Django Unchained (John’s #1 of 2012)

The number one pick of my top 20 list of 2012 is Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Django Unchained. David wrote an amazing review just after the film’s release and I implore you to scroll down and check it out if you haven’t already. When creating my top list (which was already a bigger endeavor than I had initially planned) I found myself at a crossroads when posting a short review of Django. On the one hand, David had already written an incredible post on the film and one that mirrored many thoughts of friends and movie goers that I have encountered. On the other hand, my thoughts on the film were just too much to narrow down to a single paragraph and having 3 months to digest the film only increased my desire to discuss the film. So to properly finish off my top 20 list (which everyday followers will know has taken about 3 weeks) I offer a 2nd look at Quentin Tarantino’s controversial western.

Quentin Tarantino is my idol. In many ways I consider him to be my mentor in film; my inspiration for writing and the gateway to my favorite films in cinema. I first discovered the news of Tarantino doing an all out western in February of 2011 when co-editor David sent me a text. At the time the rumor was a Tarantino western starring the original Django: Franco Nero, Christoph Waltz and Keith Carradine. Within a week it was announced the film would be the story of a slave named Django who is freed by a German bounty hunter that mentors him and helps him free his wife from an evil plantation owner. About a week after that I had my very own copy of the script. I read bits and pieces over the next year and carried it with me in my backpack everyday. Everytime a cast member was announced I would flip through the script and read the characters introduction. I refused to read anything past the 1st half in fear of spoiling any characters inevitable demise (a lesson I learned from reading the 3rd act of Inglourious Basterds a year before it was filmed). The beauty of a Quentin Tarantino film is that, despite nearly 2 years of holding the movie in my hands, I was still unprepared for the world Tarantino projected onscreen.

To me a “perfect” movie is one that contains great scene after great scene from start to finish. Think Goodfellas – the opening with Frank Vincent in the trunk (“What the fuck?, Tommy what is that, we hit something?). The early days of Henry Hill (“Oh my god, you look like a gangster”). De Niro hijacking the truck (“You may know who I am, but we KNOW who you are”), the Lufthansa heist, taking Karen to the Copacabana, slicing up onions in prison so thin they used to melt in the pan, getting coked out and making sure little Michael is stirring the sauce. It’s just great moment after great moment.

Every Tarantino film achieves this as well. And with each project Tarantino is breaking new ground, pushing his meta-narrative further and further and challenging audiences with every new step. Starting with Kill Bill, Tarantino’s films get richer with character and more meticulous with cinematography, editing and style. He treats his screenplays as if creating the next chapter of the Bible. Every page is perfected before he moves on to the next and it certainly shows. If every writer were as passionate about creating a literary piece like Quentin is, then cinema in general would be worlds better than it is.

The first thing that strikes me about Tarantino’s work is how accessible it is to mass audiences. The first time I read Aldo Raine’s speech in Inglourious Basterds about “killing Nazis” I thought “Oh my god, this is too hardcore. There is no way this is getting in.” How surprised I was when this speech became the centerpiece for the film’s marketing campaign. Also when reading the Basterds screenplay, I began to quickly notice that 2/3rds of the film would be in subtitles. I immediately thought “there’s no way this will play with today’s audiences, no one wants to read subtitles anymore”. So I was overjoyed when discussing the movie with my aunt and uncle (two people I suspect have never seen a foreign film and never had to read a majority of a film’s dialogue before) to discover that they loved the film and even made note of how delightfully comical it was when Waltz’s Hans Landa requests to shift from French to English in the film’s opening scene.

The same goes with reading Django Unchained, within in the first few pages and the rampant use of the N-word I thought “Oh man this is gonna cause a huge uproar”. Luckily audiences are smart enough to know that what Tarantino has in mind is an adventure story first and an energetic movie experience one will never forget. While working at the movie theatre I was very intuitive of what audiences felt as they left the showing. The majority of black audiences I encountered were absolutely thrilled with the final product. It’s a comic book-y tale of a black superhero. The first film about slavery that allowed black audiences to stand up and cheer for its hero instead of wince at the pain their ancestors have suffered, much in the way the Jewish community could rally around Shoshanna and the Basterds as they lay waste to the Third Reich. Even those who could take offense to the racial slurs projected from Don Johnson’s Big Daddy Bennett and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie were only that much happier to see these crude men meet their brutal demise.

