Tag Archives: Django Unchained

Django Unchained and a Certain Trend in Contemporary Hollywood Movies

Django Unchained
dir: Quentin Tarantino (USA, 2012)
Rating: 5.9


The following piece contains spoilers about the plots of Django Unchained, Skyfall and, I suppose, even Lincoln.

After seeing many Hollywood films at the end of 2012 and in early 2013 that run between two-and-a-half hours and two hours and 45 minutes in length, I’ve concluded that movies have just grown too damn long. It’s not that I think there’s anything inherently wrong with lengthy running times: after all, I’ve gladly, in the past, sat through many movies even longer (one of my all-time favorites, Bela Tarr’s Satantango, runs seven hours, and I’d gladly watch that again right now). The problem is that the new Hollywood movie does not justify its length – there are invariably too many unnecessary characters, too many unnecessary subplots, a climax that feels too protracted, and, worst of all, too many endings (a trend that I would argue began with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, a movie I otherwise like). For me, the most egregious offender of this new crop of films is Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a movie I was prepared to like but ended up feeling sorely disappointed by. I have no problem with the “morality” of Django (e.g., I am not offended by Tarantino using the “n word” 100+ times or using the historical tragedy of slavery as a backdrop for a juvenile pop entertainment). These criticisms are really no different than the ones that were leveled against Inglourious Basterds, another film I quite like. Rather, the biggest problems with Django are with its pacing and structure, problems that seem unforgivable at a bladder-bursting two hours and 45 minutes:

1. Django and Broomhilda are, at best, the fourth and fifth most interesting characters in the film (following King Schultz, Calvin Candie and Stephen-the-House-Negro). Intellectually, I get the idea that Django is supposed to be a black version of the stoic/Clint Eastwood/”Man with No Name”-type but the Man with No Name himself was only ever upstaged by Eli Wallach’s Tuco (and, even then, only for brief stretches). Throughout their travels together, Schultz is both a much more interesting character and a more magnetic screen presence than Django. You can’t take your eyes off of Schultz, and this is a big problem when your movie is titled Django Unchained. It’s no wonder Christoph Waltz won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar last night. He’s the film’s true star (and his character has the good sense to die just before the movie takes a turn for the terrible).

2. The love story between Django and Broomhilda is ill-defined. We don’t know much about these characters, and we know even less about their relationship: How did they meet? How did they get married? Why are they even attracted to each other? I’ve heard some people say that it seems revolutionary for a Hollywood film to show a black man rescuing a black woman but, if their love is supposed to be the “engine” that’s driving the entire story, it’s by far the weakest aspect of the script. I think the love story is really just a flimsy excuse for Tarantino to indulge in the violent shoot-outs and all of the other things that he really wants to show us. I suspect one of the main reasons why so many people have found the last act of the film problematic, even if they haven’t articulated it this way, is because this is where the love story/rescue part really comes to the forefront.

3. In general, the pacing and structure of the film are awkward and bizarre (even though individual moments within it are obviously quite compelling). Because I think Schultz and Candie are the highlight of Django Unchained, it seems to me that the movie dies when they do – and everything afterwards is just tedious. I wonder why the big Candyland shootout, where both of those characters die, couldn’t be the actual climax of the film. Why does Django need to be captured, then granted a reprieve by Stephen, then sold to an evil mining company, then talk his way out of captivity, and then return to the plantation just to kill off the rest of the denizens of Candyland and rescue Broomhilda? Why couldn’t he have killed all those people in the earlier gunfight and rescued Broomhilda back then (which would’ve been around the two hour mark)? The last 45 minutes are pointless, they introduce new characters who are completely irrelevant, and they drag the film out unconscionably.

