Category Archives: Spaghetti Westerns

Movie Review: Django Unchained

For any of you who think I have a severe Quentin Tarantino bias, let me just say that I disliked “Death Proof.”

Now that that’s out of the way, “Django Unchained” may have just stolen the top ten list of the year in one fell swoop. It may lack the audacious perfection of “Inglourious Basterds,” however this messy masterpiece is bold and brilliant in its own right.

“Django Unchained” rightfully opens with the theme music from 1966′s “Django,” a film that is similar with this Django only in name. This is the first time that Quentin has made a Western that actually takes place in the appropriate era and locale. This is not modern-day Los Angeles, Tokyo, or Nazi-Occupied France. This is Texas in the years just before the Civil War.

Django (Jamie Foxx), a quiet slave with a sharp tongue and a deadly grin, is freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz). Foxx is fantastically deadpan and unpredictable as Django. Unsurprisingly, Waltz displays his incredible way with words as the verbose dentist-turned-bounty hunter. There is a giant tooth on top of his carriage. I don’t why any of that is important, but it sure is funny.

Like Quentin’s other films, “Django Unchained” is less a story and more a series of cause and effect vignettes. Schultz at first frees Django because he is the one man who can help him identify and track down the ruthless Brittle Brothers, whom he is hired to kill. The mission allows Django to prove himself to be a great shot, as Quentin opens the doors of a slave revenge fantasy of the highest sort.

As his career progresses, Quentin’s films have gotten bigger and more ambitious. During a stretch of the film that is surprisingly quiet on a Tarantino standard, “Django Unchained” takes a beautiful detour into the American frontier as Django and Schultz cross the country.

“Django Unchained” is also Quentin’s funniest film. A scene involving an attempted lynching by a proto-KKK group (which includes Don Johnson and Jonah Hill) quickly dissolves into pure farce. Even with all of the gruesome violence, what shocked me most about “Django Unchained” was all of the moments I found myself laughing and feeling giddy when I probably shouldn’t have. The film is full of comic moments framed around serious moments. Laughing at these demons helps remove their power.

More than any other of his past films, Quentin has challenged himself here, by making a film that takes place before movies. Without the cushion of his typical pop culture references, he goes to some new and interesting places. Surfer movies and Elvis are traded for The Three Musketeers and German fairytales as “Django Unchained” is a mashup of western, southern, and European legends. When Django asks Schultz to help him rescue his wife, Schultz remarks that the name of his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), is the name of a character from Germany’s most famous folktale.

Just when the film couldn’t get any more exciting, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the Mississippi slave master who currently owns Broomhilda is introduced. Candie reminds me of the villain that Waltz played in “Basterds” but on a whole different level of delusion. DiCaprio, so good at conveying southern hospitality, making Candie seem like a kind and reasonable man even when he clearly isn’t. It is this charm that makes him even more terrifying. He hosts slave fights and doesn’t blink an eye when he orders the violent execution of a rebellious slave. There were many times I forgot that it was even DiCaprio in the role. In a perfect world, the Academy would just hand an Oscar over to him already.

Without the cushion of film, Quentin delves deeper into overanalyzing historical issues with excessive dialogue. Several scenes are so good, yet so dense, that I have to watch them again. His dialogue can explain simple things in such eloquent ways.  Without pop culture, you can see Tarantino’s dialogue for what it really is: a cross between indulgence and intellectualization.

Very few films have been made about American slavery. “Gone with the Wind” and “Roots” are the only ones that have truly stuck, and even those feel a little outdated. Even if it carries some extreme historical inaccuracies, “Django Unchained” is the most interesting and complex portrayal of slavery ever put out by Hollywood. Even when Tarantino intentionally overlooks historical truths, he does wonders with the details. Every costume and set is given so much loving and painstaking detail that I I felt myself becoming deeply immersed in the era. Tarantino shows the slave owners as white trash in fancy outfits, and their accompanying women are exaggerated southern belles.

