Saturday, June 15, 2013

On DJANGO UNCHAINED

I watched Quentin Tarantino's anti-racist revenge fantasy, Django Unchained.  First of all, my favorite thing about it was the Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winning performance by Christoph Waltz.  Just like Dianne Wiest with Woody Allen, he won two Oscars in the same category for films from the same director.  Wiest was Best Supporting Actress for Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway.  Waltz's previous Oscar was for Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.  He was a Nazi officer in that one.  In this western, he was a German bounty hunter who advises and helps Django, the freed slave.


They become quite the team there in the deep South two years before the Civil War.
I feel that Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds were better Tarantino films.  His trademark violence was literally overkill in Django Unchained.  The gun violence in Shane (1953) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was there for a reason.  It was making a point about a social issue.  In Django Unchained, I got the feeling that it was Tarantino gleefully doing another bloody shoot-out scene for the mere sake of a "Hey! Let's shoot a bad guy in the balls this time! That'll look freakin' awesome!" filmmaker freedom.  And he needs to quit writing himself into his movies so much.  Be like Hitchcock.  Make a brief cameo appearance.  When I now see him play a supporting character, it takes me out of the reality of the movie.  I'm thinking, "There's Quentin playing a character again.  And it's a character the movie doesn't necessarily need."

Django Unchained was inspired by the 1966 Italian western, Django, starring Franco Nero.  This was before Nero starred as Lancelot in the big Warner Bros. movie version of the hit Broadway musical Camelot (1967).  While making Camelot, he fell in love with his leading lady, Oscar-winner Vanessa Redgrave.  They are still together.

Nero has a cameo with Foxx in Django Unchained...because he played Django first.


Django was a hit throughout Europe.  There were further adventures of Django.

Then how the hell could this win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay?  How did it qualify?  Did The Magnificent Seven get an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay of 1960?  Nope.  Folks said, "This is an American western remake of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai."  Django Unchained got its roots and title from Django the same way Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds was inspired by 1978's The Inglorious Bastards.  One of the stars of that 1978 movie is blaxploitation action movie star, Fred Williamson.  A big, handsome hunk o' onyx, he went from pro football player to a supporting role opposite Liza Minnelli in Otto Preminger's Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970) to starring in Black Caesar, Hammer, Hell Up in Harlem, The Legend of Nigger Charley and Boss Nigger later titled just Boss. Williamson's 1970s work, especially his image as Boss, is really the template for Foxx's look and attitude as Django.


Not that Tarantino didn't write some riveting material for his actors to play, but I feel this film is more an adaptation than an original screenplay. In Tarantino's screenplay, I really dig the dynamic between Django and the bounty hunter.  It's like the relationship between a shrewd white sports agent and a gifted professional black athlete client. Tarantino gave us a bad-ass antebellum Jerry Maguire in that aspect.

I admit it.  I have had my share of racial drama.  There were some corporate "plantations" I wanted to blow up.  So some of the revenge in Django Unchained did give me a tingle.  Also, I wished I'd had a broadcast agent like Dr. King Schultz.  Tom Cruise's Jerry Maguire could've learned a thing or two from Schultz's way of negotiating a deal.

Waltz is not the only one who shoots out a strong supporting performance.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson also hit it.  Jackson really burns up the screen as the house slave who is so dedicated to his vicious, egotistical master that he'll betray his own people to keep his comfortable and protected position working in the big house.


The versatile Kerry Washington also stands out as the slave Django loves and rescues.

If you saw Samuel L. Jackson in this film, I've got another one for you to see.  It reminds you how versatile and gifted an actor he is as he plays a modern and way more sophisticated, subtle character.  He's the head of a Los Angeles law firm in Mother and Child.  He has a tender relationship with another lawyer.  She's played by Naomi Watts.  Watts and Jackson are excellent together in this 2009 release.
Kerry Washington is in this drama too.  She's a woman in the L.A. area who desperately wants to have a baby but can't conceive.  Annette Bening, seen the next year as the protective and loving Southern California suburban lesbian mom in The Kids Are All Right, hit another home-run with this performance.  She's a Californian who gave her child up for adoption back in her youth when she was an unwed mother.  She's now a 50 year-old, married health care professional.  But no one seems to take care of her.  One reason is because she's so difficult.  This bitter woman is one heavy piece of furniture to deal with outside of her job.  She now wants to know what became of her child.  Naomi Watts' character somewhat drifts through life.  She's a rootless serial seducer, having sex but not really connecting emotionally.   The women played by Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington will have a connection that we'll discover thanks to a very modern and helpful nun played by Cherry Jones.  I saw this movie because of an enthusiastic review it got from Roger Ebert.  I shared his enthusiasm after I saw it.

You really need to see Samuel L. Jackson here.  He's so good.
Naomi Watts, one of our best actresses around now, has an elevator scene in Mother and Child that just wore me out.  I sat there and whispered, "Wow."  Amazing.  And if only the Vatican could be as contemporary and liberal as the nun in this fine film.


I'd pitch Django Unchained followed by Mother and Child as a weekend Samuel L. Jackson & Kerry Washington double feature DVD rental.  But Tarantino's western is excessive.  He could've brought in a good movie at 2 hours and 10 minutes.  It's nearly 3 hours long because Quentin had to get his Sam (The Wild Bunch) Peckinpah groove on ("If they move, kill 'em").  Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child clocks in at 2 hours.

As you may know, director/screenwriter Spike Lee, someone who also writes himself into is movies, was livid with Tarantino and his Django Unchained.  I don't know if he actually saw the film but he was fuming about Tarantino's version and vision of African-American history.  Spike made a movie that also screened last year, like Django Unchained.  Let's just say Spike's Red Hook Summer was not in a league with Do The Right Thing, Malcolm X and his brilliant, searing documentary Four Little Girls.

I saw Red Hook Summer last summer at a private screening in New York City.  I was in town for a few days to tape a TV pilot.  I don't think Spike's film was released nationwide.  That's for the best.  It should not have been released.  It should've been denied parole.  Red Hook Summer clocked in at 2 hours but felt like it was nearly 3.

It's sort of a follow-up to Do The Right Thing.  But there are too many storylines and, despite some good actors (most notably Clarke Peters from HBO's The Wire as a Brooklyn pastor), the film drags and feels dated.  The saddest element is that Mookie from Do The Right Thing is in it.  He's got Morgan Freeman hair now and he is still delivering pizzas in that Brooklyn neighborhood.  No, he's not managing the pizza joint.  He didn't move up.  He's still delivering pizza and dressed like he was in 1989.  This sight made us black folks at the screening groan "Oh, Lawd.  Help him, Jesus."

Tarantino gave the public a film it wanted to see, a film that touched the current pulse in society.  It was a revenge fantasy set in the past that worked for these modern times.  We've been slapped in the face with the fact that America is not "post-racial" just because a black politician was elected to presidency in the White House.  Some of the old attitudes still exist in a new generation.

I've blogged that African-American playwright August Wilson won two Pulitzer Prize awards for Drama.  However, neither of those 1987 and 1990 plays has been turned into a big screen project like plays by Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, Neil Simon and David Mamet.  Has Spike tried to direct a Hollywood adaptation of a Wilson play?

Christoph Waltz would've totally rocked in a Mel Brooks comedy like Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles.  If you see him host Saturday Night Live, you know what I mean.  What a talented actor.  He earned those two Oscars.

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