The Tarantino device

 

© Colombia Pictures / Bona Film Group

 

Finally, some three-to-four months after it was released in America and Europe, I’ve managed in Sri Lanka to catch up with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the new film – or as it’s more portentously known, the ninth film – directed by Quentin Tarantino.  Before I offer my thoughts on the latest of Mr Tarantino’s opuses, which is set in Los Angeles in 1969, I should warn you that spoilers lie ahead.

 

I felt some trepidation when I sat down to watch Once Upon a Time because I’ve had mixed feelings about Tarantino’s output in the 21st century.  Parts – but certainly not all – of the Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004) worked for me.  I found the first half of Deathproof (2007) tedious.  While I generally had a good time with Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), both had serious lapses in logic that annoyed me.  In fact, I’ve only unreservedly enjoyed his previous movie, The Hateful Eight (2015), perhaps because it was restricted to one setting, had a relatively small cast and seemed more like a stage play, which actually suited Tarantino’s style.  (While he frequently gets dumped on for being shallow and interested only in trashy movies, Tarantino is really very literary.  He delights in dialogue, writes reams of it for his characters and isn’t afraid to give the actors playing those characters inordinate amounts of time to speak it, long after most other directors would have cut away.)

 

Once Upon a Time is the antithesis of The Hateful Eight.  It sprawls across Hollywood, Los Angeles and beyond and has a cast of thousands – well, hundreds, anyway.  But it worked for me.  Not only is it an exhilarating piece of cinema, but it also takes a dark and dispiriting topic and, through the magic of movies, manages to fashion something touching and even uplifting out of it.

 

As you’d expect from a Tarantino film set in Hollywood, Once Upon a Time is loaded with references to famous people – Joseph Cotton, Patty Duke, Ann-Margaret, Jim Morrison, George Pepard, Telly Savalas, John Sturges and Brian Wilson to name a very few.  But for me the most interesting name-check is that of celebrated science fiction and fantasy author Ray Bradbury.  (Bradbury’s 1951 short-story collection The Illustrated Man was made into an anthology movie in 1969, which in Once Upon a Time is heard being advertised on a car radio.)  Significantly, Bradbury wrote a story in 1965 called The Kilimanjaro Device, about a man who goes off in a time machine to find Ernest Hemmingway before he commits suicide and to rescue him from that sad fate.  Once Upon a Time is basically Tarantino’s Kilimanjaro Device.  It’s a means by which he travels back in time, searches out someone who came to a tragic and premature end and tries to save them.  But though his mission is a serious one, he also has a lot of fun along the way.

 

Fun especially comes from the double-act at the movie’s heart, the characters of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth played respectively by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.  Rick is a supposed tough-guy actor whose career reached its peak in the 1950s when he played the hero of a TV western series called Bounty Law.  Since then, he’s been steadily descending the slope on the far side of that peak, taking guest-slots as villain-of-the-week in other stars’ TV shows, a downward trajectory aided by the fact that he’s a pisshead and something of a narcissistic, self-pitying arsehole.  Meanwhile, Cliff is a Hollywood stuntman who’s somehow ended up working for Rick as his driver (Rick was busted for drunk driving), minder, handyman and general dogsbody.  Cliff is the yang to Rick’s yin, being easy-going, amiable and effortlessly cool.  For example, he’s tolerant of and holds his own among the teenaged hippies who’ve become a feature of LA in the past year or so – whereas the prematurely grumpy-old-mannish Rick just hates them.  Actually, such is Cliff’s magnetism that he could have become a star like, or indeed bigger, than Rick, but Tarantino inserts a disturbing piece of backstory explaining why Cliff is persona non grata at the Hollywood studios.

 

I’ve been indifferent to the acting abilities of DiCaprio and Pitt in the past, but they’re both terrific here.  Despite, or possibly because of, his character’s arsehole-ery, DiCaprio manages to make Rick entertaining and even endearing.  Mind you, nothing makes me feel so depressingly old and past it as seeing a film in which the brat from 1997’s Titanic plays a character who’s constantly moaning about being old and past it.  As Cliff, Pitt not only is likeable but invests the character with a surprising vulnerability.  At the film’s climax, we worry about him when he stares danger in the face with his laid-back nonchalance, while the effects of an acid-dipped cigarette he’s just smoked start to kick in.