And then there is Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, an old slave who is also racist. This character totally topples the terrible archetypes in American fiction of the “Magic Negro” and the “wise, old black man.” Stephen has been Candie’s slave for so long and is so close to the man that one might argue that he believes that he is white. However, I think it is deeper than that, and it greatly shows why Tarantino’s history benders are so marvelous and so filled with depth. It is as if slavery rewarded those with loyalty by creating an immense fear of the outside world, and immense comfort on the plantation. Stephen is more than just an excuse for Samuel L. Jackson to curse and say the n-word a lot. Though, watching him do both of those thing is predictably entertaining.

“Django Unchained” does to slavery what “Inglourious Basterds” did to Nazis and The Holocaust.  It is also the most perplexing and entertaining film of 2012. Nobody combines high and low brow as well as Quentin Tarantino. Only in one of his films could a Mexican standoff segue into a conversation about racism and French culture. After 20 years as a filmmaker, Quentin still knows how to pull the rug out from under the audience. “Django Unchained” constantly change our opinions of who the bad guys are. It may not totally rewrite history or change the way movies are made, but it does go way past the point in which it should have ended, and then gives great reason as to why it does just that.

How I Rank Quentin Tarantino’s Films:
1. Pulp Fiction- Still Tarantino’s best film, “Pulp Fiction” is still as brazen and funny as it was when it first came out. This pop culture tribute has become an indelible part of pop culture.
2. Inglourious Basterds- Jews kill Nazis. Christoph Waltz is introduced to the world. History is rewritten. What’s not to love.
3. Kill Bill 1 & 2- Part one is a breathtaking action spectacle. Part two is the most emotional film Tarantino has ever made. Altogether it’s the film that kicked off my movie obsession.
4. Reservoir Dogs- The place where it all began. Still one of the best directorial debuts ever.
5. Django Unchained
6. Jackie Brown- This was not loved when it first came out, but it’s hard to follow “Pulp Fiction.” “Jackie Brown” holds up well on repeat viewings.
7. Death Proof- This is where Tarantino went a little off the rails. It’s the weaker half of “Grindhouse.” This ode to trashy cinema forgot to be fun.

Horrible Decisions: The Ten Best Movies That Weren’t Nominated For Best Picture

As I get older, I feel that I get more and more pessimistic about award ceremonies, especially the Oscars. Unlike sports-related competitions, the Oscars are not about which movie is best, but rather which movie had the most lavish ad campaign. The recent revelation that Academy voters are none too diverse certainly did not help. To think that some of the most revered movies of all time weren’t even nominated. They are the bold outsiders. Some were completely overlooked, others were just too damn “hip.” Many on the proceeding list would be chosen by many, and a few I exclusively would have chosen had I been a voter. I present with you the ten best movies that deserved a Best Picture nomination, arranged by year of release:

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

“Singin’ in the Rain” is more than just an old-fashioned Hollywood musical: it is about the movies themselves. Think of it as “The Artist” without the Act Three problems. As someone who puts musical just slightly above romantic comedies starring Ashton Kutcher, it is hard not to fall under the spell of “Singin’ in the Rain,” from “Good Morning” to the titular musical number. “Singin’ in the Rain” is about why movies needed sound, and it’s also about why we need the movies in general. The Oscars have a reputation for awarding musicals that became stale with time, so why didn’t it nominate one that has become an everlasting part of popular culture?

Rear Window (1954)

Most of Hitchcock’s best movies were dissed by the Oscars. Even “Psycho” and “Vertigo” didn’t make the Best Picture shortlist. His “Rear Window” is his most entertaining, most satisfying movie. “Rear Window” is the master in his absolute element. It crams as many stories as it can into one movie without actually cramming them in. “Rear Window” is suspenseful in any scene, even if it is just a couple seen fighting through a window, and not Grace Kelly running from the murderer. On top of that, it displays Hitchcock’s genius black comedy. In the scene in which a husband and wife have difficulty moving a mattress into their apartment, Hitchcock switched the headsets feeding instructions to the two actors, so they would move in the wrong directions, and create a brief sigh of slapstick relief. Oscar winners should be influential in any year, and I can’t even count the amount of sitcoms who have knocked off this plot.

The Searchers (1956)

It seems unbelievable that John Ford’s greatest movie didn’t get a single Oscar nomination, and the winner for Best Picture that year was “Around the World in 80 Days” (which was later remade into a movie with Jackie Chan). For the time, “The Searchers” was a change of pace from the typical Western, and Oscars are all about tradition and stability rather than change. Monument Valley has never looked this stunning, and John Wayne never felt as racist and as human in any other role of his career. “The Searchers” would not only fo on to inspire future westerns. Without it, there would be no “Taxi Driver,” “Saving Private Ryan,” or even “Star Wars.” “The Searchers” figured out that the western hero (or in this case, anti-hero) can exist in anytime, in any place, but will always remain an outsider.

Touch of Evil (1958)

Yet another masterpiece that went totally unnoticed by the Academy. “Touch of Evil” will leave you in a speechless state of thrill from the moment the camera first pans through a busy street, to a bomb going off. You know it’s going to happen, but the best part is that you don’t know when. “Touch of Evil” contains some of Orson Welles’s best work as both an actor and a director, and it was the last truly great film noir of the classic era. Its greatness cannot be dampened by the fact that it includes Charlton Heston playing a Mexican.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

It is actually understandable why “Once Upon a Time in the West” was a flop when it first came out. Paramount chopped down its epic running time for its US release, and American audiences were not treated to the masterpiece they deserved to see. I will argue that “Once Upon a Time in the West” is better than any western either John Ford or Howard Hawks ever made. Its opening conveys so much without saying a single word. For its regard for silence, sweeping score, and the pure scope of it all, “Once Upon a Time in the West” will be one of the greatest movie viewing experiences you’ll ever have. It even has Henry Fonda, doing a flawless job going against-type, ruthlessly shooting a child in the face. Tom Joad, no more.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Oscar voters had no interest in taking a trip into another dimension. Their loss. “2001: A Space Odyssey” is essential viewing not just for any film buff, but for any human being. Stanley Kubrick probably knew that this movie wouldn’t answer the question of what the meaning of life is in one simple word. I like to think that Kubrick truly knew and hid it in any frame of this movie, and after a certain number of viewings, maybe it can be found. But until that happens, let the jaw dropping visuals unfold before you. After the credits roll and the star baby has faded, you might cry, you might throw a fit, or you could do anything else in between. Best Picture seems to be about the movies with mass appeal. It’s about time to pick a nominee that not everyone can get behind.

Easy Rider (1969)

Understandably, the Academy wasn’t too pleased with a movie about hippies taking over. The motorcycle riding outlaws of “Easy Rider” was the New Wave coming in to save Hollywood from a crumbling studio system. The rednecks, meanwhile, were the cranky old voters, minus the shotguns. “Easy Rider” proved that filmmakers no longer needed the system; all they needed was a story, a camera, and maybe a good weed hookup. This movie broke ground in so many ways, perhaps most memorably for its soundtrack, which started off with Steppenwolf’s attention-grabbing “Born to Be Wild.” The messy, handheld camerawork actually adds to the movie. Never has imperfection seemed so perfect. But most importantly of all, “Easy Rider” includes a very high Jack Nicholson talking about aliens. It is just as good as it sounds.

Animal House (1978)

This might not be the pick you were expecting, but “Animal House” really deserved the love. Unfortunately, Best Picture is never kind to comedy but had this one been nominated, it would have set a great precedent. Think of some of the funniest things in the movie. Could you ever watch them and not laugh? The most important question here may be as to why John Belushi himself didn’t get a nomination. The dining hall scene, in which he takes at least one of every food item (and takes bites of some, and leaves them behind), is the model for quiet, subtle comic brilliance. Comedies suffer when they are over-analyzed, so just watch this clip and you’ll understand:

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Hollywood loves message movies, but for some reason they only enjoy the preachy ones. “Crash” won in 2005 for informing the world that racism is bad, and it makes a few rich white people living in L.A. feel sad. Sixteen years earlier, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” was released amidst a storm of controversy. It earned ecstatic praise from critics, but it barely made a ripple at the Oscars. To this day, it remains the most provocative, daring, and funny movie about racism that I have ever seen. The best part about it is that it is not necessarily about racism, but a movie about situations in which race may or may not have been the ultimate cause of them. Of course, the Oscars want definitive answers, not ambiguous ones. And especially not ones with this much energy pumping through them.

Children of Men (2006)

Some movies that earn respect over time might take over two decades to do so. “Children of Men” elevated itself in just a few years. “Children of Men” is the most realistic portrayal of a dystopian future ever to be put on film. It strikes so many emotional chords and in the end, it is a movie about life, not death. It also has some cinematography that is downright groundbreaking, with the camera moving at the nonstop and unpredictable pace that mankind’s fate is headed in. The world may very likely be approaching the future “Children of Men.” But until now “Children of Men” is your’s for the darkest futuristic road movie you’ll get to see.

And a Few More: Night of the Hunter, Pan’s Labyrinth, Kill Bill (1&2), Rosemary’s Baby, The Wild Bunch, Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, Magnolia, Blade Runner

Movie Review: True Grit

“True Grit” begins like any other Coen Brothers movie: with a pretty image set to mysterious background narration. Is this going to be another typical Coen experience? Not exactly.

“True Grit,” the rare western that actually takes place during the days of the wild west, is told in a fittingly traditional fashion. This is quite a radical departure for a pair of directors known for constantly pushing the storytelling envelope. However, that is part of the reason this film feels so interesting. Despite being a remake of an adaptation of a book, it still manages to remain unique.
I may not be the best person to review this movie, as I haven’t seen the original version of “True Grit,” nor have I read the book. Maybe that won’t matter, as those who have seen the original film claims it has little to no resemblance to the latest version.
Regardless of the version, “True Grit” takes place in what looks like somewhere between Colorado and Montana in the late 1800s. Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a young girl looking to hunt down Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), the man who ruthlessly killed her father. To pull this off, she hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a one-eyed, former U.S. Marshall with a reputation for shooting things and chugging whiskey. Accompanying Cogburn for the kill is the often hot-headed, yet wise LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), who’s name shouldn’t be confused with the name of a certain actor from “Even Stevens.”

But, I digress. While Cogburn and LaBoeuf set off to find Chaney, they reluctantly let Mattie join. What follows is a long journey through the American West that leads to much danger and self-discovery.

It is very easy to go ahead and dismiss “True Grit,” as many others have been doing. Most say the Coen Brothers are capable of much better than this, and that is true. They are capable of making films that become cult classics, and others that go onto win Best Picture. “True Grit” will probably do neither. However, that doesn’t stop it from being a solid, highly entertaining movie.

While “True Grit” wasn’t as amazing a collaboration between the Coen Brothers and Jeff Bridges can be, it reminded me how much I missed the western genre. The genre hasn’t necessarily died, it has just gone in a new direction, often telling tales that take place in the modern day (i.e. “No Country for Old Men,” “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”). There hasn’t been a truly great “old” western since “Unforgiven” in 1992. Perhaps the success could spur a much needed rebirth in the genre.

What I found interesting about “True Grit,” something one would rarely see in a western outside of the 1960s, was some subtle commentary, or at least cognizance, of racism. There definitely wasn’t supposed to be a big point made out of it, but it’s good to see every once in a while the acknowledgment of Native Americans, and how poorly they were treated.

Despite how different this film is from other Coen Brothers films, this is unmistakably their film. There is that distinct focus on the landscape, highlighted by Roger Deakins’s breathtaking cinematography. There is also that attention to the little details that distinguish them from all other filmmakers. This is one of the few westerns I’ve seen where the characters actually talk appropriately for the time period. Those accents may be impossible to understand, but a little historical accuracy never hurt anyone.

A great Coen movie is also about its characters. And that, “True Grit” has a lot of. Despite what the commercials will make you think, Rooster Cogburn isn’t quite the main character. The film is really about Mattie Ross. Without the right actress, Ross could’ve just come off as whiny and annoying. But in her debut, Steinfeld nailed it. In a way, she resembles the performance of Hit-Girl in this year’s “Kick-Ass”: she is smarter and more skilled than her superiors but in a way, overcompensating for her young age. In a world full of illiterate southerners, her knowledge outshines everyone around her. She is this film’s Marge Gunderson.

I’m sure though that the reason any devoted Coen Brothers fan saw this movie was for Jeff Bridges, seeing as the last time the directors and the actor collaborated, “The Big Lebowski” was created. “True Grit” lacks the wit and twisty intelligence “Lebowski” offers. Nonetheless, it proves that this is a collaboration that works. The directors have a certain vision in mind, and the actor follows it perfectly.

Bridges shows in “True Grit” that he is one of those actors that has gotten even better with age. In “True Grit,” he shows what kind of performance he is most capable of: the outsider who is aware of his isolation from society, but celebrates it while ignoring all of his possible flaws. In his transition from Dude to Rooster, he trades joints for rolled up tobacco, and has no problem doing so.

Really the only performance I had any problem with in “True Grit” was that of Damon. He is usually a fine actor; one who is always watchable. However, it seems like here he was barely trying to pull of an accent. That is a shame, because when he gets into his roles, he can be truly extraordinary (see “The Informant”).

I want to celebrate “True Grit” for what it is rather than what it isn’t: an extremely solid piece of entertainment that may not outshine the rest of these directors’ body of work, but certainly outshines many of its contemporaries. I am not going to forget “True Grit” for a few small things; like that little amazing scene when Mattie bravely crosses the river. It is also hard to forget the weird things, such as the man dressed in full bear costume, or the other man who communicates through farm animal sounds. Why were these things included in the film? Who knows. The best parts of any Coen Brothers film are the parts left unexplained.

Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

Who said history has to be accurate? Don’t tell that to Quentin Tarantino, who pulled off his newest masterpiece in a brilliant revisionist style. “Inglourious Basterds” is the work of a world-class auteur at the top of his game.

