Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Black Panther

I have not always been a fan of Quentin Tarantino. These days, he's known as one of the most influential directors in Hollywood, but for the longest time I didn't quite get it. Sure, Pulp Fiction was pretty good, the nonlinear storytelling was certainly unique and interesting, but to this day I can't stand Reservoir Dogs; I just don't understand what it was is that people saw in that mess. It wasn't until I finally caught Kill Bill on DVD that I gained any interest in the incomparable director, who borrows heavily from his favorite sources yet still manages to create an experience all his own. I was even more fond of his portion of the 2007 double feature Grindhouse. Sure, my friend Kiki may never forgive me for dragging her in, but even she has to admit that Death Proof was a lot of fun to behold.

But it was 2009's Inglourious Basterds that might be remembered as Tarantino's best film. The director's WWII-inspired vengeance tale had it all: Femme Fatales, orgies of violence, excellent acting (and an Academy Award for newcomer Christoph Waltz) and an excellent, vengeance-filled story. Best of all, gone was possibly the worst and most-telling sign of a Tarantino movie; the unnecessary conversation. Every previous flick of his had them: long, arbitrary dialogue meant to express the filmmaker's opinion on one topic or another. Usually they had little or nothing to do with the plot of the movie, and often were the dullest aspects of his work. Basterds was surprising in that it largely rid itself of them, and the result was a clean, uncluttered film that retained all of Tarantino's creativity and imagery and none of his self-indulgence. It's as if the years of experience had finally matured into a sense of focus, and he no longer needed to add these elements out of mere amusement.

Just don't call him "Sundance"...
That maturity is what made Django Unchained such a desirable destination this Christmas Day, though to be fair I saw it only because Les Miserables was sold out until late in the evening. It seems like all I see on Christmas lately are dark, violent movies (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, True Grit), and I confess I had hoped for a more uplifting tale this time around. But, Les Mis will wait, and I was certainly going to see Django anyway. As many film aficionados know, Tarantino's is not the first Django flick, which began as a violent 1966 spaghetti western directed by Sergio Corbucci and starring Franco Nero (who makes a cameo here), and spanned dozens of unofficial (and one official) sequels. The new movie slightly resembles those older ones if you squint and turn your head to the side, but while the new Django (Jamie Foxx) doesn't drag his own coffin around behind him, he does cut a patch of bloody vengeance through the pre-Civil War south as a former slave freed by bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (the returning Waltz) to rain terror and lead on bad men. Seeking out his abducted wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), he and Schultz must discover a way to rescue her from the plantation of the charismatic. ruthless, and evil slaver Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

Yup, that's some hammer.
There are usually two major sides to any Tarantino film. The first is the humor/violence aspect. Yes, I know it seems odd to pair two seemingly disparate themes in the same discussion, but when these elements seem to go well in hand with this particular man behind the camera. Even with such serious themes as American slavery and the thin line between law and crime, Tarantino makes sure to have fun with his characters, whether through visual gags or legitimately funny dialogue and contexts that he puts them in. That extends to his famously violent scenarios as well, as often he makes positively grisly carnage appear light-hearted and fun. There's nobody in the industry who loves squibs more than Tarantino, and he puts on arguably his bloodiest display of violence and depravity for the amusement of his audiences. Following Django as he kills white men for money is genuinely cathartic as well, tickling that portion of your brain you don't often get to use in a world that tries to be politically correct, especially when it comes to the slavery issue. Here is a cinematic hero that attempts to right the wrongs of the era, and it's absolutely entrancing to watch.

Yes, that's Samuel L. Jackson. Yes, he's awesome.
The other aspect is the darkness Tarantino often embraces. Like Basterds, Django focuses on a grim era in human history, substituting the pro-slavery Deep South for Nazi Germany. While certainly not historically accurate (also like Basterds), the director certainly does his absolute best to capture the horrors of being black in the mid-1800's. The result is definitely powerful, as we see just some of the horrors and atrocities happened upon people at the time, down to even the casual use of the "N" word (hey, I'm white; I have no desire to say it) to emphasize just how bad things were. To that point, he also deftly forms his cast with some of the better actors in Hollywood, with Foxx ably leading them with a dry wit, a thousand-mile stare and just enough crazy to be believable. While I would have loved to see The Wire's Michael K. Williams in the role (early reports had the excellent actor as a favorite), Foxx puts forth one of his better performances, followed closely by the blessedly consistent Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson and a creepily effective DiCaprio, who just seems to get better with each performance. My only complaint is Washington, whose potentially interesting character is reduced to a damsel in distress. Tarantino has created a number of strong female characters in his films (Jackie Brown, The Bride, Zoe Bell in Death Proof and Shosanna in Basterds), and the lack of one here certainly feels like a step back. Putting it in historical context, I guess it makes sense, but considering his willingness to revise history I would have loved to see more strong females, especially when Washington has enjoyed better roles in the past.

You don't say anything bad about Django's dress code.
It's a tough call to name Quentin Tarantino's best movie at this point. I still say his best is Basterds, but I can definitely understand the argument that puts Django Unchained on top. It's a strong, fun, enjoyable adventure that includes some of the director's best work behind (and of course, occasionally in front of) the camera. It feels like forever since I've updated the list, but Django Unchained finishes off as the #3 movie of 2012. Tarantino has grown so much as a director that it's impossible not to be drawn into the world he has created, whether you are sickened by the time or entertained by the exploits. You definitely won't be bored, that's for damned sure.


Anonymous said...

I'm curious to hear your thoughts about the earlier Django films.

Matty B.

Mr. Anderson said...

Does that mean you won't be writing here anymore? Oh, so sad...

To answer your specific statement, Reservoir Dogs was a mess of stuff that Tarantino thought would be good to stick into a movie. It was certainly unique, and for a first movie it definitely set the stage for his better movies to come. But it wasn't good. At all.

BTW, anybody who just spews insults will get their comments deleted. Keep it nice or don't bother.

Anonymous said...


Cant we all just be friends.


Mr. Anderson

Anonymous said...

What!! two Mr. Anderson's. This really is the Matrix. Would the real Mr. Anderson please sort this out.