All of the above problems could have been considerably smoothed over in the script-writing stage. (I have some other problems with the actual editing of the film but that’s a whole other can of worms.) Tarantino, like Terrence Malick (albeit in a different way), has unfortunately reached that stage where no one is going to tell him no. Inglourious Basterds made so much money worldwide that he probably got the $100,000,000 budget for Django just based on its high concept alone (i.e., “Inglourious Basterds set in the antebellum South!”). As a piece of storytelling, Django is the sloppiest, laziest thing Tarantino has ever done. Because it has won multiple Oscars and is now poised to be his highest-grossing movie ever, this does not bode well for his future work.

As I indicated in my opening paragraph, Tarantino is hardly alone. Here is a brief rundown of other recent Hollywood movies that are too damn long:

The Dark Knight Rises (two hours and 45 minutes): This suffers from the typical action-franchise problem of trying to outdo all of the previous entries. Too many subplots, too many characters (two sidekicks, two love interests, two villains, etc.) and too many damn endings, especially a final copout ending that revises the daring ending that preceded it. Christopher Nolan might as well make another one and add Batgirl to the mix while he’s at it.

Lincoln (two hours and 30 minutes): I had a whole host of problems with this movie but, from a structural standpoint, the ending is particularly terrible: Lincoln leaves the White House to attend a play at Ford’s Theater. We see a shot of his iconic, stovepipe-hatted figure walking away in long shot. This is reminiscent of the ending of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and would’ve been a perfect place for the film to end. But no: we then have to see a scene taking place in another theater, where an announcement is made about Lincoln having been shot. Then we see a scene of Lincoln on his deathbed. Then, worst of all, we see a flashback to Lincoln, alive, giving a rousing Schindler’s List-like speech as John Williams’ treacly score swells on the soundtrack.

Skyfall (two hours and 23 minutes): I actually liked this movie on the whole but most of its best moments come in the first half. The climax is way too protracted: first, James Bond is battling the bad-guy invaders, Straw Dogs-style, from inside of a Scottish mansion, then the action moves outside where the characters continue their gunfight on a frozen lake, which, inevitably, involves them crashing through the ice, then they end up finishing the gunfight inside of a nearby church. By the time M’s big death scene finally rolls around, which has been teased since at least the courtroom-assault scene 45 minutes earlier, it’s hard to care. A perfect case of how more can be less.

The Hobbit (two hours and 49 minutes): This is arguably the most poorly structured film on the list. It has too many beginnings, including a lengthy double-prologue, before settling into a theme-park ride structure of one action set piece after another (interrupted by a bizarre and lengthy dialogue scene that feels like an excuse to shoehorn in characters from the previous franchise), and then it abruptly stops just when it starts to get interesting. I’m in full agreement with the critic who said, rather than an “extended edition,” this would benefit from a contracted version on home video.

The Hobbit Rating: 4.7



CIFF 2012: Twenty Most Wanted!

It’s time for my annual wish list of movies that I hope will turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. Even if you’re not a Chicagoan, I hope you will find this to be a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-sounding movies that will hopefully be coming soon to a theater near you in the not-too-distant future. I’m deliberately not including Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmasters and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Assassin, both of which made the previous two installments of this list but which I have now given up hope of ever seeing in my lifetime. I should also point out that some of my most anticipated releases of the fall, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Clint Eastwood’s Trouble with the Curve, are scheduled to drop before CIFF kicks off on October 11.

Caesar Must Die (Taviani, Italy)

I’ve never seen anything by Italy’s esteemed Taviani brothers whose long-running co-director act dates back almost 60 years. Their latest sounds fascinating: a documentary about real life high-security prison inmates performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for a public audience. This won the top prize at Berlin earlier in the year from a jury that was headed by Mike Leigh.

The Catastrophe (Smith, USA)

Yep, I submitted my most recent short film to CIFF and I’m still waiting to hear back. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this is the film I would most like to see at the festival. Fingers crossed!

Django Unchained (Tarantino, USA)

Could Quentin Tarantino’s much-hyped, southern-fried Spaghetti Western turn up as a gala presentation or closing night film? Well, he did bring Inglourious Basterds to Chicago in the summer of 2009, a few months before its official release, when CIFF gave him some kind of Lifetime Achievement Award thingy . . .

Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy)

Another old Italian maestro, Marco Bellochio, returns with an Isabelle Huppert vehicle about an actress caring for her comatose daughter. Bellochio’s 2009 feature, Vincere, which played CIFF, was superb, and Huppert (will she be speaking Italian?) is one of the world’s greatest actresses, so seeing this would be a no-brainer if it should turn up.

Drug War (To, Hong Kong)

The prolific crime film specialist Johnnie To made one of his very best films with 2011’s mind-bogglingly good dramedy Life Without Principle. This raises my expectations even more for Drug War, which sees To re-teaming with long-time collaborators like writer Wai Ka-Fai and actors Louis Koo and Lam Suet. Plot details are scarce but still photographs show a lot of men pointing guns. Intriguingly, this is also To’s first film to be shot entirely in mainland China in over 30 years.

Gebo and the Shadow (De Oliveira, Portugal/France)

Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, one of the world’s best directors, assembles a heavyweight cast of European talent for this adaptation of a 19th century play by Raul Brandão: Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau join Oliveira stalwarts like Ricardo Trepa, Leonor Silveira and Luis Miguel Cintra. Described as the story of an honored but poor patriarch who sacrifices himself for his son, this is the latest chapter in one of cinema’s most storied and freakishly long careers; at 103, Oliveira has already embarked on pre-production of his next film.

Holy Motors (Carax, France)

My most anticipated film of the year by far is Leos Carax’s long awaited follow-up to 1999’s Pola X. Holy Motors stars Carax’s perennial alter-ego Denis Lavant as an actor who constantly shuttles between multiple parallel lives. Or something. The rest of the formidable and diverse cast includes Edith Scob, Michel Piccoli, Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes. This wowed audiences and critics alike at Cannes but went home empty-handed come awards time due to an unusually conservative jury headed by Nanni “Middlebrow” Moretti.

In Another Country (Hong, S. Korea)

Another year, another Hong Sang-soo movie that plays to acclaim at Cannes with uncertain prospects of ever turning up in Chicago. Only one of Hong’s last seven films, including five features and two shorts, has played here (The Day He Arrives recently had a few screenings at the Siskel Center). One would think that the presence of Isabelle Huppert in the lead role and the fact that the majority of the dialogue is in English would improve In Another Country‘s chances but one never knows. It seems U.S. distributors like their Korean movies to carry the “Asian extreme” tag, and their witty and intellectual Rohmer-esque rom-coms to be spoken in French – and never the twain shall meet.

Jimmy Picard (Desplechin, USA/France)

The last I checked, Arnaud Desplechin’s first American-set film was still shooting in Michigan but it’s conceivable he could have it ready for a Toronto premiere in September – and thus a local CIFF premiere the following month. Benicio del Toro plays the title character, a Blackfoot Indian and WWII vet, who becomes one of the first subjects of “dream analysis” under a French psychotherapist played by Desplechin’s favorite leading man Mathieu Amalric. The estimable director’s only other English language film, 2000’s Esther Kahn, is also one of his best.

Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada/France)

23 year old writer/director/actor wunderkind Xavier Dolan debuted his third feature at Cannes this year where it was well-received. Melvil Poupad stars as a heterosexual man in a long-term relationship who undergoes a sex-change operation. I was initially skeptical of Dolan purely because of his young age and his credentials as a former child star but after catching Heartbeats (whose English language title is a regrettable stand-in for the original Les Amours Imaginaires) at CIFF two years ago, I was completely won over; the guy is a born filmmaker and the two-and-a-half hour Laurence Anyways sounds like a logical and ambitious step forward for him.

Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran)

Abbas Kiarostami’s latest divided critics at Cannes, a lot of whom compared it unfavorably to his supposedly “shockingly accessible” Certified Copy from two years earlier. But it also had its defenders and a die-hard Kiarostami fan like me is chomping at the bit to see it. This is a Japan set story about the relationship between a prostitute and an elderly college professor. The ending is supposedly nuts.

