You know from Tarantino’s audacious choice of intro music — the haunting theme song from Sergio Corbucci’s iconic 1966 Spaghetti Western “Django,” that the maestro-of-all-things-tasty has many surprises in store for his delighted audience. Campy, funny, shocking, and seeping with sardonic social commentary, “Django Unchained” is Quentin Tarantino’s finest film.
The madness of slavery, i.e. racism, hangs thick in the air of the American South circa 1858. Tarantino says of his film’s representation of the pre-Civil War South: “It can’t be more nightmarish than it was in real life. It can’t be more surrealistic than it was in real life. It can’t me more outrageous than it was in real life.” Indeed, groans of audience empathy arrive at intervals with the agony we witness on-screen. Tarantino’s allegory regarding the use of torture couldn’t be more obvious.
In typical revenge-plot fashion, Tarantino establishes the nimble bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz) as the kind of man who can get himself out of any situation. The retired dentist “purchases” freedom from slavery for Django (Jamie Foxx) to assist Schultz in identifying a trio of brothers named Brittle whose heads carry a hefty reward. Django proves more than qualified for hunting down and killing slave-owners. Working together as a team, Dr. Schultz and Django craft a complex plan to free Django’s enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the evil clutches of Leonardo DiCaprio’s plantation owner Calvin Candie. “Candyland” is name of Mr. Candie’s plantation where he cultivates “Mandingo” slave warriors who fight to the death. DiCaprio’s centerpiece monologue — wherein the actor accidentally cut his hand and chooses to use the blood draining from his hand — is the stuff of cult movie legend.
Tarantino’s plot acrobatics have never seemed silkier — or bloodier for that matter. Blood doesn’t just splatter — intestines explode from bodies. More than a pure Spaghetti Western homage, the overall piece is an exploitation cinema mutt. Every character name rings with a bell pulled from Tarantino’s vast cornucopia of movie inspirations. The big-kid auteur gives shout-outs to everything from Gordon Parks’s “Shaft” to martial arts action star Sonny Sheba. The effect is an onion-layered communal movie for film lovers to rally around. I dare say that all those involved in the making of “Django Unchained” had more fun making it than just about any other group of actors and filmmakers. The comic joys and dark delights are up there on the screen.
As with all of Tarantino’s films, “Django Unchained” is filled with spellbinding dialogue and outstanding plot twists. One such sequence of steadily building suspense arrives after Schultz has freed Django. The two men enter a bar where the owner insists that they leave immediately for the obvious reason that they don’t allow black people. Schultz handily dispatches the men and sends for the sheriff while he and Django take a seat with a couple of mugs of beer. Naturally the bigoted sheriff shows up with a chip on his shoulder that the good “doctor” is only too happy permanently remove. Shultz sends for the town Marshall, who in turn shows up with a posse of gun-toting thugs. The scene culminates in a crescendo of character-revealing magic. It’s not too early to call “Django Unchained” an instant classic. Movie lovers rejoice; Q.T. is back in the house.
Rated R. 160 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
HEAVEN'S GATE — CLASSIC FILM PICK
So much has been written about Michael Cimino’s torpedoing of United Artists studios, and his own career, with this legendary, disastrously over budget epic Western, that it takes some doing to separate the quality of the much maligned film from the mythology surrounding it.
“Heaven’s Gate” (1980) was originally budgeted for $7.5 million, and wound up costing over $36 million. It made less than $3 million at the box office during its theatrical release. It was only due to Jerry Harvey’s Los Angeles-based cable “Z Channel” that “Heaven’s Gate” began to be viewed with the respect it deserves.
Coming on the heels of his overwhelming success with “The Deer Hunter,” Cimino set out to make a European-styled Western full of carefully orchestrated crowd scenes to rival the climatic ballroom dance sequence in Luchino Visconti’s “The Leopard.” His casting choices would be unconventional.
The film opens with Kris Kristofferson’s lead character James Averill running to catch up with his Harvard classmates for their 1870 graduation ceremonies. Joseph Cotton’s reverend/doctor speaks to the Class of '70, of the “influence” they may exert toward the “education” of a hostile nation. Commencement speaker William C. Irvine (John Hurt) squanders his opportunity to address his peers with any such lofty aspirations, and thus sets the tone for the irresponsible attitudes of an organization called the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, which, 20 years later, creates a 125-name “kill list” to eradicate Casper, Wyoming of most of its immigrant settlers. Now serving as a federal Marshall for Johnson County, Averill stops off in Casper to woo his French madam girlfriend Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) with a brand new horse carriage.
