Django Unchained (2013)

Django Unchained (2013)

Everyone has their favourites. Whether it’s their favourite actor, director or brand of cereal. Life’s eclectic like that. Me? Well, I’d struggle to pick out a single actor; I’ve got way too many favourites. Cereal? Well, I’m not really a cereal fan, but I’d go with something containing almonds and is crunchy enough to break at least five teeth per serving. As for director? Well, that’s quite easy: Quentin Tarantino. The guy has had his hand in some of my all time favourite movies and has also propelled certain actors into the ranks of my favourites too, owing to his screenplays. So when a new Tarantino movie rolls into town, I sit up and take notice, as they nearly always guarantee a slice of cinematic gold. Can Django Unchained continue the trend?

Bad Boys... Texan style.

Bad Boys… Texan style.

Before I get down to brass tacks, let’s discuss the premise of this particular movie… as if you don’t already know! The film follows the life of the titular Django (Jamie Foxx) – a slave who is liberated by a dentist-come-bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), in order to track down three targets. But what does Django want to do when the task is accomplished? Well, he wants to go off and find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) – a fellow slave of the pre-Civil War United States. It just happens to be that Broomhilda is the property of a Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio): owner of the appropriately named Candie-Land plantation. Can the dynamic duo rescue her from his clutches? Or will Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) the loyal house slave, figure out their game?

Quite simply, Django Unchained is a formidable work of cinema. It won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I loved every last moment of it. It had the perfect storm of great plot and fantastic casting, complete with Tarantino‘s brilliant scripting flourishes. So let’s kick off with the acting skills on show here. Much was made of the casting of Django himself, with Will Smith apparently in the running for the part in the early days. This made a lot of people sit up and take notice; owing to Smith‘s established fan base and ability to make massive returns at the box office. But for whatever reason, he never tried out for the part. This led to the hiring of Jamie Foxx for the role. Whilst Foxx isn’t the brightest star in the film, he fits the role perfectly. He’s just “right” for the part – he’s a fit, both physically and vocally. For me, his portrayal of Django was spot on. But as I say, he’s not the eclipsing star here. That accolade in fact belongs to three supporting actors: Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson. Waltz is bankable. He was sublime in Inglorious Basterds and put on a great show in Carnage. He’s a talent to be reckoned with. Whilst I found the role of King Schultz to be compelling, I never felt the same “wow” as I did with Inglorious Basterds‘ Hans Lander. Still, you can’t fault his performance here.

Django Unchained (2013)

I think I was most impressed with Leonardo DiCaprio, though I’m not surprised. For too long this guy was seen as a flash in the pan – only famous because of Titanic and how much the ladies loved him. But nothing could be further from the truth. He’s shown us countless times how he can step up to any role, so it was great to see him as a detestable character. Candie is sinister, intelligent and at the same time, incredibly naive. DiCaprio pulls it all off with aplomb. Finally, it’s brilliant to see Samuel L. Jackson in another defining role. As I’ve mentioned previously, it seems the guy picks films out of a hat, as opposed to scrutinising a script, as some of his films have been less than palatable. But Tarantino again brings the best out of Jackson. Just like Joss Whedon has his favourite rotating cast, I’m glad that Tarantino has the same. It’s familiar, but it’s always different… if you understand me.

Django Unchained (2013)

Plot / script-wise… it’s Tarantino. Come on – you know what you’re getting here. Ultra-violence, a heap of beautifully crafted dialogue and some great music choices. Some have derided the choice to include Rick Ross‘ 1000 Black Coffins (a modern hip hop song) in the middle of a film smattered with oldie-worldie sounding tunes. But it works! Come on, you can’t say you weren’t surprised to hear “Stuck in the Middle With You” during Reservoir Dogs can you? It was a massive juxtaposition – a guy’s ear being cut off with a cut throat razor with such a jolly song over the top. The same is true here, I’d argue.

The one thing that is definitely very “un-Tarantino” is the fact that he opts for a chronological story. We’re all well accustomed to his flair for Chapters in his films – ones that switch back and forth in time. They’re oddly absent here – something that must have been a deliberate choice on his behalf, of that I’m certain.

Oh, and anyone spot the massive tie in to the rest of the Tarantino universe? You know – where he makes a nod to a certain character / event in another of his films? No? Yes? It’s three points for a correct answer… OK, here’s a clue: King Schultz. Now go back and watch Kill Bill Vol. 2 with that in mind. All should become apparent.

Now, my verdict was never going to be an obvious choice based solely on the fact that Tarantino is the man writing the script, but it certainly raises expectations. Expectations can either be met, exceeded or never met. But Django Unchained never wanes and never bores over its lengthy run time. If anything, I’d have loved more time with those characters in their world. As I say, it’ll have its detractors, but what film doesn’t?

Thankfully, the Tarantino brand is still a mark of quality. Django Unchained is one of the best movies he’s ever put his name to. I’m not going to declare it “the” best, because his catalogue is too strong and it’s ultimately like picking between your favourite children… But we all do have a favourite don’t we? Cute little P. Fiction is mine…

Phage Factor:

5 Star

Film Phage's Quarantine Award

Killing Them Softly (2012)

Have you ever read the title to a film and had a thought that has nothing to do with the film itself? Maybe it’s an inappropriate one? Oh come on – you’re saying you haven’t read the title Debbie Does Dallas and wondered how she managed that feat, or who the hell Dallas is? How about Blow, Snatch or Free Willy? Let’s get one thing clear – the title of Killing Them Softly doesn’t make me think of an innuendo. I’m not some weird deviant. Maybe Ted Bundy would find it appropriately inappropriate. No, Killing Them Softly just makes me think of that damn Fugees song from years ago with a very similar name. I was disappointed when the film didn’t open with this tune… but I certainly wasn’t disappointed with the film itself.

Killing Them Softly tells the story of the aftermath of a gambling den robbery carried out by two money-hungry guys: Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). The robbery goes well… but you can’t let bad guys get away with a robbery like that now can you? Cue the hiring of Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) to dispose of the problem. And by dispose, I truly mean it.

If the plot sounds fairly generic and simplistic, then that’s probably because it is, but don’t let this deter you from the movie. The whole vibe of the film reminded me a lot of a hybrid of Killer Joe, Death Proof and Drive. It had the malice of Killer Joe, the extended, witty, well written dialogue that Tarantino favours, and the occasional bouts of brutal violence that Drive employed.

All of this is held together by the main man: Brad Pitt. Now, he may be the biggest name on the poster, but he doesn’t appear for quite a while. This leaves the film to be driven primarily by McNairy and Mendelsohn. I thought their dialogue was fantastic. It was rough – maybe too rough for some, but grounded. It felt believable. Sure, it may not have contributed much to the plot but it coloured the characters perfectly. You quickly felt that Mendelsohn‘s Australian character was scummy – a real low life, but you noticed that McNairy’s was less obtusely offensive and more reserved. Real kudos has to go to writer / director Andrew Dominick (Chopper, The Assassination of Jesse James…) for adapting George V. Higgins’ book so well. The lines really pop off the screen. Similarly, James Gandolfini picks up where The Sopranos left off to deliver another delicious slice of mob mentality. His performance was particularly noteworthy just because he’s such an abrasive, unlikeable character.

I’m sure you’re yearning to know how Pitt performs and he’s his usual reliable self. Possibly giving his best performance of the past few years. His take on this role wasn’t as jaw-dropping as Matthew McConaughey in Killer Joe; namely because you didn’t expect such a performance from McConaughey. But with Brad Pitt you’ve seen him play the good guy and the crazy guy before. That takes nothing away from his performance though, which was as mesmerising as ever.

What I liked less about the film was it’s idea of supplanting the story against the backdrop of the global recession and the 2008 US election. It was just a peculiar way of shoehorning in some political agenda. You’d have lengthy pieces of the film which consisted of nothing more than George W. Bush or Barack Obama talking about the recession. I appreciate the fact that the dialogue was semi-related to the plot point of the film, but it just seemed jarring and removed me somewhat from the movie.

This scene is pure Tarantino when not directed by Tarantino.

That being said, at 97 minutes in length, the film rips along at a fair pace. For some, the use of long dialogue scenes will be off-putting. If you’re not a fan of Tarantino‘s reliance on similar scenes then you may not be in for a thrill ride. This film is much more Reservoir Dogs and less of a bang-bang shoot ’em up of a film. If that appeals to you, as it does to me, then I heartily recommend you get yourself a ticket. It’s not one of Pitt‘s tent pole films, but nor is it one of his surreal indie flourishes. Yes, I’m looking at you Tree of Life

Killing Them Softly isn’t this year’s most cerebral film, nor does it ever seek to challenge you intellectually. That’s not to say it’s a mindless effort like Transformers, but it doesn’t require that much energy to compute what’s going on. However, it’s one hell of a ride to be on. All actors, both big and small names alike, are really firing on all cylinders here.

And you’ll be glad to know that the film no longer makes me think of Killing Me Softly. That song is way too mellow and peaceful to embody Killing Them Softly. If I had to pick a song to convey the film’s message it’d be Slayer’s Raining Blood, because oh yes… there will be blood. Ted Bundy would bloody love that too the basket case!