 

© Colombia Pictures

 

As you might expect from someone so famously addicted to pop culture, Tarantino goes to town in depicting the late-1960s Hollywood milieu that Rick and Cliff inhabit: the music, fashions, hairstyles, cars, building facades, neon signs and, of course, movies.  You could probably watch Once Upon a Time a dozen times and still not catch all the films seen on posters, hoardings and cinema-fronts or mentioned in radio ads and conversations, but here are a few I picked up: Valley of the Dolls (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), Romeo and Juliet (1968), The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), Lady in Cement (1968) and Krakatoa, East of Java (1969).  Plus we get to see parts of 1968’s The Wrecking Crew, one in a series of 1960s cash-ins on the James Bond craze that featured Dean Martin as a secret agent called Matt Helm.  The Matt Helm movies were set in a cool, groovy, youth-orientated 1960s world in which the middle-aged Dean Martin, try as he might, couldn’t help but look out of his depth – which makes him resemble Rick and Cliff, two slightly over-the-hill blokes trying to survive in a world that’s gone youth-crazy.

 

Then there are the imaginary 1960s movies that Rick supposedly appears in.  We see him torching Nazi officers with a flamethrower (“Anybody order fried sauerkraut?”) in the credibly 1960s-esque World War II actioner 14 Fists of McCluskey.  Later, he jets off to Italy at the behest of his agent (played by Al Pacino) and stars in some fabricated spaghetti westerns like Nebraska Jim (directed by the real-life Sergio Corbucci) and fabricated Euro-spy epics like Operazione Dyn-o-mite (directed by the equally real-life Antonio Margheriti.)  Rick’s Italian career-move, of course, was one that another star of another old TV western series, Clint Eastwood – Rowdy Yates in Rawhide from 1958 to 1966 – had profitably made earlier in the decade.

 

© Renato Casaro / From wiki.tarantino.info

 

And then there’s the cinematic fusion of the real and imaginary, such as when a lachrymose Rick imagines himself starring in a certain, much-loved 1960s war movie.  Apparently, he was in with a shout of getting the lead role when, for a time, Steve McQueen wasn’t interested.

 

Though Once Upon a Time is a cinephile’s dream, I like the fact that it doesn’t forget the larger and less glamorous culture underpinning Hollywood’s moviemaking one – television, which offers performers and crewmembers employment when they aren’t making films.  Indeed, Rick is primarily a TV star rather than a cinematic one and we see much more of him on TV sets than on film ones.  Television helps pay the rent for folk who are both on the way down, like Rick, and on the way up, like Bruce Lee, who starred in the 1966-67 show The Green Hornet and who’s depicted in a flashback meeting and falling out with Cliff.  Lee’s family were upset about his portrayal in Once Upon a Time, which suggests he was an arrogant dickwad.  However, later, we do glimpse him behaving graciously with an actress whom he’s training in the martial arts.

 

Something that surely reinforces Rick’s inferiority complex about being a second-rate TV star rather than a first-rate film star is the fact that his new next-door neighbours on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon are prestigious up-and-coming movie director Roman Polanski – fresh from making 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby – and his wife, glamorous up-and-coming movie star Sharon Tate.  And it’s here that Once Upon a Time gets its injection of darkness: for we know that in the real world on August 8th, 1969, while Polanski was overseas, Tate and her houseguests were brutally murdered by some followers of crazed hippy-cult leader Charles Manson.  At least, that’s what happened in reality.  With Rick and Cliff on the scene, blundering into events unknowingly, the script of Once Upon a Time diverges somewhat from the proper historical script of 1969.  This is, after all, Tarantino’s Kilimanjaro Device.

 

Manson and his disciples don’t get much screen time.  Manson, played by Damon Herriman, turns up in one short scene and his followers are only in the limelight during an unsettling and claustrophobic sequence set at the Spahn Movie Ranch, which was their hangout at the time and which, as its name indicates, was officially used as a film set, mainly for westerns.  And a few of them obviously feature in the film’s last, brutal 20 minutes.  Manson and co have received much attention in popular culture in the last half-century and, in some misguided quarters, have acquired a morbid retro-cool.  So it’s good that in Once Upon a Time they’re portrayed as a pack of pathetic but dangerous psychos / losers who deserve no empathy whatever.

 

It’s also a relief that Roman Polanski, whom time has proven to be a Grade A creep and who’s played here by Rafal Zawierucha, gets little screen time too.  When we see him briefly, he’s togged out in a silly, velvety, frilly outfit that makes him look like Austen Powers.

 

With Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, Tarantino has been criticised for having her do and say little of consequence.  She watches one of her own movies, she buys a book for her husband – in a bit of cinematic foreshadowing, it’s Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles (1891) – she hangs out with her friends, she becomes pregnant and shows off the nursery she’s prepared for the little ‘un, she’s kooky and charming, and that’s it.  Which I think is Tarantino’s point.  She doesn’t have to be or do anything outstanding.  He just wants to show her as an attractive, talented human being.  That’s the way she should be remembered, not as a tragic footnote to the horrible business of the Manson murders.

 

Also earning Tarantino criticism for Once Upon a Time is his being, well, Tarantino-esque.  The film is long (two hours, 40 minutes) and shows his usual disregard for the rules of restrained filmmaking.  Show, don’t tell?  No, Tarantino tells everything, through voiceovers, exposition, montages, flashbacks, fantasy sequences that illustrate what characters are thinking.  Be economical and cut all extraneous fat from the plot?  To hell with that – there are loads of scenes here, of people walking and driving and talking, talking, talking, that do nothing to propel the story forward and that any other director would have saved for the ‘extras’ on the DVD release.

 

But to be honest, I don’t care.  Firstly, while making this film, Tarantino got a lot of toys to play with – he had fake retro-facades fitted over the businesses along Hollywood Boulevard to make it look like 1969 and had a section of the Hollywood Freeway closed off so that he could populate it with vintage automobiles – and I don’t blame him for taking time to show off those toys.  Secondly, we only see the guy once every four years.  And when the portal finally opens again, so to speak, I don’t mind stepping through it and spending the most of three hours exploring the newest part of the Quentin-verse.  Especially not when it’s as textured, fascinating and generally stunning as this.

 

That said, after the film had finished and I found myself back in the real world, as opposed to Tarantino’s world, I felt a certain melancholia when I remembered it’d all been pretend.  Which was also how I used to feel as a kid after I’d finished reading the latest book by Ray Bradbury.

 

© Octavio Terol / From wiki.tarantino.info

 

Hatefully yours, Quentin

 

(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

You may be one of those people who regard filmmaker Quentin Tarantino as a let-down.  You thought his early movies like 1992’s Reservoir Dogs and 1994’s Pulp Fiction showed tremendous potential and nodded approvingly at 1997’s Jackie Brown, which was calmer, less flashy and more reflective in tone and suggested an increasing maturity on Tarantino’s part.  But then you rolled your eyes at his 21st-century output: the Kill Bill movies in 2003 and 2004, Death Proof in 2007, Inglourious Basterds in 2009 and Django Unchained in 2012.

 

All that adolescent, cheesy stuff that you thought Tarantino had shaken off with Jackie Brown was suddenly back – squared, perhaps even cubed.  Copious references and homages to trashy old B and Z-grade genre movies.  Sequences of such violence and bloodiness that you wondered if he filmed them with windscreen-wipers fitted on his camera lenses.  Barrages of unsavoury racial epithets, particularly the n-word, usually fired off by or fired off at Samuel L. Jackson.  And scenes that went on and on and on because the characters in them never shut up, Tarantino being infatuated with the sound of his own voice (or his own dialogue), with the result that his films were hours longer than they needed to be.

 

Quentin, you’ve commonly thought over the past decade, I’m not angry with you.   I’m just disappointed.

 

Well, if you’re one of those people, I have good news.  You’re going to detest his latest, The Hateful Eight – ‘The eighth film by Quentin Tarantino’ as it’s grandly described on the credits – because in it he happily commits the above sins against mature filmmaking all over again.

 

That’s bad news for you, actually.  But it’s good news for me because I like the schlock-movie references, bloodshed and relentless talking in Tarantino’s movies.  (Admittedly, I get a bit fed up hearing the n-word all the time, but I suppose I can forgive him one over-indulgence.)  So I went home from seeing The Hateful Eight well-satisfied.

 

(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

The movie is Tarantino’s second western and it takes place sometime after the American Civil War.  We meet half of the titular eight in the film’s first two ‘chapters’.  They are bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his unladylike lady prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh); another bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson); and a former Confederate militiaman called Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be travelling to a town where, improbably, he’s just been appointed sheriff.  Warren and Mannix appear at different times to hitch a ride in Ruth’s private stagecoach, which makes him suspect they’re in cahoots to steal his prisoner and lift the bounty-money for her.  However, the animosity that develops between Warren and Mannix because of their war records – Warren served as a Yankee officer and was responsible for a lot of Confederate deaths – suggests that a secret alliance is unlikely.  That or they’re very good actors.

 

Chapter three sees the stagecoach arrive, just before a blizzard makes further travel impossible, at a store-cum-refuge in the middle of nowhere called Minnie’s Haberdashery.  And here the rest of the eight are introduced: Bob (Demian Bichir), a cheery Mexican who says he’s running the haberdashery for Minnie while she’s off visiting her mother; Mobray (Tim Roth), an aristocratic and garrulous Englishman who professes to be a hangman; Gage (Michael Madsen), a surly and solitary cowboy who spends his time scribbling his memoirs into a notebook; and Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), a sour old man whom Mannix and Warren recognise as a Confederate general of considerable repute or notoriety, depending on which side of the war they fought on.

 

Ruth is soon seething with paranoia because he sees these four strangers as additional possible threats to his prisoner and bounty.  But plenty of other questions emerge.  What’s really happened to Minnie and her staff at the haberdashery?  What became of the son whom Smithers is now in the territory searching for – and did Warren play a role in his death?  Is the letter that Warren keeps producing from his pocket and flashing around truly proof of a friendship he once had with Abraham Lincoln?  And is anyone in the snowbound haberdashery actually telling the truth about who they are and what they’re up to?

 

Chapter three ends with violence and the film’s first fatality.  By chapter four the blood is flowing freely and during chapters five and six…  Well, this is a Tarantino movie.  You know what to expect.

 

Several critics have pointed to Agatha Christie as a major inspiration for The Hateful Eight and dubbed it Ten Little Indians-out-west.  But the main template for the film’s plot, wherein a group stuck in a confined space try to identify one or more hostile imposters hiding among them, is surely Tarantino’s own Reservoir Dogs.  This is underscored by the fact that two of the original ‘Dogs’, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen, reappear here.

 

I should say that the film’s also reminiscent of John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of The Thing, partly because of the hidden-imposters plot, partly because of the bleak snowy setting and partly because of Kurt Russell being in it.  Russell, of course, played McCready, the embattled hero of The Thing.  Indeed there’s a scene in The Hateful Eight where one character forces the others at gunpoint to line up against a wall while he tries to figure out who the enemy is; which evokes the famous scene in The Thing where Russell ties up his remaining colleagues prior to doing a blood-test that’ll determine who’s human and who’s secretly got tentacles.

 

(c) FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

The way the common criticisms of him are framed, Tarantino just can’t win.  On one hand, it’s fashionable to deride him as a shallow, sensationalist gobshite whose work is a monument to his trashy taste in movies.  Yet his modus operandi is in many ways quite highbrow.  As an artist he’s as literary as he is cinematic, writing film-scripts like playwrights write plays.  He defines his characters as much by what they say as by what they do and how they look.  He takes genuine pleasure in the ebb and flow, and the cut and thrust, of dialogue.  And he gives his scenes a theatrical length that allows his actors and actresses space to properly act.  Incidentally, he also insists on dividing his films into ‘chapters’, which is a rather literary habit.

 

Of course, in doing this, he lays himself open to the other line of attack, i.e. that his films are uneconomical, excessively talky and never know when to stop.  (For the record, The Hateful Eight has an imposing running time of three hours and seven minutes.)

 

But if, like me, you appreciate a movie where words – as opposed to, say, CGI – are the thing that matters, you’ll find much to cherish in The Hateful Eight.  It helps that the words here come out of the mouths of a first-rate cast.  Jackson is his usual inimitable self as Marquis Warren (a character named after the writer, director and producer Charles Marquis Warren who specialised in westerns, both movies like 1951’s Only the Valiant, 1968’s Day of the Evil Gun and 1969’s Charro! and TV shows like Rawhide and Gunsmoke).  Russell and Bruce Dern are good value too and I suspect Tarantino cast them because of their past western credentials.  Russell played Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (1993) and Dern made several westerns in his youth, including 1972’s The Cowboys, at the end of which he shot John Wayne in the back – the scumbag.

 

But the most memorable performances are those by Walton Goggins as the gormless and unreliable Mannix, a man who needs to keep his limited number of wits about him if he’s to survive events in Minnie’s Haberdashery; by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ruth’s prisoner Domergue, a sly, cackling and occasionally rabid creature whom you really wouldn’t want to be handcuffed to; and by Tim Roth as the delightfully pompous Mobray, who seems to channel Richard Harris’s English Bob character in Clint Eastwood’s classic 1992 western The Unforgiven.  Demian Bichir and Michael Madsen make less of an impression, though, never quite managing to elbow their way past the other, larger-than-life characters to claim part of the limelight for themselves.

 

I didn’t feel breathless after seeing The Hateful Eight in the way that I did after seeing Pulp Fiction 22 years ago; but I’d still rate it as Tarantino’s best movie since the 1990s.  It’s more substantial than the schlock-obsessed Kill Bill movies and Death Proof.  And it makes more sense than Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, both of which seemed to abandon the laws of logic whenever it suited Tarantino’s storytelling.  That said, I did detect one lapse of logic in it – when the tensions that’ve simmered between the Yankee Warren and the Confederate Mannix and Smithers boil over halfway through the film, you expect repercussions afterwards; but there aren’t repercussions and this sub-plot abruptly disappears.  Otherwise, and especially compared to its two predecessors, The Hateful Eight’s plot is fairly cogent.

 

The Hateful Eight won’t win Tarantino new fans or win back the respect of those who went off him post-Jackie Brown.  But if, after nearly a quarter-century, you still have a fondness for le cinéma Quentin-ique, this should keep you satisfied till the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino – which will hopefully be due sometime around 2020.

 

By the way, I like this picture of him with Miss Piggy.

 

From muppet.wikia.com

 

Jamie’s got a gun: film review / Django Unchained

 

At long last – here’s that Django Unchained review…

(c) Columbia Pictures

 

According to a recent article in the BBC news-website magazine, a quarter of the cowboys in the old American West were black (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21768669).  Indeed, the black lawman Bass Reeves is thought to have inspired the character of the Lone Ranger; and the experiences of another black man, Brit Johnson, were the basis for The Searchers, the novel by Alan Le May that John Ford filmed in 1957 and arguably made into the greatest western movie of all.  But if you watched such movies any time between the silent era and the 1970s (when the western perished as a major cinematic genre), you’d be under the impression that the American West was entirely populated by white people.  Well, apart from those pesky Red Indians, who tended to all get shot anyway.

 

Going by the movie history of the Wild West, in fact, there was only ever one black person who lived there.  That was the great American-footballer-turned-character-actor Woody Strode, who appeared in American and Italian-made westerns such as Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Professionals (1966), Boot Hill (1969), Chuck Moll (1970), The Deserter (1971), The Revengers (1972), Keoma (1976), Lust in the Dust (1985) and The Quick and the Dead (1995).  In 1968 he turned up in that rarest of beasts, a British-made western, Shalako, and the same year he appeared in the epic opening scene of Sergio Leone’s generally epic Once Upon a Time in the West – another contender for the title of greatest western ever.  Strode was a close friend of John Ford, the genre’s most influential director, who in 1960 cast him in the title role in Sergeant Rutledge, a western-cum-courtyard-drama in which a black sergeant in the US Cavalry in the 1880s is falsely charged with the rape and murder of a white woman.

