Cinema Movie Review: Django Unchained (2012)

django-unchained-2Way-out-there West with Tarantino

I’ve never had a clear position on Tarantino’s works. I enjoyed Pulp Fiction (1994), Reservoir Dogs (1992) and loved Kill Bill (2003-2004), but I had mixed feeling about Inglorious Basterds (2009). I was thus very happy to find that Django Unchained (2012) was good, really good, although not as good as Kill Bill.

Django… is set in the Deep South of 19th century America – German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz, played by the unmissable Christoph Waltz, is travelling around Texas looking for men who are wanted, dead or alive, with a high price for their heads up for grabs. He’s a businessman, a sneaky, smart and eloquent creature and, at the beginning of the movie, he’s looking the slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) – the only man who can recognize three brothers, slave guards, for whom the bounty hunter can get a good price. Django, who is bought and given freedom by Schultz (freedom from slavery and freedom to choose his own wardrobe, unfortunately, which gets a bit ridiculous) agrees to team up with the bounty hunter. Over winter, they catch or kill many wanted criminals – they get along so well and are so effective that Schultz offers Django his help in saving Django’s wife from the hands of the extremely rich and extremely cruel land owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

And thus, the ‘intellectual’ part of the movie begins. On the one hand, filled with images of cruelty concerning slavery and on the other, showing the intellectual games that begin to be played between Candie and Schultz, occasionally mixed with images of a racist black servant (Samuel L. Jackson). This is harder to watch and a bit too long (not because of the topic, but because Tarantino tends to over-talk and overplay some parts of the movie). DiCaprio is brilliant in the role of a heartless racist businessman, so is Christoph Waltz, whom I could listen to, deliberating on various topics, for hours and hours.

He is the good man of the movie, and it is via his character that he and Tarantino get their message across. I read that Spike Lee criticized the film before even watching it, assuming that it would offensive and disrespectful and, indeed, there is a lot of offence and disrespect, brutality and swearing, just as there was in reality. Perhaps Spike Lee might see the film’s point, if he actually watched Django…? Nevertheless, this is a movie with a message, as Tarantino tends to make nowadays. Some will like it, some will like it less. It is not my favourite film of his career, but it’s well done and definitely puts ideas in the viewer’s head. And then, having talked, argued, and discussed slavery, Tarantino, DiCaprio and Waltz finally give Foxx a chance for some proper, bloody, traditional Tarantino shooting in the third part of the movie, and everything comes full circle.

165 mins. In English, German, French.

True Grit (2010)

Gritty remake

The Coen brothers continue their examination of the Western – following on from their somewhat overrated (but still very good) ‘modern’ example of the genre, No Country for Old Men (2007), Joel and Ethan have turned their attention to a remake of Henry Hathaway‘s 1969 original True Grit (which won John Wayne his only Oscar).

The Coens’ version, like its predecessor, is adapted from Charles Portis’s original novel, and is clearly far closer to its source – a stubborn, willful and intelligent 14-year-old farm girl, Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is determined to track down farm hand Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who murdered her father, to see that he faces justice, either before the law or the barrel of a gun. She hires Reuben J. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), the toughest US Marshal that she can find, to help her in her quest – it is he supposedly with ‘true grit’, but Ross is set to discover for herself just how far she too is prepared to go, along with Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who largely disapproves of Cogburn’s methods, but has his own reasons for wanting Chaney caught or killed.

The script, co-written by the brothers, as you would expect, is first rate – an excellent evocation of the way that American English was spoken, back in the day. Steinfield too is very good as the girl who will not take no for an answer in a society where everyone is seemingly on the fiddle and the gun rules.

But, of course, it’s Bridges as Cogburn that you’re paying to see, and he does not disappoint – a snarling, mumbling, drunken but honorouble man who understands only too well the evil of which men are capable and who tries his very best to protect his young charge.

In its fidelity to the original novel, this perhaps lacks the broader comedic sweeps that made the first film so enjoyable, but there is no doubting that, overall, this is the better work, with more than enough suspense, action and, ultimately, pathos to go round. Long may the Coens continue their revival of a genre that many had thought moribund.

110 mins.

Appaloosa (2008)

Appaloosa (2008)Saddle up

A chance to enjoy an entertaining (if conventional) Western…

It has a habit of coming back ’atcha, does the Western – while other genres have a tendency to become moribund over time, such as the traditional musical or the traditional vampire flick, the Old West is a tradition that a variety of directors have returned to over recent years, such as with Kevin Costner’s well-received Open Range (2003) and, a decade or so previously, Clint Eastwood’s marvellous fin de siècle opus, Unforgiven (1992).

Appaloosa by Ed Harris (a great actor whose only previous directorial effort was Pollock (2000)) is the latest addition and, set in 1882 New Mexico, it follows the fate of the town of the same name, which has fallen under the control of ruthless outlaw rancher Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his hired hands – the town elders, realising that something must be done to stop the rot, hire new guns to take control.

Thus, Virgil Cole (Ed Harris) becomes Marshall Cole, with his lifelong friend and fellow gunslinger Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) as his deputy. Laying down the law to Bragg begins with the shooting of three of his men, but Cole wants to see justice done for the murder of his predecessor, Marshall Jack Bell (Bobby Jauregui). A former Bragg ally comes forward and swears his willingness to testify, but the situation is complicated by the arrival of mysterious widow Allison French (Renée Zellweger)…

The screenplay, by Robert Knott and Ed Harris from Robert Parker’s novel, is a tight (if not devastatingly original) study in ‘a man’s gotta do’ mores and friendship – Harris and Mortensen bond well together onscreen, even if Iron’s take on the villain seems more than a little lacking in charisma or menace. That’s to say, it’s all very well him being an educated bad guy but, given the conventionality on display elsewhere, his performance might well have benefited from a touch more pantomime excess, as with the old-time Wild West extravaganzas.

Zellweger, too, seems a touch misplaced – her character’s loyalty to her man depends entirely on which man has the upper hand but her mastery of the old refined US accent, is about as deep as her character seems to go.

So, I hear you ask, what did he like about it then? In a word, Ed – Harris has a masterful, consummate approach to his acting, one that has illuminated films as diverse as A History of Violence (2005) and The Truman Show (1998), and his approach is no different here, presenting us with a believable take on a man prepared to do the right thing, no matter what the cost. In addition, his direction is slick and well-paced, and the end result is a nostalgic, enjoyable reminder that they can still make ‘em like they used to.

114 mins.