Monday, February 18, 2013

Best Hollywood Movies of 2012, #4: Django Unchained

I thought Inglorious Basterds was good but very overrated, so I was quite surprised at how much better I liked this follow-up...  

Rules It Exemplifies: 
  1. Genius Doesn’t Innovate, It Cultivates: At first, Tarantino wanted to be Godard, (he even named his production company A Band Apart) and they did have certain things in common: both were bold, visceral, post-modern, wildly talented bad-boy rulebreakers. But it soon became clear that Tarantino would never measure up.  Where Godard was lean, Tarantino was bloated, where Godard was prolific, Tarantino dawdled.  Each contrast favors Godard over his imitator: sublime vs. juvenile, poetic vs. ham-handed, visionary vs. derivative…  But now, with his two latest movies, Tarantino has finally come into his own.  He’ll never equal Godard, but he now stands within spitting distance of inheriting the legacy of one of Godard’s great influences: Sam Fuller.  Fuller’s movies were deranged tabloid visions of America at its best and worst extremes.  He sacrificed sensitivity and subtly in favor of telling the raw truth as he saw it.  His movies were bracing, brutal, and bizarre, with peripatetic, episodic structures that forced you to re-set your narrative expectations.  This is the legacy that Tarantino has belatedly embraced. Django lines up nicely alongside Fuller mid-period masterpieces, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, as a full-throated howl of unfocussed American rage.
  2. Plot Motivates, Character Complicates.  Though this movie is once again self-indulgent and too long, I give Tarantino credit for pulling way back on the amount of plot.  In the movie’s best scene, the plot has seemingly resolved…but one of our heroes just can’t resist his overwhelming urge to vent his spleen and ruin it all.  Tarantino is finally learning that, in the second half, volatile character complications should drive the conflict, not an endless torrent of external plot events.
  3. Villains Need a Solid Motivation, Too: Yes, the gore was typically excessive, but for once it wasn’t driven by meaningless psychopathy. I was delighted to finally discover a movie in which the villains were not motivated by a love of chaos.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson, give horrifically logical performances.  Both characters coolly and calmly pursue their own best interests (and neither actor winks to us to let us know that he doesn’t approve).  In this movie, everybody only wants what they want.  Nobody wants to do good for good’s sake, and nobody want to do evil for evil’s sake.
Tomorrow, the return of Goofus and Gallant…


j.s. said...

For me the film still goes on waaaay too long, far past the point where it ought to have resolved itself.

I also have lots of trouble buying Waltz's inability to walk away. It's well set up but also too neat. He's gone so far already, acted so much up to that moment. And he knows it's not just for him. There's nothing tragically inevitable about it like the Rathskeller shoot out in INGLORIOUS BASTERDS or the end of RESERVOIR DOGS.

There's some good character work in this film but it's not substantially better than it is in, say, JACKIE BROWN.

And the plot is seemingly more simple but it's got all sorts of bumps and hiccups that you'd normally disdain, like training montages.

I guess this is the Tarantino film for people who don't usually like Tarantino films?

Tarantino never wanted to be Godard. He's just as bright but the content of his imagination was always more about the girl and the gun than any geopolitical or philosophical ramifications thereof. I've never heard Tarantino express any interest in Godard's later work or in any qualities of his films other than their genre-bending, their bravura, their rule-breaking and their aura of cool.

j.s. said...

Oh and I wonder if Sam Fuller wouldn't be a little bit horrified by Tarantino's freeform blending of fact and fiction when it comes the reality of slavery? Some of those awful metal masks, which I'd never seen before, were in fact based on actual designs. And the brutal treatment of the slaves we see is beyond well-documented. Yet there's no evidence than anything like Calvin Candie's "Mandingo fighting" ever occurred. Fuller, former journalist that he was, exaggerated certain things for drama's sake, but never details that would mislead like this. Whereas, for Tarantino it's all about another reference and an excuse to amp up the energy of his film -- historical reality be damned. So have you seen WHITE DOG?

Unknown said...

Wow, another boring movie. Quentin Tarantino in my opinion has lost any sense of originality (if he ever possessed it). Should I say that the story was so predictable I knew what was going to happen when I saw the trailer? Make me interested, please.

Matt Bird said...

Matteo-- I did mention in all three posts this week that these movies, as with almost every movie released this year, are way too long. I was asked to give my thoughts aside from that, so I am, but I agree, compared with better years, all of these movies would get disqualified for bloat, except for tomorrow's.

J.S.-- I can't agree about Fuller's penchant for accuracy. Movies like "Baron of Arizona" and "Park Row" are hardly scrupulous to the facts. I'm a fan of "White Dog" and I thought that this was a movie cut from the same cloth.

I agree that Tarantino invented "Mandingo fighting" for sensationalistic reasons, but it's not that much of a stretch (owners would use slaves as boxers, if not to-the-death wrestlers), but I am willing to assume that his goal was to shock us into accepting afresh the horror of slavery-- the greatest danger in a film like this is that audiences are pre-inured to the horror of the situation.

I think that Tarantino cannily pitched his film so that different audiences would perceive it in different ways. History buffs got tipped off that he'd be going off-book in the very first frame, which read "1858-- Two Years Before the Civil War". Those who knew that was wrong had some forewarning that he'd be taking other liberties (in case anyone had forgotten that he was willing to machine gun Hitler to death in the previous movie.)

j.s. said...

The end of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS is thrilling precisely because we all know the history, we all know what's supposed to happen. The stunning surprise is that the Basterds don't know and they get to win, for once, because they're in what turns out to be an alternate history. Not the same thing at all as the apocryphal "Mandingo fighting" just because it was in an exploitation film about slavery that Tarantino wants to reference and steal some narrative juice and moral self-righteousness from. Judging the relative reality of this inclusion can't be left up the the vast majority of the audience in the same way.