 

Other than Strode, the black presence in western movies was negligible.  A few were made specifically for ‘coloured’ audiences in the 1930s, and a few ‘blaxploitation’ ones (usually starring the indefatigable Fred Williamson) were made in the 1970s, but that was about it.  Things only improved when the western no longer existed as a continuing genre, thanks to sporadic retro-items such as 1985’s Silverado (featuring Danny Glover and Joe Seneca) and 1992’s The Unforgiven (featuring Morgan Freeman).  In 1993 Mario Van Peebles directed and starred in Posse, about a group of black ex-soldiers in the late-1890s West – a story told in flashback by an old man played by none other than Woody Strode.  Despite its honourable intention of representing the ‘8000 black cowboys’ whose stories Hollywood ignored, the critical consensus on Posse was that it wasn’t very good.

 

It says it all that the most popular film from the western’s classic era that was both upfront in having a black hero and unflinching in showing the racism he was subjected to was none other than the 1974 Mel Brooks spoof, Blazing Saddles.  In Blazing Saddles, the ridiculous townspeople of Rock Ridge, threatened by an evil railroad company, are more concerned about the skin pigmentation of their new sheriff (Cleavon Little) than they are about their town’s impending demolition.  It says a lot for Little’s good nature that he hangs around and tries to protect their shithole town against the villainous railroad-men.

 

But now we have Quentin Tarantino’s new western, Django Unchained – yet another Tarantino ‘pastiche of already disreputable genres’, to quote that cultural Lord Snooty in the Guardian, Adam Mars-Jones (http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/jan/25/django-unchained-lincoln-tarantino-spielberg).  The Wild West in Django is pretty black.  The main cast is largely black (Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington and the inevitable Samuel L. Jackson), there’s a black-related theme – slavery, which was a rather big phenomenon in 19th-century American history, although for some reason most makers of western movies seemed not to notice it – and the soundtrack features some black musical genres, including blues and rap.  And this being Tarantino, the N-word is sprayed around in the dialogue as liberally as the bullets are in the shootouts.

 

I’ll start by getting my main criticism of Django Unchained off my chest, and the problem is the same one that spoiled my enjoyment of Tarantino’s previous movie, Inglourious Basterds: an ultimate failure of logic.  In the last reel of Basterds, we were expected to believe that in a cinema building where Hitler, Goebbels and pretty much the whole leadership of World War II Germany had gathered to watch a film, the Nazis would post two — yes, two — guards.  Obviously, the underwhelming security presence made it easier for Brad Pitt’s men to liquidise the enemy.  Tarantino would no doubt throw up his hands at this criticism and exclaim, “Hey, it’s set in a fantasy universe!  That sort of mundane detail doesn’t matter!”  But even as a fantasy movie, Basterds needed some internal logic.  And actually, earlier in the film, the Nazis had been shown to be paranoid about spies and infiltrators.

 

About a half-hour before the end of Django Unchained, the title character, played by Jamie Foxx, finds himself entirely at the mercy of vengeful forces that are ready to cut him into small pieces.  Yet they don’t.  After a wholly unconvincing reason is given, Foxx is allowed to live (and fight) another day – which goes against everything we know about the forces ranged against him.  The audience is left with the impression that Tarantino’s creativity failed him.  He just couldn’t think of a better way to get Foxx out of this tight scrape.  And in fact, it would’ve been better if Tarantino had simply ended the movie there, as Django feels at least half-an-hour too long anyway.

 

With that reservation out of the way, though, I can say that Django Unchained has much to enjoy.  Like Tarantino’s best movies, it contains both the sublime and the (knowingly) ridiculous, at times in the same scene.  A sequence involving a night-time raid by a group of prototype Ku Klux Klansmen invokes D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 epic Birth of a Nation before turning into an episode of comic idiocy that Mel Brooks could have concocted for Blazing Saddles in 1974.  And as usual with Tarantino too, the dialogue crackles.  While characters soliloquise and verbally spar, you feel you’re being treated to a sumptuous aural banquet of garrulity.  (That sounds like a phrase Tarantino might write himself, actually).

 

It helps that the actors spouting the dialogue are excellent.  As Dr Schultz, a German bounty hunter who frees Foxx from captivity and enlists him first as an informant and then as a partner, Christoph Waltz is at least as good as he was in Inglourious Basterds.  Here, he convincingly portrays a character who, despite being a state-sanctioned murderer, retains enough humanity to take Foxx under his wing and retains enough romanticism to eventually help him search for his wife, who is still kept as a slave.  It helps that Foxx’s wife, played by Kerry Washington, is called Broomhilda, a name that reminds Schultz of the quest of Siegfried in German legend.

 

Broomhilda, it transpires, is a slave on a huge southern plantation called Candyland, owned by one Calvin J. Candie, who is played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Now probably like many discerning cinema-goers, I’ve been biased against DiCaprio in the past – the DiCaprio-mania that swept the world after he sank beneath the icy North Atlantic in the big movie of 1997 made me a bit prejudiced when it came to assessing his acting abilities.  But he is very good here, playing somebody who is both rottenly racist and rottenly decadent, but containing, just about, a streak of gentlemanly charm.

 

When Django and Schultz infiltrate Candyland on their mission to rescue Broomhilda, they manage to manoeuvre around Candie – but they fall foul of Stephen, the wily and poisonous ‘senior house slave’ who, despite his skin colour, might even be pulling Candie’s strings on the plantation.  Stephen is played by Samuel L. Jackson and this may be the best performance he’s provided for Tarantino, which is saying something.

 

A few people, including the afore-mentioned Adam Mars-Jones, have pointed out that for all the ballyhoo about Django Unchained being a western with a black hero, Django spends a lot of time hovering passively in Schultz’s shadow and letting the German make the decisions.  However, the film charts Django’s progression from slave to free-spirited gunslinger, so it’s a necessary stage of his development that he spends time as the bounty hunter’s apprentice.  It’s later in the film that he starts to think for himself and becomes proactive.  (Proactivity is something that I wish Kerry Washington’s character had more of, though.  For much of her screen time she merely stands around looking worried.  At one point she even faints.  For a Tarantino heroine, she is disappointingly un-kick-ass.)

 

Another criticism I’d defend Django Unchained against is the charge that it treats a serious subject, slavery, in an inappropriately cartoonish manner.  The movie undeniably has cartoonish qualities, especially in its later stages when bullets fly in ever-increasing quantities and ketchupy exit-wounds spurt with ever-more frequency.  But the film’s depiction of Candyland gives it some psychological weight.  In the warped society existing under Candie’s roof, the relationships between the oppressor and (a few of) the oppressed have become tangled.  Candie is terrifyingly brutal towards his human belongings but he can’t exist away from their company either.  Meanwhile, Stephen is a slave but, with his master, he conspires to be a monster to his fellow slaves.

 

In a speech Candie delivers in one scene, he recalls how his father was shaved every day by Stephen’s father with a cut-throat razor, yet the latter was never tempted to dispatch the former with a sudden flick of the wrist.  Candie explains this using the phony science of phrenology, claiming that blacks are inherently submissive thanks to the shape of their skulls.  But as we see Candie and Stephen connive, we realise that the real reason was probably a morbid symbiosis that has passed from fathers to sons.

 

Before signing off, I should say that Django Unchained is a treat for film buffs thanks to the number of old movie tough guys and character actors who appear in cameos or even micro-cameos.  Watch carefully, with your finger on the DVD-player pause button, and you’ll spot James Remar from The Warriors (1979) and The Cotton Club (1984); Don Stroud, whom I haven’t seen since he got impaled on the prongs of a fork-lift truck in the Timothy Dalton Bond movie, Licence to Kill (1989); Russ Tamblyn, who played Dr Jacoby in Twin Peaks back in 1991 and played Riff in West Side Story thirty years before that; Bruce Dern, who should need no introduction from me; Robert Carradine, brother of David and Keith – the three of them played the Younger brothers in Walter Hill’s 1980 western The Long Riders; Tom Savini, the famous gory special-effects man who worked on George A. Romero’s zombie movies; and John Jarrat, the Australian actor who played the psycho-killer in Greg Mclean’s terrifying 2005 film Wolf Creek.  Oh, and if you’re a connoisseur of old, crap 1980s TV shows, the guy who played Matt Houston and one of The Dukes of Hazzard are in it too.

 

Incidentally, here’s a guide to those black westerns, such as they were, that were made before Django Unchained: http://www.whogottherole.com/featured/list/western-cowboy-movies-you-never-herd-of-23307.

 

From www.intothewildunion.blogspot.com