I also noticed a rising hesitation to the film from white audiences, a common feeling of discomfort and a sense of “white guilt” at the brutality and harshness of slavery in the Antebellum South displayed on-screen. Now this is more accurate to what I think Tarantino hopes to achieve with this film. Rarely are white audiences challenged to view their past here in America, unlike the people of Germany who sit through endless films depicting brutal Nazis and forced to revisit their unfortunate past and heritage. Even when a film takes on the historical aspect of slavery, a lot of the cruelty and contempt felt by these white slave-owning ancestors are placed on the back burner. For example Amistad, while a sentimental portrait of the uprising on the infamous slave ship, seldom depicts its white characters as brutally as, say a film about WWII, would depict its Nazi oppressors. Personally, I do feel that white audiences should be subjected to more films that evaluate our nation’s past and all the fucked up shit that we have done. To not be sheltered and to acknowledge that yes, we did this sick shit, and it wasn’t the first time either (think about the Indians when we first arrived).

Naturally, this is quite a hot topic of discussion and one that will surely spark a bit of a debate amongst our readers. However I’d also like to point out that Django Unchained tackles many different sides and oppositions to slavery that cinema has rarely explored. For example the character of Dr. King Schultz (played by Christoph Waltz) is a foreigner to this country and represents an outsider’s view of America and slavery. Several times Schultz explains his disdain for slavery and his confusion as to why people are so fascinated with dictating what one man can and cannot do. Schultz also describes his feelings of responsibility for Django and his reasoning to help Django remain free long after their relationship has ended. Schultz has a true admiration for Django’s strength and ability to endure the pain that surrounds him. He also admires Django and his wife Broomhilda’s belief in the sanctity of marriage, a belief that shows that these are in fact real people and not the uneducated savages that people like Big Daddy and Calvin Candie attribute them to be.

Then there is the depiction of slave owners themselves. On one side you have Big Daddy Bennett who is the epitome of a racist slave owner, a man who seems appalled at the idea of a free black man when Django arrives on his plantation with Schultz. Then you have Calvin Candie, a character who has inherited his plantation through generations of white slave owners. Now where Big Daddy clearly gets off on slavery, Candie appears to be somewhat done with the whole slavery idea; choosing to focus his attention more on mandingo fighting than buying and selling slave workers and show ponies. Big Daddy is a proprietor of slavery, one of the original creators; Candie is the disinterested descendant whose come in at the end.

Another interesting depiction is the level of social class amongst slaves. When Django is riding along with Candie’s entourage he is a free man, a man who rides atop his horse while the slaves walk alongside. There is a huge disdain for Django from the slaves, and in order to stay in character Django is forced to look down on them as well. Then there is Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Stephen. Stephen is an elderly slave and the overseer of all of Candyland’s belongings, including both the land and the many souls who tend to it. The relationship between Calvin and Stephen is incredibly essential to the dynamic of the story. Stephen has been apart of Candyland since the beginning when Calvin’s father owned the property and has raised Calvin since birth. Stephen and Calvin have a father-son type relationship much like the bond that forms between Schultz and Django, but with one big difference…Stephen and Calvin love each other more than Schultz and Django do. This helps make the character of Stephen the darkest and most despicable villain in the film. Here is a man that stands above approach from the rest of the slaves on his plantation, a slave with power over every other slave and, in some ways, Calvin Candie as well. As Django points out in the film, there isn’t anything lower than a man in his position.

And yet, despite all this subtle analysis of the Antebellum South, what Tarantino delivers is an all-out action packed and hysterically funny American western. Its extremely difficult for me to rank Tarantino’s films because they are each perfect in their own way. When viewing Kill Bill’s two parts together I felt that Tarantino couldn’t get any better. Then when Aldo Raine delivers the final line in Inglourious Basterds “this just might be my masterpiece” I couldn’t have agreed more. Now Tarantino achieves even more with Django Unchained and another masterpiece expands his perfect canon. I simply continue to name Pulp Fiction as my number 1 favorite simply because its the one that introduced me to the man himself and to the world of movies that I would soon become obsessed with. 

Like Goodfellas, this is for me a “perfect” film. Its just great scene after great scene. “State your business or prepare to get winged”, “Can’t we just leave?”, “Treat him like you would Jerry”, “So it would be nice to see!”, “Its a German legend, there’s bound to be a mountain in there somewhere”, “We got us a fight goin’ on that’s a good bit of fun”, “I’m gonna walk in the moonlight with you”, “All the passions you inspire are completely justified”, “There have been a lotta lies told around this table tonight, but that you best believe”, “Tell Miss Laura goodbye”. Perfect is a movie I can relive moment-to-moment in my head at anytime. 




The Top Films of 2012 (Take 3)

The Night of the Living Oscars is almost upon us, which means it’s time for film buffs everywhere to make lists and make desperate attempts to compare apples to oranges in order to decide which one goes where. My attempts are as follows:

The Top 10 Films of 2012:

10. The Raid: Redemption
This is the Tony Jaa film with no Tony Jaa, and I wish that Ong Bak 2 & 3 had been anywhere near as good as The Raid. With a similar setup to Dredd, involving a multi-storied building on lockdown while hordes of tenants fight our protagonists, The Raid has excellent fight choreography that is creative, rapid-paced, and as is essential for a martial-arts action film, in plentiful supply. The Raid doesn’t bog itself down trying to make the story any more than it needs to be; it doesn’t feel tacked on but it doesn’t overburden the rest of the film and take away from the action either. A solid piece of adrenaline-laced action filmmaking.

9. The Grey
A sobering story about a man who has nothing to live for fighting to survive in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, The Grey isn’t just a film about the struggle against the natural world, but a personal look at a man’s conviction in the face of death, despite the pain and sadness in his past. Liam Neeson shows some real acting chops here, and seems to really delve into the role instead of going through the motions. What could have been a by-the-numbers survival story digs a little deeper and the result is powerful.

8. God Bless America
Perhaps it’s the cynical asshole in me, but throughout almost all of God Bless America I had a smile plastered across my face. With his death looming over his day-to-day suffering, Frank (Joel Murray) decides to cleanse the world of modern society’s shortcomings. Watching Joel Murray do what we have thought about once or twice in our darker moments is almost cathartic, and the entire film has a biting wit to go with the carnage that it portrays. Dark comedies, such as the work of Todd Solondz, never seem to get much exposure; perhaps because they sometimes strike a little too close to home. God Bless America fits the genre perfectly by making you want to laugh and despair at the same time.

7. Cloud Atlas
The Wachowski’s & Tom Tykwer’s brazenly ambitious Cloud Atlas is a film I kept thinking about for days. At first it was almost difficult to keep up with the many stories running concurrently, but the film quickly settles into a rhythm, and it’s an impressive sight to behold. Each arc goes through the build up and climax of their story simultaneously, with actors playing multiple characters at different points in time, all the while different key elements of one story will have an effect on another that takes place later in time. Some elements aren’t even central to the plot, but when you notice that the buttons stolen by one character are now a necklace worn by his descendant in the far-flung future, it’s a nice touch. Cloud Atlas is a multilayered epic that deserves multiple viewings.

6. Prometheus
As a long-time fan of the Alien franchise, this was easily my most-anticipated film of 2012. The original director my personal favorite, Alien (1979), returning to create a prequel that delves into the origins of the Xenomorphs? Yes, please and thank you. Prometheus, however, is quite the tease. While we get fantastic special effects, some great sci-fi storytelling and a healthy dose of horror and action, we also get plenty of questions that don’t get answered. While some may feel this detracts from the film, with a Prometheus 2 allegedly in the works, those questions may yet be resolved, and really, Prometheus stands just fine without having everything explained. Didn’t the original Alien? With that in mind, there’s plenty to love here, and Fassbender’s excellent performance as David deserves a little more attention. For Wes’s review of Prometheus, go here.

5. Frankenweenie
Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s love letter to the films of his youth, proves that Burton still has that charm that makes his older films so enthralling. It’s a shame that this and ParaNorman did somewhat poorly at the box-office, especially since stop-motion is one of my favorite methods of filmmaking; we may be seeing some of the last big-budget stop-motion films for quite some time. For a more in-depth look at Frankenweenie, check out my original review here.

4. Life of Pi
Not having read the book, I wasn’t sure what to expect with Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. From the trailers I had no doubt the film would be a visual feast (and it is), but all the visuals in the world mean nothing if there isn’t a solid core story. Fortunately, Life of Pi is a colorful and vibrant story about a young man who survives a shipwreck told in flashback, and somewhat like 2003’s Big Fish shows that the perception of a story may in fact be more honest than the basic truth. Simply put, Life of Pi is a fantastical tale that blurs the line between fantasy and reality.

3. Cabin in the Woods
As much as I love horror films, I’ll be the first to admit that the bulk of the genre is plagued by almost anything that can be bad in a film. Perhaps one of the worst is the overuse of clichéd plots that we’ve all seen a billion times over. And surprisingly, that is what makes Cabin in the Woods such a stellar film. I had expected a decent movie, I wasn’t expecting a film that poked fun at tired horror conventions while using them to construct an enthralling look at the horror movie itself. Even those who aren’t horror fans should give Cabin in the Woods a look, if only to see the jaw-dropping turns the story takes. For David’s review of Cabin in the Woods, go here.

2. Moonrise Kingdom
Wes Anderson continually impresses with his work, Moonrise Kingdom is likely one of his best efforts. Between the amazing cast all turning in excellent performances, the camerawork so good each shot could be a piece of art, and a compelling story that captures youthful love and rebellion, it’s hard to find anything that hasn’t been carefully tuned to perfection by Mr. Anderson. This editor hopes that we can look forward to more of the same. For David’s review of Moonrise Kingdom, go here.

1. Django Unchained
While Quentin Tarantino had used elements of the Western genre in nearly every one of his films, he’d never simply made a Western. Django Unchained is that Western, and it succeeds admirably. A revenge/rescue story set in the pre-Civil War south, the oftentimes cartoonishly violent and racially charged plot sees Django (Jamie Foxx) becoming a bounty hunter as he attempts to rescue his wife. Where Tarantino’s films really shine is with character performances, enhanced with great dialogue for those performances, and Django Unchained does so through superb performances by the always-impressive Christoph Waltz and a knockout performance by DiCaprio as the villainous Calvin Candy. With yet another of Tarantino’s carefully picked soundtracks backing it, Django Unchained is a fine addition to the director’s lexicon.

Honorable Mentions:
Stuff that didn’t make the cut, but is still worth talking about.

7 Psychopaths – Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges (2008) was easily one of my favorite films of that year, and his latest offering is nothing to sneeze at either. With some excellent performances (Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, and Tom Waits are all great) and repeated “I didn’t expect that at all” moments, 7 Psycopaths was just shy of making the list.

Argo – Ben Affleck’s film about the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis is a competent film, and while I’m not sure that I’m as impressed as some are by it, there’s certainly nothing overtly wrong with it, and it’s a solid, engaging piece of work.

The Avengers – I doubt there’s anyone who hasn’t seen this film, but I’m including it here simply because when it was being made I thought that I was going to hate it. There was no way that anyone could make a superhero league film that wasn’t all over the place. But Joss Whedon managed to make a decent film that, though not flawless by any means, surprised me. Kudos to you, Mr. Whedon. Wes’s review can be found here.

The Dark Knight Rises – After The Dark Knight (2008), The Dark Knight Rises had some big shoes to fill. Too big, perhaps. While I still maintain that it is a good film, I can’t get past some of the suspension of disbelief that is required. It’s a shame that it doesn’t live up to its predecessor, but there’s still plenty of cinematography, great acting, an impressive score and intense action sequences that make it better than just average.

Dredd – Though Stallone’s Judge Dredd (1995) does the comic book character no justice, 2012’s take on the character was much more in-line with the tone of the comics. A gritty, brutal action movie that was a pleasant surprise, especially given that didn’t expect anything from it.

Looper – While Looper might have some major plot holes, the film is done with such style and conviction that they can be set aside. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives a notable performance as a young Bruce Willis, and the subtle make-up only enhances the effect. The psychic-powerhouse bit is cool too. Wes’s review can be found here.

ParaNormanParaNorman is a stop-motion film about a boy who can see the dead and must save his town from a witch’s curse. Like the aforementioned Frankenweenie, ParaNorman is visually impressive, and though the story drags sometimes, it’s worth noting for the amount of craft the Laika team put into it.

The Pirates!: Band of Misfits  – Yet another stop-motion film worth mentioning, from the amazing team at Aardman (Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run). It gets a bit too juvenile for my tastes at times, but the entire film is a visual treat, and genuinely funny at times.

Sinister – Though there are issues with Sinister, it still is one of the better horror films to come out in 2012. There are moments that are truly creepy, and moments that are truly disturbing. Something about the home camera aspect makes the entire movie have an unsettling vibe, the atmosphere (aided by some great use of the band Boards of Canada) will stick with you, and that alone makes this film worth mentioning.

Skyfall – A noticeable improvement over Quantum of Solace (2008), the newest Bond film serves up some great sequences and top-notch cinematography, and one of the better Bond songs. Craig continues to impress as a no-nonsense take on the 007 character, and more of these to come is good news.

Wreck-It RalphWreck-It Ralph was a strong contender for my Top 10, but Sarah Silverman’s character too often tread into annoying instead of charming. That aside, it’s a great movie that is considerably improved by the plethora of videogame character cameos. If you consider yourself an avid gamer (not you, CoD players), you’ll get a kick out of simply spotting all the references.

Worst 10 Movies of 2012
Though I wish I had descriptions for each of these films, I’m finding it hard to muster up the desire to expend any more time on them than I already have. They already stole several hours of my life, so this simple list will hopefully represent the last of such theft.

10. Step Up Revolution
9. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
8. The Cold Light of Day
7. Resident Evil: Retribution
6. Mirror Mirror
5. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island
4. The Devil Inside
3. That’s My Boy
2. One for the Money
1. 3 Stooges

The stuff that should have been great, but wasn’t. YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE!

The Man with the Iron Fists
Despite David’s review, I still had this one on my watchlist because the trailer had looked promising. While The Man with the Iron Fists does many things well, such as the multitude of eccentric characters, it just isn’t quite what it could (and should) be. The camerawork leaves something to be desired, the CG blood / special effects look terrible and take you right out of the film, and the ending could have really used some extended fight scenes. Hopefully RZA can fix these kind of grievances and give us the 70’s kung-fu film that will do the genre justice.

Iron Sky
Unlike Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Iron Sky seemed to have tongue planted firmly in cheek from the outset. Nazis on the dark side of the moon is a delightfully ridiculous premise, and the trailer had me excited for something that played up the cheese while being thoroughly creative with that license. While Iron Sky attempts to reach this goal, it bogs itself down by going in the completely wrong direction, and while there are laughs to be had here and there, too much of what we get consists of a boring subplot and wasted potential.

Now, let’s be clear that I don’t consider Brave a bad film by any means. It’s a visually impressive movie that doesn’t have any major flaws. But Pixar has a fairly impressive track record (barring the Cars films, in this editor’s opinion), so I had very lofty expectations after seeing the first trailers. Brave’s story, however, is simply lacking that special touch that would make it stand with the other Pixar greats. In other words, Brave is a good, not great film. And that is disappointing.

Films that weren’t seen in time to make (or not make) this list.

The Imposter
The Master
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Robot & Frank
The Secret World of Arrietty
Silver Linings Playbook