When I first heard years ago that Tarantino was developing a war film, I was hesitant, unsure of whether Tarantino’s directing style could fit into a war movie. But then I realized, it is the perfect genre for him. 
Of all of Tarantino’s films, “Inglourious Basterds” has the most traditional narrative structure. While all of his other films hop through time in no particular order, this one moves through time in order with only a few brief flashbacks. What’s extremely unconventional about it though, are it’s multiple different stories that only loosely connect. 
The first story starts in the early days of World War II, in Nazi occupied France. Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), is a French Jew who narrowly escapes death at the hands of brutal Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Four years later, Dreyfus is still living in France under a pseudonym, operating a movie theater and hoping to one day get revenge on the Nazis.
The second story focuses on a group of Jewish American soldiers also in France. This troop, nicknamed the Basterds, also plans to get revenge on the Nazis and their reign of terror. The troop is led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). Raine commands his soldiers to attack the Nazis with absolutely no sympathy. He also demands that each man bring him 100 Nazi scalps (and he gets his scalps).
Now, where do these two stories connect? Well, both are revenge missions, and both seek their revenge in the exact same place. Shosanna and the Basterds never meet face to face, but all I can say is that if they ever were to meet, they’d all be pretty good friends.
In almost every way, “Inglourious Basterds” shouldn’t be a good movie. It has long expanses of meaningless dialogue, little action, and major historical inaccuracies and politically incorrect stereotypes. It’s kind of like “Lawrence of Arabia.” But these things don’t serve to make the movie worse; they end up making it even better. Only a mind like Tarantino can take flaws and turn them into idiosyncrasies. Only Tarantino could capture people talking and turn it into amazing, real conversations about the meaning of life. The dialogue is harder to quote because most of the film is spoken in either German or French, However, Raine and Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth) give more than enough catchphrases to go around. 
Oh, and that dialogue. No matter what language, Tarantino’s dialogue is always so pleasant to listen to; not a single word out of a character’s mouth ever seems corny or contrived. 
And yes, the movie is violent. Very violent. On the Tarantino violence scale, it would rank slightly higher than “Pulp Fiction” but slightly less in “Kill Bill.” The violence is often ridiculous, but is also somehow the most realistically violent of all of his films.
Tarantino has a habit of reviving the careers of many once great actors (John Travolta, Michael Parks, Pam Grier, David Carradine). The careeer revived in “Inglourious Basterds” is that of Christoph Waltz. Much has been said about Waltz’s performance, and every accolade is well deserved. He plays Landa as both friendly and creepy at the same time. He can seem friendly by making small talk and then intimidating by doing something like ordering someone to get him milk. He is never a villain who seems psychotic, he just seems scary because of his overstated friendliness. It is without a doubt that Landa’s Cannes winning performance will also get nominated for an Oscar.
The true villains of World War II, Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, are played here with perfect inaccuracy. Martin Wuttke plays Hitler as  a whiny baby and Sylvester Groth plays Goebbels as a soulless zombie and something of a suck up. While Waltz has gotten the majority of praise, a large amount of it belongs to Groth. Through Groth’s eyes, Goebbels doesn’t seem like a zombie just from the things he says, but also from the things he does. In one scene, he shakes Shosanna’s hand but he doesn’t quite give it a tight grip. In fact, he barely grabs it with his cold, white hand. It looks almost like a skeleton who can walk and talk. 
Also scoring points are the Basterds. I always knew Pitt was talented, but not even his performance in “Fight Club” can top this. His Aldo Raine comes from Tennessee, and he talks in a perfect Southern droll. Roth is also a scene stealer. Roth is known for directing torture porn like “Hostel.” However, he should stick to acting. His overly hammy Boston accent becomes one of the funniest parts of the movie. And yes, the movie is funny. Tarantino’s sense of humor is one of the darkest in cinema; many of the jokes here are dark as ever. However, many are as light and hilarious as Raine’s horrible grip on the Italian language. A scene like that almost feels like something out of a Sacha Baron Cohen movie.
Tarantino is known for referencing hundreds and hundreds of movies in everyone of his films. In this one, he often draws references to his own films. The opening scene reminded me something of the Royale with Cheese scene in “Pulp Fiction.” Like Jackson, Waltz first disarms the character through light banter before suddenly unloading on him. The revenge mission feels almost like The Bride’s in “Kill Bill.” 
Tarantino also references many of his favorite movies. You can see a shot that looks like “Scarface” or a camera movement that feels Hitchcockian. What’s referenced most here though is Spaghetti Westerns. Spaghetti Westerns were Italian westerns that were made in the late 1960s popularized mainly by Sergio Leone. As I watched “Inglourious Basterds” I realized what it truly was: a Spaghetti Western presented as a war film. There are Mexican standoffs and a score that often resembles the brilliant music of Ennio Morricone. 
The plot of “Inglourious Basterds” is almost directly based off of the plot of “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Like “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “Inglourious Basterds” is about two different people getting revenge on the same person for different reasons. Both reasons however, have something to do with the loss of family or brotherhood. “Inglourious Basterds” also contains long stretches without much action. However, while Leone reveled in long silences, Tarantino revels in lots and lots of talking.
“Once Upon a Time in the West” is also the best western ever made. “Inglourious Basterds” is one of the best war movies ever made. Not only that, but it is also the most audacious for daring to change the face of history. It really makes sense as to why “Inglourious Basterds” is so revisionist: every Tarantino movie exists in its world with its own interconnecting characters and its own brands. Even though “Inglourious Basterds” doesn’t take place during modern times, it feels as if it could’ve taken place in the same world as any other Tarantino film.
“Inglourious Basterds” was one of few movies I’ve seen recently where I left feeling reinvigorated, feeling as if all my faith in cinema had been restored. Only someone like Quentin Tarantino can do this. He reinvented the crime drama, the kung fu film, and now, the war film. Being a great director doesn’t involve any film school, just a great imagination and a love for movies. And not to mention, a strange and interesting view of the world.
One more thing: we never find out why the title is misspelled. Tarantino says he’ll never explain why, and in a way it’s better like that. The spelling is a part of Tarantino’s world, and we’re lucky that we even got this good of a glimpse of it.
If you liked this movie, you’ll also like: Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Dollars Trilogy, Carrie, Scarface, Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, Grindhouse, The Wild Bunch, No Country for Old Men