The film’s title derives from the name of a large canvas-roofed rollerskating rink dance hall operated by John Bridges (Jeff Bridges), a European immigrant entrepreneur. The spacious venue allows for the film’s centerpiece, a music-and-dance sequence in which the town’s immigrant community gathers to dance, rollerskate, and cavort. For all of the exorbitant cost attributed to the scene, it serves an important function in the story. Here, we are informally introduced to a community of impoverished migrants with a joyous lust for life. It is this exact type of cultural richness that a tightknit group of wealthy white cattle barons wants to wipe out. Inevitably, a small-scale war of ideologies is brewing.
“Heaven’s Gate” examines a rarely glimpsed vision of the Old West. It is not one that American audiences at the time of the film’s release were happy to receive. To be sure, the movie was not promoted with the kind of energy attributed to mainstream fare. Nonetheless, “Heaven’s Gate” is an unforgettable film full of heartfelt sincerity and pointed commentary about America’s bloody history of hypocrisy, greed, and racism. It is worth every penny spent on it, and every bit of an audience’s time watching its three-hour-and-forty-minute running time.
The Wild Bunch - Classic Film Pick
In 1969 Sam Peckinpah made the greatest example of the western genre in cinema. Not many American audiences at the time could recognize it as such, in part, because Warner Brothers edited down Peckinpah's original 144-minute version to allow for more theatrical screenings in the United States.
Set in 1913, on the eve of World War I, the episodic story follows the robbing, drinking, and whoring exploits of a gang of middle-aged outlaws out to make one last bank heist that will enable them to retire. Peckinpah sets the gritty tone for the violence to follow with an opening credit scene of children gleefully watching a swarm of red ants attacking a couple of defenseless scorpions whose large claws and stinging tails are of no use against such a large number of pernicious insects. A primordial aspect of history repeating itself is at play.
William Holden's Pike Bishop leads his gang of renegades dressed as American soldiers into a Texas border town. Their military uniforms blind the local citizenry to the group's wicked threat. Little do the thieves themselves realize that a posse of bounty hunters line the roofs of buildings facing the town square where the bank in question awaits. Inspired by Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde," Peckinpah orchestrates a speed-shifting ballet of bullets in a bloody gunfight that leaves bystanders lying dead alongside posse members and dudes from Pike’s gang. Never before had a western shown such a potent version of gunshot violence and gore. Informed by the realities of the Viet Nam war -- televised nightly at the time -- Peckinpah sought to bring such realism to his audience with a vengeance.
Upon their escape, the remaining gang discovers insult added to injury in the guise of worthless steel washers that fill the bank bags once believed filled with gold.
Pike and his right-hand man Dutch (Earnest Borgnine) ride off toward Mexico with their cohorts, the outlaw brothers Lyle (Warren Oates) and Tector (Ben Johnson) and their Mexican comrade Angel (Jamie Sanchez). After crossing the Rio Grande the gang find that the Mexican Revolution has devastated the region where Angel was born. A local despot called Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) rules the region with the support of the Mexican Federal Army. Angel is none too pleased when he finds his wife has run off to play girlfriend to Mapache. Angel’s subsequent act of revenge indebts the gang to Mapache. A deal is brokered for the gang to rob a U.S. Army train transporting weapons.
Famous for its breathtaking bridge explosion sequence, “The Wild Bunch” is a western layered with social commentary about war, codes of honor among men, and humanity’s childish nature that bends equally between violence and pleasure. The film’s brilliant cinematography (courtesy of Lucien Ballard) and dynamic editing (by Lou Lombardo) impeccably serves Peckinpah’s uncompromising vision. “The Wild Bunch” is a post-modern western that represents the passing of an era. It is an epic masterpiece that changed cinema forever.
Stagecoach - Classic Film Pick
With his first sound Western in 1939 director John Ford invented the template for the modern Western form. Every character archetype is on display, as is every plot movement of cause and resolution that would become well-worn clichés in the most prolific genre of 20th century American film.
“Stagecoach” was also the first collaboration between John Ford and his star actor John Wayne. Their personal friendship and professional alliance would span four decades , including such other milestone achievements as “The Searchers” (1956). Wayne plays Ringo Kid, an escaped prison convict who gets captured by Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft). In the absence of a calvary escort through dangerous Apache country, Wilcox rides shotgun on a stagecoach full of passengers headed from Tonto, Arizona Territory to Lordsburg, New Mexico Territory. Monument Valley provided the iconic location Ford would return to again and again throughout his career.
