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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Django Unchained

DJANGO UNCHAINED (Also Combo pack Blu-ray/DVD/Digital) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Quentin Tarantino, 2012 (Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay)

Quentin Tarantino‘s Django Unchained was a surprise multiple winner at the last Oscars. but only because some of us may have overestimated its outrage quotient, and underestimated how damned entertaining it is. After Dirty-Dozening it up in his last picture, Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino pullls us here into a magical movie land that buff Tarantino knows well: the  wide-open, ironic, gun crazy realm of mid-to-late ’60s-early ’70s Italian spaghetti Westerns—a roost ruled by director Sergio Leone and star Clint Eastwood  and their “Man With No Name” Trilogy, but also home to a wild bunch of trashily enjoyable offshoots by moviemakers with lesser names and smaller guns. Like Sergio Corbucci, who made the original Django in 1966.

An audaciously enjoyable and horrifically exciting melodrama set in the Old West and the Old South of the nineteenth century, Django Unchained  churns out not so much the history of our dreams, or the dreams of our history (what John Ford and D. W. Griffith gave us), but the nightmare alternative Western history of Leone and his colleagues and imitators, from the revisionist ‘60s and ‘70s, when there were movies with titles like A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die. Since Tarantino has called Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly his favorite movie, it’s not surprising that he gives his new show something like the  grandly operatic super-style that was Leone’s hallmark: an eye-popping  cross-cultural technique full of simmering machismo and tolling bells and epic showdowns and Mexican standoffs  and explosive violence, with characterizations so lurid and unrestrained and colorful (in many different ways) that the movie often seems to be poking fun at itself. And us.

Tarantino’s latest  is a jocular, bloody madhouse of a movie that stomps on notions of political correctness as if they were bugs.  The  title comes from a sleazily baroque oater directed by Corbucci — an Italian Leone knockoff that starred, as coffin-toting bounty hunter Django, the 1967 Camelot’s Lancelot, Franco Nero. (Nero  does a self-kidding cameo here in a bar scene, but Vanessa Redgrave, Camelot’s Guinevere, is nowhere to be seen. And the real-life Django—the great French Gypsy jazz guitarist surnamed Reinhardt—is unfortunately nowhere to be heard.)

Instead we get charismatic African-American gunman-bounty hunter  Django (played with stoic hip and smolder by Jamie Foxx)—an embittered ex-slave saved from outlaws and schooled in slaughter by Dr. King Schultz (played, with another Oscar to show for it, by Christoph Waltz, the wordy Nazi villain of Inglorious Basterds). Waltz is a good guy this time, Django’s mentor, but there’s some high-grade screen villainy by Leonardo Di Caprio and Samuel L. Jackson, both of whom would have stolen the movie if Waltz didn’t already have it stuffed in his back pocket.

It’s a typical Quentin Tarantino mix: a grand expansion of the kind of movie that used to be slapped together by producers, Italian and otherwise, whose motives were mostly purely mercenary, and writers and directors of  sometimes high but batty-looking style who would do practically anything to keep the audience awake. We’re in the West and the South, circa sometime around 1858, and we see Waltz as the  dazzlingly eloquent German traveling dentist and bounty hunter Schultz save and free the quietly deadly slave Django (Jamie Foxx). Schultz wants Django to help him track down some elusive bounty prey, Django‘s old acquaintances the Brittle brothers, murderous scum for whose heads fortunes are offered. Django, hellbent on revenge, wants to find his still enslaved wife, the German-speaking Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).

In the course of their search, interrupted by numerous cameos by erstwhile stars and mainstays of that great cinematic era, the late ‘60s and ‘70s,  Schultz and Django wind up in the elegant but barren-looking estate Candyland, insane domicile of  the sadistic  Southern Gentleman Calvin Candie (Di Caprio), whose affairs are actually run by Stephen, a devilish  consigliere disguised as an Uncle Tom. There, surrounded by affable bigots, Southern aristocrats, milk-faced semi-belles and persecuted African-American  gladiators, King and Django infiltrate the beast’s lair and whet Candie‘s depraved racist appetites, by  pretending to be part of the local Mandingo slave-fighter trade. They also find Broomhilda. (A reference to Wagnerian opera or the ’70s comic strip?)

The movie is appropriately scored to great jangly torrents of old Ennio Morricone  music (and one new Morricone theme), and those of  his colleague Luis Bacalov—along with Richie Havens (“Oh Freedom“) and Jim Croce (“I Got a Name“). I also found it amusing to savor the small but pungent roles played by Don Johnson (as Big Daddy), and everybody from Bruce Dern to Russ & Amber Tamblyn to Michael Parks to James Remar to Tom Wopat to Tarantino himself. Amusing too is the movie’s cheerfully sarcastic version of the Ku Klux Klan, shown as Klan-robed dimwits who repeatedly ride into each other (especially Jonah Hill), because the Klan-seamstress misplaced the eyeholes in their masks.

You can say what you will about Django Unchained, but you can’t say it’s not both entertaining and some kind of  deeply personal project, or that it doesn’t have something to say (often stingingly) about American racism and violence. Tarantino takes a story and script that might have been written by Elmore Leonard or David Mamet after a few shots,  and directed by a Sergio Corbucci, a Fernando Di Leo or a Lucio Fulci, and gives it the kind of finicky attention to high style you might expect from a David Lean or a Federico Fellini.

One of the likable things about some trashy, unrestrained, magnificently awful  movies—trash done with genius and shamelessness — is that this kind of show lets you indulge some sleazy impulses, without suffering the usual consequences. That’s part of Tarantino‘s appeal. He opens up great golden veins of amusing garbage, enlivens his stories with his genius for dialogue and the fruits of his hip encyclopedic take on movies, and then just doesn‘t censor himself. Much. He makes us laugh, so we have a tendency we let him get away with murder.  I‘m not complaining about this.  Django Unchained is probably his best overall picture since Jackie Brown—partly because it has his best overall dialogue since Jackie Brown (which was based on Elmore Leonard), and dialogue is one of his strongest, sharpest points.

Is Django enjoyable? Indubitably, as King Schultz might say. Is Django offensive? Probably. Should we take it seriously? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Or, to be less wishy-washy, we should take the soul of this movie seriously, but not necessarily the body. We’ll leave that to the flesh-peddlers and violence hucksters and racists, who, in this movie at least, get their just desserts.

Extras: Featurettes, Sound Track Spot; Twenty Years in the Making: Tarantino’s XX Blu-ray Collection.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon