Dokkoi kono yari (The Lifted Spear)
San Paguita no hana (The San Pajuito Flower)
Utsukishiki koyomi (Beautiful Calendar)
Daisan hatoba (The Third Harbor)

*There are apparently 19 in total which Splendent Media now owns the rights to, but I have not been able to track them all down as of yet as Splendent has – conveniently – taken down their page as of late. Hence, this part of the list above is incomplete.

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!

The Panic In Needle Park


“God help Bobby and Helen. They’re in love in, Needle Park.”

Well, if this logline from the trailer doesn’t make you want to see this gritty 70s masterpiece from director Jerry Schatzberg, then don’t watch Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. You might find, much like I did, that some of the scenes between the “fucked up pooh-butt” Uma Thurman, Eric Stoltz, Rosanna Arquette and John Travolta are homages to Schatzberg’s sophomore film.

Bobby (Al Pacino) and Helen (Kitty Winn) play the epitome of the heroin addict spending nearly the entire 109 minutes of the film roaming around the streets of New York City, looking to buy a hit, looking to sell a hit, looking to fall in love and escape their fate. The film seems to centralize on the fact that they are not getting out of the life they’ve continued to lead without being pulled out. Whether it be by accident, fate, death or arrest, they continue to wait for something to happen to them instead of doing something for themselves.

Kitty Winn took home the award for Best Actress at Cannes for her role in this film, and she deserved it maybe, but it was really Pacino who dominated many of the scenes throughout. Wonderfully shot and directed, I was enthralled till the stark ending. An ending which I must admit sort of took me surprise. I think this film was ahead of its time for 1971, and while it may not serve to affect an audience in the maelstrom of glossy drug addiction flicks that plagued the disillusioned late 80s and 90s, it makes a huge impact if your not yet desensitized to such fare.

For more on Schatzberg, click HERE.

Grindhouse

Before I heard that the Weinstein’s wanted to separate the conjoined filmic twins that are Death Proof and Planet Terror, I had almost forgotten I’d even saw and thoroughly enjoyed the exploitation opus. But to split the children up and take them away from their parent? For shame. The whole idea behind Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s double feature was to bring back the advent of the grindhouse theater.

A grindhouse theater was generally the name for a badly run theater which played numerous low budget, B-movie or exploitation films in such copious amounts and so often, that they were said to “grind” out of the projectors. Most famously found in New York City or Los Angeles, these theaters are (according to both directors) where they grew up, other than the drive-in theaters.

So, little explanation is needed to realize that Tarantino and Rodriguez’s idea for this film, was one of completion, even going so far as to fill the space between both films with fake trailers for horrific goodies such as “Werewolf Women of S.S.,” “Don’t,” and a fake commercial for the chicken restaurant down the street from the theater. Without the experience of watching these films as a double feature, the films themselves would be too disposable in the haphazard cinema of today.

Death Proof in the grand scheme of things really cannot be removed from this film because, unless Tarantino re-edits it, the pace is too meandering to be a palpable audience pleaser. There’s a nice payoff at the end, but the wait for it would be too long for an audience which only sat down thirty minutes ago, however, within the roomy confines of a three hour feature, it offers a great come-down from the preceding kill-fest Planet Terror.


Planet Terror
is the real “grindhouse” throwback here though, with its Hollywood actor cameos, excessive gore, dopey end-of-the-world plot, unusual-but-hip love story, stylized comedy and great use of distressed film stock. Rodriguez’s Terror could almost be cut from the same cloth as many of the late seventies, early eighties horror flicks which became so coveted during that time. But Tarantino’s entry with Death Proof is an important dissertation on women in exploitation films around about that same time.


There were a large number of exploitation films that tried to be serious or realistic. Likely inspired by the cinema of the time, largely handheld, avant-garde, gritty and realistic, these exploitative films just went the extra mile. Some were steeped in story and dialogue, losing all hope for being truly crowd pleasers even with the sporadic jaunts of sex or violence. Tarantino’s film takes the best of those and rolls them into one with his jazzy blend of Reservoir Dogs roundtable dialog, shifty chapter-like narrative, and blunt, plausible, ultra-violence.

Bottom line: See these films together, or don’t see them at all.