REVIEW – Django Unchained

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In a way, Django Unchained is the ultimate culmination of Quentin Tarantino’s career: a gory blaxploitation western. Tarantino has long flaunted his love of 70s era grindhouse cinema as well as Sergio Leone westerns. Jackie Brown was his most overt ode to blaxploitation, but many of his films contain nods to the badass films of Pam Grier and Melvin Van Peebles. His love for spaghetti westerns is also blatantly worn on his sleeve. The Kill Bill films and Inglorious Basterds were basically westerns in disguise. Django Unchained finds Tarantino finally working in the era of the western, and, therefore, it’s his most straightforward exploration of the western genre. It is also his most genuine exploration of the blaxploitation genre, despite Jackie Brown‘s cast and subject matter. To cut to the chase: this film is not racist and, in fact, presents a pretty powerful message about slavery.

The story revolves around the eponymous Django (Jamie Foxx) and Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and their quest to find Django’s wife as well as collect bounty on no-good white criminals along the way. Dr. Schultz frees Django and introduces him to the bounty hunting game, while also agreeing to help Django track down his beautiful wife (Kerry Washington) who is owned by the vicious slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The first half of the film follows Django and Dr. Shultz as they bond and kill evil white men. DiCaprio doesn’t pop up until the second half, when the heroes finally track down Django’s wife to DiCaprio’s plantation. Despite the film’s length – and length of time before a real antagonist pops up – the film never drags. This is a credit to Tarantino’s writing as well as his eye for staging a scene. The man presents scene after entertaining scene, and none of them feel superfluous. Tarantino walks a tight rope through most of the film, showcasing the horror of slavery (very bluntly and brutally, at that), while also being the funniest film Tarantino has made.

This is where the controversy comes in. Many critics and a few other filmmakers (Spike Lee, who else?) have criticized Tarantino for gleefully using the n-word and for inserting comedy into a film about slavery. Spike Lee’s criticism deserves to be out rightly dismissed because he hasn’t seen the film, but comedy can be a powerful tool in social commentary. One of the funniest scenes in the film showcases the Klan as a bunch of idiots who can’t see properly through the bags on their heads. Tarantino ridicules them, and ridicule takes away their power. And as for the use of the n-word, this film takes place in a time when the word was used all the time, and to pretend it wasn’t is to white wash history. And has everyone forgot about Blazing Saddles? Mel Brooks was doing this stuff in the 70s! No one’s talking about what a bad influence he is on American audiences. I suspect most of these criticisms come from overly sensitive, PC critics. And I suspect Spike Lee’s criticism comes from a deep seeded envy of Tarantino’s career.

Now, despite all the controversy, this is a really good film. Is it Tarantino’s best? Definitely not. But it is one of his best, and surely one of the best films of the year. Say what you will about Tarantino as a person or the subject matter of his films, no one can deny his firm grasp on the medium. The craft behind this film is top notch. And Tarantino’s love for film can be felt behind every shot. In a time when many films can feel cynical and calculated, Tarantino’s enthusiasm is such a breath of fresh air. It also helps that Tarantino has a brilliant cast working at the top of their game. Foxx, Waltz, DiCaprio, and Samuel L. Jackson, as the nefarious Stephen, all give award worthy performances.

If you’re squeamish about violence and language, stay away from this film – and from any Tarantino film, for that matter. For everyone else, however, this is a must see.

Grade: A

 

 

REVIEW – Skyfall

Skyfall is the twenty-third Bond film and marks the 50th Anniversary of the Bond franchise. To mark this milestone, the filmmakers tried to showcase a modern Bond while also weaving together classic elements from past films. To their credit, they pretty much succeed.

The story is seemingly routine, yet it adds some interesting elements into the mix. A super villian, Silva (played by a deliciously evil Javier Bardem), is targeting MI6 – hacking into their files, blowing up their building, and seeking to kill the head of the agency, M (Judi Dench). Bond resurfaces from an apparent death to save the day.

On the surface it seems like a standard Bond film, but what sets it a part is its emphasis on age and the changing of the times. Gone are the gadgets and girls with innuendo laden names. Bond seems to walk through the film a half step behind Silva. He seems almost lost, chasing someone he doesn’t quite understand. This is the first Bond film I can think of where Bond feels vulnerable. He’s out of shape, a rusty shot, and clearly suffering from a bit of mental trauma. These are elements virtually missing from any other Bond film – and they make Skyfall that more interesting.

This is, like many suggest, a post-Bourne Bond film. It’s gritty and rough around the edges. However, I would contend that Skyfall is just as much a post-Dark Knight film. There are shades of the Joker in Bardem’s Silva. Even Silva’s plans are very reminiscent of the Joker (not to spoil anything, but Silva is almost always one step ahead). Bond’s crumbling physical and mental state also echo Batman’s. This is not to say that Skyfall is a ripoff. It’s still a Bond film, filled with exotic locations and sweet cars. It’s just that Bond is far more grounded in reality.

Director Sam Mendes and screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan have created a very modern Bond film, while also perfectly setting up a new generation of Bond characters that retain the essence of the 60s films. It’s a tricky feat, and there are a few implausible moments (as with any Bond film), but it’s handled rather adeptly. The last act of the movie is particularly bold for a Bond film – but it works and it’s great. And with the addition of cinematographer extraordinaire, Roger Deakins, it’s certainly the most beautifully looking Bond film ever put to screen (a sequence in a Shanghai hotel seemingly made entirely out of glass is particularly stunning).

Is this a work of art that will sweep all the awards? No, it’s still a Bond film after all. But it’s certainly entertaining, and it’s definitely one of the better Bond films of the entire series.

GRADE: B+