Reports of attacks led by the Indian chief Geronimo and his Apache tribesmen instill an atmosphere of tension and dread. Andy Devine steals numerous scenes as Buck, the jovial stagecoach driver whose high-pitched voice penetrates through the clamor of dust-up action and petty squabbles.
Along for the bumpy ride is Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a blowhard banker carrying a bag stuffed with $50,000 of embezzled cash. Dallas (Claire Trevor) is a well-mannered prostitute abruptly run out of town. Naturally, sparks of romance fly between Ringo and Dallas during the unpredictable journey. A wedding proposal from the prison-bound Ringo is in the offing. Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek) is an effeminate whiskey salesman whose bag of samples provides a seemingly bottomless supply of booze for Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell). Doc is an alcoholic physician capable of rising to the occasion when Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt), a calvaryman's faithful wife, unexpectedly gives birth. On board too is a smarmy gambler (played by John Carradine) with a keen interest in taking care of Mrs. Mallory. In spite of his arrest, Ringo has unfinished business with Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler) over the murder of Ringo’s father and brother. No Marshall can prevent Ringo from his sworn showdown if the stagecoach ever reaches its destination.
Integral to its authentic atmosphere of the 1880’s Wild West are the film’s Oscar-winning adaptations of American folk songs that supply an aural tapestry of vibrant cultural experience. The film’s centerpiece cowboys-and-Indians chase scene is peppered with some truly terrifying stunts performed by men and horses alike. Orson Welles famously said he watched “Stagecoach” 40 times before he made “Citizen Kane.” It’s easy to see why.
Rio Bravo - Classic Film Pick
"Rio Bravo" (1959) is Howard Hawkes's shamelessly commercial Western. At the time of its release the movie pandered to audiences that were perceived as being distracted away from the movies by the small screen. One of the film's many notable features is John Wayne's participation as a belated cinematic response to Fred Zinnemann's 1952 Western "High Noon" (written by Carl Foreman), known now as an anti-McCarthyism allegory regarding blacklisting. Wayne resented "Nigh Noon" for taking what he viewed as a "defeatist" stance. The irony is that "Rio Bravo" comes off like a lightweight next to the far superior "High Noon," which starred Gary Cooper.
Dean Martin plays Dude, an alcoholic deputy to John Wayne’s sheriff John T. Chance in the Texas town of Rio Bravo. Martin delivers a powerfully representational performance that cuts across Wayne’s signature presentational acting style. With a ripped blazer that barely covers his exposed chest, Martin’s Dude is an emotional wreck who makes scene-stealing from Wayne look easy. Dude stumbles into a bar only to be taunted by a cocky gunfighter by the name of Joe Burdette (Claude Akins). Burdette can’t resist baiting Dude by offering to toss him a dollar for a drink before chucking the coin into a spittoon. A fight breaks out. Burdette shoots and kills an unarmed man. Chance tosses Burdette in the pokey under the supervision of his other deputy, disabled chatterbox Stumpy (Walter Brennan). Burdette’s status as the brother of a wealthy rancher prompts an extended town visit from a gang of men intent on breaking Burdette out of jail before a U.S. Marshall arrives to take him away.
A traveling bar-girl, “Feathers” (unforgettably played by Angie Dickinson), takes a shine to Chance as his old wagoneer pal Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) makes his way into town with a confident young gunslinger, Colorado (Ricky Nelson).
Soldiering on despite a complete lack of chemistry between them, Wayne and Dickenson pretend to slip into a romance that allows the spunky young actress to spice up the movie. Jocular humor is at play in a movie that emphasizes the film’s entertainment value as residing in the gentle rapport between its main characters. A jailhouse musical duet between Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin segues into a singalong with Walter Brennan. From its lush use of a Technicolor-realized color palate to its disciplined control of compositions—there are only three close-ups in the whole movie—“Rio Bravo” is a gorgeous Western to hang out with.
Red River - Classic Film Pick
The homosexual subtext in Howard Hawkes's 1948 western is a widely overlooked, yet unmistakable element, to one of the most popular examples of the genre. Significant too in the narrative, about the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas, is one man's entitled sense of capitalist greed that blinds him to all ethical consideration.
John Wayne plays the film's would-be protagonist Tom Dunson. Dunson abandons a wagon train to head south into Texas with a plan to steal as much land and cattle as he can. Not even the unbridled love of a beautiful woman can stand in his way. Dunson's abandonment seals her doomed fate. With his trusted wagon driver and cook Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), the pair adopt an approval-starved boy named Matt Garth--the sole survivor of an Indian attack. Cut to 14-years later when Montgomery Clift's film debut casts him as the grown version of Matt who Dunson has mentored.
Dunson thinks nothing of stealing another man's land. If he's caught he kills the rightful owner with a snide smile on his face. Wayne's anti-hero builds his herd by re-branding thousands of cows belonging to other ranchers with his Red River "D." One lucky rival is a hotshot cowboy named Cherry Valance (John Ireland). Cherry inserts himself on the big cattle drive after his boss inexplicably forgives Dunson's poaching.
The similarly aged Matt and Cherry engage in a bonding ritual. They briefly trade pistols as a matter of introduction. Shooting at a tin can that jumps through the air allows for shared compliments. Cherry comments, "You know, there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun. A Swiss watch, or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a Swiss watch?" The innuendo-riddled line hangs over the story. We're told "there's gonna be trouble" between Cherry and Matt, but the dramatist's forewarning never comes to fruition. The deliberate statement lofts a query about what kind of "trouble" the author imagines, or expects the audience to imagine, for the two cowboys.
After his protégé takes the herd away from his increasingly volatile father-figure, Dunson promises to "kill" Matt. Dunson's brutal threat ushers in the cunning romantic affection of Tess Millay (Joanne Dru). Matt rescues Tess from an Indian attack after leaving Duson behind. Tess seizes the opportunity Matt she loves him at first sight. And yet Tess changes her romantic stripes when she soon after promises Dunson to bear his child during their first meeting. Tess's loudly voiced pronouncement of the "love" between Matt and Dunson resolves the drama.
Kelly Reichardt's minimalist cinema-of-the-inane hits a painfully low ebb with an anti-western lacking any sign of a narrative arc. Michelle Williams returns to working with Reichardt since leading the filmmaker's last film "Wendy and Lucy." Here Williams plays Emily Tetherow, an independent-minded young woman--read feminist icon--traveling near the desolate Oregon Trail with three families in 1845. The group of thirsty emigrants hires a gregarious mountain man named Stephen Meek to guide them on a journey across the Cascade Mountains. He promises riches; they need water. Even with Meek's guidance, the group is lost on a misbegotten journey.
Bruce Greenwood is unrecognizable as the manipulative codger Meek, whose raspy voice and quick delivery of sexist and racist ideals briefly masks his ignorance about the frontier he pretends to master. Greenwood's fully-rounded characterization comes as a much-needed perk. Kelly Reichardt's regular script collaborator Jon Raymond provides a series of falsely dramatic episodes that lead nowhere. For example, it's a big deal when a stagecoach rolls unattended down an hill and crashes. A gun-stand-off is the highest dramatic pitch the story ever hits. The characters remain inaccessible. The film's main dramatic grist comes from a Native American Indian (wonderfully played by Rod Rondeaux) who the group take as their prisoner. Mr. Meek is only too happy to brutalize the Native American. Emily, on the other hand, does what she can to win the man's trust. She stitches up his moccasins. The downtrodden prisoner, who doesn't speak English, affords Emily an opportunity to express her unpopular sense of justice. She effectively upstages Meek's racist ideas that he is want to impose on the entire group.
Reichardt's decision to shoot the film in 4:3 aspect ratio gives it a televisual feel. There are plenty of arty landscape shots and center-dominant compositions, each ineffectual in its own way. Kelly Reichardt references Robert Altman's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" as an influence on "Meek's Cutoff." Comparison between the films does not favor "Meek's Cutoff." Altman's film is a thousand times more modern. It is rich with texture and breathes with romantic tension. Different from Reichardt's film, Altman's movie is a character-driven story built of solid form. It doesn't hurt that its casting includes Julie Christie opposite Warren Beatty. "Meek's Cuttoff" shows a young filmmaker attempting to create an illusion of narrative rigor hooked into a fairly bland allusion regarding the United States current personality crisis. Neither the director or screenwriter have any idea what they want to say. Everything is vague. They have a skeletal narrative structure and no need for any budget-busting luxuries like stage sets. There isn't a fully developed storyline, and there aren't enough ideas in a movie that film snobs will congratulate themselves for adoring. Pshaw.
Rated PG. 104 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)