Love (Haneke, France/Austria)

I’ve never warmed up to Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke, who specializes in combining titillation and moralism in convenient arthouse-friendly packages. But his latest, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, sounds more actor-driven and appealing to me: it tells the story of a married couple in their 80s (played by French screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) whose relationship is tested when the wife has a stroke. The ubiquitous “La Huppert,” who appears in three films on this list, co-stars.

Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul, Thailand)

A documentary/narrative hybrid from the terrific experimental filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul about various characters congregating at the title location situated along Thailand’s Mekong River. Apparently pigs and Tilda Swinton are also somehow involved. Depending on whom you believe, this is either a minor diversion or a major masterpiece. Either way, count me in.

The Night in Front (Ruiz, Chile/France)

The great Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz passed away from liver cancer last year while putting the finishing touches on what he must have known would be his final film. The Night in Front, an adaptation of stories by Hernan del Solar, received a posthumous debut in a special tribute session at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Fittingly, it was shot in Chile, Ruiz’s home country, from which he had lived in exile for decades. If this swan song is anywhere near the league of Mysteries of Lisbon, the 4 1/2 hour Ruiz opus that preceded it, it will be essential viewing.

Something in the Air (Assayas, France/England/Italy)

Something in the Air has been described as a coming-of-age story set against the turbulent political climate of Europe in the 1970s with locations that include France, Italy and the U.K. This makes it sound like an improbable cross between my other two favorite films by director Olivier Assayas: Cold Water and Carlos. This was offered an out of competition slot at Cannes, which Assayas turned down. As with Jimmy Picard, the only way this will show up at CIFF is if it has a Toronto World Premiere first.

Stoker (Park, USA/S. Korea)

The great Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut boasts excellent credentials in an A-list cast (Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode) and crew (composer Clint Mansell and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon) and yet . . . the film seems to be languishing in Post-Productionland for a suspiciously long time. Stoker has been described as both a drama and a horror film and plot descriptions make it sound like a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. How could this not be great?

Tabu (Gomes, Portugal)

With apparently explicit nods to F.W. Murnau’s film of the same title, this Portuguese/African co-production tells the story of an elderly woman living in contemporary Portugal with her black servant and then flashes back to tell the story of a love affair she had in Africa fifty years prior. I’ve never seen anything by the young director Miguel Gomes but the diverse locations and unusual two-part structure also make this sound similar to Daniel Kohlerer’s recent (and excellent) German/African co-production Sleeping Sickness. Both films were produced by Maren Ade, who is a fine young director in her own right (Everyone Else).

To the Wonder (Malick, USA)

As someone who saw The Thin Red Line five times in the theater, I’ve certainly fallen off the Terrence Malick bandwagon in the wake of The New World and The Tree of Life. And yet I still wouldn’t miss a new film by him for the world. The plot of this Ben Affleck/Rachel MacAdams-starring love story sounds like it will continue the autobiographical vein of The Tree of Life: an American man divorces his European wife and then embarks on a new romance with a woman from his small hometown. This is essentially what happened to Malick while preparing The Thin Red Line.

You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France)

I used to be somewhat lukewarm on Alain Resnais’ post-1960s work until 2009’s wild Wild Grass brought me roaring back into the fold. This new meta-movie sounds like a typically provocative and fascinating Resnais experiment: a group of great French actors playing themselves (including Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric and Resnais’ permanent leading lady and muse Sabine Aszema) watch a filmed performance of the play Eurydice, which transports them back in time to when they had all starred in the same play years earlier. Some critics derided this as “indulgent” at Cannes but I say that’s like criticizing Thelonious Monk for not playing the piano melodically.

Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA/India)

Kathryn Bigelow’s long awaited follow-up to The Hurt Locker sees her reteaming with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal in adapting the true story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This was well into pre-production at the time Bin Laden was killed, meaning Zero Dark Thirty received an 11th-hour “mother of all rewrites.” Details on this are scarce but the excellent Jessica Chastain apparently has a prominent role as a journalist.

%d bloggers like this: